NEWSLETTER 609: SATURDAY 18 OCTOBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Jay-walking I give in under the onslaught of ornithologist ire. Jays are not stupid. They are brilliantly intelligent members of the crow family with a ratio of brain size to body weight not far short of humans. “Blue jays are too smart to jaywalk,” affirmed Nancy Inganni from California.
My quotation from a Fort Wayne newspaper in 1913 about a jaywalker being an “alleged human being” intrigued Andrew Stiller: “I had no idea it was so old! I first encountered it in the late 1960s, when it seemed an obvious play on the then-new journalistic custom of referring to arrestees as ‘alleged criminals’ instead of just plain criminals. Even in 1913, though, it is clearly mock-legalese. How far back does ‘alleged human being’ go, and how did it originate?” It does seem to have come about in the way Mr Stiller suggests. It turns up a few times in newspapers before 1913, the earliest being in the Inter Ocean of Illinois on 25 April 1877 (and in the Spirit Lake Beacon of Iowa the following day — it was a syndicated piece taken from Puck magazine): “The inside of an alleged human being is a curious study, regarded as a receptacle for diversified food.”
Many subscribers queried a possible connection between popinjay, a dressy show-off, and jay. It’s an etymological misunderstanding, since popinjay is from Old French papingay, originally from an Arabic word for a parrot. The alteration in the last syllable came about because people thought popinjays and jays had features in common. For more, see my Weird Words piece about popinjay.
To bask in the sun.
It is unlikely this word will be part of your everyday vocabulary, or even be recognised, as it is unknown outside books about defunct words — I can find only a couple even of those that include it.
It derives from the Latin verb apricorari, to bask in the sun or to sun oneself, related to apricus, a sunny place. If it brings to mind that delicious distillation of raw sunlight, the apricot, that’s a false trail. However, it has been suggested that the fruit’s name may have been partly influenced by apricus on its journey from Latin praecox, early-ripening, to Greek, Arabic and Spanish and on to French and English.
Apricate first appeared in English around 1690 in an anecdote by the British antiquarian John Aubrey about Sir John Danvers: “His lordship was wont to recreate himself in this place, to apricate and contemplate, with his little dog with him.” Aubrey sent a copy of the manuscript to his friend John Ray, who replied in September 1691 that he wasn’t critic enough to censure another man’s writings but went on, “Some words I have noted, that do not sound well to my ears,” among which he included apricate as a new-coined word to be avoided. Although Aubrey’s text was published in 1697, the year of his death, with apricate in it, most people have since taken that advice. As long ago as 1847, James Halliwell-Phillipps included it in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words.
One of the few to use it, in a figurative sense, was James Russell Lowell, in a satirical piece that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1863. It purported to be a letter from that fount of Yankee pedantry, the Reverend Homer Wilbur, which was said to have been found on his desk after his death (Mr Wilbur was ostensibly the editor of The Biglow Papers, a humorous work by Lowell):
The infirm state of my bodily health would be a sufficient apology for not taking up the pen at this time, wholesome as I deem it for the mind to apricate in the shelter of epistolary confidence, were it not that a considerable, I might even say a large, number of individuals in this parish expect from their pastor some publick expression of sentiment at this crisis.
3. Articles: The Lure of the Red Herring
About 12 years ago, in the early days of World Wide Words, I wrote a puzzled piece about the origin of red herring, something that distracts attention from the real issues. A study of the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, coupled with a little knowledge of fox hunting and some reading around the topic, made me wonder if the usual story about its origin was correct.
All the dictionaries and reference books I consulted argued that the metaphor grew up because a red herring was dragged along the ground to confuse a scent. In the 1997 edition of Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson firmly asserts that “Escaping criminals in the 17th century would drag strong-smelling red herring across a trail to make pursuing blood-hounds lose the scent”. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and many dictionaries, say that red herrings were used to confuse the hounds chasing a fox. What is left unsaid is any clue to who was supposed to be laying this false trail, or why. Was an early group of hunt saboteurs at work? In the half dozen books on aspects of the history of fox hunting that I searched out, there was no reference to the use of a red herring to lay a false scent.
At the time I had to leave the topic without providing any answer. The matter is now cleared up as the result of a pair of articles in the October 2008 edition of Comments on Etymology, edited by Professor Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. One article reprints notes Prof Cohen made on the term in the same journal in 2000, the other is by Robert Scott Ross, who suggests a plausible origin for the expression. Their findings are supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s revised entry for red herring, which is to appear online shortly.
Let’s take a step back first, as I had to in the original article, to explain a literal red herring. Before modern refrigeration and speedy transport, fish could not be got to customers more than a few miles inland before it went bad. Various methods were invented for preserving them, using salting, smoking or pickling. Kippers are herrings that have been split, salted, dried and smoked. Yarmouth bloaters are made by a variation on kippering but are whole fish and do not keep so well. Arbroath smokies are smoked haddock. Red herrings are a type of kipper that have been much more heavily smoked, for up to 10 days, until they have been part-cooked and have gone a reddish-brown colour. They also have a strong smell. They would keep for months (they were transported in barrels to provide protein on long sea voyages) but in this state they were inedible and had to be soaked to soften them and remove the salt before they could be heated and served.
The first reference to them in English is from around 1420, although the technique is older than that. Within a century, they had been immortalised in the expression neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring (later, fowl was added or replaced flesh), meaning something that was nondescript or neither one thing nor another. The original form of this now rather opaque saying was: neither fresh fish for the clergy, nor meat for the mass of people, nor red herrings for the poor. Not only the poor: prosperous households at times ate them on Fridays and other meatless days and during Lent.
The OED’s current entry for the figurative sense of red herring points to a reference in Nicholas Cox’s The Gentleman’s Recreation of around 1697 (Mr Ross says it was actually in a treatise by Gerland Langbaine on horsemanship that was bound into the third edition of this work without attribution) that appeared to suggest that hounds were trained to follow a scent by trailing a red herring on the ground. This was a misunderstanding, as Langbaine included it in a section on training horses so that they became accustomed to following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt. He suggested a dead cat or fox should be dragged as a training-scent for the hounds, so that the horses could follow them. If you had no acceptably ripe dead animals handy, he added, you could as a last resort use a red herring. Neither the original misunderstanding of the text or the correction suggests why red herrings might be thought of as laying a false scent to draw hounds off a trail, quite the reverse.
Robert Scott Ross and the OED now trace the figurative sense to the radical journalist William Cobbett, whose Weekly Political Register thundered in the years 1803-35 against the English political system he denigrated as the Old Corruption. He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters: “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”
This story, and his extended repetition of it in 1833, was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, unfortunately also with the false idea that it came from some real practice of huntsmen. It was reinforced by the belief of Cobbett’s son that the origin was correct; he included it in a commentary on an edition of his father’s Rural Rides in 1853.
This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it’s been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down.
4. Questions & Answers: Jackpot
[Q] From Ray Willis, Sydney, Australia: “I was hoping you could illuminate me as to the origins of the word jackpot.”
[A] The word has always had associations with gambling, at first not the big lotteries of today with their rollover jackpots, but with the game of poker.
In its early days in the US in the 1820s, poker was a gambling game for four players using a deck of only 20 cards; its reputation was commonly as a crooked game for cheats and hustlers. Its rules evolved very quickly through the following decades. Players began to use the full deck of 52 cards so more could take part in a game and, around the 1860s, some bright spark had the idea of improving the game by introducing a rule that nobody could open the betting unless his hand contained two jacks or better. If, after the usual rounds of dealing extra cards, nobody else had a hand good enough to bid, the player with the good hand took the accumulated stakes, which obviously enough became known as the jack pot.
This version of the game took a while to catch on. Though the term is first recorded in an issue of The National Police Gazette in 1865, it doesn’t appear with any frequency until the middle 1870s. A puzzled reference to it is in a story with the title The Young Men at Narragansett Pier, which appeared in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette of 21 August 1876:
One never sees these young men standing around bar-rooms holding one end of a straw to their mouths and the other to a julep. They are never seen playing billiards for wine and cigars, or passing out of the game in a Jack pot when they hold a bob-tailed flush. Indeed, like the reader and myself, they do not know what a Jack pot is, unless it is a pot to put jacks in, which is sometimes the case.
[bob-tailed flush: a useless one, missing one end of the run of cards, like a chopped-off rabbit’s tail.]
The term began to be applied to lotteries only around the start of the twentieth century.
• “It’s all in the timing,” noted John Neave after reading a headline on the Web site of the New Zealand Herald last Sunday: “Police conduct post-mortem after death”.
• Pat Abercrombie wrote: “My wife and I recently spent a few weeks in Nairobi doing volunteer work. The rather ratty hotel we stayed in presented their plastic room keys in a sheath containing the following warning: ‘Do not walk after dark except in your car.’ It rather limits the number of interesting destinations, doesn’t it?”
• Grif Fariello read a news item on the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle about an accident in Carlsbad in which a skateboarder grabbed a tow from a truck: “The skateboard got stuck under a back tire. [Sgt] Blackburn says the tire rolled over the skateboarder’s chin and chest but he only sustained moderate industries.” In that he’s doing better than the banks at the moment.
• Thanks to Eileen Gomme of Norfolk for sending in a report from the Eastern Daily Press of Norwich on 11 October: “The Russian Leader Vladimir Putin has been given a birthday present with bite, a rare tiger cub. The cub, weighing about 20lb, was pictured with Mr Putin curled up in a wicker basket with a tiger-print cushion.”
• “You’ll have to take my word for this one,” e-mailed Joan Butler on Thursday, “as I’ve just heard it on the BBC TV News in a report on Elderly Abuse: ‘If you have an 80-year-old woman who’s being ripped off by her 20-year-old son ... ’ I suppose that IVF is bound to have some undesirable spin-offs.”