E-MAGAZINE 672: SATURDAY 9 JANUARY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sicced! Lots of readers told me that the toboggan worn in the last Sic! item last week wasn’t an error. It’s an American regionalism for a
Pearls of wisdom John Barrs pointed out that the essence of the idea discussed last time is older than I said. Like pearls before swine it’s Biblical, from the book of Job (28:18). The King James Bible of 1611 translates the verse as “No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.”
Updated piece I’ve considerably revised the item on bee’s knees.
Going to its eternal rest Oxford University Press has just told me that it is about to remainder both the hardback and paperback of my book Gallimaufry. If you want a copy, this may be your last chance to buy!
Facebook A further reminder that World Wide Words is well represented on Facebook. I have a personal page and there’s also a discussion group about topics of interest to language lovers. All Facebook members are welcome.
You may know it better as jalap, since jollop is principally a British spelling. It’s a liquid medicine of some sort, particularly cough syrup or a laxative.
“Listen,” said Granny, “If you give someone a bottle of red jollop for their wind it may work, right, but if you want it to work for sure then you let their mind make it work for them.”
Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett, 1987.
The jollop pronunciation was known in English dialects for many decades before it began to be put into writing. A century ago, the English Dialect Dictionary found it in Lincolnshire and Lancashire and recorded that it then meant “a semi-fluid mess of anything; a big mess of food, a ‘dollop’.” That hints that it’s a variation on jalap, under the influence of dollop. The pronunciation is at least a hundred years older:
JALAP. The pronunciation of this word, as if written Jollop, which Mr. Sheridan has adopted, is, in my opinion, now confined to the illiterate and vulgar.
A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language, by John Walker, 1791. The person he censures is the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was most certainly neither illiterate nor vulgar.
Jollop has been recorded in American dictionaries as a slang term for a measure of strong liquor. The American Century Dictionary of 1895 said that it was an English provincial term for the cry of a turkey, which no British dictionary admits to knowing about. On the other hand, jollop was at one time a name for the wattles of the bird, probably from dewlap.
The older jalap arrived in English about 1675 via French from the Spanish purga de Jalapa, where the last word is one name of the city in Mexico that's also called Xalapa or Xalapa-Enríquez. It was a purgative obtained from the roots of a species of convolvulus.
3. What I've learned this week
Words of the year The senior contest is the one organised by the American Dialect Society, now in its 20th year, which may therefore ultimately be to blame for the plethora of such announcements these days. My excuse for mentioning so many of them is that they are a useful way to mention some of the words of the year that I haven’t got around to discussing here. Last evening (Friday) in Baltimore, the Society not only voted on the words (and phrases) of 2009 in various categories, but also determined the word of the decade. In doing so, the ADS is concerned to stress that “members act in fun and don’t pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language. Instead they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining.”
The Word of the Year is tweet (a short message sent via the Twitter.com service, and the act of sending such a message) and its word of the decade is google (a generic form of the trade name Google, meaning “to search the Internet”, which Google’s trademark lawyers will wince to read).
The thematic winners were: fail (Most Useful; A noun or interjection uttered when something is egregiously unsuccessful); Dracula sneeze (Most Creative; covering one’s mouth with the crook of one’s elbow when sneezing, seen as similar to popular portrayals of the vampire Dracula, in which he hides the lower half of his face with a cape); sea kittens (Most Unnecessary; fish, according to PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who have been running a campaign arguing that if fish were called sea kittens, people would be less likely to hurt them); death panel (Most Outrageous; a scare phrase from the recent US controversy over health plans, a supposed committee of doctors or bureaucrats who would decide which patients were allowed to receive treatment, ostensibly leaving the rest to die); hike the Appalachian trail (Most Euphemistic; to go somewhere to have sex with one’s illicit lover, which follows a statement by the Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, who said he was going hiking when he really went to Argentina to visit his mistress); twenty-ten (Most Likely to Succeed; a pronunciation of the year 2010, as opposed to saying two thousand ten or two thousand and ten). The words that were deemed least likely to succeed were any names of the decade 2000-2009, such as Naughties, Aughties or Oughties. (But see below for the very different view from the UK.)
Australian words of 2009 The Australian Macquarie Dictionary has begun online public voting for its Word of the Year. You can choose from 17 sections, each having six words or phrases (oddly, mainly phrases: of the 102 terms, two thirds (68) have more than one word). To someone reading them outside Australia, it is an odd mixture. Some have been well known in the US or UK for many years (shield law, petrichor, bodywarmer, slacktivism, wet room, lighting pollution, social phobia, brain fade). Of the rest, only a minority are specific to 2009. I would have expected swine flu to be in the list, but instead the Dictionary has gone for the formal pandemic influenza A that identifies the H1N1 strain, a term that has been in wide use at least since the middle of the decade. The result will be announced on 3 February, together with the Dictionary’s own choice.
What decade is this I see before me? The press — at least in the UK, and presumably elsewhere, too — has been much engaged over the holidays with an analysis of the first decade of the century, which everybody except pedantic calendarists believes has just ended. In Britain, it universally came to be known as the Noughties (which I assume was coined as a pun on naughties, though heaven knows the past decade hasn’t been much fun). Some journalists have turned their minds to how we might identify the decade that we’ve just begun. Historically, the second ten years of a century has never had a name. A columnist in the Galveston Daily News of Texas wrote last Monday, “Most agree that this fresh decade will be called the ’10s”. Possibly. Or perhaps not. Other suggestions this week, from the UK, are Teenies and Teens, which imply that the next ten years will be moody, untidy and unwilling to get up in the mornings.
4. Questions and Answers: Twenty-three Skidoo
[Q] From William Mathis: Can you please tell us about the popular phrase 23 skidoo from the roaring twenties?
[A] It does usually evoke the period of the flappers and speakeasies in the US, though its heyday was really the first decade of the century; by the 1920s it was already rather passé. Today it’s defunct in daily speech, though it is remembered and writers resurrect it as an easily recognised flag for the period (the wrong one, as I say, but never mind); skidoo by itself has a faint residual existence and has been borrowed as a trade name for a motorised toboggan. Both skidoo and the full phrase 23 skidoo mean to “go away”, “beat it”, “scram” or suggest that the person addressed should get out while the going’s good.
The usual story about its origins, quite certainly fictional, takes us to the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway in New York City. This is the location of the famous Flatiron Building, constructed in 1902 and later nicknamed for its triangular shape that resembles an old-fashioned flat iron. This corner — it is said — became notorious as an especially windy spot, partly due to the shape of the building. Young men would gather in the hope that a gust would blow a woman’s skirt up to provide them with a momentary voyeuristic thrill; it is also said that the local cops would chase them away with a shout of “Twenty-three skidoo!” Don’t believe a word of it. However, there’s some slight supporting evidence for a link with Twenty-third Street — though not the Flatiron building — from an Edison film
Before and after, from the Edison film
The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby. This subject is a winner.
That salacious comment says it all. Even if it wasn’t an influence on the rise of the term (which it certainly wasn’t), I’ll bet my bottom dollar it contributed to the gestation of the story about where it came from.
There’s no difficulty over the true origin of skidoo, since it’s almost certainly a variant of skedaddle, a nineteenth-century word of unknown origin that has the sense of “go away, leave, or depart hurriedly”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Skidoo is recorded from early in the century:
“Now, that’s enough,” interposed Maudo, “let’s skidoo.” And they skidooed with smiles and backward glances.
Washington Post, 25 Dec. 1904.
A puzzling fact that doesn’t fit the skedaddle origin is that a barque called Skidoo was reported as arriving in New York from Norway in May 1872 and that a yacht of the same name took part in races off New York from the late 1870s into the early 1900s. Perhaps the word had a meaning now lost to us?
The evidence suggests that the 23 part came along a little before skidoo and was a distinct slang term with much the same sense:
By the way, I have come upon a new piece of slang within the past two months and it has puzzled me. I just heard it from a big newsboy who had a “stand” on a corner. A small boy with several papers under his arm had edged up until he was trespassing on the territory of the other. When the big boy saw the small one he went at him in a threatening manner and said: “Here! Here! Twenty-three! Twenty-three!” The small boy scowled and talked under his breath, but he moved away. A few days after that I saw a street beggar approach a well-dressed man, who might have been a bookmaker or horseman, and try for the usual “touch.” This man looked at the beggar in cold disgust and said: “Aw, twenty-three!” I could see that the beggar didn’t understand it any better than I did. I happened to meet a man who tries to “keep up” on slang and I asked the meaning of “Twenty-three!” He said it was a signal to clear out, run, get away.
Washington Post, 22 Oct. 1899. The speaker is George Ade, a newspaperman from Chicago, whose book Fables in Slang had just been published. The article wrote of it, “Mr Ade has gathered up the vernacular of the period, the irreverent metaphor, the far-fetched simile, and the words coined in the street.” Note the quotation marks around keep up; in the sense of staying abreast of a topic it was then new and slangy.
Nobody has been able to suggest a plausible origin for this numerical interjection. Many suggestions have been put forward, such as the two that follow, none of which are supported by even the slenderest evidence:
• The Only Way was a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities by two Irish clergymen, Freeman Wills and Frederick Langbridge. In the last act, it is claimed, a woman knitting at the guillotine counted off the victims as they were executed and that the hero Sidney Carlton was the twenty-third, that number being the final words of the play. The implication is that theatre-goers adopted the number as a synonym for going home, from where it spread and changed its meaning. The big problem with this much-quoted origin that the play was first performed — at the Lyceum Theatre, London — in February 1899; it is improbable in the extreme in the days before mass communications that only a few months later it could have reached Chicago.
• Eric Partridge suggested it might be a hangover from the slang of telegraphers, who used numerical codes as abbreviations of common expressions; 30 was “end of message”, for example, which American journalists still on occasion put at the end of pieces, though the rationale for doing so has long since passed. It is said that 23 meant something like “go away!”. Sadly for the ingenious idea, code dictionaries of the period do not use 23 in any way that could be turned into the slang sense.
What we do know is that, by 1906 (several years earlier according to some anecdotal reports), the two halves of the phrase had been conjoined to make the even more expressive doubled epithet:
Fire companies are having troubles of their own in getting music for the next biennial parade. One company negotiating with a band out of town has been informed that if it wants that particular brand of music it will have to pay $6 per man for the ordinary musicians and $12 for the leader for the day with expenses. If the engine company is independent enough it will wire to the band “23 skidoo” according to the members’ idea in the matter.
New Brunswick Daily Times, 21 Mar. 1906.
An accidental result of the creation of 23 skidoo has been the bafflement of generations of researchers. We’re now much nearer an answer than ever before, but the crucial bits of evidence to settle its origin may elude us for ever.
• Barry Rein came across this sentence in an e-mail that was sent to faculty and students at Occidental College in Los Angeles about a lost dog: “I placed this dog with a lady who lives on Alumni Ave and she had a harness on but struggled out of it when she got out of the car and broke loose.”
• Several online news media outlets copied the headline to a story that K I Plotkin saw via Google News on the site of KOMO News of Seattle on 28 December: “Man charged with killing girlfriend, baby arrested.”
• “The recipe for tiramisu on the back of a package of ladyfingers,” e-mailed Helen Thursh, “suggested that unsweetened cocoa could be sprinkled on top ‘for garish’. Just in case one might think that was a misprint, it added that curls of unsweetened chocolate could also be added for garish. I always thought that the cocoa and chocolate curls were decorative, but I never thought they exceeded the bounds of good taste. To the company’s credit, the mistake has since been corrected.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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