NEWSLETTER 572: SATURDAY 26 JANUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Error of the week Martin Watts got in first, with reference to the piece on cad last week: “It was, of course Tom Brown who had the schooldays. John Brown had a body.”
Sledging I noted in a Sic! item last week that this word from the vocabulary of cricket, for an insult directed at a player on the opposing side to break his concentration, is a shortened form of sledgehammer. Several subscribers wrote in to tell me of another story. Ray Wood said, “I read years ago that ‘sledging’ was developed by the Australian team then captained by Ian Chappell, and that the word was derived from Percy Sledge, a reggae singer, popular with the Aussie cricketers at the time.” Richard Bollard agreed, “It derives from Percy Sledge, who had a hit song ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. The default sledge is an attack on a mother, lover or sister. I have seen some claims that such an insult has a similar effect to being hit with a sledgehammer, but I think this is a bit of back-etymology, put in there by those for whom old Percy is either unknown or at best a very faded memory.” Dictionaries that include the term, however, link it with sledgehammer.
Cad Following last week’s piece on this word (now online), David Bell e-mailed, “Knowing you particularly enjoy dubious etymologies I thought you would enjoy this one for ‘cad’, which I recently came across in Mary Lovell’s biography of Jane Digby, A Scandalous Life.” Ms Lovell wrote, “The 1828 Derby, held shortly after Jane met Felix [Schwarzenberg], was narrowly won by the Duke of Rutland’s Cadland, with the King’s horse, The Colonel, which started favourite, finishing in second place. It seemed excruciatingly amusing when Felix suddenly acquired the nickname ‘Cadland’, because, as the fashionable world tittered, ‘he had beat the Colonel’ out of Jane’s affections. Later Cadland was shortened to ‘Cad’. In that form it has been passed down to the present day as a synonym for ungentlemanly behaviour — not surprisingly, given the prince’s subsequent conduct.” It’s a delightful story, but — as readers of my piece will know, there’s no truth in it at all.
London buses Jack Ayer followed up my mention of London omnibuses and their staff last week: “I assume you know the folklore about London bus conductors and ‘ta’. That’s what it sounded like on the buses I rode in the 1970s. I was told the conductors used to be northerners, and that what the northerners said was ‘tak’, as in Danish.” It’s a neat story, one that’s new to me. Ta, of course, is no more than a childish form of thank you, recorded from the eighteenth century, but probably older. At that period it was still commonly used by adults in Britain, though my impression is that it is now much less common.
Of or pertaining to chess.
The death of Bobby Fischer last week brought chess into the headlines, but not this word, which remains as rare as it ever has been.
The main claim to fame of scacchic is that it’s the shortest word in English that contains four letter cs (the longest is floccinaucinihilipilification). The record is held by pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with six cs (which I haven’t, yet, got around to writing about).
It, scacchic that is, seems to have been coined in 1860 by a man named Fiske from the Italian word for chess, scacchi. He wrote in his Chess Tales: “Stern old fellows were these scacchic sages! They considered the laws of chess as inviolable as those of the Medes and Persians.”
It’s almost never seen anywhere, except as an occasional obscure reference or witticism in chess magazines. One rare appearance was in 1968, when it briefly appeared in the title of the Central California Chess Association’s journal, The Scacchic Voice.
3. Questions & Answers: Your name is mud
[Q] From Mary-Carol Riehs and Thomas Pratt: “Do you know where Your name is Mudd began? I’ve been told that it came from Dr Samuel Mudd who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and was subsequently convicted as a conspirator.”
[A] The facts about Dr Mudd are correct but he wasn’t the source.
Dr Mudd certainly treated Booth and was imprisoned as a conspirator in the assassination, though his guilt is open to doubt and he was pardoned soon after. The story is often told that his name prompted the expression. However, even a cursory look at the evidence shows this can’t be true.
The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry only recently revised, in December 2007, finds the first example of the phrase from 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was killed. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, A Dictionary of the Turf. This was written under the pen name of John Bee by John Badcock, a man about whom so little is known that even his date and place of birth and death are unknown. It’s thought he was born about 1810 and died about 1830. A short life then, but one full of writings about horses and riding. His entry in the slang dictionary reads: “Mud, a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier.”
It’s not from the family name Mudd but from the wet sticky earth stuff. It builds on a slang sense of mud recorded in the previous century. A book called Hell Upon Earth of 1703 includes the word in the sense of a simpleton or a fool. In turn, this probably derives from another that’s two centuries older still, in which mud meant the lowest or worst part of something, the dregs.
4. Questions & Answers: Man of straw
[Q] From Steve Haywood: “A story in the Guardian on 15 January 2008 suggested an origin for the term man of straw: ‘[It] stems from the days when mostly private prosecutions were brought with bribed witnesses. They used to stand outside court with straws in their shoes to signify their testimony could be bought.’ Why do so many explanations for English turns of phrase seem so incredible? Why would someone stand outside a courtroom with straw in their shoes? And wouldn’t the simple fact you had, itself make you an unreliable witness? I suppose what I’m asking is, is it true?”
[A] Not a hope. It’s a classic popular etymology.
The oddest thing about it is that, though man of straw has had several senses down the centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary does not include in its list that of a witness for hire. I guess the idea has come about because the term often refers to a person who has no financial means and so may be more open to being bribed than your average man in the street. But the idea of standing with straw in your shoes outside a court to indicate you’re available to take part in an illegal act for money is so funny only someone with a common-sense bypass could seriously put it forward.
Let’s go back to the early days of the term, at the very end of the sixteenth century. A man of straw then was a sham or dummy, like a scarecrow or any image stuffed with straw. It evolved quickly into a specific sense of a sham argument, an invented adverse argument that is put up by a debater, only to be triumphantly refuted. The idea of a man of straw being without money seems to have been first recorded in 1823 by a man whom I’ve mentioned above, John Bee, who listed the phrase in his Dictionary of the Turf: “‘Man of straw’, a bill-acceptor, without property — ‘no assets’.”
This is now the most common sense, especially in legal contexts in the UK, in which it is used to refer to somebody not worth suing or otherwise pursuing for money because he has none. The broader sense of a man who has no substance is also common, as is that of a sham argument. There’s also straw man, of course, which is more an US than a British expression, for a front man or dummy, somebody used as a cover for a dubious enterprise. That takes us right back to the original idea, more than four centuries ago.
But no trace anywhere of straw-shod bribable false witnesses.
• Brian Panisset spotted a notice outside a church in Port Macquarie, Australia. Was it an over-clever attempt at making a point or two thoughts unthinkingly wedged together? “This church is not full of hypocrites. There’s always room for more.”
• Mike Cottrell e-mailed from Shropshire: “Continuing the thread last week, I recently saw the following fire instructions in a Helsinki hotel: ‘If you are unable to leave your room, call the reception, seal all ventilation vents and door gaps, open the window if too much smoke in your room, and expose yourself in the window.’” The instruction in a lift in an Istanbul hotel gave Randolph Bragg an apprehensive moment: “Please do not use elevators on fire!”
• On 17 January, another triumph of do-it-yourself surgery was aired on the Web site of Channel 6, an Indianapolis TV station: “Boy’s Condition Improves After Father Shoots Him In Head”. Many thanks to Barbara Uhrig for that. The headline has since been changed to the more anodyne but also legally safe and accurate, “Condition Of Boy Allegedly Shot By Father Improves”.