Blatteroon Mildred Gutkin wrote, “About pisk: in the Yiddish-speaking world of my childhood, a pisk was an animal’s mouth, as distinguished from moil, the proper word for the human body part. The cat has a pisk; a person has a moil. To speak of a person’s pisk, therefore, is derogatory, intimating loose lips or some such, and that person is, with great contempt, a piscatch. Blatteroon indeed, the meaning then readily extended to dismiss the entire individual, body and soul, as a scoundrel.”
Howard Wolff added, “During my childhood in the 1930s and 1940s in Brooklyn, fermach deine pisk meant ‘Shut your mouth’ or ‘Shut up’. But I must admit that I haven’t heard the word used in that or any other way in many years.”
Miriam Miller contributed further Yiddish terms: “The common phrase frosk in pisk means a slap on the mouth. Pisk has come to mean a loudmouth, not garrulous but dominating conversation. One way to say garrulous is hock meir ein chinick, to knock or bang like a tea kettle, to yammer on until one wishes he would shut up. Your bubbie (grandma) might hock you a chinick, but she wouldn’t be a pisk.”
Site changes Part of the reason for taking a break at this time of year is it gives me time to do essential maintenance and improvements. I’ve recoded the website so that pages now print much better: the side columns vanish so that the text fills the page width within the margins. I am also working on making the site responsive to the screen widths of mobile devices, but finishing this will have to wait until more time is available.
This contraption came to my attention, as so many things do, whilst I was looking for something else, in this case in a book with the title A History of the City of Lawrence in Massachusetts by Jonathan F C Hayes, dated 1868. This is a peculiarly formatted book, with its text only on right-hand pages, faced by adverts for everything from cough drops to cotton-cleaning machines. One promoted the clothing emporium of C B French, who announced:
The finest qualities and latest styles of silk hats manufactured to order, and fitted to the head by the French conformator.
Top: the advert by Messrs C B French of Lawrence; Bottom: an illustration of it from a French patent application
An illustration showed the conformator to be a sort of circular cage that fitted over the head. Dozens of bars around the rim were pushed in by a spring to record the lumps and bumps on the head of the man or woman being measured. The machine punched a paper pattern for the hatter, who used it to set the outline of a former on which the brim of the hat was reshaped. The pattern was often kept so the customer could order new hats without having to visit the store or go through the process again.
The conformator was indeed French, though it had been imported from France rather than being a creation of the firm advertising it (I fear the ambiguity was deliberate.) The word appeared first in the French language, as conformateur, a thing made to conform to the shape of something else (devices of the same name recorded the shape of the bust in dressmaking). The invention of the conformateur for hats is variously credited to a man named Maillard in 1843, to the firm of Allié Aine the following year and then to that of Allié-Maillard in 1852, all based in Paris. Though conformators have long since ceased to be manufactured, they continue to be used by bespoke hatters such as Lock of London; the rare examples that come on the market are highly prized and expensive.
I was delighted to find more terminology in Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovating by Henry L Ermatinger of 1919. He explained that “The conformator consists of two separate parts, the conformator proper and the formillion, or shaping block.” The formillion is the former I mentioned above. He added that “The retailer, or renovator, should provide himself with a brim board and an iron foot-tolliker for smoothing the brim.” A search found that foot-tollikers, usually now just called tollikers (foot referred to the base of the hat, not that the tool was foot-operated), are hand tools to set the angle of the crown to the brim, but I can’t trace the origin of the term.
Words of 2013 The American Dialect Society continued its tradition of voting for its Word of the Year at its annual conference, held this year in Minneapolis. The winner was a curious choice: because X, where X is a noun or noun phrase without the intermediate of that would be expected in standard English: “because homework”, “because internet”. In such phrases, most often encountered online, because has changed from a conjunction to a preposition. It may suggest the logic behind the reasoning is too poor to survive exposure or the reason is so obvious the speaker doesn’t need to elaborate. The version found most often is because reasons, a hand-waving way of saying that the speaker doesn’t want or need to explain. Because X had also been chosen as Most Useful Word of the Year, beating struggle bus, a difficult situation, as in I’m riding the struggle bus. It is likely that journalists will have a struggle bus telling their readers why because X won (try “because language”, guys).
Other yearly words Collins Dictionaries announced their word of the year on 17 December: geek. It’s a mark of the word’s changing fortunes. Originally in English dialect a foolish or offensive man, it has travelled via American carny slang to be a term of abuse for an unattractive and boring social misfit, frequently one immersed in the abstruse technicalities of computing. Recently it has become a positive term, foreshadowed by the slogan “the geek shall inherit the earth” that has echoed around theatre, film and book since the 1990s and bolstered by the success of technology entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. Collins has already reflected this change by amending its definition of geek to “a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. For Collins, Ian Brookes commented, “The idea of future generations inheriting a more positive definition of the word is something that Collins believes is worth celebrating.”
Winter falls Alan Harrison asked about give the cat a penny, a dialect expression of the English Black Country and adjacent areas of South Staffordshire, meaning to take a tumble on ice. He wrote, “In a pub conversation, someone suggested it was derived from a German phrase meaning fall on your arse, used by prisoners of war incarcerated in camps on Cannock Chase. This seems improbable. My mother, born in 1924, believes that she has known the term all her life.” I’ve looked into this but can’t find much about it, though I can confirm once again that it’s undesirable to take seriously the etymological assertions of people in pubs. Mr Harrison’s mum is correct to say that it’s old: in February 1873 an equally puzzled correspondent to Notes and Queries recalled that a clergyman in Northamptonshire had written to a local paper about it thirty years previously. As to how it could have come about, I am at a loss!
Q From Neil Paknadel; a related question came from Carol Nichols: Your questioner about crackerjack some time ago used squared away. Now we need an article on its figurative meaning, though I believe its origin is nautical.
A It is indeed a term from the days of sailing ships, though it has come ashore in its current figurative sense of being tidy or in proper order. It’s common in the armed forces, more so in the US than the UK.
Perhaps his first inspiration to serve was when his uncle, looking sharp and squared away in his military uniform, returned home from the Korean War and introduced himself to Lloyd when he was a little boy.
The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY); 25 Nov. 2013.
We have numerous idioms employing square which imply related ideas of something that’s proper, correct, fair, honest, straightforward, precise or exact, all of which take us back to well-built structures whose corners are true right angles. Many are recorded for the first time in the sixteenth century and it was in that century, too, that we start to see examples of seafarers using square in various expressions, including square the yards.
It meant that the yards, the spars that carried the sails, were to be set at right angles to the keel line from bow to stern, a state that was known as square by the braces, or square by the lifts and braces if the spars were also set horizontal. (The lifts and braces were part of the running rigging; the lifts raised and lowered the yards and the braces turned them.) At sea, squaring the yards meant that the ship sailed directly downwind. After anchoring, square the yards was an instruction to clear the decks and make the ship tidy and ready for sailing again.
Near the end of the eighteenth century, sailors began to extend the verb by adding away. The combination took on a sense of getting moving or travelling directly to some destination without delay or deviation. This is the earliest I can find:
We have not anchored and shall not, as we shall square away for Canton in the evening.
From the entry of 30 August 1798 in the diary of Ebenezer Townsend, owner and supercargo of the Neptune. Reprinted by the Hawaiian Historical Society in 1888.
In the 1860s we begin to see square away being used by non-sailors in a way that approximates to our current sense and which developed from the sailing one — to make everything ship-shape or to get ready for some action. An early appearance:
I didn’t waste any time in sociabilities with Clarence, but squared away for business, straight-off.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, 1889.
Incidentally, from about 1820 in Britain, square away took on a distinct sense of putting oneself in a posture of defence ready for a fist fight, presumably by adopting the conventional pugilistic position with fists clenched and raised. (The American square off appeared about the same time; more recently, square up has been usual in Britain.) This usage of square away lies to one side of our modern meaning but presumably derives from the same source.
• On 28 December, Stella McDowall found something fishy in the Daily Mail (it also appeared in the Mirror): “A sturgeon who performed the UK’s first hand transplant has revealed an NHS row over funding is delaying further operations.”
• Department of inappropriate simile: a report on the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 December, noticed by Norman King, quoted competitor Tom Addis as saying “Bass Strait will be a landmine.”
• It could have been better expressed 1: Ian Whiting read this online in the journal Bedfordshire on Sunday dated 12 December: “After two years of increased begging, anti-social behaviour and drinking on the streets of Bedford, a dedicated police officer is to once again patrol the centre of the town.”
• It could have been better expressed 2: A Reuters report in the Chicago Tribune on 27 December told DeeDee Wilson: “A Louisiana man is suspected of killing his wife, ex-mother-in-law and a former employer before turning a shotgun on himself and committing suicide at four locations outside of New Orleans, police said on Friday.”
• Jim Frederick read this in the Telegraph online on 2 January: “As we now know, the ship was diverted from her original path to assist the Spirit of Mawson expedition. Although trapped in the ice, the helicopters of the Snow Dragon completed the airlift in four hours.”
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2013. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.