NEWSLETTER 514: SATURDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Contributions drive Your response has been even more generous than I could have imagined. World Wide Words is now financially secure for the foreseeable future, with a surplus put away to protect it against anything that isn’t. My most heartfelt thanks to you all.
There are more things in heaven and earth ... Following last week’s stroll through the culinary and linguistic legacy of the hamburger, subscribers told me about other varieties. John Craggs wrote “Just for the sake of completion—and repletion, according to those who tried them—a stall was selling buffaloburgers at this year’s Summer Solstice gathering at Stonehenge.” Jane Greenwood remembers eating a chicken excaliburger at a pub in Tintagel in Cornwall (“it wasn’t half bad, washed down with a pint of cider”). Just to show there are few meats that haven’t at some point graced the inside of a bun, others noted ostrichburgers, rabbitburgers, gooseburgers, duckburgers and octoburgers (from octopus). Readers of a sensitive disposition may wish not to dwell on the implications of the term Bambiburger that was mentioned by Ken Hughes. A reader who refers to himself only as Curmudgeon commented, “Your article reminds me of a cartoon I saw in a magazine back in the 1950s, which featured a burger stand with a menu listing a couple dozen varieties. The proprietor was telling a customer: ‘We have one made with ham, too. But we don’t know what to call it!’”
Bellwether While we’re retailing jokes (my mildly frivolous issue last week clearly brought out the humour in you), Patricia Norton wrote from New Zealand following last week’s piece that featured the wordwether for a castrated ram: “There’s an old story about the farmer who took his new prize ram off to the A&P (Agricultural and Pastoral) show but was highly displeased when it failed to win even a highly commended, let alone the first prize that he’d been looking forward to. On his way out of the grounds, tugging the sorry beast behind him, he encountered a neighbour. ‘Nice weather,’ chirped the neighbour. ‘Soon will be,’ growled the disgruntled cocky.”
Which gives me the opportunity to drop back into didactic mode in order to explain that cocky is a term used in both Australia and New Zealand for a farmer. It’s an abbreviation of cockatoo, from Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, which was formerly a prison for intractable convicts. Cockatoo farmers was a name given to tenant farmers from the prison who were settled around Port Fairy on the Victoria coast of Australia in the 1840s. The abbreviated form came along later in the century.
Mungo Emery Fletcher rose to an aside in the piece that mentioned this word: “Your comment on the OED’s definition of ‘mung’ sounded so like a line from one of the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan that it inspired me to compose the following doggerel:
When a social invitation doesn’t specify the dress
2. Weird Words: Hokey-pokey
An inferior type of ice cream.
Its origin is open to dispute, though we know the term was first applied to ice cream in Britain. Its sellers from handcarts, the hokey-pokey men, were invariably Italians who had fled poverty in their own country. The term’s history matches their emigration—it was recorded in the UK in 1884 and in the eastern US in 1886.
A report appeared in The Daily News of Frederick, Maryland, in July 1887:
The custom of eating ice-cream in England is so popular that even the dirty arabs of the street are bound to have their ‘penny wipe,’ as they call it, which consists of a dab of the refreshing delicacy on a piece of questionably clean paper. This mode of retailing ices has crept into New York and Chicago, and is possibly an humble offshoot of the Anglomania now so prevalent throughout the United States. Somewhat similar to this method of selling ices on the street is the custom now in vogue in the cities, and used to be in Frederick, of retailing the ‘poor relation’ of ice cream known as Hokey Pokey, by the boys with hand carts.
It’s commonly said that the name of the comestible comes from the cry of the sellers, either Gelati, ecco un poco! (“ice cream, here’s a little!”) or O che poco! (“O how little!”, meaning it was cheap rather than insufficient in quantity—its price was a penny, both in Britain and the US, and led to the cry Hokey-pokey, penny a lump!). We can’t be sure this is where the name came from, but the sudden appearance of the same term within such a narrow space of time 3000 miles apart might suggest that it was brought by the Italians themselves.
But there’s another school of thought (there so often is, you may have noticed). Hokey-pokey already had another meaning, that of deception, cheating or underhand activity, first noted in the UK by James Halliwell-Phillipps in 1847.It might have been given to the inferior cornstarch-and-milk product of some of the less reputable early street sellers in Britain and then followed them across the ocean, though the term in the deceit sense was already known in the US.
We are fairly sure that the deception sense comes from the older hocus-pocus as the name for a conjuror or juggler, perhaps the one that Thomas Ady described in A Candle in the Dark in 1656 who used the incantation “Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo” (though often said, there’s no good evidence that hocus-pocus is a parody of the Latin phrase “hoc est enim corpus meum” from the Catholic Eucharist). In the next century, hocus-pocus became a common term for conjuring, jugglery or sleight of hand, and so developed the idea of trickery or deception.
Incidentally, the name of the song-cum-dance usually known in the US as the hokey-pokey (“You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out”) and elsewhere as the hokey-cokey, has no obvious direct link with any of these senses. Its history is bedevilled by accusations of plagiarism, but the original seems to have been that composed by Jimmy Kennedy in the UK in 1942, which was referred to during the War years variously as the cokey-cokey, the okey-cokey and the hokey-cokey. The US version under the name hokey-pokey is usually attributed to Larry LaPrise in 1949.
3. Recently noted
Words of the year Already? It’s only November, after all. But the big dictionary publishers are already cranking up the PR gramophone to announce their suggestions for the most significant words of 2006.
This week the Oxford American Dictionary picked out carbon neutral as its choice, which relates to the process of maintaining a balance between the production and absorption of our emissions of carbon dioxide to help counteract global warming. The editors of the Webster’s New World Dictionary selected crackberry, a sarcastic term for users of the BlackBerry mobile device who have supposedly become addicted to it. Since the term has been around since 2001, it’s an odd choice for this year. In the UK, Susie Dent’s annual compendium for Oxford University Press, The Language Report, chose bovvered, from the catchphrase “am I bovvered?”, used by a bored and mouthy teenager in the British TV comedy The Catherine Tate Show. It’s bothered respelled, that’s all. Of all the words in all the media in all the English-speaking world, she had to choose this one? Do I detect a sad case of dumbing-down?
Smishing Continuing attempts by technological bad-hats to separate us from our money has led to this most recent creation. It’s formed from SMS (Short Messaging Service, the system that lets mobile phone users send and receive text messages), plus phishing, for sending trick e-mails that lure unsuspecting people to fake bank Web sites to get the passwords of their accounts. So smishing is phishing by mobile phone text message. It’s new enough that it’s still sometimes written as SMiShing to make its provenance clearer.
Gategate It was inevitable that this apotheosis of the strangest suffix in the language, -gate (which continues to appear in nouns referring to real or alleged scandals, especially involving cover-ups, though it should have been put out to grass years ago), should be gleefully coined by the wordsmiths of the Fourth Estate when an opportunity presents itself. It has been used in Britain recently to refer to a planning dispute that concerns some substantial barriers to admission put up by the Welsh singer Charlotte Church outside her home in Cardiff to protect her from unwanted visits by fans. Journalistic invention running on tramlines as it does, you won’t be surprised to hear that earlier appearances are recorded.
Harrumph The inhabitants of Pahrump, Nevada, may be upset if I say that the town’s name is inherently humorous. Having had a moment of fame as the focus of the last two episodes of the American TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it has gained linguistic notoriety for voting this week to make English its official language. As only a very small percentage of the population isn’t already fluent in English, the action seems unlikely to lead to any practical result. The town’s name comes from the language of the Southern Paiute, so it might be a good idea for them to rename it quickly to something English before residents are accused of speaking a foreign tongue every time they mention where they live.
Credo Ian Mayes, the Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, wrote his regular column this week about some of the grammatical errors that readers find in the newspaper: “What we are involved in here is the war on error and, following Mr Bush’s example, we shall seek out errorists and bring them to justice.”
4. Questions & Answers: Bulldozer
[Q] From Jim Whittaker: “Watching earth-moving near my home the other day, I wondered why the machine that was doing the job was called a bulldozer. I can see how it might be like a bull butting, but is that really where it comes from?”
[A] There is a link. But the story’s surprisingly complicated.
The word is definitely American. The earliest sense had nothing to do with machinery, but referred to some severe punishment, in particular a whipping applied with a bullwhip. Detailed explanations appear in several US newspapers in the latter months of 1876. All say that it came into being as a result of a determined attempt by Republicans in the Southern states, particularly Louisiana, to stop blacks from joining the Democrats by “persuading” them to take the oath of the brethren of the Union Rights Stop. This is the way it was explained in the Gettysburg Compiler of 11 January 1877:
In very obstinate cases the brethren were in the habit of administering a “bull’s dose” of several hundred lashes on the bare back. When dealing with those who were hard to convert, active members would call out “give me the whip and let me give him a bull-dose.” From this it became easy to say “that fellow ought to be bull-dosed, or bull-dozed,” and soon bull-doze, bull-dozing and bull-dozers came to be slang words.
By the early 1880s, to bulldoze was to intimidate or coerce by violence, specifically the threat of a flogging. A bulldozer could be a bully, an intimidator, or a member of a vigilante mob. It could also refer to a type of gun, presumably seen as a usefully intimidating device.
The next step occurs around the end of the century. We start to get references to bulldozer being the name for various items of equipment. The earliest is for a machine in a blacksmith’s shop for bending big pieces of metal. There’s no way to tell whether this sense appeared independently or had been borrowed from the earlier ones, but the ideas are sufficiently similar to presume a link of some sort.
In 1910, a Pennsylvania news report said a boat had been bought to scrape out and clean the channels of a canal, which came with a bulldozer—from the
description a device for mounting on the bows of the boat—to break up heavy ice in winter. Crude mule-powered earth-movers were also said to be fitted with such a bulldozer (the problem, it was said, was getting the mules to go backwards ready for the next stroke).
It's been a long journey
from uncondign punishment.
As you can imagine, in time bulldozer for the pusher device at the front of a machine became confused with that of the machine that did the pushing. But the first cases of bulldozer for a tractor fitted with one appear only at the end of the 1920s and are usually linked with the then new Caterpillar tractors. After that, of course, a retronym had to be invented to describe the item once called by that name, and bulldozer blade came into existence.
• From a Chicago Tribune item of 9 November, sent in by Al Yellon, on a local suburb’s proposed ban on driving while using a hand-held phone: “Resident Mark Hecht spoke in favor of the ban, saying he was almost run down by a driver using a cell phone Sunday while raking leaves.” That’s some serious multitasking!
• “Last week,” Brian Ashurst e-mailed, “I received a message from one of my customers apologising for a printing problem in the latest batch of cheques it sent out. ‘We hope it will not cause you any incontinence,’ the message ended. I assured them that it had not, and would not.” On the other hand, an OB/GYN in California, Ellen Smithee reports, “advertises sophisticated surgical services, one of which is called urogynecology. This term is defined in his ads as ‘treatment of urinary inconvenience.’ Somebody should organise a noun swap.
• Roger DeBeers noted a sign posted in the window of a restaurant in Fairfield, California: “REAR PARKING IN THE REAR PARKING LOT”. He wonders how many rears are parked back there.
• The AMC Movie Watcher Newsletter dated 8 November contains a short item about the actor Will Ferrell: “In July 2006, Ferrell announced they were expecting their second child on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Kris Raiman hopes this doesn’t start a trend of celebrity births on late night TV.
• John Neave reports from New Zealand that he heard on the television news last weekend that “A helicopter pilot is in hospital awaiting an operation after a collision between Greymouth and Westport.” He is glad that only these two small towns were involved—if it had been Wellington and Auckland, for instance, it would have made a dreadful mess.
• From the newsletter of Spalding Baptist Church in Lincolnshire, sent in by Diana Platts: “The Boys’ Brigade will be holding their Christmas Coffee Morning on Saturday 25th Nov. 10am-12 noon. Mince pies, stolen, etc.”. [If readers are not familiar with the German delicacy called stollen, they’re missing a treat.]