On your bike From Roy Mathers: “You mention that some say that the phrase is associated with the actor Jack Warner in the days before he became PC Dixon of Dock Green. I think you’ll find Warner’s catchphrase at that time was mind my bike!” I've since learned this was on Garrison Theatre, a wartime radio comedy variety programme of 1940: he used the sound of a bicycle bell and the catchphrase to announce his arrival.
Warren McLean cited the Australian cautionary phrase don’t get off your bike meaning “don’t lose your temper”. He added, “It used to be fairly common here in Oz but I haven’t heard it for quite a while.” The written record confirms it’s fallen out of use. The most recent example I can find is as the title of a TV programme in May 1986; the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1974 noted that it was even then an outmoded expression. It seems to date from the 1920s, since the earliest appearance I can find is in the Mirror of Perth in May 1923: “We believe you, Doug! Don’t get off your bike!”
Brown Windsor soup Some readers directed me to John Mortimer’s creation, Rumpole of the Bailey. Amy Livingston pointed out that in the book of short stories of that title dated 1978, Rumpole is on a train, looking forward to “a good, old-fashioned railway lunch. I thought of a touch of Brown Windsor soup, rapidly followed by steamed cod, castle pudding, mouse-trap, cream crackers and celery, all to be washed down with a vintage bottle of Château Great Western as we charged past Didcot.” But was this a commendation of the soup? Rumpole’s culinary tastes are biased towards over-boiled vegetables, steak-and-kidney pie, fried food and stodgy puddings. Mortimer often satirises Rumpole’s dreadful diet, albeit with a touch of nostalgia. Here he scornfully describes mouse-trap, for dried-out cheese suitable only for mouse bait, and Château Great Western (a nod towards the former Great Western Railway, which built the line Rumpole was travelling on), a wine of inadequate quality like his Château Fleet Street and Château Thames Embankment. The extract confirms that the soup was at one time a staple of the restaurant menus of British Railways.
In 1592, the London writer Thomas Nashe published Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell, a brash and witty survey of London types, written as though from a penniless scribbler who tries in desperation to seek patronage from Lucifer.
In passing he mentions a drinking game that had newly “come out of France”. When a man had finished a drink, he had to turn his cup upside down and put its lip on his thumb nail. If there was more liquid left in the cup than would form a pearl on the nail, he would have to drink again as a penance. This seems to have gone down a treat in the taverns of Southwark.
Nashe called the game, drinking super nagulum, which pretty soon turned into supernaculum. It’s a bilingual pun of a type that delighted the wits in that circle of pamphleteers and playwrights that included Nashe and Shakespeare. The first bit is the Latin prefix super-, above. The remainder comes from German Nagel, a nail. The word and the game mirror a German one that was usually referred to in the phrase auf den Nagel trinken, to drink on the nail, to finish off liquor to the last drop.
Drinkers became rather casual about the custom and just inverted their cups or mugs to prove that they’d drunk to the last drop. Supernaculum could mean this, or the last remaining drop of a drink, or a cry to indicate that one had done it.
His lordship performed his task with ease; but as he withdrew the horn from his mouth, all present, except Vivian, gave a loud cry of “Supernaculum!” The Baron smiled with great contempt as he tossed, with a careless hand, the great horn upside downwards, and was unable to shed upon his nail even the one excusable pearl.
Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli, 1826.
The meaning that has survived longest, though it’s now rare, extended the idea to refer to a beverage of the highest quality that cried out to be consumed to the very last drop. Hence, anything really excellent.
The same idea was expressed from the late eighteenth century by heel-tap, originally a shoemaker’s term for a part of the heel of a shoe. The liquor that remained in the bottom of a glass somehow took on the same name. So when a toast was offered with the instruction “and no heel-taps” to those present it meant that glasses should be drained to the very dregs.
Then huzza! to the health of Victoria, our Queen,
The pride and hope of the nation;
Fill to the brim — let no “heel-taps” be seen
On the day of our Queen’s coronation.
Liverpool Mercury, 22 June 1838. Victoria’s coronation was the following week, on 28 June 1838.
Antifashion The trending fashion word of spring 2014 is normcore, which one writer calls “the art of studiously dressing plainly”. It broke in New York Magazine on 26 February, in which it was described as “The kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld.” The word has been around longer than that, with reports suggesting it originated last October with the trend forecasting collective K-Hole, who used it for deliberately dressing like everybody else as a new way of being cool. The word is clearly coined on the model of musical genres like grindcore, thrashcore and loungecore, all derivatives of the original, hardcore.
Haunted house The Financial Times introduced a new term into the British house-buying vocabulary last week: ghost gazumping. The second word is a Briticism for acquiring a property by making a higher offer, usually at the last minute, so outbidding an agreed offer from another purchaser. A ghost gazumper is one that the seller invents to persuade the buyer to increase their offer.
Poo bared On 22 February I listed the books in contention for the Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. The winner of the public vote is How to Poo on a Date: The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette, by Mats & Enzo. It was fourth time lucky for the authors, whose similarly themed books How to Poo on Holiday, How to Poo at Work and How to Bonk at Work were nominated for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 awards respectively.
Q From Philip Madell: Is it true the term sugar daddy came from Alma de Bretteville, mistress and then wife of sugar magnate, Adolph Spreckels, who said “I’d rather be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave”?
A An intriguing story is associated with the early history of sugar daddy but this probably isn’t it.
Adolph Bernard Spreckels, scion of the California sugar family, was 23 years older than Alma de Bretteville. They were married in 1908 and continued to be until his death in June 1924. No contemporary reference links sugar daddy with either of them. The only one in print I can find is in a detailed story about the couple by Joseph Potocki in the Bay Time Informer dated 17 November 2009. Alma de Bretteville’s comment is a proverb known from the sixteenth century. Proving a negative is difficult and it’s possible she invented the first and used the second. But I’m doubtful. It feels more like a factoid of the internet era.
The first known use of sugar daddy is in an episode of a surreal tale with the title Fat Anna’s Future that appeared in the Syracuse Herald on 27 March 1923. Coincidentally, its notorious introduction to the wider American public would come in the following day’s newspapers. The story had actually begun two weeks before, when the body of Dorothy Keenan King was found in her New York apartment. “Dot” King was a former model and unsuccessful actress who had become what people then called a vamp, a woman who used her undoubted attractiveness to target men. She had been set up in the apartment and given lavish presents by a 50-year-old tycoon named John Kearsley Mitchell III. He used the pseudonym of Mr Marshall but was publicly unmasked in press reports on 28 March below a formal posed photograph:
John Kearsley Mitchell, son-in-law of K. T. Stotesbury, multi-millionaire, of Philadelphia, has been revealed as the mysterious “Mr Marshall,” who was the “heavy sugar daddy” of Dorothy Keenan King, New York model, who was chloroformed to death in her New York City apartment.
Kingston Daily Freeman (New York), 28 Mar. 1923.
Her murderer has never been found. Claims were made at the time that she had been killed because she refused to go along with a criminal group who wanted her to help blackmail Mitchell. Dot King’s story became a cause celebre and was widely publicised, often mentioning her pet name for Mitchell, heavy sugar daddy. It gained instant public recognition and it has been in the language since, though heavy was soon lost.
The term seems to have been a New York creation of the louche and criminal worlds linked to Broadway in Prohibition days. Sugar was a long-established slang term for money and heavy sugar was a lot of it. Sugar was also an endearment, which originated around this time in African-American slang and which reached a wider white audience via blues lyrics. Daddy was an obvious reference to an older man, but it may similarly have had a link to African-American slang of the time, in which a daddy was a lover with no implications of age. Heavy sugar daddy was literally an older man with lots of cash but in the theatrical world it specifically meant a rich man who pursued actresses for immoral purposes.
Herbert Corey wrote about the term in a widely syndicated newspaper article about Broadway slang the following year:
A daddy is a good thing, and when the daddy is a very good thing indeed, he becomes a sugar-coated daddy, as vide recent stories in which unfortunate vamps of Broadway appeared as the victims of murder. When a vamp gets a sugar-coated daddy she puts him on the merry-go-round until his money has spilled. Some say he goes through the separator. But Broadway slang is of the day only.
The Sioux City Sunday Journal, 2 Nov. 1924.
It certainly was. A newspaper report only a year later said sugar daddy had been replaced on Broadway by big butter and egg man, a prosperous farmer or rich small-town citizen who came to New York and tried embarrassingly hard to be a playboy. It was created in 1924 by Mary Louise “Texas” Guinan, who ran a New York speakeasy called the 300 Club. The story goes that a shy, middle-aged man was so flattered by her friendliness that he paid the steep cover charge for every guest and pressed $50 notes on all the entertainers. When he said he was in the dairy business, she introduced him as “the big butter-and-egg man”, borrowing a term for a dairy farmer that had been around for decades. It became the title of a Broadway play in 1925 and Louis Armstrong recorded a song with that title in 1926.
But sugar daddy has outlasted it.
• An item on Yahoo! News on 11 March surprised Neil Hesketh: “Captured whilst on safari in Masai Mara in Kenya, the exhausted antelope later managed to escape to safety.”
• Duncan Morrow sent a headline from the NPR website, which has been widely reproduced elsewhere: “Draught Closes Oregon Resort Before The Season Ever Opened.” Over-sensitive tourists?
• A headline over a story from Reuters: “China urges restraint in Ukraine, ducks comment on Crimea vote.” Philip Peluso sent that in and added, “Wisely, the chickens, turkeys and geese refused to be quoted.”
• Speculation around the missing Malaysian aircraft became bizarre, Phil Fisher read in the Huffington Post of 18 March: “US aviation experts have said it is wildly unlikely a passenger could have reprogrammed the computer, despite speculation that the plane could have been ‘hacked’ by a British former Home Office official.”
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