NEWSLETTER 530: SATURDAY 10 MARCH 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bridewell Following last week’s piece on this word, several subscribers told me it is still in use in Ireland, though in the transferred sense of a police station rather than a prison, and that it survived well into the twentieth century in the US (one correspondent mentioned that Chicago’s main jail was long known as the Bridewell).
Hap Many American subscribers noted happenstance as another compound of this word. It’s an odd term, created in the US in the middle of the nineteenth century as a blend of happen and circumstance, to mean “coincidence”. I left it out because I had already mentioned happen. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1897, but in 1857 The Wisconsin Chief of Fort Atkinson in Wisconsin, had this florid introduction to a story: “Among the adventures which are of daily occurrence at places where fashionable ladies and gentlemen congregate, with the expectation of being and doing the exquisite in the matter of politeness, the following account of a recent ‘happenstance’ at Trenton Falls, communicated by the correspondent of the New York News, will do to put on record.”
Myriad of Following my robust defence last week of my use of a myriad of, Roger Downham reports, “Now you’ve got Blair at it!” He was referring to an interview with the prime minister that appeared in the Observer last Sunday: “Blair declined to offer more endorsements of [Gordon] Brown, but referred back to a ‘myriad of complimentary things I have said in the past’ about him.” I’ve put an extended version of my comments online.
Pinch of salt I managed to move the ancient kingdom of Pontus from the shores of the Black Sea to those of the Dead Sea. At the time I was probably thinking of an earlier piece, on salt of the earth, which does have Dead Sea connections. Apologies.
Cromarty fisher dialect Jonathan McColl e-mailed from Dingwall to correct me on the name of the site that is recording this vanishing dialect. It’s actually Am Baile. He says: “It’s Gaelic for ‘the village’ and is pronounced like ‘a-moll-yeh’ (honest).” The site is run by the Highland Council. It is bilingual in English and Gaelic.
2. Weird Words: Hugger-mugger
Confused or disorderly; secret or clandestine.
This word was in the news recently, used to refer to a woman thief in New York who waits for men coming out of downtown bars, cuddles them and pinches their wallets. A similar usage is on record from Singapore in 2002, showing that journalistic catchword creation may know no geographic bounds but is limited in scope.
Though the origin of this curious expression is far from certain, one thing the experts are sure of is that the second half has no link with the term for someone who robs people in a public place.
More typical examples were in the Sunday Times in February 2006: “The only problem with a tropical paradise miles from the hugger-mugger, hurly-burly of the great grind is that it is cut off from news of the hugger-mugger, hurly-burly of the great grind.” and in the Daily Record in October that year: “They were the home front in the war against terror and anyone who objected must be an enemy of the state and hugger mugger with Osama Bin Laden.”
Hugger-mugger is a classic example of a reduplicated word, one in which its two halves are very closely similar in form. Some smaller dictionaries simply say “origin unknown”, but it’s known there were earlier forms that may have influenced each other to create it, including hucker-mucker, hoker-moker, hudder-mudder and Scots hudge-mudge. The two parts may be related to huddle and to a dialect term mucker, to hoard money or conceal things.
The original idea was of secrecy or concealment. The meaning of disorder or confusion came along later — as late as the nineteenth century as an adjective — but has largely overtaken the older one.
3. Topical Words: Quadricycle
When is a car not a car?
A strange report appeared in the Observer last Sunday. It said that the British Department of Transport has produced a list of the most environmentally friendly vehicles to drive, but has left out electrically powered ones, like the British G-Wiz, on the grounds these are quadricycles, not cars. The managing director of the firm that makes the G-Wiz reasonably and pragmatically pointed out that “if it looks like a car and it’s used like a car, then it’s a car”.
Quadricycle is hardly a word in most people’s day-to-day vocabulary. From its form, it would seem to be a bicycle with four wheels, one up on a tricycle. This was its first meaning, listed in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1883 in reference to one called the Coventry, which had two big wheels side by side and smaller steering ones front and back, like a head-to-head collision between two penny farthings. A report of 1887 said that a train of human-powered machines by that name was being tried out in London and Aldershot as a way to transport infantry and their kit. The same year a Washington man was said to have invented a quadricycle as a kind of bicycle rickshaw. A family conveyance of that name was created in 1897, in which the motive power came from the passengers bobbing up and down in spring-loaded see-saw seats.
All the early references are to human-powered machines, but a link to motor vehicles came in 1896, when Henry Ford named his first experimental motor car the Quadricycle, so called because it ran on four bicycle wheels.
Apart from Ford’s vehicle, quadricycle has continued to mean a means of transport that uses human muscle as motive power. A few firms, mostly in North America, make such four-wheeled conveyances for various purposes, such as two-seater touring bikes that can also carry a fair amount of luggage. The more usual name for them these days, though, is quadracycle.
So where did the Department of Transport get quadricycle from? Enter the European Commission. Under EU Directive 2002/24/EC, a quadricycle is one of several kinds of small four-wheeled vehicles of which the biggest has an unladen mass of 400 kg and a maximum power of 15 kW. But there’s nothing in the directive to say that a quadricycle has to be powered by electricity. All small electric vehicles are quadricycles, but not all quadricycles are electric.
However you view it, the official compilers of that list have got their jargon in a muddle.
4. Recently noted
You want to call it what? Each year, the Frankfurt Book Fair is enlivened by the Bookseller/Diagram competition to find the oddest title of the year. The previous winners have included Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers; Highlights in the History of Concrete; How to Shit in the Woods, an Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art; Living with Crazy Buttocks; Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice; The Joy of Sex: Pocket Edition; and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. In this year’s contest, the shortlisted titles include How Green Were the Nazis?; Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium; The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: a Guide To Field Identification; and Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan.
5. Questions & Answers: Smart as paint
[Q] From Lewis Rosenbaum: “The phrase smart as paint is said by Long John Silver to Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. Any ideas as to the source of the expression?”
[A] It appears a couple of times in R L Stevenson’s book, the first time as: “Now, Hawkins, you do me justice with the cap’n. You’re a lad, you are, but you’re as smart as paint. I see that when you first come in.”
It really is rather an odd expression, isn’t it? It was only one of many versions that have been invented from the 1850s onwards, among them fresh as paint, snug as paint, clever as paint, pretty as paint, and handsome as paint.
They’re all similes that draw on some special quality of paint, but smart as paint punningly combines two senses of smart — the idea of new paint being bright and fresh in appearance and that of a person who is quick-witted and intelligent.
It seems to have been Stevenson’s own invention. At least, I can’t find an earlier example. It started to be used by others in the second decade of the twentieth century, presumably based on its appearance in Treasure Island.
But it wasn’t always a pun; sometimes only the first part of the sense was meant. For example, this appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Visit to Three Fronts, dated 1916: “His charming blue uniform, his facings, his brown gaiters, boots and belts are always just as smart as paint.”
• Beverley Rowe received a leaflet that advertised “A free help-guide for all 50+ computer lovers ... and those who wish to become one”. He commented that, at his age, if they told him how to become a 50- computer lover, he would sign up like a shot.
• The New York Times of 1 March had an article about residents of Cairo: “‘We hope God keeps the municipality away from us,’ Mr. Sayed said as he sat in a wooden chair, surveying his fetid flock of goats and sheep with headlights streaming by.” Miriam Raphael writes, “A friend says he is confused. Do both goats and sheep have headlights, or only the sheep?”
• Jim Brewster and Andrew Spano found this on Fox News online in a piece dated 3 March: “Police say a man sought revenge against his ex-girlfriend by leaving homemade DVDs of her performing sex acts on car windshields throughout the area.” At this time of year, it’s a great way to catch a chill.
• Badger Beat is a joint newsletter of the University of Wisconsin and the Madison Police Department. Anne Jones sent me the current issue, which contains this wise advice: “When buying tickets for the games you want to go through the ticket office or a respected ticket broker. In most states, ticket scalloping is illegal and not tolerated.” Is that like deckle edging?
• On Thursday, Kevin McLoughlin noted a poster for the latest issue of the Cape Argus of Cape Town: “City’s Exploding Shack Lands”. He bought the paper to find out how long the shack was in flight after the explosion; but the article proved to be about the rapid growth of shantytowns in the area.
• Thursday’s Guardian mused on events in the ITV cop soap, The Bill, which has been running since 1984. “We have fond memories of June, pounding the beat with WPC Viv Martella way back when. While Viv got shot in the line of duty by a privet hedge, June plodded on.” Damned dangerous, these plants.