NEWSLETTER 552: SATURDAY 8 SEPTEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Heterography Following the Weird Words item on this term last week, Jim Muller e-mailed from South Africa: “You may be familiar with this piece of heterography that I inherited from my father: ‘Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through!’ A slightly liberal interpretation of the spelling of hiccup, perhaps, but it does make the point more spectacularly.” To follow up the spelling point — hiccough was standard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still frequently found in some regional varieties of English. J K Rowling spells it like that, for example in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: “At this, Professor Trelawney gave a wild little laugh in which a hiccough was barely hidden.” The word has been spelled down the centuries in many ways: hick-hop, hicket, hickock, and hickup. The hiccough spelling, which assumed the word was based on cough, is well-meaning but wrong. It’s actually from the sound of the thing it described.
2. Weird Words: Turgescent
Becoming or seeming swollen or distended.
On 1 July 2003, the The Observer reported various comments that had been made by visitors to its Web site: “Meanwhile ‘stochata’ suspects that George Orwell is ‘the reason we have the word “turgescent” in the English language.’ No-one at The Observer was aware that we did have the word ‘turgescent’ in the English language, so we’re grateful for that, at least.”
Turgescent is from Latin turgescent, beginning to swell, from turgere, to swell. This last word is also the origin of turgid, swollen or distended, and of turgor, the normal swollen condition of cells or tissues. Another Latin verb meaning to swell, tumere, has bequeathed us tumescent , with a similar meaning, though one that often appears in sexual contexts.
3. Recently noted
4. Questions & Answers: Like the clappers
[Q] From David Sutton: “On an Open Country program on Radio 4 I heard an interesting explanation of the phrase to go like the clappers, to move very fast. Clappers in this context were stock rabbits, kept for breeding and so likely to be exceptionally fast. It is not my normal practice to doubt anything that I hear on the BBC, but I had always assumed that the clappers in question were those used to ring bells, so could you silence my unworthy suspicion by confirming the rabbit etymology?”
[A] I’d like to, but serried ranks of lexicographers behind me are silently shaking their collective heads in dismissal of the idea.
Though rabbits can move really fast when they want to (hence the North American expressions of the same idea, quick like a bunny or quick like a rabbit), why rabbits kept for breeding should be exceptionally fast is hard to understand. But a connection between rabbits and clapper does exist, which may well have led to people becoming confused. From the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the word was used for a rabbit-burrow or a place where tame rabbits were kept. It’s from the same Old French source as the modern French clapier, a rabbit hutch. An early example is in Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues of 1611. He says of clapier that it’s French for a “clapper of conies” (coney being the usual word at the time for an adult rabbit), “a heap of stones &c., whereinto they retire themselves; or (as our clapper), a court walled about, and full of nests or boards, or stones, for tame conies.”
A story often mentioned online refers to an ancient Shrove Tuesday custom in parts of England and Wales. Mostly people repeat the tale told in Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd by Elias Owen, published in 1886: “Most people turned out to beg, or Hel Ynyd, on Shrove Tuesday. They received from the farmers fine flour, milk, lard etc. Eggs were clapped for; boys went about with two stones as clappers, and when opposite a farm house they clapped away with all their might and received for their pains a gift of eggs.”
The usual explanation in dictionaries is that the clapper is one of the devices given that name, in particular the clapper of a bell. A group of bellringers in a church tower ringing changes on the bells do make the clappers collectively move fast, and would explain the use of the plural in the expression. It might instead refer to the clapper of a handbell, which moves faster than that of the clapper of a church bell, especially if vigorously rung. However, the early examples of the phrase come without any context to make it crystal clear what kind of clappers are meant.
Though not by any means impossible, it seems unlikely that services personnel would create a slang term from church bell ringing. Might a different bell be meant, perhaps an electric one, whose clapper goes a lot faster than one on a church bell or handbell? Were the aircrew scrambled for action on hearing such bells, or did they have another urgent meaning? Perhaps somebody who knows about the period can tell us more.
There is a further possibility. Another form, recorded by Eric Partridge, was like the clappers of fuck. This is intriguing, as clappers as a slang term for the testicles was known in the British military in the 1930s, so called because of their castanet tendency if unrestrained. Might going like the clappers be a crude reference to sexual activity? It’s not mentioned in the reference books, and the lack of evidence means that it is impossible to say either way. But it’s an intriguing alternative to the usual stories.
5. Reviews: Foyle's Philavery
Do not look for this word in your favourite dictionary. The author, Christoper Foyle, scion of the family that founded the bookshop of that name in Charing Cross Road, London, says that philavery was invented by his mother-in-law during a game of Scrabble. He says it means “an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words”, a word loosely constructed from Greek phileein, to love, and Latin verbum, a word.
I suspect everyone will find words here that strike them as neither uncommon nor pleasing, but that’s idiosyncratic for you. What you will find is a browsable set of mostly interesting oddities, many accompanied by quirky comments. My favourite, which will be understood by anybody who has attempted to navigate the eponymous bookshop, is his note under oubliette:
Derived from French oublier “to forget”, this misleadingly pretty and inoffensive-sounding word reveals an unpleasant concept, and the startling ideology behind its use. During the recent major refurbishment of Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, one of the biggest bookshops in the country, which has occupied the same building for nearly one hundred years, we explored passages and rooms in the labyrinthine interior which had lain unexplored for decades. Although we did not find any “oubliettes” containing the forgotten remains of bygone book thieves, we did find a lift whose existence was a complete revelation to every member of staff.
[Christopher Foyle, Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words; hardback, pp233; Chambers, July 2007; ISBN-13: 9780550103291, ISBN-10: 0550103295; publisher’s price £9.99.]
• Last Saturday, the Guardian published a correction: “In The Looming Food Crisis, G2, page 4, August 29, we wrote about a man who beat bats to death with a dingy paddle; we meant dinghy paddle.”
• In the Free Times of Columbia, South Carolina, dated 25 – 31 July, an advertisement for legal services for divorce seekers appeared that said “Call TOLL FREE, to listen to a 24-hour recorded message.” Bruce Robb felt he really didn’t have that kind of time available.
• Rebecca Eschliman forwarded a news report from UPI dated 25 August: “Yemen’s severe weather conditions result in casualties every year, despite forecasters’ advice to avoid mountainous regions during the rainy season. Fatalities and injuries caused by lightning strikes are also common due to the state’s typography.” It’s all those damned exclamation marks that litter the landscape.