Barber’s cat Several readers commented that barber’s cat might be a humorous antithesis to and a play on the phrase as fit as the butcher’s dog. I hadn’t previously made the acquaintance of this animal. The Oxford English Dictionary says it was a breed of dog but neglects to include the expression, probably because it only came into being after the entry was written in 1888 — more recent works suggest that it’s a twentieth-century expression, originally from Lancashire. It can’t be the source of the much older barber’s cat but is probably a blend of it with the ancient fit as a fiddle. The idea is that a butcher’s dog must be healthy because it’s well fed on meat, though that might equally imply that it was fat and lazy (Australians have had the variant full as a butcher’s dog, to have enjoyed a substantial meal). In Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1788, however, butcher’s dog is defined as one that can “lie by the beef without touching it, a simile often applicable to married men”.
Possessives with verbal nouns Graham Cobb was one of a large number of readers who thoughtfully suggested there was more to the decision whether to employ a possessive form: “I feel the choice changes the meaning slightly and that both are equally valid depending on the meaning you wish to convey. This is easiest to illustrate with ‘I have unhappy memories of him screaming at me’. In this form, it means that my memory is of him, and what he is doing is screaming. ‘I have unhappy memories of his screaming at me’ means my memory is of screaming, his screaming. Both forms are equally correct but subtly different in emphasis.” Hilary Powers noted that some writers agree: “In The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn supports Strunk & White in arguing that the noun or pronoun should reflect the meaning: ‘Do you mind me asking a question?’ refers to the behaviour of a specific person (differentiated from that of others in the group), while ‘Do you mind my asking a question?’ refers to the acceptability of questions in general.”
A recent article about Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, reminded me of this pejorative term:
Haddon is sometimes described as a crosspatch. “Our defining connection was that we were both grumpy men in our 40s with children. We’d sit down over lunch, grumbling about how indie music wasn’t as good as when we were teens,”
The Guardian, 4 May 2013.
A grumpy grumbler — that’s a crosspatch to a T.
It’s from the seventeenth century, now remembered much more in the UK than in other English-speaking countries, though even here it has lost its one-time colloquial force to become rather literary. We don’t need to spend time on its first element, an obvious synonym for bad-tempered, but the second may mislead us. This patch isn’t a piece of cloth for mending or some small area of ground. It’s a fool, simpleton or clown.
The story is that the original Patch was a real clown or fool named Sexten, who was employed by Cardinal Wolsey. When Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry VIII, he gave him Sexten along with Hampton Court in an attempt to restore himself to the king’s good books (it didn’t work). We know very little about Sexten, not even his first name, but a letter from Thomas Bedyll to Thomas Cromwell in 1535 mentioned that Sexten, then working for the king, was “an old fool” and it was time to search out a replacement. People have tried to fit the cloth sense of patch to Sexten’s nickname by saying that he wore patched clothes, a form of motley. It’s much more likely that his name came from the Italian pazzo, a fool or madman. A little later, patch become a generic term for a clownish individual, used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “A crew of patches, rude Mechanicals”.
Crosspatch, as an elaboration of patch, turns up first in a work of 1699, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, that is, the slang or jargon of beggars, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells. It’s another of our odd gender-bending terms — unlike patch it was then and for a century after applied mainly to women. It was Sir Walter Scott who began to use it of men.
This suddenly fashionable term, a shortening of climate fiction, is obviously based on sci-fi, an abbreviation for science fiction used mainly by those who are unfamiliar with it (fans and writers hate it and insist on SF, so perhaps we should be writing about CF instead).
Climate fiction is fundamentally dystopian. Its focus is the effect of climate change on human life, perhaps including its continuing existence. Most commentators have listed J G Ballard’s The Drowned World of 1962 as an early example, a prophetic tale in which melting ice-caps and rising sea levels led to the destruction of civilisation, though the cause was solar flares, not human-derived changes to the climate. In the past decade it has become a frequent theme in SF. Examples are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy that began with Forty Signs of Rain in 2004, and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi in 2009.
The term cli-fi appeared in 2012. Dan Bloom wrote an article on TeleRead on 9 March that year, using the term, though he has since stated that he actually invented it in 2007. Another early user was Margaret Atwood, which helped to bring it, and the genre, to much wider public attention (to the extent that an article in the Irish Times in December 2012 said she had invented it).
One interesting consequence of heightened awareness of the possible consequences of human influence on the planet is that the genre has begun to move from SF towards the literary mainstream — for example, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood in 2009; Ian McEwan’s Solar of 2010; and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which was on the shortlist for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. An article in the Christian Science Monitor on 26 April was headlined, “Don’t call it ‘science fiction’. Cli-fi is literary fiction.”
Most of the mainstream works are set in the present day or the near future rather than looking speculatively at longer-term implications as SF novels tend to do.
Q From Randy Forror: What I’d like to know is how or where handicap was formed? What is a handicap? Does it have anything to do with having your cap in your hand? In other words, why handicap?
A Some people with disabilities dislike handicapped because they believe it refers to a person having to beg for alms or go cap in hand for assistance.
In fact, it has nothing to do with having your cap in your hand but a great deal with having your hand in a cap. The first forms of the word were hand i’ cap, or hand in the cap. The original handicap was a gambling game or lottery indulged in by sporting gentlemen, especially those associated with horse racing.
It involved three people. Let’s call them Alan, Brian and Charlie and suppose that Alan has a nice gold watch and Brian an excellent thoroughbred horse. Alan decides he would like to have Brian’s horse and challenges him to exchange it for his watch. Brian accepts the challenge and the pair of them agree on Charlie as their umpire.
Charlie produces a hat or cap, into which all three of them put an agreed stake. Alan and Brian put their hands into the cap, out of sight. Charlie extols the relative virtues of both watch and horse and names a difference in value between them, to be paid by the owner of the less valuable item to make it a fair exchange. Alan and Brian then open their hands. If both contain something, usually small change, they indicate Charlie’s price is acceptable and the deal is agreed; if either or both show empty hands, the deal is off.
If the deal is accepted, Charlie gets the stakes. If neither is satisfied — Alan’s and Brian’s hands are both empty — Charlie also gets the stakes. If one accepts but the other doesn’t, the one who has accepted gets the stakes. This sounds complicated and dry but in practice it was anything but. It was common for side bets to be made by those present on whether Alan and Brian would accept or reject Charlie’s valuation.
The term starts to appear in print in the middle seventeenth century (Samuel Pepys is an early user, who wrote in September 1660, “Some of us fell to Handycapp, a sport that I never knew before, which was very good”), though the idea was first recorded in the medieval poem Piers Plowman around the middle of the fourteenth century. Most of the challenges, of course, were for items of much smaller value and indeed the fun was in the contest, not in acquiring something one of the contestants lusted after. The cap or hat was later dispensed with and the contestants just put their hands in their pockets until it was time to show them.
A similar idea was applied to horse racing around the time of Pepys. In a two-horse race, an umpire proposed a weight which the better horse and rider should carry to make the contest equitable; the same rules were followed to decide if the race should be run on those terms. Later, in the eighteenth century, handicapping was extended to races with more than two horses; this was more difficult to work out and the decision about the weights to be carried was made by an umpire without a game taking place.
Some evidence exists that it had early on been used in golf, though the term wasn’t used until the eighteenth century. By the 1840s, handicapping had been extended to shooting, billiards, foot races and other contests. Shortly afterwards the term begin to be used figuratively for a person who had been placed at a disadvantage for some reason. It was in the early twentieth century that it was applied to a person with a physical or mental disability, a usage that is now deprecated.
The game continued until at least the end of the nineteenth century. A famous description exists of the latter stages of one. Jack is the umpire and Mr Pacey and Mr Sponge are the contestants. Jack has set a handicapping value and both contestants have taken their hands out of their pockets to indicate that they have made a decision but haven’t yet opened them to show what that is (“sport” here means to display or show):
“Hold hard, then, gen’lemen!” roared Jack, getting excited, and beginning to foam. “Hold hard, gen’lemen!” repeated he, just as he was in the habit of roaring at the troublesome customers in Lord Scamperdale’s field; “Mr. Pacey and Mr. Sponge both sport their hands.”
Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, by R S Surtees, 1852.
• Chris Sunderland found this on the BBC site on 31 May: “Mr Sullivan filmed The Magical Timperley Tour, a documentary where Sidebottom toured the area of Greater Manchester where he lived with 100 fans on an open top bus.”
• “Someone really needs to edit the Daily Mail,” commented Fr Eric Funston. This is in an online report of a sad death in Thailand: “Police Col Ekarat Intasueb, chief of Mae Sot police station, said there was a rope tied around his genitals and waist and another tied around his neck, which was hanging from the knob of his bedroom door.”
• Reinforcing Fr Funston’s point, an e-mail came from Barry Prince in New Zealand to point out a caption on the Mail’s online sports page on 2 June: “Retired footballer Michael Owen has revealed he wants to become a jockey. ... [N]ow Owen wants to take his passion a step further by riding in a horse in a fundraising race.” Presumably a Trojan horse.
• “Am I right to be confused?” Alan Weyman asked rhetorically, having heard the presenter of BBC Television’s Countryfile say on 2 June: “We’re heading deeper into Yorkshire now, where there’s been something of a sea-change at grass-roots level.”
• An item from the Associated Press appeared in newspapers on 2 June and was sent in by Steve Colby and Enith Vardaman: “Seven-time All-Star Grant Hill retired from the NBA on Saturday after 19 seasons, ending a career interrupted by injuries that included an Olympic gold medal.”
• On 4 June the Israel Today website had an article about apartheid, which Rod Theobald says included this sentence: “They were subjected to segregation everywhere from pubic restrooms to schools to hospitals.”
• A BBC news website report dated 3 June about crocodile infestation in Australia was spotted by Joan Butler: “When the rivers rise, the crocs are able to go wherever they like. Quite often they’ll walk up into people’s backyards looking for their dogs.”
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.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods; Binge-watching; Codswallop; That’s all she wrote; Great Scott.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!