NEWSLETTER 507: SATURDAY 30 SEPTEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Plumber’s crack Subscribers clearly have a low sense of humour, in two senses, as my passing reference to this new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary online generated more comment than anything else last week. Other expressions for this artisanal anatomical feature were plumber’s cleavage (and brickie’s cleavage), refrigerator repairman’s bottom, and electrician’s butt. An Australian tells me it’s known there as the coin slot, as with vending machines—I wonder what you get if you try it? Another Australian knows it as builder’s smile. Paul Warren, at the University of Hull, told me of backal cleavage, backal being an invented colloquial term, the opposite of frontal. Roxane van Beek explained that a Dutch equivalent is bouwvakkersdecolleté, which translates into English as builder’s cleavage.
When buck was a calf Following up my mention of this term meaning a long time ago, Ken Macpherson pointed out that Buck and Bright were once common names for a team of oxen. The examples I’ve found suggest that the duo were also sometimes horses and that at one time Buck and Bright came near to being a generic term for an ox team. This reminiscence appeared in the Stevens Point Daily Journal of Wisconsin in March 1930: “When our forefathers settled on the rich loamy lands, tributary to the river, the ox played an important part in the scheme of things. Buck and Bright were the names given these faithful animals and when the emigrants came trekking in with the covered wagons to settle on the land, it was Buck and Bright who toted them in and did the heavy work around the homestead after they finally got settled.”
Bada bing I forgot to give the origin of this term, but subscribers were quick to repair the omission. Several noted a probable origin in the drum-and-cymbal triple stroke that accompanied the punchline of a comedian’s joke in burlesque. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, rather tentatively, though it also notes the Italian bada bene, mark well.
The elephant in the room A number of subscribers mentioned the 600-pound gorilla, or 800-pound gorilla, or 900-pound gorilla (as with so many of us, he seems to have gained weight as the years have passed). They suggest that this is a related expression for something very big that is being studiously ignored.
My books say instead that it’s a thing so big that it’s an overwhelming presence, irresistible force or insuperable difficulty, as with a bookseller who described Amazon as “the 900-pound gorilla of the trade”, or a Wal-Mart opponent who claimed the firm “are the 900-pound gorilla, and they will do anything they can legally”, or the restaurateur who called Caesar salad “the 900-pound gorilla of the category, cited almost 300 times on menus in the top 200 chains”. This fits the old joke, “Where does a 900-pound gorilla sleep?” (“Anywhere he likes.”)
But the gorilla is clearly muscling in on the elephant’s linguistic territory, as illustrated in US Newswire in July this year: “The political discussion of health care reform will continue to ignore the 900 pound gorilla in the room until the influence of insurer and drug company campaign contributions are stripped out” and the Lexington Herald-Leader of March: “The 900-pound gorilla in the room during the closing days of an even-year session is always the executive budget”.
It is also being challenged, but only so far in jokes, by the 500-pound (or 600-, or 800-, or 2000-pound) canary as well as the less common 300-pound budgie or budgerigar.
2. Weird Words: Nugiperous
Given to inventing trifles.
Nathaniel Ward was born in England in 1578. He became a minister but as a result of his unpopular Puritan beliefs left the country for the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1634. During his 18 years in America he wrote two books, of which the second, usually known as The Simple Cobbler, was published in 1647.
Ward liked to coin words, of which many have achieved a sort of immortality within the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, though most of them have him noted as the sole user. Among them are exadverse, directly opposed; fool-fangle, a silly trifle; nudiustertian, the day before yesterday, perquisquilian, thoroughly worthless, and transclout, to disfigure with clouts or misshapen clothing.
He was particularly offended by women’s fashions, which led to this splendid outburst:
Whatever Christianity or civility will allow, I can afford ... but when I hear a nugiperous gentledame inquire what dress the Queen is in this week ... I look at her as the very gizzard of a trifle, the product of a quarter of a cipher, the epitome of nothing, fitter to be kickt, if she were of a kickable substance than either honoured or humoured.”
As the word has never been used since except in reference to this passage, we’re not even sure what Ward meant by it, let alone how he pronounced it. But it is certain that he took it from Latin nugae, nonsense or trifles.
3. Recently noted
Eris? Who she? The dwarf planet officially known as 2003UB313, the one that orbits beyond Pluto and whose discovery led to the latter being dethroned as a major member of the stellar in-crowd, has now been given its permanent name. Everyone has been calling it Xena, the nickname its discoverer Mike Brown gave it, which he took from the name of a character in a television show. But both he and the International Astronomical Union thought this wasn’t classy enough for a permanent name and the latter has now formally accepted his suggestion of Eris. She’s a figure from Greek classical mythology, the goddess of strife. Considering the furore over the heavenly status of Pluto, it’s appropriate. Its moon is now officially Dysnomia after Eris’s daughter, whose name means “lawlessness”. Every commentator has noted that in the TV series Xena was played by Lucy Lawless.
POM A subtle ruling concerning this word was widely reported on Wednesday. As part of a crackdown on racist language in advance of the visit by the English cricket team to defend the Ashes in November, Cricket Australia consulted the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. That body ruled that the epithet can be used to refer to English visitors, provided that it isn’t uttered in conjunction with other coarse language that would render it hurtful, racist, offensive or humiliating. So the locals can call the visitors poms, but not you pommie bastards. But the reporter covering the story for BBC radio unfortunately didn’t think to get a ruling from an etymologist and repeated the tale that the term derives from “Prisoner Of his Majesty”. (The Telegraph and Guardian both got it right, congratulations.)
4. Reviews: Gallimaufry
Reviewed by Jonathon Green, the editor of The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and many other language-related works.
Do words have “lives”? It is imaginable: there’s birth (coinage), marriage (combinations, phrases, ‘portmanteau-words’), family (the spreading tree of etymological development), old age (the dread notation Obs[olete]) and death (excision from common speech and from all but the largest dictionaries). And some of these lives are workaday, dug in for the long haul, others are flashily ephemeral, fashionable and momentary; some are barely visible: one of the longest, some 1,913 letters naming a protein and its attendant amino acids is unknown outside the laboratory.
In his new book Michael Quinion, having dealt, one might suggest, with the linguistic cradle in Port Out, Starboard Home (2004), his study of the origins of many popular phrases, has now turned to its grave: those words that have left the language, or which, if not wholly absent, exist only as historicisms and curiosities, useful no doubt for the authors of cod-Victoriana and similar pastiches, but definitely long since removed from the menu of contemporary speech.
As he points out in his informative introduction, the reasons for words leaving the language are widespread, and the lists of the lost are potentially huge; to tackle the entire lexis would be exhausting for both researcher and reader: “you wouldn’t be able to lift the resulting volume”. Thus he has chosen to concentrate on five areas: food and drink, health and medicine, entertainment and leisure, transport and fashion, and names, communications and employment. Each of these is in turn subdivided: transport and fashion for instance offers information on carriages, “ruffs and cuffs and farthingales”, the names of cloth, and of wigs and hats.
As should be obvious, what links all these sections is that the material under consideration is not merely dead words, but also outmoded terminology. Eidothaumata, a form of “magic lantern” show, a maidenmaker, the human operator of a primitive washing machine, and the natty scratch, a form of short wig, are all underpinned by a common response; we don’t do things like that any more. The areas of life to which they pertain—visual entertainment, laundry and hairdressing—continue to flourish, but the equipment is quite different. Even the card and other games that Gallimaufry lists are certainly no longer played—or if they are, then the names, again, are quite new.
Why does one word last and another disappear? When the technology dies, so too do its descriptors. Such is the underpinning of Gallimaufry’s memorials, whose disappearance, however regrettable, represents a form of backhanded tribute to progress. “Not needed on voyage”, as trunks marked for the hold rather than the cabin were labelled on similarly defunct transatlantic liners.
This is a fascinating book, full of the kind of authoritative information his readers have come to expect, and my only regret is that, as acknowledged, Mr Quinion has resisted slang. Gallimaufry (which aside from meaning a medley or a dish made from leftovers also meant, in slang, both a mistress and what her seventeenth-century admirers might have termed her “aphrodisiacal tennis court”) is a worthy successor to POSH and underlines Michael Quinion’s pre-eminence as an expositor of etymology. It is, as they used to say around 1820, the “bang-up prime twig” and a positive “tippy”.
[Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary; published by Oxford University Press on 28 September 2006 in the UK and in the rest of the world shortly; hardcover; ISBN 0198610629, pp272; Publisher’s price in the UK £12.99 and in the US $25.00. More details.]
• Margaret Orleans noted that an anonymous APF wire reporter told the recent story of uncovering the early hominid skeleton in Ethiopia, the one nicknamed Selam, after “pain-staking work spanning three years to scrape away the rock.” This reanalysis has made it to at least one news outlet.
• “Starvation Heights, by Gregg Olsen,” writes Elizabeth Rothman, “is the telling of a historical tale of murder and avarice in the Puget Sound area of Washington, United States, those murders having taken place in the early years of the twentieth century. The book is a rich source of bad sentences, but the one that stood out was this, describing an aspect of the layout of two adjoining apartments: ‘The closet wall, where Mary’s head would rest when she lay down, separated the head of Dora’s bed in her apartment’.” OK, I concede. Dan Brown isn’t that bad a writer.
• BBC News online on 26 September included this sentence: “Tony Ddumba, 16, said he was talking to the local man who died just moments before he was crushed by the crane.” Dr John Wilson’s medical expertise leads him to believe the local man in fact died moments after being crushed, not before. A judicious comma might have retrieved the sentence.