NEWSLETTER 567: SATURDAY 22 DECEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Cut and dried Subscribers who know about timber seasoning disputed my view, expressed last week, that the term could not be from that source. Colin Hartwright was just one reader who pointed out that “Timber yards are (and were) full of cut timber laid out in the original tree shape separated by battens for drying. Whatever the preliminary stages they were certainly ‘cut and dried’ after this treatment.” I stand corrected. But my other argument still holds, that the historical evidence doesn’t point to timber yards as the origin.
Others mentioned cut and try, a similar-looking expression for a process that is marked by trial and error. This is more recent, according to Merriam-Webster, which dates it from 1903. I’ve been able to improve on that — it appeared in The Cultivator, published by the New York State Agricultural Society, in July 1850: “If the earth is hard, and the stick rather long, it must be cut shorter, on the old principle of ‘cut and try’.” Though there is some evidence that cut and try is muscling in on the territory of the other expression through an obvious mistake, the two must surely have different origins, with cut and try most probably deriving from woodworking.
Unfortunate book titles Henry Willis contributed a recollection: “Thirty years ago, when I was a desk clerk at the library of the US Department of the Interior in Washington DC, I was given the job of organising all the check-out slips for the previous three years in Dewey decimal order. (This, by the way, was punishment for being caught reading the books that were being returned; I was told that doing so was ‘inappropriate’ for someone in my job.) One of the slips was for ‘How To Hold Up A Bank’. That intrigued me enough to get me to descend a few floors into the stacks on my lunch break to find it. Unfortunately the book wasn’t there, but I was able to get an idea what it was about from the other books on that shelf, all of which concerned soil engineering.”
2. Weird Words: Hodening
A mumming or masquerade on Christmas Eve in Kent.
Central to the traditional performance is a wooden horse’s head — the Hoden or Hooden Horse — with moveable jaws that are fitted with hobnails for teeth. This description of it appeared in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction on 22 December 1832:
A string is attached to the lower jaw, a horse-cloth is tied round the extreme part of the head, beneath which one of the party is concealed, who, by repeated pulling and loosening the string, causes the jaw to rise and fall, and thus produces, by bringing the teeth in contact, a snapping noise, as he moves along; the rest of the party following in procession, grotesquely habited, and ringing hand-bells! In this order they proceed from house to house, singing carols and ringing their bells, and are generally remunerated for the amusement they occasion by a largess of money, or beer and cake.
However, an article in the Church Times in January 1891 suggests that the tradition was by then in terminal decline:
Nothing was done or sung by the small crowd around; and the clapping caused by the opening and shutting of the mouth continued, till the creature having been satisfied with money was driven away.
Nobody knows for certain where “hodening” comes from, although it’s known in print from the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary speculates with others that it might be from a dialect confusion with wooden, referring to the head. It is also guessed that it might have come about because the horse forms a hood over the operator or because of some fanciful association with Robin Hood. Because a horse sacrifice was said at one time to take place at the winter solstice among peoples of Scandinavian origin, it has also been suggested that the word is a corruption of the name of the Norse god Odin (or Woden or Wotan).
3. Recently noted
Brainworm Oliver Sacks recently published Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. It mentions neurological faults that can lead to people getting uncontrolled music running through their minds, perhaps being tormented by a single phrase for days on end or even being driven mad by hallucinating incessant loud music in their heads all the time. Sachs refers to advertising jingles and the like that are designed to get inside your head in this way as brainworms, presumably as a variation on earworm. Perhaps he didn’t know that the word is used in the US for a parasite of animals such as elk, caribou, moose and deer; it infects their brains and can cause a fatal neurological disease.
What’s another word for thesaurus? Malcolm Hensher, an English teacher from Oxfordshire, e-mailed to recount an episode during a recent lesson. “The class was to make extensive use of the dished-out thesauruses (thesauri if you prefer) to assist them in their creative writing. One young man, clearly unenthusiastic about the task, was trying to describe a safari adventure. After rummaging around in his grubby tome he whined, ‘Sir, this fesaurus is rubbish.’ I asked which word he was looking up. ‘Zebra.’”
4. Questions & Answers: Once upon a time
[Q] From Lynn Peterson: “I am interested in the origins of the phrase Once upon a time, which begins fairy tales and folk tales. Upon a time? What does that really mean? Is it a translation from German or other European story tellers? Any history would be of interest.”
[A] The expression has for a very long time indeed been an idiom, one that most of us take in at a gulp without much bothering about the meaning of the individual words. We’ve learned, as you say, that it usually begins a mythical or fabulous story set in some unspecified moment in the past. “Once upon a time,” Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.” People often use it in a hand-wavingly imprecise way to indicate a moment in the past or to imply a fairy tale: “Once upon a time we all believed in the magic of the Fed”, the Independent headlined a story on 1 December 2007.
It’s definitely English in origin, though it’s hard to say how old it is. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples going as far back as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1385, but it had probably achieved the status of a conventional phrase even then.
What’s bothering you, you imply, is the word upon in the phrase. We still use it in connection with time, though it often sounds formal (“we plan to meet upon another occasion”). It was once the done thing to attach it to any time-related term where we would now use on or at. Lord Dunsany wrote in Time and the Gods in 1905, “Upon an evening of the forgotten years the gods were seated on the hills.”
Another phrase with similar meaning to once upon a time was upon a day, as in Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley: “And it befell upon a day, that we came into a great wood of ferns.” Another was upon a time — an example is in Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Old Testament book of Job, dated 1535 (I’ve modernised the spelling): “Now upon a time ... the servants of God came and stood before the Lord.”
Once upon a time combines this last form with once, implying that what was to follow was a unique happening, or at least a very special one.
• The recent ice storm in the USA was reported in an Associated Press piece of 16 December that was copied verbatim in press and television news reports, including those in USA Today, Yahoo! News, the Washington Post and the Arizona Star. Al Schneider, Jonathan Kern, Dodi Schultz, Barton Bresnik and Dorothy Zemach sent me its first sentence: “Motorists slid off roads Sunday across the Great Lakes states and into New England.” That’s one heck of a skid.
• On the same theme and on the same day, the BBC News site featured a set of photographs of the ice storm contributed by its visitors. Carol Weston, Tim Mathews and Susanne Barton all spotted a picture of three birds in the snow, with this caption: “Susanne and Roland Schnippering from New Hampshire found these bluebirds pausing for a moment on a Japanese maple tree while they celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.” Let’s hear it for long-lived celebratory avian threesomes.
• An Irish bull is an expression containing a contradiction in terms or implying a ludicrous inconsistency, which is known from the eighteenth century but of unknown origin. The OED remarks that bull had been long in use, originally to mean a ludicrous joke, before it came to be associated with Irishmen. Eoin C Bairéad e-mailed from Dublin with the tale of an Irish bull that’s actually from Ireland. He reported, “We have here a system of penalty points for motoring offences such that those reaching 12 points may no longer drive. A proposal that the police be given the authority to confiscate the licences of such drivers was rejected on 12 December. Instead, according to our national radio, quoting the Department of Justice, ‘drivers are obliged to voluntarily hand over their licences’.”
• A neighbour of mine mentioned that her husband organised an organ recital last September at Holy Trinity Church in Wickwar, Gloucestershire, to raise funds for the restoration of the church fabric. The details were phoned in to the local newspaper. It duly published them, with a note that the recital was to be in aid of the curtains.