Grave as a mustard pot Doug Lavin emailed to suggest that the idiom “refers to a common thing on the table which is silent and unmoving and so may appear grave, but has no gravitas at all.”
Gary Mason noted that the earliest example of mustard pot in the Oxford English Dictionary is by John Wycliffe, the first translator of the Bible into English. In modern English, it says dismissively “These letters are fine to cover mustard pots but not to create happiness in people.” The OED notes this was “echoed by Protestant controversialists in the 16–17th centuries” and came about because pots of prepared mustard were covered in parchment to keep out the air. It would seem mustard pot had taken on a scornful sense of useless disquisition, as one might expect from the academic lawyers or philosophers of the period. It might then have moved towards the sense of serious or authoritative, on the way losing its sarcastic implications. We’re guessing here but it feels plausible.
Candida Frith-Macdonald points out that there was a fashion in the nineteenth century to produce mustard pots in the form of an owl. As an owl is supposed to be a wise and serious bird, there would seem to be a connection. However, the idiom is old enough that it is most likely that the owl designs followed the idiom rather than being its source. By the way, several readers noted the coincidence of names between that of George Colman the Second, the playwright I cited in the piece, and Jeremiah Colman, who founded the famous manufacturer of mustard and other condiments, Colmans of Norwich, in 1814. So far as I can discover, there’s no link between the two men.
Blended animals Gordana Lalic-Krstin emailed from Serbia with two papers she wrote in 2008 on names for cross-bred dogs and crosses of other animals. Her detailed research identified 510 of the former and 103 of the latter. She notes that it’s conventional, though not universal, to make the sire’s name the first element to distinguish between animals of different parentage, so that for example liger is the offspring of a male lion and a tigress, while a tigon is the other way round. So we can tell immediately that zonkey is a male zebra crossed with a female donkey. Among her rarer findings are cama, a hybrid between a male dromedary camel and a female llama, and zorse, from a zebra stallion and a horse mare. As to the dogs, the mind reels a little when contemplating their number. Two examples are mastador (mastiff + labrador) and the difficult-to-pronounce basschshund (basset hound + dachshund).
Hodmandod Several readers forwarded a reference in Alfred Watkins’ book of 1925, The Old Straight Track, about the ancient tracks or ley lines that he believed criss-cross the British Isles. Richard Mellish wrote, “He had a theory that the original dodman was a surveyor carrying two poles, used to establish a sightline from one hilltop to another. The snail, with its ‘horns’, would thus have been named after the man with his poles. Your information about the word dod for a hilltop would support the theory.” However, Watkins derived the word from the Welsh dodi, to lay or place, and from dodge, associating it with the actions of a surveyor moving his surveying rod back and forth until it accurately lined up with another one.
Stitched up like a kipper Jim Delaney wrote, “In the days before everything was shrink-wrapped in impermeable plastic, a kipper (more usually a pair of kippers) sold loose would be wrapped thoroughly and closely by the fishmonger to prevent the smell from tainting everything else in your shopping bag or indeed your larder. It always seemed obvious to me that the expression done up like a kipper derived from this custom of the trade.”
Perhaps I should resist the play on words, but odd really is odd. At school, I was never able to get a good explanation why half of all numbers were said to be odd. What was strange about 3 or 255 or 1729?
Even is easier to explain. It’s from Old English efen, derived from a Germanic source, but nobody has yet been able to say for sure whether it originally meant “level” or “equal, like”. The Old English word, however, definitely meant a flat piece of ground, hence level or smooth. It began to be applied to numbers in the late 1500s with the idea that an even one could be divided into two equal parts, figuratively on a level with each other. We know this because even had been applied rather earlier in the century to accounts that were in balance or square.
Odd began life in the various Scandinavian languages. In Old Norse an oddr was a spear point, while in Old Icelandic oddi meant a point or tongue of land, a word that still appears in one or two ancient English place names. The figurative idea common to both was a point, hence a triangle and from that the number three. In Old Icelandic an oddamaðr was the third man, who had a casting vote; English obtained odd man out from it. From all this came the idea of numbers with an unpaired unit, originally the number three, that left a remainder of one after dividing by two. Odd also came to refer to an indefinite or unknown remainder above a round number such as ten, a dozen or 100, giving us phrases like “her 50-odd years” and “the book has 300-odd pages” as well as odds and ends for miscellaneous remnants, stuff left over. It can also be a single item left over, as when we say that a game was won by the odd goal.
The plural odds came to mean unequal things and then an abstract noun for inequality or difference, as in it makes no odds. Two contending parties may be said to be at odds with each other. The difference might be the extent to which one has superior capability or strength, which led to the probability that some contest or game would have a particular result, and from there to odds in the gambling sense. It turns up in other places, too, such as odds-on for something likely to happen.
Our common modern sense of an odd person being peculiar or strange is a development of the old idea of odd man out that began to be recorded in the late sixteenth century. Though he didn’t invent it, Shakespeare is an early user in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598: “He is too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd as it were.”
Good grief Doug Hyden asked about the origin of Good Friday for the Christian festival and wonders if good is a corruption of God, in the same way that goodbye is a corruption of God be with you. The evidence shows it isn’t. Good is on record from the eleventh century as being attached to somebody who was pious or devout, religiously praiseworthy; the Bible was being referred to as the Good Book from the seventeenth century; and the good tides, where tide has the sense of a fixed point during the year, were Christian festivals such as Christmas (Christmastide), Shrove Tuesday (Shrovetide) and Easter (Eastertide). Good Wednesday is an old term for the Wednesday before Easter and Good Friday follows the same pattern.
Bricking it Bernard Ashby asked about the colloquial Australian expression London to a brick, which he found in a report in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. It’s an exaggerated version of phrases such as it’s a pound to a penny, meaning that the odds on something happening are very great. Bruce Moore, currently editor of the Australian National Dictionary, wrote about it in a glossary of racing slang in Ozwords in October 1996, saying that the Sydney racing commentator Ken Howard is credited with it: “Brick was Australian slang for a £10 note (from its reddish colour), and so if, towards the end of a race, Howard claimed that the odds of a particular horse winning were London to a brick, he was saying that the horse was at extreme odds-on, with an indisputable chance.” It may just possibly have been an oblique reference to the London Brick Company, a very well-known maker whose products are to be found in many houses in the South and Midlands of England.
Q From Richard Moseley: When working for a large organisation, we would sometimes send complaining customers a bug letter. This was one contrived to seem like a one-off personal response to a complaint, but was generally sent out en masse to a number of complainants. Have you come across this usage?
A I know of it. One example:
No one even gets the courtesy of “the bug letter” these days. These days, what the consumer mostly gets is neglect.
Elyria Chronicle-Telegram (Ohio), 26 Sep. 2000.
I remember a tale several decades ago about a customer complaining to a British airline (BOAC, I think) about finding a cockroach on board; this ended with his receiving an earnest apology, spoiled by a scrawled note on his original complaint, accidentally included, “Send this idiot the cockroach letter.”
You mentioned that its origin is supposedly an incident in which the American Pullman Car Company had received a complaint about a bug infestation in one of its sleeping cars. The reply had accidentally and similarly included an instruction to a secretary.
In The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends, the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand mentions a letter in the Princeton Alumni Magazine of 5 February 1992 which claims to substantiate this story. It gave detailed information about the supposed incident, notably that it took place on 4 March 1889 and involved Mr Phineas P Jenkins, a salesman of pig-iron products for the Monongahela Ironworks Company of Pittsburgh, who was travelling in a Pullman car on the New York Central Railroad and found that his berth was infested with bedbugs. He was said to have received a hugely apologetic and detailed reply:
The car was located on March 8th, immediately removed from passenger service and sidetracked in a remote area until it could be transported by a specially dispatched locomotive to our maintenance facility at Alton, Illinois. There, it has been stripped of all furnishings. The bedding, upholstery, curtains, carpet and all other combustible materials have been burned. The toilets and their fixtures have been scrubbed down and sterilized with carbolic acid. By the time you receive this letter, the car will have been fumigated and steam cleaned from end to end.
The effect was spoiled, the writer went on, because enclosed with the letter was a hand-written note by George Pullman, “Sarah — send this S! O! B! the ‘bedbug letter’”.
The writer to the Princeton Alumni Magazine identified himself as “corresponding secretary of the George Mortimer Pullman Encomium Society, Appalachian Branch”. The letter reads too much like an elaborate leg-pull to be trusted, particularly as I can find no other reference to the wonderfully named Society, the Ironworks or the Pullman company’s Alton works.
The first example of the story that I know about, which Peter Morris unearthed, is in a 1916 issue of an American periodical, Southern Hardware, but only the punchline is visible, not the preceding text. The next is in the Lowell Sun for 24 February 1917:
The passenger who complained to a western railroad that he had to sit up all night in the smoking compartment, rather than share his berth with a fine line of bedbugs, received an abject apology. The letter was so courteous and reasonable he felt that he had been rather curt and fault-finding. Through error his original letter had been returned with the letter of apology. Looking at it, he saw scrawled across the top this blue pencil endorsement: ‘Send this guy the bed-bug letter’.
It would seem that if the incident had ever happened, it had by this date already passed into folklore. Many other examples have appeared since, whose details have changed to fit contemporary circumstances. By 1944, the term had become a generic one for any formal response:
An average of 2,200 requests for November general election ballots are received each day from service men and women in all parts of the world. ... Some of the cards are not properly filled out and smooth future procedure is hindered. These are returned to the senders with a form letter, titled the “Bedbug” letter by the secretary of state office workers.
Racine Journal-Times (Wisconsin), 25 Aug. 1944.
My gut feeling is that there never was a real incident that set this urban legend in motion. It’s so obviously a classic of the type. As Jan Harold Brunvand says of others that he documents, such as the Vanishing Hitchhiker, it has a strong and entertaining story, it’s believable, and it contains a meaningful message or moral, in this case that people in authority tell lies, or perhaps — at the very least — that the senders of such letters should take more care what they’re doing.
• Doran Williams saw this in the Daily Mail of 12 April: “Men carrying AK-47s and handguns were pictured at an increasingly large tent camp in southern Nevada that has been set up in protest at the Bureau of Land Management’s attempt to confiscate cattle from a rancher who has been working the land for centuries.”
• Don Donovan tells us that he had heard a New Zealand TV reporter say that an underwater submarine was being used for the Malaysian Airliner search.
• A description on the Essential British Gardens website of the rose garden at Castle Howard in Yorkshire was spotted by Jack Harvey: “James Russell started the garden in 1975 and occupies a large square area that has long been devoted to vegetables.”
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2014. 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
Joe Soap; Fair to middling; Nimrod; Isabelline; No soap; Umquhile; Steal one’s thunder; Katy bar the door; Simoleon; Dope; Lord love a duck; Yarely; Upset the apple cart; Snooter; Fard; By hook or by crook; Polish off; Loggerhead; Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.