E-MAGAZINE 690: SATURDAY 15 MAY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Time out My forthcoming holiday is such that it will be difficult to keep World Wide Words running while I’m away. I’m also planning changes to the e-magazine and the Web site, to reduce my workload week by week, which will need time to prepare. Because of this, the next issue will be published on 19 June. Apologies to everyone for the long gap between issues.
Shemozzle Many readers pointed out that schlimazel comes from the same roots as the supposed origin of shemozzle. However, the words have very different senses, since a schlimazel is a person who is chronically unlucky (as the folk saying has it, “when a schlimazel manufactures shrouds, people stop dying.”)
Slang guru Jonathon Green was certain that the Yiddish words which I cited as from US English were earlier known in England. He quoted the Jewish Chronicle of 12 August 1881, which lists some of them. He commented, “That said, the sheer volume of US immigrant Yiddish speakers means that such speech is more commonly found across the Atlantic, then and since.” He has found earlier uses of shemozzle by the racing journalist Arthur Binstead, who penned “gloriously non-PC” columns in the Sporting Times at the end of the nineteenth century under the pseudonym “Morris the Mohel”. (Mohel is a person who is qualified to perform the Jewish rite of circumcision.)
Andreas Schaefer e-mailed from Cologne to tell me about the German colloquial term Schlamassel, a confusion or mess, so similar in sense to shemozzle. My etymological sources say it was borrowed from the same Yiddish source as schlimazel in the eighteenth century. It might be that the latter form came from the German of nineteenth-century immigrants to Britain (only some of whom were Jewish, of course), rather than from Yiddish, and that this might explain the difference in spelling and confusion over its origin, as well as the existence of both schlimazel and shemozzle side-by-side in urban slang of late nineteenth-century England. This, I have to say, is a guess on my part!
Early doors Steve Hodder is representative of several readers who recalled the specifically pub-related associations of the idiom: “Over 30 years ago in Keighley I was told that one pub did ‘early doors’ because it opened, presumably illegally, at 5.00pm rather than at the then statutory 5.30pm. This usage was thus in keeping with its Victorian theatrical origins.” Ian Ellard reports that it is still about: “Pleasingly, it is still used for almost the exact purpose that it was coined, as a time when one could leave the bar and head to a nightclub in order to get in ‘before the crush’ and get the drinks in without a long queue. Perhaps the theatricality of the nightclub is not lost on young slang-slingers.”
I was searching the Oxford English Dictionary for a collective term for swans when I encountered this:
A bird prodigy of evil and hybrid character is the despair of a Norfolk farmer. It rejoices in the name of the “swoose”, a portmanteau word indicating its origin, for its father was a swan and its mother a goose. This ill-assorted pair had three children — three “sweese”.
Daily Mail, 13 July 1920.
It wasn’t the earliest mention of this curious hybrid, the first having been in the Harrison Times of Arkansas in 1911, though it, too, referred to a bird accidentally bred in Norfolk. The name must have been fairly widely known by 1920, since a horse named Swoose was racing then. The Daily Mail mentioned the birds several times that year, reporting that the young sweese were terrorising the farmyard and killing ducks. “Of late,” the paper noted, “their character has been relapsing into such savagery as may prove their ruin.” News of the birds spread widely. If we are to believe this American report, their name briefly became part of the vernacular:
Much public interest is evinced in these queer birds and nowadays when an ill-tempered husband rouses his wife to the point of retaliation, she gives vent to her feelings in the culminating insult: “You swoose!”
Wisconsin State Journal, 5 Sep. 1920.
A very few other sweese appeared in the 1920s and 1930s as crosses between various breeds of goose and swan that were kept together on farms. The word reached the hit parade in 1941 when Alexander the Swoose, a song performed by the Kay Kyser band, reached number 3 in the charts.
This led directly to the most famous swoose, a B-17 bomber that American forces based in Australia had created by cannibalising other aircraft and nicknamed the Swoose because of its hybrid character. It was piloted by Frank Kurtz, who in 1944 named his daughter after the plane. Swoosie Kurtz has become a well-known actress. She was once asked whether she had thought of changing her name: “Change it to what — Tiffany? It’s been an advantage. It’s unforgettable. I’m the only one.”
3. This week
Clash of words Ron Besdansky asked me about a word he came across recently: allision. Did I know it? No, it’s new to me. The Oxford English Dictionary, in an old entry, marks it as possibly obsolete, but a search shows that it is still very much around, though only in the US. In American maritime law, an allision occurs when a ship hits a stationary object, such as a wharf or a ship at anchor or docked. For you and me, that’s a collision, but US law reserves that word for an impact between two moving ships. This example is from the US Federal News Service last August: “The three gentlemen assisted the Coast Guard with the rescue of two boaters who were injured following an allision between a 23-foot pleasure craft and the Jekyll Creek jetties.” The word is from Latin allidere, to strike against something. The distinction between collision and allision was present in classical Latin, since the former is from collidere, to strike together. Both contain the root laedere, to injure, damage or hurt.
Term of trade Shiv Anand was introduced to a new word by one of his colleagues: fixturing, another term I’ve never encountered. It isn’t in any dictionary he and I have consulted. A search, however, shows that it’s common in certain technical trades. Examples are on record back to the 1950s at least. It seems to mean “the process, technique or method of fixing” (“The tube can be placed in the measuring cell in any aspect, so there is absolutely no need for fixturing” -- Metalworking Production, 22 Mar. 2010). It is also known in Australia for the process of organising a list of fixtures in sports (“They were the high points of a match that reflected the tough conditions and the round-one fixturing.” -- The Australian, 15 Mar 2010.]
Small mistake in dictionary, world yawns Much has been made in newspaper reports this week of the discovery by Dr Stephen Hughes of the University of Technology in Brisbane of an error in the Oxford English Dictionary. The passage of time has not been kind to many of the OED’s definitions, which were written a century ago or more (as in continental drift: “the postulated movement of the existing continents to their present positions”, making it sound like a crackpot theory, which at the time geologists thought it was). Some technical definitions are so abstruse that they are unintelligible to anybody who doesn’t already know the answer. Try your mental abilities on the one for trondhjemite (“Any leucocratic tonalite, esp. one in which the plagioclase is oligoclase”), which may bring to mind Dr Johnson’s definition of a network: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” But Dr Hughes found what he calls a schoolboy error in the OED’s entry for siphon, written in 1911, which says it works by atmospheric pressure rather than, correctly, by gravity. He commented, “An extensive check of online and offline dictionaries did not reveal a single dictionary that correctly referred to gravity being the operative force.” My own check showed that many current works are indeed wrong, including the Bloomsbury, Collins, Penguin, American Heritage, and Random House Webster dictionaries. (I’ve also found that some books on physics explain it incorrectly, which is even more worrying.) But current Oxford dictionaries other than the OED get it right, so that in telling the publishers about the mistake, Dr Hughes may be preaching to the choir.
Perils of translation Aniruddh Sankaran is a member of an online forum for frequent flyers. Earlier this week, another member asked about a sign he’d seen on the Web site of Mumbai Airport: cupboard de mutation. A Web search finds only one other example, at Kolkata airport: “Money and communications: There are banks and cupboard de mutation in the terminals. A announce charge is also untaken.” What is this odd phrase? I’m fairly sure, based on the context and the poor English of the Kolkata example, that somebody has made a hash of translating the standard international term bureau de change into English, turning the French change into English mutation. I surmise that bureau was assumed to be in the sense of a writing desk, though how it then turned into a cupboard is anybody’s guess. It reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s unanswered riddle, “why is a raven like a writing desk?” Why is a bureau like a cupboard?
4. Questions and Answers: Give someone the sack
[Q] From Aileen Kelly, Australia: What is the origin of giving someone the sack or sacking them? None of my dictionaries are any help on this.
[A] The strangest thing about this colloquial expression is how ancient it is. Though recorded in English only from early in the nineteenth century, it’s very much older in both French and Dutch.
In 1611, Randall Cotgrave recorded a French equivalent, On luy a donné son sac in his French-English dictionary and explained it as “he hath his passport given him (said of a servant whom his master hath put away)”. Clearly, the expression was even older, though it has since died out in French in that form. A Dutch form den zak krijgen was recorded even earlier.
The usual explanation is that a workman almost always had his own tools, which were often very valuable. It’s argued that presenting a workman with a sack to carry them away in, either figuratively or literally, was a well-understood signal of dismissal. It sounds too much like an explanation created in desperation for us to accept it uncritically, but I can find no other suggestion.
• This sentence, Margaret Condy reports, appeared in the Peterborough Examiner, Ontario, on 6 May: “Patrick Heeley pushed himself into the Villa Auto Wash kiosk looking for money wrapped in a High School Musical and armed with a mini red flashlight.”
• The same day, the Morning Sentinel of Waterville, Maine, reprinted an article from the Bangor Daily News headlined, “Student stabbed on Husson University Campus.” Bob Gray tells us that a caption read in part: “Wolk allegedly attacked the student in a parking lot with a knife who sustained non-life-threatening injuries.” Let’s hope the student’s OK, too.
• That Gaul gets everywhere. Padmavyuha submitted a photograph taken at Liverpool Street Station in London of a sign advertising fare discounts through the Web site of East Coast Rail: “Look out for the discounted fares highlighted with a red asterix.”
• Sarah Hurst e-mailed from the US with her “Punctuation Goof of the Week”. She found it in federal grant proposal instructions: “The statute highlights six barriers that can impede equitable access or participation: gender, race, national origin, color disability, or age.” Apparently the colour-blind lobby is now very powerful.
• Chris Wilcox reports: “The big news from Britain, according to Fox News, is that the Queen is to be prime minister: ‘Queen Elizabeth accepted the invitation of Conservative Party leader David Cameron to become Britain’s new prime minister Tuesday night.’” It has since been changed, quite probably to Her Majesty’s relief.
• The Web site of the Borrowdale Gates Hotel in Cumbria features this introductory text, Val Perman tells us: “Several rooms with patio doors lead directly to manicured lawns, some with balconies bathed in sunshine and generous baths.” He decided not to stay: he didn’t want the bath to be on the balcony, even if it meant he could bathe in sunshine.
6. Copyright and contact details
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