NEWSLETTER 519: SATURDAY 23 DECEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
The strains of rewrite James Thurber once used this term, by which he meant the awkward language that can appear when a piece has been reworked once too often. Last week, those strains led to the phrase “excessive gain in weight caused by overeating emotional problems”, which generated a few gently sarcastic comments.
Gruntled Following last week’s piece, many subscribers reminded me of the famous piece by Jack Winter about missing opposites — such as chalant, kempt, and gainly — in the New Yorker in 1994. This can be read online.
Ray Carlyle e-mailed from Australia to mention peel and unpeel. The latter is often used in the same sense as the former, though many dictionaries don’t include it, and it mostly evokes the image of taking the skin off a banana. The OED calls this use of un- redundant, since it doesn’t change the meaning of the word. Another example, which Harold Beck forwarded from a friend, appears in a quotation from a James Joyce poem: “This very next Lent I will unbare / My penitent buttocks to the air.” Unbare has quite a respectable history going back to the sixteenth century, though it is now rare and literary.
Trig and trim Andreas Stockinger resolved the whole matter of the origin of this term, following my item about it last week, through some creative consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED records an earlier version of it, trick and trim, in which the first word was probably a southern English modification of the Scots and northern English trig and not our usual word of that spelling. I’ve rewritten the piece; it appears online with other regular updates to the Web site.
Court sport I left the n out of lawn in the title of William Tilden’s book The Art of Lawn Tennis. Wrong sort of court. However, law tennis sounds like a fun game. I’m working on the rules for it: “Serves must strike the witness box and dock before being returned; a juror catching the ball shall be permitted to keep it; the judge may enter play at any time by using his gavel to strike the ball (British judges may employ an usher for this purpose) ...”.
Broadcast If you want to hear my dulcet tones, they will feature in the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth that goes out on Boxing Day at 4pm GMT. You will be able to hear it online a little later by going to its BBC site and clicking on the “Listen to the latest edition” link. It being radio, at least nobody will be able to spot the typing errors.
2. Weird Words: Yuletide
My dictionaries of British origin firmly mark this as archaic or dialectal, which will come as some surprise to all the journalists, advertisers and Christmas card scribes who have cheerily borrowed it in recent weeks as a useful alternative name for the Christmas season. Traditionally, it’s true, it has been more a Northern English and Scots word than a common southern English one, and you will be very unlikely to hear it casually used at the supermarket checkout.
Yule and Yuletide don’t refer only to Christmas day but to all the traditional festive twelve days of Christmas. That goes back to a time before the Christian festival had been thought of. It derives from the Old Norse jól, which was the name of a pagan festival at the winter solstice (and which survives in the modern Scandinavian greeting god jul, Good Yule or Merry Christmas). The beginning of that festival was marked with the ceremonial lighting of the Yule clog or Yule log, a big log laid across the hearth and lit with a piece of wood from the previous year’s log.
A traditional Scots dish was Yule brose, the seasonal version of a kind of porridge made from oats on which was poured the juices from boiled meat. The Edinburgh Magazine reported in 1821 that it was usual to put a ring in the communal bowl of Yule brose; the person who got it in their spoon was taken to be the member of the company to be first married.
3. Recently noted
Sidelongness An article in the Guardian last Saturday featured John Simpson, the Managing Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. As a confirmed — even incorrigible — word hunter, I pounced on one sentence: “There is a sidelongness about Simpson; he doesn’t make eye contact often, except in shy flashes that illuminate the even fluency of his speech, rather as his humour does.” Sidelongness is not (yet) in the OED; indeed the only other example I can find appears in George Orwell’s Burmese Days of 1935: “At all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight.”
Schinfing Chris Greaves told me about a Guardian blog entry by Audrey Gillam, dated 8 December, in which she reported on the poor quality of the equipment currently being supplied to British soldiers. “In Kuwait and Iraq,” she wrote, “a paucity of clothing, desert boots and spare parts was not the only thing soldiers felt sore about. They call it ‘schinfing’ in the army and it basically means moaning or complaining. They say once a soldier stops schinfing, his commanding officer should start worrying.” The only other place I’ve found it is on an online discussion forum called The Army Rumour Service or ARRSE. Tony Thorne, the editor of The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, tells me that SCHINF is the Army’s usual abbreviation for its School of Infantry, which seems pretty clearly to be the source of the slang term. The ordinary Tommy has long delighted in grousing about his lot, but do SCHINF graduates have a special reputation for complaining?
Mongo In the issue of 11 November, I mentioned this term, in use in the New York Department of Sanitation to mean items scavenged from rubbish and put back into use. Grant Barrett, who among other activities runs the Double-Tongued Word Wrester slang site, tells me there’s a clue to its origin in the unpublished papers of the Lexicon of Trade Jargon, started by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (later called the Works Projects Administration) in the years before 1939 but never finished. In a section of jargon and slang taken from New York City sanitation workers, mungo is defined as a person who salvages such discarded items, rather than the things being salvaged. So the term has a longer history than the previously recorded evidence indicates. The spelling may suggest that my theory about its origin is right.
4. Questions & Answers: Mickey Finn
[Q] From Chris Cone: “I was wondering what the origin is of slipping someone a mickey, as in spiking a drink?”
[A] The original and fuller form of the phrase is slip someone a Mickey Finn and does indeed refer to the action of drugging a drink for some nefarious purpose.
The drug has varied. These days, a Mickey Finn is usually taken to be knockout drops to render someone insensible so that they can be robbed. The drug most commonly mentioned is chloral hydrate, though American Speech in 1936 claimed that it was actually cigar ashes in a carbonated drink, a surprising concoction we can hardly believe was effective. But the drug has sometimes been said to have been a purgative or emetic, this being a quick way for staff to get an obnoxious drunk or violent patron out of a bar.
Another reason for slipping someone an emetic became a notorious case in Chicago in 1918. This is from the Washington Post of June in that year:
State’s Attorney Hoyne, acting on information as to coercive measures used by waiters to compel the giving of tips, arrested 100 waiters, members of Waiters’ Union, Local No. 7, today. Mr. Hoyne had a report that waiters used a certain powder in the dishes of known opponents to the system. The powders, according to Mr. Hoyne, produced nausea and were known as “Mickey Finns.” It is thought that many cases of supposed ptomaine poisoning reported after meals in downtown cafes and hotels may have been caused by the “Mickey Finns.”
The “certain powder” was later reported to be tartar emetic. So far as I know, this scandal is the first time that a Mickey Finn is mentioned in print. The case was widely reported and it seems to have been the stimulus for the term’s becoming widely known.
So who was Mickey Finn? There’s some doubt over the matter but he may have been the man of that name who ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden in Chicago from 1896 to December 1903, when the local paper reported that his saloon had been closed by the authorities because of the many robberies carried out on the premises. Most of what we know, or think we know, about Mr Finn’s activities comes from a 1940 book by Herbert Asbury called Gem of the Prairie (Mr Asbury also wrote The Gangs of New York, from which the Martin Scorsese film of 2002 was adapted). The establishment seems to have been a dive of the lowest kind, in which Finn fenced stolen goods, supervised pickpockets and ran prostitutes. He had a sideline, as Mr Asbury tells it, by which he drugged patrons with chloral hydrate, robbed them, and dumped them in an alley.
This is all rather circumstantial, not least because of the big gap between Finn’s supposed activities and the first recorded use of the term in 1918, not to mention the further 20 year gap before Mr Asbury wrote his account. However, the Chicago locale for the first two might suggest that the term had been circulating in the city underworld in the intervening years.
Mickey Finn, of course, is a common Irish name and in the 1890s an author named Ernest Jarrold had written stories about a character called that. They had become extremely popular; a book of them was published in 1899 under the title Mickey Finn Idylls, which was turned into a comic play in 1903. So the name would have been in the air at the time the real Mickey Finn was running his illegal business and the combination of the two might have caused it to stick in people’s minds.
• From last Saturday’s Daily Mail weekend supplement, advertising a BBC radio programme entitled The Things We Forgot To Remember: “Still regarded as the foundation of English justice and liberty, Michael Portillo discovers the truth about the Magna Carta.” David Sutton commented, “I’m sure we all agree that the man is a national treasure, but steady on!”
• A splendidly misleading headline appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 December: “Club rejects spray bouncers”. Leon Hides sent this in, together with the story underneath. It turns out that the bouncers had been hit with a pepper spray by a small group who had been thrown out of the club.
• An article about renewable energy in the Guardian’s technology supplement on Thursday reported that domestic wind turbines weren’t value for money. “By comparison,” the report went on, “large wind farms are flying”. I know what he means, but the image is unsettling.
A seasonal Sic! snapped by a subscriber in Maryland.