Thatcher’s linguistic legacy When Michael Grosvenor Myer’s e-mail arrived soon after the last issue was published, pointing out an error, I thought I was going to get a lot of messages, though only four other readers actually wrote in. The Iron Duke was, of course, Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, not the Duke of Marlborough. I knew that (even more so now), but I had what’s often called a senior moment, or more crudely a brain fart.
Scrumptious “I took a train trip in 1976 across the northern US,” Phil Glatz remembers. “Out in the wilds of Montana, I asked the conductor, an African-American in his sixties, if there was still time to get breakfast in the dining car. He looked at his watch, shook his head, and said, ‘you better hurry, or all that will be left is the scrumpts.’ I’ve always remembered that term, but have not heard it since, but figure it might be related to ‘scrumptious’, maybe from southern US slang.” The Dictionary of American Regional English doesn’t include scrumpt, but it does have scrumption, a variant form of scrimption, recorded mainly in the US South from 1834 onwards. It says it means a bit or scrap and is from an unspecified English dialect term, perhaps one of those listed in the piece. It’s easy to imagine that scrumption became scrumptious and this might be the missing link between English dialect and the US scrumptious. If so, we’re still left with no information how the term took on its modern meaning.
Lots of readers asked whether the term for the childhood activity of scrumping, stealing apples from an orchard or garden, was connected. It isn’t. That comes from a dialect word meaning a withered apple, perhaps connected with scrimp, to be thrifty or economise, as in scrimp and save.
Fib I wrote last time that fib first appeared in Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionary of the French and English Tongues in 1611 as a translation of bourde, which I said meant a blunder. Marc Picard commented, “That meaning is relatively recent, from the eighteenth century. The first meaning of the word was mensonge (a lie or fib) and is still given in some French dictionaries.”
“As a child,”, Ross Marouchoc e-mailed, “I was told that the origin of fib came from the anatomical fact that the smaller lower leg bone, the fibula, ‘lies’ next to the much larger tibia. I always suspected that this was apocryphal, but I thought that you might enjoy this example of the type of fib told to children by adults.”
It’s a satisfying way to tell somebody that he’s stupid or ignorant, its Latinate form projecting an aura of dusty academic superiority. It also has a long and interesting history.
The ancient legal institution of the grand jury now continues only in the USA, but it was once the standard way of deciding whether a person should be charged with a crime. It was called a grand jury because it was made up of 24 men, twice the size of one in a trial, which was a petit jury or petty jury. Grand juries were originally called from among local men who were expected to act on personal knowledge. If they felt the evidence was too weak their foreman wrote the Latin word ignoramus on the back of the indictment. This literally meant “we do not know”, from the Latin verb ignorare, to be ignorant. In practice it meant “we take no notice of this”. It was the opposite of declaring the indictment a true bill, which meant the accusation went to trial.
How this abstruse foreign form from the specialised language of the law became an English word is due to George Ruggle. He wrote a play called Ignoramus, mostly in Latin, which was performed on 8 March 1615 at Trinity College, Cambridge, before an audience of some 2,000 which included King James I of England and the future Charles I. It featured a rascally and ignorant lawyer, the Ignoramus of the title, who used barbarous law Latin of a kind deplored by the university’s academics. The king loved the play but his judges and law officers hated it. It caused a huge controversy that led to the name of the play’s chief character entering the language.
Since there is no lack of ignorance and stupidity in our world, we have to decide how to create its plural. A slight knowledge of Latin noun plurals suggests it should be ignorami, to match nucleus, fungus, terminus, cactus, and stimulus. But ignoramus never was a Latin noun, so the sensible course is to stick to the rules of English, making ignoramuses. That’s a mouthful, but it will stop you from sounding like an ignoramus.
Much effort has been expended in the UK on reporting the results of the Great British Class Survey, devised by the BBC and researched by social scientists from three British universities. It divides the economically active population into seven groups, rather different in composition to the six grades of the NRS social grade system (A, B, C1, C2, D, E) and the eight of the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification.
One consequence has been a rare appearance in the public media of the specialist term profician. This is strongly associated with Professor Guy Standing of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who has been using it since the early 1990s and seems to have coined it. In his book of 2009, Work After Globalization, he discusses it alongside his other socio-economic classifications: the global elite (“a tiny minority of absurdly rich and high-earning people”), the salariat (“high-income earners in stable, full-time employment”, a term borrowed from French and known in English for about a century but which is still specialist), the traditional working class (the proletariat), the precariat (an ill-defined group of insecure casual workers) and an underclass, the lumpenproletariat in Marxist theory.
As the name suggests, proficians are experts in a field and include skilled technicians and professionals. They may be lawyers, sports stars, architects or IT specialists. Their key quality is that they are project-oriented freelance workers (Standing has described them as “self-selling entrepreneurs, living opportunistically on their wits and contacts”) and tend to suffer problems such as stress and burn-out.
Standing could have created proficiat instead of profician, to match the -iat ending of the other terms that have been coined on the model of proletariat. It might now be better known.
Q From Colin Hague: The expression goose is cooked appears in the stage and film versions of Les Misérables. Might its origin be of interest to subscribers?
A I hope so, but the historical record is unhelpful about details, as so often with slangy idioms. The gap has been filled with many folk etymological tales.
The known facts first. Various forms — do his goose for him and cook his goose as well as goose is cooked — start to appear in British writings in the 1830s, as in this report of a court case:
The complainant said that on Saturday morning he was at the plying place at the Tower stairs, when Crouch began to abuse him, and swore he would “cook his goose,” by which he meant he would ruin him, or put an end to his mortal existence.
True Sun (London), 26 Oct. 1837. A plying place is one where a porter, cabman or boatman waited to be hired; it’s from an old sense of ply meaning to solicit patronage. British taxis, for example, still officially ply for hire.
This is another appearance from a decade later:
“I rather think, friend Sandy,” said Smith, looking cheerfully back at the bedroom as he turned the corner, “I rather think, to use a figurative expression, your goose is cooked!”
Paddiana; or, Scraps and Sketches of Irish life, by William Henry Gregory, 1847. Later Sir William Gregory, the author was Governor of Ceylon in the 1870s.
The idiom is so common and yet so mysterious that numerous stories have appeared to try to explain it. One suggestion online is that it derives from a wry joke about the fate of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus — whose name is similar to husa, his native Czech word for a goose — who was burned at the stake in Constance by the Catholic Church in 1415. The gap of four centuries before the idiom appears, in another country, renders this implausible. Myron Korach argued in Common Phrases in 2008 that it refers to a battle fought by Eric, a king of Sweden, who was known to love eating goose. His enemies set one up for their archers to shoot at but Eric won a great victory and with relish cooked and ate their goose. We may disregard this tale for similar reasons. We may also take no notice of the vague story that a besieged town once displayed a goose to show that it had enough food, provoking the attackers to set the bird on fire. A connection has also been made with the goose who laid the golden eggs; the farmer that owned it killed it to find the secret, only to be left with no gold but merely a goose to cook.
We may not know the details of its origin, but we can get a good idea of what was in its creators’ minds from other food-related idioms of this period and later. People might express the same idea through giving him his gruel or settling his hash. A person in deep trouble might be in a stew or run the risk that somebody will make mincemeat of him. (However, had his chips isn’t in the set, as that comes from gambling.)
Why we’re so fond of figuratively relating the consumption of food to murder, spoiling someone’s plans or causing their downfall is, I suspect, a matter more for psychologists than lexicographers.
• A sentence in an obituary published on 13 April in the Detroit News was sent in by Roger Chard, “In 1960, Musser became president of the hotel and later purchased it along with his wife Amelia in 1979.”
• “I couldn’t help but giggle,” emailed Melinda Heritage. She had seen a headline in the Toronto Sun on 14 April: “There’s no email in heaven, so Google lets you shut down accounts after death.”
• Isn’t medical science wonderful? Douglas Downey spotted this in the Police Reports section of his local paper The Northbrook Tower on 10 April: “She was found unconscious in the vehicle and transported to Glenbrook Hospital for alcohol intoxication.”
• Singing praises: Malcolm Ross-Macdonald found this on the Mozy Home site: “One of the crowing jewels that makes Mozy an incredible place to work is definitely the people that work here.”
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