John Weiss followed up last week’s story of a dictionary error by recounting one of his own. “I found several very literate Swedish friends referring to a person as a quiz, which I could not understand until they showed me a much-acclaimed English-Swedish dictionary, pointing to a meaning something like ‘a peculiar person’. Some research into English-Swedish dictionaries that had been published over a long period of time revealed, in their forewords, that all relied on what appears to have been the first modern such dictionary, from around the 1900s. And then I discovered that it was in fact an archaic English usage, and I presume the author of that dictionary had found it and used it with no indication that it was no longer current.”
Not so much known now as it once was, this is mainly a British way of saying something is a minor lie. A contributor to Punch wrote in October 1892, “Lie, indeed! There is a middle course — say ‘fib’ or ‘tarradiddle’.”
These days, she lived, thought, dreamed horses, almost like Verrall himself. The time came when she not only told her taradiddle about having “hunted quite a lot”, she even came near believing it.
Burmese Days, by George Orwell, 1935.
It has also appeared as tallydiddle and tarradiddle, a mark of people’s confusion about its origins. These are shared by modern etymologists, some of whom point uncertainly at the verb diddle, to cheat, as the source of the second element. This is recorded from the middle of the eighteenth century but they argue that it derives from the Old English dydrian, to deceive or delude. Other writers have been dismissive of this ancient etymology, mainly because, if it were true, diddle had been lurking unnoticed in the linguistic undergrowth for about seven centuries. All the experts are silent about the first element of taradiddle, which may be no more than a nonsense addition.
This is also true of the first element of a very similar word, which musicians in particular may be reminded about — paradiddle, one of the basic patterns of drumming, consisting of four even strokes played with alternate hands. This is equally mysterious, though the second part might be from an old dialect verb meaning to shake or quiver.
In recent decades taradiddle has taken on a divergent sense of empty talk or nonsense:
The Tarot, its origins misty until 15th-century printers got on to it, is one of those allegorical fortune-telling taradiddles beloved of fretful teenagers.
The Times, 7 Sep. 2012.
Q From Bob Taxin, San Francisco: I was watching an Australian murder mystery on television where a teacher criticised her student’s grotesque theory of what might have happened to the victim by saying that she must have read too many penny dreadfuls. I presume this refers to some sort of horror story, perhaps which sold for a penny. Any thoughts on this?
A They were indeed sold for a penny, a British penny. And they were considered to be dreadful for reasons that will become clear.
It was common in the nineteenth century to publish works in serial form or in magazines — Dickens’s novels, for example, first appeared this way. Such magazines were directed at the educated and affluent reading public and were usually priced at a shilling, unaffordable by the working man.
To meet demand among the less well-off, some publishers brought out serials of inferior technical and literary quality, accompanied by vivid illustrations, which were sold in penny instalments. These featured sensationalist and lurid tales of highwaymen, pirates and murderers as well as exaggerated stories of real-life crimes. They were most popular among young men, who would sometimes club together to buy single copies which one person might read to others who were illiterate. The genre was widely regarded by the middle classes and by magistrates as a corrupting influence among young people and a cause of the rise in juvenile crime. This was contested by others and most famously disputed by G K Chesterton in his essay of 1901, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls.
Among better-known examples of the stories were Varney the Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood; Black Bess or the Knight of the Road (stories of Dick Turpin, built on William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood of 1834); Ela the Outcast, or The Gipsy of Rosemary Dell; Wagner the Wehr-Wolf; Spring-Heeled Jack, or The Terror of London (a leaping madman who attacked women, a mythical character of the early part of the century); and The String of Pearls (despite its innocuous title this featured Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street).
They started to be called penny dreadfuls around 1860, a term that in its melodramatic and exaggerated disdain adequately communicated the way reputable society thought of them. Similar publications were common in the US — British and American publishers often “borrowed” each others’ material — and came to be called dime novels, a less sensational term that likewise started to appear around 1860. Later, terms such as penny blood and penny awful were used for them in Britain.
In the 1880s, the alliterative shilling shocker — also called a shilling dreadful — began to appear for a type of more substantial short sensational novel, often by writers of some ability (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was put in this category when it first came out). An early instance was The Dark House, by G Manville Fenn, described in The Pall Mall Gazette on 22 June 1885 as “a ‘shilling dreadful’ of the most hair-stiffening and sanguinary description.”
These didn’t achieve the same depths of condemnation as the earlier penny dreadfuls. They were often bought for reading during a railway journey, the precursors of today’s airport novels, whodunits and other entertaining genres. They suffered merely from being described in slightly disparaging terms by literary critics as examples of popular culture.
• Harry Campbell emailed from Glasgow with the cooking instructions that came with his purchase of sliced haggis: “Defrost thoroughly before cooking in a refrigerator”.
• “Is this how new words are formed?” asked Bron Forman. “My sister found this in June’s edition of The Rip, a local rag circulated in Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale at the treacherous entrance (called ‘The Rip’) to Melbourne’s harbour, Port Phillip Bay: ‘It’s that time of year when ... Sea Pilots perform seemingly deftifying feats in huge swells...’.”
• Anne O’Brien reports from British Columbia that a TV advertisement for Raid, an insecticide spray, claims that it “kills ants for two weeks.” She wonders what happens then — a resurrection on the fifteenth day, perhaps?
• A headline in the Daily Telegraph on 12 July quoted the Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams: “Parents ‘should be prosecuted for not loving or ignoring their children’.”
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