E-MAGAZINE 656: SATURDAY 12 SEPTEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bitter end Anja Jessen pointed out that the expression is the same in German: Bis zum bitteren Ende. Bitts in German are Poller, so there’s no possibility of a maritime link; the sense must derive from a bitter taste. The parallel with my proposed source for the English expression is seductive.
Ostrobogulous James Tapper e-mailed from The Mail On Sunday to gently correct me. The word appeared in an interview with Professor Christian Kay in its sister paper, the Daily Mail, specifically on 13 July this year. He also found that most rare of examples, one intended to convey meaning rather than be a topic of amusement. It also illustrates an additional meaning:
I started out making toys because it was something I could do with no money, an artistic family and a Victorian sewing machine. In the evenings I made ‘ostrobogulous’ toys, a term my mother used to mean harmlessly mischievous, and sold them in Heal’s, where I worked by day.
The Times, 8 Nov. 2003.
This matches a usage known to Graham Hill: “When I was at secondary school in the late 1960s ostrobogulous was used as an alternative name for a gonk.” (For those too young to remember, or who live in a country in which they never caught on, a gonk was a small furry soft toy, popular at the time.)
You do this. You just don’t know that you do. When you’re tired to the extent of yawning in fatigue, you may stretch your arms and neck to ease them. That’s pandiculation. Writers have been known to use the word just for yawning, but properly that’s an associated action, not the thing itself. This example might be correct, or might not, it’s hard to say:
Nothing new, nothing fact, nothing different. Result: ennui, followed by pandiculation and into the arms of Morpheus.
Evening Independent (Massillon, Ohio), 14 Oct. 1931.
Man pandiculating. A self-portrait of Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802)
Pandiculation isn’t encountered often. But variations on it were once used for a quack remedy:
“Pandiculate for Health! Grow Tall! Get Well! Be Young!” Exuberant ads like this, running in health-fad magazines since 1914, have proclaimed the virtues of a spine-stretching device called the “Pandiculator.” The Post Office last fortnight barred the promoter of this fraud from using the U.S. mail. A rectangular box about four feet long, worked on the principle of a medieval rack, the Pandiculator has T-shaped iron posts at each end, one fixed, the other movable on a cable pulley system. To pandiculate, all a gull had to do was lie down on the box, strap his head to the fixed post, his feet to the adjustable one; when he turned a wheel on the side, he could stretch his legs and hear the joints crack. The promotion copy claimed that this Procrustean bed would cure “every conceivable condition.”
Time, 20 Apr. 1942. Gull is in the sense of a person who is fooled or deceived, a slang term dating from the sixteenth century whose origin is unknown. If the device was really only four feet long, was it intended solely for persons of short stature? Perhaps they particularly needed stretching?
3. Questions and Answers: Past master
[Q] From Simon Field: Seeing your article on bated breath made me think of past master. Journalists seem to use it to mean a person is an expert at something. I believe this is in fact a corruption of pass muster, which is to say that the person is competent, that he or she has or would successfully pass the army training or parade in the subject. Do you have any comments?
[A] Past master is a puzzling idiom because of a confusion over spelling. But it’s not derived from pass muster, which means to pass an inspection of uniform and equipment at an assembly of troops, a muster.
As you say, past master often means a person who is particularly skilled at some activity or art:
Irish writer John Boyne is a past master of fictional representation of history in his novels
The Age (Melbourne), 24 Aug. 2009.
But it isn’t the only sense. Another is at least as common and about a century older. It’s the more straightforward one of a person who has previously been a master, that is, filled an office with that title. It’s most often used of a former master of a Freemasons’ lodge, although it has broader applications. As a result of the common confusion between the adjective past and the past tense and past participle passed, it’s not unknown for this second sense to be written as passed master.
That confusion is at the heart of your sense of past master. A verb to pass master once existed, which meant to graduate in a scholastic field or become qualified in a skill. In the former sense, it was linked to the higher degrees of master of arts and similar qualifications; among artisans, it meant that a man had completed his apprenticeship and his period as a journeyman and had become officially a master of his craft.
Though the verb to pass master has long since vanished from the language, the noun derived from it survives. It ought to be passed master and this spelling is known, though rare. The standard form is past master. Undoubtedly, this became accepted as a result of the existing institutional sense of past master.
4. Reviews: The F Word
Edited by Jesse Sheidlower
Reviewed by Jonathon Green, editor of Chambers Slang Dictionary.
Lecturing in 1851 on The Morality in Words, Richard Chenevix Trench — dean of Westminster and pioneer of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary — referred to “the language of the vulgar”, in other words, slang. He testified, reluctantly but surely with some admiration, as to “how much cleverness, how much wit, yea, how much imagination must have stood in the service of sin, before it could possess a nomenclature so rich, so varied, and often so heaven-defying as it has.” It is unlikely that fuck, the longest-serving slang synonym for copulation, was at the forefront of his thoughts, but of all slang’s lexicon, this curt monosyllable, the “dirtiest” of “dirty words”, is for many people emblematic of an entire vocabulary.
It is certainly the one slang word that might be deemed worthy of an entire book, thanks to its taboo status (however that has been diminished in a more libertarian world), the vast range of its compounds, derivations and phrasal uses, the endless debate over its etymology, and its history of clashes with censorship.
It may be, and I consciously play the faux-naïf, that such a book is slightly otiose: as the ads currently visible in the London tube suggest: “Some people are gay — get over it.” Some people, most people probably, say fuck. What’s the problem? But of course there is a “problem” — at least for Anglo-Saxons; the French do these
Jesse Sheidlower, the New York-based editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, compiled the first edition of The F Word in 1995. A second appeared in 1999, and now comes this major revision, twice the size of the original. The book offers uses of fuck from major anglophone countries and backs up the lexicography (270 pages of headwords, every one underpinned by citations drawn from the earliest discovered use onwards) with a weighty introduction that provides a masterly analysis of every aspect of the word. The author deals with the word’s etymology (and the variety of palpably inept folk etymologies that have accompanied it), its incorporation into the list of taboo terms, its appearance in every form of media and (it seems) in every century. The information is solid but never without wit: his discussion of its role, usually euphemised, in pop titles such as Britney Spears’s If You Seek Amy is particularly pleasing.
However, as a fellow lexicographer (and, I must admit, a friend — slang is a small world) what impresses me most is the excellence of the overall treatment. The subject happens to be fuck, but this is how any such study should be conducted and sadly so rarely is. Not via the slipshod infantilism of the Net’s Urban Dictionary, but disinterestedly, seriously and in depth. The F Word, I would suggest, is a template that we would all be wise to follow.
I offer two criticisms: although he has a number of euphemisms (frig, fug, frak) he has resisted, perhaps deliberately, naf, as in Princess Anne’s much-reported exclamation Naf orf! Nor can I find the dismissive fuck that for a game of soldiers. But that doesn’t mean he has overlooked it, it simply doesn’t appear as a headword. Dictionaries, naturally, do not offer indexes.
In short, The F Word is a gem in its lexicographical expertise and its scholarly explication. There will be nothing better, at least until Jesse Sheidlower produces a fourth edition.
[Jesse Sheidlower [ed], The F Word; Third Edition; published by Oxford University Press, New York, September 2009; hardback, 270pp; publisher’s list price $16.95; ISBN13: 9780195393118; ISBN10: 0195393112.]
• “Orlando Bloom had a wide smile on his face as he helped girlfriend Miranda Kerr into his car last night,” began a story in the Daily Mail on 4 September. It went on, “Australian supermodel Miranda showed off the long limbs which helped her bag an A-list boyfriend in a short pink strapless dress, with matching court shoes.” The photograph that accompanied the report, Philip Franklin comments, suggested that Mr Bloom had had time to change into something less revealing.
• An example of a headline that misleads through excessive brevity appeared in the Washington Post on 4 September: “Gates May Be Open To Troop Increase”. Many thanks to Ed Sundt, who helpfully explained for foreigners like me that Robert M Gates is the US Secretary of Defense.
• “The British National Party leader, Nick Griffin,” began a report in the Guardian on 4 September, “said yesterday that the far-right organisation should change its whites-only membership rules.” He added, appropriately but surely inadvertently, “Failure to adapt would lead to our being bled white through the courts.”
• Sometimes a missing apostrophe changes the meaning, Eoin C Bairéad notes. He saw a sign on a shop in George’s Street in Dublin: “Were open”. A casualty of the recession?
• Vanda Hamilton read a report on the Australian Yahoo! site on 4 September about a man who was shot in a Sydney suburb: “‘His body was lying next to the car,” Ms Norris told reporters... [She said] it was the last thing she expected to see when she arrived home. ‘Yeah, it’s a really quiet street, I mean it’s a dead end.’”