24 May 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Colporteur Roderick Webb wrote “The best book about a colporter is the wonderful The Bible In Spain by George Borrow dated 1843. This eccentric English traveller financed a long walking tour of Spain by agreeing to distribute Bibles for the Tract Society. The result was surely one of the best travel books ever written.”
Tom Knight noted “I knew that, among Jehovah’s Witnesses, the term colporter was used of their full-time evangelists until 1931. I was unaware that Seventh-day Adventists continued to call their evangelists colporters as late as 1980, until I saw a reference on Wikipedia.” Kenneth Michie added “I was brought up in a Church of Scotland manse in the 1940s and 1950s. I clearly remember my father having visits from a representative of the Scottish Colportage Society. I have just found a link to its existence in the 1960s.”
Several readers pointed out that in German relatives of the word have taken on negative meanings, Kolportage means something cheap and sensational; a Kolportageroman is a trashy novel. The verb kolportieren means to peddle rumours or false information. “It’s also still current in Dutch,” Richard Bos noted. “The only meaning now is the door-to-door vending of printed materials you mention, and especially of subscriptions to magazines and encyclopædias. It’s also gained the meaning of an itinerant pedlar of cheap rubbish. It’s not a good thing to be called, as it implies undesirable wares, a certain lack of honesty, and unpleasant persistence.”
John Fisher reminded me, following my discussion of marthambles, that George Bernard Shaw satirised doctors and surgeons of his day for espousing remedies that were no less fictitious than Dr Tufts’ diseases of marthambles, hockogrocle and moon-pall. In Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma of 1906, the famous surgeon Sir Cutler Walpole advocated the removal of the nuciform sac, a bodily organ unknown to medical science. Shaw was satirising the then widespread practice of removing the appendix in the belief that it would cure various chronic diseases, including mental conditions.
A couple of decades later, the writer and silent-film actor Louis Sherwin was quoted on leaving Hollywood as describing the place as “that paradise of the nuciform brain”. (He also said “I am glad to say farewell to a city where the inhabitants know only one word of two syllables, ‘fil-lum’.”)
Nuciform is a sensible and useful English word, albeit one that few of us need unless we’re botanists (or disgruntled film actors who know their Shaw). It simply means nut-like or nut-shaped. The earliest use that I’ve found is in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1843, in an article by a man named, would you believe, Nuttall.
Its origin is the classical Latin prefix nuci-, which derives from nux, a nut. The earliest English word that employed the prefix is the highly obscure nuciprune (from Latin prūnum, a plum), a fruit halfway between a nut and a plum. The botanist Nehemiah Grew created it in 1682 for the walnut, whose plum-like character is elusive. If you would like to be even more obscure, when next cracking a walnut you could refer to the nucifragous implement you’re wielding, in plain English a nutcracker.
Turn o’ phrase The Mike Leigh film about the painter J M W Turner, premiered at Cannes last weekend, has had rave reviews. The Observer commented, “The film also features some succulent period language, such as the imprecation: ‘Brook your ire, sir!’ The film is so well liked here that someone could do a roaring trade in T-shirts: MR TURNER SAYS: BROOK YOUR IRE.” It may be succulent but common it never was — I can find no equivalent examples anywhere. The verb brook means to tolerate or allow something, typically dissent or opposition (it’s from an Old English verb meaning to enjoy and later to digest or stomach). It’s much more frequently found in the negative, as in “He would brook no dissent”. The phrasing may have been an error by the Observer’s man in Cannes, since Chris Knight, writing in Canada’s National Post, renders it as “I beseech you brook your ire”, seemingly an attempt to placate an angry fellow artist. It looks as though the scriptwriter meant Turner to request the other person to curb or control his anger but used the wrong word. I await the public release of the film so that under the pretence of enjoying myself I can do a bit of linguistic analysis.
Arse versus elbow At the end of April Sarah Wendell, who edits the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, raised a small storm of media attention. The process by which printed books are scanned into digital text can suffer problems with recognising characters. OCR (optical character recognition) software is rarely 100% accurate and can fail really badly with older books whose printing isn’t up to modern standards. She discovered that in one horrifyingly hilarious error, arms often turns into anus. This is one out of many that she dug up, in a digitised story by Thomas Lansing Masson from Life magazine in 1900: “Mrs. Tipton went over to him and put her anus around his neck.” Another Twitter user wrote “People think OCR is a cheap way to get old books into ebook format. But to do it right means thorough proof reading is needed.”
I was reminded of this when Francesca Davis emailed me, having found a puzzling word while reading Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience on her Kindle: “You are only a woman, and in tilings of this sort we are so blind and silly.” She couldn’t find any reference to tiling other than in connection with roofing or related matters and wondered if it were some old-fashioned term. It isn’t rare in digitised books archives: “They may do all the right tilings, but they can’t sense the feelings of others”, “There are many tilings which will retard the elevation of woman in Greece” and “She gets so bored, she does all kinds of silly tilings.” My hunt online found a facsimile of the book. It should have read “You are only a woman, and in things of this sort we are so blind and silly.”
4. Red rag to a bull
Q From Bill Fairweather, Detroit: Why do people talk about waving a red rag at a bull when they mean somebody is deliberately angering another? Why a red rag, and why a bull?
A The idiom red rag to a bull has been known in the English-speaking world since the nineteenth century. It can mean either an incitement or provocation or something that causes great annoyance or anger. The alternative red flag to a bull was recorded in its early days and is still in use.
Red rags have had a long history. The first meaning, known from about 1600 and which has lasted almost down to the present day, was of the tongue. To wag the red rag was to talk incessantly. This is a later example:
Shut your potatoe trap, and give your red rag a holiday.
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, 1785. It’s a little late to reassure former vice-president Dan Quayle that potato was indeed at one time often spelled potatoe, which explains why potato has the non-standard plural potatoes.
Literal red rags have many times been suggested as provocations for wild animals. A writer in 1720 stated that turkeys and pheasants would fly in anger at one. Others have mentioned snakes: in March 1809 the Times opined that “Truth to a lawyer was like a red rag to a viper — it extracted his venom.” In a similar vein, Sir Richard Burton noted in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night in 1885 that snake-jugglers removed the poison fangs of snakes by provoking them to strike at a red rag. A book on wildfowling a decade later mentioned a small stand with a mirror and a red rag fastened to it for ensnaring larks. An Australian newspaper many decades ago said that even sheep are enraged by a red rag. An after-dinner toast of the nineteenth century mentions one further animal and adds another sense, the red coats of soldiers: “May our fair [ladies] never so nearly resemble our geese as to be attracted by a red rag.”
The usual explanation of the origin of red rag to a bull connects it with bullfighting. The muleta, the small cape Spanish matadors flourish in the final stages of the bout, has been coloured red ever since Francisco Romero from Andalusia introduced it around 1726. We now know that bulls are colour blind and that it’s the movement of the cape that attracts their attention. Other animals also have poor colour vision and this disposes of the story that the colour reminds them of blood, which discomforts them so much they charge at it.
People were making a direct connection between red rags and bulls from early in the nineteenth century:
The Bulls of Bashan are all roaring against him, and will toss and tear him to pieces like a red rag.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Sep. 1822. The reference to Bashan is Biblical, to Psalm 22.
By the middle of the century, we find the expression taking on its modern form:
You say you don’t see much in it all — nothing but a struggling mass of boys, and a leather ball which seems to excite them all to great fury, as a red rag does a bull.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes, 1857.
It’s no more than coincidence that the earliest known usages of red rag in connection with hunting animals appear shortly before the muleta arrived in Spanish bullfighting. It’s most likely that red, traditionally the colour of fury, was the obvious choice for a thing designed to madden an animal and that the muleta’s colour was chosen for that reason. English speakers created the idiom red rag to a bull as an evocative extension of the idea once bullfighting had become well enough known.
• Don Begleyu saw an ambiguous headline in Slate Magazine on 14 May over a story about the results of a survey by Amnesty International: “American Citizens Fear Being Tortured By Their Own Government More Than Chinese Citizens”.
• Another appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website on 17 May, where Barton Bresnik saw it: “UK tower accused of melting car to get sunshade”.
• An announcement on the website of Powys-Dyfed Police in Wales, about the promotion of an officer, surprised Celia Villa-Landa: “He had responsibility for leading some of the most serious crimes across the force area.”
• On 17 May, Lisa Robinton read a story on Gawker about an invasion of bees in London: “The beekeepers had to smoke the bees into a box and were carried away.”
• Niall McLaren found this in the Hindustan Times of 16 May: “The official was not authorised to give his name to the press without authorisation, which he didn’t have.”
6. Useful information
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