09 Jul 2011
1. Feedback, notes and comments
The wanderer returns Holiday over and back to work. No more Arctic sun shining on icy mountains, no more sea eagles, pods of whales, huskies, and delightful Norwegians — not least Queen Sonya, who paid a visit to Vardø on 23 June while we were in port there. I returned to a mountain of mail, not icy but somewhat daunting.
Your Carriage Awaits Brian Ashurst wrote of the type of carriage, “Can I remind readers that brougham should be pronounced broom, though I’m sure it isn’t in most cases.” John Orford argued that growler for the cab referred as much to the alleged evil temper of the drivers as to the noise the wheels made.
Michael Hornsby told me a story. On a foggy evening a man came rushing out of the Savoy Theatre in London after the first night of HMS Pinafore. He saw a figure in a long coat pacing about on the pavement, whom he took to be the doorman, but who was actually W S Gilbert of Arthur Sullivan fame. “Call me a cab,” he shouted, “and be quick about it!” Gilbert took his cigar out of his mouth and eyed the man critically: “Certainly. You are a four-wheeler”. The man responded in infuriation, “You impudent fellow! What the devil do you mean?” Replied Gilbert: “Well, you asked me to call you a cab, and I can hardly call you hansom”. [The first appearance of this story I’ve found was in the New York Times in December 1899.]
Dick Bentley noted that I might have added limousine to my list of motor car terms, though it was never the name of a horse-drawn carriage. It’s from the feminine form of a French adjective that relates to the Limousin region around Limoges; it referred to a caped cloak worn thereabouts. The term was applied to an early motor car because the driver’s seat had a roof over it.
Of Messes in Pots Several British readers were surprised that I made no mention of the West Sussex village, halfway between London and Brighton, with the intriguing name Pease Pottage. There have been many theories about the origin of the name, one suggesting that it referred to the muddy nature of the locality before modern roads.
Peter Weinrich recalled an anecdote about a family who went to a restaurant which was striving to move up-market. The menu included potage du jour and the father called the waiter to ask about it. He went off to inquire, returning to say that “The potage du jour today, sir, is soup.”
Get Ahead, Get a Hat Martin Underwood wrote of one now vanished hat name, “I heard my grandfather use the name in another context; doing the Dolly Varden was a euphemism for emptying the night soil, the sewage from an outside privy. This usage was apparently common in West Yorkshire in the early 1900s. I wonder how that arose?” I have found that a system of collecting night soil in carts was established in Manchester in 1872 at the urging of the local Medical Officer of Health, who wanted to sweep away unhealthy back-yard cesspits. This was during the craze for things Dolly Varden and a business was trying to take advantage of the fashion by naming a scent after her. Mancunians, appalled at the stench from the carts, referred to the new waste-removal system as the Dolly Varden method.
Oops! The issue of 11 June was incorrectly marked in its subject line as being of 11 July. Last Saturday’s issue gave the wrong title to Henry Mayhew’s famous work of 1851; it should of course have been London Labour and the London Poor. In the same issue, joculator, a jester, should have been derived from the Latin word of the same spelling. The Latin source for porray in Of Messes in Pots should have been given as porrum.
2. Weird Words: Grangerise
A work has been grangerised if illustrations have been added from other sources, usually other books. In a transferred sense, the verb can refer to the mutilation of books by removing their illustrations for this purpose.
He wore an ill-fitting frock-coat and a paper collar, and he showed me, as his great treasure and interest, a large Bible which he had grangerised with photographs of pictures.
Tono-Bungay, by H G Wells, 1909.
It’s an eponym. It commemorates James Granger, who would have lived and died as an obscure parish priest (he was vicar of Shiplake in Oxfordshire from 1747 until his death in 1776), had he not been an early and avid collector of portrait prints, amassing in his lifetime some 14,000 of them. In 1769 he published A Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, which combined a chronological catalogue of prints with biographical information. This was a huge success, even among people who didn’t collect portrait prints, and went through several editions.
Grangerisation is also known as extra-illustration. It was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The method was to mount illustrations on sheets of the same size as the book you were grangerising, remove the binding, interpolate the extra sheets and rebind the book. Granger never grangerised — he kept his prints loose in portfolios — and it’s unfair to his memory that his name became attached a century after his death to this scrapbookish hobby.
The most extraordinary example of the type is known inaccurately as the Kitto Bible, actually a copy of John Kitto’s Pictorial Bible of 1838. This was originally in three volumes but had been extended by James Gibbs, a London bookbinder and print-seller, to 60 large volumes that contained 30,000 engravings, woodcuts, drawings, watercolours and printed pages from early bibles.
3. Turns of Phrase: Precariat
This socio-economic term has become more visible in recent months as a result of a book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, by Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath.
He describes the precariat as a newly emerging social class, in part created by trends towards creating a flexible workforce, which has access only to poorly paid short-term or part-time jobs, with no security of employment, support of a trade union or protection by legislation. Wages are often so little better than social security and marginal tax rates so penal that there’s little motivation to look for work. People in this situation see no prospect of change for the better and are becoming dispirited and disaffected. This is leading, he argues, to a group open to exploitation by far-right political parties.
The term is a blend of precarious and proletariat. The press attention given to Professor Standing’s book may have given the impression that he coined it. Reports in recent years have linked it with the rise of a similar class in Japan and suggested it was invented there. It has in fact been a term of left-wing writers in English at least since its appearance in the January-March 1990 issue of Socialist Review. But it was actually coined in French in the 1980s (as précariat). The abstract noun precarity for the concept is also on record; Noam Chomsky wrote in an article in the June 2011 issue of In These Times that it was coined in the 1990s by Italian labour activists.
Part of the precariat, the youthful educated part, is looking for what the book calls a politics of paradise. It is beginning to identify it in the squares of major cities, as the book did predict. Listen to the precariat in Athens, Madrid and in various parts of the Middle East.
Financial Times, 25 Jun. 2011.
In Britain, as elsewhere, labour market flexibility led to a fall in ‘unskilled’ wages and a proliferation of temporary and part-time labour. This expanded the ranks of the precariat — the emerging class of people who experience multiple forms of insecurity and see little prospect of escape.
Soundings, 1 Apr. 2011.
4. Questions and Answers: Put a sock in it
Q From Lou Jandera: I’ve heard a rumour, meaning I was unable to verify the source, that the phrase to put a sock in it referred to early gramophones that had no volume control. It is said that people who were annoyed by the high decibels produced by these machines would suggest that the person operating the player put a sock, rolled up into a ball, inside the horn producing the sound. Seems like a good fit to me. Any way this can be researched or verified?
A I can’t give a copper-bottomed, guaranteed, incontrovertible answer, but there’s enough evidence to give a good pointer to the real source.
The story about putting a sock in the horn of a gramophone has been so widely reproduced in books that it’s unsurprising people believe it. It’s a delightfully unexpected and convincing tale. The image comes to mind instantly of some grumpy parent stuffing hosiery into the horn to muffle the noise of the kids’ records.
The difficulty, as so often with such stories, is the evidence. The first examples appear in 1919, virtually simultaneously in the UK and Australia:
The expression “Put a sock in it”, meaning “Leave off talking, singing or shouting”.
The Athenaeum (London), 8 Aug. 1919.
“But if you want to see a racecourse — a real full-sized dinkum top-hole racecourse I’m speaking of, mind you — come along with me to Tasmania,” chimed in the small voice of a lad who was very fond of apples, “and I will show you —” “Oh. dry up, Tassie; put a sock in it.”
Western Mail (Perth, Australia), 23 Oct. 1919. In number 5 of a series of articles entitled War-Time Sketches, by Louis F Cox.
The need in the first of these to define the expression suggests it was then new in the UK. Both are rather late for it to be connected to gramophones, which had by then been around for some time. I’d also question whether pre-electric machines produced enough noise to make it necessary to quieten them.
Another example provides a further pointer:
“I’m not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow: “We’re not dead yet. On’y I’m not fightin’ for any fuckin’ Beljums, see. One o’ them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o’ bread.” “Well, put a sock in it. We’ve ’ad enough bloody talk now.”
The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning, 1929. The novel is set on the Western Front in France in 1916, during the First World War, which Manning — an Australian — experienced during his service with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The text as he wrote it could not be published in his lifetime because of the authentic bad language it contained.
This and the previous citation strongly suggest that an origin among servicemen in the First World War is most probable, and explains how the expression got into Civvy Street simultaneously in both Britain and Australia — it was carried to both by homecoming soldiers.
There were several similar expressions around at the time. Eric Partridge pointed to the slightly earlier put a bung in it. The similar put a cork in it existed, too. It in all three cases is clearly the mouth.
As I said, it’s impossible to be sure, but I’d put my money on its having originally been First World War slang.
• The biter bit: lots of readers wrote in about my etymology of the word cab, which I described as “a contraction of cabriolet, a light two-wheeled vehicle drawn by one horse that had been around since the middle of the seventeenth century in France, but which had first appeared for hire in London in 1823.” The consensus was that it must have been a well-preserved and much-travelled horse.
• Child cruelty? Hal Keen noted that the Star Tribune of Minneapolis/St Paul for 1 July described protesters at the state capitol: “Some held babies and others held umbrellas to protect them from the burning summer sun.”
• “Quick work!” commented Robin Dawes about a news item on the BBC website on 4 July: “The Duchess wore an electric blue Jacquenta dress, by Erdem, the Canadian-born British designer who designed the dress on her arrival in Canada on Thursday.”
• In another BBC news story, on 30 June, Tim Conway read of the wildfire that threatened radioactive material at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It quoted a manager: “I have 170 people who validate their measures. They’re in steel drums, on a concrete floor.”
• Sean Brady sent a clipping from a local freesheet, the Saffron Walden Reporter, dated 30 June. A report on a wedding said that the happy couple were “jetting off to the sunny climbs of California for their honeymoon.” Yosemite perhaps?
• The Beirut Daily Star of 6 July aroused Pattie Tancred’s interest with this report: “Attorney Salem Salim and his family miraculously survived a fatal attack after unknown assassins fired around 30 bullets at Salim’s home.” Miraculous indeed.