13 Oct 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Frosts my grommet Many readers (too many to respond to individually) put me right on this idiom. They explained, often in careful euphemism, that it’s a variation on a ruder phrase that appears in many forms. Lisa McIntyre wrote, “There is a much older, much ruder expression in American English, That really frosts my ass, for things that annoy. There are more polite variations, such as frosts my cookies / cornflakes / cake. I’m guessing substituting grommet for ass is another effort to be more polite, with the grommet alluding to the anus. Plus, grommet is a satisfying word to say, especially if one is irritated!”
Steve Kenney confirmed, “I’ve heard the same basic phrase beginning with frosts my followed by any body part or pretty much anything that could be frosted. A similar expression is chaps my ass and is also used to express extreme disappointment.” John C Britton noted, “It was a bit of an eye-opener when I heard a woman say Well, that frosts my balls!” Ellen Sheffer wrote, “When I was younger (in the year dot), the mother of a friend always said Well, if that don’t just frost my gizzard! This was in Vermont, where gizzards and other things are very liable to be frosted come the winter!” Kelly Erickson reports having come across frosts my pumpkin and frosts my buns from time to time.
And finally, Jonathan Phillips responded, “Am I alone in finding certain words comic, irrespective of their meaning? Do we not all tend to giggle inwardly at the same words? Flange, Grommet, Gusset and Throb, Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths?”. Some words are indeed intrinsically humorous — it isn’t an accident that the lead characters in the Aardman Animations films are called Wallace and Gromit.
Chissicking Peter Hartog commented, “Chissicking would be an appropriate description of one of the characteristic noises made by magpie robins, a common sight — and sound — in suburban gardens of Bangkok. They are most active when hunting insects just before dawn and around dusk. At these times they emit harsh sounds I have previously described as rasping and have also compared to throat-clearing coughs.” Gill Dunn wrote from the UK: “Like many birders, if I heard chissicking I would immediately look for a pied wagtail. Hearing one pass overhead has often been called a Chiswick Flyover.” (The Chiswick Flyover is an elevated motorway in west London; we Brits pronounce Chiswick as chissick.) Also from the UK, Neil Paknadel found the noun as a description of the sound made by the house sparrow; it was in The Birds of Britain and Europe by Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow (1972): “Vocabulary of chirps and cheeps, with a double ‘chissick’, sometimes strung together as a rudimentary song.”
Year dot Peter Weinrich e-mailed: “You write of the year dot that you are not convinced users have thought it referred back as far as the mythical year between 1BCE and 1CE. I can only say that all my life, certainly in our family, that imaginary year is exactly what it did refer to and my grandparents used it in that sense. Had I been asked, that is the definition I would have given. Hardly proof enough to contradict you though!”
“Regarding the year dot,” Ewan Croal recalled, “a common way to describe a long time since (syne) when I was growing up in Scotland was the phrase in eighteen oatcake. It just means that something has been done this way for a very long time, usually longer than living memory! I assume it is just one of those nonsense phrases, where both halves reinforce each other: “How long have craftsmen been making sporrans this way?” “Oh, since at least eighteen oatcake!”
2. Weird Words: Gander month
At one time, a woman was conventionally confined not only to give birth but for a month afterwards, her lying-in period, during which she slowly recovered her strength. The end of this period was marked by her churching, her first public appearance, in which she received a blessing on her safe delivery. She was naturally the household’s centre of attention during this period, with her husband excluded, neglected and at rather a loss.
It was considered unsurprising, at least in some circles, that he should take himself elsewhere and find what consolation he could. Descriptions of his activities in reference works vary in their explicitness. One nineteenth-century writer noted it was the time when “the male of the household must make shift for himself”, while another delicately explained that at that time “a certain license in behaviour is excusable in the male”. The 1811 edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was only a little less ambiguous — it was the period in which “husbands plead a sort of indulgence in matters of gallantry”. Put simply, it was a time when the husband was permitted to sleep around.
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, a roving male at this time was known as a gander-mooner and the period as the gander month. The former term appears first in a play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley of 1617, A Fair Quarrel. The latter is found a little later:
I’ll keep her at the least this Gander month, While my fair wife lies in.
The English Moor, by Richard Brome, 1652.
The Oxford English Dictionary surmises it was an “allusion to the gander’s aimless wandering while the goose is sitting”. It has been suggested that this behaviour is similarly the origin of the nursery rhyme, “Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander”, but there’s no evidence either way. The usage may also include a hint of an old slang sense of gander for a silly or stupid person. But gander was also a general slang term for a male and a gander party was what we would now call a stag party.
Going down Rob Hodge was asked by a friend who had learned to speak English as a second language why we say underneath, instead of the simpler under. His friend pointed out we don’t say overneath or besideneath. True. However, we do say beneath. The confusion here is with the meaning of neath. Underneath is not quite a tautology, as neath means below. It’s from the Germanic nithan or neothan, related to nether, lower in position. It survives in literary English as a word in its own right, though almost always prefixed by an apostrophe to show it’s a conscious contraction of beneath (“Sitting ‘neath the quiet evening skies,” for example, from a poem by Robert Service).
Wisdom of the commons Some years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary benefitted from a British television series, Balderdash and Piffle, in which viewers were encouraged to send in examples of words and phrases that predated those the OED’s own researchers had been able to find. This was successful enough that the OED has announced what it calls a “major online initiative” under the name of OED Appeals. This seeks to involve the public, through what is now fashionably called crowdsourcing, in tracing the history of words of uncertain origin. John Simpson, the Chief Editor of the OED, explained, “The very first recorded usage of many words can be difficult to track down. We can trace certain words and phrases back only so far with conventional tools. An old takeaway menu, a family letter or album, or an obscure journal might hold the key to solving one of those mysteries.”
These are among the first terms, with the OED’s editors’ comments in parentheses: blue-arsed fly (“Was this known before the Duke of Edinburgh was quoted saying it in 1970? The r-less blue-assed fly, however, is attested from at least 1932. Why such a discrepancy?”); come in from the cold (“Did John le Carré coin the phrase? Was it ever used by actual intelligence officers?”); disco (“Was this a type of short, sleeveless dress before it was a nightclub? That’s the surprising implication of evidence we’ve recently uncovered in a source dated July 1964”); FAQ (“Do you have proof of the earliest FAQ? The term is currently attributed to Eugene N Miya, a researcher at NASA, who is said to have coined it c1983 in documents circulated on Usenet. Our earliest verifiable evidence is from 1989 but we’d like to go back further to prove its coinage”); and cooties (“In North America an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected. Our first evidence for this common playground taunt is from 1967, in a children’s novel by Beverly Cleary. The word goes back earlier as slang, originally in military contexts, for a body louse, but we’re looking for earlier evidence of the germ sense.”)
To contribute (please don’t write to me!) or to learn more, visit the Appeals site.
4. Questions and Answers: Kidding on the square
Q From Janet Hughes: I heard kidding on the square for the first time about twenty years ago from an older gentleman whose origin was the US mid-west. Maybe he was pulling my leg. Where did it originate?
A Somebody kidding on the square makes a joke but means it, too. This is a recent example from an author who uses it a lot:
Priepke was smoking a pipe apparently charged with stinkweed. “Everything under control?” he asked. “Everything except that.” Walther pointed at the pipe. “I thought they outlawed poison gas a long time ago.” ... He’d been kidding on the square; the pipe really was vile.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies, by Harry Turtledove, 2003
It’s a native US idiom, hardly known outside the country. It’s often attributed to the comedian, political commentator and senator Al Franken because of this:
I think he was “kidding on the square,” a phrase I hope will catch on. It means kidding, but also really meaning it. People do it all the time. “Kidding on the square.” If this book does two things, I want it to get “kidding on the square” into the lexicon, and I want it to get Bush out of the White House.
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken, 2003.
Readers unfamiliar with it naturally thought it was new and that Al Franken had invented it. It wasn’t and he hadn’t. The idiom is known from the early twentieth century — it turns up in February 1907 in McClure’s Magazine and is often recorded in the years that follow. It's not possible to work out what part of the US it comes from.
Kidding was by then a long-established term of somewhat obscure origin. It was originally low slang of the criminal classes for getting something of value by false pretences; it may be from the slang sense of kid for a child, suggesting that to fool the person was as easy as stealing candy from a baby or that the kiddee was as naive as a child. To kid is to joke, but in particular to fool a person into believing something or deceive them in a playful way.
If you are on the square, you’re honest or sincere, an idea that turns up in other idioms, such as square deal. It may be from a square being an uncompromisingly straightforward shape, but a link with Freemasonry has been suggested. For masons, a square was a key instrument for accurately measuring a 90° angle, those of the corners of a square (also called right angles because they were the correct or true ones), so that a structure on the square had been properly constructed. Similarly, anything off square had something wrong with it.
Putting them together produces the idiom that Al Franken used.
• Marilyn King came across this sentence on the Kitchen Daily website: “Quick tip: When buying a whole cooked lobster, make sure that the tail is curled, which is a sign that it was alive when killed — meaning it’s very fresh.”
• The October 4th issue of the Kentucky Kernel (the University of Kentucky student newspaper) featured the headline “Campus garden, home to over 300 plant species, fears removal.” Sentient plants, what next?
• On 8 October Fred McArdle came across a report on the Cairns Post of Queensland about the sighting of a crocodile near the beach: “Ellis Beach Bar and Cafe staff member Jon Parkin said onlookers watched on as the creature glided past, filming and taking photos.”
• Mike Poliakoff asks “Did he send them out for repair?”. He had read a headline in ESPN’s SportsCenter news feed on 7 October about the Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Terrell Suggs; “Suggs eyes return this month”.
• “Hyphen needed” was the subject line of Hugh Knight’s e-mail from Cape Town on 9 October, reporting a sign on a bargain table at a local supermarket: “Deranged goods”. [Even as de-ranged, this hardly counts as an easily understood term; it presumably refers to a range of items that the store is no longer stocking and is selling off to clear its shelves.]