24 Nov 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Big fella Following last week’s piece about gigantic, numerous readers asked about gargantuan. The source is the stories by the sixteenth-century French writer François Rabelais about Gargantua, a giant with a prodigious appetite. It’s not obvious where Rabelais took the name from: the online Wikidictionary suggests it is a much modified version of Egyptian, while a French etymological work argues a connection with gorge, throat, and gargariser, to gargle.
Black stuff On reading my whimsical aside last week in the item on treeconomics, several British readers wrote to assert that treacle mines really do exist in Torbay. Gary Mason commented, “I come from the East Midlands (UK) and treacle mines was (and may still be) a euphemism for sewage works.”
More seriously, Professor James Jensen of the University at Buffalo e-mailed: “I teach a course to fourth-year environmental and civil engineers on sustainability. We stodgy academicians (is leather-elbow-patched an adjective?) refer to the concept as ecosystem services. The idea, as you stated, is that, for example, trees provide more services than just lumber, including sequestration of carbon dioxide. Once again, the media have popularized a flashy name for a scientific concept — see also God particle versus Higgs boson.”
Crossing the Rubicon The Sic! item about the Rubicon restaurant in Australia last week was right to point up its mistake in requesting a booking should be for a “minimum of eight parsons” but I shouldn’t have criticised their use of cakeage. Peter Thoeming was among others who explained: “Cakeage is in fact a regrettable but common charge in Australian restaurants, applied if you have the temerity to bring a birthday cake or something similar, to be served to you and your guests.” The word is, as you will have gathered, new to me. Out of error comes knowledge ...
If you are in need of an obscure Latinate 11-letter word, this may suit you to a T. Even better still, it may be employed as a high-flown alternative for the everyday substitute. Imagine how much a sports commentary would be improved by hearing of the arrival on the pitch of a succedaneum. However, we would first have to train commentators in its pronunciation, which is rather like “suck-see-DANE-e-um”.
It derives from the neuter singular of the Latin succedaneus, an adjective taken from the verb succedere, to succeed. The verb is in fact the source of our succeed, which originally adopted one sense of its Latin precursor — to come after, replace or follow — but which evolved in parallel the sense of reaching some outcome. When its noun success first came into the language, it meant any result, bad or good. Ill success was misfortune or failure and good success was a favourable conclusion. By the late sixteenth century, success by itself came to mean a good success, though ill success stayed in the language almost to modern times.
Both succedaneum and its adjective succedaneous started to be used in writing around the 1630s. We have lost the adjective along the way, but the noun just survives, clinging to the language by its finger tips, though in 2011 Collins tore it from the pages of its dictionary as part of a house-clearing exercise.
This is a famous description from literature of a sailor coming up from below decks:
The head was followed by a perfect desert of chin, and by a shirt-collar and neckerchief, and by a dreadnought pilot-coat, and by a pair of dreadnought pilot-trousers, whereof the waistband was so very broad and high, that it became a succedaneum for a waistcoat: being ornamented near the wearer’s breastbone with some massive wooden buttons, like backgammon men.
Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens, 1848. The character being described is Captain Jack Bunsby.
A more recent appearance was in the introduction to a book with the expansive title of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words, the work of the famous American lexicographer Laurence Urdang: “This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians”, which being roughly translated may be rendered as “This is not a substitute for satisfying the frenzied enthusiasm of the sceptic.”
Heat exchanges I found my wife studying a big dictionary. She told me what she was looking for, but my ancient inadequate ears heard it as horrify, leading to one of those increasingly common moments of mutual incomprehension. The word was torrify, not one in either of our vocabularies. She had encountered it when reading the list of ingredients on the packaging of the sausages she was cooking, which announced that they contained Melton Red Ale made from “torrified wheat”. It was easy to work out that the word was a close relative of torrid, very hot and dry (they derive from Latin torrere, to dry with heat). It turns up often as torrefy, though our sausage spelling occurs by analogy with terrify (and horrify).
4. Questions and Answers: Up the spout
Q From Isabel Henniger: What is the history behind the expression up the spout? For example in my mother’s autobiography she wrote that when her thesis advisor lost her thesis in 1930, her hopes for a university position went up the spout.
A Up the spout, gone wrong, ruined, failed or lost, is a slang expression from the British Isles of considerable age, being first recorded early in the nineteenth century. It’s still common:
When your economic sovereignty is up the spout, the smallest negative comment from a foreign leader can create panic among investors and send consumer confidence through the floor.
The Evening Herald (Dublin), 22 Oct. 2012.
To find its origin we must in imagination travel to the low-life world of pre-Dickensian England. Pawnbrokers commonly stored goods that were in hock on an upper floor of their premises, but this required a method by which such items could be moved from their shop counters to storage and back again. This is the way such a device was described in a famous work of in the nineteenth century:
[The chute] reaches from the top of the house of the Pawnbroker (where the goods are deposited for safety till redeemed or sold) to the shop, where they are first received; through which a small bag is dropped upon the ringing of a bell, which conveys the tickets or duplicates to a person above stairs, who, upon finding them, (unless too bulky) saves himself the trouble and loss of time of coming down stairs, by more readily conveying them down.
Real Life in London, by Pierce Egan, 1821.
It was the shape and function of this device, in later years nearer in form to the kitchen lift or dumbwaiter, that caused it to become known to customers and pawnbrokers as the spout. The action of pawning goods was spouting them.
Behold him walking into a pawnbroker’s shop with half-a-dozen pieces of figured waistcoatings on his arm, and a tailor’s thimble on his finger. “Here,” says he, “I’ve got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the trimmings; let’s have three shillings.”
Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social, of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.
Something that had been pawned was said to have gone up the spout. It was so common for the item not to be redeemed because the owner hadn’t the money to do so that to put something up the spout implied a likely permanent loss.
Much more recently, as a separate development but with implications related to those of the original, up the spout came to mean being pregnant, sometimes an unwelcome development among unmarried women. Like the original, it’s still around:
Euan, Kathryn and Nicholas Blair, the children of the ex-PM, 58, had to endure the horror of knowing that their parents still Did It even though they’re old, when Cherie, 57, got up the spout with Leo at 45.
Daily Mirror, 15 Nov. 2011.
• The November issue of the newsletter of the Turlock Gospel Mission (TGM) of California has arrived here, courtesy of Michael Fuller. It says: “Since the opening of TGM to now, we have served 58,214 hot meals every single night through the Meal Ministry.” A miracle!
• Finding the right words can be a problem. John Douglas learned that the British recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark are advertising a vacancy on their website: “Our client is seeking a Project Officer to join their thieving housing and regeneration team within there North London Local Authority.” Ann Jones supplied a sentence from the newsletter of her hair salon in Auckland, New Zealand, advertising its new private room, which is “ideal for the disconcerting professional that wants to work while having their hair done.” Ira Rimson reports that the Albuquerque Journal of New Mexico reviewed a Chinese restaurant on 15 November: “Chinshan can serve indecisive families for dinner, offering group meals with a variety of dishes.” And S Barton tells us that a restaurant menu in Edmonton, Canada, offered “tenderlion”.
• Dan Perlman found this blurb about The Kiso Diet on Amazon: “Reading this book will give you the knowledge you need to guard yourself against cancer, joint degeneration, heart disease and brain health.”
• The Daily Telegraph of 20 November, notes Neil Marr, “reported on the new Celebrate how-to book for well-heeled party-throwers by Pippa Middleton [sister of Kate, now Duchess of Cambridge]: ‘She [Pippa] has been in twice now to sign books and it appeals very well to our customers. They have flown off the shelves.’”