09 Feb 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Following up my piece on sneap, David Jackson wrote, “I lived in South Derbyshire until 2004, and it was not at all uncommon to hear somebody say that they had been sneaped by some comment or action of somebody else. It’s more alive and kicking than you might think!”
Alan Harrison also knows it: “Sneap remains in use in the Black Country [part of the West Midlands of England, named for the smoke and dust produced by its coal and iron industries in the nineteenth century], at least among older people, such as my mother (born 1924, Walsall). It means to speak sharply to someone, in a tone indicating displeasure.”
Russ Willey concurs: “Not that long ago I met a young woman from Stoke-on-Trent. She liked me but suspected I was a bit of a know-it-all, with a tendency to put people down — and she didn’t want to be on the receiving end of any such discourtesy. When I suggested we might date each other, she agreed on one condition: ‘As long as you don’t sneap me’.”
Charles Freeman added: “The quotation from Alison Uttley reminded me that I used to know who she was, but had forgotten. A quick trip to Wikipedia remedied that, which contained the following: ‘She had little time for one of her competitors, Enid Blyton, describing her as a boastful and a “vulgar, curled woman”.’ A sneap if ever there was one.”
This chiefly North American slang term for a ruffian or thug has a claim to fame in that it’s the only word in the English language that contains the letter string ugug (apart, that is, from pug-ugly, which was an attempt at turning plug-ugly into a word that made more sense). It may also be one of the more obscure of slang terms, though this is perhaps too large a claim to withstand much enquiry. But its obscure origins and odd form have generated more tries at explaining it than almost any other.
What we do know is that the word was first applied to one of the notorious gangs that terrorised the big cities of the eastern US in the years before the Civil War. The infamous Fourth of July riot in New York in 1857 is said to have been between the Bowery Boys, joined by the American Guards, and an alliance of the Plug-Uglies and the Dead Rabbits.
The Plug-Uglies originated in Baltimore and — like other gangs of the time — were politically aware and active. An early reference to them was in a report from Washington just a month before the New York riot:
A gang of organized desperate rowdies, some fifty in number, called the “Plug Uglies”, arrived here this morning from Baltimore, for the purpose of defeating the Democratic ticket.
New York Daily Times, 2 Jun. 1857. They were supported by two local gangs, the Rip-Raps and the Clunkers. The Plug-Uglies managed to acquire a cannon from the Navy Yard, but were unable to fire it. They were eventually dispersed by the US Marines.
Various attempts have been made to explain plug from its various senses. One tale is that gang members were ugly because they had been plugged — punched in the face. Plug is recorded at the time for a homely person, which might make plug-ugly a reduplicated compound. It has been argued that the name derives from competing Baltimore fire-fighter companies who became combative around fire-plugs. In his Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman suggests that as plug in its various senses is of Dutch origin and as it means a subordinate or servant in the current dialect of Groningen, it might have had the meaning of a wicked underling. An early report claimed that the Plug-Uglies got their name because of the plug hats they wore, stuffed with paper and forced down over their ears as improvised protective headgear. Yet another story reads like a tale told to a naive foreigner:
“Plug-Uglies” ... Several years ago I was in Baltimore, where the class of rowdies who originated this euphonious name abounded, and was told it was derived from a short spike fastened in the toe of their boots, with which they kicked their opponents in a dense crowd, or, as they elegantly expressed it, “plugged them ugly”.
The Times, 4 Nov. 1876.
Whichever story is correct (I favour the one about the plug hats), the name had reached Belfast by 1856 and the events of 1857 were widely reported in the British press, though plug-ugly didn’t enter the local vocabulary. By the middle 1860s, the term had lost its capital letters in North America and had become generic for a ruffianly and rowdy gang member. I suspect that the works of one writer in particular made it more familiar to British readers:
“Why, say, suppose a plug-ugly sasshays [sic] up to you on the street to take a crack at your pearl stick-pin, do you reckon he’s going to drop you a postal card first?
The Coming of Bill, by P G Wodehouse, 1920.
3. Australia's Words of 2012
Phantom vibration syndrome is the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2012. This is a form of technological anxiety, sometimes called ringxiety (ring + anxiety) in which mobile phone users with an obsessional fear of missing incoming calls become convinced that the phone has vibrated to indicate a call when it hasn’t.
It was selected from the results of public voting in 15 categories by the committee overseeing the 2012 awards, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Dr Michael Spence.
Phantom vibration syndrome reminds us that technology has disadvantages as well as value. The reverse view was marked by the committee’s honourable mention of crowdfunding, a technique by which projects and causes gain funding through small donations sent in through social media networks and websites. Whether you consider that technomite is positive or negative depends on your worldview; it was another honourable mention, a humorous term for a young child adept in using digital media.
All these, of course, are found throughout the online world and know no national boundaries. An honourable mention of the committee that’s rooted in Australian culture is marngrook, although it's not a word that’s specifically linked to 2012. It was a game played by Aboriginal people in south-east Australia before European settlement (the name means “game ball” in aboriginal languages of the state of Victoria). Large numbers of players took part over an extended area using a ball made from various local materials, such as stuffed possum skin. The game reads like a cross between soccer and basketball — a player dropped the ball on his instep to kick it high in the air and other players leaped to catch it. Contemporary reports suggest it was more like an extended kick-about, with no real rules, scoring or winner. It has been cited as an influence on Australian Rules football.
The other honourable mention was First World problem, which was explained by the Macquarie Dictionary as “a problem that relates to the affluent lifestyle associated with the First World that would never arise in the poverty-stricken circumstances of the Third World, as having to settle for plunger coffee when one’s espresso machine is not functioning.”
Among the other terms selected by visitors to the Dictionary’s website as winners in individual sections were peachcot, a stone fruit with a smooth skin, a cross between a peach and an apricot in appearance and flavour; green tape, bureaucratic regulations and associated paperwork deriving from environmental legislation; and wine flu, a colloquial term for a hangover.
This turned up in my newspaper during our recent snowy weather in an article discussing the value of winter tyres. These grip better, it was said, because of the increased number of sipes in the tread. It not being a word in my vocabulary, some investigation seemed to be in order. This led me to an intriguing etymological puzzle.
It was easy enough to discover that, for tyre manufacturers, sipes are small transverse slits in the tyre surface that help water disperse. My dictionaries say that the word started to be used in the 1950s. A search seemed to confirm this, as the earliest I could uncover was the following advertisement:
For your driving safety this winter have your tires trued and siped by one of our specialists. Siping provides you with better stops without skids and fosters starts on wet or icy roads.
Pampa Daily News (Texas) 20 Nov. 1953.
As I dug deeper into the history of tyre making, I repeatedly found a story online (see Wikipedia in particular) that attached sipe to a rather shadowy individual who is known almost solely for patenting a way of making tyres with slits in the tread (United States Patent 1452099 of 1923, if you’d like to look it up). The man was John F Sipe. The references that mention him assume sipe is an eponym.
Hardly anything seems to be known about Mr Sipe, though the patent says he was from New York. There are various individuals of that name in the historical record, but none can be him. Some of the stories say that he was a slaughterman who slit his rubber-soled shoes to increase traction on slippery floors. However, in the decade before 1923 seven other patents — for vehicle wheels, springs and tyres — were awarded jointly with Harry E Sipe, presumably a relative. These point instead to the Messrs Sipe being actively involved in the motor vehicle business.
My feeling is that the word cannot be a eponym. The patent seems to have attracted no attention at the time. If it had been taken up, a term for it would have appeared much earlier. Would those who named the tyre technique in the 1950s remember him, thirty years later?
Those dictionaries that include sipe all say it derives from the Old English sipian, for water that slowly oozed or soaked into the ground. We might say it means seep but that would be the error of defining a word in terms of itself, since seep is no more than an eighteenth-century respelling of sipe. There might seem to be a link with sip, but that’s Middle English and probably comes from a Germanic source allied to sup.
In the nineteenth century, sipe (or sype, cype or other forms) was mainly a dialect word of Scotland and northern England. The English Dialect Dictionary defined it expansively at the end of the nineteenth century as “to percolate slowly; to ooze, trickle, leak, drip”. It could also mean to extract the last drops from a container or drain a vessel to the dregs, so a siper could be a heavy drinker or a drunkard. In some parts of Scotland even today, to sipe clothes is to let them drip dry.
Sipe was taken to the US and is known in some places, though to confuse unwary researchers it has been usually been said as “seep” (this may have been an English dialect pronunciation of the eighteenth century that led to the change in spelling in standard British English). The laws of Illinois and Mississippi, for example, still include it, referring in one place to “the unsanitary accumulation of sipe water or surface water”.
It’s much more likely that the technologists who developed sipes named them from that word rather than from an obscure inventor of 30 years before. It’s a coincidence, though an odd one. That makes the stories about Mr Sipe just another example of folk etymology.
• “A bit harsh on the archaeologist,” commented Bernard Robertson-Dunn on a New Yorker report on 4 February (also submitted by Jonathan Goldberg), which has since been changed: “‘Beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September, 2012, is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England,’ Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist, said at the press conference. (He will be reburied in the cathedral in Leicester.)”
• This sentence comes, via Rob Young, from the online edition of The Geelong Advertiser (Victoria, Australia), dated 2 February: “Police said they would investigate whether another car was involved in the collision before fleeing the scene.”
• A sign outside a church in Friendswood, Texas, Bob McGill tells us, advertises that their Sunday School has “Three-year-old openings”.
• Clara McIver found the perfect item for her dream kitchen on Amazon: “For more than twenty years ClickClack has been the leading name in aesthetically pleasing and highly fictional kitchen storageware.”
6. Copyright and contact details
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2013. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.