Saturday, 28 January 2012

More poo, and some words from tanning

My quest to find the root (and route) of ‘pure’ has thrown up a few dainties.

Searching for incidences of ‘pure’ has so far taken me back to the sixteenth century, but I can trace the word itself to no earlier than 1780.  A Compleat & Effectual Method of Tanning without Bark (1729) does not mention dog excrement, and neither does Brief Directions how to tanne leather according to a new invention made out by severall of the principal tanners (1680).  And, sadly, I cannot find it in Ned Ward’s London Spy.

A trawl through a handful of lengthy Acts of Parliament from the early eighteenth century has revealed no ‘pure’, but a lot of exciting language to do with the ‘feat, craft or mystery of a tanner’ – ‘feat’ here meaning no more than ‘activities’.  An Act concerning tanners, curriers, shoemakers and other artificers, occupying the cutting of leather (1718) immediately points to the word ‘curry’, which is still in use to describe the preparing and dressing of hides.  ‘Curry’ here comes from an entirely different root from that which produced ‘cure’, which since the mid-seventeenth century has also meant ‘prepare for keeping’.  Both processes, currying and curing, in the seventeenth century employed salt. 

Skins were dressed in ‘allom and salt, or meal, or other Ingredients properly used by the Tawers of white leather.’  This is as near as the Act comes to describing dog-poo, though other excrements are described – ‘culver-dung and hen-dung’ (a culver is a pigeon, and the OED describes this word as ‘now the name of the wood pigeon in the south and east of England’, which is a new one on me).  ‘Culver’ is a word which appears to have no connection to any similar word in any other language; the OED discounts claims that it is related to the Latin columba.  Like ‘dog’ it seems to be an English word that has materialised out of the English earth, or air.

An alternative word for currying was ‘frizing’; to ‘frize’, later ‘frizz’, was to rub the skin with a pumice stone in order to produce a uniform thickness, though in the late seventeenth century it was also used to describe roughening the leather on one side, to produce a surface similar to suede. 

The skins described in the Acts include calf-skins, kips (a kip was the hide of a young or small animal, and again seems to be a word invented in English), hog-skins, dog-skins (the OED points out that this commodity was familiar enough to have produced a fourteenth-century family name; and the citations indicate that dog-skin produced fine soft leather).  Also mentioned are ‘slink calf-skins’; slink here comes from the use of the word to mean ‘give birth prematurely or abortively’, a usage which dates from the seventeenth century.  ‘Slink’ or ‘slink lamb’, for example, was also the name applied to the meat of an aborted animal, usually classified as ‘bad meat’, while the skin, also called ‘slink’ if from an aborted or stillborn calf was considered to produce the finest vellum.  Skins were ‘tawed’ in ‘wooze’ or ‘shomack’ (spellcheck working overtime here).  ‘Tawing’ was softening, an early stage in the tanning process.  ‘Ooze’ comes from the Old English word for ‘sap’, and Eric Partridge proposes it is ‘probably akin’ to ‘virus’, particularly appropriate here.

Observations on Leather, printed in 1780, provides more exciting stuff.  For stripping hair off the hides ‘a liquor is made of Hens or Pidgeons Dung; this is called a Grain’.  Elsewhere this liquid, and the vat where it does its stuff, is called ‘grainer’. Other vats, generally during this period called ‘fats’, used in the tanning process, contained ‘drunch’, a mixture of wheat-bran and water, and the oak-bark-based tanning liquid itself, known as ‘wooze’, ‘ooze’ or ‘ouze’. 

Oak-bark, providing tannin, was the source of a lot of legislation; removing the bark at the wrong time of the year could damage the tree, and as oaks were essential for defence, being used in shipbuilding, this had to be controlled.  Brief Directions … (1680) begins with a description of the time of the year to take the bark: ‘First all the Tops or Loppings of Oake of what Age or Growthe soever, or young Oaken Coppice wood, from two to ten or twelve years growth, being cut and gotten in the spring, at or a little before the Leafe shoots forth, or in Barkingtime: The Sap (which is the main and sole cause of Tanning) being then the most fluent and powerful in it, will Tanne all sorts of Leather, or the Tops of those Trees that the Bark is stript off, or the Tops of Coppice wood stript as aforesaid will be as serviceable.’  The Tanners reasons against the exportation of bark (1695-1718) uses the term ‘coppice-bark’.  ‘Barkingtime’ begs to be reintroduced; ‘barking mad’ first appeared in 1900, and ‘barking’ alone in 1991.

‘Drunch’ was an early form of ‘drench’; by the mid-nineteenth century it had become ‘drench’, a term used for any process or medium of soaking.  The leather was tanned with ‘shoemake’ – which looks like a word made up to describe exactly what it does, but is more probably a folk-etymology for the plant sumac; the spelling ‘shoemake’ was in use from the sixteenth century.  The hides were ‘very well limed (soaked with lime), then flesh’d (any flesh or sinew removed) and struck as before, then put in a Liquor made of dogs-dung and water, this is called Puer’.  And this is the earliest use of ‘pure/puer/pewer’ that I have found.  The use of ‘flesh’ as a verb here points to its inclusion in that group of words that can carry two completely opposite meanings – to add flesh, or to remove flesh, as here; and ‘pure’ itself could reasonably claim inclusion in the group.

The Art of Tanning (1774) uses the terms ‘dogs confit or masterings’.  The book later explains that ‘confit’ is the French term, while ‘masterings’ is the English word, in both cases describing a mixture of dung and vegetable matter, to be laid on by hand.  ‘Masterings’ do appear in the specimen financial accounts shown in the book, but not as a priced item, so there is no evidence as to what was paid for what was specified as ‘dogs dung, pigeons dung, and henhouse dung.’  The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a ‘pit of water impregnated with pigeon dung (called a grainer or mastring)’.  ‘Confit’, which became ‘comfit’ in English, would have been understood as ‘a preparation’.  ‘Comfit’ also carried the meaning of ‘sweetmeat’ - if a recognisable French word carrying the connotation of a sweet was used at all in English tanneries this would no doubt have caused sniggers all round during the Napoleonic period – which connects nicely with the proposal that the use of the word ‘pure’ was semi-satirical itself. 

It begins to look like dog excrement was not an ingredient in tanning until the second half of the eighteenth century; the further back we go the absence of references in texts which detail other kinds of dung render it more likely that this particular ingredient was not used. A 1564 Act of Parliament controlling tanning processes carries very specific prohibitions against putting ‘any thing in any lycour, stuffe or workmanship in or about the tanning of leather but only lyme, Culver donge or Hen donge, and that in colde water onlye, and wooses made of colde water and Oken barke onlye.’

Finally, the word ‘tanner’, which as well as an occupation meant a 6d coin (a sixpence), surely one of the most attractive coins ever minted.  Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers two possible roots, the Romany tawmo, (Hotten gives tawno) meaning ‘small’; and ‘a ponderous Biblical joke’ dependent on a wilfully obtuse interpretation of the words ‘St Peter lodged with one Simon a tanner’, from the King James Version.  I like Hotten’s link to ‘teeny’, more plausible than his link to the Latin tener, ‘slender’ which he follows with a question-mark.  The regularity with which tanners still turn up in allotments, under floorboards and along forest paths indicates how easily they slipped out of the pocket.  Maybe human tanners after a career of handling some rather unpleasant stuff just got dried out and seemed to be on the point of shrinking away, like Tollund Man.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Pure filth

‘Why?’ and ‘how?’ are the first questions that come to mind on finding that the word used to describe collected dog-poo for the nineteenth-century tanning industry was ‘pure’.  A more improbable word for this substance would be hard to imagine.  Curious too that the first documentation in the OED dates from 1842,  by which time the word had several centuries of being associated with the complete absence of defilement.  In the four quotations in the OED entry for this usage there are three given spellings – pewer, pure, and puer.  The first one, from the Penny Magazine, 1842, specifically states that the spelling is conjectural since the writer had only heard the word, and not seen it written down.  This rings true, as the people who took on this job would be unlikely to have the benefits of reading and writing, though tanning companies must have kept some records of payments made to collectors.  Mayhew, 1851, suggested the substance was called ‘pure’ because of its ‘cleansing and purifying properties’.  Partridge gives it as changing from a colloquialism to a jargon word (i.e. a technical term) about 1905.

Three centuries earlier ‘pure’ was used to describe ‘pured’ fur, in this case fur trimmed in such a way as to show only one colour – this was also known as  ‘pured’ and ‘purray’.  These derive from the verb ‘to pure’ in the sense of refining impurities, particularly impurities of colour – which links to another OED mention - 'purwyt', meaning ‘pure white’, dating from the fourteenth century.  This usage, applied to white, survives in the phrase ‘pure white’.  So a conjectural passage is from ‘purifying’ to ‘preparing’ to ‘the substance which was used in the preparation process’.

Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1865, gives ‘Pure Finders – street-collectors of dogs’ dung’, as a footnote with no explanation – as other footnotes do give explanations this implies that the process was generally known.  Grose's The Vulgar Tongue, 1785, does not have it (but does give as a meaning for ‘pure’ – ‘a harlot, or lady of easy virtue’, which might be a joke or wishful thinking or placatory, or any combination of these).  As a final twist, a Google search for ‘pure tanning’ provides pages of businesses which offer to turn you brown rather than white.

I am grateful to Lucy Inglis for the information (17th Jan) that Ned Ward's London Spy, 1690, uses 'pure' in the sense of dog excrement, which would support the idea that the usage had a long pre-nineteenth-century existence as a spoken word.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


A student in today’s ‘Ways of Reading’ workshop is hoping that a friend’s term ‘banerk’ will catch on - it’s a mixture of ‘bananas’ and ‘berserk’.  ‘Berserk’ came from an Icelandic term for ‘battle-crazed warrior’ and was originally used as a noun rather than an adjective.  My favourite berserk or berserker is the Isle of Lewis chesspiece in the British Museum, who appears to be eating the top of his shield.  Does ‘to go bananas’ mean to be 'stupid-mad’ or ‘angry-mad’?  Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English doesn’t have ‘bananas’ in any sense of ‘crazy’, but the OED quotes A J Pollock’s Underworld Speaks (1935) to give the meaning of ‘sexually perverted’.  The idea that ‘going bananas’ has some physiological link to the high amounts of sucrose and potassium in the fruit is sadly unlikely.


The current book I’m reading in the morning after breakfast is Roberto Casati’s The Shadow Club, recommended naturally - it’s a study of the cultural and scientific history of shadows.  I got this morning to the section What do we think we know about the moon?, and I quote the first sentences: ‘The students were reminded that a lunar eclipse is produced when the earth casts its shadow on the moon.  Then they were asked whether lunar eclipses are more frequent when the moon is full or when it’s in its first or last quarter – when there’s only a crescent moon.  The majority of students believed eclipses are more frequent with crescent moons.

I was not concentrating during the first sentence, but the move into italics brought me up sharp.  Quickly doing the mental picture in my head I calculated that a lunar eclipse would happen when the moon is new, surely – an eclipse caused by the moon, its shadow falling on the earth.  Completely wrong – a lunar eclipse happens when the earth is between the sun and the moon.  The ‘-ar’ suffix in an adjective does not mean ‘caused by’, but ‘pertaining to’.  The derivation of the ‘–ar’ suffix is the Latin –arem­, which comes into English as ‘-ar’ or ‘-al’, as in ‘scholar’ or ‘legal’, with the meaning ‘pertaining to or belonging to’.  Thus, a lunar eclipse is one which pertains to the moon, and ‘belongs to’ the moon, and certainly happens on the moon.  The process is reversed for a solar eclipse, which happens on the surface of the earth, when the moon moves between the sun and the earth.  Only the egoism of the human gaze sees a solar eclipse as one which pertains to the sun rather than the earth. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Re Orientation

A current discussion I’m involved in on Twitter looks at the American preference for ‘to orient’, and how the British English use of ‘to orientate’ receives ‘undeserved scorn’ (@EditorMark).  I wondered whether ‘to commentate’ causes any problems, and the reply came back: ‘Better, usually, to "comment," but "commentate" is a common back-formation first spotted in 1794.’  In earlier days I was heavily leaned upon to say ‘comment’ and ‘orient’ rather than ‘commentate’ and ‘orientate’, though I never knew why.

This sent me looking for other ‘–ate’ ending words, to see if there were any which cuckoo-like had shoved aside ‘non-ate’ forms.  A can of worms. The first one that came into my head was ‘devastate’.  The OED  marks ‘to devast’ as in use from 1537, quotes examples until the 1630s, states that it was frequent in the seventeenth century, but does not appear in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755); it reappears at the end of the nineteenth century, but was ‘not in use’ according to Todd (Cyclopedia, 1835-59).  ‘Devastate’ appeared around 1600 (marked as 1603 in OED), but does not appear in Johnson; the OED states it was not in common use until the nineteenth century.   So there is an apparent gap between the demise of ‘devast’ and the emergence of the common usage of ‘devastate’.  And, with the appearance of ‘devastation’ in 1603, the words appear in the order ‘devast’, ‘devastation’, ‘devastate’, followed by the disappearance of ‘devast’.  Good.  (Curiously, my copy of Barclay’s Dictionary (1812) gives ‘devastation’ but neither ‘devast’ nor ‘devastate’).

‘Facilitate’ appeared in the late sixteenth century, with no variant form of ‘facilate’, despite deriving from Middle French faciliter.  EditorMark also suggests looking at ‘note and notate, administer and administrate, and intone (from c1485) and intonate (from c1631)’.   ‘Note’ was used in the sense of ‘notate music’ from the Old English period until about 1900, when it gave way to ‘note down’; the musical ‘notate’, from 1871, is considered by the OED to derive from ‘notation’, itself dating from the sixteenth century, and used in a musical context from the 1770s.  It is curious that it took 100 years for ‘musical notation’ to give rise to the musical usage of ‘notate’, but its rise coincides with the disappearance of the usage of 'note' for the sense of 'write down music'.

Did ‘to orient’ create the word ‘orientation’, and this give rise to ‘to orientate’, and this in turn push aside ‘to orient’?  ‘To orient’ appears from 1731, ‘orientation’ from 1839, and ‘to orientate’ from 1848, so the chronology works.  But chronology is not causality.  ‘Administer’ dates from 1395, but ‘administration’ predates it at 1350, and ‘administrate’ does not appear until 1538.

Henry Alford, in A Plea for the Queen’s English (1864), does not comment (or even commentate) on any of these, but we might divine his position by his comments on the word ‘eventuate’: ‘another horrible word, which is fast getting into our language through the provincial press’.  Fowler (from Burchfield’s revised third edition, 1995) examines the problem of ‘orient/orientate’, and prefers to use the shorter version, but ‘can have no quarrel with anyone who decides to use the longer of the two words’.  Incidentally, the OED states that ‘orientate is commonly regarded as an incorrect usage in American English.’

Another mistake

The absence of a Celtic or Germanic name for the cherry indicates that the tree was not native to north-west Europe; the Old English word ciris or cirse, found only in compounds like cirisbeam, meaning ‘cherry tree’, was replaced in Middle English by cherie, adopted from the Anglo-Norman and Old French cherise.  It is thought that cherie was constructed as a singular from the mistaken idea that cherise was plural.

from Discovering Words in the Kitchen.

Oh dear

For today's students from Southampton Solent University, I hesitate to put this into the public domain; but as I said I would, I’ve extended it:
Silent ‘p’, as in trousers (the old ones are the best)

Providing ‘mnolkep’.  Enjoy.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Tipping the lion

More on the Mohocks (I’m interested in the way that street gangs were taking their names from what were perceived to be violent Americans at this early date – another London gang 1711-14 called themselves Hawkubites, derived from the name of another American Indian tribe).  Further research regarding the 'fish-hook through the cheek outrage' mentioned by Gay in The Mohocks (1712), indicates that the other traceable mention of this offence appears in An Argument, proving from History, Reason, and Scripture, that the present Race of Mohocks and Hawke-bites are the Gog and Magog mentioned in the Revelations; and therefore that this vain and transitory World will shortly be brought to its final Dissolution.  Written by a Reverend Divine, who turns out to be John Gay, writing in 1712.  

But, lest anyone should think this is trivialising the whole business (which many felt at the time was being whipped up by the two political parties to discredit their opponents), it must be remembered that the panic that kept Londoners indoors was brought about by some very real physical assaults.  One offence perpetrated by the Mohocks was ‘tipping the lion’, found in The Spectator, No 324, 12 March 1712 and in Gay’s The MohocksJonathan Green’s new Slang Dictionary (2011) gives references for the phrase from between 1785 and 1823, but Hotten (1865) does not include it at all, so it may have gone by then.  Francis Grose in The Vulgar Tongue (1785) interpreted ‘tipping the lion’ as ‘to flatten a man’s nose with the thumb, and at the same time to extend his mouth with the fingers, thereby giving him a sort of lion-like countenance’.  Not pleasant at all, and none too safe for the perpetrator, who would be likely to have his fingers savaged.  Richard Steele, writing in March 1712, gave a definition of a much more aggressive action – ‘Some are celebrated for a happy Dexterity in tipping the Lion upon them; which is performed by squeezing the Nose flat to the Face, and boring out the Eyes with their Fingers’.  The editors of the OED were evidently so affected by this phrase that they used it as an illustration both for ‘tip’ and ‘bore’, the only occasion I have found where a quotation is used for more than one word. 

While I can see that the act described in Grose may give the impression of a lion’s face, something about it does not ring true.  Daniel Statt (The Case of the Mohocks: rake violence in Augustan London, Social History, Vol 20 No 2, 1995) examines the extreme physical violence, with fists and feet rather than weapons, used by the Mohocks against women rather than men, and points out that the few men indicted for Mohock violence had recent military combat experience; but he does not mention ‘tipping the lion’ or whether it was carried out against men or women.  In Gay’s The Mohocks, while the captured watchmen are being paraded before the justices by the Mohocks pretending to be watchmen, the phrase is ‘tip the lion upon five several of her Majesty’s true-born subjects’, similar to the way Steele uses it.  ‘Tip’ here was used in the sense of ‘give’ – ‘tipping the lion’ would mean ‘giving someone [the characteristics of] a lion’.  Poking someone’s eyes while squashing the nose would inevitably produce a screwed up face, raised upper lip and a roar of pain.

Despite the moral outrage of the government and city authorities very few of the Mohocks were indicted, tried or found guilty.  For four of those wealthy gentlemen who were found guilty of assault and riot, the punishments were modest fines, in one case of three shillings and four pence; the fines were, as Statt points out, given ‘at the same session in which [the court] was meting out penalties of a day in the pillory and whipping at the tail of a cart to women and men who had committed petty property offences.’   Statt points to this as evidence of one level of punishment for offences against the person and another for offences against property, as well as a sense of certain classes of society being above the law. 

Perhaps not unlike some recent discrepancies in sentencing.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Arrowheads and prisoners' uniforms

Though the broad-arrowhead mark has been used on government property since the reign of Henry VIII, it was used to denote prison uniform only from 1870 until 1922.  However there is an earlier association between this mark and prisons:
Ludgate had for centuries a debtors’ prison on its upper floor, above the gate’s arch, and one fifteenth-century inmate was an ironmonger, Stephen Forster.  Debtors were allowed to beg behind a gate at street level, and Forster was fortunate to attract the attention of a rich widow, who asked how much his release fee was.  ‘Twenty pounds’, he replied, equivalent to several thousand in current money.  She paid it, employed him, eventually married him, and agreed with him to make his former prison more comfortable for inmates. 

This story is related in Thornbury’s London Past & Present (1875), with quotations from Maitland (1739) and Strype (1720).  Stow (1598) clearly had little time for the story of Forster begging: ‘some vpon a light occasion (as a maidens heade in a glasse window) had fabled him to bee a Mercer, and to haue begged there at Ludgate.’  But he did ensure that when Ludgate was rebuilt in 1586 the plaque was restored, along with another bearing Forster’s coat of arms showing ‘three broad Arrow heades.’

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Bibs and bobs

These were submitted as blog entries for the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library; as most of them have now been removed I take leave to repost them here, in slightly altered form:

Ctailing words

I was very pleased to read in the Metro (Weds 17th November 2010) in Siobhan Murphy’s review of George W Bush’s memoirs, the spelling of ‘freem’ and ‘moxy’ to transcribe that gentleman’s pronunciation of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.  This especially as I am currently reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, in which ‘ministry’ and ‘archbishop’ become ‘mincery’ and ‘ardship’.  English has dropped bits of words over the centuries – ‘chancery’ is described by the OED as a ‘worn-down’ form of ‘chancelry’ or ‘chancelery’, and ‘cheat’ used to be ‘escheat’.  How long before we become the British Libry?

Further to words losing bits, they can also add bits.  ‘Mischievous’ spawned its variant ‘mischievious’ in the sixteenth century, but is still ‘non-standard’ according to the OED.

Words for the Boys

We had a suggestion form a mixed-gender London sixth-form on the first day of the Evolving English workshops that certain words are more used by boys than girls.  ‘Skeen’ and ‘random’ are boy’s words.  ‘Skeen’ is also more likely to be heard in London and the South than further north.  They are both very passé now, at least in London.

Changing Voice

One of the first groups in for a workshop was a sixth-form from south-west London. We were discussing accents - one of the girls said that she speaks with a south-east accent at school but at home uses the accent from her family, who come from near Glasgow. Not just her accent, her vocabulary changes too, so that she goes shopping with her friends, but with her family she goes to get her messages.  Babies greet at home, but cry away from home; at home she says ‘heid’ and ‘wa’er’, and at school ‘head’ and ‘water’.  She says she switches automatically, and her friends confirmed this.  What happened if she hit her thumb with a hammer, I asked; what came out, south-east or Scots?  ‘It depends where I am’, she said.


The Riot Act has been read.  This eighteenth-century poster has provoked a lot of discussion, particularly the full-stop.  How often do you see a full-stop in a poster?  In workshops our interpretation of this has generally been that it means ‘end of’, that it acts as a marker of the fulfilling of legal and moral responsibility – basically saying ‘shutup and go away’.  Curiously, it means almost the same in current text messaging.  If at the end of a text conversation you get a message ‘ok’, that’s fine.  But ‘ok.’ is different – it means ‘ok, and now shutup’.  One girl said, ‘my Mum uses full stops at the end of text messages all the time.  I hate it.’

We are used to teenagers being the movers and shakers in language change, but maybe weren’t expecting it with punctuation.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Fecking Mohocks

One of the delights of the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library last year was the ‘swearing corner’, a display of material including a copy of Viz and Lady Chatterley’s Lover which we could either judiciously avoid or enthusiastically explore.  Of course we explored it to the full, like the lady who found the rude words in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.  "Fek" was there, or was in the ether thereabouts, and made its way into my Evolving English Explored.

I had not looked into the origin of "feck", and “feckin’”, which I had always assumed were Irish dialect for "f*ck", the spelling driven by the pronunciation, and thus providing an acceptable substitute to "f*ck".  But this is quite erroneous, and what has disabused me is the expression “I’fackins”, which I came across last night while reading John Gay’s play The Mohocks, a silly ‘Tragi-comical Farce’ written to comment on the topical riotous and violent behaviour of a gang of aristocratic thugs who terrorised London in early 1712. 

There’s a curious thing that seems to have happened with the use of this text as a social document.  Either Gay was actually writing about things that happened, or he reflected the panic in the popular press, or his satirical exaggeration (for that is clearly what it is) has been taken as for real.  In the second scene, where the local watchmen are discussing the awful deeds of the Mohocks, Starlight describes them cutting off people’s noses (one of the most often-noted acts of the Mohocks), till ‘all the ground [was] covered with noses – as thick as ‘tis with hail-stones after a storm.’  Another watchman, Frost, beats this with ‘I saw them hook a man as cleverly as a fisherman would a great fish – and play him up and down from Charing Cross to Temple Bar – they cut off his ears and eat them up, …’  Starling counters this with ‘Poh – poh! – that’s nothing at all – I saw them cut off a fellow’s legs, and if the poor man had not run hard for it, they had cut off his head into the bargain.’  And with that we know we are in the territory of the boast competition (of which my favourite is Dylan Thomas’s story of going to school armed with the boast that will finally silence his fellows - that he can fly).  The play also mentions women being strung up by their ankles, but interestingly compares them to press-gangs, the recruiting gangs which kidnapped able men for enforced labour in the navy.

Swift in his Letters to Stella mentions the Mohocks’ acts of cutting people’s faces, notes one occasion that a sword was run through a sedan chair (and states that he will not take a sedan as he feels he will be more at risk), notes that one person charged with being a Mohock was a baronet, but also puts much of the brouhaha down to Grub Street invention.  The Spectator from No 324 also kept up a contemporary commentary on the Mohocks: quoted in John Timbs’ Club Life of London (1866), the journal describes the particular activities of the Mohocks, which would probably now come under the heading of ‘assault’ rather than ‘grievous bodily harm’ – pricking people’s bottoms with swords, tripping people up with swords, poking people’s eyes, and forcing people into barrels and rolling them downhill (but for this last Timbs’ reference is Gay).  Certainly some incidents of gratuitous and extreme violence against individuals did occur – in one case a servant was cut about the face for no reason when seeing a visitor out.  Certainly the culture of street gangs was endemic to London by this time, but equally one can imagine the story being whipped up by bored rich kids wanting to toy with the fears of the bourgeois, and no doubt in the panic random acts of violence were labelled with the name Mohock.  Issue No 324 of the Spectator intelligently proposed that ‘some thoughtless Youngsters, out of a false Notion of Bravery, and an immoderate Fondness to be distinguished for Fellows of Fire, are insensibly hurry'd into this senseless scandalous Project’.  By Issue No 347 The Spectator was doubting the whole story, suggesting that the Mohocks were either a case of mass-hysteria or a story deliberately put out by men to stop their wives from going out to have fun together.

So, in the absence of impartial evidence Gay’s satire appears to have become the source for, or at least to have supported the evidence for some of the crimes credited to the Mohocks, and given the fact that the play was published in the same year as the outbreak, maybe it was John Gay who actually invented the story of the ‘fishing’, which does appear on one website as a reported fact.

But back to "fek".  ‘He must have good luck, i’fackins that ties a woman’s tongue’, states Joan Cloudy in Scene 2 of The Mohocks.  J C Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1865) doesn’t help on this, but the OED traces "feck", "fags", "faikins", "feggings", "fackins", and "feckins" back to distortions of "fay" and "faith".  So “i’fackins” is not different from the Shakespearean “i’faith”.  The "-kin" part is a frequent diminutive to lessen the shock-horror of direct reference to God etc., by pushing the reference on from one subject to something related to it.  Thus "by our Lady" becomes "by our Lady’s kin", shortened apparently to "blinking". "In faith" becomes the improbable "in faith’s kin" shortened to "i’fackins", which gradually shrinks to "fac" and "feck" – and all that remains of "kin" in "feck" is the "k" sound; but I’m conscious that the closeness to "f*ck" (I know we can now say it but I’m not sure of the propriety of writing it) probably strengthens "feck".  But if a proportion of the "–king" in "fecking" comes from ‘kin’, it would be brave to suggest that a greater proportion does not come from analogy with "f*cking". 

So, the long and the short of it is that "feck" is at heart a thoroughly commendable religious affirmation, and thus entirely appropriate to ecclesiastical folks like Father Ted.     

Thursday, 5 January 2012

And all the trimmings

The lights have gone on for the last time, the turkey bones have gone out, the box is out ready for the decorations to be packed away.  A moment to reconsider the verbal traditions of Christmas that take their unquestioned places like the once-a-year china and the dangerously oversized wine-glasses. 

While looking in J C Hotten’s 1865 Slang Dictionary for ‘tosher’ (another story, and it wasn’t there anyway) I saw on the opposite page ‘trimmings’, as in ‘turkey and all the trimmings’, which Hotten defines as ‘the necessary adjuncts to a cooked leg of mutton, as turnips, bread, beer, salt, etc.  Bets are frequently made for a leg of mutton and trimmings.  Or one person will forfeit the mutton if another will “stand the trimmings”.  It is generally a supper feast, held in a public house, and the rule is for the landlord to charge as trimmings everything, except the mutton, placed on the table previous to the removal of the cloth.’

Hotten’s extended definitions are always enjoyable – you get the sense of him wanting to describe something he’s witnessed or experienced, to build up a rounded picture of the usage.

I had always assumed that the trimmings were bits cut off the turkey and served alongside – I’m not sure what, but maybe the neck or some weird offal that only great-uncles would know to appreciate.  Clearly ‘trimmings’ are ‘additions’, while my experience of ‘to trim’ was in the sense of ‘to cut off’ – a ‘trim’ being what you had at the barber’s.  Certainly I was aware of the use of ‘trim’ to mean ‘equipped’, as in ‘a trim ship’, and ‘to trim a hat, or a vessel’; but would we ever use ‘to trim’ now in any sense other than ‘to cut’?

How often do we change the meanings of words so that they swing round 180 degrees?  Probably more often than we think – think of the infamous ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’, and ‘sad’ and ‘silly’.  Apart from the specific nautical and aeronautical usages of adjusting navigational steering devices, all the post 1960 quotations in the OED entry for ‘to trim’ imply cutting.  We trim our expenses, our hair, our word counts.  There is a sense of doing this because they are too long, we do it to conserve strength, to encourage growth; the underlying idea perhaps is of judicious ‘pruning’.  Warily treading into the area of the ‘etymological fallacy’ (that the root of the word is its ‘true’ meaning), I note from Partridge that the root is Middle English trimen, ‘to make strong’, from the Old English trum, meaning ‘strong, firm’. 

In confirmation of the etymological fallacy, trimming my hair didn’t make it stronger.