World Wide Words -- 12 Aug 00

Michael Quinion words at QUINION.COM
Sat Aug 12 13:46:46 EDT 2000

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 200          Saturday 12 August 2000
Sent weekly to more than 8,800 subscribers in at least 97 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion    ISSN 1470-1448    Thornbury, Bristol, UK
Web: <>    E-mail: <words at>

1. Notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Scrimshaw.
3. In Brief: Astrotel, THINKER, V-commerce.
4. Q&A: As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,
      Elephant and Castle, Shoo-in, Billy-o.
5. Beyond Words.
6. Administration: How to leave the list, Copyright.

1. Notes and comments
ANNIVERSARY  You may have noticed that we have reached a milestone
along our journey to wherever it is we're going - this week's issue
is number 200. The first edition went out on 12 July 1996 to seven
subscribers (the total is now nearly 9,000). That first edition was
a sparse little thing, which did little more than mention updates
to the content of the World Wide Words web site (which has been in
place since August 1995, practically BC in Web time). It was able
to boast that there were nearly 40 pages available; there are now
more than 800 and the site receives in excess of 100,000 page hits
a month, a goodly number for such a specialist endeavour. You may
be sure that I shall continue to work on and improve World Wide
Words - a number of small enhancements are planned for this autumn,
which you should hear about shortly.

SOLAR SAIL  In last week's Weird Words, I should have remembered
that ideas are so often older than one imagines. The concept was
actually described in 1924 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian
space pioneer, and his colleague Fridrickh Tsander, following up
the concept of radiation pressure that had been worked out by James
Clark Maxwell 70 years before. The term itself seems to have been
coined in the late 1950s by the American engineer Richard Garwin,
though Arthur C Clarke did indeed popularise it in his short story
of 1964. And it turns out that the solar wind actually has very
little effect: it's radiation pressure that does nearly all the
work. Thanks to Skip Huffman for telling me more.

Ed Gabris, a senior engineer at NASA, wrote: "Solar sailing is more
than a science fiction fantasy. NASA used solar sailing to increase
the experiment time for the Mercury Mariner space probe in 1974-75.
The 'sail' was the spacecraft's solar panels.  And by controlling
the attitude of the spacecraft and the angle of the solar panels to
the sun, the operations team was able to cause the spacecraft to
visit Mercury several times more than would have been possible with
the on-board liquid propulsion system".

CHIP  In the sense of re-chip, an In Brief item from last week,
several subscribers have pointed out that the term has been common
for many years among those who soup up cars by modifying their
electronic ignition and those who pirate home satellite television
and cable television systems.

2. Weird Words: Scrimshaw
Ivory which has been adorned with carved or coloured designs.

This craft is intimately associated with American whalers, who used
walrus tusks and bits of whale teeth and jawbone to carve intricate
designs in what spare moments they had free. Frank T Bullen wrote
about their methods in _The Cruise of the Cachalot_: "The tools
used are of the roughest. Some old files, softened in the fire, and
filed into grooves something like saw-teeth, are most used; but old
knives, sail-needles, and chisels are pressed into service. The
work turned out would, in many cases, take a very high place in an
exhibition of turnery, though never a lathe was near it". The best
work of these times is still highly prized and very collectable.

The origin of the word is almost totally mysterious; it was first
recorded about 1825, but its spelling in the first half of the
nineteenth century was highly variable, with 'scrimshonting',
'scrimshonging', 'scrimshandy', 'scrimshanking' and 'skrimshander'
all appearing at various times. There's some suggestion that the
final form was influenced by the proper name 'Scrimshaw', but
nobody seems to know quite why. Someone who practises the craft is
a 'scrimshoner'. Since a person who did this on board ship wasn't
working, it may be that the British English 'scrimshank', to shirk
one's duty, came from the same source.

3. In Brief
ASTROTEL  A hotel designed for space tourists, perhaps even plying
between the Earth, the Moon and Mars. So far it's just a thoughtful
look on the faces of blue-sky researchers at NASA, but predictions
indicate it will be in existence by 2040. I'll leave a reminder for
the grandchildren to book me a seat for my hundredth birthday ...

THINKER  Tony Nelson-Smith wrote to say he had seen this lifestyle
abbreviation - on the lines of YUPPIE and DINKIE and their ilk - in
the _Observer_ newspaper. THINKERs have chosen not to have children
(it expands to 'Two Healthy Incomes, No Kids, Early Retirement').

V-COMMERCE  As V is for Voice, you might think this was the old way
of doing business - by talking to somebody. Nothing so simple. This
is voice-commerce 21st-century style, buying things by chatting to
a voice-activated computer. Two technologies lie at its core:
natural language speech recognition (so the computer knows what you
are saying) and speaker authentication (so it knows who you are).
But can you gossip with it? And does it have a sense of humour?

4. Q&A
[Send queries to <qa at>. Messages will be acknowledged,
but I can't guarantee to reply, as time is limited. If I can do so,
a response will appear both here and on the WWWords Web site.]


Q. The phrase "Hung for a sheep, hung for a goat" appeared recently
in a Los Angeles weekly. Aside from the fact that it ought to be
'hanged' not 'hung', it clearly meant from the context "damned if
you do, damned if you don't". But what is the origin of this
expression? [Paul Kujawsky]

A. The writer had his proverbs a bit mixed. The older phrasing is
"As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb", or in more modern terms
"One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". It refers to a
time in England - less than 200 years ago - when the penalty for
any theft of livestock was execution by hanging. If the penalty is
the same in either case, you might as well steal a full-grown sheep
as the smaller lamb. So it doesn't mean what the writer thought it
means, but rather that there's no point in half measures: if you're
going to do something, go the whole way or do it in full.


Q. Sometimes American readers are completely bewildered by
Briticisms. This is one puzzler: what is the origin of 'Elephant
and Castle'? Is it really from 'Infanta of Castile'?  [Barbara

A. As non-Brits may be puzzled by any reference to 'Elephant and
Castle', let alone where the name came from, let me explain first
that it's a district in south London, an important road junction
since at least the eighteenth century. It is now notorious for its
two vast traffic circulatory systems around a rather tatty shopping
centre and some brutalist architecture that houses a government
department. Its name derives from the sign of a public house in the
area, which shows an elephant surmounted by a castle.

As you say, it's often asserted that the name is a corruption of
'Infanta de Castile', usually said to be a reference to Eleanor of
Castile, the wife of Edward I (in Spain and Portugal, the 'infanta'
was the eldest daughter of the monarch without a claim to the
throne). That would put 'Elephant and Castle' in the same class of
pub name as those I mentioned two weeks ago (see <http://www.>) but, like the story of the way
'Goat and Compasses' came into being, it's almost certainly false.

Not the least of the problems is that Eleanor of Castile wasn't an
'infanta' (or at least wasn't known as that - the term only
appeared in English about 1600); the one 'infanta' that the British
have heard about from school history lessons is Maria, a daughter
of Philip III of Spain, who was once controversially engaged to
Charles I. But she had no connection with Castile. The form
'Infanta de Castile' seems to be a conflation of vague memories of
two Iberian royal women separated by 300 years.

The 'castle' here is actually a howdah on the back of the elephant,
in India a seat traditionally used by hunters. The public house
called the 'Elephant and Castle' was converted about 1760 from a
smithy that had had the same name and sign. This had connections
with the Cutlers' Company, a London craft guild founded in the 13th
century which represented workers who made knives, scissors,
surgical instruments and the like. The guild used the same emblem.
The link here is the Indian elephant ivory used for knife handles,
in which the Cutlers' Company dealt.

The real story here is actually rather more interesting than the
one usually told, but a lot more British people have heard of an
'infanta' from history lessons than know about the medieval emblem
of a trade guild.


Q. I love your site and have found it most helpful in many
instances. I was wondering if you could possibly find out the
origin of the term 'shoe in', meaning someone will win for sure.
[Holly Young]

A. This one is spelled wrongly so often that it's likely it will
eventually end up that way. The correct form is 'shoo-in', usually
with a hyphen. It has been known in that spelling and with the
meaning of a certain winner from the 1930s. It came from horse
racing, where a 'shoo-in' was the winner of a rigged race.

In turn that seems to have come from the verb 'shoo' meaning to
drive a person or an animal in a given direction by making noises
or gestures, which in turn comes from the noise people often make
when they do it.

The shift to the horse racing sense seems to have occurred sometime
in the early 1900s. C E Smith made it clear how it came about in
his _Racing Maxims and Methods of 'Pittsburgh Phil'_ in 1908:
"There were many times presumably that 'Tod' would win through such
manipulations, being 'shooed in', as it were".


Q. I just finished attending a wonderful sail-race-training seminar
with a guest lecturer-coach from England, who repeatedly used an
expression I'd never heard before. When he wanted something pulled
hard, he'd say to "pull on it like bilio!" He says it's a common
British expression, and I wonder why I can't find it on the
Internet (except in medical texts about pancreatic surgery!) and
where it came from. Is it related to bile and humours? [Norman
Rubin, Toronto]

A. It's a common enough (though informal) British English
expression. You had trouble finding it because it's usually spelled
'billy-o', or sometimes 'billy-oh'. It means "very much, hard, or
strongly", usually in the phrase 'like billy-o' as you heard it.
It's first recorded near the end of the nineteenth century. Nobody
knows where it comes from, though the first part might be from the
name 'Billy'. It could conceivably be a euphemistic reformulation
of the much older phrase 'like the devil', which dates back to
Shakespearean times. The first recorded use is in the phrase "Shure
it'll rain like billy-oh!", which hints at an Irish origin, but I
can't find anything in Irish Gaelic or history that could be a

5. Beyond Words
Allan Metcalf, Secretary of the American Dialect Society, reported
last week that he had found this highly creative reinterpretation
of the history of the English language on a Web site:

    "Most of the words in the English language were made up
    by the Benedictines and grammarians in their scriptoria,
    some later evolved from the words these linguists invented.
    The monks did the word construction mostly by writing a
    short sentence describing the subject in Basque. In some
    cases they used wisecracks or jokes, even crude remarks
    and personal feelings."

This seems to be from the same school as those deeply misleading
examples of etymological terrorism, "Pluck Yew" and "Life in the
1500s", that now circulate so widely by e-mail. It does remind us
that the Web is not always to be trusted ...

6. Administration
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