World Wide Words -- 08 Jan 00

Michael Quinion words at QUINION.COM
Sat Jan 8 03:44:54 EST 2000

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 172          Saturday 8 January 2000
Sent weekly to more than 6,900 subscribers in at least 97 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion                      Thornbury, Bristol, UK
Web: <>    E-mail: <words at>

1. Turns of Phrase: Bluetooth.
2. In Brief: Clicks and mortar, Retailtainment, Snortometer.
3. Weird Words: Lagniappe.
4. Q & A: Sport one's oak, Have one's guts for garters.
5. Notes and feedback.
6. Beyond Words.
7. Administration: How to unsubscribe, Copyright.

1. Turns of Phrase: Bluetooth
This is a specification, developed by a consortium that includes
IBM, Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, and Toshiba, for a radio system that
allows electronic devices to communicate with each other over short
distances without connecting cables. There are currently some 1,200
companies pledged to support this new format, including giants like
Microsoft. It is a buzzword in the computer industry, and it seems
certain that the new format will become universal, most commonly in
portable computing devices and cellphones. One research firm is
predicting there will be 61 million Bluetooth-equipped appliances
by 2003; others put the figure even higher. Typical implementations
are for a hands-free (and wire-free) headset linked via Bluetooth
to your mobile phone in your briefcase; immediate password access
to your office through automatic sensing between Bluetooth
appliances; or automatic data transfer between computers, say in a
meeting. The radio chips are currently expensive, but as they
become less so some pundits say they will even be installed in
toys, which can then interact with TV programs in which they
feature. The format was created by European mobile-phone
researchers and manufacturers; the consortium named it after the
tenth-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united warring

Any Bluetooth device can talk to any other, no matter what brand
name is on the label or what software forms their operating
                             [_Arizona Republic_, Nov. 1999]

A quantum leap beyond the line-of-sight limitations of infrared
communication, Bluetooth radio waves can travel up to 30 feet and
can penetrate walls and other barriers.
                                    [_USA Today_, Dec. 1999]

2. In Brief
CLICKS AND MORTAR  A fashionable term of e-commerce, a play on the
phrase 'bricks and mortar', to describe a firm which tries to
balance a new online presence (the clicks, as of a computer mouse)
with its traditional trading branches or stores (the mortar). Some
analysts argue such firms are merely cannibalising their existing
businesses and have no future either offline or online.

RETAILTAINMENT  Carlos Criado-Perez, the new chief executive of the
Safeway supermarket chain, is reported as wanting to make shopping
fun again. "It is called retailtainment," he said. "I want to make
the lettuce and the fish smile at you."  Should be good for a few
heart attacks at the food counter ...

SNORTOMETER  Journalists have had a lot of innocent fun reporting
on this device, recently devised by British government scientists
worried about people driving while under the influence of drugs. If
you're pulled over, it will spot any cocaine in your blood. The
name isn't official, just a hack's invention as a compound of
'snort' and 'meter'.

3. Weird Words: Lagniappe
Something given over and above what is purchased or earned,
to make good measure or by way of gratuity.

This appeared in the southern states of the USA about the middle of
the nineteenth century. It's a modified form of a Louisiana French
creole term that derives from the Spanish 'la napa', a gift. It was
first used by tradespeople in New Orleans for a small extra item or
bonus that they gave to their most favoured customers. The best
early description of the word was written by Mark Twain, in his
book _Life on the Mississippi_ of 1883: "We picked up one excellent
word - a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber,
expressive, handy word - 'lagniappe'. They pronounce it lanny-yap".
He went on: "The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the
city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop - or even
the mayor or the governor, for aught I know - he finishes the
operation by saying 'Give me something for lagniappe'. The shopman
always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the
servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor - I
don't know what he gives the governor; support, likely".

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. In _Operation Pax_ by Michael Innes is a term I'd welcome help
with, please: 'the oak was sported' to secure the don's room. Is it
a sign or a lock?  [Jennifer Atkinson, Australia]

A. Neither, as it happens. To 'sport one's oak' is a rather dated
expression, mainly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
College rooms of the older sort usually had two doors, an inner one
for ordinary use and an outer, more massive wooden door, called the
'oak', which was normally folded back against the outside wall. (It
was called the 'oak' for the boring but reasonable reason that oak
was the wood most commonly used to make it.) By convention, if you
closed the outer door you indicated that you wanted to be left
undisturbed, say because you were giving a tutorial. 'Sport' here
is an old use of the verb, meaning that one was exhibiting or
showing something.


Q. I mentioned to a work colleague that my sister would 'have my
guts for garters' if I didn't send her a card, but she didn't
understand. Any ideas on the origins of this saying, sadly falling
into disuse, it would seem? [Mark Pritchard, UK]

A. Somehow I don't think this one is going to go away soon, at
least not to judge by its track record. The oldest example I can
track down is from _The Bride of Lammermoor_, by Sir Walter Scott,
published in 1819: "He that would not pledge me, I would make his
guts garter his stockings". But, according to Paul Beale's update
of Eric Partridge's _A Dictionary of Catch Phrases_, it has been
around in various forms since the eighteenth century, was at one
time Cockney low slang or the cant of racecourse toughs, and was a
common reprimand or threat by NCOs in the services during World War
Two and afterwards. As that book notes, it has since risen somewhat
in the social scale to become a macho phrase among some middle

When it first came into use two hundred years ago, it must have
been a serious warning, implying disembowelling, but in modern
times it is merely figurative, implying that one will take some
unspecified action in reprisal for unacceptable behaviour. The
persistence of the expression surely owes a lot to the alliteration
of 'guts' and 'garters', but also to the existence of similar
phrases such as 'to hate somebody's guts'. The fact that modern
British men rarely wear garters, and that when they do they tend to
call them sock suspenders, has not affected the popularity of the

5. Notes and feedback
IMMENSE CHEMICAL NAMES  This provoked many comments, including one
pointing out that I'd spelled one of the compounds wrongly. Alan
Wachtel wrote to say that the huge chemical name first appeared in
_Chemical Abstracts_ in the mid-1960s. He went on the say: "At one
time, proteins whose structure was known were named just as you
described, by the sequence of amino acids composing them. .. As
longer and longer proteins were analyzed, this naming convention
quickly grew unmanageable, and _Chemical Abstracts_ reverted to
calling these proteins by descriptive names. I think the 1,913-
letter chemical name for tryptophan synthetase that you cited must
have been the longest term published before the rule was modified".
[For more, see <http:/>.]

PORNOTOPIA  Several subscribers have told me this word is not as
new as I had supposed, and indeed it is listed in the most recent
edition of _Chambers Dictionary_ (which, by the way, agrees its
derivation from 'utopia' rather than 'cornucopia', as several
people have suggested it might be). It seems to have been used as
far back as 1964 in Stephen Marcus' book _The Other Victorians_.

SWEARING ON ONE'S TESTICLES  Several subscribers more versed in the
Bible than I am wrote to point out that the practice is mentioned
in the Old Testament, though the King James' version bowdlerised
the reference in Genesis to "grasping the thigh". But there seems
to be no evidence that the Romans - a long way away and in another
era - used a similar method. In any case, the Biblical reference
implies that the person is swearing allegiance on the testicles of
the king, not on their own.

OED ON CD-ROM  Following my review in the last issue, some more
information has emerged about the OED web site, which will be a
subscription service. (See <>, especially the
Word of the Day at <> - I should
have mentioned this in the review, as this page is in the same
format as the new CD-ROM).

The online subscription service is to start in March, but rates
have not been announced. The difference between the CD-ROM and the
online site is that the latter will have all the updates and new
material that have been prepared since the Second Edition was
published in book form in 1989, including all the entries in the
three Additions Volumes. It is intended to update the Web site
quarterly with new material.

The subscription service is aimed at organisations such as colleges
and libraries and rates for private individuals are not likely to
be cheap; OUP feels the pricing of the CD-ROM is keen enough that
it will be a better choice for individuals, despite its less
current contents.

No decision has yet been made by OUP about bringing out further
editions of the CD-ROM with updated content. Clearly, it will want
to recoup its very substantial investment in the new version before
replacing it. But it's odd that the recent update didn't include
the additional material now available, as OUP feels the CD-ROM and
online service are directed at different markets. [The CD review,
at <>, has been
updated to take account of this extra information.]

6. Beyond Words
DEPARTMENT OF UNINTENDED ACCURACY  The unexpected arrival of large
numbers of travellers in caravans to the British east-coast town of
Great Yarmouth during the holiday break proved a godsend to the
hard-pressed pub licensees of the town at what is normally a very
quiet time of year. So much was spent on drink that one was quoted
in the press as saying "It's like Christmas down here!".

7. Administration
* To leave the list, send the e-mail message SIGNOFF WORLDWIDEWORDS
  to the list server address <listserv at>.
  The subject line of your message will be ignored.

* WORLD WIDE WORDS is copyright (c) Michael B Quinion 2000. You
  may reproduce this mailing in whole or in part in other free
  media provided that you acknowledge the source and quote the
  Web address of <>.

More information about the WorldWideWords mailing list