World Wide Words -- 15 Jan 00

Michael Quinion words at QUINION.COM
Sat Jan 15 03:14:18 EST 2000

WORLD WIDE WORDS        ISSUE 173          Saturday 15 January 2000
Sent weekly to more than 7,000 subscribers in at least 97 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion        Thornbury, South Gloucestershire, UK
Web: <>    E-mail: <words at>

1. Notes and feedback.
2. Turns of Phrase: Grocerant.
3. In Brief: B2B, Go post-economic, WRAP.
4. Weird Words: Pound.
5. Q & A: Organogram, Like a banshee, Blow the gaff.
6. Administration: How to unsubscribe, Copyright.

1. Notes and feedback
SUBSCRIPTIONS  As you may have spotted in the header, subscriptions
have just reached 7,000, largely as the result of mentions of World
Wide words this week in the Christian Science Monitor, the St Paul
Pioneer Press-Dispatch, and the Online Writing digest. In fact, the
list has more than doubled its size in the last year. I'd like to
thank you all for joining this continuing exploration of the quirky
nature of the English language, and also to thank the Linguist List
for hosting the list free of charge: without its help, the mailing
list would have been impossible to manage. On the basis of the more
the merrier, do tell your local media about World Wide Words, as
well as anybody who might be interested in subscribing!

2. Turns of Phrase: Grocerant
This is yet another consequence of our high-speed, must rush, no-
time-to-stop, flat-out living lifestyle. The number of people who
cook proper meals seems to be going down in inverse proportion to
the number who buy cookbooks (in Britain, cookery books), which
makes one wonder what the people who buy them do with them. One of
the newer solutions for people who want to eat but don't have time
to cook is this American invention. Essentially it's a restaurant
inside a supermarket, a natural enough progression from in-store
bakeries and a subtly different take on the take-out (in Britain
the take-away) food outlet. No longer do you go to the store just
buy the ingredients to cook with. Now you can buy the complete
cooked meal, freshly prepared and ready to eat either in the
supermarket, at your place of work, or to serve to the family at
home. The name seems to have been created sometime around 1996 as
an obvious blend of <I>grocery</I> and <I>restaurant</I> and
remains a jargon term of the food business, almost entirely unknown
to customers, though it has on occasion turned up in newspapers on
both sides of the Atlantic.

Whether it's a personal chef service, a supermarket offering
prepared meals or a grocery store/restaurant hybrid ('grocerant'),
the food offered by these alternatives to traditional fast-food
fare is being gobbled up.
                        [<EM>Entrepreneur Magazine</EM>, Dec. 1997]

He cites the 'grocerant' concept which is currently sweeping the
US. This is shorthand for a supermarket grocery counter which is
also a takeaway restaurant.
                        [<EM>Independent on Sunday</EM>, Jan. 2000]

3. In Brief
B2B  Short for Business-to-Business, this is another new buzzword
in the e-commerce field. It denotes those electronic businesses
that chiefly trade with others of like kind. It's predicted that
this is the form of online commerce that will grow the fastest in
the coming years, not selling things to end-customers.

GO POST-ECONOMIC  A sardonic expression apparently used in high-
tech circles in Silicon Fen (around Cambridge, UK) for making so
much money that you won't ever to have to work again.

WRAP  We've heard a lot about connecting kitchen appliances to the
Internet, so you can check your bank balance using the microwave,
or get the fridge to reorder food. This is what makes it possible:
the Web-Ready Appliances Protocol.

4. Weird Words: Pound
An enclosure for straying farm animals.

Just across the road from our parish church is the old town lock-
up, or clink with the walled enclosure of the <I>pound</I>
alongside it, now a private garden for the cottage next door. In
earlier times this was the place where stray animals were brought
to be kept safe until their owners could claim them by paying a
fine. Such <I>pounds</I> went out of use in the nineteenth century
because the law changed to permit the impounder of the animals to
keep them on his own land, so there was no longer any need for a
separate parish enclosure. This sense of <I>pound</I> is one of
those mysterious words for which no sure origin can be found, a
linguistic orphan. It's recorded as far back as Middle English, but
nobody has discovered a link to words in related languages. At one
time it had the form <I>pundfald</I> or <I>pundfold</I>, and so is
really the same word as <I>pinfold</I> and <I>penfold</I>, other
names for the same thing. It's also closely linked to <I>pond</I>,
which comes from the related Old English word <I>pyndan</I>. The
words <I>pond</I> and <I>pound</I> were often used interchangeably
(which is why <I>impound</I> can have the sense of storing water in
a reservoir). The other senses of the word - the unit of British
currency, the unit of weight, and the verb to strike heavily - are
all unconnected.

5. 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. I have recently come across the word <I>organogram</I> as a
description of a company's structure. It is presumably a truncation
of <I>organisation diagram</I>. Have you come across this travesty
before? I am assured it is common business usage by the person who
wants to use it on our intranet site, but I think they'll be
stepping across my stiffening body before it gets published.
[Andrew Arnold, Denmark]

A. I'm sorry to have to tell you that I first came across this bit
of organisational jargon, so spelled, in a British Sunday newspaper
in June 1994, and it was some way from new even then. The original
spelling was the more correct <I>organigram</I> and it can be dated
back to 1962. Oddly, the first example in the <EM>Oxford English
Dictionary</EM> - from Antony Sampson's <EM>Anatomy of Britain</EM>
- spells it with an <I>o</I>. However, for the next couple of
decades the <I>i</I> form seems to have predominated.
A quick Web search threw up more than 1,500 examples of the
<I>o</I> spelling (as well as several other examples from British
newspapers that included the <EM>Economist</EM> and the <I>Daily
Telegraph</I>), as against 2,700 examples spelled with an <I>i</I>.
Someone in the human resources business seems to have decided in
the early to mid nineties that <I>organogram</I> with an <I>o</I>
looked more sexy than the other spelling (or perhaps Mr Sampson's
book suddenly became fashionable again). It may be gradually taking
over and we may eventually be stuck with it in this spelling. But
that doesn't necessarily mean you have to use it: there's nothing
like being a last-ditcher against the onrush of barbarianism to
make life interesting.
I agree with you about its infelicity - it's a ghastly word which
should have been strangled at birth. It looks confusingly like a
unit of weight, a misapprehension heightened in the <I>o</I>
spelling, which confuses it with the perfectly respectable prefix
<I>organo-</I> ("Two hundred organograms of my best parsnips?
Coming right up, sir!"). It's best avoided in the real world, I
suggest, where <I>organisational diagram</I> will be better
understood, but if your arm is being viciously twisted, do at least
spell it with an <I>i</I>!


Q. Have you ever heard the expression <I>like a banshee</I>, as in
"He/she made out like a banshee"?  I see the definition of the word
banshee is a female spirit that would wail under a window sill of a
house where someone was going to die.  That being the case, I am
really confused where the expression came from. [Paul LeRoy, USA]

A. I've never heard the saying in the modern American slang sense -
it hasn't made it across the Atlantic into British English - but it
is recorded in the <EM>Random House Historical Dictionary of
American Slang</EM>, with a first example from 1976. Now rather
dated, it indicates something out of the ordinary or excessive.
The basic phrase <I>like a banshee</I> has been used many times
over the past couple of hundred years as a figurative expression to
describe someone screaming or making a noise, usually in an excess
of emotion. This has often appeared in the set forms <I>wail like a
banshee</I> or <I>scream like a banshee</I>. A modern example is in
Steven Levy's <EM>Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution</EM>
of 1984: "An absurdly expensive musical instrument upon which you
could improvise, compose, and, like the beatniks in Harvard Square
a mile away, wail like a banshee with total creative abandon".
Examples in RHHDAS include <I>party like a banshee</I> and <I>run
like a banshee</I>. It seems that the idea of a banshee being a
noisy spirit in torment has been extended so far it has snapped,
most likely out of ignorance of what a banshee actually is, and
probably through confusion with <I>like a bandit</I>, another
American slang expression which came into the language at about the
same time.


Q. What is the gaff in <I>blow the gaff</I>? [David Sutton, UK]

A. Dictionaries give a number of possible sources for this, while
others candidly admit they don't know. I think we can do better
than the latter, while having to admit that the matter is clouded
by the fog of ages and the poor state of recording of early slang
usage. There are all sorts of meanings for the word <I>gaff</I>,
something that has added greatly to the confusion.
The standard English sense is of a hooked stick or barbed spear
used for landing fish; this comes from the Provençla;al word
<I>gaf</I> for a boat-hook; in French this took on the figurative
sense of a blunder, perhaps because the emotional effect of one is
like being <I>gaffed</I>, and is the origin also of the standard
English word <I>gaffe</I> for an embarrassing remark or blunder.
Together with the English dialect <I>gaff</I> for loud and coarse
talk, or the same Scots word <I>gaff</I> which meant to talk loudly
and merrily, this gave rise at one time to a peculiarly American
slang sense of <I>gaff</I> that referred to severe criticism,
treatment, or hardship (as in <I>stand the gaff</I> or <I>give the
gaff</I>). Then there's the British slang meaning of <I>gaff</I>
for the place where one lives ("come round my gaff for a coffee"),
which is almost certainly derived from the use of <I>gaff</I> in
the eighteenth-century to mean a fair, and later a cheap music-hall
or theatre (as in the famous <I>penny gaff</I>); this probably
comes from the Romany word for a town, especially a market town.
(Just as an aside, <I>gaffer</I>, used in British slang to mean the
foreman or boss, and in the film industry everywhere for the chief
electrician on a production, comes from a shortening of
<I>godfather</I> or <I>grandfather</I> - it was at first applied to
any old man - and so is a quite distinct word.)
But I would suggest that none of these is the immediate source for
<I>blow the gaff</I>. For that, we must look at yet another meaning
of the word - a low slang term for some hidden trick or gimmick
used as a cheating device in gambling. Originally this was a small
hook set in a ring that was used by card-sharps to grip the cards,
so the origin is probably in the hook sense of <I>gaff</I>, perhaps
augmented by some idea of hooking a sucker. As <I>gaff</I> was also
used for the spurs attached to the heels of fighting cocks, and as
such pastimes and gambling were intimately associated with fairs,
it may be that several literal and figurative slang senses of the
word came together in this meaning. (Later, the word developed a
sense in America of a fraud or racket.)
And for at least three hundred years the verb <I>to blow</I> has
had an informal meaning of informing on, betraying or exposing
someone. For example, there was a slang expression around in the
eighteenth century, <I>to blow the gab</I>, to betray a secret, in
which <I>gab</I> comes from the standard English word for speech or
conversation (as in <I>gift of the gab</I>).
What may have happened was that <I>blow the gab</I> became the
model for a newer phrase, <I>blow the gaff</I>, under the influence
of the cheating trick sense of <I>gaff</I>, where it would at first
have meant exposing the trade secrets of gamblers and cheats. It's
then a short step to extend it to the meaning of the older phrase -
and indeed to supplant it as the older one went out of fashion.

6. Administration
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