World Wide Words -- 13 Apr 02

Michael Quinion do_not_use at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Apr 12 11:31:42 EDT 2002

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 284          Saturday 13 April 2002
Sent each Saturday to 14,000+ subscribers in at least 116 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448
<>   Mail: <editor at>

 1. Feedback, notes and comments.
 2. Review: Tracks That Speak.
 3. Out There.
 4. Weird Words: Scallywag.
 5. Misplaced Modifiers Redux.
 6. Q&A: Start from scratch, Fiddler's Green.
 7. Endnote.
 8. Subscription commands.
 9. Contact addresses.

 1. Feedback, notes and comments
SKOSH  Several Americans with long memories assure me that the word
was in use among US servicemen in Japan shortly after World War II.
So its history looks to be a little longer than I suggested. And
several pointed out that there is indeed a rhyme in English for it,
with the naturalised French word 'gauche'.

BUY THE FARM  This item from the issue of March 2 provoked a lot of
comment (which I've only now been able to read as a result of my
long absence). There is a broad consensus that the term is based on
the black humour so common among people in dangerous professions.
Ann Moore put it this way: "My Air Force Officer husband told me
the origin as generally accepted in USAF. When a pilot mused about
retirement he would say, 'I'm gonna buy a nice little farm and
settle down' so when a fatal crash occurred his surviving buddies
would say he had 'bought the farm' - he had retired, permanently".

However, others have suggested a more direct origin. Jack Burton
wrote: "I understand that this term dates back at least to World
War II. Each member of the U.S. armed services was issued a life
insurance policy in the amount of $10,000, a great deal of money in
those days. Many of the troops were unmarried youngsters who named
their parents as beneficiaries. Many of the parents were still
living on a farm in those days, and most farms were mortgaged. If a
youngster were killed, the $10,000 dollars would be used by the
parents to pay off the mortgage."

E-MAIL PROBLEMS  Some weird things have been happening to my mail
system this week, with messages vanishing into the ether. If you
have sent me a message dated 1 April or later, and haven't had any
response from me, please send it again.

 2. Review: Tracks That Speak
Wherever English has been carried by explorers and conquerors, it
has picked up words from local languages for things found nowhere
else: "kangaroo" in Australia, "hanghi" in New Zealand, "bungalow"
in India, "gutta-percha" in Malaya, and so on. North America is no
exception, and English has imported many words from its native

The late Charles Culter's book brings together about 75 of them,
arranged thematically under 15 headings such as "food", "clothing",
and "artifacts". What is unusual about his book is that he goes
well beyond etymological explanations to discuss the cultural and
technical background of words. He isn't content to explain where
the words "parka" and "anorak" come from, to take an example, but
describes the differences between them, why and when they were worn
and by whom, and even expands a little on their modern descendants.
In his essay on the pipissewa plant, he describes its medicinal
uses, not only by Native Americans but by colonists and today's
Americans too.

He explains how "wampum", from a Massachusetts word, came to mean
money to incoming Europeans in the 1630, how "potlatches" got so
much out of hand that Canada had to ban them in 1885, and the
background to the way that a Hutsnuwu word became the English

Mr Culter says in his introduction, "Words are signs, pointing to
an elaborate web of cultural practices, each with its own unique
tradition, extending into and influencing the present." He has
followed the word tracks of the title into some surprising places
to produce an intriguing set of vignettes. They help to illuminate
relationships between settlers and native peoples in North America
from the earliest times on.

["Tracks That Speak: The Legacy of Native American Words in North
American Culture", by Charles L Culter, published by The Houghton
Mifflin Company on 3 Apr 2002; pp255; hardback ISBN 0-618-06509-1,
paperback ISBN 0-618-06510-5; publisher's list prices are US$21.00
and US$14.00 respectively.]

 3. Out There: Pronunciation of Biological Latin
Whether it's your favourite garden plant or a species encountered
during formal study, working out how to say its systematic (Latin)
name is not always easy. Dictionaries exclude such names because
they would take up too much space. If you don't have a zoologist or
botanist to hand, names like "Eonycteris spelaea" (a species of
fruit bat) or "Lentinus edodes" (the shiitake mushroom) can look
daunting. To get some general guidance visit Peter Ommundsen's site
at <>.

 4. Weird Words: Scallywag or Scalawag
A scamp, rascal, or rogue; an amusingly mischievous child.

The word - very variably spelled - appeared first in the US. It was
applied to undersized or ill-formed cattle, or to some disreputable
person. After the Civil War, it became a term of abuse specifically
aimed at those white Southerners who were prepared to accept the
measures imposed during Reconstruction, often because they would
profit from them. It shifted a little later to mean any politician
who was corrupt or an intriguer. It has softened since, being a
term these days of only mild reproach, often combined with gentle

Where it comes from is a matter of some dispute, though the Scots
tongue seems to be an intermediary. Some authorities point to the
Scots' word "scoloc", the name given to the first-born son of a
tenant of a monastery who was given to the church to receive an
ecclesiastical education. Later, the word could refer to any
monastic tenant, and got turned into "scallag" for a farm servant
or rustic person, also latterly a way of addressing a boy. And
there's also the word "scurryvaig" for a vagabond, lout or
slattern, which might be an influence, if not the source. Either
way, it looks as though Latin is involved, since "scoloc" is really
the same word as "scholar" (from Latin "schola") and "scurryvaig"
may have originated in Latin "scurra vagus", a wandering fool
("scurra" is also the source of our "scurrilous").

Its abbreviation, "scally", is widely known in the north-west of
England, especially around Liverpool, for a roguish self-assured
young person - typically male - who is boisterous, disruptive, or

 5. Misplaced Modifiers Redux
Geoff Martin wrote: "Across the street from my house is a good-size
bookstore, on the scale of a large grocery. For the eight years it
has been open, the store has been identified only by two huge signs
that read 'Giant Book Sale'. I have never been into the store, for
fear that they would try to sell me that book. They must be quite
desperate by now."

 6. Q&A
Q. Could you please help me with the origin of the phrase: "start
from scratch"? [Ken Rodman]

A. To "start from scratch" is to begin from the beginning, to set
out on some action or process without any prior preparation,
knowledge or advantage.

"Scratch" has been known since the middle of the eighteenth century
as a sporting term for a line scratched on the ground that acted as
a boundary line or starting point. The first example in the Oxford
English Dictionary actually relates to cricket and indicated the
crease, the line drawn in front of the stumps where the batsman
stands. But the term is much better known from boxing, or rather
from bare-knuckle fighting, in reference to the line drawn across
the ring to which the boxers are brought to begin their bout. This
gave rise to expressions like "to be up to scratch", to meet the
required standard in something.

Your phrase appeared a century later, by which time "scratch" had
also came to mean the starting line for a race. Competitors who
began from this line had the least favourable handicap and so were
given no advantage. "To start from scratch" meant you had been
allowed no odds in your favour. It has been generalised from that.


Q. To me, Fiddler's Green was for many years just a name of a
street in a town near to one I grew up in. Then, I became
acquainted with a folk group known as the Friends of Fiddler's
Green. Not believing they were particularly enamored of that
street, I did an Internet search which revealed that for sailors,
(and apparently, some cavalrymen) "Fiddler's Green" was heaven -
not metaphorically, but as in the sweet by-and-by. Can you give me
some insight into the origins of the phrase?  [Ed Jager, Jakarta]

A. You're right about its origin. It is sailor's heaven, the place
where all good seafarers go, a paradise or Elysium where unlimited
supplies of rum, women and tobacco are provided. Unlike Davy
Jones's Locker, the final resting place of sailors lost at sea, it
is on land, the place where sailors go who die ashore. It is very
like Cockaigne, another mythical country of luxury and idleness.
Its origins are unfortunately even more obscure than those of
"Cockaigne", and as elusive as that magical place Glockamorra.

What we do know is that the term appears fully formed near the
start of the nineteenth century. There's an association behind it,
I would guess, that is now lost to us, perhaps from a song that
refers to a real English village green with a fiddler playing. As
well as British sailors, the US Army has long claimed it, as you
have discovered, to the extent that some people have argued that it
originated there. A famous ballad of the US Cavalry begins:

  Halfway down the road to hell,
  In a shady meadow green,
  Are the souls of all dead troopers camped
  Near a good old-time canteen.
  And this eternal resting place
  Is known as Fiddler's Green.

The author is unknown. It was first published in a US Cavalry
Manual in 1923, but could possibly be a century older; we've no
idea whether this is the original, or whether the author was
drawing on something even older. My own hunch suggests the latter,
for otherwise we have no way of explaining how by the 1830s it was
so firmly set in British maritime usage. It looks as though both
traditions are drawing on a common eighteenth century source, but
I'm sorry to have to tell you that we've no idea what it is.

 7. Endnote
If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing
that's read by persons who move their lips when reading. [Don
Marquis, attributed in the "Oxford Dictionary of Literary
Quotations" (1997)]

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