World Wide Words -- 15 Mar 03

Michael Quinion DoNotUse at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Mar 14 12:20:56 EST 2003

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 332          Saturday 15 March 2003
Sent each Saturday to 16,000+ subscribers in at least 119 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448
<>      <TheEditor at>

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Book Review: Dog Days and Dandelions.
3. Weird Words: Lipogrammatist.
4. Sic!
5. Q&A: Mummer; Pins and needles.
6. Endnote.
A. Subscription commands.
B. Contact addresses.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
COINED BY GOD  Apologies for the error in last week's book review.
The reference in one paragraph to "Coined by Shakespeare" should,
of course, have been to "Coined by God". Put it down to old age.

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2. Book Review: Dog Days and Dandelions
Martha Barnette's third work on oddities of word etymology follows
her intriguingly titled Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies, a light-
hearted look at how foods got their names. In this book, she turns
her attention to the animal meanings behind everyday words.

She points out that the Canary Islands were indeed named after an
animal, not the obvious one but a dog; that if somebody "capers"
about, they resemble a goat (and that "chevron" also has caprine
links); but if they are instead "feisty", they are being described
by a name that comes from an old American dialect word for a
mongrel dog.

"Gossamer", perhaps surprisingly, turns out to have a link with
geese; "hearse" with an ancient Oscan word for a wolf; "Hobson's
choice" referred to a horse (the one nearest the stable door that a
hirer from Mr Hobson's livery stables in Cambridge was obliged to
choose). There are horsy connections with "constable" and "marshal",
and also with "jaded", since a jade was once a name for a worn-out
horse. A "niche" was originally a nest and "porcelain" does indeed
have the porcine associations that its name might suggest, although
in a disguised way.

If you need any unusual adjectives, try "limacine", snail-like,
"jumentous", resembling horse urine, "ornithophilous", of flowers
that attract birds to pollinate them, or "peristeronic", suggestive
of pigeons (though you might have trouble wedging any of them into
your everyday conversation).

One story I have to dispute: we now know that "jinx" is almost
certainly not from an old name for the bird called the wryneck (see

Apart from that small quibble, it's a pleasant and undemanding romp
through an interesting aspect of English word history.

[Martha Barnette, Dog Days and Dandelions, published by St Martin's
Press, New York, in February 2003; ISBN 0-312-28072-6; hardback,
pp194; publisher's price US$24.95.]

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3. Weird Words: Lipogrammatist
A writer of lipograms.

As opposed to pangrammatists, who strive to crowd all the letters
of the alphabet into a composition of the very briefest scope, a
lipogrammatist systematically leaves one of them out. This ditty
from the nineteenth century avoids a certain vowel:

  A jovial swain may rack his brain,
    and tax his fancy's might,
  To quiz in vain, for 'tis most plain,
    That what I say is right.

A lipogram without an "e" is the most difficult kind to write,
since that's the most common letter in English. There have been
some celebrated modern examples. In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright
published a 50,000-word novel called Gadsby without a single "e" in
it. The French author Georges Perec produced a 300-page tour-de-
force in 1969, similarly without an "e" in sight, under the title
La Disparation. It was translated into e-less English by Gilbert
Adair in 1995 as A Void. We might ask ourselves why anyone would
attempt such feats, but that question might take us too far into
the murkier realms of human psychology.

Such unusual constructions can fatally limit an author, as crucial
grammatical forms must not play a part in any composition. Though a
good author might find avoiding a particular symbol is not always
too much of a handicap, it's hard to maintain such an approach for
long without producing writing that is a thoroughgoing oddity, as
this part of my discussion plainly shows. Writing in this way for
fifty thousand words would task anybody's brain, and could bring
about a long-lasting loss of authorial ability in a wordsmith!

The word "lipogram" is from the Greek "lipogrammatos", lacking a
letter, which derives from "leipein", to leave out, plus "gramma",
a letter. The first part has nothing to do with the modern prefix
"lipo-", fat, which is from a different Greek stem.

4. Sic!
Chuck Wuest was reading the New Yorker last month and found a piece
referred to "a pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca,
who sits at the front desk".

The New Scientist this week reports a notice from the department of
"helpful" advice. On the bottom of a box of Celebrations chocolates
is clearly inscribed: "Do not read while box is open".

5. Q&A
Q. In your Weird Words section of a recent newsletter you used
"mummer" as a synonym for "guiser".  Having lived near Philadelphia
for a number of years I always wondered where the term mummer came
from. They have a "Mummer's Parade" on New Year's Day and it's
quite a spectacular event. Any chance of a quick update on the term
mummer? [Kirk Jones]

A. No problem. Strictly speaking, if you're a mummer you're keeping
mum, that is, you're staying silent. Traditional mummers acted in
dumb-show or mime.

The word was used in Britain from the sixteenth century onwards for
groups of local people who went from door to door on high days and
holidays through the year - especially at Christmas - performing
traditional plays that are often called mummer's plays. There are
many local names for the performers in Britain, such as Christmas
rhymers, plough bullocks, plough jags, and tipteerers, as well as
guisers. The plays featured characters such as St George and the
Dragon, Robin Hood, the Turkish Knight (an echo of the Crusades)
and Beelzebub. A key character is a comical quack doctor who at the
end of the play brings back to life the loser of a sword fight
between a hero and his opponent. Despite the name, most mummer's
plays are actually spoken, usually in rhyme, and can also include
singing. For that reason, the more formal term is "folk plays". The
tradition still exists in a few places in Britain and other

The word "mum" comes from an old Germanic root and seems to be
echoic. If you make inarticulate noises with your mouth closed, it
comes out sounding like "mmmmm". Some scholars argue that the word
for the performers comes instead from a French source meaning a
mask, since the characters in such plays often wore fantastic
costumes that included masks. This seems not to be the case.

In the nineteenth century "mummer" became a contemptuous term for a
ham actor, because the objective of the traditional local mummer's
play was humour, not the quality of the performance, and the
standard was often atrocious.


Q. When I jokingly told a co-worker I would be "on pins and
needles" until she provided me some information I'd requested, she
immediately asked, "Where did that expression come from, anyway?"
The expression seems to imply the same uncomfortable anxiety as "on
tenterhooks" (I just read your explanation of that one), but
otherwise doesn't appear to be related. So just where did it come
from, anyway? [Meg Laycock]

A. I'm sure you're right in suggesting this origin for the saying.
The implication is that you're restless and anxious, as though you
were sitting on a bed of nails.

There are actually two expressions involving pins and needles. The
other describes the tingling sensation in arm or leg that appears
when the circulation is restored. The entries in the Oxford English
Dictionary suggest that both are of similar date: yours is recorded
slightly earlier, turning up first in 1810, but the other is known
from 1813, which is a dead heat in etymological terms.

I was going to suggest that your version is North American and mine
British, largely because I only know the tingling sensation one and
not the one implying anxiety. However, I see that it also appears
in one of my Australian dictionaries and at least one of my British
ones as well, so it has obviously just passed me by.

6. Endnote
"I've been in Who's Who, and I know what's what, but it'll be the
first time I ever made the dictionary." [Mae West, in a letter to
the RAF in the early 1940s on hearing that an inflatable life
jacket had been named after her; quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of
Thematic Quotations (2000)]

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