World Wide Words -- 02 Apr 05

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Sat Apr 2 02:17:21 EST 2005

WORLD WIDE WORDS           ISSUE 434          Saturday 2 April 2005
Sent each Saturday to 22,000+ subscribers in at least 120 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448       US advisory editor: Julane Marx

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Vaccimulgence.
3. Noted this week.
4. Q&A: Claptrap.
5. Sic!
6. Q&A: Gorp.
A. Subscription information.
B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
COPACETIC  Linguists were dismissive of the suggestion by Professor
Cohen, reported in last week's issue, that this odd American word
might have been created by mangling the French phrase "copain(s)
c'est ├ępatant!". Some argued the French phrase was too uncommon to
have been picked up by English-speaking troops in France in World
War One, it not being an idiom or even a particularly natural
expression. Jean-Charles Khalifa, a lecturer in linguistics at the
University of Poitiers, pointed out that "copain" can never appear
by itself as a form of address, but has to be prefixed by the
definite article, which makes it unlikely that anybody would have
abbreviated it in the way proposed. Others felt it would be equally
unlikely for the final word of the French phrase to lose all but
its first syllable. For the background to the expression, see my
earlier piece, accessible through .

SKY-BLUE PINK  Many British subscribers responded to the piece last
week about this mythical colour by telling me of elaborations of it
that they recalled hearing as children, often half a century ago or
more. Examples included "sky-blue pink with purple dots" or "sky-
blue pink with yellow spots on". A popular form in northern England
was "sky blue pink with a finny addy border", "finny addy" being a
corruption of "finnan haddock", a type of cold-cured smoked fish,
named after Findon in Scotland; presumably its yellowish colour was
the reason for including it. Some said the expression was used by
exasperated adults to children when pestered about colours; others
that it was a hand-waving term meaning "whatever colour you want"
or as a "mind your own business" reply to an unwanted question, or
as a sarcastic description of some over-the-top or inappropriate
colour. Several correspondents mentioned they had heard it used to
describe "that difficult-to-reproduce colour of high clouds as
sunset approaches", as Paul Davis put it.

4. Weird Words: Vaccimulgence
The milking of cows.

This word popped up in a book I happened to be reading the other
day, Appleby's End, one of the more skittish and fanciful works of
the late Michael Innes (the pen name of the Oxford scholar J I M
Stewart). Inspector Appleby is investigating strange goings-on in a
rural neighbourhood and visits an old woman, of whom the local
vicar says, "Since girlhood she has been celebrated in this part of
the countryside for her skill in vaccimulgence." Putting it another
way, she was a milkmaid.

Mr Innes was not the first to employ this weird word, for it turns
up in a whimsical letter written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in
November 1796: "Will you try to look out for a fit servant for us,
simple of heart, physiognomically handsome, and scientific in
vaccimulgence. That last word is a new one, but soft in sound, and
full of expression. Vaccimulgence! I am pleased with the word."
Alas, few others have been, to judge from its limited appearances
in print.

It is, as you may guess, derived from Latin "vacca", a cow (which
is also the origin of "vaccine", because the first was derived by
Dr Jenner from cowpox to guard against the much more serious
smallpox). The ending is from the Latin verb "emulgere", to milk
out, which - as well as being the ultimate origin of "emulsion" -
is the root of another very rare word, "emulgence", the action of
milking out, as for example in extracting money from the unwilling.

3. Noted this week
BLOBOTICS  Not the most attractive of formations, this surfaced in
New Scientist last week. A British researcher, in my local
university as it happens, is working on a chemical-based computer
that uses ions rather than electrons, what he calls "gooware" or a
"liquid brain". He hopes one day to create a robot that senses and
reacts to its surroundings using a computer brain made from semi-
solid glop. That's what he calls "blobotics". Let's hope he's as
good with his research as he is with inventing mildly unlovable

4. Q&A
Q. Do you have any idea where the word "claptrap" comes from? I
associate it with talking rubbish but I've no idea what a clap is -
other than the obvious infectious disease - and why you would build
a trap for one. [Bernie Baxter]

A. It's certainly not that sort of clap.

Your claptrap is indeed a trap to catch a clap, but it's the sort
of clap you make by putting your hands together in appreciation.
Its first appearance in print is in Nathan Bailey's dictionary of
1721 and his definition pretty much tells the whole story: "A Clap
Trap, a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to
please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap
to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play."

Such rhetorical devices or actorly flourishes were thought unworthy
of the serious dramatist or thespian. A writer in the The New-
England Magazine in 1835, fulminating against the star system that
was contributing to the decline of the modern drama, complained
that in order to feed the performance of the lead actor, "The piece
must abound in clap-traps". Nor was the technique confined to the
theatre itself: an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1855
about a new play said that "All the clap-traps of the press were
employed to draw an audience to the first representation." And in
1867, back across the Atlantic in London, Thomas Wright wrote in
Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes that: "The
Waggoner's entertainment, of course, embraced the usual
unauthenticated statistics, stock anecdotes, and pieces of clap-
trap oratory of the professional teetotal lecturers."

The word developed from a figurative theatrical device to encourage
applause into a more general term for showy or insincere platitudes
or mawkish sentimentality directed at the lowest common denominator
of one's audience. From there it was only a short step to the sense
of talking nonsense or rubbish, though the older ideas are often
still present.

Incidentally, in the middle of the nineteenth century, 150 years
after the word had first been recorded, some unsung backstage hero
invented a mechanical device, a sort of clapper, that made a noise
like that of applause (perhaps to encourage the real thing, though
we are not told). Presumably it was similar to a football rattle.
This also was called a claptrap. It has led some people into the
mistake of suggesting that this device was the source of the word.

5. Sic!
Herb Trazenfeld mentioned the Dr Gridlock column in the Washington
Post on Thursday, March 24. Dr. Gridlock advised "changing the oil
every 3,000 to 6,000 miles, whichever comes first."

A sentence in a report in last week's Sunday Times on unruly pupils
troubled Diana Platts: "Teachers report being punched, kicked,
splattered with eggs and spat on in the study by the Association of
Teachers and Lecturers". Not a good example to set the kids.

A headline in the Halifax Daily News, in Canada, dated 27 March:
"Jen and Brad Split Official". Scott Milsom comments, "One wonders
how the official's family are to be consoled."

Mick Loosemore read a headline on CBC's online news site: SUSPECT
FOUND DEAD, DENIES GUILT. He comments, "Just to confirm that, in
Canada, investigators don't use any esoteric tools, the story
summary continues thus: 'The prime suspect in a high-profile murder
in Winnipeg more than 20 years ago has left a suicide note denying
that he ever killed anyone'."

Harry Westendorp found a sentence in The Age (Melbourne, Australia)
on March 22 that he feels ought to be communicated to Her Majesty
so that she can prepare herself for her imminent demise: "Parker
Bowles is to marry Prince Charles, who will take the throne once
his mother Queen Elizabeth dies, on April 8, and will initially be
titled Duchess of Cornwall, becoming Princess Consort when Charles
is king."

While perusing his local paper, The Record of Sherbrooke, Quebec,
on 18 March, Stephen Black discovered that the list of bestselling
non-fiction books included Eat's, Shoots & Leaves. This suggested,
as he says, "that there is at least one person who really, really
needs to read that book."

6. Q&A
Q. I would be interested to hearing more about "gorp". I was told
that it stands for "good old raisins and peanuts". I ate this
regularly with a sprinkling of dark chocolate chips while I was
working on my Bachelor's degree. Given this is an acronym, perhaps
the origin is spurious? [Katherine Phelps]

A. This is a common term in the US for a type of high-energy snack,
especially - as you imply - one containing raisins and nuts, plus
chocolate. American hikers also know it as "trail mix". The first
example in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1972.

It's said that it comes from the acronym you quote, but that's
certainly spurious. It's just a well-meaning attempt to explain a
word about whose origins the experts tend to shake their heads

Some dictionaries point rather uneasily to some appearances of the
word as a verb from earlier in the twentieth century. In 1904, the
publication Dialect Notes noted that "to gorp" was to eat greedily;
this is backed up by other references recorded in the Dictionary of
American Regional English. A possible link is obvious enough,
though a direct connection isn't recorded and etymologists have to
be cautious.

In turn, that word may one form of an older English verb variously
spelled as "gaup", "gawp", "gorp", "gowp", "gawk", or "gauk". One
basic meaning is to stare in a stupid or rude manner. But an
earlier sense was of staring open-mouthed in witless astonishment.
This seems to have led to "gawp up", meaning to devour (presumably
from the open-mouthed bit of the meaning), which just might have
led to the early twentieth-century American dialect sense from
which our sense may have later derived. Sorry to hedge my language
so heavily, but we really don't know for sure.

To end on a note of puzzlement and slight confusion, I've since
found the word appears in the Appleton Post Crescent of Wisconsin
in 1962 in an article that suggests an acronymic origin and a
completely different meaning: "'Gorp' is taken by all campers and
canoers. (Named for the flavors grape, orange, raspberry and
pineapple, 'gorp' becomes a tasty thirst-quencher when mixed with
cool water.)" It sounds as though the writer confused the foodstuff
with a fruit-flavoured powder such as Kool-Aid, and thereby created
another version of the folk etymology, but who knows?

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