World Wide Words -- 18 Jun 05

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Jun 17 12:51:54 EDT 2005

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 445           Saturday 18 June 2005
Sent each Saturday to 23,000+ 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. Turns of Phrase: Happy slapping.
3. Weird Words: Bafflegab.
4. Recently noted.
5. Q&A: The birds and the bees.
A. E-mail contact addresses.
B. Subscription information.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
A.WORD.A.DAY ONLINE CHAT  A reminder that, in the
person of Anu Garg, has invited me to take part in an hour's online
chat session today (Saturday 18 June) on the subject of language
myths. To join the chat, go to at 16:00
GMT. This is 09:00 PDT/12:00 EDT in the USA, 17:00 in the UK, 19:00
in Jerusalem, and 06:00 Sunday in Sydney.

NOODLING  Following my note two weeks ago on the use of this word
in the USA to mean fishing by hand for catfish, many subscribers e-
mailed to discuss its other senses: in the USA it can mean to
improvise on an instrument in an informal or desultory manner; in
Australia, people use it to refer to searching mine tailings for
opals that had been overlooked. Several American subscribers said
there's another sense that's in few dictionaries. Al Lutterell
explained it in this way: "In the engineering and scientific
community here in the States, to do a little 'noodling' about a
project is to spend time contemplating the various aspects of the
problem and conjuring up solutions, weighing the options, laying
out a course of action." This probably comes from an old English
dialect use of "noodle" (often "noddle") to mean the head, as in
"to use one's noodle", to use one's brains, to think for oneself.
It's related to the sense, "to do or say something in an
unproductive or undirected way", as in "to noodle about", which is
close to the music sense. The online OED has all these (plus the
catfish one, since the letter N has now been updated), as does the
Historical Dictionary of American Slang, but the thinking-round-a-
problem one seems not to have penetrated to mainstream paper

BEES IN BONNETS?  Spelling bee last week, birds and bees this: it's
not a conspiracy, just accidental juxtaposition!

SITE SEARCH  Visitors who use the open-source Mozilla or Firefox
browsers (I heartily recommend the latter) will find that the Words
site now has its own search plug-in for the menu bar. See the home
page for details. I've also now added a Google search facility to
the site search page so you have a choice of methods to use.

HOLIDAY  My wife and I are about to leave for a few days in Bruges,
so any e-mails you send probably won't be answered until after we
return next weekend. Next week's newsletter will probably go out a
few hours later than usual.

2. Turns of Phrase: Happy slapping
"Happy slapping" is a violent craze in which an individual or gang
humiliates or assaults a victim while an accomplice films it on a
mobile phone. The pictures are then circulated to friends for their
entertainment. Incidents vary from the mild to the severe: one girl
was recently put in hospital for three days after a particularly
vicious one. Most are carried out on other young people in order to
humiliate them - a survey in early June reported that one in ten
schoolchildren claimed to have been bullied by means of a camera
phone broadcasting an embarrassing image - but gangs are picking on
older people in the street too. The term has become widely known in
the past month throughout the UK, though reports suggest it began
in South London late last year. Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of
the Metropolitan Police, said at the end of May that the craze was
partly behind the recent rise in street crime. However, a lecturer
in journalism, Graham Barnfield, has argued: "A happy slap doesn't
appear very different from many other antisocial behaviours, so
it's hard not to think there's more than a touch of a manufactured
moral panic about the way it's being reported." The term is a pun
on "happy snapping" for taking photographs, which goes back at
least to the 1940s.

* From the Sunday Telegraph, 29 May 2005: Young thugs are rather
attracted to surveillance culture, as the recent craze for so
called "happy slapping" attests: regardless of whether the CCTV
picks up their assault on a hapless victim or not, they are now
recording it for their own delight on a mobile phone, and
circulating the miserable image to gleeful pals.

* From the Evening Chronicle, 2 Jun. 2005:  Tracy Murray chose to
teach son Dean at home after he became the victim of the growing
trend of "happy slapping". Dean ... was surrounded, slapped and
punched by pupils while the attack was filmed on a mobile phone,
and he has been too frightened to go back to school since the
attack in February.

3. Weird Words: Bafflegab
Incomprehensible or pretentious language, especially bureaucratic

This word hit the newspapers and public notice on 19 January 1952,
the day after a plaque was presented to its inventor to mark his
creation of this invaluable word. He was Milton A Smith, assistant
general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce. It was presented by
Michael V DiSalle, the head of the Office of Price Stabilization,
who rejoiced in the title of Price Stabilizer. (Where are people
like this when you need them?)

Milton Smith coined the word in a piece he wrote for the Chamber's
weekly publication, Washington Report, which criticised the OPS for
the bureaucratic language it used in one of its price orders. This
was picked up by the Bellingham Herald in Washington State, which
wrote an editorial about it, saying "Gobbledegook is mouth-filling,
but it lacks the punch of bafflegab. The inventor of that one
deserves an award." The newspaper made sure he got one by paying
for the plaque to be made and organising its presentation.

The inventor said he had spent a maddening day trying to explain
the OPS order to a colleague and decided a special word was needed
to describe its special blend of "incomprehensibility, ambiguity,
verbosity and complexity". He tried "legalfusion", "legalprate",
"gabalia", and "burobabble" before settling on "bafflegab". There's
nothing mysterious about the make-up of the word, and that's part
of its appeal. But it's the stress on those plosive consonants that
really makes it fly. It might well have succeeded even without the
publicity associated with the award.

At the presentation, Milton Smith was asked to briefly define his
word. It was, he said, "multiloquence characterized by consummate
interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and
other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly
utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations
by governmental bodies." Just so.

4. Recently noted
PHARMING  This word has been known in the drug industry for years
to describe harvesting pharmaceuticals from genetically modified
animals (it's a blend from "pharmaceutical farming"). Another sense
has recently appeared, a variation on the computer term phishing (a
respelling of "fishing"), which describes luring people to fake Web
sites to steal personal information. Phishing relies on sending e-
mails, asking you to update your account, which direct you to the
thieves' site; with pharming, a virus infects your system - perhaps
through e-mail or by rogue code on a Web site you visit. This takes
over your browser and redirects you even if you type in the right

  See for more on "pharming".
  See for more on "phishing".

5. Q&A
Q. I was talking to a friend and the phrase "the birds and the
bees" came up, and I was wondering what the origin of it is. [Noah]

A. I take it you mean in the sense of explaining the basic facts
about sex and reproduction to children?

The phrase "the birds and the bees" (sometimes further extended to
"birds, bees and butterflies") has been common in the language for
at least the last couple of centuries to refer in a generalised way
to the natural world (do journalists still refer dismissively to
the natural-history column in their journals as "the birds-and-bees
department"?). The alliteration undoubtedly helped to make it a
satisfactory formulaic expression.

Fumbling attempts to explain the facts of life to children often
involved analogies with birds laying eggs and bees pollinating
flowers. So it's easy to see how the expression could have turned
into a sarcastic reference to such attempts.

It's so common these days as to be a cliché. To round off this
explanation, I wanted to include a note to say how old it is. This
is where I got stuck. You might be astonished to discover how few
reference books even mention this phrase; not one of my extensive
collection of works on euphemisms and suchlike expressions includes
it. Because it's so common in a literal sense, finding euphemistic
instances in digital archives involves combing through masses of
irrelevant material.

If you know your song lyrics, you may have in mind that mildly
risqué Cole Porter number from 1928, "Let's Do It", which has the
lines "Birds do it, bees do it / Even educated fleas do it / Let's
do it, let's fall in love". That's certainly got the idea. However,
the first explicit use of the phrase I know is in the Freeport
Journal Standard in 1939: "A Frenchman was born sophisticated: he
knows about the birds and the bees. In consequence, French films
are made on a basis of artistic understanding that does not hamper
the story." I might be out by a decade or two, or even a century
or two, though my impression is that it's relatively modern.

Perhaps a sharp-eyed subscriber might turn up an earlier example
that's datable?

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