World Wide Words -- 13 May 06

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri May 12 13:33:20 EDT 2006

WORLD WIDE WORDS           ISSUE 487           Saturday 13 May 2006
Sent each Saturday to at least 32,000 subscribers by e-mail and RSS
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448       US advisory editor: Julane Marx

       A formatted version of this newsletter is available 
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1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Turns of Phrase: Microgreens.
3. Weird Words: Flapdoodle.
4. Recently noted.
5. Q&A: Spelunking.
6. Sic!
A. E-mail contact addresses.
B. Subscription information.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
LINHAY  Jane Horwood pointed out that a related West Country word 
"mowhay" means a stack-yard or other enclosure (I'd forgotten about 
it, even though its OED entry has an example I found in a newspaper 
in 1997). A "mow" is a heap or stack of some item, usually a crop 
such as hay, wheat, or barley (it seems to be related to words in 
Swedish and Norwegian but is otherwise obscure in its origin). The 
second element comes from Old English and means an enclosed space 
(it derives from the same root as "hedge", which could at one time 
mean any sort of enclosing barrier, not necessarily a row of bushes 
or small trees; Cornish hedges are stone walls, over time copiously 
obscured by vegetation, a fact occasionally discovered too late by 
tourists trying to leave room for another car to pass in a narrow 
road by driving into the "hedge"). A "linhay" is literally a lean-
to enclosed space.

SHIRT-TAIL RELATIVE  Several subscribers responded to my request 
for further cultural background to this term. Most agreed that I 
had the essentials correct. Keith Wright wrote, "As one whose 
relations all originated, grew up, and often returned to the 
Bootheel area of southeast Missouri, I am well acquainted with 
shirt-tail relations, as a term and as a fact, but devised a less 
regional alternative for discussing them with Outsiders - 'semi-
relatives'. Useful for describing, for instance, the wife of a son 
of a mother who was sister to your grandpa's first wife when you 
descend from his second."

But some disagreed. Edward Franchuk commented: "I have always 
assumed that 'shirt-tail relatives' had something to do with the 
expression to hang on to somebody's shirt tail: to be dependent on 
somebody or to hitch a ride to fame, fortune, etc. by coasting 
along in somebody else's wake. Hence a shirt-tail relative would be 
somebody who is not a real relative but a hanger-on of the family." 
Susannah Garboden concurs: "In my upstate New York family a "shirt-
tail relation" was one who featured blood ties with someone rich or 
famous, who tagged along after a distant but grand relative holding 
fast to his or her shirt tail. Most definitively derogative!" My 
guess is that this is a later reinterpretation of the expression by 
people from outside its home territory.

Others pointed out that "woodpile relative", which I suggested was 
a synonym, wasn't one (I was unable to check this in the Dictionary 
of American Regional English as the final volume covering W hasn't 
yet been published). Penny Nickle said, "Around here in Michigan, 
the term always meant you came from an assignation outside marriage 
- behind the woodpile."

Connie Nicholson tells of yet another phrase: "Distant relatives 
and long-time family friends in Hawaii are referred to as 'calabash 
cousins'. At one time people would gather around the large hand-
carved wooden bowl [the calabash] to eat the one-dish meal."

UPDATES AND EXTRA PIECES  I've taken three items that appeared some 
time ago in the "Recently noted" section and made updated Web page 
entries out of them: Truthiness, Promession, and Mad as cheese. 
I've also updated and added an illustration to the pieces on Etaoin 
shrdlu and Goat and Compasses. Links to all these are on the home 
page on the Web site. The online version (see above) has direct 

2. Turns of Phrase: Microgreens
"Always eat your greens," was once the advice of every mother who 
was concerned about the health of her children. A new way of eating 
vegetables has become known in the USA in the past five years or so 
and the trend (you might say fashion) is now broadening its appeal 
to the UK and other countries with one writer claiming they are 
becoming the "highest-flying salad items since rocket". (The joke 
doesn't work in US English, where the vegetable is called arugula.)

People have long grown mustard and cress on wet flannel to harvest 
for salad. Like these sprouts, microgreens are young plants, no 
more than a week or so old, usually with only their first seed 
leaves developed. The leaves and stems are harvested and served in 
a mixed salad. Unlike alfalfa and bean sprouts the roots aren't 
eaten, not least because microgreens are usually grown in soil. A 
very wide variety is available, not just common salad plants such 
as arugula, lettuce and celery, but also red beet, cabbage, basil, 
endive, purslane, rapini (the edible leaves of an immature white 
turnip), dill, sorrel, and many others. Nor are microgreens always 
vegetables: some are flower plants such as chrysanthemums.

Part of the appeal is that the salad is often as fresh as can be, 
with the plants being harvested moments before they're served. 
Supporters claim their flavour is often more intense than other 
salads or the mature plants and that they contain health-giving 
minerals. This puts them into the class of functional foods or 

The oldest example of the word I can find is from 1998. It turns up 
most often in connection with the restaurant trade, inevitably so 
because of the way the plants are grown and harvested, though some 
supermarkets are looking at including them in pre-packed salads. 
Another term sometimes used is "microherbs", though this is a 
misnomer because the choice is much wider than just herb plants.

* From the Orange County Register, 1 May 2006: We had different 
types of microgreens that needed to be layered in a specific order 
on the fish, so that the different colors would show. 

* From the Guardian, 5 May 2006: After moving to the Bath Priory, 
Horridge decided to keep in touch with microgreens. "The exciting 
thing about these plants is that they bring together great taste 
and great appearance - they're not just a garnish."

LINK: Nutraceutical/Functional food via 

3. Weird Words: Flapdoodle
Nonsense; twaddle.

"An arbitrary formation", solemnly state those dictionaries that 
are not content with the bland and unhelpful "origin unknown". 
That's not quite the whole story: the older and rarer "fadoodle" 
had much the same sense. And "flapdoodle", though perhaps with a 
different origin, is recorded as being current in the eighteenth 
century for the male and female naughty bits.

Whatever its source, it's usually and reasonably taken to be an 
American word. Which makes it slightly odd that the first known 
example is from a book by the English writer Captain Frederick 
Marryat, best known for Mr Midshipman Easy and The Children of the 
New Forest. His Peter Simple was serialised in the Metropolitan 
Magazine in 1832-33: "'The gentleman has eaten no small quantity of 
flapdoodle in his lifetime.' 'What's that, O'Brien?' replied I. 
'Why, Peter,' rejoined he, 'it's the stuff they feed fools on.' It 
may be relevant that Captain Marryat's mother was American, from 
Boston, and that this sense of the word is rare.

Nearly all its appearances in the next few decades are certainly 
from US sources, as in this Wisconsin newspaper piece dated 1859, 
"They say that no such flapdoodle can be forced down the throats of 
the intelligent people of Wisconsin." By the 1880s, it was widely 
known, the verb "to flapdoodle" had appeared, and an editor of a 
newspaper in Kansas objected to the "flapdoodlish" editorials of a 
rival journal.

Variations abounded, such as "doodleflap" and "flamdoodle". The 
Fort Wayne Sentinel printed a story in 1900 about an old man who 
could not be persuaded of the value of these newfangled banks. "The 
building looks all right from the outside, but when a critter gits 
inside it's flipdoodle checks and flamdoodle receipts and writin' 
names, and no hollerin'n or drinkin'n or shootin'. I'm too old fur 
flipdoodle and flamdoodle, and I'll bury my money in a hole in the 
ground and keep on in the ole way!"

4. Recently noted
ECOASTEERING  Some background is required to explain this strange 
construction. For more than a decade coasteering (which is a blend 
of "coast" with the "-eering" ending of either "mountaineering" or 
"orienteering") has been an extreme sport which includes rock 
climbing, swimming, caving and jumping into the sea from cliffs. In 
Newquay, in Cornwall, one firm is offering this exhausting activity 
combined with an insight into the marine life of the coast. Some 
unsung genius combined "eco-" with "coasteering" to make this weird 

5. Q&A: Spelunking
Q. How did the word "Spelunking" come about? I know that it means 
exploring caves, but I have no idea how it came to be or why it 
means that. [Austin]

A. It's American and - I suspect - a learned joke.

There are two words that refer to exploring caves. The older is 
"speleology", with its derived "speleological" and "speleologist". 
These have been around since the middle 1890s and were brought over 
directly from French, where pioneers such as the lawyer Edouard 
Martel had explored caves from the 1880s on; in 1895 he founded the 
Société de Spéléologie. French got the words from Latin "spelaeum", 
which variously meant a cave, cavern, den, or grotto (it derives 
from Greek "spelaion", a cave). These days "speleology" refers in 
particular to the scientific study of caves, as opposed to hobby or 
sport exploration, though that wasn't necessarily true when it 
first appeared.

Your term, plus "spelunker" for a person who does it, came along in 
the early 1940s in the US as a term more specifically for somebody 
who explores caves as a hobby. This was presumably based by some 
learned person on an ancient and defunct English word "spelunk" for 
a cave, which is last recorded in 1563 (though it's just possible 
he may have taken it from the related adjective "speluncar", which 
had a brief flowering in the nineteenth century). The old English 
word had itself come from Greek and Latin through French, in this 
case from the closely related Latin "spelunka" that the Romans took 
over from the Greek "spelynx".

"Spelunk" first turns up in print, so far as I know, in a tortuous 
bit of wordplay that began a news item in the Salisbury Times of 
Maryland dated October 1941: "Spelunkers spieled tales of spelunks 
today for the nation's first conference on speology [sic]." But it 
was around in the spelunking community before then.

Within caving circles, I'm told, "spelunker" now means an untrained 
and unknowledgeable amateur explorer; the more experienced prefer 
to term themselves "cavers", which is also the usual British term. 
Scientists and cavers who explore with serious purpose continue to 
call themselves speleologists. 

6. Sic!
What a difference one letter makes. Donald Moffit's 1986 SF novel 
Second Genesis features a group of humans who have learned how to 
extend their lives indefinitely by infecting themselves with a DNA 
carrier. Page 114: "His second child, by some fluke, had proved to 
be immune to the immorality virus."

It's dangerous to be too sarcastic about such errors, since I wrote 
a Web article this week - hurriedly corrected - that contained the 
line "the US term cremains for the ashes of a created person".

Staying with the theme, John Dutton found an item in The Suburban, 
a Montreal paper, dated 3 May, about forthcoming legislation that 
would ban smoking in Quebec's restaurants and bars: "Anna Gomez, a 
Côte des Neiges resident and smoker, also approves. 'I won't die if 
I don't smoke,' she said." Mr Dutton notes that immortality is one 
of the less-publicised benefits of quitting.

Thanks to Rick Larson for spotting this in a Daily Illini (Urbana, 
Illinois) article of 4 May on a new electronic instrument: "Sliding 
the fingers front to back on the same note creates timber glides." 
Watch out for splinters.

Cris Jubb was reading an article on horse-drawn caravans in the May 
issue of Royal Auto, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of 
Victoria. It included this report of impressive versatility: "Each 
[caravan] has a table and benches, which collapse into a double 
bed, bunk beds, a stove, bar fridge and a porta-potty."

>From the Sporting Life Web site, spotted on 10 May from far away in 
Vanuatu by John Lynch: "The FA Premier League are set to reject 
Tottenham's call for their game against West Ham to be replayed at 
a board meeting".

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