Tangram (now 1809 -- or 1712?)

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Mon Sep 10 16:51:05 UTC 2007

Ah ... trangram [Origin obscure: the first two quots. suggest that it
was a fictitious law-term. Obs. after 1719, but recalled by Scott.
    In quot. 1712 misquoted by Johnson as trangram, which erroneous
spelling has been followed by later dictionaries, some of which
further associate it with tangram (known only from 1864). Cf. trankum.]
    An odd or intricate contrivance of some kind; a knick-knack, a
puzzle; a toy, trinket; a gewgaw, trumpery ornament. Applied to
anything which the speaker views with contempt.

The 1712 quotation is the one I pointed to in my previous message
[Arbuthnot had "trangam"].  So -- was a term for "a toy" applied to
the allegedly Chinese puzzle?  With or without contempt?  Or did the
Chinese puzzle sense arise separately, from a Chinese-language
term?  Who among the list's Chinese-reading members wants to delve in
Harvard's Yenching Library (in the Divinity School building) for
Harvard's 17xx book, or who in Widener (or Early American Imprints)
for its 1817 books?


At 9/10/2007 12:28 PM, Douglas Wilson wrote:
>>Is "trangrams" a misprint?  And who said "tangrams and gimcracks" first?
>>1712 Arbuthnot John Bull iii. vi, What a Devil! is the meaning of all
>>these trangrams and gimcracks [surveying instruments]
>>gentlemen?  [OED2, s.v. "gimcrack"; "trangram" does not occur elsewhere.]
>By Google Books I find an earlier printed version of the 1829 item
>which I presented earlier: it is from 1827 and shows "trangrams" (=
>"Chinese puzzles").
>If "tangram" came from an alteration of "trangram", then whence
>"trangram"? Probably a variant of nearly synonymous "trangam", right?
>(This last is old: see OED.)
>Now we're getting somewhere. ("Tangam" is good Latin ....)
>-- Doug Wilson
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