World Wide Words -- 23 Oct 04

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Oct 22 19:48:35 UTC 2004

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 415         Saturday 23 October 2004
Sent each Saturday to 20,000+ subscribers in at least 120 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448        wordseditor at

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Hornswoggle.
3. Sic!
4. Book review: Hatchet Jobs and Hardball.
5. Noted this week.
6. Q&A: On a wing and a prayer.
A. Subscription commands.
B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
ON ONE'S TOD  Following my piece on this British phrase last week,
many Australian subscribers pointed out that they have their own
version of it, "on one's Pat Malone". It's first recorded in 1907;
where it comes from is not altogether clear, but a popular ballad,
"Paddy Malone in Australia", was noted in the 1870s and appeared in
a collection by Banjo Patterson in 1906. It tells the story of an
illiterate Irishman, Pat Malone from Tipperary, who was tempted out
to Australia, suffered various calamities as a sheep and cattle
herder in the outback, and returned home sadder but wiser. The song
was widely enough known that it seems likely his name was seized on
to make the rhyming slang expression. Several subscribers gave it
as "Tod Malone", so it looks very much as though the British and
Australian versions have blended.

2. Weird Words: Hornswoggle
Bamboozle or hoax; cheat or swindle.

"We're hornswoggled. We're backed to a standstill. We're double-
crossed to a fare-you-well" bitterly complains a character in Jack
London's The Valley of the Moon of 1913. Seven years later the
young P G Wodehouse used it in "Little Warrior": "Would she have
the generosity to realize that a man ought not to be held
accountable for what he says in the moment when he discovers that
he has been cheated, deceived, robbed - in a word, hornswoggled?"
By then, the word had been in the language with that meaning for
more than half a century, and even then it had been around for some
decades with an older sense of "embarrass, disconcert or confuse".
People had long since turned it into an exclamation of surprise or
amazement: "Well, I'll be hornswoggled!"

Peter Watts argues in A Dictionary of the Old West that it comes
from cowpunching. A steer that has been lassoed around the neck
will "hornswoggle", wag and twist its head around frantically to
try to slip free of the rope. A cowboy who lets the animal get away
with this is said to have been "hornswoggled". A nice idea, but
nobody seems to have heard of "hornswoggle" in the cattle sense,
and it may be a guess based on "horn". Nobody else has much idea
either, though it's often assumed to be one of those highfalutin
words like "absquatulate" and "rambunctious" that frontier
Americans were so fond of creating. It's sad to have to tag a word
as "origin unknown" yet again, but that's the long and the short of

3. Sic!
British subscriber Craig Fisher e-mails in punctuational distress:
"I find myself increasingly empathising with Lynn Truss, and want
to carry a large marker around to add apostrophes to signage which
offends my sensibilities. Seen in Luton: A professionally-produced,
colour banner on two sides of a local pub with satellite sports TV,
stop to make a note of the signwriter's company name - but I hope
they sack their proofreader." Or employ one.

Harry Campbell was listening to a medical programme on BBC Radio 4
on Wednesday. Discussing the increasing regulation of complementary
therapies, a speaker said: "This is one of the thorns in the side
of acupuncturists at the moment". Is that better or worse than
steel needles?

Last week, as many people pointed out, I wrote of a dictionary that
its "accompanying CD-ROM is sold separately". It's a good trick if
you can do it. "Companion" would have been better.

4. Book review: Hatchet Jobs and Hardball
Under the helpful subtitle The Oxford Dictionary of American
Political Slang, Grant Barrett has edited together a timely list of
600 examples of the genre, from before the foundation of the USA to
the present day. Much of it, as the introduction points out, is the
special jargon of Washington within the Beltway.

Many of the terms included here are of long standing, such as
"boondoggle", "bully pulpit", "G-man", "hawk" and "dove", "Jim
Crow", "logroll", "pork barrel", "political football" (for which
evidence, perhaps surprisingly, can be found as far back as 1857),
"swing voter", and - inevitably - "Watergate". Others are much more
recent: "actorvist" (a politically involved actor), "angry white
male" (one opposed to progressive laws), "Axis of Evil", "embed"
(journalists with US troops in the field), "Iraqification",
"Mercuri method" (a voter-verified electronic ballot system),
"panda hugger" (a political figure thought to be too accommodating
to the Chinese viewpoint), "soccer mom", "unconcede" (though famous
from the 2000 presidential election, it actually appeared four
years earlier), and the punning "weapons of mass distraction".

In Britain, we sometimes feel that our political language, like our
politics, has been heavily influenced by the USA, but surprisingly
few of the terms in this book have made it big in politics this
side of the Atlantic. The obvious exception is "spin doctor"
(which, coincidentally, has just celebrated this week the 20th
anniversary of its first appearance in print), with its associated
terms "prebuttal", "on message", and "sound bite". The modern
political meaning of "third way", a strategy that repudiates the
traditional policies of both right and left, was borrowed by Tony
Blair's advisers from the US (though the term itself, in various
senses, is much older). I discovered also that "thought police",
the term for a totalitarian police force which suppresses freedom
of thought, is known from the US as early as 1944, slightly
predating George Orwell's use in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our
"floating voter", for a person not attached to any political party,
appears to derive from the US "floater", though the original
nineteenth-century sense of the latter was that the person's vote
could be bought.

Each entry contains a definition and, where appropriate, a note of
the geographical areas or social groups in which the term may be
heard, as well as whether it is still current. The larger part of
every entry consists of examples of how the word has been used in
printed sources. Introductory essays discuss aspects of political
jargon, including the chad scandal of 2000, the terminology and
influence of blogging, the continuing plague of new formations that
use "-gate", the trend towards naming legislation after people
(Brady Bill, Megan's Law) and the background to the term "inside
baseball", meaning the intricate knowledge and actions involved in
an activity that are not usually known to the public, or, putting
it another way, the boring technical details.

By its specialist nature, this isn't a book for everyone, but if
you want to make sense of the bafflegab coming out of Washington,
you'll find what you need here.

[Grant Barrett [ed.], Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford
Dictionary of American Political Slang, published by Oxford
University Press USA; hardback, pp302; ISBN 0195176855; $25.00.]

  Amazon USA:      US$17.00  (
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[Please use these links to order. See Section C for more details.]

5. Noted this week
DOOFER, SPARROW, WIDGY AND UNCLE SAM  These are among the terms for
the male rude bits that Yorkshire men have used to their doctors.
They gained national exposure, so to speak, following reports of
the problems of seven Austrian doctors, who came to the Doncaster
and Barnsley area to help ease a shortage of family doctors. They
were fluent in English but often couldn't understand patients, who
seemed at times to speak another language altogether. Two doctors
in West Yorkshire have compiled a glossary for them that includes
many examples of British slang and local dialect for parts of the
body. Among its phrases are "manky" (describing an infected part of
the body), "jiggered" (exhausted), "gone off their legs" (unwell),
"popped his clogs" (died), and "champion" (in good health). Also,
"boggles" is a nasal discharge, while "noggling" is explained in
press reports as an indescribable chronic pain.

HORLICKS  In July last year, I recorded (
that the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had publicly used
this British slang term, which means a muddle or mess. His choice
gave a fading term renewed popularity. The Daily Telegraph reports
this week that GlaxoSmithKline, who own the Horlicks drink brand,
have become so fed up with this negative appropriation of their
trademark that they have engaged public relations consultants to
try to improve its image. It will be interesting to see if PR can
change the way people speak their language; I suspect not.

6. Q&A
Q. What does "on a wing and a prayer" mean? [Barrett Robertson, UK]

A. It means that you're in a desperate situation and you're relying
on hope to see you through.

Congratulations on getting it right. It's one of the more commonly
mangled phrases in the language, frequently being said and written
as "on a whim and a prayer". One recent example was in the Daily
Mail of 25 May 2004: "It does nothing to change the impression of a
club stumbling along on a whim and a prayer".

Believe me, there's nothing capricious about it. Anyone who can
write it that way is surely too young to know that it comes from a
famous American World War Two patriotic song, with words by Harold
Adamson and music by Jimmy McHugh. It tells the tale of a plane
struggling home after a bombing raid:

  Comin' in on a wing and a prayer
  What a show, what a fight
  Boys, we really hit our target for tonight
  How we sing as we limp through the air
  Look below, there's our field over there
  Though there's one motor gone
  We can still carry on
  Comin' in on a wing and a prayer.

The song came out at the end of 1942 and instantly became a huge
hit on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that the phrase
almost immediately entered the language.

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