World Wide Words -- 01 Oct 05

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Sep 30 17:03:46 UTC 2005

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 461         Saturday 1 October 2005
Sent each Saturday to at least 25,000 subscribers by e-mail and RSS
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448       US advisory editor: Julane Marx

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Spatterdashes.
3. Book review: Talking For Britain.
4. Noted this week.
5. Q&A: Shrink.
6. Sic!
A. E-mail contact addresses.
B. Subscription information.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
NIHILARTIKEL  Last week's issue mentioned the recently discovered 
fake entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary. It turns out that 
"Nihilartikel" is a German term for such entries, formed from Latin 
"nihil", nothing, plus "Artikel", so a "nothing article". Some 
writers have borrowed it to fill a gap in English vocabulary. 

Others have used "Mountweazel", derived from the deliberately false 
entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel that appeared in the 1975 
edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia. (The article claimed that 
she was a fountain designer turned photographer, celebrated for a 
collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled "Flags 
Up!") Another term is "ghost word", though this strictly refers to 
an entry that appears in a dictionary as the result of an editorial 
error, such as the one for "dord" in Webster's New International 
Dictionary in 1934, a misprint for "D or d", as an abbreviation for 

A much older example of a Nihilarticle (or it may have been a hoax 
by the editor, celebrating the end of the job) formed the final 
entry in several editions of Rupert Hughes' The Music Lovers' 
Encyclopedia, first published in 1903; it asserted that "zzxjoanw" 
was the name of a Maori drum. I know several popular works on 
etymology that cite the word in all seriousness, despite the fact 
that there's no Z, X or J in the Maori language and that it was 
exposed as a fake in 1976.

2. Weird Words: Spatterdashes
Long gaiters or leggings.

Travelling on horseback in earlier centuries could be unpleasant in 
wet weather, with all that water and mud kicked up by the hooves. 
Nobody found a way to put mudguards on horses, but they did the 
next best thing by putting guards on the rider's legs. (It was the 
same idea as the chaps of cowboys, except that the latter guarded 
against the thorns of the chaparral rather than mud.) These gaiters 
or spatterdashes - an obvious but effective name - were of leather, 
tied around the legs below the knees, as Daniel Defoe has Robinson 
Crusoe describe: "Stockings and shoes I had none, but had made me a 
pair of somethings, I scarce knew what to call them, like buskins, 
to flap over my legs, and lace on either side like spatterdashes, 
but of a most barbarous shape, as indeed were all the rest of my 
clothes." (Buskins were a kind of high-legged leather boots.) 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, people had started to 
abbreviate the word to spats; in sympathy with their abbreviated 
name these had become much shorter, fastening under the shoe but 
reaching little higher than the ankle. In this form - and always in 
sober grey, black or white - they became part of the uniform of the 
well-dressed city man, as Conan Doyle implies in the Sherlock Homes 
story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge: "From his spats to his gold-
rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good 
citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree." 

P G Wodehouse had great fun inventing stories featuring young men 
in spats (in 1936 he even gave a book that title). In Jill the 
Reckless of 1921, one named Freddie attempts to stop a man called 
Henry from poking a parrot with a stick: "'Just because you've got 
white spats,' proceeded Henry, on whose sensitive mind these 
adjuncts of the costume of the well-dressed man about town seemed 
to have made a deep and unfavourable impression, 'you think you can 
come mucking around and messing abart and interfering and mucking 
around. This bird's bit me in the finger, and 'ere's the finger, if 
you don't believe me - and I'm going to twist 'is ruddy neck, if 
all the perishers with white spats in London come messing abart and 
mucking around, so you take them white spats of yours 'ome and give 
'em to the old woman to cook for your Sunday dinner!'"  

3. Book review: Talking For Britain
The BBC, for whom author Simon Elmes works as Creative Director in 
the Radio Documentaries Unit, has recently finished a series of six 
radio broadcasts on Radio 4 called Word 4 Word. These are available 
via (though the link at the top, "Listen to 
the most recent edition", gives you the wrong programme at the time 
of writing). 

The series is part of the BBC's Voices project, which involved the 
staff of local and regional radio recording hundreds of hours of 
speech in the winter of 2004/2005. This book is complementary to 
the Word 4 Word series - and also to earlier ones such as Routes of 
English - and has the subtitle "A Journey Through the Nation's 
Dialects". Simon Elmes has been able to draw not only on this new 
material, but on previous recording projects of the BBC and on the 
older Survey of English Dialects by Harold Orton and colleagues at 
Leeds University, as well as the more recent work of Stanley Ellis 
and others.

He tours Britain, starting in Cornwall and travelling up-country to 
end in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Along the way he describes 
not only the local language and pronunciation but also the cultural 
links of local words with daily life, present and past. His source 
material is rich, so he doesn't only give an up-to-date snapshot of 
British regional speech (important in itself), but also contrasts 
it with older material and so show how it has changed, not only 
using old language recordings but also historical writing by people 
who knew their area intimately. He's particularly good with the 
modern urban dialects of London and other big cities, which have 
borrowed from American English, Afro-Caribbean English and - to a 
lesser extent - from the languages of immigrants from the Indian 
subcontinent. But he doesn't neglect the older accents of the 
countryside and small towns; they're in relative decline, but 
historically they're the source of much vocabulary that we now 
regard as standard.

He writes in the introduction: "Alongside such wonderful old local 
usages (still just about surviving) as 'ferntickle' for freckle and 
'erriwiggle' for earwig, Voices recorded the nation-beating triumph 
of a handful of modern slang terms that have passed into almost 
everyone's lexicon: 'knackered' for tired (despite the frequent 
observation that it was a rather vulgar word), 'chuffed' for 
pleased and 'loaded' for rich. There were some surprises too: the 
spreading use of the originally northern word 'keks' for trousers, 
as also 'strides' (surprisingly widespread) and 'pants' - though it 
seems this is indigenous usage and not borrowed from the US."

He manages all this while writing in an easy conversational style. 
His descriptions link transcripts of conversations (translated when 
they become too richly obscure) and include many anecdotes drawn 
from interviewees, researchers and his own memories of his youth in 
Bristol. A vocabulary at the end of each chapter lists the key 
words he has discussed and an index of all the regional words means 
you can be sure of finding those you're interested in. His book 
shows that Britain is still a country of linguistic contrasts, with 
many local dialects holding their own against change.


[Simon Elmes, Talking for Britain, published by Penguin Books on 22 
August 2005; hardback, pp333; ISBN 0140515623; publisher's UK price 

  Amazon UK:       GBP10.49  (
  Amazon Canada:   CDN$22.40 ( 
  Amazon USA:      US$19.49  ( agent) 
  Amazon Germany:  EUR24,90  (
[Please use these links to buy. See C below for more details.]

4. Noted this week
NOSE DISTRACTION  This is a fine example of official euphemism in 
Britain. It is part of a restraint system called "physical control 
in care" for young offenders held in secure training centres. Nose 
distraction is a method of last resort to end a violent situation. 
Essentially it is a karate chop to the nose.

5. Q&A
Q. How did "shrink" come to mean a psychiatrist?  I noticed on one 
site they referred to the psychiatrist as a "head-shrinker", which 
also had the meaning of a person who cuts off and preserves other 
people's heads as trophies. Are the two meanings related? [Susan 

A. It looks pretty clear that they are, though absolute proof, as 
so often, cannot be forthcoming because there's no way to find the 
person who invented the term and ask him. The original meaning of 
the term head-shrinker was in reference to a member of a group in 
Amazonia, the Jivaro, who preserved the heads of their enemies by 
stripping the skin from the skull, which resulted in a shrunken 
mummified remnant the size of a fist. The term isn't that old - 
it's first recorded from 1926.

All the early evidence suggests that the person who invented the 
psychiatrist sense worked in the movies (no jokes please). We have 
to assume that the term came about because people had deep-seated 
anxieties and suspicions about what psychiatrists actually did to 
their heads and how they did it. So they started to compare it to 
the reduction of enemies' heads to a ceremonial token.

The earliest example we have is from an article in Time in November 
1950 to which an editor has helpfully added a footnote to say that 
"head-shrinker" was Hollywood jargon for a psychiatrist. The term 
afterwards became moderately popular, in part because it was used 
in the film Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. Robert Heinlein felt his 
readers needed it to be explained when he introduced it into Time 
For The Stars in 1956: "'Dr. Devereaux is the boss head-shrinker.' 
I looked puzzled and Uncle Steve went on, 'You don't savvy? 
Psychiatrist.'" By the time it turns up in West Side Story on 
Broadway in 1957 it was becoming established.

"Shrink", the abbreviation, became popular in the USA in the 1970s, 
though it had first appeared in one of Thomas Pynchon's books, The 
Crying of Lot, in 1965. 

6. Sic!
Randall Bart saw a television weatherman commenting on hurricane 
Rita (he thinks it was on CNN, but he might be wrong), who pointed 
at the map and said "You'll see Rita is now not as symmetrical on 
the west side as it is on the east side." 

And Mr Bart recently visited a Mongolian restaurant, which supplied 
patrons with a pamphlet containing Mrs Kim's advice for a happy 
family. "I was intrigued by one of her claims: 'Eighty percent of 
divorces involve a gamboling problem.' I suppose it depends who one 
gambols with."

On 24 September, Robert Smallwood read an article in The Calgary 
Herald about the registration of minor hockey players. Ken Moore, 
President of the Minor Hockey Association of Calgary, commented on 
the benefits to players: "The life skills they get are next to 
none". Mr Smallwood thinks he may have meant to say "second to 
none", but perhaps he was just being brutally honest.

The Reverend John Carl Bowers writes: "A sidewalk sign in Brooklyn, 
NY, reads: 'Psychic Reader! Come in for FREE questions!' Thanks, 
but what I'd like is some answers." Not wishing to be impertinent, 
Rev, but isn't that more in your line?

A. E-mail contact addresses
If you want to respond to something in a newsletter, ask a question 
for the Q&A section, or otherwise contact Michael Quinion, please 
send it to one of the following addresses:

* Comments on newsletter mailings are always welcome. They should 
  be sent to wordseditor at 

* Questions intended to be answered in the Q&A section should be 
  addressed to wordsquestions at (please don't 
  use this to respond to published answers to questions - e-mail 
  the comment address instead)

* Problems with subscriptions that cannot be handled by the list 
  server should be addressed to wordssubs at

Please do not send attachments with messages.

B. Subscription information
To leave the list, change your subscription address, or subscribe, 
please visit . 

You can also maintain your subscription by e-mail. For a full list 
of commands, send a message containing the following two lines to 
listserv at


The "END" ensures that the list server doesn't get confused by your 
signature or other text added to the outgoing message.

This newsletter is also available as an RSS feed. The address is .

Recent back issues are archived at 

C. Ways to support World Wide Words
The World Wide Words newsletter and Web site are free, but if you 
would like to help with their costs, here are some ways to do so.

If you order any goods from any of these online stores (not just 
new books), you can use one of these links, which gets World Wide 
Words a small commission at no extra cost to you:

   Amazon USA:
   Amazon UK:
   Amazon Canada:
   Amazon Germany:

If you would like to contribute a sum to the upkeep of World Wide 
Words through PayPal, enter this link into your browser:

You could also buy one of my books, of course. See  and .

World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2005.  All rights 
reserved. The Words Web site is at .
You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free online 
newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists provided that you include 
this note and the copyright notice above. Reproduction in printed 
publications or on Web sites requires prior permission, for which 
you should contact wordseditor at .

More information about the WorldWideWords mailing list