World Wide Words -- 23 Feb 13

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Feb 22 17:07:46 UTC 2013

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 820         Saturday 23 February 2013
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1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
2. Defenestrate.
3. Oddest book title of the year.
4. Whale of a time.
5. Demitarian.
6. Sic!
7. Subscriptions and other information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Jane Halsey commented on the phrase "not on your tintype": "It might 
have started out as an expression of absolute disbelief, meaning 
'You could show me a photo and I still wouldn't believe you!' and 
then morphed into a more general expression of absolute disagreement 
or refusal. The cheapness of this kind of photo might have added a 
backhanded swipe at the person you were disbelieving or disagreeing 
with." Jane Steinberg suggested a similar idea: "I had a friend, a 
Jewish refugee from Munich, who would vigorously opt out of a choice 
by declaring, in a thick Münchener accent, 'Nett ahngemahlt!', 'not 
even in a painting!' It seems similar to the tintype expression, to 
be so averse to something you wouldn't even do it in a picture."

A common response to the piece was to quote a little puzzle poem in 
various versions, which I have been able to trace back as far as 
this, though it's presumably rather older:

    Once a big molice pan met a bittle lum
    Sitting on a sturb cone chewing gubber rum.
    "Hi," said the molice pan, "won't you simme gum?"
    "Tixxy on your nin type," said the bittle lum.
    [Ice-breakers, by Edna Geister, 1920.]

Many subscribers picked up on the unfamiliar word "overhauls" in a 
quotation in the piece that came from George Ade's Fables in Slang 
("Git into some Overhauls an' come an' he'p me this afternoon.") 
It's a mistaken spelling of "overalls", a term of the latter 
eighteenth century in army and civilian life for protective over-
trousers (in the US and British armies, these were originally worn 
over breeches and stockings but the overall replaced them as part of 
the uniform). In the following century the term was extended to 
protective clothing with a bib top or a complete top, the latter 
also being called coveralls. Almost from the beginning there was 
confusion about their name in the US: the Dictionary of American 
Regional English has an example from 1781 in which the word was 
written as "overhalls". "Overhauls" came along later as a very 
common version, in the mistaken belief that they were called that 
because they were hauled on over the trousers. Similar reasoning 
caused "coveralls" to be written as "coverhauls".

Several readers pointed out following my piece on "nidicolous" and 
"nidifugous" that two other terms form a pair with senses that are 
equivalent. They are "altricial" and "precocial", introduced by the 
Swedish zoologist Carl Jakob Sundevall in 1836. He coined the former 
from Latin "altrix", foster mother or wet nurse. "Altricial" refers 
to a bird or other animal born in an underdeveloped stage, needing 
care and feeding by the parent, the same idea as "nidicolous". The 
latter is from scientific Latin "praecoces", the plural of classical 
Latin "praecox", early or premature. (You may know it from "dementia 
praecox", literally "early insanity", an old medical term for 
schizophrenia that presents in adolescence; it's also the root of 
"precocious".) "Precocial" means a creature hatched or born in an 
advanced state, able to feed itself almost immediately, the same 
sense as "nidifugous". It's curious that we've ended up with two 
equivalent pairs of technical terms.

2. Defenestrate
Perhaps my brain sees patterns where none exist, but this verb seems 
to be more than usually popular at the moment. I read recently, for 
example, that the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, 
had been defenestrated by her party. 

The root of the word is the Latin "fenester", a window. Architects 
speak of a building's fenestration, by which they mean the style and 
placement of its window openings. To defenestrate, then, might be to 
remove or block up a window, as happened during the period of the 
window tax in England. But it's never been used that way. In its 
earliest appearances, it referred to throwing somebody out of a 

There have been many cases of people being so thrown as a means of 
execution, at least as far back as the fate of Queen Jezebel, who 
the Second Book of Kings says was defenestrated by Jehu. The most 
famous came during a confrontation in Prague Castle in May 1618 
between a group of Bohemian Protestants complaining about 
infringements of religious freedom and regents of the Catholic 
Emperor Ferdinand II. The altercation led to two of the regents and 
the council secretary being thrown out of the window of the council 
room. An account by one of the regents, Jaroslav Martinic, says that 
they fell thirty cubits (13 metres or 45 feet) into the dry moat but 
survived. Catholic writers claimed that the three were saved by the 
intercession of the Virgin Mary while Protestant ones argued that 
they fortuitously landed on a heap of manure.

The first mention in English of its being called a defenestration is 
in an account by an anonymous engineer serving in the French Army at 
the siege of Prague in 1743. It wasn't until the 1850s that the 
events of 1618 came to be known in English history books as the 
defenestration of Prague.

Around 1900 we start seeing "defenestrate" as a joking term, actual 
throwing not being implied. In the early 1990s or a little before it 
took on a colloquial sense of removing a person from office by 
sacking them, as happened to Margaret Thatcher:

    Mr Bob Hawke, Australia's long-serving prime minister, 
    has been defenestrated.
    [Financial Times, 22 Feb. 1992. Mr Hawke had lost a 
    leadership challenge in December 1991.]

This figurative sense is either too recent or too slangy to have 
reached any of the print dictionaries that I've consulted. It has 
over time broadened further to mean confounded, defeated or removed. 
A football team that had been knocked out of a competition was said 
to have been defenestrated. Abandonment of a government retail 
prices index has been described as its defenestration. Another 

    There were some sweet moments - like the pre-ordering 
    requests and dedications from the audience on their 
    website - but this was a performance defenestrated by its 
    own timidity. 
    [Independent, 30 Jan. 2013.]

3. Oddest book title of the year
The shortlist for the Bookseller-Diagram prize for the oddest book 
title of the year has just been announced. It is as fine a set as 
has ever appeared in its 35-year history. 

The titles are: Was Hitler Ill? (A historian and professor of 
medicine analyse whether the Führer was fully responsible for his 
crimes.); Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts (A pigeon fancier's 
professional guide to pigeon housing.); God's Doodle: The Life and 
Times of the Penis (An analysis of the schizophrenic, up-and-down 
relationship between man and his manhood.); Goblinproofing One's 
Chicken Coop (How to identify, track and destroy bothersome members 
of the fairy realm.); How Tea Cosies Changed the World (A 
comprehensive and inspirational guide to the humble tea cosy.);  How 
to Sharpen Pencils (The art of achieving the perfect point.) 

You can vote for your choice at The Bookseller's sister site, We 
Love This Book (short link: The winners 
are to be announced on 22 March.

4. Whale of a time
Q. I cannot find on your website anything about the origin and 
meaning of the phrase "a whale of a time". [Julian Arkell]

A. If someone says they are having a whale of a time they mean that 
they're enjoying themselves very much. It's one instance of the more 
general idiom "a whale of a ...", an exceedingly great example - for 
good or bad - of a particular thing. Grammarians call this kind of 
usage an intensifier, since it adds a superlative to what follows.

The idea behind it, of course, is that whales are big beasts. From 
the early years of the nineteenth century in the US - and also the 
UK - people were making the comparison in an idiomatic usage of the 
related word "whaler":

    They fib by equivocation - they don't come plump out, 
    with a tremendous whaler of a fib, but seek to do it by 
    equivocation and confusion of words and ideas, but, in any 
    way, it is all fibbing.
    [The Day (Glasgow), 28 Mar. 1832.]

It may have originally been a saying of the literal sort of whaler, 
as Maximilian Schele De Vere suggested in his Americanisms in 1872: 
"That the huge size of a whale should have led sailors, and after 
their example others also, to speak of any man or event of unusual 
and imposing proportions as a whaler, seems natural enough."

A little later in the century the formulation "a whale on" appeared, 
with the sense of having a great capacity or appetite for something:

    "Of course I've got to keep up my authority, you know," 
    pursued Mr. Binney. "It won't do to slack the rein yet 
    awhile." "By George, no," said Dizzy. "I should be a whale 
    on parental authority myself if I were in your place."
    [Peter Binney, by Archibald Marshall, 1899.]
    I don't think it was all gallantry that made me do what 
    I did. I'd never been a whale on that sort of thing.
    [Aliens, by William McFee, 1918.]

The first examples of the idiom you're asking about seem to have 
arisen as part of student slang at the very end of the nineteenth 
century, at least to judge from this reference:

    whale. 1. A person who is a prodigy either physically 
    or intellectually; one who is exceptionally strong, 
    skilful, or brilliant. "He's a whale at tennis." "He's a 
    whale in mathematics." 2. Something exceptionally large, 
    as "a whale of a procession;" jolly, as "a whale of a 
    time;" or severe, as "a whale of an examination."
    [Student Slang, by Willard C Gore, in The Inlander, a 
    Monthly Magazine of the Students of Michigan University, 
    Dec. 1895.]

Within a few years it was appearing more widely:

    The other side from camp is straight up, and no man in 
    God's land need try to climb it; but we had a whale of a 
    time rolling down rocks; and the way they went!
    [Manitoba Morning Free Press (Winnipeg, Canada), 21 
    Jun. 1901.]

It has never gone away.

5. Demitarian
The UN Environment Programme published a study this week, entitled 
Our Nutrient World, which argues that people in the developed world 
eat far too much meat. Intensive meat production, it says, requires 
large amounts of fertilisers to grow grain for fodder, which leads 
to "a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health". 
Our lust for cheap meat is unsustainable, the study asserts, and 
fuels a trade in undocumented livestock and mislabelled cheap ready 
meals that has, for example, led to the current European horsemeat 

According to the lead author of the study, Professor Mark Sutton of 
the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, one solution is for people 
to halve their consumption of meat, to become "demitarians" (a semi-
blend of "vegetarian" with the prefix "demi-", a half). Professor 
Sutton is credited with having coined the term, which first appeared 
in print in the title of the 2009 Barsac Declaration about ways to 
reduce usage of nitrogen fertilisers in Europe.

    Dr Sutton ... and the other scientists involved in the 
    project have signed an agreement pledging to be 
    "demitarians" or eat half as much meat. He said the idea 
    was to encourage people to cut down rather than go 
    vegetarian completely. "We are not saying do not eat meat 
    full stop," he said.
    [Daily Telegraph, 11 Apr. 2011.]

    He said a good aim was to be demitarian, halving the 
    amount of meat normally eaten. This would also benefit 
    health, as Europeans currently consume 70% more protein 
    per day on average than is needed.
    [MSN News, 18 Feb. 2013.]

6. Sic!
Robert Kernish read this in an op-ed piece in the New York Times of 
14 February: "He focuses on African-American literature - not just 
books about black dysfunction, readily available in the marketplace, 
but a variety of texts that give students alternative role models to 
those provided by the media, who are too often seen toting 
semiautomatic weapons."

The Brisbane Times of 13 February 2013 had this headline, sent in by 
Bernard Ashby: "Police find footage of slain woman walking home."

In Jim Kelly's 2012 book Nightrise, Ira Rimson found mention of a 
clerical nuisance: "Both of them had stayed awake, listening to the 
noises of the lonely fen: a door banging with maddening infrequency, 
the Tylers' dog barking a mile away, the swish of the wind turbine 
towards dawn, and finally the dull percussion of the bird-scaring 

A classic mental inversion appeared in an article on the Australian 
Geographic website on 11 February: "Traditionally, a tree's height 
was calculated by using a clinometer and working with the angle made 
between a tree's crown and the ground. You would have to assume that 
the tree's top was directly below the base and that never was the 
case," says Brett. 

"Whilst shopping for a new wallet today," e-mailed Ben Crompton, "I 
noticed this advert on 'Denim wallet for men with brown 
trim and lining.' My question is not about the sense of this, but 
rather how I can tell if I have brown trim and lining?"

The Guardian of 8 February (I'm running very behind with my reading) 
had a review of the film A Liar's Autobiography about the late 
Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame: "Born in wartime, Chapman began 
life as a teenage fantasist (lonely, bookish, clever) who joined the 
Footlights at Cambridge."

7. Useful information
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