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Issue 98   

August 21, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the word-of-all-trades, part II

Ask any Briton what his flag is called and the most likely answer will be "The Union Jack".  But history tells us James I (known as James VI to the Scots) created the flag to commemorate the union of England, Scotland and Ireland and named it "The Union Flag".  So, where did the jack come from?

As we said last week, jack is often used to imply smallness and, in the days of sail, ships would often fly a small flag to show their nationality.  This flag, usually a triangular pennant, was flown from the jack-staff at the bow-sprit or at the "sprit-sail topmast head".  Such pennants were known as the British jack, Dutch jack, French jack and so on.  The Royal Navy's flag was blue (navy blue, of course) with a white cross, but in 1707 the Union Flag was inserted into its upper left quarter.  Sailors called this miniature version of the national flag the Union Jack but it remains a mystery how this term passed into general usage. 

If any of you land-lubbers are unclear about the precise location of the "sprit-sail topmast head", we'll have the boatswain give you fifty lashes.  Which reminds us, the reason for the famous mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty was that Captain Bligh let his men thirst while he reserved the ship's water supply for his precious cargo of bread-fruit which he was carrying from Southeast Asia to the West Indies.  The reason this fruit was so important was that it was intended to become the new, cheap, staple diet for the African slaves who had made the British sugar plantations so profitable.  What's this got to do with jack, you ask?  (Ask any more awkward questions and we'll halve your grog ration.)  Well, not a lot, but Artocarpus integrifolia is a close relative of the bread-fruit and is known in English as jack-fruit.  This time, jack has nothing to do with peasants, mechanical devices or small size, it is simply the 17th century English version of the Malayalam word: chakka

On the subject of plants, there is a nondescript plant which grows in English  hedgerows called Jack-in-the-hedge.  It is easy to overlook but it would be a crime to do so as its tender leafy tops make a splendid addition to any salad.  The flavor is a perfect combination of garlic and mustard, hence its other names of garlic-mustardhedge-garlic,  poor-man's-mustard and sauce-alone.  This  hardly explains Jack-in-the-hedge, though.  One authority (Dr. R. C. A. Prior in Popular Names of British Plants, 1879) declared that it took its name from its offensive smell.  Like a good Victorian, he was horrified by pungent flavors and could not bring himself to complete the rest of the explanation - that jack (or more often jacks) was an old slang word for a urinal.

A name which sounds as if it should mean something similar to Jack-in-the-hedge is Jack-in-the-green but rather than a plant, this Jack is part of an ancient pagan ritual. Some think that Jack-in-the-green (a.k.a. "the Green Man") is the spirit of vegetation who dies each year and is reborn the next.  The ritual is still enacted each spring when a Jack-in-the-green (a man encased in a conical wicker framework covered with greenery) is symbolically "killed".  This ritual is especially popular in the town of Hastings and is traditionally associated with chimney sweeps. The antiquity of Jack-in-the-green is attested to by the large number of old English public houses with this name.  

We imagine that Jack-in-the-hedge and Jack-in-the-green will have made many readers think of that inane children's toy, the Jack-in-the-box.  The original Jack-in-the-box was a kind of medieval confidence trickster who operated a version of "The Switch" wherein an empty box was surreptitiously exchanged for box of gold.  (For a splendid example of this ancient con trick, see the movie "The Sting".)  After the Reformation, the Catholic belief in transubstantiation was derided as a con trick by Protestants who referred to the host as the Jack-in-the-box.  This name alluded to the fact that the host wafers are kept in a special box called a pyx

With these two columns we have barely scratched the surface of all the jack words in English.  We may return to this theme at some later date.  However, at this time you would be incorrect if you told us, "You don't know jack!"

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Patrick Burke:

As a Brit now living in the U.S. amongst a small community of other Brits, the origin of English words (in common usage in the UK) which confuse our local colleagues is a regular topic of discussion. Usually we can resolve any questions via web searches (which is how I found this site...) but dosh eludes me. Help please!

Many American dictionaries certainly don't know where it comes from.  Come to think of it, the OED doesn't know, either.  What is known is that dosh is first recorded in 1914 with the meaning "a bivvy; a temporary shelter or tent".   Prior to that it was doss, as in doss-house.  It is thought that that word derives ultimately from dorsum "back", presumably because one would sleep on one's back (on the ground) in a temporary shelter.  

Dosh "money" dates from about 1944. Some etymologists think it may come from doss "bivvy", the notion of dosh being one of "money to pay for room and board (a place to "bivvy" or sleep)", while others think it is a conflation of dollars and cash.  This latter would suggest an American origin, perhaps plausible given the word's appearance in around 1944, but it is unlikely as it is unknown in the U.S.

As neither of these explanations is satisfactory, we would like to propose another.  It is possible that this is a modern version of dash meaning a "tip" or "gratuity".  Dash is believed to derive from dashee, a West African word that first appeared in print in 1788.  A commentator on the African slave trade noted that dashes were made to "the Kings of Bonny".  We presume that the kingdom of "Bonny" was the extensive African civilization which we now refer to as Benin.  

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Pilar Torres:

I say creole comes from the word criollo in Spanish, and it means "native", or " originally from". AHaitian friend says it is a French original. 

Well, Pilar, you win. Although English took creole from the French language, French borrowed it from Spanish. The Spanish word criollo is thought to be a colonial corruption of criadillo, a diminutive of criado "bred, brought up, reared, domestic", from criar "to breed". Spanish cannot claim to have sole rights to this word as, ultimately, it comes from Latin creare, "to create".  These days, creole carries the implication of mixed race but the original meaning was simply "one who was born in the colonies" (1604). Thus, in Jane Eyre, the brother of the first Mrs. Rochester is described as being a creole although ethnically he is English.  Some say the word was originally used by South American blacks to refer to their children born there (versus in Africa), while others apply it to Spaniards born in the West Indies.

From Debbie Plumb:

I have absolutely no idea what the term fair to middlin' means, nor do I know anything about its origin, and I could really use some help.

Well, Debbie, if you think about "fair" in this sense, it's somewhere below average, while "middlin'" is in the middle, or average. So if someone is "fair to middlin'", she is not having the best day of her life but is at least getting along.  The OED says that it means "slightly above average", and indeed this meaning has crept in. Perhaps what used to be considered just below average is now not considered so bad. What does that tell us about the world, we wonder (rhetorically). Interestingly, this phrase first turns up in 1865 in the eponymously titled Artemus Ward: His Travels.  Ward was (and still is) well-known for his creative use of language, by the way.

There's more discussion of this term in Sez You... this week.

From James Pease:

I have searched every etymological book, web site, etc. for information on squid's origin.  Every source says "no known origin".  Can you help me?

The mighty squid!  Click to follow the link.Unfortunately, we can't, but yours is such a popular question that we figured it was time to lay it to rest.  No one knows where squid came from!  It first turns up in the written record in the early 17th century, spelled then just as it is now.  Ernest Weekley is a pretty good source for etymological conjecture, and he suggests that it may come from squit, a dialectical form of squirt, which is what squids do - they squirt ink.  That's the best guess we've heard.

Interestingly, "squid" is calamar in Spanish and similar in other Romance languages (calmar in French), and it is Kalamar in German.  The source of these words is late Latin calamarium "ink horn" or "pen case", referring to the squid's ink, from calamus "pen".  Calamus comes from Greek kalamos "reed", as reeds were used for writing.

Calamus gives us a surprising variety of words.  In addition to calamari there is calumet, which is another name for the Native American "peace-pipe", the stem of which was often a hollow reed.  Then there is shawm, a folk version of an oboe.  Also, the lower notes of a clarinet's range are known as the chalumeau register.

From Lynne:

I know this is a taboo word, but what is the origin of the word c*nt? Someone told me it had something to do with "cunning" as in a cunning woman was a negative thing.

This is another of those potentially offensive words that we won't force on you.  You can read about it here if you choose.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Joshua Daniels grows a horn in this week's column

"They'll need a minimum of three to six people for that job" is an example of something that the media have foisted off on an uneducated and uncritical public. Which is the minimum, three or six? Or four and a half, the midpoint? LOTS of people use this ridiculous construction, and I almost always ask, in complete feigned innocence, which is the actual minimum. They generally look at me as if I'd suddenly grown a horn.

We know that look all too well!

Sez You...
From Allan Steel:

Someone may have already pointed this out to you by now, but here goes: Someone asked about the word sorcerer in Issue 96.

You said: "The word first appears in English in the early 15th century in Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, of all places, to translate what today is called a magician." 

Tyndale's New Testament came out in the 1520's, so this should be "16th", not "15th", of course.  Just trying to keep up the high quality of your scholarship!

Indeed!  Thank you for keeping us honest.  It's not difficult to make mistakes when switching between centuries (16th) and hundreds (1500s).

From Lew:

Good treatise on "jack." (Notice how my period is inside the quotation mark. Did the rules of punctuation change while I was turning forty?)

No, you simply haven't read all of our back issues.  You should especially read issue Issue 35 (Curmudgeons' Corner) and Issue 36 (Sez You...).  We'll add this comma topic to our FAQ, by the way, in the next week or two.

One interesting sidelight: In Great Expectations, Dickens' character Pip plays cards with a pretty girl, who berates him for his working class status, evidenced by his rough hands, thick boots, and the fact that he referred to knaves as jacks.

Great website. A thoughtful place to visit before crunching numbers about child abuse.

Thanks for your kind words!

From Steve Parkes:

In the Black Country of England where I grew up, we say I bags or I baggies for bags I, which is looked on as a southern la-de-da affectation.  Regarding dib meaning "strike", as kids we used to select someone to be "on" ("it") at tick (tag) by a supposedly random process which we called dipping. This is going to be very hard to describe, so I'll just hope you've heard of something similar!  We would all make fists ("put your spuds out!") and hold them out in front of us, then one (self-appointed!) child would recite "One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more", while striking each fist, including his own, in turn at each "spud".  If your fist was "more", you put it behind your back, and when both fists were gone you were out. The last remaining fist was "on". I always meant to spend an hour with paper and pencil and work out a formula for who would be left given a number of kids and a starting position, but I never got around to it! 

Finally, a bee's knees may be very small, but not as small as a gnat's c*ck, which is the very acme of smallness or narrowness round my way.

Melanie recalls the "one potato, two potato" selection process from her childhood in Texas.  Oh, and we hope there are no offended gnats out there!

From Jack Chastain:

...that reminds us that the daughter of a friend of ours used to know that book by the title "Alison Wonderland" [from last week's issue] 

Or, perhaps the (at least, some time back) SF writer Harlan Ellison and his "ranch" - Ellison Wonderland?

Mr. Ellison is alive and well, having been a creative consultant for the television series Babylon 5 and now hosting a sci fi radio theatre program available, at least in the San Francisco Bay area, on the local public radio station, KQED.  We haven't seen any new works from him in a while, but we're sure that, if there have been any, our informed readers will let us know.

Debbie Plumb says that she has absolutely no idea what the term fair to middlin'" means, nor does she know anything about its origin, and she could really use some help.

I had always heard it was a reference to cotton picked by the... um ... indentured servants ... and was a reference to the middle cotton being the "fairest" cotton. This is, at the moment, totally unsubstantiated and (being as I was brought up in the "South" - sort of) probably totally folk legend.  But I am about to do some searching, The time is about right though...

See below.  Note to our readers who do not subscribe to our newsletter: the discussion of the derivation of fair to middlin' appeared in last week's e-mail newsletter.  We have included that discussion in this week's issue of the webzine, under Words to the Wise.

From Paul Burns:

Fair to middlin' is a Southern (USA) cotton term. Fair to middling was the top grade, commanding the best price (with a few exceptional specialty grades). Therefore, in the South, when we say fair to middlin', we mean that we are at our best, things couldn't be better. 

You can contact the Cotton Exchange Welcome Center and Museum in Augusta, Georgia for validation. They have on display a cotton market blackboard listing the prices from 1923 that lists Fair to Middling as the top price grade of cotton. They are at:

Augusta Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau
Enterprise Mill . Suite 110
1450 Greene Street
Augusta, GA 30901
Phone: 706.823.6600 FAX: 706.823.6609
Toll Free: 1.800.726.0243


I love your site. Keep up the good work....

Unfortunately, the cotton market blackboard from 1923 doesn't cut it, because the first occurrence of fair to middlin' in the written record comes from 1865.  That's not to say that the term definitely does not come from the cotton industry, but we need a citation from earlier than 1865 (or at least around that time) to help prove it.  Our next research project...

Thanks for the nice comments about the site, Paul!

From Anson Young:

I think you're incorrect about the origin of jacket.  As Britain became more involved in European politics and European wars in the seventeenth century, the flashy uniforms of the Austrian regiments made quite an impression on fashions. The jacket was a short coat worn by Hungarian cavalry.  Another stylish addition was a kind of scarf worn by the Croation (or Hrvatsky, as they called themselves) soldiers, which became our cravat.

Better check the date that jacket first appeared in English.  It was well before the seventeenth century.  The record is pretty explicit in its support of jacket deriving from Old French jacquet, a diminutive of jacque (= Jacques).

You are correct about cravat, however.  It is the only English word we know to have been borrowed from Croat.

From Oded Dagan:

Regarding Laughing Stock - the Hebrew pun about translations goes something like that: A translation is like a woman: If she's faithful she's not pretty; if pretty - she's not faithful. 

Of course, it sounds better in Hebrew (even if it is not the mother of all languages...).  Keep up the good work!

Yes, the Italian proverb to which we referred sounds better in Italian, too!  Thanks for the kind words.

From John Krivitzky:

Wonderful essay on the use of the word Jack. I wonder, however... Why jack in a deck of cards? We have king, queen, & joker, but why have a jack? Is it similar to the use of the word commoner or is there some other origin?

Yes, it is similar to commoner or knave.  We discussed that in last week's Spotlight.  Thanks for your good words!

From Birger Drake:

I was reminded of another case of funny sounds and letters - eight (8) identical vowels in succession:

Swedish Danish
The name of a Swedish village R Danish spelling (aa = ): Raaaa
Small river    aa
An eel l aal
An eel in the small river which runs through R Rl Raaaaaaaal 

Good grief!  That's one for our personal collection. 

Laughing Stock



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