Issue 201, page 4

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From Bill Schmeer:

I was given to understand that, in German, brassiere was holzemfumfloppen.

I also found it amusing while reading your Spotlight section and thinking about the similarity of Kurzweil and Kurt Weill, who wrote the music for "The Three Penny Opera." I thought, perhaps, that it was a "stage" name taken to reflect the definition of Kurzweil, meaning pastime; amusement but alas, Google told me he was born in Germany and made no mention of it not being his real name. Incidentally, his wife's name was Lotte Lenya.

Oh, yes, we are well aware of Ms. Lenya and her many talents. One of Mike's favorite recordings is Lotte Lenya's rendition of Surabaya Johnny.

From Bev Henderson:

In your reply in Sez You to Camille, did you purposely use the word purposefully - or did you really mean purposely? Was it a typo? Just LOVE your magazine by the way. Congratulations.

Apparently purposely is used more in Australia than it is in the U.S. or U.K.  Despite that, we do find usage sources which explain that purposely means "on purpose" and purposefully means "with a specific purpose in mind".  The OED agrees with this; however, popular usage in the U.S. (and possibly U.K.) does not.  Very interesting.  Deliberately would have been a better choice than purposefully in the instance in question.

From Robert Young:

On the Konfident Kids issue (Issue 200, Sez You), could it be that it is easier to register such constructions as business names than proper English words?

Indeed, that may be one reason for the trend.

From William H. Schaefer:

I was looking for other origins of the word spiffy and came across your web site.

Another possible origin is from the Spiffy Company that used to make collar stays, a wire device to keep collars down. It was part if the uniform I wore in military school in Virginia during the 1960-1970ís. The tradition goes back much much further.

While we could not find anything about the Spiffy Company via Google, it is more likely that the company took its name from the existing word, which dates to the mid-19th century.

From Tony Barrell, Chief sub-editor, The Sunday Times Magazine, London:

I found your excellent site today and enjoyed the entry about nouns such as convention becoming used as verbs. I have two recent examples from the UK.

British teachers and educationists now routinely talk about statementing children, i.e., issuing children with a statement to indicate that they have special educational needs.

At Waterloo station in London, I recently heard an announcer ask travellers to "wait on the concourse until your train is platformed", i.e., until a platform number is announced for the train. So we now have platforming as well!

I sincerely hope that that has educationed you all.

It seems this is an international phenomenon.  Do readers in Australia have similar examples?  If so, we can perhaps call this a global phenomenon.

From David Reynolds:

Found your Issue 113 while searching for the origins of wet your whistle. Very informative. With regards to brass monkeys on the same page it is my understanding that this is essentially true. The lead cannon balls were stacked in pyramids contained by brass triangles called brass monkeys. The slight defect in the account I found is was that it was claimed the solder would break at low temperatures releasing the cannon balls. From what I gather it was that the brass contracted and squeezed the cannon ball pile when cold, if it were cold enough, which I would imagine would be pretty cold, then it would force the balls far enough up that the top ones would fall off. I recall seeing this on a history programme some years ago.

The consensus appears to be that the brass monkey was not a device for storing cannon balls, as we mention in Issue 112 (which was recently updated), and about which readers speak in Sez You of Issue 113.  You probably did not get back to Issue 112, where we give the latest evidence (updated in January 2006) regarding the existence or non-existence of the brass monkey cannon ball holder.

From Steve Andreas:

Another argument against brass monkey from a chemist: Brass in contact with iron creates an electric current when there is even a little bit of salt water, resulting in all the corrosion in the brass to be transferred to the iron, making it rust faster than it would in contact with wood and salt water. Also, the dimples in the purported brass monkey would have to be substantial to keep the balls in place when the ship rolled. I vote for the wooden boxes to hold the first row cannon balls. 

It's not really an issue to vote on - the evidence is pretty clear.  However, it is interesting to hear about the chemistry of brass, iron and salt water.

From Steve:

Many years ago on NPR, I heard a wordsmith discuss the etymology of whet your whistle. It was not Theodore M. Bernstein, but might have been William Safire. Whomever it was said that whet refers to sharpening your scythe. A scythe is also known as a whistle because it makes a whistling sound when being used. While working in the field cutting wheat or some other grain, one would have to stop to sharpen his scythe, or, literally, to whet his whistle. At that time, he might also take a drink from his jug. If someone wanted to take a drink even though his scythe might not need sharpening, he might jokingly say he was going to whet his whistle.

Your NPR speaker got the story a bit wrong.  The claim was that a scythe was also known as a whittle, not a whistle.  However, Michael Quinion tells us that a whittle was actually a knife, not a scythe.  The OED confirms this.  The scythe explanation for wet your whistle arose after the saying started popping up as whet your whistle.  It was someone's attempt to explain whet in an otherwise incomprehensible statement - to whet one's whistle doesn't make sense no matter what a whistle is, when the phrase means "to take a drink". 

The real story is that the phrase originated as wet your whistle, with the whistle being one's mouth.  Some time after the phrase arose, someone got it wrong and wrote it as whet your whistle.  Unfortunately, that erroneous form of the phrase has stuck with us and appears now and again, leading some to believe that it must be the correct form.

Even when it is acknowledged that the correct form is wet your whistle, odd stories about the origin of the phrase continue.  The ever-popular one is that mugs or tankards formerly had whistles baked or built into them, so that pub patrons could whistle to the bartender when they were ready for a refill.  Apart from some modern creations, no such mug or tankard has ever been found, nor has any historical reference to such things.  So, folks, the phrase is a pretty easy one to explain: to wet your whistle is to moisten your whistling organs by having  a drink.

See our Issues 113 and 114 for previous discussions of this topic.

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Last Updated 01/30/06 09:31 PM