Archives for June 2012


Ben Zimmer has a Boston Globe column on a phrase and a custom both unknown to me, and I’m glad to know about them now. The phrase, “parade of horribles,” is used by lawyers “typically as a put-down used by one side in a dispute to dismiss opponents’ concerns about a ruling’s negative effects,” and it derives from an actual parade:

It all goes back to the country’s oldest military organization, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered in 1638. Members of the company, colloquially known in the Boston area as “the ancients and honorables,” would parade around in uniform, though the dress code used to be a bit lax: Members could wear the uniforms of any regiments to which they were once attached. As a result, as Steven T. Byington explained in a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, “The variegated display of diverse uniforms on unathletic figures looked comic to a visitor who had not been brought up to reverence the Company’s high status.”
All the pomp and circumstance of the company was ripe for satire, and in the mid-19th century “the ancients and honorables” began to receive the burlesque treatment, with their name playfully transformed into “the antiques and horribles.” The first “antiques and horribles” parade that I can find mentioned in the newspapers of the time took place in Lowell on July 4, 1851. As the Boston Daily Atlas reported afterwards, the mock military company wore outrageously varied uniforms, featuring “everything that was grotesque and ludicrous.” As news got around, other towns were inspired to put on their own processions of “the antiques and horribles,” though the name was frequently shortened simply to “the horribles.”
Both the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and the “horribles” that they inspired, persist in Boston-area festivities to this day. The company will be seen marching proudly through the streets of Boston this Fourth of July, in uniforms that are much more presentable than in the old days.

Isn’t that great? Zimmer goes on to explain that the legal use was begun by a New Englander: “Thomas Reed Powell was born in Richfield, Vt., in 1880 and went on to Harvard Law School, becoming a noted legal observer. One of his favorite expressions was ‘parade of imaginary horribles,’ which appeared in his writing as early as 1921.” There’s much more at the link, which I encourage you to visit.


I was irritated, while reading the “Talk of the Town” section of the latest New Yorker, to see Nick Paumgarten start his piece thus: “Last week, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, deployed her considerable leverage, as the euro-zone Zuckermutter, to persuade Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister, to move up by several hours their big Friday whither-Europe meeting in Rome so that she could make it to Poland in time to attend that evening’s quarter-final match in the European soccer championship, between Germany and Greece.” I was irritated because I didn’t know what he meant by Zuckermutter; morpheme by morpheme, it translates as “sugar-mother,” but such a word does not appear to be a part of German any more than it is of English—it is not in my unabridged dictionary, and the only hit Google Books finds is from “Prinzessin Ilse: ein Märchen aus dem Harzgebirge” (1887), by Marie Petersen: “Vor mehr als zwanzig Jahren eine Rübe Zuckermutter! — das mußt Du erst beweisen!” My guess is that Merkel is being portrayed as a woman who doles out sweets (i.e., bailouts), but where did he get the idea of conveying this concept via a nonexistent German word that will be a mystery to 99.9% of his readership, and why did the magazine think it was a good idea to indulge him in it?
And in the process of googling, I found this story (pdf) from the New York Times of February 25, 1901:

East Side Tradition Has It that She Was 114 Years Old.
Little Old Candy Seller Long a Familiar Figure to Hester Street School Children.
There will be mourning in Hester Street when the little boys and girls of the east side troop to school to-day. A familiar figure that always greeted them from the door stoop opposite the schoolhouse will be missing. For the little “Zucker Mutter,” as they called her, is no more. She was buried yesterday in Washington Cemetery, and so to-day the little boys and girls will have to go without their “Ingbus” and the candied orange peel that she knew so well how to make.

The story goes on to tell how Leah Abrams (for that was her name) had come over from “Kovner” (presumably Kovno, in the Russian Empire, now Kaunas, in Lithuania), where she had married the prosperous Abraham Abrams: “But oppression came, and the family were forced to leave the land of their fathers.” He and their son both died, but their daughter married Isaac Drukmann, “and for a while the family had some comfort.”

[Read more…]


My wife and I are on the tenth of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, The Far Side of the World, and last night we hit a term unfamiliar to us: Jack Aubrey gives the instruction “Do not forget to gackle your cables, Mowett,” and mentions “gackling cables” several times in the following pages. Well, it’s no surprise to run across unfamiliar nautical terms in O’Brian, but this one wasn’t in Dean King’s useful but maddeningly incomplete A Sea of Words, nor—much more surprisingly—was it in Admiral Smyth’s usually reliable The Sailor’s Word-Book (see this LH post). It bothered me enough that I remembered to research it this morning, and my suspicion was confirmed: O’Brian made it up. [It turns out he didn’t actually make it up; see below.] It would have been impossible to verify this before the internet and Google Books, but now it’s easy as pie; it simply doesn’t exist outside his novels. Well, with one exception, as we learn here: “except for this from The Observant Voyage: A Parody, by Owen Brian Patrick : ) ‘Well Sir, to begin, Sir, as you know I did indeed gackle my cables as you ordered, Sir…'”
POB must have derived a good deal of private amusement from his little invention, and I share that amusement; I also hope this post will save other devotees of his wonderful novels from tearing their hair out over this un-look-up-able word.
Update. As mollymooly explains below, it’s actually a variant of an established word variously spelled keckle, cackle, kaicle, or kecle. That’ll teach me to make over-hasty assumptions!


The Economist has a Q&A with Geoffrey Nunberg in which the linguist discusses things he’s learned “by using big data techniques like Google’s Ngram viewer to analyse the word usage and track how language evolves”:

“Words don’t fly individually—they fly in flocks,” says Geoffrey Nunberg of the University of California Berkeley’s School of Information in an on-stage interview with Jeff Hammerbacher, a big-data engineer and the co-founder of Cloudera, during The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference on June 5th in San Francisco (full video above).
As he explains it, society sees concepts emerge and dissipate over time, reflecting people’s views. So groups of words like “yuppie” and “sensitive type” and “sense of entitlement” all appear (and go out of favour) at roughly the same time, just as the dawn of the 19th century saw the birth of the “-isms” like liberalism and socialism and the rest.

For more on Ngrams, see this LH post.


I’m already halfway through Privy Seal – His Last Venture (see this post)—old Fordie does know how to keep you reading—and I’ve run across one of those etymologies that make me goggle in wonderment. (As always these days, I must add the proviso that I’ve probably seen it before and forgotten all about it.) One of the bombastic characters (there was a lot of bombast in the sixteenth century) says, “No pothicary had done it better nor Hercules that was a stall groom and cleaned stables in antick days.” Surely he means “antique,” thought I, and then it came to me: antic must be derived, somehow, from antique. I looked it up, and so it was; here’s the (still unrevised) OED explaining how:

Etymology: apparently < Italian antico, but used as equivalent to Italian grottesco, < grotta, ‘a cauerne or hole vnder grounde’ (Florio), originally applied to fantastic representations of human, animal, and floral forms, incongruously running into one another, found in exhuming some ancient remains (as the Baths of Titus) in Rome, whence extended to anything similarly incongruous or bizarre: see grotesque n. and adj. Compare Serlio Architettura (Venice 1551) iv. lf. 70 a: ‘seguitare le uestigie de gli antiqui Romani, li quali costumarono di far..diuerse bizarrie, che si dicono grottesche.’ Apparently, from this ascription of grotesque work to the ancients, it was in English at first called antike, anticke, the name grotesco, grotesque, not being adopted till a century later. Antic was thus not developed in English < antique adj. and n., but was a distinct use of the word from its first introduction. Yet in 17th cent. it was occas. written antique, a spelling proper to the other word.


Having finished Ford Madox Ford‘s The Fifth Queen; And How She Came to Court (see this recent post) with great pleasure, I’ve moved on to the sequel, Privy Seal (1907; Gutenberg text), and have run across a conundrum. One of his characters, Nicholas Udall (or “Magister Udal,” as Ford calls him), is in Paris learning about the latest developments from an innkeeper who gets all the gossip, and he thinks (in free indirect speech) the following: “Out of all this holus bolus of envoys, ambassadors, cooks and prisoners one thing appeared plain to view: that, for the first time, a solis ortus cardine, Cromwell had loosened his grip of some that he held.” The Latin phrase (and I must say, it’s odd that I’ve now titled three LH posts in a row with Latin phrases without premeditation) is the title of a poem (and hymn) and means ‘from the region of the rising of the sun,’ and I can’t imagine what it’s doing here, where we might expect something like Deo gratias (‘thank God!’) or haud credo (‘I can hardly believe it!’). Now, Fordie (as Pound called him: “Old Fordie saw more than we gave him credit for”) was surely enough of a Latinist to know what the phrase meant, and he’s putting it in the voice of one of the most learned Englishmen of his day (who is terribly offended that Thomas Cromwell has forced him to write “a play in the vulgar tongue. Me, a master of Latin, to write in English!”), but I can’t make out what the purport of the phrase is here, so I turn to the Varius Lector for ideas.


Allan Metcalf tells the sad tale of “Professor William Merrill, a distinguished scholar who is said to have read almost everything extant in classical Latin,” who made a schoolboy howler in an inscription for a bridge: “Hanc pontem dono dedit classis studentum quae in anno MDCCCCX foras exiit ne memoria sua apud posteros pereat” has the feminine hanc instead of the correct masculine hunc. “And once the arch was up, it didn’t take long for someone to notice. According to Professor Joseph Fontenrose in his memoir Classics at Berkeley: The First Century 1869-1970, ‘At once his error was pointed out, and someone said that this was the only feminine bridge in the world.'” But “Merrill defended the gender as written, having found feminine pons in some late ancient or early medieval writings (perhaps in Hisperica Famina, which has female bridges).” For the exciting conclusion to the story, visit Metcalf’s post!


I’d seen this poem years ago and forgotten about it, so I was glad when a reader (thanks, Griffin!) sent me the link: Forked Tongues (at Futility Closet):

From the New Englander and Yale Review, January 1843: “The great etymological affinity between Italian and Latin, is illustrated by the following lines addressed to Venice, by a citizen of that republic before its fall, which read equally in both languages”:
Te saluto, alma Dea, Dea generosa,
O gloria nostra, O Veneta Regina!
In procelloso turbine funesto
Tu regnasti secura; mille membra
Intrepida prostrasti in pugna acerba.
Per te miser non fui, per te non gemo;
Vivo in pace per te. Regna, O beata,
Regna in prospera sorte, in alta pompa,
In augusto splendore, in aurea sede.
Tu serena, tu placida, tu pia,
Tu benigna; tu salva, ama, conserva.

If you go to the link, you can also see a poem presented as being “at the same time Latin, Italian, and Portuguese”; I have no idea whether that’s accurate now, or was then, but it’s an enjoyable conceit.


A nice National Geographic piece by Russ Rymer that asks the question “What is lost when a language goes silent?” As Paul, who sent me the link (thanks, Paul!), said, there’s no breaking news here, but there are some interesting observations (along with the by now obligatory mention of Pirahã and its lack of numerical terms). Here’s a bit on the Seri language of northwestern Mexico:

What modern luxuries the Seris have adopted are imported without their Spanish names. Automobiles, for instance, have provoked a flurry of new words. A Seri car muffler is called ihíisaxim an hant yaait, or into which the breathing descends, and the Seri term for distributor cap associates it with an electric ray that swims in the Gulf of California and gives you a shock. Such words are like ocotillo canes stuck into the sand: The Cmiique Iitom lexicon is alive, and as it grows, it creates a living fence around the culture.
Sitting in the shade of an awning in front of his house, René Montaño told me stories of an ancient race of giants who could step over the sea from their home on Tiburon Island to the mainland in a single stride. He told me of hant iiha cöhacomxoj, those who have been told about Earth’s possessions, all ancient things. “To be told” entails an injunction: Pass it on. Thanks to that, we have all become inheritors of the knowledge enshrined within Cmiique Iitom. Folk sayings and often even single words encase centuries of close observation of species that visiting scientists have only begun to study in recent decades.

I know some people think it’s silly to try to preserve endangered languages, but I’m not one of them, and I always enjoy reading accounts like this.


XIX век has an occasional series of posts headed “Words new to me,” and I thought I’d borrow it because in my reading of Ford Madox Ford’s The Fifth Queen; And How She Came to Court (1906; the first of the Fifth Queen trilogy) I keep coming across such words. Here are the ones I’ve noted so far:

aumbry (OED s.v. ambry), “A repository or place for keeping things; a storehouse, a treasury; a cupboard (either in the recess of a wall or as a separate article of furniture); a safe; a locker, a press” (from Latin armārium)

balinger “A small and light sea-going vessel, apparently a kind of sloop, much used in the 15th and 16th centuries” (“Its nature was already forgotten in 1670, when Blount could only infer the meaning of the word from old statutes”; from Old French baleinier ‘whale-ship,’ from baleine ‘whale’; “afterwards employed generically”)

anan (pron. /əˈnæn/, with the stress on the second syllable), a variant of anon: “orig. in response to a call = ‘In one moment; presently; coming!’; hence a waiter’s response to express that he was paying attention, or awaiting commands; thence a general mode of expressing that the auditor was at the speaker’s service, or begged him to say on; and in later use, a mode of expressing that the auditor has failed to catch the speaker’s words or meaning, but is now alert and asks him to repeat; = I beg your pardon! What did you say? Sir? Eh?”

tulzie (OED s.v. tuilyie) “A quarrel, brawl, fight; a noisy contest, dispute” (from Old French tooil, touil, tueil, ‘contention,” and thus a doublet of toil)

An interesting phrase and institution: Augmentation Court, “a court established by 27 Hen. VIII, for determining suits and controversies in respect of monasteries and abbey-lands; so called because, by the suppression of monasteries, it largely augmented the revenues of the Crown.”

Addendum. Two more:

springald (OED s.v. springal(d, n.2) “A young man, a youth, a stripling”; “attrib. as adj. Youthful, adolescent.” “Of doubtful origin; perhaps a formation < spring v.1 suggested by springal(d n.1 In very common use from c1500 to 1650; in 19th cent. revived by Scott.”

craspisces This one is so obscure it’s not in the OED; I take this explanation from Annals and Magazine of Natural History (Taylor and Francis, Ltd., 1857):

“I met with,” says he, “an Inspeximus of a grant made by Henry the 3rd, wherein is granted to the Bishop of Exon and his successors for ever omnes decimas Craspesiorum within Cornwall and Devon, and is confirmed to them by Edward the 2nd. This without doubt was of value, otherwise the Bishopps would not have been solicitous to have had a confirmation of itt, But it is a question of what it is, the word not being to be found in any of the Glosaryes, And I have asked many persons whose business lyes among the old Records, who never remember that they mett with any such word, But I think that I have since mett with the meaning thereof in the Patent Rolls of R. 2, wherein are those words de piscibus regalibus vocatis whales sive Graspes, from which word I suppose like Lawyers they make Craspesiorum, But if it only extended to such great fishes, it will be of no great value. — The word Craspisces is used in Bracton, not only for Royall fishes, but for any big fish whatever, And I take the word in the Grant to be of the same signification. Oct. 10, 1700.”