Indispensable.

My wife and I enjoy the occasional “200 Years Ago” feature in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and the other day they had one about a reward being offered for the return of a lost indispensable. She read it to me and asked what an “indispensable” might be, so I turned to my trusty OED, where I found this sense (the entry, still unrevised, is from 1900):

A kind of small satchel or bag worn by women instead of a pocket. (French indispensable, Littré.) See Notes & Queries 9th Ser. IV. 310. Obsolete.
1800 Gillray Print 12 Feb. (repr. scene French Milliner’s) A number of disputes having arisen in the Beau Monde, respecting the exact situation of ladies Indispensibles (or New Invented Pockets).
1806 C. K. Sharpe Corr. (1888) I. 265 Rows of pretty peeresses, who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables [at Lord Melville’s trial].

That Sharpe citation is from a very lively description of the 1806 trial of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, for misappropriation of public money:

You would have laughed, had you seen the ridiculous care with which his (Whitbread’s) friends gave him sips of wine and water to wet his whistle, and clouts for his mouth and nose. I thought his speech very clever but in a miserable bad taste, and so abusive that Lord Melville smiled very frequently. That monster Fox was there, his sallow cheeks hanging down to his paunch, and his scowling eyes turned sometimes upon Mr Whitbread, sometimes on the rows of pretty peeresses who sat eating sandwiches from silk indispensables, and putting themselves into proper attitudes to astonish the representatives of the Commons of England, occupying the opposite benches.

I was a bit surprised by “wet his whistle,” but I soon discovered it goes back way beyond 1806, indeed back to Chaucer’s day: “So was hir ioly whistle wel ywet” (Reeve’s Tale, l. 235).

Comments

  1. AJP Crown says:

    No Whitbreads for 65 years, and then two come within the space of a week.

  2. I just spent a blank few minutes trying to remember the OTHER word I used to know for that sort of early-1800s thing… I think it was “reticule”.

  3. Yes, reticule, obviously from French and indispensable is probably a calque of nécessaire.

  4. If you were calquing nécessaire, why wouldn’t you use necessary?

  5. Notes & Queries 9th Ser. IV. 310:

    “Indispensable” (9th S. iv. 247). — An “indispensable” was a small bag provided with a long string in which the ladies, at the beginning of this century, put their money, spectacles, handkerchief, and snuff-box when they went out, and which they hung on the back of their chair when sitting down. Later on this “indispensable” became “sac,” and then “reticule or ” ridicule.” Littré, Larousse, Bescherelle, and ‘La Grande Encyclopédie’ give the above definition of the term. Moreover, you can find in Racinet’s ‘Costume Historique,’ vol. vi. plates 406 (figs. 3 and 13) and 407 (figs. 15 and 20), several coloured reproductions of these receptacles.
    Henri Chateau.
    Paris.

  6. @Kieth Ivey: At that date, necessary may already have been a euphemism for “toilet.”

  7. Rodger C says:

    At that date, necessary may already have been a euphemism for “toilet.”

    In its function as a euphemism for “shitpot.”

  8. indispensable is probably a calque of nécessaire.

    The OED (quoted in the post) says it’s from French indispensable in the same sense.

  9. John Cowan says:

    I understand necessary n. to be short for necessary-house ‘outdoor privy’.

  10. “In its function as a euphemism for “shitpot.””

    “Shit” seems to come from roots meaning “to separate” or “to cut off” — the equivalent of “droppings,” which is not at all offensive. Was “shit” itself once a euphemism for some other word meaning specifically “excrement”?

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Funny enough: dirt << *dher- “defecate”. The two words ‘dirt’ and ‘shit’ (No. drite v. “defecate” , drit(t) n. “feces ; dirt (dysphemism)” and skite v. “defecate”, skit(t) n. “dirt; feces”) influenced eachother mutually, explaining their coincidence in form. I think they have been a phono-semantic pair for a long time, taking turns in a cycle of dys- and euphemism.

  12. John Cowan says:

    So dirt and shit are (at least partly) semantically swapped between Enlgish and Norwegian. Cool. vicar:curate :: curé:vicaire.

  13. January First-of-May says:

    semantically swapped

    I think my favorite example is час and година in Russian and Ukrainian – one of the words means “hour”, as in 60 minutes, and the other is a poetic word for “time”, but in Russian the former means “60 minutes”, and the latter is poetic, while in Ukrainian it’s exactly the opposite.
    (Of course, in Russian, the former word can also be used in the poetic meaning; I don’t know whether the latter can in Ukrainian.)

    In Yugoslavian, as it happens, година (or godina, depending on the dialect) means year, which probably confuses Ukrainian speakers a lot (and vice versa).

  14. David Marjanović says:

    AFAIK, Ukrainian lines up with Polish here: czas “time”, godzina “hour”.

    Funny enough: dirt << *dher- “defecate”.

    I’m used to Mist meaning “trash”; “trash can” is Mistkübel, and Misthaufen covers cattle farmers’ dungheaps as well as a little compost heap in a garden. More literarily, Mist means “dung”, and I thought that was a euphemism. It took the Latin root cognate (mingere “to piss”) to convince me otherwise.

    Some whiskey producer once tried to sell Irish Mist in Germany. It did not go well.

  15. Curtis Booth says:

    Out here in the Wild West, mountain men, lacking pockets in their buckskins and furs, used to carry what they called a ‘possibles’ bag, where possibles really meant items indispensible to survival, such as firemaking tools and hunting paraphernalia. Possibles is an unusual plural in English. Many of the early mountain men were French (see rendezvous and Cache Valley here in Utah for example), and I wonder if ‘possibles’ is a better plural in French than in English, and borrowed for its usefulness.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    It is… in spelling. The singular and the plural are pronounced the same, and I’d be rather surprised if mountain men communicated in writing much.

  17. TLFi doesn’t give this sense of indispensable, but I won’t pick a fight with OED, thank you very much. I also admit that English seems to be reluctant to calque words and prefers borrowings.

  18. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/GRAMMAR/grammarlogs1/grammarlogs208.htm

    Above link claims that an electrician in Kentucky once mentioned a “severals bag”, but no one else on the entire internet seems to have ever referred to such a thing.

  19. Crawdad Tom says:

    And there was Chaucer’s “bag of needments.”

  20. Now I understood where Kölsch Driss “shit” comes from.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    The verb being driessen or drissen, as in Die drießen doch all durch ein Fott (approx. “they stick together like thieves”, in a dismissive sense only)

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