Issue of May 22, 2006

Page Three

Poets gone wild.

Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up, I heard a lot of older folks use the phrase "namby-pamby" when they described people who sit back and complain instead of take charge and take action. I cannot pull up this phrase in the dictionary. If you can find this phrase, could you figure out how this phrase originated? -- Mark Sachnik.

Weird. I could have sworn I'd written about "namby-pamby" years ago, but apparently not. In any case, I'm glad I checked, because "namby-pamby" is a great story. It is said that children can be remarkably cruel, but "namby-pamby" proves that the kiddies can't hold a candle to writers when it comes to sadism and backstabbing. Let's just say that all you need to know about the New York publishing world, for instance, can be found in "Lord of the Flies."

Today we use "namby-pamby" as a rough synonym for "wimpy" and apply it to people or things that are ineffectual, timid or passive, or to things we think are overly sentimental, insipid or childishly simple-minded. But the original "Namby-Pamby" was a successful writer.

Ambrose Phillips (1674-1749) was one of the most popular English poets of his day, known in particular for his pastoral poems and sentimental odes to children. Phillips was not, however, so popular with several of his contemporary poets, including Henry Carey, John Gay, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, who (at least partly out of jealousy) ridiculed Phillips' style and subject matter in print with increasing savagery. Spurred on by Pope, Carey wrote a parody of Phillips entitled "Namby-Pamby: or, A Panegyric on the New Versification," mocking both Phillips' subject matter and the new metrical style Phillips had adopted. Perhaps most cruelly, Carey invented the demeaning moniker "Namby-Pamby" for Phillips by subjecting "Ambrose" to the sort of humorous rhyming "reduplication" found in "hunky-dory" and "okey-dokey." To say that Carey's attack lacked subtlety would be a considerable understatement, as this necessarily expurgated sample shows: "Namby Pamby's doubly mild, Once a Man, and twice a Child; To his Hanging-Sleeves restor'd; Now he foots it like a Lord; Now he pumps his little Wits; ... All by little tiny Bits."

Phillips' other critics immediately picked up "Namby Pamby" and began using it in print, and by 1745 "namby-pamby" was in common usage in today's sense of "childish, timid and wimpy."

Adrift in a leaky metaphor.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering where the term "Ship of Fools" came from. The only reference I found (I didn't really search all that hard, though) was supposedly German in origin: "Narrenschiffe," the "Ship of Fools," into which a community would put all its lunatics and sail them off down the river to "anywhere-but-here." It doesn't seem a plausible origin for the term. I would appreciate you taking the helm on this one. -- Scott Meader.

Oh no, trust me, you don't want me steering your ship. I'm the guy that went breezing happily into a squall on Long Island Sound, alone in a leaky little 12-foot sailboat, when I was 15 years old. If my mother hadn't called the Coast Guard when she saw the storm, I might not be here answering your question. I don't think the guys who pulled me from the drink used the exact phrase "Ship of Fools," but I do recall hearing the word "idiot" at least once.

Coincidentally, that was the same year that the most famous modern incarnation of "Ship of Fools," the movie version of Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel of the same name, hit the big screen with, as they say, an all-star cast. (Whatever became of Oskar Werner, anyway?) But the idea of a "Ship of Fools" dates back to the Middle Ages.

It is apparently true that there was a custom in Medieval Europe of gathering the local "undesirables," including the mentally ill, and putting them in a cart or boat with instructions to "get out of Dodge." The phrase "ship of fools," however, was first popularized by Sebastian Brandt, a German professor and moralist, in his 1494 poem "Narrenschiff" ("Ship of Fools"), in which a ship carrying 112 passengers, each symbolizing a particular human weakness or foolish conceit, sails into oblivion. Brandt's tale, laced with moral lessons and Biblical references (and illustrated with woodcuts by the brilliant Albrecht Durer), became extremely popular and was translated into English in 1509 by Alexander Barclay.

Brandt's poem, with an assist from Barclay, was enormously influential on the arts and letters of the period and thereafter, and a "ship of fools" bound for either nowhere or disaster as a metaphor for the follies of humanity has cropped up in dozens of literary and artistic creations, from a haunting painting of the same title by the Dutch Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch to an eminently forgettable song by The Doors (containing, I kid you not, the immortal lines "People walking on the moon, Smog will get you pretty soon").

File not found.

Dear Word Detective: I have a slight question on the word "strikhedonia." This delightful word means, apparently, "The pleasure of being able to say 'to hell with it'." However, I can't find "strikhedonia" anywhere but on collections of strange words, and always with the exact same definition. I'm beginning to wonder if it's a modern invention or if it truly is an old word, subjected to years of disuse. Where does it come from? -- Kim.

You're not the only one who can't find "strikhedonia." It doesn't make an appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Third International Unabridged, or any other dictionary I own. Nor is it in any of the several "most obscure words" collections I own. Nor is it found in any research database I have access to.

"Strikhedonia" does, however, crop up all over the internet, in two very specific contexts. Several dozen people seem to have adopted "Strikhedonia" as a username in various online forums and discussion groups. Unfortunately, none of these people have any apparent connection to scholarly pursuits that might reasonably have led them to discover this word in an obscure manuscript somewhere. They seem to be the sort of people who would otherwise go by monikers like "CatLover428," so they probably simply found the word online somewhere.

The other online manifestation of "strikhedonia" is in lists of "my favorite words" posted on numerous personal websites. As you noticed, the definitions given on these sites for "strikhedonia" are, without exception, word-for-word identical, and not a single one of them cites a source for the definition. This is not helpful.

On the other hand, by reverse-engineering the word, we can at least confirm that "strikhedonia" matches that definition. The "strik" appears to be an antiquated form of the verb "to strike," which originally meant "to go, to proceed in a new direction," a sense we still use when we "strike out" for uncharted territory. The "hedonia" corresponds to the Greek "hedone," meaning "pleasure" (as in "hedonism," the pursuit of pleasure), and is also found in the psychiatric term "anhedonia," the condition of being unable to feel pleasure. Put the two parts together and you do indeed have a word meaning, roughly, "the pleasure of leaving for somewhere new."

I could be wrong, but my guess is that "strikhedonia" has never been in common usage, and was probably coined fairly recently by a popular author, perhaps either a science fiction writer or someone in the vein of the late Douglas Adams.

They go well with the tie-dyed pea jackets.

Dear Word Detective: My grandson needed a new watch cap, so I asked in a clothing store if they carried them. The young clerk didn't know what I was talking about. When I described it, she said, "Oh, you mean a beanie," and showed me their stock of watch caps. So, if a watch cap is now called a "beanie," what is a beanie called? And are sailors being issued "beanies" instead of watch caps? -- Elisabeth Hays.

Somehow I doubt it. By the way, I too was a bit taken aback by your experience. I've never owned what you and I would call a "beanie," but I tend to associate them with old Our Gang comedies and the like, and the thought of sailors on, say, a nuclear-powered submarine being outfitted in "beanies," with or without propellers, gave me serious pause.

But then I remembered that "watch caps" have long been known by a variety of other names, and maybe "beanie" isn't such a stretch. Just as long as they don't market it as a "headPod" and charge $400 for it, it's OK with me.

A "watch cap" is a close-fitting knitted cap, often made of wool, originally worn by sailors in the US Navy while "on watch," i.e., posted on deck, in cold weather. The classic watch cap is navy (i.e., very dark) blue, but other colors are acceptable, at least in principle. The only watch cap I can find at the moment in the L.L. Bean catalog (where I bought mine years ago) seems to be bright orange. I have trouble considering anything bright orange a proper "watch cap."

The "beanie" that you and I know is actually a "skullcap," a very close-fitting cap usually made of felt or other light fabric, which takes its name from "bean," long-standing slang for the human head. Beanies were originally worn by workmen in a variety of occupations (mostly involving manual labor) as protection for the skull, but became popular among small boys in the early 20th century. A beanie with a propeller on top was once considered very cool for a kid, but is now a symbol of nerdhood.

The transformation of "watch caps" into "beanies" in the popular lexicon seems to have taken place in the world of skateboarding, where they serve as a measure (better than nothing, I suppose) of head protection. As it stands now, the only distinction between a "beanie" and a "watch cap" seems to be that the new "beanies" generally lack the turn-up at the bottom edge that distinguishes the true "watch cap."


<<< Back to Page One         <<< Back to Page Two




 Main Current Columns Archives Ask a Question Buy the Book Subscribe


All contents Copyright © 2006 by Evan Morris.