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A long time to be gone.

Dear Word Detective:  This one may not travel well across the Atlantic, but, whilst wandering round the pleasant and historic port of Whitby (see Captain Cook), I looked into one of the many antique shops and noticed a cabinet, full of carvings in wood, bone, shell and other such, labeled “Scrimshaw.”  At first I took that to be the name of the artist, but the shop assistant told me that that was the name of stuff carved or whittled by sailors of old on their interminable voyages.  Of course, when I looked later at various dictionary sources, the dreaded “origin unknown” came up.  Could you shed any light on the matter? — David, Ripon, England.

I’ll give it a shot.  By the way, your port of Whitby sounds quite similar, as a tourist attraction, to the Mystic Seaport near where I grew up on the coast of Connecticut.  Mystic was a major whaling center in 19th century New England, and today tourists flock to the recreated village and the historic ships berthed there, including the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving whaling ship from the 19th century American fleet.  I vividly remember wandering around the decks of the Morgan as a lad, going below to see the crew’s quarters, peering into the whaleboats, and gawking up at the towering masts.  It was every seafaring story I’d ever read come to life, and it was even better because it was the real thing.

The origin of “scrimshaw” is, as you discovered, a mystery. It first appeared in print (as far as we know at this point) in 1825, in the variant spelling “scrimshonting.” Other forms include “scrimshander” and “scrimshandy,” and a maker of scrimshaw is called a “scrimshoner.”

There are, of course, theories as to the origin of “scrimshaw.”  One suggestion ties “scrimshaw” to a military term of the same era, “to scrimshank,” meaning “to shirk duty.”  That seems plausible, but it doesn’t get us very far because “scrimshank” appeared after “scrimshaw” was already in use, and no one has the faintest idea of where “scrimshank” came from either.

One of the more intriguing facts bedeviling etymologists for years is that “Scrimshaw” is also a surname in England.  No connection between the proper name and the ornate carvings has ever been established, although the existence of an especially artistic seaman named Scrimshaw is clearly a possibility.

Serendipitously, however, earlier this month Stephen Goranson, a poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list, suggested a truly plausible connection between the name and the carvings.  It seems that there was, in the 19th century, a woman in London named Jane Scrimshaw who was famously reputed to have lived to the age of 127 years.  The tale itself is obviously unlikely.  But Jane Scrimshaw’s name became synonymous with “a long time,” especially a long time served in an occupation or endeavor.  And in light of the fact that some early mentions of scrimshaw are actually phrased as “scrimshaw-work” (“… anything made by sailors for themselves in their leisure hours at sea is called Scrimshaw-work,” 1864), it seems likely that Jane Scrimshaw’s name and legendary lifespan gave us a word meaning “crafts done to pass the time while at sea for a really, really long time.”

Hog on ice

Slip-sliding away.

Hog on chair

Dear Word Detective:  I was just trying to find the origin of the phrase “Individual as a hog on ice,” and your website popped up.  I don’t see it there, so I was just wondering if you could find the answer and post it.  Thanks a billion! — Whitney.

Well, I’ll give it a shot, I guess.  This afternoon, probably, tomorrow at the latest.  You do realize that “a billion” isn’t what it used to be, right?  Definitely an also-ran in the motivational sweepstakes.  Even “a trillion” doesn’t take your breath away the way it once did.  The good news about all this conceptual inflation is that the average person may soon be able to truly grasp the concept of infinity. The bad news is that we’re gonna be pondering it while living under a bridge.

But hey, be here now, as my boss used to say.  I actually tackled a question about “hog on ice” about ten years ago with only middling success, and things haven’t gotten any clearer since then.  But it’s not just me — etymologists have been searching for an explanation of the phrase pretty much since it first appeared back in the mid-19th century. In fact, back in 1948 etymologist Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice,” and his foreword to that book contains a seven page narrative of his quest, ultimately inconclusive, for the roots of the phrase.

One of the possibilities that Funk explored was that the “hog” in “hog on ice” doesn’t actually refer to a pig, but to a stone used in the ancient game of curling, which involves sliding large flat stones across ice.  A “hog” in curling is a stone that has failed to travel the required distance and sits immobile in the way of further play.  But while this is an interesting convergence of “hog” and “ice,” it’s unlikely to be the source of a phrase so widely known today in both the US and the UK.

It’s more likely that “as independent as a hog on ice” simply refers to an actual hog that has escaped and somehow managed to wind up in the middle of a frozen pond or stream.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity,” and I think all three qualities perfectly fit the predicament of a hog at such a moment.  While he’s technically free, his trotters can get no traction on the ice, making real escape impossible, and he’s more than likely to end up splayed helplessly on his belly, easily recaptured and returned to his pen.  This sense of “you’re free, but it’s not doing you any good” seems to be an important aspect of “independent as a hog on ice” in common usage (“They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice,” Time magazine, 1948).

Like one o’clock / Strike out a line

And hold the bangers.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m currently directing a production of Hay Fever by Noel Coward, and there are two phrases in the play that I can’t find reference to anywhere.  I don’t know if Coward just made them up or if they were standard British phrases in 1925.  We kind of know what they mean in context, but it would be great to know more exactly — can you help?  The first is when the housemaid Clara says that Amy, the scullery maid, has toothache, and says, “the poor girl has been writhing about in the scullery like one o’clock.”  The second is later in the play when, at breakfast, Richard says he’s having haddock, and Myra says, “I’ll have the haddock too — I simply couldn’t strike out a line for myself this morning.”  Any clarification would be most appreciated! — Jeanie Forte Smith.

Thanks for an interesting question.  I’ve never seen “Hay Fever,” so I went to Wikipedia looking for a summary, and Wikipedia replied, “Best described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners, the play is set in an English country house in the 1920s, and deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend.”  It sounds like the sort of thing I’d enjoy, since I’m a total sucker for the “madcap weekend at an English country house” genre.  I have, in fact, an application on file for reincarnation as a character in a P.G. Wodehouse story.

Before we begin, a quick show of hands:  who knows what the “scullery” is?  That’s right, Nigel, it’s the division of the household staff that deals with dishes, pots, silverware, etc., in the “scullery,” a room like a pantry that takes its name from the Latin “scutella,” meaning “serving platter.”  A scullery maid is the lowest ranked, and usually the youngest, member of the maid staff at a large house.

Noel Coward didn’t, as it happens, invent either of the phrases you folks have, understandably, found so puzzling.  When the housemaid says that the scullery maid “has been writhing about in the scullery like one o’clock,” by “like one o’clock” she means “vigorously, energetically, without stopping.”  The phrase “like one o’clock,” which can also be used to mean “enthusiastically” or “excellently,” has been in use in Britain since at least the mid-19th century (“He had a taste for literature, and we got on together like one o’clock,” 1901).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the phrase began as a reference to the speed necessary to eat lunch in the middle of a workday.  That makes sense to me, especially since the phrase originated in a time when the idea of a full hour for lunch for the average worker would have been considered a wild fantasy.

When the character Myra picks the haddock (yuck) for breakfast and notes, “I simply couldn’t strike out a line for myself this morning,” the explanation is a bit simpler.  “To strike a line” or “strike out a line” has, since the mid-19th century, meant “to pick a direction or course of movement,” as if in reference to a course plotted on a map.  So she was simply saying that she didn’t have enough energy to bother choosing from the available options for breakfast, and preferred to simply “go with the flow.”  I’d have picked the waffles, personally, and I must remember to amend my reincarnation request with the proviso “No fish for breakfast.”