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Groaning board & Collops

Not bad with cheese.

Dear Word Detective:  As a long-standing fan of the old Grand Ocean Liners, I was plowing my way through the fascinating book “The Sway of the Grand Saloon” by John Malcolm Brinnin. I was taken by the sheer weight of British idiom in the book, but a couple stood out and have me puzzled. The first is a reference to the dining table as the “Groaning Board.” Why “groaning”? Is it under the weight of the food or the reaction of the passenger to that food? The second is in reference to the poor fare available on early steamers: “a smoking mess of hot rare collops.” I don’t know why, but just reading that makes my mouth water. Should it? — Dave Wilke.

Hooray for the true ocean liners (not modern cruise ships, those floating palaces of suburban excess). I will be forever grateful to my parents for taking my sister and me to England aboard the Queen Elizabeth (the original, not the QEII) when we were quite young. The trip took seven days, as I recall, and I loved every moment of it. The trip back, on the smaller and less glamorous H.M.S. Mauritania, was interesting primarily because the Mauritania, unlike the Elizabeth, lacked gyroscopic stabilizers, a fact which lent a special excitement to the late summer storms in the North Atlantic.

Apart from my first experience with bread pudding, which I loved, I don’t really remember the food on either ship. But I’m sure there was plenty of it, because Cunard Lines was not known for starving their passengers into mutiny. Thus I suppose referring to the dining table aboard a liner as a “groaning board” might be appropriate.

As a popular English idiom, “groaning board” simply means a dining table laden with a large amount of food. By extension, “groaning board” is also used to mean “feast,” especially on a food-centered occasion such as Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving here in the US. “Groaning board” can also used to mean “a large amount” or “a surfeit” of anything positive or pleasant, and it seems, not surprisingly, to be a staple metaphor of newspaper food columnists (“A groaning board of books proves we are what we read: The larder is stocked with tomes that cater to our obsession with the how, what, where and why of our food habits.” Toronto Star, 2/28/09).

The “groan” in “groaning board” (which dates back to the 17th century) refers, as you guessed, to the creaking and groaning noises produced by the wood of the table under stress by the weight of the food. The use of the word “board” for “table” was standard at the time, as tables for feasts were often literally long boards held up by trestles. This is the same “board,” by the way, found in the phrases “room and board” and “boarding house,” in each case referring to the inclusion of at least some meals in the deal.

I was afraid that a “collops” would turn out to be something disgusting, perhaps an unpleasant sort of seafood or goat gonads or the like, but it actually sounds appetizing. “Collop” is simply a very old (14th century) term for a meal of bacon and eggs (or ham and eggs). By the 15th century, “collop” (which comes from Old Norse and is related to the Swedish “kalops,” meat stew) was being used to mean the meat alone, and today it’s often used to mean simply a piece of bacon. Faced with “a smoking mess of hot rare collops” as the entirety of their shipboard meal, of course, it’s easy to see why paying passengers might be a little peeved.

Fill your boots

But a search under “cats and Christmas trees” is definitely worth your time.

Dear Word Detective: I recently listened to a crank call in which an eight year-old Dublin girl attempts to retain the services of a demolitions company in order to destroy her school. It’s amusing both in the sophistication of the girl (most of my crank calls at that age involved rude noises) and the willingness of the company to play along with the gag. (Like most things that have ever produced images or sound, it’s available on YouTube.) During the call, the girl uses the phrase, “Fill your boots, man!” which seems to mean, “Go for it!” I’m curious about the origin of that phrase, and if it’s Irish only. For that matter, where does “crank call” come from? — Greg Charles.

Ah yes, where would we be without YouTube? At this point, I’d be willing to give it a try. Actually it’s not so much the videos that bother me, although I definitely wasn’t invited to the meeting where we decided to give every certifiable crackpot on the planet a digital video camera. But what gives me the wimwams are the viewer comments on the videos, which make a monkey house at feeding time sound like the Algonquin Round Table.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of old-school journalism, I went to YouTube and listened to the call, which apparently took place at least three years ago, meaning the girl is now old enough to vote. Seriously, I doubt that she’s just eight. In any case, I’d actually call this more of a Prince-Albert-in-a-Can “prank” call than a “crank” call. “Prank calls” are jokes or tricks, either on the person answering or on the poor schmuck who winds up with forty-five pizzas on his porch. “Crank calls,” which often begin “longtime listener, first-time caller,” are phone calls from “cranks,” deranged individuals who earn the title by being mentally “bent” or “crooked” like a crank used to work a machine.

“Fill your boots” is definitely not restricted to Ireland, although it does seem most popular in Britain, Canada and Australia. It’s especially associated with football (what is called “soccer” here in the US), where it’s used primarily to mean “score lots of goals and win lots of games.” Owing at least in part to the popularity of that YouTube video, and probably to the current World Cup competition, as well, the internet is awash at the moment in speculation about what “fill your boots” means and where it came from.

I’ve found “fill your boots” used with two basic meanings. It’s used, as in your example, as an exhortation to “Go for it!” or “Get up and get going! Just do it!”  But it’s also used in the more particular sense of “take as much as you want” or “take advantage of the situation” (“There’s an open bar and a free buffet, so fill your boots, boys.”).

There is, unfortunately, no clear answer as to where “fill your boots” came from or originally meant. It is possible, and this is perhaps the most logical of the various alternatives, that “fill your boots” originally simply referred to putting on one’s boots in preparation for doing a task, and, by extension, to being equal to that task. If so, it would be related to the idea of “filling someone’s shoes,” taking another person’s place and being able to do their job.

It’s also been suggested that plundering armies in some unspecified “olden days” would fill their tall boots with loot (which may sound a bit silly but the term “bootleg” does indeed come from the practice of concealing contraband in one’s boots, so it’s not impossible). At the less-plausible end of the scale, there’s the suggestion that back when men wore knee-length boots, a determined drinker in a tavern might reach the point where repeated trips to the loo became tiresome and “filling one’s boots” was an easy alternative. Just how such behavior could possibly translate into “Just do it!” in a positive sense awaits explanation. “Fill your boots” also seems to be a fairly recent phrase, as I haven’t been able to find a use before 1990.

My guess is that the first origin I proposed, that of “put on your boots and get going,” is the source, quite possibly used in a military context as an exhortation to a group of soldiers. The “take all you want” usage would then be an extension of the “Act fast!” connotation of the original phrase.


The Nose knew.

Dear Word Detective: Any idea where the word “schnozzola” originated? It sounds vaguely Italianate, and is, of course, forever linked with Jimmy Durante, but where did he get it to begin with? I learned the word (and still use it when it’s warranted, which is far too little these days) during my childhood in Manhattan in the 1940s, and suspect it isn’t as prevalent at it once was. Any ideas out there? — Robert

That’s a great question, at least in part because it contains the magic words “Manhattan in the 1940s.” I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, albeit a bit later, and Manhattan to me was Emerald City, Xanadu, Shangri-La and Disneyland rolled into one, though I knew better than to try to shake Goofy’s hand. The dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History, the jumpseats in Checker cabs, and the hot dogs and beans casserole at the Horn & Hardart Automat were all miracles to me, and if a single one of the so-called time machines I’ve bought on eBay had worked, I’d be back there right now. Eventually I lived and worked in New York City for more than twenty years, but the city wasn’t the same, and, sadly, it’s even less so now.

Now that I’ve dated myself as a dinosaur of a different sort, I suppose I ought to explain who Jimmy Durante was. Born in Brooklyn to an Italian-American family in 1893, Jimmy Durante was first a vaudeville star and then an immensely popular star of radio and TV from the 1930s through the 1960s. Durante was a talented singer, dancer and comedian, but his real stroke of genius was to transform his enormous nose, which would have been the kiss of death to a lesser artist, into a beloved American cultural landmark. Durante referred to his nose as “the schnozz” or “the schnozzola,” and used his pride in the appendage as the focus of many of his comedy routines.

Incidentally, it’s never too late to learn something, in this case assuming that Wikipedia is trustworthy on the subject. For much of his career, Durante bracketed his appearances with his theme song, “Inka-Dinka-Doo,” and his somewhat mysterious sign-off phrase, “Good Night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Much speculation over the years as to the meaning of the phrase was settled by Jimmy’s explanation in 1966 that “Mrs. Calabash” was his nickname for his first wife Jeanne Olsen, who had died in 1943.

While Durante was Italian-American and “schnozzola” certainly sounds, as you say, vaguely Italianate, it’s not. “Schnozzola” is simply a jocular elaboration of “schnozz,” an Anglicized form of the classic Yiddish word “shnoitsl,” meaning “nose.” Go a bit further back and you’ll find the German word “Schnauze,” meaning “nose or snout” (which is related to the word “snout” itself and which underlies the name of the “Schnauzer” breed of dog).

Since Durante got his start in vaudeville, it’s not surprising that he was familiar with the Yiddish “schnozz.” It’s possible that he appended the suffix “ola” to “schnozz” because it seemed to echo his Italian heritage, but it’s equally likely that he was simply falling into step with the “ola” naming craze that consumed the US during much of the early 20th century. Although “ola” is essentially meaningless in itself, its use in names such as “Pianola,” “Victrola,” “Motorola” (which originally made car radios), Shinola and Crayola made “ola” a very popular naming element at that time.

Interestingly, the formerly positive connotation of “ola” shifted around 1960 with the eruption of the “payola” scandal in US radio (in which disk jockeys were discovered to be taking payoffs to play certain records). Overnight, “ola” became as clear a marker of scandal as the suffix “gate” later was in the 1970s and 80s, producing such terms as “ghostola” for the use of ghostwriters and “plugola” for paid celebrity endorsements. It’s likely that only the popularity of “granola” (which dates back to the 1880s) and Crayola crayons eventually detoxified “ola” in the popular vernacular.