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July 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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If you have enjoyed the Word Detective Online over the past eighteen (!) years, please subscribe for $15 per year (roughly four cents per day), or simply contribute what you can. And now, on to our slightly late latest issue:

Wow. July, eh? Well, the good news is that we finally got the 50-foot tree off our front lawn, where it landed after the second derecho last year. We had several people agree to tackle the job, but they either wanted $500 we didn’t have or simply never showed up. Our neighbor Bob eventually conned one of his friends into sawing it up and we dragged the pieces into our north field with Bob’s tractor.

Meanwhile, another tree simply keeled over for no good reason and is currently resting atop the fence around our dooryard. We actually had to chop off a few branches to get in the door. If I could use my little chainsaw it would be completely gone, but I’m not allowed to because I can’t hold a coffee cup in my left hand.

And so it goes. Just living in this house is a full-time job. The other night our lights went out, which is not unusual. But the way they went out was rather alarming; they popped on and off rapidly six or seven times before everything went dark. They came back on about 4 am, and we went downstairs to turn off all the things that had been on when the power went off. We were about to go back to bed when we smelled something funny, and an investigation revealed that the cellar was full of acrid smoke. Bad sign.

So the fire department comes in full force, stomping through the house looking for the fire while we scrambled to round up the cats. It took them (the fire people, not the cats) about an hour to figure out what had happened. Apparently the water softener had been recharging when the power went out, and when it came back on the poor thing had gone into a sort of fit, cycling the well pump switch on and off until it arced, caught fire and melted into a choking purple cloud of dollar signs. Two days and $200 later, we had water again. Yay.

Then a week later the water heater, apparently feeling left out of the fun, up and died. $274 and change for that. Meanwhile, our little tractor broke down and took weeks (and ~$300) to fix, giving the grass a chance to grow to be two feet high. I’m gonna worry about that when it stops raining. Maybe. It’s always something. I realized today that the car is sixteen years old. Old enough to drive itself, right?

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered what I do with the moolah from your contributions and subscriptions to this site, what I’ve just described would have been much worse without your generosity. So thanks to all, and, as for the rest of youse, please consider subscribing.

I keep dreaming that I’m back in NYC, living on my beloved Upper West Side. Unfortunately, in this dream I seem to be living in my car. So here I am in rural Ohio, and in my dreams I’m trying to remember how Alternate Side Parking works.

Onward. A few months ago, for no particular reason, I decided to read Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, a sort of hippie-noir mystery called Inherent Vice, which is now apparently being made into a movie. I’m not an expert on Pynchon, but it’s the only one of his novels I can even remotely imagine being made into a film, and  it’s still a stretch. I really wish they wouldn’t try, but I also wish Steven Spielberg weren’t working on an “update” of The Grapes of Wrath. Anyway, I also read The Crying of Lot 49 many years ago, and had started reading his much longer Vineland when it came out in 1990 but lost the thread for some reason. So I went back to it and am glad I did. Here’s an energetic review by Salman Rushdie.

Having apparently contracted Pynchon Fever, I’m currently a few hundred pages into the mammoth Gravity’s Rainbow, which is quite a different kettle of fish, and definitely one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It won the National Book Award in 1974, and was also chosen by the  jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction that year, but the Pulitzer Board blocked the award. According to the New York Times, “… Other members of the 14-member board, which makes recommendations on the 18 Pulitzer Prize categories … had described the Pynchon novel during their private debate as ‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘overwritten,’ and in parts ‘obscene.’ One member editor said he had tried hard but had only gotten a third of the way through the 760-page book.” There must be something wrong with me, because I find it addictive.

Continue reading this post » » »

Have gun, will travel

Have servants, will simper?

Dear Word Detective:  In the first episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, Cora says, “I’m one of those resilient Americans … ‘Have Gun Will Travel.'” Since this is set in the 1920s, this seemed about as anachronistic as a reference to Leave It To Beaver. Ye Olde Wikipedia says that the construction, “Have X Will Travel” dates to the early 1900s, as in “Have Tux Will Travel.” But didn’t “Have Gun…” originate with the Western TV show? References in  Eric Partridge & Paul Beale’s “A Dictionary of Catch Phrases” and “Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases” by Rosalind Fergusson (page 46) fail to dispel my confusion. — Andrew Martin.

Ah, Downton Abbey, the gift that keeps on giving, at least to language columnists. Are we really in Season 3 now? My, the years just whiz by. But it’s all jolly good fun, even when Mr. Fellowes & Co. deploy the hoariest soap-opera tropes in the book (“I can feel my legs … and other bits!”), as long as one doesn’t take it seriously. As a chronicle of early 20th century life among Britain’s wealthy, I suspect that P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are actually closer to the mark. What this show needs is more newts in the bathtub.

I did actually catch Cora’s “Have gun will travel” proclamation, and I was, like you, jolted by it. Downton Abbey has, over its first two seasons, become mildly famous for its linguistic anachronisms. (The most complete and authoritative collection is lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s entry at Visual Thesaurus:

But most of the anachronisms in the first two seasons didn’t jump out at you. They were of the “Did they really say that then?” sort (“I’m just sayin’,” “Step on it,” “Get shafted,” “Push comes to shove,” et al.), and though the answer was “no” (“Get shafted,” for instance, apparently first appeared in a 1951 Mickey Spillane novel), the scriptwriters could be forgiven for their lapses. “Have gun, will travel,” however, sounded like a real gong clanger, probably because for many of us it conjures up the 1957 US horse opera of the same name starring Richard Boone. I half-expected Cora to spit on the floor and light a cheroot.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists expressions of the form “have A, will B” (“indicating willingness to travel, etc., because one possesses an essential object, etc.”) as dating to around 1954 (“Have Tux, Will Travel” was the title of comedian Bob Hope’s autobiography published that year), but the late etymologist of slang and popular speech Eric Partridge traced the phrase “Have gun, will travel” itself much further back. In his Dictionary of Catch Phrases, he asserts that it first appeared in the “personal ads” section of The (London) Times around 1900, and was a popular catch phrase before 1920 (although he admits that he “didn’t often hear it” prior to World War II). Unfortunately, we have only Mr. Partridge’s recollection to go on here, but while he sometimes was known to propose fanciful origins for words and phrases, I doubt that he would simply invent this story. He might, of course, be dramatically wrong about the time frame of his memory, but it seems likely that the phrase was common before World War II, and possibly around the time of World War I, which puts the gang at Downton Abbey provisionally in the clear.

What seems certain is that the particular form “have gun, will travel” predated the US TV series, and that the general “Have A, will B” form may be much older, as Bob Hope indicates in his book: “Hoofers, comedians and singers used to put ads in Variety. Those ads read: ‘Have tuxedo, will travel.’ This meant they were ready to go any place at any time.” The TV series “Have Gun, Will Travel” apparently did reinvigorate what was already a fading catch phrase by 1957, leading to such variants as “Have talent, will travel” (1960) and “Have towel, will strip” (1961), and the “Have A, will B” trope seems to be alive and well today (“Have passport, will travel under new Cuban law,” news headline, 1/13).

Until the pips squeak

Don’t frack me, bro.

Dear Word Detective: With Europe’s austerity measures constantly in the news, I’ve recently encountered the phrase “to squeeze someone or something until the pips squeak.” Is this a reference to a cider press? I see in the archive that you’ve addressed the origin of “pipsqueak,” but I can’t help but wonder if the two terms are connected (and if so, which came first). — Joe Ramsey.

Well, that certainly sounds unpleasant. Makes me glad I’m not in Europe. I wonder why those folks don’t just come over here and borrow some moolah from Donald Trump, Lloyd Blankfein and the Kardashians. They seem to be rolling in it. By the way, can anybody out there explain where the Kardashians got their money? I know Daddy was one of OJ’s lawyers, but still, their ginormous money mountain seems excessive. Sometimes I think our whole economy is rigged.

I’ve actually written about “pips” on at least two occasions, although, as you say, I’ve never touched on “making the pips squeak.” But that’s because English is, to put it mildly, a “pips rich” environment. The Oxford English Dictionary lists five senses of “pip” as a noun. Some we can safely ignore, such as “pip” meaning a brief electronic tone or “pip” standing for the letter “P” in phonetic alphabets used in radio communications, etc. (e.g., “pip emma” meaning “p.m.”). My most recent foray into “pip-ville,” back on 2008, was an exploration of “pip” as the name of a disease of chickens, which comes from the Middle Dutch “pippe,” meaning “phlegm.” This sense also gave us “pip” applied to humans in the sense of “undefined illness or malaise,” or, more broadly, “annoyance or irritation” (“Bob’s arrogant attitude gave me the pip”). Yet another “pip,” found in the stereotypical upper-class British interjection “pip-pip,” started out as an imitation of a bicycle horn (“‘Well, it’s worth trying,’ said Reggie. ‘I’ll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!’ ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Pip-pip!’ Reggie withdrew.” P.G. Wodehouse, 1920).

That leaves us with the two remaining noun senses of “pip.” One is “pip” meaning the dot or symbol on a playing card, die (as in dice) or domino. This “pip” has several extended meanings, such as a small spot on anything or the stars denoting rank on a military uniform. The other sort of “pip” means the small, hard seed of an apple or other fruit.  Although these two words are considered unrelated, it seems very possible that they both derive in some way from “pippin,” originally meaning “seed of a fruit” and used in early English as a synonym for “apple” (as well as to mean, in the 19th century, “something very good,” in reference to esteemed varieties of apples). The source of “pippin” was probably a Germanic root meaning simply “small.”

To “squeeze (someone) until the pips squeak,” meaning to exert heavy pressure on someone in order to extract money, information or simply obedience, is definitely a reference to the “pips” in a fruit. The sense is that if a fruit is squeezed very strongly the pips would shoot out, perhaps at least figuratively, making a “squeaking” sound as they fly across the room. The term first appeared in print in reference to the heavy reparations demanded from Germany after World War I (“Dealing with the question of indemnities, Sir Eric said: The Germans, if this Government is returned, are going to pay every penny; they are going to be squeezed as a lemon is squeezed — until the pips squeak.” 1918).

Curiously, the epithet “pipsqueak,” meaning a weak and/or insignificant person, seems to have no real connection to “make the pips squeak.” Although it appeared about the same time (1910), “pipsqueak” employs “pip” in the sense of “something very small” and “squeak” in the sense of “small, weak sound” to convey the sense of a young child or powerless adult who can only squeak in protest.