Dear Word Detective: I read in a Superintendent Gently novel by Alan Hunter published 1964 a reference to two ladies being “oonch-fanciers.” I think it is possibly connected to the dialect of East Anglia in the UK. It is also possible that the term has an unsavory meaning. I tried the publishers amongst many other places of reference but so far have been unable to find any meaning or indeed repeat use. Unfortunately Alan Hunter died some years ago. — Fred Mitson.
Oh boy, a mystery. A mystery about a mystery, in fact, since Alan Hunter (1922-2005) was a very prolific English mystery writer who churned out almost fifty books, most of them mysteries featuring Chief Inspector George Gently, and most of those set in Hunter’s native East Anglia. Hunter managed to concoct titles for almost all his Inspector Gently novels that included the word “gently” in them, often in a punning or playful sense (e.g., “Gently to a Sleep,” “Gently Floating”). Hunter’s obituary in the Telegraph (UK) mentions that he was a great admirer of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret mystery novels, as am I, so I really ought to give his books a shot.
“Oonch-fancier” is (as I suspect Hunter knew it would be) a genuine mystery to those of us who are used to looking up obscure terms in very large dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of “oonch,” let alone folks who fancy whatever it might be, and no dictionary of slang I own contains it either. But I have found two possible sources for “oonch,” and everyone likes something, so if we can pin down the “oonch,” the “fancier” may not be far behind.
Our first lead on “oonch” comes courtesy of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). DARE actually has an entry for “oonch,” and defines it as a term meaning “to push, generally with the shoulder,” usually in the form “oonch along” or “oonch over” (“For me, the natural way to ask someone to move over without getting up is to say ‘oonch over,’” 1993). This “oonch” sounds a lot like the “scooch” I grew up with, but I find it hard to believe that “oonch” has actual “fanciers,” so I’m going to rate it as a false alarm.
The other lead is based on the fact that the book you read was published in 1964, which makes it almost certainly Hunter’s “Gently Sahib.” The Urdu word “Sahib” (“master”) was, of course, a common form of address for European men during the British colonization of India. But Hunter’s story takes place in a small town in England, where someone has been devoured by a tiger that had escaped from a private zoo owned by a local collector. I’m going to take a small leap and assume, based on that tiger and “Sahib” in the title, that there is at least a tangential connection to India or Pakistan somewhere in the story. If so, then “oonch” may begin to make sense.
It turns out that a children’s game called “Oonch Neech” (Hindi for “up and down”) is very popular in India and Pakistan. Apparently the game is similar to “tag” as played in Europe and America, with the complication that the child designated “It” has to remain either uphill or downhill of the other players.
Fortunately for Hunter’s heirs, but unfortunately for the rest of us, “Gently Sahib” is not available online, and the publisher’s brief summary of the book gives no clue as to how “oonch” might apply to those ladies. My guess is either that Hunter meant that the women played a metaphorical form of “tag” in their social dealings, or that he was using “oonch” (“up” or “higher”) as an oblique reference to some social-climbing behavior on their part. That’s about three guesses in a row for me, but I hope it sheds some light on your “oonch” mystery.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Whoa. Instant October, Batman! One minute it’s 94 degrees and the grass is burned brown, the next it’s leaden skies, the rustle of leaves in the driveway, and time for pumpkin pie. Whoo-hoo. Autumn is really the only season I enjoy, though it makes me a bit sad because it makes me homesick for New England.
Hey, I keep meaning to let youse in on my latest kitchen tip. Last month I mentioned that I’ve lost much of the grip strength in my left hand. That makes it very difficult to open jars of stuff, especially spaghetti sauce and salsa, both of which are vital to my diet. The kitchenware stores sell all sorts of gizmos to help get jars open, but they all seem cumbersome and the one I bought a few years ago didn’t really work. The traditional method — of running the jar under hot water and tapping the lid with a knife — at best doesn’t work, and, at worst, may leave you picking glass fragments out of your tongue later in the evening. Then it dawned on me. All you have to do is put on rubber gloves, the kind you wash dishes with. Or even just one glove, on your good hand. Bingo. Effortless. Maybe you all knew this trick, but I came up with it all on my own and I think it’s very cool. Then again, “Easily Amused” is my middle name.
Ladycat, a lady cat.
Onward. This is Ladycat. Ladycat is the feral cat we took in last winter who had nearly frozen to death in our yard and who, upon being thawed, nearly bit my finger off when I tried to pet her. Ladycat has calmed down considerably since then, and lives a quiet life napping in her little pink bed in a clear space I made for her on the bookshelves in my office upstairs.
Ladycat’s name, by the way, has no significance apart from illustrating our complete burnout on inventing names for these critters. Kathy says that “Ladycat” sounds like something Tina Fey would come up with. I think the creative naming well ran dry about the time we settled on Little Girl Cat for one of the arrivals a few years ago. We just call her LGC now.
Now, the truth about cats is that all cats throw up from time to time, differing only in their personal style of delivering the bad news. For instance, Marley (who also lives in my office) will give several warning yowls (mmmwrow mmmwrow mmmwrow wrowwrow) before he vomits, but this does me little good because he invariably then runs out into the hall, jumps up on the banister, and pukes down the stairwell onto the coats hanging on the rack in the front hall. I have reason to believe that Marley has actually won awards from the other cats for this behavior.
Ladycat, however, almost never vomits. I’d say “never,” but I did see her in action the other day, and it explains why I would have said “never” until then. Like Marley, she gave a few “I’m gonna be sick” signals that caught my attention. But what she did next was quite remarkable. As the moment drew near, she trotted over to the covered litter pan in the corner, put her paws up on the entrance, leaned her head into the opening, and upchucked, quite decorously, into the kitty litter pan. Then she climbed in and covered the mess, climbed out, jumped back up on her shelf, and went back to sleep. I swear this actually happened, and if someone has a cheap, practical way to clone cats, I think I may have stumbled onto a gold mine.
Meanwhile, cat food isn’t free, so please subscribe.
Bonus cats-in-love picture:
Little Girl Cat and Fuzzy-Wuzzy
Little Girl Cat is totally in love with Fuzzy and follows him everywhere. If he wanders upstairs in the evening, she’ll come up the stairs a few minutes later making a little bereft sound. Fuzzy used to just tolerate her, but now she’s the only cat he’ll curl up with.
And now, on with the show….
Let’s you and him fight.
Dear Word Detective: How, exactly, does one “play both ends against the middle”? Whence? Wherefore? Is it a reference to the children’s game “Monkey in the Middle”? Is there a more sinister explanation? It seems to make better sense if it’s the middle playing both ends against each other, but maybe they decided that was too cumbersome. What’s going on? — Hannah Upchurch.
“Monkey in the Middle”? You’ll have to forgive me — I am not familiar with your Earth games. Is that anything like “Transform Boltar into a Werkle”? We used to play that all the time on, um, Connecticut. Ah, here we go. This “Wikipedia” must be the wisest person on your planet. He says that “Monkey in the Middle” is what you people also call “Keep Away,” a larval sport the object of which is to throw an object back and forth while someone positioned between the players attempts to grab it.
OK, game time over. To “play both ends against the middle” means to maneuver two opponents into a conflict against each other in order to benefit yourself, or to pretend to favor both opponents as a way of being sure of ending up on the winning side. This behavior will seem very familiar to any student of politics, where a candidate’s pledge of fealty to opposing (and often mutually exclusive) sides of a debate is regarded as “realistic” and “post-partisan.” It’s also the principle behind the not-uncommon practice of a party surreptitiously supporting an extremist candidate on the other side in order to draw votes away from a more mainstream opponent.
“Playing both ends against the middle” may resemble “Monkey in the middle” in its arrangement of players, but the idiom actually comes from the card game called “faro,” which was an extremely popular form of gambling in 19th century America. (The name “faro” is a simplified form of “Pharaoh,” a king of ancient Egypt. It’s thought that the decks of cards used in 17th century France, where the game first appeared, were decorated with a picture of a Pharaoh.)
Card games more sophisticated than “Fish” are beyond my ken, but according to the excellent explanation of “playing both sides against the middle” in Christine Ammer’s dictionary of idioms “Have a Nice Day — No Problem,” faro is, when fairly played, a very fair and honest game. Unfortunately, faro games can be, and often were, rigged by shaving the edges of cards to make their location in the deck easily identifiable to crooked dealers and players. Apparently the ends of cards were frequently shaved in a concave or convex fashion, and this technique was called “both ends against the middle,” which became “playing both ends against the middle.”
“Playing both ends against the middle” probably became popular as a phrase at least in part because the idiom “to play one person against another” had been in use since the 16th century (“They could play one Party of Protestants against another,” 1643). But the popularity of faro in the US gave a boost to “play both ends against the middle,” and the phrase was being used in a non-card sense by the late 19th century (“He must in gamblers’ parlance, ‘play both ends against the middle’,” 1887).