A barrel of fun.
Dear Word Detective: Did the term “scuttlebutt” come to or from nautical usage? — Mike Henderson.
Aaarrr, Matey. You know, of course, that 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of International Talk Like a Pirate Day. According to Wikipedia (which I trust on such topics), ITLPD began when two guys in Oregon, John Baur and Mark Summers, were playing racquetball and one was injured, reacting to the pain with “Aaarrr!” Apparently this reminded them of the distinctive pirate dialect of the character Long John Silver, played by the great Robert Newton in the 1950 Disney film of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and an in-joke was born. They eventually clued humorist Dave Barry in on the joke, he promoted it, and here we are. And to this day, I can’t read the word “scuttlebutt” without hearing it in Robert Newton’s wonderful pirate voice.
Speaking of in-jokes, etymologists joke that there’s a shadowy cabal out there called the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything (CANOE) promulgating the idea that nearly every English word or phrase comes somehow from the Age of Sail and tall ships. And it’s true that the Royal Navy in the 18th century is almost as popular as Medieval villages in just-so word origin tales. But in this case, CANOE ain’t crazy; there really is a nautical origin to “scuttlebutt.”
Today we use the term “scuttlebutt” to mean rumors, gossip or insider news, especially of the sort that circulates within an organization, whether a corporate office or a military unit. It’s the sort of talk that stereotypically takes place when office workers encounter each other at the water cooler or coffee machine and trade news and complaints about the latest depredations of management. It’s appropriate that the term “scuttlebutt” is used for this social ritual, because the “scuttlebutt” aboard a sailing ship in the 18th century was, essentially, the ship’s water cooler — a cask of drinking water kept on the deck for use by the crew. As in modern offices, the ship’s “scuttlebutt” was where you heard the news of the day and traded the latest gossip.
The “butt” in “scuttlebutt” is simply a very old English word meaning “cask” or “barrel.” The “scuttlebutt” was originally “scuttled-butt,” from the verb “to scuttle,” meaning “to cut or bore a hole in something” (specifically “to cut a hole in the hull of a ship n order to sink it”). Originally, any opening or hatch on a ship was called a “scuttle,” possibly drawn from the French “escoutille” (hatchway). In the case of the “scuttlebutt” water cask, the “scuttle” was a covered hole in the top that opened to allow sailors to scoop out water with a tin pot. So a “scuttlebutt” was simply a “butt” with a “scuttle” in the lid.
“Scuttlebutt” first appeared in print in the literal “watercooler” sense around 1801, although the term was almost certainly in use among sailors long before then. Its first appearance in print (found so far) in the “gossip” sense was just about 100 years later, originally in the form “scuttlebutt gossip” or “scuttlebutt yarns” (“Ships are full of … rumors … which originate in talk exchanged around the skuttle-butt, or drinking barrel, so that all wild stories are branded as ‘scuttle-butt yarns’,” 1918). The use of the term definitely increased during World Wars I and II (“Also a cause for betting was the ultimate destination. In navy slang ‘scuttlebutt’ was rife and had the ship bound everywhere from China to Murmansk,” 1943), and civilian use became widespread in the 1950s.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Way to go, Downton Abbey. Your show’s been staggering around on crutches since Matthew stood up from his wheelchair, and you blithely kick them away. This has not gone over well with either viewers or critics, quelle freakin’ surprise. The best analysis I’ve read (I’ve lost the source, sorry) is that the writers, having trod the well-worn path forged by Jane Austen, et al., had reached the point where Austen and the gang usually stopped, i.e., the happy ending/wedding.
But Fellowes & Co. forged bravely on, realizing too late they hadn’t a clue as to a proper plot beyond thwarted love, and wound up wandering in circles, spinning ludicrous subplots that went nowhere, and sporadically killing people. Literally in circles. Seriously, that’s the third maid canned for inappropriate romantic behavior, Daisy has unwanted suitors stacked up like incoming flights at LaGuardia, and why can’t poor Lady Edith get a boyfriend who isn’t a simpering wooden weirdo on wheels? (“Yes, you’re right, I am actually married … but my wife is in an asylum because she watched this show.”)
And now they’ve done away with arguably the most appealing character (Lady Sybil) and Matthew, who Slate dubbed “the Magical Middle-Class Guy,” the audience proxy and primary pivot in the arc of the show. Well done, chaps. That leaves Daisy the dramatic elbow room she’s always lacked, and the path is greased for another chapter in the treacle-sodden adventures of Bates and Anna. Perhaps they can open a Thomas Kincaide poster shop in town. But hey, no harm, no foul. Most of the audience probably shows up primarily to admire the furnishings and fantasize about how nice they’d be to their servants, so the fewer yammering actors in the way, the better. Not for nothing is PBS selling replica tiaras.
Yes, I know that Jessica Brown-Findlay and Dan Stevens, playing Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley, both declined to renew their contracts. But either Dan Stevens should have been replaced (it is a soap opera, after all, and that’s how soap operas handle such moments), or the entire series should have been rolled up and ended. But is life without Molesly, Little Jimmy, Thomas, et al., really necessary? Bewitched replaced Darrin and went on for another three years. It’s not too late to patch things up for next season. Why not go Full Gonzo and hire Charlie Sheen?
While we wait to see what lies in store for our plucky band, I recommend these two spirited and well done parodies made by the BBC back in 2011: Uptown Downstairs Abbey Part One and Part Two.
Oh well. It occurred to me the other day that if I ever won the lottery I’d probably watch a lot more TV. I see online discussions and I’m amazed that perfectly normal, intelligent people can actually DVR and watch 19 series episodes every week and be devoted fans of shows I’ve never heard of. But when you work at home, you really never leave the office, so there’s always a nagging feeling you should be doing something productive, which makes it difficult to really relax and veg out.
I’m also reluctant to watch any new series because I seem to cast a hex on whatever I decide to like and — bam — it’s immediately cancelled. Carnivale on HBO, The Event on NBC (I think), some weird thing about aliens in Florida a few years ago, and Last Resort on ABC have all fallen prey to my baleful interest. I started watching Law & Order UK on BBC America a while back, and in the third episode I saw they offed a major cast member. Seemed like a warning. Disheartening, to say the least.
For the moment, anyway, we’ve been watching The Americans on FX (an awful channel, judging from the ads they run), which centers on two KGB sleeper spies operating as a married couple with children in the suburbs of Washington in the early 1980s. The series was dreamed up by an ex-CIA agent and is predictably implausible, but does have some nice touches, such as a sly allusion to Soviet numbers stations and a plot involving an umbrella with a deadly tip, clearly modeled on the 1978 murder of Georgi Markov by Bulgarian and/or KGB agents in London. Note to the production designers, however: I seriously doubt that the Soviet embassy in DC in the 1980s actually decorated its walls with Bolshevik recruiting posters. But you can make up for that by showing the spies’ kids watching Rocky and Bullwinkle outwitting Boris and Natasha. Moose and squirrel forever!
OCD Update: OK, now we have our early 80s anti-hero crouched in the woods with a 21st century mini Maglight LED flashlight in his mouth, using what appears to be an early 2000s Kenwood transceiver and a small UHF Yagi antenna to communicate with somebody, hopefully somebody close by. Fifteen miles maybe, Moscow not so much. BTW gang, if you’re looking for authentic 1980s tech gear, eBay is full of it.
Here are some goats expressing their opinions.
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By the way, Hugh Beaumont played Beaver Cleaver’s father. Just sayin’.
Dear Word Detective: The words “hew” and “cleave” both have the same odd combination of meanings: “to cut,” or “to stick to.” Are they related? — Ken Lerner.
Um, yes and no. Next question. Oh, all right. No, they’re not really related in the sense of “having an etymological relationship” or “having some family connection that Cleave takes advantage of by borrowing Hew’s lawn trimmer.” The only attribute shared by “hew” and “cleave” is membership in the weird little club of English words known as “autoantonyms,” words with two opposite meanings (“auto” self, “anti” against, and “onyma,” Greek for “name”). Autoantonyms are also known as “contronyms,” “contranyms,” “antagonyms” and, sometimes, in a refreshing break from all those “nyms,” as “Janus words.” Janus was the Roman god of doorways and beginnings (thus “January,” the first month in the Roman calendar), and was depicted as having two faces (as doors can be used from two sides).
“Contranyms,” which is the simplest name for the breed, actually come in two flavors. Some are simply one word which has, over time and in a linguistic process called “polysemy” (Greek for “many signs”), developed two opposite meanings. The other kind of contranyms are homographs, two separate words that happen to share the same spelling, and are also antonyms, words that have opposite meanings. The result in both types of contranyms is a word which seems to have two meanings, but in the case of homographs, that’s because it actually is two separate words. “Hew” and “cleve” are actually good examples of the two kinds of contranyms. (However, the fact that the two opposite meanings of “hew” are essentially synonymous with the two opposite meanings of “cleave” is deeply spooky and ought to give us all the creeps.)
“Hew” is the first kind of contranym, the “gradual change in meaning” kind. We inherited “hew” from Old English (where it was “heawan”), and its basic meaning was “to cut or strike with a cutting tool or weapon; to chop, hack, etc.” Trees and the like have often been “hewed” with axes (or “hewn,” if a poet is doing the job), but the verb has also often been used in descriptions of battles in a depressingly non-metaphorical sense (“The front lines, hewing at each other with their long swords,” Sir Walter Scott, 1828).
But from day one, “hew” also had a more constructive meaning, that of “to shape, smooth, trim or form with an axe or a hammer and chisel, etc.” This sense is most often found today in the adjective “rough-hewn,” meaning something which has been shaped by chopping, etc., but lacks precise shaping and polish (“A long oaken table formed of planks rough-hewn from the forest … stood ready prepared for the evening meal,” Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819). But even such “hewing” required following a design for the finished product, and “to hew the line,” which first appeared in print in 1891, meant to cut closely along the line of a pattern. In a metaphorical sense, “hew the line” meant, and still does, “to stick to a plan and to obey instructions,” and “to hew” to something (e.g., your family, your principles) means to remain steadfast in your allegiance. So a verb which originally meant “to split apart” came to be its own antonym meaning “to conform, obey, adhere to.”
“Cleave” also means both “to split” and “to adhere,” but in this case the explanation is simpler, because the two opposite senses of “cleave” are actually two separate words and always have been. Both “cleaves” come from Old English and derive their base meanings from proto-Germanic roots. One “cleave” in Old English was “cleofan,” meaning “to split or separate,” especially by a blow from a sharp instrument. The past participle of this “cleve” is “cleft” (or “cloven”), meaning “split,” as in a “cleft palate” or the “cloven hooves” of a goat.
The other “cleave” was “clifian” in Old English, meaning “to stick, to adhere” (the same Germanic root gave us “clay”), and in literal use it’s essentially a synonym of “stick” (“Water in small quantity cleaveth to any thing that is solid,” Francis Bacon, 1626). In modern English, this “cleave” is usually used in a figurative sense to mean “to remain faithful or devoted to” a person, cause, etc. (“We exhort you … to cleave for ever to those principles,” Edmund Burke, 1777). The two “cleaves” were originally clearly two separate words, but they had such a wide variety of forms that, beginning in the 14th century, they were commonly confused, which led to a common spelling, which only made things much murkier.
So in “cleave” and “hew” we have two (or three) words that are, in a sense, both double antonyms and double synonyms, and only by close attention to context can a reader or listener be certain of the meaning meant. That’s a prescription for bewilderment, and that potential for confusion is probably the reason that neither “hew” nor “cleave” is very popular outside of historical fiction today.