Thursday, July 30, 2015

Electile Dysfunction

Deconstructing the Political E.D.: electile dysfunctionality


Howard Richler

Anyday now, the writ will be dropped in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will advise the Governor-General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament. Johnston will then issue a writ of election for a new Parliament and the federal election season will commence. Actually, no writ is dropped ; writs of election are issued, and the sense of drop is idiomatic as in “drop a line” or “drop in.” The term “drop the writ” is a corruption of “draw up the writ” and in 2005 the CBC issued a style memorandum to journalists advising them not to drop the drop the writ phrase but being more colourful than the “correct” term, it has endured.

An electoral term with a surprising origin is “riding.” Only in Canada is an electoral district referred to by this term but we have to look to Yorkshire, England for the word's provenance. One would suppose that the term has something to do with the verb “to ride” but such is not the case. Until 1974, Yorkshire was divided for administrative purposes into three ridings and the key word here is “three.” The word riding came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse thrithjungr, “third part” and was originally rendered in English as “trithing.”

Just as “riding” is not connected to “ride” the word candidate is not related to the candid nature of those seeking office. If candidates were etymologically correct, they would wear white clothes as the word derives from the Latin candidatus, “dressed in white.” In ancient Rome is was the custom for those standing for election in the Senate to don white togas probably in an attempt to convince the populace they were as pure as snow.

Another word that only appears during an election is “hustings,” and as we know candidates are prone to hitting them during campaigns. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “hustings” as “The political campaigning leading up to an election, e.g., canvassing votes and making speeches.” The word was originally rendered in the singular and literally means “house thing” but “thing” originally had the sense of “meeting” or “assembly,” and these council meetings would be called by a lord or king and attended by his particular “house.” Over time “husting” acquired other specific meanings such as a court of law in the Guildhall in London and a platform on which candidates stood to address the electorate. In the 20th century “hustings” has come to refer to the general hullabaloo created during an election campaign.

When you cast your ballot, you might take solace that although riding doesn't derive from ride, ballot does come from “ball” as we borrowed the word from the Italian ballotta, “little ball.” In days of yore, people often voted by dropping little balls into a receptacle. The first OED citation of the word in 1561 states: “Boxes into whiche if he wyll, he may let fall his ballot, that no man can perceiue hym.” Related to “ballot” is the idea that since a white ball often meant a “yes” vote and a black ball designated a “no” vote, the term blackball came to refer to exclusion from a club in the late 18th century.

By the way, if you happen to believe that politicians are crooks, it might be because you somehow intuited that etymologically the word “Tory” is associated with thievery. According to the OED, the original sense of Tory, “In the 17th century, {was} one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers.” Lest you find this anti-Irish, you can take small comfort from knowing that the OED points out that within a decade the word's banditry label was extended to other races, such as Scottish Highlanders. It quickly became a term to refer to any Irish Papist and by the middle of the seventeenth century the word was often used by British commentators as a synonym for “bandit.” Through a process of major political flip-flopping over the years, this term originally referring to brigands came to refer to those who vigorously supported the Crown.

Now that you're lexically prepared, don't neglect to follow the dropping of the writ and vote for the candidate in your riding by dropping the ball for the party who might be Tory, but certainly doesn't harbour bandits ( with the possible exception of a handful of Senators).

Howard Richler's book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

Monday, July 6, 2015

How Hot Dog Got Its Name

On July 4 the attention of all gourmands will be turned to the most All-American of all sporting competitions. I speak, of course, about Nathan’s Hot-Dog Eating Contest held annually on Coney Island, New York. Legend states that on July 4, 1916 four immigrants partook in a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous stand on Coney Island to settle a dispute as to which of the voracious gentlemen were most patriotic to their adopted land. Last year, American Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won his eighth consecutive title by consuming 62 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. More than 40,000 spectators attended this cholesterol-imbibing orgy.

As we approaching the dog days of summer and this momentous event, this is a good time to discuss the origin of one of the most quintessential American words — hot dog.
Lore has it that in 1900 sports cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan was ingesting a sausage at the New York Polo Grounds, the baseball Giants’ home park. Since there had been rumours that canine meat was prevalent in the sausages, he dubbed his bunned lunch “hot dog.” His subsequent caricature of a dachshund on a bun got the goat of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, which instituted a policy of banning the term “hot dog” by concessionaires — insisting instead on the use of PC terms such as “Coney Islands,” “red hots” or “frankfurters.” The Dorgan etymology has been repeated by many language writers including Bill Bryson in Made in America.

There are, however, some problems with this account. Dorgan was working in San Francisco in 1900 and did not move to New York until 1903. Also, no one has uncovered the Dorgan cartoon in question. He did, however, sketch some “hot dog” cartoons in 1906 from a bicycle race in Madison Square Gardens. All this suggests that the traditional etymology is apocryphal.
Sausages have fallen in price one half, since the dog killers have commenced operations
The first printed references to “hot dog” occur in the 1890s. On Sept 28, 1893, the Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal displayed the term, and earlier, on May 20, 1893, the New Brunswick (New Jersey) Daily Times had an article that related how the shore town of Asbury Park had passed a by-law to fine “hot-dog peddlers.”

But the term “hot dog” only became popular because of a reference in Yale Record of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. In 1895. Apparently the word “dog” had been a university slang term for “sausage” for at least a decade by then. A lunch wagon that operated nightly at Yale was dubbed “The Kennel Club” as the humble sausage represented its specialty. A poem was written in the aforementioned newspaper entitled “Echoes from the lunch wagon.”
“Tis dogs’ delight to bark and bite,”
Thus does the adage run.
But I delight to bite the dog
When placed inside a bun.

By this time, there had been accusations that sausage-makers were “dogging” their product for more than half a century. An article in New York Commercial Advertiser of July 6, 1838 quipped, “Sausages have fallen in price one half, in New York since the dog killers have commenced operations.”

Due to the supposed canine constitution of the sausages by the middle of the 19th century, it is not surprising that researchers have found earlier references to the term “hot dog.”
In fact, lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported in his Word Routes column some years ago that law librarian Fred Shapiro of Yale University found this entry in the Dec. 31, 1892 edition of Paterson (New Jersey) Daily Press: “Somehow or other a frankfurter and a roll seem to go right to the spot where the void is felt the most. The small boy has got on such familiar terms with this sort of lunch that he now refers to it as “hot dog.” “Hey Mister, give me a hot dog quick,” was the startling order that a rosy-cheeked gamin hurled at the man as a Press reporter stood close by last night. The “hot dog” was quickly inserted in a gash on a roll, a dash of mustard also splashed on to the “dog” with a piece of flat whittled stick, and the order was fulfilled.” Shapiro’s discovery is important because it demonstrates that the term hot dog had some print currency before it was adopted by students at Yale
Zimmer did some sleuthing and unearthed the identity of this hot dog purveyor —  Thomas Francis Xavier Morris, known in Paterson as “Pepper Sauce” Morris. Morris had previously lived in Germany where he may have learned his frankfurter flavouring formula. His 1907 obituary stated that, “Besides peddling hot frankfurters Morris made pepper sauce that he supplied to many families the condiments being much sought after.”

For a while the term hot dog competed for supremacy with frankfurter, red hot and wiener but by 1910, largely due to its Ivy League connection, hot dog became the definitive term for this food.
Enjoy the July 4th festivities you intrepid carnivorous gladiators, and don’t forget to pack plenty of Zantac and Gaviscon.

Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Canadianisms in OED Online

Yes fellow Canucks, we are a distinct society


Howard Richler

(Last of a three-part series on the OED Online)

The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OCEL) is missing an "s" at the end of its title. OCEL has headings for over four hundred varieties of our multitudinous mother tongues, such as Australian English, Singapore English, Indian English and Black Vernacular English. I've never even heard of some of the varieties, such as Babu English, which is described in the OCEL as “a mode of address and reference in several Indo-Aryan languages, including Hindi, for officials working for rajahs, landlords, etc,”

My mother tongue is actually one of those mutants listed in OCEL. To illustrate the particulars of this form of English, I 've concocted the following paragraph which consists of many words and terms found in the OED that might only be understood by Canadians: “The party was attended by rubbies sporting Molson muscles drinking mickeys and Bloody Caesars. The food eaten by the hosers consisted of tourtieres and Nanaimo bars, along with poutine mostly uneaten and chucked down the garburator.” Some explanation may be in order. Rubby is defined in the OED as “an alcoholic who drinks an improvised intoxicant, such as rubbing alcohol...” Molson muscles is a jocular term for a paunch, mickey is defined as “chiefly Canadian, a small bottle of libation holding 3.75 ml,” and a Bloody Caesar, is a drink consisting of vodka, clamato juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce that's virtually unknown outside of Canada. It was invented in Calgary in 1969 by bartender Walter Chell. A hoser refers to a stupid, unsophisticated person and the term was popularized by the fictional McKenzie brothers in their skit Great White North on SCTV. Surprisingly, poutine only made into the OED in 2006; Nanaimo bar, originated in Nanaimo B.C, in the 1950s. It is defined as a “dessert consisting of a base made from a mixture of crushed biscuits and covered with a vanilla buttercream filling and a chocolate glaze, served cut in squares.” A garburator is a waste disposal unit found underneath a sink designed to shred waste into small pieces that can pass through household plumbing. The OED adds that “the form Garberator is a proprietary name in Canada.”

The OED informs us that certain words take on distinct senses in Canada. Not surprisingly in Canada, bilingualism means more than speaking one language and refers to the government that promotes the use of French and English throughout large segments of the population. Acclamation also acquires a distinct Canadian sense when it is used to mean an election to an assembly without opposition or by unanimous or overwheming support. Even adjectives can be Canadianized as is the case of impaired when it refers to improper driving caused by alcohol or narcotics.

If you spend any amount of time with Americans, you're likely to be apprised that part of your lexicon are quaint Canadianisms. For example, when an American is nauseous, she won’t reach for Gravol but for Dramamin. And while Javex, and Varsol may be Canadian household items, an American will not know what these terms mean and will reference them as chlorine bleach, and mineral spirits respectively. The OED extends this point by listing the terms block heater and power bar as “chiefly Canadian.” In Canada, it is clear that a power bar refers to an electrical cord containing a number of outlets, whereas in the US, the OED informs us it could mean a proprietary name for a type of snack food and in the past to a tread on a tractor tire. The term blue box originated in Canada referring to the blue plastic box used for the collection of recyclable household items in many Canadian municipalities. Its first citation in 1983 comes from the Toronto Star but it seems to have spread overseas as there is a 2010 citation from the Birmingham Evening Mail. Also, I was not aware that the term crowd-surfing originated in Canada. The OED defines it “the action of lying flat while being passed over the heads of members at a rock concert, typically from jumping into the audience from the stage. Its first citation occurs in the Globe and Mail in 1989 but by 2002 we find its use in the New York Times.

I suspect that there are few people who are aware that muffin before the Tim Horton era had a distinct Canadian sense. The OED defines it as “a young woman...who regular parners a particular man, during a social season.” The first citation in 1854 states “ I had a charming muffin yesterday. She is engaged to be married, so don't be alarmed.” Its last citation from 1965 testifies to the term being archaic.

I was perplexed as to why the OED includes the term pocket rocket which is defined as “a nickname for a small person regarded as a very fast or energetic person (originally a nickname given to Canadian hockey player Henri Richard).” Surprisingly,this term isn't considered worthy of inclusion in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary which has a far larger collection of Canadian terms. On the other hand, the OED does not contain these jewels of Canadiana: all-dressed, smoked meat and shit-disturber, but worry not as I have appealed for their inclusion.

Richler's latest book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in spring 2016.