Thursday, May 29, 2008

Give It A Whirl


Fred from Boyne Falls, Michigan, asked about the idiom, “to give it a whirl.” It’s an American colloquialism and dates back to the late 1800s. It means an attempt, especially an initial or tentative attempt. It has cousins in “give it a shot” and “give it the old college try.”

Fred speculated that it might come from dancing, where a whirling motion is often a prominent feature. Think Dancing with the Stars or any Strauss waltz. “Give it a whirl” also conjures up images of a whirling dervish.

As it turns out, it probably has a less festive source. It is likely that it refers to a flywheel. A flywheel is a wheel with a heavy rim attached to a rotating shaft. It may have a variety of purposes: to start a piston engine, to minimize wobble in a machine once it has started, or to collect kinetic power from the rotary motion. In early tractors, for instance, you started the engine by giving a good twist (whirl) to the flywheel.

So to give something a whirl originally was to try to start it up. The OED tells us that in Australia and New Zealand, the same idea was expressed by “give it a burl” or “give it a birl.” The verb to birl always included the idea of rotary motion, whether it spoke of a rifle bullet, a grist mill, or a flipped coin.

SIDEBAR: Whirling Dervish

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Tergiversation


Benedict Arnold





On last Tuesday’s show, a caller asked about the word tergiversation, verb form to tergiversate. He read it in an editorial.

It is composed of two Latin roots, tergum, the back, and versare, to turn. The phrase “to turn one’s back on someone” may be viewed as a literal translation. The meanings given in dictionaries cover a somewhat wider range.

• to be ambiguous in order to withhold information; equivocate; use subterfuge.
• to shift or shuffle
• to turn the back (for flight or retreat).
• to desert one's party, turn renegade, apostatize.

On air, I dredged my memory and came up with “running in circles, like a dog chasing its own tail.” The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t support that; so much for trusting an aging memory.

John Dyson, retired professor from Indiana University, reminded me that the word that covers the dog is circumvolution. Ever inventive and witty, Professor Dyson gave me the answer in C & W form:

The Circumvolvin' Blues

My dog Shepehs don't circulate like other doggies do; He
won't go out and meet new pals and sniff strange pee and poo.
The only hinder parts he knows are at his nether end, But his
nose is short and what he seeks is always 'round the bend.

Oooooooooooh,

Shepehs makes crop circles in the neighbors' yard and mine,
He'd make a furry yo-yo if I had a mile of twine.
I love my dizzy canine, he's a metapher fer hope:
He teaches me to persevere, to dog it and to cope.
His energy's unflaggin', his waggin' is unbound, He shows me
that what goes around will always come around.
He shows me that what goes around will always come around.

Now you know what retired professors enamored of palindromes do in their spare time.


SIDEBAR: Tory Tergiversation In The House Of Lords, 1714-1760


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Thursday, May 22, 2008

laurence


A strange word that I run across from time to time is laurence. The basic definition these days is “the shimmering effect that can sometimes be seen over asphalt or the sands of a beach or desert on a hot day.”

The effect is enhanced if you are looking through field glasses from a distance or if you are a hunter looking through a scope. It is a mirage. Ironically, there’s a famous scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia that features an extended laurence.

In 1907, it had a slightly different meaning, though still connected to heat. “When the older people thought their children were a little slack in their work, they would remind them that they were in danger of being caught by the Laurences, meaning the little heat waves caused by the heat from the earth on a very hot day.” [W. M. Cockrum, Pioneer History of Indiana, viii,189]

Earlier still, beginning in the 18th century, laurence was used as the personification of indolence; a Lazy Laurence was an idle person. Why the name laurence? There’s the mystery.

One legend has it that St. Laurence the Martyr was put to death by slowly roasting him on a grid over a fire. In an act of sang froid, he asked his killers to turn him over because he was done on that side and was too lazy to move. Not very likely, Bucky.

A more mainstream explanation is that the feast day of Saint Laurence takes place on August 10, and August is one of the most fiercely hot months in our hemisphere. It breeds torpor and slow motion.

SIDEBAR: Creating heat distortion and shimmer with After Effects


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Monday, May 19, 2008

Jerkwater Town


A listener asked about the term jerkwater town, as in “We were stranded in some jerkwater town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.” It means insignificant, small, inferior.

The traditional explanation:

The term goes back to railroading. Steam engines were nothing more than boilers on wheels, where water was heated to the boiling point in order to get steam power. In larger towns, water towers were available for the trains to use. In jerkwater towns, they were not.

A jerkwater train was a branch-line train. It received its name from the fact that these trains were smaller than the main-line trains, so water had to be replenished far more often. The crews would have to stop at a river or stream and “jerk” water (draw it) from the source and carry it in buckets to the train.

From the 1941 Sun (Baltimore) 7 Mar. 12/7: “In the early days of railroads the small boilers of the locomotives required frequent refilling, and water tanks were very few. Every train crew carried a leather bucket on a long rope with which they ‘jerked water’ from the streams along their track. As locomotives increased in size the small ‘jerk-water’ engines were relegated to branch-line service. Today no train crew carries a bucket, but the name ‘jerk water’ still sticks and has become part of our national heritage of American slang.”

CAVEAT:

I relied on the Oxford English Dictionary for the Baltimore Sun quote; I have never seen the original article itself. The OED also cited this: 1945, J. L. MARSHALL , Santa Fe, Railroad that built an Empire, 68. "The Santa Fe was the Jerkwater Line because train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank."

J. P. Maher of Northeastern Illinois University writes to cast doubt on the story:

"Jerkwater" choo-choos are the Piltdown hoax of etymology. I'd ask you not to dump it, but dump on it. . . .Over the years I've been digging into railroad history, American and European . . . .Tank town was real railroaders’ talk. Jerkwater was not. Ed Yost, the last steam engine man in Chicago, told me in 2004 that in fifty years of railroading he had never heard the term jerkwater town. Another witness was my brother Joe. During World War II, telegraphers were sorely needed in the US Army Signal Corps. At the age of fifteen, Joe became a telegrapher on the Erie RR, in 1942-45, since men of draft age were called up “for the duration”. When I brought up the term jerkwater to him, Joe, who was an M.A. in English literature, corrected me “you mean a tank town”. He said he didn’t know the term “jerkwater”. Although many writer took up the term, but railroaders didn't. Same for "iron horse".

OED’s first edition (1933) doesn’t include jerkwater; it is first cited in the second fascicle of the OED Supplement, with a reference to an alleged 7 March 1941 article in The Baltimore Sun. OED informed me that their archives don’t possess the purported article. My repeated requests of the Library of Congress to obtain a copy were futile. Periodicals Librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library Baltimore, Douglas Adolphsen, wrote me: “I have searched the Baltimore Index… compiled by Enoch Pratt Library librarians at the time, and was not able to find your requested article.” The Baltimore Sun’s archivist informed me the edition they have in their morgue contains no article containing the word, but that such might have been printed in an edition that was not archived.

I'd like to know who planted the Baltimore Sun story in the dictionary files. A pity that dictionary articles are not signed (as they are in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.) A disgruntled employee? H. L. Mencken?"


ANOTHER RESPONSE:

Glenn Knickerbocker

I stumbled on your post from last year about your investigation of
"jerkwater" and thought I'd pass on these citations thanks to Google
Books:

http://books.google.com/books?id=RVlDAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA69
The Elements of Railroading, Charles Paine, 1885
" . . . Ramsbottom troughs, or 'jerk-water' system for filling the
tenders while the train is in motion . . . "

So a jerkwater town wasn't where the train was stuck waiting for the
crew to jerk water in buckets, it was where the train *didn't* stop
because it could jerk water up in its scoop while moving. Troughs or
track pans were introduced in 1860. In 1869, Albert S. Evans described
"'jerkwater' stages" in an article in the Overland Monthly:

http://books.google.com/books?id=sfkMAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA273

I'd guess that's just enough later for it to be a figurative extension
of the railroad use.

________________________________________________________________

ADDENDUM, October 2010

J.P. Maher passed on more information.

Track Pans on the New York Central

by Ernie Johnson

Back in the days when the predominant motive power on the railroads was the steam locomotive, several railroads, including the New York Central and the Pennsylvania, installed track pans at various locations to permit a locomotive to refill its tender without stopping.

In the final design of these pans on the New York Central, each pan, placed between the rails at the center line, was 24 inches inside width and contained water 7 inches deep. The length of the pans varied from 1400 feet at Schenectady, East Palmyra, and Wende, to 2500 feet in freight tracks 3 and 4 at Rome. The top of the pan was 1 inch below the running surface of the rail. The pan was formed of sheet metal and a 1-1/2 inch angle was applied to the top of the pan on each side, facing inward. A ramp was built into each end of the track pan, together with a safety rail extension beyond each end, as a protection against premature or late operation of the water scoop. Track pans were steam heated in the winter to prevent freezing.

Most locomotive tenders used in main line road service were fitted with a remotely operated water scoop. In later years the scoop was operated by an air cylinder which in turn was actuated by a magnet valve to provide prompt lowering and raising of the scoop. The scoop was adjusted to dip 5 inches (5-1/2" maximum) into the water. As the locomotive approached the track pan, the engineman would signal the fireman as they passed a lunar white signal at the beginning of the pan, and the fireman would lower the scoop by operating a valve or pushing a button on the front wall of the tender. Another signal from the engineman as they passed a blue or purple signal at the other end of the pan, and the fireman would raise the scoop.

In modern days this operation was called "scooping water". Back in the last century, when the technique was new, it was called "jerking water." Hence the name "jerkwater town," which probably implied, among other things, that the train didn't stop there.

On the New York Central main line in 1948, there were 19 pan locations between Harmon and Chicago. Placement of them was largely determined by the locomotive design and the tender capacity. A note regarding the design of the tenders is appropriate. As the design of the steam locomotive became more sophisticated, the requirements for water supplies and other facilities changed. The number of track pans, for example, could be reduced, and their length increased. Scooping speed increased gradually from 30 miles per hour at the turn of the century to 60 mph before World War II. Scooping speed was limited by the ability of the tender to retain the water that was scooped without overflowing and spraying any train that was on an adjacent track. Later designs added vents and an expansion tank, and redirected the water as it entered the water space of the tender. This allowed an increase of the maximum scooping speed to 85 mph.

The material for this article was taken from The Central Headlight, Second Quarter, 1982, a publication of the New York Central System Historical Society, Copyrighted © 1982 New York Central System Historical Society.

__________________________________________________________________

Ypsilanti as a Jerkwater Town
by Laura Bien
_________________________________________________________________

ANOTHER CONTRIBUTION

From:">"Greg Marquiss"
Subject:Jerkwater Town
Date:November 13, 2010 5:29:41 PM GMT-05:00

I looked at your definition of a "jerkwater town" and find it close what I have always understood, but not quite there. To start with, I am old enough that I remember being able to watch the Chicago & Northwestern trains bringing spectators into the Arlington Park race track when I was young. The Chicago & Northwestern, if I remember correctly, was one of the last major railroads to complete conversion from steam to diesel-electric power.

Anyway, idea of "jerking" water from streams with buckets is pretty far-fetched. A freight train crew of a conductor, one or two brakemen, a fireman, and an engineer, even with five gallon buckets (at eight pounds to the gallon water weight) would make filling a locomotive tender's water tank by bucket brigade impractical at best. Water towers along the right of way were an early fixture on railroads.

"Crown sheet failure" was the danger of running out of water. The water being boiled kept the temperature inside the boiler to manageable levels. When a locomotive ran out of water (and the crew or maintenance workers didn't know it was dry), when they put in a supply of water, that would reach the superheated surfaces in the boiler, and large quantities would vaporize almost instantly, filling the chamber with large quantities of high temperature, high pressure steam, turning it into a bomb. Photos of damage from exploding boilers show tremendous damage. Be that the case, railroads would not rely on buckets for filling the water tanks for any other reason than to prevent a boiler explosion. I hope that lays to rest the idea that it was ever common practice, even on branch lines to rely on pulling unfiltered water out of a river to refill the locomotive water tank.

My memory tells me that the standard was to have water tanks every 20 miles on the right of way. The water towers were commonly built beside the track, with a movable spout, having a 90 degree bend at the end. The locomotive would pull up beside the tower so the fill hatch was aligned with the tower spout. The fireman would climb up on the tender and walk out to the fill hatch ensure the spout and tank opening were aligned. He would pull the rope attached to the tank spout, bringing it down to the tank fill hatch. The mechanics of the tank fill spout had internal valves, and moving the spout into position opened the valve and started the water running. "Jerking water" referred to pulling the spout on the water tower into position to fill the locomotive's water tank, not to pulling water from a stream in buckets. Imaging the danger in crossing Kansas during a drought and finding the locomotive's water tank close to empty and the creek dry!

Now, on to the jerkwater town. Main line or branch line, it wouldn't matter, not every town on a branch line was small and insignificant, and not every town on a main line was big and important. The main lines went through many small towns. The concept of a "jerkwater town" was the train wouldn't stop there if it didn't have to jerk water (take on water).





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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Riffle or Rifle?



During the second game of the Red Wings/Stars hockey series, an announcer said something like this: “We can rifle through our memory bank.”

To my ear, that sounded wrong. I had learned it years ago as “riffle through our memory bank.”

A quick trip to AHD-4 seemed to confirm my version. To riffle means “to thumb through (the pages of a book, for example).” That image fits searching the “pages” of our memory. To rifle was defined as “to search with intent to steal; to ransack, pillage or plunder.” But the last meaning threw a wrench into the works: “To search vigorously: rifling through my drawers to find matching socks.”

So I went to the online Oxford English Dictionary to see if I could settle the matter. For the most part, it also presented to rifle as an act of assault or robbery on an unwilling victim. But an obsolete 16th century meaning--“to examine or investigate thoroughly”--seems to have had a descendant: “To make a vigorous search through. ‘Visitors from all over the world rifle through the tweeds and tartans.’” [1978 Vogue Feb. 88/2]

To riffle is presented as “to thumb or leaf through,” used also in a figurative way. It’s what we do when we’re trying to find a particular passage in a previously-read book, or when we are flipping though our memory. “I was riffling through these morbid thoughts.” [1962 Listener 22 Nov. 845/2]

Without a more definitive source, I am left with the feeling that the amount of vigor used when searching your memory is the deciding factor. If your search is vigorous and agitated, you are rifling; if you are calm and methodical, you are riffling.

Or is this a distinction without a difference?

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

There’s probably no connection, but riffle is also the name of a feature of coldwater streams--a shallow place where water runs fast over obstructions such as rocks, thus producing a broken water surface where trout can hide and feed.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>


SIDEBAR
: Washington State University

SIDEBAR: Grammar Without Grief


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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Kudos



Q. It’s become practically a cliché to praise someone by saying “kudos to . . .” I’ve been told that it’s an acronym for Know (that) You Deserve Our Salute. Is that true?

A. Not a chance. The word does mean glory, fame, renown, praise -- all sorts of synonyms in that ballpark. But it’s not an acronym. It’s a word unto itself, and it came to us from the Greek word kudos, which meant glory and renown earned in battle.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that it started as university slang, which makes sense. The first citation given is from 1831: “He obtained kudos immense.” [Fraser's Magazine, III. 391] The fact that it appears in italics in that quote shows that it was still considered a foreign word at that time.

The strangest thing about the word is that it is singular. You will see it misused in back-formations as kudo, but there’s no such animal. There is, however, an African antelope known as the kudu.

SIDEBAR: Kudos, the game


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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Finger-lickin' good


The Latin word ligurire meant to lick or to pick away at food, the sign of a dainty eater.

The root showed up in several English words in the 17th century, but most of them have fallen by the wayside.

They are interesting because of their quaint nature. In particular, I find the first definition below to be delightful.

abligurie: “Spending in belly-cheere.” [Cockeram, 1612]

abligurition: “Prodigal expense on meat and drink.” [Bailey, 1742]

ligurate: “To feed daintily.” [Cockeram, 1623]

ligurion: “A devourer, a spend-thrift.” [Blount, 1656]

ligurition: “Gluttonous devouring, greedinesse.” [Cockeram, 1623]

obligurate: “To spend in belly-cheere.” [Cockeram, 1623]

obligure: “To banquet, to feast.” [Cockeram, 1623]


Bailey, Nathan. An universal etymological English dictionary

Blount, Thomas. Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words..as are now used

Cockeram, Henry. The English dictionarie, or an interpreter of hard English words


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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Contumacious



The 2008 Traverse City Spelling Bee for Senior Citizens was held last Friday, and the performances were impressive, as usual. However, as Bee Master, I unwittingly created some feelings of dissatisfaction by including one of the words that took down a team.

I was surprised by the expressions of annoyance after the match, and I apologized for what was perceived to be the unfair insertion of an entirely esoteric word. I was a bit puzzled, since it’s a word that I’ve encountered all my life, but it may be worth pursuing for the sake of knowledge.

The word was contumacious [con-tuh-MAY-shus], and it is defined as obstinate; stubbornly disobedient; persistently, willfully, or overtly defiant of authority.

It comes from the Latin contumax (stem contumac-), stubborn or defiant. It also, according to Chambers/Murray Latin-English Dictionary, usually involved abusive, insulting, and demeaning language.

Now admittedly, it is not a word that will be found in most households, but it has been used in a few different contexts over the centuries, starting with the OED’s first instance in 1603. Some examples may help.

• “They solemnly denounced as contumacious . . . anyone opposing Dr Williams' appointment.” (Stephen Bates, "Solemn, arcane and ceremonial, church confirms its liberal new archbishop," The Guardian, December 3, 2002)

• “In all places too are Dissident Priests; whom the Legislative will have to deal with: contumacious individuals, working on that angriest of passions; plotting, enlisting.” (Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book 2.V)

• “Not far north of Pech-Merle, just short of a little village named Cras, lies a later relic of human society: traces of the Gaulish enclosed settlement known as the oppidum of Murcens, claimed by some to be the site of Uxellodunum, where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar defeated the great chieftain Vercingetorix and, to discourage further opposition by the contumacious Gauls, chopped off the right hands of 6,000 warriors, thus eliminating Gaulish resistance to the Pax Romana.” (Peter Davison, "Province of the Past", The Atlantic, January 2001)

• “We believe trial judges confronted with disruptive, contumacious, stubbornly defiant defendants must be given sufficient discretion to meet the circumstances in each case.”
(Hugo LayFayette Black, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1937 to 1971)

• “Contumacy, or contempt of court, is an obstinate disobedience of the lawful orders of a court. Simple disobedience does not constitute contumacy. Such crime springs only from unequivocal and stubborn resistance to the reiterated or peremptory orders of a legitimate court, and implies contempt or denial of its authority. The general law of the Church demands that the citation, or order to appear, be repeated three times (in the United States twice) before proceedings declaratory of contumacy take place.” (Roman Catholic Canon Law)

• “Contumacious conduct defined. Contumacious conduct consists of verbal or non-verbal acts which:
1. Embarrass or obstruct the Court in its administration of justice or derogate from its authority or dignity;
2. Bring the administration of justice into disrepute; or
3. Constitute disobedience of a court order or judgment.”
(19th circuit, State of Illinois: RULE13.01 PROCEEDINGS IN CONTEMPT)

• “THE CONTUMACIOUS WITNESSES.; They Will Be in Washington Monday to Plead to the Indictments.” (Headline, NY Times, July 1, 1894, Wednesday)

If nothing else, I am relieved that I did not include a kissing-cousin in the word list, namely, contumely [KON-tuh-may-lee]: “insolent reproach or abuse; insulting or offensively contemptuous language or treatment; despite; scornful rudeness; now, esp. such contemptuous treatment as tends to inflict dishonour and humiliation.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

That would have started a proper rhubarb.


SIDEBAR: Contumacious, the radio station


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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Kitchen Sink



Q.
Jim Cramer of CNBC spoke of a certain company’s habit of “kitchen sinking” their financial reports. Do you know what that means?

A. To kitchen sink is to announce all of a company's bad financial news at one time. A company deliberately overloads a report or press conference to overwhelm the reader/listener. It’s a playful reversal of “everything but the kitchen sink.”

• “In the banking sector, UBS rallied from opening lows to add 2.62 pct as investors cheered the group's attempt to kitchen sink its subprime exposure.” [Thompson Financial News]
• “There is a general feeling on both Wall Street and Main Street that the financials attempted to bottle up all of their losses in one bad quarter. They tried to ‘kitchen sink’ the bit.” [Jutia Group: Market Jitters & Political Critters]
• “There's a whole chapter in the Hite book on unfair tactics men use in fights ... withdrawal, ridicule, teasing, emotional violence. But there's no mention of the classic female tactics ... like "kitchen-sinking", where she drags in ammunition from every battle they have ever fought, dredging her elephantine memory for past hurts, never-forgotten sins he once committed. [Bettina Arndt, "Are men really so terrible?" Sun Herald, November 8, 1987]


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Dona Sheehan's prints