Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Dingbat


Every once in a while I am taken by surprise by a word or phrase that has MANY more interpretations/definitions that I expected.

Such is dingbat.
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First up: Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer (1889), has this to say:
ding-bat—This word seems to be applied to anything that can be thrown with force or dashed violently at another object, from a cannon-ball to the rough's traditional 'arf brick, and from a piece of money to a log of wood. From the Icelandic dengia, to beat.
 Then, we have this, from the Online Etymology Dictionary
dingbat (n.)—1838, American English, apparently originally the name of some kind of alcoholic drink, of unknown origin. It has joined that class of words (such as dingus, doohickey, gadget, gizmo, thingumabob) which are conjured up to supply names for items whose proper names are unknown or not recollected. Used at various periods for "money," "a professional tramp," "a muffin," "male genitalia," "a Chinese," "an Italian," "a woman who is neither your sister nor your mother," and "a foolish person in authority." Popularized in sense of "foolish person" by U.S. TV show "All in the Family" (1971–79), though this usage dates from 1905. In typography, by 1912 as a printer's term for ornament used in headline or with illustrations.
Google goes for contemporary, defining dingbat as "(1) a stupid or eccentric person; (2) a typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk), used to signal divisions in text or to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word." For origins, it adds the following:
mid 19th century (in early use applied to various vaguely specified objects): origin uncertain; perhaps based on obsolete ding ‘to beat, deal heavy blows.’ Sense 1 dates from the early 20th century.
So we're back to the Americanisms definition... as well as a variety of confusing possibilities!

But wait! There's MORE!

In the December 25, 1895, issue of Daily True American, there is a lighthearted article about slang, in which dingbat is used by one young fellow from Yale to describe "one of the prettiest girls I ever saw." (See my screen capture below. You may need to enlarge it or just go directly to this link to the article, which also offers up some other mindboggling slang such as seamuljugating and coostering.

There's a dingbat for you!
Finally, if you want to go completely (ding)batty... take a look at Green's Dictionary of Slang, which has an entire page-plus including the definition "a term of admiration" (from 1895, which lines up nicely with the article above).
More dingbats!!

All in all, way more definitions you can beat with a stick... or a bat.

Thank you, Banksy, for bringing us back to the origin of dingbat.
Graffiti by Banksy, rat with baseball bat, Kentish Town, London. (By Justinc [CC BY-SA 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)






Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Straw vote/poll


This Wednesday is officially "the morning after"—after the U.S. mid-term elections, that is. And whether you are hooting and hollering or sobbing and wailing (or perhaps just quietly celebrating or fuming), you have probably had enough of politicking and pollsters for a while. However, I beg you to bear with me, as I delve into the origin of straw vote (or straw poll).

I wondered when this term originated and what straw had to do with it. 

Well, after a little digging around, I now know—and you will too, if you just keeeeep reading....

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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer has this to say:
straw vote —Also, straw poll: An unofficial vote or poll indicating how people feel about a candidate or issue.* ... This idiom alludes to a straw used to show in what direction the wind blows,** in this case the wind of public opinion.
 As to when this phrase appeared, the dictionary offers a date of circa 1885, with this lovely example from a 1907 O. Henry short story, A Ruler of Men (you can read the story for free here):
A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows.
As an interesting addendum, the phrase straw in the wind (which is defined as "A slight hint of the future") comes from the same general idea of a straw showing the wind direction. The example given for this phrase: 
The public unrest is a straw in the wind indicating future problems for the regime.
I checked the print date of my copy: 1997. Hmmmm. A little prescient, perhaps?

Next week, no politics; I shall turn an eye upon dingbats....

Hay! Which way is the wind blowing up there? ;-) 
(Haying near New Rochelle by John Henry Dolph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

* I knew that.
** I didn't know that.


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Ghouls and Vampires (not what you might think!)


How auspicious that this Wednesday's slang-o-rama post falls on Halloween! However, BEWARE... in the mid-1800s, ghouls and vampires were not the neighborhood kids in costume, demanding treats, nor were they beings from beyond, come to haunt the living...

Noooooooooo. Not even close.

Instead, the 1859 Vocabulum; or The Rogue's Lexicon by George W. Matsell provides these equally scary (but very different) definitions...
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GHOULS. Fellows who watch assignation-houses, and follow females that come out of them to their homes and then threaten to expose them to their husbands, relatives, or friends, if they refuse to give them not only money, but also the use of their bodies. 
VAMPIRE. A man who lives by extorting money from men and women whom they have seen coming out of or going into houses of assignation. 

Boo! ... Can you say "entrapment?"
(Caricature of notorious New Orleans prostitute Emma Johnson, from "The Mascot", 21 May 1892. Johnson is depicted in a window with a fan, with tentacles reaching out to the sidewalk entrapping passers by, including men, an old man, an adolsecent boy, and a young woman. By Staff of "The Mascot", New Orleans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)


So, back then, if a ghoul or vampire were to come knocking at your door, demanding that you (shall we say) "pay up," I'm afraid a chocolate bar or Jolly Roger would not suffice...

Wishing you all a cozy Halloween, with any visitors claiming to be ghouls and vampires restricted to those in costume and preferably under ten years of age.



Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Trippers or Floorers


Oh-ho! Are you in for a treat!* I just (re)discovered Vocabulum; or The Rogue's Lexicon: Complied from the Most Authentic Sources, by George W. Matsell, Special Justice, Chief of Police., etc., etc. (yes, it actually includes those two etceteras after his name and titles), 1859, New York. 

So I plan to trip merrily through this document in my usual random manner and share fascinating bits of scoundrel slang with you.

And by trip, I promise not to engage in the sort of behavior of mid-19th-century trippers and floorers.

And who were these folks? Want to guess?
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I shall elucidate, with the definition provided by Special Justice, Chief of Police (etc., etc.) Mr. Matsell:
FLOORERS or TRIPPERS. Fellows that cause persons to slip or fall in the street, and then, while assisting them up, steal their watch or portmonnaie**. They are sometimes called "rampers." A gentleman in a hurry on his way to the bank, or any other place of business, is suddenly stopped by a fellow directly in front of him, going in an opposite direction to himself, who has apparently slipped or stumbled, and in endeavoring to save himself from falling, thrusts his head into the pit of the gentleman's stomach, thereby knocking him down; Immediately two very kind gentlemen, one on each side, assist him to rise, and when on his feet busy themselves in brushing the dirt from his clothing, during which operation they pick his pockets. Thanking his kind assistants with much profusencss, he goes on his way, and very soon afterwards finds himself minus his watch or pocket-book, and perhaps both.

Now, to figure out how to insert some floorers, trippers, or rampers into my work-in-progress...



Watch your pockets!
(Dandy Pickpockets Diving, by Isaac Robert Cruikshank (English, 1789-1856). Art Institute Chicago, https://www.artic.edu/artworks/89782)



*and maybe a few tricks along the way...
**According to Merriam-Webster, a portmonnaie is a small pocketbook or purse

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: When the usual four-letter words just aren't good enough


Sometimes a little cursing (or a lot) is in order, and the usual four-letter words (with an occasional five- or seven-letter word) just don't cut it. Well, don't despair, because this week's slang-o-rama is here to help you get creative with your swearing and insults!

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To my mind, Shakespeare wears the crown as the king of insult. Peruse his plays, and you'll see what I mean. Next time some politician gets your goat, try snarling "There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune." (Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, Scene 3) or "Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows." (Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 1) and see if you don't feel better!

There are also many random Shakespearean (or Elizabethian) insult generators.

Like the sound of  "Thou venomed guts-griping popinjay!"? Then I invite you to check out the Shakespearean Insulter.

How about "Thou are an ordinary maltworm!" For similar invectives, head over to Shakespeare's Insult Generator.

If you need multiple insults to choose from (or maybe just a whole bunch of folks you'd like to unload on), then there's the Elizabethan Curse Generator, where you can ask for any number of curses at one time... 10, 100, 1000... go for it! (I am particularly fond of "Thou craven plume-plucked jolthead!")

Have kids around, so want to "watch your language?" Then you might want to try something like the Fantasy Swear Word Generator, which throws out such marvels as "Shoodlepoppers!" "Friscuit!" and "Feeble pheasant!" 

This is all well and good, but what about my favorite timeframe, the 19th century West? Well, there are some dandy expressions that might come in handy, courtesy of this "Buddies in the Saddle" blog post, including "Go to Halifax!" (which apparently Scarlett said to Rhett in Gone with the Wind).

You can find some lovely expressions in the High Country News post "Rants from the Hill: How to Cuss in Western" (Note to self: find a place in latest book to accuse someone of being a "no count flannel mouth chiseling chuckleheaded gadabout coffee boiler.")

However, for a jaw-dropping horrific you'll-never-come-back-from-this-one curse, I think the The Great Monition of Cursing by Gavin Dunbar, the Archbishop of Glasgow on the border reivers of 1525 wins, hands down. You can read the entire curse (in the Scottish vernacular with "approximate" current-day English translation) here, starting on page 5. I'll have to say, it's a pretty comprehensive curse, putting all our puny, uncreative four-letter-word efforts to shame.


"Them's fightin' words, you gorbellied crook-pated clotpole!"
(Fedor Solntsev, Fist Fight, 1836)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Living the life of Riley


Okay, who is this Riley guy and why is he (and his life) so special?? And where did this phrase come from, anyway? I'm determined to find out.

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According to The Phrase Finder, "the life of Riley" means:
an easy and pleasant life
Well, I want some of that! 

Luckily for me, The Phrase Finder has a long and fascinating article on this saying and its etymology. I'd love to simply repeat everything they say here, but that wouldn't be kosher. So, I will instead pull out some tidbits for your edification.

Here's the first interesting bit:
... The phrase came into common usage around the time of WWI. The first printed citation of 'the life of Riley' (with the easy/carefree meaning of the phrase) that I have found is from the Connecticut newspaper The Hartford Courant, December 1911 - in a piece headed 'Bullet Ends Life of Famous Wild Cow':
The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After "living the life of Riley" for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.
The quotation marks that the writer added around the phrase are often an indication that the phrase in question isn't familiar to the readership, which is an indication of it being quite recently coined.
The phrase was much used in the military, especially in WWI. The first known citation in that context is in a letter from a Sergeant Leonard A. Monzert of the American Expeditionary Forces 'somewhere in France', an extract of which was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 26th May 1918. In the letter Monzert wrote that he and his pals were 'living the life of Reilly'.
Here's the second bit, which is of special interest to me, given that it references a song from 1883. (The historical mystery book I'm working on is set in 1882 San Francisco.)
... There had been various Victorian music hall songs that had referred to a Reilly who had a comfortable and prosperous life; for example, there's the 1883 song, popularised by the Irish/American singer Pat Rooney - Is That Mr. Reilly? It included in the chorus "Is that Mr. Reilly, of whom they speak so highly?"
And finally, an answer (sort of) to the question: Was Riley "a real person?"
... A scan of a copy of the newspaper the Dublin Weekly Nation, Saturday 14 October 1899 shows that the Riley (and as it turns out it is Reilly, not Riley) was the hero of a popular folk ballad, living exactly the life that would lead to the coining of the phrase we have been seeking.
It's a fascinating article, so I encourage you to check it out, if you are so inclined.

A strong cup of coffee would be a start....




Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Dansy


Too much news input these days is making me feel a little "dansy."

Dansy.... any guesses as to what that might mean?
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This turns out to be an oldie in more ways than one. According to Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer (1889):
Dansy—A Pennsylvanian Dutch term used in describing those whose faculties are failing them through old age. Similar in meaning and application to the English "dotty."

That just about sums it up for me! What about you??

By Free Clip Art [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons