Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Blackball

 Well now, here's one I thought I knew: blackball. Per Online Etymology Dictionary

"to exclude from a club by adverse votes," 1770, from black (adj.) + ball (n.1). The image is of the black balls of wood or ivory that were dropped into an urn as adverse votes during secret ballots.  

Ah, but there is also a nautical twist...

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...and it has to do with the "Black Ball Line" shipping company of old.

The Black Ball Line Packet Ship 'New York' off Ailsa Craig by William Clark (1836)
https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/1QGRQs0DDURfww

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I bumped into this entry in the 1889 Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer:

Blackballing.—Stealing or pilfering. A sailor's word. it originated amongst the employees of the old Black Ball line of steamers between New York and Liverpool. The cruelty and scandalous conduct of officers to men—and sailors to each other—became so proverbial, that the line of vessels in question became known all over the world for the cruelty of its officers, and the thieving propensities of its sailors.

I read this, and thought, "Really, now! Time to dig a little deeper."

In a long discussion of the origin of the word blackball on Wordwizard, one of the posters mentioned this tie to the Black Ball Line, referencing Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson. (Hmmm. That's a book I should add to my shelves...) I couldn't find much more about this slangish use of the word, but did find this little history of the Black Ball Line that mentions the viciousness of its officers on Contemplator.com in the notes for the sea shanty "The Black Ball Line":

...The Black Ball Line was founded by a group of Quakers in 1818. It was the first line to take passengers on a regular basis, sailing from New York, Boston and Philadelphia on the first and sixteenth of each month. The Blackball flag was a crimson swallow-tail flag with a black ball. The ships were famous for their fast passage and excellent seamanship. However, they were also famed for their fighting mates and the brutal treatment of seamen.

The Contemplator.com page even has a musical file and lyrics, so you can play this sea shanty and sing along! (Note that the lyrics offer a more upbeat picture of the Black Ball Line, in which the "good and gallant crew" bests a pirate ship.) Or, if you prefer, you can play the YouTube rendition below. 


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Deadbeat, dead beat

 By special request of long-time-all-the-way-back-to-childhood buddy and fellow writer/author, Susan (Chernak McElroy) Knilans, I bring you deadbeat (and dead beat as well).

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The Online Etymology Dictionary provides us with the 1863 definition of deadbeat as a "worthless sponging idler." After that colorful description, OED notes that idiom might have originated in the Civil War, adding:

Earlier dead beat was used colloquially as an adjectival expression, "completely beaten, so exhausted as to be incapable of further exertion" (1821), and perhaps the base notion is of "worn out, good for nothing." It is noted in a British source from 1861 as a term for "a pensioner."

In Americanisms, Old and New by John Stephen Farmer, other colorful definitions emerge. Dead-beat could be (1) "A 'pick-me-up' compounded of ginger, soda, and whiskey" (I must remember that!), or (2) "A sponger, one who lives upon others." 

The Phrase Finder has a nice back'n forth on dead beat/deadbeat. Starting with the two-word version, James Briggs explains, "'Beat' is 'exhausted' in this context. 'Dead' is another example of the word used as an intensifier 'dead centre', 'dead certainty' 'dead on', 'dead ringer' etc, etc. It doesn't have an origin, but 'dead' in this sense is 100s of years old." Smokey Stover agrees and notes the single-word deadbeat can refer to a dead-stroke in a clock. (Not knowing what a dead-stroke is, I looked it up. Wiktionary's defines dead-stroke as "making a stroke without recoil; deadbeat." Smokey S then turns the Oxford English Dictionary for the more common defintion: "A worthless idler who sponges on his friends; a sponger, loafer; also (orig. Austral.), a man down on his luck."

Want more? Check out the entertaining (and extensive) post in The Word Detective, right here.

So, it appears my 1880s-era characters can use deadbeat (and the even earlier dead beat) with impunity in their dialogue and inner musings.

Thank you, Sue, for asking. :-)

If anyone has a request for a particular bit of slang or an idiom, just wing me an email or a comment, and I shall do my best to oblige... When I'm not dead beat, that is.

Dead beat or deadbeat?
"An Idle Afternoon" by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1884 from WikiArt
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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Tuckered out

 Not sure what happened to the month of March. It seems that it just arrived and now it's gone and, wow, I am all tuckered out.

Tuckered out is defined in John Stephen Farmer's Americanisms, Old and New (c. 1887) as "Wearied, tired out, fatigued."

The phrase has a definite Western ring to it, don't you think?

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However, it dates way before cattle-drives, wagon trains, and so on, and isn't even "of the West." 

According to The Phrase Finder, "Tucker is a colloquial New England word, coined in the early 19th century, meaning 'become weary' and which ultimately derives from the Old English verb tuck, meaning 'punish; torment'." From more than a century-and-a-quarter earlier, Farmer in his Americanisms concurs, noting that the colloquialism "is most common in New England."

The Phrase Finder tracked the first appearance of tuckered out to this intriguing quote from the April 1839 Wisconsin Enquirer:

"I reckoned to have got to the tavern by sundown, but I haven't - as I'm prodigiously tuckered out." 

The Historically Speaking website has a nice collection of quotes featuring tuckered out, starting in 1962 and going back to 1845. This post also suggests that the phrase might have been in use by 1820. I'd pursue that further, but, well, I'm tuckered out, so I'll leave it as an exercise to those with more energy than I have at the moment...

The #DivaMissMia demonstrates what it means to be tuckered out.
Photo by Ann Parker



Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Fish or cut bait (by DMcC)

 Hello all! I've enlisted some occasional help with Slang-o-rama from the euphonious DMcC (aka Devyn McConachie)—so look for entries such as this one to pop up from time to time! Now, a bit about our assistant slang-o-rama-ist:

Devyn McConachie is a designer-editor-cartoonist, currently lurking about Portland, Oregon. Were it not for her wobbly landlubber legs and love of indoor-living, she would absolutely have taken up a career as a sea-pirate. Landlocked as she is, she instead fills her days with graphic design, animation, illustration, and copy editing.

For more info and to view her visual portfolio, visit this here link. She also has an Etsy shop (arts, hats, and cards) right here
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The idiom fish or cut bait actually has a tale of two meanings, depending on how “cut bait” is interpreted. Wikipedia provides a solid explanation for the more literal interpretation:
(1) The expression explores the merits of two options: "Fish", which refers to the act of fishing; or "cut bait", which refers to cutting up pieces of bait into small, usable portions.
[...] The original version of the expression derives from the fishing industry, in which fishermen must literally decide who is to fish, and who is to cut the bait used for fishing. Both the task of fishing, and that of cutting the bait, were considered equally important to the goal of catching fish.
Failure to contribute is not one of the offered alternatives, although "go ashore" and "go overboard" are sometimes offered as clarifying alternatives.
The Cambridge dictionary describes the second, figurative definition, now more widely used:
(2) Fish or cut bait: used to tell someone to take action or to stop saying that they will.
Fans of American idioms may recall similar phrases, such as “put up or shut up,” or the expletive-laden directive ending in “get off the pot.” For a vivid example, imagine:

A lone fisher sits in his boat, casting for fish. Perhaps his name is Santiago, and he’s had exceptionally poor luck. But for the first time in 85 days, at last, his line goes taught: a massive marlin took the bait—and then took old Santiago and his boat with it. Santiago has two choices, then: he can fish (hold on in hopes of catching the marlin), or he can cut bait (cut the line and lose the fish, but save his energy for another catch).

Or you may not have to imagine at all, since Russian artist Aleksandr Petrov created a beautifully animated rendition of this Ernest Hemingway classic, The Old Man and the Sea 

One of the earliest instances of this  “commit or quit” version of fish or cut bait appears in an 1853 legal setting. After a Wisconsin judge ruled on a land holdings case, defendant Caleb Cushing, highly displeased with the result, threatened to have the judge impeached. The judge reportedly responded: “Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. [...] Cushing must either fish or cut bait.” Fish or cut bait lives on in another legal setting: a “fish or cut bait clause” in some retail rental agreements. If a tenant breaks a co-tenancy rule of the lease, which allowed them to pay lower rent, they must either pay rent in full (fish) or end the lease (cut bait). I found the usage here a little murkier to parse.

The face I make when I have to read legal documents.
By Edgar Ravenswood Waite - Waite, Edgar R. (1921) Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia: G. Hassell & Son, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42580865

If you're interested in diving deeper, you can find other takes on the history of  the phrase fish or cut bait, at ReadEx Blog, Wordorigins.org, and in this post by Jan Freeman in Boston.com's "The Word" blog. 

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this semi-literary meanderings, you might want to check out the Twitter account @MobyDickatSea, which quotes random lines from Moby Dick several times a day. I’ve found it adds a delightfully surreal twist to my timeline. And now, it is time for me to cut the line on chasing down this fishy phrase and sail off in search of another Slang-o-Rama tidbit to hang on my hook...

 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Give a wide berth

 When I'm out walking, I'm one of those folks who masks up--never mind the distance—and gives a wide berth to all I encounter. And now, having written that, I find myself asking: Is give a wide berth an idiom borne of the seafaring life?

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Answer: Yes it is!

Merriam-Webster Online explains that to give a wide berth means "to avoid or stay away from someone or something."

According to one of my favorite references, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, this expression, dating from the mid-1800s, alludes to the need to give a vessel enough room to swing at anchor to avoid a collision.

The Phrase Finder dives into a wide berth, noting:

We now think of a ship's berth as the place where the ship is moored. Before that though it meant 'a place where there is sea room to moor a ship'. This derives in turn from the probable derivation of the word berth, that is, 'bearing off'. When sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing off something they were being told to make sure to maintain enough sea room from it. Like many seafaring terms it dates back to the heyday of sail, the 17th century. An early use comes from the redoubtable Captain John Smith in Accidental Young Seamen, 1626: "Watch bee vigilant to keepe your berth to windward."

 By Peter Monamy - Art UK, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91972404

To give a wide berth, however, didn't appear until 1830, in the following ghostly passage of Sir Walter Scott's Letters on demonology and witchcraft

...He was pondering with some anxiety upon the dangers of travelling alone on a solitary road which passed the corner of a churchyard, now near at hand, when he saw before him in the moonlight a pale female form standing upon the very wall which surrounded the cemetery. The road was very narrow, with no opportunity of giving the apparent phantom what seamen call a wide berth. It was, however, the only path which led to the rider’s home, who therefore resolved, at all risks, to pass the apparition.

Hmmmm. The above pretty much describes my reaction when encountering unmasked personages on a narrow sidewalk or trail (although my perambulations take place in the light of day, and never involve passing a cemetery).

Now, let's just "sail away" for a bit, and enjoy this lovely hour-long compilation of toe-tamping sea shanties and sea-farin' folk songs. The first, a drinking song, is perfect for raising a glass or two today to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Enjoy!


Note that you can view the lyrics and sing along by clicking on CC (closed captions) icon on the YouTube video.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

THE SECRET IN THE WALL - Cover and copy (and a sea shanty, just because )

 Interrupting the usual slinging of slang to offer a preview of the cover and back-cover copy for the eighth book in my historical mystery series, THE SECRET IN THE WALL. And so, without further ado...

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(... well, maybe a little ado...)

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(...think of this as a stage curtain slowly drawing open...)
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... TA-DA!! 


Does this whet your curiosity? Look mysterious? Well, when you flip the book over, this is what you'll read:
Sometimes you can’t keep your gown out of the gutter… 

Inez Stannert has reinvented herself—again. Fleeing the comfort and wealth of her East Coast upbringing, she became a saloon owner and card sharp in the rough silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, always favoring the unconventional path—a difficult road for a woman in the late 1800s. 
Then the teenaged daughter of a local fortune teller is orphaned by her mother’s murder, and Inez steps up to raise the troubled girl as her own. Inez works hard to keep a respectable, loving home for Antonia, carefully crafting their new life in San Francisco. But risk is a seductive friend, difficult to resist. When a skeleton tumbles from the wall of her latest business investment, the police only seem interested in the bag of Civil War-era gold coins that fell out with it. With her trusty derringer tucked in the folds of her gown, Inez uses her street smarts and sheer will to unearth a secret that someone has already killed to keep buried. The more she digs, the muddier and more dangerous things become.

She enlists the help of Walter de Brujin, a local private investigator with whom she shares some history. Though she wants to trust him, she fears that his knowledge of her past, along with her growing attraction to him, may well blow her veneer of respectability to bits—that is, if her dogged pursuit of the truth doesn’t kill her first.

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Hats off and three cheers to the crew at Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks for their tremendous job creating the lovely cover and back-cover text!

THE SECRET IN THE WALL is scheduled for release in February 2022, so there is a while yet before you can dive into Inez's next adventure. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, please consider signing up for my newsletter. To do so, click here and scroll to the bottom of the pageThe newsletter comes out occasionally and at random intervals, so shouldn't overwhelm your inbox. I will say this: one is in the works right now, so do sign up soonI'll be offering fun tidbits from my research and a random drawing for books from authors I admire.

Now, your reward, for reading all the way to the end of this lengthy post, is this delightful sea shanty, "Leave Her, Johnny." Enjoy!



Here is another rendition of "Leave Her, Johnny," WITH LYRICS, because one just can't have too many sea shanties:

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Argy-bargy (by DMcC)

 Hello all! I've enlisted some occasional help with Slang-o-rama from the euphonious DMcC (aka Devyn McConachie)—so look for entries such as this one to pop up from time to time! Now, a bit about our assistant slang-o-rama-ist:

Devyn McConachie is a designer-editor-cartoonist, currently lurking about Portland, Oregon. Were it not for her wobbly landlubber legs and love of indoor-living, she would absolutely have taken up a career as a sea-pirate. Landlocked as she is, she instead fills her days with graphic design, animation, illustration, and copy editing.

For more info and to view her visual portfolio, visit this here link. She also has an Etsy shop (arts, hats, and cards) right here
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Returning to an earlier theme, here’s another nearly-nautical-sounding phrase… argy-bargy! Alas, Ann had no luck with the boat-connection with “dory” in hunky-dory, but perhaps “bargy” will prove fruitful in this hunt for a boating idiom. Let’s find out… 

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According Merriam-Webster Online, an argy-bargy is a “lively discussion,” or “an argument or disagreement.” Like shilly-shally from last year, argy-bargy features rhyming reduplication—a linguistic tweak where a word or word stem is repeated for expressive effect. The stem, argy, is a Scots-English term for “argue,” with first known usage as early 1839.

The Chess Game by 19th-century painter Charles Bargue (no relation to argue-bargue, but these fellows do look ready to start an argie-bargiement)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bargue_The_Chess_Game.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9370799

The Scottish National Dictionary, contained in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (Dictionars o the Scots Leid, or DSL for short), offers a similar definition—according to the DSL, argy-bargy (or argie-bargie) means:

  1. (Noun) A dispute in words, a quarrel, haggling, its use generally implying impatience with the speaker. (for example: “The other [hand] gesticulating in front of Tom Reid in an argy-bargy over the amount of his charge.”)
  2. (Verb) To dispute, to haggle. (for example: “Sittin' on the corner o' the table, he argy-bargied away, but a' to no purpose.”)

 The DSL defines the root word argy (or argie) as:

  1. (Verb) To argue, [generally] in a contentious or noisy fashion.
  2. (Noun) Assertion. 

… with the noun form appearing in text as early as 1808.

 Along with argie/argy, and argy-bargy / -bargie come a whole extended Scottish family of varying spellings and sayings, brimming with rhyming reduplications. To name a few...

  • Argey-reerie: (noun) a wrangle, a scolding 
  • Arg: (verb) to talk ill-temperedly and hot-headedly 
  • Argie-bargiement: (noun) a wrangling, contention 
  • Argifee (or argufee, argufy, arguify): (verb) to argue, to signify
  • Argolling: (noun) argument, reasoning
  • Argle-bargle (or argol-bargol): (noun) Contention, dispute. (verb) to dispute
  • Argle-bargling: (verbal noun) disputation
  • Argle-bargler: (noun) contentious person, disputer, debater
  • Argle-barglous (or argol-barglous, argol-bargolous): (adjective) quarrelsome, disputatious

 The DSL notes in the entry for argle-barglous that the words argue and bargain may have been the basis for these repetitive reduplicates. To plumb the depths as far as we can...

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the verb argue back to the 1300s, from the French arguer (“maintain an opinion or view; harry, reproach, accuse, blame”), which itself came from the Latin arguere (“make clear, make known, prove, declare, demonstrate”)... An old term indeed, no argolin’ with that!

Uh-oh, looks like someone starting an argie-baaaaahrgie
Image by suju from Pixabay

As for bargain, the same etymology dictionary cites its origin to the 1400s, based on the Old French term bargaignier (“to haggle over the price”), which itself was based on a Germanic term, likely the Proto-Germanic borgan (“to pledge, lend, borrow”). However, 19th-century German philologist Friedrich Diez suggested that the French bargaignier could, in fact, have come from the Late Latin barcaa barge!—although there aren’t many sources to back this theory.

Hmmm, a tenuous conclusion, if there is one. Personally, I’m wiffle-waffling on whether this counts as a sea term… But at this point, I’ve got to either fish or cut bait—so I’ll leave it to you to decide!

What do you think? Argy-bargy, a boat-based byword, or no?