Tag Archives: Words the Americans Gave Us

Brannock Device – One Two, Buckle My Shoe

Hello,

I love when one of my predictions comes true. Today is the first day here in Ireland of shops re-opening. Yes, we had groceries and pharmacies, but this is the day you can pop in for a spool of thread, a new book, or a bunch of flowers – the little things that are fun to buy, but not, as we had presumed, essential.

I’ve been saying for some time that the first shop which would logically be required would be footwear for children. They can manage on hand-me-down clothes from older siblings but growing children need new shoes more regularly than most parents like. Sure enough, queues are already forming at shoe-shops in the city centre. I suspect a few keen walkers and runners need new shoes too after all the daily exercise loops, too.

Once upon a time, long before this blog, I worked part-time in a busy shoe shop (Saxone’s on Henry Street, long closed now). We dreaded two times of the year in particular. The wide-eyed frenzy of Christmas Eve last-minute purchasers and the equally scary Back To School weeks when we would wrangle recalcitrant small feet into the foot measure and then find an appropriate pair of shoes to match. The child always wanted something shiny and expensive while the parents wanted a sensible shoe with growing room. Compromise was tricky, especially in a small space crowded with families on full volume.

Today I’m pitying the staff in the re-opening shoe shops who are now trying to use the foot measure with masks, gloves, and perspex screens. Small children can be anxious about this process and the new work-wear won’t be helping matters. Nor will the long queues.

It was only recently that I discovered the name of the foot measure, in a facebook post riddled with typos, the brannock device. It was patented in 1925 by a young American inventor, Charles F. Brannock. It’s a graduated metal foot plate with sliding toe stop, heel cup, and usually a strap to hold wriggling feet in place. Charles spent the rest of his 89 years making and selling these industry standard devices which are still made in New York today and exported worldwide.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Library Tales – the Real Dewey & the Librarian’s Secret Diary

Hello,

This week’s word is dewey (also spelled dui, see below) – a word closely associated with libraries, in honour of my latest fiction serial over on Channillo, the reading subscription service (think Netflix for books). “The Librarian’s Secret Diary” kicked off last Wednesday and will be updated with a new episode every Wednesday. The first episode is available free here.

But what about the Dewey Decimal System? It’s an eponymous term and as such was featured in my first word history book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary”. Dewey was an unusual person, to say the least, like many of the people whose lives I explored in the book. He wouldn’t have fared well in a post #MeToo world. I hope you enjoy the extract.

Dewey Decimal System

{copyright Grace Tierney, 2018}

This system of library classification was first published in 1876 by Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) and is now used in 135 countries worldwide. He devised the system while working at Amherst College library.

Melvil supported the idea of spelling standardisation, or as he would say “simpler spelin”. He changed his name from Melville to Melvil and even tried Dui as a surname for a while. He was instrumental in organising the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

His main flaw was an “inability to control himself around women”. He was rumoured to ask female applicants to his School of Library Economy for their bust size and photograph with their applications because you can’t “polish a pumpkin”. The bust part is untrue, mercifully.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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“The Librarian’s Secret Diary” is a humourous diary-style story about Nina, the new librarian on the block. She’s learning the shelves with her buzzword-spouting boss and the senior librarian who hates reading and can’t wait to retire. She records the crazy reader requests and the knitting group in-fighting in her secret diary while trying to get the printer to work, flirting with the inter-library-loan guy, and struggling to discover why their romance books are acquiring red pen marks on page five.

Corny

Hello,

This week’s word is corny. Something is corny if it’s banal or sentimental so it’s generally used in a derogatory fashion. The question is – how did mawkish sentimentality become associated with delicious corn on the cob, or corn off the cob for that matter?

According to the QI Elves on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast – we have the word corny thanks to American corn farmers and they’re mostly right.

Corny originated as American English slang in 1932 to describe something as sentimental, old-fashioned, and appealing to country folk.

Assuming all North American country folk are involved in farming corn is a stretch, however 59% of US farmland is growing it even today. That’s 90 million acres of land and it’s 95% of the feed grain produced in the country. So perhaps associating American farmers with corn production isn’t too wide of the mark. I remain to be convinced of their penchant for old-fashioned, corny sentimentality though.

Corny entered the English language a little earlier than the 1930s, however. Chaucer used the word to describe ale in the late 1300s, possibly meaning the drink was malty. From the 1570s corny could also describe corn or anything full of corn – which seems logical. It took another 370 years to arrive as a way to denigrate songs and movies as cloyingly sweet or old-fashioned.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and corn-eating,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Snollygoster

Hello,

This week’s word, snollygoster, has been chosen simply because it’s fun to say. Go on, you can play the pronunciation file here. See what I mean?

Snollygoster may be common knowledge to my American readers as it’s listed as a U.S. dialect word in the dictionary, but it was a new one to me. I think we should adopt it on this side of the pond too.

A snollygoster is a shrewd or unprincipled person. The word was used by President Truman to describe congressional politicians in the 1950s, but its first usage dates to a hundred years earlier. Perhaps snollygosters have infested democracy for a long time.

Sadly the origins of this word are unclear. Some etymologists list it as fanciful and don’t even attempt to delve deeper. Others hint at links to German but without details. I think, based on my limited German schooling, that root could be right. The clearest I came across says it comes from schnelle Geister (quick spirits, in the ghostly sense). I’m not sure how German immigrants to America could have changed fast moving ghosts into difficult politicians, although perhaps they were referring to the speed of change in their principles and ideals?

Either way, I think we’re still haunted by snollygosters (and their Irish political cousins the cute hoor) and the word should make a swift comeback in political commentary everywhere.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace

p.s. my first word history book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” will be featured on the Scripted Scribbles podcast next week. I’ll post about it here when it’s live, and provide the links so you can listen in. In the meantime if you’re curious about the podcast (available on Apple, Spotify, and Buzzsprout) which features a wide variety of authors and books – check out their facebook page here.

Lollygagging

Hello,

This week’s word comes with thanks to Lyric FM’s Marty in the Mornings show which I often listen to when walking. This week Marty is away and his substitute has been including an etymology spot each day, much to my delight. Today’s word was abendrot – the colour of the sky at sunset – literally evening red from German. Yesterday’s entry in the slot caught my attention in particular – lollygagging.

lollygagging skeleton

The mountain goat lollygagged too long on the mountain path

Lollygagging is defined as delaying or dawdling, perhaps to avoid work. It was originally spelled lallygag and entered American English in 1862. It’s still listed as American English in the Oxford English Dictionary online yet my  British English speaking mother used it all her life. The suggested roots for the word are lolly (tongue) and gag (to deceive or trick).

The association of lolly with the tongue is also the source of the word lollipop or lolly for a hard candy/sweet on a stick which dates back to the late 1700s. Perhaps one should lick a lolly while lollygagging?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and lollygagging,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

What a load of Bunkum

Hello,

This week’s word is bunkum, which I came across this week while researching nautical words for “Words The Sea Gave Us”, my next nonfiction book. Bunkum, sometimes shortened to bunk, isn’t a word I ever use, but I may take it up purely because its history is wonderfully foolish.

Bunks (not bunkum) on the Dunbrody Famine Ship

On Feburary 25th, 1820 Felix Walker (1753-1828), who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina in the American House of Representatives (a.k.a. Congress) wanted to contribute to a long-running Missouri statehood debate in Congress. He began a speech which was quickly discerned to be “long, dull, irrelevant”. He was called upon to cut it short. He refused, insisting that he wanted to prove to his voters and their newspapers that he was active in the House. “I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe”.

To the frustration of the other representatives he insisted on finishing his long “speech for Buncombe”. Thereafter buncombe (later spelled phonetically as bunkum) came to describe meaningless political nonsense. By 1841 it was a word (a toponym in fact) for any kind of nonsense.

Today’s politicians rarely talk any bunkum, of course.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. Welcome to all my recent subscribers. It’s great to have you around. Feel free to suggest a word for Wordfoolery to investigate and to chat in the comments.