Monthly Archives: February, 2012

Carrying on like a pork chop

Pork chop

How can a pork chop carry on? This phrase ought to make sense when it appears in full (carrying on like a pork chop at a Jewish wedding) but meaning has shifted from the original idea of an object out of place and the phrase now implies a foolish person exhibiting inappropriate behaviour. It’s hard to see how or why the expression made such a meaning shift.

We have a lot of these puzzling terms in English and, in the upside down world of Australia—which could just as easily be the top of the world if you approach from outer space—expressions have often been up-ended.

Take the word ‘bludger’. It has recently appeared in the Harry Potter books as an essential element of the magical game Quidditch in a form close to its original meaning of ‘bludgeoner’. But in Australia the meaning has shifted from ‘a violent person’ to firstly a thief using his bludgeon to live off the immoral gains of women, then to any lazy person living off someone else’s means. The term ‘dole bludger’ is a nasty but logical extension of this changed use.

And what about the expression ‘Don’t come the raw prawn with me’? The prawn, an edible shellfish, more commonly called ‘shrimp’ in America, has in Australia developed into a term for a fool or someone deserving contempt. The raw prawn is difficult to swallow, hence a far-fetched or absurd claim. To ‘come the raw prawn’ is an attempt to fool someone, to cheat someone or to misrepresent a situation.

Another odd bit of word evolution is the phrase ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’. This is a peculiar amalgam of two uses of the term ‘flat out,’ meaning at once flat on one’s face from exhaustion and yet working very hard and fast. Lizards often remain rock still for long periods but then can move in quick jerky movements. Has anyone watched them drinking? Not the point. The implication is that such creatures must drink while flattened out, because of their shape. This is one of our stranger expressions, suggesting two contradictory ideas at once.

Less obtuse but equally two handed is the expression ‘stirring the possum’. It means to cause controversy, and to excite debate. There is a possibility that it comes from the American phrase ‘to play possum’, referring to a popular belief that the opossum feigns death when attacked. To ‘stir’ in Australian English means to cause trouble or tease someone. So perhaps stirring the dead issue will awaken it. Odd and odder.

The catch-phrase ‘You’ve got Buckley’s’ means you have no chance at all. This one ought to make sense but it has two claimants. It comes from the full expression ‘You’ve got two chances: Buckley’s and none’. The more colourful origin claim for this phrase suggests that it refers to convict William Buckley, who escaped from a Port Phillip prison in 1803 and lived for 32 years with aboriginal tribes. The less colourful origin is a pun, referring to the now defunct Melbourne department store Buckley & Nunn. Take your pick.

Often heard in the mouths of football commentators is the expression ‘done like a dinner’. It means comprehensively outwitted or defeated, as in ‘Essendon was done like a dinner in the grand final’. The likeliest origin is a variation on ‘done like a dog’s dinner’ which implies a meal devoured with enthusiasm, and a bowl licked clean. So if your team has been done like a dinner, the other team has figuratively eaten them alive.

Another commonly heard expression in football is ‘to get a guernsey’. Guernsey is the second largest of the Channel Islands (after Jersey), located in the English Channel (though closer to France). Elsewhere the name ‘guernsey’ is applied to items used in or associated with the island of Guernsey. During the gold rush era, ‘guernsey’ was a type of shirt worn by miners. This association slowly developed in the way that ‘digger’ became associated with soldiers rather than miners. Now it simply means to win selection for a sporting or other type of team, to win a parliamentary seat or even to become an important item on an agenda.

But the oddest of all these expressions is ‘wowser’. It is a term of scorn for people trying to impose their morality on others (e.g. a non-drinker, non-gambler or non-smoker who pontificates about such vices). But it originally meant someone who is obnoxious, annoying or in some way disruptive. The term was applied to prostitutes and public drunks, even suffragettes. So how did this word revolve 180 degrees in meaning? There is, predictably enough, an acronym theory (isn’t there always?) that the word comes from the initials of a slogan We Only Want Social Evils Righted. A more credible theory relates to a British dialect expression ‘to wow,’ meaning to mew like a cat or howl like a dog, which might explain why ‘wowser’ originally was applied to vexatious persons in public and then later became associated with people wailing for a different reason, in self-righteous indignation. This makes etymological sense, and shows a sweet penchant for irony in the Australian vernacular.

Time to leave off carrying on like a pork chop, whatever that might be.


Cheeky Merlot Feels Blue

Synaesthesia is a combination of the Ancient Greek words for ‘together’ and ‘sensation’. It has often been regarded as a sixth sense. A small percentage of the population possesses this remarkable cognitive ability, the power to sense sound in visual stimuli or to perceive colour in certain numbers and letters. The condition is involuntary, not intellectual; it has nothing to do with education. Some who are gifted—or afflicted—with this condition perceive personality traits in days of the week or months. They may feel the shape of Thursday or the anger of April or a capricious September. Other ‘synaesthetes’ perceive distance in certain dates, where 1958 appears farther away on a physical plane than 1968. Others hear the intensity of colours or perceive time in a three-dimensional form.

Although more than sixty types of synaesthesia have been recorded, the majority of the human race will miss out on this experience. But language offers us all an approximation through metaphor. We talk of a person wearing a ‘loud’ shirt, as if its colours are shouting at us. We express moods through a colour swatch of language. We see red. We feel ‘in the pink’ or ‘blue’. Poets can further open these extra senses for us. Shakespeare uses ‘bitter cold,’ as if the characters of Hamlet can almost taste a foul chill in the air. Seamus Heaney describes a taste that lingers as blackberries figuratively and literally ‘leave stains upon the tongue’.

We can’t all be synaesthetes but we can learn to appreciate their extra-sensory perception. Like the central figure in ‘The Scream’—that remarkable and terrifying painting by Edvard Munch—some synaesthetes perceive sound as visual waves. Other artists with extraordinary perception, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky, may also have been synaesthetes: gifted (or cursed) by abilities beyond most of us. We who lack this ability are the colour-blind and the tone-deaf. We depend on artists and word wizards to provide us with glimpses into other realms (somewhat less dangerous than Huxley’s mescaline trips through the doors of perception). But there are times when we can all be poets. We describe difficult people as ‘prickly,’ or ‘hard to handle’. Uncomfortable situations ‘stink’. Overly sentimental descriptions are ‘sugary’ or ‘cloying’. Bullets ‘pepper’ the ground, as though lightly seasoning it. And uncomfortable truths are ‘hard to swallow’.

Comedians too can offer us the gift of clarity about the sensory nature of word choices. Remember the Monty Python sketch about woody and tinny words? “I just like the word. It gives me confidence. Gorn. Gorn. It’s got a sort of woody quality about it. Gorn. Gorn. Much better than ‘newspaper’ or ‘litterbin’… Newspaper! … litterbin … dreadful tinny sort of words. Tin, tin, tin.” This is also known as the ‘bouba/ kiki effect’. In successive experiments, when offered a choice of two unfamiliar words for two objects, 95-98% of people chose ‘kiki’ for the angular shape and ‘bouba’ for the rounded shape. Other similar experiments have shown this non-arbitrary nature of language development. We feel our way towards certain sounds in the forming of words.

For synaesthetes, some words have a gustatory or olfactory reality: they may taste or even smell. For the less than poetic, we may find synaesthesia in food writing or from the lips of gourmands. In the Pixar film Ratatouille the character Remy illustrates various flavours using musical symbols and other graphical devices. However, it is in the language of wine where most of us encounter extremes of synaesthesia—more often as victims than practitioners.

The language of wine generates a disproportionate amount of pretension and bombast. Sure, a similar syndrome afflicts enthusiasts for cheese and other gourmet comestibles but wine is the worst offender. It has a dialect all its own, including so much pretentious palaver that it’s often hard to tell the ermine from the ersatz. American humourist James Thurber satirised this tendency in a famous mock review: “It’s a naïve domestic burgundy, without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

The pathetic fallacy is a poetic technique best employed in small doses. We’ve all heard that wine has to ‘breathe,’ that it has ‘body,’ ‘nose’ and even ‘personality’. But such personification can go too far. I have heard wine described in anthropomorphic terms like ‘cheeky,’ ‘leaping,’ ‘vigorous,’ ‘generous,’ ‘flirting,’ ‘doleful,’ ‘soul,’ ‘embracing’ even ‘bosomy’.

At its most authentic, the language of wine skirts the perimeter of synaesthesia, via metaphor. Wine’s discrete vocabulary contains nouns like ‘finish’ and ‘notes,’ to indicate either a painterly or musical quality. It can bring visual or tactile aids to the difficult task of translating taste and smell into words. Translation is never an exact science; wine words are no exception. The skilled wine critic or salesperson can evoke powerful images and help to stimulate palate appreciation. But it’s a delicate art. Overkill may be one adjective too many.

A couple of years ago I participated in a winery tour of the Rhône Valley. In one vineyard there is an education centre that includes a multi-sensory room designed to help novices learn to appreciate the auditory, tactile and visual elements of winemaking. There is no mistaking animal and mineral for vegetable. Each element has its part to play but not as actors in a posturing drama. Aroma: yes. Palate: of course. Human qualities: mais non, monsieur.

To puncture the balloon of pretentious wine talk, one only need consult the wisdom of Monty Python again: “Of the sparkling wines, the most famous is Perth Pink. This is a bottle with a message in, and the message is ‘beware’. This is not a wine for drinking; this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”

A well-rounded blog entry, with fruity notes and a delicate nose that offers the palate a certain dryness. Best consumed at once.

The Good, the Bad and the Undecided

On Valentine’s Day this blog does not intend to insult reader intelligence with a discussion about the language of love (sounds like a greeting card, a band or an erotic poem, or all three). Nor will this blog engage in a discussion about the love of language, presuming that all its readers are language lovers.

Instead the discussion will explore some intimate but non-sentimental words pleading for more than a casual relationship. They want long-term commitment; or some of them do. Others are content to play the field and remain free to drop in or drop out of formal relationships with English. Some might even be considered free radicals, transferrable to other languages; sans context, sans baggage.

This blog has previously examined slang (June 2011). Let us now consider words that are formal but not formal, and others lost in transition. ‘Good’ are the ones that have been accepted into our mainstream, ‘bad’ those we have not accepted, and ‘undecided’ are those in waiting. Of this last group, some may fade into the patois of yesteryear, while others will become part of our common speech, and in another half a century will be indistinguishable from older terms.

  1. Good: Who now would consider ‘crunch’ to be slang? This neologism, a combination of ‘crumble’ and ‘munch,’ irritated many purists when first coined. Sure, it may be a form of slang today to talk about ‘crunching numbers’ but few would dispute the legitimacy of this almost onomatopoeic word. There are other terms, formerly abbreviations, now accepted in their own right. Words like ‘factory,’ ‘phone’, ‘flu,’ ‘typo’ and ‘mob’ have earned membership to the establishment, if not a first-class membership. Another former slang term is ‘cool’.  Nobody born after 1950 would doubt the linguistic legality of this word in most language registers, to the point where ‘cool’ might be even considered no longer cool. Several generations of challengers have tried to replace it but somehow cool remains cool, perhaps because it has not yet entered formal English. We do not find it bandied about in academic papers unless laced with irony, yet it has become part of our language the way that ‘square,’ ‘Daddy-o’ and ‘groovy’ have not. Other terms from the 50s and 60s have fared even worse: ‘far out,’ ‘out of sight’ and ‘uptight’ come to mind.
  2. Bad: It’s too soon for ‘chill’ to be considered mainstream, outside a medical or meteorological context. Likewise ‘sick’ meaning ‘really good’ has a long way to go. ‘As if’ remains firmly in the slang category. So does ‘keeping it real,’ meaning ‘to thine own      self be true’. And a range of terms related to bodily functions (e.g. pissed at, pissed off, pissed, pissed on, pissed all over, pissed it in, sexed up, bootylicious, kickass, dumbass and douche-bag) aren’t likely to join the mainstream club any time soon. Even an apparently innocuous term like ‘drop-kick,’ meaning someone who is an idiot, is too crude to be allowed in the house (it’s a veiled obscenity, abbreviated from rhyming slang for ‘drop-kick and punt’) which is a shame, not least because the drop-kick used to be a useful shot in Aussie Rules.
  3. Undecided: These have been hanging around the back door of acceptance wondering if they can come in: ‘hassle,’ ‘nerd,’ ‘geek,’ ‘mojo,’ ‘deadest’ and ‘wannabe’. Too early for formal English but their time may come sooner, as the acceptance rate increases and the walls crumble further between formal and informal English.

There is, however, a fourth group: at once slang and yet not exactly. These almost belong to dialect. What exactly is a dialect? The Concise OED defines it as (1) a form of speech peculiar to a particular region or (2) a subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation or grammar. If we accept these definitions, under what category would some of the following terms fit? ‘Chuffed,’ ‘bumpf,’ ‘faffing,’ ‘futzing, ‘doofus,’ ‘der,’ ‘duh,’ ‘meh,’ ‘mwah,’ ‘dweeb,’ ‘dork’. The transformational power of TV—for good or ill—has brought such words both out of and closer to dialect. Some of them are the written expression of a verbal tic, while others are digital-age neologisms. All of them are expressive, though some are seldom seen in written form. Will such words last? Probably not. But who can say what will outlive the software that has given rise to expressions like ‘to Google’ and ‘Facebook me’?

Eh, fuhgeddaboudit. Whatever. A worry-free Happy Valentine’s Day to language lovers everywhere. Mwah, mwah.

Do You Speak Cricket?

Recently I attended a test match between Australia and India, two of the more cricket-crazy nations. A renewal of acquaintance with this seasonal game has made me aware what a rarefied and obtuse language its commentators speak. Could metaphors be any more mixed?

A simultaneous interpreter service would be handy during the radio commentary, and sub-titles for the TV coverage. Cricket can be as diffcult to follow as any unfamiliar language, even though it uses English words and phrases. It’s the quintessentially English game, the sport of Empire, comprehensible throughout the former British dominions, but no further. The game is so famously long it contains meal breaks, including that quaint Anglicism ‘tea’ and can last up to five days, sometimes with no result. Gentlemen shake hands, call it a draw, and retire for a spot of Darjeeling and some cucumber sandwiches. Toodle-pip. Jolly good show. Top hole, old sport.

Incomprehensible jargon or deliciously archaic patois? You be the judge.

‘Coming around the wicket he’s got one to pop,’ says one authority. ‘The cherry has dollied the man at short leg,’ says another. And my favourite: ‘The nightwatchman has played quite an agricultural shot.’

After years of armchair expertise I can follow all of the preceding statements. But how easily do people from non-cricketing nations (i.e. most of the human race) make sense of the game? Cricket has been described as ‘baseball on Mogadon’ and has baffled many an American, Chinese, Russian, French or German head of state forced to endure a session in the interests of international goodwill.

What if the language of cricket could be decoded to endow its commentary with at least the appearance of sense?

I don’t promise that these attempts at explanation will help a novice to follow the game but they might afford entertainment for non-aficionados (i.e. most of the human race). Pardon, gentles all, if I offend any purists.

All-rounder – cricketer who is good at everything: chess, Asian cooking, the banjo, macramé.

Appeal – cricketer who charms everyone equally: men, women, the animal kingdom, the camera lens, theatre critics, juries.

Arm – cricketer’s preparation for unwanted media attention: a credible cover story, sworn statements from witnesses, plausible deniability.

Arm ball – a form of cricket without the use of legs or hands.

Ashes – nickname for the reputation of cricketers featuring too often in celebrity gossip.

Attack – nickname for the media.

Away swinger – see ‘Ashes’.

Back foot – ex-cricketer who has entered politics, possessing contortionist skills that help him to sit on the fence while keeping an ear to the ground

Baggy green – nickname for cricketers who believe in man-made climate change.

Bails – slang for ‘bailed up’. See ‘Attack’.

Bat-pad – bachelor apartment for socially mobile cricketers – see ‘Ashes’.

Batting down to the tail – slang for one of the classic moves used in Arm Ball.

Beamer – nickname for cars driven by All-Rounders.

Beaten – see ‘Ashes’.

Bouncer – witness with a sworn statement. See ‘Arm’.

Boundary – old-fashioned term for apartment of a bounder. See ‘Bat-pad’.

Bowled leg before – classic move used in Arm Ball, especially by wheelchair players.

Bowler – cricketer wearing fancy dress. See ‘Hat Trick’.

Box – one of the skills of an All-Rounder.

Captain’s knock: signal by team captain to alert cricketers the media are descending. See ‘Arm’.

Caught behind – see ‘Back Foot’.

Cherry – see ‘Ashes’.

Chinaman – see All-Rounder, cricketing superheroes who can pass for any nationality.

Chucker – slang for cricketer who has been caught not using Recycle bins. See ‘Baggy Green’.

Clean bowled – see ‘Bowler’.

Clipping the toe – slang for a cricketer caught in flagrante. See ‘Arm’.

Cover drive – slang for using another cricketer’s BMW. See ‘Beamer’.

Dropping a sitter – slang for dating under-age models. See ‘Ashes’.

Duck – slang for ability to charm even avian and aquatic creatures. See ‘Appeal’.

Feathered it – see ‘Duck’.

Follow on – term for copying the alibi of a fellow cricketer. See ‘Arm’.

Found the gap – see ‘Ashes’.

French cut – see ‘Ashes’.

Full toss – see ‘Clipping the toe’.

Gardening – yet another skill of the All-Rounder.

Going down the leg side – see ‘Ashes’.

Good length – see ‘All-Rounder’.

Googly – a cricketer with the ability to use Internet search engines.

Got an edge – a cricketer with his own Indy rock band.

Got some flight – a suitable alibi for indiscretion. See ‘Arm’.

Grubber – nickname for a journalist.

Half-volley – nickname for a sports journalist.

Hat-trick – cricketer prone to wearing fancy dress involving headgear. See ‘Bowler’

Hooking – see ‘Ashes’.

Howzat – name of a famous cricketer, invoked in the spirit of fine sportsmanship.

In the deep – in serious trouble, see ‘Chucker’.

Innings – opposite of outings: cricketers ordered back into the closet.

In-swinger – see ‘Ashes’.

Late cut – withdrawal from team on account of mishandling sheets of A4 paper.

Leg break – penalty for failure in Arm Ball: an unforgiving game.

Leg bye – escaping a Leg Break.

Leg cutter – see ‘Late Cut’

Lofted it – slang for a penthouse apartment. See ‘Bat-pad’.

Middle order specialist – cricketer with experience dining in restaurants.

New ball – slang for ‘Look out, mate.’

Nightwatchman – guard the wicket from thieves who want to take it

Non-striker – couldn’t hit a barn

Off-drive – not an ideal parking effort

Over – When the over is over

Overthrow – Butterfingers

Paceman – Not to be confused with Pac-Man or Pokemon, equally voracious

Pie chucker – Displaying less than finesse in the bowling department

Plumb – what a good boy am I

Popping crease – too much starch in the batsman’s trousers

Runner – A stand-in who moves

Run-out – When a batsman has run out of luck

Seamer – Stitching up a batsman

Sight screen – It’s the large white thing over there

Silly mid-off – You can’t be serious

Silly point – Surely you can’t be serious

Sledging – Is that the best you can do?

Slow wicket – Ask the bowler not to hurry so much

Snick – A snack in South Africa

Stumps – No idea

Sundries – What happens to wickets in India

Taken another maiden – What happens to female groupies

Test – Open book, talking permitted, eighty thousand invigilators

That’s drinks – correct identification of drinks as opposed to things that aren’t

That’s lunch – see ‘Pie Chucker’

Thrown away his wicket – ‘Chucker’

To take spin – see ‘Arm’

To walk – see ‘All-Rounder’

Toss – see ‘Ashes’

Turning wicket – ‘Slow Wicket’

Twelfth man – spare tyre

Two short legs and a silly point – Now you’re just being British

Wicket – what you need to take or lose—or both—in order to win

Wicket maiden – see ‘Bat-pad’

Won the toss and sent them in – you sent them in to get them out

The sun might have set on the British Empire but before then the umpires had called stumps on account of the light. Time for a quick snifter before supper, what? And stumps would be some time between the First and Second World Wars, when England and its allies scored impressive wins in both matches. Let’s face it: the losing side weren’t playing the game. It just wasn’t cricket. But nobody’s eager for a re-match.

A spot of gin and tonic, anyone? Howzat.