The Ecphorizer

Tag, Rag, and Bobtail
John Cumming

Issue #05 (January 1982)

A short guide to interpreting things your parents and grandparents said

Being a review, 57 years late, of A Desk Book of Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases by Frank H. Vizetelly and Leander J. DeBekker.

Not a proper dictionary, of course, but a fascinating snapshot of the state of things in 1923, the Desk Book is one of those

How to distinguish the Codfish Aristocracy from the Duchess of Puddledock.

books that is worth reading cover to cover. This work illustrates definitions by quotes from printed sources, a practice I suppose to have begun with Sam Johnson, and which certainly enriches the work.

[quoteright]Consider the definition for "grippe" or "grip" (influenza or epidemic catarrh). The illustrative quote is from the New York Tribune Feb. 5, 1892, page 6, col. 6. "In (President) Jackson's day his opponents called the disease 'Jackson's Itch,' and Tyler's opponents called it the 'Tyler grippe,' . . . .The Russians call it Chinese catarrh, the Germans often call it the Russian pest, the Italians call it the German disease, the French call it the Italian fever and the Spanish catarrh. The Italians invented the term influenza in the seventeenth century and attributed the disease to the influence of certain planets."

Emergent social and commercial trends are inadvertently reflected in words like groceteria, "A grocery store where the customers wait on themselves and pay for the goods they need as they pass out," (something we see more often today as the shock of inflation hits home).

I would assume that the expression "best man" has always been universal, but the definition given implies that the term was just emerging from regional use. "Best man. The groomsman at a wedding. 'The two bridegrooms entered, accompanied each by his friend, or best man, as this person is called in Scotland.' Eliza Acton St. Johnstoun, III, 90."

Words reflective of class distinctions and manners are a mine of curiosities.

Tag, rag, and bobtail. The rabble or common herd; the mob or hoi polloi.

Great unwashed. The rabble, the poorer classes: so stigmatized by Burke. 'We begin to understand what is meant by the lowest classes, the great unwashed.' Sidney Watson Wops the Waif, III.

Puddledock, Duchess of. n affected or conceited woman: a contemptuous title, in reference to a muddy slope down which horses were led to be watered at the river Thames in London.

Codfish aristocracy. Those persons who, lacking in culture, make a vulgar display of lately acquired wealth: formerly applied to families said to have grown rich out of the fisheries of Massachusetts, where the "sacred codfish" hangs in the State-house. "We should regard it as somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order." Mr. Butler of South Carolina in U. S. Senate, July 6, 1850.

Beerocracy, which we might assign today to the lower, or vulgar, drinking classes, is defined as the British brewing and beer-selling interests, whose leading men, on being called to the House of Lords, were said to have been "raised to the Beerage." The World London, Jan. 19, 1881.

"Chained lightning" is tersely defined as "whiskey of the worst grade." Among other, unrelated definitions, "life-preserver" is given as "A spirit flask."

Fools have their day in this bock:

Bauble. A short baton with an ass's head and ears at one end carried by licensed jesters. (Even in those days government was getting too big.)

Beans are in flower. The silly season is here: attributed to the proverb "When beans are in flower fools are in full strength," from the belief that the perfume of the bean-flower affected the brain, producing light-headedness.

Towards more picturesque speech, the following words are presented in the Desk Book as meaning "A thing": thingamy, thingumajig, thingumbob, thingummy. "Tum-tum" is variously defined as (Anglo-Indian and Brit. Colonial) a dog cart; (U. S. Chinook) the heart; (slang) the stomach; (West Indian) a dish of plantains, boiled and made into a cake or pudding; a tom-tom; or to strum on a stringed instrument or drum.

"Reptile press" is "the subsidized newspaper-press and the periodicals that sell their news columns and editorial influence, given vogue by Bismarck ('reptilien Presse') during a speech in the Reichstag, Feb. 9, 1876.

Other definitions reflect the bitterness left over from the Great War that followed the collapse of Bismarck's shrewd, if brutal, statescraft.

Frightfulness. A method of conducting warfare characterized by brutality and terrorism as practiced by German armies in the War of 1914-18: from the German word schrecklichkeit.

Kultur. The organized efficiency of a nation. "The right translation of kultur seems to be everything in organized civilization except culture. For true culture the Prussian has no use - he despises and dislikes it; its opposite, which is aggressive war, he thinks noble and exhilarating." Sir Oliver Lodge The War and After.

To find such bitterness nested a casual reference book like this was a surprise.

And in conclusion, a few oddities:

Nunks, nunky. (Brit. Colloq.) Uncle. -- Nunky pays. The Government pays.

Best bib and tucker. Best clothes. "The fair Bruces were flaunting in their best bibs and tuckers." R. M. Bird Nick of the Woods, i, 33.

Dick. A corruption of declaration: used in "to take one's dick."

Cat-whipper. An itinerant trader, preacher or teacher who boarded around.

To turn up one's toes to the daisies. To die and be buried. 

More words about words appear this month from the pen of John Cumming. John has embarked on a binge of acquiring off-beat dictionaries, and promises us new bits of work trivia in future issues.

More Articles by John Cumming

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