Monthly Archives: June 2009

fanny /’fænɪ/

My wife is addicted to British television chef Gordon Ramsay, whose overuse of the word “fuck” has resulted in him donating all profits made from his show, The F-Word, to a Tourette Syndrome charity. Of course, the show’s title is a double-entendre on the words “food” and “fuck,” and so obvious I wasn’t sure I needed to even mention it.

There’s no doubt that Gordon leverages his use of the word to maintain a certain notoriety, which is turn translates into celebrity, and ultimately into profits. Now there’s magic for you – creating gold from using curse words! If only we could all learn that trick…

Gordon’s obsession with the F-word now includes another; fanny. In 2007, Ramsay introduced a competition to find a new female celebrity cook, someone, he said, to fill the shoes of one of the UK’s earliest cooking icons, Fanny Cradock. In the late 1950’s, Cradock was a regular on TV with her cooking shows, which ran through until 1976.

Fanny Cradock

Fanny Cradock

Thus was born – ostensibly – the Find Me A Fanny contest.

Now, it doesn’t take a linguist to work out that this is another double entendre, as fanny is also British English slang for the female genitals. Its etymology is unknown and makes its debut in 1879 in Early English Poems and Lives of Saints; “You shan’t look at my fanny for nothing.” Using fanny to then refer to the whole woman is an example of synecdoche – using a part to refer to a whole.

Staying below the belt but reversing the orientation, folks in the US use the word fanny to refer to the backside or ass. The OED gives the first such reference as being in Hecht and McArthur’s 1928 The Front Page with the quote; “Parking her fanny in here.” Noel Coward, an English playwright, used it in the American sense in his 1930’s play, Private Lives: “You’d fallen on your fanny a few moment before.”

Fanny

Fanny

The fanny pack in the US is a holdall that is worn at the waist and is supposed to hang behind near your fanny. However, many folks seem to wear it anatomically closer to the UK definition.

Fanny pack

Fanny pack

The word is also used in a nautical sense to refer to a tin that holds anything drinkable. In Hackforth-Jones’ Fair Trade (1952) we find the sentence, “Send a fanny full of hot tea while you are about it. ” In this case, clearly the anatomical references make no sense.

It has also come to be used as a verb in the sense of using glib talk to deceive someone, or to indicate procrastination or avoidance. “Stop fannying about” is a phrase that might be heard in the UK.

Fanny also exists as a girl’s name, which it is suggested derives from Francis meaning “from France.” The name precedes the use of fanny for the female vulva so this may be a possible origin although there is no evidence to link the two.

Interestingly, this nominative use of fanny is the root of the phrase “sweet Fanny Adams” meaning “nothing at all.” It derives from Fanny Adams, a girl who was murdered in 1867 and her body cut into pieces before being scattered. She was butchered to the point that “nothing was left” of her, hence the eponymous phrase. By 1889, sailors were using Fanny Adams to refer to canned meat – which is more indicative of the sense of humor present at the time.

The use of the phrase “sweet FA” as a euphemism for “sweet fuck all” comes later than “sweet Fanny Adams,” which suggests that the folk etymology suggesting “sweet Fanny Adams” is a bowdlerized form (or euphemism) for “sweet fuck all” actually has it backwards – Fanny Adams came first.

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scion /ˈsaɪən/

There are some words that I think I know but either don’t or fail to remember. Scion is one such word. When I hear it or see it in an article, I have to think hard about what it actually means – other than the brand name of a car built by Toyota.

Toyota's Scion logo

Toyota's Scion logo

Its original meaning is a shoot or a twig, coming from the Old French cion, ciun, cyon, or sion. It has been suggested it has some relationship to the Old French, scier, which mean “to saw” but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests this is inconsistent with the other spellings. The Old French in turn derives from the Latin secare meaning “to cut.”

It can also mean a branch used for grafting. The earliest mention is in 1305 where it is spelled siouns, but then goes through a variety of spellings through to the 19th century when the current spelling seemed to set in.

The metaphor of the shoot or bud gave rise to it taking on the meaning of a heir or descendant. In West’s Alicia de Lacy, published in 1814, we see the phrase, “To guard the precious scion of the house. Two years later, Lord Byron, in his poem The Dream wrote, “Herself the solitary scion left Of a time-honoured race.”

For such an old word, it is remarkable that it has never mutated to change from a noun to some other part of speech. It has appeared as scioness to refer specifically to a female scion, but that’s a recent thing (1928) and unnecessary.

According to the British National Corpus, it appears 38 times out of a sample of 100 million words, all of them as a noun. In the list of English words by frequency of use, it comes a piddling 55,818th. Its use on the internet and in print is today dominated by its being used as the name for the Toyota car.

In popular culture, Scion is also the name of a role-playing game from White Wolf Publishing. The premise is that “the players take the role of the half-children of Gods, in the mould of Heracles, blessed with the power of their divine blood and the moral complexity of their mortal lives.” The notion of offspring is clearly the root reason for the name of the game.

And in Eidos’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider series, Lara finds herself in Egypt and finding her way through the Sanctuary of the Scion.

Lara Croft and the Sanctuary of the Scion

Lara Croft and the Sanctuary of the Scion

It’s no secret that the Tomb Raider games are one of my guilty pleasures and amateur psychoanalysts are invited to send me their pocket analyses.

Then again, Xena Warrior Princess is also in the “guilty pleasures” box. Go figure.

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tatterdemalion /ˈtætədɪˌmælɪən/

“This Horse pictur’d showes that our Tatter-de-mallian Did ride the French Hackneyes and lye with th’ Italian.”

So wrote Ben Johnson in his 1611 book Introductory Verses in Coryat’s Crudities. It refers to “a person in tattered clothing; a ragged or beggarly fellow; a ragamuffin” (OED, Vol.XVII, p.664). The word is also found written as tatterdemalion or tatterdemallion.

Tatterdemalion

Tatterdemalion

The first part of the word, tatter, seems to derive from the hypothesised Old Norse word *taturr, which appears in Icelandic as toturr, and Norwegian dialects as totra. The Old French variation is taterles meaning “rags.” In fact, all these versions refer to rags, scraps, and jagged items.

The second part is thought to be a derivative of the Old French, maillot, which refers to swaddling clothes or simply long clothes, according to Spiers and Surenne’s 1863 French and English pronouncing dictionary.  Thus, you get the whole flavor of someone in tattered and torn clothes.

It isn’t a dead word – just not used very often. It scores an admirable 95,900 ghits and James Joyce was happy to toss it into his Ulysses when he said, “Florry Talbot, a blond feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdemalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spreadeagle in the sofa corner, her limp forearm pendent over the bolster, listening.”

Tatterdemalion is also the name of a Marvel comic character, who, according to Marvel’s official website, “Wears Kevlar body armor underneath his outfit. His outfit is coated with a substance that makes it difficult to hold the Tatterdemalion. He has specially designed gloves treated with solvent which dissolves paper and fabrics.”

The OED offers the word tatterdemalionism as a nonce word, which appeared in print in an 1887 edition of Blackwood Magazine in the sentence, “His coat was out at both elbows – it was a kind of defiant tatterdemalionism that the Colonel liked to hug.” It is certainly noncy (occurring, used, or made only once or for a special occasion) and only scrapes together 131 ghits – many of which are simply spam fillers or references to this particular example.

So next time you’re late for a meeting and rush in looking bedraggles, try confusing your colleagues with “So sorry, please excuse my tatterdemalian appearance.” I dare you.

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doppelganger /’dɒplˌgæŋə/

In a blow to my ego, it turns out that I am not the only “Word Guy” on the web. There is another. Even more disheartening is the fact that my doppelganger has been wordy for longer than I. Bummer.

The other “Word Guy” is Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., who has a column distributed by the Creators Syndicate. I checked his “home page” at the site, only to find I couldn’t read his archives due to a huge flash ad covering them!

The word doppelganger derives either from the German doppelgänger or Dutch dubbelgänger, both of which mean “double-goer.” The anglicised form is double-ganger and the OED defines this as the “apparition of a living person; a double, a wraith.” In 1865, Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake, Last of the English, contains the line “Either you are Hereward, or you are his double-ganger.”

Lara's Doppelganger

Lara's Doppelganger

It can also be used simply to described someone who is a double – and not an apparition. Thus, those actors who make a living impersonating famous people (c.f. the Celebrity Doubles web site or the International Celebrity doubles site) can be described as doppelgangers.

The myth of the doppelganger has a counterpart in Norse; the vardøger. This is, according to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, ‘a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance.’ Both words can be said to be “apparitions of the living,” unlike regular ghosts, which are apparitions of the dead.

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feckless /’fɛkləs/

The suffix -less is usually found added to words to mean “without” or “devoid of.” It’s matchless in its ability to help create new words and in the main, it is added to nouns to make adjectives. So if you have hair, but then lose it, you become hairless. If you have brains, but then stop using them, you become – metaphorically – brainless.

And if you have feck but then lose it, you are feckless.

Most folks are aware of the meaning of feckless in relation to people as  “weak, helpless, lacking in vgor.” They may also be familiar with it being applied to objects as beng “ineffective, feeble, futile, valueless.” But they are less likely to know the word feck from which is is derived.

In the 1500’s, it appeared as a dialect word in Scotland and the north of England to mean “the purpose, drift, tenor, or substance of a statement.” It was also used to described “efficacy, efficiency, and value.” This is the obvious root meaning of the word feckless – being devoid of feck.

Actually, it can be seen in Henry the Minstrel’s The actis and deidis of the illustere and vailzeand campioun Schir William Wallace (c1460) in the phrase, “Swa sall we fend the fek of this regioun.” Here it means “amount, quantity… greatest part, practically the whole.”

There is a more obscure meaning that first appears in 1701 – one of the stomachs of a ruminant. This may, in turn, be a variant of the word faik, which can mean “folded,” like the inside of a stomach. Those of you who have ever been subjected to that unappealing delicacy called “tripe” will know exactly what I mean by “folds in the stomach!”

Tripe - folded cow's stomach

Tripe - folded cow's stomach

Feck can also be used as a salng verb for “to steal.” James Joyce uses it in Portrait of an Artist as  Young Man; “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.” This seems to me such a wonderful verb that I am tempted to start using it. Maybe.

The similarity in sound between feck and fuck has also lead to it being used as a euphemism. It inflects in the same way fuck does, hence its value. The Urban Dictionary suggests that this meaning originated in Ireland although this may be due to the frequency of its use in the mid-90’s UK sit-com, Father Ted. I couldn’t find any sources to sat when the euphemistic feck first appeared but it is clearly a phonetic derivation.

Feck Off - a euphemism

Feck Off - a euphemism

It can be used as an adjective, feckful, and even an adverb, feckfully, but the incidence of these words in modern times (20th and 21st centuries) is woefully small. Feckful gets just over 1000 ghits and feckfully just about scrapes together 300, of which many are simply web sites defining the word feck in the first place.

Who would have thought that the word feckless could have been so interesting?

Un-fecking-believable!

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