It’s been a cruel day and now it’s late in the evening and I’m taking the opportunity to relax with a bottle of Russell’s Reserve bourbon (created by the good folks at Wild Turkey) and a book of crosswords. I don’t profess to be a connoisseur of corn whiskey and freely admit to buying the stuff simply because I saw my name on the bottle as I cruised the liquor store. Shallow? Perhaps.
But frankly there are many “connoisseurs” out there whose level of sophistication and expertise is inversely proportional to their actual knowledge, and if there is a skill that many Americans are good at it’s called bullshitting. Wine snobs are particularly adept at this. Here, for example, is a snippet from a writer who refers to a piece of research done in 2001 with blind taste testing:
In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.
The phrase “not a single one” is particularly damning considering that all 57 of the subjects considered themselves “experts.” The same goes for “management consultants” who charge enormous fees to tell people what they already know and to spout absolute claptrap using deceptive words and flowery phrases. For years, “guru” Stephen Covey told us that there were the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and built a very profitable empire on selling that to people. Yet then, in 2004, the business wunderkind reveals that there’s an eight habit he’s failed to mention previously. What a crock! I don’t recall his offering to refund folks for their being short changed by the spectacular omission of this critical eighth. Doubtless when the revenue from the eight habits starts to fall, an ninth will suddenly appear and the franchise will once again milk the teat of human credulity. As H.L. Mencken said, “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
So being one of the “great masses” myself, I make no claim to any special skills at identifying and preferring specific bourbons. If it tastes good to me and the cork top comes off with a satisfying “plop,” then that’s all I need to be happy and any doyen or guru of the distilleries can go suck a corn cob.
Which leads me to the fact that as I sipped the Russell’s and worked on the crossword, one of the clues was, “A small pig.” Cruciverbalist that I am (Lover of crosswords, from Latin “crux”=cross and “verbum”=word), my first thought was piglet – a not unlikely choice. Except that it had five blanks. Hmm.
The amount of bourbon I had consumed at this point might have been an excuse for not knowing the answer, but as it turns out, I could have been as sober as a Puritan in a church on National “Drinker’s Go To Hell” day, and still not have remembered the word. Because I didn’t know it! By completing the “across” clues, the five-word “down” answer was revealed as shoat. Naturally, this sent me scurrying for the dictionary and another glass of Russell’s.
The first recorded shoat appeared in a manuscript by Aelfric, the Abbott of Eynsham, written around 1000 CE, where it appears as scoetan and seems to refer to a fish resembling a trout found in Devon and Cornwall in England. A more definite reference to the fishy interpretation comes 600 years later in Richard Carew’s The survey of Cornwall (1602) where he says;
The Shote [is] in a maner peculiar to Deuon and Cornwall, in shape and colour he resembleth the Trowt: howbeit in bignesse and goodnesse, commeth farre behind him.
The best suggestion of the word’s origin is the Old English scéotan, which means “to shoot around” as in movement – a characteristic of fish, and thus by extension to the sceota, or trout.
This is in contrast to the use of the word in 1413 to refer to a pig under one year old. The word seems to be from the same root as West Flemish, which uses schote, schoteling to refer to weaned pigs. Here was the origin of the crossword puzzle answer.
By 1800, shoat had taken on a pejorative air to refer to someone who was estimated as being idle and worthless. In The Clockmaker: The sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1840), Thomas C. Haliburton made a pun when he wrote, “I am the poorest shot in the world. Poorest shote, said he, you mean, for you have no soul in you.”
More recently in 1969, the word shoat was used in Australia to describe the offspring of a sheep and a goat. According to a 1969 “letter to the editor,” writer D.F. Elder said, “Although it has not appeared in print, the radio and television news programmes have also been using the word ‘shoats.’” The New Scientist of 1977 reinforced this meaning; “Hundreds of people have claimed success in breeding shoats or geep.”
Both shoat and geep are portmanteau words – those made from taking two (possibly more) words and squashing them together to make a combine word. The word portmanteau itself derives from Middle French portmanteau < porter=to carry + manteau=mantle.
Currently, the word seems to be languishing in the “where are they now?” category, omitted totally from the ever-popular Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, scoring a measly 8 in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and a pathetic one in the British National Corpus. This might explain why is has also never left its noun status and made a bid for verbiness.
It’s interesting that the Urban Dictionary includes another portmanteau derivation and meaning for shoat; in this case, the words shitty and coat to refer to a really awful coat – a shoat. This particular definition hasn’t made it into the OED but I suppose we can all start lobbying now.