Mooch

This is going to be a tangled tale, which connects blackberries, a jazz singer, smoke and hares and rabbits.

To me the word mooch (muːtʃ) means to loaf about in a bored manner. However, it appears to have another meaning which is a bit difficult to connect to the first. The word can also mean ‘to scrounge’, ‘to sponge off people’. I assume this is the meaning intended in the song Minnie the Moocher by the US jazzman Cab Calloway.

A third meaning is ‘to play truant’ and this appears to be connected to a now rare word mitch. One of the meanings of this, according to the OED, is To shrink or retire from view; to lurk out of sight; to skulk. This is, I suppose, not too far from the loaf about meaning I started with. The OED says: Apparently < Anglo-Norman muscer, muscier, mucer, mucier, muscher and Old French mucier…

The next twist in the path involves the word meuse (mjuːs or mjuːz), OED: A gap in a fence or hedge through which hares, rabbits, etc., pass, esp. as a means of escape; This apparently is thought to derive ultimately from an unattested Celtic form which gave rise to Irish múch and Welsh mwg, both meaning ‘smoke’, but I for one fail to see the semantic connection.

Ah, and the blackberries. An extended meaning of the ‘play truant’ sense is to bunk off from school in order to pick blackberries. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary gives the meaning ‘a blackberry’, attested in Gloucestershire and Devon.

Good shuts

This post is on behalf of JDL, who wants to know how widely the phrase good shuts is used. It was certainly used in Derby when we were young, but is probably not confined to that area. It doesn’t appear in the OED or in Wright’s dialect dictionary.

It is used in the same way as good riddance is used. So one might say: Good shuts to that idiot!. A word of warning to non-native speakers — it is not very polite!

Chin chin

Please don’t ask how this started, because I can’t remember. Anyhow, the phrase chin chin, admittedly a little outmoded now, popped into my head. There are two distinct meanings in English. One is an alternative for “Cheers!” when drinking. This is also used, as cin cin or cincin, in Italian. I don’t know any other languages that use it.

The other meaning is “Goodbye”. It is used thus in the WW1 song Goodbye-ee:

Goodbye-ee, goodbye-ee,
Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee,
Tho’ it’s hard to part I know,
I’ll be tickled to death to go.
Don’t cry-ee, dont sigh-ee,
There’s a silver lining in the sky-ee,
Bonsoir, old thing, cheerio, chin, chin,
Nah-poo, toodle-oo, Goodbye-ee.

In case you are wondering, Nah-poo is obsolete army slang for “finished”. It is a corruption of French il n’y (en) a plus. In case you are still wondering, toodle-oo is also an old-fashioned farewell greeting, but of unknown origin. It has a variant toodle-pip. You may well have come across some of these words if you have read any of the Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

Well, back to chin chin. I was mightily surprised to find that its origin is the Chinese word qǐng tɕiŋ, which means “please” or “to invite”.

(+ 4)

People really should be careful what they say, you know. Careless talk costs hours of a blogger’s time. In a perfectly conventional conversation the other day somebody made a remark which led to all participants wondering where the name plus fours came from. You can see the offending article on the chappie in the picture.

I ventured the hypothesis that it was because they were 4 inches longer than some other sort of trousers, but my idea met with no enthusiasm. It turns out that is exactly why they were called plus fours. They are four inches below the knee and therefore four inches longer than knickerbockers. (So there!)(where? where?). There are (or were) also models called plus twos and plus sixes apparently.

This discovery led (of course) to yours truly wondering why knickerbockers are called knickerbockers. The name was popularised by Washington Irving (pace Joseph Heller not Irving Washington!). He used it as the name of the fictional author when he wrote, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).

Actually, Washington Irving (and NOT Irving Washington) had a real friend called Herman Knickerbocker, whose ancestor, the wonderfully named Harmen Jansen van Wijhe Knickerbocker, arrived in what was then New Amsterdam in the 1600s and invented the last part of the name and founded the Knickerbocker clan. The word Knickerbocker means (apparently) ‘a baker of clay toy marbles’, but I am not totally sure of this. Anyway, the illustrations to Irving’s book showed traditional Dutch types wearing knee breeches and the name got used for just those knee breeches.

Now call me a stick in the mud if you will (but I’d rather you didn’t), if you’re going to wear shorts (not advisable for about 95% of the adult population of the planet, by the way, in my opinion), then wear shorts. If not, wear trousers, unless you insist on wearing a kilt (see previous parenthesis). These half-mast affairs lead to the wearing of cruel and unusual garments such as argyle socks (see first picture), especially on golf courses (which of course are very silly places. I mean if you insist on getting a very small ball into a very small hole, why not just walk there and drop it in? Why bother with niblicks, and birdies and bunkers and all that piffle?).

On second thoughts…maybe there is a use for half-hearted trousers. A costume consisting of seersucker knickerbockers and a deerstalker hat would do very well for the official garb of the Monster Raving Loony Party (or any of the other political parties for that matter).


Photo credits: Plus fours: Public Domain, Knickerbockers: Riggio Family, used under this licence.

What a sucker!


Credit: Peteski1. Used under this licence.

I have always thought that the study of the names of textiles is a fascinating affair. The textile you can see in the picture is seersucker. Wikipedia says it is: thin, puckered, all-cotton fabric, commonly striped or chequered, used to make clothing for spring and summer wear Apparently, the name derives from the two Persian words sheer (= ‘milk’) and shakar (= ‘sugar’).

In the USA seersucker was traditionally worn by the poor, but in the 1920s the fabric became popular with undergraduate students. Damon Runyon wrote that he had taken to wearing seersucker and that this was confusing his friends: “They cannot decide whether I am broke or just setting a new trend”.


Credit: Siddarth Krish.
Used under this licence.

This post was prompted by an article in today’s Guardian newspaper about the Crufts dog show. One of the competitors (the owner, not the dog) is described as being dressed as Sherlock Holmes, wearing a “tweed seersucker”.

I had always thought that the Holmesian hat was a deerstalker. Boy! Is that some typo!