John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

We like it vulgar

Returning from a festival of Janeites in Britain, my friend the redoubtable Marie Sprayberry (Best Person when I married Kathleen in 1982) made a present to me of a reprint of The Vulgar Tongue, a dictionary of slang published by Francis Grose in 1785. It is a gem.

Rummaging about in it, I was able to point my son, J.P., the cook, to the entry on cupboard love: “Pretended love to the cook, or any other person, for the sake of a meal.” Now he is alerted to the hazard.

I also came across fice: “A small windy escape backwards [a playful euphemism for fart], more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” Blaming the dog thus has a venerable pedigree.

Fice is also a slang word I recall from my childhood in Kentucky, for a small, inconsequential or irritating mongrel dog. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word derives from fist (pronounced with a long i), for breaking wind. (Cf. feisty.)

The book also describes a useful technique for derailing bores, kittle pitchering: “A jocular method of hobbling or bothering a troublesome teller of long stories; this is done by contradicting some very immaterial circumstance at the beginning of the narration, the objections to which being settled, others are immediately started to some new particular of like consequence; thus impeding, or rather not suffering him to enter into, the main story. Kittle pitchering is often practised in confederacy, one relieving the other, by which the design is rendered less obvious.”

I will now be alert to this strategy.

And to this one: scraping. “A mode of expressing dislike to a person, or sermon, practised at Oxford by the students, in scraping their feet against the ground during the preachment. ...”

And to that one.



19 comments:

  1. You might find some splendid examples of kittle pitchering on Dining@Large. Particularly, the confederate variety.

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  2. We too had a female Best Person, a close friend of mine.

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  3. I can "hear" the origins of "fice/fist", "cupboard love", and "scraping." But I can't figure out the origins "kittle pitchering". What is a kittle, and how does one pitcher? My imagination is failing here...

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  4. Now, John, when you say "Britain" in the first sentence of your post, do you mean "Great Britain" (England, Scotland, Wales)or England, per se? Perhaps you could enlighten us on the difference between the two...?

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  5. 1. Grose -- ideal name for the author of a book on vulgar words -- doesn't much go into etymologies, and I lack the resources at home to discover the origin of kittle pitchering.

    2. Britain is a nation, and England is a part of it. (Ms. Sprayberry was in Bath and Lichfield and other locations in England that I chose not to enumerate.) If I had said that someone went to the United States, without mentioning, say, Maryland, would you also find that worth a quibble?

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  6. And is Marie Sprayberry really redoubtable? How can you be so sure?

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  7. Do you describe yourself as a Janeite? And if so, can one assume you are not using it in a derogatory manner? I had always understood it to be a term of opprobrium.

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  8. So someone's doubting my redoubtability, is he? I believe the penalty for that in the Articles of War is flogging round the fleet. Lash him to the gratings, Mr. McIntyre, and... (Oops. Grabbed C. S. Forester instead of Francis Grose in my excitement.)

    Also, a comment on the England/Britain question: Our "Homes of Jane Austen" tour, sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America, took us no farther west than Bath and no farther north than Lichfield--so, yes, it is technically correct to say that our travels were confined to England, since we did not reach Wales or Scotland. However, in a casual reference such as the present example, I submit that fussing over whether to say "England" or "Britain" is a pretty good illustration of kittle pitchering.

    And, before someone takes me up on this one, we went to Lichfield in homage to Jane Austen's "dear Dr. Johnson's" tercentenary year. Austen had no personal connection with the place.

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  9. You done been kittle-pichered, John McIntyre!(Good work, Anonymous 1, Gordon, Laura.)

    A Marie: Congratulations! You are an expert kittle pitchering spotter...

    BUT England is a country, part of Great Britain,
    which is a United Kingdom. Toss in Austraila, Canada, and assorted other smaller countries and you've got the old Commonwealth.

    AND John, you hispidulous hobbledehoy, you're all wet in comparing the Maryland--state/US--country with Great Britain--united kingdom/England country. The two ain't nohow even anywhere close...If I asked A. Marie what country she travelled in, the answer would be "England." QED

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  10. This round to ye, ye wee canting Sassenach.

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  11. I sat in a classroom for eight hours today. I wish I had known about scraping earlier.

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  12. To respond to Laura Lee's question about the term "Janeites," yes, it is often used to dismiss Austen devotees as Our Ladies of the Tea Cosies who don't want any interference with "their" idea of Jane--or, more recently, as airheaded fangirls of the various film versions (some of which are admittedly lamentable). However, my own experience has been that the further I get into reading the primary source material (the letters, the juvenilia, etc.) and the biographies, the funnier and more tough-minded I find Austen to be--and the more intriguing her extended family and her era become. Try it!

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  13. Meg the color coordinatedAugust 4, 2009 at 8:26 PM

    I thank Marie S for introducing me to this website. Not only is she redoubtable, she may be called indomitable, indefatigable, and other names for Royal Navy ships of the line.

    "Kittle" can mean tickle or perplex in Scots dialect, according to Merriam Webster online.

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  14. My mother (who is now 80) regularly accused her children of cupboard love.

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  15. I can verify that Marie S. is also Implacable and Intrepid. Three cheers for Marie S. and the Royal Navy.

    Hazzah!
    Hazzah!
    Hazzah!

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  16. In my Army Reserve unit, FICE was an acronym that meant "F--- it, close enough." It was used when trying to complete an assignment by an impossible deadline. Come to think of it, I must have used the term during my days as a weekly newspaper editor, too. LOL

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  17. Goodness me. Thanks to all the loyal tars who have nominated me for battleship status. I was briefly considering having "HMS Redoubtable" emblazoned on my stern and having my husband smash a bottle of champagne on my prow--but there probably isn't a tattooist in my orthography-challenged town who could spell the word, and my head's crazy enough as it is without adding concussion to the mix.

    Also, I unaccountably neglected to mention the most celebrated use of the term "Janeite": Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Janeites." (Kipling didn't actually invent the word, but he was certainly its most renowned popularizer.) The story describes a group of soldiers in World War I who use Austen as a means of hanging onto a few scraps of sanity in the trenches. In that context, I regard "Janeite" as a badge of honor. In fact, I regard it as a badge of honor in any context; sneerers be damned!

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  18. Patricia the TerseAugust 8, 2009 at 2:01 AM

    When orchestra players want to applaud one of their own for a solo during a performance, they shuffle their feet back and forth. (Double-bass players are excepted.) I don't know what it's called, but the sound is similar while the intent is different. Apparently context is all.

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