What Is The Origin Of (267)?…


I am in the process of getting my fourth book, this one is called The Fickle Finger, ready for its forthcoming publication in April and one of the (many) tasks this entails is producing some blurb. By this we mean a short piece, usually no more than a paragraph or so, designed to extol the merits of the book and entice potential purchasers to part with their hard-earned cash. But, why blurb and where did it come from?  

An American scholar by the name of Brander Matthews, to whom some authorities have erroneously attributed the term, spilled the beans in an article on the subject, published by the New York Times on September 24, 1922. “Now and again”, he wrote, “in these columns I have had the occasion to employ the word “blurb”, a colourful and illuminating neologism which we owe to the verbal inventiveness of Mr Gelett Burgess”.

So, how and why?

Prior to the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association in 1907, Burgess had published a book entitled Are You a Bromide? which was selling reasonably well. In conjunction with his publishers, B.W Huebsch, they hatched a plan to give each of the diners at the shindig a special edition of the tome, complete with a specially designed cover. For this Burgess took a picture of a young lady from a dental advert who was in the act of shouting. It was the custom at the time for covers of books to feature young women in an attempt to lure male readers. Burgess called his woman Miss Belinda Blurb and claimed that she had been photographed “in the act of blurbing”.

The jacket proclaimed, ”Yes, this is a “Blurb”! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” The copy then went on to extol the virtues of the book in terms that would make a modern-day publisher blanche. “We consider”, it went on, “that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked int o the coal-bin, telephoning for “Information”…it has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck”. Readers exposed to other blurbs will recognise the superiority of this one, it boasts. After all, “this book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!

Whilst Miss Belinda Blurb sank into obscurity, publishers, who were puffing the wonders of their latest offerings, gratefully took up Burgess’ word and it has never looked back since. Not content to let a good thing go, Burgess cemented its place in the jargon of the book publicist and with a wider audience by defining it in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, published in 1914. Blurb as a noun was defined as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial” with a secondary definition of “fulsome praise; a sound of a publisher”, while blurb as a verb was described as “to flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself”.  

Burgess wasn’t just content with introducing blurb to the unsuspecting world. Bromine was used at the time as a sedative but the noun a bromide, used in the title of his book, was an invention of his. Burgess defined it as someone “who does his thinking by syndicate and goes with the crowd”, ensuring that he is trite, banal, and arbitrary. The antonym to a bromine, he posited, was a Sulphite.

Bromides and Sulphites as descriptors for human traits didn’t make the same impression as blurb and have all but vanished. When I put the finishing touches to my book’s blurb, I will give thanks to Gelett Burgess.

Book Corner – January 2020 (5)

Sir Humphrey of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan

This is the second of a series of five books, all reissued last year by Farrago, chronicling the life and times of Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, and the motley collection of eccentrics who populate the village of Batch Magna, supposedly on the border of Shropshire and Wales and nestling on the banks of the River Cluny. I found this one even more enjoyable than the first, perhaps because I had got to know the main characters.

There is not much in the way of a plot, rather it is a collection of episodic events which sort of fit into a satisfying whole. What it lacks in overall structure is made up for by Maughan’s gentle, occasionally ribald, humour and his understanding and lyrical descriptions of the countryside in this wonderful part of the world. He portrays a sleepy village, where not much generally happens but where, occasionally, the ugly realities of the modern world intrude, only to be batted back by the resourceful residents, keen to preserve their idyllic way of life.

The book opens on the day of Humph’s wedding, to the Honourable Clementine Wroxley, or Clem to her friends. They settle down to life at the Manor but their finances, and that of the estate, are on a knife-edge. The village’s spinster and amateur sleuth, Miss Wyndham, in her search for a rare flower which will make her reputation at the local nature society, discovers some badger baiters in the act of digging up a set. She summons assistance and Humph and local heavy, Sion Owen, have a set to with the miscreants. We will meet them later in the book.

Clem discovers to her horror that she has lost a jewel that has been in the Strange family for over 400 years and according to family lore if it was ever lost, that would be curtains for the family and the estate. As if on cue, the estate’s finances take a dip as the pheasants contract a disease and the river becomes so polluted that the fish begin to die. It seems that the only way out of the Strange’s predicament is to sell the estate putting an end to the rural idyll. Naturally, there is a willing buyer.

I won’t spoil the resolution of the book but, suffice it to say, it involves the badger baiters and the plucky spirit and investigative nous of Miss Wyndham. Her appetite for detective fiction gives her clues as to how to act when she finds herself in a dangerous situation.

One of the funniest parts of the book features the disastrous attempts of local ne’er do well and crime writer, Phineas Cook, to launch a punt business offering romantic, moonlit trips along the Cluny to gullible outsiders. I particularly like the Commander with his collection of glass eyes for all occasions and one who is always up for a jolly. Much alcohol is consumed during the course of the book, lots of wine and, of course, pints of the local firewater, Sheepsnout.

A glorious romp and well-paced. I would encourage you to discover the charms of the rural backwater that is Batch Magna.

Fish And Chip Ship Of The Week

It’s one of the awards I eagerly look out for every year, the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year. This year the judges decided that as fish and chip shops go, based on the quality of food served, sustainability, menu innovation, catering for special dietary requirements, customer service and marketing activity, the Cod’s Scallops in Wollaton, near Nottingham, was the dog’s bollocks.

Congratulations to John and Helen Molnar, their hard work has been duly recognised. If I’m ever in the area, I will seek them out.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Four

The Mount Edgecumbe eruption hoax, 1974

If you are going to pull off a hoax, you need to plan meticulously and to bide your time to make the maximum impact. This is what serial prankster, Oliver “Porky” Bickar managed to do with considerable aplomb in 1974.

Mount Edgecumbe is a 3,202-feet-tall volcano which overlooks the Alaskan town of Sitka across the sound. As far as anyone knew it had been dormant for some 400 years or so it was a bit of a shock to the residents to see on Monday April 1, 1974 a pall of black smoke coming from its apex. Was an eruption imminent, they wondered? Denizens of Sitka crowded on to the streets to see what was going on and the local authorities were inundated with calls.  

Bickar had first conceived of his jape some three years earlier and had spent the time waiting for the right weather conditions profitably, stockpiling old tyres, a gallon of a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol which burns in its can, trademarked as Sterno, diesel oil, rags, and smoke bombs. Miraculously, on April Fool’s Day the weather conditions were perfect for Bickar to pull off his stunt. But how was he going to get his stockpiled equipment to the summit?

He called his friend, Earl Walker, who owned a helicopter but was fog-bound in Petersburg. When Bickar told him what he planned to do, Walker was enthusiastic and promised to get to Sitka just as  soon as weather conditions permitted. Whilst waiting, Bickar made two rope slings about 150-feet long, each capable of holding around fifty tyres. He also enlisted the help of two accomplices, Larry Nelson and Ken Stedman, and when Walker finally arrived, they loaded the chopper with their equipment and flew off to the crater.

When they got there, they dropped seventy tyres and some smoke bombs into the crater, set them alight and spray-painted in letters 50-feet high “April Fool” in the surrounding snow. Not wanting to create a major panic, Bickar had forewarned the local Police authorities and the Federal Aviation Authority of his intended jape. When Walker contacted the FAA for permission to return to Sitka, the controller is reported to have said, “I’ll bring you in as low and inconspicuously as possible…and, by the way, the son of a gun looks fantastic”.      

But Bickar had neglected to contact the Coast Guard, who seeing the plumes of smoke coming from the top of the supposedly dormant volcano, contacted the Admiral stationed at Juneau, who thought they had better send a helicopter to investigate. As the pilot neared the volcano who could see the source of the smoke, not volcanic ash but a heap of burning tyres and then, of course, the message confirming that it was all a hoax.

When news reached Sitka that the plume was a hoax, the locals, initially relieved, saw the funny side and admired Bickar’s chutzpah. Even the Coast Guard saw the funny side and when he met the Admiral at the Fourth of July parade later that year, Bickar was told that he thought it was a classic. And news of the prank spread like wildfire, picked up initially by the Associated Press and accounts appearing in newspapers around the world. Alaskan Airlines ran an advertising campaign highlighting the spirit of the locals and their sense of fun. Bickar’s hoax was featured and the brief account ended with him saying, “I dare you to top that April Fool’s joke”.     

The volcano is still dormant.

There was one amusing postscript. When, in 1980, Alaska’s Mt. St Helens erupted, Bickar received a clipping from the Denver Post of the volcano and a letter from a lawyer which read, “This time, you little bastard, you’ve gone too far”.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


Whoopee Cushion Of The Week

Snooker came into its own as a televised sport with the advent of colour transmission. The changeover was gradual and not without its difficulties, prompting Ted Lowe’s infamous gaffe, “for those of you are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”. For some reason, it’s not my cup of tea, its premier events still hog the broadcasting schedules.

Proceedings were brightened up during the fifth frame of the Masters Snooker Final at Alexandra Palace last Sunday when both Ali Carter and Stuart Bingham were distracted by a noise when they were addressing the ball. The referee, Brendan Moore, stopped play and ordered a search of the arena.

While the search went on, the farting noise continued. Eventually the source of the noise was uncovered, an electronic whoopee cushion under a seat but activated remotely. It was removed, to the amusement of the crowd. According to tournament director Mike Ganley, they had had a similar incident earlier in the week and were on the look out for similar devices. Not hard enough, by the sound of it.

Oblivious to the irony of his statement, he went on to say, “It has been a magnificent week at Alexandra Palace and players and spectators alike have enjoyed the atmosphere and great new facilities, so we want to avoid any repeat”.

Surely that is what whoopee cushions do?

Cake Of The Week

News has reached me that members of the wittily named Bakers Association of Kerala (BAKE) have just smashed the world record for the longest cake in the Keralan city of Thrissur. The previous record holder was a cake made in China in 2018 which was a measly 1.98 miles long.

Hundreds of bakers from the state descended on the city and baked away. The result of their endeavours, a vanilla cake, four inches wide and thick, weighing around 27,000 kilograms and topped off with a chocolate ganache, was stretched out on thousands of tables and desks.

The icing on the cake when a representative from Guinness World Records measured it at 5,300 metres, or 3.29 miles in old money, comfortably claiming the record.

I assume it was then eaten. There would have been plenty to go around.

What Is The Origin Of (266)?…

To turn up one’s toes

There are very few certainties in life. Christopher Bullock nailed it down in the Cobbler of Preston, published in 1716, when he noted, “’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”, predating Benjamin Franklin’s more famous coining of the phrase by some seventy-three years. Some of us, though, are able to evade even taxes and so we are left with one absolute certainty, death itself. It is no wonder, therefore, that our wonderful language has myriad phrases to describe this one absolute certainty of our mortal state. Wikipedia lists 142 synonyms and I’m sure there must be more.

One such is to turn up one’s toes which is an abbreviated form of the longer to turn up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies, a reference to the dead person’s lying in a grave and mingling with the soil and the flora of the cemetery. Other variants around this rather picturesque theme include under the daisies and to push up the daisies.

One of the themes that comes through from these etymological searches is how often words and phrases that appear to have their origin in Ireland migrate to the United States. The Irish migrants may have brought with them little in the way of worldly possessions but they did not forget their often charming turn of phrase and inventive vocabulary.

English newspapers in the 1830s, for some unaccountable reason, had a thing about printing epitaphs from Irish graves. I suppose it filled up space on a slow news day. The Courier, in its edition of August 28, 1830 under the heading of From a Tombstone in Ballyporeen Churchyard, published the following lines of verse; “here at length I repose-/ And my spirit at aise is-/ with the tips of my toes,/ and the point of my nose,/ turn’d up to the roots of the daisies”. The same verse, with variations in spelling and title, appeared in a number of other journals over the following year or so. We can only conclude that its homely platitudes gave some comfort, and perhaps amusement, to the papers’ readership.

The Chartist movement later that decade gave the political stage to the working class and it is no surprise that their idioms peppered their oratory. The Manchester Guardian on May 4, 1839 included the following from an address given by a Chartist in Bolton; “..whether they must go to the Abbey side, where their ancestors lay, as the Irish say, with their toes turned up to the roots of the daisies”. It would be dangerous to take this as proof-positive of the phrase’s Irish origin but, at least, that seems to be what contemporaries thought.

It was also used adjectivally in a racy and slang-filled account of a lion hunt penned by one Captain G. Grenville Malet in the New Sporting Magazine on August 18, 1841. “We at length, by severe peppering, made him cut his lucky, and found him toes up within a few yards”. Poor lion but at least it found some sort of immortality.

When it had crossed the pond to America it had been abbreviated to to turn one’s toes up, appearing in this form in print in The Sun from Baltimore on August 12, 1852 in an account of the massacre by so-called coolies of the crew of the American ship, the Robert Browne. One coolie helped himself to the ship’s medicine chest with disastrous consequences as the paper reported; “about three hours afterwards he turned his toes up!

Neither my toes, nor more nose for that matter, will push up the daisies, other than in granular form, as I have elected to be cremated, but if my body was laid to rest, I would find some solace in knowing I would be enriching the soil.