What Is The Origin Of (227)?…


These days we use the term copper-bottomed to describe something that is certain, genuine, trustworthy and unlikely to fail. The derivation of our phrase is equally copper-bottomed. It is all to do with the treatment of ships.

In the days of wooden ships, maintenance was a considerable headache. The activities of one creature in particular, Toredo worms, were positively migrainous. These saltwater clams have a particular appetite for boring into wood which has been immersed in seawater. Over time, of course, if their actions are not detected or treated, then the wood can disintegrate, causing a bit of a problem if you are sailing the seven seas.

To counteract the problem, the British Navy, in 1761, started a process of adding copper plating to the underside of the hulls of their ships. So, the ships were literally copper-bottomed. By March 1781, at least according to the London Magazine who reported the rather self-satisfied remarks of Admiral Keppel, it was job done, despite the laggardly behaviour of Lord Sandwich; “he reproached Lord Sandwich with having refused to sheath only a few ships with copper at his request, when he had since ordered the whole navy to be sheathed.”

There were other benefits to this enhancement to the engineering of the fleet of the British navy. Their copper bottoms meant that the speed through which they travelled through the water increased and their manoeuvrability was enhanced, both features contributing to the fleet’s naval hegemony.

But there was a down-side, isn’t there always?

The copper plates were often attached to the hulls using iron nails. The combination of copper and iron together with seawater creates the perfect conditions for something called electro-chemical corrosion, where electrons from other compounds are attracted to the ions in the metal allowing the seawater to corrode the metal. This was almost as dangerous to the mariners as worm-infested timbers and so to resolve the problem iron nails were replaced by copper ones in a process known as copper-fastening.

In the late 18th century a boat which was copper-bottomed and copper-fastened was the real deal. For confirmation of this statement you only have to look at the Hull Advertiser for July 9th 1796 where it announces, “she is copper-fastened and copper-bottomed, and a remarkable fine ship.

It was not too much of a stretch to see how copper-bottomed could move from a prosaic description of the features, and thereby enhanced seaworthiness, to a figurative sense of trustworthy, genuine or reliable. One of the first instances of its usage in a figurative sense appeared in the satirical periodical created by Washington Irving and his brother, William, called Salmagundi; or the Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff & Others. Launched at the start of the 19th century Irving used it to lampoon New York culture and politics. In the edition of May 16th 1807 he wrote, “..except by the celebrated eagle, which flutters his wings over the copper-bottomed angel at messrs. Paff’s in Broadway.

Irving was clearly on a roll that year, ascribing in the edition for November 11th the name, well known to aficionados of Batman, of Gotham to New York, apparently as an analogy to the supposed stupidity of the residents of a village in Nottinghamshire by the same name. In 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in the Ebb-Tide, which he co-authored with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, “The real, first-rate, copper-bottomed aristocrat.

The term was sufficiently established in the vernacular by 1890 to appear in Slang and its Analogues, a seven volume meisterwerk compiled by J S Farmer and W E Henley. There they helpfully define the term thus; “in mercantile circles, the expression has become popularly current, in a figurative sense, to signify the highest commercial credit; and first-class, first-rate.

Copper-fastened, a different technique, as we have seen, has also been used figuratively but not until the middle of the 20th century. The Evening Independent in November 1848 wrote; “we had some striking examples of what happens when a guy gets so big for his britches that any pal of his is automatically a copper-fastened genius.” The sense seems to slightly different, denoting certainty rather than trustworthiness.


Book Corner – April 2019 (3)

Best detective stories of Cyril Hare

One of the joys of the sort of crime anthologies that the inestimable Martin Edwards compiles is that you come across a wide range of writers, some of whom you are happy to have encountered on that one occasion but there are others whom you wish to explore further. Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of the English barrister, judge and crime writer, Gordon Clark, taken from the name of his Chambers, Hare Court, and his house in Battersea, Cyril Mansions, is one of the latter.

This collection of thirty short stories, some very short, was originally published in 1959 and in America appeared under the title of Death Among Friends. Many of the stories were written for the London Evening Standard in the days when newspapers and magazines dd their bit to foster and develop literary talent. Your fish and chips were wrapped up in a better quality of writing in those days.

What I liked about Hare is that he wrote with a certain panache, a pinch of humour, his plots generally held together and quite often there was a clever twist at the end. To a greater or lesser degree most of the stories in this collection exhibit some or all of these qualities and there are very few duds and most stand the test of time.

For me the one that didn’t was a story called The Rivals, a tale of two suspects, both romantically associated with a girl who is murdered. Both point the finger of suspicion at each other. The identity of the murderer is revealed in the final paragraph and, to be fair, the clues had been signposted during the narrative but you would have had to have had a detailed knowledge of what shoes a chap wore to dances at the time to crack it.

The funniest was The Tragedy of Young McIntyre in which a young, struggling barrister sues his voice coach for ruining his voice. The plot, of course, is absurd but Hare rescues what could have easily been a farce with some aplomb. Some knowledge of the laws of testacy wouldn’t come amiss for the opener, Miss Burnside’s Dilemma, but it has a clever and slightly surprising ending, which sets the scene nicely for what is to come.

In very broad terms, the book falls into three parts; stories involving the law and principally wills, good old-fashioned murder and what might be lumped together as miscellaneous crimes, the latter having more than their fair share of Hare’s characteristic black humour. Perhaps the most atmospheric, ghostly and even bizarre tale was A Life for A Life in which a World War One gas victim has an attack brought on by a pea-souper of a fog and is saved by a pharmacist who died a long time ago.

I am a fan of closed room mysteries and I enjoyed Weight and See which demonstrated that there are some advantages to being overweight. Inevitably, Hare’s most famous lawyer cum detective, Francis Pettigrew, makes an appearance in a couple of the stories and a number are set in his stomping ground of Markhampton. The Children of the Week stories, whilst all insubstantial, were clever and showcase Hare’s technique to good effect.

As always with these collections, there are some stories which are better than others but they are all short enough not to feel you have wasted too much time if you don’t like them.

Double Your Money – Part Forty

Titanic Thompson (1893 – 1974)

Titanic Thompson, born Alvin Clarence Thomas, was a larger than life figure, born to gamble, the more unlikely and remarkable the wager the better, so much so that separating the apocryphal from the kosher in his long and inglorious career takes some doing. Take his nickname, Titanic. It wasn’t because he escaped Davy Jones’ locker whilst a passenger on the ill-fated liner by dressing as a woman, as some sources suggest. No, it relates to the reaction to another of his outlandish bets.

After a hard day’s work hustling in a pool hall called Snow Clarks in Joplin, Missouri in 1912, he noticed a sign offering “$200 to any man who jumps over my new pool table.” This was a challenge Thompson could not refuse, even though the table was nine feet long, 30 inches off the floor and 4.5 feet wide. No one believed he could do it and so he had many willing takers for the best. Thompson left the room and came back ten minutes later dragging an old mattress which he put on the other side of the table, where he was to land.

Thompson performed a prodigious leap head first, doing a flip, clearing the table and landing on his back on the mattress. As he was collecting his winnings, someone asked the proprietor his name. “I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be Titanic”, the hall owner said, “He sinks everybody.” The name stuck and Titanic set out on a peripatetic gambling career, targeting the rich, famous and anyone brave or foolish enough to take him on at golf, dice, pool, poker, coin-flipping or to accept his outlandish challenges.

Titanic was ambidextrous when it came to playing golf, although he was naturally left-handed. He challenged an amateur, who regularly carded a gross score of 90, to a game. Playing right-handed he lost a close game. Inevitably, Titanic challenged the amateur to a double or quits game and to make it easier for the amateur Titanic would play left-handed. Of course, he won with a score of 80.

Thompson once bet that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards at a time when even the best golfers could only achieve around 300 yards. There were a lot of takers for this wager. Allowed to select his golf course, Titanic chose a tee on a hill overlooking a lake at Long Island. The lake was frozen. He struck the ball towards the lake, where it landed and slid and skidded for at least the requisite distance.

You had to read the small print when you struck a bet with Titanic. Irritated by a particularly obnoxious boxer, he bet the champion $1,000 that he could not knock him out while they both stood on the same piece of newspaper. This seemed too good to be true and the boxer accepted the challenge. Thompson laid a copy of the Spring Valley Herald across the threshold of the door, shut the door with him on one side and the increasingly frustrated boxer on the other.

Titanic was also known to play fast and loose with the rules. Horseshoe throwing was a popular sport at the time and the standard distance between the point where the thrower stood and the ring was forty feet. A champion pitcher, Frank Jackson, had issued an open challenge to all-comers with a prize of $10,000. Thompson challenged him and Jackson was astonished to find that his usually unerring throws were falling a foot short. Naturally, Thompson had set the ring forty-one feet away from the line.

A similar trick was played with sign posts. Returning to from a fishing trip to Joplin with a couple of inveterate gamblers, they noticed some workmen erecting a sign saying it was 20 miles away. The next time the trio passed the sign, Titanic wagered the pair that it was only 15 miles away. The bet was accepted, the odometer was studied, and, lo and behold, the distance was 15 miles. Thompson scooped the pot. Of course, he had had the sign moved!

He liked to throw a piece of fruit over a building. After the bet was struck an adjacent fruit seller would pass a weighted piece of fruit to Titanic and the feat was accomplished. He even hooked in Al Capone. Scarface wanted to investigate the lemon before it was thrown and only sleight of hand enabled Titanic to show him a real lemon before throwing the doctored fruit.

Damon Runyon, a writer, wanted to write a story about Thompson’s exploits but was rebuffed on the basis that Titanic’s occupation wasn’t conducive to publicity. In retaliation Runyon based Sky Masterton in a story that later became Guys and Dolls on him.

But there was a seamier side to Titanic. During his career he killed five men, four of whom were in self-defence. He is a subject I shall return tom no doubt.

If you enjoyed this, why not try out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin fone


What Is The Origin Of (226)?…


There’s one thing being careful with your money but being excessively parsimonious for the sake of it is another. We have all met them and when we become exasperated with their meanness, we call them a skinflint.

The term has a long pedigree and probably originates from the argot of thieves, developed to prevent or at least frustrate those who wanted to listen into their conversations. It is defined, helpfully for us, in that wonderful testament to the secret expressions of England’s demi-monde, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, compiled by the almost anonymous B.E in 1699, although he did own up to being a gentleman. Skin-flint, he wrote, is “a griping, sharping, close-fisted Fellow.

The idea is simple enough and takes the form of an exaggerated image of parsimony. Someone is so tight that he would even try to remove the used layer of a flint stone so that he could use it anew. The use of skinning a flint as a metaphor was certainly in currency in the 17th century and not just among the lower orders of society. A Welsh clergyman, David Lloyd, wrote a satirical poem about the exploits of Captain John Smith – we met him last week when we were trying to get a word in edgeways – in 1631; “this were but petty hardship. Jones was one/ would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done.

Flints were used as a means of getting a spark to fire the gunpowder in an old rifle. After a number of firings, the flint would wear out. The majority of riflemen would simply replace the flint but some in a display of parsimony under duress would simply get out their knife and sharpen their flint once more. This practice has led at least one etymologist to surmise that it is the origin of our term. I suspect, though, it is merely a prosaic example of the behaviour of a skinflint rather than the origin of the term, not least because its usage in relation to this practice cannot be attested or dated.

The French had a wonderful, and slightly earlier, phrase for describing an act of meanness, tondre sur un oeuf, which became slightly abbreviated to tondre un oeuf. The, presumably, metaphorical practice of shaving an egg was brought to the attention of the English by Randle Cotgrave in his 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. There he gave one of the definitions of the phrase as “to make a commoditie of any thing, how bare souer it be.” Perhaps the English just replaced an egg with a flint.

The concept of what to most people would seem a futile exercise as a metaphor for meanness took hold and generated a few, even more picturesque variants. The English author, John Davis, wrote about his adventures in the United States at the turn of the 19th century in Travels of four years and a half in the United States of America, published in 1803. He clearly wasn’t impressed, particularly when he encountered a mean lot in New Jersey; “you New Jersey Men are close shavers; I believe you would skin a louse.

A variant was to skin a flea which cropped up in William Faux’s Memorable days in America, published in 1823; “Coals are few and our captain stingy, being one of those Yankees (says our first mate) who, in the Southern States, are said to skin a flea for the sake of its hide or tallow.” This phrase cropped up again in The Weekly Courier and Journal of Natchez in Mississippi in August 1840; “is mean enough to steal chickens from a hospital or skin a flea for its tallow.

Alas, these phrases seem to have dropped out of use but they have encouraged me, at least, to be more imaginative in the terms I use to describe the next skinflint I encounter.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Five

Why are most display watches set to ten past 10?

I have been thinking about buying a new watch over the last few weeks. With the ubiquity of mobile devices such as smart phones, there is something anachronistic about feeling you need something on your wrist for you to consult if you need to know what time it is. At my time of life, I hardly need the chronological precision that a decent watch gives me to regulate my activities. Sometimes I barely know what day it is.

But old habits die hard. For over half a century I have had a timepiece strapped to my left wrist and on the occasions I have not worn one, either because I have forgotten to put it on or it has broken, I somehow feel under-dressed. It is a kind of comfort blanket and wear one I will continue to do.

What struck me as I browsed at jewellers’ window displays and catalogues was that invariably those watches which had a conventional face as opposed to those digital abominations were invariably photographed as showing the time as ten past 10 or, for those manufacturers showing a rebellious streak, ten to 2. Why was that, I wondered?

It has not always been thus. Back in the 1920s and 30s watches were invariably set to 8:20. The Hamilton Watch Company bucked the trend in 1926 when their watches in advertisements showed the time as 10:10. Rolex followed suit in the 1940s and Timex, with their Marlin model in 1953, began to move their advertisements to the now accepted default time. Other manufacturers bowed to peer pressure and by the 1960s ten past 10 it was.

The reasons for the transition are quite easy to understand and it is all about presenting the watch to its best advantage. The hands are symmetrical, a look most people find more appealing than an asymmetrical one, and the two hands, as well as not overlapping so that they can be admired, allow the manufacturer’s logo, usually placed immediately below the figure of 12, to be seen clearly. The lower part of the face, where other features of the watch such as the date and day of the week are displayed, is unobstructed. The clincher is that the V-shape that the hands make represent a smile, a happy face, whereas the inverted V of 8:20 looks like a frown. And we all respond positively to a smile, don’t we?

Marketeers have long been associated with the dark arts, so is there a deeper, psychological reason behind the portrayal of watches? To answer this question we need to look at some research conducted by Ahmed Karim, Britta Lutzenkirchen, Eman Khedr, and Radwa Khalil, reported in the August 2017 edition of Frontiers in Psychology.

The first of their experiments involved showing a group of people pictures of twenty watches, with their faces set at one of the following settings, 10:10 (the happy face), 8:20 (the sad face) and 11:30, the latter selected because it was neutral and had no associations with human physiognomy. In what the uncharitable may view as a scientific demonstration of the bloomin’ obvious, the results showed that the happy face setting elicited greater feelings of pleasure amongst the viewers than the other two settings.

Perhaps of greater interest was the finding that the sad face setting did not affect feelings one way or the other. For those keen to understand the differences between the sexes, the research showed that the female participants registered stronger expressions of pleasure from the 10:10 setting than did their male counterparts. The researchers thought that this was in line with earlier studies in which women were shown to be better at recognising facial expressions and empathising with them than men.

Showing the watch faces alongside pictograms of happy and sad faces confirmed the assumption that the upturned V-shape was associated with a smile and the inverted V with a frown. However, the good vibes generated by the cheerful 10:10 setting were not strong enough to convince the participants to buy, although the inclination to buy was stronger than that generated by the other settings.

I think the case for any deeper psychological significance in the face display is unproven. In any event, if you are presented with a page of smiling watch faces on a page, the good feelings engendered by one are neutralised by the same feelings that come from the others, forcing you to make your selection based on other criteria.

So, the answer is simply a case of aesthetics, one that has clearly stood the test of time.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


Book Corner – April 2019 (2)

Friends and Heroes – Olivia Manning

The opening of Friends and Heroes, published in 1965, the final book of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, finds Harriet Pringle safely in Athens, waiting for her husband, Guy, to join her from Bucharest, which has now been occupied by the Nazis. As Athens is the acknowledged escape route for the ex-pats who frequented the Romanian capital, inevitably many of the characters we came across in the first two books reappear.

It is the comical rogue, Prince Yakimov, who first gives Harriet the news that Guy has arrived safely in Greece. Harriet warms to Yakimov, whom in the earlier books she had treated with disdain, and he grows into something of a confidant. Greece soon comes under attack from the Italians and by the end of the book the Pringles are on the run again, last seen on a boat entering Egyptian waters.

But the war is just a rumble in the background of this story. It is a device to allow characters, many of whom we have met before, appear and disappear as quickly from the story without too much explanation. There is, of course, the diurnal concern of whether they are safe from invasion or incarceration and how they might effect their escape when necessary but it is mood music rather than the heart of the book.

What the book does do is continue the exploration of the state of the Pringles’ marriage. If it wasn’t apparent before, in Athens Harriet realises that Guy is naïve and generous to a fault. His generosity to others is exploited without him receiving anything in return. Cases in point are Toby Lush and Dubedat. Guy had bent over backwards to find the duo employment in the university in Bucharest. They scarpered when the going got tough but when Guy caught up with them in Athens, they did everything they could to thwart his desire to find employment teaching at the British School.

Harriet, less educated than Guy but more worldly-wise, gets frustrated with her husband’s inability to come to terms with the reality of their situation and how his so-called friends are using him. What adds to her frustration is Guy’s inability or unwillingness to see her as a separate individual. Rather Guy sees Harriet as just an extension of his own persona.

Inevitably, these tensions lead to Harriet becoming disillusioned with her marriage and left alone for more time than she deems reasonable, her fancies start to roam. A handsome officer, temporarily stationed in Athens, Charles Warden, takes her fancy. They start a tentative on-off affair, Harriet battling against her innate sense of convention and her loyalty to Guy. Charles and she almost consummate their fling but it is interrupted by the chance arrival of another character from her past who, true to form, throws the Pringle’s erstwhile kindness and hospitality in their face.

Rather echoing Saki’s demise, Yakimov is killed towards the end of the book, a sad loss as he was the one character of truly comic genius in the book.

I enjoyed this book more than the other two, perhaps because I was more familiar with the characters and because there is more action. But, nonetheless, what we have is a collection of English eccentrics, acting as English eccentrics would do. The war and the particular circumstances of war-torn Romania and Greece are just the backdrop to allow Manning to create vignettes of humour, drama and despair. For that reason, I do not see the trilogy as a great piece of literature but Manning did have the luck, if that is what it was, of experiencing and being able to write about the war in a theatre that has rarely been written about in English literature. It makes for a useful addition to the literature of the Second World War.

Perhaps I will revisit the Pringles in the Levant Trilogy but I feel I need some compassionate leave before I start.

A Glowing Feeling

Fisherman’s Friends

The economics of cinemas defeat me. TOWT and I and two others were the only people in the cinema to watch an early evening showing of Chris Foggin’s latest film, Fisherman’s Friends. We were there on free tickets supplied by our bank, although we did splash out a couple of quid to upgrade to VIP seats. But how does all that work?

As a child I always had a slight aversion to the menthol sweet called Fisherman’s Friend, recommended as a sure-fire way to clear blocked bronchials. They were fiery and destroyed all sensation in my mouth, at least for a little while. We need to blame a pharmacist from Fleetwood, James Lofthouse, for them. In 1865 he came up with a menthol and eucalyptus liquid concoction for fishermen to take with them on expeditions to the North Atlantic. As taking a liquid concoction on the rolling high seas was a bit tricky, he converted them into lozenge form and hey presto.

If you like a group of hairy-arsed Cornish fishermen singing a capella versions of sea shanties and bawdy nautical songs, then you have probably fallen for the charms of the Port Isaac Fisherman’s Friends. They had a remarkable rise to fame but tragedy has dogged their steps. In February 2013 the tenor soloist, Trevor Grills, and their promoter, Paul McMullen, were killed at Guildford’s GLive, when a heavy metal door fell on them and crushed them. Rock and traditional folk music were never happy bedfellows.

Foggis’ film concentrates on their discovery, or at least his version of it, rather than dwelling on their unfortunate later career. There is something cartoonish about the film. Country versus town, rich versus poor, sophisticated ways compared with down-to-earth living. The wide-boys from London, initially there on a stag do until Danny, played by the excellent Daniel Mays, is set up to sign up a group giving an impromptu concert on the harbour front, are buffoons straight out of central casting. And the love interest, played by Tuppence Middleton, must have the poshest accent of any woman supposedly born and brought up in a remote Cornish fishing community.

None of the characters are really developed and a number of the group are reduced to walk-on parts, adding a bit of local colour and harmony to the action. For a stunning part of the world, Foggis doesn’t make much of the scenery. It is a surprisingly unphotogenic film.

These are all minor quibbles because as a piece of entertainment it works. If you can disengage yourself from the ludicrous attempts at Cornish accents and the telegraphed twists in the plot, it is a delightful, heart-warming couple of hours with a genuine feelgood factor. All the ingredients you would hope to find in a piece of entertainment are there – a love story, a cute kid, death, tears, betrayal all laced with large helpings of humour and pathos. The songs are excellent and I found myself humming some of them later on in the evening. And the portrayal of the native Cornish folk’s antipathy to the emmets who invade the peninsula is spot on.

This is a film that is bound to hit your TV screen in the very near future.