A mystery: 22

In my junior year I presented a skit at the Press Club Vod based on the idea of how closely allied jazz dancing was to the jungle.

—Agnes de Mille, Dance to the Piper, chap. 11, “Decision,” pp. 93-94

What the heck is vod in this context? de Mille is writing of a time ca. 1925.

A mystery: 21

Still on the trail of the meaning of Hollanderize: Consider this exchange between MSgts. Pendleton and Bilko from s1e23, “Army Memoirs,” of The Phil Silvers Show (air date 21 February 1956). Pendleton, at the moment (five minutes before he was in a different frame of mind), is buttering up Bilko, offering him alterations on a newly-arrived flight jacket with white mouton (sheepskin) collar. Pendleton asks, “Do you want the collar Hollanderized?” to which Bilko replies (approximately, he’s talking over a laugh and about to do a take from Capt. Barker’s entrance), “No, keep it fluffy.”

So, Pendleton is not offering cleaning of a new garment, and cutting it down doesn’t make sense. Perhaps he is indeed offering a dye job, which Bilko rejects because it will mat the pelt.

Cue the barky laugh

“I’ve been working on a podcast for the last year and trying to learn everything I can learn about that form of storytelling, as a matter of history, so, if I’m out walking, I listen. Though, to be fair, this started a long time ago when someone gave me an iShuffle or whatever that thing was called, that thing you wore around your neck on a lanyard, and I was teaching Tristram Shandy that semester so I ordered the audiobook and then, by mistake, I listened to the whole thing on shuffle play. Without realizing it. Only later did I come to understand this is what Sterne wanted! In 1767!”

But we disagree about “e-mail”

Anne Fadiman, of my generation and fellow sentence-diagrammer, distinguishes the nonbinary they and the generic singular they and makes a persuasive case for both.

My students endorse the singular they not because they’re snowflakes but because they’re activists. The nonbinary they appeals to them because even if they’re not nonbinary themselves, they wish to support those who are; the generic they appeals to them because they wish to be inclusive: Why would you say “If someone has a question, he or she should stand up” when there might be a they in the room?

A mystery: 20

The ball opened with a country-dance, in which Mr Rivenhall, in honour bound, stood up with his cousin. He performed his part with propriety, she hers with grace; and Miss Wraxton, watching from a route-chair at one side of the room, smiled graciously upon them both.

—Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, chap. 9

Hey, internet! Any idea what makes it specifically a route-chair? Foldability/portability? Does it look like a ballroom chair? A director’s chair? A campaign chair?

Heyer decoded

‘You won’t mind if I shake the fidgets out of his legs!’ Sophy called. ‘He is itching for a gallop!’

With that, she wheeled Salamanca about, and let him have his head down the stretch of tan that lay beside the carriage-road.

—Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, chap. 5

My old print Oxford doesn’t have anything for tan in this context, but Webster II has

6. A path or track covered with tanbark, as a circus ring.

And for tanbark,

1. Any bark rich in tannin, bruised or cut into small pieces, and used in tanning. Spent tanbark is used for circus rings, race tracks, etc.

the tannin-depleted bark still holding onto some of its chemistry, and thus slow to degrade.

Which perhaps explains why so many parks feature a Tanbark Trail.

A mystery: 19

This is from a Charles Mallison chapter of The Mansion. Page number is from the Library of America edition.

That was last spring, in June when he [Gavin Stevens] and Mother (they had lost Father at Saratoga though he had promised to reach Cambridge in time for the actual vows) came up to see me graduate in Ack. and I said, “What? No wedding bells yet?” and he said:

“Not mine anyway:” and I said:

“How are the voice lessons coming? Come on,” I said, “I’m a big boy now; I’m a Harvard A.M. too even if I wont have Heidelberg.” (chap. 9, p. 517)

The context and the capitalization hints that Ack. is a building on the Harvard campus, but I can find no appropriate edifice on today’s maps. Rather, I suspect that it is part of the ceremony of conferring Chick’s law degree. There is the legal practice of acknowledgement in the sense of making a declaration. Perhaps Charles must make a vow to become a (good?) lawyer?

Perhaps one of my lawyer friends can help me out.

Also, that stray colon at the end of Gavin’s “Not mine anyway:” bothers me.

Faulkner decoded: 3

Two unusual usages in The Mansion, as far as I can tell. Page numbers are from the Library of America edition.

So they would reach that side by side anyway—the vast dim home-made columned loom of her father’s dream, nightmare, monstrous hope or terrified placatement, whichever it was, whatever it had been… (chap. 15, p. 652)

It’s clear from context that placatement is a near-synonym for placation, but an entry for placatement does not appear in my dictionaries.


He didn’t know why; he could not have said that, having had to do without privacy for thirty-eight years, he now wanted, intended to savor, every minuscule of it which freedom entitled him to… (chap. 17, p. 692)

Minuscule is certainly a legitimate noun, in the senses of “script” or “small letter.” But William Faulkner’s use of it to mean a tiny portion is perhaps unique, and quite tasty therefore.

Hapax legomena

Priceless coinage, the opening lines of “How now, sirrah? Oh, anyhow:”

Oh, sometimes I sit around and think, what would you do if you were up a dark alley and there was Caesar Borgia,
And he was coming torgia,
And brandished a poisoned poniard,
And looked at you like an angry fox looking at the plumpest rooster in a boniard?

—Ogden Nash

A mystery: 16: and solved

A turn of phrase that has stayed with me over the years, from James Thurber, “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery,” (23 July 1932):

“What I lost?” The man squinted, unhappily. “Some—some cufflinks; topazes set in gold.” He hesitated: the cop didn’t seem to believe him. “They were the color of a fine Moselle,” said the man.

And here’s why: Thurber borrowed the bit of jewelry (“topazes, winy-yellow, lightly set in crinkly gold”) from Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy (1926), part I, chapter 4:

[Aunt Lydia] said resolutely: “Myra, I want to give Oswald a Christmas present. Once an old friend left with me some cufflinks he couldn’t keep…. I brought them for Oswald. I’d rather he would have them than anybody.”

… Mrs. Henshawe was delighted. “How clever of you to think of it, Liddy dear! Yes, they’re exactly right for him. There’s hardly any other stone I would like, but these are exactly right. Look, Oswald, they’re the colour of a fine Moselle.”

A mystery: 14

Rudyard Kipling, it would seem, believes that “rub-a-dub” refers to a way of ringing a bell. Dan and Harvey are trawling in a small dory, when heavy weather blows up unexpectedly:

“Take a-holt here, an’ keep ringin’ steady,” said Dan, passing Harvey the lanyard of a bell that hung just behind the windlass.

Harvey rang lustily, for he felt two lives depended on him….

“Clang! cling! clang” Harvey kept it up, varied with occasional rub-a-dubs, for another half-hour.

Captains Courageous, chap. III

However, my researches have turned up only the nursery rhyme, which comes dripping with the usual smarmy gossipy backstory from the 14th century.

Now, a close reading might suggest a sniggering joke on Kipling’s part (and indeed, he uses the word “tub” several times in the passage, referring to containers of trawling gear), but I am not sufficiently familiar with his work to infer whether he is capable of slipping one in, as it were.