Word Preamble

Sometimes a Cockney, attempting to put the `h' on a word, will add another where it isn't necessary, perhaps when addressing a policeman `Hi `ave nothing to say, hofficer.' (I have nothing to say, officer).

It's a forgivable speech handicap. This now very common word, popularised by golf, goes back hundreds of years, to a form of barter where two salesmen put what they had to sell into a cap, the seller of the inferior goods putting in a certain sum of money, decided by an umpire, to equalize the value. The umpire also put in some money. If both buyer and seller took hold of the articles in the hat, and if they had the correct ones, the umpire pocketed the forfeit money. Now handicap means disadvantage. The umpire seems to have done well out of it, not surprisingly perhaps, since the word umpire comes from an old French phrase meaning not equal, He certainly got more than his fair share.

Name-dropping and place-dropping are two of mankind's more harmless absurdities, where the perpetrator says the name of a famous person or a place deliberately, so as to inform the listener that he is on friendly terms with the famous person or practically lives in the famous place. Lines like `I was just telling Bill Clinton last week', or `I usually lunch at the Oriental' are remarks designed not to impart information but to impress you with the speaker's connections.

Many words owe their origins to places. Hamburger is obvious - and to say a `ham' hamburger would be correct, since they put anything in the dish these days. But the Ham in Hamburg has nothing to do with ham. German immigrants to America in the 1850s took the dish with them and took another dish, too, Labskaus, a type of stew, and from this word there is a theory that Scouser, slang for a person from Liverpool derives - many of the Germans sailed to America from Liverpool and introduced the dish to the inhabitants of the port. Frankfurter needs no further explanation - nor does the American sausage wienie, originating from Wien, the German name for Vienna.

Proper names which lend themselves to activities or things are commonplace - one need only think of the Oscar. But there are obscurer ones - and my favourite is the tontine, a type of insurance once popular and named after Lorenzo Tonti, a 16th-century Italian banker. A group of people paid premiums into a common fund which was invested, and each member collected yearly dividends. As each payee died, so the dividends accruing to the remaining participants grew larger, until the very last one alive pocketed the lot. A good idea, you might think, encouraging participants to look after their health to ensure longevity. Alas, the scheme was finally outlawed after it became obvious that some participants were hastening the deaths of their fellow members by non-legal means, like arsenic. Some people will never play by the rules.

From Norway, we have Quisling, a word for traitor, after a Norwegian who welcomed the Nazis in the Second World War; from Ireland, we have Irish coffee, which every imbiber knows is just another way the Irish get Englishmen drunk, by reinforcing coffee with about nine shots of spirits. From Denmark we have Danish pastries, everybody's favourite way of putting on weight.

I'm afraid the Dutch don't do so well - perhaps the English have yet to forgive the daring courage of the Dutch ships which sailed up the Thames in the 1600s and bombarded London. Dutch courage is courage which comes from a bottle, to go Dutch is to share the costs of a meal equally between the diners, and a Dutch wife is the long, sausage-shaped pillow you see in the East, to be placed, so the story goes, between the legs to minimize sweating in the night. Real Dutch wives may be very annoyed to read this - I can only plead that I speak, but did not invent, the language. I have heard another way of saying go Dutch, and I learnt it in Thailand - American share.

Towns, too, have lent their names to things other than urban; a Roman Candle is a type of firework; Delhi belly is a slang name for diarrhoea; to shanghai someone is to press the poor wretch into service he does not wish to provide. A Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke, however; it is a type of sunflower whose roots are edible. Jerusalem here is a corruption of Italian girasole, meaning turn to the sun, as a sunflower will.

A Dundee cake indulges a Scotsman's sweet tooth; a sandwich is named after the Earl of Sandwich, Sandwich being a town in the South of England.

Jerez in Spain gave us sherry to go with the sandwich and Havana the cigar to round off the meal. And if you're sent to Coventry, don't look for the bus-station; it means that people don't want to talk to you because of some social outrage you have committed.

Enough travelling around for this time!

* "I 'ate me 'ubby" = "I hate my husband"!

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