Well, this is a fine kettle of fish, isn't it? Or if we were British (which I, as a Canadian, confusingly sort of partly am) a pretty kettle of fish. A messy predicament, it means. The phrase seems to date from the early 18th century and alludes to a Scottish riverside picnic during which salmon were thrown live into boiling water and then eaten whole, with the hands. The term appears in works by Fielding, Dickens, Hardy and Shaw. It is falling out of use today.
Why do I introduce this blog post thusly? Because I have not been able to decide what I want to write about. We all like a good blog post; none of us are anhedonic. Don’t you love that there are still so many new words to discover? I just encountered that one. It means unable to take pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. That's not us. We love language. I like writing blog posts. So why don't I write more often?
It's partly because the scribbled notes of ideas that litter my desk, on this and many other topics, have refused to gel into a coherent theme. Writing about a jumble of things would surely upset the apple cart of orderly blogging. An early Americanism, by the way, first recorded in 1788 as a criticism of John Adams: "Adams had almost upset the apple cart by intruding an amendment of his own fabrication on the morning of ratification [of the Constitution]."
Back to the blog topic. Should it be the origins of idioms? Or seldom encountered, interesting words? Or how about – inspired by another new idea that tumbled across my consciousness – curious cognitive conditions? Not debilitating ones, that would definitely not be fun, but interesting ones. Like the phenomenon of people who taste words. Yes, you heard me right. Tasting words. This is one form of synesthesia (also new to me), perceiving one or more perceptual modalities together. People with word-color synesthesia associate words, numbers or letters of the alphabet with colors, and these associations do not change. Much, much rarer is word-gustatory synesthesia, whereby hearing or seeing a word invokes an involuntary and consistent taste sensation. Tasting words.
Or what about cool slang from bygone times? That topic could turn out to be the cat's pajamas, or the cat's meow, or the cat's whiskers, or the bee's knees. These were all coined during the 1920's, a decade that also produced the phrases blind date, French kiss and backseat driver.
The American Wild West of the 1800's produced some slang doozies. Let's pause for a bit on that. The most reliable origin story for the word "doozy" (two alternate stories are that it came from the luxury car the Duesenberg, or from the name of the Italian actress Eleanor Duse) is this: "daisy" has been a British term for something wonderful since the early 1800's. The daisy, which closes at night and opens in the morning, was called a "day's eye," and from this came "doozy." Back to the Wild West. Some of the slang originating in this period is still with us, more or less: guttersnipe, a homeless child; high falutin', meaning pompous or self-important; and higgledy-piggledy, meaning a state of confusion (much like the state of this blog post). However, we no longer call a heavy downpour a toad strangler (though I think we should bring that one back), we do not refer to getting drunk as paintin' your nose, and we do not speak of delicate situations as hair in the butter.
Back to new words. When a good friend and blog reader told me she had heard someone on television say that people needed to conversate about something, she was very skeptical that this was really a word. I looked it up. It is. But I don’t like it. It means "to converse." Why not just say that? And did you know, by the way, that the foam on top of beer is called barm? That aphthongs are silent letters in words? That dysania is the condition of finding it hard to get out of bed? (That one might work for new words and interesting cognitive conditions.)
Another thought. How about a blog post that suggests literary replacements for some of the newest, invented words that so annoy the old fuddy-duddies (American, 19th century, origin unclear) among us. Raise your hand: who hates the term "unfriend?" Let's replace it with this quote from As You Like It: "I do desire we may be better strangers."
Enough. Perhaps I can comfort myself regarding this motley (14th century, origin uncertain, possibly derived from Middle English 'mot,' meaning a mote or speck) blog post with the immortal words of Winston Churchill:
"This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read."
Till next time.