Archive for October, 2007

Vampire Killing kit. No, seriously!

October 27, 2007

I was inspired to write my own thoughts on this subject by a fascinating article <these first 3 links now sadly defunct, see update below> by a “Miss Whiplash” of the excellent sceptical site MondoSkepto. This highlights a current (shortly to finish) Ebay auction of a supposedly genuine “Vampire Killing Kit”. These have begun to emerge in recent years as a dubious type of pseudohistorical artefact, as Miss W. succintly outlines in another post on the same blog. I don’t think it’s spoiling either her articles, or my post below, to say that they are without doubt or exception, total and utter bollocks. There’s little I can say that she hasn’t already said, but I offer my musings in the hope that they are of interest to any readers. I also provide below another nail for the proverbial coffin of the Ebay kit in question.

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The obviously modern “vampire killing kit” now on Ebay

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the sale of these things. Clearly believers and even cynics of the paranormal might potentially fall for these obvious fakes, if they have only limited knowledge of history and experience of handling antiques and historic objects. But it’s just such a silly idea and the current Ebay piece such a bad effort, that I find it hard to raise much sympathy for any prospective buyer. That anyone might be taken in enough to drop over $1000 on it makes me sad. So, in case it isn’t immediately obvious, let’s take a look at the latest “kit”. The first thing, as Miss Whiplash points out, is that the little bottles are simply modern miniature spirits bottles with external screw-tops that give the kit a terminus post quem date of AD 1852, which of course is already later than the date offered in the auction. Screw-tops of this style were also not common until at least the 1920s. It’s not just the bottles though. For me, the overall look of the box and the implements is just… wrong. C19th artefacts and containers were hand-made, but don’t typically look as obviously rough and ready as this. The colours smack of modern acrylic paints, whilst the “stakes” look for all the world like resin or some other modelling /prop-building medium. The mallet, whilst apparently wooden, looks like no period tool I have ever seen, though obviously it could be a custom-made anomaly. As someone that regularly handles C18th-C20th books, I would place the book at the early C20th at the very latest, by style of binding and apparent wear/deterioration. Even the crisp-looking butt-hinges and hasp (which appears to be shiny stamped steel or aluminium rather than period copper alloy) are almost certainly mass-produced modern hardware store purchases. All of this is little more than educated speculation of course, but MondoSkepto’s screw-cap bottles are pretty damning, as, I would suggest is the dagger, which is a badly-aged version of this modern replica;

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Spot the difference!

More than anything else, and what makes this even more a case of caveat emptor than the usual fake Ebay dross that can snare the unwary, is that it’s not even a fake of any authenticated type of artefact. In the folk tales of vampires, dedicated vampire hunters are conspicuous by their absence and (though I stand to be corrected Miss Whiplash!) there’s no suggestion that any dedicated equipment was even thought necessary. In cases we’d recognise as close to the modern conception of a vampire slaying, it’s nearly always the easily improvised wooden stake that’s the main tool, followed by decapitation/garlic in the mouth/incineration/whatever else. Silver bullets, as the other blog points out, are a latter-day Hollywood addition to the mythos, and were originally associated with werewolves (though silver in general was thought by some to counter anything supernatural).

For me all of this puts beyond help anyone choosing to bid on this stuff. Falling for a suitably aged modern replica of a well-documented type of antique is one thing, and requires only a lack of experience in the field. The level of belief required to splash $1000 on an unprecedented and anachronistic object pertaining to a supernatural creature that exists only in folklore and fiction, is something else. Interestingly, the Ebay kits are nothing terribly new. Six similar (if far more convincing-looking) kits have been sold by well-known international auction house Sotheby’s (alone) since 1994, including one in 2003 that sold for an astonishing $12,000. This is discussed at the urban legends section of About.com. The latest example, sold this April for $7,200, I have pictured below.

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A “genuinely fake” vampire killing kit?

As well as the amusingly dinky stake, perhaps for killing mini vampires, notice the corked bottle, dovetailed hardwood box, genuine ivory, period fittings, etc etc. These are either much better fakes made using actual period components, or they are a genuine if rare type of antique. Sotheby’s, as you might expect, opt for the latter, albeit couched in quite careful language. They offer, without evidence, the theory that they were conceived of in the post-Dracula craze of the early C20th and possibly marketed to travellers to Eastern Europe (hence their small size). The line between fiction, folklore, and reality was certainly being blurred for some at that time, with Spiritualism and New Age religion on the emergence. Another possibility is that they were sold and bought as novelty items, in full knowledge (or suspicion) that there was no tradition of their use and certainly no real vampires to try them out on. The difference in quality and apparent antiquity between the Sotheby’s kits and the Ebay versions are quite clear; if the current crop are outright fakes, are the legitimately sold kits really “period fakes” in turn? The problem is that with no historical reference, they could quite easily still be modern fakes – the only pitfall for any forger would be failing to make a convincingly aged label.

This gentleman would have us believe that he started the whole thing as a bit of fun back in the 1970s, and that others have organically copied him in turn and expanded the idea. Though he claims to have drafted the label common to perhaps all of these kits, referring to the fictional Professor Ernst Blomberg and the (generically-named) “Liege gunmaker” Nicholas Plomdeur, he denies having gone so far as to produce the book by Prof Blomberg referred to in the label. This seems to be an embellishment, and one which is demonstrably fake. This pamphlet is that supplied with at least one kit, but unfortunately the content is identical to an 1891 article in The Theosophist journal by an H.S. Olcott and therefore bogus. The good professor even seems to have inspired a fictional counterpart! If Mr De Winter’s really did make the prototype kit, perhaps these latest “budget” attempts on Ebay are nothing more than a continuation of this tradition; the sort of deadpan spoof to be found on the Federal Zombie and Vampire Agency website. However, in closing I’d like to point the reader to this this vampire-related site featuring none other than one of the Ebay slayer’s kits. Perhaps they are in on the joke. I hope so. The alternatives would be too depressing to contemplate.

Update: Nov 2008 – another one of these, rather better done and apparently of some age, sold recently at auction for a whopping $14,850. Nicer craftsmanship aside, all of the above still applies of course.

In other news, sad to say Mondoskepto.com as formerly linked above, appears to have vanished. Miss Whiplash – are you still there?

Whinging poms.

October 10, 2007

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Another bit of etymology, but this time it’s what’s known as false, reverse, or folk-etymology. Listening to the otherwise excellent BBC Radio programme “The Long View” in the car recently (you can listen to it here or a few days), I heard an explanation of the well-known Australian/New Zealand insult “Pom” that rang a few bells, yet also set off the old BS detector. The programme was dealing with the topical issue of prison overcrowding both today and in the nineteenth century when people like the Quakers were working to reform the system. One of the contributors of the above programme is Dr Steve Hall, senior lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University, who makes the following interesting claim;

…Millbank Prison, which was basically a holding centre for prisoners waiting to be transported off to Australia. On the back of their standard issue prison jackets were the initials P.O.M. which was “Prisoners of Millbank”, and when they ended up in Australia, the Australians waiting at the other end would say “here’s another POM”. The presenter affirms this by repeating that “So the term “Poms” comes from this place; “Prisoners of Millbank”.

Sounds convincing, but almost a little too neat, too modern-sounding, too contrived, even leaving aside the rare capitalisation of the word “of”. Such markings would seem redundant in the context of transporting prisoiners – that such a group of men were convicts would have been known to those involved and self-evident to anyone else. And why would anyone need to know from which British prison the men had come? Identification of mid-19th Century prisoners seems to have been done instead (or I suppose, as well as) using badges, which would keep the institutionally provided clothing as recyclable and universal as you would expect:

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It’s apparent from a little online research that this factoid is actually a variation of other, similar claims. Take “Prisoners Of Mother England” as mentioned on this Zimbabwe tourist site, or “Prisoner of Her Majesty” as listed here. You’ll note that the variants don’t specify a prison at all, let alone Millbank. If genuine, they would therefore be meaningful to a much wider audience. If you followed that last link, you might have spotted the word “backronym”, a neologism used to describe retrospectively devised acronyms. Often these are inventive but erroneous attempts to get to the bottom of a word’s etymology, as modern people are very familiar with the use of acronyms. A good example of this would be “Posh” – Port Out, Starboard Home. They can also be satirical in origin, but go on to be widely believed as fact, as with “Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden” for the word “golf”. In reality this first appears in Scots literature as “gouf“. The military are especially adept at tongue-in-cheek (and usually offensive) backronyms. These neologisms can even be a way of legitimising or playing down the usage of existing offensive words. Many will know of F.U.C.K., but I have personally witnessed a racist use of the word “Wog” rendered conversationally acceptable by the speaker’s protest/lie that it simply stands for “Worthy Oriental Gentleman”. Whatever the intent behind “POM(E/H)”, dubious acronyms like this have an air of being forced to fit. The other problem is that complex acronyms (beyond B.C., am etc) were scarce before the second half of the 20th Century (as discussed here). Many of these words can be shown to have earlier spellings (as with golf), or their own conventional etymologies, exposing the backronyms for what they are. This appears to be true of “Pom”.

You may have heard another common explanation of “pom” as being a contraction of “pomegranate”, and like me wondered why on earth Australians would equate either new convicts or later incomers with a type of fruit! Thankfully, the Oxford English Dictionary clears this up, explaining that it was a piece of rhyming slang (rather like the famous Cockney system) – Pome-granate – Immi-grant (as Harry Hill might put it). More convincing, I think you’ll agree. But why accept this explanation above the others? Well, it has what acronyms lack; evidence. The OED refers to a 14 November 1912 edition of Australian newspaper, The Bulletin, which includes the statement; “The other day a Pummy Grant (assisted immigrant) was handed a bridle and told to catch a horse.”

And that’s as close as we’re likely to get to the truth of the matter. Given this perfectly satisfactory explanation by a recognised authority, there’s no reason to believe in the “Prisoners of Millbank” backronym, not any of its variants. Of course, if Dr Hall or anyone else has some evidence for the claim, I’d be very pleased to eat my words!

[Minor edits for clarity 19.11.07]

Going Commando!

October 3, 2007

Where did the term “to go commando” come from?
When did it first appear?

Just for a change, I’m going to do what I’ve been having a go at other people for doing in all my other posts; offer unverified historical speculation. The difference being that I’m making no attempt to hide that fact. When it comes to the etymology of well-known phrases, or anything else relying upon oral tradition, the truth is even more elusive than in written history or unearthed archaeology. We rely upon limited evidence – the first appearance of a term in print – and a hefty dose of (hopefully educated) guesswork. At any stage we must be ready to be completely off the mark. All we can know for sure is that the earliest documented references are unlikely to be the end of the story. That said, let’s take a look at one such modern phrase…

Now a staple photography subject of “celebrity” magazines, many people became familiar with the expression to “Go Commando” thanks to the (1994) episode of “Friends” where Joey reassures his friends that he won’t “go commando in another man’s fatigues”. In fact, some of our American chums seem to think that’s where it originated. In reality this is one of two “earliest recorded usage” cites that the Oxford English Dictionary used when they incorporated the expression into the “official” lexicon in 2002. They say they were able to trace it to 1980s US college slang (1985 in the Chicago Tribune if Wikipedia is to be believed). From my own (anecdotal) experience, the phrase was current, in UK parlance at least, for many years prior – I remember hearing it in the mid-1980s and (unfortunately) I certainly knew exactly what Joey was talking about when he said it!

So where and when did it originate? Is it really an Americanism? Compared to obscure memes like the “two-fingered salute“, this one has a fairly obvious significance and link to the military. A “Commando” is of course a special forces soldier; originally applied to raiding units of the British Army and Royal Navy in the Second World War, and now used to describe specialist troops all over the world. Use of the term was supported by Winston Churchill over the rather unfortunate official “S(pecial S(ervice)” moniker, eventually replacing it in military use and the popular consciousness. “Go Commando” with reference to underwear (or lack of it!) is therefore meant to imply that such men dispensed with underwear either by choice or necessity. One online article implies that US special forces are so tough as to not require testicular containment. In addition, being highly mobile and deployed in a range of adverse environments, it might actually contribute to some unpleasant groinal complaints. Although this seems like part of the popular myth of the invulnerable special forces soldier, the latter part may be on to something. But none of this gets us back to the when and where of the phrase’s origin.

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45 Commando Royal Marines marching for Port Stanley (BBC History website)

For me, the most compelling explanation was provided at a recent defence conference by a high-ranking Royal Marine officer. His explanation was that some of his men had partaken of some Argentine rations of dubious age, and had come down with the sort of acute diarrhoea documented by this Parachute Regiment chaplain. Needing to stay on the move, many elected to lose their “shreddies” and even cut holes in their DPM trousers. It’s easy to imagine how this practice might, in the retelling during and immediately after the conflict, become known as “Going Commando”. As this take is roughly contemporary with the OED’s American origin, it would be tempting to assume that the expression could have made it across the atlantic during the 1980s. Provisionally, I might have done just that if I hadn’t come across this Slate article, which claims that the US college reference touched on above goes back not to the ’80s but as far back as 1974, and the then-recent Vietnam War. This, of course, casts doubt upon a British, 1982 origin. But assuming the saying came not from civilian imagination but the returning US troops themselves, how did those men come by it? Did men of the various special operations forces create it, or like the Falklands commandos, invoke it to describe a shared experience of hardship and the practical if unpleasant methods used to deal with that? The trail is going cold at this point, but I would agree with the speculation of this blogger’s anonymous source, who suggests that the term might go as far back as the original commando units of the Second World War, who pioneered this style of warfare. The missing link, as he says, could be the Australian contingent of the Chindit commando force in the Far East – relatives of these men might just have brought the phrase with them to Vietnam 17 years later. And now we really are “reaching”. With respect to the evidence we have to defer to the OED and its American civilian origin and 1974 date. But I do wonder whether there is more to it, and (assuming the story is accurate) how Royal Marines in 1982 might have come to adopt a little-known civilian Americanism.


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