I’ve just watched a fascinating lecture from funerary and art historian Dr. Julian Litten on burial vaults. I learned a lot and greatly enjoyed it, but was very surprised to hear him recite the old chestnut that the smell of decaying bodies under church floors led to the expression ‘stinking rich’. This is just not true, as phrases.org.uk relates:
The real origin of stinking rich, which is a 20th-century phrase, is much more prosaic. ‘Stinking’ is merely an intensifier, like the ‘drop-dead’ of drop-dead gorgeous, the ‘lead pipe’ of lead pipe cinch or, more pertinent in this case, the ‘stark-raving’ of stark-raving mad. It has been called upon as an intensifier in other expressions, for example, ‘stinking drunk’ and ‘we don’t need no stinking badges’
The phrase’s real derivation lies quite a distance from Victorian England in geography as well as in date. The earliest use of it that I can find in print is in the Montana newspaper The Independent, November 1925:
He had seen her beside the paddock. “American.” Mrs Murgatroyd had said. “From New England – stinking rich”.
However, I thought I’d check, and I did find an earlier cite, from ‘V.C.: A Chronicle of Castle Barfield and of the Crimea’, by David Christie Murray (1904, p. 92);
“I’m stinking rich – you know – disgraceful rich.”
Nothing earlier than that however. So I would add to the explanation at phrases.org.uk and say that it’s more of an expression of disgust; someone is so rich that it’s obscene and figuratively ‘stinks’. If we had any early 19th century or older cites, I’d grant that it could have been influenced in some way by intramural burial, but this was rare by the turn of the 20th century and lead coffins had been a legal requirement since 1849. Litten suggests that unscrupulous cabinetmakers might omit the lead coffin, leading to ‘effluvia’, but even then I can’t imagine that was common as it would be obvious when it had happened and whose interment was likely to have caused it, resulting in complaints and most likely reburial.
Litten also repeated a version of the myth of Enon Chapel, which is a story I’ve been working on and will be forthcoming, but added a claim that I have yet to come across; that the decomposition gases from the crypt below were so thick that they made the gas lighting in the chapel above ‘burn brighter’. I don’t know where this comes from and it hardly seems plausible. Dr Waller Lewis, the UK’s first Chief Medical Officer, wrote on the subject in an 1851 article in The Lancet entitled ‘ON THE CHEMICAL AND GENERAL EFFECTS OF THE PRACTICE OF INTERMENT IN VAULTS AND CATACOMBS’. Lewis stated that: “I have never met with any person who has actually seen coffin-gas inflame” and reported that experiments had been carried out and “in every instance it extinguished the flame”. This makes sense, since it was not decomposition gases per se (and certainly not ‘miasma’ as was often claimed at the time) that made workers light-headed or pass out in vaults – it was the absence of oxygen and high concentration of CO2 that caused this. Hence reports of candles going out rather than inflaming more.
Unfortunately, even the best of us are not immune to a little BS history. It was nonetheless a privilege to hear Dr. Litten speak.
Oh, this is a classic. I can hardly believe that I’ve never heard it before; the amazing BS claim, made by the so-called ‘History Project’ on YouTube (and apparently tour guides on HMS Victory), that the phrase ‘pull your finger out’ derives from the world of artillery.
‘…cannons [sic] were loaded with black powder through a small ignition hole which was held in place by a wooden plug. In the rigours of battle though, this job was carried out by a crewmember who used his finger. Artillerymen hadn’t just to [?*] engage the enemy, would shout at the crewmember to ‘pull his finger out’ enabling him to fire.’
*I’m actually from the UK and have tried three times to get what the presenter is saying here; I still have no idea.
Although garbled and inaccurate, this is based on real historical drill, which you can read about here. I don’t know what they mean by ‘held in place by’, but the real need top ‘stop the vent’ was to prevent premature ignition of the next charge being loaded. By preventing air (and therefore oxygen) being sucked into the chamber as the sponge was pulled out, any embers left still glowing might be reignited, resulting in premature ignition of the fresh charge as this was rammed home (more on this here).
Importantly, the gun’ captain was to cover the vent with the thumb, not insert a finger! Vents in gun breeches weren’t even big enough to achieve that – typically they were just .2” or 5mm – see this National Parks Service manual! Not to mention the risk of getting it stuck if you could somehow jam it in there. Then there’s the heat problem; gun captains were supposed to wear thumbstalls to protect them, but if you had to stop the vent in the ‘rigours of battle’ you’d suffer far worse if you had your fingertip, never mind your finger, stuck in a red-hot vent. Then there’s the ridiculous idea that an order of command would be as long as five syllables. In a world where even the two syllable word ‘Present’ was shortened to one for speed and convenience (‘P’sent’), there’s no way this phrase would have been used; and sure enough, there’s zero evidence that it was.
‘The first known use of it in print is in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, March 1919 :
“Tell the bloke who issues the prizes to pull his finger out.”
It began to be used in the UK during the Second World War, presumably due to the mixing of Australian and UK forces.
What finger was being referred to and where it was supposed to be pulled out from we can only speculate.’
In other words, it’s an Empire/Commonwealth version of ‘pull your thumb out your ass’.
Verdict: total BS. But it made me chuckle at least. I feel that I must point out that ‘The History Project’ also has a video on ‘the whole nine yards’, another bogus phrase origin that I’ve debunked before. They also have one on ‘bite the bullet’, which is still wrong, but more plausible/arguable. I might do that one next. Or maybe I’ll be nice and cover their explanation of ‘Sweet FA’, which actually seems to be true…
My title is inspired by Kaeli Swift‘s Twitter quiz ‘Crow or No?’, in which her followers must guess whether the bird in the image is a Crow or not (you should check out her site and Twitter feed linked above if you, like me, love Corvids. In this context she is being quite specific – the bird must have ‘Crow’ as part of its colloquial English name. So the above Raven would be a ‘no’, even though (unlike some birds that she posts) it is part of the genus Corvus, usually equated with ‘Crow’ in everything from modern specialist literature to everyday speech. Most people that know anything about corvids know that the Raven, the largest of the Corvids and of the genus Corvus, is a type of ‘Crow’. I was so sure of this myself that I have corrected people who’ve said ‘that’s not a Crow’ with ‘yes it is – Ravens ARE Crows’. But as I read into historical usage, I came to the conclusion that this isn’t strictly true, or at least, it didn’t used to be. It should really be the other way around; the Crow (and other members of the genus Corvus) are really types of Raven. Let me explain…
This is not just a question of confused popular usage. People that know their Corvids are pretty consistent about it. For example, Boria Sax’s 2012 book ‘City of Ravens’ tell us that;
‘Ravens (corvus corax) are members of the family corvidae, sometimes known collectively as “crows” or “corvids.”’
In his earlier work ‘Crow’ (2003), Sax is even more inclusive;
‘The word ‘Crow’ is occasionally used broadly for all members of this avian family. It is often used more restrictively for members of the genus Corvus, also known as ‘true crows’, which includes ravens, rooks, and jackdaws. Finally, the term may be used, perhaps a bit unscientifically, for those members of the genus Corvus that do not have any other common name.’
This logic is supported by scientists John M. Marzluff & Tony Angell when they tell us in their ‘In the Company of Crows and Ravens’ that;
‘Corvus is Latin for “a crow”.’
All three of these guys are American English writers by the way, but usage is quite consistent on both sides of the pond. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) report things the same way on their website, classifying Ravens as just one of eight ‘Crow’ species in the British Isles.
And yet, when we look at things from an historical perspective, things were pretty much the other way around. The original Linnaean classification as it existed in 1756 was as follows (Latin then French, I’ve added the English in square brackets]);
CORVUS. Rostrum convexum- cultratum maxillis subaequalibus: basi fetis tectum.
Corvus – le Corbeau [Raven]
Cornix frugivora – ___ [Rook]
Cornix cinerea – la Corneille [Crow]
Cornix caerulea – ___ [Roller – no longer classified a Corvid]
Monedula – la Chouca [Jackdaw]
Caryocatactes – le Caffenoix [Nutcracker]
Pica glandaria – le Geay [Jay]
Pica caudata – la Pie [Magpie]
Ciffa nigra cirrata, cauda lutea. Barr. 45. [Not sure what these last two were = some sort of Oriole?]
Ciffa nigra, alis caudaque luteis. Barr. 45. B 2
The above shows that the direct French cognate for ‘Corvus’ was ‘Corbeau’. This is where the English dialect name ‘Corby’ comes from, and Corby (or ‘Corbie’, or ‘Croupy’) almost always meant ‘Raven’. In Romance languages the original Latin clarity is preserved to this day; in French Corbeau is Raven, and Corneille is Crow. In Italian (e.g. this 1848 book); ‘i Corvi’ (the Ravens) were (and remain) Corvus corax and ‘le Cornacchie’ (Corvus corone, Corvus cornix)’ were the Crows. Spanish has the analogues Cuervo and Corneja, all following the Latin Corvus/Corvi. Let’s use Spanish as the example, in which the genus ‘Los Cuervos’ were ‘the Ravens’ and, as late as 1837, were distinctfrom Corvus corone and Corvus cornix (both identified with ‘La Corneja’ just as both are ‘Crows’ in English). Convergence and confusion of naming happened here too, but the other way around. ‘Cuervo’ (which actually is from the Latin Corvus for ‘Raven’) is now used to mean both ‘Raven’ and ‘Crow’. In fact, the Raven is now known as ‘El Cuervo Grande’ or ‘the large raven’. This despite the fact that the Spanish derivative of Cornix (‘Corneja’) still exists! ‘Cuervo’ still means ‘Raven’ in Spanish today (see here). Logically enough, all of this originates in ancient Roman Latin, as we’ll see. The definitive form of Linnaeus’ system appeared in 1758, giving us the modern form for the Raven of Corvus corax as well as Corvus corone and Corvus cornix for the Carrion and Hooded Crows. In both incarnations of the system the Raven is listed as the first of its genus, as we’d expect from the largest and most impressive species, and the one after which the genus is named!
‘Coroni en Grec, Cornix en Latin, Corneiulle, en Francoys.’
Here we have a Tudor vintage classification, the common Latin and French forms from which Linnaeus concocted his more scientific system. Renaissance writers obviously took their cue from the ancient Romans and Greeks. This is where things get a little muddy, because the Romans weren’t always clear on which was which. In an article in the Transactions of the Philological Society (Issue 5, 1854, p.107) entitled ‘On the confusion of meaning between Corvus and Cornix’, Hensleigh Wedgewood agrees broadly that the Romans used ‘Corvus’ for Raven and Cornix for Rook, and ‘The Birds of the Latin Poets’ (p.73) claims;
‘CORVUS. Raven….The name corvus was applied also by Roman writers to both the crow and the rook.’
However, having checked the various sources, the identification of the intended bird seems to have been done on the basis of stereotypical behaviour. Wedgewood sees in the following passage Pliny’s description of the Raven’s famous ‘croak’, which given the use of corvorum seems reasonable;
‘Pessima eorum (corvorum) significatio (in auspiciis), quum glutiunt vocem velut strangulati.’
However, he then references Virgil’s use of ‘cornix’ and claims that a solitary corvid ‘inviting’ rain must be a Raven;
‘Tum cornix plena pluviam vocat improba voce
Et sola in sicca secum spatiatur arena’
Meaning something like ‘the Raven with full voice calls down the rain and walks alone along the sand’. Now, I’m no classical scholar, but what about this sentence necessitates a Raven and not a Crow (Cornix)? Both make noise, both were birds of ill omen, and both could be found on their own. I am not convinced, and I’ve found two other translations, neither was both, of which are quite happy to take Cornix at face value. Likewise, Wedgewood is convinced that Virgil was talking of Rooks when he wrote;
‘ete pastu decedens agmine magno Corvorum increpuit densis exercitus alis.’
Again, only one aspect of the intended bird is included here; that we are talking about multiple birds. Sure enough, the Raven is often a solitary bird, but they can also operate in groups; I myself have seen them in the wild in numbers. And although Rooks are very rarely on their own, Carrion and other Crows may be seen in large groups, small ones, or on their own. Here’s another of Virgil’s;
‘Tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti inter se in foliis strepitant; iuvat imbribus actis progeniem parvam dulcisque revisere nidos’
‘Soft then the voice of rooks from indrawn throat
Thrice, four times, o’er repeated, and full oft
On their high cradles, by some hidden joy
Gladdened beyond their wont, in bustling throngs
Among the leaves they riot; so sweet it is,
When showers are spent, their own loved nests again
And tender brood to visit.’
Fowler in ‘A Year With the Birds’ (1914) confidently (complete with a ‘No True Englishman’ logical fallacy) identifies these birds as Rooks, but again, I just don’t see that this contains enough diagnostic information. The passage works just as well if Corvi are Ravens. In fact I don’t see any of these analyses as definitive. Even assuming that these authors are talking about other birds, the confusion is supposedly with the Rook, not the Carrion or Hooded Crow.
In any case, the Greeks seem to have been consistent, using Korone for the Crow, and sometimes the physically similar and seasonal Rook but not the Raven (Korax). I have not taken this line of enquiry any further than the ‘Glossary of Greek Birds’ however (p.11). There has definitely always been some grey area across the species. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have named their corvids based upon how they sounded, with the result that they were somewhat inconsistent with their terminology. This thesis is a good read on that subject, although I remain unconvinced at (again) the claim that Latin speakers used the different names interchangeably. I have checked all of the sources in footnote 65 (p.44) and none actually support this. The ‘Brussels Glossary’ quote of ‘Corvus hrefne oththe corax’ seems to simply be listing three names (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Greek) for a Raven, presumably in a play on words (literally ‘Raven ravens other raven’). However, William Brunsdon Yapp’s ‘Birds in Medieval Manuscripts’ (London, 1981, p.57) is also sceptical that pre-Linnaean observers knew the difference, saying;
‘…neither Shakespeare nor Tennyson, nor C. S. Lewis nor Victoria Sackville-West could tell rooks from crows, or even apparently knew that there are two species, it seems unlikely that there was any clear distinction in the Middle Ages’.
This shouldn’t surprise us though. How many people today know or can tell the difference? Then, as now, there will have been people more intimately familiar with the birds and who would surely have known the difference, but pre-scientific method, they aren’t writing it down. Regardless of ‘folk taxonomies’ and historical misidentification, there were nonetheless different names and some level of awareness that the names denoted different creatures. Across the span of history it seems clear that Corvus overwhelmingly meant ‘Raven’ rather than ‘Crow’. Moreover, as I show above, by the time of Linnaeus it was very clear which was which. Under that system, Corvus was simultaneously the first name for the species within the genus, the specific scientific name for the Raven itself (as simply Corvus with no additional name), AND remained the common Latin name for the Raven. The modified form of Linnaean classification combined the Latin and Greek to create a hierarchical system. Thus ‘Corvus corax’ literally meant ‘Raven raven’ like ‘Rattus rattus’, and not ‘Crow raven’. Carrion Crow makes sense as ‘Corvus corone’ or ‘Raven crow’ on the same basis. Indeed, the common German term for the Carrion Crow is exactly that; ‘Rabenkrähe’, and it seems clear to me that the dialect ‘Corby-Crow’ (or ‘Croupy-Crow’), meaning Carrion Crow was the English parallel to this (‘Corby’ meaning Raven as above).
So far, so logical. So what changed? Well, as much as Linnaeus’ system caught on, within a few decades naturalists and zoologists were conflating and confusing terms. By 1800 the ‘American Review’ gave the modern scientific name ‘Corvus corax’ with a reversed English translation ‘Raven crow’; i.e. Roman ‘Corvus’ for ‘Crow’ and Greek ‘Corax’ for Raven. In 1805 Jedidiah Morse in America included the corvids under the label ‘The Crow Kind’ (Corvus), although he still listed the Raven first (as Corvus carnivorous). In 1809/10 the English naturalist George Shaw had;
Black crow about two feet in length, with a blue gloss on the upper parts, and rounded tail.
The Raven. Will. Penn. Lath &c, &c.
Le Corbeau. Briss. Buff &c.
In 1849 we find William Dowling’s ‘A popular natural history of quadrupeds and birds’ saying (p.50);
‘Latin word corvus, which signifies a crow’
This was sustained in ‘Insects Abroad: Being a Popular Account of Foreign Insects (etc)’ by John George Wood (1874);
‘The specific name corvus signifies ” a crow,”’
All of which doesn’t really help much. People have been confusing these names for a very long time, and Linnaeus’ attempt to standardise on the traditional and largely consistent Latin and Greek nomenclature really didn’t catch on. For most intents and purposes, in English at least, Corvus now means ‘Crow’ and not Raven and has done for over 200 years; almost as long as we’ve been scientifically studying these birds. I’m certainly not going to persuade any taxonomists, zoologists, ornithologists or other scientists to revert now. The only really useful conclusion here is the reminder that, historically, Corvus meant Raven, not Crow. Because it now means both, it is possibly to be correct either way around. The Raven may, by convention, have become a type of Crow, but the Crow is also a sort of Raven. This actually sort of fits with the biological reality – not only are Carrion Crows very similar to Ravens, but they can actually sometimes interbreed; ‘Raven Crows’ indeed. As to why this reversal happened, my suspicion lies with the quirk that the two words appear to be closely related; ‘Corv…Crow’ in English. In reality there is no etymological connection between the two, which is presumably why the distinction is preserved in other languages as I covered above.
I’ve done a fair bit of film, TV, and radio work by this point, not a lot of which is particularly relevant to my blog (with the exception of my post last year on Brandon Lee conspiracy nonsense and one other about the inventor of the machine gun that I might blog in future). However, a few weeks back I was asked by Jed Hunt of Siren FM if there was truth to the claim (on Wikipedia, where else?) that the song ‘Black Betty’ was actually about a gun. The song is best known today in its rock version by Ram Jam, but was originally an African-American folk song (in particular, a prison song). I had not heard of this suggestion, but was intrigued. Could ‘Black Betty’ be an earlier form of or equivalent to the famous ‘Brown Bess’ musket? And could the ‘bam-a-lam/bam-ba-lamb’’ line in the song be a reference to gunfire, or perhaps a soldier’s marching cadence?
Well, no. Not in its original, historical context at any rate; obviously any performer or even listener can imbue a song lyric with any meaning they wish. But I can state with a fair degree of certainty that ‘Black Betty’ was not written with guns in mind. Before I go into the detail, please do listen to Jed’s superb documentary programme; his research coincided nicely with my own (I was only asked about the potential firearms connection, but the whole origin story piqued my interest, hence what follows).
First, let’s put the gun suggestion to proverbial bed. Firearms, like other tools or machines (not to mention domestic and farm animals!) did receive this kind of ironic female nickname; ‘Brown Bess’ for the British soldier’s musket being the most famous. This was derived from a nickname for a common woman or prostitute, and I have a dead tree article on that subject pending – I will no doubt blog about that in the future). On the face of it, ‘Black Betty’ looks promising; it too was one of several nicknames for a prostitute or fallen woman,
… but as he must range, Black Betty, or Oyster Moll serve for a Change : As he varies his Sports his whole Life is a Feast, …
-From ’Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’, by Thom d’Urfey, 1719
There is very likely a connection too with generic nicknames for black women in America, especially slaves and servants. So it’s plausible enough. However, unlike ‘Brown Bess’, there is absolutely no evidence that I can find for a gun being called ‘Black Betty’. Someone may have used the name, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have caught on, whereas various other nicknames have survived in print, notably Davey Crockett’s faithful gun ‘Betsey’. I did assess the claim itself, and even the reference cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually provide any evidence for ‘Black Betty’ being a gun nickname. It just says that ‘Prior to the “Brown Bess”, stocks were painted black.’ This is false; stocks were never painted. Wiki mentions ‘some sources’, but doesn’t say what these are. I certainly can’t find them. So ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with guns as far as I can tell.
As ‘Field and Stream’ put it (Volume 36, 1931, page 96); ‘In early frontier parlance, was the musket called “Black Betty” as well as “Brown Bess”? Ans. The term “Black Betty” had allusion to whisky or a bottle of whiskey, and never to a firearm.’
So what did the writer of ‘Black Betty’ intend? On the face of it, simply reading and listening to the original lyrics, they certainly refers to a woman. There’s no real indicator of any double meaning, and the lyrics themselves are both straightforward and sparse, with a lot of repetition. Also, it turns out that one of the original recorded performers was actually asked what ‘Black Betty’ meant. You can download the original WAV file from the U.S. Library of Congress website here and try for yourself to discern the full answer (I’ve placed question marks where I’m uncertain), but the initial reply is clear (I won’t censor the ‘N’ word in this context). What’s interesting to me is that Clear Rock responds immediately, without pausing for thought. It’s clear that he either genuinely believes in his response to the exclusion of other meanings, or has been asked many times and is giving a stock response, sanitised for his (white, free) audience. Regardless, here’s my transcript:
Interviewer (interrupting): ‘Clear Rock! Clear Rock, who was Black Betty?’
Clear Rock: ‘”Black Betty was a old nigger woman on that Goree Farm right out from Huntsville, but(?) she threw(?) her hip(?) cutting a tree down and I(?) never knew(?) her(?)’
In case there were any doubt, the Library of Congress also have transcribed notes from the same field trip. It doesn’t give us the full quote, but confirms that ‘Black Betty’ was a ‘tree cutting song’, and with this quote confirms that Betty was, in the mind of this performer at least, a real woman:
‘Black Betty was a old nigger woman right outa Goree’.
As these notes then state, Goree was a state prison farm for women. If Betty was ‘old’ in the 1910s or 20s, and if the song’s lyrics reflect her real history, she must have had her mixed race baby somewhere else, because Goree only opened in 1911. Of course, there is the chance that there never was a real, individual ‘Black Betty’. That does not mean that the song isn’t about ‘her’; we’re talking here about meaning, not historical reality (but once again, Clear Rock certainly claimed she was real).
The above isn’t the earliest known recording, so there is room for a more original interpretation. However, it’s damn close. Clear Rock did perform with his contemporary James ‘Iron Head’ Baker on one of two versions recorded by the latter during a December 1933 research trip by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax to Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. Clear Rock’s words carry as much weight as any of his contemporaries, and he appears to have been the only singer to have been drawn on the meaning behind the song. He would surely have been aware of any subtext or double meaning, yet chose to identify ‘Black Betty’ as a specific woman. Of course, he may have deliberately withheld a deeper meaning.
Certainly the Lomaxes thought so, despite the answer they’d recorded (twice) from Clear Rock. They wrote in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs that:
“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.” (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)
Note that the convict that they refer to is probably not Iron Head, as he was an inmate at Central State, not Darrington. The version written down is also different. Still, as Wikipedia relates;
‘John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as “Iron Head”) in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song. In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled “‘Sinful Songs’ of the Southern Negro”, Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is “Black Betty”. Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war’s end that “prisoners sang of ‘Black Betty’, the driver’s whip.”
Lomax was quite correct. ‘Black Betty’ was a name for a whip or whipping post, and it’s plausible that the ‘bam-ba-lam’ line might be a reference to the flogging that was common in prisons until the early twentieth century. However, note that ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’ was published in 1934, five years before Clear Rock was asked this very question and stated that ‘she’ was ‘an old nigger woman’. So one of the original performers of the song basically contradicted Lomax’s assumption that the song was about the whip. At the very least, it’s about both. Also, it’s not clear that any of the interviewees were necessarily asked about the Black Betty of the song. Nonetheless, I do have to give Lomax’s opinion a lot of weight, and they had decades to change their mind on this point, yet every edition of that book asserts the whip. For example:
‘She was the whip used in Southern prisons.’ (Lomax 1940, 60-61).
We must also recognise that the way oral and musical tradition works means that even if the writer of ‘Black Betty’ only had a woman in mind, the whip was definitely a current meaning at that time. Thus, as soon as someone performs the song, it’s going to become about a whip as a dual meaning with the woman directly referred to in the lyrics.
So there you have it; Black Betty was a woman, and may also have been a prison whip. However, the 2012 liner notes for the 1933 recording featured on the ‘Jail House Bound’ record confuse things still further:
‘7. “Black Betty” (AFS 200 Side B) by James “Iron Head” Baker with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up; recorded in December 1933 at Central State Prison Farm in Texas. Lomax claimed that this song was about the whip used to punish prisoners rather than a tale of a woman, but both Alan Lomax and Bruce Jackson found prisoners who argued that “Black Betty” was actually the prison transfer truck.’
Wikipedia reports that:
‘In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka “Big Head”), Reese stated that the term “Black Betty” was used by prisoners to refer to the “Black Maria” — the penitentiary transfer wagon.
Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:
‘As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, “bam-ba-lam.”’
I would call this ‘unconfirmed’. I can’t tell when Bruce Jackson interviewed prisoners, but his book was published in 1972, and the earliest references I can find are 1960s. Jackson’s interviewees may not have heard of ‘Black Betty’ being a whip simply because whipping had long been discontinued. Perhaps the name jumped from whip to truck? After all, the use of the whip had been officially discontinued by the time Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lead Belly were performing the original version of the song. It’s logical enough that it might survive as another inanimate (well, sort of animate!) prison object of misery.
Strangely, when I did my usual Google Books trawl, by far the most common usage of ‘Black Betty’ in the nineteenth century was in reference to a bottle, usually a bottle of alcohol. However, this doesn’t seem to be current in early-mid twentieth century U.S. prisons, so can I think be discounted along with the gun explanation.
tl;dr – the Black Betty of the song was a woman, possibly also a prison whip, and may later have become the prison wagon. ‘She’ has never been a gun, a bottle of alcohol, or any other object that those of us not imprisoned and engaged in cutting trees might imagine.
Back from the dead once again, with a brief and obscure but interesting bit of etymology. Having read a few suspicious origins for the British English word ‘mullered’ (usually used today to mean ‘drunk’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘defeated’), I came up with some useful confirmation of the explanation tentatively given at ‘World Wide Words’ (right at the end of the piece). They don’t seem certain, but as far as I can tell it’s actually very clearly derived from a Romani gypsy word for ‘murdered’. I turned up these two sources;
‘…mush had been mullered’ (the man had been murdered)
-‘The English Gipsies and their Language’ by Charles Godfrey Leland, 1873, p.179 ‘Geoffrey growed up long, long ago, and he has been mullered a long time since.” “Mullered,” Gwilym knew, meant dead.’
-’Whistler’s Van’ by Idwal Jones, 1936, p.45
So, nothing to do with ‘mull’ to crush or pulverise, or anything involving Islamic ‘mullahs’. It’s actually one of many Romani slang terms to not only make it into English speech, but to actually ‘go viral’ since the early 1990s. It’s even pretty close to its original meaning if you think about it.
“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”
A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.
Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.
All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.
Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.
To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.
None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!
As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;
By this logic, firing a whole sub-machine gun magazine would be ‘giving them the whole eight inches’…
Snopes have recently updated their entry for the origin of ‘The Whole Nine Yards‘, and as they rightly point out, it’s pretty much the case that whatever you think it comes from, it doesn’t. I do have a few comments though. Firstly, there’s one other reason why the machine-gun belt explanation can’t be true that isn’t covered; that there is no standard-length belt of that measurement for any machine-gun, air or land service. Despite this and the other good reasons given by Snopes and others (notably a total lack of references for it anywhere), it remains one of the most popular explanations. Even the Smithsonian have repeated it as fact.
The other, more important thing has to do with their suggested real origin for the saying – a lewd ‘joke’ about a Scotsman’s penis…I mean kilt. Having discounted the idea that it arises from the kilt per se, they end the article by referring to said joke/story. As an apparently American joke, featuring a Scottish stereotype and not rooted in historical reality, it would overcome the problem of all the early written references being American in origin. It also doesn’t require that a kilt actually be a standard nine yards in length (it isn’t).
However, I have a couple of issues with this. Snopes state that the story is ‘of uncertain age’, yet the version they give is in very modern English, and must have come from somewhere traceable. Yet they give no date whatever – nor any source for the version they reproduce.
Their source would appear to be the claim here (recounted version of the story here) by US Navy Captain Richard Stratton, who remembers first hearing it in 1955, just a few years before the phrase as we know it appeared in print (1962 according to Snopes, or perhaps slightly earlier). However, aside from this, I can’t find any evidence that it’s a traditional story at all. In fact it seems to be an original song with a known writer and a copyright date of 1991 (and a performance date of 1990). Now, it’s possible that this is a version of an existing folktale of some sort as Stratton’s memories suggest, but if so it’s pretty poor form to claim words penned by ‘Traditional’ or ‘Anon’ set of words as your own. More discussion on the song/story question here. More likely is that it is based on an off-colour joke of relatively recent vintage that was current in Stratton’s day. He may well be correct in remembering both this and the contemporary use of the phrase, but have wrongly assumed that the two are related. The phrase as ‘punchline’ not only seems like an afterthought, but a total non-sequitur. At least the song version sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t specify ‘nine yards’ and isn’t itself claimed to have anything to do with the phrase. I just don’t think that this claim is any more convincing as an origin for the phrase than any of the others that Snopes list. I’m not alone.
Finally, I might actually have a contribution to make here, though it does admittedly run counter to the presumed American origin of the phrase. The U.S. is, however, a nation of immigrants with a language (and a good deal of folklore) in common, and I think the gap in written sources not insurmountable. It’s also quite possible that, as the story was preserved as an oral tradition in Scottish Gaelic, it could have made the jump straight to American English without ever passing into British English. But I’m starting to speculate here.
I came across the following during past research on this same subject. It’s a Scottish (funnily enough, though kilts don’t factor) folk-tale entitled ‘The Stupid Boy‘, collected by a Miss Dempster in 1888. Its opening subject is a nine yard length of cloth, the successful selling of all nine yards being key to the story;
‘There lived once on a time in Sutherland a widow, who had one son, and he was a very stupid boy ; so stupid that he could not be trusted out of sight, and that he had no idea how to buy or sell. One day his mother had nine yards of home-spun to sell ; and there was a market within a few miles of her, at which she wished to show it for sale ; but she could not go herself, and had no one to send but her son, and she thought a great deal how she was to prevent him doing something stupid with it, and being cheated. At last she thought that as the fair lasted three days she might send him every day with three yards, and that he could not go far wrong in getting a price for so small a quantity.’
Dempster, 1888. ‘The Folk-Lore of Sutherland-Shire’, The Folk-Lore Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1888), pp. 149-189
It would have been particularly neat had the boy’s magical revenge taken place after he’d sold the ‘whole nine yards’ rather than just six out of the nine, but you can’t have everything. I’m not suggesting this as definitive, mainly because there is such a huge gap between this story being written down (and no doubt it is far older than 1888) and the first written appearance of the saying proper. We’d expect some sort of ‘missing link’, particularly as with the latter we are talking about a different country. Nonetheless, it’s by far the earliest relevant instance of the idea, if not the actual phrase. Even if Stratton’s origin is accurate, ‘The Stupid Boy’ still pre-dates the kilt story/song as a specific reference to the idea that a total of nine yards of something is somehow significant, and is not in itself incompatible with Stratton. As with everyone else who’s ever speculated on this question, I doubt we’ll ever know if it’s actually significant, but it’s interesting if nothing else.
So, what’s the real answer to the question? It’s another ‘we don’t know’, I’m afraid. Whatever quibbles I have with the Snopes article, we certainly agree on that.
I’ve just come across a video from Pat Condell on Richard Dawkins’ blog that I thought demanded a quick and very specific debunk. Condell is Youtube’s resident outspoken atheist and is clearly not a fan of Islam. I’ve seen several of his videos and broadly agreed with most of the content. However, in his video, he repeats a common misconception; that “Islamophobia” is a neologism of “the last few years” and the work of “Islamic Supremacists and their left-wing enablers”, “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness”. As a simple Google Books search shows, the first of these claims at the least just isn’t true.
There’s precious little online that credits “Islamophobia” as being any older than the 1980s, but I’m not the first to bother to check this. A commenter on another (this time written) criticism of the word and its application must have done the same 10-second piece of due diligence:
“While I don’t disagree with every point the quoted article made, its assertion that the term ‘Islamophobia’ was invented by the Iranian fundamentalists at the end of the 1970s is simply false. A quick Google books search shows that Bernard Lewis wrote about the “new phenomenon, sometimes called Islamophobia” in his book “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” in 1953. Nor did Lewis invent the term, as it also appears in an article from the Journal of Theological Studies in 1924.”
“Certain writers in particular are blamed for their ‘ Islamophobia ‘. Mohammed, our authors complain, is called an epileptic, a charlatan, one suffering from hysteria, a socialist obsessed with the idea of an impending judgement. In reality he was a socialiste religieux.”
The wording implies that the word was in currency even in the early 1920s, amongst theologians at least. No doubt the modern widespread use of the word to chill criticism (which I readily acknowledge does exist and deplore) is a 1990s and especially post-9/11 phenomenon, but the word itself is well-established. Even if it were of very recent coinage, that wouldn’t automatically negate its worth as a word. The circumstances of its origin and its subsequent usage would do that. I don’t have access to the full 1924 book review, but it’s clear from the context that the word is being used by Muslims against Christian writers questioning not the practices of Islam, but the holiness of its founder. In other words, if it was coined as a means of silencing criticism, it was boring theological criticism. It would take some scholarship to demonstrate whether the word originally had greater and more sinister meaning than this, or if not, when this shift occurred. But of course it’s far easier to deny its validity across the board – indeed, its very existence, as Condell and others have done. For sceptical atheists (for the two are by no means synonymous), this rhetorical approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Those of you who like to get your knickers in a twist over my output may have been thinking that I’d given up. Not a bit of it! I’m back with a (much-delayed) request from JREF forumite jimbob, who asks “do you have any more information about whether “taking the piss” came from saltpetre?”. He pointed me to this explanation for the popular UK English expression;
So desperate was the need for potassium nitrate (aka saltpetre) for making gunpowder that when it was discovered that it could be made from urine King Charles I issued a proclamation that families had to collect the urine of their livestock and hand it over to ‘Saltpeter men’ who collected it daily. The powers of the ‘Saltpeter men’ were later extended to allow them to to dig up the urine soaked floors of all dove-houses, stables, cellars, etc. To facilitate this, it was illegal to cover the floors with anything other than ‘mellow earth’.
The UK once had a substantial wool trade. In fact, England’s medieval prosperity was founded on wool. In the 13th century there were three sheep to every man, woman and child and wool was the biggest export. At this time, the job of the “fuller” was vital. The fuller was responsible for treating the wool with urine. Officially recognised as one of the worst jobs in history, the fuller spent all day trampling wool knee-deep in barrels of stale urine. It would take a good couple of hours of urine-soaked trampling to produce decent wool. Fulling went back to ancient times, but in medieval times England needed lots of fullers and lots of urine.
The very fact of there being two versions suggested to me that at least one of them was BS – though it could of course be the case that both of these industries contributed to the practice that in turn generated the saying. Let’s start with how likely the claim is in itself.
That ‘Night soil’ men existed, and collected both human excrement and urine door-to-door until fairly recent times, is beyond doubt. Modern sewage systems and artificially produced chemicals have made it redundant, but before that they provided a useful service – the alternative being to throw your urine into the street or nearby body of water.
So far, so good. But such quaintly plausible stories are behind many false etymologies, by way of retrospective explanation – people look through the historical record for things that bear some superficial similarity or inferred connection, and put it forward as a suggestion. Over time, the explanation gains credibility through repetition, regardless of any gaps in reasoning, references, or chronology. At best, these hypotheses are unprovable exercises in creative thinking. At worst, they trivialise real history. I have been told by an official guide at one Renaissance-era property that the dining table there had a removable top in order that it could be licked clean by the family dogs ready for the next course.
Where’s the connection here? Urine, obviously, but beyond that – why would such a phrase spring from that job? I’ve heard it suggested that the connection in respect of the lowly job itself – that the piss collectors were ridiculed for doing so, therefore someone who is ridiculed might be compared to them. But it’s a rather bigger logical stretch, and we’d want to see some evidence that this was the case – a memoir, some oral history, something. In any case, this was by no means the only low-status job out there, and I can’t see people who were willingly giving their waste products to these men, ridiculing them for it. I mean, you don’t mock your bin-men for ‘taking your refuse’, do you?
As ever, the only way to confirm is to look for the earliest usage of the phrase, and its context. The slang dictionaries put it at the first quarter of the 20th century, whilst the earliest I could find was from 1945.
This is certainly within the period of urine collection that we’ve been talking about, though not at the height of saltpetre production (over a century prior).
It’s worth nothing here that the variant phrase ‘take the mike’ pre-dates ‘piss’ by twenty years. Aside from the potential implications for ‘piss’, it certainly seems to undermine the suggestion that ‘mike’ came from ‘piss’ via Cockney rhyming slang.
We’ve seen nothing to discount the night soil interpretation as yet, but what of other explanations? The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Tony Thorne says that;
“This vulgarism has been in widespread use since the late 1940s. The original idea evoked by the expression was that of deflating someone, recalling the description of a self-important blusterer as ‘all piss and wind.'”
Looking at that phrase in turn, we see that it was in existence in advance of the others – back at least as far as 1922, from the famous writer James Joyce, no less.
Interestingly, the presumably related “take the wind” expression dates all the way back into the 19th century, and was still in currency into the “piss” period (though it only references the “wind” bit), for example this piece in Fraser’s magazine (1857), and forward in time to this quote from 1935.
If there’s a flaw in all this, it’s the added complication of ‘take the wind of his sails‘ (another here), one with an obvious maritime origin that could conceivably have nothing to do with all this piss.
In any case, “piss and wind” can tentatively be traced back again to “piss proud” – a term for what we would call ‘morning glory’ – the idea being that even a worn-out old codger could wake up apparently virile and manly, but as his erection faded (people thought it was caused by urine build-up rather than erotic dreams), it would be clear that it was only superficial. Hence if someone was very full of themselves, and it wasn’t justified in the eyes of his peers, to take him down a peg (another similar term of course) would be to take the wind out of him, or to be more poetic about it, to take the wind out of his sails, or finally, if one wished to be crude, to ‘take the piss out of him’. This is all summed up rather more concisely over at Wide Wide Words.
So, nothing too conclusive, but hopefully this exercise does demonstrate that the neat ‘night soil’ interpretation is without evidence, and that are better ones out there. Ultimately, I think we just have to accept that firm origins for these things are often elusive. The best of them are still only suggestions.