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Monday, 25 March 2013

When did we start talking about "Down Under"?

Well, this one didn't go quite as I expected, but I had fun, and I hope you will as well.

Those who know me are aware that I have a longstanding interest in the Australian vernacular. I habitually speak with what used to be called "educated Australian".  I think they have another name for it now, but essentially, it is a form that Americans cannot distinguish from British (though Britons in Britain can, and Britons in Australia can—until they have been here about ten months).

The give-away, is that I can and do verge into general or even broad Australian when the moment merits it, and in all three accents, I use purely Australian terms.  Because I am still dabbling with some YA historical fiction set in the mid-19th century, I have for some time been noting earliest uses of terms in the National Library's Historical Newspapers Collection. At first, I tagged them, then I started putting them in a list, but at 200 items, it became unwieldy, so I established a web page.

The original aim was to avoid anachronisms: while a "billy" was known in the 1840s, it seems to have been confined to Van Diemen's Land until about 1855.  (I haven't added it in yet, but while Tasmania only came into official use in the 1850s, I have seen it in use as early as the 1820s.) Swag appeared in about 1851, but swagman only emerged in about 1861, and so it goes.  Anyhow, I started spreading the net more widely, and made my Harvest of a Quiet Eye (thanks there to Alan Mackay!) available to all.

So that is where all of my discoveries now go. About 99% of the links relate to newspaper articles, but there are also a few citations of books, where possible with links to an online version, but now I am starting something new (or I was when I started writing this: as you will soon see, the whole plan fell through).  This entry was started in part to give me a permanent link to point at which holds some photographs.

We in Australia refer to Australia as "Down Under", though many of us bristle when Americans attempt to cosy up to us by using it.  It just doesn't ring true when they say it.  We welcome Americans as guests and friends, but attempts like that always smack of an obnoxious big brother's patronising familiarity.  It brings out the xenophobe in us, and as an ally, a feeling of regret that even when they are talking to close cousins like us, some USians cannot avoid being offensive without any intention to be so.  Guys (and guyesses), just be yourselves, and all will be fine.

Like a number of Australians that I have asked, I assumed that "down under" was a World War II US coinage.  Yesterday, from something I saw, I believed for a while that it may be a great deal older.

So far, my newspaper researches have shown no use of the expression before 1855, and by then we had a sizeable American population: whalers, Yankee traders and gold-seekers for the most part.

Moving forward, I have two uses in 1907, and that is normally indicative of a new arrival that has been picked up from somewhere. One is from the Sydney Morning Herald, the other is from the Perth Daily News.
The other useful sign is that the April use is in double quotes, and that is normally an indication of a recently introduced term, but the main thing is that I have two hits, close together, and on opposite sides of the continent. Somebody out there was using it.

Significantly, the Perth use is quoting an English newspaper, so possibly it was English. The third instance was from The Queenslander in 1926, and that is in a gushing dispatch from London, so who can say?

On Sunday, I was at the Quarantine Station in Sydney, now decommissioned, but a centre for historical and environmental studies and other stuff. A great little place, and within (strenuous) walking distance of my home, and there's a bus as well.  They also run a boutique hotel and other nice stuff which may be unfortunate in some eyes, but things like that help pay the bills.

I was told that there was a new display, and so I went for a look. As a one-time museum person, I found it rather sterile and lacking in interpretation, just cases shoved full of stuff with no information, but I suspect that they are still working on those aspects.

Anyhow, I found a gem in the form of a headstone for a 27-year-old man who died there in 1837. It reads:

"ERECTED By ISABELLA SIMPSON in memory of her husband DONALD SCOTT mason who died augt 10th 1837 loq(??) aged 27 years.

"Scotia thy sons dowander (far) We find our graves in many dista-- l--ds."

Here are two close-ups of portions of the stone:


I am still looking into this: I thought perhaps Isabella meant "down under",  but possibly that it was a reference to down under in the grave, but that turned out not to be the case.

At this point in this narrative, I checked my email.  Peter Adderley and Matt Hunt had brought their minds to bear on my shots, and I now agree with them that it should be read as:

"Scotia thy sons do wander far. We find our graves in many distant lands."

Ah well, death of a great theory—and I won't now be referencing this page in my collection of early uses of Australian language.

Still, the "loq" or "lcq" has me puzzled, but no doubt that will be sorted in a few days.  I will come back and edit this when one of my good friends reveals the truth.

Meanwhile, I have found a new hobby: there are volunteers working up there to restore the vegetation and wildlife, something an old botanist like me needs to look into.

Footnote: Because I know something of the station's history, I should have realised that the headstone is a very early one, but I was zeroed in on "down under".  Somebody else was more interested in the back story of the headstone, and it is available here, along with a better picture, not taken through glass.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The tale of the gallon

Dover Copyright Free Art, Men, p 80
Let us think about measures of fluid.  Sorry for the break, but I have been having a lump, volume 60 mL or just over two fluid ounces taken away.  Nothing interesting, just a few days down the gurgler, but how do you measure what is going down the gurgler, and more to the point, how do you ensure a fair measure?

Early English units for measuring liquid started with the mouthful, which was about 15 millilitres or half a fluid ounce. Twice this was a jigger or handful. Two handfuls made a jack, or jackpot, and two jackpots made a gill, or jill.

 When Charles I needed more money, he placed a tax on the jackpot, and reduced its size, so there would be more of them. The gill was (by its definition as two jackpots) also reduced in size, much to the annoyance of the common people.

The pail was another measure, about the size of a gill. Given that King Charles wore a crown, until he was beheaded a few years later, you may now be able to read the old rhyme about Jack and Jill with more understanding.

Continuing, two gills made a cup, and there were two cups to a pint. Two pints made a quart, and two quarts filled a pottle, and we find this pair of measures in Henry IV part 2, V, iii:
SHALLOW. By the mass, you'll crack a quart together - ha! will you not, Master Bardolph?
BARDOLPH. Yea, sir, in a pottle-pot.
Twice a pottle was a gallon, while the double gallon was also called a peck, the double peck was a half bushel, and obviously two half bushels made a bushel, which was eight gallons, or about 35 litres. Two bushels filled a cask, and two casks made a barrel or chaldron.

Doubling the barrel gave us a hogshead, but that is hardly enough to drown a man in, as Shakespeare knew. Still, it was enough to lose oneself in, according to Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

In Henry IV, Part 1, the roistering young prince is asked where he has been, and he answers:
With three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads.
Back to drowning a man, though: in Act I, scene iv of Richard III, the First Murderer, as he stabs the Duke of Clarence:
Take that, and that. If all this will not do,
I'll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.
The butt was also called a double hogshead or a pipe, but in The Tempest, Stephano lands on Prospero's island after clinging to a butt of sack. This was substance, and indeed, an object, that Sir John Falstaff knew well, though Sir John may well have considered using it as an unapproved flotation device to be a waste of a useful resource—if Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban had not consumed the contents.

There was one more step to come in the barrel range, the tun, which is close to a ton or tonne in weight. When sailors in the Royal Navy had to heave tuns and butts full of water around in ships, this helped to make ruptures the most common injury in the peacetime British navy.

The gallon is one of those problematical standards which isn't particularly standard, and the problem is one that goes back to the age of Queen Elizabeth I, in whose reign the wine gallon of 231 cubic inches and the corn gallon of 268.8 cubic inches were established. It was the smaller gallon, known as Queen Elizabeth's gallon and then Queen Anne's gallon, which became the standard measure in the United States, while Britain settled on the larger corn gallon.

But while many of the terms used for different measures make sense as measures, and have obvious derivations, we cannot say this of the gallon. The word appears to have come from Norman French, and may relate to a word for a bowl in French, jale. Beyond that, it is anybody's guess.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Uncial ounces

In Latin, an uncia is a twelfth part of something. As money, the uncia is a copper coin, one twelfth of the as, another larger coin, and as a length, the uncia is a twelfth of a foot, though we more commonly call it an inch. As a weight, the uncia is a twelfth of a pound, only these days, we call it an ounce. There is just a small problem here: the usual pound has 16 ounces in it, but in Troy weight, there are still twelve ounces to the pound.

The ounces as we know them today are slightly different, though, as the Troy ounce is 31.1035 grams and the avoirdupois ounce is 28.3495 grams. This means the Troy pound is now 373 grams, while the avoirdupois pound is 454 grams, but what these ounces and pounds were in the past, we have little chance of finding out now.

One the other hand, we have some ways of assessing what an inch was in times gone by, from occasional specifications, like the decree of Edward I, in 1305, which stated that
"Three grains of barley, dry and round, make an inch . . .". 
Since we can still obtain barley, this offers us a chance to work out how long an inch was then, assuming that the modern breeds are the same.  That's a big assumption!

Of course, the inch was also defined in terms of a reference length, the "iron ulna of our lord the King" in Edward's time, later replaced by bronze rods under Henry VII and again under Good Queen Bess, before a gunmetal rod became the Imperial yard in 1835.

Using a standard bar or any other standard not linked to the sovereign was probably a good move so far as the merchants were concerned, at least in Edward's time, given his nickname of Edward Longshanks.

Incidentally, the barley corn lives on as a measure today: the difference between a size 7 boot and a size 8 boot is just the length of one barley corn.  I didn't think there is any link there to the corns we get on our feet, so I checked the OED.  I was right: it comes from the Latin cornu, which is a horn (as in the unicorn).

Back to the uncia, though: the first meaning of 'uncial' is anything to do with either an inch or an ounce, or anything divided into twelfths, but somewhere along the way, 'uncial' came to be a form of writing where the letters have large rounded forms, and instead of being cursive, joined together, the letters of an uncial script are separate.

Biologists refer to the things which are hook-shaped as uncinate or unciform, but these come from a different Latin word, uncus, the most common use in Roman times being to jab it into criminals so they could be dragged to the Tiber.

Gold scales like these ones, seen in a museum in Hobart,
were delicate balances, used to weigh gold that was often
just a fraction of an ounce (a pennyweight) or even very
large amounts.
The standard abbreviation for ounce is oz, because the modern Italian version of 'ounce' is onza or onze. This is probably acceptable, since our abbreviation for a pound, lb, comes from the Italian libbra, from the Latin libra.

Not that modern Italians need to know this — like just about all of the rest of the world, they weigh in metric units. The uncial script, though, is something of a problem to explain. Presumably, the letters, side by side, looked something like a row of coins. I am still digging on this one.

That leaves only the question of why people would use a measure that was based on 12, when all our counting systems seem to be based on 10, or occasionally on 20.

Most probably, a 12-part measure was convenient because you can divide it into halves, thirds, quarters or sixths. In the case of inches and a foot, it is comparatively easy to halve, halve again, and then manually divide the quarter foot into three inches, which as we now know, were really twelfths.

Then think of an ordinary pan balance, and consider how easily the same division process could give twelfths — and then think how much easier it is to get sixteenths. In fact, when you look at the history of the gallon (which I will come to later), you will see that doubling was the normal method of progression for measurements in the Middle Ages and since. It seems the binary system is older than anybody thought.

Now just harking back to the as for a minute, this unit of mass went into French as the 'one' of cards or dice, which in some games scores also as a 10. In World War I, it supposedly came to mean a pilot who had shot down ten enemy aeroplanes and so came into English as an 'ace'.

The French word as also means a first-rater, which may explain why others are happy to say an ace pilot was somebody who had shot down three enemy aircraft, rather than ten.

Figures may not lie, but it's amazing what tangled webs we can weave with them!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Memoirs of a bureaucrat, part 1

Prints of Whales.
I was once a bureaucrat.  I wasn't the usual sort of bureaucrat, but the sort that grey bureaucrats fear: an anarchist with surrealist overtones (or on good days, vice versa).  Because I had no career ambitions, I trod where I chose, and used outrageous methods to outflank the greys.

In particular, I worked to keep them off-balance, and what follows is s selection of the fruits of my anti-balance actions.  We had many, many committee meetings, where drones droned about the thingness of things.  A colleague and I sought ways to distract the drones, and found it in complex doodles.  Mine took the form of stippling, done with a 0.3 mm Rotring pen.  This is very fine, and stippling is commonly used in biological illustration.

I am no artist, but I am a passable draftsman, and I wanted to capture the stippling style, mainly to use in more technical drawings like this:
An 1890s marine steam engine to run a generator on a ship,
reproduced from an original woodcut in Scientific American

I worked, though, mainly in biological areas at first, and the odd joke began to appear, as you can see here on the left.

I quickly realised that the quality of photocopiers was now such that I could play tricks.  I drew the large weevil, and the smaller one came from the photocopier.

Now back to the meetings.  I began doodling textures and while I always started out trying to do a smooth and beautifully graduated spherical surface, they always seemed to degenerate into a duck with a bent beak.

So Andronicus Duck was born, a nervous duck, scared of hitting his head on low-level bridges (hence the helmet), and challenged in the floating area because he had a heavy helmet on his head.

Sometimes, what emerged was a cartoon fish with an anemone on its head: I never knew, when I started, quite where it would go.

But I knew what it would do.

Any drone, seated next to me in a meeting was, by virtue of his droneship, devoid of neurons. (This is by no means a reflection of gender bias: the few women who worked there were non-drones.)

Now when somebody is devoid of neurons, something novel going on near them acts as a strange attractor, dragging their attention away from bureaucratic bumbling as they watch to see what will emerge, so the rest of us could get the meeting through faster.

I failed to notice this at first, but my colleague had already been doing the same sort of thing, so after that, we never sat together and each of us tried to sit between two drones.  Work got done, decisions began to flow.

They don't teach that in management courses—but they should!

Anyhow, I soon got into collage, often as a way of getting an original to pencil-sketch on the drawing pad, but sometimes as an original. Here follow some of the fruits of my labours in the 1980s. Some of them never got past the preliminary sketch stage.

Sign on the dotted lion.

Knight on bear mountain (couldn't get
grizzlies to stand still, so I used koalas).
This was based on a Persian miniature.

Burning the Kendall at both ends.

The Aiming of the Shrew.

The Taming of the Screw.

Saturday, 2 March 2013


In Latin, a basis was a foot, a pedestal, the base of a statue or a column, though in architecture, it went from there to also mean the foundation of a building. In geometry, the Greeks and the Romans, as we do today, drew triangles with one horizontal line at the bottom when they could, and this is the base of a triangle, even today.

Somewhere along the way, 'basic' acquired the sense of just the fundamentals, the rudiments, the bare essentials, yet this sense, like "just the basics" is entirely ignored by the OED, which refers to the chemical meaning, where a base is the opposite of an acid, but the derivation of this use is not explored, and we are left hanging with the information that minerals deficient in silica are basic, as is steel which is deficient in phosphorus.

The base of chemistry seems to relate to the alchemists dismissal of cheaper and less valuable metals as base metals, unlike the royal metals like gold and silver. This was good marketing — like calling the mixture of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid that dissolved gold aqua regia. After all, if the name of the game was to get royal patronage to convert other metals to gold, you needed to get the right brand images!

To start teasing out the story of 'basic', we need to turn to the meaning of 'base', where we are reminded of the many uses of this term, mostly meaning something to do with the lower parts, although there seems to be a certain interweaving that confuses meanings originally assigned to various senses of 'bass'.

One of the common uses, the sense of a baseline, seems to have come to us from triangulation in surveying, when surveyors began with a meticulously measured straight line, and then measured the exact bearings from the ends of the base line to some other point. Using simple geometry and the sines of the angles, the lengths of these other lines could then be calculated, providing the bases for yet more triangles.

Some of the world's greatest surveying efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries involved triangulation on a large scale. Two surveyors called Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon plotted the line of the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, giving us the Mason-Dixon line, while triangulation of meridians at different latitudes was used to demonstrate the true shape of the earth, a hot topic because Isaac Newton had asserted (correctly) that the earth was flattened at the poles, while various Europeans believed that the earth must be elongated at the poles.

People who knew their mathematics well enough to calculate the sizes of triangles knew also that our usual numbers are decimal, based on 10, while the binary numbers of computing are based on two, though many computerists make use of octal (base 8) and hexadecimal (base 16), while many rational engineers argue for more use of duodecimal (base 12) counting.

Logarithms are also calculated to a variety of bases, though these days, with the logarithms built into our electronic calculators, we are hardly aware of the difference between logarithms to the base 10, and those to the base e, which any good number hound can quote to 9 decimal places (2.718281828 . . .). We call logarithms to this base Napierian logarithms after their Scottish inventor, John Napier.

Even lumbering something with the name Basic does not guarantee that it will last. C. K. Ogden's Basic English, a collection of 850 fundamental words supposedly got its name from "British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial", just as the largely forgotten programming language BASIC was an acronym derived from "Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code", but both of these acronyms must surely have been contrived. There was a time when instruction in programming in BASIC was seen as an essential element in education, but that fad has passed away.

The use of slide rules (which offered a graphical version of logarithms, engraved into sliding pieces of finely-machined bamboo), like the use of log tables is a dying art, much to the annoyance of those crusty observers of education who tell us we need more basics.

Curiously, if these same people are asked to demonstrate the use of Napier's bones, another mechanical device from John Napier, contrived to assist multiplication, one which was replaced by logarithms, they are totally lost. One generation's 'basics', it seems, are the next generation's history of technology.