High definition…

03 Jul

Did you have a water cooler moment today?
A water cooler moment is defined as; “A significant moment in television history that is discussed next day in the workplace”

Few and far between these days, sadly.

Interestingly, there is a far older version off this colloquialism, which is still used today in north America, especially in naval slang; Scuttlebutt.
The scuttlebutt was the barrel of fresh water, left on deck on a sea voyage, for the enlisted men to drink. In what is clearly time-honoured tradition, they would gather to exchange gossip about life on board the ship.


“Meet you in the stationary cupboard in ten minutes”

A surprising number of these everyday sayings are of naval origin. Consider your “three square meals” a day for example. This refers to the small, square trays, with raised edges, that sailors would use to keep their plates from sliding around the table during heavy weather.
Of course, the most well known of these must be “Limey”, the American slang term for English people, deriving from the practice of eating limes on the long voyage to the New World, the vitamin C helping to stave off scurvy.
And I suspect we’ve all been a bit “three sheets to the wind” at one point – referring to the three ropes that keep the sail on a ship secure, which when loosened by the wind, cause the ship to veer wildly about – after a few too many drinks.

This sort of etymology interests me, it’s what makes language so fascinating. The fact that everyday objects have names that describe them so cleverly, through the use of past experience and historical reference. And so many off them remain in common usage.
I would guess that most people know that the word “saboteur” is thought to derive from the Dutch movement of Ludditesque workers who, feeling that their jobs were threatened by the rise of technology, threw their wooden clogs (sabots) into the gears to destroy the machinery.
And probably a lot of you knew that the name of our preferred jean manufacturing material originated from the term “de Nimes” (of Nimes, the city in which “denim” was first made)


A pair of innocent, modern day sabots, earlier.

It occurred to me one day that there was a lot of fun to be had with creating fictitious etymologies for existing words, (in a sort of natural extension to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd‘s hilarious book The meaning of Liff.)
You know the sort of person who falls for the Did you know they took “gullible” out of the dictionary joke? Well we had someone like that at work.

We’ll call him Damien.


We devised a game that consisted of two or three of us each thinking up at least one outrageous lie to tell Damien every day.
I have forgotten a lot of them, this was a few years ago, but the ones that I do remember were pretty good, if I do say so myself;

In the Scottish highlands a few hundred years ago, when the foresters and crofters had to fend for themselves in the wild, through the long Winters, there was nothing better than a good hearty, warming soup to keep the cold at bay.
There was a wide variety of game to choose from in the old forests, and one of the favourite delicacies was a thick soup made from the meat of moles, goats, and tawny owls.
And from the spicy, curried Moleygoatawney broth of those days, we get the modern Mulligatawny soup.

Damien swallowed that one without blinking, and was heard telling someone else the same story only ten minutes later.


A laughing stock, obviously.

The other inspired piece of obfuscation was of a more European nature;

Back in the 16th century, in {insert remote eastern European country here}, in a town called Niche, there was a regular meeting of all the farmers in the district who cultivated specialist crops, and bred rare and exotic species of animals. They would come together to trade ideas and tips, as there were very few other people with their arcane knowledge.
This became known as – yes, you’ve guessed it – Niche market, and has subsequently been used to describe any highly specialised and exclusive branch of a given trade.

Damien’s radar didn’t even blip.


For those of you who are interested, “mulligatawny” loosely translates as “pepper water”, and if you’d like to try making it yourselves – minus moles, goats and owls – go here.


Posted by on July 3, 2012 in Etymology


7 responses to “High definition…

  1. Ali

    July 4, 2012 at 09:55

    You mean thats not how the soup came about!!!!!

  2. Stewart

    July 6, 2012 at 16:53

    Really enjoyed this one! Minus one house point for spelling though.

    • dalecooper57

      July 6, 2012 at 17:16

      Modem / modern. Got it, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it


    February 2, 2014 at 21:04

    Fabulous. Actually, I never knew the origins of the word saboteur – although after you revealed your scampish sense of humour in relation to poor old ‘Damien’, I’m not convinced it’s true. I shall be googling that bad boy, before passing the information off myself. Keep it up, Dale!

  4. adsnads1976

    February 2, 2014 at 21:06

    Great little yarn this. Poor old ‘Damien’.


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