Friday, 31 August 2012

origin of the call coo-ee

I received an email today called Coo-e-News. I think that's a clever title for the newsletter, because it's about Indigenous Community Volunteering, which relates to the word coo-ee, and it's online, so it's an example of e-News.

I'm rather embarrassed to admit that until I went to the Napoleon Exhibition in Melbourne a couple of days ago, I hadn't given any thought to the origin of 'coo-ee', this typically Australian word.

The Napoleon Exhibition was bound to be enjoyable, because of the fascination of this powerful historic figure. But for Australians it's particularly worth a visit because of the focus on Napoleon and Josephine's interest in the exploration of Australia. To me, as a lover of word origins, it was interesting to read that the first recording of the cry 'coo-ee' was made by a Frenchman.

 The Free Dictionary defines cooee as
a call used to attract attention, esp (originally) a long loud high-pitched call on two notes used in the Australian bush vb cooees, cooeeing, cooeed, cooeys cooeying, cooeyed (intr) to utter this call n Austral and NZ informal calling distance (esp in the phrase within (a) cooee (of)) [from a native Australian language]
This article on the website of The State Library of New South Wales explains:
Francis Barrallier (1773-1853) was one of the colony's earliest French settlers. Escaping to England with his parents when Napoleon took Toulon in 1793, Barrallier embarked on the Speedy to join the NSW Corps in November 1799, reaching Sydney in April 1800... Napoleon ordered the Baudin expedition, 1800-1804, to conduct a survey of the Australian coastline... Barrallier also took an enlightened interest in the local Aboriginal people and he is believed to have first recorded the Aboriginal call 'coo-ee' which Pierre-Francois Bernier (1779-1803), astronomer to the Baudin expedition (1800-1804), set to musical notation.

I began to wonder which indigenous language was the origin of this word. Various languages are suggested on internet sites, but Richard White at the University of Sydney says it was a surprisingly widespread usage at the time of European arrival in Australia.
Aborigines had used it in various ways, but the remarkable thing is that it seems to have had widespread use throughout Australia, spreading well beyond normal linguistic borders (Hunter had recorded it in NSW, Flinders in Western Australia, Tasman - possibly - in Van Diemen’s Land). Less remarkable when the cooee is acknowledged as a communication and navigational technology, a superbly effective forerunner of GPS, rather than as a word, which Europeans persisted in reading it as.

The article ends by saying that although the word has played a major role in the rise of Australian national sentiment, it is unfashionable nowadays. White adds, 'I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of Australian students in my Australian History class had cooeed in the bush at least once.'

I've cooeed. It's fun. (You have to do it in the bush for the best effect.) 

 If you'd like to hear it, you could listen to this podcast.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Plumb puddings or plum puddings?

Today I visited the Napoleon exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was presented in a fascinating way so that visitors had a sense of experiencing the story of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon.

 Having a keen interest in words, I was surprised to see a James Gillray cartoon from 1805 titled The Plumb Pudding in Danger. It is a caricature of the English Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt, slicing up the world, sharing with Napoleon Bonaparte.

 The modern spelling of this dish is plum pudding. I've never taken notice of the fact that there are no plums in it. So I wondered whether the spelling plumb is a more accurate one.

  The Free Dictionary quotes the Farlex Trivia Dictionary:
plum pudding - So named because it was originally made with plums—the word was retained to denote "raisin," which became the main ingredient.
An article from The West Australian newspaper Sat 31 December 1935 refers to an eighteenth century recipe for a boiled 'plumb pudding'.

What's Cooking America , giving an overview of the history of the name, says there were never plums in plum pudding.

In researching this post I became aware of another thing I've never paid attention to - we use the word prune to refer to dried plums. The Online Etymology Dictionary says plum comes from the Latin pruna, and that the change of Latin pl words to pr is unique to the Germanic languages:

plum (n.) Look up plum at Dictionary.comO.E. plume, early Germanic borrowing (cf. M.Du. prume, O.H.G. phruma, Ger. Pflaume) from V.L. *pruna, from L. prunum "plum," from Gk. prounon, later form of proumnon, from an Asiatic language. Change of pr- to pl- is unique to Germanic. Meaning "something desirable" is first recorded 1780, probably in reference to the sugar-rich bits of a plum pudding, etc.
The prunus trees that are so lovely and so useful in our gardens include the plum, of course, but I also love cherries and apricots.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

origin of the phrase 'rule of thumb'

At a workshop today about edible weeds, we discussed the danger of tasting unknown plants, and the group agreed that it would be generally safe to try a tiny piece of foliage from a plant. (But I guess it would be most unfortunate if anyone tried that on a poisonous toadstool.)

One participant said he'd heard the phrase 'rule of thumb' originates from the idea that it's fairly safe to try a piece of leaf that's smaller than a man's thumb.

I can't see any references to this origin on the Internet. In fact, it seems more likely that the phrase comes from the use of the thumb as a rough measure of length. Wikipedia points out:
 The use of a single word or cognate for "inch" and "thumb" is common in many other Indo-European languages, for example, Frenchpouce inch/thumb; Italianpollice inch/thumb; Spanishpulgada inch, pulgar thumb;Portuguesepolegada inch, polegar thumb; Swedishtum inch, tumme thumb; Sanskritangulam inch, anguli finger; SlovakpalecSlovenepalec inch/thumb, Czechpalec inch/thumb.
By the way, it was a great workshop. I as I've said before and before and before, our thinking often depends on the words we use. If I call this lovely little plant a weed, it might irritate me to see it growing in my garden.

But if I call it a herb, or even a potherb, or just plain old 'food', then it's a different story. I think it's chickweed, but I'm not sure enough to say so straight out. I'd better sign up for another weed workshop, or perhaps I should consult Doris Pozzi's handbook of edible weeds. (She presented the workshop.) 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

I could have gained a few points on Randling tonight

What is a 'desire path'? That was the question on Randling tonight. And I knew the answer!
As The Bette Davis Cup Squad correctly answered, it's a shortcut, an unofficial path worn through parkland, made by people refusing to use the official path.

I wouldn't have known the word except that someone put up a sign saying, 'We want our desire path', when our favorite exit from Quarries Park was blocked off.