Saturday, June 25, 2011

The skunk

For some weeks past there has been an occasional pre-dawn visitor to my garden—an especially large and elegant skunk. She sashays slowly across the back lawn, shimmies even. She is industrious but nonchalant, assertive but discreet, imposing but delicate, and above all glamorous. Her tail is long, white and glossy, almost luminous in the half-light. The tapering stripes on her back are the height of fashion. In every respect she outshines the specimen shown above. Browsing for tasty morsels, she gives not the slightest hint of indiscriminate snuffling. There is the occasional tremulous upward flicker of the tail. That is her only sign of quiet satisfaction. I feel she has that rare quality we used to call “poise.” Where on earth did that go, and how can we get it back? Anyhow, I had no idea how glorious mature skunks are, though of course I am aware that you should keep your distance. Alas, yesterday my neighbor Nan Ross alerted me to evidence of a major skunk fatality a little way along Forest Road, state route 122, which Connecticut motorists use with a degree of recklessness that is equal to the worst you may expect to encounter in suburban Cairo or downtown Guangzhou—be warned! Upon further investigation, I fear my beautiful visitor has become road-kill, I daresay not even a statistic, and how very sad I am and sorry about that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pompon bobbery

I have lately been pondering some matters connected with Anglo-Indian language, prompted in that direction not merely by current events (Abbottabad), but by my quest for William—and a spot in which to publish his remarkable story, the product of years of patient searching. So this morning I came across part of an article in Blackwood’s Magazine for May 1877 (Vol. 121, No. 739), “The Anglo-Indian Tongue,” that is cited in the preface to the first edition of his A Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected with the Far East, by Herbert A. Giles, sometime H.B.M. consul at Ningpo, an indispensable work of reference:

“Now it is partly as a key to the shibboleth of Anglo-Chinese society that this Glossary has been designed, though to judge by the opening lines of the same article, which the [anonymous] writer tells us would be perfectly intelligible in a Calcutta drawing-room, there is no comparison between the phraseological difficulties in the way of new arrivals in the Far East and those to be encountered by the ‘griffin’ who wishes to be appreciated in Anglo-Indian society. These lines run thus:

“‘I’m dikk’ed to death! The khansamah has got chhutti, and the whole bangla is ulta-pulta. The khidmatghars loot everything, and the masalchi is breaking all the surwa-basans; and when I give a hukhm to cut their tallabs, they get magra and ask their jawabs. And then the maistries are putting up jill-mills, and making such a gol-mol (“pompon bobbery” in Japanese Pidgin-English,) that I say darwaza band to everybody. But when all is tik, I hope you will tiff with us.’

“The translation of this is:—I’m bothered to death! The butler has got leave, and the whole house is turned upside down. The table-servants steal everything, and the scullion is breaking all the soup-plates; and when I order their wages to be cut, they all grow sulky and give warning. And then the carpenters are putting up venetians, and making such an uproar, that I am obliged to say ‘not at home’ to everybody. But when all is put to rights, I hope you will lunch with us.”

Setting aside the ample evidence of poor domestic economy, not to say terrible industrial relations, it is intriguing to see that the same passage is exceedingly difficult to translate using Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell’s classic Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (1886), another of my favourite works of reference. “Dikk, s., worry, trouble, botheration” is there, as is khansama, though listed under consumah, s., “master of the household gear.” So are bassan, s., dinner-plate; huck, hakk, huq, s., a just right or lawful claim; jawaub, s., meaning (curiously) dismissal; maistry, s., foreman or master-workman; jillmill, s., venetian blinds or shutters (external); and tiffin, s., lunch. The nearest thing to chhutti is chutt, s., or chhat, which essentially means a sort of awning or ceiling, and nothing at all like leave of absence. Bangla, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, and nor are ulta-pulta, khidmatghars, masalchi, tallab, magra, gol-mol (though bobbery is there, but nowhere in Giles, who, after all, specifically cited it as a variant in Japanese pidgin, whatever that means), darwaza band, and tik. Presumably the problem for Yule and Burnell was whether such terms fell outside even their generously porous boundaries of colloquial usage, and, lacking any Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, or other etymological foundation, instead occurred merely as a kind of ad hoc pidgin. Or perhaps it was a consequence of the political and social changes that took place in the decade after the proclamation of the Indian Empire that, having made it into Blackwood’s Magazine, numerous semi-viable nabob terms simply evaporated.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Indigenous Australians have traditionally avoided naming the dead, as much a mark of respect for those who survive them. The taboo is inseparable from spirituality, social usage, and attitudes about kinship widespread among descendants of its original inhabitants in many parts of the continent and offshore, and has today broadened to include a prohibition of the publication, dissemination or display of photographs and other images of the dead. These conventions are not often strictly observed, but are now far more likely to be acknowledged, at least, by means of a warning to aboriginal viewers or readers that they are likely to encounter such references or images—even though they (the conventions) are therefore honoured only in the breach, and almost always by those who are most likely to urge non-indigenous Australians to treat them with the respect they deserve. This is something of a paradox. Meanwhile, as far as I can see there is considerable unclarity about whether these prohibitions were ever meant to be permanent. Certainly the issue of not naming individuals who have died has come to be something of a flashpoint in dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and points to a fundamental difference between our respective attitudes toward the distant past, and about history. Nor is it easily separated from disagreements about collective naming. The Latin-derived terms “aboriginal, adj.” and “aborigines, n.” have now fallen out of favour.

We are for these reasons not likely to see the study of indigenous Australian prosopography flourish any time soon, though nineteenth-century European sources are full of references to named individuals now long dead. I mean no disrespect to anyone by pointing to one of these—as I shall presently—because it brings us back to the issue of collective naming, specifically an old term, “blackfellow,” that is now for obvious reasons pretty much universally regarded with distaste. The matter cropped up in conversation lately with a colleague—we were wondering if that English hybrid could actually have been coined in colonial Australia. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that black-fellow certainly predated first contact and was in common use by 1738, in relation to sub-Saharan Africans. Moreover, the mid-century Australian variants “black-feller,” “black-fellah” and “black-fella” were merely vulgarisms, and had nothing to do with the Arabic fellah (peasant, laborer, bearer), nor any other putative Anglo-Indian origin, which had occurred to us as at least a possibility. However, what surprised me most when at length I double-checked my copy of Austral-English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages, by Edward E. Morris (London and New York: Macmillan, 1898, p. 33) was that his earliest reference to “blackfellow” occurs in Discoveries in Australia by J[ohn]. Lort Stokes (London: T. and W. Boone, 1846, vol. 1, p. 74): “The native Miago, who had accompanied us [aboard H.M.S. Beagle] from Swan River [Perth, Western Australia], was most earnest in his inquiries about the savages, as soon as he understood that some of them had been seen [on January 18, 1842]. He appeared delighted that these ‘black fellows,’ as he calls them, have no throwing sticks;…” The italics are mine. Obviously this comes much later than the earliest current reference in the OED to “black-fellow,” meaning specifically an Australian Aborigine (Collins, 1798), and, despite Commander Stokes’s implicit suggestion that this man actually coined it, the term was evidently by then well enough established in Perth to be learned and used by indigenous English-speakers. It seems strange that Stokes was apparently neither aware of this, nor at all familiar with the term.

Friday, June 10, 2011

All things are queer and opposite again

Thanks once more to my colleague David Hansen, and through him also to John McPhee, I am put in mind of all things queer and opposite by this charming portrait reproduced from a glass-plate negative in the collection of the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. According to information published on their website, the photograph was taken by the pioneering radiologist Dr. Thomas Beckett in November 1891, during an extended visit with his family to London. This is the doctor’s maternal grandmother, old Mrs. Hoyt.

Thomas George Beckett was born in London in 1859 and was one of the seven children of Mr. Beckett, a pharmacist, and his wife Julia, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hoyt. Thomas studied medicine in Edinburgh, graduating in 1880, and spent several years as a ship’s surgeon before going to Victoria in 1885, accompanied by his young wife Kate (
née Lawrence).

The Becketts went at first to the town of Charlton, which is half way between Wedderburn and Wycheproof on the road from Bendigo to Mildura. In 1892 they moved permanently to Melbourne. Beckett was one of a small number of colonial doctors who specialized in radiology soon after the discovery of x-rays in November 1895 by W. C. Röntgen. Another was Beckett’s friend Frederick (Fred) Clendinnen (1860–1913), whose collection of x-ray tubes is in the collection of the Museum of Victoria. Clendinnen purchased his first X-ray apparatus from W. Watson for £5 13
s. 9d., but Beckett built his own equipment, including tubes, batteries, and the ad hoc cabinetry for housing them—not only for taking fairly primitive x-radiographs, but actually for treating cancer patients with admittedly mixed results, and certainly not much concern for the harmful effect upon himself of more or less continual exposure to radiation, which, of course, soon killed him. Beckett was head of the x-ray department the Alfred Hospital from 1901 to 1908, “electrician in charge of equipment,” a keen cyclist, and a captain then major in the militia.

However, what concerns me here is the platypus (
Ornithorhynchus anatinus, formerly O. paradoxus) that you see hanging prominently among the little framed photographs on the wall of old Mrs. Hoyt’s London parlour—evidently a mature animal, if slightly over-stuffed, I suspect, by a taxidermist with grandiloquent, possibly even histrionic tendencies. At her left elbow one glimpses also a preserved lizard, possibly a baby goanna, a large sea shell, and other curios. Neatly stacked on the dresser behind, one makes out albums, books, and maybe boxes—in other words hints toward Mrs. Hoyt’s serious contemplation of natural history and the South Seas, where so many things were without question queer, and determinedly opposite.