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AWADmail Issue 362June 7, 2009
A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language
From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
Interview with a linguist:
People may be able to taste words
From: Arlan L Rosenbloom (rosenal peds.ufl.edu)
What immediately comes to my mind (and probably that of every other Wisconsin alumnus) when I (rarely) hear the word "trammel" is the inspiring plaque on the iconic Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, quoting a Board of Regents report of 1894 exonerating a professor accused of teaching pernicious ideas: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."
From: Des O'Neill (oneill silcom.com)
In my misspent youth in Ireland, "grig" was a verb, meaning to tease or to taunt. "We were grigging him" meant that we were teasing someone.
It could also be transitive: We were grigging him about his girlfriend.
From: Eileen O'Brien (obriene cadmus.com)
No names, please -- but "Dave from Maryland" is ALL OVER today's definitions! Please look at what he did in just six minutes to illustrate the five meanings of "growler" you sent out.
Growler is so expressive that there's a wide variety of informal senses of the word. Same with gaff. Here's a sampling of readers' comments:
In teaching, we use the term 'growler' for a student who can't sing in tune!
It is also the name of the sound box put inside "talking bears" of yore.
Steiff bears used to have them (and I'm sure others did too).
I guess you can add another meaning to 'growler', a slang term referring to a
woman's private parts.
I came across the word "growler" as a Victorian-era slang word for a sausage
in the book "Homunculus" by James P. Blaylock. The same meaning also
apparently applies in New Zealand, although I have never heard it used.
It always struck me that you could almost certainly get away with a complete
lack of linguistic verisimilitude in period novels. Just have the characters
in your 16th Century romance refer to mutton pies as "plakes", and how many
of your readers will ever call you on it?
In Yorkshire, in the North of England, growler is also used as a slang term
for a pork pie. Yorkshire used to have a rich fund of dialect words, many of
which I suspect are falling into disuse. The one which completely threw me
when I moved back to Yorkshire aged 12, after growing up "in't South" was
"laik" as in the invitation "Are you laiking football?" It means to play,
but was used much more frequently than that word. It always seemed to me to
have a Norse origin, as do so many Northern English place names.
In Phillip Craig's mystery series set on Martha's Vineyard (an island off the
coast of Massachusetts), a "growler" is a very large clam.
In the US Navy a growler is a station to station telephone that employs a
small hand crank to produce a growling noise at the called station.
I've also heard this word used in a communications context, particularly in
the military. A growler can be a military radio. I imagine this comes from WWII
and the Korean War, and possibly earlier, when a radio set was hand cranked,
and produced a growling sound (similar to a phone ring) that would alert the
recipient to pick up the receiver and hear the message. I'm sure I remember
an old M*A*S*H episode when Colonel Potter told Radar O'Reilly to "get on the
growler to I corps". Growler takes me back, to my Navy Submarine days; we
would use Sound-Powered Phones during fire and emergency drills. On Navy
vessels, sound-powered phones were installed to provide a means of
communication if ship's electrical power was cut. It is basically like the
tin cans with the taut string between them, with the sound vibrations carried
along the string amplified by the tin can, using no external power source.
The sound-powered phones sounded about the same too. You could understand the
person, but it sounded as if they were many miles away, speaking out of a
A growler also refers to a large-mouthed black bass and several American
naval vessels have received that name. My dad worked on the USS Growler
SSG-577, a submarine built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery,
Maine, and I went to its launching in April, 1958.
As I recall, in railroad parlance, "growler" defines a diesel locomotive.
I have another definition for the word that I heard. The late Steve Irwin was
in Antarctica filming an episode of his Crocodile Hunter show. He was aboard
a sailboat, and was in the bow on watch, for large pieces of ice, which the
boat's crew called growlers, for the sound they made as they scraped along a
ship's hull. Steve's job was to stand there with a long pole, and push these
pieces of ice aside so they would not damage the hull of the ship.
A more recent definition of growler includes the messages and icons that
appear translucently on your computer screen for a short time (Macs use that
term but I don't know if it is industry wide).
A euphemism for the pre-fabricated burgers once served at the student
cafeteria at Memorial University of Newfoundland; for their obvious effect
In northern England there is a general liking for pies as a fast food. When
the pastry is particularly heavy they can cause quite severe indigestion. For
this reason, such a pie is known colloquially as a growler.
Also refers to the portable electric toilets used by wilderness guides in
areas such as the Grand Canyon.
A slang meaning I've often heard for this word is 'outhouse'. In Ferndale,
Washington (just off I-5) there is a company with a sign, "Growler Inc."
I think they install and clean portable toilets.
In my somewhat downscale, US middle-class upbringing the word "growler"
referred to the bathroom. 'nuff said.
I've heard 'growler' used to describe an electric company employee who checks
on isolated (one home in a neighborhood) electrical outage reports. In
situations where the problem is likely to be as simple as a blown fuse the
power company doesn't want to send a whole team or even devote a large truck
to resolving it, so they send a 'growler' in a small van.
One more meaning for "gaff".
It's the spar at the top of a gaff rigged sail. See figures 1 and 2.
Gaff also means somewhere to stay or live, often implying a temporary or
slightly disreputable lodging, or a place to keep your stuff (clothing, tools,
stolen goods). It is in widespread use in that way especially among people
who may use other slang and who are consciously avoiding 'upper class'
In the entertainment world, to gaff means to direct or tell others what to
do especially in the movie/TV lighting field. My husband spent thirty years
as a lighting gaffer.
I work in the theatre, and we are daily in need of some way to quickly patch,
contain, hem, block, et cetera. The theatre technician's best friend is
something called Gaffers tape, or
as we more commonly refer to it, "gaff". I can't tell you how often one hears,
"Gaff! Stat!" "Just gaff it!" "Can you see that paint doesn't match the gaff?"
Used as a verb, a noun, or an adjective, "gaff" is as useful a tool as it is a
From the first definition of the noun gaff, a pole with a hook on the end,
used to land large fish, a similar device was used in (I believe) the days
of Vaudeville to remove a performer from the stage who either outstayed their
welcome or whose performance did not meet the expectations of the manager of
the house. To be gaffed would then logically fit the first verb definition
(to stand or take the gaff: to receive severe criticism or to endure hardship).
A gaff is also an underwear worn by female impersonators and cross-dressers
to assist in presenting a smooth and feminine-like appearance of the genital
area, especially when wearing tight or form-fitting clothing. In an interview
(I think it was on Johnny Carson) with Patrick Swayze about his film "To Wong
Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" Mr Swayze discusses using a gaff for
Forty years ago I was a lineman with Mountain Bell. We called the climbers
we strapped to our legs 'gaffs'.
Reading about "gaff" I'm reminded of a term I learned as a GI overseas -- "GAF"
which is actually an acronym for Give A F..k and might even be spelled GAFF
if one wished to add "flying". I am not attempting to steer A.Word.A.Day onto
perilous ground with vulgarity, but only to make you aware of a term that
surely still lives among my compatriots, most (surely all, given the amount
of time that has passed) of which have long since returned to civilian life
(or gone onward), taking their newfound vocabulary home with them. Much
American English slang originated in the subcultures represented by groups
of military personnel sequestered at overseas bases in unfamiliar countries
and surroundings. They often developed whole new vocabularies to describe
the new ideas and concepts their surroundings presented. The definition of
the term GA(F)F seems to me to indicate a careless attitude on the part of
the individual so described, especially about the mission one was sent to to
the base/country to perform. Thus one called GAF/GAFF might feel insulted,
if the job ("accomplishment of the mission") was important to them, or in
different circles, a compliment, such circles typified by the groups of
draftees common during the Vietnam conflict who had no wish to be where they
were (which may have been anywhere in CONUS [Contiguous United States] or an
overseas area) or to be doing what they had to do. Such people often turned
GAF very quickly, especially in dirty, thankless jobs, which abound in the
From: Bruce Sloane (sloane crosslink.net)
This week is bargain week! Five words with 20-some different meanings -- five for the price of one. That makes it a win-win-win-win-win!
A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:The shorter a word, the more meanings it has. -Paul A Delaney, meteorologist