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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-09-12)

Words drift in and out of common speech, sometimes disappearing forever, sometimes to be resurrected later. A slang word crossed my path some time ago, one which is probably doomed to extinction but which perhaps deserves a few lines by way of an obituary. I came across it for the first time when a neighbour of mine, a farmer who did most of his own mechanical repairs, was stumped by a faulty piece of machinery. He said, “This one will have to go to a tiffy.” A what? “a tiffy, you know, a garage mechanic.”

A lot of questions eventually revealed that it was Navy slang for a man who worked in a ship’s engine-room. Such men were given the resounding title of “Engine Room Artificers”, and “Artificers” produced the abbreviation “tiffy”. They were also sometimes known simply as “E R A’s”, but that doesn’t have the matey charm of “tiffy”, whose meaning has obviously expanded to include all mechanics, naval or otherwise. How many readers of this column, I wonder, have ever heard the word?

Oddly, the first meanings given for “artifice” in my dictionary include “contrivance, trickery …machination”, clearly derogatory terms. Only later do we get to “skill, craft, handicraft”, honourable words for what those admirable tiffies do for our ailing machines.

The word “party” is firmly established in common language, meaning a social gathering, although it is derived from a Latin word that means “to divide”. It is also used to mean a group of people with a common interest or occupation, such as a work party or a political party.

But historically it had much more to do with conflict than co-operation. A mediaeval Christmas carol begins with the lines “The holly and the ivy/Made a great party…” ie a dispute between the two plants over their relative importance at Christmastime. This idea of dispute lives on in legal language, where a lawsuit is conducted between two parties or sides. But it can also have a neutral meaning in law, meaning a person concerned in any affair, such as a “third party”, or someone who enters into a contract. It looks as though the connotation of conflict is quietly disappearing, except in the strictly legal sense.

Another slang term that has puzzled me for a long time is “bottle”. It’s a complimentary word applied to people, as in “He’s got bottle”, and it has been around long enough to appear in The Chambers Dictionary. It is defined there as “courage, firmness of resolve”. Where on earth can it have come from?

The best explanation I can think of is that it’s Cockney rhyming slang, where, for example, “apples” means “stairs” (apples = apples and pears = stairs) and “china” means “friend” (china = china plate = mate). Another appealing example (from The Spectator, no less) is about someone “telling porkies” (pork = pork pies = lies). Now if “bottle” belongs here, it must surely be “bottle and glass = class”. “Class” is defined, among other things, as “style, quality”, roughly what we understand by that dreaded word “cool”, the universal term of approval nowadays. That’s not too far from “courage, firmness of resolve” - under pressure, perhaps? Anyone have a better idea?

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online.




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