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rabbit or rarebit?

Everyone loves a nice Welsh rarebit, don’t they? Bubbling cheese on toast with a dash of Worcester sauce or so, maybe a dab of mustard. Delicious. But where did this strange word rarebit come from?

I think – and this is only a hypothesis, but it has some circumstantial evidence in its favour – that rarebit is, or was, a misnomer, and the original name of the dish was Welsh rabbit. Somebody somewhere either misheard or mispronounced it, or perhaps somebody thought ‘No, it can’t be rabbit, it’s got nothing to do with rabbits; it must be something else – maybe… rarebit? A nice little rare bit of something tasty, that must be it!’ And so this new pronunciation – or new word, really – caught on.

Here is my circumstantial evidence. When I was a boy you still heard both versions, rabbit and rarebit. I was always convinced that rarebit was the correct version, and the rabbiters had got it wrong. But people did occasionally say Welsh rabbit, which they no longer do.

The next bit of evidence comes from the PG Wodehouse story ‘Jeeves and the Chump Cyril’, which contains the line ‘I got the feeling I was as popular with him as a cold Welsh rabbit’. This story appears in The Inimitable Jeeves, published in 1923.

My final bit of evidence is an analogy with the dish Scotch woodcock, which is nothing to do with woodcocks, but is actually egg on toast. I think both Welsh rabbit and Scotch woodcock are different versions of the same joke: we haven’t actually got any rabbit or woodcock to give you, but here’s the next best thing!

I’ll carry on saying Welsh rarebit as the habit is now too ingrained to break; but I’m convinced the original form was rabbit.

Writing this has made me feel a little peckish. I fancy a nice simple quick and tasty snack. Hmm, what shall I have…?

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bewildered

I went for a run in Epping Forest this morning; and although I was in a familiar corner of the forest, near where I live, I managed to wander off the track and found myself lost in a sort of cul-de-sac, my way barred by a wall of holly and brambles. And there came into my head the apposite phrase: ‘I’m bewildered.’

That’s what the word used to mean, you see: lost in the wilderness. This had never occurred to me before. The word is a dead metaphor now, simply meaning confused or at a loss. But once, when people travelled almost everywhere on foot and there was a lot more forest than there is now, being literally bewildered must have been something that happened reasonably often.

Crazy Rich Asians

The recent film Crazy Rich Asians has garnered good reviews and sounds a lot of fun. Maybe I’ll go and see it. What I find interesting about the title, though, is that it shows up a difference between American and British English: when Americans use the word Asian, they mean people from East Asia – China, Japan, Korea, etc. When British people talk of Asians they mean South Asians – those from the Indian subcontinent or its neighbours. This difference reflects both geography (Americans look west across the Pacific towards Asia, whereas we look east across Europe) and history (Britain had an empire in South Asia and hence more immigration from those regions, while America has always had more immigration from East Asia because of its Pacific coast).

In reality Asia is far too big and diverse for its inhabitants to be effectively characterised by being called ‘Asian’, of course. We need some more precise terms. But ‘Crazy Rich East Asians’ would not have been such a neat title and would have confused American audiences who already have a settled picture of what Asian means.

Chatto

Last weekend I went with my wife and mother-in-law to Beth Chatto’s garden in Colchester. Beth Chatto was a horticulturalist and writer who created and developed the garden over many decades; she died at the age of 91 earlier this year. It really is a fabulous garden and you can spend a very pleasant hour wandering through it. There is also a shop, plant nursery and licensed cafe there. I’d highly recommend it for a Sunday afternoon out if you live anywhere within reach of Colchester. Anyway the reason I post this is that I was reflecting on Beth Chatto’s unusual surname. The only other Chatto I’ve heard of is Chatto and Windus, the publishers (now owned by Penguin Random House). Where does that name come from? My guess is that it is a corruption of the French word Chateau. After all, the English version Castle is not uncommon as a surname (Barbara, Andrew, Roy). I have no real evidence for this hypothesis; it’s just a hunch which I would be happy to see either confirmed or refuted.

Lanyards

Fred started back at school last week, so naturally – obviously – ça va de soi – he couldn’t find his lanyard on the first day back. We hunted high and low for it, because going to school without your lanyard these days lands you straight in detention. Eventually I had to give up and give him three quid to buy a new one. I reckon schools are on a nice little earner with these lanyards, which can’t cost more than a few pence to produce.

Lanyards, eh? A few years ago I had never even heard the word. But now every secondary school kid in the country wears one. So do the teachers. So, in fact, do all sorts of workers in all sorts of institutions; it’s not uncommon, travelling home on the tube in the evening, to see half the passengers wearing lanyards which they forgot to take off when they left the office.

But where did the word come from? I looked it up in my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, the one you need a magnifying glass to read and a forklift truck to pick up. The first entry for lanyard gave it as = lainer; and when I looked lainer up it said it was an obsolete term for a lace, strap, thong or lash. Meaning 2 said it was a nautical term meaning ‘A short piece of rope or line made fast to anything to secure it, or as a handle’.

The modern-day meaning – ‘an easily-lost ID card or pass worn on a ribbon around the neck’ – wasn’t there. My dictionary is not the most up-to-date edition, however. It was published in 1994. It would be interesting to know just when the new meaning first appeared in dictionaries.

Booty call

I was reading on Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the bath this morning, and came upon the following phrase: ‘a personable young man, and a baronet to boot’.

To boot. That’s a curious expression, isn’t it? I think it must already have sounded a bit old-fashioned when Fleming used it in 1963. To boot. It means something like ‘in addition’, of course; but why?

Then I remembered the word bootless. This word was a favourite with PG Wodehouse; in one story Bertie Wooster tells Jeeves that any shrimp that tries to pit its wits against him and his shrimping net will find its efforts bootless – meaning fruitless, or without reward.

So boot means something like reward, or profit. And then I recalled a line from Dr Faustus: ‘What boots it then to think on God and Heaven?’ At this point Faustus has convinced himself he cannot expect to be saved, so where’s the profit in thinking of God?

And then, of course, I remembered the word booty – with its original meaning of plunder or loot, that is, not the present-day meaning of buttocks.

So the various forms of boot/booty all have something to do with addition, profit, or gain. (All this has nothing to do with boot as in footwear, of course, which comes, I’d guess, from the French word botte.)

The beginning of autumn

Today is the 1st September and that means that, in my personal calendar, it is the first day of autumn. Some people date the seasons from the solstices and equinoxes. But I don’t. I think this has absurd consequences. It would mean, for example, that winter does not begin until 21st December , which is clearly nonsense; while midsummer’s eve, the longest day of the year, becomes the start of summer. So I take the view that each season is made up of three full months and the months are: autumn – September October November; winter – December January February; spring – March April May; and summer – June July August.

I did not know until today, however, that there are official names for splitting up the seasons in these two ways. My way – according to a tweet I read from Robert McFarlane – is the meteorological way. Today we have entered meteorological autumn. The other way is the astronomical way; we will not have entered astronomical autumn until 23rd September. But I prefer my way, and am pleased to note that meteorologists agree.