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February 2006 Archives

In Honour of Charles Dickens: bumbledom (beadle, choleric); Tapleyism; gamp; Scrooge; Chadband; podsnap; Dolly Varden

Terms of Wordplay: wellerism; Tom Swiftie (croaker); lipogram; ludic; rebus; cruciverbalist; rhopalic

Peculiar Newfoundland English: dwy (twy, dally); spell; yaffle; crannick; gowithy (withy); bakeapple (whortleberries); droke

The Color Black: black; blackjack (truncheon); necromancy; blackwash (whitewash); blackshirt; Ebonics; black sheep; melancholy; touchstone



In Honour of Charles Dickens

February 7, is the birthday of Charles Dickens. In his honor we will present eponyms from Dickens, characters whose names have become words in our language. We paid Dickens a similar birthday tribute three years ago, and this time we'll present seven more Dickens eponyms, without duplication.

Our first is rather in the spirit of yesterday's Papierkrieg. OED's editors seem to have enjoyed themselves when they defined today's word.

bumbledom – fussy official pomposity and stupidity, especially as displayed by the officers of petty corporations, vestries, etc.; beadledom in its glory.
[From Mr. Bumble, the beadle in Dickens's Oliver Twist]


The British ruling classes' reputation as the high priests of the ancient cult of governmental amateurism was bizarrely confirmed last week. … "We won the war with British amateur bumbledom running a smattering of brilliant professionals. Perhaps we think that because we did it once we can do it again," says Sir Peter Kemp, a former permanent secretary and Whitehall reformer.
– Sonia Purnell, in The Independent, Oct 28, 2001


Bonus words:
– a minor parish official formerly used to usher and keep order during services. Here is how Dickens introduces the type:


Now, Mr. Bumble was a fat man, and a choleric; so he gave the little wicket a tremendous shake, and then bestowed upon it a kick which could have emanated from no leg but a beadle's.


choleric – easily moved to anger
Men of the choleric type take to kicking and smashing - H. G. Wells



For Dickens's birthday we'll look at a happy, well-liked character, from his Martin Chuzzlewit.

Mark Tapley repeatedly says there is 'credit' in remaining ‘jolly’ in a bad situation. He seeks out work as a gravedigger, "a good damp, wormy sort of business, sir, … and there might be some credit in being jolly, with one's mind in that pursuit." What does he think of marriage? "There might be some credit in being jolly with a wife, 'specially if the children had the measles and that, and was very fractious indeed." Indeed, feels uncomfortable in a situation that doesn't offer him such credit!


… there never was a more popular character than Mark Tapley became …; and he attained at last to such a pitch of universal admiration, that he began to have grave doubts within himself whether a man might reasonably claim any credit for being jolly under such exciting circumstances.


Tapleyism – optimism in the most hopeless circumstances [a very rare word]


However, thank God, I have a good share of Tapleyism in me and come out strong under difficulties. I think I may confidently say that no man ever saw me out of heart, or ever heard one croaking word from me even when our prospects were gloomiest.
– William James, Energies of Men


gamp – Chiefly British: a large baggy umbrella.
[After Mrs. Sarah Gamp, in Martin Chuzzlewit, who carried such an impediment.]

Mary Poppins came to the Banks household, carrying her an umbrella aloft and blown in by a windstorm. The umbrella was large enough to make this somewhat plausible! Our quote is from a review of the London stage production of Mary Poppins.


Mary Poppins arrived in Britain, complete with gamp, on September 15. How long will she stay?
– Howard Bird, Poppin’ round, The Stage Online, Sept. 23, 2004


A reader notes: I know of a much different definition of a gamp. It is a woven sample. In most uses, it is a sample of colors, arranged in order as on a color wheel. … To see some examples of color gamps, go here.

Today's is the best-known of all Dickens eponyms.

Scrooge; scrooge – a mean-spirited miserly person; a skinflint
[after Ebenezer Scrooge, miserly protagonist of Dickens's A Christmas Carol]


And so if a few politicians propose reducing the rate of growth on spending ... for instance, that entitlements increase by 6.2 percent rather than 6.3 percent--they get slammed by liberals as Scrooge-like misanthropes.
– John J. Miller, National Review, Dec 31, 2005


A reader notes: The 1950s performance artist (rapper?) Lord Buckley used "scrooge" as a verb in his mind-boggling interpretation of the Scrooge story.  "I been studying all my life how to Scrooge people, and I guarantee I done some fine work in dat direction."

Chadband – an oily, religious/moralistic hypocrite

The Rev. Mr. Chadband, in Dickens's Bleak House (1853), "is much admired by his dupes, and pretends to despise the 'carnal world' but nevertheless loves dearly its 'good things,' and is most self-indulgent."— Brewer


Then he had been the very type of a smug, prosperous, contented Chadband; a placid
patriarch with an air of disinterested benevolence and unassuming sanctity.
– Aleister Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend (1971)

The man was a sanctimonious Chadband. He had come with nefarious designs on
Judith's slender capital. I saw knavery in the whites of his upturned eyes.
– William John Locke, The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne: A Novel (1906)


podsnap – an insularly complacent, self-satisfied person who refuses to face unpleasant facts
[after Mr. Podsnap, in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend]

Today's quote is old but marvelous.


Censorship which is allowed to grow into podsnappery never saved anything. That was pretty well tried out during the dark ages. That's why they were dark.
– Nebraska State Journal, February 21, 1922, quoting Kansas City Star


Dolly Varden – a colorful California species of trout or char
[from the flamboyant, colorful costume of Ms. Dolly Varden in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.]


The Dolly Varden trout gets its name from the pattern of its coat. It supposedly resembles the calico dress worn by Dolly Varden, a character in Charles Dickens' "Barnaby Rudge."
– The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, Nov. 28, 1940


Does it seem odd that a California trout should be named for a Dickens character? After all, what know fisherman, so far from England, know of Dickens? I'd suggest that the answer lies in earlier, now-rare meanings.

Dolly Varden – 1. cloth a large flower pattern, or a certain dress style made from that fabric 2. a style of women's hat, large and abundantly trimmed with flowers


Quilted Robes … Gingham checks, flocked border prints, Dolly Varden prints.
– advertisement, Suburbanite Economist (Chicago), October 27, 1971




Terms of Wordplay

This is a word-site, so it seems natural to devote this week to terms related to word-play.


We are not what we seem, as the needle said to the thread.

It's coming back to me now, as the captain said as he spit into the wind.

I see, said the blind man.

I'm laboring under a false impression, said the die to the counterfeiter.

That's the spirit, said the medium, as the table began to rise.

Eaves dropping again, I see, as Adam said when his wife fell out of a tree.


I like to transition from one theme to the next with a word that fits both old theme and new. We have such a word today. Wordplay like the above is called a wellerism after Sam Weller, who spake many a wellerism in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. When Sam is frustrated by talk that is slow getting to the point, he exclaims, "Out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farding [farthing]."

wellerism – a familiar phrase put in the mouth of one whose situation humorously brings to mind another meaning of that phrase. The double meaning may be by punning on sound, by a double-meaning of a word, or by a contrast of figurative and literal usages. [definition by Wordcrafter]


There are specific names for two types of punning wellerisms.

Tom Swiftie – a wellerism based on a punning adverb
[After the Tom Swift children's books by Edward L. Stratemeyer (1862-1930). The characters rarely just 'said' something; they 'said angrily' or 'said thoughtfully' or 'said joyfully', etc.]


"We've had a flat tire," Tom said deflatedly.

"And someone stole the extra tire," added Tom, tirelessly but despairingly.

"Who stole the marijuana?" said Tom disjointedly.

"Ouch! I'm tangled up in barbed wire!" yelped Tom indefensibly.

"My flight leaves at 8:00" said Tom, airily.


croaker – a wellerism based on a punning verb [term coined by Roy Bongartz]


"I'm dying," he croaked.

The teacher changed my grade," Tom remarked.

There's a whale in the Thames!" Tom blubbered.

"I'll be wearing a mink coat," Thomasina inferred.

"We've overthrown the government," Tom cooed.


lipogram – a composition excluding words containing some selected certain letter or letters

Here is a familiar verse written without any s. Credit Ross Eckler. An exercise to the reader is to write this verse, as Mr. Eckler did, with no e, or no a (changing Mary's name), or no t, or no h.


Mary had a little lamb,
With fleece a pale white hue,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb kept her in view;
To academe he went with her,
Illegal, and quite rare;
It made the children laugh and play
To view a lamb in there.


Poems, dramas, and even novels have been written as lipograms, particularly by the French. Ernest Vincent Wright used not a single e in his full length English novel Gadsby, which begins, "If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that 'a child don’t know anything.'”

It is said that in the fifteenth century an inferior Persian poet proudly presented, to the great poet Jami, verses the inferior had written without the letter alif. Jami pondered and commented, "It would be better if you had left out the other letters too."


ludic – relating to undirected, spontaneous playfulness (pronounced as in 'ludicrous')
Apparently a technical word for what I think of as childlike, spontaneous fun

Today's excerpts (ellipses omitted) are from the first pages of Language Play by David Crystal, which I commend to you.


Everyone plays with language or responds to language play. The aim of this book is to ask why the playful (or "ludic") function of language is important. Ludic language has be a badly neglected subject of linguistic enquiry, yet it should be at the heart of any thinking we do about linguistic issues. The rules of ludic language are different from those which govern other uses of language. There are special ways of speaking. Ludic language exists in hundreds of different genres. Any aspect of linguistic structure is available to become the focus.


rebus – a puzzle in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and letters.
[Latin ‘by mean of things’. It's not clear why this Latin word was applied to this sort of puzzle. The theory I find most convincing notes the Latin phrase non verbis sed rebus – not words but things.]

Here are three rebuses for you to puzzle over. Paint over to see the answers, which are in white type.

John Underwood, Andover, Mass.(achusetts)

timing tim ing
split-second timing

. . . . . . . . . .B
fault man quarrels wife fault

Be above quarrels between man and wife. There is fault on each side.


cruciverbalist – a composer of crossword puzzles; an enthusiast at solving those puzzles

The first crossword puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 1, 1913. Its creator, the first cruciverbalist, was Arthur Wynne, an English-born American journalist. This new sort of puzzle spread quickly and internationally. Booksellers discovered that dictionary sales were at an all-time high.

The term cruciverbalist was coined much later. The secondary sources trace it to 1981, but I have found it used in 1980 by Tom Schwendler in the Nov. 30 Syracuse Herald-Journal.


Tipsy actor? Marlon Brandy. Tipsy southern novel? Tequila Mockingbird. Drives the D.A. to drink? Bourbon of proof. And the definition of 19 Down was Oriental nurse, which every cruciverbalist in the universe knows is amah.
– Stephen King, Bag of Bones


rhopalic – a "growing" verse, sentence, or series of words, with each item longer than the one before (typically one element longer)
[Greek rhopalon, a club that grows thicker at one end]

In sentences, "grow" the words one letter at a time.


I do not know where family doctors acquired illegally perplexing handwriting.


In verses, grow the words. Or grow each line by one metric foot.

With words, grow by adding a letter and then rearranging to form a new word: a at tan rant train rating darting drafting. Or play the last game in reverse, starting with the longest word. Many words can be shortened one letter at a time, always rearranging to get a new word, until you end with a single letter. Here are some. Try it with each of these:





Peculiar Newfoundland English

This week's theme comes to us courtesy of Duncan Howell, of Newfoundland, who collects and compares multiple authorities for us. Excellent, fascinating work, Duncan.

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Thesis Statement: "
Last week, in a dwy, I spelled yaffles of crannicks through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog, and up out of the droke."

I'm not kidding. I really did. This week, I'll explain what I was doing, with a lot of help from the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. (DNE) and other sources. All quotes taken from DNE unless otherwise noted.

The authorities vary somewhat, and I will be noting Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD), Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED), American Dialect Dictionary (ADD), Dictionary of Canadianisms (DC), Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (DAC), Survey of English Dialects (SED), and English Dialect Dictionary (EDD).

dwy – an eddy, flurry; squall. (DNE)
[EDD has dwyes – eddies. COD, SOED have nothing.]


"A mist or slight shower. ‘Is it going to rain today?' ‘No, it is only a dwy,' a Newfoundlander may reply."
– Journal of American Folklore. VIII, 1895, 39.


Bonus words:
– "a meteor squall on the coasts." The Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (London: Blackie & Son, 1867) 704.
dally – noun: sudden lull or slackening of the wind. verb: of the wind, to turn or shift in direction. (DNE)


When the dallies are longer than the dwyes, the storm is almost over.
– an aphorism I'm passing along from my father, Russ Howell, aged 88.


Thesis Statement: "Last week in a dwy [snow squall], I spelled yaffles of crannicks through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog, and up out of the droke."

spell – verb: to carry a burden on one's shoulders, usually halting from time to time for a rest.(DNE)
spell – noun: (a) a short distance, especially that between the resting places of a man with a heavy burden on his back. (b) the burden itself. (DNE)

[For want of a documented etymology, my guess is that both the verb and noun senses evolved from the "resting" connotation.]


"If wood be wanted before the snow fall, it must be ‘spelled out', that is, carried on men's shoulders."
– Rev. Wm. Wilson. Newfoundland and Its Missionaries (Cambridge, Mass.: Dakin & Metcalf, 1866) 215

"Short distances are in common speech measured by spells.
– Rev. Julian Moreton. Life and Work in Newfoundland: Reminiscences of Thirteen Years Spent There. (London: Rivingtons, 1863) 30.


While this is a peculiar Newfoundland word, it is not peculiar to Newfoundland. Similar entries appear in ADD, EDD, DC, and DAC. SOED has an Australian verb sense "to take an interval of rest." COD has no entry with these senses.


Thesis Statement: "Last week in a dwy [snow squall] I spelled [carried, with intermittent rest stops] yaffles of crannicks through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog, and up out of the droke."

yaffle – an armful (of dried and salted cod-fish, kindling, etc); a load. (verb: to gather an armful) (DNEΉ)


(He) was charged with having purloined a quantity, known in this land as a yaffle of dry fish.
– Daily News, St. John's, April 28,1862, p.2.

We're going to yaffle them boughs now.
– P. K. Devine. Ye Olde St. John's, 1750-1936 (St. John's: The Newfoundland Directories, 1936) 57

Get over to Lester's field and get another yaffle of dandelions.
– Evening Telegram (newspaper) St. John's. May 4,1964, p.7


(Incidental notes): The "Lester's field" mentioned here was the departure point for the first successful non-stop trans-Atlantic aircraft flight (1919). And the dandelions were probably for EATING!

Ή COD has yaffle but notes: "origin unknown". EDD has yafful ("an armful") and jaffle. SED has yafful ("armful of hay"). DNE proposes that the origin is jag(ful), which SOED has. SOED also has jag ("to carry in a cart or on a pack horse.") EDD has jag(g).


Thesis Statement: "Last week in a dwy [snow squall] I spelled [carried, with intermittent rest stops] yaffles [armfuls] of crannicks through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog, and up out of the droke."

crannick; cronnick; cran – a tree or root killed or much weathered by wind, water or fire; piece of such wood gathered as fuel; small twisted fir or spruce. (DNE)


You wouldn't cut cronnicks, you'd just haul ‘em up out ‘o the ground...Cronnicks is old stuff bent down on the ground; on the small size, no growth in ‘em.
– Virginia M. Dillon, The Irish Element, in the Speech of the Southern Shore of Newfoundland. (St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland M.A. thesis, 1968) 135.


Crannicks make excellent pre-dried kindling. They are easily gathered at old forest fire sites and places where trees have been previously killed by flooding or insect attacks.

EDD has crannock ("root of furze...which has been burnt"), and also crank ("dead branch”). DC has crunnick. COD has no direct entry but, interestingly, lists crannog ("an ancient lake dwelling in Scotland or Ireland"), as coming from the Irish crann ( a tree or branch"). SOED also has crannog.


Thesis Statement: "Last week in a dwy [snow squall] I spelled [carried, with intermittent rest stops] yaffles [armfuls] of crannicks [dry spruce and fir kindling] through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog and up out of the droke.

gowithy; gold-withy – sheep laurel (kalmia angustifolia), or other similar sort of low shrub. (DNE)


Gold-withy. Although I believe that this application should be restricted to kalmia angustifolia L. , it is in fact applied to any shrubby species occurring in the ‘barrens', e.g. ...Potentilla, ... Rhododendron.
– Ernest Rouleau. Studies on the Vascular Flora of the Province of Newfoundland (Canada), (Montreal: Institut Botanique de l'Universite de Montreal,1956) 31.


Note: some of you may know potentilla by the name known as cinquefoil.

Etymological musings: Wanna know what I think? I think the word came from "go-with-thee". First, that's the way it is commonly pronounced.... "gowithy" = "go with thee". Second, you always bring home leaves and twigs stuck to your clothes and in your boots after you walk through it. It will always go with thee! Finally, lots of common plant names contain biblical references. ( Burning Bush, Jacob's Ladder, Star of Bethlehem, Solomon's Seal, etc). Furthermore, "go-with-thee" is a common biblical quotation. See Exodus 33:14, Judges 7:4, 2 Samuel 13:26, Ezra 7:13. It's so common, it has invaded secular literature. See Don Quixote, ch.57, and "The Outsong" in Kipling's Jungle Book.

Anyhow, that's what I think. But...I don't think any of the dictionaries agree with me!


A reader notes: A "withy" is a strong, flexible twig, used in making baskets and the like, often from the willow. I don't know what the Newfoundland shrubs look like, but there might be some connection there. For extensive discussion, see our board.


Today's word has made me distinctly hungry. I'm off for breakfast. - WC

Thesis Statement: Last week in a
dwy [snow squall], I spelled [carried, with intermittent rest stops] yaffles [armfuls] of crannicks [dry spruce and fir kindling] through the gowithy [sheep laurel, etc.], across the bakeapple bog and up out of the droke.

bakeapple – a low plant growing in bogs and producing an amber berry in late summer; cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). (DNE)
DC has baked-apple berry; COD has bakeapple = cloudberry, "corruption of Inuit** ‘appik' + apple".

Bakeapples (which, to me, bear no resemblance in appearance or flavour to baked apples) are to die for, but are EXTREMELY hard to harvest. Consequently, they demand a premium price. A friend of mine, who was exhausted from struggling through soft peat bogs on his first bakeapple-picking expedition, said "Now I understand why they cost $60.00 a gallon!" In my opinion, they'd be cheap at twice the price. They also grow in Scandinavia, where they are distilled into a liqueur.


They had their refreshments, which included tea-buns and bakeapple jam.
– Gordon Pinsent, John and the Missus: A Novel (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1974) 77.

He remembers the bumper buckets of berries he gathered from the barrens surrounding the town, the bakeapples that he picked from the Witless Bay marshes...."
– Harold Horwood, Newfoundland (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1969) 102.

...and various delicious berries. Of these latter, the Newfoundland summer produces a considerable variety, as cranberries, whortleberries, and the exquisitely delicate cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), known locally as "bake-apples".
– Sir Edmund Gosse, The Life of Philip Henry Gosse (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1890) 50.


Bonus word: whortleberries – blueberries. Also known in Newfoundland as whorts (pronounced "hurts").

[I believe whortleberries and huckleberries (the latter are not found in Newfoundland) share a common etymology in the Middle English hurtleberry. I assume that early settlers, seeing blueberries for the first time (they are not native to Europe) called them by a name they were familiar with.]


Thesis Statement: "Last week in a dwy [snow squall], I spelled [carried, with intermittent rest stops] yaffles [armfuls] of crannicks [dry spruce and fir kindling] through the gowithy [sheep laurel, etc.] across the bakeapple [cloudberry] bog, and up out of the droke."

droke – a valley with steep sides, sometimes wooded and with a stream. (DNE)


Mr. Munn's identification of ‘droke' as a Devonshire usage is ‘a valley with sides so steep as to be extremely difficult of ascent'."
– P. K. Devine, Folklore of Newfoundland in Old Words, Phrases, and Expressions, Their Origin and Meaning (St. John's: Robinson & Co., Ltd., 1937) 5.


COD has droke: "A steep-sided valley. (origin unknown)."; EDD has drock: "a small watercourse."; DC has droke: "a copse."


Last week, in a snow squall, I carried, with intermittent rest stops, armfuls of dry spruce and fir kindling through the sheep laurel, potentilla and rhododendrons, across the cloudberry bog and up out of the steep wooded valley.

Or, to put it more succinctly.......

Last week, in a
dwy, I spelled yaffles of crannicks through the gowithy, across the bakeapple bog, and up out of the droke.

Phew! I'm tired!



The Color Black

Let's spend a week on easier words. We've had themes about spring colors and autumn colors, and this week we'll look at the color black, starting with black itself.

Incredibly, black may have originally meant white. In Old English the usual word for this dark color was entirely different. It was sweart as in modern swarthy; Germanic languages still use cognates of sweart to mean the dark color we now call 'black'. When Old English did use words in the pattern b-l-a-k (with the 'a' either long or short), they meant 'white'. (With the long 'a' it may also have meant 'black'. I am unclear on this.)

By the time of Middle English it is doubtful which color the word means! Context sometimes indicates 'white, pale', sometimes indicates 'black', and often leaves you completely in the dark.

Even today, the sound of 'black' is much like such 'white' words as French blanc = white (as in Mont Blanc) and English bleach to whiten. And one can see a connection, in that a fire emits light (white) and scorches wood (black). (In the same vein, Greek phlegein = to burn, scorch compares with Latin flagrare = to blaze, glow, burn.)

Today black has a negative connotation when used metaphorically, as in 'black arts'. That connotation emerged early in other tongues (Kali, the Hindu death-goddess, is from Sanskrit kali = the black one), but in English the negative connotation does not seem to have arisen until the late 1500s. That too suggests to me that the English meaning was unsettled until a bit before then.


Today's word can mean a certain card game, but we are looking at another meaning.

blackjack – U.S.: a short weapon for bludgeoning, consisting of a weighted head and a pliable handle

A blackjack is a small stealth weapon, easily made and easily concealed, used to strike the back of the head. To make a simple blackjack, partially fill a small cloth pouch with lead pellets, or even loose coins. Grasp it by the loose cloth at the top of the pouch, and swing it with a flip of the wrist. See here for picture and details.

Bonus word:
– Brit: a short thick stick carried as a weapon, as by a British police officer

Compact OED dictionary erroneously defines 'blackjack' as a kind of truncheon. Not so: a truncheon, a solid stick about a foot long, is no a concealed weapon, and it is manufactured. But the beauty of a blackjack is that it is small enough to hide in a pocket, is easy to make, and can be quick and quiet.


necromancy – prediction by communicating with the dead; think "sιance". (more generally: divination, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantment)

An interesting word, but the prefix necro- is Greek meaning means 'death, corpse, etc.' as in 'necrosis'. So what does this have to do with 'black'?

It’s a tale of two prefixs with confusingly-similar sounds. Nigr- (black) is Classical Latin. That Latin also adopted necro- (death) in necromantia, which came to mean 'death prophecy', predicting by talking with the dead. That's clearly what we'd call a black art, and in Medieval times that Latin necromantia became nigromantia 'black prophecy'.

By the years 1100-1400 that Medieval Latin word in nigr- form had come into many languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Occitan, Dutch, high and low German), and in the 1300s English took it from French: nigramancie; nigromance. That is, today's word came into English as 'black prophecy'. Only later (1450? 1550?) did the English start to correct back to the necro- spelling of Classical Latin.


To whitewash is to give something a false appearance of good, by concealing or glossing over its the faults. Similarly,

blackwash – to blacken the character of by highlighting the faults ofΉ
(noun senses of each: something that does so; the act of doing so)

When a writer uses 'blackwash' this way, he almost always is contrasting it with a preceding word 'whitewash'. I suspect that a reader would not understand 'blackwash' if it stood alone as a separate word, without such a contrast. If so, query whether this 'blackwash' can really be considered to be a 'word'.


Then came scandal: two special investigators charged that [etc.] [Atlanta] Mayor Jackson promised "no whitewash, and no blackwash either." Last week he reached his verdict: his old friend had to go.
– Time Magazine, Mar. 20, 1978

The inquiry … is turning out to be the complete opposite of a cosy, well-spun whitewash. It's a pity there is no such word as "blackwash" because that would aptly convey the way in which pretty well everyone involved is going to emerge - with permanent damage to their reputations.
– Nicholas Leonard, This inquiry will blackwash Blair and the BBC, Irish Independent, Aug. 18, 2003


'Blackwash' has further senses, not discussed here. In particular, there seems to be sense in cricket. Can any of our UK readers advise?

Ή Definitions are by wordcrafter, for I do not think the dictionary definitions are accurate. A false appearance of good can be created by concealing faults, or by claiming non-existent virtues. But only the former, not the latter, is 'whitewashing'. Similarly for 'blackwashing'.


A reader notes: When a side wins a test series 5-0 it is known as a "whitewash". I believe some 30 or so years ago England was on the wrong end of such a beating at the hands of the West Indies, all of whose players were black. Some papers took to calling the series a "blackwash". Such a coinage would never be made in these more racially sensitive times, of course.


blackshirt – a member of a fascist organization

Mussolini's followers in the Italian Fascist party, before and during World War II, were called the blackshirts after their black uniforms. Like groups in England got the same name. According to the dictionaries the term is now more general, not limited to those organizations and that time period.

However, although OED and other several respected dictionaries claim this broader usage, I haven't been able to find quotes employing 'blackshirt' that way. The term always seems to refer to the specific fascists of Mussolini or his contemporaries. I'm not convinced that the term 'blackshirt' really has the more general sense of 'any fascist'.


The speech of many – not all – African-Americans is not standard English. Such 'black English' has many different versions, and linguists disagree over whether to view this black English as English (non-standard), or as dialects of English, or as separate creole language(s).

This is not just a dry academic disagreement without real-world impact. Consider: is Ebonics a 'foreign language', for purposes of school programs to assist students who speak only a foreign language? At least one major school district, Oakland California, has answered 'yes'.*

With these different views come different definitions of today's word. I take OED's definition.

Ebonics – African-American English, esp. when considered as a distinct language or dialect with linguistic features related to or derived from those of certain West African languages, rather than as a non-standard variety of English
[coined 1973 by Prof. R. L. Williams, blending ebony and phonics.
An alternate term is African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.]

There is an emotional charge to many usages of this word. For example, this quote reminds me of how in the 1820s some self-righteous British prescriptivists disparaged the speech differences in the US.


Ebonics, or Black English, has become a language that even the faultless housewives of suburbia have come to understand. But slang and pure stupidity, which can be avoided no matter what the ethnicity may be, have mesmerized the American public, undoing years of language taught in schools.
– Deidre Mace, Debauching English, Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 25, 2006


*A reader notes: I believe they did this because they were applying for a grant from a bilingual education program, so they tried defining 'ebonics' as a foreign language.


Three common terms are offered for their black etymologies.

black sheep – a bad character from an otherwise respectable group
Why would a sheep be considered bad merely because it is black? Because its wool was worthless, since it could not be dyed a different color.

melancholy – adj.: sad or depressed. noun: deep, persistent sadness
Greek melas black. An excess of black bile was believed to cause depression.

touchstone – a standard or criterion used to judge something's quality or genuineness
Formerly, a variety of hard black stone was used to judge the purity of gold or silver, by the streak left when the metal was rubbed against the stone.