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The Scrivener: The 1900s — Ice-cream Cones And Zeppelins

Brian Barratt muses on words – from aerosol to zeppelin – which appeared in a 1972 dictionary, but not in virtually the same dictionary published some 60-70 years earlier.

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It's fascinating to compare two versions of virtually the same dictionary which were published 60–70 years apart. The 1972 edition of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary lists these words:

cone & cornet in relation to ice-cream
genetic, genetics
grandfather clock
roughage in relation to foodstuff
teenage, teenager

However, they are not including in a copy of Chambers's [sic] English Dictionary given to my father in 1913.

The second edition of Oxford English Dictionary (the 20-volume work) informs us that cone appeared in about 1920 as the US alternative to cornet, when referring to the curled-up wafer used for ice-cream. Merriam-Webster, the authoritative dictionary of American English, dates ice-cream cone back to 1909.

Both seem to have been only just coming into use when my father's dictionary was compiled. He had fond memories of the ice-cream sold in his childhood, with or without cornets. Ice-cream had been made in Britain for centuries but it was affordable only by the rich. Italians immigrants mass-produced and popularised it in Britain in the 1870s. Dad used to tell us how, as a boy in the 1880s, he and his pals used to ask Italian ice-cream sellers for "tasters", free samples.

It seems odd that grandfather clock isn't in the old dictionary. Perhaps it was not yet in wide use at the time the dictionary was first published. It was adopted in the 1880s from "My Grandfather's Clock", a song by an American writer, Henry C. Work, and seems to have replaced the earlier terms pendulum or tall clock.

We had quite a collection of clocks in our house. Dad must have been a collector in his early years. The most impressive example was a well-carved wooden affair with a large face and chimes. It probably dated back to the Victorian era. There was also a timber cuckoo clock — the real thing, not a Chinese copy. As a special treat for me when I was tiny, it would be set so that the cuckoo popped out and did its thing. Sometime in the 1940s, Dad bought an electric clock. It stood for a few years on top of the piano but eventually developed a permanent buzz so was switched off permanently.

Roughage used to refer only to coarse material for bedding cattle. In the early 1900s, its use was extended to refer to fibre in foodstuff. I don't think Dad was particularly interested in that aspect of life but Ma was very keen on it. One of her oft-repeated phrases, especially if I turned my nose up at some foods I didn't like, was "You must have your roughage". Nowadays, of course, we called in fibre.

My mother was also keen on vitamins (in food, not tablets). That word came later than Dad's dictionary. It was coined in 1912 by Casimir Funk, a Polish-American chemist as a term for substances that had previously been known as accessory food factors.

And now to a family yarn about a zeppelin. One of the old items which seems to have disappeared when we left England in 1953 was a small metal plate with embossed lettering in German. My father said it was from a crashed Zeppelin airship. The first Zeppelin had flown in 1900, when he was 21. They were used in the First World War but discontinued after the disastrous fire on the "Hindenburg" in 1937, a year after I was born. Where and when Dad acquired the metal plate remained a mystery.

I can't spin any family yarns about aerosol, genetics, teenage, tracksuit or weekend but they are among thousands of other words which demonstrate how the sciences and our society changed during the 20th century. As for the 21st century, well, the scholars who compiled Dad's dictionary would be totally nonplussed by the new meanings of words such as "twitter".

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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