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Amis: no laughing matter

Martin “I am a serious” Amis’s book about the scrotum-tighteningly horroristic age in which we live in has attracted an exhilaratingly vituperative review by Michiko Kakutani in today’s New York Times. She starts as she means to go on, referring in the first sentence to “one of these chuckleheaded essays”. Lovely.

But then I began to wonder: what does “chuckleheaded” really mean? I had always vaguely assumed that it was an American coinage dating from within the last century or so, and had fondly visualized a person with a big squishy yellow cartoon head; or alternatively, a person so irredeemably stupid that he does nothing but chuckle: a laughing fool.

Checking in the OED, though, I find that it has been possible to be a chucklehead since as long ago as 1730. In Thomas Bridge’s Homer travestie (1764), we find the following remarkable couplet:

You think the rock of Troy
Some chuckle-headed booby boy.

(He didn’t call it a travestie for nothing.) And although “chuckle” meant “laugh” from 1548, it seems that chuckleheaded is built rather on the sense of “chuck” meaning “lump” (originally the same word as “chock”). So, the indefatigable lexicographers say, “chuckle-headed” is very like “block-headed”. (There are also the mocking usages “chucklepate” and even “chuckle Chin”.)

Gratifyingly, the sense of a “chucklehead” as someone big, lumbering and clumsy might even represent an extra gleeful ad hominem dart, when applied to the small Mr Amis.

But anyway. I am glad to have learned more from Kakutani’s review than I would have learned from reading The Age of Testicle-Torsioning Infinite Horroristicality. A chucklehead is not, as I had always thought, someone who goes round giggling all the time, but someone whose head is so dense that no mere idea can penetrate it.

What words have you only recently discovered the proper meanings of, readers?

  1. 1  Daniel F  April 9, 2008, 6:57 am 


    As Van Morrison puts it on his lovely new LP:
    “You when the sun goes down
    You in the evening, in the morning when the sun comes round
    You with your ballerina dance
    Well you put me back in a trance

    Well you take my breath away
    Oh you even on a cloudy day
    You make me holler when you come around
    You make me holler when you shake ’em on down

    That’s entrainment, that’s entrainment, that’s entrainment, that’s entrainment
    That’s entrainment, that’s entrainment, that’s entrainment”

  2. 2  Steven  April 9, 2008, 10:21 am 

    Wait, there is a lovely new LP by Van Morrison?
    (downloads from iTunes…)
    So there is!

    I find myself wanting to sing: “That’s enter-trainment.”

  3. 3  richard  April 9, 2008, 3:03 pm 

    Oddly enough I ran across chuckle-headed only this week in East India Company records, via Miles Ogborn’s delightful Indian Ink. I think his source might be 1670s or 1680s… I’ll have to check.

  4. 4  cerebus  April 9, 2008, 6:17 pm 

    To my shame the Tibet protests taught me “restive”. I kept reading it in reports and it didn’t make sense — I figured it’s a nice tranquil thing, resting. Had to go look it up. How did restive come to mean almost the exact opposite of rest?

    Before you laugh, I claim English-as-second-language-immunity.

  5. 5  Daniel F  April 9, 2008, 7:15 pm 

    It’s a really nice album, that in its effortless musicality and laid-back profundity reminds me a lot of Dylan’s Modern Times.

  6. 6  sw  April 9, 2008, 9:35 pm 

    At the risk of starting an argument about how words get meaning: I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. I suspect that the word “chuckle-headed” has what I would have called heuristic meaning (see below). It’s one of those evocative, intuitively-powerful words where, etymyology be damned, you just get the picture. Like its partner, “knuckle-headed”. Thus, you were not in fact wrong about the meaning of “chuckle-headed” even if you were wrong about its precise definition. And to some extent, this is precisely what Amis himself is doing with the neologgorhea pouring out from his clammyshelled bumlips: laugh as we might at the constipated veinbulging that must precede the production of each of his new words, they do conjure up something quiet comprehensible.

    Of the many words I’ve mis-used over the years (and the many times I have therefore misspoken), “heuristic” might be the one I most gaffed, in part because I never really knew what it meant, even though I thought I did. And I still don’t really know what it means, even when I look it up. But it certainly doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.

    Interestingly, many Dylan songs consist entirely of the word “heuristic”:

    Heuristic Heuristic Heuristic Heur . . .istic

  7. 7  geoff  April 9, 2008, 9:37 pm 

    My favourite, though I ‘ve not just come across it, which has annoyed me for awhile but English is English:

    Stakeholder – an independent party with whom each of those who make a wager deposits the money or counters wagered l.e. a neutral person.

    which has now come to mean, I think thanks to MBA types

    Stakerholder – a person with an interest or concern in something -i.e a non-neutral person

  8. 8  Steven  April 9, 2008, 10:05 pm 

    Keep It Simple, Modern Times — very much so. It’s early days for me to decide whether Van M. has managed to pack in as much unexpected resonance into his titular cliché as did Bob D.

    sw — you are quite right to insist on a distinction between meaning and definition, or if you are not quite right it might at least be a useful heuristic, depending of course on what the latter word means. My heuristic for remembering the meaning of “heuristic” is “It’s a bit like a rule of thumb”. “Rule of thumb”, I guess wildly, comes from carpenters measuring bits of wood with their thumbs. Or does it?

    geoff — very good point re stakeholder.

    cerebus — the story OED tells about “restive”, interestingly, is that it originally meant “inclined to stay still”, as you would think, and then was applied to mean “obstinate”, of a person, and from there became more generally “inclined to resist control”, not necessarily by remaining motionless but by having ungovernable motion, as of a horse who goes sideways when you want him to go forwards.

    I am excited by the thought that Richard has found an antedating for the next edition of the OED.

  9. 9  hey zeus  April 9, 2008, 10:11 pm 

    i thought a clavicle was a musical instrument until i discovered where mine was.

  10. 10  richard  April 9, 2008, 10:52 pm 

    “Rule of thumb”, I guess wildly, comes from carpenters measuring bits of wood with their thumbs

    I heard it was a restriction on beating victims with switches or sticks, those weapons not to exceed the breadth of the striker’s thumb.

  11. 11  Matt  April 10, 2008, 3:51 am 

    Perhaps not so much the discovery of the proper meaning but the ignorant way that “lucky country” is applied in Australia, even by some politicians.

    People here often use it as a throw-away line whenever something goes well for the country…”well, we are the lucky country after all”.


    The term is actually very critical of Australia from the same titled book, ‘The Lucky Country’, as evidenced below:

    Horne’s statement was actually made ironically, as an indictment of 1960s Australia. His intent was to comment that, while other industralised nations created wealth using “clever” means such as technology and other innovations, Australia did not. Rather, Australia’s economic prosperity was largely derived from its rich natural resources. Horne observed that Australia “showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society”.

    This might not ring as true today, but altering a phrase’s meaning into whatever seems right and literal, despite its origins, is rather rich but not very resourceful.

  12. 12  Matt  April 10, 2008, 3:54 am 

    P.S. I remember Oprah Winfrey once said that ‘nerd’ stands for Never Ever Rightly Done. Could that possibly be right?

  13. 13  Steven  April 10, 2008, 1:58 pm 

    Nah, surely a definitional feature of nerds is that they do some things particularly well? I suspect that falls into the overcrowded category of Bollocks Etymology™.

  14. 14  judith weingarten  April 10, 2008, 2:53 pm 

    Having just suffered a nasty bout of shingles (before you ask, the name comes from cingulum, meaning ‘girdle’, via, I think, the French ceinture), I was telling English friends that the characteristic rash must be related to ‘shingles’ as in roof shingles; so-called, said I, because made of slate which splits naturally into thin, usable tiles. I then extended this explanation to ‘shingle beach’, — that is, a beach bed made of slate; this, of course, is a chuckle-headed mistake: it’s a pebble beach.

    I’m still puzzled, but a bit wiser.

  15. 15  Aenea  April 10, 2008, 3:07 pm 

    No-one Ever Really Dies :)

  16. 16  richard  April 10, 2008, 3:13 pm 

    re “rule of thumb” – wikipedia (and who cares to argue with its authority?) claims that the carpentry source is probably correct, while the wife-beating source is “has been fully discredited.” Nonetheless, the allegation of a connection with domestic violence goes back at least to the 1780s. I’m not sure what to call such an enduring “mistake” in the use of language… if some people use a term intending a certain meaning, doesn’t the term have that meaning?

  17. 17  John Meredith  April 10, 2008, 3:36 pm 

    “Nonetheless, the allegation of a connection with domestic violence goes back at least to the 1780s. “

    I was pretty sure that this had been debunked. Have you got a source?

  18. 18  richard  April 10, 2008, 7:59 pm 

    I’m only talking about the allegation of, or mistaken belief in, a source in English law. I believe any actual source in law has been debunked.

    The article cites Jack C. Straton:
    …although I don’t see any evidence of peer review for his statements. He claims to have found “four judges and other legal authorities spanning a time from 1897 back to 1782 who declare this origin for rule of thumb” – always in order to deny the validity of the rule.

    The wikipedia article also provides a nice Gillray drawing of “Judge Thumb” from 1782; however false the allegation might have been, it apparently had some currency at that time.

    The caption on the cartoon reads:
    “JUDGE THUMB. or — Patent Sticks for Family Correction: Warranted Lawful!”
    Speech balloons:
    JUDGE THUMB: “Who wants a cure for a nasty Wife? Here’s your nice Family Amusement for Winter Evenings! Who buys here?”
    WOMAN: “Help! Murder, for God sake, Murder!”
    MAN: “Murder, hey? it’s Law, you Bitch: it’s not bigger than my Thumb!”
    …again, the source is not unimpeachable: perhaps it’s not a genuine Gillray cartoon.

    On further reflection, though, I think historical vintage isn’t really the point I wanted to make: if there’s a popular use or meaning for a phrase, which is different from the use approved in dictionaries (eg “decimate:” popularly used to mean “destroy utterly”), and that popular use is well understood, are we right in calling it “wrong”?

  19. 19  richard  April 10, 2008, 8:08 pm 

    definition I was unaware of until this week:
    Secular (a): a: occurring once in an age or a century b: existing or continuing through ages or centuries c: of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration.
    Amazing I’ve got by without it for so long, really. I’m immediately struck by the secular nature of Halley’s comet, solar eclipses and all that.

  20. 20  Steven  April 11, 2008, 12:58 am 

    In saecula saeculorum, and all that.

  21. 21  John Meredith  April 11, 2008, 9:37 am 

    “again, the source is not unimpeachable: perhaps it’s not a genuine Gillray cartoon.”

    Who on earth would bother to fake it? No, I think you are right that it is an urban myth of longstanding. I thought that it had only emerged in women’s studies depts in the 70s. Fascinating.

  22. 22  richard  April 11, 2008, 12:11 pm 

    In saecula saeculorum, and all that.
    Ah, the advantages of a Catholic upbringing. My local methodists had no truck with any of that, sadly.

  23. 23  Jeff Hussein Strabone  April 13, 2008, 8:06 am 

    For some reason that I don’t recall someone recently looked up ‘dingleberry’ in the OED online and showed it to me. I knew the word’s meaning, but it was quite something to see it defined in the precise prose of the OED:

    ‘pl. Dried faecal matter attached to the hair around the anus.’

    The wording reminds me of Dan Savage’s famous definition of ‘santorum’.

    The quotations for ‘dingleberry’ include this gem, or turd:

    1972 B. RODGERS Queens’ Vernacular 19 Dingle-berries (late ’50s-late ’60s), dried globs of feces hanging to the anal hairs of an unfastidious person.


  24. 24  KB Player  April 13, 2008, 11:48 am 

    “the prose mincing like a pretentious sommelier asked to bring a bottle of Baby Duck.”

    For a funnier, and shrewd account of Amis’s inadequacies for tackling this topic, try this:-;page=1

  25. 25  john c. halasz  April 13, 2008, 2:08 pm 

    Re “heuristic”:

    “Heuristic” adj. does not quite mean “edifying”, nor “exemplary”, nor “analoguous”. It concerns drawing out the point of something regardless of immediate application, though with other potential further applications implied. It’s Greek etymology refers to “discovery”. In computation, an “heuristic” n. concerns solving a problem where no algorithm is possible, hence through some sort of trial-and-error procedure. Thus, probably under the influence of cognitive science, “heuristic” n. comes to mean something like “rule of thumb”, a means of application rather than something educed from application. There’s no particular point here, other than perhaps the heuristic one of how the vagueness of words allows for somewhat contrary meanings through their different applications and cases. “Heuristic” is virtually the name for that vagueness of words, by which one can always make a point, even when there is none to be made.

  26. 26  Martin  April 18, 2008, 4:29 am 

    Steven & Richard:

    In saecula saeculorum, and all that.
    Ah, the advantages of a Catholic upbringing. My local methodists had no truck with any of that, sadly.

    — Reminds me of a comment from the film “A river runs through it”: Methodists are Baptists that can read…

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