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Warren Clements

Frying ice and fanning with kippers Add to ...

Neither sleet nor snow nor icy sidewalks shall keep Word Play from getting round to its mail.

The expression “to know something like the back of your hand” has for at least 65 years meant to be entirely familiar with a subject. Still, a recent television commercial for cheese prompted a few readers to smile and/or wince.

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The announcer said, “The monks of Oka, Quebec, knew how to make cheese like the back of their hand.” Robin Jones wrote: “I don’t want to eat cheese that is like the back of a monk’s hand. Do you?”

Anson McKim wrote: “There is so much going on here it’s difficult to know what is meant. (1) They used to make cheese that tasted like the back of their hand, but it’s better now. (2) The backs of the hands of the Oka monks were so good that they modelled their cheese thereon. (3) The familiar round of Oka cheese wasn’t always like that.”

Robert Burn asked recently for a Canadian expression meaning the ultimate in futility, to match the British phrase “might as well fan it with a kipper.” Several people nominated phrases frequently used in Canada, even if not indigenous.

Richard Winter offered whipping (or beating) a dead horse. Lesley Lock saluted her old high-school history teacher, “P.J. Swalwell, who regularly used two such expressions that I have never forgotten, as the visual image they evoke is so apt and compelling: ‘You might as well try to fry ice’ and ‘It would be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.’ ”

Casting his net internationally, David Streiner shared the Yiddish saying, “ ‘ Es vayt hilfen vi a toyten bonkess,’ which means, ‘It helps as much as cupping a corpse.’ Old-timers may remember treating a variety of maladies by applying heated cups ( bonkess) to a person’s back to draw blood to the surface, which isn’t of much use once the person is dead.”

Jim Smyth asks whether Word Play has heard of a word that was in common use in Dublin in the 1940s. “The word is ‘gurrier,’ and in Dublin slang it described an unpleasant, untidy, vulgar slob. It was never, to my knowledge, used to describe a woman.”

Smyth has beaten by a decade the Oxford Dictionary of English (a shorter cousin of the Oxford English Dictionary), which says the term originated in Ireland in the 1950s. It offers two possible origins for the word. One is the French noun guerrier, warrior. The other is gur cake, an Irish-English term for a mincemeat-filled slice of pastry that used to be associated with street urchins.

After this column discussed felt and filter, from the Latin filtrum, reader David Antscherl inquired about philtrum, the word for that “vertical depression or runnel (I use that word deliberately) between the nose and upper lip.” He wondered whether there was a connection with the filter.

The answer is no, but the philtrum has its own curious origin. Although it was used in English by 1653 to refer to the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip, philtrum had entered the language in 1609 (and even earlier as philtre) in the sense of a love potion. The word derived, by way of the Latin philtrum, from the Greek philtronphilos meaning loving or beloved.

“Why the median vertical groove in the upper lip is called the philtrum is unknown,” Californian gastroenterologist William S. Haubrich wrote in his 1984 book Medical Meanings. Perhaps, perhaps not. The upper lip is known as Cupid’s bow because of its shape, and Cupid was the Roman god of love. Moreover, there is a belief in the webiverse that the ancient Greeks considered the philtrum one of the more erogenous parts of the body, which would tie in with the love potion.

Alas, I could find no printed source to back this up. Should any ancient Greeks be reading this – or, failing that, Hellenic scholars – confirmation would be a philological ( philo, love of, logos, the word) gift.

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