Not just heffalumps and woozles: the words of A.A. Milne
If you’ve heard of A.A. Milne, there is almost certainly one reason for that – and that reason is a Bear of Very Little Brain, otherwise known as Winnie-the-Pooh. It was on 14 October 1926 that his eponymous story collection was first published (although he had already made an appearance in the poetry book When We Were Very Young). We previously looked at the language of Pooh Bear et al, looking at everything from Owl’s peculiar spelling to Eeyorish in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But even long-term fans of the honey-loving bear might not be aware that Milne’s love of words was much in evidence elsewhere. Being a big fan of all his work, I thought it would be fun to explore it a little further, away from the Hundred Acre Wood.
The Day’s Play
Milne first found fame in the early 20th century as the author of light-hearted sketches in Punch and other similar magazines. These featured insouciant, witty young men and women doing little but wandering from house-party to house-party, leading lives of leisure. It is the first collection of these sketches (The Day’s Play, published in 1910) that provides the OED with four of the nine senses for which he currently provides the earliest known example:
- come off, v.: (in cricket) ‘to be taken off or rested after a spell of bowling’; (“When I am captaining a team,..and one of the bowlers wants to come off, I am always ready to meet him half-way.”)
- follow, n.: ‘a supplementary portion (in a restaurant)’; (“At most restaurants you can get a second help of anything for half-price, and that is technically called a ‘follow’.”)
- pouch, v.: (in cricket) ‘to catch the ball; to dismiss a batsman by catching a ball’; (“I heard Slip call ‘Mine’ and he pouched the ball.”)
- tonk, v.: to strike, or to defeat (in sport); (“Wanting four to win, I fairly tried to tonk the leather.”)
As you can probably tell from these words – and the excerpts they come from – sport is a major consideration for the young Milne. The title The Day’s Play was actually an affectionate riposte to Kipling’s 1898 The Day’s Work, but play could equally well be punning on sport and frivolity. This is, after all, the man who would later invent the well-regarded sport Pooh-sticks (not yet – at the time of writing – included in the Olympic Games).
The recurring characters in these stories love cricket and golf, and are also willing to turn their hand to parlour games like consequences, should the weather be bad. It was from The Day’s Play etc. that I learned golfing terms like niblick and bye, and cricketing words such as googly and silly mid-on. And the young characters who took part in these sports referred to themselves as The Rabbits. Although prescient of the Winnie-the-Pooh character with innumerable Friends and Relations, rabbit here is slang for ‘a poor or novice player, esp. (Cricket) a poor batsman’. Although the sense is considered depreciative, Milne’s characters wore the term as a badge of pride, as enthusiastic amateurs excelling at both enthusiasm and amateurism.
Milne himself turned with enthusiasm to the stage as a playwright, after a period as an officer during the First World War. His first play had a distinctly linguistic bent – in that it (light-heartedly) questioned how bad a name could be. It was called Wurzel-Flummery, and concerned two men who had the option of inheriting a large sum of money, with the curious condition that they would also have to adopt the name ‘Wurzel-Flummery’.
While Milne made up the name Wurzel-Flummery (‘a humorous name—a name he could roll lovingly round his tongue—a name expressing a sort of humorous contempt’), both sections of it can be found in Oxford Dictionaries. Wurzel is short for mangel-wurzel, a beet cultivated as feed for livestock. It was earlier known in German as Mangold-wurzel, from the words for ‘beet’ + ‘root’, but gained Mangel (German for ‘shortage’) through folk etymology; for the same reason the root was known as scarcity in English. Flummery, meanwhile, is a noun meaning ‘meaningless or insincere flattery or conventions’ and also ‘a sweet dish made with beaten eggs, sugar, and flavourings’; it is from the Welsh llymru; perhaps related to llymrig meaning ‘soft, slippery’.
‘Wurzel-Flummery’ is not a million miles away from the woozles that Pooh would nervously search for (in the chapter ‘In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle’). While woozle hasn’t gained the wider currency of the heffalump, ‘the Woozle effect’ has become used for the phenomenon when the public are misled by frequent citation of publications that lack evidence, in much the same way that Pooh and Piglet believed the reports of woozles abroad.
Mixing up words
The question of names came up again in one of Milne’s most famous plays (which he would later novelize), Mr Pim Passes By. The gentleman in question inadvertently wreaks havoc on a married couple when he unwittingly reveals that the wife was not, as she thought, a widow before her second marriage. The crux of the matter lies with a confusion between the names Telworthy and Pelwittle: Milne loved the idea that a linguistic mix-up could have significant repercussions. Confusion with language appears, with less alarming results, in Milne’s children’s books: Winnie-the-Pooh, for instance, muddles ambush and gorse-bush. (“An Ambush,” said Owl, “is a sort of Surprise.” / “So is a gorse-bush sometimes,” said Pooh.)
I mentioned earlier that Milne’s work currently provides the OED with the earliest evidence of nine words or senses, and that four of these appear in The Day’s Play. Of the remaining five, four appear in the children’s books – heffalump, Pooh-sticks, blip (‘to strike with a brisk rap or tap’, from ‘Bad Sir Brian Botany’ in When We Were Very Young), and the adjective pop-up in the 1926 title Winnie-the-Pooh and the bees, a pop-up picture book. The remaining instance appears in another of Milne’s novels, Two People, and is extremely common: definitely, ‘used as an emphatic affirmative: certainly; yes’. (‘It would be disconcerting, wouldn’t it?’ ‘Definitely,’ said Reginald.)
Which leads nearly to my concluding remarks: was A.A. Milne a wordsmith, and did he write other books worth reading besides Winnie-the-Pooh? Definitely.