It’s always most satisfactory when I look up the origin of a word and find it immediately in an etymological dictionary. It’s even better when I come cross the first use of a word when reading newspapers or magazines.
It happened recently when I read an article on Madame Claude, who from the 1950s to the 1970s ran the world’s classiest prostitution ring.
Her girls served clients such as John F. Kennedy (when he was President), oil billionaire Aristotle Onassis, President Gaddafi of Libya, Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, the Shah of Iran, actors Marlon Brando and Rex Harrison and painter Marc Chagall.
Madame Claude had a network of 200 girls (she called them her ‘swans’) the best of whom could earn $10,000 for a day’s work. That was very good money 60 years ago. It still is.
Her international business was run from premises above a bank behind the swanky Champs Elysées in Paris.
In those days there were no faxes, e-mails or mobile phone messages. Madame Claude didn’t need them.
She had a sophisticated worldwide telephone booking service that kept her clients on five continents more than happy.
As her girls were booked by telephone, they became known as call girls, the first ever use of that term. The name stuck, even when a girl was earning only $50 a day instead of $10,000. I sometimes come across the origin of a word when I least expect it — such as when reading obituaries. That’s what happened in a newspaper’s tribute to Lauren Bacall when she died in New York City 15 years ago.
The obituary chronicled the parties organised by husband Humphrey Bogart and his boozy pals such as Frank Sinatra.
At one particularly drunken all-night binge, Bogart, Sinatra and their drinking mates passed out on the floor. Next morning, Bacall said they looked like “a goddam rat pack”.
From then on Bogart’s boozy buddies were known as the ‘rat pack’ and the term was later applied to Sinatra and his drinking cronies such as Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford.
Bacall’s term ‘rat pack’ for Bogart’s sodden sidekicks, was precise use of the word because ‘rat’ is very much associated with alcohol abuse.
From the 17th to the 19th centuries, a drunken person taken into custody was referred to as a ‘rat’, probably from the term ‘drunk as a rat’. In the early 1980s, ‘rat-arsed’ was used for tipsy or drunken teenagers.
Not surprisingly for a animal that moves around in the gutters, ‘rat’ keeps cropping up in terms related to the seamier side of life.
As a verb, ‘rat’ can mean to steal or rob, and in the Army during the First World War, it meant to search the body of a dead man, looking for any kind of valuables.
A ‘rat-fink’ is an early 20th century term for a police informer, and to ‘rat on’ someone also meant to give information to the police. A ‘rat-shop’ (or firm, office, house) were late 19th century trade union colloquial terms for places of work where less than full union rates were paid.
To ‘rat it’ was an early20th century term and meant to run away quickly or suddenly, usually from the police or debt collectors — and sometimes unsatisfactory marriages.
The term ‘like a rat up a drainpipe’ was used exclusively for men who were quick off the mark — especially in the sexual sense.
When talking about the different kinds of toasts we make before drinking any kind of alcohol, someone said it’s been years since he last heard anyone say ‘chin-chin’.
I haven’t heard ‘chin-chin’ for donkey’s years and it’s been a long time since I last used the term. But there was a time when it was just about everyone’s favourite toast.
I first came across it when my brother brought it back from a visit to France in the late 1940s. A few years later I used it on my first trip to Paris and the south of France. Because of its association with France, I always thought it was a French word. But many years later I learned it had its origins in the Cantonese ts’ing-ts’ing (meaning please, please) a common greeting in that part of China.
The anglicised version, chin-chin, was first brought to Europe by merchant seamen in the mid-1880s. However, it didn’t become well known until the First World War.
It was very popular in France where the aperitif was a twice-a-day custom. From there it spread to other parts of Europe and it was commonly used in London club society.
Another meaning of chin-chin was conversation, and ‘chin’ and ‘chinning’ also meant talk.
Both ‘China’ and ‘chin’ are frequently used in English slang, some of it originating in the Merchant Navy and the Armed Forces.
In the early 19th century, ‘China music’ was conversation or oratory. When conversation was reduced to chatter or patter, it was called ‘chin-wag’. A bore’s conversation in the Army and Royal Navy was known as ‘chin-food’.
The name ‘China’ was sometimes used in a roundabout way. In the early 18th century, London’s Bow Street was referred to as ‘China Street’ because of its proximity to Covent Garden.
There appears to be no connection between China and Covent Garden, but there is: Covent Garden was at one time London’s main outlet for the sale of oranges — and every variety of orange originally came from China.
But the slang term ‘china orange’ has nothing to do with the fruit: it is a piece of chinaware. The word still exists in a term that means exaggerated odds: “I would bet all of Lombard Street (London’s famous street of banks) to a china orange.”
A ‘china plate’ is rhyming slang for a pal, the rhyme being on mate. The term, as is common in rhyming slang, is often shortened to ‘china’.
In the Merchant Navy, however, when the crew said ‘china plate’, they were referring to the First Mate.