Taffy was a Welshman

Recently I read a novel written in the early nineties and experienced a mild shock when one of the characters told another that he had made a Xerox of an important document.

Way back then… hardly anybody had a scanner, and Xerox was a household word. But it’s been a long, long time since I heard anyone use it as a synonym for copy. Come to think of it, I don’t hear anybody saying photocopy either. Nowadays we, at least in my small social circle, just say copy without reference to whether the item had been produced by printing off a Web page, scanned, or Xeroxed. If we want to emphasize that the thing is a piece of paper rather than a collection of pixels, we call it a hard copy.

That started me thinking about the words that have flowered during my lifetime, bloomed briefly, and then disappeared as the things they referred to were superseded by new technology. I think Polaroid has just about gone the way of Xerox now. A lot of technical terms that came from people who fiddled with negatives in darkrooms are now preserved for non-specialists mainly by Photoshop: dodging, burning, et cetera. When’s the last time you heard anybody outside a computer museum refer to a floppy disk or a zip drive, or tell you how much core memory their machine had? What about Betamax? VHS? Rewinding the tape? Where are the Walkmans of yesteryear? And thank goodness word processors have disappeared; I think I spent at least half of the eighties trying to explain to writer friends that they’d be better off with a computer than with a Wang.

Victrola, gramophone and phonograph belong to an even earlier era than mine, but I knew what they were; my daughters don’t. Nor did they get their skinned knees painted with Mercurochrome. They have no idea what to do with the funny sliding stick that we call a slide rule.

Then there are the terms that seem to have eternal life – or is that just because I can’t imagine a future in which nobody takes Aspirin, uses Scotch tape, or binds the universe together with duct tape?

And then there are the words that logically should have disappeared but haven’t; my husband still calls the refrigerator an icebox, and no, he’s not that old. Telephones still have dial tones, but they have no dials.

What kind of lifespan do you think mouse, Tweet, blog and vlog will have?

Contemplating language change, I drifted from technology into thinking of all the ethnic slurs of the past that have now been scraped out of our language. And in most cases, no loss… but it’s interesting, at least if you’re a linguist, to see how fast they’ve disappeared. Nobody has a touch of the tarbrush now, Catholics aren’t mackerel snappers, and my daughters have no clue what the Yellow Peril was. I’ll happily wave goodbye to buck and squaw but feel some nostalgia for Indian summer. Chink, slope, slant can go into history’s dustbin for all I care, as can spic, wop, and dago. By all means let’s dump Hymie, Ikey, and Shylock as descriptors. But I do feel for the future linguist who tries to get a dissertation out of the rising and falling fortunes of colored person/person of color.

What’s all this got to do with writing? Well… science fiction writers are always on the watch for word choices that give readers the feeling of a different world, aren’t we? And here are some potential strategies.

Perhaps only great-grandpa refers to streaming or downloading, while younger people use a term that implies vast chunks of data transferred instantaneously, like chunking?

Tired of trying to dream up a name for your stunner/phaser/whatever? Why not pick an actual proper name that’s consistent with your world and make that brand name the universally used synonym for a handheld weapon that kills with some kind of energy beam? Or, for a little fun, have several brands and slip in an allusion to currently prominent figures. “No wonder you can’t hit anything you aim at. Those Blasey Fords always miss – when they don’t misfire altogether.”

Are conflicts between political, ethnic or religious groups a thing in your novel? Let one guy refer to those cultists who sacrifice small animals as Puppy Kickers while somebody else shushes him for extreme incorrectness. The aliens whose heads are surrounded by gently waving tentacles could be Anemones, which could get shortened over time to Neemies.

Okay, there’s nothing groundbreaking in all this; science fiction writers were creating interesting neologisms before I was born. It’s just a couple of ways of approaching them that I hadn’t thought about much before, and – as with every thought more complex than “Time to take the chicken out of the oven” — I am, naturally, considering how to use it.

Besides, it gives me a great answer for the next dozen people who want to know how writers get their ideas. “I was reading a book that mentioned Xeroxes,” ought to send them away scratching their heads.

What’s your favorite fictional neologism?

What disappeared word do you privately mourn?

What term do you think is next for the chopping block?

And for extra credit, can you tell me the source for the title of this piece – without googling it?

78 thoughts on “Taffy was a Welshman

  1. Xerox used to be a generic term, like kleenex. I still hear the term used on occasion.

  2. Taffy is a version of what a Welshman saying Davy for David may sound like to an English speaker. See also Fluellen’s (Llewellen) “pid me eat my leek” from Shakespeare. The quote appears in “Taffy was a Welshman. Taffy was a thief. Taffy came to my house and stole a joint of beef, etc” Yes, I am ancient.

    1. Growing up in Texas, I read the nursery rhyme approximately 20 years before I figured out that “Taffy” was, sort of, the Welsh for “Davy,” and had nothing to do with the sticky candy my grandmother made. I rather regret losing the childhood image of a predatory piece of candy rolling through the house and picking up stuff…

    2. I included a throwaway line about Taffy nicking a joint from the Yeoman Warders in a piece.
      It caused much more confusion among test readers than it was worth, so the darling didn’t survive.

  3. You can’t imagine a future in which no-one “uses Scotch tape” but this is just a bit parochial. I live in such a world (it’s called the UK) and everyone uses “sellotape” as in: “the end of the sellotape’s stuck down and I can’t find it”. Often sellotape is actually the manufacturer’s name printed on the inside of the roll – but not always – as it’s now a generic noun, at least on this side of the Atlantic. I’ll give you aspirin and duct tape though.

    As for Taffy, I remember the nursery rhyme from 60+ years ago, but even then it was considered a bit improper to call Taffy a thief, though not as improper as singing about “Ten little POC sitting on a wall”. Both have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and I see no reason to regret this.

    1. Not so much parochial as a language difference, I think. You speak English, I speak American. You guys have lifts and torches and flats and fairy cakes and all sorts of exotic words. Though, granted, I had forgotten sellotape.

    2. I live in such a world (it’s called the UK) and everyone uses “sellotape” as in: “the end of the sellotape’s stuck down and I can’t find it”.

      Thus the pun in the second Harry Potter book where Ron fixes his broken wand with “Spellotape”, which nobody who wasn’t a Britophile of some type got.

  4. Xerox was one of those brands that had to fight to keep from becoming generic.

    White-out was another. (Neither Wite-out nor Liquid Paper liked that generic.)

    And from my first reading of that nursery rhyme, I thought that Taffy was framed. Probably by the narrator.

  5. As with others, I knew that the line following “Taffy was a Welshman” was “Taffy was a thief”. 😉

    1. Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef. . . .


      I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was in bed, I picked up the poker and hit him in the head.

      1. Last night I did a quick email survey of half a dozen friends, and none of them, even the relatively ancient, could place Taffy. Clearly the readers of this blog are either older than I thought or much more literate than the general population. I’m going with the second hypothesis.

        1. Clearly none of them watched Rocky and Bullwinkle while growing up, since their version made an impression on me. Boris was Taffy, and took a lot more than the leg of beef. 🙂

        2. There’s always the ‘maybe Bob is just that bigoted’ hypothesis. 🙂

  6. And Taffy goes back to the fights between the Welsh and the: Saxons, Normans, English, Church of England (after Methodism swept Wales), mine-owners . . . Pick one. 🙂

    “Neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.” I grew up hearing that one. “Stick a fork in it, he’s done.” Now that everyone under age [younger than author] uses a microwave, no one tests meat or veggies with a fork. “Silk stocking or wool?” Used by an elderly relative to find out if someone was fine folk or common folk.

    “Ginger.” I will be glad to see that fade back into obscurity on the US side of the pond. In England it’s an epithet, in some areas a fighting word, because of the resentment of cheap Irish labor and Catholicism.

    1. I had seen “ginger” used since I was a child. I knew it was a proper name or name of a plant, but I’d occasionally see it used as an adjective. It’s one of the words I tried looking up in the dictionary at school; no, nothing about it being a synonym for “red” there, either. I was in my mid-50s before I finally saw it used in a context where its only reasonable interpretation was “red.”

      I found a picture of ginger on the web. It’s dirtcolor to me. [shrug] This “color” stuff is mostly a mystery to me.

      1. I know a woman online who keeps “ginger” cats (orange marmalade) and she couldn’t explain it either.

        1. Um. Guys. You eat sushi, right? And there’s green wasabi, and a piece of red or pink ginger, right?

          The pickling process makes gari ginger turn more visibly pink than it is. White ginger gets dyed pink or red with beet juice for sushi use.

          There is also naturally brown ginger and orange-brown ginger. They aren’t as popular of varieties today, but they got used a lot in the past.

          1. The use of “ginger” to mean orange marmalade cats and redheads predates the eating of sushi in the location where the terms are used.

            And I have seen orange-brown ginger. It does not resemble the shade of either of those two.

    2. In Anna Russell’s “Analysis of the Ring”, she describes post-marriage Brunhilde as “Love’s certainly taken the ginger out of her.” As I recall, the piece was recorded in the 1950s.

  7. Speaking of the Irish, there are the “lace-curtain Irish” – a northeastern US (maybe even only the Boston area) slur on successful immigrants from Ireland.

  8. Using contemporary terms, especially politically charged ones, primarily seems like a way to piss off half your audience. Admittedly, it wouldn’t necessarily be so: everyone seems to have accepted Bork as a term for “destroy at any cost,” and Swiftboating is used by both sides of the aisle for “an unfair political attack,” despite the fact that many of us on the right side still think the Swift Boat Veterans had a fair point.

    Still, I don’t think that’s how most people would see it. Saying a Blasey Ford is something that will misfire would probably be seen as a sucker punch that would cause your book to get walled by those on the anti-Kavanaugh side.

    1. Annoying the anti-Kavanaugh side could be a feature, not a bug. But I don’t much like my own example because it’s clumsy and obvious. The ideal brand name joke would be something where the reader suddenly laughs three pages later because it took that long to make the connection; the Blasey Ford thing is more like shooting fish in a barrel.

  9. For many people, it’s impossible to write without referencing the age of steam…as in a headline just now: “Spotify: Full Steam Ahead.”

    Frequent use of an archaic artillery term: “Bombshell”

    Terms from the age of sail are also popular: “Loose Cannon”, “By and Large”

    1. And the metaphors tend to come loose. Hence, a space-faring people would probably speak of windfalls and long-hanging fruits when they haven’t seen orchards in generations.

      1. Now I’m picturing the space-faring child asking, “Why did you hang the fruit in the first place?”

    2. “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.
      Some terms from the age of sail survive because they’re useful.
      Others survive because they’re *fun*. Especially when used in front of people who don’t get the reference.

  10. Some words or terms of interest are those that had to be modified, then were de-modified as time went on. Example: “radio” then “transistor radio” and now “radio” again. Or, given how uncommon it is now, is it really a “standard” transmission? “Phone”…and what will that become as time goes on as even years ago ESR dubbed the (smart)phone the ‘eater of gadgets’ as it became ‘good enough’ for more and more for most people.

    1. Or, in the early 1960s, just “transistor”, which annoyed me, like “satellite” for TV antenna or “cell” for cellular phone in later decades.

      1. Ah, like how ‘video’ for a recording bugs me. Video is a signal. And we don’t call sound recordings ‘audios’.

        I did have a moment some time ago when something I was watching had someone mention a ‘transistor battery’… took a bit to realize that was a 9-volt.

        1. Hmm. What do you think we should use instead of “video?” I think “recording” is too general. Suggestions?

          1. That is a problem, admittedly, and by now it’s too late to fix it properly I figure. I suppose it wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I’d had a “normal” upbringing.

    2. Among the few people who deal with non-automatic transmissions, “manual” seems to be the favored term. “Stick-shift”, with or without the hyphen is close to forgotten, and “Three on the Tree” (as opposed to “Four on the Floor” would get a WTF from a majority of car buffs (another dying term) under 60 or so.

      1. Aye, though I suppose my age group (and perhaps a few younger car buffs I know…) get ‘stick’ just fine. I’ve only heard about the “three on the tree” but I think Ma drove one for a time.

  11. > Telephones still have dial tones

    We went from POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) to cable VOIP about ten years ago. No dial tone on VOIP. No dial tone on the cellular phone either.

    Which has, since “quality of service” is marginal for either, often led to having the phone ring at my ear while I was in the middle of saying something, because the connection dropped and my interlocutor called back; I, of course, never knew I was on dead air.

    Want to freak younger people out? Tell them all three TV channels used to go off the air from midnight until early morning, when they resumed broadcasting. And on Sundays your choices were “TV church” and “news” until the evening. It was that way until the late 1980s here…

    1. Wow, I had an embarrassment of riches when I was a kid. Five stations, brought into my little town over a UHF repeater on the mountain and then distributed by a local cable operator. Three networks, the independent Phoenix station, and PBS. (Six, if you counted the channel that the cable operator ran, with a camera permanently on their (ANALOG) weather station with temperature, barometric pressure, and relative humidity. That was on 24/7…).

      Does anyone remember that all of the stations used to come back on the air by playing the Star Spangled Banner? Mine did, certainly – and signed off with it, too, or America the Beautiful.

      1. When my family got TV. we got ABC, NBC, CBS, and DuMont. I think Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was on DeMont. I could be wrong; my memory isn’t what it never was…

      2. Some hear the National Anthem and expect “Play Ball!”
        Some hear the National Anthem and expect “Start your engines!”
        I once heard it broadcast in daylight and thought, “It’s not the end of the broadcast day!”

        1. Living just outside the airbase, I have Reveille at 0700, the Anthem at 1700, and in about five minutes I’ll have Taps (2200).

          I rarely notice them except when I’m doing nothing else – although Reveille has startled me a few times when I’ve had one of those “ten more minutes and I’ll shut it down” nights.

        2. Yepper, this concludes our broadcast day, followed by that funky test pattern which always reminded me of a complicated pistol target.

    2. we had sports on the weekends in the afternoons. usually baseball on Saturdays and racing on Sundays. During the fall it was college football on Saturdays and NFL on Sundays.

  12. Fast forward button on the TV remote.

    Even though technically the “TV” is a big computer monitor with a Unix computer attached to it, and you’re streaming Netflix from a remote server.

    I remember when you had to be a Unix guru to do stuff like that.

  13. There’s a bit in one of David Brin’s books where a work crew, several centuries in the future, completes some arduous task. The boss says (approximately), “Hey, we’re done. It’s Miller Time!” One of the crew replies, “You know, I’ve always wondered what that means.”

    1. Oh, good one. There are no longer any tubes involved in the construction of a TV, are there?

      I rather like the German terms; a TV is a Fernseher (far-seer). Recently I was reading myself to sleep with a fantasy novel and, drowsily, thought the heroine was claiming to have second sight when she was merely watching TV. “I saw far,” is so much more evocative than “I turned on the boob tube.”

        1. Not at the Munich stations. 🙂

          Silly Germans can outdo Monty Python with their game shows.

      1. TV is television, and far seer would be a decent literal translation.

        Tubes are still used in some sound amplifiers, so in theory someone could be crazy enough to make what is essentially a television using a tube for the sound system.

        1. While English swallows foreign words whole and keeps using them, German translates them. So the part of a church English calls the “nave,” German calls “die Schiffe.” I got really confused the first time I was reading (auf Deutsch) about “the St. Margaret chapel is in the north side-ship. The carvings are notable for . . .”

        2. Many years ago, someone even made a computer sound card with a tube output amp.

          But for most people, the only vacuum tube in the is the… cavity magnetron.
          Anyone predict that?

          And chances are the only other vacuum tube they even get close to every year or so is an X-ray tube at the dentists.

      2. Saint Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of TV because of her having a vision of Mass she was too sick to attend.

    1. Huh. New to me too. I’ll have to find out if my superhero-loving son-in-law knows that usage.

  14. Concerning duct tape, there’s a very funny passage in one of Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” novels that comes to mind.

    It’s just after a space battle in which “Black Jack” Geary, the fabled admiral who saved the Lost Fleet, and his crew are patching things up, including wounded crewmen. Many of the machines are patched with duct tape…as are many of the crew, after the medical supplies have been exhausted. But there are alien ambassadors on board who note this and are greatly excited. They immediately begin negotiations with Geary: what will the humans accept in trade for the secret of this “universal fixing substance?”

    I forget what Geary agreed to accept in trade, but the entire scene was a howler of the good kind.

    1. I remember watching Nascar as a kid and they would patch body panels back together with “100 mile an hour tape” which looked just like duct tape

      1. Military grade tape intended for emergency repairs on helicopters if I’m not mistaken.
        And I think it was John Ringo who “invented” space tape which was vacuum rated, a very handy thing were it actually available.

    2. EB Green tape — fixes everything underwater! (I can’t remember how different it was from normal duck tape)

  15. In Heinlein’s Glory Road there is a passage where Star calls herself a witch and Oscar replies: “witch, bitch, sing along with Mitch.”
    I am old enough to remember fondly Friday nights with the Mitch Miller orchestra and sing along show, but I suspect the majority of folks just zone out on that passage.

    1. Dad’s favorite TV show.
      (The signoff theme, sung to one of Sousa’s marches (“Stars & Stripes forever”, maybe.))
      “Be kind to your webfooted friends / for a duck may be somebody’s mother.
      And if you think it’s the end. / Well it is!”

    2. That reminds me how there is, or was (not sure he’s ever coming back – won’t blame him for retiring for real finally) who actually watched Howdy Doody when it aired. BUT.. I can say “Howdy” to someone [mumble] years younger than I and get the reply, “Doody.” And the show was well before my time, but I did grow up with the echoes of it.

        1. Make it two. I was into cowboys and indians as a wee one, whether they were live or had strings.

          And no, I occasionally say “Howdy” but don’t get “Doody”. OTOH, the locals were on the other side of the Indian wars.

          Lots of kiddie shows in the ’50s and ’60s, ranging from serials (TV Superman was such, and Commander Cody was shown on TV) to dedicated shows, ranging from little kid stuff (Romper Room, Bozo’s Circus) up to Rocky and Bullwinkle.

          The local stuff was quirky; Detroit had “Jingles in Boofland”, and WGN did Garfield Goose, “the king of the United States”. Don’t recall much of the former, but GG had a bunch of cartoons and puppet skits.

  16. “Radio” was originally called “Wireless”, then, for some reason (at least in the US), the term “Radio” took over. Now, with cell phones, “Wireless” is back.

    1. And try to explain how “WiFi” makes any sense. “HiFi” was traceable to High Fidelity. WiFi… merely rhymes with HiFi.

  17. Excuse me, I have get a Kleenex and wipe some Jello off my Formica countertop, that is, right after I put a Band-Aid on my cut finger! Those are four more brand names that are used as generics. One place I worked at in the 1990s/2000s used to still call their office copiers “Xerox machines,” even when they had been replaced by Savin, then Canon, and finally Ricoh printer/copiers!

    I like to use a lot of cliches when I speak (I’m in my 60s), and when I worked with some young college-aged students, they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I would say things like “he must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle” and they didn’t know what a phonograph was, or why it needed a needle. They also didn’t know I was talking about someone who talks too much.

    Of course, the younger folks always have their own slang terms, but they don’t seem interested in learning the older terms. Some of us (like myself) were always interested in slang terms from before I was born. In particular, I was always interested in how slang or cliches came into usage. I would hear a hockey announcer call a large fight in a hockey game a “donnybrook,” so I had to find out what that meant (hint: it came from Donnybrook, Ireland, where there was mass fighting at the Donnybrook Fair). When I was a kid in the 1960s, we thought we had an original idea where if someone was drowning that we would throw them a Lifesaver candy. But then later I saw the Marx Brothers movie “Horse Feathers” and Groucho Marx does exactly that — he throws a Lifesaver candy to a woman in the water when she says “throw me a lifesaver.” And that movie was from the 1930s, but the joke was probably older than that.

    And regarding abbreviations used in the computer/cellphone age, like LOL, BRB, LMAO, etc…. I have stopped using such, and will completely spell out the words or phrases. Why? It is my simple-minded attempt to preserve the English language! Otherwise, succeeding generations may continue using some of those without knowing their original meaning.

    And slide rules? Heck, I thought everyone knew that the true purpose of a slide rule was to pull the slide out of the middle and have “sword-fights” in the classroom!

    1. A couple of old slang terms, both used by RAH. “Slipstick” for slide rule–saw Lazarus Long use that for Andrew Libby. The term wasn’t in common usage when I was in college; just at the beginning of the pocket scientific calculator era. On the other hand, I believe it was recognized, but I don’t recall anybody using it. Side note: “Sliderule Accuracy” generally meant 3-ish significant digits for a calculation.

      Another one that Heinlein used I was quite familiar with. “Ameche” for telephone. My folks used that as a family joke through the 1960s. Don Ameche played Alexander Graham Bell in, I think 1939, and somebody came up with the line “When Don Ameche invented the telephone.” This got used in TNotB.

    2. I have use “vaccinated with a phonograph needle” and it’s been understood.
      What threw me some years back now was being asked the time, and then informed that the asker had no idea what “Quarter to Three” was.

  18. I can’t believe no one has mentioned the phrase I miss more than any other. “He sounds just like a broken record.” That phrase was common into the 1980s. The introduction of the compact disc (another phrase no one bothers with anymore – they’re just CDs) set “broken records” on the path to the vocabulary dustbin.

    I write one series where I worked at coming up with slang terms, mostly for a cultural replacement for “cool.” The main setting is a lost colony world in the early stages of the steam age and industrial revolution. I ended up with “patchless” as that culture’s version of cool. Since most clothing was still handmade, the fewer patches the better. When people from that culture made contact with galactic human civilization, I added the far less imaginative “zing” for the galactic equivalent of “patchless.” It’s simply “amazing” without the first three letters.

    The real fun in inventing your own slang terms is using them in your everyday vocabulary. Tell a coworker their work was patchless and you can get some odd looks.

    1. One thing to be careful of is your technical vocabulary for magic in fantasy works. Even if the characters treat it very technologically, the way they are doing the same things by different routes means that you do not want words that smack of technology. (And still more if it’s aiming for sense of wonder.)

      Archaic or outlandish terms help. Simulacra instead of androids.

      1. My day job is in software QA, so I’m very familiar with software patches. But you have to have computers for that kind of patch, which the steam age / early industrial revolution culture doesn’t. So software patches are not a problem.

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