You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: kickshaws

The Baltimore Sun

After I posted a photo last week of my new desk at The Sun’s printing plant in Port Covington, a reader remarked, “Pretty Spartan accommodations,” to which I answered, “Yes, none of your Athenian kickshaws here.”

Kickshaws, originally “fancy dishes,” came by extension to be “trinkets” or “gewgaws,” Merriam-Webster tells us.

The origin is the French quelque chose, “something,” which British pronunciation turned into kickshaws. As Orwell remarked, “An Englishman considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.”

In the eighteenth century, the “fancy dishes” sense provided Britons with a ready means to disparage the French and their over-involved cookery, suspicious to anyone committed to a good thick slice of honest and forthright British roast beef.

A specimen from Tobias Smollett’s Expedition of Humphry Clinker (a fine, fine book): The repast “was made up of a parcel of kickshaws, contrived by a French cook, without one substantial article adapted to the satisfaction of an English appetite. The pottage was little better than bread soaked in dishwashings, lukewarm. The ragouts looked as if they hade been once eaten and half digested; the fricassees were involved in a nasty yellow poultice; and the rotis were scorched and stinking, for the honor of the fumet. The dessert consisted of faded fruit and iced froth, a good emblem of our landlady’s character; the table beer was sour, the water foul, and the wine vapid; but there was a parade of plate and china., and a powdered lacquey stood behind every chair, except those of the master and mistress of the house, who were served by two valets dressed like gentlemen.”

Example: Irvin S. Cobb, “Speaking of Operations,” Saturday Evening Post, May/June 1973: “My nurse kept telling me that on the next day the doctor had promised I might have something to eat. I could hardly wait. I had visions of a tenderloin steak smothered in fried onions, and some French-fried potatoes, and a tall table-limit stack of wheat cakes, and a few other incidental comfits and kickshaws. I could hardly wait for that meal. The next day came and she brought it to me, and I partook thereof. It was the white of an egg. For dessert I licked a stamp; but this I did clandestinely and by stealth, without saying anything about it to her. I was not supposed to have any sweets."

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