Thursday, 5 January 2012
And all the trimmings
The lights have gone on for the last time, the turkey bones have gone out, the box is out ready for the decorations to be packed away. A moment to reconsider the verbal traditions of Christmas that take their unquestioned places like the once-a-year china and the dangerously oversized wine-glasses.
While looking in J C Hotten’s 1865 Slang Dictionary for ‘tosher’ (another story, and it wasn’t there anyway) I saw on the opposite page ‘trimmings’, as in ‘turkey and all the trimmings’, which Hotten defines as ‘the necessary adjuncts to a cooked leg of mutton, as turnips, bread, beer, salt, etc. Bets are frequently made for a leg of mutton and trimmings. Or one person will forfeit the mutton if another will “stand the trimmings”. It is generally a supper feast, held in a public house, and the rule is for the landlord to charge as trimmings everything, except the mutton, placed on the table previous to the removal of the cloth.’
Hotten’s extended definitions are always enjoyable – you get the sense of him wanting to describe something he’s witnessed or experienced, to build up a rounded picture of the usage.
I had always assumed that the trimmings were bits cut off the turkey and served alongside – I’m not sure what, but maybe the neck or some weird offal that only great-uncles would know to appreciate. Clearly ‘trimmings’ are ‘additions’, while my experience of ‘to trim’ was in the sense of ‘to cut off’ – a ‘trim’ being what you had at the barber’s. Certainly I was aware of the use of ‘trim’ to mean ‘equipped’, as in ‘a trim ship’, and ‘to trim a hat, or a vessel’; but would we ever use ‘to trim’ now in any sense other than ‘to cut’?
How often do we change the meanings of words so that they swing round 180 degrees? Probably more often than we think – think of the infamous ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’, and ‘sad’ and ‘silly’. Apart from the specific nautical and aeronautical usages of adjusting navigational steering devices, all the post 1960 quotations in the OED entry for ‘to trim’ imply cutting. We trim our expenses, our hair, our word counts. There is a sense of doing this because they are too long, we do it to conserve strength, to encourage growth; the underlying idea perhaps is of judicious ‘pruning’. Warily treading into the area of the ‘etymological fallacy’ (that the root of the word is its ‘true’ meaning), I note from Partridge that the root is Middle English trimen, ‘to make strong’, from the Old English trum, meaning ‘strong, firm’.
In confirmation of the etymological fallacy, trimming my hair didn’t make it stronger.