Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and help me decide just how important certain title elements are to readers. Then come back and join me and Alan as, for the very first time, we fail to solve a linguistic mystery!
JANE: I enjoyed reading your “wot i red on my hols” column. There’s something nice about reading about someone else’s summer vacation when, outside my window, the mourning doves are gently pecking at the skim of ice on the bird bath.
However, as usual, I find myself needing a translation from your English to my English.
You mentioned that when you and Robin met your friends at the place you were renting, you did a baggies to decide who got what room. What the heck is a “baggies”?
ALAN: “Bags” or “baggies” is a children’s game, sort of. If a group of children all want some desirable object, the first person to say “Bags I have …” gets the object. Having “bagged” the object, it is a sacred rule that nobody else can have it. Nothing overrides the overwhelming power of bagging the object. The action of bagging is known as a baggies. And as I said in the article, you can’t break a baggies.
JANE: I’d heard the phrase “bags I have” – possibly in a Narnia novel – but
never the word “baggies.”
ALAN: It might be a regional variation – certainly it was common in the North of England on both sides of the Pennines when I was a child.
JANE: And you are much younger than C.S. Lewis. It’s likely the term would evolve over time.
When you were talking about the incredibly complicated shower, you mentioned that the instructions were written on a piece of A4 paper. What’s A4 paper? Is it paper specially coated for use under water?
ALAN: No, not quite. It’s the standard paper size used for printing reports and letters and articles etc. For various mathematical reasons that I won’t bore you with, but which have to do with easy halving and doubling, it measures 210 by 297 millimetres (8.3 in × 11.7 in). It’s used by every country in the world except North America. (No, I’m not exaggerating and I’m not poking fun, I’m simply stating a fact.) If you lived outside of America, you’d print your manuscripts on A4 paper.
JANE: Seriously? Wow. That has some interesting ramifications for everything from computer printers to notebooks. Our standard size is 8.5 inches by 11 inches. Your paper would be too tall!
ALAN: I have an amusing story about A4 paper. Microsoft used to supply their training manuals printed on American letter stationery and bound in three ring binders. Obviously they wanted students to be able to incorporate sheets of paper with their own notes into the material. It’s a laudable idea, but utterly impractical outside of the USA.
Once we had a visiting Microsoftie over from America. I pointed out to him that American letter stationery simply doesn’t exist here (no matter how hard you try, you just can’t buy it). Furthermore, you can’t buy three-ring hole punches either, because we don’t use three-ring binders at all. All our loose leaf binders are two-hole binders designed for A4 stationery. As a result of this, it is actually completely impossible for New Zealand students to bind their own notes into the manuals. The Microsoftie looked at me incredulously. “You’re kidding me, right?” he said.
Even when I showed him a two-ring binder and a sheet of A4 paper, he still refused to believe that I was telling him the truth. But I was…
JANE: Fascinating. I love three ring binders… I have two on my desk right now! They also fit my bookshelves perfectly. If I moved to New Zealand, I guess I’d have to adjust my shelves, too. How horribly inconvenient!
ALAN: Sometimes the world is an inconvenient place.
JANE: While we’re talking about elements of your English that I can’t understand, I was reading an Agatha Christie short story last night that mentioned something called “corn-flour.” It appeared to be a beverage of some sort. Do you know what this is? I could check a dictionary, I suppose, but your definitions are usually more complete.
ALAN: I’ve no idea what sort of context made it appear to be a beverage. Corn flour is exactly what the name implies, it’s flour milled from corn. It tends to be a bit coarse and slightly yellow in colour. I cook with it a lot – I use it for thickening sauces and for coating meat and fish with seasoned flour. It probably has baking uses as well, but I don’t do baking so I’m not sure about that. Can you quote the context where you found it? I’m very puzzled by the beverage implication.
JANE: What you mention using sounds very much like what we call “corn meal.” We also have “corn starch,” which is white, very finely ground. Corn starch is what I’d use as a thickener for gravies etc. Corn meal can be baked with – that’s the main ingredient in corn bread.
I wondered if Dame Agatha might be have been referring to something like what we call corn meal mush or even grits, both of which would be served in a bowl. However, both are thick enough that the verb “drink” which is used several times seems odd to me.
Let me give a few quotations and see if they help.
ALAN: Okay – you’ve got me intrigued now.
JANE: The story in question is The Tuesday Night Club and the title story of the collections with almost the same name (add “Murders”). My copy doesn’t give a more precise date for it.
Here are a few lines: “Mr. Jones had gone down to the kitchen and demanded a bowl of corn-flour for his wife, who had complained of not feeling well.”
Later: “Miss Clark… told us that the whole of the bowl of corn-flour was drunk not by Mrs. Jones but by her.”
Later: “it is nicely made, too, no lumps… Very few girls nowadays seem to be able to make a bowl of corn-flour nicely.”
Later: “You drink up the bowl of corn-flour.”
So, I toss this puzzle into your lap. I certainly don’t think it’s sloppy writing on Dame Agatha’s part. Especially where food plays a role in a story, she’s very careful.
ALAN: This one is just weird. You’re right, Christie is obviously talking about a drink, but I’ve never heard of corn-flour being used this way, and I can’t find anything in any of my cookery books. I went googling and discovered that there’s a young girl in England who has a rare liver disease. She has to drink a corn-flour mixture every day, for reasons which are not clearly spelled out in the article. The comments on the article amount to “Oh, yuck!”, which suggests that the commentators have never heard of drinking corn-flour before, either.
I also found several references to a Mexican / Aztec drink called Atole which is based on corn-flour, often with other additives such as chocolate. We have some drinking chocolate in the kitchen cupboard and the list of ingredients includes “Starch (Maize and Tapioca)”. I’m guessing here, but perhaps Christie’s reference is to something like this but made by hand rather than from a pre-prepared package? Maybe Agatha Christie’s archaeologist husband had come across it in the field, as it were? But if that is the case, why does she call it corn-flour rather than chocolate (or whatever)?
I truly don’t know…
JANE: How very strange. I have had atole-based drinks, but don’t think Max Mallowan would have come across them since they are very American and his work was solidly Middle Eastern.
My guess is that she is referring to something Victorian, from the reference in the story about how it’s hard to find a cook who can make a good dish of corn-flour anymore.
ALAN: That’s a good guess – perhaps it’s something revolting that the
Victorians did which has gone out of fashion simply because it’s revolting.
JANE: Perhaps our readers can help here. Anyone have an idea?