Dot Wordsworth

Mind your Language

‘What?’ said my husband, coherently, thrashing with his stick at a blackboard on the pavement. It said: ‘Quarter chicken with two regular sides, £5.90.’ This was no geometrical chicken.

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‘What?’ said my husband, coherently, thrashing with his stick at a blackboard on the pavement. It said: ‘Quarter chicken with two regular sides, £5.90.’ This was no geometrical chicken.

‘What?’ said my husband, coherently, thrashing with his stick at a blackboard on the pavement. It said: ‘Quarter chicken with two regular sides, £5.90.’ This was no geometrical chicken. Here sides simply meant ‘vegetables’, a usage grabbed from America by restaurateurs, because it often enables them to charge separately for meat and two veg.  

Side is a word that leads a double life, at once fashionable and subterranean. When I was a girl I pondered what could be meant by: ‘He has absolutely no side.’ Must he be very thin? It never, in those days when much language was modelled by boys’ public schools, seemed to refer to girls. Even the Oxford English Dictionary is unsure where this meaning of side (‘pretentiousness or swagger’) came from. Perhaps, it muses, from putting on side in billiards, perhaps from an ancient meaning of the adjective side, ‘haughty’.

The adjective side, of which most of us are scarcely aware, is not just the noun side used attributively (as in side order, itself brought back to substantive status in that annoying usage sides). It has preserved, as it were underground, a meaning of ‘long’, often in the couplet side and wide. It has also kept the same sense ‘long’ that Philemon Holland used in 1600 of ‘beards side and overgrowne’.   

This meaning did not become extinct, for it is the very word preserved in the term for ‘side-whiskers’: sideboard. It has confused matters that sideboard is also a piece of furniture. Its hirsute usage is prettily illustrated in the OED with an exchange recorded in the Daily Chronicle, from 1907:

‘You have described the duke as having small whiskers?’

‘Yes, they were sideboards.’
‘Where did you get that name?’
‘I have been in America...’

No doubt the side in sideburns also preserves the sense of long, most plainly but misleadingly present in the term side hair, which means not ‘hair at the side’ but ‘long hair’. The same adjective side also applied to coats and coat-tails that were long.

Sideburn became hairily entangled with the surname Burnside. General Ambrose Burnside (1824-81), a Union commander in the American Civil War, sported whiskers described by the Cincinnati Enquirer as ‘consisting of mustache and “muttonchop”, the chin being perfectly clean’. So Burnsides was for a time a name for such whiskers.    

We didn’t fall for the chicken but crossed the road.