My husband left a copy of The Spectator open on the table by his chair, next to the little cardboard mat with a browning glass-ring on it where for most hours of the day he keeps his whiskey glass. It was of course open at the letters page where a kind-hearted reader expressed a most unwise readiness to hear more from him.
I can’t say I’ve heard much more from him than usual, for he seldom ventures into the kitchen for fear that I should answer ‘Yes’ to the question he feels he must ask upon entering: ‘Anything I can do?’ But, as they say, if you can’t do the time, don’t sign the marriage lines.
Perhaps we have been slightly stir crazy for years. It is only now, though, that I discover my assumptions about that phrase were wrong. I thought it went with porridge, the British slang term for ‘jail’. Stirabout was a common term for oatmeal porridge. It all fits.
But the blessed Oxford English Dictionary professes ignorance of the origin of stir. Jonathon Green, that great collector of slang, who makes the energies of the dungbeetle seem languid, gives it an etymology from the Romany sturiben, ‘prison’. This follows the Dictionary of Slang by Eric Partridge, who for 50 years occupied desk K1 in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Another notable user of the Reading Room was Karl Marx, who suffered terribly from ailments associated with sustained sitting.
An early citation tests their theory. In 1865 the anonymous author of Leaves from the Diary of a Celebrated Burglar and Pickpocket talks of ‘doing our porritch and kail business in “stur”’. By kail he meant watery cabbage soup; porritch is porridge. The spelling of stur fits with an origin in sturiben, though not conclusively.
In the lore of porridge there is a bizarre backwater. In 2005, David McKie, a former deputy editor of the Guardian, revealed in his Smallweed column that Chinese and Korean students of English were being taught that a chip in porridge was a current idiom. It was current in 1688, and even in the 19th century. The chip was I think one of wood, and the idiom meant ‘something of no consequence’. I’ve never heard anyone say it, and wouldn’t have understood them if they had.
This article is in The Spectator’s July 2020 US edition.