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《Joss Stick, Chopstick and Other Kinds of Sticks》__ Fong-ying Yu (61)

《Joss Stick, Chopstick and Other Kinds of Sticks》

After writing about some curious words that I first met in Wah Yan, I thought of another one, “joss stick.” I cannot be sure that I first met it in school.  There was a book we read in an upper form by an author named Tingay which has a story set in Cheung Chau and the word could have appeared in it.  I was intrigued by joss and asked my good friend and Arch Archivist Wong Hin-shing (61) if he remembered coming across it in the old days.  He had not but said he knew joystick.  Then the curious word chopstick came to mind, and I have written about the word chop.  So armed with a British dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (12th edition, 2011) and a Canadian one, the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary (1997), I set out on a little exploration of words ending in –stick. There are over 20 of them. All quotations are from the COED unless otherwise stated, as well whether a vocabulary item is one word or two.

Joss stick. “A thin stick of a fragrant substance, burnt as incense”. And joss?  Joss1 - “A Chinese idol. Origin C18: from Javanese dejos, from obsolete Portuguese deos, from Latin deus ‘god’”.  A joss house is a Chinese temple or shrine.  Joss morphs into lives of its own. Joss2 - “Informal, chiefly Austral. ‘an important person’. Origin C19: from dialect joss ‘foreman’, of unknown origin.”  In Britain its fate took a different turn.  “Josser. Brit. informal. A man, typically one regarded with contempt, an old josser. Origin C19: (originally denoting a clergyman): from joss1 + er.”

Joystick. It is of course a familiar word now.  “Informal. 1. the control column of an aircraft. 2. a lever for controlling the movement of an image on a computer screen.”  No etymological explanation why a sense of pleasure is connected to either flying or computing, but one could imagine the joy of lifting off and moving among the clouds.

Chopstick. “Each of a pair of small, thin, tapered sticks held in one hand and used for eating Chinese and Japanese food.  Origin C17: pidgin English, from chop ‘quick’ + stick, translating Chin. dialect kuaizi, literally  ‘nimble ones’.”  The meaning of chop here was taken from chop-chop: “exclamation and adverb. Quickly (said to urge someone to hurry up). Origin C19: pidgin English based on Chin. dial. kuai-kuai.” (快快)  All this seems to make good sense, but I suspect that chopstick could have been coined for the wrong reason just like other folk etymology. 筷子 is related to 快 only in having it as a phonetic indicator (聲符) not sense (意符).  It is a common term (俗稱) for 箸子 ’eating implement made of bamboo’, according to Ci Yuan (辭源), so we write 舉筷 as well as 舉箸.  The chop- part does not seem to be related to the sense of chop as ‘a piece of meat’ either. The COED is hardly definitive in this case. Be that as it may, the word is no doubt gaining wider circulation with more and more people learning to use chopsticks in eating Chinese and Japanese. 
                  Associated with this word are some nostalgic memories of Hong Kong in the nineteen sixties and seventies.  My Archivist asked me if I remember 筷子姊妹花, and I do. They were northerners and sang English, Mandarin and Cantonese pop songs. Here’s what Wikipedia says of them: “The Chopsticks was a short-lived female duo in Hong Kong. They were the first all-female modern music singing group to be marketed and launched from Hong Kong. They started singing in the late 1960s with HK English pop songs and were contracted with the local Crown Records between 1969 and 1972, having a release total of four LP albums and not more than 10 SP/EPs. In 1973, the duo split and both Sandra Lang and Amina went solo.”

There are –stick words that do not need much explanation: broomstick, lipstick, meter stick (not in either dictionary, ‘a stick marked in meters rather than inches’), matchstick, candlestick (‘candle holder’), walking stick, yardstick.

Dipstick.  I learned this only in driving after my immigration – a stick to dip into a container to measure how much engine oil is left. Dipstick is also used in measuring other substances, in medicine for example.  A second meaning is surprising and one I have not come across: “Informal. A stupid or inept person.”  It is certainly good to know the word in case someone uses it about you.

Nightstick. “N American. A club carried by a police officer.” (ITP Nelson) The English equivalent is truncheon. One word with an interesting way of word-formation.

Taper stick.  Not in either dictionary. Dictioinary.com gives the meaning “a candlestick designed to hold tapers”(candles getting narrower and narrower towards the top end). It was first recorded in 1540-50.

Crab stick. “A stick of mixed compressed fish pieces flavoured with crab.”

Drumstick.  The meaning of “the lower joint of the leg of a cooked fowl” seems to me somewhat humorous, extended as it is from “a stick used for beating a drum.” 

Single stick.  In fencing, “a stick of about a sword’s length”.

Flagstick.  Not in COED, but in ITP Nelson: “Sports. A removable pole with a flag marking each hole on the putting greens of a golf course.” The COED has flagstaff and flagpole, “a pole used for flying a flag” and may not see the need for this word.

Pig sticking. “The sport of hunting wild boar with a spear, carried out on horseback”.

Slapstick. I learned this word only when I studied English literature, perhaps in Form 6 or 7: “comedy based on deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events.” We were studying Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the character of Sir Toby Belch in it.  That kind of comedy is more often than not physical, like the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Laura and Hardy and the Three Stooges. The word traces its beginning to the meaning of “device consisting of two flexible pieces of wood joined together at one end, used by clowns and in pantomimes to produce a loud slapping noise.”

Fiddlestick. Both dictionaries give the meaning of Fiddlesticks (plural) as “Informal, exclamation. Nonsense.” (COED) “Interjection of mild impatience or annoyance.” (ITP Nelson)  COED gives the further meaning of “a violin bow.” Wikipedia elaborates on that traditional instrument considerably. The word brings to mind another word fiddlehead which is often associated in Canada with the Maritimes, “the edible, tightly furled young fronds of certain ferns, so called because of its shape.” (A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles. Gage, 1991)

Lobstick or Lopstick.  Here is a Canadian word at last: “a tall spruce or pine with all its branches trimmed off except for those on its crown, created by Aboriginal people as a monument or marker.”
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