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Words have become my sanctuary and the tools of my trade. The written word in particular gives me much joy. This can be in the form of a novel, technical book, a piece of legislation and best of all, old dictionaries which give insight into words of the day and the evolution or even devolution of human thinking.

On a recent business trip to Pretoria, I was able to spend time with my mom. In the planning stages of a big move, she is very generous in handing over family possessions. I have inherited old everyday items, like an old wooden coat hanger from the outfitters where my maternal grandparents shopped, very large tailor’s scissors that belonged to my tailor grandfather on the paternal side, war and racing boat photos from my maternal grandfather and dictionaries with very thin faded paper.

There is also the 1959 U.K. Clothing Institute’s yearbook which belonged to my tailor grandfather. Apart from adverts for trimmings and revealing rates of pay for women in comparison with their male counterparts in the industry, there is a tailor’s list of terms.

Here are some of these gems:

  • Balloon: enforced idleness through lack of work
  • Boot: money
  • Cabbage:  material left over after making garments
  • Cork: the boss
  • Crushed beetles: badly made button holes
  • Dead horse: making a garment already paid for
  • Hip stay: a tailor’s wife
  • Kipper: a tailoress
  • Make your own coffin: overcharging for work
  • Mouse in the straw: unsociable workmate
  • Pig: a garment made so badly it cannot be fixed
  • Shining: self-praise
  • Umsie: a newcomer into a tailoring establishment until his/her name is known
  • Weasel: a thin pressing iron.

After reading this and applying it to my work environment, I suppose I would be regarded as a mouse in the straw, anything but a balloon or kipper, someone partial to the use of umsie, with no time for shining, who debates invoices with law firms that make their own coffins and who spends much time ensuring that all the corks at work know what is going on in my area of responsibility.

Words − so colourful, freely available and always a sign of the times. Never forget, however, that words, like sticks and stones can be powerful and damaging. Best we all pause for thought before they are used carelessly and amount to basting up a snarl or cause one to chuck a dummy. *

* creating trouble; and to faint