Nothing New – A History of Second Hand (Text, 2019), is Robyn’s adventure into our pre-loved past, a crate-crawl through public records. Rather than writing a history of who’s who, Annear goes underground to tabulate what was what, and how much it cost. Curling tongs and grape scissors, ivory fans and ormolu clocks – the book is a flotsam inventory, complete with quirky stories, and old words in a new light.
Opportunity, say, was never meant to be opportunity, not when it came to chipped ceramics and saggy jackets. Lady Millie Tallis, a former Melbourne showgirl, coined the term by accident – or design. In 1925, seeking to raise funds for a new X-ray unit, Millie acquired a vacant cyclorama (the panoramic precursor to cinema) as a space to stage the world’s first “opportunity shop’’.
In name at least. Lady Tallis borrowed the word from French, where the cobbled squares of Paris hosted the odd “magasin d’occasion’’ – or bargain shop. Yet “occasion” also translates as opportunity, and that’s the ad-spin option Millie preferred. Elsewhere, the same enterprise is dubbed a charity shop (UK) or thrift store (US).
Junk is another word with a curious past. Today’s trash links to yesteryear’s rope (perhaps from Latin’s iuncus, being rush or reed), as dockside sales often flogged shipboard items, from surplus cargo to redundant stays. Rummage also ties back to “arrumage”, French for the stowing of goods below decks, the hold’s holdings.
Shoddy is the other delight, a second-hand word lying on history’s trestle table. The plausible root is shed – the past participle not the shack. In Petticoat Lane, or the Rag Fairs of Houndsditch, the Dickensian mania was to snap up reconstituted fabric, be that wool or linen. Gleaning mill clippings or pulping apparel, haberdashers would rebirth the fibres as discounted luxury rebadged as shoddy. As the name came to imply, the quality was unreliable, if not underwhelming.
Skim the litany of shoddy material and you soon slip into another era: piuma, pardessus, siphonia, talma, trevalion, caraco, small-h himalayas, small-p petersham. Indeed, rummaging in Robyn Annear’s account, I realised how recycling is as much the domain of chattels and language as it is paper and glass. Nor is it new, but old as humankind.
The urge to trawl careworn wares remains strong, as does the ancient wisdom of caveat emptor (buyer beware). As for that other Word Power answer, that common word opening and ending in UND, your treasure lies amid the junk of this column. Happy hunting.