The Language Attic

by Brenda W. Clough

Our language is a treasure house. Some of its glories are well-used and well-polished, taken out and set on the table every day. But up in the attic we’ve got some thrilling long-lost terms. This is a series devoted to dragging some of the quainter antiquities out, and dusting them off for you to see.

And today’s fun word is fistiana. Oh, you have a dirty mind. I can see what you’re thinking. No, no — it had nothing whatever to do with X-rated matters. We have pure minds around here, at least at this moment. Maybe later in this series we’ll get some really colorful words. This word’s close relative is boxiana, and both words refer to boxing — pummeling people with your fists.

Here’s the link to a piece in the New York Times from July 20, 1860, discussing the Zouave troops. The American Zouave regiments were based upon the Algerian originals, who were widely admired not only for their jazzy uniforms but their unquenchable martial spirit:

The fancy fez, the hollow backed jacket, the baggy trowsers extending to the calf of the leg and tying up in folds, the slashing boots and the general devil-me-care style, was calculated to take the eye, please the sense, and impress the scene indelibly on the mind of the beholder. If the Zouaves should be deprived by siege of their ammunition, they would fight with the butt end of their guns; if by stratagem they should lose their guns, they would throw stones; if there were no stones they would indulge in fistiana, and if their hands and feet were cut off, they would “butt” with their heads and pummel with their stumps.

Why, you may reasonably ask, did not the sensible and ordinary word ‘boxing’ get used, instead of these fancified variations? I attribute this to the Victorian appetite for polysyllabic terminology. A longer word was always preferable to them — it showed off your education and vocabulary, and made it more difficult for the hoi polloi to understand you. For the same reason you might lard your speech with quotations in Greek or Latin. If you graduated from Harvard or Oxford, let the peasantry know it! Ease of reading and comprehension took a back seat.

Now, somebody tell me what a hollow backed jacket is!

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The Language Attic — 8 Comments

    • It’s hard to say, looking at that illustration. But look at the trousers — definitely unstructured, probably of very light fabric. This is infantry, not cavalry. What the uniforms certainly didn’t get you was any protection — like all Civil War uniforms, they were for looks only. And a fez, really? At least a forage cap has a brim to keep the sun off of your face.

  1. As soon as you say, “the hoi polloi”, you have joined them. “Hoi” is the classical Greek word for “the”. 🙂
    —Your local pedant

  2. On a more useful note, someone at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s online site for their costume collection might know about the jacket. I tried googling the term and got ads for other jackets.

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  4. Just a guess, but I searched for zouave uniform patterns, and got some that don’t have back seams, just side seams. Why someone might label this cut hollow backed I have no clue, but maybe …?

    • Could this then imply that there is no shaping in the back? If there was a back seam, then you could taper the garment in at the waist. Absent a center back seam, all the shaping must take place at the side seams, which will inevitably give you some looseness at the lower center back. By this argument, the modern tee shirt could be described as hollow-backed, which does not seem right.

  5. The ‘hollow back’ jackets I could find on Google seem to have in common that they follow the general principle of the blue waistcoat at this link – additional material in the back, taken in from the sides, or having very strong seams dividing the back into thirds.