spruiking

Today I was reading an article (thanks for the link, Brian) about a couple who delayed a Qantas flight by insisting on getting off it because the airplane didn’t have the first-class pyjamas in extra-large. Business-class, yes; first-class, sorry. That’s snicker-worthy, to be sure, but what caught my eye in particular was this sentence: “A first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Melbourne can cost upwards of $10,000, with Qantas spruiking the experience as a ‘private sanctuary in the sky’.”

Spruiking.

If I’ve seen that word before, I don’t recall it. The context gives a reasonable clue – “touting” would be an acceptable substitution – but where does it come from, this spiky word? It has clear notes of spruce and spoke and spike and some hints of sprinkle and sparking and, um, fruit perhaps? After all, where are you going to see this ui in this kind of context in English? It spells a common diphthong in Dutch, but in English you usually only see it across syllable boundaries, as in intuition. But you tell me: does this word look to you like it’s three syllables? It didn’t to me when I first saw it – I assumed it most likely rhymed with spooking, and I was right.

So it’s a present participle of a verb spruik, and aside from being an anagram of my high school social studies teacher’s name (Purkis) it’s an odd assembly of characters, with that spraying, spritzing, sprinkling, or sprinting, or sprawling – but anyway classically expressively English – /spr/ onset followed by this upwaking ui and the kick of the k, and in the present participle there’s king on the end, which can be sublime or, in some places, vulgar. And somehow precendent and expectation – or some etymological connection – led to this ui spelling of /u/.

Funny thing, though. Spruiking is a completely novel word to me, but read this from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

the thing to notice is that we’re so familiar with the idea of “spruiking” it’s unlikely to occur to us that this is one of Aussie English’s contributions to the world

We might talk about a politician “spruiking” his party’s latest policy, or of a celebrity “spruiking” the benefits on a particular shampoo on a TV commercial. It’s Aussie word, first recorded in 1902 for a speaker employed to attract customers – especially someone standing at the entrance to a sideshow trying to persuade passers-by to come in. The Oxford Dictionary says the origin is unknown, however there is a suggestion that it may come from the German or Dutch words for “speak” or (possibly) from a related Yiddish source word. But the thing to notice is that we’re so familiar with the idea of “spruiking” it’s unlikely to occur to us that this is one of Aussie English’s contributions to the world.

Yes, that’s right, it’s a completely familiar word in Oz. Now, in my time living in the US I did encounter some lexical things that are so normal for Canadians that it was a surprise to learn Americans didn’t use them (also cultural things, like gravy on fries) – like write a test (where Americans say take a test), or garburator or homo milk or serviette or double-double or… So in Australia, they have this word for loudly promoting the merit of something, like a showman holding forth in public, and it’s so accepted and unexceptional for them that it seems surprising to at least one Australian that it comes from Australia. Wait till they tell him that people elsewhere in the world don’t even know it… Maybe he’ll start spruiking it about.

6 responses to “spruiking

  1. Hawking. I kept punching at my brain until the word popped out, a carnival hawker, the person who stands at the entrance to the sideshows and talks them up. Late night TV ad hawkers for steam mops, shams and cookware, spruiking their products. So maybe in Oz they have a carnival spruiker?

  2. In its original (as in carnival) sense, I think the term was much more common as a noun than a verb. A spruiker was not someone talking up their own wares, but someone employed to invite people to sample someone else’s. WHen I was a kid in the ’60s, McKenzie’s department store in Auckland employed the only real spruiker I have ever seen in action. Wearing a waistcoat and shirtsleeves, he would perform at the store’s main entrance, or sometimes in a gap between the counters. He would talk very loudly and very, very fast, while demonstrating the bargain in question — generally something with moving parts, often a clockwork or battery-driven toy.

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