Cockamamie and Decalcomania


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VANITY is a fickle mistress, especially for those unfortunates in her thrall. High fashion becomes the height of absurdity quicker than you can lace a whalebone corset.

Women no longer go crazy for fake beauty spots (at least, not those of my acquaintance) but the legacy from that particular bit of facial eccentricity is a word that has all but lost its origins and now means simply foolishness.

That word is “cockamamie”, one of a three-part query from Glenashley reader Mrs BM Wakefield. She writes: “One knows what they’re getting at, but why? I’ve written to ask my American son-in-law but received no reply.

“Perhaps he thinks I’m (2) ‘taking the mickey’, and (3) why are some golf tournaments called ‘skins’?”

Cockamamie began life in the 1860’s as “decalcomania” – literally “decal mania” – a practice popular with society ladies as an aid to self- beautification or to decorate glassware and porcelain.

What started as merely fake beauty spots grew into elaborate ornamental transfers, forerunners of the tattoos so popular with today’s punkesses. At least the 19th century version could be washed off when the fashion waned.

“Decalcomanias” survived into the 1920s, but by then had become known as “cockamamie”, painted strips of paper that children wetted with spit and applied to their wrists until the image was transferred.

Perhaps the inherent silliness of the practice, the odd sound of the word and its association with poppycock and cock-and-bull, combined to create the meaning of foolish, nonsensical, and mindless.

Serious golfers might take the same view of skins, a gimmick variation on the orthodox game where one or two fluked putts can earn as much money as four sub-par rounds in a 72-hole tournament.

In skins golf, a certain amount of money is allocated to each hole and is claimed by the player who can win the hole outright. He thus “skins” his fellow competitors.

Conversely, a player who is not in contention can have his “skin” saved if two other players halve the hole. If there is no win the stake is carried forward to the next hole.

A golfer can thus play badly for 17 holes while others save his skin, but scoop the pool and skin them by coming to life and winning the 18th.

Mrs Wakefield suggests that “taking the mickey” might be of Irish origin, and my reference books offer nothing better. Perhaps another reader can help. Otherwise we’ll have to treat it as a bit of cockamamie.


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