Monday, December 14, 2020

seasickness / a merry-go-round with the jim-jams

American ship camoufleurs, c1918 (AI colorized)
Camouflage was originally a French slang term and did not migrate into English until 1915, as a result of the establishment of the first section de camouflage in military history. To large extent, that seems the case. 

But the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) points out that as early as 1885, in a French to English translation of Fortuné Du Boisgobey’s Old Age of Lecoq (in his Sensational Novels), the following line appears: “He was also master of the art of camoufflage or disguise, his face being without age and readily changed to any style of physiognomy.” Note two f’s in camoufflage. Aha!

No less puzzling is the origin of razzle-dazzle, which today is used willy-nilly as a more engaging name for disruptively-patterned World War I camouflage. We know that the term dazzle was adopted by the British Admiralty in 1917, when they approved a proposal by the artist Norman Wilkinson. But the word was dazzle, not razzle-dazzle. Yet, these days, the latter is almost inevitably used. There are books, films, and exhibitions about ship camouflage that are (for marketing purposes) called “razzle dazzle” (even, regrettably, some of my own).

It turns out that razzle-dazzle was in common use as English slang far in advance of WWI, and that, initially, it had nothing to do with ship camouflage. In general it referred to confusion and bewilderment (as from drunkenness or deceit). Here is how it was used by Juvenal, the author of An Englishman in New York (London: Stephen Swift, 1917, p. 7), “…if the man in the moon were to take it into his head to visit mother earth in search of what Americans used to call ‘razzle-dazzle,’ he would turn his airplane towards the lights of Broadway sometime after midnight.

Razzle-Dazzle at Coney Island

As early as 1890, it was the name for a popular ride at amusement parks. In the following news article, which describes it in some detail, it is said to be equivalent to a “merry-go-round with the jim-jams,” one consequence of which may be seasickness on dry land.

UP, DOWN AND ALL AROUND, Have You Tried the Merry-Go-Round with the Jim-Jams? in The Scranton Republican (Scranton PA), December 18, 1890, p. 7—



“Let me off!”


That's the way it goes every time, and the men at the ropes keep on jerking them and pulling away with unabated energy as it swings around and bobs up and down and makes eccentric circles.

What does?

Why, the “razzle dazzle," to be sure.

Don’t know what a razzle dazzle is, eh?

A razzle-dazzle is a—well, one man describes it as a merry-go-round with the jim-jams. That’s it, precisely, but as perhaps every one does not know how a merry-go-round acts when it has an an attack of mania-a-potu, here is a description of the razzle dazzle.

To begin with there is a heavy upright center pole about 25 feet high, set firmly in the ground and strongly braced. At the top of this pole is a spindle, and attached to the spindle are a number of wire ropes. The lower ends of these are fastened to a strong circular seat, which is suspended about five feet from the ground.

To better understand the arrangement, take a pencil and stand it upright on a table. Lay a bracelet or a napkin ring on the table so that it will encircle the pencil. Now, imagine a number of threads attached to the top of the pencil and tied to the napkin ring so that the ring is suspended from them. See?

That would be a miniature razzle-dazzle, except that instead of a napkin ring the circle should be made of thick boards so as to make a comfortable seat. Now are you beginning to catch the idea? If that is so, perhaps you would like to know how it works.

In the first place you pay five cents to the man who runs the thing. That is absolutely necessary. Then you walk up a stepladder and sit down on the razzle-dazzle circular seat. If there is no one else on it, your weight will bring it down close to the ground on your side, while the opposite side will naturally be high in the air.

The man who assisted you to your seat now turns the circle around and another victim gets on. In this way, if business is good, perhaps thirty or forty persons will be seated. When all are seated the stepladder is taken away out of danger.

Thus far you have only seen the razzle. Now comes the dazzle.

Two or three men grab hold of stout ropes which hang from the circular seat. They begin to walk around in a circle, like the ringmaster at the circus, and they pull the ropes with them. This sets the passengers swinging around and around.

After sufficient momentum has been attained a new motion is introduced. One side of the circular seat is yanked down to the round and the other side flies up in the air. This is continued until the delightful sensations of the whirlgig and the flying trapeze are experienced.

A trip on the cowcatcher of a locomotive in convulsions wouldn’t be a marker to the razzle-dazzle in full swing.

A combination of the motion of a ship in a cyclone and a wounded whale in a whirlpool comes a little nearer to it.

This keeps up for five minutes. At the end of that time you have had enough for your money. Maybe you’ve had more than enough. You either get off or fall off.

Then you go off to one side and experience what may be termed a paradoxical disease. You suffer from mal de mer [sea-sickness] on dry land. Try it.

Razzle-Dazzle at Steeplechase, Coney Island

Thirty-five years later, “razzle-dazzle” was apparently still a popular ride at amusement parks, as reported in an article titled RAZZLE-DAZZLE: Collapses at Glebe: Twelve People Injured in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney AU), February 28, 1925—

Twelve persons were injured when a razzle-dazzle collapsed in Derby Place, Glebe, shortly after 10 o’clock last night.

All those injured, with some others, were riding on the razzle-dazzle, when the part on which they were seated suddenly broke away from its pole. Many were thrown heavily to the ground, and some received severe injuries…

The police were informed that whilst the razzle-dazzle was in motion a number of youths, who were riding on it, jumped off. This affected the balance of the razzle-dazzle, which tilted, and, the cup on which it swung, becoming dislodged from its pivot, crashed with its passengers heavily to the earth.