Issue of January15, 2002
OK, this time I have an excellent excuse for not updating this page on schedule. My ancient (1995) computer gave up the ghost shortly before New Year's. Really. It had actually been sick for a long time, and the monitor had become so dim that I had to draw the curtains to be able to type. Mondo depresso. So I had to buy a new one from that annoying Dell guy, and I've now spent the last week or so trying to get all my data from the old computer onto the new one, a chore which, no matter how easy Microsoft tells you they've made it, ain't, unless you enjoy futzing with network protocols and file sharing at 3 a.m.
Dude, you're gettin' a world of pain.
Just for example, and this really boils my bunny, Windows XP comes with something called a "File Transfer Wizard" that's supposed to make transferring files from your old computer a snap. Unfortunately, said "wizard" requires a fast processor and a big chunk of disk space on the old computer in order to work. Hey Bill, if my old computer had those things, it wouldn't be old.
On the bright side, I do have a nice new 19-inch Trinitron monitor, so at least I can see when things aren't working.
Elsewhere in the news, special thanks to all the folks who brightened my day in the last few months by subscribing to the e-mail Word Detective newsletter. Thanks to your contributions, Brownie now has a nice new nylon bone to chew.
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: What is the relation between the words "anthrax" and "anthracite"? In French, the word for "anthrax" is literally "coal bacteria." -- John Bohannon, via the internet.
Dear Word Detective: Why are the throw rugs we love to knit and crochet referred to as "afghans"? -- Ruthanne Begun, via the internet.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the crisis following the attacks on New York and Washington is filling my mailbox with questions about words to which few of us gave a second thought until September 11. Just as a sort of refresher on one question I answered a while back but I'm still receiving about once a day, "stan" means "land" or "homeland" in several Near and Middle Eastern languages, so "Afghanistan" simply means "Land of the Afghans," "Uzbekistan" translates as "Land of the Uzbeks," and so on. "Pakistan" must have hired a PR firm way back when, because their name means "Land of the Pure."
As for "anthrax," there is indeed a direct connection with "anthracite," a type of coal. "Anthrax" is a Greek word meaning "coal" or "carbuncle," a carbuncle being a painful sore, similar to a boil, which has often been compared to a burning coal. Anthrax in its cutaneous form, as we have all had unfortunate occasion to learn lately, produces painful burning sores on the skin of its victims. The fact that these sores usually develop a characteristic black crust the color of coal solidified the anthrax/coal connection.
"Afghan" as a proper noun primarily means, of course, a native of Afghanistan, but there are several subsidiary definitions as well. The "afghans" we know as knitted throw rugs, shawls or lap robes were originally imported from Afghanistan in the early 19th century. The "afghan coats" popular in the 1970s were essentially sheepskins worn inside out (compared to how the sheep wore them), often with a shaggy border of fleece. Come to think of it, I saw Carly Simon walking down Upper Broadway a couple of years ago wearing one, so either afghan coats are coming back in style or she's having real problems letting go.
Also popular in the 1970s and 80s, "Afghan hounds," more properly called "Afghan greyhounds" are large, lanky dogs resembling standard greyhounds festooned with long, wispy hair. I haven't seen an Afghan hound in a long time. Maybe they all put on weight, had makeovers and became Golden Retrievers.
Dear Word Detective: While researching a book on the 1930's, I came across this potentially alarming sentence, in reference to a 1938 Christmas party: "Following the dinner, the mayor entertained the gathering by playing several traditional carols on his bazooka." Since the city hall is still standing today, I'm assuming that the mayor's choice of instrument was musical, rather than military. What's the origin of "bazooka," and what exactly did the mayor play that evening ? -- Graham Gieg, Winnipeg, Canada.
Hard to say, but I'll bet he finished up with the finale from The 1812 Overture. Bazookas are actually quite mellifluous instruments, once you get the proper range and elevation, and far more musically flexible than Mozart's beloved mortar or Beethoven's raucous Gatling Gun.
But seriously, thanks for a great question. What we have here is a case of collective cultural amnesia. Although today we know the "bazooka" as a very effective anti-tank weapon, a sort of tubular rocket-launcher fired from the shoulder of an infantry soldier, the original "bazooka" was, if not entirely harmless, considerably more benign.
And your supposition is correct -- the "bazooka" was originally a musical instrument, invented in about 1905 by a famous radio comedian of the 1930s named Bob Burns. This "bazooka" was apparently a sort of crude, homemade trombone, reportedly made from two pieces of stovepipe and a funnel. Burns used his "bazooka" as a stage prop, punctuating his comedy routines with frequent blasts of, and even solos performed on, the device. The name "bazooka," according to Burns, was drawn from "bazoo," a slang term for "mouth" possibly related to the Dutch word "bazuim," meaning "trumpet."
There is some evidence, reported by my parents William and Mary Morris in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins), that while Burns may have named the "bazooka" and put it to its first musical use, the contraption itself had long been used in Burns' home state of Arkansas as an agricultural device to disperse seed and fertilizer.
In any case, by the time World War II rolled around, the musical "bazooka" was sufficiently well-known that when, in 1943, the Army developed a tubular anti-tank rocket launcher vaguely resembling Burns' invention, it made sense for soldiers to dub the weapon a "bazooka."
Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the word "bombast"? -- Uptiteallnite, via the internet.
Who, me, paranoid? Just because I was halfway through researching the answer to your question when it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps your letter was not a real query at all, but rather a sly critique of my prose style? Not that I think for a moment that the definition "inflated or turgid language," let alone "pompous posturing," could possibly describe my writing. Forsooth, such canards would be insupportable and nigh unto inconceivable.
Those of us living in the U.S. with access to cable TV have an excellent demonstration of "bombast" at our fingertips, all day every weekday. Just tune (if you dare) to C-Span, and there you'll find the U.S. Congress in all its insanely verbose glory, dishing out "bombast" by the bucketful and yammering on 'til the cows come home. Most of what these feather merchants have to say is utterly unnecessary, of course, and is aimed largely at taking up time and impressing the few of their constituents actually watching.
And there we have the critical clue -- "bombast" is padding, fluff pretending to be substance. The root of "bombast" was the Greek "bombux," which meant "silk or silkworm," and when "bombast" entered English in the 16th century it meant "cotton," or, more specifically, the sort of "cotton-wool" used as padding or stuffing in upholstery or clothes. Since the 16th century was apparently every bit as afflicted by longwinded balderdash as ours, "bombast" almost immediately acquired the figurative meaning of "fancy or pretentious language on a trivial subject," and we've been inundated by verbal "bombast" ever since.
Dear Word Detective: On a BBC cookery program I recently heard a story of how the expression "to give someone the cold shoulder" came about. They implied that when guests had outstayed their welcome, they would be served cold shoulder of mutton. This cut of meat was evidently considered of such poor quality that the guests would immediately understand that they were, in reality, being asked to leave. We have the exact same expression in Norwegian, but the explanation doesn't ring true to me. I like shoulder of mutton. I can't imagine how it could be considered to be so bad that it would chase your guests away. In rural Norway in the old days they would be lucky to get any meat at all. -- Karin Hoff, Norway.
Oh yes, mutton. That's the gray, chewy stuff so popular in Great Britain, right? Or maybe I have it confused with Harris Tweed, presuming there is a difference. In any case, wave any sort of mutton at me and I'm history, so that story has some built-in appeal to me.
Unfortunately, the explanation of "cold shoulder" you've heard is almost certainly one of those colorful word-origin tales that ought to be, but is not, true. As far as we know, "cold shoulder" meaning "indifference or disdain" first appeared in the 1816 novel "The Antiquary," by Sir Walter Scott. The actual wording used by Scott gives a clue as to the derivation of the phrase: "The Countess's dislike didna gang (didn't go) farther at first than just showing o' the cauld shouther." It seems clear that the shoulder in question was not a cut of cold mutton, but the Countess's own -- she had turned her back and "shown her shoulder" in "cold" dismissal. In a later novel, Scott wrote "I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally," which again clearly refers to rude body language as the cure for a pest.
The important point about these first instances of "showing" or "tipping the cold shoulder" is that there is no earlier record of any truly meat-based use upon which "cold shoulder" meaning "disdain" could have been based. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that cold mutton as a dish has "suggested many puns and allusive uses," but no reputable authority has maintained that the phrase is actually rooted in a culinary tactic to dislodge overripe house guests.
Dear Word Detective: In a recent column you used the word "gobbledygook." Where do we get that odd sounding word? -- Harry, via the internet.
I did? I can't find any evidence of using "gobbledygook" recently, but that doesn't prove I didn't. Lately more and more of the printed materials I encounter in everyday life could reasonably be classified as "gobbledygook." That includes everything from tax form instructions to credit card statements to the directions on microwave popcorn, which always seem to warn me against burning the stuff, certainly a laudable goal, but never quite get around to telling me how. From now on I'm going to nuke the tax forms and eat my popcorn raw.
I know for a fact that I explained "gobbledygook" a few years ago, but it was in the context of exploring the term "maverick," to which "gobbledygook," meaning "confusing, impenetrably dense (and possibly meaningless) writing or speech," is intimately connected.
It all started with a 19th century Texas cattleman named Samuel Maverick who became famous for not branding his cattle. His cattle, left unidentified and free to roam, were often "adopted" by other ranchers who termed them "mavericks," and by the end of the century "maverick" had come to mean any sort of rootless wanderer or rebel.
About 100 years later, Sam Maverick's grandson, Maury Maverick, was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives during World War II. Charged with overseeing factory production for the war effort, Rep. Maverick coined the term "gobbledygook" to describe the impenetrable bureaucratic jargon and doubletalk he encountered. He later explained that he based the word on the behavior of turkeys back in Texas, who were "... always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of gook." Rep. Maverick went on to issue a memorable edict stating that "Anyone using the words 'activation' or 'implementation' will be shot." Sadly, no bureaucrat was ever actually shot, and unfortunately "governmentese" is still going strong, but it certainly seems fitting that Sam Maverick's grandson would be the "maverick" who fired the first shot against "gobbledygook."
Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering from where the expression "fly(ing) off the handle" to describe an episode of anger came. I woke up this morning thinking that it probably had something to do with an item like an axe head that became separated from its rightful place during an altercation, causing alarm if not harm, and thus the phrase was coined. But I think all kinds of weird things as I awaken in the morning, so I thought I'd ask you about this to see how close (or far from) I am to the truth of the matter. -- Jude, via the internet.
Well, there's my problem. Silly me. I've been doing all my research while I'm wide awake, wasting valuable time and elbow grease thumbing through thick books, when I'd have been better off catching ten more winks and letting my subconscious do the heavy lifting.
And the worst part is that you're absolutely correct. "To fly off the handle," meaning to lose control, especially in anger, is a figurative reference to the head of an axe or hatchet, having been loosened by wear, flying off the handle when the tool is swung, sometimes with disastrous consequences. While "handle" first appeared in English around A.D. 800 (derived directly and quite logically from "hand"), "to fly off the handle" meaning to lose self-control didn't appear in print until the mid-19th century. A related phrase, "to go off the handle," arose around the same time and was used to mean both "lose one's temper" and, oddly enough, "to die."
Since human beings are not, to put it mildly, among nature's more even-tempered creatures, other colorful slang phrases denoting rage or violent anger have been popular over the years. "To flip one's lid" dates to the 1950s, originally referring to the lid of a cooking pot dislodged as the vessel boils over. This led to both the subsequent (1960) variant "flip one's wig" and the more current "flip out" and simply "flip," both of which can carry more positive connotations than the original (as in "Harry flipped when he saw his bonus check"). "To hit the ceiling" (1914) and "to go through the roof" (1958) both offer graphic metaphors of elevated excitement, while "going postal" (1994) embodies a sardonic reference to a series of highly-publicized post office shooting incidents in the early 1990s.
Dear Word Detective: In an email the other day to an American friend, I described George W. Bush as being an "Aunt Sally" to the media, meaning someone who they build up simply for the sake (and gratification) of knocking down again. I then had to explain to my friend what an "Aunt Sally" was, and this made me realize I don't know where the expression comes from. I remember, as a boy in the 1960s, that an occasional fairground attraction would be to throw things at a stuffed doll or model, to knock its head off in the manner of a coconut shy, and this would sometimes be called "Aunt Sally." But this wasn't all that common. What light can you shed on this term? -- Andrew Denny, Norfolk, England.
First of all, thanks for a great question. I must admit that, had I been your friend, I would have been just as mystified by your reference to "Aunt Sally," and probably assumed it was a reference to a character in that strange soap opera they run on the BBC World Service.
But thanks to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, I now have a grip on "Aunt Sally," and your recollection of a fairground connection is correct. "Aunt Sally" was, beginning in the 19th century, a popular amusement at fairs and carnivals in which a representation of an old woman's head with a pipe in its mouth was set up and players attempted, by throwing sticks, to break off the pipe. I would imagine that the "Aunt Sally" game was thus similar to a carnival attraction popular here in the U.S. in which the object is to knock over a stack of wooden milk bottles with a softball. In any case, evidently this "Aunt Sally" game was sufficiently popular in the mid-19th century that by 1898 "Aunt Sally" was being used in a figurative sense for someone who became the object of easy but unfair attack, the sort of unwarranted but superficially plausible criticism we Americans call "a cheap shot."
Incidentally, your offhand reference to a "coconut shy" is likely to mystify U.S. readers every bit as much as "Aunt Sally," but I've figured that one out as well. Evidently yet another knock-things-down carnival game popular in Britain has as its target coconuts perched on cups or hoops at which contestants "shy" (a colloquial term for "throw") balls in the hope of winning stuffed animals and the like.
Dear Word Detective: A fellow co-worker and I are discussing the proper pronunciation and spelling of the elusive "kattywampus." We desperately need help to resolve this perplexing problem. -- Alissa and Jenifer, via the internet.
Desperately? You "desperately" need the spelling and pronunciation? Have the two of you been cornered in a broom closet by a ferocious spelling bee? Oh well, mine not to reason why, I suppose. Besides, it sounds as though you folks are doing a bang-up job of wasting company time, and I'm always up for that.
Unfortunately, and I say this with all the passion of a dedicated slacker, there is no answer to your question, because there is no standardized spelling of "kattywampus," which is also often rendered as "cattywampus," "caddywompous" and "catawampus" (as the Oxford English Dictionary seems to prefer). As for pronunciation, if the choice is between "catty" and "katy" (as in the name "Katy"), I'd go with the short "a" of "catty" or "caddy." The "wampus" part seems to be most often pronounced "WAHM-puhs."
Since we're still on our extended coffee break, I'll take this opportunity to answer the question you folks didn't ask, namely what "catawampus" (as I'll spell it) actually means. Once again, however, the answer is not simple because the word actually has two quite distinct meanings. A "catawampus" can be a fierce, imaginary animal, the sort of vicious critter that jumps you in the woods shortly before you're never seen again. But "catawampus" can also mean "askew" or "out of whack," as in "Larry's elopement with Eloise knocked Cindy's wedding plans all catawampus." Neither meaning can be definitively traced, but "catawampus" in the eat-you-alive sense may well be a variant on the American folk term "catamount," short for "catamountain," or mountain lion.
The "askew" sense of "catawampus" is a real puzzler. The first element of the word, "cata," may be related to "cater," also found in the related word "catercorner" (or, as many folks know it, "cattycorner" or "kittycorner"). "Cater" in these words comes from the French "quatre," or "four," and "catercornered" originally just meant "four-cornered." Today "catercorner" means that two things are diagonally across from each other. The "wampus" part may have come from the Scots word "wampish," meaning "to wriggle or twist," which would certainly seem to fit with "catawampus" meaning "askew" or "crooked."
Dear Word Detective: I am curious to find the origin of the term "codswallop." I believe that it's an English expression and I also believe that someone would say this to you when they've caught you, shall we say, embellishing a story. -- Sally Niederman, via the internet.
Yes they would, and if you've ever had a yen to hear someone shout "Codswallop!" at a television set (which, I'll admit, would be a rather exotic sort of yen), just swing by my house when the evening news programs are on. "Codswallop" is actually one of the more printable items in my news-watching vocabulary.
"Codswallop" is a venerable English term for nonsense, balderdash, hot air or plain old baloney, and although "codswallop" is certainly not standard American fare, I did hear it used just the other day by a big hairy fellow early on in the current cinema blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Media Blitz." As is the case with many of our most colorful English slang terms, the origin of "codswallop" is a tantalizing mystery. Part of the mystery is that "codswallop," although it sounds positively Dickensian, has not been found in any printed material prior to the 1960s, which is very odd.
The possibility remains, however, that "codswallop" is actually a good deal older, and thereby hangs one tale of its origin. An English soft-drink and mineral water vendor named Hiram Codd, it seems, invented a peculiar bottle for his wares back in the 1870s. Rather than a traditional cap or cork, Codd's bottles employed a little ball of glass in the neck to seal in the fizz. That Hiram Codd invented such bottles is not in doubt and they are considered collectors' items today. More to the point but less verifiable is the theory that devotees of beer or ale (known in slang as "wallop" at that time) sarcastically disparaged Mr. Codd's fizzy beverages as weak, useless "Codd's Wallop," and the term "codswallop" eventually came to mean any worthless, pointless thing.
So, is this story true? Probably not -- there's still that nearly 100-year gap between Mr. Codd's invention and the appearance of "codswallop" to explain, among other problems. But it's not absolutely impossible, so perhaps we shouldn't consider the story absolute "codswallop".
Dear Word Detective: I think that once upon a time I read that the word "google" was selected by Carl Sagan's son, who was quite young at the time, to represent a specific very large number, something on the order of a billion billion. Is this true, or just something I have remembered out of thin air? If it is true, what is the very large number? -- J. Dutson, via the internet.
Well, no, you haven't remembered it entirely out of thin air, but your recollection is slightly off on several key points. I think what you actually remember is probably having read or heard Carl Sagan explain where the word came from, quite possibly in his fine "Cosmos" PBS series. Dr. Sagan's untimely death a few years ago robbed us of one of the great explainers and popularizers of science, as well as a tireless advocate of reason and world peace.
Another small problem with your question is that the word you're asking about is actually "googol," not "google." "Google" is the name of a popular internet search engine, located, as one might suspect, at www.google.com. According to the Google.com web site, "google" was chosen as "a play on" the word "googol," picked because it reflects "the company's mission to organize the immense amount of information available on the web." Yeah, right. I'd be willing to bet that either they just didn't know how to spell "googol" when they registered their domain name or, more likely, some mathematician had already snatched up "googol.com."
As for "googol," back in the 1930s, U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner was trying to think of a name for a very large number, ten raised to the hundredth power, and decided to pose the question to his nine year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta. Little Milton gave the matter some serious thought and after a few minutes came up with "googol," which, once popularized by his Uncle Edward, has ever since signified 1 followed by 100 zeroes. "Googol" is something of a linguistic rarity, having been invented by an identifiable person and not being based on any other word. Evidently Milton just plain dreamed it up out of thin air.
Incidentally, if contemplating how many things a "googol" might actually represent doesn't give you enough of a headache, you might try considering a later development, the "googolplex," which is ten to the power of a googol. That's a lot more than 99 bottles of beer on the wall.
Dear Word Detective: Someone in my workplace was recently called a "rabble-rouser." I know what a "rabble-rouser" is, but where did this phrase originate? -- Dave, via the internet.
Rabble-rouser? I'm picturing somebody whipping up a mob in the cafeteria armed with pitchforks and torches and preparing to storm the boardroom, but that's probably just my overheated imagination and a touch of wishful thinking. More likely the poor schmuck was just muttering into his decaf latte and some busybody turned him in to the Myrmidons of Management, right? I know how offices work.
A "rabble-rouser" is, of course, an agitator, often a demagogue, who inflames the passions of "the mob" with incendiary speeches or writings. Large numbers of otherwise rational people whooping, stomping and furiously clapping are usually good indicators that there is a rabble-rouser in the vicinity. The firing of guns into the air is also a pretty clear indication that the rabble has been roused. Of course, rabble-rousing need not be performed in person these days, as a quick cruise through the AM radio spectrum in the United States will demonstrate.
"Rabble-rouser" first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, formed by combining "rabble" and "rouse." Though we usually use "rouse" to mean "awaken" or "stir up," when "rouse" first appeared in English in the 15th century it was as a technical term in falconry meaning "to ruffle the feathers." The exact origin of "rouse" is unknown, but it may be rooted in Old French. The more common form "arouse," with largely the same meanings as "rouse," was formed in the 16th century by adding the more or less (in this case) meaningless prefix "a," and first appeared in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2.
"Rabble" is a bit more interesting. As a noun, "rabble" first appeared in the 14th century meaning "a pack or swarm of animals," and by the 1600s was being used to mean a disorderly crowd or mob of people. The exact derivation of "rabble" in this sense is unclear, but it may be connected to "rabble" as a verb, a very old word meaning "to talk confusedly or babble" (from the Middle Dutch "rabbelen," meaning "to speak indistinctly"), which would certainly fit with the image of an irate mob in the cafeteria.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "serendipity"? What I have heard is that it comes from an old Arabic name (Serendib) for the country Sri Lanka. Is that true? (Yes, I am from Sri Lanka.) -- Prasad Dharmasena, via the internet.
And we have a winner! I was browsing through my e-mail the other day (hey, it's less nerve-racking than watching TV) and noticed that over the last month or so I had accumulated questions from twelve, count 'em, twelve people about "serendipity." So I guess it's time to pick one to answer, and since you hail from Serendib, you win. Of course, the other eleven people win too, though it's still a bit of a mystery why everyone is asking about "serendipity" all of a sudden. [Update: I know about the movie now, so there's no need to write. Thanks.]
The connection you've heard of between "serendipity" and Sri Lanka is true, and it's a very interesting story. Back in 1754, Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, wrote a letter to his friend, Horace Mann. (Apparently half the population was named "Horace" in those days.) In his letter, Horace W. undertook to explain to Horace M. the derivation of a new word he had invented, "serendipity": "I once read a silly fairy tale, called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'; as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...." By "serendipity," Walpole meant "the gift of making lucky discoveries, of finding valuable things one is not looking for," and the word entered English in that sense. Curiously, however," serendipity" was rarely used in literature until the 20th century, and today is more often employed to mean the lucky find or happenstance itself, as in "A parking meter with time left on it when one is broke is serendipity."
Meanwhile, back at "Serendip," the princes in the Persian fairy tale Walpole had read did indeed come from Sri Lanka, the island nation in the Indian Ocean formerly called Ceylon and known at various ancient times as Serendip or Sarendib.
Dear Word Detective: I am Australian and my mother is Australian of British parents. She uses the phrase "crackerjack" to describe something first-rate (e.g., "She is a crackerjack student"). I was wondering if you could tell me the origins of this phrase? -- Ngaire, via the internet.
Yum, Crackerjacks! I suppose that doesn't make much sense in Australia, but here in the U.S. at least, "Crackerjacks" is the brand name of a tasty concoction of candied popcorn and peanuts sold in shiny boxes festooned, as I recall, with the likeness of a lad wearing a sailor suit. Go figure. Anyway, when I was a lad in my own sailor suit, each box of Crackerjacks also contained a tiny but very nifty plastic toy (fondly known among modern lawyers as a "choking hazard"). Not surprisingly, today's Crackerjacks boxes usually offer only tiny, illegible comic books or stickers. Sic transit gloria junk food, I guess.
The funny thing about "crackerjack" as an adjective meaning "splendid" or "first-rate" is that although it is most often heard today in the U.K. or Commonwealth countries, "crackerjack" was an American invention. In fact, "crackerjack" was originally a noun, appearing in the U.S. around 1895, meaning "a person of excellence, superior knowledge and ability." The root of "crackerjack" is a sense of "cracker" current in the early 1860s meaning "a remarkable individual" or "an outstanding example of something." This sense of "cracker" was based, in turn, on a very old (around 1460, in fact) sense of "to crack" meaning "to boast or brag." The "jack" element of "crackerjack" doesn't really mean anything -- its role in the word is to rhyme with "crack." Once again, although "crackerjack" meaning "excellent" is no longer very common in the U.S., it was obviously a popular adjective when "Crackerjack" snack food appeared in the early 1900s.
Speaking of "cracker," many of us in the U.S. are familiar with a less complimentary slang sense of the word, meaning "a poor Southern white," especially in the contemptuous sense of "a bigoted, ignorant rural dweller" or "redneck." Several theories have been proposed for "cracker" in this sense, the most popular being that it is a shortening of "corn-cracker," also meaning a poor Southern white person in the early 1800s. But the most likely source is actually that old "brag" or "boast" sense of "cracker," applied to boastful settlers of the Southern U.S. in the late 1700s.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "hands down"? -- Alan Graner, via the internet.
Thanks for asking my favorite sort of question. Here's an idiom that almost everyone has heard, and many of us frequently use. Yet most of us, including me until a few minutes ago, don't seem to notice how fundamentally weird it is, and it isn't until someone asks that we realize that we've been harboring a mysterious oddity in our vocabularies. It's as if we got up one morning to discover a kangaroo in the shower. In fact, it's worse. I mean, it's not as if you can just call Animal Control when you've got a question like that.
Onward. "Hands down" means, of course, "easily" or "with little or no effort," and it's most often heard in the context of someone or something "winning hands down." Surveys of consumer products in which one product clearly outclasses the others almost invariably announce that "The Gizmo 2000 won hands down" or the like, often coupled with the phrase "no contest."
When I first considered "hands down," I wondered if this phrase might have come from card playing, perhaps in reference to losing players being so discouraged by the winning player's overwhelmingly superior "hand" that they cast theirs down on the table in disgust. Or perhaps, I thought, "hands down" originally referred to one party in a fistfight or boxing match dropping his hands from fighting posture as a signal of surrender.
Proud as I am of those theories, however, I was happy to find the real answer in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Hands down," it seems, dates back to the mid-19th century and harks, not from card-playing or schoolyard fisticuffs, but from the genteel world of horseracing. A jockey nearing the finish line well ahead of the competition, with victory certain, would often relax his posture and drop his hands, relaxing his hold on the reins, as his steed galloped the final few yards. To win a race "hands down," therefore, was to win it easily, without any serious competition, and by the late 19th century the phrase was being used in non-racing contexts to mean "with no trouble at all."
Dear Word Detective: I was once threatened (by no less than a Federal Circuit Court judge in Florida) with being charged with "mopery." To this day I have no idea what "mopery" is, nor have I been able to find its definition in the legal dictionaries available to me. Go for it! --D. L. Rindone, Cornville, AZ.
Well, if it makes you feel any better, you are not alone. I, too, was threatened with arrest for "mopery" back in 1970 by a gendarme in the employ of the Columbus, Ohio police department. As I knew I was guilty of no crime beyond a bad attitude and a subversive haircut, I presumed he was joking and simply walked away. But several days later I heard that a friend had actually been arrested, booked and jailed for "mopery," so I guess the relevant law really existed on the books (and, knowing Columbus, I'd guess that it probably still does).
You're also not alone in being unable to pin down an exact legal definition of "mopery." I seem to have misplaced my copy of Black's Law Dictionary (how one misplaces a book that heavy is another question), and none of the online legal dictionaries I have found contain the term. Nonetheless, all the references that I have been able to find in other materials indicate that the definition of "mopery" furnished to me by a friendly lawyer back in 1970 was accurate. "Mopery," at least in Columbus, Ohio, consists of "walking down the street with no clear destination or purpose." "Mopery" is thus essentially "loitering while walking," and, like laws against loitering and vagrancy, functions as a sort of legal wildcard, a one-size-fits-all charge that can easily be applied to annoying people by irritable authorities. "Mopery" is clearly based on verb "to mope," which, in its original sense, meant "to wander about aimlessly, moving without the guidance of thought." (Our modern "mope" meaning "to lay about bored and depressed" is a later development of the word.) The verb "to mope" first appeared in English in the 16th century and is of unknown origin, but was a big favorite of Shakespeare, who used it in at least three of his plays. "Mopery" is also frequently invoked for comic effect by modern writers, especially Thomas Pynchon, who seems to love the word. The film "Revenge of the Nerds" also contains a reference to "mopery," but erroneously defines it as "exposing oneself to a blind person."
Dear Word Detective: I have read many of your columns on your web site, and saw your explanation of "weigh anchor." Don't worry, I am no sailor and am not here to point out a nautical error. Rather, I noticed that you used the phrase "pipe down" in your response, and now I'm curious. Where did that phrase come from? -- Scott Carter, Round Rock, TX.
So, you're absolutely certain you're not a sailor, eh? Not even a little dinghy tucked away in the garage? No Patrick O'Brian books on the bedstand? Well, OK. But if I'm awakened at midnight by a score of cranky old salts strenuously differing with my answer, I'm sending them over to your house.
Since you've mentioned "weigh anchor," meaning to raise a ship's anchor prior to getting under way, I ought to briefly reprise my explanation of that phrase from earlier this year. Obviously the crew already knows roughly what the anchor weighs, so they're not "weighing" it in the modern sense. This nautical "weigh" comes from the Anglo-Saxon root "wegan," which meant simply "to lift, carry, bear or move." So when seadogs say that they are "weighing anchor," they're really just saying that they're raising it. The sense of "weigh" we commonly use today to mean actually measuring the weight of something was a later development of this same root word.
"Pipe down," meaning "to be quiet" or "settle down," is so often used by parents or teachers confronted with a room full of unruly children that most folks would never guess that the phrase was born in the days of sailing ships. The pipe in question was the boatswain's pipe, a small whistle-like device used by the boatswain (also known as the "bosun," the petty officer in charge of the deck) to communicate orders to the crew via different arrangements of notes. When the bosun "piped down" aboard ship, he blew the signal for the crew to retire from their tasks or formation and return to their quarters belowdecks. Since the deck would become suddenly quiet when the crew retired, "pipe down" came to be used as nautical slang for "be quiet" or "shut up," and by the end of the 19th century it had percolated out into its modern non-seafaring usage.
Dear Word Detective: I've frequently heard a phrase referring to soldiers who have been in combat, or police officers who've been in gun fights and had their lives endangered. Such people are said to have "seen the elephant." Do you know the origin of that phrase? -- Joe Torre, via the internet.
Yes I do, but I can't tell you the answer until you step up and buy a ticket. But you'll also get to see The Bearded Lady and the Human Fly, not to mention Wolf Boy and The Invisible Man, formerly known as Dick Cheney.
As you might infer from that somewhat strange paragraph, the whole story begins with the classic American traveling carnival. Back in the early 19th century, the arrival of such a carnival in a small town was a major occasion, affording the town's residents the opportunity to sample all sorts of exotic attractions, from the grotesque denizens of the sideshow to wild beasts from Africa and Asia that many people at that time had only read of in books. The big draw at many of these shows was an elephant, a far bigger and stranger critter than any animal native to North America, and to go to the carnival without "seeing the elephant" would be like going to the Ohio State Fair without seeing the Butter Cow. (Yes, it's a life-size cow sculpted from butter, sort of a giant advertisement for bypass surgery.)
So ritualized was this small-town pachyderm-mania that by about 1835 "to see the elephant" had become a catch phrase meaning "to experience all that there is to see, to see all that can be endured," with the sense that after having "seen the elephant" there was nothing left to see. A related, more general sense arose a few years later, in which "to have seen the elephant" meant "to be worldly, no longer innocent, to have learned a hard lesson." Many young people of the day who left the country for the big city with stars in their eyes only to experience hardship and disappointment were wryly said to have "seen the elephant" in this sense. And by about 1840, "see the elephant" had acquired the specialized military sense you have heard, meaning "to experience combat for the first time," with the brutal loss of innocence that ordeal conveys.
Dear Word Detective: Speaking to a friend of mine recently, she told me she was on "tenderhooks" waiting to hear the results of a job interview. I told her that I think the word is "tinterhooks." My curiosity piqued, I began to look for some information on the word. It shows up in sentences when I do a search for it, i.e., "The patent refers to a wheel with teeth 'made like tinterhooks' to 'move the balance...," and "A variety of adventures keeps the Smiths on tinterhooks during the construction of the house," but I cannot find it in any dictionary or "word and phrase" websites I have visited. What is a "tinterhook" and why would someone be on one? I am on tinterhooks until I find some information about this word. -- Thomas Tarleton, via the internet.
Come down from there, Thomas, before you hurt yourself. There's a simple explanation for your inability to find "tinterhooks" or "tenderhooks" listed in any dictionary or explained on any website. The word you're actually looking for is "tenterhooks." I think the "tinterhooks" you found in your search is probably an archaic and possibly regional variant of "tenterhooks," and since "tenderhooks" is the most common misspelling of the word, I'd be surprised if you didn't find that all over the net as well.
Way back in the 14th century, a "tenter" (probably from the Latin "tendere," to stretch) was a wooden frame upon which newly woven and milled cloth was stretched to dry. The cloth was held in place by rows of small, sharp hooks called, you guessed it, "tenterhooks." Back when everyone knew what "tenters" were, "to be on tenterhooks" must have seemed like an excellent metaphor for "being in a painful state of suspense." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first used in this sense in the mid-18th century by Tobias Smollet ("I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty"). Although "tenters" are long gone, "tenterhooks" are, as your friend can attest, with us still.
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