Previous Columns / Posted 01-20-00
OK, all right, I was wrong and all the Pollyannas were right. So ... anybody wanna buy a few hundred cans of kidney beans? How about a really cool 5500 watt generator? Solar powered Cuisinart?
Elsewhere in the Who Knew? Department, I had always regarded Arianna Huffington as just another right-wing loonie, but lately I've been seized with the disquieting desire to vote for her should she ever run for public office. Exhibit A is this excerpt from her new book, to which she has given the admirable title "How to Overthrow the Government."
And now, a word on a very important subject from our Director of Development/Supplies Manager here at Word Detective World Headquarters, Ms. Edith Freedle:
And now that I have thoroughly debased myself, on with the show:
As you might imagine, this column receives many, many questions (several hundred every week, in fact), and one of my hardest jobs is deciding which ones I'm going to answer. Usually I pick questions that can serve as the basis for an entire column, but today I thought I'd just dive headfirst into the old mailbag and answer a few quickies:
Q: I would really like to know where the term "corned beef" came from, since there is no corn in it. -- Kathleen Mills, via the internet.
A: The word "corn" was originally applied to any small particle or seed, and it wasn't until maize was imported to Europe from America in the 16th century that our modern "corn" got its name. The "corn" in "corned beef" refers to the particles of salt with which the meat is cured.
Q: Any idea how "deviled eggs" got their name? -- Jennifer.
A: "Devil" in this sense means to heavily season a food, usually with hot spices (hot things being associated with the Devil).
Q: Where does "bee-line" come from? -- Carol Castro.
A: From actual bees, which are supposed to fly in a perfectly straight line when they carry pollen and nectar from flowers back to their hives. I'm an etymologist (word origin snoop), not an entomologist (insect expert), so I can't swear that bees actually fly in straight lines. But "bee-line" has meant the straightest, shortest path between two points since about 1830.
Q: I'm wondering about the origin of the word "flagstone." Do you know where it came from? -- Chris, via the internet.
A: Flagstones are thin, flat pieces of stone (usually sedimentary rock) often used in paving or for garden paths. The name has nothing to do with the sort of flags we fly -- it comes from the Old Norse word "flaga," simply meaning "slab of stone."
Q: Please explain the meaning of the German-derived expression "Shadden-frusse" or "freud." (I'm not sure of the correct spelling.) -- Anonymous.
A: It's "schadenfreude," from the German "schaden" (harm) plus "freude" (joy), and means "malicious happiness at the misfortune of someone else." It's how you feel when your nasty, petty boss gets "downsized."
Dear Word Detective: Where I grew up the most popular card game around was euchre, a fast, trick-based game where you had to bid for and take three or more tricks to make your point. "Euchre" is also used as a verb meaning to prevent your opponent(s) from making their bid. Searching for an origin for the word "euchre," however, has led me to the ever-popular blank wall. "Eucharist" comes from Greek roots meaning thankful, grateful, and showing favor, which is almost completely the opposite of the verb meaning of "euchre." The next closest word I can find is "eucaryote," which also comes from the Greek. Its root word is defined as "having nuts." Jokes aside, I can't believe that's a relative either. So can you help track this one down? -- Chansen, via the internet.
Ah yes, the ever-popular blank wall. I know it well. I've spent so much time there, in fact, that I've often been tempted to rename this column "How the Heck Should I Know?"
The origin of "euchre" (which has also been spelled "uker," "yuker" and "eucre" at various points since its appearance around 1848) is a bit of a puzzle. You're right about "Eucharist," which means both the institution and the elements of the Christian Communion ceremony, having nothing to do with the game of euchre, although it might be interesting if it did. The root of "Eucharist" is the Greek "eukharistia," meaning "gratitude." And a "eukaryote" (as it's usually spelled) is a cell with a complex nucleus, but probably not complex enough to want to play cards.
All of which leads us to the one even remotely plausible theory about "euchre" I've been able to root out, which is that "euchre" comes from the Spanish phrase "ser yuca," meaning "to be the best" or "to win." This origin would certainly make sense given the highly competitive nature of the game, and would also fit in with the slang use of "euchre" as a verb meaning "to win decisively."
Dear Word Detective: I hate to admit it, after having lived all of my life in the Southwest, but I don't know where the word "honky tonk" originated. I know what it means -- that is, I've been told by those who like to go honky tonkin' on Saturday nights, but I was curious how the term came about. Any ideas or theories? -- Ken Ray, via the internet.
I understand. You've heard the term "honky tonk" from your friends, those wild, rowdy friends who spend every Saturday night reeling from one raucous dive to the next, while you, of course, spend your weekends listening to Mozart string quartets and working on your needlepoint. Very admirable indeed. And ever so believable.
"Honky tonk" is a classic Americanism, and it's hard to imagine such a cheerfully rude-sounding term ever springing up anywhere else. In fact, when Carl Sandburg's "Collected Poems" was first published in England, it came with a glossary explaining some American words Sandburg used that the publishers felt were likely to mystify English readers. Among those exotic terms were such classic Yankee inventions as "cahoots," "floozy" and, yes, "honky tonk."
The original (and still primary) meaning of "honky tonk" was a noisy, fairly tawdry and usually disreputable bar or saloon, and the term dates back to the American West at the end of the 19th century, the heyday of honky tonks. Beginning in the 1930s, "honky tonk" was also applied to the rollicking style of ragtime or jazz piano music typically played in honky tonks, and "honky tonk" has also often been used, not surprisingly, as an adjective meaning "cheap" or "disreputable."
Such a colorful word ought to have an equally colorful history, but the origin of "honky tonk" is actually rather simple. It is almost certainly "echoic" in origin, meaning that "honky tonk" was coined to imitate the actual sound of a raucous saloon, the same way "bang" is supposed to sound like an explosion. And, in case you were wondering, "honky tonk" is not related to "honky," disparaging slang for a Caucasian person, which comes from "hunky," 19th century slang for someone of Hungarian extraction.
Dear Word Detective: A Louisiana-born friend recently used the word "lagniappe" on me, insisting that it is a French word meaning "a little something extra." I have tried to verify this many different ways to no satisfaction. Can you help me? -- Robin, via the internet.
Certainly. Your friend is right. There, that wasn't so hard, was it?
A "lagniappe" (pronounced "lan-YAP") is a small gift, especially one unexpectedly given in addition to other payment or services. If you book a Caribbean cruise, for instance, the steamship company might throw in a day at Disney World at no charge as a "lagniappe." (This is entirely hypothetical, by the way. I've never been on a cruise, and I wouldn't set foot in Disney World if you paid me, not that anyone has offered to, though I might change my mind if they did. Call me, Mr. Eisner. We'll talk.)
It's not surprising that your Louisiana friend knows the word and you don't, because "lagniappe" actually comes from a Louisiana French (or Creole) word, itself derived from the Spanish "la napa," or "the gift." Originally it meant a small token of appreciation traditionally given by a New Orleans merchant to his faithful customers -- an extra cookie, a free lunch, or the like. Lagniappes came to national attention during the reign (and it was indeed a "reign") of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who expanded the concept of "lagniappe" to include political favors and routine official corruption.
While we're on the subject of freebees, I should mention that the Great Surcee Hunt is still in progress. Several readers have written in asking about "surcee" (also sometimes spelled "sirsee," "circe," "circi" and "surcy"), which is another term heard mostly in the American South meaning a small, unexpected gift. Unfortunately, no one knows the origin of "surcee," or even what language it came from, although the Scots verb "sussie," meaning :to take trouble, to care, to bother oneself" is one possible source. If that's true, "surcee" probably came ultimately from the French "souci," meaning "care or trouble." But the case is not yet closed, so if you've ever heard "surcee" or have any idea of where it might have come from, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Word Detective: I am having an argument with my brother. He insists that the phrase "out of pocket" refers to expenditure from one's own resources, with the expectation of later reimbursement. I contend that one is "out of pocket" when one cannot be reached, is outside of the place where one can contact or be contacted. He has found a legal brief to support his position and I want something from another expert that challenges his brief. -- Dr. Nancy Tarsi, via the internet.
You know, I'm not entirely sure I want to get involved in this argument if you folks are already waving legal briefs at each other. Am I going to have to testify in court? I should warn you that I grew up watching the old Perry Mason TV series, and the moment I land in the witness box I'm likely to break down and confess to all sorts of shocking, if somewhat irrelevant, transgressions.
I'm especially apprehensive about answering your question because I'm afraid that your brother's case is very strong. "Out of pocket" is indeed usually used as a sort of shorthand for "paying out of one's own pocket that which should (and usually ultimately will) be paid by someone else." Interestingly, the original sense of "out of pocket" when it first appeared around 1693 was not so hopeful. It meant to be either "broke" or "the loser in a financial transaction."
However, and here's where your case gains strength, around 1974 "out of pocket" also started being used to mean "out of touch" or "unavailable." No one seems to know exactly why this sense arose or what the "pocket" in this case might be. Personally, I suspect that it's a bad translation of some French phrase. In any case, this sense of "out of pocket" is not, as far as I can tell, widely used. A more common phrase meaning the same thing is "out of the loop," which first appeared around 1983 and is probably rooted in computer terminology.
But the bottom line is that you're both right, although your brother is a bit more likely to be clearly understood when he uses "out of pocket."
Dear Word Detective: Being an absolute political geek, I often watch C-SPAN. I've noticed that when Congress adjourns, the Speaker will close the Congressional session with a phrase that sounds like "sinni di." Do you have a clue as to (a) what he is actually saying, (b)what it means and (c) where it comes from? -- Deeply Curious, via the internet.
Like wow, and I thought I had a boring hobby (collecting videotapes of TV test patterns, if you must know). I shouldn't, however, be too hard on C-SPAN (which, for the benefit of our non-US readers, is a cable TV network that broadcasts round-the-clock coverage of the workings of the US government). After all, they did inexplicably feature me on their channel a few years ago mumbling incoherently for an entire hour about a book I'd written. The highlight of my performance came right after the host introduced me, when my mind instantly went utterly blank. Petrified, I resorted to my inimitable Ralph Kramden impression ("Hummanahummana...."), which I managed to sustain for a truly impressive ninety seconds before I fainted dead away.
Anyway, what the Speaker is saying, to answer your question, is actually "sine die," which is Latin for "without a day." When Congress goes home for the day during its term, the gathering is adjourned with a specific date and time set for the resumption of its business (usually the next weekday morning). But when they adjourn at the end of the Congressional season (after the playoffs, I suppose), they adjourn "sine die," without a specific date set for reassembling. "Sine die" is also used in court proceedings and other legal situations when a session of some deliberative body is adjourning for the foreseeable future, and has been part of English legal terminology since around 1631.
Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the language of the word "capice" or "capiche"? Diolch yn fawr (that's "thanks" in Welsh). -- Ruth Jones, via the internet.
Hey, I knew that. Or I should have, anyway, being of Welsh ancestry myself. I actually do know two or three phrases in Welsh, and I've always meant to study the language, but I've been very busy lately counting the cats in my house. They seem to be multiplying, but I can't prove it until I get them all to stand still.
Oh yes, your question. Most people first encounter the word you're asking about in Hollywood gangster movies. At some point in every gangster movie, an older guy, usually the mob boss, is explaining the facts of underworld life to a younger guy, who in most gangster movies will eventually either take over the mob or turn out to be a "cheese eater" (rat). At the end of his spiel, the boss slaps the kid on the shoulder and says something that sounds like "Capeesh?" The kid gulps and replies, "Capeesh."
What they're actually saying is "coppish" (kuh-PEESH, also sometimes spelled "capeesh"), which is definitely not Welsh (too many vowels, just for starters). It's Italian-American slang for "understand." "Coppish" comes from the Italian word "capisce," based on the verb "capire," meaning "to understand," and can be used as either a question or an answer. Like many dialect words born in immigrant communities, "coppish" affirms a bond between the speaker and listener. "Coppish?" thus often really means, "I know you understand, because you're one of us." And the reply "Coppish!" means "You bet, no problem, you can count on me."
And in gangster movies, oddly enough, the mob boss always trusts the younger guy when he says "Coppish," which brings up a question that has always bothered me. Why don't any of the gangsters in gangster movies ever seem to have seen a gangster movie?
Dear Word Detective: Would you happen to know the origin of the phrase "dead as a doornail" to describe the recently deceased? I wasn't even aware that doornails had a pulse! -- Allison, via the internet.
Well, you never know about inanimate objects -- some of them can be remarkably sensitive. I recently had to stop shouting at my TV during the news because I noticed that both its colors and its sound had become muddy and dull. I think I've depressed the poor thing. Maybe if I let it show me Mister Rogers for a couple of weeks it'll cheer up.
"Dead as a doornail," meaning utterly, completely dead, first appeared in English way back around 1350 A.D. Shakespeare was quite fond of the phrase and used it in several of his plays, probably for the same reason we still use it today: the alliteration of "dead" and "doornail." Of the alternatives listed by the Oxford English Dictionary ("dead as a herring" and "dead as mutton"), only "dead as the dodo" packs quite the same poetic punch.
As to why a "doornail," opinions vary a bit. One theory holds that the "doornail" in question was not a nail as we know nails today, but rather a broad, flat plate mounted on the outside of the door to serve as a striking plate for the door knocker. Such a "nail" would be "dead" because it would be fixed tightly to the wood of the door and thus would not ring when struck as metal normally does, but rather give a dull "thump." This theory is, in the opinion of most authorities, unlikely to be true.
Probably the best theory about "doornail" notes that until the nineteenth century metal nails were both expensive and rarely used, wooden pegs being the norm. Metal nails were used in the construction of doors, however, usually driven clear through the door and then bent over on the other side, rendering them immovable. Such nails were called "dead" in the jargon of carpentry at the time because they could not loosen and work themselves free. "Dead as a doornail" is thus not just a very old saying, but a very old pun as well.
Dear Word Detective: In reading your old column about "kludge," I came across "There have been a number of theories of the origin of 'kludge' proposed over the years, the simplest being a modification of the slang verb 'to fudge,' meaning to cheat or create fake data in order to get a desired result." OK, so whence this sense of "fudge"? -- Dean Quarrell, via the internet.
Ah yes, my back pages. For a moment I thought you had been reading ancient, yellowing samples of my immortal prose painstakingly preserved for posterity in your family scrapbook, but then I realized you're probably talking about the online archive of these columns available at www.word-detective.com.
"Kluge," to bring the rest of the gang up to speed, is a computer term meaning an inelegant but effective solution to a system problem, and probably comes from the German "kluge," meaning "smart."
"Fudge" as a verb meaning "to surreptitiously adjust data to produce the desired conclusion" turns out to be a very interesting word. Most of us think of "fudge" primarily in the candy sense, but the "cheat" sense is actually several centuries older than the "fudge" we eat.
"Fudge" meaning "to fit together clumsily" first appeared in the late 17th century, and was a staple in the language of schoolchildren, who used "to fudge" to mean fiddling with the proof of a math problem, for instance, to make it appear to be correct when it was not. This "make it fit" meaning of "fudge" was almost certainly a mutation of an earlier word "fadge," meaning "to adjust," which in turn probably came from the Old English word "fage," meaning "deceit." So it seems "fudge" has been hiding something for a very long time.
Midway through the 18th century, "fudge" took on a new job as an interjection ("Oh Fudge!") and a noun, both meaning "nonsense" or "a made-up story." The candy kind of "fudge," which appeared around 1896, derives its name from this sense, probably either because fudge is fairly simple (though tricky) to make (and thus not a "real" candy), or simply because fudge is usually a light, playful treat.
Dear Word Detective: I have been getting an e-mail from friends asking me to figure out the three words that end in "gry": angry, hungry, and a third I don't know. I was hoping you would help me out on this one. Have a great day.-- D., via the internet.
Not likely, since a "great day" in my book would be one on which I didn't receive some version of this question at least, and I'm not exaggerating, thirty times. It's not your fault, of course. You've only asked once, and it seems, at first glance, like an intriguing puzzle. But I'm going to take the occasion of the new millennium to answer this question one final time, and it'll have to last everybody the next 1000 years.
This riddle about "the three words ending in gry" is usually presented in something similar to the following form: "There are three common words in the English language that end with 'gry.' Angry is one and hungry is another. What is the third word? Everyone uses it every day and everyone knows what it means. If you have been listening, I have already told you what the word is."
Now listen up, folks, because the answer comes in two parts. First, you can stop looking for that third "gry" word. There is no other "common English word" ending in "gry," although there are some very obscure ones, such as "aggry" (a type of bead) and "gry" itself (meaning "a very small amount").
Second, no word ending in "gry" was ever the answer to this insipid riddle. The riddle itself has been badly mangled as it was passed from person to person over the years. The original form was a trick question (as many riddles are) that used doubletalk to send the listener off on a wild goose chase looking for a third "gry" word. Depending on the form of the riddle, the proper answer may actually have been "it," "language" or something else. But no one knows for sure, because the original form of the riddle has long since been lost. And, personally, I hope it stays lost for a long, long time.
Dear Word Detective: My class and I here at Western Wisconsin Technical College are curious as to the origin of the idiom "top notch." We have a few theories: notching a pig's ear? The top notch on a military fire control mechanism? Hanging the hoss thief from the highest tree? Please help us. We have tried several internet sources and libraries. We may never sleep again! -- Fred Dorau, via the internet.
Maybe I'm just becoming jaded, but it's been a long time since I've lost any sleep wondering about words. The last time, as I recall, it was over something the IRS said in one of those silly letters they like to send me. But I'm sure they were kidding. They can't really put a lien on your dog, can they?
You folks have certainly come up with some creative theories about the source of "top notch," which since about 1848 has meant "first rate" or simply "the best." Unfortunately, none of the theories you propose matches what we do know about the source of "top notch" (which isn't, however, very much). Evidently, the term "top notch" originated in some sort of game or competition where the score was kept by moving markers upward on a notched board or stick. The winner, presumably would be the one whose marker reached the top notch first, making "top notch" a fitting metaphor for "the best." Ordinarily I'd apologize for the vagueness of that explanation, but it's the best anyone can do today, and the fault really lies with the slackers back in 1848 who neglected to write down precisely what game they were playing.
As a sort of consolation prize (I do feel your frustration, I really do), allow me to offer the origin of another term for "the highest quality" or "first class," namely "top drawer." This term, which appeared in its figurative sense around 1900, refers to the top drawer in a bedroom dresser, where society folks usually kept their jewels and other valuables. "Top drawer" as an idiom first described people of high social standing ("Muffy's beau Teddy is from a top drawer family"), but today is usually simply used to denote a thing or service considered the best of its kind.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, I have been attempting to locate the origins of the phrase "falling off of the wagon." I have heard that this idiom stemmed from the days when beer was loaded into barrels and shipped by wagons; the delivery people would drink those barrels that fell off. I was just wondering if you could either validate this or provide me with a better explanation. -- John Blacklock, via the internet.
That's an interesting theory, although I can foresee some practical problems with your scenario. Drinking an entire barrel of beer, even split among three or four deliverymen, would seem likely to turn into quite an ordeal, and then there's the question of who is going to be the designated driver after the impromptu sudsfest. Furthermore, if the beer from the broken barrels spills into the street, the horses are likely to slurp it up, and pretty soon you've got tipsy horsies and real problems. Then again, I understand that the Budweiser Company chooses Clydesdale draft horses for their wagon teams precisely because that breed is known to be strict teetotalers, so perhaps the theory you've heard is not impossible.
I'm just kidding, of course, although there is a real wagon involved in "off the wagon," a derivative of "on the wagon," which since about 1906 has meant to swear off drinking alcohol. The "wagon" in "on the wagon" refers to a fixture of America's past, the water wagon. Before roads were routinely paved, municipalities would dispatch horse-drawn water wagons to spray the streets in order to prevent the clouds of dust that traffic would otherwise cause. Anyone who had sworn abstinence from alcohol (and would presumably be drinking primarily water from then on) was said to have "climbed aboard the water wagon," later shortened to "on the wagon." So to "fall off the wagon" was a logical metaphor for having failed in one's resolve and having started drinking again.
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine recently described herself in a conversation as an "alternivore," which she said was just like being a vegetarian except that you're allowed to eat chicken and fish. I didn't say so at the time, but "alternivore" struck me as a vague and silly word because it doesn't really mean anything and will always need to be explained. What do you think? -- Debra Ford, New York, NY.
I congratulate you on your discretion, always a wise course when dealing with people in the throes of self-improvement. Chances are that your friend secretly wanted a cheeseburger so badly at that point that the slightest affront could have driven her right over the edge.
"Alternivore" isn't in any dictionary I own, and several web search engines have never heard of the word, so I suspect that your friend either invented it herself or read it in The Weekly World News. It seems to be a neologism (newly-formed word) concocted from "altern" (as in "alternative") and "vore" (from "vorare," Latin for "devour," also found in "herbivore," "carnivore" and "voracious"). "Alternivore" is, as you note, a vague word, since the listener is likely to guess that it means "eating something else," but then the question remains "what?" If your friend did, indeed, learn the word from a supermarket tabloid, the answer is probably either "bugs" or "automobile parts."
The only reason for dreaming up words such as "alternivore" is that the standard term for those who abstain from eating meat, "vegetarian," has become somewhat ambiguous in the late 20th century. Originally, a "vegetarian" was someone who ate no animal products at all -- no chicken or fish, and, in most cases, not even milk or eggs. By the 1940's however, so many vegetarians were making exceptions for fish and chicken that a new term, "vegan," was coined to describe those purists who shunned any food made of or from animals. Today there is a confusing array of intermediate categories, such as "ovo-lacto vegetarians," who eat eggs and milk, but not chicken or fish, and even "ovo-lacto-pescetarians," who add fish to the stew. Vegans lump all these less rigorous practitioners into the category "pseudo-vegetarians," a condemnation noticeably lacking in that most important nutrient of daily life, tact.
Dear Word Detective: I'm a librarian in Edmonds WA, and can't seem to locate the origin of the phrase "on the bubble." It seems to be a sports and business phrase that relates to salary caps or staff cuts. -- Ginny Rollett, Edmonds Library. Edmonds WA.
Since I have not been much of a sports fan since the Dodgers deserted Brooklyn (I was, of course, a wee tot at the time, but the perfidy still stings), your question left me temporarily flummoxed. I checked Paul Dickson's "New Dickson's Baseball Dictionary" (1999), where I learned that "on the bubble" is applied to a player who is on the verge of being sent down to the minor leagues, called up to the majors, or traded. But the only clue given about the logic of the term was that the player's "bubble" is about to burst, and there was no explanation of the term's source.
Fortunately, I then thought to check the online archives of ADS-L, the e-mail discussion group of the American Dialect Society (available at www.americandialect.org/adslarchive.shtml). Lo and behold, there had been a spirited discussion of "on the bubble" back in January 1999, and, as is often the case on ADS-L, somebody actually knew the probable origin of the term.
It seems that "on the bubble" almost certainly comes from the qualifying runs preceding the annual Indianapolis 500 auto race, in which cars compete for the limited number of starting places in the race. Since there are several qualifying runs, the slowest, barely-qualifying car in any given run is said to be "on the bubble" because just one other car making better time in a subsequent run would burst that driver's bubble and dash his or her dream of competing in the big race. The final day of qualifying runs is known, in fact, as "Bubble Day."
Just exactly when "on the bubble" made its first appearance at the Indy 500 is uncertain, although one ADS-L correspondent remembers it being in use back in the 1950s, but over the last twenty years or so it has migrated into the vocabularies of football and basketball commentators, and now into the realm business-speak as well.
Dear Word Detective: I'd like to know the origins of the word "crotchety." If a "crotchet," according to my dictionary, is an obsolete word for small hook or instrument, how did that evolve into something crabby and generally male? -- ShelE51, via the internet.
Hey, folks, we've got to do something about these internet screen names right away. People go to sign up for an online service, and some computer decides that their "login" needs a few numbers tacked onto the end. That's bad enough. But how long do you think it's going to be before modern parents, bored with merely burdening their children with what my friend John Guthrie once brilliantly dubbed "It came to me in Kmart names," start deliberately including numerals in their offspring's monickers? Unless this trend is halted, pretty soon we'll end up with President Tihphani546.
Speaking as "something crabby and generally male" myself, I take exception to both the tone and the implication of your question. There are plenty of crotchety females out there, and more power to them. If life hands you humbug, I say, bite its fingers.
It is true, as your dictionary explains, that "crotchet" is a very old word for "small hook," from the French "crochet" (hook), which also gave us the craft of "crochet," sewing with a hooked needle. "Crotchet" first appeared in its literal "hook" sense in the 15th century, but by the late 16th century was also being used to mean "an odd whim or peculiar notion." The logic of this transformation seems to lie in the view of strange ideas or unusual behavior as mental "twists," much in the same way that "crank" went from describing a bent shaft to meaning an eccentric person. A man or woman with many odd ideas and habits would naturally be described as "full of crotchets" or simply "crotchety," a term which first appeared around 1847. And because people with unusual ideas are often cranky because society does not share their advanced perceptions of reality (the fools, the fools!), "crotchety" has also taken on the added connotation of "grouchy" or "curmudgeonly."
Dear Word Detective: Here in Canada we are quite used to hearing a lot of British expressions. However, I was recently in London and heard about six words I am not familiar with. The first one I will send and ask you to explain is "Gobsmacked." Methinks it's something naughty. -- Arnie Wachman, via the internet.
Oh, good. You know, I was worried about how I was going to spend the long winter nights over the next few months. But now I know I can plan on many happy hours trying to unravel the mysteries of British slang, a species so obscure that even the natives of that charming isle often haven't the vaguest notion of what they're really saying or where it came from.
In this case, however, we're both getting off lightly, because compared to such Britishisms as "toad in the hole" (a mashed-potato and sausage concoction, I've been told), "gobsmacked" is fairly easy to explain. "Gob" is a very old (about 400 years old, actually) English dialect word meaning "mouth," probably taken from Gaelic or Scots, and related to "gab," also meaning "mouth" or, more commonly, "speech." To be "gobsmacked" is to be astonished or flabbergasted, as stunned as if you had been suddenly "smacked" (struck) in the mouth. Curiously, "gobsmacked" has only been found in print as far back as the 1980s, but it's reasonable to assume that the term has been around for much longer.
"Gobsmacked" isn't really "naughty" in the sexual sense, but it is generally considered a bit rude and would not be a good choice of words were you to find yourself in certain social situations (i.e., "Blimey, Your Majesty, I'm gobsmacked" would probably be a mistake). Other words based on "gob" (such as the verb "gob," meaning "to spit") are also not considered fit for polite company, and even the relatively benign "gobstopper" (a type of large hard candy popular with children) would probably raise Her Majesty's eyebrows.
Dear Word Detective: My grandmother, English born, but bred in the American South, employed the phrase "naked as a jay bird" very often. Most times, she was referring to me and my brother, as we derived great joy in "streaking" (another puzzling word) around the house. I am happy to report it was a habit we soon grew out of! Do you happen to know the origin of the aforementioned terms? -- Allison, via the internet.
And I thought my family was weird. "Streaking" actually strikes me as a fairly logical name for what has always seemed to me an exceedingly strange habit. But I suppose that if you simply cannot resist the impulse to display your birthday suit to other people, it's probably wise to do so while running as fast as possible so that you appear as an indistinct "streak" to bystanders. The term "streaking" in this sense dates back to about 1973, when the practice first appeared on U.S. college campuses.
"Naked as a jay bird," meaning utterly without clothing, refers to the "jay," a species of songbird. Here in the U.S., the jay is probably most familiar to us as the blue jay, with its brilliant blue plumage and distinctively raucous call.
Just where the phrase "naked as a jay bird" came from is, however, a bit of a mystery. It has been in fairly common usage since the middle of the 20th century, and seems to be American in origin. Why blue jays, which are modestly covered with feathers, should have become symbols of nudity is anyone's guess.
But since we're reduced to guessing, here's mine. There are few birds more blatantly obvious than the male blue jay. Not only is Mr. Jay bright blue, not a common color for animals of any ilk, but he is also usually the loudest and most obnoxious bird in any given tree. As a symbol of that which is flamboyantly obvious, the blue jay takes the cake.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "trench coat" come from? What is the difference between a trench coat and a raincoat? -- Holly Sharer, via the internet.
All the difference in the world, at least to those of us who go through life with one foot planted firmly in the classic films of the 1940s. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) wore a trenchcoat in "The Maltese Falcon." Columbo, that irritating icon of formulaic 70s TV detective shows, wore a raincoat. Raincoats are to trench coats as a Ford Explorer is to an Austin-Healy sports car, as Miller Lite is to Guinness Stout, as a baseball cap is to a good fedora, as Billy Joel is to Benny Goodman. In a word, boring.
While trench coats are often worn as raincoats these days (especially by corporate honchos who evidently think a trench coat disguises a dull soul, which it does not), there are marked differences between a trench coat and the generally drab, featureless raincoat. A trench coat usually sports epaulets (those little straps on the shoulders), a cowl of fabric protecting the upper torso, and a belt (which should be cinched, never buckled).
It's more than a little ironic that one of the most fashionable and durable garments of the last century should be a relic of one of its most brutal and pointless conflicts, the First World War. The last three years of the war were fought almost entirely as trench warfare, with both the German and Allied forces occupying labyrinths of deep ditches separated by barren stretches of "no man's land." Life in the cold, wet trenches was miserable beyond belief, and soldiers not felled by the enemy were likely to contract "trench fever" (a virulent flu-like disease), "trench mouth" (severe gingivitis), or "trench foot" (frostbite). So we can only imagine the envy (and probably bitter disgust) the average British soldier felt when the British Army issued its officers (and only its officers) the newly invented, warm and waterproof "trench coat."
In any case, the trench coat survived the war, and civilian versions quickly became immensely popular in Europe and, by the 1930s, in the U.S.
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