Issue of March 1, 2007


Now wait just a goldurned minute. So I'm in the middle of updating this site with the February issue and they go and change the month on me? Since when does any American month have a measly 28 days? Outrageous.

Elsewhere in the world of cyber-frippery, as I mentioned in January, I'm trying a little experiment. All of this month's columns are also posted at The Word Detective Annex, a WordPress blog I have set up as a place for readers to leave comments on the columns. There is some sort of registration required to slow down the spammers, but it's not onerous. This month I've posted links from the foot of each column here directly to its equivalent at the blog, so just click to leave your comment or read those of others.

This parallel posting of columns is probably temporary (in the geological sense of the word); I'm exploring the possibility of moving this entire site to a modern content management system, possibly a modification of WordPress, that will seamlessly allow commenting, searching, etc. One big problem, of course, is that we have about thirteen years' worth of straight HTML content that would have to be transferred, and I would have to figure out a way to set up an alphabetical archive like the one I have now. Suggestions are welcome.

And, of course, the circus rolls on at da other blog.

And now, on with the show:


Haul that keel, and, like, whatever.

Dear Word Detective: I have followed your column in the Green Bay Press Gazette for years, and, before that, your father's column in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. As a now retired Speech/Language Pathologist, I love word study. I just noted this phrase in a local story about the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie coming out: "Avast and belay!" I know these words are of English derivation, but have never heard the "belay" word before. Can you provide some background --"Arrrgh, Matey!"? -- Marycarolyn Jagodzinski, Suring, WI.

Hiya. It's always nice to hear from long-time readers. Incidentally, this is actually the same syndicated column that my father, William Morris, began back in 1956 under the title Words, Wit and Wisdom, which probably makes it one of the longest-running newspaper columns in the US. My mother, Mary D. Morris, actually contributed greatly to the writing of the column from the beginning, but her name didn't appear on it until the 1970s.

I'm not sure what my parents would have thought about movies based on theme-park rides, but I was actually considering seeing POTC II until I learned that it runs well over two hours. That's a bit much, although I've loved pirate movies ever since I saw Robert Newton's classic over-the-top portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 movie of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Incidentally, a good book for anyone interested in the facts behind Hollywood's pirate fantasies is "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates," by David Cordingly.

Although "avast" is considered a classic pirate word by landlubbers, it's actually been in general nautical use since the 17th century. "Avast" is an order to "stop, cease, hold still," and comes from the Dutch phrase "houd vast" (meaning "hold fast"), frequently apparently slurred into "hou'vast."

"Belay" is a natural companion to "avast," since it means "to fasten or tie up securely," as one might tie up a ship to a dock. The root sense of "belay" is "to lay something around another thing," and in the 13th century to "belay" often meant to ornament a jewel, for instance, with a circle of gold. In the 14th century and thereafter, "belay" was often used in a military sense meaning to surround or lie in wait for the enemy. The most common use of "belay" today is the nautical one, in which a line or rope is "belayed," or wrapped around, a deck cleat or "belaying pin" in order to secure it. ("Belaying pins," incidentally, are those wooden things often used to knock people out in pirate movies.) "Belay" is also used in mountaineering, where properly secured lines are even more important, in much the same sense.

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Get this thing out of my mouth.

Dear Word Detective: I have always maintained that the phrase for being in a hurry is "...champing at the bit." I am in the minority, however, since everyone I know says "chomping." Of course, these are the same people who may cite this clarification as a "mute point" rather than "moot," but I am always trying to educate them. Can I have your assistance? -- Anita.

"To champ at the bit" is a metaphor meaning "to be very eager to get started" on a task or enterprise ("The new owners were champing at the bit to cut employee benefits"). The "bit" in question is the metal bar in a bridle that goes inside the horse's mouth, and the analogy of "champing at the bit" is to a racehorse at the starting line excitedly chewing on its bit in visible eagerness to begin a race.

While one of those horses will win the race and become the "champion" (at least for a few minutes), the shortened form of that word, "champ," is unrelated to the bite sort of "champ." "Champion" is from the Latin "campio," meaning "combatant," based on "campus," or "field," in this case a battlefield.

But the sort of "champ" that horses do is almost certainly onomatopoeic or "echoic" in origin, meaning that "champ" arose as an imitation of the sound of an animal noisily chewing something. "Champ" is a fairly recent word, dating only to the 16th century, and "champ at the bit" applied figuratively to eager humans is even more recent, first appearing at the end of the 19th century. "Chomp," incidentally, is simply a popular variant of "champ" (much as "stamp" begat "stomp"), so while "champing at the bit" is the more established form, "chomping at the bit" can't really be said to be incorrect.

You're on more solid ground in your rejection of "mute point." "Moot" was originally a legal term applied to a hypothetical debate (as in "moot court," where law students practice effective argument), and a "moot point" was originally one well-suited to such lively practice debates. But as hypothetical debates by definition have no real-world consequences, "moot" has gradually come to mean "irrelevant." "Mute" has nothing to do with either meaning of "moot," and "mute point" really doesn't make any sense. It's a case of people substituting a word they know ("mute") for an unfamiliar one ("moot"), a process known as "folk etymology." It's a very common process in the evolution of language, so brace yourself. Like it or not, if enough people start saying "mute point," it will eventually become the standard form.

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He's Fred, Jim.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "conn"? I think I first heard the word while watching Star Trek: "Number One, you have the conn." Recently, the word has caught on around the office and the question "Who has the conn?" will often be heard. Sadly, most have never seen the word spelled, so they invariably will type "Who has the con"? I guess a second question would be which is preferred, "conn" or "con"? --Andy.

Are you sure about that? I always thought it was "Mister Sulu, you have the conn," and that Number One was the actor you'd never seen before who beamed down to Altair Four with Kirk and Spock and then got eaten by a giant clam.

To "have the conn" means to be in charge or have the power of command. I tend to associate the term with movies made from Tom Clancy novels and similar he-man fare, so it's a bit difficult to imagine "Who has the conn?" being widely used in any office where you're not required to salute your boss. On the other hand, I've been working at home for many years, so maybe I'm unaware of a recent militarization of office life. I can't say I'd be surprised, but I hope this doesn't mean I have to buy little uniforms for the cats.

"Conn," meaning the power to metaphorically steer the course of an endeavor or enterprise, comes from the literal use of that power. When "conn" (in the form "cun") first appeared in English in the 17th century as a verb, it meant "to direct the steering or course of a ship," usually from the bridge of the ship or its equivalent. Obviously, the captain of a ship has the primary responsibility for "conning" the vessel, but often delegates the "conn" (the noun appeared in the early 19th century) to subordinate officers. Early battleships actually had elevated "conning towers," armored to protect the captain, et al., but today the same functions are usually carried out from a "conning station" on the ship's bridge.

For a term redolent of the high seas and naval battles of yore, "conn" has a remarkably tame origin. "Conn" apparently arose as a variant form of the verb "cond," also meaning "to direct the steering of a ship," which in turn derived from the obsolete verb "condue," meaning "to conduct or guide." As you might suspect, "condue" itself ultimately harks back to the Latin "conducere" (to lead or guide), which also gave us our modern English "conduct."

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The pitter-patter of tiny larcenies.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please indicate the origin and definition of the word "rapscallion" or "rapscalion"? -- John V. Murphy.

I'll give it a shot. The usual spelling today is "rapscallion," although, as we shall see, the spelling varies a bit over the history of this word and its relatives.

"Rapscallion" today is usually used to mean "a rascal" or "a scamp," a person who may flout society's conventions, and even, on occasion, break the law, but who falls short of being a major-league evildoer. A "rapscallion" is mischievous, not murderous, often a ne'er-do-well but never a hardened criminal. But before we get too warm and fuzzy about "rapscallions," we should note that this tolerant connotation of the word is a fairly recent development.

"Rapscallion" first appeared in the late 17th century, but that spelling was apparently a mutation of the earlier "rascallion," which had appeared in print in 1649. Both words originally carried a more pejorative connotation than "rapscallion" does today; the Oxford English Dictionary defines "rascallion" as "a low mean wretch or rascal."

That definition contains the key to the origin of the word -- "rascallion" is simply "rascal" with the suffix "alion" or "allion" appended. That suffix is, alas, an etymological mystery. Evidently it carried a solidly pejorative meaning back in the 17th century, because it also turns up in "tatterdemalion" (a vagrant dressed in tattered clothing) and "rampallion," (a ruffian or villain), both of which were current at the time.

"Rascal" is a somewhat older word than "rapscallion" and its relatives, first appearing in English in the early 14th century, drawn from the Old French "rascaille," meaning "outcast or rabble," possibly in turn derived from "rasque," mud or filth. "Rascal" originally simply denoted a member of the lower classes (which is bad enough, given that "filth" stuff), but by the 16th century had come to mean "an unprincipled or dishonest man."

The transformation in the meaning of both "rapscallion" and "rascal" from "criminal" to "mischievous scamp" seems to have come from the growing use of the terms in a figurative, playful sense, a process which, in the case of "rascal," was underway by the 17th century ("Sweet Rascal! If your love bee as earnest as your protestation, you will meete me this night at supper," 1610). Today both "rapscallion" and "rascal" are almost entirely devoid of any real pejorative connotation. The same process has also tamed "tatterdemalion" (today meaning usually just a raggedly-dressed child) as well as "ragamuffin" (originally "Ragamoffyn," a demon in William Langland's 1393 epic poem "Piers Plowman," but now meaning simply "a messy child").

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But he did drive a Mustang, didn't he?

Dear Word Detective: "Roll Up! Roll Up!" There's a phrase we've heard at the circus and even in Beatles and ELP lyrics. When and where did this phrase originate? I'm writing a play that takes place in late 19th century rural England and I'm hoping to be as accurate with my phrase usages as possible! -- Annie, New York.

Good question. I certainly remember "Roll up! Roll up!" at the beginning of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. But what is "ELP"? The Wikipedia "disambiguation" (I love that word) page for "ELP" suggests several possibilities, including the baggage code for El Paso Airport, but I suspect you mean Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a British "progressive rock" band popular in the early 1970s. Personally, I was (and remain) partial to Procol Harum.

I'm glad to hear that you are paying close attention to historical accuracy in your novel. There's nothing that seems to tick off certain reviewers more than Julius Caesar lighting a cigar or Tom Paine greeting Washington with "Wassup, dog?" I wish I thought that readers would also appreciate your attention to detail, but I keep reading surveys indicating that many college students believe Paul Revere used speed-dial on that fateful night.

I think you're on solid ground having your character use the phrase "Roll up! Roll up!" in the late 19th century, although your margin will be decades rather than centuries. The use of "roll up" as slang for "congregate or gather" (making "Roll up! Roll up!" the equivalent of "Gather round!") first appeared in print in Australia in 1861. However, as is often the case, we can assume it was in spoken use for at least a few years before it made it into print, and I think we can also assume that the phrase was current in England by your deadline.

The use of "roll up" in this sense appears to invoke the image of rolling things, in this case people, together, perhaps even by allusion to "rolling up" a carpet. A similar sense of "roll up" has long been used to mean "methodically destroy or neutralize" ("He had made a mistake in Berlin, and ... his network had been rolled up," John Le Carre, 1963).

The Oxford English Dictionary lumps the "gather or assemble" usage together with another use of "roll up," this one in the sense of "arrive" ("A townie. A bit overdressed ... he once rolled up in a velvet jacket," 1976). But while the two senses may be logically related, I would argue that "roll up" in the "arrive" sense refers, at least metaphorically, to the wheels of a conveyance.

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Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word "skittish" please? --David Franklin.

Thanks for an interesting question. The moment I read it, of course, I realized that many readers would wonder whether "skittish" has any connection to the noun "skit" meaning a short, humorous playlet. As it happens, the two words are indeed related, but the connection is a tangled one.

Today we use "skittish" to mean "nervous, restless, fickle or unreliable," as in "The skittish witness against the mob boss was eventually found to be living in Ulan Bator disguised as a itinerant fly swatter salesman." Animals as well as people can be "skittish," and one of the better definitions of the word comes courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) speaking, in this case, of "skittishness" in horses: "Disposed or apt to start or be unruly without sufficient cause; given to shying or restiveness through high spirits or playfulness; unduly lively or spirited." The general sense of "skittish" today is of a person or animal that is nervous, easily distracted or "spooked" and perhaps a bit paranoid.

The sense of "skittish" when it first appeared in English in the 15th century, however, was a bit different. As the OED puts it, "skittish" meant "Characterized by levity, frivolity, or excessive liveliness," and many uses at the time gave the distinct impression that the person under discussion was simply not taking things as seriously as they ought ("She is like a frog in a parsley-bed, as skittish as an eel," 1592).

The origin and development of "skittish" is, unfortunately, a bit unclear. "Skittish," the verb "to skit" (meaning "to move lightly"), and the noun "skit" (originally meaning "a vain or frivolous woman") all appear to be related to the Old Norse word "skjuta," meaning "to shoot or throw." The underlying sense of all these words seems to be something that moves lightly and quickly, perhaps unpredictably, a meaning also reflected in the use of "skit" to mean a quick shower of rain or snow, a squirt of water, and the stroke of a pen. Thus "skit" the noun, by the early 18th century, was also being used to mean a quick, biting remark or quip, a sense which, by 1820, had grown into the dramatic satire or parody known as a "skit" today.

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