Issue of March 1, 2007

Page Two


Wait right here.

Dear Word Detective: My co-conspirators at the office and I have been debating the origin of "hold the line," which might so easily derive simply from the era of the plug-and-socket manual telephone exchange. Then it occurred that it could have had military beginnings. Are you able to clarify for us? -- Ian Wheeler, England.

You don't say in what sense you're using "hold the line," but there are two primary meanings in English. One is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to maintain telephonic connection during a break in conversation." In such a situation, I might say "Hold the line" (or, more commonly today, "Please hold") before I push the hold button, the purpose of the phrase being to let the caller know that I will be back and am not simply hanging up. This sense appeared around 1912, but it's not really related to the old days of manual switchboards where lines were actually plugged in, and the imperative "hold" does not mean "don't unplug." "Hold" here is used in the very old sense of "preserve, keep or maintain." A figurative use sometimes heard in the US is the expression "hold the phone," meaning essentially "wait a minute" and indicating surprise ("Hold the phone! You mean Larry won the lottery?"). My sense is that "hold the phone" is more common than "hold the line" in this meaning.

The other sense of "hold the line" means "to maintain and preserve a position against attack, opposition or change" ("It's important that the School Board hold the line against licentious apparel"). Given that you mention a possible military origin in your question, this is probably the sense you mean. But while this "hold the line" does conjure up visions of brave soldiers defending a position against an onslaught (probably of other brave soldiers), the source of the metaphor is not, in fact, military. The reference is to American football, and the "line" is the line of scrimmage where the ball sits at the start of each play, beyond which each team would rather its opponent not progress. Metaphorical use of "hold the line" in this sense is, no doubt, nearly as old as football, but, interestingly, the earliest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1956, in singer Billie Holiday's autobiography Lady Sings the Blues: "But 52nd Street couldn't hold the line against Negroes forever."

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I hope it's oatmeal. I have issues with oatmeal.

Dear Word Detective: A few years ago (very few, it seems to me) people started substituting the word "issue" for "problem." People stopped having "problems" and suddenly had "issues" instead. This usage still sounds awkward and forced to me, even years later, and I wondered what you could tell me about how and why this got started. You've pointed out before that when enough people want to re-coin a word or retool its meaning, there's not much we can do about it (e.g., your recent comments about "mute" points). But maybe we can at least find out the hows and the whys. I'm not conservative about most things (in fact, I'm quite liberal), but I resist this sort of alteration of traditional modes of saying commonplace things. I have issues with it. -- Jerome Norris.

Yeah, that's me. The Grinch who lets language-manglers off the hook. But that doesn't mean I personally like all the changed usage and new coinages in the past few years. My job is just to offer up the data for you folks, and if you decide that it strikes you as ugly or silly, feel free to say so. I report, you deride. Personally, the one that really annoys me is "substance abuser," which always, to me, conjures up a vision of a guy beating a large lump of some unidentified material with a baseball bat.

The use of "issues" as a stand-in for "problems" is a relatively recent development. A 2003 draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pegs the earliest appearance of the term found thus far in print to 1982 in the New York Times ("Then it becomes how do you deal with the emotions and intimacy issues that were largely dealt with previously through alcohol?"). But I'd be amazed if this use of "issues" were not eventually discovered somewhat earlier, perhaps in the 1970s, in psychology books or journals.

As to the "why" of "issues" used in this sense, I think that it, like "substance abuse," is primarily a therapeutic euphemism designed to soften the impact of reality and especially to dodge the question of culpability. If one were to ask a patient about, for instance, the "problem" he has talking to his father, the patient might well respond angrily that the "problem" lies with his father. Better to neutralize that stumbling block with the blame-free "issue."

The percolation of "issues" in this sense into daily life is certainly annoying, but I think there may be a natural limiting factor to its spread. It's difficult to imagine news reports referring to the US government "having issues" with avian flu, for instance.

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Take a break.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering what the origin is of the term "resting on one's laurels" or, as my Dad used to say, "sitting on one's laurels"? Most people I know use it to mean wasting time or being lazy, but I wondered if it doesn't really have to do with foolish indulgence after reaching the top (laurels being given to the winner of a competition or to signify achievement). -- Britt Morris.

How odd. If folks really think that "resting on one's laurels" means simply "being lazy," they're skipping a rather important step, the one where the person becomes fabulously successful. Without that success, whether financial or otherwise, you're just sitting on a pile of prickly leaves.

Your suspicion that "resting on one's laurels" means more than simply "taking it easy" is correct. To begin at the beginning, the "laurel" in question is the "True" or "Bay" Laurel, "laurus nobilis," a large shrub (or tree) native to the Mediterranean area. This laurel (there are several other plants with "laurel" in their names) is also known as a "Bay Tree," and is the source of the spicy and aromatic "bay leaves" used in cooking.

The significance of laurels, and of wreaths of laurel leaves worn as symbols of accomplishment, goes all the way back to the mythology of Ancient Greece. The god Apollo, who was more than just a bit of a jerk, criticized the archery skills of Eros, the god of love (and lust, giving us the word "erotic"). Eros retaliated by shooting Apollo with a magic arrow that made him fall in love with the nymph Daphne. So far, so good. But then Eros shot Daphne with an arrow that made her hate all men, especially Apollo. Apollo then pursued Daphne over hill and dale, until Daphne, finally cornered, begged Gaia, goddess of the Earth, for help. Gaia quickly turned Daphne into a laurel tree, and Apollo, bereft, fashioned a wreath from the tree as a symbol of his love. Laurel leaves were forever after associated with Apollo, and wreaths made from them were awarded to the victors in the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece as well as to honored poets (giving us the term "poet laureate").

The use of "laurel" as a metaphor for "honor or distinction" in English goes back at least as far as Chaucer in the 14th century, leading to such phrases as "to reap one's laurels." Given the human tendency to take a break once you've hit the jackpot, "to rest on one's laurels," meaning to coast on the strength of one's former accomplishments, had appeared by the 19th century.

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Which one works the espresso machine?

Dear Word Detective: Many years ago, a high school teacher told me that the expression "showing or learning the ropes" came from the days of sailing ships whereby a new sailor had to learn the functions of all the rigging and lines which were, of course, what we refer to as "ropes." Years later, a retired navy chief told me that the sailors in those days would have never called the lines and rigging aboard a ship "ropes." It was a good way to get "dressed down" (a bit like a private who calls his rifle a "gun"). Years later, a museum curator stated that the expression came from teaching a new bell ringer in the church what notes would ring by pulling certain ropes tied at the bottom of the bell tower. But wait, there's more! I was also told by an old cowboy that the expression came from the old days of roping cattle and wrangling horses. A new cowboy was shown the "tack" room where all the ropes were stored. Well, this is as far as I can go in my quest to learn the truth. Which do you prefer? A 10th grade school teacher, a retired navy guy or a burnt-out cowboy? -- Orville.

You left out the museum curator. Actually, if you want to get the full range of stories about "learn the ropes," you'll have to seek out the tour guides at nearly any "historical" tourist attraction. Many of the best (i.e., weirdest) word and phrase origin stories I've heard come from these folks. There seems to be something about a ruffled bonnet or knee-britches that addles the brain.

In this case, we actually have two winners. The 10th grade school teacher and the retired navy guy are both right. "Know the ropes" (or "learn," "teach" or "show"), where "ropes" means "how to do something; the inside knowledge," does come from the world of sailing ships, where the layout and function of the various lines and sheets was the most fundamental and important knowledge a sailor could possess. The phrase first appeared in print in 1840, in the form "know the ropes" ("The captain, who ... 'knew the ropes,' took the steering oar.") in Richard Dana's seafaring classic "Two Years Before the Mast." It's clear from that quotation that the term was already in use as a general metaphor for "knowing what to do," and within a few years it had appeared in non-nautical contexts as well ("Tell me ... about Canada, and show me the ropes," 1860).

But it's also true that no sailor of the day would have been caught dead calling lines and sheets (lines that control sails) "ropes." But for landlubbers using the phrase metaphorically, "ropes" is clearer, and "knowing the lines" sounds like something only an actor would worry about.

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This just in.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know when we first started referring to the media or those working in journalism as "the press"? -- Karen.

I sure do. Sometime around 1926. Next question. Just kidding. You don't want a year -- you want the whole story, and I'm here to give it to you. Actually, I'm here at the moment because the alternative seems to be replacing the screens on the sun porch, and my hand is still bandaged from the last time I tried that. Here's a handy home repair tip for you folks: if the directions say "Then press the spline into the groove with the concave side of the tool," you can save some time by calling 911 before you begin.

The noun "press" first appeared in English in the 13th century with the now-obsolete meaning of "a crowd; the condition of being crowded," i.e., being "pressed upon" by a crowd of people. The appearance of the noun at that time was a bit odd in that the more general verb form, "to press," defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "To act upon (a body) with a continuous force directed towards or against it," didn't show up in English until the 14th century. In any case, "press" is rooted in the Old French "presser," which in turn derives from the Latin "pressare," meaning, you guessed it, "to press."

"Press" as a noun in English has acquired a wide variety of meanings over the past seven centuries, from the "press" that crushes grapes for wine to the "press" that puts a crease in trousers to the kind of "press" that weight-lifters brag about. In regard to journalism, we are, of course, talking about the printing press, invented in the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg's invention transformed literature and eventually revolutionized education, leading to the spread of literacy and the evolution of newspapers, which, in turn, made it possible for millions of people around the world to follow the saga of Bat Boy in the National Enquirer. Hooray for Gutenberg!

The use of "the press" to mean "journalists" is an outgrowth of other figurative uses of the word, such as "press" meaning a publisher (today usually a small book publisher), "press" in the sense of the products of printing presses, especially "the coverage given to an issue or person in news reports" ("The lobbyist's arrest has resulted in some bad press for several senators"), and "press" in such abstract phrases as "freedom of the press." The leap in the early 20th century to using "the press" to mean either individual reporters or journalists as a group ("At least a half dozen times since the wedding the unfortunate composer has been badgered by the press....", 1926) was thus a natural outgrowth of this figurative sense of "press."

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On a tear.

Dear Word Detective: I listen to a word show called "Says You" on public radio. They have a show segment of odd word definitions. One person has the correct definition, two others make up a definition and the other team has to guess the correct one. One week's word was "winklehawk." I'm not sure of the proper spelling. It is the "L" shaped tear in a piece of cloth or clothing. It was one of those words that stuck with me. Do you have any idea of the origin? -- Dave Straka.

That show sounds like fun. I must warn you, however, that public radio word-puzzle shows have a spotty record when it comes to accuracy. In fact, last year grammarian Geoffrey Pullum posted an entry on the group linguistics blog Language Log explaining why Will Shortz was wrong in counting the word "these" as a pronoun in one of his NPR Weekend Edition puzzles.

"Winklehawk" threw me at first because not only had I never heard the word, but none of my dictionaries (and that's a lot of dictionaries) had either, not even the Oxford English Dictionary or several collections of ancient and obsolete words. I finally ran "winklehawk" to ground, however, in John Bartlett's 1849 Dictionary of Americanisms (where the "Says You" staff almost certainly also found it). Bartlett defines "winklehawk" as "A rent in the shape of the letter L, frequently made in cloth" (a "rent" being a tear, from the Middle English "renden," to rip or tear, also the source of our modern "rend"). Bartlett notes that the term is sometimes rendered as "winkle-hole," and declares it "a New York term."

Most importantly, Bartlett pegs "winklehawk" as being rooted in the Dutch "winkel-haak," a connection that makes perfect sense since New York, after all, used to be called New Amsterdam. "Winkel-haak," as it turns out, is the Dutch term for a carpenter's square, that L-shaped metal ruler used to mark precise square lines. I don't speak Dutch, but apparently a "winkel" is a shop, especially a women's dress shop, and "haak" is Dutch for "hook" (sharing a common ancestor with our English "hook," in fact). So a "winkel-haak" was probably originally an L-shaped ruler for precisely measuring and cutting fabric or other materials. The application of the term to an L-shaped tear seems natural, and the change in spelling to "winklehawk" when the word entered English was to be expected, since "haak" is not an English word but does sound a bit like "hawk."

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