Issue of March 2, 2001


Well, it was bound to happen eventually. I came to work this morning and found the following memo on my desk, courtesy of our beloved TWD Minister of Finance (née part-time bookkeeper) Edith Freedle:

To: Editorial Personnel, Sales Force, Cafeteria Staff

As set forth in our Folderol 2001 Plan adopted at our conference in Bayonne last January, we here at Word Detective World Headquarters are now making available TWD t-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs and mouse pads to our readers via our new Official Word Detective Stuff web site. Each item is of high quality and comes festooned with the Official Word Detective logo-critter, our web address, and, of course, our venerable motto, "Semper Ubi Sub Ubi."

Please be creative in raising our customers' awareness of our new web store and the wonderful opportunity they now have to buy genuine TWD logo merchandise.

For instance, when readers write to complain about the typographical errors riddling our latest batch of columns, suggest that they relax with a cup of soothing tea in one of our new logo mugs, or wrap themselves in three or four of our nice, fuzzy logo sweatshirts.

Similarly, readers whining that our pages load too slowly will be thrilled to learn that their internet connection will be dramatically improved by the purchase of one (or more) of our Official TWD mouse pads.

As I said, be creative. If we all pitch in, we can really clean up on this one.

(p.s. to the smart-alecks in Editorial: Put any more of my memos up on the web and you will be toast. Unemployed toast. Go ahead, make my day.)

Oops. Oh well, you heard the lady. Buy stuff now.

You can see the logo common to all the products right here.

Oh, and since you were about to ask, it's an old Latin student's joke: Semper (Always) Ubi (Where) Sub (Under) Ubi (Where).

Say it aloud.

And now, on with the show....

Shake, Rather and Frog.

Dear Word Detective: My students and I are reading "Matilda" by Roald Dahl. There is a word that he keeps using, and we have no idea what it means. The word is "blancmange," and here is an example: "The Trunchbull, this mighty female giant, stood there in her green breeches, quivering like a blancmange." Can you help us figure out what this word means? -- Ms. Abernathy, Veazie, Maine.

"Blancmange" is a kind of food, more specifically a sort of dessert made with milk and gelatin. Its name is a combination of the French "blanc" (white) and "manger" (food), giving us "white food," which makes sense as a mixture of gelatin and milk would indeed be white. (The "manger" part is, incidentally, closely related to our English word "manger," meaning a trough or other place where animals are fed.) "Blancmange" entered English in the 14th century, and the dish itself was originally a main course, made with chopped meat, eggs, rice, cream and almonds. Over the years, however, the recipe was simplified, the meat was omitted, and "blancmange" became a dessert. "Blancmange," by the way, is usually pronounced "bla-mahnj," and is also used in a figurative sense to mean "nonsense" or "trivial matters."

As for what Mr. Dahl meant with his "quivering like a blancmange" simile, it helps to visualize blancmange's close cousin, Jell-O. Both blancmange and Jell-O are wobbly, jelly-like confections which quiver and shake with the slightest movement. And this brings us to perhaps the most bizarre figurative use of "Jell-O" in recent years, when CBS news anchor Dan Rather described George W. Bush's lead in Florida on election night as being "shaky as a bowl of cafeteria Jell-O." Just why our boy Dan specified "cafeteria" Jell-O is a bit unclear, but one theory is that cafeterias habitually add extra water to their Jell-O in order to stretch it, making the final product even wobblier than standard Jell-O. I guess that makes sense. Now if someone will just explain Mr. Rather's subsequent observation that "If a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun," I'll consider plugging my television back in again.

Graybar Days.

Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find out where the word "bridewell" originated. Where I live in Lancashire, England, it is a word that is used to mean a jail or police station with cells. I would be grateful if you could shed any light on this for me. -- Sara Smith, via the internet.

Sure, I'll give it a shot. It'll be much easier than smuggling a dictionary into your cell. Incidentally, I noticed that although you live in England, you have chosen to use the American spelling "jail" in your question, rather than the traditional British spelling "gaol." Then again, "jail" and "gaol" are essentially the same word, ultimately from the Vulgar Latin "gaviola" (meaning "little cage") and both are now pronounced "jail," although until the 17th century "gaol" was pronounced with a hard "g" as in "goal."

"Bridewell" as a synonym for "jail" or "prison" refers to St. Bride's Well, a holy well in London close to which Henry VIII built a residence, which later became a hospital and, eventually, a prison. As a generic term for a prison, "bridewell" first appeared around 1593, and, as you've noticed, is still in use in Britain.

Imprisonment seems to be one of those concepts that have set the old slang generator to humming over the centuries, possibly because most slang has, historically, sprung from the same lower classes most likely to land in jail. Terms such as "clink" and "slammer" (both drawn from the action of closing a cell door) are well-known in the U.S., as are puns such as "Graybar Hotel." Other terms include "big house," "pen" (from "penitentiary" as well as from the sense of being "penned up"), "calaboose" (from the Spanish "calabozo," or jail) and "hoosegow" (from the Spanish "juzgado," meaning "court").

One of the most fascinating terms for prison has to be "stir," which may well be a descendant of the Romany word "stariben" or "sturriben," meaning "prison." Romany is the language of the Gypsies, who played a notable role in the criminal underworld of 18th and 19th century England. "Stir" first appeared as slang for "jail" in the mid-19th century, and is most often heard today in the term "stir-crazy," meaning to be driven either literally or figuratively mad by confinement.


Perchance to Slobber.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the meaning and origin of the expression to "cotton-on" to something? My partner thought it was a typo for "caught on," but I know I've seen it used slightly differently. -- Shaunagh Gravelines, via the internet.

Well, there you go. Always trust your instincts. To "cotton" to someone or something is a slightly folksy way of saying that you get along with or have taken a liking to that person or thing. If your Great Dane, for example, growls at most visitors but jumps into my lap on our first meeting, you might say that he "cottons" to me, although I will probably use harsher terms in my subsequent lawsuit.

"Cotton" as a verb is, somewhat surprisingly, directly derived from our old friend "cotton" the fabric, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "the white fibrous substance, soft and downy like wool, which clothes the seeds of the cotton-plant." The noun "cotton" is a very old word, entering English around 1286 from the Old French "coton," which came in turn from the Arabic "qutun."

To "cotton" meaning "to get along with" comes from the characteristics of cotton cloth. Cotton fabric is soft and fuzzy with a rich pile, and "to cotton" originally meant to work cotton or some other fabric such as wool so as to raise a nap or pile. This process is an important step in the finishing of fine cloth, and by the 16th century "cotton" was being used figuratively to mean "succeed" or "improve." By the early 17th century, "cotton" was being used in a more general sense of "get along well together" or "work harmoniously," and a bit later to mean "strike up a friendship." The modern sense of "to become attached to" first appeared around 1805.

Interestingly, this brings us full circle to your friend's theory about "cotton." The colloquial phrase "cotton on" to something, meaning "to take a liking to," also can be used to mean "to understand" or "to catch on" to something.

Ciao ciao ciao.

Hello Signore Word Detective: I am an American living here in Bologna, Italy. It is home to the final resting place of "glossatori," learned men or Doctors of Law, revered for their study, explanations and practice of the early Roman laws governing burgeoning commercial activity. They instructed the first students of Bologna in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Any connection between these "glossatori" and our word "glossary"? Grazie infinite for your help. -- Susan Orr, Italy.

Signore Word Detective. I really like the sound of that. Darn it all, I belong in a sidewalk cafe in Rome, sipping espresso and looking suave, not dodging coyotes in rural Ohio. Is there some way for me to defect to Italy? I know all sorts of valuable secrets about jelly doughnuts.

I suppose I should say at the outset that I do not speak Italian (although I am, of course, more than willing to learn), so my answer is going to contain a bit of speculation. But I am fairly certain that the Italian "glossatori" you mention is essentially the same word as the English "glossator," meaning a person who writes commentaries on law. And if that is indeed true, there is a definite direct connection between the Italian "glossatori" and the English "glossary."

English actually has two separate and unrelated "glosses." The first kind of "gloss," the sort of shine you strive for when you polish your shoes, is of unknown origin but probably ultimately Scandinavian. The second "gloss" means "an explanation or definition," especially of an obscure, technical or foreign word. This "gloss," which first appeared in English in the 16th century, comes from the Greek "glossa," or tongue, which also had the expanded meaning of "language" (much as we use "tongue" as a synonym of "language" in English today).

When "glossa" entered Latin, it was with the sense of "a foreign word needing explanation," and eventually "glossa" came to mean the explanation itself. This root meaning of "an explanation for a word" underlies our modern meaning of "gloss," and has given us "glossary" (a list of terms along with their definitions) and similar terms such as "glossator" (one who writes a glossary or commentary).

Hey, buddy, can you play "Unlucky Sheep" on that thing?

Dear Word Detective: A Scottish friend of mine asked me where Americans get off calling checkered fabric "plaid." He says it's called "tartan" in Scotland, and that they were the ones who made it first. Do you know the origin of the word "plaid"? -- Joe, via the internet.

Where do we "get off" calling it plaid? Is your friend always that cranky? Well, maybe it's the food. I recently wandered into an establishment in Alexandria, Virginia that caters to homesick Scots, and there, amidst the piles of videotaped panoramas of rain-swept crags slathered with mournful bagpipe music, I stumbled across some Scottish comfort food. Four little words say it all: haggis in a can. (Haggis, for the blissfully innocent among us, consists of the innards of a sheep chopped and mixed with spices and oatmeal, then stuffed into and boiled within the stomach of said unlucky sheep. Yummalicious! Got any with cheese?)

The question of "tartan" versus "plaid" is a sort of chicken-and-egg proposition, as the words are generally considered rough synonyms. Where a distinction is drawn, "tartan" is probably best considered a particular subset or kind of "plaid." And, curiously enough, "plaid" is a Scottish word, but "tartan" is not.

Strictly speaking, a "tartan" is cloth woven with stripes of various colors and widths crossing each other at right angles above a background of solid color. Each Scottish clan is known by its own distinctive tartan pattern proudly worn by members of the clan. The word "tartan" first appeared in English around 1500 and most likely comes from the Old French "tiret" (cloth) and ultimately from the Latin "tyrius," meaning "cloth from Tyre," an ancient Middle Eastern city.

The broader category of "plaid," on the other hand, includes both the elaborate patterns of the tartan and the sort of simpler, less refined checkered patterns often found on cheap sports jackets. "Plaid" comes directly from the Scottish Gaelic "plaide," meaning "blanket," and also first appeared in English around 1500.

So the bottom line is that all tartans are plaids, but not all plaids are tartans. And though I wouldn't eat haggis if you paid me, I also wouldn't blame any Scot who bridled at someone calling his or her clan tartan a "plaid."

Incidentally, you can get the same effect with two dogs.

Dear Word Detective: The other day, I challenged my 13 year-old son to find the origins of the phrase "white elephant" in the sense of a rummage sale item or something that one person has no use for, but that another one finds valuable. Anyway, you probably know that if you ask a 13 year-old a question, you should already know the answer. I goofed. So far, I haven't been able to find out. -- Susan Kane, via the internet.

Never fear, I am here to help. The first thing to note about "white elephant" is that real white elephants do, in fact, exist. While your average neighborhood elephant is most likely a dusky gray (or pink, I suppose, on special occasions), albino specimens do crop up occasionally in India, Africa and Asia. The rarity of these white elephants bestows upon them a special status in many countries, and white elephants are generally not consigned to the life of burden and toil endured by the average elephant.

"White elephant" as a term for a burdensome or useless object comes from an almost certainly apocryphal tale about the King of Siam (the country now known as Thailand). According to legend, white elephants were so venerated in Siam that when one was found it automatically became the property of the King, and it was a grave crime to ride, beat, neglect or kill a white elephant.

Now, elephants are not exactly gerbils, diet-wise, and keeping an elephant is a ruinously expensive proposition unless you can generate income using the critter for labor or transportation. The King, it is said, realized that the special status of his white elephants, coupled with their appetites, gave him a handy weapon against his foes. Anyone who displeased his majesty was given a white elephant as a royal gift, and within months, unable to do anything with it apart from feeding it, the recipient was invariably financially ruined. Thus "white elephant" came to mean an object for which one has no use, and which may even represent a substantial financial drain, but which is difficult or impossible to get rid of.

As I've said, that story about the King of Siam is almost certainly not true, but the popularity of the story itself did give us the term "white elephant," which first appeared in English around 1851.

Couching in the paragraphs.

Dear Word Detective: Does the word "couch" imply that a phrase or word is being used differently than usual? When one "couches" his feelings, does he express them or hide them? The precise issue at hand is whether a legal claim "couched in contract" implies that there is, in fact, no contract. -- Robert Sturgess, via the internet.

Oh goody, a legal question. We love legal questions around here. Not only do the answers usually involve big chunks of Latin, but they also allow us to bill our services at rates so elevated that we have to hire Sherpa guides just to mail the invoices. Just kidding, of course, All answers around here are gratis. On the other hand, as they say on the internet, IANAL (I am not a lawyer), so please don't go introducing anything I say into evidence.

One question that has probably occurred to many readers is whether the "couch" you're asking about has anything to do with the sort of "couch" that couch potatoes sit on, and the answer is yes. Both ultimately come from the Latin "collocare," meaning "to put or place together." The sitting sort of "couch" was adopted from the French "coucher," and appeared in English around 1430, just before the first Super Bowl.

To "couch" in the sense of your question means "to express in language using certain words," usually carefully chosen to avoid giving offense or to attain a desired result. The connection to the Latin root is the sense of "laying words carefully together," rather than just blurting out something which might prove counterproductive. Diplomats, lawyers and clothing salespeople are usually experts in "couching" their answers in carefully-chosen words.

Now, as to your question about whether a person who "couches" his feelings "expresses them or hides them," there is no simple answer, and your mileage will vary according to how opaque the person is being. "Couch" in itself does not imply an intent to deceive, just a concern for how one's words will be received.

Another argument for January.

Dear Word Detective: Did gossamer come from "goose summer" or "gaze à Marie"? Two reputable dictionaries (American Heritage and Collins) lend credence to the idea that the fine film of cobwebs seen floating in the air in the fall is named after the custom of eating goose for St. Martin's day on November 11. (Why this period in November should be called "summer" is not explained, however!) On the other hand, Jeffrey Kacirk, the no less reputable author of "Forgotten English, a 366-day Calendar of Vanishing Vocabulary" claims that "the gauzy, airborne material, or 'gaze à Marie,' was for centuries believed to be the remnants of the Virgin Mary's winding sheet, which fell as she drifted into Heaven." Please enlighten me! -- Larry Childs, Provo, Utah.

"Fine film of cobwebs," indeed. I'll tell you a little secret, Larry. It's very difficult to wax poetic about cobwebs when your house serves, as mine does, as an informal social center for ninety-five different kinds of spiders. And to think I actually used to like "Charlotte's Web."

Onward. I'd never heard the "gaze à Marie" story, but even if Mr. Kacirk is correct and people have believed it for centuries, it still isn't the origin of "gossamer." The dictionaries are right: "gossamer," meaning "a fine, filmy substance," comes directly from "goose summer," an unusually warm period, similar to our "Indian summer," often occurring in mid-November. This is the same time of year when spiders are wont to spread their delicate webs across lawns and bushes and when St. Martin's day is traditionally celebrated with a goose dinner.

"Goose summer" ("gossomer" in Middle English) was originally used as a name for these warm days in England, but beginning in the 14th century "gossamer" came to be applied to filmy spider webs and similar material, such as fine gauze. The rationale for the transference of meaning is unclear. Most probably it was simply that the webs were most often seen during "goose summer," but an association between the fuzzy down plucked from the doomed geese and the delicate webs drifting through the autumn air may also have played a part.


Velveeta You.

Dear Word Detective: I've been fascinated with the use of the English phrase "hard cheese" since I heard Joyce Bowler use it on the PBS show "The 1900 House." She used it to mean "too bad" in the "I don't care what anybody else thinks, I'm going to do it anyway" vein. Where did this phrase come from? -- Amy Austin, Los Angeles, CA.

Good question. "The 1900 House," for the benefit of the uninitiated among us, was a recent PBS series that followed the daily lives of a modern English family who volunteered to spend a while living just as their ancestors had at the beginning of the 20th century. I tuned in for part of one episode, but I already live in a house built in 1865, so my idea of fascinating TV is pretty pictures of plumbing that works and lights that don't flicker.

"Hard cheese" is a classic British catch phrase that means essentially "tough luck" or "too bad." It can be used both as an expression of sympathy ("Hedgehog took your leg right off, did he? Hard cheese, old man.") and as a dismissive retort ("Don't like your gruel, boy? Well, hard cheese."). So far, "hard cheese" hasn't percolated into American usage, although it is common in Australia and probably in Canada as well. "Hard cheese" dates back to at least 1876; a variant, "hard cheddar," is more recent and first appeared in print around 1931.

Unfortunately, the mere fact that millions of people around the globe use "hard cheese" doesn't mean that anyone knows with any certainty where it came from. One theory mentioned by the great slang etymologist Eric Partridge is that gourmets generally prefer the soft, perishable cheeses. A waiter announcing, "Sorry, only hard cheese available today" would thus be saying, in essence, "tough luck."

But Paul Beale, who edited and updated Partridge's "Dictionary of Catch Phrases" in the 1980s, suggests that the "cheese" in question may not be edible cheese at all. "Cheese" (from the Persian "chiz" meaning "thing") was slang in 19th century Britain for "the proper thing" or "the tops," a usage still heard in the phrase "the big cheese." So "hard cheese" would mean "Lousy break. It could have been good but it wasn't. Tough luck."


Dear Word Detective: Recently I was talking to a friend and I used the phrase "went haywire" to describe something that had gone amuck. Anyway, the way I see it is that when you cut the bailing wire that holds bales of hay together, the wire sort of springs everywhere and goes out of control. So what do you think? Am I barking up the right tree? -- Bill Null, Tucson, AZ.

Well, maybe not quite the right tree, but you're definitely in the right neck of the woods. The "haywire" involved is indeed the light, springy wire used to bale hay. But as confusing as a tangle of haywire must be, that's not the primary source of the phrase.

The term "haywire" used in a figurative sense originally meant "poorly equipped or makeshift" and apparently first appeared in the logging camps of 19th century New England. Much of the heavy work in such camps was done by horses, and where you have horses, you have hay (or you have very hungry horses). It didn't take resourceful loggers long to realize that the wire with which the hay was baled could also be used for simple repairs to machinery and the like. But while clever use of haywire as a stopgap measure was admired in moderation, a camp that habitually relied on equipment held together in this makeshift fashion came to be known among loggers as a "haywire outfit," a poorly-equipped, inefficient operation.

By the early 20th century, this sense of "haywire" had come to be applied to just about any sort of business or operation that was poorly organized, slipshod or not working up to snuff. With the growth of technology the propensity of machinery, from automobiles to radios, to suddenly malfunction or cease working entirely led to the expansion of "haywire" to mean "to get mixed up, malfunction or become hopelessly confused" by about 1929. And since machinery isn't the only thing that can have a bad day, "haywire" was also soon applied to people who became mentally unbalanced.

Lastly, the propensity of haywire to, as you note, "spring everywhere" and become tangled when a hay bale is cut open almost certainly contributed to the modern use of "haywire" to mean "confused or malfunctioning."

Slip Sliding Away.

Dear Word Detective: My brother says that Dad originated the phrase "as helpless as a hog on ice" during our growing-up years in Illinois. We did raise hogs, and they certainly were totally bereft of all poise when they strayed onto icy surfaces. But Dad didn't make up the phrase, did he? -- Ernie Beachey, Clearwater, Kansas.

Nope. I can say categorically, without a scintilla of doubt, that your father did not invent the phrase "as helpless as a hog on ice" or, as is more commonly said, "as independent as a hog on ice." Unfortunately, that's just about the only thing that can be said about hogs and ice with any degree of certainty. But it's not that folks haven't been trying to track down the origin of this phrase. In fact, etymologist Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins "A Hog on Ice" and his foreword to that book contains a seven page narrative of his quest for the roots of the phrase. ("A Hog on Ice" is currently available in a compilation of four of Funk's books marketed under the title "2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions," often found in the "bargain books" section of large bookstores.)

What we do know about "as independent as a hog on ice" is that it seems to have appeared in the mid-19th century, most likely in New England, although it is heard throughout the Northeastern and Midwest U.S. The precise meaning of the phrase is a bit unclear. It could simply mean "independent and ungovernable," referring to the difficulty of recapturing a hog once it has managed to get out onto a frozen pond. Or it could refer, as your father's version would indicate, to the fact that a hog in such circumstances is "independent" but also helplessly stranded, since hogs' feet afford no traction on smooth surfaces. A hog on ice would have severe difficulty standing up, let alone walking.

There are other theories, such as the one tracing the phrase to the game of curling (sort of like bowling on ice) and a rather sardonic definition of "hog on ice" to mean "slaughtered," but personally, I'll go with the "free but helpless" interpretation. I feel that way myself a good deal of the time.

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective: I'm curious about the phrase "touch and go." Many people know the term as it relates to aviation, and I thought that was where it originated. Recently, I encountered it in a story written in 1841 by Edgar Allen Poe. I'm sure he didn't learn of it through aviation. How old is the phrase and how was it used before aviation? -- Dick Van Hooser, via the internet.

Gee, I'm glad you asked this question. Lately I've been listening to some of our local airport frequencies on my scanner radio, and I often hear pilots of small planes ask the tower for permission to do "touch and go" landings. Since I've always known "touch and go" as a synonym for "precarious" or "risky," hearing the words spoken by pilots really made me wonder what was going on up there. But now that I've been motivated to find an aviation glossary on the web, it turns out that "touch and go" landings are practice landings wherein the aircraft lands, but does not come to a full stop, and takes off again right away. Still sounds a bit dicey to me.

In any case, the phrase "touch and go" was almost 300 years old by the time Poe used it, having first appeared around 1549 in a literal sense of "to touch for an instant and then leave or move on." By 1675 "touch and go" was being used to describe someone of impatient temperament, and by 1812 it was being used in a related sense of "rushed, careless, or slipshod," as in "touch and go" schoolwork done by a child eager to go outside and play.

By 1815, however, "touch and go" was also being used in its modern sense of "dangerous" or "precarious," often in the sense of a narrow escape from disaster, as when two ships graze each other in passing. Today we often use "touch and go" to mean "delicate, risky, and by no means certain of success," often in regard to negotiations or complicated surgery.

Fearful Flying.

Dear Word Detective: As a child of five I actually jumped from a second-story bedroom for fear that the "bogeyman" (or "boogeyman") was coming to get me for having done something wrong. God takes care of fools and children, so fortunately I was not hurt. Later my mother told me it was a cruel thing for her to have said to me. As a child I thought "the bogeyman" was a mean person who snatched bad children away. Now I wonder if it had an earlier connotation that was a slur or insult. By the way, I have never used or threatened anyone with that term since. -- Kathleen Kilcullen, via the internet.

Wow. As childhood traumas go, that's a doozie. The most alarming thing I ever did as a child was to drink a glassful of egg yolk thinking it was orange juice. I wouldn't eat eggs for years afterward, and I'm still not fond of orange juice.

Still, without minimizing the potentially disastrous effects of your mother's announcement that "the bogeyman" was coming to get you, I must note that parents have been scaring the bejeezus out of small fry in this manner for several centuries. "Bogey" first appeared in English around 1836 meaning "the Devil," although earlier forms meaning "frightening creature," such as "bogle," "boggard" and "bogy" date back to around 1500. Other related words still heard today include "bugbear" and "bugaboo," and "bogey" may actually be related to our modern "bug" meaning "insect" (as well as its figurative uses, such as computer "bugs").

Just where the original "bogey" came from is something of a mystery. It may be Scandinavian in origin, perhaps from the Norwegian "bugge," meaning "important man," which survives in our modern English word "big." Or "bogey" may be rooted in the Welsh "bwg," meaning "ghost."

Whatever its source, "bogey" has spawned a range of other English meanings, including "dried nasal mucous" (a.k.a. "booger") and "a golf score one over par." This last usage supposedly dates back to 1890, when a player unable to do better than par for any hole declared that he "must be playing against the bogey-man."

Yackity Yack.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "chat" come from? I have reason to believe it's a shortened form of "chew the fat," which also means "to talk." Can you confirm this? -- NateDog, via the internet.

Well, to quote Richard Nixon (something I rarely get to do), I could, but it would be wrong. Although "chew the fat" and "chat" mean essentially the same thing, they have completely separate origins. "Chat" also happens to be several hundred years older than "chew the fat."

On the other hand, "chat" does turn out to be short for something: "chatter," meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it so well, "to talk rapidly, incessantly, and with more sound than sense." "Chatter" first appeared in English around A.D. 1225, and is "onomatopoeic" or "imitative" in origin, meaning that the word arose as an attempt to imitate the actual sound of something (much as "boom" echoes the actual sound of an explosion). "Chatter" was first applied to the sound of birds twittering (another imitative formation, by the way), but by A.D. 1250 "chatter" was being used to describe people who just couldn't shut up. Secondary meanings include any sort of rapidly repeated motion or sound, from the "chatter" of your teeth on a cold morning to the "chatter" of an old car's engine.

By about 1440 the abbreviated form "chat" was becoming popular, at first used as a simple synonym of "chatter" to mean "babble or blither foolishly," but later softening its tone to mean "to talk casually."

"Chew the fat" is a much more recent phrase, first appearing in print around 1885, and today means "to discuss casually, to chat or gossip." But the original meaning of "chew the fat" was "to complain, or bring up an old grievance." It is possible that the "fat" originally referred to salt pork or "fatback" (strips of fat from the back of a pig), the sort of rations soldiers and sailors relied on during shortages of fresh food, which would certainly fit in with the original "gripe" sense. A similar phrase heard more frequently in Britain, "chew the rag," is thought to refer to small bits of cloth chewed when tobacco was unobtainable.

To be continued.

Dear Word Detective: The recent U.S. presidential election produced innumerable newspaper headlines utilizing the word "cliffhanger," a word that sports columnists also seem to favor to describe close games. What is the exact origin of this seemingly overused term? -- Craig Thayer, Chicago, IL.

Presidential election? Darn. I told you people to wake me if anything important came up. But seriously, folks, did we get our money's worth with that one or what? Too bad the producers went with that hokey "deus ex machina" ending (as in the Ancient Greek theater when a god would be lowered from the rafters to miraculously resolve all the plot complications at the end of the play). Personally, I was hoping it would all end in a tie-breaking spelling bee.

In any case, this time the media had it right -- the recent election saga was a true "cliffhanger," a prolonged tension-filled drama involving high stakes, frequent changes of fortune, and impossible escapes from apparently certain doom. "Cliffhanger" as a term for this sort of melodrama dates back to the silent film era, though the word itself apparently did not appear in print until around 1937. Many early films were ongoing serials, featuring the same characters facing (and surviving) outlandish dangers week after week. To bring moviegoers back for the next installment, the filmmakers would be sure to leave their hero or heroine in an especially precarious predicament -- sometimes literally hanging from a cliff -- at the end of each episode. Probably the most famous such serial was "The Perils of Pauline" (1915), whose title pretty much summed up every episode's plot as the heroine Pauline (Pearl White) narrowly escaped death or worse every week.

These cinematic "cliffhangers" were so popular in the early 20th century that the term quickly entered general usage as a synonym for a prolonged, extremely tense melodrama.


Yeah, right.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "cock-and-bull" as a reference to lies and excuses come from? -- Aaron Edwards, via the internet.

Strictly speaking, a "cock and bull story" is, as you note, a lie or an excuse, an untruth, a falsehood, a fabrication, a prevarication, a falsification, an invention or a fib. But a "cock and bull story" is more than simply a "lie" or, as the politicians prefer, "a misstatement." A "cock and bull story" is a long and usually convoluted tale so chock full of improbable details and unnecessary embellishments that in its bloated flamboyance it almost begs to be disbelieved. A "cock and bull story" is a real whopper. "I had a flat tire" is an excuse. "Bill Gates had a flat tire, so I drove him to the airport and then he flew me to Area 51, where we had lunch with Zontar, Overlord of the Galaxy" is a cock and bull story.

Unfortunately, the origins of "cock and bull story," which first appeared in English around 1620, are a bit fuzzy. Perhaps the most frequently-heard explanation ties the phrase to an old English roadside inn of the period supposedly called The Cock and Bull. Weary travelers, it is said, would often pass the evenings regaling each other with fantastic tales of their exploits and adventures, and so such stories became known as "Cock and Bull tales." Predictably, however, no such inn can be proven ever to have existed, making this theory, if not a "cock and bull story" itself, at least highly suspect.

A more likely explanation is that "cock and bull story" originally referred to the sort of folk tale or fable, popular at the time, populated by talking animals. A parallel of "cock and bull" can be found in French, where the same sort of whopper is known as a "coq-a-l'ane," or "cock to donkey" story. (The French "coq-a-l'ane," incidentally, was imported into Scots, the language of Scotland, as "cockalayne," meaning a fantastic or satirical story.)

Case Closed.

Dear Word Detective: Can you explain the origin of the phrase "put paid to," which I take to be synonymous with "put a stop to"? I can't find it in any kind of dictionary, and native English speakers I approach with my question just giggle hysterically and ask to be excused. -- Bengt Carlsson, Stockholm, Sweden.

Well, I don't blame you for being mystified. Even for native English speakers, that's pretty bizarre behavior. Are you certain that it's your question that is causing the giggling? Perhaps your socks don't match and that's the source of the hilarity. I've tried saying "put paid to" in a variety of accents myself, and while the cat did snicker at my French version, I can't see anything inherently funny in the phrase.

My best guess is that the people you're asking simply don't know what the phrase means, a distinct possibility if they're not British. "Put paid to" means, as you've gathered, to put an end to or to stop something with utter finality, and is heard almost exclusively in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries. "Put paid to," which first appeared in English in the early 20th century, probably originally referred to an accounting ledger, where to "put," or mark, "paid" next to a notation of debt means that the debt is expunged, the slate is wiped clean, and the matter is definitively closed.

Metaphorically, "put paid to" can be applied to anything from sabotaging one's career ("Murphy's mismatched socks put paid to his hopes for promotion") to utter destruction ("One well-placed cruise missile put paid to the sock factory").

"Put paid to" is reminiscent of another somewhat mysterious phrase -- "to put the kibosh on," also meaning, since the 1830s, to put a definite end to something. Many authorities believe that "kibosh" (pronounced "ky-bosh") comes from the Gaelic phrase "cie bais", meaning "cap of death." Evidently, in trials in ancient Ireland, the "cie bais," a black skullcap, was donned by the judge before he sentenced a prisoner to death, and apparently the phrase "cie bais" is still an established metaphor in modern Irish.

I can see myself.

Dear Word Detective: Here's a phrase I've always wondered about: "spic 'n span." In fact, the more I think about it, the stranger it seems. Where did this phrase come from? -- James Harrigan, Miami, FL

Well, since the average American is said to watch somewhere between 70 and 7,000 hours of television each and every week, I think it's fair to say that most of us know "Spic 'n Span" as the name of a popular household cleaning product. Thinking about television's effect on our language, I had the unsettling thought that future generations of couch potatoes might well assume that the phrase "spick and span" was just another case of a trademarked product name being adopted into English as a generic noun, much the way "scotch tape" and "baggie" have been.

That would be a shame, because "spick and span" actually has a rather interesting history. The phrase was originally "spick and span new," and while we usually use "spick (or "spic") and span" to mean "spotlessly clean" (as they say in the commercials), the original meaning was "brand new." "Spick and span" dates back to the 16th century and was originally used to describe a brand new ship. The "spick" was a spike or nail, and the "span" came from an Old Norse word, "spannyr," meaning "fresh wood chip." A ship that was "spick and span new" was therefore "new in every nail and piece of wood."

Although both "spick" and "span" had existed in English for hundreds of years, the combination of "spick and span" seems to have been adopted from the Dutch version of "spick and span," "spiksplinternieuw." It's a shame the phrase was translated into English, actually. Wouldn't you like to hear a TV announcer try to sell you "spiksplinternieuw"?




Click here to submit a question to The Word Detective.


Click here to find out why you should consider
subscribing to The Word Detective!

  Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!
We now accept credit cards via the secure PayPal system!


Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

All contents Copyright © 2001 by Evan Morris.