Issue of March 24, 2004



Apropos my recent gall-bladder operation, thanks to all the wonderful readers who contributed to my emergency fund.  I am currently in negotiations with the hospital in question (Mount Carmel East in Columbus, OH) regarding the possibility of arriving at more reasonable charges.  It seems that hospitals routinely charge uninsured patients anywhere from three to ten times the amount that they charge insurance companies (or Medicare and Medicaid) for the same services.  If this strikes you as insane, you are right.  Interestingly enough, Tenet Healthcare, one of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chains, recently announced that they are planning to stop this nonsense immediately.  It will be interesting to see whether Mount Carmel, a not-for-profit corporation and part of a Catholic hospital chain that makes all the right noises about health care being a human right and not a commodity, will follow suit.  Stay tuned.

Spring is coming, it seems, so there will be new photos of springlike things here soon.  Anyone who doubts that I have good reason to rue the coming of spring should read this.

And now, on with the show:

Go forth and froth.

Dear Word Detective:  So I got up this morning to walk the dog before dawn (Dawn can walk herself, really).  The weatherman on the TV said the temperature should be 25 degrees or so.  Thus, I bundled up in eighty-four layers of clothing and waddled out the door, tog in tow.  I discovered that five days of zero-ish temperatures had inured me to the cold, however, and thought the day to be positively balmy by comparison -- and instantly wondered if others might think me barmy for thinking so.  I've since learned that Americans spell "barmy" (as in "dense" and "silly") as "balmy," the same as clement weather, and that a third homonym describes a thing which smells of balm, a type of wood.  As the American Heritage 3rd Edition doesn't shed any more light than this, I thought I'd turn this one over to you. -- J.D.  

Pre-dawn dog-walking?  What are you feeding your dog?  Our dogs won't get up before 10 a.m. at the earliest, and even then the big one just blearily stumbles out the door and collapses on the lawn for the next ten minutes.  I'd like to think she's tired because she's been up all night guarding us, but the only things she ever barks at are passing airplanes and an armchair she doesn't care for.

"Barmy" and "balmy" are not the same word, although one of the meanings of "balmy" is indeed "crazy, foolish, insane," roughly the meaning of "barmy."  This particular connection between the two words seems to have arisen through a combination of similar pronunciations and simple confusion, leading folks to pronounce "barmy" as "balmy."

The basic meaning of "balmy" is "producing or characteristic of balm," balm being an aromatic resin produced by balsam trees.  ("Balm" and "balsam" share the same root, the Greek "balsamon.")  More generally, "balm" is any kind of soothing ointment or oil, and in a figurative sense means anything that soothes or calms.  In this sense, we often refer to weather that is pleasantly warm and placid as "balmy."

"Barm," on the other hand, is the frothy, foamy head found on a glass of beer or ale, and derives from the Old English word "beorma." "Barmy" first appeared in the 16th century in a literal sense meaning "foaming," and by 1602 was being used to describe someone acting in an excited or irrational way whose head seemed to be filled with froth.

Silly me, I meant "truffle bag."

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the term "duffle bag" come from?  It seems to be deeply rooted in the English language, since even we poor French are compelled to use it, not having found a effective and law-abiding translation. If you have any hint, please help. -- Jean-Marie Tizon, France.

Yo, France, aren't language laws fun?  Actually, as someone pointed out at the time, the decision last year by the U.S. Congress to rename French fries "Freedom Fries" on its cafeteria menu didn't make a lot of sense if they weren't going to abandon the French word "menu" as well.  Congress not making sense?  Quelle suprise.

While it's true that the "duffle bag," a cylindrical bag for carrying clothes, was popularized in America, I'm not sure that the name really violates the campaign by your government to stifle the creep of Americanisms such as "le cheeseburger" into the French language.  The "duffle" in "duffle bag" is actually a modified form of the name "Duffel," a town in the province of Antwerp in Belgium.  Maybe you should just call the bag a "Duffel sac," and if the Gendarmes still pull you over (metaphorically speaking, I hope), you can always drop a dime to the European Union and ask for a Belgian lawyer.

In any case, it turns out that back in the 17th century the little town of Duffel became known for producing thick woolen cloth which was excellent for making coats and other durable goods.  "Duffel" (now more often spelled "duffle") coats have long been especially popular as military uniforms because of their durability and warmth.

It's unclear who actually invented "duffle bags," but they have long been issued to U.S. soldiers (which probably accounts for their popularity), and are commonly used as luggage by travelers who would rather carry a lot of clothes easily than worry about wrinkling their dress shirts.  Duffle bags, although presumably originally made from actual "Duffel cloth," are now generally made from lighter but still very durable canvas.

It's the southern end of a northbound jackalope.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you shed some light on the antiquated insult "jackanapes"?  I've seen it in dozens of historical novels and always understood it in context, but when I finally looked it up in a dictionary (American Heritage), this was the origin: "From Middle English Jack Napis, nickname of William de la Pole, Fourth Earl and First Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450)."  I find this curiously unsatisfying.  Why was he called "Jack Napis"?  What could it possibly mean? -- Melinda.

Good question, but I'm wondering whether we really have to regard “jackanapes” as an “antiquated” insult.  It seems to me that we need all the insults we can get these days, and the more baroque the better.  I'm not a big fan of G. Gordon Liddy, but I will give him credit for almost single-handedly rescuing the wonderful and withering “poltroon” (meaning a spineless coward) from obscurity.

“Jackanapes,” meaning "a mischievous upstart, a ridiculous, conceited impostor" is a grand word with a fascinating story, although we seem to be a few pages shy of a full explanation of its origin.  The etymology note in the Oxford English Dictionary for "jackanapes" runs to nearly 350 words, much longer than the average, and still concludes "Precise origin uncertain."

As your dictionary says, it all seems to go back to William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk in 15th century England.  Although de la Pole was a powerful man, he was widely disliked and ridiculed, at least in part because his family was among the first to ascend from the merchant class to the nobility and thus considered nouveau riche bounders.  Evidently de la Pole's family had also made an unfortunate choice in their coat of arms, which boasted a collar and chain of the sort most often, at that time, seen tethering pet monkeys.  Pet apes or monkeys were, in those days, known as "Jack Napes," the "Jack" possibly because it was a common name applied to both animals and people (e.g., "jackass," "Jack Tar," a sailor).  "Nape" might simply be a play on "ape," or possibly reflects the fact that many pet apes were shipped to England via Naples.

Given the public distaste for de la Pole combined with his tacky coat of arms, it was not surprising that he acquired the nickname "Jack Napes" (or "Napis"), which later became the noun "jackanape."  De la Pole himself was eventually beheaded courtesy of King Henry VI, who had more forceful methods of expressing his annoyance.

A medium rarely well done.

Dear Word Detective:  I was reading a book not long ago that stated that the "media" had taken its name from Medea, the Greek sorceress who carried on with Jason, of Argonaut fame.  The basis ran that Medea had been a manipulator of the facts and a renowned liar. Obviously, this wasn't written by a fan of the media.  On the quick scan, it appears to hold weight, but I'm a natural skeptic. Help? -- Bill Tennant.

Offhand, I'd say that it's the author of that book who needs help, not you.  Your natural skepticism seems to be working just fine.  But that book sounds like a major waste of good trees.

Medea was, as you say, a sorceress in Greek mythology, a princess of Colchis who fell in love with Jason and, against the wishes of her father Aeetes, helped him to snatch the Golden Fleece.  Jason and Medea then blew town and lived happily ever after.  Well, actually, they lived happily with their two kids until Jason took a shine to another princess, whereupon (at least according to the Greek playwright Euripides) Medea went nuts, murdered her rival and then killed her own children.

Despite the resemblance of that sorry tale to something you might see on one of those wretched murder-of-the-week "news magazine" shows on TV, however, there is absolutely no connection between Medea and "media."

"Media" is simply the plural form of the noun "medium," which comes from the Latin "medius," which means "middle" (and which also gave us "mediate," "immediate," "mediocre" and several other English words).  "Medium" has a range of meanings, from signifying "the middle" of something to meaning a thing or person that acts as a means of exchange or communication.  Here we come to "medium" meaning a way to move information from one place to another.  As "spirit mediums" purport to transmit messages to us from The Great Beyond, the more prosaic "mediums" of television, radio and newspapers transmit messages to us from car makers and drug companies.

The use of the plural form "media" as a collective term to mean the main organs  of mass communications (radio, newspapers, etc.) has been controversial because many language purists bridle at the use of a singular verb with what looks like a plural noun (as in "The media is ruining my life").  But this usage has been common since at least 1923 and is now well-established, at least in part because most people would worry about the impression left by saying something like "The mediums are ruining my life."

Worst car I ever owned, by the way.

Dear Word Detective:  I teach Latin to elementary students at Calvary Classical School in Hampton, Va.  They would like to know the origin of the word "restaurant."  They have had the Latin word "taurus," which means "bull."  It seems to have similar spelling to "restaurant" and I have a vague memory of a discussion about this in my Latin class years ago.  However, the connection between "bull" and our contemporary "restaurant" is bewildering.  What can you tell us, please? -- Mrs. Lori Laine Rogers.

Latin in elementary school?  Awesome.  I took Latin for five years, and my only regret is that I never quite mastered fifth declension nouns.  But I remember Latin class vividly.  Carthago delenda est.  Amo, amas amat.  Semper ubi sub ubi. 

I must admit that I had never noticed the resemblance between "taurus" and "restaurant" until you raised it.  But now I'm wondering why one of those chain steakhouses with the cowboy motif and horns on the wall hasn't named itself "Taurus."  Perhaps they're afraid of being mistaken for a car dealership.

The reason that the etymological connection between "taurus" and "restaurant" is mysterious is simply that there is, despite the resemblance of the two words, no connection.  The English noun "restaurant" was borrowed around 1827 directly from the French word "restaurant," which is the present participle of the French verb "restaurer," which means "to restore or refresh."  So a "restaurant" is literally "a restorer," a place where one goes to be restored or refreshed with a meal or a cup of tea.   

While there is no connection to "taurus" in "restaurant," there is, as usual, Latin lurking in the background.  The Old French root of "restaurant" was the verb "restorer," which in turn came from the Latin verb "restaurare," meaning "to restore or repair" and which also gave us the English verb "to restore."

And bring your red suspenders.

Dear Word Detective:  My native Canadian colleagues are puzzled by the term "visiting firemen."  I grew up in the U.S. Midwest understanding that this referred to any dignitary or other person visiting on official business who required the host to show some indication of respect.  Examples would be a professor visiting another university or a consultant brought in from the head office, etc.  But I couldn't explain how the phrase came about.  I only have the family story of my female cousin, who was a high- ranking fire official in New Mexico, visiting the Paris fire department headquarters and being greeted with an honor guard.  Some dictionary work on-line seems to confirm the general meaning, adding a tourist or conventioneer who is thought to be a free spender, but why a fireman instead of a visiting shoe salesman or another profession? --George Gorlsine.

Aye, there's the rub.  Why a fireman?  And "fireman" in the sense of "firefighter"?

What we know about "visiting firefighter" is that the phrase is apparently a U.S. invention and first appeared in print in 1926, although, as usual, it was probably in use for several years before that date.  "Visiting fireman," as you discovered, can mean either a visiting dignitary who is given special treatment or a tourist or other visitor who spends freely and lavishly.

 In unraveling the origin of "visiting fireman," I find myself at odds with several authorities, who maintain that the "fireman" in the phrase originally referred to a Native American dignitary, the tribe's "fire maker," who was responsible for lighting all fires, and who would naturally be honored on a visit to another tribe.  

I may be wrong, but I am extremely skeptical about that explanation.  Why would a phrase rooted in American Indian customs only appear in 1926?  And why apparently never in the "original" form "visiting fire maker"?  

That story bears all the hallmarks of a fable invented to spice up and improve upon an otherwise prosaic explanation.  Firefighters around the world constitute a close-knit community of mutual respect and solidarity (as seen in the aftermath of September 11th).  A firefighter visiting another fire company, whether in another city or country, would logically receive, as did your sister, a warm welcome that would serve as a model of hospitality.  And a small town firefighter visiting his or her counterparts in the big city might well splurge in return, accounting for the "free-spending tourist" sense of the phrase.

Who goes there?

Dear Word Detective:  There are two apparently disparate definitions of the word "cataract."  One is "a large waterfall," as in the cataracts of the Nile, and the other is medical, "an opacity of the crystalline lens preventing the passage of rays of light and therefore impairing vision."  I wonder if there is some connection between the two, i.e., was the medical definition derived from the geographical definition. The opposite would seem unlikely. -- Jay Mendelsohn.  

There is indeed a connection between the "waterfall" sense of "cataract" and the "impediment to vision" sense, but there's an interesting detour along the route that may explain the disparity of the definitions.  

The "waterfall" sense of "cataract" came first, drawn from the Greek word "kataraktes," which means "a swooping or rushing down."  When "cataract" first appeared in English in the 15th century, it was used in the now-obsolete sense of "flood gate," most particularly in the metaphorical phrase "cataracts of Heaven" which, when opened, would loose torrents of rain.  "Cataract" in this "gate" sense was also used to mean a gizmo otherwise known as a "portcullis," which was a lattice-like grating that slid down to bar the entrance to a castle, or an iron latticework used to bar and protect windows.

By the 16th century, "cataract" was being used to mean a waterfall of great size, harking back to that "heavenly torrent" association.  Incidentally, to be a "cataract," the water has to pour straight down from the cliff.  A waterfall where the water forms smaller falls by bouncing off rocks on the way down is properly called a "cascade."

The use of "cataract" to mean an occlusion in the eye that interferes with (but does not totally prevent) vision also dates to the 16th century.  This sense probably has little to do with waterfalls and refers instead to the similarity of vision through ocular cataracts to trying to peer through a latticework portcullis covering a window.  Significantly, this condition was also, at that time, often called "a web in the eye" and even a "portcullis."


Mister Turkey in a Wonderbra.

Dear Word Detective:  How did "cheesecake" come to refer to provocative pictures of women, usually in a state of undress?  Is this what led the Sara Lee Corporation to become both a major producer of the food and of ladies undergarments? -- Jay Vee Weiss.  

Live and learn.  When I first read your question, I assumed that you were either joking about Sara Lee or had been hitting the streusel too early in the day.  Oh me of little faith.  It turns out that Sara Lee Corporation owns a slew of other brands, including such "intimates" manufacturers as Hanes, Bali, Wonderbra and Playtex.  They also own Polo Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Kiwi shoe care products, Brylcreem (!), and something called Mister Turkey.   By the way, there really was (and is) a real person named Sara Lee.  The daughter of an entrepreneur who named his bakery after her, she is today a grandmother and reportedly a computer whiz.  

I happened to look into the origin of the hubba-hubba sense of "cheesecake" for my recent book "Making Whoopee" (Algonquin Books), so what follows is a short form of what I found.

Way back in the 1930s, long before the internet and cable TV put "hard-core" on the national menu, tabloid newspapers and disreputable "pulp" magazines would often try to attract their largely male target audience by festooning their front pages with photographs of attractive young women.  This being the 1930s, such displays were chaste by modern standards and usually limited to what were known as "leg shots," featuring young women in swimsuits or relatively short skirts.  Similar tableaus were common on calendars and playing cards of the period, and the genre was known as "cheesecake." (Among non-aficionados it was usually condemned as "smut.")

"Cheesecake" in the literal sense is a rich dessert made of cream cheese, butter and sugar.  While real cheesecake was invented back in the 15th century, "cheesecake" as a slang term first arose in the depths of the 1930s Depression.  Having enough food to eat was a daily worry for millions of Americans, and cheesecake, or any other fancy dessert, would have seemed an unattainable luxury to many.  So it's not surprising that the young women on the covers of those risqué magazines, similarly unattainable to the average male reader, would have become known as "cheesecake."  

Phone for you, Romeo.

Dear Word Detective:  This week I tuned in to the HBO movie "Iron-Jawed Angels," which dealt with the early-20th-century suffragists in the years leading up to their finally securing, nationally, the right to vote for American women.  But I was badly turned off, early in the film, by the dialogue in which two young women were discussing one's state of origin -- Wyoming.  The second woman expressed her admiration for Wyoming, because, she said, "they allowed women to vote from the get-go."  Recognizing that I could be wrong, it was hard to believe that the term "from the get-go" was current in 1912-1914.  Even if it wasn't unheard of, it seemed wrong in the context, but, more importantly, I really don't think the phrase even came along for another -- oh, 40 years or so.  Am I wrong?  What are the origins of the phrase? -- Jerome Norris.

You're not only correct, you're a movie viewer after my own heart.  I know exactly what you mean when you say that you were "turned off" by an apparent anachronism in the film.  I'm operating from memory here (which in my case is like bailing water with a sieve), but I recall hearing a character in the recent "Master and Commander," set in 1805, proclaiming that an experience was "really something," a phrase which actually first appeared around 1957.  I eventually snapped out of my funk and enjoyed the rest of the movie, but in digging around to verify my memory I discovered that the script also makes reference to the Brazilian "rainforest," a term apparently not coined until the early 20th century.  Sigh.

In the case of "from the get-go," you're very close in your estimate of a 40-year reality gap.  The phrase first appeared in the mid-1960s in African-American slang, and "get-go" is simply a transformation of the verbal phrase "get going" into a noun form meaning "the starting point, the beginning."  Subsequent mutations include "from the git-go" and "from the get (or git)."

Ironically, a slight modification in the script would have put HBO in the clear.  The phrase "from the word go," meaning exactly the same thing, is an American invention dating safely back to 1834, and its first use in print is attributed to none other than Davy Crockett ("I was ... well pleased with her from the word go.").

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More shameless self-promotion.

Dear Word Detective:  While engaged in playful verbal sparring with a friend recently, the term “hussy” (as in a “morally challenged” woman) emerged in conversation.  Imagine my dismay at not being able to find the etymology of that word easily on the internet.  Can you assist? -- Kristen Wallway.

Certainly, but first, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I must point out that your fruitless quest on the internet for the origin of "hussy" is simply the inevitable result of one of the most common lapses in our society today, to wit, a inexplicable failure to buy my books.  Had you simply waltzed into your local Barnes & Borders or whatever and plunked down a piddling $15.95 for "Making Whoopee, Words of Love for Lovers of Words" (just published by Algonquin Books), you'd know the answer right now and we could both go do our part for the economy by watching more TV.

"Hussy" is one of those words rarely used today, though occasionally still heard from the lips of an older relative, probably one who also rails against "whippersnappers" and all things "newfangled."  In its heyday, "hussy" was the sort of noun that attracted intensifiers -- any woman worth labeling a "hussy" would almost certainly, upon closer examination, turn out to be a "brazen hussy," a "shameless hussy," or at least a "bold hussy."  

Given the pejorative connotations of the term "hussy" (not quite a prostitute, but close), the origins and early uses of the word are rather remarkable.  "Hussy" is simply a modified form of the word "housewife," and when "hussy" first appeared back in the 16th century, it meant just "mistress of the household," corresponding to "husband" (from the Old Norse "husbondi," meaning "master of the house").  The term "hussy" at that time even carried connotations of "a thrifty, orderly woman."

For some reason, however, the sense of "hussy" shifted in the 17th century, and took on the meaning of a rural woman or one of the lower urban classes.  From there it unfairly (but predictably) acquired connotations of less than sterling character and low moral standards, until by the 18th and 19th centuries "hussy" had become a slur on a par with "harlot" or "floozy."

The Doctor will be with you as soon as he graduates.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word "patient" as in a "medical patient" come from? -- Agnes Farkas.   

The elephant in the living room of this question is, of course, whether "patient" in the medical sense has anything to do with the lengthy waits many doctors inflict on their customers.  The answer is "Not directly," although I have to wonder what the mortality rate is in some of the waiting rooms I've seen.  The most diabolical belonged to an ophthalmologist whose receptionist, every two hours or so, would usher one lucky patient chosen at random through an official-looking door into the inner sanctum.  But after being directed down a long, dark hallway, the poor sap would suddenly arrive in yet another waiting room full of previous winners peering at copies of Look magazine and growing cobwebs.  There may well have been further limbos beyond that one, perhaps an entire Minoan labyrinth of toe-tapping and long sighs, but after a mere three hours I decided that my eyes were getting better by themselves and bailed out.

As I noted above, the noun "patient," meaning a person under medical treatment, is not drawn from the adjective "patient," meaning "calmly enduring or awaiting, diligent or persevering," but the two words do share a common source.  Both words go back to the Latin verb "pati," meaning "to suffer" (also the source of our English words "passion" and "passive").  The present participle of "pati" is "patientem," meaning "one who suffers," which, filtered through the Old French "pascient" (later taking on the form "patient"), gave us our English word "patient."

While still in the Latin form "patientem," the term had gradually taken on the additional meaning of "one who suffers an affliction or trouble without complaint," so the adjective "patient" in this "quietly enduring" sense was understood when it first appeared in English in the 14th century.  But we also started using "patient" in the "sufferer of a disease" noun sense at about the same time, although it also carried connotations of "one who suffers patiently."  Over subsequent centuries the two meanings have diverged a bit more, and today it is entirely possible, perhaps even inevitable, to be an impatient patient.

Tons of fun.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the term "the ton" in Regency England come from, meaning "the upper class"? -- Bets.   

This is an interesting question, at least as much because of what the answer isn't as because of what the answer is.  

The logical question that arises is whether this "ton" is related to the "ton" we use as a measure of weight (as in "a ton of bricks").  The answer is that there is no relation, but "ton" in the weight sense is a fascinating word in its own right.

One might presume that a word so basic to our understanding of weight would always have been connected in some fashion to weighing things, but "ton," when it first appeared in English in the 14th century, meant "cask of wine," and was simply a variant of the older word "tun," meaning "barrel."  As a unit of measure, "ton" at first was used to mean the space aboard ship taken up by one cask of wine, then used to denote increasingly larger units of capacity.  Eventually, "ton" came to be used as a unit of weight as well, and today equals 2000 pounds, unless you're in the UK, where it is 2240 pounds.  Incidentally, the root of this sort of "ton" is the Latin "tunna," which also gave us "tunnel."

Meanwhile, "ton" meaning "upper class" or "the fashionable set" (what tabloid TV shows today call "the beautiful people") first appeared in English around 1770.  The root of this "ton" is our familiar English word "tone" (from the Latin "tonus"), meaning in this sense "an attitude, style or manner," particularly a "high" or refined style.  So the "ton" were those elements of society who were judged to have refined tastes and style (and, of course, the money to indulge those pricey tastes).  An equivalent term in use during the same period was "bon-ton" (from the French for "good manner")  meaning "polite society" or "good breeding."

While some of us may have tons of "ton," this "ton" is, for better or worse, rarely heard today.  In its place, however, we have the close relative "tony," an adjective meaning "fashionable," "stylish," and, of course, "expensive."  Interestingly, although "tony" is an American invention dating back to the 1870s, it is more widely used in the UK today.

A nominal egg.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife forwarded an item that described how certain phrases started.  One such phrase was the beginning of "costing an arm and a leg."  Seems it had to do with the painting of portraits.  The cost was determined by the amount of limbs in the portrait.  The more limbs the greater the cost.  Is this true? -- Paul Lemon.      

The internet certainly tends to bring out the gullible side in otherwise perceptive people, doesn't it?  I've heard that story a dozen times, but it's far from the silliest going around.  I can't really go into the details of one particular e-mail tale that many folks have asked me about, but let's just say that any word origin story you may have received lately about manure getting wet while being transported by ship is absolute hogwash.

Onward.  The story you received, which claims that portrait painters used to charge by the amount of the subject they included in the painting (i.e., more for the full figure, less for just the head and shoulders) is utter bunk.

The phrase "cost an arm and a leg," meaning to cost a great deal or an exorbitant amount, is simply a hyperbolic figure of speech comparing the cost of something to the grievous loss of two important limbs.  There isn't really any "story" behind the phrase, other than the desire of whoever came up with the metaphor to impress the listener with the outrageous price of something.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, we have no way of knowing exactly who coined the phrase, although it hasn't been around as long as you might think.  Surprisingly, the earliest known use of "cost an arm and a leg" in print dates back only to 1956, in Billie Holiday's autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues," in which she writes "Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg."  It is unlikely that Billie Holiday herself coined the phrase, but she may well have popularized it with her book.

If I had to guess at the inspiration for "cost and arm and a leg," I'd say that it was probably an outgrowth of the older phrase "I'd give my right arm for," meaning that the speaker would be willing to make a great sacrifice to obtain or do something, which dates back to the mid-19th century.  "An arm and a leg" may simply have arisen as an attempt to top that already grisly level of sacrifice.

You're not the boss of me.

Dear Word Detective:  When my brother and I were children, our response to the inevitable adult admonition "Behave!" was "I am bein' have."  Now being an adult myself, I realize that I never did learn how to "be have."  Can you explain the origin of the word "behave" to me?  I'm sure my parents would greatly appreciate it if someone would. -- Robin South. 

Oh, a couple of wiseguys, eh?  You're lucky you both didn't get shipped off to law school on the spot.  Might as well put that argumentative lip to some profitable use, I'd have thought, instead of letting the little smarty-pants drift resentfully into pottery-making and interpretive dance.  Remember, gang, in the past of every poet lurks a thwarted litigator, and an ability to drive authority figures nuts is a terrible thing to waste.  

You've asked a good question, however, and the answer, while a little complex, is interesting.  One unusual thing among many about "behave" is that although it does incorporate our familiar word "have," the long "a" pronunciation in the "have" of "behave" is a relic of the 15th century, when "behave" first appeared.

The word "have" has been around since the dawn of English, long enough to acquire dozens of finely-tuned meanings which rest precariously on the basically vague original meaning of "have."  That root meaning of "have," shared with its relatives in other Germanic languages, is "to possess, keep or hold."  

There are many sub-senses of "have," but for our purposes the most important appeared around A.D. 971, meaning "to possess as a duty," the same sense we use when we say "I have to do my work."  Associated with this was "have" in the active sense of "to carry on or act in a certain manner," and it is this sense of "have" that first appeared in the 15th century in the form "behave."

Now we come to the secret about "behave."  That's not the familiar verb "be" as in "to be" at the beginning, so no one was telling you to "be" anything.  It's an obsolete intensifier that meant "very," as also found in the word "besmirch" (to "smirch," or make dirty, very badly).

So "to behave" means "to act, very strictly and with self-discipline, in a certain manner," as a soldier might be said to "behave as an officer."  The more child-specific sense of "behave" as shorthand meaning "to behave properly" that you heard from adults developed only in the 19th century.


Time to let go.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word "mugwump"?  My grandfather used to call me this when I was little and I had always thought it might be an American Indian word or name. Now that I know the definition, I have considerable doubts. -- Carmen.

Well, I'm wondering which definition we're talking about, since "mugwump" really has three.  To begin at the beginning, "mugwump" does indeed come from a Native American word, the Algonquian "mugquomp" (or "mummugquomp"), which means "war leader" or simply "chief."  One early use of "mugwump" in print was in a translation of the Old Testament into Algonquian by Reverend John Eliot in 1663, in which he used "mugwump" to stand in for "officer," "captain" and "duke."

In English, "mugwump" was used starting in the early 1800s to mean "an important person, a boss," but chiefly in a humorous or mocking sense to mean "a pompous, self-important, puffed-up big fish in a small pond."  The closest synonym would probably be the derisive term "pooh-bah," drawn from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."  Another synonym would be "nabob," originally denoting an official in the Mogul Empire, but long used as a derogatory term for a self-appointed arbiter of social or political morality.  The most celebrated recent use of "nabob" was without doubt William Safire's alliterative broadside at "nattering nabobs of negativism" in a 1970 speech penned for then Vice President (and later convicted felon) Spiro Agnew.

"Mugwump" acquired a more specific meaning during the US presidential election of 1884, when it was applied to some Republicans who refused to support their party's nominee James G. Blaine and opted instead to cross over and vote for Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland.  In this sense "mugwump" meant "one who affects a disinterest or lack of loyalty in party politics, especially out of a sense of self-importance."  Since the Cleveland-Blaine contest faded from public memory, "mugwump" has often been used to mean simply "unprincipled fence-sitter," as in the classic definition of a "mugwump" as "A man with his mug on one side of the fence and his wump on the other."

My guess is that your grandfather was using "mugwump" in its original sense to gently kid you about being "an important person" (unless, of course, he somehow held you responsible for Cleveland's defeat of Blaine).

Mine, all mine.

Dear Word Detective:  The word "patent" has been rolling around in my head for a few days now.  I can't make sense of its various senses, you see.  It can mean a legal right to an idea, a grant of peerage (as in a "patent of nobility") or, as an adverb, intensify the word "obvious."  It's patently obvious that the senses of the word must be connected somehow, but it all eludes me.  Any ideas? -- J.D.

Not to mention "patent leather."  And "patent medicine."  And "patent lawyers."  OK, scratch that one.

In the beginning, there was the adjective "patent," simply meaning "open."  The root of "patent" is "patens," the present participle of the Latin verb "patere," meaning "to be open."  This is the basic sense found in the adjective or adverb "patent" meaning (as in "patently obvious") "clear, plain, evident, manifest, or obvious," which appeared in English in the 16th century.  The basic sense of "open" is also found in architectural use of "patent" to mean a passage or room that is open and allows free passage, or in botany to mean a plant with branches or leaves spread widely apart.

One of the early uses of "patent" in English was in the phrase "letters patent" (drawn from the French "lettres patentes"), which were public ("open") proclamations issued by a leader or monarch.  Such letters patent could confer a noble title, ownership of property, or an exclusive license to manufacture or sell an invention or certain kind of item for a set period of time.  It's that last "the King says I own Windows" sense that we use today when we talk about "patenting" inventions.  "Patent medicines," over-the-counter remedies popular in the 19th century, were patented (or at were least claimed to be) by their inventors.  "Patent leather," which has been finished to give it a smooth, very shiny surface, was patented at one point, but no longer, so feel free to make your own.

Empersay ubiway ubsay ubiway.

Dear Word Detective:  I was hoping you could enlighten me about the origins of the expression "Ixnay on the...."  I first came across it while watching The Simpsons, where it was uttered by Krusty: "Ixnay on the Oojay!"  I then heard it again from Loretta Young in "Platinum Blonde," although can't remember the exact phrase she used.  It was used by yourself in your online edition of Jan 25, 2004 - "Ixnay on the uzzlepays, OK?" -- Terry Tucknott, Biot, France. 

Oodgay estionquay.  Sorry about that.  All will become clear in a moment.  But I am glad you asked this question, because until I did some checking I wasn't aware that folks outside the US were largely missing out on perhaps the most inspired linguistic invention of the past few centuries.  I speak, of course, of Pig Latin.

Pig Latin is one of a number of what are usually called "secret languages" or "play languages."  These are not real languages with their own vocabularies, but instead consist of rearranging standard English words or substituting other words according to a few simple rules.  Secret languages are almost always used by children to conceal speech content of an "in" group from the outcasts of the moment (or from slow-witted adults), although, particularly in the case of Pig Latin, adults often use such languages as the basis for jokes.  

Pig Latin may, in fact, persist into adulthood because there are really only two easily-remembered rules.  (It has, by the way, absolutely no connection with real Latin, which has lots and lots of rules.)  In Pig Latin, a word beginning with a consonant ("puzzle," for instance) has its initial letter moved to the end and followed by "ay" ("uzzlepay").  If the word begins with a vowel, "ay" or "way" is tacked onto the end ("egg" becomes "eggway").  Prepositions, conjunctions and articles (on, to, and, the, etc.) are generally left unchanged.

The construction "ixnay," often heard in Pig Latin, takes a bit more explaining.  It stands for "nix," a somewhat antiquated word for "no," "none," or, spoken as a command, "stop it."  So "ixnay on the uzzlepays" means "stop the puzzles."  Another common Pig Latinism is "amscray," meaning "scram," i.e., "get lost."

Pig Latin first appeared in the early 20th century, but has been, for no particular reason, largely popular in the US.  Britain has a similar secret language, using spelling reversal, called "back slang," the most common example being "yob" (or "yobbo") for "boy."  

Emphasis added.

Dear Word Detective:  Were soap operas ever called "soap-box operas"?  My husband insists they were, but I disagree.  Please help solve our dispute. -- Ann.  

Oh goody, another marital dispute I can exacerbate.  But seriously, can't we all just get along?  Let's call it a discussion, not a "dispute."  And when I say that your husband is loco in the coco, please try not to gloat.

To be more precise, your husband's memory is playing tricks on him, but he is not alone.  A search of Google for "soap box opera" turns up 128 uses of the phrase, so it is apparently a common misunderstanding.  Nonetheless, "soap box opera" is a mixture of two entirely separate terms -- "soap box" and "soap opera."

"Soap box" dates back to the 19th century, when soap (especially laundry soap) was shipped in wooden crates.  Once the soap was used up, the crates were often put to other uses, from seating and storage to the construction of children's "soap box racing" cars.

One of the most practical uses of an empty soap box was as a makeshift public speaking platform for aspiring politicians and their ilk.  Since a speaker who had to resort to a rickety soap box (rather than a bandstand or stage, for instance) was probably not a supporter of the status quo, "soap box" came to be a handy metaphor for a highly charged rhetorical style.  By 1907, "soap box oratory" had became a derogatory term for protracted, impassioned, and possibly deranged speechmaking, and "up on his soap box" is still a disparaging way of saying that someone has turned a conversation into a one-sided speech.

"Soap opera" comes from the 1930s, when radio serials, often involving domestic situations of a highly emotional nature, were popular.  Since the audience for these shows was usually women tending the home during the day, they were so often sponsored by soap companies that they were soon known as "soap operas," combining the "soap" with "opera" in a metaphorical sense of "a flamboyant and often overwrought melodrama."  A similar sense of "opera" can be found in the earlier (1920s) use of "horse opera" to mean radio serials or movies depicting cowboys.


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