Issue of April 15, 2006



Hey, wassup?

Yes, we're back. More or less, anyway.

First of all, thanks to all the folks who contributed to our Hold My Breath Until I Turn Blue fundraising drive. It made a tremendous difference, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters really appreciate your generosity.

As to the future of TWD, I doubt much will change in the near future. I have considered changing over to a subscription-only model with passwords and all that stuff, but it goes against my grain. Posting only a portion of my columns and reserving the rest for subscribers appeals to me in my darker moods, but that would mean compromising the integrity of our online archives, among other things. So I will continue to post my complete output on a semi-regular basis.

There's still plenty of reason to subscribe, of course.  Apart from providing upkeep for twelve incredibly cute cats and two beleaguered dogs, you'll keep one very special mortgage company happy.  And this site is now running three months behind the columns sent to subscribers, so if the Earth is hit by a comet in the next two weeks, non-subscribers will have missed some really fascinating anecdotes from my childhood.

Onward.  Several readers have wished me a nice "break" over the past two months, but it was actually never going to be a vacation -- I was trying to finish writing a book. Unfortunately, I awoke one morning in early March with serious numbness and weakness in my left arm and leg, and then went on to develop a multitude of other alarming neurological symptoms.  Long story short, I'm still going through insanely expensive tests, but the prime suspect at the moment seems to be multiple sclerosis.  We shall see.  Maybe it's just Ohio. 

Update: Many thanks for the messages of concern and support. I should know something next week -- I just had two more MRIs. These go for about $1100 a pop, which is absurd. More absurd is that Anthem (hiss, boo) only pays about $350 of that. So there's another reason to subscribe....

Lastly, right before this all happened I switched from Windows XP to Ubuntu Linux (which I highly recommend), and I am at last moving away from doing this site in MS Frontpage (ugh, feh), using the GIMP graphics editor and NVU and Bluefish html editors.  I love Linux.  It's like having a brand-new computer.  One that works.

As always, the circus rolls on at my blog.

And now, on with the show:

Soggy Dane.

Dear Word Detective: One of my favorite books, "Night Maze" by Annie Dalton, has an expression in it that has puzzled me ever since I first read it thirteen years ago. At one point the main character is described as follows: "Canute-like, he sat tensely sweating in his tapestry covered armchair, defying the invisible tide to rise up through the polished floorboards and wash around his knees." (The second part actually does make sense in context.)  The trouble is, I have absolutely no idea what "Canute-like" means, or even whether it refers to a physical or a mental state. I know that Canute was the name of two Danish kings of England, but I haven't been able to find out anything about them that sheds any light on the question. Can you help? -- Shelly.

I'll give it a shot, but I must warn you that my grasp of English history, while sufficient on days when all I do is feed the cats and drive to the post office, tends to go very wobbly whenever I'm asked a direct question involving any year before about 1970.

Consequently, I'm not sure about there being two Canutes, but the relevant one would be Canute II (also spelled "Knut" and "Knud"), son of Sweyn Forkbeard and grandson of Harold Bluetooth, both kings of Denmark, which is definitely the land of cool names. Born in either 994 or 995, Canute eventually became monarch of Denmark and Norway as well as of England, which he actually ruled twice. His first reign in England was cut short by the restoration to the monarchy of the marvelously-named Ethelred the Unready, but Canute's second reign (1017-1035) is generally seen as progressive and wise, notwithstanding his bigamous marriage and murder of his own brother.

The Canute reference you encountered (as well as any others you're ever likely to find) is to the legend of how Canute dealt with flattery. When his courtiers declared that Canute was so powerful that the seas themselves would obey his commands, Canute had himself seated at the water's edge as the tide came in. Although he repeatedly ordered the waters to recede, he was eventually submerged up to his waist, proving to all, in the pro-Canute version of the tale, that (as wise Canute knew) even his powers were limited. This legend, however, is often interpreted as showing not Canute's humility but his arrogant belief that the waters would actually recede at his command. The passage you quote seems to imply this less positive interpretation.

Polish that pancreas.

Dear Word Detective: What is "gilding a lily"? We think we were doing it today in surgery, but then no one seemed to know just exactly what it was that we were doing. Your insight would be greatly appreciated. -- Jim.

gild.pngStop the presses. Competition has been fierce this year, but I think we now have a clear winner in our annual Most Disturbing Reader Question Contest. I know medicine isn't an exact science, but your second sentence may be the most compelling argument for maintaining a healthy lifestyle I've ever read. I always figured you doctor guys got all your ducks in a row and developed a game plan before you entered the operating room. Live and learn (with luck), I guess.

"To gild the lily" means "to adorn or embellish something that is already beautiful or perfect; to attempt to improve something that cannot be improved, and thereby to risk spoiling it through excess" (or, in a more mundane rendition, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"). So if you folks were, say, painting racing stripes on someone's perfectly functional gall bladder, you were definitely "gilding the lily."

For a phrase which has been very popular since at least the 19th century, "gild the lily" is a bit strange because it actually represents a misquotation of its source. In his play "The Life and Death of King John" (1595), Shakespeare wrote: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess." While early borrowers of the metaphor followed Shakespeare's words closely and spoke of "painting the lily," today the phrase is almost always heard in the "gild" form. This drives a few "language purists" bonkers, but they tend to be the same people who insist that "cohort" can only mean a unit of Roman soldiers. Metaphors often differ markedly from their origins. On the other hand, Shakespeare's original formulation does convey redundant excess more vividly -- to "gild" (apply a thin layer of gold to) pure gold itself would be silly and pointless, while to cover the subtle beauty of a lily with a coat of paint would be vulgar and destructive.

You bet your hedges.

Dear Word Detective: This week in Time magazine they printed a correction, saying they had shown a photo of Dr. Andrew Weil in his "labyrinth," but had mistakenly called it his "maze." My dictionaries all say they are synonyms. Wassup wit dat? -- Dave.

Maybe it's more of that "mind-body conflict" stuff he flogs on talk shows. Perhaps Dr. Weil's mind tells him it's a "maze," but his body (specifically the part near his wallet) remembers that the salesman called it a "labyrinth." After all, any bozo with enough beer cans can build a "maze," but a "labyrinth" calls for an estate, sun-dappled lawns, solarium, the whole nine yards. One wonders if the good doctor sprang for the Minotaur option.

But to be fair to Dr. Weil, he has a point. While in common usage "maze" and "labyrinth" are considered synonyms, especially in figurative use, to aficionados of the convoluted there is indeed a difference. A "maze" is a construction (of hedges, stone or the like) designed to confuse anyone who enters, involving multiple convoluted pathways within which it is very easy to lose one's way and emerge only by chance, if at all. A labyrinth, on the other hand, although often as elaborately constructed as a maze, usually has only one possible path from its entrance to its center, and the walker has no chance of becoming lost. The point of a maze is to drive you nuts; a labyrinth is designed to provide an interesting but calming and meditative walk. See for a good explanation of the two designs.

The confusion of "maze" and "labyrinth" may be due in part to the fact that the most famous "labyrinth" in mythology, built on Crete by Daedalus to confine the half-man, half-bull Minotaur (later slain by Theseus), was actually a maze. Although the origin of the word "labyrinth" itself is in doubt, it may be from "labrys," which meant "double-edged axe" in the ancient Lydian language of Asia Minor. It is said that such an axe was the royal symbol of the Palace of Knossos on Ancient Crete, and it may have been the palace itself, with its many rooms and convoluted passageways, that formed the basis for the labyrinth-Minotaur legend. The history of the word "maze" is, appropriately, not much more certain, but it appears to be related to the root of our modern word "amaze," and was originally a verb meaning "to daze or confuse." 

Grim to the last drop.

Dear Word Detective: My daddy (a poorly educated word-lover) liked to call apparently ordinary beef stew "slum gullion." I find myself doing so, not knowing what it really means. The "slum" makes it sound like it's connected to poor people, but what's a "gullion"? Modern dictionaries I've consulted are vague or worse. Help? -- Dave Long.

Yes, modern dictionaries are no fun at all, full of dull downers like "origin unknown" and, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it in this case, "probably of fanciful formation." But "slumgullion" is indeed a well-established word with a long history, today meaning a kind of hash or stew, especially one of humble origins.

The earliest occurrence of "slumgullion" recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Mark Twain's "Roughing It" in 1872 ("He poured for us a beverage which he called 'Slumgullion'"), which Twain used in the then-current sense of "a weak or inferior drink." In the 1880s, "slumgullion" was apparently also used to mean the watery refuse from processing whale blubber as well as the muddy sludge created by mining operations. The earliest use of the "stew" sense of "slumgullion" yet found dates to 1902 (Jack London, "Daughter of Snows": "'What do you happen to call it?' 'Slumgullion,' she responded curtly, and thereafter the meal went on in silence"), and, given the earlier meanings of the word, that must have been seriously nasty stew.

The OED, as noted, suspects that "slumgullion" arose as a bit of a joke, but Merriam-Webster suggests that the word represents a combination of "slum" as a variation of "slime" with the English dialectical term "gallion," meaning "mud or cesspool." (This "slum" is evidently unrelated to the "depressed urban area" kind of "slum," whose origin is unknown.) The late Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, sees the "slum" as being a variant on "slob." A related word, "slubberdegullion," meaning "a slobbering or dirty fellow" (OED), apparently combines a form of "slobber" with the "mud puddle" of "gallion."

So the root sense of "slumgullion" appears to boil down to "unappetizing liquid concoction," which probably isn't fair to all the decent stews it's been applied to over the years.

Beyond snark.

Dear Word Detective: Recently I have discovered the word "vitriol" in the course of my studies and it interested me. From what I have read it is the old name for sulphuric acid and was believed to have some connection to the coveted Sorcerer's stone. The name was supposed to be derived from a Latin phrase "Visita interiora terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem" ("Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying (i.e., purifying) you will find the hidden/secret stone" -- the reference is evidently to the legendary Philosopher's stone). I have also found more common definitions of the word, something along the lines of "bitterly abusive feeling or expression." The two seem clearly related (acid tends to be bitter and abusive), but the second definition was linked to a much less inspiring history of the word, claiming it is simply derived from the Latin "vitreolum" meaning of glass as sulphuric acid can be used to cut or etch glass. Could you shed some light on the true origins of the word? -- Vlad.

Oh boy, sorcery, yeah, that's what I need to write about. Next thing I know my columns will turn up being read backwards by spotty adolescents in darkened basements all over the country while I'm raked over the coals by a congressional committee. On the other hand, tapping into the Harry Potter Golden Demographic certainly wouldn't hurt. OK, prick my finger and sign me up.

"Vitriol" in the literal sense is indeed sulphuric acid, very nasty stuff that can dissolve just about anything, a quality which has made it useful to scientists and, at least in fiction, murderers since ancient times. Vitriol was of particular interest to ancient and medieval alchemists because some of them believed it to be the Philosopher's stone, the magic substance that could turn base metals into gold or silver. But the interpretation of the word "vitriol" as a Latin acronym was concocted long after the word arose and has no more validity than the assertion that "posh" is an acronym for "port out, starboard home." The actual root of "vitriol" is the Latin "vitreus," meaning "glassy," referring to the glassy appearance of metal sulfates in solid form.

The figurative use of "vitriol" to mean "corrosive or abusive rhetoric" (as in "The candidates' final commercials set new records for vitriol") dates to the mid-18th century.

Or maybe it's short for Wendigo.

Dear Word Detective: This may not quite be your department, but it is bugging me. Someone recently told me that the girl's name "Wendy" was coined by J. M. Barrie in "Peter Pan," and didn't exist before then. This sounded pretty suspicious to me, so I checked a few baby name sites on the internet. As you could've told me beforehand, the result was only more confusion. I checked four sites, which respectively said that the origins of "Wendy" were Old English, Welsh, German, and J. M. Barrie. The one that said it was Welsh said it was a shortened form of Gwendolyn, and also gave partial credit to Barrie. Maybe I could believe that he just popularized it, and it was only a nickname before him, and not a given name. In any case, help! (Before I make a fool of myself in front of my cousin Wendy at Thanksgiving.) -- Rich B.

Thanksgiving? Oops. Oh well, perhaps you'll be seeing her again next year. I have a problem answering questions on a short deadline, as the dozens of high school students who mail me their homework assignments every week can attest. My hope is that they're also flunking geography and will have a hard time finding me.

You're correct in guessing that proper names aren't really in my bailiwick, but I also heard this story about "Wendy" a few years ago, and while it piqued my interest, it also immediately roused my skeptical instincts. However, I never quite got around to checking into the story.

So it's a good thing someone else did. Cecil Adams, who writes an excellent syndicated newspaper column called The Straight Dope (available at, has a stable of volunteer researchers helping him answer some of his readers' questions. Back in 2002 a staffer going by the moniker "Czarcasm" (there's gotta be a story there) delved into the Barrie-Wendy question.

The bottom line is that while Barrie certainly popularized the name "Wendy," he definitely didn't invent it. Census records in both Britain and the US dating back to the 1800s contain numerous citizens named "Wendy," and since Barrie wrote his play "Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" in 1904 (his popular book "Peter and Wendy" didn't appear until 1911), "Wendy" was, if not exactly a common name, at least well-established before Barrie put pen to paper.

The consensus of all the name sites I checked seemed to be that "Wendy" is indeed a pet form of the Welsh name Gwendolyn, although the World Wide Wendy web site is worth checking for differing opinions.


Dear Word Detective: "Bromide," as in "platitude or cliche." When and how did it come to mean that, plus its chemical meaning, and in what order? -- Brian.

Good question, and, I fear, a timely one, as I haven't seen "bromide" used in that sense in quite a while. It certainly can't be because vapid platitudes and hoary cliches themselves have fallen out of favor -- witness the success of TV's Doctor Phil. And even out here in the boondocks of rural Ohio, I hear that moth-eaten New Age catchphrase "What goes around comes around" about once a week. I figure there must have been a lost colony of est here about 30 years ago.

In a literal sense, a "bromide" is (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) "a primary compound of bromine with an element or organic radical." I don't know what that means either, but the OED goes on to note that "several bromides (esp. those of ammonium, iron, and potassium) are in common medicinal use," which brings us a bit closer to the "lame cliche" sense of the word. The word "bromide" itself, by the way, is a derivative of "bromine" (the element), which takes its name in turn from the Greek "bromos," meaning "stench." Apparently bromine smells awful and probably doesn't get to hang out with the cool elements like neptunium and europium.

One particular bromide in medicinal use is potassium bromide, which is no longer approved for human use in the US but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was widely prescribed as a sedative and anti-convulsant medication and was popularly referred to as simply "bromide." Potassium bromide's calming, indeed stupefying, effects made it a perfect metaphor for an exceedingly dull, conventional person as well as the exceedingly dull cliches that sort of person is likely to spout. "Bromide" appeared in popular usage meaning both a boring person and an insipid platitude at the beginning of the 20th century, and the word was popularized by humorist Gelett Burgess in his book "Are You A Bromide?" in 1906.

Incidentally, if the name Gelett Burgess doesn't ring a bell, it should. He wrote the popular rhyme "The Purple Cow" ("I never saw a purple cow / I never hope to see one / But I can tell you anyhow / I'd rather see than be one"), as well as its sequel ("Ah yes, I wrote The Purple Cow / I'm sorry now I wrote it / But I can tell you anyhow / I'll kill you if you quote it"). Burgess also invented the term "blurb" for the kind of laudatory quotations and PR hyperbole found on book jackets.

Looking for comfort food.

Dear Word Detective: One of my friends recently used the term "crocodile tears." He tried to explain it to me, but I just couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me. Can you help me grasp the meaning of "crocodile tears"? -- Cait.

Hmm. Well, I guess that just shows that there's still a market for a professional explainer. Guess I should cancel my enrollment at the Fluff 'n Bark Dog Grooming Academy.

"Crocodile tears" is a figure of speech meaning "a great show of insincere regret or grief; a hypocritical display of sorrow." It can be used in a fairly narrow sense to mean real tears, as when a parent dramatically weeps on the evening news for a lost child, only to be later implicated in the child's disappearance. More often, "crocodile tears" is used to mean a display of loudly proclaimed but utterly insincere regret or disappointment at a result or event for which the "weeper" secretly wished all along. If, for instance, I were to be trapped into attending a road-show production of "Cats" with my in-laws, I might express deep disappointment, but be secretly elated, at the cancellation of the performance due to the untimely destruction of the theater by a fire of unknown origin. (Forget it, copper. I have an alibi.) "Crocodile tears" can also mean feigned sorrow of an entirely tactical nature, where sorrow is concocted at the loss or denial of something never really wanted in order to extract what is actually desired. Periodic attempts to "trim the fat" from the federal budget operate on this principle. Legislators shed loud (but not too loud) "crocodile tears" as unpopular programs are cut, thus giving the impression of thrift while major boondoggles sail on unscathed.

Considering the popularity of the various incarnations of "crocodile tears," it's somewhat disappointing to learn that crocodiles cannot, in fact, cry. But ancient legends held that they could. Some tales said that crocs wept and moaned in order to draw humans close enough to attack. Others, surely giving crocodiles credit for more compassion than they feel, claimed that the creatures weep in sorrow for their victims (but eat them anyway).

Although the legends of the weeping croc probably date back to prehistory, references to crocodiles crying first appeared in the early 15th century. "Crocodile tears" as an English idiom meaning "insincere grief" first appeared in the mid-16th century.

Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: I have heard the both terms used to describe a fussy child: "fussbucket" and "fussbudget." Which is the correct term and what does it mean? -- Regan Sarmento.

Well, I'd say both are "correct" in the sense that both are in use and most people know what is meant by both. If I were a fussy person, however, I might object that while "fussbudget" is widespread, and "fusspot" and even "fussbox" are well-established, "fussbucket" probably represents an attempt by someone, somewhere, to change "fussbudget" into something that makes slightly more sense, if a bucket of fuss can be said to make sense. But I'm not a fussy person, and "fussbucket" doesn't bother me at all.

A "fussbudget" (or "box," "pot," or "bucket") is an excessively picky, overly sensitive person who fusses over insignificant matters. In the case of a small child, evidence that you have a "fussbudget" on your hands may consist, for instance, of the little nipper loudly refusing to eat his or her dinner if the peas have touched the potatoes. Of course, fussbudgethood is relative. Such behavior in an adult would be considered seriously nuts, unless the fusser had attained the level of wealth where such foibles are considered "charmingly eccentric." I seem to remember Bill Gates having a tree (which he had planted in the first place) uprooted at great expense and moved a mere foot or so during the construction of his mansion.

"Fuss" as a noun meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "A bustle or commotion out of proportion to the occasion; a state of (more or less ludicrous) consternation or anxiety," is of uncertain origin. The leading theories trace it either to a variation of "force" (in the sense of "forcing a scene") or simply to the sputtering sound of extreme frustration.

The "bucket," "box" or "pot" appended to "fuss" simply carries the sense of "something full of," making "fusspot," for instance, a vivid image of a person as little pot of fussiness, always frothing and sputtering.

"Budget" in "fussbudget" is a bit more elusive, especially since we tend to associate "budget" with long columns of numbers. But one early meaning of "budget" (adopted in the 15th century from the French "bougette") was "a collection of things," which fits nicely with the fussbudget's large inventory of complaints. Oddly enough, "fussbudget" has so far been found in print only as recently as 1904, but we can assume that it existed in spoken English long before that date.

Nasty bits.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "giblet" originate, and how is it pronounced? -- Amanda.

Well, to take your second question first, "giblet" is, at least by me, pronounced "yuck." When I was growing up, our family dinners often involved a choice of "plain" or "giblet" gravy, and I only chose "giblet" once, making for an experience which may explain my lifelong flirtation with vegetarianism. But seriously, "giblet" is usually pronounced with a "soft g" or "j" initial consonant.

"Giblets" (the word is almost always heard in the plural) are the entrails of an animal, most particularly a fowl. If you buy a Thanksgiving turkey at the supermarket, you'll usually find a small bag of giblets tucked into the interior, intended to be used in the preparation of gravy (or, I suppose, flung at relatives if dinner goes badly). Merriam-Webster's Third International Dictionary defines "giblet" as "the edible visceral organ of a fowl," which seems to mean the liver, gizzard, and similar bits, depending, I suppose, on your personal horizon of "edible."

The root of "giblet" is the Old French word "gibelet," which meant "game stew," and carried the sense of "hunting," preserved in the modern French "gibier," meaning "game." As "giblet" has developed in English, the emphasis of the word has been on what goes into such a stew rather than the stew itself. When "giblet" first appeared in English in the 14th century, its meaning was "an unessential appendage," but by the 1400s "giblets" was being used to mean "entrails of an animal" or, interestingly, "garbage or refuse."

Apart from one's opinion of giblets, the intersection of the word with "garbage" is intriguing, because when "garbage" first appeared in English around 1430, it meant "the entrails of an animal used as food" -- essentially the same as "giblets." The root of "garbage" is thought to be the Old French "jarbage," meaning a bundle of grain or animal entrails. The words "giblet" and "garbage" have long since diverged, of course, but "garbage" still primarily refers to "food waste" as opposed to the broader category of "trash" or "refuse."

Long arm of the lawless.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word "rendition" come to mean taking someone against their will to some distant place for interrogation? My Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary has no definition even remotely describing this. Yet the news is awash in the CIA's taking people away and calling it "extraordinary rendition," and [U.S. Vice President Dick] Cheney is insisting that this practice is not kidnapping, it is "rendition." -- John B.

It's always a bit disorienting when a hitherto mundane word becomes a euphemism for something truly disturbing. When I was growing up, "collateral" was what you needed to swing a car loan. Now it conjures up visions of the blasted homes and civilian casualties described as "collateral damage" by military spokespeople.

The core meaning of "rendition" is "the act or result of rendering," taking us back to the verb "to render," which derives from the Latin "rendere," meaning "to give back." "Render" is a verb with many senses, but the relevant ones for us at the moment are "to produce, hand over, surrender, or submit." The noun "rendition," which first appeared in English in the early 17th century, originally meant "the surrender of a garrison, place or thing," a bit later encompassing the surrender or forcible return of a person, as escaped slaves were often "rendered" (returned to their owners) by northern US states before the Civil War. Subsequent senses of "rendition" developed by the 19th focused more on the "give" sense of "render," and "rendition" in the popular speech of the 20th century usually meant a musician's or a singer's "treatment" of a song.

William Safire, writing about the term "extraordinary rendition" last year, quoted former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir as saying that the locution first caught his attention in the 1970s, when it was used to mean kidnapping suspects abroad and bringing them to the US for trial. The "extraordinary" modifier at that time apparently referred to the fact that such "extralegal extraditions" often violated the laws of the target country. Since then, the term has expanded to mean the forcible transfer of suspects from one country (sometimes the US itself) to another, often a US ally where, depending on whom you ask, the local authorities either helpfully happen to share the dialect and culture of the captive, or are allowed to practice torture during interrogation. The adjective "extraordinary" seems to have been dropped in most recent press and government mentions of the practice, perhaps because it ironically draws too much attention to the bland euphemism of "rendition." Or maybe it's just because once something becomes an established practice, it's a bit hard to call it "extraordinary."

Almost done, sir.

Dear Word Detective: To "therm" a spindle, or a set of spindles simultaneously, requires an offset jig in the lathe. This is called "therming" a spindle. What is the etymology of the word "therm"? -- Arthur L. Duell.

Oh boy, lathes! Takes me back to my brilliant career in junior high shop class. OK, so maybe it wasn't all that brilliant in the conventional sense, since all I produced was a puny cold chisel and a wobbly bookshelf consisting of three pieces of wood nailed together. But the important thing was that I managed to stretch those two pathetic little projects out over the course of two entire school years. I like to think that I raised the art of looking busy while doing absolutely nothing to a new level. I still use the bookshelf, incidentally, and it still wobbles.

The sort of "therm" you're asking about is not, I was surprised to learn, related to the Greek "thermos," meaning "hot," the root which gave us "thermometer," "thermostat," "hypothermia," "thermal underwear" and "Thermos" brand vacuum bottles.

A "therm" in furniture design is a square or rectangular leg that tapers toward the bottom, also called a "taper" or "spade" leg. The earliest appearance of "therm" in print found so far was in the early 18th century, but the history of the word (as well as the design principle) harks back at least to Ancient Rome.

The truly odd thing about "therm" is that it appears to be a mistake, a misspelling of the word "term." In this case "term" is a shortening of the name of the Roman god Terminus, deity of boundaries and landmarks ("terminus" is also the Latin word for "limit or boundary"). Statues of Terminus apparently traditionally consisted of a bust (just ol' Termy's head and shoulders) set atop a tapering pillar, so that the god would appear to spring up from the base of the pedestal. The word "terminus" or simply "term" came to be applied to the style of the tapering pedestal itself, and eventually even the lowliest table or chair could have "term" legs. Just how the word came to be spelled "therm" is a mystery, but it may have been through a mistaken association, much later on, with another deity, the Greek god Hermes.



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