Issue of May 4, 2004



Well, it's been a quiet month here in East Rat Sass (as we call our abode in tribute to the cheeky rodents hereabouts).  Actually, it's been anything but peaceful lately.  Spring is, as I have mentioned (and you have probably gathered from TV in between autopsy dramas or whatever it is you people watch in such distressing numbers), the time when all the little critters emerge to gambol in the warmth of Earth's annual rebirth. 

Tweet tweet, chirp chirp, the world explodes in a symphony of joyous birdy noises, unfortunately right outside the window of my office, where I am desperately trying to get some work done between bouts of explaining to the IRS that I did indeed send them a tax return along with that check and that no, it was not a generous contribution to their office party fund. 

More tweet tweet chirp chirp.  A conversation with Sears about why they won't return an accidental overpayment on my charge account.  They explain that they have to wait to see if I buy anything else.  I explain that the chances of that happening anytime before the Sun dies are growing very, very remote.  A few more choruses of tweet tweet chirp chirp and I am reminded from the next room that it is not nice to shout bad things at innocent birds. 

I call the FTC to ask them to  have a word with Sears because the law is quite clear on the issue, but the fellow at the Consumer Hotline has never heard of the Fair Credit Billing Act (15 U.S.C. §§1666-1666j) and suggests I hire a lawyer, because the FTC itself is apparently fresh out.  Tweet. Chirp.

Perhaps it's time to take a break and go for a walk, but no, we can't do that because of some bad parenting a few months ago a ways down the road.  It seems that Santy Claus, in a serious lapse of judgment, gifted two of our scarier local tykes with shiny new rifles and an apparently unlimited supply of ammo, and no sooner had the tundra thawed and the first daffodil popped up its golden head than it was taken out in a withering hail of lead.  Ambling down the road is not advisable unless one is in the mood for a Hitchcockian tableau of fleeing through endless soybean fields to the sound of gunfire.

Not that there isn't a bright side for someone in this dicey drama.  Apparently sensing a productive venue for their shtick, four enormous turkey vultures have recently taken up residence in an old dead tree on our property.  They are majestic creatures, and the sight of them circling the yard just outside my window while I argue with the IRS produces as close to a sense of cosmic harmony as one is likely to get around here these days.

Elsewhere in the news, Ohio, I understand, has been designated the Crucial Battleground State in the upcoming presidential election.  Y'all are in serious trouble.

And now, on with the show:

Awe, shucks.

Dear Word Detective:  My significant other and I were contemplating the origins of the word “awful” versus the word “awesome.”  "Awful" is used to express disbelief and "awesome" is used to express inspiration or greatness.  If you thought something was really great, wouldn’t you want to use the suffix “-ful” (full of) so that awe-“ful” would mean full of greatness, instead of using the suffix "-some".  What are the origins of there roots “aw” and “awe” and the relation of the suffix used in each?  I'm awfully confused! -- Eric, via e-mail.

Awesome question, dude.  The simple answer to the mystery of "awful" is that words change, sometimes taking on nearly the opposite of their original meaning.  A story (possibly apocryphal, I must note) is told about Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  Following the Great Fire of 1666, Wren was asked to rebuild the devastated cathedral, which he did.  Viewing the restoration, Queen Anne is said to have proclaimed it "awful, artificial and amusing."  Rather than repairing to his garret to sulk, Wren was thrilled with the royal review,  because at that time "awful" meant "awe-inspiring," "artificial" meant "clever" or "artistic," and "amusing" meant roughly "riveting" or "astonishing."

Both "awful" and "awesome" are built on the root of "awe," which, when it appeared in Old English as "ege," meant "immediate and active fear; terror, dread."  This sense of "awe" was so often used in a religious context that it gradually acquired the meaning of "fear mixed with respect and reverence" toward, for instance, one's deity.  In secular contexts, "awe" came to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g., thunder, a storm at sea."

Next up are the suffixes "some" and "ful." "Some" as a suffix means "characterized by" or "causing" (as in "cumbersome," applied to something that "encumbers" your progress).  The suffix "ful" originally meant "full of," but gradually slid towards the same "characterized by" meaning.

So "awesome" and "awful" originally both meant "inspiring awe, majestic."  Only in the late 18th century did "awful" acquire its modern meaning of "very bad," probably  through repeated use to mean "so bad as to inspire awe."

"Awesome," meanwhile, continued to mean "inspiring awe" in a positive sense, although recently it has been diluted to mean simply "very impressive."

Butcher then thou.

Dear Word Detective:  In 1940, I was a brash young teenager, and I had a job working at the New York World's Fair as a "candy butcher."  The job entailed working in the grandstands of a show called The American Jubilee (Oscar Hammerstein II was the lyricist, so it couldn't have been all bad) selling pop corn, ice cream, Coca-Cola, and hot dogs.  For a l6 year-old it was a very good job. I made a lot of money, which I am sorry to say I spent.  A writer friend of mine and I were having lunch today, discussing the past, and he wondered why the aisle vendors were called candy butchers.  I believe the term was common in carnivals, burlesque shows, etc.  As a matter of fact, I understand that  as a boy, Thomas Edison worked on a train as a candy butcher and it was at that time that a conductor "boxed" his ears, leaving him hearing-impaired.  Can you cast any light on this strange name for a salesman?  --Irv Pliskin.  

Thanks for an interesting story, and Edison did indeed work as a “candy butcher.” The use of "butcher" to mean a vendor of candy, hot dogs, etc. at a sporting event or aboard a train dates back to at least the 1880s.  The two major categories of such "butchers" were the "candy butchers" and "news butchers," who went from car to car on trains selling newspapers to the passengers.  During the heyday of burlesque, "butchers" also made their way up and down the theater aisles offering candy, popcorn and "racy" magazines and books. 

The standard meaning of "butcher," of course, is "one whose trade is slaughtering animals and dealing in their meat."  The word "butcher" was imported into English in the 14th century from the Old French "bochier," which in turn came from the Old French "boc," meaning "he-goat."  A "butcher" was thus originally a dealer of goat meat.

It is unclear just how candy vendors came to be called "butchers," but I have a theory.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "meat" butchers worked in butcher shops, selling nothing but meat, in contrast to general stores, which usually sold everything except meat.  It seems likely that this aspect of being a butcher -- selling a very limited selection of wares -- was transferred in popular usage over to the theater or train vendor, who sold only peanuts, popcorn, candy, newspapers, etc., and the "candy butcher" was born.

Bang, zoom.

Dear Word Detective:  The term "You're fired" is going to be trademarked by Donald Trump.  I wanted to know if this term came from an old Latin term, meaning that the Catholic clergy had sentenced a heretic to be burned at the stake. -- Edd Young.

Where would we be without The Donald, one of the great inverse barometers of taste in the world?  Evidently Trump's role in a popular reality show called The Apprentice has inspired him to file a trademark application claiming the "You're Fired!" phrase "for use on clothing, games and casino services” (maybe as in "Lose your  company's pension fund at our roulette tables and You're Fired!").  I'm not sure El Weirdhair's trademark application will fly, given that "You're fired" is such a depressingly common phrase, especially these days.  Then again, the late lamented Spy magazine used to routinely refer to Trump as "The short-fingered vulgarian," so he might be able to snag a trademark on that. 

There are a number of legends about the origin of "fire" in the sense of "to dismiss from employment," which is not really surprising since the phrase, at first glance, is puzzling.  Some stories, such as the one you've heard, take the "fire" very literally, and attempt to trace the phrase to burning a person at the stake or to burning down someone's house in order to force them to leave the area.  But stories that involve actual flames are unlikely to explain "you're fired."

Another story that seems quite popular on the internet traces the phrase to a supposed punishment inflicted on miscreants in the Royal Navy back in the days of sail.  The offender, it is said, would be tied over the mouth of a cannon, which would then be fired.  While life in the Royal Navy in those days was certainly tough and punishments severe, including hanging, flogging and keelhauling (dragging an offender under the ship's keel), there is no truth to this story.

But while the "cannon" theory may not be literally true, it does touch on what is probably the real source of "to fire." The verb "to fire" in the "clean out your desk" sense first appeared in the late 19th century in the now-obsolete form "to fire out," as in to "fire out of a gun."  So the phrase "you're fired" almost certainly harks back to the sudden ejection of a bullet from the barrel of a gun to convey the sudden, startling termination of employment.

Not to be confused with the Sticky Chicken.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where a very large species of indigenous clam is the Geoduck, pronounced "gooey-duck."  This name has many spellings and iterations and I have found a few possible sources for the actual name, the most reasonable being "gweduc," a Nisqually Indian word that was used for the clam and literally means "dig deep."  Can you tell me if this is the actual source, or if perhaps some of the more colorful stories surrounding this large bivalve are actually true? -- Sid Stokes.

Colorful clam stories?  I thought you'd never ask.  A clam walks into a bar.  (Bear with me.  This was your idea.)  Clam says, "Gimme a beer."  Bartender says, "We don't serve clams.  Scram."  Clam leaves, but returns a few minutes later and says, "Gimme a beer."  Bartender says, "I told you no.  Now get out, and if you come back I'll nail you to the floor."  Clam leaves, but he's back in five minutes and asks, "Got a hammer?" The bartender replies, "Of course not. This is a bar."  Clam says, "Good.  Gimme a beer."

I'm sorry I don't know any actual geoduck stories, but if you see a picture of one with antlers, it's probably a fake.

"Very large" seems an understatement when speaking of the geoduck, which can weigh up to twelve pounds, although it can't hold a candle to the Giant Clam of the South Pacific, which can grow up to 500 pounds and five feet in diameter and probably gives Mrs. Paul nightmares.  "Geoduck" is indeed usually pronounced "GOOEY-duck," although an acceptable alternate pronunciation is "GWEH-duck," which is probably closer to its original Native American form of, as you say, something akin to "gweduck."

"Geoduck" is actually a good example of "folk etymology," a term which sounds as if it means "making up word origins" but is actually a specific mode of linguistic transformation.  Confronted with a unfamiliar word, often from a foreign source, people tweak it a bit over time to conform more closely to English words.  So a word that sounds like "gweduck" is transformed into "geoduck," as both "geo" (as in "geography") and "duck" are familiar English elements.  However, probably since "geo" didn't make much sense and clams are kind of "gooey," the pronunciation then shifted further to "gooeyduck."  The result makes no sense at all (and implies that the critter is a sticky bird), but "geoduck" and "gooeyduck" have been around since the 1880s, so it's a bit late to argue.


Sic transit Gloria's cute cat pictures.

Dear Word Detective:  Someone used the phrase, "the gist of the conversation" the other day.  What is the etymology of the word "gist"?  I checked your archives in vain. -- Richard D. Stacy.

Well, as I've said before, the English language is a big place, and I just hadn't quite gotten around to "gist."  But now we're here, and when future generations go looking for "gist" in my archives, they'll find it, presuming that my heirs remember to pay the web hosting bills.  Hmm.  I think I just stumbled on a real advantage of that old "dead tree" publishing business.  A book doesn't vanish if you fail to pay for it every month.

The "gist" of something, whether it be an argument, a sales pitch, a book or simply a conversation, is the bottom line -- the central point or matter under discussion.  If I were to call my boss on Monday morning, for example, and launch into an extended account of how I contracted food poisoning at a karaoke restaurant I went to Saturday night, taking time to include a vivid description of my sister-in-law's terrible singing voice, he might well cut me off in mid-sentence and say, "So the gist of this is that you're not coming to work."  And he would be right.  And if he added, "You're fired," he'd probably be right about that, too.

The odd thing about "gist," given that it means "the essence, the central truth of something," is that the word "gist" itself began life as a slight mistake.  Back in the 17th century, a phrase commonly used in Anglo-French legal jargon was "cest action gist," which meant "this action lies" (the Old French "gist" being a form of the verb "gesir," to rest or lie).  "Cest action gist" was used to assert the central point of a case or argument ("This action lies in the defendant's treason," for example) and, being a useful term, was adopted into English legal use in the early 18th century.  Unfortunately, there was a bit of a misunderstanding of French going on, and "gist," which literally meant "lies or rests," was imported as if it were a noun meaning "the central point," and by 1711 English lawyers were speaking of "the very gist of the action."

But it was still a useful term even if it was, strictly speaking, nonsense, and by 1823 "gist" had percolated out into non-legal usage in its current meaning. 

Cut short.

Dear Word Detective:  Please don't brush aside this request.  Explain whence cometh "short shrift". -- Keri Marler. 

I beg your pardon.  I never "brush aside" reader questions.  I stack them neatly by the back door, and then once a week I take them down to the local goat farm for recycling. 

To give something or someone "short shrift" today means to give question or person a very brief bit of attention, usually as a pro forma prelude to quickly dismissing or disposing of the matter.  One might say, to pick a recent example, that the IRS would be likely (in my accountant's unimaginative opinion) to give "short shrift" to my deducting my two dogs as a business expense (to wit, an office security system).  Similarly, those of us with more than three working brain cells gave Justin Timberlake's explanation of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl stunt as a "wardrobe malfunction" very "short shrift" (although I do find "wardrobe malfunction" a dandy phrase and plan to use it at every plausible opportunity).

The English noun "shrift" derives from the verb "to shrive," from the Old English "scrifan," which in turn ultimately comes from the Latin "scribere," meaning "to write."  There were several senses to the Old English "scrifan."  It could mean simply "to write" or, more specifically, "to pass sentence upon," presumably in writing.  By means of some fairly convoluted evolution, the English descendant "shrive" later came to mean "to sentence," "to confess to a sin or crime," "to give absolution after a confession," and "to exact penance or punishment after granting absolution."   This sense of "confession and absolution" persists in Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) in the Christian religious calendar, which is traditionally an occasion of confession and absolution.

In the noun form "shrift," which first appeared around 1030, the meaning eventually became "an opportunity to confess and be absolved of sin before a sentence is carried out."  It was in this "make peace with God" sense that Shakespeare first used the phrase "short shrift" in his play Richard III in 1594, in which Lord Hastings, about to be beheaded on Richard's orders, is told "Make a short Shrift, he longs to see your Head" (meaning that the King is impatient).  From Shakespeare's literal use of the phrase "short shrift," we have derived our modern metaphorical sense of "a very brief consideration of the case before a quick decision is rendered." 

Hurry up, the horse is gaining on us.

Dear Word Detective:  Whence the term "hitchhiker"?  I recently came across an internet page that gave the following explanation: apparently "hitch-hiking" used to be a method by which more than one person could share a horse; one would walk and one would ride.  Eventually the rider would stop and hitch the horse to a tree and start walking; the original walker would, upon reaching the horse, mount up and proceed to ride past the original rider, and restart the cycle.  I have to say I like this story, even though I have never heard of it before and it seems to cute to be true.  (Also, I thought a horse could handle two people.  Well, maybe two small people.)  What do you think? --  Scott Frenkiel.  

Especially two small people, I'd say.  And then every so often they could dismount, run ahead, and make the horse walk, or something.  Actually, speaking of small people, I was just reading an article in The New Yorker (yes, The New Yorker) about people getting taller just about everywhere but America.  The average Dutch man, for instance, is now over six feet tall and still growing.  Health officials are wringing their hands over the (relatively) shrinking Yanks, of course, but there's no mention of the ominous implications for basketball, which at this rate may strongly resemble miniature golf in a few years.

Oh, right, you asked about "hitchhiking."  No, that story, while charming, is utter rubbish.  "Hitchhike" first appeared around 1923 in the U.S. (in the form "hitch-hike"), and has always primarily meant traveling by means of rides solicited from strangers in automobiles or trucks.

To "hitch," of course, mean "to fasten together," especially temporarily, as one might "hitch" a wagon to a horse.  To "hike" is "to walk or march, especially for a long distance and/or vigorously." 

Hiking can be done for pleasure, of course, but if you're trying to get somewhere a long ways away, the prospect of hiking all the way is a definite downer.  Thus the practice of begging rides probably arose soon after the invention of the wheel.  But it wasn't until the 1920s that the jocular term "hitchhiking" was coined, meaning to take the sting out of hiking by "hitching" oneself to a passing car or truck.

A Ment too far.

Dear Word Detective:  I have an opportunity to act as mentor to a participant in a "coming of age" program at my church.  In program-related messages he and the other young folks are referred to as "mentees."  Unless they are being confused with a species of whale (which are manatees, last I looked), I figure this new word has been back-formed from my title – mentor –  by well-meaning people who misunderstand it as a French verb, and not the reference to Homer's Greek character's name you and I know it to be.  For reasons not clear to me, every time I hear this word -- mentee -- I recoil.  I don't insist on calling the young fellow a protégé, a perfectly apt word.  I will just call him "the kid," and gladly adopt his moniker for me, "the old guy."  Despite this conciliatory offer, I fear this "mentee" business may stick.  What do you think? -- David Keith Johnson.    

You mean Mentor wasn't a manatee?  That'll teach me to rely on The Simpsons for my mythological information.  Manatees aren't whales, by the way.  I believe they are related to sea lions. 

[Note:  many readers have lately written to inform me that manatees are actually some kind of pachyderm, i.e., a sort of aquatic elephant.  See here.  Next you'll be telling me sea lions aren't really lions.]   

As I'm sure we all recall from our study of Homer's "Odyssey" last semester, Mentor was a wise old friend of Odysseus who took over as surrogate father to Odysseus' son Telemachus when Odysseus sailed off to the Trojan War.  Mentor was so respected by the young sprout that the goddess Athena periodically took over Mentor's body when she had her own advice to give Telemachus. 

The use of "mentor" as an eponym (a noun formed from a name) to mean an experienced person who acts as a guide and advisor to another, usually younger, dates back to the mid-18th century.  Its use as a verb meaning "to watch over and instruct" ("Please mentor Larry on the proper use of the Xerox machine") is much more recent, dating only to the mid-1970s.  "Mentee" as a noun meaning "one who is guided by a mentor" actually predates "mentor" as a verb, appearing around 1965.

Do I like "mentee"?  No.  It is creepy bizspeak psychobabble. Can we stop it before it spreads further?  Probably not.  Do I have a suggestion for a substitute term that doesn't give us both a blinding headache?  I'd go with "protégé," which is French for "one who is protected and guided by another."  Failing that, the kid should get used to being called "the kid." 

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March of the Flatfoots.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word "police"?  In most Western languages the word is recognizably similar (police, policía, policia, polizia, Polizei, etc.).  So where does the word come from? -- David Joll.

Good question, and given the apparently limitless fascination our popular culture seems to have with police agencies in all their forms (Law and Order, Law and Order CSI, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order Bad Clams Bureau, etc.), it's interesting to note that the modern police force is a remarkably recent idea.  Early policing was usually done by the army or citizens themselves, and professional police forces were only widely established in the mid-19th century.

The word "police" itself, however, has ancient roots.  The Greek "polis" means "city," and, in addition to being the ultimate source of "police," gave us "politics" and "policy."  The Latin derivative "politia" meant "civil administration," and eventually produced the French word "police," which English adopted in the 16th century.  The similar words in other European languages that you mention are products of the same process.

When "police" first came into use in English in the 16th century, it was used to mean "public policy," "civil administration" or "civilization" in general.  Edmund Burke illustrated this sense in a rather negative way in 1791, caustically describing the Turks as "A barbarous nation, with a barbarous neglect of police, fatal to the human race," by which he meant insufficient civic cohesion and order, not simply a lack of cops.  On the other hand, one entomologist of the day considered ants to have plenty of this kind of "police," describing them in 1820 as "[t]hese insects, whose faculties, police, and sagacity have been, by some authors ... not duly appreciated."

Gradually the meaning of "police" shifted toward the enforcement of laws and regulations to preserve public order, and by the early 1700s "police" was being used to mean a specific governmental department or force charged with law enforcement.  But only at the end of the 18th century, with the organization of the first civil police force, London's Marine Police in 1798, did "police" acquire its modern meaning of "professional civil (as opposed to military) force for law enforcement."

Or squid.  They're often damp.

Dear Word Detective:  A hyped-up event that turns out to be a disappointment is often referred to as a "damp squib." I've always wondered what a "squib" was, which could answer my query as to why squibs are much preferred dry instead of wet.  It is also used in the United Kingdom much more than in the U.S., thus prompting me to hazard a guess that a "squib" is a British creature. -- Charmian Long.

Squib?  Are you sure you don't mean "squab"?  After all, nothing says "disappointment" quite like a small, damp bird. 

Just kidding.  "Damp squib" is indeed largely a British idiom for something that, contrary to high expectations, proves to be a disappointment.  Around here, for example, the Millennium Bug (also known as "Y2K," or "The reason I own a basement full of canned beans and a generator I'll probably never use") turned out to be a very damp squib.  Not that I was really looking forward to TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World As We Know It), but a day or two without telephones would have been nice.

The best way to explain the root meaning of "damp squib" is probably simply to point to its closest American English synonym -- "dud."  A "squib" in British parlance is a type of firecracker, so a "damp squib" would be a firework that fails to properly explode because the gunpowder has gotten wet, a real disappointment to those of us who live for loud noises. 

The origin of "squib" is a bit of a mystery, but the most reasonable theory traces the word to the actual sound made by a firecracker that just fizzles.  "Squib" first appeared in the early 16th century, and in addition to the "firework" meaning has since developed figurative senses of "a gun," "a short, sarcastic essay," "an insignificant person," "a small drink of alcohol," and others.  The idiom "damp squib" dates back to the mid-19th century.


The Dagnabbit Factor.

Dear Word Detective:  I was on a trip with my mother and my uncle when the question "What in tarnation?" popped up.  My grandpa would always use the expression.  We all are wondering, as well as many other Americans, where exactly the term originated.  You sort of explained one of our questions on the "What in Sam Hill" expression so we are relying on your expertise. --Jeremy Dow.

Interesting.  If many other Americans are indeed wondering where "What in tarnation?" came from, they're being awfully quiet about it.  This is the first question I've received on the subject in more than ten years of writing this column.  But it's a great question, so perhaps you and your family are simply more perceptive than you think. 

"What in tarnation?" is one of a wide variety of euphemistic expressions of surprise, bewilderment or anger that arose in 18th and 19th century America.  Perhaps due to our Puritan legacy, Americans were, during this period, especially creative in devising oaths that allowed us to express strong emotions while still skirting blasphemy.  Such inventions as "heck," "drat," "darn," "gosh," "jiminy," "gee-whiz" and "goldarn" were all devised to disguise exclamations that would have been considered shocking in polite society.  "Sam Hill," for example, is simply an early 19th century euphemism for "hell" (and while there have been many people named Sam Hill throughout history, the expression does not come from the name of any particular Sam Hill).           

"Tarnation," which dates back to the late 18th century, is an interesting example of this generation of euphemisms because it's actually two euphemisms rolled into one word.  The root of "tarnation" is "darnation," a euphemistic modification of the word "damnation," which at that time was considered unfit for polite conversation.  "Darnation" became "tarnation" by being associated in popular speech with "tarnal," an aphetic, or clipped, form of "eternal."  It may seem odd that "eternal" would ever have been considered a curse word, but to speak of "the Eternal" at that time was often to invoke a religious context (God, Heaven, etc.), and thus to label something or someone  "eternal" in a disparaging sense ("You eternal villain!") was considered a mild oath. Shakespeare, for example, used "eternal" in this way in at least two of his plays. 

So at some point someone, probably in a moment of exasperation, mixed "darnation" with "tarnal," and we ended up with "tarnation."  

The whole nine yards of hooey.

Dear Word Detective:  "Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim, or handle, of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. 'Wet your whistle' is the phrase inspired by this practice." This statement was sent to me from a web site.  Is this true? -- Patricia Thompson. 

Not even close.  But hey, isn't the internet just getting more useful every day?  I remember when some of our more addled pundits took to calling it "the world's largest library" back in the late 1990s  That, of course, was before we discovered that it's actually "the world's largest sales pitch for herbal Viagra with a few ridiculous fables thrown in to pass the time." 

My favorite chain e-mail along these lines is called "Life in the 1500s," an essay apparently inspired by the movie "Shakespeare in Love" a few years back.  Purporting to explain a dozen phrases from "raining cats and dogs" to "dead ringer," this deranged nonsense still lands in my inbox, forwarded by innocent readers, a few times a month.  So listen up, folks, every syllable of it is horse-hockey, including (to steal a bit from Mary McCarthy) the words "and" and "the." 

To "wet your whistle," meaning "to take a drink," dates back to at least 1386, but it never referred to an actual whistle.  The noun "whistle" has long been used as a jocular term for the mouth or throat, especially in regard to speaking or singing.   The phrase "wet your whistle" probably has persisted for two reasons:  it's attractively alliterative (a popular equivalent back in the 17th century was the even catchier "wet your weasand," "weasand" being a now-obsolete term for "throat"), and it is indeed easier to whistle with your mouth if your lips are moist.  "Wet your whistle" is thus just a jocular way of making taking a drink sound like a necessity.

Two other points worth mentioning:  Occasionally you'll hear (or at least I do) that the original phrase was "whet your whistle," as if one's whistle needed sharpening by drink, but that form seems to have been rooted in a mishearing of "wet" a few centuries ago.  And secondly, while tourist shops in various locales do sell "historic replica" mugs with whistles cast into their handles, these are evidence of nothing but the proprietor's desire to make a buck.  



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