Issue of May 20, 2003
Wonders never cease, though I've asked them several times to stop.
Anyway, I seem to have invented a new category of psychological deviance -- self-schadenfreude.
I turned on the old telly the other evening, after clearing the spider webs and dog hair from the screen, and discovered that Tom, Peter and Dan were all simultaneously atwitter over the imminent threat to the internet posed by (eeek!) spam. Stifling an impulse to call New York and ask where they'd been for the last six or seven years, I managed to sit through one of the reports (I think it was ABC, not that it makes a bit of difference, can't tell which channel I'm on half the time anyway, grumble), wherein the correspondent interviewed a typical victim of (eeek!) spam. Said victim explained that every morning he, wanting only to open his e-mail from his grandkids and golfing buddies, is deluged with more than forty (40) unwanted and intrusive pieces of (eeek!) spam. Peter Jennings came back on the screen and began to cluck.
Hah!, says I aloud to the TV, startling Brownie the Dog, who was chewing on an especially tasty bit of the living-room carpet at that moment.
That's nothing!, I shouted at Brownie, who was now sitting bolt upright between me and the TV.
I was momentarily taken aback by her startling and hitherto unnoticed resemblance to Peter Jennings, but I was still mad at the TV, so I forged ahead.
I get more spam than that in a hour!, I declared. Either Jennings or the dog, I was too worked up to look closely, bolted from the room and scampered upstairs.
Meanwhile, Fifi the Cat, who is French and sleeps for a living, had awakened from her slumber of top of the stereo and regarded me with a bored, insolent expression, an expression that seemed to say, Yes? You sink zo? Prove it, mon ami.
So the very next day, rather than following my usual routine of erasing spam as Eudora filters the detritus into my "spam" mailbox, I just let it mount up like fetid snowflakes. At the end of 24 hours I discovered that I had received 723 pieces of (eeek!) spam. Seven hundred and twenty-three. In one day.
It's my own fault, of course. About nine years ago I put my e-mail address on this web page for the world to see, copy and paste. It turns out that doing that is the A-Number-One way to get yourself consigned to Spam Hell for the foreseeable future.
For a day or so I had Eudora set up to announce the subject line and sender of every message filtered into my "spam" box out loud through my computer's speakers (so I could intercept any innocent message unjustly convicted), but the sound of a female voice enunciating the topics of the sleazier mail I receive was too depressing to bear.
So now I just erase everything.
UPDATE I spoke too soon. There's something worse than receiving buckets of spam, and that is to appear to be the one sending spam.
Last week some jerk somewhere in the world apparently sent out millions of pieces of spam with forged headers that made the spam appear to have come from the word-detective.com domain. It did not, of course. It wasn't even sent though my mail server. But I know it happened because I am now receiving approximately 400 "delivery failed" bounce messages per hour. My draconian filter array in Eudora is doing a good job in separating the wheat from the crap, but even the 5% of my mail I have to sort by hand is doing bad things to my blood pressure.
Y'know, gang, I think it's time to admit that this internet thing isn't really working out very well. I'm gonna go buy some stamps.
And now, on with the show:
Dear Word Detective: We're arguing over the origin of the word "ampersand." My art director claims it's because a Mr. Amper invented the symbol, thus "Amper's And." Surely he's kidding me! -- Simon Geller, via the internet.
Please don't call me Shirley. Actually, that's one of the more superficially plausible word-origin stories I've heard lately, so it's possible that your co-worker actually believes it.
The name "ampersand" certainly sounds as if it should mean something terribly exotic, coined in the misty yesteryear of typography, but its roots are actually quite humble, and we have the long-suffering schoolchild to thank for the word. It comes from the practice once common in schools of reciting all 26 letters of the alphabet plus the "&" sign, pronounced "and," which was considered part of the alphabet, at least for learning purposes.
Any letter that could also be used as a word in itself ("A," "I," "&" and, at one point, "O") was preceded in the recitation by the Latin phrase "per se" ("by itself") to draw the students' attention to that fact. Thus the end of this daily ritual would go: "X, Y, Z and per se and." This last phrase was routinely slurred to "ampersand" by children rightly bored to tears, and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837.
The ampersand symbol itself, the "&," while devilishly hard to draw by hand, becomes much less mysterious when revealed as a stylized rendition of the Latin word "et," meaning, of course, "and." Finally, it's interesting to note that proofreaders reading copy aloud to one another (as I can attest based on a spell spent as a proofreader) pronounce the ampersand symbol "et" to distinguish it from the actual word "and."
Dear Word Detective: I've recently been watching the British comedy series "Blackadder." The collected series is now available on DVD. I reckon it's the funniest thing to come out of Britain since Monty Python. The frequent insult "Don't be such a big girl's shirt" is obviously a put-down, but what does it mean? And does it relate to another favorite insult, "Don't get all shirty about it"? -- Lynda Longshore, via the internet.
I must admit I've never seen "Blackadder," but on the question of post-Python British comedy, you might well get an argument from "Fawlty Towers" fans, of which I am one. Still, I know I should give "Blackadder" a try, but I tend to forget to watch TV. I assume all those torpid folks out there watching 165.7 hours per week are taking up my slack, but I doubt they're watching PBS. Incidentally, I understand the new series of "Survivor" will test the survival skills of contestants whose minds have been rotted beyond repair by watching the previous "Survivor" shows. Down, down, we spiral.
"Big girl's shirt" (or, more commonly, "big girl's blouse") is one of those British idioms that are very hard for Americans to grasp. As a matter of fact, it seems nearly equally mysterious to the Brits themselves, to judge by my favorite British word-exploration web site, Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words (www.quinion.com/words/index.html). Mr. Quinion explains that, as an epithet for an effeminate or ineffectual male, "big girl's blouse" first appeared in the media in the1960s, and seems to have originated in the north of England, a region known for its inscrutable idioms. The precise logic of the phrase remains, as yet, a mystery, but Mr. Quinion does quote an e-mail from one of his readers who remembers his late father using the phrase "flapping like a big girl's blouse" prior to1979, an image that might convey the same sort of ineffectuality as "big girl's blouse" carries today.
The slang term "shirty," meaning "cranky" or "irritated," is both quite a bit older (dating back to at least 1846) and somewhat less opaque. "To get a person's shirt out" has meant to cause someone to lose his or her temper since the mid-19th century, and "keep your shirt on," meaning to calm down, dates to the same period. In both cases the reference is to loosening or completely removing one's shirt in preparation for a fight.
Dear Word Detective: You've started a family argument about the origin of the word "hooker." In your book you state emphatically in the introduction that "hooker" doesn't derive from the ladies who followed General Hooker's army around, and yet you never tell us in the book what actually is the origin. My husband refuses to believe that General Hooker's camp followers aren't the origin. What is it, then? The Oxford English Dictionary just gives the definition, which we already knew. -- Nancy MacRae, via the internet.
Well, as Sir Isaac Newton once said, "Oops." Sorry about that. An entry on "hooker" was originally slated for the book (The Word Detective, published by Algonquin Books), and I can't imagine what happened to it, unless Brownie the Dog ate it. That excuse will, perhaps, be more plausible when I tell you that in just the past year she's devoured a large chunk of the living room carpet and nearly half my socks. Evidently there's a fabric deficiency in her diet.
In any case, the theory that "hooker," meaning "prostitute," is taken from the name of Major General Joseph Hooker (1814-79), a Union commander during the Civil War, is a popular one. According to the story, Hooker's troops were poorly disciplined and famous for fraternizing with the "working girls" of the day, in some accounts a practice tolerated by Hooker to the extent of allowing prostitutes to set up shop in the troopers' barracks.
But while General Hooker's men were no Boy Scouts, they weren't the source of "hooker." "Hooker" showed up almost twenty years before the Civil War, and is probably based on the slang term "to hook," which back then meant "to entice or swindle." An 1850 magazine illustration, for instance, titled "Hooking A Victim" shows ladies of the evening, in hoop skirts no less, plying their trade at Broadway and Canal Streets in New York City.
Ironically, although General Hooker may not have inspired "hooker," the prevalence of the story that he did may well have been partly responsible for the popularity of the term.
Dear Word Detective: I'm trying to ease my troubled mind (what's left of it) and I am searching for the origins of the word " junket." I've noticed several usages and I get the general connotation of the word: a promotion for a media item, meeting the press, etc. (as in "press junket, media junket, movie junket"). But I can't seem to find how this word got started. Any information? -- Jo Sawyer, via the internet.
Well, if you're trying to ease your mind, you may have picked the wrong word. "Junket" has covered a lot of ground in its history, and along the way has made some rather amazing leaps of meaning.
Today, as you say, "junket" is used to mean a festive social affair, or, more commonly, a trip, especially a trip taken by a politician and paid for by taxpayers. A "press junket" is a sponsored trip offered to journalists, either to accompany a gallivanting politician or to visit a corporate facility or the like. If the Mayor of Acapulco, for instance, were to offer to fly me down and put me up in a fancy hotel in order that I might inspect and report to my readers on the dictionaries in that city's no doubt fabulous libraries, that would be a "press junket."
But, as I said, "junket" has been a rather weird word from the git-go. Some readers may be wondering whether the "trip" sort of "junket" could possibly be related to "junket" meaning a kind of dessert made from milk curds and flavoring. Yes it is, and thereby hangs a very odd tale.
In the beginning, back in the 14th century, a "junket" was a basket made of rushes or reeds (from the Latin "juncus," meaning "rush"). These "junket" baskets were used primarily to carry fish, but somewhere along the way, someone began to use them as containers for making and transporting the sweet dessert now known as "junket." Within a few years, "junket" had come to mean any dessert or pastry one might take to a party or picnic, and a little later on "junket" came to mean the party, picnic or other festive occasion itself.
Once "junket" took on the meaning of "a festive picnic," the stage was set for it to acquire, by the late 19th century, its modern meaning of "a pleasurable outing taken at taxpayers' expense."
Dear Word Detective: I know that you have covered "OK" before, but my boyfriend does not believe that it originated from "oll correct" or the "OK Club" formed by Van Buren's supporters. He says that it comes from the Revolutionary War, where on days that there were none killed in battle, a sign would be posted saying "0 K," meaning "zero killed." Could you please re-address this question in your column, or even e-mail me personally to settle this wager? I'm on your side. -- Abigail, via the internet.
Hmm. Ordinarily, I try to avoid getting involved in boyfriend-girlfriend squabbles because they rarely stop with the subject of word origins, and I've come perilously close on several occasions to winding up with a driveway full of irate testosteroons baying for retribution. Nonetheless (he said, throwing caution to the winds), you and I are right and El Boyfriend is wrong. Perhaps we should begin with what we know about "O.K."
The "O.K. Clubs" were political committees supporting Martin Van Buren's unsuccessful bid for re-election to the Presidency in 1840. The "O.K.," it is said, was short for "Old Kinderhook," Van Buren's nickname (taken from his birthplace, the town of Kinderhook, NY). But the name "O.K. Club" was almost certainly actually chosen because "O.K." was already widely known as a slang abbreviation of "oll korrect," a humorous misspelling of "all correct." American speech in the early 1800s was awash in similar abbreviations, two of which, "N.G." ("no good") and "P.D.Q." ("Pretty Damn Quick"), are still heard today. The serendipitous coincidence of Van Buren's nickname with one of the "hot" slang phrases of the day must have struck his political handlers as a great stroke of luck. Unfortunately, they quickly ran plumb out of luck again, and Van Buren lost the election.
Now the problems with your swain's theory emerge. The earliest occurrence of "O.K." in print is in 1839, long after the Revolutionary War. There is no mention of which I am aware of the "zero killed" signs in histories of that conflict, and such signs seem, frankly, rather unlikely. But there is a solid body of research by Professor Allen Walker Read verifying the Van Buren-"O.K." connection.
Dear Word Detective: How did the term "topsy-turvy come to mean "in disarray" or "upside down"? Has this anything to do with Uncle Tom's Cabin's "Growed like Topsy?" -- J.C. Maçek III, via the internet.
Good question. In fact, last spring I wrote a column on "Topsy," a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, and when it came time to post the column on this web site, I couldn't resist titling it "Funny, she never even mentioned her sister Turvy."
Before we go any further, I suppose I should bring the rest of the gang up to speed on "growed like Topsy." The plot of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," written in 1852, centers on kindly old Uncle Tom, a slave owned by Augustine St. Clare. St. Clare's daughter Eva becomes friends with the young slave girl Topsy, and the novel recounts a conversation in which St. Clare's cousin Ophelia raises the topic of God with Topsy, asking her "Do you know who made you?" "Nobody, as I knows on," replies Topsy, "I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me." Within a few years "it growed like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or intention.
"Topsy-turvy," however, has no apparent connection to the Topsy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and is at least 300 years older to boot. The original sense of "topsy-turvy" when it first appeared around 1530 was simply "upside down" or "with the top where the bottom should be." This sense is still in use, although the figurative meaning of "mixed up" or "in disarray" is perhaps more common today.
If we separate the two parts of "topsy-turvy," the term is a bit easier to decode. The "topsy" element is simply an elaboration of the word "top." The "turvy" part is somewhat more obscure, but most likely is derived from the obsolete verb "terve," meaning "to turn over or topple down." The specific form "topsy-turvy" probably owes its longevity both to its "T" alliteration and to what linguists call "reduplication" -- the same sing-song effect found in "hoity-toity," "namby-pamby" and other popular phrases.
Dear Word Detective: I know what "bane" means and I can understand the term "the bane of my existence," but I was just wondering how the phrase came about. -- Lena, via the internet.
Well, you may know what "bane of my existence" means in the abstract sense, but you cannot possibly understand the true gravity of the phrase, because you do not live within earshot of my neighbor's dog. Said dog barks all night every night year round and, although it lives a half mile away, this dog possesses a nuclear larynx that can slice through double-pane windows, pillows and earplugs as piercingly as if it were chained under my bed. Woof woof woof. Woof woof. Woof woof woof. I am an animal lover who has even been known to put out food for field mice and possums, but there is no night as dark as the feelings I harbor for that idiot dog (and, of course, his idiot owner) at 4 a.m.
To say that something or someone is "the bane of my existence" means that the person or thing is a constant irritant or source of misery. As a cliché, "bane of my existence" has lost its edge to a large degree over the years, and today is most often applied to something that may profoundly annoy us but is certainly bearable. Telemarketers, for instance, have become the "bane" of many folks' existence, but few of us are sufficiently distressed to turn off our telephones, and while "spam" is a daily "bane," not many of us would dream of giving up the Internet. "Bane of my existence" is now almost always used in a semi-jocular, "what are you gonna do?" sense.
But "bane" was once a very serious word. The Old English "bana" meant literally "slayer" in the sense we now use "killer" or "murderer." Early on, the English "bane" was also used in the more general sense of "cause of death," and by the 14th century "bane" was used in the specialized sense of "poison," a sense which lives on in the names of various poisonous plants such as "henbane" and "wolfbane."
From this very literal "something that kills you" usage, "bane" by the 16th century had broadened into its modern meaning of "something that makes life unpleasant, a curse."
Dear Word Detective: In a recent column, you gave a straightforward origin for the word "macaroni," explaining that it derived ultimately from the Greek "makaria," meaning "food made from barley." All well and good. But as every red-blooded American knows, there is (or was) another meaning to "macaroni." I'm talking about the one found in the song "Yankee Doodle": "Stuck a feather in his cap, And called it Macaroni." As a child, I wondered what resemblance there could be between a cap with a feather in it and macaroni. I was informed that the word "macaroni" did not always refer to pasta, but was originally the name of a group of men who were known for dressing in the finest, fanciest clothes. Thus, the foolish Yankee Doodle thought that adding a feather to his hat made him look like one of the Macaroni. The food, I was told, was named for this group, who apparently served the dish at their dinners. Is there really no truth to this story? -- Dan Schwartz, via the internet.
No, there's actually a lot of truth to that story, and you must have been hanging out with some very knowledgeable people to have heard it.
To begin at the beginning, back in the London of the mid-1700s there was a group of wealthy young men who had traveled to Italy and had (as many people still do today) come to regard all things Italian as the pinnacle of fashion. Back in London they adopted a foppish style of dress and behavior and christened themselves "The Macaroni Club." The rest of London, however, quite naturally regarded them as spoiled twits. (The food "macaroni," incidentally, was not named for this club. The club simply took its name from one of their favorite items of Italian cuisine.)
The song "Yankee Doodle," although now regarded as a patriotic standard in the U.S., was actually written by an Englishman and intended as a putdown of the American colonists, likening them to bumpkins who, as you say, would think that adding a feather to their caps would make them look sophisticated. The joke, of course, was eventually turned on the English themselves, as the American rebels adopted the derogatory term "Yankee" as a badge of honor and even sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as they marched into battle.
Dear Word Detective: You have a small but very keen following of sorts here in Vienna, Austria. My question for you is "eggnog." What is "nog"? Are there other types of "nog" perhaps? I know the word "noggin," which makes me wonder where that word comes from, too. -- D. Cosentino, via the internet.
Ah, Vienna. I've never been there, but I'll try to stop by sometime soon. A small but keen following is a good thing, as long as it doesn't consist of the sort of small but keen people who tend to show up at my book signings. Being beset in a Dayton mall by a mob of demented munchkins waving dictionaries of Klingon can make you wish you'd gone to law school instead, if only to have mastered the art of the restraining order. But I'm sure you folks in Austria are erudite and eminently civilized. And I worship pastry.
"Eggnog," the unofficial official drink of the holiday season, comes in two varieties these days. There's commercial eggnog, the sort you might buy in your local supermarket, composed of eggs, cream, sugar, nutmeg and other "flavorings," as they say, often including rum extract. Then there's the "real" eggnog, which contains all of the above but features, in place of rum extract, real rum or some other hard liquor. The liquor is the key to eggnog's legendary wallop -- as Hamlet might say, "There's the nog." In fact, "nog" is a very old English word which originally meant a sort of strong beer brewed in East Anglia, England. Only when it was grafted onto "egg" did "nog" come to mean just any sort of liquor.
The exact origin of the "nog" in "eggnog" is uncertain, but it appears to be unrelated to "noggin," meaning "head." The original meaning of "noggin" when it first appeared in the 17th century was "a mug or cup." (One might suspect that "nog" meaning "beer" and "noggin" meaning "cup" must be related, but there is no linguistic evidence for a connection.) The use of "noggin" as slang for "head" is apparently a whimsical allusion to the head holding one's brains much as a cup or mug contains liquid.
Dear Word Detective: In the movie "Harvey," starring Jimmy Stewart, Harvey is a pooka, which I believe is some kind of spirit. Could you explain where pooka came from and where I can find a tall good-looking pooka of my own? -- S. Chapman, via the internet.
"A tall, good-looking pooka of my own"? I hate to bring this up, but Harvey in the movie is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit. The premise of the movie, of course, is that Jimmy Stewart can see and converse with Harvey, but no one else can and I would think that fact alone would rule out introducing such a creature to one's parents. I also have it on good authority that unemployment is rife among rabbits at the moment, making such a venture a bad bet unless you own a very large garden. Incidentally, speaking of large talking rabbits only certain people can see, I'd like to recommend a recent excellent but scandalously overlooked film called "Donnie Darko." It's about as far from "Harvey" as a film can get, but it's a truly fascinating movie.
When I first saw "Harvey" as a child, I assumed that "pooka" must be an Indian word, probably because I had confused it with the Anglo-Indian term "pukka," which I knew from reading adventure stories meant "reliable" or "genuine."
As it turns out, however, "pooka" (also spelled "pookah" and even "puka") comes directly from the Irish word "puca," meaning "a sprite or "hobgoblin." The Oxford English Dictionary describes the "pooka" as a "malignant sprite," but other sources paint a more benevolent, "Harvey-esque" portrait. The Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend defines the species as "A harmless but very mischievous supernatural being …often appearing in animal or half-animal form. … The puca is apt to punish and annoy … ungrateful people, but he is quick to help those whom he favors." "Pookas" can also grant their human friends the ability to converse with animals.
Though the "pooka" is but one of a multitude of animal spirits found in folklore, some experts believe that he is essentially the same as the English sprite "Puck" featured in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Dear Word Detective: Lock too many newspaper editors in a small room day after day, and you come up with some interesting theories about words. Your column has helped me correct several of my colleagues' errors, but today they came up with one I can't disprove. In defining "serif," one editor said "A serif is the little wings you see on letters, like the wings on an angel ... serif, seraphim." He claims this is the etymology of the term, not just a mnemonic device. I'll leave out the part of the debate where we discussed how many seraphim could dance on the head of the pin, but can you rule on this? -- Randal Smathers, via the internet.
Gee, they actually lock you guys in? Is this some variation on the old theory that if you lock 1000 monkeys in a room with typewriters they'll eventually pound out "Hamlet"? If so, I'd be careful. Rupert Murdoch tried that a few years ago and we wound up with the New York Post.
(Editor's note: That monkey business turns out not to be true anyway.)
(Meta-Editor's note: We also don't actually have an editor here. It's just me. Hiya. Love what you've done with your hair. Oh well, back to work.)
I have noticed, incidentally, that a substantial number of the questions I receive come from captive audiences -- people stuck in offices, dysfunctional elevators, family dinners, etc. Your co-worker's theory bears all the hallmarks of the breed -- high on creativity, but wide of the mark.
"Seraphim" are an order of angels found in the Bible, but there is some debate as to the origin of the word itself. English borrowed the word from Latin, which got it from Greek, which in turn adapted it from Hebrew, but here things get a bit fuzzy. The Hebrew "seraph" also meant "burning," but it is unclear whether the use of "seraph" in reference to angels meant that the seraphim were "burning" with religious ardor or that they were literally swathed in flames. ("Seraph" also denoted a kind of venomous serpent, but rather than indicating an awkward angel-serpent connection, this is usually interpreted to mean that the serpent possessed a "burning" bite.)
Although a "serif," the cross-stroke found at the top and bottom of many letters, may resemble (especially to someone locked in a small room) the wings of an angel, there is no connection to "seraphim." The most likely source is the Dutch "schreef," meaning "stroke."
Dear Word Detective: I am prone to say "Sorry, Charlie!" when I cannot or will not be able to do something that is asked of me. I picked up this habit the first time I heard it at the tender age of eight because my father's name is Charles, and I thought it was cute. I am now wondering where exactly, or when exactly, it came from. If you would please enlighten a hungry mind, I would be grateful. -- Michelle from VA.
See? See? I told you guys that television rots children's minds. Here's a reader whose entire relationship with her father has been shaped, perhaps even warped, by a silly 1960s TV commercial, and she doesn't even remember it! Who knows what other subliminal conditioning, embedded during the same formative period, is festering within otherwise responsible adults? What evil lurks beneath "Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids"?
On the other hand, if it's any comfort, you're not the only one going through life quipping "Sorry, Charlie," which has become one of the more successful catchphrases spawned in late-20th century America. It all dates back to 1961, when the StarKist Seafood Company began running a series of animated commercials featuring the character of Charlie the Tuna. Charlie (whose voice was originally supplied by the actor Herschel Bernardi) had but one ambition in life: to be "chosen" as a StarKist tuna. To attain his goal, Charlie, attired in hipster shades and a beret, set out in every commercial to convince StarKist of his refinement. Charlie read Shakespeare, threw a garden party, enjoyed classical music, but all for naught. At the end of each ad, a hook would descend bearing a note reading "Sorry, Charlie," and one of his sea-critter pals would explain, "StarKist doesn't want tuna with good taste. They want tuna that tastes good."
I guess I don't watch enough television, because I was surprised to learn that the "Charlie" StarKist commercials are still being made and aired, poor Charlie still ticking along after 80 installments and more than 30 years of rejection. One recent episode even features Charlie demonstrating his refinement to StarKist by sipping a latte while surfing the net in an underwater cybercafe. It doesn't work, of course.
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