Previous Columns/Posted 05/25/98
Dear Word Detective: Years ago, I was told a definition of "fly by night" which involved something about coaches whisking people off in the middle of the night. Could you refresh my memory? -- Allyson Doherty, via the internet.
I'll try, just as soon as I figure out what your question means. "Coaches whisking people off in the middle of the night"? Maybe it's just me (it usually is), but when I first read that, I assumed that you were referring to athletic coaches kidnapping sleeping people to play on their teams. Talk about a chilling vision. One minute you're snoozing peacefully in front of the old idiot box, and the next you're guzzling Gatorade in Spring training for the Yankees. On the other hand, I could use the bucks. As long as I don't have to actually catch the ball. That's the scary part.
Onward. After a little thought, it dawned on me that you were probably talking about coaches of the horse-drawn variety whisking folks away in the dead of night. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "fly by night" was indeed used in England in the 1800's as a term for a type of light, usually two-wheeled, carriage. The "fly" (as they were more commonly known) was originally drawn or pushed by a man, who was later, mercifully and probably more efficiently, replaced by a horse. That "fly by night," however, has no real connection with "fly by night" in the sense we usually hear it, meaning something done surreptitiously or someone who operates in a dishonest fashion. The first use of this sense in the early 1800's was quite literal -- a "fly by night" was a deadbeat tenant who vacated his lodgings in the middle of the night to avoid the wrath of his landlord or other creditors. From there "fly by night" was expanded to include just about any sort of disreputable behavior, especially if the malefactor skedaddled as soon as his foul deed was done.
Dear Word Detective: Please, what is the origin of "fuzz" (in the sense of "police")? -- Sidney Allinson, via the internet.
That's a good question, but before we begin I have a question of my own. Where in the world are you hearing people refer to the police as "fuzz"? I know it's supposed to be perennial youth (or as we say in New York, "yout") slang for cops, but I have never heard a real person use it, unless you want to count Jack Webb on the old "Dragnet." When I was growing up in the 1960's, we called police officers many things, but mostly we just called them "cops" and we never, ever, called them "the fuzz." As a matter of fact, anybody calling the cops "the fuzz" would have been instantly suspected of being a cop. It would have been a faux pas right up there with ironing your blue jeans.
Then again, "fuzz" apparently was genuine slang among drug users and other underworld types in the 1930's, since it is listed in several glossaries of criminal slang compiled at that time. Unfortunately, no one, even back then, has ever been able to pin down exactly where "fuzz" came from. One hypothesis in American Tramp and Underworld Slang, published in 1931, was that "fuzz" was derived from "fuss," meaning that the cops were "fussy" or "hard to please." This theory seems a bit overly genteel.
Other theories aren't much better. Etymologist Eric Partridge ventured that "fuzz" might have been rooted in the beards of early police officers, or perhaps in the idea of "mold" as a derogatory metaphor for the police. Yet another theory was that "fuzz" arose as a slurred pronunciation of the warning "Feds!" (Federal narcotics agents). None of these theories seems very likely.
My own hunch is that "fuzz" arose as a term of contempt for police based on the use of "fuzz" or "fuzzy" in other items of derogatory criminal slang of the period. To be "fuzzy" was to be unmanly, incompetent and soft. How better to insult the police, after all, than to mock them as ineffectual?
Dear Word Detective: Every so often I hear someone referred to as being "gimlet-eyed." I have been wondering for years what this means, and I just heard it again on television the other night. Since I read your newspaper column fairly regularly, I thought I'd ask if you would please explain. -- Edith Freedle, New York City.
Letters such as this one make me feel more like a dentist with each passing day. Let's see now. You read my column "fairly regularly," by which I suppose you mean perhaps twice a year. You also have had, for some time, a nagging question about a word, yet you do not come to me for help. Instead, you decide to watch television, which we all know contributes to vocabulary decay. Finally, only when the agony of your unanswered question becomes unbearable do you seek professional help. Well, you're in luck, because I have a cancellation this afternoon, so take a seat.
A "gimlet" is, to quote the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, "a kind of small boring-tool, usually with a crosspiece handle and a screw at the pointed end." Sound familiar? Gimlets are found in almost every home toolbox, where they are also known as "augers" but sometimes languish under the misnomer "awl" (although an awl is actually just a sharp thing for poking, not drilling, holes). Gimlets are handy for starting holes for screws and making new holes in your belt, not to mention home dentistry. "Gimlet," incidentally, comes from a Germanic root which also gave us "wimble," which is what we used to call gimlets. When we say that someone is "gimlet-eyed," we mean either that the person possesses a merciless, penetrating stare that drills right to the core of the matter at hand, or that the person has a bad squint. I heard Newt Gingrich described as "gimlet-eyed" recently, although I think the reporter actually meant "beady." You may go ahead and rinse now, but don't watch any television for at least six months.
Dear Word Detective: Please help me! I have been looking forever for the origins of the phrase "Take that with a grain of salt." I was hoping you could help. -- Bethany Lankin, via the internet.
Well, you've certainly come to the right place: "grain of salt" is my middle name. I am known among my friends, in fact, as Mister Yeah-Right. After all, among the most popular television shows at the moment are those devoted to "documenting" UFO abductions, psychic phenomena and similar post-rational twaddle. Of course, I know my faithful readers would never stoop to watching such balderdash. Besides, you're all too busy messing around with the I Ching, right?
To "take something with a grain of salt," of course, means to not entirely believe a story, or to view it with a healthy degree of skepticism. It doesn't mean that you think the person recounting the story is completely crazy or making it all up. It just means you don't want to be close enough to get caught under the net his keepers are fixing to drop on him.
It's fitting that you've been looking for the origin of this phrase "forever," because "with a grain of salt" has been around nearly that long. It's actually a translation of the Latin phrase "cum grano salis." There seems to be a bit of a debate about the significance of the Latin phrase, however. Etymologist Christine Ammer traces it to Pompey's discovery, recorded by Pliny in 77 A.D., of an antidote to poison which had to be taken with a small amount of salt to be effective. Everyone else seems to bypass that explanation and trace "with a grain of salt" to the dinner table, where a dash of salt can often make uninspired cooking more palatable. "With a grain of salt" first appeared in English in 1647, and has been in constant use since then. The amount of salt metaphorically needed to make an unlikely statement acceptable often varies from a few grains to a few pounds. With all the flapdoodle being thrust at us these days, I'm surprised there isn't a national salt shortage.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "jaywalk" or "jaywalking" come from? -- Tom and Mona, via the internet.
One of the annoying things about the internet (and, believe me, there are plenty) is that when I receive questions via email there is usually no way to tell where the sender lives. In this case, I'll just assume that Tom and Mona do not live in New York City and are, therefore, probably unaware of our esteemed Mayor's recent campaign to expunge the scourge of jaywalking from our fair city. Toward this goal, fines have been raised and flying squads of New York's Finest have been dispatched throughout Gotham. Soon the cellblocks of Fun City will resound with the penitential wails of outlaw pedestrians nabbed for interfering with the flow of traffic on its way to mowing down the few remaining citizens who are foolhardy enough to actually try to cross in the crosswalks. Personally, if I need to cross the street anytime soon, I'm gonna take a cab.
Back in the 1800's, country bumpkins visiting the city were called "jays" probably because bluejays are loud, brightly-colored and not-very-bright birds. Now, before the bluejay lobby gets on my tail about that characterization, allow me to point out that "jay" has been used as a synonym for "simpleton" since the 1500's, so it's a bit late to protest. In any case, these out-of-town "jays" were famous for being clueless. They wandered all over the city, gawked at the big buildings, bought the 19th century equivalent of "Cats" t-shirts, and blundered right into traffic whenever they felt like crossing the street. By the early 1900's, paying no attention to traffic signals or crosswalks was known as "jaywalking."
But it was never really fair, at least in New York City, to pin jaywalking on tourists, and it's even less so today. In fact, my theory is that there really aren't more tourists visiting New York these days. It just seems that way because so many native New Yorkers have gotten themselves run over while jaywalking.
Dear Word Detective: I am a bit mystified by the word "soldier" used as a verb. I was reading a novel recently in which the author used "soldier" to mean "loaf" or "avoid work." Yet I have always heard the term "soldier on," meaning to persevere or "keep the faith," which seems exactly the opposite of goofing off. Can you explain? -- Doug P., New York, NY.
"Soldier" is indeed used as a synonym for both dogged perseverance and goofing off, and we can thank the perpetual rivalry between soldiers and sailors for this particular linguistic contradiction. Army veterans would, of course, endorse the "persevere" sense. "Soldiering" meaning "loafing" is, naturally, a Navy invention.
The use of "soldier" to mean persevere, found almost exclusively in the phrase "soldier on," is the more recent of the two senses, dating to just after World War Two. The war introduced scores of civilian recruits to the sometimes mysterious ways of the military mind as well as to the colorful slang soldiers used to preserve their sanity. By war's end, our language had gained a whole new set of metaphors for folly, frustration and forbearance. With "Military Intelligence" a contradiction in terms and faced with a typical "SNAFU" (Situation Normal: All Fouled (or worse) Up), what could a dogface do but "soldier on"? The first recorded use of "soldier" to mean "to avoid work" was just about a century earlier, in 1840. Soldiers transported by ship may have faced great danger at journey's end, but were not expected to work while aboard ship. In contrast, the lot of a seaman in those days was nearly endless toil, so it was undoubtedly a resentful sailor who coined the term. Thereafter, for a sailor to describe a shipmate as a "soldier" was to peg him as worse than useless and "soldiering" became synonymous with goofing off.
Dear Word Detective: When and where did the phrase "Close but no cigar" originate? I believe it has something to do with early types of slot machines in the late 1800's. When someone hit the jackpot on one of these machines, the winner would receive a free cigar from the storekeeper whose machine it was. If a player didn't hit the jackpot but came close, the storekeeper or other patrons might chide him by saying "close but no cigar." -- Mark Zurblis, Mt. Pleasant, SC.
Dear Word Detective: I'm being asked to use the word "stogey" (i.e., slang for a cigar) in a medical report, and because it's not a word I use every day, of course I have to look it up to be absolutely certain it's spelled correctly. And would you believe that I cannot find it spelled anywhere? -- Dianne, via the internet.
Well, apparently it's Cigar Question Week here at the Word Detective. It was bound to happen, what with seegars (as Pogo's pal Albert the Alligator called them) being newly trendy and all. In fact, one of those highfalutin "cigar bars" opened a few months ago just around the corner from me here in New York City. It was doing a booming business (Jerry Seinfeld apparently hung out there) until a funny thing happened one night. It burned down. Don't look at me like that -- I have an airtight alibi.
As for Mark's theory about "close but no cigar," I can only say, well, I won't say it. You're in the ballpark, Mark, except that sideshow pitchmen, not storekeepers, coined the phrase. Cigars were apparently popular carnival prizes in all sorts of games of chance before the invention of purple plush stuffed animals.
And I won't ask what kind of medical report demands the word "stogie," Dianne, but it is spelled either "stogie" or, less frequently, "stogy." It is short for "Conestoga," the type of wagon in which American settlers rode west in the 19th century. Evidently the wagon drivers were fond of one particular type of long, thin cigar, which came to be known as a "stogie," a slang term later applied to any cheap cigar.
Dear Word Detective: Did I fall asleep for a few years or something? It seems that "continually" has replaced "continuously" to describe something that happens constantly or without interruption. I know they are synonyms but is there a reason for the switch? Seeing "continually" used everywhere continuously bugs me! -- Pete Bratach, via the internet.
Yeah, Pete, you were out like a light. You missed everything. We tried to wake you when they repealed the subjunctive mood, and again when they legalized dangling participles (the TV newscasters had been lobbying hard for that one), but no dice. Not a peep from you. So now the English language is a complete shambles, but at least someone around here is well-rested. And now that certain someone is upset because they messed with his adverbs while he was snoozing. Well, tough, buddy, you'll just have to muddle through with the rest of us. That's officially spelled "thru" now, by the way.
I have no idea why people have started to say "continually" instead of "continuously," but then I never understood the Macarena, either. Some things just happen. There is indeed a commonly accepted tradition that "continuously" is used to describe a process or action that proceeds uninterruptedly ("The car alarm wailed continuously from 3 a.m. to dawn."). "Continually," however, is usually used to describe an action that may come and go, but is habitual or routine ("The car alarms continually blaring made the neighborhood a poor choice for poets."). But while this usage is traditionally observed, there is nothing in the history or structure of either word that would make the rule compelling. "Continually," in fact, was around and serving both uses for more than 350 years before "continuously" even showed up.
So, is there a difference? Yes, in recent tradition at least. Does it matter which you use? Not a whole lot, especially since no one is paying attention. I happen to like the distinction between "continuously" and "continually," but I'm fully aware that I'm out of the loop on this one. I also like Big Band music and cloth napkins. No wonder I never understood the Macarena.
Dear Word Detective: I'm an old "geezer" (age 71) without any young persons close by to ask this. On TV I hear them use the verb "diss" or "dis." Does it mean disrespect, disregard or what? Might as well check out "geezer" while we're at it. Thanks. -- Joe, via the internet.
Hey, let's watch it with that "geezer" stuff, OK? You may be older than I am, but I'm old enough to not think of "age 71" as being impossibly old. On the other hand, I'll bet that when I do get there, I'll prefer "geezer" to the cloying, patronizing "Senior Citizen." And anybody who calls me a "Golden Ager" is gonna be dead meat.
As to the problem of not having any young people close at hand to ask about current slang, I'd say you're probably not missing much. My research (conducted when I myself was a teenager) shows that young people get most of their slang from magazine articles and television shows about teenagers written, of course, by grownups. Mark my words, someday it's going to turn out that Aaron Spelling invented Valley Girl slang from whole cloth.
In any case, you seem to have figured out "diss" (or "dis") quite well all by yourself. It is short for "disrespect," and first showed in rap and hip hop slang in the early 1980's. There's not a lot to say about "diss," except that it is, in my opinion, a good example of the depressing lack of imagination typical of current youth slang.
"Geezer," on the other hand, is a much more interesting slang word. Although we use it today to mean an old man, "geezer," when it first appeared in the late 1800's, simply meant a "chap" or "fellow" of any age. "Geezer" began as a dialectical pronunciation of a much older word, "guiser" (as in "disguise"), which appeared in the late 1400's meaning a masquerader or someone who wore a disguise. Both "guiser" and "geezer" were used to affectionately describe someone who was known as a "character" or "odd fellow," and it was only in the 1800's that "geezer" was narrowed to mean an old man.
Dear Word Detective: I've often heard the term "salad days" but never truly understood what was meant by it, and certainly not the origin of the phrase. I've seen it used to refer to a successful person's early, less prosperous phase of their career. At least I think this is what they are implying. Can you help? -- Mary Schmidt, Chicago.
I'll sure try, though I'm not much of a salad eater myself. It's not that I haven't tried, you understand. A few years ago I actually became a genuine full-throttle vegetarian, eschewing all meat, even chicken and fish. Too late I realized the grim truth: I actively loathe ninety-nine percent of the vegetables on this planet. Subsisting on a diet consisting almost entirely of grilled cheese sandwiches, I was well on my way to turning a deep shade of Yellow Number Five, when one night I had a remarkable dream. A chicken and a fish appeared before me and begged me to abandon my silly qualms and chow down on their tasty brethren. Never one to spurn spectral advice, I redefined my dietary scruples first thing the next morning and I am now right as rain.
You're almost right about the meaning of "salad days," a term I haven't heard in quite a few years and which I hope is not fading from our language. A person's "salad days" are the days of youth, when he or she is "green" (without experience), but fresh and hopeful. Such a period is indeed likely to be less prosperous than the later years of a wealthy person, but I suppose someone who never makes any great amount of money could have had hopeful "salad days" as well. But the important connotation of the phrase is the sense of crisp, fresh youth, tossed with abandon and topped with the tangy vinaigrette of boundless optimism. Gee, that sounds good. Maybe I ought to give that vegetarian gig another shot. Incidentally, if that equation of youth with salad greens strikes you as a little corny (which it is), you'll have to take it up with Shakespeare, who coined the term "salad days" in his play "Antony and Cleopatra."
Dear Word Detective: I'm in the midst of an argument with a friend over the expression "spittin' image," meaning look-alike. He insists that the expression is "splitting image." Which of us is correct? What is the origin of this expression? -- Linda, via the internet.
You are correct, although your friend's attempt to make "spittin' image" make more sense as "splitting image" (as if one person had split into two) merits an honorable mention. Your friend's version, incidentally, is a good example of a process known as "folk etymology," whereby an unfamiliar or seemingly nonsensical phrase, often very old, is altered slightly to make it more understandable in modern terms.
But the phrase is definitely "spitting image" or "spittin' image," meaning "exact likeness" and it's based on an earlier form, "spit and image," which first appeared around 1859 Just where the phrase came from and exactly what it means, however, is hotly debated in etymological circles.
Most authorities accept the "spit" element of the phrase at face value, and maintain that it is a remarkably inelegant metaphor for similarity: "just as if one person were spit out of another's mouth." A similar saying in French, "C'est son pere tout crache" ("He is his father's spit and image"), lends support to this theory, as do earlier English sayings with the same meaning, such as "the very spit of," which appeared around 1825.
The late poet and etymologist John Ciardi, however, maintained that "black magic" lay at the root of the phrase. Armed with a sample of someone's saliva ("spit") and a doll made to resemble the person ("image"), goes the theory, a sorcerer could cast all sorts of evil spells on the hapless victim.
Yet another theory regards "spit" as a shortened form of "spirit," but there is no real evidence for this, and it sounds to me like another "folk etymology" effort to make a very weird phrase slightly less weird.
Dear Word Detective: Aloha from Kauai! My inquiry regards a phrase I recently heard: "He is an [expletive deleted] of the first water." I suppose what precedes "of the first water" may not matter, but I have no clue as to what the meaning or origin of "first water" is. Can you help me? -- Robin Greenwell, via the internet.
And Aloha yourself, from the lovely and exotic island of Manhattan. Most people don't realize it, but New York City is a lot like Hawaii, except with Gap stores and Starbucks coffee joints instead of palm trees and pineapples. You can find delicious native "tube steaks" on nearly every corner, and if it rains you can even go surfing in the subway. Yes, folks, it's a paradise.
Onward. "Of the first water" is a pretty exotic phrase in its own right, and I'm not surprised that you drew a blank on this one, since it is becoming less frequently heard with every passing year. Something "of the first water" is of the highest quality possible, without equal, a ten out of ten. Oddly enough, "of the first water" is heard today almost exclusively in a negative, sarcastic sense, as in "a sleazoid weasel of the first water."
The original use of "first water" was, however, one of straightforward admiration verging on awe. Jewelers and gem merchants have, for hundreds of years, rated the quality of diamonds and pearls in terms of "waters" -- "first water," "second water," etc. -- with "first water" diamonds being of the highest possible quality, flawless and perfectly clear. The reason for using "water" as a technical term to denote clarity and brilliance is a bit of a mystery, but it may be significant that English is not the only language to do so, as similar "water" terms are found in all modern Romance and Germanic languages. The root of all these "waters" is probably the Arabic word for water, which has long been used in one sense to denote "splendor" or brilliance, most likely in comparison to the clarity of absolutely pure water.
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