Issue of July 4, 2001


Since the last installment of this little circus was posted back in late May, by now you're all probably asking the logical question: what happened to June? Darned if I know. Anyway, June, schmoon, what's one little month among friends? It's time to let go of all that linear thinking, gang.

Actually I do know what happened to June. I was mowing the lawn, that's what. We have a very large lawn. Seven and a half acres, in fact, littered with approximately ten thousand trees and shrubs planted for no rational reason by the former owner. By the time you finish mowing, it's time to start again. I hate mowing the lawn.

So I've been letting a bit of the lawn run wild and revert to nature, and now we have about three acres of high brush and wild raspberries to the north and east. We also have groundhogs, possums, raccoons, feral cats, at least 500 rabbits, some very large snakes, vultures, occasional deer and, apparently attracted by all this Wild Kingdom coziness, a platoon of coyotes, one of which menaced my wife as she was riding her bike down the road a couple of weeks ago.

And, oh yeah, our house, which was built in 1865, seems to be slowly collapsing. And the well is totally screwed up, so we're drinking bottled water. I have spiders the size of beagles in my office. The electricity goes off twice a day for no reason. And every time I sit down to write they start spraying the soybean field across the road with anhydrous ammonia and suddenly my eyes start burning and I can't breathe and that Bob Dylan line starts running through my head:

"I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."

So don't talk to me about June.

Elsewhere in the news, don't forget that we here at Word Detective World Headquarters are now making available our lovely TWD t-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs and mouse pads to our readers via our new Official Word Detective Stuff web site. Each item is of high quality and comes festooned with the Official Word Detective logo-critter, our web address, and, of course, our venerable motto, "Semper Ubi Sub Ubi." You can see the logo common to all the products right here.

And since you were just about to ask, it's an old Latin student's joke: Semper (Always) Ubi (Where) Sub (Under) Ubi (Where).

Say it aloud.

And now, on with the show....

Literary Lion Bites Grease Monkey.

Dear Word Detective: That literary lion of millennially magnificent word reference and resource, Norman Mailer, used the word "banausic" in print -- not in a book but in an essay, I believe -- about three years ago. I jotted it down but its definition has evaded me ever since. -- Michael Kerr, via the internet.

"Literary lion of millennially magnificent word reference and resource," eh? Say, you don't happen to work in the public relations industry, do you? In any case, you've definitely got a bright future in writing blurbs for book jackets.

"Banausic" is indeed pretty obscure. It's from the Greek "banausos," meaning "mechanic," and, aside from the literal meaning of "relating to a mechanic," is used to mean "strictly mechanical, routine." So unless Mr. Mailer was complaining about his local grease monkey screwing up his car, chances are that he meant that something was routine, uninspired or boring. Of course, he could have simply used "boring," "uninspired" or even a semi-fancy word such as "quotidian," but I guess literary lions like to play with their prey (i.e., their readers).

Then again, we should probably cut Mr. Mailer a bit of slack since he did, after all, invent the word "factoid" in his 1973 book "Marilyn." Although today CNN and its ilk use "factoid" to mean "small fact" or "trivia," Mailer's intent in inventing the word was quite different. "Factoids," he explained at the time, are "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper," pseudo-facts invented to manipulate public opinion.

Unfortunately, the repetition of "factoid" in the "trivial fact" sense has taken its toll, and almost no one remembers the original meaning. But Mailer's definition of "factoid" was a valuable contribution to the language on a par with George Orwell's "Newspeak," and, in this age of spin doctors, "factoid" still fills a conspicuous need. Perhaps we should petition CNN to give us our word back.

All in good time, my pretty.

Dear Word Detective: My third grade teacher gives us a challenge question every weekend, and I really need some help to find the answer to this one. How did the word "jumbo" come to mean "very large"? Thank you very much. -- Meaghan Sykes, via the internet.

Oops. Um, say, what weekend would that be? It takes me a while to get around to answering these questions, you know. After all, I receive about 500 every month, and then there's the dogs to walk, the lawn to mow, books to read, and before you know it I have a backlog of reader questions dating back to the Pleistocene. At this rate I'll be writing this column for ten years after I retire. So, Meaghan, are you enjoying graduate school?

"Jumbo," of course, is a word we use to mean "very large," or at least "much bigger than you would expect." Advertisers often call things "jumbo" to get people to buy them, even when (in the case of "jumbo shrimp," for instance) "jumbo" doesn't make a lot of sense. It took me so long to give away a litter of kittens a few years ago that they began to turn into full-grown cats, so I advertised them as "jumbo kittens." It actually worked.

Unfortunately, no one is certain where "jumbo" came from, though we do have a few clues. There is a good possibility that it comes from "Mumbo Jumbo" (or "Mama Dyumbo"), which was the name of a god worshipped in parts of Africa. Because Europeans at the time regarded such worship as mysterious and primitive, "mumbo jumbo" came to mean "nonsense" or "gibberish" in English.

Just how "mumbo jumbo" might have led to "jumbo" meaning "large" is unclear, but by 1823 "jumbo" was being used to mean a big, clumsy person, animal or thing. The most famous "jumbo" of the 1800s was a very large elephant named, naturally, "Jumbo," that was exhibited in London and eventually sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882. Jumbo was so popular that from then on anything a bit larger than normal, from peanuts to jet airplanes, was described as "jumbo."


Then there's Larry David's new show,
which stank for six months before
they even started filming.

Dear Word Detective: Do you have any idea what the phrase "jump the shark" might mean? I've heard it used lately to mean the moment when a TV show goes from good to lame, but I have no idea what a shark would have to do with television. -- Edith F., via the internet.

Well, the thought of TV scriptwriters dog-paddling while the theme from "Jaws" plays in the background is not without considerable allure. Perhaps we can sell this idea to Fox.

I, too, have heard the phrase "jump the shark" recently, and I was similarly mystified until I happened upon a web site,, which appears to explain the whole shebang. It seems that the owner of the site, Jon Hein, was discussing the phenomenon of good TV shows going bad with his college buddies one day back in 1985, when his roommate, a certain Sean Connolly, came up with the phrase "jumped the shark." Connolly was referring to a particular "Happy Days" episode in which Fonzie, on water skis, actually jumped over a shark. (Don't ask me why. I am proud to have never watched a single episode of "Happy Days." Or "The Brady Bunch." Or "E.R." Or "Survivor.") Evidently, this shark-jumping moment marked the onset of irreversible lameness in the show, which was cancelled soon thereafter.

"Jumped the shark" so perfectly summed up the rot that seems to eventually overtake any popular TV show that Hein adopted the phrase, set up his web site, and began compiling lists of "jump the shark" turning points for other shows. Hein's list is organized into handy categories such as "Puberty" (aging child stars), "They Did It" (the dissipation of romantic tension that kills a decent series, e.g., "Moonlighting"), and my favorite, "Same Character, Different Actor" (as when "Bewitched" tried to replace Dick York with Dick Sargent as Samantha's husband). Hein also lists shows that "Never Jumped," a category which includes, I am glad to see, HBO's brilliant "The Larry Sanders Show."

As a popular catchphrase, "jumped the shark" apparently started with the establishment of Hein's site in 1997, and now seems to be spreading very quickly. My only problem with "jumped the shark" is that it fails to address the ninety-five percent of television shows that stink from day one.


"Evil" is far too mild, actually.

Dear Word Detective: I heard Sam Donaldson use the term "long in the tooth" the other day on a local radio broadcast. He asked the callers to try to find out the origin of this term. Maybe you can help us out with this one. -- Peeper, via the internet.

Come quick, Watson, the game's afoot! We've been deputized by Sam Donaldson to solve the mystery of "long in the tooth." Yes, Watson, he is an "investigative journalist" on TV and, yes, he could conceivably be expected to figure this one out for himself. But the poor man no doubt has his hands full defending his throne from the machinations of the evil Cokie Roberts.

"Long in the tooth" is, of course, a figure of speech meaning "of advanced years," "past its prime," or simply "old." The core of the mystery is why teeth, and the apparent growth thereof, should be associated with the march of time. While the well-known case of Little Red Riding Hood would seem to offer a clue ("Oh Grandma, what big teeth you have!"), I believe the Riding Hood fiasco was primarily a matter of mental, not dental, disturbance.

In approaching this case, I believe our first real clue may be found in the words of the patron saint of TV journalism, Mr. Ed. "Go to the source and ask the horse," Ed often advised, and sounder words were never spoken by an oatburner. It seems that the gums of horses recede as they age, gradually revealing more of the teeth, making them appear longer. Thus a horse ready for retirement was said to be "long in the tooth," and checking Old Dobbin's teeth has long been considered one of the most effective ways a buyer has of gauging a nag's age.

Of course, if the horse in question is presented as a gift, it would be rudeness in the extreme to pry the creature's mouth open to gape at its choppers, a bit of social etiquette summed up since the 16th century in the adage "Never look a gift horse in the mouth."

Golfing with Goofy.

Dear Word Detective: I have been searching for the origin of the phrase "plus fours," which are those baggy golfing knickers. I came up empty after an hour searching the web. Any idea? -- Sylvia, via the internet.

Oh, goody, it must be golfing season again. Or maybe not. Is it just me, or does it seem to anyone else that the whole concept of "seasons" for certain sports has apparently become passe? Hockey in June, baseball in February, football all year round? If this trend continues, the graceful and elegant sport of tiddlywinks will be crowded out entirely.

Thanks to the remarkable exploits of Tiger Woods, interest in golf has been on the upswing (yuk yuk) lately, as has the number of golf-related questions I receive from readers. Most of them, alas, ask me if the word "golf" really started out as an acronym for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden," which it didn't. "Golf" is thought to have come either from the Dutch word "kolf," meaning the sort of club used in croquet and hockey, or from the Scottish dialect word "gowf," which means "to strike."

Judging by what I've seen on TV, you can play golf in just about any sort of outfit, but if you're shooting for the "classic look," you'll deck yourself out in "plus fours," which were standard golfing attire in the 1920s and 30s. As you say, "plus fours" are essentially just baggy "knickers" or "knickerbockers," knee-length pants named after Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional author under whose name Washington Irving published his 1809 "History of New York." Irving's book featured illustrations depicting Dutchmen wearing short pants and stockings.

"Plus fours" is certainly a mysterious-looking term, but the explanation is actually remarkably simple. Classic "plus fours" are made with each leg being four inches longer than standard knickers. The extra length, when tucked into the top of the player's stockings, is designed to afford the wearer more freedom of movement and accounts for that "baggy" look. "Plus fours" first appeared in the 1920s and were also popular with hikers and other outdoorsy types. Personally, I'll stick with tiddlywinks and spend the season meditating on Mark Twain's summation of golf: "A good walk ruined."

The worst part is that it was a rental.

Dear Word Detective: In the Perry Como song "Whoop-de-do," he uses the phrase "soup and fish" to mean a tuxedo. Do you know how a tux got this nickname? -- Betsy in Connecticut.

Well, you've certainly come to the right place. I've donned a tuxedo exactly once, for my high school graduation, but the experience has truly shaped my life ever since. By the way, does anyone know how to get one of these cummerbund things off?

As you say, "soup and fish" is slang for a tuxedo or other men's evening wear, but the precise age of the phrase is uncertain. The earliest citation for "soup and fish" in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a P.G. Wodehouse story in 1918, but we can assume that the phrase was in common use for some time, probably at least since the 19th century, before Wodehouse invoked it.

As for the logic behind "soup and fish" as a synonym for "formal wear," it almost certainly refers to the sort of high-class social occasion, specifically a formal dinner, to which a man would wear a tuxedo or white tie and tails. Such meals are noted for their elaborate menus, and guests at such a repast are likely to be presented with separate soup and fish courses before being served the main course. Just keeping your silverware (which may include salad, fish and meat forks as well as countless spoons) straight during one of these snooty chowfests is, I am told, half the battle. "Soup and fish" is thus an irreverent allusion to the occasion for which the tux is often donned.

Another metaphor based on the ornate menus encountered on such occasions is "from soup to nuts," meaning "the entire gamut of possibilities" or simply "everything," from the fact that formal dinners in the mid-20th century often began with a soup course and ended with nuts. An earlier form of the phrase, reflecting the choices available at tony repasts in the 17th century, was "from eggs to apples."

Ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Dear Word Detective: I'd very much like to know the origin of the word "boycott." After reading your view on "hooligan," I am not sure I know the true origin of "boycott." -- Youlian, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Well, that's my plan of world conquest. I gradually undermine folks' confidence in all the things they thought they knew, until the entire human race is putty in my hands. Then I'll command you all to come clean out my refrigerator and mow my lawn for me.

All I ever actually said about "hooligan," meaning "thug" or "rowdy," was that no one is certain of its origins. The word first appeared in England in the summer of 1898 in newspaper articles about a gang of young street toughs who called themselves "the Hooligans," although apparently none of them was actually named Hooligan. Some authorities at the time maintained that "hooligan" was a mispronunciation of "Hooley's gang," but no one was ever able to trace a specific "Hooley," so that theory remains unverified. Another possible source of the name is a music hall song of the period featuring a rowdy Irish family called the Hooligans. Hooligan had also been used since at least the 1870s as simply a "funny name" by several authors, including Mark Twain.

As for "boycott," however, meaning to ostracize or refuse to patronize a person or business to coerce a change in conduct, we do know exactly where the word came from. Back in the mid-1800s, Captain Charles Boycott was the local agent for a British landlord in County Mayo, Ireland. He was also a royal jerk. Boycott was so inflexible and cruel to the poor farmers who rented land from him that they decided that no one would deal with him, not even to sell him food or harvest his crops. The farmers made Captain Boycott so miserable that he eventually gave up and fled back to England. Thus the term "boycott" was born, meaning to organize with your neighbors to "ice out" and refuse to deal with a person or business until they change their attitudes or practices.

Those cwazy kids again.

Dear Word Detective: What is the etymology of "cockamamie" and specifically does it have any origin in or relation to Yiddish? There is a bet riding on this. -- Karen, via the internet.

There always is, isn't there? Y'know, it wouldn't hurt to check with me before you folks make these bets. For a mere fifteen percent of the wager I could let you know whether you were going to win. Try to get odds like that at the racetrack. In any case, no, "cockamamie" has no connection to Yiddish.

I actually answered this question about ten years ago, right after a Clint Eastwood thriller called "in The Line Of Fire" opened. At one point in the film Eastwood, who plays an aging Secret Service agent, is talking to his younger partner and uses the word "cockamamie." He then muses on the word a bit, suggesting that his partner's generation should use it every once in a while just to keep it alive.

Eastwood's character is right. "Cockamamie" (meaning "crazy," "confused" or "ridiculous") is a grand word in danger of extinction through neglect. "Cockamamie" is an inherently funny word -- the word itself sounds preposterous, as if invented by a cartoonist. But "cockamamie" actually sprang from one of the great popular fads of the 19th century, now long forgotten. "Decalcomania," from the French for "tracing craze," was the practice of transferring colored designs to the skin from damp paper -- what we call today "decals" or "temporary tattoos." The "mania" began in France in the mid-1800s, and quickly became the rage among children everywhere. As a harmless but immensely silly fad, "decalcomania," and its linguistic offspring "cockamamie," came to mean something so transparently phony or absurd (as in "cockamamie alibi") that one ought to doubt the sanity of the source.



Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the connection, if any, between "loony" and "loon"? If there is a connection, which came first? -- M. G., New York, NY.

It depends on what you mean by "connection." "Loony," meaning crazy, and "loon," a type of waterfowl known for its distinctive call, come from entirely separate sources, but provide a good illustration of how unrelated words can influence each other's development.

Chances are that the millions of children who grew up watching "Loony Tunes" cartoons never dreamt that the title reflected a serious and once widely held theory of madness. At least since the time of the Romans, exposure to the light of the moon, especially the full moon, was thought to cause mental derangement, and those unhinged by the moon's influence were known as "lunatics," from "luna," the Latin word for "moon." "Loony" is simply a popular slang rendition of "lunatic."

Although the "loon," a bird native to Northern lakes, is known for making a cry remarkably like the laugh of someone exposed to too much moonlight, it takes its name from an Old Norse word unrelated to "lunatic." The loon's maniacal call did, however, give us the phrase "crazy as a loon" (and may, in fact, be the reason "loony" is not spelled "luny").

If that isn't quite enough "loons" for you, you're in luck. There is yet another "loon," based on the old Scottish word "lown," meaning clown or madman, which is unrelated to either the moon or the bird, but probably would have disappeared long ago without the influence of the other two "loons."

Language being the messy business that it is, when we refer to someone as a "loon" or "loony," we are using a term that has been influenced by all these sources, the moon, the bird, and Scotland, now so thoroughly blended that to try to separate them would be, well, "loony."

More golf goodness in every bite.

Dear Word Detective: While playing golf the other day I hit a really bad tee shot. My friends encouraged me "to take a Mulligan" and hit again. Where does that term come from? Please help my language skills as there is little hope for my golf game. -- Nicole Robertson, Chicago, Illinois.

Oh yay, another golf question. I haven't received so many queries on one topic since the Macarena was hot. Say, maybe we should combine the two and come up with a catchy golfing dance tune, something with maracas and bagpipes, Ricky Martin in plus fours, that sort of thing.

A "Mulligan" is a second chance in golf, permission granted by the other players to re-take a flubbed shot, especially the first shot of the game. "Taking a Mulligan" is, strictly speaking, forbidden under the rules of the game, but since the term has been in constant use since at least 1949 we can assume that such charity on the links is not uncommon. Unfortunately, no one knows where "Mulligan" in this sense came from, although we can assume that it probably sprang from the proper name of a particular person, perhaps an especially inept golfer.

As a consolation prize (and, with luck, to head next week's golf question off at the pass), I can tell you the origins of two other common golf terms. "Birdie," meaning a score of one stroke under par on a given hole ("par" being the standard set for a first-class player) comes from the 19th century U.S. slang term "bird," meaning anything excellent. The fact that such a beautiful shot "flies like a bird" probably contributed to the adoption of the term by golfers.

A "bogey" for a given hole is the score expected of a good amateur golfer, and is often, but not always, the same as par for the hole. The term was invented in the late 19th century by a certain Major Charles Wellman, who noted that the declared "standard score" of the course he was playing in England amounted to a virtual "bogey man" -- an imaginary ideal golfer -- against whom he was forced to compete. The Major later decided that such a formidable opponent must certainly be an officer, and christened him "Colonel Bogey," a term still heard today.


Dear Word Detective: During a fierce bridge game last week, I wondered aloud about the origin of "talking through one's hat." I was astonished when my 85-year-old friend Louella responded (quite seriously) that her had father started it. "He did!" she insisted. "He always used to say to us kids, 'You're talking through your hat.'" Louella's father aside, it would put my mind at ease to know the source of the phrase. Does it imply empty-headedness (talking through the hat, not the head) or is it perhaps a reference to some particular trade or activity? -- Doris K. Ellis, via the internet.

Well, I hate to break it to Louella (I think I'll leave that task to you, in fact), but her father did not invent "talking through one's hat." You'd be surprised, incidentally, at how many folks assume that their parents made up popular words and phrases, especially if the terms are vivid and no one outside the family is heard to use them. My own parents, of course, were too busy inventing the grilled cheese sandwich to coin any words.

To "talk through one's hat" means to talk nonsense, to pontificate on a subject one knows nothing about, and to make ludicrous assertions with unshakable confidence. The character Cliff in the old "Cheers" TV series, with his bottomless reservoir of absurd explanations for everything, was a sterling example of someone who habitually "talks through his hat."

"To talk through one's hat" was apparently a widespread idiom by the late 1880s meaning "to talk nonsense," although it initially seems to have carried the added connotation of "to lie." The precise logic and origins of the phrase are unclear. One theory, perhaps reflecting the earlier "to lie" meaning, maintains that the phrase refers to men in church who hold their hats over their faces while feigning prayer. Another possibility is that the phrase refers, as you say, to the emptiness of the hat atop one's head, as if one were thinking and speaking with an empty head. It's also possible that "talk through one's hat" is an oblique reference to another phrase, "to talk off the top of one's head," meaning to speak speculatively, without thorough consideration.

And this side is polka dots,
in case we're invaded by clowns.

Dear Word Detective: I'm interested in the word "turncoat." I always think of Benedict Arnold when I hear that word. I thought maybe it came from when a soldier was retreating and he would turn his coat around so no one could tell he was retreating. -- Frank Donaldson, Santa Barbara, CA.

That's an interesting theory, but I can see a few snags in such a tactic. First of all, although I have never tried it myself, my sense is that it would be fairly difficult to run with one's coat on backwards. Furthermore, to make the illusion truly convincing, you'd also have to reverse your hat, trousers and shoes. Then you'd have to do a sort of reverse "moonwalk" so the enemy would think you were advancing, not fleeing. The good news is that the enemy soldiers would probably be laughing so hard at this point that their aim would be fairly lousy.

A "turncoat" is, of course, a traitor, a person (usually a soldier or political partisan) who reverses his or her principles or allegiances to the detriment of former friends. "Turncoat" first appeared in the "traitor" sense around 1557 and is still very much in use today, as I am sure the folks in the personnel department at the FBI are sorely aware.

The logic of "turncoat," much as I enjoy your theory, derives not from wearing one's coat backwards, but from turning it inside out. This was a fairly common practice with coats as well as shirts and trousers prior to the invention of dry-cleaning, as reversing one's clothing in this fashion presented a (somewhat) cleaner side to view. Although the term "turncoat" meaning a garment designed to be reversed has been dated back only to 1726, a reference to the practice of "turning" one's garments appears in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew in 1593.

As for the association of "turning one's coat" with treason, the story (perhaps apocryphal) is told of the Duke of Saxony, whose land was uncomfortably located between the warring French and Saxons. The Duke, according to legend, wore a reversible coat, one side blue (the Saxon color), the other side white (the French color), allowing him to quickly change his display of allegiance should the need arise.




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