Previous Columns/Posted 07/05/99


OK, those of you who own calendars have probably noticed that this issue of TWD is a little bit late. I just want you all to know that I have a very good excuse for my tardiness, and I hope that someday I will be able to reveal the reason when I am no longer subject to the rigorous secrecy code binding those of us who work in the field of high-energy marsupial research. Until then, you'll just have to take my word for the fact that I was very busy. And if anyone tries to sell you some tall tale about giant radioactive kangaroos invading Disney World, please do not help to spread this baseless (and, in any case, greatly exaggerated) rumor.

Speaking of giant radioactive kangaroos, by now you've probably realized that 99.99 percent of the web is a total waste of time, right? Well, in my neverending quest to salvage a smidgen of sense from this vast cyber-wasteland, I have stumbled across a truly fascinating site called The Arts and Letters Daily, a constantly updated compilation of links to articles available on the net and actually worth reading, most of which have to do with literature, art, philosophy or science. Give it a look.

And now, on with the show.

Send in the clowns.

Dear Word Detective: The dictionary definition of the word "myriad" is "10,000." Colloquially, that would translate to "a lot of," right? As in, "Let's examine the myriad facets of the President." Literally, that would mean "Let's examine the 10,000 facets of the President." Frequently, in print and speech, it is used as "a myriad of," like "there was a myriad of choices." Literally, that doesn't work at all ("There was a 10,000 of choices"!). But the idea that people often get is that "myriad" means a maze or labyrinth, or a confusing variety. Do you think it will come to mean that someday, simply by force of popular perception? -- Mark Holleran, via the internet.

Um, yeah. Say, do you mind if I go lie down for a while before we continue? All that stuff about the 10,000 facets of the President has given me a slight case of the fantods.

OK, back to work. Your questions are whether the usage of "myriad" has changed, whether that change is due to popular confusion and/or sloppiness, and whether popular usage, even if wrong, is a good enough reason to change dictionary definitions. The short answers are yes, maybe, and you betcha.

It is true that the original meaning of "myriad," based on its Greek roots, was "ten thousand." But it is also true that "myriad" has been used by literate writers to mean "large or countless numbers" of something since the 16th century, a very long time ago. Used in this broader, figurative sense as both a noun ("A myriad of choices on the menu") and an adjective ("Tommy offered myriad excuses for his tardiness"), "myriad" is a very useful and beautiful word. A similar (if not so beautiful) case is the word "decimate," which originally meant to kill one in every ten soldiers, but since around 1663 has been quite properly used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, "To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality."

As to the sloppiness or confusion issue, it is true that many folks who use "myriad" have no idea that it originally meant "ten thousand," and that's a shame. But they're not wrong to use it in its "new" sense. That kind of change is how every language grows and flourishes.

All pandas, all the time.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I disagree as to the origin of the word "pandemonium." I say the word was formed early in this century when pandas were brought to the United States and caused much curiosity. My husband says the word stems from "Pandora's Box," meaning "a source of confusion." Who's right, or are either one of us right? -- Barbara J. Bellemare, via the internet.

First of all, thanks for a great question. You folks have come up with two remarkably inventive theories. Unfortunately, they are both wrong. But I really like the one about pandas.

Your husband's hunch about "Pandora's Box" is a good one. As I'm sure we all recall (don't we?), the Greek myth of Pandora recounts the story of a woman who could not resist the temptation to open a mysterious forbidden box. Too late, Pandora discovered that in opening the box she had set free all the evils -- War, Sickness, Poverty, etc. -- that plague the world today. "Confusion" must have been somewhere in that box too, but we can't pin pandemonium on poor Pandora.

The word "pandemonium," meaning mass disorder and chaos, was coined by the poet John Milton in his epic poem "Paradise Lost" in 1667. Milton invented the word as a name for the capital of Hell in his poem, the place where Satan held gatherings of all his underlings and minions. Milton himself spelled the word "pandaemonium" and concocted it by combining the Greek "pan" (all) with the Latin "daemonium" (demon). "Pandaemonium" is still an acceptable alternate spelling today.

Although Milton had created "pandemonium" as a specific locale, by the 19th century the word was being used as a synonym for any center of vice or depravity. The term has been broadened still further in our century, as "pandemonium" has come to mean "an uproar" or extremely disorderly situation.


Going postal.

Dear Word Detective: How about "posthaste"? Does it have postal origins or does it mean "after" or "beyond" haste, or what? My word origins dictionary doesn't have it and I can find nothing on the web. I've got a bet riding on it. Thanks for your time. -- J. Tappe, Winston-Salem, NC.

A bet riding on it, eh? Hold onto your hat, buckaroo. This one goes way back.

"Posthaste" means, as I suppose you know, "with all possible haste," or "as fast as possible." It's usually used as an adverb in urgent commands such as "Get this to the judge posthaste, and pray we're not too late."

Your guess about "posthaste" having postal origins is right on the mark. "Posthaste" is actually a relic of the phrase "haste, post, haste," which is what you would have written on an envelope back in the 16th century if you wanted the "post" (meaning, in this case, "messenger") to deliver it as quickly as possible. "Posthaste" is considered a somewhat antiquated word today, but it beats the vulgar acronym "ASAP" in my book, and I think we should all use it at every opportunity.

Incidentally, the origins of our modern Post Office (yes, it's hard to type that with a straight face) lie in the system of royal mail and postal roads developed in Medieval Europe. To speed messages from the head of state to the far corners of the realm, a network of "post roads" was established, with riders "posted" at intervals along its length to carry the mail in relay fashion. The "post" in all this, by the way, has nothing to do with the sort of "post" you might hitch a horse to. It comes from the past participle of the Latin word "ponere," meaning "to place," referring to the riders placed along the route.

Eventually the Postal System was expanded to handle mail from anyone, not just royalty, and all those horses were replaced by men in gray woolen shorts who have, you may have noticed, a sometimes unique interpretation of the word "posthaste."

Welcome to Hell. Here's your nine iron.

Dear Word Detective: My dad and I were talking the other day, and we were both wondering where the ranks of teams or players in a sports tournament came to be called "seeds." Any ideas? -- Patricia Hamilton, via the internet.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the original meaning of "golf"? I have been told that it is an acronym. -- Mike Williams, via the internet.

Ah, Spring is truly here. The average Joe may associate this season with flowers and birds and all that stuff, but to me the whole flapdoodle boils down to two words: sports questions.

I, too, have always been mystified when I accidentally tune in to a sports report on TV and hear references to so-and-so being an "eighth-seeded tennis player" or whatever. OK, I know it's my responsibility to be more curious when I hear unfamiliar words. But I'm usually so absorbed in trying to change the channel as fast as possible that I have always forgotten to make note of this term. In any case, it turns out that the explanation is fairly simple. It seems that in the late 19th century, lawn tennis promoters realized that their tournaments would retain their audiences longer if the best players did not play each other in the early stages of the process. They therefore decided to scatter the better players "like seeds" throughout the scheduled order of matches, pairing each against less expert players in the early contests.

"Golf" (which Mark Twain once trenchantly described as "a good walk ruined") first appeared in English in 1547. It is definitely not an acronym for anything, although I'd be supportive of efforts to concoct one that fits, provided that it echoes Mr. Twain's sentiments. "Golf" is thought to possibly come from the Dutch word "kolf," meaning the sort of club used in croquet and hockey. But no connection between "kolf" and the game of golf itself, which was developed in Scotland, can be established. Then again, there is a Scottish dialect word "gowf," which means "to strike," so that may well be the source of "golf." The bottom line is that "golf" remains a mystery.

Surf's up, doood.

Dear Word Detective: I'm writing an essay on the origin of popular slang terms. I've been trying to discover the origin of a fairly recent one, "stoked," meaning "excited." A person might say, "I'm so stoked about the party this weekend." I'd be grateful for any suggestions. -- Jennifer, via the internet.

I've been hearing people in their teens and early twenties using "stoked" fairly frequently lately, and it always gives me the creepy feeling that I've wandered into a rerun of the old "Mod Squad" TV show. "Stoked" began in the early 1960's as California surfer slang meaning "excited" (most likely by a large and "groovy" wave, I suppose), and by the latter half of the decade had moved into the sort of mainstream youth slang heard in landlocked places like Des Moines.

At least it supposedly did. I have no doubt that surfers used the term, but I don't think I'd count it as genuine "youth slang" of the period. I was a certifiable youth during the late 1960's, complete with long hair and bad attitude, and I would no more have used a dorky term like "stoked" than I would have gone to a Monkees "concert." Terms such as "stoked" ("groovy" was another one) were widely considered "plastic" (phony) and more likely to turn up on "Dragnet" or in teen exploitation movies than in real life.

In any case, since today's youth are apparently deaf to such aesthetic distinctions and determined to use the term, I should explain "stoked." It's simply a figurative use of the verb "stoke," meaning to feed fuel (wood, coal, etc.) into a furnace, usually by hand, and comes from the Dutch word "stoken," which means "to feed a fire." The literal use of "stoke" first appeared in English around 1683, and a figurative use of "stoke" to meaning "to shovel food into one's mouth" was in use by about 1882.

Calling Sargeant Bilko.

Dear Word Detective: When I was in the military, "comshaw" was a nice word used to denote the misappropriation of materials. Sometimes it was something you needed for your job but could not get through normal channels and sometimes it was used for outright theft for personal use. What is its origin? -- Rod Towns, via the internet.

"Comshaw" was a new one on me, but then again, I have never Been All That I Can Be, so it's not surprising that I'd be ignorant of the daily challenges of military life. That slogan about the Army (or is it the Navy?) being "Not Just A Job, An Adventure" almost convinced me to sign up, but unfortunately I am unable to participate in any adventure that requires me to get out of bed at 5 a.m.

After a little research, however, I have discovered some interesting things about "cumshaw," which is apparently how the word is usually spelled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cumshaw" comes from the Chinese words "kan" (to be grateful) and "hsieh" (thanks), making the compound word "kam-sia" (in the Amoy dialect), which means "grateful thanks." This "grateful thanks" was apparently an oft-heard phrase -- it was the standard "thank you" of beggars in Chinese ports in the 19th century.

Chinese ports, of course, were often visited by European and American ships in the 1800s, where sailors picked up the phrase "kam-sia" as "cumshaw" or "kumshaw." It first appeared in English around 1839, used to mean not "grateful thanks," but as slang for a present, gratuity or bribe. The more extended sense of "cumshaw" as meaning something obtained by unofficial or devious means first appeared in naval use around 1925.

By the way, one of the early occurrences cited by the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang in its definition of "cumshaw" is worth repeating just as an illustration of how spurious word origin stories get started. One glossary of naval slang explained in 1918 that "cumshaw" was actually a Chinese merchant's way of saying "Come ashore," supposedly meaning "come across" or "produce the money." It's a colorful story, but long since proven untrue.

There's some space left on my right ear.

Dear Word Detective: We have come across a stuffed animal that back in the fifties was used to collect friends' signatures. We were wondering if this is the origin of the term "autograph-hound," because the stuffed animal was a cute little dog. -- Terry Sturgell, via the internet.

Well, no, it's not. What you have actually found is a very old pun. The creators of that little signature-collecting critter made it in the shape of a dog because the phrase "autograph-hound" was already well-established in popular usage.

"Autograph" comes from the Latin for "written by oneself," and although an "autograph" can be anything written by a person in his or her own handwriting, the word is generally used today to mean a signature, especially one given as evidence of a personal meeting. Hounds, of course, are known for their ability to track and chase their quarry with tenacity and endurance. "Autograph-hound," therefore, ascribes that "hounding" sort of behavior (figuratively, one hopes) to a person whose passion or hobby is collecting the autographs of famous people. "Autograph-hound" is just one of a number of phrases in which "hound" denotes a person who has a particular interest in or enthusiasm for an object or activity, as in "news-hound" (meaning a reporter) or "publicity-hound."

It's a bit hard to pin down exactly how old "autograph-hound" is, but the earliest example of this kind of "hound" compound on record is "comma-hound" (meaning an English composition teacher) in 1926. I would guess that "autograph-hound" first showed up in the 1940s, around the same time that collecting the autographs of movie stars and the like became a popular pursuit among teenagers.

What about Bob?

Dear Word Detective: Is "discombobulate" simply a word that Blackadder uses when a real one is elusive (as did Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss) or is a real word? If it is a real word, what exactly does it mean? -- A. Tuson, via the internet.

It strikes me that I am in what many people would consider an enviable position. At least a third of the queries I receive relate in some fashion to television. I could, therefore, spend most of my time watching the boob tube and claim, with perfect justification, to be doing research. Unfortunately, I am allergic to television. So while I do happen to know that "Blackadder" is a highly-regarded British TV series, I have never actually seen an episode.

That small fact, of course, will not deter me from answering your question. Yes, "discombobulate" is a real word, meaning "to disturb, upset, confuse, perplex or disconcert." To be "discombobulated" is to be so confused or so overwhelmed that your head swims and you develop a sudden tendency to walk into walls. At least that's how I felt last Thanksgiving, when I somehow ended up with 27 relatives milling around in my house, a sure-fire recipe for discombobulation. I was still finding cranberry sauce in my pockets weeks later.

"Discombobulate" is an American invention, first appearing around 1834, but its origins are a bit cloudy. It may be, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, simply a humorous alteration of "discompose" or "discomfit." The Dictionary of American Regional English, however, suggests that the "bob" in "discombobulate" may have come from "bobbery," a somewhat antiquated word meaning "uproar or confusion."

"Bobbery" is an interesting word in its own right. It is thought to be a relic of the British colonial regime in India, where the Hindi phrase "Bap re!" ("Oh Father!") is a common exclamation of surprise, dismay or grief. I have a feeling "Bap re!" may come in handy next Thanksgiving.

I wanna be sedated.

Dear Word Detective: I'm just sick over a word which is used regularly on TV shows like "ER" and "Chicago Hope." I have been trying to find the correct spelling and origin of the word "gurney," which is the modern-day stretcher on wheels for transporting the sick or injured. I have not found the word in several unabridged dictionaries. Perhaps they were too old. My guess is that the device is named after its inventor. Can you tell me anything about this word? -- Patiently, Charles M. Nunzio, via the internet.

Well, I'm not a doctor, although I played one as a child. Nonetheless, my advice is to turn off the TV and go buy a new dictionary. "Gurney" (you're right about the spelling) is found in all the modern dictionaries I have consulted, defined (according to the Random House Webster's College Dictionary) as "a flat, padded table or stretcher with legs and wheels, for transporting patients or bodies." Since the word first appeared sometime around 1935 or 1940, your dictionaries must be seriously over the hill not to have included it, unless they were printed in Great Britain. For some reason, "gurney" does not yet seem to have percolated over the pond.

As to the origin of "gurney," I hope that you are very patient indeed. Not only do we not know where the term came from, but we don't even have any colorful stories or theories about its origin. Your guess that the device was named for its inventor is likely to be correct, although at this rate we'll probably never know for sure.

Speaking of those medical shows, their devotion to detail in the quest for Gritty Realism has popularized some of the more obscure medical slang used in emergency rooms. As a guide for the perplexed, Warner Brothers, which produces "E.R.," has put up a web page ( providing explanations for terms heard on the show such as "crump" (to die) and "gomer" ("get out of my emergency room," applied to a difficult patient). Personally, I think I'll stick to "Doctor Kildaire" reruns.


Bully for y'all.

Dear Word Detective: I have a wager based upon the origin of the word "hillbilly." I claim its definition is "a Michigan dirt farmer" (probably derived from Scottish and/or Irish immigrants who were harvesting peat in Northern Michigan). My mother says its roots are based solely upon those people from the southern hills. Help! -- Easymuney, via the internet.

Well, I hope you didn't bet the farm on this one, because you have just lost your wager. Good thing you were only betting against Mom, eh? Michigan dirt farmers, indeed. That's what we get for sending you kids to those fancy big-city colleges, I guess. Too busy reading all that French philosophy to watch reruns of Hee Haw like normal folks.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (whose editors persist in hyphenating the word as "hill-billy"), a hillbilly is "a person from a remote rural or mountainous area, especially of the southeastern U.S." The earliest written occurrence of the term on record is from the New York Journal of 1900, which defined a "hillbilly" as "a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." Oddly enough, the OED does not classify "hillbilly" as a derogatory term, although that quotation contains ample evidence that it is, at least when it's coming from the pen of a New Yorker.

While the "hill" of "hillbilly" is no mystery, the "billy" part is harder to explain. "Billy" has been used to mean "fellow" or "brother" in northern England and Scotland since the 16th century, and may be related to "bully," an earlier term meaning "good friend" or "gallant comrade" (from the Dutch "boel," brother). That's the same "bully," by the way, that turns up in modern English in a twisted form meaning "tyrannical thug." On the bright side, it also served as President Theodore Roosevelt's favorite expression ("Bully!"), by which he meant "excellent" or "bravo!"

Incidentally, grownups call them "sick days."

Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the expression "playing hookie" came from? -- Cathy Friedmann, via the internet.

Now there's a term I haven't heard in a while -- "playing hookey" (or, as you spell it, hookie) definitely seems to have fallen into disuse. Today's school kids, who play hookey to an extent earlier generations would never have dared, usually call the practice "cutting." "Hookey" first appeared in print in 1848, although the term had probably been in common use among children long before then. The phrase "play hookey" seems to have been an American invention, and had a number of variations: in Boston, children who skipped school were "hooking jack."

"Hookey" (also spelled "hooky") apparently developed from the colloquial phrase "hooky-crooky" common in the early 19th century, which meant "dishonest or underhanded." The connection between the two phrases becomes clearer when we recall that to "play hookey" properly, one had to pretend to go to school. The child would head out the door at the proper time, schoolbooks in hand, and only when safely out of sight of home would the little nipper's true itinerary become evident.

Incidentally, simply because I know how this racket worked does not mean that I myself was a practitioner of "playing hookey." I adored school, and was heartbroken when, occasionally, an especially fine Spring day would cruelly rob me of the opportunity to watch filmstrips on Mesopotamian culture in sixth grade history class.

"Hooky-crooky," to return to our subject, came from "by hook or by crook," meaning "by any means or tactic, fair or foul." Although this phrase first occurs in print way back in 1380 and is still common today, no one is sure of what the hook and crook were. One theory is that while tenants on English manors were not allowed to cut trees for firewood, the lord of the manor permitted them to have all the branches they could pull down with a shepherd's crook or a curved knife on a pole called a "hook." It sounds like hard work to me. Personally, I'd rather just go to school.

Squealin' squawkers, Batman,
the bird's gonna sing!

Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase "stool pigeon" originate? -- J. Barnes, via the internet.

Been watching old gangster movies again, have we? That's about the only place you'll hear "stool pigeon" in this age of "confidential informants" and similar official euphemisms.

The story behind "stool pigeon" is, in the beginning, the story of the tragic extinction of the passenger pigeon in the U.S. Once the most numerous bird on Earth (think about that for a moment), this graceful relative of our common urban pigeon was hunted to the brink of extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. Sadly, efforts by conservationists to save the species ultimately failed, and the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died at the age of 29 at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. None of us will ever see a living passenger pigeon again.

Instrumental in accomplishing this extinction was the pigeon-hunters' practice of capturing, blinding and then tying a pigeon to a stool. The frantic movements of the frightened bird would attract other pigeons, thus making them easy to shoot or capture. This tactic was the origin of the term "stool pigeon." But while the original stool pigeon lured its flock-mates to their doom through no fault of its own, human "stool pigeons" are a different breed.

"Stool pigeon" as metaphorical slang made its debut in the early 19th century, meaning at first simply a police spy, dispatched among malefactors to gather evidence. It wasn't until the beginning of this century that the more modern meaning of "a criminal who informs on his ilk to save his own skin" emerged. Decades of gangster and prison movies populated with stool pigeons (usually called "stoolies," and played by diminutive character actors who always "got theirs" in the end) popularized the term. Though still used occasionally in newspaper headlines, "stool pigeon" today has a slightly musty, almost innocent tone to it, compared to the vast array of less refined epithets now current. Given the general decline in civility, even among criminals, "stool pigeon" may soon join its namesake in extinction.

Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

Dear Word Detective: Is it possible that "bonfire" has any connection at all to the Japanese holiday Obon, during which small fires are said to be lit to guide one's ancestors back for a visit? People send candles in lanterns down the river, and great big fires in the shape of Japanese ideographs are set in the mountains around Kyoto. Since the "O" in "Obon" is sometimes dropped, couldn't the fires be "Bon" fires, or "bonfires"? -- Confused in Kanazawa, Japan.

Funny you should ask about bonfires. My brother-in-law, who lives just down the road from Word Detective World Headquarters here in rural Ohio, seems to operate according to a very simple motto: "If it moves, shoot it; if it doesn't, burn it." Almost every day of the year, Ted has some kind of major conflagration going in his yard. I just hope he doesn't start asking to borrow my books.

In any case, that's an intriguing theory you've come up with, but I think that what you have described is simply an interesting coincidence. The actual origin of "bonfire," meaning the sort of large outdoor fire often lit as part of various festivals and ceremonies around the world, has been well-established for many years. And boy, is it weird.

The question about "bonfire," of course, is the "bon" part, since we all (especially Ted) know what "fire" is. The pioneering lexicographer Samuel Johnson declared in his 1755 dictionary that the "bon" was French for "good" (which it is), and therefore "bonfire" obviously meant "good fire" (which it doesn't). What makes Dr. Johnson's error especially surprising is that when "bonfire" had first appeared in English in the 15th century, everyone understood that the "bon" meant "bone," and that a "bonfire" was originally a fire made of bones, usually animal bones that had accumulated over the course of a year.

A hundred years later, in the 16th century, the term "bonfire" was broadened to include fires used to incinerate corpses, heretical books, and sometimes the heretics themselves. Bonfires today, of course, are far more benevolent and are usually used to mark festive occasions. In fact, Ted must be planning some kind of party right now. He just called and asked to borrow all our dining room chairs.

Deadline, schmedline. Moi is an artiste.

Dear Word Detective: I would be most grateful to you if you could advise me of the origins and any history behind the word "deadline." Many thanks in anticipation of your abilities and assistance. -- Paul L. Simpson, UK, via the internet.

Aha! You see, someone on this planet still knows the proper way to ask a question. Please notice, dear readers, that Mr. Simpson did not submit an e-mail message consisting solely (and rudely) of the word he was inquiring about ("Widget?"), nor did he clutter his query with pointless pleas for me to reveal the third word ending in "gry" (aside from "hungry" and "angry"). We language columnists all know what that "gry" word is, by the way. We're just not allowed to tell. Honest. It's a government thing. Black helicopters and all that.

"Deadline" is a word near and dear to my heart, especially as I am facing one even as I write this. Anyone who has ever worked at or near a newspaper knows that a "deadline" is the time when copy must be submitted in order to be printed in a given edition. "Deadline" first showed up around 1920 in this journalistic sense, and pretty quickly jumped into general usage, meaning any sort of absolute, ironclad, "or else" time limit.

I had always assumed, as I am sure many writers do, that "deadline" arose simply as shorthand for the probability that if you missed one, your editor would kill you. In researching the term, however, I discovered that "deadline" has a far more literal and grisly history. During the American Civil War, the guards at the notoriously brutal Confederate military prison at Andersonville drew a line on the ground around the perimeter of the compound, a uniform seventeen feet inside the prison walls. Any prisoner crossing over that line was presumed to be trying to reach the wall in order to escape, and was summarily shot. This boundary was known succinctly as "the dead line." The first appearance in print of this original sense of "deadline" came in the Congressional Record in 1864.

And I'm not even gonna mention
the homicidal hamster.

Dear Word Detective: I come from England, and 55 years ago, I worked in the accounting office of a large department store. In those days (as now) people bought on time, popularly known as the "never-never," as most people didn't pay off their accounts for years. When we determined they might not pay, we put "DD" (for "Doubtful Debt") after their name. When we determined they would never pay, we put "DUD" after their name, for "Doubtful Unrecoverable Debt." I was told that this is where the word "dud" comes from. Is this true? -- Stanley Lipman, West Long Branch, NJ.

Oh, so I'm a "dud" now, am I? Whatever happened to all that "valued customer" hoopla you department-store hucksters used to heap on me? Ah, but that was before the wading boots you sold me dissolved at the first hint of rain, wasn't it? Before the toaster explosion? And before the deranged lawnmower you sold me attacked the constable dispatched to subdue the homicidal washing machine I bought ... guess where? Excuse me, pal, but I've already paid in spades.

Meanwhile, back at your question, I'm afraid that the story you were told is not true. "Dud" has been around since the 15th century. Although the ultimate origins of "dud" are shrouded in mystery (that sounds a lot better than "we don't know," doesn't it?), its original meaning was "an article of clothing," a sense we still use in the term "duds."

"Dud" eventually came to mean "tattered clothes," and by the 17th century scarecrows, attired in cast-off clothing, were being called "dudmen." Sometime in the 19th century we began to use "dud" to mean anything counterfeit, ineffective or fraudulent, a usage that got a big boost during World War I, when unexploded artillery shells were called "duds." Today, almost anything that fails to live up to our expectations, be it a Hollywood blockbuster that fizzles or a blind date who drools, can be labeled a "dud."


To Helen back.

Dear Word Detective: Please advise the source of the phrase "Since Hector was a pup." In fact, I myself haven't heard that phrase since I was a pup! -- R.F. Horan, Meriden, CT.

Me neither. Hey, what do you say we bring this saying back? I'll bet that if we all pepper our daily speech with "since Hector was a pup," we'll have Ted Koppel using it within six months. After all, it worked with that "at the end of the day" business, which most people don't even realize was coined by Howard Stern.

"Since Hector was a pup" is a catch phrase, a popular figure of speech, which has been around at least since the 1920's, when "Hector" was a popular name for dogs. "Since Hector was a pup" means "since a long time ago," and is actually a sort of pun, because it refers to both "Hector" as a dog's name and another, far older, "Hector."

The original Hector was a hero in the Iliad, the Greek poet Homer's epic narrative of the 10-year war between Ancient Greece and Troy. The Trojan War began when Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, ran off with Helen, wife of the Greek king of Sparta. Hector was Paris's brother and in Homer's account a brave and noble fellow, just the sort you'd name your dog after if you had read the Iliad in school (which was much more likely in the 1920's). In any event, the Trojan War is reckoned to have taken place in about 1200 B.C., so the original Hector was a "pup," a young man, a very long time ago.

Even though he was ultimately slain by the Greek hero Achilles, Hector of Troy lives on in another form, as an English verb. Since the 1600's, "to hector" has meant to harass and bully, which is rather odd, considering what a nice guy Hector is supposed to have been. Hector's modern image problem probably began when 17th century pundits said of their local bully, "He must think he's Hector, hero of Troy," the way we might say "Oh boy, here comes Superman" today. So the saga of poor Hector proves that even linguistic immortality can be a double-edged sword.

Exceptions rule!

Dear Word Detective: I'm having a colloquy with copy editor colleague here at PC World magazine. Does "the exception that proves the rule" in fact mean the exception that disproves the rule? Or that by some circumlocution the exception in fact serves to prove the rule correct? --Barbara Lewis, via the internet.

If we ever held a contest to pick the most frequently misunderstood popular saying in English, "the exception that proves the rule" would be a hands-down winner. It seems as though an exception to a rule would prove only that there are gaping holes in the rule and that it might not be much of a rule to begin with, right?

Well, in the first place, the phrase was originally "the exception proves the rule," leaving out the "that," which can only cause more confusion.

To properly understand "the exception proves the rule," we need to take a look at the very old legal maxim from which it came: "Exception proves (or confirms) the rule in the cases not excepted" (exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, for you Latin fans). In the original legal sense, this described situations in which an authority granted an exception to a rule in a special case, but in making such an exception, confirmed that in general the rule was valid and should govern in all other cases. After all, if the rule weren't fundamentally valid, the judge wouldn't be making an exception to it -- he or she would be throwing out the entire rule. It's analogous to a parent letting a child stay up late on New Year's Eve. Such bending of the rules on a special occasion doesn't mean bedtime has been abolished from then on.

It's important to note that "the exception proves the rule" doesn't work very well when applied to the natural sciences, which are ruled by physical laws, not judges or parents. In the fields of physics or chemistry, for example, an unexpected result of an experiment must necessarily call into question (and possibly disprove) your whole hypothesis. The universe is not a lenient parent, and does not make exceptions to its laws.

Mow faster, the coyotes are coming.

Dear Word Detective: In a recent conversation, a friend asked the meaning of the word "shiftless." Upon telling him that it was a derogatory term meaning "lacking responsibility," my boyfriend chimed in that he thought the word came from the concept of "not having a shift," i.e., being without a job. This does make sense, and fits squarely with the definition, but is it actually accurate? -- Katie Harrigan, via the internet.

Oh, accurate, schmaccurate, I always say. As long as it makes sense, it works for me. And speaking of working for me, which one of you crazy kids needs a job? I'm looking for a research assistant who also enjoys mowing lawns. It's not really a lawn, actually, more of a six acre fen full of snakes. But hey, it's not just a job, it's an adventure.

I sense from your question that you suspect that your boyfriend's explanation might be a little too simple (boyfriends are like that), and, if so, you're correct. But he's not too far from the truth. The "shifts" in "night shift" and "shiftless" are indeed related, but the relationship is a bit convoluted.

"Shift" is one of those pesky English words that are so old that they have had time to develop plenty of meanings. In the beginning was the Old English "sciftan," which came from prehistoric German and meant "to arrange." Once it arrived in English in the 14th century, "shift" came to mean "a movement" or "a change." This meaning of "a change" gave us our modern use of "shift" to denote a specific period of work time marked by "a change" of workers.

"Shift" kept evolving, however, and one of its later meanings, arising in the 16th century, was "an ingenious device," and, a bit later, the general sense of "resourcefulness." Someone who is "shiftless," therefore, is someone who lacks resourcefulness and initiative, and is probably lazy to boot.

It could, of course, be worse. Another derivative of "shift" describes a person who has way too much of this kind of "shift," is entirely too resourceful and clever, and thus definitely not to be trusted -- "shifty."


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