Issue of August 4, 2001


This just in: yet another (apparent) example of Microsoft perfidy. Click here for the scoop.

Apropos of nothing, I realized the other day that my favorite part of updating this page is making up the strange little titles for the columns. I'm reluctant to mention this at the moment, because I don't think this month's batch is anything to write home about (though I am rather fond of "Haute and Crusty"). But the method I use in composing them (i.e., staring vaguely out the window for hours at a time) does produce a few winners, of which my favorite is this one, born of a stubborn nugget of Dylan Thomas lodged somewhere in my subconscious.

My publisher demurred when I suggested including these titles in the hardback collection of my columns, feeling that they would confuse readers by obscuring the alphabetical arrangement of the pieces. But then again they also wanted verification that all the questions I answer come from real people, so what are ya gonna do?

Speaking of the orderly arrangement of past glories, those readers overly-familiar with the boring old standard alphabet will have noticed by now that the supposedly alphabetically-arranged Index of Previous Columns is not, at several places, actually in proper alphabetical order. Every so often I am racked with guilt about this, but then I sit back, stare vaguely out the window, and everything is fine once again.

And now, on with the show....

The ants are my friends.

Dear Word Detective: What exactly is the origin of the phrase "fare to Midland"? As I understand it, a person was stranded without money on some portion of a trip between destinations in England. He had to borrow money from strangers in order to make the journey to "Midland." Upon his arrival, a friend asked how his trip went and he replied, "Fare to Midland!" -- Rick DeAlto, via the internet.

To which his friend responded, "No soap, radio"? Or, perhaps, "All your base are belong to us"? One problem (among many) with that story is that "Fare to Midland" is not a coherent answer to his friend's question. Unless the traveler was drinking heavily for his entire journey, the tale makes no sense.

Furthermore, we can be certain that the origin you've heard of "fare to Midland" isn't true because whoever made up that story mis-heard the phrase. It's not "fare to Midland." It's "fair to middling," meaning "moderately good," "OK but not great," or "so-so." If someone were to ask you how your vacation at your in-laws in Pittsburgh went, you might well say "Fair to middling."

We all know what "fair" in this sense means: it's midway on the scale from "good" to "poor." It's that "middling" that is a mystery to many, if not most, people, but it's really quite simple. "Middling," which first appeared in English in the 15th century, is an adjective that denotes something that sits in the middle of a range of quality. Wheat, for instance, was once rated as being "fine," "middling" or "poor."

"Fair to middling," which first appeared as a phrase in the mid-19th century, thus really means "fair to fair," a little joke in that the range between the two qualities really doesn't exist. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker's famous quip on the subject of Katherine Hepburn's acting ability ("Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B"), something that is "fair to middling" runs the gamut from "C to C."


Where's my para...Oh, shoot.

Dear Word Detective: In the late 1880s there was a town in Colorado by the name of Parachute. What is the origin of the word "parachute," since parachutes were not in use in the late 1880's? -- Scott A. Milner, via the internet.

Oh rats, Scott, you caught us. By now you've probably had time to figure out the whole shebang: the time travel, the crash at Roswell, the crop circles, everything. You've probably even found those pictures of Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and Judge Crater bailing out over the Rockies back in 1865. Anyway, some very large men will be knocking on your door any moment, Scott, and I'd go quietly if I were you.

At first glance, you question does seem to pose a clear anachronism. "Parachutes" are those things you strap to your back before "de-planing" an airplane in mid-flight, so if airplanes didn't exist at a certain moment in history, it makes sense that parachutes were yet to appear as well. Airplanes did not exist in the late 1880s, but a town named "Parachute" did. Obviously an explanation is in order.

And the answer is: balloons. Balloons and similar airships preceded airplanes by more than 100 years, and folks were every bit as afraid of falling out of them or otherwise coming to grief in the wild blue yonder as we are boarding the Chicago-New York shuttle today. So the "parachute," a device resembling a large umbrella and designed to slow the speed of a person falling from great heights, appeared back in the 1700s, long before the invention of the airplane.

The word "parachute" itself first appeared around 1785, borrowed from the French and rooted in the Latin "parare," meaning "defend or shelter" (as in "parasol," literally "to shelter from the sun") and the French "chute," meaning "fall." The term "parachute," incidentally, is also used in zoology to describe the expandable folds of skin that allow flying squirrels and similar creatures to glide though the air.

Now, as to why the good people of Colorado decided to name their town "Parachute," I can only imagine that it might have had something to do with that state's towering Rocky Mountains, which were, of course, named for Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Great White Humbug.

Dear Word Detective: I've been reading "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water" by Marc Reisner. In his account of John Wesley Powell's explorations of the Colorado River, Reisner talks about the fur trappers of the 19th century, and he refers twice to the "plews" they collected and sold. I assume a "plew" is a beaver hide, but I can't find the term in Webster's Dictionary or in other, on-line sources. Could you please help me to learn more about this word? -- Patricia Rosas, via the internet.

Certainly. You're absolutely correct in your supposition. "Plew" is an archaic term for the skin or pelt of a beaver, which was an important item of trade in early Colonial American history, and was still being used in beaver coats and similar wear in the 20th century. I suspect there may still be a market for beaver "plews" out there somewhere, but I don't really want to know about it.

The word "plew" itself was originally taken from the French Canadian term for beaver pelt, "pelu," which in turn comes from the French "poilu," meaning "hairy." "Plew" first appeared in written English around 1851, but the term is probably actually much older, since beaver trapping began soon after the arrival of settlers in the New World.

Since we're on this somewhat unpleasant subject, you may be wondering whether "pelt," meaning the skin of an animal, has anything to do with the verb "to pelt," meaning "to throw things at" (as in "The press pelted the prevaricating president with probing questions."). But the answer is no. "Pelt" the noun is probably based on the Latin "pellis," meaning "skin or hide," while "pelt" the verb is thought to be rooted in the Latin "pultare," meaning "to beat or strike."

They also make lovely doorstops.

Dear Word Detective: I am looking for the origin of the verb "to plug," meaning to promote a book, song or movie in the media. The closest I have found to a credible suggested origin is the name of the founder of one of the earliest commercial radio stations, which operated from northern France in, I think, the 1930's, his name being Mr. Plug (Plugg?). Are you able to confirm or refute this story? -- Stuart Middlemiss, via the internet.

I'll take "refute" for $200, Stuart. The verb "to plug," meaning to publicize or promote a book, movie, song, business or other creation by mentioning it in the mass media, does not come from the name of Mr. Plug, assuming he existed in the first place. Of course, eponyms, words formed from the proper names of people or places, are very common in English. "Sandwich" (popularized by John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich) and "Graham crackers" (after Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister who was convinced that eating meat caused lewd behavior and that catsup caused insanity), are among the thousands of eponyms in everyday usage.

But we have no need of Mr. Plug, whether he be real or imagined. "Plug" has been used as both a noun and verb in this "Hey, buy my book" sense since at least 1906, and is a logical outgrowth of the more general senses of the word.

In the beginning was the Middle Dutch word "plugge," meaning a stopper of wood or other material used to close an opening. Brought into English in the 17th century, "plug" sprouted a wide range of uses from the literal (as in "electrical plug") to the metaphorical ("to plug" meaning to shoot or punch someone). One of the figurative uses of "plug" appearing in the mid-19th century was "to plug away" at something, meaning to work very diligently, also found in the use of "plug" to mean a horse worn down by hard work. It was this "hard, diligent work" meaning that later developed into the "shameless promotion" sense we use today.

It's a bag fulla chickens. Youse gotta problem wid dat?

Dear Word Detective: I'm hoping that you can answer a question that has been bothering me for a long time. What is the connection between "poach," as in "poached eggs," and "poach," meaning to steal or hunt illegally? -- Lenore Dinham, Columbus, OH.

When you say that this question has been "bothering" you, I imagine you locking your door and lowering the blinds every morning at breakfast time. However, presuming you're not eating stolen eggs, your fears are unfounded. There is no direct connection between the two words, although they may have been related very long ago.

"Poached" eggs are cooked in boiling water without their shells, a process which encloses the yolk within a sort of "bag" formed by the egg white, and indeed the word "poach" itself comes from "poche," an Old French word for "bag." "Poche" went on to give us an remarkable range of other English words, including "pouch," "pocket" and "pucker." The same root also gave us "pock," meaning a small depression or "bag" in the skin, more commonly known by its plural form "pox" as in "chickenpox." "Poche" also lives on in the archaic word "poke," or bag, familiar to us mostly as what not to buy a pig in.

The other meaning of "poach," to "steal or take unfairly," comes from the Middle German word "poken," meaning "to thrust or prod," which also gave us the more familiar "poke your eye out" meaning of "poke." One who "poaches" in this sense "pokes into" or trespasses upon the property of someone else to steal goods or game.

It is possible that the two "poaches" are ultimately related, for if you "poke" (or "poach") a stick into something soft, you usually create a sort of "pocket" or "pouch." Feel free to experiment, though if you try it with eggs you'll have quite a mess on your hands.


Ask 'em how they feel about deviled eggs.

Dear Word Detective: I was corrected at a dinner party last night on my use of the word "lucky." I was told that one should use the word "blessed" because the word "lucky" was derived from the word "Lucifer." My research shows that "Lucifer" comes from Latin and means "light-bearer." The only thing I could find about the word "lucky" is that it is from Middle English "lucke" or Middle Dutch "luc." If this is correct, than I find no correlation between Lucifer and the word, "lucky." Please correct me if I am wrong. -- Ana DeSantis, via the internet.

Gimme a break. I'm going to hazard a guess that if you'd suggested "fortunate" as an alternative to "lucky," you'd have been told that its connection to "fortune" made it impermissibly pagan or some such silliness. In any case, you are absolutely correct and are to be congratulated on your level-headed approach to the question. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any linguistic connection whatsoever between "lucky" and "Lucifer."

As you've discovered, the word "luck" entered English from either German or Dutch in the 15th century as, not surprisingly, a gambling term, meaning good (or bad) fortune.

"Lucifer" did indeed mean "light-bearing" in its original Latin ("lux," light, plus "fer," bearing), and originally referred to the planet Venus, known as the morning star when it appears at sunrise. The connection between Lucifer the morning star and Satan goes back to the Biblical passage of Isaiah 14:12 ("How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning?"), which, although it was addressed to the king of Babylon, was later interpreted by religious scholars to be actually referring to Satan, the "fallen angel."

Unfortunately, it is probable that none of this will make a bit of difference to the folks who warned you against "lucky," since it will always look a little bit like "Lucifer" to them. Such cases have little to do with logic. After all, an entire county in Texas decided a while back to stop greeting each other with "Hello" and substitute "Heaven-O" despite platoons of linguists strenuously explaining that there was absolutely no connection between "hello" and "hell." Personally, I have found that the best course when confronted by such nonsense is to bite my tongue and smile warmly while backing slowly toward the door.

Just muffin around.

Dear Word Detective: Recently when I was looking for something and couldn't find it. I said, "I've looked in every nook and cranny and still can't find it." My niece asked me why we say "nook and cranny." Can you help? -- Jackie Clayton, via the internet.

Certainly. In fact, I may actually be an expert on the subject. Many years ago I was working for a large corporate law firm in New York City when one manufacturer of English muffins sued another, a newcomer in the market, for patent infringement. At issue was whether our client had stolen the patented "nooks and crannies" (the little ridges, crevices and holes within an English muffin) boasted by the plaintiff's product. It was a genuinely idiotic lawsuit, and, not surprisingly, research in preparation for court was a bit unorthodox. I vividly remember wandering into a conference room and finding a half-dozen of our high-priced lawyers huddled around a toaster, eating muffin after muffin, taking notes, and, of course, billing by the hour. As I recall, the parties eventually settled out of court. All those carbohydrates probably made them sleepy.

To say that we have looked in "every nook and cranny" is to say that our search has been painstaking, overlooking no place, however small or obscure. "Nook and cranny" as an idiom dates back to about 1836, but the constituent words "nook" and "cranny" are both much older than the phrase.

A "cranny" is a crack, small hole or narrow fissure in something. "Cranny" has a convoluted history, but it is probably rooted in the Latin "crena," or "notch," and first appeared In English around 1440. A "nook" is a little out-of-the-way corner of a house or any sort of secluded, sheltered spot. "Nook" also has a somewhat obscure history, but dates back to about 1300 and is thought to have been borrowed from a Scandinavian source.

Put together, "nook and cranny" is thus equivalent to saying "remote corner and small crack," places that only a very thorough search would reach. And as for your search, don't give up now. I'm sure whatever you're looking for will turn up in the last place you look, especially if you plan to stop looking once you've found it.

Twist and shoot.

Dear Word Detective: Is there any connection between "rifle" as in gun and "rifle" as in "rifle through his pockets"? -- K.W., New York, NY.

In considering how to answer your question, I thought of at least six funny lines having to do with the gun control debate, none of which, on second thought, I plan to use. I try to keep this column rigorously non-partisan, and besides, I have a very small mailbox.

There is a connection between the two senses of "rifle," although the "going through his pockets" (what business did you say you were in?) sense is considerably older than the "gun" sense. The word "rifle" itself comes from the Old French word "rifler," meaning "to scrape, scratch or plunder." That "plunder" is the key to the word "rifle" as it appeared in English around 1350 meaning "to rob, ransack or pillage," especially, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, "to search thoroughly with intent to rob." If you come home to find your house "rifled," you'll have quite a mess to clean up, because the thieves will have torn it apart looking for things to steal. "Rifling" is never subtle.

The firearms kind of "rifle" harks back to the "scratch" sense of the Old French word. "Rifling," invented in the 17th century, involves cutting spiral grooves into the interior of the barrel of a gun. This rifling makes the bullet spin on its way out and increases the range and accuracy of the weapon. What we call "rifles" were originally called "rifled guns" to distinguish them from pistols, which lack such grooves and are less accurate. Rifling was considered a major breakthrough in the evolution of firearms, although there are those of us who find the words "evolution" and "firearms" occurring in the same sentence oxymoronic. Next week I will explain what an "oxymoron" is. That will give me time to get a larger mailbox.

On a popsicle stick.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently talking with a friend of mine when, surprised, he exclaimed, "What in Sam Hell was that?" My initial reaction was to ask whether his mama hadn't told him not to swear like a prospector, but since then this expression has haunted my brain in the wee hours of the morning. Where in Sam Hell did the phrase "Sam Hell" come from? Why Sam, rather than George or Larry or even Betsey? -- Elizabeth, via the internet.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when euphemisms we incorrectly perceive. The phrase your friend was grappling for in his moment of excitement is not "What in Sam Hell," but "What in Sam Hill" or "What in the Sam Hill." In fact, the whole point of the phrase is that it does not involve the word "hell."

The explanation of "Sam Hill" is actually pretty simple -- it's an early 19th century American euphemism for "hell" used as an oath. Perhaps due to our Puritan ancestry, Americans have always been especially creative when it comes to inventing linguistic detours around oaths and blasphemies. "Heck," "drat," "darn," "gosh," "jiminy," "gee-whiz" and "goldarn," for example, all started out as euphemisms for exclamations of surprise or rage no newspaper would print and no proper dinner table conversation would tolerate. To digress a bit, I have always wondered whether Walt Disney knew, when he christened his little cartoon creation "Jiminy Cricket," that the name was a rather transparent euphemism for the blasphemous oath "Jesus Christ."

Because the euphemism "Sam Hill" is also a perfectly good real name, many people assume that the phrase must have originally referred to a real person. A reader wrote me several years ago, wondering if he might have uncovered the "original" Sam Hill in the person of Samuel Hill (1857--1931), a lawyer, financier and railroad magnate known in the Northwest U.S. as "the Father of Good Roads." After doing a little checking, however, I can say with certainty that while Mr. Hill may have been famous for many things, he was not the source of this phrase. In fact, "What in the Sam Hill" was in widespread use by 1839, quite a few years before this particular Sam Hill was born.

But we still don't know what to call someone from Queens.

Dear Word Detective: Why is someone from Liverpool a "Liverpudlian" rather than a "Liverpooler" or "Liverpoolite" or "Liverpoolian"? Is there a watery explanation? Something having to do with the relationship between pools and puddles? That is, if the citizenry en masse is "Liverpool" would an individual citizen (being just a part of that "pool") be a "puddle"? -- Confused in Kansas, Jeane Stafford.

Dear Word Detective: I'd like to know where the word "scouse" or "scouser," referring to someone originating from Liverpool, comes from? -- Elizabeth Mason, via the internet.

Greetings, folks, and welcome to Liverpool Day. Go figure. It must be one of those harmonic convergence things, or maybe just some Beatles tune stuck in the collective unconscious.

In any case, Confused in Kansas, the good news is that your guess is largely correct, although "Liverpudlian" is more a simple joke than a reflection of a "mass versus individual" distinction. Ordinarily, inhabitants of Liverpool (in northwest England) would be known as "Liverpoolians" or "Liverpoolites" or "Liverpoolers" on the same pattern that gives us "New Yorkers," "Brooklynites" and "Washingtonians." But some wag in the early 19th century decided to change the "pool" in "Liverpoolian" to "puddle" and shorten it to "pud" as a joke. The "Liverpudlian" label stuck, and more than 100 years later the ascent of the Beatles, probably Liverpool's most famous exports, transformed a minor British witticism into a household term around the world.

As for "scouse" (rhymes with "mouse") or "scouser" as a slang term for someone from Liverpool, we can chalk it up to Liverpool's history as an important British seaport. "Scouse" is short for "lobscouse," a kind of thick meat-and-vegetable stew often served to sailors in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The precise origin of "lobscouse" is obscure, but a synonym for the same stew, "loblolly," is probably a combination of "lob" (a dialectical English term meaning "to bubble while boiling") and "lolly" (a regional English term for "soup"). In any event, "scouse" has been shorthand for a Liverpudlian since at least the 1940s, and also refers to both the dialect and the distinctive accent of a Liverpool native.

Haute and Crusty.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering about the etymology of "upper crust." In his book "Made in America, An Informal History of the English Language in the United States," Bill Bryson dates it to 1832 in the U.S. and says that it is related to currency. He does not, however specify its origin. On a recent trip to England, as we were touring the house where Anne Hathaway grew up, the guide told us the term came from bread cooked in the ovens of Shakespeare's day. They heated so unevenly that when bread was baked, the part that was in contact with the bottom of the oven burned, while the top of the loaf became brown. The burnt portion was then given to the servants, while the "upper crust" was reserved for the wealthy. Are either of these the provenance of upper crust? -- John Vowell, via the internet.

Say, did you hear an earsplitting siren with a loud bell clanging just now? Not to worry -- it was just our Hogwash Detector going off again. It's designed to respond to certain phrases often found in spurious word origin stories. In this case, I'm certain that it was the words "the guide told us..." in your letter that tripped the alarm. Tourist guides may be, indeed usually are, very nice people. But if I had a dime for every silly etymology propagated by the breed, I would own a much better car than I do.

The term "upper crust," referring literally to the upper portion of a loaf of bread, is indeed very old, dating back to at least 1460. Subsequent instances of "upper crust" included its figurative use as a synonym for the surface of the earth (1555) and as slang for, believe it or not, a hat (1826).

But the metaphorical use of "upper crust" in its modern sense of "the aristocracy or the wealthy class" seems, as Mr. Bryson says, to have first occurred in early 19th century America, and was widespread enough by 1848 to be included by John Bartlett in his seminal "Dictionary of Americanisms" published that year. And the term simply refers to the "upper layers" of society in an economic sense, not to the perceived superiority of any portion of a loaf of bread.




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