Issue of September 3, 2004



Y'know, I had always assumed that when some nutjob with 25 cats and/or dogs surfaces on the evening news, the afflicted party had first come unhinged and then, in his or her weakened and suggestible state, understandably acquired an excess of pets.

Now that Word Detective World Headquarters has surpassed 25% of the Official Eyewitness News Threshold of Dementia, however, I am beginning to suspect that the chronology (and, indeed, the causation) of such cases is just the opposite.  I can't even remember the little critters' names half the time, and how much longer George Booth's great New Yorker cartoons (right) will seem funny is in serious question.  Anyone who has attempted (as I just did) to make a grilled cheese sandwich while surrounded by five cats and two dogs, all firmly convinced that I was cooking their dinner, will understand. 

Last month I mentioned Barry Popik's crackerjack new website, The Big Apple, where Barry is posting the results of his years of research into New York City popular speech.  This month brings a measure of very belated recognition for Barry's work from The New York Times in this article, which should be considered just a small down payment on the respect those schmucks at the Times owe him.  Barry is the real deal, a brilliant and dedicated researcher who has made enormous contributions to uncovering the history of slang and vernacular speech in both New York City and the US in general.  Speaking of the Times, one can only wish that Judith Miller shared Barry's devotion to accuracy.

Elsewhere on the Information Superwhatsis, I Used to Believe, The Childhood Beliefs Site is great fun and will remind you of just how weird you were as a kid.

And James Wolcott, one of my favorite writers on culture and politics and author of the sharp and hilarious Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, now has a blog.

Sorry I'm a bit late updating this site, but I have been busy working on a new website, My Favorite Word, tied to a new book project.  Details shortly, as they say. 

In the meantime, we here at TWD World Headquarters would, as always, appreciate your support as expressed by subscribing to the email version of our little dog and pony show, especially since we are running perilously short of dog and pony food at the moment.  If you enjoy TWD and would rather not see us devoured by starving dogs and irate ponies, this would be a good time to dig into that PayPal account for a mere $15.

And now, on with the show:

This little piggie went to law school, this little piggie owns a yacht....

Dear Word Detective: I've heard that "putting your best foot forward" has something to do with public punishment on the steps of the local courthouse. This seems a little "far-fetched," whatever that means. -- Joel Schuster.

Ah, the old "whatever that means" gambit. I used to work with a woman, reportedly a former Miss Jamaica (whether the nation or the neighborhood in Queens was never clear) who was fond, in moments of stress, of exclaiming "Oy vey!" followed, a moment later, with a sotto voce "... whatever that means." I always suspected that Miss Eunice (as we knew her) had tales to tell, but fortunately she kept them to herself.

Oh yes, you had a question. To "put your best foot forward" means, of course, to get off to a good start or to make the best impression possible. The phrase first appeared in the 16th century, and Shakespeare used the form "better foot" in the same sense.

Unfortunately, the origin and logic of "put your best foot forward" is a bit uncertain, but I cannot imagine any plausible scenario involving public punishment. There is some evidence that to "put your best foot forward" originally meant to walk briskly by starting off on one's "best" (i.e., strongest) foot, an apt metaphor for making a good impression. Various theories further hold that the right foot was considered at one time the more "rational" foot (as opposed to the irrational, emotional left) and that the right, in ancient folklore, is the lucky foot and the left unlucky. If so, to start a journey, whether literal or metaphorical, on one's strong, lucky, rational foot would certainly be advisable.

Since you brought up "far-fetched," I should explain that it means "unlikely or improbable." Interestingly, the original meaning of "far-fetched" when it appeared in the 16th century was "fetched (brought) from a far-away place; exotic." By the 17th century, however, it had taken on the more negative connotation, applied to an idea, argument or account, of "not easily believed, strained, unlikely."

Meanwhile, the kid's out in the kitchen feeding marshmallows to the dog.

Dear Word Detective: So my seven-year-old asks me what "bound" means. I reply, "tied or wrapped up," whereupon she gives me an odd look. Turns out she'd heard it from an old folk hymn, "Bound for the Promised Land," which reminded me of an alternate meaning of the word "bound." I started thinking about it, and realized that "bound" could mean tied up, headed for, bordered by, leap, required, covered (like a book), determined, constipated, and probably several other things as well. Do all these meanings have the same root, or have they just sort of collected themselves into the same sound? -- Merilyn Fly.

Pesky kids. It's hard enough maintaining a grip on sanity these days without some pint-sized Mike Wallace ambushing us with sly insinuations about the illogic of the English language. It's even more annoying that the kids are almost always right.

One of the confusing aspects of English is that we often use the same word (or what appears to be the same word) to mean wildly different things. In many cases, all the senses of the word do spring from the same root, and all the meanings are at least remotely related. In other cases, however, two words with entirely different histories have ended up being spelled (and often pronounced) in exactly the same way. "Bound" is a particularly tricky case because English actually has four separate "bounds," each with its own history.

The oldest "bound" is English is the one meaning "tied or fastened" (as in "bound and gagged") or, figuratively, "obliged" (as in "contractually bound"). This "bound" is simply the past participle of "bind," first appearing in Old English in the form "bounden," and is also used in the "constipated" and "book covering" senses you mention.

The next sense of "bound" is that "Bound for the Promised Land" (or, more prosaically, "bound for the mall") sense. This "bound" was borrowed from the Old Norse "buinn," meaning "prepared or ready," expanded in English to mean "going or intending to go" (or simply "intending," as in "bound and determined").

Yet another "bound" is the noun "bound," meaning "border or limit," which appeared in the 14th century, derived from the Old French "bodne." This sort of "bound" gave us the more common "boundary," and is still heard in the phrase "out of bounds."

Finally, we have the verb "to bound," meaning "to leap or spring," derived from the Old French word "bondir," which first appeared in English in the late 16th century.

The Sweaty Small Stuff

Dear Word Detective: Years ago, in a conversation with a friend, I noted he used the term "chum change" to describe a small or insignificant amount of money. More recently I've heard people using the term "chump change" to describe the same. I had always assumed that the word "chum," in "chum change," was likened to the bait thrown off a boat used to attract shark or other large game fish. When you are "chumming" you are throwing away worthless fish in the hopes of attracting a bigger fish. (The term "chicken feed" is somewhat similar.) Of course the word "chump" means fool or foolish so the phrase "chump change" could mean foolishly throwing money around (albeit a small amount money). Or it could mean foolish in the sense of "That is too small of an amount of money for an intelligent person to accept -- it's chump change." Only a fool would accept "chump change." Do you know the origins of this term and which is correct? -- Jay Snodgress.

This is a fascinating question. The phrase is quite definitely "chump change," but "chum change" is a great invention in its own right. It's a shame that it didn't gain currency during the dot-com boom, when a relatively small amount of money spent on cool chairs and snazzy logos by a tech start-up could prime the pump and attract pots of capital from prowling investment bankers. It's a bit late now, I suppose.

As some readers might be unfamiliar with the fishing term "chum," I should explain that it means "trash" fish and the like tossed in the water to attract bigger fish. This sort of "chum" is unrelated to "chum" meaning "buddy" or "close friend," thought to be a 17th century British students' contraction of "chamber mate" (roommate). The origin of the "blood in the water" sort of "chum" is unknown, but it first appeared in the mid-19th century and may be related to the chum salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

"Chump" first appeared in English in the early 1700s meaning "lump of wood" (possibly from a melding of "chunk" and "lump"), and by the late 1880s had acquired its modern derogatory meaning of "blockhead" or "fool." The term "chump change" seems to have first appeared in the African-American community in the late 1960s with the meaning of "small change, a negligible amount of money." The sense of the term is "an amount of money only a chump would value; a trivial amount," as opposed to larger amounts of "real money."

Slow down faster

Dear Word Detective: A dictionary oddity that my family has been puzzling over is the origin of the word "mosey." As used in the South of the United States, it means "to move slowly," but the Oxford English Dictionary says the opposite, that it means "to hurry"! Any comment on this? -- Laura Bligh, Vienna, VA.

Dear Word Detective: Mosey on over here and tell me the origin of this word, please. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary it says that the origin of the word "mosey" is unknown. I found in other sources that it may be of cowboy origin starting in 1829 to 1838. Can the Word Detective shed any light on the origin of the word "mosey"? -- David Mask, via the internet.

It's always something, isn't it? I got up this morning, walked the dogs, washed the cats, made coffee and sat down at my desk, all as usual, never realizing that it is National Mosey Day. Now I guess I'll have to spend the rest of the day wandering around punching cows (metaphorically, of course) and addressing everyone as "Pardner." Or something.

Ms Bligh has put her finger on one of two problems with the word "mosey," which is used occasionally in the American South but which many of us have heard only in cowboy movies. When the word first appeared in the early 19th century, it seems to have meant "to go away quickly, to make haste." By the late 1800s, however, "mosey" was being used with nearly the opposite meaning, that of "to walk in a leisurely and aimless fashion; to amble or wander." This later "take your time" meaning is the one prevalent now, and, incidentally, the forthcoming third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will give precedence to this meaning. Just when or why the meaning of "mosey" changed is a mystery, although such variations in usage are not uncommon. The basic sense of "leave," after all, remains.

A greater mystery is the origin of "mosey." There are, predictably, a number of theories, including "mosey" being connected to the Biblical figure of Moses in some fashion (perhaps it's all those years Moses and the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness). The theory that rings most true to me, although it remains to be verified, traces "mosey" to the word "vamoose," itself an Anglicization of the Spanish "vamos," meaning "let us go." Used originally in the western U.S. in the early 18th century to mean "leave quickly" ("Here comes the Sheriff, Festus. We'd better vamoose!"), "vamoose" would match the original "scram" sense of "mosey" quite well.

Make Wonga Fast!

Despite the fact that I receive, on average, about 3,000 pieces of email per day (ninety percent of which are spam), I have always been, and inexplicably remain, a big fan of mailing lists. I subscribe to all sorts of lists, from the immensely useful American Dialect Society discussion list to some fairly arcane shortwave radio lists.

I don't know what took me so long, but last month I subscribed to the Word of the Day mailing list sent out by the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary. There are a number of "word of the day" mailing lists out there (Anu Garg's "A Word A Day," available at, is very good), but the OED list has turned out to exert a weird hold on me. Each day they send out one word or phrase from the OED, complete with its etymology and list of illustrative citations from printed sources. Lately I've been wondering what sort of person they've put in charge of picking the daily words, because they range from the banal to the fascinating.

At the banal end of the scale, the very first message I received from the list concerned the word "underlay," which, as one might suspect, is defined as something that is placed under something else, often to raise that something else to a desired level. Snooze city.

The next message focused on "percher," defined at the basic level as "a person or animal that perches," which seemed as dull as "underlay." But further down in the definitions, I discovered that "percher" back in the 16th century was used to mean "one who aspires to a high position; a self-assertive person," and that in the early 1700s "percher" was slang for a dying person ("The Queen is well, though the Whigs give out that she is, what they wish her, 'a percher'").

A few days later I learned that "wonga" is British slang for "money," drawn from the word for "coal" in Romany, the language of the Gypsies, possibly from the practice of Gypsies collecting coal fallen from passing trains. And "saddo," I learned later that week, is current Brit slang for "a person perceived as socially inadequate, unfashionable, or otherwise contemptible," being a simple melding of "sad" with the arch hipster ending "o." Not bad for less than two weeks of words. You can sign up for a free subscription to the OED list at


No bunnies were boiled to make this column.

Dear Word Detective: My question is about the word "unrequited," as in unrequited love. If you love someone back, is it "requited"? My significant other and I have pondered this question for years. -- Lauri Goff.

Interesting question. Inasmuch as you mention your "significant other," I presume that your interest in the word is strictly intellectual, and that in answering I won't become embroiled in some baroque "Fatal Attraction" scenario. I actually made the mistake of acting, via this column, as a go-between in a case of unrequited love a few years ago and have had to avoid the entire state of Idaho ever since.

Incidentally, if you're interested in words having to do with love and romance, you would probably enjoy my latest book, Making Whoopee -- Words of Love for Lovers of Words, published earlier this year by Algonquin, which contains a slightly more detailed version of the following explanation (as well as a meditation on the cultural significance of the term "significant other").

Love is "unrequited" when only one person (as opposed to the optimal two) is interested in a relationship and has had his or her amorous advances greeted by indifference at best and laughter at worst. The "unrequited" one then either gets on with life or, more likely, becomes a tear-soaked stalker and the pity of his or her friends.

To "requite" means simply "to repay or to return in kind." A smitten swain who proffers his heart to a fair maiden will likely do so in the expectation that his gift of love will be "requited." "Requite," which first appeared in English in the early 16th century, is based on the verb "to quite," an antiquated form of the verb "to quit" used in an equally antiquated sense meaning "to repay, to give back." So "unrequited" love is, etymologically speaking anyway, love that has been given and not repaid.

"Requite" is a fairly antiquated term, not commonly used since the 18th century, and even then it was most often used in the sense of "repay" (or even "retaliate").

I'll take that one up there.

Dear Word Detective: Although I think I know what it generally means, I've always been sort of in the dark about the term "cherry pick" --- it's one of those phrases one encounters almost daily, applied in a variety of settings. My earliest encounter with this term came when playing basketball as a youth for my grade school team, and the coach told me to stay back on defense and "cherry pick" our opponent. At the time I had no idea what he meant (I still don't know what it means in basketball terminology), so I didn't know what to do, and was unceremoniously yanked off the court. Since then, I've heard the term quite a lot, and not being familiar with the act of harvesting cherries, I'm wondering what "cherry pick" has to do with getting one's choice of the best of something, if that is what it really means. The internet was absolutely no help in providing a definition or origin of this term, so I'm turning to the great Word Detective on this one.-- Ed in Youngstown, OH.

Ah yes, school sports, our primary source of juvenile humiliation and lifelong emotional trauma. I can't remember the names of the teachers who taught me long division or how to find Estonia on a map, but I sure do remember my gym teacher. Right now I'm biding my time, but someday a very surprised 90-year old man is going to find himself in a rousing game of dodgeball.

You don't mention exactly what led you to ask about "cherry-pick," but the term has been in the news fairly frequently lately. Government critics have accused the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" intelligence data in the run-up to the Iraq war, and various Democratic candidates were said to be "cherry-picking" which primaries they would enter last spring. In both cases, the sense of "to cherry-pick" is essentially "to pick and choose," to pick the best, most important, most easily accomplished, or most advantageous items from the range available.

Cherries grow on trees, of course, and picking them, done in part from above the tree, can be tricky. Since about 1945, "cherry-picker" in a literal sense has meant the type of mobile hydraulic crane now often used by utility crews working on poles. "Cherry-picking," however, is also a figurative reference to the laborious (and usually at least somewhat selective) process of picking each cherry by hand. "Cherry-picker," meaning a person who picks only the best or easiest opportunities, first appeared a railroad slang in 1940. The verb "to cherry-pick" is much more recent, dating to about 1966.

Dum de dum dum.

Dear Word Detective: Not so much a question, more of a suggestion. I've been trying to find the etymology of the work "dick" used to mean "detective" as in "private dick." It seems that it came into currency in the U.S. in 1908, originally to mean a policeman, especially a detective. It is usually said to be a contraction of "detective," but here's an alternative. A British writer called Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock wrote a number (hundreds!) of detective and mystery stories under the pseudonym "Dick Donovan," starring a detective in Glasgow, Scotland, of that name. The earliest stories pre-date Sherlock Holmes and some were published in The Strand magazine at the same times as Doyle's Holmes tales. They were collected into 15 or so volumes between 1888 and 1899, starting with The Man-Hunter: Stories from the Note-Book of a Detective in 1888, and were spectacularly successful, especially in America, where they were frequently reprinted. Now all but forgotten, Donovan was the most popular detective heroes of the time. The use of his first name as a generic, slang term for a detective from the early 1900s is not unlikely. (And just for the record, Dick Tracy didn't start until 1931). -- Bruce Durie.

That's an interesting theory, and it's certainly not impossible that "Dick Donovan" was the inspiration for "dick" meaning "detective." The standard theory (more of a guess, really) about the origin of "dick" does indeed posit that it is probably simply a shortened form of "detective," but there really doesn't seem to be a compelling resemblance between the words, so I'm skeptical. (Then again, "Dick" as a proper name is short for "Richard," so such weird leaps do happen.)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, however, suggests an entirely different origin for "dick," one that I find very plausible. They trace the noun "dick" in the "detective" sense to the 19th century (around 1864) criminal underworld slang verb "to dick," meaning "to watch." This "dick" came in turn from the Romany (the language of the Gypsies) word "dik," meaning "to look, to see." This is significant because the Gypsies, originally from northern India, played a prominent role in the British underworld in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several Romany words (including "posh") percolated into general English usage during that period. One can easily imagine "dick" meaning "to watch" being transformed into a noun that means "one who watches, a police detective, etc." It is even possible that the popularity of Dick Donovan tales at the time contributed to the spread of the term "dick" among the law-abiding (and mystery-reading) public.

Tooth be told.

Dear Word Detective: When asked to evaluate Britain's continuing support of the current American regime, British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said, "I think most countries around the world would give their eye-teeth to have that relationship." As far as I know, "eye-teeth" refers to your canine teeth, but when did this become synonymous with "the most valuable thing one owns"? Or was Blair making sneaky reference to the amount of pain that a country might have to endure to "have that relationship"? -- Dan Palmer, Dublin, Ireland.

Yo, buddy, quit kicking our poodle. But seriously, I think Tony Blair was being sincere, although the whole point of "give one's eyeteeth" (we in the U.S. don't usually hyphenate "eyetooth") is indeed the prospect of pain. Incidentally, I suspect that you realize your use of "regime" (from the Latin "regere," to rule) in your opening will raise the hackles of some American readers, although, strictly speaking, it simply means "system of government" or "a particular government administration." But "regime" is today almost always used in a pejorative sense, so one person's "regime" is another's "administration" or "government."

"To give one's eyeteeth for" has been a popular figure of speech meaning "to be willing to undergo great sacrifice for" since at least 1930, when it was used by Somerset Maugham in his comic novel "Cakes and Ale." One's "eyeteeth" are, as you say, the upper canine teeth, so called since about 1580 because they are directly under and closest to the eyes. Not only are eyeteeth functionally valuable, being used to bite off and chew food, but any damage to them is likely to be very painful, as the nerves of these particular teeth run close to the eyes and the pain may actually be felt in the eyes. So to voluntarily suffer loss of one's eyeteeth would indeed be a great sacrifice, perhaps not as profound as "giving one's right arm for" something, but still a major drag. It would definitely make eating pizza (my personal quality-of-life standard) difficult, for instance. An even greater sort of sacrifice, however, would be "to give one's eyes for," a hyperbolic metaphor for sacrifice that dates back to 1857.

Pod people.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I have been trying to figure this one out and decided to just ask: What is the origin of the word "pediatrician"? It seems to us that "ped" would indicate something to do with the foot. "Podiatrists," "pedals," "pedestrians," etc., all follow this assumption. "Pediatrician," however, does not. I guessed that possibly the origin of "ped" might actually mean something closer to foundation or base and that would explain why both feet (the base of a human body) and children (the original form of a human) would necessitate the use of "ped." Please help us clear this up. -- Elaine Plybon.

Good question, but I notice that you skipped right over the mystery of why "podiatrist" begins with "pod," rather than the expected "ped." We'll get to that in a moment, but first I must note that the "pod" in "podiatrist" is entirely unrelated to "pod" meaning "separate enclosed unit associated with a particular function." The most notable use of that "pod" lately has been in the wildly popular (and absurdly expensive) Apple iPod music player, this year's Tickle Me Elmo for the tone-deaf set. The root and original sense of the "iPod" kind of "pod" is "seed vessel," as in "pea pod," but its origin is unknown.

The root of such words as "pedestrian," "pedal," "pedicure," and so on is the Latin "pes" (or "ped") meaning "foot." In the case of "podiatrist," however, the root is not Latin but the Greek word "pous," also meaning "foot." This same Greek "pous" also gave us "podium" and, filtered through Old French, our English word "pew," which originally meant a raised, enclosed area within a church.

"Pediatrician," a doctor specializing in the care of children, is a bit tricky because it begins with what looks like the Latin "ped," or "foot," but the actual source is the Greek "pais," meaning "child," combined with "iatrikos," meaning "medical" (from "iatros," doctor). Despite all that Greek, "pediatrician" (which is sometimes spelled "paediatrician") is actually a fairly new word, first appearing at the beginning of the 20th century. This same Greek "pais/ped" form underlies such other English words as "encyclopedia" ("general knowledge" a child should master) and "pedophile" (literally, "child lover").

While we're on the subject of feet, one of my favorite word origins is that of "pedigree," which derives from the Old French "pied de grue," or "crane's foot," because the branching marks used on genealogy charts were thought to resemble the spindly foot of a bird.

Fruit flies like a banana.

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to the Beatles the other day, and there is a line in a song that reads: "Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat." I cannot think where the phrase "seconds flat" comes from, although I speculated that it referred to an hourglass and when all the sand had gone through, the sand would be flat. But of course it isn't; it's cone-shaped. Lost. -- D. Cosentino.

Dude, I'm there. Why go on? As soon as you (in a year or two) figure out "seconds flat," you'll be sitting on the bus and you'll overhear someone talking about "footing the bill" or being "pleased as punch," and before you know it you'll have spent another six months staring out the window wondering what the heck that meant. I think it's time to ask if we really want major chunks of our economic productivity and public happiness sacrificed to a bunch of weird phrases no one really understands.

Then again, that's why you have me, and, seeing as you've stapled the requisite ten-dollar bill to your email, let's explore the wonderful (and not at all two dimensional) world of "flat." The Beatles song you mention, by the way, is "A Day in the Life," from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the whole album is actually about the untimely death of Paul McCartney in a bizarre accordion accident, after which he was replaced in the band by Wayne Newton.

English adopted "flat" from the Old Norse "flatr" early in the 15th century and ever since we've been adding meanings onto the root sense of "horizontally level." We speak today of a "flat" tire and "flat finish" paint, of enterprises that "fall flat" in failure, even of wine that has "gone flat" and lost its taste.

One of the more useful figurative meanings we've assigned to "flat" is that of "absolutely," as in the phrase "flat broke," giving the sense of "reduced to a flat state, absolutely without substance or variation." A related sense is "exactly, precisely, not exceeding," which appeared in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It is this sense of "flat" meaning "no variation, no wiggle room" that we find in phrases such as "seconds flat" or "no time flat."


Annals of rocket surgery.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "village idiot" originate? -- Stephanie Cachez.

Funny you should ask. Our local Township Trustees (Larry, Moe and Curly) recently undertook to widen our road, a good idea since it was, at its widest, perhaps one and one-half lanes. Unfortunately, the result is not much wider, rises between eight and twelve inches above the level of the surrounding land, and is already crumbling at the edges, making passing oncoming vehicles even more exciting than before the "improvement."  There is also now an inexplicable four-foot drop between our mailbox and the road.  Incidentally, since we have three Trustees, that means that there are two villages out there somewhere each lacking its idiot.

For a term that must surely rank as among the most derogatory that can be printed in a family newspaper, "idiot" has a deceptively civil origin. The Greek "idiotes" meant simply "private individual" (based on "idios," meaning "personal" or "private"). Gradually, however, the connotation of the term shifted to "a person without advanced education" and, eventually, to "an ignorant, simple man, a fool." It was in this sense that "idiot" entered English (via Latin and French) in the 13th century.

While today "idiot" is generally considered synonymous with the equally derogatory "moron" and "imbecile," around 1910 there was an attempt to distinguish these three terms as actual scientific categories of mental retardation. The IQ of a "moron" was decreed to be between 50 and 69, that of an "imbecile" between 20 and 49, and an "idiot" below 20. This system of classification has since been replaced by far more sophisticated diagnostic tools, and no mental health professional would dream of using any of those terms. Even the term "idiot savant" (French for "learned idiot"), meaning a person afflicted by autism or another disability who demonstrates extraordinary ability in math or another area, has been replaced by "autistic savant."

Although one thinks, perhaps, of the Middle Ages when the term "village idiot" arises, it seems to be of surprisingly recent vintage. The earliest known use in print comes in George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara," written in 1907 ("I myself have had a village idiot exhibited to me as something irresistibly funny"). Underlying the term is the supposition (especially popular among urban sophisticates) that each small country village must have one exceptionally simple resident who serves as the butt of jokes and provides endless amusement for the townsfolk. But, like many stereotypes of rural life, the legend of the lone "village idiot" is unfair and inaccurate. Many villages have two or three, and sometimes we even elect them to public office.

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Big Bird.

Dear Word Detective: The albatross is an amazing endangered seabird, so why does the word "albatross" have a negative connotation meaning "a burden"? -- Anne Yost.

Spoken like someone who's never owned an albatross. Take it from me, an ocean-going seabird with a twelve-foot wingspan may sound like the ideal household pet, but the reality is quite another story. Apart from the freezer I had to buy to hold all the herring Elwood (we call him Elwood) puts away, there's the bird toys all over the living room and feathers in absolutely everything, not to mention the, how shall I put it, "guano issue." Sure, there are the good aspects. Elwood's always up for a quick swoop to the mall and we get nearly ten miles to the herring. But there are days when albatross ownership seems like a real curse.

If, however, you are still in the market for an albatross, you should be aware that the name "albatross" actually refers to an entire family of large seabirds which includes petrels, shearwaters, and fulmars. The largest and most famous of the family is the wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans.

The word "albatross," dating to the late 17th century, is probably an alteration of the Spanish "alcatraz," meaning "pelican" (which the albatross isn't), perhaps influenced by the Latin "alba," meaning "white" (which the albatross is). "Alcatraz," incidentally, is thought to be derived from the Arabic "al-qadus," or "bucket," the belief being, long ago, that pelicans scoop up water in their beaks to carry to their young, which they, predictably, do not. (Lotta confusion about birds going on way back when, wasn't there?) Alcatraz prison in California, by the way, was named for the pelicans that frequent the rocky island upon which it sits.

The albatross is a majestic bird and the sight of one far out at sea has been considered good luck by mariners for centuries, which brings us to that "burden" business. It's all Samuel Taylor Coleridge's fault. In his 1798 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a sailor, to the horror of his shipmates, shoots an albatross, bringing a dreadful curse upon the ship. As punishment, the other men force the mariner to wear the dead albatross around his neck, and it is not until everyone else on the ship has died and the mariner truly repents that he is freed of his burden.

As a dandy (if slightly mysterious) metaphor for an unwelcome burden, "albatross" has been widely used as a synonym for an annoying encumbrance since the 1930s.

No exit.

Dear Word Detective: I came across your website and was fully engrossed when a client called, and after he explained his situation, I told him that his ex-wife "left him in the lurch," i.e., left him in a bad situation. Where did the term "left it the lurch" come from? -- RDC.

Good question. But first, it occurs to me that the motto of my website (which until now has been "Any typos found are yours to keep") really ought to be "Distracting office workers from their appointed tasks since 1995." I wonder how often my work comes up in annual evaluation interviews ("I'm looking at the logs of your computer use, Jones, and wondering how something called "The Wood Detective" helps you sell mutual funds").

I suspect that a certain percentage of readers are expecting the Addams Family to figure somehow in my answer to your question, but no such luck, gang. A seminal (but fairly insipid) 60s TV sitcom based loosely on the brilliant New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, the show did feature a tall, taciturn butler named Lurch, but his name was apparently drawn from a different sort of "lurch," the verb meaning "to stagger, to tip or to walk unsteadily." This kind of "lurch" is thought to have derived from the nautical term "lee-lurch" (or "lee-latch"), meaning a ship drifting sideways in a downwind (lee) direction. The "latch" part may be either an alteration of the French word "lacher" (to let go) or the remnant of an actual nautical command to "latch" (hold) the ship steady so it doesn't drift leeward.

While it's easy to imagine someone "left in the lurch" staggering around aimlessly, this sort of "lurch" actually derives from a happier source, a popular parlor game. "Lourche" (later modified to "lurch") was a game similar to backgammon played in the 16th century. Apparently it was not uncommon for one player in the game to finish with a very low score (or no score at all), a state which itself, by 1598, came to be known as "lurch." Fairly quickly, the phrase "to have someone at the lurch" came to mean "to have a great advantage over someone," and by 1596 "to leave in the lurch" had arrived at its modern meaning of abandoning someone in great distress.

Great balls of time.

Dear Word Detective: Visiting Greenwich (UK) last week, I finally learned the source of the expression "to be on the ball." At the Greenwich Observatory, "where time begins," you'll find the international meridian line. On a tower, there is a spire, attached to which is a large red ball, kind of like the ball at Times Square on New Year's (they probably stole the idea from Greenwich). The ball slowly rises to the top of the spire, and then drops to the bottom on the hour. Ships on the Thames waiting to start their voyages could see the ball drop, and would set their clocks by it. To have your clocks set on meridian time, and to leave at the drop of the ball, is to be "on the ball." So being "on the ball" really means to be "on time," not "intelligent" or "alert." -- Kim.

Ha, I say. Ha! You only think those Greenwichians explained the origin of "on the ball." If I were a cynic, I'd suggest that "Look at that big red ball up there and listen to this nifty story" sounds like the prelude to a mass pocket-picking. But since you'd probably already emptied your wallet on Bobble-head Beefeaters and Princess Di refrigerator magnets, I'll assume that the spiel you heard was sincere, and just reiterate my opinion that many (not all, just many) tourist guides really ought to be teaching Fiction Writing 101.

I'm a big fan of the Greenwich Observatory and their time-keeping (I have a clock on my wall set to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which used to be called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)), and the folks at Greenwich have indeed been dropping that red ball every day at 1 p.m. since 1833. There's actually another time ball at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and at one time San Francisco and Cincinnati, Ohio had their own time balls.

But all this ball-dropping has nothing to do with the origin of "on the ball," meaning "to be alert" or "to be prepared and in control of the situation." According to Paul Dickson's New Dickson's Baseball Dictionary, the phrase originated in the early 20th century U.S. in the sport of baseball, where a pitcher who dominated and successfully manipulated the opposing batters was said to "have" or "be putting" a lot "on the ball," possibly referring to spin or other sorts of sneaky pitcher tricks. From there the phrase migrated into general use and acquired its current sense of "able to handle whatever comes up."


Dear Word Detective: I have heard that the expression "over the hill" was derived when the enrollees of the Civilian Conservation Corps left camp without permission. Since these camps were operated by the military and the enrollees were civilian they could not be court-martialed for going absent without leave (AWOL). The expression evolved for "just walking over the hill" and leaving to go home. Do you have any information about this expression? -- Joan Sharpe.

Good question. I've walked away from a few jobs myself, most notably a ghastly gig sorting and filing indigent burial requests in a dimly-lit basement office at the Ohio Welfare Department. I bailed out after a mere six hours, but alphabetizing things has made me queasy ever since.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established as a public works program in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Over the next few years, more than three million formerly unemployed men built roads, parks, dams and planted more than three billion trees. By 1935 there were more than 2,000 CCC camps all over the country where the urban unemployed (including many veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I) earned a paycheck again while bringing telephone service to rural areas and building drainage systems for agriculture. While the project was supervised partially by the U.S. Army, CCC workers remained civilians, and while a few may have walked away, the project, which lasted until 1942, is considered a great success by most historians. You can read more about the CCC at

In the AWOL sense, "over the hill" seems to have been WWII Army slang, so if it was used in the CCC it was probably contributed by soldiers.

But the most common sense of the phrase today really doesn't match with "walking away" or "going AWOL." Since its first appearance in print in 1950, "over the hill" has meant "having passed its prime," as in "Harry used to be a fine dancer, but he must be over the hill now because Betty is limping." The allusion of "over the hill" in this sense is pretty clearly to the first part of life being a climb uphill (perhaps up a mountain) to the peak of one's prowess, and the later years being all downhill from there.

Attention must be paid.

Dear Word Detective: Would very much appreciate if you were to let me know the origin of the phrase "fits to a tee."
-- C. W. Branch Talley, Irvine, CA.

Well, it certainly can't be from "t-shirts," of which I own, perhaps, thirty, with designs ranging from the Taco Bell dog in a Che Guevara pose to one sent me by an ice-cream company featuring an ice-skating penguin. Although they are all theoretically the same size, not a single one of them really fits. The ones that don't reach to my knees seem determined to choke me, and the ones that fit across my shoulders make my arms look like Olive Oyl's. Let's just say that I vastly prefer the colder months.

Then again, the expression "to a tee" (or just "to a T"), meaning "exactly, perfectly," predates t-shirts by quite a bit, having first appeared in print in 1693, while "t-shirt" dates only to the early 20th century (and "tee" as an abbreviation of "t-shirt" dates only to the 1970s). T-shirts, by the way, are so called because they form a "T" when laid flat.

There are a number of theories about the origin of "to a tee," ranging from the "tee" used in golf to an architect's "T-square." It is also possible that it began as a reference to "crossing one's t's and dotting one's i's," i.e., being very precise, accurate and careful.

It is also possible that "to a tee" originally referred to a word beginning with the letter "T," and here things get interesting. The leading suspect seems to be the word "tittle," originally meaning "a small stroke or mark made in handwriting," for instance, the dot over an "i," the cross of a "t," or the "tilde" mark commonly used in Spanish. ("Tittle," incidentally, comes from the Latin "titulus," meaning "inscription," which also gave us "title.") Bolstering the "tittle" origin is the fact that the word was also used to mean "a very small amount or part of something," and the phrase "to a tittle," with the same meaning as "to a tee," was in use for nearly a century before "to a tee" appeared.

If "tittle" sounds familiar, it's probably most often heard in the phrase "jot and tittle," meaning "a tiny amount." The word "jot," also meaning "the smallest part," comes from "iota," the Greek name for the letter "i," the smallest in the alphabet. "Iota," of course, is still used to mean "something very small."

Wherein my mind wanders onto the highway of knowledge and is run over by a speeding bore.

Dear Word Detective: In The Robber Bride, a novel by Margaret Atwood, one of the characters loses herself in thought and labels herself as "woolgathering." Then she comments to herself that "woolgathering" is one of those words everyone knows, but no one knows where it originated. If anyone knows, I'm sure you do. I'm curious about the origins, because gathering wool, to me, sounds like it would be a job requiring exertion, not distraction. -- Lynn Drexel.    p.s. -- Your kittens are beautiful.

Thank you, I knitted them myself. Actually, we found them hiding in the bushes, and the whole story, plus suitably adorable pictures, can be found here.

They say the moments we remember most vividly are often those of our deepest humiliation, and my memories of my first encounter with "wool-gathering" bear that out. My eighth-grade English teacher, a pedantic fussbudget in tweeds, had, that afternoon, droned me into a near-coma where I was happily sketching jet planes on the back of my notebook. Suddenly a barking voice cut through my pleasant fugue. "Wool-gathering, Mister Morris?" Evidently he had asked me a question I hadn't heard. I must have jumped a foot in my chair, but my more pressing problem (and keen embarrassment) was that I had only a hazy idea of what he meant by "wool gathering." I suspected that "Yes" and "No" were equally wrong answers. So I settled for "I don't know, sir," which trumped them both in pure idiocy.

To be "wool-gathering" is, as you say, to be lost in thought, especially in daydreaming or other non-productive absent-minded musing, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to indulge in wandering fancies or purposeless thinking; to be in a dreamy or absent-minded state."

Separating sheep from their wool is indeed a strenuous job, and sheep-shearing has even been turned into a competitive sport in Australia and New Zealand. But "wool-gathering" is an altogether different activity. In the 16th century, the rural poor would wander the fields where herds of sheep roamed, gathering bits of wool caught on bushes and brush, hoping to find enough to weave into cloth or to sell. As wool-gathering was hardly a lucrative occupation and involved a great deal of meandering around the countryside, by about 1550 "wool-gathering" had taken on the figurative meaning of "wandering aimlessly for no productive purpose," especially in the fields of one's own mind.


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