Columns posted 09/06/02




  Issue of September 6, 2002


Ordinarily I would introduce this month's batch of columns with a few humorous anecdotes or the like, but this is not a month when levity seems possible.  Instead, three articles, two dating to the days immediately following September 11, 2001, the third published just this week:

Only love and then oblivion (9/15/01) by the British author Ian McEwan.

Faces of Honor (9/23/01) by Pete Hamill, written as an introduction to a New York Daily News special supplement containing the pictures of the 343 FDNY firefighters lost at the World Trade Center.

and, lastly,

"As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight. And it is in such twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air - however slight - lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness." -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

Overview of Changes to Legal Rights (9/05/02), a brief synopsis by the Associated Press.

And now, on with the show...

Checkmate check.

Dear Word Detective:  What can you tell me about the word "alimony"?  Is it related to "alibi," an inferior example of which may lead to "alimony"? -- Ken J., via the internet.

Yuk, yuk.  What did I do to attract such cynical readers?  I'm obviously going to have to put more wide-eyed puppies on this web site.

It may or may not be true that two can live as cheaply as one.  But it is beyond dispute that two, once no longer together, often cannot live without vigorously wrestling over the joint checking account.  Back in the days before pre-nuptial agreements, society intervened in such disputes and decreed that upon divorce the husband almost always made regular payments of "alimony" to his former wife (or former wives, in the case of slow learners).  The function of "alimony" (as can be deduced from its origin in the Latin "alere," meaning "to nourish") was to ensure that the wife had not jumped from the frying pan of a bad marriage into the fire of penury.  In rare cases, mostly in Hollywood, an underachieving husband was awarded "alimony" from his wealthier wife.

After liberalized social expectations made formal marriage more or less optional in the late 20th century, couples who had cohabited for years or even decades parted without a legal claim on each other's wealth.  Such a litigation vacuum greatly annoyed the legal community, again especially in Hollywood.  Thus in the late 1970s the first court actions were brought seeking "palimony," wherein a celebrity was held to financial account for his or her extended dalliance with a non-celebrity.  The suffix "-mony" didn't really mean anything in the case of "alimony," but thanks to the coinage of "palimony" and the eternal inventiveness of lawyers, we can now presumably look forward to court cases seeking "flirt-imony," "date-imony," and perhaps even "longing-glance-imony." 

"Alibi," on the other hand, simply comes from the Latin "alibi," meaning "elsewhere," and has been used in English since the early 18th century to mean the defense of being elsewhere at the time an act took place. 

To Whom It May Confound

Dear Word Detective:  I recently received an e-mail from my brother in which he told me he wouldn't be coming to visit me this weekend because he had received a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend.  I gather that she dumped him, but why "Dear John"?  His name is Craig. -- Frank Golding, Brooklyn, NY.

Well, you could suggest to your brother that his girlfriend actually meant to dump one of her other boyfriends, but he's probably not in a mood for humor.

There are worse things out there in the postal system than junk mail, and one of them has been a fixture of life since the Second World War -- the "Dear John letter."  A "Dear John letter" is a missive penned by one's paramour in which she (or he) abruptly announces an end to the relationship.  "Dear John letter" entered the public vocabulary via the military during WWII, a conflict which sent millions of husbands and boyfriends overseas, many of whom discovered that absence, especially prolonged for years, often does not make the heart grow fonder.  As a Rochester, NY newspaper explained in 1947:

"Dear John," the letter began. "I have found someone else whom I think the world of.  I think the only way out is for us to get a divorce," it said.  They usually began like that, those letters that told of infidelity on the part of the wives of servicemen...  The men called them "Dear Johns."

The pain of receiving such a letter in the midst of a war in a far-away land must have been made all the worse by the stilted salutation apparently common in such messages -- "Dear John," rather than the expected "Dear Johnny," "My Dearest John" or simply "Darling" -- and probably explains how "Dear John letter" came to stand for the entire phenomenon of long-distance postal dumping.

"Dear John letter" may also be the key to another popular phrase, "That's all she wrote," meaning "That's all there is" or "That's the end of it."  According to some authorities, a joke current among servicemen during WWII had a soldier opening a letter and reading it aloud to his comrades.  "Dear John," he reads, and then abruptly stops.  His mates urge him to go on reading.  "That's  all she wrote," he says, holding up a letter blank except for the deadly salutation.

Cheeky child learns new word.

Dear Word Detective: This weekend, in correcting to my 2-1/2 year old, I told him not to be "fresh," meaning a "wise guy."  It was one of those moments where you stop, stare at the ceiling and think "I sound just like MY Dad."  In this case, I also realized I have no idea how the word came to be used this way.  Like many Americans I was educated largely by Bugs Bunny and other 1940s-50s era cartoons and I know from them that "fresh" also has the meaning of being a bit overly familiar.  Can you help my family stop another generation coming into maturity mindlessly repeating the same catch phrase without at least knowing what we are saying? -- Kevin Sullivan, via the internet.

Well, here's one vote for mindless repetition of catch phrases, especially if it's something you learned from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  Long after the pompous pundits, politicians and philosophers have faded into well-deserved obscurity, Bugs and Daffy and the rest will be rightly regarded as the pinnacle of American civilization.  Incidentally, it pains me deeply that our cartoons have fallen into such disrepair that that simpering Disney drivel dominates the market today.  All I can say is thank heavens we've still got The Simpsons.

"Fresh" is one of those words that has been around so long that it has acquired all sorts of far-flung meanings.  Forms of the word exist in most European languages, and we seem to have adopted our "fresh" from the French form "frais" around 1200, which carried the sense of "new, novel."  The Italian form of the word, "fresco," gave us the English words "fresco" (painting done on "fresh" wet plaster) and "alfresco" (meaning "in the fresh air," i.e., outdoors).  Our modern form "fresh" appeared near the end of the 13th century, and today is used to mean everything from "clean, clear, unsullied" to "finely dressed."  "Fresh" can also mean both "sober" and "partially intoxicated."

While the senses of "fresh" meaning "new, inexperienced, raw or untrained" might be stretched to cover the meaning "impudent" or "overly familiar," this sense only appeared in the mid-18th century, and may have been greatly influenced by the German word "frech," meaning "impudent or cheeky."


Gentleman crawler.

Dear Word Detective:  I was asking my grandmother about her younger days, and she described a boyfriend of hers as a "jigalo," meaning that he was a creep.  I can't find this word in my dictionary.  What, exactly, is a "jigalo"? -- Amy Slater, via the internet.

Go ahead, make me feel old.  The minute I read your question a dusty tape loop started running in my head, the refrain of a song I must have heard when I was far too young to understand it:  "There will come a day, when youth will pass away, What will they say about me? When the end comes I know, there was just a gigolo, Life goes on without me."

That was two days ago and I still can't get that infernal tune out of my mind, but I did do some checking and discovered that my unwelcome guest is called "Just A Gigolo," written in 1930 by Julius Brammer,  Irving Caesar and Leonello Casucci. 

A "gigolo" is a kept man, companion to, and financially supported by, a woman (usually of greater years and always of greater wealth).  The archetypal "gigolo" is a parasite, trading on his good looks, youth and skill in flattery to earn his living as, essentially, a male prostitute.  (I doubt, by the way, that your grandmother meant that her boyfriend was literally a "gigolo."  She probably just meant that he was a manipulative, insincere creep.)

The "gigole" in French is a dance hall girl (from "giguer," to dance, related to the English word "jig") and, by extension, a prostitute.  The masculine form "gigolo" first appeared in English shortly after World War I, and an article in Women's Home Companion in 1922 painted a vivid portrait of the creature:

"A gigolo, generally speaking, is a man who lives off women's money.  In the mad year 1922 .. a gigolo, definitely speaking, designated one of those incredible and pathetic male creatures, ..who, for ten francs.. would dance with any woman wishing to dance.. in the cafés, hotels, and restaurants of France."

Dancing, of course, is the least of a "gigolo's" duties, and while use of the term seems to have faded, replaced by trendier (and less pejorative) terms such as "boy toy," to call a man a "gigolo" remains a deadly insult.

Or maybe she's working for John Ashcroft.

Dear Word Detective:  My 3-year old daughter was recently rooting though the bathroom drawer and pulled out a set of tweezers and asked what they were. I explained that they were tweezers and when she asked what you did with them, I explained that you use them to hold or pull small things like hairs.  It then occurred to me that I have never heard anyone say that they "tweeze" with tweezers, although it seems to make sense.  Why is this?  Did we originally tweeze with tweezers and we have lost that usage?  Did the name for tweezers come from some other source?  I also got to thinking about similar words, but the only other example that immediately comes to mind is that we don't "sciss" with scissors.  -- Gary, Toronto, Ontario.

Good question.  Incidentally, has it occurred to you yet that your daughter almost certainly came up with that question just to distract you, and that while you're sitting at your computer writing to me she's probably in the bathroom putting mascara on the family dog?

"Tweezers" are, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, "small pincers or nippers (originally as included in the contents of an etui) used for plucking out hairs from the face or for grasping minute objects."  That curious word "etui" is the key to "tweezers."  An "etui" (or "etwee," from the Old French "estuier," to hold or keep safe) was a small case that was often carried by folks in the 17th and 18th centuries containing personal instruments such as toothpicks, pins and what we now call "tweezers."  Over time the name for the case came to be applied to one particular  instrument itself, that useful set of pincers, which was known as a "tweeze" and eventually "tweezers."  The verb "to tweeze," meaning to use tweezers on something, is actually what linguists call a "back-formation" from "tweezers," and didn't appear until the 1930s.

      "Scissors" is a bit more straightforward, and is rooted in the Latin "cisorium," or "cutting instrument," based in turn on "caedere," meaning "to cut."  Our English word "scissors" was adopted from the Old French "cisoires" as "sisoures" in the 14th century, but by the 16th century we had changed the spelling to the modern "sc" form, probably because many people assumed it was connected to  the Latin "scindere," to cut.

Breaking News:  Sweetie can't swim.

Dear Word Detective:  Please can you tell me the origin and true meaning of the word "darling"? -- Rachel, via the internet.

I'd be happy to, but first, a musical interlude, courtesy of a little tune that began running through my head as soon as I read your question (and shows no signs of abating any time soon):  "In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner, forty-niner, And his daughter Clementine.  Oh, my darling, Oh, my darling, Oh, my darling Clementine!  Thou art lost and gone for ever, dreadful sorry, Clementine."  In case you're not familiar with "Clementine," written by Percy Montrose in 1884, the gist of the story is "boy meets girl, boy takes shine to girl, girl drowns because boy never learned to swim, boy takes shine to girl's sister."  Poor Clementine.  She found out the hard way that "darlings" are a dime a dozen.  Better to concentrate on finding a less effusive boyfriend who can swim.

"Darling" is probably the most popular endearment in the English language, and one of the oldest to boot, first appearing around the year 888 in the early form "deorling."  "Darling" is also a versatile word, commonly used as a noun meaning "a person who is loved," an adjective meaning "loved," and an affectionate form of address ("Darling, fetch me another bonbon, please").  "Darling" can also be used in a figurative (and often slightly sarcastic) sense to mean one who is favored or preferred by a person or entity not usually considered affectionate ("The Senator is the darling of the oil companies").

For a word with so many uses, "darling" turns out to have a remarkably simple origin.  "Darling" is simply derived from the Old English word "deor" or "deore," meaning "beloved or dear."  (As you must suspect by now, that same "deor" also gave us our modern word "dear.")  The "ling" ending in this case means "one who is," so "deorling" and today's "darling" simply mean "one who is dear." 

If you feed them, they will shed.

Dear Word Detective:  I wonder if the Word Detective can do better than I was able to do with the origins of the expression "dog eat dog," as in "It's a dog eat dog world out there." As far as I can discover, the phrase originated as "dog doesn't eat dog," which goes back to some Latin quotation (which I seem to have lost -- it's probably under a pile of bytes somewhere in my computer). So how did it turn into its opposite?  That's quite a switch from "dog doesn't eat dog" to "dog eat dog."  Word Detective, get out your search dogs! -- James Langbecker, via the internet.

Search dogs?  Unfortunately, I have no search dogs.  What I do have are two spoiled and slothful canines whose idea of "hunting" consists of staring at the can opener with mournful expressions on their mugs.  The humorist Robert Benchley once said that a boy learns three important things from his dog:  courage, loyalty, and to turn around three times before lying down.  I have learned a fourth lesson from mine:  wander in circles around the kitchen long enough and someone will feed you.

According to Christine Ammer's great book "Cool Cats and Top Dogs (and Other Beastly Expressions)" published by Houghton Mifflin in 1999, the proverb you've misplaced was most likely from the Roman man of letters Marcus Tarentius Varro.  Back in 43 B.C., ol' Marcus noted that "Canis caninam non est" ("Dog does not eat dog"), meaning that even a (supposedly) lowly creature like the dog has limits, if not principles, and will not destroy its own kind. 

Extended to human beings by implication, that's a comforting notion, but history tends to indicate that humans are not so principled as dogs.  By the 16th century, folks were imagining a world in which metaphorical dogs did devour each other, and "dog eat dog," had come to mean "ruthlessly competitive."  Not surprisingly, by the time of the Industrial Revolution, phrases such as "It's a dog eat dog world" had become commonplace. 



Tons of fun in the sun.

Dear Word Detective:  My father is a ham radio operator and just competed in what is known, among "hams," as a "field day."  He tells me that a "field day" is when hams try to contact as many other hams as possible and he who makes the most documented contacts, wins.  Listening to his story, I was thinking that he had a field day at his "field day" (pun intended).  I know that the expression "have a field day" generally means to have "lots of fun" but how did it come about? -- Michelle Hobbis, via the internet.

Hooray for ham radio, more properly called "amateur radio," although the level of technical knowledge possessed by hams belies that "amateur" label.  Here in Central Ohio, the local hams, among other good deeds, run a weather spotter net that helps authorities track tornadoes and the like and has probably saved dozens of lives over the past few years.

The "field day" your father participated in was most likely the annual American Radio Relay League (ARRL) national Field Day held in June every year.  Often involving a picnic in a local park, these "field days" give hams the chance to compete in various contests, introduce newcomers to the hobby, and just generally hang out and fiddle with a lot of radio gear.  From what I've heard, these events do, as you surmised, bring together both meanings of the phrase "field day."

The original "field days" were probably not all that much fun, however.  The phrase dates back to the mid-18th century and was originally a military term, denoting a day devoted to troop maneuvers, tactical practice, and parade formation reviews.  While the officers may have basked in the glory of putting their troops through drills, exercises and mock battles, chances are that the common foot soldier did not exactly look forward to these "field days."

By the middle of the 19th century, however, "field day" had percolated from the military vocabulary into civilian life, where it took on the meaning of "a day filled with exciting events and glorious accomplishments."  From there it took on today's even more figurative meaning of "a day when everything goes your way" or just simply "a really good time."

Good enough for government work.

Dear Word Detective:  I work for the US Air Force, and there are a lot of bizarre phrases and acronyms that these military guys use all the time.  I'm particularly fond of "sneakernet," used to signify a low-ranking person running information back and forth between higher-ranking personnel when e-mail is unavailable.  There's also the "drinking duck," which signifies a head nodding in agreement, as in, "If we present it to the General in this way, I think we can get him to do the drinking duck."  Once you get the hang of this strange language they use, it's actually sort of fun.  But I'm writing today to ask you about the origin of the word "kluge."   I'm only guessing at the spelling here - it's pronounced "kloozh."  The pilots use it as a verb meaning the action of putting two or more things together, sometimes implying that they wouldn't normally go together. They use this word when talking about briefings, presentations, and documents ("Everyone in the office will write his own piece, and then Bob will kluge them all together"),  but I'm told that it originally comes from World War II when they would put a bunch of equipment on an airplane to make it do more than the mission it was originally designed for.  Any ideas on where "kluge" came from? -- Nicole Finch, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Lots of ideas, but unfortunately no definite answer.  A kludge (originally spelled "kluge") is an improvised solution to a problem, usually jury-rigged and inelegant but effective, at least for the time being.  "Kludges" are well known in computer programming, where bugs in a program are sometimes patched up with awkward and makeshift solutions in order to avoid having to start all over again.  There have been a number of theories of the origin of "kludge" proposed over the years, the simplest being that it is just a modification of the slang verb "to fudge," meaning "to cheat or create fake data in order to get a desired result."  Another theory traced the term to a paper-feeding device for printing presses marketed in the 1930's by a company named Kluge, a gadget famous for its complexity and unreliability.  Then again, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "kludge" first appeared in 1962, invented by a writer named J.W. Granholm.  Granholm declared that the root of "kludge" was the German word "kluge," meaning "smart" or "witty," noting that kludges were, in fact, often "not so smart or pretty ridiculous."

So the jury is still out on "kludge."  Incidentally, the original (and, to purists, the only proper) pronunciation of "kludge" is "klooj," but the change in spelling from "kluge" to "kludge" has caused most people to assume, understandably, that it should rhyme with "fudge."

Bad news dude.

Dear Word Detective:  My father recently referred to my ex-boyfriend as "that lothario," and when I asked him what a "lothario" was he said it was the same thing as a cad.  Does "lothario" come from "loathe"?  p.s.-- If it doesn't, it sure should. -- A.G., via the internet.

It's good to see your use of the prefix "ex" in your question, as it indicates that at some point you achieved escape velocity and are no longer orbiting Planet Creep.    

It may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, but most women know there is a certain type of man who can be pegged from ten yards away.   Heavy gold jewelry, check.  Shirt unbuttoned to show possibly counterfeit chest hair, check.  Sunglasses jauntily parked atop clearly counterfeit Hair Club For Men product, check.  Ladies, start your engines and head for the nearest exit.  Mr. Lothario has arrived.

Of course, "lotharios" can come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.  But "lothario" is evidence that some things, and some types of people, never change.  A "lothario" is a love 'em and leave 'em Casanova, a frivolous seducer, and (need we say it?) an untrustworthy cad.  And while "lothario" certainly should derive from "loathe," it doesn't.

"Lothario" is an "eponym," a word formed from the proper name of a famous real or fictional person.  The original "Lothario" was a character in Nicholas Rowe's 1703 play "The Fair Penitent."  Rowe (1674 - 1718) was famous for his "she-tragedies," the 18th century theatrical equivalent of today's "weepie" movies.  In Rowe's play, the heroine Calista is first seduced and then, inevitably, abandoned by the "gallant, gay Lothario" ("gay" meaning "loose" or "immoral" at the time).  Calista, in keeping with the conventions of the genre, commits suicide, leaving "Lothario" to become a synonym for the sort of man women should avoid more often than they do.  

A heapin' helpin' of hogwash.

Dear Word Detective:  While visiting an old historic site in the country our guide asked us if we knew that the phrase "show me your mettle" really should be "show me your metal."  He said that years ago men applying for work on grindstones (sharpening tools, etc.) would be asked to hold their hands out and if they were pocked with small bits of metal they were presumed to be hard working.  It seems that small bits of metal flaked off and hit them in the hands, so the harder the worker, the more "metal" in his hands.  That doesn't explain "nose to the grindstone," however.  I'd hate to think the fate was similar.  Can you shed more light on these two expressions? -- Cindy Dries, via the internet.

Rats.  I blew it again this year.  Every year I resolve to warn my readers at the start of the summer vacation season not to believe anything any tourist guide tells them about the origins of any common phrase.  Judging from the mail I receive, guides at historic sites have, in just the past few years, dispensed enough etymological balderdash to fill the Grand Canyon.  I know these folks are just trying to be helpful, but I'm beginning to think either a degree in linguistics or a vow of silence should be a job requirement.

As is often the case, there is a kernel, but only a kernel, of truth in what the guide told you.  "Metal" and "mettle" were, until the early 18th century, simply different spellings of the same word.  Apart from the literal meaning of "material made from a metallic element," both "metal" and "mettle" were used in a figurative sense to mean "temperament, spirit, courage" in comparison to the strength and durability of metal.  In the early 1700s, dictionaries began to differentiate between the two spellings, with "mettle" inheriting the metaphorical sense found  in phrases such as "show your mettle," meaning "show your strength or character." 

To "keep one's nose to the grindstone," meaning to constantly work very hard, dates back to the 16th century and is also purely metaphorical in origin.  Interestingly, it was originally used to mean "oppress or grind down" another person (as in "Mister Dithers is really keeping my nose to the grindstone"), but is today more frequently used in reference to one's own hard work.

Feud of the gods.

Dear Word Detective:  What was the origin of "Adonis" and how is it used today? -- Fcbcmill, via the internet.

"How is it used today"?  Hmm.  This sounds a suspiciously like a homework question.  Oh well, it's too good a story not to tell.

An "Adonis" is an extremely attractive young man of the sort also sometimes referred to breathlessly by persons of the female persuasion as "a Greek god."  Actually, the original Adonis was not a god at all, but rather, as the Greek gods themselves put it, a "mere mortal."  Furthermore, Adonis, chiseled chin and buff pecs notwithstanding, did not come to a good end.

Adonis did have, for a mere mortal, a remarkable run while it lasted.  As an infant, he was adopted by none other than Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  But since Adonis was still a baby and goddesses of Love have better things to do than change Pampers and dispense strained beets, Aphrodite left Adonis in the care of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, for a few years. 

When Aphrodite returned years later to pick up Adonis, however, she made two discoveries, one good, one not so good.  First of all, Adonis had grown into a major hunk, a fact that set Aphrodite's heart a' thumpin' despite the fact that she was his quasi-step-mother.  But the bad news was that Persephone had fallen in love with Adonis herself, and had no plans to give him up to Aphrodite.  Much acrimony ensued until Zeus, head honcho of the gods, stepped in to mediate. 

Zeus devised a time-sharing agreement whereby Aphrodite and Persephone would each get, well, let's call it custody, of Adonis for six months out of the year.  But Aphrodite pretty quickly convinced Adonis that it wasn't every day a mere mortal got to date the Goddess of Love, so Adonis gave Persephone the big brush off.  Persephone, understandably annoyed, then did what any jealous lover/foster mother/goddess would:  she picked up the phone and dropped a dime on the lovebirds to Ares, Aphrodite's long-time significant other.  Ares, angry as a wild boar, then took the form of a real wild boar, tracked down Adonis, and gored him to death.  The moral of this story appears to be:  You may think you're blessed by the gods, but watch out for the disgruntled boyfriend.


Among the Mullet-Americans.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you tell me about the expression "to the nines," as in "He was dressed to the nines"? -- Mac LaForce, Green Bay, WI.

Funny you should ask.  Although it has been several years since Word Detective World Headquarters relocated to rural Ohio from New York City, I still haven't quite come to grips with what constitutes proper garb in this neck of the woods.  For instance, I gather that farmers do not, as a rule, dress all in black.  But what's up with all the camouflage clothing everyone wears?  Are we supposed to be hiding from the cows?

There are a whole slew of  possible origins of  "dressed to the nines," meaning to be dressed in an elegant or elaborate fashion.  One theory is that it came from an Old English saying "dressed to the eyes," or to please the beholder, which, in the peculiar spelling of Old English, would have appeared "dressed to then eyne."  Through a process called "metanalysis," in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word, "then eyne" might have become "the neyne" and then "the nines."  A similar metanalytic process transformed "a napron" (related to "napkin") to our modern "an apron."

On the other hand, the number nine holds an exalted place in numerology, and might have been adopted in the distant past as a synonym for "superlative."  "Dressed to the nines" would thus be equivalent to our modern "dressed to the max."

It's also possible that the phrase come from an old jeweler's phrase "nine nines fine," referring to gold of 99.9999999 percent purity.  Then again, it may be  that the phrase refers to the nine muses of classical mythology, or to the spiffy uniforms of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment in England, or, well, you get the idea.  There is no one answer, so I guess you'll just have to pick the one you like best. 

A mere bag of shells, Your Honor.

Dear Word Detective:  I can't believe that you haven't written about the word "peccadillo." -- Debi, via the internet.

Me neither.  Then again, there are a lot of words in the English language, and I do have to sleep and eat occasionally.  Maybe my readers should chip in and hire me a few research assistants.  William Safire has research assistants.  All I have is two torpid dogs and a cat that sleeps on my keyboard.

It may be a fact of life that there's no such thing as being "a little bit pregnant," but almost every other aspect of the human condition is measured in shades of gray.  Take the classic Judeo-Christian theological spectrum of sin, for instance.  You've got your seven "mortal sins" (pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and liking Billy Joel), any one of which will get you seriously toasted when it comes time to pay the piper at the Pearly Gates.  But then you've also got your "venial sins" (from the Latin "venia," meaning "forgiveness or pardon").  Venial sins are a seemingly endless procession of small stuff like fudging your taxes, filching office supplies from work, and dumping your stock just before your company tanks. 

It's unclear, theologically speaking, what happens to venial offenders when the final credits roll.  But at least in the short term, the pen-stealers and fiscal fiddlers have a good chance of beating the rap.  One sign that you may be in the clear is if your peers refer to your crime as a "peccadillo" rather than "an outrage" or "an impeachable offense."  "Peccadillo" comes from the Spanish "peccadillo," meaning "little sin," and since it appeared in English around 1591, "peccadillo" has been a code word for "maybe not a great idea, but nothing to get too worked up about."  Then again, sin is in the eye of the beholder, and your mileage may vary in the judgment of  spouses, employers, and Congressional committees.

A pip in time.

Dear Word Detective:  I've just finished "Jackdaws" by Jack Higgins and noticed people saying, "one pip emma" and "four pip emma."  Is that something purely British?  I've recently read "Enigma" by Harris, same general time period, and did not see that phrase there.  Of course I know that a pip can be a small seed from a fruit, or an added star on a uniform, but the "pip emma" has me thoroughly confused.  I am certain you can clear it up for me.  -- Jimmie Carol Ellis, HMC, USN Retired, Crescent City, California.

Well, I'm glad somebody around here is certain, because when I first read your question I was far from sure I'd find an answer.  But I did, thanks to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary.

You're absolutely correct about "pip" being used to mean both a small seed from a fruit and a star worn on the epaulette of a uniform, but, oddly enough, the "seed" and "star" meanings of "pip" are not necessarily directly related.  The "seed" sense of "pip" dates back to around 1797 and is rooted (yuk, yuk) in the "pippin," a very old word for a kind of apple.  The "star" sense of "pip" derives from an older (1604) use of "pip" to mean a small spot or speck, especially the spots on dice, playing cards or dominoes.  This "spot" sense of "pip" evidently comes from an old English dialect word "peep," of unknown origin.  It is possible, of course (and to me it seems very likely) that all these "pips" are actually related in some fashion, but it hasn't been proven yet.

In any case, it turns out that neither of those "pips" have anything directly to do with "pip emma" and its ilk.  Probably because "pip" in all its senses was a common word in England at the beginning of the 20th century, it was (and apparently still is) used to signify the letter "p" in military communications by telephone or radio.  According to a British Army manual published in 1913, "the letters T, A, B, M, S, P and V will be called toc, ack, beer, emma, esses, pip, and vic respectively, so as to distinguish them phonetically from letters of similar sound."  So, in this scheme, "pip emma" would translate as "p.m.", and "four pip emma" would mean simply "four o'clock in the afternoon."


Cutlery in love.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you tell us where the word "spooning" came from, please? -- Daniel and Janet, via the internet.

Hey, is this a cute letter or what?  I picture the two of you on a summer evening, perched on the porch swing of a big old house in a small Midwestern town, sipping lemonade and  "getting to know each other" while Granny sits in the parlor listening to the Victrola.  Of course, you're probably actually writing from some desperately trendy cyber-café in the East Village while waiting for Granny to have her nose pierced.  But while my fantasy may be a century or so off, I did find this example of "spooning" from 1898 in the Oxford English Dictionary:  "Many danced, while others spooned under the influence of the summer moonlight."

It may sound like a midnight ice-cream social, but what the author is describing is simply young people "flirting" or "courting."  Though rarely heard today, until the mid-20th century "spoon" was a popular term for the sort of behavior that now goes by the broader and far less enchanted term "fooling around."

Though spoons in the flatware sense do not usually play a role in "spooning," there is an interesting, if somewhat oblique, connection between the terms.  "Spoon" as an eating utensil derives from the Old English "spon," which meant "chip of wood."  Pretty early on, folks discovered that a chip or sliver of wood with a slightly concave surface could be used to convey liquids, such as soup, from bowl to mouth, and the modern dining sense of "spoon" appeared around A.D. 1340.

Over the next several centuries, "spoon" sprouted a wide range of related and sometimes figurative meanings, including "born with a silver spoon in his mouth," meaning born to a life of privilege.  In the late 18th century, "spoon" came to be used as slang for "a simpleton" or "a shallow, foolish person," probably in joking reference to the shallow concave shape of a real spoon.   Silly or foolish behavior was termed "spoony," and by the early 1800s a young man in love with a girl was said to "be spoons about her."  Within a few years, by 1831, "spooning" had come to mean "courting, especially in an excessively sentimental or effusive fashion."

Dazed and confused.

Dear Word Detective:  I am writing a historical play set in England during the first half of the nineteenth century.  One of my characters uses the word "stupid" in this line, "Oh George, aren't we stupid?"  George replies, "Terribly stupid."  My editor suggests that the word "stupid" was not in use at that time and would be bound by modern connotations.  I disagree, but can't prove it.  Do you have any evidence that would prove this word was in use and used this way in England at that time? -- Douglas Schaedel, via the internet.

First half of the nineteenth century?  So, that would mean before 1850, right?  Just checking.  Speaking of mental dullness, am I the only one who has persistent problems with that "century" versus "years" business?  I've got the 18th and 19th centuries pretty well sorted out, but throw the 12th century at me and I'm likely to start feeling a bit dizzy.  Maybe it's due to that softball that beaned me in the sixth grade.

Oh yes, you had a question.  The word "stupid" has, of course, been with us for a long time and, to put it very mildly, shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.  The root of "stupid" is the Latin "stupidus," from the verb "stupere," meaning "to be stunned or benumbed."  One sense of "stupid" when it first appeared in English was "in a state of stupor, deadened, dulled, stunned," and people were often said to be rendered "stupid" by grief or surprise, as in the poet John Dryden wrote in 1697: "Men, Boys, and Women stupid with Surprise, Where ere she passes, fix their wond’ring Eyes."  The term "stupid" was also used to mean "lacking thought or perception," especially in regard to animals or inanimate objects.

However, the earliest meaning of "stupid" in English, appearing around 1541, was our modern sense of "slow-witted, dull, lacking intelligence," as another poet, John Milton, used it in 1649:  "No man who knows ought [i.e., anything], can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were borne free."  And if that doesn't adequately answer your editor's objections, the Irish novelist Samuel Lover used "stupid" in the thoroughly modern sense in his comic novel "Handy Andy" in 1842:  "She felt the pique which every pretty woman experiences who fancies her favours disregarded, and thought Andy the stupidest lout she ever came across."  

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