Issue of October 30, 2001


Sorry for being late with new material this month. I was in New York City.

I will do my best to update this page again in mid-November.

And now, on with the show...

Slice and Dice.

Dear Word Detective: My partner and I are considering naming our new little business "Cutlass." We hoped it would connote "sharp and to the point." However, we are trying to do research to determine the derivation and history of cutlasses to be sure that we are representing this properly. Could you please help us? -- Debbie, via the internet.

Gee, does this make me a consultant? Cool. What kind of business are you starting? If you're looking for suggestions, I think you should open a hair salon with an all-female staff and call it "Cutlasses." But wait -- didn't Plymouth or Dodge market some dorky car under the name "Cutlass" a few years ago? You might run into trademark issues, as the lawyers say. Maybe you should just call your salon "Choppers." You could even sell motorcycles on the side.

While you consider that proposal (and, of course, its modest finder's fee), on to the history of cutlasses. "Cutlass," which first appeared in English around 1594 in the form "coute-lace," comes from the French "coutelas," derived from "coutel," meaning "knife." The Latin root of "coutel" was "cultellus," also meaning "knife" and ancestor of our English word "cutlery." Oddly enough, given the uses to which knives are put, none of these words have any historical connection with the English word "cut." Over the years "cutlass" has appeared in a variety of forms, including "cuttle ax," "cut-lash," "curtelace," "curtal-axe" and "curt axe."

As I'm sure we all remember from old pirate movies, a "cutlass" is a special kind of sword, with a broad, flat, slightly curved blade, often issued to sailors. While cutlasses are certainly sharp, they are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "adapted more for cutting than for thrusting," which doesn't quite fit the "sharp and to the point" connotation you're seeking in a business name. But don't despair -- this is where I earn my consultant's fee. Why not call your enterprise "Épée," which is a fancy French word for "sword" and means those sharp, pointy things Dukes and Princes used to duel with? Then just substitute croissants for the motorcycles, and I guarantee you'll be a hit.

Six Degrees of Unpleasantness.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you could tell what the phrase "deep six" actually refers to, and where it originated. I have heard that it refers to being "six feet under," but I also heard somewhere that it refers to walking the plank in pirate days. Can you clarify please? -- April Powell, via the internet.

I'll give it a shot. Your mention of "walking the plank" (a legendary punishment inflicted by pirates consisting of the victim being bound and forced to walk off the end of a plank suspended over the open sea) certainly brings back memories. I must have watched a lot of old pirate movies when I was a child, because I remember being absolutely terrified of being captured by Bluebeard or one of his ilk and forced to walk the plank. Of course, pirate attacks were not all that common in suburban Connecticut, but such statistical arguments didn't stop me from putting "blunderbuss" at the top of my Christmas list.

It turns out, incidentally, that while pirates often tortured their victims in novel and unpleasant ways, "walking the plank" was actually rarely employed, and owes its mythic status in the popular imagination more to Peter Pan and similar fables than to actual pirate history.

While "six feet under" meaning "dead and buried" (from the standard grave depth of six feet) might seem the source of "deep six," it actually began as a nautical term. In the days before sonar, soundings of the water's depth were taken by the "leadman" with a weighted line marked in fathoms (a unit equaling six feet). A leadman's cry of "six deep" or "by the deep six" meant six fathoms (36 feet), or quite a bit of water, beneath the keel. Since something jettisoned into six fathoms of water was unlikely to ever be seen again, by the early 20th century "deep six" had come to mean "to get rid of" something, especially by putting it where it could never be found.

Not to mention that it resembles a football.

Dear Word Detective: My husband keeps his shaving gear and other personal care items in a zippered oblong leather case. His 91 year old father has one too. They both call this case their "Dop kit." I've heard the term from others also. However, no one can tell me why it is called "dop kit." For the longest time I've wondered where the word "dop" came from, thinking it might be the abbreviation D.O.P. for some military term. Can you tell me what it means? -- Ruth Camenisch, Monett, Missouri.

Well, first of all, I can tell you that both your husband and his father are more well-organized than I'll ever be. In fact, I'd probably shave off this silly beard if I could just remember where I put my razor.

In any case, thanks to a discussion of the term "Dopp Kit" on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society ( a couple of years ago, I can assure you that "Dop" or "Dopp" isn't an acronym or abbreviation for anything. According to newspaper accounts unearthed by Merriam-Webster's Jim Rader, the Dopp Kit was first produced by Charles Doppelt, a leather goods designer who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the early 1900s. Although it may have been Doppelt's nephew and employee, Jerome Harris, who actually invented the snazzy leather toiletries case, Doppelt was the boss and so the finished product bore a cropped form of his name, giving us the "Dopp Kit." Dopp Kits were manufactured by the Charles Doppelt Company until the firm was purchased by Samsonite in the 1970s, and Dopp Kits today are made by Buxton. The popularity of Dopp Kits was evidently boosted considerably by World War II, in the course of which the U.S. Army issued them to recruits by the millions.

Incidentally, the "kit" part of Dopp Kit is not quite the same "kit" we use to mean "a collection of parts used to assemble a whole," as in "model airplane kit." A soldier's "kit" consists of the standard equipment and personal articles issued to and carried by a soldier on a regular basis.

Wish you were here, and vice versa.

Dear Word Detective: I was in Italy recently, and someone mentioned that "fiasco" had something to do with the shape of the wine bottle and whether it was covered in the basket-like material (seen on some Chianti bottles) that prevented it from falling over. Those bottles that did not have the basket would fall over, and that would certainly be a "fiasco." Any clues on this? -- Bob Yurick, via the internet.

"I was in Italy recently"? Does that seem like a productive way to introduce a question directed to someone who dares not leave his desk, lest his readers need an emergency explanation of, let's see, "fiasco"? Good heavens, man, have some tact and common decency and tell me you heard this story in Cincinnati or Des Moines.

Then again, I should probably just accept my desk-bound fate and note that it makes perfect sense that you heard that story in Italy because "fiasco" itself means "flask" or "bottle" in Italian. In English, of course, we have used "fiasco" since the mid-19th century to mean a spectacular, embarrassing failure or mishap, as in "The Bay of Pigs Fiasco" or "The McDonald's Rigged-Game Fiasco." (The Italians also use "fiasco" in this sense today.) The question, therefore, is what connection there could possibly be between "bottle" and "mortifying disaster." The somewhat vague story you heard about wicker-covered wine bottles is not impossible, but there are more likely theories.

One theory builds on the fact that the first use of "fiasco" in this "disaster" sense in Italian comes from the theater, where "far fiasco" (literally "make a bottle") meant to flub your lines or otherwise embarrass yourself on stage. It is possible that "fare fiasco" was originally a reference to an actual accident on stage, such as dropping and breaking a bottle, that eventually became a metaphor for any mishap.

A more likely theory traces the phrase "far fiasco" to Italian glassblowers who would, if they made a mistake in creating some ornate item, set aside the lump of glass for future use in making lowly flasks or bottles. Thus the error itself, the very act of flubbing a task, came to be known as "far fiasco," making a bottle, or just "fiasco" for short.

Walk this way.

Dear Word Detective: This is something I have noticed several times recently. A presumably literate professional writer or journalist writes that someone is going to be made to "tow the line," meaning to conform, to do what he or she is told. I always thought it was "toe the line." Which is correct? --Melanie Nickel, via the internet.

You are. Incidentally, a cynic would say that you presume a bit too much concerning the literacy of professional writers. Ordinarily I have absolutely no use for the dour Grammar Cops who pitch shrieking tantrums over every split infinitive that sneaks into print. But the wholesale embrace of the dangling participle by TV news writers over the last few years is starting to drive me bananas. Sentences such as "After speaking to a group of Boy Scouts, the President's plane took off for Washington" may save precious airtime, but they are also subverting and corroding whatever structural logic the English language ever had.

In any case, you are unambiguously correct. The proper phrase is "to toe the line," meaning to conform to stated standards, especially rules of conduct. In a perfect world, for instance, any journalist who implied that Air Force One had suddenly acquired the gift of speech would be given exactly one chance to shape up and "toe the line" before being exiled to the New York Post.

"Toe the line" first appeared in the early 18th century, and there are two possible "lines" to which the phrase might originally have referred. One would be the starting line of a foot race, the mark upon which each runner places his or her foot in preparation for the starting gun. The other possibility, which I find more likely, is a line drawn on a ship's deck or a parade ground which new recruits must "toe" as they assemble in formation. I find this source more persuasive because it echoes the connotations of "order" and "obedience" that "toe the line" retains today. It is to a runner's advantage, after all, to "toe" the starting line, but a recruit being ordered to "toe the line" is very quickly learning who is in charge.


Dear Word Detective: For years, I have heard the word "tony" used, rather sarcastically, to describe something rather high-class or posh, the implication being that the person being "tony" was putting on the dog, putting on airs, that sort of thing. It has always brought to mind the image of Tony Curtis uttering the line "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah." Could the movie star have anything to do with the origin of the word? (And did Tony Curtis really say "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah"?) -- Julia, Houston, Texas.

Apparently not, at least if we take the word of Tony Curtis himself. According to a profile of the Bronx-born Mr. Curtis I found at the web site of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the line was supposedly delivered in a forgettable swashbuckler called "Son of Ali Baba." But Curtis maintains that his diction in the film was actually perfect, and that behind the oft-told story of his "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah" lurks anti-Semitism and anti-New York prejudice. "All the mockery of the line," he recalled, "sounded to me like a putdown not only of New Yorkers but of Jews."

Incidentally, I actually found all that by searching at under "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah," so I guess the internet is good for something after all.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the adjective "tony," meaning "stylish," "ritzy," "refined" and, depending on one's perspective, "snooty" and "snobbish" as well, has nothing to do with the name "Tony," a shortened form of "Anthony." It's actually just a variant of "tone" as found in the phrase "high-toned," meaning that the "tony" restaurant or whatever maintains a high standard of service and clientele. "Tony" in this sense first appeared in print in the late 19th century.

By the way, "ritzy," meaning ostentatiously fancy or lavish (and often pretentiously haughty) does come from a personal name, that of Cesar Ritz (1850-1918), a Swiss-born hotelier famous for his high-class hotels in Paris, London and New York.

Coming soon -- the "Seminar-B-Q."

Dear Word Detective: I was reviewing copy for a meeting announcement when I was intrigued by the word "benchmark." I can't find it in my phrase and fable dictionary, and wonder what it means. Could it be a reference to "bench" such as a judge sits upon? Or maybe people marked the bench they sat upon for something? -- Jeremy, via the internet.

Hey, Jeremy? Get back to work. You're not being paid to be intrigued by the language in that meeting announcement. Your job is to make the meeting itself sound intriguing and exciting, but not so exciting that it won't also be painlessly short. And here's a tip on how to really boost attendance and impress your boss. Four little words: "Refreshments will be served." In my experience, most people will cheerfully sit through a reading of the Hoboken phone book if you give them free pizza.

By "benchmark" it is likely that your meeting announcement meant "specified standard" or "measure of quality," in the sense that one might say a Leica camera is the "benchmark" of quality in high-end photographic equipment. (At least it used to be; my Leica was made in 1963.) I know of one computer magazine that makes a big fuss about testing new PCs against a set of "benchmarks" of their own devising, although you would probably have to be an electronics engineer to truly understand the gobbledygook of data their tests generate.

One might imagine that since so many technical tests in so many fields actually take place on some sort of "test bench" that "benchmark" simply refers to an actual "bench" in that sense. Evidently, however, the story is a bit more complicated. A "benchmark" was originally a mark cut into a stone or a wall by surveyors measuring the altitude and/or level of a tract of land. The cut was used to secure a bracket called a "bench" upon which they mounted their measuring equipment, and all subsequent measurements were made in reference to the position and height of that mark. Voila, "benchmark," which first appeared in English around 1842, and quickly began to be used figuratively in the "standard of quality" sense we see today.

Sis boom bah.

Dear Word Detective: We have a word battle going on at my office, and the Brits here are now making fun of our word "bleachers." Can you provide me any history on this word? -- Traci M. Grisham, via the internet.

Brits making fun of our bleachers, eh? It's an outrage. We send those ingrates Baywatch and Eminem, and all we get is contempt. Just ask 'em why, if they're so great, we had to get one of our American stars, Rene Whatsername, to play Bridget Jones. I guess all the local talent was too busy cheering up the sick sheep with Shakespeare's Sonnets, huh? Case closed.

It is true that "bleachers" is a distinctively American coinage, and I, for one, am proud of it. "Bleachers" are usually defined as a roofless set of benches for the seating of spectators at sporting events. The Oxford English Dictionary specifies "outdoor events," but I guess they've never spent time in an American high school gymnasium. For the benefit of anyone out there who has truly never seen "bleachers," they're probably best described as a framework of long benches set at escalating heights, like an enormous set of stair steps.

The root of "bleachers" is, not surprisingly, the verb "bleach," which means "to lighten or whiten by exposure to the sun or by means of chemicals," and which developed from the Old English "blac," which meant "pale or shining." Indeed, when "bleacher" first appeared in English around 1550, it meant, quite logically, "one who bleaches." But by about 1889, Americans were using "bleachers" to mean "seating scaffold" or "grandstand," apparently on the theory that anyone who spent enough time sitting on bleachers in the sun would end up "bleached" like cloth left out in the sun. (In truth, of course, spending too much time on the bleachers will turn almost no one lighter, and many people into lobsters.)

Since I've dropped "grandstand" into that explanation, I suppose I ought to explain that word as well. The "grandstand" at a sporting event or venue, especially originally at a racecourse, is the principal (thus "grand") structure for the seating of spectators, and is usually where the reserved seats and boxes are located. "Grandstand" first appeared around 1834, and by 1888 "grandstand" was also being used as a verb to mean "to perform flashily or dramatically, as if to impress the crowd in the grandstand."

Ninety-nine Thumpers.

Dear Word Detective: A few of us have been wondering where the word "bunny," as in "bunny rabbit" originates. Does it come from a child's version of "bloody rabbit," as a farmer might have referred to rabbits in his paddock eating his crops? Or is it something more sinister? -- Symon Gryg, via the internet.

Something more sinister? Like what? Giant vampire rabbits that creep down your chimney and suck out your breath while you're sleeping so they can run up your long-distance bill and order pay-per-view movies? Or maybe those spiteful rabbits who fiddle with your car's carburetor so you get lousy mileage? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, mister, for making up such nasty stories about sweet little bunny rabbits. And you might as well fill your Easter basket with coal right now.

Onward. "Bunny," of course, is a word commonly used to describe a small or young rabbit, though some rabbit-lovers routinely use "bunny" to mean any rabbit, no matter how large. (I count myself in this camp, and we have dozens of bunny rabbits living in our yard. If you've ever had a hankering to see a grown man jumping up and down shouting "Looka da bunny wabbit," just swing by my place.)

As far as anyone can tell, the root of "bunny" was probably the Gaelic word "bun," which means "stump" or "root" and which, in Scots and northern English dialects, means "the tail of a hare." (This "bun," incidentally, seems unrelated to "bun" in the "hot dog bun" sense, which may be rooted in the Old French "bugne," meaning "swelling.") The "ny" ending of "bunny" is just a diminutive suffix, used to denote something that is small and cute.

"Bunny" meaning "rabbit" first appeared in English around 1690, and since has been used as an endearment for both women and children. Apart from the once-scandalous Playboy Bunnies, "bunny" in the late 20th century also came into mercifully brief use as slang for young women who frequented surfing beaches ("beach bunny") or ski resorts ("ski bunny") more for the social life than the sport itself. Then again, perhaps they got the better linguistic deal, since their male counterparts were known as, respectively, "beach bums" and "ski bums."

When flow charts attack.

Dear Word Detective: I have been consulting for over 20 years and have never bothered to look up the meaning of the term "consult." Surprisingly, I cannot find it. I'm guessing that the "con" means "with," but what the heck is "sult"? I hope it doesn't have a common root with "insult"! -- Bob F., via the internet.

Well, Bob, if it makes you feel any better, no one else has the faintest clue what you actually do for a living either. When I worked in a large office, management used to send consultants around to watch us every so often, but all they ever seemed to do was lurk in the corner frowning and scribbling notes. Usually we'd just slip something nasty into their coffee and they'd be gone that afternoon.

In any case, I have good news for you. There appears to be no direct connection between "consult" and "insult." The verb "consult," meaning "to confer or deliberate together" comes directly from the Latin "consultare," meaning "to discuss or consult," possibly in the original sense of "to call a body (such as the Roman Senate) together." As you've guessed, the "con" part is Latin meaning "together." The "sult" part of "consult" is based on the Latin "selere," meaning "to take or gather," which came in turn from an Indo-European root "sal," meaning "to go." "Consult" first appeared in English around 1565, and the same path of linguistic evolution also produced our modern "consul" and "counsel."

"Insult," on the other hand, comes from the Latin word "insultare," meaning "to leap at or on, assail or insult." As you might guess from that definition, "insultare" is a combination of "in" meaning "on" and "saltare," a verb based in turn on "salire," meaning "to leap or jump." That "salire," incidentally, also underlies our modern English "assault," "assail" and, one of my favorite words, "salacious." When "insult" first appeared in English in the 15th century it was used to mean "to triumph, exult or boast arrogantly," but by the 16th century it had settled down to its modern meaning of "to abuse with contemptuous speech or action."

Frisky business.

Dear Word Detective: I've used and heard the word "frisk" for years. Of course, I know the meanings such as "to run to and fro in an excited fashion," usually chasing or wanting to chase spherical objects or sticks, "to exhibit feelings of desire for members of the opposite sex," and, the all time favorite, "to feel a person's outer garments for illegal and/or dangerous objects." So, the question is, how did this term of emotional enthusiasm become part of the law enforcement vocabulary? I cannot think of one time while patting someone down (excepting my wife) that I ever became emotionally stimulated or considered chasing a ball. -- Jeff Allendorph, via the internet.

Down, boy. That sort of thing will get you arrested. Speaking of "frisking" in the hold-it-right-there sense, I almost got myself hauled away trying to visit the White House last winter. The Secret Service guy was running one of those handheld metal detectors over me, and everywhere, absolutely everywhere he waved it, the infernal thing would screech and beep. Evidently they'd never encountered aluminum long johns before, but I'm used to being ahead of my time.

Meanwhile, back at your wife searching you for weapons or whatever you were trying to tell me, it all began with the adjective "frisk," meaning "lively" or "full of life," which first appeared in English in the 16th century and may have been derived from a Germanic root meaning "lively" or "fresh." At about the same time, English developed the adjective "frisky," also meaning "lively" or "playful." This led to a verb form of "frisk," meaning "to move briskly" or "to dance or frolic." There is also a noun form of "frisk," meaning "a brisk and lively movement," especially in dance or horsemanship.

Now if we back up a bit to that verb form of "frisk," we find "to move briskly" gradually coming to include light, rapid movements of the hand, of the sort a pickpocket or thief might make, and indeed "frisk" and "frisker" were both 18th century slang for a thief. In much the same way that the criminal slang "cop" (from the Latin "capere," to snatch) meaning "to grab or steal" came to be used as slang for the police officer who grabbed the crooks, "frisk" went from meaning "dip into a victim's pockets" to meaning "quickly search a suspect for weapons or contraband," and cops have been "frisking" perps since the late 18th century.

And it sure beats "problematic."

Dear Word Detective: "Stymied" is a strange little word, used mostly in headlines, it seems. What is the origin of the word "stymied," and can one be "styme"? -- Curtiss Brown, Galveston Island, Near Texas.

OK, I'll bite. What's up with "Near Texas"? Isn't Galveston Island part of Texas? If not, what state is it part of? Or is there a Republic of Galveston Island we should be negotiating with right now? If so, do you guys accept immigrants? I don't think I can make it through another football season.

"Stymie" certainly is a strange little word, and you're correct about it often being used in newspaper headlines, where space is at a premium and short, "punchy" words sell papers. The Oxford Companion to the English Language, under "Headlinese," lists such other reliable standards as axe, clash, cut, hit, oust, slam, slate, ban, bid, boost, call, curb, link, probe, riddle, scare, swoop, and vow. I can't help noticing that they left out "tot," which has probably sold more tabloid newspapers than any other English word (not counting the proper name "Monica," of course).

To "stymie" someone or something is, of course, to block, frustrate and thwart that person, project or action. If you find yourself "stymied" in what you're trying to accomplish, it means that you have encountered a very obstinate obstruction, one that may well prove immovable.

The odd thing about "stymie" (apart from the weird appearance of the word itself, of course) is that the general "frustrate" sense in which we use it today is actually relatively recent. "Stymie" was originally a golf term, dating from at least 1834, denoting a golf ball lying on the putting green blocking the player's ball from the hole. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if the two balls lie less than six inches apart, the offending "stymie" can be lifted out of the way to permit the shot. The root of "stymie" is thought to be the old Scots word "stymie," meaning "person who sees poorly," based in turn on "styme," meaning "a tiny bit" or "glimmer." The logic here may be that a "stymie" ball block the other ball from clearly "seeing" the hole. What is certain is that by around 1902 "stymie" had come into general use in the "obstruct" or "frustrate" sense, and government agencies have been "stymieing" their citizens ever since.



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