Previous Columns/Posted 11/09/99
Thanks very much to all the readers who took the time, in response to my plea last month in this space, to let me know when and where The Word Detective is mentioned in other media. We've been cropping up all over the place lately, apparently because the poor stiffs who are stuck with churning out "Interesting Web Sites" columns for local newspapers get a lot of their "picks" from other columnists' lists. Not that I'm objecting to that method, mind you. I wrote two whole books about the internet using essentially the same technique. Anyway, thanks again, and I'm still interested in hearing about any mentions of TWD you run across.
You may have noticed a new link on our main page to the new web page of a newspaper column called "How Come?", which answers science questions sent in by young people (and not-so-young people) all around the world. "How Come?" happens to be written by my wife, Kathy Wollard, and I am pleased to announce that the long-awaited second "How Come?" collection, entitled "How Come? Planet Earth," is now available in bookstores. In fact, you can click right here to order "How Come? Planet Earth" from Amazon.com. And while you're at it, you might as well order the first "How Come?" book too, right?
And now, without further ado, this month's specimens:
Dear Word Detective: In the old Cole Porter song "Begin the Beguine," who or what is a "beguine"? -- Edith Freedle, New York City.
Don't look now, but I'm afraid that the days when you can assume folks know what you're talking about when you mention a Cole Porter song are rapidly disappearing. Worse yet, finding music from the 1920s, 30s and 40s on the radio is almost impossible. I have recently resorted to downloading audio files of an excellent program that airs on New York City station WFUV called The Big Broadcast, which you can find at The Big Broadcast Archives. There's also a Usenet newsgroup called alt.binaries.sounds.78rpm-era where you can find great songs. I guess that every so often the internet actually turns out to be good for something.
The "Beguine" referred to in the title of Porter's hit song of the 1930s is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a kind of popular dance, originally associated with Martinique; also applied to a kind of syncopated dance rhythm." Of course, anyone attempting to actually learn to dance from that definition is going to have serious social problems, but I understand the beguine is a ballroom dance similar to the rumba. The name "beguine" comes from "beguin," French slang for "infatuation." (Martinique, a West Indian island, was once a French colony.)
For a word that became associated with a highly romantic dance step, "beguin" had a remarkable beginning. The Sisters of Beguine were a 12th century Catholic lay order founded in the Netherlands by Lambert Begue. While the Beguines were suitably pious, their vows were not as strict as many other orders, and the Sisters were allowed to leave the order to marry if they wished. Perhaps because of this freedom, "beguine" came to be used as a slang term for "flirtation" or "infatuation." The Sisters of Beguine still exist in small communities in the Netherlands, but, to my knowledge, they do not dance the beguine.
Dear Word Detective: I need to find the word origins for Monday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday. -- Sheri Weekley, via the internet.
OK, but why, if I may be so bold, do you only care about those four days? Personally, if I had to pick a day to ignore, it would be Wednesday.
In any case, as long as we're here we might as well consider all seven days. Almost all the names of days of the week are rooted in ancient Roman mythology, often filtered through Germanic languages (especially Old Norse) and customs.
Sunday, for instance, was named in tribute to the Sun, and known to the Romans as "dies solis" (Day of the Sun). The Old English translation of the Latin phrase was "Sunnandaeg," which eventually evolved into our modern "Sunday." Days of the week, incidentally, were not usually capitalized until the 17th century.
If you're going to have a "Sun Day," you pretty much have to have a "Moon Day," and the Old English "Monandaeg" meant just that. By about 1200 we were dreading "Monedaei" morning, and eventually we settled on "Monday." Tuesday was named in tribute to the Germanic god Tiu, who was in charge of war and the sky. The Romans had called Tuesday "Dies Martis," after Mars, the Roman god of war, and the French word for Tuesday is still "Mardi" (as in the New Orleans festival of Mardi Gras, which means "Fat Tuesday").
Wednesday was known to the Romans as "Dies Mercurii" in tribute to the god Mercury. The Germanic tribes of Europe substituted their god Woden (or Odin, in Norse mythology), giving us the Old English "Wodnesdaeg," and we've been stuck trying to spell "Wednesday" ever since. Thursday followed the same pattern. The Romans called it "Dies Iovis," after Jove, their god of thunder, but when those Germanic folk got hold of it, they renamed it after their thunder dude, Thor. The Old English "Thunraesdaeg" eventually became out modern "Thursday."
Friday was known to the Romans as "Dies Veneris" after Venus, the Roman god of love. The Norse god Frigg (who just happened to be Odin's wife) was substituted, giving us the Old English "Frigedaeg," and, eventually, "Friday." And, lastly, Saturday was (and still is) named in tribute to the Roman god Saturn.
Dear Word Detective: I recently made mild fuss with a friend of mine about the origins of the word "fortnight." I thought it was simply an abbreviated form of "fourteen nights." He believes that it was started during a time of war. His thought is that it was the time period required of a soldier to stay at a fort, hence the term "fortnight." -- M. Bauman, via the internet.
"Made a fuss"? As in "had a fight"? As in everyone in the restaurant stopped eating and stared at the two of you as you wrestled on the floor, shouting "Fourteen nights!" and "Soldiers in a fort!"? I do wish my readers wouldn't take these little etymological squabbles so seriously. Save your energies for battles that really matter. I'll let you know when I think of one.
In any case, you win this one. "Fortnight," which means a period of fourteen days, is a contraction of the Old English phrase "feowertiene niht," which meant "fourteen nights." (The ancient Germanic peoples from whom we lifted the phrase measured time in nights, not days.) A related term, "sennight," means a period of seven days (from the Old English for seven nights, "seofon niht"), but is very rarely heard today.
"Fortnight" itself is pretty rare in the U.S., although it is still in common use in Britain. The entire British way of speaking about the immediate future, by the way, often confuses American visitors. While in the U.S. we might say "I'll pay you two weeks from Tuesday," in Britain they would say "I'll pay you Tuesday fortnight," or "Tuesday week" if they were going to pay you a week sooner. The British also follow the date format "day, month, year" (as in "4 July 1999" or "4/7/99"), rather than our familiar "month, day, year" form.
Dear Word Detective: A friend and I were discussing weird and funny words the other night and we thought of "galoshes." Just the sound of it is strange. Where did this word originate and how would one refer to "galoshes" in the singular? -- Jennifer Robey, Harriman, TN.
Good question. It's all a matter of etiquette. If you were at a formal dinner, for instance, and you wished to discreetly indicate the presence of one half of a pair of galoshes in the vichyssoise, you would unobtrusively point and whisper "Galosh" to the hostess, who would probably reply "Gesundheit." In a more informal setting, such as a family dinner, a simple "Mom, there's a boot in the soup" will do.
In any case, "galosh" is indeed the proper term for just one of what are also called "overshoes" or "rain boots" in the U.S., "rubbers" being the more prevalent term in Britain. The last pair of galoshes that I owned (circa 1962) were ankle-length rubber boots that were supposed to, but usually didn't, fit over your shoes, and were fastened with a series of nasty little clamps designed to painfully pinch your fingers if you actually managed to wedge your feet into them. I think galoshes now come with zippers, but I'm still not interested.
Although galoshes as we know (or knew) them appeared in the 19th century, the term itself is considerably older. When "galosh" first entered English in the 14th century, it usually referred to a wooden sandal or clog (although "galosh" was also applied to almost any kind of shoe). "Galosh" comes from the French word "galoche," which is probably related to the medieval Latin "galopedium," meaning "wooden shoe." One authority believes that the ultimate source was the Latin "gallica," a short form of "Gallica solea," or "Gallic sandal."
Dear Word Detective: I've recently run into a few people from a small town in Idaho (Kooskia) who say "larapin" (I'm guessing at the spelling) when something is good, delicious, agreeable, etc. And not a one of them knows where it began or who began it or even how it's spelled. Anyway, it's driving me crazy not knowing. -- Gretta Shaw, via the internet.
Newsflash, Gretta. Your new friends may have told you they were from Idaho or Iowa or some such place, but my research indicates that Kooksia is actually a small planet near the Crab Nebula. Incidentally, in Kooskian, "larapin" means "We ought to take this person with us when we go home," so you can quit worrying about those overdue library books. Making new friends is fun, isn't it? Have a nice trip.
Just kidding, of course. I'm sure Kooksia is a very nice town, and, more to the point, "larapin" is a very nice, if somewhat mysterious, word. The most common spelling is "larruping," and it does indeed mean "excellent or first-rate" and is often used to mean "delicious" when referring to food. "Larruping" which is heard from the midwest to New Mexico, can also be used as an intensifying adverb in phrases such as "larruping good."
The origin of "larruping" meaning "excellent" is a little uncertain. It seems to be related to the English dialect word "larrup," meaning "to whip, beat or thrash," which first appeared in the early 19th century and may be based on the Dutch "larpen," meaning "to whip."
It's not entirely clear how "larruping," which originally meant "beating," came to mean "excellent," but it probably reflects the same logic as the use of "smashing" or "walloping" (as in "a walloping good time was had by all") to mean "superior" or "superlative."
By the way, "larrup" has also been used since the late 19th century to mean molasses or any sort of sweet syrup, and pancake syrup used to be known as "larrupy dope," the original meaning of "dope" being simply "thick liquid."
Dear Word Detective: Would you please help me to debunk my friend's theory about the origin of the word "sirloin"? She says the word came from a king who praised the cut of beef he was eating by knighting the cow it came from. Hence, "Sir Loin." Please tell me this crazy story is not true. -- JKN, via the internet.
OK, that crazy story is not true. Not even close, in fact. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that you won't be hearing it over and over again, possibly repeated on TV or radio. I was watching one of those TV newsmagazine programs a few nights ago when, to my horror, the blow-dried "reporter" solemnly informed me that the word "tip" (the restaurant kind) began as an acronym for "To Insure Promptness." To which I replied, "No, you idiot, it actually comes from an old sense of 'tip' meaning 'to give,'" but the TV guy didn't seem to hear me, which is odd, considering how loudly my wife says I was shouting.
In fairness to your friend, I must say that she is far from alone in her affection for that "I dub this cut of meat Sir Loin" story, although most versions specify the steak itself, rather than the cow, as the recipient of the royal honor. It is probably one of the most famous, and most flamboyantly bogus, word origin fables around. In fact, the earliest written example of the word "sirloin" in English yet discovered comes in a 1655 "knighting of the beef" account that specifies Henry the Eighth as the monarch involved. Jonathan Swift, ordinarily a perceptive fellow, repeated the tale in 1738, claiming it was King James I who knighted his dinner, and yet another author in 1822 credited Charles II with coining "sirloin."
The truth about "sirloin" is downright boring in comparison to all those kings and knighthoods and stuff. "Sirloin" comes from the Old French word "surlonge," meaning simply "above the loin," which is where sirloin comes from.
Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word "boondocks"? -- Roly Baldwin, via the internet.
Sure, ask me about the boondocks. You're talking to a guy who has to drive 40 miles to buy a newspaper without pictures of livestock on the front page. Since Word Detective World Headquarters moved from New York City to rural Ohio last year, we get our water from a well, we're too far out in the country for cable TV, the electricity and telephone stop working whenever it rains, and we've learned the hard way to keep lots of food on hand. I think the reason that none of our neighbors is worried about the Y2K meltdown of civilization is because, out here, it's already happened.
The "boondocks" is, as some of us know all too well, a slang term meaning an isolated or wild region, the remote countryside or jungle. In short, the sticks. To be "in the boondocks" is to be out of touch with civilization, or at least out of touch with anyone who knows how to make a decent bagel.
"Boondocks" only became common slang in the U.S. in the late 1960s, but the term itself is quite a bit older. It comes from the Tagalog (the primary language of the Philippines) word "bundoc," meaning "mountain." The term first appeared in an English dictionary around 1909, but it wasn't until substantial numbers of U.S. Marines were stationed in the Philippines during the 1930s and 40s that the word became standard Marine slang and began to percolate into civilian usage. The boom in the popularity of "boondocks" in the 1960s is almost certainly due to its use by American troops in Vietnam.
Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering if you could tell me the origin of "daylights," as used in the phrases "beat the daylights out of" or "scare the daylights out of." I've heard those phrases all my life, but when you really think about them, they don't seem to make any sense. What are "daylights"? -- K.M., Ohio.
"Daylights" is very old slang for the human eyes, dating back to at least the early 18th century. This makes a certain amount of sense, since the eyes are the "source" of all the light we see. And the practice of equating the eyes with lights or windows is very old: one Latin word for "eye" was "lumen," which literally meant "light."
"To beat (or scare) the daylights" out of someone therefore, originally meant to beat or frighten someone so badly that the person's eyes, at least figuratively, popped out. "Daylights" was also used in an extended sense in this context to mean any vital organ or consciousness itself, so to beat or scare "the daylights out of" someone could just as well mean to pummel or frighten the victim into unconsciousness.
Anybody in the mood for a weird coincidence? It turns out that there is another kind of "light" in the human body. The word "daylight," of course, refers to the kind of "light" you can see. The other English word "light" (meaning "not heavy") is completely unrelated, but it comes from the same source as the word "lung," and human lungs used to be called "the lights" (because lungs, being full of air, are not as heavy as other organs). In fact, the lungs and other internal organs of animals are still referred to as "the lights" in England, and in "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain wrote of scaring "the liver and lights out of" someone. But since the "daylight" kind of light and the "not heavy" kind of light came from two different sources, the fact that you can "beat the daylights" out of someone by punching him in "the lights" is just a linguistic coincidence.
Dear Word Detective: I'm reading a Patrick O'Brian novel about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and was wondering about the actual origin of the term "dog watch." According to O'Brian's characters it's called the "dog watch" because it's "cur-tailed." This of course brings to mind the phrase "that dog won't hunt." I'm sure there is a terribly close relationship between the Royal Navy and your average hillbilly just waiting to be revealed. -- Stuart Zimmerman, via the internet.
Well, you never know. Had I found myself enlisted in the Royal Navy of that period, I would certainly have headed for the hills at the earliest opportunity.
After considerable research (meaning that I had to stand up and walk across the room to pull down a few books), I think I can explain "dog watch." There are usually five four-hour watches posted aboard ship. The hours between 4 and 8 p.m., however, are traditionally divided into two shorter (two hour) "dog watches." The exact logic of this practice is unclear, but it is probably partially to allow all the sailors to eat supper around 6 p.m., as well as to facilitate effective rotation of watch duty among all personnel.
The term "dog watch," which first appeared in print around 1700, was almost certainly coined by analogy to "dog sleep," which since around 1708 has meant a light, brief and easily interrupted sleep. (Dogs apparently were known back then for this kind of light dozing, although today we would call such brief snoozes "cat naps.") In comparison to standard four-hour watches, the brief "dog watches" must have seemed brief indeed. The oblique but sardonic allusion to sleep (which was, of course, strictly forbidden while on watch) implicit in the phrase "dog watch" also probably contributed to the popularity of the term.
"That dog won't hunt," an American idiom meaning "that won't succeed" or "that idea is a dud," first in print appeared around 1933, and is heard throughout the South, not just in Appalachia. To a hunter, a dog that is untrained, too old or too stupid to hunt is almost worthless, making "that dog won't hunt" a vivid metaphor for "forget it."
Dear Word Detective: In a meeting today, the word "fungible" came up and half of the people present didn't even know that it was a word. Once we were convinced that it was, everyone began guessing about its etymology. This ranged from having to do with "fungi" to being something "fun." Can you help? -- Paul Green, via the internet.
I'm no psychologist, but, judging from your letter, you folks are all in dire need of a career change. Given the flimsiest pretext, you immediately abandoned the meeting agenda and began discussing possible origins of an obscure word with a level of excitement and enthusiasm that I'll bet is rarely, if ever, aroused by your boring old jobs. Personally, I would strongly suggest that you all immediately resign and go join the French Foreign Legion. Tell Captain Martinet I sent you, and don't forget your flea powder.
Having spent the better part of my youth as a galley slave in a large law firm, I can testify that "fungible" is indeed a real word, a legal term used to describe the nature of payment of a debt. Basically, if a debt is "fungible," it can be paid in variety of ways, providing that the form of payment is of value equal to the debt. If I sell you a prize-winning cow, for example, you have a right to expect that particular cow, and not some moth-eaten substitute, to be delivered. That kind of debt is not fungible. But if I simply owe you three cows, almost any three critters of the cow species will do, and the debt is said to be "fungible." Similarly, if I owe you a sum of money, and you agree to accept several aged cows plus a few bushels of wheat and maybe a couple of old video games as payment, that debt would be said to be "fungible."
As you can probably gather from that explanation, "fungible" has absolutely nothing to do with the word "fun," and has no connection to "fungus" despite the involvement of lawyers. "Fungible" comes from the Latin "fungibilis," which in turn came from the Latin phrase "fungi vice," meaning "to serve in place of."
Dear Word Detective: According to an old "Ripley's Believe It or Not," the word "kangaroo" in aboriginal Australian means "What are you talking about?" Could this be true? The story went that some "white guy" pointed at a kangaroo and said "What is that?" The Aborigine said "Kangaroo," and the name stuck. -- Chase Roberts, via the internet.
This is what I love about writing this column. One minute I'm reading my e-mail, and the next thing I know I'm hurtling down Memory Lane in a haunted stagecoach. For more than forty years Ripley's Believe It or Not was a syndicated newspaper feature that scoured the globe in search of the weird, the exotic, and the just plain creepy. Believe It or Not provided Americans with their daily dose of two-headed calves, shrunken heads and solid gold bathtubs, and when I was twelve years old I was Mr. Robert Ripley's biggest fan. Although Believe It or Not no longer runs in newspapers, today there are 27 official Ripley museums scattered around the world offering such oddities as a 1907 Rolls Royce automobile made entirely out of matchsticks.
Unfortunately, and I hope I can say this without incurring the wrath of Ripley Entertainment Inc.'s two-headed lawyers, veracity was never Mr. Ripley's strong suit, and this "kangaroo" business is a good example of his apparent gullibility. To be fair, Ripley didn't invent the story, but he certainly popularized it.
The kernel of truth underlying the story is that Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to reach Australia in 1770, did indeed bring back news of a creature the Australian native peoples called a "kangooroo" or "ganguru." Unfortunately, linguists cataloging the various Aboriginal languages many years later were unable to find anything like "kangaroo" in any existing native tongue. But the logical presumption is that the dialect Cook heard had simply become extinct over the intervening years. There is no evidence that "kangaroo" ever meant "I don't know," "What are you talking about," or any of the other responses supposedly given to his query.
Dear Word Detective: During the recent Monica Lewinsky scandal in Washington, one of the words that got tossed around with considerable abandon was "tawdry." I know what it means -- sleazy, shameful, cheap -- but I'd really like to know where it came from. -- Lenore Randall, via the internet.
Monica who? OK, granted, I may be a little premature on that one, but she does seem to be accelerating into oblivion a bit faster than anyone would have expected. I guess Andy Warhol was right about everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame. Of course, it's probably only the incessant media repetition of that "fifteen minutes of fame" chestnut that's preventing most of you from asking "Andy who?"
OK, enough irony. "Tawdry" does indeed mean "cheap and gaudy," with the added connotation of "untidy" and "ungraceful." It all began, quite unfairly in light of the modern meaning of "tawdry," with Queen Aethelthyrth, 7th century monarch of Northumbria, in what is now northern England. Aethelthyrth, also known as Audrey (who can blame her?), was a kind and generous Queen, famous for her good deeds and charity. After she ran away from her husband (who was not kind and generous), she founded a monastery and devoted the rest of her life to helping the common people. Her only vanity was a passion for fine scarves and necklaces, and when she was stricken with throat cancer late in life she regarded the disease as divine punishment for her devotion to showy neckwear.
After her death Audrey was canonized, and the villagers nearby established an annual festival in her honor. Among other wares merchants sold at the fair were beautiful scarves in tribute to Saint Audrey. Originally the scarves were of the finest lace, and "St. Audrey's Lace" became the most desirable in Britain. Over time, "Saint Audrey's Lace" was slurred into "Tawdry Lace," via a common linguistic process called "elision." Still, "tawdry" continued to mean "refined" for several hundred years. But eventually, the quality of the product was degraded by unscrupulous vendors until the word "tawdry," once a tribute to a kind and selfless saint, became a synonym for something cheap and worthless pretending to be of value.
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