Previous Columns/Posted 11/10/97
Dear Word Detective: "Boilerplate"-- any thoughts? Somewhere I heard that back in the days when boilers were more common for heating buildings, lots of folks were injured by the things. Enter the manufacturer's lawyers, who put warning and disclaimer language on a metal plate affixed to the side of the boiler. Voila -- a great defense to those pesky lawsuits. Any thought as to whether this story has any substance? -- Joel McCormick, via the Internet.
Y'know, some of us still live in buildings heated by boilers. My New York City apartment building, for instance, was built sometime during the late Pleistocene and still relies on a steam boiler (maintained a chap named Walter who lives in the basement and dates back to the same period).
The explanation you have heard of the origin of "boilerplate" is certainly inventive, but perhaps a little overly literal, although metal plates do figure into the real story. Back in the days of "hot metal" typesetting, newspapers were printed from metal plates of type, cast from mats created by typesetters in the newspaper's composition room. Certain parts of the newspaper, however, such as advertisements or syndicated columns, were supplied to the printers in ready-to-use form as heavy iron prefabricated printing plates that were not (and indeed could not be) modified before printing. These never-changed plates came to be known in the late 19th century as "boilerplate" from their resemblance to the plates used to construct boilers, and eventually any part of the paper that rarely changed (such as the masthead) came to be called "boilerplate."
The term "boilerplate" was later adopted by lawyers to describe those parts of a contract that are considered "standard language," although any really good lawyer will tell you to always read the "boilerplate" in any contract you plan to sign.
Dear Word Detective: While putting our 2 year old triplet boys (and the 4 year-old boy) to bed, the thought of the word mayhem came to both my wife and I and we were wondering were the heck that word came from? Perhaps you can help? -- Melanie and Frank Del Papa, via the Internet.
Help with the triplets? Uh, no thanks, I've seen that movie. Have you considered buying a sheepdog? A well-trained border collie could really take the trouble out of herding your resident mob from room to room, and, after all, every kid needs a dog. As Robert Benchley put it, "A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down."
Although I'm sure you are using "mayhem" in the modern figurative sense of "disruption" or "ruckus," tracing the history of the word reveals a somewhat grimmer (all right, much, much grimmer) story of "mayhem."
"Mayhem" (meaning, strictly speaking, "the infliction of violent injury on a person or thing") comes from the Anglo-Norman "maihem," or injury, the same root word that gave us "maim." In fact, for much of their history in English since the 13th century, "maim" and "mayhem" have been nearly interchangeable words. One could "mayhem" one's neighbor, who would then have a "maim," or lasting wound or injury. In modern use, however, "maim" has survived solely as a verb while "mayhem" can be either a noun or a verb, the noun meaning the act of "maiming" someone.
While "mayhem" retains the narrow sense of "serious bodily harm" in legal terminology, popular usage has broadened its meaning to cover any sort of riotous disorder or havoc. Dennis the Menace, for instance, "commits mayhem" on Mr. Wilson's peace of mind on a daily basis, as did the Katzenjammer Kids to The Captain's. Triplets, eh? On second thought, maybe you'd better make that two sheepdogs.
Dear Word Detective: If possible, could you help me with the origins of the word "Moxie"? -- Tim McDonough, via the Internet.
Well, OK, as long as I don't have to drink the stuff. Although many people know "moxie" only as a synonym for "gumption" or "courage," Moxie is and has been for over 100 years a soft drink whose (inexplicable, in my opinion) popularity is confined largely to New England. The taste of Moxie is hard to describe, but if you have some really old sarsaparilla or birch beer around the house, mix it with a little battery acid and you'll get the general idea. My father, who grew up in Boston and claimed to actually like the stuff, kept a dozen or so bottles of Moxie on the back porch during my childhood. Whenever anyone would complain that there was no Coke or Pepsi in the house to drink, Pop would suggest that we give Moxie another try. The existence of those bottles of Moxie lurking out there on the porch probably explains my lifelong fondness for tap water.
Anyone who has actually tasted Moxie will not be surprised to learn that it began life not as a soft drink, but as a patent medicine. Invented by Dr. Augustin Thompson of Lowell, MA in 1884, Moxie was originally marketed as "Moxie Nerve Food," and sold as a remedy for whatever might be ailing turn of the century Americans. Moxie was enormously popular all over the U.S., but in 1906 the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to Moxie's medicinal claims, and from then on it was sold as a soft drink. It remained popular, however, and with Moxie being Calvin Coolidge's favorite drink in the 1920's, the Moxie empire seemed secure. Unfortunately, Moxie's star began to wane as the Kingdom of Coca-Cola slowly took over the market, and Moxie retreated to its New England home.
No one knows for sure why Dr. Thompson picked the name "Moxie" in the first place, but his promotion of the drink as a source of "pep and vigor" is, according to Moxie partisans, the source of its slang connotation of "courage." Personally, I think that anyone who takes a second sip of Moxie has "moxie" to spare.
Dear Word Detective: All of these reckless people in the world. Yet what are you if you're not reckless? "Not reckless?" Personally, I don't think so. Yet, why don't we hear anything about an especially "reckful" person? -- Remy Gibson, via the Internet.
Believe it or not, I think I may know what you're driving at in your question, which may mean that I've been writing this column for too long. You want to know where "reck" went, right? Well, you certainly won't find it on television. Am I the only one around here disturbed by the sinister turn car commercials have taken in recent years? They used to show families cruising sedately down the road on their way to Disneyland or the beach. Now they all seem to feature tight-lipped macho morons fishtailing down rain-slicked mountain roads or zooming across desert wastes in pursuit of sullen supermodels. Is it any wonder so many people are driving like utter idiots? I think we should both lower the speed limit, and raise the driving age, to 40. As Jack Benny would say, I'm willing to wait.
Since modern English seems to be full of negatives that lack positive forms ("nonplussed" and "disgruntled," for instance), you're justified in your suspicion that no one is ever "reckful." But it turns out that "reck" actually is (or at least used to be) a perfectly good word meaning "to take care." "Reck" is a very old word, dating back to 888 A.D. in English, and probably much further back in the Germanic languages, where early forms of "reckless" have been traced back to prehistoric times.
Although "reck" enjoyed a brief heyday in the vocabulary of 19th century poets, it has been (and remains) archaic and rarely heard since the 16th century. I guess that explains why you don't see many public-service advertisements advising us to "drive reckfully." It's probably for the best, anyway. The average couch potato would presume the word was "wreck" and then we'd be in even worse trouble.
Dear Word Detective: As the Word Detective, you must have a clue about the origin of "skel" (not sure how to spell it) meaning some kind of criminal. All the cop shows and mystery books use the term, which is clearly understood through the dialogue, but I'm curious about where it comes from. -- Taryn Trappe, via the Internet.
Oh good, a second shot at "skell" (which is how it's usually spelled). In addition to the column you are at this very moment reading, I began earlier this year to write a weekly column devoted to New York City slang for a major New York City newspaper which we'll call, to be diplomatic, The Daily Planet. Early on, I suggested to my editor, whom we'll call Perry White, that I do a piece on "skell," since several folks had recently asked me about it.
Perry chewed his cigar for a moment and then barked, "Nope."
"Nope. Nobody wants to open his (sic) Sunday Daily Planet and read about skells. Pick more positive words."
I then spent the next two months scouring New York City for positive, uplifting slang words, a remarkably rare species. Fortunately, Perry the Pollyanna departed The Planet (probably to return to Mars) before I got around to shooting myself in frustration, but it was a very close call.
Perry was right about one thing, however -- "skell" is not a nice word. Loosely translated from police slang, "skell" means "hardcore vagrant" or "derelict," and probably comes from the German word "schelm," meaning rascal or villain, although it may simply be a shortening of "skeleton." "Skell" is also not a new word, first appearing in written English in 1611 in a work by the playwright Ben Jonson. According to William Safire, Jonson had recently spent time in prison for killing a man and may have learned the term from his fellow prisoners.
While "skell" originally denoted someone of an actively criminal bent, the word is today applied by police (and screenwriters) almost exclusively to vagrants and homeless men living on the street (who may be, in many cases, at least as honest as the average stockbroker).
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me how hollowed out pumpkins came to be known as Jack O'Lanterns? -- John Reesing, via the Internet.
Gosharootie, an actual seasonal question. And a lovely season it is, too. Autumn is the only season I have any use for -- I absolutely loathe summertime, spring is far too chirpy, and winter is usually a bit over the top. But autumn is my cup of tea. Mostly this has to do with the annual appearance of pumpkin pie, but the overwhelming gloom and sense of foreboding are nice, too. Halloween, of course, is the high point of autumn. How can you not like a holiday that involves both bats and candy corn?
Jack O'Lanterns have been part of Halloween for hundreds of years in both the U.S. and Great Britain, where our familiar "pumpkin lanterns" are often made from large turnips. Halloween itself is a very, very old holiday. Originally, October 31st was the last day of the old Celtic calendar, and was thought to be the night when witches, warlocks and demons roamed the Earth and the spirits of the dead returned to the land of the living. With the coming of Christianity to Britain, October 31st became known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints (also known as "All Hallows," or holy persons) Day, November 1st. But the old pagan traditions, including "trick or treating" and pumpkin or turnip lanterns, were retained and integrated into the new holiday, and "Hallows Eve" eventually was slurred to "Halloween."
The name "Jack O'Lantern" is not nearly as old as Halloween and originally had nothing to do with the holiday. "Jack O'Lantern" was a 17th century term for a night watchman, so called because he carried a lantern on his rounds. The term was also applied to "will-o'-the-wisps," the strange lights sometimes seen in swamps and graveyards at night, based on the belief that the lights seen were the lanterns carried by spectral watchmen making their ghostly rounds. With such a spooky history, it's not surprising that Jack O'Lanterns became a fixture, and emblem, of Halloween.
Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the English expletive "bloody." I understand it's derived from "By Our Lady" Is this true? -- Mizoe, via the Internet.
Almost certainly not. No one knows for sure where "bloody" came from, and although many theories have been proposed over the past few hundred years, no solid evidence has ever emerged to settle the question. That mystery about the origin of the word, however, doesn't stop the story of "bloody" from being one of the stranger word tales around.
To Americans, "bloody" means next to nothing -- it's simply a word we hear in British movies and vaguely recognize as some sort of intensifier ("It's this bloody heat that's driving the men mad, Colonel."). To a Briton, however, "bloody" is a heavy-duty expletive, one that even in these liberal times could probably not be used in polite society without shocking at least a few of those present. There's really no equivalent to "bloody" in American English, but if there were I'd probably not be able to print it in this column. Even today, British newspapers usually will only print "bloody" if it is contained safely within a direct quotation. Among the working class of Britain, however, "bloody" is as popular as our familiar four-letter expletives are on American loading docks (or in certain Oval Offices). "Bloody" is even more popular Down Under, where it is known as "The Great Australian Adjective."
What is truly odd about upper-class Britons' "bloody" squeamishness is that until about 1750, "bloody" was considered a acceptable if somewhat unpleasant word, often used as an intensifier in everyday conversation. The emergence of violent gangs of aristocratic thugs known as "bloods" (probably from "blood thirsty") in the 18th century may have been the impetus for the public banishment of "bloody" from polite speech, but in any case the exile lasted for more than 200 years and is only now easing. All of which proves that the history of words is every bit as irrational as the people who use them.
Dear Word Detective: Perhaps you can clarify a phrase that I heard this morning on the radio. The commentator said something like, "Mr. Clinton will use the bully pulpit, actually, he believes strongly in this cause, so he'll just use the pulpit to communicate . . . ." The last time I thought about a bully pulpit and what it meant was somewhere around seventh grade. I think it had something to do with Teddy Roosevelt, but that seems like a stretch. So, could you please shed some light on this phrase? And does Teddy Roosevelt tie into the definition in some weird way? -- Gina Hooper, via the Internet.
Yes, Teddy Roosevelt does tie into the explanation of "bully pulpit," since he coined the phrase when he was President, describing the presidency itself as a "bully pulpit," or powerful position, from which to promulgate his views. Presumably the phrase made perfect sense to Roosevelt and his contemporaries, but ever since then many people have found "bully pulpit" a bit confusing, which is understandable. Most people, upon first hearing the phrase in elementary or high school history class, envision a hulking bully in a pulpit, hectoring and threatening his audience until they agree with him. This is a disquieting, almost oxymoronic vision, but fortunately it's also wrong.
The misunderstanding comes from Roosevelt's use of the adjective "bully," which was somewhat antiquated even when he coined the phrase. By "bully," Roosevelt meant "splendid" or "excellent," not "threatening." Roosevelt was also famous for using "Bully!" as an interjection, much in the way that you or I might exclaim "Wonderful!" or "Great!"
"Bully," which is thought to have come from a Dutch word meaning "brother" or "lover," had been used in this positive sense since the 16th century, and as a noun it had long meant "good fellow" or "friend." Our more familiar negative sense of "bully" is actually a later development of the word.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "Goody Two Shoes"? I remember a doll named Goody Two Shoes but I believe the phrase far predates the doll. I can't wait for the answer. This one is bugging me. -- Chrissy Burnham, via the Internet.
Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the phrase "goody two shoes"? What do two shoes have to do with anything? -- Stephen Jonke, via the Internet.
Say, do you two know each other? No? We'll fix that. Chrissy, this is Stephen. Stephen, say hi to Chrissy. Yes, folks, welcome to The Word Detective Dating Game. If this takes off, I can throw out all these old books and put in a Jacuzzi. Cool.
With my luck, of course, one of you will come back and report that the other is too much of a "Goody Two Shoes" to bear and that will be the end of my matchmaking career. "Goody Two Shoes" is a very old slang phrase meaning a good or virtuous person. Today it's often applied to one who hypocritically makes a great show of goodness while actually being somewhat less than virtuous.
The original "Goody Two Shoes" wasn't a hypocrite, although she definitely sounds a bit unbearable to modern ears. She made her debut in a children's story called "The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes," published by John Newbery in 1766. Goody was a poor child who only had one shoe. One day she somehow obtained a complete pair of shoes, whereupon she ran through the streets of her neighborhood, accosting passersby at random and announcing "Two shoes! Two shoes!" The author of this fable, incidentally, is said to have been the famed English playwright Oliver Goldsmith.
While today we would probably regard Goody as a hopeless wuss and routinely use "Goody Two Shoes" to mean someone who is suspiciously upright, it's comforting to know that it took us almost 200 years to arrive at that conclusion, and that the first negative, cynical use of "Goody Two Shoes" in print dates back only to 1934.
Dear Word Detective: Why is hamburger called "ham" burger when it doesn't come from pigs? -- Kendra Reilly, via the Internet.
But hot dogs do. As we say in New York City, go figure. Speaking of New York City and pigs (which I am determined to do, so you might as well relax and listen), I have been doing a bit of research on the city's history and have discovered something rather amazing. It seems that until an organized corps of New York City street cleaners was established in the middle of the 19th century, the task was handled by 20,000 "street hogs" which roamed the city freely, snarfing up all the garbage. European visitors were appalled at the spectacle of herds of wandering swine on fashionable avenues, but the children of the city had great fun chasing and lassoing the critters. I love New York.
I'm not very fond of hamburger, however, since I've always had a soft spot for cows, but I'll try not to let my prejudice flavor my answer to your question. The "ham" in "hamburger" doesn't have anything to do with ham -- in fact, "burger" by itself isn't even a proper word, so we can't really lop off "ham" and talk about it. "Hamburgers" (originally known as "hamburger steaks") are so-called because they are thought to have been invented in Hamburg, Germany, although chopping up some lean beef and frying it doesn't seem like a terribly challenging concept, so hamburger was probably actually "invented" in numerous locales. The original recipe for "hamburger steak," by the way, sounds more like meatloaf than hamburgers, involving beaten eggs, spices and onions. "Hamburger" made its first appearance in English at the end of the 19th century.
I said that "burger" wasn't a proper word by itself, but the popularity of hamburgers has led, on the model of Watergate/Irangate/Travelgate, ad nauseam, to a plethora of "burger" compounds. We now have, among other mutations, cheeseburgers, pizzaburgers, soyburgers (ugh), veggieburgers (double ugh), and turkeyburgers, which really aren't bad at all. To my knowledge, no one has ever successfully marketed a true "ham"-burger.
Dear Word Detective: Growing up in the '50's in a Mississippi River town in northwestern Illinois, I frequently heard my mother and her friends using the term "Hell sued for murder." I am ashamed at the amount of time I have spent over the years trying to figure out exactly what this means. It is usually used in the context of describing someone, as in "I saw her downtown this morning and she looked like hell sued for murder," meaning she looked bad. I have asked a number of people from different parts of the country and it seems to be a Midwestern term. Do you have any information on its origins? -- Alexis Corelis, now of Arizona, via the Internet.
Your question reminds me of one I received a few years ago from a young woman whose mother had used the phrase "mean as garbroth" all the years she was growing up without ever explaining what it meant, possibly because she herself didn't know. In any case, my correspondent nearly went bananas trying to figure it out until I was able to unearth the fact that the phrase literally referred to broth (as in soup) made from a "gar," a remarkably ugly fish.
So, given that we are surrounded by zillions of such weird folk sayings, I hope you will not be too disappointed when I tell you that I have been unable to find a definite answer to your question. "Hell," of course, is used in dozens of phrases as a metaphor for something horrible. I think it's safe to say that the "sued for murder" part is probably an elaboration added to make the phrase more emphatic and has no particular meaning of its own. "Sued for," incidentally, is an archaic equivalent in this case for "charged with," so the modern version would be "hell charged with murder." It may also be that "sued for murder" was tacked on partly to avoid the bluntness of saying simply "She looked like hell," which might still have been considered profanity in the Midwest of the 1950's.
Dear Word Detective: I've read the phrase "didn't know him/her/it/me from Adam's Off Ox." The meaning is clear from the context, but when did Adam get an ox? And why and how was it off? And off of what? And were there any others that were on? -- Teaberry, via the Internet.
So many questions, my excitable friend! All will be answered in good time, but first, let us enjoy this fine dinner my servants have prepared. Hmm, I guess I've been watching too many old horror movies, but that brings up my own question. Why is it that, when the hero and heroine have stumbled onto the island of giant mutant glowing bunnies or whatever, and the mad scientist insists that they join him for dinner before he will answer any of their questions, they go ahead and eat the food? Come on, gang, this guy breeds humongous radioactive rabbits for a living, plus which he never blinks! Do you really want to take a chance on his meat loaf?
Oh, well, if they were very bright they wouldn't be actors in the first place, I suppose. Meanwhile, back at "don't know him/her/it from Adam's off ox," it's a Midwestern U.S. expression indicating that the speaker definitely is not familiar with a person or thing. There are a whole slew of creative and sometimes bizarre variations on the theme, involving Adam's housecat, Adam's brother, Adam's foot, Adam's pet monkey, etc. All of them are elaborations of the original expression "I don't know him from Adam," which has been common in both England and the U.S. since the late 18th century. "Adam's off ox" is also sometimes heard as "Adam's old fox" or "Adam's all fox," which makes no sense at all (as if the original did).
There aren't many oxen in my neighborhood (although we do seem to have a surplus of housecats around here), but my research indicates that the "off ox" in a team of two oxen is the one (usually on the right) farthest away from the driver. "Adam's off ox," by piling such specificity on top of an already unknown quantity, just means someone you're even less likely to know than Adam himself.
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