Issue of November 16, 2006
Alright, already, mea freakin' culpa. So I missed one little month. September, October, November, whatever. I'm having a bit of a bad year.
And now, because I'm running late on everything, including feeding the dogs, I haven't time to comb through my graphics files for the little illustrations that usually grace each issue. If you feel the lack of pictures too keenly, I suggest drawing your own right on your monitor.
Meanwhile, from the Isn't That IN-teresting Department, I mentioned last year that I had been dragooned into watching The Gilmore Girls on a regular basis. The show always annoyed me with its non-stop cuteness and formulaic whimsy, but it grew on me a bit (no doubt due to my then-subclinical enfeebilation), and I could, in small doses, appreciate its homage to the madcap romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s.
Now, however, comes the final season of gggg...GG, and Amy-Sherman-Palomino (or whatever her three names are) is no longer writing the show, and ya turns on the TV and everyone in Star's Hollow has been lobotomized. Seriously. It's painfully, spookily bad, like fan fiction done by a slow twelve-year old, which, mirabile dictu, turns out to be (judging by the remarkably unsubtle product placements) the show's new target demographic. Very mysterious.
Or maybe not. Turns out the network hired a real nutcase to run the show's last season:
Nothing like hiring a psycho-stalker to oversee one of your highest-rated shows. The NY Times review of Kaptain Klum's wretched vanity play can be found here.
On the bright side, Tina Fey's 30 Rock is brilliant.
As always, the circus rolls on at da blog.
And now, on with the show:
Dear Word Detective: Twice in one day, I encountered the expression, "He took a Brodie." It apparently means a suicide by jumping, and the character who used it in the Robert B. Parker novel said he heard it in a George Raft movie. Hours later, a cop on the 75th episode of Law & Order that I've seen this week used the same expression to describe a jumper from the Brooklyn Bridge. I must know whence this comes! I don't think I've seen any George Raft movies, and I don't think Blockbuster has any, and besides, all I do is watch Law & Order! -- Carol Hartig.
Never seen a George Raft movie? That's not right.
Steve Brodie was a New York City bookmaker, when, on July 23, 1886, he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River, supposedly to win a bet. Brodie miraculously survived the 135-foot fall, was picked from the water by a passing barge, and became an overnight celebrity. But Brodie's feat was immediately denounced as a hoax in certain quarters, the accusation being that he had arranged for a dummy to be dropped from the bridge while he waited in the water below to be "rescued." Skepticism about Brodie's leap was understandable, since a man named Robert Odlum had been killed just months earlier attempting the same stunt.
Whatever the truth, Brodie definitely had a knack for self-promotion. He soon opened a bar on the Bowery, complete with a "museum" annex devoted to his feat, and starred in several vaudeville musicals. By 1899, "to take a Brodie" had entered the public lexicon meaning "to fall, leap or dive, especially in a dramatic fashion." A few years later "brodie" took on the meaning of "to take a fall" (i.e., throw the fight) in boxing, and is still heard in the sense of "an utter failure" or "flop." Evidently "brodie" has also been slang since the 1950s for "spinning out" in a car.
Steve Brodie died in 1901 of diabetes, but his feat continued to fascinate the public. In "The Bowery," a 1933 film, George Raft portrayed Brodie as Wallace Beery's rival for Fay Wray's affections. In the film, Brodie plans to fake his jump, but Beery's character forces him to do it for real. Brodie survives and wins Fay Wray's hand. An alternate account is supplied by the 1949 cartoon "Bowery Bugs," wherein Brodie is driven to his jump by Bugs Bunny.
So, did Brodie really jump? I tend to think so. After all, on September 13 of this year a man jumping from a burning car survived, with minor injuries, a 70-foot fall from the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River north of New York City. More importantly, the pioneering etymologist David Shulman, who died in 2004, spent many years researching the question and firmly believed Brodie did indeed make the jump. I'm not usually one to accept arguments from authority, but in this case that's good enough for me.
Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering why the New Orleans newspaper is called the Times-Picayune. I've found that "picayune," as in "small and trivial," comes from the same word for an old French coin of little value. Did the paper use to cost that amount? Or what might be the reason? -- Mary.
Good question, and one that probably occurred to many people given the Times-Picayune's remarkable performance during last year's Hurricane Katrina. Despite the flooding and chaos, the Times-Picayune kept publishing, at first only online, but within a few days of the storm in printed form as well. At a time when most of the news media and government aid agencies seemed to be viewing New Orleans from helicopters, Times-Picayune reporters and photographers were on the ground and in the water doing their jobs with courage and enterprise. Ironically, the Times-Picayune had warned, in eerily prescient detail, of precisely the disaster that befell New Orleans in a five-part series published in 2002 entitled "Washing Away," still available at www.nola.com.
It seems odd for a newspaper to name itself with a word we use to mean "trivial," "petty" or "inconsequential," but you've guessed the logic of "picayune" in the paper's name. When the New Orleans Picayune (as it was then called) went on sale for the first time on January 25, 1837, it was the first newspaper in the city to cost less than ten cents, going for just one "picayune," which at that time meant the Spanish "half-real" coin commonly used as currency, worth about six cents. The word "picayune" itself comes from the French "picaillon" (derived from the Provence "picaioun"), which designated a coin of little value.
"Picayune" was also adopted elsewhere in the U.S. in the 19th century as slang for the U.S. five-cent piece. By the late 19th century, "not worth a picayune" had become a common way to say "worthless," and soon "picayune" by itself took on its modern meaning of "insignificant." It also acquired the stronger meaning in some contexts of "contemptible," as in the Boston Journal's 1892 comment, "Do you want another picayune Congress with all its stupidity and folly?"
The Times-Picayune, incidentally, is not the only US newspaper using that word in its name. The Beeville Bee-Picayune covers the beat in Beeville, Texas, while the Picayune Item is, no doubt, on top of the breaking stories in Picayune, Mississippi.
Dear Word Detective: Today I heard the word "ramshackle," and probably because I hadn't heard the word in a long time, I started thinking about it. Suddenly I was wondering why a leg iron for a male sheep would be synonymous with "dilapidated." A quick look in the dictionary disabused me of my notion that this was a compound word, but I was surprised to learn that it's related to "ransack." It seem to me, though, that it would take an extreme ransacking to make a building ramshackle. So now I'm curious about the history of the two words and also wondering how the latter came to hide their relationship by changing "ns" to "msh." What happened? -- Lloyd Hemingway.
What happened? Just business as usual in the English language (and all languages, for that matter). Language is constantly changing, words changing their forms and meanings, combining with other words and becoming entirely new words, and the best part is that there's no one in charge. The English language is the product of a committee made up of everyone who has ever spoken the language (and quite a few who haven't). It's really quite chaotic. I've always considered it a minor miracle that we don't have numerals embedded in our words.
In the beginning (of this story, at least) there was the word "ransack," which first appeared in English in the 13th century meaning "to search a person or place for something specific." English developed "ransack" from the Old Norse word "rannsaka," a legal term for searching a house for stolen goods (from "rann," house, plus "saka," to search). Early uses of "ransack" carried the idea of "searching for something specific," usually stolen goods, but over time the verb came to mean simply "to search thoroughly," although still carrying overtones of "tear the place apart." So one might "ransack" one's own closet for a particular t-shirt, but the closet would be unlikely to win any prizes for neatness afterward. Another more violent sense of "ransack" was "to search with intent to rob; to loot or plunder."
During its development in English, "ransack" spawned two variant forms in dialectical English, "ransackle" and "ranshackle," both meaning "to ransack," which produced the past participle "ranshackled," meaning "wrecked or ruined as if by plundering." Over time this mutated into "ramshackled" and finally became "ramshackle," meaning "shaky, unsteady, rickety."
Dear Word Detective: I think it's just another Southernism, but I remember my parents and grandparents using "sorry" as an adjective to refer to someone inept, of low social grace, incompetent, or just plain old good-fer-nuthin. Example: "That sorry Bill Smith came home drunk again last night." Ever heard it used in this sense? -- John Wilson.
"Just another Southernism"? Hush your mouth! You should be proud of your heritage. American English would be much poorer without the contributions of our southern states. "Y'all," for instance, is a brilliant invention, much more sociable in speech than a simple "you" (and certainly better than the gratingly informal "you guys," which now seems to be the standard-issue greeting from servers in restaurants).
Unfortunately, for better or worse, the US South cannot claim "sorry" in the sense of "worthless, of no value, of poor quality, unworthy of respect" as one of its creations. As a matter of fact, "sorry" in this sense dates all the way back to the 13th century, first appearing in writing in 1250. Ever since, this "sorry" has been used to describe people ("Tho' he's but a very sorry Horse-man, yet he's mightily given to the Chase," 1708) as well as places and things ("It is very good luck to get one sorry room in a miserable tavern," 1716).
"Sorry" in the more usual sense of "feeling regret, remorse, pity or sympathy" first appeared in Old English. Given its meaning and its resemblance to the word "sorrow," one might assume the two are related but they aren't. "Sorry" derives from a prehistoric Germanic root word meaning "sore or pained" (the same root, in fact, that had already given us "sore"). The root of "sorrow," however, is a Germanic root word meaning "care."
Since we already had "sore" to describe physical pain, "sorry" developed on the theme of mental pain. The original meaning of "sorry" was "sad, distressed, full of grief or sorrow," much stronger than the sentiment we convey today with an often trivial "I'm sorry" (as in "I'm sorry I stepped on your sandwich"). By the 13th century, "sorry" was being used to describe something that causes sorrow or distress, a usage that is now obsolete except in the phrase "sorry sight." It was this "boy, that's grim" sense that soon after became the "sorry" (often with an intensifying suffix) we all know and love in phrases such as "That's one sorry-[bleep] rustbucket you're driving, bucko."
Dear Word Detective: My mom uses the word "wonky" quite liberally, usually referring to a poor unfortunate who has a wandering or "wonky" eye. It means "askew," according to her definition. Also, the word "hinkey" often comes out of her mouth, usually in reference to something I'm doing that she thinks may be above the law. Did she make these words up or is there a real origin? -- Shannon Henry.
"Above the law"? I'm gonna have to remember that one. Say, do you hear sirens? Never mind. Anyway, "doing something above the law" is an impressively classy way to say "doing something illegal," and much better than that unpleasant "breaking the law." Honest, officer, I didn't break the law, I just floated above it. Why, you can barely see that silly little law from up here! Awesome. I'm not sure what your field of work is, but if it's not public relations, you're wasting your talents.
"Wonky" and "hinky" (the usual spelling) are both established words, each with a long history. "Wonky" does indeed mean "awry, askew" or simply "wrong," as well as "feeble, unsteady, shaky" (as in "Larry got a wonky chair and landed on his keister halfway through the meeting"). As the lifelong owner of a "wandering eye" (amblyopia), I've never heard it described as "wonky," but perhaps I was simply out of earshot. "Wonky" is a fairly recent word, first appearing in print in 1919, but it may be a descendant of the Old English word "wancol," which meant "unsteady." There is no direct evidence, incidentally, that "wonky" is related to "wonk," meaning someone who studies an issue or topic excessively ("policy wonk"), which first appeared in the early 1960s. However, "wonk" was also used to mean "an untrained and thus useless naval cadet" in the 1920s, so that may indicate a connection between "wonky" (feeble, shaky) and "wonk" (one with a lot of learning to do).
"Hinky" is usually used today in the sense of "arousing suspicion" (presumably what your mother meant), but in its original form, the Black English term "hincty," it meant "snobbish, aloof." It first appeared in Black English in the 1920s and its origin is unknown, but by the 1950s, in the form "hinky," had taken on the meaning "nervous or jumpy," and by the 1970s "hinky" had acquired its modern sense (originally as police slang) of "arousing suspicion."
All contents Copyright © 2006 by Evan Morris.