Issue of November 24, 2002
And once again, dear readers, the grim visage of the Holiday Season hovers before our horrified eyes.
No, no, utterly wrong. That will never do. You'll frighten them off before they even get near the trap. Try again.
Hey kids, what time is it? That's right! It's Holiday Gift Giving Time! YAY! What fun! Going to the mall! Hooray! Standing in line at the cash machine! Whee! Spending the entire month of December in a fog of guilt, resentment and despair. Whoopie!
There is, fortunately, a better way. Rather than running yourself ragged pawing through bins of ratty sweaters you wouldn't inflict on your dog, why not give the gift of laughter and enlightenment, the gift that marks you as one who cares enough to give the very best that can be had, and without leaving the safety and comfort of your very own computer to boot? Why not give The Word Detective? We have two attractive Holiday Packages available:
(1) Order a copy of The Word Detective book, and receive not the usual one, but TWO free one-year subscriptions to TWD-by-E-Mail. This way you can give the book and one sub as a gift and get a sub for yourself in the bargain.
(2) Order a one-year subscription to The Word Detective by E-Mail for the standard rate of $15 and receive a second sub for just $5 more (a total of $20).
Both of these offers will run until the end of the year, but if you are ordering books for December 25, I must receive your order by December 10. Time is short, so don't delay by wondering if Uncle Morton would rather have one of those singing fish. I was over at his house last weekend and, trust me, he already has one.
Incidentally, if anyone is planning to order any goodies through amazon.com, clicking through the box below before you place your order will earn a few farthings for this humble web site.
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: Just wondering if you might have any additional insight on the word "bumbershoot," other than that in your esteemed parents' wonderful Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins? A friend recently asked me about this word and seemed to think there was more to it than their explanation. -- B.J. Vinson, via the internet.
Ah, I see that you have mastered Lesson One of composing successful reader mail: plugging the author's (or, in this case, his parents') book. Published by HarperCollins, DOWAPO (as my parents called it) is available at all finer bookstores (as well as through this site). If it isn't in stock at your local McBooks, just refuse to buy any more of their five-dollar cups of coffee until they order it.
"Bumbershoot," although it may sound like a firearm designed to dispose of bumblebees, is simply a fancy, whimsical, and seriously antiquated term for an umbrella. "Bumbershoot," which first appeared around 1896, is a relic of the late nineteenth century's passion for flamboyant slang, and, as my parents point out, umbrellas were also known at the time as "bumbersells" and "umbershoots."
While "bumbershoot" may sound exotic, its origin is remarkably straightforward: it's just a frivolous combination of the "umb" of "umbrella" and the "chute" of "parachute," which umbrellas vaguely resemble, after all. Although "bumbershoot" sounds to many people like an eccentric English, almost Tolkien-esque invention, it's actually an American coinage and the term is generally unknown in Britain. Today "bumbershoot" tends to be used, if at all, in cutesy weather reports ("So take the bumbershoot, all the way from Texas to the Great Lakes," CBS This Morning, 1992).
Incidentally, anyone about to write in and ask how "bumbershoot" could possibly incorporate an element of "parachute" when airplanes were not even invented in 1896 can save that stamp. "Parachute" first appeared around 1785, back when folks feared falling from balloons. "Parachute" was borrowed from the French and rooted in the Latin "parare," meaning "defend or shelter" (as in "parasol," literally "to shelter from the sun") and the French "chute," meaning "fall."
Dear Word Detective: My daughter recently accepted an invitation to a weekend party in another city, and, by way of reassuring her nervous parents (us), announced that her boyfriend's mother would be "chaperoning" the couple. I, of course, immediately began having visions of this woman placidly watching TV in a motel room while the happy couple runs amok on the other side of town. So reassure an old fuddy-duddy dad -- what is a "chaperone" and where did the word come from? -- Charles O., via the internet.
Those crazy kids. Leave 'em alone for one minute and biology takes over and pretty soon you've got a "situation" on your hands. At least that was the popular wisdom until relatively recently, and still is in several cultures, where a young man and young woman spending any time alone together before marriage is considered unwise if not actually scandalous. It was to avoid such sticky situations that the tradition of the "chaperon" was invented.
A "chaperon" (sometimes spelled "chaperone") is an adult, often a married or elderly woman, who accompanies an unmarried young woman on social engagements or journeys in order to safeguard her virtue and reputation.
One might suspect that the original meaning of "chaperon" was "wet blanket," and one would not be far off the mark. The Old French word "chaperon" meant "head covering or hood," and was rooted in the Late Latin "cappa," meaning "hood" (and also the source of our English "cap" and "cape." The original meaning of "chaperon" when it first appeared in English in the 14th century was the cape or hood often worn by noblewomen. But by around 1700 "chaperon" had taken on the metaphorical meaning of one who "shelters" a young woman from the world, much as a cape or hood shelters the wearer. Of course, a hood or cape may be easily discarded when it becomes inconvenient, but a "chaperon," as young people have discovered for centuries, is not so easy to shake off.
Dear Word Detective: In trying to buy a house recently I have become well-acquainted with the term "gazump." Apart from the origin of this word (and the related "gazunder"), I was hoping you could clarify its correct usage. I have only ever heard it used in the context of one buyer "gazumping" another but the Oxford English Dictionary implies that it is the seller who does the "gazumping." -- Rhys Fogarty, via the internet.
Well, live and learn. I must admit that the verb "gazump" is a new one on me, and I happen to be a homeowner. (Of course, the mortgage company actually owns the house, but they do allow me to mow the lawn.) "Gazumping," in the real-estate business, is the despicable practice of a seller agreeing to sell a property to one buyer, and then accepting a higher bid from another buyer and dumping the first buyer. Although this usually happens before the final sale contract is signed, it is still considered highly unethical behavior on the seller's part. While either the seller or the "new" buyer can be said to have "gazumped" the deal, efforts to outlaw the practice have focused, rightly, on the duplicity of the seller. In fact, truly wicked sellers sometimes "gazump" a gullible buyer by inventing an imaginary "second buyer" to extort a higher bid after the deal is struck. No reputable real-estate broker will participate in or tolerate "gazumping," of course.
Before it came to be associated sometime in the late 20th century almost entirely with the traumas of home-buying, "gazumping" meant simply "cheating," especially by raising the price of something just as the buyer was about to pay. You could be "gazumped" by the butcher, the baker, and, if not the candlestick maker, then very likely by your local used car salesman. Opinions vary as to where "gazump" came from, with many authorities tracing it to a Yiddish word "gazumph," meaning "to swindle, overcharge," but this is not certain. We do know that "gazump" or "gazumph" first appeared in the underworld slang of the 1920s, as in this citation from a 1928 British newspaper illustrates: "'Gazoomphing the sarker' is a method of parting a rich man from his money. An article is auctioned over and over again, and the money bid each time is added to it."
Dear Word Detective: Okay, any idea what a "grinney" is? Apparently it's a critter similar to a squirrel, possibly a rodent of some sort. The only reference to such an animal is in the "Wild Game and Varmint Cookbook," a 20-page booklet written by Armalite Inc., a manufacturer of rifles and firearm accessories. You get the booklet free when you buy a rifle. It is intended to be humorous, and includes the recipes for various "varmints," generally referring to any small- to mid-sized troublesome mammals no larger then a coyote. This category includes prairie dogs and muskrat. I suspect that this is some kind of country or rancher slang, as I cannot find this word in any dictionary, including Webster's Third International Dictionary. Internet searches are useless, as usual. Grinney seems to be a proper noun or family surname. Grinny spelled without the "e" seems to refer to a grinning person. -- Steve, via the internet.
Free cookbook? Hey, I didn't get any free cookbook when I bought my Army surplus M-48 tank. It's a beaut, too. I've got it parked on my front lawn, pointed right at the mailbox. It's really cut down on the number of Pottery Barn catalogs we get.
Ordinarily, I'd agree with you about the pointlessness of most internet searches, but in a case such as this it pays to spell the word as many ways as you can imagine and toss some possible synonyms (e.g., "squirrel") into the mix as well.
And now the envelope, please. A "grinny," (or "grinney" or "grinnie") is, in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley at least, a chipmunk, also known in this region as a "chippie," "hackle" or "rock squirrel." In the words of the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site, "A member of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), the chipmunk is closely related to red, gray, fox and flying squirrels, and, surprisingly, the woodchuck." Something tells me that's gonna be news to the woodchucks, too. A "grinny" west of the Mississippi is just any old ground squirrel.
So why "grinny"? That remains a mystery. It may be a mutation of "ground squirrel," or it may be a reference to the chipmunk's cheerful, perky disposition. In fact, I'll bet that if you promise not to shoot any chipmunks, the next one you see will grin at you.
Dear Word Detective: How about "persnickety"? My mother always used to accuse me of being "persnickety" about my food, and as I approach my 60s I see that she was probably right. Why didn't she just show me where the restaurant was, or the peanut butter jar if I didn't like her meals? -- Charles Eisenhart, via the internet.
Good question. Actually, that's two good questions, but the second is beyond my ken. Personally, I don't recall having been given a choice about eating the food put in front of me, and learned to expect that the Brussels sprouts I spurned at dinner were very likely to still be staring back at me after everyone else had left the table. My parents being, however, reasonable people (i.e., softies), we always eventually reached a compromise (usually one more bite of the deadly vegetable), and I would be sprung from custody in time for Lassie. I understand that parents today often offer their kiddies an endless menu of alternatives in a desperate attempt to get the little critters to eat something, anything, but I feel that this approach is a terrible mistake. How will the little nippers ever learn to hate, truly hate, Brussels sprouts?
Roget's New Thesaurus lists the following synonyms for "persnickety": choosy, dainty, exacting, fastidious, finicky, fussy, meticulous, particular, squeamish, and picky. "Persnickety" is considered an American colloquialism, and should probably be avoided in formal speech or writing. ("The CDC is being persnickety in assessing the risk of typhus in Pittsburgh" just doesn't sound right.)
But while "persnickety" first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1900s, its root are considerably older and not American at all. "Persnickety" arose as a mutation of "pernickety," which appeared in Britain around 1800, and which, in turn, was probably derived from the Scots word "pernicky," also meaning "fussy." Theories vary as to where "pernicky" came from, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may have arisen from children's attempts to pronounce the word "particular."
Dear Word Detective: I didn't find this phrase on your web page, and I wonder if you ever have looked up the origins of "the primrose path," or if you might in the future. -- Becky Taylor, via the internet.
"Look up"? Is that how you folks think I write this column -- by "looking things up"? So, let's see, I just put down my martini, straighten my silk lounging jacket, amble across my book-lined study, and pull down a giant leather-bound volume labeled "Answers"? I am shocked and deeply offended. I'll have you know I do my research the old fashioned way. I poke around on the internet.
Just kidding. I do have about 3,000 books in my office, but often, as in this case, I have a strong hunch as to the answer before I even put down my martini.
A "primrose" is a pleasant little plant, bearing pale yellow flowers and often found in gardens. The name "primrose" derives from the Medieval Latin "prima rosa," or "first rose," from its habit of blooming in early spring. A garden path lined with primroses makes for a very pleasant, tranquil stroll, so it's not surprising that "the primrose path" has long been used as a figure of speech meaning "a life of ease" or "a course of action that is easy, pleasant and painless."
As I suspected, "primrose path," like so many of our modern figures of speech, seems to have been coined by William Shakespeare. The first recorded use of the phrase comes in his 1602 play "Hamlet," when Ophelia, rebuffing her brother Laertes' insistence that she resist Hamlet's advances, accuses Laertes of hypocrisy: "Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks [heeds] not his own rede [advice]."
Never one to discard a good metaphor, Shakespeare used "primrose path" again in his play "Macbeth," but this time to mean "a course of action that seems easy, but ends in disaster." This sense is still often heard in accounts of a deluded person who was "led down the primrose path" to perdition and ruin by an unscrupulous leader, friend, or, lately, stockbroker.
Dear Word Detective: Why do we use the word "bee" in such things as "spelling bee" or "quilting bee"? Is it because people gather and work on something like a bunch of worker bees? Seems too simple, but maybe so. -- Barbie Batura, via the internet.
"Seems too simple, but maybe so." Now there's a crackerjack motto to live by. Many things are, in fact, much simpler than they appear at first glance, and attempts to devise complex theories about such things are often a waste of time and energy. This principle was most famously stated by the English philosopher William of Occam (c. 1285–1349), whose pronouncement "It is vain to do with more what can be done with less" is known as "Occam's Razor" because he used it to slice and dice his opponents' convoluted arguments. Unfortunately, Occam's Razor seems to have eluded the maker of the watch I bought two months ago but have so far been unable to wear owing to insanely complicated instructions that make no sense no matter how many times (or in how many languages, for that matter) one reads them. Said watch now sits on the dresser and beeps mournfully every day at 3:27 p.m. I must remember to buy a hammer, preferably one that doesn't come with directions.
Meanwhile, back at your question, you are absolutely correct. Bees are industrious little critters, and have been used as symbols of dedication to work ("busy as a bee") since at least Chaucer's time. The image of thousands of bees in a hive tirelessly working away at their little bee-tasks (making honey, storing honey, planning to sting me) makes a good metaphor for a community or group uniting in a common task, and such unified efforts came to be known as "bees" in Colonial America. "Bees" were usually a group effort for the benefit of one member who could not have handled the task (raising a barn, for instance) alone, and "husking bees" and "apple bees" where crops were gathered and prepared for storage were common. "Quilting bees," where the women of a community gathered to create a quilt while passing on the skills to a younger generation, were also an important social institution in Early America. In an extended sense, "bee" also came to mean any community gathering for a specific purpose, giving us "spelling bees" in the late 1800s.
Dear Word Detective: We recently had a dispute in our office regarding the term "block and tackle." Apparently some of our higher-ups were using the term to indicate a defensive business strategy. But when I used the term, a co-worker corrected me and informed me that it was a fishing term. We both later discovered that "block and tackle" is a type of pulley, but we see it used in sports reporting all the time. Can you clear up the confusion? -- K.D., New York, NY.
Well, there you go. More compelling evidence for my belief that football is slowly but surely rotting the American mind. Evidently not content with merely implementing "The Personnel Policies of Attila the Hun" (or whatever the current biz-book best-seller is), managers are now bent on importing the vernacular of the gridiron into office life. Have fun in the huddle.
The confusion amongst your co-workers about "block and tackle" is due to the fact that there are several meanings to each of the words "block" and "tackle" themselves. The original meaning of "block" when it first appeared in English in the 14th century (borrowed from the French "bloc" and related to the Middle Dutch "blok," meaning "tree trunk") was simply "stump of a tree." Most of the meanings "block" has acquired since that time, from "butcher's block" to "block of votes," either literally or figuratively refer to a large, solid piece of wood or some other material. The "block" of "block and tackle," an apparatus of pulleys and ropes used to lift heavy objects, refers to the bulky housings, often made of wood in the past, of the pulleys themselves.
"Block" in the sense of "obstruction" (as well as the verb "to block" meaning "to obstruct") is derived from the use of blocks of wood to immobilize an object, as in "blocking" the wheels of a wagon to keep it from rolling away. The football kind of "blocking," physically impeding an opponent's progress down the field, is derived from this sense.
When "tackle" first appeared as a noun in English in the 13th century, it meant "apparatus or equipment," and had been borrowed from the Germanic "takel," meaning "rigging of a ship." From this sense developed the "rope and associated equipment" meaning of "tackle" found in "block and tackle," as well as the sense we use in "fishing tackle." As a verb, "to tackle" reflects an earlier sense of its Germanic root, that of "grasping or gripping," which has given us the modern football sense of "tackle" as well as "tackling" or "coming to grips with" a problem.
Dear Word Detective: I teach some very curious ESL students who inquire about the darndest things. Most recently, one of the teachers with whom I work has asked me if I know the origin of the phrase "counting sheep" and, in turn, the idea behind its use. So far, my investigation has yielded few results and that which it has turned up has not satisfied my curiosity. The only thing I have found which has piqued my interest was a theory that shepherds had a way of counting sheep using pebbles which they would move from pocket to pocket to keep track of which number they were on. That sounds to me, though, like a clever way to stay awake, not fall asleep.-- Chris Cronas, via the internet.
Indeed. I've never understood why shepherds counted their sheep in the first place. If a sheep is missing, it's gone, right? Eaten by a wolf or nabbed by a poacher, most likely. The one thing sheep don't do is wander off alone. Sheep don't do anything alone. Sheep make lemmings look like rugged individualists. Incidentally, for the benefit of our readers who grew up in a shopping mall (an increasing percentage, by all indications), a male sheep is a "ram," a female a "ewe," and a baby a "lamb." The word "sheep" is both singular and plural, and comes from the Old English "sceap," meaning "stupid as a box of rocks." Just kidding. No one knows the ultimate meaning of "sceap," but it may be related to the German "schaffen," meaning "to make or create," giving "sceap" the sense of simply "creature."
Sheep have been used for thousands of years as metaphors for a variety of human qualities, from "sheepish," which originally meant "silly" or "fearful" but now means "shy," to "sheeplike" meaning "blindly obedient or passive."
"To count sheep," to count imaginary sheep jumping over a fence as an aid in getting to sleep, dates back to at least the mid-19th century. There is, unfortunately, probably no particular incident or story behind the phrase, simply the fact that clearing one's mind of the cares of the day by visualizing an endless series of the world's stupidest animal doing gymnastics is thought to be restful. The phrase probably owes a good part of its persistence to its use in countless cartoons.
Dear Word Detective: I recently picked up a copy of your book at Chapters (just north of Toronto in a town called Newmarket). I'm enjoying it immensely, and it's sparked an attentiveness to words I'd not had before. Anyway, my wife, due to the soft and pulpy areas about my head, shoulders, knees and toes, referred to me as a "klutz" the other day. Where does the word or slang "klutz" originate? -- Coop, via the internet.
It's always very gratifying to hear that a reader has picked up my book (entitled, predictably, The Word Detective, and published by Algonquin Books). Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, however, I must note that nowhere in your letter do you state that you actually paid for said book. For all I know, you may still be standing in the bookshop, furtively chuckling on the proprietor's dime. So, if you have not yet done so, please trot over to the cashier and pony up. Baby (that's me) needs a new pair of shoes.
Soft and pulpy areas about the head, shoulders, knees and toes do not, at least by themselves, a "klutz" make. (Incidentally, is your wife implying that a lobster-esque exoskeleton would be preferable? How odd.) As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a "klutz" is "A clumsy, awkward person, especially one considered socially inept; a fool." Since "klutz" is obviously an enormously pungent and useful little word, it's not surprising that "klutz" is Yiddish, the source of so many of our most useful words. The root of "klutz" is the German "klotz," which literally means "block of wood," but has the extended meaning of "a bumbler, fool, or big, clumsy person." A "klutz" is a "blockhead."
Interestingly, that German "klotz" is also a relative of two common English words. While we usually associate the word "clot" with coagulated blood, it shares the same Germanic root as "klutz," and when it first appeared in English around A.D. 1000, a "clot" was any sort of lump or rounded mass. By the 17th century, we were using a figurative sense of "clot" to mean "a stupid person," and this use is still fairly common in Britain. A derivative of "clot" dating back to the 14th century and still very much in use today may be more familiar to Americans -- "clod," meaning both "a lump of dirt" and "a stupid person."
Dear Word Detective: What can you tell me about the phrase "regime change"? I had never heard it, as far as I can recall, before all the current ruckus about Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. Now every newscaster on TV is acting as if "regime change" were as common a phrase as "dog food." Have I missed something, or is this a brand-new Orwellian euphemism along the lines of "collateral damage"? -- Puzzled in Ohio.
Well, it may not be brand-new, but in my humble opinion "regime change" certainly qualifies for the "Orwellian" label. I too have been a bit taken aback by the apparently seamless acceptance of "regime change" by the news media and politicians, pretty fancy footwork for two groups that cannot be reliably counted on to properly pronounce the word "nuclear."
Strictly speaking, "regime change" simply means a change in the "regime" (from the Latin "regere," to rule), or system of government, of a country. "Regime" itself is, of course, a pejorative term in common usage -- if the speaker likes a particular government, it is an "administration" or "the government of XYZ." Only bad guys run "regimes."
Although "regime change" has popped up on most folks' radar during the current Iraq debate, the term itself has been a staple of studies churned out by policy wonks and international-relations scholars since at least the late 1970s. But while "regime change" has, up until now, usually been used among scholars to mean simply "change in government," its current use to mean "forcible replacement of a government at least partly through the actions of an outside party" makes it a fairly obvious euphemism for the unpleasantly blunt "overthrow."
While the front pages of our newspapers have lately seemed borrowed verbatim from George Orwell's prescient novel "1984" (perhaps with a bit of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" thrown in), Orwell's less famous 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" is worth quoting on this subject: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. … But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."
Dear Word Detective: I used the phrase "tissue of lies" in a meeting today, and several people had never heard of it (alas, the sad state of education in computer geeks these days). When challenged for an origin, I had none. It's not from Shakespeare, or in the Bible that I can find. Any ideas? To clarify: to me, "tissue of lies" means "a large, complex, outrageous fabrication." To say that your wife looks good in those pants isn't "a tissue of lies," but attempting to cover up the existence of a mistress would be. A large-scale government cover-up would be a tissue of lies. -- Jack Applin, via the internet.
Wow. You found a way to use "tissue of lies" in a meeting at work? Color me envious. When I worked in an office, I often fantasized about leaping from my seat in staff meetings, flinging my stale Danish at the wall, and shouting, "This performance review is a tissue of lies! I had every reason to assume Groundhog Day is a legal holiday! My family celebrated it every year with big bowls of cracked corn and presents!"
A large-scale government cover-up, if such a thing could possibly exist (cough, cough), would certainly involve the layer upon layer of secrecy and deception that would qualify as a "tissue of lies." Today we ordinarily associate the word "tissue" with either Kleenex or those creepy "surgery" shows on cable TV. But when "tissue" first appeared in English (borrowed from the Old French "tissu" in the 14th century, based on the Latin "texere," meaning "to weave"), it meant, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, "a rich kind of cloth, often interwoven with gold or silver." By the early 18th century, "tissue" was being used figuratively to mean anything composed of complex, interwoven elements, leading directly to the use of "tissue" to refer to the complex substance and structure of animals and plants. "Tissue paper" in the 18th century was a fine, soft wrapping paper, which eventually gave us our modern "tissue" meaning any sort of soft, absorbent paper.
"Tissue of lies," however, harks back to the 18th century "complex intertwining" or "intricate web" sense of "tissue." Washington Irving wrote in 1820 of "The tissue of misrepresentations … woven round us," and the phrase is still popular, especially among speechwriters and polemicists.
Dear Word Detective: Earlier today I had to try to describe an object over the phone to someone in Italy. During my description I found myself using the phrase "bog standard," much to the bemusement of the Italian listener. I then spent the next 15 minutes or so trying in vain to explain the relevance of the word "bog" in this context. Can you enlighten me? -- Neil Bradley, East Sussex, England.
I'll give it a shot. But first, do you still have that fellow from Italy on the phone? If so, could you ask him if it's true, as the TV ads say, that the faux-Italian Olive Garden restaurant chain here in the U.S. really sends its chefs for advanced training at some fancy-schmancy cooking school in Italy? I have always found this claim exceedingly implausible, unless the Italians have perfected, and are keeping to themselves, some sort of special microwave oven.
"Bog standard" is British slang meaning "standard issue, no frills, absolutely ordinary." It carries the same slightly derogatory tone as "run of the mill" does here in the U.S. A "bog standard" something isn't really bad, but it's nothing to celebrate with champagne, either. "Bog standard" seems to have first appeared in the 1980s, and has become sufficiently popular in Britain that a search of the BBC News web site turns up more than 450 instances of the phrase.
According to Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words web site (www.quinion.com/words), which does a bang-up job of explaining "International English from a British viewpoint," the "bog" in "bog standard" is a genuine mystery. Much effort has been expended attempting to connect it to "bog" as British slang for "toilet," with no success (which is probably just as well). One theory that seems to be gaining wary acceptance among word mavens is that "bog standard" arose as a corruption of the adjective "box standard," meaning something (a computer, for instance) just as it comes out of the manufacturer's box, with no modifications or improvements. "Box standard" in this sense also seems to date to the early 1980s, used mostly in technical or manufacturing contexts.
Dear Word Detective: When my husband and I are driving along and we see a police car, we'll often say, "Cheese it, the cops!" I know "cheese it" is used in other situations to mean "shut up" or "lay low," but I'm wondering how it got started. Can you help? -- Trina Samson, via the internet.
Well, I'll try. Incidentally, do you mind if I ask exactly what you and your hubby do for a living? And do the police often catch you?
I'm curious because my own first response when I see a police car is to hope the officer arrests the slobbering nitwit tailgating me. Speaking of which, do people who get their jollies from driving 65 miles per hour three feet from the car ahead really believe they're going to get where they're going any sooner? I suspect that the enormous popularity of NASCAR racing (a sport that consists, as one pundit recently noted, of nothing but a bunch of automobiles turning left for hours on end) has contributed to this imbecilic phenomenon.
Onward. "Cheese it!" or just "Cheese!" has been a cry of warning among criminals (and juvenile delinquents) since at least the early 19th century. The earliest citation for "cheese it" in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang comes from an 1811 glossary that explains the phrase as meaning "Be quiet; be silent; don't do it," the sort of thing thieves might whisper if they noticed the cops were watching them. "Cheese it" has also come to mean "run away," especially upon sighting a police officer approaching.
The origin of "cheese" in this sense is uncertain. The most popular theory is that "cheese" is simply a mutation of "cease," which would fit nicely with the "be quiet and act innocent" meaning of "cheese it." Another theory traces "cheese " to "cheese eater" (i.e., "rat"), underworld slang for "informer." This theory strikes me as a bit unlikely, since the phrase "cheese it" has usually been used to warn of police, not informers.
Dear Word Detective: "The flea and the horse and three blind mice, Were over in the corner shooting dice, The horse got tired and sat on the flea, And the flea said 'Boys, that's a horse on me!'" Where did this come from? -- Dean Livingston, via the internet.
Well, that depends on what you mean by "this." If you're asking about the source of that little rhyme, the best I can do is to note that it is probably very old, dating back to at least the 19th century. Judging by the results of a quick internet search, this bit of humorous doggerel is still going strong and seems to be especially popular in the form of a campfire sing-along song.
I suspect, however, that your question is really about the phrase "that's a horse on me," and a very good question it is. "Horse" has been slang for a rough, unpleasant joke or a bad turn of fortune since at least the late 19th century, and is most often heard in the phrase "horse on," as in "The final bill, when it arrived, was a horse on the host," meaning an unpleasant shock. This sense of "horse" is probably related to "horseplay" and "horsing around," meaning a rough, physical kind of play.
Being sat upon by a horse would indeed be a rude jolt for a flea, but the humor of that rhyme depends on another sense of "horse," and the clue is the game of dice the critters are playing. "Horse" is a dice game played with five dice, thrown repeatedly by each player, the winner being the one who gets the highest total in three tries. (The name of the game probably refers to the "horse race" to roll a high total in just those three throws.) Each game consists of three such rounds. A player who loses a round is said to have "a horse on" him or her, so the joke of the rhyme is that flea had not only been literally sat on by a horse, but had lost a round (had "a horse on") as a result.
Incidentally, two "horse" players who have each won one round of the three in a game are said to be "a horse apiece," a phrase which has come to mean "roughly even so far," as one might say that two political candidates with roughly equal poll numbers are "a horse apiece."
Dear Word Detective: In this day and age of economic collapse and with so many news articles starting out with large headlines indicating that some company or other is handing out X thousand "pink slips," it occurred to me that I didn't know where the term came from. And since I work in the HR field I thought I should. -- Thom Doonan, via the internet.
Do us a favor, Thom. Feel free to mention "the economic downturn," or "the decline in consumer confidence," or "the ailing economy." You can even don a stern and solemn face when you invoke these terms, as Dan Rather and Peter Jennings do. (Tom Brokaw seems to have gotten stuck in Tipsy Chipmunk mode a few years ago, so he doesn't count.) But anyway, let's lay off that "economic collapse" stuff, OK? I can't answer your question when I'm chewing my nails down to the quick.
Since you work in the "HR field," I imagine that you're becoming depressingly familiar with "pink slips" these days. "HR" is, of course, an abbreviation for "Human Resources," the hiring-and-firing department in corporations that used to be called "Personnel." I remember when that change in terminology took hold while I was working in an office in the mid-1980s. Call me paranoid, but I have never, then or since, heard the term "Human Resources" without thinking of the classic sci-fi film "Soylent Green."
A "pink slip" is, of course, the standard uniform for the folks who work in HR. Oops. No, scratch that. A "pink slip" is a notice of dismissal or termination from one's job, also known as one's "walking papers." The term "pink slip" dates from the early 20th century, and originally referred to the practice of including a pink-colored slip of paper in an employee's weekly pay envelope notifying the worker of his or her termination. There does not seem to be any particular significance to the use of the color pink aside from the fact that it made the notice stand out from any other papers that might be in the envelope.
Though the "pink slip" in the pay envelope has probably been superseded by e-mail these days, "to be pink slipped" is still very much in use as shorthand for "to be fired."
Click here to submit a question to The Word Detective.
Click here to find out
why you should consider
subscribing to The Word Detective!
We now accept credit cards via the secure PayPal system!
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
Take me to the Index of back columns.
All contents Copyright © 2002 by Evan Morris.