Previous Columns/Posted 12/03/98

Non compos dentis.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the expression "waiting with baited breath" come from? -- Anita Gerhard, via the internet.

Aha, an easy one. "Waiting with baited breath" comes from the dawn of history, before weapons were invented. When Early Man (you'd never catch Early Woman doing anything this dumb) decided to go hunting, he faced a quandary. Having never gotten around to fixing the cave roof, let alone inventing the shotgun, his only weapons were his wits, which were of very limited range. So his standard tactic was to slowly approach his prey (often a saber-toothed quandary, coincidentally) with a squirrel or other small animal clenched firmly in his teeth. If all went well, his fierce quarry, attracted by his "baited breath," would be so shocked by the sight of a small, dirty man with a squirrel in his mouth that it would keel over in a dead faint. If the plan did not work, as was frequently the case, a sudden redefinition of the word "prey" resulted, and Early Man quickly became Late Early Man.

Oh, all right, none of that was true, and I have debased and abused the trust of everyone who ever voted for me. Naturally, after consultation with my advisors, I have decided to blame the whole mess on my reader. The phrase you're looking for, Anita, is "with bated breath," not "baited," although since the words sound exactly the same, perhaps the English language itself is ultimately to blame.

And now, the truth, which is actually pretty simple. The word "bated" is an aphetic, or clipped, form of the word "abated," and means "lessened or restrained." In other words, to "wait with bated breath" is to hold your breath while waiting for something to happen. Although "abate" is a fairly common word, virtually the only place you'll find "bated" these days is in the phrase "with bated breath." And that, I promise, is the whole story.


Dear Word Detective: Do you remember in the like '80's and early '90's when kids used to say "bodacious" and it was considered surfer talk for like awesome or cool or great? Well, I decided to try bring the word "bodacious" back into use, just for fun, and have started using it in that same context. One day, though, my mom heard me telling my friends to help me revive the word "bodacious" and asked me if I knew the original meaning of the word. I said no and asked her what it was. She just said she wasn't going to tell me, like it was something bad or dirty, and told me to look in the dictionary. I looked in the dictionary and the thesaurus, but it wasn't there. This is really bothering me now and I can't find the word anywhere. Help! -- Sara, via the internet.

Chill, Sara. Unless she knows something about "bodacious" that slang experts don't, your mom is messing with your head. Grownups love to do this. I had an English teacher in ninth grade who wouldn't let anyone in his classes use the word "guy," hinting that there was some big secret story behind the word. Our interest piqued, we investigated, and eventually discovered that the original "guy" was Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up England's Houses of Parliament in 1605, and effigies of whom (known as "guys") are, to this day, burned every November 5 in England. Big, as we said in ninth grade, deal. I think my teacher was just trying to trick us into studying history.

As for "bodacious," most experts believe that it was created by simply combining "bold" with "audacious," which, of course, means pretty much the same thing as "bold," but this is slang, after all. There is something surprising about "bodacious," however, and perhaps you can tweak your mom a little with it. Ask her how long "bodacious" has been around. I'll bet she says since the 1960's or 70's, in which case you can tell her that she's more than 120 years off. People have been describing things as "bodacious" since around 1843.

Not to be confused with
the Federal Monkey Tax.

Dear Word Detective: I was in a trivial debate with a friend when he decided it was time to "get down to brass tax," which made me chuckle. I replied that he was free to do what he liked, but I preferred to get down to "brass tacks." He replied that "tacks" made no sense and I replied, "Well, like brass tax makes a whole lot of sense." Anyway, I know I am right, but I cannot figure out what the origin of this phrase is. -- David Oliver, California.

I'm going to play psychic for a moment here, and guess that this exchange with your friend took place in print, probably through e-mail, since "brass tax" certainly sounds just like "brass tacks" when spoken aloud. Am I right or am I right? Eat your heart out, Kreskin.

You are indeed correct about the proper phrase being "get down to brass tacks," meaning to seriously concentrate on basic facts, but beyond that I'm afraid my crystal ball gets a little murky. We do know that "brass tacks" first appeared in the late 1800's, but there are a number of theories as to where it came from and what role, if any, real brass tacks played in its origin.

Probably the most popular theory about "brass tacks" traces the phrase back to old general stores, where fabric was sold by the yard. It is said that brass tacks were driven into the counters of such stores exactly one yard apart to aid in measuring the fabric, supposedly leading to the saying "Don't guess, get down to brass tacks."

Another theory traces the phrase to the brass tacks used in 19th century furniture manufacture. In this scenario, "getting down to brass tacks" would mean judging the basic soundness of a chair, for instance, rather than its upholstery.

While neither of those theories is implausible, I, in my psychic wisdom, lean toward a third explanation. "Brass tacks," many authorities believe, began as Cockney rhyming slang for "facts." Rhyming slang, which sprang from the 19th century London underworld, substitutes one or two rhyming words for the concealed "real" word ("trouble and strife" for "wife" being the standard example).


An alarming situation.

Dear Word Detective: I am over fifty years old, and distinctly recall that Sister Mary You'd-Better-Believe-It told us (circa 1955) that items were either "inflammable" (capable of being set afire) or "non-flammable" (impervious to such attempts). So when did "flammable" happen? Did someone okay this while I wasn't watching? Will it be necessary to file a complaint with the French government for allowing this word to sneak into English? -- Sue Savage, via the internet.

Well, I'm afraid it's much too late, and it's not the fault of the French anyway. Blame it on Latin and its tricky prefixes. In the beginning, there was "inflammable," a perfectly nice English word based on the Latin "inflammare," meaning "to kindle," from "in" (in) plus "flamma" (flame). "Inflammable" became standard English in the 16th century. So far, so good.

Comes the 19th century, and some well-meaning soul dreamt up the word "flammable," basing it on a slightly different Latin word, "flammare," meaning "to set on fire." There was nothing terribly wrong with "flammable," but it never really caught on. After all, we already had "inflammable," so "flammable" pretty much died out in the 1800's.

"But wait," you say, "I saw 'flammable' just the other day." Indeed you did. "Flammable" came back, one of the few successful instances of social engineering of language.

The Latin prefix "in," while it sometimes means just "in" (as in "inflammable"), more often turns up in English words meaning "not" (as in "invisible" -- "not visible"). After World War Two, safety officials on both sides of the Atlantic decided that folks were too likely to see "inflammable" and decide that the word meant "fireproof," so various agencies set about encouraging the revival of "flammable" as a substitute. The campaign seems to have worked, and "inflammable" has all but disappeared.

That left what to call something that was not likely to burst into flames, but here the process of linguistic renovation was easier. "Non-flammable" is a nice, comforting word, and besides, it's far easier on the tongue than its now thankfully obsolete precursor, "non-inflammable."

Gaudy, partner.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently told that the word "gaudy" comes from the name of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. I find this hard to believe as he died in the late 1920s and it seems to me that this word is of older origin. The dictionary said that it came from "gaudiere," which I assume is French. Can you give me more information? -- Janis Breckenridge, via the Internet.

Well, there you go. As I've said before, I have the most perceptive readers around. Presented with an explanation of "gaudy" reeking of hogwash, Ms. Breckenridge says, politely but firmly, that she finds it "hard to believe." What she really means, of course, is "Get that ridiculous story away from me before I call the cops."

As well she should. Nobody minds a little creative conjecture every so often, but trying to trace a word such as "gaudy," which has been in common usage since the 16th century, to a 20th century architect whose name just happens to sound like "gaudy" is a bit much.

That's not to say that there hasn't been a bit of a debate about the origin of "gaudy," meaning "tastelessly ornate or showy." One theory traces "gaudy" to an old Middle English term, "gaudy-green," which was evidently a sort of bright yellowish-green. Gaudy-green dye was made from the weld plant (Reseda luteola, for you botanists out there), whose name in Old French was "gaude," so that's where "gaudy-green" got its name, anyway. But most etymologists doubt that "gaudy-green" was the root of our more generally tasteless, Elvis sort of "gaudy."

A more likely source is the obsolete English word "gaud," meaning "joke, toy, or showy ornament." This "gaud" came from the French "gaudir," meaning "to rejoice or jest," which came in turn from the Latin "gaudere," meaning "to rejoice or delight in." (That Latin "gaudere," by the way, is also the source of the English word "joy.")

Strictly from hunger.

Dear Word Detective: Recently my father used the word "pot-boiler" to refer to a type of book. I wasn't familiar with the term, and he described it to me as light fiction, often a mystery. He supposed the term developed to mean something one would read to kill time, such as in waiting for a pot to boil. What's your view? -- Laura Van Arendonk, via the internet.

Good question. To be honest, until I received your query, I had never given much thought to "pot-boiler," though I have always, like your father, understood it to mean a kind of vaguely trashy novel of the sort often called "airport fiction."

My own take on the logic of "pot-boiler" until now was that the term referred to the fact that such books relied on a steady stream of melodrama and cliff-hangers, like a pot slowly boiling over a low but constant flame, to hold the reader's interest. But your father's theory about a "pot-boiler" being something one reads while waiting for a pot to boil also makes perfect sense. While I have not, personally, boiled many things in pots since the onset of the current eye of newt shortage, I have spent three or four years of my life in laundromats waiting for an available dryer, so I know how low one's standards of literature can fall under such circumstances.

As it turns out, both your father and I were slightly off base. A "pot-boiler" is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a work of literature or art executed for the purpose of 'boiling the pot,' i.e., of gaining a livelihood." In other words, pot-boilers are created "strictly from hunger," as we say in the writing biz, as money-makers rather than as works of art. "Pot-boiler" has been used in this sense since around 1864, although writers have certainly been writing with food and shelter in mind pretty much ever since paper was invented. Perhaps it was the father of modern lexicography himself, Samuel Johnson, who put it best: "Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

On wheels.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word "dolly" (a low flat wheeled frame for transporting heavy objects) get its name? Was it the name of the man who invented it? -- Margaret P. Smith, Gilette, NJ.

First, a word to my other readers, if I may. Ms. Smith has discovered the secret of drawing my attention to her question, and thereby hangs a lesson for the rest of you galoots. Out of the dozens of queries I receive each week, hers was the only one that was neatly typed on a high-quality note card (not scribbled in the margin of a discarded Racing Form or traffic summons, in other words). Furthermore, said note card was festooned with tasteful renditions of very cute cocker spaniels, with nary a vulgar Budweiser frog in sight. It was truly a breath of fresh air.

Tracing the origin of the wheeled sense of "dolly" starts off with a bit of a surprise. I had not, until now, realized that "Dolly" (the name), as well as "doll" and all its derivatives, started out as shortened forms of the name "Dorothy." Go figure. Apparently it dates back to England in the 16th century, when someone (possibly a child) substituted "dol" for "dor." "Dolly" quickly became a common term applied generically to lower-class women (especially prostitutes), pet animals, and, of course, to "doll" toys.

More importantly, "dolly" was also, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "applied to various contrivances fancied to resemble a doll in some way." There was a wooden stirring apparatus called a "dolly" used to agitate clothes in a washtub. Mechanical "dollies" punched iron and made rivets. Small wooden forms covered with doe-skin used to polish watches were known as "dollies." And somewhere along about 1900, somebody decided that a small wheeled platform looked sufficiently like a doll (perhaps only in comparison to larger wagons and trucks) to be called a "dolly." Dollies have been with us ever since, one of their most important modern uses being to allow TV and movie cameras to be easily moved about.

So no, there never was an inventor named "Dolly," just a little wheeled cart that reminded someone of a toy named after a form of the name Dorothy, which is a pretty remarkable story in my book.

Abort, retry, forget it?

Dear Word Detective: Don't know how much detail you can give on technical terms, but I would like to know the origin of the computer-related technical term "hosed." We consistently have clients who have completely "hosed" their systems and they want a detailed explanation. Occasionally we can diagnose computer problems with our acronym PEBKAC and that seems to appease them. At least until they find out what it means (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair). -- Doug Gressett, via the internet.

Way to go, Doug. You've just let the cat out of the bag and confirmed every computer owner's darkest suspicions about Customer Support. I do like that PEBKAC acronym, though. I had a friend in the computer service field once explain to me that most of his clients' problems could be attributed to "IO errors," which, of course, stood for "Idiot Operator." My own computer is remarkably well-behaved (knock silicon), possibly because it knows that at the slightest hint of trouble I'm going to reformat its hard drive and reinstall Windows 95, which my computer didn't like the first nine times I installed it.

Still, I must admit that I have "hosed" my own computer system a few times, screwing it up so badly that nothing, absolutely nothing, would work. This sense of "to hose" meaning "foul up to the point of complete non-functionality" is fairly new and largely confined to the computer field, where fumble-fingered consumers can wreak a special kind of havoc. Almost any machine can be broken, of course, and we've invented many colorful terms to sum up the damage. You can "blow" or "fry" electronic equipment, and "total" a car, for instance. But "hose" carries overtones of utter collapse and hopelessness that perfectly match the impossibly complex but absurdly fragile nature of computer systems.

That apocalyptic flavor of "hose" is appropriate, since it owes its origins to one of mankind's least subtle inventions, the machine gun. "To hose," military slang since World War I, means to saturate a target with sustained machine gun or other high-powered fire, washing over it with bullets or shells as if with a powerful fire hose. The result, of course, is a smoking, bullet riddled ruin. Or, in the case of a "hosed" computer, a very large and expensive beige paperweight.

Fox Paws.

Dear Word Detective: Last week I was talking to someone and used the phrase Indian Summer. After it came out of my mouth I realized that I'd just used the term in a conversation with an American Indian. I've been wondering since then if I may have said something offensive to her. I've asked many people I know if they know how that phrase got its beginnings, but no one seems to know. Did I make a faux pas? -- Renee, via the internet.

Hard to say. If it's any comfort, you could have been asking etymologists and lexicographers all week about "Indian summer," that brief period of warm, clear weather in late autumn, and you still wouldn't have gotten a definite answer.

We do know that "Indian summer" first appeared in the 1770's in an essay about winter in the colonies written by a French immigrant farmer named, hold on to your hat, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. J. Hector described Indian summer as "a short interval of smoke and mildness," which raises several possibilities about the name. The smoke may have been due to the Indians setting fires to drive game out of hiding before heavy snows made hunting more difficult, or they may have been burning grasslands to prepare for the next spring's planting. It is also possible that the Indians were taking advantage of this last bit of good weather to move to their winter hunting grounds.

It is possible, on the other hand, that "Indian summer" is a disparaging use of "Indian" to mean "false" or "unreliable." The most well-known example of this syndrome is the term "Indian giver," meaning someone who gives a gift, only to later take it back. ("Indian giver," incidentally, is based on a misunderstanding of Indian traditions, where a gift was given in expectation of receiving one of greater value in return, but never "taken back.")

I tend to believe that there's nothing wrong with "Indian summer" because early uses of the term make no mention of it being a "false" summer, stressing instead the various activities of the Indians mentioned above.

Break a leg.

Dear Mr. "Dubba-dubba-dubba-dubba" Word Detective: My wife has recently joined the local theatre group, and every once in a while I will hear the terms, "Trip the Light Fantastic" and "In the Lime Light." Where do these terms come from? -- Lee English, Santa Rosa, Ca.

One moment, please. What's with this "Mr. Dubba-dubba" stuff? Am I being compared, for some obscure reason, to Fred (Yubba-dubba-doo) Flintstone? Or am I so far out of touch with popular culture (a state I rather enjoy, I'll have you know) that I have missed a sly reference to whatever superseded the Jackson Five in the hearts of our nation's youth? Please let me know immediately. I caught the dog snickering behind me as I wrote this paragraph, so something is definitely up.

Meanwhile, back at the theatre (or theater, as it's usually spelled in the U.S.), "to trip the light fantastic" means to dance, especially with enthusiasm and abandon, and was coined by the poet John Milton in his "L'Allegro" of 1632. For those of you who have misplaced their copies of "L'Allegro," the relevant passage runs: "Sport that wrinkled Care derides, And Laughter holding both his sides, Come, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastic toe." To "trip the light fantastic" has been borrowed by numerous writers since Milton's time who needed a whimsical synonym for "to dance." But the persistence of the phrase (which, frankly, I find very annoying for some reason) is probably due to a line in the popular 1894 musical "The Sidewalks of New York" that went: "Boys and Girls together, Me and Mamie O'Rorke, Tripped the light fantastic, On the sidewalks of New York."

"In the limelight" is a bit more straightforward. Back in 1808, Sir Humphrey Davy, a British chemist, discovered that when lime (calcium oxide, not the fruit) was heated to a high temperature, it produced a brilliant white light. This "limelight" (also known as "Drummond light," after Thomas Drummond, its popularizer) was widely used in 19th century theaters, especially to illuminate the important actors on stage. Thus, "in the limelight" pretty quickly became a popular metaphor for "the center of attention."


Dear Word Detective: I have tried many sources and can not find the origin if the term "sandbagging"or "sand bag" as used in the context of holding back or not trying your hardest. I doubt it has to do with flood control, but what else could it be? My only theory is along the line of a jockey who puts sand in saddle bags to slow down a horse but why he would want to do that I do not know. I having been trying to figure it out for nearly three months. -- Dan Fiems, Montclair, New Jersey.

Three months? That's a long time to devote to one little question. I spent nearly a week trying to figure out my income tax once and it about did me in. I eventually just mailed the IRS the keys to my house and car and they seemed happy. In any case, next time you have a question like this, send it to me immediately and I'll wonder about it for three months for you.

I can tell that you had a sheltered youth, because when the subject of "sandbags" comes up you immediately think of flood control and all those valiant citizens building sandbag dikes to save their beleaguered communities. Wrong sandbags. Those of us who grew up in the mean alleys and smoky dives of the Brooklyn waterfront know that a sock or small bag filled with sand makes a fearsome weapon, all the better because it leaves no marks. Thus the verb "to sandbag," which since around 1887 has meant "to fell with a blow from a sandbag," or just generally "to bully or intimidate." (I was kidding about growing up on the waterfront, by the way. I wasn't even allowed to cross the street until I was 21.)

The specific "hang back" or "slack off" sense of "sandbag" you're wondering about comes from poker, where it originally described a player who held off raising the stakes in order to lull the other players into a false sense of security. The poker sandbagger would pounce late in the game, clobbering the other players with his good hand. More generally, "sandbag" has come to mean to under perform any task in order to gain some advantage.

And speaking of disasters,
nine puppies got in a heap of trouble today at the mall....

Dear Word Detective: I can't find the spelling for the word that sounds like "segway," heard occasionally from broadcasters making cutesy introductions to the next item on the broadcast agenda. -- Ahlin, via the internet.

Do I detect a note of sarcasm in your characterization of the dramatic devices employed by television news anchors? Excellent -- you're my kind of reader. I have come to the conclusion that television news is worse than no news at all (which, considering that most Americans get their news from television, is not good news). My own current gripe is those "newscasters" who have clearly been sent to hand-waving school and trained in what some Hollywood twit thinks are "expressive" gestures. Thereafter they punctuate every bit of dialogue given them with a frantic flurry of finger jabs, elbow waving and demented hand signals that would do a drunken football referee proud. I keep hoping that one of these bozos will overdo it someday and simply flap himself right off the set, but no such luck so far.

The word you're looking for is "segue" (which is indeed pronounced "segway"), meaning to move smoothly from one topic of speech or conversation to another. "Segue" was originally a technical musical term, drawn directly from the Italian "seguire" ("to follow"), and means to proceed from one movement of a composition to the next without pause. As a musical term it first appeared in English in 1740, but it wasn't until the early 1970's that the word was first used in a broader figurative sense. Hollywood was probably the source for the common usage of "segue," since film makers were among the first to borrow the word from musicians to describe a smooth transition from one scene or subject to another. It wasn't until this more general meaning of "segue" became popular that the word was really considered English and thus appeared in our dictionaries.


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