Issue of December 5, 2005
Golly, November is a short month, isn't it? Whizzes right by when you're not looking.
This will be the last issue of the year, but feel free to keep abreast of the latest Word Detective World Headquarters disasters and animal-related-disaster-development-program-related activities at my little blog. But first, take a moment to savor the last time you will see the following paragraph:
As the year draws to a close, it would be remiss not to mention for the ultimate time that 2005 marks the TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web. We remain, as always, a free resource for the gazillions of readers from around the world who visit this site every day. But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow). If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks.
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And now, on with the show:
Dear Word Detective: I'd like to know the origin of the phrase, "in a brown study." I haven't encountered it used currently, but I'd find it in books I read in childhood (Louisa May Alcott, etc., and others from the 19th century). I expect it means "deep in thought," but I'm curious about how it originated. -- Judy Ververs.
Good question. One wonders, incidentally, how many of today's children will look back on reading books from the 19th century. I digested the then-standard diet of Dickens and Twain when I was in school, but I also spent an inordinate amount of time reading Sherlock Holmes stories in my free time. So when I read your question, I was reminded of Holmes and Watson, who seemed to take turns sinking into a "brown study," usually just before a distressed citizen arrived bearing a tale of horror and mystery. In "The Resident Patient," for instance, it is Watson, bored by the newspaper, who drifts into a funk: "Finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation, I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study." Even I, as a lad of twelve, was not so literal-minded as to think that the floor under Watson had suddenly collapsed, dumping him into a small brown room full of books. But "brown study" seemed an awfully arcane way to say "melancholy mood" or "daydream."
The key to understanding "brown study" lies in the fact that in the phrase both "brown" and "study" are used in senses now long obsolete (and antiquated even in the 19th century). "Brown study" itself is surprisingly old, dating back to the early 16th century. At that time, "brown" was a synonym for "gloomy or serious," drawing on the symbolism of its darkness much as we speak today of being "in a black mood." The noun "study" in the sense of "state of reverie or contemplation" had first appeared in the 14th century. Together, "brown study" when it first appeared meant "a state of gloomy meditation or thought." Gradually, however, the mood of "brown study" lightened somewhat, and, to the extent it is used today (which isn't often), it now means simply "a state of daydreaming or deep thought."
Dear Word Detective: "Out on a limb" and "Up a tree" and other idioms use trees and plants. How did our use of "bushed" come to mean being very tired? -- Christopher R.P. Cawthorne.
Good question. "Up a tree" and "out on a limb" are easy to picture, especially for those of us who have watched a lot of cartoons, but it's a bit hard to imagine the connection between a lowly bush and severe fatigue. There's "beating around the bush," of course, meaning "being overly cautious," which comes from the practice of beating bushes with sticks to flush out game. Presumably "beating around" (or "about") rather than "directly on" the bushes was held in contempt by he-men in the hunting party. The whole process sounds tedious (why not just order a pizza?), but hardly seems the stuff of utter exhaustion.
"Bush" is, as you might imagine, a very old word, derived the Late Latin "boscum," which also produced the words for "bush" in several other European languages (as well as "bouquet"). Interestingly, a derivative Late Latin verb "inboscare" (to place among the bushes) eventually gave us our modern word "ambush," i.e., soldiers laying in wait, originally concealed in bushes.
The American Heritage Dictionary gives several definitions of "bush," the first four of which are "A low shrub with many branches," "A thick growth of shrubs; a thicket," "Land covered with dense vegetation or undergrowth," and "Land remote from settlement," giving as an example "the Australian bush." This last definition seems to be the key to "bushed."
Given that "the bush" in this sense is a vast expanse of wilderness so bleak and nondescript as to be named for a boring shrub, losing one's bearings "in the bush" must be fairly easy, and indeed the late slang etymologist Eric Partridge noted the Australian use of "bushed" meaning "to be lost in the bush" dating back to the mid-19th century. An equally unappealing state, according to Partridge, was "bushed" in the sense of "suffering from mild or serious mental derangement caused by long solitude in the bush," a syndrome apparently commonly afflicting "trappers and prairie farmers' wives."
If one eventually made it out of "the bush," it was most likely in a state of exhaustion, whether from the exertion of traversing the wilderness or merely living there, and there we have the probable source of "bushed" meaning "very tired."
Dear Word Detective: It seems to me that the odd term "flotsam and jetsam" was heard fairly often when I was younger but I recently came across it in a new book and am interested in origin and precise meaning. It seems to have a slightly nautical flavor but maybe I'm thinking of "spindrift." -- Tom Chase.
That's odd. I, too, remember hearing and seeing references to "flotsam" and "jetsam" more frequently back in the 1960s and 70s than I do today. Most of them, as I recall, were metaphorical uses ("My desk drawer is crammed full of the flotsam of office life"), but it is strange that one so rarely hears the words today. It's almost certainly just a sign of changing fashions in the mass media. Journalists tend to latch onto a phrase and worry it to a nub, then abandon it, like a school of minnows changing direction, for a new favorite. A few years ago you couldn't turn on the TV or read a newspaper without stumbling over the lame cliché "at the end of the day" (meaning "when all is said and done"), but today its use seems to be fading (not a moment too soon for my taste). A search of Google News still turns up almost 2,500 instances of the phrase, however, so I hope someone out there is working on a vaccine.
Even though they became popular as metaphors among landlubbers, "flotsam" and 'jetsam" were both originally nautical terms. "Flotsam" (from the Anglo-French "floteson," in turn from the Old French "floter," to float) is, strictly speaking, the wreckage of a ship (or its cargo) found floating on the surface of the sea. More generally, "flotsam" can be used for any sort of floating debris. "Flotsam" is presumed to be of accidental origin.
"Jetsam," however, is deliberate (if often not entirely voluntary) in origin. "Jetsam" is actually a form of the word "jettison," and originally referred to cargo or other goods thrown overboard to lighten a vessel in distress. (Of course, if that didn't work, the whole shebang often became "flotsam.") The current "sam" ending of "jetsam" was almost certainly modeled on "flotsam." "Flotsam" dates to the 17th century, "jetsam" to the 16th (in the intermediate form “jetson”), and the distinction between the two has historically been important in maritime salvage law.
"Spindrift" is another fish entirely, meaning "spray whipped from the tops of waves by wind." It's actually a form of the earlier "spoondrift," the "spoon" being a nautical term meaning "to sail with the wind."
Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me what the origin of the term "foiled" is, as in "His dastardly plan was foiled by the wily detective"? -- Shelly.
Aw shucks, it was nothing. Actually, I rarely get to foil any dastardly plans, unless you count Brownie the Dog's inevitable attempt to snatch the cats' food the minute I leave the room as a dastardly plan. But I do receive a fair amount of mail from people laboring under the impression that I have the power to deputize them as real "catch-cheating-spouses" private detectives, an idea which is whacked on so many levels I try not to think about it.
For someone destined to bear the title "Detective" in at least a metaphorical sense, I must have been a singularly un-inquisitive child, because I sat through umpteen episodes of "Dudley Do-Right" on the old "Rocky and His Friends" show without ever wondering what "foiled" really meant. In every episode, feckless Dudley of the Canadian Mounties somehow failed to prevent Snidely Whiplash, the resident villain (duh), from kidnapping sweet Nell Fenwick and tying her to the train tracks. But bumbling Dudley always saved her, usually by accident, always in the nick of time, whereupon Snidely would exclaim, "Curses! Foiled again!"
At the time, I probably assumed that there was some convoluted connection between Snidely's frustration and aluminum foil, but the two kinds of "foil" are actually completely unrelated. The "thin sheet of metal" kind of "foil" comes from the Old French "fueille," meaning "leaf," from the Latin "folium" (also meaning "leaf," and the source of "folio," leaf of a book, as well as "foliage"). One interesting descendant of this "foil" is its use to mean "a person who enhances the distinctive characteristics of another by contrast," as in "Meg's drab husband acted as her foil, making her witty comments seem even sharper." This use of "foil" harks back to jewelers' use of metal foil as a backing in gem mountings to make the stones sparkle more brightly.
The kind of "foil" meaning "to prevent from being successful; to thwart; to frustrate" comes from the Middle English verb "foilen," meaning "to trample, to despoil," with a secondary sense of "to obscure or confuse a trail or scent in order to elude pursuers." The "throw them off your trail" sense of "foil" first appeared around 1300, but the figurative "thwart someone's evil plans" sense didn't appear until the 16th century.
Dear Word Detective: What are the origins of the directions North, South, East and West? -- Clinton.
That's a darn good question, and I'm surprised that someone hasn't asked it before now. On the other hand, I have been asked many, many times whether it is true that the word "news" comes from the initial letters of north, east, west and south. It isn't true. The English word "news" is simply a direct translation of the French "nouvelles," which the French use to mean both "new" and "current events."
Beginning with "north," one runs smack into the big problem in defining directions: relative to what? The answer was the sun. The definition of "north" from the Oxford English Dictionary illustrates how it worked: "In the direction of the part of the horizon on the left-hand side of a person facing the rising sun." As our understanding of geophysics improved, criteria were added such as (also from the OED) "towards or in the direction of the point or pole on the earth's surface which lies on the earth's axis of rotation and at which the heavens appear to turn anticlockwise [i.e., counterclockwise] about a point directly overhead" and "towards the magnetic pole near this point, to which a compass needle points." But humanity couldn't wait for all that folderol, and the word "north" itself is thought to be rooted in the word for "left" in the ancient Umbrian language of Italy.
"East" derives from the Indo-European root "aus," meaning "to shine," referring to the rising sun. The same root produced "aurora" in Latin and the Old English "Eastre," goddess of the dawn, whose name eventually was adopted as the Christian holiday Easter.
"South" harks back to the Indo-European root "sunthaz," meaning "southward," probably based on "sunnon," meaning "in the region of the sun." This makes sense given that the Germanic languages (of which English is one) developed north of the Equator, where the sun would appear to cross the sky in the south.
"West" is rooted in the Indo-European "wes," meaning "evening or night," also the source of the Latin "vesper," which gave us the English "vespers."
Dear Word Detective: I just finished reading "The Zanzibar Chest" by Aiden Hartley. This is a memoir of his time as a stringer for Reuters covering various hot spots in Africa. In this book he claims to have coined the word "warlord." He said that the particular brand of chaos in Somalia fifteen years ago called for a new term to describe who was sort of in charge in a place where none of the usual structures of nations and governments are in place. He said that he and his supervisor were watching Dr. Who reruns which contained a lot of references to "warlocks" and "timelords." The contraction of these terms provided them with the word they needed. I found this claim to be farfetched, but on further thought I could not remember seeing the term "warlord" before 1990. -- Jay Vee Weiss.
Hmm. Methinks he might have been sitting a bit too close to the telly. His claim is not unusual in itself -- I receive about one letter per week from someone whose slightly deranged relative or neighbor claims credit for inventing a common word or phrase ("And so," my uncle said, "I decided to call the strange creature a 'dog.'"). But in this case, the source is a career journalist, a correspondent for Reuters in Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda, who presumably had access to at least one decent dictionary, a quick glance into which would have put paid to his fabulation. I'm also surprised that Mr. Hartley, according to reviews of his book on amazon.com, apparently managed to slog through some fairly posh schools in Britain without ever encountering the term "warlord" in history class. His book does look interesting, though, and I may read it if someone can promise me that he doesn't invent the microwave oven halfway through.
A "warlord" is, as you say, a leader who rules part of a nation through military force, independently of a weak or dysfunctional central government, usually in what has come to be called a "failed state." While the term became well-known through news reports of the chaos in Somalia in the 1990s, "warlord" actually dates back at least to the mid-1800s. One early use of "war-lord" (as it was then spelled) was as a translation of "Kriegsherr" as a title for the German emperor, but the modern sense of the term arose in China in the early 20th century, where provincial governors with personal armies ran their fiefdoms as de facto despots, paying little heed to the distant and ineffectual central government.
Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me what the term "Dark Horse" means? -- Anonymous.
That's a good question. Just about the only time you hear the phrase in the US is during the run-up to an election, when any candidate not given saturation coverage by the news media well in advance of the official campaign season is labeled a "dark horse." What they really mean, of course, is "long shot" bordering on "sure loser," but occasionally they are wrong. I seem to remember Bill Clinton being termed a "dark horse" early on. More often, however, the pundits are correct (not surprisingly, since they control how well-known a candidate becomes). Senator Bob Graham was labeled a "dark horse" for the last Democratic presidential nomination by the media, an estimation validated by the vast number of you folks muttering "Senator who?" right now.
One might imagine, as I did when I was young, some
connection between "dark horse" and "black sheep," the misfit
ne'er-do-well member of a flock or family, and it's true that "dark
horses" frequently flake out, as Senator Whatsisname did, long before
the finish line.
Although the sport of racing horses (and betting on them) is one of the oldest, "dark horse" is a fairly recent coinage, first appearing in the early 19th century. Fairly quickly, the term took on the figurative meaning of "a candidate for office not previously well-known who suddenly becomes a leading contender," but in the US, "dark horse" developed a more specialized use by the end of the 19th century. If a political convention was deadlocked on the leading candidates, a compromise candidate, possibly not even an announced candidate prior to the convention, would be drafted to receive the nomination and would be known as a "dark horse." While this rare scenario has always made for exciting "horse-race politics," in common usage "dark horse" is used to mean simply an unlikely, but not impossible, victor.
Dear Word Detective: What makes black "jet black"? Was "jet" a word before it was applied to aircraft? -- Nathaniel.
It sure was. In fact, "jet" was not just one but two words long before the invention of jet aircraft. Two separate "jets" might seem a bit excessive, but such "homographs," words spelled the same way but with different meanings, often derived from different sources and unrelated in their development, are not uncommon in English. Homographs can be a bit confusing at times, but in the case of "jet," they save us the trouble of trying to explain what the color of deep, glossy black could possibly have to do with airplanes.
The "aircraft" kind of "jet" goes way back, all the way to the Latin verb "jacere," which meant "to throw" (and which also produced "inject," "reject" and similar modern English words). The original meaning of "jet" when it first appeared in English in the 16th century (adopted from the French form "jeter") was "to project, to jut out," a sense preserved today in the derivatives "jut" and "jetty." The verb also still carried the sense of "throw," and eventually produced our "jettison" and "jetsam" (cargo thrown overboard from a ship). By 1692, "jet" was being used to mean "to spout or spurt forth," as water "jets" from a hose. As a noun, by the late 17th century, "jet" had come to mean a stream of liquid ejected from an opening with great force. When engines were developed in the mid-20th century that propelled an aircraft by means of a "jet" of hot gases ejected from its tailpipe, it was thus natural to call the invention a "jet aircraft."
"Jet" the color is, as I've said, utterly unrelated to any of that, and entered English in the 14th century, adopted from the Old French "jaiet." The French form was drawn ultimately from the Greek "gagates," meaning "stone from Gagae," a town in Asia Minor. The "stone" that gave its name to "jet" was actually a black form of lignite coal, very hard and glossy, commonly used for buttons and ornaments. "Jet" in English originally referred to the material "jet" itself, but by the mid-15th century "jet" or "jet black" was being used to denote the deep, glossy black of the coal.
Dear Word Detective: I just saw your idea of the etymology of "putting on the dog." My wife and I were on a ghost tour at Williamsburg, VA a few years back, and our guide was very much into the derivation of words. She said that in colonial times, the most supple shoe leather came from the hide of the family dog. Many dog owners, when their dogs died, would cure the leather and make shoes out of it -- their best shoes. Therefore, when they were "putting on the dog," they were doing it quite literally. They were putting on their best shoes, which I presume they'd usually wear with the best clothes. This may or may not be the proper explanation for the expression, but, at least, it's darned interesting. -- Ed Sala.
That's an interesting story, all right. It's also so utterly whacked that I honestly wonder whether the tour guide might have been pulling your leg, deliberately dispensing the most ludicrous yarn she could think of just to see if it would fly. As a matter of fact, given that tour guides at "historic attractions" are one of the main vectors of urban legends about words and phrases, I'm beginning to suspect that there is some sort of underground contest afoot, a clandestine Tournament of Whoppers among guides all around the world.
Apart from the fact that the supposed practice of converting Fido into footwear would have turned up in historical accounts long before it popped out of your guide's mouth, one huge problem with her story is that "to put on the dog" first appeared in the 1860s (long after "colonial times") as college slang at Yale. From the very beginning, "put on the dog" was used as a figure of speech meaning "to dress up in the finest clothes to make a flashy display." There is no mention in the historical record anywhere of "put on the dog" meaning "put on one's shoes."
As I said a few years ago, while there is no definite origin known for "putting on the dog" (which first appeared in the form "putting on dog," no "the"), there are several theories. The fondness of the rich and showy for toting their tiny, pampered lapdogs around with them may be the source. Other sources maintain that the high, stiff colors part of men's formal wear at the time were known as "dog collars," as were the ornate bejeweled choker necklaces worn by wealthy women. Thus, according to this theory, the last step in getting dressed for the ball or a night at the opera would be to "put on the dog."
Dear Word Detective: What is "the whole shebang" and where did it come from? (Please excuse the probably incorrect spelling.) -- Eva.
No apology necessary -- that's the accepted spelling at the moment, but if the history of "the whole shebang" is any indication, I wouldn't be surprised to see it change in the future. By the way, I have actually taken on this question at least twice in the past, but the columns are inexplicably missing from my web archives. If I were paranoid, which I try hard not to be, I would suspect that those pesky web moths have been nibbling at my oeuvre again. Yes, of course there are web moths. They show them, looking like multicolored butterflies, in every Microsoft commercial. I figure it's some crafty subliminal threat their marketing department came up with.
I say that I have "taken on" the question of "the whole shebang" before, rather than claiming to have "solved" or "answered" it, because there are enough uncertainties about this phrase to addle a moose.
"Shebang" has been used in its modern sense of "all, everything" since about 1869, but its source has always been a mystery. Part of the puzzle is that the term's meaning seems to have varied wildly within a very short period. The first recorded use of "shebang," in 1862 in Walt Whitman's journals, was in the sense of "hut, humble dwelling" ("The soldiers guarding the road came out from their tents or shebangs of bushes," in Whitman's words). In 1872, three years after he had used the term in 1869 to mean "enterprise" or "the whole thing" in 1869, Mark Twain used "shebang" again, but this time to mean "carriage" ("You're welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang's chartered"). Then there's the sense of "shebang" as "saloon or tavern" that appeared around 1901.
With such wildly disparate definitions as "saloon," hovel," "carriage," and "everything," one begins to suspect that all these "shebangs" are not actually the same word, and there are theories that say just that. It may be that the "carriage" sense is derived from the French "char a bancs," a bus-like carriage with bench seats.
For the "saloon" sense, the leading suspect is the Irish "shebeen," meaning an unlicensed drinking establishment or a low or disreputable saloon. Connecting this "dive" sense to the original "hut" meaning doesn't seem difficult, but how that synthesis could then drift over into meaning "everything" remains a stubborn puzzle.
Dear Word Detective: In "A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson uses the word "squelch" to describe the sound of boots in mud. I assume it is onomatopoeic. "Squelch" is also a common radio term for the control that silences a receiver until a signal appears, eliminating the need to listen to static. I assume that meaning came as one can "squelch" a conversion -- that is, end it. So how how did we get the two somewhat opposite meanings? -- George.
Good question. I read "A Walk in the Woods," Mr. Bryson's lively and often very funny tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail, a few years ago, and recommend it highly, even though it left me with absolutely no desire to emulate his accomplishment. Most of the people I know seem to regard hiking in the wilderness as being as nifty as gravy on mashed potatoes, but between the weirdos lurking out there and the bear attacks you won't catch me traipsing through the woods in the foreseeable future.
So the question seems to be how "squelch" can mean both "to make a wet, squishy sound" and "to silence something." In assuming that "squelch" is onomatopoeic (also called "echoic" or "imitative") in origin -- formed as an imitation of the actual sound of a thing -- you have the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in agreement with you. But the source of the sound imitated by "squelch" was not, to judge by early uses of the word, the sound of boots in mud.
When "squelch" first appeared in English in the early 17th century, it meant, according to the folks at the OED, "A heavy crushing fall or blow acting on a soft body; the sound produced by this," and the "body" could be human, as in this citation from 1656: "... giving their Adversaries such deadly squelches as they shall never rise again." The first figurative use of "squelch" in the "clobber" sense arrived about thirty years later: "The house of Medici now seem'd humbled by so terrible a squelch, that it cou'd not ... get up again." But it wasn't until the mid-19th century that "squelch" came into use meaning "to put down or suppress thoroughly or completely," as in "squelch an argument." The use of "squelch" in the radio sense dates to the late 1930s.
Midway through the 19th century, however, our pal onomatopoeia reasserted its claim on "squelch," and use of the word to mean, as the OED puts it, "to walk or tread heavily in water or wet ground, or with water in the shoes, so as to make a splashing sound" appeared.
Dear Word Detective: During a family conversation, someone wondered about the origin of "all tuckered out." We sort of came to the consensus that it was Australian, since one person thought a "tucker" was gear used in the outback of Australia. Do you have anything that would lead us to consider other options? -- Karen Marsten.
Ah, the hypnotic curse of "Waltzing Matilda" strikes again ("Along came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong, Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee, And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag, "You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"). I remember learning that song by rote in the sixth grade, which even at the time struck me as a bit odd since I grew up in a town in Connecticut notably devoid of jumbucks and billabongs. But it is a catchy tune and a gripping tale, and readers wanting the full lyrics of the song (and a handy translation) can find them at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waltzing_Matilda.
A "tucker bag" (or "box") is a container for food (known as "tuck" or "tucker") carried by workers or vagabonds ("swagmen") in the Australian Outback, and although the connection to "tucker" in the sense of "tire, fatigue" found in "all tuckered out" is somewhat remote, there actually is a connection.
"Tucker" meaning "to tire, to weary" is an Americanism dating back to the early 19th century, based on the verb "to tuck," which comes from an ancient Germanic root meaning "to pull" (also the source of our "to tug"). Although "tuck" meant "punish" when it appeared in Old English, by the 13th century it had taken on the sense of "to finish cloth" and later came to mean "to gather up in folds or pleats," "to put away or hide" and the modern "to fold in the ends of material" sense we use in "tuck in a sheet." One of the slang meanings "to tuck" acquired in the 18th century was "to consume food" (i.e., "tuck" it into one's stomach), eventually giving us the Australian "tucker bag" as well as "tuck" and "tucker" as slang for "food."
Midway though the 19th century, it became common to speak of a dog or horse whose flanks were drawn in from hunger or fatigue as being "tucked" or "tuckered," likening the animal's gaunt and haggard appearance to folds in fabric. So to be "tuckered out" today is to be profoundly and visibly exhausted.
Dear Word Detective: I just came into possession of 300 or so 19th-century albumen prints. And it suddenly struck me -- does the word "album" as in "photo album" derive from this relatively ancient egg-white fixative technology? -- Deke.
Your question piqued my interest because I happen to have spent a large chunk of my youth in darkrooms messing around with Dektol and D-76 while breathing those unforgettable (and no doubt highly toxic) fixer fumes. I even worked in a commercial lab in New York City at one point doing custom dye-transfer printing, an exacting skill I mastered shortly before it became obsolete. Dye transfer printing is a delicate, trial-and-error process guaranteed to drive the average person crazy in less than a day, which may be why several of my co-workers seemed to be pretty seriously nuts.
But after reading a few descriptions of albumen printing, I'll take dye-transfer printing any day. As the name implies, albumen printing uses paper coated with a solution of egg white, salt and silver nitrite, which, once dried, is laid under a glass negative and exposed to bright light. Albumen printing was the standard in photography for the second half of the 19th century, and one manufacturer of albumen printing paper reported at the time using the whites of more than 60,000 eggs per day.
Although many "albumen" prints were stored in photographic "albums," neither word comes from the other. Rather, they share a common ancestor, the Latin "albus," meaning "white." English developed a number of words from "albus," including "albino" and "auburn" (originally from the Latin "auburnus," meaning "off-white," but later shifted to "reddish-brown" through the influence of the Middle English "brun," brown). In Latin, "albumen" (or "albumin") meant specifically the "white" (non-yolk) part of an egg, and the term first appeared in English at the end of the 16th century.
"Album" is actually the neuter form of the adjective "albus" used as a noun, and in Roman times referred to the blank (i.e., white) tablet used to post public proclamations. Later on, "album" came to mean any sort of blank book where autographs, memorial entries at a funeral, or other memorabilia were collected. The use of "album" for a bound "book-like" collection of photographs (or stamps, etc.) dates to the mid-19th century.
Dear Word Detective: Why is the word "calculus" used to denote both a branch of mathematics and the hardened form of plaque that forms on your teeth? I can see no relationship between the two, and haven't had luck with online searches. -- Barbara Snow.
That's a good question, and yet another one that I vaguely remember occurring to me not long ago. I know I'm supposed to rush home and start diligently searching for an answer in such cases, but the truth is that I often just grunt, "Hmm, that's odd," and promptly forget the whole thing. In fact, I suspect that this particular question was erroneously routed to the math center of my brain, which hasn't worked properly since about third grade. Seriously. The reason I never dine alone in restaurants is that I'm utterly incapable of computing the tip and live in fear of being assaulted by a disgruntled server. "Hi, I'm Kimberly, and a little later I'll be slashing your tires." None for me, thanks.
A relationship between apparently identical words doesn't always exist ("fluke" the fish is unrelated to "fluke" meaning "stroke of luck," for example), but there is a direct connection between the two types of "calculus." The ultimate root of "calculus" is the Latin "calx," meaning "stone" (specifically limestone to the Romans, thereby also giving us the word "calcium"). "Calculus" is a diminutive of "calx" meaning "small stone, pebble," and here comes the math. "Calculi" (the plural form) were the small stones or pebbles used in counting before the advent of more advanced methods. It was from this use of "calculi" that eventually the whole process of adding, subtracting and otherwise manipulating numbers came to be called "calculation." The more specific term "calculus" in the sense of complex computations dates to the 17th century, and what we call "calculus" is usually a shortened form of either "differential calculus" or "integral calculus." The term "calculus" is also frequently used figuratively to mean simply "delicate judgment or reasoning," as in "Senators will have to master the political calculus of opposing the nominee while still appearing to be reasonable."
The use of "calculus" to mean usually hard deposits of an unwelcome sort in the human body, including on one's teeth, harks back to perhaps the most unwelcome deposit of all, kidney stones, which resemble pebbles.
Dear Word Detective: To "garnish" food is to add a little something extra, such as a sprig of parsley, a tomato slice, or an olive. It may be only to add color, or it may add a little extra taste as well. So one might expect, when one's pay is "garnished," to find a little something extra in the old envelope. Obviously, not so. So how come "garnish" on this side means add a little something, and on that side it means take a little something away? -- Charles Anderson.
Good question, but before we proceed, I have a word of advice for you folks who frequent restaurants: don't eat the parsley.
Nobody actually eats the parsley. And if nobody eats the parsley, do you really suppose that back in the kitchen they scrape the uneaten parsley into the garbage while the cook picks a fresh sprig for the next order? In a world where half the new computer equipment you buy is actually "factory reconditioned," I tend to doubt it. Your bit of parsley probably met Winston Churchill.
There are few moments in life, fortunately, that can ruin your mood like opening your pay envelope and finding, not a bonus, but metaphorical pickles, but "garnish" is a word old enough to have developed both meanings. The root of "garnish" is the Old French "garniss," the stem of the word "garnir," meaning "to defend, prepare, furnish." (The same "garnir," a various times spelled "guarnir" and "warnir," is related, via its Germanic root, to our modern English "warn." Further development of "garnir" in French gave us "garment.")
"Garnish" first appeared in English in the 13th century meaning "to defend or arm oneself," but also "to decorate, ornament or embellish." At first this meant to make nearly anything more attractive, from one's own wardrobe to "the outward heavens ... garnished with Starres" (1635), but by the late 17th century "garnish" had come to mean "decorate a dish for the table" ("Roasted antelopes, garnished with their horns," 1886), and the parsley garnish of today's lunch special was planted (possibly literally).
Meanwhile, the ghost of the Germanic root of "garnish" that had also given us "warn" was still lurking in the wings, and, by the 16th century, "garnish" was appearing in legal documents meaning "to warn or serve notice on a debtor attaching money owed" (i.e., warning the debtor not to spend the money elsewhere). Today, of course, courts usually take the money directly out of the "garnishee's" paycheck, making parsley an attractive source of sustenance.
Dear Word Detective: My four year-old daughter just asked me why a book is called a "book" so I am looking to find out the origin of the word so I can tell her. If you could help I would be most appreciative! -- Carolyn O'Toole.
Dear Word Detective: I have a four year-old asking me why jam is called "jam." I have no clue. I have searched the internet without luck. You are my last hope of giving the child an honest and correct answer. -- Kimber Bush.
Well, I seem to have hit my target demographic. Now I need to attract some of those lucrative product placements they're sneaking into nearly every show on TV. I can do that. Hey kids, did you know that I research my columns while I eat my Cocoa Puffs (they're Choco-licious!) cereal every morning? I wrote this particular column while enjoying a crisp, refreshing Coca-Cola this afternoon! And right now I'm rewriting it while munching on a tasty Snickers candy bar (packed with peanutty goodness!) with my one remaining tooth.
But seriously, kids are the future, so I'd better answer these questions before they grow up and come looking for me.
"Book" is obviously a very important word, and, not surprisingly, it's also a very old one. The word "book" comes from a prehistoric Germanic root word (something like "boks") which meant "beech tree." It is thought that the ancient Germanic people inscribed their earliest writings into tablets made of beech wood (or possibly directly into the tree bark itself, as people today still carve their initials into tree trunks). When the word "book" first appeared in Old English it meant any kind of written material, even just a single page, but by the 9th century "book" had acquired its modern meaning of a longer collection of writings.
"Jam," the fruit preserves we spread on our toast, is a much newer word than "book," first appearing in the early 18th century. It's thought that this "jam" came from the verb "to jam," meaning "to press or squeeze tightly between two objects," referring in this case to the crushing of the fruit that goes into "jam." That verb "to jam" isn't very old either (1719), and may be what linguists call an "echoic formation," meaning that "jam" arose in imitation of the action or sound of something being tightly clamped or crushed.
Dear Word Detective: My 12 year-old daughter rides the school bus with a little "twerp," or so she says. She just asked me where that word came from. She said she knows what it means, but just wondered where who came up with it first. I checked the dictionary and it said "origin unknown." Can you do any better? -- RaDonna.
I'll give it a shot. Incidentally, you should explain to your daughter that every school bus comes straight from the factory with a several little twerps installed as standard features, just like headlights, brakes, and the really weird kid no one will sit with. By the way, if there's one part of my childhood I would definitely never wish to recapture, it's the half-hour hells I spent on school buses. Every afternoon was like Lord of the Flies at forty miles an hour. And to this day I can't hear the words "field trip" without breaking into a cold sweat.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "twerp" as "A despicable or objectionable person; an insignificant person, a nobody; a nincompoop," which nicely captures the three essential pillars of twerp-hood.
"Twerp" seems to have first appeared in print in the 1920s, the earliest citation coming from a glossary of soldiers' and sailors' slang where it was defined as "an unpleasant person." But one popular theory about "twerp" traces the term to Oxford University in England a few years earlier. A letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings, etc.) in 1944 contains this passage: "He lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton, the composer, and going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp)." The poet and satirist Roy Campbell also made reference to Mr. Earp in a 1957 account: "T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the ... wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the 'decadents')".
There really was a T.W. Earp, a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1911. Was he the "original twerp," or was Tolkien making a joke on an already-established slang term, perhaps a variant on "twit"? The mystery remains.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the military slang "watch my six" meaning to "watch my back" or "cover me"? Why "six" -- unless it refers to the number six's more-or-less resemblance to the human form? -- Charlene.
Hmm. Don't look now, but I think one of us might need new glasses. I'm trying to remember any human body I have seen that resembles the numeral six, and coming up blank. In any case, I stared at your question for about two minutes, musing about the possible relevance of six-packs of beer and trying to remember the names of the muscles in the human back, and then the answer suddenly hit me. Of course, I then Googled the phrase to make sure my revelation wasn't just an overdose of caffeine, but I was right.
"Watch my six" is simply an abbreviated form of "watch my six o'clock." The reference is to six o'clock on a clock face, the frame of reference used by military pilots to report the location of other aircraft and points on the ground to the other planes in their squadron or to ground control. In the "clock" scheme, "twelve o'clock" is straight ahead, "three o'clock" is ninety degrees to the right, "nine o'clock" ninety degrees to the left, and "six o'clock" is directly behind the aircraft. Since visibility to the rear is limited or non-existent in most aircraft, making that a favored direction of attack by enemy aircraft, fighter pilots (especially in the days before radar) depended on their squadron mates to watch their "six o'clocks."
The clock reference is often further modified with "high" or "low," specified relative to the aircraft's level of flight, as in the title of one of the best movies about air combat ever made, "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949). The film tells the story of US B-17 bomber crews over Europe during World War II, and takes its title from the position directly ahead and above from which enemy fighters often attacked formations of bombers. Widely regarded as a remarkably accurate and honest portrayal of the air war over Europe, "Twelve O'Clock High," which won several Academy Awards, was based on the book of the same title by screenwriters Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom had been in bomber units during the war.
Interestingly, most of the references to "watch my six" that I found online are not related to air combat, indicating the phrase has (probably long ago) percolated out to other branches of the service and from there into civilian life.
All contents Copyright © 2005 by Evan Morris.