Previous Columns/Posted 12/20/99
OK, OK, this issue is a little bit late. So sue me. Truth be told, I was seriously considering waiting until mid-January to update this page on the chance that the internet would be eaten by the Y2K bug (which, considering that Time magazine just picked noted snake-oil salesman and all-around creep Jeff Bezos as their Man of the Year, suddenly strikes me as a real good idea. I'd even be willing to give up reading alt.fan.cecil-adams if it would mean driving a stake through the heart of "enterprise computing," "internet commerce" and all the money-grubbing weasels the current cyber-greed-storm has spawned. But I digress.).
Anyway, assuming either that you're reading this prior to TEOTWAWKI* or that I have wasted big bucks on a generator, wood stove and 200 chickens,** please accept the best wishes of everybody here at Word Detective World Headquarters for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Millennium.
Good luck, gang, you're gonna need it.
And whatever that guy in the cave next door tells you,
Dear Word Detective: As a bat biologist (which may or may not have anything to do with this question), I am curious about the origin of the phrase "like a bat out of hell." We are presumably supposed to believe that bats are evil and from hell, I suppose, but if so, why would they be leaving so quickly that their departure has become synonymous with extra speed? Any ideas? -- Katy Hinman, Department of Ecology and Evolution, State University of New York, Stony Brook, NY.
It must be pretty neat to be able to begin a sentence "As a bat biologist...." Must be a sure-fire conversation-stopper. A few years ago an internet discussion group I occasionally read held a sort of contest, the object being to invent a coherent English sentence that no one, anywhere, had ever written or spoken before. The winning entry, as I recall, was "Your moose is clearly Satan," although that certainly seems like something someone in Canada must have said at one time or another.
I'm a big fan of bats myself (as regular readers of this column can probably guess), but bats have gotten a bad rap in popular mythology for thousands of years. Just because they are nocturnal and have a few odd habits (such as sleeping upside down in caves), bats have been associated with evil, witches and the Realm of Darkness (New Jersey) for most of human history. And, of course, there's that Dracula business. But this is all completely unfounded and unfair. Bats are actually just hamsters with wings, and they eat all sorts of nasty insects for us.
Bats also are amazing aerial acrobats, flying swiftly through the night using only their natural sonar (high-pitched squeaks) for guidance. The bat's flight is so quick and erratic that when aviators during World War I needed a simile for flying at top speed, the bat was a logical choice "Like a bat out of hell" first appeared in print in 1921, but is said to have been in common usage several years earlier. The "out of hell" part was tacked on purely for added color, and probably refers to the bat being "from hell," not necessarily trying to leave hell.
Dear Word Detective: Sadly, someone recently said that Wilt Chamberlain had "kicked the bucket." It made me wonder just where this widely used phrase originated. -- W. Weihevia via the internet.
Welcome to the club. Although "kick the bucket" has been documented as slang for "to die" since 1785, when Captain Francis Grose included it in his "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," no one has been able to prove its origin with absolute certainty.
According to a marvelous little book called "Slang Down the Ages" by Jonathon Green (published in the U.S. as "Slang Through the Ages"), one method of slaughtering a pig used to involve hanging it upside down from a beam in the barn designed for the purpose and called a "bucket." In its death throes, the dying animal would then, naturally, "kick the bucket."
One bit of corroborative evidence in favor of the "pig slaughtering" theory of "kick the bucket" is the fact that "bucket" has existed as an antiquated English word meaning "beam" since around 1570, probably drawn from the Old French word "buquet," meaning "balance." (This "bucket" is unrelated to the more common English word "bucket" meaning "pail," which apparently comes from the Old French "buket," meaning "washing tub.")
Another theory of the origin of "kick the bucket" traces the phrase to a method of hanging oneself by standing on a bucket, tightening the noose, and then kicking away the bucket. While this general method of suicide has been historically popular, there's no evidence that buckets were ever the preferred medium (as opposed to, say, a chair), and no written evidence that this was indeed the source of the idiom.
Dear Word Detective: Why is an easy-to-catch fly ball called a "can of corn"? Why is the catcher's gear called "the tools of ignorance"? -- Denny Olson, via the internet.
I'm glad you asked these questions, because you've given me an opportunity to plug a book I meant to mention when it came out earlier this year. Granted, it's no longer exactly baseball season, but Paul Dickson's "New Dickson Baseball Dictionary," published by Harcourt Brace, would make a dandy holiday gift for any baseball fan. At 576 pages, this hefty volume covers the meaning, usage and origin of zillions of baseball terms in lively and authoritative entries, and even non-fans (of which I am one) will find it fun to browse.
To say that baseball has spawned a wide range of colorful terms would be an understatement, and "can of corn" is a good example of just how weird baseball lingo can get. According to Paul Dickson, "can of corn" was first used back in 1896 to describe a fly ball hit so high that the fielder has time to stand directly under the falling ball. The standard theory traces the term to old-fashioned grocery stores, where canned goods were stored on high shelves and pulled down with a long pole. An experienced store clerk would have no trouble catching the tumbling can, thus the term. Other theories trace "can of corn" to such fly balls being as easy to catch as "taking corn out of a can," or to the hollow "tin-canny" sound made by the bat in striking such a hit, or to an old-fashioned "cornball" confection made with popcorn and molasses, but the grocery explanation seems most logical to me.
"Tools of ignorance" as a slang term for the mask, chest protector and other equipment worn by catchers, seems to be based on the perception that catching is an unpleasant, dangerous and often unappreciated position to play, and one that would be avoided by any smart player. The phrase first appeared in print in 1937, and although accounts of its origin vary, they all agree on one point: "tools of ignorance" was coined by a catcher.
Dear Word Detective: Where the heck does the phrase "cut the mustard" come from? If you cut mustard with anything, you weaken its heat and flavor. So why, when you speak of something not succeeding, do you say it doesn't "cut the mustard"? It's just such a weird connection to me. Or is the "mustard" part really a corruption of "muster"? -- Anna Zimmerman, via the internet.
"Weird connection" doesn't even begin to cover it. The origin of "cut the mustard," meaning "to measure up to standards" or "to be sufficient or successful in accomplishing a task," is the subject of a long-standing debate among language experts. We do know that "cut the mustard" first appeared in print in an O. Henry story in 1907 and has been in pretty constant use since then, but exactly to what mustard "cut the mustard" might refer is still up in the air.
One theory is that "mustard" in the phrase should actually be, as you suggest, "muster," meaning "examination." To "muster" troops is to assemble them for inspection, those who meet the necessary standards then being said to have "passed muster." It is possible that "cut the mustard" is simply a mangled form of "cut the muster," with "cut" being used in the sense of "to manage" or "to surpass." One problem with this theory is the lack of any known use of the supposedly proper form "cut the muster" in print.
It is also possible that "cut the mustard" refers to "cutting" (adulterating) mustard to make it less pungent, but this origin, as you note, seems unlikely because the idea of weakening strong mustard is almost completely opposite to the popular "strong enough" sense of "cut the mustard." And, since mustard plants are not notably difficult to harvest, it's not likely that "cut the mustard" refers to any special degree of agricultural stamina.
Fortunately, there's a glimmer of sense in all this. Years before "cut the mustard" showed up to mystify us, "mustard" was being used as slang for "that which adds zest" or "the best of anything," obviously referring to real mustard. To "cut the mustard" would then logically mean "to match the best in any situation."
Dear Word Detective: Where does this word "schneid" come from? It is used frequently in sports journalism now. When a team is winless and finally gets its first victory, the announcer will declare "The Jets finally got off the schneid today in Denver." -- Philip I. Levy, Department of Economics, Yale University.
I'm not what anyone would call a sports fan, but I have to say that the field of sports has produced some of the most colorful slang and metaphors in the English language. And figures of speech such as "in the catbird seat" (meaning "in a position of unchallenged superiority," from the lofty perch favored by the catbird species) would probably have vanished decades ago were it not for their use in sports commentary. In the case of "catbird seat," we can thank sportscaster Red Barber for popularizing the phrase, with an assist from author James Thurber, who immortalized it in his short story "The Catbird Seat."
"The schneid" is a another good example of such a term, and, coincidentally, means nearly the opposite of "in the catbird seat." To be "on the schneid" means to be on a losing streak, racking up a series of losing, and especially scoreless, games. "Schneid" is actually short for "schneider," a term originally used in the card game of gin, meaning to prevent an opponent from scoring any points. "Schneider" entered the vocabulary of gin from German (probably via Yiddish), where it means "tailor." Apparently the original sense was that if you were "schneidered" in gin you were "cut" (as if by a tailor) from contention in the game. "Schneider" first appeared in the literature of card-playing about 1886, but the shortened form "schneid" used in other sports is probably of fairly recent vintage.
Speaking of slang terms for losing, teams who fail to score even a single point in a game (especially in baseball) are often said to have been "shut out," but "shut out" actually comes from the world of horse racing. A tardy bettor who arrives at the betting window at the last possible moment before a race may well find that the clerk has lowered the window shutter, literally "shutting him out."
Dear Word Detective: After embarking on Treasure Island, my 6th grade English class began to question the origin of the phrases "old salt," "salty dog," and "sea biscuit." Please help me look like an English teacher who knows everything. -- J. Gabriele, via the internet.
By "embarking on Treasure Island," I certainly hope you mean that your class is reading the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, and not that you have marooned your pupils on a remote sandbar somewhere. Being stranded on a small island would, no doubt, prove to be a learning experience for the little tykes, but I'm afraid that our namby-pamby liability laws would make such an adventure legally inadvisable. I'd stick to "Gilligan's Island" reruns if I were you.
Still, there's no law (yet) against doing your best to recreate an authentic shipboard atmosphere right there in your classroom, and with sufficient ingenuity you can have those little tars manning the yardarms and swabbing the deck before the weekend.
All the terms you mention date back, of course, to the days of tall-rigger sailing ships. An "old salt" is simply an older sailor with a lifetime of experience aboard ship, well-versed in the skills of seamanship and often also described as "crusty" (which is usually just a euphemism for "cranky"). "Salt" has been used as a synonym for "experienced sailor" since the mid-1800s by allusion to salt water and the salt spray which covers everything aboard ship.
"Salty dog" means essentially the same thing as "old salt," a veteran and often aging sailor. "Salty dog" is probably based on another term, "sea dog," again meaning a sailor with years of experience. The term "sea-dog," by the way, originally was applied to the seals sailors often encountered.
"Sea biscuits," also known as "hardtack," were small biscuits baked without salt, designed to be stored for months in barrels aboard ship. Two further facts about sea biscuits bear mentioning: they were, as you might imagine, unbelievably hard, and sailors encountered them at nearly every meal. Sea biscuits were probably one of the reasons those "old salts" were often so cranky.
Dear Word Detective: I have long wondered where the term "bogart" originates. I first heard it in the modern classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," and have come across it occasionally since. Please help me out -- Matthew, Little Rock, AK.
Modern classic, eh? Makes me glad the century is almost over. I'm kinda hoping future historians (assuming there are any) decide to ignore the last 30 years or so. Then again, perhaps the future only holds an endless river of hyperschlock like more big-screen remakes of 1970's TV shows (Adam Sandler stars in Quentin Tarantino's "Three's Company"!), and all the dreck we've been wading through lately will take on the patina of a Golden Age of Drama. I'm gonna go lie down now.
OK, back to work. "Bogart" as a verb owes its existence to a genuine (at least in my book) 20th century cultural icon, Humphrey Bogart. There are actually two slightly different senses of "bogart," and they both take their meanings from the brusque, often tough, characters Bogart portrayed in his many films.
The earlier slang sense of "to bogart" means to bully or intimidate, the way Sam Spade (Bogart) treated Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) in "The Maltese Falcon." This sense first showed up around 1951, but only became widespread in the mid-1960s, long after Bogart's last picture, and seems to have been largely confined to African-American slang of the period.
The later, and still current, sense of "to bogart" appeared in the late 1960s and means "to hog," especially to hold onto and not pass a marijuana cigarette that is being shared by several people. This meaning is probably partly an extension of the earlier "bullying" sense and partly in reference to the ever-present cigarette dangling from Bogart's lip in many of his film roles. The first recorded instance of this use of "bogart" was in the 1969 film "Easy Rider," and I vaguely remember a pop song called "Don't Bogart That Joint" that appeared shortly thereafter. I'm not required to remember who recorded that song, incidentally, on the principle that no one who actually participated in the 1960s remembers much of anything.
Dear Word Detective: I have heard the expression, "You're a card" many times. I understand its meaning but wondered how it came about and why. -- Christy, via the internet.
To call someone a "card" is to say that he (or she, although the term is usually applied to men) is a real "character," clever, audacious and funny. When "card" in this sense first appeared in the mid-19th century (the first three known uses are in works by Charles Dickens), the meaning was a bit broader, and could include someone with a notable peculiarity or eccentricity. The local curmudgeon, for instance, might be known as "an old card" or "a strange card."
When I first started looking into this sense of "card," I assumed that any connection to the "playing card" or "birthday card" sense of "card" must be rather remote, or possibly nonexistent. Shows what I know. The root of the word "card" is the Latin "charta," which meant "papyrus leaf," or (since papyrus was the source of early papermaking) "paper." Interestingly, when "card" was introduced in English (1400 A.D. or earlier), it specifically referred to playing cards, and "card" only came to be applied to "cardboard" material in general (and greeting cards by extension) several hundred years later.
Card games being as popular back then as they are today, "card" quickly spawned a slew of figurative phrases based on the role of certain cards in certain card games. "Cooling card," apparently a special card in some long-lost kind of card game, came to mean anything (or anyone) that dampens one's enthusiasm. A "wild card," which could stand in for any other card the player wished, came to be a metaphor, still used today, for any unpredictable factor (or person) in a given situation. A "sure card" came to mean anything that ensures success.
This use of various types of "cards" as metaphors to describe people eventually broadened, and by the time Dickens wrote his novel "Bleak House" in 1853, "card" was being used in its modern sense to mean an unusual or eccentric, often amusing, person.
Now that we've all stocked our Y2K shelters with a fortnight's reserve of Spaghetti-Os, Yoo-Hoo and Ring-Dings, withdrawn the last $15.42 (in my case) left in our checking accounts, and otherwise braced ourselves for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), it seems like a good time to take a look back at what the English language has been up to for the last hundred years or so. It has, after all, been a banner century for English. The number of English-speakers on Earth has nearly tripled, from 140 million to around 400 million, and the number of English words has increased by at least 25 percent over the last hundred years. That's a lot of new words to cover.
Fortunately, the distinguished lexicographer John Ayto has done all the heavy lifting for us, and his new "20th Century Words" (Oxford University Press, $25) is a fascinating and authoritative compilation of 5,000 words and phrases that have entered the English language since 1900.
Just a collection of words that have entered English over the last century would be valuable in itself. But somewhere along the line Mr. Ayto had the brilliant idea of organizing all those words according to the decade of their first appearance, making it possible for the reader to browse terms introduced in the 1940s (name-dropper, mobile home and parking ticket, for instance, along with genocide and molotov cocktail) or, for the masochistic among us, the 1980s (break dancing, road rage and, of course, yuppie). Interestingly, while many of the terms are right where you'd expect to find them (touchy-feely and tree-hugger in the 1970s, for instance), others showed up considerably earlier than you'd have thought (greenhouse effect in 1929 and junk mail in 1954, for example).
Like all good historical dictionaries, "20th Century Words" provides supplies cogent definitions and explanations for each of its entries, along with citations for the term's first appearance in print and subsequent usage. But it is the organization of this book into decade-by-decade glimpses into everyday life that make this a fascinating and valuable history of the 20th century as it was spoken by the people who lived it.
Dear Word Detective: I was born and raised in England all my life, until my recent move to the States, and as far back as I can remember, people would refer to a English pound as a "quid." I have asked many friends and colleagues, but nobody could give me an answer as to where this word originates or its meaning. It is still used very frequently in everyday conversations. Do you have the answer? -- Dave, in Connecticut.
Perhaps. Of course, in cases like this, we experts are reluctant to express an opinion without actually examining the object in question, so if you would simply forward a few of these "pound" things to me (20 or 30 will do as a sample), I'll study them thoroughly and get back to you.
Just kidding (unless you really want to send me a few). The "pound," of course, is the standard unit of currency in the United Kingdom, and used to be known as the "pound sterling" because it was legally exchangeable for one pound of real sterling silver.
Now the word "quid," as I'm sure we all remember from our first-year Latin class, means "what" or "something." Most of us in the U.S. only know the word in the phrase "quid pro quo," meaning "something for something" ("quo" being the ablative case of "quid"), or, to put it in politician-speak, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours."
"Quid" has been used as slang for "pound" since the late 17th century, but no one really knows why. It may be that "quid" was adopted as a bit of clever slang based on its Latin meaning of "what," perhaps as a shortened form of an oblique slang phrase such as "what one needs" (i.e., money). Or it may be that it comes from a misunderstanding (or humorous spin on) the phrase "quid pro quo" (as in "Here's your quo, where's my quid?"). Personally, I lean toward the second theory, but we may never know for sure.
Dear Word Detective: I was grocery shopping with my mother last week, and as we passed the soup section, she asked me to grab her a can of "Welsh rabbit." I thought she was kidding, because the can clearly said "Welsh Rarebit" (and that's how I've always heard it said), but she said that "rabbit" was right and "rarebit" was wrong. Is she right? What has cheddar cheese soup got to do with rabbits? -- Doris Mandel, via the internet.
Remember when you were little and it seemed like your mother was always right? Well, brace yourself: your mother is right again.
The proper name of the dish is "rabbit," as in the hopping critter with big ears. Both the dish and its name date back to the 18th century, and its name reflects the eternal (so far) national rivalry between England and Wales. Some wag, almost certainly English, christened the popular but humble dish of melted cheese over toast "Welsh Rabbit," much in the same nationalistic spirit as frogs were known as "Dutch nightingales" and desertion was known as "taking French leave." The implication, of course, was that the Welsh could not obtain or afford real rabbit and had to make do with this cheesy substitute.
The distinguishing feature of "Welsh Rabbit" is that it is a joke, which brings us to where that "rarebit" business came from. Someone, somewhere, simply didn't get the joke. Some humorless ancient grammarian decided that, since there was clearly no rabbit involved, "rabbit" must be a degenerated form of something, and determined that the missing "proper" name must be "rarebit." Why anyone would think that the stalwart Welsh would tolerate such a prissy name as "rarebit" for anything is another question, but unfortunately the new sanitized name stuck, at least in the minds of menu writers. Such high-handed pedantry is frustrating indeed for anyone who values the wonderful ability of English phrases such as "Welsh Rabbit" to immortalize a joke hundreds of years old, but surely the eminent English grammarian H.W. Fowler said it best in 1926. "Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right," said Fowler, "and Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong."
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the phrase "not one red cent" comes from? Could it possibly refer to our taking land from the Indians for a pittance? -- B. S., New York, NY.
Speaking as one whose Cherokee lineage may be somewhat distant but still proud, I hereby invoke a very old joke and ask what you mean by "our." I also notice that your letter comes from New York City, so if you're working up to asking for a refund on Manhattan, you can forget it right now. A deal's a deal.
The origin of "one red cent" actually has nothing to do with Native Americans and everything to do with cents, or pennies. It seems that pennies used to be made of copper, and it was the redness of the copper that led to the phrase. I say that pennies "used" to be made of copper, but it wasn't until I did a little research that I learned that pennies these days aren't made of pure copper, but rather an alloy of copper, tin and zinc. We can presume that pure copper pennies used to be somewhat redder than our modern hybrids.
Based on the premise that nothing is worth less than a penny, the phrase "not worth one red cent" has been commonly used since the early 18th century to describe something utterly worthless. The "red" in the phrase is an intensifier -- today we might well say "not worth one damn penny" and mean the same thing.
By the way, pennies today are considered so worthless that there is, ironically, a penny shortage. It seems that people have taken to dumping them in dresser drawers or mason jars (my personal habit) in such vast quantities that some banks are now offering more than a dollar for each hundred pennies turned in. Start counting, America.
Dear Word Detective: The Submissions Committee on our Journal (The Stanford Journal of International Law) has had a raging debate about the meaning of the phrase "Fish or Cut Bait." The disagreement is over what "cut bait" means. One camp is positing that "cut bait" refers to the act of cutting off the line to let go of the bait already in the water and calling it quits. The other suggests that "cutting bait" is the preparation process of preparing bait before fishing, and refers to someone who is always preparing and never actually going for it. -- Alexander Thier, via the internet.
Hubba hubba. I seem to be getting questions from loftier precincts these days, which comes as a welcome change after years of settling drunken bar bets for people who send in their queries scribbled on crumpled cocktail napkins. International law, eh? Do I get a sash or a medal or something if I answer your question? One of those cool top hats you guys wear would do.
"Fish or cut bait" is a catch phrase that means "Make a decision. Get on with what you're supposed to be doing or abandon the pretense." The allusion is not, as is commonly thought, to a dawdling angler being urged to cut his or her fishing line (that would be a waste of line, hook and bait). "Cutting bait" refers to preparing the bait (usually "junk" fish) for use as either hooked bait or "chum" dumped into the water to attract other fish. So the phrase really means, "If you're not going to concentrate on fishing, then at least get away from the rail and go over in the corner and cut bait for the rest of us who do want to fish."
"Fish or cut bait" is probably a very old phrase, but it only first appeared in print in The Congressional Record in 1876 in an account of the debate over issuing silver dollars. "I want you gentlemen on the other side of the House," said one Congressman weary of his colleagues' dithering, "to fish or cut bait."
Dear Word Detective: My sister was just asking me if there is a book available that gives the origins of various cliches and colloquialisms. I don't know, but my search brought me to you. Do you know the origin of the term "earmarked" as in "designated"? And do you have a book available with your most interesting words explained? -- Bob Billstein, via the internet.
Funny you should ask. Yes, there are actually many books that explain word origins on the market, ranging from those written in a very light, popular style to heavy-duty etymological dictionaries. There are even dictionaries that explain the origins of terms found in a particular area of interest, such as sports terms or law-enforcement slang. Your best bet is to check the reference section of your nearest large bookstore or library. Folks who have internet access can also log onto www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com and search for books on "word origins" or "etymology" and find literally dozens of books on word origins for sale. Personally, however, I prefer the old-fashioned bookstores and libraries, because you can usually browse a number of books and choose the one that strikes your fancy.
Or you could just wait until next year and buy my book. That's right, folks, come the middle of the Year 2000, you will be able to buy a collection of Word Detective columns in book form, published by Algonquin (a division of Workman Publishing). It will be just the thing to help while away those long, candlelit Y2K nights in our caves.
"Earmark," which we now use to mean "to designate" or "to set aside for a particular purpose" ("Congress has earmarked the new tax revenue to fund programs to convince voters of the need for higher taxes") actually has a very simple origin. For centuries, farmers have marked their livestock as their property by cutting distinctive notches in the animals' ears. "Earmark" in this literal sense first appeared in English around 1591, but the use of "earmark" in the figurative sense "to designate" arose only in the late 19th century.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading an article on SFGate.com (a San Francisco newspaper site) and saw a journalist use the term "scot-free." I know what it means, but I don't know why it means that. -- Robert Shambarger, via the internet.
Well, that's why you have me, isn't it? I'd be willing to bet that many people think that "scot free," meaning "evading a customary cost or penalty" or "unscathed," has something to do with Scotland. After all, the Scottish people have a reputation for sharp dealing and penny-pinching. And although national reputations are almost always specious, frugality is an admirable quality, and I don't think most Scots would have a problem with being known for their ability to avoid unnecessary taxes, for instance.
But "scot-free," as it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with Scotland or the Scottish people. The "scot" in question comes from the Old English word "sceot," meaning a tax or penalty. As long as there have been taxes there have been tax evaders, and anyone who managed to avoid the tax collector got away "scot-free." Gradually the term came to mean one who escapes any rightly deserved payment or punishment.
Speaking of words that sound as if they must have something to do with Scotland but don't, "scotch," meaning "to abruptly deflate or disprove" a rumor or theory, is another. This "scotch" comes from the Old French word "escocher," meaning "to cut." In this case it meant to "cut out" or destroy a rumor. It is, in fact, the same non-Scottish "scotch" as is found in the name of the children's game "hopscotch," referring to the playing lines cut into or drawn on the ground.
And while we're at it, butterscotch candy doesn't come from you-know-where. It's called that because it is made from butter and used to be cut ("scotched") into small pieces.
Dear Word Detective: Any way of finding out where the term "sidekick" comes from? -- Dan Philbrick, via the internet.
Well, I'll give it a shot, as we say in the word origins biz. Of course, it would be easier to come up with answers for you folks if I had a real human "sidekick" to lend a hand. What I do have are two cheerful but slightly dim dogs, who are utterly useless when it's time to write this column. Right now, for instance, Pokie (the little fat one) is chewing on the leg of my desk, while Brownie (the smarter of the two, though you'd never guess it at the moment) is chewing on Pokie's leg. This is not the sort of behavior most writers expect from their research assistants.
Still, somehow I muddle through. A "sidekick," of course, is a close companion or friend, especially one who functions as an assistant. Most of us in the U.S. probably first encountered the term in TV westerns, where every hero had an ever-present sidekick. Even The Lone Ranger didn't seem to like to spend much time actually being "lone," and never went far without his sidekick Tonto.
The origin of "sidekick," however, seems to have been about as far from the Good Guys in White Hats as one could imagine. "Sidekick" first appeared in the slang of the criminal underworld about 1906, and originally meant a close confederate or accomplice in crime.
There is some uncertainty about how "sidekick" came to mean "partner or assistant" in criminal parlance, but the specialized slang of pickpockets may supply some clues. To a pickpocket, a "kick" is a pair of trousers, and, more specifically, the trouser pockets. "Kick" in this "pocket" sense first appeared in the mid-1800s, and to this day "kick" is used as slang for a roll of bills or other stash of cash.
The side pockets of a man's trousers have long been known, logically enough, as the "side-kicks," and it seems plausible that this term eventually came to be applied to a criminal confederate who was as close to the speaker as the pockets in his pants.
Dear Word Detective: I'm in the process of buying a new car, and, as usual, the nice folks at the dealership tried to sell me a package of "protectants" which will do more to protect their profit margin than my car. I told them "no" while thinking to myself, "What a load of snake oil!". Then I realized that I had no idea where the term "snake oil" came from. Could you enlighten me? -- David Singer, via the internet.
Oh, ye of little faith! I always spring for all the little add-ons when I buy something. Last time I bought a car, I even had my local astrologer cast its horoscope. Her report divined with uncanny accuracy that my shiny new chariot was actually a Taurus born in the House of Lemon with fuel pump failure ascendant. Next time I'll have her look before I leap.
"Snake oil" is a slang expression for a phony remedy or cure, and, by extension, anything from junk bonds to telephone tarot card readings that is promoted as a miracle while being, in reality, useless nonsense.
I can't say whether there's really any such thing as genuine "snake oil" made from actual snakes, but the "fraud" sense of "snake oil" owes its origin to one of the great mythic characters of American history, and the spiritual forefather, in fact, of many of our modern politicians. I am speaking, of course, of the "snake oil merchant," the traveling patent-medicine salesman who trod the back roads of rural America lugging a valise of worthless potions and poultices in search of suckers willing to buy his wares. The more ambitious snake-oil salesmen mounted elaborate traveling "medicine shows," extravaganzas purporting to demonstrate miraculous cures of the afflicted. Of course, any "hayseed" gullible enough to believe that snake oil was an effective cure for rheumatism would also be likely to believe that the salesman's bottles contained genuine snake oil, so in a sense the question of whether "real" snake oil ever existed is, as the lawyers say, moot. In any case, "snake oil" has been used since about 1925 to mean any "miracle" that miraculously only lines the seller's pockets.
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine told me that "Yahoo," the name of the web directory, actually means the same thing as "bozo." Is this true? Why would they name their web site after a word that means "idiot"? -- Larry Reedy, via the internet.
Hard to say. At first I suspected that the name "Yahoo" might be a subtle putdown of the site's users (as in "you'd have to be a yahoo to need us") until I realized that no one would be crazy enough to try to beat Microsoft at the customer humiliation game. The story I heard when Yahoo! (the exclamation point is part of their trademark) started up way back in 1994 was that the name stood for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. But the Yahoo! web page now says that the name was chosen because the site's two founders, David Filo and Jerry Yang, "considered themselves yahoos." If that's true, they may be the world's richest yahoos.
But whatever the rationale for the web site's name, your friend is correct about the meaning of the word "yahoo," which since 1726 has meant a moronic, loudmouthed and occasionally violent hooligan. If anyone remembers the film "Easy Rider," the good ol' boys who blew away Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda at the end of the movie were prime examples of "yahoos."
We know exactly how old "yahoo" is because the word was invented by Jonathan Swift in his fantastic tale "Gulliver's Travels" in 1726. Late in the book, Gulliver travels to Houyhnhnmland, where he encounters the Yahoos. Human in form, the Yahoos are savage in behavior, described by Swift as cunning, malicious and treacherous, but also fundamentally cowardly. The rulers of Houyhnhnmland, in contrast, are the Houyhnhnm, a refined, sensitive, and deeply ethical people who just happen to be horses. (The name "Houyhnhnm," incidentally, was Swift's rendition of the sound of a horse's whinny.)
So evocative was Swift's depiction of the Yahoos' depravity that "yahoo" almost immediately entered English as a synonym for an ignorant brute. Over the years, "yahoo" has also often been invoked in the cultural realm, where those who lack an appreciation for the finer points of modern art, for instance, have been accused of being "yahoos."
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