Out of the woods/woodwork

The pitter-patter of tiny minds.

Dear Word Detective: Whilst watching CNN the other day, I listened as the on screen television personality (“anchor man” just doesn’t seem right anymore) used the phrase “we’re not out of the woodwork yet.” I laughed, then I cried (for the children). Of course, this immaculately groomed personage meant to say “not out of the woods yet.” It did get me thinking: Where does the phrase “we’re not out of the woods yet” come from? Similarly, how old is “coming out of the woodwork”? I’m betting bugs had a role to play in that one. — Chris, Kansas City.

I suppose “on screen television personality” works, although I prefer the simpler “chucklehead” in most cases. I must, however, admit to a fondness for CNN’s Don Lemon, who shows dangerous signs of intelligence, including the apparently rare ability to actually think about what he’s saying. But he’s obviously an endangered species, since the networks clearly prefer the sort of droid who can pronounce, with a straight face, lines such as “How long it will take, only time will tell.” I still miss Lynne Russell from the “old” CNN Headline News, who could speak volumes with a single arch of her eyebrow. She’s apparently now a radio host in Toronto, which strikes me as a real waste. Her being on the radio, I mean, not being in Toronto. Toronto is nice. Please don’t yell at me, Toronto.

Given how much of Europe and North America was originally covered in deep forest, it’s not surprising that English has scads of figures of speech involving wood. The word “wood” itself is, of course, very old, derived from Germanic roots meaning both trees collectively and the stuff trees are made of. We also have a range of words for trees growing together, from a “stand” of a few trees, to a larger “grove” or “copse,” to the sort of limitless “forest” so rare today. A “wood” (in the US, we usually say “woods”) falls between a “copse” and a “forest” in size. “Wood” or “woods” also seems the default word in such uses as “babe in the woods,” meaning an extremely na├»ve and vulnerable person (from fairy tales about children abandoned in forests) to less common phrases such as “in a wood,” meaning “in difficulty” or “perplexed.”

For much of human history, traveling through (or worse, being lost in) a dense wood was very perilous, posing dangers ranging from death from exposure to death by becoming lunch for bears or wolves. Thus “not out of the woods yet,” a phrase which first appeared in the late 18th century, carries the sense of still being in danger although progress towards safety (or some goal) is being made, much as a group of lost travelers in a forest who have found the path home may be encouraged and optimistic, but should not be complacent. There’s always the chance that a smart wolf will be waiting along that path home.

While “woodwork” has been used since the 17th century to mean simply “an article made of wood,” it’s most commonly used today to mean the interior wooden fittings (baseboards, molding, trim, cabinets, etc.) of a house or apartment. Of course, what we call “woodwork” a variety of unwelcome guests (mice, insects, etc.) call “home,” so “to come out of the woodwork” is a popular phrase meaning “to emerge from obscurity” or “to come out of hiding,” much as mice or cockroaches creep out when the lights are turned off. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “crawl out of the woodwork” first appeared in print in the mid-1960s (“These nutboys start crawling out of the woodwork,” 1964), but it’s hard to imagine the metaphor of something unpleasant crawling from behind baseboards not being used long before then. In any case, although nothing welcome ever crawls out of the woodwork in real life, the phrase is also sometimes used in a sardonic sense to mean simply “making a sudden splash after a period of obscurity” (“They are the new Australian playwrights and they are coming out of the woodwork everywhere,” 1973).

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