Posted 4/10/97


You have probably noticed that this batch of columns, and the last as well, have appeared here a bit later than those of you who wish such things would probably have wished. First, let me offer a hearty mea culpa. Second, let me hasten to add (being a typical American boy) that it's not my fault. In mid-March I welcomed early signs of Spring by letting my guard down and acquiring a breathtaking specimen of the Flu from Hell. Hardly had my sneezing subsided, several weeks later, than I was called upon to travel to Columbus, Ohio on an vague errand of mercy I myself have yet to fully comprehend (something to do with people claiming to be related to me in some obscure and, if you ask me, implausible fashion). During my sojourn in the Land of Incredibly Bleak Strip Malls (my apologies to all you Central Ohio residents out there, but you really ought to get out as fast as you can, you know), one thought haunted my fevered dreams and dogged my weary steps from the Revco on Morse Road to the Bob Evans on Route 161 -- I have to get home to update my web page, I moaned to all who would listen, People are counting on me to lend substance to the Incredibly Bleak Strip Mall known as the Web.

Unfortunately, the only people listening were my purported relatives, who (and I find this really rather interesting) have been trained by a lethal combination of Fox News and Steve Case to instantly associate internet with divorce. My relatives seem to think I run some sort of transvestite chat room.

Anyway, here I am again, tanned (a lie), rested (hahaha) and ready, sortof. By which I mean that these columns are not illustrated because I don't have the time this time around, but the next batch will be, since I am keenly aware of the importance of funny pictures to the public appreciation of my writing.

Lastly (I promise), a word about you, my loyal readers. I returned from the aforementioned nine-day trip to find 276 e-mail messages in my mailbox, about 75% of which were reader questions. This is wonderful. I feel just like Sally Field at the Oscars. I am even wearing a sequined gown as I write this. But this deluge of what the New Media moguls persist in calling interactivity also causes me considerable anxiety, because I cannot possibly answer all your questions. If you write to me, you will receive an automatic response indicating that your question or comment has been received and will be read. And it will be. That's the best I can promise until I win Lotto and can hire the steno pool I so desperately deserve. So please don't send me urgent pleas to settle bets with your boss -- if you really need a quick answer, post your question to the alt.usage.english usenet newsgroup, where someone will almost certainly know the answer. You will want to read the AUE FAQ first, of course, a link to which can be found on our main page.

One suggestion, if I may, for those of you who do send me questions and would like to actually see them answered. Your question is most likely to be answered in this space if (a) I haven't answered it before (check the index, gang), and (b) it consists of more than one word. You'd be amazed at how many people send me e-mail, the entire text of which consists of "Blunderbuss?" or the like. No "Hi, Evan, how's your cat?", no "My mother told me that [insert funny story here]", no nothing. C'mon, folks, be creative. Tell me where you heard the word or phrase, where you think it might have come from, whatever. If you look at the questions I've answered so far, you'll see what I mean.

And if you have sent me more than one question and are getting sick of receiving my autoresponse every time you write, e-mail your questions to me at

And now, away we go....

Yankee Yahoo Confesses, Biscuit at 11.

Dear Evan: While looking at a photograph of Neil Hamilton brandishing a ginger biscuit (and assuring the crowd that he would declare it on the MP's registry of member's interests), I started to wonder where the phrase "taking the biscuit" derives from and whether the MP's subsequent conduct has indeed taken the biscuit. -- Per Porter, via the Internet.

All in all, I think that if someone pressed me with the question, "So, Evan, what's your favorite thing about receiving questions via the Internet from people all over the world," I'd have to say, "The opportunity it gives me to reveal myself, at regular intervals, as a provincial boob." That's right, boys and girls, I haven't the vaguest idea who Neil Hamilton is, although I presume, based on the context furnished by your question, that Mr. Hamilton is a Member of Parliament. Aside from that, I know that Fergie has been hanging out in the company of (and presumably bending the occasional spoon with) Uri Geller, but that's really about as far as my knowledge of British current affairs goes. Mea culpa.

I do, however, know that when you folks say "biscuit," you mean what we in the U.S. call a "cookie." (What we call a "biscuit" is a leaden concoction of flour, milk and butter invented by a bored and lonely cardiologist.) Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, I can also tell you that to "take the biscuit" is equivalent to "taking the cake," meaning to take first prize or be judged the winner.

The origin of these sayings almost certainly lies in childhood contests where the winner's prize is a cake or biscuit, but modern use of the terms is almost exclusively ironic -- someone "takes the cake" when their conduct is shocking, surprising, or sets a new low in ethics. Since I don't know what Mr. Hamilton has done lately (or ever, for that matter), I can't swear that he's "taken the biscuit," but, given his occupation, I'd say it's a safe bet that he will soon.


Fazers on stun.

Dear Evan: In a magazine article I was reading recently, the author announced that he was not "phased" by something bad that had happened to him. I was taken aback by this spelling of the word, which I have used all my life and have always seen spelled "fazed." Is "phased" a more correct spelling, and perhaps the key to the origin of the word? -- Edith Freedle, via the Internet.

"Phased" certainly looks more formal, but no, the proper spelling is indeed, as you remember, "fazed," meaning "disconcerted or alarmed." Perhaps the author thought that he was being meticulous when he spelled the word that way, or perhaps (and this is the scarier scenario) he had never seen the word spelled out before. Personally, I blame television.

Just to be certain about all this, I went looking for "faze," and a funny thing happened. I looked in every dictionary of slang and unconventional English I have, and "faze" was nowhere to be found. Surely, I thought, this is a fairly established slang word, probably from the 1930's or 40's, so why isn't it there? I even looked up "phased" in desperation, but no dice. I took several deep breaths (not easy in Manhattan) and plunged into the pages of my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. Eureka! "Faze" isn't in dictionaries of slang because it isn't slang, and it is far from new -- it first appeared in its current form in 1890. An earlier form, "feeze," dates back to the 9th century, and comes from the Old English word "fesian," which meant "to drive away." The first citation for the "faze" spelling comes from The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio in 1890, and is worth noting: "This blow, altho a fearful one, did not faze me" -- words to live by.

Caught in the rigging.

Dear Word Detective: I'm curious about the word "jerryrig," as in to make do with materials on hand. I recently saw it spelled "juryrig," but the context seemed to be the same. Is the correct spelling "jerry" or "jury" and what is the origin of the word? What, if anything, does it have to do with a rigged jury? -- Jill Fitzpatrick, via the Internet.

Not much, if anything. Then again, some of the juries running around out there these days could probably do with a little jury-rigging, perhaps a little money under the table for paying attention to the simple facts of the case. Between turning certain people loose in the face of mountains of evidence and fining other folks millions of dollars for lying on their job applications, juries are rather rapidly reaching a level of credibility formerly attained only by UFOlogists and mail-order psychics.

In any case, the "jury-rig" (it is usually hyphenated) you're asking about has nothing whatever to do with juries in the judicial sense. "Jury" was originally a naval term for any makeshift contrivance substituting for the real thing in an emergency, most commonly found in the term "jury-mast," a temporary mast constructed in place of one that had been broken. There's some debate about where the word "jury" in this sense came from, with the leading (but unverified) theory being that it was short for "injury."

To say that something is "jerryrigged" is to mix idioms a bit, because the proper term is "jerrybuilt." A "jerrybuilder," a term dating to 19th-century England, was originally a house builder who constructed flimsy homes from inferior materials. The "jerry" in the term may have been a real person known for the practice, or may be a mangled form of "jury," as in "jury-rigged." I tend to think that "jerrybuilt" arose separately from "jury-rig" simply because their senses are slightly different. Something that is "jury-rigged" is concocted on the spur of the moment to meet an emergency, but something "jerrybuilt" is deliberately constructed of inferior materials to turn a quick buck.

Keep your shirt on.

Dear Evan: An associate of mine (he's a lawyer, and so am I, so that's probably our first problem) keeps using the phrase "waving a bloody shirt" when referring to another attorney's practice of attempting to settle a case by flaunting certain pieces of evidence. My colleague is U of C educated, and I tease him relentlessly about his mastery of the trivial, and his inability to explain the origin of this particular phrase ... he usually has an answer for everything. My own meager Ivy education was unable to support our quest for this particular piece of knowledge, and a search of other resources has so for proved fruitless. Can you help? -- John F. Thomas, via the Internet.

I remember reading a news story a few years back that said that the occupation with the lowest self-esteem was dentistry. Dentists, the article declared, may seem supremely confident while they peer and poke in our reluctant mouths, but that alabaster tunic actually conceals a soul wracked by self-doubt and inner turmoil, a fragile spirit in search of human warmth and love. Now comes the first line of your letter, and I am wondering whether the article might not have had it wrong -- perhaps lawyers are the premier lost souls in need of our approval. It makes me a little (not much, but a little) ashamed of my vast (and excellent) collection of lawyer jokes.

Perhaps it will help to tell you that the use of "bloody shirt" as a metaphor for dramatic overkill has quite a long history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "bloody shirt" meaning specifically "a blood-stained shirt exhibited as a symbol of murder or outrage" dates back to 1586, and the use of the term metaphorically to mean a highly emotional argument or flagrant evidence of guilt is first cited in 1886 in The New York Weekly Times ("It is reprehensible .. for the Bourbons of the South to continue to play on the colour line ... the Southern bloody shirt."). There is no citation specifically for "waving a bloody shirt," but your interpretation of the phrase as meaning "attempting to settle a case by flaunting certain pieces of evidence" seems a logical outgrowth of the original sense. Incidentally, one wonders, does one not, whether in the near future this phrase might be modified from "shirt" to "glove."

Tender are the hooks.

Dear Evan: Living in the US, I keep in touch with my native Canada by a number of methods, one of which is my broker. In any event, she sent me an email the other day expressing the view that the current Canadian economic expansion is leaving the overall economy on "tender hooks," which I took to mean that present good times are less than robust, somewhat fragile. But the expression "tender hooks" seems wrong. What's the scoop? -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.

Ah, Canada. (Or should that be "O, Canada"?) Like many U.S. citizens, I have quite a few impressions of Our Northern Neighbor that probably bear only a remote relation to the truth. Let's play "free association" with Canada for a moment and see who wins. Canada. Beavers. Mountains. Plaid. Moose. Plaid moose. Hmmm. Maple syrup. Waffles. Kitchen. Whoops, well, that's what I get for writing this column first thing in the morning. In any case, I'll bet I know something about Canada that you don't -- your National Grammatical Critter of the Day is the Mondegreen, and your broker has just proven it.

What she meant to say, although she didn't know it, was that the Canadian economy was "on tenterhooks," not "tender hooks," which is indeed a "mondegreen" (a mis-heard word or phrase). Mondegreens, to which I devoted several columns recently, are often the result of hearing, rather than reading, an unfamiliar phrase.

So what, I hear you ask, are "tenterhooks," anyway? Well, a "tenter" is, or was, a wooden frame on which freshly-woven cloth was stretched as it dried ("tenter" comes from the Latin "tendere" -- "to stretch"). "Tenterhooks" were the hooks on the tenter which held the cloth in place, and, back when everyone knew what tenters were, "to be on tenterhooks" must have seemed like an excellent metaphor for "being in a painful state of suspense." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first used in this sense in the mid-18th century by Tobias Smollet ("I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty"). Although tenters are long gone, tenterhooks are with us still.


Soon, inevitably, to be a verb.

Dear Evan: I was surprised recently when I was reading "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, to come across a reference to the "upshot" of events. I always thought "upshot" was a fairly recent slang word. Where did it come from and how long has it been around? -- K. Wollard, Brooklyn, NY

"Upshot" has been around quite a long time -- more than four centuries, in fact. The first recorded usage of "upshot" is in 1531, and its original meaning conjures up vivid images of 16th century England. An "upshot" was the last shot in an archery competition, often the deciding shot. "Upshot" quickly came into use as a metaphor meaning the end or conclusion of a process, and in the sense of "final result" has been common since the early 19th century. Today "upshot" carries the connotation of "the bottom line," an honest appraisal of results without illusions. Although "upshot" is not, strictly speaking, slang, its very brevity and bluntness tend to rule it out for formal usage. One rarely hears politicians announcing the "upshot" of negotiations, for instance, though we'd all welcome the sort of candor "upshot" implies.

This seems a good place to put in a plug for the book where you found "upshot." "The Moonstone" was the first full-length detective novel in English literature and Wilkie Collins established many of the conventions of the genre in his story of a fabulous gem gone mysteriously missing. For lovers of English manor houses on fog-shrouded moors, gemstones with ancient curses, eccentric servants, willowy young English maidens given to fainting spells and afflicted with unscrupulous suitors, not to mention a band of wandering Gypsies, "The Moonstone" is a ripping good read. And, as in all good mysteries, the "upshot" of the story comes as a surprise to everyone.

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