It has come to my attention that "the Holidays" are almost upon us yet again. I know that to everyone else this must be old news, but it had escaped me entirely. Here in New York City, holidays are mostly notable as being among the few days every year when you don't have to move your car from one side of the street to the other. Unfortunately, I often discover that it's a holiday just after I've moved my car anyway, so it's nice to have advance notice this year. If this makes sense to you, you probably should consider moving to New York City.
The holiday approaching most rapidly seems to be Thanksgiving (here in the U.S., anyway), which leads to thoughts of the first Thanksgiving, which leads to wondering where some of the words we associate with Thanksgiving came from in the fist place. (At least that's where it leads for this column -- anyone thinking about football at this point can wait outside in the car.)
The first Thanksgiving, of course, was a bash thrown by the Pilgrims to give thanks for surviving their voyage to the New World, arrival at Plymouth Rock and the months that followed. Aside from all that we think we "know" about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving (funny hats, a fondness for turkey, etc.), however, perhaps the most startling fact is that the Pilgrims did not call themselves "Pilgrims." That term was only applied to them after a few years, and even then didn't really become popular until 200 years later, when Daniel Webster used it in a speech extolling "Our Pilgrim Fathers" on the bicentennial of their arrival.
The word "pilgrim" itself comes originally from the Latin adjective "perager" ("per," through, plus "ager," land or field), meaning a traveller. The first pilgrims were early Christians who made a journey of religious devotion, called "peregrinatio," to the Holy Land or Rome. Such a traveler was known as a "peregrinatus," and as the word itself travelled through French to English it first became "peligrin," then "pilegrim," and finally the modern English "pilgrim."
Tune in next time, when we talk turkey about Thanksgiving dinner.
Last time out, we began to explore words associated with Thanksgiving, and today I have promised to talk turkey about Thanksgiving dinner, which should give even those of you not paying close attention a pretty clear idea of where I'm headed. Last year, by the way, I made the curious decision to become a vegetarian on the day before Thanksgiving, and thus spent the better part of Thanksgiving afternoon gazing forlornly at a baked potato. This year (dare I say "thankfully"?), I have decided to reclassify turkeys as "feathered vegetables." I am nothing if not flexible.
Anyone who has ever attempted to engage an actual turkey in conversation will not quibble with my decision to rate them on an intellectual par with baked potatoes -- thus the popular slang term "turkey," meaning someone hopelessly stupid. The question, and it is one which traditionally occurs to nearly every child midway though Thanksgiving dinner, is why our feathered repast shares a name with a country that doesn't know Thanksgiving from the Fourth of July.
The logical answer would seem to be that turkeys, the birds, come from Turkey, the country, except that they don't. According to the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, the birds we call turkeys were first domesticated by the Aztecs and Mayas in Mexico, and only made it to Europe when some enterprising Spanish Conquistadors shipped a few of the birds to the folks back home. Europeans, at this time, had been dining for centuries on different birds, what they knew as "turkey cocks," so-called because they were sometimes imported from the colonies of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in Africa.
Evidently, the birds sent back from the New World bore a strong resemblance to the well-known African "turkey-cocks," because they soon became known as "turkey-cocks" as well, and eventually as just "turkeys." Once imported to Europe, the New World turkeys were further genetically refined (by spending long afternoons in Parisian bistros brooding over endless cups of espresso, I suppose), and then shipped back to America to become the chow of choice on Thanksgiving. And that, kiddies, is the story of our friend the turkey. Please pass the potatoes
In our last jaunt together, in the spirit of the holidays (which even as I speak are rapidly gaining on us, growing closer and closer as we urge the horses to pull our small sled faster though the dark forest, just as in an old New Yorker magazine cartoon), I addressed the topic of "turkey." Evidently I was so excited by the discovery that turkeys do not, in fact, come from Turkey that I forgot to answer a question I myself had implicitly raised by promising to "talk turkey" about words associated with Thanksgiving. Bear with me, therefore, as a small, very patient, and entirely imaginary child asks the question, "What does 'talk turkey' mean and where does it come from?"
To "talk turkey" has meant, since about 1830, to speak directly, without beating around the bush, about serious and possibly unpleasant matters. Just where the phrase came from is a bit uncertain, but there are two leading theories -- one logical and unexciting and probably true, and the other a charming but implausible anecdote.
The logical theory has the phrase coming from the type of conversation one would expect from a turkey farmer -- simple and direct and assertively plain-spoken. The first form of "to talk turkey" was, by the way, "to talk cold turkey," which later gave us the phrase "cold turkey," meaning "facing unpleasant realities directly."
The less-likely but more entertaining explanation of the phrase recounts the tale of a frontiersman who went hunting with an Indian companion, their agreement being to divide the spoils of the hunt equally. In the course of the day, the two shot several turkeys as well as an equal number of crows, but when the time came to divide the day's take, the white man began to give the Indian nothing but crows, keeping the turkeys for himself. Halfway through this process, the Indian protested, "You talk all turkey for you. You only talk crow for Indian."
This tale, not surprisingly, bears all the hallmarks of being made up long after "talk turkey" became popular in order to explain the origin of the phrase. Still, it makes a good story for the Thanksgiving dinner table (as long as the Indian ends up with an equal number of turkeys, of course).
Dear Evan: I've used "bell-wether" for years; as I understand it, it is used to refer to a very important and significant indicator of something. I've most commonly seen it used in a business setting: "the bell-wether auto industry is in decline" meaning that the Japanese must really be eating the US's lunch if even the might auto industry is suffering. I've also seen it spelled "bell-weather," which on the face of it would make more sense, since "wether" isn't a word anywhere else, as far as I can tell. -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
Actually, after doing a little checking , I must correct your impression that "wether" isn't currently a word and that the spelling "bellweather" makes more sense than "bellwether." "Bellwether" doesn't have anything to do with weather, though the "bellweather" spelling has been around long enough to be classified by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a variant and not merely an error. The hyphen in the word is optional and usually omitted in U.S. usage.
A "wether" (the word is a bit archaic but still in use) is a castrated ram (male sheep). Shepherds would hang a bell around the neck of the senior "wether" of their flock, who would then act as leader, the rest of the flock following obediently behind him. The use of "bellwether" in a metaphorical sense dates back to the 15th century, when it was first used to mean "leader." Interestingly, the OED notes that this usage was "largely contemptuous" -- the sense being that to be a leader of sheep doesn't rate much respect. To call someone a "bellwether" back then was just short of calling him a "loudmouth" or "buffoon," with the clear implication that anyone who followed him was a fool.
Times, of course, change, and today "bellwether" is applied to things (but only rarely to people) that indicate a trend. That we all seem to follow behind the media-anointed bellwether of the moment like obedient sheep, of course, brings the story of "bellwether" full circle and makes the term depressingly appropriate.
Dear Evan: I would like to inquire about a phrase I heard the other day and can't, for the life of me, figure its relationship. The phrase is "Case Quarter." I am told it means a regular quarter, rather than 25 cents in any other form, as in, "May I have a case quarter for these two dimes and a nickel?" Maybe you can explain the relationship here. -- Chris Stamey, via the Internet.
Well, maybe I can, maybe I can't. What's my angle -- what's in it for me? Oops, sorry. I've just spent the better part of an hour plowing through dictionaries of slang and underworld lingo seeking the answer to your question, and I guess some of that seedy ambience rubbed off on my usually cheerfully helpful self. Of course, I wouldn't dream of asking recompense for my efforts. (It did, however, occur to me recently that if everyone who reads this column sent me just one dollar, just once, perhaps I wouldn't have to send my poor old cat out to beg for pennies in the rain every night. Just a thought, mind you.)
"Case quarter" turns out to be a very interesting phrase. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (also known as "DARE"), "case quarter" is commonly heard, along with "case dollar" (usually a silver dollar), "case nickel" and "case dime," almost solely in South Carolina. The general meaning of "case" in this sense seems to be, as DARE puts it, "A coin of a particular denomination, as against the same amount of money comprised of several coins."
According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "case" has been slang for "a dollar" since the mid-19th century. There are a variety of theories as to why, but the folks at Random House state unequivocally that "case" is simply a shortening of "caser," a British slang term for a "crown" (a coin worth five shillings and decorated with a crown, since you asked). "Caser," in turn, comes from the old Yiddish word "keser" ("crown"). It is probable that "case" in "case quarter" simply means "all in one coin," or, as I have taught my cat to say, "No pennies, please."
Dear Evan: Can you answer this question? I had an uncle when I was a young girl say, "You need a Philadelphia lawyer." I have often wondered who or what "Philadelphia lawyers" were. -- L. Coperich, McKees Rocks, PA.
Before I answer your question (which I will, honest), let me take this opportunity to quote my favorite first line of a book, admittedly apropos only in that it mentions Philadelphia. The great American humorist S.J. Perelman began "Westward Ha!," his hilarious account of a trip around the world, with the following:
"The whole sordid business began on a bleak November afternoon a couple of years ago in Philadelphia, a metropolis sometimes known as the City of Brotherly Love but more accurately as the City of Bleak November Afternoons."
How one feels about "Philadelphia lawyers" depends largely on whose side the lawyer is taking. On the up side, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "Philadelphia lawyer" as "A lawyer of great ability, especially one expert in the exploitation of legal technicalities." Naturally, the folks at Oxford go on to give equal time to the less charitable view: "A shrewd or unscrupulous lawyer." One need not live in Philadelphia to encounter a Philadelphia lawyer, of course -- the country as a whole seems to be awash in them these days. In a more general, non-legal sense, a "Philadelphia lawyer" is anyone who simply loves to argue for the sake of arguing, and the more obscure the point of the argument the better.
The original "Philadelphia lawyer," however, was one of the heroes of American history. In 1735, the British colonial authorities charged a New York printer named John Peter Zenger with criminal libel for criticizing British policies in his newspaper. It was a Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, who successfully defended Zenger by convincing the jury that Zenger's articles could not be libellous because they were true. In so doing, Hamilton not only established the right of free speech in American law but also gave the colonies' struggle for freedom an important early victory.
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