Previous Columns/Posted 6/11/97
A Very Special Message from Isabella Rossellini:
A Very Special Message from Isabella Rossellini:
Perhaps it is an odd thing that when you search the New York Daily News web site for the very nice name "Evan Morris" you often find articles about me (or perhaps it is not so very odd, perhaps it is fate, perhaps ... but, of course, que sera, sera, and I digress, forgive me), but because Mr. Morris cannot tear himself free from the dazzling round of gala parties and ceremonies celebrating the debut of his weekly City Slang column in the New York Daily News, he has asked me to inform you that his City Slang column can be read online, for free, by visiting the New York Daily News web site, clicking on the "search" link, and entering the very nice name "Evan Morris." If fate should decree that this process also produces a few articles about me, please ignore them.
Dear Evan: It is mindless to defend "donut." It is better to admit "doughnut," as a nut made of dough. But I suspect the origin is "dough-naught." I proposed my theory to the late Ted Bernstein in his column. He said nay, and defended "nut" as "nut." But a "naught," after all, is round like a donut. And like a "zero." They could have been called "dough-zeroes." April is the crullers month. -- Richard Allin, Little Rock, via the Internet.
Now, hold it right there, bucko. It may be mindless to defend "donut," a spelling that rivals "quik" and "thru" for annoying stupidity, but actual doughnuts could use some defending at the moment. Under attack by the Health Police merely because each tender morsel harbors enough saturated fat to stun a yak, doughnuts may soon fall victim to the same puritanical dietary jihad that robbed us of bacon and Twinkies. Well, they'll get my doughnuts when they pry them from my cold, icing-flecked hands.
The problem with your theory about doughnuts getting their name because they resemble zeroes is two-fold. First, the earliest recorded use of "doughnut," in Washington Irving's account of life in 1809 New York, makes it clear that he is referring to "dough nuts" -- "balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog fat." The Dutch who settled New York called them "olykoeks," a name still in use in Irving's day. Second, these primordial doughnuts had no holes -- and where there is no hole, there is no zero. Today, of course most doughnuts have holes, and doughnuts in their original form (little balls fried in fat) are sold as "doughnut holes." Go figure.
Speaking of the defense of doughnuts, I am doing my part by wearing, at every opportunity, a snazzy baseball cap that I bought at a "Krispy Kreme" doughnut shop that opened here in Manhattan last year. Not only are their doughnuts to die for, but they spell the word "doughnut," not "donut."
Dear Evan: What does "gibbous" mean, as in "gibbous moon"? Does it have anything to do with gibbons, the type of monkey? -- Edith Freedle, via the Internet.
It's so rare these days to get a question from someone of a truly romantic disposition, and what could be more romantic than moonlight and monkeys? Picture this: the moon, hanging "gibbous" in the velvet night sky, music and laughter tinkling in the distance, a soft breeze, the scent of gardenias, and there, your beloved, an arboreal anthropoid ape native to tropical Asia.
But no, thank heavens, there is no connection twixt ape and moon. "Gibbous" simply means "rounded or protruding" and comes from the Latin word meaning "hump." A gibbous moon is more than half full but not quite a full moon. Such a moon appears to have a convex edge, a sort of "hump," as opposed to the crescent shape of a moon less than half full. Although, strictly speaking, "gibbous" could apply to anything with a hump, the word is almost never found outside the phrase "gibbous moon."
The origin of "gibbon," the name of a type of ape found in Southeastern Asia and the East Indies, is somewhat of a mystery. "Gibbon" was most probably taken directly from an aboriginal language and meant, well, gibbon.
There is the chance, however, that "gibbon" meant something else entirely in that language. Adopting native words into English without knowing the language first can be risky. Captain James Cook, the first European explorer of Australia, thought the native people were saying that the funny-looking critter with the pouch was called a "kangaroo." But later linguists, upon learning the Aboriginal languages fully, found no such word as "kangaroo" in any of them. So it's possible that the Aborigines had been trying to say something quite different to Captain Cook, perhaps "Please go home now."
Dear Evan: After ranting to a friend about the conduct of a co-worker, the friend replied, "Don't let her get your goat, or whatever the Army equivalent is." (I'm an Army retiree. He's former Navy.) But it got me to wondering where the "get your goat" phrase originated. -- Steve Harper Fayetteville, NC.
Y'know, it took me a minute to figure out what you meant by that Army/Navy thing, until I remembered that the goat is the Navy football team mascot. I seem to remember that the Army equivalent is a donkey, but I may be wrong. You can tell what a big football fan I am. And I went to Ohio State, too.
It seems odd, since the goat is such a (usually) benign and placid creature, that it would be found in a phrase meaning "to annoy to the point of exasperation." Adding to the oddness is the fact that no one seems to know where the phrase came from.
There is one theory, espoused by H.L. Mencken among others, that ties the phrase to the world of horse racing. It used to be common practice, goes this theory, to stable goats with race horses, trainers believing that the mere presence of the goats would help keep the excitable thoroughbreds calm. If an unscrupulous gambler were to arrange for the removal of a certain goat from a certain horse's stall the day before a race, the horse might be so flustered by the absence of its hircine pal that it would lose the race. The gambler would thus have "gotten the horse's goat."
Unfortunately, the first occurrence of the phrase in print, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was in 1908. Since goats are no longer (if they ever were) housed with race horses, the practice must have arisen near the beginning of the 20th century -- and been abandoned shortly thereafter -- for that theory to be true.
A more likely origin of the phrase lies in an earlier (1904) citation in the Random House dictionary, for "goat" as prison slang for "anger." I think this may be the key. After all, goats do, with much provocation, get angry. To bring out the "goat" in someone may take some doing, but will eventually have dramatic results.
Dear Evan: My father is curious about where the term "his nibs" came from. He has often said "his nibs" when referring to a friend or one of my brothers. I told him about your column and promised to write. I hope you can help. -- Sandra Sheldon, Pittsburgh, PA.
Tell your father that he's lucky I have a persistent streak. The Oxford English Dictionary, usually the definitive word on origins, defines "his nibs" as "an employer, a superior; a self-important person." But as to the genesis of the phrase, the OED closed the door politely but firmly with the comment "origin obscure." Undeterred, I decided to forge on in my quest -- after all, some of my best friends have obscure origins.
Another hour or two among my trusty and dusty reference books produced not just the origin of "his nibs," but interesting connections to several other words as well. "His nibs" was a common slang phrase among English college students in the 19th century, usually a sarcastic reference to someone aloof or stuck-up. Along with an earlier form "nabs," "nibs" was based on "nob," an alternate spelling of "knob" and an 18th century slang term for "head." The "head" in question was both literally the human head and "head man," or an important person.
"Nab" was also a slang term for "hat," and the verb "to nab" may be related to the same root, in the sense of "capturing the head" of someone. Some of the uncertainty about "nibs" and its relatives is due to their being filtered through 17th century thieves' cant, where meanings were often deliberately obscured to confuse the police.
Dear Evan: Can you tell me about a "nose of wax"? The phrase has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court in six opinions. The first, in 1886, by Justice Bradley in the Court's review of a dispute over a patent involving a method for canning shrimp:"Some persons seem to suppose that a claim in a patent is like a nose of wax, which may be turned and twisted in any direction . . . so as to make it include something more than, or something different from, what its words express." The phrase was next used in 1926 by Justice Taft in the Court's review of an international taxation issue. "One of the strongest reasons for not making this law a nose of wax, to be changed from that which the plain language imports . . . ." The phrase "nose of wax" has been quoted by the Supreme Court as recently as 1981. Was a nose of wax something that people actually wore (a party nose, a disguise, a stage prop?), or was this phrase invented by Justice Bradley in 1886? -- Jane Quale, via the Internet.
I must admit that "nose of wax" is a new one on me. I had never heard of it prior to your letter, which is odd, since I make it a point to never go anywhere without two or three Supreme Court opinions in my pocket. They make handy reading on the subway, and are quite remarkably absorbent as well.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "nose of wax" antedates Justice Bradley by about 350 years. Meaning "a thing easily turned or moulded in any way desired; a person easily influenced, one of a weak character," it first appeared in print in 1532, and was commonly used until about 1700 to describe attempts to "reinterpret" Biblical passages to suit one's convenience. Whether the phrase originally referred to, as you say, a party nose, a disguise or a stage prop is unknown, but one of those sources certainly seems likely. The phrase is very rarely heard today outside of Supreme Court opinions, which makes me wonder what other long-lost musty metaphors we might find in the Justices' prose.
Dear Evan: It has been common lately to hear suggestions for "tweaking" the economy to make it more productive. I gather that what is meant are minor adjustments, rather than a major overhaul, but where did this use of "tweak" come from? When I was growing up, to "tweak" someone meant to pinch them, something the economy does quite well already. -- B.D., via the Internet.
I must have been growing up at about the same time, because when I think of "tweak," I think of what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "to seize and pull sharply with a twisting movement." If that seems a bit abstract, the folks at Oxford add the helpful hint "especially to pull a person by the nose." As I recall, the leading practitioners of "tweaking" in my youth were the Three Stooges, and since my elementary school was infested with their imitators, I remember "tweaking" rather vividly. But the Stooges didn't invent "tweaking" by a long shot -- the word has been around since the early 1600s and it appears in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." "Tweak" itself probably comes from the old German word "zwicken," meaning "to pinch," which also gave us "twitch."
The use of "tweak" to mean "to fine tune or fiddle with a mechanism" probably comes from the delicacy of the adjustment -- more a twist or a pinch than major surgery. "Tweak" in this sense seems to have first appeared in print only in the 1960s. As an avid shortwave radio listener in that decade, I remember "tweaking" circuits to pull in West African stations while my friends "tweaked" their cars for better performance. Of course, once a tweaker, always a tweaker. Today, having become dependent on a word processor for much of my daily work, I have to resist the temptation to spend hours "tweaking" my computer instead of writing this column.
Dear Evan: I was talking with an associate the other day discussing newer slang words that kids use nowadays. There seems to remain a constant though that all words are measured by and that word is "cool/kool". Where did this word come from? Using my limited resources I tracked it down to at the very latest the early 1940's when in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, Jerry says to Tom, "Kool, man." When did the word come to mean hip? -- David Carpenter, via the Internet.
Ah, kids today and their wacky slang, eh? Actually, I've detected an interesting phenomenon in the world of slang lately. It used to be that since each generation developed its own distinct slang vocabulary, there was no more certain way of dating yourself as a hopeless relic than using an outdated slang term in the presence of youth. Given the current cultural devotion to irony, however, this seems no longer to be the case. I recently heard myself referring to some unfortunate development as a "bummer," a lapse that ought to have drawn gasps of contempt from the twenty-somethings present. But no, they assumed my "bummer" was meant to be ironic, and therefore, was very cool. I found this reaction rather depressing. I'd rather be thought fusty than ironic.
Some slang words, however, never seem to fade, and "cool" is still widely used in a healthy, un-ironic sense. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "cool" meaning "urbane" or "sophisticated" dates back to about 1918, though use of the term to mean "impudent" or "daring" is found in the mid-19th century, and the sense of "discreet" ("stay cool") showed up in the 1880's. The use of "cool" to mean "hip" seems to have arisen just after World War II, probably popularized by jazz musicians. Attempting to trace the subtle variations in usage of "cool" is probably hopeless, but my sense is that jazz musicians' use of "cool" to mean "excellent" came first, followed by college students' (and beatniks') use of the term to mean "sophisticated." Personally, I picked up "cool" from Maynard G. Krebs (pre-Gilligan Bob Denver) on the old Dobie Gillis TV show, and I'm still grateful for one slang term that I don't have to remember to try to forget.
Dear Word Detective: I am not a sports fan, but sometimes I wish that I were so that I could understand some of the terms I hear on TV. The one that's driving me nuts at the moment is "hat trick." I understand that it means some sort of extraordinary accomplishment in hockey. Here's hoping that you can help. -- Don Jacobs, Chicago, IL.
Well, you've certainly come to the right place. I know absolutely nothing about sports. Mortifying in certain social contexts, isn't it? My brothers-in-law all think I'm either a communist or a Martian, possibly both, because I can't express a coherent opinion on the Superbowl (whatever that is). I sometimes affect an English accent when I get into a taxi in New York City, just so I won't have to come up with an answer to the inevitable "How about those Mets?"
Ironically, if I were English, even I would probably know what a "hat trick" is and where it comes from right off the bat. I do, however, have my sources, so I can tell you that it comes from the game of cricket, which is an English game resembling a sort of cross between baseball and croquet. Or something. In any case, "hat trick" dates back to the late 1800's, and is, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it: "The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: originally considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent."
Don't worry too much about what in the world a "wicket" might be -- the point is that three goals are scored by the same player in succession, an accomplishment which originally earned the player a dandy new hat and today would doubtless land a multi-million-dollar contract.
By 1909, "hat trick" was being applied to similar achievements in other sports, and today it's not uncommon to hear the phrase in a non-sport context -- a lawyer who wins three successive cases, for instance, or a director with three hit movies. My personal "hat trick" consists of writing three of these columns every week, which I have just done. Now where's my hat?
Dear Word Detective: There is one word (among many) with which I have difficulty that I would ask your help today. But perhaps it's other's use of this word that confuses me. The word in question is "moot." One of my dictionaries tells me it's an adjective meaning "open to argument, uncertain, a moot point." Going right on to a second definition, that dictionary tells me that it's also a legal term meaning "no longer a matter of practical importance requiring a decision, a moot issue." So, I guess if one is a lawyer, if something isn't important it's moot -- no matter if one wants to argue or not, while if one isn't a lawyer one should use moot to show something (no matter how unimportant) may be open to argument. Perhaps with your ability to dredge up past and common usage of words you can unconfuse my confusion about moot. -- Howard O. Barikmo, via the Internet.
Perhaps I can, although just reading your question gave me a rather remarkable headache. It's not your fault, of course -- "moot" is an inherently confusing word. The confusion seems to stem from the "legal" sense of the word gradually superseding the original meaning of "moot."
Let's begin at the beginning. "Moot" comes from the Old English word "mot," meaning "meeting," also found in "witenagemot" ("meeting of wise men"), the name of the Anglo-Saxon parliament. Since meetings of any kind are no fun without a good argument, "moot" as an adjective came to mean "open to debate" or "undecided" by the 16th century. This is the original sense of the word, and was applied to actions at law as well -- a case in court was known as a "moot."
What happened then was that law students began to practice their skills by re-arguing real cases in practice courts -- what are today still called "moot courts" in law schools. Since the cases the students argued were, for the most part, already decided in the real world, such sessions and the results therein were "moot" -- for the sake of argument only, having no real significance. This "no real significance" sense of moot has gradually overtaken the original sense, and today "moot" is generally used as a synonym for "settled" or "irrelevant."
Dear Word Detective: Where does the term "pothole" come from? We have just been blessed with many because of a large spring storm in Colorado Springs. Please assist me in explaining this term to my 7 year old. He thinks the term refers to the size and shape of the defect -- "Mom, you can fit a pot inside the hole, see, a pothole!" -- Julie, via the Internet.
Well, I don't know how to break this to you, but the kid is right. How you handle this situation is your problem, but I would suggest that you bite the bullet and tell him so straight out. You may be tempted to dream up a somewhat fancier explanation on your own, perhaps involving an eponymous lawyer named "Pott" who made his fortune suing various municipalities for damage to his carriage, but please don't. Children misled in this fashion invariably write to me years later complaining of parental malfeasance, and it is difficult not to agree with their complaints. Tell him the truth. Just don't let him think word origins are always this straightforward.
So, yes, potholes are called that because they resemble pots. The first use of the term in the early 19th century applied to holes worn in rock by natural forces such as the motion of streams and glaciers, and "pothole" was applied to those axle-breaking pits in roads only later, in the early 20th century.
Speaking of suing municipalities over damages caused by potholes, I have always had a grudging admiration for the devious approach taken by the City of New York to this possibility. New York's streets and highways are, of course, essentially one enormous pothole, and a drive of just a few blocks in midtown Manhattan can loosen even the most secure dental fillings. But the city government has decreed that it can only be sued for damages caused by potholes previously reported to its, I kid you not, special "Pothole Bureau." Now, since potholes are by nature a transient phenomenon, and since Manhattan residents willing to take the time to report new potholes prior to being actually maimed by one are rare, the chances that the pothole you hit has been "officially registered" are vanishingly small. Clever, eh? That's why they call it Fun City.
Dear Word Detective: I've been searching for the origins of using "quack" to describe a doctor or person to no avail. Can you help me? -- Carrie, via the Internet.
A doctor or person, eh? That's an interesting distinction to draw. I think you may be hearing shortly from the American Medical Association for that one. Of course, when they finish with you, you'll still have quite a few irate waterfowl to answer to. I'm told that there's nothing that gets a duck's dander up faster than being used as a metaphor for a medical charlatan.
To begin at the beginning, "quack" has been used to mean the sound a duck makes since the 16th century. "Quack" is what linguists call an "echoic" or "imitative" word -- it arose simply because folks thought it was a good approximation of the actual sound it describes.
At about the same time that people decided that ducks "quack," they also began to use "quack" to describe the sound made by itinerant patent medicine salesmen made as they hawked their wares. These charlatans, who boasted endlessly about the miraculous properties of the ointments and potions they sold, were known as "quacksalvers" -- they "quacked" about their "salves." The term "quacksalver" was quickly shortened in common usage, giving us "quack."
Of course, back there in the 16th and 17th centuries, medical science was in its infancy, and the field was awash in fakers and charlatans of all stripes. The term "quack" was fairly quickly expanded from salve-peddlers to include fraudulent "doctors" who advertised their ability to cure a wide variety of ailments but excelled only in relieving their patients of their wallets.
This use of "quack" to describe an unscrupulous or unqualified physician has been in constant use ever since, for more than 300 years, probably because there is no lack of quacks even today. National news magazines devote cover stories to dubious "alternative therapies" and New Age flapdoodle, and even PBS wastes hours of programming on bogus "natural healing" gurus. I'm afraid that a truly accurate map of the modern medical world would still mark large regions with the warning "Here Be Quacks."
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
Take me to the Index of back columns.
All contents Copyright © 1997 by Evan Morris.