Previous Columns/Posted 7/01/97
Blackguards, blackguards, everywhere.
Dear Evan: I need your help. One of my friends just asked me what the word "blackguard" meant, and I wrote him back saying, "a complete and total scoundrel." I wanted to send back some etymological info as well. The online Oxford English Dictionary wasn't much help, giving me a story about how it might have come from (a) a group of black garbed soldiers who worked for an unnamed noble, who might have done naughty things, or (b) the habit of villains in plays to be costumed in black. While this might be the best information there is, I find it unsatisfying and would like to know if you know any more on the subject. -- Ben Swinburn, via the Internet.
Blackguards, blackguards, everywhere, and yet no one calls them that anymore, which is a shame. It's a great word, and if I ever heard a politician refer to his or her opponent as a "blackguard" in public, I'd be sorely tempted to offer him or her my vote. Fat chance, I suppose. Such language would probably violate some wussy "campaign ethics" law.
While I'm flattered that you would think to ask my assistance after you've already checked the Oxford English Dictionary, I'm afraid that I have little to add to what you've already found. "Blackguard" is, as the Oxford folks put it, "a term of the utmost opprobrium" dating back to the 15th century. As you say, the Oxford Dictionary doesn't give a precise answer to the origin of "blackguard," but it does offer a fairly wide range of possible derivations. Of the possible origins mentioned, I tend to believe that it may originally have referred to an elite unit of soldiers or palace guards dressed in black, or, alternatively, to someone whose character was completely and utterly "black" in the sense of corruption or evil.
About all I can add to our appreciation of this fine word is a note on its proper pronunciation -- "blaggard," as opposed to a literal "black guard." Ideally, the word should be spat out with an emphatic sneer of contempt. Fortunately, we've still got a few years before the next Presidential election, so there's plenty of time for us all to practice.
Dear Word Detective: I heard via a trivia question that the word "dude" was coined by whats-his-name, the English author known for his gay sensibilities, whose name escapes me. The word was said to be a combination of the words duds and attitude. Can you tell me the originator's name? -- Sue Merritt, via the Internet.
I can't imagine to whom you're referring, unless you mean Oscar Wilde, who was Irish, not English. In any case, there's no evidence that Wilde had anything to do with "dude," aside from being one himself. In fact, there's no evidence that any one person invented "dude" -- the word just happened.
And it's been happenin' ever since. For a lightweight word denoting attention to fashion and a devotion to "cool," "dude" has proven remarkably durable. It first showed up in the late 19th century, most probably as a variation on "dud," a Victorian slang term meaning "article of clothing" (still heard today as "duds"). The original dudes were fops and dandies, well-to-do young men who were known for their fancy style of dressing as well as their often dissolute "lifestyles."
A few years later, "dude" made its debut in the Western United States as a disparaging term for any city-dwelling visitor (also known as a "city slicker") to cowboy country. The taming of the West brought a flood of tourists from the East, and "dude ranches" quickly sprang up to give the visitors a taste of "cowpoke life."
In the 1930's, "dude" mutated a bit and came to be used as a general synonym for "guy" or "fellow," without its former connotations of dandyism, and seemed to be slowly fading away. The early 1960's surfer culture of Southern California, however, gave "dude" a shot in the arm, transforming the word into one of its basic units of linguistic exchange. There were no "guys" or "fellows" hanging ten -- only "dudes."
After cruising through the 1960's and 70's as a low-level slang term, "dude" hit the big time again in the 1980's courtesy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and is still going strong today.
Dear Evan: I noticed an interesting mondegreen in a paper my girlfriend was preparing for a college class. She used a term she thought she had heard all her life -- "ease drop." I informed her that it should be "eavesdrop" and had to show the word to her in a dictionary. She insisted that she and all her friends from elementary school through college had been saying and writing it her way. Once convinced of the proper word, she inquired about its derivation but I could only manufacture a story to entertain her. What is the true source of "eavesdrop"? -- A new reader, via the Internet.
"I could only manufacture a story to entertain her"? Famous last words if I ever heard them. You've probably gone and told her some silly story about a detective named Eaves who fell off a roof while snooping, am I right? She'll probably be writing to me herself any moment now to verify your pathetic invention. What, exactly, do you plan to do when she discovers that you've concocted an impromptu fairy tale to stifle her natural curiosity? Take my advice and fess up right now -- there's still a chance to avoid total disaster.
Oh well, none of my business, I suppose. Since you mentioned "mondegreens," I should explain to our other readers that mondegreens are misheard phrases or song lyrics, usually along the lines of "Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear" ("Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" being the actual hymn title).
"Eaves" are the edges of a roof that project past the exterior walls of a building, usually designed to carry rain water away from the foundations. The "eavesdrip" in Old English was a specific place -- the outside area from the walls of a house to the edge of the roof -- a space to shelter oneself from the rain or, if one were sneaky, where conversations within the house could be overheard rather clearly. "Eavesdrip" eventually became "eavesdrop," and by the late 15th century the noun had become a verb, meaning to secretly listen to someone else's conversation.
Dear Evan: My bubbie and I find ourselves using the word "hooscow" frequently. Remember, we live near Dallas and with all those Dallas Cowboys being "boys," we have cause to use this word a lot. Of course, I'm talking about jail. Not sure on the spelling but thought you would know what I mean. Any help, please? -- Cathy Setinsek, via the Internet.
You are a bit off on the spelling -- it is "hoosegow" -- but you're using the right word for your part of the country. "Hoosegow" comes from the Mexican Spanish word "juzgado," meaning "tribunal" or "judge." Originally the "juzgado" was the local courthouse in the Old West, but, frontier justice being what it was, "jail" was a functional synonym and the English version "Hoosegow" never meant anything but "the clink." The same word "juzgado" also gave us "jug" as a term for jail. The ultimate root of "juzgado," by the way, is the Latin "judicare," meaning "to judge," which also gave us "judicial" and "judgment," among other words. Interestingly enough (to me, at least), although we can assume "Hoosegow" is a genuine "Old West" word used in the 19th century, the earliest written example listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from much later, in 1911. I guess those cowboys didn't understand how important precise documentation of their slang would be someday.
There must be something about the prospect of jail that sets the old slang machine to humming, incidentally, because English has some very colorful terms for "the pokey" (from "pogy," a 19th century term for a workhouse, from "poke," meaning "to confine"). Along with "the clink" (the name of a famous London jail), we have "the can," "the tank," "the slammer, "the cooler," "the joint," "lockup" and "the big house," among others. And yet another Spanish word, "calabozo" ("dungeon") lives on today as "calaboose."
Dear Evan: I hope you can help me out with this one. I remember quite clearly from middle school back in the 1970s that in my History class we watched a film about the origins of the United States and the fact that people came from all over the world to live here. They referred to this country as the "Great Melding Pot." I asked the teacher after the film why they referred to it as the "Great Melting Pot" and was severely reprimanded for using the wrong term (and they wonder why to this day I dislike History). It was made clear to me that the proper word was "melding," not "melting." Now, though, I see the term in newspapers and magazines all the time and they call this country the "melting" pot. Which term is correct and what is the origin of the correct term? -- David Bradley, via the Internet.
Oh boy. While I know for a fact that most teachers are dedicated professionals, underpaid and under-appreciated, doing a great job under often dreadful conditions, there are exceptions, and you ran afoul of one such case. Your teacher was wrong, which is not a crime, and also arrogant and vindictive, which ought to be.
The phrase, as you thought so many years ago, is indeed "melting pot." Although "meld," meaning to merge or combine, would be a plausible word to substitute, there is no doubt about the original form of the phrase. That's because it comes from the title of a popular play -- "The Melting Pot" -- written by Israel Zangwill in 1908. Literally speaking, a melting pot is a vessel in which metals or other substances are melted. While "melting pot" as a metaphor for the process of immigrants being assimilated into American life was probably not invented by Zangwill, his play popularized the term and made it a permanent part of the American popular idiom.
Dear Evan: I've been trying to track down the origin of the phrase "under the rose" (or "sub rosa" if you want to be upscale about it). Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find anything in the books I have available here. Can you help? -- Sue Solberg, via the Internet.
Oh, let's be upscale about it, by all means. More people will recognize the form "sub rosa" (meaning "in secret") anyway. You start talking about roses and pretty soon you'll have Martha Stewart doing word origins on her show again, and there are some things up with which we will not put.
I'm not surprised that you've had a problem tracking down the origin of "sub rosa" because the roots of the phrase are at least partly shrouded in obscurity and confusion. According to one of my reference books ("From Achilles' Heel to Zeus's Shield," by Dale Corey Dibbley), the whole story was pretty much invented by the Romans. According to the myth, one fine afternoon a child god named Harpocrates stumbled upon the goddess Venus while she was engaged in one of her many illicit rendezvous. Venus's son Cupid, who happened to be in the neighborhood as well, quick-wittedly saved his mother's reputation by offering Harpocrates a beautiful rose in return for his vow of silence. Harpocrates kept his mouth shut, and the rose thereafter became the symbol of silence.
For a minor Roman myth, this one had legs, as they say in show biz. It was still common in Medieval times to see a rose suspended over a dining table in France and England to remind guests that conversations at the table were not to be repeated elsewhere. Eventually real roses were replaced by plaster ones, and roses were still commonly found in the plaster work in many Victorian dining rooms. Today, "sub rosa" (and, less often, "under the rose") is a synonym for "secret," with the added connotation of "illicit."
Dear Mr. Word-Detective: I am a (rather new) bridge player. Now, I know where the card game "bridge" comes from. It comes from whist, and it became "bridge" in the 19th century started by the British in India who liked to play this game, and the rules were changed by an American and, accordingly, today one plays these rules. What I would like to know is, where does the name "bridge" come from? It is not something that spans two land sides of a river or all the other explanations of the word "bridge." -- Juup Sobelman, Israel, via the Internet.
Good question. I myself have never played bridge, although my cousin Richard once tried to teach me when we were both about 12 years old. I could not grasp the game then and seriously I doubt that I could today, as I cannot even play "Fish" convincingly.
The truth, alas, is that no one knows precisely where the name "bridge" for the card game came from, although it's fairly certain that it has nothing to do with other senses of the word "bridge." The invention of bridge in the 19th century was, evidently, based on a card game long popular in the Near East and known at that time as "Russian whist." (The word "whist" itself, by the way, is an old British equivalent of "shhh!," and is a natural name for a game that demands silence from its players.) "Russian whist" was also known as "biritch" or "britch," both of which do sound Russian although neither of them seems to be an actual Russian word. In any case, once the British took up the game, "britch" became "bridge" through a process known as "folk etymology," which is a fancy way of saying that people often substitute a word they do know ("bridge") for one they don't ("britch"), even when the substitution makes no sense. So the answer is that the name "bridge" is almost entirely random and doesn't mean a thing, or, as we say at my house, "Go Fish."
Dear Evan: Can you shed some light on the phrase "to sit in the cat-bird seat"? Also, do you handle obscene words? I would like to know the origin of (deleted) and how long it has been in use. -- Ilana Ron, via the Internet.
Well, to answer your second question first, no I don't, which is why you see (deleted) in the question above, even though you disguised the word pretty well yourself. It's not that I am especially prissy. But (believe it or not) several elementary and high school teachers have asked me to bypass such words because they want to be able to recommend my web page (www.word-detective.com) to their students without incurring the wrath of parents and school board officials. And so I do, and I think it's a good bargain to strike.
Onward. As the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term, "in the catbird seat" means "in a position of ease."
The catbird is a relative of the mockingbird found in the Southern U.S. and named for its distinctive "mewing" call. Like most birds, catbirds prefer to stay out of reach of potential predators, and thus a "catbird seat" is likely to be a safe, lofty perch above the fray. The phrase almost certainly arose in the South in the 19th century, although its first recorded use in print didn't come until 1942.
"In the catbird seat" first caught the public's eye in a James Thurber short story called "The Catbird Seat" (you can find the story in "The Thurber Carnival"). In the story, a meek accountant is driven to contemplate murdering a fellow employee who won't stop babbling trite catch phrases, including, you guessed it, "in the catbird seat." It seems that the babbler is a (then-Brooklyn) Dodgers fan who has picked up the phrase from the sportscaster Red Barber. In real life, Barber pleaded guilty to popularizing "in the catbird seat," and explained that he, in turn, had picked it up from a man who trounced him in a poker game years before. "Inasmuch as I had paid for the phrase," said Barber, "I began to use it. I popularized it, and Mr. Thurber took it." And, of course, immortalized it.
Dear Evan: I've heard the expression "dogsbody," I believe in reference to a servant. Where did it come from? -- Norm Harrison, via the Internet.
No wonder it's so hard to get good help these days. If I referred to my manservant Dustly as my "dogsbody," my wardrobe would be a dog's breakfast toot sweet. You didn't know columnists had menservants, did you? Of course we do. It's in our standard contract, same clause as the polo ponies and the silk smoking jackets. Why do you think Bill Gates writes a newspaper column? For the money? Well, yes, but it's also the only way he can get a decent manservant.
Actually, a "dogsbody" is both more and less than a simple servant. Primarily a British colloquialism, "dogsbody" means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a junior person, especially one to whom a variety of menial tasks is given; a drudge, a general utility person," or what we Americans would call a "gofer" (one who "goes for" things).
As to the origin of "dogsbody," we can thank that peerless font of wisdom, culture and culinary refinement, the British Royal Navy. Seamen in the 18th century were evidently often served a concoction officially known as "pease pudding," made by boiling dried peas and/or sea biscuits in a cloth. It sounds disgusting, it undoubtedly was disgusting, and the sailors, no fools, didn't call the ghastly mush "pease pudding." They called it "dogsbody," an affectionate term probably based on its taste, texture and suspected pedigree.
Since no navy, least of all the Royal Navy, is a democracy, there was always a need for good words to describe those lower on the food chain than oneself, preferably nice, disgusting epithets. "Dogsbody" certainly fit the bill, and beginning in the early 20th century the word came to be used to mean any junior officer or midshipman expected to run errands or perform menial chores for his superiors. As use of the term gradually broadened beyond naval use, it became less pejorative and more a simple synonym for "assistant" or "menial worker."
Dear Word Detective: At a recent party, I had occasion to use the phrase "Heebee Jeebees" to refer to something that gave me a "creepy" feeling. I was flummoxed when half the crowd was nonplussed! (See, you do have an effect!) Actually, I was even more surprised when someone suggested that she thought the phrase was not in good taste because it was anti-Semitic! I am doubtful, but I'm PC enough to worry. -- Chris Kuhn, via the Internet.
Of course I have an effect; many effects, in fact, some of them rather alarming. Most people find me easiest to take with meals (you can always play with your peas and pretend not to know me), and it's generally wise not to go swimming within a half-hour after reading this column. If dizziness or skepticism develops, go ask William Safire.
I, too, am surprised that half the folks at that party didn't know what "heebie-jeebies" (the usual spelling) are. What are they teaching in school these days, anyway? Nothing useful, apparently. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, the "heebie-jeebies" are "a feeling of discomfort, apprehension, or depression; the 'jitters'; delirium tremens; also, formerly, a type of dance." Just like the "wim-wams," I'd say, except the dancing part.
As to your worries about "heebie-jeebies" possibly being an anti-Semitic slur, the answer is a somewhat qualified "no." The phrase "heebie-jeebies" was invented by Billy De Beck, a famous American comic strip artist of the 1920's, in his popular "Barney Google" strip in 1923. De Beck, by the way, also invented "hotsy-totsy" (a term of approval) and the wonderful "horsefeathers" (meaning "utter nonsense") in his strip. "Heebie-jeebies" must have caught the popular imagination immediately, since the dance of that name appeared a scant three years later, in 1926.
The invention of "heebie-jeebies" by De Beck was, without doubt, innocent of any racial or ethnic animosity. The only possible anti-Semitic interpretation of "heebie-jeebies" comes from its unfortunate resemblance to the slang term "hebe" (a cropping of "Hebrew"), which is indeed an anti-Jewish epithet. Whether you want to risk possible misunderstandings when you use "heebie-jeebies" is up to you, of course, but the truth of its innocent origin is its best defense.
Dear Evan: A friend of mine called me today and, after we had talked for a while, he said that he had nothing particular to tell me, and that he had simply called to "persiflage." Should I have been offended? -- Edith Freedle, via the Internet.
It all depends on what language you're speaking. If you were, as I suspect, speaking English, relax. But if the lingua du jour were French, you might consider hanging up. "Persiflage" is a good example of what happens when a word is imported into English, intact, from another language. The word's meaning in English often ends up ever so slightly different from its meaning in its native language. Something has been "lost in the translation," even though nothing was actually translated.
"Persiflage" in English (pronounced "PURR-sih-flahj," by the way) means "friendly banter or frivolous conversation." Persiflage is, for instance, what a talk-show host produces. Strictly speaking, "persiflage" does not exist as a verb in English, though your friend's meaning is clear -- he just called up to "shoot the breeze." "Persiflage" in English is a pleasant, if somewhat stuffy, word. The only person I ever knew who actually used it in casual conversation also wore Brooks Brothers shirts on his day off.
If we follow "persiflage" back to France, however, the meaning shifts a bit. If you "persiflage" your pal in Paris, you're courting a bop in the snoot, because in French it means "to mock or ridicule." From the French roots "per" (thoroughly) and "siffler" (to hiss or "boo"), "persiflage" is ultimately based on the Latin "sibilare," meaning to hiss or whistle. Linguists theorize that "sibilare" is of imitative origin, which means that the word arose as an attempt to mimic the sound of hissing. Of course, the word "hiss" itself is a good example of such imitative (or "echoic") word formation.
Dear Word Detective: My daughter asked me where the phrase "caught red handed" came from. I have heard different stories ranging from the red dye "bombs" that banks put in the bags of money that robbers run off with to an older version that involves pistachio nuts and workers eating the profits and getting caught with their hands stained. If you can help me with this, I'd appreciate it very much. -- Ryan Mundt, via the Internet.
Well, it is my sad duty to tell you that both stories you have heard about "red-handed" are wrong. But I really like the one about pistachio pilferers. It reminds me (oh no, here he goes again) of my brief but brilliant career as night manager of an all-night convenience store in a large, unnamed Midwestern city.
Maybe they've gotten around to naming it by now.
Anyway, we had one of those nut cases (we actually had a lot of nut cases, but I digress) full of toasty hot peanuts and pistachio nuts and my personal favorite, cashews. I could (and did) eat cashews for hours on end. Then one night the owner came in and said, "Gosh, we've sold a lot of cashews this week," and suddenly I knew it was time to go be a newspaper columnist. Life gives you those signals sometimes.
The phrase "red-handed," meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "in the very act of crime, having the evidences of guilt still upon the person," is quite a bit older than exploding bags of money or organized nut theft. It first appeared in that form in English in the mid-19th century, and as the adjective "redhand" was common in Scots (the language of Scotland) since the 15th century. A moment's consideration of the history of 15th century may clue you into what the "red" really was -- blood. A murderer caught "red-handed" still had the blood of his victim on his hands. We have, since the 18th century, also used "red-handed" to describe any criminal caught in the act or bearing irrefutable evidence of guilt.
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