I Have Eight of Them Here Right Now
Dear Evan: The Toronto Star reports that corruption is rampant in post-communist Russia. Journalists in Moscow apparently risk their lives in reporting on said corruption, as evidenced by the murder of several prominent newspaper reporters after their having "named names" in their columns. There is, however, one exception: a certain journalist seems to "name names" and report on all sorts of scandalous activities with impunity. The hypothesis is that he is in fact on the payroll of the Moscow mafia, and that he is playing the role of a "catspaw," drawing attention to comparatively minor infractions, thus diverting attention from the bad-guys' even more unpalatable activities. So how does the moniker for the collective phalanges of a feline come to signify playing such a role? -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
I originally thought this question would be an easy one to answer. After all, I've got two fairly intelligent cats right here, so it should have been just a matter of asking the question and the answer would be mine, straight from the tabby's tongue. Oddly enough, however, my cats remained mute when I posed the question to them, and after a little checking on my own, I think I know why.
It seems that although cats in mythology and folklore are generally portrayed as wily, clever, resourceful and sophisticated, the story behind "cat's paw" is an exception to the rule, and not one that any self-respecting cat would want on his resume. An ancient fable tells the story of a monkey who came upon some chestnuts roasting in a fire. Lacking the means to retrieve the tasty chestnuts from the fire, the clever monkey managed to convince a somewhat dim cat to reach into the flames with his paw and fetch them. The monkey got his chestnuts, the cat was rewarded with a nasty hotfoot, and a metaphor for "chump" was born. While the original "cat's paw" was someone who is tricked into doing something dangerous or foolish on behalf of someone else, the term has broadened somewhat over the years. Today's "catspaw," as in your example, may know very well what he or she is doing.
A Drag, Man
Dear Evan: There appears to be a resurgence in drag movies: "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" are the most recent manifestations, and the remarkable staying power of Ru Paul bears further witness to popular culture's current infatuation with men dressed up as women. The tale I've heard is that "drag" is an acronym for "DRessed As a Girl"and harkens back to the Elizabethan stage when only males acted, thus requiring boys and occasionally men to fill what are now women's roles. "DRAG" would be noted in the play's marginalia to indicate this. Is this even remotely correct? -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
I'm glad that someone else has noticed the weird current popular fixation on transvestism. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who found it odd. The whole thing reminds me of the day a few years ago when I woke up to discover that everyone was wearing baseball caps turned backwards. After the first few negative reactions to my courteous observation, "Hey, yoyo, your hat's on backwards," I decided to just get used to it. This too shall pass.
The explanation you heard of the origin of this meaning of "drag" is not correct, but it isn't really that far off the mark. As far as we know, "drag" isn't an acronym for anything, and the use of the word in this sense dates only to the late 19th century, long after Elizabethan times. But the origin of "drag" to mean men dressing in women's clothing does indeed come from the theater. The explanation, given that we are talking about a phenomenon that often involves significant amounts of rhinestones and mascara, is remarkably prosaic. A male actor required by his role (or the lack of a female actor) to wear women's clothes on stage quickly discovers what women have known for centuries -- that long skirts and dresses often drag on the floor. Such roles became known as "drag" roles, and when cross-dressing became popular off-stage, the theatrical term was adopted for the practice.
Red in Tooth and Tax Form
Dear Evan: In college recently, I took an Accounting 101 class. My teacher used the phrase "from soup to nuts," meaning from beginning to end, as in the whole accounting cycle. I've only heard this phrase from the teacher once. How recent is this phrase? Is it limited to Accounting or business? -- Matthew Lederer, Cos Cob, CT.
Maybe I've been watching the Discovery Channel a bit too much lately, but when you mentioned "the Accounting cycle," I immediately formed a mental image of the life cycle of an accountant. I don't understand why nature filmmakers haven't gotten around to documenting this yet -- it would be a sure-fire hit. They could use time-lapse photography to show the progress from baby accountant (putting all the blocks in nice neat rows) to mature numbers-cruncher. Audiences would gasp at the sight of the rare but dreaded Rogue Accountant plundering his clients' bank accounts and roaring off to the Bahamas. The producers could even get John Williams to do the music and make the whole thing a sort of "Star Wars" with spreadsheets.
Meanwhile, while we wait for Hollywood to pick up on this great idea, let's get back to "soup to nuts." As a metaphor for "from beginning to end" or "the whole range of things," this phrase is used in all sorts of contexts, not just accounting. It refers to the full course of an elaborate meal, beginning with soup, through the various courses, and ending, at least in this case, with nuts. Although this particular phrase dates back only to the middle of the 20th century, similar sayings have been in use since the 16th century. The only difference in the various incarnations of this metaphor seems to be in what was considered to constitute a full meal in each historical period -- in the 17th century, it was "from eggs to apples." And unless Americans wean themselves from junk food pretty quickly, future generations of accountants will probably be hearing a new version of the phrase -- "From Whoppers to Haagen-Dazs."
Dear Evan: My boss and I are in a debate over the meaning and origin of the word "posh." -- James A. Kerhin, via the Internet.
If there's one question about word origins that deserves an award for sheer persistence, this is it. Nearly every book on etymology has an entry on "posh," meaning "elegant or swank," and I am asked this question with clockwork regularity. Although you didn't mention which particular theories of the origin of "posh" you and your boss are wrestling over, I'd be willing to bet that one of you is a believer in the most popular story of "posh."
The theory most often heard is that "posh" comes from the days of ocean travel between England and India. The wealthy, it is said, would get the most desirable cabins on whichever side of the ship remained untouched by the blistering tropical sun. Such preferred arrangements were said to be "port (left side) out, starboard (right side) home," neatly summed up in the acronym "posh." It's a lovely theory -- too bad there's not a shred of evidence in its favor, and a good deal of evidence against it. Among other things, it seems that the crews of the ships in service on that route, questioned about the term, had never heard of it.
There are other theories, but the one I think most likely is, in a way, the most exotic. "Posh" is a word in Romany, the language of Gypsies, meaning "half." According to poet and etymologist John Ciardi, the word originally entered the argot of England's underworld in the 17th century in such compounds as "posh-houri," meaning "half-pence," and soon became a slang term for money in general. From there it was a short hop to meaning "expensive" or "fancy." Ironically, it was probably the Gypsies, who came originally from Northern India themselves, who introduced "posh" to the English language without ever setting foot on an ocean liner.
Dear Evan: I have always been intrigued by the phrase "three sheets to the wind," to describe someone being drunk. Most people I have asked feel it has its origins with sailors. Is there any truth to that? If it were "three sails to the wind" I could see it. -- David Keill, via the Internet.
Oh boy, here we go again. I suppose we all have our little self-destructive habits. Lemmings march into the sea, perfectly rational people join book clubs, and I answer questions having to do with boats. The problem is that although I am usually ninety-nine percent right when I answer a query involving seafaring terms, I always seem to flub some tiny detail, bringing the crusty wrath of several hundred deeply offended seadogs down on my head. If anyone has ever wondered what retired sailors do to pass the time, I have your answer -- they lie in wait for me to screw up.
So, having battened down my hatches, I'll just lash myself to the main-mizzen (or whatever) and shout a hearty "yes!" The phrase "three sheets to the wind" does indeed come from the world of seafaring, specifically sailing ships. The "sheets" in the phrase are not sails, but ropes. Of course, the first thing one learns about ropes once aboard ship is that they are never called "ropes." They are named according to their particular function: halyards (which move or hold things, usually sails, vertically), sheets (which move or hold things horizontally), and lines (which hold things in a static position). The sheets in this case are those ropes which hold the sails in place. If one sheet is loose, the sail will flap in the wind and the ship's progress will be unsteady. Two sheets loose ("in the wind"), and you have a major problem, and with "three sheets in the wind," the ship reels like a drunken sailor.
The specific number of "three sheets" in the phrase wasn't random, by the way -- there was, at one time, a sort of rating system of inebriation among sailors, where "one sheet" meant "tipsy" and so on, up to "four sheets in the wind," meaning to be completely unconscious.
Oh, He Falls Down Like That Every Year
Dear Evan: Could you please tell me where/how the following two phrases originated? "Cold turkey," as in stopping a habit suddenly, and "On/off the wagon," as in drinking. -- Ken Shifman, via the Internet.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Bad Habits Week in the wonderful world of words. For some curious reason, a high percentage of the questions I've been receiving lately have dealt with phrases associated with drunkenness or other "substance abuse" problems. Well, it is still early in the year -- perhaps everyone's New Year's resolutions just collapsed. I don't make New Year's resolutions myself. I just re-define all my bad habits as family traditions, which makes continuing to practice them seem downright virtuous.
To "go cold turkey," meaning to stop using an addictive drug suddenly and completely, usually incurring extremely unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal, is a phrase which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. "Cold turkey" is actually based on another colloquial phrase, "to talk turkey" (sometimes "to talk cold turkey"), meaning to face unpleasant truths squarely. It's not entirely clear how turkeys came to be associated with honesty and straightforward confrontation of difficulties, but it may simply be that turkey farmers were renowned at one time for their lack of pretense and blunt speech.
The "wagon" in "on the wagon" (having sworn off drinking all alcohol) and "off the wagon" (having failed in one's resolve and thus having started drinking again) refers to a fixture of America's past, the water wagon. Before roads were routinely paved, municipalities would dispatch horse-drawn water wagons to spray the streets in order to prevent the clouds of dust that traffic would otherwise cause. Anyone who had sworn abstinence from alcohol (and would presumably be drinking largely water from then on) was said to have "climbed aboard the water wagon," later shortened to "on the wagon."