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April 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Alright, already, a little late. I’ll explain in a moment.

Hey, TWD has 863 “likes” on Facebook. Awesome. I hope we hit 1,000 before the whole Zuckerbergian shebang goes belly-up. I read a news story last week that said FB is ludicrously over-valued and early investors are trying to unload their shares (I believe the actual phrase they used was “claw their way out”) before reality sets in and the bubble bursts.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop in Cybertopia has been a kind of hobby of mine for years. Way back when (mid-90s) I thought Cliff Stoll was right on the money in branding the whole net-evangelist circus (Negroponte, et al.) as “Silicon Snake Oil,” and Nicholas Carr and Evgeny Morozov are both worth reading on the subject of the internet and society, especially claims made recently that Twitter and Facebook will be the magical agents of a global wave of freedom.

Which is not to say that the internet doesn’t have its good points. A few years ago I suggested that people check out Arts & Letters Daily for pointers to interesting long-form articles. ALD is still going strong (though listing a bit to starboard much of the time), but I’m happy to report that several other sites have since appeared that also point to worthwhile things to read on the net. Best of the breed at the moment is probably The Browser, closely followed by Longreads and the aptly-titled Give Me Something To Read. There’s usually a bit of overlap between the sites at any given moment, but checking them all once a day certainly beats hanging out on Fark (Woman Survives Tornado by Hiding in Tanning Bed!) or, God forbid, the Huffington Train Wreck.

By the way, I changed the layout of this page from 90% fluid to 1000 px wide so that the columns would end closer to where they should. Let me know if this is screwing up anything at your end. Any screen resolution 1024 x 768 or higher shouldn’t have a problem. You people on iPads should just suck it up and tilt your heads or something.


We interrupt this digression for an important announcement: The Word Detective website depends on your support to pay the bills. If you find this little circus helpful, interesting, amusing and/or worthwhile, please subscribe or contribute to our survival. Fifteen bucks per year is only four pennies a day, but it makes a huge difference at this end. It’s like magic. Here’s your chance to be a magician.


Onward. Um, has anyone noticed that there seems to be something pretty seriously wrong with the weather? We’ve been spared the horrible destruction in the South, but it’s been raining more or less non-stop for two weeks, often violently, and we’ve had two tornadoes hit within a mile of us in the past month (both following precisely the same path, which is very weird).

I suppose I should explain why this issue of TWD is so late. So I’m sitting on the living room couch a couple of weeks ago, and I notice that Boots the Cat is staring at the ceiling. This is not unusual, because Boots is obsessed with ceilings in general, and this ceiling in particular due to the honking huge ugly ceiling fan the previous owner of this pile installed. We’ve always meant to take it down, but that would leave a big hole in the ceiling and would also require me to climb up there, which, as will become apparent in a moment, would be a very bad idea. Anyway, I glance up and notice that Mister Boots is actually staring at a huge, nasty-looking spider crawling across the ceiling and due to arrive above my head in about 30 seconds.

Continue reading this post » » »


I love you all. Now get off my lawn.

Dear Word Detective: I noted that you used “cantankerous” in the description of another word, but there wasn’t a entry for “cantankerous” on your website. Can you elaborate? — Monica.

Hey, you’re right. Apart from that one use in a column about the word “ornery,” I haven’t used “cantankerous” (much less explained it) a single time in all these years. I guess when you have a sunny disposition like mine, the glass is always at least half-full of delicious sody-pop and, gosh darn it, you just don’t have time for all those frowny old words like “cantankerous.” Strangely enough, there are people who expect me to be a bit of a cranky, cantankerous curmudgeon myself when they meet me (especially if they’ve met me before), but the truth is that I greet each day with a feeling of soaring euphoria so intense that I can barely restrain myself from breaking into song. I kid you not. I gotta remember to get this prescription refilled. Now who’s ready for pie?

Meanwhile, back at your question, “cantankerous” is a word so perfectly suited in form to its meaning of “argumentative, ill-tempered, cranky” that you might well guess what it meant just from the sound of the word. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, not known for musing aloud in print, notes the “oddly appropriate sound” of “cantankerous.” The only other possible meaning that the sound of the word evokes for me would be an unpleasant skin disease, and that’s probably because it reminds me of “canker.”

“Cantankerous” first appeared in print in English, as far as we know, in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1772 comedic play She Stoops to Conquer (“There’s not a more bitter cantanckerous road in all christendom”). It’s worth noting that “cantankerous,” unlike many words, has never varied in meaning since its first appearance. It still just means “cranky and difficult” and it’s still in wide use today (“But rather than crack a smile, [Barney] Frank began a harangue that was cantankerous even by his standards, sniping at everything from the Tea Party to the Boston Herald,” Boston Globe, 11/03/10).

The origins of “cantankerous” are, fittingly for a word that means “uncooperative,” uncertain, although we do have a general sense of its lineage. The most likely source is the Middle English “”conteke,” which meant “contention, quarrelling,” from which came “contekour,” a person who argues, and finally something like “contackerous” meaning the quality of being a real pill. The final form of “cantankerous” may have been influenced by the spelling of words such as “traitorous” and “rancorous.”

It’s also possible that “cantankerous” is related to the Irish “cannran,” meaning “strife or grumbling.” Or that it is based on the Old French “contechier,” meaning, loosely, “firmly held,” which certainly fits with the idea of stubbornness. If this Anglo-French connection is true, the ultimate root of “cantankerous” may be the Latin “contactus,” past participle of “contingere,” meaning “to touch” and also the source of our English “contact.”
That may sound like a rather large cloud of possibilities that doesn’t get us very far in our quest for the origin of “cantankerous,” but its possible that all of those theories are true and just represent various bits of a very winding path taken by the word.

Shank of the Evening

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective: Once again I have used a phrase that caused my children to look at me and say, “What?” I was saying that we never left a party during the “shank of the evening.”  To me, this has always meant the time when the party was at its best with the most fun being had by all. Now I am curious to know, (1) if I am correct, and (2) how this expression came about.  Any explanation from you will be immediately forwarded to my kids! — Marsha.

Hey, I’m with your kids on this one: Huh? I don’t recall ever hearing “shank of the evening” until I read your question, although I could be wrong, because my memory seems to be shot. I blame the internet. After all, if you can look up the lyrics to the theme from “Mister Ed” in three seconds, what’s the point of even trying to remember the name of that kid in third grade who bit you on the leg at recess? Just put up a Facebook page and he’ll find you. My mind is starting to resemble a vacant lot full of big rocks. I just hope my car keys are under one of them.

Fortunately, many other people have heard the expression “shank of the evening.” Unfortunately, they seem unable to agree on exactly what it means.

“Shank” itself is a very old English word, derived from Germanic roots, that initially meant “the part of the leg of an animal between the knee and the ankle” or a similar section of the leg of an animal that lacks ankles. “Shank” has also been used throughout its history to mean simply “the leg.” From this literal meaning, “shank” soon developed a wide range of figurative senses, mostly describing a straight part of something, especially a part used to grip the thing or attach it to something else. Thus the straight part of a fishing hook is called the “shank,” as is the straight part of a pin or nail, the stalk of a plant, and the end of a drill bit that goes into the chuck. Aficionados of prison documentaries (does MSNBC ever show anything else on weekends?) will also know “shank” as slammer slang for a homemade knife, probably because such things are often made from a simple strip of metal.

The literal “leg” sense of “shank” produced one of my favorite slang expressions way back in the late 18th century, “to ride Shanks’ mare” (or “take Shanks’ pony”), meaning, of course, to walk on one’s own legs, especially for a distance one would rather ride a horse (“I’ll start for Carnarvon on Shanks’s pony,” 1898). “Taking Walker’s bus” is of similar vintage.

The “shank” of “the shank of the evening” is a more figurative use, but, as I said, opinions vary on what it means. The phrase first appeared in print in 1828, and “shank” in this sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The latter end or part of anything: the remainder or last part of a thing.” That would make “shank of the evening” the time when a party is winding down, not just getting good. But other sources define “shank of the evening” as “the main part” of the evening, which would not only agree with your understanding of the phrase, but also seem more in keeping with “shank” meaning “long, straight part of something.” Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Online, play it safe on this “shank” and offer both “the latter part of a period of time” and “the early or main part of a period of time” as definitions. Not surprisingly,”shank of the evening” also appears on several lists of “words and phrases that are their own antonyms” (such as “cleave” meaning both “to separate” and “to stick together”).

As to which is the “correct” meaning, I actually suspect that “tail end of the evening” was the original, invoking the sense of “shank” as “the end one holds” as in the “shank” of a drill bit.   But feel free to use it either way, and have fun explaining all this to your kids.