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August 2008 Issue.


Well, here we are again, a mere month after the last issue.  Such an unseemly rush.  I may have to go lie down for a month or two.  Just kidding, maybe.

Speaking of such things, as you may know, people who subscribe to TWD-by-Email receive these columns at the same time actual newspapers do, which is some time before they are posted to this website, “some time” around here usually meaning anywhere from two to six months.  At the moment, however, due to a few lapses in my posting schedule, we are running about eight months behind, meaning that the columns in this issue were sent to subscribers back in November and December of 2007 (which explains the Christmas and Thanksgiving references you may notice in a few columns).

I have been posting more columns each month (18) than I write (12), so the gap will narrow eventually, but it will never vanish entirely.  There will always be at least a two-month delay.  So it behooves me to note that you can jump this tedious queue and read this stuff in real time by simply subscribing for a measly fifteen bucks per year.  It’s a win-win deal — you get to read the columns right away, and I get to pay my gas bill and buy cat food.  What’s not to like?

But wait, it gets better!  As soon as you subscribe, you’ll receive your super-secret password to our restricted Subscriber Content right here on the website.  What’s “Subscriber Content”?  It’s the past eight months of columns that haven’t yet been posted to the free public part of this site!  It’ll be like you actually subscribed eight months ago!  It’ll also be like you’re getting a 20-month subscription for the price of a 12-month sub!  Yay!  Sign me up!

By the way, the price of TWD-by-Email hasn’t increased since Day One, which was back in 1995.  If this site were a gas station, there would be lines around the block. So fill up now!

Lastly, I have started a “sideblog” (the link is over there in the right sidebar) where we can post links to interesting language-related stuff, so feel free to send me links.

And now, on with the show…

Sleep tight.

Swing low, stale guest.

Dear Word Detective:  A few years ago, I toured the Oakley Plantation house within the James Audubon Memorial Park south of St. Francisville, LA.  During the tour they showed us a bed with ropes supporting the mattress.  They mentioned that when a guest had outstayed their welcome, the servants were instructed to loosen the ropes so the mattress sagged.  My memory escapes me, but it seems this act was associated with a phrase.  The phrase would be ancient since ropes are no longer used to support a mattress, but perhaps someone has heard of this before.  If you have never had the opportunity to visit the Oakley Plantation House, I highly recommend it.  The best time to visit is late February or March when the Azelas are in bloom. — Bill Jones.

Thanks for an interesting question.  I looked up the Oakley Plantation House on the internet, and it does look fascinating.  It also seems to make quite an impression on visitors, because I found quite a few mentions of the place on personal blogs.  Serendipitously, several of these folks had evidently taken the same tour as you did, and they just happened to mention the story that the tour guides told you about the beds.  I was already fairly certain that I knew what phrase you were having trouble remembering, but it’s nice to get such precise confirmation of my hunch.

So let’s go to the tape and quote the story directly from one of these blogs: “The beds at the time did not have box springs, but instead had ropes tied tightly underneath the mattress to keep it firm and tight, hence the phrase, ‘Sleep tight.’  When a guest had overstayed their welcome, the household slaves would be instructed to loosen the ropes night by night, causing the mattress to sink in, rendering it more and more uncomfortable.”

Unfortunately, this story shows strong signs of being concocted as an embellishment of the popular theory that “sleep tight” originated as a reference to the “rope beds” mentioned above.  Such beds did indeed exist, and it was important to periodically tighten the ropes to prevent mattress-droop.

But the “tight” in “sleep tight,” meaning “sleep soundly,” almost certainly comes from the use of “tight” and “tightly” to mean “soundly, securely, properly,” a use that dates back to Shakespeare.  The phrase “sleep tight” also first appeared in the mid-19th century, a bit after such beds were popular, and from the first was most commonly heard in variations on the classic rhyming bedtime salutation “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”  The impulse of tour guides to tie the phrase “sleep tight” to beds sporting ropes that had to be kept tight must be nearly irresistible, but I’m afraid that doesn’t make it true.  The good news is that the part about driving guests away by loosening the ropes probably isn’t true either.


Herd word.

Dear Word Detective:  In reading internet news sites and web pages analyzing the various presidential candidates’ standings in the various polls (none of which ever seem to agree, by the way), I keep coming across the term “outlier,” which I don’t remember encountering before the last few years.  It seems to mean something like an “anomaly”  in the poll data, but with overtones of “something bizarre and meaningless.”  I’ve also seen the word applied to a few of the candidates themselves.  What does it mean and why are we seeing it everywhere all of a sudden? — Rick Carter.

It means that the herd is on the move again.  When European settlers arrived in the New World, the western plains were blanketed by gigantic herds of bison, so numerous that the land itself seemed alive (and covered, the settlers noticed after a few moments, with smelly brown fur).  Unfortunately, the noble bison was hunted nearly to extinction in the decades thereafter, and today only a small remnant of those mighty herds remains.

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and the massive herds of bison were gradually replaced by massive herds of political pundits.  Like bison, pundits are slow-witted, unimaginative  creatures with a passion for conformity. Their primary activity consists of repeating the words of their herd-mates with minor variations and occasionally stampeding as a group, eyes firmly shut, over the nearest cliff.  Between bouts of cliff-jumping, the pundits pass the time by glomming on to popular buzzwords and catch-phrases and slowly gumming them to death.  Having driven readers to distraction by invoking “at the end of the day,” “stay the course” and “in harm’s way” ad nauseam for the past few years, the herd has now moved on to “outlier.”

“Outlier” (which is pronounced simply “out-ly-er,” although it looks vaguely French) was originally, when it appeared in English in the early 17th century, simply another word for “outsider,” “nonconformist,” or “weirdo.”  An “outlier” was, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “an individual whose origins, beliefs, or behavior place him or her outside a particular establishment or community.”  The roots of “outlier” are as simple as its pronunciation: it’s just a combination of “to lie” with “out,” carrying the sense of someone rooted outside the norms of a given community.  In a physical sense, we commonly speak of “outlying” houses a bit beyond the edge of town.

The uses of “outlier” by political pundits seem to fall into two categories.  One is an extension of the original “outsider” meaning, in which “outlier” is applied to a candidate whose views and pronouncements fall outside the mainstream of party orthodoxy (i.e., the guy at the far edge of the debate stage).  The other sense commonly seen today is borrowed from the field of statistics, where an “outlier” is a data point or result that falls substantially outside the boundaries of the distribution expected or predicted by other results, and is usually disregarded.  Answers to a survey that revealed that ninety percent of Iowa voters favored invading Mars at the earliest opportunity, for example, would probably be considered an “outlier” by pollsters.  Then again, it’s still early in the year.