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Conundrum

Unscrewing the inscrutable.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve got quite the “conundrum” for you. What is the origin of this very obscure word? It has at least three synonyms that I know of (riddle, puzzle, enigma), so I don’t imagine it’s the first of these four to mean what it means. The online dictionary explained its meaning quite well, but nothing about its origin, and a search simply yielded countless “conundrums” that other people had. Please help. — Neil, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Hey, you’re right. Googling “conundrum” produces 5,510,000 hits, and not a single one of them explains the origin of the word. I had to check each link, of course, because I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t follow every clue. Anybody know a good ophthalmologist? By the way, speaking of puzzles, I’m not sure I understand the second sentence of your question, so we’ll just skip that part.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “conundrum” as “a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma,” which covers a lot of ground. In any case, “conundrums” are generally not good things. A choice between your two favorite flavors of ice cream is not a conundrum; a choice between paying your rent or buying food is a conundrum. But it’s difficult to imagine remembering to use the word “conundrum” in such a dire situation, because “conundrum” is the sort of fancy locution, like the word “eschew,” that I seriously doubt anyone uses without careful forethought. Real people generally don’t say “conundrum.” They say “jam” or “pickle.”

Ask the folks at Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of “conundrum,” and the answer is a terse “Origin lost,” as if it had been misplaced in a word warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The truth is more likely “origin never exactly known.” The most reasonable theory is that “conundrum” originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word and initially used as a derogatory term for a fussy, pedantic and silly person (what the Oxford dictionary calls a “crotchet-monger”). Over the next two hundred years, “conundrum” was used to mean “a whim or silly idea” and “a pun” before it took on the sense of “a riddle the answer to which is a pun” in the late 18th century, and, soon thereafter, acquired its modern sense of “an insoluble or very difficult problem.” So the answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is that the birthplace of “conundrum” was probably just the warped imagination of a 16th century college student.

Causeway, Sound

Or maybe “Tailgaters flunked physics.”

Dear Word Detective: I just spent some time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and want to know if you can tell me the origins of two words. The first is “causeway.” I know it’s a bridge but where did this word come from? Also, we used the causeway to cross the Albemarle Sound. Where did the word “Sound” used in this context come from? — E. P.

Cool. I’ve never been to the Outer Banks, partly because I’ve always been afraid that they (you know, Them) would slap one of those lame “OBX” stickers on our car when I wasn’t looking. I’d much rather sport something truly interesting on our car, something along the lines of “We Went to West Florida Reptile World and Saw the Giant Flying Purple Iguana.” Something like that would inspire unquenchable envy in the cars that pass us. To me, “OBX” just makes your car look like a piece of luggage.

A “causeway” is, of course, a raised road, usually built on an embankment, often running across water or swampy land. It’s not really a bridge, since it is usually solidly resting on the earth for its length. Causeways can, in fact, connect small islands and the like to the mainland over distances that would be impractical for bridges.

There seems to be a difference of opinion between various etymological authorities over the exact roots of “causeway.” Everyone agrees that our modern “causeway” evolved from the older term “causey way,” meaning essentially the same thing as “causeway.” The dispute is over the origins of “causey,” meaning a raised mound or footpath. One theory has “causey” coming from the Vulgar Latin “calciata via,” meaning “limestone road” (“calx” being Latin for limestone), and posits that causeways used to be made with crushed limestone. The other theory traces “causey” to the Latin “calciare,” meaning “to stamp with the feet,” and holds that the name refers to the fact that causeways were constructed by stamping down earth and rock to make the mound firm. Whatever the truth, “causey” first appeared in English around the 12 century but has now been almost entirely replaced by “causeway,” which showed up in the 14th century.

“Sound,” meaning a body of water between an island and the mainland or an inlet of the sea (such as Long Island Sound, where I spent my childhood summers dodging jellyfish), has nothing to do with the kind of “sound” we hear (which comes from the Latin “sonus”). This watery “sound” comes from the Old Norse “sund,” which meant both “channel or strait” as well as “swimming.” (In fact, the Germanic root of “sund” was “swem,” which also gave us “swim”) “Sound” in Old English actually meant “the act of swimming” as well as “sea” or “water,” and in modern English “sound” was long used to mean the “swimming bladder” of fish, an internal organ that helps the fish regulate its buoyancy. Our modern use of “sound” to mean “body of water” didn’t arise until the 16th century.

Vesting

And a picture of a gold watch.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word “vesting” comes from? I know it is a derivative of “vest,” but I’d like a clear explanation of its history. — Elizabeth Hunt.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s trade — I’ll explain the history of the word “vest,” and you can explain (I hope) how “vesting” (as in a pension plan) works. I worked in an office for nearly twenty years, and around year five they told me I was “fully vested,” pension-wise. I figured I was fixed for life, but lately they’ve been sending me statements indicating that my pension at age 65 will consist of a monthly box of Cheez-Its and a subscription to Popular Caulking. I’m certain it used to be more than that. Am I losing money by continuing to breathe? Are the market moths eating holes in my vest?

Onward. “Vest” is, of course, both a noun and a verb, and the two forms have diverged quite a bit over the centuries. “Vest” the noun first appeared in English in the 17th century, derived from the Latin “vestis,” meaning “clothing or garment.” The earliest vests in England were sleeveless garments worn by men under their coats, a fashion introduced by Charles II in 1666 on an occasion chronicled by Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary (“This day the King begins to put on his vest; …being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon’s leg.”) Shorter vests eventually came to be called “waistcoats” in Britain, but “vest” persisted in America.

“Vest” the verb is more a parallel development than an actual derivative of the waistcoat sort of “vest.” The root here is the Latin verb “vestire,” meaning “to clothe,” with the specific sense of dressing someone in the robes or vestments (another derivative) of office or power. When “vest” the verb appeared in English around 1425 (about 200 years before the noun “vest”), it already carried the metaphorical meaning of “to place or secure something in the legal possession of a person,” a sense it retains to the present day. Thus, when you are “vested” in your pension, it’s 100 percent yours, for what that’s worth. “Vest” is also still used in specific instances to mean “to grant authority to,” found in such portentous phrases as “By the power vested in me….”

The verb “to vest” has two close cousins, “invest” and “divest,” both of which originally involved putting on or taking off clothes. Our modern “loan money to a business or enterprise” meaning of “invest” is an outgrowth of the “give power to” sense of “vest,” but it this case it is money that is being given (and taken away in “divest”). “Vest” the verb is also related to “travesty” (from the Italian “transvestire,” meaning “to change clothes as a disguise” the source of “transvestite” as well), meaning “a grotesque or mocking imitation” or “a parody” (which is a pretty good description of my so-called pension).