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Ketchup / Catsup

The red stuff.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “ketchup” originate? — Kana.

Good question, and I’m glad you asked it, because you’ve just reminded me that we’re out of ketchup around here.  (We seem to use the spelling “catsup” on lists at our house, but we’ll get to the various spellings in a moment.)  I also just realized that I answered this same question back in 1994, in one of my very first columns.  At three columns per week for the ensuing 15 years, that’s 2,340 columns ago, proving that I am nothing if not remarkably persistent.  Ad astra per caffeine, as we say.

OK, back to work before I become roadkill on Memory Lane.  I read a filler item in a newspaper a few years ago which cheerfully announced that salsa-in-a-jar had replaced catsup as America’s favorite condiment, but I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t.  I can’t imagine substituting salsa for catsup on the foods real Americans love, like cottage cheese.  OK, that was just Richard Nixon’s thing as far as we know, but dumping salsa on onion rings is, to me, like putting pineapple on pizza.  Sure, people do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

The funny thing about catsup is that there doesn’t seem to be any strict definition of the stuff.  The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, defines “ketchup” (apparently the preferred spelling in Britain) as “A liquor extracted from mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, etc., used as a sauce.”  Mushrooms and walnuts?  Might as well throw in some tree frogs and minced wildebeest.  Here in the US of A, we make our catsup from tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, spices, and whatever’s on sale at the local chemical plant.  But according to Wikipedia, early American forms of catsup were made from oysters, mushrooms and other odd things, and more akin to Worchestershire sauce than our familiar thick “tomato” catsup.  There’s apparently something in the human spirit that can’t resist messing with catsup, because in 2000, the H.J. Heinz company, the world’s largest producer of catsup, introduced a line of brightly colored (including green, purple and pink) catsups.  They also proved that “flop” isn’t just the sound catsup makes when it hits the plate.

None of that weirdness can, however, hold a candle to the original catsup, which came to us from China via Malaysia, and was known as “ke-tsiap” or “kechap,” meaning roughly “fish sauce.”  Indeed, this “kechap” was from pickled fish and brine, and used as a dipping sauce.  Forms of this stuff first made it to Britain in the late 17th century, and as the ingredients varied over the next two centuries, the name blossomed from simply “ketsup” to “catchup” (still considered acceptable) to “catsup.”  All of these, of course, are nothing but phonetic approximations of the Chinese term, and none is more “proper” than the others (although Heinz spells it “ketchup”).  Interestingly, even folks who like to spell it “catsup” generally pronounce the word as “ketchup,” and if you encounter a person who insists on saying “cat-sup,” you’re in the presence of someone who would probably be happier if it were still made from pickled fish.

Rag off the bush, to take the

They shoot azaleas, don’t they?

Dear Word Detective:  I am a little confused as to the meaning of the expression “take the rag off the bush.”  It seems like it means “a prayer is answered” or “one that never got answered” or, in some contexts, it means the same as “if that don’t beat all.”  The last one seems to fit best.  What is the most correct? — Darb.

That’s an interesting question, and by “interesting” I mean “infuriating.”  Seriously, this one gave me a headache.  But after spending an entire evening grappling with this phrase, I think I finally have it pinned to the mat.  So fasten your seat belts, kids, because it’s going to get a bit complicated as we attempt to unscrew the inscrutable “take the rag off the bush.”

The literal answer to your question is the easy part.  To “take the rag off the bush” means  “to excel, to be the best or most triumphantly successful.”  Used in an ironic sense, it means “to be breathtakingly outrageous” or, in the current vernacular, “to take the cake” (“You do take the rag off the bush, boy,” R. Coover, 1977).  It can also mean “to put an end to an argument or contest through overwhelming victory.”  This is actually the sense in which the phrase is used in one of its earliest appearances in print, in 1810 (“This ‘takes the rag off the bush’ so completely, that we suppose we shall hear no more … about the Chesapeake business.”)  “To take the rag off the bush” is definitely of US origin, and was probably first used in the 18th century.

That US origin is important, because if you go looking for the origin of “take the rag off the bush” on the internet, you’ll find rather long and involved explanations that trace the phrase to Ireland or Scotland and a folk tradition of tying rags to bushes near religious shrines.  It is said, for instance, that at a shrine to Saint Patrick in Ireland emigrants bound for America in the 18th and 19th centuries tied bits of cloth to a nearby bush to solicit Saint Patrick’s favor in their journey and future endeavors.  If the cloth disappeared from the bush soon after the person set sail, it meant that good fortune had been granted (or, according to other accounts, that disaster had struck).

This story about rags and bushes is, in itself, true.  There is a long tradition in Celtic (and other) cultures of “rag bushes,” often located at religious shrines or wells known for their healing powers, and supplicants do indeed tie bits of cloth to these bushes or trees to solicit aid or health. At medicinal wells and springs, for instance, it is said that as the “rag” weathers away, the affliction itself will fade.

But these “rag bushes” are almost certainly not the source of “take the rag off the bush.”  For a far more likely source, we turn to the American frontier and its nearly omnipresent guns.  It was common in the 18th and 19th centuries to hold impromptu shooting matches where the target was simply a rag hung on a bush in the distance.  A good shot would hit the rag, making it visibly jump.  A great shot would literally “take the rag off the bush,” putting an end to at least that round of the contest with an overwhelming success.

Making this sort of shooting match the likely source of “take the rag off the bush” is the fact that it fits perfectly with “triumphant success” sense of the earliest examples we have of the phrase in print.  One of these examples, from 1843, specifically refers to a shooting match, and none of them mention religious shrines.  There is, on the other hand, no scenario I can imagine involving “rag bushes” that would produce the “stunning triumph” or “take the cake” meanings of “take the rag off the bush.”   Finally, although the phrase has been widely used in the US for at least two centuries, it is virtually unknown outside the US.


Finders keepers.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently finished a crossword puzzle containing the answer “glom.”  I was able to determine this from having seen it in previous puzzles.  It is, apparently, a slang word for “seize.”  I would have guessed “grab” or “nab,” if they fit the puzzle.  Is “glom”  referring to “seize” in the context of a car engine seizing up after running out of oil?  I have never encountered this word outside of a crossword puzzle. — Anthony Goldstein.

That’s a good question, and I’m sorry it took me a while to get around to answering it.  I get so many questions that I often put aside the good ones for later use.  Unfortunately, I also sometimes forget to look at my “to do” file.  For a year or two.  And then I’m afraid to.  I have the horrible feeling that there are questions in there about things Monica Lewinski said to Ken Starr back in 1998.  Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi.  It’s a good thing the Romans didn’t have email, or I’d be apologizing to them, too.

Your question jumped out at me way back when because I was surprised that you had never run into the word “glom” before.  I remember hearing and using it back in the late 1960s, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a core element of my vocabulary, I still probably use it at least every few months.  It also seems fairly popular in the media, and a search of Google News  produces current examples from sources as disparate as The Huffington Post (“And you remember when conservatives thought stopping people from ‘glomming’ off government programs was a good thing.”) and Science Daily (“The nanoparticles ‘glom onto the flies,’ Rand noted while watching a video of flies in the test tubes.”).

In any case, “to glom” does mean, as you gathered, “to grab, snatch, seize or steal,” and it’s usually used in the phrase “to glom on to.”  It’s used, of course, to mean literally “to steal” (“I learnt that stealing clothes from a clothes-line is expressed in Hoboland by the hilarious phrase, ‘Glomming the grape-vine’,” 1925).  But “glom” is also often used in a more figurative sense to mean “to appropriate preemptively” (“I got to the wedding early, but the groom’s drinking buddies had already glommed on to all the good seats”) or “to attach oneself to another person with unwarranted familiarity” (“I tried to talk to Debbie at the party, but some dork had glommed on to her and was talking her ear off”).

There are two surprising facts about “glom.”  One is that it is a fairly old word, first recorded in English in 1907, albeit with a slightly different spelling (“We … discovered that our hands were gloved. ‘Where’d ye glahm ’em?’ I asked. ‘Out of an engine-cab,’ he answered,” The Road, Jack London).  The other is that “glom” has a distinguished pedigree.  It’s simply a form of the Scots word  “glaum,” meaning “to snatch,” which in turn comes from the Gaelic “glam,” meaning “to grab or clutch.”  It’s still considered slang in English, so it’s probably best not to use it in memos to your boss (“Third Quarter widget sales are slightly down due to Acme glomming on to our Panamanian market share”), but for everyday use, “glom” is a very handy little word.