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Toxoplasmosis R Us.

Dear Word Detective: We are just about to take on new responsibilities in the form of an eight-week-old Labrador puppy. It’s our first pet since our previous black lab died a few years ago (not like your household, which seems to be overrun with cats). While talking about it to someone, it occurred to me that “pet” was quite a strange word, and I couldn’t link it to any other words I could think of. Neither could my dictionary, but words don’t usually materialize out of thin air, so it must have a background of some kind. Any ideas? — David, Ripon, Yorkshire, UK.

One moment, please. Our household is not “overrun” with cats. We prefer to say that we are “enriched” with cats. Perhaps “richly endowed” with cats. “Cat-prosperous.” That we have “an embarrassment of cats” (certainly true in the Eyewitness News sense). Besides, somewhere in that crowd are two dogs whose destructive abilities are easily the match of their weight (which is considerable) in cats. I have yet to meet the cat capable of swallowing a sweat sock or chewing the leg off a coffee table. Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of time.

“Pet” is an odd word. It first appeared in print in English in the 16th century, derived from the Scottish Gaelic word “paeta,” meaning “tame animal,” with two senses appearing nearly simultaneously. One was “a lamb or other domestic animal raised by hand,” while the other, possibly a derivative of the first, was “a pampered or favorite child.” The familiar modern sense of “pet” as “an animal kept for companionship” was a later development of the first sense, appearing in the early 18th century. About the same time, the second sense, “pampered child,” spawned a meaning of “Any person who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favorite, especially in a way that others regard with disapproval” (Oxford English Dictionary), which gave us everyone’s least favorite classmate, the “teacher’s pet.” Oddly enough, “pet” is unrelated to either “petite” or “petty,” both of which developed from the Old French “petit,” meaning “small.”

As an adjective, “pet” can be applied to domesticated animals (“pet wolverine”), to names expressing affection or familiarity (as “Betty” is a “pet name” for Elizabeth), or humorously to things particularly unloved (“Muzak is Bob’s pet hate”). “Pet” also crops up in a wide range of compounds, from “pet passport” (I kid you not) to “pet rock.”


The rubber ones don’t fly so good.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering if you can help — I have asked many cockneys and have not gleaned any information. The English slang word “kite” refers to a bank check. But what are its origins? — Raj Oberoi.

Thanks for an interesting question. I see that you’re writing from a UK email address, which explains the “cockney” reference, but I’m wondering how literally you are using the term. Strictly speaking, “cockney” refers to those born in the East End of London, and comes from the Middle English “cokenei,” or “cock’s egg,” the runt of the nest (as if from an egg laid by a rooster, not a hen). The term was evidently used to mean “pampered child” by country folk and applied to city dwellers in general before being narrowed to mean one particular group of Londoners.

Most of us, hearing the word “kite,” think of the flying contraption traditionally made of light wood and paper. Although I haven’t flown one in years, I actually belong to the International Kitefliers Association, having been enrolled in the 1960s by the IKA’s founder, the late Will Yolen, a friend of my father. While Mr. Yolen is gone, I presume my membership is still valid, since the IKA charter stipulated ”No meetings, no dues, no publications, only kite flying.”

Interestingly, however, the familiar paper “kite” is a figurative use of the word. The real “kite” is a bird of prey, a species similar to the falcon, notable for its forked tail. The term “kite” can be traced back to the Old English “cyta,” but no further — no other language has a related word. The paper “kite” took its name in the mid-17th century because, like the bird, a paper kite appears to hover nearly motionless in the air.

That sense of “hovering” with no visible means of support led, in the early 19th century, to the use of “kite” in financial circles to mean bonds or promissory notes used to raise money on credit. Issuers of such “trust us” documents were said to be “flying a kite.” By the 1920s, “kite” was being used in slang, especially in the criminal underground, to mean a check, particularly one forged or written without sufficient funds in the issuing bank. As a verb, “to kite” today means to write a check without the funds to back it up.

Jump the gun.

It’s like jumping rope, but faster.

Dear Word Detective: I was in a European meeting chaired by a Dutch person who spoke the English language with far greater facility than is commonly heard these days in the UK. He told the meeting that we needed to be careful not to “jump the gun,” and reiterated that “jumping the gun” would be something best avoided later on. Now, he used the phrase quite correctly in meaning that we should avoid taking precipitate action, and we needed better information upon which to base a decision, but I confess I had no real idea where the phrase came from (and found myself wondering what the interpreters made of it!). I suspect, because it tends to be a rich source, that the 18th or 19th century Royal Navy might have something to do with it, but thought I would seek the wisdom of our American friends. — Adrian.

Hmm. I hate to shoot down your hunch, because under the circumstances it was perfectly logical, but while the Royal Navy may be a rich source of many wonderful things, verifiable stories about word and phrase origins are not among them. In fact, given stories purporting to tie phrases such as “son of a gun,” “not enough room to swing a cat” and many others to life aboard British warships, the Royal Navy must be counted as one of the world’s leading sources of utter nonsense. Spurious etymologies involving Her Majesty’s naval forces are so common, in fact, that some wag (I wish I knew who) came up with an acronym for the purveyors of such tales — CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.

In the case of “jump the gun,” meaning “to act before the permitted or appropriate time,” the gun in question is about as far from one of the massive cannons of the 19th century Royal Navy as it is possible to get. It’s a starting pistol, a small revolver used to fire blanks to signal the start of a race, particularly a foot race. To “jump the gun” in this literal context means to step across the starting line, either accidentally or on purpose, before the gun actually fires, thereby gaining an advantage, even if literally only momentarily, over the other runners. “Jump the gun” first appeared in print (as far as we know) only in 1942, but a 1905 citation for another form, “beat the pistol (or gun),” illustrates the problem: “False starts were rarely penalized … and so shiftless were the starters and officials that ‘beating the pistol’ was one of the tricks which less sportsmanlike runners constantly practiced.” As a metaphor for making a premature or false start, “jump the gun” is hard to beat, and has the advantage (for me, at least) of being set on dry ground.