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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Billingsgate

Good thing fish don’t have ears.

Dear Word Detective: Doing a crossword puzzle, I ran into the word “billingsgate” as the answer for the clue “abusive language.” Never having heard this use of “-gate” (as in “public scandal”) among Watergate, Billygate, etc., I looked it up at Merriam-Webster.com. Sure enough, there it was with origin: “Gate and fish market, London, England. First usage 1652.” I was under the impression that Watergate (as a scandal) got its name from Watergate hotel and the other “-gate” words followed the pattern. How does “billingsgate” relate to these other usages?  Was there some really wild fish-fight at this London market? — Gary.

Fish fight! Fish fight! Speaking of fish fights, I’m a fan of the Animal Planet network show “Whale Wars,” in which members of the Sea Shepherd conservation organization try to stop whalers from whaling on the whales. I mentioned the show to someone a few weeks ago, and it became apparent that they had never watched it at least in part because they assumed it was a sort of cetacean “Fight Club,” with whales fighting each other, or something. I suppose such a thing is possible. After all, Moby Dick is just the story of a whale nursing a grudge.

I had to look up “Billygate” to be certain I remembered what it was, and while I vaguely knew President Jimmy Carter’s brother had been accused of influence-peddling, I didn’t recall  that he had actually been paid pots of money by Libya. He should have stuck with Billy Beer. “Billygate” took place in 1978, which wasn’t that long after the Watergate scandal (named after a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the hotel in 1972) had led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, so the name made sense to most people. (“Watergate” is a venerable English term for something, such as a floodgate, that either controls the flow of a stream or river or controls access to it, and the hotel was so named because it overlooks the Potomac River.)

But in the decades since, “gate” has blossomed into quasi-journalistic shorthand for “possible scandal” or “someone says something’s fishy here” or “my dog barks at the TV when that guy’s name is mentioned.” So now we get “Troopergate,” “Travelgate,” “Memogate,” “Gatecrashergate,” “Poodlegate,” ad nauseam, and a new “gate” every week. (Originally I thought I had made up Poodlegate, but it turns out to exist, and involves Al Gore’s thighs. Eww.) William Safire, who was working in the Nixon White House when Watergate erupted, subsequently took great joy in coining “gate” terms in his newspaper columns, and in 1988 he noted that his favorite creation, referring to a minor accounting dustup, was “doublebillingsgate.”

None of this, however, has anything to do with “billingsgate” meaning “abusive language.” “Billingsgate” is the name of one of the gates that originally controlled access to the city of London (“Billing” being the proper name of the builder of the gate). The Billingsgate area lies on the North bank of the River Thames, and Billingsgate was originally a “watergate,” affording access from London to the river for cargo and passengers. The most notable feature of Billingsgate, however, was the fish market established there in the 17th century, known for its chaotic atmosphere and the loud and raucous cries and shouts of its fishmongers. Apparently the shouting went well beyond the norm for a sales pitch, and Billingsgate became famous for the vituperative profanity that filled the air on a typical day, giving us “billingsgate” as a colorful term for foul and abusive language.

Lest you be picturing this sort of swearing contest as a purely male pursuit, it’s worth noting that many of the fish merchants in markets such as Billingsgate were women known as “fishwives” (“wife” being used here in the then-common generic sense of “woman,” especially one of the lower classes). Their ability to match the men in volume and profanity lives on in the phrase “to swear like a fishwife.”

Blue blazes

Ixnay on the azes-blay.

Dear Word Detective:  In doing research on lime kilns for our museum I spoke with an elderly man who told me about the “blue blazes.” In burning the kilns, one knew the process was nearing its end when blue flames were achieved. A kiln was heated for several days and the blue flames had to be maintained for many hours. It was a such a show that people would actually stop when passing to observe the “blue blazes,” as they were known. Our location is on the Niagara Escarpment of Ontario, Canada, an area where many farmers had lime kilns. I wonder if the term “blue blazes” might not have originated from the burning of lime kilns. — Debra R. Mann.

Hmm. It’s a slight departure from my usual policy, but I’m going to just say “no.” It didn’t. Next case. But wait, you get ten points, no, a gazillion points, for asking. Now (assuming you believe me) future generations of tourists won’t waddle into your museum, their grubby little  fingers sticky from whatever ghastly confection will be popular then (probably something mildly radioactive made from recycled cell phones) and encounter a placard misleading them about the origin of “blue blazes.” And then they won’t go home and post a garbled version of that placard to whatever replaces Facebook, confusing the “lime” you mentioned with the stuff in Grandma’s daiquiri drip. Come to think of it, would you like a medal? How about a free cat?

A “lime kiln,” for those not up on such things, is a type of high-intensity oven used to convert limestone into quicklime (calcium oxide), a handy substance which has been used for all sorts of purposes for thousands of years. When quicklime is heated sufficiently, for instance, it produces an intense light used for stage lighting in 19th century theaters, giving us the term “limelight” meaning “public attention and adulation.”

I’m sure the blue glow from a lime kiln operating at its peak must be very intense, but the only connection between the phrase “blue blazes” and those kilns is coincidence. There are actually three separate “blazes” in English. The “blaze” we’re dealing with here, meaning “fire or flames,” comes from the old Germanic word “blason,” meaning “torch.” The second sort of “blaze” comes from Dutch and means “to blow,” and today is heard mostly in reference to “a blaze of trumpets.” The third “blaze,” meaning “to mark a route by stripping patches of bark from trees along the path” (i.e., to “blaze a trail”) comes from an Old Norse word meaning “patch of white on an animal’s forehead.”

For most of its history, “blaze” in the “fire” sense meant either “a torch” (a meaning now considered obsolete) or “a bright flame or fire,” either literally (“A few withered dry sticks, with which they made a blaze,” 1725) or figuratively, in the sense of “glory” or “splendor” (“A most glorious Blaze of Poetical Images,” 1712).

Beginning in the 19th century, however, “blazes” began to be used to mean specifically “the fires of hell” and, by extension, things similarly intense and merciless. Thus were born such phrases as “like blazes” indicating great intensity or force (“The horse … went like blazes,” 1812), as well as the use of “blazes” as a euphemistic synonym for “hell” (“How the blazes you can stand the head-work you do, is a mystery to me,” Dickens, 1837) or “perdition” (“The moral of A party had gone to blazes,” 1924).

“Blue blazes” is simply another metaphorical use of “blazes” as a euphemistic oath (“What the Blue Blazes is he?”, Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861), in this case coupled with “blue” as an elaboration and an intensifier, giving “blazes” a bit more weight. The choice of “blue” is probably largely due to the alliterative charm of having two initial consonants in the phrase “blue blazes.” But the fact that it’s well-known that the hottest fires burn with a blue flame probably played a role as well. So “blue blazes” probably does, indeed, have some connection to a very intense fire, but not specifically the blue glow of a lime kiln.

Bunk

One step ahead of the Sheriff.

Dear Word Detective:  It’s an old expression, but periodically we still see the expression “done a bunk,” a meaning generally attached to a low life who runs out on a spouse, girl friend, or employer, not infrequently with cash or other loot. We’ve seen “bunk” as it refers to trash, falsehoods, and beds, but where do we get the reference to fast-fading ne’er-do-wells? — Oldusedcop.

That’s a great question, evocative of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, The Maltese Falcon and the whole world of “noir” detective novels and films. Unfortunately, as soon as I wrote that sentence I began to worry about Hollywood’s penchant for ruining great films with tawdry and stupid remakes. I’m praying that the plots of those stories are simply too complicated and subtle to hold the studios’ attention, because I don’t think I could survive even hearing of Vince Vaughn playing Sam Spade (probably with Lady Gaga in Mary Astor’s role).

There are actually several “bunks” in English, the oldest of which is “bunk” meaning a sleeping berth aboard a ship or train or, more generally, any bed, especially when two or more are arranged in a tier. This “bunk” dates back to the mid-1700s and is of uncertain origin, but it may have Scandinavian roots and is probably related to “bunker.”

While the roots of that bed “bunk” are murky, the precise origin of “bunk” meaning “nonsense” or “falsehoods” is refreshingly certain. This “bunk” is short for “bunkum,” a simplified spelling of “Buncombe,” a county in North Carolina. Back in 1820, a certain Representative Felix Walker, whose district happened to include Buncombe County, rose on the floor of the US House of Representatives to address the debate of the day, the famous Missouri Compromise, which dealt with slavery in states wishing to join the Union. But as Walker began to speak, it became clear that what he was saying had nothing to do with the issue at hand and was, in fact, irrelevant nonsense. Worse yet, he refused to shut up. Challenged by his colleagues, Walker replied that his constituents expected him to “make a speech for Buncombe,” and started yammering again. Bingo, “buncombe,” later “bunkum” and simply “bunk,” became national shorthand for “nonsense.”

It’s probable that “to do a bunk,” meaning “to run away” since around 1870, comes at least in part from “bunk” in the sense of “nonsense,” especially in an extended use of “bunk” to mean “trickery, dishonesty.” It’s also probable, however, that “to bunk” meaning “to escape, elude,” was strongly influenced by “bunco,” which since the 1870s has been used to mean “a swindle or con, especially one done via dice or playing cards.” The term “bunco” comes from the Spanish “banca,” a card game similar to “monte,” best known in the form “three-card monte,” a swindle (similar to the “shell game”) still played on unsuspecting marks on the streets of New York and other large cities. While “bunco” originally referred to a card swindle, the term quickly came to cover any sort of confidence game or racket, and many urban police departments used to maintain a “bunco squad” whose target was swindlers and con men in general.

So “bunk” meaning “to escape, elude, run away” (“The keeper tried to catch him, but the bad boy did a bunk,” 1870) may well have had two sources, both embodying the sense of dishonesty that “bunk” in this sense implies.