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November 2009 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, here we are, back at what we like to call the Holiday Schlepping Season, and we have a very special super-duper Gift Subscription deal that will solve all your problems.  For a limited time (until January 1st, 2010, which sounds like it’s really far away but is actually only mere days from now), one year subscriptions to The Word Detective by Email, normally $15, will be two for $20.  Yeah, that’s it.  Best I can do, I’m afraid.  But heck, in giving a gift subscription or two, you’re telling the recipient(s) that you think they’re sophisticated enough to enjoy a lively year-long expedition exploring the outer fringes of our mother tongue, interspersed, of course, with strange little stories and jokes about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the ostensible subject of the column.  You don’t see that every day, you know.  Most editors won’t allow it, probably because it’s like getting two columns for the price of one, or, in the case of this offer, four columns for the price of one and a half, or something.  Anyway, if you decide to spring for this FABULOUS DEAL, just click on the second PayPal link on the Subscription page, fill in $20, and then send me an email via the Question/Comment form letting me know the email addresses of the lucky people, and whether the subs should start immediately or after the holidays.

Onward.  I’ve been deluged lately (maybe that’s overstating it — it’s more of a drip, drip, drip) by emails from folks asking me why I’m not “on Facebook.”  Actually, they ask why right after they say You’re not on Facebook? the way I might say You’re not eating your garlic bread?, i.e., implying (a) that the person must be either ill or insane, but (b) that still doesn’t constitute an adequate excuse.

I feel the same way about pizza, by the way, and was once apprehended gnawing on cold pizza in a darkened conference room because I couldn’t bear to see it go to waste.

But no, I am not and will not for the foreseeable future be “on Facebook,” and, since you all asked, I very much enjoy not being “on Facebook.”  So you’ll all just have to soldier on without me, I’m afraid, but give my regards to the herd.  And about that “friending” thing, not to worry.  You’re all my friends, each and every one of you, and I love you all to bits.  Honest.

So, OK, since you asked, here’s why I don’t want to be “on Facebook”:

Continue reading this post » » »

Hot dog

Mystery meat.

Dear Word Detective: I am a college student graduating this June. Last summer I received a grant to teach English in a rural minority village in SW China. On the 4th of July, I was explaining about American holidays. We had just finished a unit on food, so my students wanted to know what food Americans eat on the 4th of July. One of the things I told them was hot dogs. Now while some people in China eat dog meat, this minority group does not and, as a result, stared at me with horror. It probably didn’t help that, as the classroom was rather rustic, I had a collection of local canines flopped around the dirt floor and a puppy at my feet. When I tried to explain to my incredulous students that hot dogs were not made out of dog meat, they wanted to know why the food is called “hot dog.” My drawings of dachshunds and hot dogs were unconvincing and my students were so upset by the idea of dog sausages that I eventually made up a story about the summer being hot, dogs panting, and eating hot dogs, and then tied it all together in Chinese. They bought it, but I would like to have the real story, particularly because I will be spending the next two years teaching college English in China. Also, I am going back to the village next summer, and I would like to tell my former students the truth. — K., currently of Wellesley, MA, soon of Nanjing, China.

Wow. And to think I was feeling guilty over some of my funkier tax deductions. That’s a long (although very interesting) question, so we’ll have to go with a fairly short answer.

The origin of the term “hot dog” has been debated for well over 100 years, with many of the theories centering on the resemblance of the sausage in the bun to a dachshund dog as the source of the name. You’ll find many sources online and in print that credit the invention of the term “hot dog” to the early 20th century newspaper cartoonist T.A. Dorgan, who did draw at least one cartoon of “hot dogs” as dachshunds in buns in 1906.

hotdog09But “hot dog” had been slang for the long sausage sandwiches since at least 1895, and the term had nothing to do with dachshunds. After years of dogged research, the indefatigable etymologist Barry Popik ( proved that “hot dog” originated as college slang, apparently first at Yale, as a sardonic reference to the then-popular belief that “hot dogs” contained actual dog meat. Such rumors were not entirely irrational, since in 1843 there had been a major scandal in New York City when dog and other “unconventional” meats were discovered in a meat-packing plant. By the late 1850s, the “dog meat in sausage” rumor was widespread in the US, and proved so hardy that sixty years later, in 1913, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce forbade vendors from using the term “hot dogs” for their wares. But the actual consumers of “hot dogs” continued to use the name, and hot dogs today, certified Fido-free, remain one of America’s favorite foods.

Incidentally, the use of “hot dog” to mean a “show off,” as an adjective meaning “excellent,” or as an interjection expressing delight (“Satisfied customers, huh? Hot dog!”, Fawlty Towers, 1979) all also come from college slang of the late 19th or early 20th century. Apparently, to college students, hot dogs were the pizza of that era.

Bring the hammer down

Time’s up.

Dear Word Detective: The other night at dinner my wife used the phrase “bring the hammer down.” My 10 year old son asked what that phrase meant. I explained to him that it meant to deal in a severe, decisive way. We then began to wonder what the etymology of this phrase would be. My wife suggested that it related to a judge’s gavel, but I have a feeling that the phrase is older than that. Could you please bring the hammer down on this question? — Edward.

You’re probably right, although “gavel” is a pretty old word, first appearing in print in the early 18th century. There are actually four separate “gavel” nouns in English: two very old terms having to do with intensely boring things like rent payment and division of estates, another one meaning corn harvested but not yet bound in sheaves for collection, and our common “gavel,” meaning the small hammer or mallet used to call meetings or judicial sessions to order, etc. “Gavel” meaning “mallet” is actually an American invention, but no one seems to know exactly how we came up with the word.


Unclear on the concept.

“To a man with a hammer,” Mark Twain famously said, “everything looks like a nail,” and as a metaphorical tool of construction, destruction, suppression or oppression, the ever-handy hammer has few equals in the English vernacular. The word “hammer” itself comes from Germanic roots with the general sense of “stone weapon” or “tool with a stone head,” and our modern “hammer” first appeared in Old English already with its current modern meaning of a tool with a stone or metal head and a wooden handle used to pound things.

Almost as soon as we began using “hammer” in a literal sense, we developed a wide range of figurative uses for both the noun form and “to hammer” as a verb. In the 14th century, a “hammer” was “a person or agency that beats down or crushes opposition,” a usage echoed in recent years in the US government, where leaders (most recently Rep. Tom DeLay) known for their ruthless suppression of opposition cultivated the nickname “the Hammer.” We still speak of “going at” a difficult task “with hammer and tongs,” as a blacksmith would pound hot iron while holding it with metal tongs. The metaphor of a blacksmith’s forge also crops up when we speak of “hammering out” an agreement or plan, exhaustively discussing or arguing over it until it takes the desired shape.

Literal hammers (or gavels) have also given us metaphorical uses, such as “to go under the hammer,” meaning to be sold at auction (from the auctioneer’s rap of the gavel ending the bidding). It is possible that “bring the hammer down” refers to this process as well, especially as it carries a sense of “put an end to something with conclusive action.” But the fact that “bring the hammer down” invariably invokes severe, unpleasant action tends to indicate that it originally referred to the “ruthless suppression” sense of “hammer,” a crushing action that has been delayed for a time for some reason, but that is finally decisively exercised. The hammer that is being “brought down,” in this saying, has been poised over the victim’s head for quite a while.

It’s unclear on when “bring the hammer down” appeared, but a similar phrase, “to drop the hammer on,” first appeared in print in the late 1970s. Both phrases, however, are probably much older than that.