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October 2008 Issue


Well, it’s been a quiet month here at TWD World Headquarters.

As if.  Actually, last month (September) was a major drag.  Look, I thought we had a deal.  We move to Ohio, we put up with tornadoes, blizzards, snakes, coyotes on the front porch, skunks by the back door, spiders the size of skunks, weeks without rain and then flash floods, lightning, ball lightning, power outages for no damn reason, random gunfire from our deranged neighbors all day and night, and no decent restaurants within fifty miles.  In return we get … cats?  But OK, the sunsets are pretty.

But we did not, and I cannot emphasize this too strongly, we did not sign up for hurricanes. Hurricanes?  In Ohio?  That ain’t right.

But we did end up getting the last gasp of Ike — no rain, just winds.  Seventy-five mile per hour winds, winds that tore down trees, screwed up our roof and knocked out power all over Central Ohio, in our case for four days.  That meant no lights, no TV (not a biggie to me), no internet (a biggie), and, most importantly, no water, since the well pump refuses to run without juice.  But, overall, we did pretty well for a house built during the Civil War, though we did lose about $500 in spoiled food.  So much for being prepared for emergencies.

And that, dear friends, is the main reason why there was no September issue of this little circus.

Two bits of news:  First, I have changed the commenting system so you no longer have to register and log in to comment, thus, I hope, putting an end to the ridiculous password kerfuffle. Comments must still wait to be approved, so expect a slight delay in seeing your thoughts actually appear.

Secondly, without delving into the grisly details, it would be totally awesome if more of you subscribed.  As I have mentioned before, my ms has severely restricted my income, so every little bit helps more than you would think.  To that end, until January 2009 we will be offering a two-for-one subscription deal wherein $15 bags you two one-year subs.  Make a friend happy!

And now, on with the show…

Dopey Dildock

Immortal stupidity.

Dear Word Detective: I referred to someone as “dopey dilldock” the other day, and my wife said her mother used the same expression.  Any ideas on the origin of this one? — Charles.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when the odd sayings of our parents we perceive, or something like that.  Tracking down “dopey dilldock” turned into an all-day endeavor for me.

I started with the assumption that “dopey dilldock” means “a stupid person,” which seems reasonable given the usual meaning of “dopey” (originally “appearing to be under the influence of dope” i.e., drugs).  In searching online for the word “dilldock” (or “dildock”), I came across several references to a 1918 movie called “A Perfect 36,” starring Mabel Norman.   Interestingly, in the film the actor Rod La Rocque played a character named “O.P. Dildock.”  Hey, it rhymes with “dopey dilldock”!  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a plot synopsis, so whether La Rocque played a doofus remains a mystery.

Fortunately, this dead end was quickly superseded by a live hit in the form of a citation for an obscure newspaper comic strip of the 1930s called, bingo, “Dopey Dildock.”  And when I say “obscure,” I mean “virtually unknown.”  The only reason it hasn’t entirely disappeared down the memory hole is that it was an early effort by the cartoonist Gus Edson, who went on to create “Dondi,” an enormously (and inexplicably, in my opinion) popular strip about an Italian war orphan adopted by an American GI (who apparently never noticed that the kid’s eyes were just big black dots).

But while Edson’s later efforts were highly successful, it seems unlikely that “Dopey Dildock” could have become a popular catchphrase based on an obscure 1930s comic strip.  Indeed, Edson obviously chose that name for the strip because the phrase “Dopey Dildock” was already popular, and had been for decades.

“Dopey Dildock” dates back to at least the first years of the 20th century and possibly earlier.  There are various theories about the phrase, but the most plausible, to me, appeared in an article in the journal American Speech in 1981.  Etymologist Henry Stern suggested that “dildock” might be rooted in the German dialect word “dildap” or “diltap,” meaning “a silly, foolish, inept person” (the “dil” coming from the same root that gave us the English “dull”).  Stern also ventured that the term arrived in the US with German immigrants, which would explain why it is unknown in England but apparently was common at one time in areas of the US with a strong German heritage.

In any case, the alliterative (and slightly redundant) form “dopey dildock” was evidently still popular in the US in the 1950s, and “dildock” is still seen used as an insult on the internet.

Fire in the hole.

Keep back 200 feet.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve been trying to find the definitive origin of the expression “fire in the hole,” but only can find hypotheses, not a substantiated origin.  Can you help? — Barbara Garrett.

Let’s make a deal.  I’ll tell you where the phrase comes from if you solemnly promise never to use it yourself.  Same goes for anyone reading this column.  Stop reading right now unless you agree.  You in the Star Trek pajamas with the Doritos, was that a yes?  OK, we’re on.

Sorry to be cranky, but there are some popular language fads that really boil my bunny, and the apparent rage for shouting “Fire in the hole!” at every opportunity is at the top of my list right now.  It seems to be on the tip of the tongue of every aging frat boy, the type who ten years ago was still punctuating every third sentence with “Not!”  There’s even a genre of “Fire in the Hole” YouTube videos that showcase twerps shouting the phrase as they throw soft drinks at hapless fast-food clerks at drive-through windows.  It’s the title of a Steely Dan song, for Pete’s sake.  So don’t be lame.  Just say no.

As commonly used as a catchphrase today, “fire in the hole” means “watch out,” “stand back,” or “something exciting and/or important is about to happen.”  It’s become an all-purpose synonym of “heads up!”

But the origins of “fire in the hole” lie deep in the history of perhaps the most dangerous civilian occupation on earth, underground coal mining.  For much of its history in the US, such mining has depended on the use of black powder or dynamite to loosen the rock.  When the charges had been placed, just before detonation, the cry “Fire in the hole!” was a warning to miners to clear the area and prepare for the explosion.  Far from being an antiquated custom, the phrase is still legally required to be shouted in many states (Illinois mining regulations specify “The shot firer must give a loud, verbal warning such as ‘fire in the hole’ at least three (3) times before blasting”).  “Fire in the hole,” like coal mining itself, is deadly serious business, which is why the current frivolous use of the phrase ticks me off.

“Fire in the hole” dates back at least to the early 20th century, and was adopted in the 1940s by military bomb disposal teams, as well as by soldiers tossing grenades into enclosed spaces (such as tunnels) where “blow-back” might be expected.  Interestingly, moonshiners in  Appalachia in the 1920s (many of whom were from mining communities) also shouted the phrase to warn of the approach of “revenuers” (government agents), occasionally detonating sticks of dynamite for emphasis.