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And where it flew, I have no clue.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if there was any relation between the word “quiver” as a holster for arrows and “quiver” as a shaking of the body from being scared or cold. — Graydon.

Whoa, synchronicity city, dude. I was just, this evening, watching a rerun of the Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon was playing Wii archery with Leonard. In the course of the game he mentioned that his father taught him to shoot a bow and now he has olfactory flashbacks of Kmart bourbon whenever he plays the Wii version. I don’t think Kmart actually sells bourbon, but I’ve never actually looked, so they may. Anyway, I was told I would like this show, and I sometimes do, but I have to watch it with closed captions on and the sound turned way down  because the laugh-track makes me seasick. Those people will laugh at anything.

This is all relevant because, as a nod to authenticity, Sheldon insisted that Leonard mime the action of pulling each imaginary arrow from an imaginary quiver slung across his back before each shot. Having been deeply into archery for a few months as a yoot, as they say in Brooklyn, I found this quite believable. I had a weirdly medieval suede quiver apparently designed to evoke fantasies of being a pint-sized Robin Hood, which I definitely wasn’t.

Of the two “quivers,” this is the older, a noun meaning “a case, usually tubular, for holding arrows.” It first appeared in English in the early 14th century, adapted from the Anglo-Norman “quivere,” from the Old French “quivre.” Further back are Germanic roots that also produced the English word “cocker,” which is now obsolete but in the early 8th century appeared meaning the same thing as “quiver” does today. In addition to its literal use in the world of archery, “quiver” is commonly used figuratively to mean “repository, resources or collection,” a metaphorical “arsenal,” or simply “bag of tricks” (“The remaining S&P companies … keep their profit outlook under wraps, and this is the information that analysts ultimately have in their quiver,” Barron’s, 2011).

“Quiver” in this “arrow case” sense can also be used as a verb meaning “to put arrows in a quiver,” but the other, more common, “quiver” verb is utterly unrelated to arrows. This “quiver” first appeared in English in the late 15th century meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “to shake, tremble, or vibrate with a slight rapid motion … to make a movement of this kind as an expression of cold, rage, fear, etc.” The verb “to quiver” can also be used transitively to mean “to cause to vibrate or tremble” or, more often, “to produce in or by quivering; to utter or give out in a trembling voice” (OED). This “speak or sing with a shaky voice” sense covers “quivering” both from shock or fear (“‘No!’ quivered out poor Mary, scarcely conscious that she spoke,” 1849) or simply because your voice is not ready for prime  time (“The middle-aged, stubble-bearded piano player in the red jacket quivering out the ‘song’ from Philadelphia in a wimpy falsetto,” 1994).

The origin of the “shaking” kind of “quiver” is uncertain, but it’s likely that it arose as a variant of the somewhat earlier “to quaver,” also meaning “to tremble or quiver,” especially trilling in one’s voice or in playing a musical instrument (“He quavers in his musical Aires melodiously,” 1665). “Quaver” is based on the verb “to quave,” dating to the 13th century and meaning, predictably, “to shake or quake.” At this point the trail runs cold, and the origin of “quave” is a mystery, although it may be related in a remote, foggy fashion to the verb “to quake,” which would make sense.


I can’t work the lobster shift ’cause I’m allergic.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of calling a shift of work a “trick”? I grew up in a railroad town and always heard “trick,” but never heard a reason why we called them that. — Rich Hileman.

That’s an interesting question. Actually it’s two interesting questions, because you defined “trick” in terms of being synonymous with “shift,” another somewhat odd term for a period of time someone is scheduled to work. I remember that the first time I ever heard “shift” used in that sense I was quite young, and assumed that it had something to do with the gearshift on a car, perhaps in reference to driving to work. This was, I should add, at a time when automatic transmissions were not the default on cars. I actually learned to drive on a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a four-speed transmission. I had no idea at the time that I was driving what would eventually be considered the quintessential American “muscle car.” I was just trying to avoid trees and crossing guards, not an easy task as I was learning on icy roads in the dead of a New England winter.

“Shift” first appeared as a verb in Old English (as “sciftan”) from Germanic roots with the basic sense of “to divide” or “to arrange.” In English the verb “to shift” originally meant “to put in order; to arrange,” but also “to apportion; to divide up.” It wasn’t until the 14th century that “to shift” developed the meanings “to change” or “to move” that underlie most senses of the verb we use today. As a noun appearing in the 15th century, “shift” carried the sense of “a movement to do something; a beginning” as well as that of “a share; an assigned portion.” This noun “shift” went of to acquire a broad range of meanings, from “a clever artifice” to “a change,” with dozens of sub-senses. One was “shift” meaning “initiative” or “gumption,” the lack of which leads to a person being called “shiftless.” Another was “a change of clothes,” which gave us the kind of formless dress called a “shift,” originally a garment both men and women would  put on after changing out of something a bit fancier.

In the 18th century, “shift” in this “change” sense came to be used to mean each of the successive crops rotated by farmers to maintain their land (corn one year, then “shift” to wheat the next, etc.), and that “shift” was soon also used to mean a change of horses or of workmen at a task. By the early 19th century, “shift” had come into general use in its modern meaning of “the period of time a person is scheduled to work.” So the “shift” you work is actually named for the fact that the task is “shifted” to you from the worker who preceded you.

“Trick” is a little bit trickier. The noun “trick” first appeared in the 15th century, from the Late Latin “tricari,” meaning “to deceive; to shuffle,” and pretty much from day one meant “a deceit, swindle or prank” (“If any one plays their tricks upon me, they shall pay for their fun,” 1796). “Trick” did, however, develop a remarkable number of other senses. In the 16th century, “trick” was used to mean “a particular habit, quality or custom,” usually one frowned upon by society. This sense is most often heard today in speaking of someone who is “up to his old tricks,” i.e., misbehaving in a personally characteristic manner.

“Trick” was also used in a related sense to mean simply “a pattern of expression or behavior” as in a style of dress or personal habits (“He detected … even the trick of his walk,” Bulwer-Lytton, 1846) . This broad sense of “trick” meaning “something one does routinely” produced, in the mid-17th century, the use of “trick” as naval slang for “the period a man is assigned to duty at the helm of a ship.” And that “time at the helm” sense eventually gave us “trick” in the more general sense of a “shift” at any job. This “trick” also expanded, in the 1930s, to serve as underworld slang for a sentence served in prison (“After serving a few tricks in the penitentiary they might turn State’s evidence,” 1939).


Travels with Trifey.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years, I have worked with juvenile delinquents at various institutions in Ohio. They used to use the word “trifey” as a synonym for “dirty” (as in “a person gets lice by being trifey, don’t he?”), but now it just seems to be an all-purpose insult. Moreover, it seems that they are conflating it with the word “trifling,” only not pronouncing the “g.” An online urban dictionary stated that it originally meant “slutty” but I have not heard it used that way. I read somewhere that the word may have derived from “treyf” (sometimes spelled “traife”), a Yiddish word meaning “un-kosher.” Can you tell me if this is the correct etymology, and if not what is? — Emily Coulson.

Read it somewhere, eh? You weren’t living in New York City back around 1996, were you? I ask because back then I was writing a column for the Daily News called City Slang in which I answered questions about, well, city slang. And I happened to write an item about the word “trife,” which I still have on my computer, which is amazing. This may mean I need a new computer.

Anyway, the good news is that I actually remembered writing that column as soon as I read your question, which should prove to certain people that I am not enfeebled, despite the fact that I sometimes leave a dog or two outside after a walk. So I’m glad this question came round again. I just hope it doesn’t mean I’m about to be inundated with a new wave of questions about “the third word ending in ‘gry’.” If that doesn’t ring a bell, please don’t ask.

It’s apparent from your explanation that the “trife” a reader asked me about in 1996 and the “trifey” you’ve encountered are, in fact, the same word. At that time I wrote that “In current hip hop and rap slang, an action or thing that is ‘trife’ (rhymes with ‘wife’) is bad or degrading in an especially low way. Cheating on your income taxes may be wrong, but ripping off your friends or hurting your family is truly ‘trife.'” The term seems to have appeared in rap slang in the 1980s, but the earliest example I’ve found so far is from the song “Mecca and the Soul Brother” (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, 1991): “Okay, you wanna act trife and flip the script / With your Wonderama drama slash coma riff.” (“Flip the script” is a great slang phrase meaning “reverse course, change your mind, turn the tables, do the unexpected.”)

At the time I first wrote about “trife,” I noted that its origin was very uncertain, but that the source might well be “the Yiddish word ‘trayf’ (rhymes with ‘safe’), used to describe food that is not Kosher and thus forbidden.  In a broader sense, ‘trayf’ is applied to anything thought to be wrong or harmful, from racy movies to shady business deals.” The word “trayf” (which is also spelled “trefa,” “trifa,” “treyf,” “traife” and a few dozen other ways) comes from the Hebrew “taraf,” meaning literally “to tear or rend,” and originally referred to the flesh of an animal that had been killed by a wild beast, i.e., the roadkill of the day, not slaughtered in accordance with the dictates of Jewish religious law.

No sooner had my column on “trife” been published, however, than I received a note from Dr. Angela Taylor, then at Rutgers University and now an authority on criminal justice at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, who suggested that “Rather than stemming from the word ‘trayf,’ it is more likely that trife is an abbreviation of the word ‘trifling,’ which is in common use among African-Americans. Especially among the young, ‘trifling’ has acquired a meaning that goes beyond its dictionary definition (i.e., petty, unimportant) to describe negative behavior that is beyond the pale.”

So is “trife” (or “trifey”) an expanded sense of “trayf” that made the leap into the hip-hop world of the 1980s, or a greatly expanded use of “trifling” to mean “very bad, dishonest, unpleasant, dirty”?  It’s impossible to say, although I tend to lean towards the “triflng” theory simply because it involves a linear expansion of a common word and not a radical leap over cultural boundaries. Of course, it’s also possible that both theories are somewhat true; “trayf” is not an obscure term in urban areas, even to non-Jews, and its expanded sense of “no good, disgusting, wrong” makes that one little word very useful.