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July 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Ahem. This is actually the June issue. It was ready to go up about ten days ago, but then I woke up one morning and discovered that my desktop computer, the one attached to the ginormous monitor I use when my eyes aren’t working very well (which is frequently the case), was dead as a mackerel. Monitor OK, power supply functioning, fans fine, various drives OK, but it’s d-e-a-d, Jim.

It’s not like I ever really liked the thing; it was a cheapo sub-$400 Dell I picked up on clearance about three years ago. But it was quiet (I have tinnitus already, thanks), and did have an i5 quad-core processor, so it was pleasingly zippy. Plus which it came with Windows 7, which can be handy, so I set it up to dual-boot with Linux. I’m pretty sure the motherboard just croaked. The ethernet network subsystem had died for no good reason about a year after I bought it, which suggests sub-standard soldering. A little Googling indicated that this particular crapoid Dell model — Vostro 260 — has an astronomical failure rate, usually manifested (often shortly after warranty expiration, of course) as a refusal to boot when every test shows it should.

I back stuff up, so I didn’t lose much aside from several days of trying to get the damn thing to work. You’d think I’d have learned not to trust Dell (I now own four dead Dells, dating back to the early 90s), but it was cheap. Now I’m relying on a ten-year old reconditioned laptop that’s gonna have to last another ten years the way things are going. This is all immensely depressing.

Gus and Phoebe, in that order.

On a cheerier note, as promised, here’s Gus the Cat, boxed and ready to ship along with his sister Phoebe. Gus and Phoebe arrived as tiny kittens one day in our yard, along with their brother Harry, ate some leftover pizza, and decided to stay. Their wayward mother, Kiki, wandered in a few months later, bearing such a remarkable resemblance to the crew that the familial relationship was never in doubt. Sadly, Harry died of a respiratory problem a few years ago, but Gus and Phoebe carry on, each with their own unique and sometimes disturbing personality.

The first hint we had that Gus wasn’t your normal couch-cat came when we caught him trying to open the sun porch door with the car keys clenched in his teeth. That’s only a slight exaggeration; early on Gus demonstrated such awesome door-opening skills that we replaced the European lever-style doorknob on that door with a conventional round one. Gus still opens doors occasionally (we keep the outdoor ones locked now), but for the most part confines himself to opening cupboards and closets.

Gus is famous among the other cats for inventing Cat Chow Hockey when he was just a kitten. This sport involves carefully lifting a single bit of chow out of the bowl (optimally located on a high table), placing it on a flat surface, and slapping it with one’s paw so it flies across the room. This gives Gus something to chase and a nice reward at the end. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gus has been known to amuse himself this way for hours at a time. While our dog Pokey was still with us (she died of lymphoma last year), Gus had to race to beat her to the prize. Pokey loved cat chow almost as much as she loved grazing for raccoon scat in the yard.

Gus is also the only cat we have ever had that took pride in teaching tricks to other cats. When we bought a touch-sensitive robot mouse for the gang, they sat around staring at it in torpid puzzlement until Gus stepped forward, tapped the thing to activate its routine (running in circles and cackling maniacally), and then stepped back and looked at the other cats with a “your turn” expression until they got it. Gus is also a master of the “I am everywhere” routine. You’ll see him sound asleep on the bed as you leave the room to go downstairs, but when you get to the living room, there he’ll be, sound asleep (or pretending to be) on the couch. Gus also does this “silent cry” thing where he’ll look at you beseechingly, open his mouth as if to cry, but make no sound. It’s as if he’s too weakened by hunger even to meow. Mama Kiki does exactly the same thing. No shame, any of them. Gus is, incidentally, the reason we unplug the toaster every night.

To return to the computer thing for a moment, I have come to realize lately that any kind of debilitating long-term illness is pretty much a passport to the poorhouse. About nine years ago I signed a deal with a major publisher to write what would be my fifth book, for an advance of, let’s say, enough to buy an economy car new. It was a very good advance at that time; today it would be unheard of for a book on language. Yay! Most money anyone ever offered to pay me for anything! (It’s worth noting, however, that the amount is less impressive when you consider that actually writing the book would probably take 18 months.)

In any case, my euphoria (and the $$$) evaporated a few months later when I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis and I couldn’t finish the book. (I suddenly couldn’t lift my left leg or focus my eyes, among other disturbing symptoms.) Since then it’s been an increasing struggle to a) keep up with my columns and this site, which produces just enough revenue to pay hosting fees and feed a few of the cats, and b) deal with financial emergencies I can’t begin to cover. Our sole car, a trusty Toyota we bought used, is 17 years old (!) and clearly needs some serious repair. After decades of bad dentistry and worse advice, I need full upper and lower dentures, to the tune of ~$5,000. The chances of me ever having $5,000 at one time are pretty clearly zero. I think I’ve figured out why so many folks at the lower end of the economy play Lotto. I’ve considered starting a Kickstarter campaign or something, but it’s not like I need a new kidney. Your contributions and subscriptions, however, will be deeply appreciated.

And now, on with the show….

Hurly-burly

The roar of the crowd.

Dear Word Detective: So near the end of our vacation my wife was saying we were returning to the “hurry-burry.” I pointed out to her (a silly thing to do) that it was really “hurly-burly,” like in the opening scene of Macbeth: “When the hurly-burly’s done; when the battle’s lost and won” (those girls didn’t take sides, I guess). No doubt “hurly-burly” means noisy confusion, tumult, or commotion, but where does this come from? Early Scots battles? I know the Scots “hurl” a great deal (and in my college days I knew a number of people who “hurled” and caused a great commotion) so I’m assuming that perhaps they went to battle hurling spears, stones, cabers, and maybe even “burls”? Help me out here. My wife isn’t too happy that I corrected her, but maybe if I could explain the phrase she might calm down (and cease the hurly-burly in our home.) — Barney Johnson.

Thanks a lot. Now I have that old Donovan song “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” running through my head. Speaking of Scots hurling things, my parents used to take us to the annual Scottish Highland Games near where we lived in Connecticut, and it left me with a lifelong fear of flying hammers. And of bagpipes, of course, but, to paraphrase Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t not like bagpipes.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “hurly-burly” as “Commotion, tumult, strife, uproar, turmoil, confusion,” and dates its first appearance in print to the mid-15th century. Current usage seems to include a less dramatic sense of the word, meaning the rapid, demanding pace of modern life with its myriad “asap” tasks, appointments, meetings, etc.

Your hunch connecting “hurly-burly” to the verb “to hurl” is right on target. “Hurl” in its basic intransitive sense means “to move along forcefully; to rush impetuously,” and, as a transitive verb, “to push, drive or throw with force and violence.” The sense of rapid motion is central to “hurl,” and the Germanic root that produced it was most likely something like “hurr,” an imitation of something moving very quickly (which may also be the root of “hurry”).

The “hurly” in “hurly-burly” is almost certainly a form of the noun “hurling,” the primary meaning of which, logically enough, is “the act of throwing in a forceful or violent manner.” More relevantly, “hurling” back in the 14th century also meant “strife or commotion,” perhaps because in such a context there was likely to be literal hurling going on.

So by about 1600, “hurly” was in use meaning “strife or turmoil.” The “burly” was added through a common process called “reduplication,” in which a word is repeated with a slight variation (in this case the switch of the initial letter), as is found in such inventions as “hokey-pokey,” “boogie-woogie” and “super-duper.” In “hurly-burly” the second element (“burly”) is meaningless, as it is in most reduplications (although in some, e.g., “walkie-talkie,” it’s an essential part of the term).

Meanwhile, back at that Donovan song still bedeviling me, a “hurdy-gurdy” was originally an exceedingly weird musical instrument that resembled a lute or small guitar with a keyboard, played by turning a crank and pressing keys. In the mid-18th century, the term also began to be used for the small cranked barrel organs often used by street performers at that time. Apparently the dubious charm of both kinds of hurdy-gurdy is that they produce a constant droning sound behind whatever melody is being played, an effect said to be similar to that of bagpipes. Oh boy, bagpipes. Anyway, the term “hurdy-gurdy,” which dates to the late 18th century, is thought to have been coined in imitation of the instrument’s sound. But it may also have been influenced by the now-obsolete Scots dialect term “hirdy-girdy,” which meant (drum roll please) “uproar, confusion or disorder,” and which certainly seems like a relative of “hurly-burly.”

Floozy

First stone cast, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the word “floozy” to describe what used to be known, in more quaint times, as a “loose woman.” — Lynda.

Ah yes, the more quaint times. As Grampa Simpson put it, “Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ‘em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you’d say.” If that ain’t quaint, I’ll be a badger’s dentist, as we used to say. Back then.

“Quaint” is actually a strange word. (Offstage: Would you like to talk about it?) OK, well, “quaint” comes from the Anglo-Norman “cointe” (clever, crafty, proud, elegant) and ultimately, way back, from the Latin “cognitus” (clever, wise). In English, “quaint” originally meant “cunning, crafty, elegant or finely made,” but by the 14th century we were using it to mean “strange or unusual,” which became our modern “quaint” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “attractively or agreeably unusual in character or appearance … pleasingly old-fashioned.”

“Floozy” is a word with a history, as one might expect. For one thing, it has had a number of spellings and forms (including floozie, floosie, floosy, and floogy, among others) since it first appeared in the early 20th century. For another, the meaning of “floozy” has changed a bit over the years.

The source of “floozy” is, surprisingly, almost certainly the adjective “flossy,” which is based on “floss.” “Floss” is the fine filaments that surround the cocoon of the silk worm, as well as, by extension, anything made (or appearing to be made) of fine, glossy filaments or fibers. (What we in the US call “cotton candy,” for instance, is known as “candy floss” in the UK.) In the mid-19th century, “flossy,” originally meaning simply “floss-like,” acquired two figurative meanings: “fancy or showy” (i.e., tricked out in glossy and fashionable finery) and “saucy or impertinent” (carrying that “fashionable” into “brash” and “gaudy” territory).

In the early 20th century US, “floozie,” a colloquial form of “flossy,” was most often used in the first sense of “elegant, attractive,” especially with reference to young women, but by mid-century the “saucy” element had come to the fore and a “floozy” in popular parlance was a wild and disreputable “party girl,” if not actually a prostitute (“He bought a red racy car and went skidding around … with every floozy in town; the only nice girls you ever saw in that car were his sisters.” Truman Capote, 1951).

Such derogatory devolution of terms applied to women is sadly common in English. The epithet “hussy,” for instance, is derived from the honorable “housewife.” On the bright side (I guess), “floozie” is such an antiquated term that it is almost always used in a joking sense today.