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Strait jacket

Comfortably numb.

Dear Word Detective: After finding your superb explanation of “manor born” versus “manner born,” I wish to inquire about the origins of “straight jacket” vs. “strait jacket.” I suspect the latter is the original usage, but I cannot find anything definitive concerning this. — George Hancock.

Good question. For the benefit of folks who missed my explanation of “to the [manner/manor] born” a few years ago, here’s a brief recap: meaning “accustomed by birth or upbringing to a certain ‘manner’ — attitudes, methods or practices,” the phrase comes from Shakespeare, specifically the first act of Hamlet. The dour Dane, commenting on the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore castle, remarks “But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honour’d in the breach than the observance.” By this he meant, basically, “I grew up with drunks, everybody here drinks, so it doesn’t bother me.” The phrase “to the manner born” has long been used in this “way we do things” sense, as well as to mean “naturally suited to something” (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).

In the 19th century the variant “to the manor born” first appeared, meaning “born into or suited to an upper-class social position” (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962). It’s not clear whether the substitution of “manor” for “manner” resulted from a misunderstanding or a deliberate pun, but “manor” is now more common, which is too bad. “To the manner born” and “to the manor born” differ substantially in meaning.

Meanwhile, back at your actual question, the word is definitely “straitjacket,” defined by as “a jacket that has long arms which can be tied together behind someone’s back and that is used to control the movements of a violent prisoner or patient.” The term first appeared in print around 1814 (although the British equivalent “strait waistcoat” dates to 1753). Straitjackets are designed to tightly restrict a person’s movement, and thus “straitjacket” is also used figuratively to mean anything that restricts action, thought or expression (e.g., “the intellectual straitjacket of political orthodoxy”).

“Strait” is an adjective, noun and adverb derived from the Latin “strictus,” meaning “tightly bound” (also the source of “strict”). As an adjective, it means “narrow or tight” (thus “straitjacket,” a very tight jacket) or “strict, rigorous.” As an adverb, it’s used to mean “strictly” or “tightly,” as in “straitlaced,” tightly bound to tradition (originally, tightly laced into a corset).

As a noun, a “strait” is a tight or very narrow place, either literally (as in the Strait of Malacca, the narrow 500 mile stretch of ocean between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula) or figuratively in a variety of contexts. To follow a conventional and dutiful path in life is to be “on the strait and narrow” (a phrase taken from the Bible and now more commonly rendered “straight and narrow”). And if you wander off that path into a life of debauchery, you’re likely to eventually find yourself “in dire straits,” between a rock and a hard place, with no good choices available.


The correct answer is always “Beats me.”

Dear Word Detective:  Is “riddled” related to “riddle” meaning sieve? — Lee Jackson @VictorianLondon.

And they say serendipity is dead. I turned on my computer this morning and the first thing that caught my eye was this tweet tossing what seemed like a very interesting question into the churning maelstrom that is Twitter. Donning my water wings and pith helmet, I fired up my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and found the answer in two minutes flat. Of course, this being Twitter, a few hundred other people had already answered the question, but by then I was sufficiently intrigued by “riddle” to devote a column to it.

Incidentally, Lee Jackson is the proprietor of the fascinating Dictionary of Victorian London website ( which is, in fact, not a dictionary but a huge and highly authoritative exploration of the social history of Victorian London. Mr. Jackson has written several books about daily life in Victorian London and even a walking guide for visitors seeking what remains of that most atmospheric period in the city’s history.

There are two entirely separate “riddle” nouns in English, each with a related verb. (There’s actually a third “riddle” noun, an English regional term for the red ochre pigment, also known as “reddle” or “ruddle,” sometimes used to mark sheep. I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that one.)

The older of the two “riddle” nouns dates back to Old English, and comes from the same Germanic roots that gave us “to read.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the contemporary meaning of “riddle” to be “A question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime; an enigma; a conundrum.” That sense assumes that the “riddle” has, in fact, a proper answer that can be discovered, but “riddle” has also long been used to mean “a perplexing mystery or problem” or even “an enigmatic or mysterious person or entity” (“I am still a riddle they know not what to make of.” Jonathan Swift, 1711).

The other sort of “riddle,” also dating back to Old English, is a coarse-meshed sieve, the kind of thing you’d use to separate sand from gravel. This “riddle” is an alteration of the archaic English noun “ridder” (sieve), which also comes from Germanic roots, in this case related to the Latin words “cribrum” (sieve) and “cernere” (to separate, also the rood of our “discern”).

Both “riddle” nouns have related verb forms. For the “perplexing puzzle” noun we have “to riddle,” meaning “to ponder a riddle” or “to solve a riddle,” as well as “to pose a riddle,” traditionally introduced by the phrase “Riddle me this” or something similar (“Riddle me, riddle me right, Guess where I was last Friday night?” 1889).

For the “sieve” sort of “riddle,” we have “to riddle,” meaning “to run something through a riddle, e.g., separate corn from chaff” or, in a figurative sense, “to separate one kind of thing from another (e.g., athletes from couch potatoes) via some sort of test or standard.” But the most common sense today of the verb “to riddle” today is “to fill with holes, like those in a riddle,” usually with bullets or other ordnance (although clothes moths can do a good job of riddling too). An extended sense that arose in the 19th century uses “riddle” to mean “to permeate or pervade with something undesirable,” as in a government or industry “riddled with corruption.”

The vapors

Breathe deep the gathering gloom.

Dear Word Detective: I heard on the radio the other day that cannabis is increasingly partaken in the form of vapor. The report said that vapor pens can deliver far more THC than one usually ingests, leading to very powerful highs, which might well be mistaken for having “the vapors,” to which 19th century women seemed to have a habit of succumbing. How did “vapor” come to be associated with feeling faint? — Steve Ford.

Vapor pens? Wow. I’m really out of touch. I’m presuming that we’re talking about something similar to the e-cigarettes everyone is in an uproar over at the moment. Kinda an electric joint, right? I saw a news report the other day about people inhaling vaporized vodka, or something. This bigger-faster-stronger trend seems like a bad idea to me. The saving grace and safety net of most popular forms of intoxication has been their natural limiting factors. Drink too much, you fall down and can’t drink any more, at least for a while. Potheads also lose interest at some point and take to yammering about clouds, as I recall.

“The vapors” as “a thing” (as we now apparently call objects of popular interest) was really more common in the 18th century than the 19th, inspired by the somewhat primitive understanding of human anatomy of that time.

“Vapor” in the most general sense means a substance in gaseous form, or one vaporized or suspended in air (such as smoke, or water in the form of steam or fog). The word “vapor” itself comes to us, via Old French, from the Latin word “vapor,” meaning “steam or heat.” The source of the Latin “vapor” is, sadly, a mystery. “Vapor” in the literal sense of “steam, fog, mist” first appeared in English in the 14th century, and was also used figuratively to mean something insubstantial or worthless (“I am at this present very sick of my little vapour of fame.” Horace Walpole, 1781).

So far, so good. Vapor is mist, fog, yadda yadda, right? But now things get weird. In the 15th century a theory arose that internal organs of the human body were prone to emit certain “vapors” which were very injurious to the health of the person. Such “vapors” were thought to be located mainly in the stomach (probably because stomach and intestinal gas is common), but could arise in other organs and permeate one’s torso, wreaking all sorts of havoc with one’s temperament and well-being.

By the mid-17th century, people were speaking of “the vapors,” a condition resulting from such bilious fumes bubbling in one’s body, the symptoms of which were depression, nervous and delusional excitement, exhaustion, aches, pains and a general feeling of being run down and unwell (“These Things fill’d my Head with new Imaginations, and gave me the Vapours again, to the highest Degree.” Daniel Defoe, 1719).

Medical science, of course, eventually discredited the notion of poisonous vapors in one’s spleen, and by the 19th century came up with an entirely new disorder to explain all the same symptoms called “neurasthenia,” thought to be caused by overworked nerves. “Neurasthenia” (“neuro” plus “asthenia,” from the Greek for “without strength”) was a popular psychiatric diagnosis until the mid-20th century, but today most of those symptoms are ascribed to stress and depression.