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Lazy Susan

What goes around comes around, half gone.

Dear Word Detective: How did the Lazy Susan get its name? — Hannah.

And why isn’t it called a Lazy Lyle, huh? After all, aren’t 99% of the world’s couch potatoes male? And (channeling Seinfeld here) what’s up with the men on HGTV’s House Hunters show? The women are all “I don’t want a pool because I’m worried about the kids” and “Those stairs are awfully steep for our toddler,” both valid good-parenting points. But the guys are just worried that they won’t have a “man cave” for playing video games and a special place to brew their own beer. It makes me wanna gently grab the guy by his precious spiky hair and ask, “What are you, twelve?”

OK, rant over. A “Lazy Susan” is a round, rotating platform or turntable, usually between one and three feet in diameter, used to serve food at a table or to store items, such as spices or condiments, in a cabinet or on a kitchen counter. At a dining table, a Lazy Susan allows guests to easily serve themselves, rather than having to ask their fellow chowhounds to pass the potatoes, etc.

One interesting thing about the term “Lazy Susan” (which also often appears uncapitalized) is the fact that the gizmo itself is much older than its name. Rotating trays, often with two or three tiers, became popular in the early 18th century, when they were known as “dumb waiters.” That term comes from the device performing, in some minor sense, the role of a waiter, but, being silent (“dumb”), not annoying diners with waiterly chatter. The term “dumb waiter” was also used, beginning in the 19th century, for small food-service elevators used between dining rooms and kitchens on lower floors in large houses or hotels. (I once lived in a house that had a dumb waiter, but our parents wouldn’t let us use it to transport cats, for which it would have been perfect.) This new use of “dumb waiter” for these elevators probably contributed to the adoption of a different term, “Lazy Susan,” for the rotating trays.

The earliest use of “Lazy Susan” as a term for a rotating serving tray found so far is in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1906 (“A ‘Lazy Susan’ from the days of the Massachusetts colony,” vol. 43, page 249). The origin of the term is a mystery, but there are two somewhat plausible theories. The first is that “Susan” was, at some point, considered a common name of female servants. Thus an inanimate device that took the place of a serving maid might be called a “Lazy Susan” because it served, but entirely in a passive or “lazy” sense. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 20th century, when the term first appeared, household servants were far less common than they once had been, and thus were unlikely to inspire this sort of sardonic tribute. There’s also no evidence that “Susan” was considered a typical maid’s name.

A more intriguing possibility suggests that the “Susan” in “Lazy Susan” was inspired by the flower known as a “Black-eyed Susan” (Rudbeckia hirta, aka “Yellow Daisy”), whose circular blooms consist of yellow “rays” surrounding a dark brown center. The flower apparently took its name from the poem “Black-Eyed Susan” by English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685-1732), in which a sailor bids fond and extended adieu to his love Susan, who is called “black-eyed Susan” in the first stanza. The popularity of the Black-eyed Susan flower, and the resemblance of a circular serving tray to the circular bloom of the flower, may well have given us the “Lazy Susan.”


Please don’t play it again, Sam.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been wondering why the noun and verb forms of “refrain” differ so much in meaning. In fact, the meanings of the noun and verb seem rather opposite, since the verb means “to avoid,” whereas the noun signifies something one sings (or states) over and over again. Could you please shed some light on this? — Tara McDaniel.

That’s a darn good question. In fact, it’s such a good question that I’m wondering why it never occurred to me to answer it before now. Maybe it actually did occur to me, perhaps while I was driving, and it just slipped my mind when I got home. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Kinda like last year’s taxes. Of course, explaining “refrain” is a lot easier than explaining why all these cats should be counted as a business expense, so that tax thing is just gonna have to wait.

My first hunch about the two meanings of “refrain” was that it was a case of an “autoantonym” or “contranym,” where one word can have two opposite (or nearly so) meanings. “Sanction,” for instance, can mean both “forbid” and “permit,” and “cleave” can mean either “stick to” or “split apart.” In some cases the two words are actually the same word (e.g., “sanction”), which has developed opposing meanings over time, but in others (e.g., “cleave”) the words have entirely separate origins and just happen to share that spelling.

Explaining how a single word like “sanction” developed two contradictory meanings can be a bit of a chore, because such transformations usually involve hundreds of years and several steps. So I’m relieved to report that in the case of “refrain,” what we’re dealing with is two separate, unconnected words whose senses are vaguely discordant, although not truly antonyms.

Oddly enough, both “refrains” first appeared in English in the 14th century. “Refrain” meaning “chorus of a song” or “a phrase frequently repeated in a poem or other writing” or “a statement, especially a complaint, that is frequently made” (“‘I’m bored’ is a frequent refrain coming from the back seat on long family car trips.”) comes directly from the Old French “refrain.” Follow “refrain” further back, and we eventually arrive at the Latin verb “refringere,” which meant “to break off.” That may seem strange for a word for things that, by definition, go on and on, but the key to a “refrain” is that it “breaks off,” i.e., stops, and then starts all over again.  Although “refrain” did arrive in English in the 14th century, the word only became truly common in the 1800s.

The other “refrain” carries the basic sense of “curb, restrain, abstain or prevent.” English adopted the word from the Old French “refraigner,” meaning “to keep in check; control,” and the root of that French word certainly bears that out. “Refraigner” came from the Latin “refrenare,” meaning “to restrict with a bridle,” as one would a horse (“re,” back, plus “frenare,” to use a bridle). So “to refrain,” etymologically, means to literally “hold your horses.”

Interestingly, the verb “to refrain” originally had both intransitive (“refrain from drinking”) and transitive (“I would like to think that the nurses’ words refrained them.” 1952) uses. But the intransitive sense meaning “to abstain from doing something” is the only use commonly heard today.


Shoes for industry!

Dear Word Detective: I recently read on Twitter that the word “sabotage” comes from the Middle Ages, when unhappy workers would throw their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the knitting machines to clog them and stop production. Someone else then said that this is also where the term “clog” comes from. Is any of this true? — Eldon 82.

Of course. Everything you read on Twitter is true. They have a staff of thousands of researchers all over the world poring over every Tweet with an obsessive devotion to accuracy that would make New Yorker fact checkers swoon with envy. [Long pause.] Whaddayou, nuts? They only named it “Twitter” because “Global Matrix of Horse-Hockey” didn’t poll well with focus groups. In terms of truth, sobriety and public enlightenment, Twitter makes Wikipedia look trustworthy.

On the other hand, while the story you’ve heard about “sabotage” is wrong, it’s not entirely nuts. “Sabot” is indeed the French word for a shoe made, at least partly, out of wood. (“Sabot” also has another meaning having to do with firearms and artillery.) And “clog” meaning “wooden shoe” is the same word as the “clog” that a plumber clears from your sink. And discontented workers have used wooden shoes to register their anger, although not by throwing them into the machinery.

The key to the truth about the origin of “sabotage” lies in the fact that the word did not arise directly from “sabot.” It comes from the French verb “saboter,” which means “to walk noisily or clumsily with, or to make a loud clattering noise with, wooden shoes.” In an extended sense, “saboter” has long also meant “to work clumsily or incompetently” at any task, or “to make a mess of things,” including artistic performances (dance, music, etc.). In an industrial setting, “sabotage” has sometimes included actually damaging machinery, usually in the course of a strike. But “sabotage” in the classic “clumsy” sense of “saboter” has more often been used in situations where strikes and other labor actions were impossible or illegal. In such cases, workers have found that simply working very, very slowly or making frequent mistakes often helps management see reason.

In war, of course, “sabotage” has played a more violent role, including blowing up bridges, etc., to disrupt the enemy’s ability to fight. “Sabotage” first appeared in English in print in 1910 (“We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers.” The Church Times, London).

“Clog” the verb comes from “clog” the noun, and where that came from is anybody’s guess. It first appeared in the 14th century, from an unknown source, meaning “a lump or block of wood.” By the mid-15th century “clog” was used to mean “a large block of wood attached to the leg or the neck of an animal (or person) to restrict movement.” By the mid-16th century, “clog” meant anything that impeded, literally or figuratively, progress or movement. The use of “clog” to mean “wooden shoe” harks back to that original “block of wood” sense (since clogs were carved from such blocks) and first appeared in the early 15th century. Clogs were originally worn by agricultural workers who often worked in wet and muddy fields as well as by those who merely wished to navigate city streets without soaking their socks (“He leaves his clogs in the passage … in the muddiest weather he never has a speck on his foot.” Thackeray, 1843).