Issue of January 5, 2006



I don't know about you, but for a guy who has two calendars on his office wall and one on his computer, I have a perennial problem remembering Valentine's Day. 

This year, however, either my brain is working better than usual or I'm actually eleven months late.  In any case, I have remembered The Day in time to offer the perfect choice (in my humble and money-grubbing opinion) for discriminating buyers with twenty bucks to blow on their beloved:  Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words.

In the words of the publisher,

"Romance is everything," said Gertrude Stein. And for those of us in love with words, the origins of love words have their own romance. So what is the etymology of the word romance? And for that matter, why is it that a kiss is a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and when two lovers woo they still say I love you?

With wry wit and a wealth of word lore, Evan Morris, aka the Word Detective, answers these questions and traces the often surprising origins and evolution of the language of love--from flirtation to happily ever after, with stops along the way to examine betrayal, tryst, adultery, and all the rest of that hanky-panky. Organized alphabetically, sprinkled with quotations from lovers throughout history, Making Whoopee is brimming with entertaining information, from terms of endearment to the terms of the settlement.

Readers will discover that when liaison first appeared in English it was as a cooking term (for egg yolks used to bind ingredients together); originally to flirt meant to snub (hardly the sort of behavior that would lead to a date!); before we had puppy love, the same phenomenon was known as calf love (in both cases the implication being that such affection was destined to fade as the critters grow up); before a hunk was an attractive man, it was slang for a large, slow, and stupid man; way back when, chaperone was the hood worn by a noblewoman, and only later did it take on the metaphorical meaning of one who "shelters" a young woman from the world; Milton was the first to use the term love-lorn; and concupiscence is just a fancy way of saying the hots.

Making Whoopee is a token of affection guaranteed to make even the most cynical suitor or skeptical sweetheart swoon.

Golly, I wish I could write like that.  Of course, then I'd have to shoot myself. 

This book, incidentally, has a weird publishing history.  (Did I say weird?  I meant infuriating.)   It was released a few weeks before Valentine's Day 2004 to the accompaniment of very good reviews, including a half-page article and sidebar in USA Today.  (You have be a writer to truly understand how big a deal that is.)

Just as I was to start plowing through dozens of scheduled radio and print interviews, however, I landed in the hospital for surgery on a mutinous gall bladder.  Beginning two days later, doped to the gills and still in pain, I sat at my desk from dawn to midnight (literally) for a solid week doing telephone interviews with cub reporters and dim DJs from Idaho to Ireland.  I have no idea of what I actually said.  I do remember that the folks in Ireland were very nice and smart.

It was at this point that I discovered that the so-called publicity agents hired by my publishers were, unfortunately, certifiable morons who had never quite mastered the concept of time zones and had, consequently, royally screwed up a schedule that, even before it went kablooie, frequently had me doing three interviews in a single hour.  

Then the real fun began.  The first print run of the books turned out to have badly warped covers and had to be withdrawn from the market, including from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.  Mega-bummer.  I was doing Percocet-laced interviews with shock jocks in San Diego at 3 am for a book that functionally did not exist.  People were going to bookstores in droves, asking for the book, and not being able to buy it.  As my brother-in-law put it when he offered to lend me a gun, "That ain't right."

The cover debacle eventually got straightened out, and a new run of the book was released with nice, flat covers, three weeks after Valentine's Day.  My publisher said they'd rent space on Barnes & Noble's front tables to promote the book to make up for their screw-ups, but somebody was, um, how shall I put this, lying.  The book did eventually get back into the stores, but the Golden Buzz was gone. 

UPDATE (1-17-05):  Until today I was selling the limited number of copies I have through this site, but my stock is now exhausted.  You can, of course, still order it through

Elsewhere in the wonderful world of publishing, the current (January) issue of Reader's Digest contains an excerpt from another of my books, From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names (Simon & Schuster, 2004).  There's a story behind that book, too, but we'll save that for next time.  The Reader's Digest excerpt, incidentally, was re-written by somebody (a very boring somebody) and lacks the potentially libelous bite I was aiming for in the book.  I'm still disappointed that Red Baron Pizza didn't sue me.  I do know the Slinky folks weren't too pleased.

Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the bandwidth this month to furnish the usual bizarre illustrations for this batch of columns, so you'll have to use your imagination.  But, as always, the circus rolls on at my blog.

And now, on with the show:

Boarders overboard.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the term "boarding house"? I was told wooden boards were used to separate the sleeping guests within one room. Any truth to that? -- CB.

Dear Word Detective: I was in a meeting at work today in a board room and I was wondering how we came to use that term and where it originated. -- Bob Murphy.

Anybody in the mood for a general observation about words? OK, here goes: the older a common word is, the more meanings it will have acquired in its long journey through our language, and some of those meanings will be nearly impossible to recognize as the offspring of the original word. Presuming that you saved room for a corollary, here it is: since many of those far-flung meanings will evince, at best, only a tenuous connection to the root sense of the word, fables ranging from the plausible to the absurd will spring up to fill the gaps.

"Board" is just such a very old word. There are actually two "boards" in English, although they have been considered the same word at various points. But the Old English word "bord," the ancestor of our modern "board," can be shown to have had two separate Proto-Germanic roots ("bortham" and "borthaz"), roots which produced entirely separate words in other European languages. In any case, there have been two main senses of "board" throughout its history in English.

The more common basic sense of "board" is simply "plank or flat surface," and many of our modern uses of "board," from "boardroom" to "boarding house" (and the related phrase "room and board") rest on the use of "board" as a synonym for "table." The "board" in "boarding house" simply refers to the fact that such arrangements include meals (at the "board") as well as a room. Our modern "boardroom" dates back to the early (17th century) use of "board" as shorthand for a council or governing body that meets around a table (in the case of a corporate boardroom today, probably the Board of Directors). Incidentally, to say that dealings take place "above board" (in the open, honestly) derives from the practice of cheaters at card games switching cards under the table where the game is played.

The other sense of "board" carries the root sense "side of a ship, rim of a ship's deck," and is now used almost exclusively in the phrases "to board" and "on board" (as well as such derivatives as "aboard"). This sense is also related to the word "border."

You don't wanna hear my opinion of Woody Hayes.

Dear Word Detective: The Ohio State football team is known as "The Buckeyes." What is a "Buckeye" and where did the word originate? -- Dorothy Pollreisz.

Hmm. Do I really want to answer this question? We happen to live in eastern Central Ohio, Columbus (home of Ohio State University) is about 35 miles away, and the Buckeyes are the object of fanatical devotion among, oh, maybe 99.5 percent of our neighbors. These folks festoon themselves every autumn weekend from head to toe with Buckeye regalia, plaster their cars with Ohio State stickers, fly Buckeye flags in front of their houses, and refer to "the Bucks" in reverent tones of wonder and awe. The other .5 percent of us keep our heads down and try to ignore all the nonsense.

In the beginning, there was the buckeye tree, more properly known as the American Horse-chestnut (Aesculus glabra). The buckeye tree takes its name from its nuts of a dark brown, glossy color with a lighter tan spot, which are called "buckeyes" for their supposed resemblance to the eye of a male deer. Because buckeye trees were common in Ohio in the early 1800s, settlers in the Ohio Valley were known as "buckeyes," and today Ohio itself is known as "the Buckeye State" (although I can't recall ever having seen an actual buckeye tree myself). "Buckeyes" are also a popular Ohio candy, being essentially peanut butter balls partially dipped in chocolate, and Brutus Buckeye, the mascot of the OSU team, is a glowering figure with an oversized buckeye for a head.

Interestingly, the buckeye was not always the subject of such adulation in Ohio. Apparently the buckeye tree was considered useless and annoying by early settlers, and as of the mid-19th century the adjective "buckeye" (as in "buckeye lawyer") was synonymous with "second-rate" or "incompetent." Although this usage seems to have disappeared within Ohio itself (perhaps sued out of existence by OSU, which guards its cash cow fiercely), "buckeye" remains a rarely-heard but derogatory term elsewhere in the US, at least in the fields of advertising and art, where a "buckeye" is, respectively, an unsophisticated or tasteless advertisement, or a painting executed in a crude style for mass consumption.

Heck of a job, Doofus.

Dear Word Detective: Much has been written in the news lately about President Bush's "cronies." Where did that word come from? -- Tom.

"Cronies"? You're kidding. I thought they said "ponies," and said to myself, "Hey, that's not fair, he doesn't even like horses and I've been asking for a pony since I was six." But I guess it's good that there won't be a pony on the Supreme Court. Way too reminiscent of Caligula's horse. On the other hand, I think Mister Ed would have made a great Supreme Court Justice.

"Crony" is a loaded word, although it was not always. Today we use "crony" to mean "a close friend," but with the implication that the friendship has some rather shady aspects. A small-time crook, for instance, may be said to have "cronies" with whom he hangs out and conspires to defraud upstanding citizens. More frequently today, "crony" is invoked to describe friends or associates of a politician who are placed in jobs for which they are not particularly qualified, or awarded contracts they do not deserve, by virtue of being "connected" to the officeholder. Such "cronyism" is, of course, hardly restricted to the US, and in countries where "connections" with the ruling politicians have become not merely a source of perks but an essential prerequisite to operating a business at all, the result is sometimes called "crony capitalism."

For a word with such unsavory overtones, "crony" started off innocently enough. It began as college slang, in fact, in the mid-17th century at Cambridge University in England, where it meant simply "good friend, especially one of long standing." The root of "crony" was the Greek "khronios," meaning "long-lasting" (derived from "khronos," time) and in the first recorded instance of the word in print, in Samuel Pepys' famous Diary (1665), the Greek-influenced spelling "chrony" was used. For the next two centuries or so, "crony" was simply another way of saying "pal," and even "cronyism," which is first recorded in 1840, meant simply "the ability to make friends." By the mid-20th century, however, The New York Times was using the word to slam President Truman ("The amount of politically entrenched bureaucracy that has earned for Mr. Truman's regime its sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste and confusion"), and "cronyism" had become a synonym for sleazy favoritism.

Shelving units of the Undead.

Dear Word Detective: As Halloween approaches, I was thinking of words related to death and was curious as to how "deceased" means "dead." Why "de-ceased"? Wouldn't "ceased" be enough, or is the "de" an added emphasis? Surely it isn't "de-" in the "un-" sense, as in "undead." From a faithful reader from the Hometown of Night of the Living Dead -- Pittsburgh! -- Barbara.

Ah, yes, Pittsburgh. Lovely town, I understand, although I was not aware until now of its zombie connection. Then again, my closest approach to Pittsburgh in recent years has been sojourns to the Ikea store on your city's outskirts, and I simply presumed that the glassy-eyed demeanor of the customers I saw there was due to an overdose of Swedish meatballs. Now that I realize they were probably coveting what's left of my brain, I will do my shopping for cheesy prefab furniture elsewhere.

Incidentally, for you zombie fans out there, the word "zombie" is of West African origin and was originally the name of a snake god, but acquired the modern meaning of "reanimated corpse" in the Voodoo religions of the West Indies. "Zombie" may also have been influenced by the Spanish "sombra," meaning "shade" or "ghost."

Meanwhile, back at "decease," your deconstruction of the word reminds me of the old saw about the preacher who pledged to "describe the indescribable, explicate the inexplicable, fathom the unfathomable, and unscrew the inscrutable."
"Deceased" meaning "dead" is indeed related to "cease" meaning "to stop," but "decease" is not merely the addition of "de" (in the usual sense of "un") to "cease." The root of "decease" is the Latin verb "decedere," meaning "to die," which was a combination of "de," meaning in this case "away" and "cedere," meaning "to go," giving us "to go away." From the Latin "decedere," developed the noun "decessus," or "departure," which became a euphemism for death and eventually produced the now largely obsolete English noun "decease" (death) as well as the verb "to decease" (to die) which lives on only in its past participle "deceased."

"Cease" followed a more direct path, deriving straight from that Latin "cedere," to go or withdraw, the same root that gave us "cede" meaning "to relinquish, give up."

Like Cliffs Notes, but prettier.

Dear Word Detective: Can you please tell me the origin of the word "rubric"? I have typically used it in reference to a category name (e.g., "It is usually discussed under the rubric of "functional obesity'"). However, web definitions of the word appear to go from "an authoritative rule of conduct or procedure" to "gloss: an explanation or definition of an obscure word in a text." -- Ellen Eastwood.

Good question. "Rubric" is one of those words editorialists and pundits like to sprinkle through their verbiage to give it a touch of tone and gravitas, the stylistic equivalent of those bow ties they also seem to love. In most cases, the reader can deduce, at least vaguely, what is meant by the word (except in the case of "sanction," another pundit favorite, which can mean both "allow" and "forbid" and must be puzzled out from context). You'll notice, however, that you have almost certainly never heard an actual politician use the word "rubric" in a campaign speech. Not one who got elected, anyway.

All the definitions of "rubric" you mentioned hark back, at least remotely, to the simple color red. The Latin "rubrica" meant "red ochre" (a clay-like soil used in coloring) or red coloring itself, as used in makeup and dyes ("ruber" being the Latin word for "red").

One of the earliest uses of "rubric" in English, in the late 14th century, was in reference to the practice at the time of printing directions for the conduct of services, as well as other instructions and explanations, in red letters in religious texts. These sections of the text, designed to catch the eye and command the attention of worshipers, were known as "rubrics." This use eventually produced two other senses of "rubric," that of "an explanation or definition" and "a rule or custom of conduct."

The use of red ink to draw the reader's attention to important points was widespread in secular works as well, and "rubric" was applied to a chapter title or other heading in a book or manuscript printed in red. By the 19th century, this had produced the figurative meaning of "a designation or category" (as in your "obesity" example).

Although red text is still used for warnings and other important notices on everything from medicine bottles to legal documents, "rubric" today is almost always used in the sense of "category or classification."


Dear Word Detective: I've been hearing a word, "shugenfroid" (not the correct spelling), and I believe its meaning is, or is close to, the following: "Deriving pleasure from the discomfort of others. Gleaning pleasure from observing the suffering of others." If you can point me to that word or its origin I would be forever grateful. -- Mike Goodold.

The word you're hearing is "schadenfreude" (pronounced SHA-den-froid-uh), which is actually a German word meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others." The roots of "schadenfreude" are the German "schaden," meaning "harm, injury, damage," and "freude," meaning "joy," giving us, essentially, "harm-joy" as a literal translation. "Schadenfreude" has been used without translation in English since around the beginning of the 20th century, often pronounced "SHA-den-froid" (without the final syllable).

"Schadenfreude" has no one-word equivalent in English, but there are similar words in other languages, and the sentiment seems to be a universal human emotion: we laugh when a pompous twit slips on a banana peel or steps in a mud puddle, we quietly smile when our odious boss's own boss calls him on the carpet, and we feel a sense of warm satisfaction when a smarmy politician is finally "frog marched" from his office in handcuffs.

The important, and often overlooked, quality to "schadenfreude," however, is that it is not simply sadism or malicious glee at another's misfortune. No one of sound mind laughs when Mom trips on the stairs, or when an innocent citizen is unjustly imprisoned. To feel "schadenfreude," the misfortune must be, in our minds, in some sense deserved, a kind of karmic punishment for bad conduct. The punishment may not precisely fit the crime, but (as long as it's not excessive) it'll do.

Interestingly, although "schadenfreude" might seem one of the less-important human emotions, a study described in National Geographic magazine in 2004 indicates that human beings are hard-wired to take pleasure in revenge, even of the vicarious "schadenfreude" sort, although such revenge rarely benefits either the avenging individual or the appreciative onlookers. Researchers theorize that this "yes!" response evolved as a way to enforce rules of behavior in small groups, and thus acted as the "glue" holding early human societies together.

Put up your duke's.

Dear Word Detective: Lynne Truss, in her highly entertaining book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," urges sticklers to "direct argy-bargy" rather than mere annoyance with sloppy punctuation. By this phrase she evidently means "confrontation." I can guess that "argy" comes from "argue" or "argumentation"; the "bargy" may be mere repetition (a la "itsy-bitsy") or perhaps from "bargain"? You have evolved into a sort of trans-Atlantic intra-language interpreter, and I wonder if you have any information on this expression. (Also, whether the G's are pronounced as in George or as in golf.) -- Charles.

I've got to hand it to Lynne Truss. It never would have occurred to me to write a book on punctuation and lace it with threats of fisticuffs, but it seems to have been a stroke of marketing genius. Although I assume that her rage is exaggerated for comic effect, her announcement in her book that "The confusion of the possessive 'its' (no apostrophe) with the contractive 'it's' (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian 'kill' response" makes me wonder if cutting back a bit on caffeine might be advisable. "Kill response" seems a bit intemperate even as humor, especially coming from a punctuation "stickler" who, as Louis Menand pointed out in The New Yorker, misuses a comma in the dedication of her book.

An "argy-bargy" is indeed an argument or confrontation of moderate intensity, somewhere between a spirited debate and a fistfight. "Argy-bargy" is a form of "argle-bargle," with the same meaning, dating back to the 19th century and drawn from the Scots dialect word "argle," meaning "argument." The "bargle" (or "bargy") element is apparently simply "reduplication," the same kind of meaningless jokey repetition with modification found in "okey-dokey," "fancy-schmancy" and similar terms. "Argle," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "to argue obstinately, dispute about," appears to be a mutation of "argue," perhaps blended with "haggle." Both "argle-bargle" and "argy-bargy" can be pronounced with either a hard or soft "g."

No flies on her.

Dear Word Detective: I was sitting idly over my morning coffee in my customary java bar, and someone idly wondered, "Why are men's zippers called flies?" I foresaw no trouble answering that one -- "I'll check with the Word Detective as soon as I get to my p.c." But lo! You failed me. So resolve this burning issue, and confirm or correct that it is only the male zipper that bears this anomalous, enigmatic label. -- John Hildebidle.

Humph. Must be nice to have a "customary java bar" to drink one's morning coffee in, especially one where folks muse over linguistic oddities. Around here, the matutinal speculation runs more along the lines of "What's that cat got under the table?" or "Why is the water that funny color?" Or that trusty staple of rural life, "What day is it, anyway?"

The verb "to fly," meaning "to travel through the air with wings," is very old, harking back to an ancient Indo-European root that actually meant not "flying," but "floating or flowing" (and produced such non-flying words as "fleet" and "float"). "Fly" in the "move with wings" sense appeared in Old English, and soon acquired all sorts of secondary meanings, including "to flutter or wave in the air," as a flag is "flown."

As a noun, "fly" developed as two related words, the earlier being "a winged insect." Originally a "fly" could be any kind of insect that flew (thus "butterfly"), but eventually only two-winged insects of the order Diptera were considered "flies." The other sort of "fly" originally meant simply "the act of flying" (still heard in the phrase "on the fly"), but soon broadened to include things that "fly," or move swiftly, as in the kind of 19th century horse-drawn carriage known as a "fly."

Yet another meaning of this "fly" was "something attached by one edge," as a flag that flaps or "flies" in the wind. In the 19th century, "fly" (or the plural "flies") in this sense was applied to the tailoring detail of a flap of cloth, attached by one edge, covering a closure, such as buttons or a zipper. This use of "fly" was almost always applied to the closure on trousers, at the time a nearly exclusively male garment, so the term remained associated with men long after women began wearing trousers.

Pete and Re-Pete Repent.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently told that the "pent" in repent meant "high" and therefore when one "repented," one turned or returned to the high place or standing one had, presumably with God. It was then further stated that this "pent" was also used in "penthouse," meaning the highest living quarters in a building. I, however, have only ever known forms of "penta" to be from the Greek, meaning five, as in "pentagon," or as in "repent" to be from "repentir," and further back meaning, in some form, "pain." Can you shed any light on this etymological dilemma? -- A.F., Ontario, Canada.

I hope I'm not stepping on any toes here, but did that person also happen to tell you that you can make thousands of dollars stuffing envelopes at home in your spare time?

You're correct about the root of "repent," meaning "to feel remorse for what one has done or failed to do; to feel regret for past sins or crimes," The root is indeed the Old French word "repentir," which derives from the Latin "re," in this case an intensifying prefix, plus "poenitere," meaning "to make sorry." Go a bit further back and you find the Latin "poena," which means "pain, punishment, penalty," and also gave us our modern English "pain." I should point out that the person who told you that "high again" origin of "repent" was assuming that the "re" element signified "again," which it sometimes does, but not in this case. In fact, the similar term "regret" is another case of "re" being an intensifier, an element making the root word stronger. In the case of "regret," the root is the Old French "regreter," meaning literally "mourn or lament the dead," from an old Germanic root meaning "to weep."

The original meaning of "penthouse" wasn't "ritzy apartment on the top floor of a fancy building." For most of its history, "penthouse" meant a crude shed built onto the side of a building, often used as a storage space, a shelter for livestock, or even an outhouse. "Penthouse" doesn't even have any real connection to the word "house." The original English word was "pentis," which came from the Latin word "appendicium," meaning "something added on." "Pentis" got changed to "penthouse" (by association with "house") in the 1300s, but it wasn't until the 1920s that "penthouse" came to mean the sort of fancy rooftop apartment it does today.

No fun at all.

Dear Word Detective: I was told a while back that the word "sober" comes from the Greek or Latin languages and it means "to be a whole person." Is this correct? -- Steven Pasqua.

Um, not exactly. Not even close, actually. Truth be told, that sounds like something a motivational speaker came up with. The urge to find justification for one's opinions (no doubt laudable in this case) in the roots of words is tempting, but usually not productive. One of my favorite cases popped up a few years ago in a letter from a reader, who had been told by a friend that the word "politics" was rooted in the Latin "poli," meaning "many" plus "tics," meaning "bloodsucking creatures." Nice try, I admire the sentiment, but utterly daft. "Polites" in Ancient Greece meant "a citizen of a city or state," and "politikos" meant "pertaining to citizens or affairs of the state," just as "politics" does today.

But even if he had been right about the roots of "politics," that wouldn't have proved anything. History is not destiny, and the meanings of words often change. A common error in the popular understanding of language is called "the etymological fallacy," wherein the original meaning of a word is declared to be its one "true" meaning. Thus, for instance, you'll sometimes hear that the only acceptable use of "decimate" is to mean "to kill one of every ten members of a group," as its root word did in Roman times. That's just plain silly, and "decimate" is properly used today to mean "to destroy or kill a large part of."

"Sober" is a bit unusual in that the root meaning of the word has, in fact, persisted as the most common meaning. "Sober," first recorded in English in the 14th century, comes from the Latin "sobrius," which meant simply "not drunk" and was the direct opposite of "ebrius," which meant "drunk" and is the ancestor of "inebriated." In English, "sober" went on to acquire a wide range of meanings a bit more positive than simply "not drunk," such as "avoiding excess" in any respect, "serious or solemn in demeanor," "quiet," "calm" and "humble." Of course, even virtue wears thin after a while, and by the early 19th century "sober" was also being used as a synonym for "uneventful" and "dull."

So there's no direct equation of "sober" with "being a whole person" in the history of the word. But that doesn't mean that being sober (at least in the "not drunk" sense) isn't a worthy goal.

Athletes in tow.

Dear Word Detective: I just read your piece on "coach" evolving through slang from a mode of transport to mean a teacher/helper. It struck me that "train" is quite similar. It also comes from a word for a carriage and has come to mean both a mode of transport and (as a verb) to guide or teach. It seems though that while a coach pushes his charges to the desired result, the trainer usually has to drag them. -- David Meinzer.

Land of Goshen, you mean to say someone actually reads this column? Aside from bored parakeets? Well, please don't tell the US government. I'm likely to lose the subsidy they pay me to refrain from growing an audience. It's bad enough that various people have already been criticizing the high mileage I get from my childhood anecdotes.

To recap for the benefit of folks who missed my earlier column, the word "coach" derives from the Hungarian village of Kocs, famous in the 16th century for manufacturing high quality horse-drawn carriages. In the 18th century, "coach" became college student slang at British universities for a tutor whose expertise could, metaphorically, whisk a student over the rocky road of study as quickly and painlessly as a swift horse-drawn coach.

"Train," as both a noun and a verb, followed a somewhat different track. The ultimate root of "train" is the Latin "trahere," meaning "to pull," and English adopted the word "train" from the Old French "trainer," meaning "to pull or draw" in the 14th century. As a noun, "train" had several early senses involving the general idea of "delay" or "drawing things out," but also referred to "things dragged along or behind," as in the "train" of a bridal gown. About 1440, "train" also acquired the sense of "a series or sequence," as we use it today in "a train of thought." It was this sense of "things pulled behind" that eventually, in the 19th century, led a connected series of railroad cars drawn by a locomotive to be called a "train."

Early in its history, however, "to train" had also taken on the meaning of "to manipulate, to direct," found in the use of "train" as a gardening term in the 15th century meaning to cause a plant to grow in a desired direction. By the 16th century, "train" was being applied to molding human beings in the proper direction, and eventually we ended up with "personal trainers," lucky us.

So in the case of "train," the conveyance actually came quite a bit later than the "instruct" meaning, but you're right about the "dragging" sense inherent in "training."

Interlude with the Sandman.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering where the word "boring" (as in, "Man, that movie was boring") came from. I keep thinking it might be direct from the other word "boring" ("That movie bored a hole through my being"), from the root of the word "boar" ("Mr. Smith is such a bore/boar"), or more jovially, from people who thought board games were a most dull activity. It is such a commonly used word, but I can't figure out where it comes from and what other connotations it carries. -- Rebecca Shakespeare.

As the man said upon wandering into the podiatrists' convention, that's a lot of bores. Now I suppose I'll get letters from podiatrists, but perhaps not, since so many of them pretend to be something else in public. Now I'll really get letters.

You left out one "bore"-ish word, however: "boor," an ill-mannered, unrefined and rude person, from the Latin "bovis," meaning "cow." The slur, however, is not on cows but rather on their keepers, as "boor" descends more directly from the Old French "bovier," meaning "herdsman," an occupation thought unlikely to produce high-quality dinner guests. Although "boors" can definitely be "boring" to those nearby, this "boor" has no connection to the noun "bore" meaning a boring person, nor does either word have any connection to "boar," which derives from a prehistoric Germanic root.

The earliest sense of "bore" as a verb is "to create a hole, especially through rotational cutting, as with a drill," which first appeared in Old English and was derived from Germanic roots.

The verb "to bore" meaning "to afflict with ennui by being tedious or uninteresting" is a far more recent word, first appearing in the mid-18th century. ("Ennui" is French for "boredom," incidentally, is related to the English "annoy," and is pronounced, roughly, "on-wee.") "Bore" in this sense first came into use as a noun meaning either the "malady" of ennui or someone who suffers from it, but soon came to be applied to the "boring" thing itself.

It is unclear whether "bore" in the "drill" sense is related to "bore" in the "come look at my beer can collection" sense. If the two uses are related, it may be that the "drive crazy with tedium" sense derives from the metaphor of something "boring" being like a constant, grinding, annoying and wearying drill "boring" into one's mind.

Snip grip clip.

Dear Word Detective: Oddly enough, and for no apparent reason, the word "clip" intruded itself into my consciousness the other day. I came up with this sentence: "Please use your clipper to clip this article on clipper ships from the paper; then clip it to that file and take it to the editor at a good clip." This illustrates at least three meanings of the word: a verb meaning to cut off or cut out; a verb meaning to attach, usually by means of a noun of the same name; and a noun meaning a rapid rate. (I'm not familiar with a verb form on the last, although I presume that the nautical clipper is related to this sense.) The question, in case you haven't guessed, is: are they from one, two, or three sources? -- Charles Anderson.

Hmm. You know, when maddening questions like that occur to me, I've found that it helps to turn on the TV. Wipes the old noggin perfectly clean.

There are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, two noun forms of "clip" and four, count 'em, verb forms of the word. We can dispense with two of the verbs right off the bat. "To clip" can mean "to ring a bell," and was derived from the old Germanic root "klip," meaning "to sound." "Clip" can also mean "to eclipse," apparently a mangled cropping of the word "eclipse" itself. You can safely forget both of these "clips" because they are now obsolete.

The remaining "clips," both nouns and verbs, derive from two separate roots and senses. The earlier to appear in English, the kind of "clip" involving "fastening" (as in "paper clip" or "hair clip"), first appeared in Old English as "clyppan," and has relatives in several other Germanic languages. The initial sense of this "clip" was "to embrace, to hug," a meaning now largely obsolete, but which developed into our modern definition of "to grip tightly."

The other kind of "clip," meaning "to cut," appeared in English around 1200, derived from the Old Norse "klippa," probably an echoic formation (meaning that the word imitated the sharp, sudden sound of something "clipping"). This "clip" developed a variety of derivative meanings, including "to form or mark by clipping" (as hedges are clipped), "to cut short or diminish" (as budgets are "clipped"), to cheat or swindle, and, in the 19th century, "to move or run quickly" (giving us, in noun form, "at a good clip" as well as swift "clipper" ships). This use evidently derives from the notion of "cutting short" the time taken. One of the more recently developed senses of "clip" is "an extract from a motion picture," which appeared around 1958.

No shortage of slackers.

Dear Word Detective: I have recently been reading newspaper articles using "jake" as a verb, as in "Tom Smith is jaking so he doesn't have to play," to mean faking an injury in sports. I can't help but wonder if maybe I was the origin of "jaking." About five years ago I had a friend named Jake, a very cheap and devious person; in fact he wasn't a very good friend at all. My friends and I played a lot of poker together and Jake was at most of the games. We began to realize that Jake would throw his chips into the pot very quickly, hoping that we wouldn't notice him shorting the proper amount needed to meet a raise in the game. So now when someone is accused of not meeting the proper amount of chips required in a poker game, we call this "Jaking." I have noticed the phrase used in my circles of people, but now I wonder if it spread nationally. -- Dave Summers.

Well, much as your ex-friend richly deserves to be immortalized in such a word, "jake" in the sense you've heard it has been around since the 1920s.

"Jake" is a hypocoristic (i.e., "pet") form of the name Jacob, and has been pressed into service as slang in many senses over several centuries. "Jake" as a noun can mean "a regular guy" or, alternatively, an ignorant rural dweller, a "rube" (itself a pet form of the name "Reuben") or "hick" (from "Richard"). "Jake" has also meant, in various places at various times, a firefighter, a police officer, and a cup of coffee. Go figure. As an adjective, "jake" has, since the early 20th century, been used to mean both "OK, fine" ("Everything's jake") and "in the know."

"Jake" meaning "to fake an injury" or "to hang back in play, to loaf" in sports was, according to Paul Dickson's New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, derived from the name of Garland "Jake" Stahl, a player for and manager of the Boston Red Sox in the early 1900s. Opinions vary on the exact rationale for this "jake" as slang. Some say that Stahl inspired the "malingering" sense of the term when he refused to play because of an injured foot, others that the "hang back" sense is a pun on Stahl (pronounced "stall"). Whatever the original reason, "jake" has been in constant use in baseball since about 1927.

Simon Says Stop Hitting Me.

Dear Word Detective: Whence did the phrase "King's X" originate? -- Dan.

That's a good question, especially since it gives me an opportunity to plug one of my favorite books, Iona and Peter Opie's "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren." The Opies began researching and documenting the secret language, folklore and rituals of children in England, Scotland and Wales in 1944, and 15 years later produced this amazing book. Scandalously out of print for many years, the Opies' work was reissued in paperback a few years ago by the New York Review of Books and is available through

As you've probably guessed by now, "King's X" is a phrase used by children among other children -- one of those special terms rarely used, and often entirely forgotten, by the time we become adults.

"King's X" is one of a class of children's phrases called "truce terms," commonly-agreed sayings that call a temporary halt to a game or contest when spoken. If, for example, you and I were playing tag, and a bee flew up my nose, I might well shout "King's X" right before I fainted. As the Opies point out, truce terms are perhaps the most important words in a child's vocabulary, yet have no real equivalents in adult speech. "Kings X," with variations such as "king's crosses," "crosses," "cruses" and the like, is found throughout the UK, along with other such "truce terms" as "barley," "skinch" and "fains" (which is apparently a mutation of "fend," meaning "to ward off").

"King's X" and many variants of it are also, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), widespread in the US, especially west of the Mississippi, in the Gulf States, and in the Ohio Valley.

The derivation of "King's X" and its variations is a subject of some debate. One theory posits the "X" as short for "excuse," but a more likely explanation focuses on the forms "cruses" and "crosses" as referring to crossing one's fingers when invoking the truce term, apparently a necessary part of the ritual in some traditions. It is, in fact, sometimes customary for the "truce caller" to raise both arms in the air, index and middle fingers of each hand crossed, in order for the truce to be honored. I doubt I could manage that with a bee up my nose.

K.I.S.S. it goodbye.

Dear Word Detective: A phrase I've never understood, even after looking it up in the dictionary, is "using Ockham's razor." William of Ockham was some old English trout who died in the middle of the fourteenth century, but why did he have a razor, and how did he use it? -- Jane Curley.

Old English trout, eh? Dead more than 600 years and he still gets no respect. Never mind that he's credited with one of the most useful nonsense-repellents ever developed. Never mind that his insight has been a guiding principle of science for centuries, without which crop circles and alien abductions might be taken even more seriously than they unfortunately are. Sigh.

William of Ockham (a small town in Surrey, England, also spelled "Occam") was an English philosopher, theologian and Franciscan friar who developed what has become known as "Ockham's Razor" or the "principle of parsimony." Often summarized in Latin (although not by Ockham himself) as "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" ("Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily"), the gist of Ockham's insight was that given two competing theories with equal claim to explain a phenomenon, and all other factors being equal, the simpler theory is to be preferred. In practical terms, this boils down to "keep it simple, stupid" -- go with the theory that requires the fewest presumptions while still explaining the data. If I come into my office, as I did this morning, to discover my keyboard hanging from my desk and water dripping into a box of files from an overturned cup, I don't need to theorize about clumsy burglars or wandering space aliens, at least not when there are two guilty-looking cats sitting right there on the couch. The same principle is stressed to medical students in the form "When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras" as a caution against gravitating towards exotic diagnoses before exploring the more prosaic possible causes of an illness.

Although William of Ockham is popularly credited with the statement of his "razor" (a metaphorical use in the sense of something that "cuts away" unnecessary assumptions), he himself never referred it as a "razor," and his insight was rooted in the work of earlier philosophers as far back as Aristotle. Still, not bad for an old trout.

Besides, who would feed the flippin' cats?

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to a book on CD, "Walden" by Thoreau, and an expression was used, "count the cats in Zanzibar." I was wondering where Zanzibar is and where the expression came from. I'm not sure of the spelling of Zanzibar, but fairly confident I got "cat" right. I'm guessing it's the island by India, versus the other search results I got from -- Pat DeLano.

Zanzibar, schmanzibar, I'm busy just counting the cats in my own house. Somehow we ended up with seven twelve of the critters, and it doesn't help that six eight of them have names ending in a "y" sound and that two of those names, Phoebe and Fifi, are way too phonetically similar. I am seriously considering making them all wear little name tags.

Onward. Yes, Zanzibar is the large island (along with several smaller islands) off the east coast of Africa, part of the country of Tanzania, which was formed in 1964 by the merger of the independent nations of Zanzibar and Tanganyika. Zanzibar is "near India" in the sense that it is closer to India than to Pittsburgh, but it is part of Africa.

The quote from Thoreau's "Walden" you caught is, more completely, "It is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.... It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar." Thoreau, of course, wrote "Walden" (1854) in the course of two years living alone at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, during which time he kept a journal in which he ruminated on the virtues of solitude and harmony with nature and determined, famously, that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." That was, of course, before the invention of talk radio and the internet.

In declaring it not worthwhile to "count the cats in Zanzibar," Thoreau was following a fairly well-trod path of skepticism about the supposedly transformative benefits of travel. The Roman poet Horace observed that "They change their clime, not their frame of mind, who rush across the sea." Or, as Homer Simpson put it more recently, "Why go out? We're just going to end up back here."



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