Previous Columns/Posted 01/10/98
Dear Word Detective: When living in Mississippi, I occasionally heard the following phrase descriptive of total inebriation -- "Drunker than Cooter Brown." The phrase was used by both Blacks and Whites in rural, southern Mississippi. Who was Cooter Brown? Why was he such an (in)famous drunk? -- Chris Wells, National Wetlands Research Center, Lafayette, LA.
This question is enough to drive a fellow to drink. I don't know who Cooter Brown was, or why, if, when or where he was such a famous drunk. Haven't the vaguest, in fact. But it isn't for lack of trying to find the answer. I even searched the internet for an hour or so, and found only that no one else seems to know either, although quite a few people are out there asking. I did discover that there are quite a few bars scattered around the country that call themselves "Cooter Brown's."
According to my reference sources, "Drunk as Cooter Brown" or "Drunker than Cooter Brown" is a well-known saying in the South, and is first attested in print in 1967, though it's probably much older. The "drunk as" comparison, of course, is itself a staple of popular speech, and has been ever since one of the first known examples, Chaucer's "drunk as a mouse" of 1386. My personal favorite in this genre would be a toss-up between "drunk as a bat" and "drunk as a boiled owl," although "drunk as a wheelbarrow" (1709) has a nice surrealistic ring to it.
As to "Cooter Brown," it may well be that there once was a man of that name who became legendary as a drunk. If so, the exact circumstances of his accomplishment seem to have been lost to the ages. I suspect, however, that "Drunker than Cooter Brown" may have sprung from another Southern phrase, "Drunk as a cooter," which dates back to at least 1827. A "cooter" in Southern slang is, oddly enough, a turtle or tortoise. And if anyone can enlighten me as to how a turtle became a symbol of alcoholic inebriation, I'll buy a round of drinks for us all.
Dear Word Detective: I've been looking for the origin of the phrase "till the last dog's hung" without success. I believe its meaning is similar to "till the cows come home" but find it hard to believe that anyone ever actually engaged in hanging canines either before or after the cattle were brought in for the night. Perhaps the dogs in question were of the human persuasion. Any ideas? -- Gil Osgood, via the Internet.
Well, at the risk of seeming misanthropic (which, of course, I am), I must say that I certainly hope that such a ghastly phrase doesn't refer to actual dogs. I've come to the conclusion lately that the admirable qualities so often sought among human beings actually reside almost exclusively in dogs. I think that the least we should do is allow Fido and Sparky to vote in our elections. It certainly can't hurt.
I myself first heard this phrase about ten years ago, used in the sense of "sticking it out until the bitter end," which seems slightly different from "til the cows come home," which usually means just "very late at night." Most of the examples of "until the last dog is hung" I have found use it in reference to bar patrons hanging around until closing time or guests reluctant to leave a party until forced to do so.
There is, fortunately, some reason to believe that, as you suggest, the dogs in question were human. Some sources trace the phrase to the use of "dog" since the 14th century to mean "despicable person," and theorize that "until the last dog is hung" may have come from the informal system of criminal justice practiced in the American West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since the first citation for the phrase in print dates back to 1863, this certainly seems possible. It's easy to picture a cowboy doggedly vowing to pursue a band of outlaws "until the last dog is hung," i.e., until the last criminal is brought to justice. It's also easy to imagine that line being a pivotal moment in a movie western or two, which may have helped keep the phrase alive over the years.
Dear Word Detective: A Social Studies teacher I know is trying to find out why American infantrymen in World War I came to be known as "doughboys." My dictionary also refers to the term "doughfoot" as having the same meaning. Did it have something to do with feet that were swollen like rising dough? -- Jan Lundeberg, via the Internet.
The human mind is a funny thing, especially, apparently, mine. I read your letter and, being a good American consumer, I immediately thought of cute little Pop'n Fresh (or however you spell his infernal name), "the Pillsbury Doughboy" of a thousand TV commercials. Sad, isn't it? You probably won't be surprised to learn that I used to own a cat named after a popular fabric softener.
There turns out to be quite a bit of controversy about the origin of "doughboy" as a slang term for a soldier or infantryman, but one certainty is that the term is much older than most people would suspect. Although it gained currency in popular use during World War I, "doughboy" first showed up in print in 1847, before the American Civil War. General George Armstrong Custer's widow mentioned the term in her memoirs written in 1887, explaining that "doughboys" were small doughnuts often served to sailors aboard ship. According to Mrs. Custer, the term was applied to infantrymen because the large brass buttons on their uniforms reminded someone of these naval "doughboys." Lending support to at least the culinary aspect of Mrs. Custer's theory is the fact that "doughboy" has meant "a boiled flour dumpling" to sailors since about 1685.
There are other theories about "doughboy," such as those tracing the term to the adobe clay barracks housing soldiers in the American Southwest at that time ("adobe boys" becoming "doughboys"), or soldiers using adobe dust to whiten their white uniform belts, or soldiers' boots being caked with adobe mud. None of these theories is impossible, but neither is any especially convincing.
If I had to pick a theory, I'd say that it's most likely that "doughboys" owed their moniker to those little doughnuts Mrs. Custer mentioned -- not because the soldiers wore buttons that resembled them, but because "doughboys" were a staple of the military diet at the time.
Rant Among Yourselves.
Dear Word Detective: The word "nonplussed" is so misused that it should be banished from the English language. This would be, however, a terrible shame, because it is an absolutely fabulous word, if one understands its origins and what it actually means. The sad fact, however, is that 9 out of 10 times it is used, its intended meaning is the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. The only consolation of this sad fact is that it does occasionally make for interesting conversation when someone misuses it. My favorite story about this word is the time I was driving through Nebraska listening to a pompous right wing idiot on AM radio; luckily I was near a rest stop so I was able to pull over and call the 800 number and set him straight. Ha! My question is this: given that language is a dynamic force and given that the word has apparently evolved to mean the exact opposite of what it used to mean, do we now say that the word has both meanings? -- Andrew Sinning, Minneapolis, MN.
Ha, indeed. At the risk of inciting a sudden upsurge in my reader mail, I am moved to wonder whether "pompous right-wing idiot on AM radio" might, in fact, be redundant three or four times over.
"Nonplussed," to bring the rest of the gang up to speed, means "perplexed or embarrassed," and comes directly from the Latin "non plus," meaning "not more" or "no further." Someone who is "nonplussed" has been stymied or brought to a halt. But for some reason, many people have decided that "nonplussed" means "unperturbed" or "impassive," which is, of course, exactly backwards.
So should we cave in to the yahoos and let this fine word slide into the muddle of misunderstanding? Not on my watch, bucko. I happen to like "nonplussed." Besides, if we surrender the distinction now, what will we use to nonplus the pompous idiots?
Dear Word Detective: I have known the expression "happy as a sand boy" for many years, but have only recently had cause to wonder about its origin. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary was not of much help, suggesting that a sand boy was possibly one who made a living by selling sand and included "jolly as a sand boy" as an example. Do you have any more definitive information on the origin of "sand boy" and, more importantly, why they are an archetype of jollity or happiness? -- Alan Dandie, Salisbury, South Australia.
I'll tell you a little secret, Alan. As I read your letter, I was beginning to suspect that you were, as we word columnists say, a bit wacked. "Happy as a sand boy"? Uh, yeah, OK. But then I noticed your address and all was right again. You're not crazy. You're Australian.
Just kidding, mate. It's not surprising that you've heard the phrase for years and I haven't, because "happy as a sand boy" is a distinctly British (and, by extension, Australian) proverbial phrase dating back to about 1821. The "sand boy" in question was a boy (or, more likely, a man, "boy" being a diminutive often used at the time to denote a lower-class adult male) who made his living selling bags of sand door to door. Although this sounds like the setup to a bad joke, sand-selling was quite a lucrative occupation in the early 1800's, as sand was used for sanding and scouring floors, sopping up spills, and as a floor covering in taverns.
One might suspect that earning one's living by selling something that could be had for free (or nearly so) would be enough to make the sand boys happy, but the phrase "happy as a sand boy" is apparently rooted in the sand-boys' legendary fondness for alcohol. In his 1841 novel "The Old Curiosity Shop," Charles Dickens has a pub called "The Jolly Sandboys" marked by a sign featuring three sand boys knocking back tankards of ale and looking very happy indeed.
Unfortunately, soon after the middle of the 19th century, sawdust replaced sand as the floor covering of choice in taverns and shops, and the sand boys, alas, ran out of happiness shortly thereafter.
Dear Word Detective: In a story set in rural Ireland in the twenties, one of the characters says that she will be "taking Shanks' mare" to indicate that she will be walking rather than riding her bicycle into town. What is the origin of this term? Who was Shanks, and what was wrong with his mare? -- Les Albert, San Francisco, CA
There was nothing wrong with Shanks or his mare, aside from the fact that neither ever existed. "Taking Shanks' mare" is a humorous figure of speech for relying on your own legs ("shanks") for locomotion, better known as walking. "Shanks' mare" and its variant "Shanks' pony" are more common in Britain than the U.S., and have been around for quite a while -- since at least 1774, in fact. A similarly whimsical folk saying of equal vintage (i.e., very old) is "Taking Walker's bus." Of course, the humor found in sayings like these may be dependent on whether you are the one faced with the long walk.
This sort of ironic humor is, interestingly, almost entirely the product of what used to be called "the lower classes," and often reflects a remarkable will to laugh in the face of adversity and deprivation. Probably the most famous example is the dish called "Welsh Rabbit," otherwise known as melted cheese on toast, invented by commoners in a time when real rabbit was a delicacy reserved for the wealthy. "Welsh Rabbit" not has only survived as a culinary masterpiece but has preserved in its name a marvelous joke hundreds of years old. Commenting on the efforts of stuffy menu martinets and soup merchants to transform the name of the dish into the nonsensical "Welsh Rarebit," the eminent grammarian H.W. Fowler defended the "rabbit" in thundering tones. "Welsh Rabbit," said Fowler, "is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong."
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