Issue of January 11, 2007

Page Two


Tell them it's called the Garden State because
so many wiseguys are pushing up daisies there.

Dear Word Detective: Being from New Jersey and growing up in the 1950's and 60's, it seems like the only people who have heard the term "cutting a chogie" are also from N.J. I now live in Georgia and am often ridiculed when using the term to mean "moving fast." Sometimes it is used facetiously to refer to someone with an unusual gait while walking. I have found a few references from the Vietnam war and some go back to the Korean war and both seem to refer to "moving out fast" but I am unsure of the origin. Can you shed any light on this? -- Gordon.

Making fun of people from New Jersey, eh? Haven't those clowns seen The Sopranos? I was born in New Jersey, as it happens, and I have a foolproof non-violent revenge for such disrespect of the Garden State as you describe. I just quietly meditate on the fact that residents of Podunk (or Georgia, whatever) will never, ever, know what real pizza tastes like.

Although I grew up during the same period as you did, my adolescence was spent in Connecticut, and I never, as far as I can recall, encountered "Cutting a chogie." Of course, even if I had, that wouldn't guarantee success on the question of its origin. I've been searching for the story behind "pediddle" (or "perdiddle" or "padiddle"), slang for a car with only one working headlight, since I was about 15 years old. No one, as yet, has come up with an even vaguely plausible source for that one.

In the case of "chogie," fortunately, we have a fairly clear source, the Korean War. Apparently the Korean word rendered in English as "chogie" meant a Korean laborer in the service of the US or UN armed forces, either utilized as part of the supply chain (to carry food and ammunition, etc.) or as a personal attendant ("chogie boys") to US troops. I don't speak Korean, but apparently the term was drawn from a phrase, something along the lines of "kara chogi," meaning "go there," making "chogie" the rough equivalent of the English "gofer" (an assistant who fetches, "goes for," various things). The wars in Korea and Vietnam were close enough chronologically that some personnel served in both, so "chogie" also turns up in glossaries of Vietnam-era services slang. According to my son, who served with the U.S. Army in Korea in the early 1990s, the term is still used among US troops in that country to mean "over there" when pointing.

With the root meaning "go there," it was logical that GIs would also use "chogie" to mean "leave" or "move quickly," which apparently came home, at least to New Jersey, in the form "cut a chogie."



Unjust desserts.

Dear Word Detective: I have often visited your website in response to the stupid questions that wander through my mind. Today's question is: Why is it called a "cookie"? How did that happen? I mean, we came from England where they were "biscuits," and now we're in America and it's a "cookie." But why "cookies"? You cook lots of things. Like stir-fried rice. But stir-fried rice isn't "cookies," and neither is a cake. Do you have the answer? -- Rachael.

Yes, but first I have a stupid question of my own. If "cookies" over there are called "biscuits," what do you call biscuits? It can't be "scones," because scones are different from biscuits. Incidentally, it is apparently impossible to get decent scones where we live in Ohio. The "natural foods" supermarkets sell little cakes of sour clay they call "scones," but I wouldn't feed them to a dog. Scones are supposed to have butter, eggs and sugar in them, all of which are apparently verboten in the Peoples Republic of Foodonia. You should see the brownies these neo-puritans produce -- like little brown sponges soaked in motor oil. Anyway, if you call both cookies and biscuits "biscuits," doesn't that get confusing, especially for the kiddies?

The gulf between British English and American English is famously colorful, of course, and entire dictionaries have been devoted to translating common terms in one language into the other. What we call the "hood" on a car, you call a "bonnet," our "trunk" is your "boot," your "chips" are our "Freedom fries," your "Prime Minister" is our "poodle," and so on. Just kidding. Anyway, it's rare that one term in the UK lacks an equivalent in the US, although you can certainly keep "eel pie" all to yourselves.

In the case of "cookie," the questions you raise are valid. Most food we eat (at least outside of Foodonia) is cooked, so what's so special about "cookies"? Some of them (known, perplexingly, as "no-bake cookies") aren't even cooked.

So let's blame the Dutch. The American term "cookie" actually has nothing directly to do with the English verb "to cook." It's derived from the Dutch "koekje," meaning "little cake," a diminutive of "koek" (cake). "Cookie" first appeared in American English in the early 18th century, when the Dutch colonial presence in the New World was still a fairly recent memory.

So there you go. Just don't ask where "Oreo" came from. Even the people who make them don't know.



Not counting that awful Van Morrison song.

Dear Word Detective: Why in the world are there so many uses for the word "domino"? Okay, well, two. I am referring not only to the black tile thing used in the game, but also the "masquerade" wear. -- Val.

Whoa, you had me going there at first. As I've mentioned before, the great thing about writing this column is the opportunities it affords me, nearly daily, to doubt my own sanity. Thus I paused at the end of your first sentence and began wringing my memory for a third or fourth kind of "domino," but all I could come up with was the name of that pizza chain.

While the "domino" game tile is probably the better known of the two kinds, the "domino" mask worn in a masquerade (itself from the Italian "maschera," mask) is the older. "Domino" in this sense today usually refers to just a mask over the eyes (a la Zorro), but originally this "domino" also included a long hooded cloak, the whole shebang often being worn by masquerade partygoers who chose not to disguise themselves as some notable character (the Devil, Sponge Bob, etc.). The name "domino" for such a hooded cloak comes from the French "domino," a similar hooded robe worn by monks and other clergy in the 16th century. "Domino" itself is derived from "dominus," Latin for "lord or master," and it has been suggested that the name was an abbreviation of "benedicamus Domino," or "Let us now praise the Lord." In any case, the full "domino" masquerade outfit appeared in English in the early 1700s, but by the 1800s "domino" usually referred to the mask alone.

"Domino" meaning the game piece, a small black tile marked with white dots, first appeared in English around 1801, and the connection, if any, with "domino" in the mask sense is uncertain. It may be that the white dots were thought to resemble eyes behind a mask. Alternatively, the name may have nothing to do with the costume and represent a reference to the verb form of the original Latin "dominus," perhaps from the winner of the game shouting "Domino!" ("I am the master!").



Hunka hunka burnin' non-love.

Dear Word Detective: During the Civil War, iron shot was heated red-hot in a furnace (aboard ship or in shore batteries) before being fired into the side of a wooden ship. These were called "hot shots." I don't suppose there is any connection between this incendiary practice and calling someone a "hot shot"? (Still traveling the same road, however, is "big shot" a reference to large caliber ammunition?) -- Charles Anderson.

Live and learn. My initial reaction upon reading the first sentence of your question was, I must admit, "Yeah, okay, and when they ran out of ammunition they shot flaming cats and dogs at the enemy, right?" To the munitions-illiterate among us (meaning me), the idea of shooting red-hot cannonballs at ships sounds like yet another implausible seafaring scenario dreamed up by the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything (CANOE).

But one should, it appears, never underestimate the ingenuity of human beings bent on expunging their enemies of the moment. The use of flaming or heated projectiles actually predates the invention of gunpowder and dates back at least to the heated clay balls catapulted by the Britons at Roman invaders around 54 B.C. "Hot shot," solid iron cannonballs that were heated and then fired from conventional cannons, appeared in the 16th century, and were apparently used by the British against the Spanish fleet with great success at Gibraltar in 1782.

Reading up on "hot shot" answered two of my initial skeptical questions: (a) Why didn't the hot cannonball ignite the powder charge the moment it was loaded into the cannon? (a wad of wet clay or straw separated them), and (b) Was the shot still hot enough when it reached its target to set stuff on fire? (yup -- at least hot enough to set a smoldering fire in the hull of a ship). Nineteenth century "hot shot" furnaces in which the cannonballs were heated can still be seen at abandoned shore batteries in the US and elsewhere. The US National Park Service even has a web page about them here .

Now, however, it's time to turn off the Wayback Machine and say that flaming cannonballs are almost certainly not the source of our modern slang term "hot shot" meaning "an exceptionally important or capable person." The original meaning of "hot-shot" when it appeared in the early 17th century was "one who shoots recklessly" (essentially a "hothead" with a gun) or "a reckless or hotheaded fellow." The modern sense, which didn't appear until the 1920s, followed directly from this "recklessly eager" meaning of "hot shot."

"Big shot" meaning a very important person did originally come from large-caliber weapons (initially in the form "big gun") in the early 19th century.


The sound of silence.

Dear Word Detective: I awoke this morning with the irresistible urge to know the origin of the word "humdrum." Although it appears on your fine website in descriptions of other similarly obscure words, I am astonished to find it has no entry of its own. I would be grateful for some seconds if you could enlighten me on this point. -- A. Leslie.

Sure, no problem. Hey, wait a minute there, buster. Whaddya mean you'll be "grateful for some seconds" if I answer this question? My dogs are grateful for longer than that when I let them lick the butter knife. Whatever became of customer loyalty? Whatever became of the milk of human kindness? Whatever became of Jerry Mathers? OK, scratch that last one. I asked about Oskar Werner last month and several people sent me his entire biography.

"Humdrum" is a great word, meaning "routine, monotonous or dull." Dreary. Tedious. Tiresome. Dry. Boring with a capital B. "Humdrum" is a small town on a Tuesday afternoon in August, where the loudest sound is the drone of ten thousand cicadas and the barber wanders over to the Post Office just to see another human being. Come to think of it, I actually live near a town that might as well be named Humdrum, where the gas station is the de facto social center and customers have prolonged conversations comparing brands of beef jerky.

By the way, "jerky" comes from the American Spanish word "charqui," which in turn came from the Quichua (Peruvian) word "ccharqui," meaning "dried slice of meat." I must remember to tell the guys at the gas station next time I'm in town.

One of the things that makes "humdrum" such a perfect (one hesitates to call it "vivid") word to describe a boring thing, place or time is the sound of the word itself. "Humdrum" sounds boring, and that turns out to be the key to the origin of "humdrum." It's what linguists call a "reduplication," or rhyming repetition, of the word "hum."

Reduplications are fairly common in informal English, from "fancy-schmancy" and "hoity-toity" to "okey-dokey" and "itsy-bitsy." The second element in such formations is usually just there to emphasize the first -- don't go looking for a definition of "schmancy," because it doesn't actually mean anything.

In the case of "humdrum," the "drum" echoes and emphasizes "hum," which has meant "to make a low continuous murmuring sound" since the 15th century. "Hum" is itself echoic, intended to imitate the sound of a hum, and apparently a "hum" is such a boring sound that "humdrum" appeared in the 16th century and has been a synonym for "bore you out of your mind" ever since.



Rhymes with "murky."

Dear Word Detective: In the South side of Chicago, the term "turkey bird" is often used to describe a person who was born in Ireland. Although both my parents were Irish American, my father was a "turkey bird," while my mother was born in the United States. My siblings and I often affectionately referred to our father and his Irish-born friends as "turkey birds." Neither my father nor his friends ever took offense to this term and, in fact, used the term themselves to define a person’s exact roots. Recently one of my brothers was at a family party and started to discuss the origin of this term with a nephew (whose father also was born in Ireland). A woman, who is not of Irish heritage herself, but whose husband was born in Ireland, overheard the conversation and took great offense to the discussion. From where did this term originate? Is this term used throughout the United States? Has the nature of this term changed? Is it now considered offensive? Was it always offensive and my father and his friends just had thick skins? Kathleen Klinger.

Yes, yes, no, maybe, and beats me, in no particular order. Just kidding, but that's five questions you've got there.

So the first logical question would seem to be whether any of this has anything to do with the bird we call a turkey, and the answer is a resounding "maybe." Compounding this uncertainty is the fact that the "turkey" bird is not, in fact, from Turkey the country, but is actually native to Mexico and was first domesticated by the Incas and the Aztecs. Introduced to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Mexican birds were called "turkeys" by popular association with "Turkey cocks," entirely different birds which had for centuries been imported from Turkish (Ottoman) colonies in Africa.

As to why an Irish-born person resident in another country would be known as a "turkey" or "turkey bird," the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. This term seems to be largely heard in the US, where "turkey" has long been slang, in reference to the bird's legendary stupidity, for something (or someone) of little value, so there's a possibility that it is simply another derogatory sense of this slang "turkey."

More likely, however, is the possibility that "turkey" in this sense is a development of "Turk," a native of Turkey, which has long been used in a derogatory slang sense in many contexts to mean a person lacking "civilized" qualities. "Turk" has been used in the US as slang for a person of Irish birth or descent since at least 1914, while the form "turkey" in the same sense is first found in the 1930s.

Yet another possibility, bypassing Turkey entirely, is that "turk" and "turkey" in this sense is derived from the Irish word "torc," meaning "hog or boar."

Whatever the source, "turkey" or "turk" as slang for a native-born Irish person is clearly at least mildly derogatory. That your father and his friends joked about it is to their credit.


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