Issue of January 11, 2007

Page Three


I coulda hit it harder, but I didn't want to hurt anyone.

Dear Word Detective: I've heard the term "blooper" before, as a filmed or videotaped "mistake" or miscue, often run as a sidebar to a film's final credits for, optimistically, extra laughs. But since the 2006 MLB season began, I've been hearing commentators for the Mets, Yankees, and ESPN use the word "blooper" to describe a base hit that drops "in" in front of the fielder. In a way this kind of "blooper" is a mistake for the defense, but it's certainly not a bad thing for the player who gets on base. What do you think -- and how did we get the word "blooper" to begin with? -- Aunt Shecky.

"MLB," I presume, means Major League Baseball, and here goes another year I forgot to watch baseball. But I wear my trusty Yankees cap nearly every day. As a guy in a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago put it, "Actually, I’m not a New York Yankees fan. I’m a New York Yankees cap fan."

It appears that the sense of "blooper" meaning "mistake," especially a public and embarrassing faux pas, has an origin separate from that of the baseball kind of "blooper." There seem to be two possible sources for the "mistake" sense. In the early days of radio, a poorly shielded receiver could actually generate a signal that would interfere with other receivers nearby, causing the other sets to emit a howling or "bloop" sound. Such sets came to be known as "bloopers," and it is possible that the "mistake" sense came from this sudden, unpleasant and unwanted radio noise. But during the same period, sound engineers splicing film soundtracks invented a way of covering the splices, called a "blooping patch," that prevented the film from making unwanted noises when the splice passed through the projector. Since a error in recording would call for such a splice, it is possible that "blooper" in the "error" sense comes from this process.

The baseball sort of "blooper," a ball hit high but weakly so that it just clears the infield and hits the ground short of the outfield, has a more certain origin. The term is echoic, imitative of the soft "bloop" sound of the bat striking the ball (as opposed to the sharp crack of a more powerful hit). "Blooper" can also mean a pitch lobbed high so as to drop through the strike zone.



And when's the last time you actually "computed" anything?

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "cranking," as in "cranking a car"? --Supriya Singh.

Thanks for a fascinating question. Granted, it may not look especially fascinating at the outset, but it will be, trust me. Pass the popcorn.

To "crank a car" means, of course, to start (or attempt to start) it by turning the ignition key or whatever. This starts the electrical starter motor, which gets the engine's cylinders hopping and juices running and so forth, mumble mumble (I really know shamefully little about car innards), and, with luck, you're off to the mall. No cranking (e.g., if the starter is busted or the battery is dead), no vroom-vroom. Car batteries, in fact, are rated according to their "cranking power" measured in amperes.

When we call the process of turning on the ignition "cranking," we're using a term held over from the days before electrical starter motors, when starting a car required inserting an actual crank (a long metal rod bent into an angular shape) into the front of the car and cranking the engine by hand until it started. Starting car engines in this fashion became obsolete by the 1920s, although my first car, a 1960 Citroën ID-19 passed down from my parents, actually had a handy backup crank you could use to start the car in case of a dead battery. That was a fabulous car.

Now the interesting part. "Crank" in this "start an engine" sense is one of a range of terms still in common usage even though the technologies that spawned them have profoundly changed, turning words whose logic once would have been obvious into linguistic fossils.

We speak, for instance, of "dialing" a phone number, although telephones with rotary dials have been obsolete for decades. Similarly, we "cc" interested parties when we compose email, usually oblivious to the fact that "cc" originally meant "carbon copy," a duplicate of a typewritten letter made by sandwiching a thin sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of paper before typing the letter.

Although music today is usually distributed on compact discs, we still speak of artists releasing "records" or "albums" (from the likeness of early record sleeves, often containing several records, to photo albums). A person who repeats the same complaint is said to sound "like a broken record," a reference to the days when delicate phonograph records could be scratched, causing them to skip and repeat. And we still speak of "dropping a dime," meaning informing on or betraying someone to the authorities, even though coin telephones (let alone ones that cost a dime) are vanishing rapidly.



Not wrong. Just Canadian.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, I attended a meeting during which it was announced certain municipal candidates received "endorsation" from our group. The word was used repeatedly throughout the evening, while "endorsement" was not used at all. I Googled it and received over 10,000 returns on the word, but no definition. My spell check was appalled. Is this an old word that fell out of favor, or is it yet another example of our marvelously evolving language? Alternatively, is it just some bizarro Canadian thing? -- Sallie Caufield, Canada.

You're writing from Canada, so you can get away with saying "bizarro Canadian thing," but if I tried it I'd be inundated with hate mail, probably written in maple syrup on hockey pucks. Just kidding. I love Canada. But, since you are Canadian (or at least hiding out up there), perhaps you can answer a question that has bothered me for a long time. Why does all the coffee sold by Tim Hortons shops taste, in my opinion, vaguely of fish? The doughnuts are great, but the coffee is just plain weird.

As far as I can tell, "endorsation" is not solely a bizarro Canadian thing, but it does appear to be more established there than elsewhere on the planet. My copy of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (I knew it would come in handy someday) notes "endorsation" as a specifically Canadian alternate form of "endorsement." The American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), on the other hand, seem to be choosing to ignore it (and my spellchecker doesn't like it either). The OED does, by the way, include the word "indorsation," a synonym of "endorsement" found today largely in Scotland.

The real question is, of course, why folks don't just use "endorsement." The original meaning of "endorse" was "to sign on the back" (from Old French "endosser," meaning "to put on the back"), as one does when cashing or depositing a check. The sense of "approve, support, recommend or advocate" dates to the 19th century.

Evidently, both the forms "endorse" and "indorse" were in common usage until the 19th century, and both "indorsement" and "indorsation" were at one time popular, although "indorsation" seemed to be more common in Scotland ("Should we say indorsement or indorsation? In England, we always use the word indorsement. In Scotland, the term more generally used is indorsation." J. W. Gilbart, A Practical Treatise on Banking, 1849).

With so many variant forms of "endorse" and "indorse" floating around the English-speaking world at one time, my guess is that the Scots "indorsation" simply took root in Canada, but with the more familiar "en" prefix. It's not wrong. It's apparently just one of those little Canadian quirks, like putting fish in the coffee.


Pledge break!

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


My back pages.

Dear Word Detective: I'm reading "Absolute Friends" by John le Carre. He uses the phrase "... one copy of Selected Readings from the Works of Rudyard Kipling, foxed and much thumbed; ...." (pg 52, paperback edition). I can't find that sense of "foxed" in my favorite dictionary. Can you shed any bright and piercing light on this meaning of the word? (Could it be a typo for "boxed"? British usage?) -- William E. Blum.

Bright and piercing might be a bit of a stretch, but I'll give it a shot. Incidentally, I also started reading that same book a few months ago, and had gotten about a half-inch into it (that's how I measure such things) when it just up and disappeared. Perhaps one of the dogs borrowed it. Although I've been a big John le Carre (nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell) fan for years, I had not realized until I looked up his real name just now that le Carre's career in MI6 (the British foreign intelligence service) ended when his cover, along with those of hundreds of other agents, was blown to the Soviet KGB by double-agent Kim Philby.

Le Carre's use of "foxed" in that passage is not a typo, but the term is probably more common in Britain than in the US, so I'm not surprised that it doesn't show up in your dictionary. A page of a book that is "foxed" is yellowed and discolored with age, possibly stained and perhaps brittle. The pages of many books, especially those printed on cheap paper (such as paperbacks), tend to decompose in this fashion over time, leaving, eventually, just a pile of dry and faded chaff where once a best-seller stood. "Foxed" has been used in this sense since at least the mid-19th century.

As a verb, "fox" has long meant to operate in a devious fashion, to trick or delude, in tribute to the legendary cleverness of the fox as reflected in centuries of legends and folktales. Since the 17th century, "foxed" has also meant "to be confused or deluded" or "to be intoxicated," apparently carrying the "deluded" sense into the realm of self-inflicted disabilities.

The exactly logic of "foxed" in the "yellowed pages" sense is, alas, a bit unclear. Perhaps significantly, "foxed" has also been applied to wood in the initial stages of rotting since the 19th century and to beer when it has gone sour from age since the 18th. It seems likely that the "drunk" sense of "foxed" was generalized to mean "broken down, impaired, the worse for wear" and then applied to rotting wood, beer gone bad, and books past their prime.



You ain't nothin' but a hound hound?

Dear Word Detective: In Chapter 10 of P. G. Wodehouse's "The Butler Did It," he noted that greyhounds are so called because "grey" is an old English word for "badger," and the these hounds were used in hunting badgers. I have not checked the OED to verify this, but it is different from what I found in one of your columns. Maybe you can prove or disprove his claim? -- Anna Tetreau.

Badgers? Badgers? I don't need to talk about no stinking badgers! Sorry. I'm required by the columnist's oath to invoke The Treasure of the Sierra Madre whenever badgers are mentioned. It's a chore in print, but it's even worse when it happens in a restaurant.

So, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse differed with my explanation of "greyhound," did he? That's a shame, because I'm a big fan of Mr. Wodehouse. It took me a while; for years I scoffed at the idea of reading, as I imagined his work, "books about a rich twit and his butler." But I finally heeded the advice of a friend (who had also convinced me to start watching The Simpsons) and ended up reading perhaps a third of everything Wodehouse wrote (and he wrote 96 books). His stories are hilarious and truly addictive.

So, to recap my original answer (from around 1996) for the benefit of those readers who missed it: The "grey" [in greyhound] isn't a color: it's the remnant of the Old Norse word "grig," meaning "female dog." Of course, not all greyhounds are female; otherwise there would be remarkably few greyhounds around to discuss. If the redundancy and illogic of the root meaning "female dog hound" seems odd, it's just more evidence that the English language evolved, rather than being invented.

Mr. Wodehouse's theory about "greyhound" being rooted in "grey" as an Old English word for "badger" is, although not correct (there's pretty conclusive linguistic evidence for the Old Norse source), entirely defensible. "Grey" was indeed used a mean "badger" from the early 15th century onward, based on the color of the animal. In fact, "grey" was specifically used to mean "grey fur," usually in reference to badger skins, which were a valuable commodity at the time. Add to that the fact that greyhounds were introduced to England as hunting dogs (because of their keen eyesight and speed), and P.G. Wodehouse's theory seems even more reasonable. In fact (and this is not an uncommon phenomenon), the existence of "grey" meaning "badger" may well have contributed to the persistence of the name "greyhound" in English. So ol' P.G. was about as right as it is possible to be and still be wrong.



Somehow I doubt Alex Trebek actually just said "T4zxk!"

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to NPR Morning Edition the other day when this word was used several times in describing an Iraqi crowd's reaction to something in Iraq. I spell it here phonetically since I cannot find it in my Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2001. The word is pronounced "you-you-late" (ululate? eululate?). -- TAM.

Good question. That's one of the problems with radio and television -- you catch a word you've never heard before and then have to guess at its spelling if you want to look it up. Turning on the closed-captioning on TV is, as you may have noticed, usually worse than useless in such situations. It has been said that a room full of monkeys, given typewriters and enough time, will eventually reproduce the collected works of Shakespeare. In the meantime, they appear to be doing the captioning for American TV.

The word you're looking for is indeed "ululate," and I'm not sure why your edition of Merriam-Webster's otherwise fine dictionary didn't list it, because their website does. NPR's pronunciation "you-you-late" is fine, but Merriam-Webster Online ( recommends "uhl-you-late."

Knowing NPR's fondness for painting little "sound pictures," I suspect that at some point in the report you heard they ran a few seconds of the crowd's "ululation," which probably sounded like a cross between high-pitched yodeling and wailing cries of anguish. "Ululation" is a cultural tradition in much of Africa and the Middle East, used to express both grief (as at funerals) and celebration. Ululation is also used in religious ceremonies as well as in several popular musical styles of the region, and shows up in the work of Western musical artists occasionally. Some of what Yoko Ono has produced (stop snickering, class) could be considered ululation.

"Ululate" first appeared in English in the early 17th century, drawn from the Latin "ululare," meaning "to howl or wail." The origin of the Latin word was what linguists call "echoic" or "imitative," meaning that the sound of the word "ululate" itself was supposed to sound like the action of ululating.


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