Issue of January 14, 2005



Don't you dare ask what happened to the December issue.

The week before Christmas we were told that we were to have a large snowfall.  On the night of the 22nd, the storm arrived as advertised and dumped a foot or two on northern Ohio.  We, however, got naught but rain.  Freezing rain.  Lots of freezing rain.  Buckets of freezing rain.  Tree limbs were snapping all around the house with a sound like gunshots.  The power finally, predictably, went out at about 3 am.  We spent Thursday trying to get the generator (bought for Y2K and never used except as a nesting spot for mice) up and running, as well as fishtailing around the roads looking for space heaters and kerosene for the heater.  By nightfall we had given up on the generator and gathered all five cats and two dogs in the bedroom for the night.  It was very cold.  I dreamed at one point that the lights had come back on.  In retrospect it was very stupid to stay in the house, as the local media delight in headlines such as Local Couple, Not Very Bright,  Found Dead of Hypothermia, Pets Fine.

Friday the generator worked briefly, then died as the temperature headed for zero.  Repeated calls to the Hillbilly Power Company for a prognosis on power restoration proved un-illuminating.  The kerosene heater was no longer cutting it, so at 2 am and 10 below zero we bundled the cats and dogs into the car and drove 20 miles to a fleabag motel. 

You haven't lived until you've spent Christmas Eve in a sleazy motel room with seven unhappy animals.  The cats compensated by crawling into the bed frames and heater cabinet where we couldn't reach them.

Everything was closed the next day, of course, so we ate Christmas dinner, after a fashion, in the cafeteria of the local hospital.  By this time I was developing a demented giggle as Dickensian details mounted to absurd heights.

I spent the rest of the day crawling around in the frozen garage fiddling with the generator and ended up with only frostbitten fingers to show for my trouble.

That night we ran into our neighbors at the local truckstop and had dinner in the restaurant there, which was nice except that it was the most unimaginably horrible food I'd ever encountered, and in rural Ohio that's saying quite a lot.  The omelet I ordered looked as if it had been stepped on by someone and tasted vaguely of fish.

Later that night we abandoned the critters at home (after sealing off and heating up a room as best we could with the kerosene heater) and stayed at a better motel.  The power finally came on late Sunday.

Exactly one week later it began to rain again.  It rained for four days, flooding our basement and knocking out the water heater for four days. 

Then a valve in the upstairs toilet tank blew, flooding the downstairs bathroom.

Happy New Year.

p.s. -- I keep meaning to mention Language Log, a collaborative blog on linguistics and broader language topics written by a tag team of knowledgeable linguists.  It is consistently interesting, frequently fascinating, and often hilarious.

And now, on with the show:

Thou shalt.

Dear Word Detective: I always thought that "behoove" meant something along the lines of "to be necessary," as in "It behooves me to tell you the truth now." However, recently I have noticed it being used in a "would be advantageous" sense. These are quotes from newspaper articles: "Mark Maske and Leonard Shapiro look at the process in today's Washington Post, and say that the rules may change in the coming months to afford assistants like Weis and Crennel that opportunity. It would behoove everybody in the process," and "Researchers said it would behoove cities such as Los Angeles, where the virus arrived late among drug users and the infection rate is still low, to take advantage of the opportunity to avert a dramatic rise by setting up aggressive AIDS prevention programs." Are both senses proper usage? Does the usage differ when "would" is added in front of the word, and, if so, is this a historic usage or did it begin recently? It behooves me to find the truth in this matter. Haha. -- Lisa.

Methinks that is a humdinger of a question. We rarely see "behoove" used in print these days (although you seem to have stumbled on a veritable "behoove" trove), and I can't remember the last time I heard it spoken aloud by anyone other than George Will. I tend to associate "behoove" with my days as a schoolboy ("It would behoove you, Morris, to spit out that gum, put down the bongo drums, and finish your exam"), and it seems to be a standard fixture in novels and screenplays where a character is portrayed as a fussy authoritarian.

But "behoove" is a useful word because it is usually used impersonally, without a subject other than a vague "it," as in my bongo example above, which makes it sound as though the universe itself is speaking. To say "it behooves you to" do something is thus far more imposing than simply declaring "I want you to."

If "behoove" seems archaic, that's because it is very old, derived from the Old English "behof," meaning "advantage, use or benefit." Today we use "behoove" (or "behove" in the British spelling) to mean "to be necessary, proper or advantageous," so both uses you have seen are proper, regardless of whether "would" is used.

Merry, um, Labor Day!

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origins of Boxing Day (December 26)? I enjoy the day-after-Christmas holiday, but don't know where the "boxing" comes into it. -- Larry Crandall.

Well, bless your stars and garters, whatever that means. Thanks to you, I'm actually answering a "holiday" question before the holiday occurs. (Note to web readers:  This column was sent to subscribers in early November.)  Being the lackadaisical sort whose wall calendar is still showing sunny summer scenes in bleak January, I usually end up answering queries about "Yuletide" and "wassail" in late March. This is partially the fault of my readers, many of whom submit such questions in December, apparently failing to realize that they're dealing with a man who has yet to file tax returns for several years of the last century. But we're all here now, so let's grab this puppy and run for daylight. Whatever that means.

You say that you "enjoy" Boxing Day, but, if so, you must be among the few who stay home that day. In the US, at least, the day after Christmas has become a neo-traditional holiday in its own right, a day when ravening hordes of shoppers march on the malls and department store like avaricious zombies in search of bargains on all the digital waffle irons and ugly sweaters their families failed to give them for Christmas. So keen is their frenzy for leftover schlock, in fact, that one might be forgiven for presuming that the "Boxing" of "Boxing Day" refers to the punches sometimes thrown by competing shoppers eager to snatch that last Pole-Dancing Barbie from the bin.

But the "Box" of Boxing Day is (or was) an actual small box, usually earthenware, with an opening in the top into which money could be inserted, called a "Christmas box." Traditionally, beginning in the early 1600s, apprentices, deliverymen and the like would approach their employers or regular customers at Christmas with such a box in hand in hope of receiving a monetary gift in the spirit of the season. After all the possible contributors had been hit up for cash, the box was then broken open and the proceeds distributed among the staff. As families were usually occupied on Christmas Day itself, this tipping ritual was conducted on the first weekday after Christmas, which came to be known as "Boxing Day." By the 18th century, use of the actual Christmas box had faded and the tip itself had come to be called a "Christmas box."

Damn the omelets, full speed ahead.

Dear Word Detective: My son came up with a question several years ago and still keeps reminding me that I don't have an answer. What is the origin of "egging on" meaning "to incite to action"? My best guess has been that if you throw eggs at someone they will probably move out of the way. -- Rob Grier.

That's a pretty good guess. I'd certainly move out of the way if you threw anything at me, except possibly paper money, or maybe checks. What really makes me nervous are those parades where people on the floats pelt the crowds with candy. Nothing like a Snickers in the schnozz to make one's day, eh?

There is, in fact, a long tradition of using eggs, especially those that have passed their prime, as missiles. For much of the history of the theater, for instance, audience satisfaction was measured not merely by applause (or the lack thereof) but by the volume of rotten eggs, spoiled produce and other unpleasant things (including dead cats) tossed at the stage. And while the phrase "to have egg on one's face" (meaning "to make a fool of oneself") is usually traced to poor breakfast hygiene, there is the possibility that it arose as a literal description of an inept actor.

However (there's always a "however," isn't there?) there is no connection between "egg on" and actual eggs of any sort. "To egg" meaning "to incite" was a borrowing from Old Norse, in this case the word "eggja," back in the 10th century, which also gave us our modern word "edge" as both a noun and a verb (as in "edging out" a competitor). The original sense of both "to egg" and "to edge" was "to give sharpness to" or "to incite, stimulate, provoke" by making a conflict sharper or more urgent. "To edge" has since taken on the somewhat different meaning of "to advance incrementally" or "to defeat by a small margin," but "to egg" still means "to stir things up" in the classic "let's you and him fight" sense.

I made a wallet, but then my tentmate mugged me.

Dear Word Detective: I truly despise the phrase "happy camper." I also despise other words like "closure," "fabulous," and a slew of those types of words where you really aren't supposed to tell people how you really feel in a sentence, just sum it up in a term. I am trying to "get in touch with my feelings" and get to the bottom of this. So, my question is: where did this annoying term "happy camper" come from and do you also have words that annoy you? -- Darla Mitcham.

Words that annoy me? Don't get me started. In most cases, they're just innocent words and phrases that have been overused until they are stripped of any meaning and have become threadbare clichés. "At the end of the day" (apparently drawn from the musical "Les Miserables"), for instance, was evocative the first few times it was used to mean "when all is said and done," but that was a long, long time ago. Hearing it now just fills me with an aching urge to whack Ted Koppel with a cream pie. Other phrases, once moving, have become euphemisms, "in harm's way" currently being my least favorite political and journalistic circumlocution. How about just saying "in serious danger of being maimed or killed"?

"Fabulous" doesn't annoy me for some reason, probably because it has become the Zsa Zsa Gabor of adjectives, so devoid of meaning that one can use the milliseconds it takes to zip by to rest one's mind for more important things.

As for "happy camper" (meaning a person who is pleased or contented), I too have found it annoying since it first appeared in the early 1980s. The underlying reference, of course, is to a child at summer camp, a venue in which happiness and "team spirit" are stressed yet, especially for neophytes, notoriously elusive. So it's probably significant that "happy camper" is most frequently used in the sarcastic negative form "not a happy camper." Probably the most vivid account of childhood camp-angst remains Allan Sherman's 1963 hit song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," which begins "Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada" and includes such lines as "All the counselors hate the waiters and the lake has alligators. ... You remember Jeffrey Hardy? They're about to organize a searching party." No wonder I refused to go to summer camp.

Very funny.

Dear Word Detective: I had a conversation with a friend the other day and he said at his place of business the term "joshing" came up frequently enough to pique his curiosity about its origin. For instance I might say to you, "I'm just joshing with you." In context the word would be used to mean "I'm just fooling with you" or "I'm just pulling your leg." Where did "joshing" come into use in this context? Was there a "Josh" who was known for deception or trickery who inspired this term? -- Scott Jackson.

Good question. "Josh," meaning "to joke with, tease, bait or fool, especially good-naturedly," is a useful word, primarily because of its "good-natured" connotation. If I tell you that you have mustard on your forehead, but after a few moments I admit that I'm "just joshing you," it's clear that I'm just fooling around in a friendly way. "Joshing" is the softball of interpersonal humor, as opposed to the hardball of taunting, serious teasing, and sadistic practical jokes. Only the truly thin-skinned take offense at "joshing."

"Josh" is, of course, a proper name, short for "Joshua," a name prominent in the Bible, a common first name in English-speaking countries since the 17th century, and still found on the top tier of most popular boys' names in the U.S. "Josh" in the "joke" sense is definitely an American invention, first appearing around 1845.

Unfortunately, the origin of "to josh" is a bit cloudy. One of the potential inspirations for "josh" often cited is Josh Billings, the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885), a popular 19th century American humorist whose stories and sketches were often written in rural dialect. Billings is remembered today largely for his aphorisms, such as "As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand" and "One of rarest things that a man ever does is to do the best he can." It would make sense for Billings, with his gentle, homespun humor, to be the source for "josh," but, unfortunately, the timing is wrong. Billings didn't become popular until 1860, fifteen years after "josh" had become widespread. In fact, it is possible that Shaw took the pseudonym "Josh Billings" because "josh" was already associated with humor.

More likely, "to josh" meaning "to joke" derived from the popular (among city dwellers) view of "Joshua" as a typical rural name in the 19th century, much as "hick" (from Richard) and "rube" (from Reuben) arose. To "josh," then, was originally to treat someone as an unsophisticated, gullible bumpkin who might well fall for a ridiculous story or silly joke.


You're gonna need this.

Dear Word Detective: In a recent conversation, the word "staple" came up in reference to a "staple food or diet." I began to wonder how that word became associated with food. Or was it used there first and then became associated with the office supply as something that holds things together? Just curious. -- Travis Ryan.

Umm... office supplies. I must say that one thing I really liked about working in an office years ago was the opportunity to borrow office supplies. Come to think of it, I still have a dozen or so pens I keep meaning to mail back. And I'm almost through with the stapler, so I guess I'll toss that in the box. But I'm still using the desk chair.

"Staple" is an odd word. One the one hand, it's used to mean the basic types of food (bread, milk, doughnuts, etc.) a family needs to survive, as well as, by extension, the principal products or commodities associated with a place or field of work (as in "Corn and used cars seem to be the staple products of Ohio"). On the other hand, "staple" is used to mean a small piece of metal bent into a "U" shape and used to fasten things together.

These two "staples" are usually considered separate words, but they do share a common ancestor, the ancient Germanic root "stapulaz," meaning roughly "pillar," which became the Middle Low German "stapel," which meant (in addition to "pillar") "market or shop." That "shop" meaning is a bit of a mystery, but it may have originally referred to the pillars of a central marketplace where shops were located. Filtered through the Old French form "estaple," this became the English word "staple," which, when it first appeared in the 15th century, meant "market." In Europe at that time, certain essential national products (wool, for example) were, by law, traded only under authority of the monarch at a specified location (primarily to ensure that the Crown got its cut). From the late 14th to the mid-15th centuries, for instance, Calais (in France, but then under British control) was one such trading center for wool, and the town was known, in fact, as "The Staple." Gradually the term "staple" came to be applied to the goods sold at such markets, and by the mid-17th century had acquired its modern meaning of "core class of products or commodities."

By that time, however, "staple" had already been used in the entirely separate "fastener" sense for several hundred years. The transition from the original "pillar" meaning is somewhat mysterious, but the sense of "solid support" seems to underlie the change.

Boing boing.

Dear Word Detective: I was sitting with my son the other day and we were talking about the tricks he does on his trampoline. He then asked me where the word "flip" came from. Of course, like any good mother, I told him we would look it up on the Word Detective's website. But, alas, we did not find it. I am now asking you to help me explain to my son a word as simple as "flip." -- Lorena.

"Flip" is an interesting word, in part because it is closely related in origin to a slew of similar words, such as "flick," "flap," "flop," "flip-flop," and "fillip." The word "flip" has also apparently undergone a bit of evolution since it first appeared in the 16th century.

When your son says he does "flips" on his trampoline, he's using "flip" in its most common current sense of "to turn a somersault" or "to turn over quickly" (as we "flip" hamburgers). But the original sense of "flip" was "to flick with the finger," essentially the same action known at that time as a "fillip" (explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a movement made by bending the last joint of a finger against the thumb and suddenly releasing it"). Over the next few centuries, "flip" was used in a wide variety of senses for any quick, sharp action or movement, while the "somersault" meaning was usually called a "flip-flap" or "flip-flop." Today, however, the "turn over quickly" sense of "flip" is considered the primary meaning, at least in the U.S. This change of sense may have come in part from "flipping" a coin, in which the coin is "flicked" with the thumb but then tumbles end-over-end through the air.

All of which brings us back to the question of where these words -- "flick," "flap," "flop," "flip-flop," and "fillip" -- came from. All of them seem to be instances of "onomatopoeia" (from the Greek for "to make a name"), which is the process of forming words by imitating the sound or action of the thing the word describes. "Flip" is a short, sharp word for a short, sharp action. "Flip-flop" arose in imitation of the action of going quickly back and forth. "Flap" sounds like something (a flag, a sail) flapping, and "flop" is the dull sound of something falling down flat.

And lose the spats.

Dear Word Detective: I was a concerned to hear from a friend that my girlfriend's mother had called me a "fuddy duddy." Problem is, I have no idea what she means. What is a "fuddy duddy" and where did that name come from? Should I be worried? -- Perplexed in West Virginia.

Um, yes, I certainly would be. Being called a "fuddy duddy" by one's girlfriend is not a good sign. Being called a "fuddy duddy" by one's girlfriend's mother is a very, very bad sign. If I were you I would ditch the bowtie, the argyle sweaters and the Lawrence Welk DVDs and head for the nearest tattoo parlor. Is there any body part you'd feel comfortable having pierced? A motorcycle might help, too, and see if you can find a way to work the phrase "my parole officer" into your next conversation with the two of them. Women of all ages like a little edge.

On the other hand, if your girlfriend and her mother already have their own motorcycles, tattoos and parole officers, it may be time to try internet dating.

A "fuddy duddy" is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "An old-fashioned person; an ineffectual old fogey." If you've ever seen The Simpsons, consider the character of Ned Flanders -- the gold standard of the breed. A "fuddy duddy" is an uptight, unadventurous stick in the mud, an unimaginative bore who balks at the simple pleasures of life such as blowing up trashcans and hotwiring police cars. A "fuddy duddy" is someone who prepares his will at age 23, lives to be 98, and, when he finally dies, his friends ask the doctor, "How can you tell?"

"Fuddy duddy" seems to have been an American invention, first appearing around 1904, but its exact origin is somewhat mysterious. Most likely it was formed from "fussy" (which "fuddy duddies" certainly are), possibly combined with "dud" in the sense of "ineffectual." The playfully repetitive form of the term, common in slang, is called "reduplication," also found in such phrases as "hanky panky" and "okey-dokey."

"Fogey," incidentally, is probably Scottish in origin, but its ultimate roots are also a bit uncertain. It's possible that "fogey" (also spelled "fogy") is based on an antiquated sense of "foggy" used to mean "moss-covered," but my favorite theory traces it to the Scottish word "foggie," meaning a kind of brown bumblebee.

Squeaky clean.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading your "My Favorite Word" site and came across "Squeegee," submitted by John, and I have to agree with him; I smile every time I hear it, too! I got to wondering where the word came from. I always thought that "squeegee " was just a great example of onomatopoeia, but when I googled it, I found that the "This Old House" website said that it comes from the word "squilgee," a wooden swab used to scrape fish guts off boat decks. (Yuck!) Is this true? -- SMD.

Like wow. Website crossover. What you're is referring to, of course, is a website I established in mid-September as part of a new book project. Called "My Favorite Word," the site (at collects and posts the favorite words and phrases of visitors, some of which will be included in a forthcoming book along with the favorites of a range of writers, actors, politicians and other notable folks. So far we have about 300 entries posted, ranging from "Abstemiously" to "Mop" to "Zaftig." Mop?

"Squeegee" is indeed a great word. A "squeegee" is a usually T-shaped implement with a rubber edge on the crosspiece, used to remove water from a surface, as in cleaning windows. Back in the day when service stations offered motorists actual service, the attendant would swipe the windshield of your car with a sponge and then quickly squeegee the grime and dead bugs away with the precise motions of a surgeon. I do my best to replicate that expertise, but I invariably end up driving away with damp shoes and an only slightly less dingy windshield.

For such a useful instrument, the "squeegee" seems to be a fairly recent arrival, the term first appearing in the mid-19th century. Although squeegees do produce a squeaky sound, "squeegee" does not appear to be of onomatopoeic (based on the sound of the thing itself) origin. It may be connected, as the This Old House website says, to "squilgee," an implement used to scrape the deck of a ship after washing, mentioned in Melville's Moby Dick (which is probably where "fish guts" come in). If "squeegee" is based on "squilgee," we have a problem, because the origin of "squilgee" is a complete mystery.

But there's also the possibility that "squeegee" is derived from the 18th century verb "squeege," which was simply an intensified form of "squeeze."

Keep TWD Free!
Please consider donating to support
The Word Detective website.


Dear Word Detective: My wife is taking a class at our local community college and the subject of "italic" type came up. Her instructor says that, at the time the word was coined, Italians were stereotyped as lazy and, since the type leaned in a "lazy" manner, it was called italic. Is there any truth to this? -- John Vowell.

Well, that's depressing. One of the things I learned from watching the  presidential debates last fall was that the solution to our loss of jobs through outsourcing apparently lies in the freshly unemployed marching themselves down to their local community colleges to learn new skills. But if your wife's experience is any indication, one can only hope that there is an emerging global market for horsefeathers, because that's what her instructor is dispensing.

It is true that, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian immigrants to the U.S. were popularly stereotyped as lazy and/or dishonest, much in the same way that many immigrant groups (Irish, German, Welsh, etc.) were stigmatized at various points for their supposed national characteristics. But "italic" type actually stems from one of the great cultural achievements of what is now modern Italy.

Aldus Manutius (the Latinized form of Aldo Manuzio) was one of the leading scholars of Venice in the 15th century and served as tutor to many children of the nobility. At the age of 45, one of his clients gave him enough money to open a printing firm, and Manutius set about publishing highly accurate, but affordable, editions of the Greek and Roman classics. To save space in his Latin texts, Manutius developed a new style of type, said to be modeled after the script of the great Italian scholar Petrarch, which departed from the vertical posture of standard Roman type, leaning gracefully to the right. This is the style of type now known as "italic," meaning "of or from Italy."

Through the work of his Aldine Press, Manutius is credited with preserving and restoring important classics of Greek and Roman literature, and the books produced by his press, bearing his mark of a dolphin and an anchor, are still considered the most accurate renditions of many ancient texts.

Next time, try the sloe gin.

Dear Word Detective: I wonder why people use "pink tea" or "kettledrum" to refer to a tea gathering in the afternoon. I have never seen any kind of tea with the color of pink, and I have never heard the sound of a kettledrum on such occasion. -- Lilian, Beijing, China.

There are times, and this is one of them, when I feel like calling Sergeant Joe Friday, played by Jack Webb on the old "Dragnet" TV series. Sergeant Friday not only maintained the same deadpan torpor no matter how bizarre a case he faced, but also frequently exhibited an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of street slang (supplied by scriptwriters apparently goofing on Mr. Webb). "It's marijuana," he'd declare, "also known to addicts as pot, acid, Mary Jane, boo-boo, bingo, hippie dust, Tijuana tea, speed, hooch, hash and Helmut the Wonder Horse."

But while "pink tea" and "kettledrum" certainly fit the category of strange slang, both of them have been around for far too long to be blamed on screenwriters.

"Pink tea," originally meaning a highly fashionable (and exclusive) tea party, is an American invention dating back to the late 19th century. The use of "pink" to mean "fashionable" or "exclusive" harks back to the very old sense of "pink" meaning "the peak or finest example" of something, a use dating back to the 16th century, probably ultimately derived from the pinkish complexion of a Caucasian person in good health ("in the pink"). By the 17th century, "pink" was being used both as a noun meaning "one of the elite" and an adjective meaning "exquisite" or "exclusive."

"Kettledrum" also dates back to the 19th century, this time in England, and seems to be a derivative of the older (mid-18th century) colloquial term "drum," meaning a fashionable party or gathering at a private house. The use of "drum" in this "party" sense may, as one account at the time notes, refer to the loud noise of such a gathering, much as other sorts of gatherings ranging in size and frenzy were known as a "squeeze," fuss," "rout," "racquet" and "hurricane." It's worth noting, however, that "drum" at the time was also underworld slang for "street" or "house," drawn from the Romany (Gypsy) word "drom" (street).

In any case, "kettledrum" in the tea party sense is a sort of pun on "drum," as it is a "drum" of a smaller sort that involves a tea kettle. Not exactly a knee-slapper, I'll admit, but it probably seemed a lot funnier 150 years ago.

All fall down.

Dear Word Detective: I was just reading an article which said that in the Middle Ages, the upper-class ate off of real silver plates and used real silver utensils. In doing this, they ingested so much silver that it gave their skin a bluish tint, giving us the term "blueblood." Is this even remotely correct? -- Monica.

Gee, I'm glad I missed the Middle Ages. Judging by the tales I read on the internet, it was hell on earth. You couldn't eat dinner without being beaned by a pet falling through your roof (the supposed origin of "raining cats and dogs"), small children routinely disappeared in dirty bath water ("Don't throw the baby out...."), and if you succumbed to poisoning from the lousy food you ran the risk of being buried alive, with (if you were lucky) a bell tied to your finger to signal for help (the purported source of both "saved by the bell" and "dead ringer"). Turning blue from the eating utensils seems like a stroll in the park by comparison.

But while eating and drinking from metal (especially lead) plates and cups has been proven to be a bad idea repeatedly throughout history, the story you've read is simply another in a long line of internet fables. The magnum opus of this deranged genre is an essay, usually traveling under the title "Life in the 1500s," that has been skipping gaily around the internet for the past few years, and from which the three examples above are drawn. As I noted in this column a few years ago, the few parts of this essay that are not overtly insane are still utterly wrong. See for a good debunking of this fable.

"Blue blood" in the sense of "aristocracy" is actually a direct translation of the Spanish phrase "sangre azul." The oldest families of Castile in Spain prided themselves on the "purity" of their lineage, believing it never to have been "contaminated" by Moorish, Jewish or other "foreign blood," and as evidence offered the blueness of their veins against their fair complexions. In truth, their blood was the same color as everyone else's, and it was simply the lightness of their skins that made their veins appear blue, but "sangre azul" was taken into English around 1834 as "blue blood" and has been a synonym for "nobility" or "aristocracy" ever since.

When The Real Thing™ was a bit too real.

Dear Word Detective: I was interested in your column on "dope." I grew up in the textile manufacturing belt of the Carolinas in the 1930s. People who worked in the mills welcomed the daily arrival of the "dope wagon," a wheeled cart loaded with sandwiches, cakes, and then-new Coca-Colas. Mill workers habitually referred to Coca-Colas not as "Cokes" but as "Dopes." They believed, either correctly or incorrectly, that the original Coca-Colas were laced with cocaine, hence, Cokes were "Dopes." Do you know anything about the contents of the original Coca-Colas? -- John Wilson.

As I noted in my answer to a question about dope as a term for ice-cream toppings (available at our online archive of back columns at, "dope," from the Dutch "doop," meaning "sauce," first appeared in English in the 19th century as a term for any sort of thick liquid, whether edible (gravy, syrup, etc.) or not (industrial lubricants, etc.). "Dope" was also used as a term for any unnamed or unidentified substance or preparation, and it may have been this sense that first led to its use to mean "narcotic drugs" in the late 19th century.

The use of "dope" to mean soft drinks in the American South is widespread even today. Although this use is almost certainly rooted in the "sweet syrup" sense of "dope," there is some truth to the Coke-cocaine connection. Coincidentally (yeah, right), I happen to have dealt with this question in my latest book, "From Altoids to Zima -- The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names," just published by Simon & Schuster.

Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by John Pemberton, an Atlanta, GA pharmacist. The name "Coca-Cola" came from two of the drink's ingredients: cola from the cola nut, and extract of coca leaf, also the source of cocaine, a common ingredient of 19th century patent medicines. By the standards of the day Coca-Cola contained a minuscule amount that probably had no effect on its consumers. Still, by the early 1890s there was a rising tide of anti-cocaine sentiment, and Atlanta businessman Asa Candler, who acquired the Coca-Cola Company in 1891, steadily decreased even the tiny amount of the drug in the recipe. There is some evidence that the only reason Candler kept putting even minute amounts of coca extract in the drink was his belief that to omit it entirely might cause Coca-Cola, by then besieged by imitators, to lose its trademark. In any event, Coca-Cola was completely cocaine-free by 1929.


Gamma Lamma Ding-Dong.

Dear Word Detective: The word "gamut" came up in conversation the other day, and while it clearly means to run the full range or scale, it's not clear what a "gamut" is. Is there a "gamut"? What does it look like? Is it a foreign word imported into English or some ancient idea run to ground after all this time? -- Barney Johnson.

Good question. We use "gamut" today to mean an entire range or scale of things, most often between opposites, e.g., large to small, happy to sad, etc. My trips to the Post Office, for instance, often "run the gamut" from hopeful anticipation (of checks in the mail) to stunned disappointment (at nothing but carpet cleaning offers in the box) to quiet resignation (facilitated by a consoling sack of doughnuts). Great actors are often said to "run the gamut" of emotions in their performances, leading Dorothy Parker famously to sum up one of Katherine Hepburn's less-shining forays upon the stage with "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."

Life, and the balance of this column, would be simpler if "gamut" were merely a foreign word appropriated into English. But no such luck, which brings us to the wonderful world of musical theory (which I do not pretend to understand but will endeavor not to mangle beyond repair).

Once upon a time, back in the 11th century, a Benedictine monk and musical theorist named Guido d'Arezzo devised the "hexachord" system, a six-note scale for reading music. The forerunner of our familiar ascending eight-note "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do" scale, d'Arezzo's system ran "ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la" (taken from the first letters of the lines of an eighth-century Latin hymn to Saint John: "Ut queant laxis resonare fibris Mira gestorum famuli tuorum, Solve polluti labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes.")

The lowest note in the musical scale since the Middle Ages had been known as "gamma" (from the Greek letter used to signify the note "bottom G"), and when "ut," the lowest note of d'Arezzo's scale, fell on that mark it was known as "gamma-ut." This was eventually contracted into simply "gamut" in musical use, and came to be used to mean the entire scale. By the 17th century, "gamut" had percolated out into general use in its modern sense of "the whole range of possibilities."

To squeal, perhaps to lunge.

Dear Word Detective: Over beers -- twenty years ago -- my university roommate's girlfriend commented that she had never found the origin of the term "guinea pig." I suggested that perhaps they had once cost a guinea to purchase. She said she had no idea, but was reasonably convinced they did not come from Guinea. I'm dying to forward your reply to her. Robert, Rebecca and I haven't heard from each other for years. Considering how strong my homemade chokecherry wine was, Rebecca will never believe I had been sober enough to actually remember that conversation ... if she remembers it herself! -- Allison Lee-Clay.

Well, clearly, there's no time to lose. You may presume that your friend has forgotten her quest for the origin of "guinea pig," but history is replete with cases of just such trivial questions becoming lifelong obsessions, persisting, in fact, unto the afflicted party's demise, a la "Citizen Kane." So to avoid "guinea pig" becoming your long-lost drinking buddy's "Rosebud," we shall delve forthwith into the private life of this adorable little rodent.

While guinea pigs may be adorable, their name is more than a bit deceptive. They are not really pigs, of course, because pigs are not rodents and guinea pigs apparently are. And they do not actually hark from Guinea, which is a region on the West Coast of Africa, but from South America. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "guinea pig" as "A rodent mammal (Cavia Cobaya) of the genus Cavia, originating in South America, but now widely distributed in a half-domesticated state." I believe, based on personal experience, that "half-domesticated" in this case means "they bite." They also make an odd pig-like squealing sound when frustrated, e.g., not being allowed to bite someone.

There are a number of theories as to how these little critters came to be called, starting around 1664, "guinea pigs." The folks at Oxford suggest that either someone thought they looked like the young of the "Guinea hog," a sort of pig which does come from Africa, or that "Guinea" in this case is simply shorthand for "foreign." Or it may be that, because Guinea at that time was well-known as a source of slaves in the booming transatlantic slave trade, it was presumed that the little animals brought back by sailors also originated in Guinea.

Incidentally, the English coin (now obsolete) known as a "guinea" was first issued in 1663 for use in trade with Africa and originally bore the image of an elephant.

Now if they would just answer the phone, I could get some work done.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently in a discussion about where the phrase "hush puppies" came from. I am not referring to the shoes. What I am talking about are the "Long John Silver's" hush puppies that are made of corn meal. I was told they originated during the old cowboy days when they would drive the herds for long distances. The corn meal balls were made to throw at the dogs to keep them from barking. A friend of mine said they were originally termed "Shut up, Dawg!" Can you help us settle this debate? -- Becky Swartzlander.

That's funny. I have always found a well-tossed shoe the most effective dog-quieter. Just kidding, of course. I would never throw anything at our two canine companions, Doorbell and Barkie. As Doorbell's name implies, our house inexplicably lacks one of those buzzer-thingies, so we depend on Doorbell (also known as Brownie) to herald the arrival of the UPS or FedEx folks. Barkie (aka Pokey) does her best to help, but in her enthusiasm for the job she routinely barks at suspicious clouds in the sky, so we take Barkie's warnings with a grain of salt.

There are a number of stories told about the origin of corn meal "hush puppies," a term which first appeared in print around 1913. My parents, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, reported the belief of one correspondent that the original "hush puppies" were actually salamanders (known colloquially as "water puppies"), rolled in corn meal, fried, and consumed during the desperate days of Reconstruction in the South. Since salamanders were not really considered edible, and no family wanted it to be known that they had fallen on such hard times, the children were warned to "hush" (be quiet) and not mention their dinner to neighbors. Voila, "hush puppies."

While this story is certainly colorful, it strikes me as both unlikely and unnecessary. The "Shut up, dawg" explanation seems most likely, with the addendum that "hush puppies" were (and still are) commonly cooked as a side dish for humans in the South, so their use as canine tranquilizers was almost certainly a spur-of-the-moment expedient.

Incidentally, Hush Puppies shoes, produced since 1958 by Wolverine World Wide, take their name from a rather convoluted pun. Feet have long been called "dogs" in slang, and "My dogs are barking" is a jocular way to say "My feet hurt." According to Wolverine, Hush Puppies shoes, designed to be soft and comfortable, quiet those barking dogs.


 Main Current Columns Archives Ask a Question Buy the Book Subscribe




All contents Copyright © 2005 by Evan Morris.