Previous Columns/Posted 01/21/99
Dear Word Detective: I am interested in your opinion about a theory of mine as to the origin of the word "baloney," meaning unauthentic, as in "full of baloney." It is, I think, commonly believed that baloney is a mispronunciation of the name Bologna, as in the sausage of the same name. This makes sense, of course, as sausage stuffing might well be a metaphor for something whose contents are somewhat dubious. However, recently an Irish friend was commenting on a mutual acquaintance, and referred to him as being "full of B'larney" (his pronunciation). It struck me that this mispronunciation was an even better explanation for the expression, which seems to refer to glibness as much as tainted contents. For some reason, I cannot seem to interest anyone in this issue. -- Bernard Davidoff, via the internet.
Well, I suppose that it's possible that someone, somewhere, mistook "blarney" for "baloney" on a given occasion, but that sort of confusion is almost certainly not the origin of baloney as a synonym for "nonsense."
It is pretty well established that "baloney," meaning nonsense, does come from "baloney" the sausage (which is indeed named after Bologna, Italy). Baloney was (and often still is) regarded as a humble food of, as you say, dubious origins. It thus made a good metaphor for "junk" much as today we use "spam" (fairly or not) to mean unwanted e-mail advertisements. One of the earliest uses of "baloney" to mean nonsense was in the catch phrase "It's baloney no matter how thin you slice it," popular in the 1930's.
"Blarney," of course, also means nonsense, specifically smooth flattery, and comes from the name of a village in Ireland. According to legend, the Blarney Stone, located in a local castle, supposedly confers the skill of telling convincing lies on whoever manages to reach and kiss it, a feat requiring considerable physical dexterity.
The difference between "baloney" and "blarney," interestingly, was explained in a radio address by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1954: "Baloney is the unvarnished lie laid on so thick you hate it; blarney is flattery laid on so thin you love it."
Dear Word Detective: Recently I saw the following headline in the features section of my local paper "Pamela Anderson Lee, not just another blonde bimbo." Here I've considered her pretty much the queen of blonde bimbos for years now. Anyway, that led me to consider the word "bimbo," which the two dictionaries I consulted didn't even mention. So, where does the word "bimbo" come from? Was it the pet name the French had for Brigitte Bardot or something? -- Kevin Murphy, via the internet.
Hey, that's Doctor Pamela Anderson Lee to you, buster. Physician, philosopher, physicist, philanthropist, philodendron-fancier and, of course, dedicated philatelist. But let's not be skeptical. Maybe she's been teaching graduate seminars in the post-millennial deconstructionist hermeneutics of Baywatch at the Sorbonne in her spare time. I have a distressing suspicion that such a thing is far from impossible.
In defense of Brigitte Bardot, incidentally, I don't think that she was ever considered a "bimbo," even before she went on to establish herself as a dedicated advocate of animal rights. A "bimbo" is generally considered to be a young, attractive, but not-very-bright woman. Ironically, when "bimbo," which is a shortened form of "bambino," Italian for child or baby, first appeared in English around 1919, it originally meant a young person of either gender and, in fact, was most often applied to men. When a gangster spoke of a "bimbo" in the 1920's, chances were that he was referring to the sort of dim-witted street-corner thug we might today call a "wiseguy wannabe."
The shift of gender in the popular use of "bimbo" to mean a young woman who trades on her appearance in lieu of talent or intellect remains a mystery, although we do know that it began sometime in the late 1920's and seemed to be complete by the 1940's.
Dear Word Detective: I'm curious about the origin of the word "cobwebs." -- Steve Whisman, via the internet.
Funny you should ask. Cobwebs are, of course, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, "the web or fine network spun by a spider for the capture of its prey," and thereby dangles a major beef of mine. As I may have mentioned before, Word Detective World Headquarters recently relocated from New York City to rural Ohio. WDWH now occupies a stately Victorian farmhouse with many charms, the most dubious of which, however, is the fact that it apparently does double duty as the community center for Spidertown, USA. I had no idea that there were so many varieties of spiders on this planet, or that so many of them were so large as those that greet me in the shower every morning. And I have discovered that there's nothing so bracing on a cool, dark autumn evening as walking out of your front door into a cobweb so huge that its owner must eat whole chickens for lunch. It's gotten to the point that even an old copy of "Charlotte's Web" gives me the wimwams.
So anyway, we all know what a "web" is (aside from being the most pointless part of the internet), but here's an interesting tidbit for dictionary fans. The root of "web" was a prehistoric Germanic word that also gave us "weave." The Old English word for "one who weaves" was "webster," which is now obsolete as a noun but still exists, of course, as a proper name.
But the real question is where the "cob" comes in. The most commonly encountered "cob" is the corn-cob, the cylindrical woody shoot on which grains of corn grow. That kind of "cob" comes from a very old English word that meant "head or top."
It is possible that "cobweb" is related to that word, but a more certain ancestor is the Middle English "coppe," which meant simply "spider." Over the years "coppe" was gradually slurred to "cob," and, voila, "cobweb." But now I must take my leave. For some reason, both my cats are staring intently at the ceiling directly above my head.
Dear Word Detective: Recently in my Study of Language class, the professor said that something "warmed the cockles of his heart." Then he chuckled to himself and said if any one of us could explain what that meant we'd get extra credit. Can you help me out here? -- Melody Asbury, Dallas PA.
This is one of those questions which ought to be easier to answer than it turns out to be. Let's start with the easy part. "Cockles of the heart" means your innermost feelings or the depths of your soul. The phrase is almost always found in the expression "to warm the cockles of one's heart," meaning to give a feeling of happiness, gratification and contentment. Old "Lassie" movies, for instance, can usually be counted on to warm the cockles of any nearby hearts.
The origin of "cockles of the heart," however, is a classic chicken-and-egg question and there are a number of theories. "Cockles" in the non-heart sense are mollusks -- shellfish -- not unlike scallops, with vaguely heart-shaped, ribbed shells. The "cockles of the heart" in a technical sense are the ventricles, or chambers, of the heart, and here's where it starts to get a little confusing. Are the chambers of the heart called "cockles" because, with their spiral ribbed pattern, they resemble the shellfish? Or might it be the other way round -- are aquatic cockles called "cockles" because they themselves resemble little hearts? Dizzy yet? If all that isn't sufficiently confusing, the scientific Latin name for the aquatic "cockle" just happens to be "Cardium," meaning "heart," which is really no help at all.
The best we can say is that the two "cockles" are linguistically related. Aquatic "cockles," even though heart-shaped, probably took their name from a Greek word for mussel or scallop, and "cockles of the heart" is probably based on the heart's resemblance to a ribbed shell. All of which is interesting, but it can't hold a candle to a good "Lassie" movie.
Dear Word Detective: On a recent trip to Turkey we were visiting an ancient ruin where people were buried in large "pots." When the next family member died we were told that they would be put in the same pot. Does this have any relation to our expression "going to pot"? -- Edie, via the internet.
I knew there was a reason why I never visited Turkey. But, of course, I mustn't presume to judge the burial traditions of another culture. After all, my own youth was spent tending to an informal pet cemetery in our suburban backyard, where row after row of goldfish, turtles, hamsters and the occasional unlucky sparrow were interred with all due solemnity. To this day I cannot bring myself to throw away shoeboxes and similar small-animal-sized containers, although I do keep them in the basement so as not to unnecessarily upset the current menagerie.
All my little clients had "gone to pot" in the figurative sense meaning "deteriorated or destroyed," but I would never have dreamt of them "going to pot" in the original sense of the term. Around 1542, when the phrase first appeared, "to go to pot" was to be cut up like chunks of meat destined for the stew pot. Such a stew was usually the last stop for the remnants of a once substantial cut of meat or poultry, so "going to pot" made perfect sense as a metaphor for anything, from a national economy to a marriage, that had seen better days. Early uses of the metaphor were usually in the form "go to the pot."
Speaking of stew, it's a tribute to the enduring popularity of this combination of boiled vegetables and meat that almost every culture in the world has developed its own local version, from Hungarian goulash to Scottish "hotch potch" (whence our "hodgepodge," meaning "jumbled mixture"). We also still speak of someone slowly boiling with anger as being "in a stew," and, if we decide to ignore him, he "stews in his own juices."
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "wheeling and dealing"? It just occurred to me that "wheel" might be some version of "wheedle"-- is this a possibility? -- Emily Sklar, via the internet.
Well, um, probably not. It's a good suggestion, though, and I wish there were more of a likelihood that you were right. I think "wheedle," defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "to entice or persuade by soft flattering words; to gain over or take in by coaxing or cajolery" is a great word. Say "wheedle" aloud and you can almost hear some guy in a shiny suit selling surfboards in Minnesota. No one knows exactly where "wheedle" came from, though it first appeared around 1661 and may be rooted in the Old English word "waedlian," meaning "to beg."
Meanwhile, back at "wheeling and dealing," the "dealing" part of it is simple. That's what "wheeler dealers" do all day, cutting deals in (metaphorically, at least) smoke-filled back rooms, hatching schemes to corner the market in widgets the day before the Surgeon General announces that widgets can shrink wrinkles and grow hair on bowling balls. Wheeler dealers are the sharpies, the big shots, the smooth operators who run everything from the local used car lot to, if your paranoia quotient is high enough, the federal government.
The "wheeling" in "wheeling and dealing" is a bit more obscure, but we use a similar term fairly frequently -- "big wheel," which has meant a "big shot" or someone of great importance since the 1940's. The logic of a "big wheel" being in charge harks back to the mechanical metaphor of our economy itself being composed of rich, powerful big wheels (think Bill Gates) and small, insignificant cogs (the rest of us). Someone who "wheels" is thus acting like a "big wheel" in the great creaking machinery of our social order. Meanwhile, the rest of us just cog along, I guess.
Dear Word Detective: My dad uses a word -- I can't spell it -- but it's something along the lines of "crimeny," with the accent on the first syllable. (That's a long "I," and the "e" is a schwa.) He uses it they same way people say, "Oh, for heaven's sake," or "Sheesh." A variation he uses is "crimenently," with the major accent on the third syllable, minor accent on the first. Does this word exist in anyone's vocabulary besides my dad's? If so, how is it spelled and where did it come from? -- Vicky Jones, Madison, WI.
Well, jeepers, it sure as shootin' is a goldurned real word. "Criminy" (which is how most dictionaries spell it) is simply a euphemism for "Christ." Euphemisms, of course, are words designed to act as linguistic fig leaves, disguising (supposedly) or softening the true meaning of the speaker's words in deference to the listener's (again supposedly) refined sensibilities. In practice, euphemisms rarely really fool anyone, although we all play along with the game and dutifully chuckle at a "goldurn" when we might well be offended by a blunt "goddam."
"Criminy" has been around at least since the 1600's, which makes it a charter member of a sub-class of English euphemisms designed to circumvent prohibitions against swearing oaths or taking holy names in vain. Other euphemisms involving substitutes for "Christ" include "cricky," "for chrissakes," "for Pete's sake," and the ever-popular "gee," which is short for "Jesus," as is my "jeepers" above. While we're at it, "gosh," "golly," "good grief" and "great scott" all arose as attempts to sidestep invoking the name "God." There's even evidence to indicate that "doggone" has nothing to do with dogs and everything to do with a garbled attempt to modify "God damn."
The "sheesh" you mention, incidentally, is a euphemism for an interjection still considered unprintable by most newspapers (but which I am confident my readers will be able to figure out). "Sheesh" is a much more recent arrival than "criminy," having first appeared (in print, anyway) in the early 1970's.
Dear Word Detective: Hey, I need to know the origin of the word "fib" for my English class. Could you help me out? -- Ry, via the internet.
Hey, yourself. Am I the only one around here to find this question intriguing? Granted, given the pace of life in my new rural abode, I may be suffering a bit of sensory deprivation. I recently realized that my life had become preternaturally placid when I caught myself eagerly anticipating the day when they would harvest the sea of corn in the vast field across the road. Of course, now that the pulse-pounding excitement and racket of the combines is over and the corn is gone, I'm suffering the inevitable post-harvest letdown. Perhaps there is a support group I can join.
In any case, I've been pondering the possible "backstory" (as screenwriters call it) of this question. Perhaps a fib was told in English class (not that I'm pointing any fingers, mind you). Perhaps a certain student was assigned to research the origin of "fib" as penance. And perhaps I have been chosen by fate to facilitate this moral transformation. Or maybe I should just shut up and answer the question.
A "fib," of course, is a lie, especially one regarded as harmless or trivial. As untruths go, fibs are the fuzzy little bunny rabbits of falsehood, as opposed to the big ugly whoppers of prevarication, falsehood and perjury. "Fib" even has a cute origin. Back in the 17th century, a whimsical word for "nonsense" was "fible-fable," which was simply a playful reduplication of the word "fable." (Similar reduplications heard today include "jingle-jangle" and "okey-dokey.") "Fible" at some point became separated from "fable" and, shortened to simply "fib," came to mean a little "white" lie.
Of course, none of this bunny rabbit stuff should be construed as an incitement to fibbing. Fibs are, ultimately, every bit as untrue as a premeditated lie, and the recipient of your fib (or a nearby House Committee) may not take your confabulations as lightly as you might wish. My advice is always to tell the truth, especially in English class. Even when they ask you what you thought of "Beowulf."
Dear Word Detective: In a conversation the other day, I stated that a friend of mine was now able to hobnob with her boss. How did hobnob come to its meaning? -- Sherman Klaus, via the internet.
You know, I really appreciate it when people take the time to supply some context to the questions they send in, as you have done. There's nothing more annoying than receiving e-mail consisting of a single word followed by a question mark ("Catnip?" or "Fondue?"), as if the writers couldn't be bothered to ask a proper question (as I guess they can't). Plonk in the bitbucket those go. But while you have given us the broad contours of this boss/friend drama, I am haunted by the missing details. Why is your friend suddenly able to hobnob with her boss? A promotion? Her recent parole from prison? A divorce? Release from rabies quarantine? Folks want to know these things.
In the absence of answers, we'll assume that your friend's newfound hobnobability is good news. "Hobnob," meaning "to associate familiarly" or "to hang out with" comes from the Middle English "hab-nab," a shortening of the Old English "habbe nabbe," meaning "to have and have not" or "to give and take." Shakespeare used it in this "give and take" sense, although at about the same time "hobnob" was also being used to mean "hit or miss," or "at random." By the 18th century, "to hobnob" often referred to two friends buying each other drinks in a tavern, perhaps trading toasts to each other as well. And by the early 19th century, hobnob had became a synonym for any sort of routine casual socializing.
Today, although strictly speaking "hobnob" means simply "to associate or socialize with," the word carries connotations of high society and social-climbing. Having a beer with your buddies is "hanging out." Having a beer with Donald Trump is "hobnobbing."
Dear Word Detective: Is "kludgey" a real word? Have you ever even heard it before? I just asked a co-worker how to spell it and he looked at me like I'm insane. In any event, I take it to mean awkward and/or clumsy. It's a word I've been using in reference to web site design for about two years. -- Kate Norris, via the internet.
Well, assuming that you are not, in fact, insane, the joke is on your co-worker. "Kludgey" as an adjective isn't in most dictionaries yet, but its root "kludge" certainly is. A kludge (also spelled "kluge") is an improvised solution to a problem, usually jury-rigged and inelegant but effective, at least for the time being. "Kludges" are well known in computer programming, where bugs in a program are sometimes patched up with awkward and makeshift solutions in order to avoid having to start all over again. Your use of "kludgey" to mean awkward or clumsy thus makes perfect sense.
There have been a number of theories of the origin of "kludge" proposed over the years, the simplest being a modification of the slang verb "to fudge," meaning to cheat or create fake data in order to get a desired result. Another theory traced the term to a paper-feeding device for printing presses marketed in the 1930's by a company named Kluge, a gadget famous for its complexity and unreliability.
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "kludge" first appeared in 1962, invented by a writer named J.W. Granholm. Granholm declared that the root of "kludge" was the German word "kluge," meaning "smart" or "witty," noting that kludges were, in fact, often "not so smart or pretty ridiculous."
The original (and, to purists, the only proper) pronunciation of "kludge," incidentally, is "klooj," but the change in spelling from "kluge" to "kludge" has caused most people to assume, understandably, that it should rhyme with "fudge."
Dear Word Detective: What does the term "straw boss" mean and where did it originate? -- Larry Morgan, via the internet.
Call me a clueless city slicker (preferably behind my back, lest I spend the next two weeks sulking in the chicken coop), but there are some pretty basic elements of rural living that have long mystified me. I distinctly remember sitting on the New York City subway several years ago, for instance, and wondering what the difference between straw and hay was. Any New Yorker will understand why pondering such a seemingly irrelevant matter was safer than trying to imagine why the guy riding next to me had lined his hat with tinfoil.
Anyway, only last weekend, when I was seated on an actual bale of straw at a rural picnic, did it occur to me to ask my hosts to explain the difference. Hay, I was told, is usually just dried grass, sometimes with a little alfalfa thrown in, used as feed for horses and cattle. Straw, on the other hand, is the stalks of wheat or other grains left over after harvesting the good parts, and is used primarily for livestock bedding. Needless to say, immediately upon learning this I skedaddled to the nearest telephone and canceled the bunk beds my own cows had convinced me to order for them. I am also reconsidering the need for cable TV in the barn.
Since straw is fundamentally a by-product of the real business of a farm, it's not surprising to learn that a "straw boss" is not the "big boss" of any job, but rather an assistant or subordinate boss, usually on the level of the foreman of a work crew. The term is said to have arisen from the usual arrangement of workers threshing wheat in the fields. The primary boss would be in charge of the wheat entering the threshing apparatus, while the assistant, or "straw," boss would supervise the crew gathering and baling the straw that the thresher discarded. "Straw boss" first appeared in print in the late 1800's, and quickly became a metaphor for any low-level supervisor. And since straw bosses rarely wield any real power aside from the ability to make those under them miserable, "straw boss" today is often a synonym for a petty and vindictive superior.
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