Issue of January 25, 2004




  Issue of January 25, 2004



As I believe I may have mentioned occasionally (only every month or so), I receive an amazing/depressing/infuriating amount of spam every day (~ 4,000 bits per day this week, for instance).  My web host runs Spam Assassin, which catches about 50% of it, but that still leaves me manually sorting and deleting another 2,000 crud-mails scattered among my numerous mailboxes.  So I was delighted to discover that the new version of  Mozilla incorporates Bayesian filtering in its e-mail program and that it actually works quite well.  This sort of filter learns from the messages you mark as spam and after a while does a good job of intercepting spam on its own. 

Due to severe time constraints this month, I have been forced to omit the lovely illustrations that normally grace each new issue.  Sorry about that.  Hey, the page loads faster, doesn't it? 

On the bright side, my new book, Making Whoopee, is out just in time for Valentine's Day.  A view of the cover and a laudatory blurb can be seen on our front page.

As promised, here are some snaps of TWD's quadruped staff, along with some random pictures of soybean fields. I am working on getting pictures of Brownie, the larger dog, but she is afraid of cameras.  Fifi the Cat is also, for some reason, hard to photograph, possibly because she is a pure silky black color and never opens her eyes.

And now, on with the show:

It's a bird, it's a plane, call the lawyer.

Dear Word Detective: Around here in Wisconsin we use an expression when someone dies. We say "Guess he bought the farm." This doesn't make sense to me even though I was a farmer for many years. Ring any bells with you? -- Grace Hansen, De Pere, WI.

Yes it does, and I actually answered this question several years ago. But the fact that you sent in your question by actual postal mail (and handwritten to boot) indicates that you don't have access to our online archives at, so we'll give it another shot. Incidentally, I've decided to single-handedly preserve the institution of handwritten letters by giving automatic priority to questions that arrive in that form. You'll all thank me in a few years. Just please write legibly.

"To buy the farm" meaning "to die" or, more usually, "to be killed" began as American military slang among pilots during World War II. The most commonly heard explanation of the phrase traces it to the frequently expressed desire of soldiers of the period to survive the war and buy a farm on which to settle down in peace and quiet to raise a family. Thus a pilot who failed to return from a mission was said to have "bought the farm," i.e., gone to a peaceful rest, albeit not in a desirable way. It is also possible, according to another theory, that the phrase may refer to the pilot's death benefit enabling his widow to pay off a farm the couple already owned.

Yet another possible origin is a bit less romantic, but probably closer to the truth. It was understood among pilots that when a plane crashed on a farm during training the farmer was likely to sue for damages to the farm, often for sums far in excess of the actual damage sustained. The more severe the crash, the higher the award for damages, often, it was said, enabling the farmer to pay off the farm's mortgage. So in a fatal crash, the pilot was said to have "bought the farm," paying with his life. This usage almost certainly also reflected an earlier sardonic slang use of "buy" to mean "to be at fault for damaging," as a driver who crashed his car into a telephone pole might be said to have "bought a telephone pole."

Coming soon: "Runaway Bridal Train."

Dear Word Detective: I have a rough idea of the meaning of the term "Irish twins," but cannot find out where it originated and the specific definition. I heard it in the movie "Runaway Jury." -- Berlynne Holman, via the internet.

Oh goody, a movie question. I haven't seen "Runaway Jury," but based on what I know of Hollywood's boundless creativity, I'll bet that it's a cross between "Runaway Train" and "Runaway Bride." Does it perhaps star Julia Roberts as an overenthusiastic engineer who gets hauled into court by her jilted fiancée? Yes, being psychic saves me a bundle on movie tickets.

Obviously, I don't know in what context "Irish twins" crops up in "Runaway Jury," but I can explain its standard meaning. "Irish twins" are two children born to the same mother within one twelve-month period. A slightly more common form is "Irish triplets," meaning children born one per year to the same mother three years in succession. In neither case are the terms "twin" or "triplet" strictly applied, since the children involved are not products of a single pregnancy.

The question, of course, is why such details of birth would be described as distinctively "Irish," and thereby hangs an unfortunate tale. The use of "Irish" as a derogatory prefix in a variety of vernacular terms dates back to at least the 17th century, and arose largely in response to large-scale Irish immigration into both England and America. It's a sad fact that every immigrant group encounters hostility at least at first, and the Irish became the butt of numerous linguistic jokes in both countries commenting on their "strangeness," poverty or supposed proclivities for drunkenness, violence and loose morality. Thus "Irish confetti" was slang for bricks used as projectiles, an "Irish kiss" was a slap in the face, an "Irish banjo" was a shovel, and so on. (For a good rundown of anti-Irish slurs and terms of national prejudice in general, I recommend Hugh Rawson's excellent book Wicked Words).

In the case of "Irish twins" or "Irish triplets," the slur was actually a triple-whammy, implying that the Irish were more likely to bear children in quick succession because of the Catholic Church's proscription of birth control, less likely to restrain themselves from procreating, and unable to understand the proper meaning of the terms "twins" and "triplets."

On Dancer! On Prancer! On Vixen with Cheese!

Dear Word Detective: I think I speak for all of your readers when I say "Kudos to you, for being able to answer all of our bizarre questions!" But what exactly am I saying, anyway? What are "kudos"? -- Dawn Cohen, via the internet.

They're a lot like tacos, I believe, but made with ground reindeer. Kudos is a traditional Christmas dish in parts of New Jersey, which probably explains why Santa takes the bus when he gets to Hoboken.

But seriously, thanks for the compliment. But you do realize that I get to pick the questions I answer, don't you? For all you know, I could be tossing all the really challenging ones in the circular file. I don't, of course. Rarely, anyway. Almost never.

Meanwhile, back at your question, "kudos" means "honor, praise or glory for an achievement." To be picked as "Salesperson of the Month" would be an occasion of receiving "kudos," as would be winning a spelling bee. If you're ever uncertain whether you're receiving "kudos," take a quick look around. If there's a plaque of some kind nearby with your name on it, you're definitely being "kudized."

"Kudos" first appeared in common use in English in the early 19th century as slang among university students. As Latin and Greek were often required at universities of that period, it's not surprising that "kudos" was a direct import from Greek, where "kydos" means "praise or renown." The pronunciation of "kudos" varies. A purist would probably go with "KYOO-dahs," but "KYOO-dohs" and "KOO-dohs" are also acceptable.

One common misconception about "kudos" seems to be that it is plural, which it is not. This has led, at various times, to attempts to concoct a singular "kudo," as in a 1963 letter to Life Magazine which offered "A kudo to Life for a fine story on baseball's spring training."

Incidentally, followers of the Calvin Doctrine (of the late, greatly lamented Calvin & Hobbes comic strip) that "Verbing weirds language" are probably still fuming at my flaunting of the verb form "kudized" above. Yes, it's ugly, and I'd never actually use it myself, but if you have your heart set on stamping it out you're going to need a time machine. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "kudize" has been around since at least 1799.

But she was a very quiet sort of man.

Dear Word Detective: I'm a great fan of an obscure Pommy authoress, Joan Butler. Butler wrote, in the P. G. Wodehouse manner (but much superior in my opinion), a long series of comic novels. I'm fairly well versed in using English, but there is one word I've stumbled over (however that's done whilst reading!): "mumchance." Obviously from context it means confused or dumfounded or even struck for words. Any provenance?  p.s.-- Yes, I'm an Aussie. -- Bill Kilby, via the internet.

Your secret is safe with me, though the "Pommy" bit will probably tip folks off (from "pom," Australian slang for a British immigrant, in turn from "pomegranate," a play on "Jimmy Grant," itself rhyming slang for "immigrant").

I'd never heard of Joan Butler, but as a longtime Wodehouse fan I was intrigued, so I went a-googling and discovered some interesting facts. Despite your retro labeling of her as an "authoress," Joan Butler was, ahem, a man. He was an Irish author named Robert Williams Alexander (1905-80), who wrote several thrillers under his own name in the 1920s and 30s before he adopted the pseudonym "Joan Butler" for 41 humorous novels.

"Mumchance" is indeed a (now antiquated) term meaning "silent or speechless," and as a verb means to play a mime or simply to keep silent. A "mumchance" is also a person who simply stands there, not saying anything, with the implication that he or she is not very bright.

But the origin of "mumchance" was actually quite festive. In medieval England at Christmastime, masked and costumed revelers called "mummers" would go from door to door seeking to entice the residents to play a game with dice called "mumchance." The word itself came from the practice of the players communicating only by disguising their voices, or in total silence by gestures, combining "mum" (meaning "silent") with the "chance" of the roll of the dice. These door-to-door "mummers" were the ancestors of our modern mimes, and several American cities (including New Orleans during Mardi Gras) still host Mummer parades.



Flies with that?

Dear Word Detective: Over Thanksgiving, I was sitting at the table next to my aunt, who was dandling my young cousin on her knee. After a particularly sharp comment on my cousin's part, my aunt laughed and remarked that my cousin had "no flies on her," whereupon my cousin glanced at her shirt to check for the aforementioned flies. This caused me to realize that this phrase doesn't seem to quite make sense when you think about it. Flies are known to hang around filth, so you'd think that saying someone had "no flies on them" would mean they were particularly sweet-smelling or dapper, rather than precociously clever. Yet that is the sense I've always heard the phrase used. Any light to shed, Mr. Detective? -- Colleen Sullivan, via the internet.

A flea and a fly in a flue were imprisoned, so what could they do? Said the fly, "Let us flee!" Said the flea, "Let us fly!" So they fled through a flaw in the flue.

OK, that ancient bit of doggerel has absolutely nothing to do with your question, but I was hoping that by reciting it in print I'd be able to stop it from running through my mind. It didn't work.

The insect we know as a "fly" is, of course, so-called because it flies, and both the noun "fly" and the verb "to fly" are very old, dating back to Indo-European roots. Interestingly, the root of the verb "to fly" originally denoted only rapid motion, not necessarily through the air, and also gave us our modern English words "fleet," "flow" and "flood."

Meanwhile, back at your perceptive niece, to say that "there are no flies on" someone does indeed mean that the person is sharp, on the ball, and paying attention. The phrase dates back to the mid-19th century (in the form "no flies about," meaning "no flies buzzing around"), and arose either in the U.S. or Australia. While it is true that flies are attracted by places that are, shall we say, less than spotlessly clean, in this case the metaphor has a different logic. The comparison was to a horse or cow that was sufficiently active and mobile that flies never had a chance to congregate around it. So to say that there are "no flies on" a person means that he or she isn't just sitting there staring into space like a torpid cow.

Ring around the confluence.

Dear Word Detective: I have always been led to believe that the meaning of the phrase "It will always come out in the wash" meant more than just once it's been in the tub or washing machine it will disappear. There's a belief round where I live, the eastern side of England to the north of the region known as East Anglia where a certain part of the North Sea forms into a huge bay that a number of rivers flow into, that it meant just that. Anything caught up in that effluence will end up literally in the Wash! Perhaps it's just a local hijack of an older meaning phrase? Maybe it alludes to the wash of a boat, meaning that anything that is tipped overboard (or drained from the bilges!) ends up round the stern of the boat? -- Godfrey Waller, via the internet.

That's an interesting question, but before we begin a little clarification is necessary. The place where rivers flow into the sea, called an "estuary," often includes areas known as "washes" which are covered at high tide and exposed at low. In some places, however (and this seems to be the case where you live), the entire estuary is itself known locally as "the Wash."

So the question is whether the phrase "to come out in the wash," meaning "to be made clear or to be resolved," refers to this kind of "wash," reflecting the fact that anything dumped in the river upstream will eventually turn up down in the estuary.

"Wash," of course, is a very old word, and, not surprisingly, comes from the same Germanic root as our modern word "water." Over the centuries, "wash" has acquired a slew of secondary meanings, from the "wash" where rivers join the sea (based on the surging action of the water) to the "wash" (surging turbulence) of a boat's wake.

But the primary meaning of "wash" has always been "to clean with water," and when we say that something "will come out in the wash," as we have since at least 1903, we are referring metaphorically to stains or soil being removed in the washing process.

Another interesting use of "wash" is to mean "failure," as in "Harry's plan to train squirrels as pizza deliverers was promising, but proved to be a wash." Again, the underlying metaphor is cleansing, in this case an of idea that did not survive the turbulent "washing" of reality. "Wash" in this sense is probably a shortening of the more established slang term "washout."

Put it all together and you get "cow berries."

Dear Word Detective: I wanted to know why they call it a "Bachelor of Science" degree. What does "bachelor" have to do with getting a degree? -- Mark, via the internet.

If you mean "what does being an unmarried man have to do with getting a bachelor's degree," the answer is "not much." As a matter of fact, people were getting "bachelor degrees" long before "bachelor" had anything to do with marital status.
When we borrowed "bachelor" from the Old French "bacheler" in the 13th century, the first "bachelors" were knights-in-training, relegated to polishing the head honcho's armor and grooming his horse. If a "bachelor" played his cards right, he could look forward to attaining the level of "Knight Bachelor," the lowest rung of knighthood. In offering the possibility of advancement, being a "bachelor" was a somewhat better gig than being a "squire" or "esquire," a young manservant assisting a knight. "Esquire" eventually came to be a title applied to any young man of upper-class birth, and is today mostly found as a faux title inexplicably adopted by lawyers.

The next notable sense of "bachelor" to develop was "one who has achieved the first degree at a university," as opposed to the more advanced "master of arts" (both of which terms are still in use). Now we get to the question of marriage. Since most university "bachelors" were young men, not yet married, by the late 14th century "bachelor" had taken on its modern meaning of "unmarried man."

Incidentally, there is some evidence that the ultimate root of "bachelor" is the Vulgar Latin "baccalaris," which meant "farmhand" and was formed from the Latin "vacca," meaning "cow." A related term, "baccalaureate," meaning a bachelor's degree, harks back to a similar root, but the intermediate form "baccalaureus" apparently arose by confusion with "bacca lauri," laurel berries, laurels traditionally being used to signify academic honors.

Hey, kid.  Forget the turkey and bring me more vodka.

Dear Word Detective: Here it is Christmas time again, and we are all sitting around watching "A Christmas Carol" for the 1,917th time. Then it happens, a child who has only seen the movie three times asks, "What does 'Bah Humbug' mean, and who made up that word?" I gave him the meaning, but was stumped by the history of it. Please Mr. Word Detective, make me a hero to my son, or at least a supplier of more completely useless trivia. -- Paul Moore, Newark, OH.

Ho ho ho. Only 1,917 times? Is that all one version, or do you rotate? Speaking of movies, there was an interesting article recently in the New York Times about the religious significance various folks assign to the movie "Groundhog Day," which I've only seen three or four times, although with that movie it is perhaps hard to be certain. But it does strike me as slightly odd that a movie that centers on the idea of redemption through infinite repetition should be so rarely shown on TV.

"Humbug" would probably faded from the English language a hundred years ago were it not for Ebenezer Scrooge's famously cranky declaration in Dickens' story that Christmas is "humbug." What he meant, of course, was that Christmas and its attendant celebrations and traditions, particularly of charity toward the poor, are a sham, an insincere and wasteful ritual. Scrooge changes his tune toward the end of the story after being visited by a triad of even crankier spirits and becomes a regular Happy Harry, flinging money at orphans and promising to celebrate the spirit of Christmas every single day. Incidentally, if you watch the final scene of the movie closely, you'll see three men approaching bearing a large net.

One explanation of "humbug" often heard is that it originally referred to a large bug known for the humming or buzzing noise it makes, perhaps such as a cicada or locust, making "humbug" a good metaphor for something very noisy and noticeable but of no real significance. Unfortunately, there isn't any evidence of any connection to an actual bug. "Humbug" seems to have popped up in the popular vocabulary pretty much out of thin air around 1750, probably borrowed from underworld slang. In addition to meaning "sham," it has also been used as a synonym for "hoax" or "trick," as in P.T. Barnum's famous observation that "The people like to be humbugged."

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Twisting in the wind.

Dear Word Detective: I would like to know the etymology of the word "knickers." My American friend believes this refers to the theft of undergarments from clotheslines. She is from California, where apparently this was commonplace in the 19th century. -- Tom Peck, UK.

Commonplace? No kidding. Well, that explains the "Land of Stolen Underwear" motto on California license plates.

Your friend from California has an interesting theory, although it sounds as if it might have been lifted from an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. But her explanation rests on there being a connection between "knickers" (meaning a style of short pants in America but "underpants" in the UK) and "to nick," slang for "to steal." Unfortunately, there is no such connection.
The slang verb "to nick" first appeared in the "to steal" sense back around 1826 in England. Originally, "to nick" in slang was to cheat or defraud, based on earlier uses meaning "to hit, to catch, to seize or to take advantage of," a sense still heard in "getting nicked" as slang for being arrested by the police. "To nick" in the "to steal" sense is common in the UK today, but fairly rare in the US.

"Knickers," however, is definitely an American invention. It's actually short for "knickerbockers," which takes a bit of explaining. In 1809, Washington Irving (of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" fame) wrote his satirical "A History of New York," creating as his fictional narrator the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker, a prosperous inhabitant of the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (which later became New York City). In the illustrations in early editions of the book, Knickerbocker is portrayed wearing loose-fitting breeches, trousers that end just below the knee. Such pants, worn in the 19th century by boys and men engaged in various sports, soon became known as "knickerbockers," by 1881 commonly shortened to "knickers."

It was still common in the 1930s and 40s for "knickers" to be worn as trousers by young boys in the US, but by the late 19th century the term was also being used for undergarments worn by women and children, which is the sense most often heard in the UK today.

And a lonely howl of "Ikea!" can be heard coming from the garage.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the origins of the "Phillips head" screwdriver. Was there really a chap called Phillip with a head like the screwdriver? -- Kath, via the internet.

Stop that this instant. For shame. How will we ever get our antigravity machines and robot nannies if people keep making fun of inventors?

The Phillips-head screw, more properly known simply as the Phillips screw, differs from the standard single-slotted screw in having a cross-shaped slot in the head, thus requiring an entirely different sort of screwdriver. This difference means that anyone approaching a task involving screws, especially assembling pre-fab furniture or mounting window blinds at the behest of a spouse, had best come prepared with both a standard screwdriver and one of the Phillips variety, as natural law dictates that you will need the variety you don't have. But if you have both, the screw will then break or strip and you can go read a book.

Many people who encounter Phillips screws take an instant dislike to them because the slots on top are usually shallower than those on a standard screw and often weirdly beveled, making it easy for the screwdriver to either slip out or strip the slots, rendering the screw useless. It turns out, however, that this design is, as they say, "not a bug, but a feature." What the home handyperson may regard as a fatal flaw in the Phillips screw is precisely what Henry F. Phillips of Portland, Oregon saw as its main selling point.

Back in 1934, Phillips learned that automakers were having trouble with the power screwdrivers used on their assembly lines. It was difficult for workers to align the screwdrivers with regular slotted screws precisely and, once aligned, the machinery tended to "overdrive" the screw and strip or break it. Phillips designed his screw with a slight indentation at the center, making the screwdriver head automatically center itself, and made the slots shallow enough that the head would slip out easily when the screw was tight. Automakers loved the invention, and the Phillips screw became standard on American industrial assembly lines. Unfortunately, Mr. Phillips failed to adequately defend his patent from copycats, and lost the rights to the Phillips screw in 1948.

Oddly enough, or maybe not, Phillips wasn't the first inventor to improve on the single-slotted screw. Canadian Peter L. Robertson had invented a square-socket screw in 1908 which became the standard in Canadian industry but never made much of a dent here in the US.

Wearing nothing but antlers and his Actors' Equity card.

Dear Word Detective: In a discussion with my son the other day, I speculated that reindeer are so named because they're used as draft animals; hence "rein" refers to the reins used in controlling them. But my dictionary doesn't back me up. What's the truth? -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.

Oh good, an excuse to tell my reindeer story. Several years ago, I was walking through Rockefeller Center early one snowy morning just before Christmas. Passing in front of the old Associated Press building, I noticed some sort of animal tethered smack in the middle of the street, which had been closed to traffic. As I got closer, I realized that it was a reindeer, probably waiting to take part in some sort of holiday pageant. But there was no one minding it, no one around at all. So I walked over, introduced myself as best I could, and spent a few minutes petting the reindeer. Reindeer have really interesting furry hooves, by the way.

I suppose I should skip the old joke about the Soviet-era Commissar arguing with his wife about the weather ("Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear").

Your theory about "reindeer" reflecting the critters' use as draft animals in Lapland makes perfect sense, and I myself had assumed something along those lines until I went snooping. Incidentally, I had not realized that the Caribou found in North America are a type of reindeer.

"Reindeer" first appeared in Middle English (as "rayne-dere") way back around 1400 (if not earlier, records from the period being a bit spotty, of course). Even though the word is very old, the second element is definitely our modern word "deer." The "rein" part derives from the Old Norse "hreinn," which was simply the Norse word for the animal. So the combination "reindeer" actually amounts to "reindeer deer." I like to think of it as the critter so nice they named it twice.

Ixnay on the uzzle-pays, OK?

Dear Word Detective: Why do people say things "tongue in cheek" if they are saying a funny untruth? I know it is usual when asking you a question to surmise, but all I can think of is that speaking with your tongue in your cheek is a way of saying something and not saying something both at the same time. Aslo, did you konw taht yuor cevler biarn can dchpeir wrdos eilasy eevn if thier idsnies are mdledud up? (The words not the brains) -- Paul Richards, UK.

Well, I hope you're happy. You've broken my spell-checker. For readers reaching for their aspirin about now, I should explain that in his last sentence Mr. Richards is referring to a story making the email rounds a few weeks ago. A (very possibly apocryphal) study has supposedly shown that words with their letters scrambled are still easily decipherable provided that their first and last letters retain their original positions. Of course, your "easily decipherable" mileage may vary. Personally, I had considerable trouble with "idsnies." It also seems probable that one's comprehension would depend on the size of the words ("elpoydenicca," anyone?) as well as the extent of one's vocabulary. You can't recognize what you don't recognize, after all.

But perhaps, he said segueing furiously, that study was done tongue in cheek, a joke told with a straight face. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase "tongue in cheek" as "Ironic, slyly humorous; not meant to be taken seriously." Something said or written "tongue in cheek" pretends to be serious in order to make a joke, although the joke made often has a serious point. Perhaps the most famous instance of "tongue in cheek" rhetoric in English literature is Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal," in which Swift spotlights the abject poverty of the Irish people at that time by facetiously suggesting that Irish parents sell their children to the rich for use as food.

"Tongue in cheek" in this sense dates back to the early 19th century, and opinions abound as to its origin. One theory traces it to the theater, where actors, it is said, would thrust their tongues into their cheeks to avoid laughing at the wrong moment. Another possible source is the 18th century practice of making a mocking face by poking one's tongue into one's cheek.


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