Issue of February 4, 2003




  Issue of February 4, 2003



Thirty days hath September, April, June and November; all the rest have thirty-one except February, which is just one very long bitterly cold day punctuated by the howling of dogs and great dark bat-like things circling the house.  Or maybe that's just here in rural Ohio.  In any case, I seem to have slid right through January without noticing.  Wake me in May.

I've just spent the weekend trying without success to get my wireless internet connection to work properly. Out here in the boonies, where Time-Warner refuses to venture ("Too many squirrels" seems to be the latest excuse), we are poster children for the abject failure to develop rural net access.  No cable, no DSL, satellite way too expensive (especially considering that the satellite TV thingy we have doesn't work when it rains), and, thanks to the tin-can-and-string Verizon phone lines, modem access tops out at 24 Kb/s, the speed I had in NYC in 1995

Fortunately, a local ISP has set up a wireless system that beams the net to folks like us from the top of the water tower in town a few miles away.  (I'm sure that sounds charmingly rustic to those of you living in civilized places with libraries and bookstores and delicatessens, but, take it from me, water tower in town a few miles away may be one of the most depressing phrases in the English language.)

When this system works it is a thing of beauty, pretty much equivalent to cable.  But it tends to have problems if anything pops up between Word Detective World Headquarters and the water tower in town a few miles away, including, but not limited to, birds, trees, birds sitting in trees, clouds, rain, snow, fog, sleet, hail, heat, cold, plagues of locusts, wind, lack of wind, Windows XP, unusually tall cows, bright sunlight and/or any day ending in "y."  If you've always longed to see a man reboot his computer nine times in the space of a single hour, feel free to swing by any old time.  Please bring a gun. 

But, as I said, when it works it is brilliant, and I am deeply indebted to Stewart, the guy who runs the company, for almost dying of heatstroke last July while installing the cabling in our wasp-infested, 120-degree-plus attic.  And Les, who held the ladder for Stuart.  Les is also the barber (quite good) I go to when my hair starts drifting towards that Cousin It look.  You know you're living in a small town when your barber shows up to install your internet hookup.

Ask a question, win a book. -- Hey kids, got a science question (how do birds fly, do bugs sleep, etc.)?  Send it to How Come? and, if your question is used in the How Come? newspaper column, you'll win a copy of the latest How Come? book, How Come? Planet Earth.  See the How Come? web page for details.

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Meanwhile, for those of you who happen to edit newspapers, I am also available to review books at reasonable rates.

And now, on with the show...

Ocular applesauce.

Dear Word Detective:  This is a pretty straightforward question.  A friend of mine asked me what the significance of the "apple" was in the phrase "apple of my eye" and his wit tickled me to the point of actually looking into it.  I came up empty handed and have turned to you.  Where did this phrase come from? -- Melissa, via the internet.

Ah, the old "tickle with wit" gambit.  Crafty fellow.  Of course, if you two eventually end up getting hitched and spawning sprogs, the standard agreement will apply.  You will name your first-born after me and the little nipper will spend at least three summers tending the crabgrass crop here at Word Detective World Headquarters.  Hey, it's cheaper than summer camp, and the kid goes home every fall with a free cat.

To say that someone or something is "the apple of one's eye" is to say that he, she or it is the most cherished or valued among many, the favorite, the pet.  The metaphor first appeared in English around A.D. 885 and has been in nearly constant use ever since, though more recent citations have taken a rather cynical turn ("He may have been the apple of your eye, but to me he was only a cinder" -- Frank Gruber, Hungry Dog, 1950), and in modern usage the phrase is regarded as a hoary cliché.  

Although apples have long been used as symbols of health or good fortune, the origin of "apple of one's eye" reflected a remarkable misunderstanding of human anatomy.  Before ocular structure was fully understood, the pupil of the eye (the small dark opening at the very center) was thought to be not a hole, but a solid, globular object.  As apples were perhaps the most common spherical object in everyday life, this "tiny sphere" became known as "the apple of the eye."  And, since vision is generally regarded as our most vital sense, it made sense to use the apparent core of vision, the "apple of the eye," as a metaphor for that which is most precious to us. 

Hand me the shovel -- I'm going to the store.

Dear Word Detective:  We were entertaining some friends last night who had just moved into a new home.  I proposed a toast to their new "digs," whereupon, my innate, natural curiosity prompted me to say, "Hey, why is the place you live called 'digs'?"  I remember reading that term in a Sherlock Holmes story some years ago.  Is it because one tends to dig himself into his lodgings, or is it to imply that our homes are nothing more than glorified burrows? -- Ed Colman, via the internet.

Quick Watson, the game's afoot!  To the internet!  Curious as to how often Conan Doyle actually used the term "digs" to mean "residence" in his Sherlock Holmes stories, I poked around on the net and found a remarkable page, called Searching  for Sherlock, that permits you to search the complete Holmes canon for specific terms.  I can report that the term "digs" in the "living quarters" sense is actually used only once, in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," but the longer form "diggings" crops up in four Sherlock stories:  "A Study in Scarlet," "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk," and "The Adventure of the 'Gloria Scott'." ("Mr. Trevor mumbled something to us about having been shipmates with the man when he was going back to the diggings, and then, leaving us on the lawn, he went indoors. An hour later, when we entered the house we found him stretched dead drunk upon the dining-room sofa.")

"To dig," of course, basically means "to excavate or make a hole in the ground or something else," but "dig" has long spawned figurative and slang meanings, from the 18th century "dig" meaning "to study hard" (which led eventually to the 1930s "dig" meaning "to understand") to the 1940s "dig" meaning "to pay" (from digging deep in one's pockets).  "Diggings" as a colloquial term for "lodgings" or "residence" does indeed seem to be derived from a humorous sense of "a glorified burrow," perhaps with overtones of a place where a student might spend hours "digging" in the "studying" sense.

In any case, "diggings" first appeared in early 19th century Britain, and was used by popular writers, including Dickens, to lend color to their characters ("She won't be taken with a cold chill when she realises what is being done in these diggings?" -- Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844).  "Digs," a jaunty abbreviation of "diggings," had appeared by the end of the 19th century.


Quit whingeing and finish your boiled felt.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother was raised in a bomb shelter in Lancashire, and when I was a tot growing up in California in the early 'sixties she introduced me to a vocabulary not like that of the other moms.  In the instance that I was not satisfied by my mother's response to a given complaint, and continued to express resistance while ostensibly setting myself to the task at hand, she would admonish me by saying "Stop your mythering."  I recall that usage in relation not to the existence of my complaint, but to its persistence.  A consultation with the Oxford English Dictionary brought me to a similar word indicating "forbearance," but it was unlikely to have been pronounced anything like my mother's word.  I wonder whether there may have been a Celtic component in the word (maybe it was "moithering"), for although my mother's indoctrination was Anglican, my adult experience of Scottish culture often more closely resembles the world I knew when visiting Uncle Billy and Mrs. Bailey and her budgie, bob-a-jobbing with cousin Philip and taking jam butties up Billinge Lump.  I have been unable to find this word in any dictionary or slang glossary.  Are you acquainted with the expression "mythering"? -- Steven Strauss, Oakland, CA.

Oh yes, Mrs. Bailey and her budgie, I knew them well.  The bird was nabbed a few years back for smuggling jam butties into France, was it not?  They take culinary malpractice very seriously over there, of course.  Well, at least it wasn't Marmite.

All right, for the rest of y'all, "jam butties" are slices of bread spread with butter and jam, "bob-a-job" is the annual fundraising campaign by the British Boy Scouts (doing tasks for a shilling each), and Billinge Lump is a large hill near the coast in Lancashire.  Marmite is a yeast product, resembling axle grease, inexplicably regarded as food in Britain and spread on bread.

And now, the envelope, please.  The word you're looking for is most often spelled "moider," though "moither," "moidur," "mither," "myther," "meyther," and "meither" are common variants.    To "moider" is to babble, to speak foolishly, to act in a weak-headed or childish manner.  Your mother probably meant it in the sense of "whining or complaining."  The origin of "moider" (which first appeared in the 17th century as the transitive verb "moyder," meaning "to confuse or perplex") is obscure, but it is probably related to "muddle."

Spare some cookware, buddy?

Dear Word Detective:  My daughter recently moved to San Francisco so that she might enjoy the vehicular traffic.  On a visit to the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, she noticed quite a few "panhandlers."  She wondered if there was any relation between the two "panhandles."  She asked me to submit the question as she was not sure you would answer questions from someone who moved to San Francisco on purpose. -- John Berthold, via the internet.

Well, your question certainly snags this week's gold ring for weirdness.  "Moved to San Francisco so that she might enjoy the vehicular traffic" I understand, I think, although I've never found a driving venue that for sheer pulse-pounding thrills can match Manhattan's West Side Highway on a Saturday night.  But why do you presume that I am hostile to San Francisco?   It's in California, true, but if I were forced at gunpoint to live in that state, San Francisco would be my first choice.  And as for your daughter moving there "on purpose," I think that's how you're supposed to do it.  I moved to Ohio by accident a few years ago and haven't felt quite right ever since.

Onward.   Both "panhandle" in the sense of a narrow, elongated piece of land (usually attached to a larger, more squarish chunk) and "panhandler" meaning "beggar" probably derive from the common kitchen pan.  In the case of the geographic kind of "panhandle," the term dates back to the mid-19th century in the US, where the borders of several states encompass long, thin strips of territory usually sandwiched between two other states, making a map of the state resemble a pan with a long handle.  In order to drive from Central Ohio into Pennsylvania on Interstate 70, for instance, one crosses the very narrow "West Virginia panhandle" at Wheeling, which takes all of about fifteen minutes if one is loony enough to drive at the posted speed of 75 mph.

The origin of "panhandler" meaning "beggar" is a bit less certain, but the term probably originated in reference to beggars holding out kitchen pans into which passersby were encouraged to drop coins (since donors are generally thought to be more willing to drop coins into a pan or cup than to touch the beggar's hand).  "Panhandle" in this sense is also a US coinage, first appearing in the late 19th century.


Light my fire.

Dear Word Detective:  A coworker and I often use your web site to find the origin of various interesting sayings.  When we started discussing why the alcoholic strength of a beverage is called the "proof," we immediately checked your website for the answer, and were summarily disappointed.  My friend heard that the origin of "proof" in this case was nautically influenced, because it had something to do with how much gin could be mixed with gunpowder before an explosion would occur.  This argument sounds a little weak to me, but I don’t have any better ideas about the origin of this word.  What is the origin of the word "proof" as used to describe the alcohol content of a beverage? -- MS, via the internet.

"Summarily disappointed" by my web site's failure to explain "proof"?  Well, we do boast an archive containing hundreds of back columns, but the English language is a pretty big place, so it's still a work in progress. 

The noun "proof," meaning "evidence that proves the validity of something" is, as you might suspect, quite closely connected to the verb "to prove," and both are rooted in the Latin verb "probare," meaning "to test or prove."  

As strange as the theory you heard about gunpowder and gin may sound, it turns out to be not all that far from the truth.  As a measure of the alcohol content of distilled spirits (or vinegar), "100 proof" refers to a mixture of alcohol and water containing roughly fifty percent of its weight or volume in alcohol.  Modern distilleries use sophisticated hydrometers or other techniques to determine the "proof" of liquor, but before such gizmos were developed, distillers did indeed use gunpowder to "prove" the alcohol content of their beverages.  Equal amounts of gunpowder and the alcoholic brew were combined and a flame was applied.  If the concoction didn't burn, it was "underproof" and contained too little alcohol.  Too bright or too yellowish a flame and it was "overproof" and too strong.  Just right -- 50% alcohol -- and the mixture burned with a steady blue flame. 

Color me cautious.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of calling someone "yellow" to imply they are a coward?  All I can find out about the phrase "yellow bellied coward" is it allegedly came in to use around 1910 in this country, but I thought I remembered Shakespeare using it in at least one of his plays.  Any ideas on where it came from? -- Curious in Cleveland.

Good question.  Yellow is, of course, the color of gold, butter, egg yolks and several notable flowers.  Although yellow is one of the primary colors and one source of great beauty in the world, as a metaphorical attribute, "yellow" has had an image problem for centuries.  For reasons that are not clear, yellow has been long associated with both treachery and jealousy.  According to Christine Ammer's excellent book on color terms, Seeing Red and Tickled Pink, yellow as a symbol of betrayal or heresy dates back to Biblical times, when Judas Iscariot was often portrayed in yellow garb symbolizing his betrayal of Jesus Christ.  More recently, Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing.

Other associations with yellow have not enhanced the color's reputation.  Jaundice, a condition caused by liver disease, produces a yellowish discoloration of the sufferer's skin and eyes, and "yellow fever," an infectious viral disease that causes jaundice, was a serious public health menace throughout the 19th century.  The yellow of tree leaves as they age and die, as well as the yellowing of old books and papers, led to the association of yellow with old age and illness.  Anti-Asian racial prejudice, epitomized by the "Yellow Peril" propaganda depressingly widespread in Europe and the US throughout the 20th century, probably also strengthened the popular bias against yellow.  "Yellow dog contracts" in the 1920s and 30s (so-called because, in the eyes of labor stalwarts, only the lowliest cur would sign one) prohibited workers from organizing a union.  And sensationalistic "yellow journalism," named after an 1895 circulation war between New York newspapers involving a cartoon strip character called "The Yellow Kid," is alive and well today. 

Given the bad rap the color yellow has had over the centuries, it's not surprising that "yellow" has been a popular synonym for "cowardly," a sense that probably derives from yellow's association with both treason and weakness and first appeared in print in 1856 in the memoirs of circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum. 


Dear Word Detective:  My dog (who I am convinced despite a complete lack of evidence is part wolf) has a tendency to go off and sit by herself and will only come if you call her several times.  I refer to this behavior as her being aloof and I was curious if the word's origins had to do with the French for wolf.  (I know wolves are social animals, but the idea of the lone wolf has obviously been popular for centuries.) -- Jessica Carstens, via the internet.

Ah yes, the old "I can't hear you because I'm busy staring at this dandelion" routine.  Our dog Brownie, also known as "Doorbell" for her keen vigilance while indoors, apparently suffers total hearing loss whenever she leaves the house.  Even a call of "Dog Food!" that will bring her canine colleague Pokie tearing across the lawn at near light speed leaves Brownie unmoved, gazing dreamily into the distance and thinking deep doggy thoughts.  Not surprisingly, she also apparently thinks she's invisible, and often only by pointing directly at her and saying "I can see you, Brownie" can I get her to budge.  And you folks wonder what I do all day.

The French word for "wolf" is, of course, "loup" (pronounced "loop"), which does sound a bit like "aloof," but there is no connection between the two words.  "Aloof" first appeared in English in the 16th century, and although we now use "aloof" to mean "emotionally distant, detached or unsympathetic," it was originally, of all things, a sailing term.  When the captain of a sailing ship ordered the helmsman to "steer aloof," he meant to steer the ship closer into the wind.  The root of "aloof" in this original sense was the Old French word "lof," meaning "toward the wind" or "the windward side of a ship" (a sense also found in some meanings of the sailing term "luff"). 

More importantly for our purposes, if a captain wanted to maintain a clear distance from another ship, that was often accomplished by staying upwind of the other vessel and, thus, was called "standing aloof."  Given the centrality of sailing and maritime commerce to 16th century life, it's not surprising that the nautical term "standing aloof" (or just "aloof") came to be used by landlubbers to mean "at a distance" and, by 1607, in the modern figurative sense of "cold, remote and unsympathetic."

Down Under, I think they say "Chew the Kangaroo."

Dear Word Detective:  The local newspaper asked readers for the origins of the expression "bite the bullet."  Most answers seemed to relate to soldiers biting on a bullet during crude battlefield surgery.  My own theory comes from a B-grade movie about the Khyber Rifles where the soldiers had to bite the bullets to allow them to fire and the system came unstuck when the Indians or such found the cartridges were coated in animal fat and therefore against their teachings.  Luckily, Tyrone Power still saved the day.  Could you clarify the expression for me please?  Thank you from Down Under. -- Alex Graham, Australia.

I'm a bit foggy on the title of the B-movie to which you refer, but as I recall it was a highly romanticized and not very accurate Hollywood rendition of what is often called the Sepoy Mutiny, which was actually a large popular uprising against British colonialism that took place in India in 1857.  The spark for the rebellion was, at first, considered a minor incident.  Indian troops under the command of the British East India Company were issued new Enfield rifles, which employed a type of cartridge encased in paper wrappers, one end of which had to be bitten off before the weapon could be loaded.  Word soon spread among the troops that the new cartridges were greased with a mixture of cow and pig fat.  Unfortunately, cows being sacred to Hindus and pigs being considered unclean by Muslims, biting the cartridges would have been a serious religious transgression for members of either group, so they refused to use the new rifles.  Mutiny, repression and a popular uprising lasting 14 months were the result.  But while the cartridge incident is often cited (at least in the West) as the "cause" of the rebellion, discontent among the Indian people over colonial occupation had been growing for years, and although the British did finally suppress the uprising, 1857 is generally considered the birth of the ultimately victorious Indian nationalist movement.

None of that, however, has anything to do with "bite the bullet," meaning "to endure an unpleasant situation or perform an unpleasant task," which first appeared (in the form "bite on the bullet") in print around 1891.  The geographic point of origin is uncertain, but "bite the bullet" almost certainly did originally refer to the practice of surgery before the invention of effective anesthesia, when patients were sometimes given an object (such as a leather strap or, on the battlefield, a bullet)  to bite on to help them bear the pain.


Dear Word Detective:  In a recent op-ed article in The New York Times, Frank Rich used the word "bloviate" in an extremely colorful manner.  I had never heard of it before and none of my dictionaries contained the word.  I did eventually find that it meant to speak or write at length in a pompous or boastful manner.  The word sounds exactly like its meaning.  Could you give me some information concerning its origin? -- Walter M. Jackman, via the internet.

Well, in the insolent tradition of replying to the question "What time is it?" with "Time to buy a wristwatch" (a witty riposte I first heard at about age ten and have never, as my family will attest, tired of), let me begin by noting that it's time for you to buy a new dictionary.  While "bloviate" was indeed mysteriously missing from many major American dictionaries for many years, it does appear in the latest offerings from Random House, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, so get thee to a bookstore.  After all, who knows what else is missing from the dictionaries on your shelf?

On the other hand, to be fair, "bloviate," being an American coinage and still largely confined to these shores, does not appear in any British dictionary that I know of, and is apparently, even today, sufficiently obscure in the U.S. as to set off "typo" alarms in Microsoft Word.

To "bloviate" is, as you have discovered, to speak (or write) in a pompous and self-important manner, often at great length.  The exact origin of "bloviate" is uncertain, but it first appeared in the mid-19th century and probably arose as a fanciful variant of the very old colloquial term "to blow," meaning "to boast" (still heard in the term "blowhard").

The terms "bloviate" and "bloviation" were popularized by President Warren G. Harding, but Harding's own "bloviations," ironically, inspired H.L. Mencken to pen a classic definition of "bloviation": "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.  It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh.  It is rumble and bumble.  It is flap and doodle.  It is balder and dash." 


OK, I've got his arms.  Induct him.

Dear Word Detective:  I am a member of a club (that is, an association).  My club has a logo with a picture of a club (bludgeoning tool) in it.  My dictionary lists both meanings of "club" under one heading, so it appears that it's no coincidence that we use this term for both meanings.  What is the connection between them? -- Dan Robrish, Philadelphia.

Hmm.  I'm not much of a joiner, myself, and haven't actually belonged to anything more organized than a roving band of malcontents since I resigned from the Cub Scouts.   I don't know how I ever ended up in an organization that put so much emphasis on going outside (which I strenuously endeavor to avoid) in the first place. 

It does seem a bit odd that our term for a friendly association of like-minded people would be connected to the word for a thick stick used as a weapon, but that's the wild and wacky English language for you.  The original sense of "club" was "a heavy stick or staff used as a weapon," specifically one that, while relatively slender at the grasping end, becomes quite a bit thicker and heavier at the business end, a feature whose importance will become apparent in a moment.  "Club" first appeared in print in English in the 13th century, most likely borrowed from the Old Norse "klubba," which also has descendants in several other European languages. 

Shortly after the noun form of "club" appeared in English we developed a verb form, "to club," which meant, of course, to hit someone with a club.  But by the early 17th century "to club" was also being used to mean "to create something shaped like the thick end of a club," specifically to arrange one's hair into a "club-shaped" knot atop or behind one's head.  From this sense derived "to club" meaning "to form into one body or mass" or "to gather or force together" ("London … is equal to half a dozen great towns clubbed together," James Payn,1884).  By the late 17th century, "club" was being used in its modern sense of "association of like-minded persons meeting periodically."  Interestingly enough, one of the distinctive aspects of early "clubs" was the practice of "clubbing," or sharing, the expenses of the group's meetings.   


Dear Word Detective:  I was scanning through your past issues recently and came across a phrase which I had heard before.  You were explaining the origins of the phrase "practical joke," and you wrote the line "... routinely published by the hoity-toity academic journal Social Text."  While I know nothing about this uppity journal of which you write I am not worried about that part.  I am worried that I don't know the origin of your colorful descriptive term "hoity-toity" because I have heard it used a few times (more then once by you) and am mystified as to where it may have come from.  Could you help me out? -- Shawn, via the internet.

Trust me, you can lead a long and happy life without ever reading Social Text.  "Hoity-toity" is a good example of how English words can dramatically change their meanings over time.  Although today we use "hoity-toity" to mean "stuck up or snobbish, self-important, pretentious and disapproving," the original meaning of "hoity-toity" was almost exactly the opposite.  When "hoity-toity" appeared as an adjective in English in the late 17th century (as "hoighty-toighty"), it meant "giddy, flighty or frolicsome."  To be "hoity-toity" was to act in a silly, childish, impulsive manner, as if always on the verge of instigating a pillow-fight.  The root of "hoity-toity" seems to be the obsolete verb "hoit," meaning "to indulge in mirth, to romp inelegantly," apparently related to the venerable term "hoyden," meaning "boisterous or rude girl or woman."  ("Hoyden" originally applied to both men and women, and was probably derived from the Dutch "heiden," meaning "heathen.")

Now here's where the story gets really interesting.  It was apparently not uncommon for  prim-and-proper folks in the 18th and 19th centuries to look down their noses at "foolish" or rowdy behavior and exclaim "Hoity-toity!" with a snort of derision, much as you or I might mutter "Nitwits!" at skateboarders on a crowded sidewalk.  But in a stunning display of verbal jujitsu in the late 1800s, the targets of such derision gradually began to use "hoity-toity" as shorthand for the "disapprovers" themselves (mocking their constant use of the phrase), and "hoity-toity" gradually took on its modern meaning of "haughty, huffy and pretentious."


Boy toy gal pal in Bat Boy brawl shocker.

Dear Word Detective:  What can you tell me about the word "tryst"?  I've been seeing it in the headlines of supermarket tabloids for years, and I sense that it figures prominently in romance novels (not that I have any direct knowledge of the genre).  But it doesn't seem to resemble any other English word I can think of.  The longer I look at the word "tryst," the weirder it seems. -- L.H., via the internet.

Well, that's true of many, if not most, words.  I worked for a time as a legal proofreader years ago, and I discovered that the harder I stared at any particular word to make certain it was spelled correctly, the more it would appear to be horribly wrong in some elemental way.  After a few hours of such torment I found that I couldn't even read street signs without feeling dizzy. 

The New Fowler's Modern English Usage calls "tryst" an "archaic word for a date, an assignation," but I beg to differ.  "Tryst," in addition to being a staple of the popular romance novel, is alive and well in nearly every issue of nearly every supermarket tabloid in America.  Movie stars, after all, do not "go on dates" -- people who live in Des Moines "go on dates."  Movie stars have "secret trysts."  If they really like each other, they might shell out for a "love nest."

The great thing about "tryst," from a tabloid editor's viewpoint, is its brevity compared to the alternatives "rendezvous" (which also lacks the steamy punch of "tryst") and "assignation" (which their readers may not understand anyway).  The same economy accounts for the popularity of such terms as "hooker," "brawl," "shocker," "gal pal," "tot," "spat," and the inevitable "dumped" on tabloid front pages.

"Tryst" first appeared in English around 1375, adopted from the Old French word "tristre," meaning "an appointed station in hunting" (i.e., a spot where a hunter was supposed to stand as other hunters drove the game toward him).  Over the past few centuries "tryst" has gone from meaning simply "a prearranged meeting" to being used almost exclusively to mean "a secret meeting of lovers."  Ironically, given the current overtones of deceit (and possible infidelity) associated with the word, there is some indication that "tryst" is related to our modern English word "trust."

Much ado about not much.

Dear Word Detective:  I think the word "brouhaha" can be traced from the French back to the Hebrew.  My dictionary has "brouhaha" as making an appearance in medieval theater as the "cry of devil disguised as clergy" (an always popular theme, presumably).  It then gives its origins in the phrase used by the Levites as a greeting in the Temple, "Blessed be he who comes," or "barukh hab-ba." -- Jennifer Randle, via the internet.

Well, I'm not quite as certain as your dictionary, and there are other theories, but you may well be correct.  "Brouhaha" is, of course, a wonderful word meaning "an uproar, confusing commotion or hubbub."  A good example of a "brouhaha" is the sort of public clamor that erupts in the wake of scandalous or shocking revelations about the rich, famous or powerful in our society, whether it be Michael Jackson dangling his child over a balcony railing or Martha Stewart wrestling with her multitudinous legal problems.  I wonder, come to think of it, why some supermarket tabloid hasn't ditched its implausibly journalistic "Enquirer" or "Globe" moniker and simply changed its name to "The Weekly Brouhaha."

"Brouhaha" first appeared in English around the end of the 19th century, borrowed directly from French.  Evidently, as you note, "brouhaha" was commonly heard in French stage dramas from the 16th century onward as the cry of the devil at various critical dramatic junctures, and there is a possibility that  "brouhaha" arose as nothing more than a nonsense word, signifying nothing.

But there is a good deal of evidence that "brouhaha" is an adaptation of the Hebrew "barukh habba," or "welcome," which is used in various Jewish prayers as well as a standard greeting at weddings and other ceremonies.  If this theory is true, the logical link between "welcome" and a word meaning "confused uproar" would have come from the festive commotion common on such occasions.  And, backing up for a moment, a modified form of the Hebrew greeting "Barukh habba" coming from the mouth of a character portraying the devil in Medieval dramas would certainly be consistent with the anti-Semitism common to the period.

One final bit of evidence that the "barukh habba" theory is probably correct is the fact that the dialectical Italian word "barruccaba," also meaning "confusion," is definitely a mutation of "barukh habba."

Bring me back a bon-bon.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother is about to leave for a trip to Sri Lanka and I saw the city of Kandy on her itinerary.  Does the origin of the word "candy" have anything to do with the city?  p.s. --I gave four copies of "The Word Detective" as holiday gifts. -- Jerry, via the internet.

 So, I guess we can expect three more of your relatives or friends to leave the country?  I've received a variety of responses to my book, ranging from praise to stunned silence, but fleeing abroad is a new one on me and seems a bit of an overreaction.  Tell your mother that she's welcome just to stay home and mail me a brick postage due if it'll make her feel better.

Sri Lanka is, as I'm sure we all remember from geography class, an island republic off the southeast coast of India, known until it gained its independence from Britain in 1972 as Ceylon.  According to my handy "Oxford Desk Dictionary of People and Places," Kandy is a large city in Sri Lanka, formerly (1480-1815) the capital of the independent Kingdom of Kandy, and location of the Dalada Maligava, one of the most sacred Buddhist shrines.  Kandy is also the center of Sri Lanka's tea industry.  The languages spoken in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese, English, and Tamil, a member of the Dravidian family of languages.

Now, as to any possible relation between "candy" the sweet treat and Kandy the city, I'd have to say it is unlikely, but the word "candy" does have an interesting connection to Sri Lanka.  Our modern English word "candy" was adopted from the Old French phrase "sucre candi" ("sugar candy") in the 15th century, and shortened to simply "candy" by the 18th century.  The French "sucre candi," as well as the terms for candy in several other European languages, had been adapted from the Arabic "sukkar qandi," which came from the Sanskrit root "khand," which came in turn from (drum roll, please) the Tamil word "kantu" (ball of sugar).

So our English word "candy" has its roots in the Tamil language, spoken only in Southern India and Sri Lanka.  To my knowledge, there is no connection between Kandy, Sri Lanka and our word "candy," but it remains at least an interesting coincidence. 

Loot & Pillage, Inc.

Dear Word Detective:  Here's a puzzler:  the origin of the phrase "carte blanche."  I'm told that it refers to having your list of crimes wiped clean during the French Revolution, and am also told that it arose from being able to pass as white in New Orleans prior to desegregation in America.  Or was it something else altogether? -- MK, via the internet.

OK.  Say, before we get started, would you happen to remember exactly who it was who told you those two stories about "carte blanche"?  And maybe their telephone numbers and/or addresses?  We'd like to have a word, just a little chat, with them, and we promise not to shout. 

When we say that someone has been "given carte blanche," it means that the person has been granted the freedom to take whatever action he or she pleases or thinks appropriate in a certain situation or in order to accomplish a given task.  There was a time not so long ago, for instance, when you would often read of a business hiring a new CEO and giving him or her "carte blanche" to reorganize the troubled company by any means he or she deemed wise.  (Of course, now that it has become apparent that many of these weasels "deemed it wise" to line their own pockets while the businesses foundered, such "cartes blanche" have become considerably scarcer.)

As one of the theories you heard implies, "carte blanche" is originally from the French, where it literally means "blank paper."  The term "carte blanche" was probably of military origin, meaning an agreement of unconditional surrender submitted by the loser to the victor consisting of a sheet of paper blank except for the defeated commander's signature, signifying that the victor could fill in his own terms.  "Carte blanche" first appeared in English in this literal sense around 1700, but by later in the 18th century was being used in its modern "do whatever is necessary" sense.

Good thug, bad thug.

Dear Word Detective:  I've tried several places and can't find an explanation of the word "despot."  I'm wondering if there was a specific person or situation it referred to as in the case of "draconian." -- Charles Stutsman, via the internet.

Good question.  A "despot," of course, is an absolute ruler, especially one who rules ruthlessly and with a high brutality quotient.  These days it seems the world is chock-a-block with despots, and you can't tell the good despots (ours) from the bad despots (not ours, at least at the moment) without a scorecard.  Of course, despotism is in the eye of the beholder, and the good despots aren't usually called "despots" (except by bad despots and people who don't sufficiently appreciate how bad the bad despots are).  Back in the Cold War, good despots were usually called "strongmen" (as in "Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos"), but I haven't heard that term in years. 

Since you brought up "draconian," meaning "very harsh or severe," I should explain that Draco, whose name, appropriately, means "dragon" in Greek, was a lawmaker in Ancient Athens in a time of great popular unrest. The Athenians were  upset about unequal treatment under the existing laws, so Draco instituted a new legal system guaranteed to shut folks up. Under the Draconic code of 621 B.C., darn near everything from murder to mopery was punishable by death.  When questioned about the fairness of such a one-size-fits-all approach, Draco is said to have declared, "Small crimes deserve death, and for great crimes I know of no penalty severer."  Draco is generally considered to have been a bad despot, although at the rate things are going that estimation may yet change.   

The word "despot" itself comes from the Greek "despotes," which meant "lord or master" in the sense of "master of the house," and initially had no pejorative connotations.  (In fact, in modern Greek, "despotes" means "Bishop.")  The Greek word was adopted into Latin as "despota" and then by French as "despot," and finally into English around 1562 with the neutral sense of "ruler."  By the time of the French Revolution, however, democracy was in vogue and "despot" had acquired its modern connotation of an autocratic ruler who maintains power through brutality and oppression. 


Try the punch.

Dear Word Detective:  I suspect most of us know what a "donnybrook" is.  What I don't know is whence the word originated.  How did it come to mean what it means, a melee or free-for-all, usually involving fisticuffs (another interesting word)? -- Mitch Clark, Phoenix, AZ.

While it's true that a "donnybrook" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a scene of uproar and disorder; a riotous or uproarious meeting; a heated argument," there are some shades of meaning and usage to the word that deserve exploration.  A "donnybrook" is not quite the same as a riot or melee.  In modern usage, "donnybrook" carries connotations of a great deal of sound and fury, but not much actual damage or injury.  In fact, "donnybrook" is most often used today to mean a verbal "ruckus or uproar" rather an actual physical fight, and the word more likely to turn up in descriptions of political debates than in accounts of soccer rioting.  Of all the words we have to describe mass interpersonal conflict, "donnybrook" is actually one of the more lighthearted.

The original "donnybrooks," on the other hand, were evidently intensely physical and posed serious danger to life and limb.  The town of Donnybrook is a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, and for many years, from 1204 until the mid-19th century, it was the site of the annual Donnybrook Fair, by all accounts a raucous and crowded event.  While Donnybrook Fair must have had more to recommend it than simply fistfights, over time the tendency of fair-goers to punch each other out, apparently en masse, made "donnybrook" a popular synonym for "spontaneous riot" or "melee."  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "donnybrook" in this sense first appeared in print in 1852, ironically just three years before the City of Dublin permanently abolished the fair in response to complaints that it encouraged drunkenness and disorderly behavior. 

"Fisticuff" is a fine old word meaning "to fight with the fists," combining "fist" with the verb "to cuff," meaning "to beat or strike with the hand."  The origin of "cuff" in this sense is unknown, but it appears to be unrelated to "cuff" meaning "band around a sleeve."  "Fisticuff" first appeared in the early 17th century.

Horsie in the drink.

Dear Word Detective:  Having been a bookworm as a child, I've managed to retain lots of odd and unusual phrases and vocabulary words that burned tidy grooves into my mind after re-reading favorite stories over and over again.  One of these is the phrase "like a hurrah's nest," to mean something akin to "horribly untidy."  (Source: A beloved horse story, "Stormy, Misty's Foal," author Marguerite Henry, from the quote: "...yer Grandma'll say, 'Clarence Beebe, this floor looks like a hurrah's nest!'  And then she'll get right down with her brush and pail, and she'll begin purrin' and hummin' like Wait-a-Minute with her kittens.").  I still love to use this expression almost automatically whenever encountering an awesome mess, but then have to explain to people that I haven't even the slightest idea what a "hurrah's nest" looks like, or whether it would be quite dangerous to stumble onto -- or into -- one.  Can you help with this obscure simile? -- Sherry (mom to three Professional Hurrah's Nest Simulators).

Whoa, a Misty of Chincoteague flashback.  My parents actually took us to Chincoteague Island once when I was a kid (at the prompting of my sister, who was a big Misty fan) to see the wild ponies driven across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague islands off the coast of Virginia.  There are some great pictures of Misty and the gang on the web.

A "hurrah's nest" is indeed a terrible mess or scene of commotion and confusion, and the phrase dates back to at least the early 19th century.  The "hurrah" involved is the same "hurrah" we shout when the home team wins, a cheer of exultation that dates back to around 1686.  "Hurrah" has close relatives in several European languages and was probably (like the earlier "huzza") developed from the throaty shouts of soldiers charging into battle. 

In 19th century America, "hurrah" came into use as slang noun for "an uproar, a commotion," and anything wild and lawless was described as "hurrah."  With "hurrah" meaning "disordered," it made sense for something very, very tangled or disorderly to be described as a "hurrah's nest," as if the "hurrah" were a creature with bad housekeeping habits.  There is some evidence that "hurrah's nest" was first used by sailors to describe a tangle of lines aboard ship.


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