Issue of February 5, 2001


Ok, ok, ok, all right, already. Mea culpa. I am a little late in updating these pages this month. I'm sure I had a good reason. It'll come to me in a moment.

Oh yeah, it was the U.S. election. Well, at least I'll have a good example of deus ex machina next time the question pops up.

Elsewhere in the news, if anyone has attempted to buy The Word Detective book at and been told that it would be shipped "in 3 to 5 weeks," please buy it somewhere else. The book has never been out of stock at the publisher. I suspect that amazon is so strapped for cash that they are devoting their resources to selling their top 100 (or 50, or 10) books and are letting the rest of their list rot. In business jargon this kind of behavior is called "circling the drain."

In any case, we here at Word Detective World Headquarters have plenty of books on hand and ready to ship at a moment's notice, so don't be shy.

And now, if someone will kindly put that chimpanzee back in his cage, we'll get on with the show...

Not my job, man.

Dear Word Detective: The famous motto "The Buck Stops Here," used by U.S. President Truman, must have come from somewhere. So what are the origins of this intriguing expression? Incidentally, as a software engineer, I put a sign on my office door with the text "The Bug Stops Here." -- Mathijs Panhuijsen, Arnhem, The Netherlands.

Ah yes, but the bugs are produced by your colleagues in the software engineering field in the first place, are they not? My barber, for instance, is guilty of many things (one of which I am wearing as I write), but he has yet to cause my computer to crash. And speaking of mottoes, I am particularly intrigued by the venerable and only partly apocryphal Microsoft slogan, "It's not a bug, it's a feature." I shudder to think what my barber could do with that one.

"The Buck Stops Here" was indeed the motto adopted by President Harry S Truman, who placed a prominent sign to that effect on his Oval Office desk in 1949. In so doing, Truman was announcing that while those beneath him could (and often did) duck and weave to avoid taking the heat for decisions, he intended to accept the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his administration. The "buck" Truman was talking about is found in the phrase "to pass the buck," meaning to shift responsibility to another person, especially one higher in the organizational chain of command. If you've ever encountered a clerk who told you to take your complaint to his or her supervisor, you've seen "passing the buck" in action.

"Passing the buck" comes from the game of poker, where the "buck" is an object placed on the table in front of each player as he or she takes a turn as dealer. The exact origin of the term "buck" for this object is not certain, but it is said that the bucks used in the 19th century poker games were often pieces of buckshot or, alternatively, pocket knives with handles made of buckhorn. When the responsibility for dealing shifted to the next player, the "buck" was passed to that person. "Pass the buck" first appeared in poker jargon around 1865, and was being used in the figurative "talk to my boss" sense by 1900.

Well, presumably they'll still
be around next year.

Note: This column ran in newspapers (and was received by subscribers) in mid-December.

Hey kids, what time is it? That's right, it's holiday gift-buying time! Please don't grit your teeth like that, Bobby. You'll bend your braces. Anyway, every year at this time we here at Word Detective World Headquarters gather round a roaring bonfire of vintage credit-card bills and assemble a helpful list of books that any word lover would be thrilled to find in his or her stocking, especially if he or she has very large feet.

First up (because this is, after all, my column) is my very own new book, cleverly entitled "The Word Detective," a collection of 150 of these columns just published in hardback by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill for a paltry $17.95. Packed with 288 pages of pulse-pounding etymology and topped with a healthy dollop of weirdness, "The Word Detective" is available right here, as well as at finer bookstores, gas stations and veterinary clinics everywhere.

I've always been an admirer of The American Heritage Dictionary, in part because my father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of the first edition published in 1969, but also because it is a very lively and comprehensive dictionary of American English. Now we have a new fourth edition (Houghton Mifflin, $60.00 hardback, $74.95 with a CD-ROM version), and it's a winner. Among the more than 200,000 words defined are more than 10,000 new words and phrases such as "in your face" and "wuss," along with extensive usage and word history notes. The new AHD, with its clean layout and stunning use of color photographs, is easy to use and a joy to browse.

Several years ago I recommended David Barnhart and Allan Metcalf's remarkable "America in So Many Words" to my readers, and this year I am happy to report that Mr. Metcalf, Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, has produced not one but two fine new books. "The World in So Many Words" (Houghton Mifflin, $19.00) takes readers on a fascinating tour of the world's languages and the words, from the Malay "amok" to the Romany "pal" to the Shoshone "pogonip," that each has contributed to English. Closer to home, "How We Talk -- American Regional English Today" (Houghton Mifflin, $14.00) explores the astounding range of regional words (e.g., "hawk," the cold winter wind in Chicago), expressions ("The car needs washed") and accents that enliven our American language.

Welcome to Hell. Here's your harmonica.

Dear Word Detective: I remember first using the word "proactive" in the mid-1970s when I lived in Canada. I have the clearest memory of inventing the word as an opposite to "reactive," meaning actually doing something to cause an effect rather than waiting for some other event to occur to which you react. The word is now in very general use. My question is, did I imagine the above? -- Richard Sadleir, Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

Well, offhand, I'd say you imagined it, although it's not absolutely impossible that you did invent "proactive." But I am mystified as to why you would wish to take credit for coining one of the most annoying and vacuous bits of business jargon to appear in the last few decades. Short of being hailed for inventing the harmonica, I can't imagine an honor I'd decline faster. Incidentally, I do hope the guilt you understandably felt thinking you'd invented "proactive" wasn't the reason you fled Canada for New Zealand. I believe that sort of thing is, legally, only a misdemeanor.

Just kidding, of course, although I do bear a personal grudge against "proactive," as would anyone who has ever suffered through one of those obnoxious productivity seminars office workers are so often forced to attend. The idea behind being "proactive," as you indicate, is that to be an effective manager one ought to take the initiative and do something pre-emptive, such as fire an underling, before one's hand is forced by dire circumstance, such as said underling setting fire to a file cabinet or fellow underling.

"Proactive" has actually been around since the 1930s as a technical term in psychology, denoting a trauma or complex stemming from an earlier occurrence ("pro" being a Latin prefix meaning, in this case, "before") that makes learning difficult. Our modern "proactive," however, is a completely different word, formed from "pro" in the sense of "forward" attached to the "active" from "reactive." This management-ese "proactive" thus carries the sense of "pushing forward" and first appeared around 1971.


Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: I heard somewhere recently that the word "spinster" originally referred to someone who weaves fabric. I know there was more to the story than that, but I forgot to write it down and I'm hoping you can refresh my memory. -- B.C., Toledo, OH.

Forgot to write it down, eh? Join the club. Sometimes it seems that my days consist entirely of a procession of friends and acquaintances saying to me, "Y'know, I thought of a word question for you the other day, but I forgot to write it down." This is not helpful. Therefore, I am currently investigating the cost of furnishing all my readers with small notebooks in which to write down their questions so they don't forget them. You'll have to buy your own pencils, however.

In any case, your memory (such as it is) is correct. "Spinster," dating to the 14th century, originally referred to anyone who "spun," either by hand or on a spinning wheel. Spinsters could be, and often were, male as well as female, and it wasn't until the 17th century that the word came to be applied exclusively to unmarried women, who presumably whiled away the time spinning while waiting for their particular prince to show up. By the 18th century the term had narrowed to mean any woman who, through choice or circumstance, was not married by a certain age (and who would, in the social framework of the time, presumably spend the rest of her days "spinning" for a living).

The craft of spinning is also the source of another term applied solely to women -- "distaff." The "distaff" used in spinning is the spindle which holds the flax or wool from which yarn or fiber is spun, and the word has been used since the 15th century as a metaphor for "womankind." Today we most often hear it used in referring to the "woman's side" of the family, as in "TV football has few followers on the distaff side."



Dear Word Detective: Last week while on a Boy Scout camping trip, my son and I were at the rifle range and I was teaching him the finer points of target shooting. After our last session we went to retrieve his target and, lo and behold, he had scored a "bull's-eye." After a few minutes his excitement died down and he asked me if I knew where the term "bull's-eye" came from. I promised him we would search the net to find out, so here we are. Can you help? -- Dan Lannutti, via the internet.

Ah, target shooting. Takes me back to the days of my trusty Daisy BB gun. You wouldn't know it to talk to my optometrist today, but I used to be a crack shot. No street lamp or garage window within a quarter mile of our house was safe. And all that marksmanship taught me a valuable lesson for later life: don't be too hard on yourself if you miss the bull's-eye. The important thing is to stand tall, keep your chin up, and quietly redefine "bull's-eye."

A "bull's-eye" is, of course, the center spot of a target, producing the highest score a shooter (whether in firearms, archery or another competition) can score. "Bull's-eye" is also used to mean a direct hit on such a spot, or, figuratively, the accomplishment of a goal with precision and finality ("Bob scored a bull's-eye on our quarterly sales quotas."). "Bull's-eye" first appeared in this "center of the target" sense around 1833.

The question is, however, why a "bull's-eye"? For the answer, we have to go a bit further back in time. Since the 17th century, "bull's-eye" has been used as a term for almost anything small and circular, especially if it protrudes slightly, forming a hemispherical bump resembling the protruding eye of a bull or cow. Thus, at various times, "bull's-eye" has been used to designate a thick piece of glass set into the deck of a ship to illuminate the lower decks, a one-crown coin of British currency, a globular piece of candy, and a small circular window, among other things. So although the spot in the center of a target doesn't protrude like a real "bull's eye," it is small and circular and thus fit the popular definition of "bull's-eye."


Dear Word Detective: My grandparents are over visiting us from the U.K., and at breakfast this morning my grandfather mentioned something about being "in high dudgeon." When I asked him what "dudgeon" meant he had no idea. Could you please tell me what on earth "dudgeon" means and where it came from? -- David, via the internet.

Well, as to what "dudgeon" means, it means that the old fellow was in a very bad mood, probably because the toast you served him was hot, the orange juice was cold, and you failed to serve him kippers (which was probably just as well because smoked herring can really smart when flung). Repairing wounded English sensibilities can be tricky, but I'm sure if you just smear a little marmalade in his shoes after he retires tonight he'll be right as rain tomorrow.

To be "in high dudgeon" actually means to be quite a ways beyond "in a bad mood." Someone "in high dudgeon" is indignantly resentful, righteously outraged, and even livid with rage at having had his or her sensibilities offended and sense of propriety violated. If I were to crash the Yacht Club Ball wearing only a Hawaiian shirt, swim trunks and a football helmet, I would doubtless meet a number of people "in high dudgeon."

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly where "dudgeon" comes from, although we do, I hasten to add, have a few clues. Interestingly, "dudgeon" is almost never heard outside of the phrase "in high dudgeon," and that's been true since the word first appeared around 1573. One possible root is the Welsh word "dygen," meaning "malice or resentment," but there is a distressing lack of evidence for that theory.

It is also possible that "dudgeon" in the "anger" sense is related to the obsolete English word "dudgeon," a kind of wood (probably boxwood) often used to make the handles of daggers. In the late 16th century a "dudgeon-dagger" was just such a weapon, and a logical connection between "dagger" and "anger" seems obvious, though as yet unprovable.

How about "Buffy the Sniveling Twit Slayer"?

Dear Word Detective: Please would you give me the origin of the word "mawkish," including any references to "maw" as "stomach." Many thanks. -- Charlotte Eimer, Pronunciation Assistant, BBC Resources, via the internet.

Pronunciation Assistant for the BBC? Cool. I could use a pronunciation assistant myself. I simply can't manage "trompe l'oeil" any better than "trump looie," and it annoys my wife no end that I pronounce "La Guardia" (the airport) as "Lah Gwahdeeyah" (which is, I point out to no avail, how they pronounce it at Lah Gwahdeeyah itself).

Onward. Your question raises the possibility that "mawkish," meaning "excessively or sickeningly sentimental," may be related to "maw," meaning "the mouth, stomach or jaws" of a voracious animal or, figuratively, a yawning chasm or portal (as in "the maw of Hell"). Much as I'd enjoy speculating about possible connections between the two words ("gag me with a spoon" would be a nice starting point), I'm afraid that "maw" and "mawkish" are completely unrelated.

The root meaning of "mawkish," comes from the obsolete English word "mawk," which meant "maggot." The original sense of "mawkish" when it first appeared around 1668 was "nauseated or sickened, as if by putrid or maggot-infested food." The "sickness" aspect led to a secondary meaning of "feebly sensitive or sickly, insincerely sentimental," which eventually became the primary meaning of our modern "mawkish." Today a distressingly high percentage of our popular culture, from Disney cartoon epics to angel-infested TV melodramas, could rightly be labeled "mawkish."

Compared to "mawkish," the word "maw" had a fairly straightforward root, the Old English "maga," which simply meant "stomach." Today "maw" is most often used to mean "mouth or throat of a voracious predator" and, as I've noted above, is frequently used in a metaphorical sense (as in "Only my accountant's clever deductions kept my entire income from disappearing into the maw of the IRS.").

Six Degrees of Denigration.

Dear Word Detective: A friend was recently describing his difficulties with his bank and used the word "myrmidon" to describe one bank officer. When I asked him what it meant, he said that a "myrmidon" is basically the same as a "flunkey" or a "minion." Care to expound? -- L. Isenberg, New York, NY.

While it's true that "minion," "myrmidon" and "flunkey" all mean roughly the same thing, there are subtle differences between the words, proving that even abject servility can be fine-tuned.

"Minion," meaning an obsequious follower or sycophant (or what used to be called a "yes-man"), was not always a derogatory term. From the Old French word "mignot," meaning "dainty," came the modern French "mignon" ("darling"), which also gave us "filet mignon," an especially tender beefsteak. Translated into English as "minion," the term first meant a hanger-on at a noble's court, but gradually broadened to include nearly anyone in a servile or subordinate position.

"Myrmidons" were, in Greek mythology, the Thessalian warriors who, commanded by Achilles, fought in the Trojan War. The term has since come to mean a loyal follower who unquestioningly executes orders. "Myrmidon," which carries fearful overtones of ruthlessness and blind obedience, is a harsher term than "minion," which implies simply gutless servility.

Nobody fears a "flunkey," however, and there's a good reason for that. The original "flunkeys" (also spelled "flunkys") were servants in Scotland known more properly as "flankers." A "flanker" was a manservant who stood literally by his master's side ("flank"), awaiting orders. The Scots dialect variation "flunkey" had arrived in mainstream English by the mid-18th century, and today means an inconsequential or powerless servant or follower. "Flunkeys," unlike myrmidons, can usually be safely ignored.

Still, there are worse things to be than a "flunkey," and in my book "toady" is one of them. Way back in the 17th century, certain charlatans and patent-medicine quacks claimed to be able to cure poisoning with their potions. Since toads were considered poisonous, a quack's sales pitch often involved having his assistant eat a toad (yuckeroo!), whereupon the "miracle potion" would be administered and a "cure" effected. The assistant was naturally known as "the toadeater" or "toady," and the term eventually came to mean anyone who will do absolutely anything to curry favor with a boss or superior.

Nightingale Nerves.

Dear Word Detective: My Russian wife is driving me bananas asking how the "nightingale" got its name in English. Can you help? -- George Sibley, via the internet.

A "nightingale" is, of course, a small reddish-brown bird known primarily for the melodious song that the male of the species sings at night during its breeding season. It also sings during the day, which led people in Medieval times to believe that the nightingale never sleeps. They thought this was because the nightingale is afraid of snakes and spends the night with its breast pressed against a thorn to keep itself awake, the pain of the thorn being the source of the bird's sad song. Not a bit of this story is true, of course. Nightingales just drink a lot of coffee.

The origin of the name "nightingale" is actually quite straightforward, being a combination of the Old English words "niht" (night) and "galan" (to sing), and first appeared in its modern spelling around 1523.

If you happen to know any poets, chances are good that they call the nightingale by its other name, "philomel." The Greek myth of Philomela is one of those great ancient soap operas with enough sordid details to make Jerry Springer blush. Philomela, after being tricked into marriage by her evil brother-in-law Tereus, threatens to expose the cad. He cuts out her tongue to silence her, but she finds a way to spill the beans to her sister Procne, and together they trick Tereus into eating his own child. Hey, I warned you. Anyway, Tereus is about to whack both sisters when the gods turn Procne into a nightingale and Philomela into a thrush and they fly away and live happily ever after, if happiness in your book is being a little brown bird.

Incidentally, those of you who have been paying attention will wonder why "philomel" means "nightingale" and not "thrush." The answer is that evidently somebody way back when got the names "Philomela" and "Procne" mixed up, probably because some silly bird had kept them up all night.

The whole nine yards, freshly mowed.

Dear Word Detective: My 7-year-old son asked me the origin (actually he didn't put it that way) of "yard" as in the area surrounding our home. I didn't tell him this but I was thinking it had something to do with the way they measured a property but that's probably too simple. -- Daniel Hulshizer, via the internet.

Well, that's actually a pretty good guess, although it happens to be wrong. But there's nothing wrong with striving for simplicity, especially when it comes to word origins. My life would be a lot easier, for example, if it weren't for the legions of malcontents running in circles inventing absurd acronymic "origins" for the simplest words. (Would you believe, for instance, that "dog" originally stood for "Domestic Omnivore exhibiting Gratitude"? Me neither, but I know someone who does.)

In any case, your son's innocent question happens to cast a light on one of the most infuriating aspects of English, its propensity for using two entirely distinct words that happen to share a common spelling. The "yard" you mow in the summer and "yard" as a unit of measure are completely unrelated words, each with its own history. The only thing the two "yards" have in common is their antiquity.

The "enclosed area surrounding a house or other building" sense of "yard" probably came from the Indo-European root "ghort," which also gave us the word "court." As for how "ghort" became "yard," it helps that one of the intermediate forms was the Germanic "gard" which, in addition to sounding a bit more like "yard," gave us "garden" and the second part of "orchard."

"Yard" in the sense of "three feet," however, most likely harks back to the Indo-European root "gazdaz," meaning "stick." Again the disparity between the form and sound of the root and the modern word was bridged by a multitude of intermediate forms. Since sticks of uniform length are a good way to measure things, by the Anglo-Saxon period "yard" was being used as a unit of measurement, but one a bit longer (five meters) than our modern yard. The modern three-foot "yard" was established in the 14th century. The "stick" sense of "yard" is still found, incidentally, in the English word "yard-arm" for the booms supporting the sails on square-rigged sailing ships.




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