Previous Columns/Posted 02/07/98

Well, snakes can hop too, can't they?

Dear Word Detective: In English detective stories, to inform on someone to the police is to "grass." What is the origin of the term? --

Now here's an interesting little glimpse into what writing this column entails. When I picked this question to answer, it was partly because I found it interesting myself, partly because I thought you readers would also, and partly, dare I admit it, because I thought that I already knew the answer. Shows what I know. So then I'm three books into pinning down the details and I discover that some major linguistic honchos out there disagree with my opinion.

Da noive of some people.

So we'll just forge ahead anyway, and you'll get two answers for the price of one.

My original theory was that the root of "grass" meaning "informer" or "traitor" is the expression "snake in the grass," which since the time of Virgil has been a metaphor for a deceitful or treacherous person.

Other authorities, however, trace "grass" to the rhyming slang term "grasshopper." Rhyming slang, common among the Cockneys of London as well as the working classes of Britain and Australia in general, uses a system of rhymes to disguise the words actually meant. In this case, "grasshopper" rhymes with and stands for either (opinions vary here) "copper" (as in police officer) or "shopper" (one who "shops," or sells, information to the police).

Lending credence to the "grasshopper" theory is the fact that while the earliest use of "grass" in print can only be traced back to 1932, an example of "grasshopper" is found as of 1893. If "grass" had come from "snake in the grass," it probably would have shown up much earlier, but as is it appears to have been a simple abbreviation of the already existing "grasshopper."

There has, incidentally, been a further development on the "grass" front in Britain in the last several decades -- the emergence of the "supergrass." These "superinformers" are high-level criminals whose revelations, comparable to those of recent American underworld turncoats, have shaken up major criminal syndicates in Britain.

That's MISTER Schmuck to you, pal.

Dear Word Detective: Please inform us of the origin of the Mexican Spanish derogatory slang term "gringo." Southwest folklore has it that Black Jack Pershing's boys sitting around the campfires would be overheard singing "Green Grow The Lilacs" and the locals soon started calling the Yanks "gringos." -- Riley, via the Internet.

Hold it right there, buckaroo. Derogatory?


Are you sure about that? Holy cow.

This casts a whole new light on some of the mail I've been getting from the Southwest. I was under the impression that "gringo" was an laudatory form of address, sort of like what my friends tell me it means to be addressed as "schmuck" in Brooklyn. I hope they're not putting me on about that too.

In any case, what you've heard is just one of several stories purporting to explain the origin of "gringo," most of which center on the Mexican-American War of the last century. Another explanation traces the word to the green uniforms supposedly worn by U.S. soldiers, which, again supposedly, prompted the Mexicans to shout "Green Go!" This story falls under the rule that any explanation requiring more than one "supposedly" should not be taken seriously.

As one of our readers, writing from Mexico in fact, noted a few years ago, both these theories conclusively run aground on the fact that "gringo" crops up in written Spanish quite a while before the war in question -- in 1787, to be exact.

The most likely source of "gringo" is the Spanish word "gringo" itself, which means "foreigner" or "unintelligible gibberish." The root of "gringo," in turn, is thought to have been "griego," Spanish for "Greek," often applied as slang to any foreigner. But why, I hear you ask, Greeks? Because the Greek language has long been a convenient metaphor for anything foreign and unintelligible. Even the Romans had a Latin phrase for the feeling of being stymied by the unfamiliar: "Graecum est; non potest legi." Translation? "It is Greek -- it cannot be read," or as we say today, "It's Greek to me."


It's a bird! It's a plane! It's George Will!

Dear Word Detective: I have been puzzled by the word "pundit." I think I understand its origins as a Hindi or Sanskrit word meaning learned person or something like that. But how in the world did it get transferred to people who pontificate on a variety of subjects in the American popular press? -- Robert Morse, via the Internet.

Good question. When I was in journalism school they never once mentioned pundits. The closest thing to one of our current crop of pundits back then was CBS's Eric Sevareid, who did little think-pieces on Walter Cronkite's evening newscast. Sevareid's commentaries were so relentlessly, infuriatingly "balanced" that we used to call him Eric Everyside. Incidentally, they also never told us how important TV helicopters are to journalism. I'm just wondering how long it'll be before they cram a platoon of those pundits into a whirlybird. They can call the whole shebang "Sky Sage." I'm not even going to charge them for that idea.

You're correct about the origin of "pundit" -- it comes from the Hindi "pandit," meaning a scholar or teacher of Indian religion and law. The importation of "pundit" into English is a relic of the British occupation of India, and "pundit" in the more general sense of "learned person" or "scholar" first appeared in English usage in about 1816.

How this honorable word came to mean "print journalist who hangs out on Sunday morning television talk shows pretending to know what's really going on in Washington" is anybody's guess, but, then again, "airbag" was already taken.

Incidentally, "pundit" has absolutely nothing to do with "puns," those annoying little word tricks so fancied by the easily amused among us. No one knows where the word "pun" comes from, but the Oxford English Dictionary ventures that it may have started out as a clipping of the Italian word "puntiglio," meaning "quibble."

Barking up a stump.

Dear Word Detective: My friends and I are looking for the origin of "stumped," meaning confused or frustrated. We've tried to figure out what tree stumps have to do with looking for answers, but so far we're just "stumped." -- D.L. Davis, via the Internet.

I know just how you feel. There are days when writing this column reminds me of the old Johnny Carson "Stump the Band" routine, and I have occasionally considered changing the name of the whole shebang to "How the Heck Should I Know?" In this case, however, I do know the answer.

"Stump" turns out to be quite a word. The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary takes up nearly three full pages, mostly covering literal or figurative variations on the basic theme of "the part remaining after the main part of something has been broken or worn away." The original meaning of the old German word that gave us "stump" was that of "tree stump," and we need look no further to answer your question. What's so frustrating about tree stumps? In the inimitable tone of the Oxford Dictionary, which considers this strictly an American usage, "stumped" refers to "the obstruction caused by stumps in ploughing imperfectly cleared land." Translated to American English, this means that you're trying to plant your crops and can't because the field is full of tree stumps. I guess they didn't have this problem of "imperfectly cleared land" in England, but we in the U.S. must have had a lot of stumps, because by 1807 we were using "stumped" to mean "brought to a halt" or "baffled."

Still, tree stumps have their uses. While the British were plowing and planting their perfectly cleared fields, American democracy was using those pesky stumps as impromptu stages for political speeches. Today's politicians may campaign from elaborate "electronic town meetings," but their "stump speeches" started in the stump-ridden fields of Early America.

OK, Jaworski, now GET IN THERE and RELAX!

Dear Word Detective: I'd really appreciate your assistance. I want to find the etymology of the word "vacation" and how and where it was first used. I am a professional personal and business coach and am developing a niche in vacation/travel coaching but associating vacation with spirit time. I was wondering if this has any bearing on how and where this word was first created and how it was used. -- Marianne Josem, via the Internet.

Like wow. I know it's only January, but I'd like to take a moment here and now to nominate the third sentence of your question as the most mystifying statement likely to appear in this column in 1998. I'm not sure what a "personal and business coach" might be, so I'll assume that you are the equivalent of a "personal trainer" in those realms. What I really don't get is the bit about "associating vacation with spirit time." Are we talking astral projection here? Maybe it's just me, but hovering above one's own bed seems like a pretty chintzy substitute for a week in Acapulco. Still, it probably beats Central Ohio, which is where I always wind up.

Or perhaps you mean that you suspect "vacation" may have a spiritual origin, perhaps rooted in meditation or "vacating" one's worldly frame of reference, sloughing off all the daily cares and anxieties that plague modern society. Or something like that.

Uh, nope. "Vacation" comes from the Latin "vacare," which means simply "to be empty, void, or free." "Vacation" has been used pretty much from the git-go (late 1300's) to mean a literal release or respite from doing something that you didn't want to be doing to begin with, whether that be work, school or official duties. You are, of course, welcome to use "vacation" in a metaphorical metaphysical psychological sense. Just remember that a lot of people will think you're talking about Disney World.

Incidentally, there's an interesting difference between British and American usage when it comes to "vacation." What Americans call a "vacation" in the sense of packing everyone in a car and driving somewhere for a week or two, Brits call a "holiday." Obviously very few of those folks have ever been to Central Ohio.

Three boxes for Martha.

Dear Word Detective: Some amount of research has failed to uncover the etymology of the word "boxing" or "boxer," as in fighting with one's fists. It clearly comes from Old English and Latin, but where the pugilistic meaning came from is obscure. Any ideas? -- R. Ratner, via the internet.

A few, the first of which is that when you say that "box" clearly comes from Old English and Latin, you're thinking of the wrong "box." English actually has three distinct "boxes."

The first "box" is the box-tree, a small evergreen tree or shrub commonly used in ornamental gardening. This name of this "box" does indeed come to us from Latin via Old English, the original Latin word being "buxus," later transformed into the Old English "box." The pale wood of the box tree, a favorite of wood engravers, was known as "buxum" in Latin.

The second kind of "box," a case or receptacle usually having some sort of lid, appeared in English around 1000 A.D., but its exact origin is a bit unclear. It seems to be related to the box-tree, most likely because the first boxes to be called "boxes" were quite small (often used as containers for medicine or jewels) and may well have been made of boxwood. Incidentally, I really hope Martha Stewart is paying attention, because this is exactly the kind of word origin story she tends to mangle on her TV show.

The third kind of "box," usually heard in "boxing," the activity wherein two overpaid athletes pound away at each other in front of an audience until one of them goes berserk and bites the other, had a completely different source. Unfortunately, no one is precisely sure what it was, though it's fairly certain that it had nothing to do with box-trees. One possibility is that "box" came from an old Germanic root ("boki") which later appeared in Dutch and German words meaning "to strike."

Though we think of "box" as a verb, it first showed up in English around 1385 as a noun meaning "blow," now heard almost exclusively in the phrase "a box on the ears."


The Little Mermaid Inflatable Thesaurus, however, was really cool.

Dear Word Detective: My co-workers and I are arguing over a word they say doesn't exist. I used the word, "flummoxed" in a sentence and they think I'm making it up. So I tried to look it up in our dictionaries, but it isn't listed. I can't remember where I first heard the word. I did an internet search and came up with only a couple of headlines from some pretty strange sites. They still don't believe it's a word because we can't find any definition. Can you help me? I think the definition is somewhere along the lines of "confused, frustrated, exasperated," etc. -- Sabrina, via the internet.

You're absolutely right about the meaning of "flummoxed," but before we explore its origins, a word about workplace reference resources, so vital in resolving those pesky inter-employee disputes. I don't know what lame "dictionary" your boss has foisted off on you, but if it really doesn't contain "flummox," there's a good chance he got it as a prize in his most recent Happy Meal. I checked two recent college (medium-sized) dictionaries, the Merriam-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate and the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, and they both define "flummox." Tell your boss they're both available for under $30, less than he spends on a dozen of those hideous ties he wears.

On the other hand, neither of the dictionaries I mentioned would help you one whit in figuring out where "flummox" came from, since they both note, tersely, "origin unknown." But if we fire up the old Oxford English Dictionary, we discover that "flummox" is probably rooted in 19th century English dialects, related to such gems as "flummocks" (to maul or mangle), "flummock" (slovenly person, but also meaning "bewilderment"), and a verb "flummock," meaning "to make untidy, disorder, to confuse, bewilder." The folks at Oxford theorize that "flummox" may ultimately be "onomatopoeic" in origin, meaning that the word itself sounded like someone throwing something down untidily and making a mess. May I suggest that you test this theory with that so-called dictionary your boss gave you?

My personal solution is to watch Young Frankenstein over and over again. It's the last movie I understood.

Dear Word Detective: In the movie "187" a teacher (Samuel L. Jackson) is talking with a student. He says something that sounded like "a puric victory." It happens about 1 hour and 18 minutes into the film. She asks what it means, and he says to look it up. At the end of the film, she says it means a victory that comes at too high a price. I can't find it in the dictionary, or even if I'm spelling it right. -- Michael J. Oetting, via the internet.

An hour and 18 minutes into the film, you say? Well, I can explain that. The standard Hollywood screenwriter's manual dictates that, and I'm quoting here, "in the last one-third of every movie some mildly mysterious event or element of dialog should be deployed, which will so confuse the average audience member as to distract him or her from the truly ludicrous plot developments necessary to bring the picture to a close." It worked, didn't it?

The phrase that Samuel L. Jackson was using was "Pyrrhic victory," so it's not surprising that you couldn't find it in your dictionary. "Pyrrhic" (pronounced PEER-ick) refers to King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who led his troops into battle against the Romans at Asculum in 279 B.C. Pyrrhus was victorious in this first great clash between the Greeks and Romans, but at the terrible cost of most of his best troops and officers. Pyrrhus' famous words after the battle, "One more such victory and we are lost," established "Pyrrhic victory" as a vivid metaphor for a hollow triumph gained at too high a cost.

Oddly enough, this metaphor, based on an occurrence that took place more than two thousand years ago, didn't show up in general English usage until the late 1800's. But it has taken off with a vengeance since then, and "Pyrrhic victory" is now a staple of every political analyst's rhetorical arsenal.

Port Out, Sauterne Home, of course.

Dear Word Detective: I am curious as to the origin of the word "shill," as in "He was being used as a shill for the nuclear power industry." I understand the original sense of "shill" to be a person who attracts interest in a circus sideshow, pretending to be a customer but actually in the employ of the carny. My theory is that it's a Yiddish or perhaps Hebrew word, based on nothing more than the actual sound of the word itself! Pretty slender, huh? By the way, this will help to settle a barroom bet! -- Dana Luke, via the internet.

Heck, why not? Nothing like settling a friendly barroom bet, I always say. After all, that's why I got into this word origins racket in the first place. I could have gone to law school, you know. I could have become a chiropodist (whatever that is). I could have, in short, been a contender, remuneration-wise. Instead, I'm settling drunken bar bets for a mere 50% of the take, plus a bowl or two of those nifty beer nuts you guys get.

Given the pathos of that paragraph, I hope you won't be too disappointed when I tell you that no one knows the origin of "shill." We do know that you're correct about its place of origin. The duplicitous "shill" is a fixture of circus and carnival life, and has been since the word first appeared in English around 1916. The figurative use of "shill" as a synonym for "paid promoter" or "apologist" has only been around since about 1974. It's a great word, right up there with "cat's-paw," "toadie" and "stooge" in my personal lexicon of invective.

One thing we do know about "shill" is that it's probably a shortening of the now-obsolete and equally mysterious "shillaber," meaning the same thing. Another tidbit may cast a little light on "shill," though probably not enough to win your bet. The Oxford English Dictionary also lists "shill" as an adjective synonymous with "shrill," though it denies any connection between that "shill" and the carnival sense. Make of that what you will, but next time you bet on something, please pick "posh." We'll make a bundle.

Also known as Rue de Donuts, by the way.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please tell me the origin of the term, "twenty-three skidoo"? How was the term popularized? -- Clifton Davis, via the internet.

Well, I can't promise you a definitive answer because there isn't one. The puzzle of "twenty-three skiddoo," which can mean "let's go," "get lost," "whoopee!," or a variety of other things, is one of the classic word-origin questions, and nearly every authority has at least one theory.

The "skiddoo" part is fairly easy to trace, and is almost certainly a variant of the slang word "skedaddle," meaning "to depart in haste." The "twenty-three," however, is a bit more obscure. One theory, which is often reported as fact, but isn't, traces the phrase to the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway in New York City. This is the location of the famous Flatiron Building, built in 1902 and known for the fierce updrafts its triangular shape (resembling an old-style flatiron) causes on the neighboring sidewalks. It is said that young men of the period would gather at this corner in hopes of seeing a lady's dress blown up by the wind, a practice which the local police would discourage with the gruff order "Twenty-three skiddoo!" Early films of the "dress blowing" phenomenon do, in fact, exist. You can even download one from the Library of Congress site on the Web. But "Twenty-three Skiddoo" was a popular phrase among young people as early as the 1890's, long before the Flatiron Building, which caused the wind storms in the first place, was even built.

The late etymologist Eric Partridge reported that one of his correspondents felt that the phrase might have had its roots in old telegraphers' code, where common phrases were replaced by numbers. In this code, "30" sent in Morse code meant "end of transmission" (a notation still used by journalists to signal the end of a story), "73" meant "best regards" (still very much in use by amateur radio operators), and "23" meant "away with you!" This seems a far more likely explanation of the phrase.

And he was bully in a bustier, I'll bet.

Dear Word Detective: Since it's getting close to Valentine's day, I've had women's lingerie on my mind (perhaps more than usual). Wondering around the store, I encountered the ubiquitous teddy. How did this garment get its name? -- Scott Slotterbeck, via the internet.

Hoo boy. Where to begin? First of all, I'd like to thank you for reminding me that Valentine's Day is almost upon us. I would have been devastated if I'd missed another chance to empty my pockets into the coffers of the Greeting Card Cartel. Secondly, I must caution you that this occasion is no longer properly known as "Valentine's Day" (much less "Saint Valentine's Day"). It now goes by the far less inflammatory (I guess) moniker "Special Person Day," at least in a few fiercely sensitive public school districts. Don't get me started. And lastly, if things have reached the point where you can blithely refer to "the ubiquitous teddy," I suspect that Casual Day wherever you work has gone too far.

The Oxford English Dictionary (an excellent source for lingerie information, I'll have you know) defines "teddy" as "a woman's undergarment combining chemise and panties," evidently popular among women as what the OED terms "sleepwear." The whole effect, I am told, is something like a short, loose, lacy smock.

The "teddy" is named, of course, for President Theodore Roosevelt, who routinely wore one to Cabinet meetings. No, wait, that was J. Edgar Hoover. But Teddy Roosevelt does loom large in "teddy" lore. President Roosevelt was notably fond of bear hunting, a fact which was the subject of an enormously popular humorous poem published in the New York Times in 1906 featuring two bears named "Teddy B." and "Teddy G." Savvy toy dealers soon began marketing stuffed toy bears advertised as "Teddy Bears," and the ensuing teddy bear fad continues to this day.

All of which brings us back (as all historical discussions must) to lingerie. The "teddy" is thought to have been so christened back in the 1920's because its somewhat shapeless puffiness reminded someone of the general outlines of a teddy bear. Someone who presumably needed new glasses, I must say, but there you have it.


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