Columns posted 02/14/02




  Issue of February 14, 2002


So we're driving around the northwest part of Columbus, Ohio for no good reason one cold and rainy night, trying to figure out the maze of access roads and gargantuan parking lots that lead to the ten miles of strip malls that line Sawmill Road, when we discover that the enormous (and enormously boring) home furnishings store that had been there two months ago has bored its last customer and is now defunct, its cutesy sign (something wretched like "Home Base") replaced by a large plastic banner reading simply "Giant Book Sale." Naturally, we stop the car and march dutifully through the rain into what turns out to be a building the size of an airplane hangar, cavernously empty except for two dozen or so folding tables piled high with remaindered books.

You were expecting maybe Xanadu? This is Columbus, Ohio we're talking about, folks.

Anyway, I'm halfway down the third table when I spy a little yellow book with the odd title "Fun Run and Other Oxymorons" by somebody named Joe Bennett. It's got a pink elephant on the cover, but what really catches my eye is the one-word blurb from Bill Bryson on the cover: "Brilliant." Four bucks, why not.

It turns out that Mr. Bennett lives and writes in New Zealand. It further turns out that this collection of short pieces is one of the funniest things I have ever read. It is, indeed, brilliant. I would, if space and copyright law did not forbid it, reprint the whole thing right here, but it seems that you can get it via, so let's all do that instead. Trust me, it beats driving around Columbus in the rain.

And now, on with the show...

Simple Gifts

Dear Word Detective: I am interested in finding out where the word "Pollyanna" came from. Most areas of the U.S. call family gift giving by drawing names "Secret Santa," but here in Pennsylvania we call it a "Pollyanna." -- Thomas Haynes, via the internet.

No kidding. Well, here in Central Ohio, we call it a "Recipe for Disaster." The problem with that "Secret Santa" business, in my experience, is that it focuses the recipient's attention on one particular useless gift, rather than, as in the traditional holiday ritual, diluting the resentment with a blizzard of useless gifts. Think about it. Do you really want Uncle Milton to come looking for the person who gave him that stupid electric shoehorn?

The term "Pollyanna" comes from a series of children's stories written in the early 20th century by the American author Eleanor Hodgman Porter (and made into a movie starring Hayley Mills by Walt Disney in 1960, itself a remake of a 1920 version starring Mary Pickford. The protagonist of Porter's stories was one Pollyanna Whittier, an indefatigably optimistic child whose approach to whatever dire hand life dealt her was to ferret out some small shred of silver amid the dark clouds of gloom surrounding her. Pollyanna would then smile cheerfully, if a bit maniacally, and announce to everyone within earshot that she was enormously "glad" that she had sprained her ankle or broken out in boils or whatever.

I have never read the Pollyanna stories, but in the Disney movie the grownups in the vicinity found her dippy behavior immensely annoying until they miraculously realized the errors of their ways and adopted Pollyanna's "Glad Game" approach, whereupon everyone lived happily ever after.

In the real world, of course, grownups realized no such thing and rather quickly (by 1921) adopted "Pollyanna" as shorthand for someone who is irrationally optimistic and achieves happiness by means of self-delusion. I presume that your local tradition of dubbing your gift-giving lottery a "Pollyanna" presumes just this sort of lobotomized reaction by the recipients. Good luck with Uncle Milton.

Bite Here.

Dear Word Detective: The following passed my desktop today, and an alarm began to ring: "What does it mean to be an 'indentured servant'? In the colonial days, debtors were shipped from Europe to America to work as servants. Instead of signing a contract, they sealed their agreement by leaving their dental imprint in wax." I suspect that (a) dental identification techniques were not very sophisticated in colonial times; (b) dentures were often made of wood, right?; and (c) the logistical problems of storing wax imprints from even a hundred servants would be daunting. I suspect that "indenture" might arise from "indent," but not from "denture." Comments? -- Steve Miller, via the internet.

Geez Louise, who makes these things up? The gang at Weekly World News? (For the benefit of our non-U.S. readers, WWN is a supermarket tabloid specializing in flamboyantly implausible headlines of the "Hillary Clinton Gives Birth to Alien Baby" sort.) Actually, I've always had a secret yen to work for WWN. Their Thanksgiving week headline last year -- "Hero Turkey Saves Family of Six"-- was pure genius.

In any case, your Flapdoodle Alarm is working perfectly, and the story you read is utter nonsense. "Indentured servants," who were furnished passage to various British colonies (not just America) on the condition that they work upon arrival for their sponsor, were so-called because they were bound by a document called an "indenture," a legal contract spelling out the terms of their agreement.

But what's not entirely crazy about that story is that "indentures" did originally have at least a metaphorical relation to teeth. One of the earliest methods of ensuring the authenticity of a legal document or contract was to make two or more copies, sign them, place them in a stack, and tear or cut all the copies along a jagged or notched line. Any later challenge to the provenance of one copy could then be resolved by matching the jagged edge to that on another of the copies. Given that such jagged or notched tears resembled teeth, the term "indenture" (from the Latin "indentare," meaning "to furnish with teeth") made perfect sense, and "indenture" has been in use since the 14th century.

Oddly enough, our modern "indent" comes from a different source, the familiar verb "dent" (rooted in the older term "dint," meaning "to make an impression in something"), and is completely unrelated to teeth.

Mommy, my pickle bit me.

Dear Word Detective: I recently found myself in an impossible predicament and quickly recognized that I'd gotten myself "in a pickle." Needing a diversion from my dilemma, I've turned my attention to the idiom. Can you tell me anything about "in a pickle?" It would be a great consolation to be able to learn something from my mistakes. -- Michelle Gubola, Columbus, Ohio.

Ah, pickles. Why, I remember when I was just a wee lad, begging my parents for a pickle from the big pickle barrel in our local market. You picked your own pickle in those days, usually forswearing the clumsy tongs and plucking it with your own grubby little hands from the deep, murky and mysterious brine. They were lovely big dill pickles, crisp and pungent, redolent of garlic and onion and the teeming germs from countless other grubby little hands. It's a major miracle the entire town wasn't poisoned.

"In a pickle," meaning "in a disagreeable situation or predicament," does indeed seem like a mysterious figure of speech, but that's mainly due to our modern use of the word "pickle." While today we use "pickle" primarily to mean a pickled cucumber, strictly speaking a "pickle" can be anything preserved in brine, from other vegetables to (yuck) such meat delicacies as pig's feet. More importantly, "pickle" (from the old Dutch word "pekel," meaning "brine") originally referred to the brine or vinegar "pickling" solution itself, and "to be in a pickle" metaphorically conjured up the image of finding oneself submerged in such a stinging, sour bath. "In a pickle" in this "What do I do now?" sense first appeared in the 16th century. The use of "pickle" specifically to mean a pickled cucumber didn't arise until the 18th century.

Personally, I happen to love cucumbers even in their un-pickled state, but the eminent lexicographer Samuel Johnson was evidently not a cuke lover. "A cucumber," Johnson announced in 1773, "should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing." Such vehemence directed at the innocent cucumber makes one wonder if Johnson was not simply confused and actually meant "Brussels sprout."



Dear Word Detective: You seem like the logical person to ask about a phrase I have encountered several times over the years, always, as far as I recall, in books and magazines published in England. The phrase is "po-faced," and I believe it means "not showing any reaction or emotion." Is this assumption correct? Where does the phrase come from, and what is a "po"? -- D. C., Detroit, MI.

I don't blame you for being mystified. "Po-faced" is one of those colloquial British expressions that crop up so rarely on this side of the Atlantic that American readers are usually left high, dry and clueless when they encounter them. Still, being left in the dark is probably preferable to hearing such terms bandied about as a mark of sophistication by Masterpiece Theater addicts. Hearing someone born in New Jersey refer to "the loo" or "the telly" is usually enough to send me scrambling for "the door."

In any case, your presumption is correct. "Po-faced" dates back to around 1934 and means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it (and who would know better?), "having or assuming an expressionless or passive face." Rounding out a rather unpleasant portrait, the OED lists the synonyms "priggish, narrow-minded or smug."

What's the "po"? No one knows, exactly. It may be a reference to "poh," an expression of disdain evidently common at one time in England, presumably the sort of noise a butler makes when confronted by a small, dirty child. Or "po" might refer back to the old English slang term "po," meaning "chamber pot" (from the French "pot de chambre"). I myself think this is a marvelous theory -- who wouldn't like to compare some supercilious twit to a chamber pot? Maybe that Brit-talk isn't so bad after all -- I wonder what's on the telly tonight?

Not a whopper.

Dear Word Detective: Is it true that the word "sandwich" is an "eponym" (a word which once was someone's proper name)? I've heard there once was a Lord Sandwich, who didn't want his game of cards to be interrupted by a meal and ordered a slice of meat on bread covered with another slice so that he wouldn't dirty his hands while playing cards. -- A.J.A. van Bladel, via the internet.

Well, I'll be darned, or something. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the word-origin tales that my readers have heard and want verified turn out to be untrue (and frequently hilariously deranged). But the one you've heard about "sandwich" is, at least in a limited sense, probably accurate.

A "sandwich," of course, is, in its simplest form, meat, cheese or other foodstuffs served between two slices of bread. The "sandwich" is said to have been invented in England in 1762 by John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich (a town in Kent, England). The Earl was in charge of the British Navy around the time of the American Revolution, but wasn't very good at it, which was lucky for the Americans since if he had paid more attention to his job we might still be drinking warm beer. The Earl, however, spent most of his time playing cards with his buddies, often going without sleep or food for days at a time while he gambled away enormous sums of money. According to the story, on one occasion the Earl, having neither eaten nor slept for 24 hours, ordered his servants to bring him some cold meat between two slices of bread, a concoction he figured he could eat with one hand while playing cards with the other. His invention was an instant hit, and, almost overnight, dissolute, incompetent noblemen all around the world were chowing down on "sandwiches."

Now, a skeptic would say that it is implausible that something so obvious as a sandwich would be "invented" by one particular person, and it may well be that folks were holding greasy bits of meat between slices of bread for many, many years before the Earl lost his first poker game. But contemporary sources in the mid-1700s confirm that the card-table incident really did take place, and even if the Earl didn't truly "invent" it, his high-profile name certainly popularized the "sandwich."

Which gave us, ultimately, "Gilligan's Island."

Dear Word Detective: My parents from Kentucky use the phrase "skiff of snow" to indicate a dusting of snow. Was "skiff" ever correctly used in this way? -- Gary Stringer, via the internet.

Oh ye of little faith. Whatever happened to respecting your elders, or at least giving them the benefit of the doubt? Chances are good that, unless Mom and Dad are actively foaming at the mouth and barking at passing cars, their grasp of English is probably pretty sound.

On the other hand, your skepticism is understandable. Most of us are familiar with "skiff" meaning "a small, light boat," frequently one used either for racing or to ferry passengers from a larger boat to the shore. This "skiff" is a very old word with some interesting relatives. "Skiff" is ultimately rooted in the prehistoric German "skipam," which also gave us "ship." The later Dutch form of the same word, "schip," had a derivative, "schipper," which meant "captain of a ship" and lives on in our English term "skipper." Meanwhile, the German form wandered into first Italian (as "schifo"), then French ("esquif"), and finally settled into English in the 16th century as our modern "skiff."

The "skiff" you've heard your parents use, however, is a completely different word. "Skiff" meaning "a light gust of wind, a slight shower of rain, or a light dusting of snow" comes from the verb "to skiff," a word heard primarily in Scotland meaning "to touch lightly" or "to glide upon." The exact derivation of "skiff" in this sense is unclear, but it may well be related to "scuff" meaning "to brush against." In any case, "skiff" in this sense first appeared in English around 1819, though its use is probably much older in Scotland.


And don't call me Cookie.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about "chuck wagon," the vehicle that carries the food in western movies. Obviously, I get the "wagon" part, but what's the "chuck"? I think all these years I've been tying together "ground chuck" as meat, and a "chuck wagon" as the wagon with the food, so I didn't question it until someone at work asked me. -- Patricia Lundstrom, via the internet.

Hey, I remember chuck wagons. Back when I was young enough to enjoy watching westerns, I recall thinking that running the chuck wagon was by far the best gig on the trail. No chasing stupid cows all day, lots of spare time while the cowboys were off getting bitten by rattlers, and if anything went seriously wrong, you've got all the food. Of course, it seemed that you kinda had to be an elderly alcoholic to get the job, but I figured I could always fake that part.

I also recall making the same assumption that "chuck wagon" simply meant the wagon where the "ground chuck" or "chuck steak" was kept. As it happens, we were both in the ballpark, but still a few steps away from home plate. "Chuck wagon" and "ground chuck" are not directly related, but they do have a common ancestor.

The "chuck" in "chuck wagon" is simply an 18th century slang term for "food," and originally was a naval slang for the sort of hard biscuits served to sailors aboard ship. This "chuck" is almost certainly a derivative of "chuck" (a variant of "chunk") meaning, since the 17th century, a large, irregularly-shaped piece of something, including a hunk of bread or meat. This sense of "chuck" meaning "big hunk of meat" also had a more specific meaning to butchers beginning in about 1723, namely "the cut of meat from the forequarters of a cow, from the horns to the rib cage." This is where "ground chuck" beef comes from.

So "chuck" in the sense of "big hunk" eventually gave us "chuck" as generalized slang for food (found in "chuck wagon"), as well as a technical term for a certain part of a cow's anatomy.

Stick 'em up and help me carry this to my car.

Dear Word Detective: "Snatch," "Oceans 11," etc., are current films referred to as "heist movies" because they all involve a robbery plot of some sort. But where does the term "heist" originate? -- Henrik Fischer-Knudsen, Yorktown, Virginia.

Good question, and it brings to mind a point that I've been meaning to raise with the entire American movie industry. Say, guys, has it ever occurred to you that when the bulk of your annual output can be summed up in two short words -- "heist movie" -- it might be time to consider making something else? Silly question, I suppose. After all, even "Harry Potter" turned out to be essentially a "heist movie," didn't it?

"Heist," as every fan of American movies knows by the age of five or so, is criminal slang for "a robbery" or "a stick up" (an armed robbery, from the practice of telling victims to "stick up" their hands). The sort of "heist movies" Hollywood seems to make on a daily basis usually involve a complicated plot and high-tech gadgetry, but, strictly speaking, sticking up your local gas station on a whim equally qualifies as a "heist."

Considering that the origins of many underworld slang terms are obscure, the derivation of "heist" turns out to be surprisingly prosaic. "Heist" is simply a local U.S. pronunciation of the verb "hoist," which since the 17th century has been criminal slang for "rob." Evidently "hoist" in this sense originally meant "to shoplift," and referred to the act of lifting an object, perhaps to conceal it under one's clothes, in preparation for absconding with it.

Pinning down exactly when "hoist" became "heist" in the U.S. is a bit difficult, because while the criminals themselves may have been saying "heist," the journalists and novelists who invoked the term in their written accounts at the time may well have "corrected" the spelling to "hoist." But "heist" had become standard in print in the U.S. by about 1920 and is now considered a separate word from "hoist," although criminals in the rest of the English-speaking world still speak of "hoisting" diamonds and other sorts of loot.

Modern plastic, of course, is made from ground-up boy bands.

Dear Word Detective: I recently opened my mouth in Geology class to ask what I now realize was a stupid question. My instructor has now given me the assignment of finding the origin of the word "plastic," and determining if it was used in reference to earth deformation processes before or after the actual creation of the product "plastic." -- Michelle Godbey, via the internet.

Well, that's far from being a stupid question, and I'll bet your instructor gave you the assignment because he or she actually didn't know the answer.

Today when we hear the term "plastic" we usually think of the substance "plastic," the moldable, somewhat unnatural stuff from which nearly all modern consumer goods seem to be fashioned. Technically, "plastic" isn't just one compound, as the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear: "Any of a large and varied class of substances which are polymers of high molecular weight based on synthetic resins or modified natural polymers and may be obtained in a permanent or rigid form following moulding, extrusion, or similar treatment at a stage during manufacture or processing when they are mouldable or liquid." This sort of synthetic "plastic" was first developed in the early 20th century, though the "Age of Plastic" didn't really get rolling until the 1950s.

Prior to the invention of the "stuff" sort of plastic, however, the term "plastic" was used primarily as an adjective meaning "pliable" or "moldable," having been quite logically drawn from the Greek "plastikos," or "fit for molding." Appearing in English first in the 16th century, this sense of "plastic" was applied to everything from modeling clay to the "plastic," or highly impressionable, nature of political opinions among voters.

One of the more technical uses of the adjective "plastic" in the late 19th century was as an engineering term meaning "characterized by an ability to be permanently changed in shape, without fracture or rupture, by temporary pressure." While I have not been able to find any citations for this sense specifically referring to geology, I'd be willing to bet that "earth deformation" processes fall into this category, meaning that "plastic" in the geologic sense did indeed precede the "stuff" sort of "plastic" by at least 25 years.

Hey, Ford? Job One turned out to be getting rid of your lemon.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the word "shoddy"? I think it was a material which was used to make uniforms for soldiers during the American Civil War, and that it was so poorly made that the uniforms quickly fell apart, leading to the term being used to describe goods, services, etc., that aren't up to scratch. -- Heather, via the internet.

Really? I could have sworn "Shoddy" started out as a brand of automobile. I bought a Shoddy once. (It actually said "Ford" on the front, which I soon learned stands for "Fix Or Repair Daily"). That car was worth its weight in gold, and I have the service bills to prove it. I finally paid some guy ten bucks to tow it out into the woods and shoot it. Best investment I ever made.

Onward. The story you've heard about "shoddy," meaning "of inferior quality, poorly made, cheap and flimsy," is indeed true. It's not the actual origin of the word "shoddy," but it does spotlight an incident which did a great deal to popularize "shoddy" as a synonym for "cheap and cheesy."

Before "shoddy" meant "inferior," it was a cheap type of fabric made of the scraps and waste left behind in the manufacture of higher grades of wool. The exact derivation of the word "shoddy" is unknown, but it may be related to the word "shoad," meaning scraps of tin, lead or copper ore. In any case, this use of "shoddy" to mean "woolen cloth made from scraps" dates back to about 1832.

When the American Civil War came along, manufacturers realized that a great deal of money could be made in fabricating uniforms for the combatants, and some unscrupulous profiteers realized that even more money could be made by making those uniforms from sub-standard "shoddy" fabric. The resulting scandal popularized the term "shoddy" as an adjective denoting something that looks good but will probably fall apart a week after you buy it.

No, I can't open the can for you. That would be
patronizing humano-centrism.

Dear Word Detective: I recently came across the term "warp and woof" in a car magazine. I recall seeing this term used in a speech by General Douglas MacArthur. The magazine usage gave the connotation of "being used in the weaving of cloth." I cannot recall the General's connotation. What does the term mean? I'm confident it does not describe the barking sounds of two dogs, one large and the other small. -- Jack Pounds, Tipp City, OH.

Well, you never know. Just for fun, I popped "warp and woof" into an internet search engine and came up with an article from The New York Times last spring entitled "The Warp and Woof of Identity Politics for Pets." The Berkeley, CA City Council, it seems, had just officially decreed that pet owners were no longer to be called "pet owners" but rather "pet owner/guardians," so as to lift the hobnail boot of human oppression from Fido and Fluffy's furry little souls. However, as one cynic pointed out in the article, Fido and Fluffy remain subject to Berkeley's near-mandatory spaying ordinance, so that hobnail boot apparently still firmly rests on another part of their anatomy.

"Warp and woof" as a figure of speech is very old and is indeed drawn from the weaving of cloth. The "warp" of a fabric is the threads running lengthwise that form the background or framework for the cloth. "Warp" in this sense comes from the Old English word "wearp," meaning "to cast a net," and is separate from our modern verb sense of "warp" meaning "to twist out of shape." The "woof" of a woven fabric is the threads running across the "warp," and was originally "oof," from the Old English "owef," meaning "to weave." "Oof" became "woof" around 1540 simply because "warp and woof" is so much easier to say than "warp and oof."

Put together, "warp and woof" makes a nice metaphor for any tight interweaving of disparate elements, as in this quotation from 1882: "The woof of self-interest is so cunningly interwoven with the warp of righteous feeling that very few of us can tell where the threads cross." One might also speak of the "warp and woof" of daily life, meaning all the experiences from which our existence is woven.

And, since someone out there is bound to ask, the Fido sort of "woof" is unrelated to any of this and simply represents an oppressive humano-centric attempt to imitate the sound of a dog's bark.

Like Watergate, for instance.

Dear Word Detective: In a recent discussion on classical music, some overbearing engineer from Wisconsin referred to a Bach composition as marking a "watershed" in his career. Does the term come from prospecting or map-making in some way? My grandfather owned a mining company in New Mexico, and I recall seeing on a map a small icon for a shed or hut indicating the location of a pump house. Is this plausible? -- Kyle Cole, Portland, Oregon.

Leaving aside for the moment your incongruous use of "Wisconsin" and "overbearing" in the same sentence, I find it intriguing and oddly encouraging) that someone, somewhere, is apparently on the verge of engaging in fisticuffs over Bach.

Unfortunately, your guess associating "watershed" with "pump house" is off the mark, but that's probably just as well, because I'd have a heck of a time trying to explain the metaphorical uses of "watershed" if it were true. As a figure of speech, "watershed" has two slightly different meanings, reflecting two slightly divergent literal meanings.

The first thing to note about "watershed" is that the "shed" part is not the "small hut" we usually think of, but instead means "a parting or line of division." When "watershed" was imported into English around 1800 (directly from the German "Wasserscheide"), it meant an elevated ridge or mountain range that divides two river systems. The rain falling on one side of such a hill ends up in one river, on the other in another. Used as a metaphor since the late 19th century, this sense of "watershed" has meant a dividing line, often a moment in time marking a momentous transition, as the Reagan presidency might be said, for better or worse, to have marked a "watershed" in American politics. This figurative use of "watershed" to mean "epochal moment" is widely heard in Great Britain.

In the U.S., however, there is a slightly different use of "watershed" in a technical sense to mean "the drainage area (often mountain forests) feeding a river or other water system." This has led to the metaphorical use of "watershed" in America to mean "an experience or event which produces profound effects later on," much as heavy rains in the mountains may lead to floods later on in the valley below. In this sense, growing up in suburbia might be said to have been a "watershed experience" for many modern American writers.




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