Issue of February 16, 2005



Well, we here at Word Detective World Headquarters have finally wandered across the Eyewitness News Threshold of Dementia, Pet Hoarding Division.  A few weeks ago I discovered yet another cat living in the unheated attic of our garage and, being softheaded, gave her food and water.  Naturally, the weather turned vile after about a week of this, and one night with the thermometer descending past five below, I grabbed her and brought her inside.  In my own defense, I must say that a few years ago I discovered a cat in the garage that had apparently frozen to death, so my fears for this kitty's survival were not unfounded.

Lo and behold, once we had her inside in decent lighting, we discovered that she is almost certainly the long-lost mother of last summer's arrivals, Harry, Phoebe and Gus, bearing a striking resemblance to Gus in particular.  I'd post pictures of her, but she's still quite shy and spends most of her time hiding in the dining room, emerging a few times a day to loudly demand food.  We're still working on a name; for the moment we call her either "Momcat" or "Whatsername."

Six cats and two dogs.  No wonder the mice finally packed up and left.

Update:  I just went out in the garage (which is separate from the house and really more of a small pole barn) to get something out of the freezer, and heard a thumping upstairs.  So I tiptoed up the stairs and discovered that we are now playing host to a very large and, judging by its grizzled appearance and halting gait, very elderly possum.  It seems friendly, but I am not bringing this critter inside.  I did, however, give it a bowl of water.

And now, on with the show:

By the way, please come get your geese.

Dear Word Detective: I am writing from the province of Quebec. We have an expression here that is unique to the area, "tete carree," to indicate all those with English blood. It is apparently a direct translation of the word "blockhead" for "idiot." Where does the term "blockhead" come from? I have been told it was used in Colonial Williamsburg because it referred to the wooden block heads used to form wigs. Others have argued that is based on the block and tackle of English ships. Wondering in Montreal. -- Ade A.

Granted, I haven't set foot in Montreal since 1967, but I had no idea that my "blood" stood in such ill repute in that neck of the woods. Perhaps the Irish, Welsh, Scot and Cherokee bits of my lineage would carry me over, but why risk it? I'm starting to wonder if it's such a good idea to send our old folks up there to score drugs.

The story you've been told about the origin of "blockhead" being the head-shaped wooden blocks used in the manufacture and maintenance of wigs sounds like one of the many urban legends about word origins floating around the internet. The attribution to Colonial Williamsburg also rings a small, sour bell, because tour guides (and the booklets they dispense) at such "historic attractions" are prime vectors for the spread of nifty but deeply deranged stories about the origin of common words and phrases.

Given its source, however, the most surprising thing about that "wig block" story may be that it is essentially true, although the phrase dates back to the 16th century and has no connection to Williamsburg. Wooden heads were indeed used as forms for the storage and preservation of wigs; in fact, such forms are still used by wig-wearers today. Judging by the dates of the citations for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, "blockhead" had hardly appeared in the literal "wig block" sense before the term was adopted to mean someone so stupid that his or her head might as well be made of wood.

The Road to Fuhgeddaboudit.

Dear Word Detective: A phrase that I don't remember hearing before the past half-decade or so now seems to be very common. "Don't go there!" expresses a wish that the current thread of a conversation or speech not be pursued to where it seems to be headed. It could be said in a deadly serious vein, but in reality is almost always used jocularly. There is no particular mystery about why it means what it does. But being a recent coinage, are there records of when, where, and by whom it was said first? -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.

One would think so, wouldn't one? After all, almost everything is on a computer somewhere these days, so the answers to such questions should just be a quick Google away. Unfortunately, until someone finds a way to record every word uttered by every person on the planet (and I have no doubt that certain people are working on this as I write), the first few months or years of a new coinage's life are still usually shrouded in mystery. It's only when the word or phrase makes the leap into print (or the electronic media) that it can be pinned down like a butterfly on a corkboard.

In the case of "don't go there," the earliest citation for the phrase in print in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an interview with comedian Martin Lawrence in Entertainment Weekly back in February 1994. At the time the star of the highly-rated Fox sitcom "Martin," Lawrence took the opportunity to complain, oddly enough, that his material was being stolen by other Fox shows:

"Something ain't right," Lawrence says, removing his sunglasses. ... "We started using the expressions 'You go, girl!' and 'Don't go there!' and no one in television was doing that. No one. Now a lot of Fox shows are using the same stuff and the same premises."

Slavish imitation bordering on plagiarism on TV? We're shocked. Of course, the hitch in that Lawrence citation is that he is implicitly not the coiner of either of those phrases, which may have arisen years earlier (my guess is a late 1980s origin, almost certainly in the African-American community, for both).

Incidentally, the OED notes that "Don't go there" is used "often aggressively." That was certainly the case when former president Bill Clinton sat down for an interview with ABC's Peter Jennings recently and apparently coined a slightly modified form of the phrase. Annoyed by Jennings's line of questioning at one point, Clinton brought him up short with, according to the ABC transcript, "You don't want to go here, Peter. You don't want to go here."

And then some.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "over the top" come from? My 5th grade students and I researched this several years ago, and we could never find any answer. We had lots of guesses, but never a concise answer. -- Paula K. Steeper.

Well, you get an "A" for effort, but it's not terribly surprising that your class never came up with the answer. The current usage of "over the top" is decidedly different than its original meaning; so different in tone, in fact, that one might be speaking of two different phrases. Incidentally, the timing of your question is fortuitous, because the Oxford English Dictionary just this month published a draft revision of their entry for "over the top."

Today we generally use "over the top" as an adjective and adverb to mean "to an excessive degree," "wildly exaggerated," "outrageous," or simply "going too far." Of course, what constitutes "over the top" depends on one's taste. Many people would regard the late Liberace's shtick (candelabra, lacquered pompadour, velvet tuxedo, etc.) as being "over the top," but I have met people who took him perfectly seriously and found his stage persona inspiring.

But the origin of "over the top" predates Liberace's act by quite a bit and lies in the grimmest days of World War I. Much of that war in Europe was conducted in the form of "trench warfare," where the opposing armies dug elaborate networks of trenches in which the soldiers spent their time between forays into the barren "no man's land" between the sides. The most dreaded order soldiers could receive was to climb up the side of their trenches -- to go "over the top" -- and charge the enemy's position. "Going over the top" was frequently fatal; on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in France (July 1, 1916), the British Army lost almost 60,000 soldiers.

For the first few years after WWI, "over the top" was used only in reference to the war itself or figuratively for acts of great courage. In the mid-1930s, however, "over the top" started to appear in the sense of "going too far, until the point of ruin," as in, for example, a business that overextends its borrowing and collapses into bankruptcy. Implicit in this use seems to be a mental image of a graph of steady upward progress reaching a summit and then suddenly sloping sharply downhill, which marks a real departure in logic from the "brave charge" origins of the phrase.

Starting in the 1980s, however, "over the top" dropped the connotation of a disastrous outcome and came into use meaning simply "extravagantly excessive."


Dear Word Detective: I've heard the expression "to pull the wool over one's eyes" before but didn't think about its origins until I ran across it as a crossword puzzle clue. I know it means "to fool or hoodwink" someone. Is it an expression from sheep herding or shearing or does it refer to having a wool cap pulled down over your eyes? And, while we're at it, what's the origin of "hoodwink"? -- Paul Smith.

Hoodwinked by a sheep? I suppose it's possible. After all, as evidence we have the classic Monty Python "Flying Sheep" routine, with its admonition "He's that most dangerous of creatures, a clever sheep." Granted, Harold (the sheep in question) was only teaching other sheep to nest in trees, but, given the opportunity, such a sheep could, no doubt, progress to real-estate fraud and perhaps even running for public office.

No, wait, that's silly. The average sheep spends far too much time worrying about mint sauce to foment fraud.

"To pull the wool over one's eyes," meaning "to blind to the facts and deceive," appears to be an American coinage of the late 1800s, although a similar phrase, "to spread the wool over one's eyes," appeared in the 1830s.

The standard story about "to pull the wool over one's eyes" traces the phrase to the wigs commonly worn by men (especially judges and attorneys) in the 18th century. A judge fooled by a clever lawyer, it is said, would be said to have the "wool" (slang for a wig) pulled over his eyes, blinding him to the facts of the case.

That's possible, but its seems equally plausible that "to pull the wool over one's eyes" is related to the earlier phrase "to pull the wool" of an opponent, meaning either literally or figuratively to pull his hair (for which "wool" was established slang of the period) in anger. By this logic, "to pull the wool" of an opponent over his eyes would mean to get the better of him through trickery.

"Hoodwink," also meaning "to trick or deceive," harks back to the original meaning of "wink," which was "to close one's eyes firmly," not the brief "wink" we know today. To "hoodwink" in the 16th century was to blindfold with a hood (as in preparation for execution), a tactic also commonly used by thieves. The figurative use to mean "blind someone to the facts" first appeared in the 17th century.


Pants on fire, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: "Smoke and mirrors" means to distort the truth? I heard that it originated from carnies, having to do with tricks of the circus. -- Kody Laurentia.

Close, but no cigar. Anybody got a spare rim shot? You know, this column would have been much more fun as a vaudeville show. Maybe it's not too late. I have some dancing dogs, after all, not to mention a cat named Gus who climbs up on his Kitty Kondo every evening and chases his tail for twenty minutes at a time. And if that doesn't sound like quality entertainment to you, you clearly don't live in rural Ohio.

"Smoke and mirrors" does indeed mean a distortion of the truth, specifically the use of deception, distraction and illusion to convince and manipulate. "Smoke and mirrors" is commonly used in a political context, often by one side to describe the plans and statements of their opponents, although anyone who has ever bought a used car has also probably encountered a barrage of "smoke and mirrors." To say that someone's argument or proclamation is "smoke and mirrors" is to say that it lacks substance and is deliberately deceptive, using fancy footwork and glib patter to disguise the fact that what is being sold is a dud.

The allusion in "smoke and mirrors" is to a magician's stage act, particularly during a dramatic trick such as pulling a rabbit from a hat or sawing a volunteer in half. The climax of such stunts is usually accompanied by some sort of flourish, be it a puff of smoke or a simple "Voila!", that serves to distract the audience. The trick itself may depend on the clever placement of mirrors to make the impossible appear a fait accompli.

But while the reference is to magic, "smoke and mirrors" was coined in the political context, by the great (notwithstanding his strange antipathy toward dogs) New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. In his 1975 book "How the Good Guys Finally Won, Notes from an Impeachment Summer," Breslin wrote, "All political power is primarily an illusion…. Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors, first a thin veil of blue smoke, then a thick cloud that suddenly dissolves into wisps of blue smoke, the mirrors catching it all, bouncing it back and forth. ... If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours."

Jimmy Breslin, by the way, recently retired from writing his column at Newsday. I fear we will not see his kind again.

Ding Dong Hell.

Dear Word Detective: Why is a clock on the wall called a "clock," but on your arm a "watch"? -- K.J. Williams

That's a good question, and I'm surprised that someone hasn't asked it before now. Both "clock" and "watch" are very old words which have both traveled quite a ways from their original meanings.

The roots of "clock," which first appeared in English in the 14th century, do not directly involve the measurement of time. The ancestor of our "clock" is the medieval Latin "clocca," which meant "bell." This "clocca" is thought to be of onomatopoeic or "echoic" origin, i.e., derived from the sound of a bell itself. "Clocca" may not sound like a very good bell to us, but authorities believe that the bells being imitated were more along the lines of clunky cow bells than our modern ringing bell. In any case, "clocca" spawned similar words in several European languages with the general meaning of "bell" (our modern word "cloak," for example, comes from the Old French "cloque," drawn from the bell-like shape of the garment).

In English, however, we already had the perfectly good word "bell," so when "clock" (then spelled "clok" or "clocke") arrived, it was used in the more specialized sense of "a timekeeping device that sounds the hour with a bell or gong." To be a proper "clock," in other words, the gizmo had to ring, although most clocks today are mercifully silent.

"Watch" is a considerably older word than "clock," deriving from ancient Germanic roots, and its original sense in Old English was, as a verb, "to be awake" ("wake," etymologically speaking, is essentially the same word). As a noun, "watch" gradually evolved from "the state of wakefulness" to "a state of alertness, the act of being alert and observant," as a sentry is said to "stand watch." One interesting use of "watch," now largely obsolete, was as a designation for a military unit organized to guard a town or region, a use that survives in the name of Britain's famed Black Watch regiment, organized in early 19th century Scotland and named for the dark hue of its regimental tartan.

With all this wakefulness going on, it thus makes sense that the first use of "watch" to mean a device to tell the time was for an early alarm clock in the 15th century. From there it was used for any sort of spring-driven clock, but gained greatest currency in the form "pocket-watch," which led to "watch" being generally used to mean "small clock." Our modern "watch" is simply a shortened form of the subsequent "wristwatch."

The Collyer Brothers were just ahead of their time.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word "eBay"? Presumably the "e" is for "electronic." The "bay" bit? Uh? -- Nick.

Well, I always figured that "bay" referred to the cries of anguish heard from the Legions of the Outbid, eBay users whose attention wandered just long enough to allow a "sniper" (last-minute bidder) to snatch up that ultra-rare Wayne Newton gravy boat or bootleg DVD of "Cop Rock."

But that was, of course, before I wrote my most recent book, From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names (Simon & Schuster). Now I know more about Barbie, Betty Crocker and Grape-Nuts than any sane person should. I even know what an "Olay" (as in Oil of Olay) is (or isn't).

All of which is, as you may have guessed, a flimsy prelude to quoting myself on the subject of eBay:

If Pierre Omidyar had been a little quicker on his feet, the name "eBay" would be nothing but an annoying typo today. In 1995, Omidyar, a French-Iranian immigrant and Silicon Valley veteran, created a web site he called Auction Web, an electronic flea market where visitors could hawk Beanie Babies, computer gear and the Pez dispensers his then-girlfriend (now wife) collected. Unfortunately, the internet gold rush was by then in full swing, and the domain name "" was already taken, as was Omidyyar's second choice, "" (after his company, Echo Bay Technology Group).

But "" was ripe for the picking, and Omidyar snapped it up. And from that third-choice domain name the internet's premier auction site grew. Today on a typical day there are more than 16 million items up for auction on eBay in more than 16,000 categories, and in 2002 eBay members unloaded more than $14 billion dollars worth of goods on the site. Presumably, Mrs. Omidyar now rarely gets outbid on Pez dispensers.

Since domain names on the internet do not distinguish between upper and lower case letters, the distinctive capitalization "eBay" was not, strictly speaking, necessary. But the alternative "ebay" would most likely have usually been pronounced "eh-bay" or "eb-ay," more evocative of a startled diner ("Eb-AY! That's hot!") than a multi-billion dollar business empire. The lower-case "e" prefix also evokes the great 90s "e-commerce" gold rush, a boom of whose fizzle eBay is probably most the successful survivor.

Are we there yet?

Dear Word Detective: I was browsing through your archives on this otherwise-dull morning and it occurred to me that you've not commented on either of two words which I have heard tied together in a (perhaps apocryphal) derivation. To wit: In the glory days of sailing ships (i.e. pre-technology) a sailor would measure the speed at which his ship was traveling by tying a log onto the end of a rope on which knots were tied at regular intervals. By tossing the log off the stern and counting how many knots played out in a given time period he would know how fast he was traveling. Thus we measure nautical speed in "knots." The other word? Well, after our now-informed tar drew in the rope and retrieved his log, he would go into his cabin and note the results in (what else?) a "log book." Your thoughts? -- Howard Sinberg, Parkland, Florida.

You're prudent to describe the story you've heard about "knots" and "log" as "perhaps apocryphal," because the tale has the too-neat ring of the spurious "word stories" that flit around the internet. And something about seafaring appeals to etymological fabulists, as evidenced by the large number of words and phrases traced, falsely, to nautical origins.

But this case may be the exception that proves the rule, for the story you've heard is, in fact, true. In the days of sail, a ship's speed was measured with a "log line" tied to a "log" (actually a block of wood) and knotted at intervals of 47 feet, three inches. The number of knots played out within 28 seconds was recorded on a "log slate" or "log board" on deck and later transferred to a diary of the ship's progress known (since speed was the primary measure of such progress) as the "log book" or simply "log." Incidentally, the log-line method may have been low-tech, but the process actually measured "nautical miles per hour" fairly accurately (nautical miles being only slightly longer than the land sort).

Today we still measure a ship's speed (as well as currents and sea winds) in "knots," and although "logs" are often computerized, we still use the word to mean a record of the progress of any endeavor.

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Whaddya mean, there's no super?

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin and true definition of the word "mortgage"? We've heard that it is from the Latin roots "mort" (death) and "gage" (grip). Is this true? -- Brad Hubbell.

Not exactly, by which I mean that there are things that are literally, indisputably true (such as raspberry being the best flavor of jelly doughnut), and then there are propositions that, while perhaps not entirely true per se, embody a higher sort of truth.

The higher truth of mortgages, as I discovered when I first descended into the wonderful world of home ownership a few years ago, is that the "homeowner" doesn't really own the house. The mortgage company owns it, and merely permits the "homeowner," for a hefty monthly fee, to sit inside the house and watch it fall apart. There is, of course, an art to crafting mortgages. A perfectly calculated mortgage (from the mortgage company's perspective, natch) is one that finally conveys full legal ownership to the "homeowner" at the precise moment when the house has collapsed into a shambles suitable for occupancy only by myopic chickens.

A "mortgage," as the word is commonly used today, is a loan agreement by which the purchaser of real property is loaned money (usually most of the purchase price) by a mortgagor in return for a lien on or conveyance of the property, which will revert to the purchaser when the loan is repaid. If the loan isn't repaid, the mortgagor retains the property. In simple English, they loan you the money to buy a house, and if you fail to pay them back the house goes bye-bye.

The first part of "mortgage," the "mort" part, does indeed mean "death" or "dead" in both Latin and Old French (from which we borrowed "mortgage" back in the 14th century). But the "gage" part has nothing to do with "grip." A "gage" is a pledge or, particularly, something of value offered to ensure payment of a debt, and comes from an old Germanic word ("wathjam") that also gave us the English words "wed" (as in "wedding," a ceremony of pledging) and "wage."

The logic of "mortgage" is that of a "dead pledge," meaning that if the borrower repays the loan as agreed, the property becomes "dead" to the lender, who has no further rights to it. And if the borrower fails to pay, all of his or her rights to the property cease.

And the sun comes up like thunder out of Breezewood....

Dear Word Detective: Is the term "pike," as in Chester Pike, short for "turnpike"? How did either word come to be used to mean a roadway? Are all turnpikes full of sharp turns? That is the only connection I can make with the word "pike," as something sharp like a spear. -- Joanne Weber.

I'm not familiar with Chester Pike, although I gather from Google that you are most likely referring to a road near Philadelphia, in which case the name is almost certainly short for "turnpike." The alternative, since "pike" is also used in Northern England to mean a sharply pointed mountain, is that you are nowhere near Philadelphia. When you get a chance, take a peek out the window and let me know.

Now that I've not settled that question, perhaps we should move on to "turnpike" itself. A "turnpike," as anyone who has driven the Pennsylvania Turnpike is keenly aware, is a highway where they charge admission for the thrill of dodging speeding semis driven by drunken chimpanzees. (There are, of course, many competent truck drivers on the road, but one tends to notice a bad apple when it's trying to kill you.)

Turnpikes do have something to do with "pike" as in "spear," but fortunately no sharp turns are involved. The "spear" sort of "pike" derives from the Old English "pic," meaning "pointed object," which is closely related to "peak" (as in that pointy mountain) as well as "pick," "spike" and even "pitchfork." The species of fish called "pike" takes its name from its long, pointed snout.

The first "turnpikes" (more properly called "turnpike roads") were roads with moveable barriers consisting of a horizontal pole (there's the "pike") or bar. In the 15th century, such barriers were usually defensive measures to slow possible attacks by soldiers on horseback, and sported sharp spikes and similar nastiness. By the 17th century, however, the institution of toll roads had taken hold, and "turnpikes" were lowered or turned into traffic in order to halt travelers for fleecing.

Incidentally, it was only after driving the US interstate highway system for many years that I discovered that the route numbers are not, in fact, arbitrary. It turns out that one- or two-digit roads (the biggies, such as I-70) running east-west have even numbers, while those running north-south have odd numbers. The north-south routes are lowest-numbered on the West Coast and ascend eastward; the lowest-numbered east-west roads are in the South. Wonders never cease. It's almost as if someone were in charge.

Named, of course, after the least covert animal imaginable.

Dear Word Detective: My girlfriend claims that the term "skunk works," meaning a covert project to develop a product within a large organization, originated with Lockheed Martin. Indeed, the book "Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed" lends credence to that claim. Do you know of any use of this term prior to the Lockheed operations? -- Ari Cohn.

Thanks for an interesting question. I've heard of Lockheed's "Skunk Works" over the years in connection with some of their celebrated products, such as the high-altitude U2 reconnaissance aircraft, first produced in the early 1960s and still, remarkably, in service today. It's a shame these folks don't make cars. Anyway, I'd always assumed that "Skunk Works" was an informal moniker used by engineers at Lockheed, probably with an arcane story behind it and no official status within the company. So I was surprised to learn that Lockheed actually registered "Skunk Works" as a trademark back in the 1960s. And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

The Skunk Works, now known as the Lockheed Advanced Development Programs Unit, was established in 1943 at a facility near Burbank Airport in Southern California. At that time a classified project under the leadership of the legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, the unit's debut project was designing the P-80 Shooting Star, the US Air Force's first operational jet fighter, which they accomplished in an astounding 143 days. Subsequent projects, such as the F-104 Starfighter, SR-71 "Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft and the F-117 Stealth fighter, have reinforced the Skunk Works' reputation for innovative, unconventional high-tech design.

The name "Skunk Works," however, harks back to the distinctly low-tech world of Lil' Abner, the popular comic strip of the time drawn by Al Capp and set in the hills of Appalachia. A running joke in the strip was a backwoods distillery called "the Skonk Works" where moonshine (known as "Kickapoo Joy Juice") was brewed from a variety of noxious ingredients, including actual skunks. Evidently the name "Skonk Works" was adopted by Lockheed engineers because their original facility was located next to an odiferous plastics factory and, being secret at the time, had no formal name. Soon answering the phone with "Skonk Works" became routine. But by 1960, the "Skonk Works" name had become well-known enough to catch the attention of Al Capp, who objected to their use of the name, so Lockheed adopted (and trademarked) the "Skunk Works" variant.

Although the "Skunk Works" itself was originally a secret facility, in generic use "skunk works" is often used to mean any sort of special projects team set up outside the normal hierarchy of an organization.



Dear Word Detective: Why is it the case that we can only ever "take" umbrage? I "take umbrage" at the fact that I am unable to "give umbrage." Your thoughts? -- Paul Remati, Sydney, Australia.

Whoa. Settle down, champ. No one ever said you can't "give umbrage." Feel free. Stand on the corner at rush hour and dispense umbrage by the bucketful if that makes you happy. As long as I'm not in the vicinity, of course. I take umbrage easily. Just the other night I was very nearly run over by some twerp in an enormous Lincoln SUV intent on parking in a certain spot, apparently on top of my lifeless body if necessary. Unfortunately, it was raining ferociously at the time and the only instrument I had with which to convey my umbrage was a rickety umbrella, giving me the choice of either damply thrashing the cad or bottling up my rage and remaining semi-dry. I chose the latter course, but the umbrage lingers yet. Next time, mon ami, it will be four flat tires for you.

The rationale for that only marginally relevant anecdote was, of course, the resemblance of "umbrage" to "umbrella," a kinship rooted in their common ancestor, the Latin "umbra," meaning "shadow." In the case of "umbrella," we have the diminutive form drawn from the Italian derivative "ombrella," meaning "little shadow or shade," reflecting the umbrella's original use as a means to protect the user not from rain, but from the strong rays of the midday sun. It was only when umbrellas were imported into Britain, where rain often outruns sun by a wide margin, that they became popular as protection from cloudbursts.

When "umbrage" entered English from Old French in the 15th century, it was in the literal sense of "shadow or shade," as one would find under a nice tree. By the early 17th century, however, "umbrage" had taken on the meaning of "suspicion or doubt," and soon acquired its modern meaning of "displeasure, annoyance, offence, or resentment," most likely reflecting the sense of a relationship cast into shadow by an offense.

From the very outset of the use of "umbrage" in this "offense" sense it was equally as possible to "give umbrage" (to offend) as to "take umbrage" (become offended). In 1668, for example, the poet John Dryden, in An Evening's Love, wrote "It will not be convenient to give him any umbrage, by seeing me with another person." It is true, however, that today "take umbrage" is a well-known English idiom, while "give umbrage" is a rarity. Too bad that fact hasn't affected the way some people drive.


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