Issue of February 18, 2004




  Issue of February 18, 2004



A funny thing happened last week.  Actually, it wasn't funny at all.  A few months ago I started getting strange stomach upsets when I ate, sort of a weird bloating effect that hurt a lot and kept me up all night when it happened.  Then it started to happen more and more frequently, eventually nearly every day, so I did what any rational person would do:  I pretty much stopped eating.  Bad idea.  I lost 15 pounds over the course of  two months or so and the pain just got much worse, until finally Mrs. Word Detective, who had been trying to get me to go to a doctor for quite a while, convinced me to go to the hospital. 

This seems a good time to mention that The Great State of Ohio is one of those states that allows health insurance companies to refuse to offer you coverage, which they did to us several years ago.  We had good coverage through the Authors Guild when we lived in NYC (where insurance companies can charge you out the wazoo but can't refuse coverage entirely), but since we moved out here we have had no insurance.

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, it developed that I had a severely inflamed gall bladder and needed immediate surgery.  So they yanked the little sucker out in the nick of time (it was three times normal size and the surgeon said he didn't understand why I was still walking around and not, like, dead), leaving me with four incisions that look like bullet wounds, and sent me home six hours later.  Total time in hospital = 22 hours.  I wasn't in intensive care, and I didn't even get a real room, just a glorified closet with the bathroom 50 feet down the hall to which I would stagger trailing my IV pole behind me.  But I seem to be all right now, although it still hurts when I cough or sneeze.

And then the other shoe dropped.  Bills have begun to arrive.  So far, they amount to (is everyone sitting down?) a little over $22,000.   That's twenty-two thousand dollars.  For 22 hours in the hospital.  And we haven't received the surgeon's bill yet.

This strikes me as absolutely insane.  Twenty-two thousand dollars?  That's close to the advance on my last book, which took me most of a year to write.  We don't have anywhere near that amount of money.  But something tells me the hospital plans to get its money one way or another. 

Elsewhere in the news, I should probably note again that my new book, Making Whoopee, is out just in time for Valentine's Day just in time for, uh, March!  Yay March!  Merry March, everyone!  A view of the cover and a laudatory blurb can be seen on our front page.  A nice feature USA Today ran about the book can be seen here

Apropos that article, it turns out that tulips are hard to come by in rural Ohio in February, but I made up for my failure by agreeing to go to a girl movie starring Jennifer Aniston, the title of which I have, mercifully, already forgotten.

And here are some updated snaps of TWD's quadruped staff, along with some pictures of soybean fields, snow, and cats sitting on radios, along with a secret source for even more pictures of cats sitting on radios all around the world, which is, of course, why the internet was invented.

And now, on with the show:

And then it was, like, "Bam!" right in the boozle.

Dear Word Detective:  What  is the origin of the word "bamboozle"?  I have read that it seems to be more widely used as naval term meaning "to deceive by deceit."  The example often cited is flying a friendly ensign and at the last minute running out your actual flag, such as a pirate ship running out the Jolly Roger after sailing within gun range.  But where did the word come from in the first place? -- Bob McNichols.

Pesky pirates.  I hate it when they pull that stuff, don't you? 

You're correct about "bamboozle" being used in the "deceive by using a false flag" sense, at least from the late 18th through mid-19th centuries.  Oddly enough, an otherwise solid glossary of the thousands of such terms found in the popular seafaring tales of Patrick O'Brian (A Sea of Words, Henry Holt and Company, 1995) doesn't contain the term.

The seafaring use of "bamboozle" was, however, just a specialized sense of the word, which had actually appeared as slang in England a bit earlier (around 1700) meaning "to deceive by trickery."  The arrival of "bamboozle" in popular usage was not, however, cheered in all quarters.  One of the earliest surviving examples of its use comes from an article written by Jonathan Swift in 1710 on "The Continual Corruption of Our English Tongue," in which he condemns, along with "bamboozle," such then-new slang terms as "mob," "bubble," "banter," "bully" and "sham."

The origin of "bamboozle" has been in dispute for several hundred years.  One possible source is the Scottish word "bumbaze" or "bombaze," meaning "to confuse or mystify."  In his Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1920), Ernest Weekley suggested that "bamboozle" might be related to the French "embabuiner," meaning "to make a fool (literally, "a baboon") of."  And the etymologist Eric Partridge suggested that "bamboozle" might be simply an elaborate corruption of "banter," reflecting the fancy wordplay so key in "bamboozling" a victim.  It is also entirely possible that "bamboozle" was simply  invented on a whim from thin air by an unknown English con artist.   None of these theories is any more than a guess, however, and we will probably never know the origin of "bamboozle" with certainty.  But we still have the word itself, which is a pretty good consolation prize.

Great Horned Songbird.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the expression "It's not over until the fat lady sings" come from? -- Steve Markley.

Good question, which, in the word-origins business, is short for "Good luck finding a definitive answer to that question."  What we do know about "It's not over until the fat lady sings" is that it is an American catch-phrase meaning that victory (or defeat) is not certain until the contest is absolutely finished.  As advice not to regard any half-baked situation as a done deal, "It's not over until the fat lady sings" is roughly equivalent to the venerable "Don't count your chickens until they're hatched" and very similar to Yogi Berra's famous 1973 dictum that "It ain't over till it's over."  Despite the similarity, however, there is no evidence tying "It's not over until the fat lady sings" to Yogi.

There seems to be a strong likelihood that "It's not over until the fat lady sings" began as a reference to opera, especially the sort of Wagnerian epic that involves large women wearing helmets with horns.  It is entirely possible, as has been suggested, that "It's not over until the fat lady sings" is the punch line to a long-lost joke that involved one or more unsophisticated patrons mistaking intermission for the end of the show and being informed on their way out, perhaps by an usher, that "The opera's not over until the fat lady sings."  On the other hand, a pamphlet entitled "Southern Words and Sayings" published in 1976 contains the phrase "Church ain't out till the fat lady sings," so it's possible that church, not opera, was the original inspiration. 

If we put the actual origin of the phrase aside for a moment and focus on how "It's not over until the fat lady sings" became popular, life suddenly becomes much easier.  A sportswriter for the San Antonio Express-News named Dan Cook used the phrase in his column in 1976 and in TV commentary two years later to buck up fans of  the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, then locked in the playoffs with the Washington Bullets.  Bullets coach Dick Motta adopted the phrase as his own, and by the end of the playoffs (which the Bullets won) "It's not over until the fat lady sings" was known all over America.

Rumble rumble rumble.  Mutiny mutiny mutiny.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word "grog," meaning an alcoholic drink, come from? -- Rhys Fogarty, Australia.

"Grog" is an interesting word, at least partly because it comes with a colorful story that just happens to be true.  That makes "grog" something of an exception to the First Law of Etymology, which states that the more intriguing a word or phrase origin story is, the more likely it is to be utter hogwash.  A corollary to The First Law holds that origin stories involving royalty, ocean travel, acronyms prior to the 20th century, and/or animals living in the thatched roofs of old English cottages can be safely jettisoned.

But the story of "grog" does manage to truthfully invoke both seafaring and, if not royalty, at least an Admiral.  The story begins with Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) of the British Royal Navy.  In 1740, Admiral Vernon issued an order that henceforth all sailors in the Royal Navy would be served a daily ration of rum mixed with water.  While that might sound like the sort of order that would be popular with seamen, it was not, because up until that point they had been entitled to a daily ration of undiluted ("neat") rum. 

The sailors of the Royal Navy were, to put it mildly, severely ticked off by Vernon's order.  Vernon himself had long been known to the rank and file as "Old Grog," a reference to the grogram cloak he always wore aboard ship.  ("Grogram," from the French "gros grain" (large grain), is a type of coarse cloth made of wool, mohair and silk.)  Seething over their watered-down rum rations, the men quickly transferred the Admiral's nickname to the feeble drink itself, and rum cut with water was thereafter known in the Navy as "grog."

Much military slang eventually percolates out into use by the general public, often with a slightly altered meaning, and so it was that within a few decades "grog" had become a popular synonym for any alcoholic drink.  The derivative "groggy," which when it appeared around 1770 meant simply "drunk," had by the 19th century acquired its modern meaning of "woozy, unsteady, not fully awake," not necessarily due to drink.  


Who knows where the time goes....

Dear Word Detective:  I recently discovered your web site and I now spend hours each day reading your answers to the meanings to words and phrases and I am fascinated.  I checked the archives, but I don't see any reference to "hedge your bets."  Does this expression have anything to do with the way you can minimize your losses gambling by placing chips on the lines surrounding your choice?  It looks like a hedge to me.  It is something I have wondered about on occasion. -- Jackie Saby.

Hours every day, eh?  Shucks, I'm just doing my part to keep our national productivity statistics in the tank. 

Your guess about "hedge your bets" is a good one, but a little overly specific to gambling.  Let's begin with the word "hedge" itself.  As a noun, "hedge" harks back to a prehistoric Germanic root that also produced the words for "hedge" in several other European languages.  Central to the definition of "hedge," which appeared in Old English around AD 785, is the idea of a boundary.  A "hedge" is actually a series of small bushes or trees planted in a row, often used (especially in England) to demarcate one parcel of land from another.  Thus by about 1340, "hedge" had acquired the more general figurative meaning of "barrier or limit."

As a verb, by 1440 "to hedge" had come to mean "to define or limit," and by the late 17th century was being used to mean, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, "To secure oneself against loss on (a bet or other speculation) by making transactions on the other side so as to compensate more or less for possible loss on the first."  To "hedge" one's bet, in other words, is to draw a boundary, a metaphorical hedge, beyond which your potential loss cannot extend because you have another bet riding on losing the first bet.  Such "hedging" is found in almost any field where risk is part of the equation, even in politics, where large contributors to one party almost always "hedge" by giving at least a little loot to the opposition.

More of a kleptocracy, actually.

Dear Word Detective:  I'm curious about the etymology of the word "plutocrat" or "plutocracy," meaning essentially "government of the rich over the poor."  Does it have anything to do with the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch?  And where does the planet Pluto fit in, while we're at it? -- Harry Perzigian.

And don't forget Pluto the dog.  Actually, you have to wonder what Walt Disney was thinking when he named that animal, as will become apparent in a moment.  Meanwhile, I'm still puzzling, as I have been since about the age of six, over what sort of critter Goofy is supposed to be.  Dog?  Moose?  The missing Baldwin brother?  The child Ann Coulter never mentions?  Just asking.

Onward.  It all began with the original Pluto, who was the Roman god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.  As was common practice in Roman mythology, the Romans had actually borrowed Pluto from Greek mythology, where he was known as Hades.  The name Hades was also used by the Greeks to mean the underworld itself, which, interestingly enough, was portrayed as being cold and dark, not fiery hot as in the modern concept of Hell.  As a matter of fact, the original Hell (named for the Norse goddess Hel) was also a very chilly place, and the bad-afterlife thermostat didn't get turned up until the New Testament.

The cold and dark of the Roman underworld made "Pluto" a fitting name for the desolate outermost planet in our solar system when it was discovered in 1930, but it took a very literate 11 year-old English girl named Venetia Burney to actually suggest the name.  One of Pluto's moons, by the way, is named Charon after the ferryman who, in Greek mythology, transports the souls of the dead across the river Styx into the underworld. 

The connection between the Roman god of the dead and rich people running the show comes from the root of the name "Pluto" itself, the Greek "ploutos," which meant "wealth."  It was believed that wealth that came from the ground (minerals, gems, etc.) was actually created in the underworld.  So put "pluto" in this original Greek sense together with the Greek-derived suffix "cracy," meaning "power" or "rule by," and you get "plutocracy," rule by the wealthy.  Plutocracy, as well as "oligarchy" (from the Greek "oligos," meaning "few"), are usually considered less desirable states than "democracy," from the Greek meaning "rule by the whole people."

Snack time at the Nevermore Doughnut Shop.

Dear Word Detective:  Having recently started a diet, I just used the word "ravenous" in a note, and immediately thought of a large black bird (not very edible, unfortunately).  My dictionary says "raven" the bird is unrelated, but I found another "raven," pronounced with short "a," that can be a verb meaning "to prey, plunder, or eat voraciously," or a noun (often spelled "ravin") meaning "the state of being ravenous."  I believe "ravenous" is common enough that every adult who ever diets knows what it means.  Is the verb/noun "raven"/"ravin" approaching extinction, or have I just been sheltered all these years?  I could probably use the word in my present circumstance. -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.

Well, that's a relief.  Not your diet, of course.  That must be a drag.  But I was afraid for a moment that you were about to ask the famous riddle from Alice in Wonderland, to wit, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"  Notwithstanding Lewis Carroll's subsequent insistence that the whole point of his riddle was that it had no solution, various people have spent the intervening 150 years dreaming up their own answers.  For a good rundown on the whole ruckus, see Cecil Adams' explanation at

Your dictionary is correct when it says that there is no connection between "raven," the bird, and "raven" (or "ravin") meaning "to prey or plunder."  The bird name "raven," which first appeared around AD 800 in Old English, takes its name from a Germanic root ("khraben") which is thought to have arisen as an imitation of the harsh, grating call of the raven itself.

The verb "to raven," which entered English around 1340, comes from an entirely different root, the Latin "rapere," meaning "to seize by force."  In addition to the common derivative "ravenous," meaning "very hungry," the verb "to raven" survives in common usage only in its present participle "ravening," meaning "to search for or consume food voraciously."  So yes, the verb "raven" is definitely on its last legs, although those two derivatives may be with us for a long time.

Incidentally, that Latin "rapere" I mentioned a moment ago has spawned an impressive crop of descendants.  In addition to "rape," it gave us "rapacious," "ravage," "rapture" (a "seizure" by an emotion or religious revelation), "rapid" (originally "carried off by force"), and even "ravine" (a chasm cut by a "violent rush" of water).

Lock and load, or whatever.

Dear Word Detective:  If you can you put some light on the origin of “flash in the pan” we would be most grateful.  One person here claims it stems from early days when guns in America were flintlock and if you did not load the gunpowder correctly it would flash back at you.  This sounds like another of those spurious folk etymologies like the one about  “news” being an acronym for “north east west south.”  Many thanks. -- Swami Murugananda.

Good question, and your skeptical instinct is admirable.  Thanks largely to the internet, there seem to be ten million nifty and colorful word origin stories floating around out there, of which about ten are true.  The story you mention about the origin of “news” is a good example.  As I explained in a previous column, our English “news” was simply patterned on French, which uses the word "nouvelles" (the plural of the French adjective meaning "new") to mean “new things” or “current events.”  This approach doesn't make much sense in English because our adjectives are neither singular or plural, but it's a bit late to start worrying about that, because “news” has been with us since the early 15th century.

Every so often, however, one of these nifty stories turns out to be largely true, and the story your friend told about “Flash in the pan” is just such a case. 

I'm not an expert on guns in general and certainly not on flintlock firearms, but the drill in firing one seems to be as follows:  the main powder charge and the bullet are loaded into the barrel.  A small quantity of powder is then added to a shallow “pan” above the breech of the gun.  When the trigger is pulled, the hammer strikes a bit of flint, producing sparks, which then ignite the powder in the pan, which then ignites the main charge, and kapow. 

It is, however, fairly common for the powder in the pan to ignite, producing the proper “flash,” yet fail to set off the main charge and thus failing to fire the weapon.  Such a showy but ultimately ineffectual display has made “flash in the pan,” since around 1810, a perfect metaphor for something that seems a very notable development but within a fairly short time amounts to nothing.  Only time will tell, for instance, whether Howard Dean wins the Democratic presidential nomination this year or is remembered as just another political “flash in the pan.” (Update: time seems to be up for Howard.)

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Put that back!

Dear Word Detective: As a child my father would warn us kids not to "kipe" ("kype") things, meaning "steal."  Is this a real word or one made up? -- Pat Benson.

Well, the two are not mutually exclusive.  Aside from the fact that every word is a human creation, many of the words we use every day were invented by specific individuals.  Norman Mailer, for instance, invented "factoid" in his book "Marilyn" published in 1973, and "gobbledygook" was coined by U.S. Rep. Maury Maverick during World War II to describe bureaucratic jargon and doubletalk.  Rep. Maverick, incidentally, was the grandson of Samuel Maverick, the Texas cattleman who never branded his cows and whose name became a synonym for "wanderer" or "rebel."

You're absolute correct, however, to wonder about the legitimacy of "kipe," because it seems to be a word that now teeters on the brink of extinction.  According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), "kipe" or "kype" is found mostly in the western U.S., especially the Pacific Northwest, with some scattered usage in the Plains, Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.  To judge by a discussion of the term on the American Dialect Society mailing list a few years ago, the variant form "kife" seems more common in the eastern states.  To "kipe" (also spelled "kype" and "kipp") means "to steal or pilfer," with the same general sense as "swipe" of casually snatching something of small value (as opposed to robbing a bank, for instance).  A citation in DARE from the Saturday Evening Post in 1968 gives a good sense of "kipe":  "This typical teen-age shoplifter will brag to her friends about what she has "bagged," "hocked," "kyped" or "snitched," using the particular word that is common to the vernacular of her region."  An indication of the fading use of "kipe" is that the later citations in DARE largely come from sources talking about using the word in their childhoods, not today.

The derivation of "kipe" is, as so often the case with slang terms, uncertain, but it may well have arisen as a modification of the now-obsolete English verb "to kip," meaning to take hold of or to snatch."  This "kip," which first appeared in English around 1250, was based on the Old Norse verb "kippa," meaning "to snatch, tug or pull."  

And a heaping helping of flapdoodle.

Dear Word Detective:  A recent TV show suggested that the phrase "in a pinch" comes from the gold rush days when merchants used to reach into a prospector's bag of gold dust and take out a pinch of it in payment for merchandise.  In fact, according to this show, the merchants hired clerks with big hands to increase the amount of the pinch. I also understand that the term came to mean generally to use a substitute in cases of emergency, hence "pinch hitter."  Is this correct? -- Don Fargy. 

Not even close, by which I mean "not within a thousand miles of being even vaguely plausible," and it's good to see that this ridiculous story set off your nonsense detector.  The worst purveyors of this "in a pinch" sort of flapdoodle seem to be, ironically, those cable TV channels devoted to, shall we say, "discovery" or "arts and entertainment."  Maybe we should call them the "pinch of salt" channels.

Among other flaws, that story about the prospectors and their bags of gold dust doesn't begin to explain how "in a pinch" would ever have come to mean, as it does, "in a moment of great difficulty" or "facing a dire situation."

To trace "in a pinch," we start with the verb "to pinch," which came from the Old French "pincier."  The literal sense of "to pinch" is "to squeeze, especially with the fingers and, of the human body, especially in a way that causes pain or discomfort."  Since it first appeared in English in the 14th century, both the verb and noun forms of "pinch" have taken on various figurative meanings.  "To pinch" has meant, among other things, "to afflict or harass," "to steal" and "to be miserly" ("pinch pennies").   As a noun, "pinch" has been used as a metaphor for, most importantly for our discussion, any sort of severe pressure, difficulty or hardship that "pinches" a person.  Thus we quite logically say that to be in such a situation is "to feel the pinch" or "to be in a pinch."   This use of "in" (originally "at" or "on") a "pinch" dates back to at least the late 15th century, and the use in baseball of "pinch hitter" to mean one player substituted for another at a critical stage of the game dates back to 1902.    

To rink, perchance to bleed.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word "rink" come from (as in ice rink, skating rink etc.)? -- Ben.

That's a good question, and I'll answer it just as soon as my hands stop shaking.  It may strike you as odd, but the word "rink" seems to awaken some dim childhood horror of roller-skates and ice-skates in my subconscious, so much so that were "rink" not an interesting word I'd never have picked this question.  I suppose it all goes back to an inborn fear of landing on one's head on a very hard surface, in my case multiplied many times over by a natural grace in any given sport comparable to that of a drunken duck.  A drunken blindfolded duck.

As I said, "rink" is an interesting word, one that has had a number of meanings since it first appeared in English in the late 14th century.  Although today we use "rink" exclusively to mean an enclosed, often indoor, arena used for roller- or ice-skating, the original meaning of "rink" was any space within which a race, contest or jousting match took place.  "Rink" was also used to mean the contest itself or one round in a contest, so in a jousting tournament one match between two riders could be termed a "rink."  In the 18th century, "rink" took on the meaning of "a space of ice marked out for a curling match," curling being a Scottish sport in which teams compete in sliding large stones across a patch of ice.  (Don't laugh -- these folks also perfected whisky, probably the perfect accessory to a game of curling.)  By the 19th century, "rink" had acquired its modern ice- or roller-skating meaning.

The roots of "rink" are a bit tangled, but its closest relative is probably the Middle English "renc," meaning "racecourse," derived from the Old French "renc," meaning "line, row or rank."  (The related Old French word "ranc" gave us our modern English "rank").  It is also probable that both "rink" and "rank" go back to the Germanic root that produced the English word "ring" meaning "circle."


Fancy Footwork.

Dear Word Detective:  My ten year old son has been assigned to determine the origin of the phrase "knock your socks off."  As an English professor, I was pretty cocksure about finding an answer quickly, but we have been, to use a good Word Detective word, flummoxed.  Any clues? -- Margaret Oakes, Greenville, SC.

Golly, that seems like a pretty tall order for a ten year-old.  I sure hope his teacher knows the answer.  To begin at the beginning, the noun "sock" comes from the Latin word "soccus," which means "light shoe or slipper," and when "sock" first entered Old English around A.D. 725, it meant just that -- a slipper or lightweight shoe of the sort one might only wear indoors.  By the early 14th century, "sock" had arrived at its modern meaning of "a short stocking covering the ankle and usually part of the calf."  Such stockings were (and are) usually worn over the foot and under a heavier pair of shoes.

That arrangement of shoes-over-socks is important in understanding "knock your socks off."  The phrase first appeared in the mid-19th century meaning "to beat or vanquish someone thoroughly," at first used literally to mean to win in a knock-down fistfight so savage that the loser might expect not to only lose his shoes in the fracas but his socks as well.  The number of brawlers who actually lost their socks was probably pretty small, but a threat "to knock your socks off" was one of a number of such hyperbolic pugilistic phrases popular at the time, including "knock your lights out" and "knock you into next week."

Among folks who were not inclined to physical combat, to "knock someone's socks off" was soon adopted in a more general sense of "to win decisively," and one might "knock the socks off" one's opponents as well in bridge or whist as in the boxing ring.  From there the phrase mutated a bit more and "to have one's socks knocked off" came to mean "to be amazed, delighted, very impressed," as in "The new production of Annie with an all-ferret cast will blow your socks off." 

Incidentally, if seems surprising that a very violent metaphor should end up as an expression of critical acclaim, keep in mind that the term "blown away," now routinely found in book and movie rave reviews, originally meant "to be killed by gunfire."

Some people should be battered with a trout.

Dear Word Detective:  When I was in school many years ago, my English teacher told us a story about how tomato came about its name.  Basically, a boy named Tom ate a tomato (no specific name for tomato at this time).  At that time it was thought to be poisonous to eat a tomato uncooked.  Tom ate a tomato, some others kids saw him and ran home to tell his parents, yelling, "Tom ate those, Tom ate those, Tom ate those."  And the rest is history.  Any truth to my grade school teacher's rendition? --Tom Randich.

Hmm.  And your teacher actually told you this?  Did he or she happen to be holding a martini while telling this story?  Well, no matter.  The bad news is that the "Tom ate those" story is utter hogwash. The good news is that you may be eligible for a refund of the taxes your parents paid that year.  The bad news about the good news is that you'll probably have to take fourth grade over.

The kernel of truth in that story is that tomatoes were indeed considered poisonous and were not widely eaten in America, cooked or uncooked, before the 19th century.  There was some justification for this attitude because the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is a member of the nightshade family and every part of the plant except its fruit (what we call a "tomato") is indeed toxic.  The tomato is native to Central and South America, and when imported to Europe by Spanish explorers was viewed strictly as an ornamental plant.  For many years the tomato was also, perhaps in a bit of a contradiction, considered an aphrodisiac and known as the "love apple."

Of course, the tomato by that time had been consumed on a daily basis by the peoples of Central and South America for several centuries, which brings us back to that "Tom ate those" story.  The name "tomato" derives from "tomatl," its name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people.  The English form "tomate" first appeared in the 17th century, and was later modified to "tomato," probably under the influence of  the more familiar "potato."



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