Issue of March 1, 2007

Page Three


Been a snake, it woulda bit chew.

Dear Word Detective: We have always used the phrase "big as Ike" in my family, and I'm sure I've heard other Southern folk use it too to mean "crystal clear, it was right in front of me," etc. Do you know the origin of this phrase? -- Jack Connell.

"Big as Ike" is a new one on me, but I grew up in suburban Connecticut, an environment not known for its colorful turns of phrase. We tend, in fact, to say things like "colorful turns of phrase," which is about as much fun as a cummerbund at a pool party. I just made that up, by the way, so maybe there's hope for me yet.

On the other hand, "big as Ike" doesn't seem a vary common turn of phrase. A Google search turns up just 14 hits, and several of them refer to former US president Dwight D. ("Ike") Eisenhower. One does address "big as Ike" but hypothesizes (sorry, Connecticut again) that the phrase is a combination of "big as life" and Eisenhower's campaign slogan, "I Like Ike," which strikes me as extremely unlikely. Several others refer to a song called "I Saw Elvis in a UFO" ("I just walked on over there big as Ike and looked up in there and there he was.") by a certain Ray Stevens and C.W. Kalb, Jr. of Nashville. "Big as Ike" in the song seems to mean "boldly, making no attempt to hang back or hide," so that definitely fits with the way your family used the phrase.

"Ike," President Eisenhower notwithstanding, is generally used as a familiar form of the name Isaac, and its history as a slang term isn't pretty. "Isaac" being considered a typical Jewish man's name, "Ike" and "Ikey" have since at least the 19th century been used in both Britain and the US as a derogatory term for any Jewish man. As an adjective, "ikey" has also been used in an extended sense to mean both "crafty" and "stuck up." The Oxford English Dictionary quite rightly labels both "Ike" and "ikey" as "derogatory and offensive in all uses as applied to persons."

In the southern US at the end of the 19th century, however, "Ike" seems to have slipped its bigoted moorings a bit and came into use meaning simply "a rude or uncouth person." By the early 20th century, "big Ike" had appeared in the South, meaning "a conceited or self-important person" ("He's a big Ike in some church in Atlanta," 1902). "Ikey," on the other hand, remained in use as a derogatory term for a Jewish man.

This leaves the question of how "big Ike" (pompous person) became "big as Ike" (glaringly obvious), but this doesn't seem like that great a leap in meaning. A puffed-up self-important "big Ike" is hard to miss in any setting.

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Things fall apart.

Dear Word Detective: The common people or "hoy polloy" (hoi polloi) -- what is its derivation? -- Gary Southmayd.

Where did the common people come from? Beats me. Somebody left the door open, I guess. My question is how they all apparently got driver's licenses without putting down their cell phones to sign the forms.

Onward. Presuming you meant "Where did the phrase 'hoi polloi' come from?" the answer is easy. "Hoi polloi" is Greek for "the many," and has been used to mean "the masses of common people" in English since the 19th century. (It actually showed up in English prose as far back as 1668, but at that point it was written in Greek characters, so it wasn't considered an English term.)

"Hoi polloi" is one of those terms, like "rabble" or "mob," that embodies an implicitly derogatory social attitude. At the time it appeared in English, a classical education, which usually included instruction in Greek, was the province of only the wealthy. Early uses of the term ("The hoi polloi ..., as we say at Oxford, are mindless -- all blank," 1855) take a palpable pleasure in the double-whammy of denigrating the "unwashed masses" with a term "the rabble" themselves were presumed incapable of understanding. This in-joke quality of "hoi polloi" has, however, faded over the intervening centuries, and today the term is almost always used in a sarcastic or ironic sense ("Prison gave Martha Stewart the opportunity to hobnob with the hoi polloi").

There are three odd aspects to the recent history of "hoi polloi" worth mentioning. First, some "language experts" have made tiny careers out of objecting to the usual form "the hoi polloi" on the grounds that "hoi" is Greek for "the," making "the hoi polloi" equivalent to saying "the the many." This objection is simply silly. "Hoi polloi" is now part of the English language as a fixed phrase, and we say "the hoi polloi" for the same reason we say "the alligator" (from the Spanish "el lagarto," meaning "the lizard") without worrying about that phantom "the."

A bit stranger is the fact that, at least in some folks' minds, "hoi polloi" flipped its meaning in the mid-20th century, and they began using it to mean "the wealthy, the elite." It's unclear why this happened, but I suspect it was because of a mistaken association of the "hoi" with "hoity-toity." This use should be avoided unless you're trying to confuse people.

Lastly, a correspondent on the American Dialect Society mailing list recently pointed to Ray Ratto, a columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, splitting the phrase and using "hoi" to mean "the elite" and "polloi" to mean "underlings" ("... but as he spends more time with the hoi and less with the polloi, ..."). This is just plain weird, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it spread.

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You missed a spot.

Dear Word Detective: A recent internet exchange where somebody was pegged as a "nit-picker" for pointing out errors in grammar and usage produced this post: "In terms of the phrase 'nitpicking,' a 'nit' is a small ball of cloth that is produced by yarn in things like sweaters and such. Nitpickers were the people who removed such things from the garment so that it had a smooth appearance, and as such, were required to be very exacting and detail-oriented. This is where the term in common use came from." The previous discussion had all been about "nits" as in small insects or larvae and primate grooming behavior, which strikes me as a much more likely origin for the term. The post quoted above strikes me as more like folk etymology than a probable explanation. -- Joe.

Gosh, that sounds like a great job. Is that something I could do at home while I watch TV? I'm very detail-oriented, as long as the details are simple and don't involve numbers. I've tried those envelope-stuffing gigs, but I seem to wind up with pretty serious paper cuts and the cats always steal the stamps.

You're absolutely correct in your suspicion that the explanation of "nitpicker" you read is off-base. It sounds, as a matter of fact, like something invented by someone (not necessarily the person who posted it) who knew the truth, but chose to "sanitize" the origin of the term to avoid offending people who might be disturbed by a discussion of "nits." But hey, "disturbing" is our middle name around here.

A "nit" is the egg (or larva) of a louse, especially the common head louse that has plagued humans throughout our species' history. Nits having been a constant feature of human society for so long, the word itself is very old, going back to an Indo-European root, and most European languages have a word closely related to our English "nit."

Nits are very tiny things, and thus, as you mention, most primates depend on family and friends to pick them off their pelts. Humans now have fine combs for this, but for much of history it helped to have someone who would undertake the cleaning.

"Nit" has been used to mean an insignificant or foolish person since the 16th century ("Thou Flea, thou Nit, thou winter cricket thou," Shakespeare, 1616), but "nitwit," meaning a very stupid person, is a fairly recent invention, dating only to 1914. Surprisingly, although people have been picking nits off of each other for centuries, "nitpicker" is even more recent, first appearing in the early 1950s in the sense of someone who finds and complains about the smallest flaws.

Interestingly, "nitpicker" has apparently never been used in a literal sense to mean someone who finds and removes nits, only in the "overzealous critic" sense.

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Pledge break!

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


"Self-phone" is pure poetry.

Dear Word Detective: Why is my curiosity "piqued" instead of "peaked"? And is this related to the irritation form of "pique"? And finally, in modern usage, is anything else but your curiosity ever "piqued"? -- Phillip Thrash.

Well, if you were writing something on the internet (MySpace personal profile, comments to some spotty blog, etc.), your curiosity might well be "peaked." The internet has turned out to be a bottomless well (or pit, depending on one's perspective) of creative word substitutions such as the use of "peaked" for "piqued" (which occurs, according to a Google search for "peaked * interest," on about 185,000 web pages).

The substitution by many people of "peaked" for "piqued" is surprisingly understandable. To "pique" one's interest means "to arouse, awake or stimulate" interest, as in "The sudden burst of trading in the previously obscure stock piqued the curiosity of the SEC." That increase in curiosity could well be graphed as a line rising from nothing to a peak, so to substitute "peaked" would make a certain amount of sense -- it's not "right," but it does make sense. Add to that the facts that "peaked" and "piqued" are homophones (words that sound alike), and that "peaked" is familiar to many people while "piqued" is not, and you have those 185,000 web pages.

There's actually a term for this kind of substitution, coined in 2003 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum after his colleague Mark Liberman wrote on the linguistics blog Language Log about a writer who had substituted "egg corns" for "acorns." An acorn does resemble a small egg, and is a seed, like corn, from which something grows, so if you've heard the word "acorn" but perhaps never seen it in print, "egg corn" is a logical stab at the word. Pullum suggested that this kind of semi-logical substitution be called a "eggcorn," and there is now a growing online Eggcorn Database, where examples of the species (my favorite is "wind turban") are being collected and cataloged.

The case of "peaked" as an eggcorn for "piqued" is especially interesting because the words are cousins. "Pique," originally meaning "to express resentment" or "to irritate or offend," first appeared in English in the 17th century, derived from the French "piquer," meaning "to anger or annoy." The same root, in the sense of "to pierce or sting" also gave us the English "pike" (spear or pointed stick), of which "peak" (the pointed top of something) is a 16th century variant.

"Pique" acquired its modern sense of "to provoke or arouse" in the 17th century, and while "interest" or "curiosity" are most often "piqued," one can also "pique" jealousy, anger and similar emotions.

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Eau de Dog. Why do you ask?

Dear Word Detective: Why are "terrible" and "terrify" bad, when "terrific" is so good? -- James Avery.

Hmm. This isn't a riddle, is it? I hate riddles. I especially hate the riddle about "the three words ending in 'gry'," which I have been receiving at least six times per day, seven days a week, for at least ten expletive-of-your-choice years. And now I'm suddenly wondering why I haven't been selling the answer for ten bucks a pop. People certainly seem desperate enough. Good grief, that would have been worth more than $200,000. Well, this clearly demands some serious thought.

Meanwhile, that's a darn good question. It reminds me of the story about Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which Queen Anne is said to have proclaimed "awful, artificial and amusing." Wren was flattered rather than insulted, because at that time "awful" meant "awe-inspiring," "artificial" meant "clever" or "artistic," and "amusing" meant "riveting" or "astonishing." The moral of that tale (which may or may not be true) is, of course, that words change their meanings over time, sometimes dramatically.

Such is the case with "terrific," and, to a certain extent, "terrible," both of which have diverged from their origins as close relatives of "terrify."

The Indo-European root of all three words is "tres," meaning "to tremble," with the sense "to shake with fear." (The same root gave us "tremble" and "tremor.") The Latin descendant of "tres" was "terrare," meaning "to frighten," from which came "terribilis" (able to cause great fear) which eventually gave us the English word "terrible." A parallel development from the same root was "terrificus" (the Latin suffix "ficus" meaning "making"), which eventually gave us both "terrify" (to make very afraid) and "terrific" (capable of causing great fear). As you have probably guessed, the same roots also gave us the nouns "terror" (great fear) and "terrorism" (the use of fear as a political weapon).

"Terrible" first appeared in English in the 15th century, "terrify" in the 16th, and "terrific" in the 17th, each embodying a serious sense of fear in keeping with their roots. "Terrify" has kept its original meaning (albeit with diluted uses, such as "Timmy terrified the other children all afternoon"), and "terrible," while often applied in a hyperbolic manner ("That's a terrible haircut"), largely retains its connotation of something really bad. But "terrific" moved from meaning "causing terror" to meaning simply "severe" by the early 19th century (a sense still heard in phrases like "a terrific blow"). This change apparently weakened the connection to actual fear enough that by 1930 "terrific" was being used as the colloquial equivalent of "great" or "wonderful." It's an odd change in meaning, but probably just as well. Otherwise, "Gee, your hair smells terrific" would have made a lousy advertising slogan.

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Hasta la Vista, Bill.

Back in June, I answered a reader's question about "gnu," which is another name for the "wildebeest," a large and, some would say, exceedingly weird-looking African antelope. For those who may have missed the column, the word "gnu" is the name for the animal in the language of the Khoikhoi ethnic group of southwestern Africa, and is presumed to have been coined as an imitation of the gnu's snort.

Shortly after I wrote the column, I received a friendly email from a reader, Christian McCusker, who pointed out that I had failed to mention an important use of the word "gnu," namely that found in the moniker of the GNU/Linux computer operating system, often (although some would say improperly) simply called "Linux." GNU/Linux, which is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to Microsoft Windows among personal computer users, is an "open-source" (i.e., not proprietary, as Windows and Apple's OS X are) and free (as in "costs no money" as well as in "open to modification by anyone") operating system known for its stability and security (making it largely immune to the viruses and spyware that plague Windows). There are literally dozens of varieties of GNU/Linux available, but I have used the Ubuntu version since I abandoned Windows in 2005 (one of the smartest things I ever did). "Ubuntu," incidentally, is a word in the Bantu languages of southern Africa meaning, roughly, "humanity toward others."

Meanwhile, back at "GNU/Linux," the GNU Project to develop a free operating system was begun in 1983 by Richard Stallman, and has developed many of the components of the operating system. The core (or "kernel") of the system, however, was developed in the early 1990s by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish university student at the time, and eventually dubbed "Linux" in tribute to its inventor.

The "GNU" part of the name is less straightforward but much more fun. GNU/Linux is usually described as a "Unix-like" system, Unix being an operating system originally developed by Bell Labs. But there are important technical (and legal) differences between Unix and GNU/Linux, so "GNU," coined by Richard Stallman, is an acronym standing for "GNU's Not Unix."

That is clearly not a normal acronym, as acronyms usually don't use the acronym itself as one of the words represented by the acronym, a strange form of tail-chasing that subverts the very idea of an acronym. Such "recursive" or "circular" acronyms appear, however, to be something of a tradition in the computer programming field, and a lengthy list of such creations can be found at Wikipedia.

Recursive acronyms are not solely the province of puckish wit in the computer field, however. The big bold letters on that VISA credit card in your wallet, for instance, actually stand for Visa International Service Association, making "VISA" itself pretty meaningless. I suspect that both Lewis Carroll and George Orwell would find "recursive acronyms" fascinating.

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