Previous Columns/Posted 03/02/99

Sneaky Feet.

Dear Word Detective: My husband (a retired detective) would like to know how the term "gumshoe" came to be used. We know it means detective, and was first used in 1906, but that's all we can find out about it. Can you help? -- Sancarney, via the internet.

Well, here's a cosmic coincidence. Your husband is a retired detective, and you're writing to a column called The Word Detective about a term meaning "detective." You'd be amazed, incidentally, at how many e-mail questions I receive from people who somehow miss the qualifier "Word" in the title of this column and want me to tell them how they can become private detectives. I haven't the heart to point out to them that misunderstanding the name of this column does not bode well for a successful career as an investigator.

Not that I'm always a paragon of perspicacity myself. I hadn't really thought about the logic of "gumshoe" as slang for a detective until I received your question, although, like all red-blooded American couch potatoes, I had heard the term in a thousand old gangster movies. I guess I'd always assumed that "gumshoe" was conceptually related to "flatfoot" as slang for a police officer, i.e., maybe walking around all day not only gave cops flat feet but also coated the soles of their shoes with discarded chewing gum.

All of which proves that conjecture is no substitute for actual investigation. It turns out that the original "gumshoes" of the late 1800's were shoes or boots made of gum rubber, the soft-soled precursors of our modern sneakers. Like sneakers, gumshoes were much quieter than leather-soled shoes, and at the turn of the century "to gumshoe" meant to sneak around quietly as if wearing gumshoes, either in order to rob or, conversely, to catch thieves. "Gumshoe man" was originally slang for a thief, but by about 1908 "gumshoe" usually meant a police detective, as it has ever since.


Dear Word Detective: I am in search of the roots of the phrase "hit the jackpot." What was the first jackpot? -- Michael Dalton, via the internet.

The first jackpot? Why, that would be the ill-fated Great Babylonian Pottery Lottery of 1420 B.C., in which the first prize was 600 pickled sheep packed into an enormous urn 90 Crullers (about 70 feet) tall. I understand they're still trying to catch up with the winner.

Lotteries today are far more successful, of course, at least for those who run them. My favorite is the multi-state Powerball lottery, where your chances of hitting the jackpot are statistically so remote that you are just as likely to win if you don't buy a ticket in the first place. That's my kind of lottery -- the kind I can sleep through.

But "jackpot," meaning a large prize in a gambling contest (or a great stroke of luck generally) doesn't come from lotteries. The term actually comes from the world of "serious" gambling, in this case the game of draw poker. Now, before I get too far into this explanation, I should cop to being a poker illiterate. The truth is that I get confused playing "Go Fish." But I have my sources, and they tell me that in certain breeds of draw poker, nobody can start bidding until someone is dealt two jacks. If no one gets two jacks, the cards are shuffled and dealt again. Don't ask me why; it seems like a silly rule, but there it is.

Now the important aspect of this "two jacks" business is that before each deal each player must "ante up" a certain sum into the communal "pot" of money that will go to the eventual winner. If jacks prove elusive through the course of several deals, this pot can grow quite large, and there's your "jackpot."

"Jackpot" first appeared in the literal poker sense around 1881, and almost immediately took on the figurative sense of "big prize" or "very good luck" we know today.



Dear Word Detective: Does anyone know the etymology of "jimmies" in the sense of "chocolate sprinkles"? I assume it's a New England word, since I never heard it when growing up in New Jersey. (No New Jersey jokes, please.) -- Larry Davidson, via the internet.

New Jersey jokes? Why would I want to tell jokes about New Jersey? Never heard of such a silly thing. Besides, I just happen to have been born in Princeton, New Jersey myself. My visits to the Garden State in recent years, however, have been limited to the New Jersey Turnpike, a road that rivals, in my opinion, many of the scariest amusement park rides in the land. I have often wished I could meet the folks responsible for the numerous and always amusing surprise lane merges one encounters on the approach to New York City. I have much to say to them.

You're correct in your assumption that "jimmies" is primarily a New England term for what the rest of the country (and probably the world) know as "sprinkles." According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, "Jimmies" is actually a trademarked term for a brand of candy (not necessarily chocolate) sprinkles, which they explain are "tiny balls or rod-shaped bits of candy used as a topping for ice-cream, cakes and other sweets."

Although "Jimmies" is trademarked, my guess is that the term was in generic use for many years prior to the founding of Jimmies as a brand name. And while "jimmies," meaning chocolate sprinkles, first showed up in English around 1947, "jimmies" has also been used since around 1900 as a short form of the old English slang word "jim-jam."

"Jim-jam," in turn, has since the 16th century meant "a trivial article or knick-knack," so it's not too great a stretch to see a connection there with candy "jimmies," which are certainly trivial. "Jim-jams" was later used to mean "little quirks" or "eccentricities," which also fits in with the candy sense. (Both "jim-jams" and "jimmies" were also used as slang for delirium tremens, but I think we can safely ignore that connection.)

As for the ultimate origin of "jim-jam," the presumption is that it arose as a nonsense word, meaning nothing, except, of course, to ice cream sundae lovers.

Way down upon the whatsis.

Dear Word Detective: I'm from the South. I use and hear a phrase, "Well, I Swannee." How did this come into being? It has to do with the Swannee river, I'm sure. -- Susie, via the internet.

Well, maybe a little. It all depends on how strictly you mean "has to do with."

Before we begin, I must admit that I'm not precisely sure where the Swannee River is. This admission should not be taken as disparagement of the South in any way. I am similarly uncertain of the exact location of Minnesota. Anyway, I'm sure the Swannee is down there somewhere. And I have no doubt that it's a lovely river, otherwise Stephen Foster would not have featured it in his immortal song "The Old Folks at Home" ("Way down upon the Swannee River, far, far away, that's where my heart is something something something..."). But, logical as it may seem, the Swannee River is not the source of "I swannee."

For that we must travel to the north of England, where when folks really wanted other folks to believe something they were saying, they would preface it with "I shall warrant ye," meaning "I swear to you that this is true." Of course, accents in the north of England being thicker than wool soaked in molasses, what they actually said was closer to "I's wan ye," which sounds a great deal like "I swannee." It was in this form that the phrase was imported into the U.S. in the mid-19th century, although an even briefer form, "I swan," is perhaps more popular in this country. Today "I swannee" and "I swan" are most often used as interjections or expressions of surprise, as in "Ruth really ran off with that cute UPS guy? Well, I swan!"

Meanwhile, back at the Swannee River, wherever it may be, what you regard as a natural connection with "I swannee" is really just a fortunate coincidence. The local existence of the Swannee River has almost certainly preserved a charming but archaic expression that otherwise might well have become as extinct in the South as it is in the rest of the U.S.

Carry me back and drop me off at the corner.

Dear Word Detective: I don't understand where the word taxi (for cab) comes from, and if there's a connection with the verb used for airplanes moving on earth under their own power. I'd appreciate clarifications. -- Francesco Martinelli, Italy, via the internet.

There is indeed a connection between taxicabs and "taxi" in the aircraft sense, and it all has to do with the natural human desire to be carried around by someone else.

In the beginning (well, not really the beginning of everything, but the start of our story) there was the cab. Back in the 18th century, a well-to-do Englishman setting out for Sunday jaunt would have called for a "cabriolet," a sporty one-horse carriage which took its name from a French verb meaning "to leap." By the 19th century, the shortened form "cab" was being used to mean larger carriages available for hire in the city, and the modern ritual of "catching a cab" was born. Incidentally, cabs of the time were also known as "hackneys" or "hacks," from the Old French "haquenee," or horse, and to this day cab drivers are known in many cities as "hackies."

None of this trotting around the city was free, of course. While previously the hackie would quote a price loosely based on the journey's distance at the beginning of a ride, in the late 1800's technology came to the world of cabs and hacks with the invention of the "taximeter" (from the French "taxe," tariff, and "metre," meter). Taximeters automatically measured the actual distance traveled by the cab, and were such a universal success that cabs soon became known as "taxicabs," or "taxis" for short.

Once "taxi" became a noun synonymous with "cab," it was naturally adopted almost immediately as a verb meaning "to travel by taxi," which brings us to airplanes. "Taxi" in the aviation sense of "move on the ground under its own power" appeared very shortly after airplanes did, around 1911. The logic of this use seems to be to convey ground travel between two specific places (hangar and runway, for instance), thus avoiding more ambiguous terms such as "drive," which might be take to mean "fly." And, of course, no one familiar with travel by cab would ever confuse "to taxi" with "to fly."

Tump hunt.

Dear Word Detective: I have been stumped by "tump." Somebody has asked me if I have ever heard of the word "tump" as in "tump over a boat." It does sound familiar to this southern-born gent, and a couple of older southern-born guys I know were very familiar with the term. However, I can find no dictionary (English, slang, etc.) where this word is used in this manner. Can you help? -- Stanley J Pilinski, via the internet.

I'll give it a shot, Stan, and thanks for asking. While I always enjoy answering questions about the origin of common words and phrases, it's even more fun to go looking for a word I'm not sure exists in the first place.

There actually seem to be several "tumps" in English. The oldest "tump," dating back to the 16th century, means a mound of dirt, such as that around the base of a tree, or a clump of grass or weeds such as might be found in a swamp. Unfortunately, no one knows the origin of this "tump." On the bright side, this same "tump" is also used to mean bad or trivial writing, as in "Vanity Fair is the most pretentious collection of tump on the market today." I'm going to have to remember this nifty word.

Another sort of "tump" comes from the Algonquin Indians of the northeastern U.S. This "tump" is short for "tumpline," a sort of thick strap stretched across one's forehead, used to help support a heavy pack carried on one's back. It sounds like a prescription for a killer headache to me, but evidently both the Indians and the settlers who picked up the gizmo from them found it very efficient.

Neither of those "tumps," however, sound like the one you're looking for, which I take to be a verb meaning to capsize or overturn. At this point I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your "tump" definitely exists, as it's mentioned in "Whistin' Dixie," a collection of Southern expressions compiled by Robert Hendrickson. The bad news is that this brief mention, which does define "tump" as "to knock over or overturn," is the only occurrence of this "tump" I have been able to find in print. So the hunt for "tump" goes on.

Gerry and the Beebs.

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to our estimable BBC Radio 4 the other morning, and heard mention of a word that has subsequently perplexed me, namely "gerrymandering," to divide land into electoral units for the benefit of one group of people. Could you please be so kind as so explain its meaning? -- Simeon Holdship, Brussels, Belgium.

Certainly, but first, three cheers for the good old BBC. Now that I find myself playing the role of gentleman farmer in East Out There, Ohio (I grow the finest tax liens in the county, I'll have you know), I have found the BBC World Service on shortwave an invaluable source of news. People keep telling me that I should listen to National Public Radio, but that cloying sing-song their newscasters all affect drives me absolutely bananas.

Incidentally, for lively accounts of the birth of "gerrymander" and dozens of other American linguistic inventions, I heartily recommend "America In So Many Words" (Houghton Mifflin, $18.00) by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf.

"Gerrymander," meaning to fiddle with the boundaries of electoral districts in order to favor a particular party or constituency, is one of the most wonderful inventions of what H.L. Mencken called "the American Language."

It all started back in 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry decided to rearrange the contours of the Congressional districts in Massachusetts to boost his Democratic party's fortunes. His partisan maneuver drew the attention of Gilbert Stuart, editorial artist for the Boston Centinel newspaper, who incorporated a map of the new districts into a cartoon. By adding a few lines to the map, Stuart created a creature closely resembling a salamander, a small lizard-like amphibian. Centinel Editor Benjamin Russell immediately dubbed the creature a "Gerrymander," the cartoon became one of the most famous in American history, and "gerrymander" entered the American political lexicon.

According to Barnhart and Metcalf, both Governor Gerry and artist Gilbert Stuart went on to further fame. Gerry eventually became Vice President under James Madison. Stuart's mark was a bit more lasting. In addition to having drawn the very first "gerrymander," Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait of George Washington that adorns the U.S. one-dollar bill.

Meanwhile, back at the Lobodome.

Dear Word Detective: I am totally gerfasshed (just made that up in order to alliterate) by the word "gridiron." When, why, how did it come into the language to mean football field? I have queried several football-player types who appear to know all there is to know about the game, and none of them know why a "gridiron" is called a "gridiron." -- Susan Gunther, via the internet.

Funny you should ask about football. You see, I just happen to live uncomfortably close to Ohio State University (it's 60 miles away, granted, but I'm still uncomfortable). This means that I am surrounded by football fanatics, people who sleep in Ohio State jammies, eat Buckeye Burgers and fly cute little OSU flags on their cars. (Did I say "cute"? I meant "imbecilic.")

Unfortunately, I intensely dislike football, a fact which presents certain, shall we say, social challenges in my current environment. I never thought of myself as being particularly skilled as a diplomat, but I'm still breathing, so I must be.

The use of "gridiron" as a metaphor for the football field, and, by extension, to the game itself, dates back to 1897. The original "gridirons" were just that: grids made of iron, used to cook fish or meat over an open fire. Early on in the history of football, someone in the cheap seats high in the stadium must have noticed that the parallel yardlines marking the field resembled a "gridiron," and so the metaphor was born. The first use of this sense of "gridiron" in print came in an account of the annual Harvard-Yale game carried in the Boston Herald.

Incidentally, in case anyone thinks that my lack of enthusiasm for the game of football is evidence of communistic tendencies or worse should consider the fact that it was after one particularly brutal college game in 1905 that President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to abolish the game by executive decree.

Mufti the Bowtie Slayer.

Dear Word Detective: I would be very grateful for any explanation regarding the origin of the word "mufti." This is an expression commonly used to describe casual business dress code in the U.K. I suspect this word may stem from British colonial rule in India, but I am unable to substantiate this theory. -- Matthew Martin, via the internet.

Close, as we say in the U.S., but no cigar, although it was a very good guess. This is the first time I've heard the word "mufti" applied to "Casual Day" in offices, probably because "mufti" is more commonly heard in the U.K. than in the U.S. Not that U.S. workers are slouches when it comes to slouching, of course. I worked for many years in an office, and took great pride in forging my own personal "Casual Day" all week long. I would just periodically declare, in the most ominous tone I could muster, "I'm very sorry, but I cannot wear a necktie. Neckties cause insanity," and my superiors would leave me alone.

Strictly speaking, "mufti" (pronounced MUFF-tee) refers to civilian clothes worn by someone, such as a member of the military, who ordinarily wears a uniform. A soldier on leave, for instance, might well relish the chance to lounge around "in mufti" and not worry about polishing a lot of silly brass (either literally or metaphorically).

"Mufti" is indeed a relic of the British colonial experience, though its roots are in the Middle East, not India. A "mufti" is a Muslim judge, from the Arabic word meaning "to give a legal decision," the same word that gave us "fatwa" or "fetwa" (religious decree), brought to popular attention by the Iranian death sentence proclaimed against author Salman Rushdie a few years ago.

Just how an Arabic word for a Muslim jurist came to mean "casual dress" is a bit unclear. But experts theorize that the first use of "mufti" in English was in reference to the costumes used to portray Arab potentates in popular Western stage dramas in the 19th century. These getups were highly exotic and colorful, making "mufti" a fitting metaphor for a style of dress that was as un-military as possible.


Dear Word Detective: How are the meaning of "riddle" as "a puzzle or mystery" and "riddled" as in "full of holes" related? -- Edward Kaminski, via the internet.

Good question, and it's a good thing that you titled your e-mail message "Riddled with holes" rather than simply "Riddle." Otherwise I might never have read it. I receive at least four or five questions about the notorious (and odious) "three words ending in gry" riddle every day, and I immediately forward such queries to the North Pole. Let Donner and Blitzen deal with them, I say. By the way, anyone seeking an explanation of the "gry" riddle can find a passable one at

Oddly enough, the "puzzle" sense of riddle and the "full of holes" sense are completely unrelated. The puzzle kind of "riddle" comes from the Old English word "raedels," which meant "opinion, conjecture or riddle." "Raedels" itself was rooted in the Old English word "raedan," which also gave us the enormously useful word "read." This "puzzle" sense of riddle is both a noun and a verb, so we can also speak of "riddling" someone with a riddle.

The "full of holes" sense of "riddle," however, comes from the Old English root "hrid," which meant "to shake." The original meaning of this "riddle" was a coarse sieve used to separate corn from chaff or gravel from sand by shaking the material through the screen. Logically, the verb "to riddle" at first meant to sift something through a riddle. Ironically, a figurative sense of "riddle" appeared in the 17th century as writers spoke of "riddling out" clues or meaning from confusing evidence, which brought this "sieve" kind of "riddle" remarkably close to the unrelated "puzzle" sense.

But by the mid-1800's, "riddle" in the "sieve" sense was being used to mean making something look like a riddle by punching it full of holes. With the popularization of the machine gun in World War I, the unfortunate marriage of "riddled" and "bullets" was imprinted on popular speech, and the bucolic sense of "sifting grain" faded away.

Spondou, spondon't.

Dear Word Detective: A friend mentioned the word "spondoulick" to me yesterday. She thinks it may be of Southern derivation, and it means "money." Are you familiar with it and do you know the etymology of the word? -- Susan, via the internet.

Well, it's news to me, but thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, we can say with certainty that your friend is not pulling your leg. "Spondulicks" (as it is usually spelled) is indeed Southern slang for money, and has been around for quite a while. The first occurrence in print that the folks at Oxford have managed to uncover was in 1857, and "spondulicks" (or "spondulix") crops up in American literature fairly frequently up to the present day. It even seems to have attained some currency across the big pond, as the last two citations listed in the OED are from the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane, Australia and Private Eye, a London-based satirical magazine.

Unfortunately, and I can hear the sound of a thousand "Rats!" when I say this, no one knows where "spondulicks" came from. The Oxford English Dictionary asserts that the word is "Of fanciful origin," meaning that someone, somewhere, simply made it up, probably because he or she thought it sounded funny. That's almost certainly the case, but I do enjoy (even though I do not believe) the theory proposed by the late Eric Partridge, perhaps the foremost lexicographer of slang the English language has yet produced. Partridge traced "spondulicks" back to "spondulos," the Greek name of a species of seashell said to have been commonly used as currency in prehistoric societies.

Now, it is true, as Partridge notes, that seashells have been used, even relatively recently, as currency in various societies in Africa and Asia. But how the Greek name of a particular shell would suddenly crop up as slang for "money" in the Southern U.S. in the middle of the 19th century remains unexplained. I suspect that what Mr. Partridge uncovered was a remarkable linguistic coincidence, and not the root of "spondulicks," which remains a mystery in my book.

None of which explains bagpipes.

Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the word "Tattoo" used in Scotland for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo Festival? -- Angels, Spain, via the internet.

Well, as I've said before, one of the things I enjoy most about writing this column is the opportunity it gives me to fill in the numerous gaps in my own education. I've always been aware that English had two separate senses of the word "tattoo," one being the ink designs sailors traditionally sport on their hides, and the other sense having something to do with drums. But I'd never quite gotten around to looking into the connection between the two "tattoos" until now. This ignorance is not really my fault, by the way. I've been very busy ever since I was 12 years old.

In any case, having now done the requisite research, I am prepared to explain how the two "tattoos" are related. Which is to say that they aren't. They are two entirely different words with entirely different origins. I had always presumed that, since drums are (or at least used to be) made from animal hides, there was some sort of "skin" at the root of "tattoo," but apparently not.

The skin design kind of "tattoo" came pretty directly from the South Pacific, where "tatau" is the Polynesian word for this sort of ritual marking. "Tattoo" (or "tattow," as it was generally spelled at the time) was imported into English by 18th century European visitors to the region, who reported the practice to folks back home eager for such exotica.

The other sort of "tattoo," which originally meant a drum beat used to recall soldiers to their quarters at the close of day, comes from the opposite side of the globe. In the 17th century, the Dutch word "taptoe" meant to close the tap of a cask of wine or beer, as at closing time in a tavern, and was also used as the equivalent of "be quiet" or "shut up." Imported into English as "tattoo," it was originally used to mean "drum beat at the end of day," but was eventually expanded to include any sort of drum-heavy performance of military music.

To swill, perchance to dream.

Dear Word Detective: Having been a bartender for quite a few years, I have often wondered about a word that has been tossed at me many times by both sober and not-so-sober individuals, namely "booze." I would love to know where that word originated. I'm sure it would be an excellent "tip-getter." -- Nicholas John Phipps, via the internet.

Before we begin, let me make sure I've got this straight. I'm supposed to research and explain the history of "booze," whereupon people give you money. Doesn't seem quite fair, somehow. Shouldn't I get some kind of royalty, say 15%, on each tip? I'm gonna call my agent.

On the other hand, you're probably going to be earning those tips twice over just arguing against the erroneous stories your customers have heard about the origins of "booze." One of the most persistent "booze-myths" traces the word to the name of a distiller, often cited as "E.S. (or E.G.) Booz," who produced whiskey in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1800's. Evidently there was such a Mr. Booz, and he did market his booze in a distinctive bottle shaped like a log cabin, but his name is not the source of our "booze."

For that, we must travel back five hundred years before the advent of Mr. Booz, to around 1300, when the Middle English word "bouse" appeared, meaning "to drink," especially to excess (one of the synonyms listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is "to swill"). We had borrowed "bouse" from the Dutch "busen," meaning "to drink much alcohol" and we originally pronounced "bouse" to rhyme with "house." But in the 1700's we started to pronounce it with a long "oo" sound, and our modern spelling of "booze" is actually a phonetic representation of that new pronunciation.

Meanwhile, back at our Mr. Booz of Philadelphia, while his name may not have been the source of our "booze," his product probably did help popularize the term "booze" as a synonym for alcohol in the U.S.

Get your claws out of my kneecap.
I'm unwrapping as fast as I can.

Dear Word Detective: My friends and I are curious as to the use of the word "cheesy" to mean something chintzy or somehow inferior. When did this start? What is the reference? While we are on the subject, we are also wondering about the word "corny." -- Cathy Franklin, via the internet.

It does seem odd that we use "cheesy" to mean tasteless, cheap or shoddy. After all, from Velveeta to brie, cheese is one of everyone's favorite foods. I may be overstating that a bit, but I do happen to own a 20 year old cat who, frail as she is, will still make your life miserable should you forget her daily slice of cheese. In any case, this negative sense of "cheesy" has been around since about 1863, and is thought to have arisen as an allusion to the unpleasant smell of overripe cheese.

Speaking of cheese, one of my favorite cheese metaphors from my years as an office worker turns out to probably have nothing to do with cheese. Being the naturally insubordinate type myself (hard to believe, I know, but true), I often referred to whatever supervisor held sway over me at the moment as "the big cheese." I have since discovered that the cheese in question is not, as I had imagined, a "big wheel of cheese," but is thought to be a mutation of the Urdu (a form of Hindustani) word "chiz," which simply means "thing." Phrases such as "the real chiz" were popularized by 19th century Anglo-Indian hipsters in Britain, but since "chiz" didn't ring any bells for most English speakers, it was eventually Anglicized to "cheese."

As for "corny," meaning trite, overly sentimental or schmaltzy, we can probably trace the term to, believe it or not, the mail-order seed catalogs popular in turn of the century America. To hold their customers' interest, seed firms would sprinkle jokes, cartoons, stories and riddles throughout their catalogs. The jokes, being of singularly low quality, came to be known as "corn catalog jokes," which was then shortened to simply "corny" and eventually applied to anything considered embarrassingly unsophisticated.

Twas brillig, and the slithy fumes....

Dear Word Detective: I have been told that the expression "crazy as a mad hatter" or "mad as a hatter" has to do with the fact that mercury was used in millinery long ago. Is this true? -- S. Wade, via the internet.

Yes, it's true, though I believe that the hat-making in question was the fabrication of felt hats primarily for men, and the term "millinery" applies to fashion accessories, especially hats, created for women. "Millinery" is an interesting word in its own right, by the way. Back in the 16th century, a "milliner" (from "Milan" plus "er") was a vendor of fine goods, especially apparel for women, of the sort then manufactured in Milan, Italy.

Most of us associate the phrase "mad as a hatter" with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." While Carroll's story certainly gave the phrase a boost and ensured its continued popularity, "mad hatter syndrome" was an actual medical affliction in Carroll's day and hardly a laughing matter. Among the chemicals used in hat-making at that time was mercurious nitrate, and prolonged exposure to mercury vapors caused severe neurological damage ranging from uncontrollable muscular twitching (known as "hatter's shakes") to dementia. The phrase "mad as a hatter" was well-known by 1837, almost 30 years before Carroll's "Alice" was published.

Incidentally, fans of Lewis Carroll will remember that one of the Hatter's equally demented companions in "The Mad Tea Party" scene of "Alice's Adventures" was the March Hare, Carroll's reference to another popular phrase, "Mad as a March Hare." There is a happier explanation for the "madness" of English hares in March. Springtime is the mating season for hares, and the male hare exhibits a variety of strange and erratic behavior in an attempt to woo the female hare. Of course, the hare's behavior probably only appears strange to us -- we can only guess how our human courtship rituals might appear to a rabbit. In any case, "March Hares" can't be entirely bonkers, because, after all, every summer brings a new crop of baby hares.

Hunky-dory? Okey-dokey.

Dear Word Detective: I thought for sure I'd find a fun explanation for hunky-dory at your web site. Not there! Please add your flair to this dorky word. -- Jody Berg, via the internet.

Well, I'll give it a shot, but I can't guarantee the flair. Tracing "hunky-dory," meaning "O.K." or "all right," turns out to be a pretty tricky task. Incidentally, I should probably explain that the Word Detective web site Jody refers to contains a free archive of hundreds of back columns and can be found at

Probably the most oft-heard story about "hunky-dory" holds that there was, in the 19th century, a street in Yokohama, Japan, called "Honcho-dori." It is said that Honcho-dori was the Times Square of Yokohama, and thus a favorite hangout of U.S. sailors on shore leave. So popular did this street become among sailors, it is said, that "Honcho-dori" entered naval slang as "hunky-dory," a synonym for "Easy Street," or a state of well-being and comfort.

Now, there actually is a "Honcho-dori" in Yokohama. (In fact, there's one in many Japanese cities, because "Honcho-dori" translates roughly as "Main Street.") But there are two problems with this story. One is that there is no direct evidence of any connection between the first appearance of "hunky-dory" around 1866 and U.S. sailors in Japan or naval slang in general.

Problem number two is that a connection with "Honcho-dori" is somewhat unnecessary. English already had the archaic American slang word "hunk," meaning "safe," from the Dutch word "honk," meaning "goal," or "home" in a game. To achieve "hunk" or "hunky" in a child's game was to make it "home" and win the game. So "hunky" already meant "O.K."

Where the "dory" came from is more of a mystery. It may have arisen as what linguists call "reduplication," or the emphatic, joking repetition of parts of a word, as in "okey-dokey." Or the "dory" may actually be a reference to the Japanese "Honcho-dori" grafted on after "hunky" was already in use as slang. There is some evidence that a Japanese stage performer popular in the U.S. claimed to have introduced "hunky-dory" around 1865. What he actually may have done is blend the name of a Japanese street with our American "hunky."


And then they put a microchip in my computer.

Dear Word Detective: I am seeking info on origin of phrase "kangaroo court." Various dictionaries have the meaning, but the only etymology I've found is, "perhaps by analogy to irregular bounding gait of the animal." That sounds lame to me; how about you? -- Paul Trefz, via the internet.

It sounds a bit lame to me, too, but unfortunately that lameness doesn't rule out the possibility that it's true. In fact, I'm beginning to think that reality as a whole is pretty darn lame, not at all exciting like that groovy "X Files" stuff. Lately I've resorted to creating my own crop circles and abducting myself for a day or two at a time, but it's no fun playing alone. Maybe I should start a word origins cult.

One of the strangest aspects of "kangaroo court" is that the phrase is not originally from Australia, which is the only place you'll find actual kangaroos. The first "kangaroo courts" were informal tribunals set up to dispense instant justice in the American West in the 1850's, before conventional court systems existed on the frontier. Later on, "kangaroo court" was used to describe mock courts set up by penitentiary prisoners to intimidate and extort money from new inmates. Today we usually use the term to mean any court whose verdict is arranged in advance or otherwise clearly unfair.

So the question is why "kangaroo" was used to describe such mockeries of justice, and there are two basic possibilities. First, and most likely, is the theory you mention: that "kangaroo" is a sardonic analogy between the hopping gait of a kangaroo and the irrational and unpredictable conduct of the original frontier tribunals. Considering the leaps of logic and complete disregard for legal procedure likely to be found in such a proceeding, the comparison certainly seems apt.

Another possibility is that "kangaroo" in this case is simply a metaphor for something utterly alien and unnatural. Remember, there was no Discovery Channel or zoos in the Old West. Most people had never even heard of kangaroos, let alone seen one in person, and the critters were generally considered to violate the laws of nature. So labeling something "kangaroo" back then was roughly equivalent to calling it "Martian" today.

Yes, it's more boomer nostalgia,
but it beats the heck out of having
Charlie's Angels to look back on.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell your readers the origins of two phrases used on the old Howdy Doody television show: "Cowabunga" (or "Kowabunga") and "Dilly Dally." -- Jeff Judson, Founder, The Doodyville Historical Society, and Editor, "The Howdy Doody Times," via the internet.

Hey kids, it's Howdy Doody Time! Chances are good that if you're over 40 years old you'll be able to hum the tune that used to greet that announcement. "The Howdy Doody Show" was a wildly popular children's TV show when I was growing up, on the air from 1947 (originally as "Puppet Playhouse Presents") until 1960. Howdy Doody, a marionette, headed a cast that included such immortal (to me, anyway) characters as Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and Mister Bluster. Sadly, "Buffalo" Bob Smith, who dreamt up and presided over this genial circus, died last July at age 80.

It was another of the Howdy Doody crew who apparently invented the term "Kowabunga." According to etymologist Tom Dalzell (in his excellent book on American youth slang, "Flappers to Rappers"), the stereotyped Indian character Chief Thunderthud (Bill LeCornec) began every sentence with the nonsense syllable "kawa." If something was good, he proclaimed it "Kawagoopa!" When things went wrong, it was "Kawabonga!" (not "bunga").

Just why "Kawabonga" survived the demise of the Howdy Doody Show and "Kawagoopa" didn't is a mystery, but by the late 1960's surfers had changed it to "Cowabunga!" and were using it as an exclamation of triumph after catching an especially good wave. Thanks to its use by both the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bart Simpson, "Cowabunga" seems certain to make it into the slang of the 21st century.

As for "dilly-dally," I only vaguely recollect a character by that name. In any case, "dilly-dally," meaning to dawdle or delay, has been around since the early 1600's. To "dally" originally meant to pass time in conversation (from the Old French "dalier," to chat), but later came to mean lingering, loitering, or just generally wasting time. The form "dilly-dally" is simply what linguists call a "reduplication" for emphasis, much like "okey-dokey" or "hanky-panky."


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