Previous Columns/Posted 03/06/98
Dear Word Detective: You have been so helpful in the past (and interesting and entertaining as well, I might add), that I was hoping you could shed some light on another of those annoying, seemingly random phrases we all use. The term is "with bells on," as could be used to say that you will be somewhere all "gussied up" and ready. Well, okay, I've now come up with two phrases I'd like help with. Any insights you could give will be appreciated. -- Mark Nandor, Columbus, OH.
Aw, shucks. Wasn't nothin', Mister. We New York City folks just love helping strangers, I guess. Say, wanna buy a bridge? It'd look right purty in downtown Columbus.
I glad to see that someone else finds "I'll be there with bells on" annoying. I don't know what it is about this phrase, meaning "definitely" or "emphatically," that pushes my buttons, but it does with a vengeance. You invite someone to your party, all you want is a simple "yes" or "no," and instead you're assaulted by an obnoxious mental image of some twit prancing around covered in bells. "With bells on" seems to date back to the 1930's, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) its origin is a mystery.
"Gussied up" is a horse of a different color, however, and I think its slightly sarcastic tone is just right for describing someone dressed to the nines. "Gussied up" is usually described as a native Americanism dating to the early 20th century. The "gussy," it is theorized, was actually a "gusset," a triangular piece of fabric sewn into a garment to make it fit better. Gussets were, in those days, typical of fancy clothes and, by extension, a fitting symbol of sartorial frippery.
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, proposes a different, and I think much more likely, origin of "gussied up." It turns out that "gussie" -- a diminutive of the name "Augustus" -- is Australian slang for an effeminate man, dating back to the early 1900's. It's easy to imagine a rich young dandy named "Gussie" incurring the contempt of turn-of-the-century Australians, so I vote for this theory. With, of course, bells on.
Dear Word Detective: It was a dark, windy night with clouds scudding across the sky.... It began to rain ... and rain ... and "rain cats and dogs." From where does this phrase come? I've read about rains of frogs and toads and trees and other things. I was told that in one country things were so gloomy (rebellions and bad weather), it was reigning kings and queens. -- Hicks, via the Internet.
OK, me lad, let's be movin' along. There'll be none of that Creative Writing stuff on my beat. Next you'll be telling us that the road was a ribbon of silver in the moonlight and all that. Then you and your beatnik buddies will be setting up a writing school, never mentioning to your poor students that becoming a writer means never getting to go outside again. Scribble, scribble, scribble, until your friends and family forget what you look like.
On the other hand, we do get to work in our pajamas. Now, as to cats and dogs, we're going to rely a little on another writer, Christine Ammer, who has produced a marvelous book called, fortuitously, "It's Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions" (Paragon, 1988). The first verified use of "raining cats and dogs" was in 1738 by Jonathan Swift (of "Gulliver's Travels" fame), though there were earlier versions of the phrase.
Why would cats and dogs be a metaphor for a heavy downpour? According to Ms. Ammer, it may have been because in Northern European myths the cat stood for rain and the dog for wind. Or perhaps the clamor of a full-tilt thunderstorm reminded someone of the sound of cats and dogs fighting.
It's also possible that the phrase is a grisly reference to the fact that, as Ms. Ammer puts it, "In 17th century Britain, after a cloudburst the gutters would overflow with a filthy torrent that included dead animals...." That's a bit too grim for my taste, so I'm going to stick with the bit about cats and dogs symbolizing wind and rain. As any teacher will tell you, the first step in creative writing is always to edit your own reality.
Dear Word Detective: Does "A friend in need is a friend indeed" mean that (1) a friend who needs something from you is really a friend at that time, or that (2) one who is a friend to you in your time of need is really a friend? In other words, am I, who thinks the first is the common use of that phrase, really more cynical than everyone else at work? -- Scot A. Bell, via the internet.
Well, maybe. Proverbs can be tricky little critters. Many people, for example, believe that "Feed a cold, starve a fever" means that you should simply stop feeding a really sick person. My research indicates that people who interpret the phrase that way tend to have difficulty maintaining long-term relationships.
"A friend in need is a friend indeed" is a lovely proverb, it rhymes nicely, and, unfortunately, no one knows exactly what it means. The proverb itself has been kicking around for a couple of thousand years, and crops up in one form or another somewhere in nearly every notable quotable's life work.
There is some evidence that the un-cynical interpretation, that a true friend is one who sticks by you in hard times, was the original meaning of the phrase. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable links the proverb to a Latin saying, "Amicus certa in re incerta cernitur," which means "A sure friend is made known when one is in difficulty." Another bit of uncertainty, however, revolves around whether the "indeed" in the phrase might not actually have originally been "in deed," meaning that a true friend actually does something (a "deed") to relieve your distress, rather than just keeping you company while you sink.
On the other hand, the "Dude pretends to be my friend because he wants to borrow my chain saw" interpretation is, without doubt, more prevalent in today's cynical, gimme-gimme world. You should be thankful that you work with a group of such old-fashioned, unselfish people. I'd watch my wallet if I were you.
Dear Word Detective: Well, I just received one of the many junk mail catalogs that cross my desk, and as I was tossing it away I noticed the banner on the cover stating "Rock Bottom Prices." Do you by any chance know what the going price is for the bottom of a rock? If not, can we find out when or how the common use of "rock bottom" came into being? Could it possibly relate to the low level of underlying bedrock? -- D. Galloway, Oklahoma.
One moment, please. You realize, of course, that in throwing away all your "junk mail" you are helping to undermine the stability of the United States Postal Service, don't you? As was noted in a recent Seinfeld episode, our once noble Post Office has pretty much devolved into a mob of men in woolen trousers stuffing Pottery Barn catalogs into everyone's mailbox. If you don't play along, the whole shebang is certain to collapse. I, personally, save each and every one of the two dozen or so Victoria's Secret catalogs I receive per week. I consider it my patriotic duty, and you should, too.
Your guess about "rock bottom" being connected to "bedrock" is right on the money. Bedrock, as we all remember from high school geology class (or, in my case, from sobering experience), is the layer of solid rock you eventually hit if you're dumb enough to actually try to dig a hole straight down to China. (I'm still a bit annoyed at Bugs Bunny for never once mentioning bedrock in all those cartoons.)
"Rock bottom" started out as a simple synonym for "bedrock" in the mid-1800's, mostly in the context of mining. Once a miner or prospector hit "rock bottom," the quest for water, gold or whatever was stymied, at least until advanced power drilling techniques were invented. "Rock bottom," like "bedrock" itself, soon became a metaphor for reliability and loyalty, as seen in an 1866 citation from the Oregon State Journal referring to a "rock-bottom Democrat." The use of "rock bottom" to mean "lowest possible" followed soon after, as evidenced by a Dakota newspaper advertisement of 1884 offering "Boots, shoes and rubbers in great variety and at rock-bottom prices."
Dear Word Detective: My wife is puzzled by the moniker given her chosen profession. She swears that in no way does she "shrink" patients. In fact, she believes her job to be "expanding" people -- their options and their abilities. Perhaps this came about from psychologists and psychiatrists attempts to reduce a patient's perceived problems to a manageable size? Have you a clue? -- Carl Follin, Springfield, Illinois.
Hmmm. Yes. Of course. I think that examining your letter might be very helpful in understanding your problem. Why do you suppose you decided to write to me? Is there some reason that your wife didn't ask this question herself ? How did writing this letter make you feel? Anxious? Resentful? Itchy? Hungry? Do you ever dream about appearing in a newspaper column in front of millions of people? What do you think you might do if I keep this up for a while? Oh, all right. There's no need to shout.
I'm actually rather surprised that your wife didn't know why people in her profession (psychiatry, psychotherapy or psychology, I presume) are often referred to as "shrinks." Many professions actually seem to take a perverse sort of pride in the barbs society lobs their way -- the lawyers I know, for example, tend to know all the best lawyer jokes.
The slang term "shrink," applied to psychiatrists and psychotherapists and psychologists, is a shortened form of "headshrinker," a derogatory comparison of the profession to primitive tribes who ritually dry and shrink the heads of their slain enemies. The term "shrink" dates back at least to the early 1960's, and first showed up in print in Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" in 1966.
If "headshrinker" seems a bit exotic for an insulting metaphor, it may help to note that magazine cartoons of the 1950's and 1960's were awash in cannibalistic natives, witch doctors and the like, so the imagery of "shrink" is not all that surprising. And if your wife's feelings are a bit hurt by this revelation of the term's origins, just remember the wisdom of my personal psychological counselor, Pogo: Don't take life so serious -- it ain't nohow permanent.
Or maybe it's the sound they
make when they're wrong.
Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of "wonk," as in "a politically connected know-it-all"? My first guess is that its origin is a backwards spelling of "know," but I'd be happy to be proved wrong. -- David Dixon, The Netherlands.
Your wish is my command, sir. Poof -- you're wrong. But don't take it personally. The theory that "wonk" is simply "know" spelled backwards has been around for a while, although the "wonk/know" convergence is almost certainly a simple coincidence.
Incidentally, your definition of "wonk" is a bit incomplete: the American Heritage Dictionary defines "wonk" as "A student who studies excessively; a grind." The Clinton administration, of course, has fairly successfully portrayed this sort of "nerdiness" as a virtue in the age of labyrinthine federal regulations, when only obsessive study holds any hope of chopping through the jungle of bureaucratese.
The origin of "wonk" is, alas, obscure at best, though several theories exist. The current meaning of "wonk" is fairly recent, appearing in the U.S. as student slang in the early 1960's. There is also an obscure adjective "wonky," meaning "shaky" or "wrong," from an Old English word meaning "unsteady," but there is no evidence that it is related to our modern "wonk."
Another meaning of "wonk," although differing somewhat from "studious," may hold the key to its origin. A "wonk" in British Navy slang is a naval cadet, untrained in the ways of the sea and hardly an asset aboard ship. In what may or may not be a coincidence, "wonk" is also the common term foreign visitors to China use for "dog" (from the Chinese "huang gua" or "yellow dog"). It seems possible that British sailors picked up the word in China and found it a handy way to describe naval cadets, well-versed in book learning but worse than useless on the high seas.
Dear Word Detective: I would like to know the origin (and correct spelling) of the word "kapish." For example, in the movies when a mafia guy gives another mafia guy a long set of instructions and to see if they are understood, he asks "Kapish?" I have searched everywhere with no luck. Please help! -- Alex, via the internet.
Hey, I've seen that movie -- ten or twenty times. The scene you describe really is such a standard element in every mob movie that it deserves a special Oscar just for ubiquity. What they're actually saying is "coppish" (kuh-PEESH, also sometimes spelled "capeesh"), Italian-American slang for "understand." "Coppish" comes from the Italian word "capisce," based on the verb "capire," meaning "to understand," and can be used as either a question or an answer. "Coppish" also affirms a bond between the speaker and listener. "Coppish?" thus often means, "I know you understand, because you're one of us." And the reply "Coppish!" means "You bet, no problem, I'll get it done."
Incidentally, the most recent mob movie I've seen was last year's "Donnie Brasco," which wasn't half bad, the good half being Al Pacino. Johnny Depp? Fuhgeddaboudit! Anyway, early on in this movie Pacino and Depp start ranting about "fugazy" this, "fugazy" that. After I saw the movie, I spent several weeks trying to track down this word "fugazy," which is evidently mob slang for "phony." I asked cops, real-life mafia experts, and even people who knew people "connected" to the mob, and while many of them had heard the word, no one knew where it came from. So if anyone out there has a good explanation of "fugazy," I'd love to hear it. No questions asked, and anonymity guaranteed. I ain't no stoolie.
Dear Word Detective: I was fascinated by your explanation of "twenty-three skidoo." You started me wondering about "cloud nine." Is it perchance older than we think, or did it come out about the same time of "catch 22," all wonderful numerical expressions? -- Dick Wilcox, via the internet.
Well, that depends on how old we think it is. How many of us are in here, anyway? We gotta get some decent lighting in this column -- it's so dark I can't see a thing.
But seriously, Dick, there's a pretty broad range of time covered by those phrases. "Twenty-three skidoo" appeared around the end of the 19th century, while "Catch 22" was invented by author Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel of the same name. "Cloud nine" seems to have first appeared around 1935, though it didn't become widespread until the 1950's.
Exactly how "on cloud nine" came to be synonymous with "euphoria" or "perfect contentment" is a bit of a mystery. According to my parents' "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins," the phrase is based on U.S. Weather Service terminology. This theory holds that cloud types are numbered, and that "cloud nine" is the designation given to "cumulonimbus" clouds, the highest-flying clouds around, making them an apt metaphor for being "on top of the world."
It's a nice story, and I usually defer to my parents' wisdom, but I don't believe this one. Part of the problem is that when the phrase first appeared, it wasn't "cloud nine" -- more often, folks said they were on "cloud seven," or even "cloud thirty-nine."
Another glitch in the "cumulonimbus" (love that word) theory is that "cloud nine" gained currency as a popular idiom among jazz musicians and the Beat Generation, groups not ordinarily noted for their embrace of meteorological terminology.
My best guess is that "on cloud nine" is simply a "cool" (by the standards of the 1950's) metaphor for the "floating," transcendent state induced by good jazz and perhaps a "stimulant" or two. More Maynard G. Krebs, in other words, than Mister Wizard.
Dear Word Detective: For years I have seriously wondered about the origin of the phrase "to come a cropper." I have tried to look it up all over the places it should have been, but to no particular avail. Do you know? I have suspected that it may have origins having to do with fox hunting or horses hurdling, or trying to hurdle, over various unnatural obstacles. Any knowledge about this that you can pass on to me would be very much appreciated. -- Sherrie Bodkin, via the internet.
Aha! Here we have, at last, proof positive of what I've been trying to tell newspaper editors for years. The average reader doesn't give a dingo's yelp about global warming or the Spice Creatures and all that trendy folderol. No, your average reader is still trying to figure out some arcane idiom you dropped into one of your "think pieces" years ago. "H.R. Haldeman's attempts to shield President Nixon may come a cropper" -- ring a bell? It should. It's been driving poor Ms. Bodkin around the bend for more than 20 years.
Thank heavens she appears to be mildly psychic. "To come a cropper" does indeed come from the world of horse riding and racing. The original phrase was "neck and crop," describing a fall from a horse where the rider is thrown headlong over the horse's head. The most common occasion for this sort of extremely unpleasant accident is when the horse stops short of a jump, as in a steeplechase, but the rider keeps going. "Neck and crop" itself refers to the horse's head, "crop" being another word for "throat."
As a metaphor for failure, "come a cropper" graduated from the world of equestrian mishaps to general use in the mid-19th century. Anthony Trollope illustrated the new sense perfectly in his 1874 novel "The Way We Live Now": "He would be 'coming a cropper rather' were he to marry Melmotte's daughter for her money, and then find that she had got none."
So there you have it, Ms. Bodkin, and next time don't wait years to ask.
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine recently said that she felt there was some kind of jinx on her dating life, and this made me wonder about the word "jinx." The more I look at the word, the weirder it seems. Do you agree? Where does it come from? -- Emily Forsyth, King of Prussia, PA.
Yes, "jinx" is one very weird word. Part of what strikes us as weird about the word "jinx" may be the fact that words ending in "nx" are fairly uncommon in English, "larynx," "sphinx" and "phalanx" being the only ones most people ever encounter.
"Jinx" is, as you might suspect, an unusual word in other respects as well. It started out as a noun, meaning a charm or hex that brings bad luck or exercises evil influence, though your friend used it as a verb meaning to be cursed or to have bad luck either in general or in a specific endeavor (such as securing a palatable boyfriend). One curious thing about "jinx" is that, although belief in such curses and evil influences is thousands of years old, the word "jinx" itself is relatively new, first appearing in 1911.
Having posed that little puzzle, I will now solve it by explaining that "jinx" is actually an American misspelling of the much older (and even weirder) European word "jynx," which dates back to a suitably ancient 1649. And "jynx" holds the key to our mystery, because a "jynx" is also a type of Old World bird, a woodpecker also known as a "wryneck," named for its habit of twisting its neck when it is disturbed.
So now all we have to do is somehow connect your friend's substandard social life to an obscure European bird. And the answer is ... sorcery. It turns out that while jynxes make lousy dates (all the wrong sort of necking), jynx feathers were an essential ingredient in the potions and charms concocted by witches in the 16th century, so essential that the potions themselves eventually came to be known as "jynxes."
And since jinxes, strictly speaking, can be good as well as bad, all your friend needs now is a bird, a witch, and Mr. Right is just a cackle away.
World Not Fair, Film at 11.
Dear Word Detective: I am intrigued by the cliche expression for equality in opportunity: "all we want is a level playing field." Well, I have never seen a level playing field. Certainly a baseball field is not only not level, but not all are the same measurements; a natural grass football field is not level; a soccer field is not level. Where is the challenge if you play on a non-existent level playing field? It is a "non-sense" phrase. -- Larry H. Henikoff, via the internet.
Larry, Larry, Larry, what are we gonna do with you? We've got magazine writers, TV commentators and political speechwriters all working their tiny little brains to a nubbin just to come up with snazzy new metaphors, and what do you do? You pick them apart until there's little bits of cliche all over the rug. What a mess.
Of course there's no such thing as an absolutely perfectly level playing field. And of course, on the other hand, most playing fields are more or less level, and no one plays soccer or baseball on the side of a hill, for gosh sakes.
But "level playing field" isn't supposed to be taken literally. It's a phrase invented by business theorists in the late 1970's who needed a graphic metaphor for equality in the marketplace. Play along for a minute, OK? Just try to imagine how horribly unfair it would be if there really were such things as un-level playing fields, and your team were looking uphill at the Dallas Cowboys. Now try to imagine that the free market were actually allowed to run free and certain industries didn't get favorable regulations and government subsidies. Same thing, right? See what I mean?
Reality has nothing to do with it, Larry. It's all public relations. Look, "Nightline" is coming on in a minute. You wanna wonder about something? Wonder about Ted Koppel's hair.
Dear Word Detective: I recently had a bit of a debate with my officemate as to the origin of the word "nincompoop." He said that it originally came from a Latin phrase (which he conveniently could not remember), but my best guess was that the word is now and always has been a "nonsense" word, actually meaning nothing. Who's right? -- Robert Pincus, New York, NY.
I'd hardly say that "nincompoop" means nothing -- call your boss one and see what happens. "Nincompoop" may be a silly sounding word (alright, it is a silly sounding word), but it has meant (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) "a fool, blockhead, simpleton or ninny" since the 17th century. Unfortunately, the origin of "nincompoop" is a mystery, as most dictionaries declare simply "origin unknown", and even the more adventurous authorities are divided.
But it seems reasonable to speculate, as Dr. Samuel Johnson did in 1755, that "nincompoop" might be a mutation of the Latin term "non compos mentis," meaning "not of sound mind." This is probably the phrase your friend was trying to remember. While "non compos mentis" is a rather esoteric term to most people, it has actually long been commonly used in both the legal and medical professions, often shortened simply to "non compos" by doctors and lawyers in casual speech. It seems a short and plausible leap to imagine non-Latin-speaking folks, perhaps relatives of an afflicted client, rendering the term as "nincompoop."
On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary points out that Johnson's theory fails to explain earlier forms of the word ("nicompoop" and "nickumpoop") that bear considerably less resemblance to "non compos mentis." The Oxford lexicographers surmise that "nincompoop" is probably, as you guessed, a nonsense word.
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
Take me to the Index of back columns.
All contents Copyright © 1998 by Evan Morris.