Issue of March 23, 2005
This is Gus the Scary-Smart Cat. Gus has a new game. To prevent the dogs from eating the dry cat food, we put two bowls of it (there are six cats, after all) in the middle of the kitchen table. Appalling, I know, but nobody uses the table for much beyond sorting mail. Anyway, all the other cats will just jump up, eat a bit of food, and jump down. Gus, however, is inventive. So Gus has taken to scooping one bit of kitten chow out of the bowl, batting it around the table awhile, and then whacking it across the room with a slap shot, whereupon he leaps down to the floor, scurries after the food and eats it. He does this over and over again all day long when he's not trying to turn on the stove or figure out how the window latches work. I have no doubt that eventually I'll end up hiding the car keys from Gus.
Last week Pokey the Dog finally left off licking the kitchen floor in front of the stove (the closest thing she has to a hobby) long enough to notice Gus and his kitten-chow hockey game, and realized that she had stumbled on a new source of food. Now Pokey waits next to the table, and when the kitten chow flies past, she does her best to beat Gus to the prize. Gus apparently likes the competition and doesn't seem to mind when Pokey wins.
I really ought to be selling tickets.
Next up: Several readers have written to ask if there is some way to be notified when this site is updated. Years ago, I ran my own email notification list for this purpose, but that became impractical (long story) after a while. So I have now signed up with Topica and established a one-way notification list via which I will send announcements of each monthly update. Please note that this is not a discussion list, and if you reply to the notification message no one will ever see your message. To subscribe to the notification list, just click on this here link: TWDnotifyemail@example.com.
Lastly, a joyous announcement: This month marks the TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web. Hoodathunkit? We remain, as always, a free resource for the thousands of readers from around the world who visit this site every day. But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow). If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks. This is your karma calling, gang. Do the right thing.
And now, on with the show:
Dear Word Detective: Recently I started thinking how expressions in one language do not translate into another. I first learned this when I was a teenager living for a year in Israel. I remember saying once "I guess the cat is out of the bag now," and getting a strange look from my Israeli friend who then asked "Why was the cat IN the bag." Now I am wondering how this expression came about. -- Cheryl in Florida.
I could have sworn that I answered this question years ago, but apparently not. The full form of the phrase you're asking about it "to let the cat out of the bag," meaning "to disclose a secret," especially an important or pivotal one. The phrase is first recorded in 1760, but the practice to which it is said to refer is at least a century or two older.
Back in the days before supermarkets (or even grocery stores), shopping for dinner was done at the local market, where farmers and merchants sold vegetables, eggs, fruit, bread and the like, as well as meat and poultry, often in the form of live animals. For a special occasion or holiday dinner, one of the "hot items" on many shopping lists was a suckling pig (a very young and small pig). After the customer chose a pig from those available and paid for it, the merchant would shove the pig into a canvas sack (also known at the time as a "poke") for easy transport and hand the bag, which would probably be wriggling vigorously, to the buyer.
Unfortunately, all was not on the up and up in many markets, and it was not uncommon for the merchant to take advantage of a customer's momentary lapse of attention to substitute a stray cat for the pig in the bag. The fraud would likely not be discovered until the customer returned home and "let the cat out of the bag," thus giving us this phrase to mean a surprising, and often unpleasant, revelation. The same sort of chicanery is also the source of the phrase "don't buy a pig in a poke," meaning "don't buy anything sight unseen."
Or so they say. Michael Quinion, proprietor of the World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org), has very reasonable doubts about this story, noting that cats in bags tend to be extremely frantic (and, I might add, very loud) and thus hard to mistake for a piglet. It may be that the phrase simply arose from someone's personal experience with having a cat in a bag for some reason and the dramatic effects of then setting it free.
Dear Word Detective: Is it true that some old tombstones were engraved, in place of RIP (for Requiescat In Pace) with L.A.T.E meaning "Laid Aside Til Eternity," and that this is the origin of our use of "late" to mean "deceased"? Just kidding; but seriously, how did that use originate? My Merriam Webster Word Histories has no mention of it; my dictionary indicates that the etymology of "late" may have had the sense of "discontinue." On the other hand, Dickens referred to a tombstone inscription "late of the parish," probably in the sense of "formerly" or "recently." Just wondering if you could shed any light on this. -- Charles M. Anderson
Just kidding, eh? Well, I'll be sure to forward you all the email I get asking about your "L.A.T.E." fable after it percolates through the internet for the next few months. I can promise you a whole new appreciation of the word "eternity."
Interestingly, the original meaning of the adjective "late" when it entered Old English from Germanic was "slow or sluggish, tardy" or "slow in progress, tedious," as one might describe shoveling snow as a "late" job. But this sense was almost immediately overtaken by the primary modern sense of "late," i.e., "delayed in arriving or happening." From there developed related senses of "late" as both an adjective and an adverb, such as "at or until a late hour" ("stay up late") and "in an advanced stage of development or duration" ("late summer").
One of the extended senses of "late" that appeared in the 14th century
was as an adverb meaning "recently, not long since" (essentially the same as
"lately," which appeared a bit, um, later). This is probably the sense (as
an adjective) that Dickens uses in "late of the parish," meaning "most
recently a member of the parish," and implying, perhaps, that the subject
may not always have been.
Since "late" in this "recently deceased" sense involves a measure of time, just when one should stop referring to someone as "the late" is a matter of judgment. Generally speaking, the time is probably right when it can be assumed that all concerned are well aware of the deceased's departure. Still, one never knows. Many years ago I wrote a column in which I referred to "the late Gene Kelly," which drew a slew of alarmed letters from readers. Perhaps it was because Mr. Kelly was still alive at the time.
Dear Word Detective: I am a canoe guide here in Colorado and have wondered for many years why we call the bow and stern lines (or ropes) on the canoe "painters." I had heard at one time that they were used to hang the boat so it could be painted, but I'm not buying that. Perhaps you can shed some light on this. -- Ward S. Sear.
Arrrr, and I'll not be buyin' it neither, matey. It boils my bilge to hear the silly stories those scurvy landlubbers cook up about life on the bounding main. A taste of the cat is what the mongrels deserve. Keelhaul the lot of 'em I say.
Sorry about that. You're correct in judging that story about "painter" unlikely.
There are actually three separate kinds of "painter" in English, three words that share a common spelling and pronunciation, but entirely unrelated meanings and origins. The first sort of "painter" is, obviously, someone who paints, whether it be a fine art painter or the guy who paints your bathroom. Another sort of "painter" is the North American cougar, in which case "painter" is simply a regional pronunciation of the word "panther" (possibly influenced by the French "panthere"). Ogden Nash's famous advice, "If called by a panther, don't anther," seems a suitable prelude for an exceedingly odd citation for this sense from none other than Davy Crockett, who wrote, in 1834, "This alarmed me, and I screamed out like a young painter." King of the Wild Frontier, my foot.
The third kind of "painter" is the line attached to the bow of a boat, used to moor or tow the vessel, although when the word first appeared in the 15th century it meant the anchor chain or line of a boat or ship. There seems to be several theories about exactly how English acquired "painter," but fortunately all roads seem to lead back to Rome, in this case to the Latin verb "pendere," meaning "to hang." One of the descendants of that verb was the Old French "pentoir," meaning "strong rope" or "clothesline," which certainly brings us into the "line for tying up a boat" ballpark.
Dear Word Detective: Mom used to refer to her pocketbook, albeit humorously, I think, as a "reticule." Dunno how to spell it. Know anything about this? I wish I'd kept a detailed list of my mother's and aunt's colorful homespun expressions. Another of her favorites was "leaning on the Bradley Urn." I believe this one came from a picture in a magazine advertising this product. A young woman was leaning on a huge urn, whining, "Why don't he come?" Never saw the picture, however. -- Charlie.
Me neither, and it's hard to track down that sort of thing. Perhaps it will ring a little bell for another reader out there.
"Reticule" is a great word, rarely heard today except in a humorous context. It is indeed a sort of pocketbook, specifically one made out of mesh or woven material. The key to "reticule" is the Latin word "rete," which means "net." "Reticle," a close relative of "reticule," first entered English in the 17th century meaning literally "little net," the sort you might cast into a stream to catch a few fish. By the 18th century, however, "reticle" had acquired the technical meaning of "a set of parallel lines or a net-like grid of lines used in optical equipment to ensure accuracy of observation."
A related word, familiar to those of us who worked in darkrooms before the advent of fancy-schmancy digital cameras, is "reticulation," the net-like pattern of damaging cracks in a film emulsion caused by temperature variations in developing solutions.
Meanwhile, English had adopted the essentially identical word "reticule" from the French in the early 18th century and, after using it as a simple synonym for "reticle" for a while, around 1800 began to use it, as the French had, to mean a small woven handbag. Interestingly, we also adopted the playful variation "ridicule" from the French, so in the 19th century it was common to read of a lady misplacing her "ridicule."
Dear Word Detective: Is there any connection between the noun "strand" meaning a thread hanging loose, and the verb "strand" meaning to abandon? And what about the British "strand" which is a beach or something? I'm starting to come unraveled. -- Jeffery Ewener, Toronto, Canada.
Well, we have the good news, and then we have the bad news. The bad news (which I know you'll want to hear first) is this: If you think you're confused about "strand," go look up "ravel." Presuming the rest of you folks aren't sitting on dictionaries at the moment, I'll let you in on the punch line -- one of the definitions of "ravel" is "unravel." Both words can mean either to "separate the fibers or threads of" (in a figurative sense, to clarify a situation by separating its elements) or "to undo an orderly arrangement" and thus to tangle or complicate matters. Don't ask why. It just proves that the prefix "un" doesn't work when the word is ambiguous to begin with. In practical terms, "ravel" is almost always used in a negative sense, while "unraveling" can be both positive (as in unraveling a mystery) or negative (as in a cat unraveling your sweater). "Ravel" comes from the old Dutch word "ravelen" (to entangle), so I suppose we should blame them.
The good news is that compared to that "ravel" tangle, "strand" actually makes sense. There is no connection between the two kinds of "strand."
The earliest kind of "strand" first appeared in Old English and is closely related to similar words in Dutch and several Scandinavian languages. Its basic meaning was "shore" or "beach," specifically the area between the reaches of high and low tide. By the 13th century, "strand" was also being used to mean a landing-place or an area of docks. The famous street in London is called the Strand because it runs along the banks of the river Thames, but the use of "strand" to mean "beach" is now considered archaic.
[Correction: Several readers have noted that I must be older than I look, as the Strand has not run alongside the Thames for several hundred years, and now lies a fair distance behind the Victoria Embankment along the north bank of the river. Picky, picky. Might I be so bold as to ask you folks to stop moving your landmarks the moment I turn my back?]
The verb "to strand" first appeared in the early 17th century, developed from the "beach" sense of the noun, meaning "to run (a ship) aground" or "to be left aground by the tide" as an inattentive skipper might find his vessel "stranded" and incapable of movement on the beach as the tide recedes. The later transitive meaning of "to strand," meaning "to abandon or leave helpless" dates to 1837.
"Strand" in the "thread" sense is an entirely different word, first appearing around 1497 meaning "one of the fibers of a rope, etc." Unfortunately, the origin of this "strand" is a mystery.
Dear Word Detective: This may be a regional expression, but here in inland central California we have what we call "toolie" fog -- fog which is as thick as pea soup, low to the ground, and very dangerous. I have no idea how it's spelled, really, it just sounds like "toolie." I keep thinking of the French word "tuilleries," for some reason. Any info would be appreciated. -- Carolyn.
Good question. Of course, barring some sort of exotic pollution out there (not impossible, I suppose), it's not the fog itself that's dangerous, but the idiots who insist on driving through it far too fast. We have the same problem here in Ohio at the moment with ice. Oh, look at the nice shiny road! Let's floor it!
You've got the pronunciation down fine, but the treacherously thick fog common to your area of California is spelled "tule." "Tule" is the name given to several species of rushes that grow in marshy lowlands, and by extension to the marshy lands of central and northern California where they commonly grow. The word "tule" itself is an American Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl (Aztec) word "tollin," which meant "reed." Because the fog is produced in the same low, marshy country where one is likely to find "tule" growing, it's known as "tule fog." According to one web page I found devoted to California weather, tule fogs are especially likely on clear nights after a period of rain when returning high pressure creates a temperature inversion, trapping and intensifying the fog close to the ground.
By the way, there's something odd about the word "fog" itself. It first appeared in English in the 14th century meaning "long grass," and is still used in the name of "Yorkshire fog," a type of long grass found in England. Marshy places where the grass was likely to grow were called "foggy," and it may be that because such places were also likely to produce heavy mist that "fog" by extension came to be used as a name for the mist itself. The other possibility is that our modern misty "fog" takes its name from the Danish word "fog," meaning "mist" or "shower," and that the convergence of the swamp grass "fog" and "can't see a thing" fog is purely coincidental.
Dear Word Detective: My 8-month-old son has us using the phrase "cute as the dickens" all the time, but where did it come from? Was Charles Dickens cute? What's a Dickens? Am I even spelling it right? -- Tina Kelley.
Was Charles Dickens cute? Well, presumably Mrs. Dickens found him attractive, but judging by the portraits I've seen I'd say he fell a bit short of being a babe-magnet. Actually, there is one pen sketch I found online of the young Dickens that makes him look a bit like Percy Bysshe Shelley (i.e., the ethereal aesthete look so prized among artistes then and now). Unfortunately, Dickens apparently jumped that track at some point and spent his later life sporting one of those dreadful 19th century mega-goatees that resemble a groundhog hanging from one's chin. So, the bottom line is that we can be fairly certain that your son bears no resemblance to Charles Dickens.
"The dickens" is a colloquial expression most often used as an interjection expressing astonishment ("What the dickens is that groundhog doing in here?") or annoyance ("Where the dickens did I put my net?"). "Dickens" can also be used as a comparative, as you do ("cute as the dickens"), or as a affectionate mock-epithet ("cute little dickens").
Charles Dickens being one of the most famous writers in English literature, it's logical to assume that this "dickens" must be an eponym, a word formed from the name of an actual person. "Dickens" in this sense, however, has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, and actually precedes Mr. Dickens by nearly 200 years. The first written record of this sense of "dickens" comes from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1598), and presumably the expression was common by that time.
"Dickens" in this sense is, in fact, simply a euphemism for "devil," a way to swear in a moment of anger or exasperation without offending sensitive listeners. "Dickens" (probably derived from "dicken," a diminutive of "Dick," itself a "pet" form of "Richard") fits the role because it begins, as does "devil," with "D." The family name "Dickens" was also apparently already in use at that time, and would have been familiar to listeners.
Another euphemism for "devil" from a slightly later period is "deuce" (from the French "deux," two), otherwise meaning the two in dice. In this case, there is an additional rationale for the usage beyond the initial "D," as two is the lowest, unluckiest throw in dice games.
Dear Word Detective: I work in office here in the one of Garden State's universities, and my colleagues and I were discussing how our boss had to "kowtow" to the Board of Trustees. I was astonished that my coworker didn't know what that meant! I seem to recall that this word is Chinese in origin, but of course I've been wrong before. Could you help me explain the origins of this word? -- Norm in Jersey.
Yo, Garden State! I was actually born in Joisey myself, you know, in Princeton, although my family moved to suburban New York shortly thereafter. Much later on I lived in northern New Jersey (near Paramus) for about a year, but the sky was a funny color and the water tasted really weird. The rest of the state is very nice, however.
Oh, right, you had a question. To "kowtow" (both syllables rhyme with "cow") is to show obsequious deference to a figure of authority. "Kowtowing" goes far beyond simply acknowledging power or following orders. To "kowtow" is to pander to every whim of the big cheese, no matter how trivial or illogical.
The pejorative tone of "kowtow" in English is, however, a bit of a departure from its Chinese origins. The "kotou" (literally "head knock") in Imperial China was a ritualized gesture of respect and submission, usually performed before an official or at a shrine, consisting of kneeling and touching one's head to the floor or ground. Apparently there were more intense forms of the ritual observed a bit further up the social food chain, as a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary reports that "Not even the emissaries of the Pope could escape the Great Kow-tow -- the ceremony involving the three kneelings and nine prostrations before the throne of the Chinese Emperor."
First appearing in English in early 19th century accounts of China, "kowtow" soon took on its modern meaning of "to behave with obsequious deference." No doubt the Western view at the time of Chinese culture as exotic and alien influenced the negative connotation given "kowtowing" in English, but as rituals of respect go, the "kowtow" was arguably no more demeaning than kneeling before, or kissing the ring of, a European potentate.
Dear Word Detective: It hadn't occurred to me until last night when reading from a catalogue of inventions and discoveries, to wonder about the word "revolution," and its two far-flung senses. I would have suspected it was two unrelated words. However, the book said it was the "revolutionary" material put forth by Nicolaus Copernicus, concerning the "revolution" of Earth about the sun that led to our use of the word to mean "an overthrowing of the establishment." Can this be true? If so, then the verb "revolt" must be a back-formation, distinct from the other verb form "revolve," which I assume to be the root of the original "revolution." -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.
Hmm. How to put this politely? Let's just say that I wish the author of that book had slowed down a bit and done some checking before making that assertion. As an inelegant adage I heard somewhere recently put it, it only takes two seconds for a baby to upchuck on your sweater, but it can take hours to clean it up.
Copernicus, of course, was the Polish astronomer (1473-1543) who developed the modern heliocentric model of our solar system, in which the planets revolve (travel in orbits) around the sun, thereby overthrowing the established earth-centric view and setting the stage for modern astrophysics.
Unfortunately for that author, however, "revolution" has its own unified history of development from "orbit" to "overthrow." In the beginning was the Latin "volvere," meaning "to roll" (the source of the Volvo automobile brand name, incidentally). With the prefix "re" ("again"), we have "revolvere," to roll back, to turn, which, filtered through French, became our English "revolve" in the 14th century, originally meaning "to change" and only taking on the meaning "orbit" in the late 1600s.
"Revolution" also came into English via French, in the late 14th century, with the original meaning of "the action of a celestial body moving in an orbit," nearly a century before the birth of Copernicus. Gradually "revolution" took on the more general meaning of "turning around" or "change," and eventually, by 1600, attained the "overthrow of the established order" meaning. The development of this sense involved a number of intermediary steps and definitely had nothing to do with Copernicus.
"Revolt" was yet another borrowing, from Italian via French, in the late 16th century, with the specific meaning of "uprising or overthrow." In this case the evolution from "turn" to "radical change" took place before the word entered English.
Dear Word Detective: When I worked at the US Naval Test Pilot School, I was introduced to the term "gouge." The word meant the minimum amount of information needed, as in "Just give me the gouge," or enough to pass the test, write the report, etc. None of the Navy people seemed to know where it came from, but it was in very common use throughout the Navy, and since there were students from all over the world at the school, it has dispersed to the four corners of the globe. So what's the gouge on "gouge"? -- Shawn Coyle.
Test pilot school? Very cool. I wanted to be a test pilot when I was a kid, but that was before I realized that being severely myopic (and acrophobic to boot) would tend to limit my career. Oh well.
Prior to receiving your query. I had never heard of this use of "gouge," although I was, of course, familiar with its colloquial use as a verb meaning "to cheat" or "to charge an exorbitant price." Buy an old house in dire need of repair and you quickly become an expert in the various manifestations of that kind of "gouge."
"Gouge" is an interesting word, first appearing in English in the 15th century meaning "a chisel with a concave blade used for cutting grooves in wood." It's thought to be of ultimately Celtic origin, showing etymological resemblance to both the modern Welsh "gylf" (beak) and the Cornish "gilb" (boring tool). English seems to have adopted it from the French "gouge," which derived from the late Latin word "gubia."
As a verb, "gouge" meant to cut with (or as if with) a gouging tool, a meaning still used when a shopping cart "gouges" your car's fender in a parking lot. By 1800 we were using "gouge" in the rather unpleasant sense of "pushing a person's eye out with the thumb."
By the late 1800s, the slang use of "gouge" to mean "to cheat or swindle" was common, reflecting the sense of a swindler "taking a piece" of the victim. "Gouge" as a noun meaning "a swindling scheme" led to its use, about 1882, as slang for a "cheat sheet," an illicit list of exam answers, among students at the U.S. Naval Academy. By 1947, however, "gouge" had taken on the less scandalous meaning of "the inside scoop" or "necessary information" among Naval cadets.
Dear Word Detective: I am in a class studying the history of rhetoric and we are studying the "Sophists." When I asked the professor if that was where the word "sophisticated" came from, he could not give me an answer. I was hoping that you might be able to. I would appreciate it and I am sure my professor would, too. -- Alvin.
No answer? An outrage. Alvin, my boy, you deserve a refund. Back when I was an undergraduate at Fugue State, our professors would never have let a question like yours pass without at least an hour's lecture on the etymology of "sophisticated." Much of it, of course, would have been invented on the spot, but we all knew we'd forget even taking the class in six months, so no harm would have been done.
Meanwhile, back at your question, the answer is "yes," with a few qualifications.
It all started with the Sophists, who were Greek teachers of philosophy and rhetoric in the fifth century B.C. The name "Sophist" comes from the Greek word "sophos," which means both "wise" and "clever." The Sophists were indeed wise, up to a point, and certainly clever, but their teaching of philosophy and rhetoric came to be known more for its ingenuity than its principles, propounding as it did a dishonest style of argument that relied more on verbal maneuvering than sound reasoning. The reputation of the Sophists for specious reasoning eventually gave us the term "sophistry," meaning "intentionally deceptive arguments," which entered English in the 14th century. Presumably you've been listening in class and knew all that, but here comes the new stuff.
"Sophisticate" comes from the Latin "sophisticus," referring back to the Sophists and their dishonest cleverness. But when "sophisticate" first appeared as a verb in English in the 14th century, it meant not to argue a point dishonestly but to dishonestly adulterate a commodity (wheat, wine, spices, etc.) by adding inferior ingredients. So a "sophisticated" wine in those days might be one part good wine and two parts rotgut.
An interesting sense change, however, took place over the next few centuries. In the 17th century, "sophisticated" came to be used in the more general sense of "artificial; deprived of simplicity or naturalness." But by the late 19th century, shaking off those simple rustic roots came to be seen as a good thing, and "sophisticated" took on its modern meaning of "refined, cultured and worldly-wise."
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the saying "the worm has turned"? I've heard it all my life here in the South to indicate that something has done a complete turnabout or that the "shoe is now on the other foot," but can't figure out what a worm has to do with all that. -- Susan Layton.
Big worms, little worms, fat worms, skinny worms, I'm gonna go ... turn worms? Doesn't really work. I'll tell you one thing, though. Worms get no respect, even though they (I'm talking earthworms here) do all sorts of wonderful things to the soil with their little tunnels and excretions and stuff. Why, if it weren't for worms, the grass wouldn't grow, and I wouldn't get to spend six hours per week mowing it every summer. Hmm. Anyway, all I know is that I feel lucky to live in rural Ohio, where you can actually buy live worms from vending machines in case you run short of pets.
But while the lowly worm definitely gets no respect, even the lowliest critter has its limits, which brings us to the saying that's been puzzling you all these years. It comes from a very old proverb, "Tread on a worm and it will turn," meaning that even the humblest creature (or person) will resent being badly treated and eventually revolt. The first written form of this adage yet found comes from 1546, and Shakespeare invoked it in his 1593 Henry VI, part II: "The smallest Worme will turne, being troden on." The poet Robert Browning gave the sentiment a bit more pathos in his dramatic monologue "Mr. Sludge the 'Medium'" in 1864: "Tread on a worm, it turns, sir! If I turn, Your fault!"
Just what a worm can hope to accomplish by turning on its tormentor is a bit unclear, but in this case it really is the thought that counts. Extended to human beings, "the worm will turn" speaks of the indomitable human resistance to tyranny, and "the worm has turned" warns of chickens coming home to roost. Many CEOs in the past few years have wished they had treated their subordinates better as little worms with long memories (and usually reams of documents) turn on them in front of juries or congressional committees.
All contents Copyright © 2005 by Evan Morris.