Columns posted March 26, 2002




  Issue of March 26, 2002


Several readers have written in about an item in last month's batch of columns exploring the possible origins of "po-faced," meaning "exhibiting a impassive demeanor" or "priggish and smug." I had written:

It may be a reference to "poh," an expression of disdain evidently common at one time in England, presumably the sort of noise a butler makes when confronted by a small, dirty child. Or "po" might refer back to the old English slang term "po," meaning "chamber pot" (from the French "pot de chambre").

The consensus of the crowd was that I had overlooked the most obvious explanation, namely that "po-faced" was a variation on "poker faced," also meaning "impassive" or "unrevealing." Actually, I didn't so much overlook this possibility as I just inexplicably failed to mention it. The Oxford English Dictionary opines that "po-faced" was "influenced by poker- faced," though it is apparently not simply a derivative. In any case, it's nice to know that so many people are actually paying attention to this stuff.

Considerably less welcome (and this month's bulletproof explanation for my tardiness in updating this site) is the attempt by a "mini-Enron" (in the words of the Wall Street Journal) called Aquila, Inc. to construct a "merchant power plant" in the soybean field one-half mile from Word Detective World Headquarters. Our neighbors have begun to construct a web site to explain what's wrong with this idea. Suggestions from anyone with expertise or experience in fighting this sort of monstrosity will be most welcome.

Please also feel free to drop a line to the con artists ... um, I mean the nice folks at Aquila and let them know where you think might be a more appropriate place to put their power plant. After all, you folks have a vested interest in how this all turns out. Imagine how late these updates will become if Word Detective World Headquarters has to pack up and move.

And now, on with the show...

Dude just freaked.

Dear Word Detective: Despite polling many very expensively educated brains, no one can tell me the etymology of "conniption," as in "conniption fit." A friend of mine insists it's from the Yiddish, but I beg to differ! Please help. -- Name (sort of) Withheld, via the internet.

Well, your name seems pretty convincingly withheld to me, but it's true that there's no real anonymity online anymore. On the internet these days, to paraphrase the famous cartoon, they not only know you're a dog, but have a list of the license plates of the cars you've chased.

A "conniption" or "conniption fit," as anyone who hangs out with excitable people knows, is an emotional explosion, "anxiety attack" or tantrum. Folks who are prone to "conniption fits" are most likely to have them whenever anything goes wrong, or even not exactly right. If you happen to find yourself in the vicinity of someone with a very red face who is shouting "Heads will roll!" or some variation thereon, you're witnessing a verifiable "conniption fit."

Your friend's theory about "conniption" being of Yiddish origin is not absolutely impossible, but that's only because no one has yet been able to establish exactly where "conniption" did originate. It first showed up in English around 1833, and was defined in the 1848 "Dictionary of American English" as "a fainting fit," a common and harmless 19th century reaction to stress. Today, unfortunately, the conniption-prone are more likely to sue than swoon.

One suggestion advanced as to the origin of "conniption" ventures that it may have arisen as a variation of or even a euphemism for "corruption" in the antiquated sense of "anger" or "temper." (This sense is found, for example, in Anne Bronte's 1848 "Tenant of Wildfell Hall": "I am no angel, and my corruption rises against it.") It may seem odd that "corruption" would have been a synonym for "anger," but this sense seems to be rooted in the use of "corruption" to mean "the evil side" or weaknesses of human nature.

If it ain't broke, fix it until it is.

Dear Word Detective: When my first computer broke many years ago, the technician told me it had "gone south." I have since heard "gone south" applied to all kinds of mechanical or project failures, and each time I have asked the speaker where that phrase came from. Nobody knows. The best guess I've heard is that it's from the seasonal migration of birds, that the working of the thing in question has simply "flown away." That seems like a stretch to me. How would you explain it? -- David M., via the internet.

Yes, I know first hand about computers "going south," because my ancient (1996) machine finally went south just last week. So now I have a brand new super-fast computer with all sorts of snazzy bells and whistles which I have methodically disabled so that it will run just like my old one.

According to Robert Chapman's Dictionary of American Slang (Harper Collins, 1995), "go south" (or "head south" or "take a turn south") means "to disappear; fail by or as if by vanishing," which certainly seems to cover a computer or other device that simply stops working and cannot be revived. "Go south" can also mean to abscond with money or loot, to cheat at cards, or simply to sharply diminish, as in "Enron investor confidence went south after Ken Lay sold his personal stock holdings in the company."

Mr. Chapman's dictionary dates the first appearance of "go south" in its primary sense to the 1940s, and the "to abscond" meaning to around 1925. But the indefatigable word sleuth Barry Popik has found a citation from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of May 1903 in which a glossary of slang heard at the St. Louis fair reported that "gone south" meant "left the town; not heard of; to steal." So we can safely assume that the major senses of "gone south" were already in use by the beginning of the 20th century.

There seem to be two theories about the "south" in "gone south." It may simply be a reference to the map-making convention that "south" on a map equals "down," so to "go south" would be to head for the metaphorical bottom. A more intriguing theory is that the "south" originally referred to Mexico, to which one might well run in the early 20th century if one wanted, or needed, to elude legal pursuit and "disappear."


Kinda like Miss Cleo.

Dear Word Detective: I am looking for the origins of the phrase "can see the handwriting on the wall." I have looked and looked without success. Can you either tell me the origins or head me in the right direction to find the answer? -- Barbara Kleve, via the internet.

Oh, no, you really don't want to take directions from me. Ever since I left New York City, where most of the streets are laid out in a logical grid, for Ohio, where they definitely are not, I've been utterly lost. I once drove past my own street three times before I made it home.

But I'm glad you asked about "the handwriting on the wall," because it gives me an opportunity to plug one of my all-time favorite word books, long out of print but recently re-issued in paperback by W.W. Norton & Company. "Loose Cannons and Red Herrings: A Book of Lost Metaphors," by lexicographer Robert Claiborne, is a fascinating exploration of the original meanings of everyday words and phrases. "Math," for instance, was at one time the term for mowing crops, and the "aftermath" was the grass that grew back in the now-vacant field. It's a very cool book, and we're lucky to have it back.

According to Mr. Claiborne, "the handwriting on the wall" goes all the way back to the Bible, specifically the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel. It seems that Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, was having a major blowout, a fabulous feast for all his noble friends. Unfortunately, the King and his pals were also doing some serious blaspheming, drinking from sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem and worshipping heathen idols to beat the band. Suddenly a mysterious disembodied hand appeared and began writing a curious message ("Mene, mene, tekel, parsin," to be precise) on the wall of the palace that neither the King nor his cohorts could read. But Daniel could, and he informed the sinful King that it meant that a divine reckoning was afoot and that his hours in power were numbered, which turned out to be true. So to be "able to read the handwriting on the wall" has ever since been a metaphor for being able to see what's coming, especially when those around you remain in the dark.

Winner take Alka-Seltzer.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering if you have any information on the word "hopscotch." What is its history? Does it have anything to do with a common dizzy state that is achieved when playing the game as well as when ingesting hops or scotch? -- Sarah, via the internet.

And I thought I had a happy childhood. Let's see, how did that old jingle go? "One, two, swig of hooch; three, four, fall to the floor"? No wonder I never got into playing hopscotch as a kid. Nobody ever told me what the brown paper bags were for.

But seriously, no, the "scotch" in "hopscotch" has nothing to do with Scotch whiskey, and the "hops" involved are not Milwaukee's finest. Before we go any further, I suppose I should explain, for the benefit of those who might not know, that "hopscotch" is a children's game in which the players jump between squares marked on the ground.

The "scotch" in "hopscotch" comes from the Old French word "escocher," meaning "to cut." In the case of "hopscotch," it refers to the lines cut or scratched into the dirt (or, more likely these days, drawn on a sidewalk) where the game is played. The same "cut or scratch" sense of "scotch" is used in the idiom "to scotch a rumor," meaning to deny or refute it, as well as in "butterscotch" candy, which was originally made in large sheets and then "scotched," or cut, into small pieces.

Similarly, the "hop" in "hopscotch" has, alas, absolutely nothing to do with the "hops" used in making beer and similar beverages, which come from the female "hop" plant. Unfortunately, the hop plant has been cultivated by humans for so long that the ultimate origin of "hop" in this sense is untraceably ancient, although we do know that this "hop" first appeared in English around 1440.

The "hop" in "hopscotch," however, is an entirely separate word, meaning "a short, springing leap, often performed on one leg." This "hop" first appeared in English around 1200 (as "hoppen") and is rooted in the Old English "hoppian," meaning "to spring or dance."

Put it all together, and we have "hopscotch" as a perfectly logical name for a game that involves "hopping" between squares "scotched" on the ground. Of course, the mystery remains as to how one does all that hopping without spilling one's beer.

Off with their heads.

Dear Word Detective: My boss (who comes from Scotland originally) used the word "mollycoddle" several times in a meeting today. I am familiar with it, although you don't hear it often (here in Canada at least). I was curious about the origin, and my Merriam-Webster's dictionary gives me a date of 1864, but no info on the source. I understand from the definition that it is almost "extreme" coddling, but why would the prefix "Molly" (aka Mary?) indicate this? Who was she and why did she need such pampering? -- Mr. Curious, via the internet.

Hey, your boss sounds like my kind of manager. None of that sensitive, caring, wanna-be-your-friend folderol, no "setting personal goals," no "maximizing your potential," just good old-fashioned Alpha Male (or Female) chest-beating. Then again, perhaps someone ought to tell your boss that routinely using "mollycoddle" in meetings will sound really bad when it eventually comes out in court.

To "mollycoddle" someone is, of course, to pamper the person in an extremely attentive and solicitous fashion. As you found, "mollycoddle" is an extreme form of "coddle," which, when it first appeared in English around 1598 meant "to boil gently" (from the Latin "calidum," hot drink). The "gentle" aspect of "coddle" led, around 1815, to its figurative use to mean "nurse," "pamper" or "treat as an invalid," the sense found in "mollycoddle."

Decoding the "molly" in "mollycoddle" brings us to the noun form of "mollycoddle," which means "a pampered weakling" or "a sissy." "Molly" is indeed a "pet form" of the name Mary, often used in slang as a disparaging term for a prostitute or criminal's companion (as in a gangster's "moll"), but also contemptuous slang for a weak or ineffectual man. So to "mollycoddle" someone, in the original sense of the term, is to treat him or her in the delicate fashion a "molly" must be "coddled." "Mollycoddle" first appeared in English as a noun around 1833 and the verb form was in use by 1870.

A little birdie told me.

Dear Word Detective: The other day a co-worker said he had a little "tidbit" I might be interested in. Turns out it had something to do with the fact none of us were getting raises, which doesn't fall under the definition of "tidbit" in my book! Since I'm certain now I won't be going shopping for a new car, I really would like to know where in the world the term "tidbit" came from. --Chris Anderson, via the internet.

Jeez Louise, Chris, get with the program. Your co-worker was being "ironic" when he called news of your impending financial doom a "tidbit." This is The Age of Irony, remember? Saying the opposite of what you mean is cool. It also relieves you of taking anything seriously. So let a sly smirk be your umbrella as you walk to work, and if your boss passes you in his new Lincoln, well, that's sort of ironic too, isn't it?

I must admit that, had I been you, that little nugget of information would have ruined my entire day, at least, and I too would hardly have considered it a "tidbit," which is defined as a small piece of something, usually something pleasant. "Tidbit" is one of many everyday figures of speech in English that began as food terms. "Tidbit" originally meant a small, tasty morsel of food (from the English dialect word "tid," meaning "tender, soft, delicate," plus "bit," meaning "small piece"). "Tidbit" first appeared in English way back around 1640 in the "food" sense, and by about 1735 was being used to mean "a small, interesting piece of news or information" Later in the 18th century, "tidbit" came to be used for anything small or inconsequential.

Interestingly, although "tidbit" is rooted in the dialects of England, the variant form "titbit" is more commonly heard in Britain today and "tidbit" is largely restricted to the U.S. The "tit" in "titbit" apparently arose by analogy to such words as "titmouse" (a small bird), where "tit" is a very old term for a small animal or object.

Adventures in aromatherapy.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "drunk as a skunk" come from? Do they stagger around, hit on all the girl skunks and spray things randomly while yelling, "Woo hoo!"? Or perhaps it's just because it rhymes. -- Erin Van De Hey, Green Bay, WI.

Woo hoo, indeed. If I were you I wouldn't go around maligning, even speculatively, such a noble animal as the skunk, especially considering the little critter's awesome retaliatory powers. Besides, the behavior you describe sounds far more like that of some corporate lawyers I have known.

In any case, since skunks do not drink alcohol, "drunk as a skunk" (meaning "extremely inebriated") cannot be pinned on the habits of Mephitis mephitica, the charming North American mammal and member of the weasel family which takes its name from the Algonquian Indian word meaning "urinating fox." The term "drunk as a skunk" is, as you guessed, simply a good example of our love of comparisons and rhyming, made especially popular by the fact that "skunk" happens to be one of the few words that rhymes with "drunk." Similar, albeit non-rhyming, terms for "extremely drunk" have included, over the years, drunk as a fly, a log, a dog, a loon, a poet, a billy goat, a broom, a bat, a badger, a boiled owl, and several dozen more too risqué to list here. Although comparative terms for drunkenness have been popular throughout the history of English, "drunk as a skunk" seems to be a fairly recent (20th century) addition to the canon.

The ability of our friend the skunk to douse its enemies with foul-smelling musk has, however, made "skunk" a slang term of derogation in other senses. "Skunk" has, since the early 19th century, been slang for "a contemptible or untrustworthy person," as in "That little skunk told us to buy Enron stock while he was selling his own." And because the odor of a skunk's musk is strong enough to discourage even the bravest competitor, "to skunk" has, since the 1800s, meant "to emphatically, unequivocally defeat," often used in situations where the losing party or team did not score a single point (as in "The Mets got skunked again. I'm moving to New Jersey").

Enter stage left, wearing water wings.

Dear Word Detective: Would you have any explanation available for the term "dry run," meaning a practice for something. I've been wracking my brains trying to work out what a "wet run" is to no avail. Please help. -- Alistair McGregor, Perth, Western Australia.

Well, there's your problem. You're expecting the English language to make sense, and that's always a mistake. Keep in mind that our lovely mother tongue is the product of a committee composed of several hundred million people fiddling, tinkering and just generally monkeying with the language over the course of more than a thousand years. Make sense? Fuhgeddaboudit. It's a miracle we don't have numerals in the middle of our words.

Still, the more one looks at "dry run," the more mysterious it does seem. What's the point of specifying a "dry" run, if not in contrast to something another kind of run, most logically a "wet" one? And what's this "run" business, anyway?

A "dry run" is, as you note, a practice for something, usually a sort of mock exercise to make certain that everyone is prepared and everything will work when the event or operation is done "for real." There are actually two kinds of "dry runs" in English, both American inventions. The older sort of "dry run," dating back to the mid-19th century, is a creek or stream bed in which there is no water. ("Run" in this case meaning "a small stream or river.") "Dry runs," fairly common in the arid western U.S., do fill with water after a heavy rain, and travelers in the Old West discovered that by following the course of a "dry run" for some distance, they could often find places where water still remained in the creek bed (whereupon the bed would be known, logically, as a "wet run").

The second sort of "dry run," first appearing around 1941, is apparently a figurative extension of the "dry creek" sense, coupled with overtones of "run through," which since the 1920s has been theatrical slang for a quick reading or rehearsal of a play or performance. So a "dry run" is a rehearsal which, although it lacks the fire of a real performance, allows the participants to make sure that their effort will not be, shall we say, all wet.


The bride wore green.

Dear Word Detective: I was discussing my daughter's upcoming wedding with a friend the other day and I mentioned that I would have to "foot the bill." Later it dawned on me that I had now idea why we "foot the bill" as opposed to, say, handling it. But then I don't have any idea why the father of the bride pays for all the hoopla either. Perhaps you could enlighten me on the former. I don't think there's much hope for the latter. -- Barney Johnson, via the internet.

Me neither, but I'm sure there's some supposedly logical reason for the custom. Actually, to speculate wildly for a moment, it probably dates back to the days when women were barred from practicing a profession or trade. Thus an unmarried daughter could not, in the parents' old age, be relied upon as a source of support, as a son (or son-in-law) could. An incentive offered to a man willing to marry one's daughter would therefore, if all went well, pay off in one's dotage (provided, of course, that she didn't pick some godawful poet). I imagine that the "bride's parents pay" rule is just a vestige of the old "dowry" custom, wherein you would have been required to actually offer your new son-in-law a hefty chunk of cash (or at least a couple of cows) to swing the deal. Anyway, you might want to get the happy couple to sign something regarding your golden years before you spring for all that rubber chicken.

Not that it will provide much consolation to your checkbook, but "footing the bill" used to be considerably less painful than it is today. The original meaning of "foot" in a financial sense back in the 15th century was "to add up and set the total at the foot, or bottom, of a bill or account." Thus Harriet Beecher Stowe, in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," wrote of "The wall-paper … garnished with chalk memorandums, and long sums footed up."

Unfortunately, by the early 19th century, "foot" had acquired its modern meaning of "to pay up or settle a bill," leading one writer to complain in 1819 that "My dogs ... helped themselves to the first repast presented, leaving their master to foot the bills."

Kinda like the folks in Accounts Receivable.

Dear Word Detective: I am an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles and when our patients break a bone or something, we always tell them that it will heal "like gangbusters" to denote that it will heal well. I was recently asked what that word means and where it comes from. -- Ravi Tharani, MD, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of California, Los Angeles.

Hey, I'm on your patients' side on this one. I'm not sure I'd be exactly thrilled if I'd just had a broken bone set (or whatever you guys do these days) and the surgeon cheerfully offered a prognosis that involved "bust" and "gang" (especially, after all, in Los Angeles). Perhaps next time you should just smile expansively and assure the patient that the bone will heal "Mahvelously, Dahlink" in your best Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. It's worth a try.

"Like gangbusters" means, as you said, "excellently, with no problem or doubt," and is often used to describe the attitude of someone who acts with absolute assurance, tackles a task forthrightly and vigorously, and, most importantly, gets the job done. "Like gangbusters" is generally considered to have positive connotations, although being on the receiving end of such "gangbusting" behavior may sometimes be less than pleasant. Almost anyone who has worked in an office is familiar with the new boss who comes in "like gangbusters" and achieves results more commonly associated with "bull in a china shop."

The phrase "like gangbusters" itself dates back to a wildly popular radio drama of the 1930s. "Gangbusters," which ran from 1936 all the way up to 1957, followed the exploits of courageous lawmen as they battled (and "busted up") criminal gangs and organized crime. Each episode of "Gangbusters" began with a barrage of dramatic sound effects -- sirens, machine guns, doors being kicked in, etc. Not surprisingly, by about 1940 "like gangbusters" had become popular slang for "forcefully and fearlessly" and, by extension, developed the sense you used it in, meaning "with no problem, easily."

You too?

Dear Word Detective: Phrases in songs often create puzzles, and I'm writing about one phrase which I found repeated in the chorus of a song by U2, and had first heard in a song by Bob Dylan. The phrase is: "I and I." It seems to be a reference of religious significance. I can find no source, history, or definition for the phrase. Where does "I and I" come from (and what does it refer to)? -- Michael Carney, via the internet.

Good heavens, man. Do you mean to tell me that you've actually been listening to the lyrics? That way lies madness. Keep it up and pretty soon you'll be asking me to explain "Hotel California" and you'll have to be sent to that special therapy camp for Eagles fans. OK, OK, I know there's no such camp, but I'd be willing to chip in for one.

Now that you mention it, I have heard that U2 song "Elevation," the lyrics of which run, in part, "A mole, living in a hole, Digging up my soul, Going down, excavation, I and I in the sky You make me feel like I can fly, So high, elevation." (Color me stupid. Until I read the lyrics I'd been hearing that "I and I" as "Ionize.") The Bob Dylan song "I and I" contains the refrain "I and I, In creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives, I and I, One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives." So "I and I" must mean something fairly significant, right?

And indeed it does. "I and I" is rooted in Jamaican "patois" or "Creole," a language derived from a mixture of standard English and the African languages spoken by the slaves brought to Jamaica by the British colonizers. In the variety of patois later developed by followers of the Rastafarian religion in Jamaica, words such as "we," "us," "you" or "them" are regarded as socially divisive and negative, and instead "I" is substituted, as in "I-Dem" ("I-Them"), meaning "you." "I and I" is a special communal term that is used to mean "I and myself," "I and my brothers," or "I and God," the latter sense being used in the songs you mention to mean "the unity of human beings, God and the whole of creation." All of which, I guess, pretty thoroughly trumps my "ionize."

Ding Dong.

Dear Word Detective: I just bought a beautiful winter blooming shrub called "witch hazel." What are the origins of that name? -- Robert Pacht, Seattle, WA.

Beautiful winter shrub, my foot. That's a satanic plant you've got there, bucko. Why do you think they call it "witch" hazel? And doesn't "Hazel" sound like the perfect name for a witch? If you're smart, you'll tote that Devil Shrub right down to the town square and toss it on the burning pile of Harry Potter books. And you'd better check your fridge for devilled ham while you're at it. You can't be too careful these days.

Just kidding. "Witch hazel" has nothing to do with witches, and there's no one named Hazel (which is actually a lovely name) involved. Most of us know "witch hazel" as a astringent fluid with a distinctive smell, an old-fashioned remedy for rashes and other skin problems. That bottled "witch hazel" is actually made by combining alcohol and an extract of the "witch hazel" shrub.

You'll sometimes hear that "witch hazel" got its name because the branches were often used as dowsing or "witching" rods to (supposedly) find underground sources of water, but that theory has about as much validity as dowsing itself, which is to say none. The "witch" in "witch hazel" comes from the Old English "wice," the root of our modern "weak," and has long been applied to a variety of plants and trees with branches that are, like those of the "witch hazel" shrub, very pliable and easily bent.

In addition to being a profoundly beautiful personal name (I know I'm going to get mail about that "witch" business), "hazel" has an interesting history. As the name of a family of trees, "hazel" goes all the way back to the Indo-European root "kosolos," which produced the Germanic "khasalaz" and eventually the modern German "hasel" and our English "hazel." The color "hazel," usually considered a sort of golden brown with a bit of green thrown in, comes from the appearance of ripe hazelnuts. And if that description of "hazel" seems a bit vague, blame William Shakespeare, who invented the color to make a little joke in "Romeo and Juliet": "Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes."


Schnozz news.

Dear Word Detective: We have come across the word "beezer" in only one place, an old Our Gang film, in which it was used to mean some part of the anatomy, we assume either the nose, or else the other extremity, as in "He hit him right on the beezer." We named our cat "Beezer," but don't know for sure what we have named him. We could not find this word in any slang dictionary. Is it a word that has been used by anybody else, and is there any agreed-upon definition? -- Bernie and Mary Meyer, McMinnville, Oregon.

So you named your cat "Beezer," but you have no idea what it means, and you suspect that it might refer to whatever part of the anatomy might be considered "the other extremity" from the nose? Hmmm. Doesn't seem like a propitious start to your human-animal companion relationship to me, but what do I know? I briefly named one of our cats "Claude" because of his propensity for shredding furniture, but later realized that I was just encouraging him and changed it to "Sparky."

In any case, you're in luck, because "Beezer" has been slang for the human nose since around the beginning of the 20th century. ("In luck" assumes, of course, that you have a cat thrilled to be named after a human body part.) According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "beezer" first appeared around 1908, and other sources indicate that it was widespread slang in the boxing world, where noses do command a lot of attention. Aside from being slang for the old schnozzola, "beezer" apparently also has long been used as slang for "the human head" in general.

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary throw up their hands with an "origin obscure" notation for "beezer," but the Random House dictionary suggests, quite plausibly, an origin in the Spanish "cabeza," meaning "head."

Incidentally, if you're having second thoughts about functionally naming your cat "Nose," I have some good news. The first meaning of "beezer" listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is not "nose" or even "head," but "a smart fellow." I'd copy that definition and paste it above Beezer's bowl if I were you. It might save you a fortune in furniture upholstery.

And coughing up fish.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of "You have me over a barrel"?-- Stephen Green, via the internet.

Dear Word Detective: I'm looking for origin of phrase "cash on the barrelhead." -- Cynthia Gruetzner, via the internet.

Golly, how time flies. It seems like only yesterday that we were waking up on New Year's Day and scraping the cat fur from our tongues, yet here it is already National Barrel Week, or something. There must be a logical explanation for my receiving these two questions within hours of each other.

First things first. A "barrel" is (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) "A cylindrical wooden vessel, generally bulging in the middle and of greater length than breadth, formed of curved staves bound together by hoops, and having flat ends or heads; a cask." Our English word "barrel" is rooted in the 12th century Old French word "baril," but since no one knows where "baril" came from, we'll have to consider this another case of our old pal "origin unknown."

To "have someone over a barrel" means to have someone in your complete control, to hold them in a helpless position (as in "The draconian policies of the HMO had my family over a barrel"). Oddly enough, "over a barrel" comes from a far more benevolent context than its current use would suggest. Before better methods for resuscitation were developed, drowning victims were laid over a barrel, which was then rolled back and forth to dislodge the water in their lungs. "Over a barrel" had appeared in the U.S. by the 1930s, and the first recorded usage of the phrase was actually a pun. In "The Big Sleep" (1939), Raymond Chandler wrote, "We keep a file on unidentified bullets nowadays. Some day you might use that gun again. Then you'd be over a barrel." (The use of "barrel" to mean the cylindrical part of a gun through which the bullet travels dates back to 1648.)

To demand "cash on the barrelhead" means to insist that money be paid immediately upon consummation of a transaction, with no offer of credit or the like. The "barrelhead" is either of the flat ends of a barrel, often used in olden days as an impromptu cashier's counter, bar or card table. Just when "on the barrelhead" first appeared is uncertain.

Especially since they're green to begin with.

Dear Word Detective: As I was preparing to can this season's bounty of green beans, I decided to read the instructions for the canner before beginning. It made reference to checking the "petcock" during processing. Where and how did this word originate with reference to a pressure gauge? -- John Pearson, via the internet.

Home canning, are we? Well, let me share with you a little secret I learned many years ago during the course of my own sojourn in the deeply satisfying practice of "putting up" one's own veggies. Here's the secret: the "p" in "ptomaine" is silent. Seconds will count in the Emergency Room, so you'll want to get that right.

But seriously, I admire (albeit from a distance) folks who do their own canning, and I heartily endorse your decision to read the instructions for your canning gizmo before starting. I wonder, however, if you're reading the right instructions, because a "petcock" is not a pressure gauge. The "petcock" is the little faucet-thingy usually mounted under or near the pressure gauge, and it is used to release excess steam or water from the gizmo lest said gizmo blow up and splatter green beans all over your ceiling, or worse. All joking aside, both my parents were once seriously burned in just such an accident while boiling lobsters in a pressure-cooker, so you really do need to be careful.

"Petcock" is actually a relatively new word, first appearing in the mid-19th century, but several aspects of its derivation are somewhat mysterious. The "pet" part seems to be rooted in an old sense of "pet" meaning "small," possibly related to our modern "petty," in turn harking back to the French "petit" (small), which all makes sense since a "petcock" is, as we noted, a small faucet. The "cock" part is more problematic. My own sense is that it is probably rooted in the verb "to cock," meaning "to turn up" (as in "cocking one's hat") or "to block," drawn from the defiant behavior of roosters. Whatever the logic of the term, "cock" has been used to mean "spout or faucet" since the 15th century, and is also found in the word "stopcock," which also means a small adjustable faucet.

I just know Mister Rogers had a hand in all this.

Dear Word Detective: I've spent the last few weeks reading about, and trying to understand, the Enron scandal. One phrase keeps cropping up in news articles, but the writers always assume that their readers know what the phrase means, so they never explain it. The phrase is "Ponzi scheme." Who is or was Ponzi, and what did he do? "Ponzi" sounds like a character in a children's book to me. -- Nigel Frothmore, London, UK.

Give that man a seegar, folks. Right you are, Nigel. "Ponzi" is a character in the 179th Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and Vanishing Moolah," wherein Harry engages the evil wizard Kenlay in furious battle while attempting to retrieve the fortune that the duplicitous Count Ponzi has stuffed in the ears of the entire U.S. Congress. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether this tale is really suitable for children.

Just kidding, sort of, although the fact that the Enron cabal did borrow lame "Star Wars" imagery ("Chewco," "Jedi," etc.) as the names of its bogus subsidiaries certainly bolsters my argument that the rampant infantilization of American culture can only come to a bad end. Gosh, mister, can I have three zillion shares of that cool BarneyCo?

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a "Ponzi scheme" is "a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a fictive enterprise is fostered by payment of quick returns to first investors from money invested by others." Charles Ponzi, who immigrated to America from Italy in 1903, concocted a scheme in 1909 to sell notes promising a 40% profit within 90 days. Rather than actually investing the money, however, Ponzi used part of each new investor's stake to pay dividends to previous buyers, keeping the rest for himself. Ponzi's investors didn't know that, of course, and all the public knew was that some people were getting very rich. Naturally, they wanted in on the action. But as the number of new investors grew exponentially, it became mathematically impossible for the scheme to continue, and the resulting collapse of the fraud immortalized the term "Ponzi scheme." A "Ponzi scheme" is thus very similar to (and every bit as bogus as) the "pyramid" or "chain letter" scams so prevalent on the internet.


Dear Word Detective: Where does the term "soap box" come from, as in "I'd better get off my soap box"? It's usually said when someone is discussing something they are impassioned by and they go on and on. -- Gretchen Welch, via the internet.

My neighbors put you up to asking this question, didn't they? Well, I happen to think that assembling my household pets in the front yard for a stirring political lecture every afternoon is perfectly appropriate. And anyone who says they're not really paying attention is wrong. Just last week our little yellow dog almost caught the county tax assessor.

Literally speaking, a "soap box" is exactly what it sounds like, a box in which soap, usually loose laundry soap, is shipped. Though today's soapboxes are, like much of today's fast food, constructed of cardboard, up until the middle of the 20th century they were almost universally made of sturdy wood. This sturdiness gave soap boxes a variety of post-shipping uses as storage containers and impromptu seating, and even as the basis of children's homemade racing cars, as employed in the venerable "Soap-Box Derby."

One of the most notable uses of an empty soap box back in the 19th century was as a makeshift speaking platform. Since speakers finding themselves forced to resort to a soapbox were also likely to be incensed by not having a proper speaker's platform (and all the social inequalities implied therein), "soap box" came to be a handy metaphor for a highly charged rhetorical style. By 1907, "soap box oratory" had became a derogatory term for protracted, impassioned, and possibly hyperbolic speechmaking. Still, many people would argue that more truth has been spoken from soap boxes than we'll ever hear on TV.


With footnotes.

Dear Word Detective: I work in the field of data processing and computers. Often I will come across new standards or proposed standards that have arisen from a company's latest "white paper." The term is also common in politics and government in referring to a formal declaration of policy or viewpoint. A friend at work tonight asked me if I knew the origin of the term. As a wild guess, I told him it might refer back to a time when paper was a relatively expensive commodity and rough drafts and notes were written down on odd scraps and cheaper, darker paper. When a final, formal version was to be drawn up, it was on the more costly bleached "white" paper. Am I even close? -- S. Obermuller, Nevada County, California.

Close? Well, let's just say, "No cigar for you, buckaroo." But that's actually not a bad guess, since paper was at one time very expensive. The actual origin of "white paper," however, is a bit less logical than that.

Today, as you note, we use the term "white paper" to mean a formal statement of governmental or political policy that includes an extended explanation of that policy, usually accompanied by data and statistics compiled to make the case for whatever the policy is. The U.S. State Department, for instance, is fond of issuing "white papers" on various political "flashpoints" around the globe, usually shortly after the U.S embassy there has been torched.

As tedious as I'm sure governmental "white papers" may be, the term originally arose in the context of something apparently even more snooze-worthy. "Blue Papers" in the 19th century (so-called because of their blue covers) were humongous policy or legislative statements delivered by the British government for consideration by Parliament. But if a report or statement was too brief to be rightly considered a "Blue Paper," it was issued with white covers, and, with uncommon logic, called a "White Paper." Probably because these pithy "White Papers" were more directly useful than the bloated "Blue Papers," Americans adopted the term and have been using "white paper" since World War II to mean "background report," whether in the governmental or business realm.




Click here to submit a question to The Word Detective.


Click here to find out why you should consider
subscribing to The Word Detective!

  Make payments with PayPal - it's fast, free and secure!
We now accept credit cards via the secure PayPal system!





Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

All contents Copyright © 2002 by Evan Morris.