Issue of April 4, 2003
Well, it's Springtime in Ohio, which means that it's time for the well pump to go on the fritz. My favorite part of this annual ritual is not the pulling up of the pump (though when you have a 200-foot well this provides hours of excitement and joy), nor is it the fishing of dead chipmunks from the well pit. It's not even the writing of the check to the well company after two days of work, hoping the well guy doesn't notice that my hands are trembling because I know what he does not, namely that there is at best a 50-50 chance the check will clear. No, the best part comes an hour after the well begins chugging away again, when I am midway through my first shower in days, when the wind rises mightily on the prairie, the trees creak and groan to herald the approaching storm, and the lights go out. And, because the pump selfishly demands electricity to run, the water abruptly stops. That's my favorite part, yessiree. And now we close our drama by fading out on an angry, slightly damp and thoroughly soap-covered man standing in a metal shower in a dark room in the middle of nowhere wondering how big an apartment he can get on the Upper West Side if he sells everything he owns to some city-dweller with pots of pelf and major-league romantic delusions about living in the country.
Update, April 8: I have come to realize that there's no point in wondering when the other shoe will drop when you're dealing with a centipede. Last evening I sat at my desk just after sundown, gazing out over the trees and fields where the last glow was fading in the west. Time to go down and forage for food in the kitchen. Halfway down the stairs, I heard a very loud bang and the house was plunged into stygian murk. I stumbled down the remaining steps in time to see, through the living room window, the electric transformer on the pole 20 feet from my office window explode in a shower of sparks and flaming debris. Lovely. Well, I guess that rules out using the microwave.
Several folks have written to ask about banner ad rates on this site, and, having given it a little thought and doing some research, I have arrived at the following: for a standard 468 x 60 banner ad on the front page (down where the ACLU ad is now), $100 per month. A better deal would be to "sponsor" a monthly edition of TWD, meaning two 468 x 60 banner ads, one mid-page and one at the page bottom, for $300. The advantage of this deal is that the ads will stay on the page when it is archived and will be visible to readers who reach the sponsored page through our index of back columns or search engines. Your ad will be, in other words, permanent, which presumably beats monthly. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested.
Incidentally, any reader who would be interested in sponsoring an edition of TWD for the same 300 simoleons is more (lots more) than welcome to play, and if you have a web site or band or business you'd like plugged in return, I can work up a simple banner or two for you.
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: After reading your explanation of the word "kludge," I got to wondering about the apparent British equivalent, "bodge." I am a dedicated fan of the British TV show "Scrapheap Challenge" (which airs here in America on TLC as "Junkyard Wars"), and the contestants are constantly said to be "bodging" together some machine to meet that week's challenge. One team was even called "The Bodgers." So, where does "bodge" come from, and why did the Brits go that route while we in America seem to prefer to "kludge" things together? -- Stan, via the internet.
Junkyard Wars, eh? I've never watched it, but a quick trip to the show's website at TLC provided the following précis of the premise: "If you locked Tim Allen, Mad Max and Monty Python in a garage, you'd end up with Junkyard Wars…. This program pits two teams of tool-toting gearheads against one another to see who can create the biggest, fastest or strongest whatever with parts they scrounge out of a junkyard." I can't help but wonder if Newton Minow, the FCC Commissioner who described TV in the 1960s as "a vast wasteland," ever imagined that his dour assessment would manifest itself in such literal form.
In any case, "bodging" does crop up front and center on the show's website, as we are breathlessly warned, "Don't miss any of the cheeky bodging in JYW's 9th Season!" As you've guessed, the general meaning of "bodge" is "to put together in a inelegant but effective fashion" or "to patch or mend clumsily," making "bodge" a rough synonym of our "kludge" (or "kluge"). But while "kludge" (probably from the German "kluge," meaning "smart" or "witty") is a fairly recent word, first appearing around 1962, "bodge" is several centuries older, first appearing in the mid-16th century in the "patch clumsily" sense. And the root of "bodge" turns out to be even older. "Bodge," it seems, arose as a mutated form of the verb "to botch," which appeared in the 14th century meaning simply "to fix," but soon acquired the sense of "to fix clumsily," and eventually (around 1530) took on its modern meaning of "to bungle." "Bodge," however, retained the older meaning of "do the best with what you have."
Dear Word Detective: I am curious about the origin of the phrase "It cuts no ice with me," usually used to suggest that a topic is underwhelming. I encountered an explanation in a novel by Patrick O'Brian, in which one of the characters ascribed it to an Iroquois saying which he rendered as "cuzno ais mizme," and which he said meant "I don't believe you." The work is fiction, of course, but O'Brian got a lot of other stuff right in his novels. Can you verify if this origin is correct or not? -- Ed Nather, Austin, Texas.
Not even close. I am rather surprised that Mr. O'Brian, whose seafaring novels are rightly celebrated for their authenticity, would have fallen for this turkey of a theory. Please tell me that the character who espouses this nonsense is later eaten by a walrus.
"It cuts no ice with me" means that something makes no difference or does not influence the speaker's feelings on the matter. For example, your protestations that you were only picking up some throat lozenges for your poor sick goldfish will probably "cut no ice" with the traffic cop writing you a ticket for double-parking. The phrase first appeared in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and while it has spread widely since, its origin remains a bit of a mystery. There is absolutely no evidence, however, that any language other than English was involved.
It is possible, according to some authorities, that "cuts no ice" originally referred to an ice-skater so inept that his or her skates, at least metaphorically, didn't even cut the surface of the ice. Other sources trace the phrase to the days of block ice cut from ponds and used for refrigeration, in which case "to cut no ice" would, at least among ice-cutters, mean to be useless or ineffectual.
My own suspicion is that "cut no ice," while it may have originally been inspired by the cutting of block ice, from the beginning played on "ice" as a metaphor for indifference or stubbornness. Thus, to say that something "cuts no ice with me" would be to say that it does not "cut through" my cold determination to do something.
Dear Word Detective: I was in London last year visiting my sister, when walking past the back door of a restaurant I saw a sign that said "No Fly Tipping." Now, we figured that since there was a dumpster there, it meant no dumping of unauthorized garbage. We asked every British person we knew what it meant. None of them knew, and only about half of the people agreed with our guess. Other proposed definitions included "no urinating on the wall" and something involving prostitutes. I've since discovered that "no fly tipping" does mean "no illicit dumping of garbage," but no one seems to know why. I find it odd that even the British government uses an unfamiliar slang phrase to describe an illegal activity (accompanied by a fine in many places). What is the origin of the term "fly tipping"? -- Kathleen, via the internet.
How odd. As soon as I read your question, I popped "fly tipping" into Google and came up with hundreds of hits, most of which led to web pages set up by cities and towns in Britain advising their citizens of the dire consequences to follow if said citizens were to dump their refuse in unauthorized places. Judging by the grave tone of these pages, it seems that "fly tipping" is regarded as a crime in the UK on a par with espionage and making fun of the Royal Family. So it's odd that none of the natives you asked had any idea of what all those warnings mean. The hangman must be very busy over there.
"Tipping" is a very old British term for dumping, first appearing around 1838. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "tipping" is defined as "the tilting up of a truck so as to discharge its contents; the emptying out of the contents of a truck, etc., by tilting; dumping." While "tipping" originally referred to rubbish and the like dumped from a truck, it has since become a synonym for any sort of refuse disposal.
The "fly" in "fly tipping" is a bit more obscure, but it appears to be derived from "to fly" in the familiar aviation sense. Since the early 19th century, "fly" has been British (and sometimes American) slang for "wide awake" or "clever," and currently carries the connotation in Britain of "crafty" or "dishonest." So "fly tipping" is rubbish dumping done sneakily (and illegally).
Dear Word Detective: This morning I heard on the radio that John Edwards threw his hat in the ring and announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. I know what that means, but I'm wondering if you can help me with its derivation. -- Mark Curley, via the internet.
Good grief, more elections? We seem to have elections almost as often as I take the cat to the vet, which is to say every three days or so. In January, Sparky started drooling uncontrollably, so I popped him in the Kitty Kage and drove him to the clinic, where Doctor Floss (yeah, like I'm going to try to floss a cat) said he had evidently chewed through a power cord at some point. I figure it probably happened when Brownie the Dog wrapped the xmas light cords around her doggy neck and almost strangled while she was trying, for some obscure reason, to climb the Christmas tree. Maybe Sparky was trying to rescue the dumb dog. Everyone's OK, by the way, and none of this has anything to do with political candidates (except possibly the uncontrollable drooling part).
To "throw your hat in the ring" is an Americanism dating back to the early 19th century meaning to enter a contest, especially to declare your candidacy for political office. The "ring" in question was originally a boxing ring or other venue set up for fighting. Evidently it was the custom on the American frontier for a pugilist to literally throw his hat into the ring as a way of announcing that he was prepared to take on anyone in the crowd. The first use of the phrase in a political context was probably in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt announced his intention to challenge William Howard Taft for the U.S. presidency: "My hat's in the ring. The fight is on, and I'm stripped to the buff." The phrase has been a staple of American politics ever since, although, as William Safire points out in his "Safire's New Political Dictionary" (Random House, 1993), it tends to mutate in the hands of newspaper editorialists. Speaking of that same bitter Taft-Roosevelt contest, Harper's Weekly opined that "Hate, not hat, is in the ring," and when former child star Shirley Temple announced her candidacy for Congress in 1967, The New York Times snarkily declared that she had thrown "her curls in the ring."
Dear Word Detective: The morning news told me that Saddam Hussein has been "thumbing his nose" at the international community. I'm sure I've seen a photo of him doing this, so I know the report is true, even though it seems to me more like an Italian or New Yorker gesture. Is this just the verbal phrasing of a gesture as common as waving or does it have some sinister meaning? -- Phil Wade, Chattanooga, TN.
Well, I think that by now "thumbing one's nose" as a gesture of derision is a nearly universal human gesture, probably almost as common in Baghdad as in Brooklyn. I myself haven't seen any pictures of Saddam Hussein expressing himself in this fashion, though I almost wish he would. Anything would be better than being forced to watch that clip, over and over again, of him firing that stupid rifle into the air.
"Thumbing one's nose" has no sinister meaning that I know of beyond indicating extreme contempt. The gesture basically consists of touching your nose with the tip of your thumb, spreading your other fingers upward, and wiggling them in the most annoying way you can manage. This gesture, also known as "giving the five-finger salute" and "cocking a snook," dates back to at least the 18th century and is probably much older. As is true of many kinds of human non-verbal communication, the gesture itself has probably always been meaningless, and it's the thought that counts. The recipient of a "nose thumbing" finds it insulting simply because he or she knows it is meant to be insulting. Who knows? Perhaps there's a parallel universe somewhere where a cheerful wave is considered a deadly insult.
Dear Word Detective: I have recently come across an item which informed me that in England, in days gone by, a man could divorce his wife on the grounds of her being "silly." Call me silly but, I'm willing to bet that the word "silly" has undergone a change in meaning since then. Could you please be so kind as to inform this silly woman just what "silly" meant in times past? -- Patricia Godfrey, via the internet.
Well, much as I hate to interrupt such a rousing session of self-abnegation, I really cannot agree with your assessment of yourself as "silly." It is "silly" itself that is "silly," and you are absolutely correct that it has changed its meaning, not just once but several times, during its history. In defense of "silly," however, I must note that mutations of meaning, sometimes quite radical ("nice," for instance, at one point meant "stupid"), are fairly common in the evolution of English words. A few years ago, in fact, the British lexicographer Adrian Room collected the stories of about 1,300 such sense-shifters in the very fine book "Dunces, Gourmands and Petticoats" (NTC, 1997). Petticoats, for example, were originally short coats (Old French "pety cote," little coat) worn by men, not women.
Meanwhile, back at "silly," Mr. Room notes that "this adjective is well-known for its remarkable sense shift over the centuries," and points out that for the first 200 or so years it was spelled "seely." The root of "silly" was the Germanic "saeli," meaning "happiness or luck," and when the word entered Old English it meant both "happy" and "holy." From the 14th century onward, however, it gradually came to mean "blessed," then "innocent," then "harmless," then "helpless or pitiable," then "weak, poor or feeble," then "weak in the mind or crazy," until finally in the 16th century it acquired its modern meaning of "foolish."
As for the theory that at some point men could divorce their wives on
grounds of "silliness," if in fact that story is true, my guess would be
that such a law must have used "silly" in the now-antiquated sense of
Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word "barf"? Everyone knows this word, and everyone knows what it means. But I could not find it in my 1919 copy of Webster's Unabridged, nor in my mid-1980's American Heritage. The online Merriam-Webster lists "barf," but no etymology. Now why would I wonder? Well, I was in the Frye art museum in Seattle, and after having looked through their art collection, I found myself in a back hallway where they have a photographic exhibit of the crash of the Boeing XB-29 bomber (the test version of the B-29) in 1943. The plane crashed, after an engine fire, into the Frye meat processing factory. In a case in the middle of the hall were a few items related to the Frye factory, including a label from a case of Frye's BAR-F utility grade canned meat. Ugh! Could THAT be the origin of "barf"? -- Michael Hobbs, Kirkland, WA.
Utility grade canned meat? Yum! But if only the label from the case is left, I guess that means somebody actually ate the stuff. Instant Jackson Pollock in my book, but tastes vary. Personally, I'd have held out for the Premium Grade, maybe even some of those nifty canned "Vienna Sausages" they sell at our local Quickie-Mart. If they're from Vienna, they've gotta be good, right?
I can't imagine why the Frye Company would have named their canned meat product "BAR-F," unless they were aiming for a faux-cowboy market ("Let's swing by the BAR-F ranch, Clyde, and pick us up some cans of potted cow"). There is, in fact, a company named "Bar-F Products" (www.horseboots.com/BarF.html) that produces horse booties and other riding products.
Meanwhile, back at your question, a connection twixt canned meat and "barf," meaning "to vomit," is not absolutely impossible. After all, the junk e-mail we now call "spam" took its name from the Hormel canned meat product (by way of a famous Monty Python skit set in a restaurant that served nothing that didn't contain Spam). But expert opinion on "barf," which first appeared in the late 1940s as slang among U.S. college students, chalks the term up as "origin unknown." The Oxford English Dictionary quite reasonably guesses that "barf" might be "echoic" in origin, meaning that the word arose from the sound of the action itself. That seems most likely to me too, but the existence of BAR-F utility grade canned meat remains at least a remarkable coincidence.
Dear Word Detective: I have read the term "Birds of a feather" used many times as a sort of exclamation. It confuses me though, because the phrase makes it seem as if the "birds" belonged to the "feather," in the same way as one might say "the words of a letter." No wait, that's still confusing. All right, "birds of a feather" is a phrase built in such a way that it sounds like "wheels of a car," but a car has wheels whereas a feather doesn't have birds: birds have feathers. So shouldn't it "feathers of a bird"? Additionally, sometimes there is a second half to that sentence, or whatever it is, that I unfortunately can't recall. Could you tell what "Birds of a feather..." means, why it sounds so distinctly odd, and what the ending of that phrase is supposed to be? I'm hopelessly confused. -- Banu, via the internet.
Me too, and I could have sworn I understood the phrase before I read your question. So let's all just sit quietly for a moment and then begin at the beginning.
Ready? The phrase you are thinking of is "Birds of a feather flock together," and it is a very old proverb. In that precise wording, it dates back to at least the 17th century, but in the same general sense it is found in the Bible. It simply means that like attracts like, that people who share similar tastes, backgrounds, etc., tend to hang out together. "Of a feather" is a rather archaic phrase, but it simply means "of a kind" or "of the same species," as the type or color of feathers a bird sports is often the most noticeable evidence of its species. Shakespeare used "feather" in this sense in "Timon of Athens" in 1607: "I am not of that Feather, to shake off My Friend when he must neede me," meaning "I'm not that kind of person."
Interestingly, although "birds of a feather" can be used in a friendly, inclusive sense ("You and I are birds of a feather, Clyde. We both like ketchup on our waffles"), the proverb is more often invoked in a dismissive tone ("That loser Pam ran into my ex-boyfriend Charlie at the Star Trek convention. Birds of a feather flock together, I guess"). If your acquaintances are using "birds of a feather" by itself as an exclamation, they probably mean it in this "that figures" sense.
Dear Word Detective: I have the definition of the word "bunk" or "bunkum" traced back to the name Buncombe, a county in Western North Carolina where I grew up. My question is, how did the word come to mean "hogwash" or "pishposh" or "fiddle faddle," etc.? -- John Harris, via the internet.
"Bunkum" (or "bunk" for short) is U.S. slang for "utter nonsense" or, as you say, "hogwash." To say something is "bunk" is to say that it is absolute rubbish, drivel, hot air, humbug, baloney, empty talk not even worthy of consideration. Much of the e-mail spam clogging the internet, for example, from the "herbal Viagra" pitches to the "Nigerian finance minister" scams, is Grade A Bunk.
Much of what one sees on C-Span is also primo "bunkum," which makes perfect sense, since it was in the U.S. House of Representatives that "bunkum" was born. Way back in 1820, the House was debating a measure known as the Missouri Compromise, which, as I'm sure we all remember from history class, dealt with the contentious issue of slavery in states joining the Union. Midway through a highly emotional floor debate, a certain Rep. Felix Walker, whose North Carolina district happened to include Buncombe County, rose to speak. And he spoke, and he spoke, and he spoke, and as he spoke it became clear to everyone that what he was saying was totally irrelevant to the matter at hand, but he would not stop and no one (though many tried) could get him to shut up. Finally, with his colleagues almost at the point of strangling him, he declared that his constituents in Buncombe County wished him to speak and he therefore had "a duty to make a speech for Buncombe." Then he started talking again.
But his contemporaries had their revenge, and within a few years "buncombe" (later "bunkum") had become, and remains, an enduring synonym for absolute hogwash.
Dear Word Detective: One of the many things I like about Boston is the gargoyles. The building across the street from me (The Burrage House on the corner of Commonwealth Ave and Hereford St.) is an homage to the European architectural feature of the gargoyle -- it's probably the most ornamented house in Boston. My wife asked me what "gargoyle" means and, after making up a nonsense answer that she may or may not have believed, "It's French for broken animal," I realized that I could look it up online and find the answer. I read that it means "throat," but I have a hard time swallowing that explanation. -- Anthony, via the internet.
Well, I don't blame you for being skeptical, but it happens to be true. The root of "gargoyle" is the Old French "gargouille," which literally means "throat." The word "gargoyle" first appeared in English in the 15th century, adopted from the French, as a term for the elaborate and bizarre carved figures of animals found on many Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Perhaps the most famous gargoyles in the world adorn Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and I happen to have a small replica of one of those gargoyles sitting on my desk, right next to the wind-up chicken.
According to legend, back in seventh century France a huge and hideous dragon named Gargouille lived in the River Seine near Rouen. This monster, with a long, reptilian neck (thus the name) and fearsome wings, terrorized the countryside, devouring ships and demanding human sacrifices from the townsfolk of Rouen. Finally, in return for everyone in town converting to Catholicism, Saint Romanus subdued the monster by making the sign of the cross. The townsfolk then burned the critter at the stake (must have been a pretty big stake) and mounted his head on the town wall as a monument to their ordeal. Thus, it is said, began the tradition of putting gargoyles on buildings.
A simpler but less dramatic explanation of gargoyles, which began to appear on buildings around A.D. 1200, posits a primarily utilitarian origin. Look closely at the gargoyles on a Gothic cathedral and you'll notice that they serve a purpose beyond ornamentation. They function as downspouts, gathering the rainwater from the gutters and projecting it (usually through the creature's "gargouille" or "throat") away from the building's foundations. The bizarre shapes of the carvings may have been either a ploy to ward off demons or an attempt to attract and convert pagans.
Dear Word Detective: Can you could explain the meaning of the words "per se"? I'm not even sure if that's the correct spelling. It's pronounced "Per Say," and I've seen it spelled both ways. I've noticed that more and more people have been using it lately, and I have even heard it used in commercials on the radio. Every time I hear it I ask the person what they mean, and if they can give a definition of the word. Usually I get a "If you don't know, then I'm not going to tell you" look, which leads me to believe that they don't know what it means either and are just using it to sound intelligent and trendy. Please help me with this one if you can. -- Greg Imler, via the internet.
Sure, no problem, and it's refreshing that you've done your best to investigate an unknown phrase rather than simply playing along with the herd. Too often I am only called in after a misunderstimation has already occurred, leading to subliminable damage to the speaker's credibility. To thine own self be true, I always say, and pay no allegiance to buffoons. And if you suspect that the emperor has no clothes, it's no time to start unbuttoning yourself. I do hope you folks brought your decoder rings to class today.
"Per se" (as it is spelled) is, as you might suspect, Latin, although it has been used in standard English for more than 400 years. Literally, "per se" simply means "in itself," in the sense of "by itself, intrinsically." In common usage, "per se" is a way of saying "considering the thing itself, rather than any other factors or considerations that might affect the situation." One might say, for instance, "While water wings are not, per se, an undesirable gift, the fact that it is the dead of winter, not to mention our tenth wedding anniversary, means that you will be hearing from my lawyer."
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "veterinarian"? Shouldn't it be "animalist" or "beastoligist"? -- Dani Whittaker, via the internet.
Well, golly, out here in the boondocks we call them "critter fixers," and pay them in squirrel pelts. Not really, of course. In fact, our local veterinarian hospital has all sorts of state-of-the-art gizmos and routinely does sophisticated surgery on Spot and Fluffy. But unlike city vets, these folks also spend a lot of their time tending to ailing livestock, meaning that they have to know how to fix everything from a sprained hamster to a dyspeptic Holstein. I don't know how they keep it all straight, assuming they do. I'm sure it's purely coincidental that after a few visits to the clinic our dogs started to spend all their time grazing in the front yard and developed a ravenous appetite for oats. Not that I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, of course. We're saving a fortune on Alpo.
"Veterinarians," doctors who deal with the diseases and treatment of non-human animals, have been around in one form or another since human beings first started domesticating animals. But while most of us trot to the vet when Fido swallows a spatula or Billy the Goldfish starts looking a bit peaked, veterinary medicine originally focused primarily on work animals, such as horses, and livestock, primarily cattle. Thus the term "veterinarian" is quite logically derived from the Latin word "veterinae," meaning "cattle." Considering how long humans have been domesticating animals, "veterinarian" is a rather recent arrival in English, first appearing in the 17th century. "Veterinary," the adjective, is even newer, dating only to the late 18th century.
By the way, a buzzword currently fashionable among editorialists and TV talking heads also harks back to the days when a vet's patients were cows and farmers' fortunes depended on their moolies' health. "To vet" originally meant "to examine carefully and treat medically," as a veterinarian would livestock. Today "to vet" is used to mean "to closely examine the background, character and trustworthiness of a person, especially one considered for a sensitive post or public office."
Dear Word Detective: Our New Hampshire Supreme Court invented a new meaning for the word "cherish," used in our state constitution, to create the requirement that the government will "cherish" education. They decided that "cherish" also means "finance," but, supposedly, only in this specific instance. Is there anything in the derivation of "cherish" that would imply to "finance"? Is this a common practice, to create a new meaning for a word, to be used only in a specific situation? -- Walter J. Allen, via the internet.
Gee, isn't language fun? It's especially fun when politicians get involved and start wrestling over definitions and pretty soon the editorials start and talk radio gets cranked up and the average person starts to wonder if it might not be a really good idea to require all public business to be conducted in sign language for the next 100 years or so.
The situation in New Hampshire is news to me, but I did some poking around on the internet and found the relevant part of your state constitution, which says, in part: "Knowledge and learning … being essential to the preservation of a free government ... it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates ... to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools, to encourage private and public institutions …yadda yadda yadda." So the question seems to be whether "cherish" could conceivably mean "financially support" and, if so, whether the State of New Hampshire therefore has a duty to fund all schools in the state (and to collect taxes to do so, of course). I know there's a lot more to the case, including whether your constitution is as similar to that of Massachusetts (where "cherish" apparently does legally mean "support") as some folks think it is. But I have enough trouble trying to understand the school funding ruckus here in Ohio, so I'll leave it there.
"Cherish" entered English in the 14th century, derived from the Old French "cherir," meaning "to hold dear." Today we use "cherish" to mean "care for tenderly, to foster, guard and encourage," as well as to mean "to remember fondly, to cling to." The sense used in your state constitution seems, to my ears, to be equivalent to "value highly, protect and encourage," which seems pretty close to "support," which may indeed mean "finance." It's a close call, but it's not as though the court decided "cherish" meant "cheeseburger" or "zebra." And yes, courts are frequently called upon to decide what words written long in the past actually mean today.
Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "It's a dog's life" come from? And, more importantly, what does it mean? Is a "dog's life" a "good" or "easy" life (such as my modern-day dogs' lives), or does it mean it's a hard life (i.e., possibly a "street" dog in the Middle Ages)? When someone says "it's a dog's life," what are they trying to say? -- Nancy J. Shoger, via the internet.
Well, I'd ask my dog Brownie, but she's sound asleep on the living-room couch at the moment with all four legs in the air. And her assistant, Pokie, is taking her post-lunch snooze in her chair in the corner of my office. It's a little demoralizing to realize that I'm sitting here working at least in part to buy dog food for two creatures whose jobs consist entirely of eating, sleeping and barking at birds.
'Twas not, however, always such a cushy life for Man's Best Friend. For much of human history, dogs have been left to fend for themselves on the fringes of human society, with none of the consideration (not to mention food and shelter) that humans lavish on their pets today. So grim was the average dog's lot until relatively recently that to lead "a dog's life" has meant to lead a life of misery and abject subservience since at least the 17th century. Not surprisingly, such an ordeal rarely had a happy ending, and "to die like a dog" has meant to die a disgraceful or miserable death since the 16th century.
There were, of course, exceptions to the brutal treatment of dogs in ages past. The expression "Love me, love my dog" is found in many languages and has been common in English since the 12th century.
Dear Word Detective: Recently my English teacher assigned us a word origin project. In passing, he mentioned that the word "orange" would be a good word to do our project on, and that if we ever found its origins, they wouldn't be correct if they didn't include something about an elephant. I am thoroughly confused as I cannot find any mention of the word "orange" and its origins from any source. It doesn't really matter now for my project, but it is kind of interesting. -- Brianon, via the internet.
Please ask your teacher to see me after class. There are two possible explanations for his rather cryptic remark. One is that he is aware of some esoteric literary or zoological reference involving elephants and the word "orange" that I have as yet been unable to exhume. The other is that an orange elephant has actually spoken to him, in which case we should probably ask him to ask the elephant what word rhymes with "orange." It's a long shot, but lots of us would like to know.
The question everyone asks about "orange" is which came first, the color or the fruit. It was the fruit, and "orange," the color between yellow and red, is called "orange" because "oranges" are one of the few things in nature that occur in that color and no other. English adopted "orange" back in the 14th century from the Old French "orenge." The French, in turn, had borrowed "orange" from the Arabic "naranj," which was derived from the Persian "narang," which was lifted from the Sanskrit "naranga," which meant simply "orange tree."
You may have noticed (and this would have been a good bit to put in your paper, had you written it) that the French evidently somehow lost the initial "n" in the Arabic "naranj." "Metanalysis" is the process of a word being re-divided over time, often losing or gaining an initial letter. In early English, for example, an "ekename" was an "additional" ("eke" being an archaic word for "also") name for a person. Over time, "an ekename" drifted into "a nekename," and eventually became our modern "nickname." A similar process evidently occurred in French, where "une narange" ("an orange") gradually became "une arange."
Dear Word Detective: Does the word "rangy" (meaning "tall and slim") have anything to do with orangutans (o-RANG-utans)? I thought perhaps extra-long arms had something to do with it. -- Mark Wujek, Tokyo, Japan.
No respect. I get no respect. My family put you up to this, didn't they? It's true that I do have somewhat longer arms than I really need (although I don't hear anyone complaining when a light bulb needs changing). But I resent any implied orangutan comparisons. I've been walking upright most of my life (and, on formal occasions, without fail). Furthermore, climbing trees happens to be fun, and bananas, in case you haven't heard, are good for you.
In any case, your theory is an interesting one, but no dice. There is no connection whatsoever between "orangutan," the arboreal anthropoid ape native to Borneo and Sumatra in the Malay Archipelago southwest of the Philippines, and "rangy," meaning "tall and slender." The orangutan takes its name from the original Malay term for the animal, "orang utan," meaning "man of the woods." The word "orangutan" entered English, adopted from the equivalent Dutch term "orang-outang," around 1699.
"Rangy" is a somewhat more complicated story. The root of "rangy" is our English word "range," which we derived from the familiar word "rank," which we had adopted from the Old French "ranc" in the sense of "a line or row of things." While "rank" went on to develop a variety of meanings as both a noun (as in the "ranks" of a military formation) and verb (as we "rank" our favorite movies by placing them in an imaginary ordered line), "range" developed its own set of meanings. From the sense of "a long line or wide expanse of things" (as in "riding the range"), "range" developed the sense as a verb of "to travel widely over an area." It then made sense to describe an animal or person who looked to be well-suited to "ranging," especially one tall, slim and rugged, as "rangy." So cowboys in particular, and the movie stars who played them (think Gary Cooper), have often been described as "rangy." The term "rangy" in this sense is, not surprisingly, an American invention and first appeared in the late 19th century.
Dear Word Detective: I heard that the word "stop" comes from an acronym for "Step Totally Onto Pedal." Is that so? -- Monique, via the internet.
Not unless someone can produce a horse with pedals and brake lights. Actually, the straight answer is "Not even close," but I'm sure that won't prevent this theory from ricocheting around the internet for the next 10 years or so. There are times, and this is one of them (election day being another), when I wish that it were possible to tone down human beings' natural and entirely understandable (but deeply infuriating) affection for simple answers to complex questions. Among the problems with the theory you've heard is the fact that acronyms (words formed from the initial letters of the words making up a phrase), while they are an appealingly simple explanation for the origin of a given word, were very rare in English before World War II, so any word in use before that time is extremely unlikely to have started out as an acronym.
Meanwhile, back at your question, the word "stop" is much, much older than modern English itself. We inherited "stop" from the Old English word "stoppian," which in turn had developed from the Germanic root word "stoppon," meaning "to close an opening, to block," and which may have been related to the Vulgar Latin "stuppare," meaning "to stuff up." In most languages related to English, the relatives of "stop" have retained the original meaning of "to close up" (as English does in such forms as the "stopper" or plug of a bottle or other vessel). Our modern use of the verb "stop" to mean "cease or come to a halt" was a later development (around 1440) only in English, although other languages have since adopted this additional meaning of "stop" (as in the German "stoppen").
Dear Word Detective: I thought you might be able to illuminate the origins of the phrase "To carry a torch," meaning to have a romantic interest in someone. -- Penny, via the internet.
Illuminate? Would you settle for a small glow? Speaking of torches, while researching your question, I came across a nice little bit of doggerel written by William Blake (1757–1827), the British poet, painter and mystic: "Thou Fair-haired Angel of the Evening, Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown put on, and smile upon our evening bed!" Hubba hubba. No wonder the hippies were so hyped on Blake.
The problem with that "bright torch of love" business is that some people, unfortunately, keep emoting right past the point when the torch burns out. Since at least 1927, "to carry the torch" (or "carry a torch" for someone) has meant to continue to love and pine for someone long after the object of affection has left the building and any reasonable hope of amorous success has passed. By 1934, romantic ballads of lost love and broken hearts were known as "torch songs," and female nightclub singers who made them their specialty were known as "torch singers."
Just how the torch came to symbolize romantic obsession is a bit
unclear, though there are several possible sources. According to legend,
the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412-322 B.C.) spent considerable
time wandering around the countryside in broad daylight bearing either a
lamp or a torch, looking for an honest man, a quest which certainly
satisfies the "futility" aspect of "carry a torch." On the other hand,
Venus, the Goddess of Love, is often depicted bearing a torch, and the
Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is famous for her beacon of hope.
Most likely, "carry a torch" simply arose from the image of a torch as an
aid in searching, in this case for lost love.
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