Issue of April 10, 2007

Page Two


More or less.

Dear Word Detective: My mother (a full blooded Italian) used to say "come si come sa" (not sure of spelling), and I never knew what that meant. I've searched everywhere to no avail. Could you please enlighten me? -- Clint.

Take a seat, Clint. I have some possibly rather shocking news. Based on what you've told me, there are serious doubts about your mother's supposed Italian heritage. Believe me, I know just how you feel. For years I presumed I was German because people in my family routinely said "Gesundheit" whenever someone sneezed. It wasn't until I discovered my dislike of sauerkraut and affinity for cheese on toast that I realized I must be largely Welsh. But I adapted to the news quite well, and now I can quote Dylan Thomas on nearly any occasion ("Time held me green and hey, how about those Mets?"), so I'm sure you'll be fine.

Anyway, I hope this doesn't affect your security clearance, but it sounds to me like you're actually at least part French. "Comme ci, comme ca" (pronounced "kohm see, kohm sah") is a French phrase meaning, literally, "like this, like that." In common usage, it means "so so" or "fair to middling," a term of mild but qualified (and definitely lukewarm) approval, as in "The restaurant got a rave in the Times, but the pan-seared Twinkies the reviewer loved so much were definitely comme si, comme sa." That which is "comme si, comme sa" is barely adequate, better than nothing but not by much. To use the phrase properly, by the way, you'll need to extend your palm just above your waist and tilt it from side to side while saying "comme si, comme sa."

Incidentally, to be absolutely serious for a moment, the fact that your mother used the phrase doesn't mean that she even knew it was French. While "comme ci, comme ca" is definitely French in origin, it has been in common use in English for long enough (just after World War II, in fact) that it is now considered an established English phrase. Judging by the timing of its appearance in English publications, "comme ci, comme ca" was probably popularized by American GIs returning from service in France.

So, now that you're in touch with your inner French person, why not sprinkle your speech with a few more "bon mots"? A good French phrasebook will have your friends either green with envy or dialing the funny farm in no time. "Chacon son gout" (shac-un son goo) is a good one, the French equivalent of "tastes vary" or "whatever floats your boat." But my favorite, for which there is no real English equivalent, is "esprit d'escalier" (literally "wit of the staircase"), meaning the perfect witty reply that pops into your mind just after the opportunity to say it has passed.

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Light my tiny monster.

Dear Word Detective: I found the following at "Between about 30 to 35 degrees north and 30 to 35 degrees south of the equator lies the region known as the 'horse latitudes' or the subtropical high. This region of subsiding dry air and high pressure results in weak winds. Tradition states that sailors gave the region of the subtropical high the name 'horse latitudes' because ships relying on wind power stalled; fearful of running out of food and water, sailors threw their horses and cattle overboard to save on provisions. (It's a puzzle why sailors would not have eaten the animals instead of throwing them overboard.) The Oxford English Dictionary claims the origin of the term 'uncertain.'" I wonder why they wouldn't eat the doomed animals as well. Do you have any more info? Can you corroborate the throwing of livestock overboard theory? -- Sonja.

No, but I can verify that the late Jim Morrison once wrote a poem called "Horse Latitudes" and that a song derived therefrom appeared on the Doors' "Strange Days" album. Let's take a little listen: "When the still sea conspires an armor/And her sullen and aborted currents breed tiny monsters/True sailing is dead/Awkward instant/And the first animal is jettisoned/Legs furiously pumping/Their stiff green gallop/And heads bob up/Poise/Delicate/Pause/Consent/In mute nostril agony/Carefully refined/And sealed over."

Like wow. I think "Mute Nostril Agony" would make a great band name, don't you?

The only thing that makes the preceding snarkiness even marginally relevant, I must admit, is that Morrison apparently wrote that after seeing an illustration of horses being thrown overboard in high school. (Morrison was the one in high school, of course, not the horses. Horses didn't go to high school back then.) In any case, Jim's immortal lyrics are an indication of how widespread the "Golly, we're becalmed, better drown the horses" theory of "horse latitudes" is today. Theories of motive, however, vary. Some say the hayburners were jettisoned to save water and/or food, some say they were tossed to lighten the ship and make the best of what little wind there was. Neither theory is convincing, and, since horsemeat is still consumed by many folks in parts of Europe, the "saving food" angle makes no sense at all.

Another theory, that "horse latitudes" derives from the Spanish "El Golfo de las Yeguas" (the Sea of Mares) makes a bit more sense. Originally applied to the route between Spain and the Canary Islands, the name arose, depending on which story one believes, either because the ocean winds in that region were unpredictable (supposedly like a female horse), or because breeding mares shipped to the Canaries had a high fatality rate in transit due to the arduous conditions of the trip. If the latter is true, and horses did indeed die of heat or thirst while ships were becalmed elsewhere in the "horse latitudes," the name could well have spread across the entire ocean.

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Still running.

Dear Word Detective: In a recent column you gave an explanation of "on the lam" as originating from a radio newscast in the 1920s. I disagree that this is the origin of the term. I think that the expression of being "on the lamb" originated with the Odyssey of Homer, and more specifically with the section of this epic story in which Odysseus and his men were being held captive in the cave of the one-eyed Cyclops. If you will recall, the men had blinded the Cyclops by putting out his one and only eye. He kept sheep and lambs in the same cave where he kept the captive soldiers imprisoned. The sheep and lambs were let out to graze on a daily basis. They had to pass by the blinded Cyclops in order to leave the cave. He felt the lambs' woolly bodies and determined that they were sheep or lambs and let them pass by unimpeded. The soldiers, being ever so alert and clever, took ropes and tied themselves to the underside or belly of the lambs. The Cyclops felt the woolly hides of the lambs and let them pass. Therefore the soldiers were able to escape from the cave of the Cyclops by quite literally being tied "on the lambs." This is the more plausible origin of the term and one which has over 2,000 years of historical precedent. -- David M.

Hmm. This is a bit awkward, but as far as I can tell, I have never suggested that "on the lam" originated in a 1920s radio broadcast, although if you were searching on the net for the origin of the term, you may well have found someone who did.

What I did say was that the term "on the lam" first appeared in print in the late 19th century, and that "lam" (from the Old Norse "lamja") has meant "to beat" in English since the 16th century. "To lam it" in the underworld slang of mid-1800s was the exact equivalent of "to beat it," i.e., run away so fast that your feet seemed to "beat" the pavement. So to be "on the lam" simply meant to be "on the run," a fugitive from justice.

Given the phonetic similarity between "lam" and "lamb," the story of how Odysseus and his men outwitted the Cyclops does furnish an intriguing sidelight to "on the lam." But there is no evidence that there is any actual connection to the phrase, and a good deal of evidence that there isn't. There's the little matter of that 2,000 year gap between Homer's epic (written between 800 and 600 B.C.) and the appearance of the phrase. There's also the fact that, to my knowledge, the phrase "on the lamb" or anything similar doesn't occur in any other language. More importantly, the form "on the lamb" does not appear at any point in English, which would be expected if it had been the original form that later mutated into "on the lam." But "lam" in the "beat" sense has a long, documented history in English which can be traced in citations right up to the appearance of "on the lam."

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A zippy lede makes light the grafs.

Dear Word Detective: In the newspaper biz, the lead sentence(s) of a story or the most important article of a publication is referred to among journalists as the "lede." Supposedly this intentionally erroneous variant of the spelling of "lead" is used to avoid confusion in the newspaper operation about whether a note refers to "the first sentences" (pronounced with a long "e") or "the line spacing" (leading), or the material of which type was made (atomic symbol Pb, pronounced with a short "e"). In journalism classes, students are told that there are many anecdotes about how things got messed up due to confusion about what the writer meant, hence "lede." But I've yet to hear any of those anecdotes and nobody I've talked to about it can recall a single one. They "know" that there ARE anecdotes, but don't know what those stories might be.

The explanation doesn't make sense to me, as I think a writer's intentions would be clear from the context in which the word is used, regardless the spelling. In my skeptical view, the explanation is a bit of folklore -- a made-up, back-formed explanation that sounds plausible but does not hold up under scrutiny. I have a theory, though, that "lede" is leftover from an earlier spelling of the word (which changed in the 16th century to "lead"), and that editors (being well-known for their curmudgeonly ways regarding language) continued to use the old spelling while the technologists who made and used type adopted the newer "hip" form. Of course, I've been wrong about one or two things in the past. What's your view? Do you know any anecdotes about pressroom confusion or have any sources regarding the derivation of this alternate spelling that would allay my skepticism? -- Bob Kalsey.

I admire your skepticism, and I have heard the "confusion" explanation for years, but never a concrete example. Then again, if the seminal mistakes were made by obscure editors (who were then probably sacked), the lack of specifics is understandable.

Moreover, having worked as a proofreader for several years at the end of the "hot type" era, I can vouch for the importance of the distinction between "lead" and "lede." "Leading" (pronounced like the metal) back then was thin strips of lead used as line spacers in typesetting machines. A proofreader's (or editor's) quick note to "fix lead" could mean thus either that the first paragraph is garbled (poorly written or set in the wrong type) or that the lines are incorrectly spaced, two very different problems. And take it from me, typesetters working on a deadline hate ambiguity (often at top volume) and are not in the business of judging context to decode "lead." So I tend to believe the "avoid confusion" explanation.

The most important article on a front page is actually usually spelled "lead" (or called the "leader" in the US), by the way (so every "lead" has a "lede"). The "leader" in a British newspaper is the main editorial.

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Roll out the barrel.

Dear Word Detective: My first job out of college involved giving people tours of an old medical school building at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. In the corner of one of the rooms was an old barrel -- supposedly to carry dead bodies from the graveyard to the med school where students would dissect them. The story goes that the barrel would have whiskey in it so that if the gravediggers were stopped on the street, they could tap the barrel and prove to the officer that it was a delivery of alcohol going to the local bar. Once the body was removed at the school, the gravediggers would either drink the whiskey themselves or sell it cheap to the students. This booze was called "rot gut whiskey" since the dead bodies would have been in the early state of deterioration. This is the story that I told to hundreds of people during these tours. Now I wonder -- is this the right source for the term "rot gut whiskey" or was I spreading an urban legend without knowing it? -- Michelle Wilkinson, now in Seattle.

That's an interesting question, but first, I have my own story. Last summer our neighbor sold his house to a fellow who was delighted that the land included, among other things, a small pond stocked with fish. "Hey, now I can shoot my own fish," the buyer said. The seller thought he was joking. But a mere twelve hours into his occupancy we heard this clown blasting away at the poor fishies. Not quite "shooting fish in a barrel," but close enough.

That story, by the way, is true, which is a quality the one about "rotgut" you heard (and innocently spread) does not share. And unlike superficially plausible word-origin fables that can be difficult to debunk, this one can be deflated as easily as shooting fish in a pond. It's full of glitches.

Glitch Number One is the fact that "rotgut" as slang for adulterated or very low quality liquor or beer first appeared in print in 1633. The website of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, however, informs us that "The School of Medicine was established in 1807," the same year the University itself was founded. Oops.

Glitch Number Two is that the story makes no real sense. While cadavers were, historically, sometimes obtained by medical researchers and others by less than straightforward means (Michelangelo, for instance, is said to have stolen corpses to study anatomy), the "stiff-in-the-barrel" plan is awkward, overly elaborate and, thus, almost certain to "leak" (yuk yuk) to the police.

Glitch Number Three is that the story is utterly unnecessary. "Rotgut" whiskey (or beer) is so-called because it was so crudely made that it was suspected (quite rightly) of damaging ("rotting") the innards ("guts") of its drinker.

The only remaining question is who put that bogus barrel in the corner.

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Drip drip drip.

Dear Word Detective: Over the years, as I drive through different towns, and in my own town, I have noticed different fire houses called "Water Witch" instead of "fire house." I am very curious about the origin of this name for a fire house. I assume the word "water" refers to the pumpers that may be housed there and then used for a fire call, but how does the word "witch" work its way into it? I have inquired with many different volunteer fire fighters and not one of them seem to know the answer to this question. -- Anne C.

The mind is a remarkable thing, especially what's left of mine. Although I can't seem to remember my own phone number half the time I need it, I was only part way through reading your question when what should pop into my so-called brain but a ghost story I must have read when I was no more than twelve years old. It's called "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall," by John Kendrick Bangs, and I actually found it online. Re-reading it made me feel sorry for the ghost all over again.

"Water witch" as a term for a fire house is a new one on me, but evidently far from new to a lot of other people. It seems most widespread in New England and elsewhere on the east coast of the US, and must have been a fairly common term in the 17th and 18th centuries. At least three engine companies in the Fire Department of New York City had "water witch" in their names in the mid-1800s, for instance.

The oldest sense of "water witch" is, not surprisingly, the literal, i.e., "a witch inhabiting a body of water," a use dating back to at least 1680. The word "witch" itself is derived from the Old English word "wicca," which back then meant "wizard" but today is better known as the name of a neo-pagan religion.

But the most common use of the term "water witch" today (and since at least the mid-18th century) is for, as John Bartlett put it in his 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms, "A person who pretends to have the power of discovering subterranean springs by means of the divining rod" (a process also known among believers as "dowsing"). The use of "water witch" as a name for a fire company thus refers to its ability to furnish water with which to fight fires. "Water Witch" is also fairly popular as a name for both pubs in Great Britain and the US and various kinds of pumping and drilling machinery. It was also the name of three 19th century US Navy ships.

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