Issue of April 10, 2007

Page Three


Not, to put it mildly, fair.

Dear Word Detective: Having recently stumbled into a situation in which I am supposed to become the lead guitarist for a very good and already-existing band in approximately a week despite the fact that I don't even know how to hold a guitar correctly, I naturally find myself wondering about the etymology of the term "axe" as used to denote a guitar. The lead vocalist erroneously informs me that the term came into use as a result of the axe-shaped instrument of the bassist for KISS, but this is patently nonsensical -- "axe" to describe an instrument predates KISS. (Am I supposed to be capitalizing that?) I've poked around, but I'm coming up with nothing. So, seeing as how I should really be devoting my time to figuring out how to play what is apparently to be my instrument now, I thought I would turn my query over to someone who has considerably more expertise in ferreting out these matters anyway. Thanks very much. Now, off to try to figure out what exactly those string thingies are supposed to do. -- Vivian.

Good going. You realize, of course, that you have just ruined the day, and possibly the life, of every aspiring rock guitarist who reads this column. Suburban garages from Des Moines to Damascus and New Delhi are, this very moment, echoing to the sound of Fenders smashing on concrete, and I predict that law schools will see an unprecedented spurt in applications next month. On the other hand, if your letter has discouraged even just one budding Eagles tribute band, you're a candidate for sainthood in my book.

Kiss, of course, is a dinosaur-rock band beloved by twelve-year olds, and the band name is not normally capitalized (except by their fans, who capitalize pretty much everything they type). The root of "axe" in the literal sense of "tool for chopping" is the Old English "aex," from a Germanic root with descendants in several other languages. The variant spelling "ax" was the more popular until the 19th century, but "axe" now seems more popular. Since few of us still chop our own firewood, the most common use of "axe" today is probably in the phrase "to get the axe" meaning "to be fired or dismissed," in allusion to the effects of the executioner's axe in pre-cubicle days.

The use of "axe" as slang for a musical instrument dates back to 1955, i.e., in the edenic pre-Kiss days. The instrument to which "axe" was first applied, however, was not the guitar, but the saxophone. The logic may have been simply the "sax/axe" rhyme, but another theory ties "axe" to the "swing" of a jazz sax player in full stride. "Axe" was also later applied to the trumpet before becoming accepted as slang for the guitar, a use which has probably persisted in part because of the instrument's resemblance to an actual axe.

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Still missing.

Dear Word Detective: I couldn't find "copacetic" in your archives. My parents, both born in the 1920s, used it as a synonym for "hunky-dory" (which I did find in the archives ... thanks for that). The most common usage would be to describe a good situation, as in "Everything is copacetic." I suspect the word may have been popularized, if not coined, during WWII, and I have wondered if it might have been derived from the Latin "copia" (plenty), thus signifying that things were exceedingly good. Do you have any details on its origin? -- Gary, Fort Worth, TX.

A few, but first I must remind you of the motto of our archives at "Just because you can't find it doesn't mean it isn't there." As a matter of fact, "Copacetic," meaning "fine," "good" or "excellent," is in the archives, right after "Crotchety" and "Cumshaw." Yes, I seem to have a slight problem with alphabetization. But in my own defense I must note that I code that page by hand, and the HTML code behind web pages strongly resembles the strings of gibberish (%$*@!!!) used in comic-strips to represent swearing.

In any case, since this is nearly the tenth anniversary of my "copacetic" column, we'll reprise my findings, or lack thereof. Your theory about the origin of "copacetic" being rooted in "copia" is, unfortunately, not really plausible because, if it were true, there would be a rather remarkable gap between the period when Latin was a common spoken language and 1919, when "copacetic" first appeared in print. While many of our English words are indeed derived from Latin, there are always numerous intermediate forms recorded through which their history can be traced. "Copacetic," however, appeared pretty much out of thin air, although we can presume it was in oral use for at least a few years before someone wrote it down.

On the bright side, however, your theory makes more sense than some of the others floating around. One theory traces it to an Italian word "copissettic," supposedly meaning "excellent," another to a Creole-French word, "coupersetique," or "able to be coped with." Both are superficially plausible, but lack any evidence in their favor. The fact that "copacetic" first appeared in African-American usage, especially among jazz musicians, makes another theory, that the word is based on the Hebrew phrase "kol ba seder," meaning "all in order," more of a mystery than a believable explanation. Yet another theory, that "copacetic" came from the French phrase "copain c'est ├ępatant!" ("Buddy, that's great!"), seems as much a stretch as the others.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, an African-American entertainer of the early 20th century, claimed to have coined the word (and he did certainly popularize "copacetic"). Although other sources cast doubt on Robinson's claim, the implausibility of all other theories so far proposed makes one wonder if he might have been right.

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I'll just stick with "Yikes."

Dear Word Detective: I have really been wondering about the definition and derivation of "crikey." Does it have a relationship with "cripes"? -- Bernardine.

Good question, and one presumably prompted, as many I receive are, by events in the news, in this case the sad and untimely death of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin in Australia last year. "Crikey" was Irwin's signature catchword, an exclamation he seemed to employ on every conceivable occasion, especially on his TV show The Crocodile Hunter.

"Crikey" doesn't seem too common in the US at the moment, although as a child I often heard my parents use it. The veterinary clinic in the small town near us here in Ohio, for instance, managed to misspell it as "crickey" in the nice tribute to Steve Irwin they posted in front of their clinic building. I keep meaning to stop by and point out the error.

Or maybe I'll let that sleeping dog lie, because if I explained the term to them they would almost certainly take the sign down completely. "Crikey" is, apparently unbeknownst to many people who toss it off as a simple substitute for "golly," a euphemism for "Christ" and was coined as a way to swear an oath without technically committing blasphemy. "Crikey" has a wide range of siblings in popular use invented for the same purpose, including "cripes," "criminy," "Jiminy Cricket" (for "Jesus Christ") and "cracky." There is some evidence that "crikey" and "cracky" were originally coupled with "by" ("by cracky" has long been a standard locution in westerns) to replicate the classic "swear by" oath form.

The first appearance of "crikey" in print found so far was in 1838, but, as is often the case, we can assume that the word was in oral use for many years or even decades before that date. The development of such alternatives to blasphemy has been a sort of hobby for humans for centuries ("crimeny," for instance dates back to at least 1681), and so widespread and accepted have such forms become that most of us don't realize that we use them on a daily basis. "Gosh" or "golly" (for "God"), "gee" or "geez" (for "Jesus"), and even "for Pete's sake" (i.e., "for Christ's sake") don't raise eyebrows in even conservative crowds these days.

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Pledge break!

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


Actually, the one taking claims at the
Bureau of Unemployment wasn't much fun either.

Dear Word Detective: I've looked through your site (very thorough, by the way) and I didn't see the word "morning" anywhere. Where did this word come from? I am a receptionist, so answering the phones all day I say the word a lot. "Afternoon" is obvious but "morning" is a little harder. -- Sherron.

No "morning" on my website? Not true! According to Google, the word "morning" occurs a full sixty times on my site. It's true that I have never exactly explained the word, but that's because I find the entire concept of "morning" so appalling that I've never been able to write about it. I think my aversion dates back to a job I had back in 1973 that required me to appear every day at 6:00 am to sort and file indigent death benefit request forms in a dank, windowless basement room at the state Welfare Department. I challenge anyone to come up with a more depressing job. I lasted less than two weeks and I haven't gotten up before noon ever since.

OK, that last part isn't true, but "morning" is an interesting word. Meaning originally "dawn" or "the beginning of the day" but eventually expanded in usage to include all the hours before noon, "morning" comes from the Old English word "morgen" (still the word for "morning" in German, Dutch and Danish). The Old English word appears to be related to Indo-European roots meaning "to twinkle" or "to blink," probably carrying the sense of the first gleaming rays of dawn. In Middle English, "morgen" became "morn," still a favorite of bad poets, which then begat "morning," the "ing" being added by analogy to "evening."

Since we're on the subject, let's see what the old padding drawer has to offer. "Dawn" is another interesting word, derived from the Old English word "daeg" meaning "day" (also the source of our modern "day"). The derivative form "dagian" meant "becoming day," and eventually produced "dagung," meaning "dawn." In Middle English, "dagung" became "dawing" and "dawning," the latter of which eventually lost its "ing" and became simply "dawn."

Elsewhere in the course of what is beginning to seem like a very long day, the meaning of "afternoon" is, as you say, obvious, but what, after all, is "noon"? A very strange word, it appears. "Noon" is derived from the Latin "nona hora," the "ninth hour" after dawn (reckoned by the Romans as 6 am). Math mavens will immediately notice that by Roman logic that made "noon" roll around at 3 pm, and it did indeed until the 12th century, when both the midday meal and the religious services held at that time of day (known then as "nones") were gradually shifted, for unknown reasons, to the sixth hour (12 pm), which became our modern "noon."

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How's tricks?

Dear Word Detective: I came upon your site when I was looking for the derivation of the term "smart aleck." You use it in several of your articles, but do not talk about where it comes from. Please comment! -- Gail Groves.

Well, there you go. I like to call this process "question-farming." I rustle up a batch of columns and seed them with a few words or phrases I suspect will tickle readers' curiosity. Then I just sit back, browse the Adverb Futures Report, and pretty soon my mailbox fills up with a bountiful crop of new questions. Of course, I still have to sift out the annoying chaff asking about "the three words ending in gry" and the desperate pleas for homework help from lazy sixth-graders, but it beats using store-bought questions.

A "smart aleck" (or "alec," both forms being shortened from "Alexander") is a know-it-all, a vociferously assertive person (usually a man) who professes to know the answer to any question and forces it upon his listeners with an air of superiority. Smart alecks are, consequently, usually unliked and frequently loathed. The term was first recorded in print (as far as we know) in 1865, and theories abound as to whether there was an original "smart aleck" who inspired the term.

The leading candidate for the original "smart aleck" seems to be a con man named Alex Hoag, who operated in New York City in the mid-19th century. For the details of Hoag's racket, I am indebted to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words website at for his distillation of Professor Gerald Cohen's research on the subject.

Hoag apparently worked in concert with his wife, a prostitute named Melinda. Their activities ranged from simple pocket-picking to an elaborate ruse wherein Melinda would lure the "mark" into a room with a secret sliding panel. While the mark was otherwise engaged with Melinda, Hoag would enter through the panel and steal the mark's wallet, watch, etc., from his clothes. Hoag would then exit the room, come around to the door, and pretend to be Melinda's irate husband returning unexpectedly. The resulting ruckus gave the mark no time, as he fled for his life, to notice that his possessions were missing.

Hoag's racket was clever, although similar cons had long been practiced. What earned him the label "smart" was his association with two police officers who were in on the con and provided protection for a cut of the loot. Hoag, however, was too smart for his own good and eventually decided to conceal his true earnings from his protectors, a blunder that landed him, predictably, in jail. There he met a newspaper editor (wrongly imprisoned, of course) named George Wilkes, who later immortalized "smart Alec" in print.

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To flake, perchance to strude.

Dear Word Detective: Having just heated up a delicious frozen strudel (from Trader Joe's, naturalment) my partner and I got to talking. He wondered if strudel isn't meant to contain some kind of cream or cheese. I told him that I think he is confusing strudel with danish. I said that it is defined as "strudel" because of the flaky pastry crust and because it is sweet. Are either of us correct? Or can strudel be filled with meat or other savories? -- Anne.

Yo, do I look like Rachael Ray to you? Delicious strudel, huh? Must be nice. The nearest Trader Joe's is 35 miles from here. The truckstop up at the interstate has doughnuts, but they taste like very small spare tires. Speaking of Rachael Ray, as they do constantly on TV these days, does anyone else find her hundred-watt hyper-perky good cheer enormously annoying? Maybe next week she'll have $1.50 left over in her food budget and invest in some tranquilizers. How cool would that be?

So, anyway, "strudel" is a kind of European (Austrian, to be precise) pastry made from very light dough rolled out very thinly, then spread with filling, rolled up and baked. The "rolled up" part is what gives the stuff its name -- "strudel" is German for "whirlpool." The dough used to make traditional strudel actually has no sugar in it, so the sweetness of the finished strudel comes from its filling, which is usually fruit (as in the classic Apfelstrudel, with apples), but sometimes cheese or even sauerkraut. I found a recipe for shrimp and cheese strudel, so I suppose anything is possible, but I think a meat strudel would be pushing the envelope a bit. According to Wikipedia (famous last words), strudel may have actually originated in the Middle East and may be related to baklava.

A "Danish" (or "Danish pastry"), on the other hand, is made from very light dough rolled out very thinly, then spread with filling and baked, which sounds a whole lot like strudel but Danish are folded, not rolled, and the dough has pots of butter in it. Fillings for Danish include various fruits and cheeses, as well as custard and chocolate. Danish are popular in Denmark, but are said to have originated in Austria.

A "croissant" (French for "crescent") is a bit lighter than a Danish or strudel, and can be filled with fruit, cheese, chocolate, spinach, or a variety of other fillings. Ham and cheese croissants are popular in the US. A story told about the origin of the croissant (only one of many, it must be said) is that its crescent shape (and name) was conceived as a celebration of the Austrian defeat of the Turkish army's siege of Vienna in 1683, the crescent being the emblem on the Turkish flag.

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