Previous Columns / Posted 03-06-2000


Big news this time around, which I will break down into neatly numbered topics for your reading pleasure:

(1)    This month marks The Word Detective's fifth anniversary on the web! Yay! Who knew? I gotta go lie down now. Incidentally, whatever happened to Joel Furr? Did Canter & Siegal ever get disbarred? Does anybody out there remember any of this?

(2)   I have been trying to keep these introductory notes brief each month, recognizing that most of you come here to read the Word Detective columns and not to hear stories about me being attacked by insane groundhogs or the latest installment of my Car from Hell saga. Since I am, by nature, a Person of Prolixity, this restriction has chafed me sorely, and as a solution I have decided to create what we in the fishwrapping business call a "jump," i.e., a secondary page where the story can continue for the benefit of those interested, without annoying those of you who aren't. Just click on the More Readme link down there, and you'll see what I mean. I also plan to start archiving these little rants so that you'll be able to browse through them at your leisure.

More Readme

And now, for those of you who couldn't care less, on with the show:

Don't look back.

Dear Word Detective: What can you tell me about the phrase "the die is cast," meaning something like "it's too late now" or "it's settled."? My father thinks that it has to do with metal casting, but my teacher said that it came from the Ancient Romans. -- Amy B., via the internet.

If "the die is cast" is as old a phrase as it is said to be, it is very old indeed, and if the story of its origins is true, it stems from an incident in history that also gave us another well-known cliche. The "die" in question, by the way, is the singular of "dice," and once a die is "cast" (thrown), the outcome, good or bad, cannot be changed.

In the year 49 B.C., Julius Caesar was the provincial Governor of Gaul (an area roughly corresponding to modern France). Caesar's campaign to bring Europe under the yoke of the Roman Empire had been a rousing success, and he had even conquered Britain (although I must point out that Caesar never managed to subdue my Welsh forebears). Returning to Rome, Caesar was required by Roman law to leave his legions at the Italian border, but Caesar had enemies in Rome and was reluctant to return without his troops (or "cohorts," originally divisions of the Roman Legion). Finally, Caesar made the fateful decision to lead his troops across the river that marked the border of Italy, proclaiming (it is said) "Alea jacta est" ("The die is cast"), meaning that his act was irrevocable whatever its consequences. The consequences were dire, for Caesar's act precipitated a bloody civil war which eventually led to his becoming Emperor of all Rome. Caesar's remark, immortalized by Roman historians, has since become a very well-worn cliche applied to any irrevocable decision. The river that Caesar crossed that fateful day in 49 B.C., incidentally, was the Rubicon, giving us the phrase "to cross the Rubicon," meaning that an important point has been crossed and that there is no going back.

Mold indigo.

Dear Word Detective: On holiday in Switzerland, my friends and I were recently discussing a piece of cheese which had seen better days. The cheese had some blue hairy mold attached and the term one party used to describe it (in the peculiar Scottish vernacular as was their wont) was "foosty," i.e., "that Edam's a bit foosty, love." Since we were snowed in, we thought it would be a jolly game to come up with an origin for this word. The nearest anyone who bothered came was that it was based on "Faust." Wasn't he some bad lad with a satanic pact or something? Anyway, if you can help with the true origin of the word "foost"/"foosty" we would be very much obliged. -- Graeme Renfrew, UK, via the internet.

Yes, Faust was a very bad lad indeed, and was sent to bed without his cheese, which should serve as a warning to anyone contemplating a deal with Satan. By the way, I don't understand why you folks found it necessary to go all the way to Switzerland to discuss cheese. Here in Ohio we often spend an entire evening, as I did just last night, debating the merits of various varieties of cat food right in the comfort of our own homes. Don't laugh. It still beats watching TV.

I suspect, based on the context that you describe, that the difficulty you faced in trying to figure out "foosty" was largely due to your friend's Scottish accent. The word in question was probably "fusty," which means "stale" or "musty," and, when applied to meat, cheese or bread, can mean "smelling of mold," which certainly would fit in with the blue stuff on your cheese.

The root of "fusty" is the Old French word "fust," which meant "wine cask," and "fusty" was originally applied to wine that had been kept in the cask too long and had developed a moldy smell. "Fusty" applied to wine first showed up in English around 1398, and by 1491 was being used to describe other sorts of food that had, as you put it, "seen better days."


Writers of Block.

Dear Word Detective: I recently read a review of a book by John McPhee which referred to his "lapidary prose." My recollection of my high-school Latin tells me that "lapidary" has something to do with rocks, but what has that to do with writing? -- A.K., via the internet.

Don't look now, but you may be among the last generation to be able to toss off that phrase "my high-school Latin." Comes in handy, doesn't it?

There's nothing wrong with your memory -- "lapis" is the Latin word for stone, and has given us a variety of English words: lapideous (stony), lapidify (to become stone), lapidose (abounding in stones, or growing in stony ground, take your pick), the grisly "lapidate" (to stone to death) and the lapidary bee (which builds its hive among stones). "Lapis" even lurks within the word "dilapidated," which originally meant that stones (from a house or wall) were missing, and came to mean run down or neglected. Lapis lazuli, a gemstone of brilliant blue, takes its name from the Persian name for the stone, giving us the somewhat tautological translation of "stone blue-stone." That same Persian word gave us "azure," the color of lapis lazuli. Azure is the deep blue color of an absolutely clear sky, as found on the Cote d'Azur (Azure Coast) in the South of France.

Which brings us to "lapidary," a word with both literal and figurative meanings. Literally, a lapidary is one who cuts, polishes or engraves gems, a profession which demands care, precision and refinement. As an adjective, "lapidary" is used to describe the style of writing engraved on monuments: clear, concise, and dignified. So figuratively, a "lapidary style" of literary writing would stress precision, understatement and the sort of lean elegance John McPhee's writing possesses. There may also be a reviewer's pun at work here, as much of McPhee's writing has focussed on geology and other "rocky" subjects.

Mobile musing.

Dear Word Detective: In reading an essay on walking by Henry David Thoreau recently, I came across his discussion of the origins of the word "saunter." Thoreau says that the word probably comes from the Middle Ages, when wanderers or vagabonds would ask for charity on the pretext of being on a pilgrimage "a la Saint Terre" to the Holy Land. Such people became known as "Saint Terrers," or "saunterers." Is this theory true? -- K.W., New York, NY.

Three cheers for sauntering, my favorite form of exercise. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "to walk with a leisurely or careless gait; to stroll," a nice saunter is the perfect antidote to the pressures of modern life. I am always amused when I stroll through an urban park and witness scores of benighted souls frantically "relaxing" by racing around on bicycles, rollerblades or jogging shoes. Lighten up folks, and just go for a walk.

As to Thoreau's explanation of the origin of "saunter," it is a lovely story, but it is highly debatable. In Thoreau's defense, it must be said that he didn't dream it up out of thin air -- the "Holy Land" theory was generally accepted by etymologists in Thoreau's day. But subsequent research has proven that it isn't quite that simple.

The original meaning of "saunter" wasn't "to walk," but "to muse and ponder." "Sawnterells" (probably derived from "saint") in 15th century England were self-styled mystics and holy men, and to "santer" (later "saunter") was to adopt the far-away, mystical mannerisms of these wandering ponderers. It is possible that some of these saunterers played the "Pilgrim to the Holy Land" scam, but that's not the source of the word.

Things must have been simpler back in the Middle Ages. I myself try to adopt a far-away, "musing" expression when I saunter in the park, but it's difficult to look spiritual when you're constantly dodging lunatics on rollerblades.

Fop fight.

Dear Word Detective: C. S. Forester makes mention in one of his "Hornblower" novels that the midshipmen on Her Majesty's vessels devised a method of settling disputes among themselves which left no lasting injuries. It seems that when a midshipman perceived a transgression from another midshipman, the first one was entitled to challenge the second to the "box." This consisted of a crate set behind one of the main masts of the ship onto which both belligerents would mount. They would then proceed to slap one another until one of them was dislodged from the top of the box, thus becoming the loser. According to Forester this ritual became known among the midshipmen as "boxing." Any truth to it? -- J.W. Martin, via the internet.

Avast, mateys, hoist the yardarm and quaff the grog, there's not a moment to lose. We're setting sail for the Straits of Balderdash on the good ship HMS Hogwash, bearing a cargo of spurious etymologies. Port out, starboard home, and away we go!

To be fair to C.S. Forester, it is not impossible that the pugilistic shipboard ritual he described did, in fact, take place, and it may even have been known as "boxing" among midshipmen. But any such nautical slap-fest was definitely not the source of our English word "boxing."

There are actually two distinct "boxes" in English. The "receptacle" or "crate" type of "box" derives from medieval Latin "buxis," which came from the Greek "puxis," meaning "wooden box." The ultimate root was the Greek "puxos," their word for what we now know as the boxwood tree (from which boxes were presumably made). This kind of "box" appeared in English sometime before 1000 A.D.

The origin of the "punch each other in the nose" sense of "box" is a bit of a mystery. It may be onomatopoeic in origin; that is, the word "box" arose as an imitation of the actual sound of a fist striking something. Or it may have arisen as a fanciful reference to the resemblance between a closed fist and a small box. In any case, this "box" first appeared in English around 1385, and its history makes clear that it had nothing to do with anyone standing on boxes.

Yubba Dubba Nope.

Dear Word Detective: While waiting for my toast to pop up today, I mulled over the source of the word "butter." Wondering where it came from, I hit on the idea that a caveman milked his cow, then discovered that stirring it (for a very long time) would make it very thick and spreadable. Upon eating it, he said "Ummm ... this is butter than milk!" Presto! The word "butter"! However, my co-workers don't think that's a plausible explanation. Can you enlighten us? -- Kathie Kelly, via the internet.

That's a fascinating theory you've got there, Kathie, even if it does indicate that you may be standing a little too close to the toaster. But I've been thinking about it (probably a big mistake), and I tend to agree with your co-workers that it appears to have some serious flaws. First, although I'll admit that my knowledge of the period depends heavily on The Flintstones, I doubt that cavemen had cows. Pet dinosaurs, yes. Cows, no. Second, "spreadable" on what? Mammoth muffins? And third (and most importantly), your theory would require cavemen (cavepersons?) not only to have been speaking English, but to have been speaking English with a Brooklyn accent. Again, Barney Rubble notwithstanding, this seems unlikely.

But perhaps your theory is not impossible, because there is some debate among etymologists as to where the word "butter" did come from. The earliest known ancestor of our modern "butter" was the Greek word for the stuff, "bouturon," which led to the Latin "butyrum," from which we derive our modern "butter." That Greek word "bouturon" was probably formed from the Greek "bous" (cow) plus "turos" (cheese), which would give the original word the logical meaning "cow cheese," which butter is, sort of. But there are some authorities who feel that "cow cheese" is too easy an answer and suspect that "bouturon" was actually borrowed by the Greeks from some other language, possibly Scythian. In any case, while we may never know exactly where "butter" came from, we do know that it first appeared in English around 1000 A.D., and it's been clogging our arteries ever since.

Life unfair, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering where the word "dunce" came from, so I can properly use it to describe my co-workers. -- Kathleen, via the internet.

Um, are you certain you want to do that? After all, most of us spend a sizable chunk of our lives at work, and my guess is that you'll find all those years a lot more pleasant if you don't have to worry about your co-workers dumping funny things into your coffee. On the other hand, given the quality of coffee found in most workplaces, probably nothing short of rat poison would be noticeable, so it's your call.

A "dunce," of course, is a dull-witted, stupid person, incapable of learning and often portrayed in old cartoons as a child sitting in a classroom corner wearing a conical "dunce cap." What most people don't know is that "dunce" is actually an eponym (from the Greek "epi," upon, and "onyma," name), a word formed from the name of a person (or sometimes after a group or a place). Familiar eponyms include "cardigan" sweaters (named after James Thomas Brudenell, the corrupt and incompetent seventh Earl of Cardigan, who supposedly wore a similar garment while commanding his troops in the Crimean War) and "sandwiches" (said to have been invented in England in 1762 by John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, so that he would not have to leave the gambling table for meals).

But "dunce" may be one of history's most unfair eponyms. It is based on the name of John Duns Scotus (1265? - 1308), among the most celebrated of medieval philosophers. Duns Scotus was a brilliant and subtle theologian (known as "the Subtle Doctor," in fact) and produced revered works on logic, philosophy and theology. But his followers in the following centuries (known at first as the "Dunsmen," then "dunses") were so closed-minded and pigheadedly resistant to change that by about 1577 "dunce" had come to mean a stupid, ignorant blockhead. All of which proves that linguistic immortality is often perversely unjust, and that the bumbling Earl of Cardigan and the dissolute Earl of Sandwich got off far too easily.

No respect.

Dear Word Detective: My father-in-law is 86 years old and would like to know why the French were called "frogs." He seems to recall that the English ate limes to prevent rickets and came to be known as "limeys," the Germans ate sauerkraut and became known as "krauts," but he doesn't know why the French were called "frogs." Can you help solve the mystery? -- Rsmbanks, via the internet.

Sure, but remind me not to stand next to your father-in-law in a bar. He sounds like the kind of guy who would start the kind of conversation that would require me to duck and run for the exit.

For as long as there have been nations, people have been dreaming up ways to insult the nations to which they do not belong. And it's not a coincidence that the three examples your father-in-law mentioned all focus on the culinary tastes of the nation to be insulted. As Hugh Rawson observes in his excellent book "Wicked Words" (Crown, 1989), "You are -- to your enemies especially -- what you eat."

"Frog" was indeed at one time a popular derogatory term for a French person, though it didn't start out quite that way. Originally (around 1330), "frog" was applied by Britons to almost any group they found objectionable, and was aimed at both Jesuits and the Dutch before it was decided in the late 18th century that the French, with whom England was then at war, were the real "frogs." The rationale for the term, to the extent one is ever really needed in such cases, was the French consumption of frogs' legs (anathema to the beef-loving British), as well as the presence of frogs on the coat of arms of the city of Paris. "Frog" is still used as an insult, especially in Britain, but many other once-popular anti-French coinages are rarely heard today, including "French pox" (syphilis), "French leave" (desertion from one's post in wartime), and simply "French" (foul language, as in the apologetic phrase "Pardon my French" offered after swearing).


Knock on wood.

Dear Word Detective: I am a Grade 8 pupil and have been given the assignment of finding the origin of the word "loggerhead." Could you please assist me in finding the answer to this? -- Gareth Peacock, South Africa.

Well, OK. I don't ordinarily help with homework assignments, but this is an interesting question. With rare exceptions, the only modern use of "loggerhead" is in the phrase "to be at loggerheads" with someone, meaning to be embroiled in an argument or quarrel, especially one that shows no sign of easy resolution. Legislators in the U.S. Congress, for example, are often described in press reports as being "at loggerheads" with each other over some bit of legislation. Not coincidentally, "at loggerheads" also carries the connotation of bull-headed stubbornness on the part of the parties involved. Being "at loggerheads" is rarely a position reasonable people adopt.

The root of "loggerhead" is, as you might expect, "logger," but not the kind of logger who chops down trees. "Logger" is also an archaic English dialect word meaning a heavy block of wood, especially one attached to the leg of a horse to prevent it from wandering away. Shakespeare used "loggerhead" in 1588 the same way we would use "blockhead" today, to mean an extremely stupid person, and it's possible that the phrase "to be at loggerheads" simply arose as a way of saying that people who get involved in long, stubborn arguments must be idiots.

But there's another meaning of "loggerhead," and another possible source of the term "to be at loggerheads." "Loggerhead" in the 17th century was also used to mean a long iron bar with a sort of ball or block at the end (or "head"). Loggerheads, heated in the flames of an open fire, were often used to soften or melt tar or pitch, or to heat mugs of "flip," which was a sort of spiced beer. It is possible that this sort of iron "loggerhead," used as a weapon, lies at the root of "to be at loggerheads," in which case the sense would have been "locked in a standoff with each party holding really unpleasant weapons."

Bacon, not stirred.

Dear Word Detective: In British cooking magazines I often see the term "rasher" of bacon. Just for curiosity (and convenience in recipe conversion), I've been trying to find out the meaning. I've talked to friends from Britain, and they say they've always used the term, but don't know the origin, or if it refers to a certain amount or type of bacon. The most logical origin we've guessed is that "rasher" came from times when meat was "rationed", e.g., wartime. I even asked a gourmet grocer in London via e-mail. They didn't know either. Can you set us straight? -- Chef E.J., via the internet.

That's very weird. I always assumed that everyone in England knew what a "rasher" of bacon was, since the term is far more common over there than here in the U.S. I first encountered the term as a teenager in the mid-1960s while reading a James Bond novel. Don't ask me why I remember this, but at one point author Ian Fleming had Bond consuming an enormous breakfast consisting of platoons of eggs, piles of toast, pots of coffee, and "several rashers" of bacon. Judging from the generally gluttonous tone of Fleming's description, I figured a "rasher" was probably equivalent to five pounds of bacon, maybe ten.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to learn years later that a "rasher" of bacon is simply what we Americans would call a "strip" of bacon. One puny little strip. So it takes at least five "rashers" to make a plausible bacon sandwich. I know I shouldn't let these things throw me, but I haven't felt the same about James Bond ever since. What a wuss. Probably a closet vegetarian.

To be fair to Bond, "rasher" is sometimes loosely used to mean "an order of bacon," presumably four or five strips. But strictly speaking, a "rasher" is a thin slice of bacon or ham, usually broiled or fried. The origin of "rasher" is uncertain, but it is probably related to the French "raser" (to cut or shave) which also gave us "raze" (to destroy or obliterate) and "razor." "Rasher" first appeared in English in the late 16th century.


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