Previous Columns/Posted 04/17/98
Dear Word Detective: In today's edition of the Dallas Morning News, in Jim Wright's column, he used an excellent word that I have not seen in a "coon's age," that being "chortle." Quoted line, "Me, I am more inclined to chortle quietly to myself." I believe this means to chuckle or laugh, but I am not sure. Nor am I sure of the source of the word. Can you help? -- John Wood, Allen, Texas.
"Chortle" is indeed an excellent word, and your guess about it meaning to chuckle or laugh is absolutely correct. "Chortle" more specifically means to chuckle or laugh in a cheerful, kindly and joyful way, and I think that shade of meaning may be why we don't see "chortle" very often these days. Thanks to our increasingly gossip-obsessed culture, this is the era of the smug sneer, the sly snicker, and the derisive laugh. A "chortle" doesn't stand a chance.
That's a shame, because "chortle" is a remarkable word, among the very few English words that are known to have been coined by a specific person. The inventor of "chortle" was none other than Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), the author of "Through the Looking Glass" and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Not surprisingly, given his fantastic imagination, Carroll was fond of inventing his own words. "Chortle" made its debut in his "Through the Looking Glass" in 1872, in "Jabberwocky," the extraordinary poem-within-a-fable that begins, "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe." At the end of the poem, after the fearsome Jabberwock has been slain, Carroll writes, "And has thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Calloh! Callay! He chortled in his joy."
It was never entirely clear what Carroll meant by "chortle" (though the Oxford English Dictionary theorizes that the word is a combination of "chuckle" and "snort"), but that didn't stop people in the late 19th century from adopting the word. And we (some of us, anyway) have been chortling ever since.
Dear Word Detective: A recent article in The Sunday NY Times Magazine is titled "Their Devil's Advocates." The story is about the interaction of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada and a pharmaceutical company that plans to market thalidomide for its potential in treating a wide range of diseases. Although I have long been familiar with the expression "to play the devil's advocate," few of my students (university-level Biology majors) had every heard the term. Can you explain where this expression came from and what it is supposed to mean? -- Judith W. Rosenthal, Kean University, Union, NJ.
Well, one thing's for sure. Your students will never figure out what "Devil's advocate" means from that article title, which is just some Times editor's little play on words.
Although we use "Devil's advocate" metaphorically these days, the original sense of the term was very literal. When the Roman Catholic Church would undertake proceedings for the canonization (elevation to sainthood) or beatification (the stage before canonization) of a person, two "Advocates" were appointed to argue the issue before the deliberative body of the church. One was the "Advocatus Dei" (God's Advocate), who argued in favor of the elevation of the individual under consideration. The other was the "Advocatus Diaboli," or "Devil's Advocate," whose job it was to raise every conceivable argument against canonization or beatification. The Devil's Advocate, even though he might personally favor the elevation, played a crucial role in the process, testing the merits of the "pro" argument by rigorously opposing it.
This method of testing a proposition by mustering counter-arguments is such a productive way to judge issues of all kinds that "Devil's advocate" has been used in a secular, figurative sense since the 18th century. Political campaigns, for instance, often hold mock news conferences where campaign workers play the role of "Devil's advocates," posing as hostile reporters and peppering their candidate with the most embarrassing and difficult questions they can concoct. Of course, a cynic might say that such sessions just breed slippery politicians adept at dodging the hard questions. But I'm afraid I can't comment on that at this point in time. Next question?
Dear Word Detective: I keep seeing this bit of "beer trivia" lately: "It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the 'honey month' or what we know today as the 'honeymoon'." I sort of doubt this, as my trusty Webster's dates the word "honeymoon" only to 1546. Is this another of those pesky folk etymologies? -- Kiwi Carlisle, via the internet.
So it's come to this, has it? "Beer trivia?" Thousands of years of social evolution, the wisdom of ages, the march of progress, and here we are. Hi honey, I'm home. Got any beer trivia? It makes me glad that we're no longer burying time capsules, those little boxes stuffed full of totems of our civilization, to be opened by future archaeologists. I can see it now: "Jeepers, Professor, the entire capsule seems to be filled with Beanie Babies, Yanni records and beer trivia." Talk about mortifying.
I have heard this "Babylonian" explanation of "honeymoon" before, and one thing has always puzzled me. Why did the bride's father want his new son-in-law dead drunk for the first month of his daughter's marriage? In any event, that little story is, as we etymologists say, full of hooey. Your trusty Webster's is correct: "honeymoon" first appeared in 1546, neatly rendering Babylonian drinking habits moot.
The most likely explanation of "honeymoon" is the obvious one -- that the first month or so of any marriage is the "sweetest," free of the stresses and strains which later try every marriage. I say "month or so," but there's no evidence that the "moon" in "honeymoon" has anything to do with the lunar cycle. A more plausible interpretation, first proposed by Samuel Johnson, is that "moon" really refers to the waxing and waning of the moon. In this somewhat cynical scenario, the "moon" of marriage is full at its start, leaving only the natural waning to follow. Of course, the moon always waxes full again, so hope springs eternal.
Dear Word Detective: All the recent war talk brought the word "jingoists" to mind. My dictionary tells me it's from a British political song supporting the use of force in Russia in 1878. Clear enough, except who is this "Jingo"? And why should he become a label for what we now call "hawks"? Can you explain further, or should we send in the troops? -- Barney Johnson, Director of Theatre Facilities, St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI.
No, you can tell the troops to go sit down. Most people don't know this (and those who do are busy trying to forget), but I am the inventor of the world's first Grammar-Based Defensive Confusion System (GBDCS). Should our country be invaded, my GBDCS will spring into action and automatically switch each and every "that" in print in North America to "which" (and vice versa). This diabolical trick will embroil the invaders in endless grammatical squabbles among themselves, rendering them, if not utterly powerless, at least very, very tired.
It's appropriate, given the hall of mirrors quality (some would say "smoke and mirrors") of the news lately, that the term "jingo" should have begun life as a magician's incantation. The earliest written instances of "jingo" (around 1670) report it as a exclamation routinely used by conjurors who shouted "Hey jingo!" when making an object appear (as opposed to "Hey presto!" when they made something vanish). "Jingo" probably arose as a euphemism for "Jesus," much as "Gosh" and "Golly" started out as substitutes for "God." The expression "By jingo!" was very popular from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
The "superpatriot" sense of "jingo" does indeed date back to the British-Russian confrontation over Turkey in 1878. A popular music hall anthem of the day penned by G.W. Hunt declared: "We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo if we do, we've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too!" Those favoring a war with Russia (which was, fortunately, avoided) became known as "The Jingoes," and the term "jingo" has ever since been a synonym for a blustering, bellicose "patriot."
Dear Word Detective: I am a 7th grade geography teacher. While studying the Poles recently, my class and I came upon an interesting dilemma. We read that the word "penguin" is of Celtic origin. Knowing that penguins are only found in the South Pole and that Celts were up in the far north, we were puzzled. How can the word "penguin" be of Celtic origin? -- Mrs. Regina Gelinas, via the internet.
Well, I hate to throw a wrench into a perfectly good puzzle, but "penguin" probably isn't of Celtic origin, although at one time it was thought to be. The theory was that the word "penguin" came from the Welsh "pen" (head) plus "gwyn" (white), but there turns out to be some fairly strong linguistic evidence against that idea. No one knows exactly where the name "penguin" came from.
On the other hand, "penguin" was in use as early as 1578, long before anyone got anywhere near the South Pole. "Penguin" was first applied to what we today call the Great Auk, a now-extinct flightless aquatic bird common to the coasts of the North Atlantic. Later on, when explorers encountered similar birds in the far South Atlantic (at Cape Horn, for instance), they called them "penguins" too, and when the South Pole was reached, voila, yet more penguins.
And now, before we go, I believe we have time for my favorite penguin joke:
A cop sees a guy driving down the street with three penguins in the back seat of his car. The cop stops him, and the guy explains that he found the penguins just standing by the side of the road. The cop says, "I think you'd better take those penguins to the zoo." The guy agrees and drives off. Next day, the cop sees the same guy drive by with the same three penguins in his back seat, only this time the penguins are wearing sunglasses. The cop stops him again and says, "Hey, buddy, I told you to take those penguins to the zoo." The guy says, "I did. Today we're going to the beach."
Dear Word Detective: You explained the origin of "tatterdemalion" a while back, which reminded me of a word I've always wondered about: "tattersall." Is there any connection between the two words? -- Donna Frederick, Brooklyn, NY.
No, there isn't, which is a shame. It would be pleasingly ironic if there were some connection between the crisp and orderly checks of a tattersall pattern and the ragged vestments of a tatterdemalion, but we can't have everything. Still, I'll bet if we look hard enough we can drum up some irony.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "tatterdemalion" as "a person wearing ragged or tattered clothing; a ragamuffin." The sense of "tattered" is so obviously part of its origin that only the "demalion" part is debated. While many authorities have pointed to the French word "maillon," meaning "diaper," the late John Ciardi came up with a more logical theory, tracing it to the Italian "maglia" (pronounced "mallia"), or "undershirt," thus giving us "tattered undershirt" as a root sense. There's a little bit of irony creeping in here, because the currently fashionable "waif" look is heavily dependent on designer-tattered undershirts, usually advertised being worn by models clearly striving for a "tatterdemalion" aura.
"Tattersall" fabric, with its neat crisscross pattern of colored lines, is about as far from the "tatterdemalion look" as you can get, and in fact has long been a staple of upper-middle-class casual dress. L.L. Bean clothing catalogs, for instance, are awash in tattersall. "Tattersall" takes its name from a man named Richard Tattersall, who established London's most famous horse auction firm in 1795, and at this point you may detect the hoofbeats of genuine irony approaching. Mr. Tattersall did indeed invent the Tattersall pattern, but it is very unlikely that he envisioned it as garb for the wealthy. His pattern became famous in the form of horse blankets.
Dear Word Detective: After I did well on an accounting exam, my wife said she cannot call me a "no-account." How did the noble profession of accounting ever get tainted by association with this term? -- Martin Farnelli, Ocean Grove, NJ.
Well, Martin, I don't think that the noble profession of accounting has been tainted at all, and let me take this opportunity to say how much I admire accountants. All those numbers, all those forms. I myself am of the "I can't be overdrawn, I still have checks left" school of personal finance, so I may be calling on your skills someday soon. Don't flinch, I'm not completely hopeless. I keep all my receipts in one place, for instance. Perhaps you can help me remember where.
Meanwhile, on to "no-account." According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, "no-account" is largely a Northeastern phrase, though its shortened form, "no-count," is common to the American South. "No-account" means, of course, shiftless, lazy, dishonest, useless and good-for-nothing, and can be applied to both animate beings (such as dogs and lawyers) and inanimate objects (such as fuel pumps and brothers-in-law). It's a very handy term.
But what, I hear you ask, is the "account"? Well, here's where the connection to accounting comes in. You are called an accountant because your job is to "account for" -- keep track of, take responsibility for -- financial details. Someone who is "no-account" is just the opposite, and cannot give a good account -- an acceptable explanation -- of his or her behavior. To be "no-account" is to reject one's duties to society, to give no accounting of one's actions and accept no responsibility for them. This sense of "account" meaning "answering for one's conduct" is quite old, dating back to the 14th century, while "no-account" itself first appeared in the mid-1800's.
Dear Word Detective: Can you help us understand the origin of that often-used unit of measurement, the "bushel," or, for that matter, the "peck"? -- Kathleen Visger, via the internet.
"I love you a bushel and peck, a bushel and peck and a hug around the neck. A hug around the neck and a barrel and a heap, a barrel and a heap and I'm talking in my sleep about you, about you...." You may recognize that as a fragment of Frank Loesser's great song from "Guys and Dolls." It's a nice little tune, but it's also, as I have discovered, devilishly persistent, and I've had it running through my head ever since I first read your question. So I must admit that I'm answering your query partly in hopes of a musical exorcism, or at least a substitution of the tune inhabiting my addled pate. Anything short of "Stairway to Heaven" will do.
On the other hand, that song is definitely the best public relations boost the bushel and the peck have had in the last few centuries, because neither of them is terribly fascinating from a linguistic standpoint. Both are measures of dry goods, usually farm produce. In the U.S., a bushel is equal to 2,150.42 cubic inches of something, or 35.25 liters for those of you still holding out for the metric system. The British have a slightly larger bushel in their system of measurement, which they carry, of course, on the wrong side of the road. The word "bushel" itself dates back to the 1300's and comes from an old French word for "handful," although today's bushel is many handfuls, which explains why "bushel" has been used since the 14th century as a synonym for "a great quantity."
If the snoozy origin of "bushel" struck your fancy, you're going to love "peck," because no one knows anything about where it came from, except the fact that the measurement sense of "peck" apparently has nothing to do with birds pecking. A bushel, by the way, contains four pecks, should you ever wish to assemble one. Personally, I'm holding out for a barrel and a heap.
Special Note for those readers just about to write to tell me that I'm wrong, and that "A Bushel and a Peck" actually came from "Annie Get Your Gun," not "Guys and Dolls":
No it didn't.
It came from "Guys and Dolls."
I looked it up four times, but feel free to do so yourself.
Special bonus points go to the person who explains why so many of my readers are convinced that it came from "Annie Get Your Gun." Demonic possession has not been ruled out.
Dear Word Detective: My wife and I were recently joking around when the phrase "Davy Jones' Locker" came up, meaning, in old time sailor talk, the bottom of the ocean and going to it! Can you help us out with the origin of this phrase please? -- Scott Brown, via the Internet.
I'll give it a shot. Although no one knows exactly how "Davy Jones' Locker" came to be a metaphor for the deep sea, especially as the destination of drowned sailors, there have been several theories proposed since the phrase first showed up around 1751.
One theory is that there may have been an actual person named "Davy Jones," a 16th century English barkeeper. Legend has it that the ill-tempered Jones kept his rum stores hidden in a locker in the back room of his tavern. Since sailors never got near Davy Jones' rum locker, goes the story, the phrase came to be adopted as a metaphor for the deep from which no sailor returned. There is, alas, no historical evidence supporting this theory.
Somewhat more likely is the theory that traces "Jones" to the Biblical Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. Supporting this theory is the fact that "Jonah" has long been a sailors' term for someone or something that brings bad luck to a ship.
As to the "Davy" part, one theory traces it to the West Indian "duppy," a colloquial term for "ghost." But another possibility is that it is a reference to Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, often invoked by Welsh sailors of the day.
Putting Saint David together with Jonah in one phrase used to denote the worst fate that can befall a seafarer may seem illogical, but this is the lore and legends of sailors we're talking about here. As we say in New York, logic, schmogic.
Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find the origin of the phrase "Something is screwy (smelly, goofy, etc...) in Denmark." The origin of this phrase seems obvious -- something screwy happened in Denmark, and someone said, "Hey, this is something screwy in Denmark", but surely something screwy has happened in other countries as well. Why did Denmark stick? Is this a regional phrase? My mother in Minnesota wanted me to find out. Any thoughts? -- Marty Langenfeld, Billings, MT
Something goofy in Denmark, eh? Say, do you hear that loud whirring noise? It's nothing to worry about. Just William Shakespeare spinning in his grave again, but I'm sure he's used to it by now.
The phrase you and your mother are puzzled by is "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (not "goofy" or "smelly" or "screwy"), and the reason I mention Shakespeare is that he coined the phrase in his immortal play "Hamlet," which happens to be set in Denmark. Hamlet is Prince of Denmark, and as the play begins Hamlet's father, the King, has recently been done in by parties unknown. But Dad doesn't stay gone long, and in the relevant scene crops up as a ghost to confer with Hamlet. This spectral schmoozing strikes two of Hamlet's friends as a bad idea, and one of them, referring to the generally weird vibes prevailing at Ye Olde Castle, remarks, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." This turns out to be quite an understatement, and if you haven't seen at least one of the film versions of "Hamlet," you're missing a rip-roaring tale of madness, revenge and murder most foul.
As to why one line from a play written in 1601 should have become such a enduring catchphrase meaning "something's funky around here," keep in mind that Shakespeare was not always considered a "scholarly" playwright. Shakespeare's plays, at the time he wrote them, were enormously popular with all classes of society, and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" was probably as oft-repeated in those days as "Read my lips" or "Hasta la vista, baby" were just a few years ago.
Dear Word Detective: My cousin and I were talking about ranks in the Army and came upon the word "infantry," meaning foot soldiers. I wondered what "infant" had to do with the "infantry," if anything, and where, when, and how the word came about. -- DahlinBaby, via the internet.
Well, DahlinBaby, personally I like your chosen internet name, but if you do decide to join the Army you might want to pick a different handle. And here's another handy tip: before you settle on a new nickname, spend some time imagining a deranged drill sergeant snarling it at you while you're standing at attention in the freezing rain at five o'clock in the morning. While I personally have never Been All That I Could Be, I've seen enough movies to know that you might as well go with "Worm" right off the bat.
In any case, the Army in general and the infantry in particular are no place for an infant, which makes it all the more surprising that "infantry" is indeed based on the word "infant." To understand the logic of what seems an almost impossible linguistic development, we need to take a closer look at "infant" itself.
The root of our modern word "infant" is the Latin word "infans," which the Romans used, as we do, to mean "very young child." The actual root of the word was the adjective "infans," which meant "incapable of speech," which most infants are. In the Middle Ages, however, the sense of "infant" was expanded to include any young person, many of whom could not only talk but were shouldered with considerable social, and even military, duties. In Italy, a young soldier who followed knights into battle on foot was called an "infante" and, collectively, as the "infanteria." It was this Italian "infanteria" which later became our English "infantry."
Dear Word Detective: For many years, I have wondered about the origins of a word bandied about by all those political wonks and columnists out there: "vet." My understanding is that it means to fully investigate someone's background, e.g., whether they hired illegal nannies, inhaled their marijuana, etc. Is the word merely a corruption of "investigate"? Or is there a deeper, more sinister story to the origins of this word? Please vet it out for me. -- SPS, via the internet.
Well, golly, SPS (can I call you "S" for short?), there's always a deeper, more sinister story, isn't there? It just takes years to come out sometimes. How many of us, for instance, would ever have suspected that ... hold on a moment. They don't know that yet? Yikes. Well, never mind, folks, it's not important. On with the column.
You're absolutely right in your guess that to "vet" something or someone is to examine it in a painstaking fashion, with what an older cliche would call a "fine-tooth comb." In current usage, to "vet" someone means to examine their background for offenses that might later prove embarrassing or, in bureaucratese, might "compromise security."
"Vet" has only fairly recently become the Word Du Jour among magazine writers and political pundits in the U.S., which explains why you hear it so often these days. But while "vet" evidently seems exotic to reporters and editorialists on this side of the Atlantic, it has been in standard, albeit informal, use in Britain since the turn of the century.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about "vet" is its origin, because it seems almost too simple. "Vet," the verb, like "vet" the noun, is a contraction of "veterinarian," and to "vet" originally meant to have your animal thoroughly examined by a vet. "Veterinarian," in turn, comes from the Latin "veterinae," or cattle, which constituted the bulk of early veterinarians' patients. So if you feel like livestock next time the IRS "vets" your tax return, just do as I do. Open your big brown eyes and moo.
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