Previous Columns/Posted 04/18/99


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had, since moving to rural Ohio, come to depend on the BBC World Service, as well as other shortwave stations such as Radio Canada International, Radio Netherlands, and Deutsche Welle (Germany), for much of my daily news. Especially during the current war in the Balkans, I have found the quality of international news coverage available on these stations to be far, far superior to any radio or television news source here in the U.S. (and yes, that includes National Public Radio). As I write this, for instance, I am listening to a program on the BBC called "Talking Point," a weekly global telephone call-in program on which NATO spokesman Jamie Shea is fielding live questions from listeners in Belgrade, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Personally, I think the best way to listen to shortwave broadcasts is on a shortwave radio. You can get a very good basic set for under $200 (the Grundig YB 400 would be a good choice), and around $400 will get you a more serious set with such goodies as synchronous detection to eliminate signal fading (I use the excellent Drake SW2, made right here in Ohio by the R.L. Drake Company).

But the reason I mention all this now is because it is also possible to listen to a wide variety of shortwave broadcasts on the internet, if your computer is equipped with a sound card and speakers. Most major (and many minor) stations offer their programs in the Real Audio format on the web, and listening is as simple as clicking on a link.

If you'd like to see what's out there, both on the ether and via the net, check out this very handy web page of links to radio stations around the world.

Lay your Burton down.

Dear Word Detective: An English friend recently replied to an e-mail I'd sent her three months ago, excusing the delay by explaining that in the interim her computer had "gone for a Burton." Whatever "gone for a Burton" means, it must have happened again, because I can't get her to explain who the mysterious "Burton" is. Any ideas? -- A. Kent, via e-mail.

"Gone for a Burton" is a British slang term which translates roughly as "out to lunch," "missing" or, applied to a machine such as your friend's computer, "not functioning."

It seems to be generally accepted that "gone for a Burton" is World War II-vintage Royal Air Force slang, first appearing in print in 1941. The original meaning of the term was a bit of black humor, much grimmer than the modern usage. It referred to a flier (at best) missing in action, or (at worst) definitely killed, someone who had, in the equivalent American phrase of the same period, "bought the farm."

The question of who or what the "Burton" in question might have been, however, has led to several theories. Montague Burton, goes one explanation, was a firm of tailors in Britain known for their fine suits. According to this theory, the phrase sardonically suggested that a missing flier had gone off to be fitted for a suit. Other theories involved the inflatable "Brethon" life jackets at one time issued by the RAF.

The most convincing explanation, however, traces "Burton" to pre-war British slang. The popular line of Bass Ales were brewed in the town of Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, and a glass of ale was known colloquially as simply "a Burton." Evidently the Bass brewery sponsored a series of advertisements shortly before the war, each of which involved a situation in which one person was clearly missing, as indicated by an empty chair at a dinner table or the like. The "tag line" of each ad was the same: "Gone for a Burton."

Since this phrase was already imprinted on the public imagination by the advertisements, it would have been a logical candidate for a catch phrase used to explain the disappearance of a comrade in battle.

It's that flink-flank noise the engine makes.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "flank speed" come from? It is used by both Navy and merchant vessels as the absolute maximum speed for a vessel. -- Len Sutter, via the internet.

Oh boy, a nautical question. We love nautical questions around here, because no matter how diligently I research my answer, I can always look forward to receiving lots and lots of reader mail correcting me. I don't even mind the fact that many of my correspondents see fit to question whether I, personally, have ever actually seen a boat. I just find the enthusiasm with which they say it inspiring.

Onward. As you say, "flank speed" is the absolute maximum speed of a vessel, faster, in fact, than "full speed," which itself is only one-eighth faster than "standard speed" for the vessel. Unfortunately, while I have found many references explaining what "flank speed" is, none of them feels it necessary to explain where the term itself comes from. But I think that once we trace the history of the word "flank" itself, we'll be able to concoct a reasonable theory about "flank speed."

The basic meaning of "flank," which is of Germanic origin, is that part of an animal or human being located between the lowest ribs and the hips; in other words, the "side" of a critter.

One of the earliest figurative uses of "flank" was to mean the side of an army or military formation, one of the areas most vulnerable to attack. Indeed, as early as 1599, the verb "to flank" meant to make such an attack on the "flanks" of an enemy's forces, especially by moving rapidly around the enemy and then curving back to assault him from the side.

Now, presuming that such a "flanking attack" is as popular in naval battles as ashore, the key element in such an attempt would be getting your ships around to the side of the enemy's as quickly as possible. This maneuver would thus call for the highest speed possible. Voila: "flank speed."

As I said, however, this explanation is just a little deduction and a lot of conjecture on my part, so I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has the straight poop on "flank speed."


Pocketful of peas.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "pea coat" come from? I know what a pea coat is, but I would like to know the origin of its name. -- Paige, via the internet.

Ah, pea jackets. I had a dandy pea jacket many years ago. It was during my Russian Intellectual phase, when I would stalk the streets glowering at small children, attired in a thick black turtleneck sweater and my trusty pea jacket, carrying the heaviest volume of Dostoevsky I could rustle up in central Ohio. Anyone who has experienced August in Ohio will understand why I dumped that getup fairly quickly.

Pea jackets, as any old salt knows, are the hip-length, double-breasted, dark blue cold-weather coats issued to sailors. Made from heavy wool, pea jackets have been standard naval issue since at least the 1700's and are still worn by the sailors of many countries today, including U.S. Navy personnel below the grade of chief petty officer.

Any item that has been around as long as the pea jacket is bound to generate a variety of legends about its origins, and pea jackets have spawned at least two. The most colorful, so to speak, traces the "pea" to the tendency of neophyte sailors, not yet accustomed to the rolling seas, to turn "pea green" from seasickness. The charm of this theory is the image it conjures of a young sailor asking why his newly-issued coat is called a "pea jacket" and receiving that quite possibly self-fulfilling prophecy as an answer.

A more sober and plausible theory decodes "pea jacket" as originally being "p-jacket," with the "p" standing for "pilot," the person who steers a ship into and out of a harbor. While this theory is not impossible, it turns out to be unnecessary.

The "pea" in "pea jacket" almost certainly comes from the obsolete English word "pee," which meant a coat made of coarse cloth. "Pee" in turn probably came from the Dutch word "pie" ("pij" in modern Dutch) found in the term "pij-jakker," meaning a coat very similar to our modern pea jacket.

Lowlife creep rundown.

Dear Word Detective: I'd like to know the origin of "scab" as used to describe a strike beaker or picket line crosser. -- Joseph Deibel, via the internet.

Yo, Joseph, get with the program. They're not called "scabs" these days. The preferred euphemism is "replacement workers."

Chances are that when most of us hear the word "scab," we think of its most common sense, that of the crust that forms on top of a wound. That was the original meaning of "scab," which we borrowed directly from the Old Norse word "skabbr" back in the 13th century.

Although any doctor will tell you that a scab is a good thing, since it protects a wound while it is healing, by about 1590 we were using "scab" to mean "a low or despicable person." The logic of this derogatory sense is not entirely clear. It most likely stems from the implication that such a scoundrel might well be afflicted with syphilis, which in its advanced stages causes a "scabby" skin condition. Incidentally, "sceabb," an Old English word related to "scab," eventually became "shab," which originally meant "covered with scabs," but which we use today only in the form "shabby" to mean "run down."

Since "scab" already was being used to mean "lowlife creep," it's not surprising that by the late 1700s it was being applied to any worker who refused to join an organized trade union movement. As one contemporary source explained in 1792, "What is a scab? He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country.... He first sells the journeymen, and is himself afterwards sold in his turn by the masters, till at last he is despised by both and deserted by all."

By the 19th century, "scab" was being used, primarily in the U.S., to mean a worker willing to cross picket lines to replace a striking worker. The great unionizing drives of the 1930's then transformed this sense of "scab" from industrial slang into a household word.

Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the word "teetotaler"? Its meaning, "one who abstains from imbibing alcoholic beverages," suggests that such a person would carry (or tote?) tea to drink instead. Is this, indeed, the original meaning of the term? And in what country was it used first? -- Sean McKeon, Oakland, CA

Someone asked me just the other day if I was a teetotaler when I turned down his offer of a beer. I replied, "No, not a strict teetotaler," because I do drink about two beers a year. But I'm afraid that, if I ever took up beer drinking in earnest, I'd be tempted to start paying attention to sports, and that is a fate too horrible to contemplate.

Then again, referring to anyone as a "strict teetotaler" is redundant, because the word itself means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "One who abstains (especially one who pledges himself to abstain) from the use of any intoxicating liquor." Teetotalers are by their very nature strict in their adherence to their "no alcohol" pledge -- that's the whole point. One cannot be "kind of a teetotaler" any more than one can be a little bit pregnant.

There is general agreement that the first use of "teetotal" in reference to abstention from alcohol was in a speech to an English temperance society by a man named Richard Turner in 1833. Whereas some of his contemporaries drew a moral distinction between beer and hard liquor, Turner urged his listeners to abstain totally from all alcohol.

Contrary to popular legend, there is no evidence that Turner recommended "tea" as an alternative to alcohol, or that his listeners were urged to mark the letter "T" for "Total Abstinence" on their pledge cards at the meeting. The "tee" tacked onto the front of "total" was just a common way, at that time, of giving extra emphasis to a word, a process linguists call "reduplication." (And yes, the term "reduplication" has always struck me as weirdly redundant.) The use of "teetotal" to mean "absolutely, totally" is well-documented in other, non-alcoholic writings of the day. For instance, one author, writing in 1885, had occasion to write, "I hope I may be tee-totally ruinated, if I=d take eight hundred dollars for him."

Nature: who needs it?

Dear Word Detective: I am doing a project for my English class and would like to know what the word "wimp" really means and where it came from. I would really appreciate your help. -- Anonymous, via the internet.

Since I am by nature an optimistic, trusting sort of person, I am going to assume that this is a genuine query, and not a snide reference to my behavior upon being viciously attacked by a huge, snarling groundhog in my own driveway last summer. In any case, I would like to note that sound travels great distances out here in the country, so the mere fact that my screams were heard in the next county does not, per se, make me a "wimp."

As the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term, a "wimp" is "a feeble or ineffectual person; one who is spineless or 'wet.'" ("Wet" is a fine English slang term meaning "inept or dorky.") The folks at Oxford go on to note (for the benefit of those who have recently arrived from Mars, I suppose) that "wimp" is "used only as a term of abuse or contempt."

That's putting it mildly. Since "wimp" became popular around 1960, it has been considered synonymous with "drip," "weakling," "dork," "nerd" and "wuss." A standard part of college slang for years, "wimp" got a big boost in general usage thanks to a hilarious slip in The Boston Globe in 1980. Somehow a newsroom prank wasn't caught in time, and an editorial analyzing President Jimmy Carter's economic pronouncements went to press under the headline "More Mush From The Wimp."

One of the theories proposed for the origin of "wimp" is that it comes from the name of J. Wellington Wimpy, a.k.a. "Wimpy," a character in the old "Popeye" cartoons. "I'd gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today," was Wimpy's perennial plaintive refrain, and his whiny, timid demeanor would certainly have made him a good mascot for wimps worldwide.

But a more likely source is simply the word "whimper," a characteristic activity of wimps. Bolstering this theory is the fact that when "wimp" first appeared in the 1920's in England, it was as college slang for a woman or girl, based on the idea that women are more likely to weep than men.


The Oil of Flatbush has arrived, m'Lord.

Dear Word Detective: Is there any explanation as to why the word "Arms" is used in identifying apartment houses, e.g. (to use a fictitious name), "The Springfield Arms?" Why would arms have anything to do with places where people live? No one to whom I've spoken has an answer to this question. -- John R. Panosh, Scotch Plains, NJ.

Say, your question reminds me that I have yet to decide on a suitable name for my new rural abode in Ohio. I briefly considered "The Groundhog Arms" (since the place teems with the little critters) until I saw an actual groundhog's hairy little arms. Not appetizing. So now, based on a recent encounter with a somnambulant local handyman, I think I'm just going to call the place "Plumber's Rest" and let it go at that.

It sometimes seems, especially in New York City, that nearly every older apartment building has a name, usually something far more grandiose (often involving "Hall," "Manor" or the like) than the digs themselves ever deserved. In reality, according to H.L. Mencken, in his "The American Language," only about a quarter of all New York apartment buildings existing in 1945 had such names, largely those built in the early years of the 20th century. The practice of dubbing hotels or other buildings The Whatever Arms dates back to old English inns, which were frequently named after the local Duke or Earl and often displayed the nobleman's heraldic insignia, or coat of arms, above their door. Later on, although most American cities could not boast an actual Prince or Duke in the vicinity, the tradition was imitated here by builders who felt that christening a nondescript apartment building The Canarsie Arms lent it a certain air of class.

Incidentally, although today we use "coat of arms" to mean a family insignia, the original meaning was very literal. A "coat of arms" was a linen or silk coat, worn by a knight to protect his armor from dirt and rust, and decorated with his personal or family heraldic emblem.

Mood indignant.

Dear Word Detective: Please tell me what the origin of the word "blackmail" is. I have been told it has to do with freelance knights whose chain mail has turned black. -- Norman Levenstein, Franklin Square, NY.

I've never heard that theory, but it does make a certain amount of sense. So these unemployed knights, desperate for moolah, became so unscrupulous that they started extorting money from people? And then their armor turned black, like a full-body mood ring? I like it. Among other things, it explains why so many lawyers wear dark gray suits.

Just kidding, of course. But the real story of blackmail is pretty interesting in its own right. In the first place, English now has two different "mails," but it used to have three. The "letter" kind of "mail" is rooted in the old German word "malha," meaning "pouch," which at first meant any kind of pouch or bag, but which in the 17th century was narrowed to mean "mail pouch." The "metal mesh armor" kind of "mail," on the other hand, comes from the Latin "macula," meaning "spot," referring to the holes in the mesh of chain mail armor.

"Blackmail," meaning the extortion of money by the use of threats, especially threats to reveal secret or embarrassing information, comes from a third, now obsolete, sense of "mail" meaning "payment" or "tax." This "mail" came originally from the Old Norse word "mal," meaning "agreement," and exists as a word today only in Scots and some dialects in northern England.

Not surprisingly, the first blackmailers were corrupt politicians, 17th century Scottish chieftains who demanded protection money from local farmers, who refused only at the risk of having their crops destroyed. The "mail," or payment, was said to be "black" probably because the color black had long been associated with darkness and evil, but it might also have been because payment was usually made in livestock, rather than in silver (which was known as "white money").

The "give me two cows or I'll burn down your farm" kind of blackmail first appeared in English around 1552, but by the early 1800's we were using "blackmail" to mean just about any sort of extortion, especially using threats to reveal secrets.

Then again, when y2k finally rolls around,
I'm not likely to notice any difference.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word "blizzard" comes from? My English teacher thinks it might have been a German word. -- Amy Argent, via the internet.

Funny you should ask. Actually, I must admit that I picked this question to answer because I am, as I write, firmly snowbound in a farmhouse in rural Ohio.

(Slight commercial interruption: you can avoid being subjected to the sort of awkward anachronism found in the preceding paragraph by subscribing to the "real-time" e-mail version of TWD -- see the main Word Detective page for details. We now return to our regularly scheduled column, which was actually written, and read by TWD subscribers, back in February. Of 1954.)

At first the thought of not being able to go anywhere bothered me, but then I remembered that there's nowhere to go out here anyway. So now I just sit by the window and watch the coyotes circling the house as darkness falls. I think they're after my pizza.

This snowstorm isn't a true blizzard, the official criteria for which include sustained high winds and low visibility, but it certainly has given me the impetus to investigate the origins of "blizzard." There seem to be a variety of theories about "blizzard," many of which (the theories, not the storms) come from Iowa.

It turns out that Iowa more or less claims to have invented the word "blizzard," a boast for which there is some evidence. The earliest known use of "blizzard" to describe a snowstorm was in the Estherville, Iowa "Northern Vindicator" newspaper in April 1870. To hear the folks in Estherville tell it, a local character named Lightnin' Ellis coined the term, which rapidly spread around Iowa, and then throughout the entire U.S.

But (there's always a "but," isn't there?) while the application of "blizzard" to a severe snowstorm may have been an Iowa invention, the word itself had already been around for quite a few years, meaning "a sharp blow or shot." Colonel Davy Crockett used "blizzard" in the 1830's to mean both a blast from a shotgun and a verbal outburst, and the term was probably fairly well-known even earlier. The use of "blizzard" to describe a violent storm was, it would seem, more of a logical extension than a true invention.

So where did "blizzard" come from in the first place? No one knows for sure, but it may well be "onomatopoeic," designed to sound like the thing itself. After all, "blizzard" does sound like a blast of something, whether bullets, words, or blinding snow.

Hey, Joe, where ya goin'
with that latte in your hand?

Dear Word Detective: I have been trying to find the origin of the term "joe" in reference to coffee. "A cup of joe" sounds American and/or military in origin, but I can't seem to find anything definitive. Any help you could provide would be appreciated. -- Michael Combs, via the internet.

Call me a hopeless romantic who watches too many old movies, but I've always wanted to duck out of a torrential downpour into a small diner in a bad part of town, hoist myself up on a stool, slap a quarter on the counter and growl, "Cuppa Joe, Louie, and make it strong and black." I'm planning to try this someday, as soon as I find a trenchcoat that fits. I just hope Louie doesn't ask me "Regular or decaf?" That would ruin the whole thing.

Meanwhile, back at your question, there is, alas, no definitive answer to the riddle of "joe" as slang for coffee, which first appeared around 1930. It may be a variant of "java," also a popular term for coffee since the 19th century, when the island of Java in Indonesia was a major source of the world's coffee. Another theory holds that "joe" comes from the title of the once very popular Stephen Foster song "Old Black Joe."

Yet another theory, and one that rings true to me, is that "joe" as slang for coffee might be derived from "Joe" as a synonym for "the common man," as in "regular joe." This use of "Joe" as a generic name for the man in the street dates back to around 1911 and was very widespread in the military services, as in "G.I Joe," which was slang for the common soldier long before it became the name of a toy. Since "joe" as slang for coffee was and is especially common in the Navy, and since the Navy pretty much runs on coffee, it seems logical that the military slang term for an average guy could have been extended to the average guy's usual beverage.

One thing's for sure, though -- these days, Louie's going to want more than a quarter for that "cuppa joe."


A little dib'll do ya.

Dear Word Detective: My friends and I were having Xmas dinner when one of my friends suddenly said he had "dibs" on the pumpkin pie. Can you tell me the origin of "dibs"? -- Maude, via the internet.

Dibs on the whole pie? In my house he'd have ended up wearing it.

Exclaiming "dibs," of course, is a way of staking a claim on something or "claiming precedence," as sociologists put it. The ritual of claiming using words such as "dibs" is part of the elaborate social protocols of childhood nearly everywhere in the world.

It seems that this use of "dibs" is not nearly as old as one might have thought. The first citation for the "it's mine" sense of "dibs," in fact, comes only from 1932, although "dibs" was used as slang for "money" as early as 1807. "Dibs" was an abbreviation of "dibstones," a game similar to jacks played with "dibs," which were sheep knuckle bones. It is unclear exactly how "dibs" came to be a child's way of staking a claim, but presumably it made sense if you knew the rules of the game of "dibs."

In looking for the roots of "dibs," however, I reacquainted myself with one of my favorite books in the whole world, called "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren," by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford University Press). The Opies meticulously surveyed the playground rituals and protocols of more than 5,000 British schoolchildren just after World War II.

Although the Opies do not report the word "dibs" as being in use among the children they surveyed, they provide a fascinating list of the British equivalents. A child in Southern England who spots the one cookie left on the plate might exclaim "Bags it" or "Baggsy," whereupon by the sacred code of children the prize is hers. Her London counterpart might say "Squits," and still further north a child would say "Foggy," "Furry" or "Firsy." Other words which seem to work as well include "Barley," "Bollars," "Jigs" and, in Scotland, "Chaps" or "Chucks." We will probably never know where these words came from, but we're fortunate that the Opies thought to bring us such souvenirs from the long-lost world of our collective childhood.

Freeze frame.

Dear Word Detective: I am a police officer in Southeastern Connecticut. I am trying to research the origin of the term "framed." I believe it originated with the New York City Police Department around the turn of the century. I believe it had to do with hanging an actual picture "framed" on a wall. I am looking for proof of this. -- Rob Saunders, via the internet.

Well, we have good news and we have bad news on this one. The good news is that your theory is not absolutely impossible. The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be any direct evidence in its favor, and a bit of logic against it. What we have here, in other words, is a rather large pile of reasonable doubt.

To "frame" or "frame-up" in underworld slang is, of course, to incriminate or convict an innocent person on trumped-up or false evidence. The term first appeared in this sense around 1915, based on the somewhat earlier sense of "frame" as "a criminal conspiracy or plan." Robbers planning to hit a bank, for instance, would have been sure to concoct a good "frame" in advance that included disguises, a getaway car, etc. In this sense a pickpocket also "frames" his victim (the "mark") by maneuvering him into a vulnerable position.

Several sources I have found do support your hypothesis, which I take to be that "frame" comes from the practice by early police departments of mounting criminals' photographs on station house walls as a sort of "rogues gallery" to be viewed by witnesses to a crime. Unfortunately, not one of these sources supplies any supporting evidence (such as a contemporary newspaper account) to bolster the case for this source of "frame." And even in these somewhat vague explanations there is no mention of New York as the source of the term.

My hunch is that the unjustly-convicted sense of "frame" is actually just a reversal of the original "criminal conspiracy" sense. The underlying logic of both these senses is the construction of a framework and the building of a conspiracy, whether for the commission of a crime or the false conviction of an innocent person.

Coming soon: the Fat Elvis Fifty.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the dollar sign originate, and why did the dollar come to be called a "buck"? -- William E. Lang, via the internet.

Good questions. Incidentally, have you seen the "new money" -- you know, the grotesque new twenty and fifty dollar bills that look as though somebody's dim nephew cooked them up after hours at his Kinko's job? I would never have guessed that I could be so depressed by a change in the style of U.S. currency. Is every trace, every tiny smidgen, of elegance and grandeur to be systematically expunged from our culture? Silly question, I suppose. So who's going on the new one dollar bills? Donald Duck?

As I said, you've asked two good questions, but that doesn't mean that there are good answers for both of them. The origin of "buck" as slang for one dollar is a perennial mystery. The only even remotely plausible theory ties "buck" to "buckskins," which were occasionally used as a form of exchange in Early America. Unfortunately, "buck" in the "dollar" sense didn't appear until around 1856, long after such barter had been replaced by standard currency. Another problem with this theory is that buckskins were always worth substantially more than one dollar.

The origin of the dollar sign, usually rendered as an "S" with two vertical lines through it, is somewhat more certain. According to Professor Florian Cajori, author of a book called "A History of Mathematical Notations," our dollar sign actually started out as an abbreviation of "Peso," the Spanish unit of currency. As explained by my colleague Cecil Adams in his newspaper column "The Straight Dope," the Spanish dollar, known as the "peso de 8 reales," was used as standard currency in the U.S. until we got it together to mint our own money in 1794. "Pesos" was abbreviated "ps," and usually written with the letters overlapping, making a symbol which eventually evolved into our modern dollar sign.

Goodnight, Mister Chip.

Dear Word Detective: Last night I woke up at 2 a.m. wondering where the expression "a chip on his shoulder" could have originated. I hate it when that happens. Of course, you know the answer so the only question is whether you'll tell me. Please do. -- Sharon Crawford, via the internet.

Well, I certainly would not wish to minimize your torment, but of all the things that might prey on one's mind at 2 a.m., the origin of a common phrase seems relatively innocuous. My own nocturnal obsessions seem to involve slightly thornier questions, such as "What lurks underneath the nice new siding the previous owner put on this house right before he sold it?" Probably termites the size of beagles, right? See what I mean?

On the other hand, I'll grant you that "having a chip on one's shoulder" is a pretty weird way of saying that someone is spoiling for a fight or has, as we say these days, an attitude problem. I guess it's a tribute to the capacity of human beings to accept bizarre figures of speech in everyday conversation (Is there really "more than one way to skin a cat"?) that some of these phrases have lasted as long as they have.

And "having a chip on one's shoulder" has actually been around for quite a while.

The earliest printed instance of the phrase listed in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the Long Island Telegraph newspaper in May, 1830. This citation also provides what is probably a good explanation of the origin of the phrase: "When two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril." (The "chip" was, in that age of wood stoves, most likely a chip of wood.) Evidently this belligerent ritual of childhood was sufficiently widespread at the time to become a grownup metaphor for combativeness, as it has been ever since.


The chittering classes.

Dear Word Detective: I am interested in the derivation of "chit" meaning voucher or ticket. I looked it up in Webster's and found that "chit" comes from the Middle English "chitte," meaning kitten or cub, and now means either "a child" or "a pert young woman." While helpful, this is not what I want to know. -- The Sometimes Whizard, via the internet.

Well, in the first place, I think you probably could use a new dictionary. Any decent desk dictionary, such as the American Heritage, one of the Merriam-Webster's editions, or the Random House Webster's, would have had the definition you were seeking. The name "Webster's," incidentally, is in the public domain, meaning anyone can paste it on anything (although Merriam-Webster is usually considered the lineal descendant of Noah Webster's original American dictionary).

For what it's worth, your dictionary is largely correct as far as it goes. One sense of the word "chit" means the young of any animal, but especially cubs or kittens, and first showed up in English around 1382. By the early 1600's, "chit" was being used as a contemptuous term for a human child, usually more or less in the same tone of voice that one would say "brat." A further extended use appeared around the same time as "chit" was applied to any adult (but especially young women) considered stupid or inconsequential. "Chit" as applied to people has always been a term of contempt, so your dictionary's "pert young woman" definition is a bit off.

The kind of "chit" you're asking about, however, is an entirely different word. "Chit" meaning "a certificate or note" comes from the Hindi word "chitthi," meaning "distinctive or marked," which in turn comes from the Sanskrit "chitra," meaning "mark or spot." (The same Sanskrit word "chitra" also gave us "chintz," originally brightly printed calico cloth from India.) British colonists in India routinely called the notes or letters they gave their servants to deliver "chits" or "chitties," and the term eventually made its way back to England, where it first appeared around 1698. Today we use "chit" to mean any sort of small note or ticket.

In the jeans.

Dear Word Detective: On a recent shopping expedition, my father glanced at a pile of blue jeans in one store and exclaimed, "Seventy-five dollars for dungarees? They must be crazy!" We didn't buy the pants, but I am still wondering where the term "dungarees" came from. -- Leonard Simon, Columbus, OH.

Three cheers for "dungarees," a humble but fascinating word for what used to be considered a very humble item of clothing. "Dungarees," of course, are the same thing as "blue jeans" or "levis," durable trousers made of blue denim and originally designed as work pants, and each of these synonyms -- dungarees, jeans and levis -- has its own unusual origin. There was no "Jean," for instance, involved in inventing or popularizing "blue jeans." "Jean" is an altered form of Genoa, in Italy, where denim cloth was once woven. Similarly, the word "denim" itself is a contraction of the phrase "serge de Nimes," after Nimes, France, where the cloth was also once manufactured.

"Levis," of course, are named after Levi Strauss, a San Francisco clothing merchant in the days of the Gold Rush. His version of denim work trousers became popular after he had the bright idea of reinforcing the seams and pockets with rivets. Strauss's name became synonymous with jeans in the American West, and today "Levis," while still a registered trademark, has become a generic term worldwide for blue denim jeans.

Finally, we come back to our old friend "dungarees," with perhaps the most exotic origin of the lot. "Dungri" was the Hindi word for a kind of durable coarse cotton cloth exported from India to England beginning in the 18th century. Though originally used for sails and tents, dungri came to be used in work clothing, particularly for sailors. As the word gradually entered the English language, it acquired an extra syllable along with its new home, and "dungaree" was born.

Put down that silly flute
and come get your grub.

Dear Word Detective: In my practice as a musician, playing music from the late Renaissance period, I sometimes come across tunes with titles like, "Dick's Maggot," or "My Lady Winwood's Maggot," etc. My dictionary gives a definition for "maggot" as "an extravagant notion, a whim," as well as the one I am more familiar with, having to do with worms, putrefaction and decay. Now my curiosity has been piqued. How did this word come to have these two so widely different meanings? -- Steven K. Smith, via the internet.

Ah, you're one of those lute and flute guys, right? I used to work with a fellow who moonlighted as a knight at one of those Renaissance Fair deals. You know, the sort of outdoor dinner-theater costume pageants where your waiter addresses you as "M' L ord" or "M' Lady"? Anyway, he didn't last long in our office, probably because he kept referring to the boss as "that fat varlet."

Onward. Somehow I never thought I'd be writing a column about maggots, but here we go. The most common use of "maggot" is, as you note, to mean a worm or grub, usually the larva of a fly. "Maggot," which first appeared around 1398, is thought to have derived from the Middle English word "mathek," which also meant "worm" and may have ultimately been Norse in origin.

The use of "maggot" in the name of musical pieces started in the early 1700's. The rather unlikely coupling of the name for a grub with a light tune meant for dancing is a little less bizarre when we note that, starting in the early 1600's, "maggot" was used figuratively to mean "a fanciful whim or silly idea." The logic behind this sense of "maggot" was, you guessed it, that crazy ideas were jokingly said to be the result of having maggots cavorting in one's cranium, the 17th century equivalent of "bats in the belfry." Thus, a whimsical or "unserious" bit of music was jocularly christened "Dick's Maggot" or whatever.

Speaking of "maggots," incidentally, one early form of the word was "mawk," and "mawkish" originally meant to be disgusted, as if by putrid meat. Only in the 18th century did "mawkish" come to mean "disgustingly oversentimental."

Dude be wack.

Dear Word Detective: A while back I asked whether you knew the origin of the word "nuts," like I'm going right now waiting for your answer. Why is a peculiar or insane person called a "nut"? Does it have some connection with the expression that someone is a little "squirrely"? -- Paul Schroeter, via the internet.

I'm glad you sent your question again, because evidently I didn't receive it the first time. Of course, it's remotely possible that I accidentally erased it along with the 900 or so items of junk mail I get every day. Were you by any chance trying to sell me carpet remnants or condos in Wyoming somewhere in your message?

In any case, we're on the same page now, and that's what counts. "Nut" in its original sense, i.e., peanuts, cashews, etc., is a very old word. Its ultimate source was probably the Indo-European root "knu," which meant "lump." The Latin word for nut, "nux," eventually gave us the words "nucleus" and "nuclear." The English word "nut" first appeared around 875 A.D. See? Told you it was old.

Since nuts play such a large role in our daily life and diet (at least they do in mine), it wasn't long before we started using "nut" in all sorts of non-literal, figurative senses. By around 1300, "nut" meant anything inconsequential. Later on we reconsidered, and "nut" was used to mean a difficult situation or problem ("a tough nut to crack").

By the mid-1800s, we were using "nut" to mean a person's head, and around the same time we decided that someone not quite right in the old noggin was "off his nut" or simply "nuts."

As for "squirrely" meaning "crazy," there is no direct linguistic connection with "nuts," although the obvious link between squirrels and nuts has probably spawned ten thousand tedious jokes. "Squirrely," which first appeared in the 1920s, simply means something which (or someone who) acts like a squirrel, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "Inclined to rush this way and that, unpredictable. Of a person: demented, crazy; jumpy, nervy."


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