Issue of April 26, 2001
All right, already, so we're a little late this month. Sheesh. We've got things to do too, y'know. Instead of tapping your toes and clearing your throats outside my door, why don't you folks spend your time on something useful while you're waiting for a new issue? You could, for instance, write to your local newspaper and ask them to carry my column. That way, you'd get to read it much sooner than it appears here and you wouldn't even have to turn on your computer. Do it today. Your parakeet will thank you.
Elsewhere in the news, we are, at least temporarily, suspending sales of The Word Detective book through this site because we have, um, er, run out of books. Amazon.com, however, has scads of them.
And now, on with the show....
Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "Mafia" come from? -- Eric Lucy, via the internet.
Another "Sopranos" fan, eh? I've been getting quite a deluge of mob-related questions lately apparently inspired by The Sopranos. In case you've been living under a rock for the last two years, The Sopranos, which runs on HBO, is a sort of very violent soap opera about a New Jersey organized crime family. I watch it because Tony Soprano strongly reminds me of a boss I once worked for, although Tony is a bit more refined.
Onward. Most experts agree that what we now call the Mafia dates back to the Arab conquest of Sicily in the 9th century, and the first Mafiosi were patriotic Sicilians fighting the invaders. But there are all sorts of theories about the name "Mafia" itself, which first appeared in English in the late 19th century.
One story traces it to the cries of terrified Sicilian parents, who were said to have shouted "Ma fia!" ("My daughter!") when the invaders landed. Another tale fingers "Mafia" as having been the initials of a secret resistance organization. And yet another theory traces "Mafia" to an Arabic word meaning "refuge" or "safety."
But the most likely source is simply the Sicilian dialect word "mafia," which means "boldness" or "bravado," possibly from the Arabic "mahjas," meaning "aggressive boasting" or "bragging."
Incidentally, many people are mystified by a term used in a bit of dialogue found in nearly every mob movie. In this scene, an older guy, usually the mob boss, is explaining the facts of underworld life to a younger guy, who usually turns out to be an undercover "cheese-eater" (rat). At the end of his spiel, the boss slaps the kid on the shoulder and says something that sounds like "Capeesh?" The kid gulps and replies, "Capeesh."
What they're actually saying is "coppish" (kuh-PEESH, also spelled "capeesh"), Italian-American slang for "Understand?" or "Got it." "Coppish" comes from the Italian word "capisce," based on the verb "capire," meaning "to understand."
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell us the origin of the word "ornery"? My wife is from rural central Illinois, and her family uses the word when describing someone who is either teasingly and humorously abusive, or easily rankled or cranky. Could "ornery" be based on something related to ornithology, the study of birds? -- Tom Hora, via the internet.
That's a great theory. It certainly would fit in with the behavior of the birds in my neck of the woods. I made the mistake of buying a big bag of bird food awhile back when it was really cold and I was worried about my little feathered pals. So sue me. I was trying to be nice. Anyway, I have work to do, and I can't be out there every single day scattering bird seed around, so I missed a few days. A week, max. Now I have two dozen cranky cardinals, ornery mourning doves, ticked off chickadees and snarling sparrows gathered under my kitchen window, glaring at me. I'm beginning to feel like Tippi Hedren in the phone booth.
Much as I like your theory, however, the origin of "ornery" has nothing to do with birds, although birds are, apparently, quite easily annoyed and given to holding grudges. "Ornery," an American coinage which first appeared in print around the beginning of the 19th century, is really nothing more than a rural dialect form of the word "ordinary." Early forms of "ornery" such as "onnery" and "ornary" showed more of a family resemblance to "ordinary."
While our modern definitions of "ornery" and "ordinary" would seem unrelated, one sense of "ordinary" at the time was "commonplace, undistinguished, of poor quality, unpleasant." These mildly pejorative connotations were strengthened in "ornery," giving us the modern meaning of "mean, cranky, nasty and cantankerous."
Dear Word Detective: My question is something I heard frequently in reference to the presidential election: the phrase "That's a red herring." I know that a herring is a fish, but I have been unable to decipher the meaning of the phrase "red herring" within the context of a sentence, and I just feel too foolish to ask anyone, because everybody else seems to understand. Please help. -- J.D., via the internet.
Don't feel foolish. I'd be willing to bet that a majority of the people you hear using the phrase "red herring" only vaguely understand what it means, and many probably don't even know they're talking about a fish.
But we are, and a noble fish at that. Until over-fishing depleted their ranks, herring were so numerous and so important as a staple foodstuff to both America and Europe that many writers referred to the Atlantic Ocean as "the herring pond." The downside of the little critters, however, is that they spoil very rapidly and become inedible. The only practical way to preserve herring is to cure them with a combination of salting and smoking, and those herring most heavily cured turn a deep crimson color from the process. Voila, red herring.
Curing herring in this fashion not only preserves the fish and changes its color, but also gives it a distinctive smell, and thereby hangs the modern meaning of "red herring." In training hounds to hunt foxes, these red herrings, dragged on a string through the woods, were used to lay down a trail of scent for the dogs to follow. There is also some evidence that red herrings were, later in the training process, sometimes dragged across the scent trail of a real fox to test the ability of the hounds to ignore a false clue and stick to the scent of the fox. From this practice comes our use of "red herring" to mean a false clue or bogus issue designed to confuse one's opponent (or, in the case of our recent election, the voters). "Red herring" first appeared in the literal "smoked fish" sense around 1420, but the figurative "phony issue or false clue" sense didn't appear until around 1884.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of rigarmarole? One of our English instructors was asking how to spell it and now we're curious. -- Jennifer Buerer, Modesto Junior College, Modesto, CA
Thanks for what turned out to be a very interesting question. It's unclear from your letter whether or not that teacher ever figured out how to spell the word in question, but the most common form is "rigmarole" (although many people seem to add a syllable and say "rigarmarole" or "rigamarole").
For a word that's been around in one form or another since the 13th century, "rigmarole" is an especially apt way of describing many aspects of modern life, and has two meanings as used today. A "rigmarole" can be a long-winded, rambling and often pointless speech or tale of the sort often delivered by politicians running for office or relatives endlessly recounting each and every detail of their latest trip to Greece. "Rigmarole" can also mean a lengthy, complicated and tedious procedure or activity. Anyone who has ever tried to register a car at the local motor vehicles office is well-acquainted with "rigmarole."
With such unpleasant connotations today, it's ironic that "rigmarole" was originally a popular form of entertainment. Back in the 13th century folks would pass an evening playing a game called "Ragman's Roll," which involved a pile of rolled-up pieces of paper tied with string, each inscribed with a personality profile written in verse. Each person would choose a roll and read the contents, which were presumed to reflect the reader's "true nature," aloud to the great merriment of the group. Just where the term "Ragman" came from is a bit of a mystery, but it may be a modification of "Rageman," the nickname given to a law passed by Edward I in 1276 to catalog (probably in long lists) legal complaints by his subjects.
In any case, by the 14th century "ragman" and "ragman's role" were being used to mean any sort of long list or interminably rambling speech, and by the early 1700s it had been shortened to "rigmarole."
Dear Word Detective: While watching Olympic diving, I found myself wondering about the word "somersault." Where did it come from? -- Rick Jacobs, via the internet.
Good question. I actually remember wondering about "somersault" when I was a child. I assumed at the time that it must have something to do with "summer," since that was the season in which one did headstands and similar acrobatics on the lawn. I was wrong, of course, which is probably just as well because I never did figure out how "sault" (salt?) could possibly have figured into all that jumping around.
In any case, I wouldn't have been so mystified had I spent more time studying Latin and less watching "Davy Crockett." The word "somersault," meaning a leap in which a person tumbles heels over head in mid-air, comes from the Old French "sombresault," which was based on the earlier form "sobresault." Both of these French words were rooted, in turn, on a melding of the Latin "supra" ("above") and "saltus" (meaning "to leap"), giving us the combined sense of "to leap above." The word first appeared in English in the form "sobersault" around 1530, but by the beginning of the 19th century we were using the modern form "somersault."
Elsewhere in the world of acrobatics, albeit of a more metaphorical kind, several readers have asked why we say that a person has fallen "head over heels" in love with someone, meaning that the person had figuratively been turned upside down by his or her emotions, when the normal posture of a human being is, in fact, "head over heels." The answer is that when the phrase first appeared around 1350 it was in the more logical form "heels over head." Our garbled modern "head over heels" is the legacy of an apparently badly confused author back in 1771, who wrote, describing a fistfight, "He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels." By 1834 Davy Crockett (the real one) was declaring in his autobiography that "I soon found myself head over heels in love with this girl," and we've been stuck with "head over heels" ever since.
Dear Word Detective: I was browsing through the local bookstore the other day and came across a book about the scandals surrounding Governor Marvin Mandel of Maryland in the 1970s. What really caught my eye was the book's title: "Thimbleriggers." What on earth is a "thimblerigger"? -- K. Fitzgerald, Toledo, OH.
Don't look now, but you've just crossed into the Argot Zone, the twilight realm of underworld slang, thieves' cant and con artists' jargon. Words such as "thimblerig" are part of the secret language of social outcasts -- beggars, gamblers, con men, pimps, etc. -- that helps bind together members of the group and shield its operations from outsiders. Occasionally, "cant" words (from the Latin "cantus," the sing-song of beggars) graduate to general usage: "moniker" for "name" and "beef" meaning "complaint" are good examples. Others, such as "thimblerigger," remain largely obscure and eventually disappear.
A "thimblerigger" is a con artist who practices what is commonly known as "the shell game." A pea is hidden under one of three thimbles, which are then rapidly shuffled about on a tabletop. The "mark," or victim, then bets money on the location of the pea, and is invariably fleeced for, as one observer noted in 1752, "the odds are considerable, for the pea is under none of the thimbles." A very old trick, to be sure, but its modern descendant, a card game called "Three-card Monte," can be seen on many urban street corners today.
"Rig" is itself a very old word for "scam" or "swindle," and contributed to another word which began as "cant" and now is heard every day. Another scam popular in the 18th century was the "fawney rig," wherein fake gold rings were sold to gullible suckers. "Fawney," from "fainne," the Irish word for "ring," eventually became the word we use to describe con artists from down on the corner to up at the Governor's mansion -- "phoney."
Dear Word Detective: Not so long ago I was looking at a web site about Boston area slang and they explained "chowderhead" this way: "It comes from back when people would make a massive bucket of chowder and lay a clean rope in it so that when they put it into the unheated back room it would freeze solid and could be hung up. They'd slide off the bucket by putting a hot towel on it and voila! Anyone wanting a bowl of chowder went in and chipped off a piece to be warmed up on the stove. After a while the frozen block of chowder took on a round shape, like a head." Is this story true? -- Tony Bianchi, Chicago
Um, no, it isn't. In fact, to the extent that one can determine degrees of untruth, this little fable is completely off the chart. I'm just grateful that whoever dreams up these tales probably isn't designing aircraft.
The truth begins with the simple, if disappointing, fact that "chowderhead," meaning "a dolt or stupid person," has never had anything whatever to do with chowder, frozen or otherwise. Technically, "chowder" is any thick soup, but in practical usage the word usually refers to a mixture of fish or shellfish and vegetables in either a cream or tomato base. "Chowder" has its roots in the Latin word "calderia," which originally meant "a place for warming things," and later came to mean "cooking pot." "Calderia" also gave us "cauldron," and in French became "chaudiere." Our modern seafood chowder was invented by French fishermen, who traditionally threw whatever bits of fish or vegetables were on hand into a communal pot.
"Chowderhead," which first appeared in English in the early 19th century, is a direct descendant of a much older insult, "jolterhead" or "cholterhead," both dating back to at least the beginning of the 18th century. These in turn were based on the 16th-century derogatory term "jolt-head," which probably implied that the person in question had been "jolted" (and thereafter addled) by a whack to the noggin. Possibly with a big block of frozen soup.
Dear Word Detective: I have a very erudite friend who, over cocktails, told me if I continued on my present course, I would find myself in "Durance Vile!" Not knowing what he was talking about, I grinned appropriately and nodded sagely. Upon reflection, I get an ominous feeling just looking at the written words. Should I be alarmed? Or is Durance Vile a pleasant village in Wales? -- Tony Street, Fort Walton Beach, Florida.
Oh yeah, it's a lovely little town, once you get used to all the bars being locked up tight, so to speak. By the way, you'll get a better response around here if you refrain from dissing my ancestral homeland in your questions. "Durance vile" doesn't even sound Welsh. Llfnywyndyn sounds Welsh.
I was going to ask if your erudite friend might be employed in the field of law enforcement, but on second thought that seems unlikely unless he also happens to be the reincarnation of the Sheriff of Nottingham. "In durance vile" is a very old way of saying "in jail." Imprisoned. In the pokey, the clink, the slammer. An honored guest at the Graybar Hotel. Evidently your pal has a somewhat jaundiced view of your career prospects.
Although "durance" is today considered an archaic term and its roots are even older, its linguistic cousins, words such as "endure," "duration," "durable" and even "during," are staples of modern English. All these words hark back to the Latin "durus," which originally meant "hard" but also had the extended meaning of "lasting," and "durance," which first appeared in English in the 15th century, originally meant "duration" or "length of existence." The "imprisonment" sense of "durance" developed in the 16th century and referred to the length of the sentence a prisoner had to serve.
The "vile" in "durance vile" is our modern word, meaning "low, despicable, contemptible, depraved" and similar unpleasant things. "Vile" comes from the Latin "vilem," which meant "cheap, of low value or quality," and this was one of its original meanings when it entered English around 1290.
So, put together again, "in durance vile" simply means "to be in a very unpleasant prison, probably for a long time." And both your friend and I hope that you mend your ways before it is too late.
Dear Word Detective: Hopefully you can help me. I need the origin of the word "harlequin." I know a little about where it came from, but I need enough information to write a two page paper on it. -- Renda, via the internet.
Good luck. Two pages is a lot of space to spend on one little word, even one as unusual as "harlequin." Of course, you could do as professional writers do and throw in some anecdotes about your pets, a few snide gibes at politicians, some obscure references to TV programs popular 20 years ago, and before you know it, you'll be halfway home. Or so I've heard.
Today we most often use "harlequin" to mean a pattern of brightly-colored diamond shapes, most often seen in the costumes of clowns and used-car salesmen. The distinctive "harlequin" pattern dates back to the Italian commedia dell'arte, the improvisational stage comedies popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. A stock character in these shows was the buffoonish Harlequin, traditionally dressed in brightly colored diamond-patterned tights and an ornate mask.
But Harlequin was originally anything but a humorous character. "Harlequin" seems to have entered Italian from Old French, where "Herlequin" (or "Hellequin") was a mythical figure who led a band of demons across the sky on ghostly horses, terrifying peasants with their attacks in the dead of night. The French had evidently heard about "Herliquin" from the English, who feared him under the Old English name of "Herla Cyning," or "Herla the King."
But even the English cannot claim ultimate credit for "harlequin." The demonic "Herla Cyning" is associated in European folklore with the Norse god Woden (or Wotan), and may be traced back to the "Erlking," a legendary kidnapper of children, and possibly even further back to the malevolent "Ellerkonge," or King of the Elves. Whatever its ultimate source, "harlequin," as they say on Broadway, certainly had legs.
Dear Word Detective: On a recent trip to visit relatives in the Midwest I noticed that a local supermarket was called "Food Jubilee," evidently part of a chain of stores by that name. I don't know why, but the word "jubilee" struck me as just a little grandiose in that quotidian context. What do you think? -- L.A., Los Angeles, CA.
Wonders never cease. Now I have people writing me using words like "quotidian" in their letters. Have I raised the entire cultural level of this country or what? I think I deserve a Federal grant for writing this column.
As to your question, I agree with you -- a better name for that supermarket would probably have been "Quotidian Foods." For our readers who have not yet run across "quotidian," it means "everyday" or "commonplace," and comes from the Latin "quotidianus," meaning "each day." Something "quotidian" is humdrum, routine and decidedly unglamorous, which certainly sums up grocery shopping as far as I'm concerned.
Meanwhile, back at "jubilee," the word itself comes from the Hebrew "yobhel," or ram's horn trumpet, used to herald the arrival of a "jubilee" every fifty years. According to ancient Hebrew law, the "jubilee" was a year of renewal, when slaves were freed, prisoners released, and everyone got a fresh start. Translated through Greek and Latin into English, "jubilee" eventually came to mean any special anniversary. Today we use "Silver Jubilee" to mean the twenty-fifth anniversary of something, "Golden Jubilee" for the fiftieth, and "Diamond Jubilee" to signify either a sixtieth or seventy-fifth anniversary.
Probably because few things these days last long enough to attain even their Silver Jubilee, the word has lately come to mean just about any sort of celebration. To apply "jubilee" to a supermarket, however, is really stretching the concept. On the other hand, maybe if Quotidian Foods manages to stay in business for ten years, we'll let them celebrate a "Spam Jubilee."
Dear Word Detective: While watching the TV coverage of the Olympic Games here in the UK, I heard several events in different sports referred to as the "Blue Riband" event and I wondered what the origin of this phrase is. I have an idea it originated when ocean liners used to vie to make the fastest crossing of the Atlantic but I may be wrong. Can you help? -- Andy Heffer, via the internet.
Drat. Those pesky ocean liners again. I wish I had a dime for every word or phrase origin attributed to the customs and curiosities of ocean travel. In this case, however, the story you've heard is true. There is (or was, until the 1950s) a competition for the "Blue Riband of the Atlantic," awarded to the liner making the swiftest crossing.
The word "riband" may not ring a bell with many readers, especially Americans since it is rarely heard in the U.S. But it's not much of a mystery -- "riband" is essentially the same word as our more familiar "ribbon," both being rooted in the Old French "riban" or "ruban," meaning "ribbon" or "band." The ultimate root of both words was Germanic, possibly related to our modern English "band" meaning "strip of cloth."
So "blue riband" corresponds to our more familiar "blue ribbon," traditionally the highest award or accolade given in a contest, whether at a state fair livestock show or a suburban art exhibit. But here we are back at square one -- why should a blue ribbon in particular connote excellence?
According to legend, it all began with England's King Edward III back in the 14th century. One evening at a gala court ball, goes the story, a lady lost her blue garter on the dance floor. The King, to the surprise of the assembled revelers, picked up the garter and, noting the crowd staring at him, defiantly put it on his own leg, announcing "Honi soit qui mal y pense" ("Shame on him who thinks evil of it."). Whatever the truth of this story, Edward III did establish the Order of the Garter as the most honored order of knighthood, and to this day members wear a ribbon of blue silk on their lapels. Just like the prize hogs at the Ohio State Fair.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "wainscot"? I am an interior design student and know what it is but where did it come from? What is a "wain"? What is a "scot"? -- Adrienne Kushner, via the internet.
Sure, I know all about wainscotting. We live in a house built in 1865 and we have wainscotting in the kitchen. We also, in the kitchen, have platoons of mice, a floor that slants in five different directions, and a faucet that has been trying to kill me with blasts of scalding water for the past two years. The plumber claims the problem is due to gas in our well, but I happen to know that the sink is possessed.
Strictly speaking, "wainscotting" is simply wooden paneling used on walls, of the sort often found in older houses and apartments. In modern use, however, "wainscot" or "wainscotting" almost always refers to wooden paneling (or something resembling wood paneling) mounted on only the lower portion of a wall, usually from the floor up to about waist level, the upper portion of the wall being either painted or wallpapered.
Your attempt to divine the meaning of "wainscot" by analyzing its component parts "wain" and "scot" is a good one, but it won't work in modern English, because "wainscot" is a very old word. When it first entered English around 1352, "wainscot" referred to a particular kind of fine oak wood imported from Russia, Germany or Holland, which was used for furniture as well as for paneling. But its original use was probably in wagon and coach building, as evidenced by its apparent root, the Dutch or Flemish "waghenscote," from "wagen" (wagon) plus "scote" or "scot" meaning "partition."
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine just returned from a two week learning trip to Europe with his university MBA class. He summarized the experience as a "boondoggle." I have always loved that word, but my hunt for its origin has yielded nothing. Can you help? -- Bob Hambly, Toronto, Canada.
I'll sure give it a shot. Incidentally, I could have sworn that I answered a query about "boondoggle" a few years back, but my computer seems to have eaten it. This is very disturbing, and makes me wonder whether my life's work might not be dribbling quietly into the ether a few files at a time. Oh well, I'm sure there's a government-funded project somewhere looking into this sort of thing.
A "boondoggle" is a wasteful and usually pointless expenditure of time, energy and funds, especially tax dollars. I don't know how things work up in Canada, but down here the U.S. Congress has raised the "boondoggle" to an art form, and if there's a small town in America without a nine-story parking garage and/or its very own interstellar radio telescope, rest assured that our politicians are on the case.
"Boondoggle" is, as far as anyone can tell, an American invention, and first appeared in print around 1935 during, appropriately enough, an investigation of government spending on welfare make-work projects in New York City. The term "boondoggle" was apparently borrowed from The Boy Scouts, who had used it to mean the sort of handcrafted leather belt or lanyard Scouts often crafted as "busy work" to while away the long nights around the campfire.
Theories about where the word "boondoggle" itself came from are many, but hard evidence is scarce. One account traces "boondoggle" to a Rochester, NY scoutmaster named Robert Link who, it is said, simply invented "boondoggle" out of thin air. Then again, the Scots word "boondoggle" means a marble gained without effort in a game of marbles, which does seem to fit our modern use of "boondoggle." Or "boondoggle" may be related to the slang "boondocks," meaning the remote countryside, itself an adaptation of the Philippines Tagalog "bundok," meaning "mountain." Ultimately, nobody knows. Perhaps we should appoint a government commission to study the question.
Dear Word Detective: I have run across a term that I've never heard before and I hope that you can explain it. In an English detective story I read recently, one of the characters is described as "lying doggo." The context led me to conclude that it means "to hide," but I'd really like to know where the term comes from. If it is somehow connected to dogs, why? Dogs, in my experience, do almost everything except hide. -- Nancy Hopkins, New York, NY.
It is an understatement to say that dogs do not generally hide -- dogs are just about the most blatantly obvious pets short of elephants. My two dogs are so adept at blocking my path when I try to walk anywhere that I have at times suspected that I actually own three or four dogs. The only time they aren't underfoot is when it's time for their baths.
"Doggo," almost always found in the phrase "lying doggo," actually does have something to do with dogs, but the phrase doesn't really mean simply "to hide." Someone who is "lying doggo" is "lying low" or "hanging back," either staying out of the fray or showing no reaction to whatever is going on. The Oxford English Dictionary lists "doggo" right between "doggish" and "doggone," and dates its first appearance to 1893 in a work by Rudyard Kipling: "I wud lie most powerful doggo whin I heard a shot." The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang explains that the phrase probably comes from "a trained dog's playing dead," but this explanation shows a lack of experience with dogs. Dogs are natural masters of studied impassivity and need no training in the art. A dog who does not wish to be involved in a particular situation (a bath, for instance) will pretend to be asleep, and if an attempt is made to rouse it, will then pretend to be in a deep coma. No one can lie doggo as well as a dog.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading an old copy of New York Magazine recently, and I came across the following in the midst of an item on antiques: "A folly, in the eighteenth century, was a whimsical, useless structure found on the English landscape." Is this where the word "folly" came from? -- K.W., New York, NY.
Not by a long shot -- at least five hundred years, in fact. "Folly" has been in the English language since the 13th century. The origins of "folly" are remarkably logical and straightforward -- "folly" is based on the Old French "fol," or "fool." If we trace "fol" back far enough, we come to the Latin word "follis," meaning "bellows." A "bellows," for you young'uns out there, is a contraption used to blow a stream of air into a furnace or forge. So a "fool" was someone who blew nothing but hot air and made no sense, and a "folly" was the product of a fool.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "folly" as "the quality or state of being foolish or deficient in understanding; weakness or derangement of mind; also, unwise conduct." A secondary definition notes that "folly" may also be "a popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder," which puts us on the track of what New York Magazine evidently meant. A usage note in the OED recounts the tale of a certain Hubert de Burge, who in the year 1228 began to build a grand castle on the border between England and Wales. Midway through the construction of the castle, a new treaty was signed between the two countries, redefining the border, and de Burge's brand-new castle had to be demolished. Ironically, de Burge himself had termed the castle "Hubert's Folly," evidently meaning "folly" in its antiquated sense of "delight." The common folk in the region were said to have enjoyed tremendously the lesson taught to de Burge about the true meaning of "folly."
Dear Word Detective: I'm sure that you are familiar with the following phenomenon: a word you use every day suddenly sounds strange to your ears, and you wonder where it came from. This happened to me just the other day with the word "gimmick," and I hope that you can tell me where such a strange-sounding word came from. -- Edith, Brooklyn, NY.
I know just what you mean. Give me a fine spring afternoon and my mind simply cannot fathom such words as "work," "column" and "deadline." Fortunately for both you and me, I usually remember what these words mean as soon as the mail carrier arrives bearing a bumper crop of bills for my perusal.
"Gimmick," meaning a tricky or ingenious gadget, idea or device, is indeed a strange-sounding word. Unfortunately, the derivation of "gimmick" is uncertain, but there are several theories as to its origin.
"Gimmick" first appeared in English in the 1920's as part of the slang of carnival barkers. A "gimmick" was a secret device used on wheels of chance to make the device stop where the operator wished, thus cheating the customer. Two possible origins of the word are the German word "gemach" (a "convenience") and the slang word "gimcrack," meaning a showy but useless object.
"Gimmick" was also part of the lingo of stage magicians, meaning in this case a small, secret device that played a key role in an illusion. Thus, the "gimmick" used in a given trick might be a mirror, a secret sliding panel, or a card up the sleeve. In fact, yet another theory of the term's origin holds that it is merely a modified anagram of the word "magic" itself ("gimac").
Whatever its origins may have been, "gimmick" has traveled far from its carnival and magic-show roots. Think about the last time you heard the word "gimmick" used -- I'd be willing to bet that it was in the context of either advertising or politics.
Dear Word Detective: Can you please explain "naked as a jaybird"? We have many blue jays where I live, but all of them are covered with feathers. Am I missing something? Do all their feathers fall off at some point? -- M. Mercurio, via the internet.
Not that I'm aware of, though I suppose it's not impossible. My dogs, after all, shed enough hair every summer to build a whole new dog. Maybe blue jays shed their feathers when they fly to Florida for the winter. It's probably hard to get a decent tan when you're covered with feathers.
The phrase "naked as a jay bird" means, of course, to be utterly without clothing. A "jay" is a species of songbird, probably most familiar to us as the blue jay, with its brilliant blue plumage and distinctively raucous call.
Just where the phrase "naked as a jaybird" came from is, however, a mystery. It has been in fairly common usage since the middle of the 20th century, and seems to be American in origin. Why blue jays, which are modestly covered with feathers, should have become symbols of stark nudity is anyone's guess. The English have a similar phrase, "naked as a robin," but that doesn't seem to make any sense either.
I suppose it is possible that "naked as a jaybird" is related somehow to the use of "jay" in the 19th century for a hick or rube recently arrived in the city. This "jay" underlies our term "jaywalk," meaning to cross the street in the middle of the block or in some other unorthodox fashion, supposedly as one unaccustomed to urban traffic rules might.
In any case, since we're reduced to guessing, here's mine. There are few birds more blatantly obvious than the male blue jay. Not only is Mr. Jay bright blue, not a common color for animals of any ilk, but he is also usually the loudest and most obnoxious bird in any given tree. As a symbol of that which is flamboyantly obvious, the blue jay takes the cake. "Naked as a jaybird," therefore, might just be a colorful way of saying "blatantly and obviously completely naked."
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of "scotch" as a verb? I presume that it has something to do with Scotland, but how did "scotch" come to mean "quash" or "discredit"? -- D. B., via the internet.
At first glance, it seems logical that "scotch," meaning to abruptly deflate or disprove a rumor or theory, would have its origins in Scotland. The Scots are known as frugal, no-nonsense folk who do not suffer fools or foolishness gladly. It's easy to imagine that a dour Scotsman's contempt for wild rumors and silly theories would become legend.
But "scotch" in this usage has nothing to do with Scotland, Scots or the supposed Scottish national temperament. "Scot" in reference to the people of Scotland comes from the late Latin word "Scottus," possibly an adaptation of a name given to the Gaelic inhabitants of Scotland by the ancient Britons or Gauls.
The "scotch" in "scotch a rumor," however, comes from the Old French word "escocher," meaning "to cut." In the case of your example, it means to "cut out" or destroy a rumor, just as a sudden thunderstorm can "scotch" a family's plans for a weekend at the beach.. It is, in fact, the same non-Scottish "scotch" as found in the name of the children's game "hopscotch," referring to the playing lines cut into or drawn on the ground.
While we're at it, butterscotch candy doesn't come from you-know-where. It's called that because it is made with butter and is usually cut ("scotched") into small pieces. So we see that all that's "scotch" is not Scottish. However, as a consolation to lovers of Scotland, we doubt that all these echoes of an obsolete French verb would ever have lasted so long in English usage were it not for their evocation of noble Scottish ancestry.
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