Issue of April 27, 2002
Well, it hasn't been a very quiet month here in East Groundhog. The merchant power plant that those scallywags from Kansas City are hoping to build in the soybean field next to Word Detective World Headquarters still looms, quite literally, on our horizon. A few dozen of us popped down to the local Lions Club hall last week to meet the folks from Aquila (rhymes with Godzilla) and ask them some questions, but they didn't seem to want to talk to us. When we pointed out that we had signatures from over 800 residents on a petition politely asking them to get lost, and observed that hundreds of yards in the township sport big "No Power Plant" signs, the Aquila fellas turned bright red and walked away. So we munched on the free cookies (quite good) and chatted with the three or four folks in the township who think building the power plant is actually a good idea. They'll still be our neighbors when this ruckus is over, which all of us hope is real soon so we can get some work done.
Elsewhere in the news, I had to go out and buy a copy of Microsoft FrontPage to use on our Stop the Power Plant web page, so I got to fooling around and we now have a brand new Word Detective handy-dandy search page into which you can plug any term you choose and be rewarded with a list of documents on this site that contain that term in a variety of irrelevant contexts. Stay tuned for further such improvements.
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: I have a question about which is the original spelling of the word "aluminium" (or "aluminum" depending on where in the world you grew up). I have been told that the English spelling with the extra "i" is correct, yet a lot of Americans swear that it is spelled incorrectly outside of the U.S. -- G. Craven, Phoenix, AZ.
Golly, can't we all just get along? Then again, I must admit that the British pronunciation "al-yoo-min-ee-um" has been driving me mildly bats since I first heard it on TV when I was about ten years old. I remember staring at the American spelling "aluminum" in a magazine shortly thereafter and wondering where on earth the Brits had found that extra "i." (While we're at it, the other thing that has been bothering me for years is the British pronunciation of "Nicaragua," which is along the lines of "nick-uh-rahg-yoo-ah." Something about that gives me the fantods.)
In the case of "aluminum" (as I will spell it because this is, after all, my column), we can pin the whole mess on Sir Humphry Davy, the English chemist who discovered the stuff back in 1807. Indulging in the perversity of which historical figures seem fond, Davy named his discovery not "aluminum," nor even "aluminium," but "alumium," basing the term on the Latin "alumen," meaning "alum," a substance drawn from the same mineral that had been used since ancient times for dyeing hides and the like. This is all a bit confusing, but we can take comfort in the fact that Davy was apparently a bit befuddled too. Around 1812 he decided that the proper name of his discovery was not "alumium," but actually "aluminum." Almost immediately Davy was besieged by other scientists who pointed out that if Davy would just add an "i" to make the term "aluminium," it would fall into line with such other substance names as "sodium" and "calcium" and, in their words, "sound more classical." So Davy named it yet again, this time to "aluminium," and the "ium" form became standard in both the U.S. and Great Britain.
Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. had evidently stopped listening by that point and continued to call the stuff "aluminum," and this spelling became so widespread that it was eventually adopted as the standard in the U.S. "Aluminium," however, is the official spelling used by international chemical societies. One hopes that Sir Humphry Davy, wherever he may be, is at last happy.
Dear Word Detective: I am puzzled by the usual use of "carrot and stick." It is most often used in a context that suggests a strategy balanced between reward (the carrot) and threats (the stick). I always thought it referred to a phantom reward, however, as in the carrot dangling from the end of a stick hung in front of the donkey to keep it moving forward in its perpetual --and necessarily failed -- effort to reach the carrot. -- Robert Fleming, Tucson, Arizona.
Well, if it's any consolation, you are not alone in your puzzlement. Precisely the same pesky little question has been nibbling at the back of my mind for years, busily shredding useful information (my cell phone number, shoe size, etc.) to useless tatters in the process. I'd set traps, but I cannot abide the feel of cheese in my ears.
Furthermore, you and I seem to have quite a lot of company in our quandary. I have checked at least fifteen usually useful sources for the skinny on "carrot and stick" but few even mention the phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary seems to endorse the "reward and threat" interpretation, explaining the phrase as being "with allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it … an enticement, a promised or expected reward; frequently contrasted with ‘stick’ (= punishment) as the alternative."
Yet the earliest (1916) citation for the phrase listed by the OED seems to refer to a carrot dangling from a stick attached to and moving forward with the donkey itself: "The spectacle of an otherwise intellectual individual engaged in trying to plumb the depths of duplicity to which dealers can descend in faking old furniture is like that of the donkey pressing eagerly forward after the dangling carrot. It would ... be very pleasant to possess the carrot of complete knowledge, but the conditions render it impossible."
My guess is that the "perpetual motion" sense of the phrase was the original, probably inspired by a fanciful cartoon (real donkeys, unlike voters, are not stupid enough to fall for such a trick for very long). But the world being what it is, the "reward and punishment" meaning took over rather rapidly, and is thus the one heard most often today.
Dear Word Detective: Why do they call a precarious, high-altitude walkway a "catwalk"? Do cats have a preference for high places? -- J. Bonner, via the internet.
Now, here's a real coincidence. Just this morning I was wishing that our cats would walk faster. They always seem to pick a busy morning, just as I'm rushing to the shower, to saunter leisurely down the hall to the bathroom. I'm told that they do it to get my attention because they're hungry. I suppose that's possible. After all, I'll bet they work up a real appetite lying on the couch all day.
Of course, you meant the other kind of "catwalk" -- the narrow walkway above bridges, atop high buildings or, my personal un-favorite, high above the stage in large theaters. Cats do not, to my knowledge, have any particular affection for such high places. They do, however, have what seems like a remarkable ability to navigate the sort of precarious perches that would turn any human's hair gray. Whether balanced on a high tree limb or just the top of a tall bookcase, cats are blissfully free from "acrophobia," from the Greek "acro" (height) and "phobia" (fear). A "catwalk" is called that not because you would be likely to find cats there, or even take your cat for a walk there, but because it is a walkway so perilous that only a surefooted cat could walk it with impunity. A human proficient at such risky business is likewise said to be "catfooted." Cats must have great press agents.
Although the Ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, there were no catwalks atop the Great Pyramids, and you might be surprised to learn how recent a word "catwalk" is. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1885, which must have been thousands of years after the first person asked "What's that cat doing up there?"
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "dash" or "dashboard," as in an automobile. -- Emily Kirkpatrick, via the internet.
Oh boy, an easy one. The "dashboard" of a car is, of course, the panel facing the front-seat passengers, and often houses all sorts of pointless little dials and gauges (as well as the odometer, at which I like to stare for long periods when I become bored with driving). The "dashboard," an English invention, is named after the famous incident in which Queen Victoria thumped the front panel of the Royal Rolls-Royce with her fist, exclaiming to her consort, "Dash it all, Albert! Forget the odometer and watch the road. You've just run over an Archbishop."
Oh, all right, I made that up. "Dashboards" were actually around for quite a while before automobiles and odometers. The term first appeared around 1846 and referred to a leather apron or wooden board mounted at the front (and sometimes along the sides) of a horse-drawn carriage, designed to prevent mud or water being splashed into the interior of the vehicle by the horses' hooves. "Dash" in this sense reflects the basic meaning of the verb "to dash," namely "to throw sharply against something; to break upon," as well as the derivative meaning of (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) "to bespatter or splash (a thing) with anything (e.g., water or mud)." This what-a-mess meaning of "dash" dates back to around 1530, and the hyphenated term "dash-board" first showed up around 1846. The word "dash" itself is probably of Scandinavian origin.
Now here's something truly cool. "Dash" as a noun meaning "sudden blow" led to "dash" being used to mean "a small amount" (as in "a dash of salt"), as well as "a hasty stroke of the pen," thus giving us the typographical "dash," a sort of elongated hyphen. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the word "damn" was frequently replaced in print with a "dash" (as in "Who gives a -- ?"), and by about 1800 "dash" had come to be used as a spoken euphemism for "damn." So Queen Victoria probably did say "Dash it all, Albert!" at some point, and that "dash" really was, at least remotely, connected to "dashboard."
Dear Word Detective: My father was reared in northeast Texas. His vocabulary is resplendent with colorful expressions, including "dumb as a box of rocks" and "ugly as a fencepost." These are self-explanatory, but I'm curious about the origin of one of his favorite expressions: "red-letter day." He used this expression to celebrate any triumphs or good fortune. Could you explain how this term came to be? -- Lee Sophia Barclay, New Orleans, LA.
Your father must be fun to listen to, presuming that he knows when to stop. His fellow Texan, Dan Rather of CBS, certainly doesn't. As you may recall, back in November 2000 Danno's folksy election-night ramblings about frogs with six-guns and the discomfort of wet bathing suits on sticky car seats made a lot of people wonder if Texas had supplanted California as the nut-job capital of America. Personally, I've always harbored deep suspicions about anything west of Broadway, but I must admit that lately I have found the classic Texas phrase "All hat and no cattle" (meaning "all pose and no substance") enormously useful.
A "red-letter day" is a very special and usually very happy day, most often a memorable occasion of pride and joy. A son or daughter's admission into a prestigious college, for instance, would be a "red-letter day" for most parents, especially if they happened to win the Powerball lottery the same day. A fortuitous stock sale, an improbably favorable regulatory decision, or even an unexpected elevation to high government office would also probably qualify as "red-letter day" material these days. Hey, I'm not the one who brought up Texas.
For a phrase still very much in use today, "red-letter day" is surprisingly old, dating back to about 1700, and the root adjective "red letter" is even older, first appearing in the 15th century. In those days, red letters were used on ecclesiastical calendars to draw attention to notable church festivals and saints' days. By the 18th century, "red-letter day" was being used in its modern secular "special occasion" sense, as when the novelist Anthony Trollope wrote, in 1887, "I used to dine and pass the evening with Dr. Jeune; and these were my red-letter days."
Dear Word Detective: I am an elementary school teacher. In the staffroom the other day I said someone's obsession had "grown like Topsy." Nobody on staff had heard of that phrase, and when I got home my well-read husband hadn't heard of it either. By coincidence I was reading a magazine today that had this phrase in it, and I am curious now as to what it's all about. Can you help? -- Marnie McGrath, via the internet.
For shame, for shame. See me after class. Nobody on the teaching staff had heard of Topsy? No one, in other words, had ever read Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? Yikes. Whatever one thinks of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it remains an important work of American literature and probably the most influential American novel ever written.
The plot of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," written in 1852, is a bit too baroque to outline here in detail, but the story centers on the travails of kindly old Uncle Tom, a slave who is bought at one point by the almost equally kindly Augustine St. Clare. St. Clare's daughter Eva becomes friends with the young slave girl Topsy, and the novel recounts a conversation between Topsy and St. Clare's cousin Ophelia:
"Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?" The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual. "Do you know who made you?" "Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me."
Given the astounding popularity of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (at the time of its publication it outsold every book previously published in the U.S. except the Bible), legions of readers were charmed by Topsy's declaration that she just "growed." Soon "it growed like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or intention, and by 1885 Rudyard Kipling was explaining to a correspondent that "I have really embarked ... on my novel…. Like Topsy ‘it growed’ while I wrote." Today "grow like Topsy" is most often heard in criticism of bureaucratic institutions or government budgets, for whose bloated sprawl and inefficiency no one is eager to take credit.
Dear Word Detective: I have been using the phrase "corporal's guard" for years and have often been challenged about its meaning by people who are either ignorant of it or know more than I do. For instance, when a meeting is called and only a bare minimum of people show up, I will say that "We only have a corporal's guard here today." What is your take on this and where does the saying come from? -- Volker Masemann, Markham, Ontario, Canada.
Gee, I miss meetings. When I worked in an office, meetings were the one time in my work day when I could relax and let my mind go completely blank. I used to sit in meetings and pretend that I was lying on the beach, listening to the lilting cries of the seagulls (my co-workers) and the sound of the surf (shuffling papers). Of course, at the beach you usually don't wake up and discover that you've been assigned to a subcommittee, but neither were there sand fleas in most of our meetings.
"Corporal" is a military rank, that of a non-commissioned officer serving just under a sergeant in the chain of command. There's a bit of a debate as to the origin of "corporal," with one school of thought tracing it to the Italian word "caporale," based on "capo," meaning "head." An alternate theory, which strikes me as a bit more plausible, posits "corporal" as coming from the Latin "corpor," meaning "body," as in "body of troops." And if our modern "corporal" (which appeared around 1579) did have a Latin origin, it still may have been influenced along the way by that Italian "capo."
Judging from the war movies I've seen, corporals usually have real, if fairly limited, authority over the rank and file, and this brings us to the crux of your question. A "corporal's guard" (also called a "coporalate") was originally a small detachment of armed soldiers ("guard" being one term for such a unit) of a size likely to be entrusted to the command of a corporal. I haven't been able to pin down when "corporal's guard" first appeared in the military sense, but by the mid-19th century "corporal's guard" was being used figuratively to mean "a small band of followers or loyalists."
Dear Word Detective: I know what it means, or, rather, like the caterpillar, I know what I mean it to mean, but I have been unable to find the root or original use of "egg in your beer," usually used in the phrase "What do you want? Egg in your beer?" Since I used it at the office my boss has been hounding me for the meaning or derivation. This is game we play, and I have been able to come up with the meanings of most odd phrases I use, but this one stymies me. -- Virginia Klipstein, Glenside, PA.
Playing word origin games with your boss, eh? You must have nerves of steel. The first time I met the publisher of one of my books, he shook my hand and announced rather forcefully that he disagreed with my explanation of "the whole nine yards." Knowing that this man held my immediate financial future in the palm of his wealthy and powerful hand, I nonetheless stood my ground, drew myself up to my full five-foot-six, and fearlessly declared, "Me too."
"What do you want? Egg in your beer?" is usually used to mean "What more do you want? You already have it good. Why are you complaining?" and has always struck me as a very odd phrase because it implies that having egg in one's beer is a good and desirable thing. I don't particularly care for beer, but I did serve time at Ohio State University (where Beer Studies is a popular major) and I never once noticed my roommates dumping eggs in their Budweisers (although, come to think of it, maybe that was why they kept a chicken in the shower).
In any case, to cut to the chase, "What do you want? Egg in your beer?" seems to have appeared as a catch phrase sometime in the early 20th century, but only really became popular when it was adopted by G.I.s during World War II. One theory about the phrase is that at one time such a concoction might have been considered an aphrodisiac. More likely, I think, is simply the fact that both eggs and beer were once (especially in wartime) not nearly as easily obtainable as they are now, so "wanting egg in your beer" would have been a good metaphor for wishing for more good fortune than was reasonable.
Dear Word Detective: Where does "hogwash" derive from? -- CMG, via the internet.
Oh, boy. This is the kind of question that gets me into trouble. By "hogwash" I assume you mean "nonsense" or "preposterous drivel." By the way, Merriam-Webster Online (www.m-w.com) has a very handy online thesaurus that provides a nice list of synonyms for "nonsense," including applesauce, balderdash, baloney, bilge, blague, blah, blather, blatherskite, bosh, bull, bunk, bunkum, bushwa, claptrap, cobblers, codswallop, crock, double-talk, drip, drivel, drool, eyewash, fiddle-faddle, fiddlesticks, flapdoodle, flimflam, flummadiddle, fudge, gas, gook, guff, hogwash, hokum, hooey, horsefeathers, hot air, humbug, jazz, jiggery-pokery, malarkey, meshuggaas, moonshine, piffle, pishposh, poppycock, punk, rot, rubbish, slipslop, tomfoolery, tommyrot, tosh, trash, trumpery, twaddle, whangdoodle, and windbaggery. There are also, of course, several terms listed referring to farm animals, but there are some things we must leave to the imagination.
Now, as to where "hogwash" comes from, the primary source of "hogwash" today is your television set, and I would suggest that, if you can't bring yourself to shoot the wretched thing, you at least toss it gently out the nearest window.
The word "hogwash" itself, however, comes from a more honorable venue, the barnyard. "Hogwash" in the farming sense is garbage, kitchen waste, or sometimes the leftover refuse of a brewery, used as slop or swill for the feeding of swine. The "wash" in "hogwash" is derived from the noun "wash," which has many senses, including "waste water, discharged after use in washing" (as in rinsing out a pot, for instance), and "hogwash" in the literal feed-the-piggies sense is indeed often largely liquid. "Hogwash" first appeared in English in the barnyard sense around 1440, and by 1712 was being used as a synonym for cheap liquor or any other worthless thing, including bad writing. By the late 1800s, "hogwash" was being used among journalists themselves to describe worthless writing in newspapers, and ever since "hogwash" has been used to mean any sort of intellectually fraudulent argument or specious proclamation.
I mentioned above that "swill" is another word for "hogwash" in the pig-food sense, but "swill" (which comes from the Old English word "swillan," meaning "to rinse out") is not generally used to mean "nonsense." "Swill," rather, has been used since the 16th century to mean food which is fit only for swine.
Dear Word Detective: A big power company came to my small town a few months ago and wanted to put a noisy, pollution-spewing gas-turbine electric power plant virtually in my backyard. When local townsfolk banded together to stop them, the company called us "Nimbyists." What's a "Nimbyist"? -- Mike Malloy, Baltimore, OH.
Gosh, Mike, what a coincidence. Your campaign of resistance seems to have worked, because that same company has now hopped the township line and wants to put that power plant in a soybean field near my house. I guess they haven't seen what my dogs can do to electrical cords.
I was going to guess that a "Nimbyist" is a devotee of that strange clay figure from the old children's TV program, but I've checked my reference books and that turns out to be a "Gumbyist." "Nimby," on the other hand, is an acronym, standing for "Not In My Back Yard." The "backyard" is only figurative. "Nimby" is a reference, usually derogatory, to opposition by citizens to an unpleasant or dangerous facility being built in or near their community. "Nimby" as a term belittles such sentiments, which is hardly surprising, considering its origins. According to the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, "nimby" was coined in about 1980 by the head of the American Nuclear Society, a "pro-nuclear" group.
The remarkable thing about "nimby" is how rapidly it graduated from the status of acronym to acceptance as a full-fledged slang term. Already we have "nimbyism" and "nimbyness," and further embellishments along the lines of "proto-nimbyite" and "nimby-symp" will probably arrive shortly. The term is a natural crowd-pleaser (provided the crowd isn't very bright) and thus certain to prove irresistible to politicians and their speechwriters. Just think -- if Spiro Agnew were around today, we'd no doubt be reading alliterative broadsides aimed at "nattering nabobs of nimbyism." Yes, just think about that for a while, and if you have any more questions, I'll be in the backyard, teaching my dogs some new tricks.
Dear Word Detective: A client for whom I am writing various fund raising appeals objects to the use of the phrase "pipe dream," as in "This is no pipe dream; she can really make it to the Olympics." She finds the "reference to smoking marijuana" objectionable. I, on the other hand, view this as a rather innocuous phrase, part of American common speech. Besides, I always thought it referred to the ancient and honored Persian tradition of smoking hashish from a hookah (consider the Caterpillar). Or is it truly harmless? -- Denise S., via the internet.
Hmm. There's something funny going on here. Yours is the second letter I've received this month that has made favorable reference to the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Harmless fun? Hardly. No wonder the economy has tanked. It's 2002 and you hippies are still lounging around on your futons, burning incense, fumbling with your Zig Zags and listening to "White Rabbit" over and over. I'm forwarding your letter to John Ashcroft. A few rousing choruses of "Let the Eagle Soar" should clear your head toot sweet.
Meanwhile, back at the tussle between you and your client, "pipe dream," meaning an unrealistic or fantastic notion, plan or expectation, does not come from smoking hashish in a hookah. "Pipe dream" arose as a comparison of someone's loopy plan or perception to the kind of fantastic vision experienced by opium addicts, who, once addicted to smoking the narcotic, were said to be "on the pipe." Opium smoking was not uncommon among the educated classes in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries, providing, for example, the dream-like imagery of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1816 poem "Kubla Kahn" ("In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a stately pleasure dome decree…"). The use of "pipe dream" to mean "fantastic or silly idea" has been found in print around 1895, but was probably current in speech long before then.
However, and this is a great big "however," the fact that "pipe dream" originally referred to opium does not make it a "drug reference" today. "Pipe dream" has been in common use for more than 100 years and has long since lost any connotation of illicit behavior. You are correct. Your client needs to "just say no" to paranoia.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "practical joke"? They really don't seem all that practical. How did they come to be called that? -- Troy R. Smith, Dallas, Texas.
Good question. A "practical joke" is, for those of us who have never heard the term (and are thus, by definition, excellent targets for just such an enterprise), is a prank, often elaborate, played upon an unsuspecting victim, the object usually being to surprise, confuse and/or embarrass the person. A good practical joke can take some serious effort on the jokester's part (more than just smearing grape jam in the victim's shoes, for instance, although that can be very amusing). The old "Candid Camera" TV show, which never seemed to tire of shocking museum-goers with talking statues and similar gags, depended on a fairly pedestrian form of practical joke for its yuks.
More elaborate practical jokes, such as physicist Alan Sokal's 1995 essay (ponderously titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"), require more effort, but garner a much bigger bang. Sokal's essay was a hoax, written as a parody of the self-important gobbledygook routinely published by the hoity-toity academic journal Social Text. Too bad the editors of Social Text didn't pick up on that fact before they published Sokal's essay in their magazine.
What makes this sort of thing a "practical" joke is that it requires "practice" (in the sense of "action" or "effect on the real world") in order to work and be funny, just as a doctor or lawyer establishes a "practice" to put his or her training into action. Ordinarily, the term "practical" is contrasted to "theoretical" or "ideal," as when we say that a proposal to fly a spaceship to the Sun is not "practical," meaning that it won't work when put into action (no, not even if we go at night).
But in "practical joke," the contrast is to the more "intellectual" sort of simple verbal joke. "Practical jokes" require doing some sort of actual work, whether writing a masterful parody or just balancing a bucket of paint on a door jamb. Simple verbal jokes require, well, not much. But personally, I still prefer the type of verbal joke that experts on humor call a "henway." What's a henway? Oh, about five pounds.
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