Issue of April 28, 2005



The vultures are back.  Monroe and Babs, the surviving pair of turkey vultures from last year (Lenny got run over by some punk in an F-150), arrived last week and took up residence again in our spooky old hollow tree.  Monroe now spends his afternoons sailing over the yard looking  for field mice past their expiration date, while Babs bestirs herself only to scare the hell out of Brownie the Dog, which isn't hard because these are big birds, with a wingspan of more than five feet.  There was a time when I would have regarded vultures circling our house as a bad omen, but as far as I can tell life itself is all just an extended metaphor anyway, so now I just relax and enjoy the critters. 

Onward.  Long before some shadowy conspiracy wished me into the cornfields of rural Ohio, I spent the better part of fifteen years commuting every day from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway, mostly on the F train.  Believe it or not, I miss riding the subway.  So I was happy to come across a photoblog by a very talented photographer named Travis Ruse who lives in Park Slope, rides the train into the city (as they say in Brooklyn), apparently from my old stop at 15th Street/Prospect Park West, and shoots his commute. These are remarkable photographs that make me intensely homesick.

Sparky loves his little plastic tub, but he doesn't like being called "Tub Cat." 

As I mentioned last month (and plan to keep mentioning), 2005 marks the TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web.  We remain, as always, a free resource for the thousands of readers from around the world who visit this site every day.  But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow).  If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks. This is your karma calling, gang.  Do the right thing. 

And now, on with the show:

Don't look down.

Dear Word Detective: I was watching the History Channel today and they were broadcasting a piece about dirigibles which caused me to wonder about the origin of the word "blimp." I have heard that it comes from the military classifying lighter-than-air craft as either "A-Rigid" or "B-Limp." Any truth to this? -- John Vowell.

Aha, the History Channel. Perhaps I'll give that a try. Lately I've lapsed into watching nothing but Law & Order reruns. Incidentally, I've discovered a handy web page called When is Law & Order On?, which  lists every episode shown on NBC, USA and TNT, complete with plot summaries. Pretty cool.

So, is there any truth to the "B-Limp" theory of "blimp"? Nobody knows, but the question has been debated for years. Even J.R.R. Tolkien (who was, all that Hobbit tedium notwithstanding, a distinguished linguist) had a pet theory that "blimp" was coined as a combination of "blister" and "lump."

The term "blimp" has, so far, first been found in print around 1912 (according to the late etymologist David Shulman, as reported by Barry Popik on the American Dialect Society mailing list). The main problem with the "B-Limp" theory about "blimp" is that, as far as I know, no one has yet uncovered any contemporaneous military documents referring to a system of classifying airships into "A-Rigid" (those possessing internal metal frames, such as dirigibles) and "B-Limp" (frameless) categories. Given the military mania for paperwork, this gap casts doubt on the "B-Limp" theory, although the "B-Limp" story is repeated in several military glossaries and histories.

Oddly enough, we seem to be closer to pinning down who coined "blimp" than we are to how and why it was coined. The Oxford English Dictionary, along with several other sources, names both noted aviator Horace Shortt and a certain Lieutenant A. D. Cunningham as possible sources. One popular anecdote recounts an incident in which Lt. Cunningham supposedly flicked his thumb against a blimp's inflated surface, producing a noise which sounded like "blimp," whereupon Cunningham dubbed the craft "a blimp."

So the verdict remains a resounding "Who knows?" on the subject of "blimp." By the way, a subsequent use of "blimp" was as a colloquial term for an elderly, reactionary blowhard, drawn from the character Colonel Blimp (described by the OED as "a rotund pompous ex-officer voicing a rooted hatred of new ideas") invented by British cartoonist David Low in the 1930s.

By the way, dogs also know that's not bacon.

Dear Word Detective: Sitting around backstage the other evening, chatting aimlessly as actors are wont to do, someone idly wondered where the expression "gravy train" had come from. We naturally discounted the dog food, assuming that its name capitalized on the older expression. Someone else surmised that it had a military origin, something to do with the food wagon that would follow troops on march. Can you enlighten us? -- Jean Forte.

Oh yum, Gravy Train! Choo-choo! Makes its own gravy! I vividly recall when Gravy Train dog food first appeared (in the mid-1960s, I believe). For the uninitiated, Gravy Train is a dry dog food which, when mixed with water, produces a strange brown fluid that might be thought to resemble gravy (although not by dogs, who are not that stupid). I actually tasted Gravy Train once on a dare. I didn't care for it, but it did, just as the label promised, make my coat glossier.

"Gravy" is, of course, a sort of sauce or dressing, usually made from the juices of meat or poultry. Our English word "gravy" is thought to have been borrowed from the Old French "grane," with a "v" accidentally substituted at some point for the "n" in "grane." The ultimate root of the Old French "grane" may, oddly enough, be our familiar "grain," the original sense being along the lines of "something spiced with grain."

As the hallmark of a full and relatively fancy meal, "gravy" has probably always had positive connotations, and has, at least since the late 19th century, been used as slang for profit, benefit or money, especially earned without hard work.

It is unlikely that "gravy train" ever referred to an actual train or any other sort of conveyance. "To ride the gravy train" means to secure an ongoing situation that provides good pay or other benefits with little labor or trouble, the equivalent of "living on Easy Street." It may be that the phrase originated among hoboes and other vagabonds who hopped trains as a way of life and for whom "gravy train" would be a likely metaphor for an easy existence. In any case, "gravy train" seems to have first appeared in the late 19th century. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words ( has uncovered an example in an 1895 Pennsylvania newspaper, the earliest citation to date.

Everyone knew her as Nancy.

Dear Word Detective: I have often been puzzled by the derivation of the word "Monica" or "Moniker" when used in the context "Can you please stick your moniker on here," meaning "can you please sign this" or "can you please put your signature on here." In the past I have been told that it was possibly used in a kind of coded slang used by Irish Americans. But even if that were true, it still doesn't explain the derivation. I would have thought it much more likely to be cockney rhyming slang -- I'd love to bet there was a famous socialite called Monica Rignature or something ("Rignature - Signature"). Ha Ha! -- Adam Archer.

Well, that's not absolutely impossible, since a couple of the theories that are considered possible explanations for "moniker" (as it is usually spelled) are nearly as odd. That's a sort of backhanded way of admitting that no one knows exactly where "moniker," meaning "a name, especially an assumed one," or "a nickname," came from, but at least we have some entertaining possibilities to poke at.

"Moniker" first appeared as slang around 1851 in several different spellings, including "monaker," "monarch," "monekur," "monikey," "monnick," and "monniker." By the 20th century, the spelling "moniker" seems to have largely won out, although the variant "monica" is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1968.

The pioneering etymologist Eric Partridge favored the notion that "moniker" is related to "monarch," in the sense of "king," in that one's name "partly rules" one's life. Frankly, this seems a bit of a stretch to me (and rather literary for what was, after all, originally street slang).

Another interesting theory explains "moniker" as originating in "back-slang" (a reverse slang common in Britain) for "ekename." "Ekename" was the original form of our modern word "nickname," "eke" being an old English word meaning "additional." (Through a process called "metanalysis," the "n" in "an" in the phrase "an ekename" drifted over and gave us "a nickname." The same process transformed "a napron" into "an apron.")

Anyway, the reverse slang for "ekename" would be "emaneke," which gradually mutated, according to this theory, to "moneker" and so on. Again, this is far from impossible, but seems a bit too elaborate.

Perhaps the simplest theory (and I like simple theories) is that "moniker" is just a blending, perhaps originally jocular, of "monogram" and "signature."


Bad vibes.

Dear Word Detective: When was the word "ominous" first used? When was it used in America and by whom? -- Henry.

Well, that's an awfully specific question The truth is that the best etymologists can usually do is pinpoint early uses in print, and words often make it into print only after they've been used orally for quite a while, possibly decades or more. The older the word, the fuzzier the dating usually is, in fact. Up until the 18th century, books and even newspapers were relative rarities compared to the blizzard of print that surrounds us today, so the print record for much of human history is thin to begin with. And especially if a word was considered "low" or slang, it might take a very long time to appear in literature produced largely for the "cultivated" classes.

In the case of "ominous," however, we have a pretty clear trail to follow. The first appearance in print found so far was in 1589, in a series of books of poetry by William Warner, collectively titled Albions England. The next citation comes just six years later, in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3. "Ominous" derives from the Latin adjective "ominosus," meaning "inauspicious," a meaning carried over into its English definition (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) "of ill omen, inauspicious; indicative or suggestive of future misfortune." In the 16th century there was also a secondary meaning, now obsolete, of "disastrous or ruinous." By the beginning of the 17th century, the most common modern meaning, that of "menacing or unsettling" had arisen.

The ultimate root of "ominous" is, as you might suspect, the Latin "omen," meaning a sign or occurrence that foreshadows or signals that something is going to happen. Today we usually regard an "omen" as an indication that something bad is about to happen, but to the Romans an omen could just as well be a sign of good fortune to come. There was, in fact, a sense of "ominous" used briefly in English during the late 16th century meaning "expected to produce a favorable result," but the gloomy sense won out, and to describe something as "ominous" today is not an upbeat pronouncement.

When sheep don't shower.

Dear Word Detective: Help! I have been ridiculed over the years for using the word "rammy" to mean "disgusting." However in my home town this is quite a usual word, especially among the primary school students. Can you help me find the root of this word? My home town is Northwich, which is in Cheshire in the northwest of England. -- Neil.

Oh, the old "rammy" whammy. Actually, "rammy" is new to me as well. It does crop up in a few online slang glossaries, but as far as I can tell it's not mentioned in one of my favorite books, Iona and Peter Opie's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. The Opies began researching and documenting the secret language, folklore and rituals of children in England, Scotland and Wales in 1944, and 15 years later produced this amazing book. Far more than just a reference book, it's a time machine, a window into the way we all believed and behaved as children, even if we grew up far from the UK. Out of print for many years, the Opies' work was reissued in paperback a few years ago by the New York Review of Books and is available through

"Rammy" in the sense you used it appears to be a variant of "rammish," a very old English term dating back to at least the late 14th century (Chaucer used in it his Canterbury Tales). The basic sense of "rammish" is "rank, highly disagreeable" in taste or smell, although in a figurative sense "rammish" could simply mean "disgusting" for any number of reasons.

The root of "rammish" appears to be, not surprisingly, simply "ram," a male sheep. I haven't spent much time with sheep, but it was long enough to notice that they don't smell very nice, and I imagine a ram can get pretty seriously gamy.

Then again, you may never get close enough to a ram to judge for yourself. The most notable behavior of the ram is, of course, his habit of violently butting all annoyances with his head and horns, a routine that gave us the verb "to ram" as well as the door-opening implement known as the "battering-ram."

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Step lively.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "stepfamily" (similarly "stepchild," "stepfather," etc.). -- Art Rosenbaum.

That's a darn good question, and one I remember wondering about as a child. (One would think, given that my parents were lexicographers, that I would simply have piped up and asked, but apparently that possibility never occurred to me.) I think I thought that the "step" in the case of "stepmother," for instance, referred to being one "step" away from being a real mother, a view reinforced, no doubt, but the nearly inevitable wicked stepmother in popular fairytales. I was, of course, wrong.

The "step" in "stepmother," "stepbrother," stepfather," etc., comes from an Old English prefix, "steop-," which was affixed to terms designating family relationship (father, mother, etc.) when the relationship was the result of the remarriage of a widowed parent. In other words, if Mom dropped dead and Dad married the local schoolteacher, she was your new stepmother. The Old English "steop-" and its Germanic root words carried the sense of "orphan," but at that time a child who had only one parent die, not both, was still considered an orphan. More recently, the concept of orphanhood has been dropped from "step" terms entirely, and a "stepfather," "stepchild" or entire "stepfamily" can be created by divorce and remarriage.

While we're on the subject, a phrase I've been also been asked about is "beat [someone] like a red-headed stepchild," meaning "to beat (either literally or metaphorically, as in a sporting contest) severely and thoroughly." This phrase, perhaps most often heard in the southern US, crops up fairly frequently in various contexts, as does "red-headed stepchild" alone in the sense of "object of neglect or discrimination" (as in "Environmental protection is the red-headed stepchild of the Mayor's administration").

Unfortunately, I've yet to find the origin of the phrase. The best guess I've seen is that while any child may face abuse or neglect from a step-parent, one with a notable feature (such as red hair) reminiscent of the departed former spouse may be a particular target in such a situation. It is also true that red-haired children are often the butt of jokes by their peers, especially in Britain (where they are called "gingers"), and in several European cultures red hair has historically been considered an unfavorable characteristic.

Come and get it.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the English words "avail" and "available"? -- Bikash.

This is an interesting question, not so much for the derivation of those two words (although "avail" is a lovely word and "available" is usually nice to hear as well), but for their surprising connections to other common words.

"Avail" is used as a verb meaning "to be of use or value " or "to serve," as in "Since my glasses were broken, the tiny type of the telephone directory did not avail me in my search for an optician." As a noun, "avail" means "benefit" or "advantage," as in "Unfortunately, the cell phone was of no avail as its battery was dead." One of the most common uses of "avail" is in the idiom "to avail oneself of" meaning "to make use of" or "to take advantage of," as in "While I was on the telephone, the dog availed herself of the opportunity to eat an entire stick of butter."

Our modern "avail" was derived around 1300 from the Middle English "availen," itself based on the Old French "valoir," meaning "to be worth." This French word was, in turn, derived from the Latin "valere," meaning "to be strong" (on the theory that to be strong is to have worth).

"Available" appeared in the 15th century, originally in a legal context describing rights that could be exercised, later taking on the meaning of "capable of producing a desired result" or "effective." It wasn't until the 19th century that we began using "available" in its modern sense of "accessible" or "obtainable."

If we back up a bit, we find that the Latin "valere" ("to be strong") we met a moment ago also gave us our modern English words "value," "valiant," "equivalent" (of equal value) and "invalid" (in two senses, "not strong," i.e., sick, and "not of value").

The land of nod.

Dear Word Detective: Is the use of the term "beck and call" derogatory? The CEO (male) of an organization told a Manager (who is female) to be in the next room at "my beck and call." She took offence and refused. This happened to be a hotel wherein interviews of prospective employees was taking place. The lady in question was already in employment. Is she justified in taking offence? Is the usage of the term by the CEO acceptable? -- C. G. Muthana.

Hey, I say we book the creep, toss him into the hoosegow for a few weeks, and let a jury of retired plumbers, freelance acupuncturists and unemployed mimes decide.

Well, I guess we know whose side I'm on. I wouldn't call ordering someone to be at your "beck and call" derogatory, but to address a subordinate in such fashion is definitely demeaning (and stupid, if one values the respect and support of one's subordinates). I am not at all surprised that a woman, especially one who had risen to management level herself, would take offense at the phrase.

To be at someone's "beck and call" is to be hanging on their slightest whim, waiting to instantly spring into carrying out any command, no matter how trivial, at a moment's notice. The "call" part of "beck and call" (which first appeared in phrase form in the 19th century) is obvious, simply referring to a superior summoning a subordinate to perform a task. The "beck" bit is where things take a turn for the demeaning. "Beck" is a shortened form of "beckon," in this case in a specialized sense of "to make a mute signal, as by nodding the head, motioning with a finger, etc." To be hanging on someone's "beck," therefore, is to be so slavishly attentive to one's superior that a mere nod of the head will galvanize obedience. In modern usage, "Be at my beck and call" translates as "Go stand quietly in the corner and wait for further orders."

I suppose that it is possible that the CEO simply didn't understand the negative connotations of "beck and call" when he said it, and simply meant "I may need your help in a few minutes, so please stick around." But, having met a few CEOs, I seriously doubt it.


Muzak for cows.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "hootenanny" originate? I have a friend that swears it refers to a party involving a barn, an owl, and a goat. Seriously. Any information you could provide should be really interesting (and settle this bet). -- Joel Hampton.

A barn, an owl and a goat, oh my! Sounds like a great party. Maybe we can get the goat to eat the banjo. I know I shouldn't say this, living in an area of the country apparently home to millions of Bluegrass fans, but I sincerely believe that banjos should be outlawed. Harmonicas too. Maybe accordions. Come to think of it, I could do without harps of any kind, too. And you know those annoying all-brass ensembles so popular with NPR listeners? Gonna sleep with the fishes when I run the world.

You didn't explain your friend's entire theory having to do with "hootenanny," meaning a gathering of folksingers, but I imagine it revolves around the owl hooting and the goat ("nanny goat" being a colloquial term for a female goat) doing something amusing. I wish I could say that a party involving owls and goats vocalizing in a barn would be so dull as to be an improbable origin for "hootenanny," but I have been to a few rural barbeques where livestock was the main attraction, so I can't object on that count.

More important, however, is the fact that when "hootenanny" first appeared in the early 20th century, it had nothing to do with folk singing. It was originally used as a synonym of "gadget" or "thingamajig," a term for a small, inconsequential object or tool, used when the proper name of the, um, dingus is unknown or forgotten. Unfortunately, the origin of "hootenanny" is unknown. It may have been invented out of thin air as a "silly word," or it may, in some sense, be related to the sense of "hoot" meaning "the smallest amount" (found in the phrase "don't give a hoot"), which would fit with the original "small thingy" sense of "hootenanny."

Whatever the origin, by 1940 "hootenanny" was being used to mean an informal social event or party, and by 1957 it had arrived at its current meaning of a gathering of folksingers in concert. The term hit the national vocabulary in 1963, when the ABC TV show "Hootenanny" became a brief hit showcasing such hot folk acts as The Chad Mitchell Trio and The New Christy Minstrels (but not Pete Seeger or The Weavers, who were banned for political reasons).

No nit unpicked.

Dear Word Detective: When someone says, "Mind your P's and Q's," what do the P and Q mean? What do they represent? -- Catherine Gasper.

Welcome to one of top ten questions I've received over the years. In checking my archives, I discovered that the last time I answered it was just about five years ago, so I guess it's time to trot it out and buy it a birthday cake.

I'm afraid that there is no clear answer as to where "mind your p's and q's," meaning "pay attention to details," "be very careful" or "behave yourself" came from, though folks have been saying it since the late 1700's. The consolation is that there are a number of theories ranging from the plausible to the labored, so you can pretty much take your pick of the following.

One theory is that the phrase comes from the practice in certain British pubs of tallying a customer's purchases on a blackboard behind the bar, with the notation "p" standing for "pints" and "q" for quarts. If a customer failed to pay close attention and "mind his p's and q's," he might well find by evening's end that the barkeep had padded his tab.

Another theory, drawn from the schoolroom, is that any child approaching the mystery of penmanship soon discovers that the lowercase "p" is devilishly easy to confuse with the lowercase "q." Thus, the theory goes, generations of teachers exhorting their small charges to "mind your p's and q's" created a enduring metaphor for being attentive and careful. A similar theory centers on typesetters in old fashioned type shops, where the danger of confusing lowercase "p" and "q" was increased because typesetters had to view the letters backwards.

Another theory posits "Mind your p's and q's" as cutesy parent shorthand for "Don't forget to say 'please' and 'thank you.'"  I suppose this derivation is possible, but to me it reeks of reverse-engineering.

Still other theories tie the "p" to "pea" cloth (the rough fabric used in "pea jackets") and the "q" to "queue," the ponytails commonly worn by sailors. This version has old salts advising newcomers to dip their ponytails in tar (a common practice, believe it or not), but to avoid soiling their pea jackets with the tar. At the other end of the social scale, it is said, in yet another theory, that French dancing teachers of the period commonly cautioned their pupils to pay close attention to their "pieds" (feet), i.e., follow the proper dance steps, as well as their "queues" (wigs again). Both the sailor and the dancing theories strike me as extremely labored and unlikely.

Of the remainder, I'd pick the schoolroom theory as being the most likely source. It makes sense right out of the box and sounds like the sort of thing teachers say.

Pullet Surprise.

Dear Word Detective: After a rather harrowing discussion of removing turkeys from their church property, a men's bible study at my friend's church became perplexed by the etymology of the word "pullet." Why is a chicken called a "pullet"? Please give these poor men something to be peaceful about as the rafter of turkeys will not go away. -- Mackenzie Grondahl.

There are days when I wish I had taken up a more secure and lucrative career (such as accounting or, heck, professional dog-walking), but, thanks to your question, this isn't one of them. Where to begin? "Removing turkeys from the church property," eh? First, how long have they been hanging around? If they took refuge just before Thanksgiving, you may be compelled to give them permanent sanctuary. Are they insisting on actually participating in the study group or simply standing under the window yakking it up with their friends? If the latter, a box of Stovetop Stuffing placed on the windowsill should shut them up. I'm also a bit puzzled by your use of "rafter." If you have turkeys in the rafters, they're almost certainly actually giant mutant pigeons, and we're all in deep trouble.

Meanwhile, back at chickens, all "pullets" are chickens, but not all chickens are pullets. A "pullet" is a young chicken, technically a hen less than one year old which has begun to lay eggs but has not yet molted. In more general use, "pullet" can refer to any young chicken.

"Pullet" first appeared in English in the 14th century, imported from the French "poulet," meaning "young fowl or chicken." French, in turn, had derived it from the Latin "pullus," and here things get interesting. In addition to "young chicken," "pullus" also meant "young animal" in general, specifically "young horse," and also gave us our modern word "pony."

The general sense of "young" or "small" in "pullus" goes further back yet, to the Indo-European root "pau," which lies behind all sorts of words, from "pony" and "pullet" to "pauper," "poor," "poverty," and even "foal" and "few."

Incidentally, turkeys aren't actually from Turkey. The birds we call "turkeys" were first domesticated by the Aztecs and Mayas in Mexico. But to Europeans they apparently resembled the "turkey-cocks" imported from the colonies of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in Africa.

I think they should play it safe and stop talking entirely.

Dear Word Detective: I'm having a discussion with some friends about the word "teen." They say that "teen" is a bad word, because so many teens are so self-indulgent and stupid. They never want their children to be a "teen," but would rather call them "young adults." Obviously, the word "teen" as we use it refers to a youth in their teenage years. However, they have found an obsolete meaning of "teen" that means "grief or misery." This is all the proof they need to prove their case. For me, however, I suspect that the "grief or misery" definition might stem from an entirely different source altogether, and that the two definitions were never used interchangeably. What can you tell me about it? -- Heather.

There seems to be a lot of this "hidden evil secret stories of words" silliness going on. A while back I heard from one reader who had been told not to use the word "luck" because it is derived from "Lucifer" (there is no connection whatsoever), and back in 1997 a county in Texas adopted "Heaven-O" as their official greeting on the theory that "hello" has some connection to "Hell," which it doesn't. I wonder if they've run the Shell gas station out of town yet. Probably too busy driving stakes through all those cans of devilled ham.

You're absolutely correct in your suspicion that the two senses of "teen" spring from entirely different sources. They are, in fact, two separate words that just happen to share a spelling. This is not unusual -- there are a finite number of letters in our alphabet (26, last time I checked), and, since most words are fairly short, a certain amount of overlap is inevitable.

The common sense of "teen" meaning someone between the ages of 13 and 19 (all ages ending in "teen") is simply short for "teenager," a term which first appeared in the 1940s. The use of the plural "teens" to mean that period of life is considerably older, first appearing in the 1600s. The "teen" at the end of numbers such as "sixteen" is, incidentally, simply a form of "ten."

The other sort of "teen" is a very old and now obsolete word meaning "harm, injury, trouble, or suffering," and dates back to the Old English word "teona," which meant "hurt or trouble." There is absolutely no connection to teenagers or youth anywhere in the history of the word.



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