Previous Columns / Posted 05-16-2000


OK, boys and girls, color me stupid. In last month's sermon I encouraged folks to use PayPal to subscribe to TWD By Mail (click here for a painfully long explanation of the rationale for such a rash step), but nowhere in all my babbling did I specify a vital piece of information: the e-mail address to which the PayPal transfers should be sent.

That address is: If you were one of the thousands of benefactors frustrated by my obvious incompetence, please accept my apologies and try again.

Speaking of things that go bump in your e-mail, my links page has long recommended Michael Quinion's World Wide Words page as a font of fascinating word wisdom with a UK slant. I keep meaning to mention that Mr. Quinion also produces an excellent free e-mail newsletter every week, to which you may subscribe quite painlessly when you visit his site. Highly recommended.

Lastly, by popular request, here is a picture of Fang, our intern here at TWD World Headquarters. Fang drinks a lot of coffee, loves Twinkies and wants to chase cars when he grows up.

And now, on with the show...

Hoops O' Fire.

Dear Word Detective: I am a high school basketball coach and English teacher, and recently I used the term "barnburner" in my class. The students looked at me as if I had just started speaking Latin. They had not heard that term, used to describe a sports event that is very closely contested and goes down to the last seconds before a winner is decided. My question, of course, is how did "barnburner" come to be? My guess is that is has to do with high school basketball in Indiana, a state which takes its high school hoops very seriously indeed. -- Brad Boeker, Metamora, IL.

It's odd that your students had never heard the term "barnburner," since it seems to be widely used in newspaper and TV coverage of sports all over the country. Perhaps they're spending too much time reading books.

"Barnburner" had a considerable history before it came to mean an exciting and hotly contested sporting event. It first appeared around 1810 as a slang synonym for "radical," apparently in allusion to a parable in which a shortsighted farmer burns down his own barn in order to drive out the rats living within. "Barnburner" was most notably applied in the years leading up to the Civil War to radical abolitionist members of the Democratic Party who were said to be willing to "burn down the barn," to destroy their party, in order to rid it of pro-slavery "rats." This "cut off your nose to spite your face" sense of "barnburner" is now obsolete.

An entirely different sense of "barnburner" appeared around 1934, meaning "something excellent or very exciting." Barn fires are, of course, one of the worst calamities that can strike a farmer, but they are also usually quite spectacular, and "barnburner" probably derives from the excitement caused by such an awesome conflagration.

Ironically, "barnburner" in the "exciting" or "extremely good" sense was first used in that most un-athletic of games, bridge, to mean a very good hand of cards. From there it spread to encompass anything that "takes off" to become excellent or very exciting, from a basketball game to a political campaign.

Boil that broker.

Dear Word Detective: Can you give me the history of the term "boiler room," as it refers to stock market scams? -- Jillian Sooley, New York, NY.

Sure. Incidentally, I've been expecting this question. It seems that every time I go to the movies (which isn't that often, movies being as insipid as they are these days), some word or phrase will be used that I know will show up in a question within weeks. Sometimes I don't even have to go to the movies to get a sneak preview of my mail. A few years ago, the U.S. distributors of "The Full Monty" called me to ask, believe it or not, where the title of their movie came from. I should have asked for a percentage of the box office.

In this case, I suspect that a recent film, "Boiler Room," inspired your question. According to the movie's web site, it's about an ambitious young man who gets a job selling stocks by phone, "cold calling" potential customers picked out of the phone book essentially at random. Our hero works in a "boiler room," a claustrophobic office jammed with phone banks staffed by others of his ilk, all furiously interrupting decent citizens' dinners, the goal being to snooker them out of their life savings with bogus investments.

As a slang term for such shady enterprises, "boiler room" dates back to the stock swindles of the 1930's, and originally may have referred to the actual basement boiler rooms that are said to have housed banks of early telephone scam artists. The name also might have come from the high pressure atmosphere of such businesses, or from the raucous racket, as loud as a boiler room, of a hundred voices selling schlock.

The use of "boiler room" has expanded a bit over the years, and is now applied to almost any sort of telemarketing operation, whether selling stocks, Elvis memorabilia or time shares in Borneo.


Click on the dog and
the pony falls over.
Cool, huh?

Dear Word Detective: I attended a business meeting recently and the phrase "dog and pony show" was used to describe the current state of a project, in (I think) a rather disparaging way. Unfortunately I didn't catch the person who said it to ask her what it meant. It isn't in common use in England. -- Keith Templeman, via the internet.

Welcome to Dog and Pony Week here at TWD. I don't know what's going on, but so far I've received three questions this week about "dog and pony show." Perhaps the circus is in town.

According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a "dog and pony show" is "an elaborate formal occasion or undertaking; (specifically) an official briefing or presentation, usually for public relations purposes." That definition isn't exactly wrong, but it definitely misses the point of the phrase as most of us (including your colleague) use it. A "dog and pony show" is an elaborate display or glitzy event designed to impress an audience and often, not coincidentally, intended to disguise a lack of substance. Press conferences held by "" internet startup companies, with their grandiose multimedia hoopla ("More smoke! More mirrors!") and choreographed displays of irrational optimism are excellent examples of dog and pony shows. Generally speaking, any time the CEO's head appears on a two-story tall video screen, you're being treated to a dog and pony show and should probably be watching your wallet.

"Dog and pony show" in the modern "elaborately deceptive public relations" sense first appeared in print around 1957, but its origins go back a bit further. In the early years of the 20th century, "dog and pony show" was a derisive name for a small circus or carnival. These small-town carnivals, not large or fancy enough to offer elephants and tigers, had to make do with more modest acts, such as dancing dogs and prancing ponies, to draw crowds. By the time of World War I, "dog and pony show" was being used as a metaphor for a big show with very little substance.

Bumble, Dumble & Dore, Esq.

Dear Word Detective: One of the characters in the Harry Potter series of kids' books is named Dumbledore. When I first came across it, I thought it was just the kind of made-up name that Dickens might have come up with. Lo and behold, the name cropped up in Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree" as a mild epithet. Hardy made it clear that no self-respecting person would want to be classed with the "miserable dumbledores," but he didn't come across with the exact meaning. Can you help? My Webster's Collegiate dictionary has an entry for "dumbhead" but not for "dumbledore." What can the miserable dumbledores at Webster's be thinking? -- Terry Fitzgerald, via the internet.

Well, I wouldn't be too hard on the old gang at Merriam-Webster. "Dumbledore" is a pretty obscure word, rarely heard even in Britain and virtually unknown in the U.S. "Dumbledore," it seems, serves as the name of two entirely different (and quite dissimilar) insects. One is the bumblebee (which the English call a "humblebee"), the slow-moving, helpful denizen of flower gardens. The other sort of "dumbledore" is a nasty critter called the "cockchafer," a large, ugly and voracious beetle which eats trees. "Chafer" is another name in England for a beetle, and "cock" in this case is an allusion to the size and aggressiveness of a rooster. Boy, do I not want to meet this bug. Fortunately, "dumbledore" is almost always used to mean a bumblebee.

The "bumble" in "bumblebee," the "humble" in "humblebee," and the "dumble" in "dumbledore" are all echoic in origin, meaning that the words themselves are supposed to imitate the sound of a loud hum. ("Bumble" meaning "to flub" or "blunder" is an entirely different word.) The "dore" in "dumbledore" comes from the Old English "dora," which meant an insect that flies and makes a loud humming sound.

Used figuratively, as Hardy did, "dumbledore" would likely mean a human bumblebee: a slow, perhaps not very bright person. I've never read the Harry Potter books, so I can't vouch for that Dumbledore's personality, but I'll bet there's at least a bit of bumblebee there as well.

Real Confusing, if you ask me.

Dear Word Detective: What are the origins of the term "The Real McCoy"? -- Bruce Crilly, via the internet.

The short answer is that nobody knows for sure where the phrase "the real McCoy," meaning "the real thing" or "the genuine article" came from. We do know that it first appeared in the exact form "real McCoy" around 1922 (although a letter written by author Robert Louis Stevenson in 1883 uses the phrase "real MacKay," which may or may not have anything to do with our modern "real McCoy").

There are an unusual number of theories about the origins of "the real McCoy," and we have space here to touch on only a few. For a detailed explanation of the top ten "real McCoy" theories, I recommend the excellent book "Devious Derivations," by Hugh Rawson (Crown, 1994).

Most people probably assume that "the real McCoy" has something to do with the famous Hatfield-McCoy family feud that enlivened the West Virginia-Kentucky border in the 1880s, but there's no solid evidence of such a connection. Another popular theory traces "the real McCoy" to the prizefighter Norman Selby (1873-1940), who boxed under the name "Kid McCoy." According to legend, McCoy was bedeviled by imitators, and so took great pains to assure audiences at his bouts that he was indeed "the real McCoy." But while Kid McCoy certainly existed, there is no solid evidence connecting him and the phrase "the real McCoy."

Yet another theory asserts that "McCoy" was originally "Macao," and that "the real McCoy" meant pure heroin imported from that Chinese island. Again, there is a lack of evidence to support this theory.

Since my guess is as good as anyone's in this case, I'm going to vote for the theory that traces the phrase to a bootlegger named Bill McCoy, who during Prohibition became very popular smuggling Canadian liquor into the U.S. To a nation reduced to drinking gin made in bathtubs, McCoy's genuine booze must certainly have fit the definition of, and may well have become known as, "the real McCoy."


Dear Word Detective: The term "miffed" is used in the UK as a verb to describe the feelings of somebody who has had their nose put out of joint -- they are "miffed." The common explanation is that it comes from an acronym of "milk in first," the annoying habit of a hostess pouring tea for a guest, assuming to know how much milk their visitor may want, so they pour the milk in first, much to the guest's annoyance. Any chance that this explanation is genuine, or is it purely apocryphal? -- Paul Burns, via the internet.

What a great story! Perhaps it's a little perverse of me, considering how much of my time is spent debunking just this sort of explanation, but I cannot help but admire the anonymous artists who come up with these fables. For vividness, inventiveness and superficial plausibility, I'd rank this "milk in first" yarn right up there with the "port out, starboard home" derivation of "posh" and the theory that "cop" stands for "constable on patrol" (both utterly wrong, but charming nonetheless).

By now I suppose you've gathered that the "milk in first" story is, as you suspected, almost certainly apocryphal. The first indicator of its bogosity is the attempt, as in the cases of "posh" and "cop," to explain "miff" as an acronym. Acronyms, words formed from the first letters of words in a phrase, are actually fairly recent inventions, and are very rarely found before World War II. Since "miff" as a verb meaning "to take offense at" dates back to at least 1797, it is extremely unlikely to be an acronym.

More to the point, however, is the fact that we have a more plausible theory. "Miff" is thought to have probably arisen as an imitation of the actual sound someone who is offended or exasperated might make -- similar to "harrumph" or "bah." So there you have it, but the great story you heard isn't a total loss. Personally, I find the thought of an offended guest exclaiming "Miff!" at the sight of a ruined cup of tea (and perhaps pouring it over the head of the presumptuous hostess) even more entertaining than the acronym theory.


Never on Sunday.

Dear Word Detective: I have never been able to figure out the origin of the phrase "blue laws," which I understand to mean local ordinances which prohibit certain businesses from being open, or from selling certain products (generally alcohol), on a Sunday. Any ideas? Is it simply the connection between "blue" and "lewd," as in "cursing a blue streak"? -- Steve Patterson, via the internet.

That's a sharp guess, but no. "Blue laws" predate "blue" as a slang synonym for "indecent or obscene" by at least fifty years, and there appears to be no direct connection between the two "blues." The origin of "blue" in the "smutty" sense is unknown, though we do know that it first appeared around 1864.

Blue laws are not nearly as common as they used to be, but, having grown up in Connecticut in the 1950s and 60s, I can attest to their once remarkable sweep in that state. Everything, absolutely everything, was closed on Sunday. As I recall, only one drugstore in each town was allowed to stay open for emergencies, and restaurants and gas stations were exempt, but that was about it. I hated Sundays.

Little did I know it at the time, but I was living in the birthplace of the blue laws. Established by the 17th century Puritan leaders of the Commonwealth of Connecticut, the original blue laws were draconian even by the strict standards of the day. Skipping church or playing any sort of game got you fined, and if you burgled your neighbor's house on Sunday, they cut your ear off.

The term "blue laws" seems to have been invented by Reverend Samuel Peters, a pro-British American clergyman whose "General History of Connecticut," published in 1781, set out to paint the colonists as religious fanatics. Although popular legend maintains that the term "blue laws" arose because the laws themselves were printed on blue paper, Peters himself explained that by "blue" he meant "bloody," i.e., enforced by whipping, maiming and death.

Ironically, there's no evidence that the colonists themselves used the term "blue laws," which makes sense -- they'd probably have been whipped if they had.

It was nothing.

Dear Word Detective: I was writing an essay in my English class, and I came upon a word that was very puzzling to me. This wonderful word is "magnanimous." This word has always given me fits, and I was wondering where it came from. So, knowing of your record I thought that I could ask you. So what's your conclusion, gumshoe? -- Capri McKnight, via the internet.

Well, first of all, I'll thank you to keep my record out of this. A lot of people enjoy getting chain letters, and the Dust Bunny Preservation League was a perfectly legitimate charity. Maybe someone ought to investigate what's under a certain District Attorney's bed.

Speaking of investigations, you might be interested to know that the original "gumshoes" of the late 1800's were shoes or boots made of gum rubber, the soft-soled precursors of our modern sneakers. Like sneakers, gumshoes were much quieter than leather-soled shoes. At the beginning of the 20th century "to gumshoe" meant to sneak around quietly as if wearing gumshoes, either in order to rob or, conversely, to catch thieves. "Gumshoe man" was originally slang for a thief, but by about 1908 "gumshoe" usually meant a detective, as it has ever since.

The meaning of "magnanimous" has also changed a bit since it first appeared in English around 1584. The word itself comes from the Latin "magnus," meaning "great," plus "animus," meaning "soul." Originally, to be "magnanimous" meant to be brave, courageous and valiant. A secondary meaning was to be noble, exhibiting lofty and refined sensibilities. Today we usually use "magnanimous" in a related but narrower sense to mean "generous, above petty jealousies or resentment, forgiving."

Incidentally, that same Latin word "magnus" also gave us the English word "magnificent," from "magnus" plus the suffix ""ficus," meaning "making or doing." Applied originally (in the 16th century) to people, "magnificent" literally meant "doing great deeds," and only later came to mean "splendid or grand."

Too good to be true.

Dear Word Detective: My German friend wrote me an e-mail criticizing the United States. In one of his criticisms he wrote, "Only in America do we use the word 'politics' to describe the process so well: 'Poli' in Latin meaning 'many' and 'tics' meaning 'bloodsucking creatures.'" Can you give me the origin of "politics" so that I can prove him ignorant? -- John Piowaty, via the internet.

Aw, gee, do I have to? Your friend is daft, of course, but personally I think his sentiments are right on the money and constitute a kind of higher truth beyond the bounds of mere factual history.

Oh, well, back to work. The root of "politics" is actually the Greek word "polis," meaning "city or state." Your friend is probably thinking of a different Greek word, "polus," which does indeed mean "many" and lies at the root of almost all our English words beginning with "poly."

A "polites" in Ancient Greece was a citizen of a city or state, and "politikos" meant "pertaining to citizens or affairs of the state." These Greek words were carried over to Latin (where "politicus" meant the same thing), and, via the French "politique," entered English as "politic" around 1420.

So "politics" has simply meant "the process of running the state" ever since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and has nothing to do, etymologically at least, with "bloodsucking creatures." Of course, that's no guarantee that you won't be asked to vote for one sometime soon.

On the beam.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please explain the origins of the word "raft," as used in sentences such as "The International Olympic Committee has approved ... a wide raft of reforms." It's puzzled me for ages. -- Murray Olds, Sydney, Australia.

You and me both, pal. Somewhere in the remote back corners of my mind, buried under dusty stacks of unfiled income tax returns and a battered box labeled "Everything I ever understood about trigonometry," lies a faded tablet bearing the notation, in my touchingly childlike scrawl, "Investigate raft." Of course, it's possible, given my youthful determination to escape suburban Connecticut, that I was planning to build an actual raft. But for purposes of this discussion we'll assume I meant "Look into the possible connections between raft (crude but effective watercraft) and raft (big collection of things)."

So it comes as a bit of a disappointment after all these years to learn that there appears to be no direct connection between the two kinds of "raft."

The root of "raft" in the "watercraft" sense was the Old Norse word "raptr," which meant "wooden beam or rafter," and which, not surprisingly, also gave us the English word "rafter." Imported into English around 1420, "raft" at first simply meant "beam or log," but pretty quickly came to mean a floating platform made from logs tied together. The fact that we already had the perfectly good words "beam" and "log" may have contributed to the relegation of "raft" to this specialized meaning.

"Raft" meaning "a large collection or wide variety of things" took a more uncertain route, appearing in modern English much later, around 1830. This "raft" may be an alteration of the Scottish English word "raff," meaning "rubbish," possibly related to the obsolete verb "raff" meaning "to sweep together." It may also be related to "raff" as the second element of "riff-raff," meaning "worthless things or people." The historical undergrowth gets a little bit thick here, but the general sense seems to have been "a large collection of unimportant things."

Mystery meat.

Dear Word Detective: I host a local radio show and the other day I had a caller ask where the term "Salisbury steak" came from. I did not get any response from any of our other listeners, so I thought I would turn to you. -- Scott Poese, KBRX Radio, O'Neill, NE.

Until I started researching your question, I had always just assumed that Salisbury steak bore some connection, either actual or apocryphal, to the city of Salisbury in England, near Stonehenge. It turns out, however, that the story of Salisbury steak is a bit more complicated than that, and quite a bit weirder.

In the first place, there's been a change in the recipe for "Salisbury steak" over the years. Today's "Salisbury steak" is usually (theoretically, at least) ground beef mixed with bread crumbs, eggs and milk, cooked and served as a sort of thick patty and often covered in thick brown gravy. Salisbury steak is, ironically, often found on the menu at both the high and low ends of the dining spectrum. Fancy-schmantzy restaurants that would never dream of serving plain old hamburgers offer it to children and other vulgarians, while the ground-and-gravy aspects of the dish make it a perfect dumping ground for whatever mystery meat less selective chefs may have on their hands.

The original "Salisbury steak," however, was simply well-cooked plain hamburger, and was "invented" in 1888 by Dr. James H. Salisbury, an English physician. Dr. Salisbury, who seems to have been pretty seriously whacked, maintained that a diet of well-cooked hamburger three times daily, washed down with large glasses of very hot water, would cure almost any disease.

"Salisbury steak" would probably have faded away along with the odd Dr. Salisbury had not World War I come along and inspired a popular drive in Britain and America to rename all things German. Sauerkraut became "victory cabbage," hamburgers (named after Hamburg, Germany) became "liberty sandwiches," and "Salisbury steak" became the preferred name for the bunless hamburger up to then known simply as "hamburger steak." Although the names "hamburger" and "sauerkraut" reappeared as soon as the war was over, "Salisbury steak" stuck, probably due to its usefulness to restaurateurs as a fancy euphemism for humble ground beef.

Not my bad.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "scapegoat," meaning someone who gets the blame for the actions of others? This came up in a class discussion. -- Bob Miles, via the internet.

Good question, but I have a better one. Why haven't evolutionary theorists paid proper attention to the critical role that the development of "scapegoating" played in human evolution? We're always hearing about how the all-important opposable thumb allowed humans to utilize tools. But I think the index finger was far more important. Once you've mastered the art of pointing at your neighbor and declaring "It's Charlie's fault the mastodon got away," the world is your oyster.

Onward. Under the laws of Moses, the ancient ritual once observed on the Hebrew Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) actually involved two goats. One, known as "the Lord's goat," was sacrificed during the rites. The other goat, over whose head the high priest had confessed the sins of his people, was then taken into the wilderness and allowed to escape, symbolically taking all the sins with him and giving everyone a fresh start, sin-wise. This lucky goat was known as the "escape goat," or "scapegoat."

There's a bit more to this story of the origin of "scapegoat," however. The Hebrew word for the goat set free in the original Biblical text was "Azazel." Translators of the Bible into English interpreted "Azazel" as a variant on the Hebrew phrase for "goat that departs," and thus came up with "escape goat." But it's possible that they were mistaken. "Azazel" was, some authorities believe, the name of a powerful demon who was believed to rule the wilderness. The "escape goat," goes this theory, was designated "Azazel's goat" in the ritual, and the priest was actually loading all the sins onto the demon's goat and then booting it out the door.

In any case, "scapegoat" entered the English language with Tyndale's translation of the Bible in 1530, and by the early 19th century was being used in a secular sense to describe anyone who is blamed for the sins or faults of another. The irony here is that in the original ceremony the "scapegoat" was set free without punishment, while modern "scapegoats" endure all the punishment deserved by others.


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