Issue of May 22, 2006


Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish to hell he'd go away.

Apologies to William Hughes Mearns (not, as several helpful readers have pointed out, Ogden Nash), but that's how my mother recited it.

Regarding my curious physical ailment, the jury is still out, tests so far proving inconclusive. Multiple Whatsis (nudge nudge, wink wink, don't tell Google) remains a leading possibility, but is notoriously hard to diagnose. I still have numbness and weakness in my left leg and arm (and sporadically on my right side), my foot still flops ("Here comes Gimpy!"), and amusing cognitive glitches persist (difficulty spelling words, reversing right & left, etc.). At this point I'm just sick of it. Thanks to all the folks who have written in with advice.

On a brighter note, June will see the release of the new version of Ubuntu linux, which I have been using since I completely dumped Windows a few months ago. If you are sick (and you should be) of the endless security holes and malware panics that constitute the "Windows Experience" today, give it a try. You can download the Live CD from the Ubuntu site and run it on your pc -- without installing anything -- to get a taste of what linux is like.

I've restored the fundraising screen you see when you click on "Current Columns" on our front page, and, as always, we appreciate contributions (in the form of subscriptions).  I sat down the other day to calculate the cost of actually feeding all these cats and almost didn't bother getting up again.

Lastly, we are trying an experiment this month. Rather than posting one long page of twelve columns as I usually do, I have broken this issue into three pages of four columns each, navigable by the arrows at the foot of each page. This will free more space for ads without, I hope, making them too obnoxious. More importantly, it will create some variation in the ads Google serves up. With one long page, whatever Google decides the page is "about," based on the first few paragraphs, becomes the theme for all the ads, and seeing an entire page full of ads devoted to my current travails and infirmities was becoming very depressing (which is why I wrote "whatsis" above). So we shall see....

As always, the circus rolls on at my blog.

And now, on with the show:

From Finland?

Dear Word Detective: Recently I was in a play ("On The Verge (or The Geography of Yearning)" by Eric Overmyer) in which my character uttered the phrase "fan mail from some flounder." At first I thought the phrase was just a bit of nonsense (as there is quite a bit of silly linguistic nonsense in this play). But then I did a search for it on the internet and found this phrase is still in use all over the place! What is the origin of this bizarre phrase? And what on earth does it mean? -- Mary.

Well, believe it or not, your problem is that you evidently don't watch enough TV. Or maybe you do watch tons of TV, in which case you are simply watching the wrong things on TV. Many people turn to TV news shows to try to understand the world, for instance. This is a terrible mistake. You're much better off watching cartoons. You'll learn more about life on this planet from one hour of The Simpsons than from six months of the festival of fear mongering and pharmaceutical ads that passes for national news shows in this country.

If you happened to be watching TV between 1959 and 1964, the best use of your boob-tube hours would have been to catch "Rocky and His Friends," a pioneering cartoon series created by Jay Ward, originally shown on ABC but moved to NBC (as "The Bullwinkle Show") in 1961. The stars of the show were Rocket J. Squirrel (aka "Rocky"), a flying squirrel, and Bullwinkle J. Moose, a moose, both residents of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. Summarizing the range of inspired dementia offered by this show is beyond the capacity of one short column, but Rocky, Bullwinkle and the gang coined a fair number of catch phrases still in use today, including "Curses, foiled again!", the frustrated cry of evildoer Snidely Whiplash upon seeing yet another of his nefarious plots foiled by Dudley Do-Right's clever horse, Horse.

"Fan mail from some flounder" comes from a brief segment routinely used to introduce commercial breaks on the show. As I recall, Rocky and Bullwinkle are standing on a beach when Rocky looks down and exclaims, "Look Bullwinkle! A message in a bottle!", to which the moose replies, "Fan mail from some flounder?" (I have posted a sound file of this bit of dialogue here). In this watery context, "Fan mail from some flounder" thus actually makes a certain amount of sense.

Life in the petting zoo.

Dear Word Detective: I am a computer programmer. Not too long ago, I was assigned the task of changing some code someone else had written. As I was browsing through the code looking for comments and getting a general feel for what the thing does, I ran across a word that stumped me: "goatrope." It clearly was derogatory in its meaning, as gleaned from the context (" stem the goatrope use of global variables..."). Any clues? The one meaning I found online related to slang used by the US Marines, but that still doesn't really explain it or its origins. -- Gary.

Ah, yes, comments in the code. Most computer users don't know this, but programmers frequently put little notes in a program explaining what certain parts of it do. For instance, I'm fairly certain that somewhere in my word processing program there's a comment reading "If user is typing rapidly, indicating a productive train of thought, this segment will cause cat to leap onto keyboard, deleting entire document."

"Goat-rope" (usually either hyphenated or written as two words) seems to have appeared as military slang in the 1970s for "a complete mess, waste of time or very confused situation" (along the lines of "SNAFU"), and has several more vivid (and unprintable) variations. A probable ancestor, "goat-roper," which had appeared at least by the 1960s and probably much earlier, was used as civilian slang to mean "a country bumpkin" or, among country folk, "an incompetent posing as a farmer or rancher" (the sort known as "all hat and no cattle").

There are several theories about "goat rope" in the "screwed-up situation" sense. One is that it is simply a sanitized form of "goat rape" as a metaphor for a pointless and unproductive activity. Other theories point to children's rodeo events, which sometimes involve the kiddies roping goats (rather than more dangerous steers). Thus to call an adult a "goat-roper" would be to impugn the person's seriousness and competence, and a "goat-rope" would be an empty exercise.

Hit pause, dammit.  The cat's on fire again.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently watching Jeopardy!, and while I was grabbing a snack from the kitchen they went through a couple of questions that I didn't get a chance to hear properly, or so I've come to believe because the answers didn't seem very probable. Maybe you can clear it up for me. I believe I heard them say that the word "glamour" is derived from "grammar" though I can't say that I can see the connection. I just checked an online dictionary, and it verifies it, saying the etymology is based on the association of learning with magic, as "a magic spell or enchantment" is an alternate definition of "glamour." -- Murtaza.

Excellent. I've been waiting for someone to ask this question. It's long past time for grammarians to be recognized as the truly glamorous stars they are. Incidentally, it sounds like you could use a "personal video recorder" along the lines of TiVo. Here at Word Detective World Headquarters, we use ours to play a little game I call "forensic TiVo-ing," wherein one person drives the other nuts by repeatedly replaying snatches of TV in an attempt (usually futile) to decode unintelligible dialog or unfunny jokes.

By the way, the word at hand is often spelled "glamor" in the US, but "glamour" is actually the more common spelling here, although many other words ending in "our" in the UK ("labour," "honour," etc.) end in "or" in the US. However, "glamorous" drops the "u" on both sides of the pond.

"Glamour" and "grammar" are essentially the same word. In classical Greek and Latin, "grammar" (from the Greek "grammatikos," meaning "of letters") covered the whole of arts and letters, i.e., higher knowledge in general. In the Middle Ages, "grammar" was generally used to mean "learning," which at that time included, at least in the popular imagination, a knowledge of magic. The narrowing of "grammar" to mean the rules of language was a much later development, first focusing on Latin and only in the 17th century extended to the study of English and other languages.

Meanwhile, "grammar" had percolated into Scottish English (as "gramarye"), where an "l" was substituted for an "r" and the word eventually became "glamour," used to mean specifically knowledge of magic and spells. "Glamour" was then introduced to English (by, among others, Sir Walter Scott), and took on the meaning of "enchantment," and later "alluring charm" and our current "exotic and fashionable attractiveness."

And what do we have for our guests, Johnny?

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection if any between a "host" who entertains people in his home and a "host" of invading troops? -- David Russell.

Good question. Incidentally, "host" is also a verb meaning "to act as a host" (in the sense of "lodge or entertain"), often used today to mean "act as master of ceremonies for" ("Paris Hilton will host the Oscars this year"). Usage "purists" love to object to this use of "host," apparently imagining it a recent invention, but "host" in this sense was good enough for Shakespeare and has been common ever since.

The two senses of "host" you mention are considered separate words in English, but actually share a common root.

The first of the two "hosts" to appear in English, the one meaning "a multitude, a great number," is first recorded in the late 13th century in its original meaning of "an army; a large force of armed men." The ultimate root of this "host" is the Latin "hostis," meaning "stranger or enemy" (also the root of our modern "hostile"). The transition from "army" to simply meaning "a large number" came in the early 17th century, usually in the sense of a large number of persons or other entities (as in "the hosts of heaven," meaning angels). But today "host" is employed simply as a fancy way to say "a lot" ("Ms. Hilton's public image presents the Academy with a host of problems").

The other sort of "host," meaning "a person who offers lodging to guests," appeared in the early 14th century, and has developed a range of meanings since, from an animal that "hosts" parasites or disease to a computer which "hosts" files for a number of users. This "host" comes from the Latin "hospes," meaning, depending on context, "host," "guest" or "stranger." ("Hospes" is also the root of "hospitality," "hospital" and, via French, "hotel.") Interestingly, this "hospes" harks back to the same Latin "hostis" (stranger or enemy) at the root of "host" meaning "multitude." Thus "host" in this "innkeeper" sense would have originally meant "one who shelters strangers."

There is actually another "host" in English, meaning the consecrated bread or wafer used in Christian Communion. This "host" derives from the Latin "hostia," meaning "victim or sacrifice," applied in this instance to Christ. In its more general Latin meaning of "victim," this "hostia" was probably also related to "hostis" (enemy). So all three "hosts" are really branches of one tree.





 Main Current Columns Archives Ask a Question Buy the Book Subscribe


All contents Copyright © 2006 by Evan Morris.