Issue of May 22, 2006

Page Two

My turn.

Dear Word Detective: I was once told that the word "trivia" comes from the Latin "tri via" or "three roads." (The four-way intersection being an invention of a more modern, more up-tight and rectilinear man.) Where three roads came together -- or one road joined another -- the Romans would put up a big column. Travelers would then post notes and bits of advice about where they had been for the benefit of other travelers going that direction. Often these bits of information were trivial in nature -- which guest house served the best cabbage and what-not. My question then is this, any of this true, or is it a nice story like the many explanations of the origin of the "f" word? -- Bill.

And the word is ... fun! Fan? Fin? Just kidding. We can't talk about that particular word because this is a family-friendly column (read by families with subscriptions to HBO and Showtime, it's true, but that's what makes America so special: a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance). Meanwhile, I presume that business about three-road intersections preceding the four-way sort is part of the story as it was told to you, because it makes no sense at all. A four-way intersection only takes two roads, and unless roads dead-ending into other roads are a cultural custom somewhere, the landscape will inevitably be chock-a-block with four-way intersections. Here in rural Ohio we have lots of "four-way stops" at this sort of intersection, a sort of poor man's lotto where you get to bet on your neighbor's eyesight (and sobriety) several times a day. If we ever get electricity out here, I plan to tell them about stoplights.

What's true about the story you heard is that "trivia" derives from "trivium," a Latin word meaning "three roads" or, colloquially, "crossroads." The derivative "trivialis" carried the sense of "common, ordinary, of the crossroads," the sort of thing found anywhere, which influenced the modern meaning of "trivial" as "of no importance." But "trivium" played an important role in Medieval education that led more directly to our modern sense of "trivia." The "trivium" (the "three ways" or "three roads") was the first stage of a classical education at the university level, composed of rhetoric, grammar and logic. This was followed by the more advanced postgraduate "quadrivium" ("four ways") of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Since the "trivium" was considered "the basics," the derivative "trivia" eventually came to mean "less important matters."

Inka dinka vindaloo.

Dear Word Detective: Only just discovered your site which I feel is excellent - thank you. When I looked up the word "curry" (not sure I agree with the origin you maintain but that is another story) you also mention, in the header, the word "vindaloo." In the UK a vindaloo curry has come to be associated with a fiery hot dish which leaves the diner gasping for water, and promises even more pain the morning after! I believe the word "vindaloo" is of Portuguese origin, coming from the Goa region of India. A meal was developed which involved marinating meat in vinegar - hence the "vin" bit of the word, and spices, in part to preserve the raw ingredients. Is this correct? -- Steve Taylor.

At least partially. Incidentally, the origin I gave of the word "curry" is generally accepted by etymologists, including those at the Oxford English Dictionary. As a quick refresher for those without access to at the moment, I said: A "curry" is basically a sort of stew containing vegetables, spices and usually some kind of meat, often served over rice. While we usually think of "curry" as a very spicy dish, there are also many subtle and mild curries. The origin of "curry" is actually rather straightforward: it comes from Tamil, a language found primarily in Southeastern India and Sri Lanka. The Tamil word "kari" means "sauce or relish for rice," and first appeared in English in the form "carriel" in the 16th century. Subsequent forms included "carree," "carrye" and "kerry" before our modern spelling "curry" became current in the 18th century.

"Vindaloo" is a very spicy form of Indian curry, popular in Europe and the US, usually involving chicken or lamb and often potatoes, of which more in a moment. The name "vindaloo" is an oddity because it was adopted (originally as "vindalu") into the western Indian Konkani language from the Portuguese phrase "vin d'alho," meaning "wine of garlic." The original Portuguese dish consisted of pork in a pungent sauce when it was first introduced to India in the Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India (a colony that existed for about 450 years, until 1961), but Goan cooks soon added lots of local herbs and spices to produce the vindaloo we order today.

Interestingly, according to one source I found (and for which I cannot vouch), the potatoes commonly found in Indian vindaloo (which were not included in the original Portuguese dish) are the result of an erroneous translation of "ahlo" (garlic) as "aloo" (potatoes).

Three cheers for whomever.

Dear Word Detective: Back during the McCarthy era my grandfather was the subject of one of those man-on-the-street interviews in Washington DC, and I have inherited the resulting newspaper clip. In it, Granddaddy was asked what he thought of the Senator's recent comeuppance, and he said that for awhile there McCarthy had been "the bully boy with the glass eye." Not only have I never been able to find anyone who can tell me what this phrase actually could have meant, I have never found anybody who has ever even heard it before, despite its going unremarked in a mid-20th century newspaper. My Grandfather would have been a young man during the first Roosevelt's heyday, so I assume that's the "bully" being cited, but "a glass eye"? From the context it seems to be something like "fair haired boy," but I don't know how. Can you shed any light? -- E.

Thanks for an interesting question, and by "interesting" I mean "causing me to tear my hair out in frustration." According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "bully boy with a glass eye" first appeared in print around 1863, and appears to have started out as military slang. The phrase (meaning, as you infer, "a good fellow" or "fair-haired boy") was apparently quite popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mark Twain used it in his novels and essays several times, as did Jack London, Ambrose Bierce and other writers of the day.

In decoding the phrase, the "bully" element is not a problem. This is "bully" in its original English adjectival sense of "fine, excellent," from the Dutch "boel," meaning "brother, friend, lover, good fellow." When Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the presidency as a "bully pulpit," he meant that it was an advantageous position from which to speak to the people, not that he planned to force his views on the citizenry. Roosevelt also routinely used "bully" as an interjection meaning "splendid!" Our modern use of "bully" to mean "a forceful and cruel person" is a later development of the word.

"With a glass eye," however, remains a mystery to me. It may be a specific literary reference, perhaps to a character in a novel of the day, now long lost. Or it may have originally referred to a person wearing glasses or a monocle. Then again, given that the phrase first appeared in military use, "with a glass eye" could mean "having endured combat" (and having been wounded), or perhaps "glass eye" was a figure of speech for "unblinking courage" or "trustworthiness" (i.e., not "shifty"). For the moment, your guess is as good as mine.

It still does, in fact.

Dear Word Detective: My friend and I often talk about funny expressions and idioms. Often enough, we can figure out where many of them came from. However, one of them has been giving us some trouble and after some searching on the net, we still haven't found the answer. What is the origin of a "hairy situation"? -- Eric Ziegler.

Good question. This is one of those everyday expressions that not only make no sense at first glance, but actually get weirder and weirder the longer you think about them. It's a tribute to human beings' boundless capacity to ignore the obvious that we can usually avoid even that first glance and speak and write as easily as we do. But every so often, a word will pop out at you like a little green alien. I used to work as a legal proofreader and it happened to me at least once a day. I remember spending the better part of an afternoon staring at the word "implicit." It just looked very, very wrong.

It's no secret that our species has a contradictory attitude toward hair. On the one hand, we worship out own (as long as it's on top of our heads) with a ferocity that often seems demented, even though it plays no real role in our physical well-being. You'll notice, for example, that there's no Posture Club for Men out there.

Perhaps because human evolution entailed losing a large share of our body hair while some fairly scary animals retained theirs, however, the label of "hairy" has long been used as shorthand for a variety of traits deemed undesirable. In the 19th century, "hairy at the heels" meant "deficient in breeding," and "hairy" has also been slang for "old," "out of date," "crude," "clumsy," "wild" (in a negative sense), "unusual" and "weird." Among students in the 19th century, "hairy" was slang for "difficult" or "demanding," a use echoed in 20th century military slang, where a "hairy mission" during World War II was an extremely dangerous one. This is the same "hairy" we use in speaking of a "hairy situation" today. An extension of the "hairy equals wild or dangerous" usage, it carries the sense of something very unpredictable and fraught with the potential for disaster.

But our attitude toward hair is ambiguous even in our slang, so "hairy" has also been used to mean "large or impressive," "shrewd or clever" and, of course, "virile," with the corollary attributes of "brave" and "tough," perhaps even tough enough to make it through a "bad hair day."


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