Issue of May 23, 2001


OK, this month's question: what in the world is wrong with C-Span? I mean the weekend "Book TV" thing on C-Span 2. Every Saturday and Sunday I tune in several times to see what's on, and it's always, I mean ALWAYS, some dork with a spotty beard droning on about the Civil War. Now, I know it's Brian Lamb's network, and I know Mr. Lamb has never met a biography of Sherman's daughter's dog that he didn't find gripping, but come on.

I actually did an hour on C-Span 2 myself five years ago, when they showed up to tape my very first bookstore reading for a book I wrote about the internet. I was already terrified at the prospect of speaking in front of a crowd, so the sight of TV cameras sent me into a state that can best be described as an ambulatory coma. To this day I'm not sure what I said for the ensuing hour, but I presume, since they did air the tape, that at some point I mentioned the Civil War.

My wife Kathy says I'm easily amused, and I guess I am. I love those AFLAC insurance commercials with the duck. I laughed for five minutes at the commercial where the window slides down and smashes the pie cooling on the windowsill. And I'm still laughing at the line in the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos where Tony and Bobby Baccala are driving to rescue Paulie Walnuts and Christopher from the frozen woods and Baccala says, "My father took us hunting once. (pause) We saw a sign that said 'Bear Left.' (pause) So we went home." Brilliant.

And now, on with the show....

It takes two to T-bone.

Dear Word Detective: You may consider it strange that a vegetarian like me would ask this, but what is the origin of the phrase "to have a beef with" someone? Any relation to having a "bone to pick with" someone, by any chance? Thanks. I'm going to go eat some celery now. -- R.F., Chicago, IL.

Beef is, of course, the flesh of an ox, bull or cow, and is probably the most popular meat item on the American menu. Out English word "beef" comes directly from the Old French "boef" (modern French "boeuf"), which came in turn from the Latin "bovem," meaning "ox" or "cow." The root of that Latin "bovem" was "bos," by the way, which is also related to our modern English "cow."

For much of human history, beef has been considered a healthy food (no comment) and a source of strength, and the use of "beef" in slang for at least the last few hundred years reflects that opinion. A man who is large and muscular has been described as "beefy" since the 18th century, and to "beef up" has meant "to strengthen or increase" at least since the mid-20th century.

And now for a bit of bad news: no one is entirely certain of how "beef" became slang for "an argument" or "a complaint," a usage which first appeared in the U.S. during the late 1800s. It is entirely possible, however, and perhaps even likely, that "beef" in this sense is simply a sort of shorthand to describe a situation or complaint that might well escalate into a "beefy" muscular conflict.

As for "bone to pick," meaning a subject of argument, there is no connection with "beef." "Bone to pick," which dates back to the 16th century, simply refers to a dog chewing endlessly on, and "picking clean," a large bone. A "bone to pick" is thus a subject or issue that is expected to require considerable discussion or argument. A similar phrase, "bone of contention," meaning an issue over which two people argue, also dates back to the 1500s and refers, appropriately, to two dogs fighting over an especially choice bone.

Just doit.

Dear Word Detective: Growing up in Maine, I've heard the word "dite" used quite a bit, meaning "a little" or "a tiny bit," as in "Move over just a dite." (Which reminds me of another word, "tad," which means about the same thing.) I am quite curious as to the actual origin of "dite," as no one seems to be able to give me a clear answer. -- Peter W. Viekman, via the internet.

It's not surprising that you heard "dite" growing up in Maine, because the term is found almost exclusively in New England. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), "dite" means, as you gathered, "a very small amount," and dates back to at least the late 19th century. A publication called "Maine Lingo" cited by DARE defined "dite" this way in 1974: "Smidgen, dab, pinch, whisker, and words of that category are usually interchangeable with 'dite'."

So far, so good, but here's where we bid farewell to sunny Maine and things start to get truly interesting. It turns out that the New England term "dite" is really just an altered pronunciation of the very old English word "doit," which dates back to at least the 16th century and crops up in, among other places, Shakespeare's "Tempest." A "doit" was a small-denomination Dutch coin, worth half of an English farthing, which was commonly (though illegally) used as informal currency in England at that time. By extension, the term "doit" was also used, by Shakespeare and others, to mean any small sum of money, and, a bit later on, to mean a small amount of anything. So the "dite" you grew up with actually refers to a Dutch coin from the 16th century.

"Tad," since you mentioned it, does also mean "a small amount," but its origin is less certain. The best guess experts have come up with is that "tad" started out simply as a short form of "tadpole," the larva of a frog or toad. "Tad" first appeared in the mid-19th century, usually meaning a small child or young man, but our modern "smidgen" sense didn't appear until around 1940.


For the birds.

Dear Word Detective: Please could you tell me the origins of the word "halcyon"? Someone told me it refers to a legendary mythical seagull engulfing the world with its wings and stilling the turbulent seas, but I remain skeptical. -- Victoria, via the internet.

Well, much as I admire your skepticism, not every strange story is impossible, and in this case the explanation of "halcyon" (pronounced HAL-see-yon, by the way) you've heard is really not that far from the truth.

We use "halcyon" today to mean "quiet or carefree," most often in the phrase "halcyon days," meaning an earlier, carefree time, often in our youth. Originally, however, the "halcyon days" were a specific time of year, the two weeks on either side of the Winter solstice in mid-December, when the seas of the world were said to be calm and the winds supposedly ceased to blow. It was during this calm, quiet time of year that the kingfisher (a type of sea bird) was believed by the Ancient Greeks to make its nest and raise its young upon the water. (The kingfisher actually makes its nest on land, but we'll let that slide for the moment.) The Greek name for the kingfisher was "alkyon," which, routed through Latin, became our modern word "halcyon." That's the short answer.

The Ancient Greeks, however, knew an opening for a good story when they saw one, and came up with a lovely myth to explain what they thought was the kingfisher's odd nesting habit. According to the myth, Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, and was married to Ceyx. One day Ceyx went sailing and drowned, and Alcyone was heartbroken. She flung herself into the sea, but before she could perish, the gods took pity on her and changed both Alcyone and Ceyx (apparently no longer dead) into kingfishers, and they have raised their young upon the waves ever after. In consideration for his daughter, goes the myth, Aeolus stills the winds every year in December when the kingfishers build their nests and hatch their young.

Must Flee TV.

Dear Word Detective: I work on a television show in which comic high jinks frequently ensue. But none of us know what "jinks" are or why they are "high." My internet research suggests that "High Jinks" was a Scottish, perhaps a drinking, game. Have you any more or better information? -- Margery Kimbrough, via the internet.

OK, I'll bite. What show involving "comic high jinks" do you work on? C'mon, you can tell me. Chances are I wouldn't have heard of it anyway. All I ever watch is old Honeymooners reruns, the Sopranos, the Simpsons and Cops. Oh, and C-Span. Lots and lots of C-Span, you betcha. Incidentally, another good question might be why "high jinks" always "ensue," rather than simply "following," "resulting," or "occurring."

All right, already, back to work. For research done on the internet, your investigation seems to have been unusually productive. "High jinks" (also sometimes rendered as "hijinks") does indeed have connections to both Scotland and drinking.

In the beginning was "jink," which is a Scots word meaning "to move suddenly, to dart out of the way or to elude capture." Etymologists believe that "jink" was probably onomatopoeic in origin, meaning that the sound of word itself was meant to suggest sudden movement, and "jink" is indeed a sudden little word. The primary use of "jink" has been in the game of rugby, where "to jink" means to dart or turn quickly to sidestep a guard or the like. "Jink" is also used by fighter pilots in air combat, where a "jinkout" maneuver is a sudden roll or twisting motion made to elude an enemy aircraft's guns.

"Jink" also apparently at one time carried the meaning of "prank," which brings us to the game of "high jinks" (also called "high pranks"), a Scottish drinking game popular with students in the 18th and 19th centuries. "High jinks" evidently involved a throw of the dice, the loser being required to either perform some ludicrous task or to drink a large bowl of liquor. One can only imagine the hilarity of such occasions, and by the mid-1800s, "high jinks" had come to mean any sort of unrestrained merry-making, foolishness or fun. And this leads me to ask the inevitable question: Would today's TV be funnier if I were drunk?

Oh, Nicky Nick Nick.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the phrase "in the nick of time." Might it have something to do with "Nick" as a nickname for the Devil, as in "Old Nick"? While we're on the subject, does any of this have anything to do with "nicknames"? -- Brian Anderson, Columbus, OH.

I hate to interrupt such a productive session of free-association as you seem to be having, but the answers to your questions are "no" and "no."

The "nick" in "nick of time" is just that, a "nick" cut in what used to be called a "tally-stick." In the halcyon days before computers, nicks in tally-sticks were often used to keep track of any sort of numerical data, from commercial accounts to the scores at sporting matches. In fact, even as recently as the early 1800s, the British Government relied on tally-sticks to record government loans. But the phrase itself comes from the playing field -- if a sporting contest was won by a last-minute goal, the decisive score would be said to be "a nick in time."

"Nicknames," on the other hand, have been around since at least Anglo-Saxon times, when people generally lacked formal surnames, being known only as "John" or "George," for example. In a society full of Johns and Georges this was a bit confusing, to put it mildly, so "ekenames" were often tacked on, "eke" meaning "added." Just plain "John" thus became "Long John" or "Short John," depending on his inseam, and people became easier to identify, resulting ultimately in the graduated income tax and nine-digit zip codes. Gradually "an ekename" drifted into "a nekename," and eventually became "a nickname."

"Old Nick" has been used as a nickname for the Devil since at least the mid-17th century, but no one has ever been able to offer a convincing explanation for the practice. Various theories have been proposed, including tracing "Old Nick" to either Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) or Niccolo Machiavelli, but there's no real evidence for either theory.

Pulling strings and pushing buttons.

Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find the origin of the phrase "call the shots" to use it in a sermon which asks the question "Who is calling the shots, you or God?" I have searched many web sites with no luck. -- Jim Mol, St. Mark Lutheran Church, Flint, Michigan.

Well, there's your problem. Haven't you heard? The web is over. Yeah, they all got fired and now they have to give back their Porsches and take jobs at Burger King, boo hoo. Anyway, there's been nobody home on the internet for quite a while. If you don't believe me, check out some of those news web sites. They've still got George Bush being President.

To "call the shots" means, of course, to be in control, to make the decisions, to run the show and to be the one truly in charge, especially as opposed to being merely a nominal leader or figurehead. Speaking of President Bush the Younger, and I report this solely to illustrate that definition, a recent poll indicates that around half of all Americans believe that someone other than Mr. Bush is actually "calling the shots" and running the government. Whether that perception is cynical or optimistic is, of course, best left as an exercise for the reader.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "calling the shots" seems to be a surprisingly recent phrase, having first appeared in print in the late 1960s, although it was probably in use as oral slang for years or even decades before someone thought to use it in print. An earlier phrase, "to call one's shots," meaning to announce exactly what one is going to do, apparently was current by the 1930s.

The real question, of course, is what all this shooting is about, and in the case of both "call the shots" and "call one's shots" the answer seems to be target shooting. In "calling one's shots," a target shooter (think Annie Oakley or the like) would announce in advance exactly where the target would be hit as a measure of his or her prowess. If someone else were "calling the shots," however, the shooter would be taking orders and hitting targets at that person's direction.

Note: Since the above column ran in newspapers I have been innundated with mail helpfully letting me know that "calling the shots" comes from the game of billiards or pool, wherein the player announces his shots in advance ("Eight ball in the side pocket" and so forth). Prior to researching the phrase, I, too, had assumed that it came from billiards, but the earliest citations I could find clearly refer to target shooting. That "calling the shots" occurs in billiards is clearly true. That it originated there is not.

Cuff the horse, Danno.

Dear Word Detective: I am hoping that you can help me out with the origin of the phrase "Father Darbie's Bands." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses the word "derbies" with reference to handcuffs or irons in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have been informed that the reference is to the above phrase, but I can't seem to find anything further. Can you help? -- Justyn, via the internet.

Elementary, my dear Justyn. In the beginning, there was (and still is) a town in England named "Derby" (originally called, in Old English, "Deoraby" or "Deorby"). Derby is best known for an annual horse race founded in 1780 by the Earl of Derby, and to this day important races elsewhere (such as the Kentucky event) are known as "Derbies." The "derby" hat, also known as a "bowler," takes its name from this race as well.

So far, so good, but now it gets a bit baroque, so hold onto your derby. Another common pronunciation and spelling of "Derby" is "Darby." And way back when, place names frequently became personal names, so there are quite a few folks named Darby, which brings us to your question. "Father Darby's (or Derby's) bands" first appeared in the 16th century as a colloquial term meaning the power a creditor or money lender held over his debtor. Just who "Father Darby" might have been is lost to the mists of time, but the best guess is that he was a famous usurer (what we would call a "loan shark" today). At some point in the 17th century, "Darby's bands" or just "the darbies" (or "derbies") was expanded to mean not just the strictures and misery inflicted on a debtor by a creditor but actual bonds or handcuffs, and pretty soon Holmes and his Baker Street buddies were clapping the "derbies" on everyone in sight.

Play hookie for me.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a child I was told a story about the origin of the phase "by hook or by crook" that differs from the widely accepted ideas about its origin. My last name is Kennedy, and many of my ancestors come either from Ireland or from Scotland. I was told that back in the "old country" there was a sea captain (we'll call him Capt. Kennedy), who regularly returned to his ship's berth by one of two rivers which came together before they entered the open sea. One river was called the "Hook River," and the other was known as the "Crook River." Each time, when the ship was on its way home, as they approached the fork formed by the two rivers, the helmsman would shout, "Which way Captain, by Hook or by Crook?" Ever hear of this story? -- James Kennedy, via the internet.

No, I haven't heard that one, and although I can't claim to have searched extensively for the "Hook" and "Crook" rivers, I tend to doubt they exist. All in all, that story gets an A for effort, a D for elegance, and an F for credibility. Among other things, a helmsman asking "by hook or by crook?" does nothing to explain the modern meaning of the phrase, which is "by any means necessary, fair or foul, to get the job done."

Unfortunately, although "by hook or by crook" first occurs in print way back in 1380 and is still common today, no one knows exactly where it came from, or what the "hook" and "crook" in question were. One theory, perhaps the most plausible, is that while tenants on English manors were not allowed to cut trees for firewood, the lord of the manor permitted them to have all the branches they could pull down with a shepherd's crook or a curved knife on a pole called a "hook." Since firewood was a basic necessity, "by hook or by crook" in this case would have fit the bill of meaning "by any means necessary, even if awkward or difficult."

Incidentally, by the 19th century "by hook or by crook" had mutated into the term "hooky-crooky," meaning "dishonest or sneaky," which in turn eventually gave us the term "playing hooky" (or "hookey"), meaning to be a truant.


There ain't no tellin' what me and Dwayne might do.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about "mullet" haircuts. Where does the name "mullet" come from? -- Mark Kuehn, via the internet.

You are not alone in wondering about "mullets." Within weeks of moving from New York City to Central Ohio a few years ago, I realized that roughly half the men I saw on a typical day were sporting the same odd haircut: short and often spiky on the top, very short on the sides, but then very long, often almost shoulder-length, in the back. They looked (to me, anyway) as if they were wearing flattened groundhogs on their heads, a possibility which, given the other sartorial proclivities of some of my neighbors, I could not dismiss outright. But no, I had merely met the Mullet.

And we've all, apparently, met the Mullet now. There are Mullet web pages galore, a Mullet book, and even what promises to be a Mullet movie, a David Spade vehicle called "Joe Dirt," the previews of which contain a shot of a magazine called, I believe, "Modern Mullet."

Why "mullet"? Nobody knows for sure. There have been two protracted discussions of the "mullet" haircut on the American Dialect Society mailing list in the last few years, and while many nuggets of information have surfaced, a definitive answer remains elusive. A "mullet" is, of course, a kind of fish, or actually two kinds, as there is both a salt water mullet and a fresh water "American" mullet, the latter being the object of affection at numerous annual "mullet festivals" in the South, I am told. "Mullethead" has, since at least the 19th century, been an epithet for "a stupid person," and crops up repeatedly in the classic film "Cool Hand Luke," but without any apparent connection to hair. Although the haircut itself seems derived from earlier styles such as the hideous "shag" that plagued the 1970s, the Mullet probably got a big, albeit unintentional, boost from the Beastie Boys' 1994 song "Mullet Head," which contained actual instructions on how to cut one. The group's fan magazine, Grand Royal, also apparently devoted an entire issue to the Mullet and other bad hair ideas.

In any case, based on several years of close personal observation, I definitely think the haircut is named after the fishy mullet, because the short top and long, flared back really do make it look like the guy is wearing a broad-tailed fish on his head. Or possibly a flattened groundhog.

Ninety-nine thump.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "the other shoe drops," meaning a process is completed or has come to an end. I suspect it has nothing to do with shoes that we wear. Is a mechanical term? -- John Shepperd, via the internet.

No, apparently the phrase refers to an actual shoe of the sort we wear on our feet. As you say, "the other shoe drops" means that a process is completed, but as a catch phrase it also means that the likely or inevitable consequence of an earlier occurrence has, at last, taken place. If I work for a small company that produces widgets, for instance, and my company is bought by World Wide Behemoth Widgets, that event might well make me somewhat apprehensive about my career prospects. When, a month later, I am laid off, I might well say that "the other shoe has dropped." What happened was not inevitable, but it was, given the takeover, highly likely.

A somewhat more common variant of the phrase is "waiting for the other shoe to drop," which brings us to the apparent source of all such "shoe dropping" phrases. Evidently, it all started out as the punchline to a very old joke in which a traveler arrives late at night in a small rooming house and is cautioned not to wake the other guests as he prepares for bed. Very tired, he accidentally allows one of his shoes to fall heavily to the floor, but is more careful with the other and places it quietly on the floor. He is sound asleep a few minutes later when he is awakened by the guest next door pounding on the wall and shouting, "For the love of Pete, drop the other shoe!"

No one knows just how old that joke is, but etymological researcher Barry Popik has uncovered what is probably the earliest example yet found, an editorial cartoon in the New York World-Telegram from February 1943 titled "Waiting for That Other Shoe to Drop!" It shows Hitler being crushed by a shoe labeled "Russian Offensive" and about to be stomped by another labeled "Allied Invasion." Since the cartoonist had to assume that readers would "get" the caption, the phrase "waiting for the other shoe to drop" must have been widely understood before the 1940s.

He's no fun, he fell right over.

Dear Word Detective: I recently referred to myself as a "stick in the mud" because I wasn't in the mood for socializing and wanted a quiet evening at home. Can you tell me where the term "stick in the mud" originates? What would the opposite be for someone who is carefree and outgoing -- a "stick in the water"? -- A.C.M., Denver, CO.

Good question. As I may have mentioned before, the thing I really like about writing this column is the opportunity it gives me to explore the vast expanses of my own ignorance. I'm sure many of you folks think I must already know the answer to questions such as this one, but the truth is that more often than not I am every bit as clueless as y'all. For years I have been hearing "stick in the mud," picturing a small twig mired in a mud puddle, and accepting that as a passable, if somewhat inelegant, metaphor for the opposite of a party animal. As we say in the word biz, wrong-o-rama.

When we call someone a "stick in the mud" today we usually mean a party-pooper, a no-fun homebody, the sort of sourpuss who never wants to go to the movies, cruise the mall, get drunk and throw toilet paper in the neighbors' trees or just generally have good old All-American fun. But "stick in the mud" didn't start out as a noun, a thing, a person. "Stick in the mud" is actually a short form of the verbal phrase "to stick in the mud," meaning to "stick," or stay, in an unpleasant or demeaning situation, rather than dragging oneself out of the metaphorical mud. "To stick in the mud" first appeared around 1620, and was a further development of earlier metaphors such as "to stick in the briers" (or clay, or mire) meaning simply "to be in difficult circumstances." Somewhere along the way, around the early 18th century to be specific, "stick in the mud" arose as a contemptuous term for someone who is not only "stuck in the mud," but actually seems to enjoy being there.




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