Previous Columns/Posted 05/26/99
And you'd better take some ice cubes with you.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "Bobby," for the London policeman, and "Beefeater," for the London Tower Guards? -- T.B., via the internet.
Nope. Sorry. It's not going to work, pal. You're going to have to visit England for yourself whether you want to or not, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to ask the Bobbies and Beefeaters in person when you get there. Why, just standing around waiting to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingwhatsis Palace will give you twelve or thirteen hours to research all sorts of quaint English terms, not to mention lots of quaint English people pressed right up against you who may actually know the answers. Later on, you can repair to the local pub and hoist a few pints with your new mates whilst (they talk like that over there) pondering the future of the country that invented a dish called "Toad In The Hole." Have a nice time.
Oh, all right. I've just received a call from the UN, and evidently my response violates a number of human rights treaties, so here are your answers, you lucky dog.
"Bobby" as slang for any police officer (not just in London) is an allusion to Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary in 1828 when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed, creating the modern English police force. Sir Robert also served as the inspiration for several other slang terms for coppers, among which were "peeler," which is still heard in Ireland, and the now obsolete "Robert." I guess "Cheezit, here come the Roberts!" just didn't cut it, slangwise.
"Beefeaters" are the guards at the Tower of London, known for their elaborate uniforms, which they have been wearing since the 15th century. I'm going to let you folks make up your own joke there. Anyway, opinions vary as to why they're called "Beefeaters," but the most likely explanation is quite literal. In the 17th century, "beef-eater" was a derogatory term for a servant who was well-fed (by no means a certainty in those days), but just a menial servant nonetheless. Nowadays, of course, even the lowliest wage-slave can afford a Big Mac, so the term has lost its contemptuous sting, and "Beefeaters" have become a treasured symbol of Britain's enduring grandeur. And if you do happen to go to England and actually meet a Beefeater, please ask him what "Toad in the Hole" is.
Dear Word Detective: The word "butkis" came up in my ESL class today, and I didn't know the origin. I was thinking that it is a portmanteau word, but I hope the roots aren't that crude. Could you help me? -- Nathan Clarke in Celaya, Mexico.
Don't worry, they're not. But first we have to back up a bit and explain to the folks out there in newspaper-reader-land just what a "portmanteau" word is. "Portmanteau" is a very old and fancy word for what we today call a suitcase. Originally it meant an officer who carries (French "porte") a prince's mantle ("manteau"), or ceremonial robe, but later came to be applied to any sort of valise or traveling bag.
The term "portmanteau word" was invented by Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Dodgson) in "Through the Looking Glass" to mean a word which combines both the sounds and meanings of two other words. Thus "slithy," as Carroll explained in "Jabberwocky," meant both "lithe" and "slimy." One of our classic modern "portmanteau words" is "motel," which combines "motor" and "hotel." The matter of just what words might be combined to produce the object of your inquiry is, I think, best left as an exercise for the reader.
Meanwhile, back at "butkis," there's a small problem which renders most of the above discussion moot (although still, I hope, enlightening). In any case, the word you're looking for is not "butkis." It's "bupkes" (also spelled bubkis, bupkis and bubkes) which is Yiddish for "beans," or, figuratively, "nothing, nada, zilch." But there's more to "bupkes" than just "nothing." When you say you got "bupkes" from a deal you brokered, for instance, it really means "you got nothing when you should have gotten at least something if there were any justice at all in this world." All of which is a lot for one word to say, but Yiddish is good at that.
"Bupkes" can also mean an offer so low as to be an insult. As the late Leo Rosten noted in his classic "The Joy of Yiddish," "bupkes" is a howl of outrage often heard in the cutthroat world of show business: "Four weeks he worked on that sketch, and what did they offer him? Bupkes with bupkes!"
Dear Word Detective: Recently a friend of mine used the word "kabosh" meaning things were going well and then suddenly the "kabosh" was on and things weren't going so well. What can you tell me about the origins of this word? -- Jan Paul Novak, via the internet.
Well, part of the mystery here lies in the fact that your friend is slightly mispronouncing the word, which would make it difficult to look up. What he or she means is "kibosh," usually pronounced "KYE-bosh."
"Kibosh" is rarely used these days, so when I hear the word I immediately think back to the old "Bowery Boys" comedies of the 1940's, in which Leo Gorcey would often complain of someone "puttin' the kibosh" on the group's plans. He meant, of course, that their plans were stymied or frustrated, "kibosh" being a synonym for "roadblock."
"Kibosh" is slang, and very old slang indeed -- Charles Dickens used it in his description of the squalid sections of London in 1836, although he spelled it "kye-bosk." Several authorities trace "kibosh" to the Yiddish words "kye" (meaning "eighteen") and "bosh" ("pence"), making a "kibosh" a coin worth a shilling and sixpence, a negligible sum. Thus, if you were "kiboshed," you were reduced to nearly nothing. Incidentally, the word "bosh," meaning nonsense, is not related and comes from the Turkish word "bosh," meaning "empty or worthless."
Another, more likely, theory is about as far from eighteen pence as you can get. Some authorities believe that "kibosh" was based on the Gaelic phrase "cie bais" (pronounced "ky-bosh"), meaning "cap of death." Evidently, in trials in ancient Ireland, the cie bas, a black skullcap, was donned by the judge before he sentenced a prisoner to death, and apparently the phrase "cie bais" is an established metaphor in modern Irish. An added bit of evidence for this theory is that the Irish term is most often used in the phrase "put the cie bais on," meaning in Dublin just what "kibosh" meant to the Bowery Boys -- "end of story."
Dear Word Detective: I spent an obscene amount of time one day on my commute home from work behind a plumbing van. After staring at the large blue letters for over an hour, my mind started to wander, as it often does while stuck on a Chicago expressway, and I tried to figure how the word "plumb" fit into plumbing. As a home handyman, a la Tim Allen, I always check for square (horizontal) and plumb (vertical) when building a deck or wall or something. What does having a 90 degree angle with the Earth's surface have to do with my water supply? Shouldn't a "plumber" be one who checks for "plumb-ness" rather than the guy who installs toilets and unclogs pipes? -- Tony DiTola, via the internet.
I must admit that, incredible as it may seem, I have never seen even a single episode of Mr. Allen's TV show. But I do admire home handy-persons, although my own favorite home repair tool is my trusty and dog-eared Yellow Pages. And if the English language had been designed by an architect, there probably wouldn't be confusion over words such as "plumb" and "plumber." But it wasn't, and here we have a case of one word root serving two distinct purposes, as if your breakfast nook had been plonked down smack in the middle of your garage.
The root of both "plumb" and "plumber" is the Latin "plumbum," which means "lead" (the metal). The "make sure it's straight up-and-down" sense of "plumb" comes from the use of "plumb lines," strings or ropes tied to lead weights, to ascertain a true vertical line.
"Plumber," on the other hand, originally (back in the 14th century) meant an artisan who worked in lead. Of course, way back when, one of the main things lead was used for was household pipes (a practice subsequently discovered to be a Very Bad Idea). So the guy who fixed Ye Olde Toilet became known as a "plumber," a term which stuck (to use an appropriate metaphor) long after lead plumbing was abandoned.
Dear Word Detective: I'm taking an Introduction to Horticulture class and my professor told us a bunch of interesting information about potatoes. Among the facts that they are poisonous, etc., he mentioned that they are also called "spuds" by some people. He then told us that spud was an acronym for "Society for Prevention of Unhealthy Diets." Knowing that acronyms are a relatively new phenomenon and that such etymological explanations are false, I though I'd ask you for the true history. So where did the word "spud" sprout up from? -- Greg Harfst, via the internet.
Whoa! Back up a minute. Potatoes are poisonous? Do tell. I have always considered potatoes nearly the perfect food, especially if ingested in their pure, or "french-fried," form. I could understand such a dire warning applied to eggplant, which is (in my opinion) the most undeniably malevolent member of the entire plant kingdom. But potatoes?
I think your professor (unless he's genuinely whacked, which isn't impossible these days) was probably referring to the potato's membership in the nightshade family, which does harbor some deadly siblings, such as deadly nightshade. But the humble spud is a gentle, innocent, faithful victual.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly why spuds are called "spuds," although your professor's acronym story is definitely untrue. (In fact, almost all acronym-origin explanations of common English words are bogus.) As a slang term for a potato, "spud" first appeared in print around 1845 in E. J. Wakefield's "Adventure in New Zealand," apparently in a discussion of local slang: "Pigs and potatoes were respectively represented by 'grunters' and 'spuds.'"
The experts' best guess about the origin of "spud" traces it to a type of short-handled gardening spade also known since about 1667 as a "spud," used for digging up, you guessed it, potatoes. It may be that the use of "spuddy" (one who digs with a spud) as a slang term for a potato seller led to the vegetable itself coming to be known as a spud, but at least some connection between the tool and the vegetable names seems certain.
It's B.U.N.K. -- you know,
Dear Word Detective: Tony Bennett, in his new autobiography "The Good Life," says that "wop," the derogatory term for Italians, arose as follows: "Because of the high rate of illiteracy, many new immigrants arrived without the right documents. The derogatory term 'wop,' an acronym for 'With Out Papers,' would be stamped on the forms of these unfortunates, and officials would call out, 'We have another "wop." Send him home.'" This sounds to me like it might be one of the numerous plausible, but erroneous, stories about words and phrases. ("POSH" is my favorite.) After all, the majority of immigrants were not Italian. What does the Word Detective think? -- Donald G. Yeckel, via the internet.
Well, just for starters, I think that you have excellent instincts -- that story is utter bunk. And you're right on the money in comparing it to the oft-heard fable about the origin of "posh," which supposedly began as an acronym for the preferred cabin locations on 19th sea voyages from England to India ("Port Out, Starboard Home"). One problem with all these stories is that acronyms were extremely rare before World War Two, so any "stood for" explanation for a word in use earlier than the 1940s is almost certainly false.
It's a darn shame that Mr. Bennett didn't bother to call me (yeah, right) before he committed that "wop" howler to print, because I would have referred him to a great book by Hugh Rawson called "Devious Derivations" (Crown, $12 paperback). Mr. Rawson's book undertakes to demolish the myths surrounding the origin of about 1,000 English words, including "wop" and "posh" along with such perennial fable-fodder as "tip" and "hooker."
"Wop" (in the variant form "wap") as derogatory slang for an Italian or Italian-American first appeared in New York around 1912, and, far from being an English acronym, probably actually comes from an Italian word. In the Neapolitan dialect, a "guappo" is a swaggering ruffian, hoodlum or street tough. If "guappo" sounds like a cool profession, it's worth noting that the root of "guappo" was most likely the Latin "vappa," meaning wine that had gone sour or, figuratively, a useless person. In any case, by about 1914, the spelling "wop" had become standard.
Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between Bohemia in the Czech Republic and the alternative definition of "bohemian" meaning a socially unconventional person? -- Anna Fairclough, via the internet.
It strikes me that I'd better answer this question quickly, while "bohemian" still retains a few shreds of that meaning of "socially unconventional." It's not that "bohemian" has been superseded by a newer term. It's that the whole concept of "socially unconventional," in this age of prime-time cross-dressing and boardroom body-piercings, is itself starting to seem terribly conventional.
'Twas not always thus, however. Back in the 17th century, "Bohemian" was a synonym for "gypsy," based on the theory that gypsies migrated to Western Europe from Bohemia. (In fact, the gypsies probably originally came from what is now northern India, but may have passed through Bohemia on their journey west.)
Gypsies were (and still are, in many countries) considered social outcasts. So it's not surprising that by the mid-19th century William Makepeace Thackeray was introducing the extended sense of the unconventional "social gypsy" or "Bohemian" in his novel "Vanity Fair." Describing his character Becky Sharp, Thackeray noted, "She was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and circumstances."
Thackeray's metaphor quickly spread, and by the late 19th century the "bohemian" label was widely applied to writers, artists or other "free spirits," especially if they flouted conventional social mores. Perhaps the most famous "bohemian" artistic community flourished in Paris just after the turn of the 20th century, but vanished with the onset of World War I.
The last movement to actively promote themselves as "bohemians" were the "Beats" of the U.S. in the 1950's, who put on a good show for a while, but were ultimately ridiculed out of existence.
You'll notice that lawyers never get abducted by aliens.
Dear Word Detective: I work at a professional placement firm and my curiosity is piqued by the usage of "Esq." after certain individuals' names on some resumes. This has nothing to do with an earned degree, does it? The dictionary I consulted described "Esquire" in terms of knightly rank, and then as "a title of courtesy." Are these people (usually attorneys) just trying to sound more accomplished? -- CFS, via the internet.
The short answer to your question is "yes," and I think that if you go back and check, you'll find that all those "Esq.-ies" hold law degrees. The use of "Esq." has become completely identified with the legal profession.
The rationale for lawyers adopting "Esq." is that it provides the same professional identification for them as "M.D." does for doctors and "Ph.D." does for academics. As for "Esq." being pretentious, I would agree, and a quick check of the origin of "esquire" illustrates that the practice is also just plain silly. The word itself comes originally from the Latin "scutum," or shield, and an "esquire" was originally a young manservant (a "squire") whose job consisted of holding a knight's shield and similar lowly tasks. With the passing of knights, "Esquire" came to be applied to any young man of "noble" birth who lacked a title, such as "Prince" or "Duke." Eventually the term was broadened to include, as you remember, just about any young man. I remember receiving mail addressed to me as "Esq." when I was about 14 years old, so I've never been able to regard the lawyerly "Esq." with the anything approaching the awe intended by those who affect the title.
Part of the appeal of "Esq." for lawyers is said to be that the title has become genderless and thus can be used by female as well as male lawyers, although the formerly popular tag "Attorney at Law" certainly doesn't address the sex of the addressee. A more likely reason for the popularity of "Esq." is that it is thought to bestow an aura of exalted social rank on the wearer, which, in my book, is a pretty good definition of "pretension."
Hey, you want a logical language, go learn Vulcan.
Dear Word Detective: I have too much time on my hands, and I recently found myself wondering about the derivation of "racket" to mean a corrupt scheme, and the word's relationship to "racquet." I've seen both spellings used to refer to sports equipment, but only "racket" to refer to a corrupt scheme. I assume "racquet" is an English spelling, but is "racquet" ever used in England to refer to a corrupt scheme? Is "racket" ever used in England at all, to refer to sports equipment or a corrupt scheme? If so, do they, too, use "racquet" and "racket" interchangeably for sports equipment, but only "racket" for a corrupt scheme? Can you help? -- Greg Beber, Las Vegas, NV.
Steady there, big fella. What you've got here is a combination homophone-homonym problem, which may be what's driving you nuts. I'll take this slow, so please try not to freak on me.
The sporting kind of "racket" and "racquet" are homophones, meaning that they sound the same. In this case, they also mean the same thing, a sort of webbed bat used in tennis, etc. The sporting "racket" and the corrupt "racket," however, are homonyms (aka homographs), meaning that they are spelled the same, but here's the rub. They are completely different, unrelated words that just happen to share a common spelling.
The sporting kind of racket comes from the French "racquette," which in turn came from an Arabic word for "palm of the hand," reflecting the fact that tennis and other racket games were originally played with bare hands. Racket (in the old form "rakkett") first showed up in English around 1500 A.D. "Racket" and "racquet" are both acceptable spellings here and in England.
The "corrupt scheme" kind of "racket" comes from another meaning of racket you didn't mention: "racket" meaning loud noise or confusion. First appearing around 1565, this noisy "racket" is probably "echoic" in origin, meaning that the word itself was supposed to sound noisy and raucous. The "criminal plan" sense of this "racket" is relatively recent, first appearing in 1812, and may have come from the chaos and confusion that are deliberately fostered as part of many illegal schemes.
Best remembered for his novel facial hair.
Dear Word Detective: Is it true that sideburns were named eponymously after Ambrose Burnside? What were they called before he popularized them? -- Benjamin E. Drew, Jr., via the internet.
I sense a little skepticism in your question, perhaps a gnawing doubt that the story about "sideburns" you've heard is actually true. If so, bravo. Your wariness is entirely justified, because very few word origins are as simple and "neat" as the stories offered to explain them.
In the case of "sideburns," however, the story is true. "Sideburns," a style of whiskers grown to cover all or part of the sides of a man's face, is indeed an eponym, a word formed from someone's proper name, in this case that of U.S. Army General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881).
As a commander of Union troops during the American Civil War, General Burnside amassed a record that was erratic at best and often disastrous. His wartime flubs did not, however, prevent him from later serving three terms as Governor of Rhode Island and two terms as a U.S. Senator. But General Burnside is best remembered for his novel facial hair, which consisted of a full mustache and cheek whiskers over a cleanly shaven chin. This style was a marked departure from the "hot" fashion of the day, which was to shave everything except the chin whiskers, lending the wearer the look of a male goat (and which was known, logically, as a "goatee").
Since the mustache part of General Burnside's invention was nothing new, the cheek whiskers became known as "Burnside's" and enjoyed a certain vogue among men of the day. (Such lush cheek foliage had been known up until then as "muttonchops," after their resemblance to a popular cut of meat.)
But as the memory of General Burnside faded, the style became known as simply "burnsides," and soon an interesting linguistic flip-flop occurred. Because "burnsides" had become essentially meaningless, popular usage interpreted the "sides" element to mean the sides of the face, in which case "sideburns" seemed to make more sense, and by about 1887 "sideburns" was becoming the accepted name for whiskers on the side of a man's face.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "vig" come from? As to its usage, it is understood to mean a percentage of a financial deal. -- John Wong, via the internet.
Well, that's one way to define "vig," though I doubt that most folks who have to pay "vig" would describe the process so dispassionately.
"Vig" is short for "vigorish," and it's usually used to mean the exorbitant interest (also known as "juice") that Mafia loan sharks charge their victims, which often runs to 20 percent or more. Per week, that is.
Extended (and less menacing) senses of "vig" include the cut taken by a casino from a customer's winnings, or the "service charge" similarly deducted by a bookie. But "vig" has stayed pretty close to its Mob roots, so if you find yourself discussing financing your small business with a guy in a shiny suit who keeps talking about "the vig," don't say I didn't warn youse.
Though "vigorish" is a staple of Mob slang, it's not an Italian word -- it's Yiddish, from the Russian word "vyigrysh," meaning "gain or winnings." U.S. mobsters may have picked up the term from the "Kosher Mafia" of Meyer Lansky, who welded Italian Mafiosi and Jewish gangsters into a nationwide crime syndicate in the 1930's.
Even the crafty Lansky, however, could never have imagined that someday there'd be a Vigorish Calculator web page (http://www.gotti.com/loanshark.html) to help cyber-suckers figure out their weekly "vig" payments.
Dear Word Detective: The other day my great aunt and I were talking about girl stuff, i.e., dating, relationships, marriage, etc., and she stumped me when she said "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." She explained it to me and I think I understand now, but I want to make sure that I perceived her rendition of the phrase correctly. -- Cindy Spahr, New Orleans, LA.
Well, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from your narrative is that, while you were chattering on about boyfriends and dating and "relationships," your great aunt had quite sensibly moved on to the much more practical topic of bird-watching. As for the meaning of that little aphorism, I'm afraid that it sounds as if your relative has gone overboard in her hobby a bit, and has drifted away from the respectable field of bird-watching into the shadowy demi-world of illicit bird-snatching. If I were you, I would check her closets for sparrows before it's too late.
Oddly enough (if the above isn't odd enough for you), I discovered something rather remarkable when I went looking for the background of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." I discovered that somewhere along the way I had acquired a small paperback book called "A Bird in the Hand" (Prentice Hall, 1994) written by a chap named Leonard Mann, who just happens to live in Lancaster, Ohio, a small city about ten miles from my house. Spooky, eh?
Mr. Mann's book covers the origins of more than 250 common phrases, but he still has room to devote more than a page to the origin of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," which seems to have been first spelled out by the Ancient Greek moralist Aesop. It seems that the phrase served as the basis of two of Aesop's fables, the morals of both of which were, as Mr. Mann puts it, "It is better to cherish and appreciate what we have than to look longingly upon the things that are beyond our reach; better to hold onto what is sure than to surrender it to grab for the uncertain."
Wasn't that the guy who invented Spring Break?
Dear Word Detective: I read somewhere, but I don't remember where, that "cabal" is an acronym derived from the names of five men. The last name, I believe, was Lauderdale. Could you enlighten me on the other four names (if this is really the origin of the word). -- Mark Satterthwaite, via the internet.
Well, yes, I could tell you the other names, but then, according to rules laid down by the Language Columnists Cabal, you'd have to take over writing this column for the next ten years, and I'm not sure you're ready for that.
"Cabal" is actually one of my favorite words. It means, of course (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it), "a small body of persons engaged in secret or private machination or intrigue," or "a secret or private intrigue of a sinister character formed by a small body of persons." The key word here is "sinister," and the great thing about "cabal" is that the word itself even sounds sinister. A cabal is not simply a clique or club. A cabal has a purpose and a plan, both invariably nefarious. Cabals manipulate global currency rates. Cabals do not hold bake sales.
The theory you've heard about "cabal" sounds like the one that traces the word back to the government of King Charles II of England in the late 1600's. Five of the King's Ministers happened to have names (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale) the initials of which, purely coincidentally, spelled out "cabal." The King's political opponents made much of this spurious acronym at the time, but that only made sense because "cabal" was already in use to mean a small circle of conspirators.
The actual origin of "cabal" is much older. It comes from the Hebrew "qabbalah," meaning "tradition," the name given to a mystical interpretation of the Old Testament developed by medieval rabbis in the 13th century. By the middle of the 17th century, both "cabbala" and "cabal" were being used in a secular sense to mean "secret or mystery" or a small group of conspirators who kept mysterious secrets.
And every so often she tries to
Dear Word Detective: I once heard that "highfalutin" originated from a fancy variety of flour which produced a richer baked product, or perhaps from an ingredient in certain flours, but I have been having trouble finding this information in any reference sources. Do you have any information? -- Tom Wiggin, via the internet.
I don't want to sound paranoid, but you didn't happen to pick up that theory from Martha Stewart, did you? It's not that I have anything against Ms. Stewart, you understand. If I awoke some morning with an inexplicable compulsion to festoon my dog's water bowl with colorful handmade silk butterflies, I would definitely seek Martha's guidance. It's just that, on several occasions over the last few years, readers have cited her TV show as the source of some very colorful, but seriously whacked, stories about word origins.
In fairness to Martha Stewart, I should note that most of these stories seem to come from her "expert" guests, not Martha herself, which makes sense. People have a natural inclination to interpret the world in terms of what they know best. A few years ago, for instance, one of Martha's guests, a potter, blithely declared that the phrase "in fine fettle" came from pottery-making. (It doesn't, although the word "fettle" does have a technical meaning in the craft.) So it's not surprising that a baker, perhaps, might come up with a theory explaining "highfalutin" (meaning "pompous or absurdly pretentious") as originally coming from a technical reference to a certain kind of baking ingredient.
That doesn't mean the theory is correct, of course, which it isn't. The origin of "highfalutin" (or the variant "highfaluting") is not known for certain, but chances are good that it began as a corruption of "high-flying" or "high-flown," meaning pretentiously affluent (or, as New Yorkers say, "hoity-toity"). Americans have always had a healthy disrespect for wealth and power and the arrogant attitudes they spawn, and "highfalutin" appeared in the mid-1800's, the creative heyday of dissing the rich. Along with "highfalutin," the rich (or wannabe-rich) of the era were accused of "putting on airs," being "on a high horse," being "high-toned," "stuck up," "uppity" and "stuffed shirts."Note: Since this column was first posted on the web, I have received several comments from helpful readers pointing out that the basis of the erroneous "flour" story of "highfaluting" mentioned above was probably a confusion of "highfalutin'" with "high gluten" flour, which does indeed produce a better grade of bread.
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell us the origin of the word "humongous"? Was it by chance invented by a little girl in the early fifties describing the Grand Canyon? -- Anonymous, via the internet.
Yes it was, in 1954 to be exact. Fortunately, the little girl's daddy just happened to be a attorney, and he had the foresight to trot back to Washington right away and register "humongous" as a trademark. And that, dear reader, is why you owe "Little Debbie" Furshlinger (now in her late 40's, actually) of Des Moines $428.76 for using "humongous" in your question. And if you think that "anonymous e-mail" business will save you, you haven't met many trademark lawyers.
I'm just kidding, of course. "Humongous" isn't trademarked, although it's a bit surprising that somebody hasn't tried to legally claim it as their personal property. After all, just a few years ago Wired Magazine was running around trying to sue anyone who so much as mumbled the word "wired" in their sleep, notwithstanding the fact that "wired" has been in use since around 1413 A.D.
In any case, the story you've heard is probably not true, and the true inventor of "humongous" (sometimes spelled "humungous"), slang meaning "huge or tremendous," will probably remain a mystery forever. We do know that "humongous" first showed up in print around 1968 as college slang. Although, as in the case of much slang, the origin of "humongous" is unknown, experts believe that it was probably coined as a humorous combination of "huge" and "monstrous" with a little bit of "tremendous" thrown in. This sort of invention is not uncommon in slang. A similar word also dating back to 1960's, "gigunda," was almost certainly a silly modification of "gigantic," and the venerable "bodacious" was probably coined by some 19th century wag combining "bold" and "audacious."
Oh heck, maybe they're all true.
Dear Word Detective: My daughter asked me what "p's and q's" stands for in the phrase "mind your p's and q's" recently. I think it stands for "problems and questions," but can't be sure. -- Danielle, via the internet.
You are not alone. I'm afraid that there is no clear answer as to where "mind your p's and q's," meaning "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 fascinating theories, 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 different but 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.
Still other theories tie the "p" to "pea" cloth (the rough fabric used in "pea jackets") and the "q" to "queue," which meant a ponytail, either that of the fancy wigs worn by courtiers of the day or the real ponytails commonly worn by sailors. In the upscale version of this theory, young aristocrats were cautioned not to get the powder from their wigs on their jackets made of pea cloth. The sailor 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.
My leg hurts, Einstein. What's the mattah wit you?
Dear Word Detective: Any idea where the phrase "charley horse" came from? I have been told it is a baseball term from the late 1800's, but I can find no details as to who Charley was, not to mention why he had a horse. As slang goes, it seems to be a rather interesting term because, as far as I know, there is no other common way of referring to the malady. -- Rick, via the internet.
Unfortunately, no one knows for certain how "charley horse" came to mean a muscle cramp or soreness in the arm or leg, although it probably did originate in baseball around 1886. The popular imagination abhors a vacuum, however, so a variety of theories have been proposed about the origin of the term. One theory holds that, since "Charlie" was once slang for a night watchman, and night watchmen were generally elderly and prone to limping, "Charlie" became a slang term for lame old horses as well, and, eventually, a term applied to any sort of lameness. I think we can probably regard this theory as pretty lame itself.
Turning to the world of baseball, another theory hold that in the late 1880's a horse named Charley was used by the grounds crew at the Chicago stadium. You don't have to be psychic to guess that this story goes on to note that oatburner Charley was lame, and that injured players were thereafter supposedly likened to Charley the Horse.
Yet another theory, and one that thankfully does not involve limping equines, holds that a player for Boston in the 1880's named Charley Radbourne was popularly known as "Old Hoss." As reported years later (1907) in a Washington Post article recently unearthed by slang expert Barry Popik, Radbourne was rounding the bases after hitting a home run in a game with Providence when his leg muscles seized up, bringing him painfully to the ground. Another player rushed to his aid, asking, "What's a mattah wit you, Charley Hoss?" And, says the Post, "from that day to this lameness in baseball players has been called 'Charley Hoss,' or 'Charles Horse.'"
True? Perhaps, but that story is probably not the last word on "charley horse."
On the bright side, those bells will make
Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "foolscap" come from? It seems an unlikely name for a paper size. -- Julia Fractal, via the internet.
Yes, it does, but I rather like it. It certainly beats such awkward designations as "eight and one-half by eleven," or that irrepressibly romantic European invention, "A4." I think we ought to make an effort to develop more inventive, mellifluous names for our technological gizmos. Then again, come next January we'll all be writing on cave walls, so I guess it doesn't really matter.
Just kidding, of course. Y2K is your friend. Speaking of things that need nicer names, this "Y2K" business could use some work. Why not call it R2D2? Nobody doesn't like Star Wars, right? Or maybe "Pooh Two."
Onward. "Foolscap" is indeed the name of a particular size of writing or printing paper, although today you're more likely to encounter the term in a historical novel than in an office supply catalog. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, foolscap writing paper measures 13 1/4 by 16 1/2 inches, and foolscap printing paper (don't ask me why this is different) is 13 1/2 by 17 inches.
Foolscap has been around for a long time, probably since either the 15th or 16th century. The original foolscap paper was easily recognized because it bore the distinctive watermark of -- drum roll, please -- a "fool's," or court jester's, cap. A fool's cap, once standard issue for jesters or "royal fools" in many European courts of the Middle Ages, is a multicolored hat festooned with bells hanging on conical strips of fabric. Although these hats have recently reappeared, worn by the famous "Motley Fool" duo of investment advisors, fool's caps are still not nearly as popular on Wall Street as they ought to be.
I'm not sure whether anyone is still producing paper in the standard foolscap size, but today we use the term as a fancy synonym for writing paper of any large size. And anyway, even if someone were still making "real" foolscap, it almost certainly wouldn't fit in our laser printers.
Dear Word Detective: As I flip from channel to channel, I hear a great number of weathermen use the term "in that neck of the woods." I was not aware woods had necks. What else do they have? Where does "neck of the woods" come from? -- F.W. Headley, via the internet.
Ah, the woods have many things, my friend. Ears, for instance. Actually, I may be thinking of walls having ears. But I'm sure the woods do too, and you never know what sneaky little woodchuck or disgruntled deer is out there taking notes while you're stumbling through the undergrowth absent-mindedly mumbling about your more debatable tax deductions. I had an uncle once who landed in the hoosegow on the word of a skunk who sang like a canary.
"Neck of the woods," meaning a certain region or neighborhood, is one of those phrases we hear so often that we never consider how fundamentally weird they are. In the case of "neck," we have one of a number of terms invented by the colonists in Early America to describe the geographical features of their new home. There was, apparently, a conscious attempt made to depart from the style of place names used in England for thousands of years in favor of new "American" names. So in place of "moor," "heath," "dell," "fen" and other such Old World terms, the colonists came up with "branch," "fork," "hollow," "gap," "flat" and other descriptive terms used both as simple nouns ("We're heading down to the hollow") and parts of proper place names ("Jones Hollow").
"Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood.
Dear Word Detective: We are looking for the origins of the phrase "pleased as punch." One friend thought it might refer to the illegal punch boards that used to be (and maybe still are) found in bars. Someone else wondered if there might be a connection to the British "Punch and Judy" puppet shows. We'd be interested in hearing the real story behind the phrase. -- B. Patters, via the internet.
Your wish is my command, within reason, of course. Before we get too far into "pleased as punch," however, we should probably explain those "illegal punch boards" you mentioned. The Oxford English Dictionary defines such a device as "a board perforated with holes containing slips of paper which are 'punched' out as a form of gambling, with the object of locating a winning slip." Evidently this rather dorky game of chance was considered a major menace to public morality in the early 20th century. That, of course, was before the advent of state-sponsored computerized lotteries. No comment.
I'm sure that anyone who managed to win whatever one won playing punch boards was "pleased as punch" (meaning extremely pleased), but for the source of that phrase we'll turn to your other friend's theory, which just happens to be right on the money. "Pleased as punch" does indeed refer to the classic British "Punch and Judy" puppet shows, which have been inexplicably popular in Britain since the 1600's, and are still often inflicted on children attending small carnivals. Punch and Judy are husband and wife, and the standard Punch and Judy show involves a great deal of shouting and mutual clobbering (and, in the original Punch and Judy story, infanticide and multiple murders). Mr. Punch himself is a grotesque, hook-nosed hunchback who spends his time concocting a variety of evil plots. When Punch's wicked machinations go well, he struts and preens outrageously, and thus "pleased as Punch" or "proud as Punch" has meant to be very satisfied (especially self-satisfied) since around 1813.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "shower" as it is used in bridal shower, baby shower, etc? -- Bill, via the internet.
Well, Bill, it all started in the days before there was water. Not exactly before water, maybe, but before indoor plumbing, when bathing was very rare. So rare was washing up back in those Rank Ages, in fact, that people generally regarded the practice as quite risky, to be hazarded only on special occasions, such as a wedding or the birth of a baby. (Just how folks got to the point of getting married or having babies without ever bathing is, of course, one of history's great mysteries.) On these occasions, the female friends of the bride or mother-to-be would gather together and, after tackling and deftly hog-tying the lady, wash her thoroughly from head to toe. Lather, rinse, repeat, and, voila, the wedding or baby "shower" was born.
Oh, all right, that's not the real story, although the part about people not bathing for most of human history is disturbingly true. And if you've ever ridden the New York City subways in August, you know that the practice is still not as widespread as one would hope.
In any case, the truth about baby and bridal showers is that the "shower" in question is the same word as our morning ablution, which was known as a "shower-bath" until around 1900. The basic meaning of "shower" is, of course, a period of rain (or sometimes snow) of brief and usually gentle duration (as opposed to a typhoon or blizzard). "Shower" itself comes from a prehistoric German word, and first appeared in English around 950 A.D.
"Shower" pretty quickly developed figurative uses, and by about 1000 A.D. we were speaking of "showers" of leaves, bullets, stones, and just about anything else that could fall on our heads. And, come about 1914, we find "shower" being applied to a heap of gifts "showered" all at once on a lucky bride or incipient mother, usually at a females-only social event (which was originally known as a "shower party").
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
Take me to the Index of back columns.
All contents Copyright © 1999 by Evan Morris.