Issue of June 7, 2004



Time for the Spring Critter Report.

We went for a walk down the road tonight after dark, past the corn and soybean fields.  Clouds hid the stars and the moon had not yet risen, but the fields were full of thousands and thousands of fireflies, floating and blinking like tiny beacons on invisible waves as far as you could see.  They drifted across the road, bumping into us as we walked, and we finally had to turn around rather than risk crushing some.

Earlier in the evening I'd been sitting at my desk, watching three rabbits hopping around in the front yard while another munched away under the bird feeder.  The rabbits have a game they play, in which a pair sit very still about two feet apart until one rushes at the other, whereupon the other rabbit jumps straight up in the air. Then they chase each other around a bit until they stop still and start over.  Sounds insipid, but it looks like a lot of fun.

A sort of inter-species entropy seems to have set in around here as we move toward a peaceable kingdom through simple sloth. The dogs have given up chasing the rabbits, probably because they now see them in the yard all day long, and in return the rabbits will run only if you get within ten feet or so.  The cats, for their part, have apparently given up even pretending to chase the mice in the house.  One little gray fellow ran through the living room during the season finale of The Sopranos last night, right under the coffee table, but neither Sparky nor Fifi expressed anything beyond pro forma interest.  A minute later the mouse ran back across the room and collided with Brownie the Dog, who jumped up in the air like a rabbit but recovered quickly and seemed remarkably unconcerned about our new little pet, which is probably a bad sign.

Today I walked into the laundry room and found both cats staring at the cat food bag, which was, ever so slightly, shaking.  Apparently the food in the bowl wasn't up to somebody's snuff, and when I dumped Mousie out in the yard a minute later he seemed a bit put out at his creativity coming to naught. He  was not, by the way, the Sopranos mouse, who is quite a bit smaller and, as far as I know, is still hiding in the fireplace.

Someone ran over one of the vultures last week.  Beats me how you run over a vulture, as they are pretty smart birds and always, in my experience, get out of the way of cars if given half a chance.  I suspect whoever killed it did so deliberately, which would not be surprising given that some of our neighbors get their kicks by shooting cats.  Incidentally, to answer the question so many bumper stickers around here pose, I'm pretty sure Jesus wouldn't kill animals just for the fun of it.  You heard it here first.

On the brighter side, I was looking at the birds on the electric line the other morning (I seem to spend a lot of time looking at birds lately), and noticed that there was one very, very small bird (the size of a large bug, it seemed) sitting alongside the mourning doves and swallows.  Only when it took off did I realize that it was a hummingbird.  I had never seen one just sitting around.  Turns out it sits up there every morning, but it seems to be alone, so if anyone has a spare hummingbird, maybe we can do some matchmaking.  

And now, on with the show:

Take two earplugs and a good book.

Dear Word Detective:  I am staring at my two year-old daughter and can come up with no other description for her behavior other than to brand her a "brat."  She is four months into "the terrible twos" and is exhibiting all of the telltale signs.  I am not proud of her actions, nor my desire to label her a "Bratty," but when the shoe fits.  Can you help me with the origins of this word?  -- William Foltz.   

Ah, yes, the Terrible Twos.  I remember them well.  Some people said I was being obnoxious on purpose, but I like to think I was just testing the limits, establishing how far I could go before older, wiser, and, of course, larger people put on the brakes.  The lessons a child learns during that period about the results of positive or negative behavior will stay with him or her forever, and ultimately determine whether the little nipper will lead a happy and productive life or run for public office.

The good news about bratty behavior is that it usually ceases within fifteen years or so (which is about the time children used to leave home, although I understand that particular tradition is no longer operative).  In the meantime, however, parents have many restful (ha) moments to ponder the definition of "brat," to wit, "a contemptuous term for a child, especially an ill-tempered, spoiled or badly behaved child." 

Although children have probably been misbehaving since the first child, the term "brat" first appeared in the early 16th century, and since the beginning has been a pejorative term.  (In the 16th and 17th centuries, "brat" was sometimes used in a more neutral sense, but still implied insignificance, the way we might use "squirt" today.)  The origin of "brat" is a matter of debate.  One possible source is a type of coarse cloth known as "brat" (a very old Gaelic word) used at the time for, among things, aprons, diapers and children's clothing.  As "brat" was a very crude, cheap fabric, to call something a "brat" at that time was equivalent to dismissing it as a worthless "rag."  If this "brat" fabric is indeed the same word, the derogatory sense of the word was simply eventually transferred from the clothing to the child.

Not to be confused with Fair Dunkum, our annual doughnut festival.

Dear Word Detective:  An Australian friend and I were discussing your column, and he brought up the term "Fair dinkum," meaning "No problem" or "Great job."  Where did this phrase come from?  What is a "dinkum," and what makes it fair? -- Eugene McNeil. 

Y'know, we really have to do something about Australia.  Just when we've gotten a grip on some of the more bizarre bits of British lingo, more and more queries about odd Aussie-talk are showing up in my mailbox.  I imagine the Canadians will be along shortly.

What makes Australian slang especially tricky to decode is that some of it is based on rhyming slang, a vernacular code in which the intended meaning is disguised by words that rhyme with the real meaning.  Often the slang word itself is then abbreviated, muddling things still further. Thus the mysterious term "seppo" turns out to be short for "septic tank," which rhymes with "Yank," which means "American," which seems a bit unfair.  "Pom," Australian slang for a British immigrant, is short for "pomegranate," which (sort of) rhymes with "Jimmy Grant," which in turn began as a playful rhyme with "immigrant."

The good news about "fair dinkum," meaning "fair, honest, good or true," is that it does not appear to be rhyming slang.  Unfortunately, that is the only bit of good news.  "Fair dinkum" may not be a puzzle, but it remains a mystery.

One popular theory about "fair dinkum" is that it derives from a Cantonese phrase "ding kam," meaning "top gold," and that the phrase was imported into Australia by Chinese mine workers in the 19th century.  One problem with this theory is that there is no record of that phrase ever having been used in Chinese, let alone English, and very few Chinese words have been imported into Australian English.

Furthermore, "dinkum" seems to have led an earlier existence as a English dialect term in the 19th century meaning "hard work or fair work," in the sense we say "a fair day's work" today.  The adjectival phrase "fair dinkum" first appeared in Australia in 1888.  Subsequent elaborations have included "dinky-di" and "dinkum oil," both of which translate as "very true, the absolute truth."

Unfortunately, we may never know exactly where "dinkum" came from, apart from originally having been a English dialect word.  But it quickly became so associated with Australia that Aussie soldiers in World War I were known as "dinkums."

A goat to be gotten.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the phrase "pet peeve"?  Oddly, I was writing a rebuttal to someone's spreading disinformation about "sleep tight" and the phrase popped into writing. -- Fred Strathmann. 

Excellent question, and I'm glad to hear that you are out there rebutting disinformation about "sleep tight," meaning to sleep soundly or well.  I assume the story your correspondent was spreading involved tightening the strings supporting a mattress or hammock, which is taking the "tight" a bit too literally.  "Tight" has, as I'm sure you know, been used to mean "soundly, roundly or well" since the 18th century.

A "peeve" is something that annoys or irritates you, and since irritation is a highly individual emotion, one's "peeve" mileage may vary from one's neighbor's.  I am "peeved," for instance, by people who assume that my license plates (which refer rather cryptically to books) mean that I spend every waking hour rooting for the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Buckophiles, conversely, are probably peeved at the cool disdain with which I disclaim any pro-Buckeye sentiments. 

For a word that expresses a universal (one presumes) human emotion, "peeve" is a remarkably recent coinage, first appearing in print as a verb only in 1908 and a noun (the thing that peeves) in 1911.  Both "peeves," however, arose as what linguists call "back-formations" of the much older term "peevish," meaning "ill-tempered," that first appeared in the late 14th century.  Back-formations, the derivation of a "root" word from a more complex form, are common in English -- the verb "to sculpt," for instance, was formed from the much older word "sculptor."

The precise derivation of "peevish" is uncertain, but it may be related to the Latin "perversus," meaning "reversed, perverse."  The original meaning of "peevish" was simply "silly or foolish," but by about 1530 it had acquired the sense of "irritable, ill-tempered or fretful."  Surprisingly, it then took several hundred years to develop "peeve" as the word for the irritating agent or action.  "Pet peeve," meaning the one thing that annoys you more than anything else, first appeared around 1919.  The "pet" (in the sense of "favorite") formulation probably owes its popularity and longevity to its mild perversity ("favorite annoyance" is a bit oxymoronic) as well as its snappy alliteration.   

Go fish.

Dear Word Detective: There has been an argument in my office over the word "kipper," whether it refers to the fish (and what type of fish?) or a way of preparation, for I have seen "kippered beef."  What is a "kipper"?  -- Sarah, Canada.  

Your wish is my command, and no sooner had I read your question than I sprang into action researching "kipper."  I trotted downstairs, dug out my Fawlty Towers DVD, and watched the episode titled "The Kipper and the Corpse," in which Basil is convinced that a guest at the hotel has succumbed to a kipper served for breakfast long after its expiration date.  As it turns out, it was not the kipper that did him in, but that doesn't make me any more likely to want one for breakfast.

A "kipper" is a fish that has been dried and cured by smoking.  Kippers are most often herring, but salmon or most any other sort of small fish could be "kippered" as well.  In fact, the noun "kipper" itself may have developed from the Old English "cypera," male salmon, in turn related to the Old English "coper" (copper), referring to the reddish-brown color of the fish.  Another theory, however, traces "kipper" to the "kip," or small beak, that male salmon develop during the breeding season.  Kippered herring have long been popular in the UK, and because a properly smoked fish lasts nearly forever, smoked herring, stored in barrels, were a staple of long sea voyages.

As a verb, "to kipper" means "to preserve by rubbing with salt or other spices and drying in the open air or in smoke."  So beef or other meat preserved in the same fashion can logically be called "kippered." 

Since we're on the subject of herring, a related term I'm often asked about is "red herring," meaning "a false clue offered, or issue raised, in order to divert attention from the real question."  The generally accepted origin of the term lies in the training of hunting hounds to follow the scent of a fox.  To train the hounds not to be sidetracked by irrelevant scents, an aromatic "red herring" (so called for the color imparted to the fish by the smoking process) would be drawn across the trail to tempt the dogs away from the fox's scent.  Thus by the 19th century "red herring" had become a metaphor for "deliberate diversion."



Dear Word Detective:    A few of my friends and I were wondering what the origin of the word "lascivious" is.  I have always heard of it in conjunction with "lewd," as in "He was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior."  Could you please tell me what the word means and what its origin is? -- Claudia.  

"Lascivious" is a great old word, having first appeared in English around 1425. Rarely heard today outside court opinions, "lascivious" wrangled another fifteen minutes of fame a few years ago during the Monica Lewinsky brouhaha, when news editors all over the US were forced to dust off their thesauruses in search of "nudge nudge, wink wink" euphemisms to use in place of the clinical descriptions contained in the Starr Report on the scandal.  Suddenly the nation's newspapers were awash in "tawdry," "tacky," lascivious," "salacious," "lewd," "seamy," "sleazy," "licentious" and similar locutions, to the extent that an editor of a major newspaper called me on a Saturday afternoon with an emergency request to compile a glossary for her befuddled readers.

Although the basic definition of "lascivious" is "inclined to lust, engaging in lewd or wanton behavior," lascivious is not, at heart, a nasty, sleazy, tawdry or lewd word.  The root of "lascivious" is the Latin "lascivus," which meant "playful" or "sportive."  Perhaps befitting its origin, "lascivious" is a good-natured word, fun to pronounce (lah-SIV-ee-ous) and almost impossible to say with a straight face, unless you happen to be wearing a powdered wig and waving a gavel.  Still, it must be said that even from the git-go, "lascivious" was used to mean "inclined to or inciting lust."

That's not the case for "lewd," however, which is a good example of how a word can dramatically change its meaning over the centuries.  Back in the 12th century, "lewd" (from the Old English "laewede") meant simply "not a member of the clergy."  As the clergy at that time encompassed most of the literate members of society, "lewd" soon became a synonym for "illiterate or uneducated."  And since the lower, uneducated sectors of society were considered ill-mannered and unrefined, "lewd" eventually came to mean "vulgar" and, by extension, "sinful, vile and evil."  By the 14th century, "lewd" had attained its modern meaning of "sexually suggestive, salacious or obscene."  Today "lewd" is, as you say, often paired with "lascivious," most likely because they make a nicely alliterative couple.  Especially if you happen to be waving a gavel.

Pretty much the opposite of Dean Martin.

Dear Word Detective:    An overly strict boss or supervisor is called a "martinet."  I understand that the term refers to a French officer of the 18th Century.  What did he do to his soldiers? -- Lloyd W. Lietz.  

You don't want to know.  Let's just say that it involved magnifying glasses and tiny little brooms.  Even the mice in the barracks were spit-shined.

Most of us have worked for a "martinet" at one time or another, although we might not have used that term because so many colorful synonyms (not printable here) were available.  A "martinet" is an extremely demanding boss, a stickler for petty rules (usually of his or her own devising), a neurotic with authority and a deep-seated need to exert it at every conceivable opportunity.  If you've ever been criticized in your annual evaluation for the way you sharpen pencils, you're working for a martinet.

"Martinet" is an eponym, a noun formed from the name of an actual person.  The very first (and possibly worst) martinet was Colonel Jean Martinet, a 17th century French army officer famous for his high standards, rigid discipline and short fuse.  On the plus side, Martinet was responsible for transforming the somewhat ragtag and badly-organized army of Louis XIV in 1660 into an efficient modern standing army.  Up to that point, army regiments had essentially been hired and trained by their commanders and then subcontracted to the King.  It was Martinet who brought the entire army under a unified command and instituted standardized training and drill methods.  Eventually, Martinet's training methods were adopted by most European armies.

Unfortunately, Martinet's demanding manner, rigorous discipline and spit-and-polish standards made him extremely unpopular with the rank-and-file soldiers, and when he was killed in a "friendly fire" incident in 1672 there were strong rumors that it was not an accident. 

Like totally whatever.

Dear Word Detective:  We're all familiar with the phrase "six of one, half dozen of the other" as a rather long-winded way of saying "either way" or "it doesn't make a difference."  What puzzles me is the origin (and spelling) of the phrase "mox nix."  This was a common saying in my family when I was growing up, rather than the longer numerical phrase mentioned above.  I've only heard one other person outside of my family use it.  Whence does it come, and how is it spelled? -- Ed Gross, Jr., Centreville, VA.   

Those family-speak puzzles can certainly drive you crazy.  A good percentage of the questions I receive are about words or phrases that the victim (for want of a better term) heard only as a child from Grandpa or Strange Uncle Melvin.  The question then becomes whether the phrase is "real" (i.e., existing in the language outside one's own house) or Strange Uncle Melvin was just even stranger than folks thought.  Occasionally I'll get a query from a reader doubting his or her own sanity in such a situation, as was the case a few years ago when a woman wrote in because her roommate was insisting that the phrase "A horse apiece" (also meaning "It doesn't  make a difference") should actually be "A horse of peas."  Sometimes the best I can do is recommend that my readers leave the house as quickly as possible.

So it's comforting to be able to tell you that the "mox nix" you heard growing up was not one of the seven warning signs of familial derangement.  What you were hearing, in fact, was simply an English slang version of the perfectly proper German idiom "machts nichts," which means "It makes no difference."  The spelling "mox nix" first appeared as military slang among American personnel around 1955.  Later usage broadened a bit, and by the late 1960s, "mox nix" was also being used to mean "of no consequence" or "not important."

The mid-1950s date of the first English appearance of "mox nix" makes perfect sense, incidentally, as this was during the postwar period when large numbers of GIs were stationed in Germany. 

No tern unstoned.

Dear Word Detective:  I've been thoroughly perusing your archives after stumbling upon your wonderful site some weeks ago.  I could not however seem to locate the origins of the phrase "from pillar to post."  I would be very appreciative if you would be so kind as to enlighten this tortured soul.  I fear I've looked everywhere with no satisfaction. -- Chris.   

Good question, and your narrative of frustration reminds me of the awesome responsibility I bear to mouse potatoes everywhere.  Ordinarily, on a day like today, I would skip gaily from my door, eager to mow our four acres of lawn and then, perhaps, whistle a cheerful tune as I prune a few hundred useless shrubs.  But as long as one reader is tormented by a mysterious phrase, I cannot shirk my etymological duty.  Gosh darn, I do love mowing.  Well, maybe next year.

I must note, however, that in your question you inexplicably missed a golden opportunity to say that you yourself have been "from pillar to post" in search of an answer to your question.  "To go (or run, hunt, etc.) from pillar to post" means to travel (whether literally or figuratively) from one place, person or resource to another in search of something," usually with much frustration and little or no success. 

There are two theories about the origin of "from pillar to post," which first appeared way back in the 15th century, oddly enough in the reversed form "post to pillar."  The most popular theory traces the phrase to the sport of "real tennis" (called "court tennis" in the U.S.), an early version of the game played indoors.  This explanation posits that a tennis player chasing the ball ricocheting off the posts and pillars of the indoor court served as a vivid metaphor for someone traveling hither and yon in search of something.

The other theory interprets "post" as a whipping post and "pillar" as originally being "pillory," a punishment-through-humiliation contraption consisting of a short post topped with a wooden frame through which an offender's head and hands are locked so that he or she might be mocked by passers-by and occasional pigeons. If this theory is correct, the original order of "from post to pillar" would make more sense, as the logical progression of 15th century public punishment would probably be whipping first, then confinement in pillory.

Whichever theory is correct (and I lean toward the "pillory" one myself), modern bureaucracy (as well as that great rummage sale of knowledge, the internet) have made it only more likely that we'll spend lots and lots of time running from pillar to post.

Extra points if they use pepper spray.

Dear Word Detective:  How did the word "sanction" come to have two opposite meanings?  On one hand it means "approval or encouragement, or confirmation of a law."  On the other hand, it means, "penalty for disobeying a law or rule."  Considering either meaning of the word could apply in the same context, it is almost impossible to tell which meaning the speaker intends. -- Rick Sheinfield. 

Well, I have a suggestion.  Just step outside (a crowded city street is the best venue for this experiment) and do whatever is described as being "sanctioned" a few times.  Then see whether you receive a commendation from the Mayor or a long prison sentence.

For those of us of a less adventuresome bent, "sanction" is indeed a potentially confusing word, but it's not alone.  There's a whole class of words in English known as "Janus words" (after the two-faced Roman god), also sometimes called "autoantonyms," "contranyms," and "antilogies," which can be taken in either of two opposed senses.  We "dust" furniture, for instance, to make it shine, but we also "dust" brownies with powdered sugar.  "Oversight" can mean either "careful supervision" or "something overlooked or omitted."  "To buckle" can mean either to fasten securely or to collapse, "to cleave" can mean both "to cling together" and "to cut apart," and "to weather" can mean "to erode" or "to withstand."  If you don't have a headache by now, you're not paying attention.

In the case of "sanction," the double meaning goes way back to its Latin root "sancire," which means "to prescribe by law."  Appearing in English in the 16th century, "sanction" at first meant simply to issue a law pertaining to an action, which might, according to that law, be either allowed or forbidden.  Pretty quickly, however, things began to get confusing.  By the 17th century "sanction" was also being used to mean the punishment specified for violating a certain law.  But by the early 18th century, "sanction" had also come to mean "express permission contained in a law to do something," a sense which went on to expand into the "encouragement" connotation we have today.

  So "sanction" has been ambiguous pretty much since the beginning, both meanings are equally correct, and only by judging the context, if possible, can we know which meaning is meant.  Unless, of course, you'd like to step outside and experiment. 


One if by feck, two if by flunky.

Dear Word Detective:  If "feckless" is without "feck," what is "feck"? -- Randy Sublette.

Ah, better to ask, "What isn't feck?"  Without "feck" there would be nothing.  "Feck" makes the world go 'round.  Movers and shakers have scads of "feck."  Donald Trump has "feck" by the blow-dried bushel, and Bill Gates has so much "feck" he uses it for mulch in his money garden.  Legend has it, in fact, that certain suites at the Plaza Hotel in New York City have hot and cold running "feck" on tap.

And without at least a little "feck," this column would not exist, so I'd best muster the bit I have and get on with it.  "Feck" is vigor, energy, initiative, efficiency, and, most importantly, effectiveness, the power to get things done.  That may seem a lot to invest in an odd little word like "feck," but perhaps it will make more sense when I tell you that "feck" is simply an aphetic, or cropped, form of our familiar English word "effect."

"Feck" comes to us from Scots, the language of Scotland, and never really made it into standard English, although its derivative, "feckless," appeared in English in the 16th century.  As you might imagine, "feckless" means "ineffective, feeble, weak or helpless," and is not a good thing to be.  The opposite of "feckless" is "feckful," meaning "efficient, vigorous and powerful," which, ironically, has not been a very feckful word itself and has never gained wide acceptance in English.

Although "feckless" is at root a fairly contemptuous term, modern usage has lightened up a bit, and "feckless" is now often used to mean "carefree, irresponsible, unconcerned," especially applied to blissfully ignorant youth (as in Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Memory," which begins "When I was young my heart and head were light,  And I was gay and feckless as a colt").  "Fecklessness" in this sense is a temporary condition, sadly cured by exposure to the cruelties of life.

But while "fecklessness" can be cured by time, "gormlessness" is forever.  "Gorm" is another fine old word (originally "gaum") meaning "care or attention," so someone who is "gormless" lacks attention, doesn't notice things, is tuned out, vegged out, hopeless and clueless.  

Or so I hear.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word "gossip" come from? -- Tah.

Whoa.  Color me psychic.  I'll bet I can guess why you happen to be asking that particular question.  There you were, innocently sitting at your computer, and kaboom, you've got mail, probably a message forwarded by a friend that read something like this:

"Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what was considered important to the people.  Since there were no telephones, TVs or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars, instructing them to 'go sip some ale' and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. When assistants were dispatched, they were told, 'You go sip here' and 'You go sip there.'  The two words 'go sip' were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and thus we have the term 'gossip.'"

Am I right or am I right?  This story has been circulating on the internet for the past few months, often as one item in a list of "amazing facts."

So, is it true?  Not even close.  The real question is whether the person who cooked up that little fable actually believed it.  I suspect that many such silly stories are concocted and set afloat on the internet just to see how far they'll spread, a sort of "flapdoodle in a bottle."  But it's possible, I suppose, that the author thought it "might" be true.  Smash "gossip" into little pieces and you do get "go sip," and from there the story pretty much writes itself.  But "reverse engineering" words in such a literal fashion rarely works. 

The appeal of such stories is said to be that they "make sense," but the actual origin of "gossip" makes just as much sense even if it takes a bit longer to explain.  In Old English, a "godsibb" was a godmother or godfather, a person's sponsor at baptism, from "god" plus "sib," meaning "relative" (related to our modern "sibling").  Eventually "godsib" acquired the broader meaning of "close friend" of either sex, although most often a woman.  Since close friends share intimate secrets and news, "gossip" (as it was spelled by the 15th century) came to mean "one who indulges in idle chatter or rumors," and the modern sense of labeling someone a "gossip" was born.  The use of "gossip" to mean the rumors themselves is more recent, appearing in the 19th century.  

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Hey, wait a minute.  Silver wasn't silver.  'Sup with that?

Dear Word Detective:  I have some news on the origin of the word "Kemosabe," from the TV series "The Lone Ranger."  My company creates software used to create animation and special effects for TV and films, so we are pretty deep into the production community.  A couple of years back, I met a man who worked with the writers on the series.  He said that they needed a good name for Tonto to call the Ranger.  The show was set, supposedly, in the desert Southwest, where the Spanish language is never far away thanks to those guys who came over from Spain, came North and "helped" the American Indians.  One of the writers on the show was fluent in Spanish, and "Kemosabe" is a variation of the Spanish words "Quien Sabe" or "Who Knows."  This was chosen because no one was supposed to know who the Lone Ranger was.  I sought a second opinion recently from some other old school writers, and they confirm. -- Paul Ford. 

Thanks for the information.  The question of what, if anything, "Kemosabe" (Tonto's term of address for the Lone Ranger) means has been debated for years, everywhere from the internet to scholarly linguistics conferences.  Most research has concentrated on finding a word or term in known Indian languages that could plausibly be connected to "Kemosabe."  The results have been spotty at best, with Apache and Navajo terms that translate as "white shirt" and soggy shrub" both suggested as sources.

One problem I must note with your suggestion is that "The Lone Ranger" actually began as a radio show in Chicago back in 1932, so the origin of "Kemosabe" was well in the past by the time TV writers would have been involved.

A possible origin explored by Cecil Adams in his The Straight Dope newspaper column ( traces the invention of "Kemosabe" to Jim Jewell, director of the original radio series in Chicago.  Jewell's father-in-law operated a boys' camp in Michigan at the time called "Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee," the name apparently derived from the Ojibwe word "giimoozaabi," roughly meaning "scout."  The advantage of this theory is that it ties an actual Indian term directly to someone present at the creation of The Lone Ranger, and also fits with the show's "official" translation of "Kemosabe" as "faithful scout."  But the debate will, no doubt, continue.

When portion control means hitting the dog's bowl.

Dear Word Detective:  While visiting my dad, he told me that he cooked a "mess of pancakes" for breakfast.  That lead me to wonder, how did "mess" become associated with food?  Is "mess hall" or "mess tent," which are usually thought of in "roughing it" situations like soldiers in the field or kids at camp, part of the connection? Is the word "messy," when used to mean "untidy," related to the word "mess" in regards to food?  Thanks for your help. -- Margherita. 

Good question, but I hope the pancakes aren't getting cold while you wait for an answer.  Decent pancakes are becoming hard to find, as rare as edible pizza in Ohio.  One "home cooking" restaurant chain here in Ohio used to have good pancakes, but a few years ago they switched to a mix that reeks of artificial vanilla flavor and is about nine times too sweet to boot.  Might as well just stay home and have cookies for breakfast.  Again.

"Mess" in the food sense is indeed related to "mess" in the untidy or disordered sense.  But while the two meanings of "mess" have supplied the material for countless puns about bad army or camp food, the interesting twist is that the "food" sense of "mess" actually came first.

The root of "mess" is the Old French "mes," portion of food, drawn from the Latin verb "mittere," meaning "to send" or "to put," the original sense being "a course of a meal put on the table."  This sense of "mess," which appeared in English in the 13th century, was often used for cooked or liquid dishes in particular, as in the "mess of pottage" (porridge or soup) for which Esau in Genesis traded his birthright.  By the 15th century, a group of people who ate together was also known as a "mess," and it is this sense that persists in the "mess halls" of today's military.

"Mess" then gradually acquired the sense of a dish that was composed of a variety of ingredients, a jumble of different sorts of food, perhaps reflecting the sort of meal often served to large groups.  Our modern use of "mess" to mean "an untidy jumble" is an extension of this sense, and is actually comparatively recent, first appearing in the 19th century. 

Waist deep in the Big Muddy.

Dear Word Detective:   An American friend of mine and I, a Canadian, are both puzzled by this vogue phrase "stay the course."  I seem to recall hearing it used often in England, and not just by a visiting president.  Does it have fox-hunting roots or humbler equestrian origins of the steeplechase variety?  My friend takes a slightly different tack and looks at the ostensibly contrary "stay of execution" and "stay put" as a state of suspended activity.  We have both been living in Brazil for many years, and the American dictionaries that we have perused seem to be at an equal loss for explanation.  Could you help us out?  I think this phrase is going to be with us, until at least November, and, perhaps, much longer. -- Steve Crickmore and George Roberts.

I fear that you're right, and, in any case, the phrase itself will no doubt be trotted out the next time a politician insists on pursuing a course of action with which a substantial number of constituents disagree.  On the bright side, most commentators have dropped that obnoxious "at the end of the day" chestnut, and even the most jaded talking heads, thankfully, now shy away from invoking "the light at the end of the tunnel."

"To stay the course," in current usage, means "to stand firm in pursuing a goal or course of action, to persevere in the face of whatever challenges or obstacles one may encounter."  The use of "stay" in the phrase can be, as you note, a bit confusing, since "to stay" can mean "to stop, arrest or check" (as in "stay of execution," in which a court issues a legal "stay" to stop an action), as well as "to continue or persist in a place or condition" (as in "stay calm").  But we're definitely seeing "stay" in the "persist" sense here.

"To stay the course" is often thought to be a nautical metaphor, and one can easily imagine a stalwart captain instructing a wavering helmsman to "Stay the course!" in the face of a stormy sea.

But the first use of the phrase in print, in 1885, comes from another sort of "course," the racetrack.  "To stay the course" in this sense referred to the ability of a horse to endure the race and reach the finish line, preferably in a winning position.  By 1916, however, the phrase had been adopted by politicians, and we've been urged to "stay the course" ever since. 

And the crowd goes wild.

Dear Word Detective:  As an avid baseball fan, I often hear it said by sportscasters, play-by-play callers and the oft-times annoying color man, that a pitcher has thrown a pitch or a batter was able to hit a pitch "right in his wheelhouse."  What is a "wheelhouse"?  I've done some searching on this topic and the best I can come up with is that a "wheelhouse" is sometimes an alternate term for "pilothouse," a nautical term for where a ship's pilot steers the ship.  I see no apparent connection to baseball here.  I also turned up that "wheelhouse" is sometimes used in the railroad industry, a "wheelhouse" being the building or end of the line where a locomotive engine is turned around on a large turntable device.  This latter meaning seems as if it may hold the closer connection.  Please help. -- Mpceeya.  

Yay baseball!  I've often said that were I to follow a sport, that sport would be baseball.  As it stands, the closest I come to being a fan is wearing a Yankees cap around town to annoy my neighbors here in rural Ohio, many of whom consider baseball a Communist conspiracy to make football look stupid. 

Paul Dickson, in his New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999), defines "wheelhouse" in the baseball sense, which first appeared in print in 1959, as "That part of the strike zone in which the batter swings with the most power or strength; the path of the batter's best swing." 

There are actually three possible origins for this baseball "wheelhouse":  a ship's pilothouse, the locomotive turntable housing, or the paddlewheel housing on the stern of a riverboat.  The argument for a ship's pilothouse being the source is that it is the center of control of the ship, so for a pitch to be "in the wheelhouse" would logically mean that it is under the batter's control in a way that other pitches are not.

On the other hand, it does seem more likely that the locomotive turntable "wheelhouse" (often called a "roundhouse") is the source, likening the awesome swing of the rail yard turntable to the batter's powerful swing.  An additional argument for this theory is that sweeping side-arm pitches have been known as "roundhouse" pitches since about 1910, and, of course, the "roundhouse punch" is delivered with the same sort of motion.  Thus, by 1959, this sort of "wheelhouse" had already been used as a metaphor for powerful motion for more than fifty years.

Why go on?

Dear Word Detective:  I searched your archives "in vain."  I still don't know how this word for futility came to be associated with the word for conceitedness.  Actors or politicians, for instance, seldom seem to be vainly vain.  On the contrary, it seems highly rewarding to such folks, if not a professional requirement.  And in writing down this question I realize I have no idea how "conceit," meaning a contrivance or even a trope, could have come to mean a high or inflated opinion of yourself.  Please help!  My self-esteem is diminishing by the minute! -- Jeffery Ewener, Toronto, Canada. 

Do not be alarmed.  The widely differing meanings of "vain" and its derivatives that are giving you the fantods are really just evidence of the remarkable ability of the English language to recycle its words over the course of centuries into new uses often far removed from their original meanings.  This is a good thing, and if industry were to adopt an equivalent ethic of conservation, you'd probably be able to swim in New York City's East River today.  As it is, I can scarcely bear to type such a suggestion.

Onward.  The root of all "vain" words and phrases (vain, vanity, in vain, etc.) is the Latin word "vanus," which means simply "empty, void or idle."  ("Vanus" is related to the Latin "vacuus," which gave us "vacuum.")  When "vain" first appeared in English around 1300, it meant "worthless, useless, or futile," the same sense we find in the modern phrase "in vain."

By the late 14th century, "vain" had come to be applied to people who were considered "empty" or "useless," and was used to describe a foolish or silly person.  By the late 17th century, this sense of "vain" had been extended to mean people whose emptiness or uselessness manifested itself in an inappropriate obsession with themselves, and "vain" arrived at its modern meaning of "having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one's own appearance; conceited."  Oddly enough, the derivative "vanity" had expressed this quality since the mid-14th century, having started out meaning "that which is futile."

"Conceit," when it first appeared in English in the 14th century, simply meant "that which is conceived in the mind; an idea."  The sense meaning "high opinion of oneself" is simply a shortening of "self-conceit," almost always used in a negative "stuck up" sense since it appeared in the 16th century.

Well, imagine sitcoms were actually funny....

Dear Word Detective:  I am in the "autumn" years of my life.  Recently, a friend told me a slightly-off-color joke, and I said, "That sounds like an old vaudeville joke."  (I really think that I did first hear it at a vaudeville theatre in Buffalo, NY in the early 1940s.)  He looked at me quizzically and asked, "What's vaudeville?"  My really-out-of-date college dictionary was no help.  What is the source? -- Dick Stacy.

What's vaudeville?  Good grief.  Next they'll be asking who Adlai Stevenson was.  Actually, I have good news: at least the spell-checker in Microsoft Word still recognizes "vaudeville."  And I'm not sure that your friend's blank spot proves anything other than the sorry state of popular historical knowledge.  A recent survey in Britain uncovered the fact that an alarming number of people there apparently believe that Winston Churchill was a fictional character but that big hunks of The Lord of the Rings actually happened.  I think it's time to reconsider this universal suffrage business.

Although we (you and I, at least) think of "vaudeville" as a stage show featuring musical numbers interspersed with comedy skits and routines, the word "vaudeville" itself goes all the way back to Medieval France, to the town of Vire in Normandy.  The townsfolk of Vire were fond of songs satirizing current events and personalities of the time, and eventually such humorous creations came to be known as "chansons du Vau de Vire," or "songs of the Valley of Vire."  The most famous of Vire's songsmiths was a man named Olivier Basselin, whose fame made the clipped form "vau de vire" (or  "vaudevire") synonymous with "satirical song" all over France by 1500.

Meanwhile, another popular genre of song in France was known as "voix de ville," or "voices of the city."  Evidently the two terms were melded at some point, and by 1600 the combined form "vaudeville" was used to mean "humorous song" all over France.

 When "vaudeville" first appeared in English in the early 1700s, it was used to mean "light, topical song."  It was not until the 19th century that "vaudeville" came to mean "variety show" in the sense that it became famous in the 1930s and 40s.


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