Issue of June 8, 2007


Oh noes! The Sopranos is kaput (not quite yet as of this writing, but you know what I mean). As much as it has annoyed me at times, I'm gonna miss it. (On the other hand, I actually find myself missing The Gilmore Girls, so my enfeebleation may be more advanced than I had reckoned.) I'm especially going to miss Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt). I'll treasure the memory from a couple of episodes back of Sil sitting in the back room of the Bing, reading a well-worn copy of How to Clean Anything. Brilliant. We knew he had to own a copy.

Nobody's asking (or likely to), but I'd like Mr. Van Zandt to consider, as a next step in his acting career, starring in a sitcom I plan to call San Clemente, set in the madcap twilight years of a disgraced ex-president struggling to keep up with the antics of his zany retinue. Gandolfini could play Kevin Finnerty, his blustering but kindhearted ex-capo neighbor who raises ducks. Paulie Walnuts could play a comically paranoid G. Gordon Liddy type. That AJ kid could play an annoying reporter who falls in the pool in every episode. Doctor Melfi could play some stick in the mud hanger-on from the Heritage Foundation. It's a natural.

Onward. We missed a month again. Sorry about that. I knew there was a reason I've always disliked warm weather; it turns out that em-ess (as we will call it to dodge the Google-bot) gets much worse when the temperature goes above about 70 F., and we lack air conditioning. It occurred to me the other day that the whole business reminds me of voodoo as portrayed in 1940s movies. It really feels like there's someone out there sticking pins, or perhaps railroad spikes, into a small me-doll. In any case, subscribers don't suffer these periodic outages, and since my income has drifted into truly pathetic precincts recently, your $15 per year would be greatly appreciated.

As usual, all of this month's columns are also posted at The Word Detective Annex, a WordPress blog I have set up as a place for readers to leave comments on the columns. There is some sort of registration required to slow down the spammers, but it's not onerous. I've posted links from the foot of each column here directly to its equivalent at the blog, so just click to leave your comment or read those of others.

And, of course, the circus rolls on at da other blog.

And now, on with the show:


The F Words.

Dear Word Detective: Could it be a fluke? Frankly, I'm a bit flummoxed by this flummadiddle: -- has the word "flub" simply been rejected by the Word Detective like so much flotsam, or am I the first to ask you to ferret out its origin? -- Marc Botts.

Hey pal, I wasn't born yesterday. That isn't a question. That's six questions about six different "F" words. So now I'll have to chop my way through all the words you used in your question to reach the word you actually asked about. I swan, the folderol gets worse every day. Make that seven words.

To begin at the beginning, the "fluke" in your question originally meant an accidental lucky shot in billiards when it first appeared in English in the 19th century. (This "fluke" is unrelated to either the "fluke" fish or "fluke" meaning one of the broad blades of a ship's anchor.) The origin of the billiards "fluke" is unknown, but it may be drawn from the English dialect word "fluke" meaning "a guess." Most dictionaries still define "fluke" as "an unexpected success," but the sense you use, that of "a rare exception," but not necessarily a good one, seems to be gaining currency.

"Flummox," meaning "to perplex or confuse," comes from another English dialect word, "flummock," meaning "to bewilder." The origin of "flummock" is unknown, but, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may have arisen as an attempt to duplicate the sound of throwing something down on the ground in disgust.

"Flummadiddle," meaning "nonsense," dates to the 19th century and seems to be based on "flummery," a simple English dessert made from bits of whatever one has on hand, usually minimally including oatmeal, eggs and sugar.

"Flotsam," literally the wreckage of a ship found floating on the water (and figuratively any assortment of unimportant debris) comes from the Old French "floter," to float. "Jetsam" is flotsam that has been jettisoned, deliberately thrown overboard.

"Ferret," meaning "to search out," comes from the animal of the same name, once used to hunt mice and rats. The word "ferret" comes from the Old French "furion," literally "thief."

"Folderol," since I brought it up, is "nonsense," dates to the 18th century, and came from the meaningless nonsense refrains sometimes used in old songs ("Fol-de-rol-de-rido liddle iddle-ol," Robert Browning, 1864).

And now the envelope, please. Oops. The origin of "flub," meaning "to bungle" or, as a noun, "a mistake," is, unfortunately, unknown. "Flub" first appeared in the 1920s, and may well be "echoic" in origin, an attempt to express in sound the feeling of failing because of a simple silly mistake.

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Wor Chester goin'?

Dear Word Detective: Recently the word "heinous" has been turning up on more and more radio and TV newscasts, probably with good reason. Unfortunately the pronunciation of the word is all over the map. I've heard "hane-ous," "heen-ous," "hine-ous," and all three with a "-ious" ending. I realize pronunciation isn't your specialty, but maybe you could tell us something about the word and suggest alternatives for the newscasters who haven't a clue. -- Barney Johnson.

You're right -- "heinous" (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "hateful, odious; highly criminal or wicked; infamous, atrocious") seems to be enjoying a grim heyday in the news. A search on Google News produces 2,580 hits (known, by the way, as "Ghits" among Google addicts) in recent news stories. Almost all of them invoke "heinous" in the grave sense the OED suggests ("chiefly characterizing offenses, crimes, sins, and those who commit them"), but I did stumble across one article from an Anchorage, Alaska paper that employed "heinous" to describe a high school tennis team's 32-year winning streak. Someone up there needs to cut back on the caffeine. "Heinous" does not mean merely "annoying." Not yet, anyway.

"Heinous" first appeared in print in English in the 14th century, adopted from the Old French "haineus," from the verb "hair," meaning "to hate." A bit further back we find the Germanic root "khatis," which also gave us our English word "hate."

It is true that I would not count myself as a pronunciation expert. For one thing, you apparently have to go by three names ("Rupert Frothington Gotrox") to be one these days, and I've always sensed that people who bill themselves in triplicate are trying too hard. But the other reason I don't want the gig is that pronunciation varies with geography, class, social tradition and many other factors, so proclaiming with certainty a single correct form is a losing proposition.

Charles Harrington Ulster ("The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations") has, however, made a career of pronouncing (yuk yuk) this sort of judgment, and he mandates the "HAY-nis" version as "the only acceptable pronunciation." Personally, I go with more of an "us" sound for the second syllable, but we do agree that the word has only two syllables, making "hay-nee-us" as hard to accept as "realtor" rendered as "real-a-tor." However, and this will probably drive Chuck right over the edge, the standard pronunciation of "heinous" may well change someday. After all, how do you pronounce "Worcestershire"?

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Stand back.

Dear Word Detective: I've written a play that takes place in 1880, and the linguists in my life insist that the phrase "pent up" is a twentieth century phrase. I cannot imagine an audience member throwing his hands up in disgust and storming out of the theater the instant he heard the Victorian-garbed actor utter the phrase "pent up," but for the sake of accuracy, does that phrase belong in my 1880 play? -- Daniel Tobias.

Oh goody, another theatrical anachronism question. I actually get quite a few of these from playwrights and screenwriters striving to avoid those "Julius Caesar glanced impatiently at his wristwatch" moments that reviewers love to mock. In fact, I usually answer such questions by email even when I don't use them in a column, and I like to think I'm single-handedly keeping both Hollywood and the American theater world on an even keel, historical-accuracy-wise. Yes, I like to think that, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. The least they could do is pay attention to my warnings about Ralph Fiennes. I still can't believe I sat through The English Patient.

Not to devalue my own role in your play, but I too tend to doubt that today's theatergoers are likely to freak out and start throwing rotten vegetables upon encountering one little anachronism. But one never knows when the audience may contain a disgruntled etymologist with a short fuse (don't laugh, I know a few), so here goes.

The good news is that your linguist friends are wrong, and apparently lazy to boot, because even a cursory glance at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) acquits "pent up" of being absent for the 19th century. As a matter of fact, the first printed appearance of "pent up" in the modern figurative sense of "held in or back under pressure" (OED) found so far dates back to the 17th century ("Whil'st boyling rage (pent up) last high did swell," William Alexander, 1637). That's a pretty good cushion against a charge of anachronism.

The literal sense of "pent up" when it appeared earlier, in the 16th century, was "confining," as in a small room. Interestingly, "pent up" apparently arose as an emphatic form of the adjective "pent," meaning "closely confined" or "held back under pressure." This "pent" was actually the past participle of the verb "to pend," which itself was a form of "to pen," which meant to confine something or someone in an actual pen or cage.

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Field of dreams.

Dear Word Detective: How did the "pillow" get its name? In my medical terminology class, my professor seems to think that it was derived from the term "pilo," which means "hair," but we can't seem to find anything to back this up. -- Shelly.

This is one of those questions that, like a Russian nesting doll, just get better and better as you unpack them. First, I will assume that taking a medical terminology class means that you are in the process of preparing for an occupation in the health care industry. If so, congratulations. You will be joining just about the only sector of the US economy that is actually turning a profit, and thus you may be able to afford health insurance. If, however, you are planning to work in hospital administration, you should be aware that, within the walls of a hospital, there is no such thing as a "pillow." They are known, I believe, as "cranial support systems," and are usually billed at $250 per day, listed on patient billing statements right between the ten-dollar aspirin and the $25 bathroom charge.

Secondly, I am a little disturbed by your professor's insistence that "pillow" is rooted in a word for "hair." Traditionally, early in pillow history, those of the rich were stuffed with feathers or down, while the poor made do with sacks of straw, but I find no evidence of hair pillows, for which I suggest we should all be thankful. Incidentally, did you know that George W. Bush has a pillow named "Pilly," which he takes with him on all his trips? Mine is named "Pibby," cost six bucks at Target, and never gets to go anywhere. Both George and I also routinely eat peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. Spooky, eh?

It is true that "pilo," a form rooted in the Latin "pilus," meaning "hair," is found in medical terms such as "pilomotor," denoting a muscle that moves a hair (as in when your dog notices the postal carrier). But "pillow" comes from the Latin "pulvinus," meaning "cushion," and came into English in the 14th century from the Old English form "pyle." By the way, the word "cushion" (at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary) comes from the Latin "coxa," meaning "hip or thigh."

So there's no "hair" there in "pillow," but at least your professor isn't completely nuts, merely looking at the wrong Latin root. If, however, he or she starts declaring that "femur" is somehow connected with either "female" or "lemur," it may be time to tiptoe out of the classroom.

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I wanna be sedated.

Dear Word Detective: Now that we are in the throes of another political campaign season, my curiosity has become aroused by the designation of Democratic-leaning states as "blue" states, and Republican-leaning states as "red" states. These designations seem to have come out of the blue a few years ago, and I would like to know how and when they came about. I am curious, too, about the colors. It seems to me they should be reversed. I associate blue with "blue-nosed" and "blue laws," which suggests to me conservatism/Republicanism, and red with the left in politics, where the Democrats are generally positioned. -- Russell J. Greatens.

Good question, but you left out the "purple" states, where a solid majority of voters cast their ballots for Barney the Dinosaur. The big galoot actually carried the state of Ohio (where I live) last time around. Quite a change, I must say. The colors are much brighter now, people are nicer and almost everyone sings instead of talking. It makes dealing with the local IRS office downright pleasant. "I love you, you love me, we'll just waive those penalties...."

OK, back to depressing reality. But Ohio really is a "purple" state (a mixture of "red" and "blue"), one where the margin between Democratic and Republican votes has been narrow, to put it mildly, in the last few elections. In reality, of course, no state is all one party, and the "red/blue" election-night shorthand only has any validity at all because of the "winner take all" US Electoral College.

The "red state/blue state" divide has become such a staple of cable news since the 2000 presidential election that many people assume that it's a recent invention, but it isn't. More importantly, although "red" and "blue" have become rallying cries for political partisans in recent years, the color labels were never intended to last beyond a given election, and are, in fact, supposed to flip in 2008.

The use of "red" and "blue" as color codes on maps of electoral results actually dates back to at least 1908, when the Washington Post printed a special supplement in which Republican states were colored red and Democratic blue The colors were apparently arbitrarily assigned in that case, although in later years both parties strove to claim blue (as in "true blue Americans") and avoid red, with its connotations of radicalism.

Finally, in 1976, the TV networks agreed to a formula to avoid any implication of favoritism in color selections. The color of the incumbent party, initially set as blue for Gerald Ford's Republican ticket in that year, would flip every four years. Consequently, a successful challenger runs again in four years, as the incumbent, under the same color. So in 1992, the challenger Clinton was red on the maps, and in 1996, incumbent Clinton was also red. Challenger Bush, red in 2000, was red again as an incumbent in 2004. But perhaps because the pundits decreed 2000 to be a watershed election, the "red/blue" divide has assumed a broader political significance (at least to pundits), and although the formula dictates that the Republicans should be carrying the blue flag in 2008, it will be interesting to see how the networks color their maps.

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Gracious, Emily, you're glowing like a pig.

Dear Word Detective: My daughter's teacher told her that "sweat" should only be used for animals, and that humans "perspire." I think that this is just an urban legend and that it is quite correct to say that a person "sweats." Am I right? -- Suressh.

Say, could you do me a favor? Please ask your daughter's teacher if I can borrow that time machine for a moment. I need to zip back a few decades and change my college major. I figure dual law and medical degrees would stand me in good stead, although with my luck I'd probably just end up suing myself. But it would still beat journalism and animal husbandry, or whatever it was I took. Things were kind of hazy back then.

The reason I mention time travel is that your daughter's teacher appears to be recycling a bit of faux-Victorian vocabulary guidance, the most common version of which goes: "Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow." I say "faux-Victorian" because I cannot actually find the axiom in print before the 1950s, but in any case, it seems to have been a staple of etiquette manuals for many years, so apparently at least some people took it seriously. On the other hand, neither "sweat" nor "perspire" are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as synonyms of "glow," so it's unlikely that "glow" ever led an independent existence as a euphemism for "sweat" outside of that particular adage.

The goal of "Horses sweat, men perspire, women glow" was, of course, to encourage the use of "glow" as a more refined word than "sweat" or even, in that more delicate age, "perspire." There's nothing really wrong with either "sweat" (from the Old English "swat") or "perspire" (from the Latin "per spirare," meaning "to breathe through," in this case referring to "vapors" escaping the skin). In fact, the root "spirare" in "perspire" also gave us the word "spirit" (as in "the breath of life" or soul), so "perspire" actually has a fairly ethereal pedigree.

"Perspire" is, however, usually considered a more refined word than "sweat," which is certainly worth knowing. That distinction is, of course, entirely arbitrary from a linguistic standpoint, but English has a long history of granting Latinate (or Anglo-French) forms higher social status than Anglo-Saxon words. Many of the words we use for livestock ("cow," "pig," "sheep," etc.), for example, are short, blunt Anglo-Saxonisms of the sort used by medieval peasants, while the names of the finished products ("veal," "beef," "mutton," "pork," etc.) are rooted in the Anglo-French of the gentry who could actually afford the meat.

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