Issue of June 8, 2007

Page Two


Close enough.

Dear Word Detective: Please explain the term "half hazard" -- or is it "haphazard"? -- JD.

It's "haphazard," but I rather like "half hazard." It sounds like something made dangerous by being done in a half-hearted (or half-witted) fashion. Take the wiring in our house, for instance. Please. The previous owner told us he had rewired the house, and because he was some sort of engineer, we trusted him. Unfortunately, I now suspect he must have been a poultry engineer, if such things exist, because he certainly didn't know squat about electrical wiring. Let's just say that it's not a good idea for one person to be typing something important on the computer when someone else decides to enjoy a nice piece of toast. Heck, the lights dim if the dog sneezes.

"Haphazard" is a great word meaning, of course, "distinguished by the lack of a plan; random; dependent on chance," as in "Bob's job search was haphazard, consisting mainly of shoving his resume under his neighbors' doors." It's a versatile word, too. "Haphazard" can be a noun meaning "chance or accident," an adjective or an adverb. The noun form appeared first, appearing in English in the late 16th century ("It is hap hazard, if you escape undamnified," 1576). ("Damnify," by the way, is an archaic word meaning "to injure.")

Poking into the ancestors of "haphazard" is where things get interesting. "Haphazard" was formed by combining "hazard," meaning "danger or risk" (from the Old French "hasard," a game of chance involving dice), with "hap," an archaic word for luck or chance (from the Old Norse "happ," luck). So the combined sense was "danger of chance," i.e., the danger of a casual approach to something important causing an accident.

That archaic "hap" may seem a small relic of another time, but it actually plays several large roles in English today. It first appeared in the 13th century, and by the early 14th century the form "happenen" had begun to replace "befall" as the main verb meaning "to occur by chance." A bit more evolution, and by the 15th century we had our modern verb "to happen" meaning "to take place, to occur." It also gave us our modern "perhaps" (literally by or through ("per") chance or luck ("haps")). And during the same period we gained the word "happy," which originally meant "lucky or fortunate" but eventually broadened to mean "pleased or contented."

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To trip, perchance to fly.

Dear Word Detective: It has been bothering me for days now -- what is the origin of a "flight" of stairs? I asked a friend of mine, who was stumped, and suggested that I contact you. I really hope that you can tell me, so it will not keep me up at night. I know, I know, I have too much time on my hands. -- Carrie Geiger.

Well there's no accounting for what keeps people up at night, but you might want to pick a different obsession. As soon as you solve this "flight" question, you'll think of another weird word usage, then another, and another after that, keeping you awake into the wee hours ad infinitum. Trust me -- I've been doing this column for nearly 15 years and I pretty much stopped sleeping around year eight. Incidentally, there's some really strange stuff on TV at 4:30 am. I don't think I want to know who's watching the Teletubbies at that hour.

For a word that describes something human beings can't do without mechanical help, "flight" has developed a wide variety of meanings, from the literal act of flying to a collection of things that fly (e.g., a "flight" of geese) to a burst of mental activity ("flight of fancy"). The root of "flight" is the prehistoric Germanic "flukhtiz," which also gave us the verb "to fly" as well as "fly," the small annoying insect. ("Fly" was originally applied to any sort of flying insect, which explains its presence in, for instance, "butterfly.")

In the case of a "flight of stairs" meaning a series of steps between landings, the usage dates back to the beginning of the 18th century, and may well have been a borrowing of the French phrase "volee d'escalier." As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, a "flight" in this sense is "a series of steps, terraces, etc., ascending without change of direction," but in common usage today "flight" often simply means the stairs between two floors of a building.

"Flight" in the "stairs" sense is a metaphorical application of "flight" meaning "a journey through the air for a given distance" (as in "Bob slept through the flight to Boston"). After all, climbing a "flight" of stairs is flying in a certain sense -- you are traveling through vertical space, perhaps not as gracefully as a swan, but getting there nonetheless.

Interestingly, "flight" meaning "the act of running away" (as in "flight or fight response") is completely unrelated to "flight" in the flap-your-wings sense, and comes from the Old English "flyht," closely related to "flee."

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Little nipper.

Dear Word Detective: Why is being in a cross or bad mood referred to as being "crabby"? Are crabs naturally irritable? Who makes this stuff up? -- Charles.

Well, to answer your third question first, you do. More precisely, we all do. The English language, like all human languages, is a group effort, the product of a committee consisting of everyone who has ever spoken it (and a good number of folks who have spoken other languages as well). Call the process natural selection, peer review or just mob rule, we label a cranky person "crabby" today because it seemed apt to enough people. If you're looking for a specific person who coined the term, you might as well hang it up. It was almost certainly "invented," over and over again, by thousands of people.

Our English word "crab" comes from the Old English "crabba," itself from a Germanic root meaning "to scratch or claw," which is, after all, pretty much the crab's entire repertoire right there. Our modern "crabby," meaning "cross, irritable, cranky" is fairly recent (as such things are measured), dating to the late 18th century. "Crabby," however, was a derivative of an earlier term, "crabbed," which appeared with the same meaning back in the 14th century.

In both "crabby" and "crabbed," the analogy is to a crab's tendency to painfully nip with its claws and tenaciously hold on, as well as its tendency to walk backwards and sideways, making it an excellent metaphor for a difficult, uncooperative person. (This, of course, is not entirely fair to crabs, many of which probably have wonderful personalities and, should they one day take over the planet, will no doubt remember I said that.) One of the more popular uses of "crabby" in this sense in recent years was in the Peanuts comic strip, in which Lucy van Pelt was routinely described as "crabby."

The peculiar locomotion of a crab actually contributed to another sense of "crabbed," that of "crooked, knotted, complex, twisted," which today is found mostly in descriptions of indecipherable handwriting, awkward or overly-complex prose ("Mr. Hume, who has translated so many of the dark and crabbed passages of Butler into his own transparent and beautiful language," 1830), or the ravages of age and disease on the human body (e.g., "a crabbed old man").

Interestingly, the "crab," or wild, apple, takes its name from the probably unrelated Scandinavian word "scrab" rather than the crustacean. But the sourness of the "crabapple" probably reinforced several senses of "crab" as applied to humans, especially the use of "crab" to mean "complain bitterly."

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The better to bite you with, Sarge.

Dear Word Detective: At lunch today we were speaking of the draft (the military sort, not the wind sort) and my lunch buddy claimed that the designation "4-F" came from the Civil War when they used muskets (first hogwash point) and men had to use their front teeth to dislodge the plug in the powder container they carried. Doing this task required four teeth in front, both upper and lower, and if a chap were lacking in those natural dental implements he was called "4-F" (for "four front"). The whole thing sounded like utter folk etymological claptrap. What say you, oh wise and noble Word Maven of the Western World (WMWM)? -- Swami Murugananda.

WMWM? Based on some of the irate email I get, I've always thought of myself as more of a YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) kind of guy. Remember, kids, you can't please all of the people all of the time, so make the Delete key your friend.

In any case, your nonsense detector seems to be working quite well. The story your buddy came up with is, as you suspect, utter claptrap. On your first hogwash point, however, I think your detector is set a bit too high. Muskets (smooth-bore shoulder-fired firearms) were indeed used in the American Civil War, along with rifles (spiral grooves in the barrel), carbines (short rifles), and a wide variety of revolvers and pistols.

The "show us your teeth" explanation of "4-F" founders on several points. Although there was military conscription during the Civil War, I can find no evidence that a detailed system of draft classification, let alone the label "4-F," existed at that time. Even if such a system had been in effect, it's very unlikely that a single criterion, inability to open a powder pouch, would have rated a special classification when so many other disabilities (blindness, deafness, etc.) would also have disqualified the draftee. And even if one needed, and lacked, front teeth to fire a musket, there were plenty of openings for mule drivers and clerks.

As to what "4-F" actually means, the answer is pretty much nothing. During and following World War I, there was a classification system that divided conscripts into Class I (qualified for military service) and Classes II through V (unqualified or exempt). A more detailed system during and after the Second World War included 52 separate classifications, from I-A (Welcome to the Army) to IV-A (Go home, Grandpa), including IV-F, "Rejected for military service for physical, mental, or moral reasons." The same general categories were retained after WW II with some additions, such as the ever-popular "2-S" or "student" deferment. Although the "F" in "4-F" may have been partly inspired by "fail" (or the school grade "F"), it didn't officially stand for anything.

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Ook at its iddle PAWS!

Dear Word Detective: "Glaikit" is a word of Scottish origin, meaning a silly, sappy expression on one's face. Where did it come from? -- Tim.

Good question. "Glaikit" is a new one on me, but I certainly know the expression it apparently describes. It's the look otherwise sane people get when they see the kittens our local pet store has up for adoption. I was in there the other day, buying a 20-pound bag of gourmet cat chow, and there were at least five full-grown customers peering into the cage, emitting the sort of cooing and kissing sounds that would get you arrested if you made them on the subway. I wouldn't dream of discouraging anyone willing to adopt a cat, but I do wonder if they'll still be cooing when the little critter mistakes their legs for the fancy-schmancy scratching post they bought it.

"Glaikit" is indeed mostly heard in Scotland and northern England, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it's an adjective originally, when it first appeared in the mid-15th century, meaning "senseless, foolish." In later usage, it expanded a bit to include "thoughtless, flighty and giddy," uses most frequently applied to women.

Tracing the origins of "glaikit" leads us into a bit of a maze. It is pretty certainly related to the noun "glaik," also of Scots parentage, which means (according to the OED) "mocking deception," most often used in phrases such as "to give one the glaiks," meaning to cheat or swindle. "Glaik" as a noun has also been used to mean "a child's puzzle," "a flash of light" and as an expression of contempt for another person. There's also a derivative verb, "to glaik," meaning, variously, "to stare idly," "to delude" and "to dazzle." If this all seems a bit hazy and confusing, welcome to the club.

The probable root of "glaik" (and I'm glad there is one) is the only slightly less weird word "gleek," which is now considered obsolete but in its day meant "a jibe or jest," often in the phrase "to give someone the gleek," meaning to trick or make fun of the person. Tracing "gleek" a bit further back, we find, at long last, a familiar word. The root of "gleek" turns out to be "glee," which, although now most often used to mean "a feeling of delight," originally meant "play or sport," especially in the "mocking jest" sense.

So, to sum up, "glaikit" meaning basically "foolish" can be traced back to "glee" meaning "jest or trick."

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And I used to be lots funnier.

Dear Word Detective: My friend drives a Mazda car. She thinks that the word "mazda" has some significant meaning, possibly in ancient Persian. Can you give me any information? --Peter Kerr.

Drat. I was all set to cast light-hearted doubt on your friend's sanity when a little voice in my head suggested that I check a book called From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names. Inasmuch as I actually wrote this book my very own self, you'd think I'd remember what it contains, but you'd be wrong. The truth about many writers is that once the research is done and the piece is written and published, we wipe the old memory slate clean to make room for shopping lists and dental appointments. Occasionally this "yesterday's gone" approach proves awkward (as it almost just did), but the bright side is that I can amuse myself for hours reading things I wrote just a few months ago.

In any case, your friend is correct. The Mazda car, produced by the Mazda Motor Company of Japan, takes its name from Ahura Mazda, the central deity of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest monotheistic religions, is considered to have been a strong influence on the Abrahamic religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam), and was founded by the Persian philosopher Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra. Evidently Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced Jujiro Matsuda, the founder of Mazda Motor Company. Matsuda, son of a fisherman, founded the company in 1920 under the name Toyo Cork Kogyo Co., Ltd., and, indeed, produced cork flooring until switching to motor vehicles in 1931. Oddly enough, the company's name formally became Mazda Motor Company only in 1984, but every vehicle they have produced, including their 1931 Mazdago three-wheel pickup truck, has carried some variant of the "Mazda" name.

There is a theory that Jujiro Matsuda picked the name "Mazda" not only from an apparent respect for Zoroastrianism but also because it bore a strong phonetic resemblance to his own last name. If that's true, Mazda is in good company -- many automobile brands are based on personal names. The Oldsmobile, for instance, was named for Ransom E. Olds, a pioneer automobile engineer who established the first car company in Detroit, the Olds Motor Company, in 1890. Rolls-Royce was founded by Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce in 1906, and Dodge honors John and Horace Dodge, brothers who started out making bicycles and eventually worked up to manufacturing cars. Honda and Toyota both reflect the names of their founders, although in the latter case "Toyota" was thought to have a "better sound" than Sakichi Toyoda's last name. And while the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1656-1750) never got around to building a car, his name is immortalized on those tacky hood ornaments today because he founded the city of Detroit.

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