Issue of June 8, 2007

Page Three


Meat and bleat.

Dear Word Detective: I work in a PR agency where we have to come up with a lot of new ideas for our clients to keep paying us money. So we have a lot of brainstorms. And out of the brainstorms come a lot of ideas that we all need to go back to our desks and "flush out." I have been working with the same person for ten years and we always argue about this, because I tell her we need to "flesh out" the ideas, not "flush them out." Perhaps in the brainstorm, I can grant her, we are "flushing out" the ideas from deep within out brains (like flushing out a drain or a flock of geese from the woods), but the subsequent beefing up of these bare-bones ideas should be referred to as "fleshing them out." Who is right? -- Brad Kuerbis.

Whoa. You folks have been arguing about this for ten years? Sounds like you need to hire yourselves to brainstorm a new bone of contention. Your conciliatory attempt to parse "flush out" as akin to running a Roto-Rooter on one's noggin is laudable, although it does imply that the deepest levels of our brains are clogged with marketing strategies. But the truth is simply that you are right and she is wrong.

The meaning of "to flush" when it first appeared as a verb in English around 1300 was "to fly up suddenly," as a covey of quail will upon being startled in a field by hunters and their dogs. The transitive form of the verb, meaning "to drive into the open," appeared around 1450, and the "sudden movement of liquid" sense appeared in the 16th century. "Flush" is thought to be echoic, imitating the sound of sudden flight, and both the "force out" and "water" senses may also be related to the word "flash."

"Flesh" is, of course, what menus call "meat," and the first use of "flesh" as a verb in the 16th century was to mean "reward a hawk of hound with part of the game killed as encouragement." A wide range of meanings subsequently developed, including, in the 17th century, "to clothe a skeleton with flesh." As a hobby this was apparently a non-starter, as most uses have been figurative with the sense of "to fill out, to make a rudimentary framework more substantial" (much as you use "beef up" in your question, "beef" having served as a synonym for both "strength" and "substance" since the 19th century). The process you describe of building substance on the foundation of an inspired idea thus clearly calls for "flesh out."

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I'll sneeze when I'm dead.

Dear Word Detective: I am an exchange student, living in the US right now. I'm from Germany, and when I felt sick today, my host brother and I wondered whether there is a connection between "German" and "germs." I know that the name "Germany" and all its other forms are very old and go back to Latin "Germania" or something. But does "germ" come from there? Are all German people "germian"? -- Katharina Holst.

If by "germian" you mean "germy" in the sense of "carrying germs" or "infested with dangerous microbial organisms," good heavens, no. You must be thinking of spinach. From what I've heard, Germany is one of the cleanest countries on earth, and most of the people of German descent I've known have been fastidiously neat and clean. Then again, I'm not sure that the current American craze for turning our homes (and hands) into germ-free zones with antimicrobial agents is such a good idea. The germs that eventually evolve to survive that stuff are going to be very hardy and in a very bad mood. I'd rather have the sniffles right now than face billions of tiny little ticked-off Rottweilers in a few years.

The root of "German" and "Germany" is the Latin "Germanus," which was first (as far as we know) used in print by Julius Caesar for the peoples of central and northern Europe in his accounts of his conquests in the area. The root of "Germanus" is unknown, but it does not appear to have come from any Germanic language. One theory suggests that the word "German" was actually derived from a word in one of the languages of the neighboring Gauls, perhaps related to either the Old Irish "gair" ("neighbor") or "gairim" ("to shout").

The root of "germ," on the other hand, is a different Latin word, "germen," meaning the sprout or bud of a plant, which also gave us "germinate." "Germ" first appeared in English in the 17th century with the sense of "sprout" or "seed." A related Latin root, "germanus" ("akin" or "genuine") gave us the modern English "germane," in which the sense of "closely connected" was developed into its current meaning of "relevant." Interestingly, the original form of "germane" in English was "german" (small "g") which survives only in the fairly obscure forms "brother-german" and "sister-german," meaning "full sibling."

In any case, "germs" were good and positive things in English (a sense still found in "a germ of an idea" and "wheat germ") until the 19th century, when the "germ theory of disease" took hold, leading to germicides, antibiotics and, recently, mass fear of shopping-cart handles.

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The long good riddance.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase "Indian summer" come from? -- Nancy Bernacet.

Good question, and an appropriate one given the season. "Indian summer" is, of course, the brief period of warm, dry weather often occurring in late autumn. Indian summer is often regarded as a temporary respite from the growing signs of winter, a last chance to enjoy outdoor activities and perhaps take a drive to enjoy the colorful fall foliage. Around here, it is also, unfortunately, regarded as the grand finale of the lawn mowing season, and participation seems to be mandatory. Since I was brought up to regard lawn mowing after Labor Day as barbaric, I just draw the curtains every year and hope for an early snow to render my indolence moot.

As I noted when I answered this question about eight years ago, there are several theories about the origin of "Indian summer," but none considered the final word. The first occurrence of the phrase in print found so far is from a book written in 1778 by a French-American farmer, James Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, describing late autumn in New York's Hudson Valley: "... [the first snow] is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer."

Several theories focus on that reference to smoke (which also occurs in other citations from the 18th and 19th centuries) explaining "Indian summer" as being the time when Indians were in the habit of setting fires to drive game out of hiding as part of one last big hunt before the arrival of the snow. Another theory ties the smoke to fires set by the Indians to clear fields for the next spring's planting. It's also said that Indians took advantage of that period of mild weather to move to their winter hunting grounds.

Some other explanations of the phrase are rooted in the less than idyllic relationship between European settlers and the Indians. One citation from 1824 explains that "The smokey time commenced and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare." The "Indian" in "Indian summer" may also be a derogatory use of "Indian" to mean "false or unreliable," as found in the slur "Indian giver."

Perhaps it's better just to go with the explanation offered by the Indians themselves, recounted by a Boston clergyman in 1812: "This charming season is called the Indian Summer, a name which is derived from the natives, who believe that it is caused by a wind, which comes immediately from the court of their great and benevolent God Cautantowwit, or the south-western God."

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Pledge break!

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


It's like jumping rope, but faster.

Dear Word Detective: I was in a European meeting chaired by a Dutch person who spoke the English language with far greater facility than is commonly heard these days in the UK. He told the meeting that we needed to be careful not to "jump the gun," and reiterated that "jumping the gun" would be something best avoided later on. Now, he used the phrase quite correctly in meaning that we should avoid taking precipitate action, and we needed better information upon which to base a decision, but I confess I had no real idea where the phrase came from (and found myself wondering what the interpreters made of it!). I suspect, because it tends to be a rich source, that the 18th or 19th century Royal Navy might have something to do with it, but thought I would seek the wisdom of our American friends. -- Adrian.

Hmm. I hate to shoot down your hunch, because under the circumstances it was perfectly logical, but while the Royal Navy may be a rich source of many wonderful things, verifiable stories about word and phrase origins are not among them. In fact, given stories purporting to tie phrases such as "son of a gun," "not enough room to swing a cat" and many others to life aboard British warships, the Royal Navy must be counted as one of the world's leading sources of utter nonsense. Spurious etymologies involving Her Majesty's naval forces are so common, in fact, that some wag (I wish I knew who) came up with an acronym for the purveyors of such tales -- CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.

In the case of "jump the gun," meaning "to act before the permitted or appropriate time," the gun in question is about as far from one of the massive cannons of the 19th century Royal Navy as it is possible to get. It's a starting pistol, a small revolver used to fire blanks to signal the start of a race, particularly a foot race. To "jump the gun" in this literal context means to step across the starting line, either accidentally or on purpose, before the gun actually fires, thereby gaining an advantage, even if literally only momentarily, over the other runners. "Jump the gun" first appeared in print (as far as we know) only in 1942, but a 1905 citation for another form, "beat the pistol (or gun)," illustrates the problem: "False starts were rarely penalized ... and so shiftless were the starters and officials that 'beating the pistol' was one of the tricks which less sportsmanlike runners constantly practiced." As a metaphor for making a premature or false start, "jump the gun" is hard to beat, and has the advantage (for me, at least) of being set on dry ground.

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The rubber ones don't fly so good.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering if you can help -- I have asked many cockneys and have not gleaned any information. The English slang word "kite" refers to a bank check. But what are its origins? -- Raj Oberoi.

Thanks for an interesting question. I see that you're writing from a UK email address, which explains the "cockney" reference, but I'm wondering how literally you are using the term. Strictly speaking, "cockney" refers to those born in the East End of London, and comes from the Middle English "cokenei," or "cock's egg," the runt of the nest (as if from an egg laid by a rooster, not a hen). The term was evidently used to mean "pampered child" by country folk and applied to city dwellers in general before being narrowed to mean one particular group of Londoners.

Most of us, hearing the word "kite," think of the flying contraption traditionally made of light wood and paper. Although I haven't flown one in years, I actually belong to the International Kitefliers Association, having been enrolled in the 1960s by the IKA's founder, the late Will Yolen, a friend of my father. While Mr. Yolen is gone, I presume my membership is still valid, since the IKA charter stipulated ''No meetings, no dues, no publications, only kite flying.''

Interestingly, however, the familiar paper "kite" is a figurative use of the word. The real "kite" is a bird of prey, a species similar to the falcon, notable for its forked tail. The term "kite" can be traced back to the Old English "cyta," but no further -- no other language has a related word. The paper "kite" took its name in the mid-17th century because, like the bird, a paper kite appears to hover nearly motionless in the air.

That sense of "hovering" with no visible means of support led, in the early 19th century, to the use of "kite" in financial circles to mean bonds or promissory notes used to raise money on credit. Issuers of such "trust us" documents were said to be "flying a kite." By the 1920s, "kite" was being used in slang, especially in the criminal underground, to mean a check, particularly one forged or written without sufficient funds in the issuing bank. As a verb, "to kite" today means to write a check without the funds to back it up.

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Toxoplasmosis R Us.

Dear Word Detective: We are just about to take on new responsibilities in the form of an eight-week-old Labrador puppy. It's our first pet since our previous black lab died a few years ago (not like your household, which seems to be overrun with cats). While talking about it to someone, it occurred to me that "pet" was quite a strange word, and I couldn't link it to any other words I could think of. Neither could my dictionary, but words don't usually materialize out of thin air, so it must have a background of some kind. Any ideas? -- David, Ripon, Yorkshire, UK.

One moment, please. Our household is not "overrun" with cats. We prefer to say that we are "enriched" with cats. Perhaps "richly endowed" with cats. "Cat-prosperous." That we have "an embarrassment of cats" (certainly true in the Eyewitness News sense). Besides, somewhere in that crowd are two dogs whose destructive abilities are easily the match of their weight (which is considerable) in cats. I have yet to meet the cat capable of swallowing a sweat sock or chewing the leg off a coffee table. Then again, perhaps it's just a matter of time.

"Pet" is an odd word. It first appeared in print in English in the 16th century, derived from the Scottish Gaelic word "paeta," meaning "tame animal," with two senses appearing nearly simultaneously. One was "a lamb or other domestic animal raised by hand," while the other, possibly a derivative of the first, was "a pampered or favorite child." The familiar modern sense of "pet" as "an animal kept for companionship" was a later development of the first sense, appearing in the early 18th century. About the same time, the second sense, "pampered child," spawned a meaning of "Any person who is indulged, spoiled, or treated as a favorite, especially in a way that others regard with disapproval" (Oxford English Dictionary), which gave us everyone's least favorite classmate, the "teacher's pet." Oddly enough, "pet" is unrelated to either "petite" or "petty," both of which developed from the Old French "petit," meaning "small."

As an adjective, "pet" can be applied to domesticated animals ("pet wolverine"), to names expressing affection or familiarity (as "Betty" is a "pet name" for Elizabeth), or humorously to things particularly unloved ("Muzak is Bob's pet hate"). "Pet" also crops up in a wide range of compounds, from "pet passport" (I kid you not) to "pet rock."

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