Issue of June 11, 2002
All right, already, mea freakin' culpa. So I missed the month of May. Read the front page again. It says "This page is updated monthly." As any attorney will tell you if you pay him enough, that just means that I promise to update these pages during some month.
Besides, I've been busy fighting that stupid power plant those jerks from Kansas City have been trying to build next to Word Detective World Headquarters. One might have thought that the fact that in the last month Aquila (the company angling to build the plant) has seen its stock drop 25% to an 11-year low, has watched its first-quarter profits plunge 40%, has become the target of four class-action suits by its own stockholders, and has become the target of an investigation by the FERC would dampen the ardor with which our local Township Trustees have courted this abomination, but no such luck. Looks like we're gonna have to get ourselves some new Trustees, eh? The good news is that our School Board, without whose approval this turkey won't fly, have told Aquila to take a hike.
Elsewhere in the news, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that copies of my book, The Word Detective, are once again available through this site. Each copy comes with your choice (within reason) of a lovely personal inscription and a one-year subscription to TWD-by-E-mail. Details can be found here
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: Can you explain the proper use of "affect" and "effect"? My boss habitually misuses these two words, and I plan to print out your answer and show it to him. -- Dana Court, via the internet.
Is that really a good idea? I'd be very careful if I were you. Most bosses didn't get to be bosses by taking kindly to criticism or correction. I once worked in a state unemployment bureau office (I kid you not), and one thing I noticed was that most of our customers were under the impression that they were smarter than their former bosses.
Your boss is hardly alone in confusing "affect" and "effect." Much of the problem with these two words stems from the fact that each of them can be used as either a noun or a verb, so grasping the particular context in which "affect" or "effect" is being used is essential to understanding what is meant.
As a verb, "affect" actually has two meanings. The less common meaning is "to pretend or put on a pretense of," as in "When Harry came back from Europe he embarrassed us all by affecting a French accent." The second, more common meaning is "to influence or change," as in "Harry's phony accent annoyed everyone and affected his popularity."
"Effect" is also a verb, but it means "to bring about" or "to put into action." A new tax law, for example, might be said to "effect" an increase in the income tax rate (which would "affect" the mood of many people).
Confusing "affect" and "effect" as nouns is another common error in using these words, but this one is a bit easier to avoid. "Affect" as a noun, as "a thing," is almost never used except as a technical term in psychology, so we can pretty much rule it out in general usage. Then again, if we spend any more time trying to sort these two words out, we may all need a good psychiatrist.
Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "grotesque" come from? My dictionary says that it is related to "grotto," but I can't imagine how. -- E. Kittle, via the internet.
It's a shame even good dictionaries don't have more space to explain the evolution of words like "grotesque," because the story is a surprising one. On the other hand, that's why you have us, so you've come to the right place.
"Grotesque" is indeed related to "grotto," and in fact is simply "grotto" with the suffix "esque," which means "resembling or having the characteristics of." When we think of a grotto, we usually mean a small cave or cavern, serene and secluded, perhaps suitable for a picnic. The word "grotto," however, has a less idyllic root, the Greek "krypte," or vault, which also gave us "crypt." The "grottoes" of Ancient Rome were vaults beneath buildings, and when these vaults were later excavated in the Middle Ages, the walls were discovered to be painted with bizarre and elaborate scenes. Combining distorted human forms with floral patterns, this strange style of art was later copied by 16th century Italian painters, who called it "pittura grottesca" -- "grottolike painting." By the 17th century, the term had entered English as "grotesque," with its modern meaning of "bizarre, distorted or outlandish." While the original connotation of "grotesque" was simply "very unusual," the word has since taken on a sense of "unpleasant or disgusting."
"Grotesque" has spawned two slang words since the 1960's, neither of which really caught on. "Grotty," briefly popular around the ascendancy of the Beatles in the mid-1960s, may have flopped simply because no one knew how to pronounce it. (It's "GRAH-tee," but you really need a Liverpudlian accent to do it justice.) "Grody," as in "grody to the max," is easier to pronounce (GROW-dee, if you really must know) but carries the stigma of the dreadful "Valley Girl" plague of the early 1980's, and is, mercifully, rarely heard today.
Don't bother me. I'm on my food-pellet break.
Dear Word Detective: I recently heard an economist on TV say that the government should do more to "incent" American workers. It was clear from the context that she meant "encourage," but why didn't she just say that? Is "incent" a new word, and if so, do we really need it? -- Emily Scott, via the internet.
I'll do just fine without it, thanks. I, too, have heard "incent" several times in the past few years. At first I assumed that my ears were on the fritz, but after the third encounter, I realized that we were witnessing that rarity of the natural world, the birth of a verb. Usually this is an occasion to celebrate, as our language grows in scope and expressiveness. In this case, the feeling was more akin to discovering that I had a flat tire.
"Incent" purports to be a verb based on the noun "incentive," which means "something which incites or motivates to action or effort." "Incent" is evidently a case of what linguists call "back-formation," the concoction of a new word which sounds like an earlier or simpler "root" of an existing word, but really isn't. There was no such word as "sculpt," for example, until someone looked at the noun "sculpture" and decided there must be a root verb lurking in there somewhere. There wasn't -- the word "sculpture" itself is also a perfectly good verb, and for several hundred years it was accepted usage to say that an artist had "sculptured" a statue. Similarly, there is no hidden verb "incent" underlying "incentive." "Incentive" comes from "incentivus," Latin for "setting the tune" (based on canere, to sing).
There's nothing necessarily wrong with making new words from old. "Sculpt" turned out to be a remarkably vivid word, conjuring up the dramatic but precise motions of a sculptor. Words such as "incent," however, are contrived with the opposite intent -- to be vague, value-free business-babble. Personally, I find this sort of thing deeply creepy. Perhaps researchers "incent" lab rats by rewarding them with food pellets, but surely human beings ought to be "encouraged."
Something borrowed this way comes.
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the word "plagiarize"? My husband suggested it was coined after the great Greek philosopher, Plagiar, who never had an original thought. -- Naomi, via the internet.
Aw, now you've done it. Everybody's going to think I made this question up, but I really, really didn't. Honest, folks. I never, ever, make up questions unless I'm absolutely positive that someone out there would actually be sending me that question were it not for the unfortunate fact that they haven't yet been born.
Incidentally, I think I would probably get along with your husband. His theory has a certain admirably loony logic, or rather lack thereof. What made this dude Plagiar "great" in the absence of any original thoughts? Skill as a pickpocket?
"Plagiarists," of course, might well be considered intellectual pickpockets, writers or other sorts of "content creators" who actually filch their creations in part or whole from the work of others. Much attention has lately been focused on such high-profile (and high-profit) thieves as pop-historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. (And yes, in my opinion, they are both simply thieves, and belong in the hoosegow. Unfortunately, "wealth" and "in jail" rarely coincide as states of being.)
In any case, "plagiarism" is as old as writing or drawing itself, so it's not surprising that the word "plagiarize" is based on the Latin ""plagiare," meaning "to kidnap or abduct," and first showed up in English way back around 1600. "Plagiary" was briefly used to mean a literal kidnapping of a person, but for most of its history has mean the abduction of another's work.
Way back when it seemed that everyone knew that plagiarism was simply stealing and, dare I say it, wrong, the great satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a catchy tongue-in-cheek ditty on the subject: "Plagiarize, Let no one else's work evade your eyes, Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, So don't shade your eyes, But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.... Only be sure always to call it, please, 'research.'" If Ambrose and Goodwin ever find themselves in need of a theme song, that would be a good one for them to steal.
Dear Word Detective: I recently referred to someone as "the grand poobah" and realized I wasn't even sure of what I was calling them! I meant "the top dog," "the big cheese," the "king of the mountain," but wasn't sure. It sounds Indian or something. Can you help me out? -- Brent, via the internet.
It does, doesn't it? Incidentally, and I'm just trying to be helpful here, next time you might want to do a little research before you employ an unknown term in describing someone, lest your epitaph read "It sounded Indian to me."
In any case, "poobah" may sound Indian, but it isn't. As a matter of fact, "poobah" isn't from any known language, unless one regards (as one well might) the comic operas of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as having been written in a language of their own. Featuring rapid-fire and witty word-play and sprightly musical scores, Gilbert and Sullivan's works were the rage of England and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and remain enormously popular today. (In one of the improbable coincidences that seem to dog my steps in writing this column, my local public radio station is, at this very moment, playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance." Spooky, eh?)
"Poobah" comes from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," which debuted in 1885 and skewered the then-current rage in Britain for all things Japanese. Set in the fictional small Japanese town of Titipu, The Mikado tells the story of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, Yum-Yum, his fetching ward, and Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel who is actually the son of the Mikado (Emperor) in disguise. The plot of The Mikado is far too baroque to relate here, but one of the other characters is, you guessed it, Poo-Bah, who holds the exalted offices of Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Buckhounds and Groom of the Back Stairs, as well as the handy catch-all post of Lord High Everything Else.
"Lord High Everything Else" was such a brilliant summation of the self-important puffery of bureaucracy that "Poo-Bah" (and its variant "poobah") immediately became a popular mocking synonym for someone who holds a number of offices, wields ultimate power, or exhibits an inflated self-regard.
Dear Word Detective: My daughter and I came upon a restaurant in Nyack, NY called "The Runcible Spoon." We looked it up and found a "runcible spoon" to be a spoon like fork with three tines. Is that the true definition of "runcible spoon"? What does the word "runcible" actually mean, and how can it be applied in a sentence? -- R.E.Hanover, via the internet.
Please don't ask me to use "runcible" in a sentence. I'm already in trouble around here for using high-falutin' words such as "evidently" and "implicit" that, I am told, discomfit the neighbors. That's too bad, since I actually find "evidently" an enormously useful word because it's so economical. Someone says, "I just can't seem to do anything right today," I reply "Evidently," and they go away. Pretty soon it's just me and the chipmunks and I can get lots of work done.
"Runcible" is a funny word, which is fitting since it was invented, as far as anyone can tell, by the English writer Edward Lear, whose "nonsense poems" have entertained children and adults since the late 1800s. Lear's 1871 creation "The Owl & The Pussy-Cat" (which begins "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea, In a beautiful pea-green boat; They took some honey, and plenty of money, Wrapped up in a five-pound note"), contains the verse:
upon mince and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon,
Lear used the word "runcible" in several other works, but never quite got around to explaining what it mean or where, if anywhere, he'd found it. One theory is that "runcible" is derived from the archaic tem "rounceval," meaning "large," "monster" or "big, boisterous woman" (from Roncevaux, France, where giant fossil bones were once found). But in all likelihood Lear simply made the word up out of thin air.
The explanation of "runcible spoon" as a three-pronged spoon-like utensil (also called a "spork" in certain fast-food precincts) is apparently pure conjecture on the part of an overly-ambitious Lear fan back in the 1920s. Lear himself, to his credit, understood that nonsense ceases to be fun when you try to explain it.
Officer, arrest that follicle.
Dear Word Detective: Why is a bobby pin called a "bobby" pin? Is it because it "polices" one's hair? -- Jason A. Shifrin, via the internet.
Now that is what I call a darn good question. And whatever happened to bobby pins, anyway? I haven't seen one in years. Were they done in by hairspray and mousse? Are there warehouses full of bobby pins somewhere, case upon case of them stacked next to mountains of typewriters and home-movie projectors? Do I sound like a hopeless geezer yet? Onward.
Your theory about "bobby pins" (which are small springy folded wire clips) being the "bobbies" (a British term for a police officer) of unruly hair is inspired, but wide of the mark. I'm not certain exactly when the "bobby pin" was invented, but the term itself came into use in the 1930s, at a time when female hair fashions were tending toward shorter styles. Such hairstyles were called "bobbed," from "to bob," meaning "to cut short."
The origin of this sense of "bob" is uncertain, but it seems to be related to the Irish "baban," meaning "tassel or cluster," and the first use of this "bob" in a "hair" sense was to describe the cropped or docked tail of a horse. Thus "bobby pins" were so-called because they were designed to keep shorter hairstyles under control. The same sense of "bobby" meaning "short" cropped up a few years later when "bobby socks," short ankle socks, became popular among young women during the 1940s.
Of course, "Bob" and "Bobby" are also the shortened, familiar forms of the proper name "Robert," and this brings us back to the British "bobby" pounding a beat. In 1828 Sir Robert Peel, then Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister), reorganized the London police force into a modern law enforcement agency. Officers in the new department were known at first as "peelers," as their Irish counterparts had been after a similar reorganization when Peel was Secretary for Ireland some years earlier. But for whatever reason, "peeler" was gradually replaced in the public vernacular by "bobby," and members of the London force are still known as "bobbies" today.
Dear Word Detective: At one of our company meetings last week, our General Manager said that one of his employees "had his ducks all in a row," meaning she was doing a good job. I've heard the phrase before, but I can't understand why "getting ducks all in a row" got to be a compliment. -- Chuck, Timken, KS.
And that's why you're not General Manager, Chuck. I assume you're sitting at your desk right now. Look down to your right and open the bottom drawer. See? Full of ducks, probably in a disgustingly disorderly state. If they're not there you can get some at your nearest farm. In any case, I'd suggest that you have at least six ducks on your boss's desk first thing Monday morning standing at attention in a neat line, ready to be dispatched on sales calls. Then you can relax and spend the rest of your life watching daytime TV like me.
To "have one's ducks in a row" (and variations on that phrase) means, as you say, that the person is doing a good job and has all of his or her duties taken care of in an efficient and timely manner. Phrases involving our web-footed friends, including "nice day for a duck" (meaning rainy weather) and "like water off a duck's back" (meaning having no effect), have been common in English for hundreds of years. "To have one's ducks in a row," however, seems to be a fairly recent coinage. The first appearance of the phrase noted in Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is in 1979, in Stephen King's novel "The Stand." The related "line up one's ducks" appears only a year earlier, in 1978.
But why, to echo the Marx Brothers, a duck? It's possible (though I'd much prefer it not to be true) that the phrase began as a reference to the lines of little metal ducks used as targets in carnival shooting galleries. A more benevolent (and likely, in my opinion) explanation would be that "to have one's ducks in a row" refers to the common sight of a mother duck leading a troop of her ducklings in an orderly row (often, if one judges by the frequency of news photos, across a busy intersection).
Dear Word Detective: Today I went with my Aussie girlfriend, Lesley, to the local casino, to "take a flutter" as Lesley said. I have heard this phrase before, and I think it means "to try your luck," but I wonder about its origins. Could it refer to the flutter of racetrack betting slips hitting the ground after being torn up in disgust when the "dead cert" didn't come in? -- Anita Dahlin, Brechin, Ontario, Canada.
Ah, two of the most terrifying words in the English language -- "local casino." I'll bet that establishment really cuts down on the bother of managing one's retirement funds for the folks in your town, eh? We don't have a casino in my neck of the woods, although we do have the Ohio Lottery, a baroque state-run scam that has rightly been described as a special tax on people who weren't paying attention in math class.
Were I in a mood to pursue that little rant, I would venture that "flutter" came to describe a bet or wager because it so well fits the heart palpitations that often follow a failed gambling venture. But your friend was merely using a bit of British slang that has been around since at least the late 19th century.
But "flutter" is actually a much older word. Today we use "flutter" as a verb to mean "to move with quick, wavering or flapping movements" and as a noun to mean either the act of "fluttering" or "a commotion or state of nervous agitation," as in "The bankruptcy of K-Mart caused a flutter among manufacturers of blue light bulbs." But when "flutter" first appeared in English around 1380, it was in the form "floteren," meaning "to be tossed by the waves," derived from the Old English "flotian," meaning "to float" (which was also, not surprisingly, the root of our modern "float"). That "rocking on the waves" meaning gradually led to "flutter," by the 16th century, being used to mean "to quiver or move to and fro quickly," and birds, butterflies and nervous accountants have been "fluttering" ever since.
That "nervous" sense turns out to be the key to "flutter" as slang for "a small bet," a derivative of "flutter" meaning an exciting or daring attempt at a risky venture. The "flutter" in betting comes before the bet and refers to the excitement, even if only minor and momentary, in taking a risk.
Followed by the rest of us saying, "Hey!"
Dear Word Detective: I recently heard a report on the radio refer to "the heyday of Enron," meaning back when energy executives made out like bandits, just as I was driving past an upscale vegetable market in our town called "Hayday." Is there any connection between "heyday" and "hay" or farming? -- Rod Northway, Kansas City, MO.
Only in the proprietor's pun. "Heyday" (pronounced "HAY-day") means the period of one's greatest success, power, popularity, or the like: the prime of one's life. Sometimes it is used to refer to things, fads or fashions, as in "the heyday of the hula-hoop."
"Heyday" comes from the old Germanic word heida, meaning "hurrah." In 16th century England, "Hey!" or "Heyda!" was a common interjection, a cry of joy or excitement. Of course, we still shout "hey" to get someone's attention, but the original sense of the word was more like the "hooray" or "whoopee" of today's corporate executive as he dons his golden parachute and leaves his underlings twisting in the wind. Later on, "heyda" came to mean a time of celebration, and the "da" was gradually replaced in English by "day," giving us "heyday."
"Hay," meaning mown or cut grass, clover or alfalfa, comes from a completely different source, the same root as the words "hack" (to cut roughly or irregularly), "haggle" (which originally meant "to chop") and "hoe" (the gardening tool).
So the "hey" in "heyday" has nothing to do with hay. But "hay" does crop up (sorry) in a number of compound English words, reflecting our heritage of farming: "haywire" (the springy wire used to bale hay, with its propensity to become hopelessly tangled), "hayseed" (a rural fellow who might well have alfalfa seeds in his pockets or hair) and "haymaker" (a powerful boxing punch which mimics the motion of cutting hay with a scythe).
Haven't you ever wondered why Dick Cheney's middle name is "Freedle"?
Dear Word Detective: I have two simple questions. Is there actually a "vast Word Detective global empire," and what is the etymology of the word "irk"? The most that I have been able to find is that it's from 15th Century Middle English, according to Merriam-Webster. Is it onomatopoetic? -- Mike Berard, Babson College, MA.
And I have two answers, but only the first is simple. Yes, of course there actually is a vast "Word Detective global empire." As a matter of fact, we used to be called the Illuminati, but our consultants felt that made us sound like some fussy Italian dessert, hardly the image you want when you're manipulating currency rates and the world's water supply. Might as well call yourself "Baked Alaska," know what I mean?
As for 'irk," I don't blame you for suspecting an "onomatopoetic" (or "onomatopoeic," from the Greek for "making a name") origin, meaning that the word arose as an imitation of the sound associated with the thing or action itself. In the case of "irk," meaning "to irritate or bore, annoy or make weary," one might imagine waiting ten minutes for an elevator, only to find it too full to board when it finally arrives, and exclaiming "Irk!" in frustration. (Come to think of it, if one were to bark "Irk!" in a sufficiently menacing tone, at least a few people would probably leave the elevator. I must remember to try this.)
As is so often the case, however, our creative theories turn out to be unnecessary. "Irk," which first appeared around 1300 in Middle English in Northern England, was originally an intransitive verb meaning "to make tired" and an adjective meaning "tired, weary or bored." The exact root of our "irk" is uncertain, but in all probability it is related to the Old Norse word "yrkja," meaning "to work or press upon" or "exhaust." The fact that "irk" first appeared in English in the northern regions of Britain long occupied by the Vikings is further evidence for an Old Norse connection.
The reason your dictionary dates "irk" to the 15th century, by the way, is that our modern, transitive verb sense of "irk" (as in "Slow elevators really irk me") first appeared then.
So THAT'S where my other sock went.
Dear Word Detective: I was recently sick as a dog, and in my fevered state I began to wonder why we use that phrase. I know that "dog" has long been used in the sense of "bad" ("dog days," "dog tired," etc.), but when did people start saying "sick as a dog" and just why is dog used in this negative sense? I thought dogs were man's best friend. I thought you might be able to shed (ha ha) some light on this issue. -- Lisa Krause, Huntington, MA.
Ha ha indeed. I take it you don't live in a house with two dogs, three cats and enough pet fur flotsam come spring to knit a whole new poodle. And I'll bet you never had to call a computer service to replace your CD-ROM drive because it was clogged with excess cat pelt. What genius designed computers to be big stationary vacuum cleaners, anyway? Something tells me Michael Dell owns goldfish.
Given their devotion to us, you're right, dogs have gotten a bad press. "Dogs of war," "going to the dogs," "hair of the dog that bit you," "dog in the manger" and the like are hardly compliments to our canine pals. ("Dog days," however, is not especially negative, as it referred originally to the ascendancy of Sirius, the "Dog Star," during the hottest days of summer.)
"Sick as a dog," which means "extremely sick" and dates back to at least the 17th century, is also not so much negative as it is simply descriptive. Anyone who knows dogs knows that while they can and often will eat absolutely anything, on those occasions when their diet disagrees with them the results can be quite dramatic. And while Americans may consider themselves "sick" when they have a bad cold, in Britain that would be called "feeling ill." "Being sick" in Britain usually means "to vomit."
So to really appreciate the original sense of "sick as a dog," imagine yourself seated in the parlor having tea with the Vicar on a lovely Sunday afternoon, when Fido staggers in from a meal of sun-dried woodchuck and expresses his unease all over your heirloom oriental carpet. It's actually rather amazing that goldfish aren't more popular.
I just wanna be near the mayonnaise.
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine recently became engaged to a young lady who he described as being from an "above the salt" family. I gathered from the context that he meant her parents were well-to-do, but where does the salt come in? -- L. Franklin, Brooklyn, NY.
It's remarkable that such a humble food as salt has played so central a role in human history, but even more remarkable how far the fortunes of salt have fallen in just the last few years. I went looking for pretzels (a staple of my diet) in a local supermarket the other day and was horrified to find that they were out of everything except some ghastly "salt-free" variety. Salt-free pretzels? Spare me.
Open any dictionary, of course, and you'll see that salt was not always held in such low esteem. Roman soldiers were paid an allowance for the purchase of salt, the root of our modern word "salary" and the source of our description of a worthless person as "not worth his salt." As a symbol of virtue and incorruptibility, salt occurs throughout the Bible, "the salt of the earth" being the best of mankind and a "covenant of salt" being an unbreakable bond.
Salt was still a valuable commodity in Elizabethan times, and at the dining tables of nobility, guests were seated in order of importance measured by the location of the salt-cellar (or "saler") in the center of the table. Distinguished guests sat between the salt and the host ("above the salt"), while lesser fry were relegated to the boondocks "below the salt." So to say that someone's family was "above the salt" eventually came to mean that they were at least "well-to-do."
Dear Word Detective: Today I heard a reporter on my local radio station, who sounded British, say that officials of some government had become more "anodyne" about criticism of their human rights record. I have never heard this word before, so I thought I'd ask you -- what does it mean and where is it from? -- L. Parker, Columbus, Ohio.
"Anodyne" seems an odd word to use in a news broadcast, simply because so few people are likely to know what it means. Still, the challenge itself is refreshing when so many of our "broadcast personalities" evince a depressing difficulty in handling basic English grammar. It's ironic that what we call "anchor people" are known in Britain by the more humble but accurate term "newsreaders," although they tend to be far more literate than their American counterparts.
"Anodyne" comes to us from the Greek word "anodynos," meaning "free from pain," which in turn is based on "an" (without) plus "odune" (pain). Ultimately, "odune" is thought to come from an Indo-European root word "ed," meaning "to bite." "Ed," like most Indo-European roots, grew into a wide range of English words, in this case including the fairly obvious "eat," and "edible," but also "fret" ("eaten up") and "etch." Readers interested in exploring the Indo-European roots of common English words should check out the excellent Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary.
In the case of "anodyne," the literal meaning of "pain-free" has expanded to include the figurative senses "soothing" or "relaxing." As a noun, "anodyne" can mean either a literal or metaphorical pain-reliever, including, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "anything that soothes wounded or excited feelings, or that lessens the sense of a misfortune." Most likely, the reporter you heard meant that the government of that country had recently become more willing to at least discuss, and possibly even actually protect, the human rights of its citizens.
Dear Word Detective: I came across the following explanation of the origin of the word "macaroni" in a cookbook recently, and I was wondering whether it was true. "Legend has it that in the late thirteenth century, German bakers made large figures out of noodle dough in the shape of men, stars, birds, and seashells, which they called collectively 'doughmen.' The bakers went to Genoa, Italy, to sell their product, but the Italians found them too expensive and exclaimed 'ma caroni,' meaning 'But it's too dear.' So the Germans reduced the size, and with the size, the price. They made a bundle and the name stuck." -- Rod S., via the internet.
Oh, brother. You know, the thing that bothers me about that little fable is not that it is wrong, although it is absolute hogwash, but that it is, by virtue of being printed in a popular cookbook, apparently immortal. I have received this same question, quoting the same passage from the same wretched book, at least three times over the past ten years.
I am always amazed, incidentally, by the willingness of otherwise respectable publishing houses to include preposterous stories of word origins in their books without doing the most elementary fact-checking. If I were writing a book on language and halfway through I wrote "Oh, and by the way, pot roast was invented by Martians," the publisher would take it right out, but let some cookbook writer start spouting utter rubbish on word origins and no one bats an eyelash.
I don't know what (if anything) "ma caroni" means in Italian, but our word "macaroni" comes from the old Italian word "maccaroni," meaning, not surprisingly, good old-fashioned macaroni. I say "old Italian word," because English borrowed "macaroni" from Italian back in the 16th century, and the modern Italian word for macaroni is "maccheroni." The ultimate root of all these words was the Greek "makaria," meaning "food made from barley." And if you can find any German bakers or expressions of dismay over noodle prices in that explanation, you've got better eyesight than I do.
Dear Word Detective: Someone told me that the word "sincere" meant "without wax." They had a wonderful and compelling speech to accompany this assertion. However, I have been thus far unable to discover where they would have gotten this. Would you care to help me out on this? -- Jerry Rowe, via the internet.
Wonderful and compelling, eh? Well, it is my sad duty to reiterate one of the first lessons I learned, many years ago, about stories often told about word origins, which is that the more fascinating, colorful, and just plain "neat" a story is, the less likely it is to have even a passing relation to the truth.
I think that the theory you've heard about "sincere" and Roman columns is actually a mutation of a very popular story based on tracing "sincere" back to the Latin words "sine" (without) and "cera" (wax). Unscrupulous Roman stoneworkers, the story goes, would sometimes cut corners by applying a thick coating of shiny wax to marble rather than taking the time to polish it properly. So widespread was this shabby practice, it is said, that honest stoneworkers had to advertise their wares as being "sine cera," without wax, to reassure their customers. "Sincere," the story goes, eventually came to be used more generally to mean "honest" and "straightforward."
While this lovely story is not absolutely impossible, it turns out to be something worse -- unnecessary. Most authorities trace "sincere" back to a different Latin word -- "sincerus," meaning "whole" or "pure." Probably based on the roots "sin" (one) and "crescere" (to grow), "sincerus" originally referred to a plant which was of pure stock -- not a mixture or hybrid -- and later came to mean anything which was genuine and not adulterated.
In which I inadvertently explain the headline of paragraph six.
Dear Word Detective: A friend in England recently asked me whether my boss was likely to "twig" a business plan he was planning to pitch to him. I understood from the context that he meant "twig" as "understand," but where on earth did such a strange expression come from? -- A. Leonard, via the internet.
Are you certain that your friend meant "understand"? Maybe he was being quite literal and feared your boss would strike him with a tree branch if he didn't like his proposal. I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say that the world would be a better place if a few of the late, unlamented "dot-com" entrepreneurs had been whacked with a large stick when they proposed idiotic ideas such as selling dog bones on the internet.
The verb "twig" (unrelated to "twig" meaning "small branch") has been in colloquial use in Britain since the mid-18th century. "I twig" is a more elegant way of saying "I see" or "I get it." The somewhat conservative folks at the Oxford English Dictionary don't even want to hazard a guess as to the origin of "twig" in this sense, but the etymologist Eric Partridge traced it back to the Gaelic word "tuig," meaning "I understand."
Now that you twig "twig," how about "twee"? Hint: if you're over the age of 12 or so, chances are that you find nearly all Walt Disney cartoons at least somewhat "twee." Movies featuring talking cats and dogs are "twee," and Barney the Purple Dinosaur is at least "twee," and possibly a good deal worse. "Twee" is, in fact, based on small children's mispronunciation of the word "sweet," and at the turn of the century meant just that, "sweet" or "quaint." Now, as the Oxford Dictionary says, it is "chiefly derogatory," applied to the affectedly dainty, heartwarming or "cute."
So, there you have two small but remarkably useful words, and the next time a friend tries to drag you to some theatrical extravaganza featuring singing cats, just smile knowingly and announce, "I've twigged it, and it's too twee for me."
Dear Word Detective: I have often heard the expression "made up out of whole cloth." Given the usage it would appear to be roughly akin to "out of thin air," but why? I should think "whole" cloth would connote some substance rather than the nothingness the phrase seems to imply. Can you shed some light on the background of this expression? -- Barbara Benedict, Mesquite, NV.
Breaking news! This just in -- English language makes no sense! Film at 11!
You're right, of course. To "make something up out of whole cloth," often referring to a story or explanation for something, means to simply invent it, and implies that the finished product is a fable, containing not a particle of truth. Since cloth is one of our more familiar everyday materials, it seems an odd choice as a metaphor for "nothing" or "having no basis in fact." But this use of "out of whole cloth" has been a standard figure of speech in English since at least the early 19th century.
The explanation lies in the fact that since the 15th century "whole cloth" has been used to mean an entire piece of cloth, in its original uncut state, as opposed to portions of the "whole cloth" that might have already been cut in preparation for making a suit or dress, for example. "Whole cloth" was used in as a metaphor for a variety of things, from a parcel of land before it was divided into lots to more poetic concepts such as the experience of battle ("The valiant Souldier ... measureth out of the whole cloath his Honour with his sword.").
The use of "out of whole cloth" to mean "invented" or "imaginary," on the other hand, dates back only to the early 1800s and seems to carry the same general sense as "from scratch," meaning that the story or excuse is not merely an exaggeration of fact, but was concocted from first word until last from entirely new (albeit imaginary) material.
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