Previous Columns / Posted 06-13-2000


I am pleased to announce that our long national nightmare is almost over. No, not that one, the election is still months away. And gosh, so many choices this year! I feel giddy just thinking about stepping into the voting booth. Maybe giddy isn't quite the word I mean, but I'm sure you understand.

Anyway, the nightmare to which I was referring has been the inexplicable lack, absence, deficiency, want, need, dare I say it, downright dearth of a printed collection of Word Detective columns. There was, of course, the printed TWD newsletter I cobbled together every few months back in the early 1990s, recipient of the U.S. Postal Service's prestigious Least Likely to Actually Make It to Its Destination Award. But between the demise of that venture and the present, those stalwart readers without access either to the internet or to one of the fine newspapers around the world which actually print my column have been left out in the cold, dark, joyless, TWD-less void.

But no longer will the universe resound to their plaintive wails. Thanks to a dogged agent and a gullible publisher (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing), September will herald the release of The Word Detective, a hardback collection of 150 of my prime columns, picked at the peak of freshness and hygienically sealed between the covers of a crisp, crunchy volume brimming with wholesome, yummy goodness.

Details, including an author photo that makes me look eerily like Babu the Dog Boy, are available here.

Speaking of books, permit me to suggest that you while away the time between now and September with How Come? Planet Earth, the second collection of award-winning science columns for young people written by Kathy Wollard (to whom I am married) and illustrated by Debra Solomon. Details are available right here.

And now, without further ado, on with the show...

Unhand that hedgehog!

Dear Word Detective: In my world literature class, we have received the assignment of choosing one word and finding its origin. I chose "capricious" because I liked the way it sounded, but it has been a difficult task actually finding any explanation for the word. Some say that it is an Italian word dealing with a goat, others say it had something to do with the nature of hedgehogs. Can you please help me find a more concrete origin of this word? -- Julie, via the internet.

Oddly enough (and this is pretty odd even by my standards), both hedgehogs and goats actually did play roles in the history of "capricious." Incidentally, did you know that "depriving a hedgehog of its liberty" is a serious crime in England? I kid you not. I presume the relevant law is a relic of the days when Beatrix Potter was Prime Minister.

To be "capricious" is to be governed by whim or chance, to be inconsistent and unpredictable. Though we all enjoy a little unpredictability in life, "capricious" is not ordinarily used in a positive sense. A capricious boss makes nervous wrecks of his underlings, and a capricious wind makes for lousy sailing.

The root of "capricious" is the noun "caprice," which means a whim or sudden change of mind. "Caprice," in turn, comes ultimately from the Italian word "capriccio," also meaning "whim," and at this point hedgehogs waddle gracefully into our investigation. Hedgehogs are known, of course, for their spiky, spiny coats. The Italian "capriccio" is a combination of "capo" (head) and "riccio" (hedgehog), and its original meaning was "hedgehog head," a description of someone so frightened or astonished that the hair on his or her head stood on end.

The transformation of the meaning of "capriccio" from "fright" to "whim or sudden impulse" seems to have involved our second animal actor, goats. While the Italian word "capra" (goat) is not directly related to "capriccio," the similarity of the words and the skittish, flighty behavior of goats apparently gradually pushed "capriccio" away from "fright" and towards "whim." By the time "caprice" entered English in 1667, it meant simply "whim or notion."

A cheap and tacky tactic, but it works.

Dear Word Detective: I do not know if this is an actual expression or just one made up by the family I married into. The term is "four-flusher" or "foreflusher." I don't know how it's spelled because I don't ever remember seeing it written. Any clue? -- John E. Berthold, via the internet.

One never knows, does one, whether one's in-laws possess advanced cultural insight or have simply been sitting too close to the television. The trick, of course, is not to hold your spouse responsible for her family's little peculiarities. After all, if your in-laws do turn out to be completely whacked, chances are good that they forgot to tell your wife she was adopted.

In this case, however, I am pleased to report that your in-laws are playing with a full deck. "Four-flusher" is indeed a real term, an epithet meaning "no-good phony," "fake," "cheap swindler" or "bluffer" since about 1904. The verb "four-flush," meaning "to bluff," preceded the noun and first appeared around 1887.

Since those dates clearly rule out our infernal modern low-flow plumbing fixtures as a source of the term, we'll have to search elsewhere for the roots of "four-flusher." Lo and behold, we need look no further than the game of poker, source of such other vivid Americanisms as "penny-ante" (cheap, from a low-stakes poker game) and "pass the buck" (to shift responsibility, possibly from the buckhorn knife placed on the playing table in front of the designated dealer).

A "flush" in stud poker is a very good, and potentially winning, hand consisting of five cards all of one suit (clubs, hearts, etc.). To "four-flush" in poker is to pretend to have a five-card flush when you really only have four cards of one suit, the object being to intimidate your opponents into giving up and allowing you to win with an inferior hand. "Four-flushing" is considered a cheap and tacky tactic, so it's no wonder that the term "four-flusher" spread beyond the poker table and became a vivid epithet for a cheesy chiseler who only pretends to have what it takes.


One if by SUV, two if by Jet Ski.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "goofy"? I used the word as an adjective to describe a particular dress I had to wear to school in the late fifties or early sixties. My writing instructor thought the word was too modern to use for that era. -- Sarah, via the internet.

Oh boy, another anachronism hunt. I actually receive quite a lot of queries from writers worrying that they have committed an offense against history by having their characters say, see, wear or eat things that might not have existed at the time when they were supposed to be living. I respect the authors' hunger for historical accuracy, but sometimes I wonder whether their audience can really tell the difference. After all, considering that today most of the U.S. populace cannot even name the combatants in World War II, how many readers are really going to balk at "Julius Caesar glanced at his wristwatch"?

In the case of "goofy," you're on solid ground placing it in the 1950s, because "goofy" has been used to mean "silly," "stupid" or "crazy" since at least 1919. As a matter of fact, you might point out to your teacher that Walt Disney introduced the character Goofy as a comic sidekick to Mickey Mouse way back in the 1930s, clearly basing the critter's name on the popular understanding of the slang term "goofy." (Incidentally, Pluto is clearly a dog, but exactly what sort of animal is Goofy supposed to be? This has always bothered me.)

The root of "goofy" (as well as of the noun "goof," meaning "silly or stupid person") is the much older and now largely extinct English word "goff," which first appeared around 1570 and meant "fool." The exact origin of "goff" is uncertain, but it appears to be closely related to similar words in French ("goffe"), Spanish ("gofo") and Italian ("goffo").

Then again, I could ride it to my IRS audit.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please tell me the origin of the word "nightmare"? Does it have anything to do with horses? -- Marty, via the internet.

Not unless you've harnessed your financial well-being to an actual oatburner. One of my neighbors actually offered me a free horse the other day. I had preparations for its arrival (little horsie bed in the garage, an assortment of equine toys, etc.) well underway before somebody told me how much the blasted things eat. Trust me, there is no such thing as a free horse. I think I'll stick to dogs. I can always ride the big one.

It's not unreasonable to suspect a horse might be involved in "nightmare," because "mare" is indeed a common English word for "female horse." This equine "mare" comes from the prehistoric Germanic root "markhaz" (horse), and "mare" has existed in English since before A.D. 900.

The "mare" in "nightmare," however, is an un-horse of a entirely different color. The Old English word "maere" meant a certain kind of evil goblin that was believed to prey on humans while they slept, sitting on their chests, producing feelings of suffocation and otherwise disturbing their sleep. These "maeres of the night" were thought to be the cause of bad dreams, a logical assumption in an age of ignorance and superstition. Today, of course, we know that bad dreams are caused by the IRS.

In any case, "nightmare" as the name of these evil creatures (the goblins, not the IRS) first appeared in English around 1290, and by about 1562 "nightmare" was being used to mean the bad dreams themselves.

Incidentally, human mythology is chock full of critters reputed to fiddle with folks while they're trying to get forty winks. The best-known is probably the "incubus," a sneaky spirit whose name comes from the Latin "incubare," meaning "to lie down upon." As you might imagine (no snickering, class), the centerpiece of the incubus's nocturnal routine was not suffocation but an entirely different sort of horsing around.

Funny money.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about the term "plugged nickel," which would never have come to mind except that I work at a newspaper and I just noticed that someone used the term "plug nickel" in a headline: "Million Dollar greens not worth plug nickel to golden boy Garcia." (Whatever that means. I guess it's about golf.) I'd always thought it was "plugged" nickel and might mean that the coin isn't pure nickel (or whatever non-precious metal nickels are made of) but is plugged with something cheaper. Or maybe a gunman shot the nickel down and the big hole in it makes it worthless. Who the heck knows? -- Marilyn Lynch, via the internet.

I agree. Who the heck, indeed. It's a nice day, far too nice to spend poring over dusty old books in a musty old office searching for word and phrase origins. I'm going for a walk in the woods now. You guys are on your own.

Funny, my wife seems to have locked me in here. Oh well, may as well work. "Not worth a plugged nickel" as an Americanism meaning "worthless" first appeared in print about 1912, although we can assume "plugged nickel", along with the similar "plugged quarter" and "plugged peso," were in common usage long before they made it into print. To "plug" a coin means to remove its center, usually because the coin is made of a precious metal such as gold or silver, and to replace the missing part with a cheaper metal "plug." This sort of larcenous messing with currency has been popular since coins first appeared millennia ago, and Americans were plugging French, English and other nations' coins back in the days before we had our own to plug. A plugged nickel, while it may be accepted at face value by an inattentive shopkeeper, is, of course, fundamentally worthless.

Incidentally, although we think of the nickel as the quintessential American five-cent piece, in 1857 the coin known as "the nickel" was made of copper and nickel and worth only one cent. A three cent all-nickel "nickel" appeared in 1865, but the nickel we know today (again actually a copper-nickel alloy) wasn't issued until 1875.

Book 'em, Danno.

Dear Word Detective: I work in the construction field. A coworker poring over some blueprints for a casino we're working on asked me why the building's paper currency shipping and receiving depot is called a "sally port." A search on the Internet shows that it is also used to describe a police station's area where criminals are dropped off or picked up. A definition I saw indicates that the term refers to any guarded port to a building or city. Would I be making a close assumption that "sally port" comes from police slang? If not, then who is "Sally"? -- Jeffrey Streutker, via the internet.

"Sally port" is a new one on me, but that may be because I've never been in police custody (a fact which always perplexes folks who know me well). Then again, perhaps I should be taken downtown for a chat, because the phrase "blueprints for a casino we're working on" in your letter awakened all sorts of larcenous fantasies in my devious little mind. The temptation to install a few secret passageways must be nearly irresistible.

Your guess that "sally port" comes from police slang is a good one, but the term is actually quite a bit older. "Sally ports" were a feature of castles and fortresses, a closely-guarded opening or door in the wall of a fortified building designed for the quick passage of troops. One of the primary uses of these doors was to mount quick attacks on whatever enemy army might be besieging the castle at the moment, and here's where we meet "sally." A "sally," from the Latin "salire" meaning "to jump," was originally a sudden rush out of a besieged position, a lightning attack designed to surprise the enemy. "Sally" in this original sense first appeared around 1560, and "sally port" is first found around 1649. "Sally" has since acquired the broader sense of "an excursion or escapade." And since castles and fortresses are in short supply these days, "sally port" has gradually come to mean any guarded doorway or opening.

Baa, Baa, burgundy sheep.

Dear Word Detective: Do you have any information on the earliest known use of the term "dyed in the wool"? No one to whom I have spoken (somewhat compulsively) over the last two days about this phrase has information on its origins. While I doubt the sincerity with which they express regret at not knowing, I cannot doubt their protestations of ignorance. There are a great many things about which I know nothing. Kindly help me eliminate one of them. Baaaa. -- Lisa, via the internet.

Au contraire, lambchop. I do not doubt for a moment that your friends even now are tossing and turning through sleepless nights on account of your query. Or perhaps it is your charming sheep impersonation keeping them awake.

"Dyed in the wool," of course, means "thoroughgoing, complete and unchangeable," usually in the context of political or other opinions. For instance, a "dyed in the wool" Yankees fan (a species of which I am a fair example) would not dream of changing his allegiance to another team, even if he were, for some mysterious reason, required to move from New York City to rural Ohio. And no amount of Ohio State Buckeye propaganda could induce a dyed in the wool football non-fan (me again) to waste time watching a boring, pointless football game.

In its original literal sense, "dyed in the wool" refers to the process of dying sheep wool in its "raw" state, before it is spun into thread or yarn. The color of such "dyed in the wool" fabric tends to be more consistent and permanent than that of fabric dyed in later stages of the cloth-making process.

"Dyed in the wool" first appeared in this literal sense in the late 16th century, and within a few years "dyed in the wool" was being used in its modern figurative sense to describe someone who can be counted on to stick to his or her guns.

I will not run unless chased.

Dear Word Detective: It's an election year again, and as if that wasn't bad enough, ours is one of the states electing a new governor. I always hear this contest referred to as "gubernatorial," though I'm pretty certain no one has ever run for, nor been elected, "gubernator." A friend has suggested that the two words actually have different origins, but didn't elaborate, leaving me to wonder. Care to take a run at it? -- Al Gursin, via the internet.

Gee, I thought you'd never ask. Governor Word Detective. Has a nice ring to it.

Oh, I get it, you want me to do something useful. All right, here goes. Your cryptic friend was wrong, although forgivably so. "Governor" and "gubernatorial" may not look as if they're related, but they are. The root of both was the Greek verb "kuberetes," meaning "helmsman of a ship," or, more metaphorically, "ruler." The Latin descendant of "kubernetes" was "gubernare," meaning "to rule," which gave us the English word "gubernator" (no kidding) around 1522, meaning "ruler." The adjective "gubernatorial," which appeared around 1734, at first meant "pertaining to a ruler or governor" in the generic sense of "governor," but today is almost always only used in reference to state officials bearing the formal title "Governor."

Now, if we back up a moment to that Latin word "gubernare," we find that it was also filtered through Old French to produce the word "governeur," meaning "ruler," which gave us the English word "governor" in the 14th century. So "governor" and "gubernatorial" are indeed very closely related.

Incidentally, the French also used the Greek "kubernetes" (ruler) to produce the word "cybernetique," meaning "the art of governing." In the late 1940s, the American mathematician Norbert Weiner appropriated and Anglicized "cybernetique" as "cybernetics" to describe his theory of communications. Writer William Gibson then modified Weiner's term in his 1984 science fiction novel "Neuromancer," coining everyone's least-favorite buzz-word, "cyberspace."

Hamming up.

Dear Word Detective: My best friend, who is an actor, and I would love to know the origin of the word "ham," referring to someone who overacts. -- Steve Tabor, via the internet.

Unfortunately, no one knows exactly where "ham," meaning an inept, usually grossly melodramatic, actor comes from. We do know that the term "ham" first appeared in the mid-19th century meaning "clumsy and stupid fellow," and acquired its theatrical meaning later, around 1881.

The "clumsy" sense of "ham" may well be a shortening of "ham-handed" or "ham-fisted," both describing persons (especially boxers) so clumsy that their hands are as useless as hams.

It is possible that the acting "ham" springs from the same source, but it also appears to be connected to an earlier term, "hamfatter," which appeared around 1879 meaning an incompetent actor or musician. Theories about "hamfatter" tend to be vague and more than a little confusing. "Hamfat" was used in the early 20th century both as an epithet for African-Americans and a general synonym for "an amateur." There was also apparently a popular minstrel song titled "The Hamfat Man," endless inept performances of which may have strengthened the use of "hamfat" as a synonym for a poor performer.

Another theory posits that low-paid performers, unable to afford expensive oils and creams, had to make do with actual ham fat as a base when applying their makeup. But especially given the non-theatrical uses of "hamfatter" around the turn of the century, this theory strikes me as overly elaborate and unlikely. My guess is that all roads lead back to "ham fat" being used as a metaphor for something useless and of low quality, a poor substitute for the real thing (presumably ham).

Incidentally, the designation of amateur radio operators as "hams" also apparently reflects the old "clumsy" sense of the slang term "ham." According to the American Radio Relay League, in the early days of ship-to-shore radio, commercial operators would often complain of interference from amateur operators, referring to them disparagingly as "hams." Amateur operators eventually adopted "ham" as their own term, and today it has lost its derogatory connotations in the radio field.


Spring has sprung
the grass has ris
I wonder where the birdies is.

Dear Word Detective: Okay, I am no genius when it comes to word origins as my eight year old daughter Ashley has recently shown me. She asked the kind of simple and frustrating question children so often come up with: "Why do we call 'Spring' spring?" Can you help us? -- Susan Binder, via the internet.

Good question. I hate it when kids ask good questions like that. My temptation would have been to say "Because 'Pokemon' was already taken" and leave the room quickly, but I guess in your case the door must have been locked or something. Then again, it is Spring as I write this, so here goes.

All our common senses of "spring" -- the season, the springs in a mattress, the spring in your step on a nice day, the water bubbling out of the ground we call a "spring," the spring of a used car salesman at the checkbook of his prey -- are actually the same word. The source of "spring" is the ancient Indo-European root word "sprengh," which had the general sense of "rapid movement."

"Spring" first appeared in English around 816 with the sense of "rising up," and was originally applied to geological "springs" where water issued from the ground. By the 13th century, "spring" was being used figuratively to mean the source or beginning of just about anything, including such intangibles as thoughts and traditions.

In the 14th century, we began to use "spring" to mean "the time of rising or the beginning of existence of something," in which sense dawn, for example, was known as "day spring." By the 16th century, we were referring to the first of the four seasons as "the spring of the year," and soon afterward we shortened that to simply "Spring."

No truck, radio.

Dear Word Detective: I have often wondered at the connection between the currently predominant meaning of the word "truck" as a vehicle for conveying things and any possible relation to the somewhat archaic meaning of "truck" as used in the phrase "to have truck with," meaning something like "business or trade." This leads me to believe that the sort of "truck" one drives might be short for "vehicle of truck" or some similar term. Do you know if there is some relationship between these two terms? -- Lyal Miller, via the internet.

That's a good guess, and there probably would be a connection between the two kinds of "truck" in a well-designed, logical language. But English is the product of a committee composed of millions of people fiddling around over the course of several thousand years, and it shows. So no, there is no connection between the two "trucks."

The older and, as you say, now slightly archaic, sense of "truck" means "dealings, communications, bargaining or commerce," and is heard today most often in the phrase "have no truck with," meaning "have nothing to do with." The original form of this "truck" was the verb "to truck," which appeared in the 13th century meaning "to exchange or barter." The ultimate source of this "truck" is unknown, but English apparently borrowed the word from the Anglo-French "troquer." One of the surviving uses of this sense of "truck," by the way, is in the phrase "truck farm," which has nothing to do with the Ford sort of truck and comes from a derivative sense of "truck" meaning "vegetables produced for market."

The vehicle sense of "truck" first appeared in English in the 17th century and was probably originally a shortened form of "truckle" (from the Latin "trochlea," pulley), meaning a small pulley, caster or wheel. The first "trucks" were the small wheels that allowed the carriages of shipboard cannons to roll back and forth, but by the 18th century "truck" meant any sort of vehicle designed to carry a heavy load.

And a Taco Bell dog that says "Viva Gorditas."

Dear Word Detective: What it the origin of the word "chatchki"? I suspect it's Yiddish, but I'm not sure. It means something like "trinket" or "small decorative item" or even "junk." My family in New York uses this word frequently, but recently someone asked me about it because they'd never heard it before. -- Cara Anthony, Boston, MA.

The word you're looking for is actually "tchotchke," and while your friends may never have heard of the word, I'll bet they own a ton of tchotchkies (the plural of tchotchke).

Tchotchke (usually pronounced "CHOCH-kah") is indeed a Yiddish word, meaning "trinket or toy," and comes from a Slavic word meaning "to play pranks." Tchotchke (also spelled "tsatske") can sometimes mean a small gift or reward, an inconsequential person or even a pretty girl.

"Tchotchke" didn't appear in English literature until 1964, but we can assume that it was in common oral use long before that date. While the original meaning of "tchotchke" was "trinket," today the word is usually applied to small decorative or whimsical items that usually are meant to be displayed on a shelf or mantle.

Tchotchkies seem to be a hazard of modern life, and it's impossible to avoid acquiring them. A few years ago I was living in a tiny apartment in New York City, the sort of place where you have to stand outside the kitchen to open the refrigerator. When the finally time came to move out, I began to clear off my bookshelves and discovered that I had somehow managed to acquire four mechanical cows, a small rubber walrus, a rubber cat, several decorative carved African letter openers, two plastic lobsters, a half-dozen dysfunctional clocks, an extensive collection of gargoyle figurines, and a small plastic toaster which, when wound, marches across your desk waving slices of toast and rolling its eyes. Tell me about tchotchkies. I don't remember actually buying any of those things, by the way.

A little light shed.

Dear Word Detective: I have often heard and used the phrase "can't hold a candle to..." to compare two things or people. Recently, I used it, and the person to whom I was talking asked where it came from. I have no idea, and when I think about it, it makes no sense to me. Could you please help? It's driving me crazy. -- Deesse, via the internet.

Sure, I'll get right on it. Meanwhile, just take a few deep breaths and try to calm down. You'd be amazed, incidentally, at how many readers write in at their wits' end over a word or phrase that they've used for years but suddenly one day makes absolutely no sense to them. In severe cases this affliction progresses to the point where the reader is reduced to sitting on the curb and barking at traffic, but I think we've caught your problem in time.

Let's begin with "candle," which is, in itself, a very interesting word. Its root is the Latin "candela," which in turn was a derivative of "candere," meaning "to be white" or "to glow." That Latin "candere" has many English offspring, including "candid," which originally equated "white" with "pure" and thus came to mean "honest." Because citizens running for political office in Roman times wore white togas, they were known as "candidates," a usage which even back then probably struck voters as ironic, given the aforementioned "pure" and "honest" connotations of "candid."

"Candle," meaning a source of light fashioned from wax or animal fat, first appeared in English quite long ago, around the year 700. Candles remained the primary source of artificial light for the next 1000 years or so, and if one were doing delicate work after dark, it was best to have an assistant to hold the candle to maximize the usable light. "To hold a candle to," a phrase which first appeared around 1550, meant "to assist in a subordinate position," and if you were "not able to hold a candle to," it meant you were too incompetent to be trusted with even a simple task. Eventually, "can't hold a candle to" became a generalized way to say that something is so inferior that it cannot be fairly compared to its betters.

Arise, zucchini!

Dear Word Detective: A friend at work told me that "country hick" or "hick" referring to a country bumpkin originated in Connecticut. Supposedly, one of the universities there had a "Hicks School of Agriculture," and the name of the school was gradually attached to agricultural, out in the sticks, out in the countryside people. -- John A. Veenstra, via the internet.

Connecticut? Your friend must have been joking. I grew up in Connecticut, and it's a very sophisticated state. Even the cows listen to opera, and the tractors that farmers drive come equipped with little espresso makers. There are agricultural schools there, true, but practical farming takes a back seat in their curricula to courses such as "Problems in the Ethics of Harvesting: Are Turnips Oppressed?"

In any case, we can't pin "hick," meaning "an uncultured, gullible country dweller," on Connecticut. Believe it or not, "hick" is just a shortened, familiar form of the proper name "Richard." At the time "hick" arose as a derogatory term for a country bumpkin in England around 1565, "Richard" was considered (unfairly, of course) a typical "country" name, much in the way "Paddy" (short for "Patrick," after the patron saint of Ireland) came to signify "Irishman." As a synonym for "uncultured and unsophisticated," "hick" is now heard largely in the U.S., where it has become an adjective as well as a noun, giving us combinations such as "hick town."

A similar (and equally unfair) epithet based on a supposedly typically rural personal name is "rube," formed from the name "Reuben." An American invention of the 19th century, "rube" became so widespread that it spawned the classic carnival workers' warning cry "Hey Rube!", a coded signal meaning that some of the local "rubes" had figured out that they were being fleeced and were fixing to exact revenge.

It sure looked dead to me.

Dear Word Detective: Is the word "opossum" actually "possum"? Is one correct and the other incorrect or are they both just (regional?) versions of the same word? Where did the word originate? Thanks for your help, this has been a Burning Issue for the past few days (okay, my life is pretty dull but...). -- Lorna Wright, via the internet.

Well, I don't think that wondering (and presumably talking) about possums for a few days necessarily amounts to dullness. At least you're not wandering around babbling about sports. Speaking of which, one of the real advantages to living in a remote rural location, I've discovered, is that the rabbits and chipmunks and, yes, possums around here have never -- not once -- asked me "Didja last night's game?" On the other hand, maybe they're all Mets fans in denial.

"Possum" and "opossum" are indeed the same word (and animal). "Opossum" is the more formal form in English, but people who live in close proximity to the little critters seem far more likely to call them "possums." For those of you who have never seen one, a possum is a small animal about the size of a large cat, usually light gray in color, with a pointed nose and a long, largely hairless, tail. Possums are not pretty, nor are they smart. They are, however, the only marsupial native to North America, so I guess they get ten points for novelty.

The possum takes its name from an Algonquian Indian word meaning "white animal," and early forms of "opossum" -- "aposon", "opassom", "apossoun" and others -- were all attempts to render the Algonquian word phonetically in English in the 17th century.

The possum does have one intriguing self-defense tactic that merits mention. When threatened, a possum will feign death, remaining utterly motionless and breathing so shallowly as to present a very impressive portrait of an ex-possum. So convincing is this display that "to play possum" has been an American figure of speech meaning to pretend to be dead, ignorant or uninterested since about 1820.

Anybody remember Eva Destruction?

Dear Word Detective: I've "racked" my brain trying to figure out the origin of the phrase "rack and ruin," as in "He fell to rack and ruin." The only thing I can figure is that it refers to some poor soul who has been put in the "rack," which would certainly ruin him physically, although he might be a tad taller when he's done. I'm asking this because my youngest son, who thinks his garage band is going to be famous some day, is looking for a name for the group. I suggested "Rock and Ruin," but all I got was a blank look, a not uncommon expression in the boy. Can you help me on this one? -- Steve VanWert, via the internet.

I'll give it a shot. Incidentally, the reason your child gave you that blank look is that your suggestion "Rock and Ruin" was much too bland. It sounds, in fact, like a good moniker for one of those mortifying geriatric-rocker reunion tours. Kids today want a cryptically menacing band name, like "Nose Togas" or "The Miami Relatives." But not to worry -- it's just a phase they go through before law school.

Your guess about the origin of "rack and ruin" is a good one, but a little off the mark. "Rack" in this case is simply a variant of "wreck," giving the whole phrase the sense of "wreck and ruin" or "complete destruction." The phrase "rack and ruin" first appeared in English literature in the late 16th century, and its longevity as a figure of speech probably owes a lot to the attractive alliteration of its repetitive initial "r" sounds.

Ironically, when you mention that you've "racked" your brain trying to figure out "rack and ruin," you're invoking an entirely different sort of "rack" -- the torture machine you suspected as the source of "rack and ruin." This mechanism, popular among zealous inquisitors in the Middle Ages, was a sort of expandable mechanical wooden frame which, when cranked, would pull a victim lashed to it slowly to pieces. "Rack" in reference to this infernal machine first appeared around 1460, and by the 16th century "to rack" was being used figuratively to mean "to strain, stretch, or examine searchingly."


The art of reclining.

Dear Word Detective: During my youth, a sofa or couch was referred to as a "settee." Where did "sofa" and "couch" originate? It was also referred to as a "davenport," but I don't know where that came from either. -- B.L. Dockery, via the internet.

Well, that's why you have me, isn't it? Incidentally, this striking multiplicity of names for one humble piece of furniture bolsters (yuk, yuk) my contention that humanity's true destiny lies not in endless striving, but in relaxation. Tomorrow the stars, yeah, maybe, but for now I'm just going to put my feet up and read a book.

All of the words you mention refer to the common sort of long upholstered seat or bench, usually with a back and arms, usually found in the living room or parlor. "Settee," the term you remember from your youth, appeared in English around 1716, probably as a fanciful variant of "settle." Although today we are most familiar with "settle" as a verb, it started out as a noun meaning "a sitting place" (from the prehistoric German "setlaz," meaning "seat").

A "couch" was originally a bed or other furniture designed for sleeping, not just sitting, and takes its name from the French "coucher," meaning "to lay in place" (ultimately from the Latin "collocare" meaning "to put together"). "Couch" in its modern sense appeared around 1430. By the way, the verb "to couch," meaning to "to express in words" comes from the root "put together" sense of couch.

"Sofa," which appeared in English around 1625, comes directly from the Arabic "soffah," meaning a raised portion of the floor covered with cushions and carpets for sitting. By about 1717, "sofa" was being used to mean a separate piece of furniture designed for sitting. Another term from the Middle East, "divan" (from the Persian "devan") originally meant "council of rulers," but later in English came to mean the padded platform upon which the rulers sat, and eventually was used as a synonym for "couch."

Compared to all those exotic origins, "davenport," which appeared around 1897, is pretty prosaic, though its origin is mysterious. The accepted theory is simply that at some point there was a Davenport Company that produced a popular line of sofas.

We have selected you!

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "spam" and how and why did it develop into the verb "to spam" in the sense of sending out mass junk emails? Thanks so much --our office staff anxiously awaits your reply. -- Catherine Cugell, via the internet.

Junk emails? Wassamatta -- you're not in the market for triple-x-rated toner cartridges?

In its original sense "Spam" is, of course, the canned lunch meat invented by George Hormel & Co. in 1936. The name "Spam" stands for "Spiced Ham," and the name was arrived at by means of a contest. The winner, the fellow who actually coined the term "Spam," won $100, which even today buys more Spam than any rational person is likely to want.

As computer jargon prior to the early 1990s, "to spam" meant to crash a computer by overloading it with too much data. Then, in 1994, two lawyers by the name of Canter and Siegal decided to advertise their services on the internet, which was just then becoming popular. Rather than follow established procedures for commercial postings, they dumped their obnoxious ads into every usenet discussion group on the internet. The resulting ruckus popularized an expanded sense of "spam" -- as a slang term meaning "dumping unwanted and/or provocative junk all over the place."

The mainstream media at the time were mystified by this use of "spam," but neither this new sense nor the earlier computer jargon use of "spam" to mean "overload" were a mystery to any fan of Monty Python. The troupe's famous "Spam" sketch involves a couple who discover that the restaurant they've chosen doesn't serve anything not containing Spam ("Wife: Have you got anything without Spam? Waitress: Well, there's Spam, egg, sausage and Spam. That's not got much Spam in it"). The skit ends with a chorus of Vikings (don't ask) drowning out everyone with a stirring rendition of a ditty apparently titled "Spam, Spam, Glorious Spam." As a metaphor for a surfeit of something you didn't want any of in the first place, "spam" is hard to beat.




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