Issue of June 14, 2005
Whoa. June. Sorry about that. I actually began updating the site last month, but then all sorts of crises intervened, so here we are.
Onward. HBO cancelled Carnivale, boo hiss. Granted, it was very uneven and borderline-silly much of the time, but it was also weirdly addictive. Clancy Brown (right) was flat-out brilliant as Brother Justin, the Gantry-esque theocratic fascist radio preacher (a species thriving at the moment here in Ohio), and we'll all miss Adrienne Barbeau and her snakes. Oh well. Mrs. WD has decided to compensate for the sudden dearth of dwarves and bearded ladies here at Word Detective World Headquarters by becoming hooked on The Gilmore Girls, mostly reruns of the first several years. I understand that I am supposed to like this show. It features snappy dialogue, quirky characters, lotsa erudite references, and realistic plot lines, all set in Connecticut near where I grew up. I get it. Unfortunately, I find The Gilmore Girls immensely irritating, especially the "girls" themselves, who carry the show's terminal case of The Cutes into the end zone and beyond. The only characters I like are the mother/grandmother and the French guy. The rest of the cast is badly in need of horse tranquilizers.
Elsewhere in the news, if you've ever had a hankering to lend a hand to the fine folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, your ship has docked. In connection with a major TV series they are producing about the OED, the BBC has set up a nifty Word Hunt site where readers can help identify the origins and first uses of 50 terms, ranging from "boffin" and "bog standard" to "ska" and "snazzy." If your contribution is significant and verifiable, there's a good chance that it will be included in the next revision of the OED. Take a look and help solve the mysteries of "mushy peas" and "mullet."
Monroe the Vulture (taking a break on our electrical pole at left) has been a very, very bad bird, which is why the little bird on the wire below is mad at him. Every day or two the regular birds start chasing Monroe around the sky over our house, fearlessly diving and pecking at him like Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. Monroe often has five or six ticked-off sparrows on his tail, and I've yet to figure out what it is he does to upset them so. I presume he eats their eggs or young (or tries to), or perhaps they just mistake him for a red-tailed hawk, also common around here. I like Monroe, and wish he wouldn't do whatever it is he does, but it sure is fun to watch the aftermath.
And now it's time for another Color Me Stupid moment. For approximately 30 years I have been buying cheapo "architect's" lamps, the ones with the long, adjustable arms, for my desk. But after four or five years, the switch on every single one of them has seized up, whereupon I tossed the lamp and forked over ten bucks for another. I always figured the heat from the bulb was probably slowly melting something plastic in the switch, and that the whole shebang wasn't really worth messing with. So it just happened again, to my $9.00 Ikea special, but as I prepared to bury it in the north field and slog off in search of a replacement, my eyes fell on the tube of powdered graphite left on my desk after the last installment of Damn Door Won't Open, a game we play here at WDWHQ about once a month. Two tiny squirts in the top of the switch where the turny-thing is and my little lamp now works fine. Who knew?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, 2005 continues to mark the apparently interminable TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web. We remain, as always, a free resource for the thousands of readers from around the world who visit this site every day. But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow). If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks. This is your karma calling, gang. Do the right thing.
And now, on with the show:
One if by chicken, two if by booth eel.
Dear Word Detective: I have used the word "crestfallen" for a number of years, but when an eight year-old asked me to explain it, I couldn't. Can you help? -- Marlin Winn.
Well, I'd suggest that you avoid eight year-olds, but if the one you mentioned is a close relative that may not be practical. Your experience reminds me of the First Law of Radio Interviews, which is that if you've written a book and go on a radio call-in show to promote it, at least eighty percent of the callers will ask about things not covered in your book. The Second Law of Radio Interviews is that the other twenty percent will then call in to tell you that the answers you dreamed up to satisfy the first eighty percent are wrong. The Third Law is that an hour on the radio actually lasts three weeks.
"Crestfallen" is one of those odd words that look odder and odder the longer you look at them. It means, of course, "dejected, depressed or dispirited," with the particular sense of having had one's hopes suddenly dashed, one's great expectations ground to dust under the cruel boot heel of fate. (Speaking of cruel boot heels, Microsoft Word just tried to change that to "booth eel.") If, for example, I march into my boss's office confident that I am about to be promoted to Head Horn Honker or the like, only to be issued a reprimand for mopery and busted to Assistant Lint Gatherer, I am likely to emerge from the meeting "crestfallen."
A "crest," of course, is the tuft or ridge of feathers or the fleshy formation found atop the heads of many kinds of birds (also called "combs" when sported by chickens). The word "crest" comes from the Latin "crista," meaning "tuft or plume." When birds that have crests are happy or self-confident (think roosters), they proudly raise their crests. When crested birds are angry or fearful, however, their crests fall in preparation for combat. Birds that are disappointed or depressed probably find their crests fallen as well, but poultry psychoanalysis is still a young art, so that's just my personal hypothesis.
By now you are probably asking, "But where's my crest? I don't have a crest. I'm not a chicken." And indeed most of you are not chickens. But this "crest raised, crest fallen" mood measurement has been figuratively applied to human feelings since the 16th century.
Sounds like a case for the Beer Church.
Dear Word Detective: Not sure about the spelling on this one, but I heard it twice Saturday evening, on two of my favorite British comedies in succession. In the first case it was used disparagingly, but without enough context to understand clearly. On the second show, however, it was clearly and directly applied to two somewhat intoxicated denizens of a (for lack of a better term) retirement village -- the gentlemen in question were called "a pair of geriatric largalouts." I jumped on your site at my first opportunity, but nothing looked familiar so thought I would give it at try. -- Charles.
Hmm. Sorry, it took a moment for my brain to unscramble "largalout." The term you heard is actually "lager lout." I'm not surprised that you didn't catch it correctly on the TV shows, given whatever British accent was in play. I've always wondered whether the British comedies shown in the US might not draw a larger audience if they offered subtitles.
Onward. A "lager lout" is simply a person (usually a young male) who drinks enormous quantities of beer (usually lager ) and then behaves in a boorish, antisocial and frequently violent manner. The term first appeared in Britain in the late 1980s. American English doesn't seem to have any truly equivalent term, unfortunately, so we're forced to use ad hoc terms such as "drunken idiots." "Lager lout," with its elegant alliteration, is much nicer. The British seem to have a good ear for pejorative terms -- I've always liked "football hooligans" for the violent morons who go to soccer games with the intention of starting riots.
"Lager," of course, is a kind of beer, from the German "lager-bier," beer brewed to be stored ("lager," store, "bier," beer). My knowledge of beer and related topics wouldn't get a chipmunk tipsy, but my impression is that lager tends to be a light, inexpensive sort of beer, thus naturally suited to the undiscriminating palates of the guzzling hordes of "lager louts."
"Lout" is an interesting word in its own right. Meaning "an awkward, unrefined and stupid person," it first appeared in the 16th century, but its derivation is unclear. It may have developed from the verb "to lout," meaning "to stoop or bow to," as a servant might.
Dear Word Detective: The latest term that my widespread friends have come to argue about is the use and origin of the word "register" when referring to the vents from a forced air furnace. One suggested a corruption of "radiator" but he's an idiot. There seems to be a similarity in function to organ pipes, which are grouped in "registers" of varying tone ranges. Any thoughts? -- Brendan Keith.
A few. Say, can the idiot read? Just curious, but this column does get around, you know. Your friend could be cleaning out his parakeet's cage years from now and suddenly the two of you would have a whole new topic to discuss.
Your question about "register" is a good one. Our house, which sports a truly scary furnace dating back to the 1940s, has a heating register in every room, usually found by looking under the nearest cat, of which we also have one in each room.
"Register" is one of those words that started out with a very basic, general definition and then gradually acquired all sorts of secondary meanings. In the case of "register," a noun which first appeared in English in the 14th century (via French, from the Latin "regerere," to "bring back" or record), the initial meaning was "a book or ledger into which regular entries are made in order to keep a record." This sense of "register" is still very much in use, for example, in the "register" we sign when checking into a hotel. "Register" as a verb appeared a few years later meaning "to make an entry in a register."
From there, "register" the noun developed a range of sub-meanings all having to do with record-keeping, until the late 16th century, when "register" began to be used to mean a "slider" or "stop," a switch or valve controlling a set of organ pipes. The logic of this use is a bit hard to untangle, but it seems to reflect the sense of something precisely controlling the configuration of the pipes in a recordable and repeatable fashion, as if entered in a record book. In any case, since the pipes grouped together and controlled by the same "stop" represented a specific tonal range, the range itself was, by the early 19th century, known as a "register," and "register" in this sense was soon applied to the human voice as well (e.g., upper, middle, or lower register).
The use of "register" in the heating sense seems to be related to the pipe organ mechanism, since both involve regulating the flow of air, and first appeared in this sense in the mid-19th century.
Dear Word Detective: My early days in the US Marine Corps were in the infantry and if we were not in the field, training, on Wednesday afternoons, we might be given time to work on our personal gear, go to the PX, or mess around in some sports activity but not get liberty to leave the base. These times were known as "rope yarn Sunday." Why? Usually, the Corps is good about explaining our heritage and the unique terms we used, but in all my years, I must have been out when they explained this one. But I certainly never questioned it! Any light on this would be late but certainly welcomed. -- Don McW., USMC (Ret).
Thanks for an interesting question. I'd never heard of "rope yarn Sunday," but after a bit of checking, I think I've found at least the outlines of an answer. "Rope yarn Sunday" seems to have originated in Navy slang and spread to the other services (not that it had far to go, of course, in the case of the Marines, since they are part of the Navy). The following paragraph is from a US Navy website devoted to the 93rd Seabees Battalion ("Seabees" being the nickname of the Naval Construction Battalions -- "CBs"-- established during World War II):
"On the day the tailor boarded a sailing ship in port, the crew knocked off early, broke out rope yarn and mended clothes and hammocks. One afternoon per week at sea, usually a Wednesday, was reserved for mending. Since it was an afternoon for rest from the usual chores, much like Sunday, it was dubbed 'rope yarn Sunday.' The Navy adhered to the custom up to the years immediately after World War II; men used Wednesday afternoon for personal errands like picking up their laundry and getting haircuts. … Today, uniforms require less attention so rope yarn Sunday has been turned to other purposes; mainly early liberty or a time for catching up on sleep."
This sounds entirely plausible to me, and similar explanations appear on several naval websites. "Rope yarn" is a single one of the strands from which ropes (properly called "lines" on ships) are made, and one account I found explained that since "rope yarn" was the closest thing to thread commonly found on old sailing ships, it was often used for repairing sails and uniforms. Unfortunately, I haven't a clue as to how old "rope yarn Sunday" might be.
Nattering Nabobs of Nolo Contendere.
Dear Word Detective: We have an on-going household discussion as to the seemingly totally different meanings of the word "vice." On the one hand, I was once the Vice-President of my union chapter. On the other hand, I replaced the President when the vice squad found out what he was up to on Saturday nights. Can you shed any light on this? -- Lauri Goff, Oklahoma City.
Please don't use the word "shed." Word Detective World Headquarters recently acquired a sixth cat, and I can sum up the situation in five little words: cat fur in the toaster. If I could catch the little critters I'd shave them, but they spend most of their time swinging on the curtains just out of reach.
Despite the best efforts of Spiro Agnew to meld the two words, there is no connection between "vice" in the "vice-president" sense and "vice" meaning "evil, immoral, or wicked habits or conduct." (For those of you out of the room at the time, Agnew was Vice-President of the US from 1969 until 1973, when he resigned after pleading nolo contendere to charges of tax evasion for, believe it or not, failing to pay taxes on bribes he took as Governor of Maryland.)
The nasty sort of "vice" is the oldest, first appearing in English in the 13th century. The root of this "vice" is the Latin word "vitium," which means "defect, fault or failing." That sounds rather mild, perhaps a mere peccadillo on a par with failing to return library books, but for most of its history in English, "vice" has usually described conduct regarded by society as seriously depraved and immoral. Today "vice" is, however, most often used in a semi-jocular sense, as in "Watching monster truck races on TV is my secret vice." Incidentally, that Latin "vitium" also gave us the English words "vicious," "vitiate" and "vituperate."
The prefix "vice" found in "vice-president" and similar titles is a bit more complicated. The Latin word "vice" means "in place of," and is a form (ablative, for you Latin fans) of "vicis," meaning "change." So a "vice-president" is a person who takes the place of the president if necessary. By the way, this is the same "vice" found in "vice-versa," "versa" being a form of the Latin "vertere," to turn, giving "vice-versa" the sense of "in reversed places."
Dear Word Detective: I have always understood "wiseacre" to mean a smart-aleck, a wise-cracker, what my father would have called a "wiz-goo" (wise guy); in other words, someone who is always ready with a witty response whether he knows anything about the subject or not. I had never thought about its origins, but if I had I would have guessed it was 1940s or 1950s slang. I was astounded, therefore, to find it in a quotation dating to 1861, in an observation relating to the beginnings of the US Civil War. I don't have it in front of me, but it was to the effect that "the people have it right, the wiseacres are mistaken." Adam Gurowski, the observer to whom the quotation was attributed, seemed to be using the word to mean either "a recognized repository of wisdom" or "one who is presumed to be wise." (I found the quotation in Bruce Catton's "The Coming Fury"; but indexes being what they are, I couldn't find it again.) -- Charles M. Anderson.
A "wiseacre" is indeed a smart-aleck, a cocky know-it-all with a quick tongue backed up by no real knowledge. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "wiseacre" as "One who thinks himself, or wishes to be thought, wise; a pretender to wisdom; a foolish person with an air or affectation of wisdom."
"Wiseacre" is a very old word, and was, in fact, very old before the US Civil War, first appearing way back in the 16th century. Although we pronounce it simply "wise" plus "acre," it has nothing to do with land area. "Wiseacre" is an adaptation of the Middle Dutch "wijsseggher," meaning "soothsayer" ("wijs," wise and "seggher," sayer). "Wiseacre" has always been used in English in a sarcastic or contemptuous sense, so it never meant simply "wise man."
The mutation of "wijsseggher" into "wiseacre" is a good example of the linguistic process called "folk etymology," whereby an unfamiliar word or element ("seggher") is modified by some association, often similarity in sound, with a familiar word ("acre"), even if the result makes no sense. The same process gave us "cockroach" from the Spanish "cucaracha," even though the insect has nothing to do with a rooster ("cock") or the kind of fish called a "roach."
Dear Word Detective: I notice in US publications the phrase "could care less" appears, and I have never understood the logic of the phrase. In the UK, the phrase is "couldn't care less," as in "I could not possibly care any less than I do at the moment," which seems more logical. Any thoughts on this? -- Iain Dover.
Just one: now you've done it. You've landed smack dab in the middle of one of our most incendiary usage squabbles, and probably given every grammar grump reading this a case of the raving wimwams. Any moment they'll start running around in circles tearing out their hair and shrieking about loose-lipped American morons making us look bad in front of the Brits. And then, of course, they'll be writing to me. Actually, they already are -- I get letters every week imploring me to "do something" to save the English language from rampant adverb abuse or dangerously dangling participles. Newsflash, gang: if I possessed super mind-control powers, I'd have our two dogs mowing the lawn.
You're correct that "I couldn't care less" is the more "logical" form of the idiom, as well as the older, first appearing in the 1940s as opposed to the "could care less" form, which apparently dates to the 1960s. We in the US may be slightly more likely to use the newer form than you folks, but "couldn't care less" is commonly used (and vigorously defended) here, too.
So, is "I could care less" an illogical abomination, as the language purists proclaim? Not at all. It's simply an ironic or sarcastic idiom, one of several in common use, including "very funny" (meaning "not funny at all"), "big deal" (meaning "not important") and "oh sure" (meaning "I don't believe you"). Again, "I could care less" is an idiom, a figure of speech whose sum is greater than the total of its parts. To analyze the phrase as "'I could care less' means 'I must care somewhat, therefore I do care'" misses the sarcastic element carrying the negative connotation and filling in for the missing "not." Sentences such as "That will teach you to take your cat on a roller coaster" depend on the kind of same sarcastic reversal.
Negatives in English often depend on negation via sarcasm and irony. There's a story, no doubt apocryphal but fun anyway, about an English professor lecturing to his class one day. "In English," he says, "a double negative forms a positive. In some languages, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative." A voice from the back of the room then pipes up, "Yeah, right."
Dear Word Detective: As a physician I work towards a gentle bedside manner but nevertheless I have to examine tender parts. As I homed in on one patient's swollen ankle, she pleaded, "Touch it gingerly." Having made cooking mistakes in the past I can attest that too much ginger does not go down "gingerly," so I assume this use as "gently and carefully" come from the care one should use when adding this spice. Is this accurate? -- Harrison Wright.
Tender, swollen ankle? Sounds like a genuine "ginger snap!" Nyuk nyuk. But seriously, I know your patients must appreciate your restraint. When my gall bladder blew up last year, I suffered through a harrowing "Does this hurt? Does this hurt? How about THIS?" diagnosis-by-poking that almost earned the attending medic a poke in the snoot. I should have known I was in the wrong hospital when he began the exam by checking me for hoof rot.
Onward. Your theory tying "gingerly," meaning "gently or with extreme caution," to use of the spice ginger in cooking is inspired, but wide of the mark. (I like "wide of the mark," don't you? Much nicer than "wrong.") There is no connection between the two "gingers."
The spice "ginger," derived from the tropical ginger plant (Zingiber officinale), takes its name from the Middle English "gingivere," which in turn harks back to Latin, Greek and ultimately Dravidian root words. The rhizome, or root stalk, of the ginger plant is dried and pulverized to make the spice.
The story of "gingerly" is considerably more complicated. "Gingerly" first appeared in English in the early 1500s, probably adopted from the Old French word "gensor," a form of the adjective "gent" meaning "noble, high-born" with added senses of "pretty and delicate." The "gent/gensor" root, if traced back further, leads to the Latin "genitum," well-born, a form of "gignere," to beget, in turn related to "gens," race or people. This Latin word-family also gave us "gender," "generate," "generous," "genteel," and a slew of other modern English words. The original sense of "gingerly" in English was "elegantly, daintily," as if born into nobility, and was especially applied to walking or dancing with dainty little steps. It wasn't until the 17th century that the modern "gently and very cautiously" sense of "gingerly" became widespread.
Dear Word Detective: I having been hearing the word "ginormous," an unholy union of "gigantic" and "enormous," used more and more lately. Can you find out when and where this abomination started? Is there an identifiable idiot who coined this monstrosity? I would just like to know where to focus my hatred. I think the word is picking up steam; when I googled it I got 48,900 hits (and yes, I appreciate the irony of using the recently made-up word "googled" in deriding another recently made-up word). -- Mitchell Malachowski.
Yikes. Focused hatred? Under the circumstances, I'm not sure I should identify the idiot responsible for the monstrosity, but what the heck. It was George Will. Go get 'im.
Just kidding. I find "ginormous" (apparently pronounced "jye-NOR-mus") mildly annoying, but I've learned that getting cranked up over such inventions is a losing game, as a glance back at the history of attempts to stem the tide of change in English illustrates. Jonathan Swift fought strenuously against such new "monstrosities" of his day (1710) as "mob" and "banter," as well as (believe it or not) the contractions "I'd" and "can't." Benjamin Franklin violently objected to such newly coined (as of 1789) verbs as "notice" and "progress." And even in the 20th century, the revered grammarian H.W. Fowler threw a major hissy fit whenever he came across any word that combined Latin and Greek roots, including among his targets such scandalous mongrels as "bureaucrat," "electrocution" and "coastal." None of this apoplexy made a bit of difference, nor is it likely to in the future. English has always been a democracy where we vote with our mouths, and if "ginormous" doesn't prove useful over time, it won't last.
As to why "ginormous" is so widespread at the moment, I think we can blame the popular 2003 film "Elf," in which Will Farrell's character "Buddy" used the word repeatedly. But "ginormous" has actually been around for a remarkably long time. According to the etymologist Eric Partridge, it first appeared in Britain as Royal Air Force and Royal Navy slang during World War II, thereafter spreading into general population as youth slang.
Dear Word Detective: I'm curious about the terms "jit" ("git"?) and "prat" used often by the Wealsey twins in the wonderful Harry Potter novels. I've been unable to find anything on them, and after reading many of your columns, do understand that British slang is somewhat, um, obscure at best. My kids would greatly appreciate the definitions (we assume they're derogatory or "put-downs") and origins. Thanks! -- Mike Johnson.
Harry Potter! I must admit that I'm not really up to date with the Harry series, as I've only seen the first movie and listened to part of one of the books on tape while driving the New Jersey Turnpike, probably not the ideal setting for appreciating the whole wizard thing. I do remember thinking how much Hogwarts in the movie reminded me of a school I once attended, although Hogwarts apparently has better lighting and we didn't have girls.
As slang goes (and American slang can be every bit as oblique and obscure as the British variety), "git" and "prat" are actually fairly straightforward. You're correct that both are contemptuous derogatory slang, and, in fact, they are more or less synonymous, both meaning "idiot, fool, or contemptible person."
The earliest citation for "git" in print is relatively recent, 1946, but the older form "get" goes all the way back to the 14th century. Originally a "get" was simply what is "begotten," i.e., a child. By the early 1500s, however, "get" had further developed in Northern English and Scots dialects as a term meaning "brat" (or "bastard"), and from there eventually broadened into its current meaning of "idiot" or "worthless person." Both forms "get" and "git" are in use today, although "git" seems more popular (and will be for sure after Harry gets through with it).
If vaudeville were still with us, "prat" might not seem such a mystery on this side of the pond. "Prat" originally meant "backside, buttocks, rump" when it first appeared in the 16th century, a meaning still current when "pratfall," a bit of physical comedy wherein the victim lands on his rump, became popular in the 1930s. The extension of "prat" to mean "a fool or dolt" is fairly recent, dating only to the 1960s. Unfortunately, the origin of "prat" is a complete mystery.
Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you could help me find out where the word "hip" (meaning "cool") originated. My dad says it came from "legend," i.e., "leg end," i.e., "hip." Is he having me on or is he telling the truth? -- Katya, UK.
Hard to say. If he's "having you on" (what we Americans call "putting you on"), and he thought that story up himself, he's very inventive. Also very devious. Don't let him do your taxes. That theory is, shall we say, extremely unlikely to be true.
Unfortunately, none of the other theories floated about the origin of "hip" are much more believable. What we do know about "hip" is that it originally appeared in the form "hep" around the beginning of the 20th century, meaning "aware, informed, up-to-date, fashionable, in the know." Both "hip" and "hep" were associated with first big band and then jazz musicians, especially in the African-American community, until the mid-20th century when "hip" became the dominant form and spawned such derivative forms as "hipster" and "hippie."
One of the theories often heard about the origin of "hep/hip" traces it to military drill instructors, who set marching cadence for trainees with the command "Hep, two, three, four." The theory is that if a recruit were properly in step with the drillmaster, he would be said to be "hep," which then took on the broader sense of "tuned in" and "in the know." This theory lacks any solid evidence in its favor, and I suspect that it was "reverse-engineered" from the coincidence of the drillmaster's "hep," itself more of an exhortatory noise than a word.
Another theory traces "hip" to the phrase "on the hip," meaning "to use or be addicted to opium," referring to the reclining posture of opium addicts lying in opium dens. Since opium use was illegal and clandestine, goes the theory, "on the hip" came to be slang for "having inside knowledge." While "on the hip" was indeed slang for "addicted" among narcotics users, it didn't appear until around 1921, and also lacks any plausible link to the original form "hep."
One of the more intriguing (and currently popular) theories is that "hip" harks back to the word "hipi," meaning "to open one's eyes" in Wolof, a West African language, and was brought into American English by slaves from West Africa. Unfortunately, there are some fairly serious linguistic problems with this theory, and most etymologists rate it as unlikely. So the jury is still out on "hip."
Dear Word Detective: My daughter telephoned with her friends one evening as they were having a friendly argument about how to spell "wheelbarrow." Of course, she was right in the spelling, as they wanted to spell it "wheelbarrel." After spelling it correctly for them, they wanted to know why the "barrow" -- that had no meaning, made no sense to them. I explained the word should have a word origin or a root word and a history that has since been lost to us. I agreed to search for this information, but have been unsuccessful. Can you help me? -- Linda Wilson.
Well, if it's any consolation, your daughter's friends are not alone. While searching Google for "wheelbarrow" produces a respectable 528,000 results, Googling for "wheelbarrel" comes up with 5,290 hits, meaning that approximately one out of every 100 sites on the web uses the "barrel" spelling. I found that ratio surprising, but even more surprising was the number of sites using "wheelbarrel" that were either selling, or dispensing advice on the use of, you guessed it, wheelbarrows.
You've put your finger squarely on the reason for the "barrow/barrel" confusion: "barrow" today is an obscure word, unlikely to be recognized, so the more familiar "barrel" is substituted. A "barrow" is a contraption with two transverse bars supporting a box or platform, used for carrying things by two people -- a stretcher is a form of "barrow." The word "barrow" dates back to the Middle English word "barewe," related to our modern "bear," to carry. The genius of the "wheelbarrow," which first appeared in English in the 14th century, was to replace one of the two people with a wheel.
The linguistic process by which people are substituting "barrel" for "barrow" is called "folk etymology," the spontaneous substitution of familiar words or elements of words for unfamiliar ones. A similar case is the transformation of "catercorner" (where "cater" meant "four") into "kittycorner" or "cattycorner." In the case of "wheelbarrel," the "barrel" actually makes a bit of sense (more sense than cats in corners, anyway) because the "bucket" of a wheelbarrow often does resemble a barrel cut lengthwise.
Whether "wheelbarrel" will overtake "wheelbarrow" to become the standard form remains to be seen, although I suspect -- don't shoot me -- that eventually it will.
All contents Copyright © 2005 by Evan Morris.