Previous Columns/Posted 07/06/98
Dear Word Detective: One cold and rainy afternoon at work recently, I remarked to a co-worker what a dismal day it was. He surprised me by claiming that the phrase "dismal day" is redundant -- that "dismal" all by itself means "bad day." Was he right? -- E. Freedle, via the internet.
Boy, there's nothing that brightens a depressing day at work quite like having your English corrected for you, is there? The only time I correct other people's grammar is when I really want to annoy them. At one particularly loathsome job many years ago, I used to spend entire office staff meetings quietly muttering "whom" under my breath as a subtle form of revenge.
I wouldn't say that your co-worker was precisely "right," at least about the current meaning of "dismal." In modern usage, the adjective "dismal" means just what you thought it did -- dreary, bleak and gloomy. And days aren't the only things that can be "dismal." Dinner parties, election results and the batting averages of certain baseball players are, in my experience, frequently dismal.
Your co-worker was right about the original meaning of "dismal," however. It comes from the Latin "dies mali," meaning "evil or unlucky days." Medieval calendars designated two days in each month as evil or inauspicious -- bad days to start a journey, for instance, or to get married. Good days to call in sick, in modern terms. When "dies mali" entered English as "dismal" in the 14th century, it was a noun, but eventually it came to be used as an adjective, and the phrase "dismal days," although technically redundant, became common. "Dismal" as a general synonym for "gloomy or depressing" first appeared in the 17th century.
By now I'm sure you're wondering which two "dismal days" to avoid each month, so here's the lowdown: January 1st and 25th; February 4th and 26th; March 1st and 28th; April 10th and 20th; May 3rd and 25th; June 10th and 16th; July 13th and 22nd; August 1st and 30th; September 3rd and 21st; October 3rd and 22nd; November 5th and 28th, and December 7th and 22nd. Just tell your boss that I said to stay home on those days -- I'm sure he'll understand.
Dear Word Detective: My father and I were wondering how the word "english" came to be used in billiards for putting spin on the ball. Just wondering. -- Jason, via the internet.
Oh sure, just innocently wondering, right, Jason? Say, this wouldn't happen to be the subject of a bar bet, would it? You know, of course, that I get 20 percent of any tavern-based wagers settled by this column, don't you?
As you note in your question, "english" (always lower case) is spin put on a ball, usually but not always a billiard ball (baseball, tennis and golf balls can also be "englished"). The British call the same effect "side," because it is accomplished by striking the ball slightly off-center, thus imparting the spin. According to billiard experts, this spin allows the ball to do all sorts of remarkable things, such as curve, hide behind other balls, and disappear entirely when really needed. If I had paid attention back in high school physics while they were discussing vector momentum, I'd be able to explain how all this works, but I wasn't and can't, so I suppose we'll let the scientific discussion go at that.
As to why they call they call the spin "english," the answer turns out to be surprisingly simple. It is derived from the actions that the player makes to cause the ball to spin -- the extra gestures, physical effort and "oomph" we know as "body english." We call those contortions "body english," incidentally, because such physical gestures (waving your hands, hopping up and down, etc.) are sometimes used to boost to the expressive effect of our spoken English. (Actual English people, of course, are possibly the least likely people on Earth to employ "body english" while speaking, but that's another story.)
So the billiards player's "body english" results in putting "english" on the ball. Case closed, and I shall, as the English say, be expecting your cheque in the mail at your earliest convenience.
Dear Word Detective: My friend (an ex-sailor) and I have been discussing the origin of "the head" to designate the lavatory on a ship. It seems to have neither rhyme nor reason. -- Eugene Weishan, via the internet.
Here we go again. It seems that every time I take a shot at any question even remotely related to anything nautical, I get some tiny element of the answer wrong, or at least not completely right. I then get to spend the next few weeks dodging irate letters from outraged old salts flabbergasted by the depths of my clueless landlubberhood.
However, after spending a few minutes digging through the Oxford English Dictionary, I believe that I have come up with a logical explanation of "head," which I hope will pass muster (or its nautical equivalent) with all my crusty old critics out there.
"Head" as a noun turns out to mean many (many, many, in fact) things. Aside from the human noggin, it means the top or front part of nearly everything under the sun, and here's where our little voyage of exploration begins to make headway. Submeaning number 21 (I kid you not) of the definition of "head" in the Oxford dictionary defines the word as "The fore part of a ship, boat, etc.; the bows." So the "head" of a ship is the bow (the pointy end up front, for you folks in the Midwest), and has been so known since 1485 or so.
Now, one other source I found maintained that the "head" was so-called because sailors used to retire to the open bow of sailing ships to take care of their business. This initially struck me as a bit unlikely simply because of the, shall we say, wind factor. Subsequent correspondence from certified seadogs, however, pointed out that on a sailing ship, the wind is almost certainly coming from aft (duh), thus making the bow the best place to ... whatever. So the "head" of a ship, once used as an al fresco lavatory, became the standard term for bathrooms afloat, no matter where they are located on ships today.
Dear Word Detective: I have searched high and low to find the historical basis of the expression "joshing." I know the person who was involved in the coinage: Josh Tatum, who was a deaf individual. I also know it had something to do with a "racketeer's nickel," which was a liberty coin minted in 1883. The coin did not have the word "cents" on it, and so it could be gold plated and passed off as a five dollar gold piece instead of a five cent piece. All this information has not helped me to find out what the incident was that explains the derivation of the expression "I'm only joshing!" Thanks for any light you might be able to shed! -- Cher McDaniel-Thomas, via the internet.
Well, we've got good news and we've got bad news on this question. The good news is that after a bit of searching, I've discovered that Josh Tatum is credited with inventing the coin-passing trick you mention. Incidentally, somehow I doubt that the merchants Mr. Tatum defrauded regarded his ploy as merely "joshing."
Now the bad news. The story of Josh Tatum may or may not be true (and I suspect it is not). But even if it is, it cannot be the source of the verb "to josh," meaning to joke or trick, because "to josh" showed up in 1852, more than 30 years before the coin in question was even minted.
Nor can "josh" be, as is sometimes alleged, a tribute to the great 18th century American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw, author of several books of "country humor" written under the pen name Josh Billings. Again, the timing (Shaw did not become well known until about 1860) is wrong.
My best guess is that "to josh" as a verb meaning "to joke" came from "josh" as a noun meaning a "rube" or "hick," which in turn was based on the fact that "Joshua" was considered a typical rural name back in the 18th century, and thus a handy (though unfair) label for anyone likely to be taken in by a simple trick.
Dear Word Detective: I teach a class of "native" English speakers here outside Tel Aviv. The kids do just fine with ordinary readin' and writin', but explaining idioms is a real challenge. How about some help with "thrown for a loop." I can't find anything about it in my (limited) library. -- Janet Nusbaum, via the internet.
Well, cheer up. My library is, although not unlimited, pretty darn big, and I can find very little on "thrown for a loop" or its relative "knocked for a loop" myself. I understand the problem you face in explaining the logic of English idioms to students, by the way. I get a fair amount of mail from readers who are learning English and who are utterly mystified by some of the sayings we never think twice about. Just wait until your students ask you to explain "left holding the bag" or "crocodile tears," let alone "look a gift horse in the mouth."
I presume that you have already explained that "thrown for a loop" means "bewildered" or "dazzled" or, less frequently, "defeated." The question is why it means that.
The answer lies in what the Oxford English Dictionary calls, for some mysterious reason, a "centrifugal railway," but which we Americans know by the much livelier name "roller coaster." The "loop" in a roller coaster or other carnival ride is that portion of the track when the cars travel up in a circular, twisting motion so that at the apex the passengers are traveling upside down, a process also known as "looping the loop."
It is this image of "looping the loop" that underlies "thrown for a loop," the metaphor being that some news or event is sufficiently shocking as to throw the person upside down into the air in a looping motion. This all sounds terribly dry, but you've probably seen this event demonstrated literally in hundreds of cartoons. In fact, since "thrown for a loop" first appeared in about 1923, cartoons may actually have boosted the popularity of the idiom.
Dear Word Detective: Whilst reading through a brief dissertation on the construction of windmills, I came across a drawing of a device called a "fangle." It was used for marking out the cogs of the great gears. Clearly, I thought, this must be the source of the word "newfangled." On further thought, I wondered if "newfangled" would simply mean new teeth cut for old gears, or whether those resourceful millwrights were looking for improvements to their gadgets to cut such gears. What do the pundits think? -- Eric Coyle, Calgary, Canada.
I don't know what the pundits think, Eric. I had to get rid of them last week. Just the cost of Pundit Chow was bankrupting me, and their constant chattering was unbearable. And for all that trouble, not once did they use the word "whilst," as you have, which earns you ten points right off the bat.
I'm not sure what to make of your discovery of a gear-making gizmo called a "fangle," except that it is definitely not the source of our word "newfangled," meaning "of a new kind." That honor goes to the Old English verb "fangol," which meant "inclined to take." This word "fangol" is, as you might suspect, related to our modern "fang." I guess if you've got fangs you're "inclined to take," and most people are inclined to let you.
At some point "fangol" (by then "fangel" in Middle English) got hooked up with "newe" (new), giving us "newefangel," with the composite meaning of "inclined toward or fond of new things." From there it was a short jump in the 16th century to "newfangled" meaning the new things themselves. "Newfangled" is, as I'm sure you know, always used in a derogatory sense, with the implication that the newfangled thing is silly or unnecessary.
Interestingly enough, once "newfangled" meant "brand new kind," some people got a bit confused and decided that "fangle" was a separate word that meant "silly gizmo" or "novelty." So there is actually a word "fangle" in English, although it is largely obsolete. It is possible that this sense of "fangle" meaning "gizmo" was the reason they called the gear-making device you discovered a "fangle."
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine recently made a horrible pun involving the phrase "putting on the dog." (I'll spare you the details.) But neither she nor I could find out the origin of that expression. We know it refers to getting dressed up, but that's about it. Can you help, oh wise and wonderful know-it-all? (And I mean that in the nicest way, of course!) -- Jim Gates, via the internet.
Yeah, right. Let me tell you, this know-it-all racket has its down side, too. People expect you to explain the origin of their favorite words off the top of your head in all sorts of inconvenient situations. My parents, who used to appear on television talk shows fairly frequently, used the buddy system to deal with this problem. Asked about a word origin by the host, one of them would respond with general chit chat while the other quickly thumbed through their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins in search of the answer. I need to find a sidekick willing to lug the Oxford English Dictionary behind me everywhere I go.
"Put on the dog" does indeed mean "to get dressed up," but the meaning has changed slightly since it first appeared in the late 19th century. The original phrase was "to put on dog" (note the lack of "the"), and the sense was more negative: someone "putting on the dog" was being pretentious or "putting on airs." P.G. Wodehouse wrote in 1940, for instance, of "An editor's unexampled opportunities for putting on dog and throwing his weight about." Today this condemnatory connotation is largely gone, though no phrase associating fancy dress with dogs will ever convey much dignity.
Meanwhile, the question remains as to how actual dogs figure in all of this, and there are several possible answers. The one that strikes me as most likely is that the phrase is a reference to the penchant rich snobs seem to have for toting tiny, pampered dogs around with them. "Putting on the dog" would thus be a sarcastic reference to dogs as fashion accessories -- after putting on the cape and the tiara, one must not forget to put on the dog.
Dear Word Detective: We got into a discussion this weekend about the origin of "glee club." Is it simply that people are having such a fun, gleeful time singing that they named it after that feeling? -- Elizabeth Fox, San Francisco.
Don't take this the wrong way, but your question reminded me of a cartoon I saw in the newspaper recently. I don't remember which strip it was. In fact, I don't even remember what newspaper I was reading. Hmm. Oh right, the joke. One character says to the other, "I've heard that bad things always come in threes," to which the other responds, "Really? Then how do you explain barbershop quartets?"
OK, now that I can look forward to irate mail from both glee clubs and barbershop quartets, on with the question. And the answer is ... not exactly.
It turns out that "glee" is a fairly weird word. "Glee" as in happiness and the "glee" in "glee club" are not exactly the same word, although they have the same root. It's as if your parents had two sons and named them both "Melvin." Now I suppose I can expect mail from irate Melvins, too.
When "glee" first appeared in Old English it had two meanings, both now somewhat obsolete. It could mean "play, sport or amusement," the sense that later developed into our modern use of "glee" to mean "joy" or "raucous happiness." The other meaning of "glee" was "musical entertainment," and here's where glee clubs got their start. This musical sense was gradually narrowed until by the 17th century "glee" had come to mean a particular type of vocal performance in which each voice is given a separate melody to sing. I'm no musician, but my sense is that modern glee clubs do not necessarily stick to this formal glee style in their singing.
Oddly enough, while "glee" in the musical sense has remained steadily in use from Old English until now, "glee" in the "joy" sense nearly vanished in the late 17th century. Only use of the word by several major authors in the 18th century saved it from linguistic extinction.
Dear Word Detective: I'm looking for the definition and origin of the word "hornswoggle." I think it could be synonymous with "bamboozle," which I am also curious about. -- Peter V., via the internet.
"Hornswoggle" not only could, but is, synonymous with "bamboozle," both words meaning to trick, deceive or swindle. And thereby hangs a tale. A cow tale, to be precise.
I was perusing the sale table at my local mega-bookstore a few years ago when something called "A Dictionary of the Old West" (Peter Watts, Wings Books 1977) caught my eye. Always a sucker for discount wisdom, I bought said book without a second thought. Browsing through it at home, I was delighted to find the story of "hornswoggle," a word my mother used often when I was young. According to Mr. Watts, a cow that has been lassoed around the neck with a "catch rope" will "hornswoggle" -- wag and twist its head around frantically in an attempt to slip free of the rope. A cowboy who allows the cow to succeed is then said to have been "hornswoggled."
Makes sense, right? I thought so, and the next time a reader wrote in to ask about "hornswoggle," I recounted that explanation. Unfortunately, in the field of etymology as well as in so many other areas of modern life, simply making sense doesn't count for beans. Every other source I have since checked has listed "hornswoggle" as "origin unknown," sometimes commenting "probably fanciful," meaning that someone may have just made it up out of thin air. This doesn't mean that the "horn wagging" origin is incorrect, just that there is insufficient evidence to count it as true. "Hornswoggle" first showed up in print around 1829, and not a single one of the citations listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, unfortunately, even mentions cows.
"Bamboozle," which first appeared a bit earlier around 1700, is a similar case. Theories have been proposed over the years tracing "bamboozle" to a Gypsy word, but there is no hard proof, and most authorities believe that it arose as a spontaneous invention.
So the bad news is that we don't know the origin of either "hornswoggle" or bamboozle." The good news is that we still have two very handy words to use.
Dear Word Detective: What is the etymology of "lobby"? -- Max Shaw, via the internet.
Max doesn't specify exactly what kind of "lobby" he's asking about, but I'm going to assume that he means "the arm-twisting of spineless legislators by sleazy agents of special interests" sense of "lobby." Now, some people, I am sure, will object to that definition, feeling that the word "bribery" is more accurate than "arm-twisting." Thank heavens we live in a democracy where such differences of opinion are permitted, eh kids?
One story about the origin of "lobby" traces it to President Grant, inventor of the highly useful, if unfortunately rare in my house, fifty-dollar bill. As President, Grant is said to have spent his afternoons enjoying liquid refreshment at a table in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Supplicants for Grant's official favors supposedly soon discovered that interviews with the President were more productive the later in the afternoon they were conducted.
However, while Grant may indeed have haunted hotel lobbies, the verb "to lobby" antedates his administration by many years. The first citation for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1808. Its exact derivation is unclear, though it seems certain that the term refers to the lobby of a legislative assembly where the hired guns of special interests traditionally gather to ply their trade. "Lobbying" as an idiom appears to be an American invention, although the usage quickly spread to Britain and Canada.
Interestingly enough, the source of the word "lobby" itself is thought to possibly have been an Old Germanic word meaning "leaf," conveying the idea of a shelter made of tree limbs and leaves. How appropriate it is, then, that so many modern lobbyists seem bent on returning the average taxpayer to just such a charming and rustic lifestyle.
Dear Word Detective: After seeing "L.A. Confidential" three times, I started to wonder about the phrase "on the Q.T.", which I am only familiar with contextually. What is this phrase's origin and what does it mean literally? -- Edward J. Sabol, via the internet.
Three times, eh? Well, to each his own, I guess. Personally, when I went to see "L.A. Confidential," I found myself looking at my watch after only a half an hour. Let's just say that, in my opinion, "The Maltese Falcon" it ain't. On the other hand, I did see "Rodan" seven times, so my cultural judgment may be somewhat questionable. Incidentally, "Rodan" is a 1950's Japanese film about a big flying reptile, not the sculptor, whose name is spelled "Rodin" but pronounced "Rodan," in case you were wondering. Phew.
Speaking of mysteries, "on the Q.T." really isn't much of one, at least as far as its meaning goes. It's simply slang for "confidentially" or "quietly." If I tell you something "on the Q.T.," I mean that I would rather that you not blab it all over town. And although "Q.T." certainly looks as though it be the initial letters of two words, every slang authority seems to agree that its origin is simply the first and last letters of the word "quiet."
The only really surprising thing about "Q.T." is how long it's been around. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for "Q.T." is from 1884, in the common form "on the strict q.t.," which is also found in James Joyce's "Ulysses" of 1922.
"On the Q.T." is, probably more than anything else, another bit of evidence of our continuing love of abbreviations and initials in both slang and standard English usage. It's the same phenomenon that has made "O.K." (from "Oll Korrect," a humorous misspelling of "all correct") common in nearly every nation of the world since its first appearance in the early 1800's.
Dear Word Detective: Here's a word I've been wondering about for years: "ragamuffin." Does it really have anything to do with muffins? Someone told me that it came from children in London stealing bits of muffins from bakers' shop windows, leaving "ragged muffins" in their wake. Is this true? -- Donna T., via the internet.
Nope, and I for one am glad it's not. That story sounds like something straight out of a Disney cartoon epic, all sticky sweetness and creepy cuteness. I am not a big Disney fan, as you may have gathered. OK, I'll admit that my "Deport The Little Mermaid" petition drive may have been a little over the top, but I'll never forgive Disney for what they did to "Alice in Wonderland."
Onward. "Ragamuffin" today means a rambunctious, scruffy child, probably a boy, probably quite dirty, who reduces his clothes to tatters and his parents to dismay on a daily basis. The word carries none of the desperate implications of "urchin," an abandoned child of the streets. All today's "ragamuffin" really needs is a bath.
The original "ragamuffin," however, would have needed much more than a bath. He made his debut in William Langland's "Piers Plowman," written in 1393 and considered perhaps the greatest medieval English poem. "Piers Plowman" is an allegorical epic where characters represent, and are often named for, moral abstractions (with characters named Truth, Wisdom and Will, for instance). But "Ragamoffyn," as Langland spelled it, did not symbolize a cute child -- Ragamoffyn was a demon. Where Langland got the name is unknown, but it seems to be a combination of "ragged" and "ffyn" (which may be a corruption of "fiend").
By the late 16th century, however, Ragamoffyn had been de-fanged in popular usage and "ragamuffin" was used to mean "a dirty or disreputable man or boy." Two hundred years later, Dickens used the word in "Barnaby Rudge" in today's sense -- a ragged, scruffy little boy, impish but not demonic.
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