Issue of July 10, 2000


Thanks to several pointed notes from readers, I finally sat down the other day and fixed the graphics references on my pages, so now all the nice pictures will appear as they should. The problem dated back to my most recent ISP switch -- evidently several of my pages were looking for graphics that had been erased from the server months ago. I am, of course, working on a way to blame this whole ruckus on Bill Gates.

Those of you who happened to be listening to NPR's On the Media show for the week of June 30 may have heard someone claiming to be me opining on the recent use of hooligan in the US news media. If you missed it, you can hear the program in Real Audio by clicking here. It's the third item in the first segment of the program, so be patient.

By the way, I had a bad cold when they taped the program, obscuring the well-known fact that ordinarily I sound a lot like Cary Grant.


Elsewhere in the world of major media mentions, alert viewers of Rosie O'Donnell's TV show evidently sprang to their feet and headed en masse for their local bookstores when Ms. O'Donnell spent a few minutes last month raving about How Come? Planet Earth, a dandy science Q&A book written by Kathy Wollard, to whom I am married. Lest we ever doubt the power of TV, let us note that shortly after the Rosie plug, the rating for How Come? Planet Earth shot up to Number 34 (out of, like, ten million or so books on the list).

As always, feel free to join the crowd and order How Come? Planet Earth (as well as the first How Come? book) right here.

All of which almost makes up for (but won't come close to paying for) having to rebuild our 200-foot deep well last week to correct a short in the submersible pump. And the water still tastes like rusty nails.

Oh well, on with the show...

Sergeant Bilko sent me.

Dear Word Detective: I'm looking for the origin of the word "bunco" meaning fraud or swindle. I've heard it derives from the Spanish word "banco," a Spanish card game. For that matter, where did "swindle" come from? Can you help? -- Jeff Allendorph, via the internet.

Why certainly, if you'll just let me deposit this check for my lottery winnings in your bank account. I don't want my wife to know I've won, you see, and you can just take the money right back out again and keep $5,000 for yourself. There's absolutely no risk. It's an official check, signed by Governor Philbin himself.

I guess that's why I'd make a lousy con artist -- no attention to details. In any case, the story you've heard about the origin of "bunco" is absolutely correct. Meaning "a swindle or fraud," especially one perpetrated with dice or cards, "bunco" takes its name from the Spanish card game of "banco" (literally, "the bank"). I'm not sure exactly how "banco" is played, but it is said to be similar to the card game called "monte," ancestor of the "three-card monte" card swindle still found on many urban U.S. street corners. "Bunco" first appeared in English in the 1870s, and pretty quickly became a generalized term for any sort of swindle or con job. Many police forces in major U.S. cities still maintain "bunko squads" to investigate this sort of fraud.

To "swindle," of course, means to defraud or cheat, especially by means of an elaborate plan (which itself is known as a "swindle"). "Swindle" is actually what linguists call a "back-formation," formed because its existence is implied in another word (as "sculpt" the verb was formed from "sculpture" the noun). In the case of "swindle," the original word was "swindler," from the German "schwindler," which means "a giddy, extravagant and dishonest spendthrift," the sort of person, for instance, who would borrow money with no intention of repaying it. "Swindler" entered English in the late 18th century meaning a person who systematically defrauds others, and bunco squads have been chasing swindlers ever since.

And if they don't like it,
they hide it behind the piano.

Dear Word Detective: In my native England, a common expression in use is "dog's dinner" (sometimes changed to "dog's breakfast") which indicates a mess or a failure. A typical usage might be "You've made a real dog's dinner of that!" What is the origin of the term? -- Paul Astell, Ottawa, Canada.

Of all the animals human beings have chosen to hang out with, it is hard not to judge the noble dog most useful. Dogs serve as guardians of our homes (my dogs have even expanded their duties to include barking at nearby airplanes), faithful companions (although I have found my dogs' tax advice to be seriously questionable) and comrades in the hunt (I don't know what we're hunting on our little walks, but I presume they'll let me know when we've found it).

But the most valuable role played by the dog of the house is, to put it bluntly, as a garbage disposal. With the possible exception of a cat I once knew who loved potato chips and grapes, dogs are the most omnivorous critters around, and no household with a dog will ever have a problem with leftovers. My dogs will even eat grits, which I certainly won't.

All of which brings us to "dog's breakfast," which has been British slang for "a complete mess" since at least the 1930s. While no one took the time to write down the exact origin of the phrase, the allusion involved seems to be to a failed culinary effort, perhaps a burned or botched omelet, fit only for consumption by the mouth of last resort, Fido. As a vivid figure of speech meaning something so fouled up as to be utterly useless, "dog's breakfast" can cover anything from a play plagued by collapsing scenery to a space mission ruined by a mathematical error. "Dog's dinner," which seems to have appeared around the same time, means exactly the same sort of disaster, but has the advantage of being attractively alliterative. Both phrases are heard occasionally in the U.S., but are more common in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries.

Rudy goes (yet further) bananas.

Dear Word Detective: The new Steely Dan CD has a tune called "Gaslighting Abbie." My wife and I cannot figure out what the term "gaslight" means in this context, or any other, for that matter, given that it's used as a verb. However, in a New York Times op-ed column a while back, Maureen Dowd also used the term as follows ("Donna" is Rudy Giuliani's wife): "...Some Machiavellian types suspect Donna's theatrical surprise is all part of Hillary's plan
-- working brilliantly so far -- to gaslight Rudy by getting under the control freak's skin and making him feel as if he has Lost Control of the Agenda...." I see now that "gaslighting" someone may mean to create some mischief in their life. This is just a guess. Have you heard of this usage before? -- Chuck Eggers, via the internet.

Gosh, there's nothing like a good old-fashioned New York City political thrash, is there? Without delving too far into the arcane details of New York City electoral intrigue, the gist of Dowd's allusion is that Mayor Giuliani's (now soon to be ex-) wife Donna Hanover was, at one point, slated to take a role in a risqué Broadway play, presumably, in the process, embarrassing her puritano-philanderer crypto-hubby and ruining his chances versus Hillary Clinton in the New York Senate race (which he has since abandoned anyway).

To "gaslight" someone is more than simply to create mischief. It means to manipulate a victim into questioning his or her own sanity and, if all goes well, to thereby actually drive the person insane. The term refers to the great 1944 suspense film "Gaslight" in which a greedy Victorian husband (Charles Boyer) conspires to convince his innocent wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she is going mad, the object being to make his planned murder of her (for her inheritance) appear to be suicide. Mysterious footsteps, "misplaced" objects, and inexplicably dimming gaslights (thus the title) are all part of his nefarious plan.

As a slang term for subtly trying to drive someone crazy, "gaslighting" was first noticed by lexicographers around 1956, though the term probably actually appeared as soon as the film (which was enormously popular) did.

Babe III: Ragin' Bacon.
This time it's porcine.

Dear Word Detective: I was at a rather dull business meeting this morning and one of the more awake participants used the phrase "hog wild." Not only did it fill my mind's eye with rather humorous visions of pigs and mud, but it made me wonder where it came from. A little help please. -- Jennifer , via the internet.

Well, that just proves that there's nothing like a little rural metaphor, especially one involving livestock, to liven up a dull meeting. If I were you, I'd take the hint and start peppering my presentations with phrases along the lines of "that dog won't hunt," "he's all hat and no cattle," and "as much chance as a grasshopper on a red ant hill." With any luck, you'll win both the admiration of your colleagues and a lot more vacation time.

Although we normally think of hogs (which are, technically, male pigs raised for market) as fairly torpid creatures, given the right circumstances and stimulus, they can become very agitated indeed. And, being as hefty as they are, cranked-up hogs can do considerable damage to anything in their path. To "go hog wild" has therefore been an apt synonym for being out of control since it first appeared, probably sometime in the 19th century. Today the phrase, having graduated from rural to general use, has taken on a slightly sarcastic tone, and being told to "go hog wild" at a discount store, for instance, carries the implication that you're enjoying shopping for bargains more than you should. It's another way of saying, "Have a good time, but I certainly wouldn't get as excited as you apparently are."

Then again, going "hog wild" can land you in hot water. I recently read about an internet "dot com" start-up company that spent, of its $23 million initial venture capital, at least $10 million on a lavish Las Vegas party to announce its launch. The company's investors were not amused, and canned the CEO. He's probably lucky they didn't grind him up for sausage.

Muse news.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word "mosaic," with a lower-case "m"? Could it come from "Mosaic" (with an upper-case "M") meaning "related to Moses" ? After all, Moses did smash the first double-tablet edition of The Ten Commandments into lots of little pieces, and mosaic art is created from lots of little pieces. No, this is not a joke. It is a serious inquiry. This actually was debated by members of my synagogue. -- Bob Adels, via the internet.

Good question, and I never for a moment took it as a joke. First of all, the possibility of a mosaic-Moses connection is an eminently reasonable conjecture. Secondly, to make jokes in this column you first have to join the union, and according to our records you haven't. Sorry, but them's the rules.

As it happens, the answer is no, there is no connection between Moses and "mosaic," the art of creating pictures or patterns by fitting together small bits of glass, pottery or stone. The root of "mosaic" is the Medieval Latin "musaicum," meaning "work of the Muses," itself ultimately from the Latin "Musa," or "Muse." In Greek mythology, the Muses, as I'm sure we all recall, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Muses were (and still are, at least metaphorically) regarded as the inspiration of all art and music.

The logical connection between the Muses and mosaic artwork is a bit uncertain, but it may be that Medieval mosaics were so often dedicated to the muses that the form and the inspiration became inextricably associated. Or it may be that ancient temples dedicated to the Muses ("mouseion" in Greek, source of our modern "museum") were often decorated with mosaic murals.


A simple twist of quirk.

Dear Word Detective: Today I got a postcard in the mail, which reads: "If you ever find out before I do, would you let me know how or why 'quirk' came to refer to a peculiarity or idiosyncrasy, when it used to refer to a little something that at once delivered a snug fit and ease of movement?" At the side, there is an illustration of a glove, and the notation, "Quirk: a small triangular insert placed in a glove at the base of each finger and the thumb, used to give a close fit yet permit flexibility." I hope you can help out my friend. -- Kristine, via the internet.

In a minute. Right now I'm wondering about that postcard. I think we may have struck gold here. How about a line of word-origin postcards? Instead of boring their friends with the same old "Wish you were here, yadda, yadda, yadda," travelers could drive the folks back home slowly crazy with "By the way, do you happen to know the origin of Lazy Susan?" Then we could sell the recipient the answer for five bucks or so.

Oh well, it was just a thought. And speaking of thoughts, your friend's problem is that she's got the whole "quirk" thing a bit backwards. "Quirk" as a name for that handy (yuk yuk) little piece of cloth or leather between the fingers of gloves is actually a derivative of, rather than the source of, the use of "quirk" to mean "peculiarity or idiosyncrasy."

The origin of the word "quirk" itself is, unfortunately, a mystery, but we do know that it first appeared in English around 1565 meaning "a verbal trick" or "an evasion." In "Much Ado About Nothing" (1599), Shakespeare used "quirk" to mean "a witty quip," and by "Twelfth Night," written in 1601, he was using it in our modern sense to mean "a peculiarity of behavior."

The underlying sense of a "quirk" being "a sudden turn or abnormality" subsequently led to its being used as a name for a variety of small, odd things, including a sudden curve or flourish in a drawing, a small, regular pattern in stockings, and, as of 1688, that little bit of fabric between the fingers of a glove.

The curve of blinding bull.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "bear market" come from? Why did they pick a bear and not a lemming? -- Shannon Parrott, via the internet.

Whoa, hold it right there. Do I detect a note of skepticism in regard to our National Lottery, a.k.a. the stock market? Don't you understand that the whole system was scientifically designed by mystical wizards, disciples of the late, great Charles Ponzi in fact, to spin great wealth out of thin air? Oh, ye of little faith. Where's your gratitude? Why, I'll bet you don't own a single tech stock.

Besides, you've got it backwards. The bulls are the lemmings at the moment.

Of all the strange and often inscrutable terms the stock market has given English, "bulls" and "bears" are among the most commonly encountered, and have been in use since the early 18th century. Simply put, "bulls" are optimistic investors, and "bears" are pessimists. A "bull market" is one in which stock prices are rising, a "bear market" one marked by falling prices.

The pessimism of "bears" takes a curiously optimistic form: they sell stock that they do not yet own. Bears "sell short," betting that when the time comes to actually buy and deliver the stock they have sold, the price per share will have fallen, and they'll be able to buy the stock at a discount, thus fulfilling their sales contract at a profit. Bulls bet the opposite -- that the market is rising, so they buy stock in the expectation that they'll be able to later sell it at a higher price. There's a controversy about how bears got their name, but the most logical theory traces it back to an old English proverb: "Don't sell the bearskin before the bear is caught" (which, of course, is exactly what stock market "bears" do). Bolstering this theory is the fact that short sellers were known as "bearskin jobbers" in the 18th century.

"Bulls" most likely got their name simply from the contrast (and alliteration) with "bear," and also possibly because both bull and bear "baiting" were popular sports in old England. Bulls are also powerful and aggressive (and a bit stupid), while bears are more contemplative and apt to retreat.

Make way for quacklings.

Dear Word Detective: I am the proud owner of a well-thumbed edition of "Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader." While I am absolutely certain that the estimable "BRI" (Bathroom Reader's Institute) has fully investigated every article included in the 673-page tome, I must confess that I was a little skeptical when faced with the explanation for the word "charlatan." According to Uncle John, et al., the word originated with one "Dr. A. M. Latan," a distributor of dubious dental distress-relief. As Dr. Latan traveled the streets of Paris circa 1840 in his extravagant carriage, Parisians supposedly paraded before his coach, shouting "Voila, le char de Latan" (the car of Latan). Hence, "charlatan." True? -- Carissima, via the internet.

Well, at least now I know who my competition is. As for the accuracy of Uncle John's shaky stab at etymology, 673 pages are a lot to flush without incurring ruinous plumbing bills, but a little kerosene and a match in the backyard after dark will serve justice nicely and amuse the kiddies as well.

In fairness to Uncle John and his BRI minions, however, I must allow that he didn't invent that particular story about "charlatan." E. Cobham Brewer, author of the original Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, not only vouched for the story but maintained that he himself had often seen Dr. Latan's fabulous carriage and heard the cries of the crowd heralding his progress through the streets of Paris.

Perhaps he did, and perhaps there was indeed a Dr. Latan, and perhaps the citizens of Paris had nothing better to do than cheer quack dentists. But if so, the good Doctor's name was merely a serendipitous coincidence. "Charlatan," which first appeared in English around 1618, actually comes from the Italian "cialare," meaning "to babble or prattle." In Italy, a "ciarlatano" was often an itinerant peddler, traveling from town to town furiously promoting useless patent medicines. In English, "charlatan" quickly came to mean anybody whose real business was fraud.

Interestingly, a similar term in English comes from a very similar source. A "quacksalver" in the 18th century was a traveling salesman who "quacked" incessantly about his useless "salves."

Voila, "quack."

From combat to co-host.

Dear Word Detective: I have always used the word "cohort" to mean "running buddy" or "an acquaintance within some group." Recently George Will used the word in what appears to be a different sense: "He leads Mr. Gore in every age cohort except voters 65 or older...", and, in another article, "...the herd behavior of a substantial cohort of investors in today's America...", implying the word means, or at least can mean, the group itself, rather than a member of a group. Checking an online dictionary, I discovered that "cohort" is defined as (1) a body of about five or six hundred soldiers in the Roman army, (2) any band or body of warriors, and (3) a natural group of orders of plants. Is that definition out of date or are Mr. Will and I off base? -- Travis Dawson, via the internet.

Mr. Will and you are both right, and that dictionary is seriously out of date. What they have given you are the original meaning, an initial secondary meaning, and a technical scientific meaning of "cohort," not the word as it is generally used today.

The Latin "cohors" did indeed designate five or six hundred men, a tenth of a "legion" in the Roman army, but when "cohort" entered English around 1500, it was immediately applied to any large body of soldiers. By about 1719, "cohort" was being used to mean any body of persons, especially if united in a task or cause. The botanical usage appeared about 1845.

Two new uses of "cohort" first appeared in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century. One was as a technical term in demographics, meaning a population group sharing a particular characteristic, such as date of birth. This, incidentally, is the sense used in the first quote from George Will you cite. The second quote simply invokes the "large group" sense of "cohort."

A more controversial usage appeared around 1952, when "cohort" began to be used to mean "assistant" or "colleague." Just why the leap in meaning from "large group" to "individual" took place is unclear, but it is now well-established.

And he kept shouting Help meeeeee! for some reason.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "dying like flies" or "dropping like flies"? Also, have you ever seen flies die like flies? -- Omar DeWitt, via the internet.

Not that I recall. But I did know a remarkably long-lived fly once, when I worked on the 42nd floor of an office building in New York City. Every spring this fly would appear and buzz around my desk for the warm-weather months, then depart in the fall. I called him Waldo Astoria because I figured he must have been spending his winters in Queens. Then one spring he didn't come back. I was very hurt at first, but eventually I heard he was working at a bakery in Brooklyn. Guess I can't blame the little guy. He always did love jelly doughnuts.

Flies may not make the most loyal pets, but there's no denying that they have landed with all six (eight?) feet in the English language. Their name comes from the Old English "fleogan" (to fly), the same source as our verb "to fly." And fly they do -- the problem seems to be that they also land where they're not wanted. One of the earliest fly-based figures of speech, dating back at least to the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, is "fly in the ointment," which means a small, disagreeable detail that ruins the enjoyment of something nice, like a jelly doughnut. In the 19th century, to say that "there are no flies on him" of somebody meant that the person was alert and active, probably by allusion to cattle that move around enough to deny flies a landing place.

But when flies do land, they often do so in massive numbers, giving us the simile "like flies," meaning "in huge numbers." Shakespeare, in Henry VI, Part 2 (1595), wrote "The common people swarm like summer flies," and it would not be inappropriate to say that Americans are, as of this writing, watching Regis Philbin "like flies." Thus, although flies are indeed fragile creatures and seem to die easily, "dying like flies" or "dropping like flies" simply refers to death in huge numbers ("like flies"), whether of people or animals, not to any imagined similarity between human and fly mortality.


Nuts for industry.

Dear Word Detective: A while back, you discussed the derivation of "nuts," meaning crazy. There is an additional meaning of "nut" that I am curious about, i.e., the fixed costs of a business (rent, taxes, supplies, etc.) that must be met just to keep the enterprise going. Although its use seems to have taken off in the past ten years or so, I seem to recall having first heard it in the mid-1970s. Do you know when and why "nut" was first used in this context? -- John A. Collins, Hamburg, New York.

Thanks for an interesting question. I've heard the use of "nut" you describe, most often in the context of taxi drivers having to "make their nut" (cover the rent on their cabs) every day before they actually make any money for themselves.

"Nut" is one of those tricky little words that, like a circus car that produces an improbable cargo of clowns, has come to mean literally dozens of things in English. The basic sense of its Indo-European root ("knuk") was "lump," and most uses of "nut" in English have been based on the sense of "a small, hard kernel." The use of "nuts" to mean "crazy" that you mention comes from the slang "nut" meaning "head," and is derived from the description of an addled person as being "off his nut."

"Nut" meaning "overhead," "startup costs" or "basic expenses" turns out to be a bit older than I would have expected. The first citation in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang comes from 1909, in the context of a "nut" being the basic reserve of money a gambler needs to operate. Subsequent examples indicate that "nut" has also been used in show business, manufacturing, and both legal and criminal businesses of just about every description.

The rationale for "nut" in this sense is uncertain, but it seems probable that this "nut" comes from the phrase "a tough nut to crack," meaning something very difficult to attain, which a basic operating budget can certainly be. After all, only once the "nut" is "cracked" can the tasty meat within (actual income) be enjoyed.

And close the door behind you.

Dear Word Detective: I have been unable to find anything on the origin of being "called to (or is it 'on'?) the carpet." Interestingly enough, my fiancé, whose family owns a flooring establishment, has never heard this term. I was hoping to shed some light on the use and origins of this term, which I know to mean "the process of holding someone accountable for previously undiscovered actions." Can you help? -- Donna Zajac, Vacaville, California.

It's odd that your fiancé has never heard the term "called on the carpet." I don't think I've ever had a job where I wasn't called on the carpet at least once a month. It's not a real job if they don't yell at you. It's how they show they care.

Your definition of "called on the carpet" is actually a bit overly specific. The phrase just means "to be reprimanded by one's superiors" for anything, not necessarily for a transgression they just discovered. Incidentally, the root of "carpet" is the Latin verb "carpere," meaning "to pluck or tear," indicating that the first carpets may have been fashioned from torn or unraveled fabric.

As a figure of speech, "to be called on the carpet" harks back to the days before wall-to-wall shag, when carpets adorned only the floors of the wealthy and powerful. In fact, up until the 15th century, "carpet" most often meant fabric used as a table cover or bedspread, and the original meaning of "on the carpet" was the same as our modern "on the table," meaning "up for discussion."

While the rich eventually began covering the floors of their living quarters with carpets, most floors that a servant trod were still rough wood or stone. Thus, by about 1823 to "walk the carpet" was to be summoned by the Big Cheese for a chat (or worse), and by 1900 the unpleasant process was known as simply "being called on the carpet."



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