Issue of July 15, 2003




  Issue of July 15, 2003



Golly, July already?  What happened to June?  Y'know, I specifically asked that someone wake me.  Now I'm completely disoriented.

One short administrative note:  someone, somewhere, is still sending out zillions of bits of spam with headers forged to indicate the domain as the source.  We are not the source, it is not coming from our mail servers, and, since the spam seems to be coming from an open proxy server in China, there is absolutely no way for us to stop it.

Unfortunately, I have received some indications that this nonsense has resulted in all e-mail from the domain being blocked by some services.  If you are a subscriber to TWD-by-E-Mail and haven't received an issue lately, please let me know and we'll find a way to fix the situation (i.e., I'll mail it to you from another address).

And now, on with the show:

I'll be the judge of that.

Dear Word Detective:   What is the origin of the term "badger," as in "Objection, badgering the witness?"  A lunchtime table of (patent) attorneys didn't know but, not surprisingly, offered opinions.  Some thought it had to do with the character of the animal; one person suggested it had to do with badger-hunting by a pack of dogs --- an enterprise thought to be usually (and therefore mercifully, for the dogs) unsuccessful. --  Mark Nagumo, via the internet. 

Badger?  Badger?  You want to cross-examine a badger?  We don't have to produce any stinking badgers!  Incidentally, since you're an attorney, you should be able to answer this.  When Perry Mason used to leap out of his chair to object to some question D.A. Hamilton Burger was asking a witness, he'd always say, "Your Honor, the question is irrelevant, immaterial, and ...."  What's the third word?  I remember it also starting with "I," but "insipid" or "incompetent" seem unlikely.

[Note:  Several readers have written to say that the third word was indeed "incompetent," used in the legal sense of "inadmissible" (which explains why Ham Burger, as my father called him, didn't simply punch ol' Perry in the schnozz).  See for an explanation of objections in court.  I believe Perry used the order "Irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial."]

Onward into the wonderful world of badgers.  I don't usually do this, but the definition of "badger" in the Oxford English Dictionary is so cool I'm going to quote the whole thing:  "A plantigrade quadruped (Meles vulgaris), intermediate between the weasels and the bears, found in Europe and Middle Asia; it is a nocturnal, hibernating animal, feeding on small mammals, game, eggs, fruit, and roots, and digging for itself a burrow, which it defends fiercely against attack, biting and maiming dogs with its powerful jaws."  But they make great pets, I'm sure.  The word "badger," which appeared in the 16th century, is of uncertain origin, but it most likely came from the white stripe, or "badge," borne by the critter on its forehead.

The verb "to badger," meaning "to persecute, pester or tease," appeared in the late 18th century, and reflects the once-common "sport" of badger-baiting, when dogs would bet set to draw a badger from its burrow and then fight with and eventually kill it.  Thus, to "badger" a witness would be to question him or her in a forceful, tenacious and hostile manner, something Perry Mason would do only if the show had reached the point where it was time for the guilty party to leap up and confess.


Is this where pigeon pie came from?

Dear Word Detective:   I'm wondering about the origin of the phrase: "Dining with Duke Humphrey."  I know it means to go without eating, and was a phrase I heard a few times as a child growing up in the South, usually used (as I found out later) by some of those less fortunate folks from eastern Georgia.  When a kid would ask, "What's for dinner tonight?," an older sibling or parent would often reply, "We're dining with Duke Humphrey."  At the time, I was too young to understand the concept behind it, but as I got older, it was made clear to me that oftentimes these people did not have sufficient money to buy food.  I hope you can shed some light on this one.  -- David L. Rindone, Cornville, AZ.

I hope so too, although I seem to have gotten off to a rocky start.  When you said that you had grown up in the American South, I subconsciously assumed that "Duke" in the phrase was probably a nickname, one perhaps once borne by a local figure known for his charity.  I even conjured up a mental image of a portly fellow in a white suit, a cross between Colonel Sanders and Boss Hawg, dispensing largess to the poor from the porch of the general store.  All of this is a reprehensible stereotype, to be sure, and it just goes to show you the damage even moderate television viewing can do to a child.

Eventually, of course, I put my imagination back in the drawer and did some real research, whereupon I discovered that "Duke Humphrey" was a genuine, bow-down-vassals British royalty sort of Duke.  Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was, in fact, the son of King Henry IV, and well-known for his hospitality.  After Duke Humphrey's death, a monument to him was erected in London near a popular promenade where the fashionable took their afternoon strolls.  The spot was also frequented by the less-than-wealthy gentry who took pleasure at mingling with the rich, until, that is, dinnertime arrived.  When invited to adjourn to a restaurant, the humbler folk would maintain their dignity by expressing a wish to stay out to enjoy the view, a tactic which was known as "Dining with Duke Humphrey."  By the late 16th century, "to dine with Duke Humphrey" had become a popular way to say that one was going without dinner.

There's a reason we left you in the wilderness, so please stop shouting.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been encountering this expression in magazines and on the net.  A sample use might be, "Jimmy Carter's most recent diatribe against Bush deserves a thorough fisking."  Apparently, "to fisk" means to analyze closely. Formerly, "fisking" meant "scampering about."  What can you tell me about the new usage? -- Ronald J. Wieck, via the internet.

Dude, we are so there.  I do know what "fisking" is, and even where it came from, but I'm rather ashamed to admit that I do.  It's a symptom of spending too much time reading web logs and too little time "fisking" around outdoors.

A "web log," for the benefit of those of you who didn't pay any attention to the Macarena either, is a web page set up as a sort of personal journal, where the proprietor can record his or her thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, cat pictures, bad poetry, links to other web logs and opinions on world events for a daily audience numbering from one to 100,000, with the readership of most web logs leaning heavily toward the former.  Web logging (also called "blogging") was more or less invented back in 1999 by a fellow named Jorn Barger, whose Robot Wisdom Weblog ( differs from its progeny by actually remaining, after all these years, interesting. 

So now there are a gazillion "blogs," and many of them are political, usually maintained by people who care passionately about politics and have all sorts of novel ideas, but for some mysterious reason cannot get published in mainstream media. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on Planet Earth, there is a British newspaper called The Independent (, which employs a columnist named Robert Fisk, who reports from all sorts of exotic locales, especially war zones.  Mr. Fisk, who holds a very skeptical view of U.S. foreign policy, has, on a number of occasions lately, written things that have aroused the ire of various politically conservative "bloggers."  These folks have responded by reprinting his dispatches on their blogs and adding their own paragraph-by-paragraph commentaries dissecting (and purportedly debunking) Fisk's facts and opinions.  Those of us who occasionally shout at our television sets will recognize the impulse behind this sort of thing, but few of us go to the trouble of typing out our rants and posting them to the internet.

In any case, this "he said, I say" method of criticism has now become very common on the net, and when applied with large helpings of both vigor and venom is now known as "fisking." 


I can't throw it again for you if you won't let go of it.

Dear Word Detective:  My uncle claims to have played Frisbee in his college days, and says that the original Frisbees were actually aluminum pie pans.  Is he jerking my chain? -- R.S., via the internet.

Nope, although if he claims to have tossed one of the original "Frisbees" he definitely is pulling your leg. 

Poor William Russell Frisbie.  When he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut to manage a new bakery in 1871, he never dreamt that someday half the dogs in America would be chasing his legacy across the nation's lawns.

Mr. Frisbie was a good baker; so good, in fact, that within a few years he had bought the bakery and established the Frisbie Pie Company, selling pies all across New England.  Frisbie pies were especially popular among the students at Yale University in New Haven in the 1920s, and soon Yale dormitories were awash in empty Frisbie Pie tins.  College students being expert time-wasters, it wasn't long before the Yalies discovered that the Frisbie tins, if flung with a spinning motion, would waft gracefully through the air to be caught and returned by a fellow scholar.   Since the tins were made of metal, however, it was advisable that the recipient know in advance that the pie tin had been launched, so the cry of "Frisbie!" was adopted as the game's equivalent of "Fore!" in golf. 

Within a few years, the game of "Frisbie" had spread far beyond Yale.  In 1948, a California building inspector and inventor named Fred Morrison began to manufacture and market the first flying disc made of plastic as the "Frisbee," most likely modifying the spelling to avoid legal problems with the Frisbie Pie folks.  In 1955, Morrison joined the Wham-O toy company, and in 1957 Wham-O began to market his disc as the "Pluto Platter," neatly avoiding the trademark question entirely while also capitalizing on the national obsession with UFOs.

  By 1958, however, the venerable Frisbie Pie Company had gone out of business, and Wham-O quickly renamed their disc the Frisbee and trademarked the name.  Frisbee-mania followed and continues to this day, and while Wham-O won't say exactly how many Frisbees are sold every year, they do slyly estimate that the number is probably greater than sales of footballs, baseballs and basketballs combined.

Come to think of it, "sailing, somehow" is a pretty good summation of my nautical career.

Dear Word Detective:  When I improvised a sprinkler system for his garden out of parts-on-hand I told a friend that I had "jury-rigged" the setup.  "No," he replied, "you mean Jerry-rigged," and proceeded to claim the term came from World War II.   He believes it originated with the Germans' having to improvise equipment due to lack of supplies, and since the Germans were nicknamed Jerrys (or Gerries), the term came to be applied to any skin-of-the-teeth (or seat-of-the-pants) use of whatever was available to make do.  It was my understanding the term came from sailing, somehow.  Who's correct? -- Raven B. Earlygrow, via the internet.

Well, I'm tempted to say that you are at least more correct than your friend, but the histories of "jury-rigged" and "jerry-rigged" are so entangled that they are difficult to separate.  Nice name, by the way.  Coincidentally, I am known among my lawn-obsessed neighbors as Willie Evermow. 

"Jury-rig" in the sense you're asking about has nothing whatever to do with juries in the judicial sense, although to meddle in the selection or operation of a jury is known as "jury-rigging" or "jury-tampering."  In the "make-do" sense of "jury-rig," the word "jury" was originally a naval term for any makeshift contrivance substituting for the real thing in an emergency, first found in the early 17th century in the term "jury-mast," a temporary mast constructed in place of one that had been broken.  There's some debate about where the word "jury" in this sense came from, with the leading (but unverified) theory being that it was short for "injury."   

To say that something is "jerry-rigged" is to mix idioms a bit, because the proper term is "jerrybuilt."  A "jerrybuilder," a term dating to 19th-century England, was originally a house builder who constructed flimsy homes from inferior materials.  It is unlikely that the "jerry" in "jerry-built" is the same as the 20th century slang for Germans.  The "jerry" in the term may have been a real person known for the practice, or may be a mangled form of "jury," as in "jury-rigged."  I tend to think that "jerrybuilt" arose separately from "jury-rig" simply because their senses are slightly different.  Something that is "jury-rigged" is concocted on the spur of the moment to meet an emergency, but something "jerrybuilt" is deliberately constructed of inferior materials to turn a quick buck.

Zoom, zoom, thud.

Dear Word Detective:  I've long heard people talk about "souping up" their cars (i.e., tweaking the engine to make it more powerful).  I always assumed that this was spelled "suping up," my understanding being that it indicated the car was being made "superior" or "more super" or something like that.  Much to my chagrin, however, I've recently learned that I've been spelling it wrong all these years and that it is, in fact, spelled "souped" and not "suped."  Well, fine.  I don't have a problem acknowledging that I was wrong (although I do think my preferred spelling has a lot going for it).  What I haven't been able to find out, however, is where the phrase actually comes from and what, if anything, it has to do with the old Campbell's Cream of Mushroom. -- Barry, via the internet.

I agree that your spelling "souping up" as "suping" makes a lot of sense, and you'll be glad to know that we have the origin of the term to back us up.

In the beginning there was "soup," the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom (yuk) kind, a word which we inherited from the French "soupe," which, like its English relative "sop," originally meant bread soaked in broth.  Eventually the broth itself, often with bits of meat and vegetables, came to be known as "soup" in English. 

Almost as soon as "soup" appeared on our menu, we began developing figurative meanings for the word, and "soup" has been used as slang for everything from fog to the ocean to a difficult situation ("In the soup").  One particularly interesting use in the context of your question, appearing around 1900, is "soup" as slang for nitroglycerine or other explosives.

"To soup" as a verb originally meant, not surprisingly, to provide someone with soup, but around 1931 "to soup up" appeared, meaning to modify the engine of an aircraft or motor vehicle to increase its power and speed.  In part, this use may have been rooted in "soup" as 1930s slang for the stimulants sometimes injected into racehorses to make them run faster.  But a more immediate source (and the reason your spelling makes more sense) was probably the fact that the preferred method of "souping up" an engine was to add a "supercharger," a device designed to force additional air into the cylinders and boost power.  It is also possible that the simple adjective "super," as you guessed, may have figured into "souping up,"


Up in the air, Junior Birdmen.

Dear Word Detective:  I enjoy reading books about the Old West and have become curious about the origin of the word "buffaloed," as in hitting someone over the head with the barrel of a gun.  When did that word first come into use?  Did it have anything to do with the buffalo, which used to be so prevalent in the West?  --  Susan Brown, Meriden, CT.

No, those are bison.  "Buffalo" as a verb comes from the city of Buffalo, New York.  Winters in Buffalo are so severe (they routinely get between six and sixty feet of snow per week) that only the hardiest inhabitants survive without going mad.  Every winter many of the weaker links go bonkers from the cabin fever, climb to the roofs of their cabins, and try to fly to Miami (a psychological syndrome known as "Buffalo Wings").  Then it's up to the saner Buffaloians (Buffaloers?) to dig the nuts out of the snowbanks where they've landed, pistol-whip them, and drag them back inside.

None of that is true, by the way, although those are bison, even the ones on the old "buffalo nickels."  True buffalo live in India, Asia and parts of Africa.  The bison, or American buffalo, is a different genus, but both buffalo and bison are oxen, so the confusion of early settlers in the West is understandable. 

Buffalo (might as well call them that) were indeed very plentiful in the Old West, and were by far the largest and most powerful animal encountered by early settlers.  The sight of a herd of thousands of buffalo thundering across the prairie must have been quite something, so "to buffalo" naturally became a regional synonym for "to intimidate or threaten, to overwhelm by a show of force."  The first print citation for this use of "buffalo" comes from 1891, but the term was probably in use for decades before that by folks who were too busy running from the buffalo to take notes.  Interestingly enough, however, the threat posed by buffalo must have been more sound and fury than substance, because "to buffalo" also carried the connotation of "to intimidate by means of a bluff."  And because the most effective way to bluff is to confuse the victim,  a secondary meaning of "to buffalo" arose, today the most common sense,  meaning "to confuse or perplex." 

Contents may be, but rarely are, hot.

Dear Word Detective:  I was taking trash to our dumpster, which is held closed with "bungee" cords.  In small print on the cords I noticed a warning message.  I had to move in closely to read the message, which explained that if the bungee cord snapped it would probably take out my eye.  Protective eyewear should be used when interacting with bungee cords, it seems.  As a regular reader of your column on our DTN system, I began to wonder where the word "bungee" comes from.  Internet searches proved useless. -- Bryce Wilson, KLGA, Algona, IA.  

Ah yes, the enticing and thus perversely self-defeating warning, a late-20th century art form that has never been properly recognized for its subtle genius.  My favorite of the breed is the little label they stick next to the laser portal of supermarket scanners warning customers, in teensy tiny type of course, not to look at the laser beam (or, as one sardonic version puts it, "Do not stare at laser beam with remaining eye").

The reason you've been unable to find the origin of "bungee" on the internet is that considerable uncertainty on the question exists.  We do know that "bungee" first appeared in English around 1930 in the form "bungie" or "bungy" (both with a soft "g"), meaning what the English call a "rubber" and American schoolchildren know as an "eraser."  From the sound of the word one might expect that it is of Indian origin (especially since much of the world's rubber originally came from India), but no such luck.  The form "bungee" first appeared in the 1930s in reference to a elasticized cord.  Interestingly, one of the first uses to which "bungee cords" were put was the launching of glider aircraft.  A bit later on, bungee cords were used to retract the landing gear of some aircraft, and smaller versions were used on early American space flights to hold things down in zero gravity.  Eventually bungee cords were put to use securing luggage and holding the lids on trash cans.  Really big bungee cords are also used to catch idiots who jump from bridges.

Meanwhile, back at the origin of this infuriatingly mysterious word, the best guess I've found is that the word "bungee" (in its earlier forms) arose as an attempt to mimic the sound and action of a piece of rubber, perhaps even an eraser thrown by a student, bouncing off a wall or floor.

We'll call it "The Amazing Maze," and we'll put horns on the bachelor, and....

Dear Word Detective:   My wife and I were reading "The Princess and the Goblin," circa 1872, by George MacDonald (whose works were apparently an inspiration to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), and came across the word "clue," but referring to a ball of string.  Some looking in the dictionary turned up the expected definition relating to mysteries, but also a reference to the ball of thread used by Theseus to find his way out of the labyrinth as well as the nautical "clew."  What clues can you give us about the origins of "clues" and "clews," and how are the words connected besides sounding the same? -- Gene, via the internet. 

Good question.  Those of us who grew up on Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, familiar with the "key bit of evidence" sense of "clue" (or "clew," as it used to be spelled).  Holmes and Doctor Watson were always uncovering clues in the most unlikely places, often teasing meaning from the most prosaic details, such as cigar ash or a dog that didn't bark when it should have. 

But as the "clue" you uncovered indicates, the word "clue" originally had quite a different meaning.  The Old English "cliwen" meant "a globe or ball," specifically a ball made by winding up string or yarn, and the English "clew" originally carried this basic meaning.  By the 14th century, however, old mythological uses of a ball of string had given the word "clew" an entirely new meaning.  In the most famous of these myths, Theseus battled the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in a "labyrinth" or maze on the island of Crete.  Finding and slaying the Minotaur was only half the battle -- Theseus still had to find his way out of the labyrinth.  Fortunately, he had unraveled a ball of string to leave a trail as he entered, so exiting was simply a matter of rolling the string up again.

Based on this and similar myths, "clew" took on the sense of "guide to a complex situation," and by the early 18th century had come to mean "a key piece of evidence or indication of the direction to follow."  During the same period the spelling "clue" became more common, and "clew" is now considered an obsolete spelling in this sense.  The nautical "clew," however, retains both the spelling and the original "string" sense, meaning the corner of a sail that is tied to the spar or boom of a sailing ship.

Ha.  I'll bet he's watching "Fear Factor" in the basement.

Dear Word Detective:   Since I do not allow television in our home (my husband says his epitaph will read "All I ever wanted was cable"), we spend our time giving each other little research problems like:  "What is Cracker Jack's dog's name?" and "What is Barbie's last name?"  You know, mind-boggling questions that you can find the answer to in two seconds on the Internet.  One night, however, he was particularly clever in asking me to find the origin of the word "crackpot."  Now, we all know that the meaning of the word crackpot is "an eccentric person or one with bizarre ideas," but I can't find where or who coined the phrase. So please help us in our quest. -- Kristen, via the internet.

No television?  Well, tell your husband he's not missing much except The Simpsons.  Everything else seems to be cop shows or cookie-cutter sitcoms or more cop shows or FBI/CIA shows or annoying reality-TV spectacles.  Or, and if this isn't an indication of the end of civilization, I don't know what would be, autopsy shows.  They pretend to be cop shows, but they're actually autopsy shows.  By the way, what is Cracker Jack's dog's name?  Oh no, wait., dog's name is "Bingo."  Eight seconds on Google.  And the kid's name is actually "Sailor Jack."  Sic transit Great Mysteries of Life.

A "crackpot" is, as you say, a person with an unusual view of reality, a crank, a nut job, a member of the tinfoil brigade (so-called for the belief among some nutters that lining one's hat with aluminum foil will stymie those nasty mind-reading rays).  Of course, one person's crackpot is another's prophet, and the roadmap of sanity has a habit of changing over time.  Byzantine JFK assassination conspiracy theories, for instance, were once considered the hallmark of nuthood, but today "lone gunman believer" has become virtually synonymous with "sucker."

While cranks and crazies are certainly nothing new in human history, "crackpot" is remarkably recent, first appearing in the late 1800s.  The key to "crackpot" is that it is short for "cracked pot," "pot" having been slang for the human head since the 16th century.  So the implication of "crackpot" is that the person is behaving oddly because his or her head is actually damaged.  An equivalent but much older phrase, dating to the late 16th century, is the somewhat more vivid "crack-brain."



And the lady will have the grouse.

Dear Word Detective:  A friend of mine asked me if "dapper" was gender-specific, since she usually hears it paired with "gentleman."  I thought you might be able to shed some light on its origin or at least let us know if you know any "dapper" ladies. -- Jeremy Burnett, via the internet.

Believe it or not, I've been meaning for years to answer this question.  About 1994 I was having Sunday dinner with my father and my wife Kathy in a small restaurant in my hometown, Old Greenwich, CT.  At the next table sat an elderly married couple, dressed in their Sunday best, the nattily-attired man even sporting a flower in his buttonhole.  But we couldn't help but notice that the woman was giving her husband a very hard time.  Everything he did, from the way he cut his meat to the way he had taken out the garbage that morning, was utterly wrong, wrong, wrong.  Her litany of criticisms continued all through dinner until, just as they were about to leave, she sprang the topper.  "And why," she demanded, "do you always have to be so damned DAPPER?"

[Note:  I mentioned to Mrs. Word Detective that I had written about this incident, and she reminded me that during this lady's final tirade her husband was staring impassively down at his lap, which prompted her to launch into yet another rant, shouting, "And you're always looking down.  Why are you LOOKING DOWN?"  To which, my wife says, I helpfully responded sotto voce, "He's probably loading his gun."]

While in principle it should be perfectly possible for a woman to be described as "dapper," meaning "neatly and smartly dressed, trim and spruce in appearance," in practice "dapper" seems to be almost exclusively used to describe the male of the species.  Such "gender-specificity" may have something to do with the rather odd history of the word itself.  (Incidentally, "specificity" is lots of fun to say aloud.  Try it.) 

"Dapper" first appeared in English around 1440, apparently borrowed from the Middle Dutch "dapper."  But what's a bit strange is that the Dutch "dapper" meant not "neat and well-dressed," but "strong, agile and sturdy," and was related to an old Germanic word "dapper," meaning "heavy and stout."  As for how roots meaning "strong, heavy and stout" came to mean "trim and neat" in English, the Oxford English Dictionary has a theory:  it was a joke.  The use of "dapper" to describe a neatly, perhaps fussily, dressed man was originally, says the OED, "perhaps ironical or humorous."  Such sarcasm would also fit well with the secondary meaning of "dapper," which is "small, lithe and lively."

And it's Alpo in second place, Iams in third....

Dear Word Detective:  While I know that sports are not your cup of tea, this has been a very exciting basketball season with several upset victories.  It's considered an "upset" when the underdog beats the favored team.  I have heard this term dates back to the early twenties when a horse named Upset overcame huge odds to win a race and now any unexpected win by a team is called an "upset."  Is this the case or is it another one of those explanations that are too neat and clean to be true? -- Patrick Laugherty, Columbus, OH.

I too would automatically tend to be skeptical of the story you've heard.  "Upset" as a noun is a very old word indeed, having appeared in English back in the 15th century, and it seems implausible, since "upset" has been used to mean "the overturning or reversal" of something since the early 18th century, that its first use in a sporting context would not have occurred to a sportswriter before the 1920s.

Still, the horse-racing story is compelling.  It wasn't just any old horse that Upset beat at Saratoga in 1919 -- it was the legendary Man o' War, who had been heavily favored to win.  But while Man o' War's loss was a shock to many, the newspapers of the day did not make the "Upset by Upset" puns we would expect today, perhaps indicating that "upset" in the sporting sense was not yet part of the average sportswriter's repertoire.  Furthermore, the earliest citation found for "upset" in a sporting context was, for many years, from 1924, suggesting that Upset's victory may indeed have spawned the term.

However, in late 2002, lexicographic researcher George Thompson spent some time checking a database of New York Times articles from the 19th century, and discovered that "upset" had indeed been used as a noun in the context of an unexpected victory in a horse race way back in 1877, and had been used as a verb in that context as long ago as 1865.  So Upset certainly "upset" Man o' War (and no doubt deeply upset a lot of bettors), and his victory may have popularized the term in sporting circles, but the term "upset" itself was already long in the tooth.

And my Topsiders were ruined.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you shed some light on the origin of the term "country bumpkin"?  --  Margherita Wohletz, via the internet.

Yeah, sure.  I'm tired of living in the country anyway.  Actually, one thing I've learned since moving from New York City to the middle of a cornfield is that the percentage of people in the country who might plausibly be described as "bumpkins" is probably lower than in most cities. 

But dictionaries have, for the most part, been written in the cities of the world, and since the 16th century, "bumpkin" has meant "a slow, awkward, ignorant and gullible country dweller" of the sort also known as a "hayseed," "yokel," "rube" or "hick."  Of course, country dwellers have their own derisive terms for clueless city folk, including "city slicker" and, especially in the West, "greenhorn, "tenderfoot" and "dude."  But sometimes the simpler terms are the most eloquent.  Here in rural Ohio, a suburbanite who moves to the country, buys a big shiny tractor to mow his lawn and then promptly drives it into the creek (or worse) is known simply as "a damn fool." 

The odd thing about "bumpkin" is that there is evidence that it originally wasn't an insult based on one's residence in the country at all.  The root of "bumpkin" is thought to most likely be the Dutch word "boomken," meaning "little tree," and the point of the insult "bumpkin" was apparently the supposedly short or "stumpy" stature of the Dutch.  The long national rivalry between England and the Netherlands that began in the 17th century produced many such insults, ranging from "Dutch treat" (not a treat to anyone, since each person pays his or her own way) to "Dutch courage" (belligerence born of inebriation) to "the Dutch act" (suicide). 

But while "bumpkin" may have had nothing to do with rural residence at the outset, it is now firmly established as an insult to country dwellers, and indeed has been almost always paired with "country" since the 18th century.

Big wheel keeps on turnin'.

Dear Word Detective:  I heard a reference in a report on the war this week to Iraqi forces "slowing down the American juggernaut."  My dictionary tells me that "juggernaut" is a form of the Hindu god Vishnu.  That doesn't quite fit with the image of the American army moving inexorably down the road, rolling over all in its way, then suddenly, unexpectedly, meeting resistance.  Can you enlighten me? -- Steve Fox, via the internet. 

Dude, you need a new dictionary.  I just looked up "juggernaut" in the most recent American Heritage Dictionary (just to check, of course, because I already know the answer to absolutely everything anyone ever asks), and they have a nicely complete explanation of the term.  On second thought, never mind.  I have house payments to make.

Besides, your dictionary is correct as far as it goes.  "Juggernaut" (or, in Hindi, "Jagganath," from the Sanskrit "jagat," world, plus "natha," lord, protector) is indeed a title of Vishnu (actually Krishna, the eighth avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu).  Specifically, "Jagganath" is a large idol of Krishna that is the focus of an annual festival in Orissa, India.  The idol is mounted on a huge wheeled platform and pulled through the streets, and, according to some accounts, devotees of Krishna would, in the past,  supposedly deliberately throw themselves under the wheels to be crushed to death.

Incidentally, if I sound a bit skeptical about that self-sacrifice angle, it's because the original Western accounts of the Jagganath festival date back to 1321, descriptions of other cultures' religious practices tend to be imaginative even today, and dragging a huge wheeled statue down a crowded street sounds like a good way to unintentionally crush people.

In any case, the first figurative use of the Anglicized form "juggernaut" came around 1854, meaning "a practice or idea to which people devote themselves blindly, or to which human life is ruthlessly sacrificed."  In Britain, "juggernaut" is commonly used in a more literal sense to mean a large lorry or truck.  But the most familiar American use of "juggernaut" is to mean "a large, quickly-moving, unstoppable force."  While the application of "juggernaut" to the Anglo-American invasion force in Iraq is certainly apt, it's interesting to note that Western media took pains to avoid the possibly even more apt German term "Blitzkreig" (literally, "lightning war") because of its unpleasant associations with Nazi Germany.

Aw, shucks.

Dear Word Detective:  I've been wondering about origins of "(like a) moonstruck calf."  When I first started thinking about it, I thought that maybe this had something to do with a calf being mystified and amazed by this big bright white thing in the nighttime sky.  But the little research I've done does not seem to support this.  Also, I would expect that the word "moonstruck" appeared later as a shortening of the phrase. -- Leonard Peterson, via the internet.

Well, this is actually a rather convoluted question, because it appears to be a case of two idioms intermingling and producing a hybrid.  Let's begin with the "moonstruck" part.

For much of human history, exposure to the light of the moon, especially the full moon, was believed to cause a wide range of unpleasant mental symptoms, ranging from moodiness to outright insanity.  (The full moon was also, of course, known to rile up werewolves and witches.)  So firm was the popular belief in the harmful powers of moonlight that even today we speak colloquially of the deranged as "lunatics," a 13th century term drawn from the Latin word for moon, "luna."  The term "moonstruck," which first appeared in the 17th century, started out meaning roughly the same thing as "lunatic" -- that the person had been "struck" or stunned, scrambled, confused and maddened by exposure to the full moon.  The "moonstruck" victim could even, it was said, exhibit dire physical symptoms, such as blindness whenever the moon was full. 

But perhaps because fear of the moon and its light were waning by the 19th century, "moonstruck" lost its alarming connotations and came to describe someone who is mildly addled, dazed and confused not by the moon, but by a romantic infatuation.  

Meanwhile, back in the 16th century, "calf" was slang for a stupid person, reflecting the common perception of bovine intellect.  Furthermore, to conceive a child during the full moon was believed to risk delivering a "mooncalf," a deformed, retarded or stillborn child.  As in the case of "moonstruck," fading belief in the deleterious powers of the full moon has today made "mooncalf" simply another term for a fool or someone who spends too much time in a dreamy, absent-minded state.

"Moonstruck calf" appears to combine the senses of "moonstruck" and "mooncalf" with the innocent, trusting stare of a young calf to mean "gullible, guileless and goony person," especially as regards matters of love.  


Funny, the same thing happened to my Godzilla necktie.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word "pajamas" come from? This was a trivia question asked by a local radio station and no one seems to be able to find out. -- Corbett. L. Wilson, via the internet.

Ha.  You only think that's your local radio station.  It's probably just another tentacle of the soulless mega-corporation that is, even as we speak, skulking around the U.S. buying up all the local radio stations and piping the same bland programming into a thousand markets.  I'm not allowed to say the name of the company (Forces of Darkness, y'know) but it rhymes with Deerflannel.  Even the guy who delivers your weather report is probably sitting hundreds of miles away. 

Or maybe not.  In any case, it's a good question.  "Pajamas," known to those of us who wear the kind with large bunny rabbits on them as "jammies" or "PJs," are, of course, sleeping clothes consisting of loose-fitting trousers and a sort of oversized shirt or jacket, usually made of either silk or cotton.  There are variations in style, of course.  I once owned a pair of PJs, light blue with contrasting neckband and cuffs, that strongly resembled a Star Trek uniform.  Unfortunately, according to Mrs. Word Detective, they caught fire one day when she was doing the laundry, and I have yet to find another pair.

Pajamas are such an icon of American life (Hugh Hefner is probably still living in his, an image upon which we should not dwell) that it may come as a surprise to learn that pajamas (also spelled "pyjamas," especially in the U.K.) originated in the Middle East and India.  The word "pajama" entered English in the early 19th century from the Hindi "paejama," which in turn combined the Persian "pai" (leg) with "jamah" (clothing).  The original "pajamas" were loose-fitting trousers worn during the day by people in the region, but adopted as sleepwear by European colonialists.  The matching jacket was only adopted when pajamas were brought back to the chillier European climes.

And the crowd goes "Boom!"

Dear Word Detective:  I'm sure we've all heard of "explode" and "implode" before, but is "plode" a root word of each?  If so, what does "plode" mean? -- Moose, via the internet. 

Good question, especially coming from a moose.  And, since every good question deserves a good answer, we have a doozie for our contestant today.

The word "explode," which today we use to mean "blow up, burst apart with great force and loud noise" was originally, believe it or not, a theatrical term.  Back in the 17th century, if a performer on stage was doing a lousy job, the audience would drive him or her from the stage with hisses, boos, assorted projectiles (usually rotten vegetables) and, oddly enough, sustained, raucous clapping.  This "ejection by applause" had been practiced since Roman times, and was known in Latin as "explodere," from "ex," meaning "out" plus "plaudere," meaning "to applaud or clap."  (That "plaudere" is also, as you might suspect, the root of our modern "applause.") 

In English, the word "explode" had first appeared in a more general sense of "reject with scorn" around 1538, while the theatrical "clap off the stage" meaning of the word became popular around 1621.  The general "reject" sense of "explode" also expanded during this period to include the sense of "debunk, discredit," and we still speak of a flawed scientific theory being "exploded," or driven from the halls of knowledge by criticism.

So far, all the senses of "explode" had centered on the process of "driving something out," but toward the end of the 17th century "explode" was expanded to mean "to drive out with violence and sudden noise," most notably in reference to gunpowder.  Even then, however, the modern sense of "blast apart" didn't develop until the late 18th century.  "Explode" then went on to develop a range of metaphorical meanings based on this "blow up" sense, and populations, markets, and careers all "explode" today.

   Once "explode" had come to mean "blow up," the opposite action needed a verb, and by 1881 we had "implode," constructed on the Latin model of "explode" with the "ex" replaced by "im," meaning "in or inwardly."   Many things "implode" today, including, of course, both markets and careers.

Of course, that doesn't explain why she barks at me when I come home.

Dear Word Detective:  Just the other day I was typing up overdue journals for a college class of mine, when I realized that I had put a "B" at the end of the word "super."  I realized that this is because "superb" is a completely legitimate word; but I was wondering -- why is there a "b" at the end of this word when the word "super" is just peachy on its own?  My mother suggested that it might have something to do with adverbs vs. adjectives, but I doubted this.  If you could shine some light on this subject, I would greatly appreciate it; I'm a fiercely curious creature and need an answer. -- Nate, via the internet.

"A fiercely curious creature," eh?  Well, I wish I could offer you a job, but I do hear the CIA is hiring.  In searching for answers myself, I have to make do with my fiercely curious dog, Pokey.  Unfortunately, Pokey may be fiercely curious, but she isn't very bright.  Having once seen a rabbit at a certain spot on the lawn two full years ago, she still returns to that spot every day, apparently expecting the rabbit to meet her there.  This really happens, incidentally, and should not necessarily be construed as a parable about the CIA.

"Superb," as you note, is a completely legitimate adjective meaning "very fine, splendid, magnificent," and can be applied to just about anything from a palace to a golf shot.  "Superb" first appeared in English in the 16th century, initially applied mainly to buildings in the sense of "magnificent, stately and noble."  The root of "superb" is the Latin "superbus," meaning "proud, superior, distinguished."

One interesting thing about that Latin "superbus" is that it is was formed from the Latin preposition "super," meaning "above" or "over."  One might think that our modern "super" is therefore essentially the same word, but it's not.

The word we now know as "super," meaning "first-rate, excellent, or very fine" really only got going in English in the mid-19th century, when it was adopted from the commercial term "superfine" (i.e., "above fine") meaning goods or merchandise of the highest and most refined quality.  But this abbreviated form "super" took a while to take off, and  the use of "super" to mean "really good" only achieved public acceptance in the early 20th century, almost 400 years after we began describing things as "superb."


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All contents Copyright 2003 by Evan Morris.