Issue of July 21, 2004



Barry Popik, whom I have mentioned many times, finally has his own web site,  I'll let Barry introduce himself with this paragraph from his web site:

BARRY POPIK is a contributor-consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations. Since 1990 he has also been a regular contributor to Gerald Cohenís Comments on Etymology. He is recognized as an expert on the origins of the terms Big Apple, Windy City, hot dog, and many other food terms, and he is an editor of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004). He posts commentary on Americanisms to the American Dialect Society email list, ADS-L, where he has over 7,000 archived posts since 1996.



Another new site well worth your time is Grant Barrett's fascinating Double-Tongued Word Wrester.  As Grant explains:

Double-Tongued Word Wrester records words as they enter and leave the English language. It focuses upon slang, jargon, and other niche categories which include new, foreign, hybrid, archaic, obsolete, and rare words. Special attention is paid to the lending and borrowing of words between the various Englishes and other languages, even where a word is not a fully naturalized citizen in its new language.




Elsewhere in the news, I was wandering around the yard two weeks ago, and in the small wood that borders our northern field I found three small kittens, one orange, one brown striped, and one Siamese-looking,  mewing piteously.  So I gave them some food and water, but when I checked back later they were gone.  Oh well.

A few days later, elsewhere in the yard, the orange kitten emerged alone from the underbrush and began following me around, so I took him inside and gave him food, and a day later took him to the vet for a checkup.  But there was no sign of the other two, even though I searched over the next few days.

Harry took up residence in my office and gradually lost his shyness, chasing his ball and jumping up and down on my keyboard with glee.  But every few minutes he would stop playing, look around the room and start to cry.  He obviously missed his siblings, but there was nothing more we could do.

Exactly one week after Harry arrived, we were walking down the road late at night when we heard a crash in the underbrush and the two missing kittens came tumbling out a few feet away, meowing loudly.  My guess is that they recognized my voice as being that of The Food Guy.  I easily snagged the Siamese-looking one, but the little striped one bolted back into the bushes.  So midnight found me crawling through rusty barbed wire and poison ivy with a flashlight and a plate of Fancy Feast.  After a few minutes of discussion, Gus decided to come back to the house as well.  And Harry doesn't cry any more.   

But we now have five cats and two dogs, putting us perilously close to the Eyewitness News threshold of dementia.  We still haven't named the little girl kitten, and are open to suggestions sent to [address removed].  Pictures of the little critters can be found here.

UPDATE:  Kitten's name turns out to be Phoebe.  Thanks to the dozens of readers who sent in great (and often very creative) suggestions.  We are keeping them on file, and, should more cats appear, we will give them top consideration.  Phoebe, by the way, looks much less like Roy Cohn now, and much more like a cat in an Edward Gorey drawing.

Incidentally, I have now discovered how long it takes for a unique email address posted on these pages to be hit with spam -- three days. 

And now, on with the show:

No more for the monkey.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently given a piece or work to sub which contained the phrase "screaming ab-dabs." Thinking to just check on the hyphen (and also, I had thought it might be "habdabs"), I then discovered that the term wasn't to be found in any of my dictionaries and the internet was no help either in confirming which way the word was to be spelled, hyphen or no, or where the phrase came from. Please, can you shed some light on the matter? -- Kirsty Anderson.

I'll give it a shot, but I must say that light on this question is difficult to come by. I can tell by your email address that you work for the BBC, and I presume that by "sub" as a verb you mean "sub-editing," what we in the US call "copyediting," checking text for errors, consistency of style, etc. This column has no copy editor on the premises, which is why our motto has always been "Any typos found are yours to keep."

To begin at the beginning, the form "ab-dabs" is indeed the standard spelling, although "habdabs" is also common. In current usage, "screaming ab-dabs" is roughly equivalent to what we Americans would call "the heebie-jeebies" or "the wimwams," a state of nervous excitement bordering on apoplexy, usually induced by a very unpleasant or stressful situation. We each, of course, have our own personal "ab-dabs" threshold, but being trapped in an elevator with Wayne Newton and Richard Perle would probably do it for me.

According to slang etymologist Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, during World War II "ab-dabs" primarily meant "a tall tale" ("Don't give me that old ab-dabs"), as well as "an attack of delirium tremens" (which fits with the "heebie-jeebies" meaning). Partridge dates the phrase "screaming ab-dabs" to about 1950.

Oddly, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) gives the meaning of "aba-daba" only as "dessert," a sense Partridge mentions as being "occasional." More significantly, the HDAS suggests as a source the song "The Aba-Daba Honeymoon," a ragtime ditty of 1913 that apparently involved monkeys chattering "aba daba" and the like. My sense is that the song has little to do with the "dessert" meaning of "ab-dabs" (which is possibly, as Partridge suggests, simply a modification of the British term "afters," as in "after the main courses"), but it seems plausible that the nonsensical chatter of monkeys in the song was adopted at some point as evocative of delirium tremens or the heebie-jeebies.

Kind of a drag.

Dear Word Detective: I am an English as a Second Language teacher. My students are working adults. The other day, one of my students asked the meaning of the word, "draft." In the context at that point, draft meant "preliminary version of written work." However, the ensuing discussion touched on beer, horses, military service, a slight breeze, etc., while further research produced a few more, e.g., a bill of exchange, a quaff, the depth of a vessel's keel below the surface, and a dose of liquid medicine. How are these words related? Is there a common origin? -- Eric Hansen.

Reading your question reminded me (as those emanating from ESL classes often do) of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns line "O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!" (meaning "It would be nice to be able see ourselves through the eyes of other people"). Learning English as a second language is notoriously tricky, and I'm tempted to apologize for all the ambiguity, but it was like this when I got here.

The first thing to note about "draft" is that it is the modern phonetic spelling of "draught," although you'll still see the earlier spelling often used in reference to horses, beer and various other things, especially in Britain. The senses of "draft" you mention are all derived from the root sense of the word when it appeared in English in the 13th century, "the act of pulling," most likely derived from the prehistoric Germanic verb "dragan," also the source of our modern "drag" and "draw."

Believe it or not, all the senses of "draft" you mention are elaborations of that basic "pulling" sense. Draft beer is pulled from kegs, draft horses pull stuff, the military draft "pulls in" civilians, and a draft of drink is pulled from the bottle, as is a dose of medicine. A draft from a window is "pulled through" the opening, a bank draft is pulled from your account, and a ship's "draft" is the amount of water it displaces (a vague sense of "pull"). A draft in writing, art or architecture is an early form "pulled" mid-process to indicate the final product. And even the English game of "draughts" (known in the U.S. as "checkers") is so-called from the movement of pieces pulled across the playing board. So it's all the same word, and even that's not the half of it. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 50 definitions of "draught" and "draft."

They bait the traps with Claritin.

Dear Word Detective: For years I have been wondering what an "olay" is, as in "Oil of Olay," the "mysterious beauty fluid" they used to advertise on radio and TV. My dictionary doesn't even list the word. It's been bothering me for a long time. -- Brenda Galloway.

You and me both. I remember hearing those commercials and wondering what an "olay" was. A plant? A place? A small mammal? The cry of a bullfighter who spies wrinkles in the mirror?

It wasn't until this year, while I was writing "From Altoids to Zima," a book of trade name origins (to be published by Simon & Schuster this coming September), that I finally thought to go looking for the answer to the Great Olay Mystery.

Brace yourself. It seems that there never was any such thing as an "Olay." In fact, the mystery goop wasn't even called "Oil of Olay" at first.

What eventually became "Oil of Olay" was developed during World War II by a South African chemist named Graham Gordon Wulff to help military burn victims heal by preventing their skin from becoming dehydrated. At the end of the war it occurred to Wulff that the burn treatment he had invented might make a dandy beauty cream in the civilian market. He teamed up with a partner named Shaun Adams Lowe, and together they set out to market Wulff's cream.

First, of course, they needed a name, and after some thought came up with "Oil of Ulay." That's "Ulay," not "Olay." As more and more people bought it and asked what "Ulay" was, Wulff and Lowe realized that the mystery of their product's name was one of its strongest selling points, and "the mysterious beauty fluid" shtick was born.

As "Oil of Ulay" sales caught on and the product was exported to Europe and the U.S., a curious adjustment of its name took place. In England it was still called "Oil of Ulay," but in most of Europe it was sold under the name "Oil of Olaz." Only in America was it called "Oil of Olay." It wasn't until 2000 that the current Ulay/Olay/Olaz owners Procter & Gamble decided to simplify life by changing it to "Olay" worldwide. Today Olay (they dropped the "Oil of" a few years ago) produces a wide range of beauty products, all without harming a single cute little olay.

Rain was, however, imminent.

Dear Word Detective: A term we see frequently, usually associated with political speech writers, is "spin-doctor." It looks as if it might be connected with the phrase "put a good spin on it." Any idea where it hails from? -- John.

Well, you've certainly picked the right time to ask this question. The approach of elections in the US always brings out spin doctors by the brigade, professional optimists (to be polite) who contort logic and reality to put the best possible face on any occurrence or utterance by their clients. A good example of "spin doctoring" came a while back when President Bush took a tumble from his mountain bike. Of course, anyone who rides a bicycle will sooner or later fall off, no big deal, but a presidential spokesperson immediately explained that the accident was due to the fact that it had been "raining a lot lately" in Crawford, Texas recently and that "the topsoil was loose." This assertion was, unfortunately, rather quickly revealed to be a bit out of sync with the National Weather Service's impression that it had not rained significantly in that part of Texas in at least a week. It takes a truly dedicated spin doctor to feel the need to invent weather out of thin air to explain something that didn't need an explanation in the first place.

You suggest that "spin doctor" may be related to "put a good spin on it," and indeed the two phrases do both spring from sports, particularly cricket, billiards and baseball, where imparting a spinning motion to the ball gives the player more control over its trajectory and behavior. Similarly, since the late 1970s "spin" has been used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "A bias or slant on information, intended to create a favorable impression when it is presented to the public." "Spin" is thus a way to alter the trajectory of perceived reality so that it leads to a conclusion other than that which otherwise might prevail among the public.

"Spin doctor" as a term for someone employed to promote, and usually masterful at concocting, positive interpretations of negative news dates back to the mid-1980s, with the first appearance yet found being in a New York Times story of October, 1984. The "doctor" element of the phrase is almost certainly derived from the verb "to doctor" in the pejorative sense, dating back to the late 18th century, of "to disguise, falsify or tamper with," as found in the phrase "to doctor the books."

Rhymes with "pain."

Dear Word Detective: What is a "swain" (as in "young swain")? -- Roy Cameron.

Good question. "Swain" is a great word that almost no one uses anymore, except occasionally in a sarcastic sense.

A "swain" is a male admirer or suitor. "Swain" is basically a classy way of saying "boyfriend," although "swain" does imply a level of interest and devotion that many boyfriends seem to lack. A "swain" brings flowers to your door. A "swain" does not sit in his car honking the horn.

The original meaning of "swain," however, had nothing to do with courtship. "Swain" arrived in English in the 12th century from the Old Norse "sveinn," and at first meant simply "boy" or "servant," particularly a young man serving a knight. A knight's "swain" polished the boss's armor, cared for his horse, and acted as his valet.

By the 16th century, however, knights were getting scarce, and "swain" took on the meaning of "farm laborer" or "shepherd." For the "swain" himself, such an occupation consisted largely of unglamorous, often backbreaking work. But at that time country life was widely romanticized, considered a simpler, purer existence, and poets like Robert Greene began to use "swain" in the sense of "gallant lover" in their pastoral fantasies. Five centuries later, we still use "swain" in this sense, but now almost always in a jocular or sarcastic tone implying that the "swain" might not be such a great catch after all, as in "Deborah's swain turned out to be a mousy accountant with a wife in Hoboken."

Incidentally, "swain" isn't the only word in the world of love and romance that started out denoting a lowly aide to a knight. When "bachelor," today meaning "an unmarried man," entered English from the Old French "bacheler" in the 13th century, it meant "apprentice knight." The next notable sense of "bachelor" to develop was "one who has achieved the first degree at a university," as opposed to the more advanced "master of arts" (both of which terms are still in use). But since most university "bachelors" were young men, not yet married, by the late 14th century "bachelor" had taken on its modern meaning of "unmarried man."

But a good foxtrot is forever.

Dear Word Detective: Is the saying "It takes two to tango," or is it "to tangle"? My friends and I are hotly debating this issue with absolutely no evidence. We find both phrases in an Internet search, along with two different interpretations that unfortunately aren't tied to any particular version of the phrase. That is, some people define the phrase as signifying that it takes two people to successfully undertake some specific task, while others say that it means it takes two people to maintain a fight or disagreement (that is, it takes one person to start a fight, but the other could walk away). With the second interpretation, the term "tangle," meaning a conflict, seems to make more sense. Also, the dance "tango" didn't become popular in the U.S. until the early 20th century, while this concept must certainly predate the dance. And as some have pointed out, it takes two to waltz, foxtrot, or jitterbug, although those phrases lack the satisfying alliteration. "It takes two to turkey trot"? Please help! -- Melinda.

Much as I always enjoy a good debate with absolutely no evidence, in the case of your tango/tangle argument there is, in fact, a surprisingly definite answer to at least part of your question. The phrase "It takes two to tango" appeared in popular usage in 1952, shortly after the song "Takes Two to Tango," written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, and sung by Pearl Bailey, became a hit. The lyrics are an argument against the single life ("You can haunt any house by yourself, Be a man or a mouse by yourself, You can act like a king on a throne, There are lots of things that you can do alone, But it takes ... Two to tango, two to tango"), but "two to tango" was almost immediately drafted to describe any situation, from international negotiations to bar fights, that required, by definition, two participants.

It's not recorded who first modified "tango" to the equally alliterative "tangle" in the phrase, but in a sense they were taking a step back about 250 years. The phrase "It takes two to tangle," meaning "to argue or fight," is a striking echo of the old English proverb "It takes two to make a quarrel," which first appeared in print in 1705 in the form "When one will not, two will not quarrel."

So "It takes two to tango," originally referring to romance, came before the "tangle" version, but borrowed the idea from a proverb that clearly referred to arguing. So everyone is a little bit right. May I suggest that you folks stop arguing and just dance?

Sit. Stay.

Dear Word Detective: I mentioned to a co-worker that another co-worker had been really grouchy and snapped at me over some little matter, and the first co-worker replied that maybe the other person was just "having a bad hair day." I made a fool of myself by replying that she had looked just fine to me! Later, it dawned on me that she meant something to the effect that the person was having everything go all wrong that day. I have heard the phrase often since then, but where did it come from? -- Sandy Curtis.

Well, live and learn, and welcome to the world of bad hair days. It does seem that your co-worker was using the term figuratively to mean that the person was simply having a difficult day, but literal "bad hair days" when your hair misbehaves are no fun either, and may actually have serious psychological effects on the victim. A study conducted in 2000 at Yale University found that a day when a person's hair asserts itself in a lumpy, frumpy, flippy, flat or frizzy fashion can cause debilitating feelings of low self-esteem and vulnerability. Surprisingly, researchers found that men are more likely than women to be thrown for a loop by bad hair. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the study was underwritten by a shampoo company.

Tracing the exact origin of "bad hair day" hasn't been easy. William Safire, in a column on this topic in 1993, traced the phrase to a 1991 comment by comedian Gary Shandling (known for asking "Is my hair all right?" as part of his stand-up routine). In 1995, TV personality Jane Pauley claimed on a number of occasions to have coined the phrase sometime back in the 1970s.

But research by American Dialect Society stalwarts Fred Shapiro and Barry Popik, spurred by an extended discussion of "bad hair day" on the ADS mailing list in 2000, uncovered the earliest verified use of the phrase in print, a 1988 column by Susan Swartz in the Houston Chronicle. Significantly, Swartz herself doesn't claim to have invented "bad hair day" herself, and suspects she may have picked it up from nearby teen-aged girls. But since she is apparently the first one to use the phrase in a published work, Susan Swartz is credited in the Oxford English Dictionary for bringing us "bad hair day."


Ouch.  Honk.  Ouch.  Honk.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the phrase "cut the fool"? In modern usage, I believe the phrase means to "hang out" or "goof off," and it implies a certain amount of idleness tinged with merriment. I've also heard it as "cut a fool," with the same meaning. Did people cut fools for amusement once upon a time during periods of boredom? -- Henry.

Not that I know of, although the unsubtle art of clown-tormenting was perfected during the Great Whimsy Backlash of 1898. Clowns all over the country, besieged by irate mobs twisting their bulbous noses and stomping on their floppy feet, fled to the safety of Washington, D.C., where they remain holed up to this day. Circus impresario P.T. Barnum later apologized to the American people for condoning clowns, saying, "There's one born every minute, and it's all my fault for letting them breed in the first place."

Hey, a guy can dream. But no, "to cut the fool" does not involve bloodshed. It all has to do with a rather curious sense of the verb "to cut." The Oxford English Dictionary lists sixty-five separate senses of "cut," which in its basic meaning of "to make an incision in or into" dates back to the 13th century in English and probably derives from a Germanic root.

Within one of the main meanings of "to cut," the sense of "to shape or form by cutting" (as one might "cut" a diamond), we find sub-definition VI.25, "To perform or execute (an action, gesture, or display of a grotesque, striking, or notable kind)."

Thus "to cut" in this sense means to do a feat or act a part, such as "cutting a caper," which back in Shakespeare's time meant "to dance or leap about." Fans of 19th century literature will occasionally encounter the phrase "cut a dido," which means "to act the fool, to play pranks" ("dido" being an archaic and mysterious word for "prank" or "disturbance").

So "to cut a fool" (or "cut the fool") simply means to act like a fool, to give the impression of being a silly, lazy or foolish person. "Hanging out" and "goofing off" would certainly qualify as "cutting the fool," at least in the eyes of the staid and censorious among us. But there are worse offenses. Like being a mime.

Sometimes a great notion.

Dear Word Detective: Lately I've been hearing the phrase "cut and run" a lot with reference to Iraq. I don't think I've heard this phrase since the Vietnam period, and I've always wondered about what it really means. I understand the "run" part, but what is it that you're supposed to "cut"? Does it have anything to do with "cutting your losses"? -- E. F., New York.

What a coincidence. I too have noticed the reappearance of "cut and run" in news accounts lately, usually in newspaper editorials or quotations from politicians, although I imagine that the bumper stickers will be along shortly. Searching Google News for the phrase today produces hundreds of hits, the most notable being from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, pausing to catch his breath on a "lightning visit to Turkey," declared, "We are not going to have any so-called quick exit, there will be no cutting and running in Iraq."  

To "cut and run" means, of course, to make a hasty departure, usually a retreat under fire, abandoning any further effort in order to escape a difficult situation. In common usage today, "cut and run" is a loaded phrase, clearly pejorative and bordering on the demagogic, a way of casting one's opponents' policies or criticisms in the worst possible light.

One might imagine a number of possible sources for the "cut" of "cut and run," and your guess about "cut your losses" (to cease or quit a hopeless enterprise or situation before losses become greater) is a good one. But the roots of "cut and run" actually lie in the days of sailing ships. A ship at anchor coming under sudden attack by the enemy, rather than waste valuable time in the laborious task of hoisting its anchor, would sacrifice the anchor by cutting the cable, allowing the ship to get under sail and escape the attack quickly. "To cut and run" was thus an accepted military tactic in emergencies, and the phrase itself dates to at least the early 1700s. By the mid-1800s, "cut and run" was in common use as a metaphor for abruptly giving up an endeavor in the face of difficulty, and appears in non-nautical context in Dickens's 1861 novel Great Expectations.

Have you checked his briefs?

Dear Word Detective: I got sued for defamation for calling a lawyer "lousy," as in "lousy lawyer." How did this word originate, and isn't it so widely used that it cannot really be used as defamation? -- Mary Jay.

Before we begin, I must invoke the acronym IANAL, which I learned on the internet and which means "I am not a lawyer." On the internet, that disclaimer is often the prelude to a demented train of logic proving little more than that the author is, indeed, not a lawyer, but I'll try to keep my judgment within the ballpark of common sense. In my humble opinion, that lawyer, in suing you, violated several tenets of sound legal practice, most particularly the age-old prohibition against public self-parody. A lawyer suing over being called "lousy," it seems to me, has proven the defendant's case in the act of filing his suit.

I am assuming, however, that in calling this lawyer "lousy" you were using the term in its generally-accepted modern meaning of "inferior, inept, of low quality" (or even the stronger "contemptible or vile"). That use seems to fall within the protection afforded by your right to express a personal opinion. You might be in trouble, however, if it was clear that you meant "lousy" in the literal sense of the term when it appeared back in the 14th century, "infested with lice." In that case, only a close (very close) examination of the lawyer could establish the truth of your statement and save you from a charge of defamation.

It's worth noting that "lousy" in the figurative derogatory sense is not a new usage, and is not slang (although it shouldn't be used in formal speech or writing). Both the literal "infested with lice" and the figurative "dirty rotten scoundrel" senses came into use in English within a few years of each other back in the late 1300s. The milder derogatory meaning of "inferior" only became common in the early 20th century. The use of "lousy with" to mean "swarming or abundant with" ("This place is lousy with lawyers") arose in the mid-1800s.

Incidentally, if I were the lawyer defending you against the lawyer (chachacha), I would point out that very few people would argue with your right to call the lawyer "crummy." But ""crummy," now used to mean "of low quality" or "unfair, untrustworthy," comes from "crumb," used in the 19th century as slang for a louse or bedbug.

Chowhound stampede.

Dear Word Detective: English is not my mother tongue, and sometimes I find words in a dictionary which my American colleagues have never heard before, so I simply stop using them. One of such words is "smorgasbord." Could you please tell me something about its meaning and origin (if it exists in English at all)? -- Ivana.

"Smorgasbord" does indeed exist in English, and I'm surprised that your co-workers don't know it. A "smorgasbord" is an offering of food, ranging from simple hors d'oeuvres to a full dinner, presented as a serve-yourself spread on a sideboard or table separate from where diners are seated. Granted, "smorgasbord" started out as a Swedish word, but it has been used frequently in English since the late 19th century, long enough to qualify as an English word as well.

The roots of "smorgasbord" speak to its origins as an assortment of simple appetizers set out for dinner guests. "Smorgas" in Swedish means "slice of bread and butter" (the "smor" is related to the English "smear"), and "bord" simply means "board," or in this case "table." Today, however, the term is usually taken to mean a full and often elaborate assortment of dishes, and any host who led his guests to expect a "smorgasbord" and presented them with naught but bread and butter might well end up on the evening news. Since the late 1940s, "smorgasbord" has also been used in a metaphorical sense to mean "a wide variety or range," as in "The defendant faces a smorgasbord of charges ranging from mopery to vote tampering."

I remember hearing and reading about "smorgasbords" fairly often during the Scandinavian craze that swept the U.S. in the mid-1960s (the same period during which everyone received a fondue pot for Christmas). If your friends are unfamiliar with the word, it's probably because they know the "serve yourself" dining arrangement as a "buffet," a meal, like a "smorgasbord," served on a sideboard or separate table. "Buffet" is an imported French word of unknown origin for a side table, common in English since the early 18th century. "Buffet" dining in the U.S. today, aside from dinner parties and the wretched "breakfast buffet" offered in many motels, is usually found in all-you-can-eat emporiums where customers can (and, from the looks of some of them, do) graze until the cows come home.

On the other hand, it does explain dord.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the etymology of "tabs" when used to mean to watch something or someone, as in "to keep tabs on ...." I'd also like to know why it is used in plural as above and also in singular "to keep a tab on ...." I had imagined that it must have some relationship to the usage of "tab" which refers to the protrusion from a file folder or index card. However, a dictionary I consulted said that the etymology was unknown. -- G.H. Gena.

Oh, please. Dictionary editors always pull that "origin unknown" stuff when it's Friday afternoon and they're in a hurry to tie one on. Most people accept Samuel Johnson's definition of lexicographers as "harmless drudges," but the truth is that the average dictionary office would give Animal House a run for its money. I'll bet the Editor-in-Chief took a big swig of Old Webster's as he tossed the entry for "Tabs" into his out box, shouting "Origin unknown!" as the room collapsed in drunken laughter.

Just kidding (although many lexicographers probably wish I weren't). The origin of "tab" in the "file folder" sense is indeed unknown, but the root of "tabs" in the "I'm watching you" sense is more certain.

The sort of "tab" found at the top of file folders is an extension of the root sense of "tab," which is, as those party animals over at the Oxford English Dictionary put it, "A short broad strap, flat loop, or the like, attached by one end to an object, or forming a short projecting part by which a thing can be taken hold of, hung up, fastened, or pulled." This "tab" appeared at the start of the 17th century and may simply be a modification of "tag."

To keep "tabs" (or "a tab") on someone, however, is short for "tablet" in the sense of "writing tablet," i.e., an account book or written record. Thus, when Santa Claus is described as "making a list and checking it twice," he is "keeping a tab" (or "tabs") on all those naughty and nice kiddies, much as John Ashcroft does with computers. This use of "tab" is relatively recent, first appearing in the late 19th century. The same sense of "tab" meaning "written account" is found in "tab" meaning "restaurant check."

A streak of luck, a broken duck....

Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase "to break one's duck," a British phrase meaning finally scoring a point, or whatever, after not having scored at all. I have heard it in reference to a racing driver who has finally won a race after a long period of time. Where does it come from? -- David Guy.

Break one's duck? How odd. Wouldn't one then have a lame duck? Hardly seems like a victory, but then I never understood the phrase "hat trick" (originally from the game of cricket) either. Score three points in a row and you get a brand new hat? Be still my heart. Do it again and you get what, mittens?

Onward. The secret of "to break one's duck" lies in the fact that the complete phrase is "to break one's duck's egg." The "duck's egg" (or sometimes simply "duck" for short) in this case also comes from the game of cricket and is slang for the zero that is put next to a batsman's name on the scorecard if he fails to score in an inning. So to "break one's duck" means to score after a period when it looked as if you wouldn't, or, more generally in other sports, to break a losing streak by winning. The phrase "duck's egg" meaning "zero" dates back to 1863, while "to break one's duck" showed up a bit later, around 1878.

The use of the eggs of innocent poultry as stand-ins for the numeral zero is not confined to the cricket-loving countries. One theory about the origin of "love" in tennis (meaning "score of zero") is that the term derives from the French "l'oeuf," meaning "the egg." There's a bit of evidence against this theory, and it may be that the term is actually a bit of a dig at the scoreless player "playing just for the love of the game," but the "egg" theory is still a possibility.

A more exact parallel to "duck's egg" is found in the American coinage "goose egg," also meaning "zero" or "nothing" and dating back to the late 1880s. Oddly, unlike the British "duck's egg," "goose egg" has never developed a figure of speech for escaping the curse of not scoring. No one speaks of "breaking one's goose egg."

But "goose egg" did give rise in the late 19th century to another logical metaphor for losing: "to lay an egg." In the U.S., "lay an egg" became theater slang for producing a performance or show that flopped, and when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the theater daily Variety broadcast the news with the classic headline "Wall Street Lays an Egg."

Somebody call the ASPCA.

Dear Word Detective: I have been seeing the phrase "to carry water" on a large number of mostly political weblogs, generally used in a pejorative sense to imply that the person referred to is a lackey or toady to a bad person or for an unrighteous cause, as in "Alan Colmes, despite his liberal ethos, continues to carry water for Sean Hannity." What's the origin of the phrase "to carry water," and how did it come by its present connotations? -- Wendy Woolpert.

Good question. From my limited exposure to the Hannity-Colmes TV show on Fox News, I gather that Mr. Colmes at some point misinterpreted Rodney Dangerfield's "no respect" comedy routines as serious career advice. I hope the dude isn't getting paid by the word, because his contributions to their political debates seem to consist of little more than "But Sean... But Sean...."

"To carry someone's water" does indeed mean to occupy a subservient position, to do the bidding, the menial tasks, and frequently the dirty work, of a more powerful person, and is most often used in a political context. A junior member of Congress, for instance, who calls a press conference to vigorously denounce criticisms of party elders might be said to be "carrying water" for those criticized. The implication of "carrying someone's water" is that the underling is acting not on personal initiative but at the behest, either explicit or perceived, of more powerful figures. To describe a person as "carrying water for" someone else is pejorative and a subjective judgment, implying that the person is acting only as a proxy for a more important person, so one person's "water carrier" may well be another's "loyal ally."

"To carry someone's water" seems to have appeared in the late 1970s in the figurative sense in which it is now most often used, and almost certainly sprang from sports, where the position of "water boy," charged with catering to the players' comfort (including supplying them with water and the like), is the lowest rung in the team hierarchy.

However, inasmuch as "carrying someone's water" implies that the water carrier agrees with and supports the more powerful person, I'm doubtful that the term can fairly be applied to Alan Colmes, who seems to disagree, however ineffectually, with Sean Hannity most of the time.

Yeah?  Well, my Scrabble dictionary is published by Smith & Wesson.

Dear Word Detective: I used the word "ept" in Scrabble and, well, I shouldn't have. I thought that if the negative existed, the positive root must as well. Dictionaries point out that "inept" is a negative and it goes back to Latin. My question is: Why was "ept" never used as a word? --Todd.

Oh yes, the Scrabble Police. The midnight knock on the door, the kangaroo court, the merciless verdict followed by years of hard labor in some shabby dictionary factory in New Jersey. Those guys make the IRS look like Casper Milquetoast by comparison. Incidentally, did you know that Alfred Butts, the unemployed architect who invented Scrabble, originally called it "Lexico"? Not a bad name, but the game sold like lead hotcakes. So he changed the name to "Criss-Cross Words," and bingo! Another flop. It wasn't until he sold the rights to the game in 1947 to a guy named James Brunot who decided to rename it "Scrabble" that the game became a hit.

Meanwhile, back at your Grave Offense to the Gods of Scrabble, if I had been refereeing your game I'd have been tempted to give you partial credit for "ept," because we have, in a sense, been using the "positive" root of "inept" for a long time.

"Inept," meaning "awkward, bungling, inappropriate or foolish," comes from the Latin "ineptus," meaning roughly the same thing. But the Latin "ineptus" itself is a combination of the prefix "in" (meaning "not") with the word "aptus," meaning "appropriate, qualified, suited for the purpose." That root "aptus" is better known today in its other descendant, "apt," which is the "missing" positive to the negative "inept." So "ept" is very, very close to "apt," a word the Scrabble cops would have to allow.

But it gets better. It turns out that some very respectable writers have used "ept" as a derivative (what's called a "back-formation") of "inept" to mean "skilled, appropriate or effective." One such writer was the classic arbiter of style and usage E.B. White, who wrote in 1938, "I am much obliged... to you for your warm, courteous, and ept treatment of a rather weak, skinny subject." That, plus the fact that "ept" is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, should stop the Scrabble Cops in their tracks.


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A lick and a prayer.

Dear Word Detective: I am having an argument with my father and my husband regarding the origin of the term "privy council." They insist that the council got its name from the habit of middle-age nobility, both men and women, who advised the king of retiring to the privy (toilet room) for their meetings. And that natural functions were carried on, well, naturally during such meetings. I feel that while this makes a good story it is much more likely that the "privy" part of privy council refers to meetings held in privacy. We have researched on the internet and in the public library without any definitive answers. Can you help us? -- Trish.

Certainly, but first, I know that I speak for many readers when I say "Eeewwww." Michael Moore's latest movie includes a scene of Paul Wolfowitz doing something remarkably gross with a pocket comb, but it pales in comparison to that scenario of privy council proceedings. Then again, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have made a habit of dictating memos to his secretary from the throne of his "privy," so such behavior is, unfortunately, not unheard of.

"Privy" is an interesting word, although almost all its uses are today considered archaic. It derives from the Latin "privus," meaning "individual" or "single." A related Latin word, "privare," means "to make single or solitary; to isolate" (from which we derived "deprive," among other English words). The past participle of "privare" is "privatus," from which, in the late 1300s, we developed the English word "private" in the sense of "belonging to an individual." However, a bit earlier (sometime around 1200), we had also adopted the Old French word "prive" (also derived from the Latin and meaning "private"). This became the English "privy" as an adjective in the sense of "private" or "having private or intimate knowledge of," a sense we still use occasionally in phrases such as "I wish I weren't privy to Wolfowitz's personal grooming secrets."

As a noun, "privy" meant both "a trusted confidant or personal advisor" and "a secret or private place," most particularly a toilet or latrine. A "privy council" is, however, not a meeting held in a latrine, but, as you correctly assumed, a group of trusted advisors to a monarch who meet privately and deliver their advice in confidence.

Like a well-oiled oil well.

Dear Word Detective: I was speaking with my boss this morning after a few days of computer problems, and I explained to him that now everything was running "tickety-boo." Later on I used the same expression to describe something else that was running smoothly. I can only imagine that such a word came from the industrial age when something making such a sound would do so only when "well oiled." Is there any merit to my assumption? -- Scott Blayney.

That's an interesting theory. After all, we do speak of machinery running smoothly as "ticking along" and we use "tick" as a synonym for "operate or function" (as in "What makes Harry tick?"). There's also the famous "pocketa-pocketa" sound of well-oiled machinery that figures prominently in James Thurber's classic short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." The only question I have is where the "boo" would come in. "Boo" isn't the sort of sound I would like my machinery to make. "Boo" seems like a sound that might come built into the next version of Windows.

There are a number of theories about "tickety-boo" (also sometimes spelled "ticketty-boo" and "tiggity-boo") meaning "all in order, correct, satisfactory." The phrase seems to have first appeared around 1939, although slang etymologist Eric Partridge asserted that it dates to the early 1920s. Partridge also believed that "tickety-boo" originated as armed forces slang. If so, it may be a relic of the British colonial presence in India. One of the leading theories about "tickety-boo" traces it to the Hindi "tikai babu," meaning "it's all right, sir." A similar phrase common in the British Army in the mid-20th century, "teek hi" (meaning "all right"), was apparently drawn from the Hindi "thik," meaning "exact or precise."

Another possibility is that "tickety-boo" arose as a modification of "ticket" as found in the phrase "that's the ticket," meaning "that's exactly right" or "that's what we need" (as in "Hand me that big wrench -- that's the ticket."). Of course, "that's the ticket," which dates back to about 1834, has its own slew of possible origins, ranging from a garbling of the French phrase "c'est l'etiquette" (meaning "that's the proper thing or course of action"), to soup tickets given out to the poor of the day, to (the most likely origin in my opinion) a winning lottery ticket.

I suspect that both "tickety-boo" theories are partially correct, and "that's the ticket" strengthened a phrase drawn from Hindi which might otherwise have faded away decades ago. The "boo" is almost certainly simply a nonsense syllable added at some point for emphasis.

"No soap," he explained gently, "radio."

Dear Word Detective: In my pathetic attempts to make myself seem smarter than others around me, I sometimes use words that completely confound my startled listeners. Recently while conducting a class I asked the participants to individually answer a question, and proceed "widdershins." When met with bewildered stares, I declared that they could proceed "deasil" if they would prefer. I had a good laugh at their puzzlement, but it got me thinking about the origins of the terms, which must have been very useful before the clock became commonplace. Can you help me out? -- Vic Parrish.

Sure, but first I have a suggestion. Next time you have class, ask the students if they've brought their henways with them. When the first brave soul pipes up to ask "What's a henway?", say, "About five pounds." I use this joke all the time and have only been physically assaulted once or twice, so it's probably safer than tormenting your charges with that "widdershins" and "deasil" business. Someday one of your students will turn out to be into witchcraft and you'll wake up a frog or worse.

So as not to prolong the suspense of readers who are tapping their toes waiting for an explanation, I will now reveal that "widdershins" is a very old word for "counterclockwise" and "deasil" is an equally obscure way of saying "clockwise."

"Widdershins" (or "withershins") first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Middle High German "widersinne," meaning "to go against," and was particularly used to mean "against the normal path of the sun across the sky." Since the sun, viewed facing south from the northern hemisphere, moves from left to right, "widdershins" amounted to "counterclockwise," and was considered an unnatural and unlucky direction in which to move. Usage of "widdershins" today, apart from practitioners of various forms of mysticism and certain classroom instructors, is almost entirely confined to Scotland.

"Deasil" is a slightly more recent (18th century) acquisition in English, borrowed from the Gaelic "deiseil," meaning "turned toward the right; right-handed." As motion towards the right mimics the natural course of the sun, "deasil" is considered a lucky direction and movement in "deasil" was specified in many Celtic religious rituals. Interestingly, "deasil" derives from the same ultimate root as the Latin "dexter" (meaning "right") found today in our English "dexterity," meaning "skill."


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