Issue of July 23, 2002




  Issue of July 23, 2002


I forgot to mention this last month, but some of you have probably noticed by now that I have been forced to discontinue the primitive notification system by means of which I attempted to let folks know whenever these pages are updated (which is ostensibly monthly, but we've been pushing the envelope a bit lately).  More than 1,000 readers had signed up for our snazzy e-mail notifications (A good thing, as our friend Martha would say if she weren't headed for Mexico at the moment).  Unfortunately, every month at least 400 of those people either changed their e-mail addresses or shot their computers, and every time I sent out my cute little notifications I was swamped with hundreds of bounced mail messages (A very, very bad thing).  A few people wrote me to change their addresses, but even that small task proved surprisingly onerous, and the whole ghastly mess finally became completely unmanageable.  So I gave up. Sorry about that.  I'm open to suggestions, of course.

More good news/bad news.  We seem to have won our battle against the merchant power plant Mr. Cheney's pals were trying to build in the soybean field next to Word Detective World Headquarters. Unfortunately, our neighbors in Liberty Township next door are now being saddled with this completely unnecessary abomination. Many of us in Walnut Township are now doing our best to help our neighbors in their struggle, but what Ohio really needs (and what Kentucky and other states already have) is a statewide moratorium on the construction of these plants.

But now, some plain old-fashioned good news.  Our friend Michael Rosen, who has written something like 40 books already, has spawned yet another:

101 Damnations:  The Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells, which Publishers Weekly described thusly:

Mass e-mails. Telemarketers. People who call the Hamptons "the country." Muggers, allergies, teenagers and things that stick to the soles of your shoes. In 101 Damnations: The Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells, edited by Michael J. Rosen (Mirth of a Nation), writers and humorists take quick, hilarious swipes at the things that drive them crazy. From Kurt Andersen's one-paragraph consideration of "the weird remarks between silence and praise," to Andy Borowitz's dismissal of the phrase "and all that good stuff," to Onion writer Tim Harrod's list of things he simply hates ("Reality TV, Tailgaters, Hangnails... Cartoons that Look Distinctive but not Expressive... Cheap Wristwatches), this collection is sure to please curmudgeons, cynics, Luddites—and average fed-up Americans—everywhere.

Other contributors include Andrei Codrescu, Merrill Markoe, Cynthia Heimel, Christopher Buckley, Calvin Trillin, Tony Hendra and Paul Krassner.  And me, believe it or not. I actually have two pieces in 101 Damnations, neither of which has anything to do with word origins.

I plan to start selling 101 Damnations through this web site soon, but if you really can't wait, I'll understand.

And now, on with the show...

Das Boot.

Dear Word Detective: On the British version of Antiques Roadshow, their term for a garage sale or rummage sale sounds like "car boot sale," or just "car boot." I couldn't find anything like it in my dictionary. Could "car boot" be an alteration of "car booth", meaning "garage"? Or does it come from the French "carboute", meaning "big pile of English junk"? -- Rich B., Akron, IN.

Yo, dude. Isn't Akron in Ohio? Well, maybe they moved it. It wouldn't be the first time. I believe it used to be in Spain. No, wait, that's Toledo. In any case, "carboute" doesn't mean anything in French, so your dictionary must be on the fritz.

"Big pile of English junk"? Now, now, that's not very nice. I'm sure that the sort of stuff one finds at a British "car boot sale" is no worse that the detritus people put up for grabs at an American yard sale: white vinyl pocketbooks from the mid-1960s, broken children's' toys, a dozen or so defunct toasters. I don't know about you, but I don't feel like I've really been out "yard-sailing" unless I come home with at least one dysfunctional toaster.

Judging by the pictures I found on the internet (there's a good motto for the 21st century), a "car boot sale" seems to be a flea market where sellers park their cars on a vacant lot and proceed to dispense their toasters pretty much directly from the trunks of their cars. The term "boot" in this sense is simply the British equivalent of our car "trunk," and originally (back around 1608) referred to the step along the side of a carriage where the servants sat or stood. The term "boot" was later applied to the luggage or cargo compartment of a coach, and then logically carried over to the luggage compartment of automobiles. This use of "boot" is obliquely related to the sort of "boot" you wear on your foot, but may have entered English directly from the French word for "boot," "botte."

Incidentally, "boot" is far from being the only difference between American and British nomenclature when it comes to automobiles. Our "hood" is their "bonnet," our "tires" their "tyres," our "gas" their "petrol," and our humble "muffler" their "exhaust silencer." I'm afraid to ask what they call their toasters.

Death to the Devil Weed!

Dear Word Detective: I'm looking for the origin of the phrase "grass roots" as in "grass roots campaign." We are about to launch a "grass roots campaign" against grass. Our local park is a Natural Resource Park in Tucson AZ and the Parks and Recreation Commission is planning to plant .8 acres of grass in our small park. I thought the origin of "grass roots," might have to do with how grass roots spread out in all directions, and thought this might be used against the move to plant. Hope you can help with our "NO GRASS roots campaign." -- David Marhefka, via the internet.

Well, you've certainly come to the right man. I've just spent all day in the hot sun mowing about five acres of grass into submission. Sometime around hour three I decided that the real threat to civilization comes not from "reality TV," NASCAR or Britney Spears (my previous candidates), but from our collective obsession with crew-cut lawns. Hey, gang, I've got news for you -- it grows right back in less than a week. What say we all plant wildflowers instead and learn to enjoy a nice meadow?

Although today we ordinarily use "grass roots" in a political sense to mean "organized at or appealing to the most basic constituent level, the individual common people," the first uses of the term (aside from literal references to grass and soil) were a bit more general. Rudyard Kipling used "grass roots" in his 1901 novel "Kim" to mean the origin or source of a thing ("Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Course of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil").

By about 1912, however, the politicians had discovered "grass roots" as a rhetorical device, and Senator Albert J. Beveridge was declaring, "This party comes from the grass roots. It has grown from the soil of the people's hard necessities." Ever since then, "grass roots" has seen nearly constant political use, usually invoked to draw a contrast between "out of touch" party or governmental leaders and "the common people" or party rank and file. But not every use of the term is tinged with cynicism: "grass roots organizing," political activism at the community level, is alive and well in America today.


"Sheesh" is another one.

Dear Word Detective: I read recently that the exclamation "Oops!" (and possibly its cousin "Whoops!") comes from the ancient Roman goddess Ops. Is this true? I mean, if one invokes an ancient Roman deity when one drops a bag of marbles in a public library, one wants to know about it. -- Douglas MacGowan, via the internet.

No, actually, it's a reference to the ancient Norse god of accidents, Oopsie, who is usually depicted with one foot extended towards a banana peel. Oopsie is, not surprisingly, the patron deity of personal injury lawyers.

But seriously, you actually read this "Ops" flapdoodle somewhere? OK, that's it. I want all the "did you know" newspaper columnists and internet nut-jobs to listen closely to what I'm about to say: Knock it off, right now. It's bad enough that you've convinced half the world of the idiotic theory that "raining cats and dogs" comes from olden times when pets were kept in the roofs of thatched huts and drowned in heavy downpours. Or that "saved by the bell" refers to alarm devices designed to prevent folks from being buried alive. But "oops" coming from the Roman goddess Ops? Have you no shame?

Of course, as we all remember from the Mythology 101 course we took in college to get out of Chemistry, there actually was a Roman goddess named Ops. She was, according to Bullfinch's Mythology, "goddess of the earth as a source of fertility, and a goddess of abundance and wealth in general (her name means 'plenty')." But Ops had nothing to do with "oops!"

"Oops!" (and, as you speculate, its cousin "Whoops!") are what the Oxford English Dictionary calls "natural exclamations" -- the sort of noise that a human being naturally makes when he (this recent example involves a "he," namely "me") drops a pan of barbecued chicken on the family dog. Oddly enough, the first example in print that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have been able to find dates only back to 1933, although I'm sure that dogs had been getting unexpected chicken dinners long before then. "Whoops" in print is only a few years older, dating back to 1925.

Your ride is here.

Dear Word Detective: I understand the covered driveway in front of a hotel into which guests drive up to register and valet park and such is called something like (here's my frail attempt) a "port au cashier." I can't find it anywhere and don't know how to spell it. Can you help? -- Angi Bell, New Orleans, LA.

I'll give it a shot, although I must admit that my study of French has been limited to Pepe LePew cartoons and a few phrases I've picked up from our cat Fifi, who claims to have been born in Paris. How she happened to be discovered living in the abandoned chicken coop behind our house is just one of many unanswered questions.

I do know that the term you're looking for is definitely not "port au cashier," which I would tentatively translate as "door to the cashier's office," and which I imagine is where you settle up your bill at a fancy hotel. (I'm more of a Motel Six connoisseur myself, and the tradition there is to pay in advance.)

In any case, I'm fairly certain that the term you're looking for isn't French at all. It's "portico" (from the Latin "porticus," arcade or porch) meaning a sheltered walkway or area outside the entrance to a building, usually designed to shield arriving or departing guests from inclement weather. A "portico" is often found over the driveway outside a fancy building; the White House, for instance, sports one on its façade.

Although "portico" is Latin and not French, it is often associated with a similar French term, "porte-cochère" (from "porte," door or entrance, and "coche," coach), meaning a carriage entrance or gateway to a courtyard. Something tells me Martha Stewart probably calls her portico a "porte-cochère."

My family actually rented a large house with a portico for a few years while I was growing up, but I don't recall ever actually using the portico entranceway there. The small glassed-in porch leading to the portico always seemed to be full of cats.

Does anyone have a small flashlight?

Dear Word Detective: We're always hearing about famous people being interviewed and giving answers to reporters' questions "off the cuff," or politicians giving speeches "off the cuff." Does the phrase refer to the cuffs of a shirt, or is there some other kind of "cuff" involved here? -- A. S., New York City.

Marcel Proust I'm not (I routinely have trouble remembering my own phone number, for instance), but your question uncorked a veritable tidal wave of memories of my early youth. My father, for some mysterious reason, subscribed to a small magazine called "Quote," the mission of which was evidently to equip after-dinner speakers with a bottomless well of anecdotes, jokes and similar ephemera with which to hypnotize their listeners. Resembling nothing so much as a small sponge, I read every issue of "Quote" from cover to cover, firmly convinced that someday I, too, would beguile the rubber-chicken circuit with my reservoirs of wit. I even spent hours practicing my delivery by reciting many of these lame jokes into an ancient Ampro tape recorder.  (How ancient?  It had tubes and flickering little orange light bulbs to tell you when you were talking loudly enough.)

All that effort was for naught, alas, as I have rarely been called on to speak to any gathering larger than four other people sharing a stuck elevator, and they did not seem to be in a mood for my jokes. Oh well. Sic transit yuks.

In any case, the phrase "off the cuff" does indeed refer to the cuffs of a shirt, and has been a metaphor for speaking extemporaneously since the 1930's. As Christine Ammer explains it in her "Have A Nice Day -- No Problem!," a marvelous compilation of popular clichés, "The term allegedly comes from the practice of after-dinner speakers making notes for a speech on the cuff of their shirtsleeves at the last minute, as opposed to preparing a speech well beforehand." That "allegedly" in Ms. Ammer's explanation says it all -- probably very few speakers have ever actually depended on their shirt cuffs for material in an important speech, although to pretend that one is speaking extemporaneously confers a definite advantage on speakers by lowering their listeners' expectations. It is likely that many, if not most, "off the cuff" speeches are the product of a speechwriter up the sleeve.

You're right, we're lost.  Have some more cheesecake.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "dessert" come from? -- Jane Thompson, via the internet.

C'mon, Jane. You know that's not the whole question. No one is capable of asking where "dessert" comes from without also asking if and how it's related to "desert." Some questions just naturally go together, like "Is that her new boyfriend?" and "What does she see in him?" or "How does it feel to win the lottery?" and "Have you been working out lately?"

So, since I am obviously psychic, and since Miss Cleo is otherwise engaged, I will answer both questions. "Dessert," meaning "pie, cake, ice cream or other sweet confection dangled in front of a child to provide the only conceivable motivation for eating Brussels sprouts," comes from the French word "disservir," meaning "to clear the table." This makes perfect sense if you recall that in restaurants, the waiter usually clears your table of dinner dishes, silverware and condiments before asking if you'd like to order dessert. (I've always wanted to say, "Yes, I'll have the tiramisu, but please bring the catsup back when your bring it.")

"Desert," meaning "barren, arid region," comes from a different source, the Latin word "desertus," meaning "having been abandoned," which is a pretty good description of most deserts I've seen. The verb "to desert" (as in "rats deserting a sinking ship") comes from the same ultimate source, the Latin "deserere," to abandon. "Desert" as a noun dates back to the 13th century in English, but as a verb is a bit more recent, having first appeared in the early 1600s.

And now, since we psychics have a duty to anticipate and put to rest every single lingering doubt our customers (that's you) might have as to our prescience, I will explain the phrase "just deserts," meaning "what one deserves, the appropriate reward" (as in the probably rhetorical question "Will those Enron rats ever get their just deserts?"). This sense of "desert" comes from another French word, "deservir," meaning "to deserve," and, after appearing in English around 1300, is now found almost only in the phrase "just deserts." Notice that although "just deserts" is popularly assumed to have something to do with "dessert" as the culmination of a meal, this "desert" is only remotely related to "dessert," and spelled with one "s."


And there really was a Burger King, y'know.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the name "Elephant and Castle" came from? I know it's the name of a district in London, and the dictionary I have says that it comes from the "castle," or seating-box, sometimes mounted on an elephant's back. Is this plausible? -- E. F., via the internet.

This question makes me both hungry and nostalgic. There used to be a restaurant in New York's Soho called The Elephant and Castle which served, among other things, truly excellent mashed potatoes with roasted garlic. Every so often I would wander in, order a double helping of said potatoes, and in the resulting carbohydrate haze, find myself staring at their explanation of the restaurant's name, neatly framed and mounted on the wall.

According to the restaurant's account, "Elephant and Castle" is a linguistic mutation of the Spanish phrase "Infanta de Castille" -- the "Princess of Castille" (Castille, of course, being a region of Spain).

It seems that Charles the First of England was all set to marry a certain Spanish princess in 1623 when Church authorities forbade the match. Tempers flared and war between England and Spain resulted. According to the story, the affair inspired one pub owner to call his establishment "Infanta de Castille," but over time his patrons changed the name to words which, though they made very little sense, were more familiar -- Elephant and Castle. The name was eventually applied to the entire district of London the pub occupied.

There is, however, a more mundane and quite possibly more probable explanation. According to this version, South London was home to the Cutlers' Company, traders in ivory, whose corporate logo was an elephant and "castle" (which was actually a "howdah," or riding seat, used on an elephant). The pub then simply adopted a symbol which was already known in the neighborhood. So which theory is right? No one knows. The story of the Infanta de Castille is certainly more romantic, but even the restaurant, as I recall, was hedging its bets. Its walls were covered with pictures of elephants and castles, but not a single one of a Spanish princess.



Dear Word Detective: What can you tell me about the word "jaded," meaning "world-weary" or "worn out"? Does it have anything to do with "jade," the mineral? -- A.K., New York, NY.

You know, when I first started writing this column, a question such as yours would really get me going. I'd race to the bookshelf and spend hours plowing through obscure tomes to glean every last nugget of information for my readers. Now, for some reason, it just seems such a chore. I'll make you a deal -- you go look it up and I'll go watch TV. Let me know what you find out.

Wait, come back! I'm not really jaded. I love reader questions, and this is an above-average question. So just sit back and I'll be with you right away.

Ok, I'm back. It turns out that no, there's no connection between the two "jades" -- they are completely separate words. Although we tend to associate "jade," the green stone, with jewelry and sculpture from Japan and China, the word itself comes from Latin. The Latin word "ilia" (which became the Spanish "ijada" and eventually our English "jade") means "kidneys," and in Roman times jade was thought to cure ailments in that part of the body. Apparently the Greeks had the same idea -- another name for the mineral jade is "nephrite," from the Greek word for kidneys.

The other kind of "jade," found today only in "jaded," comes from an Old Norse word, "jalda," meaning "mare." Imported into English as "jade" in the 14th century, the word originally meant just "mare," but then came to mean "old, broken-down mare." As a metaphor, "jade" then was used to mean "worthless person," or, more specifically, "prostitute." This noun form of "jade" is now obsolete, but the sense lives on in our word "jaded," applied to someone who has, as they say, been there, seen that, and done it all.

O fortuna, velut luna, semper crescit et decrescit, blah blah blah.

Dear Word Detective: Why do we call it a "waxing moon" when it's on its way to being a full moon? While you're at it, why do we call a fading moon a "waning moon"? -- M. M., Brooklyn, NY.

This sounds like a good question for my wife, Kathy Wollard, who writes a syndicated science column for young people called "How Come?" She actually has a degree in physics, and knows all about stars and stuff. I, on the other hand, have spent my time amassing much more mundane knowledge, such as how to unclog toilets and mow lawns, that they evidently do not teach at Scientist School. Still, your question does deal with words, so I'll tackle it and, should anything technical crop up, we can always ask Kathy.

"Wax" as a verb means to grow or increase in size or number, and comes from an Old English word "weaxan," meaning "grow." "Wax" was at one time a more common word than "grow," but today its use is restricted almost entirely to describing the moon or emotional states, as in "waxing nostalgic." While a "waxing moon" does not actually increase in size, the lighted area of the moon visible to us on Earth does increase, so the moon appears larger and brighter.

"Wax" in this sense is not directly related to "wax" of the "beeswax" or "floor wax" variety, but it is related, surprisingly, to the word "waist." Ironically, the "waist" is usually defined as the narrowest part of the human body, and everything North and South of the waist is supposed to increase, or "wax," in girth. I'm not sure this theory holds true for anyone over a certain age.

"Wane" is the precise opposite of "wax," and means "to decrease or diminish." From the Old English word "wanian," meaning "to lessen," "wane" is a more flexible word than "wax" and retains more figurative meanings. The moon's apparent size "wanes" when less of its surface is visible, and with the proper diet, all our waists might just "wane."


Tell Madame Tussaud I'll be down in a minute.

Dear Word Detective: I was hoping you could settle an etymological argument. It started with some friends of mine at a restaurant just last night when our idle supper-time chatter found its way into the territory of make-up. Now, admittedly, women's facial apparel is not one of my strong points, but one of my female pals put forth the alleged fact that in earlier times folks used to fill in the pock-marks on their faces with beeswax. At social gatherings it was necessary to keep a safe distance from fireplaces, lest these faux faces melt away. That all sounds believable enough to me but her point was that this little anecdote is the root of the expression "mind your own beeswax". That sounds like nonsense to me but, hey, I've been wrong before. What's the real story? -- Kyle Archibald, Southwest Harbor, ME.

Well, you never know. I'd have said, a few years ago, that the idea of people slathering beeswax on their faces to cover up pock-marks was silly, but today such a practice seems positively sedate compared to the current rage for injecting one's mug with botulism toxin (a.k.a. "Botox") to temporarily eliminate wrinkles. What's next -- anthrax bubble bath? Incidentally, has anyone else noticed how much of daily life has come to resemble a Monty Python routine?

The story you've heard about "beeswax hiding pock-marks" has been circulating on the internet for quite a while and, like most stories of this type, was almost certainly dreamt up out of whole cloth by someone working backwards to explain the phrase "mind your own beeswax." While it is true that beeswax (defined in the literal sense by the Oxford English Dictionary as "The wax secreted by bees as the material of their combs…") has long been used in cosmetics, the phrase "mind your own beeswax," meaning "mind your own business," has nothing to do with the wax of bees. "Beeswax" in this phrase is simply a jocular variation on the word "business." It's a little joke, in other words, and quite a useful one at that, since telling someone to "mind your own beeswax" conveys the meaning of "mind your own business" without any unpleasant overtones of hostility. "Mind your own beeswax" first appeared around 1934.

No Pope, radio.

Dear Word Detective: At a party recently, I became so engrossed in conversation with one of the guests that I completely lost track of time. When I finally noticed the hour, it was quite late and most of the other guests had already departed. Taken somewhat aback, I turned to my wife and said, "We ought to be going. Everybody here has left." My statement made either a great deal of sense or no sense at all, but our host called it "a perfect Irish bull." What did he mean by that? I've heard of "Papal bulls," but can't see any connection. -- Dave Kraft, Brooklyn, NY.

The "bull" in "Irish bull" is unrelated to "Mister cow" and its derivatives, and most likely comes from a different source, an Old French word meaning "fraud." According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a "bull" in this sense is "a gross blunder in logical speech or expression," but there's more to it than that. A "bull" seems to make sense at first, but actually contains a ludicrous contradiction. "This restaurant is so crowded that it's no wonder no one ever comes here" is a first-class Irish bull. Why "Irish"? Probably because the phenomenon was first described by English writers, who tended to slander the Irish as illogical.

Anglo-Irish rivalry aside, the greatest modern purveyor of "Irish bulls" was movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, author of such classics as "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on," "Our comedies are not to be laughed at," "Include me out," and my nominee for Hollywood's official motto, "We have to get some fresh platitudes." Goldwyn, like Yogi Berra ("It's deja vu all over again"), became so well-known for his skewed syntax that cynics detected the pen of a press agent behind his pronouncements, but I like to think he was a natural. To paraphrase Mr. Goldwyn in his own defense, "It's a definite maybe."

"Papal bulls," official edicts concerning theological matters or church policy issued by the Pope, have no connection to "Irish bulls." The "bull" in this case comes from the Latin word "bulla," meaning "bubble," and refers to the official wax seal used at one time to authenticate official Vatican documents.

My back pages.

Many years ago, before I adopted the bon-vivant-inexplicably-living-in-a-Midwest-cornfield lifestyle, I worked for a major New York City law firm in a variety of non-lawyerly positions, including as a legal assistant and proofreading supervisor. During my tenure at The Great Satan, as we on the support staff lovingly called it, I probably read several thousand merger agreements, tender offers, SEC registration statements, and briefs. Most of this literature was deadly dull, and some of it was so poorly written even by the dry standards of the genre that I knew the associate who wrote it would soon be working at Starbucks. But occasionally I would stumble across a brief written with a style so lucid, elegant and compelling that I seriously considered going to law school myself. The impulse always passed as soon as I was called upon to explain to the author why his document was delivered to the client bearing pizza sauce stains, but I came away from my experience at Satan, LLP with a genuine admiration of good legal writing.

Had Brian A. Garner's new book, The Elements of Legal Style (Second Edition, Oxford University Press, $30.00), been standard issue at our firm, I might well have succumbed to the siren song of the law. As Editor in Chief of Black's Law Dictionary (the standard reference in legal writing) as well as the author of the fine A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Mr. Garner is well qualified to apply the principles of good writing to the legal field and does a masterful job. As the title of his book suggests, Mr. Garner has followed the model of Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style, beginning with an essay on the importance of style to the legal writer and then moving on to the nitty-gritty in chapters devoted to word choice, grammar and syntax, sentence structure, exposition and argument, and all the finer points of rhetoric that make writing of any sort, not just legal documents, truly readable.

This book, in other words, is not just for lawyers. The principles explained and distinctions drawn by Mr. Garner in The Elements of Legal Style will be of interest and use to any writer of any genre, especially to anyone writing from a position of advocacy. In fact, if Mr. Garner's book reaches the broad audience it deserves, we might just see a dramatic increase in both the quality and the effectiveness of letters to the editor in our newspapers.

The lure of the weird.

Dear Word Detective: I recently attended an outdoor high school graduation on a windy day. This posed a problem with the graduates and their "mortarboard" hats. I was asked the origin of these rather unattractive headpieces and was stumped. Can you give me a "heads up" on the answer? -- Gravreif, via the internet.

Golly, what a coincidence. All right, it's not really a coincidence, since I get to pick the questions. But I did spend three pulse-pounding hours at the high school graduation of my niece just the other night. Midway through the choral medley (something by Bach channeled through Barry Manilow, near as I could figure), those weird mortarboard hats started to bother me. And I mean really, really bother me, enveloping me in existential nausea and nameless dread. Think about those hats: a tight skullcap (instant headache and "hat hair" with a vengeance), topped by a large cardboard square from which is suspended, yes folks, a cat toy. Put fifty young graduates on stage wearing those things and you've got a tableau that would make Salvador Dali swoon.

The term "mortarboard" for these hats first appeared in the mid-19th century, and comes from the resemblance of the hat to the small square board or metal plate on which a bricklayer carries mortar. Earlier, in the 17th century, they were called "trencher-caps" or simply "trenchers," from their resemblance to a "trencher," an antiquated sort of dining-plate. And yet earlier they were known as "catercaps," from the French "quatre" (four), referring to the hat's four corners.

The "mortarboard" hat itself began as the "biretum," a rounded cap topped by a small knob worn by the clergy in the 13th century. Adopted by lay authorities and academics, it gradually took on a more squared shape, finally in the 17th century reaching its modern "board on a skullcap" form, with the knob having been replaced, in a final bizarre touch, by a tassel.

And now the good news: the mortarboard hat is gradually being replaced in academic rituals by soft velvet berets or tams. Evidently the lure of the weird has been overcome by a more practical consideration: on one of the most important days of their lives, graduates are no longer willing to put up with that "hat hair."


You should see the steam coming out of their tiny little ears.

Dear Word Detective: I bought your book some time ago and it's terrific.  This morning my husband asked me where "skinflint" came from (when I used the term) and I researched it the best I could, but to no avail.  Please tell me where it comes from, my word-wise one. -- Angie, via the internet.

There you go, folks. That's how to get your question picked out of the hundreds each week opened by the tireless little elves here at Word Detective World Headquarters. Not only did Angie plug my book (The Word Detective, published by Algonquin Press), but she threw in a little domestic drama as well. And, as Angie has already discovered, while nobody likes being called a "skinflint," even the most irate mate can be calmed down by a nice discussion of word origins. I even use this tactic on our tireless little elves when they become cranky and start muttering words like "union" and, yes, "skinflint."

A "skinflint" is a stingy and usually greedy person who pinches every penny until Abe Lincoln starts to sweat. Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" was the archetypal "skinflint," though Ebenezer did see the light after a few good scares and became a generous, caring dude (but not soon enough to prevent his name from becoming synonymous with "heartless greedy creep" in the public mind).

Just looking at the word "skinflint," one might imagine that it originally meant a person whose skin (and heart) was as hard and unfeeling as flint, the steely-gray stone so often used as a metaphor for anything or anyone of a cold or unyielding nature. (New England farmers, for instance, are almost invariably described as "flinty" by newspaper reporters. There probably isn't anything short of the farmers settling down every afternoon to watch "Oprah" with their cows that could dislodge that obnoxious media cliché.)

But the original meaning of "skinflint," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was "One who would skin a flint to save or gain something … a miser." A "flint," a fragment of flint stone used since antiquity to spark fires when struck with steel, has, of course, no "skin" to remove. But as a metaphor for someone who goes to great trouble to save tiny amounts of money, "skinflint" has been with us since around 1700.

Tote that barge, lift that injunction.

Dear Word Detective: I'm stumped by a word used in my industry (inland marine construction and operation).  I'm very curious as to its origins.  The word is "stevedore." -- David Soulier, via the internet.

Inland marine construction and operation? You're just the man I need. I happen to live on the banks of the old Ohio-Erie canal, built in 1825 to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River. The canal has been closed for a long time now, but I see no reason why we couldn't renovate it with a little elbow grease and a loan from one of our more gullible local bankers. I figure when we're done we can fill the canal with sharks and charge tourists a bundle to water ski on it. Heck, it works for Florida, doesn't it?

A "stevedore," for the benefit of folks whose only encounter with marine industry comes at Red Lobster, is a dock worker who loads and unloads cargo ships. The word "stevedore," which first appeared in English around 1788, is taken from the Spanish "estivador," based in turn on the Spanish verb "estivar," meaning "to stow a cargo." Our English "stevedore" almost certainly was picked up on the docks by workers who heard the Spanish word and converted it to English by guessing at its spelling. In fact, the first use of "stevedore" found in print is in the half-English, half-Spanish form "stowadore."

Elsewhere on the waterfront, to borrow the title of Marlon Brando's best movie, "longshoreman" is used today as a near-synonym for "stevedore," but its derivation is a bit less classy. "Longshore" arose in the 1800s as a variation on "alongshore," an epithet directed at those who frequented or were employed around or "along" the seashore or docks, an area held in low esteem by polite society. In the form "longshoreman," however, the term has since gained a little respectability and now simply means a worker who is employed on the docks.

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