Previous Columns/Posted 07/29/99

The Road to Cranky.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "curmudgeon" originate? Are curmudgeons always crabby old men or can a woman also achieve curmudgeon status? -- Tom Parks, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

I don't see why not, although "curmudgeon" (defined as "an ill-tempered person full of resentment and stubborn notions" by the American Heritage Dictionary) has almost always been applied to men.

Still, with sufficient grit and determination, any woman should be able to attain curmudgeonhood. I must, however, warn aspiring curmudgeons of either gender that the path to enlightened crankiness is arduous and unforgiving. Just one slip, be it a stolen moment with "Touched By An Angel" or a twinge of envy at Martha Stewart's dogged inventiveness, and all will be lost. Be strong, grasshopper, and don't swallow a smidgen of the wretched balderdash that surrounds you.

Just where the term "curmudgeon" came from is, alas, one of those perennial mysteries that haunt lexicographers, although we do know that "curmudgeon" first appeared in print around 1577. Since it seems especially unfair to label such a colorful word "origin unknown," however, several theories have been proposed over the years.

The pioneering English lexicographer Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary of 1755, asserted that "curmudgeon" was simply an alteration of the French phrase "coeur mechant," meaning "evil heart." Although this theory sounds good, there is no linguistic evidence that it is even remotely close to the truth. Another theory popular for a time held that "curmudgeon" was a variation on "cornmudgin," or "corn hoarder" ("mudgin" being presumably related to the Anglo-Saxon word "much," meaning "to hide"). This theory fell apart when it was discovered that not only was "curmudgeon" an older word than "cornmudgin," but that "cornmudgin" itself had apparently been invented by a particular writer as a pun on "curmudgeon."

More recent theories have tried to combine "cur," meaning dog, with various stabs at what "mudgeon" might possibly mean, but none has attained general acceptance among experts. The unfortunate fact is that "curmudgeon" is so old, and the trail so cold, that we may never know its true origin.

Twilight of the Chatterbox.

Dear Word Detective: My brother and I were traveling one evening just as the sun was setting over the horizon. Roused by an inexplicable curiosity, I turned to my brother and asked if it was twilight or dusk. He didn't know. Again I asked, which comes first? Is it twilight before it's evening? Is it dusk after twilight? He didn't know. Can you shed some light on this topic? What's the difference between dusk, twilight, sunset, and evening? Do they all mean the same thing? -- Merrysarie, via the internet.

My, we have a lot of questions, don't we? I'm surprised your brother didn't jettison you by the roadside. Poor guy's trying to watch a pretty sunset and you're badgering him with a vocabulary quiz.

The broadest (and vaguest) of the terms you're asking about is "evening," which generally refers to the period of time between sunset and whenever you get around to going to sleep. "Evening" is derived from the archaic noun "even," from the Old English word "aefen," meaning "lateness."

"Sunset" itself simply means the time that the sun "sets," or sinks below, the horizon. ("Set" in this sense is closely related to the verb "to sit.")

"Twilight" comes right after "sunset," when the sun is below the horizon but the sky is still illuminated by its light refracted in the Earth's atmosphere. The Old English word "twi" meant "half, two, or between" so "twilight" is the period "between" daylight and darkness. Strictly speaking, however, "twilight" can also refer to the half-light period just before morning sunrise.

"Dusk" is the later stage of evening twilight, when it is getting really dark, and probably comes from the Old English word "dox," which meant, logically enough, "dark." Again, "dusk" can also mean the early stages of morning twilight before sunrise, but using the word that way will only confuse everyone, so please don't.

So the bottom line is that "evening" begins with "sunset." "Twilight" comes after the sun actually sets, and progresses to "dusk" just before things go completely dark.


And please stop calling me "Whoosiwhatsis."

Dear Word Detective: I heard that the word "gadget" came from the name of a French man, "Gaget," who was involved in the making of the Statue of Liberty. When the statue was completed, Mr. Gaget made miniature statues out of bronze. He then stamped the bottom of the statue with his logo before they were sold in the U.S. When people in the U.S. saw the statue they said that they wanted one of those "gadgets." Is this information correct? -- Gigi, via the internet.

That's an interesting story. Too bad it isn't true, although cheesy little replicas of the Statue of Liberty are indeed sold by the millions every year to tourists visiting New York City. I myself have at least two of the infernal things on my shelf at the moment. I have no idea how they got there.

"Gadget," a vague term applied to any small mechanism or implement, was originally a 19th century naval term for any small piece of equipment, especially one the proper name of which had temporarily slipped the speaker's mind. A "gadget" is pretty much synonymous with such other linguistic evidence of our often faulty memories as "widget" and "gizmo." "Gadget" first showed up around 1886, and may have come originally from the French "gachette," meaning a small piece of a lock or hooking mechanism.

While we're on the subject, "widget" is a bit more recent (1931) than "gadget," means roughly the same thing, and may be simply an alteration of the word "gadget." One theory, in fact, holds that "widget" arose in the Royal Navy as a contraction of "wifflow-gadget," an obscure nautical mechanism also known as a "hook-me-dingy" or "ooja-ka-piv."

"Gizmo" seems to have originated in the U.S. Navy during or shortly before World War II, where it was used as an all-purpose synonym for "whatchamacallit." The postwar return of draftees to the civilian world then brought the word into general usage. All these terms, like "gadget" itself, were probably invented by sailors who had momentarily forgotten what to call a particular piece of equipment.

Actually, it started out as a follow-up to the "Got Milk?" campaign.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please tell me the origin of the word "Gotham"? I know it is used to identify New York City, but why is that, and how did that come about? -- Don Stoulil, via the internet.

Ah, New York, New York, the town so nice they named it twice. I really miss New York City, although no one out here in Ohio believes me when I say that. But it's true. Sometimes I even lock myself in the hall closet and pretend I'm back in the living room of my apartment on the Upper West Side.

The use of "Gotham" as a synonym for New York City goes back quite a ways. Washington Irving, the creator of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first used it as a synonym for New York in 1807. In his "Salmagundi," a satirical journal, he depicted "Gothamites" as wiseacres and know-it-alls, a popular view of New Yorkers which hasn't changed in the intervening years. The question, of course, is why he chose that particular name "Gotham."

Cut, as they say in the movie biz, to 13th century England and the real village of Gotham near Nottingham. According to legend, King John once made a trip to Gotham for the announced purpose of acquiring land and building himself a fine hunting lodge. The villagers, however, had no wish to be taxed to support the King's Court and devised a clever plan of action. When the King's "advance men" rode into Gotham, they found the villagers running wildly in circles and behaving in a thoroughly demented manner. The King, informed that he would be residing among madmen, dropped his plans and took his lodge elsewhere, whereupon the "wise fools" of the village were said to have remarked that "more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it." Gotham itself passed into legend as the home of such wise fools, and surely it was their combination of demented behavior and cunning, the "method in their madness," that led Washington Irving to dub New Yorkers the modern "Gothamites".

Portrait of El Cheapo.

Dear Word Detective: I've heard somewhere that the word "silhouette" came from a French minister of finance who got in some kind of trouble. They couldn't print his picture in the newspaper of the time, and instead printed an filled-in outline of his head, and that's where we came up with the word. Is that true? -- Kenton Comer, via the internet.

Well, not exactly, but it's pretty close. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a "silhouette" is "a portrait obtained by tracing the outline of a profile, head, or figure by means of its shadow or in some other way, and filling in the whole with black." No one knows who invented the basic technique of such shadow painting, but that's not surprising, considering that shadow paintings have been found on the walls of prehistoric caves. But we do know the story of how such paintings came to be known as "silhouettes."

Shortly after Etienne de Silhouette was appointed to the office of Controller General of France in 1759, he had what he thought was a bright idea. With a little fiddling and a slew of new taxes, Etienne thought, he'd be able to rationalize France's national budget and drag the country out of the bankruptcy it had sunk into after the Seven Years' War. Unfortunately, Silhouette made the mistake of slapping some of his heaviest taxes on the nobility, and a scant nine months later he found himself, not surprisingly, unemployed.

During his brief tenure, however, the public perception of Silhouette as a no-fun pennypincher had made his name a household word, and not a nice one, either. Anything made at low cost by cutting corners was known as "a la Silhouette" (in the manner of Silhouette), which quickly became a popular synonym for "on the cheap." So it wasn't long before simple shadow portraits, which could be had for a fraction of the cost of having a real portrait painted, came to be known as portraits "a la silhouette," and eventually simply as "silhouettes."

A man, a dog, a mystery.

Dear Word Detective: An Englishman visited us and he said, "I am going to spend a penny." I forgot to ask him what he meant by that. Any ideas? -- Paul and Ruth Heeren-Stegman, via the internet.

Well, I think we can solve this puzzle by staging a little dramatic reenactment -- you know, just the way they do on "Unsolved Mysteries." Of course, all their mysteries remain unsolved, but that just proves they're not doing it right. Anyway, I'll play your visiting Englishman, sitting on your couch. "I say," I say, "I'm going to spend a penny." And then I leave the room. Now look sharp, where did I go? That's right, I trotted down the hall to your bathroom.

From this simple exercise, we can logically conclude that "going to spend a penny" is a euphemistic British colloquialism for visiting the bathroom, or, as they call it in England, the "W.C." (for "water closet") or "loo." The phrase dates back to the 1940s, when the price of admission to many public lavatories in Britain was, in fact, a penny. Although pay toilets were every bit as common in America during the same period, "spend a penny" has never been heard much over here.

Far more common is the announcement by someone in a social setting that he (or, less frequently, she) has to "go see a man about a dog" (or "a horse"). There's usually no dog or horse involved, of course, and there probably never was. "See a man about a dog" first showed up in the middle of the 19th century as an all-purpose excuse to leave the room, and, during Prohibition here in the U.S., often meant "I'm going to go have a drink."

Incidentally, in case you folks out there were just warming up your ballpoints to write and ask where the term "loo" came from, I have some bad news: no one knows for sure. The most likely theory traces it to the French noun "lieu" (place), possibly from a shortening of the phrase "lieux d'aisance," meaning "places of comfort" (or "comfort stations").

The Empire Strikes Schlock.

Dear Word Detective: My son (age 6) and I were discussing where the word "blockbuster" came from because he and his mother were making a similar inquiry about grapefruit earlier in the day. I told him that I thought it was when the movie industry had a movie that was a smash, a great many people would gather at the movie houses and would crowd the sidewalks and maybe encompass an entire "block" around the theater. Would you please help us with this? -- Louis Inderbitzen, via the internet.

Ok, although I'm not entirely clear on the status of that grapefruit business. Did your son and his mother ever get an answer to their question? If not, tell them that grapefruit are called that because they grow in bunches, like grapes. If you went ahead and made up some other answer, you're on your own.

Your theory about "blockbuster" does make a certain amount of sense, since the term is almost always used today to describe a motion picture (or, less frequently, a novel or play) that becomes a "hot ticket." And movie fans certainly do line up around the block (or worse, camp out on the sidewalk for days) in search of tickets to such "blockbusters" as the new "Star Wars" film that opened recently. (And no, I have no plans to see it, though I would sit through it for a reasonable fee, say, $10 grand in small bills. In advance. Plus popcorn.)

The actual origin of "blockbuster," however, is a bit grimmer than just another lame Hollywood schlockfest. The term arose during World War II as Royal Air Force slang for an extremely large (as much as 8000 pounds) type of bomb, so powerful that it was capable of destroying an entire city block of buildings. After the war ended, "blockbuster" was appropriated by the advertising industry in the 1950s, who added it to their arsenal of superlatives alongside "astounding," "incredible" and "revolutionary."

Skates with the fishes.

Dear Word Detective: For no practical reason, my friend (who happens to have a Masters degree in English) and I are puzzled by the word "cheapskate." The "cheap" part we understand, as we are not complete dolts, but the "skate"? Does it refer to the fish? Or perhaps the boot with the blade designed for locomotion on ice? Please help out a lowly high-school grad. If I find the etymological source of "cheapskate" before my over-educated friend, I win a dinner. -- Mark Levack, Berwick, Nova Scotia, Canada.

"Over-educated" is right. I really can't recall learning anything truly useful after the fourth grade, which was when I finally mastered tying my own shoes. It pains me to think of all those years subsequently spent in philosophy seminars when I could have been out swiping hubcaps, bilking pensioners and otherwise preparing for a lucrative career on Wall Street.

As regards your question, however, I'm afraid that you and your hyper-matriculated pal are going to have to buy your own dinners. No one knows for certain where the "skate" in "cheapskate" (meaning a very stingy person) came from, although we do know that "cheapskate" first appeared in English around 1896. Authorities are also fairly certain that this kind of "skate" is not related to the "skate" fish, which resembles a ray and takes its name from the Old Norse word "skata." The other common kind of "skate" (as in roller-skate or ice-skate) is also not related to "cheapskate," and comes from an Old French word ("eschasse") meaning "stilts." Go figure.

The most plausible theory about the "skate" in "cheapskate" traces it to the Scots word "skate," a term of contempt which apparently also crops up in a slightly different form in the archaic term "blatherskite," meaning a person who blathers, or babbles nonsense. If this theory is true, "cheapskate" would thus translate as essentially "stingy creep," which makes sense.

Unfortunately, that's about all we know about this particular "skate." So I guess we'll never know whether your friend would have taken you to a good restaurant, or whether he'd have turned out to be (drum roll, please) a cheapskate.


E Pluribus Looped.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the term "church key" come from? -- Prof. Jerry Olson, Middlesex County College, Department of English, Edison, NJ.

Dear Word Detective: The term "church key" is used to describe a bottle opener. What is the derivation of this term? -- Uncductape, via the internet.

Well, since I received both of these queries within ten minutes of each other, I guess it's finally time to answer this question. This is one of those queries I receive about twice a month, a frequency which raises a question that has been percolating in the back of my own mind for a while. Does anyone actually use "church keys" anymore? I'm not much of beer-drinker, but I was under the impression that twist-off caps had become the rule. But maybe that's just on the high-class wines we get out here in Ohio.

The classic church key was a handy little gizmo, and usually combined a can top piercer (a nasty pointy thing used in the days before pop-tops) on one end, with a bottle-top prier-offer on the other. They were usually made of heavy steel and often emblazoned with the engraved logo of a local gas station. I'm sure someone out there is collecting these things.

In any case, the relevant fact about these bottle-openers is that some of them did indeed resemble large old-fashioned keys, possibly to the sort of large, old-fashioned doors often found on churches.

As to why these little gadgets came to be known as "church keys" in particular, the answer is simple: irreverence. It might be a bit hard to believe in this age of America's Sleaziest Home Videos, but when "church key" first appeared as slang for a bottle opener in the early 1950s, it was considered a mildly shocking and even borderline sacrilegious term. Using the phrase "church key" in refined company in those days would have produced the same mixture of raised eyebrows and guilty chuckles as referring to the rump of a roast turkey as "the pope's nose" (as my father delighted in doing).

In Brooklyn, we say "Big Tony is workin' on his car."

Dear Word Detective: In the south there is a common expression that people say when it is sunny in patches and simultaneously raining: "The devil is beating his wife." Are you familiar with this expression and can you perhaps tell me its origin? -- Alice Mullen, via the internet.

This turned out to be an especially interesting question, and one that made me wish that I had become an anthropologist. (Only briefly, of course. I have no desire to spend my life mucking about in grubby old jungles, miles from the nearest decent pizzeria.)

In any case, I had never heard the phrase "The devil is beating his wife" before, although I have experienced that unusual mix of rain and sunshine, usually called a "sunshower," on several occasions. And when I went looking for the precise origin, logic or history of the term, the cupboards were bare. But while poking around on the internet, I came across a query about folk terms for "sunshowers" posted by a Harvard linguist to a linguistics e-mail discussion group last year. The dozens of responses to his question proved that folks around the world have come up with some very weird words and phrases for this meteorological phenomenon.

"The devil is beating his wife," for instance, occurs not only in English, but Dutch and Hungarian as well. Other such phrases include "The devil is getting married" (Hungarian), "The devil is kissing his wife" (Tennessee), and "The devil is having a parish fair" (German).

The other main category of phrases used to explain sunshowers involves, I kid you not, animal weddings. "The rats are getting married," one would say in Arabic, while the Bulgarians say it's "the bear" that's getting hitched. Other betrothed parties include jackals (Hindi), tigers (Korea), witches (Spain), the poor (Greece), and leopards (various African languages). One animal, the fox, crops up all over the world, from Japan to Armenia, in such phrases.

The question raised by all of this is, of course, why? Well, all of these phrases were probably serious myths at some point, concocted to explain an unusual weather event. They live on today as colorful folk sayings, for which we should be grateful.

And I'll bet you didn't know that Wonder Bread makes baguettes, either.

Dear Word Detective: Because we have such an intellectual machine shop here, the guys are bugging me to find out if you know the origin of the word "washers" (or "werschers" in Ohio-speak), those little round things with the holes in them. -- Al Read, via the internet.

Little round things with holes in them? I always thought those were called bagels. Speaking of bagels, I have a word of warning for anyone now living in a major U.S. city who is contemplating a move to rural Ohio: bring your own bagels. In the unlikely event that you find one out here, it will inevitably resemble a squishy, sour doughnut, and may well be riddled with chocolate chips. There ought to be a law about these things.

Washers, of course, are those little perforated disks of metal that usually go around a screw or bolt and are supposed to either help hold things together or prevent wear. All I really know about washers is that if you omit them while assembling something mechanical (as I am always tempted to do), the thing you've built will either leak or squeak until it falls apart, which won't be long.

"Washer" in this mechanical sense (as opposed to meaning "one who washes") first appeared in English around 1346. It is presumed, not surprisingly, to come from the verb "to wash," which in turn came from a prehistoric German root, "waskan." That root, in turn, came from an even older word, "wat," which also gave us "water." So it seems that the original sense of "to wash" was, quite logically, "to clean with water."

Unfortunately, at this point, logic fails us. No one has ever come up with a convincing explanation of exactly what a metal "washer" has to do with "washing." Personally, I suspect that it may have something to do with a washer used around a bolt attaching two moving parts. The washer's smooth surface would allow free movement back and forth, a motion which might plausibly be compared to the scrubbing movement used in washing something. That's just a wild guess, of course, but it works for me.

It's simple. There are exactly nine yards in a "gry."

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression "the whole nine yards"? -- Pam Goldman and the Bichons of Camelot, Livingston, NJ.

Bichons of Camelot? Bichons Frise? Fuzzy little white dogs wearing Medieval suits of armor? I think I need another cup of coffee.

OK, I'm back, and the answer to your question about the origin of "the whole nine yards" (meaning "the whole thing" or "everything") is that nobody knows for sure. There are dozens of theories about this phrase, many of them passionately held by folks who send them to me at the rate of about ten per week. Not one of these theories, unfortunately, has ever been verified.

Some of the more popular theories trace "the whole nine yards" to the amount of cloth needed to make a wedding dress or bridal train, a man's three-piece suit, a burial shroud, or other apparel. Other theories trace the phrase to the capacity of cement mixers, or assert that the "yards" actually refers to "yardarms," the spars on a large sailing ship that actually hold the sails. One theory particularly popular at the moment (judging from my mail) is that machine gun ammunition belts in World War Two fighter planes were nine yards long, so that a pilot who expended all his ammo in a dogfight would be said to have shot "the whole nine yards."

There are flaws in all these theories. "The whole nine yards" first cropped up in print in the mid-1960s, so any explanations tracing the phrase to sailing ships are unlikely to be true. "Nine yards" is not a standard amount of material in connection with any garment or cement mixer. And even if machine gun belts really were 27 feet long in WWII, why has the phrase "the whole nine yards" not been found in a single published account of that very well-documented war?

The problem here is not lack of theories that "sound good," but lack of solid, not hearsay or word-of-mouth, evidence. What we need, and I'd be thrilled to see it, is an example of "the whole nine yards" in print (preferably before the mid-1960s) that uses the phrase in reference to a specific trade or custom, not just in its modern "the whole shebang" sense.

Another good reason to sleep at work.

Dear Word Detective: If the clock is not working, and thus fails to keep time, it is "broken." If I am not working, and thus fail to make money, I'm "broke." Aside from the fact I lost my job because my clock's alarm failed to sound, are the two terms related? -- Orfeo Rechtman, via the internet.

Yes, they are. The word hiding behind both "broke" and "broken" is the verb "to break." Folks have been breaking stuff since the dawn of time, so it's not surprising that the verb "to break" is very old and came originally from an ancient Indo-European root ("bhreg") also meaning "to break." Today we use "break" in dozens of senses, but all of them either literally or metaphorically reflect the primary sense, "to destroy or wreck."

"Broken" in the sense of your clock "not working" is a past participle of the verb "to break." (Don't flinch when you hear the word "participle." It's simply a form of a verb used as an adjective to describe something.) If something is "broken," it has been subjected at some point to "breaking." You don't mention exactly when your alarm clock was broken, but if your attitude toward work is anything like mine, I'd suspect that it happened on a Monday morning.

The word "broke" is actually just an antiquated form of "broken," although when used to mean "physically broken," it is considered obsolete and heard today only in non-standard English (as in "Paw, the truck is broke again."). The use of "broke" to mean "without money," however, is perfectly acceptable in informal English, and comes from a sense of "to break" dating back to 1612 meaning "to ruin financially."

The moral of this story, as best as I have been able to figure it out, is that if you ain't broke, your alarm clock probably doesn't need fixing, but if you are, you'd better borrow a very loud one.

Our Little Bivalve Pals.

Dear Word Detective: The other day, in summarizing the results of a hard day's work taming a computer problem, I used the expression "happy as a clam" to describe the prevailing feeling at having gotten it done. That immediately made me wonder, "Who ever came up with the idea that clams are happy?" (Someone else immediately asked where you'd get clams anyway, this being a city far from any major body of water, but that's another matter.) -- A. H., via the internet.

Try your grocer's freezer case, as the commercials say. I actually happen to love frozen fried clams, even though I am fully aware that they would be more accurately labeled "vaguely clam-flavored bits of fried dough." Then again, the only kind of fish I really like is the McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, so I may not be the world's most reliable guide to gourmet seafood.

I agree that there is no credible evidence to suggest that clams are, as a rule, happy. In fact, what little scientific research has been done so far in Seafood Studies tends to indicate that clams live out their lives in a state of profound existential dread, and who can blame them? Not a lot to look forward to in Clam World, is there? No books, no music, and it wouldn't do a clam one bit of good to win Lotto. No, the world is not a clam's oyster.

Still, as I learned in college, everything is relative. And, relatively speaking, the happiest time of a clam's day is almost certainly high tide, when his sandy abode is safely hidden from the eyes of the dreaded clam-diggers who prowl the beaches at low tide. So "happy as a clam" actually does make sense if we use it in its original, complete form, which is "happy as a clam at high tide," a catchphrase which apparently dates back to New England in the early 18th century.

Hey, it's not my fault you gave a credit card to my dog.

Dear Word Detective: In some research I've been doing, I came upon the fact that R.G. Dun & Co. ran The Mercantile Agency in Albany, N.Y. in the early 1900's with 160 branches in various parts of the world. Possibly they merged with another firm to form Dun & Bradstreet. My dictionary gives a completely different origin for the verb "to dun," meaning "to demand payment of a debt," but I find this a rather curious coincidence and wonder if Mr. Dun was not the source of the word. Any idea? -- Irma Ruckstuhl, N. Truro, MA.

Well, your first hunch is correct. According to the Dun & Bradstreet web site, The Mercantile Agency was founded in 1841 by Lewis Tappan to provide credit reports to businesses. (Tappan, incidentally, was a fervent Abolitionist and at one point employed Abraham Lincoln as a business analyst. Tappan's crusade against slavery included funding the defense of the Amistad mutineers, whose trial was the subject of Steven Spielberg's 1997 movie of the same name.) Dun took over the company in 1859 and changed its name to R.G. Dun & Company. In 1933, the company merged with The Bradstreet Companies, another credit reporting agency, to form Dun & Bradstreet. D&B does do a good deal of corporate "dunning" these days, although they prefer to call the practice "receivables management."

However (and this is a major "however"), the verb "to dun" in the "give me my money" sense predates the arrival of Mr. Dun on this mortal coil by about 200 years.

The root of "dun" is believed to be the very old Germanic root word "dun," meaning "loud noise or thunder," the same root which gave us our modern "din," meaning a loud commotion or cacophony. "Dun" in its original sense of "to make a loud sound" first appeared in English in the 14th century, but it wasn't until about 1600 that the word was used to mean "to make repeated and insistent demands, especially for money due." The connection between loud sounds and nasty phone calls from collection agencies will, of course, be apparent to anyone who has ever missed a credit card payment.

Pocketful of Gorm.

Dear Word Detective: I know what "gormless" means, but why? Do most people have gorm, to one degree or another? I first heard this word in the context "She's not stupid, she's gormless!" -- David Hall, via the internet.

Well, yes, most people do have a sizable pile of gorm, and we use it every day. Did you not get yours? Perhaps you have simply mislaid your gorm. Check in the back of your closets. After all, you wouldn't have written to me if you were entirely gormless.

"Gormless" comes from the old Scots word "gaum," meaning "attention or notice." Someone who is "gormless" lacks attention, doesn't notice things, is tuned out, vegged out, hopeless and clueless. Dumber, in other words, than a sack of rocks. The word is chiefly found in Britain, where it has been used since the 17th century, including by writers such as Emily Bronte in "Wuthering Heights."

"Gorm" all by itself ought, logically, to mean "intelligence" (as its predecessor "gaum" did), but today it is heard only as a clipped slang form of "gormless." So if someone calls you a "gorm," it's not a compliment.

Nor, since we're on the general subject of arcane insults, should you send flowers to anyone who calls you "feckless," another term heard primarily in Britain. "Feckless" also comes to us from Scots (which is the language of Scotland -- don't let a Scot hear you calling it "Scotch"). The Scots "feck" is actually an aphetic, or cropping, of the English word "effect," as in "effective." Someone who is "feckless" is, therefore, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, "destitute of vigour, energy, or capacity; weak; helpless." Ineffective in the extreme. Utterly useless.

In current usage, "feckless" often does duty as a synonym for "aimless or irresponsible" -- "feckless youth" is a well worn cliche, but true fecklessness knows no age limit. A lifelong loser who embraces (and tries to enlist you in) one get-rich-quick scheme after another probably qualifies as "feckless." The folks who actually turn over their savings accounts to him, on the other hand, richly deserve the title of "gormless."

And here we have the 7.62mm Hello Kitty assault weapon
with the optional paisley Snicker Suppressor.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about the origin of the phrase "gunny sack." Did it originally mean "a sack for guns"? -- Meg Bookout, via the internet.

Say, I'm no public policy expert, but I think you may have inadvertently stumbled upon a solution to the gun control debate. Something tells me that gun ownership (at least among men) would drop precipitously if we simply passed a law requiring firearms to be referred to henceforth and at all times as "gunnies." Reminds you of fluffy little bunnies, doesn't it? That's the idea. And I'll bet that if we further decreed that "gunnies" could be purchased only in pastel colors or tasteful floral patterns, we'd render the whole debate moot toot sweet. Of course, we'd still have to keep a close eye on Martha Stewart, but I still think it's a worth a try.

Meanwhile, back at your question, no, "gunny sack" has nothing to do with guns. Gunny sacks are, of course, large bags made with very coarse cloth, usually woven from either jute or hemp, and often used for packing agricultural products such as sugar or grain for shipment. Gunny sacks have been around a very long time, as you might guess from the fact that "gunny" comes directly from the ancient Sanskrit word "goni," meaning "sack." The English version "gunny" first appeared around 1711, evidently adapted from the Hindi by British merchants importing goods from India.

Incidentally, and this is very weird, the word "gun" meaning "firearm" probably comes from a common Scandinavian female name. "Gunnhildr" (which itself is a combination of "gunnr" and "hildr," both meaning "war") was used as a nickname for rock-hurling catapults in the Middle Ages, much as the largest German artillery pieces during World War I were known as "Big Berthas." When first cannons and then small arms came along later, they too were known as "Gunnhildrs" (or the shorter form "Gunnes"), and we've been living with "guns" ever since.

It's a hex sign! Look away quick!

Dear Word Detective: Several years ago, a writer friend mentioned that the symbol we identify informally as the "pound sign" is really an "octothorpe." Neither of us can verify this, however, since we have not been able to locate "octothorpe" in any dictionary. We both agree that "octo" means "eight" and "thorpe" means "village." We speculate that the symbol represents a village with eight roads leading to or from it. Can you enlighten us? -- Mary Lee Fulcher, via the internet.

I'll sure try. This is not an easy question to answer because, as you note, the word "octothorpe" is not found in most dictionaries. For the following explanation, I am indebted to Michael Quinion, whose World Wide Words web site ( is a fascinating and invaluable resource for anyone interested in words and their origins.

Anyone who has ever used a touch-tone telephone has seen the octothorpe. It's that little tic-tac-toe symbol in the lower right corner of the keypad, right across from the asterisk (which the telco folks, in their infinite wisdom, insist on calling a "star"). According to a Bell Laboratories engineer named Ralph Carlsen, the octothorpe and asterisk keys were developed in the early 1960s and originally intended to be used only to access computer systems via a telephone line. The octothorpe symbol itself had already existed for many years, although it was usually called a "pound sign" or "number sign" because it was often used in commerce to designate weight or quantity.

According to Ralph Carlsen, a fellow Bell Labs engineer named Don MacPherson invented the term "octothorpe" when faced with the task of explaining the new touch-tone phones to corporate users. MacPherson chose "octo" (Latin for "eight") because there were eight points on the symbol.

"Thorpe" is indeed an Old Norse word meaning "village," often found in the names of English towns, but that was evidently not the source in this case. According to Carlsen, "thorpe" was chosen because at the time MacPherson was involved in a campaign pressing for the return of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe's Olympic medals from Sweden. I must admit that I have absolutely no idea what Thorpe's medals were doing in Sweden in the first place, but I have a funny feeling that my readers are about to explain it to me.


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