Issue of August 28, 2006

Page Two

For me?

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "tussy mussy"? I know that it's a small bouquet arranged in a tasteful, slim silver vase, that it is often carried by or pinned to the bodice of a bridesmaid at a wedding, and that it is a tradition that hearkens back to Victorian times. But where specifically could such a cutesy-wootsey term as "tussy mussy" have come from? -- Laurel Whisler.

For a little bunch of flowers, "tussy-mussy" carries more than its share of mystery. The term apparently first appeared in the 15th century, but its derivation is unknown. There was an earlier form in Middle English, "tusmose" or "tussemose," as well as some use of simply "tussy" around the same period, and some indication of an earlier word like "tus" or "tusse" meaning "a cluster of flowers," but the clues are thin and most dictionaries simply classify "tussy-mussy" (or the earlier form "tuzzy-muzzy") as another case of "origin unknown." The "mussy" part, by the way, is simply a case of "reduplication," the humorous alliteration found in terms such as "cutesy-wootsey."

It's somewhat surprising that "tussy-mussy" is around at all today. The term faded from use in the early 18th century, and was only revived in the 20th (the Oxford English Dictionary contains no citations between 1706 and 1958). The Victorians may have indeed been brandishing "tussy-mussies" on festive occasions, but it seems that they must have been calling them something else.

One possible clue to the history of "tussy-mussy" may be the word "tussock," originally meaning "a tuft of hair" and now "a clump or hillock of grass or the like," which seems to bear a resemblance in both form and meaning to "tus" or "tusse." This "tussock" is related to the English dialectical term "tusk," meaning a tuft of hair or grass, which in turn may (but also may not) be related to our more familiar "tusk" meaning "long tooth."

Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where your subscription is.

Gee, all this stuff worked when Keifer Sutherland did it.

Dear Word Detective: I can't find an explanation of the term, "Wire in the Blood." It is the title of a mystery I watch on the telly on the channel BBC America. So, if you could be of any help I would appreciate it. -- Susan D. Daly.

Ah, another television show I've never watched. I've heard of "Wire in the Blood," of course. I've heard of all the popular shows. I'm not a hermit. I sat though dozens of conversations about the series "Friends" when it was on, for instance. I just never watched it, not even one episode. The show I'm currently not watching is "24." In this case I actually did watch part of one episode, just enough to firmly convince me that anyone who wants to watch that stuff should first be required to sign a contract promising not to vote. Too many people take great pains to declare that they know "It's just a TV show" for me to believe a word they say.

But I'm sure "Wire in the Blood" is peachy. According to the BBC website, it centers on "complex, enigmatic clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill ... on the trail of terrifying serial killers." Suddenly I'm not so sure I haven't seen this show. Sounds kinda familiar.

As a title for a TV series, "Wire in the Blood" certainly pegs the old inscrutabilograph. It's taken from a famous poem by T.S. Eliot called "Burnt Norton," the first of his "Four Quartets." The title "Burnt Norton" (though it sounds like a lost Honeymooners episode) refers to a decrepit country house in Gloucestershire, England, where Eliot spent some time and which he then used as the setting of his poem, a meditation on the cyclical nature of life and time. The relevant lines run "Garlic and sapphires in the mud/Clot the bedded axle-tree./The trilling wire in the blood/Sings below inveterate scars/Appeasing long forgotten wars./The dance along the artery/The circulation of the lymph/Are figured in the drift of stars."

"Trilling" here seems a bit of a pun in that it has two meanings. The more familiar "trill" means to speak, sing or sound with a quaver. But an entirely separate "trill," now obsolete, means "to trickle or flow," as blood does. In any case, I take "the trilling wire in the blood" to mean the pulse of life likened to a vibrating wire (think guitar string) "singing" beneath skin scarred by that very life. In the context of the TV show, it may mean something more specific, or it may just mean that somebody connected to the show was an English Lit major.

Louie, I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful subscription.

Upstairs at Robin Hood's barn.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of the saying "Up in Annie's room behind the clock"? When the prefix "meta," meaning "beyond" comes in front of a word like information ("meta-information") or language ("meta-language"), does it have the connotation of "power" (power language, power information)? -- Judi Harris.

I sure hope that's two separate questions. "Up in Annie's room behind the clock" is enough of a puzzle without worrying about a "meta" version.

"Up in Annie's room behind the clock" is a humorous catch phrase used (almost exclusively in the UK) in reply to a question about the location of a missing item or person ("So, where do you suppose my car keys are?" "Probably up in Annie's room behind the clock.").

According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, the original form, dating to the British Army just before World War I, was simply "Up in Annie's room," a joking reply to an inquiry (often from a sergeant or other superior) as to the whereabouts of another soldier. As this exchange usually took place either in the barracks or in the field, the humor came from the fact that there was no possible "Annie," let alone a room upstairs in which to dally with her.

The phrase "Up in Annie's room" percolated into civilian use after the war but apparently lost its absurdist bite in an environment where the absence of an "Annie" was no longer a given. The subsequent addition of "behind the clock" (or the variant "behind the wallpaper") transformed the phrase from one meaning "an impossible place" to one suggesting an extremely obscure and improbable place.

As for "meta," it has several meanings as a prefix in English, including "above," "behind," "beyond" and "more advanced," but in the cases you mention the basic sense is "description or analysis of the category itself at a higher level" (as, in the case of "meta-information," information about the information itself). Lately the prefix "meta" has become an adjective in itself, used to describe an analysis which bypasses the actual content of a topic in favor of examining its broader socio-political implications, often for no good reason ("So I went to King Kong with Larry and afterwards he went all meta and started ranting about the dinosaurs representing the anti-colonialist struggle in the Third World, and I'm like, hello, it's a movie about a giant gorilla.").

If you were marooned on a desert island, you'd wish you had subscribed.

Mobutu sure had a lot of nephews.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word "con" as in "con-artist" comes from? It would be very helpful. -- Vanessa S.

Helpful? Hmm. Now you've piqued my interest, because it sounds as if you've recently been introduced to someone described as a "con-artist" and are wondering whether you should trust him with your stock portfolio.

Don't do it. And definitely don't do it if he seems trustworthy. The "con" in "con-artist" is short for "confidence," and the most important tool in the con-artist's arsenal is your trust in him. (Although there are plenty of female con-artists at large, we'll go with the male pronoun in this discussion.) The "con-artist," also known as a "confidence man," "scam artist" or "confidence trickster," has probably been around since the first sucker (or "mark," in the lingo of the con artist) traded his mastodon burger for a defective spear, but the term "confidence man" dates only to the mid-19th century. The term supposedly arose in reference to a trick in which a well-dressed man would approach strangers on the street and implore them to lend him their watches for a day. His refined appearance gave his victims "confidence" that their watches would be returned. They were wrong.

"Con games" have come a long way since then, and a key element of the modern con is summed up in the saying "You can't cheat an honest man." The most productive cons involve the "mark" in a plan which is at least a little dishonest, usually involving cheating a third party out of money. The currently popular "Nigerian email scam," in which a correspondent asks for your aid in spiriting millions of dollars out of a defunct dictator's bank account in return for a cut of the loot, is a classic confidence game. Its precursor, called the Spanish Prisoner con (in which the mark is enlisted to help bail out imprisoned royalty with the promise of a rich reward), dates back to the 16th century.

It's difficult not to admire the ingenuity of a well-executed con game, as evidenced by the popularity of such films as "the Sting." The plot of that movie centers on a classic scam known as "the big store," a major production involving dozens of accomplices and elaborately-constructed fake businesses. By far the best exploration of this and other fantastic creations of the con artist is "The Big Con," written in 1940 by linguist David W. Maurer and reissued by Century (Random House) in 1999. Maurer got to know hundreds of career con-artists, and his portrait of their underground society is truly fascinating.

Ducks in the wind, all we are is ducks in the wind, so why not subscribe?


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