Issue of August 28, 2006

Page Three

Then there are the agents of the Parking Violations Bureau,
known as the "Bleepingest."

Dear Word Detective: The term "Finest" has been used interchangeably for the word "police" for years, most commonly to refer to the New York City police department as "New York's Finest." Can you tell me how that phrase came to be? -- Bill Reilly.

Good question. I've never heard any other city's police force referred to as its "Finest" ("Poughkeepsie's Finest"?), but I'd be willing to bet that there are few New Yorkers (and after September 11th, perhaps few Americans) who don't recognize "New York's Finest" as referring to the NYPD. The phrase has been a staple of New York tabloid newspapers for a century, and it's probably a rare issue of today's New York Post or Daily News that doesn't contain the term. On the other hand, "New York's Finest" is almost entirely a media locution; in more than 20 years of living in New York City, I don't think I ever heard the phrase used in casual conversation. Most people just call the police force "the cops."

Incidentally, the other uniformed services of New York City have their own monikers. FDNY firefighters are known as "The Bravest," a title richly deserved long before their extraordinary heroism on 9/11. Sanitation workers are apparently known as the "Strongest" (although Manhattan apartment dwellers would probably vote for "Loudest") and City Corrections Officers are known as the "Boldest," which shows that any pattern can be pushed too far. Boldest? I'd nominate New York City public school teachers for that one.

If there were a category for "New York's Most Persistent," it would rightly go to Barry Popik, who has spent years tracking down the roots of such classic New York City terms as "the Big Apple" and "Hizzoner" (the mayor of the moment). Barry posts his research to the mailing list of the American Dialect Society as well as at his web site (

In the case of "New York's Finest," Barry has traced the term back to the 1870s, where it apparently first emerged in the form "the finest police force in the world," a phrase associated with George Matsell (police chief at the time), and possibly modeled on Civil War Major General Joseph Hooker's estimation of his troops as "the finest army on the planet." The general idea of New York's police being "the finest" had been asserted in print for several years by that point, so it wasn't surprising that eventually the tribute was codified in the phrase "New York's Finest."

"The Bravest" for the FDNY was apparently derived, also in the late 19th century, from the phrase "the bravest of the brave," an accolade given by Napoleon to one of his commanders. "Strongest" and "Boldest" are both much more recent, dating to the late 20th century.

All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unless they subscribe!

Yeehaw yourself.

Dear Word Detective: Where I am from, the word "Hoopie" is used as a term for someone from West Virginia. I'm betting you can easily figure out where I am from once you investigate this word. Just in case though, a further hint would be the words "pop," "jumbo" (instead of bologna lunch meat), and "sweeper" (instead of vacuum cleaner). Sometimes the word is also used as another word for "hillbilly" in general. I have never been able to figure out why we use this word for West Virginians. I have asked many people from that state, and they have usually never heard the term themselves. Can you shed any light on this question? -- John.

Perhaps, although I've had to cut back on shedding light lately. The neighbors have been complaining about the blue glow coming from our house and now the sheriff thinks we're growing illicit vegetables in the attic.

And now, the envelope, please. You're from Pittsburgh or nearby in southwestern Pennsylvania. "Pop" (for soft drinks), "sweeper" and even "Hoopie" are heard in a number of places, but "jumbo" is definitely a Pittsburghism. To my knowledge no one has ever established why Pittsburghers call bologna "jumbo," but one theory ties it to the larger size of bologna compared to other kinds of sausage.

"Hoopie" as a derogatory term for natives of West Virginia is, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), in widespread use in eastern Ohio as well as in southwestern PA. Regional and state rivalries are often expressed in such terms, of course. When I drove a forklift in a warehouse here in Ohio many years ago, we referred to Vise-Grips (locking adjustable pliers) as "West Virginia socket sets," and anyone from that state was a "hilljack."

DARE equates "hoopie" (or "hoopy") with "hoosier" which, although best known as a term for residents of Indiana, actually has long been used throughout the US Midwest and South to denote a person of rustic origins and unrefined behavior. There are at least two dozen theories about the origins of "hoosier," none of which have ever been verified, and it seems that everyone who has ever heard the term has their own pet explanation (which they will now send to me).

The origin of "hoopie" is similarly mysterious, but DARE does recount a theory that has the ring of plausibility. Supposedly term is from ''barrel hoop"; mountain dwellers in West Virginia would come down to the city to work in the factories that made the hoops that hold barrels together (or, perhaps, made the whole barrels), making "hoopie" a synonym for "hillbilly."

A flea and a fly in a flue were imprisoned, so what could they do? Said the flea, "Let us fly!" Said the fly, "Let us flee!" So they subscribed and fled through a flaw in the flue.

Lawyers, guns and money.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "Peck's bad boy"? -- Ed.

Good question, and one I suspect that a fair number of pundits have been meaning to investigate themselves (but were too busy punditing). "Peck's bad boy" is one of those handy buzz phrases editorialists, columnists and reviewers love to toss into their stews to add color and zing, but I'd be willing to bet that not one in ten could explain where the phrase comes from.

In the sense most often used today, a "Peck's bad boy" is a misbehaving or mischievous person (always male) who gets into trouble and offends the establishment but is redeemed by (and secretly admired for) his basic goodness and talent. Actor Robert Downey, Jr., for instance, has been tabloid fodder for years due to his "substance abuse" problems, but is frequently labeled a "Peck's bad boy" when a lesser talent would have been dismissed as a "loser." And as Ken Starr folded his prosecutorial tent in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, the New York Times commented, "With the independent counsel finally backing off after five long years of assorted inquiries, the coda might be entitled: Hound of Heaven No Longer in Pursuit of Peck's Bad Boy."

The "bad boy" element of the phrase obviously explains its popularity, but it's the "Peck's" part that is a great story in its own right. George Wilbur Peck was born in 1840 in New York State, but his family soon moved to Wisconsin, where Peck grew up to become a newspaper publisher. His most successful paper was the Milwaukee weekly Peck's Sun, in which Peck published, along with news, his own humorous essays and stories in a dry, folksy vein often likened to the work of Mark Twain. Peck's most popular stories were the Peck's Bad Boy series, the adventures of a clever young lad named Hennery who couldn't control his appetite for playing pranks and frequently wound up paying for his transgressions in the woodshed. Hennery's antics caught the public's attention and Peck's paper gained a national audience, eventually leading to a series of "Peck's Bad Boy" movies with Jackie Coogan playing the title role. Peck himself became a popular speaker, and went on to become mayor of Milwaukee. In 1890, Peck was elected to the first of two terms as Governor of Wisconsin. Not bad for the inventor of what the Milwaukee Sentinel recently called "a Bart Simpson for a kinder, gentler century." Ever a loyal son of Wisconsin, Peck spent his years after leaving office campaigning to make cheese our national emblem, asking, "What has the eagle ever done for America?"

Several collections of Peck's stories are available free online through Project Gutenberg here.

"I can't go on," cried Alphonse, "You must save yourself, mon ami! Subscribe!"

All that you can't leave behind.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of "scarfing"? I don't hear it used this way much anymore, but back in the fifties and sixties it meant "scrounging," usually food. I'd be interested in knowing how the word for a cloth one wraps around one's neck in cold and/or windy weather came to mean "scrounging." Any clues? -- Jesse Slokum.

Groovy question. I haven't heard "scarf" in this sense in a while either, but somebody must still be using it, because plugging "scarf down" (a common usage that would rule out the cloth sort of scarf) into Google garners 107,000 hits. "Scarf pizza" is also popular, and I presume that most of those people are not substituting outerwear for anchovies.

The accepted meaning of "scarf" in this sense is not "scrounge" (which means to forage for or to salvage something), but "to eat, especially rapidly and voraciously." The two words do share a similar tone -- you might "scrounge" through the refrigerator late at night for leftovers which you would then quickly "scarf down" to avoid being caught by the Diet Police.

As to how the "keep your neck warm" sort of "scarf" developed this meaning, that's easy -- it didn't. The two meanings of "scarf" are entirely separate words. The outerwear sort of "scarf" originally referred to the kind of ornamental sash often worn by dignitaries on ceremonial occasions, and only acquired its modern meaning in the early 19th century. This "scarf" apparently derives from the Old Northern French word "escarpe," meaning "sash or sling."

The "chow down" kind of "scarf" first appeared in the 1930s, and is actually just a modification of the much older slang term "scoff" meaning "to eat voraciously," which dates back to at least the 1840s. This "scoff," in turn, appears to be a variant of an even older word, the Scots "scaff," which dates back to the 16th century and meant "to beg for food." This "scaff" may be rooted in the German "schaffen," meaning "to procure food," and the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the German word may have been brought back from Europe by veterans of the wars of that period.

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"


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