Issue of August 1, 2007


I never thought I'd be saying this (and people who know me will shake their heads in wonderment) but we seem to be missing some bugs (the creepy crawly kind, not the NSA bugs, we have pots of those). I wrote a few years ago about the swarms of wasps, dozens of them, that infested our laundry room every spring and fall, driving me into panic attacks. Well, they're all gone. We had one or two stragglers this spring, but that's it. And I've seen perhaps two wasps outside all summer. Honeybees, of course, are also missing in action, and I know of one lone bumblebee living in our yard. Fireflies, which used to rise from the fields around us every evening in luminescent waves, are few and far between. Butterflies, and even moths, are scarce. Even June bugs and Japanese beetles, both of which I loathe, have apparently taken a powder. And it's not just our yard. I was standing in the parking lot of a nearby drugstore a few weeks ago on a warm night, and, after a few minutes, noticed that there was not a single insect flying around the very bright lights illuminating the lot, nor those at the gas station across the road. I haven't been bitten once by a mosquito this summer. So, what's up?

On the bright side, we seem to gained a family of deer, three babies and their mom, living on the wild part of our land. Unfortunately, we have also apparently acquired a flock of very nasty biting deer flies.

As you may have noticed, this issue is a bit late. Truth be told, putting this site together is more work than one might think, and my MS ain't helping any, as we say out here in the boonies. At this point, this web site is running a bit more than six months behind my column as it appears in newspapers and is sent to subscribers (who receive it every two weeks).

For the past twelve years, every single column I have written has been posted on this web site. I have encouraged readers to subscribe to The Word Detective by Email because their subscriptions pay the hosting bills and buy food for the cats, etc. But, if readers of this site were patient, they would see all those columns here for free after a few months. We have essentially been running on the honor system. Yes, readers could see the columns for free on this site, but the only guarantee that this site would continue to exist was the support of readers who contributed by subscribing.

Unfortunately, this rather Pollyanna-ish system is becoming seriously impractical. My income from other sources in the past year has shrunk dramatically because of my medical problems, and the wolf is truly at the door.

When I first updated this site this month, I announced that I would be cutting the number of columns I post each month in half, reserving the rest for paying subscribers. It's a measure of how much I hate that idea that I'm now consigning that plan to at least temporary limbo. But if you visit this site every month or so, please subscribe. You'll still be able to come here to see the weird graphics and read about my rural adventures. But if something doesn't change, your next visit may find this site replaced with flashing ads for personal enhancement products. So subscribe, already, OK?

As usual, all of this month's web columns are also posted at The Word Detective Annex, a WordPress blog I have set up as a place for readers to leave comments on the columns. There is some sort of registration required to slow down the spammers, but it's not onerous. I've posted links from the foot of each column here directly to its equivalent at the blog, so just click to leave your comment or read those of others.

And, of course, the circus rolls on at da other blog.

And now, on with the show:


I might be interested if the tiles were edible.

Dear Word Detective: I come from Scotland but now live in the U.S. I was playing a Scrabble game and used the word "bing" but it was not in the Scrabble dictionary. I am sure my husband used it when talking about the coal mines. Maybe it was slang. Any help you can give me will be much appreciated. -- Sophie Murray.

Oh boy, Scrabble. I love word games. Wait, no, sorry, I just remembered that I actually hate word games. The rub is that people naturally assume that I must be very good at word games, which I am not. Perhaps I could be if I tried, but I don't plan to try. I'm with grammarian Geoffrey Pullum when he says, "The expressive power of human language is barely adequate to convey the profound level of apathy word puzzles provoke in me." (You can read his entire rant, which I heartily recommend, here).

I'm not sure who concocts Scrabble dictionaries or what criteria they use when admitting words to their hallowed roster, but for my money they blew it in the case of "bing." It is, as the Simpsons would say, a perfectly cromulent word.

"Bing" first appeared in English in the early 16th century meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "A heap or pile: formerly of stones, earth, trees, dead bodies, as well as of corn, potatoes, and the like." Although that general meaning is still in use in dialects of northern England, by around 1815, "bing" had acquired the specific meaning of "a heap of metallic, especially lead, ore" or alum ore, which explains how you husband came to mention it in connection with mines. "Bing," since the late 17th century, had also been applied to the best, richest ores ("bing ore"). The root of "bing" in English is the Old Norse word "bing," meaning simply "heap."

One wonders, incidentally, when "cromulent" will make it into dictionaries. To quote Wikipedia on the term's origins on The Simpsons, "When schoolteacher Edna Krabappel hears the Springfield town motto, 'A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man,' she comments she'd never heard of the word 'embiggens' before moving to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, 'I don't know why; it's a perfectly cromulent word'."

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Peas in a pod.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the word "buddy"? -- Alastair Craig.

Ah, a succinct question, but an interesting one. "Buddy" is a versatile little word. On the surface, "buddy" is an American invention meaning simply "friend," "comrade" or "pal," well suited for use in such sentences as "My buddy Stan and I went to the movies on Saturday and ran into Stan's ex-wife, who was there with Stan's boss, and now Stan needs a new job and a good lawyer." But used by a master of sarcasm, say a New York City cab driver or newsstand operator, "buddy" can, with the right intonation, mean anything from "idiot" ("Hey buddy, the light ain't gonna get any greener") to "thief" ("Yo, buddy, this ain't no library").

There are two theories about the origins of "buddy," which first appeared in the mid-19th century, one fairly likely and one a bit more complicated and perhaps unlikely. The more likely story about "buddy" is that it is simply a form of "brother," perhaps based on a childish or dialectical pronunciation of the word. "Buddy" was originally found largely in African-American dialectical English at that time, but quickly spread into general colloquial use, and eventually also became a form of address used with a person whose name is not known ("Hey, buddy, gimme a hand here"). "Buddy" also became a verb meaning "to become friendly with," as well as spawning such forms as "buddy-buddy" (very friendly) and the "buddy system," wherein two people are charged with each other's safety during an activity.

If "buddy" is not simply a mutation of "brother," however, it may be a form of "butty," a 19th century English dialect term for "companion." This "butty," in turn, appears to be a corruption of "booty," a term dating back to the 15th century and meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) "plunder, gain, or profit acquired in common and destined to be divided among the winners." Thus a "booty-fellow" (16th century) or "butty" would be a comrade who participates in an enterprise, legal or not, and shares in the proceeds. Citations for "butty" in a sense interchangeable with "buddy" are found as recently as the 1930s, but it is impossible to know whether these are examples of an original form of "buddy" or simply a later mutation of "buddy" itself.

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Ours just wear those little fur suits.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the phrase "cat's pajamas"? I think it means the hottest new craze, but I don't know where it came from or why. I've never seen a cat wearing pajamas, or anything else for that matter, although my dog does have a chenille sweater. -- Susan.

A chenille sweater. For your dog. And the dog actually wears said sweater? Our dog Brownie also has a thing for clothes, but with a slight difference. She regards them as a very special kind of food. So far, by my count, she has eaten six or seven socks, assorted mittens and gloves, and at least one small scarf. I guess the poor thing must have an Orlon deficiency in her diet.

"The cat's pajamas" does indeed mean "the hottest new thing" or "great, wonderful" (as in "Fred's new car is the cat's pajamas; Fred himself, not so much"). But I'm wondering where you're running into "the cat's pajamas" these days, because the phrase itself is nearing its one-hundredth anniversary. "The cat's pajamas" is first recorded in 1920 as part of the typical vocabulary of the "flappers," young women whose avant-garde wardrobe and free-spirited disregard for popular mores epitomized the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. The term "flapper" itself had appeared about 1915 (although an antecedent meaning of "young prostitute" was current in the late 19th century), and was most likely an adaptation of "flapper" in the 18th century sense of "a young duck or partridge" (i.e., one given to much flapping but inept flight).

According to Stuart Berg Flexner's "Listening to America" (1982), "the cat's pajamas" was one of a number of nonsense phrases invented in the flapper period, often on the template of combining an animal, the more unlikely the better, with a part of the human body or an article of clothing. Thus "the cat's pajamas" seems to have inspired a rash of similar phrases also meaning "excellent," including "the bee's knees," "the clam's garters," "the eel's ankles," "the gnat's elbow," "the pig's wings" and my personal fave, "the sardine's whiskers." While none of these phrases or dozens of other have any intrinsic logic (don't go looking for an eel's ankle, in other words), the formula does have the advantage of nearly infinite variation, and one can easily imagine a hipster of the day poring over zoology textbooks in search of ever more exotic species with which to wow the gang.

While "the cat's pajamas" doesn't really mean anything, it is worth noting that in 1920 pajamas were still a relatively new form of sleep apparel (as opposed to nightshirts and nightgowns), and thus were still considered slightly risque, especially for young women.

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There but for fortune.

Dear Word Detective: I was asking a co-worker what costume her kids were choosing for Halloween and she mentioned how costumes are more complex today compared with the past when a kid could just put on old clothes and tie a bundle on a stick and go as a "hobo." I commented that she was dating herself with that term and we discussed the more politically correct terms, from "homeless" to "outdoorsman" (that euphemism sounds like someone who reads "Field and Stream"). I looked at the dictionary for hobo and it says "origin unknown" and it is not in your archives. I hope you have more than just "origin unknown." Any theories? -- Martin Celusnak.

Well, if it's theories you're looking for, you've hit pay dirt. We have bushels of theories about all sorts of things, from why cats stare at blank walls (they're messing with your mind) to why so many Americans drive like morons these days (NASCAR is the one sport many couch potatoes are, unfortunately, equipped to emulate).

As for "hobo," there are quite a few theories about its origins as well, but I must admit from the git-go that certainty on the question remains, shall we say, elusive. Incidentally, I had never heard "outdoorsman" as a euphemism for "homeless." I think whoever came up with it (no doubt in a warm, dry place) should spend a week sleeping under a highway overpass and then reassess his or her obnoxious invention.

A "hobo" is, of course, a homeless person, specifically one who travels or wanders in search of work or odd jobs. (The traditional explanation of the difference between a "hobo" and a "tramp" is that the former travels to find work, the latter to avoid it.) The classic "hobo" who travels by hopping rides on freight trains first appeared in the US after the Civil War, and the "hobo" population exploded during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The term "hobo" is first attested in print in the late 1800s in the Pacific Northwest, and almost immediately theories arose as to its origin. The English dialect terms "hawbuck" and "hawbaw," meaning "an unmannerly lout" (Oxford English Dictionary) have been proposed as sources, but England was a world away from the Northwest US in those days. A more logical local source may have been the greeting shout "Ho, boy!" apparently common among railroad workers at the time. There's also a suggestion that "hobo" is short for "hopping boxcars," and some maintain that "hobo" is short for Hoboken, NJ, where many rail lines converged in the 19th century, making the city a natural gathering point for vagabonds.

While we may never pin down the origin of "hobo" with absolute certainty, my money is riding on that "Ho, boy!" shout, which was verifiably in use by railway workers at the time and could easily have been adopted as a name for their vagabond passengers.

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The Elements of Silly.

Dear Word Detective: What's the state-of-the-art on "nauseous"? I was told that it was a synonym for "nauseating," not "nauseated," but the Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to have given up on that. I saw it used in no less prestigious a source than The Economist to mean "nauseated." Not that etymology will ever stand in the way of practice, but I'd at least like to know if this actually a change, or if it was just somebody being pedantic. -- Joshua Engel.

Oh boy, a usage question. Let's see how many people I can tick off this time. If I play my cards right, half my own family won't be speaking to me when I'm done.

Long story short? The "rule" concerning "nauseous" and "nauseated" that you (and nearly everyone else) encountered in school is without either logical substance or historical justification. It is and always was "just somebody being pedantic" (albeit a lot of somebodies in a lot of grammar books).

It is true that the root of "nauseous" is the Latin "nauseosus," meaning "causing nausea," which would tend to buttress the traditional "puce wallpaper is nauseous; people seeing it become nauseated" school of thought. But, as you note, etymology is not destiny, and most of our English words have wandered far from their origins, so the Latin "nauseosus" is not a compelling argument.

A glance at the actual use of "nauseous" in the history of written English leaves the "nauseous means nauseating" camp with a problem. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the "causing nausea" usage to 1628, but lists the meaning "inclined to sickness or nausea; squeamish" to fifteen years earlier, in 1613. So the claim that the "causing nausea" meaning is the pure original meaning won't fly.

More importantly, most of the objections to the use of "nauseous" to mean "feeling ill" have arisen only since the end of World War II, but (according to the excellent Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage) the actual use of "nauseous" in the supposedly proper "makes-me-sick" sense has dropped sharply in learned prose since before WW II and almost everyone today uses "nauseating." Even E.B. White, after reciting the standard "rule" about nauseous/nauseated in Strunk & White's revered Elements of Style (1979), lapsed into using "nauseating" rather than "nauseous" elsewhere in his own book.

As it stands now in the real world, "nauseating" is doing the duty of meaning "causing nausea or disgust," and "nauseous" is almost always used as a synonym of "nauseated" to mean "feeling sick or disgusted." The only danger in using "nauseous" to mean "feeling sick" is that you may run into people who are erroneously convinced that the usage is wrong, which brings us to one of those Dirty Harry moments: Are you feeling lucky?

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The wisdom of whackos.

Dear Word Detective: Today I heard two radio DJ's arguing over the phrase "worth their salt." One DJ was exclaiming that she had never heard such a phrase and therefore it never existed. Now, I have heard this phrase many times, but their argument got me to thinking, where did it come from, what does it really mean? I immediately went to your website and was dismayed when I saw that it wasn't here. I would be very grateful for some insight. -- Sarah.

Darn. Well, there goes my hope that disk jockeys were going to lead us into a new age of enlightenment. Speaking of popular media, I read last week that a certain large newspaper chain is planning to adopt something called "crowdsourcing" in its news-gathering operations, inviting readers to act as reporters and leaving it to the papers' beleaguered editors to sift the cups of wheat from the tons of chaff that will pour in over the transom. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I'm looking forward to lots more by-popular-demand stories about the Illuminati and that so-called moon landing.

Oh, right, you had a question. "To be worth one's salt" is definitely a well-established idiom, dating back to at least 1830 in English and found, for instance, in Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure classic Treasure Island: "It was plain from every line of his body that our new hand was worth his salt." The general sense of "worth his salt" and similar uses is "capable and efficient, able to handle the task at hand." Specifically, someone who is "worth his salt" is a good employee, one well worth the wages paid, which brings us to a brief history of salt.

Although salt is one of the cheapest things found in a supermarket today (not counting those weird store-brand pickles that taste like floor wax), for most of human history salt was a scarce and valuable commodity, at some points more valuable than gold. Salt made dull (or "iffy") food palatable, made it possible to cure and preserve meat, and was considered a necessity of life in the ancient world. Not surprisingly, the central role of salt in civilization is memorialized today in a variety of "salty" English idioms, including "with a grain of salt" (with skepticism) in reference to making an odd dish more palatable, and "the salt of the earth," meaning the common people on whom society depends.

Salt was, in fact, considered such a necessity that Roman soldiers were either issued regular rations of salt or paid a special "salt allowance" with which to buy their own. This was known as a "salarium," which eventually gave us our English word "salary" for regular wages. Thus today an employee who is "worth his salt" is one definitely earning his keep.

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