Issue of August 1, 2007

Page Two


Quack... Thunk. Quack... Thunk.

Dear Word Detective: Back in 2002 you punted (a sports metaphor) on the question of the origin of "having one's ducks in a row." You noted that it's an expression apparently of recent coinage, but several speculations on aquatic waterfowl led to nothing very convincing. I learned once that it's actually a games metaphor: a "duck" is a pool-hall term for a ball sitting right in front of a pocket -- an easy shot. Thus to have one's ducks in a row is to have all one's balls sitting lined up in front of pockets, ready to be sunk in series. How do etymologists such as yourself establish the likelihood of such a claim? -- Anonymous.

Thanks for an interesting question. To recap for those who missed my original column, "to have one's ducks in a row" is an idiom meaning to have all one's preparations done or arranged before beginning an activity or project, and the phrase is thought to have arisen by allusion to a mother duck leading her ducklings in an orderly single file. In my original column I noted that the phrase was first attested in print in 1979, but it has since been found in a Washington Post article from 1932.

The theory tracing the phrase to the game of pool is an interesting one, and "duck" is indeed a pool-hall term for a ball resting at the edge of a pocket (i.e., a "sitting duck"). But the pool theory runs aground, as many such stories do, on a lack of evidence.

Stories tracing phrases now used as general idioms to a specific time, place or practice are only believable if print citations can first be found using the phrase in that specific context. For instance, the theory tracing "the whole nine yards" (meaning "the whole thing") to the length of aircraft machine-gun ammo belts in World War Two seems eminently reasonable. Yet there has been not a single instance found so far of the phrase being used in print in connection with actual machine guns (and WW II was a very well-documented war), only citations for the phrase in its general slang sense beginning in the late 1960s. Perhaps someday such a citation will be found, but until then the "logic" of the theory counts for nothing.

Similarly, the earliest citation found so far for "ducks in a row" ("We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row," June 1932, Washington Post) clearly has nothing to do with pool. Perhaps the writer first heard it in a poolroom, but until we find an earlier use of the phrase in the context of a pool game (as in "Smith had his ducks in a row and sank them one by one"), the familiar sight of a mother duck and her brood marching in a neat line seems a more reasonable (and much simpler) explanation.

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Get offa me.

Dear Word Detective: The expression "they got their ears pinned back" is sometimes used in U.S. sports contexts and seems to mean that the winning team decisively defeated the losing team. It would be the losing team that got its "ears pinned back." A web search indicated that in the U.K., the phrase seems to have meanings relating to paying attention to someone or to be disciplined by someone. What are the roots of the notion of pinning back ears, for any purpose? -- Rich Kretschmann.

That is, as we say in the word biz, a darn good question. As a matter of fact, it's a question that's been rattling around in the back of my own mind for several decades, but I've never quite gotten around to investigating it. Hey, I've been busy.

"To have one's ears pinned back" means to be chastised, scolded or verbally disciplined in a very forceful manner, or, by extension, to be soundly defeated in a contest or an argument. It's an American phrase that first appeared in the mid-19th century, and although "to have one's ears pinned back" is by far the most common form, the Dictionary of American English also lists "to get one's ears knocked down" and "to get one's ears chewed down" as synonyms meaning "to receive a severe scolding." All of these phrases are, incidentally, distinct from such sayings as "to have one's ears lowered," meaning to get a haircut. The British use of "pin one's ears back" to mean "pay close attention" appears to refer to an animal raising its ears in alertness, an action also known as "pricking up" its ears.

The key to understanding "to have one's ears pinned back" comes from the animal kingdom, where the state of a critter's ears (especially those of horses and dogs) serves as a window into the animal's mental state. A horse, for instance, will normally hold its ears erect, alert, presumably, for the sound of oats and apples. But when frightened or angry, the horse will put its ears back against its head, a reflex also familiar to anyone who has ever shouted at Fido for sleeping on the sofa. From an evolutionary standpoint, this reflex makes sense, as the ears are among the most vulnerable, sensitive and easily injured parts of the body. Especially in dogs, to put the ears back against the head also serves as a sign of submission to a threat (perhaps from a larger dog or angry human), an attempt to forestall an attack or physical punishment.

One slightly tricky aspect of "to have one's ears pinned back" is that the passive voice of "pinned" makes it sound as if Aunt Becky actually does something unpleasant with clothespins to little Timmy's ears. But "having one's ears pinned back" really just means "to be forced into visible submission and defeat."

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Don't sweat it, Bumpy.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "worry wart"? -- Sharon Kawasaki.

Good question, but I wouldn't let it bother you. I'm always taken aback when folks write in saying that they lie awake at night wondering, even worrying, about the origin of some word or phrase. I, on the other hand, am firmly of the "What, me worry?" school of thought. Last night at around two a.m., for instance, there was a tremendous crash from downstairs. A lesser man might have leaped from bed and raced down to investigate. But I wisely decided to wait until this morning, when I discovered that the cats had merely been rearranging the living room furniture again. No harm, no foul, although I'm still wondering what they did with that table lamp.

"Worry wart," meaning "a person who worries or frets incessantly," is one of those phrases that only seem stranger the longer you look at them. It's possible to worry about warts, of course, although fortunately I don't think there's any evidence that worry itself causes warts. I suppose a "worry wart" could be a wart that one "worries" (in the sense of "fiddle with") in moments of stress, but that sounds like a bad idea.

"Worry" itself is an interesting word, one that has traveled far from its origins. When "worry" first appeared in Old English (as "wrygan"), it meant, not "to fret," but "to strangle" (putting a whole new light on "put your worries behind you"). That grisly meaning of "worry" softened a bit over the subsequent centuries, first to "bite and shake" (as dogs "worry" their rubber toys today), then "to harass or vex," until finally arriving at its modern meaning of "to make (or to be) persistently anxious" around 1822.

"Wart," on the other hand, has meant "a small excrescence on the skin" since it appeared in Old English from a Germanic root. Several centuries of development gave "wart" a variety of figurative meanings, including that of "a defect or unattractive feature" (as in the phrase "warts and all") and, perhaps inevitably, "an annoying, obnoxious or insignificant person" in the 19th century.

Thus the stage is set for decoding "worry wart" as "a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything." The earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1956, although an earlier form, "worryguts," had been popular in Britain since the 1930s. But "worry wart" became a household standard when it was used as the name of a recurrent character in "Out Our Way," a popular newspaper comic strip drawn by James R. Williams from 1922 to 1957. Oddly enough, Williams' "Worry Wart" was a young boy who caused worry in others, rather than being plagues by worry himself.

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No problem.

Dear Word Detective: I realize that you are the Word Detective and not the Grammar Detective, but a friend took me to see "The Prestige" last night, and I was thrown off by what I believe are a couple of linguistic anachronisms that occur early in the film. I was hoping you could shed some light on when these uses came into the English language. At the very beginning of the film, Michael Caine's character says something like "I saw someone run on the stage and followed them [sic] backstage where I saw him...." The second, which occurs a few moments later, involves a character saying "He's a better magician than me." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that "they/them/their" were used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns in the late 19th century, nor was "than me" used in comparisons in place of the grammatically correct "than I." Any thoughts? -- Jackie.

Hmm. Grammatically correct? Oh, you're looking for an argument. Sorry, this is Abuse. Argument is down the hall, Mr. Barnard in Room 12. (Persons not Monty Python fans may find Googling "Argument Clinic" helpful in decoding that.)

Much as I love pointing out anachronisms in movie scripts ("Telephone for you, President Lincoln"), I'm afraid that in this case we're dealing with what the linguists over at Language Log call the Recency Illusion: the understandable but erroneous conviction that a usage one dislikes must be new because no one in The Good Old Days would have put up with such a barbarism.

In the case of "they/them/their" used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns, writers as notable as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Jane Austen have employed the construction. Even the King James Version of the Bible uses it: "Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, ... and shalt stone them with stones, till they die" (Deuteronomy 17). The use of "than" as a preposition (requiring the objective "me" rather than the nominative "I") has a similarly long history.

The objections to both constructions are the legacy of misguided 18th century grammarians who tried to force English to conform to the rules of Latin. While these spurious "rules" have been perpetuated by popular grammar books for more than 200 years, their disregard by English speakers has been so natural and so common for so long that the examples you cite from "The Prestige" would probably not have even raised an eyebrow in the 19th century.

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Dear Word Detective: So why do we call mouths "pie holes" (as in "Shut your pie hole")? Of all the foods we could have chosen, what is special about pie? I mean, I like pie and all, but not as much as ... say, pastrami. In researching this on my own, I've been notified that "pie hole" is probably a variant of "cake hole," a phrase that apparently was coined in England sometime around World War II (also used in the context of "shut your cake hole"). And "cake" might be a corruption of "ceg," Welsh for mouth. Is this etymology correct? Or did "pie hole" originate from some completely other source? -- James Takahashi.

Mmmm ... cake. You can keep your pastrami, and the rye it rode in on. I'd be happy to live out my days on a diet of cake and pizza. I am especially fond of the classic wedding cake, but it's hard to find except at weddings. Incidentally, is it wrong to encourage your friends to divorce and remarry just so you can get some decent cake? Oh well, too late now.

Somehow I seem incapable of hearing the words "pie hole" without thinking of the classic exchange between Homer Simpson and Moe the bartender: Homer: Hmm. I wonder why he's so eager to go to the garage? Moe: The "garage"? Hey fellas, the "garage"! Well, ooh la di da, Mr. French Man. Homer: Well, what do you call it? Moe: A car hole!

I must say that although I've heard the expressions "pie hole" and "cake hole" in several movies (I have a dim memory of Bruce Willis saying "pie hole" in something forgettable), I don't think I've ever heard either phrase used in casual conversation, but both apparently have been for quite a while. "Cake hole" is the older, dating back to British armed services use in 1943. The earliest printed citation we have for "pie hole," however, is only from 1983, although it was probably in use for at least a few years before then. "Pie hole" was clearly inspired by "cake hole," the substitution made perhaps because pie, especially apple, has long been considered a typical American dessert.

As slang for "mouth," both phrases exhibit the sort of cheerful bluntness and vulgarity common to armed services and working-class slang, "Shut your cake hole" being far more colorful (and, given the humorous element, perhaps less confrontational) than simply saying "Shut your mouth."

As for the possible Welsh connection, "ceg" does indeed mean "mouth" in Welsh, but the resemblance to "cake" is almost certainly simply coincidental. Among other things, "ceg hole" would be a bit redundant, and there is no record of such a phrase ever being used.

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Smells like a trend.

Dear Word Detective: In the past three weeks, having read three different novels by three different authors (That's a lot of threes, isn't it?), I have come across the usage of the word "redolent" in all of them. Although 70 years old and fairly well educated, I must admit that neither I nor any of my friends have ever used this word before. I am sure I must be making "a mountain out of a mole hill," but considering its frequent use lately, I am wondering if the word is the new darling of the literati (I can just visualize the author sitting there with his/her thesaurus open). I firmly believe in increasing one's vocabulary and consequently have added this word to mine, but the seeming over-use of the word tends to render it somewhat trite and artificial to me. Or is it just my provincial Midwestern roots coming to the fore? -- John E. Bowles.

Well, mountains have to come from somewhere, don't they? Think of all the brave little moles it took to make the Himalayas.

I understand your skepticism about the apparent sudden affection for "redolent" among writers. A search of Google News produces 214 hits for the word at the moment (versus 902,000 on plain old Google), and I would bet that the count for "redolent" in news stories a few years ago would have been near zero. I too am annoyed by vogue words and phrases that whoosh in from nowhere and are suddenly popping up in one's face every few minutes. I was ready to mount a campaign to outlaw "at the end of the day" when it swamped the airwaves and magazine racks a few years ago, but pundits are fickle critters and the phrase faded away before I had a chance.

On the other hand, I'm sort of fond of "redolent." I've used it several times in this column over the years ("They were lovely big dill pickles, crisp and pungent, redolent of garlic and onion and the teeming germs from countless grubby little hands"), and I love the rolling sound of the word: RED-oh-lent.

"Redolent," from the Latin "redolere" meaning "to emit a smell," literally means "to smell of something." While that odor was presumed to be pleasant in the 15th century when "redolent" first appeared in English, today a person or place can be "redolent" of unpleasant things as well. More importantly, "redolent" has also developed a figurative sense meaning "strongly suggestive or reminiscent of" a quality or feeling, whether good or bad ("On every side Oxford is redolent of age and authority," 1856). While some uses in this sense have become trite ("redolent of wealth," for instance, is a deadly cliche), I think it's still a useful word.

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