Issue of August 1, 2007

Page Three


And lots and lots of pens.

Dear Word Detective: My office is having a raging argument over the creation of the word "Brainiac." One side says that the 1958 Superman comic coined the term, with the other side claims it was derived from the first computer, ENIAC. Any thoughts? -- Mike McIntyre.

Raging argument over Brainiac, eh? Well, whatever floats your boat. People in an office where I worked many years ago conducted a running feud in which everyone accused everyone else of stealing their chairs, keyboards and desk accessories, day after day. The office eventually resembled a holding pen for lunatics after people began scrawling "Evelyn's chair" and the like in Wite-Out on everything in an attempt to discourage theft. It didn't work, of course. In fact, I still, evidently, have Dave's tape dispenser.

The short answer to your question is that both sides are right, more or less. "Brainiac" was indeed a character introduced in Action Comics as a "supervillain" opponent of Superman in 1958. Evidently in the years since then there have been several modifications made to the "Brainiac" character and his "backstory," and the page dedicated to "Brainac" at Wikipedia ( details the evolution of Brainiac in what strikes me as mind-numbing detail ("Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe"?). Then again I'm probably the only kid in America who threw out his own comic books when he hit sixteen.

Evidently, however, when the folks at DC Comics introduced their new character, there was already a "Brainiac" on the market, a small kit for building rudimentary computers, aimed at home experimenters. A 1964 note from DC editors explains: "Shortly after the first 'Brainiac' story appeared in Action Comics in 1956, we learned that a real 'Brainiac' the form of an ingenious 'Brainiac Computer Kit' invented in 1955 by Edmund C. Berkeley. In deference to his 'Brainiac' which pre-dates ours,..we are changing the characterization of our 'Brainiac' so that the master-villain will henceforth possess a computer personality.'" I'm not sure why they cited 1956 as Brainiac's first appearance; all my other sources say 1958. Perhaps the folks who wrote "Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe" would care to sort that out.

In any case, the DC folks apparently derived "Brainiac" by blending "brain" with "maniac," and only later, as noted above, was Brainiac depicted as being computer-like. The name of the Brainiac kit, however, was clearly modeled on ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first truly practical large-scale computer put into operation in 1946 and employed in the design of the hydrogen bomb.

"Brainiac" has also, since the mid-1970s, come into use, often in a derogatory sense, as slang for someone perceived as very intelligent, roughly synonymous with "nerd."

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Just don't ever moult.

Dear Word Detective: I saw this on Ken Jenning's website ( -- he was looking for the origin of a phrase in his blog:

Etymology help! In an Eric Rohmer short story I was reading last night, some French expression had been translated as "my fine-feathered friend." That’s right, with the hyphen. So my whole life, I’ve been assuming that a "fine feathered friend" is one who is both fine and feathered. Could it be that the hyphen is actually correct, and the expression is limited to a friend with fine feathers (i.e., not coarse ones)? The Web has been little help here: Google Book Search shows more hits for no-hyphen, but many of the hyphenated examples are older, more literary, or otherwise seem more likely to be correct. The expression goes back at least to "My Fine Feathered Friend" (no hyphen), an ornithologically themed 1937 standard later made a hit by Glenn Miller, but did the phrase pre-date the song? And did it originate as a way to refer to birds, or humans? In other words, what’s it for? --Anonymous.

Yikes. I went to look for the lyrics to "My Fine Feathered Friend," but nearly every site I found prompted a warning from Google about the site being a menace to my computer. Evidently lyrics sites are a major source of spyware and the like. Anyway, the lyrics are purportedly birdy but obviously applicable to humans as well: "I'll make just one request, my sweet chickadee, Don't find some cuckoo's nest and fly out on me, We do belong together, what do you intend? You've got me up a tree, my fine feathered friend."

"Fine-feathered," with a hyphen, was definitely the original form, and its first known appearance predates Glenn Miller's recording by nearly 200 years, occurring in Robert Patlock's decidedly odd 1751 novel "The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins." Patlock's story is the tale of a traveler, reminiscent of Swift's Gulliver, who wanders into an underground world inhabited by flying people, one of whom he marries. While I don't have a copy of the book, it seems probable that "fine-feathered friend" is used in reference to this bird-woman, Youwarkee, and, given that this hyphenated form seems to be the original, the "fine" would refer to the "feathers" and not the "friend."

It also seems likely that he meant "fine" in the sense of "beautiful" rather than simply "not coarse." There was also, at the time, a popular proverb, "Fine feathers make fine birds" (meaning that good clothes "make" the person), which undoubtedly influenced Patlock and makes his use of the phrase (if indeed in praise of his flying fiancée) a nicely done pun.

So, to sum up, "fine-feathered friend" seems to have been, all along, a compliment to humans by allusion to a bird with beautiful plumage. The loss of the hyphen over time has simply clouded a very nice metaphor.

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Lookie there.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, the British television show "Antiques Roadshow" did a series from Australia. I was astounded to hear the English presenter show confusion and ignorance at the statement of an Australian guest saying she had found a particular item at a junk shop whilst "fossicking" through the shelves. The words "fossick," "fossicker" and "fossicking" are used so regularly in polite conversation in Australia that I was under the impression that it was in common use throughout the entire English-speaking world. Obviously not! It is not considered slang or idiom here. I am fully aware of its use: the words "search," "searcher" and "searching" can be used with equal value. I am also aware that it came into use here during the gold rush days of the mid 1800's, but I am unable to find its derivation. Can you help? -- Ian Webley, Australia.

Whilst! You said "whilst." That is such a cool word, and I wish it were commonly used here in the US. I'm tempted to try it out at the local mini-mart ("Please make me a Slurpee whilst I use your loo"), but I'm already under suspicion for wearing glasses. Real men don't wear glasses around here. They either get laser eye surgery or suck it up and bump into things, which is why it's always a good idea to stay inside during deer hunting season.

That episode of "Antiques Roadshow" must have made quite a splash in Australia, because one of your countrymen sent a similar question to Michael Quinion, a British lexicographer who runs the excellent World Wide Words website ( It sounds as if the presenter (what we call a "host") nearly had a nervous breakdown when confronted with "fossick."

"Fossick" is indeed a quintessentially Australian word, and its original meaning does hark back to your country's gold rush in the 19th century. "Fossicking" was essentially what we would call "scrounging" for gold -- searching unattended, abandoned or depleted gold mining sites for the bits left behind, small nuggets that had to be pried out of crevices or picked from streams. Judging by the citations for this sense of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), "fossicking" was considered marginal behavior and "fossickers" were not loved by more established miners.

By the late 19th century, "fossick" had made the leap into general usage with the modern meaning of "to search by rummaging around; to hunt for something."

The origin of "fossick" is not known with certainty, but it appears to be rooted in the English (most likely from Cornwall) dialect word "fossick" meaning "to search." The OED points to the same dialect word in another sense, that of "a troublesome person," and the late etymologist Eric Partridge tied it to "fuss." So evidently an English dialect word that originally meant "an annoying person" perhaps one who "fusses" over small things, was carried to Australia, probably by English immigrants, and became a term for searching for small items of value.

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Pledge break!

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!"


Anyone got a spare Plan B?

Dear Word Detective: I recently read a report that said a number of businesses "went to the wall" after a competitor dropped its prices. I assume that said businesses were in big trouble. So what kind of "wall" are we talking about here? Is it going to fall on them? Please let the rest of us in on the origin of this phrase. -- Mark Wujek.

Probably because I have spent so much of my life poring over New Yorker cartoons, upon reading your question my immediate mental image was of a firing squad preparing to dispatch a bankrupt business owner. As a New Yorker cartoon genre, the firing squad is right up there with desert islands, therapists' couches, and, of course, talking dogs.

There seem to be a number of theories floating around about the origin of "go to the wall" in the sense of "to succumb" or "to fail in business." One traces the phrase to graveyards in centuries past, where the recently deceased were supposedly placed "at the wall" around the cemetery while waiting to be buried. While it is true that in the 16th century "by the wall" was used to describe a ship laid up in dock for repairs (and therefore useless), and later used to mean "dead but not buried," I'm not convinced that this is the source of the phrase (although Brewer's 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable does endorse this origin).

Another story ties the phrase to "medieval churches," where the old and infirm poor were allowed to lean against the church walls for support during services. Even if this were truly the practice at the time (and there is no evidence that it was), this theory doesn't exactly match up with the meaning of "fail or succumb." Sounds more like persevering to me.

My initial vision of a firing squad putting a condemned prisoner "up against the wall" is another possibility, of course, but the earliest uses of the phrase "go to the wall" in the 16th and 17th centuries to mean "to succumb or give way in a struggle" argue against that explanation.

Since the earliest uses of the phrase drew an analogy to a struggle, I think the most likely explanation comes from the classic street fight, perhaps a duel with swords, where the weaker party might well find himself backed into a corner or against a wall as the unpleasant end nears. Thus "to go to the wall," meaning "to fail," would be related to the phrase "to have one's back against the wall," meaning to be in dire straits with no avenue of retreat. "Going to the wall" would thus signify the final stage of a losing fight. This would be consistent with another use of "go to the wall" meaning "to be willing to sacrifice everything" ("I told my brother I would go to the wall for him").

In any case, the use of "go to the wall" meaning specifically "to fail" was well-established by the mid-19th century ("In Berlin a newspaper would very soon go to the wall if it did not present its subscribers with light entertainment," 1891).

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Family feud.

Dear Word Detective: The word "internecine" is typically followed by words such as "struggle," "feud," "conflict," etc. Isn't this redundant? -- Jacqueline Cohen.

Only mildly, if at all, and that depends on how one defines "internecine." I knew I should have gone to law school.

"Internecine" (in-ter-NESS-een) is an interesting word because, among other things, its modern definition is the product of a mistake. And it wasn't just a little mistake, the sort your weird uncle makes when he uses "rotate" to mean "revolve." This was a mistake made by the most famous dictionary in the English language.

It all started with the English poet Samuel Butler (not to be confused with his grandson of the same name, the author of the satirical novel "Erewhon"). The elder Butler's "Hudibras," a satirical poem (satire ran in the family) published in 1663, contained the word "internecine" ("The Egyptians worshipp'd Dogs, and for Their Faith made internecine war."), which was Butler's transliteration of the Latin phrase "internecinum bellum," meaning "savage war of extermination." The Latin root of "internecinum" is "internecare" (to destroy), formed from "necare" (to kill) plus the intensifying prefix "inter," giving us a result of "to kill thoroughly," i.e., exterminate. So Butler introduced the adjective "internecine" to the English language with the meaning "savage and to the death."

About two hundred years later, in 1755, Samuel Johnson published his seminal "A Dictionary of the English Language," the first true dictionary of English. In defining "internecine," however, Johnson misunderstood the prefix "inter" as used in this particular word. In most cases of English words derived from Latin, "inter" signifies "between" or "among" (as in "intervene," to "come between"). But in "internecine," the "inter" is an intensifier, meaning "very" or "completely." Johnson, mistakenly assuming the "between" meaning, defined "internecine" in his dictionary as meaning "endeavouring mutual destruction."

Johnson's dictionary was followed by others, of course, and most of them deferred to his definition of "internecine," making the "mutually destructive" meaning the accepted definition of the word, eventually with the added sense of "between groups with something in common" ("The internecine struggle between the party's two wings pleased the opposition"). While a few "purists" over the years have objected to this "mutual destruction" meaning, Johnson's mistake was actually a good thing. English has many words meaning "savage" in this sense ("destructive," murderous," etc.), but only "internecine" carries the sense of "mutually destructive."

So, to return to your question, while one could say that using "internecine" in the old sense of "savage" might be redundant in a phrase such as "internecine slaughter" (because slaughter is always savage), in its modern "mutual destruction" sense it makes perfect sense. Ironically, "internecine" is most frequently used today in a non-violent sense ("The cheerleaders were engaged in internecine squabbling").

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There's a bathroom on the right.

Dear Word Detective: I heard a word used to describe the substitution of song lyrics, those frequently encountered situations when someone has made up words that they thought were the lyrics but often are crazy substitutions. I wrote the word down when I heard it but have since misplaced the scrap of paper. I can only remember the last syllable sounded like "green." (It's the time of year when my husband sings Christmas carols with the horrible lyrics that he and his brothers made up.) -- Kathy Jaworski.

Hey, a lot of carols could use new lyrics. When I was growing up, my parents taught us the improved version of one old chestnut, penned by Walt Kelly in his immortal "Pogo" comic strip: "Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!, Nora's freezin' on the trolley, Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo! Don't we know archaic barrel, Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou? Trolley Molly don't love Harold, Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!" To this day a voice in my head says "Boston Charlie" whenever I hear that tune.

The word you're looking for is "mondegreen," and your definition is on the money, especially the fact that the person has to believe that the mangled lyrics are the real ones. Your husband's creations, while no doubt worthwhile, do not count as "mondegreens."

I've written about "mondegreens" several times over the years, but I can now report that the word has finally made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the species as "A misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing, especially of the lyrics to a song." The term was invented in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child had heard her mother recite the Scottish ballad ''The Bonny Earl of Murray." Wright interpreted one stanza as "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen." Wright later learned that the line actually was "They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green." Sic transit Lady Mondegreen, but Wright rescued her by memorializing her name as a term for the phenomenon.

Scottish ballads being a bit in eclipse these days, the primary source for modern "mondegreens" has been pop, folk and rock music ("Ducks in the wind, all we are is ducks in the wind...").

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