Issue of August 13, 2005



Boy, do I have a good excuse.

So one afternoon in mid-July, just about the time I should have been updating this web site, I'm struggling to get an enormous air-conditioner into the west window of the living room.  It's 95 degrees with a heat index of 105 and there are nasty storms coming on the radar, but so far there's only spotty rain and very distant thunder. 

I finally balance the thing on the sill and reach up to lower the window.  Kathy is coming downstairs and says something.  I start to reply, still standing right up against the window.  In the center of my field of vision, about five feet beyond the window, appears a brilliant ball of intense white light about the size of a basketball, hovering in mid-air. 

Kinda like Tinkerbelle, but much bigger and brighter.

Just as this bit of weirdness registers on my mind, the ball of light explodes with a loud bang.  A very, very loud bang.  Shotgun-next-to-your-ear bang.  Not a "boom," a KA-BLAM! 

Much louder than Tinkerbelle.

 I jump three feet backwards in the air and am out of the room in two more hops, then shakily sit down on the stairs.  Kathy wants to call the squad but I'm too busy laughing and testing my fingers and toes.

At first I thought the air conditioner had somehow exploded, but apparently lightning had struck the tree outside the kitchen window, about ten feet away, and then rolled or bounced downhill in ball form to where I was and then exploded.  Very weird.  The tree shows typical burn signs of a strike, but the explosion was definitely about five feet away from the tree, in midair about three feet from the ground.  I tend to think that if I had still been holding the air-conditioner at that moment I'd have been toast and y'all would have had a much, much longer wait.

Yessiree, ball lightning, the holy grail of the hillbilly lifestyle.  An' I done seed it!  Yeehaw.  Can I  go back to New York now?

Although the house itself was not actually hit, apparently the electromagnetic pulse was sufficiently strong to seriously fry the telephone junction box on the other side of the house, as well as kill two cordless phones,the answering machine, the stove (!), a nice Kloss radio, the answering machine, and probably other gadgets we haven't tested yet.  The computers and network stuff were all completely unplugged from the wall, no connection to anything, but that didn't stop the pulse from killing both the wireless bridge and the router and frying one computer.  That's some pulse. 

Anyway, the right side of my head wasn't really working for the rest of the week: bad headache, partial deafness, and weird numbness on that side of my noggin.  Kathy says I was in an unusually bad mood in the days afterward, but c'mon, half the freaking house was broken.

I seem to be OK now (I've been partially deaf in that ear since 1970 anyway), but evidence for lasting impairment may include the fact that a few days later we took in the little critter at left, whose working title is Fuzzy and who came galloping out of the same bush that produced last summer's crop of kittens.  Apparently it's a sort of lost kitten waiting area.  Fuzzy is a lovely shade of blue (who knew?) and is lacking most of his tail (whether congenitally or due to an injury the vet cannot say).  He has a cute little stump and spends lots of time staring wistfully at the other cats' tails.  But he can climb curtains like a pro. 

So the lightning (and the economic fallout, which is a whole 'nother story) ate my homework, and that's why I'm late.  The consolation prize for you folks is a double helping of columns this month.  The downside is that if I took the time to illustrate them, you wouldn't see them until October, so no pretty pictures this month.

As a matter of fact, I am hip-deep in writing another book at the moment, a big, complicated book at that, so I can't promise that there won't be further delays between now and the end of this year.  Several readers have written in the past few weeks asking when these pages would be updated.  This seems a good moment to note that readers who subscribe to The Word Detective via Email, as urged in the following paragraph, get my columns at the same moment they are sent to newspapers, and thus never have to wait for a single scintillating paragraph of my deathless prose.  In other words, the subscribers have been partying in the back room while you folks were killing time out on the sidewalk.  Formal sales pitch follows.

As I have mentioned several times (and plan to keep mentioning), 2005 marks the TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web.  We remain, as always, a free resource for the thousands of readers from around the world who visit this site every day.  But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow).  If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks. This is your karma calling, gang.  Do the right thing. 

And now, on with the show:

Then there's the guy who shoots fish in his backyard pond ... at midnight.

Dear Word Detective: There's a current flap going on in the upper Midwest. It seems certain people in Wisconsin have proposed shooting cats, and people in Minnesota have been doing so for some time. This, naturally, has upset some cat lovers, but in the discussions the target cats are referred to as "feral" (at least by those proposing to shoot them.) I understand the word to mean "wild" and it's obviously used in this case to distinguish once domestic cats that have reverted to wild ways from "wild cats." And it does sound nastier than calling them "wild." Is the word related to "ferocious"? Can it be used for cats (or other animals) that have always been wild, or is it limited to domestic animals that have gone wild? I don't know if your answer will influence the outcome of this debate, but I'm curious. -- Barney Johnson.

I don't remember the last time I had to count to ten before answering a question. We here at Word Detective World Headquarters have six seven perfectly nice cats, all of whom arrived on our doorstep as "feral," and none of whom can roam outdoors any longer because our neighbors are in the habit of shooting pretty much anything that moves, even if it's moving on our land. Elsewhere in the news, an article in Harpers magazine recently reported that mountain lions may be returning to the Midwest. Perhaps Fluffy has sent for reinforcements.

"Feral" has, like many English words, undergone a modification of meaning over the centuries. When it first appeared in English in the 17th century, derived from the Latin "ferus" ("fierce or wild"), "feral" meant simply "wild" or "untamed," and referred to plants or animals in a state of nature, uncultivated and undomesticated. A secondary sense of "feral" was "resembling a wild beast; savage or brutal," often applied to human beings with less than sterling social skills. Since the mid-19th century, however, "feral" has most often been applied to domesticated animals and cultivated plants that have been allowed to lapse into a "wild" condition.

"Ferocious" is indeed derived from the same Latin root as "feral," via the related compound "ferox," which included the element "ox" (or "oc") meaning "looking or appearing." Thus a "ferocious" animal is one that may or not be wild, but appears to be actively hostile and behaves in a fierce and savagely cruel manner.

Yeah, whatever.

Dear Word Detective: Judging from the number of entries when I Googled "disinterested vs. uninterested," I'm not the only one to have noticed that they are unaccountably being used interchangeably these days. I was somewhat surprised not to have found anything in your archives on this painful topic, so I hope you will comment now. -- Shelley Thomas.

Well, I have a high pain threshold. Still, the ruckus over "disinterested" versus "uninterested" is, um, interesting, and not without substance. (There are many usage questions that are utterly without substance, the prohibition against "splitting" infinitives being a sterling example.)

In current "by the book" usage, "uninterested" means "not interested, apathetic in regard to" (as in "I am uninterested in sports"), while "disinterested" means "impartial, unbiased by personal interest, having nothing to gain" (as in "Arbitration should be conducted by a disinterested party"). The current usage dispute centers on the use of "disinterested" as simply a synonym of "uninterested" ("I am disinterested in sports and would rather read a book"), a usage that is (a) fairly widespread, and (b) drives many people a bit bonkers.

There are two complicating factors to this question. First, both "dis" and "un" are prefixes that express negation, so there's no intrinsic logical distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested." The distinction lies in the two relevant senses of "interest" itself -- it can mean both "curiosity or concern" or "personal stake." Which meaning is reflected in "disinterested" is purely a matter of convention. ("Uninterested" is almost never used to mean "impartial.")

The second fly in the grammar purist's ointment is the fact that when "disinterested" and "uninterested" first appeared in English in the 17th century, their definitions were the exact opposite of today's "proper usage." If you were bored by sports back then, you were "disinterested," and a good referee was "uninterested." The modern inversion of those senses didn't develop until the late 19th century.

Still, there's a difference between switching places and being considered the same word. The current distinction between the two words is generally useful, sometimes important, and worth observing. After all, voters have a right to know whether their elected representatives are "disinterested" (not on the take) or merely "uninterested" (asleep).

Roundup Ready.

Dear Word Detective: I am a professional tutor at a remote community college which sits amid cornfields in Southern Illinois. One student came up to me today and asked about the origin of the word, "epitaph." Its origin is Greek, but that is all I know about it. -- Sarah Wolfe.

Sounds familiar, especially the words "remote" and "cornfield." I look out my office window and all I can see is a cornfield stretching to the horizon. Actually, last year was corn, so this year it'll be soybeans. I must remember to take pictures.

"Epitaph" is indeed of Greek origin, from "epitaphios" ("epi," over, plus "taphos," tomb), an adjective applied to speeches and tributes made at a funeral as well as inscriptions on the tomb itself. Taken into Latin as "epitaphium" and then Old French as "epitaphe," our familiar "epitaph" first appeared in English in the 14th century. By the 19th century, we were also using "epitaph" in figurative senses to mean a person's lasting legacy or the effect of a person or thing upon the world ("The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain… the fern and leaf their modest epitaph in the coal" -- Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Modern epitaphs on tombs and tombstones tend to be terse and sedate, of the "devoted wife and mother" genre, but a minor folk industry has long flourished in the recounting of humorous or outrageous epitaphs. Many of these are, no doubt, apocryphal, but demonstrate nonetheless a sprightly defiance of morbidity (albeit with an airy tone more often associated with Burma Shave signs). One grave in Vermont, for example, supposedly bears the inscription "Here lies the body of our Anna / Done to death by a banana / It wasn't the fruit that laid her low / But the skin of the thing that made her go." Another, in Pennsylvania, is said to read "Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake / Stepped on the gas / Instead of the brake."

On a more dignified note, one of history's most famous epitaphs is that of the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who is buried within St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which Wren designed and built between 1675 and 1710. The last line of his epitaph reads "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice" ("Reader, if you seek his monument, look around").

Pompous?  Moi?

Dear Word Detective: With the sad demise of Pope John Paul II, the word "pontificate" has been in wider use in the media than usual. This made me wonder how the other use of the word has arisen and if there is any connection. -- Pete Sturley.

A timely question. There are several senses of the word "pontificate," but I assume that by "the other use" you mean "pontificate" as a verb, which is often used in contexts where there is no apparent connection to the Pope. The word "pope," incidentally, comes from the Greek "pappas," meaning "father."

To begin at the beginning, we have the noun "pontiff," which, while technically meaning simply "a bishop" (or even a high priest of any religion), is most often used to mean the bishop of Rome, i.e., the Pope. "Pontiff" is derived from the Latin word "Pontifex," which was the highest assembly of priests in Ancient Rome. The word "pontifex" itself is a bit of a mystery. The first element appears to come from "pons," Latin for "bridge," and the "fex" from "facere," to make, giving us "bridge-maker" as the underlying sense. Unfortunately, the logical connection between "bridge-maker" and an assembly of priests has proven elusive, and some authorities suspect that the "pons" is actually a modified form of some other word that would presumably make more sense.

In any case, "pontifex" was eventually used by Christians to mean "bishop," and appeared in English, along with the Anglicized form "pontiff," in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At approximately the same time, English also adopted "pontificate" as a noun meaning "the office or term of office of a pontiff" or, more intangibly, "the dignity and prestige of a pontiff." Thus the office, term, institution and prestige of the Pope are today known as "the Pontificate."

All of which brings us to that "other" use of "pontificate" as a verb. In its initial sense in English as of the early 19th century, "pontificate" simply meant to carry out the official duties of a bishop or, more often, the Pope. Since one of the duties of the Pope is to issue decrees and edicts, often in person in a dignified and solemn setting, "pontificate" quickly took on the figurative meaning of "behaving or speaking like a pontiff." But while a stiff, formal and perhaps somewhat pompous style is expected from the Pope, it's a bit hard to take from lesser mortals, and "pontificate" soon came to mean "speaking in an excessively pompous and dogmatic manner."

Two scoops of nuts.

Dear Word Detective: In Australian sporting parlance, we have the expression "wooden spoon" for the team that comes last in the competition over the whole season. So we have "favorites for the wooden spoon," "avoiding the wooden spoon" and so on. I'm not sure if the expression is used beyond Australia. Any ideas about its origins? -- Paul W., Australia.

Not fair, I say. I know that the whole point of a sporting contest is to win, but someone has to lose, and doing anything consistently, even losing, should command more than a booby prize. Too often, all the accolades are showered on the masters of the game, poisoning the purity of the sport. I still remember the mortifying arguments between the softball teams at my school over which side would have the benefit of my athletic prowess (although the selfless demurral "We took him last time" was a moving testament to the sporting spirit of my classmates).

"Wooden spoon" is indeed heard beyond Australia, and in fact originated in the halls of Cambridge University in England. Apparently there was a custom at Cambridge, dating back to the early 19th century, of awarding an actual wooden spoon to the student who comes in last in the final math (or "maths," as they say over there) examination. According to lore, the top scorer was said to have been "born with a gold spoon in his mouth," the second highest a silver spoon, lead for the third, and wooden for the lowest. The gold, silver and lead "spoons" seem to have been purely figurative titles, but there was, until 1909, actually an elaborate ceremony at graduation wherein the most math-challenged graduate was presented with a large wooden spoon. The presentation ceremony itself was not exactly subtle -- the spoon was lowered from the balcony of the hall as the winner stepped forward to receive his degree from the Vice-Chancellor of the University. A photograph of the last wooden spoon awarded, to the awesomely-named Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse in 1909, can be found at here. Evidently the spoons awarded had gradually grown in size over the years, and that one is about five feet long and made from an oar.

"Wooden spoon" spread beyond Cambridge in the early 19th century as a metaphorical title for the contestant or team in any sport that brings up the rear, and today is heard, if not entirely understood, throughout the world.


Quack. Boom!  QUACK.

Dear Word Detective: I have read the phrase "Like a duck in thunder," but do not fully understand what this means. How does a duck react to thunder? -- Lewis Morris.

By ducking? Yuk yuk. Actually, even if you do not "fully understand" this phrase, you're still three steps ahead of where I started out when reading your question. Although I consider myself something of a duck-phrase connoisseur, I had never heard of "Like a duck in thunder."

Ducks are, of course, the perennial fall guys of the animal kingdom, invoked as symbols of bad weather ("a fine day for ducks"), powerlessness ("lame duck"), bad hair styles ("ducktail"), tasks that require no effort ("duck soup"), funny gait ("duck walk"), obliviousness ("like water off a duck's back"), and, as a final indignity, inglorious death ("dead duck"). Even when ducks triumph, it's through chance ("lucky duck"), not skill. On the bright side, we have the promise of youthful gawkiness ("ugly duckling") blossoming into adult beauty before all those horrible things happen. But even that metaphor rings hollow for ducks, as the Ugly Duckling of the fable turned out, in a cruel twist, to be a swan.

So it's not surprising that "like a duck in thunder" does not speak well of ducks. The first use of the simile appeared in 1785, in a lyric ode by Peter Pindar (pseudonym of John Wolcot): "Gaping upon Tom's thumb, with me in wonder, The rabble rais'd its eyes -- like ducks in thunder." It's unclear whether Wolcot actually had close knowledge of ducks or merely needed something to rhyme with "wonder." In any case, Sir Walter Scott later used the phrase in his 1822 novel "Peveril of the Peak": "Closed her eyes like a dying fowl -- turned them up like a duck in a thunder-storm." From these and other uses since we can deduce how ducks are reputed to act in thunderstorms: they roll their eyes back in fear and then keel over dead. It's a wonder there are any ducks to be found today, given how common thunderstorms are. In a less dramatic sense, "like a duck in thunder" has also been used since the late 18th century to mean "having a forlorn and hopeless appearance."

I had a cousin went to New York City once.  Hated it.

Dear Word Detective: How did an old salt like myself wind up in the Midwest, you may ask? Well, I put an oar on my shoulder, turned my back to the sea, and walked until someone said: "What's that?" Whereupon I planted my oar and strung my hammock.... But that's not my question. In your archive "gob" is defined as "mouth" or "speech." So how did it become a synonym for "sailor"? "Jack," "Tar," Swab" all are fairly obvious, but "Gob?" -- Ted Edwards.

That's funny -- I ended up here in roughly the same way, but in my case it was my New York Yankees cap that finally ran me aground on the reef of public puzzlement. I subsequently discovered that in Central Ohio many people consider the entire sport of baseball a satanic communist conspiracy to distract attention from the worship of all things pertaining to the OSU Buckeyes, so I guess I'm lucky they tolerate me. On the bright side, I haven't run across a single Mets fan out here.

"Gob" is an interesting, if not terribly pleasant, word. It's actually several words, although it can be difficult to tell where one "gob" ends and another begins. The definition of "gob" as "mouth" to which you refer was prompted by a question about the British slang term "gobsmacked," meaning to be as astonished and speechless as one would be if struck in the mouth. This "gob" first appeared as an English dialect term about 450 years ago and may be derived from the Gaelic word "gob," meaning "beak."

An even older kind of "gob," dating back to the 14th century, is "gob" meaning "mass or lump," probably derived from the Old French "gobe," meaning "lump or mouthful." Indeed, as of around 1557, this "gob" was being used to mean a large mouthful of something, especially meat, and appears to be related to our modern English "gobble." A verb later derived from this "gob" in the 19th century was "to gob," meaning "to spit out" or simply "to spit."

All of which brings us to sailors. Evidently, one of the things most noticed about sailors was that they spit a good deal, and by the late 19th century "gobby" was British slang for a sailor, later shortened to simply "gob."

You missed a spot.

Dear Word Detective: What the heck is a "one-armed paper hanger" anyway? I have heard the phrase "as busy as a one-armed paper hanger" when someone claims they are overwhelmed with work. When and where did this colloquialism originate? Was there a mechanical device that hung paper in, say, a print shop or newspaper production? Or is this referring to a person? Any pictures of a paper hanger? Are there paper hangers with multiple arms? -- Peter Hannah.

This is an interesting question, not only because the phrase "as busy as a one-armed paper hanger" is intriguing in its own right, but because the fact that it apparently perplexes quite a few people means that it may be on the brink of becoming unintelligible to the average person. That's a bit ironic, considering that you can't turn on the TV these days without being subjected to an apparently endless barrage of home-improvement shows in which impossibly cool and insufferably confident contractors turn pigsties into palaces in 22 minutes of glitch-free sunny days. Sometimes these shows even have time left over to share funny outtakes (which, oddly enough, never seem to include the truly hilarious events that enliven any real-world renovation, such as the plumber showing up dead drunk or the roofers failing to show up in any form for six months).

As you may have gleaned from reading between the lines of that little rant, a "paper hanger" is a contactor, one who specializes in the art of installing wallpaper. "Hanging" wallpaper is a tricky business under the best of circumstances, requiring, at a minimum, steady nerves and both arms, so the vision of a "one-armed paper hanger" is one of frenzied desperation as the "hanger" frantically attempts to slap paste on the wall, apply and align the paper, and smooth out the whole shebang. "Impossible" doesn't begin to cover it.

Of course, wallpaper hanging isn't the only task that becomes infinitely more difficult with only one arm, and "one-armed" has been used to mean "not fully effective" since the 19th century. The earliest use in print of the "one-armed paper hanger" image occurs in the 1908 O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) short story "The Gentle Grafter": "And then I got as busy as a one-armed man with the nettle-rash pasting on wall-paper." That "nettle-rash" is a nice detail, conveying, on top of the poor sap's other problems, an urgent need to scratch a terrible itch.


Strictly from hunger.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a J.D. Salinger short story the other day, and the term "pot shot" was used when one of the characters described the shooting of a cat (I'm so sorry). The mention of this term in the piece reminded me that it is commonly used. Other than the fact that it rhymes, what does "pot" have to do with "shot?" -- Ed H.

Good question. "Pot shot" is one of those everyday terms that sprout all sorts of little mysteries the moment one takes time to really think about them. "Pot shot" is generally used to mean a casual, careless shot fired without careful aim or discrimination, often with the added sense of being fired without any real expectation of hitting one's target. As you say, the real question is the relevance of the "pot." One might guess, knowing that casual shooters often use pop bottles and cans as targets, that the "pot" must be a metaphor for a target so large in comparison that there is little challenge in hitting it.

But the actual logic behind "pot shot" is a bit more complicated. When "pot shot" first appeared in the mid-19th century, it meant a shot fired with no regard for the principles of sportsmanship or skill, but simply to obtain food "for the pot." Rather than pick out a particular bird to shoot, for instance, a hunter might simply fire into a group of birds, hoping to kill one or more through chance. As one writer in 1858 explained the term, "'Pot shots' [are] when a man ... shoots at partridges in a crowd upon the ground, in a way which shows a simple desire to kill for the pot." Whether the partridges, unable to return fire even if given a chance, really care about such violations of etiquette is doubtful, but "pot shooting" was considered a breach of decorum by gentleman hunters.

Within a few years, an extended sense of "pot shot" had developed, meaning any quick, opportunistic shot taken at an animal or person, such as by a sniper. By the early 20th century, "pot shot" had taken on the metaphorical meaning of "a verbal attack or criticism, especially one deemed unprincipled or sloppy."

A related but quieter sense of "pot" is found in "potboiler," meaning a literary work (usually low-quality fiction) written solely to "keep the pot boiling," i.e., strictly for the money.

There's a hair in my grog.

Dear Word Detective: Firstly, I must let you know that I have been using your site to find Navy and other military terms that my seniors have tasked me with finding origins for since I joined the Navy two years ago. Hence, I thought you might be able to help with a word that has been puzzling me for a while. Although the word "quaff" appears to only have one definite and general meaning, "a large or hearty swallow or drink," I have heard it used confidently in another context twice from two very reputable sources. I have heard it in the context of "He had perfectly quaffed hair and nails." This makes a tiny bit of sense if I really stretch my imagination, but I was wondering why I could not validate this usage with any dictionary or thesaurus. -- PH3 Kuhlman, US Navy.

That's a heroic stretch, but it's not necessary. The word you're asking about is actually two very different words which differ dramatically in spelling, but are often pronounced very similarly. If, as in this case, the pronunciation of a word gives little clue to the word's spelling, finding the word in a dictionary can be nearly impossible.

But enough suspense. The second kind of "quaff" you're looking for is actually the word "coif," which, like "quaff," is generally pronounced as something like "kwahf" (although "coif" can also be pronounced as "koyf").

"Quaff" does indeed mean "to drink deeply in large swallows, especially repeatedly," and the noun "quaff" means a "large, long swallow of drink." The word "quaff" first appeared in English in the early 16th century, but its origin is, unfortunately, a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that "quaff" may be onomatopoeic, or "echoic," in origin, meaning that "quaff" was derived from the sound or action of "quaffing" itself (as "chugalug" imitates the gulping sound of rapidly swallowing a large quantity of beer or other drink).

"Coif" is quite a different kettle of fish. When "coif" first appeared in English (from the Old French "coife," in turn from Late Latin "cofea," meaning "helmet") in the early 14th century, it meant a close-fitting cap, commonly worn as a nightcap or under other kinds of headgear (hats, helmets, even wigs). The verb "to coif," in addition to meaning "to don a coif," then took on the meaning of "to arrange the hair," also giving us the form "coiffure" meaning "hairstyle" (often shortened to "coif"). "Coifed" doesn't really apply to nails, although in a very loose sense I suppose it could be used to mean "carefully groomed."

The irony of all this is, of course, that the more one "quaffs," the less likely one is to remain properly "coifed."

Nice horsie.

Dear Word Detective: There are several of us cowboys and cowgirls that cannot agree as to why equipment used for and on horses is called horse "tack." Why not just call it "horse stuff" or "horse equipment"? Just how was the word "tack" chosen? Could you please enlighten us? -- Lisa.

I'll give it a shot, although my knowledge of horses is largely drawn from petting zoos. My impression, however, is that "horse stuff" is what you have to be careful not to step in while visiting ponies, and "horse equipment" is such a broad term that it could easily encompass trailers and tax forms. Besides, any worthwhile field of interest has to have a specialized vocabulary, the more obscure the better. What would golf be without such in-terms as "bogey" and "mulligan" (aside from, as Mark Twain defined it, "A good walk spoiled")?

The fact that "tack" exists as several separate English nouns doesn't make decoding the horsie sort of "tack" any easier. The oldest and most common kind of "tack" carries the general sense of "fastener," and derives from the Old French "tache," meaning "fastener" (also related to "attach"). This sort of "tack" has been used for a wide variety of fasteners since its appearance in the 14th century, including the lines and riggings of sailing ships. The "tack" of a ship, adjusted to guide the ship in relation to the wind, developed into a special sense of "tack" meaning the ship's course itself relative to the wind ("starboard tack," etc.), as well as the nautical verb "to tack." When we speak today of "taking a different tack" in an argument, we are thus invoking the metaphor of navigating a ship through a windy sea.
"Tack" in the general sense of "fastener" also gave us the adjective "tacky," meaning "sticky." "Tacky" in the newer sense of "cheap" or "tasteless," however, seems to be unrelated to any sense of "fastening" and its origin remains a mystery.

One might assume, with all this "fastening" going on, that the horsie sort of "tack," bridles, harnesses and the like, would just be a specialized use of the "fastener" sense. But the horse kind of "tack" is actually just a short form of "tackle," from the Middle Low German word "takel," meaning "equipment," often involving rope or line. This sort of "tackle" is also found in "fishing tackle" and "block and tackle."

And that guy with long ears in the bushes doesn't count.

Dear Word Detective (or, as Bugs Bunny would say, "Woid Detective"): What is the origin of "bunny"? Is it because their tails look like little buns? -- Bruce Miller.

Good question. Another good question is why Bugs Bunny has a Brooklyn accent. I lived in Brooklyn for many years, and I can't recall ever seeing a rabbit, even in Prospect Park. Squirrels by the thousands, of course, and platoons of rats, and even packs of feral dogs, but no bunnies. Then again, I never met anyone who sounded like Elmer Fudd either, so perhaps I should just count my blessings.

The short answer to your question is "maybe." The word "bunny" first appeared in English in the 17th century as both a term for a pet rabbit and a term of endearment for a woman or young child. "Bunny" itself was a diminutive form of the earlier "bun," which in the 16th century was not only used for rabbits and as a term of endearment but applied to squirrels as well.

The origin of that "bun," unfortunately, is a bit of a mystery. It is possible, although not considered likely, that a perceived resemblance of the bunny's tail to the bakery sort of bun explains the term. If true, this would also tie the rabbit sort of "bun" to the "bun" of hair worn on the back of the head in some hairstyles. Incidentally, the probable origin of this kind of "bun" is not very appetizing, being the Old French "bugne," meaning "swelling" or "boil."

Another possible source for the rabbit sort of "bun" is the Gaelic word "bun," which means "stump or root." This "bun" fits well with the stumpy tail of the rabbit, and is, in fact, the source of the use of "buns" to mean the human buttocks. But neither this stumpy "bun" nor the possible "bakery" derivation explains why the term was formerly also applied to squirrels, which, of course, sport luxurious tails.

And the cole slaw tastes like floor wax.

Dear Word Detective: A month ago my husband and I were at a neighborhood dinner. Our hostess used a "charger" under our plates. We all wondered where that term originated. I have searched web sites and my etymology books to no avail. We are all hoping that you can find the answer. -- Joan Brower.

I really ought to read more carefully. When I first scanned your question, I could have sworn you wrote "a neighborhood diner," leading me to wonder where one finds a diner with a "hostess," let alone one who uses a charger under the plates. Actually, I'd settle for any kind of diner at the moment. Here in rural Ohio it's nothing but cookie-cutter chain restaurants. I dream about salads without cheese and those weird "bacon bits" on top.

A "charger" is a large plate or platter, usually made of heavy china or metal (often silver), today most often used as an "underplate" in formal table settings. A charger may be found at every place setting and other plates set upon it for elegant effect (or neatness), or the charger may be used under another serving dish placed on the table. Chargers may also be used as serving platters for larger pieces of meat or the like. No one, except perhaps that one strange uncle, eats directly from a charger.

"Charger" first appeared in Middle English (in the form "chargeour") around 1305, probably adopted from the Old French "chargeor," from "chargier," meaning "to load," reflecting the charger's original use as a platter for serving meat.

While we're on the subject of fancy plates, I was asked several years ago about "salvers," which are small plates, often silver, used for serving appetizers and canapés. While the derivation of "charger" is a bit mundane and utilitarian, that of "salver" positively drips with intrigue. The word "salver" comes from the French "salve," in turn based on the Latin "salvare," meaning "to save." It is sometimes said that "salvers" are so named because they "save" one's clothes or carpet from spills, but the actual derivation is considerably more dramatic. "Salvers" were originally the platters used to serve food or drink to a monarch after it had been sampled by the official court taster and thus certified to be free of poison.

Clout with the clods.

Dear Word Detective: I think of the word "clout" as being a Chicago word (I'm from Chicago), but have increasingly seen it used elsewhere. In Chicago, it means "the ability to use political connections to get one's way." It now seems to mean simply "political influence." What is the origin of the word, and when did it cross over into common usage (or am I wrong about its Chicago origins?) -- Meredith Dytch.

"Clout" is an interesting word. It's also a fairly infuriating word, as will shortly become apparent. To begin at the beginning, the use of "clout" to mean "influence," especially political influence and the "power to get things done," may or may not be a Chicago invention. What we do know is that the earliest print citation found so far pegs its use to New York City in 1868, but "clout" in this sense has long been traced to Chicago, so its possible that the usage actually arose there. In any case, "clout" in this sense is now widespread in the US.

The "power" sense of "clout" is an extension of "clout" in the literal sense of "a heavy blow, especially with the hand," which first appeared around 1400. But the "blow" sense was a radical departure from the original meaning of "clout," and therein lies a mystery.

When "clout" first appeared in Old English, it meant "a piece of cloth," especially a rag or a baby's diaper. The tone of "clout" in this sense was always at least slightly disparaging, and to refer to someone's clothing as a "clout" was an insult, but "clout" puttered along for several hundred years in terms such as "dish clout" (dishrag) before acquiring the "heavy blow" meaning, a leap of logic that remains a genuine puzzle. After all, it's not as though a rag makes a very good weapon with which to whack folks.

The answer to the "rag" to "blow" connection may lie in another sense of "clout" which appeared around 1250 meaning "lump" or "clod of dirt." It is possible that "clout," "clod," and "clot" (lump of dried blood, originally the same word as "clod") share a common ancient Germanic ancestor meaning "small piece of something" (later narrowed down in "clout" to "small piece of cloth"). If so, the "clout" meaning "blow" might actually hark back to the idea of being hit with a clod of dirt, a possibility reflected in an old use of "clod" as a verb meaning "to pelt with clods of earth, stones, etc."

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Writers, huh?  They pay you for that?

Dear Word Detective: I grew up in a small, conservative Southern town where anything out of the ordinary was considered "outlandish." I assumed that this word was used as a synonym for "foreign," as anything or anyone not from our particular county was looked upon with suspicion. But recently I came across the French word "outlandos," which to the best of my understanding means "criminal." Could accusing someone of being "outlandish" be a greater indictment than I thought? What is the history of this outlandish word? -- Mari Lynn from Tennessee.

Aren't small towns fun? In New York City, you have to really strive to be considered bizarre, but here in small-town Ohio just being born in a village five miles away can mark you as an outsider for life. Being from New York City is tantamount to being from Mars. I got the distinct impression when the movers were unloading the fifty or so boxes of books we brought with us that they were seriously considering reporting us to the FBI on suspicion of being commie spies ("So, you guys are, what, librarians?"), a suspicion subsequently adopted by our neighbors after noting my utter lack of interest in local high school sports. Listening to classical music probably doesn't help either.

I don't speak French, but I do have a number of French dictionaries and have been unable to find the word "outlandos" in any of them, which may mean that it's either slang or a borrowing from another language, perhaps even English (the "Franglais" syndrome so decried by guardians of French culture). Most occurrences of "outlandos" on the web refer to "Outlandos d'Amour," the 1978 debut album by The Police, and translate the title as "Outlaws of Love."

In any case, the family tree of "outlandish" is firmly Germanic (English itself being a Germanic language, unlike French), and today there are cognates, or close relatives, of "outlandish" in both German and Dutch. "Outlandish" first appeared in Old English meaning literally "of or belonging to a foreign country" (i.e., "from out of our land"), but by the 16th century had broadened to mean "looking or sounding foreign," soon extended to its modern meaning of "bizarre, unusual or odd." In current use, "outlandish" is also used to mean simply "outrageous, extravagant or excessive," as in "The star's outlandish demand for a gold-plated litter box for her cat scuttled the whole project."

Things the outfielder wonders about.

Dear Word Detective: I went to a Washington Nationals game the other day. As I watched the pitcher hit yet another batter (hey, it's their first year back in Washington), I wondered where the word "pitcher" comes from. "Batter" makes sense, as he is the person holding the bat and the one batting. But why is the throw called a "pitch" and a thrower a "pitcher"? I thought it might be from cricket, because I know that the British call a playing field (at least in soccer anyways) a pitch. That's all I could think of because it seems a bit a stretch from other definitions of pitch/pitcher -- tar or resin, a receptacle for liquids, exact musical notes, being extremely dark, erecting a tent and getting agitated about something (as "in pitch a fit"). Seeing as how "Pitch/Pitcher" should be located between Pith Helmet and Pixilated on your webpage but it's not there, so I thought I should ask. I hope you can help! -- Neta S. in Alexandria, VA.

Well, that's certainly where it should be, but one never knows. Several visitors to my archive of back columns have commented on the fact that said index is in something less than perfect alphabetical order, so it's always best to poke around a bit before giving up the chase.

There are, as you say, a number of senses of the word "pitch," and the connections between them are not always easy to trace. To begin with, we can eliminate the "tar" sense of "pitch" from the puzzle. Derived from "pix," the Latin word for the substance, this sort of "pitch" is also used in figurative senses such as "pitch dark."

The other senses of "pitch" as both a noun and a verb are completely unrelated to the "tar" sense and derive from the Middle English "pichen," which carried the general meaning of "to thrust, drive or fasten" something, especially into the ground (still used when we "pitch" a tent). Subsequent senses of "pitch" as both a noun and a verb all involve notions of either "planting" or "throwing," although in some senses, such as musical "pitch" (which refers to the height or frequency at which sounds are delivered) the connection is very remote. A cricket "pitch" is so called because that's where the wickets are "pitched," i.e., set into the ground.

Given the tenuous connections between some uses of "pitch" and the original "thrust" meaning of the word, the baseball sense of "pitcher" is eminently logical by comparison. Incidentally, the sort of "pitcher" used to hold and serve beverages comes from the late Latin word "picarium" and is unrelated to any of the "pitch" words above.

So the kid whispers, "Sawbuck -- over by that tree," and the hunter gives him ten dollars.*

Dear Word Detective: Many years back an Army roommate of mine asked to borrow ten dollars, or, as he called it, a "sawbuck." Having never heard of that term before I asked where he had come up with it. He said it was common where he had grown up in Arizona. I have not, to this day, ever heard the term since and wondered if it was a regional thing or maybe I was missing something. -- Michael O'Neill.

This is one of those questions I could have sworn I answered years ago, but apparently not, unless Microsoft Word quietly ate the column at some point.

If you've never heard the term "sawbuck," it's probably simply due to the inexorable march of time, since the term was once widely known in the US. In the literal sense, a "sawbuck" is the contraption better known as a "sawhorse" -- a brace or frame, originally in an "X" shape with crossed legs, used to hold long pieces of wood while they are being sawed. The word "sawbuck" derives from the Dutch name for the frame, "zaag-bok," and first appeared in English in the 19th century.

Also back in the 19th century, US paper currency was marked with Roman numerals denoting its value -- "C" for one hundred dollars, "V" for five dollars, etc. The Roman numeral for ten was, of course, "X," which to many people brought to mind the sawbuck, so a "sawbuck" became slang for a ten-dollar bill. Apparently several other denominations also spawned slang terms, but "C-note" for a one-hundred dollar bill is the only one still in common use.

Incidentally, while "buck" as slang for "one dollar" is often traced to the use of buckskins (deer pelts) as a medium of exchange in early America, that theory has never been verified and "buck" in the "dollar" sense has not been found before the mid-19th century. One wonders whether "buck" might not have been derived from "sawbuck" by the logic of "A sawbuck is ten dollars, so one dollar must be just 'a buck'." Hey, it's not impossible.

However, the "buck" in Harry Truman's famous motto "The buck stops here" (meaning "I accept the responsibility") has nothing to do with money. In 19th century poker games, the dealer of the current hand was designated by an object called a "buck" (supposedly originally a knife with a buckhorn handle) placed on the table. When the next player's turn to deal came, the "buck" was "passed," a phrase which came to mean "transfer (or evade) responsibility" by the early 20th century.

*you read it here first.


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