Issue of August 11, 2000
Hello? Is this thing on?
OK, well, now that we've all had a chance to sample the remarkable Turkey Tartare whipped up by the nice folks from the County work-release program, let's all take our seats. We've got a full agenda tonight, and we have to get through it by 9:30 so Miss Edith Freedle can get home to watch The Sopranos. We're trying to do something about the air-conditioning in here, by the way, but in the meantime please try not to sit too close to your neighbor.
First of all, I'd like to welcome all the new visitors who read about us in People magazine. I haven't seen the issue yet myself, but I understand there was a slight foul-up with the picture they printed. We're not sure who that strange bearded fellow is, but obviously he isn't me. In any case, welcome.
Onward. The Fund Raising Committee has asked me to mention that The Word Detective, a hardback collection of 150 of my most coherent and least libellous columns, will be released by Algonquin Books in September. In celebration of this festive occasion we have devised a very attractive Special Offer for our loyal readers, which will make it possible for each and every one of you to have a copy of The Word Detective delivered directly to your door by an Official Agent of the U.S. Government attired in woolen shorts and a pith helmet.
Settle down, folks, it gets better.
If you order The Word Detective through us (as opposed to buying it from those nasty discount book dealers who get their copies who knows where, probably from the Mafia), I will personally autograph each and every copy with the inscription of your choice. Just imagine how much that will be worth someday, eh? Heck, if you don't like it you can always sell it on eBay, right?
Details of this Special Offer are, predictably, available by clicking right here.
And now, as the house lights dim, please fasten your safety belts and put your seat backs in an upright position as we join tonight's episode....
All that glitters is not Gucci.
Dear Word Detective: Where did "bogus" originate? My name is Art Bogue and I didn't make it up. -- Arthur Bogue, via the internet.
No kidding. Are you sure about that? I've checked my reference books and they all seem to identify you as the source of "bogus" back in 1978. Something about an incident involving you selling a waffle iron autographed (or not, I guess) by Elvis Presley to your brother-in-law?
I'm joking, of course. "Bogus," meaning fraudulent or phony, was around long before your waffle iron adventure. When "bogus" first appeared in print way back around 1797, it was as underworld slang for counterfeit coins (counterfeit bills being known for some unknown reason as "coneys"). Somewhat later, by 1828, "bogus" was being used to mean the machine (known as a "bogus press") used to produce counterfeit coins. By about 1848, usage of "bogus" had expanded to include phony paper money as well, and in fact "bogus" had become a general adjective applied to anything, from phony gold bars to boyfriends, that turned out to be less valuable than it first appeared. Eventually, "bogus" was applied to anything of poor quality, even if it never pretended to be well made. The current use of "bogus" to mean "useless" probably owes some of its currency to the lingo of computer hackers, who have expanded the term to include a measurement of phoniness ("bogosity"), and even claim to have identified the elementary particle ("bogon") of bogusness.
The origin of "bogus" is, unfortunately, a mystery, although, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "many guesses have been made, and 'bogus' derivations ... given" over the years. One theory traces "bogus" to "boko," which means "fake" in the West African Hausa language. Since "bogus" did first appear in America, this raises the possibility that its ancestor was brought here on a slave ship.
Another theory is that "bogus" may have arisen in criminal slang as a short form of "tantrabogus," evidently a 19th century slang term for an odd-looking or menacing object, leading some authorities to believe that "bogus" might be linked to "bogy" or "bogey" (as in "bogey man"), a very old name for the Devil.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, I became involved in a disagreement over the origin and exact definition of the word "goon." Specifically, I recall reading many years ago that "goon" referred to a thug hired to attack union members in the course of a strike or labor dispute. My opponent, who had used the word to describe union members -- hence my correction of his use of it in this context -- insisted that the word is essentially just a synonym for "thug." Which of us is correct? -- Giff Nickol, via the internet.
Well, to be diplomatic, you're both right. "Goon" meaning "thug" or "strong-arm man" was, in the context of labor organizing in the 1930s and 40s, most frequently used to mean a ruffian hired by company management to threaten or attack union members. However, there is some evidence that in its initial appearances in print, around 1938, "goon" was applied to union members who harassed or intimidated non-union workers. But there's no doubt that Woody Guthrie had "bosses' thugs" in mind when he wrote the song "Union Maid" in 1940:
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid. She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called, and when the Legion boys come 'round, she always stood her ground.
The original meaning of "goon," however, had nothing to do with unions. "Goon" first appeared around 1921 meaning "a dull or stupid person, an oaf," most likely derived from the English dialect word "gooney," meaning "simpleton." The use of "goon" to mean "a stupid person" got a big boost from the appearance in 1933 of a character named "Alice the Goon" in the popular "Thimble Theater" (a/k/a "Popeye") comic strip.
The use of "goon" to mean "hired thug" probably derived from this "idiot" sense, but another theory (proposed by Hugh Rawson in his excellent book "Wicked Words") traces it to the Hindi word "gunda," meaning "hired tough," apparently often spelled "goondah" in British newspapers of the 1920s.
Dear Word Detective: Any idea on the origins of the phrase "Gordon Bennett"? I believe it is something to do with an American newspaper proprietor, but have not found an authoritative answer as to why it has become a phrase in itself. -- Paul Orton, UK, via the internet.
You'll hear "Gordon Bennett!" only in the UK, oddly enough. Although the real Gordon Bennett was an American, the use of his name as an expletive (roughly equivalent to "Holy Smokes!" or the like) is almost entirely confined to Britain.
There were, in fact, two "Gordon Bennetts," father and son, both newspaper magnates. The elder James Gordon Bennett, born in Scotland, founded the New York Herald in 1835. His son, James Gordon Bennett II, is best remembered as a journalist for sending Stanley to look for Livingstone in Africa. But it was young Gordon Bennett's extracurricular activities, including a scandal that included being horsewhipped by his fiancee's brother, that drove him into exile in Europe for the rest of his life. Once in Paris, Bennett's flamboyant lifestyle (he dithered away $40 million dollars by the time he died in 1918) made his name a household word. The earliest use of "Gordon Bennett" as an exclamation is found in print only very recently, in 1983, but popular sayings may thrive by word of mouth for many years before they are written down. "Gordon Bennett!" almost certainly actually came into spoken use during Bennett's life.
But why, in any case, should the name of a newspaper magnate connote exasperation? After all, very few people routinely exclaim "Hearst!" or "Rupert Murdoch!" when they stub their toes. The answer is that "Gordon Bennett" probably arose simply as a convenient euphemism for another common British expression of surprise: "gorblimey," or what Americans know in its shortened form as the quintessential Cockney expression, "blimey!"
"Gorblimey" appeared in 19th century English slang as a corruption of the oath "God blind me!", used on the same occasions of shock or distress when an American might well say "I'll be damned!" Such expressions were, until relatively recently, considered improper and even blasphemous in polite society, so when James Gordon Bennett's name was on everyone's lips at the turn of the century, it was "borrowed" to do duty as a handy euphemism.
Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase "Happy as Larry" a few times, usually from English friends. Though they are happy to use the phrase, no one seems to know its origin. I heard the phrase again in the recent film "Chicken Run" and now I must know who Larry is. And why is he so darn happy? And can I have some of what he has? -- Kimberlie, via the internet.
You'll have to take that up with Larry when you find him. "Happy as Larry" is a British-Australian catch phrase that simply means "extremely happy" or "very pleased with the way things are going." The Rural-American equivalent of "happy as Larry" (although my rendition will be a bit sanitized for family consumption) would be "happy as a pig in mud."
Since "happy as Larry" is a phrase native to the Commonwealth, it's not surprising that you've heard it largely from English friends. And since "Chicken Run" (a currently popular film starring animated clay chickens in a sort of avian parody of "Stalag 17") was directed by the Brits responsible for the "Wallace and Gromit" movies, use of the phrase in its screenplay is no surprise either.
Unfortunately, there is a conspicuous lack of verifiable information about "happy as Larry." The phrase seems to have originated in Australia around the end of the 19th century, and first appeared in print (as far as we know so far) in 1905. The leading theory is that "happy as Larry" originally referred to the Australian boxer Larry Foley (1847-1917), but no one seems to know if, when or why boxer Larry would have been happy enough to inspire a popular saying of such remarkable longevity.
Dear Word Detective: As a copy editor, I love your web site. Whenever the copy desk comes across a phrase we don't know, I turn to your site to find the origin! My question comes from a Defense Department official who misspoke. (Gasp! That never happens!) He said, "the proof of the pudding." We on the desk know it should be "the proof is in the pudding," but we don't know where it came from. Can you help? -- Lauren, via the internet.
Oh goody, copy editors. I hope you don't mind that I fixed the punctuation in your question. Just kidding. We love copy editors around here. Who but a copy editor, after all, could derive such great joy from changing every "that" in the universe to "which"? And vice-versa, of course. Which isn't a complete sentence, as you have no doubt noticed, but neither is this.
Meanwhile, back at your question, I have some bad news. I would be the last person on earth to defend the often baroque and evasive locutions of Defense Department officials, but "the proof of the pudding" is actually closer to the original form of the proverb in question. The entire phrase is "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," meaning that the true value or quality of a thing can only be judged when it is put to use. ("Proof" in this context means "the act of testing," rather than our more common "conclusive evidence" sense.) "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" dates back to around 1600, and is more often heard in the United Kingdom than the U.S., probably because puddings of various kinds occupy a more prominent place on the dinner table there.
"The proof is in the pudding," a fairly common mutation of the proverb, does make a certain amount of sense, i.e., that the final product, not the recipe, is what counts. But personally, I can't shake the feeling that "the proof is in the pudding" would make an excellent last line for a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Dear Word Detective: Can you help me with the origin of the term "well-heeled"? I assume it refers to a wealthy man who keeps his shoe or boot heels up, but I haven't been able to find a definitive reference or original usage. -- Jim Puskar, via the internet.
I'll certainly give it a shot, but I'm not entirely clear on the origin you seem to be proposing. Do you mean that "well-heeled" comes from the ability of rich folks to keep their footwear in good repair? Or do you mean (as I first interpreted your question) that the wealthy get to relax and put their feet up most of the time? Personally, I like the sound of the second interpretation. If I were rich, I wouldn't even wear shoes.
As it happens, however, "well-heeled," meaning "rich" or at least "well-off," is usually thought to refer to the well-maintained shoes of the rich and famous. Someone who is "well-heeled" certainly has enough money (and probably, like Imelda Marcos, enough pairs of shoes) to ensure that the heels of his or her shoes are regularly replaced before they deteriorate from wear. "Well-heeled," an American coinage, first appeared in print around 1873. Curiously, that date makes "well-heeled" a newcomer compared to its opposite, "down at the heels," meaning "poor" or "destitute," which was common by the 17th century. "Down at the heels" refers, of course, to the sad state of a poor person's worn-out shoes.
Although "well-heeled" may well refer to the healthy heels of a rich person's shoes, there is another possibility. To be "heeled" in the Old West meant to be armed, usually with a pistol, perhaps by allusion to the fighting spurs used in cock-fighting. The sense of "prepared" and "powerful" in this and later uses of "heeled" may actually lie at the root of "well-heeled."
Not to be confused with a beer counter.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term "bean counter"? I work for NCH, which used to be a part of the Nielsen family of companies. I have heard that A.C. Nielsen sent out accountants to a grocery store to audit and that one of the things that they counted was beans. Could this have really been the origin of "bean counter"? -- Dorr Lewright, NCH Marketing Limited, via the internet.
Well, nothing is impossible, and if accountants were sent to inventory a grocery store, they would be remiss if they didn't count the boring beans as well as the good stuff, like Ring-Dings and jelly doughnuts. Still, I'd be willing to bet that they counted beans by the bag, box and can, rather than dumping all the beans out in the middle of the floor and counting individual beans one by one. But that tedious "one-by-one" method is, at least metaphorically, exactly what a true "bean counter" does.
"Bean counter" has an interesting history. It seems to have first appeared in the mid-1970s in the U.S., and its original use was simply as a vivid synonym for "accountant," especially one who brooked no nonsense. Its first known occurrence in print was in a 1975 Forbes magazine article that referred to "a smart, tightfisted and austere 'bean counter' accountant from rural Kentucky," though we can assume the quotation marks meant the writer had heard the term in use before the date of the article. In any case, the allusion is clearly to an accountant so dedicated to detail that he or she counts everything, down to the last small, but still important, bean.
By the 1980s, however, most appearances of "bean counter" in the media were taking on a derogatory tone, and "bean counter" is now frequently used to mean a nitpicker who, lost in the numbers, fails to see the "big picture." Congressional budget battles of recent years, for example, have been awash in accusations of "bean counting," often leveled by defenders of projects labeled wasteful by their political "bean counting" opponents.
And this is your brain on ice cream, with sprinkles.
Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up, we referred to the sauces, nuts, etc., that are put on ice cream as "dope." Have you ever heard of this, and can you tell me anything about the origin? -- Barb, via the internet.
Oh goody, another chance to play psychic. I'm going to guess, based on your recollection, that you grew up in or near Ohio. Am I right? Eat your heart out, Uri Geller. I happen to have a copy of the Dictionary of American Regional English, which helpfully informs me that "dope" as a term for the goodies sprinkled atop ice cream is almost only heard, for whatever mysterious reason, in Ohio. When I was growing up in Connecticut, on the other hand, "dope" was the varnish we applied to homemade model airplanes to keep them from falling apart (which they invariably did anyway). And Coca-Cola and similar soft drinks are still commonly referred to as "dope" in the rural South.
"Dope," from the Dutch "doop," meaning "sauce," first appeared in English in the 19th century as a term for any sort of thick liquid, whether edible (gravy, syrup, etc.) or not (industrial lubricants, etc.). This early use of "dope" to mean "sweet syrup" led directly to the ice-cream topping sense you've heard.
"Dope" was also used as a term for any unnamed or unidentified substance or preparation, and it may have been this sense that first led to its use as a synonym for "narcotic drugs" in the late 19th century. (The syrupy texture of melting opium may also have contributed to this sense.) Although it is possible that the use of "dope" to mean "stupid person" is directly derived from this "drug" sense, there are some indications that the "stupid" sense of "dope" is completely unrelated and may come from an English dialect word meaning "prostitute."
And, since you were just about to ask, the use of "dope" to mean "inside information" (as in "the straight dope") probably comes from the "dope," or stimulant drugs, once given to racehorses to improve their performance. Knowing that a certain horse had been "doped" would, of course, be invaluable information for any bettor, and "dope" eventually came to mean the information itself.
Quit waving that flag and finish your drink.
Dear Word Detective: You might say I am addicted to finding the original meaning of words and phrases. I have numerous books on the subject, but two I have been unable to find. First, "passed with flying colors." Some suggest it may be a nautical term for the flags on the winning ship in a race, but that's just a guess. Secondly, I was wondering where the word "dive", i.e., a seedy bar, came from. A friend thinks it came from sailors who, while on leave, went to seedy bars as a "diversion," later abbreviated to "dive." I thought it may have come from the Prohibition days in a speakeasy when the Feds would raid the place and the patrons would "dive" under tables and out the windows. Do you know the real origins? -- Melanie, via the internet.
Well, as addictions go, I'd say that you have come up with a winner. It certainly beats watching TV or tailgating folks on the freeway (apparently our new national sport).
To "pass with flying colors," meaning "to succeed or win by a wide margin" does indeed come from nautical lingo, "colors" in this sense meaning the naval flags or pennants flown from a ship's masts. The phrase (originally, in the late 17th century, "to come off with flying colors") most likely referred to a battleship which had been victorious in an encounter with the enemy and emerged from the fray with its ensigns still flying, indicating that no severe damage was done to the vessel.
As for "dive," in the 19th century, an evening out for the adventurous meant literally diving into a subterranean world of bad booze and even worse company. Disreputable saloons and gambling joints were called "dives" (also known as "dens," "holes" and "dumps") in the mid-1800s because they were often located below street level, in the ground floors (or even basements) of once-genteel rowhouses in run down areas of the city. Patrons entered the dive via a flight of stairs, and once inside were safely shielded from the gaze of more respectable citizens.
Doesn't sound like much of a party to me.
Dear Word Detective: Any ideas where the phrase "the party line" came from? It has a political overtone now, but I'm not sure that's how it got its start. Any help would be appreciated. -- Scott Roeben, Writers Guild of America, via the internet.
Well, first we have to figure out which of the two kinds of "party lines" we're talking about. The first kind of "party line" ("party" here meaning "partial" or "shared") was an arrangement, very common until the 1950s, where several households shared a single telephone line. In theory, you were supposed to wait until no one was using the line before placing your call. In practice, if you were using a party line, you pretty much had to assume that at least three or four of your neighbors were listening to every word you said, a popular pastime known as "rubbering" (from "rubbernecking," or gawking).
It's more likely that you're actually thinking of the other kind of "party line," meaning a shared political approach or policy, which first appeared back around 1834. The "line" here, as opposed to a simple telephone line, is generally held to refer to the lines of demarcation or borders between political parties -- the positions, policies and theories that provide a rationale for a political party's existence.
While "party lines" have existed, at least in principle, for as long as there have been political parties, the current negative connotation of "party line" in the U.S. dates back to the use of the term by Communist parties around the world starting in the early 20th century. The "general line" of such parties was a set of positions and strategies that all party members were required to endorse and carry out. Since communist parties were generally regarded as authoritarian and undemocratic, following a "party line" became synonymous in U.S. popular usage with mindless subservience. To accuse your electoral opponents of "following the party line" thus became shorthand for saying they had no principles, or perhaps even no opinions, of their own.
Dear Word Detective: Where does the term "skid row" originate? -- Megan Twibell, via the internet.
Now there's a term I haven't heard for a while. As a matter of fact, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find "skid row" in any newspaper or magazine of the last two decades or so. Not that actual "skid rows" have disappeared, you understand. I'm sure they've just been given less inflammatory monikers by the media, something along the lines of "substance abuse empowerment zones" or the like.
As a classic American term for the district in nearly any sizable city where residents down on their luck congregate, their problems often magnified by alcohol, "skid row" dates back to the 1930s, but its roots go back even further.
The first skid rows were in the logging towns of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. Faced with the chore of dragging felled trees out of the forest to the mill, 19th century loggers built "skid roads" -- roads paved with "skids," usually railroad ties or heavy wooden planks. It didn't take the loggers long to discover that the logs were far easier to move down these roads if the "skids" were greased, and "grease the skids" became a popular metaphor to describe speeding up the process of removing something. "Skid road" also became the popular term for the part of town where the lumbermen themselves lived. Often lined with bars and flophouses, the "skid roads" were magnets for poor, often alcoholic, transient workers down on their luck and said to be "on the skids."
By the time the Depression of the 1930s "greased the skids" for millions of workers in the U.S., "skid road" had become "skid row," and nearly every town in the U.S. had one.
Dear Word Detective: Since it is an election year, I was hoping that you could explain the origins of two words that seem to be dragged out and dusted off by the media every time somebody runs for office: "stump" (as in "stump speech") and "hustings" (as in "on the hustings," being out on the campaign trail). I always mean to investigate these words when they appear, but as soon as the election is over they disappear from the newspapers and I forget to ask. -- Edith Freedle, via the internet.
Good grief, you mean you're actually reading that stuff? Here at Go Figure Farm, we use all that campaign coverage as bedding for the pigs. It's free, it's always nice and fluffy, and it puts the little oinkers to sleep faster than phenobarbital.
"To stump," of course, means to travel the countryside annoying the locals with campaign speeches, and Americans have been "stumping" since even before our first elections. Since auditoriums and teleprompters were in short supply in early America, American Indian leaders would often climb atop the stumps of fallen trees to address their listeners. The practice was adopted by the newly-enfranchised colonists after the American Revolution, and "to stump" was in common usage by 1838.
"Hustings" comes from the Old Norse word "husthing," meaning "house assembly." A King or Queen wishing to gather advice or issue a decree might convene a "husthing," which was composed only of members of the immediate royal household, as opposed to a larger popular assembly of constituents. By the time "husthing" made it into English as "husting," it meant the senior court of the City of London, and later was narrowed to refer to the platform in that court where the Lord Mayor sat. From there it was a short jump to its current meaning of "a platform from which political candidates address their audience," or, metaphorically, "the campaign trail." Curiously, "husting" generally appears in modern English only in the plural form "hustings," although it still takes a singular verb.
We now accept credit cards via the secure PayPal system!
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
Take me to the Index of back columns.
All contents Copyright © 2000 by Evan Morris.