Issue of August 12, 2003




  Issue of August 12, 2003



So I'm upstairs in my office working on Something Terribly Important (listening to the BBC on shortwave, actually) late one evening recently, when I hear Mrs. Word Detective summoning me down to the living room in an uncharacteristically frantic tone.  Sparky the Cat, it seems, has cornered a mouse behind the TV, which is not unusual since we live in Wild Kingdom around here and nothing short of a drunken zebra in the laundry room would surprise me.

I dutifully trudge downstairs and grab a flashlight and a plastic Steak and Shake beverage cup and start trying to coax Mousie out to where I can grab him.  Sparky can't believe I'm just lying on the floor talking to a mouse, so he decides to help out by squeezing behind the TV.  Mousie takes the hint and makes a break for the hallway, but Sparky pounces on him with both paws before he can get far.  Fortunately, Sparky has no intention of hurting Mousie (since Mousie does not bear the Fancy Feast logo) and immediately lets him go, whereupon I nab him with the cup and trot him outside.

I'm just letting Mousie go near the garden (a sort of consolation prize, I figure) when I hear a loud shout from the living room.  Another mouse, it seems, has materialized under the coffee table and then, as mandated by the Official Mouse Manual, has beat a hasty retreat behind the TV.  Back on the floor with my cup I go, but Mousie II has no intention of going as quietly as Mousie I.  I spend the next 25 minutes chasing this silly mouse all over the living room, aided by both Sparky and Fifi the Cat (who has finally awakened from her slumber in the next room and actually wants to Kill and Eat Mousie II, an outcome which I  would really like to avoid).  At one point I corner Mousie II behind a cabinet, whereupon he decides to climb the lamp cord behind the cabinet and hide there.  I slowly pull the cabinet away from the wall and peer behind it, and I am suddenly face-to-face from about six inches away with Mousie II, who has his legs splayed and braced against both the cabinet and the wall.  He looks absolutely terrified, and I feel terrible for him.  If I give up, Fifi will get him, but my knees hurt and this chase could last all night.  I try to explain to Mousie II why he should just jump into the cup and join Mousie I at the complimentary salad bar, but he's not listening.  He jumps down to the floor and runs under the couch.

After another ten minutes of this, Mousie II makes a stupid (but ultimately smart) move, and jumps up into the open window.  Mrs. Word Detective then quickly slams the window shut, trapping him between the window and the screen.  Unfortunately, the screen is latched on the inside of the window frame, and if we open the window again, Mousie II will probably jump right out again and run behind the TV.  So I trudge outside, circle the house, and spend the next ten minutes trying to pry the screen off with a screwdriver.  Finally I get it to swing away from the window.  Mousie II, however, just sits there.  I explain that it's time to go, and that if he jumps the five feet to the ground he can join his pal in the garden, but no dice.  Finally I poke him gently with the screwdriver and he jumps, hits the ground running, and runs right up my leg.  I jump three feet in the air, he jumps off me, and heads for the garden.

Coming next month:  I save a baby bunny from certain death under the wheels of my tractor.

Gee, this sure beats living on the Upper West Side and spending summer evenings in a sidewalk cafe, sipping espresso and watching people walk down Broadway.

And now, on with the show:

And when he said "Uncle," his staff said "How high?"

Dear Word Detective:  My father spent many years working for a company based in the UK.  As a result of traveling there and simply communicating with colleagues, he picked up a number of pithy words and phrases peculiar to England.  One in particular is the phrase, "Bob's your uncle," meaning "as a result" (that's my interpretation).  Does it actually have an origin or is it simply an equivalent to "Badda Boom, Badda Bing"? -- Shawn Crichton Peterka, via the internet.

Hey, that's really two questions, since I can't just let "badda boom, badda bing" slip by.  Recently popularized by the HBO "Sopranos" series (the mob-owned strip club in the show is called The Badda Bing), "badda boom, badda bing" seems to have entered the popular vocabulary in the early 1970s, possibly via one of the "Godfather" movies.  Often heard in the order "badda bing, badda boom" (who's to say what's correct in such matters?), the phrase is a way of saying, "That's it, it's all taken care of" (as in "We set the Judge up with a hooker, Louie busts in with a camera, and badda bing, badda boom, case dismissed").  The exact origin of "badda boom, badda bing" is a mystery, but the best guess I've heard is that it started as a verbal imitation of a "rim shot," the drummer's punctuation to a comic's punchline in the old vaudeville routines.

"Bob's your uncle" is a similar (but primarily British) way of saying "you're all set" or "you've got it made."  It dates back to 1887, when British Prime Minister Robert Cecil decided to appoint Arthur Balfour to the prestigious post of Chief Secretary for Ireland.  The British public, however, was well aware that Cecil was Arthur Balfour's uncle.  In the resulting furor over an apparent act of blatant nepotism, "Bob's your uncle" became a popular sarcastic comment applied to any situation where the outcome was preordained by favoritism.  (The Cecil-Balfour affair was literal nepotism to boot, as the root of "nepotism" is the Latin "nepot," nephew)  As the Balfour scandal faded in public memory, the phrase lost a bit of its edge and became just a synonym for "you're all set."  So if I were giving you directions to the Brooklyn Bridge, I might finish by saying "Then turn right at Cadman Plaza, and Bob's your uncle."  Of course, in Brooklyn, "badda boom, badda bing" would probably be a better choice.

Meanwhile, the birds use the car as a Porta-Potty.

Dear Word Detective:  "Culch" is a word I learned growing up in Maine and have never heard anywhere else, even in the more urban areas of Maine.  From the way it was used, I gather the definition is "stuff that has been thrown out but not thrown away, because it might be good for something someday."  "Culch" is not trash or junk, because even though it might not be in perfect shape, it still could be used somehow.  It is definitely not garbage.  It could be pieces of lumber (but not piles of brush), old windows (but not broken ones), etc.  I guess household items could be "culch," but what was pointed out to me was always outside.  Where did this word come from?  It sounds to me like it is short for "culture," related to gardening.  Could that be? -- Gail Everett, via the internet.   

Well, you've come to the right place.  Word Detective Headquarters may be the "culch" center of the Midwest.  Somehow, in just a few short years, we have managed to fill a cavernous two-car garage with enough old windows to furnish three large houses, dozens of wobbly chairs, four dysfunctional lawn mowers, a moribund motorcycle, six or seven bookcases painted in revolting shades of blue and pink, and enough indeterminate junk to fuel either nine yard sales or one really cool bonfire.  Oh, and broken wicker chairs.  Apparently, our motto is "You can never have too many broken wicker chairs."

Maine, like many parts of the U.S., sometimes seems to speak its own odd language.  (A fine exploration of regional phrases in the U.S., by the way, is Allan Metcalf's fascinating book "How We Talk -- American Regional English Today" published by Houghton-Mifflin in 2000.)  In the case of "culch," what we have is not only a very odd word, but a very old one as well.  The original meaning of "culch," when it first appeared back around 1667 in England, was "the expanse of stone, broken shells and other material upon which an oyster bed is formed."  The extended sense of "junk" appeared in England around 1736 and made it to Maine by 1890, but never went much further than eastern New England.

The probable root of "culch," the Old French "culche" meaning "bed" or "layer," is actually surprisingly logical, given its original "oyster bed" sense.  That same "culch" (now the modern French "couche"), incidentally, also gave us the English word "couch."

American Association of Rambunctious Persons.

Dear Word Detective:  There is, in the southern regions of the United States, an increasingly rarely-heard phrase "going jessie (or jessy)."  This is usually found only the vocabularies of the rather aged and seems to be entirely confined to describing the state of elderly women (not men), who are vigorous and involved in numerous activities to a degree that would belie their advanced age -- as in, "That old gal is a going jessie."  No one, absolutely no one, has even a clue as to the origin of this phrase.  Perhaps it is of local origin, based upon some obscure personage named Jessie, and it spread throughout this region, rather like "drunk as Cooter Brown" (whoever he is!). -- Larry Prater, via the internet. 

Well, perhaps Jesse and Cooter were married, and to blame for each other's eccentricities.  Many of these folk sayings have become so obscure with the passage of time (or were obscure to begin with) that untangling them at this stage is difficult and sometimes (as in the case of "drunk as Cooter Brown") impossible.

As it happens, there is some available information on "going jesse," but I'm not sure it answers the question as much as we'd like.  Apparently, to "give someone jesse" or "to jesse someone" appeared around 1839 meaning "to thrash or scold severely" or, more generally, "to attack energetically."   The origin of this "jesse" is uncertain, but the accepted theory is that it arose as a jocular play on a line from Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots."  The "rod" in the Biblical passage was meant in a genealogical sense (as in a branch of a family tree), but a pun on the sort of "rod" commonly used at that time to discipline children produced "to jesse" as slang for "to beat or thrash." 

By 1845, this slang "jesse" had broadened a bit into a noun meaning "a commotion or uproar."   From there it made sense to describe the person causing the ruckus as "a going jesse."  By 1950 (possibly much earlier), a "going jesse" was used to mean someone very energetic and active.

Nap Time.

Dear Word Detective:  I'm tired of trying to figure out the seeming double negative in "indefatigable."  I'm told that "fatigable" means "subject to fatigue," that "defatigable" means "capable of being tired out" (aren't these sort of the same?) and then finally that "indefatigable" means "incapable or seemingly incapable of being fatigued; tireless."   I've seen this fine but confusing adjective used to describe many individuals in the recent past.  Each and every time I end up reading several sentences that don't register into my mind because I'm again caught in that netherworld of "huh?" --  Anthony, via the internet.

Ah, yes, the Netherworld of Huh.  Well, it just goes to show that if you're looking for logic in language, you're barking up the wrong planet.  Keep in mind that English, like all languages, is the product of a committee composed of millions of people squabbling over the course of many centuries.  And it's only been in the last few of those centuries that we even began to agree on standardized spellings of our words.  The English language makes the Federal Tax Code look like logic incarnate.

One problem with English is that it makes a great show of announcing negatives with prefixes such as "de," "dis," "in" and "un."  So "indefatigable" appears, when we disassemble it, to be a double negative.  "In" (not) plus "de" (not) plus "fatigable" (capable of being fatigued) gives us "not not capable of being fatigued," or "capable of being tired out," which is the exact opposite of the word's real meaning.

The catch is that the "de" in indefatigable" does not mean "not"  -- it means "down," in the same sense as the "de" in "depress."  So the "de" in "defatigable" is actually an intensive, turning "to tire" into the more complete "to tire out or wear down."  If we then add the "in," we get "indefatigable," meaning "incapable of being tired out or worn down."

A similar case that often raises questions is "disgruntled," meaning "angry or aggrieved."  Many folks go looking for the term "gruntled," which they feel must logically mean "happy."  Well, "gruntled" did exist at one point, but it meant "angry or cranky," not "happy."  The "dis" in "disgruntled is really another intensifier, making "disgruntled" mean "very gruntled."       

And Fifi the Cat is now known as The Little Purple Pill.

Dear Word Detective:  Where on earth did the word "phony" originate?  Even President Bush used "phony drug war" in his speech.  What's that all about?  To what is it attributed, and what time period does it trace back to? -- likewowgirl, via the internet.

Hmm.  Time for me to start listening a bit more closely to El Presidente's speeches, I guess.  I was unaware that President Bush had given a speech in which he used the phrase "phony drug war," and now I'm curious.  I wonder if we're involved in a real war over phony drugs or a phony war over real drugs.  I would definitely support a war against the pharmaceutical companies that advertise every 15 seconds during the evening news.  I recently discovered that our two dogs will now answer to "Claritin" and "Flonaise."

It's hard to imagine a world without such a commonplace word as "phony" (also spelled "phoney"), but it's actually a remarkably recent word.  Its first recorded appearance was in 1900, and it is generally agreed to be of American origin.  Beyond that, things get slightly fuzzy.  The Oxford English Dictionary, setting the pace for most other dictionary etymologies, says tersely, "of unknown origin."  Merriam-Webster dictionaries until the mid-1930's endorsed the possibility that "phony" is somehow a form of "funny," but this theory has since been generally abandoned.

Another inventive theory popular at one time tied "phony" to "telephone," on the premise that conversations on the telephone are ephemeral and untrustworthy and thus "phony."  Although back in the 19th century much was made of the fact that it is easy to deceive people over the telephone, this theory has no real evidence in its favor.

The most likely source of "phony" is an English slang word "fawney," from the Irish word "fainne," meaning "ring."  English "fawney men" (con artists) perfected a scam (called the "fawney rig") which involved the trickster "finding" a gold ring "of great value" (actually brass) and then agreeing to sell it to his victim out of the goodness of his heart.  When the fawney men brought their racket to America, "fawney" became "phony," a more general and very useful synonym for "fake or false."

Welcome to Hell.  Please be seated for the perpetual showing of You Know What.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word "stakeout"?  My students are studying mysteries and we were unable to find out the source of the word. -- Robin Spira Shatenstein, via the internet.

Studying mysteries?  That's not fair.  I spend my school years plowing through Silas Marner and memorizing Latin verbs, and the minute I leave the building you teachers decide to knuckle down and deconstruct Dick Francis.  Speaking of crime, I've been meaning to write a business book called "Moriarty Management:  Lessons of a Criminal Mastermind for Today's Busy Executive."  I figure it's a natural bestseller, and my tips are guaranteed to work.  After all, whoever is running the SEC these days isn't exactly Sherlock Holmes.

A "stakeout," of course, is an arrangement of surveillance set up by police or other investigators for the purpose of keeping watch over criminals who, it is suspected, are about to do something bad.  The "stakeout" is a staple of crime dramas, and Hollywood even produced a couple of movies starring Richard Dreyfuss called "Stakeout" (1987) and "Another Stakeout" (1993).  I've never actually seen these movies, but one of the cable channels seems to run one or the other of them nearly every evening, usually right after their daily showing of "Steel Magnolias."  Yup, somebody out there really, really loves "Steel Magnolias."   I wonder what planet they're from.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the "keep watch over the bad guys" kind of "stakeout" is metaphorically drawn from the practice of literally "staking out" or delineating a parcel of land by marking it with stakes driven into the ground at intervals.  This "staking out" was standard practice in situations where land was given to the first claimant, and building plots are still "staked out" by surveyors.  In the police "stakeout," the stakes are played by cops holding fixed and usually hidden positions of surveillance, whiling away the hours eating doughnuts and watching "Steel Magnolias" for the 181st time.  This sense of "stakeout" is first recorded in print in 1942, but the practice itself is certainly much older.   As I recall, Sherlock Holmes had his "Baker Street Irregulars," a band of urchins who spent hours surreptitiously watching evildoers and reporting back to him.  Today, of course, Moriarty would just bribe the little nippers with stock options and send them home to watch you-know-what.

Oops, interjection, An exclamation expressing apology, dismay, or surprise.

Dear Word Detective:  The word "Dord" appeared in only one edition of Webster’s dictionary and then disappeared forever.  How did it appear and why did it disappear? -- Red Genie, via the internet.

Great question.  The story of "Dord" is so strange that it seems that it must be an urban legend of lexicography (the making of dictionaries).  There are lexicographic legends, believe it or not, such as the never-verified rumor that some dictionary publishers have deliberately included made-up words and definitions in order to catch other publishers they suspect of plagiarizing their work.  But the story of "Dord" is definitely true.

If you check the reference section of any good bookstore, you'll notice one dictionary so large that it threatens to crack the shelf.  This is the Merriam-Webster Third International Unabridged Dictionary, first published in 1961 and currently containing 476,000 entries.  Incidentally, the term "Webster's" is in the public domain, so you'll see dictionaries from many publishers with "Webster's" in the title, but those published by Merriam-Webster Inc. are the direct descendants of Noah Webster's 1806 "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," the first truly American dictionary.

Meanwhile, back at "Dord," before there was the Third International, there was the Second International, first published in 1934.  The Second is a huge book, substantially thicker than the Third, and I suspect that my copy is one reason why my office floor tilts so disconcertingly.

Dictionary-making is a collaborative effort involving hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people, and although dictionaries are, by definition (yuk yuk), held to be the arbiters of linguistic accuracy, stuff happens and mistakes are occasionally made.  And so it was that during the compilation of the Second, a consultant submitted an entry for "D.," the scientific abbreviation for "density."  The entry read "D. or d., density" (indicating either upper or lower case), and should have gone with other abbreviations at the beginning of the "D" section of the dictionary.  Unfortunately, a typist mis-read the entry as "Dord, density," and thus a new, non-existent word, "Dord," entered the dictionary, right between ""Dorcopsis" and "Dore."  It was only when an editor was perusing the text five years later that the error was caught and "Dord" was banished from subsequent editions.  My copy, sadly, is a "dord"-less corrected edition, but a picture of the original "Dord," along with more details of the flub, can be found at the nifty web page A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia.  

Spam, spam, eggs, spam, and spam.

Dear Word Detective:  I work for a small software developer in the marketing department -- we like to call ourselves "marketeers," not to be confused with "Mouseketeers," -- and recently completed an email campaign.  A colleague double-checked the various links of the email before sending it, and commented that we needed to be sure that everything was working, or we would have "egg on our face."  We then speculated on the origin of that phrase -- whether it had something specifically to do with breakfast foods, and why it wasn't "porridge on my lip," or some other phrase.  Any thoughts? -- Heidi Maurer, via the internet. 

An email campaign, eh?  Well, since you are obviously a person of intelligence and refinement (you wrote to me, after all), I'm going to assume that your email campaign was directed solely to your clients or other folks who had expressed an interest in your products.  But if I sound a little cranky on this subject, it's because I recently counted the number of spam email messages that I receive on a typical day.  Ready?  Seven hundred and twenty-three pieces of spam in one 24-hour period. Seven hundred and twenty-three.  Serves me right for putting my email address on my web page back in 1995, I guess, but it still seems a bit excessive.

"To have egg on one's face" means to be embarrassed or made to look foolish, especially by a subsequent turn of events.  If I were to assure you that I knew the way to Cleveland and didn't need a map, and later that night we arrived in Pittsburg, I would have egg on my face.  Or if you were to give me a book for my birthday that I had given you for yours, you would be the egg-bearer.

There seem to be two theories about "egg on one's face."  The first, suggested by the late John Ciardi, traces the phrase back to the days when discontented theater audiences routinely pelted substandard performers with household refuse, including overripe vegetables and rotten eggs. One problem with this theory is that "to have egg on one's face" is apparently a fairly recent invention, first found in print in the mid-20th century, long after such demonstrative forms of criticism had, sadly, become passé.

A more likely but less dramatic explanation would simply be that the phrase refers to traces of egg unknowingly left on a diner's face after breakfast, to be noticed only later and after, perhaps, greeting one's boss or another important person.  

Wee wee wee all the way home.

Dear Word Detective: Why is the little finger named a "pinky"?  Is it an exclusively American term? -- Nicci, via the internet. 

By golly, that's a darn good question.  And how come most of the fingers have proper names, but most of the toes don't?  I recently broke one of my toes (stepping over a sleeping dog, the leading cause of household accidents, at least in this household).  But the only way I can explain which toe is busted is to point and say "The Little Piggy That Had Roast Beef," which is humiliating.  I should find out what doctors call that toe.  It's probably some multi-syllabic Latin tongue-twister that would garner more sympathy than this "Little Piggy" business. 

"Pink" is a very strange word, so strange that one usually staid dictionary of etymology calls its evolution "a bizarre series of twists."  In the beginning, there was the old Dutch word "pinck," meaning "small."  The little finger is known in Dutch today as the "pink," which is indeed the source of our modern "pinkie" finger, but bear with me for a moment because there were some fairly odd steps 'twixt this Dutch "pink" and "pinkie."

The Dutch "pinck" was adopted into Scots (the language of Scotland) sometime in the 16th century in the general sense of "small."  Scots also imported the Dutch phrase "pinck oogen," meaning "tiny eyes" or "half-closed eyes."  This in turn became the Scots and English phrase "pink eye," which is now a colloquial name for conjunctivitis (an inflammation of the eye), but which originally meant "half-closed or squinting eye."

By now you're probably wondering what all these eyes have to do with the light reddish color we call "pink."  A certain flower of the species of Dianthus was known as "pink eye" (or "pink" for short) because it was thought to resemble a half-closed eye.  This flower was usually, you guessed it, the color we now know as "pink," and by the early 18th century "pink" had come into use as the name of the color itself.  So the "color" pink comes from an old Dutch phrase meaning "squinting eye," which is pretty bizarre in my book.

Meanwhile, folks in Scotland had taken the Dutch word "pinck" meaning "small" and applied it to anything tiny, and the term "pinkie" meaning "the smallest finger" entered English from the Scots around 1800.


That certain something's-going-on.

Dear Word Detective:  where did the phrase "platonic relationship" originate from? --Chriissy, via the internet. 

My, what an opportune question.  I just happen to have recently finished work on a book entitled "Making Whoopee," which traces the origins of common words and phrases having to do with love and romance.  I know you're all eagerly heading out the door bound for the bookstore right now, but you'll have to hold your horses.  Unfortunately, "Making Whoopee" won't be on the shelves until January of next year, just in time (hint, hint) for Valentine's Day.  But in the meantime I'll see what I can rustle up on "platonic."  

Poor Plato.  Chances are he never dreamt that his name would be dragged through so many gossip columns.  But today, announcing that your relationship with someone is "strictly platonic" is the best way of encouraging every tabloid reporter on the planet to set out to prove it isn't.

A disciple of Socrates, the Greek philosopher Plato held that all things are merely imperfect imitations of pure forms that exist apart from, yet can be grasped only by, the human mind.  A good pizza, for instance, will never match the Platonic ideal of a pizza, which, among its other ideal qualities, always arrives hot.  But it is important to strive for the Platonic ideal, so we continue to order pizza.

As an idealist, Plato was very impressed with the purity of his teacher Socrates' love for young men, such purity being not exactly the rule in Ancient Greece.  Plato's ideal of pure, spiritual love (as opposed to the heavy-breathing corporeal sort) was known in Latin as "amor Platonicus."  Eventually the ideal of "platonic love" was expanded to include non-sexual love between men and women, the phrase turned up in English around 1630, and various people have been claiming to be involved in "just platonic" relationships ever since.   They are, of course, almost always lying.

A sock fulla soup.

Dear Word Detective:  Driving to work this morning, the fog was as thick as pea soup.  My favorite radio traffic pilot was unable to give a report because he was "socked in" at the airport.  When the station DJ asked him about the origin of this aeronautical term, the pilot was at a loss.  I suspect that airports once brought in the windsock as a sign that flying was not permitted.  Could I be close? -- Marc Botts, via the internet.

That's a good guess, but I'm afraid it won't fly (nyuk nyuk).  Incidentally, I'd like to take a moment to nominate "The pilot was at a loss" as The Fraught Phrase of the Week.  Elsewhere in the news, I'll share two little secrets with you about those airborne traffic reporters.  Here in Central Ohio, they routinely tip each other off to traffic tie-ups and thus report things they themselves haven't seen.  And in New York City, at least one chopper pilot does reports for four or five stations using different names.  Not that I object to either practice, of course.  In the air, the more is not the merrier.

"Sock" is an interesting word.  In the familiar sense of "foot covering," we inherited it, via the Latin "soccus" and several Germanic forms, from the Greek "sukkhos," which meant "light shoe or slipper."  When "sock" first appeared in Old English as a noun, it retained the meaning of "light shoe," but by the 14th century it had acquired its modern "short stocking" sense.  The "windsock," a fabric tube suspended from a tall pole used to indicate wind speed and direction at small airports, is an extension of this sense of "sock."

There are two primary verb meanings of "sock."  The "to hit or strike hard" sense, which appeared around 1700, is considered to be of unknown origin, though I suspect it may have sprung from the use of a sock filled with rocks, etc., as a weapon.  "Sock it to me" and similar phrases are outgrowths of this sense of "sock."

The other "sock" verb is drawn from the "stocking" noun, and can mean "to give or put on socks," "to save money in a sock" ("sock away"), or, eureka, "to close in or enshroud," as if enclosing in a sock.  So when the airport is "socked in," it is enshrouded by fog as if sheathed in great big fuzzy white sock.  And on a day like that, it's probably best to just stay home and do the laundry.

Sussy Q, Part II.

Dear Word Detective:  This weekend my mom sent me on a quest to discover the origin of the word "sussy," but I have had no luck.  We both agree that it means a treat or a present, often given as a surprise to the recipient.  This is a word that both my mom and I grew up hearing.  I never questioned it before because I had come to understand its meaning as a child, but my mom was recently confronted about its meaning by a friend.  Do you have any idea where this word comes from?  Or is my mom's suspicion that my grandmother concocted the word really true? -- Mercedes Barletta, via the internet.

Well, I wouldn't be so quick to blame this mystery on Grandma and her fevered imagination.  I frequently receive queries about odd words that readers have heard from their elderly relatives, words that appear in no dictionary and, granted, sound as if they might have been invented in the midst of a Geritol bender.  But, oddly enough, these weird words often turn out to be perfectly respectable folk terms, once common but now consigned by cultural homogenization to the dusty corners of our language.  Of course, in a few cases the old coot does indeed turn out to be jerking everyone's chain and the appropriate authorities must be summoned.

In the case of "sussy," I realized after a few moments that we were, once again, dealing with the mysterious "surcee," which goes by a variety of spellings and means "a small gift or favor, often given as a surprise."

I first investigated "surcee" about five years ago and, after coming up dry, I posed the question to the American Dialect Society mailing list.  I promptly received the following reply from Joan Hall, Editor of DARE (the Dictionary of American Regional English):

The Dictionary of American Regional English files have anecdotal evidence for the term "sirsee" (variously spelled "circe," "circi," "surcy") from NC, SC, GA, and PA, as well as two reports from Buffalo, NY and Oklahoma, where the speakers were said to come from "someplace else."  All evidence is oral, so the spellings are speakers' attempts to represent the pronunciation.  The etymology is uncertain, but one plausible source is the Scots verb "sussie," meaning "to take trouble, to care, to bother oneself."  This probably came  to Scotland from the French "souci,"  meaning "care, trouble."

Gargoyles was also quite good.

Dear Word Detective:  I've heard the expression "five by five" in pop culture such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  What does being "five by five" mean?  An example of this would be to answer someone who might ask you how are you doing, to simply respond "Everything is five by five."  I gather it means something along the lines of "being fine" or "ready to go," but I'm not entirely sure. -- Christopher D. Ritter, via the internet.

Buffy the what?  Is that a band?  Just kidding.  I know what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is.  I even know it's over.  I must admit I never watched it, but that was because The New York Times told me to watch it and they're the same people who told me to go see Pulp Fiction (on top of which they made fun of Tremors, one of the best TV movies ever made).  Anyway, I figure I'll catch the Buffster in reruns when they tuck me away in the day room with my comfy robe and a bowl of Jell-O.

Being "five by five" does indeed mean "to be in good shape" or "ready to go, all set."  The phrase originated as an operational term in radio communications, primarily among amateur radio (a.k.a. "ham radio") operators.  "Five by five" is the best possible response to a request to a remote station for a report on the quality of your signal.  The first number in such reports is the signal strength, the second the clarity and freedom from interference of your transmission, both estimated on a scale of one to five.  So "five by five" means you're putting out a strong, clear signal and your "rig" is operating as well as it possibly can.  "Five by five" was in use among radio operators at least by the 1950s, but its current status as general slang for "in good shape" is far more recent.  My guess is that it was popularized via the Citizen's Band craze of the 1970s, although the more colorful equivalent of that period, "wall-to-wall and treetop tall," apparently proved a little too florid for most people to adopt as slang.

Speaking of radio jargon, and it being my job to keep you folks up on what's hip and hot (my Buffy lapse notwithstanding), keep an eye out for the phrase "no joy," meaning "it didn't work" or "it didn't happen."  Lately heard on the lips of Washington insiders ("The President wanted tax breaks for mink farmers, but Congress balked, so no joy"), "no joy" is fighter pilot "operational brevity terminology" (i.e., radio code) meaning "no visual contact with the target."

Hang Loose.

Dear Word Detective:  Recently I have used the word "hankering" amongst people I work with.  To my dismay, they wholeheartedly laughed and laughed at my use of the word.  They find it rather amusing, and I guess I do too.  I first heard the word from my father and just thought that it was some hillbilly word (that is not to say my pops is a hillbilly).  Anyway, you could say that I have a hankering to know where this word came from! -- Mike Gaglio, via the internet. 

Well, I reckon your co-workers will just have to git accustomed to how folks like you talk.  I'll bet if you bring 'em some homemade molasses they'll take a shine to you right quick.  But seriously, I know how it feels to find yourself blurting out an uncool word.  At one point in my so-called career working in a New York City office, I suddenly found myself, for some mysterious reason, greeting people I passed in the hallway not with "Hi," not with "Hello," but with a cheerful "Howdy!"  "Howdy"?  Where was that coming from?  Was I possessed by the spirit of Roy Rogers?  I grew up in Connecticut, for Pete's sake.  Maybe I had contracted whatever weird virus turned the Bush family (who, like yours truly, hail from Greenwich)  into Texans.  In any case, I eventually broke myself of the habit, although I still sometimes revert to "Howdy!" in moments of stress.

But even if you find yourself unable to break your "hankering" habit, you can take comfort in the fact that "hanker" does not automatically brand you as either a rube or a wannabe cowboy.  The first appearance of "hanker" dates back to about 1600 in England, and such literary luminaries as Milton and Thackeray used the word without being mistaken for Jed Clampett.

The origin of "hanker" is a bit obscure, but most authorities have come to the conclusion that it arose as a form of the verb "to hang" used in a "frequentative" or "repetitive" sense, and originally meant "to hang around, to loiter with expectation or longing."  Thus, in this original sense, a lovesick swain might "hanker" in the vicinity of his beloved, hoping for an encounter (as in Thomas Hughes, 1859: "I used to hanker round the kitchen, or still-room, or wherever she might happen to be").  By the late 17th century, "hanker" had lost its "loitering" connotation and had settled on its modern meaning of "to long for or crave something." 


Bloomingdales?  It burned down.  Go home.

Dear Word Detective:  I was wondering what the definition and history of the word "meander" is.  Where did the word come from?  When was it first used?  I am from the South and we seem to use this word in reference to moving along in a slow way.  I guess it would be like "strolling along." -- Roseann Seifert, via the internet.

Well, yes, "meander" does mean "to stroll along," but that's not the half of it.  A person who is "meandering" is strolling along in a very leisurely fashion, gawking at the scenery, stopping or changing course frequently, and, most importantly, showing absolutely no sign of urgency about getting wherever it is that they are supposedly going.  If I sound a little less than thrilled by "meandering," I speak from my experience as a resident of New York City for many years.  Every summer millions of tourists descend on Manhattan and clog the sidewalks in a veritable Midtown Sleepwalking Festival, driving New Yorkers (who actually have places to go) absolutely bonkers.  Of course, now that I live in the country, I can walk as fast as I please on those rare occasions when I can think of  somewhere to go. 

Commonly applied to a person, the verb "meander" means to wander aimlessly, or, if there is a destination in mind, to get there by a very circuitous route.  Many people who visit museums, for instance, "meander" from room to room, and in a figurative sense many of us "meander" through the Sunday newspaper, browsing the sections in no particular order.

I noted that "meander" is commonly applied to people, but the original meaning was a bit more geological than social.  The river Maeandros (known today as the Menderes) in what is now western Turkey has been famous since ancient times for its winding and convoluted course, and the Romans adopted the name of the river in the Latin form "maeander" to mean "a winding path."  Taken into English as a noun in the 16th century, "meander" was applied in a variety of senses from the paths of rivers to complex ornamental patterns.   By the 17th century, we were using "meander" as a verb to describe the action of a person who takes a long, long time to get there.

Well, the good news is that you won't fall over so easily.

Dear Word Detective:  The phrase "pear shaped" meaning "everything is going to hell" is used by some pommy (English) friends of mine -- and one offered a suggestion that it has to do with not being able to turn a smooth circle whilst doing aerobatic maneuvers.  Seems a bit of a stretch.  Any tips on this one? -- Janet, via the internet.

Good question, and we'll get to it in a moment.  But first, I'm going to don my rhinestone-studded psychic's beanie and hazard a guess that you're writing to us from Oz (Australia).  It's the "pommy" reference, of course, "pom" being Aussie slang for an immigrant from Britain.  There are a number of theories about "pom," but the most plausible traces it to the rhyming slang popular in Britain and its former colonies.  In this scenario, "pom" is most likely short for "pomegranate," itself a variation on "Jimmy Grant," which in turn was joking slang for "immigrant."  You'll sometimes hear that "pom" was originally an acronym for "Prisoner of His Majesty," referring to Australia's days as a prison colony, but "pom" actually dates only to the late 19th century, long after emigration from Britain to Australia became entirely voluntary.

So many of the mysteries of the English language involve very old words and phrases that it is almost refreshing to meet a puzzle of more recent vintage, "pear-shaped" having first appeared in common usage, as far as is known, in the 1960s.  Primarily a British phrase, "to go pear-shaped," means "to go wrong, to fall apart, to get out of control or to fail."  One might say, for instance, that the business plans of many "dot com" companies "went pear-shaped" when customers failed to materialize. 

As I said, the origin of "to go pear-shaped" is uncertain, but there are, as usual, several theories.  The human body, as it ages, tends to acquire a bottom-heavy shape similar to a pear, perhaps giving us "pear-shaped" as another way of saying "things fall apart."  A poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list a few years ago reported a theory that ties the phrase to ship construction in the 1950s using hot rivets.  If the rivets were allowed to cool, they assumed a "pear" shape and were unusable.

But probably the most believable explanation yet proposed is the one you've heard and ties the phrase to the Royal Air Force, where learning to fly apparently includes doing acrobatic loops.  Difficult for even an experienced pilot, these loops as performed by a novice are more than likely to appear lopsided and "pear-shaped."  One can imagine observers on the ground saying, "Good.  Good.  Oh rats, he's gone all pear-shaped."

For the birds.

Dear Word Detective:  Yesterday I referred to someone as a "scissorbill."  The friend to whom I was speaking asked what the term meant and I explained that I had always understood it to mean a person who really is labor and whose true interests lie with labor but who identifies himself with management.  (Actually, we were talking about an episode of "Are You Being Served?" in which Captain Peacock was being a dreadful bully about people being three minutes late back from their tea breaks).  Then my friend asked where the term came from.  I referred to my copy of the Wobbly songbook, but Joe Hill's "Scissor Bill" and the rather silly "Scissorbill's Song" shed no light upon the question.  I don't offhand see any connection with the bird; but then I know only its name, not its habits.  Can you help? -- LDB, via the internet.

Interesting question, and as best as I can recall, the only one I've ever received that made reference to The Wobbly Songbook.  The Wobblies, for you folks out there who are drawing a blank, were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an anarcho-syndicalist organization very active in the U.S. labor movement of the early 20th century.  Actually, I suppose I should say "the Wobblies are," since they still exist and have a web site at  Joe Hill was a famous IWW labor organizer and songwriter (The Rebel Girl, There is Power in a Union and others) who was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1915.

Meanwhile, back at the birdfeeder, the "scissorbill" (Rhynchops nigra, also known as the "skimmer" or "shearwater") is a marine bird related to the tern, but possessing a very long lower bill it uses to scoop up small fish as it skims along the water's surface.  While this sounds like a rather clever way to make a living, evidently the scissorbill is not known for its brains, and "scissorbill" was U.S. slang in the late 19th century for a foolish, incompetent or loudmouthed person.  It was this slang meaning of "idiot," and not a reference to the bird itself, that apparently led to "scissorbill" becoming union organizers' slang for a worker deemed excessively fond of management. 

I can't be broke.  I still have checks left.

Dear Word Detective:  A friend of mine recently remarked that after paying taxes and other bills, he hoped he had enough cash to "tide him over" until payday.  Any inkling as to the origin of this phrase? -- Scott Jackson, via the internet.

Well, as the proverb goes, "Time and tide wait for no man," and that goes double for the IRS.   Speaking of that proverb, I assumed for many years, growing up near the ocean, that the "tide" to which it referred was the familiar rise and fall of the sea caused by the pull of the moon.  I knew that the sailing ships of yore scheduled their departures to take advantage of favorable tides, so it made sense to regard the tide as a deadline for leaving even more pressing than the clock. 

In fact, however, the "tide" of the proverb has nothing to do with the ocean or sailing ships.  "Tide" in this case simply means "time" (making the proverb, which has been around in various forms since at least the 14th century, amount to the redundant and borderline nonsensical "Time and time wait for no man").

"Time" and "tide," in fact, started out as the same word.  Both spring from the Germanic root "ti," which also produced the words for "time" in several other European languages (including "zeit" in modern German). "Tide" originally meant "a period of time, a season," a sense still heard in the terms "Christmastide" and "Yuletide," as well as the slightly more antiquated "noontide" and "eventide."

"Tide," which we inherited along with "time" from Old English, simply meant "time" or "a specific time" in various senses until around the 14th century, when it was first applied to the high and low levels of the sea (which, as any sailor knows, occur at specific times of the day).  By the late 16th century, "tide" was being used as a verb meaning "to flow or surge," as a nautical tide does.  Now, as I mentioned above, a wise captain knows how to take advantage of the tides, and a rising tide can even free a ship that has run aground.  Thus by the late 17th century, "to tide over" had come to mean "to overcome a difficulty," as if lifted and carried over the trouble by the surge of a rising tide.


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