Previous Columns/Posted 08/24/98

I do my best work in mashed potatoes, personally.

Dear Word Detective: I have been asked to find out the origin of the word "blacksmith." I am new to searching for the etymology of words and would appreciate any help. When we looked in the dictionary it seemed that the word "smith" was used to indicate someone who made something. It said "[ME, fr. OE akin to OHG 'smid' smith and prob. to Gk 'smile' wood-carving knife]." I understood that to mean that it originated from Middle English and had something to do with Greek and a wood carving knife, but even after reading through the directions in the dictionary I was stumped as to what all of their abbreviations stood for. Any help would be greatly appreciated! -- Eric Stamps, Alice C. Harris Intermediate School, Tremonton, Utah.

Well, for a beginner, you're no slouch. The only abbreviations you seem to have missed were "OE" (Old English) and "OHG" (Old High German). "Akin" means "related to," and "prob." means "probably," the classic lexicographer's speculative dodge. Those strings of letters take getting used to, but it could be worse. The entry for "smith" in the Oxford English Dictionary throws in about six other languages and enough parentheses to give you a killer headache.

While "smith" may have first appeared in its current form in Middle English, it is really a much older word, probably based on a prehistoric German word meaning "worker" or "craftsman." The attempt to trace "smith" to a Greek word for "carving knife" is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, which usually means that the theory lacks solid evidence (although it is not necessarily untrue). Frankly, when words are as old as "smith" is, things get pretty fuzzy. Still, the important point about "smith" is that it originally described a craftsman of any sort, not necessarily one working in metal.

The "black" part of "blacksmith," however, is much easier to trace. A blacksmith is a smith who works in "black" metal -- iron -- as opposed to the "white" metals such as silver or tin.

Or maybe I'll just sell him my parking space.

Dear Word Detective: I have tried for years to find the derivation of "cockpit." Any information would be greatly appreciated. And when I say years, I mean years, so if you know this, you are in very select company. -- Bob Bardagy, via the internet.

Well, shucks, Bob, I'll have you know that I'm already in very select company. After all, I live right down the block from Jerry Seinfeld, now that he's moved back to New York City. Of course, his apartment doesn't have all the neat things Chez Detective does, such as the built-in exercise facilities (five flights of stairs) and fresh running water from the ceiling when it rains. Still, one mustn't gloat, I suppose. Perhaps I'll send him one of these lovely cats as a housewarming gift.

You say that you've spent years searching for the origin of "cockpit," but it could be worse. You could have been pounding the pavement on the trail of "cocktail," which is one of the most infuriatingly obscure words in general usage. No one knows the origin of cocktail (so don't bother asking me), though there are dozens of theories ranging from the merely bizarre to the seriously wacked. Fittingly enough, "cocktail" has driven generations of etymologists to drink.

"Cockpit," however, is pretty straightforward. The first "cockpits" were actual pits in the ground constructed (to the extent that one "constructs" a pit) to house "cockfights" to the death between game cocks (essentially very belligerent chickens). Cockfighting, a barbaric "sport" usually conducted for gambling purposes, probably originated in ancient China and remains distressingly popular around the world.

As a name for the scene of such grisly matches, "cockpit" showed up in English in the 16th century. By the 1700's, "cockpit" was being used as a metaphor for any scene of combat, especially areas (such as parts of Belgium and France) known as traditional battlefields. "Cockpit" was then adopted by pilots in World War I, who applied it to the cramped operating quarters of their fighter planes. Our modern sense of cockpit includes the entire crew areas of large airliners, which are usually fairly spacious and not, one hopes, the scene of conflict.


Hail, hail, Draconia.

Dear Word Detective: Where was Draconia, that place where that authoritarian came from? -- Ian Dougall, via the internet.

Ah, yes, Hail Draconia, Land of Enforcement. How we miss her dank dungeons, her kangaroo courts, her dainty thumbscrews and her sturdy truncheons. And they didn't put up with any of that wimpy due process hoopla in Draconia, bucko, though you were always welcome to consult your lawyer. You could usually find him in the cell next door.

Just kidding, sort of. There never was a specific place called Draconia, though a good argument could be made that there's a little bit of Draconia in every human society. As an adjective, "draconian" means "excessively rigorous, harsh and cruel," and is almost always used in reference to a regime or set of laws or punishments. Naturally, one society's or historical period's "draconian punishment" is often another's "simple justice," and your cultural mileage may vary.

Blinding or maiming a person convicted of theft, for example, is considered a "draconian" punishment in most, but not all, parts of the world. Capital punishment, current public enthusiasm notwithstanding, is considered "draconian" in most advanced nations except the U.S. and Japan.

Onward. While there never was a Draconia, there was most certainly a Draco, and that's where we got the adjective "draconian." Draco, whose name, appropriately, means "dragon" in Greek, was a lawmaker in Ancient Athens in a time of popular unrest. The Athenians were at the point of revolt over unequal treatment under the current system of laws, so Draco instituted a new set of laws guaranteed to shut folks up. Under the new Draconic code of 621 B.C., almost everything, from murder to cursing in public, was punishable by death. Questioned about the wisdom of such a one-size-fits-all approach to justice, Draco is said to have declared, "Small crimes deserve death, and for great crimes I know of no penalty severer."

Unfortunately, the term "draconian" was not retired with Draco's laws, and has gone on to enjoy an uninterrupted applicability to instances of cruel "justice" throughout human history up to today. One does not ordinarily wish that words would become obsolete, but in the case of "draconian," I think most people would make an exception.

Just stay away from Rosie when she coughs.

Dear Word Detective: I have heard that the popular children's rhyme "Ring Around The Rosie" actually refers to the Black Plague that ravaged Europe hundreds of years ago. Is there any truth to this theory? -- R. Nash, via the internet.

Don't bet money on it. I remember first hearing this explanation of the rhyme many years ago and being fascinated by the story. For the benefit of those readers who haven't heard it before (and who are not eating lunch at the moment), here it is in brief, based on the most popular form of the rhyme: "Ring around the rosie" (the "rosie" being the scarlet rash symptomatic of the Plague), "a pocketful of posies" ("posies" meaning flowers and herbs believed to ward off the disease), "ashes, ashes" (referring to the cremation of Plague victims), "all fall down" (the Plague was nearly inevitably fatal).

So is this interpretation true? Have generations of children gaily danced in a circle singing what was actually a grim account of one of mankind's worst tragedies? Almost certainly not.

Although the most recent plague the rhyme could refer to was the London Plague of 1665, "Ring Around The Rosie" was not documented until more than two hundred years later, in Kate Greenaway's "Mother Goose" of 1881, and even then in a form which does not lend itself so well to the "plague" interpretation. It is difficult to believe that this rhyme existed unnoticed and undocumented among the children of Europe for at least two centuries.

It is far more logical, as many scholars have proposed, that the rhyme began as just what it appears to be -- a nonsense song sung by children dancing in a circle, ending by throwing themselves together on the ground -- "all fall down."

And at least one authority has proposed that "Ring Around the Rosie" was actually an American invention, dreamt up to circumvent the 19th century ban on dancing by Protestant denominations. "Ring Around the Rosie," along with other group songs, were the centerpieces of children's so-called "play parties," similar to square dances in all but name.


Snuff said.

Dear Word Detective: I just had someone ask me the origin of the expression "up to snuff." Not having my OED handy, I did not know. Now, here I am at work with an internet connection and thought it high time to ask a higher authority. Can you fill me in on the origins of this expression? -- Richard Robinson, via the internet.

Didn't have your Oxford English Dictionary with you, eh? Are we talking about the full-size 20-volume "wheelbarrow" set, or the single-volume edition with type so small it's been known to produce myopia in fleas? Personally, I prefer the CD-ROM edition of the OED, but what I really need is a copy hard-wired into my brain. I'd be willing to clear out all my memories of the 1970's to make room.

"Up to snuff," meaning "satisfactory" or "measuring up to the required standard" turns out to be quite an interesting phrase. First of all, "snuff" all by itself is an intriguing word, or should I say "words," because there are really two different "snuffs." The older "snuff," of unknown origin and dating back to the 14th century, meant the burnt part of a candle wick. As a verb, this "snuff" meant "to extinguish a candle" and it is from this sense that we get our modern metaphor of "snuffing" someone's hopes (or, in slang, actually expunging the person).

The other kind of "snuff," meaning powdered tobacco inhaled through the nostrils, came along a bit later, in the 1680's. The root of this "snuff" was probably the verb "to snuff," meaning to draw up into the nose (think back to your last "snuffling" head cold), and it apparently began as an abbreviation of the Dutch word "snuiftabak," or snuffing tobacco. "Taking snuff" was a popular habit in Europe for hundreds of years, so its not surprising that it showed up in a metaphor for "satisfactory" or "usual." What remains a little unclear about "up to snuff" is whether the phrase refers to a level of acceptable quality of snuff itself, or to the wide-awake and perky attitude of someone who has just taken snuff.

I'll try "Nine Yards of What?" for $25, Bob.

Dear Word Detective: I recently explained to a friend of mine where the term "lily-livered" came from, and he asked if I knew where the phrase "tow-headed" came from. I told him that I didn't, but that I would make an effort to find out. What about it? Do you have any idea? -- Vickie White, via the internet.

You know, the thought of you and your friend sitting around swapping word origins has just given me a dandy idea. Why not a TV game show devoted to etymology, where folks can win new cars and fabulous vacations for correctly answering questions about terms such as "lily-livered"? It would certainly be more educational than spinning some dumb old wheel or buying vowels. Come on, Hollywood, give me a call.

Since we've both now mentioned "lily-livered," I'd probably better explain the origin of that phrase to the rest of the folks watching, er, reading this. Way back before "E.R.," the liver was believed to be the seat of all human passions (a role now more correctly ascribed to the wallet). A liver that was as "white as a lily" lacked red blood, synonymous with courage, making "lily-livered" a synonym for weak and cowardly. Shakespeare was fond of describing his characters as "lily-livered," and his plays were probably instrumental in popularizing the term.

In the case of "tow-head," understanding the phrase depends on knowing that "tow" is another word for raw flax or hemp fibers. "Tow" in this sense is apparently unrelated to the "pull" sense of "tow," and comes from a prehistoric German word meaning "to spin or weave." Flax fibers in their natural state are a very light golden color, so "tow-head" is a logical description of someone with very light or blonde hair. The phrase "flaxen-haired" applied to such people is somewhat more common than "tow-head," although both phrases are gradually disappearing.


But wait -- maybe that's why
the Mounties all wear leis.

Dear Word Detective: A little while ago a friend and I were talking about hockey and started to speculate about the origins of the word "Canuck." Well, maybe "speculate" is the wrong word, since the "speculative" conversation went something like, "I dunno" (shrugs shoulders). Anyway, since then I have been trying to figure it out and the closest explanation I can find is that it may have originated from the word "Canadian." Is this so? -- M.K. Shaeffer, Ohio.

You and your friend shouldn't sell yourselves short. If you were to wander into my study on an average day and ask me about the origin of "canuck," I, too, would almost certainly shrug my shoulders and grunt, "I dunno." Then I would ask you how you got past the 19 locks on my door. Then, being a New Yorker, I would mug you.

Just kidding. I haven't mugged anyone in years. Besides, the whole scenario wouldn't work because, while you have been fantasizing about breaking into my apartment, I have been looking up "Canuck" and now know the answer.

I actually know several answers, so even if I did mug you, you'd be getting your money's worth. The simplest and most popular theory seems to be the one you came up with, that "Canuck" is simply a shortened form of "Canadian."

However, according to "Unkind Words," a fascinating book on ethnic labeling by Irving Lewis Allen, "Canuck" isn't really that simple. First of all, it seems that French-speaking Canadians living in or near the northeastern U.S. consider "Canuck" to be an offensive ethnic slur. But in the rest of Canada, "Canuck" is a label of national pride, as evidenced by the name of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. Go figure.

As to the origin of "Canuck," Allen reports that it may have arisen as a blending of "Canadian" and the Inuit (Eskimo) word "inuk," meaning "man." There's also the possibility that it came from Hawaiian, brought over by laborers imported to colonial Canada, but that seems a bit of a stretch to me. So there you have it, and good luck getting out past the cats. The big orange one mugged me last week.

And your little dog, too.

Dear Word Detective: Isn't the word "cul-de-sac" a French word? Well what the heck does it mean? We just bought a house on a "cul-de-sac." -- J. Bates, via the Internet.

Oops. Uh, wouldn't it have been a good idea to pin down the meaning of "cul-de-sac" before plunking down your hard-earned moolah for an abode resting on one? Well, it's water under the bridge, I suppose. Yes, "cul-de-sac" is indeed a French word, one of the most terrifying of all French words in fact. Ready? "Cul-de-sac" translates into English as "huge radioactive quicksand pit." Bummer, eh? On the bright side, I'm sure the nice mortgage folks will still be writing to you when your happy home is nothing more than a residual green glow hanging in the miasmic swamp air.

Hey, Batesie, old pal, are you still with us? I was just kidding. No real-estate agent would dream of selling you a home on top of a huge radioactive quicksand pit. Next door to one, maybe, if the schools were good. But "cul-de-sac" actually translates as "bottom of the bag," and means any sort of vessel or thing that is closed at one end, like a bag. In the case of a street, a "cul-de-sac" is one that has no outlet except the entrance, and is also known as a "dead-end" street.

Given the creative bent of most real-estate agents, it's not surprising that they shy away from such terms as "dead-end," with all its negative connotations, in favor of a classy-sounding French word like "cul-de-sac." And that literal translation "bottom of the bag" sounds way too much like "bottom of the barrel" to be useful.

I actually spent many of my formative years living on a cul-de-sac in Riverside, Connecticut, and I can testify that there was one major advantage to the arrangement. Angelo, the Good Humor ice cream man, had to pass my house both coming and going, giving me plenty of time to extort dimes from my mother. Yes, back and forth, Angelo drove, all summer long.

Until the quicksand pit got him, of course.

Just leave it on my doorstep.

Dear Word Detective: Please help. I'm trying to find out where the phrase "to curry favor" originated. -- Sarah McCarthy, via the Internet.

Well, you've come to the right place, but there's a tiny problem. Evidently, in your rush to e-mail your query to me, you forgot to attach the requisite bushel of praise for the work I do. You know the sort of thing I mean: how selfless and dedicated I am to bringing enlightenment to our bedraggled planet, how clever and yet profound my answers are, how cute my cats must be, etc. This is a question about "currying favor," for Pete's sake.

"To curry favor," meaning to try to gain approval by duplicity, especially insincere flattery, is, at first glance, a remarkably mysterious idiom. "Favor" seems easy to figure out, since we're trying to gain someone's approval. But "curry"? There's "curry," the spicy Indian dish, but that doesn't seem to apply. "Curry" as a verb, apart from cooking, means to groom a horse. Are we to brush the boss?

Well, as it turns out, there is a horse at the bottom of the mystery, and a very old horse indeed. The allegorical novel "Roman de Fauvel," published in France in 1310, recounted the exploits of a clever horse named "Fauvel," evidently a cross between Mr. Ed and Sergeant Bilko. Fauvel's name, incidentally, was a sort of joke in that "fauvel" in French means "fallow," a pale brownish or reddish-yellow color, which indeed Fauvel was.

Fauvel was a devious and manipulative critter, a first-class oat-burning Machiavellian, and widely admired by humans. They flattered and pampered him, including by brushing him, in hopes of enlisting his skills for their own ends. "To curry Fauvel" thus meant to ingratiate oneself with someone in power, in the hope of being cut in on the action.

While "Roman de Fauvel" was a hit in its day, that day was 1310, and times change. As memory of the clever horse faded in the public mind, the phrase was corrupted to "curry favor," although the general meaning of the phrase remains intact to this day.

Beat the clock.

Dear Word Detective: I'm a word origin fanatic, and I have several phrases that have me stumped. Could you help me? They are "grass widow," "My, doesn't our cat have a long tail," and "nest egg." Where did these expressions come from? -- Lee Taylor, via the Internet.

Well, I'll give it a shot. Usually I stick to one word or phrase per column, but this will be a challenge. It'll be like one of those chess games where you only get ten seconds to decide on your next move. On the other hand, I seem to remember always losing those games, so I make no guarantees.

"Grass widow" is used today to mean a married woman whose husband is absent, usually because of the requirements of his job. A "grass widow" in the 16th century, however, was a discarded mistress, especially one who had borne a child out of wedlock. There's a theory that ties this original meaning to illicit cavorting in the fields ("grass") as opposed to a homebound marriage, but there's no solid evidence for that. The newer "absent husband" meaning, which appeared in the 18th century, is even more mysterious. The only available theory has British officers in India sending their wives to the mountains (where grass grew, I guess) to escape the bestial heat of the Indian summers.

"My, doesn't our cat have a long tail" is a working class catchphrase that seems to have appeared in Britain in the middle of this century, although it may date back to the 1700s. It's a way of saying, "Doesn't he (or she) think he's hot stuff!", and was originally used to belittle women, probably upper-class, flaunting fancy new dresses.

Compared to those two, "nest egg" makes perfect sense. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, a "nest egg" is "an egg, natural or artificial, left in a nest to induce the bird to continue to lay in the same place, after the other eggs have been [taken away]." We've been using "nest egg" in a figurative sense since about 1700 to mean something, usually money, saved and held in reserve.


Take back your moolah.

Dear Word Detective: OK, so I'm not sure whether you cover this type of stuff, but I'll try anyway. Can you tell me the derivation of the term "Samoleans" or "Samolians," which refers to currency? -- Steve Ettinger, via the Internet.

Currency, as in money? No, normally I don't have anything to do with money. I'm not sure why, exactly, but I've never been especially interested in the stuff. Even as a child, I resisted my parents' attempts to give me something they called an "allowance," which I rightly perceived as a crude attempt to rid themselves of unsightly cash. As an adult, I became a newspaper columnist precisely because I knew that this was the one profession where money would never rear its ugly green head. So don't you dare try to send me any of your filthy lucre, especially not in an unmarked envelope addressed to P.O. Box 1, Millersport, OH 43046.

While we wait to see whether that works, I can tell you a few things about "simoleon," which is how the word is usually spelled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of "simoleon" is "obscure," which is a polite way of saying "we don't know." The Oxford folks do specify that "simoleon" means one dollar, and seems to be U.S. slang that first appeared about 1896. The OED also notes that there may be a connection between "simoleon" and the Napoleon, a French coin worth 20 francs issued by (who else?) Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s.

Another ingredient in the simoleon stew may be the fact, reported by the late etymologist Eric Partridge, that "simon" was slang for a sixpence in Britain in the 17th century. Although the origin of this slang "simon" itself is unknown, we know that by the late 19th century inflation had taken its toll and "simon" meant a dollar. It does not seem impossible that someone, perhaps in New Orleans where French currency was common in the 19th century, invented "simoleon" by combining "simon" and Napoleon." And given that there are so many "origins unknown" floating around this topic, that "not impossible" is the best we can do at the moment.

Memories of the Devil Bunny.

Dear Word Detective: I once had a cat named Willie because he had them (the willies, that is). I am now attempting to name his replacement, a charming and cheerful little scamp. A thesaurus told me that "skeezicks" or "skeezix" is a synonym for "scamp." It sounds quite charming, but what is its history? My friend Janet says that skeezicks are monsters that eat people in her Uncle Wiggly game. I have not yet been able to locate "skeezick" in a dictionary. Skeezicks sounds like a nice obscure word to name a scamp of a cat, but I don't want to turn the charmer into a monster! -- J.C., via the Internet.

Uncle Wiggly? Yikes. It's been years since I thought of Uncle Wiggly, and I didn't even know that there was an Uncle Wiggly game. All I remember of Uncle Wiggly (who was a rabbit, or at least I thought he was) is a worn yellow hardback book I found in our basement when I was very young. I don't remember actually reading the book, but I do remember being absolutely terrified of Uncle Wiggly, although I have no idea why. Thanks for the memories, by the way.

Despite my particular phobia, I don't think there anything wrong with naming your cat Skeezicks, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, simply means "A good-for-nothing, a rascal, a rogue." Unfortunately, the OED has no information as to where "skeezicks" came from, commenting only that it is American slang dating back to the mid-1800's, and probably a "fanciful" (i.e., meaningless) word. Nothing in the history of the word suggests a connection to "monsters." That was probably an invention of the evil Uncle Wiggly.

If "skeezicks" sounds familiar, incidentally, it's probably because "Skeezix" is the name of the central character in "Gasoline Alley," a comic strip that has been running in U.S. newspapers since 1918. Skeezix, left as an infant on the doorstep of a garage proprietor at the strip's outset, is now 77 years old and has grandchildren of his own.


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