Previous Columns/Posted 09/06/99


Readme:

Is this thing on? OK. Well, now that we've all settled down after that lovely goulash dinner provided by the nice folks from the County Work-Release Program [scattered applause and coughing], we have a few administrative matters to attend to before we jump into our scheduled festivities. First of all, I must explain that the Raffle Ticket Sales Report scheduled for tonight's meeting will not be presented, owing to the fact that our Chairperson is still stranded in Cancun by the Mexican airlines strike. We're still not sure why the networks aren't covering what would certainly seem to be a major news story, but we spoke to Dwayne just last week and he assures us that it's only a matter of time before everything is cleared up.

Secondly, our Club Secretary, Edith Freedle, would like everyone to take note of the fact that The Word Detective web site has relocated its domain, which was formerly spread out over three different internet locations, to one high-speed server at pair.com, a commercial web-hosting service. The only web address that will take you to the TWD web page will now be www.word-detective.com, so if you have bookmarked any pages at interport.net or greenapple.com, please re-bookmark them at the www.word-detective.com site. If you have any questions about this change, you can write to Edith at nitpicker@word-detective.com.

And now I see that Lenny finally seems to have gotten the projector up and running, so if we can have the lights dimmed, please, on with the show!


Rah Rah Rah.

Dear Word Detective: I am a Junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. Our school newspaper is called "the Hullabaloo," and I believe the paper is named from the school cheer: "One, two, a helluva hullabaloo, a hullabaloo ray-ray, a hullabaloo ray-ray, tee-ay, tee-ay, vars-vars tee-ay, tee-ay tee-ay Tulane!" That was a fun song to learn as a freshman! I have seen various TV shows (e.g., The Simpsons) use "hullabaloo," and it makes me wonder where Tulane got the word. -- Chad P. Chisholm, via the internet.

Well, Chad, that may have been a fun song to learn as a freshman, but I must warn you that your school's little ditty may now linger with you for life and pop into your noggin at the most inopportune moments imaginable. I remember contracting food poisoning a few years ago and being plagued throughout my ordeal by a mental tape loop of my old school song "Boys of Brunswick," a ghastly (albeit unintentional) parody of the heroic Welsh song "Men of Harlech." And they wonder why I don't come to reunions.

The basic meaning of "hullabaloo" is "a noise or clamor, a scene of uproar or confusion," and it's often used as a loose synonym of "ruckus." The first written occurrence of "hullabaloo" found so far was back in 1762, when it was spelled "hollo-ballo." (Other forms have included "halaballoo," "hilliebalow" and endless variations on that theme.) "Hullabaloo" apparently entered English from either Scots (the language of Scotland) or northern English dialects.

No one knows exactly where "hullabaloo" came from, but there's a good chance that it all started with the exclamation "hullo" (used to get someone's attention and the ancestor of our modern "hello"), which was often repeated to indicate surprise or excitement. The classic British policeman's exclamation of "Allo, allo, what's going on 'ere?" is an example of this repetitive use. "Hullo" was also sometimes repeated with a slight variation, in a process linguists call "reduplication," to produce "hullo bullo" and its cousins, which eventually came to mean "a scene of excitement or confusion."


Keep Them Doggies Dancin'.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the word "prom" came from? Is it an acronym for something? Where did the word "rodeo" come from? It is a fun word to say. -- Amber Land, via the internet.

Yes, "rodeo" is a fun word to say, although where I come from it's usually not heard in the same context as "prom." There are a variety of easy jokes I could make at this point, but even after all the years that have passed since my own senior prom, I still cannot abide levity on the subject. And no, I'm not taking off this tuxedo until I get a refund on the corsage.

"Prom" is not an acronym for anything. As a matter of fact, there are relatively few words that began life as acronyms, in part because acronyms were virtually unknown until after World War Two.

Then again, "prom" is probably the best thing short of an acronym, an abbreviation. "Prom" is short for "promenade," a borrowing from the French derived from the Latin "prominare," meaning "to drive forward." To "promenade" in the original sense was simply to go for a walk, though when it appeared in English around 1567 it especially meant to walk to and fro in public view in order to display oneself or one's finery. A "promenade" could also be a specific place where the socially adept did their "promenading," and to this day there is a very fine promenade of this sort in Brooklyn Heights overlooking New York Harbor. By the late 19th century, "promenade" was being used to mean a formal ball or gala at a school or college, and it was shortened to "prom" around the same time.

"Rodeo," on the other hand, comes from the Spanish word "rodear," meaning "to go around," and originally meant a cattle ring or corral where cattle were "rounded up" for counting and inspection. The word first appeared in American English around 1834, but it wasn't until about 1914 that we began using "rodeo" in its modern sense of a contest or exhibition of riding and roping skills.


Full Fathom Folderol.

Dear Word Detective: I hope you can help me on this one. In the last couple of weeks, I've heard the term "sea-change" (or "c-change") on various news reports. Any idea on a definition and origin? -- Bill F., via the internet.

The proper form is indeed "sea change," and I've been hearing it a lot lately too. It seems to have become a favorite buzz-phrase on those Sunday morning TV pundit-fests, where a bunch of "commentators" sit around prattling about a "sea change" in the American electorate or in some politician's campaign strategy. Personally, I think those bozos ought to be required to explain the meaning and derivation of "sea change" each and every time they use it. And even then they shouldn't be allowed to use it more than once every ten years.

"Sea change," which means a profound change or transformation in the nature of something, was coined, as many of our best English words and phrases were, by William Shakespeare. The relevant passage in his play "The Tempest" is worth quoting in full, both as an illustration of the original sense of the term and for its remarkable and eerie beauty:

"Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange."

By "sea change" (which seems to have lately lost its hyphen in common usage) Shakespeare meant a radical, fundamental transformation, metaphorically similar to the change wrought by prolonged submersion under water. The English language itself, for instance, is often said to have undergone a "sea change" when it was imported to the New World, gaining new words and idioms, and becoming, to British ears at least, "something rich and strange."

It pains me, however, to hear constant yammering about "sea changes" coming from Washington, where so few things ever actually change. The only genuine "sea change" I can imagine in connection with politicians would also involve the phrase "full fathom five."


Three Buns to the Wind.

Dear Word Detective: My co-worker seems to think the origin of the phrase "tie one on" dates back to the wild west in the 1800's where a cowboy would have to tie up his horse to a hitching post before he could go into the saloon and get drunk. I thought that might be right, but I wanted to check. -- Ted, via the internet.

Human curiosity, it seems, abhors a vacuum. (My cat abhors vacuums too, unfortunately. He really could use a good dusting. I always thought they were supposed to clean themselves.) Anyway, give us an intriguing word or phrase to mull over for a bit, and it won't matter that nobody in the room knows for sure where it came from. We'll figure out where it should have come from and probably concoct a lively story to boot.

Unfortunately, and I hate to be the one to say this, the more entertaining a word-origin story is, the less likely it is to be true, and your co-worker's horse theory is probably not the actual origin of "tie one on," a slang phrase meaning "to get drunk." I can't say that his theory definitely isn't true, simply because no one knows for sure what the origin is. And it is true that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first recorded use in print of the phrase comes from a book called "Western Folklore." But that book was printed in 1951, and if the phrase had indeed been in common use in the Old West, it is difficult to imagine that it would not have cropped up at least once in the extensive body of "cowboy literature" written before the 1950s.

The one clue we have about the origin of "tie one on" only deepens the mystery. The OED compares "tie one on" to the British slang phrase "tie a bun on," also meaning "to get drunk." Unfortunately (I seem to be saying that a lot today, don't I?), no one seems to have the vaguest idea where "tie a bun on," which appeared around 1901, came from, or what a bun could possibly have to do with getting drunk. It's enough to drive a fellow to drink.


Morning Already?

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me why a "watch" is called a "watch"? I am a teacher's aide and have a student who is interested in knowing the answer. -- Dee Bernath, via the internet.

Kids ask the darndest things, don't they? That's a good question, though. "Watch" is one of those common English words with a sometimes confusing variety of meanings. We "watch" a football game (some people do, anyway), sailors are on duty for a certain "watch," or period of time on board ship, and a "watchman" ("watchperson"?) stands "watch" at night in a factory. But none of these senses seems to be easily connected to the kind of "watch" we wear on our wrist.

As is the case with many of our most common words, "watch" is very old, and actually represents just one branch of a family tree of different words that sprang from one much older root. In the beginning (for our purposes) was the prehistoric Germanic word "wakojan," meaning "to not sleep, to be alert."

This word "wakojan," in turn, eventually produced two modern English words that are closely related: "watch" and "wake." The fact that these two words are siblings can be seen from the modern use of "wake" in its old "watch" sense to mean "hold a vigil over a dead body." No one at a "wake" really expects the guest of honor to "wake up."

Meanwhile, back at "watch," the sense of "to be alert" developed into our modern sense of "to observe closely" around the 14th century. The idea of employing or assigning someone whose specific task was to keep an eye on things led to the sense of "watch" found in "watchman." And since one person could not reasonably be expected to remain "watchful" around the clock, the division of the day into periods called "watches" soon followed.

The "wristwatch" kind of "watch" is a relatively recent development ("recent" in this case being about 1440), and actually harks back to the earlier "be alert, not sleep" meaning of "watch." The first watches were probably fairly primitive alarm clocks, whose purpose was, then as now, to wake us up.


The Whole Nine Molars.

Dear Word Detective: Could you explain "armed to the teeth," please? I remember reading this expression in a translation of The Odyssey. Does it refer to some form of armor that ran all the way to the gum and chopper region? Or does it mean that a warrior was so well fortified with weapons that he also held a knife or something in his mouth? -- Paul Schierbecker, St. Louis, MO.

Live and learn. Until I did some research, I had always assumed that "armed to the teeth" had something to do with the "knife in mouth" school of personal armament. Like many folks, I have a dim childhood memory, gleaned from old pirate movies, of buccaneers swinging aboard a captured ship, brandishing blunderbusses in both hands and cutlasses clenched in their teeth. I don't think I can adequately convey how thrillingly illicit those images seemed to me at the time, but keep in mind that back then one of the worst things a child could do was to run while holding a pair of scissors. Swinging on a rope while holding a sword in your mouth? Cool! No wonder those guys all wore eye patches.

But it turns out that "armed to the teeth" is just one of many uses of the metaphorical phrase "to the teeth," meaning "very fully or completely." "To the teeth" has been used as an equivalent to the popular "up to here" (with hand signal indicating the neck region) for quite a long time, since around the 14th century. You could, it seems, just as well be "fed to the teeth" if you had eaten a large meal, or even, if sufficiently exasperated, be "fed up to the teeth" (at which point you might arm yourself to the teeth, I suppose).

The first modern use of "armed to the teeth" was in an 1849 speech by the English industrialist and statesman Richard Cobden, who, speaking of his nation's defense budget, asked "Is there any reason why we should be armed to the teeth?" He obviously hadn't been watching enough pirate movies.


Colonel Blimp Crosses the Potomac.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "brook no quarter"? The Secretary of Energy recently used this phrase in a speech to Asian/Pacific-Americans. (Mr. Richardson grew up in northern New Mexico, where this is not exactly common parlance.) -- Barbara M. Waxer, via the internet.

Sounds like a certain Cabinet official has been reading too many historical novels. Don't you just love it when a politician who has spent his life in air-conditioned offices starts talking like Lord Wetwoolly commanding his troops at the Siege of Vindaloo? Your tax dollars at work, folks.

At least he might try a bit harder to get his pretensions straight, because what he said is idiomatically a bit off. One does not "brook no quarter" -- one "grants no quarter."

"Brook" as a verb means "to allow or put up with." The original meaning was "to enjoy," from the Old English word "brucan," but that was extended to mean "able to digest." This sense of "able to stomach" eventually led, around 1530, to our modern "endure or tolerate" meaning. "Brook" is now only used in a negative context ("I will not brook"), by the way.

To "give quarter" or "grant quarter" means to grant clemency to a captured enemy soldier and refrain from immediately putting him to death, which was the standard practice when "quarter" was first used this way around 1611. It is probable that "quarter" in this sense is the same as the "quarters" (barracks) that soldiers live in. This kind of "quarter" is an antiquated use, meaning simply "place or area," not necessarily one-fourth of anything, and persists in place names such as "the Latin Quarter." So "to grant quarter" originally meant "to provide a prisoner with shelter," and, of course, not to kill him. To "grant no quarter" meant the guy was seriously out of luck.

Anyway, what the Secretary of Energy was probably trying to say was that he would not show any mercy to his opponents in some tussle. Of course, he could have just said that, right?


 


On the bright side, she now obeys
the commands "Park" and "Reverse."

Dear Word Detective: I came across the word "fleered" while reading "Travels With Charley," by Steinbeck. Is this word still in common use? I've never seen it anywhere else. -- Lore, via the internet.

You know, I just realized that I've never read John Steinbeck's book about driving around the country with his dog Charley. I really ought to, since it may contain valuable hints on how to take a trip with a dog and have your car come back in one piece. I took my dog Brownie down to the Post Office with me the other day (I was planning to mail her to the IRS, but the postage proved prohibitive). Anyway, while my attention was momentarily diverted, Brownie ate the entire back seat of my car, seat belts and all. Her breath still reeks of Naugahide.

I've never seen "fleered" anywhere else either (and since I've never read Steinbeck's book, I haven't really seen it anywhere, except in your letter). But the folks who run the Oxford English Dictionary have, and they define "fleer" as, well, a variety of things. "Fleer" can mean "to laugh in a coarse, impudent or unbecoming manner." Conversely, it can mean "to laugh or smile flatteringly or fawningly," but that seems to be an antiquated sense. My guess is that Steinbeck meant it in the sense of another definition: "To laugh mockingly or scornfully; to smile or grin contemptuously ... to gibe, jeer, sneer." To fleer, in other words, is to sneer with sound effects.

"Fleer" first appeared in English around 1400, but no one knows for sure where it came from. The most likely source is Scandinavia, where "flira" means "to grin or laugh unbecomingly" in both Norwegian and Swedish dialects.


The Ashcats' Ball.

Dear Word Detective: What can you tell me about "gandy" as in "gandy dancers"? I know that it is slang used to describe railroad track laborers. -- Maureen Rieckers, via the internet.

Well, I can tell you that gandy dancing is one job I'd rather not take. A gandy dancer's job is (or was, since the tasks have now largely been automated) to maintain railroad tracks and the trackbed on which they lie, and it sounds like backbreaking work.

"Gandy dancer," which first appeared around 1918, is railroad workers' slang, a once rich body of terms describing the everyday tools and tasks of the trade. If a trade falls victim to automation or obsolescence (as have many railroad jobs), its jargon may be lost forever unless the terms make their way into general usage. Some railroad workers' terms have made the leap into common use as metaphors: "jump the track" and "asleep at the switch" are good examples. Other wonderful railroad terms were not so lucky. H.L. Mencken noted that the now obsolete fireman on steam locomotives was known as an "ash cat," a "bake head" and a "diamond cracker," among other names.

Strictly speaking, the origin of "gandy dancer" is unknown. Some authorities trace it to a certain Gandy Manufacturing Company of Chicago, which supposedly made tools used by track workers. According to this theory, the "Gandy" tool used to tamp down gravel in the track bed was a rod about five feet long with a projecting bar near the bottom, like on a stilt. Using the tool required placing one foot on the bar and hopping around in the track bed, a routine known, logically, as "gandy dancing."

Unfortunately, the "Gandy Company" theory of "gandy dancing" runs aground on a simple lack of evidence. No researcher has yet been able to find definitive evidence, even in Chicago business directories of the period, that any such company ever existed. So that "dancing" theory may be true, but it has yet to be proven.


I'm not loafing. I'm practicing for retirement.

Dear Word Detective: A colleague and I were discussing work matters the other day, when a co-worker passing by told us to "quit gold-bricking." I later asked what that meant, and he and another co-worker agreed that it meant fooling around, and that it meant I was young to not know that (I'm 35). They said it was military slang, but had no idea how it might have originated. Can you tell us, since we are now all wondering? I guess we should quit our gold-bricking and get back to work, though. -- Ben Krug, via the internet.

Gosh, isn't having internet access at work a great idea? Who'd ever have thought bosses all over the country would fall for that one? Offices where radios are forbidden and employees would be considered insane if they asked to watch TV at their desks are going online in droves. It's really quite amazing.

"Goldbricking" does mean fooling around, goofing off, or what used to be called simply "slacking," and it is indeed U.S. military slang, having first appeared around the time of World War I (1914). A goldbricker in today's sense is a loafer, a whiner and a schemer who always seems to be elsewhere when there's heavy lifting to be done.

But the original meaning of "goldbricker" (or just plain "goldbrick") in the military was slightly different than its current sense. A "goldbrick" was an officer appointed from civilian life, with no military experience, and thus completely useless and very annoying. A fraud, in other words, which takes us back to the original non-military meaning of "goldbrick." Con artists in the 19th century would often try to scam unsuspecting (but greedy) victims by offering to sell them actual gold bricks at a fraction of their worth. In reality, of course, the brick was just painted gold, but the suckers fell for "the gold brick swindle" many times. By the late 1880s, "goldbrick" had become a slang synonym for "phony," and shortly thereafter it was being applied to those "phony" Army officers. From there it was a short jump to "goldbrick" meaning anyone who is supposed to be working but isn't.


And what's the pointy end called again?

Dear Word Detective: Where did the sailing term "starboard" come from? And while you're at it, why is the left side called "port?" -- Elizabeth Harrington, via the internet.

Good questions. I've been so busy the last few years trying to spike the spurious explanation of "posh" as an acronym for "port side out, starboard home" (supposedly describing the preferred shipboard accommodations of the wealthy) that I've never gotten around to explaining "port" and "starboard" in their own right. ("Posh," incidentally, actually comes from the Romany (Gypsy) word "posh," which became an English slang term for "money" in the 19th century.)

Starboard, as all weekend sailors know, is the right side of the boat (or ship), and "port" is the left. We'll start with starboard, which appeared in English around 893 A.D. It comes from the Old English word "steorbord," based on the elements "steor" (steering paddle) and "bord" (meaning, in this case, the side of a boat). On ancient Teutonic ships, the paddle used to steer was mounted on the right side of the ship (as opposed to the stern, where most modern rudders are located). The "steorbord," or "steering side," was, therefore, the right side of the boat or ship. "Steorbord" gradually changed to "starboard" over the years, probably because "star" is a modern English word that people recognize, while "steor" is not. But the term has nothing to do with stars.

The other (left) side of the ship was not originally called "port." It was known as the "larboard" side, but just why is a bit of a mystery. It may be that "larboard" was based on words meaning "back side" (since the helmsman would have his back to that side). Or it may have been based on "lade" (to load) since the left, non-rudder side would be the side tied to a pier and receiving cargo.

In any case, "larboard" turned out to be far too easy to confuse with "starboard," and was eventually replaced with "port," referring, again, to the fact that the left side was the side over which cargo was loaded in port.


You'll have to get up now. It's time to cook lunch.

Dear Word Detective: As a lover of the greatest American outdoor sport, the barbecue, I was wondering where the word "barbecue" originated. I suspect that it relates to the American West and the brands used by cattle ranchers (Bar-B-Q). -- Paul Proulx, Rochester, NH.

Greatest American outdoor sport, eh? I thought that was yard sales. Speaking of which, why does every yard sale I go to offer at least three broken toasters for sale? Are broken toasters the next Beanie Babies? Should I be snapping them up as fast as I can?

A "barbecue," as every suburbanite knows, is an outdoor social gathering where friends get together to hoist a few brewskies, swap gossip, and watch some guy in a funny apron burn off his own eyebrows. Strictly speaking, in modern usage "barbecue" can refer to the festive gathering itself or to the grill on which various foods, usually meats, are roasted.

There probably was, at one time, a rancher who branded cattle with "Bar-B-Q," but that phonetic rendition of "barbecue," now often found on bags of charcoal, definitely was not the source of the word. The first "barbecues" (from the Haitian word "barbacoa," probably based on a Taino indian word) were simply wooden platforms supported by stakes in the ground, often used as beds in the West Indies as well as for the grilling of large cuts of meat. "Barbecue" first appeared in English around 1697 with both the "bed" and "grill" meanings, but by the mid-1700s had settled down to its modern meanings of "social gathering" as well as "roasting device."

Incidentally, if your backyard barbecues tend to degenerate into somewhat rowdy behavior, you might be interested to learn that the term "buccaneer," which we use today to mean "pirate," is closely connected to "barbecue." The Caribbean Tupi indian word for a barbecue was "mukem," which French colonists transformed into "boucanier," meaning a vagabond who cooked his food over such open fires. These "boucaniers" were also prone to robbery and other antisocial behavior, and eventually (around 1690) "buccaneer" became the English term for the pirates who roved the Caribbean.


Felonious Swooping.

Dear Word Detective: Where and when did the term "one fell swoop" originate? And what exactly does it mean? -- Sue Osterman, via the internet.

It means that William Shakespeare knew how to invent a phrase with legs, as they say in show business. "At one fell swoop" is just one of thousands of words and phrases in everyday use that can be traced back to Shakespeare's pen, including "eyeball," "madcap," "softhearted," "cold-blooded," "downstairs," "inaudible" and "radiance." Incidentally, if you're interested in learning more about the surprising range of Shakespeare's linguistic inventions, you should grab a copy of "Coined by Shakespeare" (Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, Merriam-Webster, 1998), which explores more than 200 of old Will's wonderful words.

"At one fell swoop," which was coined by Shakespeare in his play "Macbeth" in 1605, is a metaphor intended to conjure up the sudden, savage attack of a falcon or other bird of prey on its quarry. Today, if we do something "at one fell swoop," we do it quickly, completely and with finality, as in "The new CEO decimated the ranks of executives, laying off hundreds at one fell swoop." (Of course, many people who mean to say "one fell swoop" often slip and end up saying "one swell foop," which puts quite a dent in the gloom and doom of the phrase.)

"One fell swoop" is so common a phrase today that most of us have used it thousands of times without ever pausing to wonder what the words really mean. "Swoop," of course, means a swift, usually downward, motion, and is closely related to the word "sweep." But the "fell" of "fell swoop" doesn't mean that anything "fell" to earth or "fell over." Instead, "fell" in this case comes from an Old French word "fel," meaning "grim, merciless, or terrible." "Fell" in this sense is obsolete in English, and just about the only place you're likely to see it is in the combined form "fell swoop." But the root word "fel" is very much with us in the words "felon" (meaning originally "a cruel man," then "a villain") and related forms such as "felony" and "felonious."


 


Noodlums on a Rampage.

Dear Word Detective: I have been told that the word "hoodlum" is "Muldoon" spelled backwards, which some newspaper writer used but his editor changed the N to an H in fear of retribution. What city, what paper and who was Muldoon? -- L.S. Lahrson, via the internet.

You don't happen to have the person who told you that in custody at the moment, do you? No, I suppose not. It's rare that the infernal agents of the Confusion Cabal who spread stories like that hang around to be apprehended. I guess it wouldn't be much of a cabal if they did.

The story you have heard is, to put it delicately, utter bunk. But if it's any consolation, it's genuine antique utter bunk, first recounted in a slightly different form by John Bartlett in his 1877 Dictionary of Americanisms. In Bartlett's account (according to Hugh Rawson's marvelous book "Devious Derivations"), a newspaper editor in San Francisco dubbed a gang of street urchins (run by a thug named Muldoon) "noodlums" in a moment of wit, not fear. A typesetter, however, supposedly misread the "n" as an "h," and "hoodlum" was born. Now, it is true that "hoodlum," meaning "a rowdy or street thug," did first appear in San Francisco around 1870. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any of the rest of that story ever happened, and Mr. Rawson quite rightly terms this story "noodleheaded" and "one of the most fanciful of all folk etymologies."

That's far from the only silly story you're likely to hear about the origin of "hoodlum," however. Perhaps the most preposterous maintains that "hoodlum" arose simply as a mispronunciation of "hooligan," which would be a good trick, since "hoodlum" is found in print around 1870 and "hooligan" didn't appear until 1898.

Mr. Rawson's best guess as to the true source of "hooligan" is the Bavarian word "Huddellump," meaning "a slovenly person," a theory that fits with the fact that at the time "hoodlum" first appeared, German immigrants were the largest non-English-speaking minority in San Francisco.

Hugh Rawson's excellent "Devious Derivations," by the way, is published by Crown and available in paperback. Buy it -- it's your best defense against the Confusion Cabal.


Whirling Domestics.

Dear Word Detective: I am having a discussion with three young boys about the origin of the term "Lazy Susan," and can't find the answer. I just know I have one in my kitchen cabinet. But that is not enough for inquisitive minds! -- Betsy Cousineau, via the internet.

Well, the simple solution to your problem would be simply to stuff their inquisitive little mouths with Brussels sprouts until they go away, which should (based on my opinion of Brussels sprouts, anyway) be about ten seconds, max. As to actually answering their question, I'll give it a shot, but information on "Lazy Susan" is hard to come by, while Brussels sprouts are probably lurking in your refrigerator even as we speak.

What we call a "Lazy Susan," a revolving serving tray usually used to dispense condiments or appetizers, was originally called a "dumbwaiter." Although the device itself dates back to at least the mid-eighteenth century, the name "Lazy Susan" cannot be verified earlier than about 1917. Many authorities recount the theory that the "Susan" was simply a common maid's name, and that the term "lazy Susan" applied to this self-service gadget was a sardonic reference to the supposed sloth of household servants. If this theory is true, it remains to be explained why the term was unknown in the 1700's, when servants were common, but suddenly appeared in the early 20th century, when they were not.

A more likely source for the term may be some anonymous advertising copywriter, using the repetition of the "z" sound in "Lazy" and "Susan" to invent a memorable term for a prosaic appliance, and perhaps even inventing the "lazy servant" story to boot. By the way, the English still call these doo-dads "dumbwaiters," a term that we in the U.S. now apply to the small food-service elevators found in very large houses and hotels.


Lather, Rinse, Revenge.

Dear Word Detective: I just watched an old episode of MASH. Hawkeye was giving out "welcome wagon" items to some new nurses, including some shampoo, saying "Couldn't find any real poo." So that got us to wondering: where did the word "shampoo" come from? -- Sandy, via the internet.

Hey, I remember MASH. I even remember the short-lived sequel to MASH, in which Hawkeye returns to civilian life only to be hunted down like a dog by all the people he annoyed during the war with his lame puns and preachy monologues. At least I think I remember it, but maybe it was just wishful thinking.

OK, so I'm not a MASH fan, but like all modern folks, I'd be lost without my shampoo. "Shampoo," as you may have noticed, is both a noun and a verb, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines the act of shampooing as being "to subject (the scalp) to washing and rubbing with some cleansing agent, as soap and water, shampoo powder, etc." Yes, Virginia, there once was such a thing as "shampoo powder," and I actually bought a can of the stuff in the late 1960s. You were supposed to dump the powder on your dry hair, comb it through, and presto, your hair would be clean and shiny. Not quite. In reality, it was a case of presto, your hair was full of greasy, gritty goop.

Oddly enough, the origin of "shampoo" has nothing directly to do with hair (and does not, puns aside, involve our modern word "sham," meaning "phony"). "Shampoo" comes from the Hindi word "campo," meaning "to press," and a "shampoo," which entered English around 1762, was originally a full-body massage. In fact, until the mid-19th century, asking for a "shampoo" would get you pummeled by a masseur (or masseuse) and slathered with oils and lotions. Only lastly (if you lasted that long) would your hair be washed. By about 1860, however, "shampoo" had attained its exclusive modern meaning of "washing the hair." Shortly thereafter, "shampoo" began to be used as a noun meaning either an act of shampooing or the special soap used on the hair.


Polly Want a Junk Bond?

Dear Word Detective: Can you please tell me what the origin of the word "swashbuckling" is? A workmate of mine is having a trivia contest for our volunteer staff, and none of us could tell her where the word came from. -- Anita McDonald, via the internet.

Avast, lubbers, a contest, you say? And what might be the prize? A gift certificate for two lily-livered "Happy Meals"? Arrrghh. Keelhaul the lot of 'em, lads, and bring me more grog.

Sorry about that. I always wanted to be a swashbuckling pirate captain, although the bit about having a parrot sitting on your shoulder all day gives me pause. The dry-cleaning bills must be ruinous.

Although you and I may associate "swashbuckling" with pirate stories and Hollywood movies, the term was originally anything but complimentary. A "swashbuckler," when the word first appeared around 1560, was swaggering braggart, bully or ruffian. "Swashbuckler" actually came from the antiquated words "swash" (to make a noise by striking) and "buckler" (shield). A "swashbuckler" was originally a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passersby to duels, and just generally acting like a lout.

Although the real swashbucklers were mostly cheap bullies, swashbuckling got a romantic spin in popular adventure novels, and later in dozens of Hollywood "swashbucklers," pirate movies starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn. Thanks to this movie magic, "swashbucklers" were transformed from loudmouthed losers into daring adventurers, roving the world in search of thrills and treasure. Just how effective this historical rewrite was can be judged from the fact that "swashbuckler" has lately been adopted by investment bankers and corporate takeover artists to affectionately describe the most rapacious members of their breed. Methinks it may be time to dust off my favorite old pirate tradition for these people: walking the plank.

 

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