Issue of September 14, 2000


Just one little note this month:

If you have ordered, or are planning to order, a copy of the forthcoming Word Detective book through this web site, please let me know your e-mail address. Each book ordered through this site comes with a free one-year subscription to the e-mail version of The Word Detective, and I can't put you on the list if I don't have your e-mail address.

And now I see the Eleanor the Dancing Moose pawing impatiently in the wings, so on with the show...

Or perhaps it's just the residue of all that jealousy.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering where the term "green room," the backstage area where actors wait, comes from. -- Kelly Bastian, via the internet.

Well, you've come to the right place; the line forms over here behind me. Yours is, incidentally, the third query about "green room" I've had in as many months, which probably indicates that out of work actors have started reading my column to while away the time between casting calls.

The "green room" in any theater (or television studio) is, as you say, the room or area backstage where actors prepare before a performance or wait while they're not needed on stage. During my tenure in the theater (I worked briefly as a stage photographer in college), I noticed that the green room also served as a sort of social club for actors, directors and the platoons of hangers-on they seemed to attract.

The question of where "green rooms" got their name is, and has been since the term first appeared in English around 1701, the subject of hot debate. The leading theory is that the term comes from the fact that the walls of green rooms used to be painted green, which was certainly true of the only green room I ever spent any time in. As to why the walls were painted green, as opposed to, say, hot pink, the most logical theory holds that the green color was chosen because it was found to be soothing to actors' eyes after they had spent time under harsh stage lights, especially the intense limelight used in the early theaters. A related (but not quite as likely) theory proposes that since limelight is itself slightly greenish, it made sense for actors to apply their makeup in a room with green walls.

There are other theories about "green room," such as the suggestion that artificial grass was originally stored there (unlikely, as props usually have their own storage area), but until someone comes up with something better (and some documentation would be nice), I'll stick with the "easy on your eyes" explanation of "green room."

Guys & Bombs.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "guy"? -- Sheryl Stark, via the internet.

Now here's an interesting question, and one with a special resonance for me (aside from the fact that I am quite a guy myself, of course). Way back in my eighth grade English class, our teacher, annoyed at our constant vague references to "this guy" and "that other guy," announced that if any of us knew the true meaning of "guy," we'd never use the word. We all, of course, immediately decided that there must be some secret salacious meaning to the word, and spent the rest of the term snickering at every "guy" we heard.

What our teacher meant, however, was that although Americans use "guy" to mean just "fellow" or "chap," to call someone a "guy" in Britain was, at one point, equivalent to labeling him "grotesque" or "weird-looking." And we had no idea that "guy" was an eponym, a word formed from the name of a real person.

The person in the case of "guy" was the infamous Guy Fawkes, ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators concealed 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, their goal being to blow King James I and the entire Parliament skyward. The plot was foiled, Fawkes and most of his pals were captured and executed, and November 5, the day of the planned Big Boom, became known as Guy Fawkes Day in England.

Guy Fawkes Day eventually became the British equivalent of the American Halloween, with effigies of Fawkes being burned in the streets or carried door to door by children begging for pennies. These grotesque effigies became known as "guys," and by 1836, "guy" was being used in Britain as slang for anyone exhibiting bizarre dress or behavior.

In America, however, the story of the Gunpowder Plot was not well known, and by the mid-19th century we were using the British "guy" to simply mean "a man." By the early 20th century, our "regular fellow" usage had percolated back to Britain, and "guy" no longer means "weirdo" in the U.K.

Anybody remember "Andy's Gang"
with Andy Devine and Froggy and Midnight the cat?
And the hamster that rode a motorcycle?

Dear Word Detective: I've heard the phrase, "No comments from the Peanut Gallery, please." It is used in a dismissing tone as if those who may sit in the peanut gallery really have no right to speak or, if they do, what they say is not worth hearing. Where did "peanut gallery" get started? -- Cindy L. Maciejunes, via the internet.

Hey, thanks a lot. Because of your question, I've had "It's Howdy Doody Time" running through my head for the last ten minutes, and it doesn't seem like it's going to stop until I replace it with something a bit more refined. Hold on a moment. "Louie Louie, me gotta go...." Ok, I'm fine now, and I'll explain that Howdy Doody business in a minute.

As you suspect, "peanut gallery," today used in a figurative sense, refers to the unruly riffraff, skeptical spectators whose opinions, at least to the speaker, do not count for much. In a literal sense, "peanut gallery" started out as a theatrical term. American theaters in the 19th century were (as theaters still are) divided into tiers of seats whose ticket price varied with their proximity to the stage. The topmost tier (what we would call "the nosebleed seats" today) was the gallery, where the less affluent patrons ended up. Many of these folks were not shy about expressing their opinions when they found the performance lacking, and often employed the peanuts they bought to munch as handy missiles to get the actors' attention. Thus, "peanut gallery" gradually took on its figurative meaning of "rowdy rabble."

But "peanut gallery" might well have faded away years ago were it not for The Howdy Doody Show, an immensely popular children's TV program of the 1950s (and the source of the theme song that was driving me crazy). Howdy Doody's "Peanut Gallery" was the in-studio audience of children, and to get a ticket to be in Howdy's Peanut Gallery was the dream of nearly every American child of my generation. Unfortunately, I never made it, but if you're wondering what the whole ruckus was about, you should check out Howdy Doody Online at You'll even get a chance to sing along with "It's Howdy Doody Time." Just don't sing it around me.



Dear Word Detective: I read, long ago, that the origin of the word "snob" was "sin nobilitas" (Latin for "without nobility"), meaning a person who puts on airs but does not have noble roots. I'm now reading Gail Godwin's bestseller, A Mother and Two Daughters. She cites the origin of "snob" as an Old Norse word meaning "dolt." Can you shed any light on the question? -- Marcia Nita Doron, via the internet.

Certainly. Both of those theories are wrong. I do like the Latin one, though. I actually made up my own spurious Latin etymology a few years back, and managed to convince several people that "Post No Bills," the warning often seen on barriers around demolition sites, was a mutation of "post nobilis" (meaning, in butchered Latin, "past its prime"). I probably shouldn't do things like that.

So if both those theories are wrong, what's the true origin of "snob"? Unfortunately, no one knows for certain. We do know that "snob" first appeared in English around 1781 meaning, of all things, a shoemaker, or sometimes a shoemaker's apprentice. One authority (Hugh Rawson, in his book "Wicked Words") raises the possibility that "snob" may have begun as essentially the same word as "snub," which came, interestingly, from an Old Norse word meaning "to cut short." Perhaps, notes Rawson, the "snob" (shoemaker) was so called because he "snubbed" (cut) leather. Today, of course, snobs "snub," or cut short, the rest of us all the time.

Whatever its actual origin, by the late 18th century, "snob" had been picked up by university students in England, who used it to mean "townsman," as opposed to a "gownsman," or student. By the 1830s, "snob" was slang for an ostentatiously vulgar commoner, and in 1848 the novelist William Thackeray expanded the term yet further in his "Book of Snobs," where he used the term to denote a kind of grasping, pretentious social climber. And by the early 20th century, "snob" was being used in its modern sense to describe a person who derives satisfaction from disdaining those of lower social rank.

Shoot me first -- I'm double parked.

Dear Word Detective: I am a Civil War re-enactor and many of the ladies who participate in our reenactments wear black dresses, black hats with veils, etc., to portray 19th century widows. Why are these items of dress called "widows' weeds"? -- Kay Todd, via the internet.

Good question. I must admit, incidentally, that I find the current passion for Civil War reenactments utterly puzzling. All that marching and gunfire and falling down must be exhausting. If I were going to reenact something, I'd pick Victorian England, because all I'd have to do is lounge about in my study, guzzle brandy while I gaze out at my estate, and order the servants around, which is pretty much how I spend my days anyway.

One might assume that "widow's weeds" must be connected in some convoluted fashion to the "ugly plant" sort of weed one finds in one's garden. (Not that you'll find weeds in my garden, of course. Not since I had it paved.) But, to return to the question, one would be wrong. "Weeds" the plants and "weeds" the mournful getup worn by widows in days of yore are two entirely separate words with unrelated origins. The "ugly, worthless plant" kind of "weed" comes from the Old English word "weod," which meant "grass, herb or weed."

"Weeds" meaning "mourning clothes," on the other hand, comes from a very old Germanic root meaning "clothing," and when this "weed" first appeared in English around A.D. 888, it was used in the singular to mean simply "an article of clothing." By about 1297, "weed" or "weeds" meant a style of clothing typical of an occupation or station in life. One might speak of a priest's "weed" or a beggar's "weeds," for instance. The phrase "widow's weeds," denoting the black veils and other accoutrements of deep mourning, first appeared around 1595, and is the only use of "weeds" in this sense still commonly heard in English.



Dear Word Detective: A person my mother works with thinks his son is a genius because he asked "Why do we call a yawn a yawn, Daddy?" and no one has found an answer for him. Please help me. Why do we call it a "yawn"? -- Rachel in Missouri.

Someone should tell your mother's colleague to read a few books on parenting. The appropriate answer to that question, and many, many others posed by children, is "because."

Just kidding. That question is a good one, and typical of the innocent yet perplexing puzzles children often come up with, which is why I try to avoid hanging out near kids.

"Yawn" is an interesting word. At first glance, it seems as though it might be an "echoic" or "onomatopoeic" formation, a word that sounds like the thing or action it describes, along the lines of "boom," "growl" or "thump." If you say "yawn" very slowly ("yaaawwnn"), it sounds a bit like someone yawning. Incidentally, is everyone yawning by now?

But (time to wake up, gang) "yawn" is not echoic, although it is very old. The source of "yawn" was the Indo-European roots "ghei" or "ghi," which gave us the Old English words "ginian" or "geonian," which were probably pronounced as something close to "yeen" and "yoan" and meant "to gape or yawn." In its early appearances in Modern English, "yawn" meant either to gape (as with one's mouth) or to be wide open (as a chasm or abyss). Our modern gee-I'm- sleepy meaning of "yawn" first appeared about A.D. 1450.

Sounds a bit like the macarena to me.

Dear Word Detective: I've heard the word "akimbo," but I never knew what it meant until someone said "legs akimbo," so I now know it means "spread apart." But where does "akimbo" come from? -- Ben, via the internet.

"Akimbo" is one of the strangest words in the English language, and seems almost to have been invented to mystify folks, especially children. I remember reading many stories as a child in which various characters were described as standing with their "arms akimbo," and being utterly clueless as to what the term meant. Of course, after a little while it dawned on me that I was growing up in a house awash in dictionaries and so I looked it up, but it still strikes me as a very odd word.

For those readers who still haven't figured out what the word means, the late John Ciardi gave a vivid definition of "akimbo": "With hands on hips and elbows sharply bent outwards, a body posture indicating impatience, hostility or contempt." One of the odd things about "akimbo" is that, strictly speaking, the word only applies to this "hands on hips" stance, although metaphorical uses are occasionally seen, such as "legs akimbo" or even "mind akimbo."

The origins of "akimbo" are a bit obscure, but it most likely comes from the Old Norse "i keng boginn," meaning "bent in a curve" (the Norse "bogi" is also the source of our "bow"). The phrase entered English around 1400 as "in kenebow," and then spent the next few hundred years mutating through forms such as "on kenbow," "a kimbow," "a kenbo" and "a-kimbo" until it finally arrived at its modern hyphenless "akimbo" form.

Long Arm of the Lout.

Dear Word Detective: I used the phrase "boardinghouse reach" in front of my son, who claimed it was not a phrase that had any usage outside of our house. I've looked for a listing in a phrase book but cannot find one. I know what the phrase means; I just need to point out that someone else has heard and used the phrase too. -- Richard Robbins, via the internet.

Honestly. Kids these days, eh? Probably knows Britney Spears' shoe size, but never heard of a "boardinghouse reach." I'd say we were all headed for hell in a handbasket, but he's probably never heard that one either.

OK, Geezer Mode off. I happen to know what a "boardinghouse reach" is because it was one of a number of dinner table sins (reading at the table was another) that my mother wisely refused to tolerate in her house. For the benefit of folks who have never heard the phrase, a "boardinghouse reach" is a dinner table maneuver in which an oafish diner, rather than ask politely for a dish or condiment to be passed down the table, reaches awkwardly over and often in front of other guests to snag the desired object. Such conduct is considered extremely rude in genteel society, and was, at one time, considered typical of the lack of manners found in boarding houses and similarly disreputable environments. A "boarding house," of course, is a sort of rooming house where meals are included in the room rent, the "boarding" referring to the "board," or dinner table.

According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "boardinghouse reach" first appeared in print in 1947, but that first print appearance refers to the phrase being heard around 1900, and the phrase may well be considerably older than that.

You have the right to remain shirtless.

Dear Word Detective: I am interested in the origin of the word "cop" which we use for police officers. My thinking is that it must go back to England in the 1800's, when the Bobbies wore copper badges, but I cannot prove it. -- Mark Freund, via the internet.

Well, that's probably because it isn't true, as far as anyone has been able to establish. "Cop" is one of those common but mysterious words that have spawned a whole raft of elaborate theories as to their origin, none of which is backed up by any convincing evidence.

The most commonly-heard theories trace "cop" (or "copper") meaning "police officer" to copper buttons worn on early police uniforms, or to copper police badges supposedly issued in some cities, but there is no real evidence for any of this. Still other theories explain "cop" as an acronym, standing for "Constable On Patrol," "Chief of Police" or other such phrases. But these "acronym" theories bear all the hallmarks of being spurious after-the-fact stories invented to explain "cop." Among other sticky details is the fact that acronyms were virtually unknown in English before the 20th century, while "cop" itself was well-established by the mid-19th century.

The secret of "cop" probably lies in the fact that before it was a noun it was a verb. The verb "to cop," meaning "to capture" or "lay hold of" first appeared in English around 1704, later coming to mean "to take" or "to steal," a sense that is still in use today (as in "cop a plea"). This "cop" may have come from the Dutch "capen" (to steal) or from the Scottish "cap," both ultimately from the Latin word "capere," meaning "to seize," which also gave us "capture." "Cop" as a slang term meaning "to catch, snatch or grab" originally was used among thieves, and a "copper" was a street thief. But sometime in the early 19th century, irony kicked in the door, and criminals apprehended by the police were said to have themselves been "copped" -- caught -- by the "coppers" or "cops."

No mas.

Dear Word Detective: I keep hearing the word "nonplussed" used to mean "not affected" or "unconcerned" in regard to an event that would usually be considered very shocking or upsetting, as in "John was nonplussed and merely smiled when the bat flew into the room." Isn't this usage almost exactly backwards? My dictionary defines "nonplussed" as meaning "utterly perplexed or stymied." Yet every time I've heard the word used lately it's been in the sense of "calm" or "cool as a cucumber." What's up with "nonplussed"? -- Edith Freedle, New York City.

Well, first of all, let me assure that I do, as the politicians say, feel your pain. I, too, have heard the usage of "nonplussed" to mean "unaffected," often, distressingly, on radio and TV news shows. And you are absolutely correct that this usage is just about precisely the opposite of the accepted meaning of "nonplussed," a meaning solidly rooted in the development of the word. Formed directly from the Latin phrase "non plus" (meaning "not more"), "nonplus" first appeared in English around 1582 as a noun meaning "a point at which no more can be done, a dead end." By 1606 we were using "nonplussed" to describe the state of being overwhelmed and exasperated by an event or circumstance that poses an insoluble dilemma or seems intolerable (i.e., "I can't take any more of this"). Therefore, if John were to be truly "nonplussed" when the bat entered the room, he would have to run around in circles waving his arms and shrieking like any normal person, not just sit there looking superior.

So the good news is that you are right, but the bad news is that you are only right for the time being. Like it or not (and believe me, I often don't), popular usage changes language, and the "cool as a cucumber" usage of "nonplussed" shows early signs of becoming the standard definition at some point not far in the future. Such transformations are actually fairly common in English. "Nice," for instance, originally meant "stupid," and at one point in its evolution meant "wanton," nearly the opposite of our modern "nice." Feel free to defend the "freaked out" meaning of "nonplussed," but as a long-term investment, it's probably a bad bet.

Zat your tar, Mac?

Dear Word Detective: In my family we've had a lengthy discussion on the meaning of "tarmac" and "cockpit." Your archive of previous columns at your web site includes "cockpit," but could you please let us know the history of "tarmac"? I have an all-knowing father who "thinks" he knows the origin of "tarmac" -- he maintains it's short for "tar macadam" (but he doesn't know the history of that!). -- Mazed3, via the internet.

You guys certainly have some interesting family discussions. Everybody I run into just wants to babble on about that stupid "Big Brother" TV show and who's going to get thrown out of the house each week. If it were up to me I'd lock all those bores in there permanently.

Since you mentioned "cockpit," we'd better touch on that briefly. The first "cockpits" were actual pits in the ground constructed to house "cockfights" to the death between game cocks (essentially very belligerent chickens). As a name for the scene of such grisly matches, "cockpit" showed up in English in the 16th century. "Cockpit" was eventually adopted by pilots in World War I, who applied it to the cramped operating quarters of their fighter planes.

As for "tarmac," I have wonderful news. Your father really does know everything. "Tarmac" is indeed short for "tar macadam." John McAdam (1756-1836) invented the "macadam" type of road pavement made of crushed stone, which resisted the rutting formerly plaguing highways in England. "Macadamizing" was later further improved by the addition of tar as a binder, resulting in the "Tarmac" process still widely used today. "Tarmac" is, in fact, still a registered trademark, but in a generic sense it has come to be applied to almost any sort of road pavement. Because the Tarmac process was widely employed in the construction of airstrips in World War II, "tarmac" is also often used as a synonym for the runways and other paved areas of airports.

To boot, perchance to glean.

Dear Word Detective: For as long as I can remember, using the two word phrase "to boot" has meant "something additional," e.g., "He'll not only laugh at you, he'll throw you out to boot!" Where does "to boot" come from? -- Stephen Murphy, via the internet.

Good question. "To boot" is one of those phrases we use constantly (I do, anyway) but rarely think about. And we're certainly living in a "to boot" culture. Rent a car and they throw in airline tickets to boot. Buy home siding and they give you a television to boot. File a tax return and they give you a free ride to the cleaners to boot. That last one may not count, but you know what I mean.

One might assume that "to boot" must have something to do with our normal, pedestrian sort of boot. One would, however, be wrong. The boot you wear on your foot (one of a pair, under optimal conditions) comes from the Old French "bote." The verb "to boot" also comes from this footwear sense, meaning "to kick" or "to kick out." The use of "to boot" meaning "to start the process by which a computer gets itself up and running" harks back to the phrase "to pick oneself up by one's bootstraps," meaning to be self-sufficient and enterprising.

"To boot" meaning "in addition" comes, however, from an entirely different source. The Old English "bot" meant "advantage or good," and came in turn from the root Germanic "bat," meaning "good or useful," which was also the source of our modern "better" and "best." This sense of "boot" as "something good" led to its use, at various points, to mean "a remedy," "a mending" "compensation for wrongs," and even "expiation of sins." There was even a right of "boot," meaning the custom of permitting a tenant to repair his house with lumber from his landlord's forest. And "to do boot" was to do a good deed or render a favor to someone.

Of all these senses, however, only our modern sense of "to boot" as meaning "in addition," which first appeared way back around A.D. 1000, still survives in common usage today.



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