Issue of September 18, 2001


Above are just a few of the heroes of a week which has, amid the tragedy and horror and grief, shown us the extraordinary heroism some human beings carry within them.

I grew up in and around New York City. I worked for almost twenty years in an office tower in Manhattan. I love New York, and, despite the fact that I currently live in Ohio, I will always consider myself a New Yorker. And I have never been so proud of NYC, and my country, as I was last week.

They're talking about rebuilding the World Trade Center in some form. Personally, I think we ought to consider establishing a national park on the site, dedicated to the victims of this monstrous crime, and erecting a monument to the firefighters, police, and other rescue workers who, knowing full well the danger they faced, braved the inferno and, in more than 500 cases, gave their lives to save others.

Note: The columns below do not have the usual snappy headlines because I cannot possibly write them right now.


Dear Word Detective: I am hoping that you can explain what a "chimera" is and where the word came from. Is a "chimera" the same thing as a "fantasy"? -- D. A., via the Internet.

No, a "chimera" is not the same thing as a "fantasy." A fantasy always hold the promise, however unlikely, of someday coming true. Winning Lotto is a fantasy: unlikely, but not absolutely impossible.

A "chimera," on the other hand, is by definition unrealizable. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, a "chimera" is "an unreal creature of the imagination; a mere wild fancy; an unfounded conception." If I thought that winning Lotto was a "chimera," I'd never get out of bed.

The original "Chimera" of Greek mythology (pronounced kih-MEE-ra, although the adjective form "chimerical" is pronounced kih-MER-ih-cal) was no idle daydream, but a fire-breathing female monster, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the hindquarters of a dragon. The fearsome Chimera may, of course, have merely been a product of a substandard family environment -- her father was the giant Typhon, her mother the half-serpent Echidna. Her siblings were none other than Cerebrus (the three-headed hound who eventually found work guarding the gates of Hell), Hydra (a nine-headed aquatic monster) and Orthrus ( the runt of the litter, a prosaic two-headed dog). To cut a long myth very short, Chimera swooped around making everyone thoroughly miserable until one day a chap named Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus, cancelled her account.

Perhaps it was the Chimera's over-the-top genetic lineage that did it (a lion, a goat and a serpent is a bit much, after all), but since the sixteenth century "chimera" has been used to mean a figment of the imagination that is just too far out to be believed -- something that makes my Lotto jackpot, in contrast, look downright inevitable.


Dear Word Detective: I heard someone say that they were "flabbergasted" the other day and I realized what a strange word it is. How did it come to mean "very surprised"? -- E. F., via the internet.

Sometimes it seems that the best words in the English language are like a good stew: wonderful flavors, but often you can't quite figure out what's in there. "Flabbergasted" is a marvelously vivid word, but it doesn't look like any other word we know in English, so its origins aren't easy to figure out. By now I'm sure you've looked up "flabbergast" in your dictionary and found that it says something like "Of unknown origin." That's true, strictly speaking, but we can trace "flabbergasted" at least part of the way back and make an educated guess as to the rest of the ingredients.

"Flabbergasted," by the way, is far from being a new word. It's been around since the late 1700s in its current form. The second part of the word, "gast," is probably from the Middle English word "gasten," meaning "to terrify," which also gave us "aghast." "Gasten" itself comes from the Old English word "gast," or "spirit," which also gives us "ghastly" and "ghost." So there we have the "surprise" part of "flabbergast."

The "flabber" part is the puzzle. Most likely, it's related to "flabby," which itself is a variant of "flappy." (Yes, to say someone is "flabby" is to say that they "flap" when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym.) But "flap" can also mean excitement or a disturbance ("The flap over the Royal Family"), so this is where the guesswork comes in. "Flabbergasted" may have originally meant being so surprised that one "flabbed" -- trembled like Jell-O. Or it could have referred to the cause of the uproar -- the "flap" at which one was "aghast," or "flabbergasted."


Dear Word Detective: An expression that I have heard ever since I was a child is "leery," meaning reluctant or suspicious. Can you tell me if "leery" is related to "leer," and, if so, what the connection is? "Leer" seems to me to mean something entirely different. -- K.S.W., New York, NY.

Well, one of the wonders of the English language is that one word can be closely related to another and yet have a very different, sometimes nearly opposite, meaning. Words evolve as time passes, sort of like people. "Leery" and "leer" are cousins, but you'd never know it from their meanings.

"Leer" is the older of the two, and in fact entered the language in about a.d. 700. "Leer" came to us from an Old Norse word ("Hlyr," for you Old Norse folks out there), and originally meant "cheeks" or "face." At first, "leer" didn't have any of its modern seedy connotations, and to say someone had "a lovely leer" was just another way to say that they were "pretty" or "cute." Along about the 16th century, "leer" came to mean a sideways glance (probably because such a glance is done "across the cheek"), and meant originally to look at something "askance," or suspiciously. From there it mutated for some reason to its current meaning of (as the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary puts it) "a sly, malign, or lascivious smile or look." Now you'll all have to go look up "lascivious."

"Leery," meaning "suspicious or wary," didn't appear until the early 18th century and echoed the earlier, "suspicious" meaning of "leer." Today, ironically, it is wise to be very "leery" of anyone who "leers" at us.


Dear Word Detective: I have a question regarding the usage and definition of "succedaneum," which as you probably know was the winning word in this year's National Spelling Bee. From all the definitions I've read, "succedaneum" means "one who succeeds to the place of another," or something of that nature. My American Heritage Dictionary merely defines it as "a substitute," which has a more temporary connotation. Which is correct? By looking at the word, it probably comes from the same word as "succeed," which is more permanent than a substitution. I know this won't end world hunger (or even lower gas prices), but for an amateur wordsmith, it's important. -- Tom Petta, via the internet.

I actually watched part of the National Spelling Bee on TV this year, but I had to leave the room because I was having a vicarious anxiety attack. Put me in front of an audience and I can't spell my own name, let alone some weird Latin word with eleven letters.

And "succedaneum" is indeed Latin, although it's been used in English since the 17th century. You're correct in your assumption that "succedaneum" comes from the same root as our more familiar "succeed," namely the Latin "succedere," formed from "sub" ("under" or "after") plus "cedere" ("to go"), giving us the sense of "to go after." The original sense of "succeed" back in the 14th century was "to follow," as one king might "succeed" his father. Our modern "do well in your career" sense of "succeed" evolved from a related meaning of "having a good result" or "attaining a desired end."

A "succedaneum" is, strictly speaking, simply someone or something which "succeeds," "comes after" or "stands in place of" another person or thing. While "succedaneum" can be used to mean a permanent replacement for someone or something, it can also connote a temporary substitute. A 1774 letter from the English writer Horace Walpole cited in the Oxford English Dictionary provides a good example of this "temporary" use: "In lieu of me, you will have a charming succedaneum, Lady Harriet Stanhope." So the bottom line is that yes, "succedaneum" does come from the same source as "succeed," but it does not necessarily carry the same "permanent" overtones.


Dear Word Detective: How did the word "wake" come to have so many different meanings, e.g., "wake" of a boat, "wake" for a deceased person, "wake up," etc. -- Therese Hebert, DePere, WI.

Good question, and one that has a special resonance for me, as my personal motto happens to be "Wake me when it's over." I have found that there are very few days that cannot be brightened by drawing the shades and taking a nice nap.

But since I'm up and about anyway, we might as well get to it. The reason that the "wakes" in the senses you mention seem unrelated is that, in two of your cases, they are. English has two major sorts of "wakes," and they come from what appear to be separate sources.

"Wake" in the sense of "track left by the passage of a ship" comes from Old Norse, where "vok" meant "hole in the ice," probably of the sort left by a moving ship. "Wake" first appeared in English in the literal nautical sense in the 17th century. It has since been put to use not only to describe other sorts of tracks (such as the "wake" of an aircraft) but also in the metaphorical sense of "in imitation of" or "as a consequence of," as in "British pop groups inundated America in the wake of the Beatles."

The other sort of "wake," which includes both the "wake" for a dead person and the "wake up" senses, has a more complicated history. In the beginning was the ancient Indo-European root "wog" or "weg," meaning "to be active," which spawned all sorts of related senses, including "growth" (giving us "vegetable"), "become or stay alert," and "watching or guarding" (which ultimately gave us "watch" itself).

The primary modern senses of "wake" all center on that "become or stay alert" meaning. The "wake," or vigil over a body held between death and burial in many religions, harks back to the antiquated "watch or guard" sense. No one, contrary to what you might read on the internet, ever expected the object of such a "wake" to actually "wake up."

Weigh Anchor.

Dear Word Detective: Could you possibly inform me of where the saying "weigh anchor" derives from? -- L. W., via the Internet.

For someone who hasn't owned a boat in thirty years, I certainly receive more than my share of questions about nautical terms. From "three sheets to the wind" to "take a different tack" to the theory that "posh" has something to do with ocean travel (it doesn't, and I'm going to say that once a week until I stop getting letters that say it does), nearly every day's mail carries a whiff of sea breeze. What makes this all the more peculiar is that I invariably seem to commit some minor faux pas in explaining the term in question, which earns me another score of peevish letters from sailors. Well, ahoy, all you old salts out there -- I'm sure of the answer this time, so pipe down.

"Weigh anchor," of course, means to hoist the anchor out of the water in preparation for a ship's departure. The "weigh" in "weigh anchor" does, at first glance, seem a little odd. Surely sailors already know, more or less, what the anchor weighs and don't need to check it every time they want to drive the boat, or whatever. It turns out (I looked this up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which itself weighs enough to make a good anchor) that the "weigh" in question comes from the Anglo-Saxon root of "weigh," which was "wegan," and meant simply "to carry, bear or move." So when we say that we are "weighing anchor," we're really just saying that we're lifting or carrying it. The sense of "weigh" we commonly use today to mean actually measuring the weight of something was a later development of this same root word.

By the way, occasionally you'll read of a ship "getting under weigh," meaning that it is leaving, but this is wrong. The proper phrase is "under way."

Cold Feet.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression "to get cold feet"? I've often experienced "cold feet" and backed out of doing something at the last minute, but have never understood how hypothermia of my nether extremities had anything to do with it. -- Charles Howard, via the internet.

Good question. "To get cold feet" means to become anxious, timid or discouraged, and most often to act on those feelings by, as you say, "backing out" of a commitment or task. A person with "cold feet" who retreats from a task is also often called "chicken," which really isn't fair to the noble fowl, some of whom are quite courageous and have no fear, as I do, of public speaking.

"Cold feet" as a synonym for "timid" seems to date from the late 19th century, but its exact origin is uncertain. Experts have long suspected that the phrase might have something to do with the military, an environment which certainly offers a plethora of things to fear. It is entirely possible that "to get cold feet" originally referred to soldiers who exempted themselves from battle by complaining that their feet were frozen.

A more intriguing possible origin, however, dates back to the 17th century, when "to have cold feet" meant "to have no money," probably referring to someone being so poor as to lack shoes. The transition from the "no money" sense to the modern "timid" sense of "cold feet" may be found in an 1862 German novel in which a card player withdraws from a game claiming that he has "cold feet" (i.e., no money), when in fact he has merely lost his nerve. "To get cold feet," goes the theory, then eventually came to mean backing out of any risky situation, whatever excuse was given.


Dear Word Detective: I looked in the archives, I searched on the web, the origins of this word, have yet to be read. From Chaucer it's deriven, and naught to do with a pup(?), long I have striven, but now I give up! Please let me know the origins of "doggerel"! -- Kathleen Isham, via the internet.

I've read your question, I've shouldered your cause, I'll give it my best shot, under applicable laws. But this column won't rhyme, for I haven't the time; with editors on my tail, my deadline I can't fail. And before we all drop, I suppose I ought stop.

"Doggerel," as I'm sure we've all gathered by now, is low-grade poetry, usually trivial and slipshod verse that scans awkwardly, just barely rhymes and is often produced with equal parts of haste and incompetence. Good doggerel, on the other hand, can have a certain weird elegance, as in the old chestnut: "I've often stopped to wonder at Fate's peculiar ways; it seems that all the famous men were born on holidays."

As you note in your verse, the first known use of "doggerel" in print is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales around 1386, and the term seems to have been in fairly constant use, with a variety of spellings ("dogerel," "doggrel," etc.), ever since. While it's unlikely that Chaucer actually invented the word, the exact origin of "doggerel" is, alas, unknown. But that doesn't mean there aren't theories. Trust me, there are always theories.

The most plausible theory about "doggerel" contradicts your "naught to do with a pup" stanza. For hundreds of years, the English language has used "dog" as a contemptuous prefix or adjective to mean "bad" or "mongrel" or "incompetent," especially in regard to language or thought. Thus "dog Latin" in the 18th century meant bits of proper Latin mixed with a lot of fakery and "dog English" was crude and awkward prose. Similarly, in the 17th century, "dog rimes" were very bad (and often salacious) verses. It's seems logical, in light of this widespread (but utterly unfair) use of the noble dog as a symbol of incompetence, that at the root of "doggerel" is simply a metaphorical "dog."


Dear Word Detective: I enjoyed talking with you and Fred Andrle on WOSU (in Columbus, OH) around July 4th or so. I asked if you knew the origin of the word "filibuster." I'm still in suspense! Did you get a chance to put it in a column? -- John Webb, Albuquerque, NM.

I'm on the case, man. I actually remembered to write down your question after we talked on Fred's show, which is pretty amazing because usually when you put me on the radio I can't remember my own name. And I'm sorry I didn't know the origin of "filibuster" off the top of my head because it's quite a fascinating story.

Today we use the word "filibuster" to mean the deliberate obstruction of the business of a legislative body, most often the U.S. Senate, using parliamentary rules. The classic "filibuster" takes the form of one or more protracted speeches by Senators, sometimes many hours long, delivered purely as a tactic to delay or derail a bill they oppose.

While legislative "filibusters" are largely an American phenomenon, the word "filibuster" itself is not. Its root was the Dutch word "vrijbuiter," a combination of "vrij" (free) and buiter (plunderer), which was borrowed into English as the word "freebooter," meaning a pirate or adventurer.

French and Spanish also borrowed "vrijbuiter" from the Dutch, and in the 19th century we borrowed the word into English again, this time from the Spanish form "filibustero," as "filibuster." The "filibusters" of the 1850s were not simple pirates as the "freebooters" had been. These "filibusters" were North American profiteers who, in contravention of international law, ran guns and fomented revolution against the European colonial powers throughout the West Indies, Central and South America.

Given the connotations of "savage, illegal attack" that "filibuster" had acquired, it made sense in 1853 for one U.S. Senator, outraged by the delaying tactics of his opponents, to term such stalling a "filibuster," or attack, "against the United States." What has survived, however, is not the sense of filibuster as "an attack" but instead as the "long, boring delaying tactic" we know today.


Dear Word Detective: While browsing a book of unusual contests, I came upon an entry for The Fink of the Year Contest, sponsored by the good folk of Fink, Texas, who endeavor to restore honor and dignity to the name Fink. This, of course, made me wonder what undignified act earned "fink" such dishonor. I immediately checked your past columns at but did not find "fink" listed. Rats! -- Marc S. Botts, via the internet.

While I can certainly understand the distress felt by the good folk of Fink (do they call themselves Fink Folk?), they really needn't be so defensive. Both the name of their town and the personal name Fink are simply a variant of the name "Finch," itself taken from the name of a perfectly nice bird (as are the names Bullfinch and Goldfinch).

The case of "fink" as an epithet, however, is a bit more complicated. "Fink" in the lower-case pejorative sense first appeared during the labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the 1892 strike at the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania. A "fink" in the labor sense was a spy or informer who worked for the bosses, and the traitorous "finks" were detested by the workers even more than the "scabs" who crossed picket lines. "Fink" in this sense of "traitor" was such a powerful slur that it fairly quickly passed into general usage meaning "a contemptible, disloyal person."

One of the more popular theories about the origin of "fink" traces it to a rhyming variation on the name of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose agents often infiltrated unions as spies for management and played a central role in the brutal suppression of the Homestead strike. But if that theory strikes you (as it does me) as a bit far-fetched, there is a better one. "Fink" in the "traitor" sense may well come from the German word "fink" meaning, again, "finch," and carrying the connotation of "singing" to the bosses (as does the slang term "canary" for an informer).


Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "greenhorn"? What about "tinhorn"? I assure you that I don't have any particular reason for asking. -- Jack Thompson, via the internet.

Of course not. Golly, what on earth did I do to make you people so jumpy? It's not like I'm selling your e-mail addresses to spammers or something for $25 per 1000, money order only, sent to the address below. And, after all, Bill Gates already knows what you had for breakfast. Why not just relax and enjoy the Information Age?

Incidentally, Jack, if Mr. Gates gives you a choice between being labeled a "tinhorn" or a "greenhorn," take my advice and go with "greenhorn." A "greenhorn" is simply a newcomer or inexperienced person, especially a novice in a trade or business. "Greenhorn" first appeared back in the 15th century meaning a young ox with new, or "green," horns. ("Green" has been used as a metaphor for "young" or "inexperienced," by analogy to a young plant, for hundreds of years.) By about 1650, "greenhorn" was being applied to newly-enlisted army recruits, and shortly thereafter "greenhorn" came to mean any inexperienced person. Unfortunately, since the naive among us can easily be hornswoggled, "greenhorn" can also sometimes mean "sucker" or "simpleton."

Still, I'd rather be thought a "greenhorn" than a "tinhorn," which since the late 19th century has been slang for a pretentious and flashy but cheap and contemptible person. The original "tinhorns" were "tinhorn gamblers" in the Old West, addicted to a low-stakes game called "Chuck-a-luck," in which dice were tumbled in a small metal contraption known as a "tin horn." Serious gamblers looked down on such "tinhorn gamblers," and by the end of the 19th century "tinhorn" had come into general usage as an adjective meaning "cheap" and "contemptible." A similar adjective, "tin-pot" (often heard in phrases such as "tin-pot dictator"), arose in the early 19th century by analogy to the perceived shoddiness of tin cookware.


Dear Word Detective: I'd like to ask you about the term for new words like "meld" which are a combination of existing words ("melt" and "mold"). Can you help? -- Ju via the internet.

Certainly. The term you're thinking of is "portmanteau word." "Portmanteau" is a very old and fancy word for what we today call a suitcase. Originally a "portmanteau" was a person, an officer who carried (French "porte") a prince's mantle ("manteau") or ceremonial robe. But "portmanteau" later came to be applied to any sort of valise or traveling bag. One important thing to know about a "portmanteau" is that it consists, as most suitcases do, of two compartments which, when the "portmanteau" is closed, come together.

The term "portmanteau word" was invented by none other than Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Dodgson) in "Through the Looking Glass" to mean a word which combines both the sounds and meanings of two other words. Thus, as Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice after she asks him to explain the poem "Jabberwocky" (which begins "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe"), "slithy" means both "lithe" and "slimy." "You see," says Humpty, "it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word."

Real "portmanteau words" were fairly rare until the 20th century, but we've been making up for lost time. Some of our classic modern portmanteau words are "motel" (which combines "motor" and "hotel"), "smog" ("smoke" and "fog"), and "brunch" ("breakfast" and "lunch"). Government bureaucrats love portmanteau words, as can be seen in such creations as "Medicare" (a smooshing of "medical care"), and many corporations now name themselves in a portmanteau fashion, as did Microsoft ("microcomputer" plus "software").

However, and I really hate to say this because we're all having such a good time, "meld" may not be a portmanteau word. It is certainly possible that "meld," which first appeared around 1939 meaning "to mix, merge or blend," did arise as a blending of "weld" and "melt" or "melt" and "mold." But many experts trace "meld" to the English dialectical word "melled," meaning "mingled or blended," and from there all the way back to the Old French "meller," to mix.


Dear Word Detective: A colleague has asked me if I can tell him the origin of "crib" (in the sense of a prepared set of answers). I cannot find anything on the etymology of this word, although I suspect it comes from "scribere." Can you help? -- Jon Bradshaw, via the internet.

"Prepared set of answers"? Say, do you happen to work in the public relations industry, perhaps as a government spokesperson? You certainly have the requisite gift of golden euphemism. Back where I come from, "cribs" were also known as "cheat sheets," and possession of one during a school exam was grounds for expulsion. More tolerated were the "ponies," or literal translations (which "carried" us), that we sometimes used in class to practice translating classical works from Latin.

Speaking as a former Latin student, however, I think you deserve at least ten extra points for your excellent guess that "crib" in this sense comes from the Latin "scribere," meaning "to write." It's such a logical suggestion that it ought to be true, and it's a darn shame that it isn't.

The first question that occurs to most people when they encounter the use of "crib" to mean "cheater's aid" is whether this usage can possibly be related to the sort of "crib," or small enclosed bed, in which infants sleep so innocently. Surprisingly, the answer is yes. When "crib" entered Old English from the Old High German "krippa" sometime before A.D. 1000, it originally meant "manger," the trough or stall where animals are fed. Over the subsequent centuries, "crib" acquired all sorts of other meanings, including "small cabin," "narrow room," "basket," and, of course, "child's bed" around 1649.

It was the "basket" sense of "crib" that apparently gave rise in the 18th century to the use of "crib" as a verb meaning "to steal." The exact logic of this transference is unclear, but it may stem from thieves' use of baskets or bags to conceal the articles they filched from stalls and shops. In any case, by 1778, "crib" had also come to mean "to plagiarize," or steal someone else's written work, and by 1827 "crib" was being used to mean "a translation surreptitiously used by a student to cheat." Today, of course, "crib" is used more broadly to mean anything containing answers that one ought to know without such an aid.


Dear Word Detective: I heard many years ago the origins of the word "gallows" to describe a hanging scaffold. It occurred to me during a recent discussion that I had no clue whether it was accurate or not, so let me turn to you before I gain a reputation as a purveyor of spurious etymologies. As the story goes, there was a structural engineer in the days of the Wild West especially adept at building scaffolds and derricks. He was so much in demand by various towns for the building of hanging scaffolds that his name, "Gallows," became associated with them. Am I, as they say, "all wet"? -- Dave Wilke, via the internet.

Well, I wouldn't say that you were "all wet," especially since you evidence such admirable concern that you not become known as a spreader of silly word origin stories. Incidentally, "all wet" is classic American slang which has meant "completely wrong" since at least the 1920s, but no one is certain what someone who is "all wet" is all wet with. The leading candidates are alcohol or water (perhaps a reference to someone being "in over his head").

You are, however, a bit off-base. "Derrick," not "gallows," is the eponym (a term based on someone's proper name). Late in the 16th century, the hangman at Tyburn, England, had the surname "Derick," and his fame was so great that "derick" (later rendered as "derrick") came to be used as a general synonym for "hangman," and eventually for the apparatus for the infliction of death itself. Today the word "derrick" has broadened still further and is used to mean any sort of hoisting machinery.

"Gallows," on the other hand, entered English in the 13th century and is derived from the prehistoric Germanic root "galgon," or "pole." Early in its history, "gallows" was often used as a synonym for "cross," especially the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The apparently plural form of "gallows" is probably due to the fact that gallows originally consisted of a crosspiece supported between two uprights, as opposed to a "gibbet" (from the French "gibe," staff) which has only one upright and thus conforms more closely to the common image of a hanging apparatus.

Graveyard Shift.

Dear Word Detective: A quick poll of people I know revealed that, although many of them have worked "swing" and "graveyard" shifts at work, none of them knew how they acquired their names. If you answer I'll give them all copies of your book for Christmas this year. -- Julie M., via the internet.

OK, you've got yourself a deal. But keep in mind that I have agents everywhere, so I'll know whether you're naughty or nice when the holidays roll around.

I've never worked the "graveyard" shift, usually considered the hours between midnight and 8 a.m., but I have worked "swing shifts" at several points in my checkered career. "Swing shift," usually considered to mean the hours between around 4 p.m. until midnight, is an American coinage evidently born during World War II. Such shifts apparently were called "swing shifts" because they seemed to "swing" between the established day and night shifts.

Most authorities agree that the "graveyard shift" took its name from the spookiness of working the "ghostly" hours after midnight, perhaps in a nearly deserted factory with only a "skeletal" crew on duty. "Graveyard shift" dates from the early years of the 20th century, and the same hours are also often called the "lobster shift" or "lobster trick."

Where "lobster shift" came from is the subject of a number of theories, most of which revolve around the newspaper business in the 1890's. One legend has it that New York City newspapermen on the graveyard shift often stopped at seafood restaurants for dinner on the way to work. Another, less complimentary, legend alleges that newspapermen on the late shift were habitual drunkards. Supposedly it was their bright red faces, resembling boiled lobsters, that gave the shift its name. As slanderous to the news profession as that story might be, the most likely contender for the true origin may be worse. At the beginning of the 20th century, "lobster" was a popular term of derision, meaning "sucker" or "fool." Any newsman who found himself snookered into working in the wee hours was likely to earn the title of "lobster" from his day-shift counterparts.


Dear Word Detective: Why is covered storage for an airplane called a "hangar"? I work for an advertising agency, producing direct mail for non-profit organizations, and I need to know this for one of our mailings! -- J. Perigard, via the internet.

Um, yeah, right. Now then, class, this question will make an excellent exercise in creative writing. In 25 words or less, explain what airplane hangars could possibly have to do with non-profit fundraising. No, Jimmy, I don't think a Foundation for Retired Jumbo Jets would fly, but Becky's suggestion that someone out there has a hangar full of those annoying little personalized address stickers is actually rather plausible. And Larry's Area 51 Fund for Unemployed Aliens is also a good possibility.

I remember being mystified by the word "hangar" when I was a child. Like many small boys, I was fascinated by airplanes. But "hangar" sounded enough like "hanger" to puzzle me. Surely the idea wasn't to "hang" the planes from the ceiling, but all my other attempts to fathom the logic of the word came up empty.

All of which is a prelude to saying that experts are still not certain of the origin of "hangar." We do know that "hangar" first appeared in English around 1852, used to mean a covered shed for the storage of carriages, and that its use to mean "large building used to store aircraft" dates back to 1902. We also know that our "hangar" was borrowed directly from the French "hangar," which in turn came from the Middle French "hanghart." The trail gets murky at this point, but one possible source for those French words is the Middle Dutch "ham-gaerd," meaning "enclosure near a house."

Speaking of airplanes, someone recently asked me where the "plane" part of "airplane" came from, especially since "aircraft" seems to be a more sensible term. The answer is that "airplane" (or "aeroplane") originally referred to the wings of the aircraft, which are flat (or slightly curved, actually) surfaces within the general definition of "plane" we all learned in geometry.

The Bill.

Dear Word Detective: Australian television regularly shows a British series called "The Bill." I've heard British police referred to as "The Bill" and even "The Old Bill," but none of my English friends seem to know how the police got this nickname. Can you help a girl from Down Under? -- Kaye Norman, via the internet.

Why, certainly. I'm not sure whether the show you mention runs here in the U.S., but if it does, it's probably on the BBC America channel, carried on many cable systems here. Personally, I haven't felt much like watching BBC TV since the BBC World Service discontinued shortwave radio service to North America this past July. After all, if they don't want me to listen, I'm sure they'd rather I not watch, either.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "The Bill" as slang for a policeman is indeed a shortened form of "The Old Bill," and has been used in Britain at least since the 1950s. The OED traces the term to the comic strip "Old Bill," drawn by Bruce Bairnsfather, that ran in British newspapers during the First World War (1914-18). The "Old Bill" strip centered on a character of the same name, a grumpy, grumbling veteran soldier with a large, droopy moustache.

Since my knowledge of British popular culture is somewhat limited (and becoming more so every day, thanks to the delinquents at the Beeb), I hopped over to one of my favorite web pages for a British native's take on "Old Bill." According to Michael Quinion's excellent Word Wide Words page at, the "Old Bill" strip was enormously popular, and after the war "Old Bill" became popular slang for any man sporting a thick "walrus" sort of moustache.

Just how "Old Bill" then came to be used as slang for a policeman is a bit of a mystery, but the transference may be due (although Mr. Quinion is very skeptical on this point) to a popular image of policemen, perhaps drawn from movies, as being likely to wear bushy, droopy moustaches. In any case, "Old Bill" was eventually shortened to just "The Bill," and the TV series you mention has, no doubt, added another few decades onto the life of the phrase.


Dear Word Detective: Periodically, I see some explanation for the origin of a phrase that I find to be totally absurd, or at least highly unlikely. For example, I recall being at George Washington's birthplace several years ago, where a woman in colonial garb was demonstrating some kitchen equipment. She showed us this device that sat on the floor into which slices of bread were placed, and the device was placed in front of the fire. When the bread was done on one side, one allegedly pushed the gizmo with one's toe, causing it to flip over. She claimed that this is where we got the word "toaster." -- Don King, via the internet.

I love this question. That is a truly great, albeit utterly loony, story. For a moment, I wondered if she might have been joking, but I doubt it (and I actually rather hope she wasn't). You are, of course, absolutely correct in judging her story absurd.

Our modern noun "toast" meaning "roasted bread" dates back to the 15th century, and as a verb meaning "to burn or parch as the sun does," dates back to the late 1300s. Our English "toast" is borrowed from the Old French "toster," meaning "to roast or grill," which came ultimately from the Latin "torrere," meaning "to parch." The suffix "er" in "toaster" means, as it often does, "one who" or "that which," and "toaster" meaning an electric appliance used to toast bread first appeared around 1913. You'll notice the complete absence of "toes" in that history.

There is a fairly weird but true story about toast, however. Back in 12th century England, folks liked to dip or dunk toast, often spiced, into their wine or ale to improve the flavor, much as we add croutons to a salad today. Go figure. Anyway, at some point, it became common to offer salutations to an honored figure (at a banquet, for instance), by declaring that the mere presence of the illustrious person made the wine or ale taste better, better even than the best toast in one's drink could have made it taste. This bit of cornball flattery apparently became so common that, by about 1700, any sort of drinking salutation came to be known as a "toast."




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