Issue of September 22, 2005



Sort of a mid-month update:  we did get the car fixed, after enduring a harrowing twenty-five mile ride in a roll-back wrecker driven by a nice guy who spent the entire trip driving with his elbows and text-messaging someone, perhaps his insurance agent, at fifty miles per hour.  The truck cab had no windows, which made it hard to object effectively.

I think it's time to face the fact that we run a cat farm here.  We now have yet another family of mom plus five kittens living in the garage.  If I can catch them in a few weeks, the local vet will find them homes.  In the meantime, I visit them with food and water every morning.  Pictures coming soon.

As I may have mentioned a few dozen times, this year marks the 10th anniversary of of The Word Detective on the Web.  We remain, as always, a free resource for the thousands of readers from around the world who visit this site every day.  But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow). 

To be absolutely honest, the fact that only a minuscule fraction of the folks who read this page every month actually contribute to its continued existence is dispiriting.  The price of a one-year subscription, after all, is just $15, less than the cost of one cup of Starbucks coffee every month

So if you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks. 

Elsewhere in the news, I recently became closely acquainted (as de facto tech support, not the owner) with a Mac Mini and the lovely OS X 10.4.fugeddaboudit "Tiger" operating system.  Cute.  Lions and Tigers and Widgets!  Whee!  Let's just say that I wouldn't take one free.  Tune in next month for my primo flame-bait feature, "OS X -- the Harriet Miers of Operating Systems."

Until then (if there is a "then") remember --  If you feed them, they will grow: 

Gus (r) and Phoebe, July 2004:

One year (and a bit) later:



And now, on with the show:

Eggplant in the dark.

Dear Word Detective: I'm an avid amateur chef, and the New York Times Cook Book (copyright 1961) is a favorite classic reference. In the introduction to a recipe for Aubergines a la Boston, Chef Claiborne writes that the recipe is rather involved but "the game is worth the candle." OK, I can tell from context what that means but that's a new one on me. Is it "game" as in wild meat? Or "game" as in contest? And what does a candle have to do with either? -- Cheryl Cooper, Tampa, FL.

"The game is worth the candle" is a positive form of the original idiom ("the game is not worth the candle") and in the context of your cookbook means, as you deduced, that the finished dish is worth the trouble of a complicated recipe. "The game is not worth the candle" is a good example of how technological progress can render obscure a phrase that once would have been widely understood.

The key to "the game is not worth the candle" lies in the fact that it first appeared in English in the late 17th century, translated from a proverb ("Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle") popularized by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). The 17th century was many things, but mainly it was very dark at night, the only source of light being candles and oil lamps. While candles today are considered inexpensive accessories, the cost of using them as lighting every night back then was not inconsiderable and never far from a homeowner's mind. So if a card game with friends, for instance, turned out unsatisfactorily for the host, he might well consider the game "not worth the candle" it took to light the table. The phrase was soon applied to any enterprise deemed not worth the trouble, and has thus persisted, if a bit opaquely, into the era of electric lighting.

Incidentally, a related phrase dating to the 16th century is "can't hold a candle to," meaning "not fit for comparison to" something clearly superior (as in "Frozen waffles can't hold a candle to the homemade kind"). "To hold a candle to" originally meant to literally assist someone by holding a candle to illuminate the work, i.e., to act as a subordinate. Thus "can't (or "not fit to") hold a candle" meant "not even fit to work as an underling."

Put me in coach, coach.

Dear Word Detective: Can you explain the connection (if there is any) between the use of the word "coach" for various modes of transport, and also for the person who trains students or sports teams (and the verb indicating that activity), please? The derivation of the word from the Hungarian village Kocs where the vehicle was first named leaves one none the wiser. I have great difficulty in getting English as a Foreign Language students to accept the vehicular meaning of the word, despite it being directly related to "coche," the identical term in various other languages. It seems the international nature of sports nowadays means that "coach" is a universally accepted international word and so far none of us (students or teachers) can find the vehicular connection! -- Patagonian Grey Fox.

Ah yes, but, as Carl Sagan used to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Besides, we have pots of evidence. I do sympathize with your students' skepticism, however, because the connection between "coach" in the vehicular sense and "coach" meaning the guy who yells at football players is one of the weirder stories of English.

The story of "coach" begins back in 16th century Hungary, where the horse-drawn carriages produced by the craftsmen of the village of Kocs were highly favored by European nobility and known in Hungarian as "kocsi szeker" (literally "cart of Kocs"). Just what made these carriages so special is unclear, but some accounts say the Kocs carriage factories were the first to employ a spring suspension in their designs, a feature that would have made the bumpy, unpaved roads of the days far more bearable.

The popularity of the "kocsi szeker" was such throughout Europe that the word "kocsi" was taken into several European languages as shorthand for such vehicles, and it was from the French form "coche" that English developed "coach." Eventually, the word "coach" in English came to signify any sort of large carriage, usually closed, with seats for several people inside. With the advent of motor vehicles, railroads, and eventually air travel, "coach" acquired yet more meanings.

And now for the weirdness. In 18th century British university slang, a "coach" was a teacher or tutor who could help a student prepare for and take exams, ideally as easily and rapidly as if the student were carried by a swift coach (as opposed to the plodding pace of self-study). By 1885, the term was being applied to athletic trainers as well, thus heralding the birth of "coach" in the sense your students recognize.

Anybody seen my wild goose?

Dear Word Detective: The other day when I went to visit my older brother in the nursing home, he said, "Well here comes 'cookadum.'" We have always taken this as a derisive term in the family, but were wondering about its origin. I was born in July 1932 and finished high school in June 1950. If memory serves correctly, I was called "cookadum" in the late 1930s. We all grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, so the word was being used even then. Our parents were born in the 1890s. The word would be written or spoken phonetically as "cook--ah--dum." I look forward to your reply. -- Jeremiah L. Farrell, Ed.D., Suamico, WI.

Boy, when you ask a question, it's a doozy. I might as well admit right off the bat that your word "cookadum" has been driving me nuts for the past few days.

I have searched for anything resembling "cookadum" in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the Dictionary of American English, the Dictionary of American Regional English (which is, incidentally, based at the University of Wisconsin at Madison), several scholarly texts on regional dialects, a slew of slang dictionaries, the archives of the American Dialect Society's mailing list, and several dusty precincts of my own brain that I haven't visited in years. I have searched for "cookadumb," "cokadum," "kookadum," and every other phonetic permutation I could think of. I even briefly considered the possibility that your brother was calling you a "kookaburra," a large bird native to Australia known for its odd cry, but then decided that was a bit of a stretch for Wisconsin.

Speaking of Wisconsin, I'm sure that you are aware that you folks are famous among linguists for your distinctive vocabulary, pronunciation and usage, such as "bubbler" for water fountain and "stop-and-go lights" for traffic lights. Some of the more unusual features of the Wisconsin dialect, such as "borrow" used as a synonym for "lend" (e.g., "Can you borrow me five dollars until payday?") appear to be rooted in Wisconsin's German heritage.

Presuming that "cookadum" was not invented by (and thus restricted to) your family, my failure thus far merely marks the beginning of stage two of our quest. Given that this column appears in newspapers around the US (including Wisconsin) as well as on the internet, I'm hoping that "cookadum" will ring a bell for some reader somewhere who will write to me at and put this mystery to rest. So hop to it, gang. The winner gets a can of pickled kookaburra.


Knife, fork, spoon, trowel.

Dear Word Detective: I've often heard the expression "rue (roux?) the day," as in "You'll rue the day you betrayed me." I'm just curious where it comes from. Is it a reference to a French street, as "rue" is French for "avenue or boulevard," or if "roux" is in reference to the cooking term? -- David Green.

Oh boy. French cooking terms. A "roux" is, of course (pretending I didn't have to look it up), a cooked mixture of flour and butter used as the basis for various kinds of sauces and gravies. I know all about this yummy stuff. Why, just the other day we were dining in one of our local bistros (on the Rue de Vache, Semi-Trailer Parking In Back sign, you can't miss it) and I ordered a dish that ordinarily comes slathered in "white gravy," which I, warily, requested be served on the side. It was a smart call. When the waitperson (who had evidently taken advanced courses in the "wait" part) eventually delivered our dinners to the table, I was presented with two enormous tubs of what appeared to be boiled spackling compound. A bit later she asked if I'd like to take the stuff home with me. Uncertain on the French word for "artery," I let my shudder speak for me and bolted for the door.

Fortunately, since I avoided actually spackling my innards, I had no cause to "rue," or regret, our culinary expedition. "Rue" as a verb meaning "to regret" derives from the Old English "hréowan," itself drawn from an ancient Germanic root meaning "distress." It was originally a transitive verb meaning "to afflict with regret," in the sense one might say "My lawyer will rue you for hitting my car," as well as "to cause to feel pity." As of about 1200, "rue" had taken on its modern sense of "to regret an action, especially because of its consequences." The specific idiom "rue the day" (in the form "rue the hour"), meaning to regret the occasion of a decisive action, was apparently coined by Shakespeare in 1595.

Interestingly, the evolution of "rue" also gave us a word for those people who never seem to "rue." As a noun formed from "rue" in Middle English, "ruth" meant "pity," but lives on today only in the adjective for those who lack even a smidgen of pity -- "ruthless."

Shut up your face.

Dear Word Detective: "Jeopardy!" (the television program) is usually at least half a cut above the run of the mill intellectually, but something went off when I heard them explain that "Put a sock in it" comes from a practice of literally putting a sock into a gramophone speaker in order to quiet it. It just sounds too, well, cute. Am I right, or am I hyper-word-detective conditioned? -- Charles.

I'll take "Extremely Doubtful" for $100, Charles. I concur with your suspicions, and I'm proud to do my small part to bolster our planet's dwindling reserves of righteous skepticism. Some say we're fighting a losing battle, but I like to imagine a future where every child feels an overwhelming urge to tell every huckster to "put a sock in it." There may be a sucker born every minute, but if we all pull together, we can ensure that the first word the little nippers learn is "Pshaw."

I do, however, have to cut Jeopardy a bit of slack on this question, and not just because it is, as you say, one of the few fact-based intellectual holdouts in the celebrity-worship-athon that American TV has become. The Jeopardy researchers almost certainly trustingly picked up that story from one of several word-origin books that assert it as established truth, which it isn't. Unfortunately, no source I have found that endorses that story provides any actual evidence in its favor, e.g., citations of accounts contemporaneous with the use of gramophones describing the practice, or even using the phrase in its supposed literal (gramophone volume control) sense. I'm not saying that the story isn't true, just that it seems very unlikely to me.

There's also the fact that the first print citation for "put a sock in it" found so far comes from 1919, a bit past the heyday of the gramophone, and takes the form of an explanation of the colloquial meaning of the phrase ("The expression 'Put a sock in it,' meaning 'Leave off talking, singing or shouting'"), hardly necessary if the phrase was widely known at that time.

The great slang etymologist Eric Partridge, in his "Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English," pegs "put a sock in it" to early 20th century military slang use, and ties it, significantly, to another phrase popular at the time, "put a bung in it" ("bung" being a very old English word for "stopper" or "cork" of the type used to seal bottles). Both phrases meant simply "stop talking" or "shut up," and since shoving a cork or sock in someone's mouth would indeed be a effective silencer, it seems reasonable to conclude that the "it" of the phrases is definitely the human mouth, not a gramophone.


From the people who brought you the "spork," no doubt.

Dear Word Detective: My wife and I heard the word "blowpoke" used several times on a recent "Dateline" program on TV. We can't find a definition so far, including in your extensive archives. Apparently, it is a tool used with a fireplace. Have you heard this word before? Is it a southern colloquialism (the people on the TV show were from the south)? What is the origin? -- Dick Stacy.

Dateline NBC? That's the one with Stone Phillips, isn't it? He's an android, you know. A humanoid robot. He was originally designed to run for President, but a software glitch makes him do that annoying thing with his chin, so they put him on TV. Lots of TV news people are androids, which is why they almost never blink. Hold on a second, there's someone at the door.

OK, I was mistaken about all of that, and I promise not to say it again.

A "blowpoke" is indeed a fireplace tool, a long (three to four feet) metal tube with a mouthpiece (seriously) on one end and a point like that of a harpoon on the other. It's basically a combination of a fireplace poker and a Breathalyzer test. To properly employ a "blowpoke," you stick the pointy end into the burning embers in the fireplace and blow through the mouthpiece vigorously, exciting the embers into flame. The pointy end is then manipulated to push bits of the fire around.

To improperly employ a "blowpoke," you use the nasty gizmo to kill your wife, which brings us to the wonderful world of broadcast "journalism" and that carnival of serial killers, wife-murderers and really, really bad babysitters known as Dateline NBC. In 2003, a North Carolina man named Michael Peterson was convicted of beating his wife Kathleen Peterson to death in December, 2001 in order to collect $1.4 million in insurance, making the case primo media fodder. The prosecution asserted that Peterson used a blowpoke as a weapon, although whether the blowpoke was ever actually found remains, oddly, an open question. (It was a very strange trial. I hope I'm never on trial in North Carolina.)

"Blowpoke" (also spelled as two words, "blow poke") is a new one on me, and appears in no dictionary I own, not even the Dictionary of American Regional English. But it seems to be a fairly straightforward melding of "blow" and "poker," possibly coined by the first company to manufacture one, and obviously influenced by "slowpoke." Despite the number of "Victorian-style blowpokes" for sale on the internet, I suspect that it is a relatively recent invention.

Home assignment:  make up a story about "neighborhood."

Dear Word Detective: My understanding is that the word "falsehood" came from the idea of wearing a type of headgear ("hood") as a means of identification. Wearing headgear that identified you as something you were not (false) laid the basis for the word "falsehood," or lying about your identity. Is this true or is it a falsehood? -- Larry.

Hey, I'll bet I know where this is going. So when one of these deceptive-headgear-wearing miscreants (hoodlums?) was caught in the act, the King's guards forced him to chew and swallow the false chapeau, giving rise to the expression "I'll eat my hat"?

Just kidding, of course. The story you've heard, and are absolutely correct to regard skeptically, is a sterling example of why simply "reverse-engineering" words and phrases so rarely yields their true origins. Someone, somewhere, saw the element "hood" in "falsehood" and assumed that it was the same sort of "hood" that snaps onto one's winter jacket. Then it was just a matter of imagining oneself back into the misty Middle Ages (where all proper word fables take place) and the story pretty much writes itself. I'm just glad it doesn't have an acronym as a punch line.

In other words, wrong-o-rama, entirely different "hood." The "false" of "falsehood" is simply our common adjective "false," from the Latin "falsus" (which, curiously, originally meant only "erroneous" or "deceived," the "deceitful" meaning being a later development). The "hood" of "falsehood" comes from the Old English noun and suffix "had," meaning "state or condition." Over the centuries, English lost "had" as an independent noun, but preserved the suffix "had" in the form "hood" appended to nouns or adjectives, giving us such words as "boyhood," "neighborhood" (the state of being neighbors, a community) and "falsehood" (something having the quality of being false or deceitful). Existing Old English words employing "had" as a suffix, such as "childhad" and "preosthad," eventually changed their spellings and became, in turn, "childhood" and "priesthood."

All of which raises a good question: how do we know this is what happened? If you're interested in the answer to that question, I have just the book for you. "Word Origins ... and How We Know Them" (Oxford University Press, $25.00), by Anatoly Liberman of the University of Minnesota, is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the methods etymologists use to trace the history of English words. I highly recommend it.


For you, both mittens and a boot.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "she handed him the mitten" meaning "she broke up with him" or "she refused to marry him"? I have seen this in P. G. Wodehouse's stories. I recently saw it used in a traditional folk song, and that made me more curious about the origin. A verse from "The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn": "Well he went down to a pretty little widder, And I hope by heck that he don't get her. She gave him the mitten as sure as you're born, And all because he wouldn't hoe corn." -- Craig Hyatt, NC, USA.

Nice rhyme, but I'm on The Young Man's side. Unless you've managed to plant pizza, gardening is a royal waste of time in my book. There's nothing quite like spending a humid afternoon waltzing a tiller through a quarter-acre of rocks and innocent worms, as I recently did, to make you appreciate the genius of Clarence Birdseye (the man who perfected, if that's the right word, frozen vegetables). And think about it: when's the last time you caught a bunch of freeloading rabbits in your grocer's freezer case?

"To give (someone) the mitten" does indeed mean to reject or dismiss the person, especially to spurn a lover or suitor, although the phrase has also been used to mean to dismiss from employment since it first appeared in the mid-19th century. One rarely hears "give the mitten" these days (the Oxford English Dictionary labels it "rare"), but it's a colorful, if somewhat obscure, bit of colloquial English.

The origin of "give the mitten" appears to be a convergence of two threads. A "mitten" in the literal sense is, of course, a kind of winter glove that covers the thumb separately from the four other fingers. "Mitten" was taken into 13th century Middle English from the Old French "mitaine," apparently based on "mite," a pet name for a cat, the paws of which the mitten was thought to resemble.

Significantly, "mittens" has been used as slang for several hundred years for, variously, handcuffs, the human fists, and boxing gloves. This leads to the logical suspicion that the "widder" of the song settled the corn dispute by punching The Young Man in the bazoo, but there's more to the "mitten" story.

A "mittimus" (from the Latin meaning "we send") is a legal order committing a person to prison, and in colloquial general sense "to get one's mittimus" has long been used to mean "to be dismissed" from employment. Given the resemblance between "mitten" in the "fist" sense and the semi-obscure word "mittimus," it's not surprising that "give someone the mittimus" morphed into "give (or hand) someone the mitten."

Among the Frankenwords.

New words are the lifeblood of any good dictionary. I am always taken aback when readers write in to complain that a certain word "isn't in the dictionary," and then reveal that "the dictionary" to which they're referring was obtained by their grandfather with S&H Green Stamps back in 1964. News flash, folks. Your collection of Shakespeare is be unlikely to become obsolete in the near future, but if your dictionary is more than five years old, you need a new one. Our language changes constantly -- new words arise and old ones gain new meanings 24/7. So go look up "24/7" in your old dust-magnet and see what you find.

Now that we've decided that you need a new dictionary, I can report that the editors at Oxford University Press have done a bang-up job on their new Second Edition of the highly-regarded New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford University Press, $60.00 hardcover). This is a very impressive book. Its 2088 pages contain more than 250,000 entries in a layout designed for maximum legibility and usability. The definitions are clear and concise, the illustrations well-chosen (the one on geometric shapes is especially handy), and the usage notes are lucid but never dictatorial. It even comes with a CD permitting you to download the entire dictionary into your "mobile device" (Palm, Blackberry, et al.), so you can sneak out of meetings and look up "clawback" in the restroom, I suppose.

Much of the attention to (and publicity on behalf of) this new dictionary focuses on its more than 2,000 new entries, including such terms as "frankenfood," "wiki," "Amber alert" and "ginormous." There are those who maintain that such inventions do not belong in a serious dictionary, that they have not passed the test of time and may soon disappear, and that they thus dilute the sanctity of the dictionary as a record of the English language. Those people are tedious cranks simply wrong. A good dictionary is a snapshot of our language at a certain point. Any word in common usage today belongs in the dictionary, whether we personally use that word or not. Would you find a telephone directory listing only your friends, or only people reputed to be "respectable," truly useful? Granted, it is uncertain whether "phishing" or "malware" will be heard ten years from now. Someday "trustafarians" may be, with luck, just an annoying memory. But even if these words someday disappear from common use, they belong here now, and the editors at Oxford have created a valuable resource for readers today as well as for scholars of the future.

I fall to pizzas.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about the term "patsy." Historically I often think of the term being used by conspiracy theorists in reference to Oswald's involvement in the assassination of JFK. In other words, he did not assassinate JFK, he was the one blamed. Why not use the term "scapegoat"? What's the difference? -- SJ.

Good question, and one that marks the belated debut of the Kennedy assassination in this column. I'd have mentioned it myself earlier, because I have several colorful (albeit probably improbable) theories on the subject, but I get enough weird mail as is. Speaking of mail, time out for a special note to the young woman who wrote to ask (seriously) how to get transmission fluid out of her boyfriend's hair: you need a new boyfriend, preferably one who doesn't live under a car.

A "patsy" is, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, "A person easily taken advantage of, cheated, blamed, or ridiculed." The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the similarity to "scapegoat" in its definition: "A person who is easily taken advantage of, especially by being deceived, cheated, or blamed for something; a dupe, a scapegoat." But both of these definitions are rather broad, and obscure what I believe is the difference between a "patsy" and a "scapegoat." A "patsy" is a person who can be victimized by an unscrupulous party in a number of ways, ranging from being defrauded in a rigged card game to being set up to be blamed for (or to bear the entire blame for) something. A "scapegoat," however, is merely one who is unjustly blamed for something. The term "patsy" also implies that the party was a willing participant in a crime who was tricked in some fashion, but a "scapegoat" is often entirely innocent of anything aside from being a convenient target for blame. "Patsy" also implies a strong sense of mental dimness, disturbance and/or gullibility, as in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald. Most conspiracy theories I've heard about the Kennedy case portray Oswald as a willing participant in the crime (i.e., not merely a "scapegoat"), but one manipulated and set up by the "real" assassins.

As befits such a linguistic strudel of deceit, the origins of "patsy" are mysterious. It may simply derive from the Italian "pazzo," meaning "crazy." But "Patsy" is also the "pet" form of "Patrick" (and "Patricia"), and the "schmuck" sense of "patsy" may have been drawn from Patsy Bolivar, a character in a popular 18th century minstrel show who always ended up being blamed for everything. One indication that this "Patsy" may have been the source is that the first few uses of the term in print in the late 19th century capitalize "Patsy" as a proper name.

Exit stage left.

Dear Word Detective: Is there any connection between the words "hearse" and "rehearse"? -- Doris Render.

Hmm. Another depressed actor, eh? Not to worry, kiddo, just keep plugging away and before you know it you'll be co-starring in the Adam Sandler remake of "Casablanca" (in which Rick runs a TGI Friday's and Victor Laszlo is Ilsa's probation officer). I'll have left the country by then, but please don't forget me in your Oscar speech.

Amazingly enough, at least for those of us prone to amazement by such things, there is indeed a connection between "hearse," the vehicle that carries the coffin to a funeral, and "rehearse," to practice one's lines for a dramatic production. And it all goes back, as each we must someday, to the farm.

Our tale begins with the ancient language known as Oscan, spoken in the fifth century B.C in what is now southern Italy. The Oscan word "hirpus" meant "wolf," signifying large, sharp teeth, and the Romans eventually adopted the word into Latin as "hirpex," meaning "large rake" (rakes, of course, having large "teeth"). The Roman "hirpex" was actually what we would today call a "harrow," an agricultural implement with large tines used to break up farm fields prior to planting.

"Hirpex" was eventually taken into Old French as "herse," and passed into English in the 14th century, finally taking our modern form "hearse." In its passage through French, "hearse" had lost its "harrow" sense and taken on the meaning of a triangular frame designed to hold many candles during church services. (Harrows at that time were usually triangular frames, and the candles looked a bit like a harrow's tines, so the leap wasn't that great.)

One specific use of the church "hearse" was to hold candles over the coffins of dignitaries during funeral services. From there "hearse" came to mean a pavilion over the coffin, and eventually acquired its modern meaning of "the carriage that carries the coffin to and from the funeral."

Now rewind a bit. While "herse" was hanging out in Old French, it spawned the word "rehercer," meaning literally "to rake again," and, figuratively, "to repeat." This word was taken into English as well in the 14th century in the form "reherse," meaning simply "to say over and over again." But by the 16th century, just in time for Shakespeare, we were spelling it "rehearse" and using it in its modern meaning of "practice for a public performance."

Upstaged by Hunter Thompson's final brilliant invention, shotgun golf.

Dear Word Detective: This is an exact quote from the PGA's online web site for this year's US Open: "As expected, Pinehurst [is] bearing its teeth as par becomes precious at U.S. Open." I think it should read "baring its teeth" as if it were a dog snarling and exposing its dentures to scare off someone. Some illumination about "bear/bare" and when to use which for animals, carrying a load, or exposing teeth would be helpful. -- Barney Johnson.

Hmm. A golf course with teeth, what a wonderful image. Not to be an alarmist, but I detect, in that quote, the first glimmers of the looming NASCAR-ification of the once-genteel sport of golf. Mark my words, golf fans. In a few years those discreet trademarks on the players' hats and shoes will have given way to full-body ads for mortgage companies and mood elevators, and new rules will require contestants to run in circles and beat each other with nine-irons after each hole. Might as well drop that prissy "Fore!" right now and practice your "Yee Haw!"

There are two kinds of "bear" in common usage in English, but really only one sort of "bare." The noun "bear," the big furry animal that lives in the forest, derives from the Old English "bera," which came in turn from the Germanic "beron," which carried the general sense of "the brown one." Some authorities also connect "bear" with the Latin "ferus," meaning "wild," in which case the root sense would be "THE wild animal," the go-to (or, more likely, run-from) critter in the woods.

The other kind of "bear," derived from the Old English "beran," is a verb meaning generally "to carry, sustain, support" in a variety of both literal and figurative senses ("to bear in mind," for example, meaning "to carry in memory"). Another sense is "to push, thrust forward," found in "bear down" and "bring to bear." And yet another of the root senses of "bear" is "give birth," and "born" actually comes from the past participle of the Old English precursor of "bear."

"Bare" first appeared in English as an adjective meaning "naked, uncovered," drawn directly from the Old English "baer," which had the same meaning. The Old English "barian," which became our modern verb "to bare," meant not only "to unclothe," but "to disclose, to reveal," as one might "bare," or unsheathe, a sword. This is indeed the "bare" that the PGA apparently meant.

Serving suggestion:  go to a restaurant.

Dear Word Detective: I have been wondering about something for a long time, but never thought to ask before this: what can you tell me about the phrase "Not what it's cracked up to be," meaning not as good as advertised? Why use the word "cracked?" I can understand "cracking up" with laughter -- that implies a logical image, the same as "breaking up" with laughter. Does the latter use of "cracked" have any relation to its use in the first phrase? It would seem not. Any thoughts on the origin of the phrase? -- Judith Baron.

Good question. There ought to be a term for using odd figures of speech constantly but only occasionally realizing that we haven't a clue as to where they came from or what they originally meant. "Somnambuliloquy" (walking and talking in one's sleep) would do, I suppose, although pronouncing it presents a problem.

The basic meaning of the verb "to crack" when it first entered Old English (as "cracian") from Germanic roots was "to make a sudden, sharp noise," and later senses of the word all refer in some way either to a sudden, sharp sound or an action (breaking, striking, coming apart, etc.) likely to produce that sort of sudden, sharp sound. Some of these later senses carry only a hint of the "crack" meaning of "sudden movement," as in the phrase "to get cracking" meaning "to get moving." Other senses are, as you say, a bit more obvious. To "crack up" over a joke and to "crack up" in the sense of suffering a mental breakdown both refer to one's composure being fractured, albeit with vastly different outcomes.

One of the senses of "to crack" that developed in the 14th century was "to pronounce or tell briskly and confidently," a sense we still use in "crack a joke." The same "speaking boldly" sense later developed, in 18th century America, into "cracking wise," speaking cleverly, usually at someone else's expense, and also gave us the noun "wisecrack."

Related to these "speaking" senses of "to crack" was, beginning in the 19th century, the form "to crack up," meaning "to praise," as one might "crack up," or promote, a friend's business. Today this form is only heard in the negative passive form "not what (or "all") it's cracked up to be," meaning "not as good as reputed or advertised."

And maps to places we'll never go again.

Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up my father always called the glove compartment in the car a "jockey box." The other day one of me kids asked me why I called the glove box a "jockey box." I got him off my back by telling him about my father calling it a "jockey box," and that worked for the time being. He's fairly young right now so I got away with it. I'm sure he will ask again. When that happens I would like to give him an answer that will satisfy his curiosity. -- Brett Albertson.

Your son's question is a good one, and if I were riding in your car I would probably have asked the same thing, since I've never heard anyone call it a "jockey box." The standard term here in the US is "glove compartment," while in Britain (and elsewhere) it is called the "glove box," thereby saving two syllables. As both names imply, the ostensible purpose of the compartment is the storage of gloves, but in practice it is almost always used for the hoarding of random flotsam gathered in transit and saved for use "in an emergency." Our glove box contains, for example, several wads of paper napkins, two dozen straws, various plastic eating implements, a dozen loose Life Savers no sane person would touch, and a cell phone we use about twice a year.

A "jockey," of course, is a person who rides horses, especially in a race. "Jockey" first appeared in English in the 16th century (originally in Scots and Northern dialects), and was originally simply a diminutive or "pet" form of the name "Jock" (a form of "John"), also used as a generic name for any young man or member of the "rabble." By the mid-17th century, "jockey" was being used to mean "one who works with horses," specifically the driver of a horse-drawn carriage or a professional rider in horse races.

"Jockey box" is a relic of the now-obsolete sense of "jockey" meaning "a carriage or wagon driver." A "jockey box" was a small locked box under the driver's seat, used for storing tools, the driver's own personal effects, or other valuables. As horse-drawn carriages were replaced by automobiles, the term "jockey box" came to be applied to the glove box.

I'm not sure where you're from, but according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, "jockey box" is today largely a regional term heard in the Northwestern US.

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And thanks for the plaid sink.

Dear Word Detective: A kitchen is called "kitchen," but it's "bedroom," "living room," "bathroom." Why isn't it "kitchen room"? -- Sarilyn Kennedy.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know what the origin of the term "living room" is? Someone once told me that it literally had to do with funeral wakes where the deceased was displayed in the parlor and the visitors congregated in the "living room." Eew. Can you help verify or debunk this etymology? -- JoAnne.

Eew indeed. I hope you folks don't mind me lumping your questions together, but last year I developed a nasty rash from watching too many home-renovation shows and now have to strictly limit my exposure to architecture. I'm especially allergic to those makeover shows where neighbors are induced to redecorate each other's houses. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of those folks sell their houses and leave town a few days after filming (those not serving time for manslaughter, that is). Personally, I wouldn't trust my neighbors to change the kitty litter, let alone fiddle with my feng shui. I can't imagine continuing to live next door to the clown who painted my kitchen black.

Regarding "kitchen," we wouldn't call it "kitchen room" because the whole room is the kitchen, versus the bedroom and bathroom which are rooms that presumably contain a bed and a bathtub (or shower), respectively. Incidentally, am I the only one around here bothered by the realtor's phrase "half-bath"? Which half gets clean? Anyway, "kitchen" comes from the colloquial Latin "coquina" ("cooking room"), derived from "coquere," meaning "to cook." "Coquina" was filtered through various European languages and eventually, via a Germanic route, became the English "kitchen" (in French it became "cuisine," which English later adopted as well). "Cook" and "culinary" derive from the same roots.

While it is true that before the advent of the "funeral industry" deceased family members were often laid out in private homes, the term "living room" has nothing to do with wakes. It's simply the more casual term that supplanted the stuffy-sounding "parlor" for the room where family life, including the entertaining of guests, normally takes place. In houses large enough, the combination of a formal parlor or sitting room for entertaining guests and a more intimate living room for family life has been superseded by a formal living room and a casual "family room." The term "living room" has been common since the early 19th century.

The Gravity Follies.

Dear Word Detective: I work in the construction trade, and we (that's the colloquial "we") use a structural member called a "lally column." You've seen them in basements: a steel column with threaded ends that is used to support long-span beams. I've no wish to denigrate the tradesmen with whom I work, but not a one of them has a clue as to why these are called "lally columns" (nor, I suspect, even tepid interest in the topic as a whole). I've searched numerous places for an origin, but to no avail, and at last I turn to you, the one person who might be able to ferret out the truth. Just what, or who, is "lally"? -- Ted.

So that's what that thing is called. Here at Word Detective World Headquarters we have one of those lurking in the cellar. This house was built in the 1860s and renovated in the 1980s by a previous owner whose reach, in matters of construction, evidently exceeded his grasp in many cases. His attempt to rebuild the foundation culminated in a flurry of disturbingly ad hoc solutions, including a "lally column" supporting the sill beam, which, of course, supports the rest of the house. Or maybe not, since the entire house lately seems to be sinking in the direction of Toledo.

Strictly speaking, a "lally column" is a steel cylinder filled with concrete, although I gather that the modern models are simply strong steel and usually have the threaded ends you describe so that the length of the column can be adjusted. (Ours does, although Mister Know-It-All predictably misjudged the length needed, and the column rests on a disturbing little pile of wooden blocks.) Again strictly speaking, the "Lally" should be capitalized because the "Lally column" is the invention of John Lally, an Irish immigrant who dreamed up the contraption in the 1890s. The "Lally column" was but one of Mr. Lally's inventions sold at the turn of the century by the Lally Column Company in Massachusetts.

Uh oh, here comes Squeeze Number Three.

Dear Word Detective: My sweetheart and I were discussing the word "saccharine" the other day, and we decided it surely must be a very old word that only recently was applied to the sweetener product. A web search produced no results for the etymology of this word, though I found many uses of it within definitions of other fun words like "twee." So, could you tell me when "saccharine" came into use, and what are its linguistic origins? -- Ann Clark.

Aww. You know, I zipped right past that "sweetheart" in your question the first time I read it, but that's adorable. I like "sweetheart" better than "honey," and it's vastly preferable to "main squeeze," which, to my ear, implies that there are lesser squeezes lurking out there somewhere. Incidentally, if you're interested in an extended investigation of such terms, I actually wrote a book on the subject a while back, entitled "Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words" (Algonquin Books, 2004). Hey, even the title is cute.

There is indeed a connection between "saccharine" and the sweetener product you mention, but there's a tiny point I should clear up at the outset. The adjective meaning "sweet" is spelled "saccharine," while the sweetener is spelled "saccharin" (no "e").

"Saccharine" is a fairly old word in English, first appearing in the 17th century meaning "sugary." The root of "saccharine" is the Medieval Latin "saccharum," meaning "sugar." Early uses of "saccharine" in English treated the word as a simple synonym for "sweet," as in this 19th century citation: "She precipitated herself against a treacle barrel and upset it. A gush of black saccharine matter spread over the floor." By the mid-19th century, however, "saccharine" was gradually taking on the figurative sense of "excessively sweet or overly sentimental," thus conveying largely the same meaning as "twee" (which itself is simply a baby-talk form of "sweet").

"Saccharin," the artificial sweetener, was invented in 1879 by Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, chemists working at Johns Hopkins University, who clearly based the name on "saccharine." A coal tar derivative (yum!), saccharin is several hundred times sweeter than sugar but has no calories and no effect on blood sugar, making it popular among dieters and diabetics despite some studies indicating possible carcinogenic dangers.

While "saccharine" was already in use as an adjective meaning "excessively sweet" by the time "saccharin" was invented, it's likely that the artificiality of "saccharin" reinforced the sense of "insincerely sweet" now carried by "saccharine."



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