Issue of September 24, 2003




  Issue of September 24, 2003



So I'm writing yet another book, this time for Simon & Schuster, to be called Ask For It By Name, in which I will explore the origins of popular trade and product names (Altoids, Twinkies, Starbucks, etc.).  This sort of thing requires a bit of research, and so I have been writing to various companies and asking their publicity people where their corporate or product names came from.  Most of these folks have been, as one might expect, extremely cooperative and eager to help, bombarding me in a very welcome avalanche of information.  And so it came to pass that I wrote to to ask how they happened to pick  "Amazon" as their name.  And this is the reply I received (minus the writer's real name):

Greetings Evan,

Thanks for your interest in  Unfortunately, we are unable to participate in your research for your upcoming book at this time.  We receive hundreds of requests each week and are just not able to accommodate everyone.  I believe the information you seek is out there in some form or another, because we have participated in similar projects, but probably more from a media standpoint.

Regards, Indolent Putz, Public Relations

"So, um, the truth is out there somewhere, but we're busy right now doing public relations.  Or something."  But if they've answered this question hundreds of times, wouldn't they have some sort of boilerplate reply ready?  Or is that the boilerplate?  Oh well, it's a good anecdote for the book tour.

Onward to the good news:  We have some fresh columns posted to our sister site (more of a wife site, really) How Come?  Please take a moment to visit, and please ask a questionHow Come? is an internationally-syndicated  newspaper column answering questions about science and nature for young people, but many of the best questions actually come from certifiable adults, and if your question is picked to be answered, you will not only be the envy of your neighbors, but also win a free copy of the new How Come? book, How Come Planet Earth So ask a question!  Win a book!

Elsewhere in the wonderful world of people to whom I am related, my brother-in-law Michael Weber is a real-life crackerjack investigative reporter who actually understands U.S. campaign financing laws and, more importantly, knows how to ferret out the weasel tracks on the money trail.  And now you can too!  Just buy multiple copies of his new book Unstacking the Deck: A Reporter's Guide To Campaign Finance, just published by Investigative Reporters and Editors.  And when your order your copy, be sure to say Michael Weber sent ya.

And speaking of journalism, after a fashion, today's thought is courtesy of a CBS-TV reporter whose name I didn't catch because I had just spit coffee on the cat:  "How long it will take, only time will tell."

A bit further afield, our friend Tim Clark has a new consulting company called PivotPoint Solutions:

PIVOTPOINT  is a strategic solutions company focused on helping our clients succeed with Customer Relationship Management.  We have a client advocacy approach, rigorous methodology, and a proven track record of enhancing clients' competitive advantage.

We help organizations integrate strategies, processes and technology solutions across Sales, Customer Service, Marketing and Finance, ensuring they are consistently demand driven and bottom-line focused.

If that sounds like what you need, just give Tim a call.

Lastly, our intern Sparky has a very important message for you.

 And now, on with the show:

Someone left the cake out in the rain again.

Dear Word Detective:  I was just reading an article about our recent (current?) war.  The article quoted a British soldier, who said that the American government had "expected a cakewalk -- that's the American term, isn't it?"  Of course I wondered how and where this term may have arisen.  Is it, in fact, American? -- Adam Hertz, San Francisco.

Yes indeed, "cakewalk" is an American invention, meaning "a very easy victory against little or no real opposition."  (Incidentally, for the benefit of readers who stumble across this column in the months or years to come, the war Mr. Hertz is referring to is the one in Iraq.)

I've never understood why folks back in the 19th century spread the word that the streets of America were "paved with gold," as it's likely that we'd have attracted even more immigrants had we claimed cake as our national pavement.  Cake has been a synonym for something good or easy since ancient Egypt, when mummies were often interred with a doggie bag of cakes and ale, and "cakes and ale" is still common shorthand for "the good life" in Britain.  Not even Marie Antoinette's (probably apocryphal) rejoinder to the news that her subjects could not afford bread, "Then let them eat cake," dampened our love affair with a good slice of cake.

Cake is so popular, in fact, that it has long served as a prize awarded to the winner of all sorts of competitions, giving rise to the 19th century expression "take the cake."  Originally simply meaning "to win," "take the cake" now is usually used sarcastically to mean "to be an outrageous example of something bad" (as in "Ken Lay filing for unemployment takes the cake").

One kind of contest popular in the African-American community in the 19th century was the "cakewalk," in which couples competed strolling arm in arm, with the prize, a cake, being awarded to the most graceful and stylish team.

Since "cakewalking" demanded both skill and grace, victory in the contest was rarely a "cakewalk" in our modern "easy" sense.  That modern use of "cakewalk" in the  came from the boxing ring, where a very easy victory over an outclassed opponent was likened to a refined "cakewalk" compared to the ordinarily prolonged and brutal nature of the matches.  By 1877, "cakewalk" had graduated from the boxing ring and acquired its general meaning of "an effortless victory."

Incidentally, the term "piece of cake," meaning "something easily accomplished," has only been traced back to the 1940s, and there is no apparent direct connection with "cakewalk."   "Piece of cake" originally simply meant "something good," which cake certainly is.

Let's see, the big hand is on his throat....

Dear Word Detective:  My friend and I were talking this morning about phrases used to describe fighting.  The term "cleaning someone's clock" came up, and despite much internet research (which is how I found your site), I can't find anything about the origins of this phrase.  Any ideas? -- Sue Thompson, via the internet.

Something odd is going on.  I know I answered this question a few years ago, because I included it in a collection of my columns (The Word Detective, published by Algonquin Books), but for some reason it doesn't appear in our archives.  In any case, it's a good question, so we'll rewind and play it again.

To begin at the beginning, "clock" has been slang for the human face since the mid-nineteenth century, based on its supposed resemblance to the face of a clock.  "Clock" as a verb has also been slang for "to punch in the face or strike violently" since the early 20th century, again based on the clock-face metaphor.

Elsewhere in the world of fisticuffs, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, "clean" has been slang for "vanquish" since the early 19th century.  The Random House dictionary also lists "fix someone's clock" as a slang term for "to finish someone," first attributed to the writer O. Henry in 1908.  Curiously, the first citation for the whole phrase "clean someone's clock" comes only in 1959, but we can assume it had been around for awhile before that.       

Even with all this evidence tying faces and punches together, I must say that there is another possible source for "clean someone's clock."   In railroad slang, an engineer who applies the train's air brakes in an emergency is said to "clean the clock" or "wipe the gauge" as the speedometer needle drops to zero.  It seems logical that such a graphic metaphor would be the perfect way to describe stopping an opponent in his tracks, and even if this is not the source of the phrase, it may have contributed to its popularization.

Yak artists of the Caribbean.

Dear Word Detective:  Fifteen years ago, I was doing research for a novel to be set in Civil War-era New Orleans.  I ran across a obviously US-only word whose definition was "to travel south into Latin America, overthrow the local government, and take over power."  Since it had nothing to do with my story, I didn't write it down.  I guess I also thought that I'd remember something so strange.  But I gave up being a novelist, which meant that I no longer had an excuse to drink so much, and as soon as I quit that, the word disappeared.  But it's real.  Do you know it? -- Paul Miller, via the internet.

I'm pretty sure that the word you're trying to squeeze from your memory is "filibuster."  Today we use "filibuster" to mean a procedural tactic used in the U.S. Congress to delay or obstruct passage of legislation by making endless speeches, but that meaning is actually a derivative of the original definition of "filibuster." 

The story of "filibuster" begins with 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."  But 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 North American "filibusters" of the 1850s were not simple pirates, but profiteering adventurers who, in contravention of international law, ran guns and fomented revolution against the European colonial powers throughout the West Indies, Central and South America.  Perhaps the most famous "filibuster" was William Walker, who began by attempting to seize part of Mexico, proceeded to invade and take over Nicaragua, was tossed out after a few years, and was eventually captured and shot while trying to mount another invasion of Nicaragua.  (A good summary of Walker's bizarre career can be found at   Other equally colorful "filibusters" conducted campaigns against Cuba and several other nations in Central America and the Caribbean.

The exploits of these "filibusters" were a subject of great debate in the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century, so it wasn't long before one U.S. Senator in 1853, outraged by the delaying tactics of his opponents, termed such stalling a "filibuster," equivalent to an attempt to seize the United States Congress, and the modern sense of "filibuster" was born.

It's a boy.  Sink that ship over there.

Dear Word Detective:  I recently found myself using the hoary expression "son of a gun" and wondered if you could tell me anything about its origins.  -- Eric Patterson, Tokyo, Japan.

"Son of a gun" is indeed a "hoary" (meaning "gray or white with age") phrase, but it's still notable for inspiring one of the more colorful word origin stories.   As is often the case with such stories, "more colorful" may well amount to "nonsense," but I'll lay out the story, which dates back to the mid-19th century, and you be the judge.

According to this story, the phrase "son of a gun," a mildly pejorative term for a man, arose in the days of sailing ships, when the wives of sailors sometimes accompanied their husbands on long ocean voyages.  As privacy was scarce aboard these ships, goes the story, if a woman gave birth during the voyage, the delivery would often take place in the most secluded place available, which was between the cannons on the ship's gun deck.  The child's birth would then noted in the ship's log as "a son of a gun."  (A common variation on this story has the woman being a seafaring prostitute and the conception, not delivery, of the child taking place on the gun deck.)

As I said, this story has been popular since the mid-19th century, but in my view it sports more than its share of problems.  Roughly half of the children born, for instance, must have been female, yet "daughter of a gun" is nowhere to be found in vernacular English.  It is also significant that no actual documentary evidence, such as a ship's log, has ever been offered in favor of the "gun deck" theory.

But a more compelling flaw in the story is that it is simply unnecessary.  "Son of a gun," since its first appearance in the early 18th century, has been used as a sanitized form of the derogatory phrase usually abbreviated as S.O.B. (or, as Barbara Bush might put it, "son of a rhymes-with-witch").  As for why "gun" would be picked as a substitute for the taboo word, simple:  it rhymes.  Other sanitized forms of S.O.B. have, in the past, included "son of a bachelor" and "son of a biscuit," but the fact that "son of a gun" rhymes has made it popular enough (and, over time, inoffensive enough) to be used by people who don't even know they're using a euphemism.    

Indoor fireworks.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word "adultery" come from, and doesn't it seem odd that the apparent root word is "adult"? -- Sara Morley, via the internet.

Hmm.  I'm not sure why that would seem odd.  After all, in order to commit "adultery," you pretty much have to be married, and to be married you pretty much have to be legally considered an adult.  Of course, one might argue that "adultery" is not "adult" behavior in the sense of being responsible and trustworthy, but it is eminently debatable how many adults fit that description in any area of life.

In any case, although "adultery" is usually committed by persons beyond the age of majority, "adultery" has nothing to do with the word "adult."  "Adult," meaning "having reached maturity," comes from the Latin "adultus," past participle of  the verb "adolescere," meaning "to grow up" (and the source of our "adolescence").  Attaining "adulthood" is generally considered a good thing. 

"Adultery," as any adult can tell you, is a different kettle of fish.  The Latin root of "adultery" says it all -- "adulterare," meaning "to corrupt, to spoil or to make foul."  In English since around 1415, "adultery" has meant sexual intimacy between a married person and a person to whom he or she is not married.  (Strictly speaking, if the other person is married as well, such activity constitutes "double adultery.") 

Historically, "adultery" has been condemned as corrupting or spoiling the marriage vows, although the practice has never been as rare nor its consequences as dire as some folks would prefer.  Ironically, a derivative sense of "adultery" meaning to corrupt or spoil something else (especially the "adulteration" of food) today carries far  heavier legal penalties in Western societies than does sexual "adultery."  The apparent moral of this story is that it's OK to fool around as long as you don't water down the catsup.


Dear Word Detective:  A friend and I were recently playing darts. You would probably be aware that the 20 is uppermost in the middle and is flanked by the 5 (on its left) and the 1 (on its right).  Therefore the score of 26 is very common.  Also commonplace is the term "bed and breakfast" referring to the score of 26.  My friend suggested that the term may have been derived from the cost of a night in a hotel and breakfast in early England may have cost 2 and 6, hence the term "bed 'n' breakfast" for the score of 26.  I'd appreciate it if you could clarify the origin of this phrase please. -- Dave, via the internet. 

Or maybe two shillings sixpence is the average replacement cost of a parrot dispatched by an errant dart.  I don't know much about the game of darts, but to believe popular movies (A Hard Day's Night and Young Frankenstein spring to mind), you can't have a really rousing round of darts in a pub without taking out at least one parrot.  Then again, I've never understood the logic of encouraging tipsy patrons to fling potentially lethal weapons around in a crowded room.  I am, as you have guessed by now, no fun at all.

I did a bit of snooping around, and discovered that dart aficionados have their own fairly arcane terminology to describe the finer points of the game.  The "oche" (rhymes with "hockey") is the line behind which players must stand when throwing the darts, and the "cork" is the bull's-eye, the center of which is divided into the "bull" and the "double bull," which is also known as "the black dog."  Some darting terms originated outside the sport, such as "hat trick" meaning all three darts of a player's round landing in the "bull."  The original "hat trick" was the feat of a bowler in cricket who took three wickets with three successive balls, earning himself, according to tradition, the prize of a new hat. 

Evidently, accumulating the score of 26 in a round of three throws by hitting the 20, 1 and 5 is so common that it is also known as "the classic" as well as "two and six."  Every source I could find does indicate that the term "bed and breakfast" for a score of 26 does indeed seem to have come from the typical (at some time) cost of a night's lodging.  Oddly enough, given that the sports are so different, "bed and breakfast" also means a score of 26 in, of all things, bingo.


Googling is the best revenge.

Dear Word Detective:  I know that a good many children, when being held down by the schoolyard bully, would have to say "uncle" so that they might go about their business un-bullied, but in my part of the world, East Texas to be specific, it seems that I would always have to say "calf rope."  There does not seem to be many of my peers who remember anything like this and I'm afraid that it may have been a bad dream or something in my own psyche and nowhere else.  Have you ever heard of this, or perhaps know of someone who has?  -- Larry, via the internet.

Ah yes, schoolyard bullies.  I understand that there is a move afoot in the public schools to eliminate bullying.  This may be a mistake.  Yes, bullies make their prey miserable, as I, voted Most Likely to Suffer a Dislocated Thumb in grades five through seven, can attest.  But then you grow up, get over it, and one day, just out of curiosity, you look up your personal tormentor on Google, as I did today.  And you discover that the little thug has spent the past twenty years sending out junk mail for muffler shops and loan companies.  Both my thumbs did a little jig in tribute to cosmic justice when I read that.

Now as to your memory of being forced to say "calf rope," you are not crazy and, more importantly, you are not alone.  The use of such "surrender terms" is a universal ritual of childhood, part of what Iona and Peter Opie, in their extraordinary book "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren," called "a code of oral legislation."  In Britain, where the Opies did their research in the 1950s, children used dozens of terms to mean "I give up," ranging from "fains" to "skinch," to "kings" and even the Latin "pax" (peace).

To say "uncle" to signify surrender has always been most popular in America, but according to The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the demand to "say calf rope" has been heard throughout the southern U.S. midlands, and especially the Gulf regions, since at least the late 1800s.   Apparently the allusion is to a young calf that has been roped and tied in preparation for branding, and to say "calf rope" is to admit a similar helplessness.   

Play it again and I'll shoot you, Sam.

Dear Word Detective:  A "fanfare" is a rousing outburst from the trumpets or other brass, such as in Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," but where does "fanfare" come from?  The dictionaries tell me it's of French origin, but I can't find any more detail. -- Mike, via the internet.

Funny you should mention Aaron Copland, whose music just happens to be one of the reasons I left New York City.  Midway through the 1990s, WQXR-FM (the radio station of The New York Times, as they like to pompously remind their audience every few minutes) decided that what classical music lovers in New York City really wanted was lots and lots of Aaron Copland, all day every day.  This marked, of course, a dramatic departure from their long-standing "We're Gonna Make You Really Hate Mozart" playlist.   Anyway, the first time I heard Copland's "Appalachian Spring" (when I was about 14), I kinda liked it.  The 978th time I heard it, which was for the second time on a July day in 1998, I tossed the radio out the window and started packing.  Ironically, I have long owned "Appalachian Spring" on CD, and took it with me.  It makes a lovely coaster.

Meanwhile, back at your question, "fanfare" does indeed come from the French.  The root is the French "fanfarer," meaning "to blow a flourish or call," and since it first appeared in English around 1769, a "fanfare" has been something one performs on horns, whether trumpets, bugles or hunting horns.  The Oxford English Dictionary believes "fanfare" may be of "echoic" origin (meaning that the word itself is meant to sound like the "Ta-da!" of a fanfare). 

Interestingly, both Italian and Spanish have words apparently related to "fanfare" which have nothing to do with horns but may indicate the ultimate root of our English word.  The Italian "fanfano" means "babbler," and the Spanish "fanfarron" means "braggart or boaster."  Both were adapted from the Arabic "farfar," meaning "one who chatters or babbles," which may be echoic in that it sounds like someone babbling.  If the Arabic word  is indeed related to our modern "fanfare," it is probably in the sense that such flourishes are boastful musical babble, useful to herald the arrival of royalty and the like, but of no enduring significance.


I wasn't hiding.  I was practicing my camouflage.

Dear Word Detective:  A word that I first was introduced to whilst serving in the British Army was "skive."  We were informed by the drill sergeant that "skiving was all that we were good at."  The gentleman led me to believe that "to skive" meant to find excuses to avoid work or duties.  This word is akin to "shirk."  Can you tell me where these words came from? --  Malcolm Henley, via the internet.

That doesn't seem like very constructive criticism, I must say.  Sounds to me like the British Army could use a good dose of Oprahfication.  Recruits should be taught to value their good points rather than just focus on their shortcomings.  And if a few of the lads (or lasses) feel like rewarding themselves, just for being themselves, by hiding in the shrubbery all day, well, you go, gang!  Besides, most of the great inventions had their origins in the entirely natural inclination to avoid work.  The wheel itself was almost certainly invented by a shirker sick of dragging things all day.

Incidentally, did you know that Oprah's name would actually have been "Orpah," the name of a Biblical personage, had a typographical error not intervened?  It's true.  Honest.

OK, back to "skive," which does indeed mean "to shirk or evade duty or work" and first showed up as British military slang during World War I.  There are actually three "skive" verbs in English.  The oldest, dating to the early 19th century, is derived from Old Norse meaning "to cut into strips," and is probably unrelated to the "shirk" kind of "skive."  The second sort of "skive," dating back to about 1854, means "to dart away quickly," and may well be the same word as your military "skive."  The most likely source for both of these "skives" is the French "esquiver," which means "to dodge or slink away."

The source of "shirk," unfortunately, is a bit more obscure.  "Shirk" first appeared in English in the mid-1600s as a noun meaning "a disreputable person, a swindler, a parasite," and may be connected to the German "schurke," meaning "scoundrel."  A verb form of "shirk" soon appeared, at first meaning "to practice fraud or trickery as a way of life."  The sneaky aspect of "shirk" gradually became primary, and today "shirk"  means to slink away and avoid one's duty, whether from laziness or cowardice. 

Home on derange.

Dear Word Detective:  A friend used the word "tomfoolery" the other day and I had never heard of the word.  I then assumed, since he is from Kentucky and I live in Minneapolis, that "tomfoolery" was a Southern term.  He is positive it did not originate below the Mason-Dixon Line.  So, being up to the challenge, I am now on a quest to find out where the word originated and why, but currently to no avail.  Can you help? -- Mindi, via the internet.

I don't often say this, but I think that if you truly had never heard the word "tomfoolery" before, you may be suffering from a television deficiency.  It's true that one rarely hears the word used in real life conversation these days.  But I'll guarantee you that, within ten minutes of tuning into a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show or Leave It to Beaver (or even Gilligan's Island) on the TV Land cable channel, you'll hear some character (usually a parent or "elderly" figure) order someone else to "Stop that tomfoolery this instant!"  Bonus points if you manage to catch Walter Brennan saying "newfangled tomfoolery" in reference to something like a milking machine.

"Tomfoolery" means, of course, "silly or foolish behavior," and your friend is correct that it did not come from the American South.  The root of "tomfollery," in fact, appeared before there even was an American South.  In 14th century England, "Tom Fool" was popular slang for a mentally deficient or deranged man.  "Tom" was at that time considered a typical male name and often used in derogatory combinations such as "Tom Pepper," meaning (for some unknown reason) "a liar."   By the mid-17th century, "Tom Fool" had become a common name for a buffoonish character in a stage show, and by 1721 the phrase had come to mean simply "a fool."  Naturally, acting like a "Tom Fool" then became known as "tomfoolery," in common use since the early 19th century.

Baloney in the bath water.

Dear Word Detective:  In a recent column you explained the origin of the "bane" of one's existence.  This reminded me of a strange word I have been wondering about for some years.  I worked for Subway Sandwiches several years ago, where I spent most of my days behind a special counter.  The counter featured two sections connected by a sort of heat pump.  The head pump would refrigerate one half of the counter, while heating the other half.  Vegetables and meats and things would go in the cool side, while meatball sauce and steak and other things would go in the hot side.  The whole contraption was called a "bane" by my manager and the regional manager of Subway, but neither of them knew why they called it a "bane" or even how it is spelled.  It could be spelled "bain" or "bayne" for all I know.  I figure it is probably named after a person who invented it or, more likely, the largest manufacturer of such items, but I'd really like to know. -- Todd Wilcox, via the internet. 

Thanks for an interesting question.  For the benefit of you lucky ducks who are not familiar with American fast food, Subway Sandwiches is a chain of shops dispensing a wide variety of "submarine" (or "sub") sandwiches (also known, depending on one's locale, as "hoagies," "grinders" and "heroes").  Subway's fare is actually not bad, but, as a former New York City resident, I find the scrambled collage of old NYC subway maps they use for wallpaper very disconcerting.  Last time I looked, they had Prospect Park located just north of Times Square. 

While I'm sure that your tenure at Subway was not the high point of your life, the "bane" used by restaurants is unrelated to "bane" meaning "something that makes life unpleasant, a curse."  That "bane" comes from the Old English "bana" meaning "slayer."

Your "bane" is actually spelled "bain," and is more properly known as a "bain marie," which is French for "the bath of Mary."  A "bain marie" is simply a pan or pot suspended in a larger pan of water.  The water is heated (or kept hot), which then heats the contents of the smaller pan very gently, making this method of cooking good for fragile foods such as custards and sauces, as well as keeping cooked food warm.  There are various theories about who the original "Mary" might have been, the most popular tracing the term to Moses' sister Miriam (who was supposedly an alchemist and developed the contraption), but we may never know who actually invented the "bain marie."

There he goes again.

Dear Word Detective:  Reading your column on "doggerel," I noticed you used a phrase I have never understood:  "the old chestnut," as in: "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.'"   Why is an oft-repeated saying called an "old chestnut"?  Or an "old saw," for that matter? -- Daeick Gross, via the internet. 

Well, sonny, it all goes back to the tale of the horse and the duck who wanted to cross the stream, or maybe it was the flea and the fly in the flue.  But seriously, that's a good question, "good question" being columnist-speak for "I have absolutely no clue."  But wait!  Look at all those big books on my shelves!  Perhaps they hold the answer.  One moment, please.

Yo, I'm back.  A "chestnut" in the literal sense is, of course, the nut of the chestnut tree (which is presumably called that because it produces chestnuts).  The word "chestnut" comes from the Greek "kastanea," which meant either "nut from Castanea" (which is in Asia Minor) or "nut from Castana" (in Greece).  The Middle English form of this was "chesteine," to which "nut" was eventually added, giving us our modern "chestnut."

Just how we got from "chestnut" meaning a kind of tree or the nut it produces to "chestnut" meaning a story, joke or ditty that has been repeated endless times is, unfortunately, a bit of a mystery.  But the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it all began with The Reminiscences of J.L. Toole (Toole having been a popular Victorian actor), published in 1889.  In the book, one character is recounting an incident that involved a cork tree, when his companion interrupts to say it was a chestnut tree.  An argument ensues, ending with the companion declaring, "A chestnut .... I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times."  Given that Toole was famous, it's entirely possible that "It was a chestnut!" became a humorous catch phrase at the time, and eventually made "chestnut" a synonym for a story nearly everyone has already heard at least once.

The origin of "old saw" has nothing to do with sawing wood.  This "saw" evolved from the Old English "sagu" meaning "saying," which is also a close relative of the word "saga."  So an "old saw" is just "an old story or saying."

Don't moo with your mouth full.

Dear Word Detective:  I searched your archives and didn't see it listed, so perhaps this is the first request you've had to digest the deeper etymological conundrum of "chew the fat" (though I find that hard to swallow).  I found an entry for "chew the cud" in one reference but not a one for "chew the fat" in the several I consulted, so any help would be gratefully appreciated. -- Ron Friedman, via the internet.

Well, heck, it's a big language, and I haven't got around to explaining everything yet.  I figure the job will take me until at least 2008, after which I can turn my attention to a subject equally challenging, inventing a lawn mower that can be operated by dogs.  They're the ones that always want to go outside, after all, and yet they waste all their time out there sniffing trees and eating dandelions.  Time to put the little slackers to work.

"Chew the fat" is a colloquial phrase meaning "to talk or discuss informally, to talk at length on a variety of subjects," and dates back to at least the early 20th century in its modern sense.  Prior to that, "chew the fat" was in use in Britain with the slightly different meaning of "to grumble or grouse about something, to mutter."  There is some debate as to what the "fat" being chewed might be, but most probably it was a reference to salt pork or similarly tough dried meat.  In modern usage, an invitation to "come over and chew the fat" would probably mean sitting around discussing recent news and gossip, and might or might not include some beef jerky and beer.

Chewing, one of the most basic of human and animal activities, has served as a metaphor for deliberating, meditating and discussing since at least the 13th century.  The action of a ruminant, such as a cow, chewing its cud gave us "chew the cud," meaning "to consider or ponder at length" back in the 16th century (as well as the more dignified equivalent "ruminate," meaning the same thing).

 To "chew the rag" is roughly equivalent to "chew the fat," and likewise originally meant "to grumble" back in the 19th century.  It is possible that the original reference was to the "red rag" of the tongue, or the phrase might hark back to the antiquated verb "to rag," meaning "to argue or complain."

Me, myself and four or five other folks.

Dear Word Detective:   We think that "daft" is a Scottish word, we know also what it means, but we are not sure of its origins.  Can you help? --  Ally "daft as a brush" Gordon, via the internet.

That's not a bad guess, but you're slightly off the mark.  Speaking of being slightly off, just how many of you are there, anyway?  I never know when folks write in as "we" whether they're hanging out in a crowded bar or exhibiting one of those multiple-personality deals.  I once knew a woman who changed her first name three times in as many years.  As one observer noted at the time, "Why doesn't she just get it over with and change her name to Sybil?"

Meanwhile, back at "daft," you've picked an interesting word.  Although today we use "daft" to mean "crazy" or "foolish," it derives from the Old English "gedaefte," which meant "mild, gentle or meek."  A "daft" person, when the term first appeared in Middle English as "daffte" around 1200, was simply quiet and humble, not noticeably nuts.

Unfortunately, while the meek may inherit the earth (or what's left of it, anyway), being humble does not always engender respect, and by 1325, "daft" was being used to mean "stupid," first in reference to animals, but soon in regard to people.  Worse yet, by the early 16th century, "daft" had mutated into a synonym for "insane," which is where it rests today.  If there's a silver lining to the story of "daft," it is that the word is today a rather gentle synonym for "crazy," more often used to mean "silly" or "impractical" than "seriously nuts."

I would hazard a guess that your use of the term "daft as a brush" means that you are either British or have spent time in the UK (but please don't ask me why "a brush," because I haven't the vaguest).  "Daft" isn't in common use here in the US, but a probable relative is -- "daffy," which first appeared in the noun form "daff" back in the 14th century meaning "fool."

A more surprising "daft" relative is "deft," nearly the opposite of our modern "daft."  Derived from the same Old English "gedaefte," "deft" separated from "daft" in the 15th century, and developed the "gentle" sense into its modern meaning of "skillful or subtle."

Keeping up with the Jones.

Dear Word Detective:  We were walking through the mall and the smell of cinnamon accosted my senses, so naturally I said, "I am jonesing for one of those cinnathingys."  My friend turned to me and said, "You're jonesing?  What the heck does that mean?"  So after I explained to her what I have always thought was the definition, "really craving, wanting something really badly," she said, "Yeah, whatever."  I wasn't sure if I was more flabbergasted that she questioned my use of the word "jonesing" or that she didn't question me on the use of the word "cinnathingys."  I would love to know if "jonesing" exists and if I am using it correctly. -- Lee Ana, via the internet.

"Jonesing" certainly does exist, but the sense in which you were using "jones" as a verb meaning "to crave, to desire strongly" is a broadening and softening of what was originally a very grim term.  When "jones" first appeared in African-American slang in the early 1960s, it was as a noun meaning "a drug addiction, especially to heroin."

The proper name "Jones" is, of course, very common in the US and Britain (in fact, I am named after my great-grandfather, Col. Evan Nathanael Jones).  But research since the 1960s into why "jones" took on the slang connotation of "a drug habit" has, unfortunately, run aground on lack of evidence.  It may be that there once was an infamous drug dealer by that name, of course, or that "Mister Jones" was a common euphemism for one's local heroin pusher.  "Mister Jones" did serve in mid-20th century slang as a personification of a powerful and insular social elite (as in Bob Dylan's song "Ballad of a Thin Man" with its refrain of "Because something is happening here, But you don't know what it is, Do you, Mister Jones?"), making it the rough equivalent of "The Man."  It may be that "jones" in the drug sense thus arose as a reference to powers outside the community's control that were considered responsible for the oppression and devastation caused by drug addiction. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that "jones" in the drug addiction sense has always been used negatively.  Whoever this "Jones" was, he was nobody's friend.

 In any case, by about 1970, "jones" had percolated into more widespread slang use in its modern "gotta have it" sense.

Yo, Stupid.

Dear Word Detective:  I call my husband a "knucklehead" about four times a day and figured I should at least understand the origins of what I am saying.  My only guess was that it has something to do with boxing and that groggy, stupid feeling of being punch drunk. -- Anonymous, via the internet.

Four times a day?  Hmm.  Seems a little excessive.  Then again, perhaps you husband doesn't mind because he's really not listening, which is probably what prompts you to call him "knucklehead" in the first place.  I would suggest that you substitute a random man's name (i.e., not your husband's) for "knucklehead" every few days (e.g., "Pick up your underwear, Ramon!").  My guess is that he'll start paying a lot more attention to you, at least for a while.  Incidentally, I don't know why they pay advice columnists so much.  This stuff is a snap.

Before we get to "knucklehead," I have some good news.  The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), a multi-volume project that was scuttled after just two volumes when Random House foolishly decided to scrap its entire dictionary division, has been rescued by Oxford University Press, which will publish the remaining volumes over the next few years.  Oxford's heroic rescue makes perfect sense, as the HDAS aims to apply the same rigorous approach to documenting American slang as the Oxford English Dictionary has brought to standard English.

What brings the HDAS to mind is that "knucklehead," meaning a stupid or slow-witted person, is classic US slang dating back to the period of World War II.  Apparently "knucklehead" arose as a variant of "bonehead," meaning that a stupid person has a thick skull impervious to listening or learning.  (The word "knuckle," meaning the end of a bone at a joint, itself comes from a Germanic root meaning "little bone.")  There's some evidence that "knucklehead" was originally military slang.

While "knucklehead" is of relatively recent vintage, a similar term, "chucklehead," dates back to the 18th century, and has nothing to do with "chuckle" in the sense of quiet laughter.  The "chuck" in "chucklehead" is the same as "chock," meaning a large block of wood.  So a "chucklehead" behaves like a "blockhead" with a head made of thick wood.



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