Issue of September 29, 2006


Not much to say this month, except that this issue consists of eighteen, as opposed to the usual twelve, columns.

I'd also like to thank all the readers who have written me over the past few months about my mysterious affliction. It now appears, according to better MRI evidence, that I do, indeed, have em-ess (don't want to set off those depressing Google ads again), although I remain a bit skeptical. Then again, I didn't believe that the US Congress would actually abrogate the Geneva Conventions and the Magna Carta all in one day, so I'm clearly out of touch with the New Reality.

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

-- A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt.

As always, the circus rolls on at da blog.

And now, on with the show:


Bright shiny lies.

Dear Word Detective: My local paper recently quoted a local politician as saying his opponent's statement was a "bold face lie." I had always thought those lies were "bare faced." Which is it, and why? -- Edward Jones.

I don't blame you for being a bit taken aback by encountering "bold face" where "bare faced" might be expected. "Bare faced" (more commonly rendered as "barefaced," one word) dates back to the late 16th century. Shakespeare used the term both in its literal sense, "having no beard or other covering on the face," and in the figurative sense of "undisguised." By the late 17th century, "barefaced" had acquired its modern figurative meaning of "shameless and audacious." A similar term with a similar history, "baldfaced," arose around the same time and also came to mean "bold and unapologetic."

"Bold-faced" is also not a new coinage, having also appeared in Shakespeare in the late 16th century meaning "having a bold, confident and (often) impudent look." The more familiar use of "bold-faced" to designate an imposing style of type is far more recent, appearing only in the late 19th century. This new meaning essentially ran the old one out of town -- "bold-faced" in the "impudent" sense seems to have faded away as the "fat type" sense became popular.

The sudden reappearance of "bold face" (or "bold-faced") is, therefore, almost certainly due to confusion with "barefaced" and/or "baldfaced." It's a good example of a shifting of the form of a word that linguists have recently dubbed an "eggcorn." An individual hears a common word or phrase and, when later using it, unconsciously changes it to something that sounds like the original, but makes a bit more "sense." The term "eggcorn" itself, for example, was coined (by linguist Geoffrey Pullum) when fellow linguist Mark Lieberman noticed that someone had written "eggcorn" when "acorn" was clearly meant. But "acorn" is an opaque term that means nothing to the average person, while "eggcorn" carries the obvious sense of something that one plants (like corn) which will hatch (into an oak, in this case). It's that element of demented logic that makes "eggcorns" fun to find and track. It turns out, for instance, that "barefaced" itself is now cropping up in print rendered as "bear-faced," along with such weird "bare/bear" substitutions such as "bear-knuckled" and "bear-handed." There is, fortunately, now an online database of eggcorns, where you can catch late-breaking discoveries like "cut to the cheese" and "put the cat before the horse."



Hold it right there.

Dear Word Detective: Today on the headline is "Spacecraft breaking for Mars." The headline refers to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is finishing its long journey and transitioning into an orbit around the Red Planet. So, I'm figuring that CNN really means "braking" for Mars. Am I correct that if they're right the poor spacecraft should be in the process of falling apart instead of happily settling down to start spying on the peace-loving Martians? This leads to the real question: "brake" versus "break." What are the origins of each? -- Chris Schultz, Kansas City.

Yeah, right, "peace-loving Martians." Have you ever seen what slime mold does to the siding on a house? Let me tell you, we've got a few billion of your little "peace-loving" pals living in our cellar, and sometimes, when it's really quiet late at night, I can actually hear them plotting against us.

I agree that the CNN headline is probably a mistake, unless the spacecraft had been scheduled to go to, say, Saturn, and decided on its own to "make a break" for Mars, perhaps because it had been commandeered by homesick slime mold. If the headline was indeed a mistake, it's far from unusual. CNN's copy editors were apparently slimed by the Martians a long time ago.

"Brake" and "break" are two separate words in English, although there may have been (in keeping with our theme today) a bit of cross-pollination between them at some point.

Of the two words, "break" is by far the older, traceable back to the Proto-Indo-European root "bhreg," which also gave us, via the Latin "frangere," our modern words "fracture" and "fraction." The basic meaning of "break" has been, since it first appeared in Old English, "to sever into distinct parts," usually by force, but in figurative senses "break" can mean "to disable, damage or destroy" (as in "break one's heart"), violate ("break a treaty"), open up, expose ("break the code"), and several dozen related senses.

"Brake" in the "slow down" sense is a much more recent word, but its history is a study in obscurity. The Oxford English Dictionary lists seven separate "brake" nouns, some of which may be related to "break," but the one meaning "mechanism for slowing" appears to derive either from the Old French "bras," meaning "arm," applied to a lever which slows a wheel, or from a form of "brake" meaning a nose ring used to control an ox.



Nasty bits.

Dear Word Detective: I realize you deal with words, not phrases, but perhaps you could enlighten me to the origins of the following phrase: "Like the vicar's egg: good in parts." I have no idea where this could come from, not even a best guess. -- Dustin.

I actually answered this question (or one like it) about ten years ago, but, since many of you were busy learning the Macarena at the time, we'll give it another shot. Speaking of faded fads, I am pleased to announce that, after many years of practice, I have at last become quite adept at solving Rubik's Cube. Hello? Anyone out there? Don't I get a prize?

If you've been searching for an explanation of "the Vicar's egg," that may be part of the mystery right there. The phrase is actually "a curate's egg," a "curate" being an assistant priest or deacon (from the Latin "curatus," one who "looks after" souls).

One of the things I like about "a curate's egg" is that we can precisely pinpoint its origin. George du Maurier (1834 - 1896) was a British author and illustrator who, in 1865, became a cartoonist for the classic British satire magazine Punch. In 1895 (apparently after du Maurier had retired from its staff, oddly enough), Punch published his most famous cartoon, titled "True Humility" (right). In it a young curate is having breakfast with his bishop, who, perhaps noting an unpleasant odor emanating from his guest's plate, says, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones." The curate, eager to please, replies, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

The curate's desperately polite answer is preposterous, of course; the egg may be partly good, but the bad bits ruin the whole thing. Thanks to the popularity of Punch, "a curate's egg" and "parts of it are excellent" soon became popular catch phrases for anything (a vacation, for example) whose good parts are overshadowed by the bad. Occasionally you'll hear "a curate's egg" used to mean simply "partly good and partly bad," but that misses the whole point of du Maurier's joke.

After leaving Punch, incidentally, du Maurier went on to write several novels, including "Trilby," which gave the world the term "Svengali." His granddaughter Daphne du Maurier wrote "Rebecca" and "The Birds," both of which eventually became classic Alfred Hitchcock films.



And the popcorn tasted vaguely of fish.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the use of "pan" to denote criticism? -- Mike Miller.

Good question, but I should point out that "pan" as a verb doesn't mean simply "to criticize." It means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "To criticize severely; to express disapproval of; to judge (a performance, etc.) to be unsuccessful or inadequate." If I were to say that the recent film "Syriana" would have benefited from a bit more clarity in its script, that would be criticism. But when I say that, in my humble opinion, this year's reiteration of "King Kong" was a bloated, boring mess with the all the depth and soul of a cheap video game, I'm definitely "panning" it. I'd like my four hours back now, please.

This use of "pan" as a verb to mean "demolish with severe criticism" is relatively recent, dating to the beginning of the 20th century. "Pan" itself is, not surprisingly, a very old word, and its Germanic ancestors may have been borrowed from the Latin "patina," meaning "shallow pan or dish." Since pans are among the most basic of cooking implements, "pan" has acquired a wide range of figurative and extended meanings in English.

When a project or enterprise fails, for instance, we say that it "didn't pan out," in this case the "pan" being the sort used by prospectors in the American West of yesteryear (great word) to sift gold nuggets from sand. If we do succeed in our endeavors at first, but fail in the long run, we may be termed "a flash in the pan." The "pan" in that phrase was the small concave platform that held the primer on a old flintlock rifle. If the flint sparked the primer in the pan, but the primer failed to ignite the main charge and fire the gun, the only result would be a useless "flash in the pan," making a good metaphor for sound and fury accomplishing nothing. And if we can bear disappointment (or other strong feelings) without showing emotion in our face, we are said to maintain a "deadpan" expression, "pan" in this case being slang dating to the 1920s for the human face.

The logic behind "pan" in the "harshly criticize" sense is something of a mystery, but it may well be connected to the use of "pan" meaning "to hit or strike" (presumably originally literally with a pan), which has been found in print as of the 1940s but probably was in spoken use long before then.



Chickens unfair to eggs!

Dear Word Detective: Why are people who walk back and forth while on strike, individual vertical boards on a fence, and military men posted at intervals, called "pickets"? What is the origin of that word? I have often wondered if the boards were called "pickets" because they looked like a line of soldiers, or soldiers were called "pickets" because they were lined up like boards. -- Mike D.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Pete and Re-Pete went out in a boat, Pete fell out and who was left? Which came first, the Chicken McNuggets or the Egg McMuffin? Such questions are eternal mysteries, essentially unanswerable. But with yours I think we have a good shot at a solution.

The basic meaning of the noun "picket," which first appeared in English in the 17th century was "pointed stick or stake." The word was adapted from the French "piquet," which was in turn derived from the Vulgar Latin "piccare," meaning "to pierce, poke a hole in" (also the source of our "pick" and "peak," the pointy part of a mountain).

The earliest use of "picket" as a noun in English was to mean a pointed stake driven into the ground, especially to mark a position, to support a fence, or to tether a soldier's horse. This last use led to the use of "picket" to mean the practice of posting troops at fixed positions to watch for the approach of the enemy (which soldiers called "picket duty"). It was this use of "picket" that gave us the modern sense of "picket line," wherein striking workers and their supporters form a line outside the site of a labor strike in an attempt to discourage workers or customers from entering. This sense dates to about 1867. So the "fence" sense of "picket" predates both the "soldiers keeping watch" and the "workers on strike" senses.

Speaking of sharp sticks driven into the ground to support fences, an old name for such a such a thing is "pale," from the same Latin root that gave us "pole." From the 15th century on, "pale" was also used in a figurative sense to mean "territory within a certain jurisdiction," as if it were enclosed by a fence. Since political control was often considered synonymous with civilization by those doing the controlling, to be "beyond the pale" became a metaphor for any behavior considered "uncivilized" or "barbarous."




Dear Word Detective: My mother uses this word that I've never been able to find in a dictionary, so I don't even know how to spell it. It's the verb "to skieve," which she says means "to shiver in revulsion or distaste." Elaine did it on Seinfeld when she was telling Jerry about how Kramer saw her naked. Her whole body did this shudder. Have you ever heard anyone use "skieve"? Mom grew up in the Bronx in a Sicilian and Jewish neighborhood, so maybe she picked it up there. -- Mary E. Maxwell.

Hey, Da Bronx. Did you know that the borough of New York City now called "the Bronx" takes its name from Jonas Bronck, a Swedish-Dutch sea captain who settled in 1639 on a 500-acre farm north of Manhattan? Supposedly the area was known thereafter as "Bronck's land" or "the Broncks' land" and, eventually, just "the Bronx."

I must admit that I don't remember the particular episode of Seinfeld to which you refer, but, given the show's permanence in the late-night rerun roster, I have no doubt that I'll catch it someday, probably while eating my mush in a fly-specked community room somewhere in Geezerland. In any case, you don't specify whether Elaine actually used the word "skeeve" (as it's usually spelled), but the word is definitely in character for her both personally and geographically.

"To skeeve" does indeed mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it in a draft entry, "To disgust (someone), to repel; to make uncomfortable." It can be used in two transitive senses: my behavior can "skeeve you out," or you may simply "skeeve" (be disgusted by) me. Oddly enough, the OED illustrates the second sense with a quote from a "Sopranos" script ("You've changed Tony. ... I swear sometimes I think you skeeve me."), but that citation properly belongs with the first sense.

"Skeeve" seems to be native to the southern New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, and dates, in the form "skeevy" (disgusting), to the mid-1970s. It appears to derive from the Italian word "schifo," meaning "nausea or disgust," which would make sense given the large Italian-American presence in South Jersey and Philadelphia.





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