Issue of September 29, 2006

Page Two


Back off.

Dear Word Detective: I have just read from my textbook a phrase "keep/hold sb. at bay." Would you be so kind as to tell me what "bay" here means? -- Bernedette.

Good question. Incidentally, you don't say what kind of textbook contains that phrase, but "sb." is the usual abbreviation for "substantive," the linguistics term for a word or group of words used as a noun.

To "keep or hold at bay" is a very common English idiom meaning "to keep something or someone away, in check, or under control." Around here,for instance, we spend every winter trying to keep colds and the flu "at bay," and, come April, we begin the annual chore of holding the IRS "at bay."

Pinning down the exact sense of "bay" found in "at bay" isn't made any easier by the fact that English has way too many "bays" in the first place. The Oxford English Dictionary lists nine "bay" nouns, six "bay" verbs and one adjective, many of which are truly distinct words with their own separate origins. Among other things, "bay" can mean "an inlet of an ocean," "a recessed opening in a wall" (from an Old French word meaning "to yawn"), a kind of shrub (the source of "bay leaves"), a reddish color (as in a "bay mare"), and "the howl of a hound" (from the Old French "bayer," imitative of the actual sound of a dog howling).

It's that last, "howling dog," sense of "bay" that gave us "at bay." When "bay" first appeared in this sense in English around 1300, it meant the chorus of howling barks of a pack of hunting hounds in hot pursuit of their prey. (This "bay" as "howling bark" also is used in the phrase "baying at the moon," which some dogs lacking access to television are known to do.)

In the final stage of such a grim chase, the hunted animal (fox, raccoon, etc.) will often find itself cornered and turn to face the pursuing pack. If the animal is sufficiently determined (and who wouldn't be?), it may be able to at least temporarily repel the dogs, rendering them able only to stand and howl, thus keeping them "at bay."

As a metaphor for holding off difficulties (and making a perhaps ultimately futile last stand), "to hold at bay" was in use applied to humans and their problems by the 16th century.




Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "guff" (as in "Don't take any guff from anyone") come from? And what exactly does it mean? -- Jesse.

What is "guff"? Well, as the old Palmolive dishwashing soap commercials used to say, "You're soaking in it." (The premise of the ads, which ran from 1966-92, was that Madge, a deranged manicurist who apparently owned a hefty chunk of stock in Palmolive, routinely dunked her clueless customers' paws in the stuff.)

"Guff" is the polar opposite of a straight answer. "Guff" is a lie so transparent that the liar knows you know he's lying, but he says it anyway. One is tempted to say that we are living in the Age of Guff, a uniquely duplicitous time, but that seems unlikely given the number of synonyms English has for "guff": nonsense, baloney, balderdash, blather, humbug, bunk, poppycock, hooey, twaddle, claptrap, hogwash, hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, applesauce, blarney, and, of course, bull-bleep and its equine variety. It takes centuries to develop that many flavors of untruth.

"Guff" is actually a bit more recent than many of its synonyms, first appearing in English in the early 19th century. But when "guff" first appeared, it didn't mean "nonsense," and thereby lies the key to its derivation. "Guff" originally meant "a puff or gust of wind" or "an unpleasant smell," and was apparently an onomatopoeic or "echoic" formation, meaning that the sound of the word itself was meant to evoke the sound of a puff of wind. The use of "guff" to mean "nonsense," which began in the late 1880s, likened a speaker's specious proclamations to gusts of empty air, perhaps bearing a foul odor. The same metaphor is found in terms such as "hot air" for meaningless speech and "windy" or "blowhard" for someone who talks a great deal without actually saying anything of substance.

Since there is no lack of words in English meaning "nonsense" and the like, "guff" seems to have taken on the slightly specialized meaning of "insolent nonsense or back talk." So when your new shoes fall apart after two days and the clerk says they can't be returned because they've been worn, that's pure "guff."



Yesterday's hair.

Dear Word Detective: Once again, I have found in my reading several words that I have seen, but for which I do not know the meaning. "The Dream Lovers" by Lawrence Sanders is a great story, set in 1920's Hollywood. I do not have the list of terms I wondered about, but I have wondered for years what "marcelled" hair looks like. I am also quite curious as to what a "cloche" hat is like. Here's hoping you can help! -- Beth.

I know the feeling. My main problem in reading novels, especially long ones, is keeping the characters straight. There was a time when authors would often provide a sort of cast list in the front of the book to which you could jump if someone named Gustav de Baconbits suddenly materialized on page 437 and all the other actors hailed his blessed return (from where?). But modern writers seem to find that sort of reader-coddling demeaning. The conventions of an alien milieu -- hairstyles, popular culture, etc. -- can also be mysterious, but it's comforting to know that someday readers will be wondering what iPods were. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile, I believe I can help. "Marcelled" hair is hair that has been set in deep waves by means of hot curling tongs. The name of the "marcelling" process derives from its inventor, François Marcel Grateau (1852-1936), a French astrophysicist. No, just kidding. He was a hairdresser. "Marcelled" hair was all the rage in the early years of the 20th century.

"Cloche" hats were popular during the same period, which makes me wonder how well "marcelled" hair stood up under them. A "cloche" hat is shaped like a deep bell ("cloche" being French for "bell") or helmet, with a high crown and a narrow brim, worn pulled down tightly over the head and almost covering the eyes. Although the cloche hat was popular in various forms from the turn of the century until the 1930s, it is most strongly associated with the "flapper" era of the 1920s.



Succulent bromeliads I have known.

Dear Word Detective: I've often wondered about the origin of the word "pineapple." Whenever I ponder the point (usually while enjoying the delicious fruit,) everyone I'm with declares "Oh, that's obvious!" and then goes on to share their version of the "obvious" word origin. I've been told that the spiny fruit is named for its resemblance to a pine cone and that "apple" is the generic term for all fruit due to some edenic generalization. My Hawaiian roommate is positive that it comes from some long lost Hawaiian word (or possibly because transplanted Hawaiians "pine" for home and its luscious fruits), and other people have told me it comes from Spanish. The internet hasn't been much help either, with its conflicting origins, and while I see that the Latin word for the fruit, Ananas comosus, must be the origin of "pineapple" in French, I don't see a connection to the English. Can you help settle this once and for all so that I may enjoy this succulent bromeliad with peace of mind? -- Alycia.

Hmm. I must say that I don't remember ever wondering that much about the name of the food I was eating, except, of course, in the case of hot dogs. To a child, of course, many food names are mysterious and sometimes ominous. There are foods I avoided at first because of their names, such as beets, which I later discovered I actually liked. Then there are foods which lived up to my original distaste for their names, such as eggplant and cauliflower. That ain't no flower, folks.

I like your friend's theory about Hawaiians "pining" (from the Latin "poena," pain) for their homeland, although pineapples are, in fact, native to South America. But the "pine cone" explanation you've heard is essentially the truth. When "pineapple" first appeared in English in the late 14th century, it referred to what we now call the "pine cone" or, a bit later, to the seeds ("pine nuts") of the pine tree. During this period "apple" was indeed applied to nearly any sort of fruit, so "pineapple" meant simply the "fruit" (so to speak) of the pine tree. When European explorers were introduced to Ananas comosus in the Caribbean, its shape reminded them of a "pineapple" from a pine tree, so, in the 17th century, they applied that name to the new fruit. That meant, of course, that English had two "pineapples," so the one from the pine tree was gradually re-christened a "pine cone."



Pat pat.

Dear Word Detective: When someone is upset it is common for their friend to comfort them by saying, "There, there." I want to know "where, where"? What's the background to this saying? -- Elín.

Now, there's a good question. As a matter of fact, how about "Now, now," as in "Now, now, Senator, you'll be out in time to see your grandchildren graduate"? There's a bit of a sterner tone in "Now, now" compared to the warm consolation of "There, there," but it's every bit as weird.

Then again, "there" is a fairly weird word to begin with. Its primary use is as a "demonstrative adverb," a word expressing relative position or locality. "There" (which shares the same root, the ancient Germanic "to," as "that" and "the") is basically used to mean "at or in that place" (and related figurative senses) making "there" the opposite of "here."

As you'd expect from a word so old, "there" has acquired a wide range of idiomatic uses not confined to meaning "at that place" or "in that locality." It can be used to draw attention to a third party or thing close by, as in "Your assistant there seems to be foaming at the mouth." It can be used as a brusque form of address, as in "You there -- peel me a grape." It can be used for emphasis in colloquial speech, as in "That there dog tried to bite me, officer." "There" is also used in a variety of verbal constructions to indicate the existence of a person or thing not actually present, as in "Don't forget that there's Bill's birthday party on Sunday," or, if one does forget, "There's always next year."

The consolation of that "there's always next year" is the key to "There, there" as a comforting verbal gesture. Its role is to say "Look there, there's something good amid the bad." In fact the comforter often goes on to name the supposedly consoling thing, as in "There, there, she wasn't your type anyway" or "There, there, it's only money."

"Now, now" is a similar verbal mechanism, but in this case it is derived from "now" as a prelude to a command ("Now do what I say!"). "Now, now" is a way of saying "Stop and listen" (as in "Now, now, children, quiet down!").

Interestingly, both "There, there" and "Now, now" are fairly recent inventions, first appearing in those senses in the 19th century.




Dear Word Detective: I was researching the origin of the word "yup" and Google sent me to your discussion about the term "sea change" being found in The Tempest. You wrote, "Well, as old William Shakespeare himself would say, 'yup."' I did not find any mention, beyond your Shakespearean quote, of "yup" on your web site. Did someone other than Shakespeare create the word "yup"? -- Linda Roberts.

Yup. Actually, if you read that sentence you quoted closely, you'll notice that I never said that Shakespeare said (or wrote) "yup." I said that he "would" have said "yup." I meant that he would have said it if he'd been born in, say, Texas, sometime after about 1900. As it happened, however, boy Willie was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His equivalent of "yup" was probably something along the lines of "verily" or "forsooth," neither of which has ever been very popular in Texas.

The story of "yup" is a short one. "Yup" is simply an informal or dialectical variant of "yes." The only surprising thing about "yup" is that it apparently isn't older than it is. The earliest occurrence of "yup" in print found so far dates only to 1906, although it may have been in use orally for quite a while before then. The equally laconic "yep" is apparently a bit older, at least in print, having first hit the page (as far as we know) in 1891. (I'm using the qualifiers "found so far" and "as far as we know" because there will almost certainly be earlier instances found someday, although probably not dramatically earlier ones.) "Nope," simply "no" with what the Oxford English Dictionary considers the "apparently arbitrary extension" of "pe," appeared roughly at the same time, around 1888.

As for who coined "yup," and "yep" and "nope" for that matter, it is unlikely that we will ever know. In fact, such simple variants were almost certainly "invented" countless times before they became widespread. We can assume, however, that "yup" and its cousins first appeared in rural or working-class usage.

Incidentally, little old "yes" is a more complicated word than one might think. It appears to have developed in Old English from "gise," meaning roughly "so be it," which was formed from "gea" (meaning "yes" and also the source of "yea") and "si" (meaning "let it be so"). It was originally used as a stronger form of "yea," but "yea" gradually faded away.


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