Issue of September 29, 2006

Page Three


A whim and a prayer.

Dear Word Detective: I have just encountered the word "carious" in a book I am reading, and as always when I find an unfamiliar word (I am fairly literate, and know many words), I checked your website and Wikipedia. As neither features the word, I thought I'd ask. It seems likely that it is a root of "precarious," but that doesn't tell me what the exact meaning is, nor the roots. Help? -- Beth.

Well, golly, I don't see the problem here. If you can't find what you want at the free collaborative web encyclopedia Wikipedia (, just make something up and add it to the site. Just kidding, of course. Most of Wikipedia is eminently trustworthy and very useful. Most of it.

Your suspicion about "carious" being related to "precarious" is perfectly logical. If the prefix "pre" usually signifies "before" and "precarious" means "unstable," "insecure" and "risky," perhaps "carious" is the stage beyond "risky," when disaster is at hand and it's too late to buy insurance.

Unfortunately, this is another of those cases when English isn't that logical. "Precarious" and "carious" are completely unrelated words. "Carious" may be hard to find in the average dictionary, but most of us are familiar with its root, "caries," as in "dental caries," as in "cavities." From Latin, "caries" is decay of the bones or teeth, and "carious" simply means "afflicted with caries or decay" or, in a word, rotten. "Carious," which first appeared in English in the 16th century, is also used in a metaphorical sense to mean "decayed or rotten," as in "The carious electoral system in some states produced strange results."

"Precarious," on the other hand, has a considerably loftier origin. "Precarious" in Latin meant "obtained by prayer or request" (based on "prex," prayer), and when introduced to English in the 17th century, "precarious" was a legal term meaning "held at the pleasure of another." If I lived on land granted to me by the King, for instance, my tenancy was "precarious" in that it depended on the King's whim rather than law. Since depending on the favor of another is by definition not conducive to sound sleep at night, "precarious" took on the more general meaning of "unstable" or "risky" by the 18th century.




Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the phrase "coming down the pike"? One reference I saw says it refers to an entertainment-filled walkway at the 1904 World's Fair. I'd only be slightly more suspicious of that explanation if it were dated April 1 or used a pre-WWII acronym, given that the word "turnpike" goes back quite a bit further than 1900. What's the actual origin of the phrase? -- Gene.

Oh boy, another encounter with the travel industry. The link you sent along with your question led to a press release apparently prepared to promote the 2004 "Fair Saint Louis," a commemoration of the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair. The release boldly declares that "The expression Coming down The Pike owes its origin to the Fair," and a bit further on explains that "Among the most memorable features of the 1904 World's Fair was a walkway known as The Pike. It was the most extravagant entertainment area ever constructed at that time. Visitors were so stunned they would say 'there was always something new coming down The Pike.'"

Well, your suspicions are richly justified. That story is simply silly. For one thing, the phrase "coming down the pike" has been found in print in 1901, long before tourists in Saint Louis were "stunned" by the miracles of that walkway, and the phrase had almost certainly been in oral use years before it made it into print. One wonders what it is that makes travel promoters and tour guides such prolific purveyors (and often inventors) of this sort of etymological nonsense. Is it the boredom of the job? The pressure to lend a generic street fair a little historical glitz? Or do all the fabulists and con artists canned by big newspapers end up toiling over a typewriter in some hut in Yosemite?

As I said, "coming down the pike," meaning in a figurative sense "appearing on the scene now or in the near future," first appeared in print in 1901. The "pike" is, as you implied, simply short for "turnpike," a road or highway where a toll is charged for passage. The "pike" in "turnpike" originally referred to the barrier ("pike" being a very old word for "spear") which was raised or turned aside to allow the traveler to proceed once the fee had been paid. As turnpikes tended to be major roads, it was possible to see the approach of a traveler well in advance, and if someone new arrived in town, it was probable that he or she had "come down the pike" to get there.



Not to mention Larry the Bat.

Dear Word Detective: My wife and I have recently had a baby girl to follow our baby boy of two years ago. Everyone has been congratulating us on our "pigeon pair." What does this mean actually? Where did the term originate? Any ideas? -- Joe.

Gee, I miss pigeons. I was a big fan of pigeons when I lived in New York City, but out here in the country the closest things we have are mourning doves, birds so stupid they make pigeons seem like shoo-ins for Mensa. We do, however, have a pair of fairly smart turkey vultures, named Monroe and Babs, that nest in one of our trees every spring. They're fun to watch once you get over the sense of doom that comes from vultures circling your house all day.

What we usually call a "pigeon" is a member of the dove family, of which there are actually more than 300 varieties. Pigeons found in US and European cities are usually of the "Rock Dove" or "Rock Pigeon" variety, the name coming from the creature's natural habitat in coastal cliffs. In New York City, they are sometimes called "flying rats," which really isn't fair to the much smarter rat. We'd all better hope rats never learn to fly. Pigeons are known for their extraordinary sense of direction, so if you're ever lost in New York, don't hesitate to ask the nearest flock for help. Especially if you're trying to get to Bellevue.

Like all doves, pigeons lay two eggs at a time in their simple little nests, and thereby hangs the tale of "pigeon pair." Legend has it that pigeon broods always consist of one male chick and one female chick, which then grow up to mate and live together for life. Evidently whoever came up with that legend had never taken basic biology, since inbreeding on such a scale would be a genetic disaster for the species. But as a rather hokey invocation of symmetry and balance in nature, "pigeon pair" has been applied to human babies since the mid-19th century. The primary meaning of "pigeon pair" is a boy and a girl who are twins, but an extended sense encompasses your situation, a boy and girl born a bit apart but constituting (at least for the moment) the only children in the family.



I know you are, but what am I?

Dear Word Detective: My friend and I were talking and we could not figure out if the phrase was "Open says me" or "Open sesame." If it's "open sesame" then where did it originate? -- Jessica Mairs.

It's "open sesame." "Open says me" is something you hear in a really insipid argument, the kind that usually begins with "Open da door," progresses to "Says who?" and "Says me," and eventually culminates in such sparkling rejoinders as "Yeah? Well, you're a bigger one." There are, of course, more refined versions of this dialog. People with advanced degrees often feel, in such situations, the need to replace "Says me" with "Says I," which explains why their insurance rates are generally higher. Nobody likes a grammar snob.

Although most of us associate "open sesame" with either cartoons or cheesy magic acts, the phrase actually has a respectable literary pedigree. In the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (one of the stories spun by Scheherazade in of the Book of One Thousand and One Nights), Ali Baba discovers that the thieves' cave full of treasure can be unlocked with the words "open sesame." Armed with this secret, Ali Baba steals the thieves' loot and various hijinks ensue (albeit hijinks involving several dozen lurid murders). The story of Ali Baba is probably the best known of the Thousand and One Nights stories (others include the story of Sinbad the Sailor), but the entire work, composed in the Middle East between the 8th and 14th centuries, is considered a classic epic and is thought to incorporate even older legends from the region. The first published western edition was a translation into French by Antoine Galland in 1715. The story of Scheherazade, the young bride who tells cliffhanging tales for all those nights to hold the attention of her husband the King (and stave off her own execution) has been the basis for several Hollywood films.

The story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was sufficiently popular in the West to make "open sesame" a popular figure of speech by the early 19th century, and today it's also used to mean something that provides magical access to what would ordinarily be unobtainable ("Bob's friendship with the roadie was an open sesame for us to get backstage"). And an "open sesame" always works better than "Open says me."

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"



Ode to hosiery.

Dear Word Detective: Now in my third year of law school, I've grown accustomed to encountering judicial opinions written as much to show off a judge's word power as to decide a case. Sometimes this drives me to a legal dictionary, but today I read a line in an opinion from a federal appeals court that forced me to consult a regular dictionary: "The sockdolager is that the original drafters certainly intended that the two subparagraphs of the rule be harmonized, not balkanized." Setting aside the subsequent legalese, where in the world did the word "sockdolager" come from? It was completely unfamiliar to me, and although my dictionary defines it as "something that settles a matter : a decisive blow or answer," that same dictionary pleads ignorance on etymology. My stab in the dark is that this is some quirky New England Yankee term, since the court in question sits in Massachusetts. But aside from that speculation, I must throw myself on the mercy of the Word Detective! -- Matthew Grieco, New York, NY.

It must be tempting for judges to pepper their opinions with obscure words, knowing as they do that generations of law students (as well as practicing attorneys and fellow judges) will be forced to puzzle over their vocabulary. In the case of "sockdolager," Hizzoner has picked a doozie, albeit one on the cusp of retirement. "Sockdolager" is rarely heard today outside of historical novels.

Twas not always thus, however. According to "America In So Many Words," David Barnhart and Alan Metcalf's nifty compendium of words invented in the New World, "sockdolager" was one of a rash of "ten dollar words" coined in the early 19th century US. Others included the even more obscure ""callithumpian" (a noisy parade) and "snollygoster" (a political job-seeker).

The primary meaning of "sockdolager" was indeed "a decisive blow" when it first appeared in the 1820s, but a secondary meaning of "something exceptional" had appeared by 1838. The "sock" element is almost certainly the same "sock" we use to mean "a heavy blow" (of unknown origin, but apparently unrelated to the "foot" sort of "sock").

The "dolager" element of the word may be simply random (this is a made-up word, after all), but some authorities have suggested a connection to "doxology," a short hymn of praise often used as the conclusion to a religious service.



Land o' Goshen, whatever that means.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering where the term "I swan" came from. -- Charles.

Good question. I actually answered this one about seven years ago, but it was buried in a column about another form of the term, "I swannee," and we got a bit tangled up in speculation about possible connections to (and the exact location of) the Swannee River. There's no connection, by the way, in case you were wondering. I'd forget it if I were you. In fact, let's just start all over.

"I swan" is a phrase used mostly in the American South and midwest to express amazement, often in the context of relating surprising news about someone (i.e., gossip). I had never encountered "I swan" spoken in real life (as opposed to novels and movies) until I spent time with my mother-in-law in Ohio, who had a habit of relating family rumors and scandals in a breathless monologue invariably ending in a resigned "I swan" spoken in a tone that meant "I don't know what the world is coming to." She also used "I swan" as an interjection to react to surprising news, as in "I swan, doesn't that boy know that will go on his permanent record?" She was also the only person I ever heard use the expression "land sakes" in real life, but that's probably just because I grew up in Connecticut.

"I swan" is generally used as the equivalent of "I do declare," which makes perfect sense since the two phrases are essentially professions of sincerity. "I swan" is apparently derived from the northern English dialectical pronunciation of "I shall warrant" (meaning "I shall be bound by my word; I promise I am speaking the truth"), which probably sounded like a slurred "I s'wan." The longer form "I shall warrant you," pronounced "I s'wan ye," gave us the form "I swannee" or "I swanny," still common in the South. None of this, of course, has any connection to actual swans.

Oddly enough, given their background, both "I swan" and "I swanny" are considered Americanisms and never gained much of a foothold in Britain. One reason for the continued use of "I swan" and its variants on this side of the Atlantic may be that, because of their initial consonants (that "sw" sound), they also serve as handy euphemisms for "I swear," an expression considered by many to be itself blasphemous. This would make "I swan" a member of the not-fooling-anybody group of euphemisms that includes such old standbys as "gosh" and "golly" (for "God") and "darn" for "damn."


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