Previous Columns/Posted 09/30/98

Flounders in the Flue.

Dear Word Detective: I am from the East Coast, but currently live in Indianapolis. A co-worker asked me if I knew the meaning of "flender." He said that it meant something flimsy or shabbily put together. We looked in the dictionary and could not find anything. We thought that this was just a local word, possibly derived from "flounder." Any thoughts? -- Kathy Poggi, via the Internet.

Any thoughts? A few. I was just considering what it would cost to erect a small statue to the Unknown Co-worker, the ultimate source of most of the questions I receive. I was also wondering how "flounder" could possibly be the source of a word native to Indianapolis, since the last map I saw indicated that you folks lack an ocean anywhere nearby. But it was a very cheap map and I could be wrong.

When I finally got around to thinking about "flender," I must admit that I drew a blank. Fortunately, it turns out that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "flenders" (note the "s") is an obsolete form of "flinders," probably of Scandinavian origin, meaning "fragments, pieces or splinters." "Flinders" is a very old word, first appearing in English in the 15th century, but it is still heard in parts of the U.S., primarily in New England, the Midwest and the South. The modern use of "flinders" is almost always in phrases such as "blown to flinders" or "smashed to flinders," meaning to be destroyed so thoroughly that only splinters remain. "Flinders" can also be used in a figurative sense, as in the phrases "like flinders" (in an extreme manner) and "fly to flinders" (to lose one's temper).

Now for a small leap. I submit that, because "flinders" is rarely heard today (and almost never seen in print), your coworker was making a minor error in spelling, and really ought to have been looking for "flinder," not "flender." I would further guess that "flinders," since splinters connote flimsiness, has gradually come to be used as a slang term for anything cheap, rickety, and likely to fall to splinters someday.

Did she happen to use the word "sucker" at any point?

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering where the phrase "old fogey" came from. I was talking about origins of words with my fiancée yesterday and I promised to find out. I know it's kind of silly but I promised. -- Douglas C. Moore, via the Internet.

Kind of silly? Gosh, I don't think so. I know that if my fiancée started prattling on about fogeys and then told me to go look up the word, I'd be a little worried, but that's just suspicious old me. And, after all, you did promise. Say, you didn't also happen to help her load a bunch of suitcases and stuff into her car yesterday, did you? Just wondering.

"Fogey" is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it so well, "a disrespectful appellation for a man advanced in life, especially one with antiquated notions; an old-fashioned fellow." "Fogey" (also spelled "fogy," by the way) is probably Scottish in origin, but its ultimate roots are a bit uncertain. There are, as usual, a number of theories. It's possible that "fogey" is based on an antiquated sense of "foggy," which meant "moss-covered," but my favorite theory traces it to the Scottish word "foggie," meaning a kind of brown bumblebee.

"Fogey" is almost always preceded by the slightly redundant "old," but there are, indeed, "young fogeys," a term most often used to refer to a group of young but conservative writers and novelists in Britain who came to prominence in the early 1980s. The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson is probably the "young fogey" most widely known to Americans.

Maybe it's my own age showing, but the term "fogey" doesn't seem quite as pejorative to me as it once did. My sense is that it is getting harder to pin down exactly where simple good taste leaves off and "fogeyness" begins. I would like to think that one doesn't have to be an "old fogey" or even a "young fogey" to object to the creeping fungus of tabloid TV, shock radio, and supermodels which seems to have supplanted what was left of American culture, but I may be wrong. Maybe I'm some sort of fogey after all. There are worse fates.

Hold the kippers, lads.

Dear Word Detective: We recently had the pleasure of seeing that marvelous British film, "The Full Monty" and the conversation, at Tokyo's oldest British style pub, of course, turned to the origins of the term.

The first explanation that came up centered around the famed British military leader Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery. It seems that during W.W. II, "Monty" could not go off to battle in the morning without a full English style breakfast in all its glory. (Something about the infantry traveling on its stomach perhaps?) Word of this got around and led to the phrase "the full monty" coming to mean, the complete goods or the whole deal. The other explanation had to do with one of the finest smokes on this mortal vale of tears (in this humble correspondent's opinion) a Cuban Montecristo. After dining on a full course meal, the male gentry, if they were truly living large, would light up a Montecristo as the perfect way to complete the culinary experience. In other words, a really grand dinner was "the full monty." From there, it wasn't too much of a stretch to get that meaning of complete or total. As good as both sound, are either close? -- David Shapiro, Tokyo, Japan.

They do sound good, don't they? You have lucidly set forth the two most commonly cited explanations for "the full monty." Unfortunately, both stories are almost certainly wrong. "The full monty" only appeared in general usage in Britain in the mid-1980's, far too late to have been common wartime slang, and there is no evidence connecting it to cigars.

There is, however, some evidence to indicate that "the full monty" was originally underworld slang for the "pot," or pool of money, at stake in a card game, which would certainly fit in with its current meaning of "the whole shebang." That gambling "monty" is probably related to an archaic card game called "Monte" (Spanish for "mountain"), named for the pile of cards from which players draw. Monte lives on, incidentally, in the form of "Three Card Monte," the classic con game (similar to the "shell game") common to urban street corners in the U.S.

Whoo. Whoo. Thud.

Dear Word Detective: In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous the phrase "pickled as an owl" is used to describe a man who thought he could stay sober, but the next thing he knew, he was "pickled as an owl." We know that it means he got drunk, but we can't find anyone who knows the origins of this saying. We always thought owls were much to smart to get intoxicated. Could you help us out on where in the heck this saying came from? -- Rusty Ackerman, via the internet.

I'll give it a shot. Speaking of owls (and possibly alcohol as well), I read a news item recently about two men in England, neighbors who, in the course of conversation, discovered they had a common habit. Every evening, each would step out into his back yard and exchange hoots with a unseen nearby owl. I'll bet their wives knew all along that they were hooting at each other.

Onward. There are really two parts to your question. First is the use of "pickled" as a synonym for "drunk," one of the oldest of such similes, dating back to the early 17th century. But when I say "such similes," keep in mind that there are literally hundreds of synonyms for drunkenness, over 350 of which are listed in an appendix to The Dictionary of American Slang (Wentworth and Flexner, 1975). Bent, blind, breezy, canned, cuckooed, fish-eyed, flooey, fuzzled, lathered, piped, pruned and swozzled are only a small sample. "Pickled," to the extent that logic plays a role in these terms at all, was probably based on the image of a drunk being marinated or preserved in alcohol.

As to "why an owl?", the only possible answer is "why not?" Nearly every other animal short of penguins has been maligned in this fashion. "Drunk as a" has been followed by, at various times, pig, fly, fowl, lion, fish, loon, rat, tick, mouse, newt, and, of course, skunk. Again, logic does not loom large in such imagery, but the choice of an owl may have been in reference to the perceived similarity of an owl's wide gaze to a drunk's glassy stare.


And I was saving up for the Cliff Notes,
but I really needed cherry bombs.

Dear Word Detective: A recent article in the New York Times characterized Philadelphia as "Pecksniffian." Is this a Dickensian reference? What does it mean? -- Jacque Baclace, via the Internet.

It means that the Times had better hope that it doesn't run into Philadelphia in a dark alley, that's what it means. You'll notice that those Times guys don't dare talk that way about Chicago or Detroit. They know they'd be sleeping with the fishes in a New York minute if they did. I guess Philadelphia, with all that Brotherly Love stuff, comes across as Wimp City. Still, the Times had better watch its back. I've seen how they drive in Philadelphia. Life is cheap there.

"Pecksniffian" is indeed a Dickensian reference, which is to say that it refers to a character in one of Charles Dickens' novels, in this case "Martin Chuzzlewit," published in 1844.

This seems as good a point as any to explain the dreaded Third Law of Column Writing. The Third Law states that if any reader asks about a Dickensian reference, it will inevitably be a reference to a Dickens novel the columnist never quite got around to reading. That's right, mea culpa, I've never read "Martin Chuzzlewit." I did, however, read "David Copperfield" twice, which ought to count for something.

In any case, it seems that Dickens' Mr. Pecksniff was an insufferable hypocrite, always propounding a philosophy of moral rectitude and benevolence while all the while actually being a greedy, duplicitous creep. Part of Dickens' genius was to populate his novels with characters that embodied and epitomized classic human foibles and failings. Since nearly all Dickens' readers had already encountered at least one Mr. Pecksniff in their daily lives, the term "Pecksniff" almost instantly became common shorthand for a pious hypocrite.

Just how all this could possibly apply to the City of Brotherly Love is a bit of a mystery, though I suppose the Times means to imply that Philadelphia is actually the City of Boorish Hypocrites. No wonder Philadelphia is ticked off.

Rah, rah, rah. Can I go now?

Dear Word Detective: I have been unable to find the origin of the word "southpaw." Can you help? -- Rick, via the Internet.

Oh goody, a sports question. Well, you've certainly come to the right place. I am, and I will say this with all the modesty such a noble distinction allows, the most absolutely, utterly, breath-takingly sports-illiterate person in North America. I kid you not. In fact, until just last week I was operating (happily as a clam, I must say) under the evidently erroneous impression that the Chicago Bulls are a football team. Not that it would do them much good to switch sports for my benefit, since I have never watched more than ten minutes of a football game in my life, and even that is ten minutes I would dearly like to somehow reclaim.

Still, if I were someday to become interested in a sport, I would definitely pick baseball. So it's fitting that baseball is the source of "southpaw," meaning someone, especially a baseball pitcher, who is left-handed. Incidentally, in case you're wondering whether you should trust the word of some guy who doesn't know Dennis Rodman from Dennis Day, have no fear. That's why I own so many reference books.

Let us turn, therefore, to the appropriately-titled "Southpaws and Sunday Punches," a dictionary of sporting terms penned by Christine Ammer (Penguin, 1992), "southpaw" may date back to a particular baseball field in Chicago in the late 1800s. According to legend, "southpaw" was coined because at that time the Cubs' home plate faced east, meaning that if the pitcher were left-handed, his throwing arm would be to the south. Voila, "southpaw." According to another book, "How to Talk Baseball" by Mike Whiteford (Galahad, 1996), the term was coined by Finley Peter Dunne, a sportswriter for the Chicago News, who, along with another writer, was using it "as early as 1887."

Personally, I have doubts about this story. It's a bit too perfect, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists a non-baseball citation for "south paw," meaning a punch with the left hand, from 1848. That's a bit early for the phrase to have come from baseball, although it's not absolutely impossible.

Come bear with me.

Dear Word Detective: My girlfriend asked me what I thought were the origins of the terms "bar exam" and "passing the bar." After looking up "bar" to find that one definition of the word is "the railing in a courtroom that encloses the place about the judge where prisoners are stationed or where the business of the court is transacted in civil cases," I surmised that "passing the bar" referred to entering the court of law, or, rather, being considered fit to enter the court of law by passing a "bar" examination. She, of course, disagrees and she insists that this "bar" has something to do with "raising the bar" to allow entrance. Can you help? -- Andrew Womack, via the Internet.

Honestly, I don't know what gets into you folks sometimes. Any fan of Davy Crockett knows that "bar" is simply a backwoods form of "bear." Back when our country was young and sensible, anyone wishing to become a lawyer was required to wrestle a fierce grizzly bear. In the unlikely event that the prospective lawyer won the match, he had "passed the bar," was admitted to practice law, and was usually later sued by the bear for infliction of emotional distress. This was such a sensible system that as of 1846 there were only three lawyers in the entire U.S., and they pretty much kept to themselves.

Oh, all right, that's not exactly true, although I'd like to point out that it's never too late to institute such a system. Your supposition, that the "bar" in question is the wooden one traditionally separating the lawyers, judge, and other official parties from the riffraff in a courtroom, is correct. "Bar" has been used in a metaphorical sense since 16th century England, when a lawyer admitted to practice before the court was said to have been "called to the bar." This same "bar," by the way, underlies the word "barrister," which is what the British call lawyers who appear in court (as opposed to "solicitors," who merely advise clients).

Incidentally, I believe your girlfriend may be a bit confused about what "raise the bar" means. That phrase actually comes from high jumping, where "raising the bar" makes things harder, not easier.

And this little blue one makes me want
to take all the others.

Dear Word Detective: I often hear the phrase "face the music" or "take your medicine" when one should own up to some wrongdoing. "Take your medicine" makes some sense, but "face the music"? How does the phrase relate to its use? -- John D. Bernreuter, via the Internet.

Before we face the music, let me say that if "take your medicine" as a metaphor for accepting unpleasant facts makes sense to you (as it does to me), both of us must be seriously uncool. Taking medicine seems to have become the new American hobby, with everyone gobbling their "meds" (I hate that term) from dawn to dusk, seeking relief from even the tiniest hint of discomfort. I understand that one popular antidepressant is now being marketed to dog owners, though I'm not sure whether the owner or the dog is supposed to take it.

But now it's time to face the music about "face the music," which is to say that no one knows exactly where the phrase came from. We do know that it dates back to the mid-1800s and is probably American in origin.

Some authorities believe that "face the music" comes from the musical theater, and refers to the pit orchestra that the actors or performers must face while they are on stage. "Facing the music," in this scenario, would be an allusion to actors' dogged determination to go on with the show in spite of the stage fright felt by many performers.

Another popular theory traces "face the music" to the military, possibly to a ceremony stripping a soldier of his rank to the accompaniment of a military band. This explanation is not impossible, but etymologist Robert Claiborne has come up with another one that strikes me as much more likely. The "music," Claiborne theorizes, may have been a sardonic reference to either the gunfire of battle or the loud reprimands issued by officers, either of which would be very difficult to face.

Four-wheel Fowl.

Dear Word Detective: I am currently engaged in an argument with my father-in-law over the origin of the word "jeep." He says it is a kind of Turkish land fowl, like, well, a turkey. I say it started with the odd animal with the radar-tail from the old Popeye cartoons (such animal, by the way, whose sole noise emanation was, in fact, "jeep!"). Could you please do some dirty work for me and get the goods on this weird word? -- Scott Hayes, via the Internet.

Yeah, sure, that's what I'm here for. In fact, I'd say that most of the readers who write in with questions are trying to win some sort of argument with their relatives or boss or those guys in the black helicopters. Of course, after I pronounce my verdict, no one worries about the fallout for little old me. But think about it: would you want an entire nation of fathers-in-law ticked off at you because you shot down their pet theory about "posh" or "the whole nine yards"? And you wonder why I have an unlisted telephone.

In this case, however, I may be able to mollify your father-in-law by saying that his "Turkish land fowl" theory of the origin of "jeep" definitely wins the prize for the most unusual and intriguing explanation for a common word I've heard this year. Turkeys aren't from Turkey, incidentally. (I know nobody asked, but I thought I'd throw that in.) They were dubbed "turkeys" by confusion with "Turkey cocks," game birds that actually came from Turkish colonies in Africa.

Anyway, your father-in-law is wrong about "jeep," and you are right, sort of. The word "jeep" definitely came from the name of the character "Eugene the Jeep," introduced in the Popeye comic strip in 1936. The association of "jeep" with the small four-wheel drive vehicle, however, wasn't made until a few years later. The Army designated these sturdy little trucks "General Purpose," or "G.P." for short. To soldiers raised on Popeye, the transformation of "G.P." into "jeep" was inevitable, and so pervasive that the Willys-Overland Motor Company trademarked the name "Jeep" in 1940.

Quizzical quest query quandary.
Quahog quorum. Quack quack.

Dear Word Detective: I've got one that has puzzled me for a while. In a book I read a while ago, one character said that the word "quiz" was started by a pair of drunken Irishmen. One made a bet with the other that he could introduce a new word into the English language out of thin air. He then paid some local kids to paint "quiz" all over the town, and soon everyone started using it. Also, he originally planned for it to mean "practical joke" instead of its present definition. Whether this is true or not, where does the word come from? -- Jonas, via the Internet.

Y'know, I wish for many things: universal peace and prosperity, economic justice, and a decent hot dog that isn't made from one of my little animal pals. But mostly I just wish I could find a pair of shoes that would last as long as some of the word origin stories folks write in with. The one you've heard about "quiz," for example, has been around since Hector was a pup, although the details vary. In the most common version, the "drunken Irishman" was a Dublin pub owner, and the word "quiz" was not supposed to mean anything at all.

Unfortunately, this story, although charming, is almost certainly not true. According to most versions of the story, the pub owner was named James Daley or Daly, and the incident is said to have occurred in 1791. This raises at least one major problem: "quiz" has been found in print in 1782, and is probably substantially older than that. Another problem is that in popular slang at that time, "quiz" didn't mean "practical joke" or "test," but rather "an odd person" (as in "he's a strange old quiz").

As to its ultimate origin, one possibility is that "quiz" originally came from the Latin phrase "qui es?" (meaning "who are you?"), the traditional first question on a grammar school Latin test, back when Latin was a standard part of every student's curriculum. So, according to this theory, a "quiz" came to mean any sort of test (or an odd person whose behavior was a mystery).

And for five bucks more,
we'll throw in this lovely bridge.

Dear Word Detective: I hope I'm spelling this right, but what is the origin of the word "seedy," as in a seedy motel? -- Kenneth Godwin, via the Internet.

You are indeed spelling it correctly, and you have wisely chosen the ever-popular "motel" example of "seedy," meaning shabby, run-down or disreputable. Now, if you really want a career in journalism (and who doesn't?), repeat after me: "Police apprehended the Mayor in a seedy motel out by the airport, and upon investigation discovered that he was in possession of counterfeit Beanie Babies with a street value in excess of $50,000." Incidentally, the term "street value" in such accounts refers to what you could get for the goods if you sold them to a total idiot you met on the street, and usually equals twenty times their actual value. My goal in life is to get someone to pay me "street value" for this column.

Meanwhile, back at "seedy," I think we can safely blame this one on the vegetables. I know, I know, vegetables are generally thought to be healthful and tasty and all that, but they have their dark side as well. (If you doubt this, I have two words for you: Brussels sprouts.) It seems that if vegetables are not harvested at the proper time and are left to their own devices, they will eventually "run to seed." When this happens, the plant passes from the edible stage of growth into the seed-bearing, or yucky, stage and becomes inedible, droopy and just generally a mess.

Of course, it's not just plants who degenerate this way. Restaurants, articles of clothing, parts of town, and even once-stately motels out by the airport can and often do age, fall apart, and metaphorically run to seed. Thus "seedy," which since the 16th century had meant simply "full of seeds," began to be used figuratively around 1739 to mean "shabby or ill-looking."


And, of course, a cardboard pickle.

Dear Word Detective: Would you kindly advise the etymology of "cole slaw"? -- Della Smith, via the Internet.

I don't know if this is true in the rest of the U.S., but if you go into a coffee shop or diner in New York City and order nearly anything on the menu, you'll find that your meal comes with a small paper tub of cole slaw perched on the edge of the plate. The remarkable thing is that no matter where you dine, the cole slaw always looks and tastes exactly the same. Now, I'm not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but one day recently the truth finally dawned on me. Somewhere out there is a huge factory, a humongous Central Cole Slaw, concocting this stuff by the ton, loading it onto huge trucks and shipping it to diners all over the city in the dead of night.

Cole slaw, of course, is a salad made from shredded or chopped cabbage. What else goes into cole slaw depends on which dictionary you read. The Oxford English Dictionary prefers the cabbage "dressed with salt, pepper, vinegar, etc., eaten either raw or slightly cooked," while the American Heritage Dictionary states tersely, "dressed with mayonnaise." Both recipes omit mustard, a serious oversight in my opinion.

Cole slaw takes its name from the Dutch "koolsla," which is a shortened form of "kool-salade," itself drawn from "kool" (cabbage) plus "salade" (salad, pronounced "sla"). Children, many of whom have not studied Dutch, often refer to cole slaw as "cold slaw," a mutation that makes so much sense that it is listed as an alternate form in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Cole slaw" first showed up in English around 1794.

We cole slaw fans know that it is probably one of the healthiest things to eat in a diner. What we really want to know is -- who stays up late putting it into those little tubs?

I think there was a dog
in there somewhere, too.

Dear Word Detective: We were wondering about the origin of "kit and kabootle" (or however you spell it) as it refers to "everything, or all of it." -- Dave, via the internet.

Perhaps it's because I grew up with abnormally fertile cats (I distinctly remember my family having 19 felines of various vintages at one point), but throughout my childhood I blithely assumed that the phrase in question was "kitten caboodle." I guess it made sense to me at the time that "caboodle" would be the technical term applied to a group of nine or ten kittens simultaneously climbing lace curtains. Now, of course, I know that the proper collective term is "a terror" of kittens.

"Kit and caboodle" (which is the most common form) dates back to the mid-eighteenth century and appeared first in England. There are a number of variants, including "kit and kerboodle" and "kit and boodle." The "kit" part of the phrase is of fairly straightforward origin, "kit" being an 18th century English slang term for "outfit" or "collection," as in a soldier's "kit bag," which contained all his worldly possessions. "Kit" may have come from "kith," meaning "estate," found today in the phrase "kith and kin."

"Caboodle" is a tougher nut to crack. As usual, there are a number of theories, the most likely of which traces "boodle" back to the Dutch word "boedel," meaning "property." Lawyers take note: "boodle" actually was a respectable word in its own right (meaning "estate") in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was even used in legal documents. But why "caboodle" or "kerboodle"? The "ca" and "ker" may be related to the intensive German prefix "ge," giving the sense "the whole boodle." Put it all together and you get "kit and caboodle," meaning "everything and all of everything," down to the last kitten.

Incidentally, before I'm buried under an avalanche of mail from irate animal rights activists, let me say that I now understand the importance of neutering one's pets. Both of my present cats, although I haven't had the heart to tell them so, are destined to be, thank heavens, without progeny.

Boring old plot.

Dear Word Detective: I'm a copywriter at Warner Brothers, and a guy I work with recently announced that the phrase "cut to the chase" is a folk etymology that should actually be "cut to the chaff," from farming lingo. Perhaps because of my Hollywood surroundings, I assume people want to hurry to the car chases in movies and get past all the boring old plot and dialogue, so I disagree. Also, why would someone want to cut to the chaff when that's the part that gets separated and discarded? Unless it's "cut to the chafe," meaning get to the subject that's causing all the vexation. -- Chris Freyer, via the internet.

"Cut to the chaff"? Sounds good to me. Please tell your co-worker that I am, even as we speak, boxing up some choice potato peelings and apple cores he can have for a song.

In any case, I agree with your theory tying the phrase to the movies, and according to my colleague Jesse Sheidlower, a Senior Editor in the Random House Reference Division, "cut to the chase" is "unquestionably a reference to chase scenes in action movies." Jesse, who just published a collection of his excellent "Word of the Day" web columns (Jesse's Word of the Day, Random House), notes that "cut to the chase" first showed up in general usage in the early 1980s. Jesse's fine Word of the Day web site, incidentally, can be reached at

So yes, rather than referring to farming, "cut to the chase," as you guessed, almost certainly refers to cutting, or switching scenes in a movie, to the chase, usually the most exciting scene. One can easily imagine a movie mogul along the lines of the legendary Samuel Goldwyn growling at his scriptwriters to "Drop the intellectual hooey and cut to the chase."

And have fun explaining it to your HMO.

Dear Word Detective: I have two questions. First, what is the saying about curing a hangover the next day? Something like bite the dog's tail or the dog that bit you last night? Second, where does this come from? -- Wiley, via the internet.

Wiley, old pal, I want you to try a little experiment for me. I want you to give that "bite the dog's tail" business a shot and get back to me, when you can, with the results. My guess is that it'll clear your head toot sweet but that you may encounter subsequent medical expenses that rule it out as an economically sound solution to hangovers.

Just kidding, of course. Please don't go chewing on old Fido. You'll end up with a mouthful of dog hair and I'll end up with a mailbox full of irate reader mail, which is worse.

The phrase you're looking for is "hair of the dog that bit you," and it is a metaphor for the dubious practice of curing a hangover after a night of heavy drinking by simply drinking a bit more of whatever gave you the hangover in the first place. I believe that most medical authorities agree that this method will, at best, simply delay the onset of a probably even worse hangover. At worst, you'll end up drunk and hungover simultaneously.

While "hair of the dog that bit you" may not work as a hangover cure, it is interesting because it arose as an allusion to an older practice, that of treating dog bites with a poultice containing the hair of the offending dog itself. The metaphorical "hangover cure" use of "hair of the dog that bit you" dates back to about 1546, while the practice of actually putting dog hair on bites is much older (and even less effective).

I'm not much of a drinker (the last hangover I had was on New Year's Day 1989), so I don't have many suggestions to make about hangover cures. In the case of my New Year's debacle, chicken soup proved to be an amazingly effective restorative, but then again chicken soup cures darn near anything, short of a dog bite.

And he told me to eat Tootsie Rolls after every meal.

Dear Word Detective: The other day my mother said we should all stop "lollygagging" around and get in the car to go shopping. Where did that expression come from? It conjures up visions of an all-day sucker gone too far into one's throat. But in context it means "taking too much time." -- Miss Dee, via the internet.

You know, I've used the word "lollygag" all my life, and that image of someone choking on a lollipop never once occurred to me. Then again, I've never been especially fond of lollipops to begin with. I associate them with visits to the doctor and dentist when I was a child, although why the dentist was feeding me lollipops in the first place is a darn good question and probably worth a column in its own right.

As you have surmised from the context (and probably your mother's tone of voice as well), to "lollygag" is to dawdle, fool around, and just generally do everything except what you should be doing. As a verb, "lollygag" (or "lallygag") dates back to around 1869, and a noun form, meaning "nonsense" or "foolishness," showed up a bit earlier, around 1862.

Unfortunately, the origin of "lollygag" is unknown, but there are clues from which we may, perhaps, be able to extrapolate the roots of "lollygag." ("Extrapolate" in this context, by the way, is a fancy word for "guess.")

First up in the batting order of possible "lollygag" clues is "loll," which is a very old word originally meaning "to droop or dangle." We use "loll" today to mean to relax or pass time idly, the sort of behavior that vacations are designed to encourage. There seems to be a plausible connection between this "utterly relaxed" meaning of "loll" and the "wasting time" sense of "lollygag."

Another bit of evidence might be found in the fact that "to loll" also means to let your tongue hang out, and that "lolly" is an English slang term for tongue (quite possibly the source of the name of our friend the lollipop, by the way). Perhaps "lollygagging" arose from the perception that lazy lollygaggers were adept at exercising only one muscle -- their tongues.

Rudolf the Resentful.

Dear Word Detective: As there are no joints in your nose, much less bones, where did the phrase "nose out of joint" come from? -- Richard Starkey, via the internet.

Okay, so maybe I do drink too much coffee. But there was something about this question that struck me as odd the moment I first read it, and after a few days of staring at it (who needs sleep?), I think I have finally figured out what it is. Richard Starkey, is it? Well, "Richard Starkey" just happens to be the real name of Ringo Starr, ex-Beatle and possessor, as any Beatle fan knows, of an outsize schnozzola, or nose.

So what we have here is either a question from Ringo Starr himself or a rather striking coincidence. Maybe not quite as striking as the question we received about "cloning" from that Elvis fella, but pretty good nonetheless. Or, of course, someone might be goofing on me.

In any case, Ringo (let's play it safe), you are correct in your perception that the human nose has no bones, and cannot, therefore, be literally "out of joint." The human nose is composed of cartilage, which, while it cannot be broken, can be torn, so that a "broken nose," while technically a misnomer, is no laughing matter.

It would, however, be a grave mistake (on the order of releasing that dreadful "Let It Be" Beatles single, by the way) to assume that the English language has anything to do with logic. To have "one's nose out of joint" has meant to be extremely jealous or offended since about 1581, and has been used by a variety of notable authors ever since. Your countryman Samuel Pepys, for instance, noted in his famous Diary in 1662, "The King is pleased enough with her, which, I fear, will put Madam Castlemaine's nose out of joynt," obviously referring to the Yoko Ono/Other Beatles strife of his day.

As to the "why" of "nose out of joint," it's simply that if your nose really were "out of joint," it would be very painful and impossible to ignore. Similarly, a severe case of jealousy would make your entire existence miserable. Just as "Let It Be" did mine.

A conspiracy so vast....

Dear Word Detective: Has the frozen ice treat always been called "sherbet"? Or at one time was it actually called "sherbert"? Or did my parents simply lead me astray, in my youthful naivete, in thinking that "sherbert" actually existed? It's almost impossible for me to drop the 2nd "r" in my pronunciation now. -- Sarah Piotraschke, via the Internet.

This is really spooky. I, too, could have sworn it was "sherbert" until about ten years ago, when I first noticed that everyone was saying "sherbet." I know for a fact that it was "sherbert" when I was a kid. Since my parents were lexicographers, and they pronounced it "sherbert" (at least I think they did), I was truly shocked to discover that all the dictionaries now say "sherbet." I have a theory about how this happened. Maybe space aliens have taken over Earth and messed with everyone's memories and the only clues the aliens have left are tiny little changes to things like the spelling of "sherbert" and Lassie being a Dalmatian in the old TV show they never run anymore. She was a Dalmatian, remember? Honest.

Well, anyway, it's probably too late now to mount a defense of Earth, so we'll just have to go with what the dictionaries say today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "sherbet" was originally a Turkish or Persian word, and comes from the Arabic "shariba," meaning "to drink." That makes sense because sherbet was originally a drink made from sweetened fruit juice, and evidently you can still buy "sherbet powder" in Europe from which is made a fizzy imitation fruit drink. Sounds yummy. That same root "shariba" also gave us the French word "sorbet," which is what yuppies call sherbet and which the French are welcome to take back as soon as possible. Sherbet first showed up in English around 1603, and as a name for a frozen ice dessert around 1891.

Incidentally, if my alien-takeover theory proves not to be the case, our shared memories of "sherbert" are almost certainly due to a natural tendency to try to rhyme the "er" sound in the first syllable of "sherbet." Personally, I like "sherbert" a lot better.


Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

All contents Copyright © 1998 by Evan Morris.