Previous Columns/Posted 10/02/97
Dear Word Detective: I was wondering where the word "peachy" came from? People refer to themselves as being "just peachy" when asked how they are. "Peachy" is considered a good way to be, yet I wonder what exactly that means -- to be like a peach? I have kinda gone against this tradition and have taken on the term "Orangy!" When asked how I am, I say "Orangy!" instead of "peachy" since I am not sure what "peachy" means. I figure oranges come from Florida and Florida is the Sunshine State and sunshine refers to happiness when applied to a mood, so "Orangy" is a simple way to say one is happy. This is logical and understandable. Now, what about peachy? -- Shangrala Elrhea, via the Internet
I'm sure there are some readers out there who are assuming that I invented this letter in order to liven up an otherwise dull writing day, but let me assure you that I didn't. I am told that there is a new product on the market, a brand of orange juice spiked with a heavy dose of caffeine. I think we may have found what the folks over at Wired magazine call an "early adopter" here.
OK, enough with the gnomic fulminations, already. According to Christine Ammer, who has written a whole book about food metaphors called "Fruitcakes and Couch Potatoes" (Penguin, 1995), the peach has been used as a standard of quality and beauty in English since the mid-1700's. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first appearance of "peachy" in particular to 1926. "Peach" and its derivatives have always been equal opportunity superlatives, applied to both men ("peach of a fellow") and women ("a peachy girl"). James T. Farrell, in his novel "Young Lonigan," even described Airedales as "peachy dogs."
But why peaches? Why not? They're soft, sweet, and pretty. Of course, they've also got that really annoying fuzz on them, but Christine Ammer quotes an old Chinese proverb that goes: "Rather one bite of a peach than eat a basketful of apricots." Personally, I prefer the fuzzless nectarine, and oranges give me a stomach ache, but to each his or her own, I suppose.
Dear Word Detective: In eighth grade, I seem to remember a certain civics teacher of mine giving us an acronym for the word "poop" (as in "poop deck"). It ran something along the lines of "Personnel Operations..." something or other. The gist of it was that the crew would assemble on the "poop deck" to receive their orders for the day. Also, in old English the "poop deck" was called the "puppe deck" so perhaps "poop" is not an acronym at all. However, another definition of "poop" is that it is slang for "information." Do you have any insights to shed on this topic? -- Mark Nandor, Columbus, OH.
Say, how's the weather in Columbus? I spent 10 years there, and no matter how uncomfortable the summers get here in New York City, I find solace in the fact that at least I'm not in Central Ohio. It used to get so hideously humid out there that I'd often don a wool overcoat and lock myself in the hall closet just to snatch a little relief from the bestial heat. Gee, I miss Columbus.
I'm going to pronounce a little rule about the English language at this point, and I'd like all the school teachers and tour guides out there to listen closely. Acronyms, such as NATO or "radar," were virtually unknown before the middle of the 20th century. Therefore, words such as "posh" or "poop" are extremely unlikely to have begun life as acronyms. Trust me on this.
Furthermore, one wonders why your civics teacher never looked up "poop deck" in a dictionary, because the origin is quite straightforward. The "poop" deck on a sailing ship is the aftmost deck at the ship's stern, and takes its name directly from the Latin "puppis," meaning "stern."
The origin of "poop" meaning inside information is, unfortunately, unknown, making it difficult to establish a linkage to the "poop deck" of a ship. That this "information" sense only appeared in print in the 1940's, long after the age of sail, would tend to argue strongly against such a link.
Dear Word Detective: I just found you on the Internet and was so surprised to learn that the common explanation for "posh" is not "port outbound, starboard home." As someone who wrote training programs and trained guides on the tourist attraction in Long Beach, CA, I personally, or through the trainers, advised hundreds of tour guides on that Royal Mail Ship that that was exactly what "posh" meant. I'm pretty horrified by the number of people with wrong information for which I am responsible. Please advise me where the word does come from, and perhaps someone I trained will read your answer. Thanks! -- Debby Mayer, via the Internet.
Aha! So you're the one! The fiendish Moriarty of Misinformation who has dogged my steps, lo these many years. The evil genius whose spurious "posh" stories have befuddled millions of innocent tourists. Quick, Watson, the net! We mustn't let her escape!
Sorry about that. I know you're really just another innocent victim of the insidious posh thought-virus. So here, again, is the skinny on posh. The story you've heard (and retold) is that "posh" comes from the days of ocean travel between England and India. The wealthy, it was said, would get the most desirable cabins on whichever side of the ship remained untouched by the blistering tropical sun. Such preferred arrangements were said to be "port (left side) out, starboard (right side) home," neatly summed up in the acronym "posh." It's a lovely theory -- too bad there's not a shred of evidence in its favor, and a good deal of evidence against it. Among other things, it seems that neither the crews of the ships in service on that route nor the owners of the steamship lines, questioned about the term, had ever heard of it.
The truth? "Posh" is an actual word in Romany, the language of the Gypsies, meaning "half." "Posh" originally entered the argot of England's underworld in the 17th century in such compounds as "posh-houri," meaning "half-pence," and soon became a slang term for "money" in general. From there it was a short hop to meaning "expensive" or "fancy." Voila, "posh."
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me what the word "salmagundi" comes from and what it means? I know there is a literary journal by that name, but I've always wondered what the word itself means. -- Lynn Kotula, New York, NY.
Well, no one knows precisely where "salmagundi" came from originally, but I can tell you a few places it's been. Literally, salmagundi is a salad made of chopped meats, anchovies, eggs and onions. Figuratively, "a salmagundi" is a miscellany or varied assortment of things, so it's a pretty good title for a literary magazine, although the editors of the magazine you mention weren't the first to think of it. Washington Irving, best known as the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (remember "The Headless Horseman"?), published a satirical journal called "Salmagundi" in New York in the early 1800's.
Mr Irving's journal was, among other things, responsible for popularizing the nickname "Gotham" for New York City, comparing the city and its inhabitants to the residents of Gotham, a village in England near Nottingham. According to legend, King John once made a trip to Gotham to acquire land and for a hunting lodge. The villagers had no wish to be taxed to support the King's Court and devised a clever plan of action. When the King's "advance men" rode into Gotham, they found the villagers running wildly in circles and behaving in a thoroughly demented manner. The King, informed that he would be residing among madmen, dropped his plans and took his lodge elsewhere, whereupon the "wise fools" of the village were said to have remarked that "more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it."
As a resident of New York City, I like to think that Mr. Irving was correct in his estimation that New Yorkers aren't really crazy, just very clever. On the other hand, maybe "Salmagundi" would be a better nickname for New York, since the city certainly is a hodgepodge. Of course, then we'd have to change the recipe for "salmagundi" a little and add a generous helping of nuts.
Dear Word Detective: My teenager is telling me of the "new" slang expression he learned while playing basketball: his side being "a shoe-in." He explained that this was a slurred pronunciation of "sure win." I told him that the expression had been around for years, and that I remember it as being popular in horse racing -- and had assumed that it came from 'shoo' -- the gesture of gently waving a stray animal to get it to move in some direction -- and "in" as into the finish. In the 1960s Broadway Musical "Subways are for Sleeping," Paula Prentiss played a beauty contest entrant whose traditional Southern values made her turn down a questionable proposition from one of the judges. She sings that otherwise she would have been "a shoo-in winner from Mississippi." I suspect that there are many earlier uses. Damon Runyon? So the question: is it shoe-in from "sure win" or shoo-in as to shoo the horse over the finish line? -- Will Roberts, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Your teenager is correct. All that other stuff you think you remember is just evidence that you're getting old and your brain, consequently, is clunking like a '72 Ford Pinto after ten laps at Le Mans.
Just kidding -- you're absolutely right. "Shoo in," as it is properly spelled, was originally a racetrack term, and was (and still is) applied to a horse expected to easily win a race, and, by extension, to any contestant expected to win an easy victory. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term in print dates back to 1928, and the original sense of the term was not as innocent as you'd think. A "shoo in" was originally a horse that was expected to win a race, not by virtue of its speed or endurance, but because the race was fixed. The sardonic "subtext" of the original usage, now lost, was that the designated horse would win even if it were so lackadaisical in its performance that it simply wandered somehow up to the finish line and had to be "shooed in" to victory.
Dear Word Detective: I know that the origin of "By the skin of my teeth" is (supposedly) in the Book of Job, where the poor guy indicates that he has survived by the skin of his teeth. I tend to think of this phrase loosely meaning a "narrow escape," but I'm not really sure what that means as a literal translation. One version I heard was that the skin of your teeth are your gums and that poor Job had come so close to death that he had even lost all of his teeth. Can you shed any light on this? -- William Lewis, via the Internet.
I generally try to avoid answering questions about metaphors having to do with teeth, but since I'm trying to confront and overcome my most stubborn phobias this week (I've just returned from lunch with a lawyer, and I have an appointment to watch a Meryl Streep movie this afternoon), I'll give this one a shot.
The source of the phrase "by the skin of one's teeth" is indeed the Book of Job, although the precise phrase Job used was "My bone cleaveth to my skin, and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth" (not "by"). Just what the "skin" of one's teeth might be is a bit unclear, but it probably refers to the thin porcelain exterior of the tooth, not the gums. Job evidently kept his teeth, but just barely. It is also possible that he was saying that the margin of his escape was as narrow as the "skin" of a tooth is shallow -- the equivalent of a "hair's breadth." In any case, Job clearly meant that he'd had a very hard time of it, and the phrase has been used ever since to mean a very narrow or arduous escape.
Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word "busboy"? Who started using it? -- Griesbaum, via the Internet.
Someone who wasn't a busboy, that's for sure. I've always found the term a bit demeaning, although "busboy" is one of the few job categories I haven't occupied at one time or another. I did work as a waiter in an all-night coffeeshop for a few days in the late 1960's. The proximate cause (as lawyers like to say) of my sudden departure from the profession was a tableful of hippies with a raging case of what used to be called "the munchies." They ordered nearly everything on the menu, ate it all, and then attempted to pay their tab with good vibes. My boss decided that I should foot the bill, I demurred, and that was that.
Having done a bit of research on "busboy," however, I think that this belittling name for a restaurant worker who sets and clears tables might be repaired by returning it to its original form. Busboys were originally known as "omnibuses" in the late 19th century, a term which came from the Latin "omnibus," meaning "for all." "Omnibus" was a popular word in the 19th century with a variety of uses, having first been applied to the large public horse-drawn coaches which marked the first appearance of urban mass transit. The motorized descendants of these omnibuses are known today, of course, as "buses."
While busboys of the period may or may not have ridden to work on buses, they were known as "omnibus boys" or "omnibuses" themselves because their job was to do anything and everything that might be useful in the restaurant. "Omnibus" in this restaurant sense first appeared in 1888, and the first written example of the shortened form "bus-boy" has been traced to a 1913 issue of "The Industrial Worker" (the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," by the way) although the word was almost certainly in use long before then.
Dear Word Detective: Would you know the origin of the word "caddywompus" (I'm not sure of the spelling)? I've used it to mean "askew" but am not sure of its exact meaning nor its origin. I'd appreciate your help! -- Vivien Silber, via the Internet.
You seem to be doing all right on your own, actually. "Caddywompus" is spelled about two dozen ways, though in my answer I will stick with the most common spelling, "catawampus," for sanity's sake. You're also right about it meaning "askew" or "awry."
As to the origin of "catawampus," however, things get a bit complex. The first element of the word, "cata," is probably related to "cater," also found in the related word "catercorner" (or, as many folks know it, "cattycorner" or "kittycorner"). "Cater" in these words is an Anglicization of the French "quatre," or "four," and "catercornered" originally just meant "four-cornered." To specify that something is "catercorner across" from something else is to stress the diagonal axis of an imaginary box, as opposed to saying "directly across" or just "across." Both "catercorner" and "catawampus" are native American colloquialisms dating back to the 1880's or earlier.
The "wampus" part of "catawampus" is a real puzzler. It may have come from the Scots word "wampish," meaning "to wriggle or twist," which would certainly seem to fit with "catawampus" meaning "askew" or "crooked." But "wampus" also may have been a completely nonsensical element, made up by someone because it sounded funny..
Two other aspects of "catawampus" bear mentioning. First, "catawampus" can also mean "a fierce imaginary animal," or simply "fierce." The theory is that this sense of "catawampus" is entirely separate in origin from the "askew" sense, and comes from "catamount," which is an old American folk term for a mountain lion (cat-a-mount, get it?).
Second, both "catawampus" and "catercorner" are often seen and heard with the first element spelled "catty" or "kitty." Linguists call this process "folk etymology" -- people replacing an unfamiliar element in a word or phrase ("cater") with a familiar one ("catty" or "kitty").
Dear Word Detective: I am attempting to find the origin and the definition of the word "surcee" (or however it might be spelled). I believe the word to be a colloquialism meaning a "surprise gift." I have heard the word used by individuals from the Carolinas and was told by one person that they saw a boutique-type shop in Atlanta, GA named "The Surcee." Can you help? -- Brendelw, via the Internet.
As I have noted before, I am always intrigued when I receive, more or less simultaneously, several questions about the same word or phrase. This letter is an especially striking example of the phenomenon, since it is but one of three I received within three weeks, regarding a word I had never heard of to boot. I still don't know what prompted this "surcee spate," although the question was also apparently posted to an e-mail mailing list devoted to puzzles at some point. In any case, since I was unable to find any information on "surcee" on my own, I posed the question to the American Dialect Society mailing list, and received the following reply from Joan Hall, Associate Editor of DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English):
The Dictionary of American Regional English files have anecdotal evidence for the term "sirsee" (variously spelled "circe," "circi," "surcy") from NC, SC, GA, and PA, as well as two reports from Buffalo, NY and Oklahoma, where the speakers were said to come from "someplace else." All evidence is oral, so the spellings are speakers' attempts to represent the pronunciation. The etymology is uncertain, but one plausible source is the Scots verb "sussie," meaning "to take trouble, to care, to bother oneself." This probably came to Scotland from the French "souci," meaning "care, trouble." The term seems to be especially well known in Columbia, SC, where it is strongly associated with a women's college. Michael Montgomery of the English Department of the University of SC has reported its use there. We at DARE would be interested in whatever documentation or anecdotal evidence you have for the use of the word (time, place, examples).
So that's the state of the Great Surcee Quest at the moment. If any reader has further information on this elusive little word, I'd be happy to forward it to the folks at DARE.
Dear Word Detective: I've searched the entire World Wide Web looking for the origin of the phrase "Your name will be mud." I think it might have come from the name of the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth (Dr. Mudd, I presume). -- Jerry McFadyen, via the Internet.
Searched the whole web, eh? Well, by now I'm sure that you've come to the same conclusion that I reached a while back, namely that if you're looking for solid, useful information on the Internet, you're barking up the wrong medium. There are exceptions, to be sure, but in general trying to do serious research on the web is akin to asking a housecat for help with your homework. Someone needs to explain this to Al Gore.
Thank heavens for books, therefore, especially ones such as "Devious Derivations," written by Hugh Rawson and published by Crown. Mr Rawson devotes an entire page in his book to the theory you have evidently heard: that the phrase "Your name will be mud" is connected somehow to the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd who treated President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Doctor Mudd may or may not have been in on the 1865 assassination conspiracy with Booth, who had broken his leg escaping from the scene of his crime. In any case, Mudd was convicted of conspiracy in the trial that followed, and his name, to the general public, certainly became "mud" in the sense of the phrase -- despised and reviled.
But Doctor Mudd's name is certainly no more than an interesting coincidence, for it cannot have been the source of the phrase. "Mud" had already been in use for more than 200 years, since at least 1708, as a slang term for a fool. According to Christine Ammer, in her book "Have A Nice Day -- No Problem!" (a very fine dictionary of cliches published by Plume), "mud" was commonly applied in the 19th century British Parliament to any member who lost an election or otherwise disgraced himself.
Dear Word Detective: My brother-in-law and I are wondering about the Maine term "stove up." Where and how did it originate? Can you also give me any direction on where I can find a book dealing with Maine lingo? -- Kay Brown, via the Internet.
Well, to answer your second question first, one good source of Maine expressions would be Robert Hendrickson's excellent book "Yankee Talk," published by Facts On File Books in 1996. Mr. Hendrickson covers more than 3,500 New England colloquialisms, many of which (e.g., "Meaner than goose grease") are worth the price of the book ($14.95) all by themselves.
"Stove up," however, does not appear in Mr. Hendrickson's book, probably because its use isn't restricted to New England (though I'm sure it's used there, especially given the region's nautical history). Before I explain that "nautical" reference, a few words about "stove" itself. We're not talking Betty Crocker stoves here: "stove" is an archaic form of the past tense of the verb "stave" (and a participle, or adjective, based on that verb). To "stave" something is to break up or puncture it, originally in the sense of smashing a wine cask by breaking the "staves," or wooden slats, from which the cask was constructed. Thus something which is "stove" has been punctured or damaged, often a "stove boat" which has had a hole poked in it by running aground on rocks or other impediments.
A boat that has been "stove in" or "stove up" has been rendered utterly useless, and this same sense is carried over to the more general landlocked use of "stove up" as a synonym for "worn out" or "run down." As I said, I'm sure this phrase is used often in Maine, but since it's also heard in rural settings all over the country, it's classified as a general American colloquialism. The first written citation for "stove up" listed in the Oxford English Dictionary comes only from 1901, but since the literal sense of "stove" applied to boats has been traced back to 1850 (in a work by Herman Melville, not surprisingly), the metaphorical phrase has probably been in use in seafaring communities a good deal longer than that 1901 citation would indicate.
Dear Word Detective: I found myself referring to someone as a "tycoon" the other day, and suddenly the word seemed very archaic to me. Do we still have "tycoons" today? Where did the word come from, anyway? -- K. Mercurio, Brooklyn, NY.
After considering your question for a moment, I think you may be onto something. Where have all the tycoons gone? Why don't we see public-service announcements exhorting us to save the tycoons by preserving their natural habitats, Nob Hill and Grosse Point? Are we to be left with nothing but those dreadful "entrepreneurs" (which, I believe, is French for "watch your wallet")? It is indeed a tragedy.
Many of us remember when tycoons roamed the land in great, lumbering herds (not me, of course, but I've heard the stories). "Tycoon" comes to us from Japanese, where a "taikun" was a military leader or "shogun." The word was adopted into American English around the middle of the 19th century and was popularized, surprisingly enough, as a nickname for Abraham Lincoln, not commonly thought of as an overbearing sort of fellow. "Tycoon" only came to be applied to businessmen after World War I.
Tycoons in their heyday were notable for getting exactly what they wanted, whether it made sense or not. Bill Bryson, in his history of the English language in the United States, "Made in America," illustrates what being a "tycoon" meant in the early 20th century. "The servants at J.P. Morgan's London residence nightly prepared dinner, turned down the bed and laid out nightclothes for their master even when he was known beyond doubt to be three thousand miles away in New York.... James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper baron, liked to announce his arrival in a restaurant by yanking the tablecloths from all the tables he passed. He would then hand the manager a wad of cash with which to compensate his victims for their lost meals and spattered attire." Now THAT'S a "tycoon." Perhaps that's also why they're extinct.
Dear Word Detective: You may have answered this before, but where did the terms "bear market" and "bull market" come from? -- A. Sumlin, via the Internet.
No, I don't think I've ever answered this one, but I can't be absolutely sure. I seem to have a highly porous memory. My wife claims that this is why I can watch Marx Brothers movies over and over again and laugh uproariously at them every time. She says it's because my memory is shot. I say it's because the movies have been funny every time I watch them.
Oh right, bulls and bears. As I've said before, I evidently failed to inherit whatever gene enables folks to understand the stock market, so everything that follows is hearsay. Simply put (for folks like me), "bulls" are optimistic investors, and "bears" are pessimists. A "bull market" is one in which stock prices are rising, a "bear market" one marked by falling prices.
The pessimism of bears takes a curiously optimistic form: they sell stock that they do not yet own. Bears "sell short," betting that when the time comes to actually buy and deliver the stock they have sold, the price per share will have fallen, and they'll be able to fulfill their sales contract at a profit. Bulls bet the opposite -- that the market is rising, and that they'll be able to later sell the stock at a still higher price.
There's a controversy about how bears got their name, but the most logical theory traces it back to an old English proverb: "Don't sell the bearskin before the bear is caught" (which, of course, is exactly what bears do). Bolstering this theory is the fact that short sellers were known as "bearskin jobbers" in the 18th century.
"Bulls" most likely got their name simply from the contrast (and alliteration) with "bear," and also possibly because both bull and bear "baiting" were popular sports in old England. Bulls are also powerful and aggressive (and a bit stupid), while bears are more contemplative and apt to retreat.
Dear Evan: As a translator and a publishing house editor I sometimes cannot avoid the mind-blowing job of writing so-called "blurbs" -- publicity notices for book jackets. During one of the long afternoons spent in vain attempts to fabricate several not too obvious lies about the contents of an extremely badly written novel, I started wondering about the origin of the very word "blurb." My favorite American Heritage Dictionary informed me that this ugly-sounding expression (do you think it can be an imitative word?) was coined by a certain Gelett Burgess but it did not mention who he was and why he decided to name the blurb "the blurb." Do you know more? -- Petra Nadvornikova, Czech Republic.
I do know a bit more about "blurb." Gelett Burgess was an early 20th century American humorist, probably best remembered as the author of the classic quatrain "The Purple Cow" ("I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you anyhow/I'd rather see than be one"). In preparation for his speech at the 1907 American Booksellers Association banquet, Burgess concocted a humorous mock dust jacket for his latest book, which was then distributed to the attending guests. The cover featured a drawing of pulchritudinous young woman (whom Burgess dubbed, for no apparent reason, "Belinda Blurb"), as well as satirically overblown praise for his own work. "Blurb" caught the ear of the publishing industry, and was soon being used as a synonym for any sort of breathless advertising hyperbole, in particular the sort of "not too obvious lies" you yourself fabricate for book jackets.
Incidentally, while Burgess was justly proud of his invention of "blurb," he grew so sick of hearing his "Purple Cow" recited that he eventually penned a sequel: "Ah yes, I wrote The Purple Cow/I'm sorry now I wrote it/But I can tell you anyhow/I'll kill you if you quote it."
Dear Word Detective: Well, another discussion with coworkers has led me back to the word sage. Since we are in the computer environment -- where did the term "boot the computer" originate? The debate is that either it came from the military (as in "boot camp") or from angry computer programers who wanted to literally boot (kick) the machine. -- Zuzu North, via the Internet.
Word sage, eh? That reminds me of a cartoon that my mother copied from a magazine, framed, and hung on the wall of the study where she and my father produced many books on word origins and usage (as well as this column) when I was growing up. The cartoon shows a standard- issue cartoon wise man (long beard and robes) being addressed by his wife, who says "Sage? Ha! You didn't know beans when I married you!"
As to the possible connection between "booting a computer" and either "boot camp" or kicking the machine, I'm afraid neither side in your debate is correct. To "boot" a computer means to start it up by loading its operating system into its working memory, which then, on a good day, gets the whole system up and running. "Boot" in this sense is short for "bootstraps," those small loops of leather often sewn into the tops of high boots as an aid to pulling them on. Since the 18th century the phrase "pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps" has meant to succeed by one's own efforts, without outside help. Although "bootstrap" has been used in computing circles since the 1950's, the shortened form "boot" only became popular with the "personal computer explosion" of the 1980's.
"Boot camp" seems to have had a completely separate and somewhat more mysterious origin. New recruits to the Navy or Marines have been known as "boots" since World War I. One theory is that the term dates back to the 1890's, when sailors were required to swab the decks of ships barefoot. Some recruits rebelled and donned rubber boots, thereafter being known as "rubber boot sailors," or "boots" for short.
Dear Word Detective: The expression "bread and butter" was used in a Warner Brothers cartoon. In it, two leopards were pacing back and forth in a divided cage. As they passed each other they each said, "bread and butter." To what does that refer, and from where does it originate? -- Jim Gates, via the Internet.
I'm glad you asked this question, because I have heard this odd phrase from my wife for more than 25 years. We will be walking down the street, and every time we are separated by an obstruction in our path (parking meter, movie star, alien spacecraft, whatever), she will demand that I say "bread and butter." Until now I presumed that this quaint ritual was a throwback to her childhood spent in short-order diners, but apparently this "bread and butter" business is more widespread than I had thought.
But it's not so widespread as to be well-documented, evidently. Only one source (the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE) of many that I checked even mentioned the phrase. DARE explains it as "an exclamation used when two people walking together are momentarily separated by someone or something coming between them." The earliest citation listed by DARE is from The Federal Writers Project "Guide to Kansas" published in 1939, where the "bread and butter" ritual is described as a "ubiquitous" incantation among schoolchildren of the area. If it was ubiquitous in 1939, the ritual is probably much older, possibly dating back to at least the 19th century.
"Bread and butter" is not listed in one place I hoped to find it, Iona and Peter Opie's "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren" (Oxford University Press, 1959). As this extraordinarily fine volume (now, unbelievably, out of print) covers only the British Isles, "bread and butter" may be a native American creation.
As to its meaning, I think it's simply one of a number of rituals children follow, on the order of "step on a crack and break your mother's back," designed to invoke magical protection from bad luck. In this case, the fact that bread and butter "go together" gives the ritual power as an affirmation of togetherness, lest a momentary separation be an omen of permanent one.
Dear Word Detective: What's the origin of the word "scapegoat"? In my language (Portuguese) the expression is sort of similar, or, at least, the animal mentioned is the same: "Bode Expiatorio" (expiatory goat). Somebody once told me it had something to do with ancient sacrificial rites in which a person would make amends by sacrificing a goat. -- Manuel Antonio Da Silva, Brazil.
The phrase in Portuguese certainly sounds quite similar, and though I don't speak your language, I'd be willing to bet that the source is the same as that of the English phrase, namely the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. Under the laws of Moses, the ancient ritual once observed on the Hebrew Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) actually involved two goats. One, known as "the Lord's goat," was sacrificed during the rites. The other goat, over whose head the high priest had confessed the sins of his people, was then taken into the wilderness and allowed to escape, symbolically taking all the sins with him and giving everyone a fresh start, sin-wise. This lucky goat was known as the "escape goat," or "scapegoat."
There's a bit more to this story of the origin of "scapegoat," however. The Bible was not originally written in English, and the Hebrew word for the goat set free in the original text was "Azazel." Translators of the Bible into English interpreted "Azazel" as a variant on the Hebrew phrase for "goat that departs," and thus came up with "escape goat." But they were mistaken. "Azazel" was a proper noun, the name of a particular demon who was believed to rule the wilderness. The "escape goat" was actually designated "Azazel's goat" in the ritual, which explains why it was taken into the woods and set free.
In any case, "scapegoat" entered the English language with William Tyndale's translation of the Bible in 1530, and by the early 19th century was being used in a secular sense to describe anyone who is blamed for the sins or faults of another.
Dear Word Detective: I hope you can help me with a baffling sentence. On a "NYPD Blue" rerun, a cop says to a D.A., "Are you saying I set him up?" and she replies, "I'd say Ray Ipps is a low quitter, if I thought you knew what it meant." After some pondering, I came to "loquitur," and Web research brought me to the phrase "res ipsa loquitur." This phrase is well-used, particularly by college newspapers...but I cannot find a definition. Do you know what it means, and how it's pronounced correctly? -- Kelly Banachi, via the Internet.
Before we begin, I must declare up front that I have never watched -- I have never been able to watch -- "NYPD Blue." I tried once, honestly. I locked the cats in the attic, sat myself down with a big bowl of popcorn and a 32-ounce Pepsi and settled in to commune with some gritty urban realism. Then the program started, and the cameras began to whirl and swoop and dip and sway as if operated by hyperkinetic dipsomaniacs. After five minutes of vertigo-induced hyperventilation, I finally located the remote control and bolted for the relative stability of a "Victory at Sea" rerun on the History Channel. You know, I live just down the street from the 20th Precinct house in Manhattan, and I have yet to see New York City cops swoop like that.
But maybe it's not impossible that a D.A. would flash "res ipsa loquitur" (pronounced "rays ip-sah low-quit-tur") at a cop she was trying to annoy. It's Latin, a fairly common legal phrase meaning "the thing speaks for itself." It's basically a high-class "Duh!" -- a way of saying "What I am showing you is such glaringly obvious evidence of my point that there can be no argument with my assertions." If you're a criminal defense lawyer, for example, and your exceedingly stupid client shows up in court wearing the shoes he is alleged to have stolen from the complainant's store, you are likely to hear this phrase coming from the prosecutor at some point, probably quite early in the trial.
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