Previous Columns/Posted 10/06/99


I keep forgetting to mention this, but a few months ago Entertainment Weekly chose The Word Detective as its "Site of the Day," calling us "Friendlier, funnier, and much, much hipper than William Safire's weekly word news in the New York Times Magazine."

That description, incidentally, may come as a surprise to people who actually know me, but it's probably not as far off the beam as Mr. Safire's own characterization of my writing several years ago as "lighthearted." As my wife said at the time, "Yeah, right, Mr. Lighthearted. You make Attilla the Hun look like Chuckles the Clown."

Anyway, the reason I bring this up now (aside from the pathetic thrill I get from reliving rosy moments from the past) is that I just spent several days trying to figure out why my web site access figures suddenly increased by a factor of ten on October 4. (It turns out that PC World magazine had featured TWD in one of their free e-mail newsletters.)

The problem with this sort of thing (and trust me to find a problem with this sort of thing) is that I often don't hear about mentions of TWD in the media until months later, if ever. Consequently, I could use your help. If anyone notices a mention of TWD in the media (any media, no matter how obscure), please drop me a note. My ego thanks you in advance.

[UPDATE: I know about the mention of TWD in The New York Times of Thursday, October 14. Thanks.]

In return, may I suggest that you pay The Obscure Store and Reading Room a visit? If you've worn your modem to a nubbin searching the web for odd news stories, you can now sit back and relax, because these folks do it for you, and update their findings every day.

And now, as the house lights dim, on with the show...

Support the Right to Arm Bears.

Dear Word Detective: I am curious about two words. First, the word "assassin." How did it derive its meaning? And second, how did the name of Nimrod, the legendary hunter, become synonymous with "an idiot"? -- Travis, via the internet.

Funny you should ask. Your second question tempts me to invite you out to Flapdoodle Manor, the Word Detective rural retreat, where hunting season is just about to begin and the "idiot" sense of "Nimrod" will shortly become very obvious. While our local Nimrods usually set out armed for deer or bear, they inevitably settle for blasting away at tractors, mailboxes, and, for the truly fearless, dairy cows, which I understand can be really hard to hit after a few six-packs.

Nimrod was indeed a fearless hunter in the Book of Genesis, and "nimrod" has been used as a simple synonym for "hunter" in English since the early 1700s. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, we may have none other than Bugs Bunny to thank for the more modern slang use of "nimrod" to mean "idiot" or "jerk." In one particular 1940s cartoon, Bugs sarcastically referred to the hapless hunter Elmer Fudd as "Poor little Nimrod." Although "nimrod" had already been used mockingly for a number of years, Bugs' popularity probably gave this "idiot" sense a huge boost, and it is now used in contexts that have nothing to do with hunting.

Meanwhile, back at your first question, the first "assassins" were Muslim fanatics who, at the time of the Crusades, pledged themselves to ridding their lands of Christian infidels and other enemies. In preparation for their murderous forays, they would fortify themselves by consuming large quantities of hashish, and thus became known as "hashashin," or "hashish eaters." When the word was imported into English in the 17th century, it was spelled more phonetically, and "assassin" eventually came to mean anyone who commits murder, usually of a public figure, for political, psychological, monetary or religious reasons.

But the stuffed muskrat is to die for.

Dear Word Detective: Recently I've been reading about the Vikings, who used to tour Western Europe about 11 centuries ago and who generally didn't pay their hotel bills. In the course of my reading I've come across the word "berserkers" on more than one occasion where it seems to refer to a special type of Viking warrior. I presume this is where the modern word "berserk" comes from. Is this so and how did this bunch of Vikings get their curious name? -- Brian Harrington, Ireland.

Well, you'd go berserk too if you had to eat what those Vikings ate. I recently heard a shortwave program on Radio Deutsche Welle (from Cologne, Germany) about a restaurant in Iceland that offers tourists the opportunity to sample Genuine Ancient Viking Cuisine. I'm actually rather sorry I listened. It seems that one of the Vikings' favorite dishes was something that sounded (this was radio, remember) like "rottenshark." And, by golly, that's exactly what it was. The Vikings used to catch a shark, bury it in the ground for two months, and then dig it up and eat it. And nowhere in that process did they cook it. People apparently still eat this stuff in Iceland, by the way.

"Berserk," meaning extremely and irrationally violent, does indeed come from "berserker," the term given fierce Norse warriors (though I'm not certain that the berserkers were, technically, Vikings). The berserkers were famous for their frenzied ferocity on the battlefield, and this was in an age when even the tamest army was pretty savage by our standards. The name "berserker" comes from the Icelandic equivalent "berserkr," meaning "savage Norse warrior," which is generally thought to be a combination of "ber" (bear) and "serkr" (shirt or coat). A "berserker," according to this theory, would have been distinguished by the coat or shirt of bear fur that he wore into battle, certainly an appropriate wardrobe choice for someone whose intent was to terrify the opposition.

Today we use the term "berserk," usually in the phrase "to go berserk," to describe someone so violently angry that they are completely out of control and beyond reason, or, in the modern vernacular, "going postal."

Big Bad Hair Dudes.

Dear Word Detective: A bunch of us proles were talking about the Big Wigs in the Head Shed the other day. This got us to thinking about the origin of the "Big Wig" description. I conjectured that it referred to the English courts where the larger the wig, the more important the position within the judicial system. Am I barking up the wrong tree or am I on the mark? -- Paul Diggins, via the internet.

You're very close, for a prole. Incidentally, before we spawn a slew of questions about your question, I should explain that "prole" is slang for "proletarian," meaning a member of the working class. ("Proletarius" was the lowest rung of Roman citizenship.) Although the shortened form "prole" was first used by George Bernard Shaw in 1887, it was subsequently widely popularized by George Orwell in his 1949 novel "1984."

And now onward to the wonderful world of wigs. Once upon a time (the 1700's, to be precise), there was no hairspray and no blow-driers. Every day was a bad hair day, as it had been for most of human history. Consequently, almost everybody above the poverty line -- men, women, and sometimes even children -- wore wigs. But not all wigs were equal. While Joe Schmoe trudged through life wearing his ratty little two-shilling bargain number from Wigges 'n Stuffe, Lord Gotrocks sported a luxurious, expensive, and, of course, very large wig. Regular folks found these rich people and their fancy wigs so annoying that by the early 1800's "bigwig" had become a mocking slang term for the wealthy and powerful. And though the wigs are mostly gone (or at least a lot smaller), "bigwig" is still used as slang for someone who probably isn't as important as he thinks he is.

Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "hijack" and, more importantly, was it in common usage in 1899? I am writing a novel and think this is a more modern term but want to make sure. -- G.B. Toll, Oakland, CA.

Well, it's not impossible that somebody in 1899 was using the word "hijack," meaning to stop a vehicle in order either to rob it or to steal the vehicle itself, although the earliest example cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1923. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists a use of "hyjack" to mean "an armed robber" by Ernest Hemingway in 1920. Since "hijack" (or some variant) was originally American underworld slang, and since underworld slang is by definition a semi-secret code language used by criminals, I think we can assume that the word may have been around for quite a while before Hemingway or any other mainstream writer picked it up. So I'd say that using "hijack" in your novel set in 1899 is probably plausible, although I wouldn't put it in the mouth of a university professor or an English butler.

Incidentally, it's nice to see that somebody out there in artistic-creation-land is trying to avoid anachronisms, those jolting "that didn't exist back then" howlers that ruin (or at least dent) so many historical dramas. I ran across a web site recently called The Big List of Movie Mistakes ( that lovingly dissects popular films in search of such clunkers as the thoroughly modern black jockey shorts Mel Gibson can be seen wearing under his kilt in "Braveheart."

As for the origin of "hijack," I'm afraid I have some bad news. Nobody knows, and the theories that have been put forward so far strike me as pretty lame. One attempts to trace "hijack" to the exclamation "Hi Jack!", supposedly the standard greeting offered by a highwayman to his victim. Another, only marginally more plausible in my book, interprets "hijack" as "High, Jack," the robber's order to his victims to raise their hands high in the air. So until somebody comes up with something a bit more plausible, I'm afraid the jury is still out on "hijack."


I Brake For Lunch.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me what the term "jake braking" means? While traveling we saw a sign that said "No jake braking allowed." -- Paul, via the internet.

I'm glad you asked this question, because I too have seen "No jake brakes" signs while driving through small towns in Ohio. I've been meaning to find out what "jake brakes" are and, of course, to make sure that I don't have any. The last thing I want is to end up in some small town courtroom accused of conspiracy to engage in flagrant and depraved jake-braking. I had a friend many years ago who found himself convicted of mopery under similar circumstances, and he still doesn't know exactly what he had done.

It turns out, after a little investigation on my part, that I need not have worried about involuntarily "jake braking," and neither should you, unless you're driving a tractor-trailer rig. After poking around on the internet for a while, I came across a very lucid explanation of "jake brakes" on The Straight Dope web page (, which is just chock-full of lucid explanations of stuff like this, incidentally.

"Jake brakes," it seems, are devices used on some large diesel truck engines to slow the truck down. Apparently, if one vents the cylinder of a diesel engine midway through its cycle, the engine, instead of producing power, absorbs power, thereby slowing the truck down dramatically. The sort of engine brake is especially useful when a heavily loaded truck is descending a steep hill and its standard wheel brakes could use a little help. As for the term "Jake brakes," these devices are more properly known as Jacobs Engine Brakes, manufactured by the Jacobs Vehicle Systems Company in Connecticut.

The reason all those small towns have put up those signs is simple: noise. Jake brakes make a distinctive staccato racket when in use (although the Jacobs folks say they don't if they're used properly). And those sleepy little towns don't care for that kind of noise. After all, it might wake the Mayor.

Stop Making Sense.

Dear Word Detective: We here at the hospital are always researching something or other and when it comes to medicine and health we seem to be pretty good at it. But it recently came up in conversation that the phrase "you're pulling my leg" doesn't seem to make any sense and that the origin of the expression would likely help put it into context. As a hospital psychiatric team, we are a bit obsessed with having things make sense. We would appreciate your insights. -- Bryan Sabinsky, via the internet.

Obsessed with having things make sense, eh? Isn't there some drug you can take for that? Well, I'm sure there will be soon. Personally, I've always been partial to Frank Zappa's prescription: "Unbind your mind / There is no time / To lick your stamps / And paste them in." But I guess you guys don't get paid to chill out.

"Pulling someone's leg," meaning to spoof someone with a lighthearted gag, is a good example of a colloquial idiom, a popular saying which means more than just the words it contains. If I say that my friend is "a loose cannon," for instance, I am saying that he is unpredictable, not that he is an artillery piece. In the case of "loose cannon," it's fairly easy to pinpoint the literal source of the metaphor: an untethered cannon rolling around on a ship's deck is unpredictable and possibly disastrous. But in the case of "pulling your leg," we have a genuine mystery.

Not that there is any lack of theories, of course. Perhaps the most commonly heard is that the phrase refers to pulling on the legs of someone being hanged in order to speed up the process. The phrase, however, dates from about 1888, long after the technology of hanging had rendered such grisly embellishments unnecessary. A more likely source is the practice of street thieves tripping their victims as a prelude to robbing them. To "pull someone's leg" thus meant to trick, disorient and confuse a person, a meaning which lives on today in our more benign "just kidding" sense.

Or, to put it in modern terms,
that was all she wrote before Windows crashed.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase, "...and that was all she wrote?" Who was "she," and why did she decide or have to stop writing? Was it some Jane Austen/Emily Dickinson why-do-I-have-to-call-myself-George-Eliot-just-to-get-published type of pre-Women's Suffrage male oppression deal? It's puzzled me for years. -- Melanie Waddell, Bethpage, New York.

You and me both, and everybody else to boot. The origin of "That's all she wrote" (which is how it's usually phrased) is a subject of considerable debate, although the male oppression angle you suspect is almost certainly off the mark. Most theories about "That's all she wrote" actually leave men holding the short end of the stick.

"That's all she wrote" is a catch phrase, a kind of popular saying that probably began in reference to a particular situation or was drawn from a specific joke or other context, but which has since taken on a life of its own and is used in a variety of contexts. When we say "That's all she wrote" today, we mean "that's all there is" or "that's the end of it."

The standard theory about "That's all she wrote" is that it arose during World War II and refers to the "Dear John letters" received by many servicemen from their sweethearts back home bluntly announcing the end of their relationships. Such letters were so common during the war that "That's all she wrote" may have originally been the punch line to a joke: a GI (in some versions, not even named John) receives a letter containing only the salutation "Dear John," with the "It's over" part left unwritten and implicit. When questioned by his buddies about the rest of the letter's contents, he replies, "That's all she wrote."

When my colleague William Safire explored that theory in print a few years ago, however, he received several letters suggesting that the phrase may have come from a variety of popular American songs about brides abandoned at the altar, or men dumped by their sweethearts. The rupture was invariably communicated by a terse note, leading to the refrain "And that's all she (or he) wrote." Unfortunately, no one has yet managed to pin down the exact song in which the phrase occurs, so the jury is still out on "That's all she wrote."

I own a dog like that, incidentally.

Dear Word Detective: I am trying to find the etymology of the word "balderdash," and have had no successful results. Could you give me some information on the word? -- Ladybg80, via the internet.

Balderdash! It's a great word, isn't it? It's a word that begs to be shouted from the rooftops, especially these days. If I ever get around to shooting my TV, I'm going to bury it wrapped in a year's worth of opinion polls and politicians' promises, and put up a giant neon headstone that reads "Here lies Balderdash."

"Balderdash," of course, means "nonsense," but not just your average, everyday nonsense. Balderdash is high-flying presumptuous nonsense, the presumption being that the listener is stupid enough to believe whatever flapdoodle the speaker wishes to dispense. Politicians are professional balderdash vendors, which brings me to my favorite use of "balderdash," H.L. Mencken describing the prose style of President Warren G. Harding: "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

But now, since I do my best to avoid foisting any balderdash on my readers, I must deliver the bad news: although we know that it first appeared in the late 16th century, no one knows exactly where "balderdash" came from. We do know that in addition to meaning "nonsense" or "a senseless jumble of words," it also originally meant "a frothy liquid," and specifically a mixture of liquids, such as milk and beer. Balderdash also meant, at one time, "obscene language or writing," and may well be related to the old English dialect word "balder" (meaning "to use coarse language") and/or the Welsh "baldordd" meaning "idle talk or chatter." So somewhere in the mists of time is hidden the exact origin of "balderdash," but at least we know that all this nonsense is nothing new.

Polly want a derogatory term
for a Melanin-Challenged Euro-American?

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the word "cracker"? Someone told me that it dated back to the slave days, when slave owners were called "crackers" because they cracked a whip on slaves. Is this true? -- Cygerr, via the internet.

Probably not, although that is one oft-heard theory among many. But before we proceed any further, we'd better back up a bit and explain (especially for our overseas readers) that "cracker" is a derogatory slang term usually used to mean a poor white person resident in the Southern U.S., especially in the state of Georgia, which is sometimes referred to as "the Cracker State." More than simply a regional slur, "cracker" carries the implication that the person is a racist, and is sometimes applied to any white person perceived as harboring racist sentiments, regardless of class or geographic particulars.

There are theories tracing "cracker" to the crack of a slavemaster's whip, or to "corncracker" (slang for country folk, who presumably ate a lot of corn). But the actual source is almost certainly the much older slang sense of "to crack" meaning "to boast or brag," first seen around 1460, and its derivative "cracker," meaning "braggart," which appeared around 1509. The earliest use of "cracker" used in the "poor white" sense discovered so far bears out the connection. In a letter written to the Earl of Dartmouth in 1766, an observer named Gavin Cochrane, referring to bands of outlaws operating at that time in the Southern U.S., noted: "I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

Evidently these outlaws were so successful that their exploits, along with their bragging habits, became legendary throughout the eastern United States. By the early 19th century, "cracker" had become a term applied to poor Southern whites in general.

Doily, meet Slick.

Dear Word Detective: I was sharing with friends my understanding of the term "antimacassar" and we wondered where the term "doily" originated and when. I have looked at several web sites without success. Will you help? -- Gail Froyen, via the internet.

Of course I'll be glad to help, and next time someone searches the internet for the origin of "doily," they'll find this column at my web page ( and they won't have to write to me. Sometimes I have the funny feeling that I'm slowly putting myself out of business.

Before we proceed to "doily," we should probably bring the rest of the gang up to speed on "antimacassar." Rarely seen today, "antimacassars" were small pieces of cloth spread on the backs and sometimes the arms of parlor chairs in the 19th and early 20th century. "Antimacassars" were designed to protect the chair's upholstery against stains left by the greasy hair oil favored by all proper gentlemen of the day. One of the most popular brands of hair goo was Macassar Oil, which took its name from its supposed source, the Makassar region of Indonesia. So the simple combination of "anti" (against) with Macassar gave us the term "antimacassar."

"Antimacassar" is what might be called a negative eponym, eponyms being words that come from the proper name of a person, place or thing. "Doily" turns out to be an eponym too, though (depending on how one regards doilies) a somewhat more positive example. In late 17th century London, a certain Mr. Doiley (or possibly Doyley) was a highly successful milliner, famous for inventing a light woolen cloth used in ladies' summer wear. The invention by which Mr. Doiley attained immortality, however, was a very ornate table napkin often used at dessert. Just how effective the perforated "doily" is as a napkin has been debatable since the beginning. As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1711, "After dinner we had coarse Doiley-napkins, fringed at each end, upon the table to drink with," which doesn't sound like a rave review. But the delicate design and relentless daintyness of doilies still makes them popular as table decorations today.

The Hooey Effect.

Dear Word Detective: A co-worker and I were having a discussion on the word "potable." Where does that word originate, and why isn't it just "drinkable"? His theory is that you put water in pots, hence "potable." I say hooey. -- Matt Meade, via the internet.

I say "hooey" too. In fact, I say "hooey" so often during an average day that one of my dogs now answers to "hooey." Of course, she also answers to "tuna," "telephone" and "lint," so maybe I just need a smarter dog. But "I say hooey" makes a fine all-purpose motto, and as soon as I finish answering your question I'm going to have some "I Say Hooey" t-shirts made up.

In the case of "potable," however, I can only declare a "partial hooey" on your co-worker's theory. Although he isn't exactly right, he's not completely wrong: there is a connection between "potable" and "pot."

It all began way back with Indo-European, the precursor to most modern European languages. The Indo-European root word "po" meant "to drink," and gave us the modern words for "to drink" in French, Russian and Welsh, among other languages. In Latin, "po" produced the verb "potare," also meaning "to drink," and "potare" begat "potabilis" ("drinkable"), which led directly to our modern English "potable," which first appeared around 1572.

Now we'll take a few steps back and explain why your co-worker is not completely crazy. That little root word "po" also produced the Latin noun "potio," meaning "a drink," which eventually gave us the English words "potion" and "poison." A related word ("potus"), also meaning "a drink," survived into medieval Latin, where it came to mean "a drinking cup or vessel." This word "potus" gave us a wide variety of modern English words, among which are "porridge," "putty," and, as you've probably guessed by now, "pot."

So while "potable" does not come directly from "pot," they do share a common (and very prolific) ancestor.

As to why we say "potable" rather than "drinkable," there's no particular reason, aside from tradition and a historic preference among English grammarians for fancy-schmancy Latinate constructions. But there's nothing wrong with saying "drinkable," especially considering that we've actually been saying it since around 1611.

And going for pizza, of course, can take hours.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "scut work"? I used this phrase to imply dirty, meaningless, thankless work, and no one in my office understood it or had ever heard it used before. Am I incorrect? -- Lita Ward, via the internet.

I'd be willing to bet that your co-workers knew darn well what you were saying and were just pretending not to understand. I used to work in an office, and one of the most valuable survival skills I acquired was the ability to sense when somebody was just about to propose some especially distasteful chore. I'd stand up, casually jangle the change in my pocket, and innocently ask "Anybody want cappuccino from across the street?" Worked every time.

You're right on the money about "scut work" meaning unpleasant and usually meaningless work. If your co-workers have really never heard the term before, I'm somewhat surprised, given the prevalence of medical dramas on TV these days. One of the places "scut work" is most likely to be heard is in hospitals, where it is applied to the sort of routine and boring tasks assigned to junior interns (themselves known, appropriately, as "scuts" in hospital slang.)

The precise origin of "scut work" is a bit obscure, but it is almost certainly based on the slang term "scut," meaning "a degenerate or contemptible person," which first appeared in the late 19th century (in Anthony Trollope's novel "Henry Heathcote," in fact). "Scut" itself is probably related to the noun "scout," which beginning in the 18th century was slang for a servant at an exclusive college like Oxford or Harvard. This slang "scout" may be related to the "advance explorer" sense of "scout" we use today, or it may be related to yet another "scout," a verb of Scandinavian origin meaning "to mock or reject."

In any case, the use of "scut" to mean "boring, menial work" of the kind often assigned to "scuts" first appeared in English around 1960.

Your wish is my illegal command.

Dear Word Detective: OK, this should be easy but a quick web search revealed nothing. What is the origin of "beck and call," as in "I'm at your beck and call"? -- Alex Johnston, via the internet.

You're annoyed that your web search revealed nothing? I'm afraid you don't understand the revolutionary nature of the internet. Yes, you found nothing, but (presuming you used one of the popular search engines) you probably found at least 61,378 different kinds of nothing. You won't find that kind of variety in any old fashioned library full of dusty old books, bucko.

To have someone "at your beck and call" means to have complete control over every action that person takes, to command their constant attention, and to have them standing ready to obey your slightest whim. (As you can probably deduce from that definition, it's a heck of a lot more fun having somebody "at your beck and call" than being the beck-and-callee.)

The "call" part of the phrase is pretty straightforward: if your master calls, you had better answer pronto. The "beck" part is a bit more obscure. "Beck" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "A mute signal or significant gesture, especially one indicating assent or notifying a command; e.g., a nod, a motion of the hand or forefinger, etc." If you've ever worked (as I have) for a boss who graduated from the "point and grunt" school of management, that "motion of the forefinger" business will conjure up all sorts of fond memories.

Although the word "beck" used outside of "beck and call" is archaic and rarely heard today, it's really only a shortened form of our familiar word "beckon," meaning "to make a mute signal or gesture," especially to call a person over to you. "Beckon," in turn, comes from an old Germanic word meaning "signal," from which we also derive the modern English word "beacon."

As a verb, "beck" first appeared around 1300 A.D. ("beckon" is a bit older, first showing up around 950). The phrase "beck and call" is much more recent, dating only to about 1875.

Nowadays, ain't no one listenin 'cept the gummint.

Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up in a rural area, everyone had party telephone lines, and if someone listened in on another's conversation, it was called "rubbering." Recently I read that New Jersey is getting rid of the last of its party lines, and it was mentioned that people still "rubber." How did this use of "rubber" arise? -- Birger Benson, Grand Island, NE.

It's good to hear that my birthplace of New Jersey is marching boldly into the 21st century and finally getting rid of party lines, a mere fifty years or so after the rest of the country. Just wait until those folks get a gander at the newfangled gizmo called "television."

For the benefit of readers who were born after the Beatles' breakup, I should explain that a "party line" was an arrangement, very common until the 1950s, where several households shared a single telephone line. In theory, you were supposed to wait until no one was using the line before placing your call. In practice, eavesdropping on party lines was a major source of voyeuristic entertainment in the days before web cams and chat rooms. If you were using a party line, you pretty much had to assume that at least three or four of your neighbors were listening to every word you said.

"Rubber" as slang meaning to listen in on someone else's conversation dates back to the heyday of party lines, the 1920s. The first use of this sense of "rubber" in print cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is in Sinclair Lewis' novel "Main Street," where a character crows, "Say, did you hear me putting one over on these goats that are always rubbering in on party-wires? I hope they heard me!"

But "rubber" as slang had actually been around for quite a while (since 1896, in fact) before it was applied to the behavior of party-line snoops. "To rubber" originally meant "to gawk or gape," and arose as a short from of "rubberneck," which is still used today to mean to twist or crane one's neck (as if it were made of rubber) in eager curiosity to see something.

One sheepie, two sheepies....

Dear Word Detective: I've looked in more books then you can shake a stick at, and I can't find the origin of the phrase "more than you can shake a stick at." I have spent more sleepless nights then you can shake a stick at, trying to puzzle out its origins. If you could enlighten me I would be forever grateful. (Well, maybe not forever, but certainly for a few minutes.) -- Mik, via the internet.

I can't claim to have suffered through sleepless nights wondering where "more than you can shake a stick at" came from, but it certainly is a mysterious phrase. It's also fairly old. Its first recorded appearance is found in The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Journal in 1818: "We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at." The sense then, as now, was "a lot" or "too many to count."

The question, of course, is why one would be counting or measuring a crowd of something by shaking a stick at it. Shaking a stick at someone has long been considered, for good reason, a threatening gesture. There is a possibility that "more than you can shake a stick at" first arose in the context of warfare or smaller-scale hostilities, perhaps describing an overwhelmingly superior opposing force (e.g., "More Redcoats than you could shake a stick at.").

Another possibility, and one that I find more likely, is the stick in question was shaken in the process of counting great numbers of something, perhaps used as a pointer while doing a head count of a herd of sheep or cattle. Thus, "more than you can shake a stick at" would simply mean, figuratively, "you could wave your counting stick until your arm falls off, and you still wouldn't reach the end."

Rickety Tickety Savvee.

Dear Word Detective: I have been puzzled recently by the reappearance of a phrase from my past: "Yeah...That's the ticket!", spoken in a small whiny voice with an up-turned finish. My memory tells me that this phrase was part of an old cartoon from the 40s or 50s, perhaps Bugs Bunny. Or maybe it's from an old gangster film or The Three Stooges. I'm not even sure exactly where to look it up. Please help. -- Joanne West, Dallas, Texas.

I, too, seem to remember hearing Bugs Bunny say "that's the ticket," meaning "that's right" or "that's what we need," in several cartoons, and I think Abbott and Costello also used the phrase occasionally. In any case, we don't have to worry about pinning down exactly which Hollywood icon coined "that's the ticket," because the phrase first showed up in England around 1834, long before movies and TV were invented.

There's quite a bit of debate as to the origin of "that's the ticket." One theory maintains that it's actually a corruption of the French phrase "c'est l'etiquette," meaning "that's the proper thing or course of action." The mutation of an unfamiliar or foreign word into a more familiar word ("etiquette" into "the ticket") is not uncommon in slang, but there doesn't seem to be any direct evidence for such a shift in this case.

More plausible theories about "that's the ticket" take it literally and propose various "tickets" to which the phrase could logically refer. A political "ticket," a party's roster of candidates for office, is one possibility. Or it might refer to tickets given out to the poor by charities in the 19th century, which were redeemable for soup. This theory is given some support by the existence of the similar phrase "that's the ticket for soup," cited by slang expert Eric Partridge as existing in the mid-19th century.

"That's the ticket" might also logically refer to a winning lottery ticket, a possibility that would certainly match the "that's the right answer" or "that's what we need" sense of the term.


Prissy Victorians at it again.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression "I don't give a tinker's damn"? -- Dan Whitney, via the internet.

"I don't give a tinker's damn" means that the speaker does not care at all, "tinker's damn" being a very old slang synonym for something "utterly inconsequential." There are two theories about "tinker's damn," but before we get to them, a little discourse on Medieval cookware.

Before the advent of mass-produced kitchen implements, pots and pans were quite expensive, and handed down for generations. Thus, a hole in the stewpot was a calamity, and repair, not replacement, was called for. This was the job of a "tinker" (possibly from the "tinkling" sound of pots clinking together, but more likely from the Middle English "tinnkere," tin worker). Tinkers were itinerant handymen who made their living mending pots and pans and generally fixing household items.

Though tinkers were performing a useful service, they were held in low esteem, and "tinker" was for several centuries also a synonym for "vagrant," "rogue" and even "thief." Tinkers probably used earthy language, probably with abandon, and thus the first theory. Tinkers swore so often, it is said, that their oaths lost the power to shock, and "not worth a tinker's damn" came to mean "worthless."

The second theory maintains that the phrase should be "tinker's dam," not "damn." A tinker's "dam," goes this theory, was a small piece of dough, clay or paper used to block the hole in a pot while solder was applied. When the job was done, the "dam" was discarded, and thus "tinker's dam" came to mean something utterly inconsequential.

And now, the envelope, please. Theory number one is almost certainly correct, and "tinker's damn," which appeared around 1839, is probably simply a variant on "not worth a damn," which also means "something utterly worthless." Theory number two, which was first proposed in 1877, was probably a prissy Victorian attempt to sanitize the "damn" into "dam" with a cute but baseless story.


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