Issue of October 14, 2004



Who knew?  My latest book project, My Favorite Word, is picking up steam and entries are arriving faster than I can post them (i.e., I've fallen a bit behind).  Please take a moment to contribute your own, and I promise it will be posted as soon as if my assistant, Ms Edith Freedle, ever returns from lunch.

There has been much speculation in the media lately about a mysterious rectangular object apparently secreted under President Bush's jacket during the recent debates, with theories about what it might be ranging from your standard-issue Carlyle Group politician-control gizmo to a misplaced shoehorn.  Thanks to my lifelong friendship with Karl Rove (I removed a thorn from his hoof back in graduate school), I can now reveal that the object in question was actually a pre-publication copy of my new book, From Altoids to Zima: The Surprising Stories Behind 125 Famous Brand Names, the unwieldy subtitle of which will, I trust, sufficiently explain its contents.  Unfortunately, the opportune moment to flog my book during the debates apparently never arrived, but Karl says he is expediting my refund, so no harm, no foul. 

In any case, the official publication date of said book is November 2nd (Apres moi, le deluge?), but you can pre-order a copy right now by clicking here, freeing up your November 2nd to do something infinitely more important than buying my book.

And now, on with the show:

Chef Boy-Is-This-Awful.

Dear Word Detective:  In the movie The Americanization of Emily, James Garner played the role of an assistant to an admiral.  His character had the talent to obtain any commodity required to meet the needs of his superior officer.  I think he was referred to as a "dog robber."  If I am correct, would you please enlighten me as to the origin of the phrase of "dog robber"? -- Skip. 

Pity the poor dog.  Man's best friend could use a good press agent, although it's probably too late now.  For hundreds of years, human beings have used dogs as the standard of all that we consider contemptible or unpleasant.  Anything that we find unattractive or that fails we call "a dog."  A crazy person is a "mad dog," a loser is an "underdog," and a cheater is a "dirty dog."  A mess is a "dog's breakfast" that might make us "sick as a dog."  And, having maligned our canine friends thus, we smugly declare that privation and toil are "a dog's life."  It's surprising that Rover doesn't lunge for our throats when we get home.

I've never seen the movie you mention (although I think James Garner is the cat's pajamas), but several sources mention it as one high-profile use of the term "dog robber," so your hearing and memory seem to be working fine.  "Dog robber" is American military slang, dating back to the US Civil War, for an enlisted man who acts as an orderly, valet and all-around facilitator for an officer.  A slightly earlier (1832) sense of "dog robber" was "a person who steals leftover food," the sense being that such scavengers were scarfing down morsels that otherwise would have rightly gone to the dogs.  The transformation of "dog robber" into derogatory slang for an officer's valet probably indicates the contempt felt by other soldiers who considered such a position demeaning and those who filled it low enough to steal scraps from the camp's dogs.

A similar British colloquialism for a junior officer in the Royal Navy is "dogsbody," also in more general slang use for anyone in a subservient, menial position.  Seamen in the 18th century were often served a concoction known as "pease pudding," made by boiling dried peas and/or sea biscuits in a cloth.  Sailors called the stuff "dogsbody," probably based on its taste, texture and suspected pedigree, and by the early 20th century the term was being applied to anyone on the lower rungs of the ladder of power.

It's either love or salmonella.

Dear Word Detective:  In a recent phone conversation I told a very special person that I felt "giddy" at the thought of his future visit.  When I realized I had used a word that I rarely heard anymore, he asked me if I had heard of your website and said I should ask you about the word.  What can you tell me about "giddy"? -- Laura.

So this guy told you to ask me, eh?  I thought something like that must have been going on last Thursday, because the little hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stood on end and the dogs began to howl.  So I went to all the trouble of raising the drawbridge and boiling the oil, and now it turns out just to have been your boyfriend mentioning my name.  No wonder I can't get any work done.

It's true that one rarely hears the word "giddy" these days except in news articles about lottery winners, and even then it's usually the reporter, not the winner, who invokes the description.  The standard media protocol for winners seems to be laconic stoicism ("Well, I'll probably buy some socks and a new bowl for the dog, but yeah, I'll still drive my truck for Whiplash Industries").  But there was a time when to be "giddy" in the modern sense of "joyfully elated, dizzy with excitement" wasn't considered uncool. 

Then again, there was a time when to be "giddy" might be enough to get you locked up.  When "giddy" first appeared in Old English (as "gydig"), it meant "insane" or "possessed."  The root of "giddy" is, in fact, the same prehistoric Germanic root that gave us the English word "god," and to be "giddy" was originally "to be possessed by a god."

By the 16th century, however, "giddy" had taken on a more directly physical sense of "dizzy, afflicted by a swimming feeling in the head or vertigo," a meaning still occasionally heard today in the vicinity of roller coasters.  But at the same time "giddy" began to be used in today's figurative sense of "mentally intoxicated by excitement or emotion."  A more derogatory sense of "prone to thoughtlessness or silliness" is also fairly common.

Incidentally, the word "enthusiasm" also originally meant "inspired or possessed by a god," from the Greek "en" (in) plus "theos" (god, which also gave us "theology").

Broken wicker chairs?  I am there.

Dear Word Detective:  I would like to find the origin of the word "heirloom."  Is this literally a loom for making cloth that was handed down from one generation to the next?  One dictionary suggested that the word "lome" from Middle English could have referred more generally to other types of tools.  Thanks so much for any help.  p.s. -- If a fabric were made of human hair would it be made on a "hairloom"? -- Greg.  

Nyuk nyuk.  Speaking of "heirlooms," I think I can, now that summer is over, safely announce that this is the very first year since we moved to Ohio in 1998 that I have not been suckered into attending a single yard sale.  For years I have arisen far too early on Saturday mornings in pursuit of what breathless advertisements promised were "loads of family heirlooms and antiques," only to discover, many miles and many wrong turns later, that Grandpa evidently collected broken toasters, rusty Hibachis and dysfunctional (not that I wanted functional) eight-track tape players.  The Art Deco armoire mentioned in the ad?  Cousin Wilma decided to spray-paint it pink and store her Barbie collection in it.

There is, alas, no "hair" in "heirloom," and no "loom," either, in the sense we use "loom" today to mean "machine for making cloth."  The "heir" in "heirloom" is our familiar English word, meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "The person who is entitled by law to succeed another in the enjoyment of property or rank, upon the death of the latter; one who so succeeds; in general use, one who receives or is entitled to receive property of any kind as the legal representative of a former owner."  The word "heir" comes to us, via Old French, from the Latin "heres," which simply meant "heir."  Today we also use "heir" in a looser sense of "inheritor" or "successor." as in "Thomas Kinkade is heir to the schlock art market once dominated by Walter Keane's wide-eyed children."

The "loom" part of "heirloom" does indeed come from the Middle English "lome," originally meaning any sort of tool or implement.  The use of "loom" to mean specifically a weaving machine dates to the early 15th century.  "Heirloom," which also appeared in the 1400s, harks back to the broader meaning of "loom" and originally simply meant any property (tools, etc.) that could be inherited the way real estate is.  The modern sense of something that has been handed down for generations appeared only in the 17th century.

Dancing in the dark.

Dear Word Detective:  My friend and I were recently puzzled by the possible origins of the word "shindig."  My Compact OED is pretty much silent on the subject (except for a roundabout reference to a cry from a Scottish sporting event) and my Webster's New World College Dictionary says, "folk-etym. form of fol., as if shin-dig, a jovial kick in the shin."  Somehow, I have my doubts about that etymology, as I have trouble recalling any society in human history in which people walked around jovially kicking each other in the shins.  My friend and I now have a bet about whether or not this origin is accurate or some bored etymologist's joke.  Any light you can shed on "shindig" would be greatly appreciated. -- John Keogh.  

I'll give it a shot, although you've only scratched the surface of the confusion behind "shindig," so I can't promise a definitive answer.

"Shindig" appeared in U.S. usage in the 1870s meaning "a large party, especially a lively, noisy party with dancing" or, more generally any large, noisy ruckus.  The term itself is rarely heard today except in an ironic or sarcastic sense (as in "The accountants threw quite a shindig last week"), although I do remember that one of the TV networks had a "youth music" show, a sort of "American Bandstand" for hippie wannabes, called "Shindig" back in the 1960s.  (Its competition was, somewhat more memorably, called "Hullabaloo.")

The Oxford English Dictionary does list an earlier use of "shin-dig," in the 1840s, meaning simply "a blow to the shins," and it is possible that "shindig" in the party sense derived as a jocular reference to bruises being a likely result of lively (but unskilled) dancing.

A more likely explanation, however, traces "shindig" to "shindy," an earlier (1820s) term for a party, dance or wild spree.  "Shindy," in turn, is thought to derive from "shinty," from the 1700s, itself a variation on "shinny," a schoolboy's game similar to field hockey.  No one is quite sure where "shinny" got its name, but it may have come from the cry "Shin ye!" used in the game, possibly referring to blows to a opponent's shins.  So any way you cut it, shins seem to be involved in "shindig."  Incidentally, what your dictionary meant by "folk etymological form of the following word" (i.e., "shindy") was that over time the obvious joke about dancing and shins contributed to the transformation of "shindy" into "shindig."

Mommy, why is the sky ... that funny color?

Dear Word Detective:  I've learned that "sooth" meant "truth."  However, a friend from Germany told me that there was an ancient practice of reading fortunes in soot.  Could that also contribute to the word "soothsayer?" --Marsha.

Reading fortunes in soot?  Are you sure your friend wasn't actually from New Jersey?  (Save your outrage, Garden State fans.  I was born there.)  Actually, if you're looking for fortunes in soot, my current abode of Ohio is a good (or bad) bet.  Ohio power companies are currently being sued by much of the northeastern US for turning their curtains unpleasant colors.

"Soothsayer," meaning a fortune teller or psychic, is the only surviving instance of "sooth" in common usage, and there is no connection between "sooth" and "soot."  "Soot" actually derives from an ancient Indo-European root meaning "to sit" which also gave us "settle" and "sit."  By the time "soot" appeared in English around 725 it was used to mean specifically the fine black particles resulting from the combustion of carbon-based fuels such as coal, wood or oil.

"Sooth" is also an ancient word, first appearing in Old English and derived from an Indo-European root meaning "to be."  The original English meaning of "sooth" was "truth" ("what is"), and when "soothsayer" first appeared around 1340 it simply meant "one who tells the truth."  This "truth" meaning of "sooth" was also found in the now obsolete (except in historical dramas) "forsooth," which simply meant "in truth" or, as we might say today, "Really!" or "Honest!"

Although "soothsayer" originally meant just "truth-teller," by the late 14th century it had acquired the more particular modern meaning of "one who tells the truth about the future," i.e., a psychic or seer.

Interestingly, "sooth" meaning "truth" also lives on in our modern verb "to soothe," meaning to mollify or calm.  Around 950 "to soothe" meant to prove something to be true, but by the 16th century it had come to mean to support another person's side of a dispute and approve of and encourage their actions.  And by the 17th century, "soothe" had come to mean calming and comforting a person or animal by smoothing out problems or conflicts.

And the little hand is pounding on my head with a ball-peen hammer.

Dear Word Detective:  I have always known the term "Greenwich Mean Time," apparently now supplanted by "Coordinated Universal Time," abbreviated "UTC."  Of course, one wonders why it is not abbreviated "CUT," but I'm assuming that making an acronym that is an unrelated word might be distasteful, and that French word order probably has something to do with it.  From military and defense industry exposure, today I more often hear the term "Zulu," meaning pretty much the same thing as "UTC" or "GMT."  Where did that term come from?  It doesn't look like an acronym to me. -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.

This question is a follow-up to my column a while back, which mentioned Greenwich Mean Time in the course of explaining that the phrase "on the ball" did not, in fact, derive from a big red ball that drops from a tower at Greenwich Observatory in England every day at 1 p.m.  ("On the ball" actually comes from baseball.)  Greenwich Mean Time (time at the Prime Meridian, which passes through Greenwich) is today more properly known as UTC, which are indeed the initials of the French equivalent of Coordinated Universal Time, French being considered the international language of diplomacy by the UN.

To explain "Zulu" time, we must explain "Z time," which was developed by Nathaniel Bowditch, an 18th century sea captain and author of "The American Practical Navigator," still considered an essential textbook on sea navigation.  In the course of developing a system by which naval navigators could record events in the local time wherever they were, Bowditch realized that since there are 24 hours in a day and 360 degrees around the earth, each 15 degrees change in longitude represented an hour's difference in local time.  Thus was the notion of time zones born, and Bowditch designated them with letters, marching East from Greenwich, through the International Date Line (180 degrees longitude), and back to England as he neared the end of the alphabet.  It's a bit more complicated than I can explain here (among other things, the International Date Line zone got two separate letter designators, and Bowditch skipped the letter "J" for some reason), but Greenwich itself ended up being designated the center of the "Z" zone.  Voila, Greenwich Mean Time became "Z time," and sailors have referred to it as such ever since.  You can read a far more complete account of Bowditch and "Z time" at

From "Z time" to "zulu" is a much simpler jump.  "Zulu" is simply the letter "Z" rendered in the NATO phonetic alphabet used by the military and air traffic controllers ("Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot," etc.) for clarity in radio transmissions.


A night no parrots would die.

Dear Word Detective:  While explaining that I didn't have to throw darts last night despite the fact that I play darts in a league every week, one of the girls at work asked what I meant when I said "we had the bye this week."  I could explain that it just meant we sit out this week - don't have to play (because there are five teams and only two dart boards) - but had no answer when she asked why they call it a "bye."  Can you tell us how this use of the word evolved?  In a way, I'm glad she asked, since I've often wondered the same thing myself! -- Annette Pepple. 

Live and learn.  I know I'm supposed to affect a pose of omniscience when I write this column, but every so often a reader writes in with a query about a word or phrase of which I have never heard, but which seems to be rather well-known in some precincts.  In this case, it turns out that "bye" in the sense you use it is well-established in a number of sports, and has been in use since the mid-18th century.

The earliest uses of "bye" (also spelled "by") were apparently in cricket, where it means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "A run scored for a ball which passes the batsman, and which the wicket-keeper and long-stop fail to stop."  I haven't the faintest idea of what that means, but the sense seems to be that a run is scored for a play which did not actually take place and the player advances without actually playing.  This leads us to the more general sense of "bye" used in other sports, "The position of a player in a tournament who advances to the next round without playing, usually because there is an odd number of players."  Skipping a game because of a lack of dart boards would, as in your case, also qualify as a "bye."

"Bye" in this sense is a specialized use of the common English preposition "by" as a noun meaning "something secondary" or "an incidental matter" as compared to the "main" thing.  It's the same sense of "by" found in "byway" or "bypass" meaning a secondary road.  So in a sense your "bye" simply means that you have "bypassed" playing a game this week.             

Candy is dandy but Diebold is forever.

Dear Word Detective:  I have looked at the word "candidate" a zillion times. Then on the zillionth-plus-one time, I realized that this is a very strange word.  Does it have something to do with "candy" and "dates"?  No, apparently it has something to do with the moral purity of the politician.  How can this be? -- Al Read.  

"The moral purity of the politician."  Don't mind me, I just wanted to see if I could type those words without my head exploding.  So far, so good, but it's only October.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the word "candidate" first appeared in English in the 17th century, but its roots go back to Ancient Rome.  In those days, as in many cultures even today, the color white was considered symbolic of purity and rectitude, and citizens running for public office wore, by tradition, white togas.  The Latin word for "white" being "candidus," an aspiring officeholder was known as a "candidatus," which eventually, after being filtered through French, became our English word "candidate."  Incidentally, that such a common word with ancient roots took so long to show up in English may seem a bit odd, but keep in mind that prior to the 17th century most political leaders were not democratically elected, making the word "candidate" unnecessary.

People of voting age who still believe in the Tooth Fairy often expect political candidates to be honest and plain-spoken, a hope which has, if little connection to reality in most cases, at least the virtue of being lexicographically related to the word "candidate."  The Latin verb "candare" means "to glow" (giving us "candle") as well as "to be white."  The derivative "candid" originally meant simply "to be white" when it appeared in English in the 17th century, but soon came to mean "illustrious or fortunate," then "fair, impartial or just," until finally, around 1675, "candid" acquired its modern meaning of "frank, straightforward and sincere."  Ironically, the invention of the camera a bit later also brought "candid" ("unposed") photography, a genre which has punched gaping holes in many a "candid" candidate's electoral chances.

You'll notice that I didn't mention Whacko Jacko even once.

Dear Word Detective:  I have a dilemma.  I have a paper due in English class in a few months about the old proverb "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."  I have gathered so far what it means, but can find no information about it's origin or where it came from or who first used it and why.  I have read on different websites that is of Japanese origin and that it is also of French origin.  Could you please help me?  --  Seeking-an-A.   

A few months?  Where's the fun in that?  You'll find your paper much more exciting to write if you do it the way professional writers do -- wait until the night before your deadline and then drink a half-gallon of coffee.  As Samuel Johnson, pioneering lexicographer and a guy who knew a bit about deadlines, put it back in 1777, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."  Trust me, it works even better when you're down to six hours.  You'll discover an eloquence (not to mention a talent for invention) you never knew you possessed.

As I'm sure you've discovered by now, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is a warning not to act out of pique or pursue revenge in such a way as to damage yourself more than the object of your anger.  It's not a good idea, for example, to express your (entirely understandable) distaste for the sorry state of broadcast journalism today by tossing your TV set out the window.  Peter Jennings couldn't care less, and you'll miss The Simpsons until you buy another set. 

The precise origin of "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is slightly fuzzy, but it seems to have first appeared around 1200 as a Latin proverb cited by Peter of Blois, a French poet of the day.  The phrase then crops up a bit later in a history of France, written in the mid-17th century, attributed to a courtier who supposedly employed it to deter King Henry IV from destroying Paris to punish the occupants' low opinion of his rule.  The proverb apparently didn't really become popular in English until the 19th century.

Since the advice contained in ""Don't cut off your nose to spite your face" is good, it's not surprising that similar proverbs have been popular in other languages and cultures, including the Chinese ""Do not burn down your own house even to annoy your wife's mother."

And the Tooth Fairy owes me a bundle.

Dear Word Detective:  My daughter, who is now 27, was four years old when she asked me where "lollypop" came from.  Being a former school librarian, I took her to our local library and asked the reference librarian if she could help us.  To our utter dismay, we could not find out why or where this came from.  She was home not too long ago, and reminded me that I still had not been able to answer her question. Can you help? --Linell Mikell. 

Yikes.  You seem to have a very persistent daughter, and you're probably lucky she's fixated on a particular word origin, rather than something a bit more expensive.  Childhood obsessions frequently hang on into adulthood, often with ridiculous consequences (witness the vehicles known as Hummers, the closest many little boys will ever get to being the superheroes of their dreams).  Personally, I still harbor a longing for my very own pony, a desire I seem to be sublimating at the moment by acquiring an unnatural number of cats.  Perhaps one of them will grow large enough to ride.

Wherever "lollypop" (or "lollipop" as it is often spelled) came from, it's been around for a while.  The word first showed up around 1784 in the hyphenated form "lolly-pop," meaning a kind of small, hard candy.  Apparently these early "lollypops" lacked the stick for holding that later made lollypops a popular children's candy among mess-conscious parents. 

"Lollypop" is, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, "of obscure formation," but most authorities suspect that it derives from the northern English dialect word "lolly," meaning "tongue," which would make sense since one won't get far with a lollypop if one lacks a tongue.  The derivation of that "lolly" is a bit uncertain itself, but it seems to be based on the verb "to loll," meaning "to droop or dangle" or, since around 1611, "to thrust out" one's tongue.  Today this verb "loll" is mostly used in the sense of "resting or reclining idly," as in "Henry spent his vacation lolling around the apartment watching reruns of Seinfeld." 

The "pop" part of "lollypop" derives either from "pop" meaning "something short or small" (lollypops being small treats) or from its sugary kinship to "soda pop" (so called from the popping sound made by opening a bottle of a carbonated beverage).  The same sense of "pop" is found in "popsicle," the frozen treat which is, interestingly, known as an "ice-lolly" in Britain. 

Keep TWD Free!
Please consider donating to support
The Word Detective website.

Tomorrow the world.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the meaning of the word "megalomaniac" and where did the word come from and why did people start using it?  I am 11 years old and my English teacher told our class it is her favorite word although she does not get to use it very much.  She did not tell us what it meant.  Thank you for your help. -- Devin.

Good question.  Your teacher sounds like a lot of fun, and it's nice to see that life in the classroom hasn't changed much since I was your age. I had a teacher in fifth grade named Mrs. Munson, who spent most of every day telling us scary stories about a place called Red China, a place full of bad people who were coming to take away our toys. Mrs. Munson turned out to be a bit loco in the coco, and it was for her they came after a while, after which we had a brand new teacher, and got to keep our toys, too. Roughly the same thing happened with Mrs. Flood in sixth grade, come to think of it. Sometimes I wonder what was wrong with my school.

Your teacher has picked an interesting word as her favorite, especially since most people pick pretty words like "zephyr" or "gossamer."  "Megalomaniac" is a little hard to say and, as your teacher says, it's not a word you get to use or even read very often, although that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of megalomaniacs in the world.  In fact, I'll bet the computer software you used to type your question was manufactured by a megalomaniac whose name rhymes with "Gill Bates." 

A "megalomaniac" is a person who wants to run the whole world.  "Megalomania" is a kind of mental illness that makes people want power over everyone else and the right to tell everyone what to do.  Sometimes megalomaniacs actually do get a lot of power, but other times they only think they have power.  The ones that really do get power make lousy bosses and bad leaders, but the ones who only think they should run things are usually harmless unless they get their own radio shows.

"Megalomania" is made from two words which come to us from Greek.  "Mania" is a form of mental illness where the person becomes very excited or obsessed by an idea.  "Megalo" means "large" or "great," so put the two words together and you have "megalomania," a kind of mental illness where the person is convinced that he or she is much "greater" than he or she actually is.  "Megalomania" was first used in English in the late 1800s, but "megalomaniacs" have been around as long as there have been other people for them to boss around.


Great play, Shakespeare.

Dear Word Detective:  I was walking through the park the other night and for no reason the word "smithereens" as in "blown to smithereens" got stuck in my mind.  When I got home, I immediately checked your archives, but did not see it listed.  Would you be able to determine the origin of this pesky word?  It's still rattling around the noggin. -- Erin, Staten Island, NY.

Whoa.  You realize, of course, that a nice long walk in the park is supposed to relax you, right?  Next time, I suggest that you meditate on a more restful word, say, "eiderdown."  Or perhaps "tapioca," or "beige," or "mongoose."  Well, maybe not that last one.  Words and phrases to avoid, and I speak as a former New Yorker myself, would include "Cross-Bronx Expressway," "D train," "Metrocard," and, since you live on Staten Island, "ferry schedule."

"Smithereens" is a great word meaning "small fragments" or "tiny bits," and is  usually found in the phrases "blown to smithereens" or the alliterative "smashed to smithereens."  A typical use of the word can be found in a Time magazine story about cosmology from 1976:  "The result is another kind of supernova, a fantastic explosion that blows the star to smithereens, dispersing into space most of the remaining elements that it had manufactured during its lifetime."

"Smithereens" first appeared in English in 1829 in the form "smiddereens," and most likely was borrowed from the Irish "smidirin," meaning "small bit or fragment." 

I would hazard a guess that the success of "smithereens" as a popular word derives at least in part from the "echoic" sound of the word itself.  It's easy to imagine, for example, a waiter dropping a tray of plates and the bits of china making a ringing "een" sound as they scatter across the floor and bounce off nearby diners (who might make "een" sounds themselves).  Incidentally, one of the things I miss about New York is that when such an incident would take place, the restaurant patrons would almost always applaud. 

Anyplace where salads aren't festooned with bacon and cheese would do.

Dear Word Detective:  I and a few of my friends were having a late meal in one of New Jersey's ubiquitous diners, when it was suggested we abscond without paying our bill.  Not everyone present knew what it meant, and after that discussion we naturally turned to the origin of this strange word.  The "ab" part of the word makes some sense, but "scond"?  Fortunately good sense prevailed and the bill was paid, but alas we haven't found the origin of abscond yet.  Can you help us? -- Norm Johnson.

Certainly, but, under the circumstances, I think it's only prudent that you supply a small deposit first.  Speaking of breaking bread and then taking a powder, I recently read a news article about a guy in Lake George, NY, who was chased down and tackled (and arrested, believe it or not) for not leaving a proper tip.  The restaurant owner (named, ominously, Joe Soprano) contended that a small notice on the menu about parties of a certain size automatically incurring an 18% gratuity was legally binding.  I'd be surprised if Mr. Soprano didn't lose at least 18% of his business over the ruckus, but maybe that restaurant is not his real business anyway.

Incidentally, your mention of "New Jersey's ubiquitous diners" prompted a brief but intense spell of weeping around here.  Ohio has a TGI Friday's on every corner but precious few diners, and just the thought of those little paper tubs of coleslaw made me so intensely homesick for New York City that I dreamt last night there was a D train stop at the end of our driveway.

Meanwhile, back at "abscond," you've correctly deduced that the Latin prefix "ab" (or in this case "abs") connotes "away" or "off," which leaves us with "cond."  What we actually have there is a form of the Latin verb "condere," meaning "to put together" ("con," together, plus "dere," to put) or, more importantly for our purposes, "to stow or put away").  This gave us the Latin verb "abscondere," meaning "to put away or hide."

Although "abscond" was sometimes used in the 17th century to mean "to hide something," its primary sense has always been "to hide oneself," especially through rapid flight.  Thus when Philip Falle, in his 1694 "An account of the isle of Jersey," wrote " The King ... was forced to abscond with great danger of his Person, till he found a passage into France," he was using it in the same sense some shifty diner patrons do today.


 Main Current Columns Archives Ask a Question Buy the Book Subscribe




All contents Copyright © 2003-4 by Evan Morris.