Previous Columns/Posted 10/17/97

Well, it was either that or "The Neon Rat."

Dear Word Detective: Why is New York City called "the Big Apple"? -- Adele Kalinowski, via the Internet.

I'd call this question one of the hardy perennials of the word biz, except that it's really more of a monthly. What's especially interesting is that a majority of folks asking about "Big Apple" do not seem to live in New York. I guess this proves that advertising works. The term "Big Apple" was adopted in 1971 as the theme of an official advertising campaign aimed at luring tourists back to New York City. The ad campaign aimed to recast New York, then generally held to be noisy, dirty and dangerous, in a more positive light by stressing the city's excitement and glamor. Whee! Just watch your wallet, folks.

As to the origin of the term "Big Apple" itself, the prevailing wisdom for many years was that it was used in the 1930's, by jazz musicians in particular, but that no one knew where it first arose or how it became a synonym for New York City. Fortunately, Professor Gerald Cohen of the University of Missouri did some serious digging and uncovered use of the term "Big Apple" in the 1920's by a newspaper writer named John FitzGerald, who wrote a horse-racing column (called "Around the Big Apple") for the New York Morning Telegraph. FitzGerald's use of the term predated the jazzmen's "Big Apple" by about a decade.

It was still unclear where FitzGerald got "Big Apple," however, until Barry Popik, a remarkably persistent New York City slang historian, took up the search. Popik discovered that in 1924 FitzGerald had written that he first heard the term from stable hands in New Orleans, who referred to New York racetracks as "the Big Apple" -- the goal of every trainer and jockey in the horse racing world.

Armed with the true story of "Big Apple" (and awesome determination), Popik spent the next four years trying to convince the New York City Government to officially recognize FitzGerald as the popularizer of "Big Apple." Just this past February he finally succeeded, and the corner of West 54th Street and Broadway, where John FitzGerald lived for nearly 30 years, is now officially known as "Big Apple Corner."

Insect Fear.

Dear Word Detective: What about "butterfly"? My American Heritage Dictionary opines that the word comes from the thought that they steal milk and butter. It's a more colorful thought that the word is an alteration of flutter-by: if any animal is thought to flutter, it would be a butterfly. A second thought is less poetic: that butterflies that are fly-like animals that favor the pistils and stamens of flowers, the part of the flower that is sometimes the yellow color of butter. Any thoughts? -- Scott Slotterbeck, via the Internet.

Oh boy, a bug question. I love bugs. Yessiree, love those bugs. Actually, I hate bugs. My apartment building has a problem with humongous waterbugs every summer, which wreaks havoc with both my nerves and my writing. These brazen bugs waltz boldly into my study and march right up to me in broad daylight, leaving me, as defender of my hearth and home, no choice but to stand on my desk until they leave. Then I go to the movies for a day or two in case they come back.

Butterflies, I know, are supposed to be beautiful and all that, but to me they're still bugs. I suspect that the fluttering business is just a ruse to lull us into complacency, whereupon they'll zoom down and ... well, never mind. Anyway, no one knows where butterflies get their name, although the theory endorsed by your dictionary does have some evidence to back it up. Apparently the German word for butterfly is "milchdieb," which translates as "milk thief." Evidently there was a theory in the Middle Ages that the little critters steal milk and butter, a myth possibly based on their light, colorful wings and delicate appearance. Or perhaps they really did steal milk and butter. It's not impossible.

Another theory is that butterflies got their name because (I kid you not) their excrement is said to resemble butter. Whoever thought this one up was pretty clearly spending too much time around butterflies and/or buying very low-grade butter.

Where the redwoods went.

Dear Word Detective: I was once told that "copacetic" (not sure of the spelling) is a Black mispronunciation of a Yiddish term. What is your opinion, oh book-bedecked one? -- Daniel Poor, New York City.

"Book-bedecked"? The only time I would have truly qualified as "book-bedecked" was a year or so ago, when one of the resident cats rather dramatically upset the delicate balance of my home library. Perched atop a twelve-foot-high "to be sorted" pile, the silly creature sneezed, instantly burying us both under a literary avalanche so deep that it took rescue workers two days to excavate us. I sustained myself in the interim by munching on several ancient Latin ponies left over from prep school. The cat lost ten pounds in the ordeal, though you'd never have noticed.

Unfortunately, none of those books contained the true clue as to the origin of "copacetic" (also spelled "copasetic," by the way, and pronounced "coh-pah-SET-ik"), meaning "fine" or "excellent." Most lexicographers have, with good reason, labeled the term "origin unknown." We do know that "copacetic" first appeared in American English around the turn of the century, and was current in Black usage, especially among jazz musicians, for many years before entering the general popular vocabulary. The first and greatest exponent of "copacetic" was, in fact, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949), an extremely popular Black entertainer and probably the greatest tap dancer in history.

There are, of course, plenty of theories about "copacetic." Some authorities trace it to an Italian word "copissettic," supposedly meaning "excellent," but others point to a Creole-French word, "coupersetique," or "able to be coped with." Yet another is the Yiddish connection you mention, based on the Hebrew phrase "kol ba seder," meaning "all in order." This theory raises the question, of course, of how a Hebrew phrase would come to be current in American Black English. The most oft-heard explanation is that Jewish shopkeepers, when asked "How's it going?", might well have replied with "kol ba seder," which was then picked up in phonetic form as "copacetic" by his customers. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support this or any of the other theories, so the book remains open on "copacetic."

Don't worry ... the lights always dim while I'm thinking.

Dear Word Detective: Perhaps you've answered this any number of times, but where does the phrase "on the fritz" come from? I do know it refers to a mechanical or electrical device that is malfunctioning. Other than that, it's a mystery. -- Herman Arbitter, Guadalajara, Mexico.

It certainly is. Next question. But seriously, folks, Mr. Arbitter has come up with a genuine mystery here: no one knows the origin of "on the fritz." There are, however, several theories worth mentioning, so we'll examine those and readers can pick their favorite.

First, a little background: "on the fritz" first appeared around the turn of the century, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being from 1903. This date is important because it fairly conclusively rules out any connection to "Fritz" as an epithet for a German soldier, which appeared later, around the time of the First World War (1914-18).

My parents, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, 1988), suggested that "on the fritz" might originally have been a reference to Hans and Fritz, the mischievous stars of Rudolph Dirks' "Katzenjammer Kids" comic strip, which first appeared in newspapers in 1897. Hans and Fritz were always fouling things up in the most raucous way imaginable, so this theory earns a "not impossible" rating from me.

The etymologist John Ciardi, however, felt that "on the fritz" might be based on the sort of noise one might make to describe a machine that had ceased functioning -- something like "pfftt" (as in "We were making real progress until the doohickey went pfftt."). Again, this explanation is not impossible, and leads to my own theory.

My theory (drum roll, please) is that "on the fritz" comes from the sound made by an electrical mechanism as it shorts or burns out. I was an enthusiastic (and reckless) electronic experimenter in my youth, and my attempts to concoct devices ranging from shortwave radios to portable death rays almost invariably ended with a large puff of smoke and a loud "fritz!" sound. Hey, it works for me, which is more than that darn death ray ever did.

Nutshell, 2 rms, riv view, $560k, must see.

Dear Word Detective: Can you please tell me the origin of "in a nutshell"? You better hurry, because I won't be on-line after September 26, because our company is going out of business ... and that's the whole truth in a nutshell! -- Ska7, via the Internet.

And thereby, as Shakespeare used to say, maybe hangs a tale. I don't wish to appear to be picking on you in your hour of unemployment, but I cannot but wonder whether your apparent penchant for noodling around on the Internet while supposedly working might not be intimately connected to your impending disconnection. Are you sure that your company is really going out of business, or is it possible that they're just telling you that? My family, for example, told me they were moving to Istanbul while I was away at college back in 1970, but I later discovered that they'd never even left the house. I'd check on this if I were you.

"In a nutshell," as I'm sure you know, means "in a few words," or "very briefly explained." Nutshells, being the "hard exterior within which the kernel of a nut is enclosed" (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary), don't get very big since nuts themselves are generally fairly small. (There probably was a Jurassic Walnut or something way back when that could easily squish Des Moines, but that screenplay is yet to be written.) Nutshells themselves were first used as metaphors for something very small back in 1602, when Shakespeare had Hamlet declare, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count my selfe a King of infinite space." Anything that could fit "in a nutshell" would have to be pretty darn small, and by the 18th century all the major writers were cramming things into nutshells.

With a metaphor being as popular as "in a nutshell" has been, can a verb "to nutshell" (meaning to briefly summarize) be far behind? Well, before we all start groaning about "rampant verbification" and the decline of our language, some news: "to nutshell" has been around since 1883, first found in Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi."

And the little toast racks are a joke. Sheesh.

Dear Word Detective: What does it mean to be "kicking over the traces"? It's an expression I've seen in a play by Christopher Fry and also in a book by one of the Mitford sisters, I forget which. I even interrogated two English people of my acquaintance, but they just whimpered that they had never even heard the phrase before. Likely story. Now I turn to you. I have since heard that "traces" have something to do with a horse's harness, so maybe it means a horse running wilfully out of control. Can you clarify? -- Ellen Porat, via the Internet.

Likely story, indeed. Your English friends just want to keep you in the dark. Why do you think the English all affect those silly, impenetrable accents? To keep you from understanding what they're saying, that's why. Believe me, if you go to England and wear lots of tweeds and mumble, they assume you're one of them, whereupon they all drop the act and start speaking as if they were born in Anytown, U.S.A. It's really quite remarkable.

Whoever tipped you to the horse theory, however, was steering you right. The "traces" in question are the leather straps that attach a horse to the carriage or wagon it is expected to pull. Should the horse develop career goals which do not include pulling a silly old carriage, it may kick or step over the traces, often as a prelude to a more generalized kicking spree. Horses have probably been acting up this way pretty much since they were first hitched to wagons, but the earliest surviving written example of the phrase comes from the 14th century.

"Kicking over the traces" as a metaphor applied to people means "throwing off the normal restraints, conventions or routine" An accountant who gets up one morning and lights out for Tahiti rather than his office might be said to be kicking over his traces, for instance. This metaphorical use of the phrase dates back to the mid-18th century, and generally carries a positive connotation. We usually admire people who kick off restraints to escape an uncomfortable job or social role (unless it's our accountant absconding with our money, of course).

Ask Mister Cranky.

Dear Word Detective: I was just dropping a note by to inquire about the etymology of the word "disaster." I am currently in the process of writing a report on the word and one of the assigned parts of the paper requires that a "positive function" be identified. So far I have found all the negatives of this word with no luck on the positives. -- Carissa, Student at West Moore High School, via the Internet.

Ordinarily, I don't answer homework questions, although I receive at least a few every week. I suppose I should say that I'm doing students a favor by forcing them to do their own research, but the truth is that I'm just being cranky. Nobody helped me with mine, way back when, although I did find a book called "Plot Summaries of 100 Classic Novels" in my parents' library that served me very well indeed. I still have the book, by the way. It comes in handy when I want to toss a few classical references into this column. You didn't think I actually read "Silas Marner," did you?

But since you did spell "etymology" correctly, I'll take a shot at your question. Unfortunately, after doing a little checking, I have been unable to rustle up a single "positive function" of "disaster," unless you want to count the Federal Disaster Insurance that allows rich folks to rebuild their fancy beach houses after hurricanes.

As I'm sure you've discovered, "disaster" comes from two Latin elements: "dis," meaning "away," "wrong" or "not," and "aster," meaning "star." The original logic of the word, back when astrology was taken seriously by literate people, was that if your stars were in a bad position, something really bad, a "disaster," was bound to happen. "Disaster" in a figurative sense, meaning "a great misfortune," appeared in English in the 16th century, and it's been downhill ever since. "Disaster" can be a noun or an adjective ("disaster movie"), and even used to be a verb (meaning "to strike with calamity"), but none of the senses of the word is even remotely positive.



Now that we're all connected to the Internet (oh, all right, only about 40 percent of us are, but the rest of you know that resistance is futile), I thought it would be a nice idea to do another of my periodic round-ups of online resources for word lovers. As luck would have it, I have just spent the last several weeks doing a revision of my "Book Lover's Guide to the Internet" for Random House, so I'm fresh from the hunt, so to speak.

Speaking of Random House (which I do in reverential tones, of course), Jesse Sheidlower, a Senior Editor in their Reference Division, has an excellent web page called "Jesse's Word of the Day" at Jesse traces the history of one word per day, and an archive of past words is also available online.

Dave Wilton, who is one of the regulars in the "alt.usage.english" internet discussion group, also has a dandy word origins page at

If it's grammar help you need, check out Jack Lynch's extensive "Grammar and Style Notes" at (That little squiggly thing in the web page address is called a "tilde," incidentally, and can be found in the upper left corner of your computer keyboard.) You'll also find H.W. Fowler's classic grammar guide "The King's English" online in its entirety at

You'll find some fascinating essays on popular language by Michael Quinion at, and a compelling argument against the current "his or her" pronoun obsession on Henry Church's page at

There obviously isn't space here to list everything worthwhile on the Internet (guess you'll just have to buy my book, nyuk, nyuk), but you'll find many more great things at Wordplay (, a site devoted to listing Internet resources for word lovers. And you always find this column at The Word Detective Online, at

Time to milk the metaphors, me lad.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "rookie" (as in first year ballplayer or first year anything) come from? -- John Bartoli, Congressional Research Services, via the Internet.

"Rookie" actually encompasses more than just a "first-year anything" -- it can be applied to anyone who hasn't yet learned the ropes in a particular occupation or pastime, no matter how long they've been at it. My own apprenticeship in the word biz, for instance, lasted for nearly ten years. I spent my "rookiehood" under the tutelage of a crusty old linguist in South Dakota, the sort who still believed in growing his own Latin roots and insisted on speaking Urdu at the dinner table. I can't tell you how happy I was when they finally threw a net over that guy.

The origin of "rookie" is not known for sure, but it may have started out as a simple corruption of the word "recruit." The more interesting possibility is that "rookies" took their name from the noble "rook," which takes a little explaining.

The rook in question is not the chess piece of the same name, but rather a European and Asian bird closely related to the bird we in the New World know as a "crow." Rooks are, like crows, large, loud black birds known for their intelligence, but not very popular with farmers or anyone else. In the 16th century, "rook" came into use as a disparaging epithet for a person of low repute, and by 1577, the verb "to rook" appeared, meaning to rob, cheat or swindle. Soon after, the term "rook" also came to mean someone who was very easy to "rook" -- a simpleton or fool.

All of which brings us back to "rookie." It is possible that the term came to be applied to inexperienced newcomers in a given profession or military outfit because they were the ones most likely to fall for the veterans' schemes and swindles.

Shoes for Industry.

Dear Word Detective: I had heard that the word "sabotage" had a meaning in French manufacturing history similar to what the term "Luddite" has in English manufacturing history, but I cannot confirm this. Can you help? -- Clarinat87, via the Internet.

To answer your question, you and I will have to back up a bit, in case other readers don't know the story of "luddite" to which you refer.

According to legend, Ned Lud (or "Ludd" -- opinions vary) was the "village idiot" of a town in Leicestershire, England in 1779. One fine day, our boy Ned went completely bananas, ran into the shop of a textile manufacturer, and destroyed several of his looms for no good reason. Now fast forward a few years to about 1811, when English textile workers, their employment threatened by new mechanical looms, rebelled and started destroying the new machinery. Needing a catchy name, the rebels called themselves "Luddites" after old Ned, and ever since then the term has been applied to anyone who resists new technology.

The story you've probably heard about "sabotage" is much in the same spirit. "Sabot" is the French word for a wooden shoe, or clog. Various stories tell of French workers, like their English brethren, rebelling against the depredations of the Industrial Revolution, in this case by tossing their "sabots" into the newfangled machinery, bringing production to a halt.

It's an appealing story. After all, who wouldn't like to throw an occasional shoe (or a wrench) into the machines that set our frenetic social pace? But the story isn't true, and there's no evidence that any "sabots" were ever tossed. "Sabotage" actually comes from the French verb "saboter," which means to make a loud clattering with wooden shoes. Metaphorically, the French use "sabotage" to mean a variety of things -- botching a musical performance, doing a bad job at anything, or deliberately destroying tools or machinery. This last meaning was the one carried over into English, where "sabotage" took on the additional meaning of damage done clandestinely to impair an enemy's ability to fight.

To be followed by a demonstration of the classic "duck."

Dear Word Detective: I wonder whether you could throw any light on the origin and meaning of the phrase "to thumb your nose at somebody"? -- Stephen Davey, via the Internet.

Ah, your question reminds me of the good old days, when you could thumb your nose at someone and the worst you could expect in return was a bop on your own nose. Today, people are afraid to express even mild annoyance at a stranger for fear of being shot or otherwise seriously injured. Here in New York City, for instance, it's not considered a good idea to display anger at a driver who tries to run you down in a crosswalk, lest he or she back up and finish the job. I guess you're just supposed to smile and lie down in the street.

To "thumb your nose at someone" is actually a fairly straightforward description of a gesture that used to be known by a much more intriguing name -- "cocking a snook." It's a classic display of derision, properly performed by spreading the fingers of one hand, touching the tip of your nose with your thumb while sighting your opponent along the tips of your other fingers, and waggling your fingers in the most annoying way possible. As a gesture, it doesn't really mean anything, but it does convey utter contempt rather well. Like all fine insulting gestures, cocking a snook always goes well with a Bronx Cheer, or raspberry, as an accompaniment. Crossing your eyes while doing all this is optional but definitely enhances the overall effect. And remember, kids, practice makes perfect.

While the phrase "thumb one's nose" first appeared in English around 1903, "cocking a snook" is much older, first appearing in print back in 1791. The verb "to cock" comes from strutting behavior of male chickens, and means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to turn up in an assertive, pretentious, jaunty, saucy, or defiant way." The "snook" is of uncertain origin, but may be related to "snout," which would certainly make sense.

Fries with that?

Dear Word Detective: While surfing on the Web, I found your valuable service. Can you give me the origin of the word "whippersnapper"? The dictionary refers you to "snippersnapper," and gives no etymology. Can you help? -- Roy, via the Internet.

Why certainly, sir. I am a valuable service, aren't I? Neat, friendly, always professional. Most people don't know this, but I actually wear a crisp white uniform and a name tag while I'm sitting at my computer answering readers' questions. I also wear a pith helmet lined with tinfoil, but that's another story.

"Whippersnapper" is a somewhat archaic term, rarely heard today outside of movies, and then usually from the mouth of a character portrayed as chronologically-challenged and hopelessly old-fashioned to boot. A "whippersnapper" is an impertinent young person, usually a young man, whose lack of proper respect for the older generation is matched only by his laziness and lack of motivation to better himself.

One might imagine that the term derives from the understandable temptation among more productive citizens to "snap a whip" at such sullen layabouts, but the whips in question actually belonged to the whippersnappers themselves. Such ne'er-do-wells were originally known as "whip snappers" in the 17th century, after their habit of standing around on street corners all day, idly snapping whips to pass the time. The term was been based on the already-existing phrase, "snipper-snapper," also meaning a worthless young man, but in any case, "whip snapper" became "whippersnapper" fairly rapidly.

Though "whippersnapper" originally referred to a young man with no visible ambition, the term has changed somewhat over the years, and today is more likely to be applied to a youngster with an excess of both ambition and impertinence.


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