Issue of October 18, 2000


As I noted last month, if you have ordered, or are planning to order, a copy of the Word Detective book through this web site, please let me know your e-mail address. Each book ordered through this site comes with a free one-year subscription to the e-mail version of The Word Detective, and I can't put you on the list if I don't have your e-mail address.

Incidentally, readers who were math majors probably realized right off the bat (it only took me a week or so) that if you were already planning to subscribe to TWD-By-E-mail for $15/yr. (as gazillions of folks already have), the combination book/subscription offer means that you are actually paying only $2.95 for a $17.95 book (not counting the postage). This is such a ridiculously good deal that I plan to buy a dozen or so copies for myself.

And anyone in or near Wooster, Ohio on Saturday, November 4th should swing by the Buckeye Book Fair, where my loyal assistant Edith Freedle will be signing books (presumably with my name) for seven hours straight. It's probably a good idea to get there early in the day, as Ms. Freedle will be getting a bit testy after she realizes I lied about the open bar and unlimited hot wings. I'd go myself, but this thing they put on my ankle beeps if I try to leave the house.  [Read this note]

And now, on with the show....

Under where?

Dear Word Detective: Could you please let us know the etymology of "BVD"? I recognize that it is a brand name of underwear that was purchased by Fruit of the Loom in the 1970s. Is the word an acronym for "better ventilated drawers" or is it merely a brand name? -- Wordsmith Wannabe, via the internet.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "union suit" and/or "long johns"? -- Paul Sironen, via the internet.

What is this -- National Underwear Month? Well, that makes it as good a time as any to explain the motto "Semper Ubi Sub Ubi" that appears on my web page (, especially since readers ask me about it nearly every week. It's an old Latin student's joke: semper (always) ubi (where) sub (under) ubi (where). Silly, yes, but it's also about all I remember from four years of Latin.

Although the brand B.V.D. is now used to market all sorts of underwear, the original B.V.D.s were full-body one-piece suits of men's underwear with a drop seat, also known as "union suits" or "long johns." My father, who was born in Boston, used to facetiously maintain that "B.V.D." stood for "Boston Ventilated Diapers." Other popular explanations included "Baby's Ventilated Diapers" and "Back Vented Drawers," but the truth was that "B.V.D." stood for "Bradley, Vorhees & Day," the Baltimore firm that manufactured the garment.

As for "union suit," all sorts of explanations have been offered over the years, including the fable that when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in 1865, he was wearing a full dress uniform while Grant appeared wearing only his long underwear, thenceforth known as a "union suit." Nice story, but "union suit" didn't appear in the American vocabulary until 1892, long after the Civil War. The "union" in "union suit" almost certainly simply refers to the "unified" one-piece design of the garment.

The earliest example of "long john" in print cited by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1943, but we can assume that the term was in oral use long before that date. The "john" is probably meaningless, inserted as a generic male name to give balance and a near-rhyme to the phrase.

Maybe it's related to the life-size Butter Cow at the Ohio State Fair.

Dear Word Detective: My roommate from Ohio insists on saying "It's a horse of peas" meaning "It's the same thing, one way or another." After hearing him use this random saying over and over, I finally called him on it and asked him if he didn't mean it was "a horse apiece"? He is adamant about his pea horse (I imagine a green horse consisting entirely of English peas) and won't hear any different. Please enlighten us with your expertise. -- Allison Paige, via the internet.

"Horse of peas"? I'm going to put this one at the very top of a file I keep labeled "Conclusive evidence that Ohio is actually a lost colony of Martians."

In any case, you are correct and your roommate is a victim of a "mondegreen," or a mishearing of a popular phrase or song lyric. The term "mondegreen" was invented in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child had heard the Scottish ballad ''The Bonny Earl of Murray" and had believed that one stanza went "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen." It turned out, as Wright later learned, that the line actually ran "They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green." Oops, no Lady Mondegreen, but Wright did have a good name for the phenomenon.

"A horse apiece" means, as you supposed, "more or less equal" or "six of one, half dozen of the other." Field researchers for The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) first heard "a horse apiece" in 1980, but the phrase is undoubtedly much older. A similar phrase, "horse and horse," dates back to at least 1846.

According to DARE, the logic of "a horse apiece" may come from an old dice game called "horse" in which two players who have each lost a turn are said to be "a horse apiece." Or it may just be a variant of "horse and horse," describing two horses racing neck-and-neck down a racetrack.

Reach for the sky, Senator.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "maverick" originate, and what does it mean? -- Bayos Elves, via the internet.

Good question. "Maverick," meaning an independent or rebellious person, is an "eponym," a word which once was someone's proper name. Eponyms are more common than you might think: for example, the words "martinet," "guillotine" and "mesmerize" each began as someone's name, although not the name of anyone you'd like to meet.

The very first "maverick" was a 19th century Texas cattleman named Samuel Maverick who became famous for not branding his cattle. His cattle, left unidentified and free to roam, were often "adopted" by other ranchers who termed them "mavericks," and by the end of the century "maverick" had come to mean any sort of rootless wanderer or rebel. Mr. Maverick's name was later borrowed by the producers of the classic "Maverick" TV show, which starred the timeless James Garner as one of two (or possibly three -- I forget) brothers named Maverick living by their wits in the Old West.

Now fast-forward a hundred years or so, to when Sam Maverick's grandson, Maury Maverick, was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives during World War II. Charged with overseeing factory production for the war effort, Rep. Maverick coined the marvelous word "gobbledygook" to describe the impenetrable bureaucratic jargon and doubletalk he encountered. He later explained that he based the word on the behavior of turkeys (the flying kind) back in Texas, who were "... always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of gook." Sounds a lot like C-SPAN, doesn't it?

Rep. Maverick went on to issue a memorable edict stating that "Anyone using the words 'activation' or 'implementation' will be shot." Sadly, no bureaucrat was ever actually shot, and unfortunately we hear far worse examples of "governmentese" almost every day, but it certainly seems fitting that Sam Maverick's grandson would be the "maverick" who fired the first shot against "gobbledygook."


Or maybe the "pol" in both words is just short for "politician."

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "poltroon"? Why has the word fallen from use? -- Henry Keyes, via the internet.

Dear Word Detective: A friend just referred to me as an "old polecat." Although I'm certain it's meant as a compliment, I'm curious about the origin of the word. Are cats from Poland notable in any particular respect, or do polecats hang around firehouses and catch firemen responding to the alarm? -- Jeffrey Baddeley, via the internet.

Let me begin by noting that there is no connection between "poltroon" and "polecat." I just happened to see these two questions sitting in my mailbox and decided to smoosh them together. You should see me at the dinner table. Or maybe not.

"Poltroon" is a great word, meaning "a craven coward" or, more generally, "a worthless, unprincipled person." You're correct that "poltroon" is rarely heard today, and the only person I know of who uses it with any regularity is ex-Watergater and radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy, whose show is one of the few I can pick up while I mow the lawn. The root of "poltroon" is the Italian "poltrone," which meant not only "coward" but also "slothful and lazy lout," and in turn was based on "poltro," meaning "couch." The original sense of "poltroon," which first appeared in English around 1529, was thus a worthless, dissolute person who spends his time lounging on couches rather than doing what needs to be done.

As for "polecat," I'll take your word for it that your friend was complimenting you, but a "polecat" is not a cat of any kind. If you're in Europe, it's a kind of weasel, while to Americans a "polecat" is a skunk. Both kinds of polecats can emit a powerful stink, so "polecat" has been used since Shakespeare's day to mean a vile, unpleasant person. The "pole" in "polecat" is probably an adaptation of the French "poule," or chicken, from the weasel's fondness for raiding chicken coops.

Conniptions in triplicate.

Dear Word Detective: I hope my question is simple. What is all of the "red tape" that everyone has to cut through to resolve problems more quickly? Frequently it is mentioned in conversation or on newscasts that so-and-so "cut through all of the necessary red tape" to quickly attain a goal. What is the origin of the term "red tape"? -- D. T. Brummy, via the internet.

"Red tape," meaning rigid adherence to pointless bureaucratic regulations and procedures, comes from the old practice of tying bundles of legal papers with red cloth tape. This literal use of "red tape" began in England in the 17th century, but by the early 19th century "red tape" had become a common metaphor for delays caused by bureaucratic intransigence.

I suppose we should all be used to red tape by now, but a few years ago, I survived the sort of red-tape experience that transforms mild-mannered columnists into raging lunatics. In my case I had the dubious honor of going up against perhaps the most diabolically senseless bureaucracy ever invented, the living embodiment of Franz Kafka's worst nightmares -- the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that after one full year of fruitlessly attempting to register an inoffensive little red car, I finally figured out why they make the counters so tall in government offices. It makes it remarkably difficult (although not absolutely impossible) to strangle the clerks who work there.

Today's bureaucrats have, like my stubborn little friends at the DMV, found the computer to be a far more effective tool for driving their constituents to distraction than bundles of documents bound with red tape. But as long as there are rules, and blindly obedient clerks to follow them to the letter, we'll have no shortage of "red tape."

Turn on, tune in, drop your glasses on the floor
and spend the next twenty minutes looking for them.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the term "widow's peak" come from? Just curious. -- Julia Donahue, Rolling Stone, New York, NY.

Sure, just curious. Your question wouldn't possibly have anything to do with Old Father Time catching up with the Rolling Stone magazine crowd, would it? Lots of tapioca and Jello in the lunchroom, tie-dye Depends in the washroom? Grecian Formula for Ponytails? Walkers in the mosh pits? Flashbacks getting fainter all the time? Hey, it happens to all of us. (Except me, of course. It doesn't mean anything that my memories of the original Woodstock are fuzzy. They were just as fuzzy a week after the festival.)

A "widow's peak," for those readers who have never spent hours in front of a mirror worrying about such things, is a downward point in middle of one's hairline above the forehead. It's a little hard to describe, but it creates a sort of mild Eddie Munster effect, not necessarily unpleasant, but sometimes quite prominent. A "widow's peak" is not restricted to women, although when it appears in men it's called, logically, a "widower's peak."

Despite its name, a "widow's peak" is not a sign of age, although as one's hair thins with the passing seasons it may become more noticeable. But it's young women, if one believes the legends, who should beware of developing a "widow's peak." According to English folklore, a "widow's peak" indicates that the woman is destined to outlive her husband and thus become a widow. (The same principle applies, presumably, to men with "widower's peaks.") And if that weren't bad enough, there are things called "widow's locks," tiny tufts of oddly growing hair that can appear anywhere on your head and presage the same fate. "Widow's peak" first appeared in written English around 1849, but it's probably much older than that.

Personally, I think the whole "widow's peak" superstition was invented by Old English mirror salesmen to drum up business. Que sera, sera. As one woman quoted in "A Dictionary of Superstitions" (Oxford, 1989) put it, "I used to look at my hair to see if I had one, but stopped when my husband died."

Buckeye buggy.

Dear Word Detective: I too am an Ohio transplant, originating from New Jersey, and I find this place to be a blessing. Currently I reside in the quiet countryside of Holmes County where if you know the region you quickly associate it with the Amish community that lives here. I have long wondered where one of the most common icons of the Amish got its name, that being the "horse and buggy" which is their primary transportation. I once asked a friend who is Amish and after a moment of puzzled expression and a shrug of the shoulders his reply was, "That's just what we call it." -- Gone Buggy, via the internet.

Ah, yes, rural Ohio is quiet, isn't it? Except, of course, for the crickets, which are, as I write, driving me slowly nuts with their infernal cheep-cheep-cheeping. We have many Amish (a Mennonite order named after Jacob Amman, a Swiss preacher) living in my area too, and I always worry about them when I see their buggies on the country roads around here. You'd think motorists would know enough to slow down when they see a horse and buggy, but apparently not, and there have been some fairly horrible car-buggy accidents in the last few years.

As for the origin of "buggy," your Amish friend's answer is about as good as anyone is going to get. As a term for a small one-horse vehicle, "buggy" first appeared in English around 1773, but it does not appear to be connected in any way to "bug" meaning "insect" (which is the source of "buggy" meaning "nuts"). There is a possibility that "buggy" is derived from the Northern English dialect word "bogie," which means a small platform mounted on wheels (what we in the U.S. would call a "dolly"), but there's no solid evidence of a direct connection. And even if there were, it wouldn't do us much good because no one knows where "bogie" came from, except that it does not seem to be related to "bogey" as in "bogeyman." So I'm afraid we're fairly certain about where "buggy" didn't come from, but completely in the dark as to where it did originate.

Maybe it's over there, behind that purple elephant.

Dear Word Detective: A teacher I know says he has tried for more than twenty years to learn the origins of the word "bulldozer." I'm trying to help him in this quest. Do you know the origins of this term? -- Trudy Muller, via the internet.

Wow. Twenty years is a long time to spend looking for something. I forgot where I parked my car at the Millersport, Ohio Sweet Corn Festival the other night and it seemed like it took at least two weeks to find it. But that was probably because I was feeling slightly woozy from the two elephant ears, three doughnuts and funnel cake I'd eaten.

The origin of "bulldozer" turns out to have a surprising, and surprisingly unpleasant, origin. Today, of course, we know "bulldozers" as those big caterpillar-type tractors with broad blades mounted on the front, used to level earth or remove obstructions during construction.

The first "bulldozers," however, were not machines, but violent bullies. The root meaning of "to bulldoze" (or as it appeared originally around 1876, "to bull-dose") was to beat someone extremely brutally, inflicting the "dose" of flogging one would give a bull. Some of the earliest "bull-dozers" were racist thugs who terrorized African-Americans in the post-Civil War South, conducting a campaign of terror that included brutal beatings and murder. "Bulldozer" or "bull-doser" was also used to describe thugs in general, and by about 1881, the term was being used as slang for a very large pistol, as in one 1881 account: "A Californian bull-doser is a pistol which carries a bullet heavy enough to destroy human life with certainty."

Given the use of "to bulldoze" as a synonym for "to intimidate through overwhelming force" and "bulldozer" as a label for anything that "gets the job done," it's not surprising that "to bulldoze" soon took on the metaphorical meaning, still used today, of "push through" or "overwhelm." And when, in the early 20th century, a machine was invented that could uproot, overturn, level or just overwhelm anything in its path, it made perfect sense to call the contraption a "bulldozer."


Or maybe they do know what it means and are just being honest.

Dear Word Detective: Help! I thought I knew perfectly well what "factoid" means: a trivial or insignificant fact. But now I find that a lot of dictionaries consider that it means an unverified, untrue, or invented fact! I think all of this would be news to a lot of people. For example, various TV shows and newsmagazines often promote "factoids" about the subject of their program. I'm sure they have no idea that one meaning of "factoid" is a statement that isn't true. -- Melanie Nickel, via the internet.

Blame it on CNN -- they started the whole ruckus by taking a perfectly good word and twisting it.

"Factoid" is one of those rare words that were undeniably invented by an identifiable individual, in this case Norman Mailer, in his book "Marilyn," published in 1973. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words defines "factoid" thus: "A spurious or questionable fact; especially something that is supposed to be true because it has been reported (and often repeated) in the media, but is actually based on speculation or even fabrication." Norman Mailer himself defined "factoids" as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority."

Mailer invented the word by combining "fact" with "oid," a scientific suffix meaning "resembling or having the form of, but not identical to." Needless to say, "factoids" in Mailer's sense are the antithesis of serious reporting, and to accuse a journalist of trafficking in "factoids" was a grave insult, at least until CNN came along.

Unfortunately, the repetition of "factoid" in this "trivial fact" sense has taken its toll, and almost no one remembers the original meaning. Hence the secondary "trivia" definition found in most current dictionaries almost certainly will, at some point in the near future, become the primary one.

Mailer's original negative definition of "factoid" was a valuable contribution to the language on a par with George Orwell's "Newspeak," and, in this age of spin doctors, "factoid" still fills a conspicuous need. Perhaps we should petition CNN to give us our word back.

Their names are anagrams, but not for anything interesting.

Dear Word Detective: I keep hearing the word "gravitas" tossed around during this election year. What does it mean and where does it come from? A friend tells me that it is the Latin word for "pregnant." If that is true, what has "gravitas" got to do with men running for public office? -- Catherine Young, via the internet.

Well, let's see. Come to think of it, I have been feeling a bit like the pregnant Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby" lately, surrounded by people who, in my case, keep telling me to just relax and choose between two candidates who both strike me as the Spawn of Satan. Does that count?

OK, probably not. In any case, the word your friend is thinking of is "gravid," not "gravitas," though they both come from the same Latin root, "gravis," meaning "burdened or heavy." The use of "gravid" to mean "pregnant" dates back to the 16th century.

"Gravitas" is simply the noun form of "gravis," meaning, in the original Latin, the quality of being heavy or weighty. "Gravitas" is really just a fancy form of "gravity" in its figurative sense, i.e., seriousness, dignity, sobriety, or, as the media like to put it, "credibility." Oddly enough, "gravitas" is a fairly recent addition to English, dating only back to about 1924, while the use of "gravity" to mean the same thing dates back to the early 16th century. Political pundits today prefer "gravitas" to "gravity" simply because "gravitas" sounds classier and more erudite.

As the currently hot campaign-coverage buzzword (I've received six queries about it in just the past month), "gravitas" seems to have most often been applied to Gov. George W. Bush's choice of Dick Cheney as his running mate. Evidently Mr. Cheney's presence on the ticket is thought to lend "gravity" or "seriousness" to the Bush campaign.

Enter stage left, in a bad mood.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word "rhubarb" come to be used to designate a baseball brawl? Does it have anything to do with the "Hey, Rube!" yell that the carnie operators would use to signal their employees to join in a fracas? -- J.A. Hubert, Pittsburgh, PA.

It's not impossible, but that's only one among many theories about "rhubarb," and there doesn't seem to be any evidence connecting "Hey Rube!" and "rhubarb." But perhaps we'd better back up a bit and begin at the beginning. "Rhubarb" is, of course, a plant, considered edible by some people but known primarily for its strong, bitter taste. As a slang term, "rhubarb" means a heated, disorderly dispute, not necessarily a fistfight but usually involving at least a lot of yelling. According to Paul Dickson's excellent "The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary" (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999), "rhubarb" in this sense was popularized in the late 1930s and 1940s by baseball broadcaster Red Barber, who said he picked up the term from a sportswriter named Garry Schumacher, who in turn had borrowed the term from another sportswriter named Tom Meany.

But the real question is, of course, why "rhubarb" came to mean "fight." One theory, endorsed by the Oxford English Dictionary, is that in stage plays directors would instruct the extras to mutter "rhubarb rhubarb" when they needed the sound of a restive and muttering crowd, and that "rhubarb" eventually came to be theatrical slang for "commotion." Apparently this "rhubarbing" actually was standard stage practice at one time.

Other less believable theories hold that the term derives from the tangled appearance of stewed rhubarb, or that youngsters going out to play baseball in Brooklyn were given "healthy" rhubarb sandwiches by their mothers, which they often used as weapons in scuffles with the opposing team. Yet another theory holds that losers in barroom brawls in Brooklyn were often forced to drink bitter rhubarb tonic by the victors, and thus "rhubarb" came to be Brooklyn slang for "fight." As unlikely as this theory sounds, Tom Meany, the writer who first popularized "rhubarb," claimed to have heard the term first-hand from a Brooklyn bartender.

So what's the real origin of "rhubarb"? Nobody knows, but personally I'll bet on the theatrical "rhubarb-rhubarb" theory.

Here he comes! Hide the real coffee!

Dear Word Detective: A friend recently told me that another friend (who lives out of town) was going to be in town for the weekend. This came as a surprise to me. I in turn told another friend, who apparently already had this information because when I told him that "Rick is coming in to town this weekend," he replied, "Yep, that's the scuttlebutt." This led me to wonder about the origin of "scuttlebutt." -- Paul Ruffino, via the internet.

Golly, I'll bet ol' Rick's ears were burning, wherever he was. Nothing like having your arrival constitute the number one topic of conversation for days in advance. Actually, I'm familiar with just this sort of fervid public anticipation myself. No sooner do I casually muse about popping down to our local supermarket than the townsfolk spring into action, quickly removing all the overly-fresh baguettes from the shelves and replacing them with Wonder Bread, swapping the degenerate imported cheeses for wholesome Velveeta, and ensuring that all the produce is first sampled for my protection by the neighborhood caterpillar.

As a synonym for "the word going around" or "gossip," "scuttlebutt" dates back to the days of sailing ships, when men were men and ships lacked plumbing. If a sailor wanted a drink of fresh water to quench his thirst between floggings, he made his way to the "scuttlebutt," the tall ships' equivalent of today's water cooler. The "scuttlebutt" was actually nothing but a small wooden keg with a hold cut in its side, used to hold the crew's daily ration of drinking water. The name "scuttlebutt" is a logical combination of "scuttle," meaning to cut a hole something, and "butt," meaning a small cask or keg (from the Latin "butta," cask or wine-skin). Incidentally, casks were not the only things "scuttled" at sea. To "scuttle" a ship means to deliberately sink her, usually by cutting a hole in the side below the water line.

Much like water coolers in today's offices, the "scuttlebutt" aboard ship served as an impromptu social center and a place to trade the latest news, and in the 19th century "scuttlebutt" came to be used as slang for "rumors or gossip."

Please Note: 

This is a joke. I will be at the Book Fair.

Incidentally, several readers have written taking me to task for tormenting my assistant, Ms. Freedle, in this fashion.

Hello? You guys actually think I have an assistant?




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