Columns posted 10-25-02




  Issue of October 25, 2002



Wonders never cease.  I have never paid much attention to the Google rankings of web page popularity, though since we passed our one-millionth page view last month I figured that we must be doing OK.  But I finally downloaded the Google toolbar for Internet Exploder the other day and discovered that this here site has a Google rating of 7 on a scale of 10. This is evidently quite something -- people actually pay for seminars on how to get up to 5 or 6.  I also discovered that more than 1,000 other web sites link to The Word Detective. This set me to thinking the following:  Anybody wanna advertise on this site?  Better yet, does anyone have any insight on how to attract advertising?  Something tasteful, of course.  None of that "Your computer is about to blow up!  Click here now or else!" junk. 

Elsewhere in the news, we have decided to re-activate the legendary Word Detective Bookshop, the debut (re-debut?) of which is lurking to the left on our main page.  Soon we will be listing scads of nifty books you won't be able to resist, pots of money will be rolling in, we'll be able to pay our back dues to the Illuminati, and our plans for global domination will be back on track.  Or something.  Anyway, this is all done in association with, which will pay us a pittance for every book (or CD, DVD, toaster, etc.) purchased through this site. But a pittance garnered is a pittance fed to my poor starving doggies, you know.  So buy something.  They are quite cute, as dogs go.

Speaking of Internet Exploder, I finally figured out how to stifle the annoying pop-up ads that were driving me crazy.  I switched to Mozilla, which is the open-source version of the Netscape browser. Netscape itself is a nightmare of bloated AOL junk these days, but Mozilla is a thing of beauty, and actually has a setting to suppress all pop-up ads. I haven't seen one in months. Mozilla is free, of course, though you may miss those charming security holes that are discovered in Internet Exploder every Tuesday afternoon.

Lastly, if anyone is in need of some crackerjack consulting, our friend Tim Clark has just the ticket at PivotPoint Solutions:

PIVOTPOINT  is a strategic solutions company focused on helping our clients succeed with Customer Relationship Management.  We have a client advocacy approach, rigorous methodology, and a proven track record of enhancing clients' competitive advantage.

We help organizations integrate strategies, processes and technology solutions across Sales, Customer Service, Marketing and Finance, ensuring they are consistently demand driven and bottom-line focused.

If that sounds like what you need, just give Tim a call.

And now, on with the show...

Shut up and throw.

Dear Word Detective: In baseball all the pitchers are throwing balls in the "bullpen." Does this word have anything to do with bulls or cows? -- Angel Colmenares, Mexico City, Mexico.

Bulls do play a role in the story of "bullpen," but just how direct a role is the subject of considerable debate. In baseball, the "bullpen" (or sometimes "bull-pen") is the fenced-in area, usually several yards behind the foul line, where relief pitchers and catchers warm up during the game. In major league games each team has its own "bullpen," and "bullpen" is also used collectively to refer to the relief pitchers themselves.

Having just exhausted my personal knowledge of "bullpens," we turn now to a marvelous book entitled "The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary," by Paul Dickson (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1999), which devotes almost three full pages to a detailed explanation of "bullpen."

According to Mr. Dickson, "bullpen" was first used in print referring to baseball around 1915, but since it crops up in print several times during that year, it must have been current in the vocabulary of the game before that time. "Bull-pen" in a literal sense of "a pen for the confinement of bulls" had been in use since the early 18th century, and was also used to mean a locked cage or holding cell for prisoners. The simplest explanation for the baseball sense of "bullpen" is that these fenced-in practice areas just reminded someone of one of the other kinds of "bullpens."

Another theory, espoused by Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel, traces "bullpen" to the fact that relief pitchers used to spend most of each game camped out on the dugout bench, "shooting the bull." Managers, according to Stengel, decided that these players' time would be better spent warming up, and he established the "bullpen" as an "anti-bull" solution. Yet another popular story traces "bullpen" to the omnipresent Bull Durham chewing tobacco signs that dotted many ballparks of the day, the theory being that relief pitchers preferred to warm up in the shade of these signs.

But while relief pitchers were no doubt prone to "shooting the bull" while waiting for a chance to play, and Bull Durham signs were often a fixture of the outfield, the baseball "bullpen" probably took its name from the humble cage for bulls it was thought to resemble.

Fan mail from some flounder.

Dear Word Detective: I have lived on Long Island for most of my life and one of our more relaxing and enjoyable pastimes involves the catching of fluke. We spend countless hours drifting on the water in our little boats as our lines bounce along the bottom of the sea. Sometimes we catch fish and sometimes we don't. Mostly, we just sit around and chew the fat. During one such trip I wondered aloud as to the intended meaning of the comment that something is a "fluke." For example (and I know you are not a sports fan; alas it is the best I can do), someone might say that the New England Patriots winning the past Super Bowl was a "fluke." Why do we say that, especially when Fluke are so plentiful in our waters? -- Christopher Schleider, via the internet.

Not a sports fan? Not true! I root for the Yankees whenever I remember to, and I'd probably enjoy other sports too, if only they'd take my suggestion and mix and match a bit. I'd watch football, for instance, if it were played on ice and the players had to toss the ball through a hoop. Baseball would be much more exciting played on roller-skates. And who could resist the sight of some oh-so-serious golfer being tackled in mid-putt?

There are actually three meanings of "fluke" in English: the type of flatfish, similar to a flounder, the triangular blade at the end of the arm of an anchor, and a stroke of unexpected luck, as in your Super Bowl example. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any direct connection among any of those "flukes." The "flatfish" kind of "fluke" derives from the Old English "floc," related to the German "flach," meaning, quite logically, "flat." Since the flat, triangular part of an anchor vaguely resembles a flatfish, there may be a connection there, but no one has yet been able to prove it. (Incidentally, the "fluke," or fin, of a whale is so-called because it resembles the "fluke" of a anchor.)

The "unusual success" sense of "fluke," however, is a real puzzler. This "fluke" first appeared in the mid-19th century meaning "a lucky shot" in billiards, and seems to be connected to the English dialect term "fluke" meaning "a guess." Beyond that, however, the trail goes cold.

Fightin' words.

Dear Word Detective: I am mystified by the word "perjorative." I know I've heard this word before, but I have looked it up in two different dictionaries and it's not listed. Is it a real word? -- S. S., New York, NY.

Well, yes and no. The word you're thinking of is "pejorative" -- without the "r" -- and I think you'll find it in most dictionaries under that spelling. If it makes you feel any better, I've noticed that many people do indeed pronounce this word as if it were spelled "perjorative."

"Pejorative" is an adjective meaning "making a situation or condition worse," and comes from the Latin word "pejorare," meaning, not surprisingly, "to make worse." If I were not getting along with my boss, and went out of my way to tell him that his ideas were stupid, my actions would probably be "pejorative" (and I would probably be "unemployed").

"Pejorative" also has a technical meaning in linguistics, where it describes a word whose meaning has shifted over time toward a more negative connotation. One example of this process is the word "silly," which originally meant "helpless" but through a process of "pejoration" has come to mean "foolish or stupid."

Although, strictly speaking, "pejorative" only applies to something that makes a given situation worse, it has come to be used to mean simply "insulting" or "hurtful." One even hears insulting words themselves called "pejoratives," which presumes that an insult always makes the situation worse. In my opinion, that is an unwarranted assumption -- it all depends on how badly you need the job.

And how come this handbasket only gets 8 mpg?

Dear Word Detective: Where I work (the off-shore oil industry), it has been said that the term "roughneck" came from those that had to manhandle the drill pipe. The "roughnecks" would place the drill pipe next to their necks and push with their shoulders to get the pipe into the desired position. The repetition of this, along with the roughness of the pipe and/or debris on it, would cause them to "callous up" on the neck; much like a grave digger's hands. In my search for the origin, I've seen reference to military (naval) use of the word as well as the railroad industry. Any assistance you could give me would be greatly appreciated. -- R. A. Dilley, via the internet.

The off-shore oil industry, eh? Do you guys get free gasoline? More to the point, can you explain why the price of gas around here goes up every Thursday and (most of the way) back down on Monday? I understand supply and demand, but are we really supposed to believe that if the price didn't go up the pumps would run dry every Sunday afternoon? I'm not complaining, of course, just asking, so please don't report me to Mr. Ashcroft.

The practice of rig workers using their necks and shoulders to move the drilling pipe certainly sounds as if it would make a mess of one's neck. But "roughneck" didn't originate in the oil industry.

The original meaning of "roughneck" when it appeared around 1836 was "a thug, a brawler or bully; an ignorant, combative lout." The adjective "rough," in addition to its core meaning of "not smooth" or, by extension, "harsh or difficult," has also been used since the 16th century to mean "violent, rude, or uncivilized" in describing people. The focus on "neck" may be completely arbitrary (in which case the term might as well have been "rough-head" or the like), or "roughneck" may have referred to the unclean, unshaven and possibly scarred neck characteristic of the breed.

Though "roughneck" when it first appeared was certainly a term of condemnation, by the early 20th century it was being used more in the sense of simply "a rowdy" or "a brash, uncultivated man," often one engaged in some sort of difficult and usually risky labor. It was this sense that carried over to make ":roughneck" a synonym for "oil-rig worker" around 1917.

It's all those shifty sheep.

Dear Word Detective: A while back I spent a year in New Zealand, where I encountered a phrase I'd never heard before, "suss out." I finally figured out that it more or less means "to figure out some process or activity, especially one that is somewhat complicated." Can you comment on this phrase? I've never heard it used anywhere but in New Zealand, but it might be common in Australia for example. -- Al Pratt, Tempe AZ.

"A year in New Zealand" has a lovely ring to it. How does one arrange such a thing? I suppose it helps to know some sheep. And do you get to pick the year, or do you have to go with what they give you? I'd definitely lean towards 1965 or thereabouts, but any time after penicillin and before cell phones would do.

Onward. Your deduction that "to suss out" means "to figure out, to discover the truth about something or someone" is right on the money. And while "to suss out" in this sense apparently arose in the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s, it is occasionally heard in the U.S. today. A discussion of "suss" and "suss out" on the American Dialect Society mailing list last year reminded me that the Who's 1969 rock-opera "Tommy" contains the line, "I've got you sussed," which may well have introduced the phrase to U.S. audiences.

The origin of "suss" turns out to be remarkably straightforward. "Suss" is simply an abbreviation of the verb "to suspect." When "suss" first appeared as underworld and police slang in the U.K. around 1953, it meant "to suspect a person of a crime." By the late 1950s, the meaning had broadened to include "to imagine or surmise," as a worker might "suss" that he would be fired if he missed work too often. From there, the current meaning of "figure out" was a logical extension of the phrase.

Raucous giggling sounds good to me.

Dear Word Detective: I recently heard a radio talk-show host refer to a certain former U.S. President as a "sybarite." I looked up the word, but my dictionary just defines it as "a person devoted to luxury and pleasure," and doesn't explain where it came from. So where did "sybarite" come from? -- Andrew S., New York City.

Gee whiz, when are those guys going to stop picking on Jimmy Carter? Oh well, it's a good question that leads to a good story, so if you'll all turn down your radios for a moment, here goes.

Once upon a time, long, long ago (700 b.c., to be precise), the Ancient Greeks founded a colony called Sybaris near the present-day city of Terranova di Sibari in southern Italy. The inhabitants of Sybaris, known as "Sybarites," were very fortunate. Their land was extraordinarily fertile, and their location by the sea brought them lucrative trade. Living was easy in Sybaris, and over time the Sybarites became famous all over the Ancient World for their devotion to pleasure and love of frivolous luxury. The Sybarites even, it was said, taught their horses to dance to music played on pipes.

But no one likes a slacker, and after a few hundred years of enduring the raucous giggling coming from Sybaris, their neighbors in the less prosperous city of Croton were royally fed up. According to legend, in 510 b.c. the Crotons snuck into Sybaris bearing their own pipes and played them while attacking the city's defenders, whereupon the Sybarites' horses, instead of charging the invaders, broke into lively jigs. The victorious Crotons destroyed Sybaris and, after the Sybarites painstakingly rebuilt their city and started giggling again, came back and destroyed it again in 457 b.c.

But while the silly giggling of Sybaris may be forever stilled, "sybarite" has come to mean one who is devoted to personal pleasure above all else.

Get me out of this thing.

Dear Word Detective: I am curious whether the word "cummerbund," meaning a broad sash worn with a dinner jacket, is of German origin. I think it is one of these unique German words which can be found in the English language, like "kindergarten," "leitmotiv," "hinterland," etc. What confuses me is the fact that the German word "kummer" means "grief or sorrow." But maybe the "kummer"-bund is used to hide some surplus pounds -- the reason for the bearer's "kummer." Do you think my interpretation is correct? -- Karsten Barlinger, Bonn, Germany.

Well, I think it is a very inventive theory. But first, is "kummer" really German for "grief or sorrow"? So when German surfers wipe out in a big wave, do their friends exclaim, "Kummer, dude"? Do you even have surfers in Germany? If not, would you like some of ours?

It's true that English has borrowed a variety of very useful words from German over the years, including the ones you mentioned. "Hinterland" (from the German "hinter," behind, plus "land") is a great term for "the back country" or "the boonies." "Kindergarten" (literally, "children's garden") is the perfect name for the year of school before first grade. And "leitmotiv" ("leit," leading, plus "motiv," theme or motive), although originally a musical term denoting the recurring musical themes associated with particular characters in Wagner's operas, has also done yeoman duty in theater, book and movie reviews.

But now we must confront the problem with your theory: "cummerbund," the sash of fabric men often wear with a dinner jacket or tuxedo, does not come from German. It was brought into English around 1616 from the Hindi word "kamarband," which in turn came from the Persian "kamar," meaning "waist or loins" plus "band," meaning "band or tie."

Speaking of absurd menswear, if you've ever wondered where the "tuxedo" got its name, you're in luck. This distinctive tailless dinner jacket was introduced in the resort town of Tuxedo Park, New York, in 1886. The town's name, Tuxedo, is an Anglicized form of the Delaware Indian word "p'tuksit," which means "wolf," the totem of that particular Delaware group.

Too clever by half.

Dear Word Detective: I was watching TV the other day (Nova on PBS, so hopefully it wasn't entirely without credit) and I heard a man claim that the word "engineer" means "someone who does ingenious things." Being an engineer myself I love to hear my fellows characterized as something other than people with poor social skills and a math fetish, but somehow this sounded a bit disingenuous to me. What is the truth of the matter? -- Mike Beda, Los Angeles, CA.

Poor social skills and a math fetish? I doubt that's entirely fair. I'm sure there are plenty of party animal engineers, wild and crazy guys and gals who spend their off-hours designing better beer taps and perfecting cold-fusion limbo bars. Or maybe not. We have an engineer living right down the road who makes a habit of backing his car into his garage every night because he has calculated, down to the second in all likelihood, how much precious time not having to back out and turn saves him in the morning. I suppose that counts as "ingenious," but he's one scary dude in my book.

I'm so used to being asked about the latest spurious word-origin tale spread by talk-show hosts or tour guides that it gives me real pleasure to report that the folks at PBS have, at least this time, done their homework. While "engineer" does not literally mean "someone who does ingenious things," there is a clear and direct connection between "engineer" and "ingenious." The source of both words is the Latin "ingenium," which meant "skill, aptitude or talent," and also gave us the English words "genius" and "engine." ("Engine," which today we use to mean a mechanical device or motor, meant "native talent or genius" when it appeared in the 14th century, only later coming to mean a device born of that genius.)

While "ingenious" came pretty directly from "ingenium" (and originally meant "highly intelligent"), the noun "engineer" derived from the related verb "ingeniare," meaning "to contrive." When "engineer" first appeared in English around 1420, it meant simply "inventor or designer" of just about anything. The narrower use of "engineer" to mean "designer of bridges, buildings, etc." appeared in the 17th century.

Pots of pelf.

Dear Word Detective: One expression I haven't heard lately is "I'm making money hand over fist."  Not surprising, the way the market is plunging. It made me wonder, though, where that expression came from. -- Dave Bergt, Sugar Land, TX.

Market plunging? Do tell. I simply must remember to turn on the TV more often. Well, I'm sure the experts are, as usual, calling it a "correction." They seem so fond of trotting out that term whenever the Dow goes south that I suspect they all learned it in a "correctional institution," which would explain a lot. Personally, the stock market has always reminded me of the old children's game of Musical Chairs (which I always seemed to lose), so I have all my moolah safely stashed away in the First National Bank of Beautyrest. Fortunately it makes a very small lump.

Although "hand over fist" is almost always heard today in the context of making money rapidly and in great quantity, its origins lie in a field that was (and is) very unlikely to land its practitioners on the cover of Fortune. The original form, back in the 18th century, was "hand over hand," and it referred to climbing or pulling a rope or line aboard ship in the natural fashion, by grasping it with one hand while the other hand was moved forward to get a new grip.

By the early 19th century, "hand over hand" was being used figuratively to mean "with steady progress," as one ship might be said overtake another "hand over hand" in a race. At about the same time the variant "hand over fist" appeared with the same meaning, apparently because the hand holding the rope is closed in a fist while the free hand is open while it moves forward. I hope that's clear -- it isn't easy explaining this stuff while you're having flashbacks to 6th grade gym class.

By the late 19th century, "hand over fist" was being used as a metaphor for steady progress in any endeavor, especially in making money. But as any student of high finance knows, simply making steady money is for chumps. The goal is to make pots of the stuff very quickly, and so by the early 20th century "making money hand over fist" had shifted its meaning to "making a great deal of money very quickly."




Snoozing in the soup.

Dear Word Detective: Is there any connection between "nap" as in "take a nap" and "napkin"? My mother maintains that a "napkin" used to be a kind of blanket that one would sleep ("nap") under, and that when the napkin was worn out people would cut it up into smaller pieces to use at the dinner table. This sounds far-fetched to me. What say you? -- Alice Adams, Concord, MA.

What say I? Well, this is a first for me, but I'd like to suggest that your mother might want to spend more time watching TV. I think she may have just a little too much free time on her hands.

As you have probably guessed by now, there is no connection between the "sleep" sort of "nap" and the "napkin" found at the dining table. "Nap" as a verb meaning "take a short sleep" (or, as a noun, the sleep itself) first appeared in English around 1200 in the form "nappe," developed from the Old English "hnappian," meaning "to doze or sleep lightly." Although we use "nap" in a casual, often jocular sense today, the Oxford English Dictionary points out that when "nap" first appeared it was "in more dignified use than at present, being frequently employed in renderings of Biblical passages." Unfortunately, although "nap" has close relatives in both German and Norwegian, the ultimate source of "nap" remains a mystery.

There is, interestingly, a different sort of "nap," meaning the surface of cloth, often used to refer to the fibers in cloth raised by rubbing to form a soft "pile." This "nap" appeared in English around 1440 is rooted in the Middle Dutch "noppe," meaning "tuft of wool." When pilots speak of following "the nap of the earth," they mean they are flying low along the contours of the ground.

Although it is, I suppose, remotely possible that this second sort of "nap" is related to "napkin" in some roundabout way, "napkin" seems to be a much older word, derived from the Latin "mappa," meaning "cloth" (the source, incidentally, of our modern "map"). When "mappa" was filtered through Old French, the "m" became an "n," and "nappa" entered English in the 15th century as "nape," meaning "piece of cloth." Then all we had to do was add the ending "kin," meaning "small," and "napkin," a small but very useful piece of cloth, was born.

Pith or get out of Pennthylvania.

Dear Word Detective: My uncle is an artist, and he mainly does paintings of historical Easton, or Pennsylvania in General.  Anyway, he has also taken to painting designs on pith helmets.  Someone asked him "Why is it called a 'pith' helmet?" And we couldn't answer.  So I guess I would like to know where "pith helmets" come from, or where they started calling them that. -- John Weaver, via the internet.

Painting designs on pith helmets? In Pennsylvania? Well, I suppose there's no cause to alarm as long as he isn't lining them with tinfoil. Actually, painted pith helmets sound like just the sort of thing that would sell like hotcakes in Soho, so you might consider loading up the Buick and setting sail for New York City.

The "pith" of a plant is the spongy core of the stalk of plants, and, more generally, "pith" is also used to mean the interior or core of a fruit or other plant part. (The "pit," or hard seed, found in peaches and similar fruit is essentially the same word as "pith.") "Pith" in the botanical sense first appeared in the Old English form "pitha" around the year 888 and has close relatives in both German and Dutch.

Shortly after "pith" in the plant sense appeared in English, folks started using it figuratively to mean the core of other things, including the human brain and the "essence" or "substance" of something. "Pith" also became a metaphor for strength, vigor, and toughness in both word and deed, a sense we still hear in the description of an argument or statement being "pithy," meaning "direct and full of substance."

That metaphorical sense of "pith," however, has nothing to do with "pith helmets." Lightweight "pith hats," made from the fiber from the core of certain trees (usually cork) were popular in India both before and during the British occupation of that country, and were adopted in the form of the high-crowned "pith helmet" as a standard part of the uniform of the British colonial army. "Pith helmets" provided good protection against the blazing Indian sun and were also popular with British tourists, who brought them home, from where they spread to the U.S. and other countries.

Mister Cranky finds an outlet.

I have a modest proposal to make. I propose that we designate some date in late July or early August as National Annoyance Day, since summer is clearly the time of year when people are most likely to feel seriously cranky. We wouldn't even have to spring for parades or festivals to celebrate our new holiday. We could all just sit at home, sweat profusely, and glare at the walls.

While my idea works its way through Congress, I also suggest that we all pop down to our local bookstores (or over to and pick up a copy of "101 Damnations" (St. Martin's Press) a recently-published anthology assembled by our friend Michael Rosen. Mr. Rosen, who was for many years the Literary Director of the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio and has written dozens of books himself, had the brilliant idea of asking 100 writers to contribute short pieces about things they find especially annoying. Subtitled "The Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells," this little book features the fulminations of such irritable luminaries as Andrei Codrescu, Merrill Markoe, Cynthia Heimel, Christopher Buckley, Calvin Trillin, and Tony Hendra.  A complete roster of writers and more information can be found at the 101 Damnations website.

Now, there are several reasons (aside from friendship) why I am plugging "101 Damnations." First, it is a very funny book, and the world needs more funny books. Second, I actually wrote two of the pieces in the book, neither of which has anything to do with word origins, although one of them does deal with a certain kind of language. Third, all of us did this for free, and all the royalties go to charity.

But another reason I'm mentioning "101 Damnations" is that it was not until the book had gone to press that I realized I had missed my chance to expose, excoriate, and perhaps even expunge one of my least-favorite words in the English language. That word is "wordsmith," meaning a writer. Granted, "wordsmith" first appeared around 1896, so it's not new, and it's a superficially inoffensive coinage based on "smith" meaning "one who works in a certain material" as in "silversmith." But I hate "wordsmith," and I cringe every time I hear it used. It is, in my opinion, a coy, cloying, precious and smarmy little word, suitable for use only by people who name their cats Frodo or Yoda and dot their "I"s with smiley-faces. "Wordsmith," in short, gives me the wimwams. Maybe I can get Michael Rosen to put together "101 More Damnations."

Urgent Business Proposal.

The internet is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Who would have dreamt, back in the Olden Days, that we would someday have a gizmo in our living rooms that could whisk us around the world in the blink of an eye and allow us to buy ink-jet refills from the former Finance Minister of Nigeria? Amazing. I must admit that my current enthusiasm for the net is prompted by having recently traded my molasses-slow modem for an absurdly fast broadband wireless connection (which would run even faster if a certain person to whom I am married would allow me to chop down a few aging and totally unnecessary trees).

Lest my giddy tone brand me as a newcomer to the internet, I should explain that way back in 1996 I wrote a book called The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet, which focused on the then-fledgling world of online magazine and newspaper publishing, book discussion groups, online libraries and the like. In the eight years subsequent to that book's publication, I have periodically mentioned various literary web sites in this column, but mostly I just sort of wander around the net and try not to look too suspicious.

So I was pleasantly surprised a while back when I revisited, for the first time in a long time, one of the web sites that was just getting off the ground when I wrote my internet book. While many of the sites offering free online literature have long since gone belly-up, ( has apparently prospered, exploding into an amazing collection of free reference, verse, fiction and non-fiction resources. In addition to an astoundingly broad range of literature (including the complete Oxford Shakespeare and the 50-volume Harvard Classics series), provides free access to the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition), the Columbia Encyclopedia, Gray's Anatomy, scads of quotation collections, and several classic works on English usage. I was most surprised and pleased to find an electronic version of H.L. Mencken's 1921 classic The American Language, a groundbreaking study in its day of the evolution of a distinctly "American" English. And the best part of having all these goodies online is that they are all searchable, so if you need to know in which play Shakespeare coined the term "sea change" you can find the answer (The Tempest, Act I, Scene II) in just seconds.

Can't we all just short-sheet each other?

Dear Word Detective: During my am/pm commutes in recent weeks, I have heard numerous reports on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  Some of these reports included terms such as "booby-trap explosives," or "booby-trapped homes."  For some time I have been meaning to check the term "booby-trap" on your web site, with the expectation that it would certainly already be in your archive.  Since I did not find it in the archive, I humbly submit the term as a suggestion for your column. -- Deimos, via the internet.

Somebody get me another cup of coffee. I read halfway through your question before I realized that you had written "am/pm" and not "am/fm." Actually, "am/fm commute" makes a certain amount of sense, though I personally tend toward the "fm" side while driving. I find it terrifying to listen to those simian bozos calling am talk radio shows from their car phones and knowing they could be driving towards me even as they rant.  I haven't come this far to be done in by some brain-dead dittohead.

In current usage, "booby-trap" almost always refers to an explosive device either hidden (within a house, for instance, and triggered by a tripwire or other sensing device) or disguised as an innocuous object (a package or toy, for example). But when "booby-trap" first appeared in the mid-19th century, it meant any type of harmless practical joke that depended on an action of the victim to set it off. The classic college dorm trick of balancing a bucket of water above a door is a good example of this kind of innocent "booby-trap."

Since "booby-trap" pretty obviously means "a trap designed to catch boobies," it's not surprising that "booby" simply means "a stupid or gullible person, a nincompoop." The term "booby" first appeared in English way back in the 16th century, and most likely derives from the Spanish "bobo," meaning "fool." Other "booby"-based terms include "booby-prize" (a joke prize awarded to the loser in a contest) and "booby-hatch" (somewhat dated slang for a mental hospital).

The transformation of the "booby-trap" from an innocent, harmless joke into a deadly instrument of war and terrorism seems to have begun during World War I. Perhaps someday we'll be able to hear "booby-trap" and think of water balloons again.

Cooking with Kenny Boy.

Dear Word Detective: On a recent radio talk show, the theme of which was the latest corporate scandal, the guest guru used the expression "cooking the books." To divert my attention from my plummeting mutual funds, I thought I would ask you to explain the origin of this idiom.-- Russ Greatens, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Oh yeah, right. Like I really brought all my references sources out here on the ledge with me. Just kidding, of course. I have no stocks or mutual funds, no investments of any kind, in fact, unless you want to count all those cans of beans in our basement left over from Y2K. Personally, I'm afraid even to go down there and look at them. Maybe I should just toss a can opener down the stairs and let the mice deal with the problem.

Oh, right, you did have a question. Interestingly enough, the Oxford English Dictionary lists three separate and distinct kinds of "cook" as a verb. In addition to our common "prepare food" sense, "cook" can also mean "to utter the note of the cuckoo," the cuckoo being, of course, a type of bird and the "note" being its melodious call, not the sort of worthless debenture so much in the news of late. The third type of "cook," and this is really rather spooky, is a word from Scots meaning "to disappear suddenly." Say, has anyone thought to confiscate Ken Lay's passport?  No, of course not.

Our everyday "prepare food" verb "to cook" first appeared in the 14th century and is derived from the much older noun form, which comes from the Latin "coquus," which also gave us "concoct." As might be expected from an activity so central to human life, "to cook" has spawned a variety of slang and colloquial senses over the years, including "to ruin" and, alternatively, "to do very well" (as in "to cook with gas"). "To cook" meaning "to falsify, tamper with, present in a secretly altered form" is actually one of the oldest slang senses of the verb, dating all the way back to at least the early 17th century, and is directly drawn from the "prepare carefully" sense of "cook." And in case anyone thinks that "cooking the books" is a recent development, way back in 1751 the writer Tobias Smollet, in his novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (great title, eh?), wrote of "some falsified printed accounts, artfully cooked up, on purpose to mislead and deceive."

Nickers report.

Dear Word Detective: This may sound rather a sad admission, indicative of an empty and meaningless life, but for years now I've been puzzled by the word "nick," ever since I myself was "nicked," arrested, by the English police for a minor transgression of the law (specifically, "nicking," i.e., stealing, a leather jacket from a clothing store). These may be peculiarly English uses of the word but they strike me as somewhat ironic -- if you "nick" you "get nicked." What gives? -- K. C., via the internet.

It's a funny old world.  I'm sure a lot of people will find your admission more shocking than all those CEOs robbing their shareholders and employees.

"Nick" turns out to be a rather mysterious word; experts can't even seem to agree on whether it first appeared in English as a noun or a verb, and it doesn't seem to be a direct import from another language. We do know that the verb form of "nick" showed up around 1530 meaning "to make a notch in," still the primary sense of the word (as in "Some idiot nicked my bumper in the parking lot."). From there, "to nick" sprouted a forest of at least fifteen related meanings, from "to make an incision at the root of a horse's tail in order to make him carry it higher" to "to hit or catch exactly (the proper time, season, etc. for something)," a sense preserved in "the nick of time."

The "hit or catch precisely" sense underlies the use of "nick" as slang for both "steal" and "arrest." To "nick" something from a shop is to snatch it quickly and stealthily, as the first recorded use of "nick" in this sense, from 1869, indicates: "I bolted in and 'nicked' a nice silver tea-pot." The sense of "nick" meaning "arrest, put in jail" comes from the same underlying "catch" or "snatch" sense, only in this case it's the law that is doing the catching. "Nick" in the broad sense of "grab someone" is actually much older, dating back to the early 17th century.

Though both the "steal" and arrest" senses of "nick" are primarily heard in Britain, American English has an interesting parallel in the word "cop," common slang today for a police officer. But before "cop" meant "flatfoot" it was criminal slang for "to steal," derived from the Latin word "capere," meaning "to seize," which also gave us "capture." But sometime in the early 19th century, irony kicked in the door, and criminals apprehended by the police were said to have themselves been "copped" -- caught -- by the "coppers" or "cops."

Bound for Bayonne with a load of hooey.

Dear Word Detective: My co-worker and I were having a discussion about the origin of the phrase: "No holds barred." We figured that it has a shipping connotation, but would like to know the truth. Can you help? -- Karla Grevstad, via the internet.

Well, if nothing else, you and your co-worker have opened an interesting line of speculation. "Shipping connotation" threw me until I realized you were referring to a ship's "hold" (the cavity below the deck where cargo is carried). But I'm still having trouble figuring out how "no holds barred," which generally is taken to mean "with no restrictions" or "with all rules relaxed," could possibly have arisen from shipping. To whom would the "holds" be "barred" (restricted)? Or are we talking literal iron "bars" protecting the hold, the absence of which might make the cargo easier prey for pirates?

In any case, it turns out that we don't have to worry about figuring out the shipping-relatedness of "no holds barred" because a ship's "hold" is not the same word as the "hold" we use every day to mean "grasp." "Hold" in the shipping sense is just a corruption of "hole," referring to the big hole in the deck of the ship through which cargo is loaded.

Meanwhile, "hold" meaning "grasp" is a very old word we inherited from Old English, and can be traced back to a prehistoric Germanic root meaning "to watch or guard." The Oxford English Dictionary lists fourteen separate definitions "hold" has acquired over the years as a noun, and one of them, dating back to the early 18th century, is "hold" meaning a grip or tactic in wrestling. Real wrestling (as opposed to the WWF clown shows so popular today) has very strict rules, and certain "holds" are indeed "barred" or not permitted. Similar rules pertain in boxing. Thus an impromptu boxing or wrestling match (most likely in a barroom or other informal setting) where there were no rules of conduct imposed would be a "no holds barred" brawl. "No holds barred" in a figurative sense meaning "no restrictions" first appeared around 1942, and is often used today in the context of the "shouting heads" TV shows such as CNN's "Crossfire."

Makes perfect sense compared to "Louie, Louie."

Dear Word Detective: A friend was asking if I could puzzle out what "woolly" meant in this context: "Not only woolly, they appear to be broke, asking contributors to pay up…." Any ideas? I believe she said the writer was British, if that helps. -- David Riecks, Champaign, IL.

Woolly? You mean as in "Wooly Bully," the immortal pop classic by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, released in 1965 and running through my mind ever since?

"Uno, dos, one, two, tres, quatro,
Matty told Hatty about a thing she saw,
Had two big horns and a wooly jaw,
Wooly bully, wooly bully.
Wooly bully, wooly bully, wooly bully."

By the way, Sam the Sham (Sam Samudio) is still around and still performing, and he has a very snazzy web page at to prove it. Unfortunately, he doesn't explain why he spelled it "wooly" rather than the more common "woolly."

OK, back to work. The primary meaning of "woolly," as you might expect, is "consisting of wool," followed closely by "resembling wool, wool-like." The Oxford English Dictionary notes that "woolly" in that sense can even be applied to food, to wit: "Having a soft and clinging texture; said esp. of edible things which are consequently unpleasant to the palate." Yuck.

Marching briskly along, we come to "woolly" meaning "boisterous, barbarous, lacking culture, wild," a sense found most frequently in the phrase "wild and woolly," originally applied to the western frontier of the United States around 1884.

But that's not the "woolly" you want. "Woolly" has also been used to mean, since around 1864, "fuzzy, imprecise, confused or muddled." It's often used in the phrase "woolly-minded," applied to someone incapable of lucid or rational thinking and likely to espouse crackpot ideas or schemes, as if their minds were full of fuzzy wool. So in the phrase you cite, the writer evidently meant that the objects of derision were irrational crackpots as well as being broke.

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