Issue of October 26, 2003




  Issue of October 26, 2003



Well, it's Autumn here at Word Detective World Headquarters, and that means it's time for all the little critters outside to pack their bags and ... move inside.  I've become accustomed to the fact that every year at this time the laundry room fills with wasps. (Mrs. Word Detective catches them in a cup.  And makes a lovely soup.  Actually, she gently tosses them out the door, whereupon, I suspect, they fly around the house and come right back in.  It's probably all one very determined wasp).  And the platoons of mice really don't bother me much (except the ex-mice Fifi the Cat leaves at the bottom of the stairs nearly every morning), and I didn't even mind the bizarre arrival of dozens of bumblebees in the sun porch last year. This house was built in 1865, so they've probably been here a bit longer than we have. But this year, for some mysterious reason, the downstairs bathroom (the one with our sole working shower) has been invaded by yellow jackets with anger issues.  This I mind. Still, I haven't seen a waterbug since we left New York City, so one must be thankful. And take very short showers.

On the mammalian front, I went out last week and bought 150 lbs. of cracked corn to tide the chipmunks, groundhogs, raccoons and similar critters over the winter.  I'm going to give them all names and claim them on my taxes.


Onward.  About ten years ago I was writing a book called The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet (a guide to literature and literary resources on the net) and a friend suggested that I check out The Well, an online community founded in 1985 which counts among its members a large number of writers, artists and interesting oddballs.  I have been a member ever since.  If you're looking for a place to join intelligent discussions on thousands of topics ranging from free-lance writing to words and web design to US policy in Iraq, click below to check it out. 


Apropos of nothing, has anyone else noticed that Dr. Phil is the spitting image of Hank on The Larry Sanders Show?  I keep hoping that the whole loudmouthed bozobully routine is some sort of Gary Shandling meta-goof of daytime TV, but I guess it's gone on too long for that, which means Dr. Phil is for real, which makes me wanna go lie down.

Today's spiel:  You'll notice customized ads from on this and other pages on this site, featuring a selection of dandy books on words and language.  Please buy some. And there's an ad for my son, who is an actor in Chicago, to be found at the foot of this page.  If you need acting done, he can do it.

All right, you want useful?  We've got useful: Language links from and Language-related links from The American Dialect Society.

Lastly, this is your monthly invitation to the How Come? web site.  Please take a moment to visit, and please ask a questionHow Come? is an internationally-syndicated  newspaper column answering questions about science and nature for young people, but many of the best questions actually come from certifiable adults, and if your question is picked to be answered, you will not only be the envy of your neighbors, but also win a free copy of the new How Come? book, How Come Planet Earth So ask a question!  Win a book! 


 And now, on with the show:

Not to mention our furnace, which was salvaged from the wreckage of the Maine.

Dear Word Detective: Why is the word "colon" used to mean that section of the intestines and also used to mean the punctuation "colon" and "semi-colon." -- Jenna, via the internet.

That's the sort of weirdly maddening question that almost always seems to occur to me in the middle of the night, when I should be doing something useful like pondering mortgage interest rates or speculating about the life expectancy of the water heater.

Now, as to why the same word "colon" is used to mean both a part of the human intestine and a punctuation mark, the answer is that it isn't. Honest. "Colon" in English is actually two words, "homonyms" (from the Greek for "same name") that are spelled the same and pronounced the same but have entirely different meanings and origins. "Rest" meaning "repose" and "rest" meaning "remainder" are another set of homonyms. English, a tricky little language if there ever was one, also contains "homographs" ("same writing" in Greek), words that are spelled the same but with different pronunciations and meanings (e.g., "lead" the metal and "lead" in a race), as well as "homophones" ("same sound" in guess what) with the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings (e.g., "fowl" and "foul"). A laugh a minute, English is.

"Colon" in the sense of "a portion of the large intestine" dates back to the 16th century in English and comes from the Greek "kolon," which meant "food or meat," but also meant (go figure) "the large intestine."

The derivation of the other "colon," meaning (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it so well) "a punctuation-mark consisting of two dots placed one above the other [:] usually indicating a discontinuity of grammatical construction greater than that marked by the semicolon, but less than that marked by the period," is a bit more complicated. This "colon," which also dates to the 16th century, came from a slightly different Greek word "kolon" meaning "limb." (You'll have to trust me that the two "kolons" differ. Greek is impossible to render properly in the English alphabet.) Eventually this "colon" came to mean a distinct logical part of a sentence, and finally came to mean the mark which separates one such sentence part from another.

A.k.a. "Date" (the loser).

Dear Word Detective: I was just wondering if there happened to be a connection between the word "date" (the day), "date" (the activity), and "date" (the fruit). -- Becky B., via the internet.

Whoa, mondo confuso. I must say that I had to read your question three times before I understood it, and the first thing I did was to add the parentheses around the definitions to clear it up a bit and make it look less like something out of "Finnegans Wake." But it's a good question and I'm OK now as long as I don't try to read it too quickly.

First things first. The sort of "date" that involves dinner and a movie has nothing to do with the "date" fruit that grows on trees. The fruit kind of "date" takes its name from the Greek "dactylus," meaning "finger or toe," as the Greeks evidently detected a resemblance between the chewy "dates" and their toes. Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does.

"Date" in the sense of the precise time something takes place comes from the way Romans dated their letters. It was customary to begin with the phrase "Data Romae" (Given at Rome) followed by the day and month. Eventually "data" came to be used as shorthand for the time notation itself, passed into French as "date," and was adopted in the same "date" form by English in the 14th century. "Date" had acquired the derivative sense of "an appointment or engagement at a particular time, especially with a member of the opposite sex" by the 19th century, and "to date" in this sense had become a verb by 1902, but the practice of referring to the person one was meeting as "a date" is more recent, first appearing around 1925.

Incidentally, a "blind date" is a date, usually arranged by a third party, between two people who have not previously met. Although people who are literally sightless no doubt also go on "blind dates," the use of "blind" in this context is figurative, meaning "without direct observation or foreknowledge," much as an pilot might make a "blind approach" to an unfamiliar landing strip or consumers might be subjected to a "blind taste test" of powdered coffee brands.

What such adventures were called before "blind date" first appeared around 1925 is uncertain, but the simple and direct "bad idea" is one possibility.

Without feathers, we hope.

Dear Word Detective: What are the word origins of "flapjack"? You know, the cute little term used for pancakes. -- M. Beauchamp, via the internet.

Mmm, pancakes, as Homer Simpson would say. You can keep your wheel, your airplane and your cell phone (please). The truly brilliant invention, in my humble opinion, was the idea of serving heavy-duty dessert for breakfast. After all, nothing jump-starts your day like a massive jolt of pure sugar, right? And the double-whammy scenario of pouring syrup over fried cake is a home run blasted out of the stodgy ballpark of everything we know about mammalian metabolism, let alone human nutrition. Well done, gang. Put it together with eggs and bacon and it's a miracle anybody in this country lives to see lunch.

Pancakes are actually an ancient invention, dating back to at least the fourth century B.C. in China, and the cuisines of almost all cultures include some form of the pancake. The pancake was popularized in Europe as a dish traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent in the Christian calendar. Since goodies such as fat, eggs and dairy products were forbidden during Lent, pancakes proved a good way to empty the larder in one fell swoop, and this "last chance pig-out day" was also known as "Pancake Tuesday" (or "Fat Tuesday," known in New Orleans as "Mardi Gras"). Surprisingly, pancakes have been popular as a breakfast staple in the U.S. only since the 1920s, shortly after "Crepes Suzette," a French dessert based on very thin pancakes, first appeared in New York City hotels.

Though many of us probably associate "flapjack" with old cowboy movies, the term actually first appeared in Britain way back around 1600. The "flap" in "flapjack" is an obsolete sense of the verb "to flap" meaning "to toss with a sharp movement, to flip," as one flips a pancake halfway through cooking.

The "jack" part of the word is a bit hazier. "Jack" is, of course, a familiar form of the name "John" (probably drawn from the French equivalent, "Jacques"), and has long been used as a name for a wide variety of unrelated things, from the knaves in a deck of cards to the "jack" used to change a car tire. The "jack" in flapjack is almost certainly another case of "jack" used to mean simply "thing," making "flapjack" add up to "thing that is flipped."

It's the cry of a man who has just noticed the "Assembly Required" sticker.

Dear Word Detective: My wife and I seem to spend at least part of every weekend at our local "Ikea," a Swedish chain of furniture stores that specialize in low-cost but fashionable furnishings. Does the name "Ikea" actually mean anything? It doesn't sound Swedish to me. -- Al Barker, via the internet.

Ah yes, IKEA. I know it well, at least the one near the Newark, NJ airport. Somehow we end up there every time we drive to New York City. It finally dawned on me that the real reason we drive to NYC, rather than fly, is because we probably wouldn't be allowed to jam the airplane full of bookcases and lampshades on the way home.

You're correct in your guess that IKEA is not a Swedish word. It's an acronym, a pronounceable ("eye-KEE-ah") word made up of the initial letters of a name or phrase. (An unpronounceable product of the same abbreviation process, such as "VCR," is technically known as an "initialism.")

So IKEA isn't really a meaningful word, but the story of the company is interesting in itself, sort of like "The Little Match Girl," but with a happy ending. In Hans Christian Andersen's famous fable, a poor urchin perishes after being sent out on the frozen city streets to sell matches. But in the IKEA story, an enterprising farm boy builds match-selling into a global empire.

Born in 1926 in the Swedish village of Agunnaryd, young Ingvar Kamprad got his start in business by riding his bicycle from farm to farm selling wooden matches to his neighbors. Once everyone had a supply of matches, Ingvar wisely decided to diversify his offerings, and soon was pedaling around the countryside delivering Christmas tree ornaments, ball point pens and, though it must have been a bit awkward, fresh fish. By age 17, Ingvar had formed his own company and named it IKEA, an acronym made up of his own initials (IK), the name of his family's farm (Elmtaryd), and the village of his birth, Agunnaryd.

Delivering his product line (which now included picture frames, watches and jewelry) by bicycle was no longer practical, so Ingvar transformed IKEA into a mail-order operation, and by 1948 was also selling furniture produced by local artisans. So successful was his low-priced but sturdy line of furniture that by 1951 Ingvar had dropped all his other products and decided to concentrate on inexpensive but stylish home furnishings. IKEA today operates stores in more than 30 countries around the world, selling about 12,000 different products (but not, oddly enough, bicycles).

And Don Henley must die.

Dear Word Detective: What does the word "pompatis" mean? As in the song. The name of the song escapes me at the moment, but the line in the song is "...cause I speak of the pompatis of love," or something like that. -- Jimmie, via the internet.

The song you're thinking of is "The Joker," released in 1973 by The Steve Miller Band, and still playing daily, perhaps hourly, in chain restaurants all over the U.S. If I may make a brief digression (good luck stopping me), I am bewildered by the affection so many restaurant owners apparently have for wretched 1970s pop music. The point of a restaurant, I always thought, was to encourage eating. In light of that goal, bombarding the clientele with 30-year-old Steve Miller, Fleetwood Mac and Bad Company dreck seems counterproductive.

Onward. The line in question from the song is "Some people call me the space cowboy / Some call me the gangster of love / Some people call me Maurice / Cause I speak of the pompatus of love."

The meaning of "pompatus" has been debated ever since the song came out, and many years ago I heard that Steve Miller himself had declared that the word, which he said he just dreamed up, didn't mean anything. But according to research published in 1996 by Cecil Adams, who writes a fascinating syndicated column called The Straight Dope (available online at, Miller actually lifted the phrase "pompatus of love" from an old rhythm and blues song called "The Letter" written in 1954 by Vernon Green for his vocal group The Medallions. (Adams also points out that another line from the same Miller song, "I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time" was lifted virtually verbatim from a 1953 song by The Clovers. Hmm.)

Long story short, Vernon Green's "The Letter" was an anthem to his imaginary dream woman, and contained a reference to "puppetutes" (which Miller heard as "pompatus"), by which Green meant a pliant, puppet-like mate who would fulfill his fantasies. As Cecil Adams says, "Not real PC, but look, it was 1954."

Vernon Green, who died in 2000, was immensely amused when Adam's researcher told him about "The Joker" because, amazingly, he had never heard Miller's song. Some people have all the luck.

Lights, casket, inaction.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please tell me the origin of the word "undertaker"? My son asked me the other day and, simple-minded southerner that I am, all I could come up with is that the undertaker is the one that takes you under the dirt! That was of course entirely too simple of an explanation for my inquisitive son and he then commanded me to find the true origin, so now my honor is in your hands! -- Sherrie Wiggins, via the internet.

Kids these days, eh? What ever happened to "Honor thy parents, even when they're probably making stuff up"? I still believe most of what my parents told me, all save the part about too many doughnuts being bad for you (for which I forgive them given the primitive state of scientific research back in the 1960s). And the mere fact that the Easter Bunny has skipped my house for a few years is not going to make me cynical.

But at the risk of encouraging your little squirt, I must admit that your valiant explanation of "undertaker" falls a bit short of the goal. An "undertaker" today is, of course, a person who handles the preparations for a funeral, including embalming the deceased, furnishing the coffin, etc. But the original meaning of "undertaker" when it first appeared in the late 14th century was simply someone who "undertakes" (accepts responsibility for or pledges to assist in the performance of) any task. So in the 17th century, a contractor who pledged to build your house could be called an "undertaker" because he had promised to "undertake" the task.

Since "undertaker" was such a vague term covering so many tasks, it made a perfect euphemism for the profession of arranging funerals, and by 1698, "funeral undertaker" had become common, soon abbreviated to simply "undertaker." Eventually the association between "undertaker" and the arranging of funerals became so widespread that folks in other lines of work understandably stopped calling themselves "undertakers."

In the late 19th century, undertakers in the U.S. decided that "undertaker" and the alternative "funeral director" were a bit too gloomy, and decided to call themselves "morticians," combining the Latin root "mort" (death) with the professional sound of "physician." This has since been judged a mistake as most people know perfectly well what the "mort" part means, and today almost all undertakers are back to calling themselves "funeral directors."

Hangin' with the ding-dongs.

Dear Word Detective: You can make me look really smart if you know the origin of the phrase "with bells on." I know, why should you care about making me look smart? Still, it would be great to impress my friends. -- Michael Rafferty, via the internet.

We'll do our best. With his question Mr. Rafferty included an e-mail concerning a get-together of friends, one of whom encouraged the others to "be there with bells on." And indeed this phrase is used almost exclusively in the context of a social invitation, where the assurance that "I'll be there with bells on" means that one's attendance will be eager, enthusiastic and energetic.

The question, of course, is what bells have to do with showing up for a party or dinner date. The phrase "with bells on" seems to have first appeared in this sense in the early 20th century, and there are two theories about the bells. One is that the reference is to the costume of a court jester, including a fool's cap festooned with bells, thus perhaps alluding to the speaker's intention to appear "dressed to the nines" and ready to boogie. The other theory harks back to the days of horse-drawn carriages, when on special occasions the horse's harness might be decorated with festive bells.

Interesting enough, although "with bells on" is primarily heard today in the US, the British have a venerable equivalent in the expression "with knobs on," also meaning more generally "with embellishments" or simply expressing emphasis. So while you might hear a British friend agree to show up at your party "with knobs on," it's also not uncommon for someone who has borne the brunt of an insult to reply, "Same to you, with knobs on."

It, uh, fell off a produce truck.

Dear Word Detective: After saying I had "cabbaged on to" something, I wondered where the phrase originated, which led me to your web site. I will continue to look for the answer myself, but thought I would ask. Thanks. -- Bob Vavricka, via the internet.

Wait! Come back! I'm here, I just haven't been answering the door today because there are two guys hanging out in our area driving a truck full of meat they're trying to sell door-to-door. Even if I ate steak, I can't imagine why I'd want to buy it from two scrawny and heavily-tattooed weirdoes with a bunch of grungy boxes in a pickup truck. In August, yet. Yum! Then again, maybe they're undercover PETA activists trying to convert everybody to vegetarianism. If so, it's a brilliant plan. So I guess it can't be PETA.

Onward. You don't say in what sense you used "cabbage" as a verb, but the accepted slang meaning today is "to steal or filch," although I suspect a more innocent sense of "to stumble upon or to appropriate" is what you had in mind.
I should begin by saying that it is unclear whether there is any connection between "cabbage" the vegetable and "cabbage" meaning "to filch." The story of garden variety of "cabbage," however, is pretty weird in its own right. The root of this "cabbage" comes from the Old French, where the vegetable was known as "caboche," which meant "head," from the perceived resemblance of the cabbage to a human head. Evidently the perception of resemblance persists, as we still speak of an individual cabbage as "a head," although to address a person as "cabbage-head," very old slang for "stupid," is not advisable.

"Cabbage" in the verb sense, however, comes from about as far away from the garden as one can get, the tailor's shop. When this "cabbage" appeared in the 17th century, it was customary for a tailor's client to purchase the entire piece of fabric from which the garment would be cut. The leftover scraps of cloth, however, often quite substantial and usable for other purposes, were kept as a "perk" by the tailor and known as "cabbage." It may be that the pile of scraps reminded someone of the leaves of a cabbage, or "cabbage" in this sense may be a corruption of "garbage." In any event, tailors themselves were known as "cabbages" in the 17th and 18th centuries, and eventually "cabbage" became a verb meaning "to pilfer or steal."

Where's Nigel?

Dear Word Detective: I was watching a PBS mystery with Diana Rigg the other night. It was set in the English countryside (which is, I guess, where all English mysteries are set) and at the opening of the show, she and her chauffer were driving up to the country estate, and she explained to him that they were passing a "ha-ha," which, from her explanation, was a sunken trench, apparently designed to keep the sheep from the flowers. My dictionary lists it as a "sunk fence," but has little else to say about it except that it may be from the "ha-ha" laughter to indicate surprise. Did the Brits delight in watching Harold Lloyd-types fall into these things and laugh about it? Is that how it got its name? Do we have anything comparable on this side of the pond? -- Barney Johnson, via the internet.

I guess I'm going to have to start watching a higher class of TV. The first thing that popped into my head when I read your question was the voice of Nelson Muntz of The Simpsons doing his inimitable "HA-ha!" whenever something humiliating happens to another character. I know many people regard Nelson as a shallow bully, but I think his future holds a great career in journalism.

"Ha ha" is, of course, what the Oxford English Dictionary calls "the natural sound of laughter," and some form of "ha ha" occurs in most languages. A "ha-ha" in the "fence" sense is, as you say, a trench dug around the perimeter of a park or garden, sometimes with a fence at the bottom and sometimes simply with very steep sides functioning as a natural barrier. The advantage of a "ha-ha" to garden designers is that, unlike an unsightly fence or wall, the barrier is invisible from within the garden and doesn't interfere with the view.

But while the sight of an inattentive garden visitor plunging into a ditch would, no doubt, be amusing to the Nelson Muntz in many of us, the name "ha-ha" is actually drawn from "ha!", the expression of surprise that the victim makes upon discovering the "ha ha" the hard way. "Ha-ha" first appeared in English around 1712, adapted from the French "haha," which meant "an obstacle interrupting one's way sharply and disagreeably."

It's a bird!  It's a plane!  It's a guy selling $10 Rolexes!

Dear Word Detective: I had always thought that the correct spelling of the word meaning "to sell cheap" was "hock" but was surprised to learn that an alternative spelling was "hawk." Does its origin have anything to do with the bird? -- Adam Levine, via the internet.

Not exactly. In fact, before we get into the origins of "hawk" and "hock," we have a little untangling to do. We're actually dealing with three separate words here: "hawk," the bird, "to hawk," to sell or peddle, and "to hock," to pawn. In certain regions of the US (I suspect especially in New England), "hawk" and "hock" may be pronounced similarly enough to account for the confusion.

To begin with the bird of prey, "hawk" in this sense first appeared in English around 1200 in the form "havek," derived from an old Germanic root which also produced equivalent words in modern German, Dutch, Swedish and Danish.
Incidentally, while we're on the subject, there's another kind of "hawk" in English, meaning "to clear phlegm from the throat," which first appeared around 1581 and probably arose as an imitation of the sound of the throat-clearing action itself.

The third sort of "hawk," meaning "to sell, especially by offering items in the street," first appeared around 1510 in the agent noun form "hawker." This "hawk" was apparently borrowed from the Middle Low German "hoken," meaning "to peddle, carry on the back, or squat or sit in the same place." The bit about sitting or squatting is actually important, because there has been a historical distinction between a "hawker," who sells from a cart or stall in the street, and a "peddler," who carries his wares on his person from place to place. Since you were about to ask, the origin of "peddler" is unknown, but it apparently has no connection with the Latin root "ped" meaning "foot." On the bright side, however, that Germanic "hoken" that gave us "hawk" in the "sell" sense probably also produced "huckster," meaning a seller who brags loudly about a product.

"Hock," meaning "to pawn, to sell," comes from the Dutch word "hok," meaning "prison" or "debt," and was introduced to English by Dutch immigrants to the US in the 19th century. Originally, to be "in hock" could mean to be in prison, to be engaged in gambling, to be in debt, or for something to be held by a pawnbroker, but today "hock" is used exclusively in the "pawn" sense.


A long time to be gone.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "long" meaning "wish for something" come from? A friend of mine says that it is short for "long shot" because something you "long" for rarely happens. -- Becky, via the internet.

Oh ye of little faith. In my experience, if you really, really, have your heart set on something, it will come to you sooner or later. And, if it doesn't, just find someone who has the thing and get yourself written into their will.

I was looking at your question and another question occurred to me. If "to long for" means to deeply desire something or someone, how come being utterly indifferent to the person or thing isn't called "to short for" it?

What makes that question not as crazy as it sounds is the fact that the verb "to long" is indeed essentially the same word as the familiar adjective "long," meaning "possessing substantial length." As you might expect, a useful word like the adjective "long" goes way back -- in this case, at least all the way back to the Latin "longus," meaning (what else?) "long." Our English "long" has very similar relatives in German, Dutch, Danish, Italian, French, and several other languages -- just about everywhere in Western Europe you'd find a tape measure has some form of "long."

As a verb, "to long" developed separately from the adjective "long" in Old English and first appeared in English around A.D. 1000 meaning, quite logically, "to make longer," either physically or in duration (both of which senses are now handled by the modern verb "to lengthen"). The "yearning" meaning of "to long," which developed around 1300, reflects the sense of something or someone being a long way away, or taking a long time to arrive. One can easily imagine the wife of a sea captain, for instance, "longing" for the return of her husband from distant lands. The phrase "to long away," meaning "to put far away or to depart," was in use during the same period, and also reflected the fact that in the days when rapid transit was a donkey cart, distance often equaled near-oblivion. Today, in the era of jet travel and instant gratification, we perhaps spend less time "longing" for people and things to arrive, but "longing" still lives in the hearts of unrequited lovers waiting for that certain someone to metaphorically come around.

Damn Yankees.

Dear Word Detective: I am writing about "out of pocket," about which you wrote a column several years ago. My wife and I both have heard this phrase from close associates over the past month, and had actually thought about the etymology. My idea (not verified anywhere else) is that "out of pocket" refers to the quarterback on a passing play in football (American style). When "in the pocket," the quarterback is protected by the linesmen, and is therefore in his/her normal mode of operation, operating ideally, relatively stationary (seeking out receivers). When he/she is chased out of the pocket, he/she is on the run, not able to pass effectively, and is unprotected from the vagaries of the other team. "In the pocket" is used multiple times per game by color commentators, and "chased out of the pocket" (also "scrambling") is used very frequently, or at least was in the 80's. People who tell me they are "out of pocket" are on the run (on a business trip), not operating ideally (maybe they have their laptop but no high-speed Internet connection), and unprotected (schedule in flux, not at home, etc). I don't follow football these days (I am more a baseball fan), but used to watch professional and college football when I was younger. -- Matthew Krom, via the internet.

Well, there you go. We get older, our tastes mature, and pretty soon we're watching a real sport instead of a bunch of overpaid lunks knocking each other down.

The short answer to your question is that you very well may be right. When I wrote my column on "out of pocket" a few years ago (available in the archives at, the older sense of "out of pocket" (paying out of one's own pocket expenses which will eventually be repaid by someone else) was more familiar to me, and I drew a blank about "out of pocket" meaning "out of touch."

Since that time, however, I have come across two theories about the phrase. One is that when one is operating "out of pocket" in the financial sense one is also probably "out of touch" (on the road, etc.), and gradually the "isolated" sense was added to the "fronting expenses" sense of the phrase. But I've also found considerable credence given to the football theory of "out of pocket," and if, as you say, the phrase is commonly used by narrators of football games, my sense is that your theory is probably correct.

Oboe Concerto with Mint Sauce.

Dear Word Detective: Several of my musical friends and I cannot agree on the origin of the word "chops" in music. My guitar playing friend argues it originated with guitar players who make a chopping motion when they play. The rest of us argue the term originated with wind players who rely on their facial muscles when playing. Can you help settle this disagreement? -- Stephanie Wallio, via the internet.

Good question. As a matter of fact, the same question has occurred to me several times over the past few years when someone spoke of an actor "showing his chops" or someone "having the chops" to accomplish a task. I suppose I should really carry a small notebook with me to jot down such opportune topics, but these days I'm not sure folks would take kindly to me whipping out a pencil and scribbling furiously in mid-conversation.

All of this is a backhanded way of saying that I didn't know the origin of "chops" in this sense until I did some research. I had been vaguely assuming it was a development of the old 19th century Anglo-Indian term "chop" meaning "quality" (as in "first chop" meaning "highest quality"), which is derived from the Hindi term for a kind of official stamp or mark placed on goods (equivalent to a trademark).

But no such luck, and "chop" in the musical sense is also unrelated to the "lamb chop" sort of "chop," which comes from the verb "to chop," itself probably derived from the old Germanic "kappen," meaning "to cut off."

It turns out that "chops" in the sense of "skill or ability" comes from a very old (16th century) use of "chops" to mean the human mouth, jaw or lips. The precise origin of this "chops" is a mystery, but we do know that by the 1940s jazz trumpeters and other horn players were using "chops" in the "lips" sense to mean a player's level of skill or particular playing technique. From there "chops" was broadened to mean skill or expertise in general.


To cop, perchance to fly.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the expression "cop out" meaning "to renege" or "to back down"? I'm not sure I can see any obvious relationship to "cop" or "to cop" as described in one of your articles. Any ideas? -- Bill Ballou, via the internet.

Oh yes, lots. But before we get to "cop out," meaning "to evade an issue or a confrontation by backing down," we should probably set the stage by revisiting the origin of "cop" as a noun meaning "police officer."

One theory traces "cop" (or its older variant "copper") to the copper buttons of early police uniforms, or to copper police badges supposedly issued in some cities, but there is no real evidence for either source. Perhaps the most popular theory explains "cop" as an acronym, standing for "Constable On Patrol," "Chief of Police" or other such phrases. But acronyms were virtually unknown in English before the 1940s, while "cop" itself was well-established by the mid-19th century.

The secret of "cop" the noun probably lies in the verb "to cop," meaning "to capture" or "lay hold of," which first appeared in English around 1704, later coming to mean "to take" or "to steal," a sense that is still in use today. This "cop" harks back to the Latin word "capere," meaning "to seize," which also gave us "capture." "Cop" as a slang term meaning "to catch, snatch or grab" originally was used among thieves, and a "copper" was a street thief. 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."

Meanwhile, back at your question, the slang term "cop out" was popularized in the 1960s and used as both a noun and a verb, especially in bad TV movies about hippies ("Hey man, joining the FBI is a cop out!"). But the first use of "cop out" seems to have come in the 1940s as a development of the "seize or take" sense of "cop." To "cop out" meant to confess and accept ("cop") a deal with the police. Since most such deals involve entering a guilty plea to legal charges, "copping out" in this sense is also known as "copping a plea." But the important point is that the "cop" involved in "cop out" is a verb meaning "to take," and not the police sort of "cop," although the two share a common source.

I eat my peas with honey.  I've done it all my life.

Dear Word Detective: I know that the word "etiquette" originally meant (and in French still does mean) "pasted-on label." What no dictionary seems able to tell me is why and how the word made this leap of meaning. I like to imagine the Sun King, shocked by the manners of the average French aristo, ordering signs to be pasted up on the walls of Versailles reading "Do Not Spit on the Throne-Room Floor," "Let Archbishops Through Doors First," and the like. I don't suppose I'm right, but am I even close? --Victoria, Kent, England.

Very close, as a matter of fact. The meaning of the French "etiquette" is, as you say, "ticket, note or label," especially the sort of label or sign that is pasted to something, and the French "etiquette" is, in fact, the source of our English "ticket." In English, of course, we use "etiquette" to mean the rules of behavior observed in polite society. Proper etiquette comes in a variety of flavors, from simple personal manners (don't sneeze on the wedding cake) to the writing of thank-you notes (don't hold your breath) to the suspiciously convenient codes of professional etiquette that frown on doctors or lawyers criticizing their colleagues. Bits of etiquette, once learned, can be hard to forget. An incorrectly set dinner table, for instance, drives me absolutely bonkers (a sensibility that, in today's fries-wizzat? world, ranks in usefulness right up there with knowing how to powder a wig).

The connection between "a ticket or note" and "the proper way of behaving" senses of "etiquette" came prior to the 18th century, when the rules and ceremonies of a court (royal, Papal, whatever) were sufficiently complicated that newcomers and visitors were often issued a list of "dos and don'ts" printed on a small card. By the time "etiquette" was imported into English around 1750, its meaning had broadened into our modern sense of "how to behave properly in a given situation."

They do taste kind of funny.  But it keeps them on the knife.

Dear Word Detective: My company uses "Hoopla" as part of the definition of its company philosophy. To us "Hoopla" means a celebration of some knowledge or skill which someone has come to possess or "own." "Hoopla" is always appropriate to the situation. No Friday afternoon beer bash for learning a the names of the Vice-Presidents! I also noticed when searching your column archives that you use the word "Hoopla" occasionally. What is the true definition and the origin of the word? -- Tom Crowell, via the internet.

Interesting question. I wouldn't dream of doubting the vital role of beer in the proper functioning of an office, but I cannot help but wonder if you folks might be skating a bit too close to the edge in using "hoopla" in the definition of your company philosophy. (Unless, of course, the name of your corporation is Amalgamated Horse Hockey or Federated Folderol or the like, in which case I'll have my resume in the mail first thing in the morning.)

In any event, I'd suggest that you keep that "hoopla" business strictly internal to your company, because most people are more familiar with the more modern definition of "hoopla" as "exaggerated promotion or public-relations puffery; an unwarranted commotion designed to attract attention." The apparently endless adventures of J Lo and Ben would be a good example of current press-agent "hoopla."

"Hoopla" in the sense you folks are using it to mean "a boisterous celebration" is actually the original meaning, first appearing in the late 19th century and derived from a simple shout of excitement or surprise (as in "Hoopla! There's more beer in the boss's fridge!"). Interestingly, "hoopla" is also the proper name of that infuriating carnival game where, in the natural human quest for a neon pink stuffed tiger toy, one attempts (and repeatedly fails) to toss a small wooden hoop over a square peg.

This seems as good a place as any to answer a question posed by my cousin Jeannie to me a couple of weeks ago about the word "hoo-ha," meaning "a raucous party or commotion." Though it seems very close in form and meaning to "hoopla," there is some evidence that "hoo-ha," which first appeared in the 1930s, is derived from the Yiddish "hu-ha," meaning an uproar or commotion.

Played by Soupy Sales in the movie.

Dear Word Detective: One of the all-time political catchphrases is "Pied Piper." It conjures up the image of a musician skipping down the road with hundreds of mindless rats following to their doom. Similarly, to call someone a "Pied Piper" in the political arena means that anyone listening to that person is mindless and probably is going to die. Very effective and humorous. My only question is why does the piper has to be "pied "? Does that term have a meaning other than "to take a pie to the face"? -- Dave, via the internet.

Y'know, we were doing fine until the last sentence of your question. Yes, it's an entirely different sort of "pied."

As we all remember, the story of the Pied Piper is a famous German folk tale, probably best known outside Germany through Robert Browning's 1845 poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." (The entire text of poem, with pages beautifully illustrated by Kate Greenaway, is available on the web at

In the fable, the fine citizens of the town of Hamelin are besieged by a plague of rats ("They fought the dogs and killed the cats ... And ate the cheeses out of the vats, ... Made nests inside men's Sunday hats," in Browning's verse). At wit's end, the town fathers are delighted when an itinerant piper (musician) offers, for a high price, to rid the town of the vermin. They accept, and the piper then plays a magical tune which lures the rats out of the houses and into the river, where the rats all drown. Unfortunately, the town fathers then refuse to pay the piper, whereupon he plays another magical tune and leads all the town's children away forever. (The moral here is a bit obscure, but I think it has something to do with deficit spending.)

But while the townsfolk's ill-advised attempt to stiff the piper may have been a metaphorical "pie in the face," the "pied" in "Pied Piper" has nothing to do with pastry. As part of his outlandish dress, the piper was wearing, as Browning puts it, a "long coat from heel to head ... half of yellow and half of red." Two-toned, in other words, which is what this "pied" means. The adjective "pied" actually comes from the "magpie" bird, which is black and white. When it first appeared in English in the 14th century, "pied" meant simply "black and white," but soon came to mean "of many different colors."

Fortunately, after a thorough housecleaning and new ethics legislation,
they are no longer called "bribes."

Dear Word Detective: I have long been puzzled by the pervasive use of the word "scam." I have in the back of my mind a Time magazine report many years back of a sting that led to the arrest of Mafia godfathers and their henchmen in New York (?) and, if memory serves, the word was first used and derived from a set of initials. I have never been able to track that report so see if this was the case or whether it was memory playing tricks. I'd dearly like to discover the origin and basis for the word. -- Milner Erlank, via the internet.

Your theory about "scam" (meaning a swindle, fraud or con job) and a Mafia sting rang a small bell for me too, but I think we both may be mistaken about the incident. One of the most famous early uses of "scam," in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was the so-called "Abscam" case. In "Abscam," FBI agents posed as associates of a non-existent Arab sheik and used a fictitious trading company ("Abdul Enterprises," thus the "Ab" in "Abscam") to entrap a number of U.S. Congress-critters into taking bribes in return for official favors. If this is indeed the case you were thinking of, confusing members of Congress with the Mafia is, of course, a natural mistake.

I say that the use of "scam" in "Abscam" in the 1970s was noteworthy because one of the odd things about the word "scam" is that it seems to have appeared in popular usage remarkably recently, in the early 1960s. Given that recent appearance, it is all the more surprising and frustrating that no one has yet been able to track down the origin of "scam," although it is almost certainly not an acronym. Perhaps the best theory proposed thus far is that "scam" arose as a variation on "scamp," 19th century British slang for a cheater or swindler. It may also be related to "skim" (in the sense of "skimming off" profits from a business) or even to the root of "scamp," "scamper" (to run away quickly), which is what "scammers" invariably try to do.





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All contents Copyright 2003 by Evan Morris.