Issue of October 28, 2005



I mentioned last month that we now have five small kittens living in our garage/barn, one of whom is pictured at right. 

The sad news is that their mother, who had wisely brought them into the garage when the remnants of Katrina hit us and flooded their home in the yard, was apparently shot by one of our neighbors in late September.  She was one of a number of cats left behind by the previous owner of the house next door. The house was recently sold to a mouth-breathing moron who regarded his acquisition of a house with a pond stocked with fish as an invitation to ... shoot the fish.  With a shotgun.  I am not making this up.  I last saw Momcat on a Sunday afternoon about an hour before a sustained episode of gunfire from next door.  My guess is that in her foraging she wandered back to her old home.  She was a good mother, and, after all she had been through, she never would have abandoned her still-nursing kittens.  She was a sweet cat.

So now we have five healthy, well-fed kittens in our garage, but cold weather is coming fast and all the no-kill shelters are full.  We already have seven cats in the house. I'd be more willing to put up "free kittens" signs if I didn't know how atrociously many people around here treat their pets.  It's not uncommon for people to leave their cats and dogs outside in below-zero weather.  So I don't know what we'll do.  For the time being, I visit and feed them 3-4 times a day and let them climb my legs.  Sometimes we talk politics.  All things considered, they are surprisingly optimistic.  Then again, there's no TV in the garage.


UPDATE:  Soft heart, soft head -- the temp dropped below freezing, so the kittens are now living in my office (so they can be kept separated from our other cats).  See here for a running account of this, um, adventure.

By the way, further cat pix, as well as my soon-to-be-posted magnum opus OS X Hell, will be appearing at my shiny new blog at

Several readers have written to ask about the status of the My Favorite Word project and web page, which hasn't been updated in quite a while. Two words:  Domain Hell.  For reasons too baroque to enumerate, I did not have access to the site for much of the summer, and have thus fallen behind in posting entries.  Coding the pages is mind-numbing work, so I'm going to be catching up slowly, but we are on the case.

As the year draws to a close, it would be remiss not to mention for the penultimate time that 2005 marks the TENTH ANNIVERSARY of The Word Detective on the Web.  We remain, as always, a free resource for the gazillions of readers from around the world who visit this site every day.  But the continued existence of this site depends on the support of the small fraction of our readers who actually pony up small amounts of moolah to cover our costs (bandwidth, coffee, cat chow).  If you are among the approximately 1.75 million readers who have never quite gotten around to subscribing to The Word Detective via Email, please take a moment to gaze deep into your soul and ponder the warm glow of harmony with the universe you'll feel after sending us a measly fifteen bucks.

Lastly, I managed to screw up the How Come? website last month without realizing it.  It's fixed now, and we need your questions!


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And now, on with the show:

Wazzup, Missus Cleaver?

Dear Word Detective: I have known for some time that there are two meanings for the word "cleave," one being "to forcibly separate something," the other being "to enduringly stick to something," but it wasn't until I saw the two meanings used within a couple of pages of one another that I began to wonder about it. I’ve heard of words that have come, over time, to mean the opposite of their original meaning, but I’ve never before noticed a word that has opposite meanings at the same time. What’s the story? Are there other words that are like this? -- Heather.

Oh, scads. Yes, there really are a slew of English words with definitions that contradict each other, making these words more or less the opposite of themselves. Such words are called "contranyms," "auto-antonyms" or "Janus words" (Janus being a Roman god often depicted as having two faces). Other contranyms include "sanction" ("to permit" or "to penalize"), "fast" ("firmly fixed" or "capable of moving swiftly"), and "table" ("to propose" or "to postpone").

Contranyms arise in two ways. In many cases, the contradictory meanings develop through the simple process of language change that affects all our words over time. "Nice," for example, used to mean "stupid," a definition more than slightly at odds with its modern meaning of "pleasant" or "fine." In the case of "nice," the old meaning faded away as the new arose, but if the old persists alongside the new we have a contranym, as in the case of "sanction."  

In other cases, the contradictory definitions reflect "homonyms," words which are spelled identically but are actually separate words developed from different sources. This is what happened with "cleave." Both "cleaves" first appeared in Old English, but as separate words with slightly different spellings: "cleave" meaning "to split or cut" was originally "cleofan," while "cleave" meaning "to stick to" appeared as "cleofian." While both words were of Germanic origin, they had been separate words since they arose from Indo-European roots (in the case of "cleave" in the "stick" sense, the root was "gloi," which also eventually gave us "glue"). Unfortunately, as the two words evolved on the way to Modern English, their spellings converged, subsequently confusing just about everyone.

Book 'Em.

Dear Word Detective: What are the origins of "kittywompus" (not sure of the spelling), and "discombobulate"? I can't find them in a Webster's International Dictionary, nor the word "combobulate." -- Jim Katches. 

Sounds like your Webster's let you down, and thereby hangs a tail. I have told this tale from time to time, and I always get the feeling that folks don't believe me, but it's true: the name "Webster's" on many of the dictionaries out there means absolutely nothing. Please imagine that "absolutely nothing" in all capital letters. "Webster's" on the front of a dictionary (or thesaurus, phone book, whatever) no longer signifies any connection to Noah Webster, creator of the first dictionary of American English. The trademark "Webster's" has been in the public domain for a long, long time, and is routinely slapped on substandard, often very antiquated, dictionaries sold in grocery stores, gas stations and discount bookstores. The only modern dictionaries with any direct connection to Noah Webster are those published by Merriam-Webster. That doesn't mean M-W dictionaries, although very good, are necessarily better than other dictionaries published by such reputable outfits as Oxford, American Heritage and Random House, but you should be instantly suspicious of anything labeled "Webster's" not published by either Merriam-Webster or Random House (which feels some strange need to slap "Webster's" on many of their dictionaries).

In any case, if your dictionary doesn't list "discombobulate," you definitely need a new dictionary. However, your search for "combobulate" will come up dry in even the best dictionary, because "combobulate" by itself isn't a word. "Discombobulate," meaning "to throw into a state of confusion, to disturb or disorient," is an invented word apparently formed as a joking alteration of "discompose" or "discomfit," both slightly musty terms for confusing or upsetting a person. "Discombobulate" first appeared around 1834.

As for "kittywompus," no one else is sure of the spelling either, and the word is also often spelled "cattywampus," "caddywompous," "catawampus" (which is the spelling preferred by most dictionaries), as well as about a dozen other ways. "Catawampus," which dates to the 19th century, actually has two distinct meanings (and may, in fact, be two distinct words): as a noun, "a fierce and destructive creature" (possibly drawn from "catamount," an American folk term for a mountain lion), and, as an adjective, "askew, jumbled up." This second meaning may be related to "catercorner" (or "kittycorner"), meaning "diagonally across from" (from the French "quatre," meaning "four," as in "four-cornered").

Wobbling in the wind.

Dear Word Detective: So, I've heard this phrase used many times. The problem is I'm not sure if it's "guy wire" or "guide wire," though I'm tending toward the former as that's what I've seen in print. What's its origin and meaning? -- Jenny

I'm fairly certain that the phrase you mean is "guy wire," although there are such things as "guide wires" used in various medical procedures, including catheterization (whee!). But if you're thinking about the long wires or cables that keep tall antennas and the like from falling over, we're definitely talking "guy wires." However, because "guy" is only used in this fairly limited sense, it is entirely possible that eventually everyone will call such tethers "guide wires" and "guy wires" will fade away.

There are actually two entirely separate words "guy" in English. The "guy" of "guy wire" comes from the Old French "guie." Ironically, given the confusion with "guide," the same root is also related to our modern word "guide." Even more ironically, the original meaning of "guy" when it first appeared in English in the 14th century was "a guide, a leader." That sense is long obsolete, but our modern kind of "guy" developed aboard ship, where "guy lines," chains or ropes were used to steady cargo that was being hoisted to and from the ship. Stationary "guys" also supported and stabilized anything, such as the ship's masts or funnels, likely to fall over. Guy wires today are used to stabilize everything from circus tents to cell phone towers.

The other kind of "guy" is the colloquial term for "man," which first appeared in that sense in the US in the 19th century. This "guy" is an eponym, a word drawn from the name of a real person, in this case Guy Fawkes, who was hanged for trying to blow up the House of Lords, containing at that moment both houses of England's Parliament as well as King James I, in November 1605. The foiling of the "Gunpowder Plot" made November 5 a national holiday in England known as "Guy Fawkes Day," and effigies of Fawkes are still burned on bonfires amid raucous celebration. Given that the effigies of Fawkes were often crude, "guy" eventually came to mean "a figure of bizarre appearance." But since the story of Guy Fawkes was not well known in the US, we adopted "guy" as simply a synonym for "man" or "fellow." Lately "guy" has become gender-neutral, and waiters in particular seem fond of addressing a table of men and women as "you guys."

Head fake.

Dear Word Detective: I work in the area of occupational health and safety and do a lot of work with students with disabilities. Lately there is considerable concern around the use of the word "handicapped." Some take offence to the word while others just don't know where it came from. I am constantly reminded of a race-track when I hear the word. Can you find out the origins of the word and how came to be applied to people with disabilities? -- Gerry Parsons.

Good question. The story behind "handicap" is one of those rare word histories that reads like a fable but happens to be true. It begins with a game of chance popular in England in the 14th century (and possibly much earlier). The game was essentially a sort of moderated barter with a bit of "scissors, paper, stone" thrown in. One player would challenge the other to trade a possession (a horse, for example) for something of roughly equal value (a piece of gold jewelry, perhaps). An umpire would be appointed to oversee the trade, and all three would put one hand in a cap together, each holding an agreed-upon "forfeit amount" of money. The umpire would then announce how much extra, in his opinion, the owner of the lesser-valued item should add to the trade to make it fair. The two players would then pull their hands from the cap. Agreement to the bargain was signaled by leaving your money in the cap; rejection by withdrawing it. If both players agreed in either accepting or rejecting the deal, the umpire got all the forfeit money. If one player accepted but the other rejected the bargain, the one who accepted got all the money (including the umpire's) as his reward for being willing to go through with the deal.

In one of the first written mentions of this game yet found, in William Langland's 14th century epic poem "Piers Plowman," the game is called "Newe Faire," but by the 17th century it was known, logically, as "Hand in the Cap" or "Hand I' Cap." At about the same time the "umpire and forfeits" system was applied to horse races, where the umpire would decide how much extra weight would be carried by the horse considered faster in order to make the contest equal. Eventually, "handicap" came to be applied to any sort of penalty (points, time, distance) applied to a horse to even the odds. By the 19th century, "handicap" was being applied to any factor or disadvantage in any area of life that makes success more difficult.


Lude with tude.

Dear Word Detective: I know the prefixes in the English language are sometimes unrelated to our usual expectation of them, but "prelude," "interlude," and "postlude" all seem fairly standard in their use of accessories for the root of "lude." What is a "lude"? Is it related to words like "ludicrous"? It seems like it would be coming from a Greek root to do with a performance of some sort. -- Kyle League.

That's a darn good question, and you're right about the tricky behavior of prefixes. The saga of "inflammable" is a good example. Ordinarily, the prefix "in" means "not" (as in "insane"), but "in" can also be an intensifier, meaning "extremely." So many people apparently thought that "inflammable" meant "not flammable" (i.e., not likely to burn) when it actually meant "extremely flammable" that public safety authorities finally mounted a campaign to encourage the use of "flammable" and "non-flammable" to eliminate ambiguity.

On to "lude," dude. The root lurking in "prelude," interlude" and "postlude" is the Latin verb "ludere," meaning "to play," referring to both athletic contests and performances for an audience. "Interlude" is actually the oldest of the three, dating back to the 14th century. An "interlude" ("inter" being Latin for "between") was originally a small play or humorous routine designed to be performed between the acts of a longer, more serious work. But by the 17th century "interlude" had acquired its modern meaning of a pause or break between acts of a play or performance, and by the mid-18th century was used to mean an interval in the course of any event or action. "Prelude" ("pre," before) meaning an introductory piece or performance before the main event, appeared in the late 16th century. "Postlude" ("post," after) is a fairly recent invention, appearing in the 19th century and meaning a musical or spoken epilogue to a performance.

"Ludicrous" derives from the Latin "ludicrus," meaning "playful," based on our old pal "ludere." The original meaning of "ludicrous" back in the 17th century was "pertaining to play or sport" or "jocular, derisive," a bit later taking on the sense of "humorous and witty" or, among spoilsports, "frivolous" ("Men may indulge a ludicrous turn so far as to lose all sense of conduct and prudence in worldly affairs," Bishop Joseph Butler, 1736). By the late 18th century, the modern meaning of "laughably absurd" had arrived.

Incidentally, "ludere" had another derivative, "illudere," meaning "to mock or make fun of," which eventually gave us "illusion," something that mocks or tricks our senses.

Off the top.

Dear Word Detective: We often hear some comedy films described as being "a madcapped romp" or a variation using the term "madcapped." Is a relationship between "madcap" and "mad as a hatter"? -- Scott Jackson, St. Peter, MN.

A logical question, but no. "Madcap" (the usual form) and "mad as a hatter" are connected only in the sense that you'd have to be mad as a hatter to believe any of those blurbs in movie ads. "Madcap" is one of those words that publicists and movie reviewers seem to love, but are almost never actually spoken aloud by normal human beings. Others in the class include "wacky," "rib-tickling," "laugh out loud funny," "zany" and "romp." Book reviewers, alas, have a similar sack of clichés with which they liberally salt their product: "incandescent," "magisterial," "elegiac," "searingly honest," "wickedly funny," and, of course, "stunning debut," frequently the inadvertently elegiac epitaph of the one-shot wonder.

The usually magisterial but occasionally zany Oxford English Dictionary defines the current sense of "madcap" as "mad, crazy; idiotic, wildly impulsive or extravagant; bizarre, zany." But while "madcap" today is usually used as an adjective, it was originally, when it first appeared in the 16th century, a noun meaning "a madman, a maniac." The "mad" element is straightforward, simply meaning "insane," a usage more common in the UK than the US, where we are more likely to use "mad" to mean "angry."

The "cap" part might be thought a reference to the unusual headgear often worn by the deranged (foil-lined pith helmets, Mets caps, etc.), but it is actually a very old (and now obsolete in any other use) sense meaning "head." So a "madcap" was originally a "mad-head," a person with bats in the belfry.

The expression "mad as a hatter," meaning "completely and flamboyantly insane," dates to the early 19th century, and in this case the headgear is literal. Hatmakers of the day used beaver or rabbit fur to make felt hats, and the process of converting fur into felt involved the use of highly toxic mercury nitrate. Years of breathing mercury fumes poisoned many hatmakers, causing neurological symptoms that included slurred speech and twitching, which were widely interpreted as signs of insanity. Though hatmakers today are free of the danger of mercury poisoning, the idiom "mad as a hatter" has persisted, at least in part through the character of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Like the bends, but with olives.

Dear Word Detective: I just watched an episode of "Seinfeld" where the characters discussed the origin of the term "bender" to describe someone on a drunken binge. Jerry's explanation that the term means that people go around getting drunk and bending things did not, obviously, hold any water. Do you have a clue as to how "bender" came to mean a prolonged period of drunkenness? -- Trey Sparks.

Seinfeld wrong? That's too bad, since I like that explanation, largely because it conjures up a vision of Uri Geller staggering around an upscale restaurant mangling the patrons' spoons. (If you've been living in a cave for the past half-century but now simply can't go on without knowing who Uri Geller is, check out this.)

A "bender" is, of course, a prolonged bout of drinking, usually to excess and often to the point of insensibility. A "bender" is not just one tipsy evening, but usually involves at least two days of drunkenness. The bender endured by Ray Milland in the classic 1945 film "The Lost Weekend," for instance, went on for almost five days. Several dictionaries define "bender" as simply "a spree." The connotations and usage of the two words do overlap (e.g., "Don't roll those bloodshot eyes at me, I can tell you've been out on a spree," from the song "Bloodshot Eyes" by Hank Perry and Ruth Hakk). But "spree," meaning an extended episode of wild behavior, can also apply to any dubious activity, from shopping to murder. The closest synonym to "bender" is probably "binge," which comes from an old English dialect word meaning "to soak."

The term "bender" does, in fact, come from the verb "to bend," meaning "to force from one shape or direction to another." Interestingly, the original meaning of "to bend" was "to fasten," specifically to fasten a bowstring while stringing an archer's bow. Doing so naturally caused the bow to take on a curved shape, and eventually producing such a curve in any object came to be called "bending" it.

The use of "bender" to mean "drinking spree," which first appeared in the late 19th century, has its roots in an older (circa 1758) slang use of the verb "to bend" to mean "to drink heavily." The logic of this use is a bit unclear, but it may have to do with the earlier uses of "to bend" to mean "to pull, to strain" (exerting great effort) or "to apply oneself to an effort" (as one "bends" to a task, in this case getting drunk). It is also entirely possible that "to bend" and "bender" in the alcoholic sense arose as a jocular reference to repeatedly bending one's elbow in the course of prolonged drinking.


It's always time to make the doughnuts.

Dear Word Detective: I am eight years old and I would like to know where the word "breakfast" came from. I told my dad it comes from a "break" from a "fast," but he doesn't believe me. -- Devin.

Your father doesn't believe you? Tell him to watch more television. Parents on television who don't believe their children often get kidnapped by aliens or eaten by werewolves. Kids are almost always right. Personally, I still believe everything I did when I was twelve years old, and I have seven twelve cats and a refrigerator full of ice cream to prove it.

You are, of course, absolutely right. "Breakfast" is called that because it is the first meal of the day, when we "break," or stop, the "fast," or period of not eating, of the night before. People have been calling this meal "breakfast" for more than 500 years.

By the way, the word "fast" originally just meant "firm or strong." When we run "fast," we are running strongly, and when we "fast" by not eating food, we are being firm in enduring our hunger. And when we "fasten" something, we are attaching it firmly.

"Lunch" is a bit more complicated than "breakfast." "Lunch" seems to have been borrowed in the 1500s from the Spanish word "lonja," which means "slice or hunk," probably a slice of meat or bread. "Lunch" was originally just a little snack, and it wasn't until the 1800s that "lunch" became the name for our midday meal.

"Dinner" is a very strange word. The English language borrowed it from the Old French word "disner," which came in turn from the Late Latin "disjunare," which meant "to break one's hunger." That's right, "dinner" was originally what we now call "breakfast," the first meal of the day. Over time, "dinner" came to mean the largest meal of the day, which people used to eat in the middle of the day (making "dinner" today's "lunch"). But in the last century or so, more and more people have been eating their big meal, their "dinner," in the evening.

"Supper," however, has always been a name for the evening meal, and comes from the French word "super," which may be related to the word "soup."

The voracity of ducks?

Dear Word Detective: How did the word "canard" come to be used to indicate a falsehood? Are ducks inherently dishonest creatures, or is it French ducks that are dishonest? Really, I've always wondered how a word associated with waterfowl and flight is also used to mean dishonesty. -- Miguel Zamora, Louisville, KY.

Ducks "inherently dishonest"? Bite your tongue. There is no more noble member of the winged kingdom than the duck, a creature above reproach in every aspect. You must be thinking of geese. Geese are vicious, sneaky, unappreciative critters. Half the beauty of watching a formation of Canada geese in flight comes from the knowledge that they are leaving.

But "canard," which in English means "an unfounded and malicious story; a falsehood," does indeed mean "duck" in French. So the question is, in the immortal words of Chico Marx, "Why a duck?"

The answer is that when English adopted "canard" from the French, we neglected to take, as Paul Harvey would put it, the rest of the story. (Sorry about that. I bought a bunch of antique pop culture references from William Safire last week, and I have to use them before they completely disintegrate. Britney Spears will be along shortly.)

Our English "canard" is actually an abbreviated form of an idiom in French, the whole of which is "vendre un canard à moitié," meaning "to half-sell a duck." Obviously, one cannot "half-sell" a duck, so "to half-sell a duck" is to not sell the duck at all, i.e., to trick or defraud the buyer. The French themselves had cropped the phrase to "to sell a duck," meaning "to lie," by about 1611, and "bailleur de canards" ("deliverer of ducks") was apparently equivalent to "liar" at that time.

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions a story, apparently popular in France at one time, that traced the phrase to a bogus but widely disseminated newspaper article "purporting to illustrate the voracity of ducks," a sort of early urban legend that made "canard" synonymous with "lie." Like most of our modern linguistic fables, this story is both unlikely and unnecessary -- "vendre un canard à moitié" is perfectly sufficient and well-attested -- but the very popularity of the "hungry duck newspaper story" myth may have boosted the popularity of "canard."

"Canard" first appeared in English around 1864, or roughly 120 years before (I did warn you) Britney Spears.

Theories of Cleveland.

Dear Word Detective: My father (bless his soul) always told me that the word "hickey" used to denote that particular mark of passion sometimes found on the neck was based on a previous mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. He (the mayor) was purported to be a first-rate womanizer given to leaving such a mark on many female acquaintances. He (my father) claimed to have been the first to use the word in that fashion ... apparently with lasting success. Can you confirm (or deny) his claim? -- Gail J Molnar.

I'm afraid that I can neither confirm nor deny your father's assertion at this point in time, nor can I comment further as long as this matter remains the subject of an ongoing investigation. Rest assured, however, that we here at Word Detective International Headquarters are committed to pursuing the truth in this matter and we are determined to provide the answer, at the proper time, that the American people deserve, if anyone still cares by then. Nyah nyah. Next question?

OK, investigation over, and I'm afraid that your father's claim doesn't hold water. Although common nouns formed from personal names (called "eponyms") are common in English (thanks, Lord Sandwich), and many public officials have demonstrated runaway libidinous tendencies over the years, the first problem is that Cleveland apparently has never had a mayor named "Hickey." ( has a list going back to 1836.) Furthermore, even if there had been a Mayor Hickey, that would not have proven the proposition, since false eponyms are also fairly common. (For example, General Joseph Hooker did not, contrary to legend, bequeath his name as slang for a prostitute.)

But perhaps the greatest flaw in your father's theory is that, when "hickey" first appeared in English around 1902, it did not mean "love bite or mark." It was one of a number of words, still used today, denoting a small object or fixture whose name is unknown at the moment, such as "thingamabob," "dingus," "whatsis" and "doodad." In fact, another such word, "doohickey," appeared around 1912 from a blending of "doodad" and "hickey." None of these words have, as far as anyone knows, definite, discoverable origins -- they were probably just dreamed up on the spot and spread.

Once "hickey" was being used to mean "some small thing," it made sense that by about 1918 it was being used as slang for a pimple or other skin blemish. The modern "love bite or mark" sense appeared around 1942.

You missed a spot.

Dear Word Detective: Years ago I used a word that means a person who gives unwanted advice. I cannot, for the life of me, remember that word! Do you know? If so, I would like it back, please. -- Randy

I feel your pain. There really ought to be an Office of Lost Words one could call in predicaments such as yours, those times when we know the perfect word exists and have even used it in the past, but, upon summoning it again, find that the little scamp has skittered down one of the rabbit holes of the mind, leaving us in the lurch. Perversely, the very aptness of the word often seems to make it especially elusive, and, while the lost word is rarely exotic, pawing through a dictionary or thesaurus almost never produces the fugitive. The upshot is intense frustration tinged with the suspicion that one's brain is going mushy. Speaking of neurology, I know a person who claims that looking down and slightly to the left helps her remember such things. I'd give her method a try, but I'm afraid that if it worked it would mean that my head is not properly attached, which would be far more depressing than misplacing one little word.

There is, however, a book I know of that addresses your plight, a sort of reverse-lookup dictionary called Word Menu (Stephen Glazer, Random House), which classifies more than 75,000 words by their meanings, finely sifting the lexicon into almost 800 categories.

On page 693 of Word Menu, under the heading "Verbs of Speech; Modes and Manners of Expression," we find what I believe is the word you seek: "kibitz," defined as "offer unsolicited advice; make unsolicited comments."

"Kibitz" (rhymes with "lib hits") is one of the most successful borrowings from Yiddish found in English today, first appearing in American slang in the 1920s. The root of "kibitz" is the German word "kiebitzen," meaning "to look on at a card game," from "kiebitz," a kind of bird (plover or lapwing) known for its raucous call and inquisitive habits. To merely observe a card game (or just about any other activity) does not a "kibitzer" make, of course. To "kibitz," one must make frequent and annoying suggestions, usually based on no expertise whatsoever.

"Kibitz" can mean simply "to chat" as well as "to meddle," but the true "kibitzer" is only happy when, at least metaphorically, he or she is looking over your shoulder and telling you how to do whatever you're doing better, faster or more easily.

Oddly enough, the car always does run better after it's washed.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I was lazing about with my friends on the grass when one of them piped up and asked what the plan was for the evening. I responded with "Well, let's just get up to our usual shenanigans," which prompted me to wonder what exactly I had just said, and whether one could actually "get up to" shenanigans at all. Needless to say, my friends both shot cold stares in my direction and one of them said, "Shenanigans? What are you, writing a period novel?" But then again he is a physics student so I dismissed his comment immediately. Any ideas? Something to do with .... nannys? She-nannys? -- Philip.

Hey, watch it. I'm married to a woman with a degree in physics. Then again, she has lately taken to maintaining that household appliances have feelings. Go figure. All I know is that I'm not supposed to swear at the toaster. "Shenanigan" is, however, definitely what our resident physicist would call "geezer talk" if it were coming from my mouth, so you might want to curb your enthusiasm unless you're working on a Ned Flanders impersonation.

A "shenanigan" is a trick, a prank, or a playful or mischievous act. "Shenanigans" usually amount to nothing worse than simply high-spirited and harmless "fooling around," unless the "shenanigans" involve public officials cooking the books or canoodling with the help, in which case a grand jury or congressional committee often gets the last laugh.

"Shenanigan" is an American invention, first appearing in print in the mid-19th century in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the origin of "shenanigan" is considered "unknown" by most authorities. Fortunately, that fact hasn't stopped various researchers from suggesting some interesting possibilities. One suggested source is the Irish word "sionnachulghim," meaning "to play tricks, to be foxy" (from "sionnach," fox). Another is the Spanish word "chanada," a shortened form of "charranada," trick or deceit. Still other, and somewhat more remote, guesses include "schenachrum," a Cornish drink made of boiled beer, rum, sugar and lemon, and the English dialect term "nannicking," meaning "to play the fool."

My pick for the most likely source is the Irish "sionnachulghim," although, given that the word seems to have first appeared in California, the Spanish "chanada" may be the ticket. It's also quite possible that Irish and Spanish terms melded over time and thus both gave us the English "shenanigan."

Cold feet, warm trail.

Dear Word Detective: The expression "getting cold feet" popped up the other day in conversation. While the meaning is clear -- to back away from a commitment due to nerves or fear -- the imagery seems lost. Why cold feet? I know we can "hot foot it" somewhere, but that doesn't exactly seem to be the reverse of cold feet. And "hot feet" in pursuit of something makes some sense, since friction on the soles as one moves faster might actually induce "hot feet." But cold feet? Am I missing something? -- Barney Johnson.

Well, if so, you have a lot of company. Since this past May I have received a small blizzard of inquiries about "cold feet." I must admit that I was mildly puzzled by the sudden interest in the phrase until I realized that it was all the fault of The Runaway Bride, a young woman whose dreary and utterly inconsequential flight from an impending marriage was (and probably is still being) breathlessly chronicled around the clock by cable TV news channels. I stopped watching TV news entirely last year, but I gather that the phrase "cold feet" was spoken approximately every 14 seconds on TV for weeks.

"To have (or get) cold feet," meaning "to back out of some undertaking or commitment because of cowardice or anxiety," has been the subject of speculation among etymologists for many years. It seems to have appeared first in English in 1896, in the second edition of Stephen Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." I say "in English" because Benjamin Zimmer of Cornell, in a discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list earlier this year, pointed to the use of "cold feet" in a German novel published in 1862 (wherein a player withdraws from a card game citing his "cold feet"), so it is possible that the English phrase is a literal translation from the German one. "To have cold on one's feet," meaning "to have no money," is also an Italian saying old enough to have been included by Ben Jonson in his 1605 play "Volpone."

None of this, unfortunately, explains the underlying logic of "to have (or get) cold feet." It may have begun as slang for "to be broke," a reference to shoddy (or nonexistent) footwear due to poverty (as in the "Volpone" use), and only later came to mean "afflicted by nerves." Or it may have originated as a sarcastic, mocking reference to a trivial reason given to abandon an activity or duty ("Oh, well, cold feet? Of course you can't go on.").

Just swing by HR on your way out, OK?

Dear Word Detective: I've been volunteered to ask a question that came up in the office. What is the origin of the word "fray," as in "He jumped into the fray," or "Tempers were fraying"? While the meaning is clear, we're wondering about its origin. It doesn't seem to be tied into the other meaning of "fray" which relates to loose threads, except that loose threads are usually caused by some sort of friction. There certainly is a correlation between friction and tempers. Is this a threadbare thought? -- Will McCord.

Not at all, and, as always, it warms the cockles of my heart to picture of room full of presumably competent and valuable workers wasting the boss's time with a lively and protracted discussion of etymology. Right on. Those stupid TPS reports can wait. Just don't forget the cover sheets.

Your question is an excellent one, but I must take exception to your third sentence, because in your second sentence you moosh together (that's the technical term) two different meanings of "fray," which wouldn't matter if there weren't two entirely different "frays" in English, one meaning "fight" and the other "unravel." But there are.

The "fight" kind of "fray" is actually an aphetic (cropped) form of "affray," which as a verb means "to startle, to frighten," and was derived from the Old French "effreer," which in turn is thought to have come from the Vulgar Latin "exfridare," meaning roughly "to take away someone's peace." "Affray," which appeared first in the 14th century, is obsolete today except for its past participle "affrayed" ("frightened"), which we now spell "afraid."

"Affray" as a noun (as well as its short form "fray") in the 14th century meant "a feeling of fear," but soon took on the sense of "attack" (that which makes us afraid), and by the 15th century "fray" had arrived at its modern meaning of "noisy quarrel, brawl, conflict."
The second kind of "fray" appeared in the 16th century, imported from the French "frayer," derived from the Latin "fricare," to rub (which also gave us "friction"). By the early 18th century, "fray" had come to mean "to wear through by rubbing; to unravel through use or wear." So to say that your nerves are "frayed" is to say that your composure is worn thin by stress or fatigue. The fact that the stress may be due to a struggle or ruckus also called a "fray" is just one of the little jokes English likes to play on us.

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La vida lopsided.

Dear Word Detective: I've used this phrase so many times I never pondered its origin, but now I'm curious. When something seems not to be quite right, I'll say, "It seems to be out of kilter." I know what I mean when I say it, but have no idea what "kilter" is. I'm assuming in some ancient Celtic or Germanic language it meant to be "level" or "plumb" or some such builders' vernacular. Am I way off base on this? -- Scott Jackson.

Dear Word Detective: Whence commeth "out of whack"? It can't related to "wacky," meaning "zany or strange," because then being out of it would be to operate normally. And where can I purchase additional supplies of whack in order to be prepared for future shortages? -- Whacking my brain, Martin Ornstein.

Greetings, and welcome to That Ain't Right Week, our annual celebration of all things out of whack, out of kilter, and just plain not the way they're supposed to be. As always, this column comes with our standard 30-day warranty, under which claims for defects may be filed day or night on any day not ending in the letter "y." And remember, your phone call is important to us, so we're keeping our number a secret.

Scott, your theory about "out of kilter," meaning "not in proper order or working condition; defective or malfunctioning," being derived from an ancient building term is entirely reasonable, but, unfortunately, unverifiable. We do know that "out of kilter" has a positive form, to be "in kilter," and that "kilter" first appeared in the 17th century in the English dialect form "kelter" (still used, largely in Britain) meaning "in good condition or health." But the trail is cold as to the antecedents of "kelter" and their possible meanings.

And actually, Martin, "wacky" may very well be related to "out of whack." When it first appeared in the 18th century, "whack" meant simply "to beat or strike vigorously," probably formed from the sound of such a blow. "Wacky" (or "whacky") may simply liken the eccentricities of a "wacko" to the results of a blow to the head. "Whack" as a noun became thieves' slang in the late 18th century for "share of the loot" (possibly in the same sense we use "cut" today) and later came to mean "agreement or bargain." By the late 19th century, "out of whack" had come to mean "out of proper order or alignment," possibly from a further development of "whack" meaning "agreement or expectation."

A shot in the dark.

Dear Word Detective: My mother and her sisters grew up in coastal New Jersey (Manasquan area) in the 1940's. They are of Irish origin with a little "Swamp Yankee" blood, mostly the extinct Appomattox tribe. They all use the term "mahuscus" to mean a fuss or a confusion. Ever heard of it? -- Molly.

Hoo boy, sometimes I wonder why I get myself into these things. Maybe it's not too late to go to law school. Nah, too many unhappy people. Then again, I always wanted to drive an ice cream truck. Maybe I should move back to New York City and get a Mister Softee franchise. Probably not a good idea either. No sooner had I typed that than the Mister Softee jingle started up in my head, and prolonged exposure would probably drive me even more nuts than your question already has. Nice segue, eh?

The problem with tracking down strange words used by someone's relatives in conversation are numerous, of which proper spelling is the trickiest, as the best we can usually do is guess based on the pronunciation of the speaker. In the case of "mahuscus," for example, any one (or more) of those vowels could easily be another vowel (giving us "mohoscus," "mehoscus," etc.), and even the consonants are suspect (e.g., that "c" might really be a "k"). Folk terms (and "mahuscus" certainly sounds like one) are notorious for their variable forms and spellings. Even a well-known colloquial term such as "cattycorner" has variants ranging from "kittycorner" to "catercornered."

All of that is by way of prelude to admitting that I have come up dry in searching for "mahuscus" or any spelling variant I've been able to think up. I have, however, found two words that might be at least related in a roundabout way to "mahuscus."

One is "mohoska" (or "mahosker"), perhaps derived from the Irish "mo thosca" meaning "my business." According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), this is largely an underworld term meaning "a thing of importance." While I assume that your mother and her sisters are not mob members, "mohoska" may have mutated and migrated into general usage in New Jersey.
Another possibility is "mahula" (also "mahaha," mahoola" and "mahoula") which HDAS defines as "nonsense; malarkey," and traces to the Hebrew "mechula," meaning "spoiled, out of order; bankrupt."

Obviously, neither of these words is an especially close match for "mahuscus," but I have a feeling I'm about to be deluged with additional suggestions from my readers, so stay tuned.

Touched by an Anvil.

Dear Word Detective: On the way to work today my car pool passed a pub that called itself a "purveyor of wines and spirits," and it got me thinking. How did certain alcoholic beverages come to be called "spirits"? I had a funny thought that maybe, in the past, people believed that the drink contained (possibly evil) spirits that possessed you if you drank too much (which would explain the side effects). What do you think? -- Corey.

Hold it right there, grasshopper. The Word Detective does not "think." The Word Detective knows. Especially after a few martinis. Now there will be a short intermission while the Word Detective prepares his magic potions.

OK, I'm back. You've asked a darn good question. The root of "spirit" is the Latin "spiritus," from "spirare," which means "to breathe" and is also the source of a slew of other English words from "aspire" to "conspire" (literally "to breathe together") and "perspire." It has been suggested that the Indo-European root ("speis") underlying the Latin "spirare" was onomatopoeic, reflecting the actual sound of exhaling or whistling. In any case, "spirit" is a very old word even in English, first appearing in the 13th century.

As in the case of many old words, "spirit" has acquired a wide range of meanings in its journeys through the centuries. In the 13th century, it meant (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) "the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life." Most early senses of "spirit" were variations on this theme of "essence of life," overlapping at points, especially in religious writings, with the definition of "soul." A parallel development, however, was the use of "spirit" to mean a supernatural, non-corporeal being, possibly the remnant of a deceased person but often not of human origin and considered frightening or hostile (the "evil spirits" thought to possess humans, etc.).

By the 14th century, "spirit" was also being used to mean a particular temper or frame of mind, especially one of determination or heroism, embodying the essence of people, places or things (e.g., "the spirit of liberty"). In a more literal vein, Medieval alchemists defined "spirit" as the volatile essence of a material, and derived "spirits" by distilling extracts of various substances. Eventually, this alchemical sense was narrowed to distillations involving alcohol, and by the late 17th century, "spirits" had come to mean any strong alcoholic drink produced by distillation.

'Swaggin 'is tail, means e's happy.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word "swag" now associated with drapery or mantle decor become associated with loot, booty, ill-gotten gains? -- Marsha Orson.

Well, clearly you're not familiar with the sort of prices charged by interior decorators these days. Neither am I, actually, but whilst wandering innocently through my own tastefully furnished (Early Hodgepodge) living room last week, I was informed by the television that to buy Venetian blinds one now needs a consultant, preferably one with a snazzy computer that allows you to virtually scroll through the several hundred colors available. Of course, this nonsense was inevitable once we let them get away with calling simple curtains "window treatments." I guess the days of just nailing a paisley bedspread to the window frame are truly over. Bummer.

One might suspect, given that the two senses of "swag" that you mention are so different, that the two "swags" are, as actually different words. But "swag" has been around long enough to develop both of these disparate definitions.

When "swag" first appeared as a verb in English in the 15th century, probably derived from a Scandinavian root, it meant simply "to move heavily or unsteadily from side to side; to sway." (The same root may have given us "sway" as well.) A derivative sense developed soon after of "to hang loosely or heavily, to sag," which led in the late 18th century to the "decor" sense of "swag," wherein fabric or other items (flowers, foliage, etc.) are arranged fastened at the ends and drooping in the middle.

The "loot" sense of "swag" derives from the "sway" as well as the "hang heavily" meanings. The original sense was probably a bundle of stolen goods borne away by a thief or burglar, the term later coming to encompass any sort of ill-gotten goods. The sense of "swag" as "bundle" is also found in the Australian use of the word to mean the bundle of personal belongings carried by a "swagman," a traveler or tramp (as in the song "Waltzing Matilda").



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