Previous Columns/Posted 11/05/98

Don't look back.

Dear Word Detective: Please help my colleagues and myself. We wonder whether the word "decimate" originated in relation to the behavior of the Roman Empire, the Nazis, or some alternative source. -- Befuddled, via the Internet.

Befuddled, eh? I think I went to high school with your sister, Bewildered.

In regard to your multiple choice question, we can safely pin "decimate" on the Roman Empire, specifically the Roman army. Faced with a mutiny by their troops (which, given conditions in the Roman army, was probably not an infrequent phenomenon), the Roman commanders would sometimes order one out of every ten soldiers to be executed as an example to his comrades. "Decimate" itself comes from the Latin word "decimare," meaning "to take or destroy one-tenth," which came in turn from "decem," the Latin word for "ten."

Another concurrent meaning of "decimate" was "to exact a tax of one-tenth," but it's the grisly "kill every tenth person" meaning which has survived to the present day, and thereby hangs a tale of disputed English usage. Starting in the middle of the 17th century, many people started using "decimate" in a looser sense to mean "destroy or kill the greater part of" something. Since "decimate" in its strict "one-in-ten" sense has become (thank heavens) less applicable in the modern world, most people have had no objection to the slight change in meaning.

Occasionally, however, you will hear some self-appointed guardians of the English language rail loudly about the "real" meaning of "decimate" and bemoan its modern "misuse" as a symptom of linguistic degeneration. Ignore them. Words change their meanings over time because human society changes and words are communication tools, not museum exhibits. Anyone who objects to the modern use of "decimate" to mean "kill or destroy most of something" should feel free to write me. On parchment, with a quill pen, and delivered by carrier pigeon, of course.


Dear Word Detective: Will you please tell me when the phrase "fast food" was first used or coined? Even before franchising of "fast food" restaurants became commonplace, there must have been "fast food" services (Horn and Hardart in New York City, for example). -- S. B. Malvadkar, via the Internet.

As the little dog says in the current series of TV commercials, Bless You, Taco Bell. Thanks to the stranglehold U.S. fast food conglomerates have on the palates of the world, I know that no matter how far from home I may stray, I will never be faced with the grisly prospect of eating even mildly unfamiliar food. I remember wandering around Paris a few years ago, famished and despondent to the point of delirium, until I spotted a Pizza Hut a few blocks from the Paris Opera. Let me tell you a secret, kids. That baguette and brie stuff is OK for graduate students, but the real world runs on pepperoni and Pepsi.

You're absolutely correct that the term "fast food" antedates the nationwide appearance of Mickey Dee's and the like by quite a number of years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first documented use of "fast food" in reference to a restaurant came in 1951, although since that mention was in an article in a trade journal called "Fountain and Fast Food Service," we can safely assume that the term had been around for a while by then. "Fast food" seems to have been originally applied to restaurants and catering businesses who served "steam table" delicacies, as well as to convenience foods a busy housewife (this was the Fifties, remember) could quickly whip up for Ward, Wally and The Beaver after a hectic day of housecleaning. The invention of frozen "TV dinners" was probably the apogee (or the nadir, depending on your taste) of this cultural trend.

Incidentally, your mention of New York City's long-defunct Horn and Hardart Automats made me long for their fabulous Franks and Beans casserole, which went for 35 cents in the late 1950s, as I recall. The real fun, of course, was putting in your coins, turning the knob and opening the little brass door to get your food. Anybody around here got a time machine?

Barbarians at the Games.

Dear Word Detective: With the recent coverage of the World Cup soccer event (I'm glad it will be another four years before I hear "gooooooooaaaaaal"), the word "hooligan" was mentioned with depressing regularity. One sportscaster opined that the word refers to an actual person, an Irish "thug" named Hooligan. Can that be correct? -- Scott Slotterbeck, via the Internet.

I may have mentioned before (not more than once every week or two, I'm sure) that I am not a sports kind of guy. But if soccer (or football, as it's known in the rest of the world) ever becomes popular in the U.S., I might even become a fan. Soccer, with its emphasis on agility and skill rather than brute force and pain, can be a truly elegant game.

Too bad the same can't be said of its fans. "Football hooligans" have been a fixture of European soccer matches for years, earning their title with obnoxious behavior ranging from mere drunken rowdiness to full scale riots. As a term for young ruffians or toughs, "hooligan" is also frequently heard in the nations of the former Soviet Union, where "hooliganism" has become a catchall name for what we in the U.S. call "antisocial behavior."

As to the "Irish thug" theory of "hooligan" you heard, the answer would have to be "probably not," but no one knows for sure exactly where "hooligan" came from. The word first appeared in England in the summer of 1898 in newspaper articles about a gang of young street toughs who called themselves "the Hooligans," although apparently none of them was actually named Hooligan. Some authorities at the time maintained that "hooligan" was a mispronunciation of "Hooley's gang," but no one was ever able to trace a specific "Hooley," so that theory remains unverified. Another possible source of the name is a music hall song of the period featuring a rowdy Irish family called the Hooligans. Hooligan had also been used since at least the 1870s as a "funny name" by several authors, including Mark Twain.

Beat It.

Dear Word Detective: I've been asked to find the derivation of the phrase "on the lam." The dictionaries of slang that I have in my office cite usages in the 1920s (I can see just see Cagney hiking his pants and preparing to outwit them coppers). But none of them explains how "on the lam" came to mean "on the run." My reputation is on the line here. Please help. -- B. Marcus, via the Internet.

Your reputation, perhaps, but it's my neck, bucko. Word Detective World Headquarters is spending the summer at an 1870 farmhouse near East Nowhere, Ohio, a locale so remote that the mail carrier rides a burro and carries a canteen. On second thought, it may just be a very large dog. Anyway, there I sat on the porch swing a few days ago, peacefully watching the cornfield across the road wilt in the heat. Suddenly the radio announced that six desperadoes, two of whom were convicted murderers, had busted out of a hoosegow not too far upstate from here and were, you guessed it, on the lam. So don't give me that "please help" business. You're talking to a man who just spent two nights hiding in the closet with a sharpened curtain rod.

The radio report didn't actually say that the convicts were "on the lam," of course. (In fact, I don't recall the prison spokesperson even using the word "escape.") But "on the lam" has been popular American slang for "on the run" since at least the latter part of the 19th century. The root of "lam" is the Old Norse word "lamja," meaning "to make lame," and the original meaning of "lam," back in the 16th century, was "to beat soundly."

The change in the meaning of "lam" from "beat" to "run away" may have echoed another slang term for running away -- "beat it." To "beat it" is to rapidly beat the road with one's feet by running. Similarly, an escapee's feat "lam" the road as he heads for the cornfield. And now I must excuse myself. The sun is setting, and I have just a few hours to train my cats to bark like Dobermans.


They're like sheep, only shinier.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you could tell me where the word "nylon" comes from. -- Marc Brauner, Gravenwezel, Belgium.

I'll give it a shot. This is actually a fascinating question, not because of the real answer, which is quite simple, but because of the myths that have sprung up around the word "nylon" since both the material and the name were invented by the Du Pont Company in 1938.

First of all, for those of you who grew up on Mars, we should explain what nylon is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if you're digging in your garden and find the following, you've struck nylon: "Any of the thermoplastics that are wholly synthetic polyamides with a straight-chain molecular structure, many of which are tough, lightweight, and resistant to heat and chemicals, may be produced as filaments, bristles, or sheets and as molded objects, and are widely used for textile fabrics and industrially...." Nylon is, in short, a remarkably useful plastic. One of the first uses of nylon was in the manufacture of women's stockings during World War II, replacing the more expensive and fragile silk.

Nylon was immensely popular as soon as it appeared, and almost immediately a variety of stories began making the rounds purporting to explain the origin of the name. One of the most enduring has been that the "nyl" of nylon stands for "New York and London," although what possible significance these two cities could have had is unclear.

Another myth, especially popular during World War Two, was that "nylon" was a sort of loose acronym for the phrase "Now You Lousy Nips," referring to the fact that nylon provided a handy substitute for silk, one of our enemy Japan's chief exports.

These myths flourished despite repeated denials by Du Pont. In a 1940 letter to Women's Wear Daily, a Du Pont executive stated: "We wish to emphasize .... that the letters n-y-l-o-n have absolutely no significance, etymologically or otherwise."

So where did "nylon" come from? Simple -- Du Pont made it up pretty much out of thin air, combining the "on" of "cotton" and "rayon" with the meaningless fragment "nyl."

All the while doing the Postal Polka Two-Step.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of "polka dot"? A friend has been wondering for years about this and I would like to give him an answer. -- Ms. B. Koeppen, via the Internet.

You're never going to believe this, but I've been waiting years to answer your friend's question. Honest. Every morning I trudge out past the cows to the mailbox, murmuring "polka dot, polka dot" to myself in a hopeful mantra. But day after day I find the well dry, polka-dot-wise, and must face the long walk back past those smirking cows. Night falls, and I sit glumly in the corner at parties while my friends nudge each other and say, "Ask him about the goldurn polka dots, Bernice. I can't take any more of this." But it's not the same as a real reader question.

So now, at long last, The Polka Dot Saga. Back in the mid-19th century, the U.S. was awash in polka dots, that pattern of dots of uniform size and arrangement, because we had all gone polka-crazy. The polka, of course, is a simple, lively dance step that took Europe and America by storm soon after its introduction in 1835. The name "polka" is a minor mystery. Although "polka" is Polish for "Polish woman," the polka dance is actually of Bohemian origin, and "polka" may be a corruption of the Czech word "pulka" (half) referring to the short half steps involved in the dance.

None of which, I realize, explains polka dots, but I'm getting to that. At the peak of the polka craze, from about 1840 to 1890 (this was a very long craze), a variety of manufacturers cashed in on the public's polka-mania by naming a dizzying range of products after the dance. Polka hats, polka gauze, polka curtain ties, and, of course, polka-dotted fabrics, had little or nothing to do with the dance, but sold like hotcakes, for a few years anyway. The polka dot pattern, however, had staying power, and remains popular today, especially in neckties.

Nyah, nyah, mmphhthmp.

Dear Word Detective: A friend and I were wondering about the source of the expression "cat got your tongue." My imagination came up with the idea that a puritan punishment for gossiping was to tie one's tongue up with catgut as a punishment. His theory is that in Elizabethan England, people would stick their tongues out at people through their tennis rackets (which were made of catgut) as an insult. These are probably both pretty pathetic guesses. Do you know the true origin? -- Irene Andress, via the Internet.

Oh, I don't think your guesses are pathetic at all, though I am wondering what you folks eat for breakfast. I especially like your friend's theory about people sticking their tongues through tennis rackets, although I'm not clear on exactly why this would be considered an insult. It sounds more like a plot summary for a lost episode of "I Love Lucy."

In any case, the actual origin of the phrase turns out to be rather tame in comparison to your imagination. To say that "the cat has got" someone's tongue is, of course, to say that the person is temporarily rendered speechless by either shock or embarrassment. It is almost always phrased as a question ("Has the cat got your tongue?") by someone who has the upper hand in the conversation, and is generally considered more refined than the alternative, "So say something, bozo."

There's no particular logic to "cat got your tongue," except that cats have served as the object of human myth and metaphor for thousands of years. No sooner did the first caveperson open the door to a yowling cat than people began concocting stories about cats. The black ones bring bad luck. They have nine lives. They suck out your breath while you're sleeping. They make those mysterious long distance calls that show up on your phone bill.

The most surprising thing about "cat got your tongue" may be its relatively recent vintage. While it certainly sounds as if it must have been dreamt up back in the Middle Ages, the earliest written example listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1911.

Yes, I know what season it is.
This was written in late August.

Dear Word Detective: Why are the late days of summer called "Dog Days"? -- Brted, via the Internet.

Well, I'll be darned, a seasonally appropriate question. I always feel like an idiot answering questions about "Yuletide" and "blizzard" in July, so this is a stroke of luck. The downside of this serendipity is, of course, that it is summer right now, in all its sweltering, bug-bedecked glory. I am not a big summer fan, and no number of electric fans could make me one. I hate the beach, lemonade gives me a stomachache, and I suspect that lawn mowing was invented by insects just to get me out in the open.

And I happen to know, just to head back in the general direction of your question, that most dogs hate summer too. Compare the dog in winter, happily bounding through healthful snowdrifts, with the summer dog, a wretched creature desperately panting as he's eaten alive by fleas.

I'm tempted, in fact, to ascribe the phrase "dog days" to the misery suffered in summer by our canine pals, but it's a bit more complex than that. The phrase does have to do with a dog, and a very old dog at that. The ancient Romans also called the six or eight hottest weeks of summer "the dog days," or, in Latin, "dies caniculares." But the dog in question wasn't Fido's Roman ancestor (although the common canine name Fido is from the Latin for "faithful"). The Romans were referring to Sirius, the Dog Star, so named because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (which is Latin for "Big Dog"). The hottest days of summer happened to coincide with the seasonal ascendancy of Sirius as the brightest star in the heavens, and the Romans believed that it was the added heat of the Dog Star which caused their hot and humid weather. People also used to believe that the "dog days" were the part of the year when dogs, driven to distraction by the heat, were most likely to "go mad." I don't know about dogs, but I'm so sick of summer at this point that the smell of freshly-mown grass definitely makes me feel like biting something.

It's a good thing, unless you're a cow.

Dear Word Detective: I attended a class, and the teacher was a young lady from back East, and she was wondering why it was called a "Jack-leg fence." She did not believe that a bunch of bull-legged cowboys named Jack lined up and supported logs so the cows couldn't come through or any of the many other stories we came up with around the campfire. Having lived in Montana all my life I have always known what a jackleg fence was but I have no idea where the concept came from. Is it of English origin, where the common person was a Jack, and since the fence was common or makeshift, that was the origin of the name? -- Janet Helfrich, via the Internet.

So she didn't believe your stories, eh? I'm not surprised. The really big silly stuff -- alien abductions, crop circles, campaign finance reform -- people eat up like popcorn. But try to fly a little local legend and suddenly everybody's a junior Sherlock Holmes. No fun at all.

I gather that a jackleg fence is a pretty makeshift affair, quickly thrown up to hold the line against wayward cows. Not one of your Martha Stewart fences with the Flemish dried flowers and the pastel barbed wire, in other words.

Your theory about the "jack" part is right on the money. "Jack" was used as a generic name for a "regular guy" as early as the 14th century, a sense which survives today in our "jackknife," an unpretentious and utilitarian tool. "Jackleg" or "jack-leg" is a native American colloquialism that has meant "unskilled" or "incompetent" since about 1837, and was often applied to doctors and lawyers in the Old West. Applied to a fence, I suppose its meaning could range from "simple and functional" (like a jackknife) to "incompetently made."

The "leg" part is bit more mysterious, but the bottom line is that the "leg" in "jackleg" probably never really meant anything.

Block that rumor.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me where the word "picnic" came from? I was told that it was racial in origin. -- A reader, via the Internet.

This is going to come as a shock to many of my readers, but I do not ordinarily write this column with public service in mind. In this case, however, I want you all to pay close attention, tell all your friends, and help nip a spreading linguistic rumor in the bud.

I have received this same "picnic" question at least six times over the past few months. In an attempt to figure out where such a sudden interest in a simple word was coming from, I turned to that great repository of current popular folklore, the Internet. After a bit of searching under "picnic" and "racist," I came across the following version (probably just one of many making the rounds) of the "picnic story." I do not know who the author of the following paragraph is, and I quote it only for illustrative purposes, omitting the infamous "n word"as indicated:

"In my lectures I ask people if they understand where the word 'picnic' comes from. It was typical to have a picnic on a Friday evening in Oklahoma. The word was short for 'pick a [n word]' to lynch. They would lynch a Black male .... That's where the term really came from."

This horrifying story is, as I'm sure you suspect, not even remotely true. "Picnic" first appeared in English in 1748, apparently borrowed directly from the French "piquenique," which combined "piquer" (pick) with the obsolete French word "nique" (trifle). The first picnics were what we would call pot-luck dinners. Only in the mid-19th century did "picnic" come to mean a meal eaten outdoors. There is not, and never was, a secret racist history to "picnic."

Simply saying that the "racist picnic" story is not true, of course, does not address the larger question of why so many people believe it to be true, but that is beyond the scope of this column.


Stinch not, lest you be boggled.

Dear Word Detective: It wasn't exactly yesterday, but in my childhood we used the verb "to stinch" quite frequently. It meant to "be cheap" about something, e.g., "John would not stinch on the wedding expenses." Derived from "stingy" perhaps? At any rate, I am told that there is no such word. Was there ever? And, if so, why was it abolished? Please do not stinch on your response. I am desperate! -- Sam in Miami.

You and me both, Sam. As I've mentioned before, the thing I really love about writing this column is the occasional opportunity it gives me to doubt my own sanity. (For many of you, I know, doubting my sanity is part of your daily routine, but I find it somehow much more meaningful when I do it myself.) In any case, Sam, your question set in motion a chain of events best explained by employing a theatrical metaphor, so please take your seats as the house lights dim.

In Act 1, I read your question, a process culminating in the ringing of a small bell deep within my own psyche. Why yes, I say to the cat dozing on my keyboard, I have heard, nay, even said, "stinch" myself many times as a youth. "Don't stinch on the gravy, Pops," comes my own voice floating across the years from that Thanksgiving dinner so long ago. No doubt about it. "Stinch" it is.

In Act 2, I slowly but surely go mad trying to find "stinch" in a dictionary, any dictionary. I tear apart my study, frantically perusing compilations of Appalachian folk legends, Gypsy proverbs and Victorian thieves' slang. "Where have the infernal rascals hidden stinch?," I rage at the cat, who responds by going back to sleep. At last, exhausted, I collapse into my car and drive to McDonalds.

In Act 3, fortified by a Fillet O'Fish sandwich and Super Size fries, I suddenly realize that there is no such word as "stinch" and never was. The word I was remembering was "stint," meaning to cut short or restrict (and related to "stunt"). Both you and I may have combined "stint" with, as you guessed, "stingy" or even "skimp" to create "stinch" at various points in our childhoods, but the dictionary editors apparently weren't listening.

And by the way, that's not a cherry.

Dear Word Detective: How did the sundae -- a confection made up of ice cream, a sticky, sweet sauce, whipped cream topped with crushed nuts and a cherry -- get its name? Does its spelling have anything to do with "blue laws" which restrict commerce on Sundays? -- Kate Price, via the Internet.

Funny you should ask. I was driving through Baltimore, Ohio (population 3,000) last week, when a sign in front of a small church caught my eye. "We're not Baskin-Robbins," it declared to an audience of bored cows, "But our Sundays are divine."

I suspect that whatever local wit came up with that knee-slapper is operating on the presumption that "Sunday" and "sundae" are unrelated and only coincidentally homophones (words that sound the same). But "sundae" is, according to lexicographic authorities, definitely related to "Sunday." The only problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the connection is.

We do know that "sundae" is an American invention, and although accounts of the invention of the dish itself vary, folks were eating "sundaes" as early as 1897. One popular story about the origin of the name "sundae" traces it to an ice cream purveyor in Manitowoc, Wisconsin named George Giffy. It is said that Giffy at first sold his most special concoctions only on Sunday, and that even after public demand forced him to sell them every day he continued to call them "Sundays" or "sundaes." The best that can be said for this story is that it is not impossible.

The odd spelling of "sundae" has also been fodder for a variety of theories. The dish has gone by other names at various times, most notably "sundi" and the very weird "sondhi." Some accounts have explained all these variants as attempts to avoid offending the sensibilities of the devoutly religious, who might take a dim view of a pile of ice cream and syrup being named after their Sabbath. Little did they know that they were actually supplying the setup for more than a century of lame Sunday/sundae puns.

And he probably washed it all down with Moxie.

Dear Word Detective: I enjoy reading your column. From time to time I have even had the opportunity to repeat something learned in your column regarding word origins. People tell me I read the strangest things. The reason for this letter is to ask the derivation of the term "cottage cheese." This dietician's delight is rather common here in the dairy state, but why the term "cottage" cheese, as opposed to "cabin," or "hunting shack" (of which there are plenty in Wisconsin) cheese? -- S. Mastalir, Kewaunee, WI.

"People tell me I read the strangest things," eh? Say, do you mind if I use that endorsement on the cover of my next book? I think it captures the essence of my life's work in a way no paid publicist could possibly hope to achieve.

I probably ought to admit right off the bat that I am not a big cottage cheese fan. (This should not be taken personally by cottage cheese partisans. The only foods I actively like are pizza, beets and chocolate pudding, although not all at once.) I also seem to remember that cottage cheese topped with catsup was Richard Nixon's favorite lunch, a fact of which you may make what you will.

Cottage cheese, as we know, is a soft, lumpy affair, made from drained and pressed milk curds. It has also been known, at various times in various places, as "pot cheese," "smearcase" (from the German "Schmierkase," or "spreading cheese"), "bonnyclabber" (from the Irish "bainne," milk, and "claba," thick), "farmer cheese," "sour-milk cheese," and "curd cheese." There are, I am told, minor variations in manufacturing and ingredients among these cheeses, but they're all well within the cottage cheese ballpark, and people have been eating this stuff for quite a while. "Bonnyclabber," for instance, dates back to at least 1631, while the name "cottage cheese" only showed up in 1850 or so.

So, why "cottage" cheese? No one knows for sure, but some of those other names provide a possible clue. Would you offer "smearcase" to your guests? "Sour-milk cheese"? Not likely. "Cottage," however, sounds rustic and hearty, yet refined. As long as you skip the catsup, of course.

Loco in the coco.

Dear Word Detective: Cracked ceramic glaze is called "crazed." A person that is "cracked up" is "crazy." Are the terms related and what is their etymology? -- Joeann Hall, via the Internet.

Whoa there, buckaroo. I don't know where you hail from, but here in the United Warm and Fuzzy States of Enlightened Euphemisms, no one is labeled "crazy." We do have, it is true, a certain number of Persons of Differing Reality Perceptions, some of whom line their hats with tin foil and sit on their roofs waiting for the mother ship to return, but that doesn't mean they should be called "crazy." Remember, everyone has feelings. And besides, many of the real whackos seem to know how to mail things, so let's not tick them off, OK?

There is indeed a connection between "crazed" in the ceramic sense and "crazy" in the mental sense. The verb "to craze" originally meant "to break into pieces or violently shatter," and probably came from an old Norse word. First applied to people around 1555, "crazed" originally meant "broken down or in ill health," but not necessarily mentally impaired. The metaphorical use of "crazed" and "crazy" to mean "mentally unsound" came along shortly thereafter, however, around 1592 and 1617, respectively. Not surprisingly, the term "cracked" has a similar history, first being applied to mental derangement around 1611. The pottery or ceramic glaze sense of "crazed," meaning to have a surface covered with minute cracks, is actually much a more recent arrival, and first showed up around 1874.

It is worth noting that over the centuries a remarkable variety of slang terms for insanity have been invented. Loopy, loony, bats, barmy, crackers, daffy, dotty, bonkers, and the old reliable "bananas," among dozens of others, may be rarely heard in public these days, but I hope that they are never purged entirely from our vocabulary.

Of course, bats and weasels still run the country.

Dear Word Detective: In Canada, people mostly use prybars, but when I grew up in the States, it was called a crowbar. My contractor can't explain it; my bar is red so it may not be a color connection to crows. Can you please advise what a crow has to do with it? -- Mark Vogel, via the Internet.

Well, a crow has everything to do with it, though you won't read any of this in your history books, so listen up, kids. Long before human beings learned to use tools and invented machines, all the really useful jobs were held by animals. If you needed something carried, you didn't have a truck, so you called a horse. Heavy lifting? Hire a gorilla. Laundry? The local raccoon. Have a sudden inexplicable desire to hear mindless howling at 3 a.m.? Dial-a-Dog. And, of course, before we invented Special Prosecutors, the crows did all the prying.

Unfortunately, humans had to go and ruin it all with "progress," and now our woodlands and swamps are overrun with unemployed wildlife in an understandably bad mood.

Oh, all right, somewhere between little and none of that is true, but there is a connection between crows and crowbars, and it isn't the feathers. It's the beak. A crow has a powerful pointed beak with which it can, crows being very smart birds, pry open darn near anything it wants. So when humans invented a long iron bar with a hooked end to pry things open, they named it after the clever crow. In fact, the original crowbar (known simply as a "crow" back in 1400) sported one end shaped into a beak, rather than the flattened surface seen on modern crowbars.

Crows, incidentally, have provided us with several useful phrases and metaphors aside from "crowbar," including "crow's feet" (wrinkles around the eyes), "crow's nest" (a lookout's position atop a ship's mast), and "eating crow" (admitting an error). And the word "crow" itself? It simply comes from humans' attempt to mimic the raucous sound of the big black bird.

Flummadiddle flapdoodle.

Dear Word Detective: I am retired, but teach English part time. One of my college students has to translate a short English anecdote into Japanese, and she is "stuck" on the expression "Moonshine is flummadiddle." I can find nothing on this expression in my Webster New World Dictionary of the American Language nor the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. I understand that flummadiddle has something to do with nonsense, but am at a loss as to the meaning of the entire expression. Please help. -- Art Moon, Yokohama, Japan.

I'll see what I can do, but it's difficult to decode "Moonshine is flummadiddle" without knowing the context in which the phrase occurs. Are you, for instance, also instructing your students in home-brewing their own liquor? Or did this student's question crop up in the midst of an astronomy discussion? Or, considering that your own name is "Moon," might she not be subtly commenting on your choice of ties?

In any case, while the "moonshine" may pose a mystery, you're on the mark about "flummadiddle," which does indeed mean "nonsense." English is, I'm sure you know, full of funny sounding words that denote nonsense -- flapdoodle, folderol, hogwash and horsefeathers being a few of my favorites. In the case of "flummadiddle," we get a bonus, because in addition to being a very silly-sounding word, "flummadiddle" has an interesting history. Although "flummadiddle" first appeared meaning "nonsense" around 1850, the word is believed to be based on the much older word "flummery," which is a kind of baked dessert made with odds and ends, usually including oatmeal, eggs and sugar. Flummery in turn takes its name from the very old Welsh name for such stuff, "llymru." (Evidently "flummery" is the closest English-speakers could come to pronouncing the Welsh word.) Apparently flummery has never been considered an especially serious dish, so both "flummery" and "flummadiddle" can refer to either the dessert or a dose of nonsense.

Oh, and as to that quotation, I think the author is using "moonshine" as a metaphor for "romance," so "Moonshine is flummadiddle" probably simply translates as "Romance is nonsense."

Good grooming.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you have the original, or root meaning, of the word "groom" as used in the context of personal hygiene as well as in the context of "the bride and groom"? -- Anthony Gill, via the Internet.

Why, yes, I do, and it's a doozy. Let's begin at the beginning, with "groom." The bad news is that no one has ever been able to figure out exactly where "groom" came from. It just showed up one day back when folks were speaking Middle English, and none of the words in other languages that looked like "groom" could be proven to be relatives. In any case, "groom" at first simply meant "young man" or "male servant." But because young male servants were likely to be put to work taking care of horses, the meaning of "groom" shifted over the years to mean a male servant caring for horses, and then, by extension, his duties. "Grooming" eventually broadened beyond horses to apply to any sort of hygiene or preparation, such as "grooming" a candidate for office.

But guess what? That's not the same "groom" as in "bridegroom." More on this in a moment.

In contrast to the wandering "groom," the word "bride" has meant "woman about to be married, or just married" ever since it was first borrowed into Old English (as "bryd") from the Germanic languages back around 1000 A.D. The adjective "bridal," incidently, did not originally just mean "pertaining to a bride or wedding," as it does today. The "bride-ale" was the wedding feast (Old English "brydealu"), so called on account of the vast quantities of ale served.

Meanwhile, back at "bridegroom," the original form of this term for the lucky chap was "brydguma," combining our old pal "bryd" (bride) with the Old English word "guma," which meant simply "man," and which was a completely different word than "groom."

What happened then was that over the years, people stopped using "guma" by itself, but were still using the term "brydguma." Eventually people began substituting the more familiar "groom" for the by-now obsolete "guma," and "brydguma" became "bridegroom."


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