Issue of November 16, 2006

Page Two


Whoosh. Zap. Ouch.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering: are the various meanings of "bat," "batter" and "battery" related, and, if so, how? After all, I am at a loss to see how a flying mammal, baseball equipment, cake dough, physical violence and electrical storage devices are all connected. -- Phil Fernandez.

Good question, or, more precisely, five or six questions. I'll bet you're the kind of guy who would make one of his three wishes a wish for ten more wishes. That doesn't work, by the way. Take it from me. It annoys the genie and you end up spending the next year as a dyspeptic parakeet.

If this were one of those "Which one does not belong?" puzzles, the "flying mammal" meaning of "bat" would be the right answer, because it is completely unrelated to the other words you mention. This "bat," our word for the critter that gets tangled in your hair and then turns into Bela Lugosi, comes from the Middle English "bakke," which came into English from one of the Scandinavian languages, bearing the general sense of "flap or flutter" (an image also found in the German word for bat, "fledermaus," literally "flutter-mouse"). The same kind of "bat" serves as a verb when we "bat," or flutter, our eyelashes, and as a derogatory noun for an elderly, eccentric woman ("old bat").

All the other words you've mentioned are either derived from or at least influenced by the Latin "battuere," meaning "to beat." The trail is tangled in several cases because, interestingly, the Latin word may actually have been derived from a Celtic word by the Roman invaders of western Europe.

Our modern baseball (or cricket) "bat" harks back to the Old English "batt," meaning "cudgel or stick" of the sort used to beat something (or someone). The "cake dough" kind of "batter," which appeared in English in the 15th century, invokes the idea of "beating" materials (flour and eggs, etc.) together. The verb "to batter" in the "beat up" sense derives from the same "battuere" with less pleasant consequences.

"Battery" can mean, of course, the act of "battering" someone in the "beat up" sense (covering them in cake batter is simply known as "weird"). "Battery" was also used in the 16th century to mean "bombardment with artillery," a meaning which gradually shifted to cover the cannons themselves, so we now speak of a "battery" of artillery. "Battle," "battalion," and "combat" are all based on the same root.

The use of "battery" to mean a device for the storage of electrical energy, a sense first used by Benjamin Franklin in 1748, apparently derives from the "sudden discharge" of electricity from the battery.




Dear Word Detective: I read your meaning of "one fell swoop" with interest. However, did you make a small mistake in your example of the CEO "decimating" the workforce? Is this not a common error, as "decimate" means to reduce by one-tenth, and not (as people think) to substantially reduce? -- Phil.

Mistake? Moi? OK, that does it. I'm switching to weather forecasting. Tomorrow will be sunny, except for the clouds, and cooler and a bit darker towards evening with a slight chance of earthquakes and plagues of locusts in outlying areas. I think that covers it.

To recap the source of your question, I had used "The new CEO decimated the ranks of executives, laying off hundreds at one fell swoop" as an example of "one fell swoop" meaning "all at once" ("fell" meaning "merciless," from the Old French "fel," also found in "felon"). The "swoop" is that of a falcon snatching its prey. "One fell swoop" was coined by Shakespeare, by the way.

"Decimate" comes from the Latin word "decimare," meaning "to take or destroy one-tenth," which came in turn from "decem," the Latin word for "ten." Faced with a mutinous army unit, Roman commanders adopted the practice of executing one out of every ten mutineers as an example to the rest. The ruthlessness of this disciplinary method caught the attention of historians, and "decimate," referring to this Roman practice, entered English around 1600.

In English, since the "kill one in every ten" meaning was (fortunately) rarely relevant, "decimate" took on the meaning of "tax at the rate of one-tenth" and "reduce or destroy by one-tenth." But neither of these meanings were ever widely used, and by 1663, almost immediately by historical standards, "decimate" came into wide use meaning "to remove, destroy or kill a great part of something."

In other words, the supposed "real" meaning of "decimate," to reduce by one-tenth, was never the common use -- it has always been used in the "cause great reduction, damage or destruction" sense. In that sense it is a perfectly proper and very useful word. Occasionally you'll read one of the self-appointed language cops decrying the "debasement" of "decimate," but in this case they are simply wrong.



That does it.

Dear Word Detective: My mother, who is normally an extremely unimaginative person, has long delighted me and my friends by gasping "That really gets my goat!" when something has really annoyed her. She only says it when she is really angry and upset so I’ve never really had the heart to ask her where on earth she got such a bizarre expression, particularly as it makes we want to laugh. I have never heard anyone else use it and have asked people from home (Sydney, Australia) and other English speaking countries (NZ,UK, Ireland, US) but no one else has a clue what she is talking about. I would greatly appreciate any information you have about the expression. Oh, and for the record, neither my mother, nor any family members have (or have ever had) a goat so I don’t think it comes from some old family tale. -- Emily.

No goats on you, eh? Have you looked in the closet? Mothers are often quite imaginative after all and have been known to keep secrets. But seriously, goats are very cool animals and you should consider getting one. There's a restaurant in Logan, Ohio that keeps goats in a large pen outside for guests to pet and feed. The food served to people there is, in my considered opinion, pretty awful, but the goats seem happy and make the trip worthwhile.

I'm surprised that the people from the US that you asked about "get my goat" had never heard the phrase, because it is an American invention and quite frequently heard here. Meaning "to annoy or irritate" or "to annoy to the point of provoking an action or outburst," the phrase first appeared around the beginning of the 20th century, the first written citation found so far being in a 1910 letter written by writer Jack London.

Goats, of course, are famously irritable creatures (which is why you should never turn your back on one), but the precise logic behind "get one's goat" has never been definitively established. The most popular theory, endorsed by H.L. Mencken among others, traces the idiom to the racetrack, where trainers believed that putting a goat in a skittish racehorse's stall would calm the horse. If an unscrupulous gambler stole the goat the night before an important race, this theory goes, the horse might be so upset that its performance would be affected. Ergo, "to get one's goat" meaning "to upset and thereby make vulnerable."

That theory may well be true, but it's also true that "goat" has also been prison slang since at least 1904 for "anger," and "to get one's goat" may simply be another way of saying "to provoke someone's anger."



Seabiscuit sauce?

Dear Word Detective: I teach ESL to a group of retirees in the evening. We were covering the topic of food when someone asked "How do you say...?" The word turned out to be "Kren," which is German for "horseradish." Of course, the natural question is "What does 'horse' have to do with this food?" Good question. Do you have an answer? -- Margherita Wohletz.

Well, the first possibility is that horseradish is, in fact, a horse-based product. If that seems impossible, I take it you're not teaching in France, where you'd have run into "hamburger de cheval" by now. Many food names are more than a little suspicious. "Burrito," for instance, has always struck me as an unfortunate name for food, meaning, as it does, "small burro." Ever seen a burro? Yum-alicious! Oh sure, they'll tell you that the "burrito" takes its name from the fact that it "carries a lot of cargo," but they also denied the connection between "hot dogs" and actual dogs that gave rise to the name back in the 19th century.

Then again, "horseradish" happens to be a vegetable, a member of the same family as mustard and cabbage, so a horse connection is unlikely (although, since horseradish is usually considered a condiment, horse and horseradish may actually meet in France). In any case, horseradish, a/k/a Cochlearia Armoracia, is a pretty little plant with white flowers native to Europe and western Asia. It is grown for its root, which is ground up and mixed into a pungent sauce often served with meat. Horseradish is also often dyed green and substituted for the more expensive wasabi (known as "Japanese horseradish") in sushi bars. Horseradish has been used as both a food and a medicine since Ancient Greece. The name "horseradish" in English dates to the 16th century.

Horses, of course, have been around long enough in human history to serve as metaphors and symbols in many popular words and phrases. In the case of "horseradish," we have a relic of the once-common practice of appending "horse" to the names of things to denote largeness, coarseness or, in the case of "horseradish," strength. Other plants once similarly named include "horse-cane" (ragweed), "horse-cucumber" (the common cucumber), and "horse mushroom," a large edible mushroom.


Running on fumes.

Dear Word Detective: We run a group for older adults. Our discussion topic for today was "What can you say about air?" The phrase "putting on airs" came up and we have been wondering about its derivation. Can you help us out? -- Lee Brozgol.

Hey, that's a good topic. What can you say about air? Well, it's free, so far anyway. Air also carries aromas. Some people like to flavor the air with scented candles, but I'd rather be stuck in traffic behind a bus than trapped in one of those awful mall candle stores. Air carries sound as well, of course, which comes in handy unless there are Billy Joel fans in the vicinity.

You might think that air would be a difficult thing to define, but only if you haven't met the Oxford English Dictionary, which leaves no molecule unturned when it comes to the subject: "The transparent, invisible, inodorous, and tasteless gaseous substance which envelopes the earth, and is breathed by all land animals; one of the four 'elements' of the ancients, but now known to be a mechanical mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, with the constant presence of a small quantity of carbonic acid gas, and traces of many other substances as contaminations." Romance, thy name is OED.

Given that "air" is a pretty old word, first appearing in English around 1300 (ultimately rooted in the Greek "aer"), there has been plenty of time for various figurative senses of "air" to arise. We speak of ideas or emotions being "in the air" around us ("Revolution was in the air"), and describe the tone, style or mood of a place as its "air" ("There was a solemn air in the courtroom when Billy Bob finally faced the judge"), as if our emotions or those of others literally affected the atmosphere. ("Atmosphere," of course, has developed a parallel figurative meaning in such uses.)

People as well have, at least since the 16th century, been said to have their own "air" in the sense of demeanor, attitude or manner ("His ayre is pleasant and doth please me well," 1599). By the mid-17th century, "air" in this sense, often in the plural form "airs," had come to mean specifically an affected attitude of superiority or snobbish disdain. Thus by the late 18th century "to put on airs" meant to assume ("put on," in the sense of a disguise) and project an unjustified "air" of being better, in terms of social class or sophistication, than one actually was.



Stalking the wild martini.

Dear Word Detective: As a regular reader of American novels, I always find descriptions more difficult to understand in a foreign language. In this respect, one word has always been puzzling me: "seersucker." For many years I wrongly pictured it in my mind like a kind of hunting-style piece of garment (something to do with the "seer" evoking "deer" in my imagination?), and when suddenly I brilliantly thought of you as a resource, I had the disappointment not to find the word in your archive. So would you mind enriching the archive? -- Jean-Marie Tizon, France.

Your wish is my command, sir, within reason of course. Oddly enough, I happen to know I answered a question about "seersucker" back in the early 1990s, although for some mysterious reason the column doesn't seem to be in the archives of my website at Someday I hope to have the money to hire a webmaster I can blame for this sort of thing, but the truth is that I probably just pushed the wrong button ten years ago.

Your association of "seersucker" with hunting apparel is a bit odd, since seersucker fabric is a light, "crinkly" and usually pinstriped cotton cloth used in summer-weight suits and dresses not suited for hunting much except stock options. Seersucker suits are generally associated with either swells sipping martinis at the yacht club or foreign correspondents swilling cheap whiskey in a colonial backwater, perhaps in a Graham Greene novel. Personally, I can't hear the word "seersucker" without thinking of the Rolling Stones' "Under-Assistant West Coast Promo Man" ("I'm real real sharp, yes I am/I got a Corvette and a seersucker suit/Yes I have").

On the other hand, for some reason you may have associated "seersucker" with "deerstalker," which (in addition to just meaning a guy who hunts deer) is a sort of hunting cap with a low crown and bills both fore and aft. Deerstalkers are probably best known as the chosen headgear of Sherlock Holmes. A certain magazine insisted on photographing me wearing a deerstalker and holding a magnifying glass a few years ago. I looked like a complete idiot.

Meanwhile, back at "seersucker," the word first appeared in English in the early 18th century, drawn from the Hindi "sirsakar" (most seersucker came from India at the time). The Hindi word, in turn, was a corruption of the Persian term for the cloth, "shir o shakkar," which literally means "milk and sugar," a reference to the pale stripes of traditional seersucker.


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