Issue of November 16, 2006

Page Three


Stop that right now.

Dear Word Detective: On rooting through your site today I came across your explanation for "brass monkey," which I had believed to come from nautical circles, and that the brass monkey was a triangular frame, similar to those used in the game of snooker, though this was made of brass and not wood. My understanding was that into this frame, the brass monkey, cannonballs were placed in readiness for battle. When the temperature out at sea dropped to a certain level, the frame would contract and send the cannonballs on their merry way across the deck and toes. I stand to be corrected. -- Nigel Cotterill, Macclesfield, UK.

That's good, because I have a little question. Let us presume that in the days of cannonballs winter came, as it does today, once a year, and that the period of cold weather probably extended from late October until at least mid-March in the northern hemisphere. We'll call it four months to be fair. Does it seem likely that any navy worth its salt would adopt a method of storing high explosive ordnance that would pose a grave danger to its ships' crews for one-third of every year? It doesn't to me.

To back up a bit, the phrase at issue is, as I will put it for my tender readers, "Cold enough to freeze the [gonads] off a brass monkey" or, in a popular expurgated variant, "to freeze the tail off a brass monkey." The infuriatingly popular (but nonetheless incorrect) explanation for the phrase that you encountered usually posits that the cannonballs were piled into a pyramid within the "monkey" frame. This is indeed a common practice at historical monuments on dry land, but would be a terrible idea on a deck rolling and pitching at sea.

Evidently, at least in the British Royal Navy, cannonballs were stored in holes cut in planks mounted close to the guns, an elegant method assuring both security and easy access. Furthermore, while the young boys assigned to bring powder to the cannon deck from the ship's magazine were apparently known as "powder monkeys," there is no record in contemporaneous accounts of life at sea (which are plentiful) of any storage device called a "monkey."

As I said in my original column on this topic, kitschy depictions of the three "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys cast in brass were popular tchochkes in Victorian living rooms, making metaphors such as "he could talk the tail off a brass monkey" and "hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey" common at the time. The "cannonballs" story is just another invention of what one wag has dubbed "CANOE," the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.




Dear Word Detective: For the last five to six years I’ve been using the word "nifty" as I understand it, to mean "interesting," but I have no clue where it came from or how it relates to things being interesting. Any insight? -- Artem.

Using "nifty" for the last five or six years, eh? Yo, Professor, over here. I found one! I guess they're not extinct after all.

You, sir, are a rarity, a linguistic coelacanth, quite possibly the last person (apart from Ned Flanders, of course) to be discovered using "nifty" in a non-ironic sense. Sure, you'll hear a lot of people talking about that "nifty" new iPod or that "nifty" new interpretation of the Constitution, but you can almost hear the ironic "air quotes" in their voices. Incidentally, if I use real quotation marks around "air quotes," does the irony cancel itself out, or am I risking a matter-antimatter explosion?

Just kidding, of course. I'm sure there are a lot of people under 75 out there using "nifty" in perfect sincerity every gosh-darn day. But "nifty," meaning "clever, interesting or attractive," does seem an echo of an earlier, simpler time, a time when a boy could while away a whole summer afternoon with just a box of buttons, a tube of glue, and a dog named Rex. Tom Swift, as I recall, was forever inventing "nifty" gadgets that were shortly to come in mighty handy fighting the evildoers. And when personal computers first took off, their programs were often described as "nifty" ("a nifty way to sort your sock drawer"). Today, of course, anyone downloading anything described as "nifty" is probably in for a nasty shock.

"Nifty," not surprisingly, appears to be an American invention, first appearing in English in the mid-19th century with the meaning "stylish, attractive, fine" or "splendid." The first occurrence found so far in print is from a poem by Bret Harte (author of The Outcasts of Poker Flats and many other works), and supplies one theory of where "nifty" came from: "Here comes Rosey's new turn-out! Smart, you bet your life 'twas that! Nifty! (Short for magnificat.)" The root of "nifty" being "magnificat" or "magnificent" strikes the Oxford English Dictionary as "unlikely," but it's not absolutely impossible.

Alternatively, the OED points to (and implies a possible combination of) the terms "natty" ("neatly smart or fashionable," possibly from "neat") and "thrifty" (in the extended sense of "thriving and successful"). Such a melding would certainly fit the initial meaning of "nifty" as "splendid or fine," and could easily have extended to its current meaning of "clever or skillful."



Wall-to-wall and treetop-tall.

Dear Word Detective: I was watching another one of those FBI/CIA crime dramas the other day and I got to thinking about their official-sounding lingo. I've heard the colloquialism "copy that" or just "copy" but what is the origin of the phrase "Roger that" meaning, basically, "Ok, I understand"? -- Marie.

Ah yes, the FBI/CIA dramas, the latest spawn of the TV police show fad. "Roger" is, as you've said, a radio code word used by police and similarly serious folk (at least on TV and in movies) to indicate that a message has been received and understood. The actual radio codes used by police forces vary considerably from place to place. In New York City, for instance, "10-4" (spoken as "ten four") has long been used as an acknowledgment, the equivalent of "roger," but in much of Ohio, a "10-4" or "Code Four" is a traffic accident. My local sheriff's department uses "You're clear" to indicate understanding, while in many other places "You're clear" would mean that an officer has permission to leave a scene and resume patrol.

There is, as you probably suspect, no person named "Roger" in this story. "Roger" is simply the word once used to indicate the letter "R" (for "received") in a particular radio alphabet, one in use during World War II but now obsolete. Radio alphabets are designed to unambiguously convey letters no matter how bad the reception may be. The current such alphabet, used by the US Armed Forces as well as civilian pilots, is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, in which the letters are rendered as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima (pronounced LEE-ma), Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee and Zulu.

"Roger" sounds a bit moth-eaten to my ears today, more associated with 1950s science fiction movies than CIA dramas, but it is still listed (and apparently used) by the US Air Force as an "operational brevity" word for acknowledging an order. They even still list "wilco" (short for "will comply)," although, mercifully, "over and out" seems to be passe.



A little off the top and another one of these.

Dear Word Detective: I beseech thee to sort out this business of "saloon" and "salon." As I understand it, one is where you go to drink whiskey and consort with disreputable women. The other is where you go to drink brandy, discuss poetry and other hoity-toity stuff, and consort with rich women. Then there is a third type where women go to have their hair bent and no consorting goes on at all? Different meanings, spellings, and pronunciations, but I gather the same origin? -- Bill Harvey.

Whoa. Get with the program, dude. Men go to hair salons now too. In fact, when I lived in New York City, I routinely had my hair cut at a place I called Salon Whatsis (because I couldn't remember the real hoity-toity name). It was a chain of low-end McHair chop-shops long in attitude (everyone there spoke with a weird vaguely French accent) but notably short in technique (I invariably emerged looking like a demented pixie). Now I have my hair cut by a guy named Les in a cinder block building across from an abandoned tire dump on Route 37. He does an excellent job.

You've done a good job of illustrating the difference in connotation between the classic "saloon" (smell of stale beer or worse, big fights involving breaking bottles and chairs) and the more sedate "salon" (odor of old money, big ideas involving French philosophers). Most of us have formed our mental image of a "saloon" from old western movies, where the saloon served as a de facto community center (albeit one where it was important never to sit with your back to the door). The precise nature of a "salon" (apart from the hair variety) is a bit hazier for most people, as the word can mean anything from an intellectual tea party to a swanky parlor.

Given the contrast in tone between the two terms, it's surprising that "saloon" and "salon" are actually just two forms of the same word. "Salon" is the French form, derived from a Germanic root meaning "large room" and adopted into English in the 17th century with the meaning of "large parlor or reception room." The use of "salon" to mean a gathering of artists (broadly defined) comes from the "the Salon," an annual art exhibition at the Louvre in Paris originally held in one of the salons of that museum. The use of "salon" to lend an air of class to a haircutting shop dates to 1913.

"Saloon" is simply an Anglicized spelling of "salon," with which it was originally used interchangeably. Use of "saloon" to mean a bar is an American invention dating to the 19th century, but "saloon" is also used, as is "salon," to mean any public lounge room on a ship or railway train.

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, "Please, sir, I want some more, and for you to subscribe!"



Ciao ciao ciao.

Dear Word Detective: I recently heard someone on the radio say "toodle-oo" (or however you spell it) for "goodbye." I've heard it before, but never thought it strange until then. Can you explain the origin of this expression? -- Val in Seattle.

Seattle, eh? Well, perhaps you're experiencing atmospheric "skip" and picking up radio stations from the UK, because "toodle-oo" (and its variants, "tootle-oo," "toodle-pip" and simply "toodles") are vanishingly rare here in the US. Then again, many public radio stations in the US seem to have thrown in the towel, news-wise, and have taken to rebroadcasting news shows from the BBC. That wouldn't bother me if not for the fact that the management of the BBC used that as a rationale to discontinue shortwave broadcasting to the US several years ago. Trust me, when the giant mutant squirrels run wild and chew up your fancy internet and cable TV lines, you're gonna wish you had the BBC on shortwave. In any case, most of us have encountered "toodle-oo" as a means of saying "goodbye" at least once or twice, and judging by the internet, a lot of us are wondering where it came from.

For an expression that reeks of 18th or 19th century foppish fussiness, "toodle-oo" is surprisingly recent, first appearing in print in 1907. There seem to be myriad theories about the origin of "toodle-oo." The simplest, but least satisfying, is that it is simply a nonsense phrase meaning nothing, invented from thin air and spread through pure imitation.

Another theory suggests that "toodle" comes from an English dialect word meaning "to wander or walk," making "toodle-oo" equivalent to saying "I'll be toodling along" or "I must be going now."

Yet another theory traces "toodle-oo" to the French phrase "tout a l'heure," meaning literally "on the hour," but used as an idiom meaning "see you in a little while" or "see you later." This strikes me as plausible.

But still another theory suggests that "toodle-oo" arose as an imitation of the musical sound of a small horn, such as that used on a bicycle or early automobile. While this theory may seem a bit of a stretch, it does parallel the development of "pip-pip," also used as a jocular substitute for "goodbye" during the same period, which definitely did come from the sound of a car horn. The combined form "tootle-pip," popular since the same period, would tend to lend weight to this theory, as does the then-popular fascination with cars, a recent invention at the time. If I had to bet, I'd put my money on this "horn" derivation and chalk up the French phrase to an interesting coincidence.



Something really awesome this way comes.

Dear Word Detective: Why is it that New Englanders misuse the term "wicked"? I have heard it used to (presumably) mean "great" or "awesome," such as "That was wicked!" It is most often used as an adjective which means the extreme of something such as "I am wicked excited about the concert." If you have been in New England for any length of time, you have probably heard someone say "wicked pissah" which can either mean something really great or awful depending on its context. Its use as meaning something extremely good or extremely bad falls in line with the overall use of the word wicked to mean "extreme," I guess. Confused yet? I am and I grew up here. I can only assume some of this has its roots in the Puritan culture of the past. -- Dwayne.

Well, before we get started, I'm going to have to disagree with your characterization of the use of "wicked" in the senses you describe as a "misuse." It's not wrong, just relatively new. Words change their meanings, or add new meanings, constantly. In fact, it's not unusual for words to nearly reverse their meanings over the centuries. Back in the 13th century, for instance, the English word "nice," rooted in the Latin "nescius" ("not knowing, ignorant"), meant "foolish" or "stupid." In the case of "wicked," what we have here is a new slang sense of "wicked," analogous to the current slang use of "bad" to mean "good," that does not in any way preclude the use of the word's original meaning of "evil" or "cruel." The Wicked Witch of the West is still both "wicked" and "bad" in the original senses of the words.

Speaking of witches, "wicked," dating to the 13th century, is actually an adjective form of the Old English word "wicca," meaning "male witch" or "wizard," which also gave us the word "witch." The word "wicca" is best known today as the name of a neo-pagan religion which has gained considerable popularity since the mid-20th century.

The slang use of "wicked" to mean "excellent" (or as a positive intensifier, as in "wicked fast") is indeed native to New England, especially the Boston area, but it has spread widely into other areas of the US since it first became popular in the 1980s. Surprisingly, use of "wicked" in this ironic sense dates back at least to the 1920s, with the first occurrence in print found so far being in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise."


<<< Back to Page One         <<< Back to Page Two




 Main Current Columns Archives Ask a Question Buy the Book Subscribe


All contents Copyright © 2006 by Evan Morris.