Issue of November 17, 2003




  Issue of November 17, 2003



I generally try to avoid second-guessing the survival skills of any species to which I do not belong, but I'm beginning to wonder if the mice in residence here at TWD World Headquarters are really competent.

As I mentioned last month, winter's cruel pinch will soon be upon us all, and many of the local woodland creatures have been migrating into the house over the past month.  Compared to the hornets in the shower, the mice are welcome, and I do my best to think of them as little people in mouse suits, but I'm starting to think it would be more accurate to regard them as very stupid little people in mouse suits.

Look, this is a big old house with lots of places to hide and an alarming array of unsecured foodstuffs to raid.  So why, if you're a mouse and you'd prefer to continue being a mouse, would you pick the food bowl of two very bored cats as your primary dining venue?  I walked though the kitchen one morning a while back, said hello to the cats, went out into the laundry room, and discovered a small gray mouse sitting in the cats' food bowl stuffing its face with cat chow in broad daylight.  It looked up at me with an inquisitive expression, seemed to shrug in a mousy way, and went back to eating.  I went back in the kitchen and did my best to distract the cats, feeling a bit foolish that I was covering for a larcenous mouse and wondering if I was, in the long term, interfering with the evolution of smarter, or at least more tactful, mice. 

Then last week Mrs. Word Detective was cleaning away the remaining debris of our failed upstairs bathroom renovation (long story) and discovered that the mousies have been using said bathroom as a food pantry, laboriously carting cat food up through the walls from the laundry room and arranging it in nice neat rows between some bits of wood in the corner.  So they risk their lives making off with the cats' food, but then take the time to arrange it in neat, perfectly straight rows in one of the most high-traffic rooms in the house.  Weird.  Then again, if they're that methodical, perhaps I should ask them to do my taxes.

Holy moly, that pesky Holiday Season is fast approaching!  As usual, we have just the thing to fill all those blanks you're drawing on your gift-giving list:  A personally-inscribed and autographed copy of the hardbound The Word Detective collection.  For a limited time (ending January 1, 2004), each copy ordered comes with not one but two free one-year subscriptions to the biweekly TWD-by-E-Mail, so you can give the book and one sub as a gift and still have something to read yourself.  Or, if everyone you know already has a copy of the book, you can buy two $15 subscriptions to TWD-by-E-Mail for $25.  The only catch is that book orders must be received by December 10 if you need the books delivered by the 25th.

All of which reminds me that I have another book coming out in January called Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words.  The cover graphic on the page at that link is incorrect -- the finished product will look like this.

And now for our obligatory useful link.  A large web hosting company called is offering free professional (i.e., no ads or pop-ups) web hosting for three years (500 MB, 5 Gig/month transfer) with no obligation or credit card required.  The offer seems legit, and I signed up with no problem.  If you've always wanted to set up a web site, here's your chance, but the sign-up period for the offer ends January 14, 2004.

Lastly, if you listen to shortwave radio (as I do), you should definitely grab a copy of FineWare's free Radio Listener's Database.  It's an excellent program.

And now, on with the show:

Fasten your sweetbelts.

Dear Word Detective:  My lovely wife makes a phenomenal blueberry coffee cake, using a recipe handed down by her mother.  They call it "Blueberry Buckle."  Where does the word "buckle" fit in here?  Does it help to know that her mother is from an all-German family from Nebraska? -- Gregg, Carnation, Washington.

Mmmm, pastry.  We love pastry around here.  We love pastry so much that when we hear that part in "America the Beautiful" about "amber waves of grain" we think of coffee cake.  We love pastry so much that we have officially classified strudel as a vegetable.  Our postal address is P.O. Box 1, Millersport, Ohio, 43046, by the way, and I check the box every day so correspondence doesn't go stale.  Just thought you'd like to know.

I have no doubt that your wife's coffee cake is phenomenal, and it does indeed seem odd to saddle such a heavenly confection with the ungainly name "buckle," which conjures up images of the heavy metal utilitarian gizmos found on belts and old-fashioned galoshes.  The definition of "buckle" as a noun offered by the Oxford English Dictionary is even less appetizing:  "A rim of metal, with a hinged tongue carrying one or more spikes, for securing a belt, strap, or ribbon, which passes through the rim and is pierced by the spike or spikes."  The root of "buckle" is the Latin "buccula," meaning "cheek strap of a helmet" ("bucca" being Latin for "cheek"), and when we urge folks to "buckle down" today we are metaphorically urging them to put on their armor and get to work.

As a verb, "buckle" means to fasten a buckle, of course, but it also inherited another slightly different meaning from a French relative, that of "to warp, crumple or bend."  So we speak today of a poorly constructed road "buckling" in the summer heat. 

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the coffee cake kind of "buckle" (also known as a "crumble") is a single-layer cake with berries, usually blueberries, mixed directly into the batter (as opposed to being a separate layer, as in a crisp or cobbler).  But it's the top of the buckle that gives it its name, a sort of crumb-cake layer that gives the dish a "buckled" or "crumpled" appearance.  Oddly enough, the use of "buckle" as a name of a type of pastry is quite recent, dating only to the 1950s.

Up, up, and uh oh.

Dear Word Detective:  I was just hired to teach a course at the last minute, and when I told a friend about my predicament -- scrambling about to plan in three days a course I've never taught -- she said, "Well, you'll just be flying by the seat of your pants -- it's not like you haven't done it before."  I've always assumed that "flying by the seat of one's pants" meant something like "performing as best one can when things must be done quickly and without much preparation."  But I started to type the phrase in an e-mail today, and it struck me as just bizarre.  What is the origin of this phrase?  -- Stephanie Bobo, via the internet. 

You are indeed correct that "flying by the seat of one's pants" is not usually considered a restful pastime.  The closest experience I've had to your teaching situation is appearing on live radio call-in programs, a harrowing experience which consists of putting myself in the position of taking question after question to which it is highly unlikely I will actually know the answer off the top of my head.  Whee!

"To fly by the seat of one's pants" does mean "to do a job the best you can by instinct, training, or experience, without outside aid or instruction," and seems to have been popularized during World War II, though the phrase itself is probably a bit older.  It originally meant to fly an airplane either without the aid of instruments (compass, airspeed, altimeter, radio direction finder, etc.) or when instruments were of little or no use in fog or other bad weather.  "Flying by the seat of one's pants" in such a situation would mean that the pilot's experience and "feel" for the aircraft (including the actual vibrations, etc. sensed in his seat) would have to substitute for instrument data to guide the aircraft safely.  In your case, your experience in previous teaching assignments  would, one hopes, be a good guide to your survival in an unfamiliar classroom.  If not, my advice is to point out the window, shout "Look!  It's that guy from Fear Factor!", and bolt for the door.

Sounds like agenbit of inwit to me.

Dear Word Detective:  In the '60's (1960, that is), I often heard and used the expression "that's not worth crabs and ice water."  Where does this expression come from? -- Andrew Baxter, via the internet. 

That's an interesting question.  As a matter of fact, that's an infuriating question.  I must admit that, prior to reading your question, I had never heard the expression "crabs and ice water."  So I did what I do in such situations, and proceeded to comb every research source I knew of for some clue as to its original meaning and derivation.  And I found absolutely nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.   The only reference I found that even remotely seemed to fit was in The Dictionary of Underworld Lingo, compiled in 1950 by two prisoners and a prison chaplain, all with extensive experience in the federal and state prison system.  To criminals at that time, it seems, "crabs" was slang for "nothing; something worthless."  To say that one had only "crabs and ice water" might thus be another way of saying "plenty of nothing."

Searching on Google for "crabs and ice water" produced only two occurrences of the term. The first result was from an online discussion among chefs about checking out a restaurant's business history before buying it.  One poster noted that he believes it is only necessary to inspect the restaurant's three most recent tax returns, and opined that "Everything else is blue skies, crabs and ice water," meaning, I suppose, "It doesn't matter."       

   The other Google hit was a bit more obscure.  On a genealogy web site,  an interviewer asks an elderly relative how her father died, and she replies, "They always told me that he had hard crabs and ice water.  He probably had a heart condition."  I would take this to mean that he had a very hard life (unless he literally had crabs and ice water for dinner and that did him in). This sense of "crabs and ice water" as an idiom seems to be "nothing good."

None of this really explains, of course, where the phrase came from and exactly what it means, and that's where you readers come in.  Why crabs?  Why ice water?  Crabs in ice water?  If anyone has heard this phrase and has any inkling (even a tiny inkling would do) of where the heck it came from, please drop me a line.  

Home sweet whatchamacallit.

Dear Word Detective:  From whence is the word “drum” derived, as used in London English slang for a flat (an apartment) or house, often heard as “Come round to my drum” or “Let’s go over to your drum”?  Similarly, why is a wristwatch referred to as a “kettle”? -- Andrew Houston, Kent, England.

Not so fast, buckaroo.  You know darn well that's actually three questions, since I can't get away with explaining "drum" and "kettle" without delving into "flat" for our non-Brit readers.

While few Americans not permanently addled by overexposure to PBS routinely refer to their apartments as  "flats," it has been standard usage in Britain since the 19th century.  One might logically assume that, because most "flats" occupy a single story of a building, the word simply comes from the "flatness" of the abode, and one would be largely correct.  But "flat" in this sense is actually derived from the obsolete Scots word "flet," meaning "floor" or "interior of a house" back in the 15th century.  Then again, that "flet" was derived from the same Germanic root as our modern adjective "flat," so you can probably safely ignore that little Scottish detour.

"Drum" as slang for "flat" or "home" is, however, a bit less straightforward.  The Oxford English Dictionary seems to think that this usage is derived in some mysterious fashion from the musical instrument sense of "drum," dating to the 16th century and derived from the German "trommel."  But the eminent etymologist of slang Eric Partridge felt that this 19th century slang use of "drum" to mean "home" probably came from the Romany word "drom," meaning "road" (possibly derived from the Greek "dromos").  A slang sense of "drum" as "road" did indeed appear in early 19th century England, and the "home" sense was probably an outgrowth of this usage.  The Romany origin of "drum" also makes sense, as Romany was the language of the Gypsies who played an important role in the underworld of 19th century London.

   "Kettle" in the "big pot" sense is a very old word, derived from the Latin "catinus," meaning "deep pan for cooking."  The use of "kettle" to mean "watch" first appeared in the argot of thieves in the 19th century, and apparently first referred to the large pocket watches popular at that time.  The shape and heavy metal construction of old pocket watches makes likening them to kettles only a slight stretch, and a thief specializing in watches was known in the early 20th century as a "kettle banger."

You have the right to remain... no, wait, that part's been changed.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband and are friends with a police Lieutenant and his wife.  We recently spent an evening talking about police work and a question about "rap sheets" came up.  Is this "rap" a shortened version of something or does it come from the initials of another phrase?  -- Liz Gant, via the internet. 

Interesting question.  I've never spent much time socializing with police officers myself, largely because so many of the more amusing anecdotes I might share still fall within the statute of limitations.  I did do some writing for an NYPD Detectives newsletter once, for which they sent me a very snazzy certificate of appreciation I now keep in the glove compartment of my car.

"Rap" is one of those English words so old that they have acquired all sorts of meanings.  First appearing in the 14th century, "rap" is almost certainly of onomatopoeic or "echoic" origin, meaning that it arose as an imitation of the sound of an action, in this case tapping or knocking on something.  The original meaning of "rap" as a noun was "a blow," especially a sharp but not severe blow from a stick.  By the 17th century, "rap" was being used to mean a sharp knock on something, such as a door.

Shortly thereafter, "rap" came to be used figuratively to mean "a sharp criticism or complaint," and by the 18th century "rap" had entered the argot of thieves (and law enforcement) as slang for "a criminal charge" or "punishment."  Various phrases based on this use, including "bum rap" meaning "an unfounded charge" and "beat the rap" meaning "to escape punishment," percolated from criminal use into our general vocabulary in the 20th century.  And it is this sense of "rap" that we find in "rap sheet," the official record of charges lodged at various times against a particular person.  Oddly enough, although "rap sheets" in some form probably date back to at least the 19th century, the term has not been found in print earlier than 1960.

Speaking of the slang uses of "rap," by the 1800s "rap" had also become a slang term for "talk or chat," a sense that later evolved among African-Americans to mean a lively style of banter and debate.  In the 1970s, "rapping" to an audience became popular as impromptu performance poetry, and soon disk jockeys in New York clubs were rapping along with the dance records they played.  Before long, in the 1980s, groups began recording the mixture of intricately rhyming lyrics and staccato music that became known around the world as "rap."

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the term "skivvies" come from?  I see two definitions.  The first is men's underwear, which is what I expected.  The second is a British term for a female domestic servant.  Are they related somehow, as in a domestic servant would likely be doing the laundry duties? -- Alisa Dodd, via the internet.  

Say, could I interest you in the answer to a different question?  Something a bit more restful and easier to answer?  Like maybe why clams are happy, or where "posh" came from?  No?  Hmm.  Hey look!  Out there in the field.  It's a pony!  Would you like a pony?

Oh all right, I'll do "skivvies," but don't blame me if you get a blinding headache.  I certainly have.

The Oxford English Dictionary begins today's festivities by offering two separate entries for "skivvy."  The first, appearing around 1902, means "female domestic servant," and is considered "of obscure origin."  The second "skivvy" is defined as "an undershirt" or "underclothes," appeared around 1932, and is noted as "origin unknown." The reason that the "female servant" sort of "skivvy" is considered "of obscure origin" and not simply "origin unknown" is that there are some indications that this "skivvy" is derived from "slavey," an earlier slang term for a servant. 

About the underwear sort of "skivvy," little is known but much has been conjectured.   We do know that "skivvy" in this sense was originally a nautical term, and "skivvy" was apparently at one time also used as an exclamation of excitement or surprise among sailors.  As a side note, as if we needed any, a signalman aboard ship was also, at one time, know colloquially as a "skivvy-waver," apparently in reference to the signal flags used aboard ship.

Probably the only plausible theory yet proposed about "skivvy" ties it to the Japanese word "sukebei," meaning "lecherous," supposedly frequently used as a greeting (the equivalent of "Lonely, sailor?") by Japanese and Korean prostitutes to English-speaking sailors after World War II.  If this theory is true, one could certainly connect the Anglicized form "skivvy" to underwear, and perhaps from there to a signalman waving scraps of cloth.  But this is all conjecture, and no real evidence (e.g., published accounts of sailors explaining "skivvy" in terms of prostitutes) has yet surfaced.

If, however, the "sukebei" theory is valid, and we grant a little wiggle room in the dates of the two kinds of "skivvies," it is also possible that the "prostitute" source also became the basis for the "female servant" sense of "skivvy."

Curiouser and curiouser.

Dear Word Detective:  I arrived home several weeks ago to find that one of my daughters had a young man visiting.  He was sitting in the family room and I did not recognize him (he had his omnipresent hat off), so I asked my daughter who the chap was.  I did not think about the word "chap," it just came out of my mouth.  I started thinking about where this word came from.  I knew that it was used in Great Britain and former English colonies.  I then realized that the English will also refer to another man as a "bloke."  I have no idea where "bloke" came from either.  Would you be so kind as to inform your readers as to the source of these two words? -- Andy Baxter, via the internet.

Certainly, but I can't help wondering about, as Paul Harvey would put it, "the rest of the story."  Let's see, you arrive home to discover your daughter cavorting in the living room with a mysterious "gentleman caller" who has gone to great pains to disguise his appearance by deviously removing his hat.  Your first impulse is, naturally, to inquire as to this stranger's provenance, but you are suddenly gripped by a strange, dreamlike musing on a word you never use, yet have caught issuing from your own startled mouth.  This odd reverie is then followed by an extended rumination on similar words and the British colonial vocabulary.  Tell me, when you first entered the room, did you happen to feel a sharp sting in the back of your neck?  And have you seen your daughter lately? 

All of which is not to say that "chap" isn't a perfectly nice word.  "Chap" is actually short for "chapman," an antiquated term for a merchant derived from the Old English word "ceap," meaning "trade."  The short form "chap" appeared in 1577 meaning "buyer or customer," but by the 1700s had broadened to mean simply "fellow" or "man."  Incidentally, "chap" in this sense is unrelated to "chap" meaning "split or broken" (as in "chapped lips"), which probably came from the old Germanic "kappen," to chop or cut.

"Bloke," a synonym of "chap" but generally considered a bit less refined, is a genuine mystery.  It seems to have appeared in England in the 1820s and was briefly popular in America, but is largely restricted to the UK today.  According to some authorities, "bloke" may be drawn from Shelta, a part-Gaelic dialect spoken among Irish "Travellers," or gypsies, around the world.

Mellifluence in a very small place.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of the word "bungalow"? -- Joy, via the internet. 

"Bungalow" is a very cool word.  Say it aloud.  Bun-ga-low.  I have never understood why "bungalow" doesn't make those lists of "most beautiful words in the English language" various writers have compiled.  (A brief roundup of such lists may be found at   Some of the mellifluous choices make sense: "hush," "halcyon," "gossamer," "vermilion," and "mist" are clear winners in my book.   But I guess there's no accounting for aural taste.  "Oleander," one of lexicographer Wilfred Funk's favorites, has always made me queasy.  Word maven Willard Espy found "gonorrhea" fetching, though I've always thought it sounded like the cry of a man spilling hot coffee in his lap.  And James Joyce apparently declared "cuspidor" his favorite word, a conversation-stopper if there ever was one.

Meanwhile, back at "bungalow," my guess is that people of a certain age  invariably associate "bungalow" with "Hollywood," the "Hollywood bungalow" having been a staple of gossip columns (as a "lovers' nest") and crime dramas (as an ex-lovers' shooting gallery) since the 1920s.  But a "bungalow" is really just a small, single-story home with a low, gently sloping roof, as likely to be found in Des Moines as in tinseltown. 

Though the "bungalow" is often thought to be a quintessentially modern urban  style of building, well-suited to the sort of congested sprawl found in many US cities, the word itself dates back to at least 1676.  "Bungalow" is one of many words imported into English from Hindi (the official language of India) during the British colonization of that country.  (Other such Hindi borrowings include "thug," "juggernaut," veranda" and "jungle.")  

Oddly enough, although "bungalow" came from Hindi, the root word in Hindi referred to Bengal, at that time a province of India where Bengali, not Hindi, was spoken.  (West Bengal has remained a part of India, while East Bengal became Bangladesh in 1947.)  The Hindi word "bangla" means "of Bengal," and, in the case of the "bungalow" style of house, meant "in the style of Bengal," such structures apparently having been popular in Bengal at the time. 

You lower the curtain, I'll get the dart gun.

Dear Word Detective:  "Chewing the Scenery" -- I've seen this phrase used periodically over the years but it seems to be extremely popular recently when describing someone's acting (or should I say "over-acting") in a movie.  Where did this phrase come from? -- Sean Ford, via the internet. 

Good question.  Of course, "scenery-chewing" is no longer just found in movies.  Now that showbiz has gobbled up TV news, viewers must endure the sight of newscasters and correspondents carrying on as if they were auditioning for a grade-school production of Hamlet.  And it seems to be spreading.  While hyperventilating "you're-not-gonna-believe-this" histrionics have become standard in the American media (take Geraldo Rivera, please), I was shocked to see a reporter on the normally staid BBC last week waving his hands and wiggling his eyebrows as if he were trying to levitate.  I believe he was talking about sales tax.

To "chew the scenery" means, as you say, to overact or perform in an extremely melodramatic fashion.  "Chewing the scenery" is generally regarded as the hallmark of an inexperienced or untalented performer, but many fine actors have gone a bit over the top on occasion, and in the right context, especially in an otherwise boring production, a little chewing can be fun.  Johnny Depp's flamingly weird performance in the recent "Pirates of the Caribbean," for instance, rescued what, in my opinion, was a depressingly pedestrian and predictable movie. 

"Scenery chewing" is, as you might suspect, hardly a new phenomenon, and chances are that quite a few of the plays presented in Ancient Greece were marred by over-enthusiastic performances.  But the phrase "chew the scenery" itself is an American invention and apparently dates back only to the late 19th century, the first print citation found so far being from 1895.  The idiom almost certainly originated on the theatrical stage, where an overly-dramatic actor's fervid antics might well have been metaphorically likened to seizing and biting pieces of the painted scenic backdrop.  

People of Earth:  Checkout time is noon.

Dear Word Detective:  A couple of years ago my husband and I moved from Wainwright, Alberta to Kingston, Ontario.  As we had been told terrible things about the treatment of animals on airplanes, we decided to drive with our two cats.  While passing through Winnipeg, Manitoba we decided to stop for the night.  My husband, being somewhat familiar with the city felt it best just to drive down the highway on the outskirts of the city and stop at a few hotels to see if they accepted pets.  One of these hotels was named the "Viscount Gort."  I would just like to know, what in the world is a "gort"?  -- Tiffany Smith, via the internet.   

Good choice.  The great thing about driving with kitties, of course, is that they can take the wheel when you get drowsy, which brings to mind the absolute coolest vanity license plate ever, "Toonces" (after the old Saturday Night Live skit "Toonces, The Cat Who Could Drive A Car"). 

So, onward to the Viscount Gort.  Could this be "Klaatu barada nikto" Gort?  I would have sworn that Gort the giant metal robot left Earth with Klaatu (Michael Rennie) at the end of "The Day The Earth Stood Still," but maybe he stuck around and took up hotel management.  That death ray thing would certainly have come in handy when dealing with late check-outs. 

There is, as it happens, an English word "gort," which turns out to be a variant of "gorce," which in turn is an obsolete term for "whirlpool," or "eddy or stop in a river."  The root of "gorce" is the Latin "gurgit," also meaning "whirlpool" (and the root of "regurgitate").  So it's possible that the "Gort" in Viscount Gort refers to a whirlpool or eddy in a nearby river.

But it's more likely that the hotel was named after one or more of the real Viscounts Gort (a hereditary title taken from the name of a town in County Galway, Ireland), of whom there have been several.  One in particular seems likely, John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, Sixth Viscount Gort, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism in France in World War I and led the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk during WW II.  The connection between Viscount Gort and Winnipeg, if any, is a bit unclear to me, but his fame as a military leader probably accounts for the hotel's moniker. 



Bar, schmar, I'll wait in the car.

Dear Word Detective:  How did the expression "Katie bar the door" come about? -- Oscar, via the internet. 

I'm glad you asked that question.  I think.  As a colloquial expression or exclamation, "Katy bar the door" means "look out" or "here comes trouble," and is often used in a jocular sense when things seem likely to "hit the fan" (as in "Advertise free beer at your yard sale and it's gonna be Katy bar the door!").  "Katy bar the door" first appeared in the US around 1894.

There seem to be two leading theories about "Katy bar the door."  The first, which I mentioned in a column a few years ago, traces it to an old English folk song.  Etymologist Michael Quinion, writing on his excellent World Wide Words web site (, subsequently lent a bit more substance to this theory by suggesting the venerable Scots ballad usually known as "Get Up and Bar the Door."  In the song, a wife and husband are arguing about who will bar the door at bedtime, and agree that the next one to speak will lose the argument and have to bar the door.  Both stubbornly hold their tongues and the door remains unbarred.  Predictably, robbers break in during the night and commit various outrages against the pair.  When the intruders finally provoke the husband to cry out, the wife helpfully observes that he has lost the argument and thus (though it is far too late to do any good) must go bar the door.  While this song does not specify "Katy" as the wife's name, a version of it may have been the source of the phrase.

However, it is more likely, says Quinion, that "Katy bar the door" is drawn from "The King's Tragedy," a poem by Gabriel Dante Rossetti written in 1881.  In 1437, King James I of Scotland was attacked by his enemies while staying in a room with no bar for the door.  His Queen's lady-in-waiting, Katherine Douglas, is said to have valiantly tried to bar the door with her own arm.  Her arm was, unfortunately, broken in the attempt, and the King slain.  It is entirely possible that the King's cry of "Katherine, keep the door!" in Rossetti's poem became the popular expression "Katy bar the door," but it remains to be explained how the phrase happened to first appear 13 years later in America.

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana. (Groucho Marx)

Dear Word Detective:  I wonder about the word "nostalgia," a longing for the past or things long ago.  Is it possible the etymology of this is like the Latin "Mare Nostrum," referring to "our sea" or, as I understand it, the common term for the Mediterranean Sea.  That is to say, Nos(t)-alg-ia or condition of "our" "pain or longing."  I cannot find a reference to it etymologically.  Of course, I do not have the OED, don't you know. -- Roger Deshaies, via the internet.

Yes, but why not?  Why do you waste your money on food and shelter when you could have the Oxford English Dictionary, the premier work of English lexicography, at your fingertips?  True, the full 20-volume edition lists for $3,000, but it can be had for a mere $895 through  And the Compact OED, which squeezes four pages of the full edition into tiny type on its pages (and comes with a dandy magnifier), is a bargain at just $276.  And the OED on CD-ROM, arguably the most useful version, costs a pittance of $295 and is searchable in a variety of nifty ways.  Or you could save yourself pots of dough and just schlep down to your local public library, which probably has at least one of the editions on its shelves.

Your theory about "nostalgia" is a good one, and you have correctly identified the second part of the word as being based on the Greek "algos," meaning "pain, grief or distress" (also the root of our modern noun "analgesic," meaning "a medicine that relieves pain").  And you're correct about "nostrum" being Latin for "our."  (It's actually the neuter form of "noster," genitive case of "nos," meaning "we.")  Interestingly, you'll sometimes still hear "nostrum" used to mean "patent medicine," an antiquated usage that is actually short for "nostrum remedium," meaning "our remedy" (the "our" referring to the quack selling the medicine).

Where your theory jumps the tracks, unfortunately, is in combining the Latin "nostrum" and the Greek-based "algia."  The first element of "nostalgia" is not "nostrum," but actually the Greek "nostos," which means "homecoming."  Combined with "algos," we have "nostalgia," which originally meant "severe homesickness" when it was introduced in English around 1770.  The more general sense of "longing for the past" only appeared around 1920.

And this is your brain in the slammer.

Dear Word Detective:  Now that the Joseph C. Wilson wife-outing brouhaha has broken out, I've heard Mr. Wilson using a phrase about Karl Rove being "frog-marched" out in handcuffs.  "Frog-March" is a quaint expression I haven't heard used in some time.  Just what is its origin? -- Berry Berkley, via the internet.

"Wife-outing brouhaha" has a nice ring to it.  Not quite as catchy as "dodgy dossier," "sex up" or "cheese-eating surrender monkey," perhaps, but if nothing else the war in Iraq has spawned some colorful turns of phrase. 

What former Ambassador Wilson actually said was, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of White House in handcuffs."  Karl Rove is a top political advisor to President Bush (sometimes termed "Bush's Brain"), and Ambassador Wilson contends that either Rove or his minions engineered the "outing," or public exposure, of Wilson's wife as a CIA agent as revenge for Wilson's criticisms of the White House policy on Iraq.  There is, of course, much more to the "wife-outing brouhaha," the Byzantine details of which will no doubt provide the stuff of endless dissertations by future history students, assuming, at the rate things seem to be going, that there will be any.

We can gather from the tone of Wilson's remarks that being "frog-marched" would not be a pleasant experience, and indeed in the sense Wilson used it, it means "to be forcibly removed under heavy restraint," with or without handcuffs.  A "frog march" is thus a rather brutal procedure, and makes the standard coat-over-your-face "perp walk" look like a debutante promenade in comparison. 

But the original meaning of "frog-march" is even more demeaning.  When "frog-march" (also sometimes called "the frog's march") first appeared as slang around 1871, it meant to carry a prisoner (or a drunk being ejected from a bar) face down, with each of four husky men holding an arm or leg.  The term comes from the resemblance the recipient of the procedure bears to a frog with its limbs splayed out.  Today, however, "frog march" is usually used to mean the less dramatic (but equally effective) method of forcibly propelling a prisoner forward while pinning his arms behind him. 

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Does a haunted toaster count?

Dear Word Detective:  A Halloween story in the local paper was about expert haunted house builders, and headlined, "Mavins of the Macabre."  I got a kick out of that, because I think both words come from Hebrew by different routes.  "Mavin" is easy; everybody knows it's Yiddish for an expert and comes from "understand" in Hebrew.  I can't find corroboration for this story I remember about "macabre," though.  In France Jews were forbidden to join most guilds and professions, but they were allowed to be gravediggers.  Gravedigger in Hebrew is "Mekaber."  (Or maybe "mekaver": b and v are the same letter.)  I can't remember where I heard this theory, and as I can't find support for it anywhere, I'm wondering if it's one of those baseless legends.  It sounds convincing though -- no acronyms. -- Leanne, via the internet.

Expert haunted house builders?  Somehow I always thought haunted houses just sort of happened.  Anyway, I hope those haunted houses aren't being built by the same folks who build all those ticky-tacky monstrosities in the new housing developments I've seen.  If so, I would expect the ghouls to start leaking pretty soon, the bats to rust overnight, and the weird sounds to sound a lot like the foundation is cracking. 

You're right on the money about "mavin," although since it first showed up in English around 1950 it has more often been spelled "maven."  A "maven" (rhymes with "raven") is not just someone who knows everything there is to know about a subject, be it wine, words, or computers.  A maven is a connoisseur, a devotee, a disciple of his or her passion.  Experts have opinions.  A maven knows The Truth. 

The story you've heard about "macabre," however, is a bit off.  We use "macabre" today to mean "gruesome, horrific, or ghastly."  But "macabre" is actually derived from the "dance macabre," or "dance of death," an artistic motif dating back to 14th century Europe that depicts a figure representing Death (usually bearing a scythe) leading mortals to their graves.  (The final scene of Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal depicts such a "dance macabre.")  The equivalent French phrase "danse macabre" was probably an alteration of "danse Macabe," referring to medieval dramas depicting the slaughter of the Maccabees, an ancient Jewish dynasty.  But by the 19th century this specific historical connection had faded, and "macabre" had become just another synonym for "really scary."

This just in, we're outta here.

Dear Word Detective:  My students and I were talking about words used in the English language that are actually foreign.  One student asked where the word "machete" came from.  I knew it was a South American type of knife used to cut cane and brush, but I couldn't find any etymology of the word.  Is it Spanish in origin?  Has it developed from another word like other Spanish words used in English (Hackamore from Jaquima, for example?)  Thanks for helping us solve this mystery. -- Ms. Jared's 7th period English class.

Thanks for the question.  Say, do you folks still diagram the grammar of sentences?  I think I was the only kid in my English classes in elementary school who actually enjoyed diagramming (or "parsing," as the Brits say).  I've always felt that many of the ills of modern life (not to mention the occasionally bizarre results of our elections) could be remedied by mandatory and rigorous universal instruction in parsing.  Of course, just eliminating dangling modifiers would effectively put an end to TV news, but honestly, would that really be a bad thing?

Onward.  "Machete," meaning a large, broad knife used as a weapon or, more commonly, a tool for harvesting sugar cane and similar crops, did indeed come to English from Spanish, probably in the early 1800s.  The root of the Spanish "machete" was probably the Spanish "macho," meaning "club," related to the Latin "mattea," meaning "war club or mace."  Interestingly, although we pronounce "machete" with three syllables ("ma-SHET-tee"), in parts of the Caribbean it is pronounced "MASH-ett," more or less rhyming with "hatchet."

By the way, I may be just a teensy bit partial, since this is what I do for a living, but I think that introducing young people to where our words come from is one of the best ways to spark an interest in language.  And since most English words are drawn, whether recently or in the distant past, from other languages, exploring the roots of words also brings an appreciation of other cultures.  All of that is by way of recommending one of my favorite books, The World in So Many Words by Allan Metcalf (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).  In dozens of short, fascinating essays Mr. Metcalf takes the reader around the world from Tahiti (which gave us "tattoo") to Pakistan (which gave us "polo" and "cheese") and beyond.  Check it out -- it'll keep your students busy for months.  


How about "Moi"?

Dear Word Detective:  I'm trying to decide on a title for a magazine supplement, and like the word "minx," meaning "a pert, impudent, or flirtatious girl."  But I'd like to know more about where the word originated and who inspired it. -- Esther, via the internet.

Aha!  You're one of the people who come up with those weird magazine titles, aren't you?  I've often wondered if I'd be any good at that gig.  If my occasional attempts to dream up names for rock bands is any indication ("The Bad Clams" is my personal favorite), I'm probably better off where I am.  Still, if I were going to name a magazine today, I'd probably go straight for the demographic jugular with something like "Gloat."  I wish I were joking, but I've never gotten over the fact that one of America's most popular magazines is called "Self."  We're definitely soaking in the shallow end of the pool around here.

You're wondering who inspired the word "minx," but I'd be willing to bet that many, if not most, people assume that a "minx" is some sort of animal, perhaps simply another word for "mink."  Despite the legendary importance of fur coats to human reproduction, however, "minx" has nothing to do with mink.  Perhaps an altered form of the Dutch "minneken," meaning "sweetheart or beloved," "minx" first appeared in English in the 16th century as, believe it or not, a popular name for pet dogs.  But it was also almost immediately used to mean "a bold, flirtatious young woman," the sole sense that survives today.

I don't know whether "minx" would really make a good name for a publication, as "minx" is a malleable term and its connotation varies with the speaker to a certain extent.  To be labeled a "minx" by a man might be considered a compliment by some women, but applied by one woman to another, "minx" carries connotations of scheming and manipulation and is almost always a insult. 

Slip slithy away.

Dear Word Detective:  We have had our five year-old grandson since he was born. He always asks questions like "Why do they call it that?"  We travel and stay at motels a lot, and his question now is "Why do they call them 'motels'?"  Can you help? Also is there a book to answer these kind of questions? -- Marilyn, via the internet.

Yes, there are a number of good books on word origins, though you'd probably need at least a half-dozen different ones to keep up with your grandson once he starts asking word-origin questions.  Actually, a good first step would probably be to obtain a college-level dictionary, such as the American Heritage or the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, both of which list the basic etymologies of the sort of words he's likely to wonder about.  The American Heritage, for example, has a brief but satisfying explanation of "motel."

But for a longer and even more satisfying explanation, we need a brief digression on the history of luggage and then a quick visit with Lewis Carroll.  All set?

What we today call a "suitcase" was once also known as a "portmanteau."  Originally a "portmanteau" was a person, an officer who carried (French "porte") a prince's mantle ("manteau"), or ceremonial robe.  But "portmanteau" later came to be applied to any sort of valise or traveling bag.  The important thing to know about a "portmanteau" is that it consists, as most suitcases do, of two compartments which come together when the "portmanteau" is closed.

On to Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Dodgson), and "portmanteau words," a term he coined in "Through the Looking Glass" in 1872.  At one point, Alice asks Humpty Dumpty to explain the word "slithy" in the poem "Jabberwocky" (which begins "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe").  Humpty explains that "slithy" means both "lithe" and "slimy." "You see," says Humpty, "it's like a portmanteau -- there are two meanings packed up into one word."   

"Motel" is just such a "portmanteau word" (what linguists call a "blend"), one word made by combining two other words.  In this case, "motel," which first appeared about 1925, is simply a combination of "motor" (short for "motor car") and "hotel."  Other common portmanteau words are "smog" ("smoke" and "fog"), and "brunch" ("breakfast" and "lunch").

The Ma Barker of invention.

Dear Word Detective:  As an employee at the Ohio Penitentiary back in the 1980s, I frequently heard inmates use the word "mushfake" to designate an object modified from its ordinary function to serve a new function.  For example, a toothbrush used as a spoon to scoop ice cream cup out of a cup.

It was such a useful word that my wife and I have continued using it in many situations.  A couple of years ago, we were out camping and getting ready to pour the batter for some breakfast pancakes, when we discovered we'd left the spatula at home.  Searching our campsite for materials, we constructed a "mushfake" spatula by covering a car-window ice-scraper with aluminum foil.  It worked just fine.

Since my days at the Pen, I have occasionally encountered other (extramural) people using that word as well, but no one has been able to come up with a definitive derivation.  The closest we have come is that it might be a variation of "makeshift," but we thought we'd ask for your help in this matter. -- Melvin Hill, via the internet. 

"Mushfake" is a very interesting word.  It seems to have first appeared in underworld slang back in the early 19th century in England.  "Mush" by itself was, in that period, slang for an umbrella, from its similarity in shape to a mushroom.  The verb "to fake" during the same period was criminal slang for "putting something in shape to sell by covering its defects."  So a "mushroom faker" or "mushfake" was a con artist who repaired discarded umbrellas just enough to make them briefly functional and then sold them on the street, preferably during a downpour.  Anyone who has ever bought one of those $3.00 umbrellas in a New York City rainstorm will recognize the racket.  You're wet again two blocks later.

 Imported to America fairly quickly, "mushfaker" became hobo slang for an itinerant tinkerer or handyman.  "Mushfakers" repaired pots and pans as well as umbrellas, but "mushfaking" was considered an occupation of last resort and "mushfakers" occupied the lowest rung of hobo society.  By the 20th century, "mushfake" had become prison slang for making useful objects out of cast-off or less-useful materials.  Ironically, a good "mushfaker" is probably a lot more popular in prison than on the street. 






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