Issue of November 23, 2004



Lesson Number One about kittens:  If You Feed Them, They Will Grow.  It's actually fascinating watching them develop their own distinct personalities.  Harry sometimes seems a bit stand-offish.  Gus is fascinated by anything mechanical and likes to sit on the edge of the sink and watch me wash dishes.  And Phoebe is building a nest somewhere with all the things she steals from around the house.  Today we caught her running through the living room with a Duracell AA battery in her mouth, and last night she was apprehended in Kathy's office heading for the door with a large manila envelope.  Very weird.  She also filches quarters from the bucket of change in my office.

Elsewhere in the news, entries are pouring in to My Favorite Word considerably faster than I can post them, so if you've come here to find out where your favorite word went, please be patient. 

And now, on with the show:

Where the Barcaloungers roam.

Dear Word Detective: The word "chairman" came up in conversation recently and it brought back memories of my high school English teacher going off on yet another tangent about misused words. This particular divergence from the topic was prompted by a classmate using the variant "chairperson." The teacher explained that this P.C. version of the word is nonsense as the "man" in "chairman" has nothing to do with gender, but has its origin in Latin ("manus") meaning "hand." What are your thoughts? -- Ian Danks.

So, if your teacher was correct, the root meaning of "chairman" would be "chairhand," sort of like a cowhand who deals with chairs? Herding them from conference room to cubicle, roping and branding the ornery Aerons but being careful with the overstuffed models and their cute baby ottomans? It's an interesting vision. I'm gonna go lie down until it passes.

I'm as leery as any red-blooded grump of over-sensitivity in language, and have spent a bit of time in this column explaining that, for example, we don't need words such as "herstory" because "history" has absolutely nothing to do with the male possessive pronoun. But I'm afraid your teacher was riding the political pendulum a bit beyond the bounds of reality. "Chairman" has nothing to do with "manus."

The "man" in "chairman" is indeed the male human, and the "chair" simply a chair, specifically the seat, whether humble or a throne, occupied by a person of power and authority in a meeting or assembly. Thus, "chairman" simply means the person who sits in the chair designated for the person in charge.

"Chairman" dates back to the 17th century as does, interestingly, the shorter form "chair" meaning the person in charge of a meeting. "Chair" in this sense actually had an odd sort of double birth. In the 1600s and subsequently, the noun "chair" was used as symbolic shorthand (a process known as "metonymy") for the person who sat in the chair of power, much as "the Crown" was used to refer to the King or Queen or "the White House" is used to mean the current presidential administration. While this use of "chair" became common in the internal workings of organizations ("Will the Chair authorize a doughnut break?"), in the 1970s "chair" became newly popular in general usage as a way to avoid using the gender-specific "chairman" without resorting to the stilted "chairperson" (which also appeared in the 1970s).

Make mine extra-crispy.

Dear Word Detective: When I moved to Georgia I heard a number of people refer to a burlap feed sack as a "croker sack," but never got the origin of that name. Finally, while coon hunting with a good ole boy who referred to the southern sack, I asked for and got his take on "croker sack." He told me that he and others who frog gig, or frog grab, carry burlap feed sacks to put the frogs in and thus the name. Since frogs may be called "croakers," I suppose that it is actually then "croaker sack." Somehow I am not convinced that this is the only origin of the "croker/croaker sack," and I'd like to know if you've ever heard of this name for burlap feed sacks. -- Catherine Symanowski.

Bags of frogs, huh? Sounds like fun. I was planning on eventually moving to someplace with bookstores and decent restaurants and maybe even a symphony orchestra, but I now have a new criterion for my ideal abode. I saved a snake the other day, incidentally. It was crossing our road and a truck was coming, so I jumped up and down in front of it until it turned around and slithered to safety. I know the truck wouldn't have stopped for the snake because it didn't even slow down for me. We gotta get out of this place.

It's true that "croaker" is slang for a frog in many places in the U.S., as well as a term used to denote a wide variety of fish species, some of which apparently actually make a croaking sound. "Croaker" has also been used at various times to mean a person who complains or speaks in a depressing manner, a person or animal close to death (about to "croak"), and, especially in U.S. prisons, a doctor.

But none of these senses of "croaker" underlie "croaker sack." The forms "croaker sack" and "croker sack" are both variants of "crocus sack," the coarse burlap bags used to ship crocus. The crocus, known to most of us as a colorful flowering plant, is, more importantly from an economic standpoint, also the source of saffron, an orange-red powder used in flavoring and coloring food. (This saffron differs from "Indian saffron," which is the spice turmeric.) While "croker sack" is primarily heard in the American South today, "croker" as a term for a crocus merchant dates all the way back to 16th century England.

Also ducks, but they tend to look like short kangaroos.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin and meaning of the word "doodle"? I hear it used to describe the little drawings people draw on their papers when they are distracted or bored, but it can also be used to describe writing a note or message. -- Ronna Davis, Bakersfield, CA.

Ah yes, doodles. Doodles are the principal mementos I have of my years spent working in an office, stacks of legal pads covered with my only occasionally successful attempts to stave off sleep in interminable meetings. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whence my strange fascination with kangaroos sprang. Kangaroos smoking cigars, kangaroos driving little cars, kangaroos with wings. Today I find all this kangaroo-ing inexplicable, but if you need a very snazzy drawing of a kangaroo, I'm apparently your man.

"Doodle" is a very interesting word, and although "writing a note or a message" is not considered a standard definition, I suppose if one were to scribble a quick, sloppy note one could call it a "doodle."

One of the strange things about "doodle" is that we are not certain that all of its senses are actually the same word. The first appearance of "doodle" came in the early 17th century with the meaning of "fool or simpleton," apparently drawn from (or at least related to) the Low German "dudeltopf," meaning "fool" (literally, "nightcap"). This produced the verb "to doodle," in use by the early 1800s, meaning "to make a fool of, to cheat or swindle."

The modern meaning of "doodle" (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "An aimless scrawl made by a person while his mind is more or less otherwise applied") didn't appear until the 1930s, along with the equivalent verb sense of "to doodle." It is possible that this "idle drawing" sense in some way incorporates the original "fool" meaning of "doodle" in that such drawings are silly and meaningless. But it is also possible that the modern "doodle" was derived from, or at least influenced by, the verb "to dawdle," which since the 17th century has meant "to waste time, to be lazy." If so, this would amount to slander against accomplished doodlers everywhere. Getting those kangaroos right took real work.

Today I'd settle for keeping up with the dog.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" come from? Who were the Joneses? A friend tells me it has something to do with the Dow Jones Index. Is that true? -- Moumita Chatterjee.

Golly, don't tell me you don't remember the Joneses. The family down the street with the collie that looked just like Lassie? Mr. Jones worked in advertising, Mrs. Jones was a housewife and Cub Scout Den Mother, and every year they bought a new car. Their house was immaculate, probably because Mrs. Jones had all the latest appliances, and of course they were the first ones in the neighborhood to get a color TV. We used to play with their 2.5 children, Bobby, Betty and little Martini.

"Keeping up with the Joneses" is an American figure of speech meaning "maintaining a style or quality of life equivalent to that of one's prosperous neighbors, usually as measured by material possessions." Although the phrase is not heard as often as it was during the mid-20th century (when it seemed a national obsession in the suburban U.S.), the desire to match (and, with luck, exceed) the conspicuous consumption of one's neighbors is alive and well today, though now more often measured in technological goodies like plasma TVs than the tacky tail fins of 1950s cars.

It is unlikely that "keeping up with the Joneses" has any connection to the Dow Jones Average, an index of the behavior of selected stocks on the New York Stock Exchange started in 1884 by Charles Dow and Edward Davis Jones. The "Jones" in "keeping up with the Joneses" is simply a recognizably common surname used as shorthand for a typical family of the sort that might live next door (and have a better refrigerator than you do). The phrase gained wide public attention in 1913 as the title of a comic strip drawn by Arthur Momand for The New York Globe and other papers, but etymologist Barry Popik has uncovered an earlier use (in the form "keeping up with the Smiths and the Joneses") in print dating back to 1894, so it's likely that "keeping up with the Joneses" arose in the late 19th century as a vivid way of saying "keeping economic pace with one's neighbors."

Dude! Your sales figures are AWESOME.

Dear Word Detective: As a salesperson I am frequently offered the possibility of a "SPIFF," which I know means I'm going to receive a monetary reward for pushing a certain product. Can you provide the meaning for what I believe is an acronym? I love the feeling of the results of a SPIFF but would love more to know how this term came about. -- Jim.

Whoa, time to turn down the Jimmy Cliff music. When I first read your question, I could have sworn you were asking about the origin of "spliff," which is (I have heard) West Indian slang for a large marijuana cigarette. The first thing that occurred to me was that, if sales managers are actually passing out "spliffs" to reward performance, I now have a more complete understanding of some of my recent shopping experiences.

But you asked, of course, about "spiff." I must admit that prior to your letter I had never heard of "spiff" meaning a reward for selling a particular product, being familiar only with such terms as "spiffy," meaning "neat, clean, fashionable, extra good" ("Dwayne looks very spiffy -- the judge will be impressed.") and the verb "to spiff up," meaning "to make neat, dress up." This sense of "spiffy" and its derivatives seem to have appeared first in the mid-19th century, but all attempts to uncover a source have come up dry. "Spiffy" is a genuine mystery.

The use of "spiff" to mean "a premium paid for the sale of a particular product" (didn't this practice used to be known as "kickbacks"?) also began in the 1850s, as noted in an 1859 dictionary of slang: "Spiffs, the percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock." The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the terms "spiff stores" and "spiff system" have also been used since that time.

One thing we can say with some certainty is that "spiff," because of its age, is very unlikely to have started life as an acronym, since acronyms were virtually unknown before the Second World War (which probably I ought to note occurred between 1939 and 1945, as I have recently read that 28% of U.S. high school graduates cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map). It is probable that "spiff" in the "sales" sense is related somehow to the "neat, fashionable, extra good" sense, but the exact connection remains, alas, unclear.

Hello, you must be going.

Dear Word Detective: We vacation at the New Jersey Shore in the summer. We rent for a week or two at the beach. The locals refer to summer renters as "bennies." Some towns, especially provincial ones like Bayhead have signs in the windows of their homes saying "Bennies Go Home!" I have not been able to find the origin of this term anywhere; even the less hostile, approachable locals do not know where it originated. Can you help? -- Margaret Griswold.

Good question. I've never understood the weird hostility many tourist towns feel for the people who butter their bread, i.e., tourists. They should try the alternative. Out here in rural Ohio, the only tourists we get are mob guys from the city dumping stiffs in the cornfields.

New Jersey is, of course, the Garden State, and I happen to have been born there, although I don't remember many gardens. The use of "bennie" as a derogatory term for tourists has apparently been widespread in the communities of the Jersey Shore since at least the 1970s, although some sources maintain that it dates back to the 1940s. Another pejorative term for tourists that may date to the forties is "shoobie," supposedly originally referring to day-trippers from the big city who walk on the beach wearing regular shoes, rather than (as locals do) wearing flip-flops or simply going barefoot. "Shoobies" are also said, a bit implausibly, to have earned the name by riding excursion trains to the shore, the fare on which included a lunch packed in a box resembling a shoebox.

"Bennie" (sometimes spelled "Benny") is a bit of a mystery and is often explained as originally being an acronym, but, if so, there is disagreement as to what it stands for. The most common suggestion is "Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York," four cities to the north from which crowds of tourists descend on the Shore on summer weekends. A variation, slightly less plausible, is "Baltimore, Edison, Newark, New York." Tourists themselves say it apparently stands for "Be Extra Nasty to New Yorkers."

There is also one non-acronymic possibility worth mentioning. It is said that there once was a beach-umbrella vendor named Benny who emblazoned his rental umbrellas with his name, making tourists on the beach highly visible. If this story is true, Benny's umbrellas should be just as visible in photographs of the period, so perhaps someday we will have definite proof of the origin of "bennies."

Well, the cows laughed.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I were agreeing that a movie we had just seen was "corny," and then started to wonder where the word “corny” comes from. My guess was that it is somehow related to farming, perceived as an unsophisticated pastime. My husband thinks it is related to "carnies," as at a fair, but maybe that's because here in parts of Utah, corn is pronounced, unfortunately, "carn." Please enlighten. -- Terry Watts.

No apologies necessary. Regional pronunciations can be, let us say, creative. Here in Ohio, for instance, "soggy cardboard slathered with ketchup and Cheez Whiz" is pronounced, for some weird reason, "pizza."

Your husband's guess about "carnies" is a good one, but your sense that "corny" is related to farming is right on the money. There seem to be two possible connections between "corny" and the rural life, both of which may be true.

Some of the earliest documented uses of "corny" were among jazz musicians in the late 1920s, who used the term to mean an old-fashioned or trite style of jazz, likening it to music that might be heard in the boondocks, perhaps at a square dance. Derogatory references to rural inhabitants, culture and customs as being crude and unsophisticated were nothing new at the time, of course, and persist to this day in such terms as "hick" and "rube" (short for Henry and Reuben, once considered typical "country" names), as well as such slurs as "hayseed." For a jazz musician whose status depended on constantly forging new styles of music, nothing was more deadly than being considered "corny," and by the 1930s the term had percolated into general usage in the sense of "trite or sentimental."

Another possible origin of "corny" casts rural folk in a considerably better light. Seed catalogs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is said, often contained humorous stories and jokes interspersed among the product listings. As the jokes tended to be unsophisticated and obvious, the genre came to be known among farmers as "corn jokes," or, eventually, simply "corny."

It is possible, of course, that both theories are true. Perhaps it was farmers who first came up with "corny," only to have the term turned against them by urban sophisticates.


As the crow fries.

Dear Word Detective: I have a fellow employee who is originally from India. He recently received an email from another employee using the phrase "eating crow." When I started to explain the phrase to him, I realized I didn't know where it came from. I'm hoping the origin will help explain it in the future. -- Charlie Roach.

Perhaps, although I wouldn't count on it. I know where haggis comes from, but I'll never be able to explain why some folks consider it a delicacy. (My muse? Gracie Allen. Why do you ask?)

Then again, few people, unless they were very hungry, would consider crow a delicacy, or even marginally edible. I'm told that the nasty taste of crow meat has to do with the bird being a carnivore, but I suspect the crow, a very clever bird, actually quite consciously decided to make itself unpalatable. Incidentally, if that "carnivores taste bad" business is indeed true, shouldn't vegetarians, conversely, be quite tasty, and vegans absolutely delicious? Someone should warn Moby to stay out of the water.

"To eat crow" means, of course, to be forced to admit an error under circumstances that make such an admission extremely humiliating. If, for instance, I were to assert that my neighbor is raising cobras in his basement and demand that the police arrest him, whereupon they raid his house and discover only two parakeets and a bored hamster, I would have some serious "crow to eat."

There are a variety of colorful stories about the origin of "to eat crow," usually involving hunters caught poaching on someone else's land, but none of them are credible. Interestingly, "to eat crow" is a fairly recent American coinage, first appearing only in the mid-19th century in the form "to eat boiled crow." In all likelihood, the choice of a crow in the metaphor simply refers to the vile taste of the bird, not to a specific instance of anyone actually being called upon to consume such a meal as penance for an error.

Another, slightly gentler, metaphor for admitting error, "to eat humble pie," actually does have a connection to real food. In the 15th century, the "umbles" of an animal were the internal organs, often baked into pie form and consumed by servants. Although "umble pie" was apparently quite tasty, its lowly demographic (as the ad people say) eventually merged its name with the unrelated adjective "humble" and we gained another metaphor for facing unpleasant music.


Dear Word Detective: I am sure you must have covered the origin of the phrase "hightail it" before, but it is not listed in the archive index on your website. I would guess that the phrase originated from someone's observance of the tail of a whitetail deer when the deer is startled and running from danger. I would like to know if this is, in fact, the origin of the phrase. -- Martin.

Well, I'm typing as fast as I can. It's a big language, y'know, and although the Word Detective archive at does contain more than 1,200 of my back columns, somebody out there keeps coining new words, so I may never catch up. Besides, the rule is that I can't answer a question until someone asks it, and you, believe it or not, are the first to bring up "hightail." I guess the noble horse opera really is passé.

I mention horse operas, more commonly (and less sarcastically) called "westerns," because most of us probably first encountered "hightail" in the course of such horse-rich TV shows as "Gunsmoke" or "Maverick." A typical scenario would have the bad guys doing something bad (robbing a train, threatening a widow, etc.) when one would suddenly growl, "Here comes the Sheriff. Let's hightail it out of here!" The miscreants would then hop on their seedy steeds (never white, of course) and the next five minutes would be spent in an exciting chase (usually, I eventually realized, past the same boulder over and over again).

Oddly enough, the first printed occurrence of "hightail" as a verb meaning "to run away quickly" that anyone has yet found dates only back to 1919, a bit later than the setting of most cowboy dramas, but that's not necessarily an anachronism, because the term may have been in use for quite a while in the American West before anyone wrote it down. "To hightail" does indeed come from the behavior of animals in flight, many of which raise their tails in alarm as they flee. A citation from the journal American Speech in 1925 explains the phrase thus: "'High-tail'" comes straight from the plains where a mustang, when startled, erects his tail in a sudden, quick gesture and runs like the wind. So to make a sudden departure is to 'high-tail.'"

Interestingly, "hightail" has also been used to mean simply "to move quickly," as one might "hightail it" to the bank to make a deposit before closing. The primary meaning, however, has been "to flee quickly," making it a synonym of another classic cowboy term, "vamoose," from the Spanish "vamos," meaning "let us go."

Yours is the foamy one.

Dear Word Detective: What is the history of the use of the word "lace" to mean spiking food or drink with some substance, benign or otherwise, that would not ordinarily be found in it? Is it related to shoelaces, or the fiber-art kind of lace, or what? And while you're at it, how about "spike"? -- Margaret.

Benign or otherwise, eh? Let's hope we're talking benign. I don't have time to testify in court. I'm still busy counting my cats.

Chances are that when we hear the word "lace," we either think of the noun meaning "an open fabric made of threads, usually in an ornate pattern" or the verb "to lace," meaning "to tighten with cords," as in "lacing up" one's shoes.

But "lace" is old enough to have acquired a wide range of other meanings, including the "mix with a small amount" sense you mention. The original meaning of "lace" when it first appeared in English in the 14th century was "noose" or "snare," from the Latin "laqueus," or noose. (That "laqueus" itself appears to be related to the Latin "lacere," to lure, which also gave us "delicious" and "lasso.")

From that "noose" sense, "lace" soon developed the sense of "cord or thread used to draw together two sides of something" (as in "shoelace"), then came to mean various kinds of cords and braid, eventually arriving at the "ornamental fabric" sense in the mid-16th century.

As a verb, "to lace" passed through a similar evolution, including "to compress the waist of a person" by tightening a corset, giving us the idiom "straitlaced" for someone who acts as if he or she is wearing a very tight ("strait") corset. By the late 16th century, "to lace" was also being used to mean "to embroider," especially by interweaving threads of gold or silver into fabric. It was this sense of "interweave" that developed into "lace" meaning "to add a dash of, or mix a small amount of, a substance into something else," as in "Henry laced his Ovaltine with vodka so that he could bear to watch the late news."

To "spike" a drink by adding alcohol dates back to the 19th century, and reflects the sense of giving an innocuous drink (punch at a church picnic, for example) an unexpected "sting." The sense of "to spike" meaning "to kill a news story" comes from the sharp spindle found on early 20th century newspaper editors' desks where stories were "filed" after being rejected for publication. Today, of course, editors have "delete" keys.

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Perhaps Santa will bring us some chips.

Dear Word Detective: I cannot find the origin of the word "shingles" as it is used in the medical sense. It is the zoster virus, and called "chicken pox" in children. In adults, they call it "shingles," and I am crazy to know how that came to be. Help! -- Ivy.

Good question. And what, if anything, does the disease "shingles" have to do with the sort of shingles on your roof? And why, while we're at it, did the guys who fixed our roof last week replace gray shingles with lime green shingles, making our roof look as though it had been hit by a large guacamole meteorite?  OK, that's probably one of those unanswerable puzzles, but we can start with the other two.

There are actually three separate "shingle" words in English ("shingles," the disease, occurs only in the plural form).

The "roof tile" sort of "shingle" derives from the Latin "scindula," a late form of "scandula," which meant "roof tile." That's not a terribly exciting derivation, but "scandula" did probably come from the verb "scandere," meaning "to ascend" and from which, in fact, we also got "ascend" and "descend." Roof shingles, if properly installed (ahem), appear to "ascend" the roof in neat little rows.

The second sort of "shingle" is less often heard and means "loose pebbles or small stones on a seashore or beach." This "shingle" is a collective noun, the singular form referring to an aggregation of such stones, not the individual stones themselves. This "shingle" is also sometimes used to mean just "pebbly beach," and is thought to derive from one of the Scandinavian languages, possibly the Norwegian "singl," meaning "gravel."

"Shingles," the disease, is indeed caused by the zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox, and "shingles" is usually caused by reactivation of the virus in someone, usually an adult who has already had chicken pox as a child. Shingles is an extremely painful disease, causing a blistering rash, usually on the chest and/or back, and can last for months. The name "shingles" derives from the Latin "cingulum," meaning "girdle," referring to the fact that the painful rash of shingles can encircle the sufferer's torso like a girdle.

While we're on the subject, "chicken pox" has nothing to do with chickens, although there is some uncertainty about the origin of the name. It may be that "chicken" was meant in the sense of "mild or harmless" as compared to deadly smallpox, but some sources posit that the resemblance of the bumpy rash to chickpeas under the skin gave the disease its name.

Ketchup works better on windows, by the way.

Dear Word Detective: While I was growing up in northern New Jersey, the night before Halloween was referred to as "cabbage night." Where did this term come from? -- Frank Solensky.

How odd. I've never heard of "cabbage night," possibly because I grew up in an area (southern Connecticut) where the night before Halloween had no special significance. We usually spent that day putting the finishing touches on our costumes for the following evening and perhaps carving a last-minute Jack-o'-lantern. Speaking of costumes, the only one of mine I remember in any detail was when I went trick-or-treating dressed as a beatnik, complete with goatee, beret and bongo drums. Anyone remember beatniks?

"Halloween" is, of course, the 31st of October, the day which marked the end of the year in the old Celtic calendar. With the rise of Christianity in Britain, the holiday was remade as All Saints Day, All Hallows Day or Hallomass, "hallow" being derived from "halig," the Old English word for "holy" ("halig" became, in fact, our modern word "holy"). The night before Hallomass, when the spirits of the dead were said to visit their old haunts, was known as "All Hallows Even" ("eve" in modern parlance), since corrupted to "Hallow-e'en" or simply "Halloween."

Meanwhile, back at the night before Halloween, many parts of the U.S. do celebrate that evening as a night for tricks and pranks, sometimes combined with begging for treats, and the name for the night varies from region to region. In much of the eastern U.S. it seems to be known as "Devil's Night" or "Mischief Night." (Around Detroit, "Devil's Night" has unfortunately spawned a grim tradition of arson.) Elsewhere in the eastern and midwestern U.S., it's known as "Trick Night," "Corn Night," "Tick-Tack Night" or, and don't ask me why, "Goosy Night."

"Cabbage Night" seems to be restricted largely to the Northeastern U.S. Ray Bradbury used the term in his classic story "Something Wicked This Way Comes" in 1962, and "Cabbage Night" probably dates back to at least the early 20th century. There seem to be three explanations for the name: the use of cabbage stumps to mark windows by pranksters, the tossing of cabbage stumps at neighbors' doors to create a loud and surprising "thump," and the tactic of dumping rotting produce on the victim's porch to create a smelly mess.


Mister Coffee goes to town.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the origin of the word "cranky" as applied to a person of bad disposition (me, for example, every morning before my coffee). I heard somewhere that it originated when cars were cranked (started) by hand. If you had difficulty cranking up your car in the morning, you were "cranky" the rest of the day. Any truth to it? - Wm Watkins.

Good grief, don't any of you people live near libraries? For heavens sake, I'm surrounded by 50 square miles of soybean fields, yet somehow I manage to figure these things out. But no, I'm supposed to drop everything, shoo the seventeen cats off my desk, brush the cornhusks from my keyboard and go hunting for your answer. Meanwhile, you'll be doing what? Drinking espresso in some little cafe? Hanging out at the corner bar? Sure, I know all about "cranky." And, by the way, coffee only makes me crankier, so watch out. I'm on my third cup.

Just kidding, of course. I'd do this job even if they paid me.

To be "cranky," of course, is to be ill-tempered, touchy, out of sorts, on the edge of anger and easily provoked to scorn. Most of us are cranky from time to time until we get what we need, be it coffee or a pay raise, whereupon we rejoin humanity. Chronically cranky people, however, may have a nice day on occasion, but they never notice because they're so busy inspecting every buttercup for signs of mold.

"Cranky" appears to be rooted in the word "crank," which appeared in its literal form, meaning a shaft bent at a right angle, around 1000. By the 16th century, "crank" was being used figuratively to mean a "twisted" or humorous comment or quip, and later any sort of unusual notion. By the early 19th century, "crank" had arrived at its modern meaning of "an eccentric or irrational person, especially one with an unusual obsession," the sense being that the person's personality had been "bent" like a mechanical crank in some fashion, thereby explaining their quirks and fixations. Thus, to be "cranky" is to act, even for just a while, like an unreasonable "crank." Interestingly, when "cranky" first appeared in the late 18th century, it meant "weak or sickly" (perhaps by analogy to a machine with bent or crooked parts) only later, in the 19th century, acquiring its modern meaning.

The ants are my friends, too.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word "honeycomb" (the structure used by bees to store honey) come from? The "honey" part is fairly obvious, but "comb"? I'm confused! -- Marianne.

Of course you're confused. The bees want you to be confused. There you are, minding your own business, reading an article about bees, or watching a TV station secretly controlled (as many are) by bees, when the word "honeycomb" pops into your mind. The "honey" part of the word, redolent of golden sweetness, lulls you into warm feelings toward bees, but the "comb" part understandably makes you anxious about bees landing in your hair. Thus paralyzed by conflicting emotions, you sit powerless as bees ransack your checking account and make long-distance calls to their pals in Brazil. Uh, one moment please. I'll be back as soon as I close the window ... holy cow, there must be a million of them....

I'm back. Just kidding. Bees are your friends. We, I mean they, come in peace. Bzzz. Would you like some free honey?

A "honeycomb" is the wax structure, consisting of "plates" covered on both sides by hexagonal cells, used by bees to store honey within a hive. Honeycombs are masterpieces of animal engineering, making the best possible use of limited space and materials, and the design is so strong that it has been used in human projects from buildings to aircraft.

"Honeycomb," which first appeared in Old English around 1050, is a specialized use of the same word as the "comb" that we use on our hair. "Comb" itself dates back to ancient Indo-European roots with the general sense of "teeth," and since the original "hair de-tangling tool" sense appeared around A.D. 700, "comb" has acquired a wide variety of senses to denote things or devices that resemble, in form or action, the serrated teeth of our familiar pocket comb. One of the oddest senses must be the application of "comb" to the fleshy crest atop a rooster's head.

It's not entirely clear how the structure made by bees was judged to merit the term "comb," but probably the best guess (offered by the Oxford English Dictionary) is that it came not from a single "plate" but rather from the sight of many plates hanging side by side in the hive reminding observers of the teeth of a comb. So, while today we refer to one "plate" as a "honeycomb," the term actually derives from all the "combs" viewed together.

Big Tony doesn't wanna talk to youse, capeesh?

Dear Word Detective: Recently I was reading about the recent security breach in the U.K. parliament. The article included this sentence: "One guard in buckled shoes gave chase with a sword dangling from his belt: a show of quaintness that turned Britain -- considered a top terror target -- into an international laughing stock." I always spelled it "laughingstock," but I don't expect too much from CNN. However, the odd spelling caused me to actually look at the word instead of just reading it, and I started wondering about its history. Do you know where this strange word came from? -- Debrah Bergin, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

That was a fairly amazing scene in Parliament, and it occurred to me while watching it on TV that we in the U.S. actually have a golden opportunity to reverse a bit of our trade imbalance with Europe. What the Brits obviously need are a dozen or so of the sort of bouncers found in nearly every large American bar. A couple of large, belligerent Rhodes Scholars with names like Bobo and Tank would make the most determined fox-hunting ban protestor think twice, and the dude who dressed up as Batman and perched on a ledge at Buckingham Palace around the same time would probably have just stayed in his Bat Cave.

A "laughingstock" (also sometimes "laughing-stock") is a person (or collective entity, such as a government) or thing that is the object of ridicule, usually by many people over a long period of time.

The "laughing" part of "laughingstock" is obvious, but the "stock" takes a bit of explaining. "Stock" is an extremely old word, first appearing in Old English (adapted from German) in 862 with the basic meaning of "tree trunk." In the centuries since, "stock" has acquired dozens of separate meanings, from the sort of "stock" one buys on the Stock Exchange to the "stock" one uses to make soup. Many of these meanings are not easy to trace from that original "tree trunk" sense, and the logic of "laughingstock," which appeared first around 1533, is a bit fuzzy. It seems to be related to early senses of "stock" meaning "a large, inert block of wood" or "human torso" used to denote someone or something treated as an object, as in the similar archaic terms "pointing-stock" (a person publicly scorned) or "whipping-stock" (a person who is frequently whipped). The general sense of "stock" here is "something or someone treated as the object of an action, more or less habitually."

Aim for the bullhorn.

Dear Word Detective: It's a pretty common saying around New York, but I don't know about elsewhere: when you need to really tell someone off, you "read them the riot act." From the way I've heard it used, it seems to represent admonishing them without really punishing or hurting them. I'm guessing this may have an interesting story behind it. -- Brendan Clifford.

Indeed there is. "Riot" itself is a very interesting word. When it first appeared in English in the 13th century, derived from the Old French "riote" (meaning "dispute or quarrel"), "riot" actually meant "loose living, debauchery, extravagance." By the late 14th century, "riot" had acquired its modern meaning of "violent disorder or lawlessness among the populace," but it still retained and developed parallel meanings of a more pleasant sort. In the 18th century, for instance, "riot" could mean an occasion of unrestrained mirth and merrymaking as well as the tumult of an angry crowd. And since the 16th century, "to run riot" has meant to disregard any rules or limits on behavior ("The class ran riot as soon as the teacher left") or to grow wildly beyond expectations ("Ignored by overfed and lazy cats, the mouse population had run riot").

But the "riot" of "read the riot act" is definitely the "violent mob" sort of riot, and the phrase stems from Britain in the early18th century, a time of serious social and political unrest. Fearing revolt by those opposed to the reign of George I, the government passed the Riot Act of 1715, banning disruptive assemblies of more than twelve persons. To invoke the Riot Act, a "justice of the peace or like person" had to read a portion of the act aloud to the crowd, ordering them to disperse: "Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King." Members of the crowd who failed to disperse within an hour were deemed felons and could face life imprisonment or worse. Britain repealed the Riot Act in 1973, but "unlawful assembly" statutes are still in force in most countries, including the U.S., today.

By the mid-19th century, "to read the riot act" had become a popular figure of speech meaning to severely admonish someone for misbehavior ("When Mom found the feathers in the refrigerator and noticed that the dog had been shaved, she really read us the riot act").

As if.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please explain the meaning of the word "snarky." It was used in the first presidential debate this year. -- Joy.

Really? I checked the official transcripts of all three debates, plus that of the Edwards-Cheney pas de deux, and couldn't find a single occurrence of "snarky." My guess is that you actually heard one of the talking heads appearing afterwards use the word. Incidentally, as one who actually watched all four debates, I must say that my favorite moment occurred after the second debate, when a panel of professional bloviators was discussing it on MSNBC. In the crowd of spectators behind the panel suddenly appeared a large placard on a pole reading "I have to go to the bathroom."

"Snarky" is an adjective meaning "critical in a sly, sarcastic, cynical but humorous way." Much of modern humor, especially political humor, is snarky. David Letterman and Jon Stewart are routinely "snarky," for instance. "Snarky" humor is often said to be a recent development, but I remember Johnny Carson and even Bob Hope being fairly "snarky" in their days.

"Snarky" the word, however, is a fairly recent import from Britain to America, common in the British press for much of the 20th century but only rarely heard before the early 1990s over here. The root of "snarky" is, as one might suspect, the word "snark," but there are actually two sorts of "snark."

The first sort of "snark" is found (or, more precisely, not found) in the Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) poem "The Hunting of the Snark," a tale of a hunt for a snark, a non-existent creature. This is not the "snark" of "snarky," although Carroll's poem did popularize "snark hunt" as a term for a fruitless search.

The other sort of "snark" is a British dialect word meaning "to criticize or nag," related to "snore" and "snort," the most likely connection between "snark" and "snort" being the derisive snort of contempt that accompanies many "snarky" comments.



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