Issue of November 27, 2000


Like WOW.

Bestest election EVER!!

Well, you don't have to get snippy about it.


Speaking of "chads," I have received a torrent of queries about this word, so I've decided to jump my own gun and post the article about "chads" I wrote last week as the first column below. Ordinarily this piece would have appeared on this site in late December, but since there is now a statistical probability that December will be either delayed or canceled entirely, I don't see any point in waiting.

And now, since the holidays are nearly at our throats, a word about book sales. The good news is that sales of the Word Detective book through this site have been gratifyingly robust. The bad news is that I will not be able to accept any orders for books intended as holiday gifts received after December 5, 2000. You will, of course, still be able to buy multiple copies at any respectable bookstore, whether real or online.

And now, on with the show....

Punch drunk.

Dear Word Detective: What about "chads" -- those little bits of paper in the news lately? I've heard the word since my undergraduate days. (Remember punch cards and paper tape? The stuff was insidious.) Is "chad" related to "chaff" (as in the electronic counter-measure material used to defeat radar detection)? -- Rick Shafer, via the internet.

Yes, folks, step right up -- it's chad fever! Hanging chads, swinging chads, pregnant, dimpled, rumpled, stunted, furtive, fugitive and flying chads! "Chads," of course, are the tiny bits of confetti-like material that are punched (or not) out of the punch-cards used as ballots in many polling places (including mine) in the US. The problem with chads, as I'm sure the average family dog can tell you by now, is that chads, if not detached completely, can cause Dan Rather to start babbling about cafeteria jello and tight swimsuits.

There are almost as many theories about the origin of "chad," which apparently first appeared just after World War II, as there are opinions of its role in our most recent national election. The simplest is that "chad" is simply a mutation of "chaff," the husks of corn or other grains (also used, as you note, as a term for the metallic confetti sometimes dropped by military aircraft to confuse enemy radar).

The Jargon File, the venerable compilation of hacker slang on the internet, mentions (but does not endorse) a theory that traces "chad" to an invention called the Chadless Keypunch machine, supposedly invented by a man named Chadless, which did not produce that annoying confetti. Ignorant of the inventor's name, according to this story, folks figured that the stuff this "Chadless" machine did not produce must be properly called "chad." It's a cute story, but no one has thus far been able to come up with any evidence that "Mr. Chadless" ever existed.

Lastly, the Merriam-Webster Third International Dictionary suggests that "chad" comes from the Scots (as in Scotland) word "chad," which means "gravel," not a bad metaphor for those little bits of paper. Perhaps wartime spooks working on code machines that used paper tape picked up the word from a Scottish colleague. It's only a theory, but at least it's not as shaky as cafeteria jello.


Addendum: A reader has suggested that "chad" may have arisen as a mutation of "chat," British slang for "louse" since the 17th century. More investigation is obviously needed, but this strikes me as a good possibility.

Out here in the boonies,
we just wish them into the cornfield.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase "to send to Coventry" is common in the UK, meaning to ostracize someone, not speak to them. But what is its origin? Why not "send to Leicester" or "send to Warwick" or any other place? -- Chris Maeer, via the internet.

Or Pittsburgh, for that matter. "To send to Coventry," although it is rarely heard outside the UK, is a very old phrase, first appearing around 1647.

Coventry, for the benefit of our non-UK readers, is a city smack in the middle of England, otherwise known as the locale of the world's most famous horse ride. According to legend, in 1040 Lady Godiva was upset that her husband, the Lord of Coventry, had imposed ruinously high taxes on his subjects. He responded that he would revoke the taxes if she would ride through the town naked. She took the challenge, and out of respect the townsfolk stayed inside during her ride, all save one tailor named Thomas, who peeked from his window and was promptly struck blind. This incident is said to be the origin of "peeping Tom" as a synonym for "voyeur."

As for "to send to Coventry," there are two common theories, neither of which, unfortunately, can be verified. The first traces the phrase to the English Civil War, which began in 1642 and pitted the Royalist forces of King Charles I against the Parliamentarian armies of Oliver Cromwell. Coventry, a Parliamentarian stronghold, is said to have been used to house hundreds of Royalist prisoners captured by Cromwell's forces. A Royalist in Coventry would, no doubt, have been very unpopular, so "to be sent to Coventry" came to be a popular saying meaning "to be ostracized." It has also been suggested that Coventry was used as a place of execution during the same period, in which case "to be sent to Coventry" signaled a fate somewhat worse than having no one to talk to.

Another theory holds that the townsfolk of Coventry disliked soldiers so much that to be posted to the garrison there was a guarantee of social isolation, and thus much feared by soldiers.

Things that go thump.

Dear Word Detective: I heard the expression "It's enough to give you the phantods" in a movie called "Raintree County," which is about the Civil War. It was clear that it meant something like "the creeps" or "heebie-jeebies." A search of the net found a few references to "creeping phantods" and "screaming phantods." Can you tell me the origin of this word? -- S. F. Cox, via the internet.

Certainly -- as a resident of a farmhouse built in 1896, I happen to be intimately familiar with the "fantods" (which is the usual spelling). Just last week my wife and I were sitting in our living room around midnight when we noticed that our upstairs neighbors seemed to be moving some rather heavy pieces of furniture around. Then we remembered that we have no upstairs neighbors.

The "fantods" (no one ever seems afflicted by a single fantod) are, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, "A state of nervous irritability...a fit." The venerable Dictionary of American English quotes an 1899 definition which rounds out the picture: "Fidgets, restlessness; a state of anxiety or excitement," and dates the word's first appearance to 1839. Some sources call the fantods a "mythical disorder" or equate them with a simple stomach ache, but probably the best synonym would be "the willies," or what our over-therapized society now blandly calls an "anxiety attack."

Looking for the origins of "the fantods" is enough to give you a case of them. The American Heritage Dictionary prudently says "origin unknown," the dictionary equivalent of "no comment." The Oxford English Dictionary comes to the rescue as usual, pointing to the colloquial form "fantad," probably based on "fantasy" or "fantastic." A related word of similar origin, "fantigue," was popular in the 18th century and used by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers. Mark Twain was evidently fond of "the fantods," and you'll find the word in Huckleberry Finn.


Name that dude.

Dear Word Detective: Does the word "gore," meaning essentially "blood and guts running all over the floor and ruining my shoes," have anything to do with an ancestor of the candidate for President of the United States? I read somewhere that he had an ancestor who was a less-than-nice person, and thought there might be a relationship between the relative and the word. -- Ward Deutschman, via the internet.

The connection between Al Gore the candidate and "gore" meaning "blood" never occurred to me, probably because I've always subconsciously associated him with Gore-Tex, the fabric they use in tree-hugging camping gear and stuff like that. George W. Bush, on the other hand, I associate with all the useless leafy obstacles I have to mow around every week in the summertime. I'm not sure I should have been allowed to vote. (On the other hand, my district uses those chad-plagued Votomatic machines, so I'm not entirely certain that I did vote.)

Strictly speaking, "gore" does not simply mean "blood," but rather blood that has thickened or partially coagulated after exposure to air, and specifically blood that has been shed as a result of violence. The root of "gore" is the Old English "gor," and its original meaning, from about A.D. 725, was not "blood," but "filth, slime or dung." The narrowing of "gore" to senses related specifically to blood and violence took place in the mid-16th century.

None of which, all kidding aside, has anything at all to do with Al Gore's name. English actually has three entirely separate "gore" nouns, of which "blood" is only the first. Another one, fairly obscure, is "gore" meaning "spear or javelin," from the Old English "gar," meaning "spear." The third type, a derivative of the "spear" sense, is "gore" meaning "a triangular piece of something" (because most spear heads are triangular). And this brings us to Al Gore.

One of the older meanings of this third "gore" is "a triangular piece of land." The name "Gore" (and the more common "Gorman") at one point in English history simply meant "dweller by or on a triangular piece of land." So "Gore" just means that Al had an ancestor who lived on an irregular lot, much as the surname "Marsh" might indicate an ancestor who lived near a swamp, or, in the case of "Beech," dwelled near a beech tree, or, in the case of "Bush," hung out with shrubs.

Rub out time.

Dear Word Detective: We often hear baseball sportscasters refer to the "rubber game" of a series, usually the tie-breaking last game of a three-game series in which each team has already won one game. Knowing what a sports fan you are, we thought we'd ask you about the origin of this term. Our dictionary has no idea, and "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" says something about whist and bridge and bowls that we don't understand. -- Rick and Jaye Freyer, via the internet.

Whist and bridge and bowls, oh my! According to Paul Dickson's The New Dickson's Baseball Dictionary (Harcourt Brace, 1999), a "rubber game" is "The last and deciding game of a series when the previous games have been split; e.g., the seventh game of the World Series." This tie-breaking sense of "rubber" apparently originated in the pulse-pounding English game of "bowls," or lawn bowling. Despite its name, bowls has little in common with American bowling, and consists of rolling wooden balls (called "bowls") across a level green, the object being to get your ball as close as possible to (but not to hit) a little white ball at the other end of the green. "Rubber" in its tie-breaking sense first appeared in the context of bowls around 1599, and was in use by the card-playing crowd (whist, bridge, etc.) by 1744. A set of three games of bridge is still generally referred to as a "rubber."

Unfortunately, no one knows where "rubber" in this sense came from. It appears to be unrelated to the elastic sort of "rubber." (Incidentally, our modern elastic "rubber" is short for "India-rubber," from its original source in the East Indies. "Rubber" previously meant anything used to rub, smooth or clean.) Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable ventures that the term may have referred to two "bowls" rubbing together, a fatal error in the game of bowls. Or it might be a metaphorical use of "rubber" (something that expunges) referring to the "sudden death" third game of a series, the loss of which would conclusively "rub out" the losing team's hopes. But there is, sad to say, no solid evidence for either theory.

Springing sprogs.

Dear Word Detective: In the New York Times Magazine for 23 July, there was an article, "Your Kids Are Their Problem," which referred to "sprogs" in the subhead, "No matter how well behaved the darlings are, there's a growing group of people who wish they weren't around. The new 'childfree' movement sees anklebiters, crib lizards and sprogs wherever they look." This is the first time I have seen the word "sprog," and so far, I am unable to find it in any on-line dictionaries. Any idea what it means? -- Tom Vines, via the internet.

Well, I think it means that the New York Times is paying too much attention to what sounds like a bunch of very unpleasant people. I wonder whether it has ever dawned on these prissy misanthropes (I am picturing the sort of snotty yuppies who used to bill themselves as "Dinks" -- double income, no kids) that they are shortly, by definition, to become extinct. Perhaps we should simply keep quiet and wait, eh?

The word "sprog" is simply British slang for "baby" or "small child." The origin of "sprog" is something of a mystery. It apparently started out as derogatory slang in the British armed services during World War II, first appearing in print in 1941. "Sprog" didn't originally refer to a child; a "sprog" was a new recruit or trainee, an inferior in both rank and social status. As soldiers and sailors left the services at the end of the war, we find "sprog" showing up in civilian use around 1945, for the first time being used to mean "a child or baby."

But "sprog" was apparently a mutation of a much older word, "sprag," which as of 1706 was used to mean "a lively young fellow," and also a young salmon or cod fish. Yet earlier, around 1676, "sprag" meant a spray or twig taken from a bush or other plant, so the sense of something young and green has been constant throughout the evolution of "sprag" and its derivative "sprog."

I always thought it referred to Velveeta.

Dear Word Detective: We were having dinner when dad decided to dazzle us with his knowledge regarding a "square meal." His explanation involved the military and the way you sit in your chair eating your meal. He described forming a square with your upright rigid body then moving your arm (holding your utensil) in a square-like motion in order to get the food to your mouth. What say you? Please advise. Our food is getting cold. -- The Finneys, via the internet.

What say I? I say your dad is one weird fella, although that square-like motion of the arm is apparently the official eating procedure in at least some military academies. In any case "square meal," meaning a full and complete meal, does not refer to the manner of eating, but the quality of the meal consumed.

H.L. Mencken considered "square meal" a classic 18th-century American coinage, a product of what Mencken called "the American language" breaking free of English as spoken in Great Britain. Along with "square meal," Americanisms such as "buzz saw," "cold snap" and "chain gang" combined common English words in entirely new forms, building a whole new vocabulary better suited to the New World. With its "tang and color," Mencken said, "square meal" was "as distinctively American as jazz or the quick lunch."

"Square" (from the Latin "quadra," meaning "four") has always carried meanings that went beyond mere geometry. Long a synonym for "solid" or "steady," "square" in the 16th century also came to mean "fair" or "complete," as in the phrase "fair and square." The distinctively American combination of "square" and "meal" was probably first used by workers, such as farmhands, whose deal with their employers included room and board. In such an arrangement, if the board offered wasn't three full, complete meals --"three squares a day" -- it wasn't a "square deal."

Is it OK to pet the cow?

Dear Word Detective: We recently moved out into the country and have heard the phrase "bumper crop" thrown about. Where did this phrase originate? My husband thinks that there must be something called a bumper at the top of a grain bin and when the bin is full there is a "bumper crop." What do you think? -- Marcia Timmerman, via the internet.

Well, I think the first thing you should do is to warn your husband not to mention his theory to any of the local farmers. Take it from me, nothing launches the average farmer into gales of helpless laughter like the innocent antics of city folks. The first autumn we lived in the country I happened to notice that they were harvesting corn in the field across the road and went over to watch. So shoot me. I was curious. Two years later I am still known around here as "The weirdo who likes to watch corn harvesters."

Of course, if you just leave out the "gizmo in the grain bin" theory and ask your neighbors what "bumper crop" really means, I'll bet they won't know the answer either, because the "bumper" part really doesn't have anything to do with farming.

"Bumper" in this sense is just a superlative, meaning "unusually large or impressive." What makes "bumper crop" seem mysterious is that this "jumbo" sense of "bumper" is now very rare anywhere except in the phrase "bumper crop." But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to hear shopkeepers talk of "bumper business" in the holiday season or even "bumper traffic" on city streets. "Bumper" as a noun was even used as theatrical slang for a sold-out house at a performance.

The logic of this "large" sense of "bumper" is a little hazy, but a clue may be found in its earliest use. A "bumper" in the 17th century was a large glass of beer or wine that was filled to the brim, i.e., with the liquid literally bumping against the rim of the glass. Such abundance was obviously considered a good thing, as "bumper crops" of just about anything have been ever since.

And now, my kazoo rendition of Stairway to Heaven.

Dear Word Detective: I'm going nuts trying to remember a certain word. There's a technical term for the people who stand on the street and play music or juggle or do whatever to entertain people out of their money. I want to say the word incorporates the syllable "bask" in it somewhere. Do you have any idea what word I'm trying to think of? -- Christine Bumpous

The word you're looking for is "busker," but to say that a busker's intent is simply "to entertain people out of their money" seems a bit harsh. Some buskers have loftier goals. When I worked in Manhattan several years ago, there was a very cultivated older man who spent the every morning playing his violin on the subway platform nearest my apartment. At first I thought he did it for the money subway riders tossed in his violin case. But after a few weeks I realized that the only piece of music he knew was the theme from "The Godfather" and that he was playing it over and over again because he wanted to drive everyone on the platform insane.

Today we use "busker" to mean an itinerant musician or other entertainer who puts on impromptu shows on the street or in other unorthodox venues in the hopes, in return, of gathering monetary contributions from passersby. But in the 19th century, "buskers" took a somewhat more active approach to money-making. The verb "to busk" comes from the obsolete French word "busquer," meaning "to filch, to prowl or to catch." When "to busk" entered English around 1665, it was as a nautical term meaning "to cruise around, tacking with the wind," and by 1734, figuratively "to seek." By 1867, "to busk" meant "to cruise the seas as a pirate," seeking prey.

But by about 1851, "to busk" was also being used in its modern sense to describe artisans or entertainers who went from tavern to tavern in search of buyers or an audience. And while today's buskers may drive us a bit nuts, they cannot make us walk the plank.

Stop that.

Dear Word Detective: My mom has picked up the word "corker" from my grandma. What does it mean? Where is it from? One example of context I can think of is my mom calling my grandma a "corker" when she was crabby. -- Michele Hoffman, via the internet.

I was going to ask whether it was your mom or your grandma who was cranky, but I guess it works either way. "Corker" is a fine old word, though, like many fine old words, it seems to be virtually extinct today. As a matter of fact, the only use of "corker" that I can dredge out of my memory at the moment is from the film "The Maltese Falcon," and I'm not even sure about that. But I seem to remember Sidney Greenstreet exclaiming to Humphrey Bogart, "By gad, Sir, you are a corker!" Or maybe he said "a pip!" Oh well. If I'm wrong I'm sure someone (or several hundred someones) will let me know.

I suspect we can trace the decline of "corker" to the invention of screw tops for bottles. Up until then, bottles, jugs and the like were most often sealed with corks, which (and I find it frightening to feel that I should explain this) are stoppers made from cork, the bark of the cork-oak tree. Bottles of wine above a certain caliber, of course, still come with corks.

Corks provide an excellent, airtight means of closing a container, and this quality is the basis of the two related slang senses of "corker." The earlier sense, appearing around 1837, is "something that closes or definitively settles a discussion," something so astounding that no more can be said or done. A "corker" in this sense can be either good or bad.

The second sense of "corker," an extension of the first appearing around 1882, is "something of extraordinary excellence, a stunner." This sense is often used ironically or sarcastically, and it seems likely that your mother was using the term in this sarcastic sense, the equivalent of saying "You're amazing."

On the other hand, it does explain
why the cat sticks to the refrigerator.

Dear Word Detective: I'd like to know the origin of the word "mesmerize." My friend and I have tossed ideas back and forth and have decided that it comes from a German showman (Herr Mesmer?) who used to hypnotize patrons of sideshows or a traveling circus in the late 19th century. -- Farnac, via the internet.

Golly, you and your friend must be mildly psychic. You got a few of the details wrong, but you were correct in guessing that "mesmerize" is an eponym, a word formed from the name of a person or place. In the case of "mesmerize," the person was an Austrian (not German) physician named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who managed in the course of his long career to be spectacularly wrong about almost everything, yet still demonstrate (without realizing it) an important principle of modern medicine.

Although Dr. Mesmer graduated from a prestigious medical school in Vienna, he was a pretty weird dude right from the git-go. In his doctoral thesis, Mesmer proposed the existence of a mysterious universal force, which he would later dub "animal magnetism," that permeated and governed all living things. Mesmer believed that he could manipulate this force, and cure his patients, simply by stroking them with magnets. Not surprisingly, Mesmer was quickly adjudged a quack and run out of Vienna, but he soon landed in Paris, where he became a favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette and her court. Fashionable Parisians flocked to Mesmer's group sessions, where patients would hold hands and dip their feet in tubs of "magnetized" water, while Mesmer pranced around them speaking softly and waving a magic wand. Many of his patients reported miraculous cures.

But what Mesmer had actually done, without realizing it, was to hypnotize his patients into thinking they were cured, which in many cases worked because they weren't really very sick to begin with. Mesmer was eventually discredited by a scientific commission (which included Benjamin Franklin), but his name was immortalized as a synonym for "hypnotize," and the principle that a patient's belief in a cure can be a significant factor in recovery is widely accepted today.


I gotta go now.

Dear Word Detective: Having returned from a fishing trip where pike were not our sought-after fish, I wondered where the phrase "He is a real piker" came from. Any clues? -- Robert Levine, Old Greenwich, CT.

I'll give it a shot, but there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to your question. The basic sense of "pike" as a noun is "something sharply pointed," especially a staff with a pointed end. The "pike" fish is so named because it possesses a long, pointed beak.

Untangling the history of "piker" takes a bit of doing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a "piker" is "A cautious or timid gambler who makes only small bets; a person who takes no chances; a ‘poor sport’ ... a shirker." A "piker," in short, is no fun at all.

There are a number of theories about the origin of "piker." The OED traces the word to the antiquated verb "to pike," meaning "to leave," which would certainly fit in with the sense of "cautious or timid." Originally, "to pike oneself" meant to obtain a pike or walking stick in preparation for leaving. "To pike" in this sense first appeared around 1420, and by 1889 "to pike" was being used in America to mean "to hold back or back out" in gambling.

Another possibility is that "piker" is rooted in the old British slang term "piker" meaning "tramp," from vagrants who traveled the "turnpikes," or toll roads. (The "pike" in "turnpike" was the barrier at toll booths which was "turned" to allow passage after payment of the toll.)

And yet another possibility, mentioned by Hugh Rawson in his book "Wicked Words," is that "piker" arose on the U.S. West Coast during the 1800s as a derogatory term for someone from Pike County, Missouri. Rawson points to "Okie," used in the 1930s as a derogatory term for migrants from Oklahoma, as a parallel to this possible origin of "piker."

If I had to pick one of the above theories, I'd go with the first, since "piker" in its modern sense seems to fit so well with the original "getting ready to leave" connotation.

Not to mention all those slobbering angels.

Dear Word Detective: I'm looking for a definition and origin of the word "twee." I believe it means "too sweet" or "coy," but I am flummoxed about its origin, or whether or not it's even a real word. --Dori, via the internet.

Yes, "twee" is most definitely a real word, and means, as you've guessed, "overly sweet" in a figurative sense, precious, overly-sentimental or mawkish. Something that is "twee" is so achingly adorable and cloyingly cuddly that any rational adult will feel nauseated, not charmed. The creepy and inexplicably popular "wide-eyed child" paintings popular in the U.S. during the 1960s were a good example of "twee."

The fact that you're not familiar with "twee" indicates that you're probably not a resident of Great Britain, since the term is very common over there. One mighty be tempted to attribute the currency of the critical term "twee" in Britain to the more refined cultural sensibilities of the British public, but in view of the fact that these folks inflicted the ghastly Teletubbies on the rest of us, such a theory clearly does not hold water.

Although "twee" may strike American ears as mysterious, its origin was actually quite straightforward. It's short for "tweet," which in turn is an imitation (in this case) of a small child's pronunciation of the word "sweet." ("Tweet," of course, can also be an imitation of the sound a bird makes. Tweety Bird's name was thus an invocation of both the "bird sound" and "sweet" connotations of "tweet," although Tweety himself was fairly edgy and not really all that sweet. My apologies for the digression. I tawt I taw a cultural insight dere.)

When "twee" first appeared around 1905 it was used as a simple synonym for "sweet" and carried no noxious connotations, but within a few years its use had narrowed and it has been used ever since in a purely sarcastic sense. Today almost anything that strives too hard to be adorable or affecting, from Disney's simpering cartoon epics to Martha Stewart's holiday decorating hints, could justifiably be described as "twee."




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