Issue of November 27, 2001


Well, it's that time of year again. Sleighbells jingle, sawbucks crinkle, and I debase myself by shamelessly trying to skim off a bit of that holiday moolah. So here's the deal: subscribe to the bi-weekly e-mail version of The Word Detective (at the standard pittance of $15 per year) between now and December 31, and for an additional five bucks (i.e., a grand total of $20) we'll throw in a second subscription! Obviously, no sane person would need two copies of my deathless prose, but recent clinical studies have shown that TWD-by-E-Mail makes a lovely holiday gift for that special someone, especially if that special someone perhaps isn't quite special enough to merit a trip to the mall. The benefits of subscribing to TWD-by-E-Mail are described in seductive detail right here.

If, however, you aren't quite ready to subscribe and simply feel the urge to drop a few shillings in my tattered hat just because you like this site, feel free to make use of the "Honor System" icon at the bottom of this page.

Speaking of things for sale, while I am not selling the hardback collection of Word Detective columns (and more!) through this web site at the moment, any decent bookstore is bound to have piles of it, and you can also order it in two shakes of a lamb's tail through by clicking here.

And while we're on the subject of money, it pains me to report that the idiots at Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, have decided to eliminate (eliminate!) the Random House Dictionaries Division, an act of cultural vandalism which I trust will appall you as profoundly as it does me. Along with the demise of an excellent line of dictionaries, this has resulted in the loss of a fine web site, the Mavens' Word of the Day, established several years ago by our pal Jesse Sheidlower and run since Jesse's departure to the OED by a talented cast of lexicographers. I am told that the archives of the Mavens' Word of the Day will continue to remain online for the time being, but you'd best pay a visit soon, before the greedy little beancounters at Bertelsmann deep six the whole shebang.

And now, on with the show...

Out to lunch at the laughing academy.

Dear Word Detective: A friend and I were having a conversation in which I described the chaotic condition at my home (two very active children) as "bedlam." It struck me as funny that I had no idea of this word's origin. My friend insists that it comes from insane asylums where the patient was "bed lame" and "bedlam" was actually a word describing the patient as well as the establishment. -- Linette Redding, via the internet.

Well, first of all, they're no longer called "insane asylums." The preferred terms at the moment seem to be "mental health facility" or "mental hospital," jettisoning the sense of both confinement and chaos found in such predecessors as "insane asylum" and "madhouse." Mental health, or the impairment thereof, has been a rich source of euphemisms in English over the last few centuries, and almost as soon as one polite term has gained wide acceptance, it has been deemed crude, unscientific or disrespectful and replaced by a new, more refined term. "Crazy," originally adopted as a substitute for "mad," was replaced by "insane," then "lunatic," then "mentally deranged" and so on, down to our modern "mentally ill." Ordinarily I have no use for euphemisms, but one can hardly object to a more understanding and humane approach to folks who are already having a bad time.

Your friend's theory about "bedlam" being a mutation of "bed lame" is creative, but unnecessary. The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem was established in London in 1247, and had become famous as a "madhouse," or insane asylum, by 1402. By 1547 it was incorporated as a Royal foundation "for the reception of lunatics." As the "Bethlehem" hospital became more famous, the name was shortened in popular speech to "Bethleem," "Bedlem," and finally "Bedlam." Simultaneously, "Bedlam" became a popular synonym for any "madhouse," and by the 17th century "bedlam" was being used to mean any scene of great confusion or uproar.

Um, I guess I'll try the Cheeseburger Vindaloo.

Dear Word Detective: Please help me trace the history of word "curry." I shall be grateful. -- R.K.Saxena, Uttar Pradesh, India.

You and me both. Your question is the closest I've been to Indian food, of which I am very fond, since I moved to rural Ohio. New York City has all sorts of really good Indian restaurants, but those of us who live in the boondocks are apparently out of luck. Then again, having seen what the folks around here do to pizza, I should probably count my blessings.

"Curry," of course, is a mainstay of Indian cuisine and probably the most popular category of Indian food found here in the U.S. A "curry" is basically a sort of stew containing vegetables, spices and usually some kind of meat, often served over rice. While we usually think of "curry" as a very spicy dish, there are also many subtle and mild curries. The origin of "curry" is actually rather straightforward: it comes from Tamil, a language found primarily in Southeastern India and Sri Lanka. The Tamil word "kari" means "sauce or relish for rice," and first appeared in English in the form "carriel" in the 16th century. Subsequent forms included "carree," "carrye" and "kerry" before our modern spelling "curry" became current in the 18th century.

There is, by the way, another sort of "curry" in English, meaning "to brush or groom a horse" (from the Latin "conredare," meaning "to prepare"), most often heard in the phrase "to curry favor." The allegorical novel "Roman de Fauvel," published in France in 1310, recounted the exploits of a clever horse named "Fauvel," evidently a cross between Mr. Ed and Sergeant Bilko. Fauvel was a devious and manipulative critter, a first-class oat-burning Machiavellian, and widely admired by humans, who flattered and pampered him in hopes of enlisting his skills for their own ends. "To curry Fauvel" thus meant to ingratiate oneself with someone in power.

While "Roman de Fauvel" was a hit in its day, that day was 1310, and times change. As memory of the clever horse faded in the public mind, the phrase was corrupted to "curry favor," although the general meaning of the phrase remains intact to this day.

Stalking the wild Doe.

Dear Word Detective: Can you please tell me the origin of the expression "John or Jane Doe" used for an unidentified person? I've searched the net, asked anyone I could think of and bought etymology books hoping to get an answer. I guess everyone knows how it feels to be obsessed by something. I just can't give up until find the answer! -- Hanne Svendsen, Oslo, Norway.

Well, I guess it beats being obsessed by baseball statistics or collecting bits of twine. Actually, on a more serious note, your kind of obsession is the source of much of what we know about word origins, especially the origins of slang terms and popular phrases.

In any case, you've picked a good question to become obsessed about, because the use of "John Doe" and "Jane Doe" as stand-ins for the names of unidentified persons is so widespread in everyday life that most of us never think to wonder why that should be.

Fortunately, I happen to have on my shelf a fine book called "What's In A Name?" by the learned and prolific Paul Dickson (Merriam-Webster, 1996) which deals with just this sort of question. It turns out that the "John Doe" custom dates back to the reign of England's King Edward III, during the legal debate over something called the Acts of Ejectment. This debate involved a hypothetical landowner, referred to as "John Doe," who leased land to another man, the equally fictitious "Richard Roe," who then took the land as his own and "ejected," or evicted, poor "John Doe."

These names -- John Doe and Richard Roe -- had no particular significance, aside from "Doe" (a female deer) and "Roe" (a small species of deer found in Europe) being commonly known nouns at the time. But the debate became a hallmark of legal theory, and the name "John Doe" in particular gained wide currency in both the legal world and general usage as a generic stand-in for any unnamed person. According to Mr. Dickson, "John Doe" and "Richard Roe" are, to this day, mandated in legal procedure as the first and second names given to unknown defendants in a case (followed, if necessary, by "John Stiles" and "Richard Miles"). The name "Jane Doe," a logical female equivalent, is used in many state jurisdictions, but if the case is federal, the unnamed defendant is dubbed "Mary Major."


Sopping good.

Dear Word Detective: I came across the word "milquetoast" recently. I had heard the word numerous times and associated it with a person who was weak, ineffectual, etc. I had assumed that it was spelled "milktoast" and meant the milk-soaked bread given to invalids in Victorian novels. I was, therefore, surprised to see it spelled in such a way as to imply a French language connection. To the best of my recollection, "milque" is not French for "milk." Can you explain where I've gone wrong? -- April Q., via the internet.

Drat. I had hoped that I would never have to think about milktoast ever again, and now here I am writing about the stuff. I vividly remember being at a friend's house at breakfast time when I was about 12 and watching in amazement as he eagerly gobbled down what he called "milktoast." For the next two decades I thought this ghastly dish was merely an unpleasant aberration in his family, until I discovered that my wife Kathy was also raised on, and loves, milktoast. So far I've prevented her from actually making the stuff, but she still talks about it from time to time.

Milktoast, for the benefit of those lucky enough to be hearing of it for the first time, is diabolically simple to make. Basically, you take a slice of bread, toast it lightly, put it on a plate, butter it if you're really hard-core, and then pour warm milk over it. True thrill-seekers then sprinkle sugar on it. Although this concoction certainly sounds like something invented to torture the long-suffering British schoolboy, the Oxford English Dictionary maintains that the term "milk-toast" is an American creation, dating back to around 1855.

While milktoast may be a comfort food for many, and probably suitable fare for a teething infant or sickly child, it's hardly the breakfast of champions. In fact, "milksop" (a similar dish made with untoasted bread) has been used as a synonym for "wimp" or "coward" since Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 1386. So in 1924, when H.T. Webster, a cartoonist for the old New York Herald Tribune, needed a name for a spineless, timid character, he gave the world Caspar Milquetoast. The strip proved so popular that the character's name, complete with its faux-fancy spelling, became a popular metaphor for "hopelessly timid wimp."

Batter up.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the connection, if any, between "waffle," the sort that people eat for breakfast, and "waffle," meaning "to waver"? While you're at it, are Belgian waffles really from Belgium? -- Robert McGuiness, Toledo, OH.

Someone once told me that the secret of supermarket survival was never to shop when you're hungry, and I suspect the same holds true for writing this column. Here's the definition of "waffle" (the food) from the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary: "A small crisp batter-cake, baked in a waffle-iron, and eaten hot with syrup, butter, etc." I'll take two dozen with extra syrup.

It would make sense if there were some connection between the two kinds of "waffle." The waffle we eat is notable for its back-and-forth honeycomb shape and its light texture, and one can imagine it becoming a metaphor for vacillation or lack of resolve. But it turns out that the two "waffles" come from entirely different sources. "Waffle" (the food) is based on the Dutch word "wafel," also the source of our word "wafer." "Waffle" has been in English since at least 1744, and the first known mention in print describes a "waffle-frolic," evidently a social function devoted to making and eating waffles. Sign me up.

"Waffle," meaning to waver, equivocate, and generally make noises like a politician, comes from a remarkably appropriate source. While we would usually say that the noise a dog makes is "woof," in the 17th century people heard it as "waff," and making pointless, empty chatter or gossip was known as "waffling." The sense of "meaningless chatter" eventually carried over into what we call "waffling," giving empty answers to serious questions.

As for "Belgian waffles," served topped with ice cream, it is unclear whether the Belgians have ever heard of them, but they strike me as a great idea.

Because Count Chocula needed glasses, that's why.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering how the grapefruit got its name. It certainly is not a fruit of the grape, to which it bears no resemblance. -- R. C., Old Greenwich, CT.

How the grapefruit got its name is a question perennially posed by children at the breakfast table. This is, of course, precisely the time of day when the parent is least equipped to either remember the correct answer or concoct a plausible substitute. Unfortunately, if the child does not receive a convincing answer about grapefruit, he or she is likely to progress to yet more embarrassing questions -- regarding eggplant, for instance. Therefore, we suggest that the following answer be kept at the ready, perhaps taped to the sugar bowl.

Grapefruit is called grapefruit not because it is in any way related to grapes, which it is not, but because it grows in bunches, as grapes grow. "Grapefruit" first appeared in English around 1814. The Oxford English Dictionary sums up grapefruit thusly: "The globular fruit of Citrus paradisi, having a yellow skin and pale yellow (occas. pink), juicy, acid pulp."

That's it: that's the entire answer. Now, no child worth his or her salt will be satisfied with such a simple answer, but parents who keep their cool can dazzle the kid with a few facts about our pal the grapefruit. For instance, in many places around the world, grapefruit are known as "pomelos," which in turn is short for "pompelmous," which is the Dutch name for the shaddock tree. A shaddock is a fruit very closely related to the grapefruit, but shaped like a big pear. And why, I hear a small voice ask, is it called a shaddock? Because way back in 1696, an English seafarer named Captain Shaddock brought the first pompelmous seeds to Jamaica from the East Indies. By this point the child will be utterly bored with grapefruit, and will have begun to wonder, ever so quietly at first, about eggplant.

Perchance to scream.

Dear Word Detective: Why do we use the word "hello" when answering the telephone? I understand "hello" is an exclamation of greeting or response, but why not "heaven-o"? By the way, I bet you enjoy playing Scrabble. -- Valerie L., Wallingford, CT.

No, actually, I intensely dislike playing Scrabble, and have been known to abruptly bolt from any social gathering where the game is even mentioned. I am also allergic to "Pictionary," and break out in a vivid purple rash if I find myself with ten feet of a crossword puzzle. Part of my reluctance to participate in such jolly pastimes is due, I must admit, to the expectation among the assembled revelers that I will prove myself preternaturally "good at" such games, which I am not. I am good at funny hats and penguin jokes. I am not good at word games.

Reading between the lines of your letter, I deduce that you suspect that the greeting "hello" probably has some connection to the modern English word "hell," but that is not the case. As I explained a few months ago to a reader who had heard that the word "luck" was derived from "Lucifer" (which it isn't), the impulse to replace words containing "bad parts" such as "hello" with concoctions along the lines of "heaven-o" has no logical basis in the history of the words. "Hello" first appeared in common usage in the 19th century, but it followed a long series of related greetings ("hallo," "hollo," "holla" and others) that date back to at least the 16th century and were probably originally invented as simply a way to catch someone's attention. Our modern English "hell," on the other hand, harks back to an ancient Indo-European root meaning "hidden place," a root that also gave us our modern "hall."

One might, of course, argue that, even though there is no linguistic connection between "hell" and "hello," nothing will be lost by substituting "heaven-o." And, indeed, one county in Texas decided a few years ago to officially banish "hello" despite strenuous testimony by linguists as to the facts. There's no accounting for taste, I guess, but I wonder why they stopped with "hello." What about "shell" and "shellac" and "Shelly"? Or "vaudeville," which contains "devil"? Personally, anyone who wants to ban "devilled" eggs has my support, but I plan to keep saying "hello," at least to anyone who isn't waving a Scrabble board in my direction.

Fine kettle of fish, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: Someone asked me why these countries whose names are so in the news today (Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.), all seem to end in "stan." Can you please tell me why? -- Donna Clark, via the internet.

Sometimes I suspect that I could keep passably current with the news of the day simply by reading the questions addressed to this column. Not that I would try, of course, and not that I haven't been turned into a 24/7 news watcher by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. But questions about the "stan" ending of the names of so many of the relevant countries have been flowing into my mailbox at a rate comparable only to the torrent of questions I received about "chad" in late 2000. That seems so long ago now.

Onward. I actually knew the answer to this question and was just about to go looking for some more details when I stumbled across a very helpful (translation: did my work for me) article on the subject by Chris Suellentrop in the online magazine Slate ( "Stan" in several Middle and Near Eastern languages means "land," so "Afghanistan" simply means "Land of the Afghans," "Uzbekistan" translates as "Land of the Uzbeks," and so on. "Pakistan" is a bit fancier, meaning "Land of the Pure." According to the Slate article, there are seven countries ending in "istan" or "stan": Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. I happen to know of one other region ending in "stan" not mentioned in the article, Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, and there may well be others, but I seem to have misplaced my map.

While we're at it, the term "Taliban" is based on the Arabic word "talib," meaning "student," reflecting the organization's roots in schools of Islamic theology. And "al-Qaeda," Osamu bin Laden's organization, is Arabic for "the base" or, more colloquially, "the military command."

Interestingly enough, given the current situation, one other use of "istan" may be worth mentioning. "Afghanistanism" was a term coined in the mid-20th century to criticize the tendency of news media to concentrate on happenings in remote corners of the world to the exclusion of covering problems closer to home. But Afghanistan, of course, no longer seems so far away.

With feathers, to go.

Dear Word Detective: Recently a lady sent me an email in which she noted that the latest version of our art guild newsletter was the last that I would edit, and called it my "swan song." The phrase has been rattling around in my head since, in part because as far as I know, swans don't sing. Do you know its origin? -- Craig MacKenna, Los Gatos, CA.

Well, swans may not sing, but I have it on good authority that they are excellent dancers. Does "Swan Lake" ring a bell? But seriously, according to Christine Ammer's dandy book "It's Raining Cats and Dogs ... and Other Beastly Expressions," the swan's reputation for silence is something of a myth. The Mute Swan, the species most often found in parks and similar venues, is actually not mute and is perfectly capable of making all sorts of amusing noises. Apparently it just doesn't feel like talking most of the time.

This reticence of swans was apparently the source of the myth that they cannot sing, which led, in turn, to the even stranger myth that a swan on the verge of death breaks into a beautiful song. This "swan-song" was, according to Plato, an expression of joy by the swan, welcoming death and the prospect of joining Apollo, the god of music.

The myth of the swan song may sound to us like something Andrew Lloyd Webber might cook up, but evidently this little story had legs, as they say in Hollywood, and has found a place in the works of many great writers. Shakespeare in particular was quite fond of swan songs, and trotted out references to the myth in several of his works. The precise phrase "swan song," however, didn't appear in print until 1831. As a metaphor, "swan song" today means the last words or last great works of a person, most often an artist, or the final gesture of some other entity (as in "The purchase of Ferraris for the mailroom staff was the swan song of the dot-com").

Stop fuming and finish your fries, Timmy.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading your book (which I really enjoyed, by the way) and someone asked me the origin of the word "sweepstakes." I checked your book but it didn't cover it. So I thought I would write and ask you. -- Michael H. Campbell, via the internet.

Well, my book does cover "jackpot," which is pretty close, considering the size of the English language. Incidentally (yeah, right), the book to which Mr. Campbell refers is a collection of my columns, brilliantly entitled "The Word Detective," available from Algonquin Books (or Plume, if you'd prefer the cheapo paperback version without the stunning picture of me on the jacket).

When we speak of a "sweepstakes" today we mean, of course, a contest or lottery of some sort in which contestants either buy or are given chances to win a large prize. The result of a "sweepstakes," unlike that of a game of skill such as poker, is ruled (or is supposed to be ruled, anyway) entirely by chance, and is usually determined in a random drawing of some sort. Although today's sweepstakes often award second, third, and even fifth and sixth prizes, the original concept of a sweepstakes was not so generous, and thereby hangs the origin of the term. "Sweepstakes," which first appeared in the "contest" sense in the late 18th century, originally meant a game in which the winner would "sweep," or take all of, the "stakes," or contributions of the other players. (An earlier, now obsolete, sense of "sweepstakes" meant the person who won the game, or the act itself of winning everything. "Sweepstakes" was at one time a popular name for ships.)

Since you're just about to ask, I should say that the origin of "stake" in the sense of the funds or goods "kicked in" by each player in a game is unknown. It may (or may not) come from the tradition of each contestant in a sporting match hanging the article of clothing or other goods to be risked from a stake or pole prior to the start of play.

Please release me.

Dear Word Detective: I was recently watching an old Little Rascals short in which Alfalfa was bested in a wrestling match by Porky. Since Porky is much smaller and younger than Alfalfa this was rather humorous. As Porky sat on Alfalfa's chest he told Alfalfa to say "Uncle" before he would let him up. How did the word "Uncle" come to mean "I surrender?" -- B. Kent, via the internet.

Revisiting the Golden Age of American Culture, are we? Count me in. As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering writing a book entitled "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from the Three Stooges." Nyuk nyuk. Anyway, your question struck a chord with me because I recall spending the better part of my childhood "saying uncle" to a seemingly endless series of larger, stronger opponents. And that was just in my immediate family.

The exact origin of "say uncle" or "cry uncle," an American invention first appearing in written English around 1918, is unclear, but there are, as usual, some interesting theories. One theory posits that "uncle" is actually a mangled form of the Irish word "anacol," meaning "protection" or "safety," making a demand from an aggressor to "cry uncle" equivalent to the thug demanding that his victim "cry for help" as a signal of surrender. There's no real evidence to support this theory, but there certainly was no lack of recent Irish immigrants in the U.S. around the turn of the century, so it's not entirely implausible.

The other popular theory about "cry uncle" suggests that the phrase may actually be thousands of years old, and that its origins go all the way back to the Roman Empire. According to this theory, Roman children, when beset by a bully, would be forced to say "Patrue, mi Patruissimo," or "Uncle, my best Uncle," in order to surrender and be freed. As to precisely why Ancient Roman bullies forced their victims to "cry uncle," opinions vary. It may be that the ritual was simply a way of making the victim call out for help from a grownup, thus proving his or her helplessness. Alternatively, it may have started as a way of forcing the victim to grant the bully a title of respect -- in Roman times, your father's brother was accorded nearly the same power and status as your father. The form of "uncle" used in the Latin phrase ("patrue") tends to support this theory, inasmuch as it specifically denoted your paternal uncle, as opposed to the brother of your mother ("avunculus"), who occupied a somewhat lower rung in patrilineal Roman society.


A whiter shade of crushed bugs.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the names of colors come from? -- K. Baker, via the internet.

Well, that's a rather large question for one small column, but I think we'll have time to cover some of the more interesting colors, and we can narrow the topic somewhat by only dealing with those colors whose roots meant something other than the color itself. "Red," for instance, can be traced way back to the Sanskrit word "rudhira," but that's not much fun because "rudhira" just meant "red." "Purple," on the other hand, comes ultimately from the Greek word "porphura," a type of mollusc used in producing purple and crimson dyes. "Crimson," to continue in this vein, comes from the Arabic "qirmiz," a type of insect ground up to produce vivid red dye.

"Green" has a nice, logical root, being an outgrowth of the Old English word "grene," meaning "to grow." (In fact, the same root also gave us both "grass" and "grow.") "Orange" comes originally from the Sanskrit word "naranga" (orange tree), and the story of the word "orange," by the way, is a fascinating one. The fruit itself originated in China, and as it slowly worked its way westward through India to the Middle East and then through Europe to England, the spread of the fruit is perfectly mirrored in the development of words for the color "orange" in every language it encountered.

Many other color names are based, again quite logically, on the words for things of that color. "Maroon," for instance, comes from the Italian word "marrone," which means "chestnut." "Vermillion," a vivid shade of red, takes its name from the Latin "vermiculus," a kind of red worm. "Turquoise," the light greenish-blue color, takes its name from "turquoise," the stone, which in turn is an Old French word for "Turkish," Turkey being the primary source of turquoise back then.

Other color names are based on more general properties of the color. "Blue," for instance, comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning "to shine, flash or burn," the same root which gave us, among other words, bleak, bleach, blaze, blemish, blind, blond, blush and black. "White" came from a different Indo-European for "shining," which also gave us the word "wheat," which produces a shining white flour when ground.

Lastly, the folks back then must have been fond of shining things, because yet another root word meaning "shining" gave us our word "yellow," as well as a remarkable range of words including gold, gleam, glimmer, glad, glee, glow and glide.

Wooly bully.

Dear Word Detective: I am unable to find the definition and origin of the phrase "on the lamb," as in a criminal hiding from the law. Can you help? -- Dave G., via the internet.

I'll be glad to. Back in the days of yore, a common ruse employed by a malefactor seeking to elude justice was to disguise himself by dressing up as a sheep. Cloaked in the pelt of a lamb, the evil-doer would then take refuge in the midst of a large flock of sheep, shuffling and baa-ing along with the wooly horde while his pursuers scratched their heads in puzzlement. It wasn't until Sherlock Holmes developed his brilliant "Mint Sauce Test" (from which any genuine sheep would instinctively flee) that this "on the lamb" gambit was conclusively foiled.

Oops. Sorry. I've just been informed by my assistant that the phrase you're probably asking about is "on the lam," not "lamb." Well, the confusion is natural, given that most people don't pronounce the "b" in "lamb." In any case, I actually covered this "on the lam" thing a few years back, but you were probably taking a vacation day, so we'll do it again.

"On the lam" has been popular American slang for "on the run" since at least the latter part of the 19th century. The root of "lam" is the Old Norse word "lamja," meaning "to make lame," and the original meaning of "lam," when it first appeared in English back in the 16th century, was "to beat soundly." The English word "lame" is from the same source, as is "lambaste," a double whammy in that the "baste" part is from a Scandinavian root meaning "thrash or flog."

The change in the meaning of "lam" from "beat" to "run away" probably echoed another slang term for running away -- "beat it." To "beat it" or "lam it" is to rapidly beat the road with one's feet by running, just as sheep do when they smell mint sauce.

The Will to Whack.

Dear Word Detective: I have been a radio listener for many years. I always thought that the term "lead-pipe cinch" had to do with the fact that in the early days of radio, an antenna and a ground were used to receive radio stations. Generally the ground was the cold-water pipe coming into one's house, which was made of lead. A radio station that was so strong and therefore so easy to receive that it needed only a ground connection to be heard was therefore dubbed a "lead-pipe cinch." -- Vince Cavaseno, Publisher, Supply Chain Management Review.

Well, that's a new one on me. As an avid shortwave listener myself, I can vouch for the fact that a good ground connection can increase the apparent strength of signals, and I have no doubt that "grounding" the household set to a lead pipe was standard practice at one time. And a strong local signal certainly might be audible with just a ground and no antenna.

I doubt, however, that this practice gave us "lead-pipe cinch," meaning "a sure thing." ("Cinch," the strap that secures a saddle to a horse, has been slang for "something easy or certain" since the late 19th century.) Aside from the fact that grounding one's radio seems a fairly esoteric source for what became such a popular phrase, there is the problem of timing. "Lead-pipe cinch" had appeared in the popular vocabulary by 1890 at the latest, quite a while before Joe Schmoe was grounding his Atwater Kent.

As for other theories about the origin of "lead-pipe cinch," there are several. A few years ago etymologist Barry Popik uncovered the earliest use in print of "lead-pipe cinch" yet found (in an 1890 issue of The Sporting News) in an article that purports to explain the phrase by reference to the story of a man who jumped off a boat into New York's East River. A bystander then bet the other passengers that the man would not resurface, which he indeed did not. The bettor later told the crowd that the jumper had confided to him his suicidal intentions and revealed that he had weighted himself with 100 pounds of lead pipe, thus making the grisly bet "a lead-pipe cinch." This heartwarming story, alas, strikes me as profoundly improbable.

Other theories tend to focus on the reliability of lead-pipe plumbing or the use of a lead pipe to tighten the cinch securing a horse's saddle, but my favorite traces the phrase to pieces of lead pipe used as blackjacks by criminals. After all, with a lead pipe in your hand and the willingness to whack folks with it, almost anything becomes "a cinch."

Things fall apart.

Dear Word Detective: Would you please tell me the difference, if any, between "ravel" and "unravel"? The other day I heard Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference answering a reporter's question about whether the anti-terrorism coalition was "unraveling." Rumsfeld said that the coalition couldn't be "unraveling" because it had never "raveled" in the first place. I had always assumed, as Secretary Rumsfeld apparently does, that the two words were opposites, with "ravel" meaning "to knit together" and "unravel" meaning "to fall apart." But then I looked up "ravel" and discovered that my dictionary lists one of the meanings of "ravel" as "unravel." What's going on here? -- Ed F., via the internet.

Sounds like a conspiracy to me, dude. Actually, if you want to hear something truly spooky, close your eyes next time Secretary Rumsfeld appears on TV. Now quick, who does he sound like? Henry Fonda, that's who. I kid you not. I'm still trying to figure out who's playing Dick Cheney.

"Ravel" and "unravel" are inherently confusing words. They both mean "to untangle" and thus "unravel" is an exception to the general rule in English that putting the prefix "un" before a word reverses its meaning.

"Raveling" and "unraveling" can be positive or negative, depending on what's being untangled. Either word can mean to "separate the fibers or threads of," or in a more figurative sense to clarify a situation by separating its aspects, as in "unraveling a mystery". But both words can also mean to undo an orderly arrangement and thus to tangle or complicate, as in "The pilots' strike unraveled Bob's vacation plans." A check of the origin of "ravel" shows that it comes from the Dutch word "rafelen," meaning unravel (or presumably ravel), which in turn comes from the obsolete Dutch word "ravelen," meaning "to entangle," all of which makes one wonder what the Dutch word for aspirin might be.

In practical usage, I'm afraid the only clue as to which meaning is intended is likely to be the context, and whether the raveling or unraveling is constructive or destructive. Pity the poor cat who ravels Grandma's knitting, but the news analyst who unravels the latest Congressional budget plan is to be praised. Of course, if his or her sanity is unraveled in the process no one should be surprised.

Jeez, no wonder the bugs don't like us.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the slang term "shellacked" meaning "drunk" came from? Does it have anything to do with drinking shellac? -- B.D., via the Internet.

I actually answered this question a few years ago, and I still believe the research I did back then took a few years off my life because I ended up knowing quite a bit more about shellac than I ever wanted to know. Did you know, for instance, that shellac is made from a gooey substance secreted by a certain kind of insect (known to its friends as Laccifer Lacca, since you asked) that lives in India? Did you know that shellac (or, more properly, "lac," the sticky resin from which shellac is made) is harvested by boiling twigs gathered from the trees where these little insects live? Did you know that "lac" comes from the Persian word for "hundred thousand," referring to the number of insects it takes to make one pound of shellac? Did you know all that? Well, I didn't until I looked it up, and I haven't slept very well ever since.

Shellac was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century and used for making everything from furniture varnish to, much later, phonograph records. In a slang sense, "shellacked" can mean either "very drunk" or "badly beaten or vanquished." Both of these senses date back to the early 20th century, but no one seems to know for sure why "shellac" should mean either of these things. I would guess that it comes from the fact that shellacking is often the last step in furniture manufacture, so when someone is "shellacked," he or she is absolutely, positively finished and done. The "very drunk" sense of "shellac" may also be a reference to liquor so strong (or cheap) that it tastes like shellac.

Etymology uncorked.

Dear Word Detective: My friends and I were pondering over the expression "willy-nilly," and we came to the conclusion that the "nilly" part may have been derived from the Latin "nihilo" (meaning "nothing"), together with "will," meaning "in spite of his or her will." (For example, "She packed him off willy nilly to Nova Scotia.") However, since this deduction was preceded by two bottles of Bordeaux, it now seems rather ridiculous in the cold light of this morning. Could you clarify? -- L., Paris.

I'll try, but first I'd like to explore what Hollywood would call the "backstory" of your question. Correct me if I'm wrong. You and your friends spend a lively evening in Paris, whooping it up and guzzling expensive French wine, probably dancing in fountains and hanging by your toes from the Eiffel Tower. Finally, lounging in some degenerate dive near dawn, you fall to debating word origins, and decide to write me to ask if your drunken parsing of "willy-nilly" might, by chance, be correct.

I, meanwhile, am sitting surrounded by soybean fields in rural Ohio, eating stale pretzels and watching "The Out of Towners" on satellite TV for the 387th time. OK. Sounds fair to me. But wait, it gets better.

The scary thing about your theory is that it is actually essentially correct. Although today many of us use "willy-nilly" to mean "haphazardly" (as in "She scattered wine bottles willy-nilly in her wake"), the original meaning was "willingly or unwillingly" (as in your Nova Scotia example). When "willy-nilly" first appeared in English around 1600, it was as a contraction of the phrase "will ye, nill ye," meaning "whether you (ye) are willing or not willing." And the archaic word "nill" found in "willy-nilly," which meant "to be unwilling," does indeed come from the Latin word "nil," meaning "none" or "not," which arose as a contraction of the Latin "nihil," meaning "nothing." For most of its history, "willy-nilly" has had this "whether you want to or not" meaning -- our "sloppily" or "haphazard" meaning is a fairly recent development.

All of which probably proves either that I should take up wine drinking or move to Paris. I think I'll take Paris. I doubt that even vast quantities of wine would improve "The Out of Towners."




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