Previous Columns/Posted 11/28/97
Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of the phrase "pony up" (to pay an account or fine, etc.)? How about "pony keg," the name for an on-street beer or wine stand, at least in SW Ohio? -- Al Harris, via the Internet.
Well, I have a pony question of my own: where the heck is my pony? Every year since I was about five years old I have asked for a pony for my birthday. Now, several decades (ahem) later, I have yet to get my pony. Please don't give me any guff about a fourth-floor apartment in Manhattan not being a suitable home for a pony. If ponies can make it up those mountains in Scotland, a few flights of stairs should be no problem, and I promise not to take my pony on the subway. As you can see, I have been quite patient, but enough's enough. Pony up the pony.
The nice thing about your question is that both the uses of "pony" you ask about come from the basic sense of "pony" as "a small horse." A pony, strictly speaking, is a small breed of horse, rather than simply a young horse, which is called a "foal." The root of "pony" was the Latin "pullus," meaning any young animal (which is still with us in the form "pullet," meaning a young chicken). "Pullus" became the Old French "poulain" (foal), whence came the diminutive "poulenet," which then trotted over to Scotland and showed up as "powney," which was later Anglicized to "pony."
"To pony up" and "pony keg" both embody the "smallness" aspect of "pony." "Pony" has meant a small amount of money since the late 1700's, when it specifically meant the sum of twenty-five pounds sterling (which was actually a hefty hunk of change at the time, but go figure). "Pony kegs," popular at fraternity parties and the like, are smaller than standard tavern-sized kegs, by analogy to a "pony" of liquor, which has meant a small glass of spirits since the mid-1800's.
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word "scad" came from, as in "scads of money"? -- Edith Freedle, New York City.
Well, as is the case with so many of our most interesting slang words, no one can say precisely where it came from, but we can tell you where it's been. Slang often seems to pop out of thin air and then, once established, go through several mutations until it arrives at its current modern meaning.
"Scad," meaning lots of anything, is a case in point. Ask any dictionary, and chances are good it will tell you "origin unknown." We do know that "scad" first appeared in print in the early 19th century, and that it was an American slang term for "dollar." In the first recorded citation in 1809, The American Magazine waxed poetic about the fiscal acumen of its citizens: "This land of our dads ... is a dinger at nailing the scads," meaning that Americans were good at making money.
By the middle of the 19th century, "scad" had come to mean large quantities of anything, not just money. It was often heard in the same breath as, and sometimes combined with, "oodles," giving us the emphatic form "scadoodles," meaning lots and lots of something. "Scadoodle," of course, should not be confused with "skedaddle," which is what you should do if your scads of money came from someone else's pocket.
In our tradition of boldly going where no dictionary has gone before, I will now hazard a guess as to the ultimate origin of "scad." "Scad" is also a name applied to various species of food fish harvested in the millions by 18th-century fishermen. It seems likely that anyone searching for a metaphor for either money or "things of which there are many" might think of the enormous schools of "scads."
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of "clean as a whistle"? Are whistles clean? -- Austin Poor, New York City.
Well now, here's a question I'd never considered before. If we're talking about the typical whistle of the sort used by traffic police, I'd say no. Using someone else's whistle is probably not a good idea, any more than borrowing someone's toothbrush is advisable. Borrowing a traffic cop's toothbrush may be the worst idea of all. But I digress.
It's somewhat unclear where the phrase "clean as a whistle" came from. The phrase actually has two meanings: "clean or pure" and "absolutely, completely." "Utterly or completely" is the original 18th century meaning -- a roof blown off in a tornado might be said to have been torn off "clean as a whistle," leaving no remnants. The "pure or unsullied" meaning ("Wash that deck until it's clean as a whistle, sailor") came later, and may have its roots in a misunderstanding of the sense of "clean" in the original phrase.
If that seems a little mysterious, the answer may lie in the fact that the original phrase wasn't really "clean as a whistle." Christine Ammer, in her book "Have A Nice Day -- No Problem, A Dictionary of Cliches," points to the phrase "clear as a whistle," very common in the 18th century. While spoken commands might be misunderstood in a noisy environment, no one could mistake a loud whistle for anything else, so "clear as a whistle" came to mean "unmistakable" or "unambiguous."
The later substitution of "clean" meaning "completely" for "clear" therefore makes a certain amount of sense, but the subsequent drift of "clean" in the phrase to mean "pure" is what has led to folks like you wondering "what's so clean about whistles?"
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine said that her new dog is "wreaking havoc" with her furniture, except that she pronounced it "wrecking," and maintained that she was right. I've always heard the word pronounced "reek" -- what do you say? -- Doris Schaffer, Toledo, OH.
I say that her dog obviously just disagrees with her taste in furniture, and may be expressing a desire for Danish Modern in the only fashion he knows. When my dog (who has since moved on, alas) was a puppy, she chewed all four legs off a coffee table, and she was right. I haven't missed that table a bit in all these years. Your friend should be more open to other opinions.
You are indeed right about the pronunciation of "wreak" -- it is "reek" -- but in the spirit of tolerance I must say that your friend is not chewing up the language too badly. She was probably confusing "wreak," meaning to inflict, with "wreck," which is what Fido was doing to her furniture. As a matter of fact, most authorities believe the two words come from the same source, the Old Norse word "rek," meaning "damage" or "wreckage." Both words are also related to "wrack," meaning "destruction." Interestingly, all these words originally referred to shipwrecks and other seafaring disasters, which, in the days before the S&L scandal, set the standard for metaphors of destruction and waste. Incidentally, the past tense of "wreak" is "wreaked," not "wrought," which is an acceptable, if somewhat archaic, past tense of "work."
By the way, the word "havoc," which we use today to mean "destruction or chaos," was, in the Middle Ages, a specific command given to victorious soldiers to begin looting and plundering. So when Shakespeare, in his play "Julius Caesar," wrote "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war," he wasn't talking about Fido and the furniture, and your friend should count her blessings.
Dear Word Detective: I have been wondering about the word "yen." Is there any connection between "yen" meaning "desire for" and "yen" as a unit of currency in Japan? -- Dave Robb, via the Internet.
This seems to be one of those questions that occur to everyone who speaks English at one time or another, because I receive it from a reader at least every few months. No, there is no connection between the two meanings of "yen."
First, let's explain the "money" kind of "yen." Although the "Yen" is (since 1871) the official currency of Japan, the word itself comes from the Chinese word "yuan," meaning "round thing" or "dollar."
Now, much as we all might "yen" for dollars or Japanese yen, the "desire" sense of "yen" comes from a far more powerful addiction -- opium. The Chinese (Cantonese, to be specific) word for opium is "yin" or "in" (Chinese words are notoriously difficult to render in English, which accounts for the ambiguity). The word "yan" meant "craving," and the victim of "in-yan" was an opium addict afflicted with an insatiable appetite for the drug.
With the influx of Chinese laborers into the U.S. during the 19th century, the slang term "in-yan" entered English as "yen-yen," meaning "craving for opium," and eventually the second "yen" was dropped, leaving us with just "yen."
Incidentally, the last time I explained this process some smart aleck wrote in to ask how I was so sure it was the second, and not the first, "yen" that was dropped. I just know, that's all. Now please settle down back there and listen to the rest of this column.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story of "yen" is how the word has changed since it arrived in our language. Originally referring to one of the most tenacious and destructive forms of drug addiction, "yen" has softened to the point of meaning a sort of dreamy yearning for something or someone. So next time someone says that they have a "yen" for onion dip, just be thankful that the word "yen" has been toned down quite a bit.
Dear Word Detective: Can you please explain the abbreviation "i.e."? Also, what does "(sic)" mean? -- Oilwellzzz@aol.com, via the Internet.
I don't ordinarily print readers' e-mail addresses (and I have, in fact, modified the one above). But I can't help pointing out that AmericaOnline leads the nation in forcing users to adopt bizarre e-mail addresses. When AOL gave me an account for some reason several years ago and I went to pick an AOL "screen name," they told me that every nickname I might conceivably have wanted was already taken. I finally ended up as "firstname.lastname@example.org" ("words" plus "New York City"). And yes, the logical pronunciation is "wordsnick." No wonder I get no respect.
"I.e." and "(sic)" are little rhetorical devices that can come in handy for writers but which can also be very frustrating for readers who don't happen to know the secret code. "I.e." is also often confused with (and misused in place of) a similar device, "e.g." Part of the problem may be that both are abbreviations of Latin phrases, and if there's one subject not taught in most US schools today, it's Latin. Like W.C. Fields, who joked that he never got a chance to thank the woman who drove him to drink, I've always wanted to thank the people who forced me to take four years of Latin in high school. So thanks, gang, and keep those alumni fund appeals coming.
"I.e." stands for "id est," which means, simply, "that is" or "which is to say." "I.e." introduces a definition or a clarification: "Larry was still dressed in his work clothes, i.e., a clown suit."
"E.g." is an abbreviation of "exempli gratia," which means "for example" or "for instance." To continue our clown saga: "Larry found that his job had certain disadvantages, e.g., back problems from cramming himself into tiny cars." Note that both "i.e." and "e.g." are always set off from the rest of the sentence by commas.
"Sic" is the Latin word for "thus," and is used by writers quoting someone to alert the reader to the fact that an error or other weirdness in the quoted material is in the original, and not an error of transcription. "Sic" is almost always enclosed in parentheses.
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