Previous Columns/Posted 12/15/97

Papa's got a brand new ... oh, never mind.

Dear Word Detective: I hope you can settle an argument between me and some younger co-workers of mine. I am 33 years old, and to the best of my knowledge, the term "my bag" means "my fault." You step on someone's foot and you say, "Oh, my bag." It seems that everyone at my job under the age of 20 or so believes that the term "my bad" would be the correct phrase. Of course I explained that I believed that the term was taken from "caught holding the bag," meaning the one who took the blame, hence "my bag" equals "my fault." Please clarify. -- Keith, via the Internet.

Well, Keith, I hate to say this, but I'm afraid the kids are right. I wouldn't be too disturbed about this -- after all, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and all that.

To be honest, I wouldn't be so sure about this question myself were it not for the fact that there was recently a protracted discussion of "my bad" on the e-mail discussion group of the American Dialect Society (which is an organization of scholars who pay attention to such things). "My bad," an exclamation meaning "my fault" or "my mistake," evidently arose in the mid-1980's among players (primarily Black) in informal "pick-up" basketball games. One player would throw a bad pass or flub an easy shot and say "My bad" as a sort of handy shorthand for a more elaborate apology. The term's transition to more general slang use was apparently greatly accelerated by its inclusion in the enormously popular film "Clueless" a few years ago.

As to "my bag," it's been slang for "personal style or preference" since the early 1960's, but I've never heard it used to mean "my fault." And "my bag," which comes from the slang of jazz musicians, is unrelated to "holding the bag," which dates all the way back to the 18th century.

Well, the blue spotlight was confusing me.

Dear Word Detective: A student stumped me today! Ok, not a rare occurrence, by any stretch of the imagination; but I do like to come up with an answer sooner or later. Hopefully you can help. The question was simple enough: "Why do we call it the blues?" This could (and did, in my mind) go in several different directions; the main two, of course, are music and psychology. My questions, then: Is the musical genre known as "the blues" so called because it ideally rises out of the state of mind known as "the blues"? If so, why "blue"? And, as long as we're at it, why are certain films of um, shall we say, an explicit sexual nature called "blue movies"? (I assume this latter has nothing to do with music or depression, though I may be wrong.) -- Jeff Ferrell, Rhea County High School, Evensville, Tennessee.

Great question! But didn't Elton John answer this a few years ago? Anyway, I'm just glad I didn't have to face it in front of a classroom of high-school students. My public speaking style, incidentally, is based on the Ralph Kramden Method (I learned it from the old "Honeymooners" TV series). Put me in front of a crowd and all I seem able to do is sweat profusely and stammer "Humminahumminahummina." I once did this for an entire hour on C-SPAN.

Onward. According to Christine Ammer, who devotes an entire chapter to the color blue in her "Seeing Red and Tickled Pink" (Plume, 1993), "blues" music takes its name not directly from its often depressing subject matter, but from the notes themselves. "Blue notes," according to Ammer (I am a musical illiterate, myself) are "half-flatted" notes that fall between major and minor pitch.

Of course, melancholy "blue notes" probably took their name in turn from "the blues," as in depression. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how or why "blue" came to mean "sad," although the term has been used since at least the 18th century. As to "blue movies," that "blue" is also a mystery, but may be a reference to the traditional use of blue spotlights in strip-tease acts.

Maybe I'll open a posh tip kiosk....

Dear Word Detective: I'm trying to find the origin of the word "kiosk" with little success. Did it evolve from an acronym? Can you help me? -- Barbara Pjura, via the Internet.

Sure, why not? But first, this is as good a time as any to repeat a general truism about acronyms. Acronyms were very rare before World War Two, so any explanation of a word existing prior to 1940 or so as being an acronym for something is almost certainly false. Words such as "tip" and "posh," for example, are often explained as being coined as acronyms ("To Insure Promptness" and "Port Out, Starboard Home," respectively). But even if there weren't tons of evidence proving that the origins of these terms lie elsewhere, the vintages of the words themselves (1755 and 1903) would be enough to cast serious doubt on any "acronym" theory.

In the case of "kiosk," this date test goes right off the chart -- "kiosk" first appeared in English in 1625. Its original meaning was, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, "An open pavilion or summerhouse of light construction, often supported by pillars and surrounded with a balustrade; common in Turkey and Persia, and imitated in gardens and parks in Western Europe." Not surprisingly, the root of "kiosk" is the Turkish word "kiushk," meaning "pavilion." The graceful kiosks of Turkey and Persia were social gathering places on estates and in public parks, much admired by European visitors, who carried the idea (and the word) home with them.

Back in Europe, kiosks sprang up by the hundreds in the gardens of the wealthy, but the general design of the kiosk (as well as the word itself) was also put to a more plebeian task -- selling newspapers. Small circular newspaper kiosks are still found in many European cities, and kiosks even dot American shopping malls, where they are used to peddle novelty license plates and similar knickknacks. Quite a comedown for a graceful word. If I were "kiosk," I'd sue.

Mooky business.

Dear Word Detective: I'm having a tough time finding a good definition or etymology for the word "mook." I think I've established from context an approximate meaning of "unsavory (or unpolished) fellow." Perhaps a rabble consists of a collection of mooks? As I've heard it spoken by a local DJ, and a TV detective from New York City, "mook" rhymes with "kook" and may be a regionalism from New Jersey or New York. A survey of dictionaries only helped a tad -- one indicated that "mook" might derive from "mooch" (so a mook might be a moocher), while another suggested that it meant marijuana (mook equals pothead?), and might be related to "mota" -- which is slang for marijuana among many of us Latinos. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them. -- Richard Brooks, Library Troll, The Exploratorium, San Francisco.

Wow, for a troll, you certainly cover a lot of ground. I'd be interested to know which dictionaries gave you those leads about "mook." As far as I can tell, they are not correct, but there's so much mystery associated with "mook" that any extra shard of information is worth pursuing. Most of my reference books don't even list "mook," much less define it or trace its origin.

One dictionary that does deal with "mook" is the recently published Volume Two of the excellent Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which I will call "HDAS" to save space). According to HDAS, "mook" means "an ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible person," so your definition is certainly in the ballpark. The earliest citation HDAS lists is from 1930.

As to the origin of "mook," HDAS ventures that it is probably a variation on "moke," a slang term dating back to the middle of the 19th century. "Moke" means several things: originally, it was a slang and dialect term in England for a donkey, but it has also been used as a term of contempt for a Black person or any dark-skinned person. But "moke" has also been used since at least 1855 to mean "a foolish or inconsequential person," which certainly ties it to "mook." Unfortunately, no one has any clear idea of where "moke" came from. So I guess we'll both just have to keep digging.


In yer mug, ya big lug.

Dear Word Detective: I'm wondering about all the various forms of the word "mug." It can mean a cup for beverages, the human face or "to rob," as well as "to make a face," and occurs in such phrases as "mug shot." Are these all the same word "mug," and if so, how are they related? -- Susan Davis, New York, NY

Yes, as unlikely as it may seem, all those senses of "mug" are indeed related. "Mug" is a very good example of how even our most basic words evolve and change their meaning, often in remarkable directions. The Oxford English Dictionary lists eight separate senses of "mug" as a noun and another seven senses as a verb, and all of them stem from the same root, a Scandinavian word meaning "drinking vessel."

If the mug we use for coffee came first, "mug" meaning "face" was the next stop, and the reason might surprise you. It was common in the 17th and 18th centuries to decorate drinking mugs with grotesque caricatures of human faces, and by the early 1700's "mug" had become a popular slang term for "face." On the lower rungs of society, "mug" also became a slang term for "guy" or "fellow," sometimes "a sucker" or "a fool," and a "mug's game" was a thankless task. Once cameras came along, "mugging," or making a distorted face, became a favorite pastime of children of all ages.

"Mug" took a turn for the worse with the advent of another sort of "mugging," originally meaning to rob by punching or striking the victim in the face. Fortunately, thugs who "mugged" often ended up with pictures of their faces ("mug shots") in a "mug book" at the local police station.

Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Mr. Word Detective, Sir: My mother likes to use the expression "in cahoots." Whenever two people or groups are hidden partners in underhanded crime, they were "in cahoots." Back in the 1970's, she claimed the car companies and big oil were "in cahoots" selling gas guzzlers. I'm not sure what the car companies got out of the deal, but then, I can't follow the ins and outs of most of her theories. She still thinks a lot of people are in cahoots -- I don't know if she likes the marvelous ring to the word or is just paranoid. Anyway, I've always wondered where we got such a fun sounding word for what really is serious business. -- Kevin Murphy, via the Internet.

No, I don't think your mother is paranoid, though she may be a bit overly perceptive. I'd have her watch more television if it really bothers you. If that doesn't quiet her down, just report her to the Ministry of Contentment.

If there's one phrase which perfectly sums up a certain mood in America in the late 20th century, "in cahoots" is it. As a synonym for "conspiring with" or "collaborating with," "in cahoots" carries a loose, folksy tone that nicely softens what might otherwise be regarded as paranoia.

"Cahoots" is a classic early 19th century American coinage, largely unknown outside the U.S. The origin of "cahoots" is a bit uncertain, but it can be narrowed down to two possible roots, both French words. The American scholar John Bartlett, of "Bartlett's Quotations" fame, felt certain that "cahoot" came from the French "cohorte," meaning "company or band." The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, theorizes that it came from the French "cahute," meaning "cabin," reasoning that to "be in cahoots with" was to be as close as two people sharing a small cabin.

So we may never know exactly where "cahoots" came from. But considering that there's been a black helicopter hovering outside my window ever since I started writing this particular column, that's OK by me.

The itch to shop.

Dear Word Detective: Why are flea markets called "flea" markets? How did they get their name and why? -- Danny Sayer, via the Internet.

Well, you've brought your question to the right place. My relatives, especiallythe ones in Ohio, seem to be obsessed with flea markets and their suburban cousins, yard sales. You could be fleeing an erupting volcano with these people (unlikely in Ohio, I know, but one can always hope), and they'd insist on stopping the car to optimistically peruse two broken toasters, three boxes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books (just add verbs, I suppose), and the ugliest collection of white vinyl pocketbooks this side of Las Vegas. To me, visiting Ohio means saying "I'll wait in the car" at least ten times per day.

There are two theories about the origin of "flea market," and although I'm fairly certain that one of them is actually a case of linguistic coincidence, we'll take them both for a spin. According to etymologist Christine Ammer, the first "flea market" may have been New York's raucous Fly Market, a fixture in Lower Manhattan from before the American Revolution until around 1816. The "Fly" came from the Dutch name for the market, "Vly" or "Vlie," which meant "valley," and was pronounced, you guessed it, "flea." Voila, "flea market." Maybe.

However, while the Fly Market certainly existed, and its name was evidently indeed pronounced "flea market," the actual origin of the term most probably lies in Paris, where Le Marche aux Puces (literally, "market of the fleas") was a popular shopping venue. Le Marche aux Puces took its name, as you might have guessed by now, from the semi-humorous (and probably at least partly accurate) popular perception that the market's ragtag goods were more than likely to be infested with fleas.

In any case, "flea market" first appeared in English in the 1920's and is most likely a simple translation of the French market's name. If "flea market" had gained currency from the Manhattan "Fly Market," it almost certainly would have appeared in print much earlier than it did.

Ho, Ho, Holy cow, wasn't it just October?

Dear Word Detective: I have just realized that the holidays are almost upon us, and yet I haven't bought a single word book for the numerous logophiles among my family and friends. This is obviously a grievous oversight on my part, and one that must be remedied immediately. Any suggestions? -- Edith Freedle, Hoodathunkit, NH.

Why, bless your heart for asking, Miss Freedle, and just let me say that the fact that both you and your letter are my own transparent inventions does not dim my regard for your taste and discernment one iota. We need more people like you. In fact, I'd settle for just one person like you. And you are right, of course. Time is short, and the ravening hordes clamor for books devoted to words and language. Naturally, I have a few suggestions.

First up, and rightly so, is the newly-published second volume of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by J.E. Lighter (Random House, $65.00 hardcover). As I noted at the time of the publication of the first volume in 1994 (a third and final volume is due to be published in the year 2000), the RHHDAS is an extraordinary project that brings to the study of American slang a scope, a method, and a standard of scholarship until now found only in the renowned Oxford English Dictionary.

The RHHDAS differs from other slang dictionaries in several respects. Most importantly, the RHHDAS is a historical dictionary which (like the Oxford Dictionary) traces, using examples of usage drawn from thousands of newspapers, books, magazines and other media, the history and evolution of slang terms in the words of those who have actually used them. Even the shortest entries in this dictionary make casual browsing a riveting experience, and the longer explorations (the entries on the infamous "n-word" run to ten full pages, for instance) attain an almost novelistic narrative flow as you watch our language grow before your eyes. The RHHDAS is a remarkable work of scholarship that makes a lasting contribution to our understanding of our language and the society that created it. This is a truly great book.

Next time out, we'll look at two more good gift choices for word lovers.

More great stuff.

Last time out, we began our annual holiday roundup of gifts for word lovers with high praise for the new second volume of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang ($65.00 hardback). This time, we'll briefly look at two more new books that would make great gifts for anyone interested in our language and how it got that way.

Any book that teams David K. Barnhart, editor and publisher of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, with Allan A. Metcalf, Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, has to be a humdinger, and "America In So Many Words -- Words That Have Shaped America" (Houghton Mifflin, $18.00 hardback) is a humdinger in spades. The American Dialect Society has chosen a "Word of the Year" every year since 1990, and Metcalf and Barnhart's inspiration was to take this great idea backwards into American history, all the way back to the early 1600's. Year by year, Metcalf and Barnhart explore the words that Americans invented or embraced while building a modern nation, from "minuteman" (1774) to "gangsters" (1896) to "geeks" (1978). The entries are brief and lighthearted, combining fun and solid scholarship in a rare mix.

In a similar vein but with a broader scope comes "Speaking Freely -- A Guided Tour of American English" by Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov (Oxford University Press, $39.95 hardback). Soukhanov, editor of the excellent Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and Atlantic Monthly columnist, has combined and updated two of the late lexicographer Stuart Berg Flexner's liveliest books ("I Hear America Talking" and "Listening to America") in this volume, adding another 40 percent or so of her own new material. The result is a sweeping and perceptive survey of what H.L. Mencken called "the American Language," filled with the words of the myriad ethnic groups, cultures, industries and geographic regions that combined to create modern America. This book is never dull -- it's full of illustrations, sidebar articles and highlighted quotations -- and it's so readable that it would even make a great gift for a junior-high or high school age friend. It is wonderful to see Stuart Berg Flexner's passionate love of the American Language carried on for a new generation of word lovers.

I say, chaps, we've been nabbed.

Dear Word Detective: My friends and I are curious about the saying "the jig is up." TTFN. -- Mary MacKenzie, Toronto.

TTFN yourself. For the benefit of those readers not familiar with "TTFN," I should explain that it stands for "Ta-ta for now," an phrase commonly heard when parting from someone who was raised within the cultural orbit of England. "Ta-ta" itself means "goodbye" in baby talk, but is now used by a number of otherwise sane adults as a cheerful farewell. Go figure.

Oh, well, back to business. "The jig is up" means simply that "It's all over," usually referring to a scam, trick or plot that has been found out and foiled before it could come to fruition. "Jig" is a very old word of uncertain origin that originally meant "lively dance," a sense still heard in reference to folk dances such as Irish jigs. An extended meaning of "jig" since the late 16th century has been, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "A piece of sport, a joke; a jesting matter, a trifle; a sportive trick or cheat," and it is from this sense that "the jig is up" comes. Although the first written example of the precise formulation "the jig is up" comes from a Philadelphia newspaper in 1800, my sense is that the phrase is today more common outside of the United States. Few of our current crop of crooks would be so graceful as to acknowledge defeat by simply admitting that "the jig is up." Lawyers, guns and money have done wonders for criminals' self-esteem around here lately.

While I'm being cranky, I'd also like to take this opportunity to urge the banishment of another initialism I've seen far too much of lately -- "TIA." This means "Thanks in advance," and always comes at the close of letters asking for something I have not yet agreed to give. In response to such pushy presumption, I humbly offer my own invention, "DHYBB" -- Don't Hold Your Breath, Bucko.

Tinkerbelle Hell.

Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine wants to know if I can find out about the origin of the word "pixilated." Can I? I looked in all my places and the word wasn't even listed. Help! Please? -- Sherrie, via the Internet.

All right, all right, I'll admit it. I love it when readers beg for help. I especially love the hyperventilating e-mails I get on Sunday evenings from high-school students imploring me to write their reports (which just happen to be due Monday morning) for them, reports they had really tried to complete on their own, you understand, and indeed would have finished in plenty of time had only those dastardly Freedonian terrorists not occupied their school library for the last six weeks.

In this case, however, I happen to know that Sherrie is a faithful reader and not a slacker, so bring on the pixies. For it is indeed pixies we're talking here -- pixies, fairies, little folk, elves, Brownies, Greenies, all the magical and yet mysteriously short characters (can't they cast themselves a "42 Regular" spell?) that crop up in the mythology of various cultures.

"Pixilated" is an American coinage dating back to the mid-1800's, and, strictly speaking, someone who is "pixilated" behaves as if under the spell of, or "enchanted by," pixies. The practical effects of such a state can be seen in the definition of "pixilated" provided by the Oxford English Dictionary: "Mildly insane, fey, whimsical; bewildered, confused; intoxicated, tipsy." (That "mildly insane," by the way, is a good example of why I love the OED.)

That definition makes "pixilated" sound like a rather fun thing to be, but in current usage, "pixilated" has come to mean deliberately "magical" or coyly, often insufferably, "kooky." "Pixilated" today is most often found in theater or movie reviews when the critic was clearly less than enchanted by a character's dogged attempts to cast a spell on the audience.


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