Issue of December 16, 2003




  Issue of December 16, 2003



Many thanks to all those readers to all our readers who have subscribed or renewed their subscriptions to TWD-by-Email.  I especially appreciated that one reader stuck a note on his check saying "It's hard to find good writers since Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo."  Do they make tiny little frames for Post-Its?  Then again, I haven't heard Mrs. Word Detective laugh like that since William Safire described me as "light-hearted" several years ago.

Thus at once emboldened and chastened, I have decided to greet the new year by announcing a new contest.  I would like my column to run in more papers and you, I presume, are up for some free stuff.  So here's the deal:  you write to your local paper suggesting that they carry my column in their lovely newspaper.  If they're interested, they can contact me at for the details, but it might help to stress that this page receives thousands of visitors every day who send in several hundred questions every week and that my column is carried in papers all over the US as well as in Mexico and Japan.  Then send me a copy of your letter (this is important).  If your local paper then decides to take my column (and keeps running it for at least two months), you will receive a lifetime subscription to TWD-by-Email and a copy of The Word Detective book.  In the event that more than one of you living in a given city write to a paper that then takes the column, the earliest letter forwarded to me will win, but all the other letter-writers-to-that-paper will still receive a subscription to TWD-By-Email.  Wotta deal, right?  Incidentally, the person to whom you should write (if you have a choice) is usually the Managing Editor.

Speaking of remarkable reader initiative, Bruce Miller, who lives in Cos Cob, CT, has established a UPOC cell-phone text-messaging Word Detective service called HandyWord that will send snippets of etymology straight to your pocket for absolutely no money at all. You can sign up right here (as more than 800 folks already have) and the home page of the group is here. I find this all rather amazing and I would sign up myself but we keep the cell phone in the glovebox and use it only to call people when we want a good excuse to keep the call very short ("Well, we're here, so....").   

Sometimes when I miss living in New York City I watch the streaming videocam in Times Square

If you really liked me, you'd get me this for Christmas.  Then I could post pictures of my cats like all the other kids.

And now, on with the show:

Dances with Ding-Dongs.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word "dumbbell" come from? My grandma wants to know. -- Darris, via the internet.

Interesting question, and the fact that it came from your grandmother is evidence that we often use such terms for many years before it occurs to us to wonder about their origins. I am assuming, of course, that your grandma's query was sincere and not a veiled snipe at either you or me. Probably not. I should just cut back on the coffee a bit.

"Dumbbell," meaning a stupid or foolish person, is an American invention dating back to the early 20th century, and largely replaced the earlier term "dumbhead," which in turn arose as a literal translation of the German "dummkopf." In English since around A.D. 1000 "dumb" has meant "incapable of speech," and comes ultimately from an Indo-European root word meaning "stupefaction or dizziness." (Interestingly, the same root also gave us "deaf.") The derogatory use of "dumb" in English to mean "slow-witted" or "stupid" is actually fairly recent, dating back only to the 19th century, although the related words in Dutch and German have long carried both the "speechless" and "stupid" connotations. Use of "dumb" in either sense in English is now considered derogatory.

Back in the days when church bells were rung by hand, a good deal of practice was needed to develop the strength and skill to handle the ropes and pulleys of the heavy bells. Apprentice bell-ringers practiced with an apparatus called a "dumb-bell," in which the actual bells were replaced with non-ringing (i.e., silent or "dumb") weights.

In the 18th century, compact versions of these "dumb-bells" became the first popular home-exercise machines. And when handheld weights became popular a bit later, they too came to be known as "dumb-bells," at least partly because the standard method of exercise involved swinging the weights back and forth. Weights mounted on each end of a steel bar later became known as a "bar-bell," any connection to the ringing of church bells by then having been largely forgotten.

The use of "dumbbell" to mean "slow-witted person" almost certainly wouldn't have appeared were it not for the "exercise weight" sense of "dumbbell." To call someone a "dumbbell" was to make a pun on the "dumb," replacing the "silent" sense with the "stupid."

It is, however, possible that the "bell" part of "dumbbell" in the "stupid" sense may also hark back to an old slang use of "bell" to mean "head," making "dumbbell" in this sense a direct echo of "dummkopf" and a rather clever double pun.

Ring around the pantaloon.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the term "pantaloons" originate? It doesn't have the ring of an early English word. -- Jamie Thompson, via the internet.

Forsooth. As we say in the word biz, that's cause it's not. By the way, when we say that an idea or assertion has "the ring" of something (often "the ring of truth"), we're using an idiom that harks back to the early 19th century, when counterfeit coins were common. Merchants of the day became experts at detecting fake coins by dropping the coin on the counter and listening closely to the ringing sound, which, in the case of a counterfeit adulterated with lead or the like, would be dull in comparison to pure silver or gold. By 1850, we were using "to have the ring of" in the metaphorical sense of "to be characteristic or indicative of" (e.g., "Larry blaming the dog for the missing beer has the ring of drunken desperation").

Meanwhile, back at "pantaloon," this is a word rarely heard today except in reference to various kinds of men's trousers prior to the 20th century. "Pantaloons" in general are short trousers (sometimes quite loose, but in the 19th century rather tight), usually reaching just under the knee and worn with stockings.

But the original "pantaloon" was a person, not a garment. Pantalone was a stock character in the Italian commedia dell'arte (popular comedy theater) in the 16th century, usually portrayed as a silly old man attired in short, loose-fitting trousers and stockings. By the late 16th century the Anglicized form "pantaloon" had come to mean a feeble and foolish old man (as in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "... the lean and slippered pantaloon with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side, his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound.").

Shortly thereafter "pantaloon" came to be applied to the "Pantalone" style of trousers as well, and eventually was shortened to simply "pants."

The next logical question is why we refer to this kind of garment as "a pair of pants" when they (it?) are (is?) a single item. The answer is that until the late 1600s leg garments came in pairs, one for each leg, which were donned separately and then laced or belted together at the top. And while we're at it, "trousers," imported into English from the 16th century Scots Gaelic "triubhas," were originally one-piece close-fitting shorts worn with hose, but have lengthened over subsequent centuries, making "trousers" now synonymous with "pants."

A fog named Sue.

Dear Word Detective: Recently in my internet travels, specifically in a review of a documentary about the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce, I stumbled upon a word new to me -- "pettifogging." To quote the review: "Instead, he (Lenny Bruce) is intended merely to confirm us in our complacency and conceit of ourselves as superior to those pettifogging, uptight, humorless bureaucrats of the 1950s and early 1960s who hounded poor Lenny to his death." From the context and appearance of the word, I assumed it was simply a variant of "petty," as in small-minded, and it's obviously related to it, but the dictionary makes it clear that the nuance is more akin to nitpicking, quibbling, or carping and is a derivative of "pettyfogger," defined as a petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer. What more can you tell us about the origins of this interesting word? -- David Hall, via the internet.

You've pretty well nailed down the meaning of the adjective "pettifogging" -- nitpicking, quibbling and small-minded. But the original meaning of "pettifogger" or "pettyfogger" (from which the verb "pettifog" was derived) was, believe it or not, even more derogatory. A "pettifogger" was originally an attorney who made a practice of taking on (and often inciting) meritless cases and pursuing them through chicanery and duplicity. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, a pettifogger is "A legal practitioner of inferior status, who gets up or conducts petty cases; ... one who employs mean, sharp, cavilling practices; a 'rascally attorney.'" Imagine the sleaziest TV ads for ambulance-chasing lawyers you've ever seen, the ones with shrieking sirens in the background and huge flashing dollar signs. Those people are "pettifoggers."

The origins of "pettifogger," which dates back to the 16th century, are only half-clear. The "petti" element is the familiar "petty," meaning "trivial or inconsequential." But while we might assume that the "fogger" element refers to the clouds of obfuscation emitted by a "pettifogger," there is no verifiable connection to "fog" in that sense. "Fogger" may be derived from the Middle Dutch "voeger," meaning "arranger or fixer."

Another interesting possibility is that "fogger" is a derivative of "Fugger," the name of a famous 15th century German banking family. Apparently the Fugger name thereafter became a noun in several European languages meaning, variously, "wealthy man," "monopolist," and, a bit more sardonically, "usurer" and "huckster." Ironically, if this theory is true, it's a few hundred years too late for the Fuggers to sue for defamation.

Abort, Retry, Fling?

Dear Word Detective: A "quire" is a set of 24 or 25 sheets of paper, one twentieth of a ream. Why would you need 24 sheets of paper, and why would you need a special word for it? -- Rob Yaeger, via the internet.

Well, I doubt that this has much bearing on your question, but I myself often need about 24 sheets of paper. Occasionally, you see, I am seized by the fanciful notion of actually printing a page or two of text on the printer attached to my computer. This printer has never worked properly, and I keep it hooked up to my computer purely as ballast in case of an office typhoon, but hope springs eternal. So I hit "print" and wait. Grind, grind, grind goes the printer. It then emits a mournful beep and begins to spew out page after page of gibberish adorned with big black streaks. I try everything to stop it, up to cutting power to the entire house, but it has a quota to fill, and one-twentieth of a ream later I make a note to buy more paper.

"Quire" does seem an odd unit of measure, but it's also a very old one. The "quire" was commonly used in medieval printing, and originally consisted of four sheets of paper folded over together so as to make eight leaves, or 16 printable pages. The word "quire" itself comes from the Vulgar Latin "quateri," meaning "set of four," derived from "quatro," Latin for "four." The "quire" was often used as a "signature," or a unit of folded pages within a bound book, as well as being a popular format for pamphlets. The term was also used during this period in a looser sense to mean simply "a gathering of pages," and at some point "quire" took on the meaning of 24 or 25 sheets of paper, or one-twentieth of a ream.

By the way, "ream" meaning 500 sheets of paper, comes from the Arabic "rizmah," meaning "bundle." It is unrelated to the verb "to ream," meaning to widen or enlarge a hole, which probably comes from the Old English "ryman," meaning "to widen."

Take me out to the outback.

Dear Word Detective: During the last World Series, my secretary, who is from Australia, asked "Who are you barracking for?" After several minutes of misunderstanding, we were able to figure out that "barracking" is the Australian term for "rooting." Apparently, in Australia they don't "root, root, root for the home team" because "root" is an impolite word to Aussies. All of this made us wonder: why do we say we're "rooting" for a team? Does it have something to do with sports fans being pigs? And, while we're at it, where does "barracking" come from? -- Rick Freyer, via the internet.

Ah, well, Australians speak a different language, as would be expected of a people who live upside down and raise their young in pouches. And "root" as a verb is indeed a rude word in Oz, so we won't go there, except to say that this taboo must prove a considerable impediment to gardening classes.

I was thrown by "barrack" for a moment, being, as an American, most familiar with the word as a noun meaning "building where soldiers live." But "to barrack for," Australian slang for "to vigorously and noisily support a sports team," most likely comes from the Aboriginal Australian word "borak," meaning "nonsense or silliness." One of the earliest Australian English uses of the word, in the late 19th century, was in the phrase "to poke borak," meaning "to make fun of," and "to barrack" the opposing team still means to hurl jocular insults or sarcastic advice at them.

Meanwhile, the generally accepted theory explains "root," which first appeared in the sports fan sense in the late 1880s, as an extension of "root" as plants "take root," i.e., that the fans have bonded closely with, and "sunk their roots into" the team. A more vivid (and to me more plausible) explanation, however, has been suggested by etymologist Gerald Cohen, who points to the foot-stamping, clapping and shouting behavior of baseball fans described by 18th century sportswriters. According to Cohen, foot-stamping (or "pedal-music") was at that time a vital method of expressing support for one's team, and "rooting" originally referred to fans stamping their feet so hard that they might actually dig (or "root") holes in the ground. Cohen's theory makes sense to me, but I must admit that it's still nowhere near as certain as a Yankee victory next year.

Onward whole wheat soldiers.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, while reading some British books, I have come across a couple of curious phrases about cutting toast "into soldiers." In one case, a fictional diplomat ponders whether cutting his toast into "soldiers" during a breakfast with his counterparts would be a declaration of war. The other was a recipe that advised cutting toast into "2-inch soldiers." Both references have left me at a loss. Can you clear this up? -- Mark Wujek, via the internet.

I'll certainly try. It occurs to me, incidentally, that writing this column (and presumably reading it as well) wouldn't be quite as much fun were it not for the fanciful and sometimes bizarre figures of speech our British cousins have cooked up over the years.

"Toast soldiers," to cut to the chase, are long, thin strips of toast cut from a larger slice. Oddly enough, the earliest print citation for "soldier" in the bread or toast sense listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is only from 1966, although the term was probably in common use for many decades before someone used it in print.

As to why "soldier," it's probably safe to assume that the term came from the family breakfast table, specifically one where parents were dreaming up ways to get the kids to eat. Especially given the fondness of children (pre-1970, anyway) for playing with toy soldiers, giving a child small, easily maneuverable slices of toast and referring to them as "soldiers" was probably fairly common and fairly effective. Such food rituals can win over the most cynical child and often establish habits that persist into adulthood. I, for example, still fall for the "Open the hangar, here comes the airplane" routine when Mrs. Word Detective employs it (although I have learned to detect, and refuse landing rights to, eggplant and lima beans). Toast soldiers also make handy scoops and are apparently a popular way to eat soft-boiled eggs, even among adults.

And, of course, soft-boiled eggs and toast soldiers are a nutritious restorative for the morning after an evening spent consorting with "dead soldiers," slang for empty liquor bottles since the early 20th century.

Not to be confused with Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Dear Word Detective: What is the earliest known instance of the use of the word "bonkers"? I used it when I was very young (maybe before 1980). I always invented odd words when I was that age so there is a chance that I created it if there were no known uses before that time. Of course, people being impressionable at that age, it is also likely that I learned it from another source. Can you find an earlier date at which the word was used with its current meaning? -- Michael Fitzgerald, via the internet.

Yes I can, by quite a bit. But that doesn't mean that you didn't make up some perfectly good words when you were young, just that "bonkers," meaning "insane or crazy," wasn't one of them.

On the other hand, if you grew up in the U.S. you might be excused for believing that "bonkers" was one of your inventions because "bonkers" is a British invention and fairly rare here, the more common American equivalent being the succinct "nuts."

The original sense of "bonkers," which first appeared in the early 20th century, was "light-headed, giddy" or "slightly drunk," and it may have originated in the British navy. The "insane" sense apparently only arose after World War II, but is the standard usage now. "Bonkers" is often coupled with intensifying words depending on the severity of the affliction -- a person adjudged "raving bonkers" or "stark staring bonkers" is not someone you want to sit next to on the subway.

The origin of "bonkers" is in some doubt, but the most likely source is "bonk," meaning "a blow to the head," an "echoic" word formed to imitate the actual sound of a knock to the noggin. The "er" suffix was a common element in slang in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and can also be found in the terms "soccer" (short for "association" football administered by the British Football Association) and "rugger" (meaning the game of rugby, named for the Rugby School in England).

Waltzes with Roos, bigtime.

Dear Word Detective: As an Australian, there are many phrases and sayings that I commonly use. However, after living in the US for the last few years, I'm realizing I don't understand the origin of half the things that come out of my mouth! One of those is "You've got Buckley's chance, mate" or "You've got Buckley's and none." The general use of the term is to indicate you have "no chance," but who the heck is Buckley? -- Andrew Thomas, via the internet.

That's a doozie of a question. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Buckley's chance" as an Australian and New Zealand phrase meaning "a forlorn hope, no chance at all," and compounds the air of gloom by announcing that the phrase is "of uncertain origin." But we shan't let the timid mice at the OED discourage us. The truth is out there in the Outback.

It all began in the early 19th century. William Buckley (1780-1856) had been convicted of a minor crime in England and transported to the then-new penal colony in Australia, but Buckley and two other convicts celebrated Christmas 1803 by escaping and fleeing into the wilderness. Faced with a lack of food and shelter, his comrades quickly changed their minds and turned themselves in, but against all odds Buckley managed to survive in the wild, living off the land and making friends with the local Aborigines. Incredibly, Buckley lived with the Aborigines for 32 years, and by the time he surrendered to a survey party in 1835, he had forgotten how to speak English.

Buckley was pardoned and went on to work as an interpreter and guide, and when he published an account of his ordeal in 1852, his story became a national sensation. Given the amazing luck Buckley's saga of survival entailed, it wasn't surprising that by 1898 "Buckley's chance" had become a popular figure of speech meaning "very slim chance" or "no chance at all."

A curious coincidence, however, may have boosted the popularity of "Buckley's chance" still further. The Melbourne department store of Buckley & Nunn (no relation to William Buckley) opened in 1851, and within a few years its goods were well-known as the epitome of fashion. The popularity of Buckley & Nunn lent the phrase "You've got Buckley's chance" the additional punning sense of "You've got a slim (Buckley's) chance or none (Nunn) at all."


Ear, ear, there's no need for that.

Dear Word Detective: Why is it called an "ear" of corn? -- Carol Klenz, via the internet.

Oh goody, an easy one. Way back in prehistoric times, folks spent most of their evenings sitting around in caves waiting for TV to be invented. To pass the time, simple jokes were fashioned, perhaps the simplest (and eventually the most annoying) of which consisted of stuffing one's ears with corn cobs. The jokester would then ask a question of the group (e.g., "Anyone seen Jurassic Park VIIII?"), and when a reply was offered he would shriek, "I can't EAR you!" The group would then signal their appreciation of the joke by slapping their thighs and pelting the wag with very large rocks. Voila, "ear" of corn.

Yeah, well, you can't prove it didn't happen. But, since you insist, here's the official version. There are actually two "ears" in English, and there is no connection between them.

The "funny-looking thing on the side of your head" sort of "ear" comes from the very old Indo-European root "aus," signifying "perception," which also produced the words for "ear" in many European languages. Thus, "ear" in this sense has always been with us, although at various times it was spelled "eare," "eere," "yere," and "eare," the standard "ear" form only becoming common in the 16th century.

The "ear of corn" kind of "ear" also comes from a very old root, but in this case the underlying meaning is "spike" or "point," and the same root gave us our modern English words "acid" and "acute." So an "ear" of corn is the "spike" on which the seeds or kernels of the corn plant grow.

Now, since I'm psychic, I know you're just about to ask where "cob" in the sense of "corn cob" came from. In this case the root is even more vague than that of "ear," but the general senses are "large," "rounded," "head" or "top," and the corn "cob" is so called because it is in a sense the "top," or product, of the corn plant. From the same word we get "cob," a large stout horse, "cob," a (usually large) male swan, and "cobble stones," from the "rounded" sense. We even get the word "cobweb" from the same root, via the Middle English form "cop" meaning "spider," from the Old English "attercop" meaning "poison head," which isn't a bad description of a spider.

The coils of love.

Dear Word Detective: At a recent dinner party, one of the guests commented about a young man and his "main squeeze." We had a little disagreement about the origin and meaning of this term that's occasionally used for somebody's significant other, even though it seems rather dated. -- Rex Vacca, via the internet.

"Rather dated" is putting it mildly. In fact, the only human being I can imagine using "main squeeze" in anything other than deliberate irony is Pat Boone. Of course, slang is the perfect vehicle for intentional irony, since nothing sounds lamer than yesterday's hip lingo. But even an ironic use of "main squeeze" conjures up disquieting images of Frankie Avalon beach movies.

"Main squeeze," meaning "steady girlfriend," goes way back, first appearing in the 1940s and attaining wide acceptance in the 1950s. The "squeeze" part refers to a person whom one hugs. The "main" element, however, lends the phrase an air of cool detachment, implying that there are other, secondary "squeezes" lurking in the shrubbery, powdering their noses and ready to pounce. I wasn't dating back in the 1950s (I spent the decade trying to put my eye out by running with sharp objects), but I assume the remedy for the uncertainty of "main squeeze" status was to push for "going steady," a 1950s coinage that implied a greater level of commitment. The state of "going steady," as I recall, was often codified in those days by the award of the male's "letter sweater" (which probably, in many cases, later came in handy as kindling for the  post-divorce bonfire).

Speaking of disquieting ambiguity in the terminology of relationships, I'd nominate "significant other" as the natural successor to "main squeeze." A noble but doomed attempt, dating back to the 1970s, to sidestep the "Are you guys married?" question, "significant other" is OK for use on party invitations (where it is often mercifully abbreviated "S.O."). But spoken aloud as an introduction ("This is Larry, my ...."), it invokes, for me anyway, the specter of "insignificant others," perhaps dangerously disgruntled pretenders to romantic significance who might at any moment emerge from behind the punch bowl to wreak ballistic retribution for their also-ran status.

But "significant other" is still better than "very good friend" or "special friend," creepy circumlocutions that manage to mix Sesame Street cute with tabloid smarminess. Best to go with a simple "my friend" and let everyone speculate after you've left the room.

Portrait of Scally and Wag.

Dear Word Detective: I was hoping you could tell me the origin of the word "scally," which is probably short for "scallywag," meaning roughly a sort of harmless rogue. -- Chris Peters, via the internet.

I've never run across "scally," as it seems so far to be strictly British slang, but from your definition I'd say it is almost certainly just a short form of "scallywag." But I sense a deeper question here (this is why I get the big bucks), namely the origin of "scallywag" in the first place.

Unfortunately, answering my own question is not as easy as it should be. A "scallywag" (also spelled "scalawag") is defined today as a scoundrel, a rascal, a rogue (not quite harmless, but not major-league evil either) or a scamp. "Scallywag" today carries definite "boys will be boys" overtones, and usually indicates bemused tolerance of the scallywag's antics. Truly hated people are not called "scallywags."

"Twas not, however, always so. "Scallywag," an American invention, was popularized first in the post-Civil War South as a term of profound contempt for those Southerners who accepted and collaborated with the occupation of the South by the Union Army and the Reconstruction that followed. "Scallywag" was also used to mean any low, contemptible, good-for-nothing person.

The actual origin of "scallywag" lies a bit earlier than the Civil War, however, and here's where the trail gets a little tangled. One of the earliest uses of "scallywag" when it appeared around 1848 was "a scrawny and worthless steer or horse." This may actually have been the original meaning of the word, and there's a theory that "scallywag" in this sense derives from Scalloway in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. These islands are famous for their tiny Shetland ponies, and it's possible that the diminutive stature of these cute little ponies became a slur on animals that should have been larger but weren't, and gradually came to be used as an insult (equivalent to "runt") to people as well.

Another theory, also drawn from Scotland, traces "scallywag" to the Scots word "scurryvaig," meaning "vagabond." One interesting theory about "scurryvaig," in turn, is that it is derived from the Latin phrase "scurra vagas," meaning "wandering buffoon or fool."


Cuppa joe, and step on it.

Dear Word Detective: I'm a longtime reader, writing from Tokyo, Japan ("The land where coffee refills are not free"). While (re)reading the classic detective noir books of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I've always wondered about the curious word "shamus," and where it came from. I seem to recall that some people have accused Hammett of more or less making it up, but since he was one of the very few writers of that era to have worked as a detective, somehow that doesn't ring true. Could there be any relation to the Irish name "Seamus," which I understand is pronounced the same way? And was the term ever authentic underworld slang, or did it originate with the pulp authors? -- Andy Hall, via the internet.

No free refills on coffee? Well, fugeddaboudit. I'm staying put. Actually, much of the coffee served around here is so awful you'd have to be a masochist to want a refill, but it's the principle that's important. On the other hand, restaurants here will usually refill your iced tea six or seven times without blinking, while most places in New York City charge you by the glass. Go figure. I'm looking for a city with unlimited doughnuts.

Dashiell Hammett did indeed work as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency before he began writing the detective stories (including The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) now generally credited as inventing the "hard boiled" or "noir" (French for "black," i.e., dark, gloomy) genre of mystery. Hammett's novels also popularized underworld lingo such as "shamus," but he definitely didn't make it up.

When it first appeared around 1920, "shamus" (pronounced shay-muss or shah-muss, your choice) was criminal slang for any sort of police officer, store detective, etc., but, by the 1930s, "shamus" meant strictly a "private eye." The term probably harks back to the Hebrew "sammas" (attendant), a sexton, watchman or caretaker at a synagogue. In the Jewish communities of Europe, the "sammas" (shammes" in Yiddish) handled nearly all the mundane daily tasks of the synagogue, including acting as a bailiff in the religious court, so the leap from "caretaker" to "cop" was not a large one.

But "shamus" as slang also probably did get a big boost in the U.S. because it sounded so much like "Seamus" (pronounced "shay-muss"), a common Irish first name (the equivalent of "James") in an era when many cops were Irish.

Well done, Fry Boy.

So much for there being no such thing as bad publicity. There was an unusual lexicographic dustup in the news recently when Merriam-Webster announced that the new 11th edition of its Collegiate Dictionary would include the term "McJob," defined as "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement." McDonald's CEO Jim "Footburger with Cheese" Cantalupo denounced the definition as a "slap in the face" to his employees and demanded its excision. Merriam refused, quite reasonably pointing out that the phrase, popularized in Douglas Coupland's 1991 book "Generation X," had been in colloquial use since at least 1986 and was already similarly defined in several other dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary. As the dust now settles, two predictable results emerge: Merriam has sold a few more dictionaries (a good thing) and McDonalds has inadvertently introduced the term "McJob" to few million more people (a phenomenon we might call "Fox News Blowback").

The entry of new words, especially slang and colloquial terms, into dictionaries has often been contentious, and many linguistic conservatives have questioned whether some additions to our dictionaries will, in twenty years' time, still belong there. That much of our slang is ephemeral is obvious, but that fact raises another question rarely addressed -- isn't there a case to be made for preserving a record of yesterday's slang?

Presuming that the answer is yes, Oxford University Press has just done us all an enormous favor by publishing Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century by Rosemarie Ostler (Hardcover, $25.00). Ms. Ostler's inspired idea was to track the popular speech of the twentieth century -- the slang, colloquial terms, occupational lingo and notable buzzwords -- by the decade in which it was popular and, more importantly, to firmly embed the terms in their historical context. Thus the chapter on the 1950s  contains a remarkable rundown of the military slang of the Korean War, that of the 1930s spotlights the rise of drugstore soda fountains and provides an extensive glossary of lunch counter slang, and the chapter on the 1980s surveys both the ruthless terminology of corporate raiders and the arcane lingo of hackers. Each chapter also collects and explains the high-profile buzzwords of the decade, from H.L. Mencken's 1920s "booboisie" (middle-class idiots) to "payola" in the 1950s to the "Ebonics" fuss (astutely explained by Ms. Ostler) of the 1990s. And in the unlikely event that anyone out there pines for the days of "smokies" and "breaker breaker," the chapter on the 1970s even includes a detailed rundown of the lingo of citizen's band radio.

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Plus which he's got those funny tattoos on his knuckles.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase "foot loose and fancy-free" is not used much now, but I spent a few years during the early 1970s around Sumter, SC where I frequently heard the phrase used. As I understand it, the lead man in a prison chain gang has one foot loose (not chained, while the others had both legs/feet chained). The lead man is the only one allowed to speak to the Bossman, determines when to take breaks, sets the gait for all work, etc. So if Joe is the lucky one selected to lead the chain gang today, then Joe was "foot loose and fancy-free," a level of freedom outside the prison walls, meaning unattached, carefree, to bordering on having a total lack of responsibility. Not knowing anyone who'd admit to living close to anyone who'd been on a chain gang in the 50-70s, I can't confirm the derivation of the phrase. But maybe you'd know of someone who'd quietly admit that they have first hand knowledge? -- Larry Lathrop, via the internet.

 Do I know of someone with first hand knowledge of chain gangs? Well, there's Dwayne, the guy who's been hiding out in our barn for the past few months, but I'm reluctant to ask him too many questions. Maybe after he finishes painting the garage and fixing the porch. It's so hard to get good help these days.

But seriously, I don't happen to know anyone with chain gang experience, although now that the U.S. has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world that may soon change. For readers in less justice-rich zones, I should probably explain that a "chain gang" is a work team of convicts, chained together at the ankles, usually employed in repairing roads or digging ditches, especially in the American South.

In any case, that's a dandy story you've heard about "footloose and fancy-free," but unfortunately it bears all the hallmarks of having been invented to fit the phrase, and completely fails to explain the "fancy-free" part. As it happens, "footloose" has been used to mean "free to act as one pleases" since the 17th century, and simply came from the sense of being able to go anywhere one wishes. "Fancy- free" is even less likely to have chain-gang origins. The "fancy" part originally, back in the 16th century, meant "love or romantic attachment," so to be "fancy-free" was to be not in love and thus unbound to any other person. Put together in "footloose and fancy-free," you have a prescription for unfettered wandering.

Something wicked rolls over, scratches its nose, and goes back to sleep.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word "hotbed"? -- Werner Linz, via the internet.

Gosharootie, that's a good question. As a matter of fact, I happened to be tidying up my email files earlier today and discovered that in just the past five years I have received more than 35,000 questions about words and phrases. So I went back to those files a minute ago and searched for "hotbed," and apparently you are the first and only person ever to ask about "hotbed."

 What makes that remarkable is the fact that we all hear, and many of us use, "hotbed" nearly every day. The world is apparently full of places described as "hotbeds" of terrorism, Hollywood is supposedly a "hotbed" of liberalism, the government is a "hotbed" of meddling bureaucrats, and even poor, innocent Idaho is said to be a "hotbed" of survivalist nut cases. There are so many "hotbeds" lurking out there that it's a miracle any of us get any sleep.

As you can tell from the examples above, "hotbed" is not something you want nearby. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "hotbed" (also sometimes hyphenated as "hot-bed") as "A place that favors the rapid growth or development of any condition, especially of something evil." In use since at least 1768 in this negative sense, "hotbed" was vividly used as a metaphor to describe the social fallout of tenement living by the social reformer Jacob Riis in his classic 1890 expose "How the Other Half Lives": "[The apartment house] became a regular hot-bed of thieves and peace-breakers, and made no end of trouble for the police."

But this "evil" connotation isn't really fair, and not since Charles Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" (The Flowers of Evil, a collection of fairly morbid poems) has horticulture gotten such a bad rap. For "hotbed" originally was (and remains) a gardening term, meaning a framed bed of earth, often heated by decaying manure and usually covered with glass, used by gardeners to give seedlings a head start in early spring. That an innocent gardening gizmo used to nurture tender little plants became a metaphor for festering human evil is a little unfortunate, but probably irreversible. The gardening kind of "hotbeds" are more commonly today called "cold frames."

A fine whine.

Dear Word Detective: Why don't we use the word "pule"? I like this word and I have been integrating it into my vocabulary. My question is, how can I (a mere commoner) initiate a program to get this word out to the people so that it can be used rather than have it sit in the dictionary in obscurity? I've thrown this word out to a few other media in hopes that it will gain popularity and become a handy, common word. EBay has a few "puley" auctions, for starters. Maybe I could rent a billboard and post my word up there and let the people pull out their dictionaries and look up the meaning themselves. -- Carole, via the internet.

Sounds like a plan. By the way, I'm not certain whether you meant that "puley eBay auctions" literally, but I searched eBay for "puley" and only found one item, a poster for a concert in San Diego featuring a band named "Puley." Seems like an odd choice for a band name when so many better monikers (Psycho Doormats, Dead Gerbils, etc.) are available.

"Pule" (pronounced "pyool") is indeed an interesting, useful word, although I can't really imagine becoming attached to it the way I am to "flapdoodle" and "nincompoop." As a verb, "pule" means "to cry or whine weakly or plaintively, as a child," and the adjective forms "puling" and "puley" evoke constant whining and whimpering. Maybe it's not a bad name for a band after all.

The roots of "pule" don't do much for the word's image. "Pule" is probably derived from the French dialect word "piouler," meaning "to cry or cheep" as a chicken or the young of an animal might. Although "pule" is rarely heard today, and then more in the UK than in the US, it's been around since at least 1534 and was once quite common. The British poet Thomas Carew (1589–1639), in his poem "To a Lady That Desired I Would Love Her," wrote "Then give me leave to love, & love me too, Not with design, To raise, as Loves curst Rebels do, When puling Poets whine, Fame to their beauty, from their blubbr’d eyn." John Keats (1795–1821) also knew "puling" when he heard it: "Men were thought wise who could not understand His glories: with a puling infant’s force, they sway’d about upon a rocking horse, and thought it Pegasus."

You can call me "Print Legibly."

Dear Word Detective: I have been trying to find out why British soldiers are called "Tommies." I always assumed it was because they used Tommy guns, a name deriving from the Thompson machine gun, but have recently found out this wasn't so. These guns never made it across the ocean to the First World War, so it can't be from that. I know the Irish Republican Army were the first to use these guns in hit-and-run conflicts, but that doesn't make sense either as to why that would start the trend for calling British soldiers "Tommies." I am totally flummoxed. -- Maria Bradshaw, via the internet.

Good question. It's the sort of question that has popped up in the back of my mind several times while watching old war movies, but has never quite percolated up to the level where I actually go looking for an answer. Sometimes I worry about what else might be gathering dust back there: brilliant inventions, stunning ripostes to insults, the perfect Christmas gift for a relative (always thought of in July). But when I try to conjure up these ideas in usable form, all I get are old episodes of Gilligan's Island. I think I need to defrag my mind.

Onward. As you note, the Tommy gun wasn't available during WWI, so the rat-a-tat-tat "Tommy" cannot be the source of the soldier "Tommy," by then in common use. (The Thompson machine gun, incidentally, was actually invented by John T. Thompson and John N. Blish, but I'm assuming that it's no big mystery as to why this formidable weapon wasn't dubbed a "Blish gun.")

As a matter of fact, the use of "Tommy" to mean a British soldier goes all the way back to the early 1800s, and is actually short for "Thomas Atkins." And who, one might ask, was Thomas Atkins to have his name immortalized in such fashion? Simple -- he was the British Army's equivalent of our "John Doe." Starting in 1815, British Army manuals and regulation books used "Thomas Atkins" as the example name, especially for privates, on most specimen forms. By the time they got through basic training, soldiers had seen the name "Thomas Atkins" a thousand times, and within a few years "Tommy Atkins" or just "Tommy" had been adopted in both military and civilian life as a synonym for "rank and file soldier."

But a lot less fun than Spin the Bottle.

Dear Word Detective: A friend and I dine regularly at a favorite restaurant, and we usually arrive separately. He almost always arrives before me and gets the most coveted seat at our favorite table. Last week, on the rare occasion that I arrived before him, I beat him to the best seat. I then used the phrase "I turned the tables on you" when he showed up, referring to my getting his seat. Of course, he knew what I meant. How did "turn the tables" come to mean what it does? -- Ed H., via the internet.

Well, once upon a time there were two friends who often met for dinner at their favorite restaurant....

I wish it were that simple. To "turn the tables," meaning to suddenly reverse the relative positions of two competitors, has spawned a number of theories as to its origin. "Turning the tables" is, of course, a staple of stage, screen and novelistic melodramas from boxing sagas to intergalactic invasion scenarios, and the phrase itself has been current since at least the early 1600s.

Many explanations of "turn the tables" trace it to one or another board game, such as chess, played on a tabletop. It certainly makes sense that anyone losing a game of chess would fantasize about rotating the board 180 degrees, but this seems a rather thin premise for such an enduring phrase.

Another possible source, cited by etymologist Charles Earle Funk, might be the game of duplicate bridge, in which players, after one round, replay the hand previously held by their opponent, but this procedure doesn't really match the sense of reversing a fiercely fought contest midway through.

One of the more inventive theories comes from the 1898 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which declares: "The Romans prided themselves on their tables made of citron wood from Mauritania, inlaid with ivory, and sold at a most extravagant price -- some equal to a senator’s income. When the gentlemen accused the ladies of extravagance, the ladies retorted by reminding the gentlemen of what they spent in tables." As the plot of a sitcom, yes, but as an etymological theory, go fish.

To me the most convincing explanation traces "turn the tables" to backgammon, a devilishly complicated and ancient board game which was, as recently as the 17th century, known as (ta-da!) "tables." Apparently the arcane rules of backgammon allow sudden reversals of fortune which can rescue a player on the brink of losing and thus "turn the tables" to his or her advantage.


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