Issue of December 18, 2000


It occurred to me the other day that I really ought to mention that the weekly column I used to write for the New York Daily News is still available online. You can find archived columns by simply going to the New York Daily News web site and searching under "City Slang."

And since this is the holiday season, here's a nice picture from the recent Holiday Party here at TWD World Headquarters. That's Brownie wearing the antlers and Pokie wearing the schadenfreude.

And now, on with the show....

Such a pain...

Dear Word Detective: What is the Italian or Yiddish word for heartburn? I grew up hearing my parents saying "argada," but since I've moved to the South no one seems to believe it's actually a word. Help! -- Kelly, via the internet.

Tell me about it. Ever since I moved to rural Ohio from New York City a few years ago, I've been getting funny looks from people whenever I use standard New-Yorkisms such as "go figure" or "fugeddaboudit." Of course, they also think "bialy" is a breed of dog, so I guess it's hopeless.

In any case, the word your parents were using was almost certainly "agita." You won't find "agita" in most dictionaries, although it is a quintessential Italian-American slang word. Strictly speaking, "agita" is a stomach upset or heartburn. But "agita" can also mean that special kind of existential dyspepsia of the soul you get when absolutely everything goes wrong. Comedian Jackie Mason has explained "agita" as "when you have been aggravated to the point where it feels like you have a serious migraine headache throughout your whole body." "Agita" is thus more or less the Italian-American equivalent of the Yiddish "tsuris" ("misery"), an equation not lost on Woody Allen, who made a song about "agita" the centerpiece of his 1984 film "Broadway Danny Rose."

"Agita" is not a standard Italian word, and linguists are not certain where came from. One possible source is the Italian word "agitare" ("to agitate" or "to trouble"), which in turn came from the Latin "agitare," which meant "to stir up." To be "agitato" in Italy is to be very excited, and a musical score marked "agitato" is intended to be played at a frenzied pace. But it's also possible that the source is "acido" (pronounced "AH-chee-do"), Italian for "stomach acid," which then possibly became "agita" ("AH-jih-ta") over time. Whatever the source, "agita" seems to have arrived in New York with Italian immigrants around the turn of the century, and has been in constant use, especially in places like New York City, ever since.

Shine on brightly.

Dear Word Detective: While on a hike the other day, I began to wonder whether there was any connection between the "blazes" used to mark hiking trails (which are sometime blue) and the term "blue blazes" as used in the expression "Where in the blue blazes have you been?" I stopped wondering only when I found I had ignored the blazes for too long and wandered off the trail. Perhaps you could steer me in the right direction. It seems the two "blazes" should be connected, which based on the columns of yours I've read almost certainly means they are not. -- Steve Bromley, via the internet.

Yeah, that's me, the Grinch Who Stole Intuitive Insights. Actually, my motto is "Not Necessarily" rather than "Probably Not," and in this case there may well be a connection.

There are three kinds of "blaze" in English. The "fire" sense of "blaze" comes from the very old Germanic word "blason," meaning "torch," and was known in English by 1000 A.D., although it was spelled "blase" for several hundred years. "Blazes" as a slang expression derives from this sense and originally referred to the flames of Hell. The "blue" in "blue blazes" is just an alliterative intensifier and has no real meaning. Thus, "Where in blue blazes have you been?" is just a euphemistic way of saying "Where the hell...."

The second sense of "blaze" comes from an old Dutch word "blasen," meaning "to blow," and is, in fact, based on the same Indo-European root as "blow." This sense of "blaze" is now obsolete, but until the 19th century it meant "to trumpet," either literally by blowing a trumpet or bugle, or figuratively, by loudly proclaiming or boasting.

Meanwhile, back in the woods, we have the third sense of "blaze," which comes from the Old Norse word "blesi," meaning a spot or patch of white on the face of a horse or other animal. To "blaze" a trail originally meant to strip a patch of bark from trees along one's route, exposing the lighter wood underneath and thus marking the trail for those who follow. It is possible, since the underlying sense of this "blaze" is "bright or shining," that it is related to the "fire" sense of blaze, which would make "blue blazes" a distant cousin of "blazing a trail."

Well, you're a bigger one.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase "cock a snook" appears on occasion in The Economist magazine. Does it mean to thumb one's nose at something, and what is its derivation? -- Bruce and Sally, via the internet.

Ah, yes, the Economist, a British news and business magazine with remarkably wide distribution here in the U.S., would be the logical place to run into "cock a snook." While I'm not especially fond of the Economist's political slant, I have to give them credit for a cleverness sadly lacking in their American competitors. I still remember their headline back in the early 1980s when President Reagan was diagnosed with a minor intestinal growth: "Apolypcase Now."

To "cock a snook" at someone is a bit more elaborate than simply thumbing one's nose. To "cock a snook" is a classic display of derision, properly performed by spreading the fingers of one hand, touching the tip of your nose with your thumb while sighting your opponent along the tips of your other fingers (what the British sometimes call a "Queen Anne's Fan," but what we more commonly call a "five-finger salute"), and waggling your fingers in the most annoying way possible. As a gesture, it doesn't really mean anything, but it does convey utter contempt rather well. Like all fine insulting gestures, cocking a snook always goes well with a Bronx Cheer, or raspberry, as an accompaniment. Crossing your eyes while doing all this is optional but definitely enhances the overall effect. And remember, kids, practice makes perfect.

While the phrase "thumb one's nose" first appeared in English around 1903, "cocking a snook" is much older, first appearing in print back in 1791. The verb "to cock" comes from strutting behavior of male chickens, and means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to turn up in an assertive, pretentious, jaunty, saucy, or defiant way." The "snook" is of uncertain origin, but may be related to "snout," which would certainly make sense.

And I'll have a small slice
of that frosty detachment there.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of the word "deadpan"? I can't find it even in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. My guess is that it has its origins in the theatre and may even have something to do with pancake makeup, but that's a wild guess. -- Dinah, via the internet.

It's not a bad guess, but I think the first thing you should do is buy a new dictionary. I have a copy of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (NSOED), published in 1993, which supplies a perfectly adequate definition and even a brief etymology.

Since I have the NSOED open, I might as well quote its definition of "deadpan," which is "expressionless, impassive, unemotional; detached, impersonal." Although "deadpan" can be used to mean simply "unemotional," it's most often heard in the context of humor or joke-telling, where a "deadpan" mock-serious delivery often amplifies the effect of a good joke. Say, for instance, that I happen upon my brother-in-law tinkering with the engine of his lawnmower. I stand back with a deadpan air of confidence and announce, "What you need is a henway." Puzzled, he asks "What's a henway?" I say "About five pounds," and he throws a wrench at me. All right, so Noel Coward I'm not.

"Deadpan" does indeed have a theatrical origin, first appearing in the New York Times in 1928 (in an article citing actor Buster Keaton as the quintessential "dead-pan" comic) and was frequently used in the show-business daily Variety around that time. The key to "deadpan" is the use of "pan" as theatrical slang for "the face" (reflecting the use of "pan" to mean "skull," found as early as 1330). So "deadpan" is simply another way of saying "expressionless face."

"Pancake," meaning a kind of thick makeup often used in the theater, first appeared in 1937 as a trademark of Max Factor & Co., and may well be a bit of a pun, referring both to the thickness of the product (which was, incidentally, originally marketed in a broad, "pancake-shaped" container) and to the fact that it forms a sort of "cake" on the actor's "pan."


Aw, Mr. Cheney, do I have to?

Dear Word Detective: Here in Australia we "whinge" where Americans "whine." "Whinge" is a fabulous word and many Americans with whom I have had contact have latched onto it. My Macquarie dictionary doesn't note it as slang and its use is very widespread in the land up over (who said south was down, north was up anyway?). Is it a derivation of "whine" and where do both words come from? An American friend, encountering "whinge" for the first time, defined it as a "whining binge," which is very creative and I wish it were true but alas I fear it is not. -- Sara Clarke, Australia.

Nope, sorry, although "whining binge" has a nice ring to it. "Whinge" (which rhymes with "hinge") has always been common in the U.K. and Australia, but it seems to have hired itself a North American press agent recently. It's showing up more and more in U.S. media, and I've received a number of questions about "whinge" in just the last month. Cynic that I am, I suspect that the increased visibility of "whinge" may be due to the inveterate Anglophilia of certain upper strata of U.S. society. It is, for instance, now routine to hear well-off young people in New York City pretentiously refer to their "flat," meaning their apartment. Personally, I find that sort of play-acting vaguely pathetic, but your mileage may vary.

In any case, "whinge" is basically the same word as our good old-fashioned "whine," meaning "to complain peevishly." Both whinge" and "whine" are ultimately from the Germanic "hwinan," meaning "to whine." The "ge" ending of "whinge" is evidence of its origin as the Scots and Northern English form of "whine," much as "clenge" and "ringe" were at one time the Northern forms of "cleanse" and "rinse."

"Whinge" is, for a word newly trendy in America at least, remarkably old. It comes directly from the Old English word "hwinsian," and first appeared in its modern English spelling in the early 18th century.

Sewed up.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase "you've got your work cut out for you" come from? Growing up, I always thought it meant "you've got it easy" (I pictured a seamstress who already had her work cut out for her and all she had to do was sew). I was surprised to find out that it actually meant the opposite: that you have a difficult task set before you. Does it mean, perhaps that the work is "tailor-made" to your abilities? I hate to needle you about this, but I would sew appreciate an answer. -- Valerie Layne, via the internet.

Nyuk nyuk. My advice to you, Ms. Layne, is to sit quietly by your computer and wait for the Pun Police to arrive. And if they put you in a cell with Richard Lederer, don't listen to him. He is an agent of the Dark Side.

You're correct about the meaning of "to have your work cut out for you," which means to be facing an obviously difficult task, one which is as much as one person could possibly handle. If I were to decide to teach myself French, for example, I would have my work cut out for me. I would probably have an easier time, in fact, teaching my cat French.

You're also largely correct about the history of the phrase, which did originally refer to sewing. While having someone else follow the pattern and cut out the proper bits of cloth from which to sew a jacket, for instance, would no doubt be helpful, the most arduous part of the job is actually sewing all the pieces together. Today the phrase can be applied to any sort of work or effort, and "to have your work cut out for you" means that your task is clear and ready to be tackled, but all the more daunting because you can clearly see exactly what needs to be done.

"To have your work cut out for you" is a remarkably old phrase, dating back to around 1600, and occurs in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as well as the works of several other famous authors.

Spam, spam, glorious spam.

Dear Word Detective: I'm curious about the origin of the phrase "Hobson's choice." I've been told that it originates from stable owners telling their customers they can have any horse they want providing it is the one closest to the door -- hence no choice at all. Is this true? -- Adam, Manchester, UK.

Yes, apparently it is, although there is a bit more to the story. To offer someone a "Hobson's choice" is to offer the person the option of taking one thing or nothing, and thus a "Hobson's choice" is, as you say, not a real choice at all. Henry Ford's famous (but probably apocryphal) declaration that his Model T car would be available "in any color so long as it's black" would be a good example of a "Hobson's choice." Or, as Thomas Ward wrote in "England's Reformation" in 1638, "Where to elect there is but one, 'tis Hobson's choice -- take that or none."

As the date of Ward's rhyme indicates, "Hobson's choice" has been around for quite a while. Tobias Hobson was an entrepreneur who drove a passenger coach between Cambridge and London in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and also operated a stable renting horses to students at Cambridge University. Well aware that students could be very hard on the horses they rented, Hobson instituted a strict rotation system for his steeds. The most recently ridden were housed at the back of the stable, the most rested at the front, and only the horse nearest the door was available for hire. Any patron who objected to Hobson's system was, of course, free to walk (also humorously known as "taking Shank's mare," the "shank" being one's own leg).

Hobson operated his coach business for 50 years until the Plague broke out in Cambridge and his carriage route to London was shut down. Apparently unable to endure forced idleness, Hobson died in 1631 at age 86. Eulogized by the great English poet John Milton, Hobson had almost certainly already been immortalized in the phrase "Hobson's choice."

Actually, the Fifth Essence turned out to be cheese.

Dear Word Detective: What does "quintessential" mean and where does it come from? I've heard it used to mean both "best" and "most necessary" -- which is right? -- B. Vario, via the internet.

Well, both meanings are in the ballpark. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "quintessence" as "the most essential part or feature of some non-material thing; the purest or most perfect form or manifestation of some quality." You'll notice the word "essential" in that definition, and therein lies the key to "quintessential."

Ancient and medieval philosophers considered all matter to be made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. These were the four "essences," from the Latin "esse," meaning "to be." An essence is the ultimate nature of a thing, without which it cannot exist, and the Ancient Greeks thought that everything in the universe was made up of combinations of these elements. Later on, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras theorized that there was actually a "fifth essence," from which the heavenly bodies (such as stars) were made. More importantly, Pythagoras and his disciples thought that this "fifth essence" permeated all of creation and thus was even purer and more "essential" than the four essences. Finding this "quintessence" (from the Latin "quinta" (fifth) and "essentia") became one of the chief aims of the medieval alchemists. Today we know that there are more than 100 elements, not just four, but the alchemists' search for "quintessence" is echoed by modern physicists' search for a Grand Unified Theory, or "theory of everything," to explain the universe.

When we say "quintessential" today, we are speaking somewhat more loosely than Pythagoras -- we mean the best example of something ("Vladimir Horowitz was the quintessential concert pianist") or that part of a thing which is absolutely indispensable ("A good dictionary is the quintessential element of every home library").

Go Bucks!
Preferably far, far away.

Dear Word Detective: I would be interested to learn the origins of the word "soccer." As a Brit currently living in the US, I am often dismayed to hear the term used to describe a sport that I, and many of my countrymen, have always known as "football." Is usage of the word "soccer" within the US simply a way of distinguishing the "beautiful game" from the altogether less appropriately-named sport of American Football (which, to my understanding, is played almost exclusively with one's hands)? -- Pete Collins, via the internet.

You know, as much as I like this question, I can't quite get over the feeling that I'm being set up. After all, I live about 35 miles from Columbus, Ohio, home of the OSU Buckeyes football team, and people around here are bananas (to put it politely) about football. Skeptics on the subject of Buckeye supremacy have, in fact, been known to disappear without a trace along with their household pets. But what the heck, since I've never had the sense God gave cole slaw, I'll stick my neck out and agree that "soccer" is a far more intelligent, skillful and interesting game.

It's true that the game known as "football" in most of the world (not just the UK) is known as "soccer" in the US, but we didn't just pull the word out of the air so that we could call our quasi-gladiatorial extravaganzas "football." In fact, you Brits actually invented the word. "Soccer," when it first appeared in the 1890s, was spelled "socca," which was short for "association" or "association football," meaning football played according to the rules laid down by the British Football Association. It was also called "socker" until the current form "soccer" appeared around 1895.

The "er" suffix of "soccer," incidentally, was often used in late 19th and early 20th century slang, and can also be found in the transformation of the name of the British game "rugby" (named after the Rugby School in England) into the popular term "rugger." Rugby, incidentally, is a sport similar to American football, but played without the helmets and elaborate padding used in American stadiums.

Duck and cover.

Dear Word Detective: A question arose in my History of Dance class at Southeastern University, here in Hammond, Louisiana. The question was: where did the word "tutu" come from? Thoughts were that perhaps it was of French or Italian origin. Anyway, my dance instructor was at a loss for the answer. -- McLean Middleton, Louisiana.

Hey dude, I'm there. Ballet rules! A "tutu," of course, is a type of skirt worn by female ballet dancers. (Incidentally, I originally typed "mallard" for "ballet" in that sentence. Say, do you think that sort of typo could have been the inspiration for "Swan Lake"?)

Anyway, a "tutu" is a ballet skirt made up of layers of frills, and there are evidently actually two main types of tutu: the longer "romantic tutu," which reaches halfway down the dancer's calves, and the very short "classic tutu," which stands pretty much straight out from the hips. According to Dame Margot Fonteyn's 1980 book The Magic of Dance, the "classic" tutu is actually the more recent of the two styles: "The soft, full ballet skirt Marie Taglioni had introduced climbed to just below the knee, then to mid-thigh. As it was shortened, it was made fuller and stood out more and more stiffly until it became the modern tutu."

"Tutu" first appeared as an English word around 1910, drawn directly from the French "le tutu" as a name for the ballet dress, and here's where things start to get a little odd. "Tutu" in French is actually what the Oxford English Dictionary calls a "childish alteration of," how a small child would pronounce, the word "cucu." (A similar instance in English is the British term "twee," meaning "overly precious or saccharine," which originated as a child's pronunciation of the word "sweet.")

The French word "cucu" is, in turn, a diminutive form of the word "cul," which means "bottom or backside," the portion of a dancer's anatomy that the classic "tutu" does a less than perfect job of concealing.


Crafty but cute.

Dear Word Detective: My 83-year-old mother-in-law (rural southeast Arkansas all her life, high school education) uses "cunning" to describe babies, puppies, and kittens in much the same way more urbane people use the word "cute." I seem to recall the elephants in the Disney cartoon "Dumbo" using the same term for the baby elephant. Is it '30's slang? A remnant of older dialect? -- Stacy M. Clanton, Professor of English, Magnolia, Arkansas.

Well, your memories of "Dumbo" are a lot clearer than mine. Not only was I very young when I saw it, but I've been unable to watch it ever since because I was so disturbed by the sad fate of Dumbo's mother. I felt the same way about "Bambi," which raises an interesting question: what did Walt Disney have against mothers?

In any case, the sense of "cunning" used by both your mother and those elephants is indeed very old, and in fact very close to the original sense of "cunning." While today we use "cunning" primarily to mean "tricky" or "clever" in a negative sense ("Bob's cunning method of counting chads with a vacuum cleaner impressed all the other lawyers"), "cunning" was originally a compliment.

The root of "cunning" is the Old English "cunnan," meaning "to know," which evolved into "konnyng," meaning "clever, learned or skillful." We still occasionally hear this positive sense used today, but the prevalent modern meaning of "cunning" is the "sneaky smart" sense that appeared around 1590. This kind of shift in meaning is also evident in the evolution of "crafty" (which originally meant "strong and skillful") and "artful" (originally "skillful and artistic"), both of which are now more or less synonyms for "sneaky."

The "cute" sense of "cunning" your mother is using is interesting in that it is almost only heard in the US and embodies an offshoot of the earlier positive sense of "cunning" to mean "quaintly interesting or attractive." A similar throwback is found in the British colloquial use of "canny" (which is closely related to "cunning"). While "canny" generally means "clever" with overtones of sneakiness, it is also used, especially in the north of England, to mean "nice" or "good."

Jump in a cab.

Dear Word Detective: I have two word origin questions: We all know what a "taxi" is, but where did we get the word "taxi"? And "Double Dutch" is a type of jump roping where two ropes are used. From where did this name come? -- Suzanne, via the internet.

Back in the 18th century, a well-to-do Englishman setting out for Sunday jaunt would have called for a "cabriolet," a sporty one-horse carriage which took its name from a French verb meaning "to leap." By the 19th century, the shortened form "cab" was being used to mean larger carriages available for hire in the city, and the modern ritual of "catching a cab" was born. Incidentally, cabs of the time were also known as "hackneys" or "hacks," from the Old French "haquenee" (horse), and to this day, cab drivers are known in many cities as "hackies." None of this shuttling around the city was done for free, of course. While previously the hackie would quote a price loosely based on the journey's distance at the beginning of a ride, in the late 1800's technology came to the world of cabs and hacks with the invention of the "taximeter" (from the French "taxe," tariff, and "metre," meter). Taximeters automatically measured the actual distance traveled by the cab, and were such a universal success that cabs soon became known as "taxicabs," or "taxis" for short.

"Double dutch" jumprope requires hopping through two jumpropes twirling in opposite directions, like an eggbeater. If that seems like an impossibly difficult skill to master, guess what? That's why they call it "double-dutch." Double-dutch rope jumping was probably invented by New York City, not Dutch, children. Its name is a relic of the rivalry between England and The Netherlands back in the 1600's, when both nations were establishing global empires. Back then, the English referred to anything they didn't like or considered foreign as "Dutch." Even hundreds of years later in America, if something was very confusing or difficult, it was known as "High Dutch" or "Double Dutch." And anyone who's ever seen double-dutch jumprope will agree that it's the perfect name.

Fancy footwork.

Dear Word Detective: A friend and I were recently discussing two of the most overused phrases associated with stage magic: "hocus pocus" and "abracadabra." He says he's read (in the "Annotated Wizard of Oz") that "hocus pocus" was derived from the Latin phrase "hoc est corpus meum" meaning "this is my body," part of the Latin Catholic Mass. Is this true? Any idea where "abracadabra" may have arisen? -- Barry Johnson, via the internet.

I'll give it a shot, but only if you guys promise to keep your spells to yourselves. I let some clown saw me in half a few years ago and I've had a terrible time getting my socks to match ever since. On the other hand, if you'd like to make it up to me, I know a certain state (think palm trees and alligators) that I'd really enjoy seeing disappear.

The theory your friend has read about the origin of "hocus pocus" is probably not true, but it does have a very long history, having first been suggested way back around 1694 by John Tillotson, then Archbishop of Canterbury. All available evidence, however, indicates that "hocus pocus" first appeared as a proper noun, the stage name of a particular magician who attained wide renown in England during the reign of James I (1567-1625). Mr. Hokus Pocus evidently took his name from the nonsensical incantation he repeated during his act, something along the lines of "Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo," which didn't really mean anything but effectively distracted his audience's attention from his sleight of hand. Such was this fellow's fame that magicians have used his incantation ever since, and "hokus pokus" has become a synonym for trickery or deception.

The story behind "abracadabra," the classic magician's incantation when revealing the results of a conjuring trick, is very similar. The precise origin of "abracadabra" is unknown, but it apparently first appeared in late Latin as a magical word inscribed on amulets worn around the neck to ward off evil. Like "hocus pocus," "abracadabra" was adopted by stage magicians as a nonsense word used to impress audiences, and, like "hocus pocus," it has also come to mean "nonsense or gibberish."

Ready, Freddy?

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "redd up?" I recently asked my colleagues to help "redd up" the lounge and they acted like I was speaking a foreign language. I remember my grandmother telling me to "redd up" my room, but I can't find any information on the origin of the phrase. Can you help? -- Dunlap, via the internet.

Well, I don't wish to cast aspersions upon your colleagues, but my guess is that they knew exactly what you meant and were just pretending not to understand. My research assistant frequently pulls the same ruse on me. When I call to her, she will hide behind a tree and stand very still, pretending not to hear me. Granted, my assistant is a border collie named Brownie, but I think the operative principle is pretty much the same.

While you don't mention exactly where you grew up, if your grandmother routinely told you to "redd up" your room, there's a statistical probability that either you were living in, or your grandmother was from, Pennsylvania. "Redd up," meaning "to clear or clean up," arrived in America with immigrants from Scotland and northern England, and while Scots settled all over the eastern US, the phrase seems to be most commonly heard today, for some reason, in Pennsylvania.

The root of "redd" (which by itself means "to clear or clean") seems to be a combination of the Middle English and Scots dialectical word "redden" (meaning "to free or clear an area") with another Middle English word, "reden," meaning "to rescue or free from." The same tangle of roots gave us the word "rid," and is closely related to the word "ready." And none of this, by the way, has anything to do with the color "red."




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