Issue of December 20, 2002
Time is short, so don't delay by wondering if Uncle Morton would rather have one of those singing fish. I was over at his house last weekend and, trust me, he already has one.
Days pass, orders pour in. Then last week I'm wandering through the living room, where the dogs are watching America's Dumbest Animal Videos, and I notice that Staples or Office Max or some such paper-clip emporium has produced a commercial featuring a singing fish telling viewers that their friends and family would much rather have an office-related gift than a singing fish. I figure either the dogs stole (and sold) my idea or the Illuminati are at it again.
Onward. I have done a bit of work making our Index of Back Columns easier to use, though the column titles are still not in strict alphabetical order in a few places. One would think that FrontPage would make such sorting easy, but one would be, as one so often is in matters Microsoft, wrong.
Oh, and here's a tech tip for people using FrontPage who have found it becoming increasingly sluggish. If you've installed the "HTML Tools" plug-in, go to "Tools: Add-Ins" on the menu bar and delete it. Makes all the difference in the world.
Ask a question, win a book. -- Hey kids, got a science question (how do birds fly, do bugs sleep, etc.)? Send it to How Come? and, if your question is used in the How Come? newspaper column, you'll win a copy of the latest How Come? book, How Come? Planet Earth. See the How Come? web page for details.
And now, on with the show...
Dear Word Detective: I was sleeping one night and was awakened by James Cagney (I think) in an old movie on the still-on TV, claiming that someone or some establishment had given him "the bum's rush." (I've noticed "bum's rush" seems always to be used with "the.") While I think I know what this is, what, pray tell, is the origin of this expression? -- Ed H., Youngstown, Ohio.
There's something weird going on around here. Weirder than usual, I mean. Weirder than the floor of my office tilting in a different direction every day, or the fact that the kitchen faucet keeps trying to kill me, which is a story for another time. Anyway, I was researching the answer to your question last night and decided to take a break, so I wandered downstairs and turned on the idiot box, and what should my wondering eyes behold but the last ten minutes of the classic Cagney movie "The Public Enemy." Spooky, eh? By the way, that final scene has always stumped me. Is Cagney dead, or just really, really tired?
To get "the bum's rush" is to be forcibly ejected or violently thrown out of someplace, usually a bar or restaurant. The classic scene in nearly every Western movie where a cowboy is violently tossed through the swinging doors of a saloon, coming to rest recumbent in the street outside, is a good example of "the bum's rush." The phrase "the bum's rush" is an Americanism dating back to the early 20th century, and simply means the "rush" (in the sense of "violent push") a bar bouncer or the like would use to eject an undesirable patron or "bum." The word "bum" in this sense of "vagrant or beggar" almost certainly comes from the German "Bummler," meaning "loafer." Although recipients of "the bum's rush" often land on their posteriors (if they're lucky), the slang term "bum" meaning "buttocks" is unrelated, much older (circa 1387), and of unknown origin.
Dear Word Detective: When someone complains, they are often described as "carping." Why is this? -- K. Burke, via the internet.
Aha, a fish question at last. I have been getting a good deal of mail lately complaining that fish have been underrepresented in this column, compared to the cats, dogs, badgers, elk and chipmunks that gallop through these precincts on a regular basis. Incidentally, speaking of aquatic critters, I find it interesting that the word "shrimp" is derived from an old Germanic root meaning "to shrink or wither," so the use of "shrimp" to mean a small person does not really have anything to do with the diminutive crustacean of the same name.
Onward. The noble "carp" is a freshwater fish (Cyprinus carpio to its friends) that is commonly raised as food in ponds. The "carp" takes its name from the Medieval Latin "carpa," which also has descendants in German ("Karpfen") and Dutch ("karper"). The ultimate origin of "carp" was probably simply the very old Germanic name for this particular fish.
Now the bad news for you fish fans. "Carp" the fish has absolutely nothing to do with "to carp" meaning "to complain, to find fault." The verb "to carp" first appeared in English around 1240 meaning simply "to talk or to tell," most likely derived from the Old Norse word "karpa," which meant "to talk or brag." This neutral, non-pejorative use of "carp" continued for a few hundred years until the 16th century, when "carp" suddenly took on the modern sense of "to complain, talk censoriously, criticize continuously."
Such an abrupt change in the meaning of a word is always a bit mysterious, but the accepted theory about "carp" is that this later sense was influenced by the unrelated Latin word "carpere," meaning "to pluck or to pick at." ("Carpere" is most famous in its imperative form in the motto "Carpe Diem," meaning "Seize the Day.") The "pick at" sense of "carpere" combined with the "talk" sense of "carp," and we ended up with "carp" meaning "complain."
Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of the word "cuckold"? I know it means a husband with an adulterous wife, but what I am interested in is the derivation of the word. -- Mary E. Moliski, Houston, TX.
Believe it or not, it all has to do with birds. One of the more reprehensible tendencies in human language has been our eagerness to liken our most unfortunate characteristics to the behavior of animals who, in most cases, wouldn't be caught dead acting like humans. For centuries, "drunk as a skunk" has slandered the sober polecat, "dog in the manger" has maligned noble and generous Fido, and "loony" has defamed an eminently sane bird. By this point the entire animal kingdom must be silently shouting, "Oh yeah? Well, you're a bigger one!"
"Cuckold" is, as the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, "a derisive name for the husband of an unfaithful wife," and can also be used as a verb meaning "to dishonor a husband by committing adultery." Although the shame and scandal attached to such a situation are purely human conceits, we named it, true to form, by scrounging around for an animal metaphor, in this case the innocent cuckoo. A cuckoo is a small European bird known (and named) for its charming "coo-coo-coo" call. The cuckoo is also notable for the female cuckoo's habit of laying her eggs in other birds' nests. It was this odd practice that apparently reminded the French back in the 15th century of the behavior of certain human females.
Incidentally, "adultery," although usually committed by persons beyond the age of majority, has nothing to do with the word "adult." "Adult" comes from the Latin "adultus," past participle of the verb "adolescere," meaning "to grow up" and also the source of "adolescence." "Adultery," however, comes from the Latin "adulterare," meaning "to corrupt, to spoil or to make foul," the theory being that horsing around with someone who is not your lawfully wedded spouse spoils or ruins the marriage. (The old joke "Of course we're married, just not to each other" describes a situation technically known as "double adultery.") Although folks who engage in this sort of thing are said to "commit adultery," the more logical verb form "adulterate" (which did mean "to practice adultery" until the 19th century) is now restricted to meaning "to corrupt or spoil" something, often food, usually by diluting it with an inferior ingredient.
Dear Word Detective: "Dotage" is a strange little word that I always assumed meant just "old age." But I just looked up the word and find it and its more obscure relative "dotard" carrying connotations of second childhood or senility. For derivation, I am referred to "dote," which I've always known in the "excessive fondness" sense, but there is also a sense of "exhibiting foolishness or feeble-mindedness." The older I get, the more alarming these connections seem. What can you find about the history of these words that might comfort an old codger? -- Don Platt, St. Charles, MO.
What words? Just kidding. I know what words you mean -- after all they're right there on the whatsis, the TV-screen thingy of my computer, which, oddly enough, I suddenly seem to have misplaced. I'd ask Mrs. Word Detective, but she's still fuming at me for leaving one of the dogs sitting outside in the rain all evening. For my money, it's enough that I feed and walk the beasts. I don't think I should be expected to count them as well, do you?
Speaking as someone who is just about to turn thirty-nine again, I, too, find the apparent lexicographic equation of "dotage" (the state of "doting") and "dotard" (one who "dotes") with "missing a few marbles" somewhat disturbing. Unfortunately, there does seem to be a direct connection between "dotard" and "feeb."
In the beginning there was the Middle Dutch word "doten," which meant "to be silly." This was imported into English in the 13th century as the verb "to dote," which meant, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, "To be silly, deranged, or out of one's wits; to act or talk foolishly or stupidly," which could be applied to a person of any age. The problem comes from the second sense of "to dote," dating to circa 1205, noted in the OED: "To be weak-minded from old age; to have the intellect impaired by reason of age." The helpful folks at Oxford want us to know that this is now the primary sense. The third sense, "To bestow excessive love or fondness on or upon; to be foolishly in love" (as in "Cherie doted on her little poodle"), is a relatively recent 15th century arrival. The fourth sense, "To decay, as a tree," seems an unnecessarily sadistic footnote.
So the bad news is that "dotage" does imply that we will not spend our Golden Years as the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. The good news is that we'll probably have misplaced our pesky dictionaries by then.
Dear Word Detective: It seems strange that hard-core birders who can ID birds at 200 yards in the rain do not, for the most part, know the word that describes one of the most common bird behaviors: wiping its bill, usually on the branch it is sitting on. I’ve seen the word only a couple of times, but it is not in any of the bird books we have now or in any of the dictionaries. The word, of course, is "feeking." Perhaps you could give some background on the word, explain why it is so seldom used, and throw in a few choice observations on the birder crowd. -- Omar DeWitt, via the internet.
Yeah, sure. By the way, I'd like to nominate your statement, "The word, of course, is 'feeking,'" for next year's Nobel Prize in the Audacious Use of "Of Course." Trying to imagine "feek" used in a sentence, the best I can come up with is that famous scene in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where the bandit with the really cool moustache snarls, "Badgers? We don't have to show you no feeking badgers."
I am by no means a "hard-core birder," but I do have two bird feeders right outside my office window and have often seen the boorish bill-wiping behavior you describe, especially when I fill the feeders with pizza. Filthy animals, those birds. They also refuse to use the little port-a-potties I hang in the trees.
To cut to the chase, the word in question is more often spelled "feak," although the only dictionary I've found that lists either form is the Oxford English Dictionary, so I guess it does count as a seriously obscure term. In any case, the origin of "feak" (or "feek") is the German word "fegen," meaning "to cleanse or sweep." The term "feak" first appeared in English back around 1575 and has always been primarily associated with falconry, as illustrated by this quotation from a 1686 explanation of the proper falconry terms: "When she [your Hawk] hath Fed, say she Feaketh her Beak and not wipeth it."
Dear Word Detective: I am curious about the word "rumpus." I have often heard a family room in a house referred to as a "rumpus room." Also, when I was a child my favorite book was "Where the Wild Things Are," which contained the memorable quote "Let the wild rumpus begin." Any ideas? -- A formerly odd and wild child.
Gosharootie. I haven't heard the phrase "rumpus room" in years, so many years, in fact, that the next phrase that leaps to my mind is "home fallout shelter." My recollection of 1950s and 60s suburbia is that "rumpus rooms" were often in the basement and frequently furnished with ping-pong tables and "record players," where the children and teenagers of the family were allowed to do pretty much anything they wanted as long as it involved either ping-pong or listening to records. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "rumpus room" first appeared in the U.S. around 1940 but was still in use in 1977, so I guess somewhere out there bored teenagers are still playing ping-pong in the basement.
The theory behind a "rumpus room" was to set aside one room that didn't have to be kept neat and clean (neat and clean being otherwise very important in mid-20th century suburban America). "Rumpus" first appeared in English in the mid-18th century, and originally meant "a riot or uproar" or "a row," meaning a disturbance or fight. Although "rumpus" sounds as if it might be Latin, the Oxford English Dictionary labels it "probably a fanciful formation," meaning that someone, somewhere, probably simply made up the word. Other sources, however, raise the possibility that "rumpus" arose as a mutation of the now obsolete adjective "robustious," which in addition to simply meaning "robust, strong" also was used to mean "violent, boisterous, noisy."
While we can't be certain of where "rumpus" came from, we do know of one place it went. Apparently the old colloquial word "ruction" (meaning "a disturbance or riot" and possibly related to "insurrection") melded in American popular speech with "rumpus" to give us "ruckus," meaning "an uproar, commotion or fight." "Ruckus" first appeared around 1890 and is still very much in use today to describe a commotion or fuss that, while noisy and disruptive, is ultimately not considered dangerous or damaging.
Dear Word Detective: Consulting firms speak in the worst kind of jargon: it is neither efficient nor precise, just confusing. For example, no one ever "calls" anyone anymore, they "reach out" to each other. The latest outrage I've observed has to do with the misuse of a perfectly good phrase: for something to "jibe" with something else. Repeatedly I hear people saying "does that jive?" when they mean "does that sit well with you?" or "do you agree with that?" My understanding (consulting speak for "I think") is that the correct phrase has a nautical origin: two concepts align when the "jibe" with each other. The literal meaning comes from the verb "to jibe," which means to change direction when sailing downwind such that the boom changes orientation from starboard to port, or vice versa. (When sailing upwind, a similar maneuver is a "tack.") "Jive" is, I believe, of much more recent origin. There's a question in there somewhere. I'll trust you to find it and answer it. -- Michael Raynor, via the internet.
Well, I certainly agree with your critique of consultant-speak. As to your implicit question about "jibe" versus "jive," you're correct that what they mean is "jibe," meaning "to agree, to be in accord with." The Oxford English Dictionary suspects that "jibe," which first appeared around 1813, may be "phonetically related" to "chime" (as in "chime in," meaning "agree"). The nautical use of "jibe" you mention comes from the Dutch "gijben," meaning the boom or spar of a sailing ship.
There's a much older and entirely different kind of "jibe" (or "gibe"), of course, meaning "to speak sneeringly, to insult" (or, as a noun, "an insult"). This "jibe" first appeared in English way back in the 16th century and may be from the Middle French "giber," "to handle roughly."
"Jive" is an American invention, first appearing in Black English in the late 1920s and possibly related to "jibe" (insult), as its original meaning was "lies, boasting or insincerity." "Jive" has since acquired a wide range of meanings, but its application to jazz or swing music, dating back to the 1930s, probably comes from the sense of "jive" meaning "to be enthusiastic, to have a good time."
Maybe there's such a thing as "lessjo"?
Dear Word Detective: A co-worker of mine, who is an immigrant in this country, recently asked me what the word "mojo" meant. He is a highly educated man, fluent in English, but that was a new one for him. I did not feel that my answer to his question was adequate. I know a few of the hoops that "mojo" has jumped through between Africa and Austin Powers, but not the whole story. Can you fill me in? Does this word even have a precise meaning anymore? -- Greg Fisher (Salinas, CA).
Austin Powers has mojo? News to me, but I may be one of the few people in the US who has never seen an Austin Powers movie, thanks to my patented Sequel Avoidance System (SAS). Of course, anyone can refuse to go see a sequel (say, "Home Alone Part 19 -- New Annoying Kid, Same Lame Shtick") to a film they've already seen, but my SAS system enables me to avoid seeing even the original film. It employs a series of complicated algorithms, carefully weighing the actors, director and premise of a movie to judge the likelihood of it spawning sequels, and then, more often than not, tossing the whole mess out the window. I figure it's paid for itself in the cost of stale popcorn alone.
"Mojo" may not have a "precise" meaning today, if it ever did, but it's a powerful word nonetheless. "Mojo" is magic, magical ability, the power to get things done. "Mojo" first appeared in the 1920s in the southern United States, and probably entered Black English in the US from the Gullah word "moco" (magic), Gullah being a creole (mixture of languages) spoken by some groups of African-Americans in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina. The ultimate root of "mojo" was almost certainly the word "moco'o," which means "shaman or medicine man" in the African language Fulani.
"Mojo" spread first into mainstream Black English and then general usage primarily through the popularity of jazz and blues, in the lyrics of which references to "getting my mojo working" and the like have long been a staple. Unfortunately, today it is not unusual to hear software makers refer to the "powerful mojo" of their programs, and, thanks to Austin Powers and his ilk, the prospect of a "McMojo Value Meal" looms depressingly on the horizon.
Dear Word Detective: I subscribe to a trivia newsletter from MailBits.com, and one of them today was this: "The word 'news' did not come about because it was the plural of 'new.' It came from the first letters of the words North, East, West and South. This was because information was being gathered from all different directions." I find this highly suspect, mainly because I believe the word "news" is very old, and anytime before 1900 (as you have pointed out) acronyms were extremely rare. But that does bring to mind, where do we get the word "news"? -- Harry, via the internet.
How strange. I know I answered this several question years ago, and I could have sworn that the column was up on my website, but apparently not. Maybe the web moths got it. There are web moths, you know, just like the ones in your closet, that nibble away at internet sites until they're all full of holes and the pictures won't load because they've been eaten. Sometimes they even try to creep into your house through the phone lines. That's why I always keep plenty of mothballs in my computer. Honest.
But the story they sent you about "news" is, as you suspect, utter balderdash. True, the word "news" is a bit odd in that it appears to be the plural of something, but "new" itself is an adjective, not a noun, and therefore cannot have a plural form. No matter how many novel things happen, they are simply "new," not "news." There's also no equivalent word for the opposite of "news." We study history, but we don't call it "the olds."
The theory that "news" is an acronym whose letters stand for the four points of the compass -- North, East, West and South -- is an attractive, superficially plausible theory, but, like many attractive theories, it is nonsense. In truth, "news" in English seems to have come about because someone noticed that the French word for "news or current events" is "nouvelles" (which is simply the plural of the French word for "new") and decided we should do the same thing in English. So there's no acronym in "news," but we do get to blame the illogic of the word on the French, which is better than nothing .
Dear Word Detective: I can't find the origin of the phrase "nap of the earth." I will make out as a big hero and intellectual big-timer if I can find it and post it on my rotorcraft newsgroup. We all know the one general meaning of "flying close to the earth" and following the earth's contours, especially in a helicopter, and "nap" probably refers to the "nap" as on a carpet, but the origin is eluding us. One wag said it originated in Viet Nam, but I know it is way older than that, as I'm way older than that and remember it from my childhood. -- Ken J., via the internet.
By "rotorcraft" I assume you mean "helicopters," but I suppose the category would include autogyros and similar contraptions as well. I am, in any case, well-acquainted with helicopters flying "nap of the earth." Ohio Air National Guard choppers fly over our house almost every day, usually at a reasonable altitude, but yesterday a UH-60 Blackhawk (i.e., a very large helicopter) came over at near-treetop level while I was in the shower. I happen to know what kind of helicopter it was because I jumped out of the shower and ran for the door, convinced that our rickety old house was finally collapsing. Not funny, gang.
Of the several kinds of "nap" in English, the most well-known is "nap" meaning "a short sleep" (or, as a verb, "to take a short sleep"). Modern English inherited this "nap" from the Old English "hnappian," meaning "to doze," but its ultimate origin is unknown. But that's OK, because the "nap" in "nap of the earth" has nothing to do with dozing. You're on the right trail when you assume that it is connected to the "nap" or surface of a carpet or cloth. This kind of "nap" arrived in English around 1440 from the Middle Dutch "noppe," meaning "tuft of wool." The "nap" of wool or cloth is the layer of projecting fibers on the surface, and "nap of the earth" metaphorically likens the hills, valleys, trees and so forth of the earth to the "nap" of a carpet.
While I suppose that any small aircraft would be capable of flying "nap of the earth," it seems to be primarily a helicopter tactic, and I have been unable to find the term used earlier than the Vietnam War.
Dear Word Detective: Browsing as I do sometimes on the back of the packets of various ready-prepared meals from the local supermarket, I keep seeing the phrase "make sure it is piping hot before serving." I know what "piping hot" means, but I can't find anything in my dictionaries which explains where "piping" in that sense comes from. Can you? -- David, the old York, Yorkshire, England.
Ah, a kindred soul. I, too, like nothing better than to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon browsing the frozen-food labels in our local supermarket. But here in the States our manufacturers march to a different drummer. For fear of lawsuits, they wax positively apoplectic at the thought that a consumer might attempt to consume their product at anything more radiant than room temperature. I have, for instance, been afraid to cook microwave popcorn for years, as the warning labels (Danger! Contents Hotter Than Surface of Sun!) imply that I would risk incinerating family members three rooms away.
Oddly enough, given the litigious atmosphere these days, "piping hot" crops up in TV commercials over here for foods (such as biscuits and pastries) which are shown being removed from the oven accompanied by billowing clouds of steam and the applause of small children. Maybe they're actually small lawyers. In any case, "piping hot" has meant "very hot" since the 14th century, and has almost always been applied to food, although the Oxford English Dictionary does note an 1888 reference to a "piping hot" summer day.
The question, of course, is what all this has to do with pipes, and the first thing to note is that the "pipes" in "piping hot" are not your normal plumbing "pipes." To "pipe" in this sense is to make a sound like musical pipes (think bagpipes), i.e., to emit a whistling or hissing sound. Food served "piping hot" is, thus, hot enough to hiss, sizzle or bubble. The "sizzling fajitas" offered in many US restaurants of the "funky doodads on the wall" persuasion would certainly count as "piping hot," I suppose, although I have never ordered one. As a matter of fact, it finally dawned on me the other day that my persistent refusal to order sizzling fajitas or some other piping-hot delicacy in those places probably accounts for why my food always arrives lukewarm at best. Management just doesn't want me to hurt myself.
Dear Word Detective: In light of the recent news from this area (Maryland), I am left wondering how a perfectly good bird, specifically a "long-billed wading bird of the genus Capella ...," has come to be associated with sneaky, underhanded tactics, both verbal and ballistic. Could you enlighten me on this matter, please? -- Heather A. Wells, Jessup, MD.
It does seem an odd juxtaposition, since the noble snipe is, as you say, a perfectly good bird. There actually are several types of snipe, and, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, "snipe" is the "common name for a shore bird of the family Scolopacidae (sandpiper family), native to the Old and New Worlds. The common, or Wilson’s snipe (Capella gallinago), also called jacksnipe, is a game bird of marshes and meadows. It has an unusual courtship dance, circling and diving in the air." There is also something called the "mud snipe" or "woodcock," as well as several other sorts of snipe. The proper name for a flock of these critters, by the way, is "a wisp of snipe." The word "snipe" itself was borrowed from a Scandinavian source and has relatives in several European languages.
The "snipe" sounds like a lovely little bird, so it's distressing to learn that for several centuries (at least), hunting snipe has been very popular in both Europe and North America. The standard method of hunting snipe is for the fearless hunter to conceal himself, wait for the bird to show up, and then blast it. Although this sneaky method is also used in deer, duck, and nearly every other kind of hunting, it was snipe hunting that gave us the verb "to snipe" meaning "to shoot at long range from a hidden place," which first appeared in the late 18th century. Interestingly enough, "snipe" in this sense first appeared as military jargon, and "sniping" has at times been considered a not entirely honorable form of combat.
Just about 100 years after "snipe" appeared meaning "to shoot from a concealed location," the figurative meaning of "to verbally attack in a sharp, quick fashion" gained currency. "Sniping" in this sense is the opposite of cogent, reasoned argument, and so naturally has become the favored mode of discourse on TV political talk shows.
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin of "derring-do"? It seems to have something to do with "daring," but I'd like to know how old the phrase is, and where it comes from. -- Michael Crump, via the internet.
Ah, derring-do, where has it gone? I can't remember the last time I saw any real derring-do in the movies or on TV, but it was probably in a Dudley Doright cartoon. Dudley, whose adventures appeared as a feature on the old Rocky the Flying Squirrel show, had derring-do to spare, saving brave Nell Fenwick from the clutches of Snidely Whiplash each and every week. But derring-do seems to have fallen by the wayside of late in favor of so-called "heroes" of the James Bond stripe, whose heroism apparently lies in their ability to read the directions for the endless baroque gadgets they employ. I suppose one could nominate Jackie Chan for "derring-do," but all that jumping around and kicking gives me a headache.
"Derring-do" is, of course, another term for "great courage," especially courage against overwhelming odds, the sort of desperate bravery that snatches victory from the jaws of, yes, defeat. It's not easy to write about this hero stuff without lapsing into clichés, you know.
"Derring-do" does indeed bear a close relation to "daring," but, interestingly enough, "derring-do" itself is the product of a very old misunderstanding. The Old English verb "durren" meant "to dare" (and later produced our modern "dare"), and the first trace of "derring-do" cropped up back in 1374 in Chaucer's use, in his "Troylus," of the phrase "dorrying don," meaning "daring to do." Chaucer used the phrase in its ordinary sense with an object (i.e., daring to do "something") but later editions of his work misprinted the phrase as "derrynge do," and everyone took this spelling as a brand-new compound noun meaning "manly courage." Subsequent writers spread the mistake far and wide, and "derring-do" became a staple of adventures penned by the likes of Sir Walter Scott. After a hundred years or so of pirate novels and bodice-rippers, "derring-do" is now firmly entrenched, if too rarely practiced, in popular culture.
Every so often in the course of writing this column I make reference to the hundreds of reference books I have crammed into my small home office. I operate on the principle that all of these books, even the most obscure, may someday prove useful, and indeed many of them regularly do. But if I were forced to choose just one reference work upon which to depend, I would choose, without a moment's hesitation, The Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, I cite the OED so often in this column that I have only to type "Oxfo" and my word processor fills in the rest of the title, which is very helpful unless I'm writing about shoes.
The Oxford English Dictionary is the crown jewel of English lexicography, an ongoing project begun in 1857 by Sir James Murray and today defining and tracing the histories of more than one-half million words. The OED, now in its second edition published in 1989, is arguably the most important English language reference work ever produced.
So I am happy to announce, albeit a bit belatedly, that the fine folks at Oxford University Press have produced a new version of the OED on CD-ROM. The OED actually exists in a number of forms: the 23-volume ($3000 list, $995 at Amazon.com) full-size print edition; The Compact OED, a single volume reduced type edition which reproduces nine pages of the original on each page and comes, thank heavens, with a powerful magnifier ($395 list, $276.50 at Amazon); the Oxford English Dictionary Online (by subscription, $550 per year), and the new Version Three of The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, which lists for $295 (or $125 to upgrade from earlier versions).
The great advantage of the electronic versions over the printed OED is that the OED CD-ROM and OED Online are both searchable, not only by "headword" (the word defined) but in full-text mode, as well as by etymology, quotation author, date and several other criteria. Thus, as I discovered the other day, while a search for the obscure term "feek" (the action of a bird wiping its beak) in a printed edition will draw a blank, a full-text search of the CD-ROM reveals "feek" to be a variant of the slightly less obscure "feak." The CD-ROM also makes use of hyperlinks, so clicking on a reference to a related word in a definition will open that word's entry. Very cool.
While I was already a big fan of the somewhat clunky first version of the OED CD-ROM produced several years ago, the new third version may be the best reason yet to own a computer.
Dear Word Detective: I know the word "paparazzi" means newspaper writers or photographers who follow famous people, but what's the origin of the word? According to its pronunciation, I guess it is not a English word, as "judo" is from Japanese and "resume" is from French. Could you help solve it? -- Ally Bu, Taiwan, R.O.C.
Certainly, but first a bit of clarification. "Paparazzi" are not newspaper writers. The term "paparazzi" applies only to the obnoxious photographers (or, lately, "videographers") who stalk celebrities. Furthermore, there is a world of difference between the "paparazzi" and real photojournalists who work for real (i.e., more text than pictures) newspapers and magazines.
It's no accident that you almost never hear "paparazzo," the singular form of "paparazzi." "Paparazzi" almost always travel in packs. While "paparazzi" were much in the news a few years ago in connection with Princess Diana's untimely death, neither the word (which first appeared in English around 1968) nor the "paparazzi" themselves are new. "Paparazzi" take their name from the celebrity photographer Signor Paparazzo, a character in Frederico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." Fellini evidently didn't like the paparazzi any more than today's celebrities do. Before Fellini's film made "paparazzo" synonymous with "pushy creep with a camera," it was an Italian dialect word meaning "buzzing insect."
Dear Word Detective: I am a pharmacist and work in a retail setting. "Pharmacist" being such a common word, I have never thought about the meaning of the word or where it comes from, until a patient asked me, "Where does the word 'pharmacist' come from?" Of course I had no idea. I know that long ago we used to be called "apothecary," but I am having a hard time seeing how the words are connected. Can you help me out? -- -Henry I., via the internet.
Certainly, sir. We'll have that answer ready for you in about an hour, sir. You can amuse yourself in the meantime by browsing our vast assortment of hair coloring kits, nose-hair clippers and close-out videotapes. Just kidding, of course, but seriously, what are you guys up to back there? I understand that you want to be fairly certain you've put the right pills in the right bottles, but the last time I had a prescription filled I began to understand why many drugstores now carry a variety of snack foods. Can't have the customers fainting in the aisles, I suppose.
A "pharmacist" is, of course, a person who has been trained and licensed to prepare and dispense drugs or medicines. "Pharmacist" is actually a fairly recent word, first appearing around 1834, but the root word "pharmacy" is much older. "Pharmacy," which appeared in English around 1385, was borrowed from the Old French "farmacie," which was based in turn on the Greek "pharmacon," which meant "drug, potion, poison, charm or spell." "Pharmacy" originally meant the drug itself, but by the 16th century it had come to mean the art of preparing drugs, and, by the early 19th century, it had acquired its modern sense of the place where drugs are kept and dispensed.
The business of an "apothecary," an antiquated term for "pharmacist," originally was not limited to drugs. The Latin word "apotheca" simply meant "storehouse," and when "apothecary" first appeared in English in the late 14th century, an "apothecary" shop carried non-perishable groceries and other sundries as well as medicines. Fairly quickly, however, "apothecaries" became specialists in medicine, and for several centuries functioned as actual medical practitioners as well as pharmacists. In fact, The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, chartered in 1617, is still in operation and still licenses doctors and well as offering a variety of post-graduate medical diplomas.
Dear Word Detective: My brother and I were watching "The Simpsons" the other day and the episode revolved around the fact that Grandpa Simpson's old unit from World War Two had agreed to a "tontine" to decide who would receive some valuable paintings they had stolen from a German home. Anyway, the point is that the show got me wondering about the origins of the word "tontine." Can you help me out? -- E. Stafford, Shelby Township, MI.
Yay Simpsons! Many years ago, a friend took me aside and explained to me that by not watching "The Simpsons" I was missing one of the few bright spots in the wretched swamp that is American popular culture. Ten minutes into my first episode I realized he was right. "The Simpsons" often seems the only plausible reason to own a TV (and it is certainly the only conceivable excuse for the existence of the Fox network).
I haven't seen that particular episode of the show, so I'm not certain in exactly what sense Grandpa Simpson was using "tontine." The word "tontine" itself is an eponym, a term based on the name of a person (real or fictional) or place. The "tontine" was invented by a banker from Naples names Lorenzo Tonti who, back in 17th century France, came up with an early system of life insurance. Under Tonti's scheme, subscribers to a common fund each received an annuity which increased over time as other subscribers died. The final survivor then received the whole enchilada in a payout. In the 18th century, several European governments adopted the "tontine" system to fund public projects, with the modification that the government (surprise, surprise) was always the "survivor" and got the payout at the end.
The "tontine" or "last man standing" arrangement was also adopted in various card games, wherein the "pot" accumulated in the course of a game would be awarded to the player who survived all previous elimination rounds. "Tontine" has also been used to describe other sorts of common funds whose unexpended assets are distributed to members at the end of each year.
My guess is that Grandpa Simpson was using "tontine" in a very loose sense to mean that the members of his unit had decided that the last surviving member would inherit the paintings.
Dear Word Detective: Here's the elusive "Z" entry for your archive list. Several years ago, a friend and fellow enthusiast told me that the musical designation "zydeco" originated in a corruption of "les haricots," referring to the beans that were an integral part of Cajun food. Subsequently, I recall hearing at least two other origins, both of which escape me now. How about it? -- Legumatically yours, Snake.
Dude, you're getting' a Z. Until you pointed it out, I had not noticed that the archive of back columns on my web site, while it does list something on the order of nine zillion columns, doesn't contain a single word or phrase beginning with "z." I ran into the same problem when I was putting together my book (The Word Detective, published by Algonquin Books), and ended up writing an entry on "zarfs," those little plastic cup-holder things you often find in offices. That fascinating entry is (hint, hint) well worth the price of the book.
Although my musical tastes tend toward the Bach-Beethoven end of the spectrum, I actually own four or five albums of zydeco music, which I would cite by name if only I could find them in the hopeless shambles that is my office. Zydeco is energetic, melodic, and, best of all, unlike bluegrass music, usually does not involve any banjoes, the possession of which I have long felt should be made a felony.
Although zydeco music is a product of the Cajun culture of Louisiana, its history began far to the north, in the part of eastern Canada once known as Acadia, now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. After France ceded Acadia to the British in the 18th century, the French-speaking Acadians were expelled and eventually ended up in Louisiana. There they mingled with their new neighbors and "Cajun" (a mutation of the word "Acadian") culture was born. Zydeco music became popular in the 1940s, and in the 1950s one of the leading Zydeco artists, Clifton Chenier, recorded a hit song called "Les haricots sont pas salés" ("the beans ain't salty," meaning times were tough and there was no salted meat to add to the beans). "Les haricots" (pronounced "layz airreeko") was gradually slurred in popular usage to "zydeco," and the musical genre itself came to be known as "Zydeco."
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