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shameless pleading






Grandpa, what’s a “train”?

Dear Word Detective: Recently, the Kingston Trio Song “To Morrow” popped into my head (if a man of your discerning tastes hasn’t heard it, you really must). In it the narrator speaks of being “guyed” in the sense of being fooled or chivvied, the most current equivalent meaning I would imagine would be “messed with.” Any idea as to the origin of the expression? — Fred.

OK, I listened to “To Morrow” on YouTube. It’s interesting and clever, in a folk-songy way, though it has way too many banjos for my taste (i.e., one). It’s about a man who wants to take a train “to Morrow” (a town in Ohio) today and to return “tomorrow.” The song itself is his dialogue with the ticket-seller, which takes the form of an extended misunderstanding similar to the classic Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine.

The lyrics to the song I found on the internet read “So I went down to the station for my ticket and applied for tips regarding Morrow not expecting to beguiled.” Since “beguiled” is an adjective, it doesn’t fit grammatically, so that’s probably a bad transcription. But the phrase could be either “be guiled” (the antiquated verb “guile” meaning “deceive,” as in “beguiled”) or “be guyed.” After listening to the song a few times, it really sounds like “be guyed,” which also scans and rhymes better with “applied.”

Assuming that “be guyed” is correct, we’re dealing with the verb “to guy,” which comes from the noun “guy,” which originally meant an effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burned in Britain on November 5 every year. (Guy Fawkes, you may remember, was involved in the unsuccessful Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.) Over the centuries the sense of “effigy” in “guy” broadened to mean “any grotesque character,” and then simply “a person,” as in “What do you guys want for dinner?”

The verb “to guy” originally meant to parade around with an effigy of Fawkes on the fifth of November, but by the mid-19th century “guy” was also used to mean “to mock or ridicule.” “To guy” was originally theater slang meaning to overplay one’s part for laughs or to sabotage another actor’s performance (“With all this at stake, some wanton actor deliberately ‘guys’ his part and overturns the patient care of his comrade.” 1890). That would certainly satisfy my definition of “mess with.” This use of “guy” is considered antiquated, but the song itself was copyrighted in 1898, so that still fits.

Incidentally your use of the fine word “chivvy,” meaning “to harass or worry,” may puzzle some readers, as it’s well-known in Britain but fairly rarely seen in the US. It’s actually a form of the verb “to chevy,” meaning “to chase,” which comes in turn from the noun “chevy,” originally a cry used as an exhortation when hunting with hounds (“When you are ready, I am … with a Hey Ho Chivey, and likewise with a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy.” Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865). “Tantivy,” by the way, is another very old (1700s) English word meaning “to ride full tilt” (probably imitating the sound of a galloping horse’s hooves). It’s also the nickname of a character (Oliver Mucker-Maffick) in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The “chevy” comes from “chevy chase,” meaning “a running pursuit,” possibly from a famous old song (“The Ballad of Chevy Chase”) describing a 14th century hunt on the Scotland/English border that turned into a battle. “Chevy Chase” is named in the song as the location of the fracas, but the actual place was probably named “Cheviot Chase.” Several places in the US are named “Chevy Chase,” the most notable being in Maryland. The “comedic actor” Chevy Chase is actually named Cornelius; “Chevy” was a childhood nickname his grandmother thought cute.

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