Amuck, Gizmo, Hunky-dory, and a review of "Devious Derivations" by Hugh Rawson


Dear Mr. Morris: A magazine article I read recently described a babysitter as being unfit because she allowed the children in her care to "run amuck," which immediately made me wonder about that phrase. Any clues? -- Doris Sherman, Toledo, OH.

Do you mean "any clues to where the children went"? I'd check the coat closet, personally. If they're not there, they're probably in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. I used to be very good at eluding my babysitter for hours at a time, or at least until she forgot about my feeding an entire jar of grape jam to the dog. Of course, the dog usually reminded her later in the evening anyway. I think the reason I don't remember any of my babysitters very clearly is probably that I met each of them only once.

Still, as trying as I may have been to my babysitters, I never actually "ran amuck" in the original sense, and I doubt that the children in that magazine article did, either. "Amuck," more properly spelled "amok," comes from the Malay word "amoq," meaning "a state of murderous frenzy." In English, the word "amok" dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between Europeans and the Malay inhabitants. The standard story of the word is that the Malays were "susceptible to bouts of depression and drug use," which then led them to engage in murderous rampages, wherein anyone in the path of the person "running amok" was likely to be sliced and diced with a native sword known as a "kris." One need not be overly politically-correct to suspect that accounts of the phenomenon by Europeans may have been somewhat melodramatic and culturally biased, but the word entered English with the same general meaning, that of "murderous frenzy."

As is often the case, however, the meaning of the phrase was diluted as "running amok" became a metaphor in English for someone who was simply "out of control" in some respect, and not necessarily chopping folks up. Still, you'll never catch me babysitting.


Dear Evan: Here's a question for you -- what can you tell me about the word "gizmo"? I've heard it all my life and use it myself all the time, but I haven't the vaguest idea of where it came from. -- Dan Poor, New York, NY.

Good question -- I wish I had a good answer for you. Unfortunately, the exact origin of "gizmo," meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a gadget, gimmick, 'thingumajig'," is unknown. That's too bad, because "gizmo" (also spelled "gismo") is a very useful word. By definition, almost any object you don't know the name of can be called a "gizmo," although in practical use the word almost always refers to something small and mechanical of uncertain nomenclature and usually mysterious function. Automobile engines, for instance, are full of little "gizmos," cunningly designed to perform mysterious but vital mechanical tasks inside your car engine. Designed to perform them, that is, until your car arrives in rural Pennsylvania on a Saturday night, whereupon the mysterious and vital little gizmos suddenly cease to perform their mysterious and vital little tasks and you wind up spending your evening studying the wallpaper in a remarkable local replica of the Bates Motel. You did ask about my vacation, didn't you?

What we do know about the origin of "gizmo" is that it is a relatively new word -- in fact, if you've been using it all your life you can't be over 50 years old. "Gizmo" seems to have originated in the U.S. Navy during or shortly before World War II, where it was used as an all-purpose synonym for "whatchamacallit." The postwar return of draftees to the civilian world brought the word into general usage, and postwar authors from Saul Bellow to Max Shulman popularized "gizmo" in the late 1940's and early 1950's.



Dear Evan: I read your piece on the origins of "O.K," and am wondering if "hunky- dory" might be an obscure pun on "O.K." -- Roy Ronan, Cornville, Arizona.

Don't take it personally, but that sound you hear is several thousand readers simultaneously scratching their heads in puzzlement. That would be a pretty obscure pun indeed, if your theory were true. As luck would have it, however, there is a connection between "O.K." and "hunky-dory," although not a direct one. But before we get into that, let's take look at some of the more exotic theories about "hunky-dory."

Probably the most colorful theory holds that there is, or at least was in the late 19th century, a street in Yokohama, Japan, called "Huncho-dori." It is said that Huncho-dori was the Times Square of Yokohama, and thus a favorite hangout of U.S. sailors on shore leave. So popular did this street become among sailors, it is said, that "Huncho-dori" entered naval slang as "hunky-dory," a synonym for "Easy Street," or a state of well-being and comfort. It's an entertaining theory, but like most entertaining theories about word origins, lacks supporting evidence.

Another theory ties "hunky-dory" to a popular song of the Civil War period which apparently contained the word, which tends to shoot down the Yokohama theory without explaining where the word came from in the first place.

The least exotic theory of all, but almost certainly the true clue, traces "hunky-dory" to the archaic American slang word "hunk," meaning "safe," from the Dutch word "honk," meaning "goal," or "home" in a game. To achieve "hunk" or "hunky" in a child's game was to make it "home" and win the game.

The question of where the "dory" came from brings us back to our old friend "O.K." Children very often do not just say "O.K." -- they say "okey-dokey," thus engaging in what linguists call "reduplication," or the emphatic, joking repetition of parts of a word. "Hunky- dory" is almost certainly a similar product of reduplication by children who had won their game.

Devious Derivations

If there's one thing we Americans love, aside from hotdogs, apple pie and "Baywatch," of course, it's a good debunking. In fact, a strong case could be made that we love nothing so much as to first be fooled and then told in great detail how we've been hornswoggled.

Word origins, and the stories invented over the years to explain them, are no exception. Regular readers of this column may have noticed how much of my time I seem to spend clearing up misconceptions about the origins of common words, often, in the process, shooting down some perfectly lovely, but untrue, stories about words from "posh" to "quiz."

Therefore, I'm pleased to report (only slightly belatedly), the publication of a marvelous compilation of the true origins of many of the words most often the subject of such fanciful "just-so" stories. Hugh Rawson's "Devious Derivations" (Crown Trade Paperbacks, $12.00) brings together 1,000 words, recounts the popularly-accepted stories of their origins, and then gently but methodically sets the record straight. Mr. Rawson, incidentally, is also the author of "Wicked Words" (also published in paperback by Crown), which I have mentioned in this space before and which is one of the funniest books on word origins ever written.

Taking my cue (and a few clues) from Mr. Rawson's book, then, I thought it would be fun to spend a while demolishing some of the hoariest word-origin fables. Perhaps I can even head a few recurring reader questions off at the pass.

One of the first items in this book to catch my eye was an explanation of "S.O.S.," the international Morse Code distress signal. Like many other landlubbers, I had long ago heard the standard story, which had "S.O.S." standing for "Save Our Ship," "Save Our Souls" or, somewhat more practically and believably, "Stop Other Signals." No dice, says Mr. Rawson, and I think he's right. Tune in next time for the true poop on "S.O.S" and more.

Last time out, we reported the publication of a new book by one of our favorite writers on word and word origins, Hugh Rawson, called "Devious Derivations" (Crown Trade Paperbacks, $12.00). Mr. Rawson's fascinating book was actually published in 1994, and I've been meaning to review it for quite a while, but better late than never. "Devious Derivations" is a grand compilation of the real stories, as opposed to the folk tales one so often hears, behind 1,000 common words.

We began, on our last outing, to explore the origin of "S.O.S," the Morse Code distress signal, often said to stand for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls." According to Mr. Rawson, however, "S.O.S." not only doesn't stand for "Save Our Ship" -- it doesn't stand for anything. Those three letters in Morse Code (three dots, three dashes, followed by another three dots) were chosen by an international conference in 1906 simply because they are easily remembered and transmitted in an emergency.

Elsewhere on the high seas, Mr. Rawson's book clears up such minor but surprising misapprehensions as my assumption that "lemon sole" was so-called because it is nearly invariably served with a slice of lemon. It turns out that the French name for this finny delicacy is "limande," meaning simply "flatfish." Mr. Rawson speculates that it was London fishmongers who first "mis-heard" the French word and bestowed "Lemon sole" on the English-speaking world.

Mr. Rawson also explains that a "launch," or small boat often carried aboard larger ships for ferrying passengers to shore, has nothing to do with the action of "launching" such a boat. The root is actually a Malay word for "quick," referring to the speed of the smaller boat.

Our last two forays together have been an extended review of a recent book by Hugh Rawson called "Devious Derivations" (Crown Trade Paperbacks, $12.00), in which Mr. Rawson ably debunks some of the most common, but erroneous, stories of the origins of popular words. Perhaps it's because I have spent so much time myself trying to set the record straight when folks eagerly tell me that "posh" stands for "Port Out, Starboard Home" (trust me, it doesn't), but I think Mr. Rawson deserves a large medal for his fascinating book. As an argument-settler and all-around antidote to linguistic nonsense, "Devious Derivations" is a godsend.

One of the questions Mr. Rawson clears up is one of the most charming popularly- accepted stories of word origins around. The story begins during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (royalty tends to loom large in word origin "just-so stories," by the way). When Queen Mary wasn't feeling well, the story goes, she would refuse all sustenance except a concoction made from boiled oranges, quince and other fruit. The royal servants, estimably cultured themselves, would deliver the Queen's order to the kitchen in French, explaining that "Marie" was feeling "malade," or ill. Put "Marie" and "malade" together, the story goes, and you have the origins of the name for what remains one of our most popular jams -- marmalade.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Mr. Rawson. No need for Queen Mary, feeling poorly or not. "Marmalade" takes its name from the Portuguese word "marmelada," meaning "quince jam." The English were, in fact, eating marmalade, and calling it that, as early as 1524, eighteen years before Mary, Queen of Scots, was even born.

Just why people make up such stories as that of the royal origin of "marmalade" is a question for linguists, sociologists and perhaps psychologists. Certainly the desire to explain the unknown in terms of the known is at the top of the list, but "Devious Derivations" proves that the truth about word origins can be even more fascinating than the myths.

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