Busting Chops, Old Fogeys, Pedigree, Scapegrace, Busman's Holiday, Specious and Spurious, and two lovely, if somewhat pointless, word games

Busting Chops

Dear Evan: Do the colloquial phrases "busting someone's chops" and "busting someone's hump" mean the same thing? I had never heard the "hump" variation. Why, when and where did they originate? -- Libby George, New York City.

I don't suppose you have an easier question you'd like to ask, do you? Perhaps why the sky is blue, or how the elephant got its trunk? No? Well, OK, but I must warn you that we're about to embark on a bit of a snark hunt. The problem is that the words "bust," "chops" and "hump" are all such popular slang words, used in so many contexts, that tracing the development of any combination of these words is very difficult.

To answer your first question, the two phrases do not mean quite the same thing. To "bust someone's chops" is, as the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang puts it, to "harass by the forcible exertion of one's authority," often by insisting on obedience to pointless rules or orders. Army recruits, for example, assigned by their sergeant to clean their barracks using only toothbrushes, are having their "chops busted." The phrase is of relatively recent origin, first appearing in print only in the 1950's. "Chops" in this case probably harks back to its original 16th century slang meaning of "mouth" or "lips," a "bust in the chops" being the equivalent of a punch in the mouth.

To "bust one's hump" means to overexert oneself to the point of collapse or injury, often heard in the sarcastic admonition, "Don't bust your hump." "Hump" can mean, as a verb, "to exert oneself," popularized in the Vietnam War slang term "humping the boonies," meaning to march with a heavy pack through the jungle or countryside ("boonies" being a short form of "boondocks"). "To bust one's hump" thus probably arose as a joking reference to an imaginary "hump" used in hard work which might be injured by overexertion.

Old Fogey

Dear Evan: A friend who is not a native English-speaker asked me to explain the term "old fogey" to him recently, and while I had no problem defining the term, I was unable to explain where it came from. So now I turn to you -- where did "old fogey" came from? And by the way, why do we never hear of "young fogeys"? -- Susan Davis, New York, NY.

"Fogey," of course, is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it so well, "a disrespectful appellation for a man advanced in life, especially one with antiquated notions; an old-fashioned fellow." The word (also spelled "fogy," by the way) is probably Scottish in origin, but its ultimate roots are a bit uncertain. It's possible that "fogey" is based on an antiquated sense of "foggy," which meant "moss-covered," but my favorite theory traces it to the Scottish word "foggie," meaning a kind of brown bumblebee.

"Fogey" is almost always preceded by the slightly redundant "old," but there are, indeed, "young fogeys." The term is most often used to refer to a group of young but conservative writers and novelists in England who came to prominence in the early 1980s. The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson is probably the "young fogey" most widely known to Americans.

Maybe it's my own age showing, but the term "fogey" doesn't seem quite as pejorative to me as it used to -- my sense is that it is getting harder to pin down exactly where good taste leaves off and "fogeyness" begins. I would like to think that one doesn't have to be an "old fogey" or even a "young fogey" to object to "tabloid TV," "shock radio" and the popular fascination with "supermodels" which seem to have supplanted what was left of American culture, but I may be wrong. Maybe I'm a some sort of fogey after all. There are worse fates.

Let's try a multiple-choice quiz. All you have to do is match each numbered word with the lettered word or phrase closest to it in meaning. Answers below.

1. Obeisance: (A) obedience; (B) deference; (C) kneeling position.
2. Obloquy: (A) words on headstone; (B) bad verse; (C) verbal abuse.
3. Objurgate: (A) berate; (B) decide law case; (C) absolve of sin.
4. Obsidian: (A) alarm clock set in meters; (B) stubborn man; (C) dark, volcanic rock
5. Obstreperous: (A) breaking out in a rash; (B) unruly; (C) stumbling.
6. Obturate: (A) stubborn; (B) close by sealing; (C) wrongheaded.
7. Obtund: (A) make blunt; (B) fatty; (C) flat on one end.
8. Occiput: (A) mythical country; (B) back of skull; (C) salute.
9. Occultation: (A) mystical rites; (B) concealment; (C) kissing.
10. Ochlocracy: (A) rule by kings; (B) rule by women; (C) rule by mob.

ANSWERS: l(B); 2(C); 3(A); 4(C); 5(B); 6(B); 7(A); 8(B); 9(B); 10(C).


Dear Mr. Morris: Can you tell me the origin of "pedigree"? My uncle says that it comes from farmers examining the feet of horses to judge their parentage. -- D.O., Columbus, OH

You might ask your uncle if he happens to know the origin of "malarkey," meaning "nonsense." Actually, to be fair, he has a foot in the door to the real origin of "pedigree," as there is indeed a "foot" involved. "Pedigree," meaning ancestry or lineage, comes from the Old French phrase "pie de grue," which translates as "crane's foot." What could a large bird's foot possibly have to do with anyone's ancestry? Well, when genealogists draw a chart to illustrate a family tree, offspring are shown as descending from their parents by means of forked lines which look like, you guessed it, the spindly foot of a crane. Over the years, "pedigree," which was a way of showing ancestry, came to be a synonym for ancestry itself.

Returning to the question of judging horses for a moment, we think your uncle may have been thinking of a different part of the horse. A wise horse-trader used to look in a horse's mouth before striking a bargain, because a horse's age (if not its lineage) can be determined by the amount of wear on its teeth. Naturally, if the horse were a gift, only the most ungrateful recipient would think to check its teeth before accepting, thus the adage "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Finally, rather than leave your uncle hanging, we must tell you that the origin of "malarkey" is a mystery. It sounds either Irish or Cockney to us, but we may never know for sure, which just proves that some of our best words come to us without "pedigrees."



Dear Evan: In a recent essay in Time magazine, the writer refers to novelist Graham Greene as a "self-styled scapegrace." I know what a "scapegoat" is, but I am unfamiliar with "scapegrace." What is it? -- Donna Harrison, Toledo, OH.

I have a recurring fantasy I think you'll appreciate. In my fantasy, I am put in charge of everything in the whole world, and after I've abolished war, starvation, disease and television, I take time out to have a little fun for myself. I vaporize every thesaurus in the Time Inc. library, thereby forcing Time writers and essayists to use normal words normal people understand. No more "hermeneutics," no more "epistemology," no more "scapegrace."

Of course, if you owned a copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, you'd find "scapegrace" on the bottom of page 1666, defined in the world's smallest type as "A man or boy of reckless and disorderly habits; an incorrigible scamp." It can also mean a certain type of "red-throated loon," but please don't ask me to explain that one. The word is a fairly straightforward combination of "scape," a form of "escape" common in the 18th century, and "grace," and literally means one who escapes, or flees, the grace of God. "Scapegrace" first appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, and has always been used, as the OED puts it, "playfully." A "scapegrace" is a scamp or rascal, not a bounder or cad. As a great fan of Graham Greene, my only objection to calling him a "scapegrace" is that it doesn't do justice to his very serious, if often quixotic, principles (not to mention his talents as a novelist). Anyone wishing to understand the situation in Haiti, for example, could profit from reading Greene's "The Comedians."

Busman's Holiday

Dear Evan: I recently heard the phrase "busman's holiday" again for the first time in many years. I know that it means "doing on your day off the same thing that you do at work," but where did it come from? Do people still use this phrase, or is it pretty much extinct? -- D.M., Brooklyn, NY.

The phrase is, sadly, pretty much extinct today although the practice itself is alive and well. In fact, my competence to use the computer on which I'm typing this column is the result of many "busman's holidays" generously donated by friends who run computer systems for a living. The demise of the phrase "busman's holiday" is a pity, because its popularly accepted origin is a truly charming story.

It is said that the drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses in London in the 19th century were so solicitous of their horses' well-being that the drivers would often spend their days off surreptitiously riding as passengers on their own trolleys to make sure that the substitute driver was treating their horses well. This practice was so widespread, it is said, that "busman's holiday" came to mean, as you say, "doing on your day off the same thing you do all week at work," with the added connotation that you are doing it out of the goodness of your heart.

This is a nice story, combining as it does an admirable work ethic with a currently fashionable concern for the welfare of animals, but I'm now going to ruin it all by saying that I don't believe it. First of all, the phrase does not occur in print until 1921, rather late in the game for a metaphor supposedly drawn from the world of horse-drawn buses. Second, while many sources cite the 1921 date as the first written occurrence of the phrase, no one gives a reference to a specific publication, which is very odd. Curiouser and curiouser -- tomorrow we'll delve more deeply into the origins of "busman's holiday."

Last time out we began an informal investigation of the phrase "busman's holiday," meaning to do the same thing on one's day off as one does all week for a living. The accepted origin of the phrase traces it to drivers of London's horse-drawn omnibuses in the 19th century, who would supposedly spend their days off checking up on how the substitute drivers were treating their horses. That "supposedly" is the tip-off that I don't buy this story, first because the phrase doesn't appear in print until 1921, and even that citation is unverified. Second, while you and I understand what a "busman" is, the fact is that the word does not appear in either the Oxford English Dictionary or the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The phrase "busman's holiday" is, furthermore, not found in the major dictionaries of British slang. "Busman" does show up in the American Heritage Dictionary, but it may be there only as an echo of "busman's holiday," the next entry on the page.

The third reason I don't believe this story is that it is simply too neat. Neatness, especially as evidenced in heart-warming stories involving animals, is automatically suspect in determining the etymology of a word or phrase. I must also admit that, having seen how carriage drivers in New York's Central Park abuse their horses, I find it hard to believe that London's "busmen" were such a different breed. The argument that the self-interest of the drivers dictated their compassion is unconvincing -- today's carriage drivers have a far greater personal financial investment in treating their horses decently, yet they don't.

Finally, the story of "busman's holiday," although repeated in many reference books, varies remarkably little from source to source. The first print citation is always said to be in 1921, but no source is given. The city of origin is always said to be London, yet the phrase itself is not found in British dictionaries. To be blunt about it, this story bears all the hallmarks of an "urban legend." Tune in next time (after a short word game), when I'll explain what I think may be the real origin of "busman's holiday."


Today's word game challenges you with 10 tricky words, all starting with "P." Each is followed by three words or phrases and your task is to find the lettered word or phrase closest in meaning to each of the numbered words. Answers below.

1. Paean: (A) official in ancient Rome; (B) hymn to Apollo; (C) ball-tipped hammer.
2. Padrone: (A) laborer; (B) master; (C) father.
3. Pagoda: (A) Japanese restaurant; (B) joss house; (C) Far Eastern temple.
4. Palliate: (A) grow pale; (B) reduce pain; (C) decorate colorfully.
5. Pallet: (A) ship's anchorage; (B) straw bed; (C) little friend.
6. Paleolith: (A) prehistoric man; (B) primitive stone tool; (C) Stone Age painting.
7. Palaver: (A) idle chatter; (B) soft soap; (C) bosom pal.
8. Palatine: (A) Western folk hero; (B) medieval vassal lord; (C) ancient sailing ship with three decks.
9. Pallid: (A) wan; (B) brave; (C) wafer-thin.
10. Palfrey: (A) elderly monk; (B) beginning tennis player; (C) woman's saddle horse.

ANSWERS: l(b); 2(b); 3(c); 4(b); 5(b); 6(b); 7(a); 8(b); 9(a); 10(c).


Our last two outings have investigated the origin of the term "busman's holiday," meaning "spending your day off doing the same thing you do for a living." I've explained why I don't buy the accepted origin of the phrase, which traces it to drivers of London's horse-drawn omnibuses in the 19th century, who supposedly spent their days off checking on how the substitute drivers were treating their horses.

So, if I don't believe that story of "busman's holiday," where do I think the phrase came from? Well, I don't believe that it was "busman's" in the first place, or that it had to do with buses at all.

I think that the phrase was originally "buzman's holiday." A "buzman" or "buzzman" in 19th century British criminal slang was a pickpocket, and to "buzz" was to pick someone's pocket. The word came from the common practice of two pickpockets working as a team, one of whom would "buzz the mark," or engage the victim in conversation, while the other picked his pocket. The underworld argot of that time contained a wide range of "buz" words synonymous with "buzman," among them "buznapper" (from "nap" meaning "to snatch"), "buzbloke," and "buzcove." Charles Dickens depicted a "buznapper's academy," or pickpockets' training school, in his "Oliver Twist," run by the dastardly Fagin.

Now the question is, "When is a pickpocket's holiday? When is he off-duty, not cruising for a score?" Simply put, never. Pickpockets are always working to some extent, and I think that's the point of "buzman's holiday." I think the phrase probably arose as a sardonic comment on the voracity of criminals, and gradually spread as a metaphor for anyone who seemed unable to "put down his tools." Only when the phrase reached the stratum of polite society where "buzmen" were unknown did the heart-warming story of "busmen" arise from an attempt to explain the origins of the phrase.


Dear Evan: I have been arguing with my coworkers, and we hope that you can settle the question. What is the difference between "specious" and "spurious"? We read the dictionary, become no more enlightened, and argue more. Any thoughts? Is there any way to use "specious" other than in the phrase "specious argument"? -- Lee Morrow, New York City.

Coworkers, eh? I've heard about you people. Never ask the cows how they feel about being "orked," do you? No, you just wait until they're sleeping peacefully, sneak up on tippy- toe, shout "Ork!" and watch the poor critters jump five feet into the air. Why don't you stop tormenting innocent livestock and get a job?

There is a difference between "specious" and "spurious," although the distinction is gradually disappearing. What makes this slow-motion merger of the two words remarkable is that their meanings used to be nearly opposite.

"Spurious" comes from the Latin "spurius," meaning "illegitimate," and originally referred to a child born out of wedlock. "Spurious" broadened over the years to mean "of dubious origin," and more recently has come to mean "superficially resembling but not genuine."

"Specious," however, comes from the Latin "speciosus," meaning "fair or beautiful," and originally it was a compliment to call something "specious." The meaning of "specious" has shifted since the mid-17th century, however, and now it describes something which is deceptively attractive or superficially correct but is actually worthless.

Trying to pin down the difference between the two words is tricky. My sense is that a "specious" thing is more likely to be taken for genuine at first than is something "spurious." So a "specious" excuse may seem plausible and even convincing at first, while a "spurious" excuse would likely be dismissed as nonsensical or irrelevant right off the bat. In current use, "spurious" is a more flexible word than "specious," which, to answer your other question, is usually (but not always) applied to arguments.

Back to main page