Old Biddy, Capers, Cattycorner, Fell Swoop, Garbroth (Mean As A), Nuclear (How Not To Pronounce), Snuck, Tawdry


Dear Mr. Morris: It seems to me that only when we become adults do we begin to wonder about some of the words we used as children. A case in point is the word "biddy." I remember using the phrase "old biddy" countless times when I was young, but recently I realized that I have no idea what a "biddy" really is or where the word came from. Can you shed some light on this question? -- Irene Cornell, Plainfield, NJ.

Well, Art Linkletter used to say, "Kids say the darndest things," although he always left off the second part, which was "... and sometimes even get away with it." "Biddy" is not a very nice thing to call someone, and if you really spent your childhood calling your elders "old biddies," it's a minor miracle you survived to adulthood.

"Biddy" is actually a very interesting word because it has two separate origins, both fairly well-documented, which is unusual for a slang term. The primary meaning of "biddy" is "chicken," and it first appeared in the early 17th century. The word probably came from the nonsense syllables used to call chickens -- something like "here biddybiddybiddy," I suppose. By the late 18th century "biddy" had been adopted as a derogatory slang term for women, much in the same unfortunate way that "chick" was in the 1960's.

However, "biddy" in this sense might have died a welcome death had it not been for the influx of Irish immigrants into the U.S. in the early 19th century. Young Irish women often had their passage paid by upper-class American families, for whom they would then work as domestic servants while they paid off their debt. The practice was so widespread that such women came to be known as "Biddies," from a shortening of "Bridget," a common Irish women's name. This use of "biddie" reinvigorated the word, and ever since it has been employed by insolent children to torment their elders.


Dear Evan: Is there any connection between "capers," the herb (or whatever it is) used in sauces, and "caper," meaning to skip or dance about? How about "caper" as applied to a plot hatched by criminals? Are these all really the same word? -- Kathy Wollard, New York City.

After spending the better part of an hour poring over various dictionaries in search of the answer to your question, I can only say that I deeply wish they were all the same word. It would have saved me a lot of time, not to mention wear and tear on both my eyesight and my back muscles. My one volume Oxford English Dictionary, for example, sports type so tiny that it comes with a powerful magnifier, yet the book itself still weighs a good ten pounds -- figure that one out.

The edible kind of "capers," which are defined as the flower buds of a European shrub, take their name from the Latin term for the plant -- "Capparis."

"Caper" meaning "to move friskily, skip or dance" comes to us via a very circuitous route through Latin and Italian which is far too convoluted to explain here. Suffice it to say that the ultimate source was the Latin word "capreolus," a diminutive form of "caper," meaning "goat." There is no good reason why our modern "caper" couldn't have come directly from the Latin "caper," but it didn't. Our English language is, after all, the end product of an informal committee made up of several hundred million people over the course of several centuries, and it shows.

In any event, one who "capers" is hopping around like a young goat. As a noun, a "caper" can be either a frisky dance movement (as in the phrase "cut a caper") or a risky or questionable course of action. When criminals embark on a "caper," they are undertaking a quick and daring escapade (as opposed to more humdrum malfeasance such as tax fraud, I suppose).



Dear Evan: A friend of mine was giving me directions to a store recently and described it as being "cattycornered across from the Gap store" on a certain street. I knew that she meant "diagonally across from," but where does "cattycorner" come from? What does the term have to do with cats? -- R.M., Chicago, IL

Thanks to your letter, I think I may have solved one of our modern mysteries, namely the plethora of missing persons cases in our cities. My theory is that all those people were given directions to various places using Gap stores as landmarks. No wonder they're lost. In New York City alone there are at least 35,000 Gap stores already, and telling someone to look for a Gap store is like telling them to meet you at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk.

"Cattycorner" does not actually have anything to do with cats, although cats are notoriously fond of sitting in corners and staring at the wall (at least mine are). The proper word, in fact, is "catercorner" or "catercornered." The "cater" is an Anglicization of the French "quatre," or "four," and "catercornered" originally just meant "four-cornered." To specify that something is "catercorner across" from something else is to stress the diagonal axis of an imaginary box, as opposed to saying "directly across" or just "across."

According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, our great national repository of English as real folks speak it, "catercorner" first appeared around 1883 in the South, and originally meant "askew" or "out of line." The "diagonally across" meaning soon took over, however, as did the transition from "cater" to "catty." Linguists call this process "folk etymology" -- people replacing an unfamiliar element in a word or phrase ("cater") with a familiar one ("catty" or "kitty"). "Cattycorner" has remained purely an Americanism, so don't expect folks to understand the word if you use it on your next trip to London. Just tell them to meet you at the Gap store.

One Fell Swoop

Dear Evan: I'm hoping that you can explain to me what the "fell" in "one fell swoop" means and where it comes from. I've heard the phrase all my life but no one can tell me how a "fell" swoop is different from a plain old "swoop."-- Douglas Wilson, Toledo, OH

"One fell swoop" is so common a phrase that most of us have used it thousands of times without ever pausing to wonder what "fell" means. "Fell," of course, can be the past tense of the intransitive verb "fall" ("He fell down the stairs on Friday") or a transitive verb meaning to cut or knock down ("The storm felled a large tree in our yard").

"Swoop," of course, means a swift, usually downward, motion. the "fell" of "fell swoop" doesn't mean that something "fell." Instead, the "fell" of "fell swoop" comes from an Old French word "fel," meaning grim, merciless, or terrible. "Fell" in this sense is obsolete in English, and just about the only place you're likely to see it is in the combined form "fell swoop." But the root word "fel" is very much with us, alas, in the words "felon" (originally a cruel man, then a villain) and related forms such as "felony" and "felonious."

"Fell swoop" originally conjured up the sudden, savage attack of a falcon on its prey. Today, if we do something in "one fell swoop," we do it quickly, completely and with finality, as in "The new CEO decimated the ranks of executives, laying off hundreds in one fell swoop." On the lighter side, many people who mean to say "one fell swoop" often slip and end up saying "one swell foop," which puts quite a dent in the gloom and doom of the phrase.

Garbroth (Mean as a)

Dear Evan: My mother, a native of Georgia, used to use the expression "as mean as garbroth." She is the only one I ever recall using the term, so I am curious to know whether this expression was used by others, and the origin of the word "garbroth." -- Nicholas A. Lewis, Mexico.

According to his letterhead, Mr. Lewis is the Director General of Tutsi S.A. de C.V. in Mexico, but his precise vocation would have remained a mystery to me had I not noticed the strangely familiar corporate logo at the top of his letter. "Tutsi," I realized after only a few moments of pondering the brown and white rectangle with red stripes at each end, must be the Mexican rendition of "Tootsie," as "Tootsie Roll." I believe Mr. Lewis may be in charge of all the Tootsie Rolls in Mexico, and, if he is, I hereby offer to trade jobs with him. I love Tootsie Rolls (hint, hint).

And now, I have a confession to make. I was all set to ramble on for a bit about Tootsie Rolls until I reached the end of this column, where I would be forced to admit that I hadn't been able to track down the answer to Mr. Lewis's query. No dictionary of slang or folk sayings I checked gave any clue as to the meaning of "mean as garbroth."

I had just about given up when I finally thought to check The Dictionary of American English, published in 1940, and, lo and behold, there it was. "Garbroth" is actually "gar broth," or soup made from the "gar fish," an unpleasant creature also known as the "Alligator Fish." Evidently "garbroth" is not exactly gourmet fare, because one of the citations for the term, from a book published in 1893, seems to echo Mr. Lewis's mother: "Some of 'em was good people, but one ... was mean as gar-broth." "Garbroth" must be very nasty stuff indeed -- I think I'll stick to Tootsie Rolls (hint, hint, hint).



Dear Evan: You may remember me as the correspondent who asked about "Tonto," "Mensa" and "gringo" several years ago. For years I have heard "nuclear" pronounced as "nucular" (NOO-kyoo-ler). I always thought it was illiteracy rather than a regionalism. Then on TV I heard Les Aspin (the former Secretary of Defense) say "nucular" twice in an interview. I understand that "nucular" rolls off the tongue more easily than "nuclear" and that words change with time. But I would think that "nuclear" is not in that category. Your comments please. -- Noel Haas, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

My comments? To invoke a famous old New Yorker magazine cartoon, I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it. There is no earthly reason why any unimpeded adult cannot properly pronounce "nuclear," even if he or she holds a government job. That the chief offenders on this count are those men and women who either control or aspire to control nuclear weapons (i.e., politicians in general) is not comforting. I can only hope that there is some sort of pronunciation test one has to pass before pushing the doomsday button, but I fear there is not. Four, three, two ... how do you say that again?

The mispronunciation of "nuclear" is often traced to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but I must say that Ike may have taken a bad rap on this one. Subsequent Presidents, most notably Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, have had equal difficulty with "nuclear." I guess it's the really simple little words that are the trickiest at that level.

Why "nuclear" is so often mispronounced is a mystery to me, although, as you say, NOO-kyoo-ler is far easier on the tongue. While I find the mistake annoying, I wouldn't classify it as the proof positive of literal illiteracy. After all, many people also say "real-uh-tor" for "realtor," and yet they manage to read newspaper ads and even buy houses. I just wouldn't want them running the country, that's all.


Call me a hidebound cynic (oh never mind, here comes one now), but I've never been terribly impressed by coincidences. It's not that I'm unimaginative, you understand. Flying saucers, alien abductions and everyday Elvis sightings all set my pulse to pounding, and no one beats me to the supermarket checkout line in my pursuit of the truly unlikely.

But coincidences usually leave me cold because they are almost always just that -- coincidences. Until yesterday, that is, when two people, Mrs. Beatrice Martin in Bridgeport, WV, and C. Forrest in De Pere, WI, hundreds of miles away from each other (not to mention from me), both decided to get up one morning and write to little old me to ask about the same word. I don't know about you, but I think that is truly spooky.

Well, I'm told that the best thing to do in the presence of the supernatural is just to remain calm, so I guess I'll answer the question. Both Mrs. Martin and C. Forrest wonder about the propriety of "snuck." "Is the word "snuck" accepted as the past tense of "sneak," asks C. Forrest, while Mrs. Martin opts for the more direct "Is this really a word?", and notes that she has seen it recently in a novel set in the 1800's.

Yes, "snuck" is a real word, although it has always been classified as "substandard English." "Snuck" first appeared in the 19th century as a regional variant of "sneaked," and is still considered colloquial English, but is apparently gaining in respectability among literate folk. Still, "snuck" is not the sort of word to use on your resume, although "sneaked" is usually not a big hit on resumes either, come to think of it. In general, however, my advice is to stick with "sneaked." Unless you're talking to Elvis, of course. I happen to know he says "snuck."


Dear Evan: I was looking up words in the dictionary the other day (one of my favorite leisure activities), and came across a short note on the origin of "tawdry." My dictionary said that it is based on the name of a certain Saint Audrey, but it didn't explain that at all. What do you know about "tawdry"? -- Susan Davis, Stamford, CT.

Well, since I live less than a mile from Times Square, what I know about "tawdry" would fill several books, but I'll confine my remarks to the word itself. The "Audrey" in "tawdry" was Queen Aethelthyrth, who was monarch of Northumbria, in what is now northern England, in the 7th century. Aethelthyrth was a kind and generous Queen, famous for her good deeds and charity. After she ran away from her husband, who was not kind and generous, she founded a monastery and devoted the rest of her life to helping the common people. Her only vanity was a passion for fine scarves and necklaces, and when she was stricken with throat cancer she regarded the disease as divine punishment for her devotion to showy neckwear. After her death she was canonized, and the villagers nearby established an annual festival in her honor. Among other wares merchants sold at the fair were beautiful scarves in tribute to Saint Audrey. Originally the scarves were of the finest lace, and "St. Audrey's Lace" became the most desirable in Britain. Eventually, two things happened, both fairly inevitable, given human nature. First, "Saint Audrey's Lace" was slurred into "Tawdry Lace," via a common linguistic process called "elision." Still, "tawdry" continued to mean "refined" for several hundred years. But eventually the quality of the product was degraded by unscrupulous vendors until the word "tawdry," once a tribute to a kind and selfless saint, became a synonym for something cheap and worthless pretending to be of value.

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