Columns Posted 1/2/97

Note: You will notice that this batch of columns is not illustrated. This is primarily because I am very short on time at the moment, what with getting your holiday gifts to each of you (yes, that was me on the roof) and, of course, spending the better part of two days concocting the lovely new index you'll find on our main page. Picking and formatting the graphics for this page would take, at minimum, several hours that I simply do not have this week. Tune in next time....

Parked under a bad sign

Dear Evan: I have been wondering where the word "hara-kiri" originated. Till now I had though it was from Japanese but a friend of mine said it was from Hindi. Can you please clarify? -- Deepak, Bangalore, India, via the Internet.

Sure, why not? I was contemplating suicide anyway, now that the mirror on my car is busted. I suppose I should explain. Car was parked on West 82nd Street in Manhattan. Big truck comes down street, smashes driver's side mirror, continues on merry way. Policeman comes along, tickets car for broken mirror to the tune of $55. Policeman comes back 10 minutes later, writes another $55 ticket. Law allows him to write NINE such tickets per day. More lucrative for the City of New York than catching crooks, I guess. New mirror is on order, will arrive at dealer in two weeks. Tickets on car by then will total $6930, roughly three times what the car is worth on a good day. See what I mean? Why go on?

But go on I shall, of course. I have a question to answer.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" (something I rarely get to do), you have been misinformed. "Hara-kiri" is indeed, as you thought, Japanese in origin, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "Suicide by disembowelment, as formerly practiced by the samurai of Japan, when in circumstances of disgrace, or under sentence of death." The term "hara-kiri" translates literally as "belly cutting," and the practice consisted of stabbing oneself with a special ceremonial sword. I say "consisted" because occurrences of hara-kiri are very rare in modern Japan and the practice was outlawed as a form of capital punishment way back in 1873. Although "hara-kari" is the word most well-known in the West, the term "seppuku" (from the Chinese for "belly-cutting") is preferred and more often heard in Japan itself.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, I am keeping watch on my car from the window of my fourth-floor apartment as I write. I have a dozen eggs, Grade A Large, stacked on my desk. Caveat ticketor, copper.

Let me out of here

Dear Evan: Can you please tell me what the phrase "pig in a poke" is supposed to mean? My mother has used it my whole life and she doesn't even know what it means. -- Lisa Baler, via the Internet.

Well, your mother must have some idea what "pig in a poke" means, mustn't she? I mean, she doesn't use it as an all-purpose expression of amazement ("Pig in a poke! That's a good cup of coffee!") or, conversely, a scathing epithet ("That Muriel, she's a real little pig in a poke."). My guess is that she knows that "to buy a pig in a poke" means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "to buy anything without seeing it or knowing its value." Your mother probably just doesn't know what a "poke" is, or what a pig would be doing in one.

That's not surprising, given how rarely one sees a "poke" these days. The "poke" in "pig in a poke" is an archaic word for "bag" or "sack." When you went to market hundreds of years ago, you'd most likely come home with your purchases in such a "poke" -- not one of those filmy and annoying things you get at supermarkets today, but a proper sack, made of burlap or canvas or the like. Since merchants at the farmers' markets of 14th century Europe varied in their honesty, a smart shopper would be careful to check the poke he was handed to be sure that it really contained what he had paid for. Such caution was especially important in the case of "big ticket" purchases such as a live suckling pig, since unscrupulous merchants were not above substituting a stray cat of the appropriate weight for the pig in the poke handed to an unwary purchaser. The phrase "don't buy a pig in a poke" -- originally purely practical advice for 14th century shoppers -- eventually came to be used as a warning applicable to any situation in which we are asked to accept an unfamiliar object or idea on faith.

By the way, can you guess what other common phrase came from the moment when the dishonest merchant's ruse was revealed and the unlucky buyer learned the true nature of his purchase? That's right -- "letting the cat out of the bag."


Whatever it is, I'm against it.

Dear Evan: I am a law student at Hamline University School of Law, and as a research assignment for a professor, I am trying to track down the etymology of the phrase "duck soup," meaning something easy or easily done. Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated. -- Bryan D. Bourn, via the Internet.

It's not in my nature to question anything a lawyer (even a fledgling lawyer) tells me, but are you absolutely certain that you've got that assignment right? Maybe I watched too many episodes of the old "Paper Chase" TV series, but it's a bit difficult to picture old Professor Whatsisname (you know, the cranky but lovable character played by John Houseman) ordering a trembling student to investigate the origin of "duck soup." Then again, during my own tenure as a paralegal at a major law firm years ago, I witnessed a conference room full of high-priced corporate attorneys buttering and devouring dozens of English muffins in an attempt to develop a legal definition of "nooks and crannies," so I suppose anything is possible in the wild and wacky world of the law.

Unfortunately, not everything is possible in the world of English etymology, and a search for the origins of "duck soup" soon runs aground on a simple lack of evidence. According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase "duck soup" first appeared in a newspaper cartoon drawn by T.A. Dorgan in 1902, and showed up again in a work by someone named H.C. Fisher in 1908. (That second citation may interest your professor. On page 35 of "A. Mutt," we find "Attorney Shortribs announced that it would be duck soup to clear their client.")

Not only is the precise origin of "duck soup" unclear, but I'm afraid that the original logic of the phrase remains obscure as well. Is "duck soup" easy because ducks are easy to shoot (as in "sitting duck"), or because ducks are very greasy and thus easily rendered into soup? Or is the phrase a play on the fact that any spot of water with a resident duck is already "duck soup"? Your guess is as good as mine. The classic 1933 Marx Brothers film "Duck Soup" (probably responsible for boosting the popularity of the phrase quite a bit) begins with a shot of ducks paddling around in a soup cauldron. Perhaps you can convince your professor to arrange a showing of the film in class. I'll bet there's a clue in there somewhere.

Note in a bottle

Dear Evan: Hiya! In my leisurely quest for the answer to the question "Where did the idiom 'wet behind the ears' originate?", I happily landed on your Web page, and thought I'd take a moment to write you. I'm still searching for the answer to my question. If you happen to know, or care to find out for me, I'd appreciate your response. -- Anonymous, via the Internet.

You know, just today I came across a copy of a now-famous New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago. Two dogs are sitting in front of a computer, one saying to the other, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." I just thought I'd point out that this "Anonymous" business raises a whole slew of suspicions.

Then again, if you're looking for actual answers on the Web, you must be far too patient to be a dog. I have come to the conclusion that the Web, otherwise known as the World Wide Waste of Time, is fundamentally useless and may well turn out to be the Pet Rock of the 1990s. Of course, I like to think this page is an exception to the general vapidity of the medium. But then I imagine that all those folks who post detailed synopses of their favorite "Gilligan's Island" episodes on the Web feel the same about their pages.

"Wet behind the ears," meaning inexperienced or naive, comes to us from the wonderful world of baby farm animals. It seems that the last part of a newborn horse or cow ("foal" and "calf" to the cognoscenti) to dry out after birth is the area behind the little critter's ears. Thus, to say that someone is "wet behind the ears" is a folksy way of saying that they lack the experience or savvy necessary to accomplish a task. The first published use of "wet behind the ears" in print dates only to the early 20th century, but most authorities believe that the phrase itself is much older than that and, like many folk sayings, was used in popular speech long before anyone used it in print.

The wonderful word ... what?

Dear Evan -- What can you tell me about the wonderful word "kerfuffle"? I first heard it in the film "Anne of Green Gables" from the lips of Colleen Dewhurst, then recently saw it in print while reading Bryce Courtenay's novel "The Power of One," where, if I'm not mistaken, it appears twice. The meaning is clear enough from the context, but I would love to know more about it, and it does not appear in any of the numerous dictionaries I possess. -- Sam Holdsambeck, via the Internet.

You are not alone -- "kerfuffle" doesn't appear in most of the dictionaries I possess either, and that's a lot of dictionaries for a word not to appear in. Incidentally, before the Legion of Fussies gets all riled up about my ending that last sentence with a preposition, allow me to quote H.W. Fowler (of "Modern English Usage" fame) on the subject:

"Those who lay down the universal principle that all final prepositions are 'inelegant' are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers...."

So save your stamps, folks. It's not wrong.

Meanwhile, back at "kerfuffle," please join me in a rousing three cheers for the Oxford English Dictionary, which does list "kerfuffle" as a variant of "curfuffle." Other forms include "carfuffle," "cafuffle," "kafuffle," "kufuffle" and "gefuffle." However you may spell it, "curfuffle" means a "disorder, flurry, or agitation." A fuss. A ruckus. There's a verb form of "curfuffle" (and all its variants) too, meaning "to cause a commotion or put in a state of disorder."

"Curfuffle" turns out to be a word in Scots, the language of Scotland, though it has been used in English prose since the early 18th century. It's actually an intensive form of the Scots word "fuffle," meaning "to disturb," which itself has been used in English since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary considers "fuffle" to be an onomatopoeic formation, meaning that whoever coined the word thought it mimicked the actual sound of a disturbance, as "bang" is supposed to sound like an explosion.


Gosh, I thought that was the motto of the U.S. Postal Service.

Dear Evan: I think that almost everyone knows Murphy's Law ("If something can go wrong, it will"), so much so that it has spawned seemingly endless variations. But who was Murphy and how did this hapless soul get his name enshrined in our collective consciousness?

And speaking of poor Murphy, a while ago my wife and I had a disagreement over two quite opposing uses of an expression. I referred to the "luck of the Irish" as a completely positive thing. She informed me that it referred to luck that initially appears good but which ironically turns bad. Who wins the kewpie doll? -- Paul Mailman, via the Internet.

As the luck of language columnists dictates, it seems that no one knows exactly who, if anyone, the Murphy of "Murphy's Law" was, although the "law" seems to have been discovered during or just after World War Two. According to the autobiographical book "Into Orbit" by former pilot and astronaut (not to mention Senator) John Glenn, "'Murphy' was a fictitious character who appeared in a series of educational cartoons put out by the U.S. Navy.... Murphy was a careless, all-thumbs mechanic who was prone to make such mistakes as installing a propeller backwards." Senator Glenn's recollection has not been verified, however, and it's equally possible that whoever actually dreamt up the pessimistic "Murphy's Law" simply picked the common name "Murphy" out of thin air.

Regarding "luck of the Irish," I think you win this one, but your wife is justified in her presumption that it would actually signify bad luck. "Luck of the Irish" may, in fact, be the only common English phrase mentioning the Irish that doesn't have an overtly negative connotation. The Irish have been notable victims of mocking slang in England since at least the 17th century, including such classic slurs as "Irish confetti" (bricks), "Irish testimony" (perjury) and "Irish buggy" (a wheelbarrow).

Due to Being Sat Upon....

Dear Evan: What, please, is the origin of the phrase "pins and needles"? It seems to be no older than the mid-19th Century. It also seems to have no "proper" term. In the few languages I know, its translation is also "folksy" -- for instance, "les fourmis" ("the ants") in French, and "Codladh Grifˇn" ("Griffin Sleep") in Irish. -- Eoin Bair‚ad, Dublin, Ireland.

Sometimes I wonder whether I'm really sufficiently refined, culturally speaking, to write this column. I've spent the better part of an hour just now rummaging through various reference books in search of the answer to your question, and you'll never guess what was running through my mind the entire time. Bruckner's Seventh Symphony? A Bach cantata? Old Latin verb conjugations? Nope, not even close. Playing between my ears even as I write this is an unbelievably insipid ditty called "Pins and Needles," recorded in the mid-1960s by The Dave Clark Five. Please, somebody, make it stop.

It does seem, as you've discovered, that there is no "proper" technical term for "pins and needles," the unpleasant prickling sensation that occurs when one of our limbs, having "fallen asleep" due to being sat upon or the like, "reawakens." As to why it's called "pins and needles," I cannot, offhand, think of a more appropriate description, so that doesn't seem much of a mystery. The general category for this sort of false sensation is "paraesthesia" (from the Greek "para" (disordered) plus "aesthesis" (sensation)), defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a "disordered or perverted sensation; a hallucination of any of the senses." Paraesthesia includes many other sorts of sensory hallucinations than just "pins and needles," however. Interestingly, among them is "formication," meaning the sensation of ants ("formica" being Latin for "ant") crawling on or just under the skin, which seems to echo the French phrase you mention.

The first print evidence of the use of "pins and needles" to mean a prickling sensation does come in the mid-19th century, although the term had been used as early as 1810 to mean "a state of excessive uneasiness" or nervousness. I would hazard a guess that the "nervous state of mind" sense of the phrase was actually based on earlier, unrecorded, uses of the "prickling" sense. After all, folk sayings are often used by "the folks" for decades or even centuries before they show up in print.

A Downhill Role

Dear Evan: Lately I have seen several instances of confusing the word "role" with "roll" (in the sense of a list). The most frequent misuse seems to be using the word "role" to mean a list of some sort, usually (in my experience) the members of a church (saying "parish roles" instead of "parish rolls"), although I have also seen references to a "roll model." Any insight into why this occurs or why it seems to be happening so much now? -- Bob McGill, via the Internet.

Well, shucks, don't be alarmed. It's just another bit of evidence that civilization as we know it is skipping gaily down the slippery slope to the damnation bow-wows. End of the world. New Dark Ages. Nothing to worry about, really. Incidentally, if anyone comes looking for me, I'll be hiding in the basement with ten cases of Spaghetti-O's and my Oxford English Dictionary.

But seriously, folks, I say it's all television's fault. It used to be that the average person learned to distinguish between homophones (different words that sound the same, as "role" and "roll" do) by seeing them in print. Now that those dusty old bookshelves have been tossed out to make room for super-duper multimedia entertainment complexes in our national living room, no one knows the difference between "threw" and "through" (which is now usually spelled "thru," anyway). Goodbye Beowulf, hello Baywatch. It's gotten to the point that even the people who run television can't spell common English words anymore. It is increasingly common to see one of the blow-dried twits known as "newscasters" blithely sitting in front of an enormous computer graphic containing the sort of grammatical or spelling error that would have shamed the fourth-grader of yesteryear.

Incidentally, while I certainly don't wish to give aid and comfort to anyone who blurs the distinction between "roll" and "role," I should probably point out that they are, essentially, the same word. "Role," meaning the part one plays in a play (or, figuratively, life in general), comes from the French equivalent of our English "roll." An actor's "role" in the early days of the theater was that portion of the parchment manuscript roll containing the lines he or she was given to speak.

Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

Internet Link Exchange
Member of the Internet Link Exchange

All contents Copyright © 1997 by Evan Morris.