Building, Buying A Farm, Feckless and Gormless, Lead Pipes Redux, P.O.S.H. (not), and the Impossibility of Idaho


Dear Evan: I've been looking at the word "building" for a long time today and suddenly can't think where it might have come from to have such an odd spelling -- German, Medieval English? Is it really that simple? -- Nancy M. Hoffman, New York City.

Well, first of all, I must caution you against staring too long and hard at any word. In doing so, you risk prompting a subconscious realization of just how strange words in general, and that word in particular, are. The immediate practical consequence of this mental strain seems to be that you lose the ability to spell the word. Several years ago I made the mistake of staring too hard at the word "weird" (a remarkably strange little word, don't you agree?), and ever since cannot spell it to save my life. If it weren't for computerized spell- checking programs I'd be thoroughly sunk -- "weird," after all, describes a good deal of my work.

In any case, the origins of "building" are not particularly simple, but your two guesses as to its source, German and Medieval English, were right on the money. The ultimate root was the Indo-European word "bheue," meaning "to be, exist or grow." Filtered through ancient Germanic, where "bu" meant "to dwell" and gave birth to our "booth" and "neighbor," this same root became the Old English word "bold," meaning "house." The Old English verb form of this word, "byldan," originally meant "to construct a house," but the meaning eventually broadened to include any sort of construction, and the spelling changed to "build."

Speaking of "neighbor" (as I was above), I find it interesting that the same Germanic root "bu" ("to dwell") also gave us the word "boor," from the sense of one who dwells in the countryside, or what in those days would have been called a "peasant." Today, of course, a "boor" is someone who possesses no taste, tact or refinement -- someone who would, for instance, be likely to correct my spelling of "weird."

Bought the Farm

Dear Evan: A friend said about an acquaintance, "She's bought the farm," meaning she had lost the will to live. Could you tell me the background of this odd expression? -- Pat Peters, Pittsburgh, PA.

I hope that you can reach your friend with this column before she repeats that assessment of her acquaintance to very many other friends. "Bought the farm," you see, does not mean that someone is feeling poorly or is depressed. It means that the person spoken of has, in fact, died. The phrase arose during the Second World War among U.S. combat pilots, many of whom dreamt of surviving the war and buying a small farm on which to retire to a life of peace. When a pilot failed to return from a mission, he was said, with the dark humor common in war zones, to have finally "bought the farm." We mentioned the equivalent Royal Air Force phrase of the same period a few weeks ago -- "gone for a Burton," referring to brand of ale popular among RAF pilots.

Since we're already on this rather grisly topic, I'll take the opportunity to mention a dandy book I came across recently which explains all sorts of slang phrases for death as well as almost any other subject you might think of. "Slang Down the Ages," by Jonathan Green may be a bit hard to find since it is published in Great Britain (Kyle Cathie Ltd., London 1993), but I found my copy at Barnes & Noble, so it's worth a try. Mr. Green delves into an amazing variety of slang synonyms for "to die," including "kick the bucket," "hang up one's hat" and my favorite, the thoroughly mysterious but oddly evocative "stick one's spoon in the wall." If anyone out there can explain that last one, please let me know.


Dear Evan: Can you tell me what the word "gormless" means? What's a "gorm," anyway? While you're at it, what's a "feck," as in "feckless"? -- Fred Costello, New York, NY.

Today is one of those rare summer days when the sun is shining brightly, a soft breeze is wafting through the window of my study, and the question posed to me is almost more interesting than the answer. I'm tempted to ask where you heard these words used, but that might stir up trouble, so I shall refrain. Let us just say that most of us would rather not be characterized as either "gormless" or "feckless," especially by family members or potential employers.

"Gormless" comes from the old Scots word "gaum," meaning "attention or notice." Someone who is "gormless" lacks attention, doesn't notice things, is tuned out, vegged out, hopeless and clueless. Dumber than a sack of rocks. In other words, stupid. The word is chiefly found in Britain, where it has been used since the mid-18th century, including by writers such as Emily Bronte in "Wuthering Heights."

"Feckless" also comes to us from Scots (which is the language of Scotland -- don't let a Scot hear you calling it "Scotch"). The Scots "feck" is actually an aphetic, or cropping, of the English word "effect," as in "effective." Someone who is "feckless" is therefore, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary (another group of folks you don't want to annoy), "destitute of vigour, energy, or capacity; weak; helpless." Ineffective in the extreme. Utterly useless.

In current usage, "feckless" often does duty as a synonym for "aimless or irresponsible" -- "feckless youth" is a well worn cliche, but true fecklessness knows no age limit. That uncle of yours who embraces (and tries to enlist you in) one get-rich-quick scheme after another probably qualifies as "feckless." The folks who actually turn over their savings accounts to him, on the other hand, richly deserve the title of "gormless."


Idaho and Acme

Dear Evan: I think this will probably be an easy one. From where does the state name "Idaho" come? And while I'm at it I might as well ask what the acronym "ACME" means. -- J. Sloan, Everett, WA, via the Internet.

An easy one, eh? Not so fast, friend. I know when I'm being set up. Since you live in Washington State, you know darn well that there's no such place as "Idaho." This so- called "state" was invented by 18th century American mapmakers too lazy to bother with anything beyond Indiana. Even after Walt Disney discovered California, cartographers continued to label a great unexplored patch of America's Northwest "Idaho." But think about it for a moment -- an entire state devoted to raising potatoes? Does that really sound plausible?

Oh, all right, since you're serious, here you go. "Idaho" comes from "Idahi," which is what the Kiowa-Apache tribe called their Comanche neighbors. Curiously enough, "Idaho" was first proposed as a name for what is now the state of Colorado. On the other hand, for some reason, folks originally wanted to call Idaho "Montana." Got that? Colorado was going to be called "Idaho," and Idaho was going to be called "Montana." So, do you still believe in Idaho?

I'm not sure what, if anything, "acme" has to do with Idaho (the state motto of which is "Esta Perpetua," meaning "It is forever," an odd motto for a state that doesn't exist in the first place), but I can tell you that "acme" is not an acronym. It comes from the Greek word "akme," meaning "highest point or summit." Many companies used to name themselves "Acme Widgets" or the like as a means to ensure that they would appear near the beginning of any alphabetical listing. Eventually, so many companies tried this trick that "Acme" in a corporate name came to be regarded as a bit of a joke and was replaced by more dignified names, such as "Burger King" and "Toys R Us." So much for progress. It's enough to make me want to move to "Idaho."

Lead Pipe Cinch

Today we present yet another chapter in our search for the origins of the phrase "lead pipe cinch," meaning a task or accomplishment that is so easy as to be a certainty. Previous theories put forward have included using a lead pipe as a threat to ensure cooperation, as well as the use of a lead pipe as a means of "deflating" a horse which has puffed up its belly to avoid being "cinched" and saddled. Now J.R. Latimer, a reader in Mexico, and Dennis Engbring, from Green Bay, WI, have both e-mailed to me a very convincing "plumbing- based" explanation for the term. Mr. Latimer goes further and deflates the "horse" theory. Mr. Latimer writes:

"I lived for many years in Africa where often one found an older, low-tech form of plumbing. Lead piping was/is used to make critical junctures, and it is "cinched" to the pieces it connects, i.e., the faucet/tap and the incoming pipe. This makes for a very sure, no- leak joint, and to my understanding, the technique has been used since Roman times. Thus the expression "lead pipe cinch" meaning a sure thing or absolutely.

"As for using a pipe to cinch up a saddle, it seems unlikely. I spent some time in a combat active cavalry unit and the standard method to deflate a horse was to kick it in the belly and when it exhaled you pulled the cinch tight. It sounds cruel, but it almost seemed a game for the horse -- anyway, most of the horses don't do this. Growing up in Texas I don't recall ever seeing a pipe laying around a corral and NEVER have I heard of a cowboy or horse soldier carrying one. I suspect the twisting pipe method would get an admiring glance from an inquisitor, but would receive guffaws or worse from other riders. Also, the twisting cinch would pinch the horse, possibly injuring it a place that also gets rubbed. Not good."


I suppose every occupation has its own cardinal sin -- the one thing a practitioner of that trade simply must not do. Submariners, for instance, must remember not to leave the door open, and dentists who give candy to their patients are frowned upon. Similarly, I would propose that any word columnist who mentions the word "posh" in print gets precisely what he or she deserves. My innocent mention of the word a few weeks ago produced a torrent of reader mail, all of it espousing a particular theory of the word's origins -- a theory I have dealt with before, but will now attempt to lay to rest (again). It's really not true, folks. Honest.

The theory is that "posh" comes from the days of ocean travel between England and India. The wealthy, it was said, would get the most desirable cabins on whichever side of the ship remained untouched by the blistering tropical sun. Such preferred arrangements were said to be "port (left side) out, starboard (right side) home," neatly summed up in the acronym "posh." It's a lovely theory -- too bad there's not a shred of evidence in its favor, and a good deal of evidence against it. Among other things, it seems that neither the crews of the ships in service on that route nor the owners of the steamship lines, questioned about the term, had ever heard of it.

There are other theories, but the one now accepted by most authorities is, in a way, the most exotic. "Posh" is an actual word in Romany, the language of the Gypsies, meaning "half." Evidently the word originally entered the argot of England's underworld in the 17th century in such compounds as "posh-houri," meaning "half-pence," and soon became a slang term for money in general. From there it was a short hop to meaning "expensive" or "fancy."

Ironically, it was probably the Gypsies, who came originally from Northern India themselves, who introduced "posh" to the English language without ever setting foot on an ocean liner.

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