Posted 3/10/97

Catch me if you can.

Dear Evan: What is a "Catch 22" and what is its origin? I've heard it used many times but still cannot gather what it means even by looking at what the words around it are. -- Cassandra Jenkins, via the Internet.

Go ahead, make me feel old. Next you'll be asking me what "crash pad" means. Actually, I knew I was hopelessly over the hill a few years ago when an inquisitive twentysomething asked me, in dewy-eyed innocence, "Were The Beatles at Woodstock?" Oh yes, absolutely, of course. And so were Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin and that Brahms dude. Incidentally, apropos The Beatles, I've been in mild shock ever since I heard recently that Paul McCartney was to be knighted. For what? "An Old Fashioned Love Song"? "Band on the Run"? What are they putting in the water over there?

Onward. I am supposing that your not knowing what "Catch 22" means is evidence of your relative youth because the phrase is of fairly recent vintage and made quite a splash when it arrived in common usage. "Catch 22" is the title of a novel published in 1961, written by Joseph Heller and based on his experiences as a World War II bomber pilot in Europe. The central character in "Catch 22" (which you really ought to read, by the way) is the pilot Yossarian, whose all-too-accurate perception of the futility and insanity of war leads him to seek a psychiatric exemption from flying further combat missions. But Yossarian runs smack into what Heller dubbed "Catch 22" ("catch" in this sense meaning "snag"). As Heller put it, "There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22.... If he flew them [more missions] he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

In inventing "Catch 22," Joseph Heller had really only given a name to a particularly modern sort of bureaucratic conundrum, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first." More mundane examples of "Catch 22" would be needing a driver's license to get to Motor Vehicles to take your driving test, or my personal favorite, needing to be rich to avoid paying income tax.

All the news that glitters.

Dear Evan: An ad describing a book entitled "Lipstick Traces -- A Secret History of the Twentieth Century" quotes a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review as calling it "a corruscatingly original piece of work...." I cannot find the word "corruscatingly" in any dictionary. Can you enlighten me as to its existence, meaning and derivation? -- George Bower, via the Internet.

Well, Problem Number One is that the word is spelled "coruscatingly." I don't mean to imply, however, that you are responsible for the misspelling -- advertising agencies these days seem to be so caught up in inventing new words that they've lost their grip on how to spell the old ones. As to what "coruscating" means, I could tell you, but that would spoil all the fun for the Times reviewer. Don't you realize that you're not supposed to know what "coruscating" means? You're supposed to be so intimidated and impressed by the reviewer's erudition and sophistication that you'll abandon your pathetic attempts to develop your own opinion and, in this case, just go buy the book. Personally, I stopped reading the New York Times Book Review several years ago when I learned how they compile their "Best Sellers" list. Suffice it to say that the process has a great deal more to do with books the editors believe "ought" to be best sellers than those that actually are.

Then again, since this is at least ostensibly a language column, I ought to stick to the subject and tell you that "coruscate" is a fancy way to say "sparkle," and comes from the Latin verb "coruscare," meaning "to sparkle, glitter or gleam." Used in a literal sense and applied to stars and other notable natural sparklers, the word appeared in English in the 18th century. By the late 19th century, "coruscating" was being used metaphorically in descriptions of everything from poetry to personalities and, of course, in pretentious book reviews. So "coruscatingly original" really just means "sparklingly original," which, as soon as it's said, sounds cliched and trite, because it is.

In August, of course, we're toasty warm.

Dear Evan: Could you assist me in finding the origins of "lukewarm," and perhaps who it was named after? -- Ingrid Zensen, via the Internet.

Why, sure. Lukewarm" is barely warm at all, and thereby hangs a tale. Those of us who live in apartment buildings know, of course, that "Luke" is a generic nickname for the building superintendent. It is his job to ensure that your apartment is always at least slightly chilly in the winter and that the temperature of your Monday-morning shower never rises above a cozy 62 degrees. The "Luke" in charge of my building, in a perversely brilliant feat of engineering, has managed to make my study the only room in the apartment that has any heat at all for months at a time in the winter. I have reason to believe that he arranged it this way because he knows perfectly well that the whimperings of my wife and two cats outside my study door make it devilishly hard for me to get any work done.

Of course, the actual origin of "lukewarm" predates apartment buildings, superintendents and thermostats by quite a bit. "Luke" was an Middle English word, now obsolete, meaning "warm," which was based on "lew," another word for "warm." "Lew," in turn, was derived from the Old English word "hleow," meaning (guess what?) "warm." I guess we can gather that staying warm must have been a major concern of people who spoke Old and Middle English. You have probably realized by now that "lukewarm" actually amounts to saying "warm-warm," but this sort of redundancy is common when obsolete words are carried over into modern usage.

If we trace "hleow" back a bit further, we find the Latin word "calor," meaning "heat." "Calor" gave us "calorie" (a measure of heat), "cauldron," and, from the derivative word "calere" ("to be hot"), the word "nonchalant," describing someone who stays cool. By the way, those of you who collect coincidences may wish to note that one of the most nonchalant movie characters in recent memory, played by Paul Newman, was known as "Cool Hand Luke."

Boil his bunny!

Dear Evan: I mentioned the words "pining away" to a co-worker today and she didn't have a clue what I meant. In answer, I responded, e.g., having lost interest in life after a spouse had passed away. Are you aware of its origin? -- Maureen Wallace, via the Internet.

Aware of its origin? I should say so. I'll have you know that I possess an advanced degree in pining, which I earned many years ago at the prestigious Madame Butterfly Institute of Debilitating Obsession in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Incidentally, although "pining" can be applied to the sort of prolonged grief you used in your example, the word is more often used to describe a severe and persistent romantic obsession, or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "To be consumed with longing; to languish with intense desire, to hunger after something; to long eagerly."

Now, the first question we "pinists" usually hear is "What has all this to do with pine trees? You must be a real plant lover, hahaha." Well, you can stop snickering now -- there is, I assure you, no connection between the two words.

"Pine," the tree, comes from the Latin "pinus," which is related to an earlier Indo-European word meaning "resin" or "sap," which pine trees possess in abundance. "Pine," the act of mooning about in the wake of lost love, comes from the Latin "poena," meaning "punishment," which also gave us "pain" and "penalty."

Unfortunately, it seems that "pining," a staple of 19th century fiction, has gone entirely out of fashion these days. Today's washed-up paramours more often take to the streets seeking revenge, often with dire consequences. In the film Fatal Attraction, for instance, Glenn Close could have stayed home and pined over Michael Douglas to the tune of Madame Butterfly (my childhood favorite and, I assure you, prime pining music) and had everyone's sympathy, rather than taking it out on an innocent rabbit. As it turned out, however, she invented a handy metaphor ("boil his bunny"), but set dating back a good fifty years.

Goosestep this way....

Dear Evan: Is it true that the phrase "At sixes and sevens" -- meaning at odds with each other -- comes from the seating arrangement used for meetings of the London Guilds? (Please note how I cleverly avoided any Andrew Lloyd Weber references in this question. Do you realize what a temptation it was to type: "I may not be dressed up to the nines, but I am at sixes and sevens with myself over the origin of this phrase." Nope! Argentina doesn't cry for me!) -- Pamela Van Nest, via the Internet.

I'm going to throw caution to the winds here and hazard a guess that you're asking this question because you've just seen the recent Madonna-enhanced film version of "Evita" and the phrase "at sixes and sevens" occurs somewhere in the dialogue of said film. Yes, I'm psychic, and no, I have not seen and do not plan to see "Evita" myself, although the (dare I say it?) inspired choice of Madonna to play the pseudo-populist Nazi sympathizer Eva Peron does have a certain twisted charm to it. But don't cry for me, Marge and Tina, I'll get by just fine sitting home with something a bit more realistic. Such as "Baywatch."

Now that we've settled that (go forth and Lloyd Weber no more, my child), I'm wondering where you heard that story about the London Guilds. In any case, the phrase "at sixes and sevens," which we use to mean "confused" or "at odds with someone" originally came from gambling with dice. As first used by Chaucer in "The Canterbury Tales" around 1374, "to set on six and seven" meant to risk your entire fortune on the unlikely chance that a single roll of the dice would produce a high score. Only later on did the phrase come to describe a person who would be sufficiently confused or rash to make such a bet, and, still later, to mean disorder or disagreement.

It's the color I turn when I'm stood up.

Dear Evan: What's the connection between "maroon," meaning "leave stranded" and "maroon," the reddish-purple color? Is there any? -- Edith Freedle, New York, NY

Brace yourself, Edith. Oddly enough, there is no connection whatever. "Maroon," the verb meaning to abandon or strand, and "maroon" the color are good examples of "homonyms," words which are spelled and pronounced the same but which have different meanings and origins. English is rife with homonyms, a source of frustration for students faced with learning our sometimes tricky language. Imagine, for instance, trying to fathom the rationale behind "pool" the game, as opposed to the "pool" of "swimming pool." There is no logical connection between the two words, which have entirely different origins and just happen to look and sound alike.

Meanwhile, back at our two "maroons," both words have, shall we say, colorful histories. "Maroon" the color comes from the Italian "marrone," a large chestnut of Southern Europe, which is, presumably, maroon. (The word "chestnut," incidentally, has nothing to do with any sort of chest, but comes from the same Latin root that gave us "castanet," for you flamenco fans out there.)

The other "maroon" comes from the Spanish word "cimarron," meaning wild or untamed. "Maroons" were originally runaway slaves in the West Indies who, having escaped their bondage, fled into the forests and mountains of the islands to live. The nefarious practice of 17th century pirates and buccaneers abandoning their captives on deserted islands also became known as "marooning." Somewhat later, Daniel Defoe's fictional Robinson Crusoe, "marooned" by a shipwreck, became perhaps the most famous case of waiting for Friday to arrive. "Marooned" eventually came to mean simply "lost in the wilds." Today, we use it as a metaphor for anything from being stranded with car trouble to the outcome of a bad blind date.

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All contents Copyright © 1997 by Evan Morris.