Bailiwick, Geek, In Search of Gry, Moggies Galore, Tacky and a Little Visit to Utopia


Dear Evan: Every so often I hear someone say that something is not in their "bailiwick," meaning that it's not their business or problem. Where did "bailiwick" come from? -- Norman Collins, via the Internet.

Isn't it odd that we so rarely hear anyone say that something is in their bailiwick? If I were a cynic, I'd say that you've stumbled upon an especially refined variant on our new national slogan, which seems to be "It's not my job."

Ironically, "bailiwick" originally denoted, not an unwelcome responsibility, but the area of one's power and influence. "Bail" comes from the Latin "bajulus," or "carrier," what we today would call a porter. Of course, many things can be carried or borne, from water (leading to the nautical "bail") to legal responsibility (as in "posting bail" for an accused criminal). In fact, pregnant women, carrying their unborn children, were once known as "bailiffs," as were the nannies who later "bore" responsibility for the little tykes.

The "bailiff" in the England of the Middle Ages was the Sheriff's assistant, bearing responsibility for his district, and a powerful man in his own right. His "wick," from the Old English "wic," or place of residence, was his jurisdiction. Both words live on in other forms in modern English: "wick" is a common suffix in English place names (as in "Warwick"), and "bailiffs," somewhat diminished in status, are the court officers familiar to any Perry Mason fan. The English still grant the bailiff a bit more power, their "bailiff" being equivalent to our "trustee" or "guardian."

"Bailiwick" today means something less precise and legalistic than in merry old England, more an area of expertise or authority based on familiarity with the subject.


Dear Evan: Someone sent this to me and I was wondering, wordy guy that you are, if this is a true definition for "geek:" "Geek (noun) -- a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake. The term came into being in the Middle Ages." And here I always thought it was just current slang and merely a synonym for "nerd" or "dweeb." -- Jon Powell, New York City.

Well, shucks. I, wordy guy that I am, am beginning to wonder why I keep getting questions about the origin of words such as "nerd," "geek" and "wuss." I sense an implicit criticism here, and I think I know what it is. Is this column not "buff" enough for you folks? Would all you people out there really be happier if I peppered these columns with anecdotes about car repair, "supermodels," my favorite brand of beer and tag-team bungee-jumping? No, of course not. This column is an oasis of civility amid the vulgar pandemonium of modern life, and I plan to keep it that way. Now, why not be nice and ask me where "minuet" or "opera" came from?

Oh all right, "geek" it is. Your friend is largely correct, except that "geek" dates back only to the 19th century, although an earlier form, "geck," meaning "fool," dates back to the 16th century. A "geek" in carnival slang was often a formerly talented performer (such as an acrobat or high-wire artist) who had fallen prey to alcohol or drugs. Such sad cases usually drifted downward through the pecking order of the carnival until they hit bottom, where the only job left open to them was that of "geek." The term was popularized by William Gresham's 1946 novel about carnival life, "Nightmare Alley" (later made into a film starring Tyrone Power).

Originally, to be a "geek" was to have fallen so low as to be willing to do anything for a living, no matter how disgusting the task. Only in the last few years has it been used as a synonym for "nerd."


Gry (Part 1)

Dear Evan: Hope you can answer this question, since words are what you specialize in. My daughter asked me this question: there are three words in the English language that end in "gry" -- hungry, angry, and ....? What is the third one? -- Mrs. Patricia R. Wagner, Pittsburgh, PA.

Actually, since you brought it up, I must admit that words are not my real specialty. My primary avocation is cooking grilled-cheese sandwiches, a demanding discipline which I have mastered after years of practice but which, I have discovered, brings very limited financial rewards. This word business is only a temporary expedient until I raise enough capital to branch out into tomato soup, which I have reason to believe would go quite nicely with grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Onward. You are the second person in the past few months to ask me about the supposed "third word" ending in "gry," and my initial attempts to track down the elusive word nearly drove me around the bend. I finally came to the conclusion that there was no "third word," and that the question itself was a cruel hoax. The arrival of your question, however, coincided with my fortuitous discovery of an archive on the Internet where the discussion group "rec.puzzles" stores the answers to common brain-teasers.

According to the folks in "rec.puzzles," aside from words in some way based on "hungry" or "angry" (such as "man-hungry") or proper names, there is only one other word currently in use in English ending in "gry." The word is "aggry," but there is a slight problem with this word -- no one knows exactly what it means or where it came from. "Aggry" is found only in the phrase "aggry beads," referring to a certain type of ancient bead sometimes unearthed in Africa.

This is, as answers go, not a terribly satisfying one. I suppose that because "hungry" and "angry" are words we use every day, we expect that the "third word" would be something very common. Still, it's an answer, so now we can all relax, preferably with a nice grilled- cheese sandwich.


Dear Evan: "Moggies" -- what can you tell me about this (British English) word? An English (expatriate) friend tells me, "It's a cat - typically of poor pedigree. I have no idea of the etymology. It's been years since I heard the word." I suppose my cats are "moggies," then, but where does the word come from? Is his definition correct? Is the word still in use? -- Alison Huettner, via the Internet.

"Moggies" is a new one to me as well, and I'm speaking as someone who woke up one day a few years ago to discover that he had fourteen cats living in his house. It's a long story. Fortunately, that vast lumbering herd of felines has today dwindled to just two, Ernie and Rufus. Rufus lives upstairs and Ernie downstairs, and while they both seem to sleep for a living, Ernie will occasionally rouse himself just long enough to watch nature programs on the TV if I am so kind as to turn it on for him. He is partial to bird shows.

Oh well, back to work. According to Norman Schur's "British English A to Zed" (a handy volume of translations of nearly 5,000 Briticisms), a "moggy" is "a kittycat, especially one without a pedigree." Mr. Schur feels that "moggy" is merely a variant of "mongrel," but it doesn't seem to be that simple.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "moggy" actually has three meanings. Its earliest use, dating back to the early 19th century, was as a pet name for a calf or cow. "Moggy" can also mean, as the OED puts it, "an untidily dressed woman," a usage which dates to the late 19th century. The use of "moggy" to mean "kittycat" is actually the most recent of the three meanings, dating only to around 1911. As to its origin, the OED theorizes that "moggy" may be a variant of "Maggie," which is an affectionate form of the name "Margaret." This rings true to me -- I may name my cats "Rufus" and "Ernie," but only in England would they name a cow "Margaret."


Dear Evan: Where did the word "tacky" come from? Until a few years ago, I had only heard it used to mean "sticky," like paint that is not quite dry. Is there any connection between that "tacky" and the newer usage meaning "trashy"? -- K. Wollard, New York City.

"Tacky" was, a few years ago, such a vogue word in the popular media that in many minds it will be forever linked to the mid-1980s, as "disco" is to the 1970s. It surfaced as a derogatory adjective meaning "cheap and vulgar," but quickly mutated into a perversely positive word, at least among dedicated followers of fashion. Soon it was difficult to pick up a popular magazine without finding one thing or another described as "delightfully tacky," from the excesses of Madonna to the cultural tastes of the Reagan White House. Of course, every vogue fades, and if "tacky" seems somewhat in eclipse today, my guess is that it was rendered moot by the Elvis stamp.

There doesn't seem to be any connection between the "sticky" and "fuzzy dice" senses of "tacky." When paint or varnish is "tacky," it sticks to your fingers like a "tack," from the Middle English word "tak," or fastener.

The origin of "tacky" in the sense of "trashy" or "inappropriate" is obscure, but it is far from a new usage. The earliest citation for this sense in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from way back in 1862, or a mere 120 years before its discovery by Time Magazine. As of 1860, a "tackie" was a broken-down, worthless horse, a sense easily extended to what the folks at Oxford delicately term a "poor white of the Southern States." Since socialites of any era would rather be compared to Martians than to sharecroppers, "tacky" became a popular insult among the well-to-do, and has been ever since a synonym for "shabby," "cheap" or "tawdry."


Dear Evan: All right...utopia means "no place," right? How old is this term, and who were the first persons to name entities that they cannot see, those beyond empirical data? Thanks! --Mrs. Christine M. McHugh, via the Internet.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another episode of Entities Beyond Empirical Data, also known as Things That Go Bump in the Dictionary. Tonight's episode -- "The Road to Utopia, or You Can't Get There from Here."

To answer your second question first, people have been assigning names to things that they cannot see, and which may not exist in the first place, since Time Immemorial, which, in round figures, was gazillions of years ago. After all, the ability to imagine things not immediately in front of one, whether it be dinner or a Supreme Being, is the hallmark of the human animal, along with a passion for naming things, both seen and unseen. This marvelous ability has given us all the fruits of great human cultures -- art, religion, music, literature, poetry, Monday Night Football and television infomercials. You name it, and folks can imagine it (and then name it). Personally, judging by those last two, I think it may be time to stop.

In the case of "Utopia," the namer was Sir Thomas More, an English humanist philosopher, in 1516. In his book "Utopia," More contrasted the state of life in Europe at that time with conditions in an imaginary ideal society he called Utopia, from the Greek "ou" ("no" or "not") and "topos" ("place"). By naming his ideal world "nowhere," More indicated that such a place was impossible and that the alternative, improving our existing society, was our only choice. Human beings are not the best listeners in the animal kingdom, however, and many people over the years have strived to forcibly erect actual "utopian societies," usually with remarkably unpleasant and dramatically "un-utopian" consequences. The results of such experiments are more properly known as "dystopias," from the Greek "dys," meaning "bad or ill."

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