Akimbo, Sliced Bread, Dutch Uncles, Chimera, Mickey Finn and Those Pesky Oxymorons


Dear Evan: I have long been fascinated (and somewhat chagrined) by the word "akimbo," as in "stood with her arms akimbo." From whence did this strange beast emanate? --Kevin McGrath, via the Internet.

Puzzled, eh? You and me both. "Akimbo" is one of the strangest words in the English language, and seems almost to have been invented to mystify folks, especially children. I remember reading many stories as a child in which various characters were described as standing with their "arms akimbo," and being utterly clueless as to what the term meant. Of course, after a little while it dawned on me that I was growing up in a house awash in dictionaries and so I looked it up, but it still strikes me as a very odd word.

For those readers who still haven't figured out what the word means, the late John Ciardi gave a vivid definition of "akimbo": "With hands on hips and elbows sharply bent outward, a body posture indicating impatience, hostility or contempt." One of the odd things about "akimbo" is that, strictly speaking, the word only applies to this "hands on hips" stance, although metaphorical uses are occasionally seen, such as "legs akimbo" or even "mind akimbo."

The origins of "akimbo" are a bit obscure, but it most likely comes from the Old Norse "i keng boginn," meaning "bent in a curve" (the Norse "bogi" is also the source of our "bow"). The phrase entered English as "in kenebow," and then spent the next few hundred years mutating through forms such as "on kenbow," "a kimbow," "a kenbo" and "a-kimbo" until it finally arrived at its modern hyphenless form.

Sliced Bread

Dear Evan: If I said "Your column is the greatest thing since sliced bread," what would I actually be saying? -- Mark Ball, via the Internet.

Well, I'd say that you were an uncommonly perceptive chap, clearly attuned to the finer things in life. Either that or you're working up to trying to sell me life insurance. In case the latter is indeed your mission, you may as well forget it -- I've already got my bases covered quite nicely. My heirs will inherit my priceless collection of vintage coffee cans, filled to their collective brims with more than twenty years' worth of bright, shiny pocket change. Happy rolling, kids.

In any case, if you were to say that my column is "the greatest thing since sliced bread" (don't think I didn't notice that you didn't actually say so), you'd be paying me a great compliment. Bread, you see, used to be sold in unsliced loaves -- a fellow in the 1700's, for instance, who wanted his morning toast would have to carefully carve each slice from a large lumpy loaf with a big knife, which is quite a bother first thing in the morning. Even presuming he mastered the task without losing a finger, he'd then have to invent the electric toaster, which would pretty much blow the whole morning. The advent of mass-produced sliced bread in the mid-20th century was thus seen as a great boon to the human race. After a few years, of course, many people noticed that their wonderful mass-produced sliced bread looked and tasted a great deal like pasty, sodden cardboard. Today most supermarkets will sell you, at a premium price, large lumpy unsliced loaves of "old-fashioned" bread. Progress is a funny thing, isn't it?

According to etymologist Christine Ammer, who devotes an entire chapter to bread in "Fruitcakes and Couch Potatoes," her dandy collection of the stories behind hundreds of food- based figures of speech, "the greatest thing since sliced bread" probably originated in the American armed forces in the middle of the 20th century.


Dear Evan: Recently I heard a TV commentator refer to the idea of a balanced budget as a "chimera." I understood that he meant "don't hold your breath," but I am hoping that you can explain what a "chimera" is and where the word came from. Is a "chimera" the same thing as a fantasy? -- Doug Ardon, via the Internet.

No, a "chimera" is not the same thing as a "fantasy." In my experience, a fantasy almost always involves Sandra Bullock and a flat tire -- not the same as a "chimera" at all (I hope). A fantasy always hold the promise, however unlikely, of someday coming true.

A "chimera," on the other hand, is by definition completely unrealistic -- as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "An unreal creature of the imagination; a mere wild fancy; an unfounded conception." As utterly imaginary as a truly balanced Federal budget, in other words.

And a good thing it is, too. The original "Chimera" of Greek mythology (pronounced "kih-MEE-ra," by the way, although the adjective form is pronounced "kih-MER-ih-cal") was no dainty daydream, but a fire-breathing female monster, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the hindquarters of a dragon. The fearsome Chimera may, of course, have merely been a product of a substandard family environment -- her father was the giant Typhon, her mother the half-serpent Echidna. Her siblings were none other than Cerebrus (the three- headed hound who eventually found work guarding the gates of Hell), Hydra (a nine-headed aquatic monster) and Orthrus ( the runt of the litter, a prosaic two-headed dog). To cut a long myth very short, Chimera swooped around making everyone thoroughly miserable until one day a chap named Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus, cancelled her account.

Perhaps it was the Chimera's over-the-top lineage that did it (a lion, a goat and a serpent is a bit much, after all), but since the sixteenth century "chimera" has been used to mean a figment of the imagination that is just too far out to be believed -- something so absurd that it makes my encounter with Sandra Bullock, in contrast, look downright inevitable.


All Things Dutch

Dear Evan: Why do they refer to a suicide as "the Dutch act"? -- Judith M. Levan, via the Internet.

Dear Evan: Just wondering about the phrase "Dutch uncle." It came up in a crossword puzzle - and I hate not knowing! -- Dodie Ownes, Denver CO.

What we have here, folks, is a genuine coincidence. I received these questions within two days of each other, leading me to wonder if I might not be missing some important news development that put "Dutch" on the tip of our collective tongue, but evidently not. Well, at least it beats getting three questions about "posh" every day.

The phrases "Dutch act," meaning "suicide," and "Dutch uncle," meaning someone who is not your uncle but gives you advice as if he were, are both linguistic relics of a low point in relations between England and The Netherlands. Back in the 17th century, when both countries were building their global empires, their intense rivalry found an outlet in a wide range of popular sayings invented by each country to insult the other. Since we are primarily an English-speaking culture, the few volleys in this linguistic war that have survived are, naturally, those disparaging the Dutch, but even those are rarely heard today. Some, such as "Dutch uncle," were probably originally meant to be more insulting than we consider them today.

According to Hugh Rawson, who explores the topic at length in his wonderful book "Wicked Words" (Crown Publishers), many of the English anti-Dutch terms became popular in the U.S. because of confusion with the word "Deutsch," or German, and were often applied to German immigrants. For the connoisseurs of insults among us, Mr. Rawson lists more than two pages of anti-Dutch slurs once popular. Along with "Dutch treat," which means no "treat" at all because each person pays his or her own way, other phrases once current included "Dutch courage" (liquor), "Dutch defense" (a retreat), "Dutch headache" (a hangover), "Do a Dutch" (commit suicide), "Dutch concert" (a drunken uproar), and "Dutch nightingale" (a frog), which seems an especially low blow.


Mickey Finn

Dear Evan: A friend asked me the other day, "What is the origin of the term 'Mickey Finn'?" Although I had a few educated guesses, basically I don't know. Can you enlighten me? -- Jonathan, via the Internet

We actually took a swing at "Mickey Finn" just a few months ago in the course of exploring the old phrase "take a powder," meaning to leave quickly. The "powder" in question was a "run-out powder," a powerful laxative or purgative. To tell someone to "take a powder" was to order them to "get lost" in very strong terms. This brings us to the real meaning of "Mickey Finn."

As every good pupil of B-movies knows, a "Mickey Finn" is a potion secretly slipped into the hero's drink in a "dive," rendering him "instantly unconscious." He then awakes tied to a chair in the same deserted warehouse that all B-movie heroes awoke tied to a chair in.

But surprise, surprise, the movies were wrong. A "Mickey Finn" was not, originally, a "knock-out potion" (although such "potions" -- usually chloral hydrate -- did exist). A real "Mickey Finn" was a powerful laxative sometimes surreptitiously employed by bartenders to rid their establishments of unruly or belligerent customers. Consider the logic of the real "Mickey Finn" versus "knock-out drops." Rendering an objectionable customer "instantly unconscious" would only compound the bartender's problem -- instead of just an obnoxious drunk, he would then have an unconscious obnoxious drunk on his hands. Far better to use a "run-out powder" to cause the fellow to leave, very quickly, under his own power.

No one has ever been able to establish whether there ever was an original "Mickey Finn." Most authorities agree that it was just a generic Irish name, adopted in the 19th century when the Irish bars of New York City were rowdy and often dangerous places. The phrase apparently only came into general use in the 1920's and 30's through the movies as well as the use of actual "Mickey Finns" in the speakeasies of Prohibition-era America.

Oxymorons 'r' Us

Dear Mr. Morris: I see your column in "The News" in Mexico City. Will you please tell me the meaning of "oxymoron"? It is an odd word. How do you use it? Thank you and my best regard to you. -- Gustavo Velasco, Mexico, via the Internet.

It is an odd word. I might even say, in my cheerfully cynical way, that "oxymoron" is a typically unusual English word, and in so saying, have foisted two dandy oxymorons on my readers -- "cheerfully cynical" and "typically unusual." An oxymoron is a figure of speech or device in writing that combines two terms that are usually thought to be contradictory.

The Greeks and Romans were very fond of oxymorons as rhetorical devices to capture the attention of their readers with witty juxtapositions of unlikely words, and the word "oxymoron" itself comes from the Greek "oxymoros," or "pointedly foolish."

Oxymorons come in two flavors -- the deliberate and the accidental. The deliberate, what the grammarian Wilson Follett called "a planned inadvertency," can, if well-executed, engage the imagination of the listener with its internal motion. To say that a character in a novel broods "in eloquent silence" is an effective deliberate oxymoron (or at least it was before it became a cliche).

More common, unfortunately, is the spontaneously inadvertent oxymoron that reveals nothing but fuzzy thinking, often found in TV newscasters' vapid chirping about "increasing declines" in our standard of living or the like. The creative, deliberate oxymoron, in fact, may well have fallen victim to the rising tide of jargon, euphemism and doublespeak which engulfs us today. Who, after all, can appreciate a finely-tuned contradictory figure of speech after decades of being subjected to such vulgar nonsense as "friendly fire" and "preemptive reaction" (wherein one reacts to an attack that hasn't happened yet) or politically-correct drivel such as "substance abuser" instead of "drug addict"? Even Richard Nixon, inventor of the "limited incursion" (a.k.a. "invasion") ultimately suffered a "negative patient outcome," as his doctors put it. It's no wonder that folks today are a bit too suspicious of language to appreciate a good old-fashioned oxymoron.

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