Previous Columns/Posted 5/21/97


If you are a regular reader, you will have noticed that I finally bit the bullet and reorganized my front page to make it less confusing. I rather liked the baroque look myself, but the complaints were beginning to wear me down. The new look seems a bit dull to me, but, then again, it's only temporary. Once I master the new "active html" and "layering" technology, I'll be able to re-do the page so that it's entirely illegible again. And then I'll define my page as a "push channel" so it'll show up on your computer whether you want it to or not. My ultimate goal is to enable my page to follow you down the street whistling a menacing tune, rather like Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter."

Certain people have asked whether the photograph of me on my front page is, in fact, a photograph of me. Yes it is. I like this picture because it makes me look a great deal smarter than I usually do, makes my nose look almost normal, and, since it is a still photo, renders my usual eerie torpor nicely moot. That eyebrow thing takes years of practice, by the way. In the picture, taken with a quickcam atop my computer, I am gazing out onto glamorous West 82nd Street, hoping for a glimpse of the amateur ecdysiast across the way whilst, since lunchtime is nigh, pondering possible pigeon recipes.

Funny, I always thought it referred to 86 talking kangaroos.

Dear Word Detective: Ok, I've got a term I already know the meaning of, but am still unsure about the origin of -- the term "86." I know that the meaning is two things (mostly dealing with bars and restaurants): out of something in the kitchen ("We're 86 on Lettuce!"), and being kicked out for being disorderly or drunk. I understood from a few years ago that the origin of the phrase is back in old New York (like early 1900's). When they started just building bars and houses and apartments pretty much alike, the city code guys would figure all bars were the same, and therefore warranted the same maximum occupancy ... you guessed it ... 85. Therefore, Mr. 86 was, well, "86'ed." If you have any other possible clues on this, I would be appreciative. I know you're the Word Detective, but why not numbers, too? -- Alan Wieding, via the Internet.

Why not numbers, indeed? Except, of course, that I have a long-standing pathological fear of numbers. That's why I have so much trouble turning in my income tax forms -- I can't even stand to look at them, much less mail them. I'll get to your question in a moment, by the way. I'm busy establishing an alibi here.

The theory you've heard about "86" is certainly entertaining, but is unsubstantiated and probably not true. Fortunately, there are lots of other theories. Unfortunately, there's not much evidence supporting them, either. What we do know is that "86" first appeared as "kitchen slang" meaning "out of that item" in the 1930's, and fairly quickly came to mean "stop serving that customer" as well. Eventually, "86" spread to general usage, where it came to mean simply "dismiss" or "quash" ("The boss 86'ed my proposal for beer in the lunchroom").

The theory with the most logic behind it is that "86" began as rhyming slang code of the sort found in London's Cockney underworld of the 19th century. As "trouble and strife" meant "wife" in rhyming slang, "86" may have stood for "nix" -- "nix" meaning "nothing" or "to dismiss." How "86" then ended up in U.S. restaurants is a bit of a puzzle, but I'm afraid it's the best theory anyone has come up with so far.

Phasers on stun.

Dear Word Detective: Request origin of the word "Dixie." -- Clayton Yost, via the Internet.

A man of few words, aren't we? I must admit that I was tempted to skip your question because it sounded a bit too much like Captain Kirk talking to the computer on Star Trek ("Computer: request distance to the Beta Carotene system."). Then again, you do have the same last name as my book agent, so I'll let it slide. On such gossamer threads does our fate depend, as S.J. Perelman once noted.

Besides, your question is a good one. So good, in fact, that I have not one, not two, but three dandy answers for you, and you get to choose the one that strikes your fancy.

The first theory is rated as the least likely by Hugh Rawson in his book "Devious Derivations," but considered entirely plausible by Robert Hendrickson in his "Whistlin' Dixie -- A Dictionary of Southern Expressions." The original "Dixie," goes this theory, was actually Johan Dixie (or Dixy), a Manhattan slave owner (yes, there were such things) in the 1800's. With the abolition of slavery in the northern states, Dixie, known as a decent slave owner (a debatable concept, to put it mildly), had to send his slaves to the South. Faced with harsher treatment in the South, the slaves remembered "Dixieland" (later shortened to just "Dixie") as a land of contentment. As unlikely as this story seems (it makes New York City the original "Dixieland," after all), newspaper accounts published in the same period indicate that it may actually be true.

Second up is the somewhat less glamorous theory that "Dixie" may have arisen as a shortening of "Mason-Dixon Line," the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland regarded as the geographical boundary between the North and South before the Civil War.

The third (and in my humble opinion most likely) theory is that "Dixie" comes from the French word "dix" (ten), which appeared on bilingual banknotes issued in New Orleans before the Civil War. These notes were used as currency throughout the South and may have been known as "Dixies." If so, describing the South as "Dixieland" would have been natural.


What the heck it meant.

Dear Word Detective: I saw this on your web page and wondered what the heck it meant: "Flummoxed by flabbergast?" Now, I know what "flabbergast" means, but "flummoxed"? Please let me know. -- Gary, via the Internet.

Golly, it sounds to me as if you're flummoxed by "flummox." I'd say I was flabbergasted, but that would be pushing things.

You, Gary, may know what "flabbergast" means, but we should take a moment to bring everyone else up to speed. Dating to the 18th century and most likely a combination of "flabby" or "flap" and "aghast," the logic underlying "flabbergast," meaning "extremely frightened or surprised," is a bit obscure. My guess is that "flabbergast" was originally intended to conjure up visions of someone so terrified or astonished that they trembled like a bowl of Jell-O. "Flabby," incidentally, is closely related to the old word "flappy" -- to say someone is flabby is to say that they "flap" when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym

"Flummoxed" folks aren't frightened or surprised, just perplexed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "flummox" probably comes from an English dialect and is related to the dialectical word "flummock," meaning to confuse or bewilder. The Oxford Dictionary theorizes that "flummox" may be "onomatopoeic," meaning that it arose because it imitates the sound of throwing something down "roughly and untidily." Personally, I'd have though "thud" would be a better imitation of that sort of sound, but "flummox" is much more fun to say, so I won't look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

My life as a disaster movie.

Dear Word Detective: The word "paraphernalia" means equipment or apparatus(es), but according my computerized dictionary it derives from a Latin root meaning "the bride's possessions." How did the bride's possessions devolve into a hodgepodge of (perhaps extraneous) accessories? -- Barney Johnson, via the Internet.

Before we begin, aren't computerized dictionaries handy? About six months ago I acquired the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and it has literally saved my life. Not only can I search 20 volumes of text in seconds, but also, so far, it hasn't tried to kill me, which is more than I can say for its "hard copy" predecessors. Last summer I was trying to reach a book some twit (namely me) had shelved near the ceiling of my study when a teetering pile of dusty dictionaries toppled, in a deadly lexicographical avalanche, onto my head and shoulders. It still hurts when I try to sign checks.

It is true, as you note, that "paraphernalia" comes from a Latin root meaning "the bride's possessions," but there's more to the story than that brief definition indicates. The root is actually "parapherna," from the Greek words meaning "beside the dowry." The "paraphernalia," in Roman and, later, English marriage law, were the possessions a bride brought to the marriage and kept as her own personal property. The key distinction was that the paraphernalia were considered the bride's personal property, not part of the dowry (the money and property the bride's family gave to the groom). If the husband later died, the wife kept her paraphernalia, while the dowry and all other property went to the husband's male heirs.

As marriage law in England became a bit more equitable, the more general use of "paraphernalia" to simply mean "personal belongings" arose in the 18th century. This usage paved the way for the term to be applied to, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "the articles that compose an apparatus, outfit, or equipment; the mechanical accessories of any function or complex scheme; appointments or appurtenances in general."

On top of which it annoys those of us who really do know everything.

Dear Word Detective: After an exhausting weekend with a friend who knows EVERYTHING, I would be very grateful if you could give me the meaning of the phrase "Hoist one's own petard." Does it come from one of Shakespeare's plays, and what is the meaning of "petard" -- is it a sword, or is it a weapon from the Middle Ages? My honor is in your hands. -- Mangisafi, via the Internet.

Exhausting is right. Have you ever noticed that those know-it-alls usually begin their sentences with the word "actually" to let you know that whatever you just said is complete nonsense, probably something you read on a cereal box or overheard in line at the 7-11? "Actually," they sneer, "comet Hale-Bopp is made of ice and dust, not lint, and, being millions of miles away, cannot possibly be clogging the fuel pump on your car." Sure, right. Like they know all about what certain comets can do.

In any case, I hope I'm coming down on your side of the argument when I tell you that a "petard" was a medieval weapon, specifically a small bomb used to blow open the gates of a castle under siege. The word "petard" (you can reveal this oh-so-casually to your friend) comes from the French word for "to break wind." Petards, handy tools for those in the looting and pillaging business, did have a down side, however. They sometimes malfunctioned, "hoisting" (blowing skyward) the "engineers" delegated to plant the devices.

The phrase you're thinking of, by the way, is "to be hoist by one's own petard," and does indeed come from Shakespeare, Act III of "Hamlet" to be precise. Hamlet, having sidestepped an assassination plot by having the unwitting bearers of the assassination order themselves "whacked," muses on the justice of the moment: "'Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard." This metaphorical use of the phrase to mean "someone being ruined or destroyed by the very plans or weapons they intended to use on someone else" has been popular since Shakespeare's time. Oddly enough, the only modern example of the "hoist by one's own petard" phenomenon that I can think of at the moment would be those cartoons about the roadrunner and the homicidal coyote. Not exactly Hamlet, I'll admit, but there you have it.

Heads I win, tails you ask Jesse Sheidlower.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the word "umpire" originated, and how? I think I know this one, but I'd like to find out if I'm right. -- Karen De La Vergne, Anderson, Indiana.

You know, there's something about the way you've phrased your question that makes me feel a bit like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Monty Hall. Your faith in my ability to divine the right answer to your query is touching, yet I fear that you may be expecting a prize of some sort once we're done. If so, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I used to give away a cat for every question I answered, but now we're down to just two (cats, not questions, God knows, I've got a pile of those you wouldn't believe, except that since you all sent them to me, perhaps you would), both of whom (the cats) seem to be firmly bolted to the sofa.

Onward. The original form of "umpire" in English was the 14th century English word "noumpere," from the French words for "not a peer," and that takes some explaining. "Peer" in this sense means "equal," or someone who has a stake in the matter at hand. Today we may think of umpires primarily as the beleaguered mediators of baseball games, but the original role of an "umpire" was to serve as an impartial arbitrator of legal disputes. This legal function still exists, although the umpires are usually called "arbitrators." Naturally, the arbitrator, like the umpire in a baseball game, must be rigorously impartial and not a "peer," or member of either team, for the process to work.

Now the curious thing about "noumpere" is that it only looks a little like "umpire." It begins with an "n," for example -- where did that go? Well, it drifted, through a linguistic process called "metanalysis," in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word. So "a noumpere" in the 14th century became "an umpere"in the 15th century and finally, by the early 17th century, "an umpire." A similar metanalytic process transformed "a napron" (related to "napkin") to our modern "an apron" and "a nadder" became that slithery menace, "an adder."



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