Previous Columns/Posted 8/01/97


Buoy Crazy.

Dear Evan: Recently one of my coworkers told me that the phrase "between the devil and the deep blue sea" has nothing to do with the Devil (Satan), and that it's actually a very old seafaring term. He could not explain exactly what it meant aboard ship, so I'm hoping that you can. -- Don McDonald, via the Internet.

What a coincidence -- I'm hoping I can, too. The story your coworker has heard about "between the devil and the deep blue sea," meaning "to be caught between two equally unpleasant dangers," is not absolutely untrue, but it's not the origin of the phrase, either. To recap what your friend probably told you: the "devil" in this phrase is not Old Nick -- it was sailor's slang for a seam around the hull of an old sailing ship, all the way down by the waterline. The seams of wooden ships required periodic caulking with pitch (a tar-like substance) lest they develop leaks, and often this caulking had to be done while the ship was at sea. A sailor lowered over the side to caulk "the devil" found himself in a very precarious position indeed -- "between the devil and the deep blue sea."

It's a nice story, but the problem is that "between the devil and the deep blue sea" was used by landlubbers for at least 200 years before there is any evidence of its use afloat, and the written record makes it clear that the original "devil" in the phrase was, in fact, Satan.

Your friend's story is not completely wrong, however. It's reasonable to assume that the phrase "between the devil and the deep blue sea" was well known aboard ship. What happened was that sailors, faced with a perilous task, jokingly adapted the phrase to their situation by dubbing any hard-to-reach seam "the devil." The same punning impulse took the phrase "the devil to pay," which had, since about 1400, referred to a literal bargain with Satan, and applied it to the onerous chore of caulking the waterline seam. Since caulking with pitch was called "paying" (from the Old French "peier," pitch), the task was known, naturally, as "paying the devil."


Bring out your dead presidents.

Dear Evan: I would like to know the meaning of some Latin words on the US dollar bill. On the left back side of the bill, the words "Annuit Coeptis" above the pyramid, and "Novus Ordo Seclorum" below the pyramid. Also what is the meaning of the pyramid and why there is an eye on the top of the pyramid? Does the eye have a meaning as well? If you do not know, could you please point me in the correct direction of where to find this information. -- Elan Barenboim, via the Internet.

Is all that stuff really on a dollar bill? I must admit that I've never noticed, possibly because I've only caught fleeting glimpses of folding money in the last few years. It all sounds quite remarkable. I'll tell you what -- send me a few samples (25 or 30 will do), and I'll study them and get back to you. (Just joking, folks -- please don't send me any money. If I liked money, I wouldn't be writing this column, now would I?)

Your question doesn't actually fall within my usual bailiwick, but I just happen to have my Illuminati Member's Guide handy, so here's the story.

The Latin motto "Annuit Coeptis" means "He [God] favored our undertakings," evidently a roundabout way of saying "God Bless America" without having to pay royalties to Kate Smith's estate. "Novus Ordo Seclorum," printed beneath the pyramid, translates as "A New Order of the Ages," presumably referring to the Home Shopping Network.

The pyramid itself represents strength, and is unfinished because it was, after all, a government project. The eye above the pyramid represents the all-seeing eye of God (who alone, ironically, knows what ever became of Madalyn Murray O'Hair).

In the course of my research (I found a picture of a dollar bill in an old book), I have also discovered that the eagle over on the right side of the back sports exactly nine tail feathers, representing the Justices of the Supreme Court. Spooky, eh? Lastly, the motto above the eagle, "E Pluribus Unum," means "From Many, One." Perhaps they should put that in larger type.


 


Yeah? Well you're a bigger one.

Dear Evan: I am curious about the history of the phrase "going dutch." -- Gary Zimmerman, via the Internet.

I'm going to hazard a guess that what you're asking about is the phrase "Dutch treat," meaning "no treat at all because each person pays his or her own check." "Dutch treat" is a linguistic relic 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 phrases that have survived are, inevitably, those disparaging the Dutch, but even those are rarely heard today.

According to Hugh Rawson, who explores such topics 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 originally implied "cheap," other insults once popular 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).

"Dutch treat" has long since lost its original sting, and today "pay your own way" seems to be standard practice among those who date.


Munchies ahoy!

Dear Mr. Word Detective: Having owned a sailboat I've learned to call ropes, sheets; sails, canvas; grommets, cringles, and not question the origin. But after having spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy, I still call snacks like potato chips, candy bars, sodas, etc., "gedunks." No one has been able to tell me the origin of that word. Can you help? Rob Lane, Jr., via the Internet.

Well, your question certainly marks a reversal of fortune for this humble column. The usual drill is for a perplexed landlubber to write me asking for an explanation of some mysterious nautical term. I then offer what seems to me to be the correct answer (which usually contains no more than two or three silly mistakes), only to be deluged shortly thereafter by blistering corrections from irate sea dogs appalled at my ignorance. After the third or fourth time this happened I became leery of venturing near any body of water larger than a bathtub and haven't been to the beach in years.

Of course, I suspect that the irony of a 30-year Navy man asking me for enlightenment would be a bit more satisfying if I could supply an answer to your question. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I am not alone in my stumped state. No less an authority than the comprehensive Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) also draws a blank as to the origin of "gedunk," noting only "origin unknown." "Gedunk," incidentally, is also spelled "gedonk" and "geedunk."

The definition of "gedunk" the folks at Random House give is a bit more specific than yours -- "ice cream or an ice-cream soda; broadly, a snack," -- and this leads to some intriguing speculation. "Perhaps," they venture, "[gedunk is] related to 'dunk,' in allusion to the ice cream being put into a soda." The quotations supplied as citations for "gedunk" by HDAS date back to 1927 and bolster this theory, usually specifically linking the term to ice cream sundaes and sodas.


Personally, I'd like to find the guy
who invented "Please hold."

Dear Evan: In an Arts & Entertainment biography of Alexander Graham Bell the other night, the narrator said Bell was trying to think of a good way to answer the device. He came up with "ahoy." His friend Thomas Edison thought he could do better -- and invented the word "hello." Could this possibly be true? -- Ozmack, via the Internet.

Could it be true? Yes. Is it true? No, although you could search in vain for years to find a TV producer that cares about the difference any longer. Don't mind me: I'm still not over the way every major TV network "news" department treated the 50th anniversary of the "flying saucer landing" in Roswell, NM, as a legitimate news story.

It is true that Bell advocated the use of "ahoy" as a telephonic greeting (an idea which has considerable charm), but Edison didn't invent "hello" by a long shot. As a matter of fact, "hello" antedates the telephone by several centuries. Folks in Chaucer's time greeted each other with "hallow," which may have come from the Old French "hola," meaning essentially "stop!" or "whoa!" By the time the telephone came along, Americans were saying "hullo" to each other every day, so it was a short jump to "hello."

I had a friend years ago who persisted in answering his telephone by saying "telephone," a daring innovation which made perfect sense to me but which I, sadly, lacked the courage to help popularize. In any case, "hello" as a telephone greeting now seems to be nearly worldwide. A few years ago I dialed a long-distance call to what I thought was Connecticut, but the man who answered the phone spoke no English beyond "hello." This is not terribly unusual these days, but when I received my phone bill, I found that I had inadvertently discovered yet another place where they answer the telephone with "hello" -- Cairo, Egypt.


Yo yerself, dood.

Dear Word Detective: I have a friend who is very much into rap music, and lately she has taken to punctuating every conversation with the phrase "on point." She uses it as an exclamation or interjection, meaning, as near as I can tell, "I agree." I assume that she recently picked it up from rap lyrics, since we grew up together in Scarsdale, NY and I've never heard the phrase. Do you have any insight into the meaning and origin of "on point"? Edith Freedle, New York City.

Not much -- even when slang is brand new, it's often hard to tell exactly where it came from. In the world of rap and hip-hop music, "on point" means excellent and bold -- more or less what "right on" used to mean. Uncompromising rap lyrics are often said to be "on point."

The origin of "on point" is a minor mystery. Ballet dancers twirling gracefully on the tips of their toes are said to be "on point," but ballet terms are not notably a source of rap slang. Another possible origin for "on point" is military jargon. To walk at the front of a platoon on patrol is called "walking the point," and is considered dangerous duty. The soldier "on point" is out front and taking an extra risk -- as are rap musicians, at least in their own (usually inflated) estimation.

But the most likely origin for "on point" would seem to me to be simply a garbled version of the standard English idioms "to the point" or "on the point," meaning that the speaker's comment is relevant and precisely addresses the question.

As slang interjections go, "on point" is not, in my humble estimation, anything to write home about -- it makes "Groovy!" sound positively Shakespearian -- but your mileage may vary. Still, if your friend persists in blurting out "On point!" every time she agrees with something you've said, may I suggest that you reply with "forsooth"? With a little luck and a decent tailwind, we might be able to start a new trend.

 

 

Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

All contents Copyright © 1997 by Evan Morris.