Dear Evan: I moved to New York from Boston a few years ago and immediately noticed that New Yorkers speak a different language from the rest of us. Not only is there the inimitable (to be charitable) Brooklyn accent, but New Yorkers insist on saying that they "stand on line" to get into a movie, while the rest of the country stands "in line." Why is this? -- Diana G., New York, NY.
Poisonally, as a former resident of Brooklyn, I resent dis question. We tawk nice. You gotta problem widdat, pal?
But seriously, why do New Yorkers say that they're standing "on" line? No one knows. Perhaps the answer lies in the pressures of life in a city like New York. When one stands "in" line one is part of a group with something in common, even if only a movie ticket. But in big cities other people more often seem like obstacles than fellow citizens, and a line is just another insult to the perpetually fed-up New Yorker, on a par with potholes and subway delays. The shift of preposition from "in" to "on" is probably yet another symptom of urban alienation.
Back at that Brooklyn accent, the standard example is the pronunciation "Toidy- Toid and Toid" for the intersection of Thirty-third and Third streets. In truth, this particular "sound" is nearly extinct in New York. This sort of speech was so mercilessly parodied in movies, radio and TV that it came to be stigmatized as a badge of low breeding and lack of sophistication. Ironically, in an attempt to correct their pronunciation of "oi" in phrases like "Toidy-toid," many New Yorkers carried the process too far (a process linguists call "hypercorrection"). Today it's common to hear Brooklynites pronounce the word "toilet" as "terlet," and while you Bostonians may "boil" an egg, in Brooklyn they "berl" it.
Dear Evan: Why do they call hair cut straight across the forehead "bangs"? Does it have anything to do with "bang," the sound a gun makes, or is it from some other source entirely? -- Kathy Mercurio, Baltimore, OH.
"Bangs," the hair style, does indeed come from the same roots as "bang," the sound of a gun, a slamming door, or countless other abrupt noises. The word "bang" first appeared in written English in the 16th century, but is thought to have been known in the dialects of Northern England long before that date. "Bang" comes from an Old Norse word "banga" meaning "to hammer," and is a linguistic relic of the Viking invasions of England beginning in the eighth century. "Bang" at first meant "to strike violently," but gradually the word came to be used for any sudden or violent movement, especially one which caused a loud noise. One of the earliest written examples of this expanded sense of "bang" refers to slamming a door, an apparently universal human action which may yet prove to be as great an instrument of self- expression as the typewriter. Aside from doors, nearly anything could go "bang," from guns to pianos, and "bang" also came to mean fight or beat up.
"Bang" continued to evolve, and by the 19th century was used to convey suddenness or finality, which brings us at last from Old Norse hammers to modern haircuts. "Bangs" are so-called because they are created by cutting the hair "bang- off," abruptly and straight across the forehead. And finally, at the risk of offending our bang-coiffed readers, I must tell you that "bangs" as a young lady's hairstyle almost certainly originated with the practice of cutting horses' tails straight across, a style known to this day as a "bang-tail."
Dear Evan: I heard someone say that they were "flabbergasted" the other day and I realized what a strange word it is. How did it come to mean "very surprised"? -- Lynn Kotula, New York, NY.
Sometimes it seems that the best words in the English language are like a good stew: wonderful flavors, but often you can't quite figure out what's in there. "Flabbergasted" is a marvelously vivid word, but it doesn't look like any other word we know in English, so its origins aren't easy to figure out. By now I'm sure you've looked up "flabbergasted" in your dictionary and found that it says something like "Of unknown origin." That's true, strictly speaking, but we can trace "flabbergasted" at least part of the way back and make an educated guess as to the rest of the ingredients.
"Flabbergasted," by the way, is far from being a new word. It's been around since the late 1700's in its current form. The second part of the word, "gast," is probably from the Middle English word "gasten," meaning to terrify, which also gave us "aghast." "Gasten" itself comes from the Old English word "gast," or spirit, which also gives us "ghastly" and "ghost." So there we have the "surprise" part of "flabbergast."
The "flabber" part is the puzzle. Most likely, it's related to "flabby," which itself is a variant of "flappy." (Yes, to say someone is flabby is to say that they "flap" when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym.) But "flap" can also mean excitement or a disturbance ("The flap over the Royal Family"), so this is where the guesswork comes in. "Flabbergasted" may have originally meant being so surprised that one "flabbed" -- trembled like Jello. Or it could have referred to the cause of the uproar -- the "flap" at which one was "aghast," or "flabbergasted."
Play Hookey for Me
Dear Evan: I recently came across a word I hadn't heard in years, and had nearly forgotten: "hookey," as in "playing hookey" or being truant from school. Where did "hookey" come from? -- Susie Day, Brooklyn, NY.
"Hookey" definitely seems to have fallen into disuse. Even today's schoolkids, who play hookey to an extent earlier generations would never have dared, call the practice "cutting." "Hookey" first appeared in print in 1848, although the term had probably been in common use among children long before then. The phrase "play hookey" seems to have been an American invention, and had a number of variations: in Boston, children who skipped school were "hooking jack."
"Hookey" (also spelled "hooky") apparently developed from the colloquial phrase "hooky-crooky" common in the early 19th century, which meant "dishonest or underhanded." The connection between the two phrases becomes clearer when we recall that to "play hookey" properly, one had to pretend to go to school. The child would head out the door at the proper time, schoolbooks in hand, and only when safely out of sight of home would their true itinerary become evident. Of course, the child then often spent the day dreading detection and capture by nearly any grownup, most especially the local Truant Officer.
"Hooky-crooky," in turn, came from "by hook or by crook," meaning "by any means or tactic, fair or foul." Although this phrase first occurs in print way back in 1380 and is still common today, no one is sure of what the hook and crook were. One theory is that while tenants on English manors were not allowed to cut trees for firewood, the lord of the manor permitted them to have all the branches they could pull down with a shepherd's crook or a curved knife on a pole called a "hook." It sounds like hard work to me; personally, I'd rather just go to school.
Pugs 'n Stuff
Dear Evan: Can you tell me where the dog called a "pug" got its name? While you're at it, which came first, the "pug" dog or the "pug" nose? Is there any connection between the two? -- Debra Solomon, New York, NY.
I have to be careful answering this question, not wishing to incur the wrath of pug-nosed persons everywhere, but yes, there is a connection. Pug dogs, a small breed about the size of a large cat, have short hair and a tightly curled tail. The pug's most distinctive feature is its flattened nose, set in a what one dictionary diplomatically calls "a broad, wrinkled face." Fortunately, pug noses on people are just small and upturned, and usually considered "cute." High-school football cheerleaders, for instance, almost invariably are said to possess pug noses, perhaps a case of natural selection at work.
Looking for the origin of "pug" leads us on a merry chase. First stop is the Old English word "pocca," which meant "bag" and gave us "pocket," "pock" (plural "pox," as in chickenpox), "pucker" and "poke," what not to buy a pig in. Another offshoot was the word "puck," which meant elf or goblin. Originally a small but frightening demon, "puck" eventually led to "pug," which was used as a term of endearment for anything or anyone of small stature, including dogs or noses. In fact, before pug dogs made their appearance, a "pug" could be anything from a child to a monkey to a ship's cabin boy. However, "pug" as a slang term for "boxer" is not related, being short for "pugilist," from the Latin word for boxer, "pugil."
So there is a connection between "pug" the dog and "pug" the nose, but tread carefully explaining it to the next pug-nosed person you meet, lest you awaken their pugilist nature.
I Taht I Taw a Puddytat
Dear Evan: Where did we get the word "succotash" for a mixture of corn and lima beans? -- J. Guthrie, NY
I don't know about you, but I can't hear this word without thinking of Sylvester the Cat saying "thufferin' thuccotash" in exasperation every time Tweety Bird outwits him. At the risk of offending the lima bean lobby, I must admit that most of the succotash I was served as a child was surreptitiously forwarded to the family dog, who also had a convenient fondness for cooked carrots.
First appearing in English about 1778, "succotash" comes from an American Indian word for beans and maize cooked together. "Msiquatash" was the staple dish of the Narragansett tribe, who lived in what is now Rhode Island. A related Narragansett word, "asquutasquash," gave us "squash," another vegetable dogs will eat. (Incidentally, the verb "squash," meaning "to smash flat," comes from an entirely different source, the Latin word for "break.")
"Succotash" as we know it today consists of corn and lima beans. There was, a few years ago, a TV commercial for corn oil which featured an actress portraying an idealized Indian maiden, who stood in a field and rhapsodized about "the goodness of maize." She then explained, with a slight sneer, that "maize" was "what you (you couch potato, you) call corn." Maize wasn't exactly what we know as corn today, which is more cultivated and bland, but the beans in succotash weren't originally "lima" beans either.
Lima, or "butter," beans are native to the tropics, so it's logical that they are named after Lima, Peru. What is not so logical is that the Lima in Peru is pronounced "lee-ma," but the beans are pronounced "ly-ma." Furthermore, although Lima, Ohio, is named after the city in Peru, it is pronounced "ly-ma," like the beans. Thufferin' thuccotash.
Begging Your Question, Sir
Dear Evan: You may have already addressed this question, but I'd like to hear your opinion on one of my pet peeves. "To beg the question" does not mean anything even remotely similar to "to lead us inexorably to the question" or "causes us inevitably to ask the question." It means to assume an answer to an unstated question or premise. It was used correctly on a recent episode of "The X-Files" when Mulder and Scully were discussing what was purported to be an alien autopsy. The exchange goes something like this: "Mulder: What is that green fluid? Scully: Blood? Mulder: It's widely held that aliens don't have blood. It must some unknown autopsy apparatus. Scully: That begs the question that it's an autopsy, let alone one of an alien." See what I mean? -- Michael Raynor, via the Internet.
I say, your question gives me a marvelous idea. Would you mind writing this column while I nip off to the Bahamas for a month or two? It's really not hard at all -- you just look things up in four or five hundred dictionaries and pick the answer that seems most plausible. I've found that you can usually fill the first paragraph of your answer with silly banter, anyway.
Regarding your question, I do see what you mean. Incidentally, if people on television have begun using proper English, perhaps it's time for me to buy a TV. I have never seen "The X Files," but if what you describe is typical dialog, the scriptwriters must be holding an English major hostage -- they did indeed use "beg the question" correctly. It does not mean "raises the question," or that the question itself begs like Oliver Twist ("Please, Sir, may I have an answer?"). It means to bypass or avoid an essential question, but to proceed as if it had already been answered. The Latin name for this sort of thing is "petitio principii," by the way. In your example, to discuss the color of alien blood sidesteps (or "begs") the rather essential question of whether there are such things as aliens in the first place. Similarly, my offer to you "begs the question" of whether I can afford to go to the Bahamas for a month or two in the first place, which I can't, so I'm afraid the deal's off.
Dear Evan: In the New York Times recently there was a story that contained a word I have never seen before; it is not in any of the dictionaries I have, including the Oxford English Dictionary. The word is "bloviating." I can't find the article now but it was used in a sentence that said something about "the bloviating of General Schwarzkopf." Can you enlighten me about this word? -- George Bower, via the Internet.
First of all, let me say that the thing I really love about writing this column is the opportunity that it gives me to doubt my own sanity. I knew as soon as I read your question that I had seen "bloviate" before. I even knew (or thought I did) what it meant -- to speak grandiosely and at length. But when I went to check my memory in a variety of dictionaries, I came up blank. You're absolutely right -- most major dictionaries (including all the Oxford dictionaries) do not list the word. One that does is the Merriam-Webster Third International, which finally came through for us by defining "bloviate" as "to orate verbosely and windily."
According to "Slang and Its Analogues," a turn of the century dictionary of British and American slang, "bloviate" is (or was) American slang dating back to the mid-19th century, and probably arose as a fanciful variant of the slang term "to blow," meaning "to boast."
My parents, in their "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" (HarperCollins, 1977), noted that they had come across "bloviate" in a biography of President Warren G. Harding. Harding was evidently famous for his "bloviating," so much so that he prompted my all-time favorite H.L. Mencken quote. Speaking of Harding's attempts at writing, Mencken commented: "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
I was accosted by a friend on the street the other day, which is not at all unusual, for some mysterious reason. Although New York City is home to millions of people, if I walk around for a while, I am almost certain to run into someone I know. Perhaps I've simply lived in New York too long. Or perhaps all my friends have. In any case, my friend wanted to know why English immigrants to Australia are known as "poms" or "pommies." Fortunately, I have another friend who lives in Australia, whom I never run into, named Terry O'Connor. Terry writes a column similar to this one Down Under, and, in fact, had sent me a column of his dealing with "pom" a while back, so I had an answer for my New York friend.
Various theories about pom have been proposed, including the acronym POHM, standing for Prisoner of His Majesty, supposedly applied to the English prisoners exiled to Australia early in its colonial history. The most logical theory, however, explains the term as an example of rhyming slang, the argot of London s Cockney underworld. Rhyming slang evolved in the 18th century as a private language among thieves and con men to conceal their dealings from the prying ears of the police, and gradually spread throughout the working classes of the entire British Commonwealth, including Australia. The principle of rhyming slang is very simple: pick a word or phrase that rhymes with the word you wish to hide -- thus, apples and pears means stairs, and trouble and strife translates as wife.
Pom, it seems, is almost certainly a second-generation slang word derived from pomegranate, a rhyme with the Australian slang term jimmygrant. "Jimmygrant," it seems, was at one time Australian rhyming slang for immigrant, so "pom" involves a double rhyme. If this seems a lot of trouble to take to come up with a slang term for immigrant, hold onto your hat. My friend Terry tells me that Americans are known in Australia as septics, short for septic tanks. But don t get too riled up -- it s all just slightly tasteless rhyming slang for Yank.
A-Poodling We Shall Go
Dear Evan: One of the folks that works down the hall asked me if I could help with the meaning of a rather obscure slang expression that he recently found in some old letters to one of his aunts. A US Army officer in the Phillipines had written to her in about 1937, mentioning, "We went a-poodling last night..." Poodles? I have a strong suspicion that this may have something to do with streetwalkers, but I'm prepared to be otherwise amazed. My Oxford Concise Dictionary mentions the obvious canines, "lackey or servile fellow," and "splash in water" -- not quite what we're seeking, I don't think. -- Don Wilkes, via the Internet.
Pity the poor poodle, symbol of all that is frivolous in this age of the pit bull. I've never owned a poodle (having been blessed with a series of marvelous border collies), but the poodles I've met, at least the large ones, have been perfectly plausible dogs. The great American humorist S.J. Perelman wrote several heartfelt tributes to his poodle, and since Perelman didn't suffer featherbrains of any species gladly, I can only assume that poodles have gotten a bad break, public-relations-wise.
"Poodle" was, indeed, slang for a woman at the beginning of this century, found most notably in the British slang term "poodle-faker." A "poodle-faker" was (and still is, I suppose) a man who cultivates the attention and affection of wealthy women for social or financial advantage -- in other words, a gigolo. The phrase refers to the attempts of such men to insinuate themselves into a lady's company in the role of a clinging "lap dog," or favorite.
I don't think we should assume, however, that your friend's aunt had a gigolo for a pen-pal. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "poodling" was also a slang term in the 1930's meaning "to move or travel in a leisurely manner." "Poodler," in fact, was British slang for a small motor car as recently as the 1960's. Whether the term had anything to do with actual poodles, or is simply a nonsense usage based on the somewhat silly and casual sound of the word "poodle" itself, is anyone's guess.
It's When the Room Starts to Spin
Dear Mr. Morris: I wonder if you can be of help. I work for Taiwan's Trade Office and we are planning to have a "round robin" party at each of our houses. Upon hearing the phrase "round robin" our Director was very interested to hear why we use such a phrase and its origins. As far as I can tell from the dictionary, this is a term used to describe, besides a game-playing tournament, a petition of signatures written in a circle so no one can be blamed as the ring-leader. Any additional help and clarification of this phrase's origin would be very interesting. -- Dan Anderson, via the Interent.
It's nice to see that the tradition of "round robin" parties is alive and well, and in the Taiwan Trade Office, no less. I still remember the last round robin party I went to, on the Fourth of July weekend in 1970. I was going to say that I "vividly remember" the party, until I realized that just about the only thing I remember of it is that it lasted for three days. Ah, youth.
In any case, you're on the right trail as to the derivation of "round robin." The phrase actually has nothing whatever to do with a bird, robin or any other kind. "Robin" in this phrase is a corruption of the French "ruban," meaning "ribbon," and the origin of the phrase is about as far from a party as one can get. It seems that in 17th and 18th century France, there was a good deal for the average peasant to complain about, but complaining to the King in particular was not a terribly good idea. The monarch's usual reaction to a petition from his subjects was to seize the first two or three signers and have them beheaded. Not wishing to lose their heads, but bent nonetheless on petitioning for justice, clever peasants came up with the expedient of signing their names on the petition in a circle, like a ribbon. That way, no one's name came "first," and, assuming that there were hundreds of signatures on the petition, it was impractical for the King to punish all the signers. A similar method was adopted by disgruntled sailors in the 18th century British Royal Navy, another institution not known for welcoming criticism. Sailors often signed their names to a petition like the spokes of a wheel, so that no one of them could be considered the leader of a mutiny and hanged.
Today we use "round robin" to describe any event, most often a sporting event of some kind, where everyone takes a turn.
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