Previous Columns/Posted 8/19/97

Two scoops of reasons.   

Dear Evan: I have always been puzzled by the phrase "brand new." Recently I was reading a magazine or newspaper and saw this phrase spelled "bran new." Can you tell me which is correct and what is the origin of this odd phrase? -- Mary Schmidt, Chicago, IL.

Well, I was all set to tell you that the "bran new" that you saw must have been a typographical error, but when I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, "bran new" was listed as an accepted alternate form of "brand new." I still believe, however, that what you saw was a typo, based on the almost universal use of "brand new."

I'll bet that it's the "brand" in "brand new" that is really the source of the mystery of the phrase for you. After all, the things that we buy are rarely "branded" in the cowpoke sense of the term, unless we collect cattle. And while most goods we buy are of a particular "brand," that doesn't seem relevant to the item's newness, as anyone who has ever bought a used car can attest.

The answer to our little mystery lies in the original meaning of "brand," which was "burning or fire," in this case specifically a furnace, forge or kiln. Something "brand new" was an item, whether pottery or forged metal, fresh from the fires of its creation, and the phrase dates back to the late 16th century. Shakespeare used the expression "fire new" to mean the same thing.

The "brand name" sense of "brand," incidentally, is from a somewhat different sense of "brand" as a verb, meaning "to mark with an iron hot from the fire." The first "brands" in this sense were probably wooden casks of wine marked in this fashion with the vintner's trademark. The practice of "branding" cows and horses with a rancher's brand comes from the same source.

It's where you are when you're waiting on hold
with the customer service department.

Dear Word Detective: Please, what means this word: "cyberspace." -- Dr. Boka Bela, via the Internet.

Less than you'd think from all the hoopla. "Cyberspace," in most instances, is just another name for the Internet. I think it's safe to say that anyone who reads newspapers or magazines (that's you, gang) is royally sick of "cyberspace" by now. Unfortunately, and I speak as someone who actually likes computers (in moderation), the "cyber"-trend shows no sign of abating. The newest development on the "cyber" front here in New York City is the "cyber-mall," a retail storefront where patrons can peruse pictures of (and theoretically order) merchandise displayed on computer screens. There happens to be one of these joints located just down the street from me, and I've never seen anyone in the place who looked like an actual customer. Bye bye, bad idea, hello bankruptcy.

I'd be willing to bet that nine out of ten "cybernauts" (also known as "net potatoes") think that "cyber" is a recent invention, but it isn't. The French had a word, "cybernetique," way back in the 1830's, meaning "the art of governing," based on the Greek word "kubernetes," meaning "helmsman" or "governor." The American mathematician Norbert Weiner appropriated and Anglicized "cybernetique" as "cybernetics" in the late 1940's to describe his theory of communications.

"Cyberspace" was actually coined by writer William Gibson in his science fiction novel "Neuromancer" in 1984. But it wasn't until the early 1990's, when the Internet first grabbed the public's attention, that "cyberspace" became the buzzword du jour and "cyber" blossoms began to bloom everywhere. Gibson's concept of "cyberspace" was actually much closer to what we know as "virtual reality" technology than to what the Internet has become, but it is now far too late to quibble about cyber-terminology. Better to spend the time reading a book.

Not to mention dinner for two in Canarsie.

Dear Evan: I would like to ask about the phrase "pushing the envelope." I think this is a fairly recent invention, and I can't figure out just what it could be derived from. I always imagine the envelope containing the name of a winner at an awards ceremony, but that doesn't seem to really fit. -- Tim Young, Tokyo, Japan.

Oh, I don't know about that. It fits the kind of awards I tend to win, such as the year's supply of rug shampoo I once won. Unfortunately, I do not actually own any rugs because they interfere with the rock music my downstairs neighbors want to share with me. But the rug shampoo people were adamant in their generosity, and now I have one less closet to worry about filling up.

"Pushing the envelope" is a good example of how jargon -- the specialized or technical vocabulary of a group or profession -- gradually enters general usage. "Pushing the envelope" comes from the jargon of test pilots, and has actually been around since the end of the Second World War. The "envelope" involved is a sort of visual metaphor for the technical limits of a high-performance aircraft. A graph of such an aircraft's performance would appear as a rising slope as the craft approaches its limits of speed and stress, then fall off rapidly (putting it mildly) when the plane exceeds its capacity and the pilot loses control. Safety, relatively speaking, lies within these limits, or "inside the envelope." A pilot who "pushes the envelope" and tries to exceed the known capabilities of the aircraft risks what engineers delicately term "catastrophic system failure," otherwise known as a crash.

Because "pushing the envelope" had such a esoteric origin, it took a best-selling book -- Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" in 1979 -- and later the popular movie "Top Gun" to introduce it to the general public. Since then it has begun to crop up in increasingly non-technical contexts, to the point where it is now a currently trendy metaphor for simply "pushing it," or testing the limits of what is permissible in a given situation.

Secrets of Power Dating -- REVEALED!

Dear Word Detective: I have a crush on this really cute guy who will think I'm awesome if I can tell him the etymology of "hoodwinked." Can you help? -- Name Withheld for Obvious Reasons, via the Internet.

Well, Name Withheld, I guess that you were in too much of a hurry to read the small print on my web page, where I quite clearly state, "Please do not ask me to mediate in romantic entanglements." This solemn policy was the result of my one previous attempt at just this sort of matchmaking, a venture I botched so badly that to this day my name is anathema in a small Midwestern city. I honestly don't know how Dear Abby does it. She must have nerves of steel.

On the other hand, it is a slow afternoon, nothing's on TV and the cats are sound asleep, so why not stir things up a bit? It has occurred to you, I'm sure, that by asking my help and then presenting the results as your own research you will be "hoodwinking" -- tricking -- your prospective beau. Then again, perhaps he will admire your resourcefulness in asking me (provided I ever get around to answering your question, of course).

OK, back in the 16th century, "wink" meant to firmly close the eyes, not the brief, jaunty wink we know today. To "hoodwink" someone was to literally blindfold them with a hood, often the sort used by executioners. Hoodwinking was also a tactic of thieves, who would throw a hood over their victims' heads before robbing them. This literal sense of "hoodwinking" was joined in the 17th century by the metaphorical sense of "hoodwinking" we use today -- to blind someone by trickery or deceit in order to take advantage of them.

By the way, if things should work out with Mr. Really Cute Guy and you find yourself in a few years sitting in suburbia tending to five or six kids, don't try to pin this "hoodwinking" business on me. True love is blind to begin with.


Pop quiz: who played "Riley" on TV before William Bendix?
(answer below)

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase "living the life of Riley?" Who was Riley? What kind of life did he have? This is the stuff of a long-running family argument, that highly enjoyable kind where everybody "knows" they're right and won't listen to anybody else's opinion. -- Seldolivaw Ssov, via the Internet.

Before we begin, I must note that you seem to have a rather unusual concept of "highly enjoyable." Still, I suppose such rollicking family debates are preferable to the wussy, therapized "discussions" that are the rule today, where expressing a definite opinion about anything, no matter how inconsequential, is considered barbaric. I made the mistake of voicing my thoughts on the recent film "Ulee's Gold" to a group of friends last week (hint: it stinks), and folks began backing away from me and coughing nervously. OK, maybe I shouldn't wave my arms so much when I talk, but I'm sure you see my point.

Meanwhile, back at "the life of Riley," I'm afraid that only your third question can be definitely answered. "The life of Riley" is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "a comfortable, enjoyable, and carefree existence." Tracing the original "Riley," however, has driven generations of lexicographers around the bend. The earliest appearance of phrase in print that has been found is in "My Name is Kelly," a popular music hall song written by H. Pease in 1919, which contained the lines "Faith and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly, But I'm living the life of Reilly just the same." The "Riley" (Reilly and Reilley are common alternate spellings) mentioned in this song may (or may not) be related to a certain "O'Reilly" who was the subject of another song in the 1880's. That O'Reilly was always just about to hit the big time, whereupon he and everyone around him would become fabulously rich. It was a working-class Irish immigrant's dream set to music, and wildly popular at the turn of the century when an immigrant's lot was often very grim.

Whoever the original Riley was, "the life of Riley" became a synonym for "the good life," attainable, it was hoped, even if one's name were Kelly.

(Answer: Jackie Gleason)

What I'd really like to know is why MS Internet Exploder 4.whatsis screws up Eudora (!) on my machine.

Dear Evan: I presume the phrase "soup to nuts" originated with the traditional seven course meal, beginning with the soup and ending with fruit and nuts. However, where did the seven course meal originate -- Louis XIV's court, perhaps? I would appreciate your insight on the origin of the phrase, since many of the computer software developers are using the term to describe their services. -- Frank Wright, via the Internet.

Yeah, I'll just bet they are. What they don't tell you is that the "learning curve" of using their software actually loops gracefully from the point early on when you first realize that you're deep in the soup to the point when, hours later, you finally go completely nuts. It's gotten to the point where consumers are (I kid you not) banding together and threatening to sue computer and software companies for falsely advertising that their products are easy to use. Personally, I'm preparing to take advantage of this backlash by investing in typewriter repair courses and slide rule stocks.

As a metaphor for "from beginning to end" or "the whole range of things," "soup to nuts" refers, as you say, to the full course of an elaborate meal, beginning with soup, through the various courses, and ending, at least in this case, with nuts. I'm not sure when the classic seven-course dinner was invented, although I know for a fact that I wasn't invited. Although "soup to nuts" dates back only to the middle of the 20th century, similar sayings have been in use since the 16th century. The only difference in the various incarnations of this metaphor seems to be in what was considered to constitute a full meal in each historical period. In the 17th century, for instance, the whole shebang would be summed up as "from eggs to apples." And, of course, unless Americans wean themselves from fast food pretty quickly, future generations will probably be hearing a new version of the phrase -- "From Whoppers to Haagen-Dazs."

And they told me that they don't like those
stupid Lacoste shirts one bit, so watch out.

Dear Word Detective: Today at work, my colleagues and I were discussing the grand old game of golf and came upon this question: where do the terms "birdie," "bogey," and "eagle" originate? We came to the conclusion that they must be Scottish in origin but that is as far as we were able to decipher them. Please help. -- Barry Lucas, via the Internet.

Well, you certainly come to the right place. I spent a week last year at Hilton Head, South Carolina, a sort of Valhalla for golfers, and didn't play a single round. In fact, I've never played real golf in my entire life, and don't plan to start now. I spent most of my time at Hilton Head feeding potato chips to the alligators that live in the water traps.

However, thanks to The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms (Peter Davies, Robson Books, 1993), I feel equipped to answer your questions. "Birdie," meaning a score of one stroke under par on a given hole ("par" being the standard set for a first-class player) comes from the 19th century U.S slang term "bird," meaning anything excellent. The fact that such a beautiful shot "flies like a bird" probably contributed to the adoption of the term by golfers.

A "bogey" for a given hole is the score expected of a good amateur golfer, and is often, but not always, the same as par for the hole. The term was invented in the late 19th century by a certain Major Charles Wellman, who noted that the declared "standard score" of the course he was playing in England amounted to a virtual "bogey man" -- an imaginary ideal golfer -- against whom he was forced to compete. The Major later decided that such a formidable opponent must certainly be an officer, and christened him "Colonel Bogey," a term still heard today.

As for "Eagle," a score of two under par for a given hole, it seems logical to conclude that the term is an extension of "birdie" (one under par) -- a sort of "super birdie."

And you'll all have to watch British TV, ha ha.

Dear Evan: With the EU summit in Amsterdam drawing to a close not too long after the British and then Irish general elections, The Irish Times ( has been doing a fair bit of political reporting. They seem to use the word "copper-fastened" quite frequently. The use is to indicate when something is finis, signed-sealed-and-delivered, done. Where does it come from? Does it have anything to do with Mr. Levi Strauss? Or roofs? Barrels? Policemen? -- Stephen Ryan, Dublin, Ireland.

Oh goody, another opportunity to demonstrate my abysmal ignorance of global political developments. Now, I do know that "EU" stands for the "European Union," a splendid scheme which will require all you yurpeens to drink Belgian wine and use unisex bathrooms and to translate all your street signs into French, right? I may have a few of those details a bit wrong, since the average American (a species of which I am a pretty fair specimen) reacts to news reports about the EU by exclaiming "eeeyooo!" and changing the channel.

Fortunately, I just happen to have a roomful of reference books, which gives me a leg up on finding the answer to "copper-fastened." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term arose in reference to sailing ships -- since copper bolts resist corrosion by salt water and sea air, a ship constructed employing such materials was considered especially well-made and durable. The first use in print of "copper-fastened" the Oxford folks have come across dates back to 1796.

There are no citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for the figurative use of "copper-fastened" to mean, as The Irish Times uses it, a "done deal" or "sure thing," but that would certainly seem to be a logical extension of the term. Here on the U.S., where the Wild West is a more common source of metaphors than is the graceful age of sail, we use the term "bulletproof" to mean roughly the same thing.

Odd question to be plagued by, incidentally.

Dear Word Detective: I have a dear friend who has recently been plagued by a burning curiosity as to the origins of the term "dead as a door nail." None of our collective dictionaries shed any light on the subject. -- Julie Warfield, via the Internet.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, my guess is that lots of people have been confused by this phrase since it first appeared, which was a very long time ago. "Dead as a doornail," meaning utterly, completely dead, first appeared in English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) way back in 1350 A.D. Shakespeare was quite fond of the phrase and used it in several of his plays, probably for the same reason we still use it today: the alliteration of "dead" and "doornail." Of the alternatives listed by the Oxford English Dictionary ("dead as a herring" and "dead as mutton"), only "dead as the dodo" packs quite the same poetic punch.

As to why a "doornail," opinions vary a bit. One theory holds that the "doornail" in question was not a nail as we know nails today, but rather a broad, flat plate mounted on the outside of the door to serve as a striking plate for the door knocker. Such a "nail" would be "dead" because it would be fixed tightly to the wood of the door and thus would not ring when struck as metal normally does, but rather give a dull "thump." This theory is both labored and unlikely.

Probably the best theory about "doornail" was expounded by etymologist Robert Claiborne, who noted that until the nineteenth century metal nails were both expensive and rarely used, wooden pegs being the norm. Metal nails were used in the construction of doors, however, usually driven clear through the door and then bent over on the other side, rendering them immovable (and immune to theft). Such nails were "dead" in the lingo of carpentry because they could never be removed and reused. "Dead as a doornail" is thus not just a very old saying, but a very old pun as well.


Make it snappy, OK?

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering about the phrase "quicker than a New York minute". I have heard this said, for many years, and I'm not quite sure of where this could have started, outside of New York. Why is a New York minute different from any other minute? Is it slower or faster than minutes in other parts of the country or the world? Is the "New York" referencing New York State or New York City? -- David Black, via the Internet.

It does refer to New York City, was probably coined by a visitor, not a resident, and is far more often heard outside New York City than within it. That's the funny thing about such regional sayings -- the people who actually live in the locale referred to often don't use the phrase. In many cases, it's because the phrase is not complimentary. When I lived in Ohio and worked in a warehouse (ask me about my job history sometime), we routinely referred to an adjustable wrench as a "West Virginia socket set." The entirely unfair implication of the phrase was that our neighboring West Virginians wouldn't own the "proper" tools and would settle for a sloppy approach to the job.

The phrase "in a New York minute" is, however, not especially disparaging, and may even reflect a grudging respect for New Yorkers. A fascinating book by Irving Lewis Allen called "The City in Slang," published by Oxford University Press, traces "New York minute" to the frantic pace of life in the Big Apple. New Yorkers are presumed, by people living elsewhere in the U.S., to have no time for anything -- after all, the phrase "rush hour" was invented in New York, and that was way back in relatively laid-back 1890. Another phrase based on the same view of frenzied New York City life, although not so respectful, is "a New York kiss-off," which translates as "an extremely rude dismissal." Speaking as a New York City resident myself, I resent that one.

The Devil made me bake it.

Dear Evan: Delighted to discover you and your mission . . and one day after we did I have a conundrum. We were at lunch and I commented to my wife that her soup was particularly flavorful. I then asked whether it was a prepared soup or from a recipe. "No," she responded, "it's from scratch." Of course we've heard the expression "from scratch" zillions of times, and everyone is clear as to meaning . . but wherefore and whence . . or should I just say, "whencesoever"? My efforts toward this end stop at William and Mary Morris' "Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins," which attaches scratch to "Old Scratch," a nickname for the devil. This, in turn, is derived from an old Norse word "scratti," meaning "devil" or "sorcerer." All of which is of absolutely no help. Can you locate a more likely route? -- Carroll F. Raaum, via the Internet.

Please don't say "whencesoever." It gives my spell-checker conniption fits. Speaking of conniptions, I must admit that I was taken a bit aback by your assertion that my parents' book (published by HarperCollins, by the way) connects "from scratch" with "Old Scratch." Perhaps you have an old edition. (I'm not being facetious -- there were three separate volumes before the current Second Edition.)

In any case, if you check under the entry for "scratchcake" in the Second Edition, you'll find an explanation of "from scratch." It means, of course, from the absolute beginning, without any advantage, in this case without benefit of a prepared soup mix. The phrase comes from the lingo of 19th century sporting events, specifically the "scratch" drawn in the ground which served (and often still does) as the starting line of a foot race. A runner "starting from scratch" received no handicap or benefit -- whatever the contestant accomplished was due solely to his or her own efforts. So, too, is a cook baking a cake without the benefit of Betty Crocker or her ilk said to be making it "from scratch."


Dear Evan: Satisfy my curiosity. I was watching the movie, "The Wheeler Dealers" on cable, and a reference was made to widget manufacture as something that was no longer required once horse-and-buggies went out of fashion. This got me to thinking -- is (or was) there really such a thing as a widget? The World Book Dictionary defines it as: (1) a gadget; or (2) U.S. Air Force slang for a "small gremlin." What is a "widget?" Did such a thing really exist at one time? Or is it just a colloquial expression? Same questions for "gadget." -- Darryl Scott, via the Internet.

Now you've piqued my own curiosity. I'm wondering what the producers of that movie thought they knew about "widgets" that would lead them to make the reference you describe. On the other hand, they were probably just blowing smoke -- especially since "widget" didn't crop up in our language until the 1930's, long after the horse and buggy had shuffled off to Buffalo.

Your second question, about "gadget," is well-placed, because it's difficult to consider "widgets" without mentioning "gadgets." "Gadget," a vague term applied to any small mechanism or implement, was originally a 19th century naval term for any small piece of equipment, especially one the proper name of which had temporarily slipped the speaker's mind. A "gadget" was pretty much synonymous with such other linguistic evidence of our often faulty memories as "thingamabob" and "whatchamacallit." "Gadget" may have come originally from the French "gachette," meaning a small piece of a lock.

"Widget" is a bit more recent than "gadget," means roughly the same thing, and may be simply an alteration of the word "gadget." One theory, in fact, holds that "widget" arose in the Royal Navy as a contraction of "wifflow-gadget," also known as a "hook-me-dingy" or "ooja-ka-piv." All those terms, like "gadget" itself, were invented by sailors who had momentarily forgotten what to call a particular piece of equipment.



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