Chowder, Gig, Pipsqueak, Mayhem, Nonplussed and The Real Rule of Thumb

Time to Make the Chowder

Dear Evan: My co-workers and I were talking about chowder at work the other day and it occurred to us that no one knew what really made something "chowder." Someone maintained that chowder has to contain cream of some sort, but that doesn't explain Manhattan clam chowder, which is tomato-based. What makes something "chowder," and where did the word come from? P.S. -- What is gumbo, and where did that word come from? -- S. Davis, NY, NY.

Sometimes the best part of receiving letters like this is trying to imagine the untold story behind the question. Let's see -- either you folks are sitting around in an office somewhere discussing soup variants on the boss's time, or you all work in a restaurant and have no idea of what goes into chowder.

Technically, a "chowder" is any thick soup, but in practical usage the word usually refers to a mixture of fish or shellfish and vegetables in either a cream or tomato base. "Chowder" has its roots in the Latin word "calderia," which originally meant "a place for warming things," and later came to mean "cooking pot." "Calderia" also gave us "cauldron," and in French became "chaudiere." Our modern seafood chowder was invented by French fishermen, who traditionally threw whatever bits of fish or vegetables were on hand into a communal pot.

"Gumbo" is also a thick soup, but followed quite a different route to our tables -- both the word and the soup are relics of the slave trade. Although best known as a staple of French Louisiana Cajun cooking, "gumbo" is an African word, Bantu for "okra," its primary ingredient.

Incidentally, if your boss gets wind of how you folks spend your workday, you might be hearing the term "chowderhead," which has nothing to do with chowder. "Chowderhead" is a descendant of "jolterhead," used in Shakespeare's time to mean "dolt." The beauty part is, of course, the accidental aptness of the image of such a person's head being full of thick fish soup

A Groovy Gig

Dear Evan: Where does the word "gig," meaning a musician's engagement, come from? -- John Guthrie, New York City.

One of the funny things about slang is that while many terms last but a summer's day, figuratively speaking, others just seem to go on and on. "Groovy," for instance, has had at least three incarnations. First heard as a jazz musicians' term of approval in the 1950's, "groovy" later became perhaps the most widely known, and parodied, exclamation of the hippie era, but fell into disuse after about 1970. Now it seems that "groovy" has surfaced again in the lingo of youth, which is good news for those of us who forgot to stop saying it in 1970.

"Gig," on the other hand, has remained in fairly constant use since it first appeared in its slang sense among jazz musicians in the mid-1920's. Meaning, as you say, a musician's "date" or engagement to play, "gig" is actually both a noun and a verb, though it's more common to hear a musician speak of "playing a gig" than "gigging." Though a "steady gig" is prized in the notoriously unpredictable life of a musician, the word itself carries overtones of the short-term "one-night stand." Reflecting its roots in jazz, "gig" is almost exclusively used by jazz, pop or rock musicians -- cellists play recitals or engagements, not "gigs."

Most dictionaries say that the origin of "gig" in this sense is unknown, but it really doesn't seem that great a mystery. Appearing in English in the 15th century, "gig" meant something that spins, as in "whirligig." Subsequent meanings included "joke," "merriment" and (aha!) "dance." Since playing at parties and dances is every musician's meal ticket early in their career, it's easy to see how "gig" became generalized to mean any paying job.


Mayday! Mayhem!

Dear Evan: Can you tell me the origin of "mayhem"? I have bet one of my co- workers that it is related to "mayday," a cry for help. -- L. Kotula, New York City.

First, the bad news -- you lost your bet. There is no connection between "mayhem" and "mayday." "Mayhem," meaning "the infliction of violent injury on a person or thing," comes from the Anglo-Norman "maihem," or injury, which also gave us "maim." In fact, for much of their history in English since the 13th century, "maim" and "mayhem" have been nearly interchangeable words. One could "mayhem" one's neighbor, who would then have a "maim," or lasting wound or injury.

In modern use, however, "maim" has survived solely as a verb and "mayhem" as a noun, meaning the act of "maiming" someone. While "mayhem" retains the narrow sense of "serious bodily harm" in legal terminology, popular usage has broadened its meaning to cover any sort of riotous disorder or havoc.

The victim of mayhem might shout "mayday," although a simple "help!" would be more effective, and never realize that he or she was speaking French. "Mayday," which is the international radio distress call used by ships and airplanes, is actually an Anglicized form of the French "m'aider," which means "help me." The original phrase was "venez m'aider," which means "come help me," but the "mayday" version probably gained currency because of its distinctive sound, easily recognized above the static and noise of long-distance radio transmissions. Of course, the fact that the French word for "help me" happened to sound like our English "Mayday," a traditional celebration of the coming of Spring held on May 1st, helped speed its adoption.

While we're on the subject of distress calls, here's a little bonus fact for you. The letters "SOS," the international Morse Code distress signal, does not stand for "Save Our Souls," "Save Our Ship," or any of the other variations on that theme one commonly hears. "SOS" doesn't stand for anything -- it was picked as a distress signal because it is easily remembered.

Pipsqueaks Unite!

Dear Evan: I was reminiscing with my older brother recently, and he reminded me that when we were both considerably younger, he used to call me "pipsqueak." I remember knowing instinctively what he meant at the time, but neither of us can figure out exactly where the word might have come from. Can you help? -- Brian Martin, Columbus, OH.

Time heals all wounds, doesn't it? As the youngest of six children, I am intimately familiar with the vernacular of sibling debasement, by which I mean that my brothers and sisters almost convinced me, at one point in my childhood, that my proper name was "Squirt." "Pipsqueak," meaning "a weak, insignificant or pathetic person," is a bit harsher than "squirt," but since you and your brother are still speaking, the damage evidently wasn't irreparable.

Opinions on the origin of "pipsqueak" vary quite a bit. The late John Ciardi, a gifted poet and etymologist who sometimes went a bit too far out on a limb, traced the term to a small German artillery shell of World War I. This "pipsqeak" projectile supposedly made a "squeaking" sound before the "pip" of its explosion. However, a definitive refutation of this theory comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which documents the earliest use of "pipsqueak" as being in 1910, several years before World War I. I'm actually glad that this theory was disproved by that citation, because it seems very unlikely that anyone who had heard an artillery shell explode would describe the sound as a "pip."

Most likely, "pipsqueak" is what linguists call an "echoic" word -- a word that imitates the sound of something, like "bang" or "whoosh." "Squeak" itself is an "echoic" word, as anyone with squeaky shoes can attest. "Pip" has long been used to mean very small things, from the seeds of an apple to the little marks on playing cards. In fact, "pip" was originally a variant of "peep," the sound a baby bird makes. "Pipsqueak" thus perfectly describes the "squeak" a "pip" might make under stress, and as one younger brother to another, we know the meaning of "stress," don't we?


Dear Evan: I read your column a while back about "disgruntled" and I have a question. You said that "disgruntled" didn't mean "not gruntled," but rather "extremely gruntled" or very annoyed, because "dis" in that case was an "intensifier." How about "nonplussed"? "Non" clearly means "not," so shouldn't there be a word "plussed," meaning "calm"? -- Edith Freedle, via the Internet.

Perhaps there should be, but there isn't. Sometimes, it is true, we can trace a word's evolution by analyzing its prefixes, such as "dis" or "non." But in many cases the whole is greater than the sum of the parts -- when we take the word apart, the pieces don't make sense by themselves. Such is the case with "nonplussed," which means "perplexed" or "stymied" and comes to us directly from the Latin phrase "non plus." You're correct that "non" means "not" or "no," and "plus" means "more" or "in addition to," so the whole phrase, translated literally, simply means "no more."

But "nonplussed" means more than this simple translation from Latin, and here's where the word transcends its roots. "Nonplussed" describes that state of confusion, frustration or astonishment when there is "no more," nothing, that can be done -- when we are incapable of further action and, most likely, at a loss for words. To say that someone was "plussed" would be meaningless, since the sense of the phrase is destroyed once you take it apart. All of which, for some reason, reminds me of an episode of the old Mary Tyler Moore TV show, wherein Lou Grant (Ed Asner) uses the French phrase "sans souci" (meaning "carefree"). Questioned as to its meaning, Lou, who knows virtually no French, stumbles and stammers and finally grumbles, "I dunno. Without 'souci,' I suppose." At least now we all know that "nonplussed" means more than "not plussed."


Rule(s) of Thumb

Dear Evan: We are wondering where the phrase "Rule of Thumb" came from. Please help! We have checked the dictionary, thesaurus, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's book "Elements of Style", and the internet -- to no avail. If you can tell us this information we would be grateful. -- Jan Benintendi, via the Internet.

Hereby hangs a tale (possibly even a tale and a half). The phrase "rule of thumb" is notable today, not for its real origin, but for a modern myth of its origin. Supposedly, under English common law in the 17th century, the original "rule of thumb" allowed a man to beat his wife with a switch on the condition that the switch be no thicker than his thumb. Thus, it is said, the phrase is inherently oppressive and offensive and should never be used.

Now, while I believe this story to be untrue, the general question of "hidden" offensiveness in idioms is a legitimate one. Many of our words and phrases are painfully potent reminders of attitudes and practices of the past that we find reprehensible today. On the other hand, some of our idioms have traveled so far from their nefarious origins as to have earned a reprieve. Thus, a phrase such as "indian giver" may rightly still be considered offensive today, while "gyp" has largely lost its overtones of the once-common prejudice against gypsies. There is no simple rule for deciding whether a phrase has lost its sting -- only our reasonable sensitivity and good will tempered by a healthy resistance to the shrieking paranoia so commonly found in discussions of language these days.

In this case, the issue is moot, because the "sexist origin" of this phrase is almost certainly pure invention. "Rule of thumb" probably came from the use of the thumb as a convenient measuring tool, the distance to the first knuckle usually being about one inch. Even "The Bias-Free Word Finder," the bible of the Politically Correct Language Guardians among us, considers the wife-beating theory implausible and notes that it first surfaced in a 1986 letter to the editor in "Ms." magazine. So I guess the first "rule of thumb" in these cases is "Check your sources, lest they be hokum."

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