Hoosiers, Macaroni, Pariahizing (sic), Roasting vs. Baking, Flying Spatchcocks, and a Ride on the Turnip Truck


Dear Evan: I would like to know if you have any information on the origin of the word "Hoosier". What does it mean? Where did it come from? Why do we call people from Indiana "Hoosiers"? -- Becky Romine, via the Internet.

It's difficult to tell precisely where, geographically, questions are coming from when they arrive here via the Internet, but, after examining the cryptic strings of computerese that accompanied your message, I have deduced that you live in Missouri. Your state of residence is, of course, largely irrelevant to your question, but I like to figure out this sort of thing just to pass the time while I wait for my cat to research the answer to your question. Aha, here he comes now.

It seems, I am told, that your third question actually answers your first. "Hoosier" is simply a nickname for a resident of Indiana, and has no other meaning. The origins of "hoosier" are, if not totally obscure, uncertain at best. The Oxford English Dictionary lets it go at "origin unknown," but elsewhere speculation abounds. "Hoosier" first appeared in the early 19th century, when Indiana was considered "the frontier." Throughout what was then "the West," any man who could outrun, out-drink and outfight any opponent was known as a "husher," from his ability to silence his foes. "Husher," in fact, was a common synonym for "bully" throughout the Western Territories. The bargemen of Indiana who plied their trade up and down the Mississippi were known as an especially combative breed, often turning their visits to ports such as New Orleans into impromptu mass boxing matches. It is said that the reputation of these bare-fisted ambassadors of pugilism earned the nickname "husher" for their home territory of Indiana. By the mid-19th century, the word had mutated to "hoosier," and, in a curious turnabout, had come to be a popular synonym for "hick" or "rube." Since the turn of the century, "hoosier" has lost both of its former connotations and been a neutral, if somewhat mysterious, term for anyone from Indiana.

Macaroni Baloney

Dear Evan: I recently came across the following story of the origin of the word "macaroni" in a cookbook (The New Basics Cookbook, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, Workman Publishing, 1989):

"Legend has it that in the late thirteenth century, German bakers made large figures out of noodle dough in the shape of men, stars, birds, and seashells, which they called collectively 'doughmen.' The bakers went to Genoa, Italy, to sell their product, but the Italians found them too expensive and exclaimed 'ma caroni,' meaning 'But it's too dear.' So the Germans reduced the size, and with the size, the price. They made a bundle and the name stuck."

I was wondering whether this story was true or not. It sounds a little bit fanciful to me. -- Edith Freedle, New York, NY.

A little bit fanciful? That's putting it mildly. That story is complete hogwash. I am always amazed, incidentally, by the willingness of otherwise respectable publishing houses to include preposterous stories of word origins in their books without doing the most elementary fact-checking. If I were writing a book on language and halfway through I wrote "Oh, and by the way, pot roast was invented by Martians," the publisher would take it right out, but let some cookbook writer start spouting utter rubbish on word origins and no one bats an eyelash.

I don't know what (if anything) "ma caroni" means in Italian, but our word "macaroni" comes from the old Italian word "maccaroni," meaning, not surprisingly, good old-fashioned macaroni. I say "old Italian word," because English borrowed "macaroni" from Italian back in the 16th century, and the modern Italian word for macaroni is "maccheroni." The ultimate root of all these words was the Greek "makaria," meaning "food made from barley." And if you can find any German bakers or expressions of dismay over noodle prices in that explanation, you've got better eyesight than I do.


Dear Evan: In the February 5 issue of the New Republic, a reader writes in and says, "We have no evidence that the persistent patterns of pariahizing African- Americans -- marginalizing and victimizing their life chances -- will be better understood and thus altered by not naming them for what they are: racist". My question is whether there is really such a word as "pariahizing" -- and, if so, how in the world would one pronounce it? -- George Bower, via the Internet.

My question is why anyone in the world would write a sentence like that one in the first place. I had to read it twice just to figure out what the author was trying to say, and the whole sentence seems designed to induce a particularly unpleasant feeling of vertigo in the reader.

To quote the late and very much lamented "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, "Verbing weirds language," and that's what is going on in that sentence. And not just once -- perhaps to bolster his or her confidence in venturing the absurd "pariahizing," the writer has invoked the more common "marginalizing" as well as the good old- fashioned "victimizing."

Is "pariahizing" a word (presumably meaning to regard or treat someone as a "pariah," or outcast)? Not yet, but if enough people use it, "pariahize" will make it into standard dictionaries (whose job it is to recognize and define, not necessarily approve, the words that people actually use). Do I like it? No, and not simply because it is so ugly (I suppose you'd pronounce it "puh-ry-ah-eyz" if you had to). When we turn nouns and adjectives into substitutes for verbs, we lose some important information. If I "treat" someone as a pariah, that is slightly different from (and more forceful than) simply "regarding" that person as a pariah. But when I "pariahize" a person, what, precisely, am I doing? This sort of "verbing" doesn't just "weird" language, it clouds the meaning of the words themselves.

I'll Just Stick With Frying, Thanks

Dear Evan: Why do we, in the US at least, "roast pork" but "bake ham", and never "roast ham" or "bake pork", when the cooking method is the same (dry heat)? We also "roast beef" whereas "baked beef" sounds odd. I know the answer, generally, but unfortunately I lost the article with the source of the information. -- Sue Ford, via the Internet.

It's a shame, actually, that you didn't ask this question last year, when I was a vegetarian. Back then I could have huffily climbed up on my high horse and ridden off into the sunset of self-righteousness without answering your question. Not that I don't want to answer your question, you understand. It's just that finding the answer took a bit of searching.

The real question here is why "to roast" is not considered a synonym of "to bake." Both, according to standard dictionaries, refer to the process of cooking something with dry heat, usually in an oven. Most vexatious. After a few minutes spent prowling the shelves in my study, however, I came across a handy little volume called "The International Dictionary of Food and Cooking" by Ruth Martin (Hastings House Publishers, 1974), which seems to clear things up. According to Ms. Martin, roasting is "to cook food in an oven or on a spit ... so that the inner juices are sealed by the outer coating being heated and forming a crust." Extrapolating from this definition just a bit, I think we can conclude that pork is "roasted" because it as it cooks it forms an outer crust that baked ham lacks (probably because most hams we "cook" are already cooked). The same goes for roast beef -- it's all in the crust.

That crust, come to think of it, is also the difference between a run-of-the-mill cake (which has been merely "baked") and my "roasted" specialty, Cajun-style Blackened Angel Food. I've only cooked it once, but everyone in my family remembers it.


It's a Bird, It's a Plane....

Dear Evan: Maybe you can answer a question I've had for years. Years ago, I read in an Australian women's magazine the word "spatchcock." It was in a column devoted to embarrassing stories that readers sent in, and this woman wrote of her mortification when her spatchcock fell out while she was eating lunch in a restaurant. It certainly sounds embarrassing, but what is it? I have never found this word in a dictionary. Did I remember it incorrectly? Is there no such word? -- Kathleen Stacey, via the Internet.

Been brooding over "spatchcock" for years, have we? Always in the back of the mind, floating up at odd moments on elevators and while brushing the morning teeth? I know what you mean. I've long been plagued by the fear that when it comes time to utter my portentous last words -- my personal "Rosebud," if you will -- that instead I'll break into a terminal rendition of that horrid "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't" jingle. It seems to be the only truly constant thing in my mind.

According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a "spatchcock" is simply "a chicken or especially a game-bird split open and grilled after a simple and speedy method of preparation." In other words, lunch. The origin of "spatchcock" seems to be under debate. The folks at Oxford think it's Irish, and a combination of "dispatch" (as in "quick") and "cock," but the Random House Webster's College Dictionary dismisses that theory and ties the word to "spitchcock," a dish made with fried eels. Even if one likes fried eels (which I do not), this isn't very useful because no one seems to know where "spitchcock" came from, either.

It's hard to imagine a spatchcock "falling out" (where would it be falling out from?), so perhaps you've mis-remembered that part of the story. Presuming the spatchcock was on the lady's plate, she may have made too sudden a cut with her knife and launched her lunch into the air or onto the floor, which would have been embarrassing indeed.

Of Turnips and Trucks

Dear Evan: I've heard the phrase "I didn't just fall off of the turnip truck" used in similiar situations as "I wasn't born yesterday." I used the "turnip truck" phrase with some friends who had never heard it. That prompted mindless speculation on the origin of the phrase. Do you know how the phrase came about? Thanks. -- Dave Rouse, via the Internet.

First, let me take a moment to caution you and your friends. "Mindless speculation" is a very delicate and potentially dangerous endeavor best left to trained professionals. Those of us who do it for a living have seen far too many cases of amateurs who set out to do a little innocent mindless speculating and wind up convincing themselves that "posh" is an acronym for "port out, starboard home." Don't let this happen to you.

Onward. I've never heard the particular phrase "I didn't just fall off of the turnip truck," but it certainly seems to be a good example of an entire class of catch phrases based on urban-rural rivalry. The thrust of such phrases is, of course, that "I am not a fool or a newcomer," and, in this case, that "I am not an ignorant country bumpkin who just arrived in the big city on a truck full of lowly turnips that I was dumb enough, on top of everything else, to fall off of." This image of a bewildered hayseed ripe for fleecing by urban con artists is a close relative of more general phrases used to assert one's "insider status" and thus intelligence or savvy. The United States being a nation largely composed of immigrants, it's not surprising that the all-time most commonly heard phrase of this type is "I didn't just get off the boat."

I don't think that the phrase you mention "came from" any particular incident or practice. Chances are that whoever thought it up was casting about for a metaphor for rural life, and the humorous image (as well as the alliteration) of "turnip truck" filled the bill.

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