Gyp, Hoosier Again, Indian Giver, Kemosabe, Spendthrift, Stark, and a Hard-Boiled Yankee.
Most things are, ultimately, Janis Joplin's fault.
Dear Mr. Morris: Merriam-Webster's gives the following dates for "gyp" and "rip off": gyp (noun) 1750, gyp (verb) 1880, rip off (transitive verb) 1967, rip-off (noun) 1969. The definitions are different, but the fading usage of "gyp" and the rise of "rip-off" leads me to believe that one has pretty much replaced the other.
Since the socially aware '60s, anyone who used the word "gyp" has been suspected of being prejudiced against a certain European ethnic group, so a replacement had to be found. The unknown Beatnik or Hippie who coined the phrase "rip off" might have been inspired by the act of quickly grabbing something and running off with it. Maybe the originator was also a thief, shoplifter or pickpocket! But where did the usage start? Perhaps London, or Venice Beach, or Haight-Ashbury?
In America, usage of the noun "rip-off" was boosted tremendously when Janis Joplin said it one night on the Dick Cavett Show. The immediate reaction of the show's live audience revealed that it was the first time they had ever heard this odd but very descriptive bit of slang, and the millions of TV viewers probably reacted the same way.
I would appreciate any help in tracking down the earliest known usage of the phrase "rip off." -- Brian Kraft, via the Internet.
For the benefit of readers who may be a bit confused by your reference to "a certain European ethnic group," I should explain that we're talking about Gypsies (so-called, incidentally, because they were originally erroneously thought to have come from Egypt). The only real contribution I can make to your thesis is to note that most sources identify "rip off" as originating in the Black community sometime during the 1960s. It was certainly popularized in Middle America by the late-1960s hippie culture (along with many other items of Black slang), but I doubt that anyone adopted the term as a conscious "replacement" for "gyp." I think "gyp" has simply faded as people became more aware of the hurtful potential of some ethnically-biased slang words and phrases -- the same fate that befell "Indian giver," "welsh" and other phrases of that ilk.
Dear Evan, I graduated from Kokomo High School, in Kokomo Indiana. In my junior year, I took a class in Indiana History. We were taught that the nickname "Hoosier" came from soldiers standing guard, when they heard somebody coming they would yell out "Who's there, who's there." Due to their accent it sounded like "Who's thar," hence came the word "Hoosier." Anyway this is what was in our history book. Thought I'd let you know. -- Jackie Johnson, via the Internet.
Readers who have actually been reading this column (as opposed to forwarding it directly to their parakeets, for instance) will remember that a few months ago I received a letter from a woman asking about a word origin story she had heard on Martha Stewart's TV show. I noted at the time that "colorful word origins" were cropping up in the oddest places these days, and that the only problem with this was that no one ever seemed to check whether the colorful stories were, in fact, true. This one about "Hoosier," for instance, is not even remotely true, yet it makes it into a history textbook. Your tax dollars at work yet again, folks.
For the benefit of those readers whose dogs ate the paper the day I explained "Hoosier" a while back, here is the generally accepted origin of the word: "Hoosier" first appeared in the early 19th century, when Indiana was still 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," the fistfights were forgotten, and Indiana has been the Hoosier State ever since.
They can have Manhattan back anytime they want it.
Dear Evan: What is the origin of the phrase "Indian giver"? When did it come about? Did it always imply that the giver was duplicitous? I can think of several alternate original meanings. For example, it could have been a white description of native North American potlatch ritualistic giving and receiving (albeit misunderstood), and in this sense, an evaluatively neutral description. Or, it could have been a pejorative referring to whites' practices of "giving" something to the Indians and then taking it back when the land became needed. Or, it could reflect and essentially neutral description of the whites' interpretation of native's unfamiliarity with the conventions of bourgeois private property, as imported from Europe and imposed on this continent. -- Dan Poor, New York City.
Y'know, I don't think I've ever received a question that contained the word "bourgeois" before. Reminds me of the day back in 1969 (oh boy, here he goes again), when a friend of mine decided to shave off his mustache because it was, in his words, a "bourgeois affectation." Yeah, right. This from someone who carried a tattered but utterly unread copy of "Being and Nothingness" everywhere he went for three solid years.
Surveying the various explanations for "Indian giver" you offer, I'd say the truth contains a bit of all three. The phrase dates back to the early 19th century and originally meant someone who gives a gift in the expectation of receiving something of greater value in return, which was indeed a custom among Indians that must have struck early European settlers as rather odd. Later on, the phrase came to mean a "false gift," as the adjective "Indian" itself took on the pejorative meaning of "false" or "mock," a sense also found in "Indian Summer" and "Indian corn." While it's true that the European settlers had a far worse reputation when it came to trustworthiness than the Indians did, the victors in history usually get to make up the idioms, so it's doubtful that "Indian giver" refers to the manner in which the settlers treated the Indians. It would be a quite a stretch to credit 19th century European settlers with the honesty to have recognized that they, and not the Indians, were the "Indian givers" in most cases.
No Klingon ever called me Tonto.
Dear Mr. Morris: What, please, is the origin of Tonto's phrase "Kemo Sabay"? Thank you -- Eoin Bairéad, Dublin, Ireland
I must say that I really like everything about your question -- its brevity, the revelation that people in Ireland sit around watching The Lone Ranger, everything. Hi ho, as they say, Silver! But before we cut to the chase on the question of "kemosabe" (which is the usual spelling), allow me a short digression. While discussing your question with a friend of mine, I suddenly had a blinding revelation. My insight was that the Lone Ranger's faithful Indian companion Tonto, as played by Jay Silverheels in the TV series, was (ready for this?) the behavioral model for Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series. Think about it -- am I right or am I right? Wow. I should teach courses in Television Theory.
Meanwhile, back at your question, there's been a bit of debate over the years as to what, if anything, "kemosabe" means, not to mention what language it is in the first place. According to the New York Public Library Book of Answers (Prentice Hall, 1990), what Tonto meant by "kemosabe" was "faithful friend." I don't know exactly where the NYPL got their information, but it always struck me that it was Tonto himself, not the Lone Ranger, who was the "faithful friend," having to save the Ranger's bacon nearly every week. Maybe if the Lone Ranger hadn't been wearing that silly mask he wouldn't have gotten himself into so many jams, eh? Seems to me that Tonto's job description usually boiled down to "untying knots."
The NYPL also notes that "kemosabe" is an actual word in two Native American languages. In Apache, it means "white shirt." Who knows -- maybe Tonto also had to do the Ranger's laundry and was actually constantly reminding him to avoid grass stains. In Navajo, on the other hand, "kemosabe" translates as "soggy shrub." If this seems an odd thing for faithful friend Tonto to call the Lone Ranger, perhaps he was just repaying the Ranger's long-standing insult. "Tonto," after all, is a Spanish word meaning "stupid."
It didn't cost anything. I charged it.
Dear Evan: I just found out this week that several people have a different concept of the meaning of the word "spendthrift." After shopping with a friend, I came home and mentioned to my husband that the girl was a spendthrift. He took it to mean thrifty in her spending whereas I meant it to mean a big spender (spending her thrift, so to speak). The dictionary proved me to be right, but I began asking people what the word meant to them and found several people had to stop and think about it, or had the incorrect meaning as did my husband. Have you found this word to be a problem? Try asking people and see if you get similar results. -- Ginger Kinion, via the Internet.
Well, I did try the experiment you suggested, and I must say that the results were indeed surprising. Keep in mind, however, that I live in New York City, Paranoia Capitol of the World, so that fact may have colored the responses of my experimental subjects. In any case, my query to passersby, "What does the word 'spendthrift' mean to you?" garnered four replies of "Am I on TV?" and six of "Get away from me," as well as one offer of a free boxing lesson right there on the corner of 82nd Street and Broadway. The only definite conclusion I was able to draw from my little experiment was that it might be a good idea to move to Iowa.
I have no doubt that if I asked a group of more normal people your question I would receive replies that bear out your theory about the general confusion over what a "spendthrift" is. As it happens, your understanding of the basic logic of the word ("spending her thrift") is right on the money. The confusion arises because most folks today are not used to seeing "thrift" used in the archaic sense it is in "spendthrift," where it means "wealth" or "substance." Such a person also used to be called a "scattergood."
Stark raving nekkid.
Dear Evan: Recently, you were kind enough to elucidate upon the possible origin of the phrase "naked as a jaybird." I have a related query. As a young lad, I was tortured by a variety of unsavory youths who found it clever to repeat the phrase "stark naked" at and around me as much as possible. As you can guess from my name, this drove me more than a little nuts. Now that I'm older and my friends are a little more cognizant of my feelings, I thankfully don't hear that dreaded phrase much anymore, at least not directed at me. But when I do hear it occasionally, I still cringe. Any clue where this most hated expression originated? Hopefully, it did not begin as a direct result of any of my relatives' behavior. -- Steven Stark, New York City.
Gee, don't you mean "hopably"? Just kidding.
I've always wondered whether it's better to have a name that everyone recognizes and makes fun of, such as yours, or one that strikes other kids as extremely strange, such as mine. Even several of my teachers insisted that I was mistaken and that my name must be "Kevin." Now that my name is newly trendy, I suppose people will be as sick of "Evans" in twenty years as they are of "Heathers" now.
Oh yes, you had a question. "Stark naked," is it? Well, as a distinct phrase, it's been around since the early 16th century. In Great Britain, someone appearing in public clad only in his or her birthday suit is said to be "starkers" (and, of course, is often addressed as "Your Highness").
"Stark" in this context has nothing to do with your name. It comes originally from the Old Norse, meaning "strong" or "stiff," from which we derived its modern meanings of "utter" and "complete" -- whence came "stark naked." Your name, in fact, may well be based on the original sense of the word -- perhaps your ancestors were known as "Stark" because they were strong, resolute and fearless. So chin up, old boy. Get out there and conquer the world. But put on some clothes first, OK?
Farewell, My Lovely Sanity
Dear Mr. Morris: How about the word "yank" or "yankee" -- where and how did that originate? -- Jeff Tregoning, via the Internet.
The Word Detective slowly climbed the long flight of stairs to his small office in a dingy building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Wearily, he slumped into his worn desk chair, casually tossed his fedora out the window and retrieved a dusty bottle from the bottom drawer of his battered desk. Brushing aside a pile of worn-out adverbs, he poured himself a double shot of Old Webster's. "It's the simple questions," he remarked to the large orange cat, awakened from his all-day nap atop a pile of dictionaries, "The simple questions that really drive a guy nuts."
"Listen to this one," he continued after pausing to refill his glass. "This guy writes me with a question, a slow-pitch softball question, the kind of question any two-bit hick etymologist should be able to answer with a Golden Book Children's Dictionary and a box of crayons."
He rubbed his eyes. "Where does 'yankee' come from, the guy asks me. Piece of cake, right? I check the dictionaries. First the little ones, then the big ones, then the really obscure ones. Dictionaries of Scottish farm terminology, Panamanian gamblers' lingo, The Girl Guides Glossary, everywhere, but the cupboard is bare as my bank account in January. Not a clue. I ask around. No dice. Nobody knows. They figure it first showed up in America around the time of the Revolutionary War, but past that the trail goes cold. Nada. Zippo. I spend all day plowing through every library in town and all I've got to show for it is a bunch of half-baked theories and a headache the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. The twenty-volume edition."
The cat cleared his throat hesitantly, then suggested, "But what about the Indians? Wasn't there supposedly a Yanko tribe or a word in Cherokee that sounded like 'yankee'?"
"Hogwash," the Word Detective snarled, "Total rubbish. No such tribe, no such word. File not found. Likewise the bit about it being from the Persian word for 'warlike man.' That turned out to be a joke some mug was playing on Noah Webster."
He reached for the bottle again but the cat got there first and drained it. He pretended not to notice. After all, the cat worked cheap.
Night was coming. The Word Detective lit a cigarette, then thought better of it and tossed it into a box of reader mail sitting in the corner.
The cat sighed, then brightened. "What about 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'? Maybe the word came from the song."
"Fuggeddaboudit, chum," the Detective smiled ironically, "You're thinking cats before kittens. Word first, then song. The only thing interesting about that song is that the Redcoats used to sing it to razz the Colonists. But after the Minutemen whipped King George at Lexington and Concord, the Colonists decided to sing the song themselves. By the time we got to Yorktown, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' had turned into a swan song for the Brits."
The cat laid down ponderously, fell asleep briefly, and promptly rolled off the edge of the desk.
"While you're down there," said the Word Detective, "see if you can find me a time machine. Without one of those, I think we may just be out of luck. This is one tough nut to crack."
"The only theory I've heard that even comes close," he continued as the cat pulled himself up from the floor, "is the one about the early Dutch settlers around New York calling the English 'Jan Kees,' or 'John Cheese,' their idea of an deadly insult. Go figure. I guess you had to be there."
The cat looked puzzled, then asked, "But how did we get from the Dutch calling the British 'John Cheese' to the Brits calling the Colonists 'yankees'?"
With a look of quiet determination, the Word Detective rose from his desk and headed toward the door. "That's what I aim to nail down right now, Bucko," he said, glancing around the office, "just as soon as I find my hat."
Take me back to the main Word Detective page.
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