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Flummox & Flabbergast

What the heck it meant.

Dear Word Detective: I saw this on your web page and wondered what the heck it meant: “Flummoxed by flabbergast?” Now, I know what “flabbergast” means, but “flummoxed”? Please let me know. — Gary.

Golly, it sounds to me as if you’re flummoxed by “flummox.” I’d say I was flabbergasted, but that would be pushing things.

You, Gary, may know what “flabbergast” means, but we should take a moment to bring everyone else up to speed. Dating to the 18th century and most likely a combination of “flabby” or “flap” and “aghast,” the logic underlying “flabbergast,” meaning “extremely frightened or surprised,” is a bit obscure. My guess is that “flabbergast” was originally intended to conjure up visions of someone so terrified or astonished that they trembled like a bowl of Jell-O. “Flabby,” incidentally, is closely related to the old word “flappy” — to say someone is flabby is to say that they “flap” when they move, which is enough to send anyone to the gym

“Flummoxed” folks aren’t frightened or surprised, just perplexed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “flummox” probably comes from an English dialect and is related to the dialectical word “flummock,” meaning to confuse or bewilder. The Oxford Dictionary theorizes that “flummox” may be “onomatopoeic,” meaning that it arose because it imitates the sound of throwing something down “roughly and untidily.” Personally, I’d have though “thud” would be a better imitation of that sort of sound, but “flummox” is much more fun to say, so I won’t look that particular gift horse in the mouth.



Phasers on stun.

Dear Word Detective: Request origin of the word “Dixie.” — Clayton Yost.

A man of few words, aren’t we? I must admit that I was tempted to skip your question because it sounded a bit too much like Captain Kirk talking to the computer on Star Trek (“Computer: request distance to the Beta Carotene system.”). Then again, you do have the same last name as my book agent, so I’ll let it slide. On such gossamer threads does our fate depend, as S.J. Perelman once noted.

Besides, your question is a good one. So good, in fact, that I have not one, not two, but three dandy answers for you, and you get to choose the one that strikes your fancy.

The first theory is rated as the least likely by Hugh Rawson in his book “Devious Derivations,” but considered entirely plausible by Robert Hendrickson in his “Whistlin’ Dixie — A Dictionary of Southern Expressions.” The original “Dixie,” goes this theory, was actually Johan Dixie (or Dixy), a Manhattan slave owner (yes, there were such things) in the 1800’s. With the abolition of slavery in the northern states, Dixie, known as a decent slave owner (a debatable concept, to put it mildly), had to send his slaves to the South. Faced with harsher treatment in the South, the slaves remembered “Dixieland” (later shortened to just “Dixie”) as a land of contentment. As unlikely as this story seems (it makes New York City the original “Dixieland,” after all), newspaper accounts published in the same period indicate that it may actually be true.

Second up is the somewhat less glamorous theory that “Dixie” may have arisen as a shortening of “Mason-Dixon Line,” the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland regarded as the geographical boundary between the North and South before the Civil War.

The third (and in my humble opinion most likely) theory is that “Dixie” comes from the French word “dix” (ten), which appeared on bilingual banknotes issued in New Orleans before the Civil War. These notes were used as currency throughout the South and may have been known as “Dixies.” If so, describing the South as “Dixieland” would have been natural.


Funny, I always thought it referred to 86 talking kangaroos.

Dear Word Detective: Ok, I’ve got a term I already know the meaning of, but am still unsure about the origin of — the term “86.” I know that the meaning is two things (mostly dealing with bars and restaurants): out of something in the kitchen (“We’re 86 on Lettuce!”), and being kicked out for being disorderly or drunk. I understood from a few years ago that the origin of the phrase is back in old New York (like early 1900’s). When they started just building bars and houses and apartments pretty much alike, the city code guys would figure all bars were the same, and therefore warranted the same maximum occupancy … you guessed it … 85. Therefore, Mr. 86 was, well, “86’ed.” If you have any other possible clues on this, I would be appreciative. I know you’re the Word Detective, but why not numbers, too? — Alan Wieding.

Why not numbers, indeed? Except, of course, that I have a long-standing pathological fear of numbers. That’s why I have so much trouble turning in my income tax forms — I can’t even stand to look at them, much less mail them. I’ll get to your question in a moment, by the way. I’m busy establishing an alibi here.

The theory you’ve heard about “86” is certainly entertaining, but is unsubstantiated and probably not true. Fortunately, there are lots of other theories. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence supporting them, either. What we do know is that “86” first appeared as “kitchen slang” meaning “out of that item” in the 1930’s, and fairly quickly came to mean “stop serving that customer” as well. Eventually, “86” spread to general usage, where it came to mean simply “dismiss” or “quash” (“The boss 86’ed my proposal for beer in the lunchroom”).

The theory with the most logic behind it is that “86” began as rhyming slang code of the sort found in London’s Cockney underworld of the 19th century. As “trouble and strife” meant “wife” in rhyming slang, “86” may have stood for “nix” — “nix” meaning “nothing” or “to dismiss.” How “86” then ended up in U.S. restaurants is a bit of a puzzle, but I’m afraid it’s the best theory anyone has come up with so far.