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Iditarod / Mush

Mushy stuff.

Dear WD: I would like to know the origin of the word “Iditarod.” I understand that the word for road in Latin is “iter,” hence my confusion. Hope you can help. — Sally Lennard.

Marcel Proust I’m not (in case you were wondering, what with my languid gaze, dissolute habits and all), but your question unleashed a veritable torrent of reminiscences for me. I remembered Eskie, the Alaskan Husky that a friend of my parents had bestowed on our suburban family when I was young. I remembered trying to get Eskie to pull a toboggan loaded with my friends, all of us shouting “Mush! Mush!” with absolutely no effect. And then I remembered that Michael Raynor, a faithful reader, has been asking me to explain the origins of “mush” for the past two years. So now I have two questions to answer.

Unfortunately, “Iditarod,” the name of an annual dogsled race in Alaska, has yet to make it into any dictionary I own. However, since I am writing this column just as this year’s Iditarod gets started, I decided to do some poking around the World Wide Web in search of an answer to your question. According to one Web site I found, “Iditarod” comes from the Native Alaskan word “hidehod,” which means “distant or distant place.” Sounds good to me.

As to “mush,” the command supposedly used to get the dogs to actually pull the sled (yeah, right), the Oxford English Dictionary maintains that it comes from the French “marchez,” the imperative form of “marcher,” to advance. Maybe my dog Eskie flunked French. Incidentally, although travel by dogsled is indeed known as “mushing” up in Alaska, I’ve also learned that most sled drivers do not actually say “mush” to the dogs. They say “hike” to get the dogs going, “gee” for a right turn, “haw” for a left, and “easy” to stop. We learn something new every day, don’t we? I think I’m gonna try this method on the next New York City cab driver I encounter.

Cocktail / Cock and Bull Story

Set ’em up.

Dear Word Detective: I teach Latin and a regular feature of my class is English word study. When possible, I try to liven up discussions on word stems, etc., with stories. Today, as we were reading a story (in Latin) about Europa and the bull (Jupiter), I remembered the expression “a cock and bull story.” After the translation was finished, I asked the class if they knew the expression, and they didn’t, so I explained it to them and got a few lively responses in turn. One student raised a clever question — he wanted to know whether the Cock pub was connected with the origin of the word “cocktail.” I said that I doubted it, but would try to find out. I checked a couple of dictionaries in the library — to no avail. Can you help? — Mary Ann Eiler.

Perhaps. But first, a brief aside. I infer from your narrative that you told your students that “cock and bull story,” meaning a preposterous tale, has something to do with a pub named “The Cock,” or perhaps “The Cock and Bull.” About the best that can be said for that story is that it is not absolutely impossible. Far more likely, however, is that “cock and bull” refers to the tradition of populating parables with talking animals — thus, a “cock and bull story” would be a tale as ludicrous as one of Aesop’s fables.

As to the origin of “cocktail,” I’d have been very surprised had you found a definitive answer in the library, because there isn’t one. There so many unproven theories, however, that one of them almost must be true, although H.L. Mencken judged them all “fishy.”

Leaving aside the theories that link the word to the West African word “kaketal” (scorpion, because of its “sting”), or depend on Aztec princesses named “Xoctil,” or involve implausible stories of drinks stirred with rooster tails, we are left with my favorite, which has the virtue of making sense. A “cocktailed horse” is one whose tail has been bobbed, giving it a jaunty and flamboyant look. It seems reasonable that the “cocktail” took its name from the drink’s alcoholic wallop, sufficient to “cock the tail” (or “knock the socks off”) of an unwary patron.

Not enough room to swing a cat

Here Kitty, Kitty.

Dear WD: When my parents recently came to visit me in my somewhat cramped New York City apartment, I overheard my father say that there was “”. I’ll admit that technically he may have been right, but it seems like a rather brutal metaphor. Where did it come from? — B. Smith, NY, NY

Y’know, I’m getting a little tired of out-of-towners expressing shock at the size of the average New York City apartment. We happen to like them this way, thank you very much. There are definite advantages to having everything you own in one tiny, dark room. You never have to stand up to get something out of the refrigerator, for one thing, and many apartments actually have bathtubs in the kitchen, which is very convenient if your dinner guests are about to arrive and you’re still cooking. If you lived in New York City, that last point would make perfect sense to you. Scary, isn’t it?

There are two theories about “not enough room to swing a cat,” neither of them very cheerful. One is that the phrase refers to the “cat o’nine tails,” a nine-thonged whip used in the days of square-rigged ships to discipline unruly sailors. This “cat” got its name from the fact that the welts it left on a sailor’s back looked like enormous cat scratches. Most such whippings took place on the open deck, both as an example to the rest of the crew and because in the cramped quarters belowdecks there was “not enough room to swing a cat.”

The other, less cat-friendly theory is that the phrase refers to literally swinging a cat around by its tail. This version seems to have quite a bit more evidence in its favor, the phrase having come into use in the mid-17th century and being used with clear reference to actual cats ever since, including in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”