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Pretty please (with sugar on top)

Whipped cream works wonders with our cats, by the way.

Dear Word Detective: You know how hard it is to get a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to. So this morning I asked my cat to get off my robe and I actually said “pretty please,” and then, just to increase my humiliation, added “with tuna on top” (hey — she’s a cat). Where the heck did the phrase “pretty please” come from, and when and why did we feel the need to start adding sugar on top? — Jackie.

prettyplease08.pngAh, cats. Lovely pets, I hear. Someday I hope to have one or two. Oh those? Those aren’t cats. Those are demons from another dimension sent to rob me of my sanity by destroying the furniture and smashing every bit of crockery in the house, and then lying peacefully amidst the wreckage as if to say, “Don’t look at us, we’re just little cats, it must have been that idiot dog again.” It’s all a lie, of course. I once watched an eight-week old kitten throw a ten-pound dictionary across the room.

“Pretty please” is a phrase used, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes,”in emphatically polite or imploring request[s].” “Pretty please with sugar on top” is Extra Strength Pretty Please, deployed by children and desperate adults in an appeal for cooperation when all other entreaties have failed.

Plain old “please” used in requests (“Please send money”) is an adverb, based on the verb “to please” meaning “to be agreeable or pleasant,” derived from the Latin “placere” (“to be pleasant”). The “request” use of “please” probably originated as a shortened form of the phrase “if it pleases you [to do whatever].”

“Pretty” primarily means, of course, “attractive,” and is rooted in the Old English “praettig,” which meant “clever.” In the 16th century, “pretty” came into use as an adverb meaning “to a considerable extent” (“Bob’s pretty sick”) or, as an adjective, “substantial” (“That boat must have cost a pretty penny”). In the phrase “pretty please,” “pretty” functions as an intensifier, ratcheting up the strength of the “please” to signify that the speaker really, really wants whatever it is they’re asking for. “With sugar on top” turns the urgency dial up to eleven.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “pretty please” is from 1913, and the earliest for “pretty please with sugar on top” is from 1973. But my guess is that “with sugar on top” actually arose much earlier, at least by the 1950s. While sprinkling sugar on food has a long history, it was in the 1950s when ready-made sugar-coated breakfast cereal became popular, and the phrase may have been spawned then in imitation of advertising (“Ask Mom for Choco-Balls — the ones with with sugar on top!”) for such wholesome fare.

“Pretty please with sugar on top” was always a bit excessive coming from a child, and on the lips of an adult is often meant as sarcasm, as in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, where a character says, “I need you guys to act fast if you want to get out of this. So pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the [bleeping] car.”


But then my get-up-and-go got up and went.

Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up in Yorkshire, in the 1940s, “gumption” was commonly understood to mean “common sense,” or “street smarts.” I have since moved to Canada, where “gumption” seems to be a synonym for “courage” or “nerve.” I would be interested to see how this word could have acquired two such different meanings among people of the same basic heritage. — Brian Whitehead.

Well, there you go. You just happened to have lived through a time when the meaning of a common word changed substantially. It happens all the time, actually, although the last two gumption08.pngcenturies, and indeed the past few years, have seen some especially breathtaking linguistic transformations. When I was a boy, for instance, a “mortgage” was a rather boring long-term loan you wheedled from your local bank in order to buy a house. A “mortgage” these days, however, appears to be a very expensive ticket in a high-stakes national lottery run by people who make the Mafia look like Boy Scouts. Google “Countrywide” if that seems an overstatement.

The difference in the meaning of “gumption” between Yorkshire in the 1940s and Canada today is more a result of time passing than of your move to a new continent. The word “gumption” itself first appeared in English dialects in the early 18th century, imported from Scots, where it meant “common sense” or “shrewdness.” The roots of “gumption” are uncertain, but it may well be connected to the Middle English “gome,” (in Scots, “gaum”) meaning “attention or notice,” perhaps based on the Old Norse “gaumr.”

In English, “gumption” thrived with the meaning you knew as a lad, “common sense” or “smarts” (“Tis small presumption To say they’re but unlearned clerks, And want the gumption,” 1719). By the early 19th century, however, “gumption” had acquired the added sense of “drive, initiative” (“If they … show pluck and gumption they … get promoted,” 1889). The addition of “initiative” to the meaning “common sense” wasn’t much of a leap, as the two personal characteristics often travel together. And it was probably no accident that “gumption” was first used to describe someone who had both good sense and the drive to succeed in the 19th century, a period of the rapid expansion of mercantile capitalism. It was a period of unprecedented class mobility, when a lowly clerk with gumption could, with a bit of luck, become successful in business.

“Gumption” gradually lost the meaning of “street smarts” in the course of the 19th century (although that usage is still heard in certain parts of England), and now is used to mean simply “initiative” or “ambition.” Interestingly, however, another relative of that Middle English root “gome” (meaning “smarts” or “understanding”) is alive and well, albeit in a negative sense. To be “gormless” is to be clueless, empty-headed and hopelessly dense.

Dead to rights

You have the right to remain our top story for the next six months….

Dear Word Detective: All the media and late-night jokesters are having a field day with the latest OJ escapade, of course. Several times I’ve heard or seen the phrase “this time they’ve got him dead to rights,” and I think we all understand what it means. The nearest thing to it in your archives is “caught redhanded,” which is not quite the same thing, nor is “they’ve got the goods on him this time!” But when I (figuratively) stand back and look at “got him dead to rights” it seems a rather strange construct — don’t you think? Anyway, did a specific author (like Mark Twain, or A. Conan Doyle, maybe) originate the phrase? Or just when and where did it come from? — Ken in Houston.

deadtorights08.pngOJ who? Oh, right. Gosh, you know, there are times I almost regret my decision to stop watching TV news a couple of years ago. This isn’t one of them. Not that my tele-exile does much good. Despite my best efforts to avoid details of the Simpson kerfuffle, the basic facts of it seem to have seeped into my noggin by osmosis. Perhaps my fillings are picking up Fox News again.

In any case, just going by what the voices in my head tell me, Mr. Simpson does seem to have been caught “dead to rights,” which is to say that there is no reasonable argument that he did not do what he is said to have done and that, in a just universe, he would be, as the legal scholars put it, “toast.”

“Dead to rights” is indeed an odd expression, dating at least to the mid-19th century, when it was first collected in a glossary of underworld slang (“Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon,” by George Matsell, 1859). The first part of the phrase, “dead,” is a slang use of the word to mean “absolutely, without doubt.” This use is more commonly heard in the UK, where it dates back to the 16th century, than in the US. “Dead” meaning “certainly” is based on the earlier use of “dead” to mean, quite logically, “with stillness suggestive of death, absolutely motionless,” a sense we still use when we say someone is “dead asleep.” The “absolutely, without doubt” sense is also found in “dead broke” and “dead certain.”

The “to rights” part of the phrase is a bit more complicated. “To rights” has been used since the 14th century to mean “in a proper manner,” or, later, “in proper condition or order,” a sense we also use in phrases such as “to set to rights,” meaning “to make a situation correct and orderly” (“Employed all the afternoon in my chamber, setting things and papers to rights,” Samuel Pepys, 1662). In the phrase “caught dead to rights,” the connotation is that every formality required by the law has been satisfied, and that the apprehension is what crooks in the UK used to call a “fair cop,” a clean and justifiable arrest. (“Cop,” from the Latin “capere,” to seize, has long been used as slang for “to grab” as well as slang for a police officer.) Of course, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cop and the lips of the jury, so we shall see. Wake me when it’s over.