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Put the wind up

Beyond cold feet.

Dear Word Detective: I know that “put the wind up” means to make someone nervous or upset, but wonder about the origin. I had an elderly aunt who often complained of feeling cold air flowing up her nose (of such tales are word origins made) and have found myself using the phrase “put the wind up someone’s nose” which I now think was my own elaboration. But the question of what or who the wind is being put up and why and where the concept originated remains. — Alex Pirie.

And a great question it is. “Put the wind up,” meaning “to alarm or make nervous,” as well as its close cousin “to get the wind up” (to become alarmed), both date to just after World War I, and are more often heard in the UK than in the US. The origin of windup08.pngthe phrases apparently lies in the armed services slang of WWI (“Shells so close that they thoroughly put the wind up a Life Guardsman in the trench with me,” Wilfred Owen, 1918). But both phrases are still very popular, as can be seen in a recent headline from the UK-based technical website The Register, reporting on US alarm at the theft of a UK government computer containing various secrets: “MoD laptop thefts put the wind up the US.”

Evidently, the origin of “put the wind up” is considered a bit of a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary is silent on the matter, and most of my reference works don’t even mention the phrase.

I hesitate to even suggest this, because I fear it will awaken the demented munchkins of CANOE (the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything), but it occurred to me upon reading your question that “put the wind up” might have something to do with the age of sail, when the wind rising and filling the sails of a becalmed ship would cause it to begin to move. Perhaps, metaphorically, “put the wind up” described a similar process in an individual.

Fortunately, I don’t have to limp home on my lame theory, because the eminent etymologist of slang Eric Partridge came up with a far better explanation years ago. In his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Partridge related (and endorsed) the theory of one of his readers that the phrase comes from a sardonic parody of a standard British Army marching song of the WWI period called “The British Grenadiers.” The “improved” version, popular among enlisted men, contained the lines “Father was a soldier, at the Battle of Waterloo, the wind blew up his trousers, and he didn’t know what to do.” Soldiers sang this song as they marched off to war, and soon, according to this theory, anyone who was flustered or anxious was said to “have the wind up his trousers,” eventually shortened to “have (or get) the wind up.” As Partridge’s correspondent notes, the fact that the song definitely existed, and contained those words, makes this theory highly likely to be true.

Putting on

Copy editor (with time machine) needed.

Dear Word Detective: In Craig Wilson’s September 12, 2007 column in USA Today, he quoted liberally from a new book of quotations compiled by one Elise Lufkin. The book is called “Not Bartlett’s.” Here’s Lufkin’s quote from Mark Twain: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.” Clever and pithy, but I’m suspicious that the included phrase “who are putting us on” wasn’t yet current in Mark Twain’s time. I’ve tried doing Internet research on it, and I did find the quote attributed to Twain in at least one additional web site (what you might call a “site cite sighting”) but I continue to have my doubts. Can you trace back when “putting me on” became what it is today? — Jerome Norris.

That’s a good question (or, as Shakespeare once put it, “Totally awesome question, dude!”). “To put someone on” means, of course, “to pretend, to conduct a ruse or a hoax, often as a joke” (“Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax?”, Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 1966). “Put” twain08.pngitself is, as one might suspect, a very old word, derived from the Old English “putian,” but where that Old English word came from is a mystery. As the centuries passed “put” developed a variety of meanings reflecting the general sense of “push” or “place,” and began to sprout figurative meanings as well. Many of these are older than one might suspect. “To put down,” meaning to snub or insult, for instance, dates back to around 1400.

As for that quotation attributed to Mark Twain, there are really two questions: could he have said it, and did he actually say it? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to either question. “To put on” meaning “to feign or pretend” (probably from donning a disguise or costume in order to deceive) dates back to at least the 17th century, well before Twain’s time. But the form in which it was commonly used prior to the 1950s was “to put on [something]” with the “something” being the object of the verbal phrase “put on” (“That voice is put on,” 1806). The earliest written attestation of the form “put someone on,” with the object of the verb being the deceived person, dates only to 1958. So Twain saying “putting us on” is very unlikely, although not absolutely impossible.

As to the second question, I found about 19,000 instances of that exact quotation online via Google, but exactly zero occurrences in several reputable collections of quotations. Given that Twain was the source of dozens of famous quotations, such an omission seems unlikely. Far more likely is that someone fabricated the quote and attached Twain’s name, it spread out over the internet, and Ms. Lufkin didn’t bother to check its provenance before she stuck it in her book. I wish I were more shocked by such a possibility.

Twain, incidentally, is often credited with things he didn’t say, including “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics,” which Twain himself credited to Benjamin Disraeli. The debunking site, in fact, devotes an entire page to bogus Twain quotes at

Mortress of Brawn

Next best thing to a bacon milkshake.

Dear Word Detective: Speaking, as you recently were, of authors’ using arcane words, I have stumbled upon a puzzler in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The White Company. The tale is set in 14th century England and France, and is rife with what I suppose are 14th century terms and tricks of speech. Most can be worked out with relative ease, but I have been stumped by the phrase “a mortress of brawn.” The reference is clearly to the main component of a hearty dinner, and a dictionary hunt suggests that “brawn” is probably (but not unequivocally) pork. The “mortress” part, however, eludes me, although it evidently refers to either the quantity or the cut of the meat. Even the (Compact) Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not appear to shed light on it. Can you? — Mike Lucey, Troy, NY.

I’ll give it a shot. I guess if the Compact OED contained words as obscure as “mortress,” it wouldn’t be very compact. What we need is the full-bore 20-volume OED, and here I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There’s a good chance that your local public library subscribes to the electronic edition of the OED. My local library here in Ohio even allows access to it from home via the internet.

mortress08.pngYour hunch about “brawn” is correct. Derived from the Old French “braon” (fleshy part, muscle, hind leg), “brawn” first appeared in English in the 14th century with the general sense of “part of the animal suitable for roasting.” In England in particular, “brawn” almost always referred to pork. The sense of “brawn” meaning “muscle” gave us “brawny” in the 16th century meaning “muscular, strong” in both literal and figurative senses (“Liberty is … the brawn of national strength,” 1883).

While “brawn” remains in common usage, “mortress” is considered archaic and obscure today. A “mortress” was a thick soup made with meat or fish (so a “mortress of brawn” would most likely be a pork soup). “Mortress” (and its cousin “mortrel”) entered English in the 14th century from the Middle French “morterel,” which was then a mixture of bread and milk. The root of all these words was the Latin “mortarium,” mixing bowl or mortar (as in the mortar and pestle once used by pharmacists to crush and mix drugs), reflecting the sense of food that had been crushed in a mortar (or, in the case of meat, finely minced).

Incidentally, the name of the kind of cement called “mortar” used between bricks, as well as that of the artillery piece called a “mortar,” both come from the same “mortarium.” The cement sort refers to the mixing of its ingredients in a “mortar,” while the “boom” sort harks back to the resemblance of early artillery mortars to the pharmacist’s mixing bowl.