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Leg in the door.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the slang term “gams” for women’s legs originate? — B.D.

That’s a good question, and it just gave me an idea (oh no, here he goes again).  If we can have a “Talk Like a Pirate Day” every September 19th (and apparently we can), why can’t we have a “Talk Like a Gumshoe Day” every year?  It would be much more fun than just peppering every sentence with “Avast!” and “Arrgh!”  We could use words like “gat” and “stiff” and “heater” and “patsy”!  We could wear trench coats and fedoras!  What’s not to like?

There are actually three “gams” in English, and they all have separate sources.  The oldest is of Scottish origin, is used only in the plural, and means “‘large teeth or tusks.”  This usage first appeared around 1500, and seems to be largely defunct, although the use of “gam” to mean “mouth” in general was still in use in the 19th century.  The origin of this “gam” is uncertain, but it may be related to the Scots word “gamp,” meaning “to eat greedily.”

The second sort of “gam,” dating to the mid-19th century, means “a herd or school of whales” (or, by extension, “a social meeting of whalers at sea”).  This “gam” is thought to be a dialectical variant of the familiar English word “game,” probably drawn from the playful behavior of a group of whales.

All of which brings us to the third kind of “gams,” slang for a woman’s legs, especially if regarded as attractive.  “Gam” in this sense probably reminds most people of the “noir” crime novels and films of the 1930s and 40s and the hardboiled patois of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (“The gams!  The gams!  Your face ain’t news!”, Mildred Pierce, 1941).  But “gam” in this sense is actually considerably older than Sam Spade, dating back to at least the late 18th century.  And “gam,” which began as underworld slang, originally referred to the leg of either sex, and not necessarily an attractive one.

There are two theories about the origin of “gam” meaning “leg.”  The shorter and more straightforward one simply traces it to the Italian word “gamba,” also meaning “leg.”

The other theory treads the same ground, but with a detour, tracing “gam” to the old word “gamb,” meaning the representation of a leg on a coat of arms, which comes from the French “gambe,” a close cousin of that Italian “gamba.”  Interestingly, another form of “gambe” in French was “jambe,” which gave us our modern English word “jamb,” as in “door jamb,” the supporting side pieces of a door frame.  The connection between a door “jamb” and the “leg” meaning of “gam” and its relatives may seem murky, but the “jambs” were named because they serve as “legs” supporting the lintel, the piece at the top of the door frame.  Even a door frame, it seems, needs legs to stand on.

Do one’s nut & go spare

Flustered and busted.

Dear Word Detective:  Being a fan of author Terry Pratchett I must face odd British expressions.  Apparently “done his nut” and “go spare” both mean “totally lose your temper.”  Any insight into the origin of these idioms?  — KT Kamp.

Well, I guess the jig is up.  The music has stopped and I have no chair.  It’s finally time to admit that I’ve never read anything written by Terry Pratchett.  I guess I’m banned from the internet now, eh?  I suppose I did have ample warning.  I first heard of Pratchett back in the early 1990s, when everything on the internet was just text and nearly every discussion group teemed  with his passionate fans.  Gradually, I gathered that he is an enormously popular British science-fiction and fantasy writer with an excellent sense of humor.  I’ll give him a shot one of these days, honest.

The fact that Pratchett is British adds considerably to the likelihood that I’ll actually get around to reading him, because one of the attractions of reading British writers is the chance that I’ll run across, as you have, an unfamiliar figure of speech or catchphrase.  Your interpretation of “done his nut” and “go spare” as both meaning “to completely lose one’s temper” is exactly right, and both phrases are, I think, a bit more interesting than American equivalents such as “go ballistic” or “flip out.”  I suppose our “going postal” counts as clever, but it has always struck me as pretty tasteless.

Of the two phrases, “to do one’s nut” is closer to other figures of speech that are probably familiar to Americans.  The word “nut” itself is very old, derived from the Indo-European root “knu,” which meant simply “lump.”  While for most of its subsequent history we used “nut” to mean peanuts, cashews, etc., it also developed a range of figurative meanings, one of which was, in the mid-19th century, “the human head.”  This led to the slang use of “nut” to mean “a crazy, eccentric or obsessive person,” as in “lone nut” or “football nut,” as well as “nuts” or “off his nut” to mean simply “crazy.”   By around 1919 in Britain, the phrase “do one’s nut” had become popular, meaning “to become extremely angry” (“I thought what Grace would say, that she’d do her nut maybe. But she didn’t blink an eyelid,” 1972).  Why “do”?  There probably isn’t a particular reason, aside from the fact that “do” conveys decisive action, as in an explosion of anger.  After all, the “go” in “go nuts” doesn’t really mean you go anywhere.

“Go spare” doesn’t have any relatives in American slang, but the underlying logic of the phrase is sadly familiar on this side of the Atlantic.  The original sense of “go spare,” when it first appeared in British slang in the 1940s, was “to be or become unemployed,” making it a close cousin of the more formal British euphemism for being laid off, “to be made redundant.”  By the late 1950s, the normal emotional reaction to losing one’s job had colored the term “go spare,” and it had had acquired the added meaning of “to become distraught or very angry” (“When he saw what I had done he went spare,” 1958).


[Edith — I need a head for this that won’t get me in trouble.]

Dear Word Detective:  My wife and I were discussing yesterday the history of the word “redneck.”  As a Texan, I’ve heard this word all my life, and just assumed it had to do with people working in the sun all day.  On a recent trip to Jackson, Mississippi, however, I was presented an alternate theory: the Old Capitol Museum there attributes the term to the red-tie wearing followers of an old politician there named Theodore G. Bilbo — the campaigners for Bilbo would wear white suits and red ties.  My Mississipian grandfather recalls Bilbo being a rabid racist.  A brief internet search revealed all kinds of other theories ranging from persecuted Presbyterians in Europe to coal miners in West Virginia.  Please Word Detective, help me get in touch with my redneck heritage. — Shane.

Good question, and now I get to type the word “Mississippi” a few times, which is almost as much fun as spelling it out loud.  It’s the only US state name that you can dance to.

First of all, I have to hand it to the folks at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson for bringing up Theodore G. Bilbo (1877-1947) in their explanation of “redneck.”  If I were in their shoes, I’d be strongly tempted to deny the guy ever existed.  But Bilbo was indeed twice Governor of Mississippi, as well as a US Senator from that state for 17 years, and to call Bilbo, a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan, a “rabid” racist is an understatement.  In any case, it’s possible that Bilbo’s supporters wore red ties, but the term “redneck” first appeared in print in the 1830s, quite a while before Bilbo slithered onto the stage of history.

I, too, have heard the theory that the term “redneck” originally referred to 17th century Scottish Presbyterians who signed anti-Anglican proclamations in their own blood and wore red scarves or kerchiefs to signal their beliefs.  According to this theory, their descendants eventually settled in the Appalachian region of the US and came to be known as “rednecks” because of those scarves.  It is true, of course, that Appalachia was largely settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants.  But the fact that the term “redneck” was apparently never applied to the Presbyterians while they were still in Scotland and actually wearing the scarves poses a problem for this theory.

Various struggles by coal miners in Appalachia for the right to unionize also are said to have involved red neckwear, but this theory lacks any actual evidence connecting these struggles to “redneck.”

The accepted theory among linguists about “redneck” is the one you’ve deduced on your own:  that the term was applied to poor white Southerners because long hours working in the fields caused a permanent sunburn on the back of their necks.  But there may be more to it than that.  The term “redneck” first became truly widespread during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when food was scarce in the rural South, and many poor people subsisted on a diet composed largely of pork fat and hominy grits (made from corn).  Such a diet is lacking in niacin, and severe niacin deficiency produces a disease called “pellagra,” one of the symptoms of which is a striking reddening of the skin.  Pellagra was endemic to the American South during the Depression, and since sunlight worsens the dermatitis produced by the disease, the sunburned necks of poor white agricultural workers would have been even more noticeable, perhaps increasing the popularity of the term “redneck.”