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Cuffs are so coming back.  You’ll see.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife used the word “dishevelled” in describing my 20-year old suit.  Can I make myself “sheveled,” or “heveled,” or is this simply another lost positive?  I’ll be very gruntled if you can help me out here. — Charlie.

That sounds like my suit (note the singular).  I know it makes me look like a time-traveler from Planet Cheapskate, but I figure that since lapel styles seem to swing between wide and narrow every ten years or so, people will just assume I’m dancing on the bleeding edge of fashion.  I should note that this strategy probably works best if you live in rural Ohio and wear the suit only to weddings and funerals.

As for “disheveled,” if we ever get around to completely overhauling the English language, I would strongly argue in favor of doing away with prefixes such as “dis,” “de,” “un,” and “in” that usually, but not always, signal negation of the rest of the word.  That “not always” is the fly in the ointment.

I’ve written in the past about the word “inflammable,” for instance, which means “likely to catch fire” (from the Latin “inflammare,” the source of our “inflame”).  But since the prefix “in” usually signals “not” (e.g., “invisible” means “not visible”), folks just after World War II were afraid that some people would think “inflammable” means “fireproof” and insulate their homes with gasoline, or something.  So they pushed for adoption of the clearer “flammable” and “non-flammable” instead.  The effort actually worked, and today you rarely see anything labeled “inflammable.”

Similarly, “disgruntled” doesn’t mean “not gruntled,” as if “gruntled” meant “pleased.”  “Gruntled” actually means “angry” (from an animal grunting in anger), and the “dis” in this case is an intensifier, making “disgruntled” mean “very gruntled,” or “really ticked off.”

“Disheveled” (in the US we spell it with only one “l,” but the Brits use two) is another case where “dis” doesn’t exactly meant “not.”  The word “disheveled” is used today to mean “unkempt, untidy, messy or disorderly,” whether in a literal sense (“Her whole appearance was haggard and disheveled,” Trollope, 1862) or figuratively (“In vehement diction, but disheveled grammar,” Saturday Review, 1858).

We adopted “disheveled” from the Old French word “descheveler,” which meant specifically “to undo or disorder the hair” (from “des,” apart, plus “chevel,” hair).  So the “dis” element actually means “apart” or “undone,” not “not.”  (If it meant “not,” then “disheveled” would probably mean “bald.”)

When “disheveled” first appeared in English in the 15th century, it meant literally “with your hair mussed up, hanging loose,” and was usually used to describe women in moments of considerable stress (“Growing distracted with griefe …she went up and downe … all discheveled with her haire about her eares,” 1653).  It wasn’t until the 17th century that “disheveled” came to be applied to untidiness in non-hair-related respects.

Since the “shevel” in “dishevelled” refers to hair and not some lofty standard of neatness, there’s really no way to “shevel” your suit, unless you’d like to bring it to our house and let a few of our cats sleep on it.  Judging by my experience, it would be completely “sheveled” in less than ten minutes.


A whole lot of fishy.

Dear Word Detective:  I picked up the word “scads” for “lots” somewhere in my travels.  Is it regional slang? — Jack.

Well, if it is, you and I have been traveling in the same regions.  I can’t remember a time when I didn’t use the word “scads” to mean “lots” of something.  I actually answered a question about “scads” a little more than ten years ago, but since that’s “scads” of time in most people’s lives, we’ll give it another go.

It was probably shortly after human beings invented counting that they realized that there were times when there were just too many of something — birds, sheep, relatives — to count, and came up with words to convey that sense of “whole lotta whatever it is.”  They didn’t abandon numbers and counting entirely, of course, so we have “thousand,” “million,” “billion,” “trillion” and so on (though I’m pretty sure “gazillion” isn’t a real number).  But even though we have names for enormously large numbers, it’s apparently not in most taxpayers’ DNA to be able to truly comprehend them, a fact highlighted lately by what the pundits have cheerily taken to calling “the global financial meltdown.”  Did you know, for example, that a million seconds is 11.5 days, and a billion seconds is 32 years, but that a trillion seconds is 32,000 years?  Yeah, me neither.  I’m gonna stick with “scads.”

There are actually seven different kinds of “scad” in English, each with its own meaning, ranging from “corpse” to a kind of plum to “a faint gleam of light.”  The kind of “scad” meaning “a large amount” is the most recent “scad.”  This “scad” first appeared in the mid-19th century as slang with the very specific meaning of “one dollar,” although it was most often used in the plural to mean simply “money” (“We have mercenary motives … We desire the scads,” 1884).  Within a few years, however, “scads” (nearly always in the plural) had come into common use in its modern meaning of “a large amount of anything” (“What did England do when she found she could raise scads of opium in India, but had no market for it?” 1904).

If you look up this kind of “scad” in any good dictionary, you’ll see that lexicographers consider the word a case of “origin unknown.”  But I have a hunch about the source of the word which, while it might not pass strict etymological muster, may very well be true.  One of the six other kinds of “scad” in English is “scad” as the name of a food fish once caught by the millions off the English coast.  (This “scad” is thought to be a variant of “shad,” a fish similar to the herring.)  It seems logical to me that the abundance of these “scads” in the nets of English fishermen in the 19th century might have made “scads” a vivid metaphor for “lots of something.”  Not only would that theory, if true, pin down the origin of “scads,” but it might also explain why the current financial crisis, involving uncountable “scads” of our money, strikes so many of us as deeply fishy.


Dear Word Detective:  The other morning I was listening to Public Radio with my coffee and email, as is my wont most mornings, when in an interview that I otherwise hadn’t been paying much attention to, the PR interviewer said something like “It’s like a wiki, then” and she and the interviewee continued as if  “wiki” meant some sort of communal activity.  I suppose, with the popularity of Wikipedia, that “wiki,” which I heard often during my Navy stint in Hawaii, will change from meaning “quickly” or “hurry” to “communal.”  Any comments on the transformation of “wiki,” or would you like to open source your column so we can all write paragraphs and change the name of the column to WikiWord? — Barney Johnson.

Now there’s a good idea.  I wish you had suggested it sooner.  Unfortunately, now that I’m getting that big bailout from the US Treasury, I’ll no longer be able to afford to be poor.  On the bright side, with all that moolah I’ll be outsourcing the actual writing to Sri Lanka, so we’ll have a whole new range of wildlife appearing in this column.  Cobras are way more exciting than boring old cats and dogs, doncha think?  And they have something over there called a “sloth bear” that looks like pure comedy gold.

Onward.  “Wiki” is indeed a word in Hawaiian meaning “fast” or “quick.”  For most of us, our first exposure to the word “wiki” was in the name of Wikipedia, the collaborative free internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit.  Wikipedia operates on the theory that if a contributor writes something that is factually wrong or deliberately distorted, other contributors can quickly step in and correct the entry.  In practice, however, it’s impossible to know whether the entry you’re reading has been most recently edited by a true expert in the field or by Bozo the Vengeful Clown.

Wikipedia, however, was not the first “wiki” online.  A site called WikiWikiWeb was developed in 1994 by a programmer named Ward Cunningham to facilitate the exchange of ideas among software developers, with an emphasis on making contributions from users quick and easy.  He chose the word “wiki” after riding a shuttle bus called “the Wiki Wiki Shuttle” at the Honolulu airport (“wiki wiki” being a “reduplication” of “wiki” meaning “very quick”).

Many kinds of “wiki” software have since been developed, but all share the basic goal of making contributions by users to a collaborative website (or part of a website) easy.  Many hobby websites, for instance, now include a “wiki” section where visitors can contribute information on the minutiae of basket collecting, model railroading, etc. to a centralized repository.  This sort of site is now what the vast majority of English speakers mean when they use the word “wiki.”

It’s hard to say that the meaning of “wiki” in English has changed, because “wiki” in the Hawaiian sense of “quick” never had much currency in English to begin with.  What we have done is adopt a Hawaiian word and give it a completely new meaning in English.  And there is, of course, no guarantee that we’re done yet.  It’s entirely possible that “wiki” will eventually be used to mean any sort of collaborative activity that relies on the contributions of individuals, from potluck dinners to social movements.