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Plumb crooked.

Dear Word Detective: When I read the dictionary, I almost always check out the etymology of words. But I look askance at the phrase “origin unknown.” That is a very disappointing phrase, but I know that lexicographers use it to mean that the origin is not known absolutely, positively, beyond all fear of jeopardization. It does not mean there are no clues at all. So when I was wondering about the origin of “askance,” and was told it was unknown, I speculated that perhaps the Word Detective might know more about it than nothing at all. Any clues? — William Blum.

I know the feeling. Boy, do I know the feeling. Looking up the origin of an interesting word and seeing the blunt and merciless notation “origin unknown” is like getting a box of socks for your birthday. No fun at all. And there’s something in the human spirit (thank heavens) that refuses to accept that verdict. After all, every word comes from somewhere, right? There are times when that brick wall of “unknown” drives me a little bit nuts. Case in point: the word “pediddle,” US slang meaning a car with only one working headlight, has been making me crazy for about fifteen years. Forget certainty; no reputable source has even a hint of a guess as to where it came from when it first appeared in the late 1940s. Not a clue. Here’s a word that almost every teenager in America seemed to know (in the 1960s, at least), and it might as well have been imported from Mars.

You’re correct about why lexicographers are reluctant to make guesses about word origins in most dictionaries. (By the way, “jeopardization” is a fine word, though my spell checker doesn’t like it). Sometimes you’ll see a brave little “perhaps” preceding an especially plausible theory, but dictionaries quite rightly would rather frustrate readers than mislead them. A historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is, thankfully, more in the business of proposing possible sources of words (which makes their curt “origin unknown” in the case of “pediddle” even more distressing).

“Askance” first appeared in English in the 16th century with the meaning “obliquely, askew, with a side glance,” but quickly acquired its more common modern sense of “with suspicion, distrust or disapproval” (“India’s government also looks askance on Mr Obama’s wider Asian strategy,” The Economist, 10/28/10).

The OED begins its etymology note for “askance” with the usual “origin unknown,” but then, bless its daring little heart, goes on to offer a bit of speculation. Probably the most likely source of the word (or at least most often ventured in sources I’ve checked) is the Italian phrase “a schiancio,” meaning “slanting, on a slope, across,” which would certainly fit with the literal “askance” meaning “obliquely or sideways.” Another good possibility mentioned by the OED is the Old Norse “a ska,” meaning “sideways or slanted,” which in turn seems likely to be related to our English “askew,” which is very close to “askance” in meaning. There’s also the theory, which is unmentioned by the OED and strikes me as far-fetched, that “askance” somehow goes all the way back to the Latin “quasi,” meaning “as if.” As if, indeed.

The problem tracing “askance,” as the OED explains in tiny type, is that the 15th and 16th centuries produced a slew of terms in English beginning with “ask” including, in addition to “askew” and “askance,” such now-obsolete creations as “askoyne,” “askile” and “asquint.” All these terms were closely related in meaning, and, as the OED says, “seem to have influenced one another in form.” That means that the spelling of any one of these words may be a red herring and not a valid clue as to its source. It’s as if “askance,” having noticed that it was being followed, donned a fake beard and stovepipe hat and blended into a crowd of Lincoln impersonators.

Personally, I tend to favor the Old Norse “a ska” theory, if for no other reason than that it provides a solid link to “askew.” But at this point we are unlikely to ever free “askance” from that “origin unknown” label.


I’ll be waiting in the lifeboat.

Dear Word Detective: Is this (link attached) the origin of “tell-tale”? — Harry Farkas.

Oh boy, a test of my powers of verbal description. The link you sent is to a photo of a gizmo standard on the bridge of every large engine-powered ship until around 1950 and frequently seen in movies set at sea. It consists of a round dial on a drum-like contraption mounted on a short (waist height) pillar on the deck of the bridge. By moving a handle attached to a pointer on the dial, the pilot of the ship signals the gang in engine room to speed up, reverse, etc., the engines. Bells ring when this is done, and someone else usually says, “All ahead full, aye sir” or something similar. A bit later the same person screams “It’s an iceberg!” or maybe just “Godzilla!” I’m not sure what the proper term for that guy is, but I know I don’t want his job.

The picture you sent shows just such an instrument, with a smaller dial mounted below the large one with the handle, and the caption of the photo explains that it is the “tell-tale” from the USS Olympia, a battleship active in the Spanish-American War and now in danger of rusting into oblivion. But the caption is misleading. The big dial on top is an “engine order telegraph,” so-called because it relays orders to the crew in the ship’s engine room. It’s the smaller dial mounted below that’s called a “tell-tale,” and thereby, ahem, floats a tale.

“Tell-tale” is both a noun and an adjective, and both forms date back to the 16th century. The initial meaning of “tell-tale” as a noun was simply a person who “tells tales,” particularly stories maliciously disclosing the personal secrets of other people. A “tattletale,” in other words (“tattle” coming from Germanic roots meaning “to chatter or babble”). As an adjective in a figurative sense, “tell-tale” is probably best known from the title of the 1843 Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which a murderer goes mad (or madder than he already was), believing that he (and the police who have arrived to investigate) can hear the heart of his victim still beating loudly beneath the floorboards where he has concealed the dismembered body.

“Tell-tale” as a noun in a figurative sense (i.e., not a person) appeared in the 18th century meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A thing that reveals or discloses something not intended to be made known” (or, intriguingly, “A small hidden object placed so as to reveal a secret intrusion by its disturbance”). By the early 19th century, we were using “tell-tale” in the considerably less dramatic sense of “A device for mechanically indicating or recording some fact or condition not otherwise apparent; an indicator, a gauge.”

This is the sense which gave us “tell-tale” for the dial often mounted adjacent to the engine order telegraph on a ship’s bridge. Such “tell-tales” usually indicated the orientation of the ship’s rudder, but could also be a compass. Such a “tell-tale compass” was often mounted on the ceiling of the captain’s cabin facing downward so that he could check that the ship was on its proper course when he was away from the bridge.

“Tell-tale” was (and is) also used in non-maritime endeavors mean a mechanism or device designed to monitor performance and warn of malfunction or specific conditions. A “tell-tale pipe,” for instance, is a small pipe tapped into a cistern near the top. If water flows from the pipe, it means that the cistern is nearly full. A turnstile that counts people passing through it, the meter in a taxicab, and even the lights on a car’s dashboard indicating that the turn signal is blinking have all been known as “tell-tales.” Today most mechanical “tell-tales” have been replaced by electronic gadgets, and overall use of “tell-tale” as a noun, even in the personal sense, has faded, which is actually a bit odd in this age of the whistleblower and Wikileaks.

Incidentally, if you Google “Titanic” and “Louise Patten” (a British novelist), you’ll find an interesting new theory (too long to relate here) about why that ship actually sank back in 1912. Something tells me that the Titanic is going to be “telling tales” long after we’re all living on Mars.

Street, Road, etc.

Take a left at the neon jackalope.

Dear Word Detective: What is the difference between a “street” and a “road”? Why are some “thoroughfares” called “streets” and some “roads”? — Linda.

That’s a great question, but obviously I can’t delve into “street” and “road” without also explaining “highway,” “lane,” “way,” “boulevard,” “avenue,” and “drive.” So fasten your seatbelts and we’ll put the pedal to the metal.

A “street” was originally simply a paved road, whether paved with stones in Roman times or asphalt today. The English word “street” comes from the Latin “strata,” which was short for “via strata,” meaning “paved road.” That “strata” was based on the Latin “sternere,” to spread out, referring to stone or gravel spread on the road, and the same “sternere” gave us “strata” in the sense of “layers.” While any paved road can be called a “street” in a loose sense, modern usage restricts the term to urban and suburban roads.

“Road” is a bit odd in that it comes from the same Germanic root as “to ride,” and the original meaning of “road” in Old English was “the act of riding” (as well as “an incursion,” a meaning today reflected in its close relative “raid”). It wasn’t until the 16th century that “road” acquired the meaning of “a path leading someplace,” which eventually became our modern “road” in the sense of a path commonly maintained and used for travel. The same sense of “path or direction” also underlies “way,” derived from a Germanic root meaning “to move.” Today we use “way” to mean both a metaphorical route or manner (“I like the way you cook hot dogs”) and a street or road.

Generally speaking, at least in the US, “street” is used in urban and suburban areas for most roads, with “road” being reserved for broader, longer roads. In the countryside, away from cities and towns, even narrow glorified cow paths are called “roads.” Go figure.

“Drive,” like “road,” derives from an act of movement, in this case the original sense of the verb meaning “to force to move, to push from behind” derived from Germanic roots. As a noun in English, “drive” initially meant simply “an act of driving forward,” then “an excursion in a vehicle,” and, by the early 19th century, “a path for carriages.” All the other common senses of “drive,” from “engine” to “psychological motivation” (“drive to succeed”) to “organized effort” (“fundraising drive”) also come from the basic idea of a force moving something forward.

A “highway” is “high” not because it is raised above the level of the surrounding land (though it may be), but because a “highway” was originally a main route between two towns or cities. “High” in this sense of “principal” dates back to the early 14th century, and the main drag of many British (and some US towns) is often named “High Street” reflecting this sense of being the “main or principal” street in town.

The roots of “lane” are, unfortunately, a mystery, but in Old English it meant a narrow way bounded by hedges or, later on, a narrow street closely lined by houses or walls. Today we use “lane” to mean simply a narrow, usually short road, but the sense of restriction lives on in the use of “lane” to mean a strictly defined section of a highway (“passing lane”) or ocean (as in “shipping lanes”).

An “avenue” takes its name from the Middle French “avenue” meaning “way of approach,” which was initially applied to the wide, straight and usually tree-lined drive leading up to a large country house. By the mid-19th century, however, “avenue” was being applied in the US to any broad “upscale” street (think Park Avenue in New York City).

That leaves my favorite of such “street” terms, “boulevard.” Like “avenue,” “boulevard” entered English from French, which had adopted the word from the Dutch “bolwerk,” meaning “fortified wall, rampart” (which also produced the English word “bulwark”). In French the word originally just meant “fortified wall, as around a castle,” and more particularly the walkway around the top of such a wall. Eventually, however, “boulevard” came to mean the sort of broad promenade often built on the remnants of ruined fortifications in Europe, and was still later generalized to mean a broad, graceful, multi-laned avenue in a city.