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Worth one’s salt

The wisdom of whackos.

Dear Word Detective: Today I heard two radio DJ’s arguing over the phrase “worth their salt.” One DJ was exclaiming that she had never heard such a phrase and therefore it never existed. Now, I have heard this phrase many times, but their argument got me to thinking, where did it come from, what does it really mean? I immediately went to your website and was dismayed when I saw that it wasn’t here. I would be very grateful for some insight. — Sarah.

Darn. Well, there goes my hope that disk jockeys were going to lead us into a new age of enlightenment. Speaking of popular media, I read last week that a certain large newspaper chain is planning to adopt something called “crowdsourcing” in its news-gathering operations, inviting readers to act as reporters and leaving it to the papers’ beleaguered editors to sift the cups of wheat from the tons of chaff that will pour in over the transom. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’m looking forward to lots more by-popular-demand stories about the Illuminati and that so-called moon landing.

Oh, right, you had a question. “To be worth one’s salt” is definitely a well-established idiom, dating back to at least 1830 in English and found, for instance, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic Treasure Island: “It was plain from every line of his body that our new hand was worth his salt.” The general sense of “worth his salt” and similar uses is “capable and efficient, able to handle the task at hand.” Specifically, someone who is “worth his salt” is a good employee, one well worth the wages paid, which brings us to a brief history of salt.

Although salt is one of the cheapest things found in a supermarket today (not counting those weird store-brand pickles that taste like floor wax), for most of human history salt was a scarce and valuable commodity, at some points more valuable than gold. Salt made dull (or “iffy”) food palatable, made it possible to cure and preserve meat, and was considered a necessity of life in the ancient world. Not surprisingly, the central role of salt in civilization is memorialized today in a variety of “salty” English idioms, including “with a grain of salt” (with skepticism) in reference to making an odd dish more palatable, and “the salt of the earth,” meaning the common people on whom society depends.

Salt was, in fact, considered such a necessity that Roman soldiers were either issued regular rations of salt or paid a special “salt allowance” with which to buy their own. This was known as a “salarium,” which eventually gave us our English word “salary” for regular wages. Thus today an employee who is “worth his salt” is one definitely earning his keep.

Ducks in a row, part 2

Quack… Thunk. Quack… Thunk.

Dear Word Detective: Back in 2002 you punted (a sports metaphor) on the question of the origin of “having one’s ducks in a row.” You noted that it’s an expression apparently of recent coinage, but several speculations on aquatic waterfowl led to nothing very convincing. I learned once that it’s actually a games metaphor: a “duck” is a pool-hall term for a ball sitting right in front of a pocket — an easy shot. Thus to have one’s ducks in a row is to have all one’s balls sitting lined up in front of pockets, ready to be sunk in series. How do etymologists such as yourself establish the likelihood of such a claim? — Anonymous.

Thanks for an interesting question. To recap for those who missed my original column, “to have one’s ducks in a row” is an idiom meaning to have all one’s preparations done or arranged before beginning an activity or project, and the phrase is thought to have arisen by allusion to a mother duck leading her ducklings in an orderly single file. In my original column I noted that the phrase was first attested in print in 1979, but it has since been found in a Washington Post article from 1932.

The theory tracing the phrase to the game of pool is an interesting one, and “duck” is indeed a pool-hall term for a ball resting at the edge of a pocket (i.e., a “sitting duck”). But the pool theory runs aground, as many such stories do, on a lack of evidence.

Stories tracing phrases now used as general idioms to a specific time, place or practice are only believable if print citations can first be found using the phrase in that specific context. For instance, the theory tracing “the whole nine yards” (meaning “the whole thing”) to the length of aircraft machine-gun ammo belts in World War Two seems eminently reasonable. Yet there has been not a single instance found so far of the phrase being used in print in connection with actual machine guns (and WW II was a very well-documented war), only citations for the phrase in its general slang sense beginning in the late 1960s. Perhaps someday such a citation will be found, but until then the “logic” of the theory counts for nothing.

Similarly, the earliest citation found so far for “ducks in a row” (“We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row,” June 1932, Washington Post) clearly has nothing to do with pool. Perhaps the writer first heard it in a poolroom, but until we find an earlier use of the phrase in the context of a pool game (as in “Smith had his ducks in a row and sank them one by one”), the familiar sight of a mother duck and her brood marching in a neat line seems a more reasonable (and much simpler) explanation.

Ears pinned back

Get offa me.

Dear Word Detective: The expression “they got their ears pinned back” is sometimes used in U.S. sports contexts and seems to mean that the winning team decisively defeated the losing team. It would be the losing team that got its “ears pinned back.” A web search indicated that in the U.K., the phrase seems to have meanings relating to paying attention to someone or to be disciplined by someone. What are the roots of the notion of pinning back ears, for any purpose? — Rich Kretschmann.

That is, as we say in the word biz, a darn good question. As a matter of fact, it’s a question that’s been rattling around in the back of my own mind for several decades, but I’ve never quite gotten around to investigating it. Hey, I’ve been busy.

“To have one’s ears pinned back” means to be chastised, scolded or verbally disciplined in a very forceful manner, or, by extension, to be soundly defeated in a contest or an argument. It’s an American phrase that first appeared in the mid-19th century, and although “to have one’s ears pinned back” is by far the most common form, the Dictionary of American English also lists “to get one’s ears knocked down” and “to get one’s ears chewed down” as synonyms meaning “to receive a severe scolding.” All of these phrases are, incidentally, distinct from such sayings as “to have one’s ears lowered,” meaning to get a haircut. The British use of “pin one’s ears back” to mean “pay close attention” appears to refer to an animal raising its ears in alertness, an action also known as “pricking up” its ears.

The key to understanding “to have one’s ears pinned back” comes from the animal kingdom, where the state of a critter’s ears (especially those of horses and dogs) serves as a window into the animal’s mental state. A horse, for instance, will normally hold its ears erect, alert, presumably, for the sound of oats and apples. But when frightened or angry, the horse will put its ears back against its head, a reflex also familiar to anyone who has ever shouted at Fido for sleeping on the sofa. From an evolutionary standpoint, this reflex makes sense, as the ears are among the most vulnerable, sensitive and easily injured parts of the body. Especially in dogs, to put the ears back against the head also serves as a sign of submission to a threat (perhaps from a larger dog or angry human), an attempt to forestall an attack or physical punishment.

One slightly tricky aspect of “to have one’s ears pinned back” is that the passive voice of “pinned” makes it sound as if Aunt Becky actually does something unpleasant with clothespins to little Timmy’s ears. But “having one’s ears pinned back” really just means “to be forced into visible submission and defeat.”