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Worry wart

Don’t sweat it, Bumpy.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “worry wart”? — Sharon Kawasaki.

Good question, but I wouldn’t let it bother you. I’m always taken aback when folks write in saying that they lie awake at night wondering, even worrying, about the origin of some word or phrase. I, on the other hand, am firmly of the “What, me worry?” school of thought. Last night at around two a.m., for instance, there was a tremendous crash from downstairs. A lesser man might have leaped from bed and raced down to investigate. But I wisely decided to wait until this morning, when I discovered that the cats had merely been rearranging the living room furniture again. No harm, no foul, although I’m still wondering what they did with that table lamp.

“Worry wart,” meaning “a person who worries or frets incessantly,” is one of those phrases that only seem stranger the longer you look at them. It’s possible to worry about warts, of course, although fortunately I don’t think there’s any evidence that worry itself causes warts. I suppose a “worry wart” could be a wart that one “worries” (in the sense of “fiddle with”) in moments of stress, but that sounds like a bad idea.

“Worry” itself is an interesting word, one that has traveled far from its origins. When “worry” first appeared in Old English (as “wrygan”), it meant, not “to fret,” but “to strangle” (putting a whole new light on “put your worries behind you”). That grisly meaning of “worry” softened a bit over the subsequent centuries, first to “bite and shake” (as dogs “worry” their rubber toys today), then “to harass or vex,” until finally arriving at its modern meaning of “to make (or to be) persistently anxious” around 1822.

“Wart,” on the other hand, has meant “a small excrescence on the skin” since it appeared in Old English from a Germanic root. Several centuries of development gave “wart” a variety of figurative meanings, including that of “a defect or unattractive feature” (as in the phrase “warts and all”) and, perhaps inevitably, “an annoying, obnoxious or insignificant person” in the 19th century.

Thus the stage is set for decoding “worry wart” as “a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything.” The earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1956, although an earlier form, “worryguts,” had been popular in Britain since the 1930s. But “worry wart” became a household standard when it was used as the name of a recurrent character in “Out Our Way,” a popular newspaper comic strip drawn by James R. Williams from 1922 to 1957. Oddly enough, Williams’ “Worry Wart” was a young boy who caused worry in others, rather than being plagues by worry himself.

They/their/them

No problem.

Dear Word Detective: I realize that you are the Word Detective and not the Grammar Detective, but a friend took me to see “The Prestige” last night, and I was thrown off by what I believe are a couple of linguistic anachronisms that occur early in the film. I was hoping you could shed some light on when these uses came into the English language. At the very beginning of the film, Michael Caine’s character says something like “I saw someone run on the stage and followed them [sic] backstage where I saw him….” The second, which occurs a few moments later, involves a character saying “He’s a better magician than me.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that “they/them/their” were used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns in the late 19th century, nor was “than me” used in comparisons in place of the grammatically correct “than I.” Any thoughts? — Jackie.

Hmm. Grammatically correct? Oh, you’re looking for an argument. Sorry, this is Abuse. Argument is down the hall, Mr. Barnard in Room 12. (Persons not Monty Python fans may find Googling “Argument Clinic” helpful in decoding that.)

Much as I love pointing out anachronisms in movie scripts (“Telephone for you, President Lincoln”), I’m afraid that in this case we’re dealing with what the linguists over at Language Log call the Recency Illusion: the understandable but erroneous conviction that a usage one dislikes must be new because no one in The Good Old Days would have put up with such a barbarism.

In the case of “they/them/their” used as third-person, singular, neuter pronouns, writers as notable as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Jane Austen have employed the construction. Even the King James Version of the Bible uses it: “Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, … and shalt stone them with stones, till they die” (Deuteronomy 17). The use of “than” as a preposition (requiring the objective “me” rather than the nominative “I”) has a similarly long history.

The objections to both constructions are the legacy of misguided 18th century grammarians who tried to force English to conform to the rules of Latin. While these spurious “rules” have been perpetuated by popular grammar books for more than 200 years, their disregard by English speakers has been so natural and so common for so long that the examples you cite from “The Prestige” would probably not have even raised an eyebrow in the 19th century.

Pie hole

Mmmfff.

Dear Word Detective: So why do we call mouths “pie holes” (as in “Shut your pie hole”)? Of all the foods we could have chosen, what is special about pie? I mean, I like pie and all, but not as much as … say, pastrami. In researching this on my own, I’ve been notified that “pie hole” is probably a variant of “cake hole,” a phrase that apparently was coined in England sometime around World War II (also used in the context of “shut your cake hole”). And “cake” might be a corruption of “ceg,” Welsh for mouth. Is this etymology correct? Or did “pie hole” originate from some completely other source? — James Takahashi.

Mmmm … cake. You can keep your pastrami, and the rye it rode in on. I’d be happy to live out my days on a diet of cake and pizza. I am especially fond of the classic wedding cake, but it’s hard to find except at weddings. Incidentally, is it wrong to encourage your friends to divorce and remarry just so you can get some decent cake? Oh well, too late now.

Somehow I seem incapable of hearing the words “pie hole” without thinking of the classic exchange between Homer Simpson and Moe the bartender: Homer: Hmm. I wonder why he’s so eager to go to the garage? Moe: The “garage”? Hey fellas, the “garage”! Well, ooh la di da, Mr. French Man. Homer: Well, what do you call it? Moe: A car hole!

I must say that although I’ve heard the expressions “pie hole” and “cake hole” in several movies (I have a dim memory of Bruce Willis saying “pie hole” in something forgettable), I don’t think I’ve ever heard either phrase used in casual conversation, but both apparently have been for quite a while. “Cake hole” is the older, dating back to British armed services use in 1943. The earliest printed citation we have for “pie hole,” however, is only from 1983, although it was probably in use for at least a few years before then. “Pie hole” was clearly inspired by “cake hole,” the substitution made perhaps because pie, especially apple, has long been considered a typical American dessert.

As slang for “mouth,” both phrases exhibit the sort of cheerful bluntness and vulgarity common to armed services and working-class slang, “Shut your cake hole” being far more colorful (and, given the humorous element, perhaps less confrontational) than simply saying “Shut your mouth.”

As for the possible Welsh connection, “ceg” does indeed mean “mouth” in Welsh, but the resemblance to “cake” is almost certainly simply coincidental. Among other things, “ceg hole” would be a bit redundant, and there is no record of such a phrase ever being used.