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Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Chicken pox.

A fowl canard.

Dear Word Detective:  Do you know the origin of the name “chicken pox” in reference to the virus?  Why chicken? — Chris Smith.

That’s a darn good question.  Why chickens, indeed?  I think it’s high time to put an end to the linguistic abuse of the noble chicken, a humble creature whose only ambition is to float lazily in a bowl with some noodles.  It’s a scientific fact that not only do chickens not spread “chicken pox,” but they themselves are immune to the disease.  But no, when something unfortunate happens or we notice the less attractive aspects of our own nature, we pin it all on the poor chicken, the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal world.  We call those without courage “chicken-hearted” or “chicken-livered,” or speak of them “chickening out,” especially when challenged in a dangerous game of “chicken.”  We deride small amounts of money as “chicken feed” and declare those past their prime as “no spring chicken,” but you’ll notice that no one seeks the positive form of the metaphor (“quite the spring chicken”).

Chickens get no respect either coming or going.  Chickens are criticized for having “flown the coop,” but on returning find that “the chickens have come home to roost” is a popular way of saying that someone is getting a deserved punishment.  It’s no wonder we’re advised not to “count our chickens before they’re hatched.”  There’s not much of a sunnyside up to being a chicken.

A “chicken” is (for all you vegans living in caves, I suppose) a domestic fowl of the species Gallus gallus.  The word “chicken” comes from the Old English “cicen,” which originally meant only “young fowl.”  There’s a fairly developed chicken nomenclature (capon, pullet, hen, rooster, etc.), but for our purposes we’ll just imagine a generic chicken.

“Chicken pox,” which, to reiterate, has nothing to do with chickens, is a virus more precisely known as Varicella zoster, a member of the herpes family.  Chicken pox is a very common childhood disease that produces itchy bumps (“pocks” or “pox”) on the skin and can be very unpleasant for a week or two.  But while chicken pox can produce serious complications in adults (especially pregnant women), most cases resolve themselves fairly quickly and thereafter confer lifelong immunity to the disease.

The relative mildness of chicken pox is striking in contrast to another “pox” disease, smallpox, probably the deadliest disease in human history before it was eradicated (at least “in the wild”) in the 1970s.  This contrast probably explains the name “chicken pox,” which connotes mildness and safety as opposed to the virulence of smallpox.  It has also been suggested that “chicken” in the name refers to a supposed resemblance of the pox to chickpeas, or that the skin of a sufferer looks as if it has been pecked by chickens.  But the “not dangerous” sense of “chicken” is the most likely source, especially given that chicken pox was for many centuries considered an innocuous form of the deadly smallpox.

Pits, the.

Are we there yet?

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “the pits.” My friend is moving to Pittsburgh and I am wondering if there is any relation (though I doubt it). — Dustin.

Well, let’s not be hasty. Have you ever actually been to Pittsburgh? Just kidding. It’s a lovely city. There’s an Ikea store there, and the locals call bologna “jumbo.” What’s not to like? The only bad experience I’ve ever had in Pittsburgh was many years ago, when I was taking a Greyhound bus from Ohio to New York City. First the driver got lost in Zanesville, then he clipped a telephone pole in West Virginia, and finally he drove us into a deserted garage in downtown Pittsburgh at 3 a.m., dismounted the bus, and disappeared for good. Sometimes I suspect that I’m still sitting on that bus and all the rest of this has been a hallucination. It would explain a lot.

Meanwhile, back at your question, no, “the pits” does not refer to Pittsburgh. For one thing, “the pits” as slang for the very worst, the most degraded and depressing example of something, first appeared in common usage only in the 1950s, and if Pittsburgh were all that bad the phrase would have shown up a lot sooner.

“Pit” itself is a very old word, derived from the Old English “pytt,” meaning “water hole,” and rooted ultimately in the Latin “puteus,” meaning “well or pit.” From the general sense of “hole in the ground,” our modern “pit” has developed a wide range of specialized uses, from the deepest part of a mine (as in “coal pit”) to an especially foul mood (“pit of depression”). The reprehensible practice of putting various animals in pits in the ground and forcing them to fight has given us both the name of “pit bull” dogs and the “cockpit” of aircraft, so-named because it is considered as cramped as the pits used for staging fights between chickens. Some modern uses of “pit” have completely lost their original “lower level” sense, such as the “trading pit” on the floor of a stock exchange, the gaming area of casinos, and the “pit” area at the side of racetracks, which takes its name from the sunken area of a garage that allows mechanic to work on the underside of cars.

The use of “the pits” to mean the worst and most unpleasant instance of something, however, has its source a bit closer to home. “Pits” in this sense is simply short for “armpits,” long considered an unpleasantly aromatic region of the human body. From originally meaning literally “stinky armpits,” the phrase broadened to describe anything that metaphorically stinks. As American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, explained in 1965, “This is a slang abbreviation of the term armpits, … with an extension of meaning to entail the idea of body odor (‘He’s got the pits’) or, more broadly, something unpleasant (‘It [the party] was really the pits’).

Take it as read.

What ever.

Dear Word Detective: Today I’ve come across what appears to be an idiom which I’ve never heard before, perhaps because it appears to be British and Australian and not American. “Take it as red” seems to mean something like “take it as given,” or at least “consider it plausible.” I was wondering if you might be able to further clarify the meaning and explain the origin of the expression? — Blyden Potts.

Oh boy, here we go again. Every time I answer a question about British idioms, I get everything right except for some obscure issue of usage that several hundred cranky limeys just happen to consider the line of demarcation twixt civilization and savagery. Then the skies blacken with flocks of their indignant emails insinuating, among other things, that I endorse the maltreatment of hedgehogs. What is it with the Brits and their weird affection for hedgehogs, anyway? They taste awful.

Yet I must forge on fearlessly. The phrase you are wondering about, incidentally, is “take it as read,” not “red” (the “read” being the past tense of “to read”). I suspect that you know that and simply made a typo in your email, but one mustn’t annoy the hedgehogians.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to take something as read” as “to treat (a statement, a subject, etc.) as if it has been agreed, without having a discussion about it; to take for granted.” The phrase, which dates back to the late 19th century, most often seems to be used to mean “to accept something as a given or as having already been stated and heard, in order to move on to other things” (“‘It’s really I who ought to say ‘sorry,’ you know. … ‘We’ll take it all as read,’ put in Miss Wilson hastily,” 1930). “Take it as read” is a way to fast-forward past a discussion that would be pointless, painful or redundant.

The roots of “take it as read” lie in parliamentary procedure, the conduct of meetings governed by Robert’s Rules of Order and the like. It is common, for instance, for members of a group to accept the minutes of previous meetings “as read,” meaning without objection, or to approve a resolution as presented (“read”) to the group without modification or the debate that would ensue. The minutes of nearly every organization under the sun, to judge from a Google search, are riddled with the phrase “accepted as read” (“Dr. Fister moved that the August 4, 2006 minutes be accepted as read. Ms. LaVallee seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously,” Board of Dental Examiners, Augusta, Maine, 2006). In the slightly less formal form “take it as read,” the phrase then became a popular way to move a conversation swiftly past a bump in the road.