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Like Sixty


Dear Word Detective:  I’m curious about the origin of the phrase “go like sixty” or “run like sixty.”  It seems to me maybe a product of the 1920s or ’30s U.S. slang.  I first encountered it in a lyric sung by Billie Holiday in an obscure song called “Here It Is Tomorrow Again,” which has at the end of one verse “So kiss me quick and run like sixty ’cause here it is tomorrow again.” I wonder where that phrase came from, but it must have been fairly common at the time to turn up in a song lyric.  Sixty miles per hour, perhaps, that being considered a very high speed of travel at the time? — Slidedaddy.

That’s a very interesting question.  Sixty miles per hour is still a pretty high speed to drive, of course, especially for some people.  They seem to have real problems above about 5 mph.  Around here the authorities have taken to painting dotted lines on the road, showing the paste eaters where they should point their cars while turning a corner.  It doesn’t work.  Isn’t it nice to know we’re sharing the road with people who apparently flunked coloring in kindergarten?

“Go like sixty” rang a faint bell for me, but I can’t say where I’ve heard it before.  My first hunch was that your suggestion might well be the correct explanation.  Even after automobile ownership became common in this country, the average speeds on our roads were much lower than today.  To “go like sixty” might have been the fantasy of every farm boy in the early 20th century, leading to the phrase becoming the equivalent in the popular vocabulary of our “light speed” today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), however, “like sixty” actually appeared in 1848 with no reference to speed, but rather meaning “with great force or vigor.”  The four citations quoted by the OED, in fact, are evenly divided between those that use the term in reference to speed (“We ran like sixty to the front porch,” 1975) and those that use it to mean “with enthusiasm and abandon” (“That child cuts up like sixty,” 1910).  The OED then refers us to the earlier phrase “like forty,” popular since the late 17th century, meaning “with great force.”  It appears that “like sixty” is just an inflated version of “like forty,” and didn’t, at least originally, have anything to do with speed.

By a stroke of luck, I happened to come across a discussion thread about the phrase “like sixty” on Dave Wilton’s site, where one poster made an observation that seems to hold the key to “like forty” (and, by extension, to “like sixty”).  The number “forty” has long been used, including numerous times in the Bible, to signify a large but indeterminate  number of anything.  Noah and company endured forty days and forty nights of rain, Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days, as did the Jews for forty years in search of the Promised Land.  Many rulers mentioned in the Bible seem to have ruled for forty years.  Shakespeare used “forty” as an indefinitely large number in Coriolanus (“On faire ground I could beat fortie of them”), and we still speak of “forty winks” meaning “a good night’s sleep.”

So while Billie Holiday’s songwriter, and many of us since, may have interpreted “like sixty” as referring to speed, its predecessor “like forty” originally meant “with great force,” possibly, as in Shakespeare, with the underlying sense of “the strength or force of forty men.”


Over there.

Dear Word Detective:  So dogs “fetch,” women are “fetching,” and ideas can be “far-fetched.”  Are all these related?  If so, I think calling a woman “fetching” might be insulting. — Barney Johnson.

Well, some dogs fetch.  Our two seem unclear on the concept.  Neither Pokie nor Brownie will fetch a stick in the usual “chase it and bring it back” sense of “fetch.”  Pokie realized years ago that sticks are rarely edible, so she doesn’t even look up when one flies by.  Brownie will chase a stick with delight, sometimes even catching it in mid-air. (Yay Brownie!)  But then, her work (as she sees it) being done, she retires to the shade of the nearest tree to chew her prize into little bits of wood.  If I walk over and try to retrieve it from her, she laughs (yes, Brownie laughs) and runs away with it.  Maybe I should try throwing the can opener across the lawn and see what happens.

All three of the senses of “fetch” you mention are indeed related, and all derive from the basic sense of the verb “to fetch,” which is “to go and get something or someone, or to cause that thing or person to come to you.”   Interestingly, while there is only one verb “to fetch” in English, there are three noun forms of “fetch,” only one of which is related to the “bring it to me” verb.  Apart from the basic sense of “the act of fetching,” this noun can also mean “a contrivance or trick” (“It is no ingenious fetches of argument that we want,” 1858), an expanse of open water, such as a bay, or an indrawn breath or difficulty breathing.

The two nouns unrelated to the “go get it” verb are “fetch” as a simple dialectical variation of “fish,” and “fetch” meaning “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person” (although this may be a form of “fetch-life,” an old term for a spirit supposedly sent to “fetch” the soul of a dying person).

Meanwhile, back at the verb “to fetch,” our modern English word is drawn from the Old English “fetian,” meaning “to go and get.”  Further back than that, things get murky, but the ultimate source was probably the Germanic root “fat” meaning “to hold.”

Most of the senses of “to fetch” in use today involve “bringing” in some sense, often figuratively, as in the use of “fetch” to mean “to sell for a certain price” (“The insolent dog fetched only five dollars at the yard sale”) or “to draw or derive” (“To fetch a parallel case out of Roman history,” 1806).  Another figurative use, appearing in the early 17th century, was the use of “fetch” to mean “to move to interest, to attract” (“Another sign of his cleverness was the exploiting of the psycho-analytical rigmarole, which will fetch 100’s of earnest imbeciles,” Aldous Huxley, 1931).  By the 19th century this also had developed into the sense of “alluring” that we use in relation to attractive people (far enough removed from the “dog” sense, I would say, not to be insulting).

“Far-fetched,” when it first appeared in the late 16th century, simply meant “fetched from afar, exotic” (“Indian pearles be greatest and more desired as being far fetched,” 1586).  By the 17th century, “far-fetched” had taken on the more negative connotation, applied to an idea, argument or story, of “not easily believed, strained, unlikely” (“Far-fetched ideas respecting English society,” Anthony Trollope, 1869).

Skinny (the)

Without feathers.

Dear Word Detective:  What’s the origin of “the skinny?” I  heard the expression used countless times.  Yet again today in the NY Times the phrase cropped up again: “The skinny on figure modeling.” Go figure. —  Sid Miller.

That’s a good question.  I actually haven’t heard “the skinny” used in years, so I went looking in the New York Times for the article you mention, which turns out to be an interview with a figure model at the Arts Students League of New York.  In the paragraph where that phrase occurs, she’s talking about a popular model who weighed 350 pounds, so I guess the Times writer saw the opportunity for a little pun.  The Times loves little puns.  To be fair, they’re not alone in heeding the siren song of “skinny” puns.  Quite a few of the results for “the skinny” on Google News are stories touting “the skinny on dieting,” “the skinny on skin care,” or “the skinny on taxidermy.”  I made that last one up.  But I did see another story offering, in dubious taste, “the skinny on the Starbucks closings,” making a play on the whole “skinny latte” thing.

“The skinny,” of course, is slang for “the straight story,” more specifically “the inside scoop, the real story that most people don’t know.”  Not surprisingly, “the skinny” is often invoked by supermarket tabloids and websites that promise to satiate the public’s apparently insatiable desire for celebrity gossip.  The fact that we will probably never know what’s really up with Tom Cruise only seems to fuel their quest for “the skinny.”

Unfortunately, etymologists have their own quest when it comes to “the skinny,” the search for its origins, and so far we’ve come up empty.  We do know that the word apparently first became popular in US armed services slang during World War II, but actually predates the war by at least a few years.

More important than the “when” of “the skinny” is, of course, the “why,” and there are a number of clues as to the logic behind “the skinny.”  We know, for instance, that in the 1930s “the skinny” was slang for ten cents, probably drawn from the phrase “one thin dime.”  In the 1920s, “the skinny” was student slang at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, for a course in physics or astronomy, but no one has ever come up with a logical explanation for that use, either.  Both of these leads are probably duds for our purposes.

A more intriguing possibility, suggested a few years ago by a poster to the American Dialect Society mailing list, is that “skinny” in this sense comes from the Irish word “sceitheanna,” meaning “act of revealing or making known” (and supposedly pronounced as something close to “skinny”).  It’s an interesting theory, but it may indicate just a coincidental intersection between Irish and English.

One of the simplest explanations of “the skinny,” and the one I’d bet is true, is that “skinny” in this sense simply refers to “getting down to the bare skin” (as in “skinny dipping”) of the truth, unadorned by spin, artifice or tact.  So if this is the logic behind the phrase, “the skinny” is just another way of saying “the naked truth.”