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December 2008 Issue


Are we having fun yet?  Silly question.  Incidentally, before I forget, anyone wishing to truly understand the Global Financial Meltdown and, in particular, the finer techniques of getting people to buy things that don’t actually, y’know, exist, would profit (pardon the word) from a perusal of The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer, which I ran across a few years ago. Maurer, a linguist, spent much of the 1930s talking to con men all over the US, documenting in detail how their schemes, often extremely clever, worked. The book was originally published in 1940, just as the age of classic cons was coming to a close, but Maurer might be surprised to see how many of the methods he documented have their echoes in the high-finance flim-flammery afoot today.

Onward. Many thanks to all our readers who have lately subscribed or otherwise contributed to TWD.  Your support made all the difference when our 12-year old car recently broke down and required a hefty infusion of moolah to convince it to resume its creaking journey into epic decrepitude.  Anybody know where I can get a used horse, just in case?

As usual, the eighteen columns in this issue first appeared in newspapers (and were sent to subscribers) more than six months ago, so please take that fact into account when you spot weird references to then-current events.  I may not know the day of the week, but I do know the election is over.  Subscribers, of course, don’t experience this annoyance.

By the way, if you’re still looking for the perfect present for someone who has more than enough cat sweaters, I suggest The Complete New Yorker: Eighty Years of the Nation’s Greatest Magazine (Book & 8 DVD-ROMs) which used to cost about $100 but can now be had new for less than $20.  The interface can be a bit annoying, but the content more than makes up for any awkwardness.  I love this thing.  Lately I’ve been browsing issues from the early 1960s, and I’m amazed at how many cartoons I recognize.  (And now I get them.)  The advertisements are also absolutely fascinating.  I had no idea that so many steamship lines were still running the New York to Southhampton route at that point.  It’s truly a window into a lost, and arguably better, world.

And now, since I see that my assistant, Miss Freedle, has the pool filled and the ring of fire blazing nicely, on with the show…


Little cat feet.

Dear Word Detective: So, I’m shoe shopping online and find a nice pair of “sneakers” I want to purchase. All of a sudden I realize that I have no idea why I should need shoes for sneaking. Walking, jogging, frolicking — yes. Sneaking…er, not so much. Does the name “sneakers” have anything to do with sneaking, or perhaps they’re called sneakers as a joke because the rubber soles tend to make noise. Who knows? Well, hopefully you do. — Clandestine Chris.

Yes, I do. But first, a word about online shoe shopping. A few years ago I would have said that shopping for shoes online was silly, since you can’t exactly try them on by holding your feet up to the screen. Then I took a chance and ordered a pair of “Brown Bear” chukka boots from L.L. Bean. I loved those shoes, and wore them every day. But they finally became sufficiently ratty that I went online to order another pair. Oh noes!, as they say on the internet. Bean had discontinued the best shoes in the whole world! So what I want you all to do is go to the L.L Bean website, right now, and tell them to bring back my shoes. Seriously. I’ll wait here.

Thanks. You guys are the best. Now, to begin at the beginning, the word “sneak” is very old, and our modern form is a descendant of the Old English “snican,” meaning “to desire, reach for,” which became the Middle English “sniken,” meaning “to creep or crawl.” It’s worth noting that the root of that Old English “snican” also gave us “snake.”

“Sneak” as a verb in modern English has a wide variety of senses, but they all involve some aspect of stealth and/or deception. The earliest sense to appear, in the late 16th century, was “to move or walk in a stealthy or slinking manner, as if ashamed or afraid to be seen.” Not surprisingly, a person who behaved is such a manner was, by around 1643, known as a “sneak.”

Fast-forward now to the 19th century, and the neighborhood “sneak” had a new advantage — shoes with soft gum-rubber soles in place of the usual leather, an innovation that made the footsteps of the wearer nearly noiseless. Such shoes, worn for athletic activities as well as in situations where quiet was important, came to be known as “sneaks” by about 1862 (“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or galoshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women [of Brixton Prison]”). By the end of the century, the term “sneaker” was more common.

The use of “sneak” and “sneaker” for such shoes was a bit jocular, since most wearers had no nefarious motives or even a need for stealth. But another name for the same sort of footwear — “gumshoe” — was, by about 1908, adopted as underworld slang for a police detective who did rely on stealth and secrecy to apprehend evildoers.

Today, now that athletic shoes are a multi-billion dollar industry, the humble term “sneaker” seems to be largely in eclipse, replaced by such specific category terms as “running shoe” or “cross-trainer.” In Britain, athletic shoes in general are known as “trainers.”


Glub glub club.

Dear Word Detective: The word “swimmingly” means, idiomatically, “with great ease and success.” Where does this definition come from? Is swimming supposed to be the epitome of ease? I can imagine plenty of people have trouble swimming. I bet they would be offended if you used the word “swimmingly” to mean “with great ease and success.” In the event that this unintentional insult occurs, I’d like to be able to tell them the history of the word. — Caroline.

Hey, I’ll make you a deal. If you run into someone who is visibly offended by use of the adverb “swimmingly” because they, personally, cannot swim, send them to me and we’ll have a chat. While there were, obviously, some idioms popular in years past that are rightly regarded as offensive today, I think that a non-swimmer taking offense at “swimmingly” would be simply silly. I can’t play poker worth beans, but I’m not about to bridle at being told to “put your cards on the table” or “go for broke.”

Given that most of our planet’s surface is covered with water, it’s not surprising that “swim” itself is a very old word. The Old English “swimman,” meaning ‘to move on or in water, to float,” was derived from a Germanic root that also produced the words for “swim” in several other European languages.

Since movement through water is generally smooth (unless one is thrashing about in panic), especially compared to the “clomp clomp clomp” of walking on land, “swim” has acquired a wide variety of figurative uses, many involving a sense of gliding or moving smoothly as if suspended in liquid (“She … swam across the floor as though she scorned the drudgery of walking,” 1888).

This use of “swim” to mean “glide smoothly with little apparent effort” gave us the adverb “swimmingly” in the early 17th century meaning “with smooth, uninterrupted progress; easily; with complete success” (“The interview went off very swimmingly,” 1824).