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Wrinkles in one’s belly

Strictly from hunger.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a 1988 article about the movie “The Manchurian Candidate” in the Washington Post, and came across this: “Back then those two boys — Frankenheimer and Axelrod — had wrinkles in their bellies and worked and turned out this marvelous picture.” It’s a quote from Richard Condon, the author of the book that was made into the movie. I just assume that the statement implies the two had been bent over, working very hard, and thus wrinkles formed on their front sides. I’ve never heard this expression before and wondered about its origin. I had little to no luck finding anything about it anywhere. — Becky de Wit.

Thanks for a very interesting question. By the way, but was there any special reason you were reading that review in an election year? Some little bit of insight you’d like to share with us? Not that I care, personally. I’ll just vote for Harold Stassen like I always do.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is a great movie, at least the original 1962 version written by George Axelrod, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. The 2004 remake with Denzel Washington was, in my opinion, a bad idea.

I’m not surprised that you had no luck tracking down “wrinkles in their bellies.” It’s a fairly obscure figure of speech today, although it was once more well-known, at least among certain sectors of society. “To have wrinkles in your belly” was slang, probably originally among hobos, for being very hungry, specifically to be chronically underfed and thus emaciated. In the context of the quotation you cite, Condon probably meant that Axelrod and Frankenheimer were “hungry young men” full of eagerness and energy to do a good job (as opposed to overfed studio hacks). The phrase is also used in a more general sense to mean “in need of money.”

It’s difficult to date “wrinkles in one’s belly” because most compilations of slang seem to overlook the phrase. A short form of it is included in an article entitled “The Vocabulary of Bums,” published in the journal American Speech in 1929 (“Wrinkles: creases in the stomach caused by postponing too many meals”), and it crops up in a 1945 quote from famed band leader Tommy Dorsey in a biography published in 2005. Speaking to a band member who had quit the band, Dorsey said, “Got enough wrinkles in your belly? Are you ready to come back?” A positive form of the phrase (“to get the wrinkles out of your belly”) is defined in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld as “settling down to prison life,” apparently because a stretch in the slammer meant regular meals, a novelty to many new inmates. My guess is that the phrase dates to the early 20th century, although it may be much older. Hunger among poor people is, of course, hardly a new phenomenon.


Eat your iodine.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “cretinism”? I have been hunting for this answer with the idea that maybe it is tied to the island of Crete and some view by the Greeks that they were some sort of giants or something, but have come up dry. Hopefully you wise people will find the answer. –Joseph Lynch.

That’s a good question. Incidentally, in your email you spelled the word “cretenism” (rather than “cretinism,” the standard form), which may be why you had difficulty finding information. If one plugs “cretenism” into Google, it does cough up about 500 web pages spelling it that way, mostly blogs and the like, but many of them serious medical sites, which is odd. In fact, the US government National Institutes of Health occasionally uses that spelling.

In any case, your hunch connecting “cretinism” to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is entirely reasonable, given the similarity in pronunciation of “cretin” (“KREET-in”) to “Cretan,” a native of the island (“KREET-an”). But there is no connection between the two words.

Today “cretin” is usually used as a derogatory slang term for someone perceived as being stupid, foolish or incompetent, equivalent to “moron,” “idiot” or “nitwit” (“I had to get clearance from some cretin in Human Resources to take the day off.”). The origins of “cretin,” however, lie in a true human tragedy.

The medical condition known as “cretinism” is caused by a severe deficiency of thyroid hormones (a condition known as “hypothyroidism”). In infants, this condition results in greatly stunted growth, physical deformities and cognitive impairment that ranges from slight to severe. The primary cause of cretinism is lack of iodine in the diet, a deficiency that can also cause “goiter,” a grossly enlarged thyroid gland visible as a large swelling in the neck. Hypothyroidism today is usually successfully treated with iodine supplements.

Lack of iodine in the diet (due mostly to poor soil conditions) was, at one time, common in southern Europe, especially in the rural villages of the valleys at the foot of the Alps. The word “cretin” itself is derived from the Swiss French Alpine dialect word “crestin,” from the Latin word “Christianum,” which means “Christian.”

Just why the word “Christian” was applied to such sufferers is a matter of dispute among etymologists, but the most likely explanation is that “Christian” was used in the sense of “human creature, worthy of respect” in order to make clear that those afflicted with “cretinism,” while they might look and act a bit odd, were simply people like the rest of us. “Christian” was also used in English in this non-religious sense from the 16th through the 19th century, essentially as a synonym of “fellow” or “regular guy.”

Dungarees & Jeans

Or maybe they’re compensating for global warming.

Dear Word Detective: While reading your recent column, I reflected that the word “sneaker” was again OK to use. It seemed to be anathema for a while. One had to refer to “running shoes” or “court shoes” to be appropriate. I guess I had a light day at work because I started musing about other words from my youth that seem to be passe. Everyone wore “dungarees” that later morphed into “jeans.” I recall the lifers in the service referring to the work uniform as “dungarees.” What’s the origin of “dungaree” and who the heck was Jean? — Ed Callan.

Hmm. Wasn’t “Dungaree” a song by the Grateful Dead? I could have sworn they played it at Woodstock. Never mind. Clothing terminology seems to change every year (probably something to do with, duh, selling clothes?), and I decided a while back to ignore the whole business. I must say, however, that the quality of clothing has declined precipitously in the past few years. I’ve been wearing Wrangler jeans since I was old enough to drive, and every pair I’ve bought over the past five years seems flimsier than the last. The company seems to be aiming to eventually market blue facial tissue.

I actually answered a question about “dungarees” some years ago, but many of you were probably too taken with the Teenage Ninja Turtles at the time to pay attention, so we’ll give it another shot.

“Dungarees” is indeed simply another, now antiquated, term for what we call “jeans,” casual trousers made of denim, most often blue in color. The name “dungarees” is a relic of the British colonial presence in India. “Dungri” was the Hindi name of a particular type of thick, durable cotton cloth exported from India to England in the 18th century, originally used to make sails and tents. Eventually “dungri” cloth was pressed into service in the manufacture of work clothes, gained an extra syllable in its name, and became “dungaree.”

I doubt that if you were to wander into the average American department store today and ask for a pair of “dungarees” that the clerk would know where to look, but while the term has definitely faded on this side of the Atlantic, it seems to have acquired a new meaning in Britain. According to a draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary dated 2006, “dungaree” over there now means “trousers with a bib held up by shoulder straps,” or what we in the US have been calling “overalls” for the past 150 years.

“Jeans,” as in “blue jeans,” has a remarkably simple origin. It’s simply an altered form of the name “Genoa,” in Italy, once an important source of the cloth. Similarly, “denim” is a mutation of “serge de Nimes,” referring to Nimes, France, also an early source of the fabric.