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I’ve missed you, Spot.

Dear Word Detective:  Painters and others interested in the coating of surfaces use the term “holiday” to describe a “missed spot.” What is the origin of the term? — John Weiss.

That’s a new one on me. Incidentally, this seems a good time to announce that I have discovered what I believe, based on extensive research, to be the most annoying phrase in the English language. Yes, I know most people would regard my quest for such a linguistic irritant as strange and anti-social, but no one who knows me well will be very surprised. Anyway, the phrase is “You missed a spot.” Anyone cleaning anything, painting anything, paving anything (road crews are especially grateful when I slow down to let them know), or doing just about anything that has a beginning and an end, always secretly appreciates hearing that they’re further from the end than they had thought. It’s usually not true, of course, but, since folks almost always stop to check, I like to think I’m doing my part to help them ensure the integrity of their work product. I just wish they wouldn’t throw things at me.

There’s an interesting twist in the early history of “holiday,” and it’s a distinction we still sometimes make in how we use the word. Our modern “holiday” comes from the Old English “haligdaeg,” which simply combined “halig” (“holy”) and “daeg” (“day”) into one word. But “haligdaeg” was used mean both “a consecrated day or religious festival” and “a day on which ordinary activities and work are suspended; a day of festivities,” i.e., a largely secular day off. To avoid confusion, “haligdaeg” was used to mean the secular occasions and “halig daeg,” two words, signified the religious “holy days.” This distinction has carried over into modern English, where we have used, since about the 16th century, “holiday” in a broad sense but “holy day” in only a religious sense.

“Holiday” went on, of course, to acquire a wide variety of more general and figurative meanings, ranging from simply “a break from routine” to the jocular use of the word to mean “imprisonment” (“A sentence of a month or two … a little ‘holiday’ with food and shelter and warmth,” 1901). One of the notable British English uses of the word that strikes many Americans as odd is the use of “holiday” to mean what we would call a “vacation” (“Blair spent one summer holidays with his mother Lady Mary, at Spa,” 1825).

The use of “holiday” to mean “a missed spot” appears to be that rarity in English etymology, a word or phrase that actually has a nautical origin. The original use of “holiday” in the “missed a spot” sense, back in the 18th century, was in reference to crew members painting the decks of a ship or “paying” (sealing seams with tar or pitch) its hull. “Paying” (from the Middle French “poier,” to smear with pitch) in particular was an arduous, intensely unpleasant task, so even a small missed spot could be, sardonically, considered a “holiday” (“A holiday is any part of a ship’s bottom, left uncovered in paying it,” Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785).

This use was later generalized to cover a missed spot in any task, including daily household chores (“Holidays: parts left untouched in dusting. ‘Don’t leave any holidays.'” Jago, Dialect of Cornwall, 1882). Of course, if you leave enough “holidays” in the wake of your  assigned task, whether it’s dusting, accounting or paving, you might soon find oneself on a permanent “holiday.” So I’m actually doing folks a favor by pointing out the spots they’ve missed, right?


Oldie but goodie.

Dear Word Detective:  Do you have information on the origin of the word “ruthless”? I was told that the origin of this word is from Scripture, The Book of Ruth. Ruth was merciful, considerate, loving and caring. The opposite, or to be “ruthless,” would certainly fit the definition of “ruth-less.” I would appreciate your comments. — Carolyn Perlman.

Now there’s a name I haven’t run into in a while, at least attached to anyone under 45 or so. But according to, Ruth was, back in the early years of the 20th century, the fifth most popular name for a girl baby in the US. By 2008, however, it ranked 257th. It’s just the opposite with my first name. In the 1950s, Evan ranked 507th, which is probably why I was in my twenties before I met another Evan. In fact, several of my teachers tried to convince me that my name was actually “Kevin.” At the moment, however, Evan ranks 38th in the US. I’m not sure how I feel about this, especially since Evan is becoming a popular name for girls. I guess I miss being special. Maybe I’ll change my name to Nigel (815th) or Cletus, which was 913th in the 1950s and seems to have faded entirely off the chart in the 1960s. Splendid isolation, rara avis, nonpareil, that’s the ticket.

The story you have heard about the word “ruthless,” although it seems to make perfect sense, is not true. There is no connection between “ruthless” and the name Ruth, which was a popular Hebrew name in Biblical times. But, I hear you ask, if the “ruth” in “ruthless” isn’t the Biblical Ruth, what does it mean? We don’t speak of nice people being endowed with lots of “ruth,” do we?

Well, not at the moment, but we used to. “Ruth” was a common word in Middle English, first appearing (as “reuthe”) around the 12th century, meaning “pity or compassion,” and in the 13th century we spoke of a person who was kind, charitable, and just generally felt your pain as being “ruthful.” (“Ruthful” has also been used at times to mean “inspiring compassion or pity,” i.e., pathetic, as well as “expressing grief” as in “ruthful weeping,” but these are secondary senses.)

A person who lacked those qualities of kindness and charity, whose only concern was for personal gain and never shed a tear for the victims of his greed, has been, since the early 14th century, known as “ruthless,” literally lacking the quality of “ruth.”

The “ruth” in “ruthful” and “ruthless” is a noun formed on the verb “to rue,” meaning “to feel sorrow or regret” (“And yet … no sooner was alone, Than she for loneliness her promise rued,” 1885), and which is still in wide use today (although perhaps not as much as it should be). “Rue,” in turn, came from the Old English “hreowan,” which meant “to afflict with sorrow, pity or regret,” and which was rooted in old Germanic and possibly Norse words. “Rue” is perhaps most often found today in phrases such as “rue the day” (or hour, etc.), meaning, of course, to regret a decisive event which took place at that time (“France, thou shalt rue this houre within this houre,” Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John, 1595).

While “ruthless” is alive and well in popular usage today (and “ruthlessness” is even celebrated as a virtue on Wall Street), the sweet and gentle “ruthful” has almost entirely faded from our collective memory. The Oxford English Dictionary labels the word “archaic,” and its most recent citation for its use in print dates from the early 19th century. A search of Google News today for “ruthful” produces the epitaph “Your search – ruthful – did not match any documents,” which a quick perusal of the grim headlines confirms. It seems that this world could do with a “ruth transfusion” as soon as possible.

Whim-whams / Wimwams

Creeps me out.

Dear Word Detective: You use the word “wimwams” from time to time. I’ve looked here and there, and tried to find it in your archives, but I can’t find anything on it. Google (when I try it) sends me zero results … how odd. How odd, when it’s clear what you mean by the word. — George.

It is odd, especially since I could have sworn that I wrote a column on “wimwams” at some point, but it is indeed not to be found in our archives at Perhaps I dreamed writing it, the way I sometimes dream I’m back at my old job in New York City, trying to explain why my lunch hour has lasted twelve years. Or perhaps I actually did write it, and my computer quietly ate it.

On the other hand, if I’ve actually been using “wimwams” in my columns for years without ever explaining it, I’ve been following in the family tradition. I picked up the word “wimwams” from my mother, Mary D. Morris, who used it frequently and probably learned it growing up in Ohio. But my mother collaborated with my father, William Morris, on this column for many years, and when the two of them produced the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, 1988), guess what word they didn’t include? I guess the first rule of “wimwams” is that you don’t talk about “wimwams.”

Part of the problem you faced in tracking down “wimwams” elsewhere is my fault, because I’ve been using a variant spelling of the word, which is more usually rendered as “whim-wham” in the singular (although the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists “whym-wham,” “whim-whom” and several other forms). The OED gives two definitions for “whim-wham”: “A fanciful or fantastic object … a trinket,” and “A fantastic notion, odd fancy.” The third definition, recognized by other dictionaries, is the sense I learned from my mother, that of “the jitters” or “the willies,” as in “The brakes on that old car give me the whim-whams.” This sense is almost always found in the plural, preceded by “the.”

By now those of you not futzing with your iPads will have noticed the word “whim” sitting there right at the front of “whim-wham,” and thereby hangs a tale. A very confusing tale. “Whim” is, of course, a well-known word meaning “a sudden fanciful impulse” (“Larry bought the condo on a whim because he liked the shape of the bathtub”) or “an eccentric idea.”  Thus “whim” fits nicely with the “odd fancy” definition of “whim-wham,” and a now-obsolete definition of “whim” (“A fanciful or fantastic creation”) matches the first definition of “whim-wham” precisely. “Whim,” in fact, may simply be a shortened form of “whim-wham.” Or maybe not.

The problem is that while “whim-wham” has been found in print around 1529, almost a century before “whim” and the related “whimsy” appear, “whim-wham” is clearly what linguists call a “reduplicated” form, involving the repetition of an initial word with a minor variation, as in “dilly-dally” or “hocus-pocus.” The base word here is clearly “whim” or “whimsy,” but if “whim-wham” really appeared before “whim,” we’ve got a problem. It’s possible that this chicken-and-egg tangle will be cleared up someday, but for the moment all we can say is that “whim-wham,” “whim” and “whimsy” are closely related.

As for where the “jitters” sense of “whim-wham” comes from, it has been suggested that  “whim-wham” might be a relative of the Old Norse word “hvima” (meaning “to glance around wildly with the look of a frightened person”), which certainly sounds to me like someone stuck in a speeding car with bad brakes.