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Whiplash in the library.

Dear Word Detective: I came across the word “boustrephedon” years ago in an Inspector Morse mystery. The author of that series, Colin Dexter, imbued Morse with the same passion for crossword puzzles and obscure words that he enjoyed, and could be counted on to insert an interesting or little-used term into each new book. I can safely say I have only seen this word in print two or three times in the 15-or-so years since I first read that book. I have the definition, can you supply some background? — Tisa Philbin.

bou08.pngGood question, and I’m so glad someone finally asked about “boustrephedon,” one of my favorite prehistoric mammals. The “boustrephedon,” which flourished during the Late Devouring Period, resembled a mastodon in many respects, but lacked the mastodon’s legendary social finesse and was shunned by other animals of the period. The roots of the boustrephedon’s name gives a clue to the problem. The Middle English word “bouse” meant “to swill alcohol, to drink heavily” (giving us the modern English “booze”), and you can guess the rest. Long story short, the sight of a four-ton hairy elephant reeling drunkenly through the primordial swamps apparently drove several other species of the day to voluntary extinction.

OK, none of that is true (except the derivation of “booze”). But “boustrephedon” is a seriously cool word. “Boustrephedon” is the writing or printing of alternate lines of text in opposite directions — left to right, then right to left, and so on down the page, as opposed to the standard left to right used in English or the right to left used in Hebrew, for instance. Boustrephedon is a very old style of writing found in the inscriptions and texts of many ancient cultures around the world.

“Boustrephedon” is a Greek word, appropriately so, since early Greek texts were written in this style. “Bou” means “cow or ox,” and “strophe” is “the act of turning,” making “boustrephedon” an adverb meaning “turning like an ox in plowing.” Fields today are still plowed, albeit usually with tractors, in such a back-and-forth fashion, but “boustrephedon” today is primarily used in a looser sense in technical contexts. Some computer printers, for instance, are said to print “boustrephedonically,” but the words, though put to paper right to left on every other line, are still spelled in the standard left to right form. And if you live in a grid-based neighborhood (such as midtown Manhattan), your mail carrier almost certainly executes his or her route in a “boustrephedonic” pattern.


With all thy getting, get out of town.

Dear Word Detective: As there is a new TV game show on called “National Bingo Night,” that got me to thinking. I imagine that “bingo” meaning “success or understanding” comes from the shout made in the party game of the same name when you win, but where does the game name “Bingo” come from? — Harry Crawford.

Is it just my imagination, or is TV increasingly coming to resemble life in the world’s most boring small town? We’ve got mortifying “talent” (or lack thereof) shows, “surrogate moms tell misfits how to dress” shows, “clean your room” shows, and several televised weight-loss tournaments, one specializing in humiliating D-list celebrities. What’s next? Extreme quilting? I’m holding out for “Bake Sale Autopsy.” That I would watch.

bingo08.pngI actually have a bit of a soft spot for Bingo, probably because I am fond of games where I don’t actually have to think, even a little, to win. “Rock, scissors, paper,” for instance, confuses the heck out of me. “Paper wraps rock”? Is it somebody’s birthday? Rock beats paper in real life, doesn’t it? Never mind.

“Bingo,” of course, is a game played in groups, sometimes quite large, where players have cards marked with numbers arranged in a grid. When the announcer (or “caller”) calls a number that occurs on a player’s card, it is marked. The first player to mark an entire row of a card wins, and announces that fact by shouting “Bingo!”

The origin of the word “bingo” seems to pose a classic chicken-or-egg question: is the game called “Bingo” because game winners shout it, or do folks shout “bingo!” as an interjection in other situations (expressing, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, “the sudden completion of an event, occurrence of an idea, or confirmation of a guess”) in imitation of winning the game Bingo?

Unfortunately, there is no clear winner here. The two uses (game name and interjection) appeared in print at roughly the same time, the interjection “bingo” in 1927 and the game name in 1936. An argument in favor of the game coming first is that Bingo itself is a form of Lotto, which dates back to at least the 18th century. On the other hand, “bing” has a history as indicating sudden action since the 1920s (“Now I do this kind of thing On the wing, on the wing! Bing!”, James Joyce, Ulysses). This “bing” is almost certainly “echoic” in origin, meant to imitate the sound of sudden impact or explosion. “Bingo” is also a 17th century slang term for brandy (as in “stingo and bingo,” strong ale and brandy).

My suspicion is that the interjection “bingo” came first, growing out of “bing,” and was adopted as the name of the game because (a) winning is sudden and exciting, and (b) the game resembles Lotto, making the “o” ending appropriate. But the game of Bingo certainly popularized “bingo” as an interjection, so, at least in that sense, everybody wins.


I’m still waiting for my Mister O’Malley.

Dear Word Detective: In “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” Damon Runyon refers to the main character as “a guy with no Barnaby whatever in him.” I’m stumped. What could “Barnaby” be? I can find no other explanation or citation of this phrase. Can you enlighten me? — Thomas.

Thanks for an interesting question, one which, I’ll admit, caught my eye because it invoked the name of Damon Runyon. Most folks who recognize his name today (a dwindling number, I fear) know Runyon as the writer behind “Guys and Dolls,” the great Broadway musical made into a classic film in 1955. But Runyon also wrote more than twenty books and countless stories, newspaper articles and poems, many chronicling the world of speakeasies, gangsters and gamblers in New York’s Times Square in the period during and just after Prohibition.

I tracked down Runyon’s “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” online, and it’s a classic Runyon story set largely in a Times Square speakeasy at Christmastime. The relevant passage, for our purposes, is “Anybody in town will tell you that Dancing Dan is a guy with no Barnaby whatever in him, and in fact he has about as much gizzard as anybody around, although I wish to say I always question his judgment in dancing so much with Miss Muriel O’Neill, who works in the Half Moon night club.”

So, who is this “Barnaby”? My first thought was of Crockett Johnson’s wonderful comic strip of the same name, which featured a small boy named Barnaby and his unconventional fairy godfather, the cigar-smoking Mister O’Malley (left). I suspected that by “Barnaby,” Runyon perhaps meant a credulous person likely to believe in fairies. But Johnson’s Barnaby didn’t appear until 1942, and “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1932, which would rule out that source.

A more likely explanation is that Runyon’s “Barnaby” was a modified form of the slang term “barney,” meaning “a uselessly stupid fellow” or “a dolt” (rooted in the English dialect term “barney” meaning a rigged horse race or a stupid or dishonest person). The peerless humorist S.J. Perelman used “barney” during the same period (“A flock of dumber barnies than the clerks at the Sub-Treasury I never met,” Don’t Tread on Me, 1929). Runyon was never shy about modifying vocabulary (and basic rules of grammar) to suit his characters’ voices, so “barney” becoming “Barnaby” on the narrator’s tongue is not a stretch. His use of “gizzard” in that passage, incidentally, was slang of the day for “courage” or “spirit.” So to describe Dancing Dan as having “no Barnaby” but plenty of “gizzard” in him was to say he was clever and had nerve to spare, a description borne out in the course of Runyon’s story.