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February 2009 Issue

Sorry about the delay in posting this issue. A cat was using the computer.

While cooling my heels in the next room (I can hardly wait to see what FedEx delivers to Mister Boots next week), I’ve been paying entirely too much attention to the End of the World and am now on first-name terms with Nouriel Roubini, Joe Stiglitz and Yves Smith (who I had been assuming until recently is a man but is rather obviously not).  Anyway, I’m finally to the point where I kinda sorta understand credit default swaps, which is pretty scary in itself and which I take as Nature’s way of telling me to go back to bed.  If anyone cares, my personal take on all this is that the US economy has been broken for a long, long time, and re-inflating the housing bubble (or conjuring up a whole new bubble) is not a productive long-term strategy.  I can’t imagine what the answer to all this might be, but I think it would be nice if it involved rebuilding our rail system.  I like trains.

Onward. Before I forget, it is no longer necessary to create an account on this site and log in to leave comments on the columns.  If you have already created an account and picked a login and  password, you might as well just go ahead and forget both of them.  The old system was confusing and never worked for a lot of people, so now anyone can wander in here and comment on anything.  The catch is that I have to moderate the comments, so it may be a day or two, or more, before your comment appears online.

Lastly, if you are not yet a subscriber to this site, please consider becoming one.

Roughly 30,000 people visit this site every month, which is great. Many of you are repeat visitors, which is wonderful. This site has been a free resource for the internet community for almost 15 years, and I love producing it.

In the beginning, this site was just an addendum to my work for newspapers and writing books. Unfortunately, the collapse of newspapers and book publishing has coincided with my increasing disability from ms, and the small income from this site has become more important than I ever would have imagined.  So if you can swing $15 per year, it would be truly appreciated.

And now, on with the show

Dobby Horse

Whoa Nellie.

Dear Word Detective:  Growing up in New England from English and Scottish heritage, the merry-go-round was referred to in my family as riding the “Darby (or Dobby) Horses.”  Where did that term originate? — Elizabeth.

Whoa, flashback time.  I must have been to dozens of carnivals and amusement parks in my life, but nothing can compare to my first love, Playland in Rye, New York, just across the state line from where I grew up in Connecticut.  Playland, located on the shore of Long Island Sound, first opened in 1928, and retains a simplicity and innocence close to its original form (undoubtedly because it is owned and run by the Town of Rye itself).

Playland boasts two merry-go-rounds, both perfectly preserved masterpieces of the art, one the Grand Carousel with elaborately carved horses and a majestic Italian band organ.  The other, built in 1926, is one of only three “Derby Racer” carousels still in existence.  Derby Racers were merry-go-rounds where the horses actually moved forward and back (as well as up and down) as the carousel spun at three times the usual speed.  The Playland horses no longer move forward and back, but the Derby Racer ride is still too strenuous for many people (as one Playland visitor wrote online, “If you ride this thing once a day for two weeks, you’ll have abs like Chuck Norris”).

The Derby Racer ride took its name (as did the Kentucky Derby) from “Derby” as commonly used in the name of races since the founding of a famous annual horse race by the Earl of Derby in Derby, England in 1780.  The “derby” hat (also called a “bowler”) was at one time traditional racetrack head wear.

“Darby” is a common alternate pronunciation and spelling of “Derby” in England, so it’s possible that your family was using the term “Darby horses” based on the racing motif of carousels.

It’s more likely, however, that your family meant “Dobby horse,” which is an old English term for what we would call a “hobby-horse,” a wooden replica of a horse, today usually just a horse’s head on a stick used in play by children.  “Dobby” is itself an old English dialect term (a variant of the name “Robbie,” as is “hobby”) for a simple, silly person, perhaps of the sort to be amused by such a contraption.

Dobby-horses and hobby-horses were, however, originally far more elaborate wicker replicas of horses fastened around the waists of actors in theater productions in early England, allowing them to simulate riding a horse.  Thus any replica of a horse came to be known as a “Darby horse” or “hobby-horse,” and referring to a carousel as “the dobby horses” makes perfect sense.

By the way, when we refer to an activity such as stamp collecting as a “hobby,” the original sense was that the “hobbyist” is as obsessively devoted to his pastime as a small child who rides his horse’s head “hobby-horse” for hours on end.



Dear Word Detective:  Over the years I have frequently puzzled over the origin and actual meaning (if any) of the interjection “why,” as in “Why, you dirty, rotten, no good….”  The noun and adverb seem obviously related, but the interjection does not.  Why “why?”  When I was about 20, I had a buddy, Al, with whom I would get into long, detailed, abstract conversations exploring utter nonsense at great length (mostly while drinking coffee at the Waffle House).  One evening, I made a particularly penetrating metaphysical conjecture, asking “why is so and so?”  Al, quick to trivialize my question, said, “Why not?”  That frustrated me and my inquiry.  Demanding to know why his question was better than mine, I blurted, “Why ‘Why not?’, why not ‘Why?’?”  Our discussions were always pretty deep; usually about knee deep. — Phil.

Wow.  You drank the coffee at Waffle House?  I’m surprised you both didn’t end up asking, “Why am I crawling across the parking lot in horrible pain?”  Just kidding.  I actually like Waffle House, especially their cheese-smothered hash browns.  And the world needs cheap restaurants that are open all night.

“Why” is a remarkable little word.  It might well be the quintessential “human” word, expressing as it does the search for the reasons things happen, an activity usually associated with people rather than our animal companions.  Of course, there are indications that many animals reason far more than once thought (and some humans considerably less), but human progress, such as it is, has largely been due to our reluctance to accept “because” as an answer.

Given that one of the first questions humans asked was something like “Why is that pterodactyl staring at me?”, it’s not surprising that “why” is a very old word, derived from the Indo-European root “quo,” which also gave us the useful “what” and “who.”  As an adverb, “why” is used to introduce a question (“Why did you leave?”) or, in various forms, to refer to either a question or an answer (“If I told you why, you’d hate me”).  “Why?” and “Why not?” are abbreviated uses of this adverbial form, with the remainder of the question omitted because it is obvious from the context (“Should I go?”  “Why not?”).  As a noun, “why” can refer to either a question or an answer (“The region not of life’s how, but of life’s why,” 1907).

“Why” is used as an interjection in two ways:  as an expression of surprise, often with overtones of disagreement or protest (“Why, I’m as patriotic as anyone”), or expressing emphasis (“Of course you should go. Why, I’ll drive you myself”).  These uses of “why” are of fairly recent vintage, dating to the 16th century.  The form “Why, you dirty, rotten, no good….” expresses both surprise and emphasizes the statement that follows (e.g., “… I oughta punch you in the snout”).

This use of “why” as an interjection is purely idiomatic; it really doesn’t involve “why” as the prelude to a question, and there’s no way to trace the logic, if any, of this use.  It doesn’t make sense, but many usages in English don’t.  It’s just the way we’ve used the word since the 1500s, which makes it established English usage.  So, at this late date, the answer to “Why ‘why’?” is simply “Why not?”