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Besides, the last time I tried, something growled at me from the corner

Dear Word Detective:  As I was tidying up my desk, I stopped to ponder the word “tidy.” It means “neat and orderly” but it can also mean a considerable amount of something, as in “she inherited a tidy sum of money.”  Wouldn’t that be nice?  The dictionary says that it comes from “tidi” meaning “in season or healthy.”  Can you shed some light into this history? — Margherita.

Why, sure.  Incidentally, you and I are birds of a feather.  I’ve been attempting to tidy up my desk (the whole office, actually) for years, but I never get very far before the pondering sets in and my tidying grinds to an untidy halt.  I think my main problem is the books.  I get halfway down a stack and suddenly remember something especially good in one of them and go looking for it, and that’s it for the day.  Maybe I should take my glasses off before I try to tidy up.

“Tidy” is an interesting little word, and though all our modern English words have evolved at least a little over the course of the centuries, “tidy” has been more peripatetic than most.

The root of “tidy” is the prehistoric Germanic root “tidiz,” meaning “time,” more precisely “a specific portion of time.”  That Germanic “tidiz” is also the source of our modern English word “time” as well as of “tide.”  Although we think of “tide” today as meaning the cyclical rise and fall of the sea, that meaning only arose in the 14th century, and originally “tide” meant simply “time” or “season.”  This is the sense preserved in words such as “Yuletide,” meaning the Christmas season.  The reason for that side trip into “tide” is that “tidy” is essentially simply an adverbial form of “tide” in the old “time” sense.  Thus, when “tidy” first appeared in English in the 13th century, it meant “at the proper time,” i.e., “timely,” “in season” (and therefore “healthy”), or “opportune” (and therefore “excellent”).

That sense of “tidy” meaning “excellent” then evolved into meaning “of good character, brave, worthy,” but by the 19th century had been diluted to meaning “pretty good” or “pretty big,” a sense we still use in speaking of a “tidy” fortune, not billions but enough to live on comfortably.

Applied to persons, “tidy” during the 18th century meant “neat in dress or habits,” and applied to a household, “neatly arranged and in proper order” (“There was not a neater, more scrupulously tidy, or more punctiliously ordered house in Clerkenwell,” Dickens, 1840).  This is the adjective sense of “tidy” that gave us, in the 19th century, the verb “to tidy,” meaning “to make clean and orderly, to arrange neatly.”  So “tidy,” a word that originally meant “at the proper time,” came to mean “neat and clean.”


Poets in power ties?

Dear Word Detective:  When most people are looking for work they are trying to “get hired,” but when a musician or band is looking for employment, they are trying to get a “gig.”  What gives?  Where did “gig” come from? — Ron J.

Dude, get with the program.  Every job is a “gig” today.  Calling your job a “gig” is a way of saying “I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.”  And it’s not just laconic “baristas” at Starbucks.  I’ve heard corporate lawyers describe their positions as “gigs.” Personally, if I had a job that paid a half-million a year, I’d superglue myself to that “gig.”

Considering that it’s such a short little word, you certainly get your money’s worth with “gig.”  Counting both noun and verb forms, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists and defines thirteen separate “gigs.”  Some of these “gigs” are clearly related, but the trick is figuring out exactly how.  “Gig” is a tricky little word, and, as the OED notes, “the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.”

The first incarnation of “gig,” around 1225, was to mean “a flighty, giddy girl,” although this sense may well have been based on an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “something that spins or whirls” (as later found in “whirligig”).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gig” may be onomatopoeic or “imitative” in origin, meaning that the word itself was meant to suggest something small that whirls.  This sense of “gig” later came to also mean “an odd person, a fool” as well as “a joke” or “a state of boisterous merriment and fun” (“in high gig”).

Another sense of “gig” appeared in the 18th century meaning “light one-horse carriage,” perhaps based on the “bouncing, whirling” sense of the earlier “gig.”  The same word was later applied to a small boat used to ferry crew to a larger ship, and a small spear used to catch fish was also called a “gig,” although the connection of this to other “gigs” is unclear.  Is it just me, or is this a lot like wandering through a darkened room, stumbling over furniture?

In any case, we now arrive at 1926 and the first recorded appearance of “gig” in print in the “musical engagement” sense.  The OED (and all other major dictionaries) label this usage as “origin unknown,” but there seem to be two theories.  One traces this use to an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “a gambling bet” (possibly from the use of a spinning wheel in some original “gig” game), which then was generalized to mean “a business undertaking,” and then applied to a musical performance.

The other, which I tend to favor, ties “gig” in the musical engagement sense to the original “spinning” meaning of the word, perhaps influenced by the Old French “gigue,” meaning “dance,” which also gave us “jig.”  Since playing at dances is how most musicians in history have made their livings, the use of “gig” to mean such a job makes perfect sense.

Hope (Help)

Blast from the past.

Dear Word Detective:  While this is not of earth-shaking importance, I hope you can “hope” me out of this quandary.  As I was growing up during the Great Depression in rural East Texas, my grandmother used the word “hope” to mean “help.”  She also used the word “help,” but maybe with a slightly different meaning.  Was this just ignorance on her part, a holdover from her Irish heritage or is there an etymological basis for this usage?  She wasn’t the only one who used “hope” in this sense; many aunts (pronounced “aints”) used the word in the same sense. —   Morgan, New Mexico.

Thanks for a great question.  It may not be earth-shaking, but it’s exactly the kind I like, namely one that leads me down an unfamiliar trail.  My initial suspicion was that this was simply a question of unusual pronunciation (on a par with “aints” for “aunts”) that had become standard in a region, but it turned out to be a more complicated and interesting story.

George Bernard Shaw is often quoted as saying that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” referring to the many differences between US and British vocabulary and usage.  But if  Shaw had spent a few months hitchhiking around the US (there’s a screenplay for you), he’d probably have concluded that America actually spoke at least fifty varieties of English all by itself.  American English is a patchwork of dialects, many of which can seem pretty mysterious to an outsider, and it’s not unusual to find a regional word or usage, unknown in (or long ago dropped from) the mainstream national vocabulary, alive and well outside our large cities.  Fortunately, there are scholars cataloging and preserving these regional quirks.  The most ambitious project in this field, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), now stands at four large volumes and its dedicated staff is still out there collecting.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that your grandmother was not ignorant or eccentric, and she was far from alone in her use of what sounded like “hope” to mean “help.”

Our modern English word “help,” both the noun and verb form, is very old, drawn from the Old English “helpan” (meaning “to help”), which in turn was derived from the Proto-Germanic root “kelb,” which also produced the equivalent of “help” in a number of other European languages.  The general sense of “help” has been “to aid, to assist,” with various related meanings added along the way, such as “to help” meaning “to serve food to,” which gave us our modern “helping” meaning “a portion of food.”

In modern usage, the verb “to help” follows the standard English conjugation form in number and tense (I help, she helps, they help, they helped, etc.), but it was not always so simple.  “Help” retained, in various English dialects, the old forms of irregular English verbs (as in “begin/ began/ begun” or “sleep/slept”) well into the 18th century, and the traces of this “irregularity” persist in some regional dialects, including in the American South (which, for linguistic purposes, includes Texas).  The specific archaic form of “help” that persists to this day in the region is “holpe,” “holp” or (tada!) “hope” used as various tenses of “help.”  This “hope” is indistinguishable in pronunciation from “hope” meaning “wish for.”  So your grandmother was actually saying “help,” but she was saying it in a very old way.