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Screed

Please don’t foam.

Dear Word Detective:  We are renovating our 1926 beach cottage in Laguna Beach.  Two of our workmen have used the word “screed” for a long straight board used to ensure the flatness of a surface.  Is this word the same as the word used for a “lengthy speech” or “harangue”?  If so, what is the connection? — Jim Brown.

“Screed” is a great word, isn’t it?  Of course, like many great words, “screed” is a heavily loaded term, which is what makes it so much fun.  Used in its primary modern meaning of “a very long speech or piece of writing, often in a ranting or polemical tone,” it signals that the writer who labels a speech or essay a “screed” was less than convinced by the “screed” in question.  A reader complains, for example, to the Los Angeles Times about a recent op-ed (“It’s hard to know where to start responding to Benkof’s hate screed, disguised as it is in the cloak of reasonable argument”), while over in Austin the newspaper takes to complaining about its own readers (“Among the anonymous postings was one screed that accused the upset Hazy Hills residents … of all sorts of bad things without supporting evidence”).  The use of “screed” to characterize an opponent’s words is thus a vivid illustration of the first rule of civilized political discourse, which is, of course, “I am passionate and right, but you are nuts and wrong.”

One might imagine, given the contentious connotation of “screed” applied to words, that the sort of “screed” your contractors employ took its name from the use of such a long, flat board to whack one’s opponents.  But the actual origin of the word is, fortunately, perfectly peaceful.

The root of our modern “screed” is the Old English “screade,” meaning “a piece cut off.”  The same root also gave us our modern English words “shred,” “scroll” and “shroud.”  In fact, “screed” is regarded as simply a variant form of “shred,” which preceded “screed” in English by about three centuries.

When “screed” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant simply “a fragment cut or torn from the main piece” or, a bit later, “a strip of torn cloth.”  This sense evolved over the centuries to include the use of “screed” to mean “a strip of land” or “a border,” as one might add a fancy border to a piece of cloth or paper.  In the late 18th century, this sense of “long strip of something” produced “screed” meaning “a long list, a lengthy discourse or diatribe, or a gossiping letter,” and our modern polemical “screed” was born (“Mr. Manson threatens a long screed of poetry on the subject,” 1812).

At about the same time, however, the earlier “long strip” sense of “screed” was put to use by plasterers, who applied the term to a variety of devices, including long, straight strips of wood, that they used to ensure that a plastered surface, such as a wall, was perfectly even.  In the building trades today, “screed” is used for nearly any kind of device or arrangement used to ensure that the finished result is level (“A screed of cement and sand is laid later to provide a smooth and level surface for whatever floor finish is to be used,” 1956).

Journey Proud

Are we there yet?  HuhHuhHuh?

Dear Word Detective:  My mother is fond of calling the nervousness one feels the night or day before a trip as being “journey proud.”  She says it is a Virginia (especially Richmond) anachronism, but I cannot find its derivation anywhere.  I would appreciate your help on this matter. — Clay Witt.

Good question.  I hadn’t heard “journey proud” before, but it’s a great expression, and I certainly know the feeling.  I remember as a kid being so wound up the day before we went on vacation that I couldn’t sleep.  As a matter of fact, I don’t remember sleeping once we were on the road, either.  I do remember sneaking over to the motel room window at 3 a.m. to watch the trucks roar by.

“Journey proud” is indeed considered archaic today, but it’s not all that ancient.  As recently as 1972, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) reported that the expression was said to be a common “Old South” locution still occasionally heard.  But “journey proud” must have been more widespread in the US at one point, because the earliest citation for it in DARE, from 1891, is “I have heard New Englanders speak of a person as ‘journey-proud,’ meaning that one is so elated on the eve of a journey as to care nothing for food.”  The phrase was also common in England during the same period (“In Cheshire, .. a village good-wife, describing her farm-labourer husband’s first visit to Manchester, declared that he was ‘that journey-proud that he couldn’t eat a bite o’ breakfast’,” 1908).

The “journey” in “journey proud” means simply “trip,” but the “proud” differs slightly from the normal meaning of the word, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “Feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an act, possession, quality, or relationship by which one measures one’s stature or self-worth.”  The “proud” in “journey proud” is an older English dialect sense lacking the normal self-congratulatory aspects of “proud” and meaning simply “very pleased and excited” (“She will be proud to have her tooth stop aching,” 1895).  There is, however, a secondary meaning of “journey proud,” which first appeared in the 1950s, which employs the modern “I’m wonderful” sense of “proud” and means “conceited because one has traveled.”

“Journey,” by the way, is an interesting word in itself, derived from the Old French “journee,” meaning “a day’s work or travel,” and ultimately from the Latin “diurnus,” meaning “of one day” or “daily.”  A “journey” was thus originally the distance that could be traveled in one day, or, later, in a specified number of days (“a three day journey”).  This original “by the day” sense of “journey” persists in the term “journeyman,” meaning a worker who has served an apprenticeship and works for hire by the day.  The term thus has nothing to do with wandering from town to town looking for work.

Hoosegow & Pokey

Lemme outta here.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the words “hoos-cow” and “pokey” originate as slang for jail? — Siobhan Taaffe.

Oh boy, jail.  Also known as the slammer.  The tank. The big house.  The clink.  The joint.  The Graybar Hotel.  The cooler. Stir. Inside.  Gosh, you’d never guess that the US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, would you?  So it’s not very surprising that we have so many slang synonyms for “correctional institution.”  By the way, every time I hear the euphemism “correctional institution,” I picture a training school for proofreaders, which is ironic because I once worked with two proofreaders who were eventually dragged away by the FBI for insider trading.

Much as I like the spelling “hoos-cow” (“Hoos cow is that in the cafeteria?”), the standard form of the word is “hoosegow” (although there are more than a thousand Google hits for “hooscow,” so that may change).  “Hoosegow” is a souvenir of our close connection to Mexico, a modified form of the Mexican Spanish word “juzgado,” meaning “jail.”  The original meaning of “juzgado,” interestingly, was “tribunal” or “court,” and the word is derived from the Latin “judicare,” meaning “to judge” (and from which our “judge” and “judgment” also derive).  “Hoosegow” first arose in the the western US, probably in the 19th century, although the first occurrence of the word in print found so far is from 1908.

“Pokey” as slang for “jail” dates to early 20th century America and is actually a variant form of “pogey,” a 19th century English word for “poorhouse” or “welfare hotel.”  The roots of “pogey” are largely a mystery, but the word may be related to the adjective “poky,” an interesting word in itself.  The original sense of “poky,” in the 18th century, was, logically, “something that pokes,” i.e., projects or points out (as in a “poke bonnet,” a style of the day that featured a prominent brim).  In the 19th century, the word came to mean “cramped or confined,” as a small room might make a resident feel “poked at” by the walls.  Since jail cells are not known for their generous elbow room, this is probably the connection between “poky” (cramped) and “pokey” (jail).

“Poky” also acquired the meaning of “dull, narrow-minded and slow” here in the US, probably from that same sense of “cramped.”  “Poky” today is a useful little word that can be applied to anything from horses (“Plop, plop, plopity plop… The feet of Father Ready’s poky old saddle horse slowly ate upon the weary miles,” 1932) to computer programs (“HyperCard is quite poky when running on a standard 1-megabyte Mac Plus, even from a hard disk,” 1989).