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Out, damn story!

Dear Word Detective: I have been having an argument recently with my fiancé about the origin of the word “stain.” He says that is comes from “ye olde Englishe tymes,” when someone would say, “That wine is going to stay in your shirt!” Of course, meaning that “stay-in” became “stain.” This sounds convincing, but I was there when he made it up on the spot. However, he is so charmingly convincing that everyone believes him! I am utterly convinced that that is not the origin of the word, seeing as he came up with all of it himself, but I can’t find the origins anywhere. He promises to stop telling people this when I prove him wrong, so could you please help me stop him? It would help make the world a less misinformed place. — Roxanne.

A less misinformed place, eh? Good luck with that. Speaking of information (or the lack thereof), I’ll see your fiancé’s spurious invention and raise you something truly disturbing. I recently discovered that many people around here, especially those under 30 or so, have no idea which way North is. Yes, North, the direction. Seriously. But they seem content in this state, and I suppose that if they ever decide to wander off they’ll be able to ask their cell phones how to get home. Doesn’t augur well for the post-apocalyptic society, though.

At the risk of encouraging your fiancé’s inventions, I should note that his idea about the origin of “stain” is not, actually, completely crazy. English forms words in many ways, and sometimes it does so by taking two or more existing words and smooshing them (the technical term) together. Folks who have been paying attention may remember that we recently wrestled with the assertion by Dan Brown (of “Da Vinci Code” fame) that our modern word “atone” was born of such a smooshing of the phrase “at one,” meaning a state of unity with the universe, stamp collecting, or whatever floats your personal boat. That’s essentially true, although our modern “atone” carries the sense of expiating a wrong done, rather than just feeling groovy about the universe.

“Stain,” however, was not created through such smooshing (love that word), although its story is not without some serious weirdness. Our modern word “stain” first appeared in English in the late 14th century, and appears to have developed from an aphetic, or cropped, form of the Old French “desteindre.” Oddly, however, that French word meant not to “stain” in our modern sense of “to dye” (as in staining wood) or “to blemish with color” (as in a stain on clothing), but nearly the opposite, “to remove the color from, to fade.” Consequently, “stain” in English was originally used to mean “to deprive of color.”

Just how “stain” came to mean “to alter appearance of something by adding color, either intentionally or by accident” is unclear. The “des” of that Old French root “desteindre” may have been interpreted as meaning not “un” (as it did) but “differently,” as if “stain” should mean “to change the color of something.” It’s also possible that the development of “stain” was influenced by the Old Norse verb “steina,” meaning “to paint.” It’s all a bit of a muddle, and nowhere near as satisfying as your swain’s story, but it does have the virtue of being true.

Chicano / Chicanery

Not. Even. Close.

Dear Word Detective: I have read your column for years now, and always smile when I hear a story from a tour guide giving me the supposed origin of a word or phrase. Not because I know the true origin, but because I’ve read your words of wisdom “Never trust a tour guide” too many times! This past weekend was no exception. In San Diego, the tour guide told us that the word “Chicano” (meaning a Mexican-American) came from the word “chicanery.” According to his story, Texas was fighting to become a separate sovereign nation in the mid 1800s and felt that to do so, everyone from Mexico had to be kicked out of the state. Of course, those deported didn’t think that was quite right and some of the young Mexican men came back to cause trouble — in other words, to participate in “chicanery” and mischief — hence the word “Chicano” to specifically mean a young Mexican-American man. This seems seriously far-fetched to me. My dictionary says “Chicano” is from the word “Mexicano” and originated over 100 years after that conflict. Please tell me that you are, once again, correct about tour guides! — Ellen.

Well, I’m reluctant to permanently alienate all the tour guides on the planet; you never know when one might rescue you, Saint Bernard style, with a tiny keg of Pepto-Bismol at a especially toxic tourist-trap buffet. But that particular tour guide is either a frustrated fiction writer or simply insane. Maybe both.

“Chicano,” meaning a person of Mexican birth or descent residing in the US, does indeed come from the Mexican Spanish word “Mexicano” (Spanish “mejicano”), and first appeared in print as a noun in 1947. As an adjective, “Chicano,” meaning “of or pertaining to Mexican-Americans,” came along quite a bit later, first appearing in 1967. The transformation of “Mexicano” into “Chicano” was apparently largely due to the pronunciation of “Mexicano” in Mexican Spanish, where the first syllable is unaccented and nearly unvoiced. “Chicano” also probably reflects the influence of the Spanish “chico,” meaning “boy,” frequently used as a nickname or term of familiar address.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “chicanery” as “Legal trickery, pettifogging, abuse of legal forms; the use of subterfuge and trickery in debate or action; quibbling, sophistry, trickery,” but “clever trickery” probably covers most uses of the term (“You don’t need to look abroad to find evidence of fraud and chicanery in corporate operations,” Motley Fool, 8/10). Unfortunately, “chicanery” itself is a tricky little word, and its origins are a bit murky. It first appeared in print in English in the early 17th century, borrowed from the French “chicanerie,” meaning “trickery,” which was derived from the Middle French “chicaner,” meaning “to trick, pettifog or deceive.” The origins of that “chicaner” are uncertain, but the best bet seems to be that it represents a borrowing of the Middle Low German word “schikken,” meaning “to arrange or bring about.” A person who routinely practices “chicanery,” incidentally, has been known since the late 17th century as a “chicaner,” a word that obviously deserves to be far more well known than it is.


And chicken fingers. Lots of chicken fingers.

Dear Word Detective: As part of my weight-gaining regimen, I often drink a Snapple. Today the cap Real Fact #752 was “A group of twelve or more cows is called a flink.” I cannot find much information on this word, though I now know that cows may have regional accents. Can you hang a tale on this word? — Charlie N.

Feh. Snapple is for pikers. Our local newspaper prints the school lunch menu, and I noticed recently that the little monsters seem to get something called “Bosco Sticks” as a main course at least three times a week. Bosco Sticks are not, as I had expected, giant chocolate bars. They turn out to be Brobdingnagian breadsticks filled with tomato sauce and cheese (“Just thaw, bake or deep fry, and top with butter and parmesan cheese for a delicious breadstick!”). Yeah, don’t forget the butter. Now we know why Johnny can’t breathe. But for quick weight gain, Bosco Sticks sound like just the ticket. You’ll have to give up climbing stairs, of course.

Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who willingly falls for every cute or quirky animal story that comes galloping down the pike, that thing about cows having regional accents is not, as far as anyone knows, true. Back in 2006, an English dairy farmers’ group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers were preparing to market a new line of regional cheeses. A public relations firm working for the group contacted John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University of London, and asked him if it was “possible” that cows, like some birds (and cheeses, I guess), might have regional accents. Professor Wells said that it was, of course, in theory, “possible.” Presto, within days he was being quoted around the world as saying that cows did, in fact, exhibit regional twangs and drawls in their moos. Which they maybe do, maybe don’t, but nobody knows. Wanna buy some cheese?

“Flink” as a collective noun for a group of twelve (or more) cows is, as you’ve probably gathered, a bit of a mystery. The only “flink” listed by reputable dictionaries is “flink” as a 19th century US rural dialect verb meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “to behave in a cowardly manner,” and the word itself is probably simply a variant of “flinch.” The “cow” in “cowardly” is as close as “flink” gets to livestock in real dictionaries.

“Flink” is, however, found all over the internet, variously defined as “a group of twelve cows,” “at least twelve cows,” and so on. Obviously it’s not impossible for a word or usage to originate on the internet. But this isn’t “lolcat” or “spam,” and “flink” is widely presented as an established term on lists of collective animal nouns (“pod” of whales, “murder” of crows, etc.). Something is fishy.

Poking around on the trail of “flink,” I came upon what may be the explanation for its apparently sudden appearance sometime around 2002. In an article in one of the behind-the-scenes parts of Wikipedia, a user suggests that “flink” might be a fanciful invention based on the “cow” of that “cowardly” in the OED definition, and that, furthermore, “flink” might actually be a “mountweazel” that has, so to speak, escaped into the wild.

A “mountweazel,” as I explained a few months ago, is a spurious entry deliberately included in a dictionary or encyclopedia in order to trap plagiarists. (The name comes from a fictitious entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, supposedly a famous photographer of rural mailboxes, included in the 1975 edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia.) It seems entirely possible that “flink” was invented as such a mountweazel for a text, perhaps an electronic dictionary, which was then widely plagiarized on the internet, giving the imaginary “flink” a life of its own. Of course, if “flink” is still popping up on the internet in a few years, it’ll be time to begin considering it a “real” word fit for “real” dictionaries.