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Ingénue / Ingenious

Who, me?

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between ingénue (which my spell checker insists is not a word, foolish thing) and ingenuity? It’s hard to imagine they’re not related, but on the surface they seem almost opposites. — Patrick Bowman.

I don’t know what spell checker you’re using but my LibreOffice rightly points out that all “ingénue” needs to pass muster is that accent over the first “e.” LibreOffice is the free open source word processing suite I use and highly recommend, although I have more or less given up trying to pry people away from Microsoft Word. Everybody seems to hate Word, but they’re all afraid to try alternatives, and when I suggest they take it for a spin they recoil as if I’ve offered them a bite of squid-flavored ice cream.

You’ve asked a question to which the answer is weirdly complicated, so we’ll just begin with “ingénue,” which is defined as “an innocent or naive young woman” (or, by extension, the sort of young actress who typically plays such characters in movies or plays). The first appearance of “ingénue” found so far in English literature came in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 1848 (“When attacked sometimes, Becky had a knack of adopting a demure ingénue air, under which she was most dangerous”). Though you can’t tell from that quote, Thackeray italicized the word because he was borrowing it from French, where it is a feminine form of the adjective “ingénu,” meaning “naive, innocent” or (its English equivalent) “ingenuous.”

“Ingenuous” has an interesting history in English. It first appeared in the early 17th century meaning “free-born” or “of free and honorable birth,” derived from the Latin “ingenuus” (“in” plus “gen,” from “gignere,” to beget). In Latin, “ingenuus” carried not only the meaning of “native, free-born,” but also “noble,” “frank” and “honest,” assumed to be qualities of a native Roman. In English, “ingenuous” carried those same senses at first, adding “generous,” “high-minded” and “honest.” By the late 17th century, “ingenuous” was also being used in the specific sense, now common, of “innocently open or frank” as an ingénue would be (“These were fine notions to have got into the head of an ingenuous country maiden,” 1877). This is a sense sadly more often encountered in its antonym “disingenuous,” meaning “insincere” or (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), “morally fraudulent” (“It is a disingenuous thing to ask for advice, when you mean assistance,” 1875).

“Ingenuous” is often confused with “ingenious” because they differ by only one letter, but the connection between the words is deeper than form. English developed “ingenious” from the French “ingénieux” in the late 15th century. The French word was adapted from the Latin “ingeniosus,” which meant “clever, intellectual, talented,” and was based on “ingenium,” which meant “innate abilities” and came from the same roots that produced “ingenuous.” So the words are very close cousins.

In English, “ingenious,” applied to a person, originally simply meant “intelligent, clever,” and describing a thing meant “showing cleverness or talent.” By the late 16th century, both these uses had shifted a bit, and “ingenious” began to be used in its modern senses of “clever at constructing or developing things” (“The division of labour leads to invention, because it enables ingenious men to make invention their profession,” 1878) and, of things, “cleverly and skillfully designed” (“The most ingenious and beautiful contrivances for deep-sea soundings were resorted to,” 1860).

Lastly, if you find yourself confusing “ingenious” with “ingenuous,” you have good company. There’s a long history of famous writers doing just that, and even Shakespeare used “ingenuous” to mean “talented” when he meant “ingenious” (in Love’s Labor Lost) and vice-versa (“ingenious” for “ingenuous,” well-born, in The Taming of the Shrew).

Out of hand

In your dreams.

Dear Word Detective: I recently used the phrase “rejected out of hand,” meaning “rejected automatically or without having to consider it.” I could not imagine a story that would explain why this phrase should mean that, unless the idea of autopilot has been around much longer than I suspect. Is it maybe a corruption of a non-English word or phrase? — Mike Fairman.

Hmm. That’s interesting. I realized just now that the word “autopilot” makes me vaguely anxious; it’s not quite as bad as “hand grenade,” but it’s close. The whole idea of handing that kind of control to a machine is creepy; didn’t anybody see Kubrick’s “2001”? Google, of course, is developing “self-driving” cars, an enterprise to which far too little attention, in my opinion, has been paid. These are the people who, when you search for “Charles Dickens,” show you pictures of squirrels on water skis. But I’m sure their cars will be awesome. What could possibly go wrong?

Hands are useful things. They’re “handy” (a term originally meaning “done by hand” in the 14th century; later “useful,” “easily accessible” and, of people, “clever or proficient with one’s hands”). The word “hand” itself is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (in a very old entry, in part from 1898) as “The terminal part of the arm beyond the wrist, consisting of the palm and five digits, forming the organ of prehension characteristic of man.” Our modern English “hand” comes from the Old English “hand” or “hond,” which came from ancient Germanic roots.

“Hand” in English has developed dozens of meanings, many of them figurative, from “hand” meaning “assistance” (“lend a hand”) to “symbol of marriage” (“In obedience to your commands I gave him my hand within this hour,” 1794). A “hand” can also be a person, from the “deck hand” on a ship to the “hired hand” on a farm. “Hand” can also denote the position of something in a metaphorical series of “hands” though which it might pass, e.g., “first-hand account” or “secondhand shoes.” And if you do something well, you deserve a “hand” in the sense of “applause” (“Three lusty cheers and a big hand for Charles, Our Star Square Dance Host!” 1948).

“Out of hand” meaning “immediately; without consideration or thought; summarily” (“When his brother asked to borrow $10,000, Dennis snorted and dismissed the suggestion out of hand”), is the opposite of the phrase “in hand,” which appeared in the early 15th century. “In hand” has a number of senses (including “in possession of,” as in “I have the money in hand”), among which is “in the control of; under consideration or being dealt with” (“He … gave his whole attention to whatever he had in hand,” 1888).

“Out of hand” first appeared at about the same time as that sense of “in hand.” Probably its most common use is in the sense of “out of control,” i.e., no longer “in hand” (“Your temper seems to have got rather out of hand,” 1883). The use of “out of hand” in the sense of “with no pause or consideration” simply means that the question posed was not held “in hand” for even a moment, i.e., never seriously considered. People rarely react well when their concerns are dismissed “out of hand” (“Salome and her Faction were Tooth and Nail for dispatching her out of Hand,” 1733), which is probably why so many customer service recordings today begin with “Your call is important to us.”


Geez, when I was a kid, we just called ’em shivs.

Dear Word Detective: I have been reading an excellent book, A Conspiracy of Paper, set in the early 1700’s in London, England. In this book, the hero frequently uses the word “hangar” to mean “sword.” Sometimes he also uses the word “sword” to mean “sword,” so there may be a small difference. I have looked through your archives and see that you have addressed the uncertain history of the word “hangar” meaning a shed or storage place, especially for airplanes, but I see no mention of the use of this word to mean “sword.” Can you shed any light on this usage? — Jim Brown.

Of course. Um, I wrote about “hangar”? News to me. Let’s see. Well, by golly, so I did. You’d be amazed, incidentally, at how often I resort to searching my own website. And by “amazed” I mean, of course, “deeply disturbed.” Anyway, it was way back in 2001, so it’s not like it was just last week, although I can’t claim to remember what I wrote last week, either.

To say that the origin of “hangar” in the “airplane storage” sense is “uncertain” is a serious understatement. It’s close to a complete mystery. As I said back in 2001 (yup, pulling a Jonah Lehrer flashback here), “We do know that ‘hangar’ first appeared in English around 1852, used to mean a covered shed for the storage of carriages, and that its use to mean ‘large building used to store aircraft’ dates back to 1902. We also know that our ‘hangar’ was borrowed directly from the French ‘hangar,’ which in turn came from the Middle French ‘hanghart.’ The trail gets murky at this point, but one possible source for those French words is the Middle Dutch ‘ham-gaerd,’ meaning ‘enclosure near a house.'”

But wait! We have good news! I’m not sure why the author of the book you’ve been reading spelled the word “hangar,” but the word he almost certainly meant is “hanger,” a clarification which opens up the wonderful world of actual answers to your question. (In the author’s defense, I should point out that the word was apparently sometimes spelled “hangar” back in the 16th century, so perhaps he was just trying to be historically accurate.)

A “hanger” is, in the most basic sense, simply “one who hangs” (such as a “paper-hanger,” installing wallpaper), or something that hangs from something (such as curtains) or from which something hangs (such as a clothes hanger). Most of the sub-definitions of “hanger” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are pretty boring, but I was intrigued by definition 2.e. of “hanger,” which is “A pendant catkin.” A “catkin” turns out to be not a small cat (fortunate, considering the context), but a cylindrical cluster of flowers produced by some plants (such as willow trees). The “catkin” does take its name from the Dutch “katteken” (kitten) because it is thought to resemble a kitten’s tail.

Meanwhile, back at “hanger,” the term was apparently used in the late 16th century to mean “A loop or strap on a sword-belt from which the sword was hung; often richly ornamented” (OED) (“I give unto my nephew … my guilt wrought sword and the girdle and hangers to it,” 1648). So that pretty securely ties “hanger” to swords. But it gets better. It turns out that much earlier, around 1481, the word “hanger” was used to mean a kind of short sword, originally worn on one’s belt (presumably from a “hanger”). Judging by the citations for the word in the OED, the size of a “hanger” sword fell somewhere between a dagger and a full-size sword, and a “hanger” was often used as a sort of sidearm by a combatant whose primary weapon was a bit bigger (“Their ordinary Arms are the Hanger, the Sagay, which is a very light Half-Pike, and the Bow,” 1698). So it makes perfect sense for the author of that book to use both “sword” and “hanger” in sword-rich contexts.