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Pull one’s leg.

Oh, look! TLC is showing “Lifestyles of the Easily-Amused.”

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase “Pulling my leg”? — Fred Baer.

Hello, old friend, it’s good to see you again. Not you, Fred. I mean your question. We go way back. This was one of the first questions I answered when I started writing this column, right after Bill Clinton was elected the first time. Plus ça change, eh? Whatevuh. And here we are in another election year. Boy howdy, this is exciting. Almost makes me sorry I shot my TV, for which I blame Honey Boo Boo. Seriously, you reach a point when you realize the only thing you can bear to watch is reruns of House Hunters even though you know the whole thing is pure lies. What else is there? American Hoggers? Shipping Wars? Newsroom? Please.

Onward. “Pulling someone’s leg” is a venerable idiom meaning to tell someone a tall tale as a prank or gentle hoax, or otherwise to “put one over” on someone as a good-natured joke (“The Chinese giant once told me he had half a dozen wives at home, but I think he was pulling my leg,” 1883). The phrase first appeared in print in the early 19th century (“I really think Father, in a covert way, really pulls his leg. I know he thinks little of his talent and less of his manners,” 1821), but it’s unclear whether it originated in Britain or the US. “To pull someone’s leg” has also been used, since the 1880s, to mean “to ask a person for something, especially money” (“He pulled Pickles’ leg ‘Till his victim did beg But … he needed the money,” 1908). But this usage never attained the near-universal popularity of the “pull a friendly hoax” sense.

The popularity of “pull one’s leg” is indeed truly remarkable; almost everyone fluent in English, it seems, knows and understands the phrase. Unfortunately (here it comes), no one has even a serious clue as to where it came from. There are theories, of course, but they range from the unlikely to the uninspiring. At the unlikely end of the spectrum, one theory traces the phrase to public hangings “way back when.” The friends of the condemned, it is said, would pull on his legs to speed the process and expedite a painless demise. Not only is there no historical record of this practice, but to say that it does not “fit” with subsequent use of the phrase to mean “friendly joke” is a profound understatement.

A more plausible theory suggests that the phrase refers to tripping another person either literally, as a physical joke, or metaphorically, by making the victim look gullible and silly. This theory matches the sense of the phrase and may actually be true, but it raises the question of why the leg of the victim is said to be “pulled.”

Another theory along the same lines traces the phrase to street thieves tripping their victims in order to temporarily incapacitate them. This theory shares the weaknesses of the previous one and adds a complete mismatch to the “joke” sense of the phrase.

So the origin and logic of “pulling someone’s leg” is, and at this point may well remain, a mystery. The good news is that the Brits have developed a come-back useful for those times when you’re pretty sure that someone is “pulling your leg.” The rejoinder “Pull the other one,” often in the elaborated form “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it,” first showed up in print in 1966. It’s a snappy way to say, “I know you’re putting me on and I’m not fooled, so try again” (“‘Believe it or not, neither Farrell nor I has the slightest interest in the gold…’ ‘Pull the other one!’ said Nelson derisively,” 1973).

Nerve-wracking or nerve-racking?

Pick your poison.

Dear Word Detective: So the derecho you experienced a couple of months ago was surely a nerve-wracking experience. Or was it a “nerve-racking” experience? Being rather fond of old words and original spellings, I hope that “nerve-wracking” is more historically pure, but I can’t find much in the way of certitude on this question on the interweb. — Danny.

Yes, the derecho was a real drag. On the scale of things that have happened to us since we moved from Manhattan to rural Ohio, it ranks somewhere above the ice storm a few years ago that knocked out power for a week and below the lightning that zapped me back in ’04. Life out here seems to consist of long stretches of tedium punctuated by nature trying to kill us.

The answer to your question about “wrack” versus “rack” in the expression “nerve-wracking” (or “wrack and ruin” or “racking one’s brain”) is, unfortunately, not as simple as it ought to be. As a matter of fact, the debate over whether “wrack” or “rack” is proper in each of these phrases is a muddle that has driven usage mavens bananas for decades. And I might as well admit at the outset that there is no clear answer to the question, so I hope none of you out there have any bar bets riding on this one.

Oddly enough, our journey to nowhere begins on a promising note. The words “wrack” and “rack” are etymologically completely separate, i.e., come from different sources. “Wrack” as a verb comes from the noun “wrack,” which appeared in the 14th century meaning “shipwreck” (and is related to our English word “wreck”). To “wrack” in the 16th century was to undergo or cause a shipwreck. Later that century, it was generalized to mean “to cause the ruin or downfall of a person” or “to spoil or destroy” something.

“Rack,” on the other hand, comes from Germanic roots with the sense of “to stretch out,” which produced the usual modern use of “rack” to mean a sort of frame on which things are supported or from which they are suspended. In the 15th century, mechanized racks designed to stretch cloth and leather were put to use as instruments of torture, and “rack” as a verb developed the meaning of “to inflict extreme pain; to be tormented by pain or disease.”

So if there is a distinction to be made between the modern uses of “wrack” and “rack” in such phrases as “nerve-wracking” (meaning “very stressful”), “rack and ruin” (meaning “utter destruction”) and “to wrack one’s brain” (“to desperately search one’s mind for information”), it might be based on “wrack” carrying the sense of “destroy” and “rack” connoting “torture,” “force” or “torment.” By this rationale, usage experts over the years have tended to specify “rack” for the brain and nerves, but “wrack” for the devastation of “wrack and ruin.”

Unfortunately, the actual history of these three phrases is less than helpful, to put it mildly. “Rack” appeared in the first printed use of “rack one’s brain” found so far, from the 16th century. That “rack” conjures up the image of a brain being subjected to extreme duress. But the phrase soon began to appear as “wrack one’s brain,” as if one’s mind were being torn apart in search of the desired knowledge. Confusingly, the two forms have coexisted in popular writing ever since.

“Wrack and ruin” first appeared in the 17th century, but had evidently appeared as “rack and ruin” somewhat earlier, and, predictably, both of these forms have been common since that time. “Nerve-wracking” first appeared in print in 1909, but, as you can probably guess, “rack” has stood in for “wrack” frequently.

One problem in sorting all this out is that the two words are not only homophones (identical in sound), but very close in sense, so it’s hard to point to a particular form and pronounce it logically wrong. And thanks to the tangled and inconsistent historical records of these three phrases, you can’t even point to a known original form. Personally, I prefer “wrack and ruin,” “rack one’s mind” and “nerve-wracking,” but I think anyone who writes these phrases should be prepared to be “corrected” by a true believer in the opposite form.

Medicine / Medication

Take two aspirin and call me a cab.

Dear Word Detective:  First there was “medicine,” a nice little noun meaning, in its concrete form, a pill, elixir, or ointment, or anything else that’s good for you (e.g., laughter).  Then came “medication,” which originally meant the act of “medicating” but somewhere along the line picked up the meaning of “medicine” (excluding the “anything else.”)  Now there’s “medicament,” which I understand is Latin, but why did we need a Latin word for something that we’ve already got two functioning words for? How did we get into this, pardon me, predicament? — Charles Anderson.

That’s a good question. But I wonder where you’re encountering “medicament” these days. Plugging the word into Google News produces more than 10,000 results, but almost all of them seem to be from French-language publications (which makes sense, given that “medicament” is French for “medicine”). Even the regular Google web results focus heavily on dictionary definitions at first, but then slide back into French web pages. My guess is that what you’ve encountered is some writers who, stuck with producing a few hundred words having something to do with medicine, started casting about for synonyms to relieve the monotony. It’s the same desperation for variety that drives some writers to use words like “eschew,” “prevaricate” and “pugilist.” (Other people use those words because they are pretentious twits.)

In any case, it all began with the Latin verb “medicare,” which means “to cure or heal.” The root of all the various “medical” words in English was the proto-Indo-European root “med,” which carried the sense of “to measure, consider, give advice” as well as “to heal” (and gave us the words “meditate” and “remedy,” among others). From “medicare” (or “medicari”) Latin developed “medicus” (physician), “medicina” (the work of doctors, which became “medicine,” in both the “field of study” and “healing substance” senses), and “medicationem,” healing agent or remedy, which became the English “medication” and “medicament.” Of the various words meaning “cure or drug,” the oldest is “medicine” (early 13th century), while “medicament” and  “medication” appeared roughly at the same time in the 15th century.

Interestingly, while both “medicine” and “medicament” had as their original meaning “a substance or preparation used in the treatment of illness; a drug; especially one taken by mouth” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), the original meaning of “medication” was, quite logically, “the action of treating medically” (OED), specifically treatment with a curative substance. It’s still often used in this way (Mr Miller …who has long been under medication for high blood pressure, had been ordered by his doctor to rest,” 1978).

However, by 1849, “medication” was also being used to mean the drug or medicine itself (“The doctor may recommend some medication to apply after nursing,” B. Spock, 1955). This marked a change in use of the word, and in 1934 the Merriam-Webster New World International Dictionary (M-W II) defined “medication” as “… a medicament.” So “medication” in its newer sense of “drug, remedy” supplanted, to a certain extent, the venerable “medicament.” The question remains, of course, of what’s wrong with just plain old “medicine.”

I think the answer may lie in the success of “medicine” as both a catch-all term for the broad field of medical science and as a dandy metaphor for things having nothing to do with actual doctors. Phrases such as “to take one’s medicine,” “a taste of your own medicine,” etc., made “medicine” a fairly vague and somewhat negative word. But the stern “medication” did not lend itself to catch phrases and carried an aura of science and precision the medical community wished to foster in the public mind. So doctors, et al., gravitated to “medication,” and that’s what you’ll hear on all those wretched pharmaceutical commercials. But those ads are not as obnoxious to my ear as the short form of “medication,” “meds,” which many people use when discussing their illnesses ad nauseam (“The docs have me on some new meds”). Those people could benefit from a prolonged course of leeches.