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Sammies

And they’re bringing lots of peanut butter.

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” on National Public Radio, and the theme was Memorial Day. The host Michael Lasser played Nora Bayes’ version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” In the second verse, unlike the familiar “The Yanks are coming” she sings “The Sammies are coming.” I had never heard this nickname for American soldiers before. Was it a popular nickname for doughboys in the period around WWI? Or was it Cohan trying to start a new word? — Max Urata.

Thanks for a great question, especially since I learned something in the course of researching it. Even better, as soon as I read your email, “Over There” started running through my head, mercifully replacing that dreadful “Hillary for You and Me” jingle that’s been lurking there, unbidden, for months. Incidentally, for those of you similarly afflicted, have you noticed that said ditty is a dead ringer for “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” (aka “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”) from the 1970s Coca-Cola ad campaign? Somebody ought to sue somebody.

The reason I’m so familiar with “Over There” is that “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the famous 1942 biographical film about Cohan (starring the brilliant Jimmy Cagney as Cohan), was one of my father’s favorite movies, and I must have seen it at least twenty times while growing up. George M. Cohan (1878-1942) was a songwriter, playwright, lyricist, singer, dancer, actor and producer in the early 20th century, generally considered a musical genius, and famous as “the man who owned Broadway.” In addition to “Over There,” Cohan is known for his songs “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Cohan wrote “Over There” just after the US entered the First World War in 1917, and the song was enormously popular during the war and recorded by several famous artists of the day. The lyrics of the chorus are, as far as I can tell, always cited as “Over there, over there, Send the word, send the word over there, That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, The drum’s rum-tumming everywhere….” “Yanks,” of course, is short for “Yankees,” slang for Americans.

But I did find a website (http://www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm) offering vintage recordings of the song, and the version recorded by Nora Bayes in 1917 does change “Yanks” to “Sammies” in the second verse. But another 1917 recording, by Billy Murray, has “Yanks” in both verses. The second verse of the version by Enrico Caruso seems to be in Italian, which gets us nowhere.

“Sammies” was indeed popular slang of the day, primarily in Britain, for American soldiers in World War I, drawn from the iconic character of Uncle Sam as a symbol of the US. According to an article in Stars & Stripes from 1918, however, the “Sammies” themselves were less than thrilled with the name (“A Sammie may be defined as an American soldier as he appears in an English newspaper or a French cinema. It is a name he did not invent, does not like, never uses and will not recognize”).

So Cohan definitely did not invent “Sammie,” but whether it was ever properly part of his song or simply inserted by Nora Bayes we’ll probably never know. It may be significant that another patriotic song of the same period, by S.C. Dunn, was titled “The Sammies Are Coming.” Perhaps Ms. Bayes had heard Dunn’s song and decided to “improve” Cohan’s chorus on her own.

Intensive Purposes

Might as well throw in the trowel.

Dear Word Detective: I have been having an ongoing argument with a dear friend about the phrase “for all intents and purposes,” which she swears to the death is “for all intensive purposes,” and says I sound like a ninny when I say it wrong. Can you figure out how this phrase crept into common usage and help us settle this dispute? — Collectively Confused in Columbus.

I guess this column isn’t as effective a deterrent to silliness as I had hoped, because I actually answered a question about “to all intensive purposes” about ten years ago, and yet here we are again. You are, of course, correct, and not at all a ninny, at least on this question. The phrase is indeed “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “for all practical purposes” or “in any reasonably likely circumstance” (“After Bob punched his boss, his career at the firm was, for all intents and purposes, kaput”). “For all intents and purposes” has been around since at least 1546 (in the form “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” contained in a law decreed that year by Henry VIII).

The mangled form “for all intensive purposes” has been “spotted in the wild” in print (and noted by linguists) at least since the 1980s, although, as an error in speech, it may have been around much longer. “For all intensive purposes” is a classic “eggcorn,” a re-shaping of a word or phrase that, far from being a simple error, has flourished and persisted because it actually makes a certain amount of sense. The term “eggcorn” itself was coined in 2003 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum when someone online was noticed typing “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” It was, of course, an error, but an acorn is indeed rather egg-shaped, and is a seed, as is corn, so if one has heard “acorn,” but never seen the word in print, writing it as “eggcorn” is not entirely crazy.

Similarly, “for all intensive purposes” might be defended as logical if “intensive” were interpreted to mean “serious, realistic, or practical,” making the phrase equivalent to “when push comes to shove” (“Smith is a decent hitter, but for all intensive purposes, he’ll be useless in the playoffs”). It’s still “wrong” in that it mangles a long-established English idiom, but it’s not as far off the beam as “The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind” or “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

As to how “intensive purposes” crept into common usage, I think it’s significant that the 1980s also saw the proliferation of “intensive care units” in hospitals and the ensuing use of “intensive” to sell everything from skin lotion to motor oil. Given that “intents and purposes” has a distinctly archaic ring to it, and that “intents” is more rarely used than “aims” or “goals” today, and “intensive” seems like a logical interpretation to folks who have only heard (and never read) the proper form of the phrase.

Puke

The Immortal Barf?

Dear Word Detective: What does the word “puke” mean in the following sentence: “Wilt thou rob this leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch…”? — George.

Hmm. For some reason, I have the odd feeling I’ve wandered into an episode of Jeopardy. Well, OK, what is King Henry the Fourth, Part One, by William Shakespeare? I’d like to expound on that answer, but I must admit that the play in question is not my strong suit. I can, however, recite large chunks of both Hamlet and Macbeth from memory should the need arise further down the page.

In any case, our boy Willie certainly had a way with words, and that passage, although probably perfectly intelligible to his contemporaries, presents us with a smorgasbord of mysterious terms. “Leathern jerkin” is fairly simple, meaning a tunic or short jacket made of leather. “Crystal button” and “agate ring” are easily understood indications of wealth and refinement. “Not-pated” is genuinely odd to our ears, since “pate” generally refers to the human head, and Shakespeare cannot have meant that the person under discussion was headless. As it happens, however, the now-obsolete English dialect term “not” (more commonly spelled “nott”) meant “short-haired” or, as is more likely in this case, “bald.” The reference to “caddis-garter” means the man’s stockings were secured with garters made of caddis ribbon, “caddis” being a type of wool cloth.

The phrase “puke-stocking” does give one pause. Read with our modern understanding of “puke,” it would seem to imply the unfortunate aftermath of either excess drinking or food poisoning. But there is, fortunately, an entirely different sort of “puke” involved in this passage. In 1598, when Shakespeare wrote his play, “puke” was a very fine grade of woolen cloth, often used to make stockings as well as other garments. This kind of “puke” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century, derived from the Middle Dutch word “puuc,” meaning “the best grade of cloth.” Interestingly, “puke” cloth was, in Shakespeare’s day, usually dyed deep bluish-black or dark brown, leading to the term “puke color.” This “puke,” however, is unrelated to the brownish-purple color we know today as “puce,” which takes its name from the French word for “flea.” Apparently if one looks very, very closely at fleas (I’ll pass, thanks), they are purple-brown in color.

Incidentally, our modern “puke” meaning “vomit” is almost as old as the fabric sort of “puke,” first appearing as a verb around 1600. It is thought to be “imitative” in origin, evocative of the sound itself, though it may also have been borrowed from the Dutch “spugen,” meaning “to spit.”