What’s in your trunk?
Dear Word Detective: I recently looked up the word “gonzo” (as in “gonzo journalism”) and was surprised to see the the origin of the word was listed as “unknown.” I would think that it likely originated in the beatnik or jazz communities. Since I couldn’t find it in your archives, could you shed some light on this question, man? — Michael Hooning, Seattle, WA.
Go ahead, make me feel old. It’s bad enough that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock (the real one) in 1969, which I attended, if that’s the right word. Incidentally, I noticed the other day that Target has apparently bought the rights to the Woodstock legend (or whatever), and is now offering everything from toothpaste to beach sandals festooned with that dippy bird-on-a-guitar logo.
Beware the bats
I mention Woodstock because the word “gonzo” first appeared in print just two years later, in 1971, in an article written by journalist Hunter S. Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine describing two trips to Las Vegas taken by Thompson and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. Thompson’s article was later expanded and published in 1972 as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” No brief summary can possibly do justice to “Fear and Loathing,” but Wikipedia’s stab at a synopsis is as good as any: “The [story] revolves around journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they arrive in 70’s Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. However, they soon abandon their work and begin experimenting with a variety of recreational drugs, such as LSD, cocaine, mescaline, and cannabis. This leads to a series of bizarre hallucinogenic trips, during which they destroy hotel rooms, wreck cars, and have visions of anthropomorphic desert animals, all the while ruminating on the decline of American culture.” The book was an immediate best seller and remains a seminal work in what became known as “gonzo journalism,” defined dryly by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style.” “Gonzo” is also used as an adjective meaning “bizarre” or “crazy.”
In addition to using “Dr. Gonzo” as the pseudonym of his companion in the book, Thompson used the phrase “gonzo journalism” in the book to describe his reporting methods (“But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism”).
For those of us who lived through the period, “gonzo” will always be associated with Hunter Thompson. But Thompson himself never claimed to have coined “gonzo.” He credited Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso with using “gonzo” to describe an article Thompson wrote in 1970 (entitled, in classic Thompson style, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”), and reported that, according to Cardoso, “gonzo” was “some Boston word for weird, bizarre.”
“Gonzo” also happens to be an Italian word meaning “fool or simpleton,” and that Italian “gonzo” may well be the direct root of Cardoso’s “gonzo.” But there are other possible sources. There was a hit song in 1960 entitled “Gonzo,” as well as a character by that name in a 1960 movie, and, perhaps most bizarre given Thompson’s use of the word, a Muppet (first appearing in 1970) on the TV show “Sesame Street” named Gonzo the Great. Tracking the exact pedigree of Thompson’s “gonzo” is thus probably impossible. But I can testify that in the late 1960s and early 70s, “gonzo” was definitely in the air.
IHop, you hop…
Dear Word Detective: I love your column and having just discovered you have written a book, I am literally on my way out the door to buy it. I hope you can explain to me the origin of the phrase, “selling like hotcakes.” My only guess is that hotcakes somewhere at sometime were very popular, enough to create this particular expression. — Sarama Teague.
Well, it’s been a while since I received your question, but how did running out the door to buy my book work out? I’ve actually written four books (five, if you count a complete revision of the first one). Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find any of them in those big chain bookstores, although they’re all still in print. But online booksellers will be happy to sell you The Word Detective (a collection of these columns), From Altoids to Zima (the origins of popular product names), or Making Whoopee (words associated with love and romance). I also wrote two editions of something called The Book Lover’s Guide to the Internet back in the mid-1990s, which Random House is still selling even though it is fifteen years out of date and thus about as useful as Stagecoaches for Dummies.
Nature's Perfect Food
Hotcakes (aka “pancakes” or “griddlecakes”) are still popular in my family, enough so that there was a minor revolt last year when a certain restaurant chain (we call it “Barrel of Crack”) switched from serving genuine 100% maple syrup on their pancakes to a watery corn-syrup blend. Incidentally, if you’ve ever been to a Cracker Barrel, you’ve seen the rocking chairs lined up for sale out front. I noticed last month that they now have an Extra Large model available with beefed-up legs and rockers. They must be selling a lot of pancakes.
The term “hotcake” is an American invention, dating back to the late 17th century (“pancake,” meaning the same food, is older, first appearing in England around 1400). To “sell like hotcakes” has meant “to be in great demand” since about 1839, and there doesn’t seem to have been any particular “hotcake fad” leading to the origin of the phrase. But hotcakes have always been popular at fairs and church socials, etc., often selling as fast as they can be cooked, so they make a good metaphor for a very popular product that sells quickly and in great numbers.
Of course, pancakes are, when properly made, quite flat, and “flat as a pancake” has meant “perfectly flat” since the 16th century. A building that collapses straight down floor by floor is said to “pancake,” and when an aircraft drops jarringly onto the runway it is called a “pancake landing.” In Britain, Canada and Australia pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar, and the day itself is called “Pancake Day” or “Pancake Tuesday” in many places. This day, also known as “Fat Tuesday” or “Mardi Gras,” has traditionally been the occasion for using up all the fat, butter, and other rich ingredients in one’s house in preparation for the fasting and self-denial of Lent.
It only hurts when you quack, Doc.
Dear Word Detective: I just read “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Dr. Baglioni says of the ingenious Dr. Rappaccini, “But, let us confess the truth of him, he is a wonderful man! — a wonderful man indeed! A vile empiric, however, in his practice, and therefore not to be tolerated by those who respect the good old rules of the medical profession!” I found two definitions for “empiric”: (1) One who is guided by practical experience rather than precepts or theory, and (2) An unqualified or dishonest practitioner; a charlatan. How did the word “empiric” come to mean both “the layman” and “the shyster”? And does it have to do with what what my friend says, that all professions are a conspiracy against the lay? — Tania.
Sounds like an impacted deductible.
Well, I wouldn’t say that “all” professions are a conspiracy against laypeople. Many professions have oodles of actual substance and arcane knowledge not easily available to the average person, e.g., law, medicine, astrophysics, nuclear engineering, newspaper column writing, etc. There are, of course a few “professions” (“management consultant” springs to mind) whose practitioners are pretty obviously the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen. But the problem with categorizing certain professions as fraudulent is, of course, that it is impossible to prove a negative. If I charge you big bucks, for instance, to wave a bowl of tapioca pudding over your head while I stomp on your toes, you can’t prove that I haven’t prevented you from being devoured by wolverines. And if I insist you give my bank five billion dollars to cover my bad bets, you can’t prove that you wouldn’t have lost more money if you’d refused. See how that works?
Meanwhile, the term “empiric” is closely related to “empiricism,” a philosophy of knowledge (aka “epistemology”) cooked up by the ancient Greeks. Empiricism maintains that all knowledge comes from actual experience perceived by our senses, rather than being innate in the human mind. In ancient Greece, this approach produced a group of physicians, known as the “Empirici,” who based their practice on personal experience rather than on medical theory and philosophy as it existed at that time.
The name of this group came into English as “empiric” in the 16th century, meaning a physician or scientist who relied on personal observation rather than established theory. Pretty quickly, however, “empiric” came to also be applied to those who relied on observation because they simply didn’t know the theories, i.e., untrained medical practitioners. These people often embraced outlandish theories of their own, and thus “empiric” soon became synonymous in certain quarters with “quack.” And by the 17th century, “empiric” was being used to mean “fraud, charlatan” in just about any field, not just medicine (“Such are the political empirics, mischievous in proportion to their effrontery, and ignorant in proportion to their presumption,” Coleridge, 1817).
While “empiricism” remains a respectable philosophy, I’m afraid that whatever virtue “empiric” once had has faded in modern usage, and today the word is for all practical purposes synonymous with “charlatan.” Simply being untrained (“lay”) in a profession doesn’t make one an “empiric,” of course. It’s pretending to be an expert that marks the true “empiric.”