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You look, uh, mahvelous.

Dear Word Detective:  Why do we refer to someone that is ill or not healthy as looking “peaked?” “Peak” means “at the pinnacle.” Seems like “peaked” should mean “to be at one’s best.” How did this meaning come to be? — Garry.

Yo, grasshopper, there is no “should.” There is only “is.” Or “does.” Whatever. Anyway, the universe doesn’t have to explain why it does what it does. That’s why I’ve spent my life cultivating that most un-American of traits, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Simply put, the pictures on the menu never look like the food you end up with, so why agonize? Why not just trust the waiter, whose name, I believe he said, is Doug?

But seriously, folks, determining why a counter-intuitive use of language arises is often more difficult than herding cats, and I say that as a board-certified cat herder. (Pro tip: get one of those battery-powered hand vacuums.) In the case of “peaked,” fortunately, there is actually a plausible rationale for why it’s used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, “sickly looking.”

The whole saga begins with the noun form of “peak,” which first appeared in the early 16th century. Curiously, “peak” actually arose simply as a variant of the English word “pike,” which dates back to Old English and was formed from roots carrying the general sense of “sharp point” or “pointed object; spear.” In English, “peak” acquired a variety of meanings centering on the idea of “something sharply pointed,” from the “peak” some folks have at the front of their hairline (as in “widow’s peak”) to the pointed top of a mountain. This “mountaintop” sense led to the development of “peak” in a figurative sense meaning “highest point of achievement or success” or “point of greatest amount of measurable flow, etc.” The verb form of “peak” appeared in the late 16th century and has been used to mean both “rise to a peak” (either literally or figuratively) and “to attain maximum intensity or value.”

The adjective “peaked” is based on the noun “peak,” but here things get a little weird, because there are actually two separate “peaked” adjectives in English. The earlier, which appeared concurrently with the noun, means, logically, “rising to or appearing to have a peak,” as one might speak of a “peaked roof” or a “peaked cap.” This “peaked” is usually, at least in the US, pronounced as one syllable (“peekt”).

The other “peaked” didn’t appear until the early 19th century and was originally a regional colloquial term in Britain. The full definition in the OED, to which I alluded earlier, gives a clue to the logic of this “peaked”: “Sharp-featured, thin, pinched, as from illness or undernourishment; sickly looking.” And there’s your answer. We refer to a sickly-looking person as “peaked” because illness frequently causes weight loss and a haggard, wasted appearance resulting in “sharp” (i.e., bony) facial features, making the nose, chin, etc., appear to end in sharp points (“It seemed as if my aunt might have gone on for ever, getting a little dryer and her face more peakit, as the years went by,” 1914). Lack of proper nutrition can, of course, also lead to a “peaked” appearance, so advanced age or serious illness are not prerequisites for being “peaked” (“The children looked peaked and unhealthy,” 1992). In general use, in fact, a person exhibiting nothing more than a sickly demeanor or a bilious aura is also often described as “peaked” (“Bill looked a bit peaked after his third helping of clams”).

So while this “peaked” doesn’t mean that you’re having your best day ever, there are “peaks” involved. Incidentally, this “peaked” is, in the US, frequently pronounced in two distinct syllables (“peek-ed”), which is handy when your pal says “I’m peaked” and you’re not sure whether he means that he’s on top of the world or at death’s door.

Whole nine yards

It’s aliivve!

Dear Word Detective:  I became aware of the expression “the whole nine yards” in about 1945. I had also had some training in biology and understood that the human intestinal tract is about 27 feet long. I have long thought that “to give/go the whole nine yards” meant to give (it) everything you have. — Charley.

Oh boy, it’s that question again. I realize that your letter is more of a comment on or correction to my previous columns on this topic, but the origin of “the whole nine yards,” an American slang phrase meaning “the whole thing” or “everything,” is the Count Dracula of popular etymology topics. It swoops in and consumes the energies of anyone who dares to face it, and, worse than Dracula, it can’t be killed, not even with the wooden stake of “Nobody knows for sure.” (Just kidding, of course. I wouldn’t really want anyone to give up the chase.)

Two things bear mentioning at the outset. Although “the whole nine yards” has never  been found in print earlier than the 1960s, it’s far from impossible that you heard it circa 1945. Oral use of slang always precedes its appearance in print, often by decades or more. Secondly, if one were to stretch out the human large and small intestines (don’t try this at home, kids), together they would indeed measure in the ballpark of 27 feet, i.e., nine yards.

There have been about as many origins suggested for “the whole nine yards” as there have been vampire movies, from the amount of cloth needed for a wedding dress, a burial shroud, a man’s three-piece suit or a Scotsman’s kilt, to the capacity of a cement mixer, to the “yards,” or spars, utilized by a tall ship under full sail. My favorite theory has always been the one tying the phrase to the length of fighter plane machine gun belts in World War II. To fire your entire supply of ammunition at an enemy plane would certainly fit the modern “give it everything you’ve got” sense of “to go the whole nine yards.”

But all of these theories have fatal problems. As I said, the phrase has never been found in print before the 1960s, and print citations are the sine qua non of etymology; personal memory, unfortunately, does not count. The first date a word or phrase appears in print is also an important clue to its real origin. It is very unlikely that a phrase referring to 18th century sailing ships, for instance, would not appear in print before the mid-20th century, or that a phrase supposedly common among World War II fighter pilots would be completely absent (rats!) from accounts of that very well-documented war. Many of these theories (e.g., the capacity of cement mixers, cloth needed for a suit) are also simply factually wrong. And even if, as in your intestine clue, a theory does involve something actually nine yards long, a logical connection, supported by a print citation that both involves intestines and uses the phrase in something close to its current sense of “the whole shebang,” would be needed to seal the deal.

So the bad news is that “the whole nine yards” must still be counted as “origin unknown.” The good news is that, thanks to the fearless and peerless vampire hunters of the American Dialect Society (ADS), we may be getting a bit closer to the answer. Until 2009, the earliest known print citations for “the whole nine yards” came from the late 1960s, specifically connected to the US military in the Vietnam War. Since then, ADS members have unearthed three earlier printed examples, two from 1962 (from a literary journal and a car magazine) and one from a 1964 article about the US space program, which may be especially significant given the later military use of the phrase. Interestingly, all three examples use “the whole nine yards” in reference to a long list of items, rather than “nine yards” of any one thing. The newspaper article on the space program, for instance, offers a glossary of the lingo of participants, including “Give ‘em the whole nine yards means an item-by-item report on any project.”

So the mystery of “the whole nine yards” remains unsolved, but as long as new clues keep popping up, the hunt is still afoot.


Say it, don’t spray it.

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering about the word “froth,” or “frothing.” I recently bought an espresso machine and the manual uses the word “frothing” quite a lot in the wording. I was just curious — where and how did we get this strange word? — Judy.

Reading the manual, are we? Whaddayou, some kind of communist? Real consumers don’t read manuals. They tear open the packaging, fill the thing with gasoline, pancake batter, tropical fish, dirty laundry or whatever seems appropriate, plug it in or turn the key, and let ‘er rip. Nine times out of ten it’ll work, and, if it doesn’t, you either buy another one or hire a lawyer (especially if it burned down your house or traumatized your cat). Economists go on and on about “consumer confidence,” but trust me, it’s really “consumer impatience” that drives the US economy. Poor impulse control “r” us.

My own espresso period was back in the late 1980s, when you could sit in a place called The Peacock on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village nursing a double espresso for hours while listening to tragic opera duets and casting a baleful eye on all the poor deluded fools marching grimly by outside. Today I drink Maxwell House and cast my baleful eye from the seat of a tractor. But I do remember “froth” playing a large role in the ritual of the espresso machine, most of which have a little nozzle that dispenses steam to “froth up” milk to make cappuccino.

“Froth” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the aggregation of small bubbles formed in liquids by agitation, fermentation, effervescence, etc.” Oddly enough, the OED lists “foam” as a synonym of “froth,” but in my experience foam is denser than froth. Shaving cream, for instance, is definitely a “foam” and not a “froth,” and even shampoo produces what is generally considered a “lather,” lighter than a “foam” but definitely not an airy, bubbly “froth.” The OED goes on to declare that “foam” is a more dignified word than “froth” (“Being the proper word for the product of the agitation of the waves, foam is more dignified than the synonymous froth, and usually implies more copious production”). I can’t believe I’m seriously thinking about all this.

In any case, the origin of “froth” is, sadly, notably devoid of fizz. “Froth” first appeared in print in the late 14th century (“Samarie made his king for to passe, as frooth on the face of water,” 1382), apparently drawn directly from the Old Norse “frotha,” meaning “froth.” By the late 16th century we had started using “froth” as a metaphor for “the insubstantial product of thoughts or emotion” (“Forgive those foolish words — They were the froth my raging folly mov’d When it boil’d up,” Dryden, 1676) or “something of little worth” (“What win I if I gaine the thing I seeke? … a froth of fleeting ioy,” Shakespeare, 1593). “Froth” was also used in this period in a very negative sense as a synonym of “scum” (“Out, you froth, you scumme,” 1603).

“Froth” as a verb, which also appeared in the 14th century, acquired an interesting twist. It has been used, of course, to mean a liquid “frothing up,” either by itself or, for instance, by a Starbucks barista’s hand. But “to froth” has also meant “to foam at the mouth,” due either to illness or extreme anger. This second sense gave us, as of about 1960, the enormously useful noun “frother,” which the OED defines as “An excitable person, especially one readily provoked to outrage in defense of a principle or ideology” (“The frothers will not be pleased to learn of another initiative from a group of rock musicians … to produce a benefit record for miners’ families,” Guardian (UK), 1984). There have always been “frothers,” of course, but that OED definition could definitely do double duty as a plausible summation of most of today’s cable TV and internet.