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A broken clock chimes.

Dear Word Detective:  I am now on my fourth Dan Brown book, and if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that he likes to make up legit-sounding stories about lost origins of words and customs that have lost their intended meaning. That makes him a good story teller but not a very reliable source of information. In his latest book, The Lost Symbol, he talks about how the word “atonement” is actually “at-one-ment,” an ancient religious ideal of becoming one with God and the universe (I’m paraphrasing of course). Is there any truth to this tale of the origin of “atonement”? — Diana.

Fourth Dan Brown book? Awesome. I must admit that I’ve never read a Dan Brown book. I did try to watch a movie made from one of them on TV, but I am violently allergic to Tom Hanks and had to stop. Tom Hanks reminds me of my 7th grade science teacher so strongly that I start to smell formaldehyde when he appears on the screen. In any case, I found the part of the movie I did see implausible, because I have a cousin by marriage who is in the Knights Templar and he does nothing but watch football and play with his ferret.

I have, however, read a fair bit about Dan Brown books, specifically his somewhat idiosyncratic uses of the English language, about which grammarian Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log ( has had much to say. Then there’s the wee fact that referring to Leonardo da Vinci (literally “Leonardo of Vinci,” Vinci being his birthplace in Italy) as “da Vinci” in the title “The Da Vinci Code” is like referring to Jesus of Nazareth as “of Nazareth.”

But now onward to page 58 of The Lost Symbol, where a dude named Peter is attempting to convince his sister Katherine (who seems to sigh a lot) that most of the 20th century advances in theoretical physics were actually well known to the Ancients. (Too bad the Ancients didn’t take time out to notice penicillin, a comparatively mundane discovery that might have allowed more of them to live past age thirty, but I digress.) Thus, according to Peter, “entanglement theory” (a.k.a. quantum entanglement) in particle physics was “at the core of primeval beliefs,” reflected in the Ancients’ striving for “at-one-ment,” the state being “at one” with the universe. Pete goes on to explain that this “at-one-ment” is the root of our modern English word “atonement.”

It pains me a bit to say this, because I have no doubt that Dan Brown’s vast catalog of historical nonsense has included many etymological fables, but in this case he is essentially correct about the roots of “atonement.” The verb “to atone,” on which “atonement” is based, meaning “to reconcile, appease, unite,” is a contraction of the phrase “at one,” in which the “one” retains the pronunciation it had in the 16th century (which is probably why the word’s roots are not more obvious). As to the extent the Ancients may plausibly have played a role in this formation, “atone” in English appears to have been modeled on the Latin verb “adunare,” meaning “to unite,” a combination of “ad” (to, at) and “unum” (one).

The idea of everyone getting along is hardly recent, of course, and before “atone” appeared in the 16th century the adverbial phrase “at one” was commonly used in English to mean “in harmony” or “at peace.” But behind the scenes of “atone” (and the verbal noun “atonement,” which also appeared during the 16th century) is the sense of a dispute being settled, usually by the offender expiating a crime through some act of contrition or reparation. In modern usage we “atone for” a wrong that we have done; we do not simply “atone with” other people, joining hands and humming at the sky. That “making up for a wrong done” connotation sets “atonement” quite a ways apart from the gauzy “We are the universe” sentiment Brown ascribes to the Ancients.

Out of the woods/woodwork

The pitter-patter of tiny minds.

Dear Word Detective: Whilst watching CNN the other day, I listened as the on screen television personality (“anchor man” just doesn’t seem right anymore) used the phrase “we’re not out of the woodwork yet.” I laughed, then I cried (for the children). Of course, this immaculately groomed personage meant to say “not out of the woods yet.” It did get me thinking: Where does the phrase “we’re not out of the woods yet” come from? Similarly, how old is “coming out of the woodwork”? I’m betting bugs had a role to play in that one. — Chris, Kansas City.

I suppose “on screen television personality” works, although I prefer the simpler “chucklehead” in most cases. I must, however, admit to a fondness for CNN’s Don Lemon, who shows dangerous signs of intelligence, including the apparently rare ability to actually think about what he’s saying. But he’s obviously an endangered species, since the networks clearly prefer the sort of droid who can pronounce, with a straight face, lines such as “How long it will take, only time will tell.” I still miss Lynne Russell from the “old” CNN Headline News, who could speak volumes with a single arch of her eyebrow. She’s apparently now a radio host in Toronto, which strikes me as a real waste. Her being on the radio, I mean, not being in Toronto. Toronto is nice. Please don’t yell at me, Toronto.

Given how much of Europe and North America was originally covered in deep forest, it’s not surprising that English has scads of figures of speech involving wood. The word “wood” itself is, of course, very old, derived from Germanic roots meaning both trees collectively and the stuff trees are made of. We also have a range of words for trees growing together, from a “stand” of a few trees, to a larger “grove” or “copse,” to the sort of limitless “forest” so rare today. A “wood” (in the US, we usually say “woods”) falls between a “copse” and a “forest” in size. “Wood” or “woods” also seems the default word in such uses as “babe in the woods,” meaning an extremely naïve and vulnerable person (from fairy tales about children abandoned in forests) to less common phrases such as “in a wood,” meaning “in difficulty” or “perplexed.”

For much of human history, traveling through (or worse, being lost in) a dense wood was very perilous, posing dangers ranging from death from exposure to death by becoming lunch for bears or wolves. Thus “not out of the woods yet,” a phrase which first appeared in the late 18th century, carries the sense of still being in danger although progress towards safety (or some goal) is being made, much as a group of lost travelers in a forest who have found the path home may be encouraged and optimistic, but should not be complacent. There’s always the chance that a smart wolf will be waiting along that path home.

While “woodwork” has been used since the 17th century to mean simply “an article made of wood,” it’s most commonly used today to mean the interior wooden fittings (baseboards, molding, trim, cabinets, etc.) of a house or apartment. Of course, what we call “woodwork” a variety of unwelcome guests (mice, insects, etc.) call “home,” so “to come out of the woodwork” is a popular phrase meaning “to emerge from obscurity” or “to come out of hiding,” much as mice or cockroaches creep out when the lights are turned off. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “crawl out of the woodwork” first appeared in print in the mid-1960s (“These nutboys start crawling out of the woodwork,” 1964), but it’s hard to imagine the metaphor of something unpleasant crawling from behind baseboards not being used long before then. In any case, although nothing welcome ever crawls out of the woodwork in real life, the phrase is also sometimes used in a sardonic sense to mean simply “making a sudden splash after a period of obscurity” (“They are the new Australian playwrights and they are coming out of the woodwork everywhere,” 1973).


Pedal to the metal, and damn the roos.

Dear Word Detective:  G’day. This is probably not strictly within your bailiwick, but I would love to find out the origins of the term “ripper,” Australian slang (yes, I am a colonial) for “excellent.” I am unsure if this term derives from a British expression. Interestingly the Japanese word “rippa” is translated as “splendid or fine,” and if you check how it is written it is in traditional Japanese characters (Hiragana) rather Katakana which is the written form most often used for adapted words. This indicates that it is not a word adapted from another language but is a traditional Japanese word. My suspicion has always been that this word entered Australian usage from POWs during WWII. So, is this some form of convergent evolution of the word variety or can the Word Detective uncover another answer? — David Taylor.

Gee, you guys in Oz are still a colony? One of ours? I lose track. But I hope so. You are, after all, the world’s leading producer of unlikely animals, without which our vital nature documentary industry would collapse. Since movies are one of the few things we still make, that would be very unfortunate.

I kid, of course. “Colonial” in the sense you used it is simply popular shorthand for an inhabitant of one of Britain’s former colonies. I’ve always found the usage sort of heartwarming, as if Mother England were keeping your childhood room just as you left it.

That’s an interesting theory about “ripper” as slang for “excellent” being rooted in Japanese, but what you’ve found is almost certainly simply the kind of coincidence that is not uncommon between two languages. “Ripper” as Australian slang first appeared in print in the early 1970s (although it may be older in oral use), but it is clearly derived from “ripper” used as a slang noun in Britain to mean “something excellent” beginning in the early 18th century (“You have a ripper of a city to see,” London Magazine, 1825). That “ripper” is, in turn, clearly related to “ripping” as an adjective (meaning “splendid”) used in Britain since the late 18th century (“Sir! it is I that call, to inform your Lordship, there has been a great deal of shooting towards the Red Lyon, within this little while… Ripping work, my Lord!”, Battle of Brooklyn, 1776).

“To rip,” of course, means to forcefully tear apart or disassemble, and is derived from very old Germanic roots. A “ripper” is something that or someone who rips things, from someone who “rips” down trees or houses to a computer program that copies data from another (often copy-protected) medium, such as one used in “ripping” songs from a CD to your iPod. One of the most famous uses of “ripper” as a noun is in the name “Jack the Ripper” given to a famously mysterious murderer in Victorian London who “ripped” his victims with a knife.

The connotation of destructive energy in “ripping” and “ripper” (not to mention the association with a serial killer) would seem to make both words unlikely candidates for slang use meaning “excellent,” but “ripper” and “ripping” as slang primarily reflect the “energetic action” aspect of “to rip.” The same sense is reflected in the US slang coinage “let her rip,” meaning to let something (usually a car or other machine) run at top speed (“I think we’ll head for Cobham, and get on the A3. Okay, let her rip. Do you like going fast, girls?” 1987). To “let it rip” is also used in the broader sense of “allow something to proceed without restraint,” and “to let rip” means “to speak bluntly, often angrily, without restraint” (“Almost as soon as I had let rip, however, I realized the injustice of my complaint,” 1971).

So “ripper” and “ripping” as slang both reflect the sense of something that is not merely very good, but has been allowed to “rip” and is excellent in a very energetic, superlative sense. While “ripping” in this sense is now regarded as a somewhat archaic usage in Britain, it’s good to see that its cousin “ripper” has found success as an adjective in Oz.