Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.

 

Ask a Question!

Puzzled by Posh?
Confounded by Cattycorner?
Baffled by Balderdash?
Flummoxed by Flabbergast?
Perplexed by Pandemonium?
Nonplussed by... Nonplussed?
Annoyed by Alliteration?

Don't be shy!
Send in your question!

 

 

 

Alphabetical Index
of Columns January 2007 to present.

 

Archives 2006 – present

Old Archives

Columns from 1995 to 2006 are slowly being added to the above archives. For the moment, they can best be found by using the Search box at the top of this column.

 

If you would like to be notified when each monthly update is posted here, sign up for our free email notification list.

 

 

 

 

Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

 

TWD RSS feeds

Shandygaff

I just tell folks that I’m holding out for bacon-flavored Guinness stout. They usually nod and back slowly away.

Dear Word Detective: As I ponder the year-over-year increase in seasonal beers, I am sipping a “lemon shandy” and wondering about the origin of the drink name. A quick search gets me to “shandygaff,” but then the trail gets cold and my shandy grows warm. Can you help? — John.

Perhaps. But I should warn you that I am severely beer-ignorant. I decided early on that I really didn’t like the stuff. I probably should have tried harder, but I didn’t realize until way too late that I was cutting myself off from great swaths of life in the US. Some major elements of American culture, such as football, the Eagles and Steve Carell movies, can apparently be properly appreciated only after imbibing mind-numbing quantities of beer. Oh well, maybe next time. The whole boutique micro-brewery scene still mystifies me, however. Isn’t that all sorta like obsessing over the best brand of beef jerky?

Now that I have the vegan fedora-wearing hipster artisanal brewers of Williamsburg mad at me, back to work. You’ll be glad to learn that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that paragon of scholarly sobriety, includes both “shandygaff” and “shandy” (defined as a short form of “shandygaff”). The OED defines “shandygaff” as “A drink composed of a mixture of beer and ginger-beer,” but Merriam-Webster broadens that a bit, declaring the stuff “beer diluted with a non-alcoholic drink (as ginger beer).” The OED entry for “shandy” notes that the word can also be used to mean “a mixture of beer and fizzy lemonade.” The consensus of sources I found is that a shandy can be a “ginger shandy” or a “lemon shandy,” but that substituting any other non-alcoholic ingredient, particularly sweetened fruit syrup, is a demonic perversion of the natural order and cause for social ostracism and possibly actual exorcism. (This sort of combative secret code is yet another good reason I avoid bars.)

The earliest citation offered by the OED for “shandy” is from 1888 (“Sparkling hop, shandy, and other new-fangled drinks.”); the first citation for “shandygaff” is from 1853 (“He taught me … to make shandy-gaff and sherry-cobbler.”).

Unfortunately, while we know when “shandygaff” first appeared, no one seems to have even the faintest glimmer as to where it came from, and every dictionary I’ve checked labels it “origin unknown,” so we’re left to strike out on our own. The word “shandy” by itself is a fairly old (1691) English dialect adjective meaning “boisterous” or “empty headed; half-crazy” (OED), which could be a clue, but this “shandy” is also of unknown origin, so that’s no fun. We’re also still left with the original “gaff” bit to explain. There are several “gaffs” in English, the most common being “gaff” in the sense of “a hooked pole.” Another “gaff” means “a loud outcry” or “nonsense” (possibly from the Old English “gaf-spraec,” blasphemous or scandalous speech, possibly related to the French “gaffe,” verbal blunder). There’s also a “gaff” meaning “a fair” or “a place of lower-class entertainment,” as a music hall, etc.

If any of these have any connection to “shandygaff,” I’d put my money on the one meaning “loud nonsense” because, combined with the “boisterous and silly” sense of “shandy,” you’d have a plausible picture of someone who has spent the evening guzzling “shandygaffs.” But this is all pure speculation, and reverse-engineering words this way is often misleading.

Dutch (as nickname)

Maximum Maru would be awesome.

Dear Word Detective: You’ve covered various derogatory “Dutch” expressions (Dutch treat, Dutch courage, etc.) I recently bought a used (~1991) copy of the Elmore Leonard novel “Maximum Bob.” On the back, there is a blurb from the NYT Review of Books saying, “Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob is maximum Dutch!” Huh? Presumably, this is intended as a compliment, unlike the other “Dutch” expressions, but my wife and I cannot uncover its meaning. Even the all-knowing Google comes up empty (unless you want to count links to beauty salons and male strippers). So, can you shed any light? — Rich Simon.

Beauty salons and male strippers and Maximum Dutch, oh my. What we really need in this here language is a word for the moment when (a) your curiosity is piqued, but (b) you immediately lose any interest in the answer. It’s like those creepy stories on the front page of the New York Times every freakin’ day for the past ten years exploring all the fascinating aspects of Death and Dying for Baby Boomers. They always have intriguing headlines like “For a Flying Ecdysiast, a Final Molt,” but they all manage to swat you down with “hospice” and “palliative” by the third paragraph, and you spend the rest of the day watching Maru videos on YouTube to recover.

It’s true that I’ve explained several derogatory uses of “Dutch” over the years, almost all of them the product of intense national rivalry between the English and the Dutch when their countries were expanding their competing empires in the 17th century. Such slanders of the day as “Dutch courage,” false bravado usually fueled by alcohol, “Dutch nightingale” (a frog), “to take Dutch leave” (desert) and “to do the Dutch” (run away or commit suicide) took root so deeply in English that they’re still heard today, long after those empires crumbled. Oddly enough, these terms may now be more popular in the US, which didn’t even exist back then, than they are in Britain. That’s probably because Americans applied them to German immigrants, confusing “Dutch” with “Deutsch” (“German” in German), which is what the newcomers called themselves. This misunderstanding persists in the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” applied to communities of German, not Dutch, ancestry.

Now, as to why a presumably laudatory blurb on the jacket of an Elmore Leonard book would refer to the book as “maximum Dutch,” the answer is simple: “Dutch” turns out to be Mr. Leonard’s lifelong nickname. According to the biography of Leonard posted on the FX cable channel’s web page for a show based on one of his books, “In high school a classmate gave him his nickname, ‘Dutch,’ after the Washington Senators knuckleballer, Emil ‘Dutch’ Leonard.” Who knew, right?

In adopting “Dutch” as a nickname, Elmore Leonard joined a fraternity that ranges from the famous (US President Ronald Reagan was dubbed “Dutch” by his father as a young child) to the infamous (“Dutch” Schultz (1902-1935), a notorious New York City gangster whose real name was Arthur Flegenheimer) and includes at least dozen famous athletes nicknamed “Dutch.” Just why someone is given or takes “Dutch” as a nickname seems to vary. Reagan’s father apparently thought Ronnie as an infant resembled “a fat little Dutchman” with his “Dutch boy” haircut. In other cases, it may be that old “Deutsch/Dutch” confusion cropping up if the person is of German ancestry. There also seem to be a number of cases where the nickname “Dutch” connotes courage or determination, possibly because early German immigrants were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as obstinate or strong-willed. Or maybe it all comes from the legend of that brave Dutch boy, popularized by the novel “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates” (Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865), who plugged a hole in the dike with his finger and saved his little village.

Hat Trick

Forget it Jake, it’s cricket.

Dear Word Detective: I have been watching the Olympics up here in Canada, and I keep hearing about “hat tricks.” One of the Canadian women scored three goals in an important soccer match — hat trick. Another, more prominent, athlete won three gold medals — again a hat trick. So I understand that it refers to an individual doing three of something. But what does this have to do with hats? — Harold Russell.

Um, is it safe? Is it safe? I know I sound like the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, but I’ve been hiding from the Olympics for, gosh, must be a couple of months now. I haven’t looked at the TV news or most of the internet at all, but the few headlines that managed to sneak through my blindfold (metaphorical, of course) tended to indicate that the Olympics had taken up permanent residence, like the second cousin who crashes on your couch for a few weeks in July and is somehow still there on New Year’s Eve. So is it over? What year is it?

Speaking of years, I just checked and it turns out that the last time I answered a question about “hat trick” was way back in 1997, which was before Facebook or Twitter or any of the other things I wish it were still before so we could stop them. The slightly mortifying aspect of the fifteen years since I wrote that column is that I still don’t entirely understand the particulars of the term’s origins. I know where and when it first appeared, but the exact situation it described remains as opaque to me today as it was then. You’ll understand in a moment.

“Hat trick” is a term used in sports to describe a single player or athlete scoring three goals (or whatever) in one game or match. So if I were to score three goals in quick succession in a hockey game (after first learning to skate, in my case), that would be hailed by the gang in the broadcast booth as a “hat trick.” The term is also used by extension for a threefold success in nearly any other activity, from selling three used cars in one afternoon to getting yourself arrested three times in a row for mopery in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is very strict about mopery. Don’t ask.

The term “hat trick” first appeared in Britain, in the late 19th century, and it comes from the game of cricket, which is where things get a little bit sticky, explanation-wise, because I have never understood cricket. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a “hat trick” means “The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: originally considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.” I suppose a really good player would have had to rent a room to store all those nifty hats; that’s probably why they eventually switched to rewarding athletic success with buckets of money.

“Hat tricks” are noted in other sports as well, most notably horse racing, where a “hat trick” consists of a single jockey winning three races in one day. In hockey, there are two kinds of “hat tricks,” the simple sort being one player scoring three goals in one game. When a hockey player scores three goals in succession with no other scores interrupting, it’s called a “natural hat trick.” There’s also a “hat trick” in baseball, which consists of a player hitting a single, a double, a triple and a home run all in one game. This sort of hat trick is, unsurprisingly, quite rare, so it would be slightly tacky on such an occasion to point out that “hat trick” in this sense describes four, not three, events.

I should probably note, just for the record, that “hat trick” can also mean, according to the OED, “Any trick with a hat, e.g., one performed by a conjurer.” I’m hoping there’s a special term for a magician who manages to produce three rabbits from the same hat. On such an occasion, of course, a new hat would probably be very welcome.