Dear Word Detective: Well, we all know what the question “Are you decent?” means, but how and when did it come to be that very specific question referring to one’s state of (un)dress? — Your Humble Reader, Nick.
Mmm, humble. That’s the spirit. “Are you decent?” is an interesting idiom in part because it doesn’t seem like an idiom, which is a fixed phrase that has more meaning (or a different meaning) than the literal sum of its words (e.g., “piece of cake” meaning “something easily done”). “Are you decent?” seems to be the most basic of simple, factual questions, on a par with “Are you married?” or “Is that your dog driving my car?” But what it really means, as an idiom, is “Are the parts of your body considered not fit for public viewing according to societal norms in this particular historical period sufficiently obscured so as not to cause either of us embarrassment and/or lasting mortification?”
“Decent,” of course, is one of more popular English adjectives (certainly more popular than “crepuscular,” which means “dim, indistinct, resembling twilight” and is one of my favorite words). English adopted “decent” in the 16th century from the French word “decent,” which was based on the Latin “decentem” (“fitting, appropriate, proper”), which was a form of “decere,” meaning “to be proper or seemly.”
The initial meaning of “decent” in English concerned the tenets of social respectability at the time; what was “decent” was what was appropriate to one’s rank or station and socially fitting given the facts of a situation (“The funerall of the Bish[op] of Hereford …was a decent solemnity..,” circa 1684). We still use this “appropriate” or “seemly” sense when we speak of waiting a “decent” time before criticizing someone who has died or spending a “decent” amount of time on social obligations (“After a decent Time spent in the Father’s House, the Bridegroom went to prepare his Seat for her Reception,” 1710).
By the 17th century, “decent” had broadened a bit to also mean “in good taste,” “sufficient” (“decent salary”) and even “handsome or attractive,” especially as applied to dwellings (“He had Five or Six Apartments in his House …Two of them were very large and decent,” Daniel Defoe, 1725).
Bubbling along under the “socially appropriate” usage of “decent” all this time had, however, been a different use of “decent” in a “personal morality” sense, specifically to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “In accordance with or satisfying the general standard of propriety or good taste, in conduct, speech, or action; especially conformable to or satisfying the recognized standard of modesty or delicacy; free from obscenity.” Yes, folks, we’re entering the zone of foul-mouthed nekkid people here. This is the sense of “decent” invoked by centuries of fervid campaigns against obscenity, pornography and other sorts of “indecency,” from which a pass can be earned only by clinical detachment, such as that of an anthropologist encountering people safely far away (“The Wa-Caga cannot be accused of indecency, for they make no effort to be decent, but walk about as Nature made them,” H. H. Johnston, Kilimanjaro Expedition, 1886). Today cable TV and the internet are, of course, full of people wandering around “as Nature made them” (albeit often with unnatural enhancement), so “decency” in this sense has lost a bit of its oomph in many quarters, though it still gets votes in the boonies.
All of which brings us back to “Are you decent?” as a pause-at-the-door formality. Interestingly, the phrase seems to have originated as a jocular usage among theater performers, as explained in a 1949 book by Ruth Harvey called “Curtain Time”: “Sometimes, if she knew one of the actors or actresses, she would knock at a door and call ‘Are you decent?’ (That old theatrical phrase startled people who didn’t belong to the theatre, but it simply meant ‘Are you dressed?’).” Given that actors would be well aware that government agencies as well as self-appointed Decency Cops were constantly monitoring stage productions for “indecency” during most of the 20th century, it’s likely that the “decent” in the phrase was a joking reference to the standards of propriety applied to performers on stage, and not just a random synonym for “dressed.”
Maybe that’s why the school bus driver always seemed so cheerful.
Dear Word Detective: I read the ingredients printed on a package of taco shells (ground corn, lime, vegetable shortening). I’ve heard (well, read) different views on what form of “lime” is meant in tortilla recipes, but I got to wondering: Is the “lime” in limestone (dull, grey, sedimentary rock) in any way related to the “lime” that is a bright, green, citrusy addition to a good gin and tonic? And for that matter, how do “limey” and “blimey” work into the mix? — Danny.
Gin and tonic, eh? I’ve always said that if I were to take up drinking, it’d be gin and tonics, the only mixed drink that ever tasted good to me. There’s also the odd fact that when I was very small, there was someone who apparently routinely traveled our road who drank a lot of Gilbey’s gin and always threw the frosted glass bottles on our lawn. I thought those bottles were incredibly cool, but my parents wouldn’t let me collect them. Probably afraid I’d take a few dozen to “Show and Tell” day at my school.
I must admit that your first two sentences, about taco shells containing lime, intrigued me, and I subsequently spent a good hour or so researching the question of what sort of “lime” is being dished up by Taco Bell. It turns out that some tortilla recipes do call for the juice of the “lime” fruit, but that’s not the main sort of “lime” in taco-land.
It all begins with the mineral limestone, a hard, plentiful form of calcium carbonate often used to build large buildings and similar durable structures. Fun fact: The crystalline form of limestone is marble. Limestone is also used to make calcium oxide, also known as “quicklime,” “burnt lime,” or simply “lime.” This “lime” is made by subjecting limestone to very high heat in a kiln; the result, quicklime, is an extremely caustic substance widely used in industry (and in old murder mysteries to dispose of the body). Incidentally, back in the 19th century, before the widespread introduction of electric lighting, theaters used “limelight,” a brilliant white light produced by heating quicklime, as stage lighting. The term “limelight” is still used as a metaphor for “public attention,” usually positive (“The beauty of his person … helped to throw the limelight upon him,” 1908).
Interestingly, the English word “lime” behind all this comes from Germanic roots meaning “to smear,” which makes more sense when you find that “lime” was originally used to mean a sticky substance made from holly bark and used to trap birds. The change in meaning came about because “quicklime” was often a component of mortar, which makes bricks and the like stick together.
So “quicklime” is pretty nasty stuff and would be a bad choice as a food ingredient, but if you mix it the right way with water, you get calcium hydroxide, also known as “slaked lime,” which is much less scary and plays all sorts of useful roles in industry (it’s used in depilatories, for instance). In food preparation, slaked lime is used as a calcium supplement, in pickling, and, here ya go, to make the corn meal flour in tortillas stick together better. So that’s the lime on the taco shell package (which, as I said, may also mention lime fruit juice).
Meanwhile, back at your gin and tonic, the name of the citrus fruit resembling a green lemon called a “lime” is from a completely unrelated source. “Lime” came from the Old French “limon,” which at that time meant citrus fruit in general, including both lemons and limes. Portuguese, French and Spanish have similar words, and all are probably of Middle Eastern origin (Persian “limun,” Arabic “lima,” etc.).
“Limey” (originally “lime-juicer”) as a colloquial and mildly derogatory term for a British person goes back to the 19th century Royal Navy, when sailors were required to drink lime juice at sea to ward off scurvy (caused by a lack of vitamin C). “Blimey” and “gorblimey,” stereotypical lower-class British expressions of distress or astonishment, are corruptions of, respectively, “Blind me!” and “God blind me!” Both date to the 19th century, are now usually heard only in films, and have nothing to do with limes.
I actually won a medal in eye-rolling once.
Dear Word Detective: I read the following in a 2010 review of a Stieg Larsson novel: “Readers in Grenada … are going to steups when they get to page 12 in … The Girl Who Played With Fire.” “Going to steups”? I’ve tried and tried to make sense of this as a typo, nada. I gather it means something like having conniptions, since the writer goes on and on about the flora of Grenada and the apparent trajectory of a hurricane. I should also mention that the review appears to be in “Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.” (And having mentioned Grenada, I should give a shout to Kirani James.) If you can make sense of this, I’d be really glad to hear it. — Charles.
Kirani who? See? I told you I didn’t watch the Olympics. (Kirani James is, of course, the remarkable young Grenadian sprinter who won Grenada’s first gold medal at the Olympics.) I’ve actually been thinking that maybe I should pay a little attention to sports after all. You know those old WWII movies where they trip up a German spy pretending to be a GI by asking him who plays third base for the Dodgers? If I ever have to prove my allegiance by naming five NFL teams, I’m toast.
“Steups”? It’s weird. Like you, I can’t shake the impulse to try to fix what looks like a typo to some deep part of my brain. “Setups”? “Stups”? “Stoop”? Part of the cognitive problem I have with “steups” is that sentence you found uses it as a verb (“to steups”), and there aren’t very many English verbs that end in a single “s.” Furthermore, a search of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that there is no common English word containing the sequence “steu,” apart from derivatives of Louis Pasteur’s name (e.g., “pasteurization”), a couple of weird biological terms, and “Steuben” used attributively to mean a product of that glass-maker.
Long story short, it turns out that “steups” is a Caribbean English slang word, Caribbean English being not one language per se, but dozens of dialects of English spoken throughout the Caribbean and on the eastern coast of Central America. Closely tracking the history of the region, Caribbean English generally follows British English in style and spelling, but includes words influenced by African languages as well as by Spanish.
In the case of “steups,” however, the source is not any particular language but the apparently universal human capacity for expressing disapproval or exasperation. According to wiwords.com, an online dictionary of West Indian terms, “steups” is onomatopoeic, or echoic, in origin; it’s an imitation of “A sucking noise made with the tongue pressed against the teeth. It is usually an expression of annoyance, frustration, or contempt.” Other regional terms for the same action are “cheups” and “kiss teet” (“kissing one’s teeth”). In standard English this action would probably correspond to “clucking” (“Betty’s grandmother clucked her disapproval when she announced her engagement to the local anarchist”), after the sound a hen uses to keep her chicks in line. There must be something fairly shocking on page 12.
Interestingly, the comments on the “steups” page at wiwords.com indicate that “steups” (and perhaps its variants) is also widely used to mean “Kiss my behind!” (to put it euphemistically). Perhaps this use as an imprecation originally developed as a retort to one too many “steups” from a stuffy relative.