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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.

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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, 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 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.

Hew and Cleave

Of course, Beaver Cleaver’s father was played by Hugh Beaumont, so there’s that.

Dear Word Detective: The words “hew” and “cleave” both have the same odd combination of meanings: “to cut,” or “to stick to.” Are they related? — Ken Lerner.

Um, yes and no. Next question. Oh, all right. No, they’re not really related in the sense of “having an etymological relationship” or “having some family connection that Cleave takes advantage of by borrowing Hew’s lawn trimmer.” The only attribute shared by “hew” and “cleave” is membership in the weird little club of English words known as “autoantonyms,” words with two opposite meanings (“auto” self, “anti” against, and “onyma,” Greek for “name”). Autoantonyms are also known as “contronyms,” “contranyms,” “antagonyms” and, in a refreshing break from all those “nyms,” sometimes as “Janus words.” Janus was the Roman god of doorways and beginnings (thus “January,” the first month in the Roman calendar), and was depicted as having two faces (as doors can be used from two sides).

“Contranyms,” which is the simplest name for the breed, actually come in two flavors. Some are simply one word which has, over time and in a linguistic process called “polysemy” (Greek for “many signs”), developed two opposite meanings. The other kind of contranyms are homographs, two separate words that happen to share the same spelling, and are also antonyms, words that have opposite meanings. The result in both types of contranyms is a word which seems to have two meanings, but in the case of homographs, that’s because it actually is two separate words. “Hew” and “cleve” are actually good examples of the two kinds of contranyms. (However, the fact that the two opposite meanings of “hew” are essentially synonymous with the two opposite meanings of “cleave” is deeply spooky and ought to give us all the creeps.)

“Hew” is the first kind of contranym, the “gradual change in meaning” kind. We inherited “hew” from Old English (where it was “heawan”), and its basic meaning was “to cut or strike with a cutting tool or weapon; to chop, hack, etc.” Trees and the like have often been “hewed” with axes (or “hewn,” if a poet is doing the job), but the verb has also often been used in descriptions of battles in a depressingly non-metaphorical sense (“The front lines, hewing at each other with their long swords,” Sir Walter Scott, 1828). But from day one, “hew” also had a more constructive meaning, that of “to shape, smooth, trim or form with an axe or a hammer and chisel, etc.” This sense is most often found today in the adjective “rough-hewn,” meaning something which has been shaped by chopping, etc., but lacks precise shaping and polish (“A long oaken table formed of planks rough-hewn from the forest … stood ready prepared for the evening meal,” Scott, Ivanhoe, 1819). But even such “hewing” required following a design for the finished product, and “to hew the line,” which first appeared in print in 1891, meant to cut closely along the line of a pattern. In a metaphorical sense, “hew the line” meant, and still does, “to stick to a plan and to obey instructions,” and “to hew” to something (e.g., your family, your principles) means to remain steadfast in your allegiance. So a verb which originally meant “to split apart” came to be its own antonym meaning “to conform, obey, adhere to.”

“Cleave” also means both “to split” and “to adhere,” but in this case the explanation is simpler, because the two opposite senses of “cleave” are actually two separate words and always have been. Both “cleaves” come from Old English and derive their base meanings from proto-Germanic roots. One “cleave” in Old English was “cleofan,” meaning “to split or separate,” especially by a blow from a sharp instrument. The past participle of this “cleve” is “cleft” (or “cloven”), meaning “split,” as in a “cleft palate” or the “cloven hooves” of a goat.

The other “cleave” was “clifian” in Old English, meaning “to stick, to adhere” (the same Germanic root gave us “clay”), and in literal use it’s essentially a synonym of “stick” (“Water in small quantity cleaveth to any thing that is solid,” Francis Bacon, 1626).  In modern English, this “cleave” is usually used in a figurative sense to mean “to remain faithful or devoted to” a person, cause, etc. (“We exhort you … to cleave for ever to those principles,” Edmund Burke, 1777). The two “cleaves” were originally clearly two separate words, but they had such a wide variety of forms that, beginning in the 14th century, they were commonly confused, which led to a common spelling, which only made things much murkier.

So in “cleave” and “hew” we have two (or three) words that are, in a sense, both double antonyms and double synonyms, and only by close attention to context can a reader or listener be certain of the meaning meant. That’s a prescription for bewilderment, and that potential for confusion is probably the reason that neither “hew” nor “cleave” is very popular outside of historical fiction today.