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Boy Howdy

And, of course, Princess Summerfall Winterspring.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the expression “Boy Howdy!” come from?  Any connection to Howdy Doody? — Carol.

Well, ultimately, yes, of course.  It’s pretty hard to think of a single aspect of modern life that isn’t connected to Howdy Doody in some way.  To those of you born after 1960, “Howdy Doody” may have been just a wildly popular 1950s kiddie TV show, but the rest of us know that time and space began with Buffalo Bob and Clarabell the Clown.  Someone should tell those physicists that they’re wasting their time searching for that Grand Unified Theory of Everything.  It’s Howdy Doody all the way down.

All kidding aside, “Howdy Doody” and “Boy Howdy” are, in fact, related.  The “Howdy” in “Boy Howdy” is the same word as in “Howdy Doody,” the name of the marionette that starred in the TV show.  “Howdy” is a short form of the phrase “How do you do?”, a social greeting that dates back to 16th century England.  The form “Howdy” took root in the Southern US in the 19th century and was carried West by veterans of the US Civil War.  “Howdy Doody” is simply another jocular form of “How do you do?”  Although “Howdy” as a greeting is usually associated with the West, it’s actually used all over the US today, and I often hear myself blurt “Howdy!” when I’m passed on the street by someone who has a stronger memory of me than I have of them.

“Boy howdy” is another Southernism, usually attributed to Texas and evidently popular in that state.  It’s a simple combination of the exclamation “Boy!” (indicating surprise) and our friend “Howdy,” together used to mean “Wow!” or to indicate strong agreement with a statement or question (“Was your mom mad at you?”  “Boy howdy!  I’m grounded for a month.”).  The phrase seems to have been popularized in the years after World War I, when returning soldiers who had heard it from Texans in the service brought it back to civilian life.  A related form, “boy hidy,” is a fairly weird but nonetheless popular variation.  Texas, land of mystery.

Speaking of exclamations, the interjection “boy!” (“Boy, that sauce is hot!”) is short for “Oh boy,” used to introduce and emphasize a statement since the early 20th century.  The original lexical function of the phrase was simply to catch the listener’s attention, equivalent to saying “Hey, mister…”, but today “boy” used this way signals that the speaker considers what follows to be important or surprising (“Boy, I never thought they’d actually fire me”).


Probably coined by Jack Webb.

Dear Word Detective:  From where does the name “pot” come from when referring to marijuana?  I have asked several users of the substance but they seem to have forgotten. — Barry Longyear.

Ba-dum-bump.  I feel like I’ve wandered into someone else’s act here.  But I’m afraid that in making a good joke you’re perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype of potheads as forgetful space cadets.  From what I’ve seen (from a distance, through binoculars, with Melvin the Drug Dog at my side, of course), the drug (or, as the Governator calls it, “the leaf”) actually improves its users’ memory.  They remember, for instance, how remarkably funny late-night reruns of Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger” can be.

There’s nothing like making something illegal to spawn a wide range of slang terms for the item, and illicit drugs have spawned hundreds of such names.  Much of this slang is ephemeral and largely generational, changing through the years along with styles in hair and music.  A few core slang terms, however, persist for decades or far longer (such as “junk” for heroin and “speed” for amphetamines).  In the case of marijuana, “grass” and “pot” are the perennial standards, so widespread that major US newspapers have lately taken to using “pot” in news stories without the quotation marks that usually signal a slang term.

“Pot” as slang for marijuana has been in common usage since at least the 1930s and the subject of lively dispute among etymologists pretty much since day one.  The most popular theory about the origin of “pot” traces it to the Spanish phrase “potacion de guaya,” or “drink of grief,” supposedly referring to a concoction of wine in which marijuana buds have been steeped.  It is also said that “potiguaya” or similar words are used in Spanish to mean marijuana leaves.  The only problem with these theories is that no one has yet found “potacion de guaya” or its relatives actually being used in Spanish.  That, to put it mildly, is a pretty big problem.

None of the other theories that have been proposed for the origin of “pot” are as enticing  as that one, although the simple substitution at some point of “pot” for “pod” (meaning, presumably, the seed pods of the plant) is certainly plausible.  Unfortunately, “pod” as slang for marijuana seems to have appeared more than twenty years after “pot” did, so there’s another problem.

If I had to pick a likely candidate for the actual origin of “pot,” I’d go with one that harks back to another venerable slang term for the stuff: “tea,” referring to the similarity in appearance between dried “pot” leaves and tea leaves.  It’s easy to image someone making a pun on “teapot” (especially since “pot” is sometimes made into tea) and adopting just “pot” as slang for the drug.

Mail and Post

The Crying of Lot 43046.

Dear Word Detective:  Why is a letter or parcel delivery service called “mail” or “post”? — Ray Earl.

That’s a darn good question.  Speaking of the US Postal Service, I discovered something odd the other day.  When we moved to this little town in rural Ohio a few years ago and I went to rent a Post Office box, the folks downtown gave me Box 1, which had recently been vacated.  Cool, thought I.  But some of the locals apparently thought I had pulled devious strings in Washington (or Zurich) to score such an exalted address, and they’ve evidently been seething with resentment ever since.  Who knew?  I figured they squinted at everyone that way.  Oh well, it’s all fodder for my memoirs, after which I’ll probably need a whole new zip code.

“Mail” and “post” in the “Oh look, here’s a letter from the IRS” sense are both very old words related to the process of sending a letter or package, but they spring from two separate aspects of that process.

The word “post,” as in “Post Office,” “postal worker” and the like (as well as the verb phrase “to post a letter”) harks back to the Medieval origins of the postal service in Europe.  The mail was carried in a relay system on horseback by riders who were “posted” at set intervals along the roads (called, naturally, “post roads”).  This “post” is not, it should be noted, the sort of pole stuck in the ground one might use to tether a horse.  It comes from the Latin “ponere,” meaning “to place,” and referred to the placing or “posting” of the riders along the route.  Speed, of course, was imperative in transporting mail by such a primitive system, and the word “posthaste,” which we use today to mean “quickly,” is a relic of the days when “haste, post, haste” was scrawled on letters to encourage quick delivery.

The “mail” we all eagerly await every day (and, around here, await, and await) takes its name not from the letters and packages themselves, but the bag used to carry them in early postal systems.  The Old French word “male” meant “bag or satchel,” and was used in the 13th century to mean the mailbag carried by the relay riders.  Eventually the term “mail” (as the spelling had developed) was transferred from the bags and applied to the letters and parcels within.  This “mail,” incidentally, is unrelated to “chain mail,” the metal body armor worn by knights, which comes from another Old French word, “maille,” meaning “mesh.”

Both “mail” and “post” are verbs as well, of course, although there are usage differences between the US and the UK.  Over here in the US, we “mail” letters, but “post” is more the British habit.