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Lather, rinse, forget.

Dear Word Detective:  I am retired but substitute teach at the elementary level in Virginia.  We were using the word “hardship” and one of my fourth graders asked about the word.  I said that I seemed to remember, from a long time ago, that the word had something to do with the many terrible things endured by the Pilgrims, etc., and that the word “hard” had originally been another word.  Maybe it was “heart.”  I just don’t remember!  I have promised the kids an answer and hope you can help me out.  I have “Googled” this and that to no avail. — Sherry Anderson.

This is a good question in its own right, of course, but it also illustrates my pet theory of human memory.  You once heard a story linking the word “hardship” to the Pilgrims, possibly suggesting that the “hard” part was originally “heart.”  My guess is that it was a heartwarming, inspiring story, as such stories tend to be (especially those involving the Pilgrims).  You have, however, long since forgotten the story.  That’s because, I firmly believe, the human brain actually incorporates an excellent flapdoodle-detector, although it often works quite slowly.  Over time, your brain realized that it was storing useless nonsense and decided, quite reasonably, to delete it.  Forgetting ridiculous things you’ve heard is, in other words, a good thing.  I just wish we could speed up the process so it kicks in before Election Day.

So, in any case, the story you seem to have heard about “hardship” was bunk.  “Hardship” has always been simply “hardship” since it first appeared in English in the early 13th century.  Its original meaning was “the quality of being hard to bear; severity, painful difficulty” (as in “Her brute of a husband was a hardship”), but since the 15th century the term has been used in a more general sense for a condition or state that causes suffering (“Poverty and hardship in childhood may lead to a life of poor health”).  The “hard” part of “hardship” refers to the difficulty of enduring the circumstance;  “ship” as a suffix simply means “the state or condition of being.”

If it was indeed “heartship” that the story you heard years ago proposed as the original form of “hardship,” the idea seems to be still lurking out there on the internet.  There are a bit more than five hundred Google hits for “heartship” (“They believe that because I want to continue this relationship I am taking myself down a trail of pain and heartship”).  Almost all of these seem to be cases of simple confusion based on mishearing the word “hardship” (similar to the process that transforms “an arm and a leg” into “a nominal egg”).  I can’t find any Pilgrim-related stories about “heartship,” but if the mangled word spreads a bit more, someone is bound to invent a brand new fable about it.

Bread and Butter letter

And thanks for all the toast.

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the term “bread and butter letter” originate?  I do know that it is a “thank you” letter for staying in someone’s house. — Leslie Player.

Well, you’re one step ahead of me.  I thought I had never heard the term “bread and butter” used in that sense before, but then I vaguely remembered, in my childhood, hearing an older person using it.  I suppose I should have asked what it meant, but at that age I regarded it as just one more grownup mystery, like property taxes and why in the world any sane person would eat eggplant.  I still haven’t figured out the second one.

“Bread,” being the staff of life and all, is, of course, a very old word, though it’s interesting to note that in Old English the word simply meant “piece of food, morsel,” not necessarily the stuff cranked out by Pepperidge Farm.  “Butter” is even older, and comes from the Greek “boutyron,” meaning literally “cow cheese.”  By the way, that “staff of life” business comes from the Bible, where “to break the staff of bread” means to cut off the food supply that supports a people (as a walking staff supports an individual).

“Bread and butter” has been used, since at least the early 18th century, to mean  “everyday kinds of food” (“It was strictly a bread and butter dinner, not a snail in sight”), but more often in a figurative sense to mean “means of living, basic financial support,” often of a distinctly unglamorous sort (“Sure, I dabble in tech stocks, but repossessing cars is my bread and butter”).

The logic of “bread and butter letter,” a term first appearing in print in the US in the early 20th century, seems to fall somewhere between those two uses.  The writer is thanking his or her hosts for their hospitality (and food), but the letter is also a basic social formality, not likely to contain any exciting content.  A “bread and butter” note may not be eagerly awaited, but it’s the sort of thing expected and probably noticed most in its absence.

Speaking of bread and butter, I noted a few years back that my wife Kathy had grown up in Ohio with the tradition of saying “bread and butter” whenever an object (parking meter, UFO, whatever) or another person comes between you and your walking companion.  At first I was mystified, but it turns out to be a common childhood ritualistic incantation in the American Midwest, invoking the togetherness of bread and butter to insure that the two companions are not separated for longer than a moment.

Devil of a Time

Not to be confused with fun.

Dear Word Detective:  My dad, who hails from the coast of Scotland, is a great source of idioms I rarely (if ever) hear from friends and co-workers.  Unfortunately, like most people, he uses expressions with no idea where they actually came from and has only a passing understanding of what they mean.  One of these pet expressions is “a devil of a time” which he uses to describe unpleasant tasks that must be done and put him in a bad mood such as “a devil of a time” fixing the roof or unclogging the toilet.  I’m just guessing here, but by any chance does this phrase owe its origins to the ugly business of re-caulking wooden-hulled ships while at sea?  I seem to recall “the devil” being a term for the planking around the waterline of the hull. — Steve.

Your father’s understanding of “a devil of a time” is actually right on the mark, and, as someone who has unclogged a lot of toilets, I admire his restraint.  I usually come up with far less printable ways to describe such tasks.  My personal least-favorite chore is dragging fifty-pound sacks of salt into the cellar and dumping them into our so-called water softener every month.  I hate this ritual so much that I actually feel a rush of annoyance when I see people lifting weights on TV.  Come to my house, bucko, and I’ll waive the gym fees.

“A devil of a time” is actually a very old and very widespread expression, as well known in the US as it apparently is in Scotland.  The construction “a devil of a,” meaning “an extremely irritating or difficult example of something” (“a devil of a day,” “a devil of a problem,” etc.) dates back at least to the mid-18th century.  The logic of the phrase is a comparison of the thing in question to Satan or his devilish ways, and was originally taken as a serious condemnation, i.e., a “devil of a man” was a truly bad character.  Today the phrase has softened to mean simply “unpleasant, annoying or difficult” (“I had a devil of a time programming my iPod”).

The nautical use of “devil” to mean a seam in a ship’s hull difficult to reach while caulking is often cited when explaining the phrase “the devil to pay” meaning “in a difficult situation.”  “Pay” does indeed have the meaning of “seal with pitch” (from the Old French “peier,” pitch or tar).  But no one has ever been able to establish that any particular seam on a wooden ship was called “the devil.”  Furthermore, the supposed “full” form of the phrase, “the devil to pay and no pitch hot,” did not appear until the mid-19th century, roughly four centuries after “the devil to pay” was in use by landlubbers.  It’s pretty clear that “the devil to pay” originally simply referred to the classic Faustian bargain with Satan and its unpleasant consequences.  The story about “the devil to pay” springing from an unpleasant caulking job aboard ship was a later invention based on the coincidence of “pay” meaning “caulk” and “pay” meaning “satisfy a debt.”