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Mr. Skim of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe called.

Dear Word Detective:  Is the word “finagle” of Gaelic descent?  My maiden name was Nagle.  We descended from County Cork, Ireland.  Just wondering. — Catherine Meyer.

Hey, I understand.  Names are very personal things.  When you’re a kid you try to imagine where your name came from, some way it makes sense and how the particular mojo of your name might shape your life.  If your name is Baker or Smith, of course, somewhere way back on the family tree there probably was a baker or a blacksmith.  But does it also work the other way?  How many kids today subconsciously tilt towards a career in cooking because their name is Baker?  And how many little Smiths are doomed to a life of furtively registering in seedy motels?  Such questions are, sadly, beyond my ken, which is another name fraught with questions.  But hey, how weird is it that the Ponzi scheme uncovered in 2008 that bilked investors of $50 billion was run by a guy whose name is pronounced “made off”?   Next time the Clue Phone rings, folks, I suggest you consider answering it.

Where were we?  Right, the “Nagle-finagle” connection, if any.  Well, if you’re wondering whether your true calling might have been as a flim-flam artist, I’d say no.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s no connection between your name and the verb “finagle,” meaning “to use dishonest or devious tactics to get something by trickery.”  And while I’m not an expert in onomastics (the study of proper names, from the Greek “onoma,” name, which is related to the word “name” itself), “Nagle” strikes me as an eminently trustworthy moniker.

“Finagle,” on the other hand, even sounds shifty.  A “finagler” is a schemer, someone who doesn’t so much swindle you as maneuver you into doing something good for him.  “Finagling” also often means “to fudge, to fiddle” with rules or figures, or to bypass rules or restrictions with smooth talk (“Any attempt to fudge or finagle or to get ahead of the other fellow will be recognized by the judge for what it is,” 1955).

Although “finagle” first appeared in the 1920s and is considered US slang, its roots apparently lie in the English rural dialect term “fainaigue,” meaning “to cheat.”  There are some indications that the term may originally have come from cards, where it meant to fail to follow suit (play a card of the same suit as the preceding) when able or required to do so.


Be here when?

Dear Word Detective:  The Kung Fu Panda DVD has that old saying “Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift.  That is why it is called the Present.  Open it and enjoy.”  That got me thinking about “present” (verb tense) and “present” (gift).  Is there any relationship between the two?  Perhaps in the dawn of the spoken word? — Don Wilkinson.

That’s a darn good question.  I must admit (to the probable mortification of everyone who knows me) that I had no idea, until a few minutes ago, of what “Kung Fu Panda” is.  (Thanks, Wikipedia!)  Then again, I also routinely fail to recognize major celebrities on TV, although I maintain that it’s not my fault.  C’mon, don’t Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and, um, whatshername, really all, you know, kinda look alike?  Anyway, if you liked that aphorism, you should swing by our house, where our motto is “Yesterday was a mystery, today is a muddle, and tomorrow is giving me a headache.”

There is indeed a relationship between “present” as a verb tense and “present” as a noun meaning “a gift.”  In fact, “present” can also be used as an adjective and adverb meaning “in the place being spoken of” (“Freddy was present for all the meetings with the FBI”) as well as an adjective or adverb meaning “existing or occurring now” (“He thought only of his present problems and refused to worry about his old age”).  But wait, there’s more!  “Present” (pronounced only in this case with a long “e” in the first syllable and the stress on the second) is also a verb meaning “to show or place before” (“May I present the star of Quack, Len the Duck”).  “Present” is a very versatile, if sometimes confusing, word.

It all started with the Latin adjective “praesens,” which means “being here now,” formed from roots meaning roughly “to be before one,” in the sense of standing in front of someone.  All the meanings of “present” we use today involve either one or both of these root senses of “right here” and “right now.”

The noun “present,” meaning “the period of time that is now occurring,” first appeared in English in the early 13th century, and gave us the “present” verb tense, in which the action of the verb is occurring right now.  This noun “present” originally also had a number of other forms, all now obsolete, which referred to something “present,” on the scene, at a particular time.  As I said, the “here” and “now” senses of “present” can be difficult to untangle.  “Present” as an adjective and adverb appeared in the early 14th century meaning both “right here” and “at this time.”

This brings us to the verb form of “present,” which appeared in English around 1300 with the meaning “to bring or place before someone,” as in a formal introduction (“He … led me into his hut … and presented me before his wife, as if she had been the Queen and I a duke,” Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886).  This verb “to present” could, however, cover the offering of things as well as people “placed in front of” the recipient, and so “to present” also meant “to give as a gift or prize.”  This gave us the use of “present” as a noun meaning “a gift given to another.”

So the “present” meaning “right now” and the “present” meaning “gift” are actually the same word.  But, notwithstanding Panda wisdom, that’s not “why” we call today “the present,” although there have been some days lately that I would cheerfully return for exchange.


Whither withers?

Dear Word Detective:   Is the word “dewlap” Shakespearean?  I mean, did Shakespeare make it up? — Andy McCollough.

That’s a good question.  And while we’re at it, what’s up with all the obscure terminology associated with farm animals?  “Dewlap”?  “Fetlock”?  “Withers”?  “Pastern”?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that all mammals shared the same basic bits — head, ears, hips, legs, feet and so on.  Now, I have in-laws who seem to spend most of their time queuing up for major elective surgery, such as hip or knee replacements.  Listening to these people is an anatomy lesson in itself.  But not once have I heard one of them announce that Doctor Lamborghini thinks they need a “fetlock replacement” or a “pastern repair.”  Someone has some explaining to do.

Speaking of “pasterns,” one of my favorite stories about Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first true dictionary of the English language, concerns Johnson’s response to a woman demanding to know how he could have erroneously defined “pastern” in his dictionary as “the knee of a horse” (which it isn’t).  “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance,” Johnson replied.

Onward.  A “dewlap” is, as you probably know, the fold of loose skin which hangs from the throat of cattle and similar animals, and, by extension (in humor or unkindness), from the throats of some people.  Similar formations in some animals, particularly chickens and US Senators, are called “wattles.”

Shakespeare didn’t coin “dewlap,” but he was, apparently, fond of the word.  The Oxford English Dictionary lists two citations for “dewlap,” in early spellings, both from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“When she drinkes, against her lips I bob, And on her wither’d dewlop poure the Ale” and “My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kinde … Crooke-kneed, and dew-lapt, like Thessalian Buls”).

When Shakespeare was writing at the end of the 16th century, however, “dewlap” had already been in use for at least two centuries.  It first appeared, as far as we know, in 1398 applied to oxen.  The “lap” of “dewlap” is from the Old English “laeppa,” meaning “pendulous piece or flap,” but the “dew” part is a bit of a mystery.  You might assume that, as the animal grazes in a morning meadow, that flap of skin collects dew from the grass.  But in the related and equivalent forms of “dewlap” in Scandinavian languages (e.g., the Danish “doglaeb” and the Swedish “droglapp”), the first element does not mean “dew.”  That’s a problem.

Etymologists now believe that the first part of “dewlap” was originally a word that sounded a bit like “dew” but has now become obsolete and unfamiliar, and that over the years people replaced it with the more familiar “dew.”  This process of substituting the familiar for the obscure is known as “folk etymology,” and it’s how, for instance, “catercornered” (“cater” being an old English word for “four”) became “kittycornered” after people forgot what “cater” meant.  “Kittycornered” made no sense at all, of course, but it had the virtue of at least sounding a bit less alien.