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Is your hair on purpose?

Dear Word Detective:  I heard a coworker talking about her husband, and she used the word “unkept.”  I told her I thought the term she meant was “unkempt,” but she didn’t believe it was even a word.  I think we have gotten lazy and changed it to “unkept.”  When I proved it was an actual word, everyone, including me, started wondering where such a word came from. — Todd.

Well, there you go.  It’s the fault of “unkempt” itself for being such a freaking weird word. No wonder people decided to fix it and make it “unkept” (although I would decline being included in the “we” who did it).  I’m sure “unkept” will be a much happier word (as long as it stays away from spell-checkers for the next few years, of course).

I haven’t run into the substitution of “unkept” for “unkempt” yet myself, but it sounds like a perfect example of an “eggcorn,” the replacement of an unfamiliar word or phrase with one that sounds similar but makes a bit more “sense.”  The replacement of “for all intents and purposes” with “for all intensive purposes” and the substitution of “coming down the pipe” for “coming down the pike” are both classic eggcorns.  More can be found, along with an explanation of the term “eggcorn” itself, at the Eggcorn Database at

“Unkempt” means, of course, “disheveled, untidy, neglected,” and is used in reference to both personal appearance (“Tall, uncouth, unkempt fellows … seated on a bench smoking,” 1877) and general tidiness (“DeSoto County Supervisors are still grappling with what to do about overgrown subdivisions and unkempt lots,” DeSoto Times-Tribune, Jan. 2010).

When “unkempt” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, it meant literally “uncombed,” and was formed on the Old English verb “kemb,” meaning “to comb the hair” (also the root of our modern “comb”).  The more common form of the word since the 14th century had actually been “unkembed,” but “unkempt” gained a foothold because many people were familiar with its earlier Flemish form “ongekempt.”  Oddly enough, however, “unkempt” faded from use in the 17th century, but regained its popularity in the 1800s.

“Uncombed” being a good description of many things besides hair, “unkempt” immediately came into figurative use, applied to anything messy and “not in proper order.”  The first recorded use of the word, in fact, from 1579, refers to the “rugged and unkempt” use of language.  The 19th century saw the application of “unkempt” to anything, from a farm to a poem, not considered “up to snuff.”

There is, incidentally, a positive form of “unkempt,” which is simply “kempt,” meaning “in proper condition or order” (“A spacious expanse of greensward, smooth and kempt as the ancient turf of an Oxford college,” 1954).

There’s no way to prevent the English language from changing, and the slide from “unkempt” to “unkept,” if it proceeds, may simplify life for some people.  But “uncombed” seems such a poetic and perfect description of so much of life that I truly hope we can preserve  “unkempt.”


Well, the Super’s name is Earl Duke.

Dear Word Detective: Why are apartment buildings known as “arms”? — Jane Bellotti.

That’s an interesting question, and although I first answered it more than a decade ago, when I went back to check on what I had written and to see whether it could be expanded (as I always do), I found myself wandering in an unexpected direction.

It seems that back in 1945, a fellow named Arthur Minton published an article in American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Association) entitled “Apartment-House Names.”  Minton’s focus was primarily the five boroughs of New York City, where, he estimated, one fourth of the apartment buildings at that time had names.  Approximately one-third of those names included the words “Court” or “Arms,” and a lesser but still significant number of buildings ended in “Hall” (e.g., “Harrowick Hall,” etc.).  The remainder of named buildings sported less grandiose names such as “Terrace,” “Gardens,” “Towers” and “Plaza.”  New York being New York, some people didn’t know when to stop, and Minton mentions such florid creations as the “Manor Palace” and the “Palais de Mosholu” (on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx).  At the other end of the scale, he found the weirdly recursive “Arms Apartments,” also in the Bronx, whose name, Minton notes, “suggests an unprecedented exhaustion of the imagination.”

The terms “Hall,” “Court” and “Arms” in the names of apartment buildings are preceded in most cases by British or pseudo-British personal or place names (“Kensington Arms,” “Mountbatten Court,” etc.) that attempt to lend an air of historical grandeur, prestige and tradition to what is, in most cases, a fairly utilitarian building.  But while such grandiose names for apartment houses are largely an American affectation, we got the idea from the Brits themselves.

Back when England was awash with Dukes, Earls and similar nobility, many happy centuries before motel and restaurant chains, the local inn or pub (or, indeed, the whole town) frequently sat on land owned by the Duke of Earl, or whomever.  This was also a time when many people were illiterate.  So pubs and inns relied on highly recognizable graphic signs, perhaps calling themselves “The Blue Swan,” signified for non-readers by a blue swan on the sign.  In many cases, the most recognizable symbol in town was the coat of arms of the local nobility, so if one paid rent to the Duke of Norfolk, it made sense to feature the Norfolk family coat of arms on your sign and to call your establishment “the Norfolk Arms.”

Incidentally, although today we use “coat of arms” to mean the heraldic insignia of a noble family or other group, usually featuring a shield, a motto and perhaps some fierce animals,    the original meaning took “coat” very literally.  A “coat of arms” was a linen or silk coat, worn by a knight over his armor on formal occasions, and decorated with his (or his sponsor’s) heraldic emblem.


Not to mention the damp, tasteless pizza.

Dear Word Detective:  “Yokel,” meaning a country bumpkin, is pretty well known, but where does it come from?  Perhaps from its rhyming with “local”?  “Local yokel” is often heard, but then there must be, by implication, alien or visiting yokels.  Any chance it has some Scandinavian roots: “yoke” for joke?  A local joke with a Scandinavian accent becomes “local yoke”?  Or am I way off base? — Barney Johnson.

Well, you may be wandering a bit, but under the circumstances, that’s understandable.  “Yokel” is a pretty strange word. By the way, your musing on “alien yokels” rang a bell with me.  After living in a rural area for more than ten years now, I’m firmly convinced that some of our neighbors are not native to this solar system. I know it sounds crazy, but think about it. Wouldn’t it make more sense for invaders from outer space to colonize the boondocks than to try to blend into our cities?  Especially if their species subsisted on weird stuff like sausage gravy and Jello with marshmallows and mayonnaise?  Makes sense to me.  It would certainly explain banjos.

“Yokel” is one of a number of derogatory terms applied to dwellers in rural areas by people living in, or at least closer to, big cities.  Along with such terms as “hick,” “rube,” “hayseed,” “bumpkin,” “clodhopper” and “yahoo,” “yokel” implies that the person is not only unsophisticated and provincial, but probably uneducated and intellectually impaired as well.

“Yokel” isn’t quite as old as one might suspect, first appearing in English in the early 19th century (in the spelling “youkell”).  The origin of “yokel” is, unfortunately, uncertain, but there are two plausible theories about its source.  The simpler theory traces “yokel” to the German personal name “Jokel” (Jacob).  The tradition of calling country dwellers by names thought to be typically rustic is well-established; both “rube” (from Reuben) and “hick” (a “pet”  form of Richard) follow this pattern.

A more interesting theory, also with some precedent, traces “yokel” meaning “hick” to the old English dialect term “yokel” as a name for the green woodpecker, a bird fairly common in Europe.  “Yokel” as the name of the bird was apparently formed as an imitation of its distinctive call.

The use of the name of a woodpecker as a general term for a “hick” has an interesting parallel in the use of “peckerwood” (a simple reversal of “woodpecker”) as slang, especially among African-Americans in the southern states, for a poor rural white person (“Even a Delta peckerwood would look after even a draggle-tail better than that,” Go Down Moses, Faulkner, 1942).

Why woodpeckers?  To someone visiting the country from the city, a woodpecker would be a highly noticeable novelty, and thus a fitting emblem of country life.  Humans also have a very old habit of comparing people they regard as stupid to birds (e.g., “bird brain,” “dodo” and “silly goose”).  Today the term “yokel” is almost always found in the phrase “local yokel,” and it’s likely that the rhyme has contributed greatly to the persistence of “yokel” in the popular lexicon.