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Flying fools.

Dear Word Detective:   I am reading Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens and right now I am regretting not having sought out an annotated copy. The latest word to throw me is “gull,” which noun Dickens uses to describe Lord Frederick. I know, of course, that a gull is a bird, and I have also found a secondary definition meaning “fool,” and a related verb form meaning “to fool.” So does it have another, archaic meaning, referring to a peer or lord, or is Dickens simply calling Lord Frederick an idiot every other time he pops up? — Jacob.

Oh boy, Dickens.  Speaking of Dickens, if you own a TV, you absolutely must snag the DVD of the BBC/PBS serialized production of his novel “Little Dorrit” made in 2008.  It is truly extraordinary, the best thing I’ve seen on TV in years (and evidently I’m not nuts, because it won seven Emmys).  It was odd to watch this last spring, in the midst of the “global financial crisis,” as much of the story revolves around Marshalsea debtor’s prison in London, and a large role in the story is played by a financial wizard named Merdle (a monicker as apt as Madoff) who turns out to be every bit as rotten as today’s scoundrels.

Most people associate “gull” with the seagull, which is actually not just one bird but rather, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Any long-winged, web-footed bird of the family Laridae and sub-family Larinae….”   Gulls are almost always found near major bodies of water, although a large number of them live in Central Ohio (not known for its major bodies of water), supposedly driven down here from the Great Lakes by a blizzard in the 1970s.  Could be, I suppose.  All I know is that they definitely didn’t come for the pizza.  This kind of “gull” takes its name from the Welsh word for the bird, “gwylan.”

Gulls are not as smart as crows, but they’re not stupid, which presents a problem in explaining the use of “gull” since the 16th century as slang for “simpleton, dupe, sucker.”  One possible explanation lies in the fact that there is another, entirely unrelated, “gull,” dating back to the 14th century, that means a very young bird of any species.  This “gull” probably derives from the Old Norse word “gulr,” meaning “yellow,” referring to the pale yellow plumage of many baby birds.  Such young birds are not very bright, so that would fit with the “simpleton” sense of the slang “gull.”

There’s another possible source for “gull” meaning “fool,” and that is yet another “gull,” an old English dialect word meaning “throat” (related to “gullet”), in this case carrying the sense of “someone who will swallow anything.”  Whatever the source, the same root also gave us the verb “to gull” in the 16th century meaning “to play for a fool,” which in turn produced the adjective “gullible.”

That’s a lot of “gulls” for one language, but, unfortunately, there is no other “gull” referring to nobility in a respectful sense.  So yes, Dickens was indeed calling Lord Frederick Verisopht (another great Dickens name) a dupe and a fool.  On the bright side, according to a search of “Nickleby” on Google Books, he only did it twice.

Number, to do a

But it always adds up to a bad day.

Dear Word Detective:  Countless times I’ve heard the phrase “to do a number on” someone or something, meaning “to affect strongly, often negatively.” I wonder how that came into our language.  It seems like a usage that sprang up with the ’60s and ’70s counter-culture, maybe originating as musicians’ slang. — Slidedaddy.

“Do a number on” is one of those stealthy little phrases that you pick up without really thinking about it and then use for years, blissfully never questioning what the “number” might be or how one “does” a number in the first place.  Of course, most slang spreads in just this casual, unquestioning fashion; few of us would think to ask a friend exactly what “number” his latest fender-bender “did” on his car.  Asking is uncool.  One interprets such things from context, and it’s pretty clear that nothing was ever improved by having a “number done” on it.

“Number” is, as you can imagine, a very old word.  It first appeared in English around 1300 with the meaning “the precise sum or aggregate of a collection of individual things or persons” (“He sayth that then shall the nomber of sore and sick beggers decreace,” 1529).  The root of “number” was the Latin “numerus” (meaning “sum” or “total,” which also gave us “numerous,” “numeral,” “enumerate” and other modern English words), which in turn came from a root meaning “to divide or distribute.”  The use of “number” to mean “symbol of arithmetic value” appeared around 1400.

As most core English words do, “number” has acquired a wide range of figurative and  slang senses.  One of the older uses of “number” in slang is “playing the numbers,” i.e., betting in an illegal lottery, a use common in US cities since the mid-19th century. Also in the 19th century, we began to use “number” in a very vague sense to mean “one of something,” such as an article of clothing (“[A]n exquisite but throat-high ‘little number’ redeemed by lumps of jade,” 1953), or even a person (“Have you seen a little blond number named Adeline?”, 1955).

In the mid-19th century, we began to use “number” as theatrical slang to mean “a particular item in a program of musical entertainment,” most likely because items in a printed program given to audience members were often literally numbered.  This led to the use of “number” to mean “a song” as well as, at least within the theatrical community, to mean a “bit” or “routine” associated with a particular performer.  This led in turn, by the late 1960s, to the use of “number” to mean “manner or routine pattern of behavior” (“Bob always does his poverty  number, but he actually has pots of money.”).

All of which brings us to “to do a number on,” which first appeared in the African-American community in the late 1960s meaning “to act with destructive impact on” (“There were about four or five cats doing a number on (beating hell out of) a Puerto Rican,” New York Times, 1972) or “to criticize severely.” This slang sense seems to combine the intentionally vague use of “number” to mean an unspecified “something” with the sense of “a personal routine or characteristic behavior,” in this case ranging from an angry tirade to a physical beating.  The phrase “do a number on” has been tempered somewhat as its use became more mainstream, and it’s often now used to mean simply “affect negatively” (“Frigid temperatures can do a number on your plumbing if your pipes aren’t properly insulated,” 2010).


The buck stops in their pockets.

Dear Word Detective:  I live in Cook County, IL, where a synonym for politician is “crook” in all too many instances. “Crook” apparently has a few meanings, but when and why did it ever come to mean “criminal” or “thief”? Do the terms “straight and narrow” and “bent” spring from the same source? Please shed some light on this. — Bill Lundeberg.

But if I shed light on politicians, won’t they all just run behind the stove?  Anyway, while Cook County may be a bit above average in the “elected crook” tally, the rest of the US is, from all indications, not far behind.  I actually have a theory about this.  Since politicians are so widely reviled (twenty points below puppy-kickers, last I checked), the only positive reinforcement the poor creatures get is from real-estate developers and defense contractors itching to fill their pockets with bribes.  It’s a sad cycle of abuse, and the solution is obvious:  ignore politicians who promise to be honest and elect only people who are already in jail, where we’ll be able to keep an eye on them.

“Crook” does indeed have many meanings,which isn’t surprising since it first appeared in English way back in the 13th century, derived from the Old Norse word “krokr,” meaning “hook.”  The initial meaning of the English “crook” was “hooked tool or weapon” (still found in the “crook,” or hooked staff, traditionally carried by shepherds), and “crook” was soon applied to nearly anything bent sharply in the approximate shape of a hook.  But “crook” was also used, almost as soon as it first appeared, to mean things “morally bent or twisted,” including, by the 19th century, a dishonest person. This “crook” also gave us, of course, the adjective “crooked” meaning “characterized by dishonesty.”  Incidentally, when students “play hookey” and skip school,  the “hookey” comes from the related 19th century slang term “hookey-crooky,” meaning “dishonest.”

“Bent” in the slang sense of “dishonest” is, as you suspected, simply an alternative and arguably more diplomatic way to say “crooked” (“What made the witness think the two officers were offering a bribe? Mitchell replied, ‘I had known for years that certain members of the Brighton police force were what we call bent,'” Times (London), 1958).

“Straight and narrow,” meaning “a path of moral and law-abiding behavior,” also takes its meaning from the contrast with such terms as “crooked.”  The phrase is often “corrected” by purists to “strait and narrow,” referring back to the apparent source of the idiom in the Bible (“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,”  Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 14).  But in the Bible text both “strait” and “narrow” mean the same thing (“narrow or constricted”), while in popular use “straight and narrow” vividly suggests a path both “straight” (direct and not “crooked”) and “narrow” (not wavering), which conveys a better sense of zipping through life on the expressway of moral rectitude.  Both forms appeared in English in the mid-19th century, so it’s really not possible to argue that one is “more correct” than the other.