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There will be potatoes.

Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine apologized to me recently, and I replied, “It’s all gravy,” signifying that there was no harm done. Now I’ll be the first to admit that gravy is indeed awesome, but wouldn’t it have made more sense as “It’s all cake!” or something like that, because it’s sweet? Gravy, or cake for that matter, is pretty far from harmless, as I’m sure many a heart valve can attest. I’m sure this is a recent phrase, but I was very curious about the possible beginnings of “gravy.” — Wordgoblin.

Well, I’m glad you didn’t say, “It’s all good,” which is absolutely the creepiest locution I’ve heard in the last twenty years. I’m not sure why it annoys me so much, but it even beats “No problem” in the place of “You’re welcome,” and that’s a high bar to top. A close runner-up is “I’m fine” in reply to a trivial question such as “Would you like a cup of coffee?” To me, “I’m fine” is what you say after you fall downstairs or survive a fender-bender. If I’m offering you a cuppa joe, chances are I’ve noticed that you aren’t bleeding. So knock it off, people. And get off my lawn.

For a substance defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The fat and juices which exude from flesh during and after the process of cooking; a dressing for meat or vegetables made from these with the addition of condiments,” the humble food known as “gravy” has covered a lot of territory, especially given that it apparently acquired its name through a spelling error. “Gravy” first appeared in English in the late 14th century in translations of Old French cookbooks. In the Old French texts, interestingly, the word was not “gravy,” but “grane,” reflecting the term’s roots in the Old French “grain,” cooking sauce, probably drawn from the Latin “granum” (seed, grain), referring to spices. In any case, the Old French “grane” was misread as “grave,” and it was “gravy” from then on.

When gravy first appeared, however, it wasn’t the gravy we know today. It was a dressing, used on white meat and fish, made of broth, milk of almonds, spices, and wine or ale. (Cheap imitations of the pricey real stuff were known at the time as “gravy bastard.”) But by the late 16th century, “gravy” was the gravy we know today, and the slang and metaphorical uses of the word began to pile up like mashed potatoes on a trucker’s plate.

One of the oldest “gravy” metaphors, appearing in the late 17th century was “to stew in one’s own gravy,” meaning “to suffer the consequences of one’s own poor judgment or bad behavior,” with the implication that the person is, consequently, sweating profusely. But the sense of gravy as a deliciously rich addition to a sumptuous meal made most of the figurative uses of “gravy” quite positive. In the slang of the 19th century theater, for instance, “gravy” was either a very easy role or easily-earned laughter or applause from the audience.

From the early 20th century onward, “gravy” was primarily used as slang for “money, success, riches,” especially if obtained very easily or unexpectedly, or in addition to what might be expected (“If you sell two Cadillacs a month, you make expenses, and anything over that is so much gravy,” John O’Hara, 1934). Finding a secure and lucrative position that required little or no work in return for pots of money was, as of about 1914, to “board the gravy train” or “board the gravy boat,” a pun on the small boat-shaped pitcher of gravy found on many dinner tables (“Once you get on the Hollywood gravy boat, it is no trick to make money; the trick is to keep it,” 1948). But even humble jobs, such as waiting tables, could sometimes produce their own “gravy” (“The tip is called the gravy, and when there is a mix-up at the table and two diners leave separate tips, it becomes double gravy,” 1967).

While gravy is almost certainly bad for you and your arteries, its place in slang remains overwhelmingly positive, and even individual people have been hailed as “gravy” (meaning “excellent” or “the best”) since the early 1900s. Given the golden linguistic glow surrounding “gravy” as a slang term, it makes perfect sense to use “It’s all gravy” to mean “Everything is fine.” I personally have never heard the usage, but I think you should popularize it. It’s snappy, intriguing, colorful, and far, far better than the smarmy “It’s all good.”


Up next: Custer’s Epic Fail.

Dear Word Detective: I recently read a review for a historical fiction (set in 1881 in the Dakota territories) in which the reviewer chastised the author for using “hands-on.” What is the first known usage of this phrasing? I was unable to find it myself so I am turning to the Word Detective. I feel that it was used earlier than 1881 but can’t find proof. — Arwen.

Well, this is a new one on me. I actually get a fair number of questions from folks who believe they’ve detected an anachronistic word or usage in a work of historical fiction and want their suspicions confirmed. Sometimes they’re right; some inept writers sprinkle their Victorian dialog with slang far more likely to be overheard in today’s Hollywood than 1890s London. The PBS series Downton Abbey, for instance, has produced howling anachronisms every twenty minutes or so (e.g., “I’m just sayin’,” a locution that didn’t appear until after World War II). But it’s also common for readers and viewers to fall prey to what’s known as the “Recency Illusion,” a conviction that a given term or usage is much newer than it actually is, and thus inappropriate coming from a character in a work set in the distant past. Fortunately, in most cases it’s possible to consult the historical record and come up with at least an approximate “ballpark” sense of when the word or phrase in question first appeared.

In the case of “hands-on,” meaning “involving direct, personal practical experience of something” or “demonstrating active personal involvement” (e.g., a “hands-on management style”), I’m afraid that whoever criticized use of the term in a story set in 1881 was correct. It’s not even a close call. The first known occurrence of “hands-on” in print is from 1969. But wait, it gets better. That first use was in the context of students learning to use computers: “Elsewhere there are perhaps half a dozen IBM 1130s — the Sloan school has one in the basement — used for ‘hands-on’ calculations by students” (The Times (London), October 27, 1969). The next citation from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is also about computers (“At least eighteen seem, from their course descriptions, to offer ‘hands-on’ experience with computers,” 1971). Most of the remaining citations refer to either computers or science experimentation. Only the most recent (1987) refers to “hands-on marketing workshops,” in which “hands-on” probably refers to active group participation and planning, rather than actual performing tasks with one’s hands.

By 1977, “hands-on” was being used in a more metaphorical sense to mean “involved (or prepared to become involved) in practical aspects of an activity or job,” though even then computers loomed large in the “hands-on” world (“Immediate placement for versatile ‘hands-on’ individuals with current state-of-art, solid state, TTL, CMOS components and microprocessors,” 1977). But soon “hands-on” attained its modern meaning of “boss who looks over your shoulder and has lots of stupid ideas” (“Successful candidates will need to be self-motivated, ‘hands-on’ people who enjoy being involved in building a new enterprise,” 1984). “Hands-on” is also used today to mean “having first-hand experience,” even if only in telling other people what to do (“The successful candidate will have a solid record of achievement in ‘hands-on’ management established over several years experience,” 1985). Fortunately we now have laws in most jurisdictions barring bosses from actually pawing their employees, but even in the metaphorical sense, “hands-on management” can be, take it from me, really annoying.

So “hands-on” was not a good choice for an author aiming to convey the authentic vocabulary of 1881 anywhere, let alone in the Dakota territories. More suitable words would have been “practic” or “practical,” both dating to the 15th century, or perhaps “pragmatic,” “practitional,” or just plain “unbookish,” the word “bookish” being a fine old insult for someone whose learning has come solely from books and who thus brings no practical experience to the task (“Whose bookish rule hath puld faire England downe,” Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, 1594).

Dandy roll

Fire up the Spiffifier!

Dear Word Detective: I visited a paper museum and they showed a “dandy roll,” which they explained made the watermarks by varying the compression of the paper pulp. While I can find examples of watermark usage, and even the person who invented the dandy roll, I cannot find why the thing is called a “dandy roll.” — John Myhre.

A paper museum? Fascinating. I remember paper. Made from rocks or something, wasn’t it? They used to print things on it before we had telephones for reading, right?

But seriously, here’s something a bit scary. My computer printer broke. Ten years ago. I never replaced it. I’ve written two books and more than 1,500 columns since then, and I’ve never printed anything out. If I have to send a physical note to someone, I use a pen I found at the bank.

There seem to be several elements to this question, so we’ll start with “watermark.” A watermark is a design or printed message, such as the logo or the name of the manufacturer, faintly visible in a sheet of paper, often best viewed by holding the paper up to a strong light. Watermarks have been used since the 13th century, and originally were created with designs formed with wires embedded in the molds used in paper-making. The term “watermark” arose because the marks resemble the effect of water on paper. Watermarks have also been used in postal stamps, official documents and paper currency to combat forgery.

The invention of the “dandy roll” in the early 19th century made the creation of watermarks much easier for paper-makers. A “dandy roll” or “dandy roller” is a finishing roller in a paper mill, used to “firm up” the paper (which at that point is not yet completely dry). The typical dandy roller has a perforated surface that can impress various subtle textures in the surface of the paper, and also carries the watermark design, which is pressed into the damp paper. You mention that you came across the name of the inventor of the dandy roller; Wikipedia credits someone named John Marshall in 1826, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that the device was patented by John Wilks in 1830, although his patent application did not actually use the term “dandy roller.” In any case, I think we can eliminate the possibility that the dandy roller was named after anyone actually named “Dandy.”

That leaves the common English word “dandy” as our logical suspect. The exact origin of “dandy” is, alas, unknown. It was first noticed in a Scots ballad in the late 18th century, and from there it became slang in London for the well-to-do and ostentatiously dressed “fops” of the period, as well as an adjective applied to anything ostentatiously fashionable or “smart.” One clue to the word, although it doesn’t really lead anywhere useful, may lie in the fact that “Dandy” in Scotland at the time was a diminutive form of the name “Andrew.”

As “dandy” spread in the 19th century it became a more positive term for anything fine, well-made or outstanding of its kind (“A cure for coughs I know, It will prove the dandy,” 1832). As an adjective, “dandy” came to be applied to anything considered “neat,” “tidy” or “trim,” including chickens (“Dandy-cock, a bantam cock, a diminutive species of poultry,” 1828). Applied to machinery, a “dandy” was an accessory or added feature that made operation easier, neater or more efficient, a sense which specifically, according to the OED, included our friend the dandy roller (“A channelled and perforated roller technically called a ‘dandy’, to remove part of the water from the pulp,” 1851). So the “dandy roll” or “dandy-roller” got its name by adding an important finishing stage to the paper-making process (and perhaps, in part, by making the finished paper itself neater and more “dandy”).