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 That uniform smells funny.

Dear Word Detective: I was hoping you could explain the origins of the word “livery” which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with organ meat best served grilled with onions. What it DOES seem to have something to do with is a place to keep and care for horses in old western towns and, even more strangely (to me), the design of the paint and branding on airplanes. Are these words the same “livery”?  Am I right that they have nothing to do with liver? — Fernando.

That’s a great question, but you lost me with “organ meat best served grilled with onions.” All I could think of was Samuel Johnson’s declaration: “It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” Speaking as a cucumber lover, I think Johnson must have been thinking of liver.

You’re absolutely correct that “livery” has nothing to do with “liver,” a fact for which we should all be grateful. The origin of the word “liver” for the organ once considered the seat of emotions in humans (go figure) is a mystery, but it may derive from ancient Indo-European roots meaning “fatty or greasy.” Yum. Of course, “liver” can also mean “a person who lives,” as well as being the informal name of the sea bird (“liver bird”) that appears on the official seal of the City of Liverpool (which is, I think we can agree, a fairly appalling name for a city).

The word “livery” entered English around 1300 from French and has been spewing out new meanings at a rabbits-in-Australia rate ever since. The Old French source, “livere,” meant generally “to give, deliver,” and can be traced back to the Latin “liberare,” to free (also the source of “liberate” and “deliver”). All of our senses of “livery” in English carry some sense, albeit often diluted, of “giving.”

One of the biggies is “livery” in the sense of “identifying marks or color schemes,” such as your example of designs and color schemes on aircraft. This sense developed from “livery” meaning the uniforms given to servants of nobility, etc., an outgrowth of “livery” meaning the food given to servants. This “livery” also meant the food, shelter, etc., given to horses, which is where “livery stables” (where food, grooming, etc., is included in the fee) got their name. A “livery cab” was originally a horse-drawn cab that was available to the public for hire. But today,  at least in New York City, “livery cab” is used to mean a taxicab that can be booked in advance and generally (as distinguished from “medallion” cabs) does not pick up fares on the street.

“Livery” in the sense of “uniform” has gradually been extended to mean simply “characteristic clothing, especially of a profession.” Thus a “liveried butler” would be dressed as Jeeves and a soldier’s “livery” might prominently feature of camouflage. The distinctive “livery” worn by servants and retainers of royalty and nobility in medieval London became emblematic of the guilds and trade associations that later developed known as “Livery Companies,” some of which survive today, albeit more as civic associations than anything else.


Oddly enough, we happen to have a puss named Mister Boots.

Dear Word Detective: I love kitties and have two. (I know you are a kitty fan too.) I frequently call my cats “puss” (they do have actual names). “Kitty” makes sense, but how did cats get the nickname “puss”? — Val.

Cats? Yeah, we have a bunch, but I’m kinda over the whole cat thing. What I’d like is a capybara, one of those ginormous South American hamsters the size of a dog. Or maybe a llama, which are way cool. But they eat, like, fifty pounds of food a day and then spit at you. As far as “actual names” for the cats go, several of ours were originally denoted by numbers. I thought that was a pretty good system, but opinions varied, I eventually caved, and Number Six, the last holdout, became Little Girl Cat. I guess LGC (as we call her) appreciated the change, because now she hardly ever spits at me.

“Cat” itself is an interesting word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “cat”  defines it as “A well-known carnivorous quadruped (Felis domesticus) which has long been domesticated, being kept to destroy mice, and as a house pet.” Destroy mice, eh? That entry dates back to 1889, which explains why they left out “bankrupt its owners by demanding Fancy Feast.” Our modern word “cat” first appeared in Old English, and goes back to the Latin “cattus,” which also produced the Spanish “gato,” Italian “gatto,” French “chat,” Swedish “katta” and even the Bulgarian “kotka.”

“Puss” (or “puss-cat,” “pussycat,” and similar forms) as a term (and name) for a cat first appeared in print in the 16th century, and represents another “cat-word” family tree, one that is tied to the Dutch word “poes,” meaning simply “cat.” Similar words are found in dialects of German, Danish, Swedish, Lithuanian and Irish (“puisin”). “Puss” is often used in the reduplicated form “puss-puss,” which brings us to an interesting theory of its origin. It’s thought to have originated as a “call name” for a cat (equivalent to “here, kitty kitty,” etc.), using the initial “p” and the hiss of the “s” to get the cat’s attention (“We ‘know’ when the cat is out there waiting to come in. Open the door — Here, ‘puss, puss, puss’ — but there she is already.” Daily Mail, 2004).

“Pussycat” has also been used, since the 17th century, as a term for (according to the OED) “A girl or woman, especially one exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, as spitefulness, slyness, attractiveness, playfulness, etc. Originally used as a term of contempt; in later use also as a pet name or term of endearment.” Since the 1940s, “pussycat” has also been used, mostly in North America, to mean “a sweet or gentle man,” “an effeminate man” (OED), or “a coward.” One of the most common modern uses of this sense is in regard to someone (male or female), who might be expected to be grumpy or fearsome, but actually isn’t (“Bob couldn’t sleep the night before meeting his prospective father-in-law, but the guy turned out to be a pussycat”).

By the way, the slang term “puss” meaning “face or mouth” (“Cheese that, or I’ll give you a smack in the puss.” LA Times, 1887) has nothing to do with cats. It comes from the Irish “pus” (meaning “lips or mouth”), and first appeared in the mid-19th century. It’s also found in such terms as “sourpuss,” meaning a person who is usually either literally or figuratively scowling.


Paint it mauve.

Dear Word Detective: I’d appreciate your detailing the origin of “chartreuse,” the color. I understand it’s from the color of a French liqueur. — Warren I. Pollock.

Ok, chartreuse. Which one is that again? Y’know what’s funny is that while I’m not colorblind and can easily tell red from green and so forth, I seem to be color-name blind. Major colors, no problem. But mention “chartreuse,” “mauve” or some other weirdo hue and I draw a complete blank. I mean, what the heck color is “fuchsia”? Sounds like something you’d catch from  toads. Teal? Ecru? What? Don’t bother telling me, because I’ll forget it in five minutes. My brain is apparently wired for primary colors only.

It is true that the color “chartreuse” is named for the color of “chartreuse,” a liqueur made by the monks of La Grande-Chartreuse, which is the chief monastery of the Roman Catholic Carthusian order in the Chartreuse range of the French Alps. The liqueur Chartreuse, made from herbs and brandy, is a pale apple-green (as distinct to the rich emerald green of absinthe, which is, of course, made of wormwood and pure evil). The monks, or their subcontractors, have been cranking out this Chartreuse stuff since the early 17th century, although the order was actually founded in 1084. (That’s 600 years they’re gonna have to explain on their time sheets.) The color “chartreuse” is halfway between green and yellow, and color aficionados recognize two variant hues, “chartreuse yellow,” skewed toward yellow, and “chartreuse green,” skewed toward guess what. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are often painted “chartreuse yellow” these days because it’s considered a more visible and distinctive color than the traditional red. That’s probably why a disaffected homeowner in a bland development near us repainted his entire house (formerly a noxious putty color) blinding chartreuse yellow in protest a few years ago. It was awesome, but the homeowners’ association was not amused and prolonged lawsuits ensued.

Elsewhere on the Spectrum of Mystery, it turns out that “mauve” is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “Any of a range of light shades of purple between lilac and violet.” It’s a good thing they threw that “purple” in there, because I know that lilac and violets are two kinds of flowering plants, but I can’t quite picture them. Anyway, “mauve” (which appeared in the mid-19th century and is pronounced either “mawve” or “mowve” in the US) comes from the French “mauve” meaning “mallow plant,” mallow being a family of flowering plants related to cotton and okra.

“Ecru” is my kind of color. It’s the color of unbleached linen, i.e., a pale beige or off-white. The word “ecru” is, in fact, French for “unbleached” or “raw” (derived from the Latin “crudus,” raw). “Ecru” first appeared in print in English in 1869.

“Teal” comes from the Old English “tele,” which has close relatives in German and Dutch. A “teal” is a kind of small duck, in fact, according to the OED, “the smallest of the ducks” (to which I am tempted to reply “What ducks? I don’t see no ducks.”). Teals are supposedly common in Europe, Asia and America. The color “teal” (first appearing in 1923) is “a shade of dark greenish blue resembling the patches of this color on the head and wings of the teal.” (OED). I am told that to this day interior designers often carry an actual live teal in a small box in order to compare it to paint and fabric samples, but I think someone may be goofing on me. Lastly, “fuchsia” (also debuting in 1923) is a shade of red named after the flowers of the “fuchsia” (pronounced “FOO-shiyah”) shrub, which was named after the 16th century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs.