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Dawn already? How do I get those birds to shut up?

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “demented” come from? A sleep deprivation experiment was conducted by William Dement at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, and I believe the word comes this. Am I right? — Danny Foster.

Ah, yes. “Sleep, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast …,” that sleep? Don’t care for it, myself. No time. Things to do, y’know. Haven’t slept in months. Doctor gives me pills. Well, not really a doctor, but I don’t like to pry. I’ve been thinking of running for president, but I can’t find my feet. Is there someone at the door?

And now for the good news: one of us may be crazy, but it’s not you. My initial suspicion was that William Dement was just a figment of an urban legend concocted to explain the origin of “demented.” But he turns out not only to be a real guy (always a plus), but the honest-to-gosh pioneer of scientific sleep research. He basically invented the field, and he’s still at it. (One does wonder, of course, whether Dr. Dement’s name played a role in his choice of career.)

The corporeal existence of the illustrious Dr. Dement notwithstanding, however, his name is not the source of the common English word “demented.” For that we turn to our old friend Latin, where the phrase “de mente” means literally “out (de) of one’s mind (mente).” This produced the Latin verb “dementare,” meaning “to drive out of one’s mind.” The source of the Latin “mente” was the Indo-European root “men,” which also produced “memory,” “reminisce,” “mathematics” (from the Greek “manthenein,” to learn), “mind” and several other common English words.

The English equivalent of the Latin “dementare” appeared in the 16th century as the transitive verb “to dement,” which meant literally “to drive someone out of their mind.” This verb, apparently having little practical application outside of old Vincent Price movies, is rarely used today. But the adjective formed from “to dement,” our friend “demented,” is alive and well and has meant, since it first appeared in the mid-17th century, “out of one’s mind; crazed; mad.” There existed, at one time, “dement” as both a noun (“A dement was known to the writer who could repeat the whole of the New Testament verbatim,” 1888) and an adjective (“Speak, man, speak! Are you dumb as well as dement?” 1856), but both forms are now largely obsolete.

We frequently use “demented” and other terms such as “nuts,” “crazy,” “bats” and so on to denote, often in a humorous way, someone who is eccentric or whose opinions we find questionable. Actual mental impairment or illness is, of course, a serious condition and those so afflicted need and deserve sympathy, understanding and support. The medical term “dementia,” a Latin noun meaning “the state of being demented,” is used to cover a range of mental symptoms and states, ranging from mild to severe.

The past, not surprisingly, is full of synonyms for “demented” that have fallen by the wayside, but one of the strangest must be the obsolete adjective “wood” meaning “insane; mad,” also found in such terms as “woodness,” woodship” and “woodhead.” This “wood” has nothing to do with trees; it’s from the Old English “wod,” derived from Germanic roots that carried the sense of “angry, inspired or excited.” The Old Norse branch of the same root produced the name of the Norse god Woden (aka Odin), memorialized in Wednesday (Old English “Wodnesdaeg,” Woden’s Day).


It’s a cat’s paw that pries.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “tool,” as in “He is such a tool”? — Chris.

Well, first things first. Are we certain that the person in question is not, in fact, literally a tool, as one might find in a carpenter’s kit? I seem to recall that former US Representative Tom DeLay spent a good deal of his time trying to get people to call him “The Hammer,” supposedly in reference to his ruthless enforcement of party discipline in passing legislation. I always wondered whether that nickname was really more of an attempt to compensate for the fact that his name was, after all, “delay.” When I went to check up on whatever happened to The Hammer, I found that he had been convicted (nailed?) for money laundering by federal prosecutors (who probably just wanted to steal that cool nickname). He’s appealing his conviction, so his three-year prison sentence has been, sigh, delayed. By the way, my new nickname is The Laser WordShark.

In its most basic literal sense, a “tool” is an implement used to perform work, such as a hammer, a machine (such as a lathe), or, more broadly and figuratively, something (or someone) that is used to accomplish a task, whether it’s a piano used to play a concerto or a lobbyist employed to draft legislation. Since the use of tools has long been viewed as one of the most singular characteristics of homo sapiens (although other animals, including crows, have lately been observed subversively making and using tools), it’s not surprising that “tool” is itself a very old word. “Tool” first appeared in Old English as “tol,” based on the Old Germanic “towlo,” “tow” carrying the sense of “to make or prepare” and the suffix “lo” being “agentive,” in this case meaning “that which does something,” giving us “something that is used to make or prepare something.”

Not surprisingly for a word so old, “tool” has acquired an impressive range of figurative uses. One of the oldest slang uses has been use of the term to mean various bodily organs, particularly what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) calls, with awesome tact, “the male generative organ.” Moving right along, “tool” has also been used, at least since the 17th century, to mean “a person used by another for his own ends; one who is, or allows himself to be, made a mere instrument for some purpose” (OED), or what was called, in a more literate age, “a cat’s paw.” (As I explained a few years back, an ancient fable tells the story of a monkey who came upon some chestnuts roasting in a fire. Lacking the means to retrieve the tasty chestnuts from the fire, the clever monkey managed to convince a somewhat dim cat to reach into the flames with his paw and fetch them. The monkey got the chestnuts, the cat was rewarded with a nasty hotfoot, and a metaphor for “useful chump” was born.)

This use of “tool” to mean “dupe” or “errand boy” dates back to the mid-17th century. At about the same time “tool” was also being used as slang to mean “an unskilled worker or shiftless person,” one who was fated to be exploited by employers. This use also implied that the “tool” was, in fact, a fool, an easily misled person (“This gained the poor Tool intirely, and he was ready from that time to receive any Impression,” 1747), good only for causing trouble to others (“Tricked, fooled, like a child! and through means of this treacherous, drunken tool,” Bret Harte, 1876).

The current use of “tool” as slang combines the “cat’s paw” and “stupid” senses of “tool” described above to produce something close to “deluded and self-important idiot” in meaning. It seems to be gradually losing that “cat’s paw” sense, and lately I’ve seen it being used to mean simply “arrogant fool.” But I’m probably drawing distinctions where none are needed. If you’ve ever had your boss helpfully remind you about the proper method of stapling the covers on your TPS reports, you know what a “tool” is.

Stand down

And quit scowling at the drones, Citizen.

Dear Word Detective:  I am curious to learn the origin of the phrase “stand down.” I think that everyone is familiar with its meaning, but this is a curious combination of words and I would be interested to learn its original (literal) usage. The Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful, so I am turning to you in the hope that you could enlighten me, a humble member of the unwashed masses. — Dave Johannsen.

All right, now here’s a man who’s gotten with the program. Honestly, the hardest part of getting used to Neo-Feudalism is gonna be overcoming what we at the Bureau of Get Back to Work like to call Demon Self-Esteem. I know the 80s were the “Me Decade,” but the New Future is all about doffing your cap when the Kardashians come to inspect the furrow you’re hoeing. Nuff said.

By the way, I happen to have copyrighted the phrase “Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful,” so you owe me a buck fifty. Keep in mind that Larry Page and Sergey Brin originally wanted to call it “Googol,” a term dreamed up by mathematician Edward Kasner’s nephew Milton back in the 1930s for a very large number, specifically ten raised to the hundredth power. That’s a one followed by one hundred zeros, or roughly the number of spurious answers Google now provides to the average question. But the “” domain name was already taken, so the lads called their invention “Google,” which, appropriately, doesn’t actually mean anything.

“Stand down” is a specialized use of the verb “to stand,” which, as you might imagine, is quite old and has developed dozens of senses. “Stand” first appeared in Old English (as “standan”) from Germanic roots, and means in its most basic sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it regarding people or animals, “to assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.)” or, of things, “to be in an upright position with the lower part resting on or fixed in the ground or other support; opposed to lie.” In addition to various literal uses, “stand” has acquired a wide range of figurative senses, from “to stand by” someone (be faithful and supportive) to “stand” in the sense of “bear, tolerate” (“I could not stand the music in the elevator, so I took the stairs”).

“Stand down” is one of several specifically military uses of “stand” that include “to stand to one’s arms,” meaning “to maintain one’s position in the face of an attack” (the source of the idiom “to stick to your guns,” meaning “to not give in” in an argument, etc.), as well as “to stand to arms,” meaning to assume combat readiness and prepare for action. “To stand down” is the opposite of “to stand to arms,” and means to go off duty or relax from a state of readiness (“‘Stand-down’ was the corresponding order at the end of the Danger Period, used in like manner as an expression for a definite point of time,” 1925). The “down” in “stand down” doesn’t mean literally taking a seat, any more than the command “at ease” means to lounge on the nearest couch, but the contrast is to “on duty” status and alert readiness. “Stand down” first appeared in print in 1919, just after World War I, so we can assume that the term originated in that conflict.

Most uses of “stand down” I’ve found in print are in the military sense, but it is used occasionally in the sense of “to back off” or “to stop an aggressive action” (“Medical marijuana protesters urge feds to stand down,” 10/11). Here in the US, “stand down” seems to be commonly used as a name of community programs and public-awareness campaigns designed to help military veterans facing endemic unemployment and homelessness (“Stand Down gives veterans chance to get help, give back,” 10/13/11).