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I believe.

Dear Word Detective: I’m always fascinated by a word that evolves with two entirely different meanings. Today at work, we were discussing the word “ream,” as in a ream of paper — but this can also refer to a machining process. Since I’d presume paper-making is mechanical in nature (and I’m just guessing here; for all I know, paper really *does* grow on trees), is there any connection between the two? — Tina Stanley.

We all have our weaknesses, and a biggie for me is my lifelong inability to tell when people are goofing on me. My wife Kathy, for instance, never tires of regaling total strangers with the story of the time ream08.pngmany years ago when she convinced me that the top of the Williamsburg Bank tower in Brooklyn is covered with green velvet. (It isn’t.) And then there’s the time, just last year, when I forwarded a parody ad for do-it-yourself home Lasik eye surgery to all my friends. I knew it was a joke, of course. After Kathy told me.

But just in case you’re serious, yes, paper does sort of “grow on trees,” in much the same way one might say hamburger “grows on” cows.

In any case, English is chock full of homonyms, words that are spelled (and often pronounced) the same but which have radically different meanings and usually entirely separate origins. “Bark,” the sound a dog makes, and “bark,” the outer layer of a tree, are spelled and pronounced exactly the same way. But they come from entirely different sources, as does “bark” meaning a type of small sailing ship. The two “reams” in your question are also utter strangers to each other, and come, in fact, from different parts of the world.

“Ream” meaning “a certain quantity of paper” (480, 500 or 516 sheets, depending on the type of “ream”) first appeared in English in the 14th century, adopted from the Old French word “remme,” which in turn was derived from the Arabic word “rizmah” meaning “bale or bundle.” The Arabic source of this “ream” makes perfect sense, since paper itself, invented in China, was introduced to Europe via the Middle East.

The other sort of “ream,” a verb meaning “to enlarge a hole or other opening,” is a much more recent addition to English, first appearing in print in the early 19th century. But “ream” was probably drawn from the earlier Old English word “ryman,” which meant “make room, enlarge,” itself based on a Germanic root word meaning “spacious.” In addition to its literal meaning in carpentry and machining metal, “to ream” has also taken on figurative meanings of “to cheat or swindle” and “to severely reprimand.”


Get a grip, Foley.

Dear Word Detective: When football players in England are speaking of their coach they refer to them as “gaffer.” I’m an American who just doesn’t understand English slang sometimes. — J.C.D.

Welcome to the club. Personally, I think the Brits are being inscrutable on purpose. I suspect that at some point, maybe back in the 16th century, their government tourism ministry got the bright idea of inventing a range of “quaint” but nonsensical locutions for gaffer08.pnginnkeepers and the like, designed to charm tourists (and, more importantly, to befuddle them so they wouldn’t whine for cold drinks and warm toast). Unfortunately, things got out of control and the frankenwords spread like kudzu until even small children were calling each other “guv’nor” and shrieking “Bob’s your uncle!” at anyone who looked even vaguely American.

In the case of “gaffer,” the word seems to have spread to Hollywood, where you’ll find the term listed in the credits of most motion pictures, up there in tiny type along with such bizarre job titles as “best boy,” “Foley artist” and “key grip.” It’s possible, of course, that those are all just fake jobs for the producer’s feckless nephews, but the whole question cries out for a congressional inquest.

While we’re waiting, I can say that “gaffer” first appeared in English back in the 16th century (aha!), applied as a term of respect among country dwellers to an elderly man, especially one accorded deference due to his experience or position within the community. “Gaffer” seems to have arisen as simply a contraction of “godfather” (or “grandfather”), the female equivalent being “gammer” (from “godmother” or “grandmother”). The use of “gaffer” broadened over time to include any older rustic male, and, by the 19th century, was being used as an informal title for the supervisor of a work crew, what we would call today a “foreman.” This use was adopted by the movie industry, which conferred the title of “gaffer” on the chief electrician on a film crew, a use which first appeared in print in the 1930s. The use of “gaffer” for the coach of a team invokes both this sense of “person in charge” and the earlier meaning of “respected older man.”

As for those other odd terms, the “best boy” on a film crew is the principal assistant to the “gaffer,” and these days may well be a woman. The “Foley artist” is the person in charge of sound effects, and the title is capitalized because it refers to an early master of the craft, Jack Foley. The “key grip” is the chief “grip,” in charge of scene rigging and sometimes the mechanical aspects of lighting. The term “grip,” which dates to the 1880s, originally referred to the fact that stagehands had to “grip” and shove heavy scenery into place between the acts of a play.


Just say oops.

Dear Word Detective: In musicians’ parlance, especially trumpet players, the word “clam” is used to refer to a missed note. A “clambake” is used to refer to a concert, piece, or part of a work with a LOT of wrong notes. I’ve no idea if this has any relation to “clam up” of the early 20th century or the use of “clambake” to refer to people smoking pot in a closed automobile. The trumpet player email list will be most appreciative. — Tim Phillips.

clam08.png“Clam” is an interesting word. Most uses in English refer back in some way to “clam” as the name for the shellfish (as Merriam-Webster puts it, “any of numerous edible marine bivalve mollusks living in sand or mud”). The origin of “clam,” however, lies far from the beach, in the prehistoric Germanic root word “klam,” which meant “to press or squeeze together” and also gave us “clamp.” It was the tightly clamped shut shell of the aquatic “clam” that gave it its name.

“Clam” has developed numerous slang and figurative uses over the years, from “to clam up” meaning to remain silent, lips pressed together like a clam’s shell, to “clam” as jocular slang for a dollar, probably from a supposed ancient use of clams as currency. About once a week I’m asked for the origin of “Happy as a clam,” a saying folks find mysterious only because it is rarely quoted in its full form, “Happy as a clam at high tide,” i.e., when it is least likely to be discovered by predators. “Clambake,” originally a beach party featuring clams “baked” in open pits, has also been used as a sardonic term for any fancy social gathering (as well as, I’ll take your word for it, that ritual of “doobie parking” where participants presumably get “baked” in a car closed up like a clam).

The likening of a closed mouth, or the human mouth in general, to the bivalve sort of “clam” may underlie the use of “clam” to mean a missed or flubbed note, especially if the term originated in connection with wind instruments. This usage dates back to at least the early 1950s and since then has been applied to an error in any sort of musical or theatrical performance (“Bing Crosby … always said, ‘Leave the clams in, let ’em know I’m human,'” New York Times, 1991). Perhaps the “error” sense of the term lies in the failure of one’s “clam,” or mouth, to perform correctly.

But another, and to my mind stronger, possibility is that the “mistake” sense of “clam” derives from a completely different “clam.” In the 18th century the sound of two bells (in a bell tower) rung simultaneously (usually a mistake by the bell ringer) was known as a “clam.” This “clam” was probably “echoic” in origin, intended to mimic the dissonant, unpleasant sound itself (the same way “clang” and “slam” were formed), and actually appears to be the source of our modern “clamor,” meaning a jumbled roar of noises or voices. It seems entirely logical that “clam” as a term for mistake in a bell tower could have become a generalized musicians’ term for any sort of embarrassing flub in a performance.