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Formerly known as Ishmael.

Dear Word Detective:  This is a bit of a cheat as there are probably three questions in one here.  Staring at the word “lorry” the other day, I realized it was pretty ridiculous.  Our “lorry” is your “truck” and neither seem to have any clear origin.  Then, of course, we say we are having “no truck” with something, meaning that we don’t want to have anything to do with it.  Are there any explanations for “lorry,” “truck” and “truck”? — David, Ripon, Yorkshire, England.

Hey, you’re right.  I’ve just spent a few minutes staring at “lorry” and it is indeed a very silly word for a vehicle.  “Lorry” sounds more like the name of a small, useless fish.  But I may not be a good judge of such things, because I get the same feeling after a few minutes of staring at my own name.  That cannot possibly be my name.  My real name is Frank, or Joe.  Vinny?  Something beginning with a consonant, that’s for sure.  I’m sure I’ll remember it soon.

I would, however, say that your “lorry” is a much nicer-sounding word than our “truck,” which strikes me as the kind of sound you’d make if you were beaned with a softball.  Compared to “truck,” “lorry” is positively euphonious.  Unfortunately, as you have apparently discovered, the roots of “lorry” are a bit mysterious.  Actually, they are very mysterious, and the best guess is that it comes from the obsolete English dialect term “lurry,” meaning “to carry or drag along.”  Unfortunately (again), no one knows where “lurry” came from either, so the trail goes cold at that point.  We do know that “lorry” first appeared in print in the early 19th century meaning “a long, low wagon,” and by 1911 had acquired its modern meaning of “a large motor vehicle used to carry cargo.”

Compared to the fog surrounding “lorry,” the roots of “truck” in the “large vehicle” sense  are satisfyingly clear.  “Truck,” which first appeared in English around 1611 meaning “small wheel or roller” (specifically the sort mounted under cannons aboard warships), is a shortened form of the older word “truckle,” meaning “wheel, roller or pulley,” which appeared in the 15th century and was derived from the Latin “trochlea,” meaning “pulley.”  The first use of “truck” in print in its modern sense of “wheeled vehicle used for transporting heavy items” came in 1774.

When we say that we want to “have no truck with” someone or something, we are using a “truck” completely unrelated to the vehicle kind of “truck.”  When this sort of “truck” first entered English around 1225, derived from the French “troquer,” it meant simply “to exchange something with someone else.”  By the 1400s we were using it to mean “to barter, to sell or exchange commodities for profit,” and, by the 17th century, “truck” had taken on the its more general modern sense of “to have dealings with.”  Today this “truck” is almost always found in the negative phrase “to have no truck with,” i.e., to have no dealings or social contact with (“Mebbe your Ma’s right. Mebbe you hadn’t ought to have no truck with the Forresters,” M.K. Rawlings, The Yearling, 1938).

Incidentally, the one place you’re likely to find that old “sale or barter” sense of “truck” still being used is in the phrase “truck farm,” meaning a small farm producing vegetables, etc., for sale rather than the owner’s own use.


Executive Summary:  Beats me.

Dear Word Detective: My buddy and I were wondering what the origins of the word “bamboozled” were. I know it means to take advantage of someone in a business transaction, but does it have Asian roots, with the “bamboo” root of the word? — Jonnie Wethington.

That’s an interesting hunch, and one that never occurred to me. Come to think of it, I could probably concoct a superficially plausible story about sailors in the Far East guzzling booze made from bamboo and waking up with their wallets gone. But that, as Richard Nixon once declared in a slightly different context, would be wrong.

You mention business dealings in connection with “bamboozle,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “to take in by elaborate methods of deceit; hoodwink.” But it’s worth noting that this is a presidential election year here in the US, and a cynic (that’s me) would say that we’re knee-deep in bamboozlement already with more than two months to go. It’s enough to drive one to guzzling bambooze, if there is such a thing.

What makes dreaming up a nifty story about “bamboozle” so tempting is the unfortunate fact that the actual source of the word is shrouded in mystery. (I like “shrouded in mystery” much better than “unknown,” don’t you?)

What we do know about “bamboozle” is that it first appeared in English at the beginning of the 18th century, just in time to make the list Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”) was compiling of words that were, in his opinion, corroding, if not destroying, the English language (as outlined in his “The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue,” 1710). Swift also, by the way, objected to the words “mob” and “banter,” as well as the contractions “I’d” and “can’t.” Since most of the terms that drew Swift’s ire were, at that time, slang used by the lower classes in England, it’s fair to assume “bamboozle” originated in the same precincts.

One of the more plausible theories about the origin of “bamboozle” ties it to the Scots word “bombaze,” meaning “to confuse or mystify.” Efforts have also been made to connect it to the French word “embabouiner” meaning “to make a fool of” (literally, “to make a baboon of”). It’s also possible, of course, that “bamboozle” was simply dreamed up out of thin air. That’s never a very satisfying explanation, but English is full of words that were invented to fit a momentary need and then went on to lead long and happy lives.

“Gobbledygook,” for instance, was coined in 1944 by US Representative Maury Maverick (grandson of Sam Maverick, whose habit of not branding his cows gave us “maverick” meaning “independent”). Rep. Maverick, overseeing factory production during WWII, described the doubletalk and jargon he was encountering from government officials as “gobbledygook” one day, and the word was an instant hit. He later explained that “gobbledygook” was his attempt to imitate the sound a turkey makes. But in one inspired moment he gave us the perfect word for the sound a bureaucracy makes.

Paint the Town Red

I’ll take two Value Sprees and a small absinthe, please.

Dear Word Detective:  I just cashed my paycheck and told the bank teller that I could now go out and “paint the town red.”  Why would I say that? — Phil Norton.

Because you’re doing your patriotic duty as an American and spending every last dime you get so our national personal savings rate remains safely below zero?  Or maybe you’re just tormenting me, knowing full well that if I set out to paint our little town red I’d have to settle for some really bad pizza and a gallon of Jolt from the Quickee-Mart.

To “paint the town red” means to celebrate flamboyantly and publicly, especially to go on a wild spree, usually involving multiple bars, restaurants and clubs plus copious quantities of alcohol.  “Painting the town red” is, by definition, a group activity, requiring at least two people, and must be conducted in a spirit of giddy jubilation.  One lonely guy on a crosstown bender is not “painting the town red.”  Of course, alcohol is not strictly required.  Lottery winners, for example, often “paint the town red” after their wins, sprinting from store to store and acquiring plasma TVs, cars, multiple pedigreed pets and scores of brand new distant cousins as they go.

The two questions that pop up when considering the phrase “paint the town red” are, of course, what it could possibly mean to “paint” in this sense, and why red in particular?  The verb “to paint” is, as you would imagine, quite old, derived from the Latin “pingere,” meaning “to paint.”  Interestingly, the noun “paint” arrived later than the verb (and was derived from it, in a process called “back formation”).

The original meaning in English of “to paint” was “to depict a subject using paint,” still a standard sense today.  The “make that wall dark blue” sense of “to paint” came a bit later, but it’s that sense of “completely transform” we find in “paint the town red.”  A band of celebrants “painting the town red” sets out to transform the humdrum with their excitement, to liven up every corner of the city, to make the locals sit up and take notice, to cast restraint to the wind and make the town theirs for a night with no worry about the morning after.

The first use of “paint the town red” in print found so far dates back to a New York Times article of 1883 (“Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk… Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to ‘paint the town red’.”).  Red does seem to have always been the color of choice, although Rudyard Kipling, in 1889, fussily specified “vermilion” (an shade of red with a hint of orange).  James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), differed slightly (“And there he was at the end of his tether after having often painted the town tolerably pink”), but stayed within the red spectrum.

So why red?  It’s the color usually used to connote power, vitality and excitement (often with a hint of danger), all the features of a really good spree.  And “painting the town blue” sounds like no fun at all.