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Like a rut, but cool.

Dear Word Detective:  I was watching Antiques Roadshow and saw what they called a “transitional piece of pottery from the Neoclassic to the Modern” by an artist named Gruebe who was working in the ’30s and ’40s.  The decoration was simple leaves, but the artist left the “hand throwing” lines in the body of the piece, making it look “groovy” to me.  Could the work of this artist be the derivation of “groovy”?  And how many countless thousands of others have made this connection before me? — Jim Queen.

As far as I can tell, you’re it, Jim.  That doesn’t mean that your insight is wrong, of course.  Einstein was the only person who thought certain things, and he turned out to be right.  Then again, Larry down the road from us thought certain other things, and he’s no longer allowed to play with sharp objects.  This is why I keep all my major discoveries to myself.

“Groovy” is known today, of course, as quintessential 1960s “counterculture” slang meaning “excellent, great, very fashionable” (“There are a lot of guys going round with groovy hair-styles,” 1968).  Having lived through that period and social milieu myself, however, I must note that anyone in my circle of friends who had used “groovy” in anything but a sarcastic tone would have been suspected of being an undercover cop.  And it wasn’t just “groovy” that was considered bogus.  Several other supposedly popular catch phrases of the day (e.g., “far out,” “peace, baby” and “down with the system”) were actually popular only in the imaginations of “Dragnet” and “Mod Squad” scriptwriters.

The emergence of “groovy” in the 1960s was actually a sort of reincarnation of the word, which had first appeared in the jazz subculture of the 1930s and was originally spelled “groovey” (“‘Groovey,’ name applied to state of mind which is conducive to good playing,” American Speech, 1937).  “Groovey” itself was based on the phrase “in the groove,” used by jazz musicians to describe playing that was smooth and effortlessly excellent.

“Groove” is, of course, a very old word, derived from a Germanic root meaning “pit,” the same root which gave us the English word “grave.”  The original sense of “groove” was, in fact, “mining shaft or pit,” and it wasn’t until the 17th century that “groove” acquired its modern meaning of “channel or hollow cut in the surface of something.”  By 1902, however, “groove” was being used to mean the spiral track on the surface of a phonograph record in which the needle rides.  So when jazz musicians spoke of “being in the groove” while playing music, it meant that they felt (or sounded) as if they were producing the music as easily, fluently and flawlessly as a phonograph needle following the grooves on a record.  Not that there was anything mechanical about their playing; to be truly “in the groove” is to lose oneself in the creative process, what some writers call being “in the flow.”

Anyway, the bottom line is that the origin of “groovy” has nothing to do with Mr. Gruebe and his pottery, but, considering the overlap of the jazz and arts worlds in the 1930s and 40s, it’s entirely possible that Gruebe himself had to suffer through some labored puns about his “groovy” work.

Full Monty

Take your pick.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you tell me the origin of the expression “full monty”?  I tried dictionaries, encyclopedias, and friends, without any success.  Everybody knows what it means but nobody knows its origin. — Elzbieta from Montreal.

Hey, there’s a question I haven’t seen in a while.  Exactly ten years ago I was inundated with queries from readers about “the full monty.”  I get such waves of questions fairly frequently, always prompted by the sudden prominence of a word or phrase in the popular media. The impetus in this case was the release in the US a few weeks earlier of a British comedy called “The Full Monty” about a group of unemployed steel workers in the north of England who decide to form a Chippendales-style male striptease troupe.  What made the “monty” wave funny was that a few months earlier, the film’s US distributor had actually called me on the phone, asking me to explain the title of their own film to them.  I really should have demanded a screen credit.  Or at least some free popcorn.

Since I’m not certain that everybody does know what the phrase means, I should explain that “the full monty” is British slang for “everything, all the way, the works,” making it essentially synonymous with “the whole shebang” or “the whole nine yards.”  In the film, “the full monty” refers to complete nudity in a striptease show, the subject of some debate among the men (with one character shouting, “No one said anything to me about the full monty!”).  But the phrase most definitely did not originate with the film, having been current in northern England at least since the early 1980s and possibly much earlier.

Just where “the full monty” did come from is a question that may never be definitively answered, although there is no shortage of theories.  One of the most often heard is that the phrase originated as a reference to the famed British military leader of World War II, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (popularly known as “Monty”).  According to this theory, “the full monty” refers either to Montgomery’s blinding raft of medals on the chest of his uniform,  or to his insistence on starting each day with an elaborate breakfast.  Unfortunately, there isn’t even a shred of evidence for either version of the Montgomery theory.

Another theory traces “monty” to “Monte,” Spanish for “mountain” and the name of a now-obsolete card game in which the “pot” of money at stake was called “the Monte.”  To win the pot would therefore be to take “the full monte.”  There is evidence that “monte” was used in this sense (the “shell game” racket known as “three card monte” is certainly alive and well), but, again, there’s not enough evidence to close the case.

Yet another theory, considered by many authorities to be the most plausible, traces “monty” to a well-known chain of tailoring shops owned by Montague Maurice Burton (1885-1952).  A complete three-piece suit bought from Burton’s shops (one of which was in Sheffield, where the film is set) was, according to legend, known as “the full Monty.”  So if a regular guy were getting married, for instance, he might well save up his money and splurge on “the full monty” for the occasion.  I’d say that this is probably the actual origin of the phrase, since Burton’s shops were quite popular and a formal three-piece suit strongly matches the common “whole shebang” usage of “the full monty.”

Lick and a promise

A little dab’ll do you.

Dear Word Detective: I was telling my English penpal that I am reluctant to let my landlord paint my apartment, because the job would be merely “a lick and a promise.” She remarked that the phrase is used in the same way on both sides of the Pond, and we both wondered what it means literally, and where it came from. Can you shed some light? — Judith Baron, NYC.

I think your trepidation is well founded. Beware of clowns bearing paint cans. Before we bought our house, we noticed that much of the interior had been recently painted, which seemed like a good sign. It wasn’t. When, much later, we pulled up the cheesy wall-to-wall carpet the previous owner had installed, we discovered that he had covered the nice wooden floors with a Jackson Pollock splatter-fest of cheap white paint.

“A lick and a promise” means, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, “a superficial effort made without care or enthusiasm.” To perform a task with “a lick and a promise” is to do the absolute minimum required, and often far less than that. With “a lick and a promise,” you’re not really tackling the task, only half-heartedly pretending to chase it.

Of course, almost any field of human endeavor has its slackers, from car mechanics who only feign changing your oil to playwrights who try to skate by on momentum, as Mary McCarthy noted in a 1948 review: “The Dublin Gate players … had a slapdash style of acting that suggested an Irish house-maid flailing about with a dust-cloth — they gave their roles a lick and a promise and trusted to the audience’s good-nature to take the will for the deed.”

The metaphor of a careless maid, however unfair it probably is, harkens back to the original meaning of “a lick and a prayer,” which was “a superficial cleaning,” specifically what the Oxford English Dictionary pegs as “a slight and hasty wash,” the “wash” being the process of washing one’s face and hands. Imagine a child, sent to wash up before supper, who skips the soap and only splashes some water on his hands, yet stoutly asserts that he is squeaky clean.

The “lick” in “lick and a promise” is the standard noun, based on the verb “to lick” in the sense of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to pass the tongue over (something), e.g., with the object of tasting, moistening the surface, or removing something from it.” The noun “lick” has been used in this sense of “quick and casual cleaning” since the 17th century, quite possibly drawn from the way a cat cleans itself (although cats are known for their hygienic diligence).

“Promise” in the phrase, however, is a bit mysterious. It could mean an implicit promise to do a better job next time, or a promise that no one will notice the shoddiness of the job, or it might be just a reference to the dreamy, inattentive mentality of the slacker.