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Trivia

All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

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Ditch

And the cats want Fancy Feast to be much fancier.

Dear Word Detective:  Way back in elementary school, there was one creature abhorred more than any other–the “D-er.” This despicable person would cut in front of another in one of the many lines we always seemed to find ourselves in. This was called “ditching,” shortened often to “d-ing.” I have asked the Internets, but they remain stubbornly quiescent on the matter, as did several dictionaries. Perhaps the word is limited to Central Ohio school systems? You’re my last hope, O Mighty Word Detective! — Not a D-er in Ohio.

At last, my genius is acknowledged! By the way, you can call me Obi Word. OK, here’s the plan: abolish all organized sports and outlaw TV, movies, and internet video. Force people to read again. Then make teaching the highest-paid profession and college education free and mandatory. Conduct driver’s license exams in Latin and set a national speed limit of 40 mph. Make all cell phones coin-operated and text-messaging a felony. Make bottled-water companies say what’s in the stuff, and allow claiming cats as dependents for tax purposes. Have I left anything out?

OK, back to the real world. “Ditch” is based on the Old English “dic,” which also gave us “dike.” From the beginning, “ditch” meant “a long and narrow excavation in the ground, especially one designed to carry water, as for drainage,” but early on “ditch” also meant the long mound of dirt excavated to make that trench, i.e., a “dike.” So for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, “ditch” and “dike” were vaguely synonymous.

“Ditch” became a verb in the 14th century meaning “to dig a ditch, especially to surround with a ditch as a means of fortification or marking boundaries” (“The several parcels of land … shall be inclosed, hedged, ditched, or fenced,” 1788). In the early 19th century, “to ditch” began being used to mean “throw into or as into a ditch” (Oxford English Dictionary). “Ditch” in a figurative sense meaning “to discard, jilt, abandon or defeat” followed soon after, and by the time of World War II, “to ditch” had become Royal Air Force slang for “to attempt an emergency landing in the sea.” This use was no doubt influenced by the earlier use of “ditch” as a noun to mean the sea in general and the English Channel in particular.

People have probably been standing in lines since the first mastodon roast, but only with the advent of the industrial revolution and urban congestion did we start inventing terms for the practice of not waiting your fair turn. “Queue jumping,” “cutting in line,” and “butting/barging/budging in line” are all fairly well-know terms for the practice. “Ditch the line,” however, is rarely heard outside the US Midwest, and has occasioned several discussions in recent years on the American Dialect Society email list (ADS-L).

It turns out, and I was quite surprised by this, that “to ditch the line” is used almost exclusively in Central Ohio, particularly in Columbus and surrounding areas of Franklin County (which is where my wife Kathy grew up and quite close to where we live now). Steven H. Keiser of the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University in Columbus has been researching use of the phrase for several years, and has discovered several interesting angles to use of this “ditch,” including one that may help explain its origin.

The question, of course, is how “to ditch,” even in its slang sense of “jilt, abandon, discard,” could come to mean “butt into line.” It might be simply a greatly extended use of the “discard” sense to mean “blithely disregard the rights of other people in line,” but that seems a stretch. Some have suggested that a queue-jumper metaphorically “digs a ditch” in the middle of the line and steps in, but that seems even more elaborate and unlikely.

It has also been suggested that this “ditch” actually has no connection to the “trench” sort of ditch but is actually a modified form of the 18th century English slang term “to dish,” meaning “to ruin, defeat, circumvent” (from the sense of food being done and “dished,” i.e., put on plates). The same “dish” is found in the slang phrase “dish it out” and its modern relative, “dish the dirt” meaning “tell gossip.” Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, Steven Keiser at OSU spent some time asking people in and around Columbus about “ditch,” and discovered that people over the age of 40 (in 2001) tended to remember using the term “dish” to mean “cut in line,” while young children used, as you note, simply “D.” While not conclusive, the use of “dish” in this sense by the older generation may well indicate that “dish” is indeed the source of this sense of “ditch.”

Wingnut

You’re a bigger one.

Dear Word Detective:  This being silly season (come to think of it, haven’t the entire last ten years been silly season?), there has been an awful lot of media attention on wingnuts. Can you tell us anything about when the term “wingnut” started to refer to … well … what else could I call them? … wingnuts? — Dawn.

This is an interesting question. Unfortunately, what makes it particularly interesting are some areas of uncertainty, but we’ll do our best to make it all make sense. Just keep in mind that this is a topic in which “making sense” itself does not play a large role.

“Wingnut” is a pejorative term commonly used by political bloggers of a left bent to describe fervid exponents of right-wing (often extreme right-wing) political opinions and causes. (I’m going to avoid the use of terms such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “libertarian” and “progressive” here because I have no interest in debating political theology at the moment. “Left” and right” will have to do.) This current sense of “wingnut” dates back to the late 1990s, but it only really became popular with the rise of political blogging in the early years of the 21st century.

In a literal sense, “wingnut,” which first appeared as “wing nut” around 1900, means a kind of mechanical “nut” (paired with a bolt) having “wings,” or flat projections, allowing it to be easily tightened using only one’s fingers. Handy things, those wing nuts. The existence of that sense of “wingnut” contributed to, but is not directly connected to, the modern political “wingnut,” which is simply a shortened form of “right-wing nut,” a phrase dating to the early 1960s (“‘You one of these right-wing nut outfits?’ inquired the diplomatic Metzger,” The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1966). “Nut” here is, of course a slang term meaning “crazy person,” derived from the very old use of “nut” to mean “head.”

Interestingly, however, “wingnut” had a low-key presence in the culture back in the 1980s as a simple, non-political synonym for “eccentric person” or “crackpot,” a use clearly not derived from a shortening of “right-wing nut.” It seems to have been especially popular in Canada, applied to everything from bad drivers (“Our most vociferous broadside against wingnut drivers,” Toronto Star, 1987) to the late Michael Jackson (“Moonwalk is less an autobiography than a printed response. [Michael Jackson] feels we have got him wrong. That we have misunderstood his idiosyncrasies and unfairly branded him a celebrity wingnut,” The Gazette, Montreal, 1988). My guess is that this use of “wingnut” is a simple elaboration of “nut” in the “crackpot” sense, perhaps invoking the “wings” of a mechanical wingnut to suggest flights of fantasy or the like. This non-political “wingnut” surely contributed to the current political “nutcase” use of the word.

“Wingnut” was also used to mean a fan of the NBC show The West Wing (1999-2007) about a fictional Democratic president and his administration.

Speaking of wings, the equivalent epithet commonly applied by right-wing bloggers and commentators to “wingnuts” of the left is “moonbat,” introduced (according to the late William Safire, a masterful chronicler of such things) in 1999 by Perry de Haviland, proprietor of the “Samizdata” blog. De Haviland has said that when he coined the term (as “barking moonbat”) he meant it to apply to crazies of both the Right and Left, but today it is deployed exclusively by the Right at the Left. Safire theorized that the existing epithet “Loony Left” (“loony” being rooted in “luna,” moon) may have bolstered the appeal of “moonbat” to the Right. The source of “moonbat” is uncertain, but the term does occur in two stories from the 1940s by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein.

Cooties

Or possibly from the French for “Remember me.”

Dear Word Detective:  A coworker suggested that another, who was showing signs of a cold, go home so that he didn’t “give us all his cooties.” More commonly, of course, even in this era of fear of bedbugs, we all know that “cooties” are that thing the opposite sex has when you’re a kid. But why? I was surprised not to find this in the archives of your website; perhaps the answer is unprintable? — A in Berkeley.

Eek, bedbugs! Actually I think I’ve discovered another benefit of living in the middle of nowhere. Our old farmhouse may have mice in the walls, possums in the cellar, squirrels in the attic, and venomous spiders in every nook and cranny (not to mention coyotes that come right up on the front porch looking for lunch), but so far (knock wood) no bedbugs.

A discussion of “cootie” is definitely not unprintable today, although it probably would have been back in the 1950s. In the literal sense, a “cootie” is a body louse, a nasty little biting creature that afflicts people who don’t have access, for whatever reason, to clean laundry and facilities for maintaining proper personal hygiene. The term “cootie” apparently entered the mainstream US lexicon in the wake of World War I, in which months spent in the trenches of Europe gave soldiers a regrettable familiarity with lice (“‘Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.’ In a sleepy voice he answered, ‘That ain’t straw, them’s cooties,’” 1917).

The origins of “cootie” are a bit murky. The most likely source is the Malay word for louse, “kutu,” but how the word made the leap to soldiers in Europe is unclear. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org) suggests that a related word may exist in Tagalog (the language of the Philippines) and was picked up by US soldiers stationed there, which seems very reasonable to me. Quinion also notes that the word “cootie” has remained US-centric and is virtually unknown in Britain.

Interestingly, “cootie” is rarely used in this literal sense today; perhaps the intractable problem of head lice in US schoolchildren has taken the sting of scandal out of the word “lice.” But the use of “cooties” is alive and well, especially among children, in the sense of, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “an imaginary germ with which a socially undesirable person, or one of the opposite sex, is said to be infected.” The first citation for this use in the OED is from 1967, but since it’s from a Beverly Cleary young adult novel (“Quit breathing on it… We don’t want any of your cooties in the pudding,” Mitch and Amy), we can assume the term was in use among children for at least a few years before that appearance.

The use of “cooties” to mean “real germs or microbes of an unidentified sort,” as in your example, is interesting for two reasons. First, it seems pretty clearly to be a simple extension of the child-vernacular “cooties” into the adult world, where it is used in a new literal, if usually jocular, sense, usually among friends. (I have it on good authority that the CDC does not, for instance, issue directives employing the term “cooties.”) So there may be some evidence of the creeping infantilization of US culture there (as if we needed more). Secondly, the perpetuation of a concern about undifferentiated “cooties” dovetails nicely with accelerating germophobia in the US, as evidenced by anti-microbial wipes at the entrance of nearly every store and the impregnation of nearly every product with germ-killing agents. As someone who discovered last week that he had unwittingly bought a kitty-litter pan infused with an anti-microbial agent, I think we’ve gone a bit over the edge. A few cooties are good for you, boys and girls.