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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Wigging out

A man (bald), a plan (bold), parakeet!

Dear Word Detective: Is the phrase “wigging out” connected to “flipping one’s wig”? My students were wigging out today after their fifth day (of nine days) of standardized tests in a month. I’m getting a little wiggy myself. — Laura Maxwell.

Wow. I don’t blame them, or you. In fact, even though the last time I was in school was in the Late Jurassic, your question gave me a twinge of panic. To this day the words “pop quiz” give me the fantods, and nine days of tests would have me looking for a cave to hide in.

“Wigging out,” meaning “to show serious signs of (or to break under) stress” does indeed have a connection to “flipping one’s wig,” but that’s just a small part of the strange role wigs have played in English slang.

The word “wig” is fairly strange in its own right. “Wig” first appeared in print in English in the late 17th century meaning, as it does today, “an artificial covering of hair for the head, worn to conceal baldness or to cover the inadequacy of the natural hair, as a part of professional, ceremonial, or formerly of fashionable, costume … or as a disguise” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)). Oddly enough, the word “wig” is actually simply a shortening of the earlier word “periwig,” which meant the kind of highly-stylized wig worn by judges and barristers in the English court system. That “periwig” was derived from the Middle French “perruque,” meaning both a “wig” as we know it and a natural full head of hair. The roots of “perruque” are a mystery, but may lie in the Middle French “perroquet,” meaning “parakeet.” The OED, recognizing that an explanation is called for, offers “… perhaps on account of the mane-like markings on the heads of some species [of parakeets].” There are other theories about “perruque,” but I really like that one.

Given that officials and nobility in 17th and 18th century Britain often wore large ornately-styled wigs as a symbol of office and power (as opposed to the more humble wigs worn by those of lesser stature), it’s not surprising that “bigwig” appeared as slang in the early 18th century for “an important or powerful person,” whether said person actually wore a wig or not (“Wagner … was considered a suspicious character, in more ways than one, by the musical bigwigs of his day,” 1892). In the late 18th century, to be rebuked or scolded by a “bigwig” came to be known as receiving a “wigging.”

That is, however, not the same “wigging” as found in “wigging out.” For that we turn to 20th century African-American slang, where “wig” was used as slang for the human head, brain or mind (“I really do think that there is something wrong with this man’s wig,” 1980). One of the earliest recorded elaborations of this slang sense of “wig” was in “to flip one’s wig,” which appeared in the 1930s meaning both “to lose one’s temper” and “to lose one’s sanity or emotional control” (“My lawyer flipped his wig on the coast and came out here to avoid being committed,” Hunter Thompson, 1967). To “flip,” “snap,” “crack” or “blow one’s wig” was a prescription for landing in “wig city” (1960), a state of mental unbalance, and being scrutinized by a “wig-picker,” a psychiatrist (“Well, dreams, you know. I never put much stock in them. […] those naval wig pickers in San Francisco used to try and worm a few of them out of me,” William Styron, 1960).

The vast array of things that could go wrong with one’s “wig” led, in the late 1950s, to the simpler verb “to wig out,” meaning “to lose control or have a breakdown” (“Some real moldy cat in a library in Alabama wigged out when she saw the white rabbits and the black rabbits on the cover of the book together,” 1959), of which the short form is “wigging.” To be severely stressed and approaching the point of “wigging out” is being “wiggy.”

March 2012 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


March already. Huh. Meh. Feh.

I’m not really complaining, you understand, but I’d like to point out that it snowed exactly three times this winter, and two times it didn’t stick at all. The third time amounted to about a half an inch, nowhere near enough to make snowballs for Brownie the Dog. Brownie likes me to throw snowballs for her to chase. Of course, the snowballs always land in the snow on the ground and become impossible to find, but as long as I make another one right away, she doesn’t mind. Brownie was deeply disappointed by that paltry excuse for snow, so I hope you’re happy, whoever you are. I ended up standing by the refrigerator and tossing her ice cubes, but that really wasn’t the same, and we ended up with little puddles all over the kitchen floor. Everything in this paragraph is true, by the way.

Speaking of little puddles, we finally finished watching Season II of Downton Abbey, about a week after we stumbled across this old article from the Daily Mail in 2011, which indicates that PBS, adjudging their audience to consist largely of enfeebleated droolers, decided to do away with the hard parts of the British version of the series, thus making time for the oleaginous Laura Linney to smooth out the rough edges with her cloying smarm. All this for a show that makes The Young and the Restless look like Hamlet. Duly noted for all concerned.

Anyway, we’re all glad everyone has been miraculously healed (Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!), except, one presumes, the horribly maimed chap who appeared claiming to be heir to the whole magilla but conveniently disappeared about ten minutes later and was, as this show is wont, promptly and utterly forgotten by the rest of the perpetually befuddled gang at the Big House. Elsewhere on Planet Gimmeabreak, I simply must remember to get one of those special ouija boards that have complete words (“Dad,” “farm,” “visit,” “happy,” etc.) spelled out across the top. I’ll bet it saves lots of time.

I kid, of course. Obviously Downton Abbey is far preferable to the vast wasteland of wretched dreck that constitutes US TV these days. People keep asking me if I’ve seen CSI or Special Victims Unit or Dexter or America’s Funniest Home Dungeons and I have to say, no, not yet, when what I really mean is no, not ever.

And as annoying as I find PBS 90% of the time, occasionally they show something like the BBC’s Little Dorrit a few years ago, which I would gladly watch again and may be just about the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV. It even made up for those New Age infomercials and ghastly Celtic Woman things I keep clicking past on PBS.

Onward. We now have a Twitter feed over there in the right column, but don’t expect much beyond pointers to the columns here unless I suddenly get a prescription for something very powerful. You might check the people I follow on that feed and find many of them interesting, as I do. Most of them have some connection to language or books.

We’re still on Facebook (sortof) and Google Plus (barely). I think Google blew it, frankly. The place is a ghost town, and trying to compel people to join when they sign up for Gmail is just obnoxious.

By the way, I do my best to keep up with comments on this site, but it might be a day or two before I get to yours, so please be patient. I approve almost everything, no matter how tangential or odd it may be, as long as it doesn’t abuse other commenters. As for email, I read everything but not always promptly, because my eyes have become sufficiently wonky that to read things I frequently have to crank up the font size to “ginormous” and park my nose about six inches from the screen.

So forward into Spring, I guess. Please remember (you asked me to remind you) to subscribe.

And please send in your questions. I know you have them. And I need them.

And now, on with the show….

Dance-off, Sing-off, etc.

There’s a diplosaurus in your disk drive.

Dear Word Detective: Talking with my family some time ago, we somehow got to the subject of those ‘X-off’ combinations which seem to have become fairly commonplace in recent years. You know, “dance-off,” “sing-off,” “rap-off,” “nerd-off,” what have you — it appears that any sort of competitive confrontation can be fit into that mold. So we got to wondering where it all started. Thinking of it a bit, I guess it makes sense that it would stem from “face-off” (Oxford Concise: “[1] a direct confrontation. [2] [Ice Hockey] the start of play.”), but the more I think about it the more I’m puzzled by the word “off,” there. I mean, you have two teams facing each other, that seems clear, but why are they facing OFF? I know that adverbs can be kinda arbitrary, so there might not be an answer for that. Still, it bugs me. I’d appreciate any insight you might offer on that subject. — Yael.

There’s a “nerd-off”? Does it involve fixing computers while reciting the names of obscure dinosaurs? Speaking of prehistoric trivia, does anyone else see the term “face-off” and immediately think of the 1997 John Travolta/Nicholas Cage movie? No? You’re lucky. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what compelled me to see that nonsensical schlock-fest (starring my two least-favorite actors), but something did, and I still, obviously, bear the scars.

“Off” is a daunting word with a dizzying array of uses. It began as an emphatic form of the preposition “of,” which in Middle English carried the sense of “from, or out of,” in the way we might say that a person is “Mr. Edwards of London.” The form “off” gradually took on a stronger meaning than “of,” connoting “away, away from” (e.g., “drive off”) or “at a distance from” (“off the coast of France”). By the early 18th century the two words had completely separated and “off” came to be used not only as a preposition but an adjective, adverb and noun as well.

“Off” in modern English carries those senses of motion, direction or distance from a place, thing or person, but it also is used to express resistance to motion towards a place, thing, etc., as in “ward off” or “keep off.” In “dance-off,” bake-off,” etc., we’re seeing a verbal phrase used as a noun, with the “off” signifying resistance in the form of confrontation or competition. The earliest use of this sense seems to have been in “face-off,” appearing in 1889 and originally meaning the moment in a game of ice hockey or lacrosse when play is started by dropping or placing the puck or ball between two opposing players who are literally facing each other. It wasn’t until the 1950s that “face-off” came into use in the more general sense of “direct confrontation.” (In that awful Cage/Travolta movie, the confrontation between the two involved actually swapping faces. Yeah, it was that stupid.)

Meanwhile, a slightly different sense of “off” had been dumped into the mix. In 1870 the phrasal noun “play-off” first appeared in print meaning a game played to decide a tie at the end of a previous game (“The tie game of yesterday was played off to-day,” 1880). This “play-off” invoked a very old sense of “off” meaning “exhaust or finish completely” (as in our modern “finish off”). It wasn’t until 1932 that “play-off” came to mean (first in the US, of course) “a series of games, matches, or contests played to decide a championship, competition, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The precedents of “face-off” and “play-off” subsequently served as models for all the little “X-offs” you’ve noticed, from “cook-off” (1936) to “bake-off” (1949) to the more recent “dance-off,” “sing-off,” etc. These terms all employ both the “confrontation or contest” sense and the “finish” sense (in that there is only one winner) of “off.”