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Dorothy Dixer

Low and slow.

Dear Word Detective: In my line of work (medical research), I often attend presentations by students discussing their work. Occasionally, at question time, the student’s supervisor or colleague will ask them a “Dorothy Dixer,” a pre-arranged question that the student has a pre-arranged answer for. This can give the student some confidence in answering questions (as well as perhaps leaving less time for more difficult ones). I’ve found out who Dorothy Dix was but do you have any information on when and where the term originated? — Rhys Fogarty.

That’s a fascinating question. The name Dorothy Dix rang a small bell at the back of my mind, but, after a bit of poking around online, I realized that I was thinking of Dorothea Dix, the great 19th century crusader for the rights and welfare of the mentally ill in the US. I’m still not sure why I happen to know anything about Dorothea Dix, but I suspect it may be due to my many years of reading Reader’s Digest in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.

Dorothy Dix, on the other hand, was the nom de plume of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer (1861–1951), a syndicated newspaper columnist and, during the 1930s and 40s, probably the most widely-read columnist on earth. Dix was an advice columnist, the forerunner of Dear Abby and Ann Landers in the US, answering readers’ questions and tales of woe with uplifting answers and no-nonsense advice. One of her most popular columns, reprinted frequently by popular demand, was “Dictates for a Happy Life,” which covered all the bases from “Make up your mind to be happy” (Dictate One) to “Don’t spend your life brooding over the mistakes you have made or the sorrows that have befallen on you.” (Dictate Eight, apparently addressed to those who flubbed Dictate One) and, if all else fails, “Keep busy” (Dictate Ten).

It is said that during her heyday Dix received 100,000 letters per week, but that fact didn’t quash the persistent rumor that she invented some of her more colorful reader questions as pretexts for “answers” she wanted to write. This particular brand of creativity is, shall we say, frowned on in journalism. Nothing was ever proven, but the “Dix makes up her own questions” rumor was widespread by the time of her death in 1951.

Now things get a bit weird. Although Dorothy Dix is largely forgotten in her native US, her column was syndicated all around the world, including in Australia, where her name lives on today in a most peculiar (and not very complimentary) way. A “Dorothy Dixer” in Australian political jargon is a “planted” (pre-arranged) question asked during a session of Parliament in order to give the respondent an opportunity to give a prepared reply. The Macquarie Dictionary (“Australia’s National Dictionary”) defines it as “a question asked in parliament specifically to allow a propagandist reply by a minister.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest print use of “Dorothy Dixer” to 1970, but use of “Dorothy Dix” by itself to mean a planted question has been found as far back as 1941. The use you’ve encountered, students being asked rote questions, is an expanded sense of the term.

Of course, “Dorothy Dixer” questions are hardly unknown in the rest of the world, and it’s a bit of a puzzle why the phrase isn’t used here in the US. Our closest analogue is probably the “softball” question posed to politicians (or their “spokescritters” in the parlance of the late and sorely missed Molly Ivins) by friendly journalists. So-called in allusion to the low and slow pitches of a softball game (compared to conventional “hardball” baseball), the “softball” question functions largely as an opportunity for the recipient to trot out the latest talking points. Softball questions aren’t actually “planted,” but they don’t have to be. They just have to be pleasingly mild and wide enough to accommodate a full load of flapdoodle.


Hunka hunka whatsis.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I was describing a new hire whom my wife knew from her nursing days. She immediately labeled her a “dingbat.” This word obviously came from the Archie Bunker school. In looking it up as to origin in the dictionary (Random House College Dictionary) it states: “Informal ‘dingus.’ Print: an ornamental piece of type for borders, decorations, etc.” So, how did it get from this definition to become “a silly, eccentric, somewhat dim person”? — Maxwell M. Urata, MD.

Good question. Most Americans probably associate the word “dingbat” with Archie Bunker, the central character in the 1971-79 hit US TV comedy All in the Family. Played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie was a deeply conservative and irascible (but amusing and lovable) working-class family man living in the NYC borough of Queens with his wife Edith, daughter Gloria, and son-in-law Mike Stivic (played by Rob Reiner). Archie was a racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic blowhard, but though he frequently, in moments of anger, referred to Edith as “Dingbat,” it was clear that he loved and depended on her.

In calling Edith a “dingbat,” Archie was using the word in the same sense as your wife did, i.e., to mean a “nitwit” or “kook,” a silly, stupid or flighty, frivolous person (“Miss Sternhagen’s mother increases in giddiness, even to wearing what appears to be a feather in her hair. She is, in fact, a certifiable dingbat,” 1985). This sense of “dingbat” first appeared in print (as far as we know) in 1915. An adjectival form, “dingbatty,” had popped up in 1911, indicating that the word may, in fact, be a bit older and raising the intriguing possibility that “dingbat” may be related to “batty,” which has been slang for “insane” (implying that one has “bats in one’s belfry”) since the end of the 19th century.

The curious thing about “dingbat,” however, is the fact that while it first appeared meaning “nut case” around 1911, “dingbat” had been widely used since the early 19th century with a wide variety of other meanings. At that time, a “dingbat” could be “a sum of money, or coins or bills themselves,” “an unidentifiable or nameless object or tool” (equivalent to “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit”), a tramp or hobo, or a hard or heavy object suitable for throwing (overlapping with “brickbat,” a piece of broken brick used as a weapon). The use of “dingbat” to mean “an ornamental item of type” appeared around 1921 and is almost certainly based on “dingbat” meaning “a nameless object.”

So here we have a word, “dingbat,” that apparently appeared from nowhere and can mean darn near anything. Sorting out its origins should be a piece of cake, right? Actually, if we agree to not look too closely or get overly picky, I believe we can untangle most of the mystery.

To begin at the shallow end of the pool, the element “ding” in “dingbat” is probably the Dutch word “ding,” meaning “thing.” This “ding” is also the source of our English slang word “dingus,” meaning “gadget, contraption, thingamabob.”

The “bat” in most 19th century senses of “dingbat” is probably the same “bat” we find today in “baseball bat.” In Old English a “bat” was “a cudgel or war club,” but in Middle English it was also used to mean simply a lump or left-over chunk of something (thus “brickbat,” a broken brick). A “bat” in this sense could be almost any material, so “dingbat,” essentially “a bit of a thing,” was about as vague a word as could be imagined, applicable to any nameless object, a nameless hobo, bits of money, etc.

While the “bat” of “dingbat” was probably originally the “piece or chunk” kind of “bat,” for many people it probably prompted thoughts of the other kind of “bat” in English, the flying rodent “bat” (which takes its name from Scandinavian roots). The long association of bats with strange behavior and insanity had already given us, as noted above, the terms “bats” and “batty,” so pressing “dingbat” into service to mean “crackpot” was a natural step.


Book that book, Danno.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been reading about the meaning of the word “policeman” in a book, which says that it originated in “polis” meaning “city,” and therefore “policeman” means “man of the city.” Do you have any idea where the word “politician” comes from? I assume it also derives from “polis,” but the ending isn’t the same and I assume this means it has a different meaning. — Michelle.

Wow. That book really says that “policeman” means “man of the city”? That’s pretty seriously not true. It’s also an instance of what I’d call the Lego School of Linguistic Analysis, the belief that each part of a word has a particular meaning, usually firmly fixed, and that by snapping the bits apart the intrepid explorer can figure out what the word “truly means.”

Let’s just say that language doesn’t work that way, to put it mildly. While words often are built from roots with particular meanings to which prefixes, suffixes and other bits are added, the process usually takes centuries, the meaning almost always shifts along the way, and the results often have only a tangential connection to the original “meanings” of the constituent parts (and in the case of prefixes and suffixes, those “meanings” are notoriously vague in the first place). The “take it apart” approach also often leads to what is known as the “etymological fallacy,” the belief that if you can determine the “original meaning” of a word, you have found its “true” meaning. Thus, for example, many otherwise sane people object to the use of “decimate” to mean “severely reduce, damage or destroy” because the original word meant “kill one of every ten soldiers” (the method the Roman army used to punish mutineers). I’m not sure why people resist language change so fiercely, but, fortunately, language isn’t listening, and “decimate” in its modern sense is a very useful word.

Several years ago I received a question that also dealt with the word “politician,” in that case asking about the story that “politics” came from “poli,”supposedly meaning “many” (it doesn’t) plus “tics,” supposedly meaning “ticks,” i.e., “bloodsucking insects” (wrong again). As a joke that’s not bad, but as etymology, fuhgeddaboudit. The actual root of “politics” is indeed the Greek “polis,” meaning “city.” This produced the Greek “polites,” meaning “citizen,” which in turn produced “politikos,” meaning “regarding citizens or matters of state.” In Latin, the Greek “politikos” became “polticus,” which eventually gave us “politics,” “political,” and, with the suffix “ian” indicating action or agency, “politician” for a person whose jobs involves affairs of government or civil administration. So “politics” is simply the system of governing a society, and a “politician” is someone who works in that apparatus.

Our English word “police” was imported from the Middle French branch of the “polis” family tree, where “police” meant essentially the same thing as our modern English word “policy” in the sense of “the conduct of good government.” By the 16th century, our English “police” had come to mean “the organizing or governing body of a community,” but it wasn’t until the 18th century that “police” came to mean a specific department or agency devoted to maintaining public safety and law and order. The use of “police” as a verb meaning “to keep a place, especially a military base, clean and orderly” arose in the 19th century and harks back to the now-obsolete use of “police” to mean simply “maintain good governance.”

Speaking of things that have become obsolete, the terms “policeman” and “policewoman”  have been almost universally abandoned in favor of “police officer,” but all three forms denote a person who is an official agent of a law enforcement (“police”) agency. Interestingly, the word “constable,” formerly applied to police officers in Britain and elsewhere, comes ultimately from the Latin “comes stabuli,” meaning literally “Count of the stable,” i.e., head groom in a stable. The term later was applied to the chief household officer in royal palaces, then to military commanders, and finally, in the 15th century, to law enforcement authorities.