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The foam-flecked grill is a nice touch.

Dear Word Detective:  Driving along the freeway the other day I found myself behind a Nissan — not a Nissan Murano, nor a Nissan Versa (both of which I think of as nonsense names), but a Nissan Rogue. Well, I thought, with so many models these car companies are hard-pressed to come up with names. But I always thought “rogue” implied some sort of dangerous viciousness, as in a “rogue elephant.” Are we now to think it’s simply a synonym for rebel, or something even tamer? My dictionary says the origin of “rogue” is unknown. Any idea where it came from, and where it’s going? — Barney Johnson.

Nissan Rogue, eh? Awesome. Did the owner spring for the titanium tusks? Or did the car  just glower, as the current line of Dodge Ram trucks do, with massive menacing grillwork that would bring a song to Mussolini’s heart? Every time I get on the road I’m struck by the fact that choice of cars and driving style have apparently become the primary channels of self-expression for a lot of weirdly angry people. While most people don’t pick a car because of its name, motor vehicle monikers such as “Viper,” “Cutlass,” “Rampage” and “Vanquish” no doubt appeal on a subliminal level to the chronically aggrieved among us. Maybe we should encourage, in the spirit of moderation, car names that invoke that other American obsession, food. In a chapter on automotive names in his book “What’s in a Name?” (Merriam-Webster, 1996), Paul Dickson mentions a car manufactured between 1902 and 1906 called “the American Chocolate” (because it was made in a former candy factory). I know I’d feel a lot safer on the highway if I were surrounded by people driving Dodge Muffins, Toyota Tacos and Chevy Calzones.

The Nissan Rogue is a compact “crossover” SUV that was first marketed in the US in 2008, which, I guess, rules out the intriguing possibility that its name was inspired by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s 2009 memoir “Going Rogue.” I suppose she picked that title to evoke the image of an elephant (i.e., Republican) “going it alone,” but the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to go rogue” as “to behave erratically or dangerously, go out of control.” George Orwell, as I recall, wrote an interesting essay about a rogue elephant. In any case, one’s mileage may vary as to the political wisdom of that image, but it’s a scary name for a car.

“Rogue” first appeared in English in the late 16th century meaning “idle vagrant; vagabond,” as well as “a dishonest person; a scoundrel.” Almost immediately, however, “rogue” also came to mean “A mischievous person, especially a child; a person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likable or attractive” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), and the “lovable rogue,” the “bad boy” charmer of fiction and Hollywood movies, from Tom Jones to Clark Gable to George Clooney, was born. Most other uses of the term “rogue,” however, have been in the sense of either “renegade” in a negative sense (“rogue nation,” “rogue cop,” et al., even “rogue lawyer”) or “without control or discipline; behaving abnormally or dangerously; erratic, unpredictable” (OED) (“A housewife’s game of patience came to an abrupt end when a 20-ton ‘rogue’ mechanical shovel begun crunching its way through the walls of her semi-detached home,” 1979).

It has been suggested that “rogue” is rooted in the Middle French “rogue,” meaning “haughty or arrogant,” but that doesn’t strike most authorities as likely, in part because that meaning is nearly the opposite of “rogue’s” initial meaning in English of “vagabond; vagrant.” More likely is the theory that our “rogue” comes from the obsolete English thieves’ slang “roger” (pronounced with a hard “g”), which, with weird specificity, meant “An itinerant beggar pretending to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge” (OED). This “roger,” in turn, seems to have been ultimately rooted in the Latin “rogare,” meaning “to ask.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, I should note, finds this “rogare” theory unlikely, and suggests “roger” may simply come from the name of a person, and thus have no connection to “rogue.” But if “roger” from a person’s name meant “beggar,” which the OED says it did, it could still have changed form and become “rogue.”

Incidentally, although many people assume that unruly elephants are the source of “rogue,” the term “rogue elephant” didn’t appear until the 19th century. “Rogue elephant” has also been used in a figurative sense since the 1920s to mean “a person or agency whose activities are antisocial and destructive” (OED) (“Only the rogue elephants among the public utility monopolies have occasionally run amuck,” 1981).

Flak / Flack / Harp

Welcome to iHell. Here’s your iHarp.

Dear Word Detective: In my mother’s family there is a phrase that I haven’t encountered elsewhere and I’m wondering about the origin. The phrase it “to give [someone] flack (flak?)” and means, depending on the context, either “to berate” (as in “my boss gave me flack for coming in late yesterday”) or “to complain at” (“stay up late if you want to but you better not give me any flack about being tired in the morning.”). It also has the connotation that the complaint, whatever it is, is trivial and thus the person giving flack is actually harping on the victim for no reason. Oh, and hey! Why do we use the verb “to harp” to mean berate and annoy? A two-fer. Any ideas? — Gwyn.

And they say families don’t communicate these days, that each member spends all day swaddled in the solipsistic glow of their digital doodads, texting “friends” they’ve never met and agonizing over their Facebook updates. “Fie!” say I to the media mob spreading this canard, this spurious trend du jour. Families are alive, well, and driving each other nuts with constant harping and flocks of flack, just as they always have. In fact, the profusion of iPads, iPhones and other iRubbish has, no doubt, exponentially increased the occasions for face-to-face familial conflict. After all, television, the previous locus of much household discord, never hit you with overage charges or introduced your kid to aging sickos pretending to be Justin Bieber’s cousin. So rave on, Ward and June.

I actually answered a query about “flack” back in 2008, but it’s worth revisiting, since we’re coming up on an election year and the political “flacks” will be out in force. “Flack” and “flak” are actually two different words, but things get a bit confusing because they tend to be used interchangeably in some contexts. “Flak” dates back to World War II, when German anti-aircraft guns (“Fliegerabwehrkanone,” literally “pilot defense guns”) were known to Allied pilots by their rough acronym “flak,” which soon became shorthand for antiaircraft fire itself. If you’ve ever seen film of Allied bombers dodging small black clouds over Europe, those clouds are flak bursts. By the late 1960s, “flak” had come to mean “adverse criticism” or “verbal abuse,” and was often spelled “flack.” In his 1970 book “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” author Tom Wolfe coined the term “flak-catcher” for a public-relations aide whose job is to intercept and deflect criticism (“flak”) directed at a prominent person.

That brought the meaning of “flak” confusingly close to that of “flack,” meaning a public relations agent, which had first appeared in print in 1937. This “flack” was apparently coined by Variety, the show business newspaper, in tribute to Gene Flack, a well-known PR agent for movie stars. So “flak” means “criticism or complaining” and is sometimes spelled “flack,” and the other “flack” is a public relations person whose job consists of protecting a big shot from “flak.” And a “flak-catcher” is a flack who catches flak. Simple, yes?

A “harp” is, of course, a rather large stringed musical instrument that produces a sound thought by many to be lovely and ethereal. (Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does. In several ancient languages, the root of “harp” was also used to mean “an instrument of torture.” Just sayin’.) The verb “to harp” appeared in Old English meaning “to play on a harp,” but by the 16th century the expression “to harp upon the same string” had come to mean “to repetitively and tediously speak about one subject” (“They are sure still harping on their old string,” 1568). This led to “harp” being used today as a verb meaning “to complain repetitively on one subject at tedious length.”


With cheese!

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the word “splurge” come from? I’m thinking “urge” plus “spending,” maybe, though that doesn’t account for the “l.” Sources say it’s a blend of “splash” and “surge,” but that doesn’t make sense to me. — George Klosowski.

Oh, “sources” say that, do they? By golly, you’re right, they do. I looked up “splurge” in several dictionaries, and every one of them suggested a blend of “splash” and “surge,” though most of them preface that with “perhaps.” It’s spooky. Elsewhere in the news (and this is relevant, honest), I read an article the other day that said that residential electric power consumption in the US is leveling off and expected to begin falling soon. That’s pretty odd, considering the multitude of electronic gizmos we have plugged into every outlet these days. Industry “sources” say the drop in consumption is because people have installed more home insulation and have switched over to those godawful compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. Yeah, right. My “sources” (eyes, ears, brain) say it’s because it’s become the standard in many American homes to “splurge” not by going to a fancy restaurant or buying a new car, but by turning on all three lights in the living room. Hey, I didn’t know we still had a dog. Land of the free, home of the 40-watt bulb.

Today we use “splurge” to mean “to spend money extravagantly,” often impulsively. The implication of “splurge” (as opposed to simply “buy”) is that the “splurger” does not ordinarily make such pricey purchases (“If you really get into omelettes, you should splurge and procure a good copper or stainless steel omelette pan,” High Times, 1975). What constitutes “splurging” is, of course, relative to one’s wealth. A hedge fund manager buying a second Lamborghini because the first one got dusty isn’t really “splurging.”

Interestingly, when “splurge” first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, it didn’t necessarily involve buying anything at all. To “splurge” was “to make an ostentatious, showy display; to show off” (“Cousin Pete was thar splurgin about in the biggest, with his dandy-cut trowsers and big whiskers,” circa 1848). “Splurging” in this sense was flaunting one’s finery, parading one’s fashionable taste, “making a splash,” “cutting a flash” or, in the wonderful 16th century phrase, “peacockizing” (behaving like a male peacock strutting about displaying its feathers). Though such ostentatious displays are far from rare today, we don’t usually describe the practice as “splurging.”

That “show-off” sense of “splurge” seems to have faded in popular usage by the time “splurge” came into use in its modern “spend way too much” sense in the 1930s (“When I got around to furnishing my office, I thought I’d splurge on a good 18th Century English armchair,” 1947). As to the origin of “splurge,” it’s possible, as many dictionaries say, that it was simply a blend of “splash” and “surge.” Your theory about “spend” and “urge” seems reasonable, but the fact that the first sense of “splurge” to appear didn’t involve actually purchasing anything does put a big dent in “spend” as an element in the mix.

The same problem, it seems to me, arises when “surge” is proposed as a component of “splurge.” You might say that the later “spend lots of money” sense of “splurge” involves a “surge of desire” for expensive things, but it’s hard to see where the “surge” is when you simply show up at a royal wedding in a silly hat. The “splash” part of that theory, however, does seem plausible, as a “splurger” in the first sense is definitely trying to “make a splash,” i.e., get noticed.

The Oxford English Dictionary prudently, if a bit mysteriously, offers an etymology of “imitative” for “splurge,” meaning that the word developed because its sound seemed evocative of the action of “splurging” in the original sense, i.e., showing off, ostentatiously presenting oneself to onlookers. I think that’s the most reasonable guess, but I’d be surprised if “splash” didn’t also contribute to the birth of “splurge.”