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How does he make his voice do that?

Dear Word Detective:  What is the root and meaning of the word “ventriloquist”? — Joe Parsons.

That’s a good question, but in the course of researching it, I began to wonder how many of our younger readers have actually ever seen a ventriloquist.  In the 1950s and 60s, of course, they seemed to be everywhere.  Ventriloquists were a staple of the Ed Sullivan TV show, ranging from Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy, to Paul Winchell with his wooden pal Jerry Mahoney, to Senor Wences, whose sidekick Johnny consisted of a face drawn on the side of Wences’ hand.  My absolute favorite was Shari Lewis and the immortal Lamb Chop, a sheep hand puppet sporting abnormally long eyelashes.  I actually own a replica of Lamb Chop that I drag out of the closet every so often to annoy the cats.  I also have a duplicate of the rubber dog hand puppet that appears on Conan O’Brien’s show as Triumph the Insult Dog.  My dog puppet actually predates Conan’s show, though I’m not sure I should brag about that.

Meanwhile, for the benefit of our benighted readers who have never seen a “ventriloquist,” the word means a performer who, usually working with a wooden dummy or puppet, appears to make the character talk by speaking without moving his or her lips.  A good ventriloquist can not only pull off this basic parlor trick, but create such a complete character in the “dummy” that the dialog between the two seems entirely natural.

Although “ventriloquy” (or “ventriloquism,” the words are interchangeable) is today a form of humorous entertainment, the origins of the term lie in a practice that was deadly serious and more than just a little creepy.  The word “ventriloquism” comes from the Latin “ventriloquus,” meaning “speaking from the belly” (“venter,” belly, plus “loqui,” speak).  So far, so good.  “Speaking from the belly” is a plausible metaphor for ventriloquism.

But “ventriloquus” was no metaphor.  It was believed by the Ancient Greeks (who called the phenomenon “eggastrimuthos”) and Romans that noises emanating from a person’s belly could be the voices of the spirits of the dead or, in the worst-case scenario, a sign of demonic possession.  A “ventriloquist” (later called a “gastromancer”) was a seer or psychic who interpreted the sounds coming from the person’s abdomen and, depending on the supposed  source, passed along predictions of the future, messages from great-grandma, or bad news about the spiritual future of the patient.

Ventriloquism and gastromancy as a means of divination persisted through the Middle Ages and even up to the 18th century in Europe and America.  Eventually, however, as the public ardor for spiritualism flowered into the age of stage magic, the term “ventriloquism” came to be used for the trick of “throwing one’s voice” in front of an audience.   By the late 19th century, “ventriloquy” was a standard act in the repertoire of vaudeville, and the wooden ventriloquist’s dummy had become an icon of popular culture.  Interestingly, however, ventriloquy has never been able to completely shed its overtones of creepiness, as the number of horror movies involving a ventriloquist’s dummy which moves around quite well on its own attests.


“Evil ferret king,” however, is quite believable.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a young sprog, I was a great fan of Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, and some of the characters frequently used the word “fizzer,” which seemed to designate some kind of military discipline. I haven’t been able to find a clear definition for it anywhere, nor have I been able to illuminate the mystery of its origin. So, please relieve my mind. What is a “fizzer”? — Elizabeth Lightwood.

Mousies and bunnies and hedgehogs, oh my! To be honest, I had never heard of Brian Jacques until I read your question, but I have since learned that he is a very popular UK children’s author whose stories are set in the English countryside and populated by a wide range of anthropomorphic critters. I’ve always been a sucker for talking hedgehogs, but, judging by the publisher’s summaries (e.g., “Enslaved by the evil ferret King Agarnu of Riftgard, and his cruel daughter, Kurda, the brave squirrelmaid Triss plans a daring escape by sea”), I think I’ll have to pass on these books. I read that passage an hour ago and I’m still trying to get the image of a squirrel in a dress in a rowboat out of my mind.

Before we proceed, I am legally required to explain that “sprog” is British slang for a young child. “Sprog” first appeared as British armed services slang for a new recruit during World War II, and appears to be rooted in the old English dialect word “sprag,” which meant both “a lively young fellow” and “a young salmon.” Unfortunately, no one knows the origins of “sprag.”

“Fizzer” in its most basic sense means “something that fizzes,” the word “fizz” being an “echoic” word meant to duplicate the sound of something hissing and sputtering. As slang, “fizz” most often figuratively invokes either effervescing (“sparkling”) drinks such as champagne or firecrackers that fail to explode (and only “fizz”). The “effervescent” or “sparkling” sense of “fizz” produced “fizzer” as slang for “anything excellent or first-rate” in the mid 19th century (“If the mare was such a fizzer why did you sell her?” 1866), as well as “fizzer” as a term for a fast ball in the game of cricket.

The use of “fizzer” as British military slang meaning “roster of men to be disciplined” is a small mystery. The great British etymologist of slang Eric Partridge suggested that it may have come from the earlier use of “fizzer” to mean “military parade ground,” a usage which may have referred to the need for troops to practice their marching drills until they were perfect and “fizzed.” You’ll notice that there are two “mays” in that sentence, but it seems plausible to me.

Whatever the logic of terming a parade ground a “fizzer,” the use of the word to mean “punishment list” is clear. One of the most common methods of disciplining soldiers is to force them to practice marching drills for hours on end. So to be “put on the fizzer” meant that you were in trouble and probably in for a hard time (“I got back after … twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” T.E. Lawrence, 1935).

According to Partridge, the phrase “on the fizzer” eventually percolated out of the armed services and was used in civilian life to mean “in trouble with the boss,” but it doesn’t seem to be very common.

Apple of one’s eye

Fruit of the Look?

Dear Word Detective: What does “the apple of my eye” mean?– Beth.

This is an interesting question for two reasons.  I’ve received it many times before, and I first answered it several years ago, but the story of “apple of my eye” is definitely worth repeating.  But now I’m wondering where people are hearing this phrase.  Although it’s a staple of word origin books, I can’t recall seeing or hearing “apple of my eye” used “in the wild” (outside of historical fiction and old movies) by an actual human since, well, forever.  I suspect that it’s one of those phrases that have survived purely because of their weirdness, like “the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas,” rather than because people actually use them in everyday speech.  On the other hand, there are more than nine million Google hits for forms of the phrase, so I guess it’s not in real danger of extinction.

To be “the apple of someone’s eye” means to be their “favorite,” the cherished object of their affections, and to be regarded as especially precious and dear to them (“He can’t live without you. You’re the Apple of his Eye, the Joy of his Heart, the Lamp of his Life,” 1693).  The phrase can be applied to anything, even inanimate objects (“He parked his 1932 Mercedes-Benz (he called it the apple of his eye) outside A Block,” 1987), but it’s probably most frequently used in reference to a favorite child or an unrelated but fondly regarded younger person (“Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye,” Sir Walter Scott, 1816).

As English idioms go, “apple of one’s eye” is about as old as they get.  It first appeared in print in the writings of King Aelfred way back in the ninth century, and crops up, in the modern sense of “cherished favorite,” in both the King James Bible (numerous times) and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But before “apple of one’s eye” was used to mean “favorite,” it was used literally, as an anatomical term.  The “apple of the eye” was the pupil, the aperture at the center of the human eye.  At the time the phrase came into use, the pupil was erroneously thought to be a solid, round object, and it was called the “apple” because apples were the most commonly encountered spherical objects.

Because sight has always been considered the most important of our senses, and the center of the eye is thus arguably the most valuable bit of our anatomies, “the apple of one’s eye” quickly came to be used as a metaphor for “that thing which is most precious.”

Elsewhere in the wonderful world of ocular imagery, it’s worth noting that the word “pupil” for the aperture in the eye comes from the Latin “pupilla,” meaning “little doll,” referring to the tiny reflection one sees of oneself when looking into another person’s eyes.  The same root, in the broader sense of “child,” gave us “pupil” meaning “student in school.”  And when we say that we’d “give our eyeteeth” for something we desperately desire, we’re referring to our upper canine teeth, located directly under our eyes.  Not only are these teeth immensely useful in eating, but damage to them can cause severe pain in one’s eyes.