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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.

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Sound (solid, reliable)

Ding-a-ling! It’s the clue phone, Goldie!

Dear Word Detective: The writer of an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday, November 14, 2010, mentioned in passing that “money was ‘sound’ if it rang when dropped on a counter.” This didn’t quite ring (sorry) true to me. I had always thought that ound in this sense meant “solid, trustworthy,” and the like. What do you say? — Harold Pinkley.

What do I say? Well, to quote the classic 1928 New Yorker cartoon (with caption by E.B. White), I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. Furthermore, I am shocked, shocked, to discover that the Gray Lady apparently no longer employs fact-checkers who know how to run that new-fangled Google thing. Lastly, James Grant, the dude who penned that piece, evidently also retails a sheet called “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer,” the accuracy of which I’m sure his readers pray is a bit higher than that on display in this writing sample. Oh well, as we say around here, forget it, Jake, it’s the Times.

Mr. Grant’s op-ed is an extended paean to the gold standard and an argument for restoring it in order to conjure some magical rationality into national monetary policy. Pining for the halcyon days when Goldie was queen, he declares, “It was simplicity itself. National currencies were backed by gold. If you didn’t like the currency you could exchange it for shiny coins (money was ‘sound’ if it rang when dropped on a counter). Borders were open and money was footloose.” Perhaps. My own money seems plenty footloose already. Many a sleepless night here at Chez de le Chat has been danced lately to the pitter-patter of dollars scampering out of my wallet like mice on meth. But the problem of the moment is that Mr. Grant has confused two entirely different sorts of “sound.”

There are actually four completely separate kinds of “sound” in English. The oldest is “sound” meaning “channel of water” (as in Long Island Sound), which comes from the same Germanic root that gave us “swim.” The verb “sound” meaning “to measure the depth of water” probably comes from the Vulgar Latin verb “subundare,” combining “sub,” under, with “unda,” wave.

“Sound” in the sense of “noise; that which can be heard, etc.” comes from the Latin “sonus,” the same root that gave us “consonant,” “sonata,” “sonnet” and several other modern English words. “Sound” in the sense of “solid, reliable, undamaged” is actually a clipped form of the Old English “gesund,” drawn from Germanic roots (from which we also got the post-sneeze interjection “Gesundheit!”, meaning “Health!”).

So Mr. Grant has repeated a story he apparently heard somewhere that confuses “sound” meaning “reliable” with “sound” meaning “noise.” If this column had sound effects, you’d hear a loud buzzer at this point. But wait, is that the cavalry coming that I hear? By golly, it is, and Mr. Grant may not be entirely crazy after all. His subscribers will be so pleased.

It’s quite possible that what Mr. Grant was thinking of was not money being “sound” if it “rang” when dropped on a table, but the expression “ring of truth” (or, as you said in your question, “to ring true”), which did indeed come from the action of dropping a coin on a shop counter. Back in the 17th century, when counterfeit coins were as common as bogus derivatives are today, a sharp shopkeeper knew to drop a suspect coin on a hard surface as a test of its purity. True gold or silver would “ring,” while a coin adulterated with lead or the like would give a duller sound. The same “ring” test was applied (by light tapping with a finger, not dropping, of course) to gauge the purity of fine glass and pottery. Of course, the result of such tests is not always positive, and by 1850 we were using ” to have the ring of” to mean “having the characteristics of, being indicative of” in a less than laudatory sense (“The securities, supposedly based on rights to water reserves on Mars, struck some observers as having the ring of fraud”).

Lukewarm / Piping

The third most terrifying word in English: “bagpipes.”

Dear Word Detective: Why do I say my morning coffee, when I’ve gotten engrossed in my newspaper and forgotten the cup on my table, is “lukewarm”? Who is Luke, and why is he warm (or not)? And other days, when I home in straight on my cuppa, why do I find my coffee “piping” hot? What pipe, where? As a non-native English speaker, I’m continually amazed at the endless variety of anomalies that this animal called idiomatic use throws up! — Partha Sen Sharma.

Good question. As a non-native speaker of English, you’re probably more likely to notice such odd terms as “lukewarm” and idioms like “piping hot,” but I’d bet that not one in ten native English speakers could explain where either of those terms came from. And I’ll bet at least five out of ten have never even considered the question.

I’m a big fan of eponyms (words formed from proper names), so I’m a bit disappointed that there is no person named “Luke” behind “lukewarm.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “lukewarm” as “moderately warm; tepid,” and notes that it first appeared in print in English in the late 14th century. “Lukewarm” has also been used in a figurative sense since the 16th century to mean “lacking enthusiasm; indifferent” (“The lukewarm advocate avails himself of any pretense to relapse into … indifference,” 1771).

“Lukewarm” is actually simply a combination of “warm” with the somewhat older English adjective “luke” (or “lew”), which itself meant “warm” (meaning that “lukewarm” etymologically amounts to a redundant “warm-warm”). That “luke” or “lew” came from the Old English word “hleowe,” which meant, you guessed it, “warm,” and which in turn was probably derived from an Indo-European root word that meant “weakly warm.” It’s not very exciting when the explanation for a word is simply “that’s what it’s always meant,” but there’s not much we can do about it now.

“Piping hot,” meaning “very hot,” also dates back to the 14th century and has nothing to do with pipes of either the smoking or plumbing sort. It is, however, connected to the kind of musical pipes one finds in bagpipes and church organs as well as “pipe” in the sense of a flute or recorder. The initial sense of “piping” was “emitting a high-pitched whistling sound” or “wheezing,” though the modern sense of “very hot” appeared almost immediately. The explanation is actually rather neat. Something, especially food, is “piping hot” if it actually emits a whistling or sizzling sound on your plate (think fajitas, for instance). In the case of a hot beverage, the “piping” might be the sound of the kettle. “Piping” today is used almost exclusively in reference to food, but back in the 19th century it was not uncommon to read of a “piping hot day” in the summer. “Piping” has also been used since the late 16th century to mean “new, novel, fresh and exciting” (“At the post-office such a scene-picture … the new play, piping hot!”, Robert Browning, 1855).

High, Wide and Handsome

And the horse you rode in on.

Dear Word Detective: I have been intrigued by the song “Rawhide” (from the TV show of the same name) and the phrase “livin’ high and wide” that is used in the song. I have tried to research its meaning and can’t come with much more than that it might describe a wide open sky with clouds high above. Can you shed any light on the meaning of “living high and wide?” — Ginny Haddy.

Wow. As far as I know, I never actually watched Rawhide when it originally aired from 1959 through 1966, because I was never fond of westerns. But that theme song started playing in my head as soon as I read your question, and now I can’t get rid of it. (Time to break out my emergency tape of “My Sharona.” That kills anything.) “Rawhide” sure is a catchy tune, which isn’t surprising since it was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, winner of a slew of Oscars for his film scores, with lyrics by Ned Washington. I had not realized (Thanks, Wikipedia!) that the song has been recorded over the years by artists ranging from Frankie Laine (for the show) to Oingo Boingo. That’s what I call a tune with legs.

Set in the late 1860s, Rawhide followed “drovers” on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, with stops along the way to solve the problems of the locals, argue with Indians, etc. (which must be why the trip took seven years). The show was, in other words, basically “Route 66″ with cows (and a young Clint Eastwood). The first stanza of the theme song contains the phrase in question: “Keep movin’, movin’, movin’ / Though they’re disapprovin’ / Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide! / Don’t try to understand ‘em / Just rope and throw and grab ‘em / Soon we’ll be living high and wide. / Boy my heart’s calculatin’ / My true love will be waitin’ / Be waiting at the end of my ride.”

Judging by the context, “living high and wide” is obviously a pleasant state of prosperity and ease, but the phrase “high and wide” in this sense is distressingly absent from all the dictionaries and collections of slang I’ve checked. “High,” of course, occurs in many phrases denoting well-being and wealth, such as “living high on the hog,” which comes from the fact that the best cuts of ham, bacon, etc., are found high on the flanks of pigs. The “high” in that phrase also connotes, beyond porcine anatomy, the sense of floating above everyday cares and woes, as “high and mighty” and similar phrases do. But “high and wide” was nowhere to be found among such figurative uses of “high.”

After a prolonged spell of staring at the cornfield across the road, however, a tiny light clicked on upstairs. I realized that Ned Washington, the lyricist, was almost certainly using a cropped form of the venerable US slang phrase “high, wide and handsome,” meaning, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “In a carefree manner, in good style” or, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “Grandiloquent, stylish, successful.”

The earliest printed occurrence of “high, wide and handsome” found so far comes from 1907 (“Tim could talk high, wide, and handsome when he set out to.”), but the phrase was almost certainly in wide oral use by the mid-19th century. It also seems to be largely associated with the American West, making it a good choice for a cowboy song. A glossary of slang published in 1932 lists the phrase and notes: “Common shout at a rodeo: ‘Ride him, Cowboy, high, wide and handsome.’”

As is often the case with slang, the logic behind “high, wide and handsome” is a bit hard to trace. “High” and “wide” both carry the sense of pride, respect and ease, as if one were strolling confidently down the street while being admired by lesser folk, and “handsome” certainly conveys a sense of being well-groomed and prosperous. The general flavor of the phrase is that the person is feeling and acting on top of the world.

Interestingly, “high, wide and handsome” seems to have later given birth to a more general sense of “unambiguously” or “forcefully” (“The day was riding high, wide and handsome into the deeps of the incredible blue sky,” 1939), as well as serving as a template for turns of phrase that denote anything but well-being (“The cops’ll be high, wide and helpless. They won’t know what in hell’s hit ‘em,” 1971).