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Little winged pickpocket?

Dear Word Detective: How do we get the word “cupidity” for greed? If anything, it ought to have meant something exactly the opposite of greed, shouldn’t it, since (I suppose) the word is derived from Cupid, the God of love? — Partha Sen Sharma.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. It’s the story of English. It could have been such a nice, orderly language, if only it hadn’t listened to all those ruffians. If only it had sat up straight and not slouched. If only it had played by the rules. And now just look at it. Last week, the Associated Press announced that it would henceforth be accepting the use of “hopefully” as a sentence modifier (e.g., “Hopefully, Bob will get a job”), as opposed to only as an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner” (“Bob arrived at the interview hopefully”). Yes, I know everyone has used it the “new” way for a few hundred years, but some of us have standards. Not me, but some of us do.

Meanwhile, back at the God of Love, yeah, that’s weird, although if you try to buy a piece of cardboard bearing the little chap’s picture in the vicinity of February 14, it’ll cost you, like, four bucks, which would seem to indicate an organic connection twixt Cupid and greed. Cupid was indeed the Roman god of love, the son of Venus and Mercury. Like many Roman gods, Cupid was actually a recycled Greek god, in this case Eros, the Greek god of love and desire. While Eros was (and is) usually portrayed in art and sculpture as a hunky young man, Cupid is usually depicted as a chubby winged infant brandishing a tiny bow and arrows, with which he shoots people, making them fall in love.

The word “Cupid” first appeared in English in the 14th century, drawn from the Latin “cupido,” love or desire, which was rooted in the Latin verb “cupere,” to desire. “Cupidity” arrived in English about a century later, adapted from the French “cupidite,” meaning “passionate desire.” And now things get a little strange. In Latin and French, the family tree of “cupidity” was focused on love and erotic desire. But the earliest written uses of “cupidity” found so far in English employ the word to mean “strong desire for wealth or possessions; greed.” The more general senses of “inordinate desire, ardent longing” made an appearance a bit later, but are now considered archaic. So the only sense of “cupidity” now in accepted use is “avarice; greed; a burning desire for wealth and shiny things,” which is a bit depressing.

How and why the “burning desire for money” meaning of “cupidity” crowded out the “ardent amorous desire” senses is a mystery. Perhaps the fact that “cupidity” is more than simple greed or avarice, something amounting to a psychological fixation, made the “gimme the money” sense especially useful in English.

On a brighter note, in the early 20th century, Cupid made another appearance in popular culture in a form accessible to the humblest citizen. Created as a character by illustrator Rose O’Neill in 1909, the “Kewpie doll,” a chubby baby doll with a twee topknot and a dementedly cheerful expression, was an instant popular sensation. The name “Kewpie” was, of course, a reference to Cupid. Kewpie dolls remained popular well into the 20th century and were frequently awarded as prizes in midway games at carnivals and county fairs.

Jim Dandy

Whatever it was, it was a really good whatever it was.

Dear Word Detective: I often reply “Jim Dandy” when asked how I’m feeling. Was Mr. Dandy a real or fictional gentleman, and if so, was he known for his contented nature? Or have I been using his name in vain? — Regards from Jane Dandy.

You too, eh? I generally reply to the question with either “fine” or “peachy.” It’s some weird compulsion, probably based in all that positive thinking folderol we were fed as kids. Then again, maybe you really do feel “Jim Dandy” most of the time, in which case you have some ‘splainin to do. I watch enough TV commercials to know we all feel awful and need at least nineteen prescription drugs just to get out of bed every day. In fact, I don’t think you’re as “Jim Dandy” as you think you are. I think you have Chronic Pervasive Health and Contentment Syndrome (CPHCS), a serious disorder I just invented, for which an appropriate treatment will no doubt be marketed shortly. You’ll know you’ve beaten CPHCS when you think you have 37 other diseases.

“Jim Dandy” is interesting in several respects. First, it’s a noun as well as an adjective. It’s also apparently a US invention, first appearing in print, as far as we know, in the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky in 1887 (“Dear Sir: Though a stranger to you (yet a Democrat), let me say you are a ‘Jim Dandy'”). In this noun form, “Jim Dandy” meant simply “an excellent person or thing.” The first verified adjectival use of “Jim Dandy” appeared in a Chicago publication one year later (“George C. Ball came upon the floor yesterday arrayed in a jim-dandy suit of clothes.”). As an adjective it’s used to mean “strikingly fine” or “excellent.” The use of “Jim Dandy” as a noun is rare today, but the adjectival form is obviously alive and well, and usually appears in print lower-case and hyphenated.

As to whether “Jim Dandy” ever referred to an actual person, the jury is still out (it’s hard to prove a negative), but the consensus among etymologists seems to be “probably not.” That doesn’t mean that the term just dropped out of thin air, however. There was a popular minstrel song back in the 1840s called “Dandy Jim of Caroline” (words and music by Silas Sexton Steel and J. Richard Myers, respectively) which may have planted the seed of “Jim Dandy” in the public consciousness. The song, written in a mock African-American dialect, tells the story of a “dandy” young man who woos and wins a young woman named Dinah and goes on to have “eight or nine young Dandy Jims of Caroline.”

“Dandy” as a noun dates back to the late 18th century, when it first appeared in England meaning a young man who devotes excessive attention to fashionable dress and grooming, otherwise known as a “fop.” The origin of word “dandy” itself is a mystery, but it may be a shortened form of the 17th century term “Jack-a-dandy,” which meant “a conceited little man.” It may also be significant that “Dandy” is a familiar form of the name “Andrew” in Scotland.

The historical existence of the term “dandy” and an inexplicably popular 19th century song titled “Dandy Jim of Caroline” are probably the closest we’ll get to an explanation of “Jim Dandy!” as a positive personal status update. But, in an interesting sidelight, etymologist Gerald Cohen has uncovered what seems to have been the avenue by which the term “Jim Dandy” was widely popularized. Fittingly for an American colloquialism, it was baseball. Although the earliest instance of the term found so far in print is in a non-baseball context, according to Cohen, sports reporters instantly fell in love with in the term (“The Giants gave the local patrons of the game a couple of surprises during the past week, and whereas on Wednesday night they were proclaimed ‘Jim Dandy’ players, they were on Thursday declared to be ‘no good,'” The World (New York), June 19, 1887), and used it frequently.

Take off

Perhaps we should swallow our pride and ask the birds, eh?

Dear Word Detective: I can’t find any information at all as to why aircraft are said to “take off.” I understand the use of the word “landing,” but I can’t come up with a reason to use that particular phrase to say “start to fly.” Any assistance you can render will be greatly appreciated. — Dennis Chastain.

That’s a darn good question. And it may seem like a small thing; after all, the important thing is that it’s flying, right? But I read awhile back that scientists no longer agree on exactly why the wings of an airplane provide the lift needed to get it off the ground. Say what? Now you tell us you don’t know “exactly” how this thing works? So maybe all those people on the plane who believe that they have to pay close attention every minute because by doing so they’re actually keeping it aloft are right?

If you think I’m joking, Google “airplane wing lift.” Some say it’s Bernoulli’s Principle, others say Newton’s Third Law. I say it’s spinach, and I’ll stick to walking, thanks. I have a pretty good idea of how my feet work.

“Take off” is, of course, the point in every airplane flight where it’s most important to cross one’s fingers and “pay attention.” Interestingly, the verb “to take off” in the “Up in the air, Junior Birdmen” sense of departing terra firma in an upward direction predates powered flight by several decades. The basic verbal phrase “to take off” itself, however, has many senses and dates back to around 1400. The constituent parts of the verb, “take” and “off,” each possesses dozens of meanings, so when put together, a dizzying number of senses can, and have been, formed.

The Oxford English Dictionary calls “take” one of the “elemental words” of English, and notes that although its basic sense is “to grasp,” its range of meaning is so broad that it can only be understood in particular uses. “Off” as an adverb generally implies an action moving away from something (“Sam ran off to avoid the fight”) or resistance (“Bob held off the vampires with garlic powder”).

Put “take” and “off” together as a verb, and you still have several possible meanings.”Take off” can mean “to grasp and remove” (e.g., “take off your coat”), to “remove oneself abruptly” (“Sid took off as soon as his ex-wife arrived at the party”), to reduce a price, or to absent oneself from a job (“Take a week off before the holidays so you don’t go nuts”). Since the mid-18th century, “to take off” has also meant “to imitate, to counterfeit” (“taking” the appearance of the genuine article) and “to mimic or parody,” as in Saturday Night Live “take offs” of TV commercials.

“Take off” in the airport sense employs “take” in the sense of “remove, convey” with “off” meaning “away.” This particular use derived from the earlier sense of “take off” meaning “to go away” which first appeared in the early 19th century (“The Indian took off into the woods,” 1825). Around the same time, “to take off” began to be used to mean “to commence a leap” (“The spot where the horse took off to where he landed, is above eighteen feet,” 1814). The opposite of “to take off” in this sense is, of course, “to land,” which has been in use since the late 17th century, originally meaning “to step down from a carriage, etc.”

The aeronautical use of “take off” to mean “to become airborne” actually dates back to around 1849 (gliders and balloons preceded powered aircraft, of course), but the term really “took off” with the widespread adoption of commercial flight in the early 20th century. And it was the airplane use that gave us, in the 1960s, the “become very popular” sense I used above, as well as the sense meaning simply “rapidly increase” so often seen in market reports and consumer news (“Minerva took off, as we say, on a famous Friday the thirteenth. The stock rose from nineteen cents to over a dollar in the last half-hour of trading,” 1963).