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Proofreaders, incidentally, pronounce “&” as “et” when reading aloud. Exclamation points are “bang.”

Dear Word Detective: Is this true? It’s on Wikipedia: “Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (“A”, “I”, and, at one point, “O”) was preceded by the Latin expression per se (“by itself”). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the “&” sign as the 27th letter, pronounced and. Thus, the recitation of the alphabet would end in “X, Y, Z and per se and.” This last phrase was routinely slurred to “ampersand” and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837.” — Jeanie.

Is it true? Oh, true, schmoo. What do we mean by “true,” anyway? Actually, when you’re dealing with Wikipedia, you also have to question, as Bill Clinton once so famously noted, what “the meaning of ‘is’ is.” A Wikipedia entry on wombats, for instance, may be 100% accurate on Monday, but by Tuesday morning may sport a new section on “Famous Wombats” that includes Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and John Travolta. Someone ought to write a screenplay in which the content of a user-editable website actually determines reality. Wikitopia! I’d go to that movie as long as Nicholas Gage wasn’t in it. Or John Travolta.

In this case I can say that at the moment you encountered Wikipedia, that golden moment, that shining moment upon a hill, that entry was indeed true. Yay! I would advise against pushing your luck, however. As I’ve noted in the past, every time I have occasion to type the words “according to Wikipedia,” I feel like I’m jumping out of an airplane wearing a parachute I bought on eBay.

However, the Wikipedia entry on “ampersand,” no doubt written in haste before the Idiot Horde broke down the door, left out a few cool details. The “&” sign we know as an “ampersand” originated in Ancient Rome, where scribes in a hurry used a shorthand system of ligatures, in which “&” stood for the Latin word “et,” meaning “and.” There are some modern typefaces where the origin of the symbol as a combination of “e” and “t” is quite clear.

Now I have a question of my own: how do kids learn the English alphabet today? I remember our class standing and singing it to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (based on the French folk song “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”), but there’s probably an app for that now, right? In any case, back in the Jurassic schoolroom, children would stand and recite the alphabet aloud, and tack “and per se and” to the end. Interestingly, the letters “A,” “O” and “I” received similar treatment in some recitations, but “A per se a” achieved a kind of escape velocity from the classroom and became an idiom in its own right. Because “A” is the first letter in the alphabet, in the early 16th century the phrase “A per se a” came to mean “the best of something, a unique person or thing” (“London, thou art of townes A per se,” 1501).

Meanwhile, back at the tail end of the alphabet, someone asked me a while back why Americans call the last letter “Zee,” but to the Brits and a bunch of other foreigners it’s “Zed.” It’s because they hate our freedoms, I guess. Alternatively, it’s because the “Zed” pronunciation comes closer to “Zeta,” the last letter of the Greek alphabet and the source of “z” in the first place. Only Americans among the English-speakers around the world go with “Zee,” and no one knows exactly why. “Zee” was a fairly obscure English dialect pronunciation when Americans adopted it, possibly in analogy to words like “see” and “bee,” possibly in part to emphasize their 18th century break with England. In any case, “Zed’s” goose was cooked for good in the US when Noah Webster declared “Zee” the proper pronunciation in his 1828 dictionary. I’m just glad Webster didn’t take a shine to another name for the last letter popular at the time, which was (I kid you not) “Izzard.”


Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:  As a former Boilerman in the US Navy I thought that I knew everything about boiler construction. Then I found out that newspapers use boilerplate too. What the heck do they use it for? — Mike Henderson.

They use it for the Great Steel Wall between the advertising and editorial departments that keeps the news coverage free of commercial contamination. Sorry, little newspaper joke there. Speaking of intrusive advertising, I’m constantly bombarded by ad agencies suggesting that I turn certain words in my columns into clickable links to sell vacuum cleaners and the like. I’m tempted to write back and ask them if they’d like to sponsor “dirtball” or “sleazoid.” (Which I know I could work into a column because I just did.) Operators are standing by, guys.

Boilerman, eh? I must admit that I’d forgotten that modern ships (some of them, anyway) still have boilers, but then I remembered that nuclear power works by boiling water to run steam turbines, and there are a few nuke boats out there. And while most modern ships use diesel engines, many still run on turbines powered by boilers heated with coal or liquefied natural gas (especially ships that just happen to transport coal or LNG).

“Boil,” our common English verb meaning “to heat a liquid until bubbles form, rise to the top and release vapor,” has a fairly prosaic origin, coming from the Latin “bullire,” meaning “to bubble.” The noun “boil” meaning “an inflamed swelling on the skin” is unrelated to the verb, and comes from Germanic roots meaning “to swell.”

English adopted “boil” from the Old French “bolir” in the 13th century, but when the noun “boiler” appeared around 1540, it meant simply “a person who boils things.” Another 200 years and we had “boiler” meaning “a pot or vessel in which liquids are boiled,” opening the door to the wonderful world of cooking in a double-boiler. (Does anyone still use those things?) In the mid-18th century “boiler” came to mean the large vessel, usually made of heavy cast iron or steel plates welded together, in which water is heated to create pressurized steam, as in a steam-powered engine or a heating plant in a large building.

But now we turn from the steam-powered industry to one selling good old-fashioned hot air, i.e., journalism. In the Olden Days, before computerized typesetting, printing presses used “hot lead,” printing plates cast from type laboriously set line-by-line in a frame. As recently as the late 1960s, many newspapers used enormous Linotype machines on which text typed in by the operator would be set into lines of metal type to be assembled into plates for printing the paper. Parts of the paper, however, such as the masthead, statement of ownership, etc., rarely changed, and these were printed with a fixed and durable steel plate of type called a “boilerplate” from its resemblance to the heavy plated used in boiler construction. Any text supplied by advertisers or other outside sources that didn’t need to be typeset was also “boilerplate” (“He attended to the subsidizing of news agencies that supplied thousands of country papers with boiler-plate matter to fill their inside pages.” 1905).

By the late 1890s “boilerplate” had come to mean “any block of text that doesn’t need to be changed from one edition to the next.” Today we use “boilerplate” to mean “any standardized text, such as  parts of standard contracts or consumer warranties, etc., that doesn’t even have to be read closely” (although a good lawyer would say that those are the parts you should read especially carefully).

Blow off

Like lint from the sleeve of time….

Dear Word Detective:  Recently, I found myself scheduled to be in two places at the same time. Since one was in Southern California, and the other in Seattle, I had to choose. After some thought, I said to my wife “I think I’ll blow off the book club meeting.” The sense of the term “blow off” is to cancel, or simply not attend. Is this a new-ish term in the language? I’ve tried to imagine how it could come about, but the only image I have is “blowing the head off a pint,” and I’m not sure that actually happens except in novels. — Jim Brown.

Or cowboy movies, right? Beats me whether anyone really does that. I dimly remember blowing the foam off a glass of root beer in my youth with mixed (and sticky) results, but I failed to show up for the beer-in-bars class in my 20s, and I’m afraid to try it now. People would know and mock me. It’s like that dream everyone has where you realize you’ve forgotten one course all semester until finals week. Of course, I actually did that once in real life, so I’m a little sensitive.

The specific sense of “blow off” that you note, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “to shirk or evade (a job or duty), to stay away from (school or work) without permission or good reason,” is arguably “new-ish.” The earliest unambiguous print citation found so far for that sense comes from 1968 (“I’m a cop, plain and simple. But I’m just cop enough to blow off a job I don’t want to get fixed into.” Mickey Spillane, “Killer Mine”). But Budd Schulberg used “blow off” in a similar sense, that of “to rebuff, to reject the advances of (a person); to ignore, disregard, dismiss” (OED) in his 1947 prizefighting novel “The Harder They Fall” (“I was just thinking like a moon-struck freshman when I was … deciding to blow Nick off.”). I don’t remember hearing “blow off” in the sense you mention before the late 1970s or early 80s, but that proves exactly nothing. Both senses of “blow off” imply an abrupt and somewhat casual rejection, as if blowing a bit of lint from one’s sleeve.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the date of the appearance of that sense because there are other slang and colloquial senses of the phrase “blow off” cluttering the landscape. One of the most popular is “blow off” meaning, literally, to let steam, gas, etc., under great pressure (in a tank, pipeline, boiler, etc.) escape forcefully, producing a loud noise. The figurative use of this sense to mean “to give vent to or forcefully get rid of anger, emotion, excitement, etc.” in forms such as “blow off steam” has been common in popular speech since the early 1800s (“The widow … sat … fuming and blowing off her steam.” 1836).

“Blow off” has also been used in the same sense as the more common “blow over,” meaning to pass away without serious consequences of lasting effect (“Do they think that … this dreadfull Sentence [shall] blow off without Execution?” 1692). The original metaphor here was an allusion to storm clouds that pass overhead without producing rain.

“Blow off” can also be a noun (usually hyphenated “blow-off”) meaning either a literal “blowing off” of steam, etc., or, figuratively, an outburst or argument (“A blow-off in this wise [i.e. swearing at golf] does one good now and then.” 1898). This sense is synonymous with “blow-up,” but one could make a case for the noun “blow-off” being used to mean the act of (or an instance of ) “blowing off” an obligation (e.g., “I’m sick of Ted, so let’s just give his party the blow-off and go to the movies.”).