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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).


Stuff it.

Dear Word Detective: How did “fustian” come to mean bombast or pretentiousness in speech? Sturdy cotton/linen cloth seems both substantial and unassuming. — Joe Ramsey.

Well, here’s fresh proof that I need new glasses. When I first read your question, I could have sworn it said “faustian,” not “fustian.” For the record, “Faust” has nothing to do with “fustian.” Goethe’s “Faust” is perhaps the most famous telling of the classic German legend of a man who trades his soul to the Devil in return for earthly knowledge and pleasure. “Faustian” as an adjective describes this sort of “deal with the devil” (“Celebrity is a Faustian pact — and privacy isn’t part of the deal,” news headline, 9/22/12).

“Fustian” is a fine old word, which is a nice way of saying that you’re most likely to hear it from the lips of a fine old person or find it in the pages of a fine old book. It first appeared in print around 1200, but, due to the spottiness of the written record, the next occurrence found so far is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales around 1405 (“Of Fustian he wered a gypon”). As you note in your question, “fustian” has two modern meanings: a kind of thick cotton cloth (of the sort from which blankets or work clothes used to be made), and turgid or pompous language, high-sounding and pretentious speech or writing, or simply gobbledygook (“And he, whose Fustian’s so sublimely bad, It is not Poetry, but Prose run mad,” Alexander Pope, 1734). The word “fustian” itself reflects the first sense; via the Old French “fustaigne,” it was derived from Fostat, a suburb of Cairo where the cloth was made at one time.

The use of a word meaning “thick cotton cloth” to mean “boring and pretentious speech or writing” obviously takes some explaining. It apparently comes from the use of thick “fustian” cloth as padding and as a common material for pillowcases. Anyone who has ever suffered through a long, rhetorically overblown speech at a political rally will have noticed that at least eight out of ten words spoken are pure “padding,” meaningless verbal hand-waving with no real content. And “fustian” pillowcases, of course, were made to enclose goose feathers, flighty metaphorical cousins of “horse feathers” as an epithet for “empty nonsense.”

One of the synonyms suggested by any good thesaurus for “fustian” is “bombast,” also meaning “inflated rhetoric” or “pretentious nonsense.” The equivalence is especially apt, because “bombast” originated as a variant of “bombace” (or “bombase”), derived from the Old French “bombace,” meaning “cotton wadding” (from “bombax,” Latin for cotton, itself a corruption of Greek “bombyx,” silk). “Bombast” appeared in the “cotton” sense in the late 16th century, and was immediately pressed into service meaning “verbal padding; meaningless posturing” (“False sublime, known by the name of bombast,” 1762). It’s notable that one of the other uses of “bombast” since that time, both figuratively and literally, has been to mean “earplugs” (“Frame … for your eares the bumbast or stuffing of sufferance and bearing,” 1631).

Fustian nonsense and bombast will probably always be with us, barring a Faustian deal with the Devil, and the internet and cable TV have only opened the spigot of idiocy even wider. That’s why I think the greatest human invention may actually turn out to be the mute button.