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Dear Word Detective: An employee asked me to have a document expunged from his file. “Expunged” is a queer sounding word for “removed.” The sound of it made me want to remove the document vigorously, almost violently. Can you expunge my ignorance of this word by explaining the origin of “expunge”? Many thanks. — Hughe, Vancouver, Canada.

Wow. You can do that? I’m gonna call my old job and have a bunch of stuff nuked. I guess this is the age of rewriting history. I grew up when kids spent the first 18 years of life being threatened that every tiny transgression would go on their “permanent record.” Permanently. Like, you’d be buying a house at age 42 and the guy would say, “Wait, you Superglued the principal’s office door shut when you were 12? Fuhgeddaboudit, pal.” But it occurs to me that, in this age of digital delights, nothing is ever truly deleted because it’s all in the cloud. Many people, I’m told, are afraid of clowns; they ought to be more afraid of clouds.

“Expunge” does have a forceful sound to it, largely because of the explosive “sp” beginning the second syllable (and “exp” reminds you of “explosive” itself). To me, the word has always conjured up the action of vigorously scrubbing something, perhaps day-old eggs in a pan with the scratchy side of a dish sponge.

The modern meaning of “expunge” is “to remove completely; to obliterate; to destroy.” Almost anything can be “expunged.” Houses can be “expunged” by tornadoes, countries can be “expunged” by annexation by a larger neighbor, markets can be “expunged” by technological change, and whole civilizations can be “expunged” by war (“Neither had there ever been so many cities expunged and made desolate.” Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War”).

But all these uses of “expunge” are figurative sense of the original meaning of “expunge,” which first appeared in English in the early 17th century. The root of “expunge” is the Latin verb “expungere,” meaning “to mark for deletion from a list, etc., by poking holes above and below the item” (“ex,” out plus “pungere,” to prick or puncture). In a Roman manuscript or list, rather than simply obliterating an item, a scribe would set it off with tiny punctures, indicating that it should be deleted. (That Latin “pungere” is also the root of our English “puncture,” and comes from the same source as “point.”)

In English, “expunge” lost the “puncture” sense and has been used since the 1600s to mean “to strike out, delete, erase,” usually applied to data on a list, on a register, or in a book, file or record (“These words … were ordered by the Court to be expunged or blotted out.” 1602). Of course, those were the days, almost four centuries before Google, when “gone” meant “really, truly gone.”

Feather in one’s cap

It certainly beats noodles in your hair.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “a feather in your hat”? — Chris.

Ah yes, feathers. Where would we be without feathers? Hopeless, that’s where, for, as Emily Dickinson said in everyone’s 7th grade English class, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” I’ve always wondered, incidentally, how many birds Emily knew up close and personal, because in my experience they tend to be very judgmental and vindictive. Miss a day filling the feeder and they’re at your window at 6 am, screeching and spitting like little banshees.

Feathers, of course, are the epidermal growths that characterize birds (and apparently certain kinds of dinosaurs) and allow them to fly and supposedly find their own freakin’ food. Sorry. Anyway, feathers are a unique appendage among animals, and as such have caught the linguistic attention of humans pretty much since day one, resulting in a wide range of feather-based idioms and metaphors.

We speak, for instance, of “feathers flying” in an energetic fight between people (whether literal or verbal), by analogy to the effects of an actual bird fight. We say that we are “in fine feather” when we are in good health or sound fortune, from feather condition as an indicator of a bird’s health. “Birds of a feather flock together” draws on the flocking behavior of birds of one kind (“feather”) to describe the “like bonds with like” social habits of humans. The lightness and insubstantial nature of feathers themselves give us “feather merchant” for someone, such as a public relations agent, who dispenses nonsense, and when we are very surprised by something we say “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Feathers have been long been used as decoration by humans, of course, and the use of feathers as an element of hats or other headgear has been nearly universal among human cultures, from the plains of North America to the savannas of Africa to the forests of Eastern Europe. A feather added to a hat or headdress to mark a victory or other accomplishment has been common, although a white feather (proof of poor breeding in game fowl) has long been a symbol of cowardice (“No one will defend him who shows the white feather.” 1829).

“A feather in one’s hat (or cap)” has meant a mark of honor or accomplishment in English at least since the early 18th century (“A Feather in his Cap, was the least that was expected for him.” 1736), although a feather in one’s cap had also, somewhat earlier, meant “to be a fool” (“He wore a feather in his cap, and wagg’d it too often.” 1755). Today a metaphorical “feather in one’s cap” is firmly synonymous with “accomplishment” (“A grasp of digital innovation might seem an unusual feather in a rock singer’s cap…” Guardian, 1/11/15).

The popularity of “cap” over “hat” in current usage of the phrase is probably due to the song “Yankee Doodle,” which dates back to the American Revolution: “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony; he stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.” The song was originally a British creation mocking the rebels (“doodle” was slang for “fool,” as was “macaroni” for “fop”), and the “feather” in Yankee Doodle’s cap marked him as a simpleton. But after the American victories at Lexington and Concord, colonists hijacked the song to mock the Redcoats, and “feather in his cap” took on a deservedly triumphant meaning.

Bread and Butter

Elsewhere in modern witchcraft…

Dear Word Detective:   A few weeks ago I was walking down the hall at work with my boss when we had to stop talking and squeeze past, one on each side, some guy staring at his phone smack in the middle of the hall. As we rejoined after the interruption, my boss said “Bread and butter.” I had no idea what she meant by that, but I chuckled anyway. Ever since that day I’ve been wondering what she meant, and worrying that I’ve missed the joke and/or somehow offended her. So what does “bread and butter” mean, apart from, um, bread and butter? — B.P.

Hello, old friend. Not you, the question. I first answered this one when Bill Clinton was president and anyone blocking traffic staring at his phone would have been considered weird.

As I said back then, I’ve heard this odd phrase from my wife for many years. We’ll be walking down the street, and every time we’re separated by an obstruction in our path (parking meter, movie star, alien spacecraft, whatever), she’ll urge me to say “bread and butter.” Usually I just cave in and say it, but sometimes I reply to “Say bread and butter” with “You say bread and butter,” whereupon she says, “I just did,” and I argue that saying it as an imperative doesn’t count. I have yet to win this tussle. I have also yet to remember to say “Say bread and butter” before she says it, but that’s probably a good thing. I’d just end up saying it twice anyway.

It took me quite a while to find anything about “bread and butter” used in this sense when I first went looking. As a literal phrase (i.e., bread spread with butter) “bread and butter” has been common since the early 17th century. Beginning in the early 18th century, “bread and butter” was used in an idiomatic sense to mean “everyday food” and “the necessities of life; one’s means of support” (“I won’t quarrel with my Bread and Butter for all that: I know when I’m well.” 1738). This sense of the idiom is still very widespread (“My first love is the stage, but TV is my bread and butter”). The related “to know which side your bread is buttered on,” meaning to recognize who and what are vital to your happiness and success, is also common (“I’m tempted to tell off my rich uncle, but I know which side my bread is buttered on.”)

“Bread and butter” in the sense your boss used it is, however, largely undocumented. One source that does mention it is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) which  explains it as “an exclamation used when two people walking together are momentarily separated by someone or something coming between them.” The earliest citation listed by DARE is from The Federal Writers Project “Guide to Kansas” published in 1939, in which the “bread and butter” ritual is described as a “ubiquitous” incantation among schoolchildren of the area. If it was ubiquitous in 1939, the ritual is probably much older, possibly dating back to at least the 19th century.

There may be a clue to the logic behind the phrase in the fact that it was at one time so common among schoolchildren. Children are (or used to be, before iPhones) fond of rituals or incantations thought to ward off bad luck (e.g., “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”). In this case, the fact that bread and butter “go together” gives the “bread and butter” ritual power as an affirmation of togetherness, lest a momentary separation be an omen of permanent one.