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Big Boing theory

Dear Word Detective:  Several times while reading Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac (1880), I noticed that he “pressed a spring” to activate some function of his space ship. Then I noticed that E.C. Bentley made a similar usage in his detective story, Trent’s Own Case (1936)  (“Perhaps,” Trent hazarded, “from your special knowledge of our friend’s character you may be able to lay your hand on the spring of such unaccountable behavior.”). After only 55 years, the meaning seems to have become metaphorical. So what’s the history of using “spring” to mean a lever or knob with a spring in its mechanism? — Ken Landaiche.

I’ve never read “Across the Zodiac,” a story about a trip to Mars, but I may, since it’s available online at Project Gutenberg (, e-text number 10165). I do remember, as a child, reading many stories written during the same period that involved a character “pressing a spring” that would activate some hidden mechanism in a way that bespoke an enormously complex and clever bit of engineering behind the scenes. Whether it set into motion a diabolical engine like the ones in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or merely opened the trap door upon which the hero of a tale happened to be standing, I found such purely mechanical devices far more fascinating than the electronic and computerized gizmos of today. I’d definitely be more interested in modern robots if you wound them up with a big key.

Both the noun “spring” and the verb “to spring” come from Germanic roots with the general sense of “rapid movement.” The noun “spring” (which is our focus here) was used in Old English to mean the pace where water “springs,” or rises forth (often quite rapidly) from the ground. By the mid-13th century, “spring” (sometimes “wellspring”) was being used in a figurative sense to mean “the source or origin of things or persons” (“Language reveals the deepest springs of thought,” 1892).

“Spring” went on to acquire a vast array of meanings, some clearly related to the idea of a “spring” in the ground, others embodying the “rapid movement” sense of the word’s roots. A bit of both ended up giving us “spring” (originally “spring of the year”) as the name of the season of new growth in the 16th century.

Meanwhile, back at the “rapid movement” sense of “spring,” we began to use the word to mean “a leap or bound” or, by extension, “liveliness,” as in “a spring in your step.” This “quick, lively movement” gave us, in the 15th century, “spring” as a name for, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “An elastic contrivance or mechanical device, usually consisting of a strip or plate of steel (or a number of these) suitably shaped or adjusted, which, when compressed, bent, coiled, or otherwise forced out of its normal shape, possesses the property of returning to it.” The wide use of such “springs” in machinery of the day then led to the use of “spring” to mean “that by which an action is instigated or actuated,” which brings us to the “spring” (or switch attached to a spring) that Percy Greg pressed in his spaceship.

It is, however, as the OED itself notes, sometimes impossible to determine whether it’s “spring” in this “something that starts a process” sense being used or whether we are seeing the separate sense of “point or origin; source” mentioned earlier. I’d say the spaceship use is definitely the “push here” sense because it’s so clearly referring to an actual mechanical device. But the quotation from E.C. Bentley (“… you may be able to lay your hand on the spring of such unaccountable behavior”) sounds to me to be using “spring” in the “source or origin” sense of the word. In any case, it’s not often that the literal and the metaphorical  senses of a word circle around and converge so neatly that you can’t tell them apart.

Faunch and rear

Down boy.

Dear Word Detective: Here is an expression I have heard all my life in my family and, perhaps, the Ozarks of Missouri. When someone is upset and making a fuss, they are said to “faunch and rear.” Not sure of the spelling on “faunch,” but it seems horse-related. Any ideas on its origin and meaning? — John.

Oh boy, a horse-related question. (Memo to the computer industry: please develop a reliable method of conveying sarcasm in print.) Has anyone ever noticed that most of the words we associate with horses depict uncooperative, dangerous and frequently homicidal behavior on the part of our equine “friends”? Horses “rear,” they “bolt,” they “stampede,” they “balk” at inconvenient moments and “throw” their riders, and, in their down-time, they kick and bite. Seriously. Mention our wedding to my wife and she will invariably bring up the fact that, shortly after the ceremony, an NYPD police horse tried to bite her. (You folks didn’t have police horses at your wedding? You missed all the fun.)

“Faunch” is a new one on me, and, to judge by the number of people asking about the term on the internet, I am far from alone. You’ve hit the accepted spelling on the nose, although the forms “fauch” and “fawnch” apparently show up occasionally. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “faunch” is common in the South Midlands (which would include Missouri) and in the West of the US.

“Faunch and rear” is definitely a horse-related idiom, if for no other reason than the “rear,” a verb meaning, in this case, “to rise up on the hind legs,” an alarming but not uncommon mode of expression among really teed-off or frightened horses. Incidentally, if a horse ever rears up at you, the safest course is to move, as quickly and calmly as possible, back to the city.

Applied to people, according to DARE, “faunch” has been used since at least 1911 (the earliest it has been found in print) to mean “to rant, rave or rage” (“It’s jest once in a great while that George gits to foamin’ an’ faunchin’, but law! When he does he’s a reg’lar springtime flood,” 1933). DARE also lists a milder form of “faunch,” meaning simply “to fret; to show irritation or impatience,” which has been found since around 1970. This would make “faunching” a near synonym of “champing,” as in “champing at the bit,” meaning a horse chewing on the “bit,” or mouthpiece of its bridle, in anticipation or annoyance. (“Champ” in this sense is thought to have arisen in imitation of the sound of the horse’s chewing.) “Champing at the bit” is, of course, widely applied as a metaphor to people who are visibly impatient to begin something.

So the original sense of “faunch” may simply have been the same as “champ,” the action of an annoyed, excited or angry horse, making the combination of “faunch and rear” an apt metaphor for a person “pitching a fit,” as we say in Ohio. Unfortunately, the origin of the word “faunch” itself is a complete mystery. There have been suggestions that it was derived from the obsolete English word “faunt,” meaning “infant or child” (from the Old French “enfaunt,” infant), but, apart from the fact that infants are often irritable, there is no apparent connection between the words.

In all likelihood, “faunch” arose, like “champ,” as an imitation of the sound of a horse chewing on its bit. If so, “faunch” sounds a bit like the critter is foaming at the mouth as well, so I’d strongly advise heading for the airport.


Just give me something so I can refuse to pay it.

Dear Word Detective: Can you locate the origin of the usage of the term “check” to actually mean “bill,” as in “Check, please”? This has bugged me for years! It is a bill, paid by a check perhaps (though this is becoming more and more rare), and yet we refer to it as a check. Why, oh why? — Larame in CO.

My heavens. You folks get riled up about the strangest things. I’m usually less annoyed by the “check” in a restaurant than by what precedes it. For instance, whatever happened to food being served hot? It’s hot at my house, but in nine out of ten restaurants I wander into, it’s not even really warm. Am I really supposed to bring my own microwave?

“Check” is a very interesting word, and I actually touched on its origin in the course of explaining “rain check” last year. English acquired “check” in the early 14th century from the Old French “eschequier,” meaning “to threaten the king in a chess game,” a situation known in chess as “check.” A chess game ends when one player’s king is put “in check” and cannot escape capture, a predicament called “checkmate.” The term “check” comes ultimately from the Persian word “shah,” meaning “king” (as in the Shah of Iran) and “checkmate” comes from the related and very appropriate Arabic phrase for this grim situation, “shah mata” (“the king is dead”).

“Check” in English has acquired a wide range of non-chess meanings, mostly involving the senses of “impede or block” (as the king is blocked in chess) or “control.” We use this “control” sense when we speak of “checking” someone’s work, or “checking” financial accounts. Thus the “check” you may write to pay for your dinner was originally called that because it furnishes all parties with a “checkable” record of the transaction.

One of the meanings that “check” picked up in the 19th century was that of “token, proof of claim” (as in “hat check,” or “rain check,” originally guaranteeing admission to the re-staging of a sporting event that had been rained out). In practice, such “checks” were almost always small sheets of paper or cardboard, and in the mid-19th century people in the US began to call the summary of charges in a restaurant a “check,” probably because it was usually of similar size. In other words, we’ve been calling those things “checks” for more than 150 years.

So why not call that tally the waiter hands you a “bill”? Technically, it is. “Bill” has been used to mean “statement of account owed” since around 1400. Derived from the Medieval Latin “bulla,” meaning “seal” of the sort found on official documents, “bill” also has many meanings (including those enormous things they shove through Congress), but the sense of “official list” has been in use since Old English. And most of us get an “official list” of charges from the electric and gas companies every month, so “bill” in the “you owe us” sense is very much alive today.

My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that some restaurateur decided at some point that the word “bill” was a bit too blunt and vulgar a term to inflict on diners and that somewhat more subtle “check” sounded more refined. It was probably the same guy who decided we’d rather be called “guests” than “customers.” Personally, you can call me Elroy the Wonder Horse as long as the food is even remotely hot.