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Doctor Blade

Paging Doctor Photoshop…

Dear Word Detective:  Any idea of the origin of the phrase, “doctor blade,” denoting a dull scraper used to remove ink from the non-printing surfaces of an intaglio printing plate? — James Lampert.

That’s an interesting question. The word “intaglio” rang a small, dim bell in the recesses of my mind, so I immediately began to thumb through my dusty mental Rolodex. (If you don’t know what a Rolodex is (or was), feel free to go play outside. And take that stupid telephone with you.) Anyway, I’m zipping past “impeachment,” “impetigo,” “inertial guidance” and “Inigo Montoya,” and suddenly I realize that I don’t need my memory at all. By golly, I have the internet! So I look up “intaglio.” And then I’m all like, yeah, I knew that. And I actually did, though I’m not sure why.

The short explanation of “intaglio” is that it is a method of printing in which the desired design is carved, engraved or etched into the printing plate, to which ink is then applied. The ink on the surface of the plate is then removed, leaving ink only in the grooves of the design, so that when the plate is pressed against paper or another medium, the design is transferred. Often used for documents, stamps, etc., intaglio printing gives a slightly raised or “embossed” feel to the design. The word “intaglio” is Italian, meaning “engraving” or “engraved work,” from the verb “intagliare,” meaning “to cut into or engrave.”

The name “doctor blade” for the implement used in intaglio printing and similar technologies is fairly recent, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the term in print being only from 1961, though we can assume it’s actually somewhat older. The word “doctor” itself is, of course, much, much older, first appearing in English around 1300. The root of “doctor” is the Latin verb “docere,” meaning “to teach,” and in English it initially meant simply one who, by experience or training, was qualified to teach others. Originally applied to senior religious authorities, by the late 14th century “doctor” had acquired an association with the highest degrees of learning, and thus the qualification to teach, at a university.

But also in the late 14th century, “doctor” came to be associated with a highly-learned practitioner of medicine, and now we’re getting close to the logic of “doctor blade.” As a verb, “to doctor” originally meant “to treat medically,” but gradually acquired the broader figurative senses of “to repair or patch up” (“Wasted most of the morning in doctoring a clock,” 1829), as well as, to quote the OED, “To treat so as to alter the appearance, flavor, or character of; to disguise, falsify, tamper with, adulterate, sophisticate, ‘cook'” (“By a few touches of a file on the milled edge, a coin can be so ‘doctored’ as to fall almost invariably heads or tails at will,” 1884).

“Doctor blade” employs the “repair or patch up” sense of “doctor,” and there are apparently all sorts of gizmos in various fields bearing the name “doctor.” The OED defines this special sense as “A name given to various mechanical appliances, usually for curing or removing defects, regulating, adjusting, or feeding.” Calico fabric printing, for instance, at one time required the use of a “cleaning doctor,” a “lint doctor,” and a “color doctor” (“The superfluous color is … wiped off by the color doctors… These doctors are thin blades of steel or brass, which are mounted in doctor-shears, or plates of metal screwed together with bolts,” 1875).

So a “doctor” in this mechanical or tool sense is a device which either removes defects or prevents them from being created in the first place, which certainly fits with your description of a “doctor blade” used in intaglio printing. In fact, the same term is also used in offset printing (“Doctor blade, a ‘knife’ of rigid plastic or thin sheet-metal which presses against the gravure press cylinder, and which wipes away ink from the surface of the cylinder,” 1967).

Flummoxed, Flabbergasted and Gobsmacked

Shocked, shocked…

Dear Word Detective:  I am easily amazed. So it is nice to know that there are so many ways to express this bewildered state. I can choose, for example, to be “flummoxed,” “flabbergasted” or “gobsmacked,” depending on my state of stupefaction. Is it is a coincidence that all of these are such amazing words? Where did they come from? — Janis Landis.

Easily amazed, eh? I envy you. It must be nice to derive surprise from everyday life. Of course, it probably helps not to live in the middle of nowhere, as I do. There are only so many times “Look! A groundhog!” carries the thrill it first did. On the bright side, I remain, as my relatives will tell you, as easily amused as a small child, which comes in handy, given the current state of US culture. And although I’m not often “amazed” these days, I am frequently  appalled, but that may be simply because reality keeps upping the ante.

The terms you mention are all fine words denoting various degrees of amazement, but before we get too far into the tall grass with them, it’s worth considering the word “amaze” itself. It comes from the Old English word “amasian,” which meant “to stupefy, to stun, to confuse,” and which may have been rooted in Old Norse. Our modern positive sense of “overcome with wonder, astonish” dates back only to the 16th century. The older “confuse, befuddle” sense of “amaze,” incidentally, gave us “maze” in the 15th century meaning “a structure designed as a puzzle, with a complex network of paths leading through it, only one of which actually leads out.”

“Flummox” is a very useful word, meaning not only “to confuse” but also “to confound,” i.e., to frustrate so much that the only course is to give up and abandon the task or goal. Unfortunately, the origins of “flummox,” which first appeared in print in the early 19th century, are a mystery. There is some evidence that it comes from an English country dialect, and it may originally have been “echoic,” imitating the sound of something thrown down in disgust and  disorder on the ground.

“Flabbergast” is another useful word, meaning “to astonish; to render someone speechless with surprise” (“Bob was flabbergasted when the pizza he had ordered actually arrived hot”). “Flabbergast,” which first appeared (and was noted as then-fashionable slang in a magazine) in the late 18th century, is another mystery, but was most likely concocted as a combination of “flabby” or “flap” and “aghast” (which itself harks back to the Old English “gaest,” ghost). The original sense thus may have been of someone’s flab flapping or shaking with fear upon seeing an apparition. The proper term for the state of being “flabbergasted” is, incidentally, “flabbergastation,” which should come in handy next time oil prices go up.

There are two interesting things about “gobsmacked,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.” The first is that “gobsmacked” is, thank heavens, not a mystery. It’s simply a combination of “gob,” very old English slang for the mouth or face, with “smack,” meaning “to strike with a slap or a blow.” (The roots of “gob” are, alas, slightly vague, but it probably comes from the Gaelic “gob,” meaning “beak or mouth.”) So to be “gobsmacked” is to be as surprised and amazed as if you had been struck in the mouth (“Won’t they be gobsmacked when you tell them that you wrote to me?”, 1989). The other noteworthy thing about “gobsmacked” is that, while it wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s actually a very new word, first appearing in print in 1985. I won’t claim to have been “amazed” by that date, but it was a bit surprising.


Bang a gong.

Dear Word Detective:  Can you shine your light on the many sides of “forge”? It seems that the various usages (creating something by a process of applying heat and pressure, or the very tool kit that is used to do the same, versus the illegal duplication or replication of something for illicit gain) seem to be rather at odds. Is the third usage that implies motion (to “forge ahead”) derived from yet another source, or is it related to one of the other two? Hoping you’ll go at it with hammer and tongs, (ha!). — Chris Schultz.

Funny you should mention “going at it with hammer and tongs,” which originally, back in the 18th century, referred to a blacksmith working hard to shape metal in a forge using those tools. Coincidentally, I just spent five full days attempting to fix the mowing deck on My Little Tractor (a period now known among neighbors up to a half-mile away as “the Week of Him Swearing at Inanimate Objects”), and my best friend turned out to be my trusty rubber mallet. I truly believe that there are very few problems in life that can’t be solved with a rubber mallet. And lots of WD-40, of course.

There are actually two verbs “to forge” in English, which are considered separate words although they may actually be the same word. Hey, I don’t make the rules.

The first sense of “forge” that you mention, that of “to shape metal by the use of heat and pressure,” appeared in English at the end of the 13th century. The root of this “forge,” which we adopted from Old French, was the Latin “fabricare,” meaning “to make,” which also gave us “fabricate,” another word that, like “forge,” can carry connotations of fraud. When “to forge” first appeared in English, however, it simply meant “to make or build,” so one could be said to “forge” a house or a pair of shoes. “Forge” soon, however, came to be associated primarily with the work of blacksmiths, whose ovens (and shops) became known as “forges.” (A “blacksmith,” incidentally, is one who works in heavy metals such as iron, versus a “whitesmith,” who works in more ornamental mediums such as gold or tin.)

“Forge” rapidly acquired figurative senses centered on the general meaning of “create or fashion,” as in “forging a career.” The use of “forge” to mean “create a fraudulent imitation of something and pass it off as genuine” arose in the early 14th century, derived from a slightly  less nefarious use of “forge” to mean “to invent a tale, make up a story.” It’s a tribute to the importance of context in our speech and writing that today we can use “forge” in both the positive “create” sense (e.g., “forging an alliance”) and the very negative “forge a passport” sense. (There is, however, no modern positive use of the noun “forgery.”)

The use of “forge” to mean “push on through resistance or difficulty” (“The store was a crowded madhouse of Christmas shoppers, but Leonard forged ahead, his eye fixed on the perfume counter twenty yards ahead.”) arose in the early 17th century, and was originally a naval term describing a ship making difficult headway. There are two possible sources for this “forge.” It may have arisen as a mutation of “force,” perhaps via simple mispronunciation. Or, as I think is more likely, this “forge” is a metaphorical invocation of the repeated, powerful blows of a blacksmith’s hammer. If so, then these two “forges” are actually the same word.