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I’ll stick with the leeches, thanks.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a novel the other day that referred to one of the characters as having been “trepanned.” I was confused, because my understanding was that the word referred to drilling holes in something, often a skull, and I seemed to have missed the scene where the guy got his skull perforated. An obligatory search of revealed that there is a secondary meaning of “trepan” as a verb — to trick or swindle — and, as a noun, — one who does the tricking or swindling — implying that one who is “trepanned” is one who has been tricked or swindled (something that made far more sense in the context of my novel than having holes bored in one’s head). My question, then, is this: are these two terms related? If so, what is the logic there, and if not, what is the origin of the latter definition? — Gwyn.

Well, I hope they’re not the same word, simply because I’ve always had a secret gnawing dread of having holes drilled in my noggin and would prefer not to have to think about it.

As it turns out, the “trepan” that refers to drilling holes in your head and the “trepan” which means “to swindle” (or the person or trick involved in a swindle) are not the same word, and there’s no real connection between the two words. Except maybe a little.

The earlier of the “trepans” to appear in English was the “hole in the head” one, around 1400. The noun “trepan,” from which the verb was formed, is defined as “a surgical saw for cutting out pieces of bone, especially from the skull,” and was derived, via French, from the Greek “trypan,” meaning “to bore.” “Trepan” as a noun has also been used to mean a contraption used to bore holes in the walls of fortresses under siege, as well as a shaft used to drill holes in the ground for a variety of purposes. The associated verb “to trepan,” meaning “to bore through bone, particularly the skull” appeared at about the same time (“Prince Rupert is … so bad, that he doth now yield to be trapan’d,” Diary, Samuel Pepys, 1667). “Trepan” has also been used since the early 20th century to mean “to bore a hole through something (wood, metal, etc.) so as to remove a core in one piece” (“The smaller holes are best bored, but large holes can be trepanned in order to save a useful piece of material,” 1970).

“Trepan” in the “hoodwink” sense first appeared as criminal underworld slang in the mid-17th century both as a noun (meaning both “someone who tricks or traps victims” and the trick or trap itself) and as a verb meaning “to ensnare, beguile, cheat” (“Ten of those Rogues had trapann’d him out of 500 Crowns,” 1662). As you can see from that 1662 quotation, the original spelling of this “trepan” was “trapan,” and the most likely explanation of the word is that “trapan” was simply derived from the verb “to trap.” So, in origin, the two “trepans” are completely separate words.

Now things get a little weird. The later change in the spelling of “trapan” to “trepan” may have arisen at least in part because “trepan” in the “bore a hole in your head” sense was a far more well-known word than “trapan,” which was fairly obscure thieves’ slang. (It also probably didn’t help that “trepan” in the “bore” meaning was, at that time, occasionally spelled “trapan.”) The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests that the switch from the spelling “trapan” to “trepan” occurred because people thought “trapan” must be a figurative use of “trepan,” i.e., that people who were beguiled or cheated were metaphorically being “bored into” by the con artist. That apparently made so much sense to so many people that both words are now spelled “trepan.”

Plastic & elastic

 Pigeons plot in secrecy.

Dear Word Detective:¬† I was reading a book originally published in the late 1800s when I came across a reference to a character with a “plastic personality.” I was somewhat taken aback, thinking that plastic was a fairly new word (think “The Graduate”). However, upon searching your archives, I found this bit of light: “Prior to the invention of the ‘stuff’ sort of plastic, however, the term ‘plastic’ was used primarily as an adjective meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘moldable,’ having been quite logically drawn from the Greek ‘plastikos,’ or ‘fit for molding.’ Appearing in English first in the 16th century, this sense of ‘plastic’ was applied to everything from modeling clay to the ‘plastic,’ or highly impressionable, nature of political opinions among voters.” Well, first question answered. Because I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between “plastic” and “elastic,” I conducted a second search of your archives but failed to turn up the latter. Are they related? — John Pearson.

Hmm. I really need to pay closer attention. It wasn’t until I read through your question a second time that I realized you were quoting something I wrote ten years ago. Speaking of “plastic” in the “Graduate” sense (a 1967 film, in the course of which a friend of Dustin Hoffman’s father gives him “one word [of career advice]: plastics”), I have a question. Elsewhere in the 1960s, “plastic” became a popular slang epithet for something, or someone, considered inauthentic and phony. The Monkees, for instance, were considered a “plastic” pop group because they were invented by a TV network. Whatever happened to “plastic” in this “phony junk” sense? It came in handy.

As I noted in that column from 2002, what we think of as “plastic” today (“polymers of high molecular weight based on synthetic resins or modified natural polymers,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it) was developed in the early 20th century but didn’t come into widespread use until the 1950s.

While the signature quality of “plastic,” both as a noun and an adjective, is the ability to be molded into nearly any shape, and to permanently retain that shape, the point of “elastic” is just the opposite. Something that is “elastic” can be stretched, compressed, or twisted in several directions at once, but when the force is removed it will return to its original shape. “Elastic” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, derived, via Latin, from the Greek “elastos,” meaning “flexible.” The initial use of “elastic” in English was as an adjective applied to gases capable of spontaneous expansion; solid materials were first described as “elastic” later in that century. But “elastic” as a noun, usually meaning a cord or string suffused or interwoven with rubber, didn’t appear until the mid-19th century.

Just as “plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “pliable, moldable,” came to be applied to the mental states and emotions of people who were easily convinced of things, “elastic” began in the late 18th century to be applied to the sort of personality that “bounces back” from adversity or depression (“This elastic little urchin,” T. Carlyle, 1822). Apart from that sort of extended, psychological use, and having to do with the change of shape of substances, and having Greek roots, there’s no real connection between the two words.

Sit Proud

Much classier than “stick out,” I guess. But it’s still a freakin’ tree.

Dear Word Detective: I had lunch with a friend today and we got to talking about Christmas trees (we talk about all sorts of stuff).¬† He described his pre-lighted tree as having lights that “sat proud of the branches.” I don’t believe I ever heard anyone use that term in actual conversation. Where does it come from? He thought woodworking. I said, “Or maybe it’s nautical.” He just sneered. — Bob McGill.

Well, there you go. That’s why I don’t have friends. Always sneering at you, undermining your confidence by mocking your socks, whispering things to your dog when they think you’re not looking, posting pictures of livestock on Facebook tagged with your name, and nominating you to A&E for some horrible reality show about untidy collectors. They claim they care about you, but I’ll take a house full of loyal ducks any day.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually say “sat proud” either, and I’m sort of envious. I once used the word “fungible” in a chat about furnace filters with the guy at the hardware store downtown and I’m pretty sure he thought I was talking about mold. I just like the word. It comes in handy, at least in some alternate universe in which I don’t happen to live.

“Proud,” of course, is a venerable English adjective meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “Feeling greatly honored, pleased, or satisfied by something which or someone who does one credit; acutely aware of some honor done to oneself, taking pride in something” or “Having a high or exalted opinion of one’s own worth or importance.” The root of “proud,” which first appeared in Old English, was the Old French “prod,” which meant “good, noble, prudent, wise, profitable” and similar things, which in turn came ultimately from the Latin “prodesse,” meaning “to be of value; to be good.” The noun “pride” is actually derived from the adjective “proud,” and, oddly enough, “proud” is also a noun in its own right, meaning “a proud, noble or stately person or thing” or a group of people who are proud (“The blazings of the proud will goe out in a stench and smoke,” 1628). It can even be an adverb, specifically in the phrase “to do [a person] proud,” meaning “to be a source of pride” or “to treat someone well” (“Lunch at Pauline’s. She did me proud — a half-bottle of champagne and a delicious meal,” 1986).

Meanwhile, back at “proud” the adjective, a variety of extended senses gradually developed over the centuries. “Proud” was used to mean “noble” or “stately,” “vigorous” or “valiant” (“proud warrior”), or, applied to a turbulent sea or river, “strong, tumultuous.” Of a plant or crop, “proud” meant “full of sap” or “luxuriant in growth,” especially when said plant was growing out of season (“If the winter has been open and mild, the autumn-wheat plant will have grown luxuriantly, .. so … that it may have become ‘proud,’ that is, in a precocious state of forwardness for the season,” 1844). “Proud” in this sense is also used to describe the first buds of a tree or other plant in spring.

Your friend’s use of “sat proud” to describe Christmas lights projecting notably from the branches of his “pre-lighted” tree is derived from this sense. It’s a use that first appeared in print in Scotland and Northern England in the early 19th century meaning “projecting from a surface; slightly raised,” and it can be applied to just about anything that projects or stands out from its environment (even, apparently, in automobile design: “The horn push, sited right across the central spoke of the steering wheel, is well proud of the spoke and this gives rise to occasional, accidental blasts,” 1974). “Sit proud” is a form of the established idiom “stand proud,” meaning simply “stick out” or “project.” This sense does seem to be used often in carpentry to describe a part of something that, whether by design or by accident (e.g., an errant floor board), sticks out, so your friend was onto something in his “woodworking” guess. But there’s no call for sneering.