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Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: While reading a series of essays by E.B. White, I came across the word “pindling” to describe a turkey he had raised: “this one is rather pindling for her age …”. I had never heard the word before, so I looked it up and found that it means something like “scrawny,” but was unable to find a believable etymology. The closest I found was a reference to “spindly,” which seemed a bit thin to me. What say you: is it “spindly,” or is there more meat to this word? — Jim Brown.

Ah yes, E.B. White, author of such classics as “Charlotte’s Web,” a book I loved as a child but later came to bitterly resent after I’d met a few actual spiders, none of whom wanted to be my pal. Incidentally, many people don’t know that the “E.B.” actually stood for White’s nickname “Easter Bunny,” referring to White’s bizarre habit of wearing a tattered rabbit suit to work every day at the New Yorker for many years. Ironically, White was finally forced to abandon his beloved and aromatic bunny suit soon after retiring to Maine and encountering local hunters.

I’d never heard the word “pindling” before either, which is odd because it’s considered a New England word and I grew up in New England. (It’s also heard in the South Midland dialect region, which includes Kentucky, the southern bits of Indiana and Illinois, and a ways west of there.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “pindling” as “Sickly, delicate; puny. Also occasionally: trifling, insignificant,” and their first print citation is from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” (1861), a novel set, appropriately, in Maine (“I’m a-thinkin’ … whether or no cows’ milk an’t goin’ to be too hearty for it, it’s such a pindling little thing”). The OED also notes that “pindling” has also been used, albeit rarely, as a regional dialect term in England meaning “ill-humored” (“I niver seed sech peevish, pindlin, fractious ways,” 1895).

Theories about the roots of “pindling” abound, but none of them has enough evidence behind it to constitute a solid answer. The simplest traces the word to “pine” as a common English verb meaning “to suffer, especially from grief or separation; to waste away” (“When she is away from him, even on a July vacation, she pines,” 1988). This “pine” has nothing to do with pine trees; it comes ultimately from the Latin “poena,” meaning “punishment, pain.”

The OED also suggests that the source of “pindling” may be the now-rare British dialect word “pingling,” meaning “feeble,” which comes from the Scots verb “pingle,” meaning both “to work hard” and “to struggle or suffer” and is used today in the North of England to mean “to pick at one’s food; to eat with little appetite.”

Probably the simplest explanation offered for “pindling” is that it may be related somehow to “piddling,” an adjective common since the mid-16th century meaning “ineffectual” or “insignificant” (“The man of business has not time for such piddling work,” circa 1774). “Piddling,” in turn, comes from the verb “to piddle,” meaning “to waste time, work ineffectually” or, of course, “to urinate.” The roots of “piddle” are unknown, so the trail goes cold at this point, but we’ll always have “pindling.”


A classier form of “Dagnabbit.”

Dear Word Detective: Last week I was searching for something totally unrelated and found a word origin (slang) question someone had posted. It had to do with some old guy he had worked with who would say something like “wilber fortus” every time he would pick up a bad rivet (or defective screw, or something). I was intrigued and tried to find an answer until I gave up. I erased the link to the question. Then yesterday I came across a reference to a Saint Wilgefortis and wondered if it had anything to do with the above question which I now cannot find. Can you help? — Lester St Cronus.

Perhaps. Incidentally, the sequence of events you describe is just one of the myriad and wonderful ways that the internet has added to the sum total of confusion, anxiety and despair in the world. You might want to increase the amount of time your computer saves its browsing history. Or adopt the practice of emailing yourself promising links. I’d love to see that guy’s question.

I haven’t found any evidence that “Wilbur Fortis” is an established oath or expression of frustration. Nor have I uncovered anyone by that name whose reputation would make him a logical response to a moment of exasperation at work. The only famous Wilbur that springs to mind, apart from Mister Ed’s owner (yes, I’m obsessed with Mister Ed) is Wilbur Mills, the politician whose career blew up when his apparent paramour, Argentinian stripper Fanne Foxe, fled from D.C. police by jumping in the Tidal Basin in 1974.

That leaves us with your hunch, which I believe to be a truly inspired insight. I think the guy who muttered “Wilbur Fortis” under his breath was actually saying “Wilgefortis,” invoking the name of Saint Wilgefortis in a moment of frustration the way we might say “Goldurnit” (a “minced oath,” or euphemistic form, of “God damn it”) or “Jumping Jehosophat” (King Jehosophat of Judah, whose name stands in for both Jesus and Jehovah).

The legend of Saint Wilgefortis is just plain weird. The daughter of a “pagan” king of Portugal in the 14th century, Wilgefortis, a Christian, faced an arranged marriage to the king of Sicily. In distress, Wilgefortis prayed for a way to avoid the marriage, relief which took the form of a lush beard growing on her face. This slaked the Sicilian king’s ardor considerably, and the marriage was canceled. Unfortunately, all this enraged Wilgefortis’s father, and he had her crucified. Saint Wilgefortis is today the patron saint of relief from tribulations and particularly of women who wish to be “disencumbered” of a bad marriage (she was also known as “Uncumber” in Britain).

But now the bad news. If the story of a bearded lady saint who specializes in making bad things go away seems too good to be true, that’s because it probably is. Most scholars of such things believe that Saint Wilgefortis and her beard are the result of a cultural misunderstanding many centuries ago. The Volto Santo di Lucca (Holy Face of Lucca) is a wooden crucifix that stands in the cathedral of San Martino, in Lucca, Italy. Unlike most crucifixes, in which the body of Christ is clad only in a loincloth, in this one he is wearing an ankle-length tunic. Common in the iconography of the Eastern Church, in Italy this robe spelled “woman” to some observers, and replicas of the crucifix, as they spread through Europe, fed the legend of a bearded, martyred, and female Saint Wilgefortis.

Although the story of Saint Wilgefortis has been periodically “debunked” since the 16th century, her legend is still popular in parts of Europe, and there’s even a carving of her in Westminster Abbey, complete with cross, gown and flowing beard. So it’s entirely possible that the co-worker of the man who posted that question was appealing to Wilgefortis to save him from the curse of poor quality control at the rivet factory.

Make do

Good enough. Time for pizza.

Dear Word Detective: Something about the phrase “make do” (to use a workable substitute for lack of the preferred tool, ingredient, etc.) has always bugged me, but my curiosity remained under control until a friend recently spelled it “make due.” I see from your columns on “jerry/jury rig” and “jackleg” that you use the former, but the search didn’t find an explanation of “make do” in your archives. How did we come up with this phrase? Then I started thinking about similar words and phrases: makeshift, get by, in a pinch. None of those seem especially straightforward. Any insight on their origins? — Harold Tessmann III.

Well, it’s definitely “make do.” About fifteen years ago, somebody gave me a coffee cup bearing the adage “Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without,” which struck me at the time as either an admirable exhortation against mindless consumerism or the sort of thing you’d see written on the wall of a salt mine. Nonetheless, I still have the cup, and that little poem captures the spirit of “make do,” the idea of “getting by” with something that may not be perfect or really sufficient for the task at hand, but is good enough (“Rasmussen had to make do with four eggs and only half a dozen rounds of toast because I was there,” 1968).

The “make” in “make do” is our common English verb “to make,” which comes from the Old English “macian” and Germanic roots further back, all with the basic sense of “to build, construct, create.” In English, “make” has developed a dizzying number (seriously, I’m dizzy as I type this) of derivative uses, from “making dinner” to “making a fire” to “make time” to do something to “make history” or simply “to make it” and achieve a goal. “To make do” falls within the use of “make” to mean “to cause a person or thing to do something,” as in “make someone cry.” (“Make believe,” using the same sense of “make,” originally meant “to make others believe something,” but now means “to pretend to believe.”)

The “do” in “make do” is the common verb meaning “to perform or execute” used in an intransitive sense meaning “to be fitting or appropriate; to suffice,” the same sense found in the expression “That will do.” In the case of “make do,” the emphasis is on “making” something “do” that otherwise might not “do,” might not be quite right or sufficient. “Make do” first appeared in print in that exact form in the 1920s, but Charlotte Bronte used the form “make it do” in her 1847 “Jane Eyre.”

“Makeshift” as an adjective applied to something used as an improvised substitute (“Bob used his necktie as a makeshift sling.”) comes from a specialized use of the verb “shift” to mean “to be content with or put up with,” which comes in turn from “shift” in the very old (1500) sense of “to work hard; to try all means to accomplish a goal.” (Thus “shiftless” meaning “lazy.”) The adjective “makeshift” dates back to the late 17th century (“There were a lot of children about, and a good many babies, some in makeshift cradles, some tucked up in a rug,” W.S. Maugham, 1915).

To “get by,” meaning “to manage, to get along,” employs “get” in the sense of “accomplish, achieve” (as in “Get a look” or “Get some sleep”), here with the sense of surmounting, surviving or “getting past” obstacles in one’s path, albeit with some difficulty, and dates to the early 20th century (“Our old bus will get by with a new engine,” 1952).

“In a pinch,” meaning “in an emergency or when a more appropriate solution is unavailable” (“A warm basement can also be transformed into a fine growing area, and even a warm spot near a sunny window will do in a pinch,” Martha Stewart, 1991), comes from “pinch” in the sense of “An instance, occasion, or time of special difficulty; a critical juncture; a crisis, an emergency” (Oxford English Dictionary). The “pinch” here is a metaphorical “tight spot,” a painful constriction of action caused by the circumstances of the moment, and “in a pinch” dates back to the late 15th century.