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Wake me when it’s over

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “lackadaisical” come from? — Joe.

Ah, a short question, but one that opens a window into a world of weirdness. That’s what I love about the English language — every word bears the fingerprints of our ancestors, many of whom were seriously strange. The poet John Ciardi used to say that our words are miniature fossilized poems written by the human race, which is true, but sometimes they seem more like miniature fossilized psychiatric case reports.

Today we use “lackadaisical” to mean “lacking interest, energy or initiative; lacking spirit.” A person with a “lackadaisical” attitude is apathetic and uninterested in much of anything, and a lackadaisical employee usually produces shoddy and substandard work. In fact, a lackadaisical approach to anything rarely results in the desired outcome, as US Senator Fred Thompson recently proved in his famously torpid and now-defunct run for the Republican presidential nomination. According to the New York Daily News, “Thompson’s candidacy was widely ridiculed by party professionals for its lackadaisical quality. ‘How are you supposed to tell?’ one of them remarked yesterday after Thompson’s exit.”

Given the laid-back attitude of the truly “lackadaisical,” it’s a bit surprising that the word itself arose as a exclamation of agitated anguish, which would seem to require at least a smidgen of adrenaline to produce. Back in the 16th century, if you were faced with an alarming reversal or personal disaster, you were more than likely to express your distress with a cry of “Alack the day!” or “Alack a day!” (meaning “curse this day” or “woe this day”). Shakespeare used the phrase in Romeo & Juliet to announce Juliet’s demise (“Shee’s dead, deceast, shee’s dead: alacke the day!”). This “alack” is the same found in the phrase “alas and alack,” and comes from an old use of “lack” to mean “failure or shame.”

By the 17th century, the expression had been clipped to “lack-a-day,” and by the 18th, it had mutated, oddly, to “lackadaisy.” During this evolution, however, its connotation shifted from a serious expression of grief to a fatalistic lament, more apathetic and self-pitying than agonized, and roughly synonymous with “what the heck” or “that’s the way it goes.” Naturally, persons given to expressing what was considered such “vapid sentimentality” at every opportunity (and doing little else) were called “lackadaisical.”

Hem and Haw

Absolute maybe.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the expression “to hem and haw” come from? I have also heard it “to him and haw.” Either way, please clarify its meaning and origin. — Mark Anderson.

Well, which is it? “Hem and haw” or “him and haw”? Or is it “hum and hoo”? Ever heard the expression “hish and horp”? Me neither. But it would really help if you would pick one question and stick to it. Then again, wasn’t it T.S. Eliot who said “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”? Truer words were never spoken. Unless they were spoken by W.B. Yeats, which, come to think of it, they were. Golly, this being certain business is hard.

Which is, of course, where “hem and haw” (the usual form) comes in. Depending on one’s point of view, when you are “hemming and hawing,” you are either dithering and refusing to give a definite answer, or simply (as the politicians say) “keeping your options open.”

For a species known for its willingness to leap before looking, humanity has a remarkably long history of “hemming and hawing.” The phrase in that form first appeared in the late 18th century (“I hemmed and hawed … but the Queen stopped reading,” 1786), but other forms (“hem and hawk,” “hum and haw,” etc.) are a few centuries older, and the “hem” and the “haw” are both considerably older than the whole phrase.

The basic meaning of “hem,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation.” If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is the same sound depicted by the interjection “ahem,” the difference being that “ahem” is an actual word used to attract attention to the speaker, rather than producing the sound “hem” itself. One uses “ahem” in situations where, for instance, making noises with one’s throat might be either rude or ineffective. The verb “to hem,” meaning to make the noise, dates to the 15th century, and is “echoic” in origin, being an imitation of the sound itself. “Hem” is also closely related to “hum,” also echoic.

“Haw,” which dates back to the 1600s, is another case of a word imitating a sound, in this case “as an expression of hesitation” (OED). There are fashions in such things, and today we are more likely to say “uh,” “huh,” or “um” when faced with a sudden decision, but the feeling is the same.

So, put together, “hem and haw” vividly describes that moment when our mouth stalls for time while our mind attempts to assess the ramifications of our possible answers, the mental “looking” before the verbal “leaping.” And while it’s annoying to ask a question and be answered with “hemming and hawing,” there’s an argument to be made that the world could do with a little less instant certainty.

Eggbeater & Bands

Of the firm Vole, Vermin and Bungalow?

Dear Word Detective: I am directing an Agatha Christie play, “Witness for the Prosecution” and have come across some words that we would like to print the definitions for in our playbill. One is “eggbeater,” which someone told me is British slang for an automobile. The other is “bands,” which I believe is the name of the neckties British judges and barristers wear. — Cathy Van Lopik.

Good questions. I’ve never read (or seen) the play “Witness for the Prosecution,” but the movie version, made in 1957, is one of my all-time favorites. It stars Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, a barrister in precarious health, Elsa Lanchester as his nurse Miss Plimsoll, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money, and Marlene Dietrich as Christine, Vole’s duplicitous (to put it mildly) German wife. I’ve seen the film at least six times, but I’d gladly watch it again just for the remarkable cast and the cleverness of the story.

The slang of any culture can pose puzzles for an outsider, and I’m not an expert in that of Britain, but your question about “eggbeater” raises two possibilities. Literally, of course, an “eggbeater” is a handheld kitchen implement used for beating, mixing or whipping, usually involving a crank turning rotating blades. As slang, “eggbeater” has most often, since about 1930, been applied to either a helicopter or an autogiro (an early form of helicopter using a standard aircraft propeller for forward movement). According to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “eggbeater” has also been used to mean an old car, perhaps one that rattles like an eggbeater, but the usage seems fairly rare.

However, I’m wondering exactly where in the play (to which I do not have access) the use of “eggbeater” that puzzles you occurs. Early on, Leonard Vole (wonderful name, isn’t it?) explains to Robarts, et al., that he fancies himself an inventor and has just developed a revolutionary new eggbeater. If that’s the instance of “eggbeater” in question, Vole definitely means the kitchen implement. If there is a later reference, I suppose it could be coy use of the slang term for “car,” helicopters being notable in the play by their absence.

As for “bands,” you’re right on the money. Sometimes called “barrister bands,” they are the two hanging strips of white fabric worn as neckwear in court by British barristers and judges. These “bands” evolved from the simple neckbands worn under formal “ruffs” in the 16th century, and represent a stage in the development of male fashion, long abandoned outside the courtroom, that eventually produced the modern necktie.