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Food not for thought.

Dear Word Detective:  For those of us who remember “All in the Family,”the white-bread family show of the 70s, one cannot forget Archie Bunker’s term of endearment for his son-in-law: “Meathead”! Is this term born out of pure invention, or does it have any noble origins?– apolo.

Wow. Memory Lane time. Do I need to explain what All in the Family was? Probably. It was a hugely popular sitcom on US TV from 1971-79 (and continued as Archie Bunker’s Place until 1983). Archie Bunker, his wife Edith, daughter Gloria, and her husband Michael Stivik all lived in the Bunkers’ home in Astoria, Queens (a borough in New York City). Archie (Carrol O’Connor) was a deeply reactionary working-class character who frequently clashed with son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), a stereotypical liberal college student. The show was known for tackling hot-button social issues of the time such as the Vietnam War, abortion and racism. There is, of course, an extensive page devoted to the show at Wikipedia, where I learned (assuming it’s true) that director Norman Lear had originally approached Mickey Rooney to play the role of Archie. That would have been quite weird.

To Gloria, Edith and the rest of the world, Rob Reiner’s character was “Michael” or “Mike,” but Archie always referred to him (and often addressed him) as “Meathead.” The insult  became such a fixture of the show that it quickly lost whatever shock value it originally had and Archie frequently employed it in the same tone that he might have said “your husband” or “him.”

I wouldn’t say that “meathead” has noble origins, but the show’s writers definitely didn’t invent the term. It first appeared in print in English (as far as we know so far) in the mid-19th century (“‘The man who made that order,’ said Judge B. in court, ‘was a meat-head,'” C.G. Leland, 1863), and it definitely wasn’t a term of endearment. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “meathead” as “a stupid person; a person (especially a man) who has a large or muscular physique but who is unintelligent or uncouth.” Given that Reiner’s character was quite a bit taller than Archie, slightly pudgy for the time, and projected a somewhat hulking, often hangdog look, “meathead” would have been a natural choice of epithet for Archie.

“Meathead” is one of a large number of pejorative slang terms in English for persons perceived to be, either chronically or temporarily, a bit low on the wits scale. The human head being the home of the brain, a substantial number of these phrases end in “head,” the first part of the term delineating the supposed cause, extent or notable object of comparison of the subject’s stupitude. Thus we have “bonehead,” “clunkhead,” “fathead,” “lunkhead,” “jughead,” “chucklehead” and, my fave, “chowderhead.” The head and mind also figure in adjectives such as “osteocephalic” (a fancy Latinate form of “boneheaded”) and the blunt but elegant “brainless.”

In many of such terms, including “meathead,” the assertion is that the subject’s head is made of something, whether inert meat, solid bone, feathers, rocks or wood, clearly not likely to produce deep thoughts. Given the alternatives, Archie’s choice of “meathead” for his son-in-law was actually one of the gentler terms available, far less brutal than “fathead” or “pinhead.”

Good, Better, Best

Three degrees of goodification.

Dear Word Detective:  It’s election time over here in dear old Blighty, so I thought I’d ease the boredom by asking a question. Lots of talk, most of it rubbish, about inflation and export of goods, import of goods and so on. It suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t the faintest idea why purchasable things were called “goods,” and neither does my dictionary by the looks of it. Why “goods”?  We don’t talk about “bads,” although perhaps we should. And, as a parting shot, how did the comparative and superlative of “good” ever get to be “better” and “best”?  Surely “gooder” and “goodest” would have been more obvious? — David, Ripon, England.

Ah yes, elections. Time for a change again. I’d go with Tweedledee if I were you. Oh, look, you folks have already voted. Whatever. I’m sure the goodest dude won.

Since I actually take absolutely everything very, very seriously, I know I’m going to be plagued by guilt if I don’t explain your reference to “Blighty,” British slang for England. It’s a souvenir of the British occupation of India, a modification of the Hindi word “bilati,” meaning “foreign.”

I’d definitely go for calling several of my recent purchases “bads,” from the answering machine that garbles every message to the waterproof boots with the creatively ventilated toes. But we’ve been calling property, possessions and other things that can be bought and sold “goods” for quite a long time, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with the term.

I actually covered the origin of “good” fairly recently in a column on the connections between “good” and “god” on one hand and “evil” and “devil” on the other. (There aren’t any, incidentally.)  But, to recap, our modern word “good” is rooted in the Germanic word “gath,” meaning “to bring together” (which also gave us “gather” and “together”). The evolution of the adjective “good” seems to have progressed from “united” to “suitable” to “pleasing, favorable” to “good” in all the positive senses we have today.

“Good” as a noun was an outgrowth of its use as an adjective, and the earliest noun use of “good” was to mean very broadly “that which is good” or “goodness” itself (“They are reformed, full of good, … And fit for great employment,” Shakespeare, 1590). By around 1300, we were using “good” to mean “a desirable end or object,” and by the mid-15th century, we had narrowed that down to “commodities or merchandise.”

Life would be a bit simpler, especially for folks learning English, if the comparative and superlative forms of “good” conformed to the usual practice and appended “er” (“gooder”) and “est” (“goodest”) to the base word (as in “long,” “longer” and “longest”). But it’s too late now, because we’re stuck using the forms that went with the Germanic root “bat,” meaning “advantage or improvement.”  Its comparative form was “batizon,” and its superlative was “batistaz,” which entered English as “betera” and “betest.” These were later smoothed out to “better” and “best” and adopted as the companions to “good,” which lacked its own comparative and superlative.

So what happened to that Germanic root “bat”?  It doesn’t exist in English, but one of its descendants does, albeit a bit obscurely. The very old noun “boot,” meaning “advantage or benefit” is now nearly obsolete, but is still found in the expression “to boot,” meaning “in addition, added into the bargain” (“Bob got new glasses for just twenty bucks, and a free spare pair to boot”). Ideally, we probably should have been using “boot” instead of “good” for the past few centuries (giving us “boot,” “better” and “best”), but, as I said, it’s way too late now.


Le grande fromage.

Dear Word Detective:  As someone who has recently found himself designated “Editor-in-Chief” of a new-born enterprise, I am wondering why “in” vice “and” — which is also the case, of course, for “Commander-in-Chief.”  Is it as simple as a semi-literal translation of the French, “rédacteur en chef” (where “en” is usually rendered “in”)?  Or does the French imply a subtlety that has been lost in English?  Even accounting the etymology from Latin “caput” (head), translation as “and” seems more appropriate. — Drako Artemesius.

That’s a darn good question. Incidentally, before we begin, I should explain, for the benefit of folks who suddenly felt a bit dizzy midway through your first sentence, that “vice” as you used it is a preposition meaning “in the place of” or “instead of.”  It’s the ablative form of the Latin noun “vicis,” meaning “turn” or “place,” and has nothing to do with Miami Vice and all those awesome pastels.

I first became aware of the title “Editor-in-Chief” when I was about ten years old and discovered that my father was Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap publishers (now part of Penguin). I’m sure that Grosset produced many fine books, but my interest began and ended with the fact that they also published the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Steve Canyon and Tom Swift Jr. books I loved. It was better than having a father who owned a doughnut shop.

The title “Editor-in-Chief” in book publishing, newspapers and similar fields means essentially “editor in charge,” the person who oversees the editorial and production processes leading up to publication. As a fixed phrase, “Editor-in-Chief” dates back only to the late 19th century (“Our highest ambition has been to be the editor-in-chief of a large New York daily…,” J. M. Bailey, Life in Danbury 1873). “Chief” itself is, of course, much older, dating back to the 14th century, and, as you noted, ultimately based on the Latin “caput,” meaning “head,” though that was filtered through the Old French form “chef” before Middle English borrowed it.

The simplest explanation for the form “in chief” is that it’s simply a short form of a phrase such as “in the position of chief.” But the use of “in Chief” in titles such as “Editor-in-Chief” and “Commander-in-Chief” may be rooted at least partially in Feudal Law, where a tenant, usually a member of the nobility, held land leased directly from the King or other ruler of the country (rather than from someone lower on the food chain), a state called tenancy “in chief” (in French, “en chief” or “en chef”). This arrangement gave the “tenant-in-chief” authority and a stable position from which to rent land to sub-tenants, etc.

While there’s no direct connection between “tenant-in-chief” and “editor-in-chief” and similar titles apart from the connotation of supreme power, the feudal use of the construction “in chief” probably contributed to its later use in a general sense to mean “in control and command.” This “in charge” meaning was established in English by the early 17th century (“Thinke it more honor, to direct in chiefe, then to be busie in all,” Francis Bacon, 1607). The even more general use of “in chief” to mean “mainly” or “principally” appeared at about the same time, first appearing (as far as we know) in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure in 1603 (“Some speech of marriage … which was broke off … in chief for that her reputation was disvalued in levity”).