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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Clockwork

Never mind, I’ll go check the sundial.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been having an ongoing debate with a close friend about the meaning of the idiom “like clockwork,” as in “She arrives everyday at noon, like clockwork.” Somewhere, a while back, I remember reading that the original intention of this expression is more closely related to “like rocket science.”  This had to do with the incredible complexity and machinery skill that it took to build a clock long ago. I have been looking around online and I only see the modern usage of “with regularity, or on schedule.” Of course, this annoys me since it seems as if this definition is copied and pasted around with almost universal agreement (a site search here also uses the saying to mean “regularity” versus “an admiration of complexity”). Does this saying have its roots where I believe it is, or has the modern usage always been the same as the original usage? — Termite.

That’s a fascinating question. Say, given that you’re clock-aware, perhaps you could clear up a question of current fashion for me. I have been told, by persons in the know, that it is now considered very uncool to wear a wristwatch. Apparently I’m supposed to rely on my cell phone to tell me the time. This poses a problem for me, as I do not own, and have no desire to buy, a cell phone. I have an old-fashioned hard-wired telephone I never, ever answer, but I assume it works because it rings all day long. Anyway, what number do I call for the time?

Onward. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “clockwork” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century meaning simply “the mechanism or works of a clock.”  Interestingly, the initial meaning of “clock”(which had developed from Celtic roots) in Old English was “bell.” In the 14th century it came to mean “clock with bells,” and eventually the need for bells was waived in the definition, and “clock” meant simply a timepiece.

“Clockwork” went on to acquire the meaning of “a mechanism similar to a clock,” and, by the late 17th century, became a metaphor for something that worked with unvarying regularity (“Their Religion was a kind of clock-work … moving in a certain order, but without life or sense,” 1679). This “My nephew shows up on payday like clockwork” sense is the most common current usage.

I think the usage of “clockwork” meaning “complex product of remarkable skill” you’re seeking is actually an extension of the “mechanism similar to a clock” sense, especially when applied to an article where such skill and complexity might not be expected. If I say, for instance, that an antique mechanical toy dog, upon examination, proved to be powered by a tiny spring mechanism of “clockwork” complexity, it would be a tribute to the builder’s remarkable skill. A search of Google for the phrase “clockwork complexity” produces more than 1,600 examples of the phrase (“Suddenly, as if cooling down after vigorous exercise, they flawlessly execute a circular court dance of arcane, clockwork complexity,” Dance Magazine), albeit not always used as a compliment (“This music — whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear….”).

Incidentally, this “complex and clever mechanism” sense is also found in the title of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. The novel’s protagonist, Alex, undergoes intense aversion therapy to eliminate his appetite for extreme violence, and emerges devoid of free will and the ability to make moral choices, as useless and strange as an orange that has had its innards replaced with a clockwork mechanism.

Same Difference

No problem. Have a nice day.

Dear Word Detective:  What does “same difference” mean? Where did that come from? How can “same” be “different”? I know that two mathematical equations can be different but have the same answer, but what about other subjects? — Diane Lecik.

That’s what’s always bothered me about math. Two plus two equals four, right? But three plus one equals four, too. And two times two equals four. Twenty divided by five equals, guess what, four. Heck, one million divided by 250,000 equals, you got it, four again. Seems to me that we’re putting a heck of a lot of eggs in one very small basket labeled “four.” If something were to happen to that weird little number, we’d be in deep oatmeal. People should quit freaking out over the Large Hadron Collider and start worrying about the number four. This wouldn’t be happening if we’d stuck to the gold standard, y’know.

“Same difference” is a colloquial idiomatic expression meaning “no difference” or “the same, equivalent” (“You say he was fired? But he says he left to spend more time with his Airedale.” “Same difference.”). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1945, in a book titled “I Am Gazing Into My 8-Ball” by the legendary New York gossip columnist Earl Wilson. It’s likely, of course, that the phrase was widely used for years before it made it into print.

The problem with “same difference” for many people is simply that the phrase, as it is commonly used, makes no sense. If something is the “same” as something else, there is no difference. You can say “the same” or “no difference,” but “same difference” gives a lot of people headaches. One poster I came across on the internet called it “the most moronic oxymoron in the English language,” and conservative arbiters of traditional English usage traditionally go berserk when encountering “same difference.”

There is, incidentally, a use of “same difference” that does make sense: the mathematical equivalence you mentioned and its metaphorical cousins. If I’m selling a gizmo for ten dollars and you bid seven, whereupon I lower my price to eight and you boldly offer five, that two-dollar gap is the “same difference” remaining between our bids.  Similarly, if I am a slob and my house is a mess, while you are a neatnik and your home gleams, there is the “same difference”  between our two personalities and our two abodes. I am not a slob, by the way. Not much, anyway.

So where did the use of “same difference” to mean “the same” come from? The most likely answer is simply that people combined “the same” and “no difference,” perhaps first as a mistake, and the phrase then “grew legs” because it embodies a certain cheeky humor, which brings us to an important point. “Same difference” is an idiom, a fixed phrase used in casual conversation. It doesn’t have to make sense, because idioms often don’t make literal sense. We say, for instance,  that things “fall between the cracks,” meaning that they get lost or overlooked. But “between the cracks” on a floor made of floorboards (the original metaphorical reference) would be a solid surface, not a void. If things are gonna fall, you should want them to fall “between the cracks.”

“Same difference” is, despite the howls of the Language Police, not a threat to the logic of the English language (to the extent that there is such a thing), because using “same difference” as a fixed phrase does not degrade the meaning of either “same” or “difference.” There hasn’t been an epidemic of people using “same” to mean “different” (“I hate this purple. Do you have this dress in a same color?”), and there won’t be anytime soon.

History Sheeter

A long story.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you please tell me the source of the term “history-sheeter”? — A. Ray.

It shows to go ya. When I first read this question, I suspected that it was what we here at Word Detective World Headquarters call a “huh-next.” We get a fair number of queries that are either flat-out incoherent, perhaps spawned in a room full of monkeys and typewriters, or obviously based on garbled text that someone has encountered on the internet (e.g., “The Senator is not said office his denied any relationly…”). Typically I just mutter “huh” and go on to the next question. Something about the term “history-sheeter” piqued my interest, however, and I did a bit of searching. I’m glad I did.

Incidentally, if I might digress for a moment (good luck stopping me), has anyone else noticed the missing words on the internet? You’ll be reading a perfectly coherent sentence on an established site such as the New York Times, Slate or the Atlantic, and suddenly you’ll realize that a “the” or “has” or “or,” some little word that obviously should be there, simply isn’t. Have all the copy editors been laid off? Silly question. I guess that’s why the new guy at our local Starbucks keeps correcting customers’ grammar.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “history-sheeter” has nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson pillowcases. It’s an Anglo-Indian colloquial term, widely used in the news media in India, meaning “a career criminal” (“Policemen checked on the addresses of all wanted criminals and history-sheeters,” Indian Express, 2005). A “history sheet” in this context is a criminal record, a list of charges, convictions and other information kept by law enforcement authorities, the equivalent of what we in the US know as a “rap sheet.” The “sheet” in both phrases originally referred to an actual sheet of paper (or multiple sheets, for “hard cases”) on which such records were kept, but with the rise of the thinking machines, such “sheets” now exist largely in digital form.

So a “history-sheeter” in India is a miscreant with a prodigious “history sheet,” what we in the US would call “a rap sheet a mile long.” According to the Double-Tongued Dictionary, Grant Barrett’s excellent online exploration of slang terms, odd words and new words (www.doubletongued.org), the term “rowdy-sheeter” is synonymous with “history-sheeter,” and is also commonly used in India. (“Rowdy” is a more negative term in India than in the US, where it means little more than “boisterous.”) Incidentally, “history-sheeter” in the “criminal” sense dates back only to the late 1980s, but “history sheet” has been used, primarily in the British Commonwealth, since the 19th century to mean any written record kept pertaining to a person (criminal, medical, employment, driving, etc.).

And now, because I’m psychic, I know you’re about to ask where the “rap” in “rap sheet” came from. This is the same “rap,” drawn from Scandinavian roots, that we use to mean “a quick, light blow” (as in “a rap on the knuckles”). “Rap” has been used since the 18th century to mean “blame or rebuke” and since the early 20th to mean “criminal charge or prison sentence” (as in “bum rap,” meaning an undeserved charge or sentence). “Rap” as a style of speech or music is an outgrowth of the same word, based on the sense of “patter” and rapid, rhythmic speech.