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Corking good

Case closed.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother often referred to a newly read book as “a corking good read.” Any comments on the term and its origin? — R.J.

Well, it depends. It’s difficult to know, when folks send their questions in by email, where they’re writing from, and while geographic location may seem (and usually is) largely irrelevant, it does figure in this case. If your mother is an inhabitant of, or has some close family connection to, Great Britain, no problemo. I’d say she was simply employing a mainstream colloquialism of that fair land. If, however, your family hails from the US, I suggest that you hightail it over to your mother’s house and unplug her TV. She has clearly been watching too much PBS programming, probably the powerfully hallucinogenic Downton Abbey, and is on the verge of ordering Marmite by mail. She must be stopped for her own good.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the adjective “corking” as “unusually fine, large, or excellent; stunning.” The OED also notes that the term first appeared in print in 1895 and is “chiefly US” in usage, which strikes me as odd, since I’ve never heard anyone but a hopeless Anglophile here use the term in a non-ironic sense. They even cite a use by P.G. Wodehouse (“There’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud.” 1919) who was about as non-US as you can get. Incidentally, the citation preceding that one for “corking” in the OED does not actually contain the word “corking” (“Arthur’s approval was fortified and grew with contemplation.”1918), which is very strange. Perhaps there’s an anagram I’m missing there.

In any case, “corking” as an adjective is an outgrowth of the noun “corker,” a slang term from the early 19th century with two related, but distinct, senses. The original sense was “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument; an irrefutable argument or fact,” much as a cork tightly seals a wine bottle (“It’s a corker. If it [a proposed law] passes we’ll have to quit.” 1889). From this usage came an extended sense of “something shocking or astonishing.” A “corker” in this sense can be either something good or something bad.

The second sense of “corker,” which arose in the late 19th century, is unambiguously positive. Meaning “a person or thing of surpassing size or excellence; a stunner” (OED), this “corker” led directly to the “corking” your mother uses to praise a book.

Incidentally, occasionally you’ll hear someone complaining about the use of “read” as a noun, usually coupled with a modifier such as “good,” “riveting,” etc., in the sense of “material to read” (“My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.” 1961). I’ve never understood exactly what the problem with this usage is supposed to be, but it  dates back to at least the mid-20th century and it has lasted because it’s useful, which is, after all, the whole point of language.

In light of

 Lighter than ere.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years I have heard people say “In light of…” meaning “considering the circumstances.” How does the word “light” come into play? “Light” can be weight, e.g., “light” as opposed to heavy, or it can be “light” as a “piercing light.” I’m puzzled how it came to be used in this situation. — John Wilson.

That’s an interesting question. There are two kinds of “light” in English, completely unrelated words, both very old. The older of the two is the adjective meaning “not heavy” or “of little weight.” This comes from the prehistoric Germanic root word “lingkhtaz,” which also produced words meaning “light” in several other languages. This “light” first appeared in Old English meaning simply “not heavy,” but by the 16th century was also being used to mean “light in relation to its size” or, in the case of boats, carriages, etc., “capable of bearing only a small load” (e.g., a “light railway,” one not designed to carry heavy traffic). Similarly, “light industry” produces goods from “light” materials and “lightly-armed” troops are not driving tanks. A “light” meal doesn’t make one sleepy, and “light” dinner conversation is cheerful (even “lighthearted”) and avoids stressful topics. Just about anything easy, cheerful, graceful or simple can be described with the adjective “light.”

This “light” is also a verb meaning “make lighter” (i.e., “lighten”), “to dismount, descend  or settle” (as a bird “lights” on a branch), or “to leave, especially casually or abruptly” (as one might “light out” for Las Vegas). Interestingly, this “light” doesn’t really exist as a noun, except in the form “lights,” an antiquated word for “lungs” now used only for those of animals. The lungs of an animal (or human) are the lightest in weight of any major organ, and the word “lung” itself comes from the same root as “light.” The use of “lights” in reference to humans lives on in the colloquial phrase “to scare the livers and lights” out of a person, meaning “to terrify” (“It most scared the livers and lights out of me.” Mark Twain, 1884).

The other kind of “light,” meaning “luminance,” is a noun and verb drawn from the Indo-European root “leuk,” meaning “light,” which also produced the Latin “lux” (light) as well as “lumen” (as in “luminous”), “luna” (moon) and “lustrare” (to shine, source of “luster” and “illustrate”). The same “leuk” root produced the Greek “leukos” (white), which is found in “leukemia,” a disease which causes over-production of white blood cells.

The basic senses of this “light” employ the noun in its literal meaning of “luminance,” but the figurative senses are where the fun is. We speak of a lively person having “light” in his or her eyes, and “the light of one’s eye” being a dear friend, child or lover. To reach an understanding of a difficult question (or to receive a religious or political conversion) is “to see the light.” Matters not previously known, when revealed, are said to “come to light” with added details “shedding light.” A person who falls asleep quickly is said to be “out like a light,” and “lights out” can mean either bedtime or a boxer knocked down for the count.

The “light” in “in light of,” which dates back to the late 17th century, is the metaphorical illumination cast on a question by the particular facts or circumstances of a situation, especially if they exert an influence on the outcome of a decision. “In light of” an offender’s youth and lack of a criminal record, for instance, the usual sentence may be suspended, or “in light of” a recent job loss the purchase of a new car might be delayed.

Trouser terms

One leg at a time.

Dear Word Detective: Hi. I did a quick search in your archives and saw an explanation of why pants come in pairs, but what I did not see was an explanation of the many different ways we can refer to the garments. To name a few: “pants,” “britches,” “trousers” and “slacks.” It’s nice to have several ways to refer to the same thing, but I guess I’m wondering if they’ve always been the same thing(s). — Danny.

More or less, and then some. I just dipped into the wonderful Oxford Historical Thesaurus, now part of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, and discovered a remarkable list of synonyms for “pants.” Almost all the good ones date to the 19th century, including such humorous creations as “round-the-houses” (rhyming slang for “trousers”), “sit-down-upons,” “reach-me-downs” (referring to trousers bought from a rack, i.e., ready-made, often second-hand), “terminations,” and various slang forms of “trousers” including “strouse” and “trousies.” The bulk of the list, however, is taken up by 19th century euphemisms for “trousers,” including “never-mention-’ems” and “unwhisperables,” both also applied to underwear.

As I explained in the column you saw, “pants” were originally known as “pantaloons,” named for Pantalone, a character in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte (theatrical comedy), who was usually portrayed as an old man wearing short, baggy pants. The Anglicized form “pantaloon” was also applied to the Pantalone style of trousers, eventually giving us the shortened form “pants.” But “pants” originally differed from today’s trousers in that each leg was a separate garment, donned in succession and then belted together at the waist. Thus it made sense to call this arrangement a “pair” of pants, and the usage stuck long after pants became one unified garment.

“Trouser” first appeared in English in the early 17th century as an extension of the earlier “trouse,” from the Irish “triubhas,” which is said to have been related to “truss” in its original sense of “bundle.” “Trouse” (or “trews”) were close-fitting pants that reached only to mid-thigh and were usually worn with stockings. As in the case of “pants,” “trouse” and the later “trouser” have always been used in plural form. “Trousers” were originally a sort of loose outer garment worn over pants or breeches for warmth or to keep the inner garments clean (e.g., while riding a horse), but the term eventually came to be applied to any kind of full-length pants.

“Britches,” which appeared in the late 19th century, is actually a modified form of “breeches,” which dates back to the Old English “brec,” from Germanic roots, and originally meant “a covering for the trunk and thighs.” The term many have first referred to what we now would call a “breech cloth.” By about the 13th century, “breeches” meant pants that came to just below the knees, but the term gradually became a simple synonym for “pants.” As in the case of “pants” and “trousers,” the initially singular “brec” is now used only in the plural form “breeches.”

And now for a bit of weirdness. By the 16th century, “breech” was also being used to mean the part of the anatomy covered by breeches, particularly the posterior. This usage was then applied to “the hindmost part” of all sorts of things, including firearms and cannons, where the “breech” is at the base of the barrel, and childbirth, where a “breech birth” occurs when the baby’s legs emerge before its head.

“Slacks,” meaning “loose-fitting trousers,” dates back to the early 19th century and comes from “slack” in the sense of “part of a rope or sail hanging loose” (also used in such phrases as “take up the slack” and “cut me some slack”). Today “slacks” is usually used to mean loose, casual trousers not worn as part of a suit.