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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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Stamping / Stomping Grounds

Blame it on the moose. Mooses. Meese?

Dear Word Detective: What are they and which is correct: “stamping grounds” or “stomping grounds”? — Kerry Humphrey.

Y’know, I was just thinking. The English language is like the freezer in your refrigerator, isn’t it? Wait, put down that telephone and bear with me a moment. You’re looking for something to eat, but when you open the freezer, there’s nothing immediately apparent but a few ancient frozen burritos and the remnants of some chili made last winter. But if you dig all the way to the back (a disturbing form of time travel), you sometimes find something awesome, such as a microwave Indian dinner that turns out to be quite good, rather like this question, which showed up in my email, buried under a frozen mountain of ancient spam.

To answer your question directly (for a change), both “stamping grounds” and “stomping grounds” (as well as either phrase with the singular form “ground”) are fine, and both mean, in general usage, “a place where a person or group usually hangs out; a general area in which a person or particular group of people can usually be found” (“New Orleans was the stomping grounds for all the greatest pianists in the country,” Alan Lomax, 1950).

The earliest appearance in print of “stamping ground” found so far was in 1821; “stomping ground” showed up a bit later, in 1854. “Stamp” and “stomp” are, etymologically, the same word; while “stamp” goes back to the Middle English “stampen,” our modern “stomp” developed as a variant of “stamp” in the US in the early 19th century.

The root sense of “stamp” is “to stamp or press down heavily on something with the foot,” and most senses of the verb have carried that connotation, either literally or figuratively, as in “stamping out a rebellion” as one would stamp out a fire. The use of “stamp” to mean “strike an impression on or into something” dates back to the 16th century; the “stamp” we stick on a postcard was originally a mark made by an official seal “stamped” on mail indicating that postage had been paid. This sense of “stamp” meaning “distinctive and distinguishing mark” has also given us such figurative uses as “stamp” meaning “to impress indelibly on one’s memory” (“The picture of the streets through which he was conducted … remained for ever stamped upon his memory,” 1885) or to mark with a notable characteristic (“Its beauty was singularly stamped with a grave and stately sadness,” 1838).

“Stamping grounds” (and, of course, “stomping grounds”) are used, as we’ve seen, to describe the common hangouts of humans. But the figure of speech actually comes from the social behavior of wild animals. The “stamping grounds” of such animals as deer, moose, elephant, etc., are the places where the animals frequently congregate in substantial numbers, in the course of which conventions they mill around and “stamp down” the vegetation and soil. Depending on the size and ferocity of the animals, it can be wise to avoid disturbing critters in their “stamping grounds” (“I found myself near one of these ‘stamping grounds’, and a simultaneous roar from five hundred infuriated animals gave notice of my danger,” 1862). Interestingly, although “stamping ground” first appeared in print in 1821, that first appearance was in the figurative sense applying to people, not in the original “herd of irritable critters” sense (“It is unnecessary to undertake to give you any details of affairs in your old Stamping-ground.”).

Rank amateur

My game? Golf noir.

Dear Word Detective: My father was an amateur golfer with pretty good scores. I am a “rank” amateur at golf, meaning I often miss the ball completely. Does “rank” mean that I stink, either literally or figuratively?  Perhaps it refers to rankings — levels of expertise or professionalism? If the latter, why would a “rank amateur” have the connotation of a total lack of expertise? — Steve Ford.

Well, that’s a good question. I must admit that I don’t entirely understand the modern passion for golf, but I’m willing to admit that my un-golfy attitude may be due in part to the fact that I’ve only played the sort of golf that involves little windmills and tunnels. Late at night. With the hum of the highway in the background and the blinking neon sign of the motel casting purple shadows in the sweltering August heat that make you wonder why you’re driving to Vegas in some guy’s beat-up Chevy in the first place. But I’m guessing that your kind of golf isn’t that seedy, and that a guy named Marco didn’t repeatedly warn you not to look in the trunk of the car.

It does seem logical that a “rank amateur” golfer might be assigned a very low “rank” in the celestial pantheon of Golf Legends, but those two “ranks” are actually entirely different words. The noun “rank,” today most often used to mean “relative position” or “authority,” comes from the Old French “ranc,” which meant “row of soldiers” (in formation), “row or line of people or things,” or “row on a chessboard,” and is related to our modern English word “range.” The prehistoric Germanic ancestor of “rank” also gave us “ring.” When “rank” appeared in English in the 14th century, it was used in a variety of “line” or “row” senses. By the early 15th century, it had developed its modern comparative sense to mean “level of authority” or “status or social position” (“The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves,” Jane Austen, 1814).

“Rank” as an adjective (and adverb) first appeared in Old English, based on Indo-European roots with the general sense of “upright,” meaning “proud, haughty or arrogant” as well as “full grown,” a sense which developed, largely in reference to vegetation, into “luxuriant” or “prolific.” This “overgrown” sense came to be used in primarily negative contexts, and soon “rank” as an adjective meant “coarse, swollen, excessive” and, by the 15th century, “offensive,” “evil,” “rotten or contaminated,” and even “having a strong and unpleasant smell.” Quite a downward trajectory for a word originally describing a lush garden, I’d say. That “foul smelling” sense, incidentally, is still widely used (“In the alley there was the rank odour of wet refuse,” 1940).

By the 16th century, “rank” had graduated to being used as a general-purpose negative intensifier meaning “complete and utter” (“The meanest Varlet, the dullest School-boy, the rankest Idiot,” 1676). By the late 19th century, the phrase “rank amateur” employed this sense to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a person who is completely inexperienced or inept at a particular activity” (“A deceitful and filthy plan which makes Machiavelli look like a rank amateur,” Independent (UK), 1998).

So a “rank amateur” is a person with absolutely no, zero, nada, zippo experience or expertise in a particular task or activity. But the good news is that because of the change in meaning of this “rank” over the centuries, the “rank amateur” probably doesn’t smell all that bad.

All my eye and Betty Martin

Pshaw.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading “Murther and Walking Spirits” by Robertson Davies recently, and came across the phrase “All my eye and Betty Martin” (“Of course many of the grievances are all my eye and Betty Martin”). The narrator notes that the saying is British and a “soldier’s phrase.” I have a vague memory of hearing the phrase before, used to mean “Hogwash!” or “Nonsense!” Now I’m wondering where it came from. Is it from World War II? Was Betty Martin a movie star? Please help me out here. — Jay Baker.

Hey, me too. I mean the part about having heard (and been mystified by) the phrase before, not the Robertson Davies part, whom I’ve never read. That sounds like a fairly odd book, by the way. Perhaps I’ll give it a shot.

I said that I had been mystified by “All my eye and Betty Martin,” and I still am, but I’m far from alone. Etymologists are flummoxed by the phrase, its origins, and whatever logic it may be said to possess. Michael Quinion of worldwidewords.com, who has energetically investigated the saying, calls it “among the most puzzling phrases in the language.”

To begin with what we do know, “All my eye and Betty Martin” is definitely not a 1940s creation; the first occurrence in print found so far is from 1781, and the citation (in which it is explained as “a sea [sailors'] phrase”) indicates that it was well-known by that time. “All my eye and Betty Martin” is pretty clearly an elaboration on the somewhat older retort “All my eye!”, also meaning “nonsense” or the like.  Apparently the original logic of “my eye” was that the nonsensical thing  exists only in the “eye,” or mind, of the speaker and anyone else gullible enough to take the statement seriously. It’s essentially the same as saying “You wish!” “My eye” is also used alone as an emphatic denial (“‘How about Bigelow’s Mill … that’s a factory.’ ‘Factory my eye.’” William Faulkner, 1929). Other body parts (arm, elbow, leg, etc.) have been substituted for the eye at times. Popular equivalents  of “my eye” at the moment include “my foot” (“Hairless corgi my foot! That’s a pig.”) and “my ass” (“Strike, my ass! That ump is an idiot.”).

There are a number of stories that purport to explain “All my eye and Betty Martin” by reference to a supposed historical Betty Martin who inspired the phrase. There’s Betty Martin, “a gypsy woman in Shrewsbury,” who is said to have punched a constable in the eye. Another (presumably different) Betty Martin from Kent supposedly made a practice of dressing up like a ghost to scare her neighbors, and left town when her hobby was discovered, making her name a byword for “fraud.” But such stories have the ring of post-facto invention.

More intriguing is the most famous explanation, which ties “All my eye and Betty Martin” to a Latin prayer which supposedly began “Ora pro mihi, beate Martine” (commonly translated as “Pray for me, blessed Martin”), addressed to Saint Martin, patron saint of drunkards and tavern-keepers. If one were very sloppy in one’s Latin pronunciation (and perhaps drunk), that might sound vaguely like “All my eye and Betty Martin.” Unfortunately, no such prayer has ever been officially recognized by the Catholic Church, and the form of the Latin isn’t quite right anyway. But Michael Quinion notes that there may still be something to this theory, explaining “I have found the phrase ‘Ora pro nobis beate Martine’ (‘Pray for us, blessed Martin’) in a prayer for intercession in a French book of hours of about 1500 in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.”

It’s also been suggested that the prayer in question was actually “O mihi Brito Martis” (“O bring help to me Brito Martis”), and that the supplication was not to St. Martin, but to a certain goddess of Crete.

Complicating all of this still further is the fact that such non-religious forms of the phrase as “All my eye and elbow” have also been knocking around for the past few centuries. So Saint Martin may have mutated into Betty Martin, or Betty might have been a famous liar or simply someone’s rowdy neighbor. At this point all we have are a few tantalizing hints and, of course, a colorful phrase to use when a simple “Hogwash!” doesn’t quite cut it.