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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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Conniption

Freak Out City.

Dear Word Detective: Not sure if I have the spelling right, but what’s the origin of “conipshin,” meaning a tantrum over some unfavorable event? — Steve K.

The word you’re asking about is usually spelled “conniption.” Not a lot is known about it, but you’ve got the meaning right; a “conniption” is “a fit of rage, alarm, anxiety or frustration” about something. A “conniption,” however, is more than a simple tantrum. The key word here is “fit” in the sense of an inarticulate and dramatic outburst of emotion; citations for “conniption” from the 19th century, in fact, are often in the form “conniption fit.” In 1848, the Dictionary of American English defined “conniption” as “a fainting fit,” and the very earliest use of the word found so far, from 1833, made a “conniption” sound quite serious: “[Aunt] Keziah fell down in a conniption fit.” Another citation, from the Troy, NY Daily Times in 1888, reinforces the sense of a physical “fit”: “Here the bard is supposed to have gone into ‘conniptions’ and collapsed.”

What we do know about “conniption” is that it first appeared in the early 19th century, and it’s almost certainly an American invention because it never caught on in Great Britain. The source of the word is, unfortunately, unknown. But it’s been plausibly suggested that “conniption” arose as a variant of “corruption” in the antiquated sense of “anger” or “temper” (“‘Let alone my goods’ … exclaimed I, for my corruption was rising.” J. Galt, 1830). This sense of “corruption” viewed anger and frustration as the dark, evil side of human nature, as Anne Bronte used it in her 1848 “Tenant of Wildfell Hall”: “I am no angel, and my corruption rises against it.”

While many 19th century uses of “conniption” seem to involve swooning or fainting, with or without foaming at the mouth, today the word has calmed down a bit in popular usage, and is often used to describe a person simply “acting out” when expectations are not met. The boss who wanted your report yesterday, the passenger landing in Detroit whose luggage is apparently en route to Seoul, the diner whose replacement French fries are colder than the first serving (that’s me) are all conniption candidates.

Perhaps because I normally have eerily low blood pressure, I tend not to visibly freak out when things go wrong, preferring to remain quietly nonplussed, which brings me to today’s Princess Bride moment (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). “Nonplussed” did not, as many people think, originally mean “unfazed” or “impassive.” It meant “perplexed, confounded or overwhelmed” and comes from the Latin “non plus,” meaning “no more,” as in “I can’t take any more.” Many people, however, see the “non” prefix and assume it signals “having no reaction.” This “wrong” use is rapidly gaining on the etymologically “correct” use, which is how language changes, but I kinda like “nonplussed” in the “no more” sense. I’d throw a conniption about the “proper” meaning of “nonplussed,” but I doubt it would make any difference.

Reckon

Needless to say, I never made Pardner.

Dear Word Detective: Howdy. I was just reading an article on cornbread, apparently written by a British person. She wrote, “in the US, almost everyone reckons they know what makes good cornbread.” I never “reckon,” but my sister, who has lived in Georgia for 15 years, “reckons” constantly. What is the deal with this word? — Valorie in WA.

Howdy? Thereby hangs a tale. Many years ago, when I worked as a lowly scrivener at a large, evil New York City law firm, I would often run into coworkers coming down the hall, who would usually greet me, quite reasonably, with “Hi.” I would, however, almost invariably blurt out “Howdy” in reply. I have no idea where that “Howdy” came from, and though I tried to break myself of the habit, I kept saying it. I grew up in Connecticut, not a “Howdy”-rich environment, and outside the office I usually went with “Hiya.” Weird. Not that there’s anything wrong with “Howdy,” of course; it’s just a compressed dialectical form of the very polite greeting “How do you do?”

“Reckon” is another word that probably would have sounded odd in a Manhattan law firm. In its modern sense of “to calculate or guess” (“I reckon it’s about two miles away”) or “to suppose or believe something” (“I reckon he’s just not the marrying kind”), “reckon” is a vague but very useful word. Nobody ever got popped for perjury using “reckon.” It’s got a built-in “maybe.”

When “reckon” first appeared in English around 1200 (as “recenen”), it meant “to calculate, estimate, explain,” and came from the same Germanic base word that gave us “right.” Early senses included enumerating things, counting money, compiling lists and settling accounts (including a “divine reckoning” after death, when one would be called upon to explain one’s failure to recycle).

From the sense of a persnickety bean-counting, “reckon” developed a more laid-back subjective sense of “to regard” a person or thing as possessing certain qualities, importance, etc. (“Fortius would have been reckon’d a Wit, if there had never been a Fool in the World.” 1712). “Reckon” also developed the sense of “estimate, judge or predict” (“They reckon that this …Work will be finish’d in about fifty Years.” 1745). Other senses included “to plan,” “to intend,” and “to expect.”

Many senses of “reckon” are now considered colloquial and are thus unlikely to be encountered in standard or “business English,” which is odd, because some of the most refined literature in the 17th through 19th centuries used them with no hint of informality (“I shall have a good deal of trouble, I reckon, .. to be decent on the expected occasion.” Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 1748). But “reckon” eventually came to be regarded as typical of southern and rural dialects in the US (and of regional dialects in the UK), and became stereotyped as a “hayseed” usage.

Tooth Bottle

Just a snootfull, thanks.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan; he is a virtuoso of the English language. I usually get all the allusions sprinkled throughout his fiction and can usually make sense of unfamiliar “Wodehouse-isms,” but one term employed in “The Code of the Woosters” leaves me scratching my head. Google has been quite useless in furnishing me with any shadow of a clue. The term is “tooth-bottle.” — Roderick Spode.

Roderick Spode, eh? Did you know you have a Wikipedia page? Quite a fetching picture, though you look a little peeved. In any case, you’ve put me in a bit of a bind with your question. I too am a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan, and “The Code of the Woosters” (1938) is peak Bertie and Jeeves. But I haven’t the space to explain much of anything about the Jeeves and Wooster canon except that Jeeves is Bertram Wooster’s valet (and much smarter than his boss). Wikipedia offers a decent summary of that story, one of Wodehouse’s more intricate creations, but folks should really read Wodehouse; the man was both a superb stylist and a true comic genius. The 1990 Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie ITV series “Jeeves and Wooster” was also very good, although they did mess with the stories a bit.

In the relevant passage of “The Code of the Woosters,” Bertie is attempting to question his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier and career wet noodle, as to why Sir Watkyn Basset has suddenly forbidden Gussie’s impending marriage to his daughter, Madeline Bassett. Midway through his explanation, Gussie expresses a desire for a drink, and Bertie replies, “The tooth-bottle is at your elbow,” to which Gussie replies, “Thanks! … Ah! That’s the stuff!” Bertie then suggests that Gussie “Have a go at the jug,” but Gussie declines, saying, “I know when to stop.” So it’s reasonable to assume that the “tooth-bottle” contains a small quantity of liquor, far less than “a jug.” But why was it called a “tooth” bottle?

After a long and fruitless search through books and online sources, I decided to turn to the smart folks at ask.metafilter.com, who quickly came up with a variety of theories and helpful links. It seems, for instance, that Enid Bagnold, playwright and author of “National Velvet,” had used “tooth-bottle” twice in a 1930 play (“Alice and Thomas and Jane”), in both cases meaning a small bottle containing wine. So it wasn’t a one-off “Wodehouse-ism.”

As for “why a tooth,” I strongly suspect that such small bottles or decanters took their name from their resemblance to the small glass toothpowder bottles of the era (“toothpowder” being the precursor of toothpaste). During the same period many home bathrooms also sported “tooth glasses,” small tumblers used for rinsing and storing one’s tooth brush. Since everyone was familiar with toothpowder bottles, it seems entirely plausible that “tooth bottle” would have gained currency as a slightly jocular name for a small “personal size” bottle of liquor or wine.