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I have no idea how that cat got in there.

Dear Word Detective: Returning recently from a family holiday in Canada, my daughter asked, anent the man in the booth to whom I was obliged to report the quantity of whisky I had aboard, “Why is it called ‘Customs’?” I checked Oxford online, which says, tersely, that the word arises from a customary payment to a ruler when goods enter his realm. Seems like there might be a bit more to it than that? — Leslie Weatherhead.

Have you noticed that nothing is simple anymore? I pasted your question into LibreOffice (Word for people who hate Word) and it immediately didn’t like your spelling “whisky,” preferring “whiskey.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that “In modern trade usage, Scotch ‘whisky’ and Irish ‘whiskey’ are thus distinguished in spelling; ‘whisky’ is the usual spelling in Britain and ‘whiskey’ that in the U.S.,” but that entry dates back to 1924, so there’s that. Wikipedia declares that “The spelling ‘whiskey’ is common in Ireland and the United States while ‘whisky’ is used in every other whisky producing country in the world.” Whatever, I guess.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, “anent” means “about” or “regarding,” and comes from the Old English “on efen,” meaning “alongside” or “face to face.”

When “custom” first appeared in English around 1200, it meant “the common or usual practice or behavior; habit, fashion” (“It is a custom, more honored in the breach, than in the observance.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1603). English adopted “custom” from the Old French “costume” (“custom, practice, style of dress”), which was formed on the Latin “consuescere,” meaning “to become accustomed.” A “customer” (first appearing around1480) was originally someone who habitually shopped in a given store, etc. “Customer” eventually took on the informal meaning of “person one has to deal with,” giving us the “ugly customers” of noir crime films.

Fun fact: as you might have guessed from that reference to the Old French word “costume,” our modern “custom” and “costume” are, spelling aside, actually the same word. “Costume,” with its original meaning of “fashion of a given time” (eventually the more modern “appropriate dress for an occasion”), was imported into English quite a bit later (more than five centuries, in fact) than “custom,” and came to us from Italian rather than French.

Meanwhile, back at “custom,” by the mid-14th centuries the “customary” (i.e., regular, established) rents paid by feudal tenants to their lords were known as “custom.” Commodities imported to or exported from the dominion of the king or similar authority were also subject to standardized “custom” taxes or levies, and eventually the part of the Civil Service in Britain that levied those duties became known as “the Customs.” The term “customs” in the “search your luggage” sense has since come to be used, obviously, all over the world.

Incidentally, “custom” as an adjective meaning “specially made or modified to order is a fairly recent (1830) US invention. The British synonym (now less commonly heard) is “bespoke,” from “bespoken” (ordered or commissioned to be made).


I prefer the term “compact.”

Dear Word Detective:  How do you spell a word that means “very small,” that starts with a “p,” and sounds like “puenee,” or “punie,” or “pwewnee”…? Whatever that word is, I would love to know the correct spelling and its derivation. — Sylvia.

Good question. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that this mystery word is driving you nuts. It can be very difficult to identify a word you’ve heard but never read, especially since so many English spellings are, shall we say, counter-intuitive (“Wednesday,” “Colonel” and “Island,” just for starters). A good thesaurus can help in many cases; just look up the meaning (“very small”) or similar words (“tiny”) and chances are that the culprit will be sitting there in the list of synonyms,  looking guilty.

But now, to actually answer your question, the word you’re probably thinking of is “puny,” an adjective meaning (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak; diminutive, tiny.” It’s a great word because it’s almost always used in a derogatory sense (“Your puny Earth weapons are no match for me, for I am Dwayne, Lord of the Galaxy.”). In modern usage, something “puny” is not merely small, but ridiculously inadequate (“One puny hamburger all day for a growing child?”) or inappropriately small or feeble for a given activity (“Why would you want to watch a big-screen action movie on some puny iPad?”).

“Puny” first appeared in English in the 16th century, adapted from the Old French “puisne” (a compound formed from “puis,” later, plus “né,” born) meaning “younger, born later.” (That “né,” incidentally, is the masculine form of “née,” which is sometimes used to indicate the “birth name” of married women, e.g., “Jackie Kennedy, née Bouvier”). “Puisne” itself, pronounced the same as “puny,” was used in English for several centuries, but survives today only in legal terminology.

“Puny” has undergone some interesting changes over the years. It first appeared as a noun, meaning “a recently admitted student to a school or university,” and from there took on the more general sense of “a less-experienced person; a novice.” Not surprisingly, the word also was used to mean “a subordinate; a person of no significance.”

The adjective form of “puny,” appearing in the late 16th century, originally meant simply  “junior or younger,” but soon took on its modern meaning of “inferior in size, quality, or amount; insignificant; weak, etc.”, almost always served up with a heaping helping of contempt (“Some puny scribbler invidiously attempted to found upon it a charge of inconsistency.” Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791). Of course, it helps that the word itself begins with a “pew” sound, long used as an expression of disgust or contempt (“Pew! what an ungratefulness and unwontness the man is grown unto!” 1941).

If there’s a kinder, gentler use of “puny” out there, it’s to be found in the southern US, where “puny” can mean simply “in poor health; sickly” (“I found your dear Aunt Catherine in a very puny state, not entirely confined, but obliged to rest herself on the bed more or less every day.” 1838).

Break a leg, again.

Merde to spare.

Dear Word Detective: You’ve addressed the phrase “break a leg” before. But lately, I’ve seen an image being shared quite a lot on social media which explains the phrase as follows: “This theatrical expression originated in the Music Hall/Vaudeville days around the 1800’s [sic]. Producers would have on stand-by as many different acts as possible to fill the bill. It was not viable to pay every act, so if they didn’t actually appear on stage, or get to break the visual plane of the leg line (wing masking), they received no fee. ‘Break a leg’ became a good luck wish that you would be paid for a performance.” This explanation makes more sense than the theory that performers used to break the wooden legs of the stage at the end of a successful performance (which theory you’ve debunked in a previous column) but it still strikes me a specious. It fails to address the German aviators in World War I who wished each other a “broken neck and a broken leg,” or French dancers who wish each other “Merde!” before going onstage. It fails to address the fact that, as you’ve pointed out before, the phrase “break a leg” doesn’t appear in print until 1957. And it fails to recognize that most human cultures through history have boasted strange customs based on the reverse psychology of not wanting to jinx things — and that these sorts of traditions aren’t limited to the performing arts. Can you address “break a leg” again and put this new pseudo-historical explanation to rest? — John Keogh

You’ve done a good job of summarizing the current state of play on “break a leg” in your question, and I must admit that I hadn’t heard the “wing mask” sense of “leg” theory in connection with the phrase. That use of “leg” to mean a long, thin drape on either side of the stage is definitely authentic theater terminology, but that doesn’t, of course, make it the source of the phrase.

It’s very difficult to prove a negative (i.e., that any particular story about “break a leg” isn’t true), but it is possible to make a judgment on what is most likely. In this case, we have an utterly unattested, unverified story that probably rests on nothing more than the coincidence of a bit of stage furnishings being called “legs.” On the other we have a field (the theater) which has always been rife with superstitions (e.g., the prohibition against saying the name of “the Scottish play” (Macbeth) in the backstage “green room”). There is also the ancient fear of tempting fate by wishing someone good luck, as evidenced in the traditions of many cultures for thousands of years. And finally we have the very similar phrase “Hals- und Beinbruch” (“leg and neck break”) from a completely unrelated field (aviation during World War I). (As a side note, although “break a leg” didn’t appear in print until the 1950s, anecdotal evidence indicates it was popular in the theater in the early years of the 20th century.)

Put that all together and I think we can say that “Break a leg” is clearly a form of a very old tactic of wishing someone embarking on a chancy mission “good luck” by seeming to curse them with “bad” luck so as to confuse the demons, deities, etc., in charge. In this case we could justifiably make an “argument from continuity” that if a ritual appears to be highly similar to a family of rituals practiced throughout human history, what we’ve found is simply a variation of that long-established ritual.