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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.


Grandpa, what’s a “train”?

Dear Word Detective: Recently, the Kingston Trio Song “To Morrow” popped into my head (if a man of your discerning tastes hasn’t heard it, you really must). In it the narrator speaks of being “guyed” in the sense of being fooled or chivvied, the most current equivalent meaning I would imagine would be “messed with.” Any idea as to the origin of the expression? — Fred.

OK, I listened to “To Morrow” on YouTube. It’s interesting and clever, in a folk-songy way, though it has way too many banjos for my taste (i.e., one). It’s about a man who wants to take a train “to Morrow” (a town in Ohio) today and to return “tomorrow.” The song itself is his dialogue with the ticket-seller, which takes the form of an extended misunderstanding similar to the classic Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First” routine.

The lyrics to the song I found on the internet read “So I went down to the station for my ticket and applied for tips regarding Morrow not expecting to beguiled.” Since “beguiled” is an adjective, it doesn’t fit grammatically, so that’s probably a bad transcription. But the phrase could be either “be guiled” (the antiquated verb “guile” meaning “deceive,” as in “beguiled”) or “be guyed.” After listening to the song a few times, it really sounds like “be guyed,” which also scans and rhymes better with “applied.”

Assuming that “be guyed” is correct, we’re dealing with the verb “to guy,” which comes from the noun “guy,” which originally meant an effigy of Guy Fawkes traditionally burned in Britain on November 5 every year. (Guy Fawkes, you may remember, was involved in the unsuccessful Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.) Over the centuries the sense of “effigy” in “guy” broadened to mean “any grotesque character,” and then simply “a person,” as in “What do you guys want for dinner?”

The verb “to guy” originally meant to parade around with an effigy of Fawkes on the fifth of November, but by the mid-19th century “guy” was also used to mean “to mock or ridicule.” “To guy” was originally theater slang meaning to overplay one’s part for laughs or to sabotage another actor’s performance (“With all this at stake, some wanton actor deliberately ‘guys’ his part and overturns the patient care of his comrade.” 1890). That would certainly satisfy my definition of “mess with.” This use of “guy” is considered antiquated, but the song itself was copyrighted in 1898, so that still fits.

Incidentally your use of the fine word “chivvy,” meaning “to harass or worry,” may puzzle some readers, as it’s well-known in Britain but fairly rarely seen in the US. It’s actually a form of the verb “to chevy,” meaning “to chase,” which comes in turn from the noun “chevy,” originally a cry used as an exhortation when hunting with hounds (“When you are ready, I am … with a Hey Ho Chivey, and likewise with a Hark Forward, Hark Forward, Tantivy.” Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865). “Tantivy,” by the way, is another very old (1700s) English word meaning “to ride full tilt” (probably imitating the sound of a galloping horse’s hooves). It’s also the nickname of a character (Oliver Mucker-Maffick) in Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The “chevy” comes from “chevy chase,” meaning “a running pursuit,” possibly from a famous old song (“The Ballad of Chevy Chase”) describing a 14th century hunt on the Scotland/English border that turned into a battle. “Chevy Chase” is named in the song as the location of the fracas, but the actual place was probably named “Cheviot Chase.” Several places in the US are named “Chevy Chase,” the most notable being in Maryland. The “comedic actor” Chevy Chase is actually named Cornelius; “Chevy” was a childhood nickname his grandmother thought cute.