Probably preferable to mature chaos, anyway.
Dear Word Detective: Last night in my dreams, my goofy subconscious pondered for what seemed like hours over the connection between the words “inchoate” and “chaos.” Their definitions are similar, and the root word looks similar, but the dictionary does not indicate any relationship. Is there? — Doris Render.
Hey, I’d rather have a goofy subconscious than a subconscious Goofy, am I right? And what is Goofy, anyway? Some kind of mutant talking kangaroo-spaniel hybrid? I think we should thaw out Uncle Walt and make him tell us. Strangely enough, I rarely dream about words, but I did have a dream last week in which someone used the term “tall thunder.” In the dream it meant “very important or significant.” Makes me wonder who’s buried under this house.
Back to work. You’re not the only person sensing some sort of connection between “inchoate” and “chaos.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) even offers a small note on the subject, to which we will return in a moment.
“Chaos” is a grand old word, and by that I mean very old and profound in its origin. English took “chaos” directly from the Latin “chaos,” which came from the Greek “khaos,” which meant “a vast chasm; the yawning abyss; empty space; the first state of the universe.” The Proto-Indo-European root that produced “khaos,” in fact, also gave us the word “yawn.” In English we initially used “chaos” to mean “a formless void,” especially the primordial state from which the universe arose. By the late 16th century, we were using “chaos” to mean a condition resembling that primitive disorder, “a state of confusion” or “a mixture of several things where the parts cannot be distinguished” (“The meeting dissolved into a chaos of shouts where nothing could be clearly heard”). This “state of utter confusion” is the most common sense of “chaos” today.
“Chaos,” of course, is a noun, while “inchoate” is an adjective. English developed “inchoate” in the 16th century from the Latin “inchoatus” (more properly spelled “incohatus”), the past participle of “inchoare,” meaning “to begin.” The root of “inchoare” seems to be the Latin “cohum,” the part of the harness with which draft animals were attached to a plow, etc. So the root sense of the Latin “inchoatus” was something like “saddled up and ready to go,” i.e., just beginning.
The basic meaning of “inchoate” in English has been “just beginning,” “immature, undeveloped,” or “imperfect, unformed, vague” (“Steve’s plan seemed plausible but inchoate, so investors were leery of committing actual bucks.”). “Inchoate” is most often pronounced “in-KOH-et,” by the way, although “in-koh-ATE” is also acceptable.
“Inchoate” does, however, have a second meaning, which is “disordered, confused or incoherent,” i.e., characterized by chaos, or “chaotic.” The OED suggests that this sense of “inchoate,” which first appeared in print in 1922, might have resulted from simple confusion with “chaotic,” but also notes that the “undeveloped” sense of “inchoate” might logically imply the “lacking structure” sense of “chaotic.” So perhaps treating “inchoate” and “chaotic” as near-synonyms makes a certain sense, even though the words are unrelated.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Whaddaya mean May? I distinctly said to wake me in April. This is an outrage.
But wait! Look over there! A kitty! Apparently reading Slashdot. Odd. Anyhoo, this is Marley, one of the famous Garage Kittens from about eight years ago, now all growed up and permanently ensconced on my desk. Seriously. All the other cats wander around the house, find new favorite spots, look out the window, chase mice in the kitchen, but not Marley. Marley has a job: sitting on my desk, and he takes it very, very seriously. Marley never moves. Marley is bolted to my desk.
Marley on the desk.
Actually, Marley does sometimes wander off to eat, repel invaders, and so forth, and sometimes Marley will be standing on the couch or a table when he senses that I am about to walk past, headed for the desk. Marley waits until the last possible moment and then quickly leaps toward the desk so that he sails across my path, clearing me by mere inches. Actually, that’s on a good day. On a bad day, he either slams into my arm or misjudges the distance and lands on the floor.
Marley, incidentally, is discouraged from going out in the hall because he has a record of attempting to leap from the hall table to the banister above the stairwell and overshooting the mark. Marley apparently cannot fly, and is very lucky the stairs are thickly carpeted.
But mostly Marley just sits on my desk. Staring at me. For hours at a time. Staring at my face. Sitting or lying next to the keyboard, staring at my face without blinking or moving a muscle. I know he does this because he likes me (at least I hope that’s it). Occasionally he’ll make his signature noise, which is the sort of chirping trill usually associated with songbirds. (Marley can also say one word — “Hi” – very clearly. This cat ain’t normal.) Every so often he’ll reach out verrrry slowly and tap me on the nose if he senses I’m not paying attention. Apparently I’m supposed to stare at him all day, too. If I finally can’t take it anymore and stand up and gently carry Marley over to the nice soft couch where the other kitties snooze, he flies back to his spot on the desk before I get back to my chair. I sit down and there he is, staring at me, now with a hurt expression on his kitty-cat face. Then I have to watch a half-hour of Maru videos with him to cheer him up. Marley loves Maru. He’s also the only cat I’ve known who really enjoys watching TV; he’s endlessly fascinated by Mister Ed.
Marley is not a small cat, and I’m always surprised by how heavy he is, a fact that suddenly became important about two weeks ago. I have a smaller writing desk behind my big desk, where I sometimes type on my laptop. I’ve been dragging this little desk around since 1969, so it has considerable sentimental value. But its real attraction lately has been that if I’m typing on it with my laptop, there’s no room for Marley. He has to stay on the big desk behind me. This understandably frustrates him, and he occasionally leans over and taps me on the shoulder to get me to turn around and pet him a little.
So one evening two weeks ago, I’m typing away at my little desk when Marley realizes he’s been patient long enough and decides to leap from the big desk to the little one, apparently planning to land in my coffee cup. Unfortunately, I picked the exact moment of Marley’s takeoff to swivel in my chair towards the big desk, and Marley hit the side of my head going full tilt. He must have had a good bit of momentum, because I felt like I’d been beaned with a fur-covered bowling ball. Wow.
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And they never buy the house with clothes in the closet.
Dear Word Detective: I remember hearing people say that such and such behavior seems like “bad pool”– meaning that it seemed underhanded or sneaky. Yet I find very few examples of the phrase on a Google search, and no discussions about the origin or meaning of the phrase. Is it even a real expression, or did I just mishear something? And if it is for real, why is it so rare? And where did it come from? Thanks for any info you can provide! — David A.
Whoa. You and me both, dude. I’ve just spent about ten minutes staring at your question and racking my brain about “bad pool.” I thought it sounded familiar, and I instinctively knew what it means, but I couldn’t remember ever actually hearing the phrase. It’s a creepy sort of feeling, as if someone in your family just referred to a sibling you never knew you had. The worst part was that this sort of thing has happened before. About 15 years ago, in answering a reader’s question, I convinced myself that the verb “stinch,” meaning “to be cheap,” not only existed, but that I had actually used it as a child. It doesn’t, and I didn’t. I was, in my garbled memory, apparently combining “stint” (meaning “to cut short or restrict”) with “stingy.”
In this case, the phrase you are thinking of (and which I was temporarily unable to retrieve from the sticky sludge of my mind) is not “bad pool,” but “dirty pool.” You may indeed have heard “bad pool” at some point, but “dirty pool” is definitely the common form of the phrase. Yup, “dirty pool,” and there’s no need to take away my car keys just yet.
The “pool” in the phrase “dirty pool” is not a puddle of unsanitary water, but the game of pool, played with cues and balls on a rectangular table with raised, cushioned edges. “Pool” takes its name from the Old French “poule,” and was originally a card game (with a “pool” of stakes in the middle of the table). “Poule” is also French for “hen,” and the theory is that if you trace “pool” even further back, you’ll find a Medieval game that consisted of throwing things at a chicken. Seriously.
By the way, for you HGTV “House Hunters” fans, if the home buyers inspect a house containing a pool table, that’s the one they’ll finally “pick” (they’ve actually already bought it). The same table will appear in the “after” shots, often accompanied by a little fable about how they bought it from the previous homeowners. Now turn off the TV and go play outside.
The “dirty” in “dirty pool” is the adjective used in its sense of “morally unclean,” as in such now-antiquated phrases as “dirty movie.” In the mid-18th century “dirty” first appeared in the sense of “earned by dishonest or despicable means,” and by the early 20th century, “to do the dirty” meant “to play an underhanded trick” (“The Germans have been ‘doing the dirty’ on us by donning khaki and kilts to approach our trenches,” 1914). “Dirty trick” employs the same “sneaky, underhanded” sense of “dirty.”
So “dirty pool” refers to a game of pool, and by extension nearly any endeavor, conducted in a dishonest, dishonorable fashion, especially by lying, cheating or exploiting an unfair advantage. “Dirty pool” first appeared as an idiom meaning “unfair tactics” in Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel The Cane Mutiny (“I played pretty dirty pool, you know, in court”), and remains widely in use today. The phrase carries a strong connotation of disapproval, i.e., the tactic being described as “dirty pool” would be beneath the dignity of a decent person (“If Russia badly needs food to replace crops ruined by the nuclear plant accident, should the U.S. use its surplus food as a weapon? … No. That would be dirty pool,” 1986).