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The quicker mixer-upper.

Dear Word Detective: Could you please explain the word “ply”? As a noun, I associate it with “two-ply” paper towels, referring (I guess) to the layers of paper. But as a verb it seems to mean “convince” or “bribe,” as in “ply a politician with money.” I also see it used in reference to ships “plying” oceans, people “plying” their trades, etc. If all these “plys” are the same word, I really don’t see the connection. There’s also the “plywood” people put up over their windows when hurricanes approach. Is that also connected to “ply”? — B.T.

I have a theory about plywood and hurricanes. A reasonable person might ask, and many have, why people in places like Florida run out to buy plywood every time a storm looms. What, they ask, happened to last year’s plywood? My theory (and I admit to being a lifelong plywood-hater) is that as soon as the danger passes, they burn the dreadful stuff, because plywood is an abomination, abhorrent and anathema to nature. Incidentally, as for why residents of the northern US buy new snow shovels every winter, it’s because their garages are impassible tangles of junk they bought on eBay.

The reason that “ply” can mean all those various things that you mention (and more) is that English actually has two verbs “to ply,” which developed separately and are considered different words (although if you go back far enough they turn out to share a common ancestor). Curiously, they both seem to have appeared in English at roughly the same time, in the late 14th century.

The basic sense of one sort of “ply” is “to bend or fold,” and it comes from the Old French “plier,” also meaning “to bend,” which was derived from the Latin “plicare,” meaning “to bend, fold, twist or lay.” In English this “ply” initially meant “to bend or fold,” especially fabric or other material, and “to fold over, double or shape.” This use gave us the noun “ply” meaning “layer or strand,” eventually producing both “two-ply” paper towels and “plywood,” which is composed of thin slices of real wood glued together. The “bend” sense of “ply” also gave us the name of “pliers,” a hand tool used to bend and cut wire as well as to grip and turn bolts, etc.

This “ply” was also used, up until the 18th century, in a figurative sense of “bend” to mean “to change someone’s mind” or, intransitively, “to bend to another’s will,” a sense preserved in the adjective “pliable” meaning “easily influenced” (especially, in the case of politicians, with money).

The other “ply” in English is actually simply an aphetic, or shortened, form of the common verb “to apply,” which also dates back to the 14th century and also comes from the Latin “plicare” (to fold or lay) plus the prefix “ap,” giving the sense of “to bring things into contact” or “to apply force to.” The form “ply” initially meant “to wield a tool, etc. forcefully” or, more generally, to “apply” oneself to a task, career, business, etc. (“He that plies to his business finds it, when grown familiar to him, a state of satisfaction.” 1774). In a nautical context “ply” means to move forward, make progress on one’s course, especially a routine route between two points (“Hardy bargemen who ply Father Thames by day and night from Twickenham Ferry to the Nore.” 1897).

February 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


If April is planning on being the cruelest month this year it has some catching up to do, because January and the first half of February have just about convinced me to move to the tropics, and I loathe even the concept of the tropics. Horrid places, full of sweat and bugs, sweaty, biting bugs, bugs building nests in your ears, spiders the size of poodles….  Anyway, I remember standing in our north field on a very cold winter day right after we moved out here from Manhattan, icy wind spitting freezing rain in my face, looking at the horizon across several hundred desolate acres of frozen corn stubble, and thinking, “Y’know, if I didn’t have that nice warm house to go back to, I would die rather rapidly out here.” (Yes, I can be hired for parties.)

So when I innocently clicked on my weather widget the other afternoon and discovered that it was 20 degrees below zero out there (actual temperature, not “wind chill”), I started to freak. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived in New York City for more than 20 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times the electricity went out. That’s fewer than the number of times it’s gone out here, often for days, in the past year. In warm weather, it’s merely a colossal drag. But if the power goes out in this kind of weather, we’ll be in serious trouble within about 1/2 hour. A few years ago, we had to squeeze five cats and two dogs into a tiny flea-bag motel room (on Christmas Eve, no less), and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work. Not an option.

Meanwhile, in the world of popular culture, we finally caught up with the third season of Homeland last month after dodging spoilers for weeks and, boy howdy, the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity were absolutely right. Utterly moronic, the entire season. It started stupid and went downhill from there. Don’t get me started. It probably didn’t help that they killed all the interesting people and left us with the most relentlessly unpleasant troubled teen in TV history. Whatever. I hadn’t paid any attention to Mandy Patinkin since The Princess Bride, but now he’s the only conceivable reason to watch the show, which probably means he hasn’t long to live.

Anyway, in an attempt to reboot my mind, I decided to re-read John le Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy, consisting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People (Karla being the pseudonym of the head of Soviet Intelligence). Unlike the idiots who cook up nonsense like Homeland, le Carré was an actual intelligence officer, running field agents for MI6 until his cover was blown (and his career thus ruined) by Kim Philby, a Soviet “mole” (le Carré popularized the term) who spent decades in the highest precincts of British intelligence. Tinker, Tailor, not coincidentally, centers on the detection and capture of a Philby-esque Soviet mole in MI6.

Continue reading this post » » »

Take the studs

You’re not the boss of me.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up in the Tennessee Valley, and all my life I’ve heard the phrase “took the studs,” meaning to become stubborn. It’s usually used to refer to a mule — a mule “took the studs” when he refused to pull the plow any further. But it’s also applied to people who are being unreasonable on a given subject, as in “Mom wanted my brother to become a doctor, but he took the studs.” Any clue where this came from? Does anyone anywhere else in the world use this phrase? — Judith Weaver.

This is my favorite kind of question. Someone asks about a word, phrase or saying they’ve heard all their life. They understand the meaning perfectly, but the logic of the phrase and its origin are a complete mystery. I, having never heard said phrase in my life, poke around for a while in the musty “dead tree” reference books people keep telling me I should throw away. Finally, with one hand tied behind my back (shooing cats off the keyboard, actually), I hit pay dirt and solve the mystery. Yay me! Of course, as a wise person once said, “If I see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants … and stolen their stuff.”

Now comes the hard part, actually explaining “took the studs,” which, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), is used in the US South and South Midlands to mean exhibiting “a fit of stubborn opposition, balkiness” (“Pap has taken the studs, and I have made up my mind to leave here for good and all,” 1891). The earliest citation in DARE for “take the studs” (or “get” or “have”) comes from 1797, and it’s clear that it’s a term primarily applied to balky horses and mules, and, by figurative extension, to uncooperative people.

There are two “stud” nouns in English. The older is “stud” meaning “a post or support” (as in the “studs” inside the walls of a house) or “something projecting from a surface” (as in the “stud” of an earring or cuff-link). This “stud” dates back to about 850 and comes from Germanic roots with the sense of “support.” The other sort of “stud,” which appeared about 1000, comes from Indo-European roots with the meaning of “stand,” “things standing,” or “herd,” and originally referred to a herd of horses or other animals kept by one person, especially for breeding.

And now the good news (for me, at least): neither of those “studs” has anything to do with “take the studs.” The US phrase “take the studs” is actually a modified form of the old English dialect phrase “take the sturdy” or “take the sturdies.”

“Sturdy” in common usage means, of course, “solid,” “strong,” “resolute” and similar things. One of its older meanings, first appearing in Chaucer in the late 14th century, is “defiant of destructive agencies or force; strong, stout” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) as a house or bridge might be described as “sturdy.”

In senses applied to people, all now considered obsolete, “sturdy” meant “hard to manage, intractable, refractory; rebellious, disobedient” and “obstinate, immovable in opinion” (OED) (“My sonn doth begine to be [too] sturdie for my government,” c. 1635). That’s “take the studs” as applied to animals and people in a nutshell. The change in form from “sturdy” to “stud” was simply the result of time and the distance, geographic and cultural, from 14th century England to the southern US. To “take the studs” thus means “to take a stubborn and uncooperative stance or attitude.”