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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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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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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.



Dear Word Detective: I was strolling through our local tire shop recently when one of those “Why hasn’t this occurred to me before?” questions popped into my head: is there any connection between the “tires” a car runs on and the word “tired,” meaning fatigued? If so, is it because they eventually wear out, or what? — Dan.

Your “local tire shop,” eh? You have just one? Around here we have at least one every hundred yards or so; tire shops are almost as numerous as nail salons. One wonders why no one has yet combined the businesses into a shop called “Tires & Nails.” On second thought, I think I know.

There is, alas, no relation between the rubber doughnut that cars and truck roll on called a “tire” and the verb “to tire,” meaning to make or become fatigued (of which “tired” is a participial form). But both these “tires” are interesting words in their own right, so we’ll take that fact as a consolation prize.

The verb “to tire” is the older of the two, first appearing in Old English as “tiorian,” meaning “to diminish, come to an end, fail.” The origins of this “tire” are uncertain, but it may come from an Indo-European root with the sense “to lack.” By the 15th century “tire” was in common use in both intransitive and transitive forms, meaning, respectively, “to become exhausted” and “to make weary, to exhaust.” The early senses of both forms referred to literal physical exhaustion from hard labor or exertion, but by the 16th century our modern figurative uses of “tire” appeared, meaning “to be exhausted by repetition or excess; to become sick of” (intransitive) and “to make someone sick of something; to bore” (transitive).

The vehicular sort of “tire” dates back to the 15th century, and at that time meant the curved pieces of iron plate (called “strakes”) fastened around the edges of wooden carriage wheels to minimize wear (essentially horseshoes for wagon wheels). “Tires” eventually became continuous strips of metal, then inflated rubber tubes, and the modern tire shop was born.

The noun “tire,” however, had actually appeared in English more than 200 years earlier than its first “wheel” use, initially meaning simply “dress, apparel, covering,” which makes perfect sense because “tire” is simply an aphetic, or clipped form, of the familiar noun “attire,” meaning “clothing, costume, equipment or ornamentation.” The noun “attire” comes from the verb, meaning originally “to put in order, prepare” (from the Old French “atirier,” put in order).

Today we use “attire” to mean “clothing” or “personal outfit,” and the shortened form “tire” is used almost exclusively to mean those air-filled rubber things on your wheels, so there’s very little overlap. I do worry a bit, however, about those students who may, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, come across a line using “tire” in the old “clothing” sense, e.g., “You in Grecian tires are painted new.” Today that probably sounds like someone is restoring a classic car.

July – August Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun. It rained here for 23 out of the 31 days in July. And this wasn’t a gentle drizzle; it was usually torrential downpours that flooded roads and knocked out power in our area, which may have had something to do with the fact that our landline telephone stopped working on July 2nd, stayed out for eight days, and hasn’t really worked right ever since then. Oddly enough, the DSL internet on our phone line kinda worked some of that time, albeit at sub-modem speeds (23 kb/s, way too slow to be useful). But after much sturm und drang with Frontier (who bought up Verizon’s rural accounts several years ago), we finally got it fixed. Sortof. Yay.

The very next day our refrigerator died. No kidding. Unfortunately, that happened right after our weekly grocery-shopping trip. We only shop once a week because the nearest real supermarket is a 30-mile round trip, and we tend to accumulate staples (butter, milk, frozen vegetables, frozen chicken, etc.) whenever we can. So this ruined at least $200 of food. It took another ten days and $200+ to get it fixed.

And then … the phone died again. This time you could get a dial tone, but it was hard to hear it over the crashing static. DSL speeds dropped to 1.6 kb/s, too slow even to send a short email. This is where we are now; the phone is utterly unusable and the internet is a bad, useless joke. I’m gonna have to wait and hope for a fast period to post this update — oddly enough, every so often, usually for ten minutes or so late at night, we’d get 290 kb/s, an actual usable speed. It’s almost as if they (Frontier) were doing it on purpose. Oh wait, there’s a lawsuit in West Virginia alleging exactly that. The comments on that article are a window on Frontier’s business practices.

The real problem with Frontier is that they have no competition out here (there is no cable TV or internet, satellite internet is way too expensive, and even local dialupĀ  is famously unreliable). It’s not the infrastructure; we never had these problems with Verizon. And the fact that it sometimes runs at usable speeds means that the “problem” is way upstream of us. They’ve apparently oversold their antiquated network and would rather spend money on lobbyists than improving service.

Onward. I would have updated this site earlier (during the brief periods when we had internet), but on top of all this I’m having some truly bizarre visual problems, mostly in my right eye. I’m used to the flashes of light, eye pain and periods of extreme fuzziness common to multiple sclerosis, but this is like having an LED billboard at the right edge of my vision, one that moves and ripples and tilts in a disturbingly psychedelic fashion.

So this issue is way late, for which I am sorry.

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