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Ironing out a quibble.

Dear Word Detective:  The subject of this question regards “G.I.” in reference to persons and things military, not in the medical sense of  gastro-intestinal.  I was astounded just now to note that Wikipedia says that the expression originally meant, not “Government Issue,” but “Galvanized Iron.”  There was other incorrect or misleading information in their brief article, enough to make me jump over to my favorite site and ask, “What have you got on this, O Sherlock of the vocables?” — Charles Anderson.

“Sherlock of the vocables”?  OK.  Actually, I should have known I’d end up in this racket when, as a child, I developed a fascination with Sherlock Holmes.  I’ve read every Holmes story Conan Doyle ever wrote, and I reread them every few years.  My wife can’t understand how I manage it, given that I know how they turn out, but I know how the Goldberg Variations turns out, too, and I still enjoy listening to it.

I looked up “G.I.” on Wikipedia, and I must say that whoever wrote that entry has absolutely no future as a diplomat (or, if we’re lucky, as a teacher).  There’s a weirdly hostile and arrogant undertone to that entry.  However, as least as far as the ultimate origin of “G.I.” goes, the author is not crazy.  But the question could certainly use much more explanation.

“G.I.” is, of course, slang for a soldier in the US Army, specifically an enlisted man or woman.  The term has been used in this sense since at least 1939, and was very commonly used during World War II.  As an adjective applied to the uniforms, equipment, etc., issued to soldiers, “G.I.” has long been considered to stand for “Government Issue” in phrases such as “G.I. soap,” “G.I. underwear,” etc.

In its first use by the military itself, however, “G.I.” did indeed stand for “galvanized iron.”  The heavy metal garbage cans found on every base were stamped “Can, G.I.” on the bottom, which would have been very visible to any unlucky soldier detailed to scrub one clean (i.e., almost every soldier at some point).  “G.I.” was also apparently stamped on buckets and various tools.  This government use of “G.I.” dates to around 1907 and continued at least though World War I.  During WWI, soldiers familiar with the heavy “G.I.” trashcans sardonically applied the term to large German artillery shells, which became known as “G.I. Cans.”

Around 1917, however, the abbreviation “G.I.” underwent a widespread “reinterpretation” among soldiers as standing for “government issue,” and by the 1920s “G.I.” was being appended to things (“G.I. cap,” “G.I. boots,” etc.) that could not possibly be made of galvanized iron.  This set the stage for “G.I.” to come into use meaning the soldier himself (or, eventually, herself).

Exactly what led to this change in the popularly-accepted meaning of “G.I.” is unclear.  It’s likely that the abbreviation “G.I.” simply became so well known among the troops, many of whom probably never understood that it meant “galvanized iron,” that a new, more logical meaning filled a need and became an unstoppable force.

So while “galvanized iron” was certainly the origin of the Army abbreviation “G.I.”, it’s perfectly true to say that today “G.I.” stands, as it has for almost a century, for “Government Issue.”

Dutch, Do the

Some slurs are, evidently, eternal.

Dear Word Detective:  In a mystery novel (titled “The Dutch”), author Les Roberts says the phrase “doing the Dutch” is “street language” for committing suicide.  True?  How did it come to be? — Kathryn Little.

Reading novels again, are we?  That’s increasingly a girl thing, it seems.  There’s an interesting profile in a recent New Yorker magazine of the British novelist Ian McEwan.  In it McEwan tells of the time he and his son took thirty novels, culled from his home library, to a London park and tried to give them to passersby.  According to McEwan, “[E]very young woman we approached . . . was eager and grateful to take a book,” but the men “… could not be persuaded.”  McEwan concluded that “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”  Maybe the solution is to serialize novels on beer cans.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the answer is yes, “doing the Dutch” is indeed slang for suicide, also known as “the Dutch act,” which is obviously unfair to the Dutch.  If, as a nation, the Dutch really had an extraordinary predilection for suicide, the Netherlands wouldn’t be nearly so crowded.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of anti-Dutch slurs in the English language.

A survey of the wide range of pejorative terms in English that include the word “Dutch” would lead one to conclude that there is scarcely an unpleasant aspect of human existence that has not been unfairly ascribed to the Dutch by English-speaking people.  Most of these terms are relics of the fierce competition between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century, when the countries were establishing rival global empires.  According to Hugh Rawson, who devotes almost three pages of his wonderful book “Wicked Words” (Crown, 1989) to the linguistic products of anti-Dutch fervor in the Britain of that period, almost anything viewed as “inferior,” “abnormal” or “foreign” was labeled “Dutch.”  Many of these locutions lasted well past the period of  hostility between the two nations, and some are still heard today.

“Dutch courage,” for example, is false bravado, often fortified by large amounts of alcohol.  A “Dutch treat” is a dinner or similar occasion where no one is “treated” and everyone pays his or her own way.  “Dutch nightingale” was, at one time, mocking slang for a frog.  To “speak Dutch” was to speak gibberish or nonsense, and something completely incomprehensible was described as “double-Dutch.”  (“Double Dutch” jump rope is so-called because it is difficult and confusing, requiring hopping through two jump ropes twirling in opposite directions like an eggbeater.)   A “Dutch defense” was a sham defense to mask a retreat, and to “do a Dutch” meant to run away as well as to commit suicide.  To “take Dutch leave” was to desert, and today we still describe someone in trouble as being “in Dutch.”

Interestingly, some of these unpleasant creations crossed the Atlantic and were used in America, not because there was much Dutch presence here (apart from in early New York City), but because German immigrants to America were known as “Dutch” due to a common misunderstanding of “Deutsch” (meaning “German” in German) as meaning “Dutch.”  To this day the descendants of German immigrants in Pennsylvania are known as “the Pennsylvania Dutch.”


Agreeably nuts.

Dear Word Detective:  Please could you tell me whereabouts the word “balmy” originates?  It would settle an argument, as my mother-in-law says it must be a Norfolk saying.  We mean “balmy” as in “balmy weather.”  I really hope you can help. — Kerrie.

Me too.  By the way, I assumed that you were writing from Norfolk, Virginia until I saw the “uk” suffix on your email.  I didn’t know you folks had a Norfolk too.  According to Wikipedia, your Norfolk was founded by the Romans, but then invaded by the Angles (from whom the English language takes its name), who established two settlements, known as the “north folks” and the “south folks,” which eventually became Norfolk and Suffolk.  Call me cynical, but it seems that y’all passed up a substantial revenue opportunity there.  It’s never too late to rename them Exxon City and Murdochville, you know.

You specify “balmy” in the sense of “balmy weather,” but “balmy” in all its meanings is the same word with the same origin.

“Balmy” is, of course, an adjective, and behind “balmy” we find the noun “balm,” which first appeared in English in the 13th century meaning, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “an aromatic substance, consisting of resin mixed with volatile oils, exuding naturally from various trees of the genus Balsamodendron, and much prized for its fragrance and medicinal properties.”  In this sense, “balm” is essentially synonymous with “balsam” and, in fact, “balm” is derived from the Greek word “balsamon,” meaning “balsam.”  Balm has been used  for various purposes throughout human history, most notably as an ointment for soothing pain or wounds.  A mixture of balm and spices was also used for many centuries to preserve the bodies of the dead, a process still reflected in the modern English word “embalm.”

Given the widespread use of various kinds of balm to relieve pain and distress, it’s not surprising that by the 16th century “balm” was being used in a figurative sense to mean “a healing or soothing influence” (“See here the balms that passion’s wounds assuage,” 1807).  The related adjective “balmy,” once meaning simply “producing balm,” took on the figurative meaning of “soothing” (“Tir’d Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy Sleep!” 1742).  By 1704, “balmy” was also being applied specifically to mild, soothing weather.

In view of all these uses of “balmy” to mean something pleasant, it’s a bit of a jolt to find that “balmy” has also been, since the 1850s, common British slang meaning “weak-minded” or “insane,” and the connection is not, to put it mildly, obvious.  Most likely, “balmy” in this sense comes from the vague, tuned-out and “mild” manner of the afflicted, especially those of advanced age.  People who are “balmy” tend to be quietly loopy, not dramatically disruptive.

Another very similar slang term in Britain is “barmy,” which may sound like a form of “balmy” but actually comes from “barm,” the froth in the “head” of a glass of beer.  In the 17th century, “barmy” in a figurative sense meant “very excited” (like the fizzy bubbles in “barm”), but in the 19th century “barmy” essentially merged with “balmy” in the “crazy” sense and today the words are used interchangeably.