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“Fuhgeddaboudit” is my middle name.

Dear Word Detective: Here’s something I’ve always wondered, but forgot to ask: Why do we describe a tall, well-built person as “strapping”? What do straps have to do with being big and healthy? — Judith, NYC.

You and me both. I’m frequently asked about words and phrases I’ve wondered about myself in the past, but either never quite worked up the energy to research or, more often, simply forgot about a few minutes later. I used to carry a little notebook with me in which I intended to jot down such fleeting inspirations, but apparently I lack the self-discipline to actually jot things. Besides, I figure that sooner or later a reader will raise the question. And now you have.

“Strapping” in the sense of “large, robust, vigorously sturdy and muscular” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, and, interestingly, was initially applied to young women considered both “vigorous” and “lusty” (“And, now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him,” 1657). Today, of course, persons of either sex can be “strapping,” although the term is still largely reserved for the young. “Strapping young woman,” yes. “Strapping old geezer,” not so much.

There’s definitely a connection between “strapping” and “strap” in the usual sense of “a narrow, flat strip used for securing something,” the ultimate root of which was the Latin “stroppus,” meaning “band.” “Strapping” is drawn from the verb “to strap,” which has a variety of meanings ranging from the banal (“to fasten with straps”) to the unpleasant (“to beat with a leather strap”). The exact connection between “strapping” and “to strap” is a bit unclear, but “strapping” seems to combine the sense of strength in the noun “strap” with the verb “to strap” in the now antiquated sense of “to work tirelessly and energetically” (similar in meaning to the phrase “buckle down,” which originally meant to strap on one’s armor).

Speaking of “straps,” the current “economic downturn” (more of a “plunge,” I would say) has caused many of us to find ourselves “strapped,” i.e., short of money. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this slang term, which dates to 1857, to the verb “to strap” in the sense of “bound with straps.” But I beg to differ, and I suspect the real source is an entirely separate English dialectical verb “to strap,” a mutation of “to strip,” describing a particular technique for draining the last drops of milk from the udder of a cow. An 1881 glossary of English dialect terms notes that this verb “to strap” is “often metaphorically used for draining anything dry.” Considering that the public is, at the moment, playing the role of a cash cow being milked dry, this explanation of “strapped” rings true to me.

Piece of work

Pain in the toolbox?

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “piece of work” come from, as in “That guy is a piece of work.” — Kevin.

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard “piece of work” used in the sense you mention, and I think it was probably in the late 1960s or early 70s, possibly in a gritty cop movie such as “The French Connection” or “Bullitt.”

“Piece of work” as used in your example is definitely a derogatory phrase, usually meaning “a person of dubious or unpleasant character” or “someone particularly difficult to deal with” (“My boss steals our sandwiches from the employee fridge. He’s a real piece of work”). This use of the phrase is considered colloquial or informal, so a search of Google News, for instance, finds only a few examples of the phrase used in this derogatory sense, almost all in comments on news articles from cranky readers.

It is far more common in such searches to find “piece of work” used in the more standard sense of “a product of work” or “a creation,” especially a work of art, literature or the like (“She was indeed very proud that she had finished her book… Also she thought that it was a good piece of work,” Virginia Woolf, 1915). This is the original sense of the phrase, in common use since the late 15th century and made famous by William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” This sense is still very much in use today (“‘Hunger’ … is a superbly balanced piece of work, addressing the passion of Irish Republican martyr Bobby Sands,” Village Voice, March 2009).

By the mid-16th century, however, another sense of “piece of work” had arisen, meaning “a difficult task” or a situation that posed a serious challenge (“To perswade them to hearken to a treaty would prove a tough piece of worke,” 1619). By the beginning of the 19th century, this sense had broadened into a figurative use of “piece of work” to mean “a fuss, ruckus or commotion” (“What are you making all this piece of work for…?”, Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843).

Perhaps because Shakespeare had so famously equated “piece of work” with “human being” (and because knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was once a mark of a good education), use of “piece of work” in the third, derogatory sense to mean “an unpleasant person” is actually much older than one might expect. The earliest citation for this sense in the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, is from way back in 1713, and uses the phrase “piece of work” in a tone of scathing contempt (“I believe your Lordship will have nothing to do with him, he being a whidling, dangerous, piece of work and not to be trusted”). The use of negative adjectives before “piece of work,” as in that example, was once necessary to convey the desired meaning, but in recent decades just plain, unadorned “piece of work” applied to a person has come to be regarded as negative. Today it’s assumed that the person described as a “piece of work” is not being favorably compared, as in Hamlet, to an angel.

Jumper / Sweater

Hot enough for you?

Dear Word Detective: I recently had one of those interesting British vs. American language moments, when I realized that many Brits call sweaters “jumpers.” That made me giggle (particularly as the speaker, a grown man, referred to his “stripy jumper”), since I will always associate jumpers with rugrats, for better or worse. Then, however, I got to thinking about “sweater.” It’s actually kind of nasty, when you stand back and look at it. The garment is supposed to keep you warm and presumably comfortable. Any idea why we’ve chosen over time to name it for what happens when you use it when you shouldn’t (when the temperature doesn’t call for it)? — Chris Schultz.

That’s a darn good question. I actually have a theory as to why there are these odd disparities between normal (i.e., American) usage and the weird locutions the Brits come up with. They’re doing it on purpose. They actually started it just after World War II to make the UK seem more exotic and boost tourism. Then they discovered that they could actually get Americans to watch their more impenetrable BBC TV serials by peppering the dialog with nonsense like “wireless” for radio, “telly” for TV and, yes, “jumper” for “sweater.” Now they’ve got PBS viewers trained to jump like Pavlov’s dog at the drop of a “jam buttie” and folks like you are wondering what’s wrong with our natural American words. It’s diabolical, I tell you.

Just kidding, of course. But the business with sweaters being called “jumpers” threw me for a loop the first time I ran into it in conversation. I had known “jumper” only as a sort of sleeveless dress usually worn over a blouse, what the Oxford English Dictionary (produced in the UK, remember) calls a “pinafore dress.” (Perversely, the OED then defines “pinafore dress” as “A collarless, sleeveless dress … worn over a blouse or jumper.”) The term “jumper,” when it first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, was applied to the sort of shapeless jacket worn by artists and workmen, what we might call a “smock.” The extended “dress” sense of the word dates to the 1930s, and the all-in-one infant’s “jumper” garment followed. The use of “jumper” as a simple synonym for “sweater” is apparently a fairly recent further extension of the term, and hadn’t made it into the OED as of 1989. “Jumper” is actually derived from the noun “jump,” a modified form of the French “jupe,” used to mean a short coat in the 19th century (and completely unrelated to “jump” meaning “leap”).

The whole point of a “sweater,” when the term was first applied to an article of clothing in the late 19th century, was to make the wearer sweat. Athletes in training wore woolen sweaters when exercising in order to induce profuse sweating and thereby cause (it was thought) weight loss (“As for Pilling .., the little ruffian actually weighs over 8 stone; but we’re going to make him run a mile every day, with four sweaters, and three pairs of flannel trousers on,” 1890). This kind of “training” is, of course, known to be very dangerous today (and produces only dehydration, not weight loss). The use of “sweater” in its modern sense of “heavy knitted top worn for warmth” had appeared by the early years of the 20th century.