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Pedal to the metal.

Dear Word Detective: I heard a friend say he’d “come barrelling down the highway” this morning, and somehow the phrase lodged in my linguistic craw. I mean, it’s been forever and a day since the average person even set eyes on a barrel of anything, let alone actively moved one in any way suggestive of great and possibly uncontrolled speed. Yet we persist in using this phrase. Where does it come from? Are we even using it correctly? The only reference I could see was for the process of sealing wine in a barrel, which certainly doesn’t sound all that reckless. — G. Bloom.

Well, I bet it is if you do it in a moving vehicle. In a related, but decidedly down-market, note, news reports out where we live have lately been awash in scare stories about “mobile meth labs,” which apparently boil down to some guy in the back seat of a Pinto beater futzing with highly explosive chemicals. I consider this more evidence for my conviction that going outside at all is a bad idea. I’m not joking about the Pinto, incidentally; somebody on our road drives one.

Onward. Yes, the use of “barrel” as a verb to mean “move rapidly, especially in a vehicle” is widespread, dates back to the 1930s, and is perfectly correct (“He thought nothing of barrelling down to Munich at eighty miles an hour,” New Yorker, 1957). But you’re justified in wondering how the unglamorous and usually downright dumpy barrel, one of the most inanimate objects imaginable, could possibly produce a verb meaning “to zoom along.”

In the beginning (for our purposes, the early 14th century) there was the simple, humble barrel, which was basically just a wooden cask, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A cylindrical wooden vessel, generally bulging in the middle and of greater length than breadth, formed of curved staves bound together by hoops, and having flat ends or heads.” We formed “barrel” on the Old French “baril,” meaning “cask, barrel or vat,” and the word quickly became standardized not only as a name for the thing itself, but also for the amount of liquid or solids (grain, etc.) a standard “barrel” could hold (“A Barrel of Soap is to contain 256 pound,” 1712).

Almost immediately, “barrel” was pressed into service in the name of any sort of short, cylindrical tube, as the “barrel” of a winch or, more famously, the “barrel” of a gun. The “barrel” being a fixture of everyday life prior to the mid-20th century also gave us a number of barrel-based figures of speech, such as “over a barrel” meaning “helpless; in someone else’s power” (“[A]pparently in allusion to the state of a person placed over a barrel to clear his lungs of water after being rescued from drowning,” says the OED), and “pork barrel,” originally referring to the average family’s food supply (yes, salted pork was kept in a barrel), later used to mean “wealth,” then (often just as “pork”) “political favors or graft.” The “cracker barrel” found in many general stores became a metaphor for “the opinions or politics of simple, small-town people” and “on the barrelhead” came to mean “immediate payment in cash” from the use of a barrel standing on its end as a counter in small shops.

“Barrel” as a verb, which first appeared in the 15th century, did originally mean simply “to put or store in a barrel” (“Caqueurs, sailors appointed to cure and barrel the herring,” 1769). But the use of empty barrels for fun and recreation has a history as old as barrels themselves. As a protective container, barrels have long been the vehicle of choice for daredevils convinced that taking a dangerous plunge over a waterfall is a good idea (it usually isn’t). But even bored farm boys have been known, for several centuries, to liven things up by rolling down hills in a barrel. This foolhardy stunt (rolling barrels are nearly impossible to steer or stop) is almost certainly the source of “barrelling,” meaning “moving very rapidly,” especially since “barrelling” carries overtones of recklessness and “unstoppability.”


 And not a drop to frack.

Dear Word Detective: I heard on public radio this morning that some agency (don’t remember who) wanted to do away with the word “drought” in reports as being too blunt and invoking images of dried riverbeds and the like. Instead they wanted to substitute the phrase “environmental stress due to rainfall deficit.” Surely there’s something to be said for short, concise words (and thereby short, concise sentences and paragraphs) and better communication. I don’t know if detectives can lead a charge against such nonsense, but I hope you will, or somewhere in the future you may get a letter saying “Drought is a funny word. Wherever did that come from?” — Barney Johnson.

Thank you for contacting The Word Detective. Your question is important to us. I believe you have asked “Drought is a funny word. Wherever did that come from?” If this is correct, say “Axolotl.” I’m sorry, I did not understand your response. Due to heavy call volume, all our operators are depressed and don’t feel like coming to the phone right now. Goodbye.

Sorry. I just spent a small lifetime on the phone to Verizon, who had declared our cell  phone to be a non-phone because we never use it. Apparently we were tying up six digits they really, really needed. That made so such sense I told them to forget the whole thing. I still have my flare gun for emergencies.

So, anyway, you’re talking about ESRD, right? Yeah, I Googled it, and that’s the catchy initialism that the Environment Agency in the UK (their EPA, I guess) came up with. According to the BBC, “Environmental Stress due to Rainfall Deficit” has actually been proposed as a new sliding scale to describe the various states of wet and un-wet the UK has been experiencing recently, particularly the fact that a persistent “dry spell” in many places has been punctuated by brief torrential rains. Evidently the EA believes that a yellow alert (or whatever) on the ESRD scale will prove less confusing to the schlubs down at the pub than the “it’s-a-drought-no-wait-it’s-a-flood” stuff they’ve been hearing. Perhaps. Personally, I think all this is precisely what the Bible warned would happen if they continued to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what the real downside would be to just calling the whole shebang a “persistent long-term drought” and trusting the public to understand that just because you get a rainy week doesn’t mean you can turn on the ornamental fountains and lawn sprinklers 24/7.

Did I just type the words “trust the public to understand”? OK, never mind.

But “drought” is a nice, evocative word. It even sounds dry, and the “out” part carries a sense of desolation, deprivation, and two guys crawling through the desert in a New Yorker cartoon. Works for me. The roots of “drought,” which came to us from Old English, lie in the ancient Germanic root “dreug,” which also, fittingly, gave us the English word “dry.” The term itself means “A long period of abnormally low rainfall, especially one that adversely affects growing or living conditions” (American Heritage Dictionary), so it doesn’t mean “no rain at all,” just not enough. Figuratively, “drought” is used to mean a prolonged lack of just about anything you wish there were more of (“End of Albert Pujols’ home run drought is a winner for Angels,” LA Times headline, 5/06/12).

In any case, not to worry, at least about the word “drought.” The best-laid plans of the EA lingo-mice will likely come to naught and “ESRD” will end up tucked away on a dusty shelf alongside “BSE” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), while normal people still say “mad cow disease” and “drought.”


Among the Equine-Americans.

Dear Word Detective:  I have always wondered about the strange phrase “Giddyup!” that we yell at horses to get them moving. I thought perhaps it was a contraction of “get ye up” but that seems a bit formal to yell at a horse anyway. Any thoughts? — Jason Olivier.

A few. Yelling at horses is probably not a good idea. In fact, yelling at any animal you plan to continue sitting on is not advisable. A little encouragement, sure. The Lone Ranger’s “Hi Ho Silver, away!” seems about right, combining a collaborative approach with an acknowledgment of Silver’s individuality and personal integrity. In general, I try not to use any forms of address with an animal that I wouldn’t use with a New York City cab driver, and I’m here to tell you that those guys don’t respond well to “Giddyup!” Add to that the fact that even the nicest horse is, in reality, a half-ton killing machine, and I usually stick to “Please, Sir, may we cross the meadow?” (Just kidding, of course. Horsies are nice, especially the ones who can read.)

I’m sure many horses would appreciate a formal “please get ye up,” but “ye” is not part of “giddyup.” The original form of the word was “giddap” when it first appeared in print in the late 19th century. “Giddap,” along with the popular variants “giddyup” and “giddyap,” was a US invention, and it’s actually nothing more than a colloquial pronunciation of “get up.” The command is probably actually a good deal older than that first print appearance would indicate, since colloquial terms, like slang and underworld cant, were often in oral use long before anyone thought to immortalize them in print.

It may seem strange to tell a horse to “get up” when it’s almost certainly already standing and may even be trotting briskly along, but this use of “get up” to mean “Go!” or “Go ahead!” dates back to the 1800s (“Get up! … he says … and once more the horses resume their gait,” 1887) and is essentially the equivalent of the saying “Get up and get going!”, meaning to start moving more rapidly (“A voice bellowed from the rear… ‘Git up and git, boys!’ That was the order for the charge,” 1903).

Now that we have Old Dobbin moving (“Dobbin” being a diminutive form of “Robin” or “Robert,” at one time a stereotypical name for a work horse), I’m reminded of another horse-related term that might be best described as an over-application of “giddyup.”

The phrase “hell-bent for leather” (or “for election” or “for breakfast”) is an American invention that first appeared in print at the end of the 19th century meaning “at breakneck speed; recklessly determined” (“One puncher racin’ his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street,” Stephen Crane, 1899). It has since been used to mean “relentlessly determined” (“The prosecutor said he doesn’t know of any alleged victims from his country. If one comes forward, he said, ‘I would be hell bent for leather’ to prosecute,” 2002).

This phrase, which became a staple of “Western” literature and films in the 20th century, apparently arose as a combination of “hell-bent,” which first appeared in print in the early 18th century meaning “recklessly determined” and “hell for leather,” a late 19th century phrase which specifically meant riding a horse very fast.

“Hell-bent” seems to suggest that the person will pursue their objectives even up to the gates of Hell.  In practical terms, however, it simply employs “hell” as an emphatic intensifier (the person is extremely “bent,” i.e., determined).

The “leather” in “hell for leather” probably referred to either the saddle or the crop with which a rider might “encourage” a horse to speed up. Put the two phrases together and you have “hell-bent for leather,” which makes slightly less sense than its constituent phrases. But the fact that “election” or “breakfast” were often substituted for “leather” in the phrase tends to indicate that the logic of the expression was not as important as the thrill of the chase.