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Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the word “steeple.” Could it have originally been a combination of “steep” and “hill”? — RL Diehl.

That’s an interesting question. I must admit that until today I’d never given much thought to the word “steeple,” which is odd because I was, as a child, sort of fascinated by them. I grew up in New England, where it’s common for every town to have at least three or four churches of various denominations, each with its own tall, pointy steeple.

The reason I never wondered back then why such structures were called “steeples” is that the explanation for the word seemed obvious. The sides of a “steeple” are extremely “steep,” and the “le” on the end was necessary for it to rhyme with “people” so that kids could do that thing of  intertwining and then unfolding their fingers (“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people”). If you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, just search for “here is the church.” The video by “MsRhymetime” is brief and clear. She also has one on “Days of the Week” that I found helpful.

Of course, I have long since put away childish things (except the plastic dinosaurs), which brings us back to your question: does “steeple” have anything to do with “steep hill”? And the answer is “yes and no.” The word “steeple” has nothing to do with a “hill” (which comes, not that you asked, from an Indo-European root meaning “elevated, projecting or prominent”).

But “steeple” does come from the adjective “steep.” In fact, “steeple” essentially is the word “steep” used in a special sense as a noun. “Steep,” which we use today primarily as an adjective meaning “having a rapidly increasing incline” or “at a great angle to level ground,” first appeared as the Old English “steap,” meaning “steep” or “high,” derived from the ancient Germanic root “staup,” also meaning “steep.” (This “steep” is unrelated to the verb “to steep” meaning “to soak,” which is of unknown origin.) The old root sense of “steep” as meaning “high” or “severe” as well as “sharply tilting” is found in the modern use of “steep” in reference to the cost of something (“Forty thousand marks … is a pretty steep price even for a royal motor carriage,” 1901).

“Steeple,” which first appeared in Old English as “stepel” or stypel,” comes from exactly the same root (“staup”) as “steep,” but had taken on its specialized meaning (in the form “staupil”) a bit further downstream. In modern English, “steeple” initially simply meant “a tall tower,” one whose height was far greater than its width. That general meaning is now obsolete, and since the 12th century “steeple” has been used to mean “A lofty tower forming part of a church, temple, or other public edifice (often serving to contain the bells); such a tower together with the spire or other superstructure by which it is surmounted” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)).

There are, of course, various figurative uses of “steeple” in English, but the one I found intriguing is “A steeple-shaped formation of the two hands, with the palms facing and the extended fingers rising to meet at the tips” (OED) (“When I put out my hand, she made a steeple with her hands, and bowed. This was my first experience with the Hindu pranam, or greeting,” Gore Vidal, 1978).

Two of the more well-known terms formed from “steeple” are “steeplejack,” a worker who climbs steeples or high towers to repair them (“jack” in this sense being a generic term for “man, worker”), and “steeplechase,” a cross-country horse race involving jumping fences, streams, etc. These races were originally held in open country with a distant church steeple set as the finish line.


Mistakes were made. Maybe.

Dear Word Detective: I often see the word “Ombudsman” used to mean a representative of the interest of “the people” with the government, IRS, utility, etc. What is the origin of this word and its strict meaning? — Jerry Bacon.

Ah yes, the people, or, as Carl Sandburg put it, The People, Yes. A representative of the interests of the people versus the Big Guys would be nice. Good idea. I’d volunteer for the job, but I haven’t time to do it because I spend every day on hold to some government agency or transnational corporation that claims to care about my problem but apparently can’t tear itself away from its Facebook page long enough to come to the phone. The internet might as well have been invented to make corporations even less responsive than they already were. My favorite case  is the local power company, which, when you call to complain that you have no electricity because groundhogs have chewed through the lines again, greets you with a recording telling you how to file a complaint on their web page. Which I can’t see. Because my steam-powered computer is in the shop.

An “ombudsman” is a professional complaint fielder, a person who receives and investigates gripes from constituents, customers and similar rabble, and who, at least in theory, pursues justice and negotiates, on behalf of the whiner, settlements of said grievance with the company, agency or institution responsible. An “ombudsman” is, again in theory, an independent, impartial investigator disinterested in the outcome of any particular case, devoted only to truth, justice and rainbow ponies for everyone. In practice, cynics may note, “ombudsmen” are usually appointed and paid by the organization or institution they are charged with monitoring, so the ponies sometimes smell more like rats.

“Ombudsman” sounds a bit strange to English-speaking ears because it is, in fact, Swedish, and only became widely known in English in the 1960s. The root of “ombudsman” is the Old Norse “umbothsmathr,” which literally meant “commission man” (“umboth” plus “mathr,” man). The “commission” element referred to the fact that the “umbothsmathr” was essentially a manager with power delegated by the government. The modern sense of “ombudsman” originated in Sweden in 1809 with the office of “justitieombudsman” (justice ombudsman), an official appointed by Parliament to protect citizens from abuses by the state.

The office of “ombudsman” was subsequently adopted by a number of other Scandinavian countries (and New Zealand in 1961), and Britain finally established its own “ombudsman” (called the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration) in 1967. Most countries have some form of agency serving the role of an ombudsman today, although the United States has never had a national ombudsman. (After all, we already have several hundred members of Congress assiduously ignoring our complaints.) Several federal agencies, and many state government agencies in the US do have official ombudsmen, and large “public service” corporations (power companies, hospitals, etc.) often have an “ombudsman” to whom consumers can appeal for help. (The “ombudsman” is frequently a woman, and the term “ombudswoman” is often used in such cases.)

Apart from meaning “official appointed to protect citizens,” the term “ombudsman” is also used to mean, more generally, “a mediator or representative charged with representing the interests of individuals in a particular group” (“The adults would draw me in as a messenger: I became a sort of ombudsman, negotiating between my grandmother, my parents and my cousins,” 1995). Many newspapers and other media organizations (e.g., NPR) now employ “ombudsmen” to address public complaints of bias or inaccuracy in their coverage.

To “fix someone’s wagon”

And we’ll throw in a free clock cleaning.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a book by Spider Robinson and one of the main characters was a bartender. At one point there is an unruly customer and one of the regulars says “Don’t worry he’ll [the bartender] fix his wagon.” I deduced that that meant that the bartender was tough and could handle any problems. I was just curious as to where that phrase came from. My guess was that it has something to do with blacksmiths being the biggest men in town and also being able to fix wagons. What do you think? — Kyle.

What do I think? I think “Spider” is a pretty weird thing to name yourself. I know Spider Robinson is a famous and accomplished science-fiction author, and I know that he chose the name “Spider” himself (and apparently refuses to reveal his “birth name”). “Spider” is certainly more memorable and marketable than, say, “Paul Robinson.” But still. Arachnophobia has probably cost him at least a few readers.

Oh well, not my problem. Onward. “Wagon” in its most basic sense of “four-wheeled vehicle used to transport heavy or bulky goods” first appeared in English in the 15th century, adapted from the Dutch “wagen,” which was derived from Indo-European roots with the sense “to move or carry.”

Apart from its many and varied literal uses, “wagon” has done yeoman service in metaphors and figures of speech for the past few centuries, most notably in “on the wagon,” meaning “abstaining from alcohol,” which was originally “on the water wagon.” The water wagon was a fixture of cities and towns before paved roads became widespread, used to spray water on the dirt roads to keep down the dust. Someone who quit drinking was sardonically said to have “climbed aboard the water wagon,” assumed to be drinking only water from then on. A “bandwagon” was, as the name implies, an ornate wagon in a parade which carried the band, often along with local politicians, and drew much public attention, making “bandwagon” a good metaphor for a popular political cause. To “hop aboard the bandwagon” and similar phrases thus mean “to join what looks like the winning side.” Similarly, “to hitch one’s wagon to a star” means “to have lofty goals or ambitions.”

Wagons frequently needed repair, of course, and so the phrase “fix someone’s wagon” would have been a familiar phrase in the early 20th century. But the “wagon” in the phrase is less important to the sense of the phrase as it’s used today than the peculiar meaning of “fix.” This is not the usual “fix” in the sense of “repair.” This is “fix” as it appeared in the mid-19th century as euphemistic slang for “to deal with,” “to settle a dispute with” or even “to kill” an opponent. This “fix” is actually close to the original meaning of the verb “to fix” when it first appeared in English in the late 14th century, which was “to make fast or secure; to settle,” derived from the Latin “fixus,” immovable. This “nail it down” sense gradually broadened to mean “arrange, adjust,” which in turn eventually gave us the “repair” sense we use today.

So “to fix someone’s wagon” employs a perfectly innocent-sounding phrase as euphemistic slang for “settling a dispute for good in a very forceful manner” (“She said her brother would fix my wagon, which he did; right here at the corner of my mouth I’ve still got a scar where he hit me,” Truman Capote, 1951). Oddly enough, that 1951 citation from Truman Capote’s novel “The Grass Harp” is actually the earliest example found so far of the phrase in print. If the phrase is really that recent, it’s likely that the wagon in question is actually a child’s wagon (e.g., the Radio Flyer “little red wagon” so popular in the 20th century US), and the phrase originated either as children’s slang or, more likely, as a sarcastic adult reference to the perceived weakness of an opponent (e.g., “Oh, Tommy’s decided to go back on our deal, huh? Well, I’ll just go fix little Tommy’s wagon for him.”).