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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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Beltline

Round and round.

Dear Word Detective: I remember my father using the expression “beltline” to refer to a particular highway in Minneapolis. This was back in the ’50s before any highways encircled a metropolitan area, so it puzzled me then and has since. Are we talking about something that cuts through the middle? Something that wraps around? Or something else? When did the expression start and did it apply to subways or elevated trains at first? Or did it describe highways? — Barney Johnson.

Oh boy, highway nomenclature. I haven’t considered the subject lately, but what people called roads seriously confused me as a child. I grew up within coughing distance of the New England “Thruway” (aka Interstate 95) in Connecticut, but we often spent Sunday afternoons driving on the Merritt “Parkway,” and trips to Ohio usually involved the Pennsylvania “Turnpike.” Here in Central Ohio, people refer to I-70 as “the freeway” (or just “70″), although “freeway” is also applied to the “outerbelt” circling Columbus. (In Washington, D.C., the same sort of “outerbelt” is called “the beltway,” and “inside the beltway” serves as shorthand for the social and political world of DC insiders.)

Most of these terms are fairly easy to decode. “Thruway” (originally “throughway”) for instance, refers to a limited access highway that may or may not charge tolls. A “freeway” is the same thing, “free” referring to freedom of movement, not necessarily freedom from tolls. A “turnpike” definitely extracts tolls from travelers; the “pike” was originally, in the days of horse and carriage traffic, a staff which blocked passage until turned aside when the toll was paid. “Parkways” were originally highways elaborately landscaped with trees and shrubs to give travelers a scenic view to look at before the days of in-car DVD players (my personal nominee for worst idea of the century).

“Beltlines,” however, were developed in the mid-19th century, before the advent of the motor vehicle. They were routes followed within many medium and large cities by horse-drawn or electric trams or railways that connected various areas of the city, facilitating the transport of goods and materials as well as workers. The city of Buffalo, NY, for instance, had a “belt line” railroad, built in the 1880s, that connected nineteen stations around the city to a central terminal where transfers could be made to trains to anywhere in the US. New York City had several horse-drawn tram lines in the 19th century, but in 1887 more than a thousand horses perished in a fire at the Belt Line Railroad Company stable.

Such “belt lines” tended to form a closed loop, like a buckled belt, although not necessarily forming a ring around the edges of the city as modern “outerbelt” highways do. The idea was that a passenger (or cargo load) could board the tram or train at any point on the route and ride the loop as far as was necessary.

I think your father’s use of “beltline” to refer to a specific highway almost certainly came from the fact that the road formed such a closed loop, or something close to it. It may be that the highway actually followed an old “beltline” rail or tram route.

Cakalacky

Boom chocka-locka-locka.

Dear Word Detective: I live in North Carolina and “Cackalacky” seems to be a synonym for the old north state (as well as a barbecue sauce.) I was wondering if it originally had meaning or was just a great nonsense word. — Caroline Sunshine.

Ah, North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, otherwise known as the Old North State, both of which are seriously strange nicknames. I had, I must admit, never heard North Carolina referred to as “Cackalacky” before I read your question. I initially suspected that it was, as you suggest, simply “a great nonsense word,” a silly name the locals had invented. After a bit of research, however, I discovered that there is quite a bit more to the story.

The first thing to note is that “Cackalacky” seems to be used as a nickname for both North Carolina and South Carolina. The second, and more productive, thing I’ve learned about “Cackalacky” is that there are a lot of people out there, especially at the University of North Carolina (UNC), trying to figure out where this “Cackalacky” business came from.

In a 2005 posting to ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Association, Bonnie Taylor-Blake pointed to the work of two UNC faculty members, Paul Jones and Connie Elbe, who have been searching for information on “Cackalacky” (also, according to Taylor-Blake, sometimes seen in the forms Cackalackie, Cackalack, Kakalak, Kakalaka, Cakalacky, Kackalacky, Cakalaka, and others).

There are a number of theories about the origin of “Cackalacky,” but, despite the efforts of folks at UNC, so far no one has been able to pin down its source with any real certainty. Such vagueness is not uncommon in cases of “folk speech,” which may pass from generation to generation by word of mouth for many years without ever being written down. This seems to be especially true in the case of “Cackalacky,” which was apparently completely undocumented in printed form until it was used (in the form “cakalaka”) in the lyrics to a hip-hop song by A Tribe Called Quest in 1991. Since that time, use of the term in hip-hop lyrics and on the internet seems to increased its popularity quite a bit.

One theory about “Cackalacky,” suggested by Glenn Hinson at UNC, traces it to “a capella” gospel groups in the American South in the1930s, who used the rhythmic (but apparently meaningless) chant “clanka lanka” in their songs. This theory seems plausible. Elsewhere, a South Carolina newspaper reported back in 2003 that Page Skelton, the inventor of “Cackalacky” brand hot sauce, believes the word may have come from a combination of “Tsalaki” (pronounced cha-lak-ee), supposedly the Cherokee way to say “Cherokee,” and “cocklaleekie,” a Scottish soup. That theory strikes me as deeply implausible. But both of those theories are preferable to the one that traces “Cackalacky” to “Kakerlake.” which is German for “cockroach” (although you folks down there do have those disturbingly large “palmetto bugs,” which are actually just jumbo cockroaches).

So as it stands right now, the origin of “Cackalacky” remains a mystery. But with the increasing popularity of the term, it’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, will stumble across some historical material, perhaps an old newspaper or memoir, that puts the matter to rest.

Assassinate

He’s jake, Jim.

Dear Word Detective: I read in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, “Team of Rivals,” that after the attack on Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton cabled individuals to tell them that Secretary Seward and his son had been “assassinated” and were gravely hurt. He obviously knew they were not yet dead, so my question is: Did Stanton misuse the word “assassinate,” or have I been wrong all my life in assuming it inherently means the victim has died? — Jeff Driggs.

Well, heck, English is a big language. I’m sure there’s room for both you and Stanton to be right. Incidentally, I had to fire up the old Wikipedia to refresh my memory of what I learned in school about the events of that fateful night. Strictly speaking, we should speak of the “attacks,” plural, since Seward and his son were attacked in Seward’s home by one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators on the same night in 1865 that Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater. Both Sewards were severely injured, but both survived.

“Assassin,” the noun on which the verb “assassinate” is formed, is one of those words with a story so “colorful” that it turns up sooner or later in nearly every printed venue. I’d be amazed if there weren’t a fortune cookie out there somewhere containing a short-form etymology of “assassin.” Part of the charm of the story for the average Joe is the fact that it involves drugs, thus serving up a frisson of the forbidden. The other hook, unfortunately, is that it plays into an atavistic but depressingly persistent stereotype of the Middle East.

The root of “assassin” is the Arabic word “hashishiyyin” (or “hashshashin”) meaning “hashish eaters,” but also the name of an Ismaili Muslim sect active at the time of the Crusades. Members of this sect were said to use hashish or other hemp products to steel their nerves before attacking the enemy, especially on missions to kill rulers or leaders who opposed the sect. There has long been, however, considerable debate in the scholarly community as to how much of this is true and how much is a Western invention. The name “Hashsashin” itself, in fact, may only be a reference to Hassan ibn al-Sabbah, leader of the sect.

Whatever the truth, the word “assassin” traveled through Europe, arriving in English in the 16th century with the meaning of “one who murders a public official or other politically important person, usually for political motives.” The verb “to assassinate” appeared in English shortly after the noun, with the meaning of “to kill with treacherous violence” (“Brutus and Cassius … conspired to assassinate him,” 1618), and with the same requirement that the target had to be a political or otherwise powerful figure.

But while the core definition of “assassinate” since it first appeared in English has been “to kill,” implying that the victim ends up, y’know, actually dead, there was, for a time, some wiggle room in the word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists a secondary definition of “assassinate” as meaning “to endeavor to kill by treacherous violence; to attack by an assassin,” and lists two citations from printed sources, one from 1683 (“William of Orange was twice Assassinated, and lost his Life the Second time”) and the other from 1706. The OED labels this usage as now “obsolete,” which is certainly is. But for at least a few centuries, including in Stanton’s day, it was apparently possible to survive one’s own assassination, and Seward did.