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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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Polo / Marco Polo

Those tiny screams you hear are my brain cells dying.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve started to wonder what the famous explorer Marco Polo has to do with children’s water games in US. I’ve seen several American TV shows where children or sometimes childlike adults lounge or play around a pool shouting “Marco” and some other answers “Polo.” What gives? — Topi Linkala, Finland.

That’s a darn good question. I tend to fall behind in my knowledge of what the childlike adults around here are up to, probably because I don’t watch enough TV, although I do my best. I even tried watching parts of the Super Bowl this year. But there must have been something wrong with the TV, because what I saw was insanely boring, just a bunch of guys in Spandex pedal-pushers running in circles and falling down. If those helmets are intended to prevent brain damage, they really ought to consider giving them to the spectators.

You probably didn’t realize this when you asked it, but there are actually three parts to your question, which are are Marco Polo, polo, and Marco Polo again.

Marco Polo was, of course, a famous traveler, born in Venice, who, with his father and uncle, wandered through Asia, eventually, in 1275, ending up in China in the court of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, with whom he became best buds. Upon his return to Venice twenty years later, Marco Polo wound up in jail in Genoa, where his dictated his account of his voyages. Published as “The Travels of Marco Polo,” the book was enormously popular and supposedly inspired Christopher Columbus to light out for Asia.

There is, however, absolutely no connection between Marco Polo and “polo,” a game played by teams on horseback, the object being to hit a small ball through the other team’s goal with a long-handled mallet. Invented in China but developed in Persia, polo is considered the quintessential ruling-class sport (which is why designer Ralph Lauren picked “Polo” as his brand), but it’s actually a very exciting game. The word “polo” comes from the Balti Tibetan word “polo” meaning “ball,” and first appeared in English when the game arrived in England in the late 19th century. This “polo” is relevant to your question because there is a related game called “water polo,” played with a much larger ball in swimming pools. Water polo does not involve horses but would, no doubt, be more interesting if it did.

“Water polo” is not, however, the source of the mysterious “Marco-Polo” call-and-response you have seen on TV. That is part of an entirely different pool game called, for reasons no one has ever plausibly explained, “Marco Polo,” essentially a very wet version of Blind Man’s Buff. There is no ball involved. The person who is deemed “It” closes his or her eyes and calls out “Marco,” to which the other players must reply “Polo,” thus giving auditory clues as to their locations in the pool. “It” then attempts to catch and touch one of them, whereupon a new “It” is born and the game continues until the entire company is overcome by gnawing existential dread and lights out for Asia. Or something.

So there you have it. Someone, somewhere, actually invented a game more insipid than football. Might be fun to try it with horses, though.

Hurrah’s Nest

Play it again, schmuck.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me anything about the saying “this room looks like a hoorah’s nest with the hoorah gone,” or something like that? — Birdy.

You know what’s scary? When someone asks you a question about a phrase, and you know that you’ve heard the phrase before, but you can’t remember any of the details. So you do what any normal earthling would do and plug it into Google (motto: “We Have Replaced Your Brain. Why Fight It?”), and hit Search. And then the first result that pops up is a column you wrote about the phrase many years ago, followed by a bunch of people quoting what you wrote. I have the horrible feeling that if I were to look up “feeb” in the dictionary there’d be a picture of me.

The phrase you’ve encountered is “hurrah’s nest,” and it means something in a state of great disorder or raucous confusion, whether it’s a bedroom in chaos or a crowd rioting in the street. “Hurrah’s nest” first appeared in the US, in the early 19th century (“Everything was pitched about in grand confusion. There was a complete hurrah’s nest,” 1840). The question, of course, is what a “hurrah” might be, and why its nest is always such a mess.

The “hurrah” part of the phrase is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the same “hurrah” we shout when our team wins, an exclamation of excitement, approval and joy at victory. (The form “hooray” is perhaps more common today, but it’s the same word.) “Hurrah” can also be used as a noun to mean a great hubbub or fanfare, such as greets a rock star stepping on stage. It can also, however, mean a scene of great confusion or disorder.

“Hurrah” dates back to the late 17th century, and although most exclamations of joy, anger, pain and surprise (such as “Ouch!” or “Hey!”) have no intrinsic meaning, “hurrah” may actually have a bit of semantic history to it. We know that “hurrah” is a modification of the exclamation “huzzah,” itself about a century older. “Hurrah” was said to be a favored battle cry of soldiers in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and “huzzah” was apparently popular among sailors of the period. Both of these words may have been strongly influenced by the Middle High German words “hurr” and “hurra,” cries meaning “move forward” or “hurry,” used by hunters pursuing game as well as by soldiers attacking the enemy. There is also some evidence that “huzzah” is related to the Scots word “heize,” meaning “lift or hoist,” and was originally used as an exhortation to sailors hoisting sails.

You’ll notice the absence of anything in that history likely to build itself a nest, but there’s a simple explanation for “hurrah’s nest.” Given the use of “hurrah” to mean “a state of complete confusion,” it’s a short but playful leap to imagine a “hurrah” as some sort of great, messy animal with terrible housekeeping skills. Thus the mess left behind by a loud and chaotic “hurrah” might be said to be a “hurrah’s nest.”

Weigh In

We need a national Cone of Silence.

Dear Word Detective: I hope it’s not too heavy a subject for you to weigh in on, but I’d like to know why someone “weighs in” on an issue. I’ve read of the term relating to boxers getting weighed immediately prior to a fight, to confirm their eligibility to fight in a particular weight class. I find that unconvincing, since the fighters are weighing in prior to the competition, but when pundits “weigh in,” they’re already participating in the battle of opinion. — Paul Mailman.

Ah yes, pundits and the battle of opinion in the marketplace of ideas. Pardon me for sounding cynical. I used to love to argue, or to listen to an argument, on almost any topic. Best band, best president, best brand of mustache wax, it didn’t matter. But no more. I think I lost my will to wrangle about the time that “pundits” began talking (or shouting) over each other on cable TV news shows and the obnoxious habit spread into the general population. A lot of people apparently miss the fistfights at recess in fourth grade, but I’ll pass, thanks.

It’s true that “to weigh in” is frequently used today to mean “to join a discussion or debate already in progress and express one’s opinion.” Back when I watched the TV shoutfests, the host would often ask a reticent member of the assembled punditude if he or she wished to “weigh in on the subject.” (I’m sure it was supposed to seem courteous, but I always got the sense that it really meant “Hey, we’re paying you to scream at these people. Get to work.”)

Incidentally, inasmuch as “pundit” comes from the Hindi word “payndit,” meaning “learned man, teacher,” isn’t it way past time to be looking for a new term for those people on TV?

The basic sense of “weigh” when it first appeared in English was “to lift, hold up or carry” (a meaning still found in “weigh anchor”), and the sense of “to measure the heaviness of” and its derivatives were later developments. The ancient source of “weigh” was the Indo-European root “wegh” (to carry or move), which also produced the Latin “vehere” meaning the same thing, which eventually gave us such useful English words as “vehicle” and “vector.”

“Weigh in” in the sense of “be weighed in preparation for entering an athletic contest” first appeared in print in the early 19th century. The first citation (1805) in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) refers not to boxing, but to weighing jockeys before horse races. The earliest citations for the boxing sense come from the early 20th century. By the late 1880s, “weigh in” was being used to mean “to produce something noteworthy” (“The journal ‘weighs in’ with a prismatic Christmas number,” 1885), and by 1909 “weigh in” was being used to mean, as the OED puts it, “to bring one’s weight or influence to bear; to enter a forceful contribution to a discussion, etc.” (“I want you to ask the Chief Rabbi to weigh in,” G.B. Shaw).

It seems clear that in this use of “weigh in” the contest, so to speak, is already underway. But I think this use of “weigh in” reflects a combination of the “prepare to enter a discussion” sense and the “bring one’s weight to bear” sense of the term. To ask someone to “weigh in” on a topic is to acknowledge that the person has some “weight,” i.e., expertise in, or influence on, the subject. After all, it makes no sense to ask a “lightweight” to “weigh in” on important matters of state or public policy (unless, of course, you’re running a TV talk show, in which case Ashton Kutcher will do just fine).