Issue of December 4, 2007


Well, that was refreshing. Darn. What month is it?

Sorry about that. I'm going to plead distraction. To be honest, the novelty of having a degenerative neurological disorder has worn off with a vengeance, and I have been in a lousy mood. I seem, among other things, to be losing the ability to walk convincingly much of the time. Some days I have just a limp, other days I'm in Canesville, reeling like a drunken yeti. In fact, I've been told I should use my cane on bad days if for no other reason than to indicate that I am not drunk and should not be tased.

So, anyway, I'm back, and I promise not to go away again anytime soon unless I really, really feel like it. By the way, I am obliged to note that I have actually been writing my columns, three per week, all this time, and subscribers have been seeing them. So perhaps y'all should subscribe.

Speaking of subscribers, I'd like to take this moment to thank everyone who has chipped in to support this site over the past year. Your contributions have been a great help and a considerable boost to the morale here at Word Detective World Headquarters.

As usual, all of this month's web columns are also posted at The Word Detective Annex, a WordPress blog I have set up as a place for readers to leave comments on the columns. There is some sort of registration required to slow down the spammers, but it's not onerous. I've posted links from the foot of each column here directly to its equivalent at the blog, so just click to leave your comment or read those of others.

And, of course, the circus rolls on at da other blog.

And now, on with the show:


Rhymes with "Palliburton."

Dear Word Detective: I am writing a research paper about the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I keep coming across this factoid in various sources -- that the word "kleptocracy" was coined to describe the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country from the mid-60s until 1997. Trouble is, when I went to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), their first reference for it was from 1811. On the other hand, every other reference was from the 1960s and 70s, when Mobutu was at the height of his power. So, I'm wondering: Was "kleptocracy" an obscure word which became well-known because of Mobutu? Or does this factoid have no basis in fact at all? -- C. Sullivan.

Good question. Incidentally, I find it interesting that you are using the word "factoid" in something close to the sense Norman Mailer meant it when he invented it in his 1973 book "Marilyn." Mailer defined "factoids" as pseudo-facts, "... facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion ...." Unfortunately, USA Today and other news outlets have since used "factoid" to mean "interesting little fact," a perversion that must please the famously irascible Mr. Mailer no end.

"Kleptocracy," for those unfamiliar with the term, is "government by thieves," from the Greek "kleptes," meaning "thief," plus "kratos," meaning "rule, power." Kleptocracy is one of a number of governmental forms usually deemed undesirable, including "plutocracy," rule by the wealthy ("ploutos" in Greek), "oligarchy," rule by the few ("oligoi" plus "arkhein," to rule), and "autocracy," rule by just one person ("auto" being Greek for "self," also found in the term "autism").

"Kleptocracy" was definitely not invented to describe Mobutu, although my OED lists 1819 rather than 1811 as the first use found so far. The question seems to be why it was used so rarely before 1968, the date of the next OED citation. Certainly dictators, oligarchs, autocrats, plutocrats and even quite a few democratically-elected rulers have robbed their citizens blind in the intervening years, yet they were not called "kleptocrats." I think I'll leave that question to the political scientists.

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Take two aspirin and call Ben Casey.

Dear Word Detective: I've been reading your articles for seven years, both for the humor and the knowledge they contain. Recently, I have been unable to determine the origins of a term: "gtts." It is an abbreviation for the word "drops," commonly used in the health care sciences (nursing, medicine, and the like). Other abbreviations used are "prn," which stands for "as needed" and "stat," which stands for "immediately." I am eagerly hoping that you will answer my question. -- Eric Desquitado.

Seven years? Wow. You should cash in your frequent flyer points. I believe you may be entitled to a free cat. Maybe two.

It may be a sign of something that prior to reading your question I had never, as far as I recall, seen the abbreviations "gtts" or "prn." I have, of course, heard "Stat!" shouted by hyperventilating actors on TV shows with a medical theme, although the last one of those I watched with any regularity was probably "Doctor Kildare." By the way, whatever happened to those cool white tunics doctors used to wear on TV? All the doctors I've seen in recent years have been dressed like lawyers in lab coats. Nice tie, Doc. I hope it's machine-washable.

"Stat," as you say, means "right now," and is simply an abbreviation of the Latin adverb "statim," meaning "immediately." "Prn" does indeed mean "as needed," and is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase "pro re nata," which literally means "for the thing born" or, figuratively, "for the affair arisen." The phrase has been used in non-medical contexts to mean "for an occasion as it arises" since the 16th century ("It was formerly left to the crown to summon, pro re nata, the most flourishing towns to send representatives to parliament," Blackstone, 1765). "Prn" scribbled in a doctor's prescription is, fortunately, always translated by the pharmacist to "as needed" on the medicine label.

"Gtt" or "gtts" turns out to be a remarkably interesting little abbreviation. Used to mean "drop" in prescriptions, it's short for "gutta," Latin for "drop" ("gtts" stands in for the plural, "guttae"). "Gutta" is also the root of our modern "gutter," which carries raindrops away from our roofs and sidewalks. It's also the source of the word "gout," an unpleasant disease thought in ancient times to be the result of an imbalance in the four "humours," fluids believed to be essential to the health of the human body. The connection between another sense of "gout" and "gutta" is more direct -- we speak of "gouts" of blood meaning large splashes or spurts of blood from a serious wound.

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None of your beeswax.

Dear Word Detective: Here in Western Pennsylvania, we use the word "nebby" to describe a person who pokes his nose into someone else's business. An in-law from Central Pennsylvania uses the word "nibby," and another from Eastern PA never heard either term. Can you tell us how those words came to be? Thank you, in advance, for the information. -- Amy C. Chismar.

Ah, yes, Pennsylvania, lovely state. I've driven through there many times on my way to New York City. But I'm surprised to hear that you actually live there, because we were warned by people in Ohio to stick to the interstate and to drive as fast as possible. Something about zombies? In any case, I've always wondered, since Pennsylvania was named after William Penn and supposedly means "Penn's Woods," why there isn't an apostrophe and another "s" in there (Penn'ssylvania). I think it's worth considering. But I may be wrong. Never mind.

Onward. When I first read your question, I immediately wondered if "nebby" might be connected to "nebbish," meaning "an ineffectual, awkward and insignificant person" (from the Yiddish exclamation "nebech" or "nebesh," meaning "Poor thing!"). Think Woody Allen in his first few films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, etc.). Since the hallmark of a true nebbish is social cluelessness, it seemed possible that one of the nebbish's most annoying characteristics, butting into other people's conversations, might have spawned "nebby."

As it happens, however (that's columnist-speak for "I was wrong"), "nebby" has no apparent connection with "nebbish." The adjective "nebby" meaning "snoopy" is a classic Pittsburghism (like "jumbo" for bologna) common in Western Pennsylvania but almost unknown in the rest of the US. The form "nibby" and the related noun forms "neb-nose" and "nib-nose" (meaning an inquisitive person) are apparently a bit more widespread within Pennsylvania, but it's not surprising that someone from Eastern PA wouldn't have heard the term.

Anyplace that could come up with "jumbo" for bologna is clearly the birthplace of strange slang, so it's tempting to chalk "nebby" up to the Pittsburgh water supply, but the story of "nebby" and its variants actually predates the European colonization of North America. It turns out that "neb" is a regional term in Northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland for "beak" or "nose," derived from an old Germanic root and dating back to Old English. A modified form of the same word is our modern "nib" for the beak-like point of a fountain pen. As a verb meaning "to pry into the affairs of others" (i.e., to be "nosy"), "neb" first appeared in the 19th century. As of now, oddly enough, the only two places on earth where you're likely to hear "neb," "nebby" and the like are Pittsburgh and Northern England. I figure it's a zombie thing.

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Duck, chicken!

Dear Word Detective: Decades back, at a college Quiz Competition, the question was "How many is few?" No one got it right, so the Quizmaster informed us that originally, from Old English, the word actually meant "eight." I have never been able to verify that, and have always wondered since. Maybe you can help? -- AJ.

Hmm. Decades back, eh? Chances are that this guy's trail is pretty cold, but if you'd be willing to underwrite a certain private detective I know, we might be able to nail this clown with a banana cream pie in the kisser within two weeks, tops. "Quizmaster" my foot. I'll bet he got his gavel and gown from one of those mail-order know-it-all outfits.

As you probably have gathered, your Quizmaster must have matriculated in a parallel universe, because "few" never meant "eight," "nine," "fourteen" or "five billion," not even in Old English, where all the truly wacko word origin stories seem to be born. Incidentally, if you ever do catch up with that guy, ask him why there aren't any boats in that story. Anybody knows you can't have a good linguistic urban legend without sailing ships.

The true story of "few" is far more interesting than any story about it meaning "eight." In the beginning there was the Indo-European root "pau," which denoted "smallness" in either number or size. "Pau" has dozens of descendants in English today, including such disparate words as "pauper," "poverty" and "poor" (little money), "pony" (small horse), "pullet" (young chicken), and even "pusillanimous" (meaning "cowardly," from the Latin "pullus," young of an animal). "Pau" even gave us the name for the game of "pool," which apparently developed from a contest in which the prize was a "pullet." Apparently the original form of the game, known as "jeu de la poule" ("the hen game") in the Middle Ages, involved, I kid you not, throwing things at a chicken. Incidentally, although this is the same "pool" we use when we "pool" our funds to buy dinner, it is an entirely separate word from the "small body of water" kind of "pool."

The Old English descendant of the Indo-European "pau" was "feawe," later contracted to "fea," which became our modern "few." The primary meaning of "few" has always been "not many" or "a small number." But "few" has never designated a specific number.

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Why are bosses so weird?

Dear Word Detective: My boss keeps telling me that the word "tax" comes from a European king. The king controlled a road that was traveled by merchants. If someone wanted to travel this road, they had to pay King Tax (or some name close to that) for the privilege of traveling on this section of road unharmed. Is this true? -- Gerald Barnes.

Well, there you go. I've always said that if space aliens decided to invade and destroy our civilization (or what's left of it), the best way to do it would be to weasel their way into middle management and drive their underlings mad by forcing them to listen to this kind of nonsense. I once had to suffer through several days of mandatory computer training at a job back in the days when Pentium processors were the new hot thing. The supervisor conducting the class insisted on calling it a "Penta," and even made up some absurd tale about it being five times faster than the old chips. To this day the word "Pentium" makes me flinch.

There have, of course, been scads of monarchs and other rulers down through the ages who levied tolls on roads under their control. Our modern word "turnpike" pays tribute to the days when toll stations actually blocked the road with a long pole ("pike") until the fee was paid. But none of this has anything to do with the word "tax."

Our modern verb "to tax" comes to us from the Old French "taxer," which was based on the Latin "taxare," meaning "to value or make a valuation of" something, and only secondarily "to charge." That Latin "taxare" was probably derived in turn from the verb "tangere," which means "to touch" and has also given us such words as "tangible" and "contact." Old French also had the word "tasche," meaning "duty," formed from "taxa," a derivative of our friend "taxare." This branch of the family tree eventually produced our modern English "task."

Given this ancestry, it's not surprising that "tax" has carried heavy overtones of compulsion and onerous duty ever since it appeared in English in the 13th century. Apart from the common meaning of "to assess, impose and collect" a levy, we use "tax" as a verb to mean "to burden or put a strain on" something or someone (as in "Working in customer service taxed Bob's patience to the breaking point"). And since the 16th century, we have also used "tax" to mean "to accuse, charge or blame" a person ("I have been to blame; And you have justly taxed my long neglect," Dryden, 1692).

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Loco in the coco.

Dear Word Detective: In a biography of Alexander Hamilton, the author at one point describes George Washington as "tetchy" meaning "irritable." I'm familiar with the use of "touchy" for irritable, and I'd heard the phrase "he's a little tetched" to describe someone who's a bit off mentally (and the use of "touched" to mean the same.) I'd always thought, though, that "tetched" was a backwoods variant and not standard English, but my dictionary and the author of the Hamilton biography seem to think otherwise. So my question is: are "touch" and "tetch" derived from the same origin? Or because of their similar sound did "touch" start to move "tetch" out of the language? I can't imagine that "tetch" can be used to indicate one of the five senses, so my guess is they're different words that have melded. -- Barney Johnson.

Hey, watch it with that "backwoods" stuff. We actually have a "Backwoods Festival" around here every year, where the locals sell faux "backwoods" folk art (mostly made in the backwoods of Hong Kong and Managua) to suburban suckers hankering for a wide-eyed plywood scarecrow to lend that certain something to their patio.

Meanwhile, back at your question, "touchy" and "tetchy" appear to be separate words, although they both mean "irritable." "Touchy" in its basic sense, of course, simply reflects "sensitive to touch" or "delicate," as we call a difficult or precarious situation "touchy." The literal senses of "touchy" (including "easily ignited" in the 17th century) clearly involve the idea of physical touching.

"Tetchy," meaning "easily irritated or made angry," first appeared in the late 16th century (in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, in fact), and, unlike "touchy," has never carried any literal connotations of physical contact. "Tetchy" appears to be a derivative of "tetch," an English dialect word meaning "tantrum," but the first written record of "tetch" comes after the appearance of "tetchy," so "tetch" may actually be a "back formation" derived from "tetchy." The root of "tetch" is, predictably, unknown, but it may be related to "attach" in the sense of "grip." There is also a possibility, which makes me very tetchy, that "touchy" in the "irritable" sense and "tetchy" have been the same word all along.

As for "touched" (in the sense of "slightly demented," short for "touched in the head"), "tetched" is simply a "backwoods" or colloquial variant, and has no apparent connection to "tetch" in the "irritable" sense.

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