Issue of December 4, 2007

Page Two


Bloomin' nonsense.

Dear Word Detective: During the Victorian era, the language of flowers was type of Morse code for lovers and friends. A flower listed in many glossaries of flower code, "abecedary," is said to mean "volubility." However, I am unable to find out what the flower is. All dictionary sources define "abecedary" as a child's alphabet book or an ancient text in tablet form. Is there a flower previously known by the common name "abecedary," or is this a misprint that has been maintained through repeated printings over the years? -- Katharine Elliott.

Ah, the language of flowers. A few years ago I wrote a book titled "Making Whoopee -- Words of Love for Lovers of Words" (makes a lovely Valentine's Day gift, nudge, nudge). In the course of researching a section on the Victorian use of flowers as coded communication between lovers (even the knot used to tie a bouquet could have a hidden meaning), I learned that "floriography" became immensely popular in Victorian England, with dozens of books offering interpretations of some often fairly obscure flowers. One of the most popular was the Victorian illustrator Kate Greenaway's 1885 "The Language of Flowers," which was followed by many others, including at least one, in 1892, that apparently (as was a common practice at the time) copied chunks of Greenaway's flower glossary wholesale.

Then came the internet, and platoons of people, or possibly monkeys, began furiously typing Greenaway's text (which is still under copyright) into web sites. The very first two entries in the text as rendered on dozens of web sites today are "Abecedary," which supposedly connotes "volubility" (talkativeness) and "Abatina," said to signal "fickleness." But as far as I can tell, "Abecedary" and "Abatina" are not and have never been the names of flowers, and, significantly, the only Victorian glossaries that include them are apparently Greenaway's and the 1892 volume. In fact, since I don't have a copy of the Greenaway book, I can't swear she includes them. They may well be relics of typographical errors in the 1892 "borrowing" of her work.

If "Abecedary" is indeed an error, it's easy to imagine how it happened. A glossary such as Greenaway's is itself an abecedary of a sort, an "abecedary" (from "a, b, c, d") being a book designed to teach children the alphabet (or simply an alphabetical list of words). It's entirely possible that the first page of Greenaway's book contained the word "abecedary," and someone down the line who didn't recognize the word took it for the name of a flower and simply made up a "secret meaning" for it. As for "abatina," your guess is as good as mine.

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Don't look back, Bob.

Dear Word Detective: Bob Dylan, on his Christmas special radio show (on XM satellite radio), said that the term "carol," as in Christmas carol, was coined when people in London would sing Christmas songs, during their door-to-door search for a missing girl named "Carol," so that residents would know they meant no harm. The girl was not found but the songs became known as "carols" after that. This was during the time of Jack the Ripper. Did this happen? -- Greg.

I love this question. It's got everything: a celebrity, London in the 19th century (gaslight, fog, the clatter of hooves on cobblestones...), Christmas, a serial killer on the loose, a race to save his innocent victim from dire peril, and toe-tapping music to boot! I think if we get cracking right away, we could have this ready for Broadway in time for Thanksgiving. After all, the score almost writes itself: On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, four polygraphs, three latent prints, two bogus psychics, and Geraldo hiding in a pear tree. Dylan himself could do an "Our Town"-style narration, and we'd call it "The Ballad of Jack and Carol." Awesome.

On the other hand, Mr. Dylan is a pretty smart cookie, so I think we have to entertain the possibility that he dreamed up that whole "Carol" story as a joke. But the story is out there now, so I'd better take it seriously, because I have the feeling I'll be hearing it for the next few years. Thanks, Bob.

The bottom line is that the story of "carol" relayed by the Bobster is bogus, absolute and utter hogwash. "Carol" meaning a song or hymn sung at Christmas, has nothing to do with the personal name "Carol," which is derived from the same Germanic root as "Charles."

There's a debate as to the origin of "carol" in the "song" sense, but English definitely adopted it from the Old French "carole," and the favored theory traces it back to the Latin "choraules," meaning "flute player who accompanies a choir or dance." This trail leads back to the Greek "choros," which also gave us "chorus" and "choir." This is all very logical and fits in nicely with our modern English use of "carol" to mean a song usually sung by a group.

The original sense of that Old French "carole," however, was "a dance in a circle accompanied by singing," which has led to an alternate theory that the root of "carol" is actually the Latin "corolla," meaning "little crown, garland," carrying the sense of "ring" or "circle." In fact, the original use of "carol" when it first appeared in English around 1300 was "a ring-dance accompanied with song." Our modern sense of "carol" as a Christmas song didn't appear until the early 16th century.

Whether the roots of "carol" lie in the sense of "chorus" or of "ring" may never be settled, but the citizens of London were definitely singing Christmas carols five centuries before Mr. Dylan's improbable tale supposedly took place. My retroactive Christmas wish, speaking as a fan, is that he was joking.

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Where "moderate wear" means "used for target practice."

Dear Word Detective: An acquaintance recently received a book she had bought on eBay, and enclosed with the book was a card that said "With Compliments." She was charmed, but curious at the same time as to the origin and proper use of the phrase. When presenting something with your compliments, isn't it properly something that is being given freely, or "complimentary"? If someone has bought something from you, would it actually be proper to say "with compliments?" -- Lori.

Hmm. I'm usually more of a "glass half empty" than "glass half full" kind of guy myself (lately, in fact, I've been in a "Give me back my glass" frame of mind), but I think your friend may be looking a complimentary horse in the mouth, so to speak. She bought something on eBay, she actually received said something, you don't mention it being covered in squirrel droppings or showing signs of a recent charbroiling, and her only complaint seems to be a small card of questionable literacy? Your friend needs to start playing the lottery before her luck wears off.

On the other hand, your friend is correct. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "complimentary" as "Given free to repay a favor or as an act of courtesy," and even uses the example "complimentary copies of the new book." As your friend paid for the book, it was hardly "complimentary" in that sense. Perhaps the dealer was "complimenting" (flattering) the buyer on her fine choice of reading material. OK, probably not.

Of course, as always, it might have been worse: the card might have read "With Complements." The distinction between "complement" and "compliment" escapes many people, which is understandable because these two words started out as essentially the same word. The root of both was the Latin noun "complementum," from "complere," to fill up or finish (also the source of "complete"). English adopted "complementum" as "complement" in the 14th century with the sense of "that which completes," but by the late 16th century we were using it to mean more specifically "that which fulfills the norms of civilized behavior," i.e., politeness. A "complement" (note the spelling) became "polite words of praise."

Then, in the 17th century, English essentially imported "complementum" again, this time as "compliment" (with an "i"), and began using it to mean "an expression of regard; words of praise," and, as a verb, "to praise" or "to present a person with a gift as an act of courtesy" (as in the "complimentary" breakfasts offered by many motels these days). This new "compliment" (and the adjective "complimentary") left "complement" with an "e" to devolve back to its root meaning of "something that completes or matches" (as in "Floppy clown shoes would be the perfect complement for that outfit").

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Some guy once actually mistook me for Stephen King,
but he was drunk.

Dear Word Detective: I recently got in a minor debate over the term "Doppelganger." A friend had seen an episode of Buffy where the same characters from different dimensions met and they referred to the newly added character as a Doppelganger. I had always thought of Doppelgangers as a mimic or spirit that could look like someone else, not applicable in this case, where it was more of a Bizzaro-Superman situation. I know this doesn't have earth-shattering implications, but I'm real curious about the word in general. --Tim.

Well, the taxonomy of the supernatural is not exactly in my bailiwick, but I'm always up for a field trip to Weirdville. I presume we're talking about the late great WB TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and not the short-lived C-SPAN copycat series, "Buffy the Heritage Foundation Intern." Unfortunately, I completely forgot to watch Buffy during its 1997-2003 run, but for those of you similarly bereft, the series concerned a young woman dragooned by Fate into, well, slaying vampires and stuff like that. According to Wikipedia, the whole show was a metaphor for life in high school. What. Ever.

Bizarro, of course, first appeared in a 1958 Superboy comic book, but as I recall (after a bit of research), he was created by a laboratory mishap with a Duplicating Ray, so the trans-dimensional aspect of that Buffy episode doesn't really match up with Bizarro. Bizarro was also not a "doppelganger" in the strict sense, as that term is reserved for an exact double of a living person (and Bizarro was a hideously malformed version of Superboy).

The word "doppelganger" is German, a combination of "dopple" (meaning "double") and "ganger" (meaning "goer" or "walker"). Interestingly, although the German form "doppelganger" is in common usage today, the initial form when the term first appeared in English in the early 18th century was the Anglicized "double-ganger," which made no more sense in English than "doppelganger," but sounded less foreign.

The "doppelganger" has been a fixture of folklore in many cultures for centuries, and is usually said to appear as a wraith, or insubstantial duplicate, of a person. A person may see his or her own "doppelganger," which is said to be bad luck and an omen of impending death, illness, or, presumably, dementia. Friends may also see the "doppelganger" when the actual person is elsewhere, perhaps at a party to which the friends are not invited. Traditionally, "doppelgangers" cast no shadow, are invisible in mirrors, and are exempt from jury duty in most jurisdictions.

While believers in the paranormal use the term "doppelganger" in the literal woo-woo spooky sense, in common usage "doppelganger" has come to serve simply as a synonym for "double" or, still more loosely, "a person who shares important characteristics of another," much as the word "clone" is now used loosely. So the use of "doppelganger" in the Buffy episode you cite is certainly in the ballpark of common usage.

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The low hems of high-heeled boys.

Dear Word Detective: I'm hoping you can solve a question that came up in a rehearsal last night. Actors were discussing the origin of the term "drag" as it refers to someone playing a role of the opposite gender. Someone said that it was from old script notations, where a Stage Manager or someone like that would indicate in the margins "DRAG," meaning "DRess like A Girl." I said I thought that was probably apocryphal (right word?), that it was a little too pat an explanation, and that it was more likely derived from street lingo. But my confidence wavered, and I started wondering indeed where the term might have come from. I also started thinking about the many uses of "drag," as in "drag your feet" and "drag on a cigarette" and "What a drag" and "dragnet," and my head got dizzy. So please help me! I'd love to put that old story to rest if it is in fact bogus. -- Jeanie.

Gosh, I wish I had invented the acronym. I could charge a small fee per use, say three cents, and after about six months I could buy my own country and set up my own laws. I would be just, of course, but firm. Television would be outlawed, every household would be issued three cats (we could start by passing out a few of mine), and possession of either eggplant or a banjo would land you in the pokey. Oh well. You folks don't know what you're missing.

"Apocryphal," meaning "of questionable veracity" or simply "erroneous," is certainly the proper word for the story you heard about "drag." As for the other senses of "drag" you mention, they all go back to the original (and still primary) sense of "to drag," which was "to draw or pull something which resists motion," as in "dragging" a heavy trunk across your attic floor. English adopted "to drag" in the 15th century from either the Old English "dragan" (which gave us "draw") or the Norse "draga." "To drag one's feet" invokes the basic sense of "to move against inertia" (whether physical or emotional), and "to drag" on a cigarette, meaning to strongly pull smoke from it, was first used around 1919. A "dragnet" in the literal sense is a type of fishing net that scours the sea bottom for any and all fish; the metaphorical use to mean "a thorough police search" is from the early 20th century. Calling an annoying thing or boring person a "drag" dates, surprisingly, all the way back to 1813.

The use of "wear drag" or "in drag" to mean, originally, a man wearing women's clothing is first found in print in the late 19th century, and simply reflects the sensation, novel for men of the day, of a long skirt or the like "dragging" across the floor. The acronymic explanation of "drag" is a later attempt to "reverse-engineer" the term, but, like most such attempts, bears no relation to the much simpler reality.

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And a picture of a gold watch.

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me where the word "vesting" comes from? I know it is a derivative of "vest," but I'd like a clear explanation of its history. -- Elizabeth Hunt.

Hey, I've got an idea. Let's trade -- I'll explain the history of the word "vest," and you can explain (I hope) how "vesting" (as in a pension plan) works. I worked in an office for nearly twenty years, and around year five they told me I was "fully vested," pension-wise. I figured I was fixed for life, but lately they've been sending me statements indicating that my pension at age 65 will consist of a monthly box of Cheez-Its and a subscription to Popular Caulking. I'm certain it used to be more than that. Am I losing money by continuing to breathe? Are the market moths eating holes in my vest?

Onward. "Vest" is, of course, both a noun and a verb, and the two forms have diverged quite a bit over the centuries. "Vest" the noun first appeared in English in the 17th century, derived from the Latin "vestis," meaning "clothing or garment." The earliest vests in England were sleeveless garments worn by men under their coats, a fashion introduced by Charles II in 1666 on an occasion chronicled by Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary ("This day the King begins to put on his vest; ...being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon's leg.") Shorter vests eventually came to be called "waistcoats" in Britain, but "vest" persisted in America.

"Vest" the verb is more a parallel development than an actual derivative of the waistcoat sort of "vest." The root here is the Latin verb "vestire," meaning "to clothe," with the specific sense of dressing someone in the robes or vestments (another derivative) of office or power. When "vest" the verb appeared in English around 1425 (about 200 years before the noun "vest"), it already carried the metaphorical meaning of "to place or secure something in the legal possession of a person," a sense it retains to the present day. Thus, when you are "vested" in your pension, it's 100 percent yours, for what that's worth. "Vest" is also still used in specific instances to mean "to grant authority to," found in such portentous phrases as "By the power vested in me...."

The verb "to vest" has two close cousins, "invest" and "divest," both of which originally involved putting on or taking off clothes. Our modern "loan money to a business or enterprise" meaning of "invest" is an outgrowth of the "give power to" sense of "vest," but it this case it is money that is being given (and taken away in "divest"). "Vest" the verb is also related to "travesty" (from the Italian "transvestire," meaning "to change clothes as a disguise" the source of "transvestite" as well), meaning "a grotesque or mocking imitation" or "a parody" (which is a pretty good description of my so-called pension).

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