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In droves

Walking my cow. Why?

Dear Word Detective: Is there not a phrase “coming out in droves” or do I have “droves” wrong? And if “droves” is indeed correct, what does it mean? — Ron Burkey, Jr.

Ah, the sound of a man doubting his own sanity. I know it well. Every so often I’ll find myself typing or saying something that makes perfect sense to me, but which fails, for some reason, to mean anything useful on Planet Earth. A few years ago I convinced myself that I had grown up using the word “stinch,” meaning “to be stingy.” No such word (except as an obsolete 15th century form of “stanch”), according to every dictionary I own. Apparently I had been combining “stint” (which does mean “restrict”) with “stingy” or “skimp.” But at least I wasn’t alone; the impetus for my investigation was a question from a reader also convinced that “stinch” was an accepted word.

In the case of “droves,” however, you’re on solid ground. “Droves” is not only a real word, it’s a very popular one. Google News at the moment lists more than 2,000 news stories using the word (e.g., “New Yorkers leaving the state in droves,” AP, 8/02/11). And you don’t even have to be human to qualify as a “drove,” provided there are enough of you (“Toadlets cross Chilliwack roads in droves” and “Stink bugs showing up in droves” being two recent headlines).

“Drove,” of course, is familiar to us as the past tense of the verb “to drive” (“Having nothing better to do, Bob drove to Cleveland and almost immediately regretted it”). “Drive” as a verb, derived from Germanic roots, originally carried the sense of forcing people or animals to move forward by pushing or threatening from behind (a sense that was somewhat weakened in the 16th century by the adoption of “drive” to mean “operate a vehicle pulled by horses, oxen, etc.”).

“Drove” is a noun derived from the verb “to drive,” and when it first appeared in Old English, it meant simply “the act of driving or herding” a herd of livestock, flock of sheep, etc. By the 12th century, however, “drove” had come to be applied to the group of animals that was being “driven.” Eventually, “drove” expanded yet further, and was used to mean a large group of animals, people or other entities, moving together as a group for whatever reason, not necessarily because the group was being “driven” by force (“Singapore fans turned up in droves to watch the Lions reach the third round,” 7/28/11). Although “drove” in the singular now means “a large group of animals, people or things,” the word is almost always used in the plural form “droves.”

While “driver,” the agent noun formed on the verb “to drive,” has developed a wide range of literal and figurative meanings, from golf clubs to economic mechanisms (“Consumer spending, a key driver of the economy, did not grow at all in the second quarter,” AFP, 8/06/11), the agent noun of the verb “to drove,” which appeared in the 17th century meaning “to herd,” hasn’t changed much at all. A “drover” is a person who “drives,” in the original “force from behind” sense, a herd of animals, usually cattle, to market (“Scores of highly born and bred men live by droving cattle,” 1881). The cowboys that figure so prominently in US history, TV and movies were, in many cases, “drovers” who spent their days convincing “droves” of reluctant cattle to march to market.

Merry Andrew

Too good a time was had by all.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading “Five Weeks in a Balloon” by Jules Verne. A character is described as “the jester and merry-andrew of the boatswain’s mess.” I understand what a “merry-andrew” is, but can’t find out where it came from. Please help. — Jan.

I’ve never read “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” though I probably should have during my Jules Verne phase (roughly when I was between 12 and 14). I must admit that the title has always made me a bit uneasy. I’m not claustrophobic at all, but I am acrophobic, and the thought of being aloft in a balloon for five minutes, let alone five weeks, gives me the wimwams. In any case, Verne’s novel describes a trip across Africa (where he had never been) by hot-air balloon (about which, according to the killjoys at Wikipedia, he got all sorts of technical details wrong). But looking for factual accuracy in a Verne novel is, to put it mildly, missing the whole point. After all, Verne’s talent managed to make Captain Nemo, who never existed, immortal.

As you have deduced (and is implied by the quotation you included), a “merry-andrew” is a jester, a cut-up or card who amuses people with a steady stream of jokes and comic banter. In extended use, “merry-andrew” is sometimes used to mean simply “fool or idiot” or, as an adjective, “foolish” or “clownish.” The first appearance in print of “merry-andrew” used in a generic sense was in the late 17th century (“Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace,” Dryden, 1684).

There has been uncertainty (and debate) over the origin of “merry-andrew” for several centuries. The most popular theory identifies the original “merry-andrew” as Dr. Andrew Boorde (circa 1490–1549), personal physician to Henry VIII. Dr. Boorde apparently was known for his humorous bedside manner and love of a good joke (although he did not, as some accounts have it, actually publish a popular joke collection). Dr. Boorde’s prominence and well-known sense of humor would make him, at first glance, a good candidate for being the original “merry-andrew.” Unfortunately, there is no actual evidence for this theory; it was simply declared as a fact in 1735 by the historian and antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735), and subsequent attempts to bolster the Boorde/”merry-andrew” equation have been fruitless.

That leaves us with the explanation suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which traces “merry-andrew,” based on early citations, to the Bartholomew Fair, a large summer fair in London that was held every year from 1133 to 1855. (That’s an annual fair held for 700 years, which is pretty amazing. According to the City of London website, “The Fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals. Also common at the fair was the selling of wives.” Apparently the city authorities pulled the plug on the Fair in 1855 because it had “degenerated” too far into debauchery. One can only imagine what line they finally crossed.)

The OED suggests, quite reasonably, that the original “merry-andrew” was a particular performer at the Bartholomew Fair in the mid- to late 17th century, most likely one, as the OED puts it, “whose persona was that of a fool” and whose stage name was actually “Merry Andrew.” The OED supplies supporting citations from the period, including one dating to 1688 from the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys (“I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey,” a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”) Other quotations make it clear that the performer was, in fact, male (“Arch Merry Andrew will rend out his voice: Though his looks are but simple, & his actions the same, …By playing the fool he does get store of Coyn” (circa 1680) and “Let’s … step to Fair of Bartlemew… Here Merry-Andrew with his Babble, Diverts the crouds of gaping Rabble” (1691)). So “merry-andrew,” today meaning a person who behaves like a clown or fool, almost certainly came from the stage name of a very successful “fool.”


Hey, how come there’s no four-letter word for “four-letter word”?

Dear Word Detective: I recently found “sabe” on the Scrabble word list. I wondered what it meant, but could only find it in the Merriam-Webster Scrabble Players Dictionary as a verb meaning “to savvy.” I know “savvy” is related to the Spanish “sabe,” but have been unable to find any English use of the word. Is it an English word? If not, any idea how it ended up on the word list?

Rats. I was getting all fired up for my anti-Scrabble rant, which I trot out every two or three years, when I had a disturbing realization. I personally dislike playing Scrabble. But the game’s makers really ought to be awarded some sort of prize for enriching the vocabulary of millions of people since Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect, invented it in 1938. Then again, Butts gets the credit, but he didn’t really invent the Scrabble game we know today. His original version was called “Lexico,” and didn’t even have a game board, just the little tiles. It wasn’t until a guy named James Brunot bought the rights to Lexico in 1947, fiddled with it a bit, added the board, and renamed it Scrabble that the game took off. The Chairman of Macy’s played Scrabble on vacation, ordered all his stores to stock it, and turned it into a national sensation. Today, according to Hasbro, the game’s current maker, there’s a Scrabble set in one out of every three US households. We actually own a very nice deluxe set ourselves, received as a gift a decade ago. It makes a lovely bookend.

In any case, yes, “sabe” is a real English word (pronounced “SAH-bay”) although it is a direct borrowing of the Spanish word “sabe.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “to sabe” as a simple synonym of “to savvy,” which in turn means “to know, to understand, to comprehend.” The OED notes that “savvy,” and presumably “sabe” as well, are often used in the interrogative form “Sabe?” or “Savvy?” following an explanation given to someone whose understanding of said explanation is considered, for whatever reason, to be in doubt (“You’ve got to quit; savey?”, 1897; “Ha! Sabe that?” 1850). Both “sabe” and “savvy” are also nouns, meaning “practical intelligence” or “street smarts,” and adjectives meaning “quick-witted” or “in the know” (“A savvy tenant putting a deposit on his house gains a 12-month option to buy at the price ruling when he made the deposit,” 1980). Interestingly, the OED also defines the interjection “Quien sabe?”, originally a Spanish phrase meaning “Who knows?” or “Who can say?” (“Was this the same man for whom Murdock’s Landing was named? Quien sabe?”, 2005).

When those of us who grew up with 1950s television in the US hear “sabe,” many of us immediately think of the word “kemosabe,” which is what Tonto, faithful Indian companion to the Lone Ranger, called the masked dude in the wildly popular TV series. But there doesn’t seem to be any connection between “sabe” and “kemosabe.” According to an exhaustive investigation by The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams ( many years ago, Jim Jewell, who directed the Lone Ranger radio serial back in the late 1930s, took the word from the name of a camp (Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee) run by his father-in-law in Michigan. Jewell maintained that “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” meant “trusted scout” in the local Indian language, and he was at least in the ballpark on that. Cecil Adams managed to track down language exerts who confirmed that the word “giimoozaabi” did mean something like “scout” in the Ojibwe language, the Ottawa tribe in the area of the camp did speak Ojibwe, and “giimoozaabi” probably sounded a good deal like “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” or “Kemosabe.” That’s some serious detective work.

Unfortunately, even the awesome and resourceful Cecil Adams was unable to determine just how the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion ended up with the name “Tonto,” which, in Spanish, is an insult meaning “drunk” or “crazy.”