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Dear Word Detective: Lately I’ve keep hearing the phrase “You’re doing a bang-up job.” Which is good, I guess, when it refers to me but it’s got me wondering where the term “bang-up” comes from. Do you have any idea? — JL.

Well, my first thought on reading your question was “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Given the economic climate at the moment, I’d be thrilled if I were told I was doing a “bang-up job.” Unfortunately, I’m self-employed, so I’d have to be saying that to myself, which makes it a lot less fun to hear, especially because the last time I said it to myself (sotto voce, of course), I caught one of the cats rolling her eyes and snickering.

If there were some kind of central authority out there rating the performance of individual words, “bang” would get an excellent annual review, because “bang” has been doing a “bang-up job” since it first appeared in English back in the mid-16th century. “Bang” is an onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) word, one that was formed in imitation of a sound, in this case the sound of an explosion or something striking something with great force. “Bang” seems to have originated in a Scandinavian dialect, and is probably related to the Old Norse “banga,” meaning “to pound or hammer.”

Beginning with a basic sense of “strike with a resounding blow,” “bang” has developed an impressive range of derivative meanings, including “to beat or injure violently” (“The desperate Tempest hath so bang’d the Turke, That their designement halts,” Shakespeare, 1616), a noun meaning “thrill” or “a kick” (“He seems to be getting a great bang out of the doings,” Damon Runyon, 1931), “to bang out,” meaning to produce something rapidly and steadily, especially writing (probably from the sound of a typewriter), and “to bang on,” meaning “to pontificate or expound at tedious length” (“Then you have to stand around for hours afterwards, smiling vaguely as people bang on about perfect S-turns,” 1993).

Early in the 19th century, “bang” came to be used as an adverb meaning “thoroughly, completely, exactly,” probably from the sense of hitting something precisely with a hammer (“Do … you propose that we should walk right bang up to Teddy and tell him we’re going away together?” G.B. Shaw, 1907).

“Bang” was also used in Britain throughout the 19th century to mean “fashionable, stylish,” specifically in the sense of meeting a standard of fashion — being “bang-up to the mark” (“His spotted neckcloth knotted in bang-up mode,” 1843). It’s this sense of “bang-up,” meeting a standard of excellence, that we use when we say someone is doing “a bang-up job.”

Although “bang-up” is rooted primarily in that sense of “hitting exactly on the mark of excellence,” the popularity of the phrase is probably also due to the fact that the explosive connotations of “bang” echo the enthusiasm implied in such a judgment. A similar semantic overlap occurred during World War II, when “bang on” became a common phrase among Allied bomber pilots in Europe; bombs dropped “bang on” were both “exactly on target” and, of course, they actually exploded. While “bang on” had been used prior to the war, its use as armed services slang popularized the term (“As a realistic tale of low life in London, it is bang on,” 1958).


 Doing the best it can, folks.

Dear Word Detective: In my adolescent years in the 1960s, I had a good friend whose father was a poultry expert at Purdue University, and we sometimes stopped by where his father worked and saw flocks of domesticated turkeys. Unlike their wild brethren, these birds seemed to be a pretty stupid lot, and we began to call anyone we thought was a fool or who blindly followed rules a “turkey.” We used the word until it drove my parents to distraction, with phrases like “These turkeys don’t know what they are doing” and “What a turkey that guy is.” Later in my life my father said he thought that our use of “turkey” in this way had become widespread because of our persistent usage through our middle school and high school years. Any chance that we were the originators of this usage of the word? If not, I’d like to know who the turkey was who started it! — Andy Hughes.

So would the Turkey Anti-Defamation League, so I wouldn’t be so quick to claim credit. The good news is that they seem to have their hands full with all the other less-than-laudatory uses of “turkey” lurking out there in popular culture. As a matter of fact, pro-turkey press is so rare that I still remember the brilliant headline the Weekly World News splashed across its front page some years ago, just a few days before Thanksgiving: “Hero Turkey Saves Family of Five.” It was a joke, of course, but I’ll bet it made folks in supermarket checkout lines that week feel a bit guilty.

The story of the noble turkey, which Benjamin Franklin believed should be our national bird (“[T]he Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the Bald Eagle], and withal a true original Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage….”), begins with a case of mistaken identity. The bird we know as a “turkey” does not come from Turkey (the country), but from Mexico. When Europeans encountered them in America, they mistook them for Guineafowl, which had been exported from West Africa to Europe through Turkey and known as Turkeyfowl.

For a bird that would assume a prominent place in the modern diet, the turkey has been the butt of a number of ungratefully derogatory terms and phrases. The turkey’s slow and ungainly flight made “turkey shoot” a metaphor for a very easily accomplished task or a very lopsided contest, “to walk turkey” in the 19th century meant to strut or swagger, and “gobbledygook,” meaning “pretentious nonsense,” is an imitation of a turkey’s “gobbling” call.

The use of the word “turkey” by itself in a derogatory sense seems to date to the US in the 1920s, when “turkey” first appeared as show business slang for a movie or stage production that flopped (“The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it,” Groucho Marx, 1939). The logic behind “turkey” in this sense is a bit mysterious, but it may have been a reference to the inept attempts at flight of a domesticated turkey.

However, it also may have come from the 19th century phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning “to speak directly and frankly,” as a producer might when announcing the closing of a show to the cast. “Talk turkey” is said to come from the punchline of an old joke in which a white man counts out the game from a hunt with his Indian companion and keeps all the turkeys for himself, the Indian getting only crows, whereupon the Indian complains that “You only talk crows to me, you never talk turkeys.” The use of “talk turkey” meaning “to face facts and speak the truth directly” is also probably the source of “cold turkey,” meaning to quit an addiction suddenly and completely.

From meaning “a theatrical flop,” turkey went on to a more general use meaning “anything useless or of low quality.” By the 1950s, “turkey” had come into slang usage with the meaning of “a slow, stupid, inept or otherwise useless person” (“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died,” 1951).

Given the fact that “turkey” was widespread by the 1950s, you definitely didn’t coin the common slang term. But your youthful familiarity with turkeys could very well have prompted you to re-invent, on the spot, a slang term you had not yet heard. They are, after all, remarkably stupid birds.


You don’t wanna know what the tree yells.

Dear Word Detective: When a lumberjack chops down a tree, does he yell “Timber!” or “Timbre!”? Either one makes sense: he is creating timber, but he wants to send an alarm that a tree is falling (“timbre” means “bell” or “alarm” in Spanish). — David Towne.

So near and yet so far. I sense that there’s the basis of a good joke in there, but I can’t quite make it out. It would probably work better as the caption of a New Yorker cartoon, anyway, perhaps something about a symphony conductor and a fainting violin section.

The short answer to your question (my ride is honking out front) is that lumberjacks shout “Timber!” to warn anyone in the vicinity that a big tree is on its way down. I suppose that people cutting down trees have shouted some kind of warning for thousands of years, but the cry “Timber!” in particular must be of relatively recent vintage, because the earliest occurrence of this particular use of the word found in print (so far) was in 1912 (“Timber-r-r! the long-drawn melodious warning call of the sawyers in a lumber camp when a tree is about to fall,” Western Canadian Dictionary). “Sawyer,” incidentally, is an old (14th century) word for a worker who saws timber, although in the US it also has been used to mean uprooted trees floating down a river (and posing a hazard to navigation).

“Timber” and “timbre,” despite their resemblance, are, of course, completely separate, unrelated words. We inherited “timber” from Old English, where it had arrived from old Germanic roots carrying the sense of “wooden dwelling,” and in English “timber” originally meant simply “building.” From there it took on the meaning of “building materials” and then simply “wood, logs or lumber,” especially for building structures. Eventually “timber” was also used to mean a large beam in a building or the major structural parts of a wooden ship’s hull (as in the stereotypical old salt’s phrase “Shiver me timbers!”). Along the way, “timber” also came to be used to mean the trees grown for the production of timber (“We continued our journey … through a forest of grand timber,” 1880), which explains the logic of the lumberjack’s warning cry. Simply shouting “Tree!” probably wouldn’t be as effective.

“Timbre” (which is usually pronounced “tam-ber,” although “tim-ber” and “tim-bruh” are also common) means the character or quality of a voice or musical sound produced by its various harmonic overtones; the “color” of a vocal or musical sound. We adopted “timbre” from French in the mid-19th century, where the word had previously meant both “bell” and “sound of a bell,” and, even earlier “small drum.” Back then, a “timbre” or “timbrel” was a small hand-held percussion instrument known today as a “tambourine” (which is itself related to “timbre”). Yet further back, this whole little circus is related to the Greek “tympanon,” which gave us “tympanum,” what we today know as the “kettledrum” in an orchestra.