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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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I’m still working on my own invention, Kalashnikov Scrabble.

Dear Word Detective: Wondering where the word “yips” came from, as in “I got the yips and missed the putt.” — Phil Jones.

Oh boy, a golf question. Not a surprise. Call me psychic, but I knew this was coming as soon as it began to snow. Unless you live in some unnatural place like Florida or Southern California, the winter months are bleak, golfly-speaking. So it’s no wonder golfers’ minds turn to decoding all the strange locutions they’ve been using all summer.

I should note at the outset that I am neither an authority on, nor a devotee of, golf. Mark Twain famously called golf “a good walk spoiled,” to which I can only add that I am not all that fond of long walks, either. But maybe golf just needs a little tweaking. The late Hunter S. Thompson, in his last column for, announced his invention of a fascinating variant on the game, which he called “shotgun golf.” It’s a simple (but very loud) game for two players: one player, using a conventional club, lofts the ball toward the hole, while the other, using a twelve-gauge shotgun, attempts to blow the ball out of the air with buckshot. It sounds awesome, but I suspect it might be hard to find a caddy.

For a game whose pace ranges from stately to glacial, golf has developed quite a range of lively terms, from “birdie” (one stroke under par for a given hole, from “bird” meaning “something excellent” in 19th century slang) to “bogey” (a good score for a hole, usually the same as par) to “eagle” (a “super birdie,” two strokes under par) and beyond. “Bogey,” by the way, was coined by a certain Major Wellman, playing at the Great Yarmouth Club in England in 1890. Unfamiliar with the club custom of playing against an ideal “ground score” for each hole, the Major said that he felt as if he were playing against an invisible, expert opponent, whom he dubbed “the bogey-man” (probably because “The Bogey-Man” was the title of a popular song at the time).

“The yips” is a new one on me, but I instinctively had a sense of its meaning, which is the mark of good slang. (On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine “the yips” being a positive condition.) This “yips” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) as “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf,” and dictionaries seem to agree that it made its first appearance in print in 1963. Strictly speaking, the origin of “yips” is unknown, but the AHD quite reasonably suggests it might be “imitative of jerky motions caused by tension.” This “yips” is also evocative of “yip” in the standard meaning of “short, sharp cry of surprise or distress,” dating back to the 15th century and imitative of the actual sound of a “yip.” I would imagine that if one were suddenly overcome by anxiety over a short but delicate and crucial putt that the twitching of one’s muscles might be very reminiscent of the yipping of a small, excited dog. Or perhaps the difficulty of concentration presented by the putt is being compared to having an actual small yipping dog among the spectators. Another good reason to bring a shotgun.

Its apparently possible for players in other sports to develop “the yips” at crucial, high-pressure moments, and I can think of all sorts of times the word would be appropriate in non-sports settings. Public speaking is one; choosing between the Smut Beam or the Grope at the airport gate is another. Personally, I tend to freeze up when the waiter asks if I’d like lemon in my water, which is why I generally just stay home and eat lots of toast.

Incidentally, sometime soon I’m going to receive my annual query about whether the word “golf” was originally an acronym for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.” Let me cut that off at the pass this year by saying, as emphatically as possible in print, “absolutely not.” The origin of the word “golf” is uncertain, but it is most likely based on either the Dutch “kolf,” meaning “a club” (as in croquet) or the Scots word “gowf,” meaning “to strike.”

May 2011 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Spring is here, Spring is here, life is skittles and life is beer… Well, at least it seems to have stopped raining for the moment.

The vultures are back! I love the vultures. They nest every year in our old semi-dead hollow tree down by the road and spend their days soaring above the yard and the field across the road.  I counted nine of them wheeling above our side yard the other afternoon. They are truly awesome birds. You can go stand in the yard and they’ll swoop low over your head to say hi. At least I hope they’re saying hi and not just checking my pulse.

We acquired a flock of crows in our trees last year for the first time. That sounds like we paid for them, but they actually just appeared. I grew up with crows, and I didn’t realize until these showed up how much I had missed their caws. And in the early evening, I sit on the front porch and watch the bats zoom back and forth catching bugs. Bats are cool.

The downside of spring around here is the clouds of agricultural chemicals that envelop the house. We’re sandwiched between two enormous fields, each spanning hundreds of acres, where soybeans and corn are grown in alternate years. Because of the rain, the farmers are way behind schedule in their planting, and they’ve been spraying late into the night. Not fun. It’s a huge argument against country living.

Many thanks to our readers who have subscribed or otherwise contributed to our well-being lately. As I may have mentioned a few times, your support literally keeps this leaky little boat afloat. I know money is tight for most people, but, if you can swing four cents a day ($15/yr), you’ll be ensuring that we’re here when you run into someone who firmly maintains that the proper spelling of the phrase is “all tolled.” Think of us as an insurance policy on a small but important bit of your sanity. So please consider subscribing if you can, because (as I have lately discovered the hard way) there are many people out there who would like to but can’t.

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Blow Out

Yubba Dubba Duck!

Dear Word Detective: My wife was reading an ad and noticed that there was going to be a “Blow Out Sale,” which got her thinking, what is a “Blow Out Sale”? When did “blow out” become a term to mean “big” or “extravagant”? I, of course, pondered the question and thought of you. Do you have any clues? Should we go to the “Blow Out Light Bulb Sale”? — Rich Harrington.

Good question. I’d have answered it sooner, but I was recovering after the ruckus at MondoMegaStuff on Black Friday. I felt sorry for the poor schmucks guarding the doors when that crowd stepped on them, of course, but you don’t get … whatever it was I bought … by hanging back like a wuss. What did I buy, anyway? I must have bought something, right? Anyway, I’ll bet it’s awesome, and I just know it’s making me happy. And I’ll bet you don’t have one. Wuss.

I have no doubt that somewhere out there in Consumption Nation there’s a Blow Out Light Bulb Sale in progress, probably just a few feet from the big “Roll Back!” sign above the bowling balls. Personally, I can’t help thinking about the tires on our car when I hear “blow out,” which is not surprising because I’ve gone through life convinced that someday all four wheels would fall off while we’re tooling down the freeway. Hey, it happened to Fred Flintstone almost every week.

“Blow out” in the sense you noticed is a use of the noun “blow out” (also “blow-out” and “blowout”) as an adjective. The noun “blow-out” (the form preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) is based on the verb “to blow,” which came to us from Germanic roots via the Old English “blawan,” meaning generally “to move air, to kindle, to breathe.”

As you can imagine, a verb having to do with everything from starting a fire to simply breathing subsequently spawned dozens of subsidiary meanings, but the one that underlies the various senses of “blow-out” is that of “to expel air forcefully or explosively.” Thus the use of “blow-out” to mean “a catastrophic burst in a rubber tire,” the most notable corollary of which (if you’re lucky) is that your tire no longer holds air and you have to call the AAA. This sense of “blow-out” first appeared in print in 1908 and shows, sadly, no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon. The same sense of “explosive escape and failure” is found in “blow-out” in a number of mechanical contexts, lately most notably meaning “A rapid, uncontrolled uprush of fluid from an oil well.” This sense first appeared in 1916. When we say that a light bulb “blows out,” we’re figuratively using a sense of “to blow” dating back to the 14th century meaning “to extinguish (a flame) by a current of air.”

Interestingly, one of the earliest printed examples of “blow-out” comes from 1825, when it was used to mean “quarrel, disturbance, fight,” a sense now mostly obsolete, having been replaced by “blow up.”

At about the same time (1823), however, “blow-out” appeared with the far more congenial meaning of “A dinner, supper, or other entertainment for which an abundant supply of food and drink is provided or at which it is consumed” (OED) (“They had a grand blow-out, and … drank in the forecastle, a barrel of gin,” Two Years Before the Mast, Dana, 1840). The logic behind this use of “blow-out” is that of excess without limits, as if a richly-stocked pantry had been completely (and, metaphorically, explosively) emptied for one feast. This “blow-out” is very much still in use today, and appears to be the sense behind “blow-out sale,” an “event” offering a wealth of goodies at insanely low prices.

Two other, more modern, uses of “blow-out” are worth mentioning because the second may feed into “blow-out sale” a bit. In the 1920s, blow-out” appeared as US slang meaning “a total failure; a fiasco or debacle” (“I walk over … knowing full well what it’s like to be in his shoes, facing a financial blowout, gobsmacked by your own bovine stupidity,” 2004). But for every loser there is a winner, and by the 1930s, this “failure” sense had produced its opposite, the use of “blow-out” to mean a sweeping and dramatic victory, especially in sports or politics (“The Tigers … lost a total of seven games — four by blowouts and three by slim margins,” 1991). In a sports-obsessed nation like the US, I suspect that this “stunning victory” sense also lurks behind “blow-out sale.”