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 That uniform smells funny.

Dear Word Detective: I was hoping you could explain the origins of the word “livery” which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with organ meat best served grilled with onions. What it DOES seem to have something to do with is a place to keep and care for horses in old western towns and, even more strangely (to me), the design of the paint and branding on airplanes. Are these words the same “livery”?  Am I right that they have nothing to do with liver? — Fernando.

That’s a great question, but you lost me with “organ meat best served grilled with onions.” All I could think of was Samuel Johnson’s declaration: “It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” Speaking as a cucumber lover, I think Johnson must have been thinking of liver.

You’re absolutely correct that “livery” has nothing to do with “liver,” a fact for which we should all be grateful. The origin of the word “liver” for the organ once considered the seat of emotions in humans (go figure) is a mystery, but it may derive from ancient Indo-European roots meaning “fatty or greasy.” Yum. Of course, “liver” can also mean “a person who lives,” as well as being the informal name of the sea bird (“liver bird”) that appears on the official seal of the City of Liverpool (which is, I think we can agree, a fairly appalling name for a city).

The word “livery” entered English around 1300 from French and has been spewing out new meanings at a rabbits-in-Australia rate ever since. The Old French source, “livere,” meant generally “to give, deliver,” and can be traced back to the Latin “liberare,” to free (also the source of “liberate” and “deliver”). All of our senses of “livery” in English carry some sense, albeit often diluted, of “giving.”

One of the biggies is “livery” in the sense of “identifying marks or color schemes,” such as your example of designs and color schemes on aircraft. This sense developed from “livery” meaning the uniforms given to servants of nobility, etc., an outgrowth of “livery” meaning the food given to servants. This “livery” also meant the food, shelter, etc., given to horses, which is where “livery stables” (where food, grooming, etc., is included in the fee) got their name. A “livery cab” was originally a horse-drawn cab that was available to the public for hire. But today,  at least in New York City, “livery cab” is used to mean a taxicab that can be booked in advance and generally (as distinguished from “medallion” cabs) does not pick up fares on the street.

“Livery” in the sense of “uniform” has gradually been extended to mean simply “characteristic clothing, especially of a profession.” Thus a “liveried butler” would be dressed as Jeeves and a soldier’s “livery” might prominently feature of camouflage. The distinctive “livery” worn by servants and retainers of royalty and nobility in medieval London became emblematic of the guilds and trade associations that later developed known as “Livery Companies,” some of which survive today, albeit more as civic associations than anything else.


Oddly enough, we happen to have a puss named Mister Boots.

Dear Word Detective: I love kitties and have two. (I know you are a kitty fan too.) I frequently call my cats “puss” (they do have actual names). “Kitty” makes sense, but how did cats get the nickname “puss”? — Val.

Cats? Yeah, we have a bunch, but I’m kinda over the whole cat thing. What I’d like is a capybara, one of those ginormous South American hamsters the size of a dog. Or maybe a llama, which are way cool. But they eat, like, fifty pounds of food a day and then spit at you. As far as “actual names” for the cats go, several of ours were originally denoted by numbers. I thought that was a pretty good system, but opinions varied, I eventually caved, and Number Six, the last holdout, became Little Girl Cat. I guess LGC (as we call her) appreciated the change, because now she hardly ever spits at me.

“Cat” itself is an interesting word. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “cat”  defines it as “A well-known carnivorous quadruped (Felis domesticus) which has long been domesticated, being kept to destroy mice, and as a house pet.” Destroy mice, eh? That entry dates back to 1889, which explains why they left out “bankrupt its owners by demanding Fancy Feast.” Our modern word “cat” first appeared in Old English, and goes back to the Latin “cattus,” which also produced the Spanish “gato,” Italian “gatto,” French “chat,” Swedish “katta” and even the Bulgarian “kotka.”

“Puss” (or “puss-cat,” “pussycat,” and similar forms) as a term (and name) for a cat first appeared in print in the 16th century, and represents another “cat-word” family tree, one that is tied to the Dutch word “poes,” meaning simply “cat.” Similar words are found in dialects of German, Danish, Swedish, Lithuanian and Irish (“puisin”). “Puss” is often used in the reduplicated form “puss-puss,” which brings us to an interesting theory of its origin. It’s thought to have originated as a “call name” for a cat (equivalent to “here, kitty kitty,” etc.), using the initial “p” and the hiss of the “s” to get the cat’s attention (“We ‘know’ when the cat is out there waiting to come in. Open the door — Here, ‘puss, puss, puss’ — but there she is already.” Daily Mail, 2004).

“Pussycat” has also been used, since the 17th century, as a term for (according to the OED) “A girl or woman, especially one exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, as spitefulness, slyness, attractiveness, playfulness, etc. Originally used as a term of contempt; in later use also as a pet name or term of endearment.” Since the 1940s, “pussycat” has also been used, mostly in North America, to mean “a sweet or gentle man,” “an effeminate man” (OED), or “a coward.” One of the most common modern uses of this sense is in regard to someone (male or female), who might be expected to be grumpy or fearsome, but actually isn’t (“Bob couldn’t sleep the night before meeting his prospective father-in-law, but the guy turned out to be a pussycat”).

By the way, the slang term “puss” meaning “face or mouth” (“Cheese that, or I’ll give you a smack in the puss.” LA Times, 1887) has nothing to do with cats. It comes from the Irish “pus” (meaning “lips or mouth”), and first appeared in the mid-19th century. It’s also found in such terms as “sourpuss,” meaning a person who is usually either literally or figuratively scowling.

First, second, third.

Too bad. “Thrity” has a nice ring to it.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been wondering about this since grade school: Why do we say “first” and “second,” which seem totally unrelated to the words “one” and “two”? “Third” at least somewhat resembles “three.” And the rest – fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. – pretty much just add “th” to the number. So why don’t we say “oneth,” “twoth,” and maybe “threeth”? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY

That’s a good question, and there seem to be a lot of people out there on the internet asking the same thing. Unfortunately, the answers they’re getting at places like Yahoo Answers are, shall we say, not quite right. My favorite one confidently (but loonily) explains that “In most competitions, there is the importance of the first three rankers. It is possible that the words, first, second and third were coined for the first three winners. One having rank four was never recognized for prize distribution. So no special word was coined for rank 4 and so on.” I guess you could call this the State Fair Pie Contest theory. Remember, kids, losers don’t get a special word!

“First,” “second,” “third,” “fourth” and so on are called “ordinal numbers,” terms defining a thing’s place in a series (as opposed to “cardinal numbers,” such as “one,” “two,” “three,” etc.). The word “ordinal” comes from the Latin “ordo,” meaning “row or series,” which also gave us “order.” Ordinals can be used as nouns, pronouns or adjectives, and can be written either as words (“third”) or as numerals with suffixes approximating the sound of the word (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.).

The form of almost all English ordinals is regular, predictable and no mystery at all. Old English used the ending “tha” to form ordinals, which we retained in the form “th” (or “eth”) and use to cover everything from “fourth” to “five hundred billionth” and beyond. Just why the ordinals corresponding to “one,” “two” and “three” in English diverged from this pattern is unknown — stuff happens — but almost certainly had nothing to do with contests.

Our modern English word “first” was “fyrst” in Old English, and came from the Germanic root “furisto,” which was a superlative form of the root “fur,” meaning “before, preceding” (which also gave us “fore” and the prefix “for,” connoting “before” or “in front of”). So the sense of “first” was “absolutely before anything else.” As you might expect, “first” has acquired a range of extended meanings in various terms, such as “first aid” (medical aid delivered at the scene of injury) and “firsthand” (in “first person” experience, as opposed to “secondhand,” via another person).

To designate the thing that came immediately after the first thing, English originally simply used the word “other.” For obvious reasons, this use of “other” created confusion with all the, um, other uses of “other.” So around 1300, English borrowed “second” directly from French, which had derived it from the Latin “secundus,” meaning “following” or “next in a series” (also the source of our modern “sequel”).

“Third” came to us from the Germanic “thridda,” closely related to our “three,” which is why “third” and “three” seem similar. They’d be even more alike if a fairly common historical linguistic process called “metathesis” hadn’t reversed the “i” and “r” in “thrid” in the 16th century to make “third” (and led to the cardinals “thirteen,” “thirty,” etc., rather than “thridteen” or “thrity”).

Things are pretty straightforward from then on, with the exception of “eleventh” (“eleven” coming from the Old English “endleofan,” meaning “one left over, i.e., one more than, ten”) and “twelfth” (“twelve” being from the Old English “twelf,” literally “two left” over ten).