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Corking good

Case closed.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother often referred to a newly read book as “a corking good read.” Any comments on the term and its origin? — R.J.

Well, it depends. It’s difficult to know, when folks send their questions in by email, where they’re writing from, and while geographic location may seem (and usually is) largely irrelevant, it does figure in this case. If your mother is an inhabitant of, or has some close family connection to, Great Britain, no problemo. I’d say she was simply employing a mainstream colloquialism of that fair land. If, however, your family hails from the US, I suggest that you hightail it over to your mother’s house and unplug her TV. She has clearly been watching too much PBS programming, probably the powerfully hallucinogenic Downton Abbey, and is on the verge of ordering Marmite by mail. She must be stopped for her own good.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the adjective “corking” as “unusually fine, large, or excellent; stunning.” The OED also notes that the term first appeared in print in 1895 and is “chiefly US” in usage, which strikes me as odd, since I’ve never heard anyone but a hopeless Anglophile here use the term in a non-ironic sense. They even cite a use by P.G. Wodehouse (“There’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud.” 1919) who was about as non-US as you can get. Incidentally, the citation preceding that one for “corking” in the OED does not actually contain the word “corking” (“Arthur’s approval was fortified and grew with contemplation.”1918), which is very strange. Perhaps there’s an anagram I’m missing there.

In any case, “corking” as an adjective is an outgrowth of the noun “corker,” a slang term from the early 19th century with two related, but distinct, senses. The original sense was “something that settles and puts a definite end to a discussion or argument; an irrefutable argument or fact,” much as a cork tightly seals a wine bottle (“It’s a corker. If it [a proposed law] passes we’ll have to quit.” 1889). From this usage came an extended sense of “something shocking or astonishing.” A “corker” in this sense can be either something good or something bad.

The second sense of “corker,” which arose in the late 19th century, is unambiguously positive. Meaning “a person or thing of surpassing size or excellence; a stunner” (OED), this “corker” led directly to the “corking” your mother uses to praise a book.

Incidentally, occasionally you’ll hear someone complaining about the use of “read” as a noun, usually coupled with a modifier such as “good,” “riveting,” etc., in the sense of “material to read” (“My Friend Sandy can be hugely recommended … as a pleasantly light, bright sophisticated read.” 1961). I’ve never understood exactly what the problem with this usage is supposed to be, but it  dates back to at least the mid-20th century and it has lasted because it’s useful, which is, after all, the whole point of language.

In light of

 Lighter than ere.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years I have heard people say “In light of…” meaning “considering the circumstances.” How does the word “light” come into play? “Light” can be weight, e.g., “light” as opposed to heavy, or it can be “light” as a “piercing light.” I’m puzzled how it came to be used in this situation. — John Wilson.

That’s an interesting question. There are two kinds of “light” in English, completely unrelated words, both very old. The older of the two is the adjective meaning “not heavy” or “of little weight.” This comes from the prehistoric Germanic root word “lingkhtaz,” which also produced words meaning “light” in several other languages. This “light” first appeared in Old English meaning simply “not heavy,” but by the 16th century was also being used to mean “light in relation to its size” or, in the case of boats, carriages, etc., “capable of bearing only a small load” (e.g., a “light railway,” one not designed to carry heavy traffic). Similarly, “light industry” produces goods from “light” materials and “lightly-armed” troops are not driving tanks. A “light” meal doesn’t make one sleepy, and “light” dinner conversation is cheerful (even “lighthearted”) and avoids stressful topics. Just about anything easy, cheerful, graceful or simple can be described with the adjective “light.”

This “light” is also a verb meaning “make lighter” (i.e., “lighten”), “to dismount, descend  or settle” (as a bird “lights” on a branch), or “to leave, especially casually or abruptly” (as one might “light out” for Las Vegas). Interestingly, this “light” doesn’t really exist as a noun, except in the form “lights,” an antiquated word for “lungs” now used only for those of animals. The lungs of an animal (or human) are the lightest in weight of any major organ, and the word “lung” itself comes from the same root as “light.” The use of “lights” in reference to humans lives on in the colloquial phrase “to scare the livers and lights” out of a person, meaning “to terrify” (“It most scared the livers and lights out of me.” Mark Twain, 1884).

The other kind of “light,” meaning “luminance,” is a noun and verb drawn from the Indo-European root “leuk,” meaning “light,” which also produced the Latin “lux” (light) as well as “lumen” (as in “luminous”), “luna” (moon) and “lustrare” (to shine, source of “luster” and “illustrate”). The same “leuk” root produced the Greek “leukos” (white), which is found in “leukemia,” a disease which causes over-production of white blood cells.

The basic senses of this “light” employ the noun in its literal meaning of “luminance,” but the figurative senses are where the fun is. We speak of a lively person having “light” in his or her eyes, and “the light of one’s eye” being a dear friend, child or lover. To reach an understanding of a difficult question (or to receive a religious or political conversion) is “to see the light.” Matters not previously known, when revealed, are said to “come to light” with added details “shedding light.” A person who falls asleep quickly is said to be “out like a light,” and “lights out” can mean either bedtime or a boxer knocked down for the count.

The “light” in “in light of,” which dates back to the late 17th century, is the metaphorical illumination cast on a question by the particular facts or circumstances of a situation, especially if they exert an influence on the outcome of a decision. “In light of” an offender’s youth and lack of a criminal record, for instance, the usual sentence may be suspended, or “in light of” a recent job loss the purchase of a new car might be delayed.


Been there, gentrified that.

Dear Word Detective: Jade is a stone that is polished and set in a piece of jewelry. How did it turn into “old hat”? — Mike Henderson.

Good question. But is the expression “old hat” meaning “passé, unfashionable, antiquated” even valid any longer, when every trustafarian hipster infesting Brooklyn is sporting a thrift-store vintage fedora or pork-pie hat? As a former long-term resident of the Borough of Kings, I remember the old saying “Only the dead know Brooklyn.” That never seemed more true than late on a Saturday night when the D Train unexpectedly went express and dumped you in the rain out at Flatbush and Fuhgeddaboudit. Now, of course, there’s an app for that. But I can’t help hoping that someday that majestic, unknowable Brooklyn will rise from the deep like Godzilla and swallow up all those Warby Parker-wearing twerps. That would make a totally awesome Instagram.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the green stone known as “jade” and the world-weariness we call being “jaded” are two separate and completely unrelated words.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “jade” the stone is actually two different kinds of stone sometimes traveling under the same name. “Jade” is, to quote the OED, “a silicate of lime and magnesia, a hard, translucent stone, in color light green, bluish, or whitish.” The light green variety of jade is of the color we normally call “jade.” The other sort of “jade” is properly called “jadeite,” and is a silica of sodium and aluminum which closely resembles actual jade (and also goes by the names “oriental jade” and “oceanic jade”).

This “jade” stone takes its name from the Latin “ilia,” which means the flanks or areas of the body near the kidneys; jade was, in fact, once thought to cure kidney problems. “Ilia” passed from Latin through the Spanish “ijada” into French, where the result, “l’ejade,” was mistakenly transformed into “le jade.” Voila, “jade.” Jade is also called “nephrite,” from the Greek “nephros,” kidney.

The world-weary kind of “jade” first appeared in English in the 14th century, most likely derived from the Old Norse “jalda,” meaning “mare.” In English, “jade” originally meant a work horse, especially an old, worn out mare. Inevitably, “jade” was eventually extended to people, particularly women of low social status, especially prostitutes (“A lying, prying, jilting, thievish jade.” 1812). The verb “to jade,” appearing in the early 17th century, originally meant to wear out a horse through hard work, but by the late 18th century it, too, was applied to people and the intransitive form came to mean “to become tired, exhausted, dull.”

By association with the use of the noun “jade” to mean “prostitute, underworld denizen,” the modern “jaded” implies that one has seen so many amazing, outrageous or scandalous things that one is no longer capable of taking either offense or excitement from the proceedings (“Call me jaded, but in a year that brings Oblivion, After Earth, World War Z, Pacific Rim, The World’s End and Smurfs 2, not just any old apocalypse will do.” National Post, 2013).