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I thought “Friar” was just a really weird first name.

Dear Word Detective: I finally looked up “oblate.” For some time I had realized it has two meanings — the adjective describing a spheroid flattened at the poles, and the noun meaning a person dedicated to religious life. Can there be a connection between these two? I can only think of the pudgy Friar Tuck — an oblate Friar. — Charlie Nunzio.

Good question, although it led me to spend an exciting 45 minutes just now doubting my own sanity. Pondering Friar Tuck, I remembered watching a Robin Hood TV series as a child, but the Wikipedia article on the Robin Hood legend makes no mention of such a show. Turns out that the series was made in England and shown in the US from 1955-59. I saw it quite a bit later in reruns. In the show, Friar Tuck was depicted, as he has been since the Robin Hood legend arose in the Middle Ages, as a very plump defrocked monk with a fondness for food but also excellent fighting skills, making him a valuable member of Robin’s merry band.

There is a connection between “oblate” in the “flattened sphere” sense and “oblate” in the religious sense, but you have to go pretty far back in the history of the word to find it, the connection is very tenuous, and it has little to do with the modern uses of the word. In other words, Friar Tuck’s rotundity had no direct connection to his occupation.

The religious sense of “oblate” comes from its use in the Roman Catholic Church since the 17th century. An “oblate” is a person devoted to religious work, perhaps even a member of a monastic order, but one who is not bound by formal vows. “Oblates” observe some, perhaps most, of the rules of an order or other church organization but remain part of the secular world. “Oblate” in this sense can be either a noun or an adjective. The root of this “oblate” is the Latin “oblatus,” the past participle of “offerre,” literally “to bring forward.” That “offerre” was also the source of our English “offer,” the original sense of which was “to offer up as an act of religious devotion.” The “oblate” is thus one who “offers” devotion, prayer and good works to the church. An “oblation” is an offering to a church or deity as a symbol of pious devotion.

That all makes perfect sense; a religious adherent offering spiritual devotion and/or material wealth to the church is known by the Latin word for “offerer.” Using the same word to mean “a spheroid flattened at the poles” (picture a basketball being sat on by a large child) takes a bit of explaining. The secret here is that the two “oblates” are not really the same word.

To understand this “oblate,” we start at the suspiciously similar word “prolate,” taken from the Latin “prolatus,” past participle of “proferre,” meaning “to produce, prolong, extend” (“pro,” forward, plus “ferre,” to bring). The sense of “prolate” meaning “extend” was used in the early 17th century by mathematicians and astronomers to describe a sphere or ellipsis lengthened on the polar axis, i.e., stretched a bit at top and bottom (“A few stars now had pierced the blue, and in the east there shone brightly a prolate moon.” H.G. Wells, 1908).

But this use meant that another term was needed to describe spheres, etc., stretched sideways. So “ob,” a Latin prefix meaning vaguely “in the direction of” was substituted for “pro,” and bingo, another, separately created “oblate,” having nothing to do with religion or coins in the collection plate. So Friar Tuck has nothing much to do with “oblate,” but his impressive belt size may serve as a good way to remember the difference between “prolate” and “oblate.”


At the corner of Easy Street and Peasy Parkway.

Dear Word Detective:  Where does the saying “hunky-dory” come from? — Di.

That’s a good question, but I have another: where did “hunky-dory” go? I know I haven’t heard anyone use the term in quite a long time, and most occurrences of it online at the moment seem to refer to David Bowie’s 1971 album by that name. “Hunky-dory,” meaning “fine,” “satisfactory” or “all right” (“My boss says it’s OK to take Friday off, so everything is hunky-dory”), is a handy phrase. It may be a bit worn around the edges, having made its debut in US slang back in the 1860s, but I think we should all pledge to use it at least once a week. It certainly beats the leaden and boring “no problem.”

Although we’ve been assuring each other that things are “hunky-dory” for more than 150 years, the origins of the term remain mysterious. As usual in such cases, there have been no shortage of theories. The most durable and popular theory traces “hunky-dory” to a street called “Honcho-dori” in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors on shore leave found bars, nightclubs and the other sorts of things sailors on shore leave go looking for. So popular and relaxing was a visit to “Honcho-dori,” goes the theory, that American sailors began to use the Anglicized form “hunky-dory” to mean “all good” or “very satisfactory.”

There is indeed a street in Yokohama called “Honcho-dori” (not surprisingly, since it translates roughly to “Main Street”), but “hunky-dory” was almost certainly not born in Yokohama. The “hunky” part is probably drawn from “hunk,” an old New York City children’s term for “home” or “goal” in a game. This “hunk” (unrelated to “hunk” meaning “piece”) came from the Dutch word “honk” meaning “goal or home” in a game. (New York City was originally the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, of course, and many Dutch terms and place names remain in use.)

“Hunk” meaning “home” in children’s games eventually produced an adjective, “hunky,” used more broadly to mean “in good shape; safe and sound” (“I’ll be all hunky. Nurse Dainton tends me like I was made of glass.” 1926).

Of course, this still leaves the question of where the “dory” part of “hunky-dory” came from, and there we have a real mystery. It’s possible, since “Honcho-dori” was indeed known to US sailors on leave in Japan, that the “dori” was grafted onto the established adjective “hunky” in a sort of pun. But it’s probably more likely that “dory” arose as what linguists call a “reduplication,” the repetition of part of a word in modified form (as in “okey-dokey,” “pitter-patter,” “knick-knack,” etc.). Such elements in reduplications are usually meaningless, just added for effect, so we’re unlikely to find a real “backstory” to “dory.”

Ne’er-do-well synonyms

Among the nebulons.

I was writing a column recently on the term “ne’er-do-well,” meaning a worthless or disreputable person, when I remembered that every entry in the Oxford English Dictionary Online ( has a link to the OED Historical Thesaurus (OEDHT) entry for that particular word. The Historical Thesaurus, which was completed in 2009 after 44 years of work, is the largest thesaurus in the world, and the online version links every synonym of a word to the synonym’s entry in the OED. It sounds complicated, but using it is very easy, endlessly fascinating  and weirdly addictive. The OED Online, which includes the OEDHT, is available through many public libraries, so it’s worth checking your local library’s website.

Meanwhile, when I clicked on the OEDHT link next to “ne’er-do-well,” I discovered that it was categorized by the thesaurus under “society > morality > moral evil > evil nature or character > lack of magnanimity or noble-mindedness > worthlessness > good-for-nothing person” and that there were 81, count ‘em, synonyms for it dating back to the late 13th century. Makes sense, I guess. Deadbeat nephews aren’t exactly a recent invention.

The earliest term for “worthless fellow” in the list is “bretheling” (circa 1275), which later appeared in the 15th century as “brethel,” derived from the Old English “breothan,” meaning “to go to ruin.” That Old English root also gave us “brothel,” which originally meant a degenerate person of either sex. In the late 15th century “brothel” came to mean “an abandoned woman” and then “prostitute.” A house of prostitution was called a “bordel,” an Old French word, but somehow “brothel” (person) and “bordel” (place) became confused and today a place of prostitution is a “brothel” and “bordel” is obsolete except in its Italianate form “bordello.”

Around 1475 in the timeline of worthlessness we meet a truly wonderful word: “nebulon,” meaning “a worthless person; a fool” (“Why you brute Nebulons, … cannot [you] yet tell how to [edify] an argument?” 1586). It seems a crime that such a concise, modern-sounding word should be classified as “obsolete,” and I plan to introduce it into my business correspondence forthwith. As you might have guessed, the root of “nebulon” is the Latin “nebula,” meaning “cloud or mist.”

The 17th century gave us the odd “ragabash” for a scoundrel, which is probably related to the earlier “bash-rag,” “ragman,” “ragmall,” and possibly “ragamuffin.” All these terms use “rag” to evoke a sense of raggedness and disorder. Today we use “ragamuffin” to mean “a scruffy lad or urchin” of the sort found in Dickens or Disney, but in the 16th century it could apply as well to a not-at-all-cute adult vagrant or drifter of ragged and dirty appearance. The first “ragamuffin” in literature was, in fact, a genuine demon, Ragamoffyn, in William Langland’s 14th century epic Middle English allegorical poem “Piers Plowman.” The “muffin” of “ragamuffin” has nothing to do with cozy cakes and coffee and may, in fact, hark back to the Anglo-Norman “malfelon,” meaning “devil.”

There are dozens of other strange and wonderful synonyms of “ne’er-do-well” in the OEDHT, but the truly strange ones slowly give way to the 20th century dullness of “loser,” “punk” and, around 1964, the evocative but unexciting “schlub” (worthless person, oaf, from Yiddish, possibly originally the Polish “zlob,” meaning “blockhead”). But it’s never too late to bring back “nebulon.”