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Not our sort, we hope.

Dear Word Detective: One of my favorite daily mailing lists (A.Word.A.Day) recently featured the word “princox.” Unfortunately, the origin was listed as “uncertain,” and my trusty Webster’s was no help, either. Surely, etymologists must have some guess. A blend of “prince” and “cock” maybe? — Holger, Germany.

Well, there you go. People tell me I’m crazy to save all my email, but I can search for messages way back into the early 1990s. That means that I probably have almost every A Word A Day message Anu Garg and the gang have sent since he started the list in 1994. It’s a great list, with more than one million followers around the world, and it’s free to join at

The AWAD featuring “princox,” defining it as “a conceited person,” dates back to December 2012, when they were kicking off a week spotlighting terms for unpleasant people. They noted that “princox” is also spelled “princock,” and supplied “coxcomb” as a synonym. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which prefers “princock,” defines the word as “A pert, saucy, vain, or insolent boy or young man,” and labels it “chiefly humorous or derogatory.” That particular OED entry was updated in 2007, but I strongly suspect that the definition (“Pert”? “Saucy”?) is a relic of the 1908 first edition. defines “princox” as “a pert youth” and labels it “archaic.”

In any case, “princock” first appeared in print in the mid-16th century (as “pryncockes”), and cropped up in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the end of that century (“Well said my hearts, you are a princox, go.”). The second element of the word is almost certainly the familiar English word “cock,” either in the “male chicken” sense or the slang sense for what the OED is wont to quaintly term “the male generative organ.” The “x” ending would have been a common phonetic modification.

The “prin” part, however, is a bit of a mystery. Some authorities have suggested that it is a modified form of “prime,” a theory bolstered by the appearance of forms such as “primecock” in the 16th century. But such “prime” spellings are probably post-facto efforts at a “more correct form,” much as “Welsh rabbit” became “Welsh Rarebit” on fancy menus.

A somewhat classier theory about the entire word “princock” suggests some connection to the Latin adjective “praecox” as the source. “Praecox,” meaning “precocious, premature” (combining “pre” and “coquere,” to cook) gave us the now obsolete English adjective “precoce,” meaning “blooming or maturing early,” which might fit with the sense of “arrogant whippersnapper” in “princock.” The OED considers this theory “unlikely,” but there it is.

As a term for an insufferably conceited man or just an obnoxious twerp, “princock” or “princox” is very rarely heard today, and was, in any case, never nearly as popular as “coxcomb,” cited by many dictionaries as a synonym of “princock.” “Coxcomb” first appeared in the 16th century, and came directly from the earlier term “cock’s comb,” referring to the floppy red “comb” or crest on a rooster’s head. The variegated “fool’s cap” traditionally worn by jesters closely resembled a rooster’s “comb,” so the term “cock’s comb” (later “coxcomb”) came to mean simply a fool or idiot, then a foolish, pretentious and conceited “fop” (” I told him he was a Coxcomb, always pretending to be wiser than his Companions!” 1712).


Huh. I always thought the fuel for a train was kept in the bar car.

Dear Word Detective: “Tender” is a noun, a verb and an adjective. Noun: A small boat used to transport people and goods between ship and shore. Also, the railroad car which typically carried fuel for the locomotive. Verb: “I tender my resignation,” also seen as “amount tendered” on receipts at Wendy’s and similar places. Adjective: As in “tender steak” or “tender feelings.” Are any of these meanings related? — Allan Pratt.

Wendy’s gives receipts? I haven’t been there in a long time, probably because I haven’t eaten a hamburger in almost 20 years. The late Dave Thomas, who founded Wendy’s, owned a house on a private island in the middle of Buckeye Lake, near us here in central Ohio. The house and island were up for sale as of a few months ago, in case you’ve always wanted to live in the middle of a lake in Ohio. We can talk about my finder’s fee later.

There’s a short answer to your question, and it is “yes.” All those kinds of “tender” are related, if somewhat remotely. The noun “tender” first appeared in the early 16th century, originally meaning a person who “tends,” or cares for or waits upon another, such as a nurse or waiter. That underlying verb “to tend” is actually a short form of “to attend,” which harks back to the Latin “tendere,” meaning “to stretch” (which also gave us “extend,” “intend,” “pretend” and several other English words). Yet further back we find the Indo-European root “ten,” which carried the general sense of “stretch” (and underlies such words as “tenuous” and “tenant”). In “tend” that “stretch” sense conveyed management and control. “Tender” went on to be used for the “small boat” and railway uses you mention, as well as becoming a job title of someone in charge of something, such as a “bridge-tender” or, probably closer to home, your local “bar-tender” (which is no longer hyphenated).

“Tender” as a verb first appeared a bit later in the 16th century meaning “to offer or submit for acceptance,” as one might “tender” a plea in court or “tender” an offer on a house. This “tender” came from the French “tendre,” meaning “to hold out,” i.e., to hand money or an official paper to a clerk. That French “tendre” is rooted in our old friend the Latin “tendere” (“to stretch”), and, further back, the trusty Indo-European “ten.”

“Tender” as an adjective meaning “delicate, easily injured,” “succulent, easily chewed” or “gentle, soft, loving”  may seem unrelated to the above, but it too can be traced back to the Indo-European “ten.” In this case, the route was through the Latin “tener,” meaning “delicate or tender,” and “tender” is closely related to our English “tendril,” a delicate young shoot of a plant reaching out as it grows.

Fits and starts

A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, followed by a brief nap.

Dear Word Detective:  I was surprised to come up empty on the Word Detective web site  search of “fits and starts.” I’ve heard people of a certain age use the expression to describe something unsteady or intermittent. Any back-story on this expression? — Charlie Nunzio.

Well, you know our motto: there are no unanswered questions; there are only questions that I haven’t gotten around to answering, usually because nobody asked them. I’ve been tempted at times to make up my own questions, but that’s a bit like baking your own birthday cake. I used to have a muse, named Edith Freedle, who would occasionally appear in my office accompanied by a puff of smoke, a bucket of inspiration and the smell of many cats, but last I heard she was doing a stretch in the slammer for trans-temporal mopery.

But this is a good question, so here we go. Something that is done in “fits and starts” is intermittent, happening in an irregular, sporadic fashion, without sustained progress. If I were, for example, to embark painting the trim on our front porch, I might well throw myself into the task for a hour or two the first day, sanding little spots, then zone out for a week or two before remembering to go buy paint. Similarly, many would-be novelists proceed in “fits and starts,” forging a paragraph here, a dozen tweets there (there’s even a Twitter account, @WrknOnMyNovel, that impishly collects and re-tweets tweets containing the words “working on my novel”). People who paint or write in “fits and starts” often eventually reach the finish line, but it’s not a smooth road.

The idiom “fits and starts” first appeared in print in the early 17th century (“If thou hast these things only by fits and starts,” 1620), but its constituent parts, “by fits” and “by starts” are both a bit older, first appearing in 1583 and 1421, respectively. Conveniently, both phrases meant the same thing that “by fits and starts” means today.

The “fits” in “by fits” is not the “fit” you worry about when buying shoes. This “fit” first appeared in Old English (as “fitt”) from Germanic roots, and in Old English it meant “struggle, conflict.” In English it initially meant “a crisis; a situation of hardship or peril,” but that use is now obsolete. By the mid-16th century, “fit” had developed its modern sense of “a paroxysm, attack or seizure” caused by a malady or medical condition, and was also used colloquially to mean “a state of excitement, extreme distress, etc.” (“Bailey Millard is throwing fits all around the shop … because of the way you worded your announcement,” Jack London, 1906). “Fit” was also used to mean a brief, transitory period of activity (or inactivity, feeling, etc.), which led to “by fits” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “by irregular impulses or periods of action, at varying intervals, fitfully, spasmodically” (“The Swallow … sleepeth but by halves and fits (as we say) which is no sound kinde of rest,” 1635). As you’ve probably guessed by now, this is the same “fit” we find in “fitfully.”

The “start” in “by starts” is the same noun meaning “beginning” we use in sentences such as “Bob got off to a good start by complimenting his boss on his toupee,” and comes from the verb “to start,” which comes from roots carrying the sense of “leap up” or “move swiftly.” Our “beginning” use of “start” is actually a relatively recent development of the noun. In concert with the verb, the earliest sense of “start” was “a leap, a sudden effort,” which, by Chaucer’s time (late 1300s), had evolved into “a sudden involuntary movement,” a sense which also gave us the related verb “to startle.” This led to “start” in the sense of “a sudden, sporadic and transient display of energy or effort” very similar to the “sporadic impulse” sense of “fit” (“I took up my Pen againe, and at starts and tymes finished it,” 1621).

“Fit” and “start” were so close in meaning that pairing them to mean “in an on-again, off-again manner; sporadic” not only made sense, but emphasized that the key to waiting for something (or someone) moving “by fits and starts” is not to hold your breath.