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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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So I guess I’ll have to rob two banks next month, right?

Dear Word Detective: So, my husband and I were talking over some finer points of our finances, when he mentioned that, as a married couple, we are one flesh and one pocketbook. It struck me for the first time what an odd word “pocketbook” is for a woman’s purse or handbag. I know that “purse,” “pouch,” and “pocket” all come from the same root word, but where does the “book” part come in? Also, it seems that using “pocketbook” instead of “handbag” or “purse” is a regional thing (my grandmother from the outskirts of Philly would never be caught without her pocketbook!). Is this the case? — Heather.

Aw, that’s sweet. Gosh, aren’t those budget discussions fun? I especially enjoy the ones at 4 am. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad somebody in our house is paying attention to this stuff. My financial planning doesn’t amount to much beyond turning out the lights when I leave a room and watching for bargains on peanut butter.

Onward. Our modern words “pouch” and “pocket” are indeed related, but “purse” is actually from a completely unrelated source. Both “pocket” and “pouch” can be traced to the Old French “poche” (“bag”), which also gave us “poke,” a large sack. (This “poke” is best known from the admonition “Don’t buy a pig in a poke,” originally warning of dishonest merchants who were said to pass off stray cats in burlap bags as energetic sucking pigs.) The same root also gave us “to poach,” to illegally hunt game animals, which were then furtively stuffed in sacks.
“Purse,” on the other hand, comes from the Late Latin “bursa,” which meant “animal hide, leather” as well as “money bag” (and also gave us “bursar,” an official in charge of funds at an institution). The change of the initial “b” to a “p” was probably influenced by the Old English word “pusa,” from Germanic roots, also meaning “bag.”

When “purse” first appeared in Old English (and, indeed, for most of its history), it meant a small bag, usually made of leather or another flexible material, with a secure closure at its top, used by both men and women to carry money (and today often called a “coin purse”). “Purse” quickly developed several extended and figurative meanings, e.g., the amount of money at stake in a horse race or the sum of one’s personal wealth. The tight closure of purses gave us the verb phrase “to purse one’s lips,” meaning to press them tightly together. “Purse” was also used to mean several other sorts of bags, and in the US of the mid-1950s, it became common for the larger handbag carried by women to be termed a “purse.”

When “pocketbook” first appeared in the early 17th century, it meant simply a book small enough to fit in one’s pocket, but soon came to mean a leather folder in which notes, bills, important documents and other items could be carried. Not until the early 19th century was “pocketbook” used to mean a large purse (often with handles) carried by women and containing various necessities (usually including a small “purse” for money). “Pocketbook,” like “purse,” soon acquired a variety of figurative meanings, and the perpetual budget fights in Congress often invoke dire warnings about the nation’s “pocketbook.”

In terms of usage, “pocketbook” for a large purse is most often heard in the US; the same item in the UK is more often simply called a “purse.” Within the US, both “pocketbook” and “purse” are popular in the east (with “pocketbook” having an edge in New England), but in western states “purse” is far more common. The ungainly term “handbag,” commonly found in advertising, news stories and police blotters, is apparently remarkably unpopular among women in the real world, although the short form “bag” is often used. “Clutch” (short for “clutch bag,” a small handbag without straps or handles) appeared in the late 1940s.

November 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Alrighty, then. At the risk of turning this site into Weird Cat Blog, I have two new CatCat phenomena to report. I hope such details will eventually enable investigators to piece together exactly what this critter is and how (and why) she arrived on our planet.

Number One: CatCat is not afraid of vacuum cleaners. At all. All of our cats are at least a little afraid of vacuums, and even the most placid among them will walk in a dignified manner to the nearest exit when one starts. Most of them run for their lives, even though they’ve never had an actual scary experience with one. But you can run a vacuum cleaner right up to CatCat’s front paws and she won’t blink. That ain’t normal.


Artist's conception of space cat

Number Two: liquids. CatCat drinks lots of water from her bowl, and will sit sedately on the edge of the sink while you run the tap. She appears to be familiar with liquids. But last week I took her a plate of canned cat food with a little can-juice (whatever) on the plate. It was one of her favorite flavors. When I set the plate down in front of her on the floor (which slants slightly, as does the whole house), the liquid flowed around the edge of the plate, seeking the low point.

This is Life on Earth, Chapter 1, right?

CatCat was terrified. Completely flipped out. She stared at the liquid as if it were alive, crouched in alarm and backed away, stared some more, tracking the slowly-moving fluid in wide-eyed horror, and then ran out of the room.

Um, wow. This is not a kitten. The vet estimated that she’s at least four or five years old. And she’s never seen this before? Riiight.

Tell me more, Earthling.

And then there’s the fact that she likes to look at herself in the mirror (unusual in a grown cat), but she does it very intensely, like she’s checking her costume. She’s also a very deep sleeper, and you can tell when she’s running in her dream because her legs move. Maybe she’s just a very small, very strange dog. From Mars.

Onward. Until a month or so ago, Netflix Streaming offered the first nine years of Law & Order, Original Recipe, Lennie Briscoe Edition, which I think is absolutely the best cop show ever produced (apart from The Wire, which was a very different kind of show). Unfortunately, Netflix pulled it from their lineup  before I made it to the end, but several basic cable channels are carrying reruns of the entire series, so there’s that. The fun of seeing Briscoe and Logan/Curtis/Green for me (apart from the plots “ripped from the headlines” and Jerry Orbach’s quips) is seeing Manhattan in the 1990s, when we lived there (having migrated from Brooklyn). In episodes centered on the Upper West Side (which is to say many of them), I got to revisit our old neighborhood and even caught a glimpse of the guys from Zingone’s, our favorite deli (@ 82nd & Columbus Avenue), standing on the sidewalk in the background of one long scene.

The Man.

Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe is a classic performance, of course, but judging from a few retired NYPD detectives I knew, still in the ballpark of realism, including the sardonic humor. I actually have a “Certificate of Appreciation” around here somewhere from the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association (essentially the detectives’ union), but I can’t for the life of me remember what I did to deserve it. I probably wrote something for their magazine.

The notable difference between L&O in the 90s and cop shows now is the prevalence of sadistic violence and gore in current shows. I’ve never been able to take any of the L&O spinoffs and copycats (SVU, CSU, NCIS, et al.) for that reason, and even L&O itself veered sharply in that direction after 1999: more lingering shots of slashed throats, mutilated models, etc., ad nauseam, not to mention the rise of the ludicrous mannequin-cop (both male and female). The whole supercop/serial killer/autopsy shtick, as Lennie might say. I gotta say that I don’t understand the popular mania for serial killers in movies and TV, and I really don’t understand how anyone can voluntarily watch this insanely repetitive and moronic — and usually intensely misogynistic — drivel week after week. I sat through a full episode of SVU while trapped in a waiting room last year and it made me want to leave the country.

What else. Oh yeah, I have chronic optic neuritis, pretty much standard issue with MS, which produces blurred vision, transitory blind spots, pain in the eyes and flashes of light. Even on a good day it’s like watching an old TV with lousy reception, and I often see little white lights running up the edge of my field of vision, as if a film had jumped its sprockets in a projector. Very weird. Last week we were sitting on the couch, watching House Hunters on HGTV, and I noticed that there were suddenly strings of tiny colored lights running across my field of vision. Quite festive, actually. I guess my visual cortex was in the holiday mood. Anyway, there have been quite a few days lately when I couldn’t read much of anything, so there may be more than the usual delay in processing subscriptions, etc.

As always, your subscriptions and contributions keep this rickety boat afloat.

And now, on with the show

Goat rodeo

No respect.

Dear Word Detective: I work as an ASL/English Interpreter and have been in the business of listening intently to language for closing on 13 years. These days, I am rarely challenged by anything new. I had the recent pleasure of coming across a new expression that neither I nor my colleague knew and that an internet search has yielded very little information to help illuminate the meaning of this expression. The phrase used was “goat rodeo” and was used in the sense that too many organizers of an event would lead to a “goat rodeo.” It seems to be another way of saying “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but I have no idea where this expression came from or how it came to be used in this way. Any insights to offer? — Andrea K Smith.

Insights? A few. Actually, the best insight I have to offer came from just reading your question. It rang a distant bell in the dusty attic I call my memory, and I realized that I had answered a very similar question about six years ago.

The question I answered back then was from someone who had been examining the lines of code that make up a computer program, and had noticed that the original programmer had left a note in the code using the term “goatrope” in a clearly derogatory sense to mean something akin to “a complete mess.” In tracing the term, I found that it most often appeared either hyphenated (goat-rope) or as two separate words, and seemed to have appeared in the 1970s as military slang meaning “a complete mess, waste of time or very confused situation.” That would make “goat rope” equivalent to the more popular “snafu,” an acronym for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up” (“fouled,” of course, being a sanitized form of the original “f word”). The only hint of an origin I found was an earlier form, “goat roper,” which was in civilian use by the late 1960s meaning “a country bumpkin” or, among country folk, “an incompetent person pretending to be a farmer.” The logic of “goat roper” is not immediately apparent; perhaps roping goats was thought to be the apex of pointless rural activity. If so, “goat rodeo” might follow naturally from “goat roper” and “goat rope.”

In checking up on whatever progress might have been made in the past few years on the mystery of “goat rope,” I discovered that there had been a discussion of “goat rodeo” earlier this year on ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. The occasion was the appearance of the phrase in an article on the plethora of candidates then lining up for the Republican primaries (The GOP’s Primary Calendar Chaos, Daily Beast (online), 2/17/12): “This goat rodeo is going to go on for a long time. Bet on it.”

In sifting through the various citations mentioned in the ADS-L discussion and elsewhere, it became clear that I had been taking the “rope/roper/rodeo” component of the term far too literally. “Goat roper/rope” and “goat rodeo,” as well as several other variants (“goat dance,” “goat screw”), are apparently all euphemistic forms of the original slang phrase, which involves the venerable “f word” and is close to another variant, “goat raper.” Interestingly, the earliest citation for this family of phrases in Jesse Sheidlower’s magisterial book “The F Word” is from Hunter S. Thompson in 1965: “Kentucky was a Wolfean nightmare and New York was a goatdance.” Now we know the phrase Hunter really meant, but the form “goat rodeo” has been used for so long at this point that I don’t see a problem with using it as freely as we describe a confused mess as a “snafu.”