Shootout at the Golden Corral.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, a member of my circle of friends referred to someone carrying a “peace” around in public. Puzzled, since I had always read the slang for a gun as “piece,” I inquired as to the usage. The story goes, apparently, that “piece” is a corruption of “peace,” originally a shortened name of the Colt Peacemaker. Is there any truth to this? I might think it just as likely that “piece” comes from “piece of hardware” or the like. — Reuben Gann.
I just looked up “Colt Peacemaker” online, and I think your question may have solved a small mystery for me. We live in a very small town, and last summer I was sitting outside our tiny Post Office when an elderly man drove up. He parked, unloaded a rather elaborate walker, and then reached into his car, produced a large revolver that had a very long barrel and looked like something out of a Western, stuck it in an ornate holster mounted on the walker, and toddled off, either making a point or asking for trouble.
In any case, judging from what I saw online, his gun was the very popular modern version of the Colt M1873 Single Action Army Revolver, commonly called the Peacemaker. First introduced in 1873, it was the standard military sidearm in the late 19th century and figured in many colorful episodes in the Old West. But while the Peacemaker played a large role in the history of guns in the US, it is unrelated to that particular slang term for “gun,” which is definitely “piece.”
While “peace” and “piece” are homophones (words that share the same sound), they are completely unrelated in origin. “Peace” first appeared in English in the 12th century, drawn from the Old French “pais,” which in turn came from the Latin “pax” meaning “absence of war or conflict.”
“Piece” appeared in English a bit later, around 1230, also from Old French, and probably ultimately from the post-Classical Latin “pettia,” meaning “fragment” or “parcel of land.” In its most basic sense, “piece” has always meant “a part of a whole” (as in a piece of pie, land, etc.), a thing considered as part of a class or kind (piece of furniture, piece of iron), or a specific example or instance of something (piece of nonsense, piece of writing). “Piece” can also mean “a certain, usually short, distance or period of time” (“a fair piece down the road,” “stay a piece”), one’s opinion expressed to others (“speak your piece”), a coin, or some object used in a board game or gambling.
“Piece” used as a term for a firearm is actually about 300 years older than the Colt Peacemaker, having first appeared around 1575. Initially, “piece” in this sense meant any sort of portable firearm (“He knelt on one knee, and levelled his piece direct at William’s head.” 1870), but current usage restricts the term to handguns (“In this neighborhood, you don’t carry a knife or a piece, you’re dead.” 1956). Interestingly, “piece,” although it’s now slang usually encountered in the context of crime or the underworld, was originally considered standard English (“Captane John Gordoun wes [deadly] wounded with a peece, by one of the Earle of Murray his servants, at his verie first approach.” circa 1656).
“Piece” in the gun sense seems to be a use of the word in its “example of a kind of thing” sense. It may have been adopted because, in an age where arrows, pikes and axes were still common weapons, it served as a general term designating a firearm, of which there were many different kinds at various points. Today “piece” in this sense is euphemistic slang that doesn’t fool anyone who owns a television.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Yay, December! OK, I’m outta here.
Just kidding. Hey, it’s the holiday season, right? Speaking of which, I was reminded, when they lit the tree at Rockefeller Center recently, of the day when I took a shortcut through there on my way to work one morning years ago. Crews were rigging electrical cables, etc., in preparation for the ceremony that evening, and as I walked down a side street off the main concourse (in front of the old AP building, if that rings a bell), I saw something remarkable. It was a real live reindeer, apparently awaiting its turn on some camera, tethered to a concrete block in the middle of the street. There was no one around, so I walked over, talked to it and petted it for a few minutes. Its antlers and its hooves were covered with soft, fuzzy fur. Who knew? It was perfectly friendly and seemed to appreciate the attention. It was awesome. It was like running into the real Santa Claus hanging out on the corner. I briefly considering absconding with the critter, but I was running late and so went on to my office. Twenty years later, that remains one of my most vivid memories of Christmas in New York. Reindeer are cool.
Elsewhere in holiday cheer, for some reason (probably because House Hunters seems to be on hiatus) we ended up watching The Polar Express on the Disney Channel the other night. I didn’t even know we got the Disney Channel, but we do, and boy howdy, what a weird, grim little movie this is. If that’s a holiday classic, count me out.
I was vaguely familiar with the children’s book on which it is based from seeing it in bookstores (you remember bookstores, right?), and I’m willing to accept that the book itself is charming. I also have a long-standing love of trains. But the book is all of 32 pages long and heavily illustrated. This movie is a 100-minute computer-generated bummer, the most relentlessly depressing kids’ movie I’ve ever seen.
The big problem is the “motion capture” computer animation technique used to transform live-action figures (e.g., Tom Hanks, who “plays” most of the roles) into affectless droids in a sort of ultra-realistic cartoon virtual reality. The result would probably work well in a zombie movie (Zombie Santa and the Elves from Hell, perhaps, or Rudolf the Undead Reindeer Goes to Uncanny Valley), but here the result is just plain creepy. It’s like watching an extended version of one of those cutesy and cloying animated pharmaceutical commercials. (It’s too bad; done with high-quality real animation (not CGI), this could have been a beautiful movie. The pure-animation parts, e.g., the wolves in the woods, are very evocative.)
Unfortunately, the color palette is muted and depressing, and padding the brief story out to movie length is done with painfully drawn-out and pointless scenes (e.g., the ten minutes of the flying ticket). The North Pole turns out to look like a cross between a Supermax prison and an Amazon warehouse, and the sweeping panoramas of grim and lifeless North Pole streets are notable for their vacant desolation. Not a creature is stirring in Santagrad.
Roger Ebert loved the movie, but some other reviewers strongly differed, and Manohla Dargis at the NYT, bless her soul, nailed it, noting that “Santa’s big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes … one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.’” Did I mention that the elves — and Santa! — are also weirdly nasty?
The whole thing makes Olive Kitteridge look like Mary Poppins. Yeah, we watched that too. I’m trying hard to forget both these bundles of holiday joy, but so far it’s clearly not working.
Onward. CatCat abides, and is getting better at this “cat” thing. She still has problems lip-syncing her meows, which is a bit unsettling. She opens her mouth and there’s a half-second of no noise, then a weirdly loud mechanical maowrr that kinda sounds feline. Oh well, baby steps, baby steps. My current theory is that she’s from the North Pole.
So here we are at year’s end, and all of us here at Word Detective World Headquarters wish you a happy and healthy New Year. To that end (and because we are at whatever the stage beyond flat broke is), I’d like to remind y’all that subscriptions to TWD make excellent holiday gifts (just note the recipient’s email address in the PayPal form or in a separate email to email@example.com).
And now, on with the show….
Turn, turn, turn.
Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the word “revolting.” It means “disgusting,” right? But it seems to have similar roots to “revolution” and “revolve.” Could you tell us how those words relate? — Emily Colby.
Good question, and you’re correct in your suspicion that “revolting” is closely connected to “revolution” and “revolve.” Incidentally, I went wandering over to Wikipedia just now and learned (supposedly — one never knows) something. The classic catchphrase “What a revoltin’ development this is!” was popularized by the seminal 1950s US TV show “The Life of Riley,” starring the awesome William Bendix. However, although Bendix had starred in the long-running 1940s “Life of Riley” radio show (as well as a spin-off movie), the role of Riley in the first season on TV was played by Jackie Gleason. Weird. Gleason, of course, went on to play a similar character in The Honeymooners.
Meanwhile, back at your question, the whole story begins with the verb “revolve,” which appeared in English in the 15th century, derived, via French, from the Latin “revolvere” (“re,” back or again, plus “volvere,” to turn). In English, “revolve” has developed dozens of senses based on either a literal or figurative “turning around” or “turning back,” from the earth “revolving” around the Sun to now-rare senses meaning to “turn over,” or deeply consider, something in one’s mind (“Here [Martin] Luther touched upon a question that he had revolved in his mind with earnestness during the preceding months.” 1907).
The past participle form of that Latin “revolvere” was “revoltus,” which English acquired in the 14th century, through Old French, as “revolution.” The initial meaning of “revolution” in English was simply “the act of revolving,” especially in a repetitive fashion, e.g., the revolution of planets, the annual cycle of seasons, etc. More mundane uses, such as the measurement of the speed of an engine, are familiar today in the abbreviation “RPM,” meaning “revolutions per minute.”
But by the early 15th century, “revolution” had developed an additional and very different meaning, based on the use of “revolve” to mean “turn over.” “Revolution” came to mean a complete “overturn” of the established order, whether in science, literature, the economic system or breakfast cereals (“Numbers of young men … studied Karl Marx; and were so convinced … that the Revolution was fixed for 1889.” G.B. Shaw, 1889).
“Revolt” came from the same sources as “revolve” and “revolution,” but arrived in English in the mid-16th century by a slightly different route. Originally meaning to abandon a leader or switch sides in a dispute, “revolt” soon broadened to mean to arise in rebellion, engage in revolution, and overthrow the established order. By the late 17th century, “revolt” had also developed the sense of “to react with repugnance or disgust to something,” often a custom, idea, social convention or injustice (“The heart instinctively revolts against the unnatural privations which are imposed upon it.” 1829). In the early 18th century, a transitive form appeared, and people spoke of being revolted by things they found disgusting or repellent (“Strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions.” 1935). So the things we find “revolting” are those that cause our feelings, morals, tastes, or even gastrointestinal tracts, to rebel, sometimes violently.