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“Irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial” forever!

Dear Word Detective: In a 1961 episode, Perry Mason used “burglar” as a verb, specifically “the other houses that had been burglared.” Is this just a case of bad script editing, or was this at some time a legitimate use? — Charles Anderson.

Perry Mason! Paul Drake! Della Street! Lieutenant Tragg! District Attorney Hamilton Burger (a.k.a “Hamburger”)! Bestest lawyer show ever! We weren’t allowed to talk in our house — not a word — when it was on. They show “Perry Mason” reruns on one of the digital sub-channels we get, but it’s on at 4 am or something, right after “Sea Hunt,” so it’s slightly past my bedtime.

Speaking of burglary, living in the middle of nowhere is apparently no guarantee of immunity. We returned home about a month ago to discover that someone had kicked in our back door and stolen what little we had that was worth stealing. They carefully closed the door on the way out, which was weird, but it prevented the cats from wandering off.

“Burglar” is an interesting word. It first appeared in the 16th century, from the Anglo-French “burgesour,” which was derived from a tangle of Old French and Medieval Latin words. Ultimately the trail seems to lead back to the Latin “burgus,” meaning “fortress or castle,” which had, in Medieval Latin, produced the word “burgare,” meaning “to commit burglary.”

The original meaning of “burglar” in English was the same as its modern sense: “One who commits the crime of burglary.” The noun “burglary” also hasn’t changed much, meaning “the crime of breaking into a house with intent to commit a crime.” The original English and US laws apparently specified that the entry had to be made at night (“housebreaking” was the daytime crime), and that physical damage to the dwelling had to occur, but now illegal entry at any time by any means with criminal intent counts in most places as “burglary.”

The reason Perry’s use of “burglared” sounds odd to our ears is that today the most common verb form meaning “to commit an act of burglary” is “burgle” (“The bakery was burgled at 1:30pm today by the same man who burgled the shop on December 3,” Manawatu (New Zealand) Standard, 12/12/12). The verb “burgle” is more popular in the UK than in the US, where we prefer “burglarize,” a verb formed from the noun “burglar.” But “burglar” is also a perfectly good verb meaning “to commit burglary” (“A news agency … was burglared yesterday morning,” 1890). All three of these verbs, “burgle,” “burglarize” and “burglar,” appeared in the late 19th century. Interestingly, “burgle” was originally regarded as a colloquial or humorous invention, though, as we’ve seen, it seems to have become standard usage, at least in the UK.

So why, given the choice of three verb forms all meaning “to commit burglary on,” did the writers for Perry Mason choose “burglared”? My guess is that “burgled” at that point still struck many people in the US as a jocular usage and thus inappropriate for courtroom use, and that “burglarize” likewise seemed a bit trendy or flashy. “Burglared” was probably the choice of whatever legal consultants the show was using, and almost certainly didn’t sound as strange back in 1961 as it does today.


Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: While reading a series of essays by E.B. White, I came across the word “pindling” to describe a turkey he had raised: “this one is rather pindling for her age …”. I had never heard the word before, so I looked it up and found that it means something like “scrawny,” but was unable to find a believable etymology. The closest I found was a reference to “spindly,” which seemed a bit thin to me. What say you: is it “spindly,” or is there more meat to this word? — Jim Brown.

Ah yes, E.B. White, author of such classics as “Charlotte’s Web,” a book I loved as a child but later came to bitterly resent after I’d met a few actual spiders, none of whom wanted to be my pal. Incidentally, many people don’t know that the “E.B.” actually stood for White’s nickname “Easter Bunny,” referring to White’s bizarre habit of wearing a tattered rabbit suit to work every day at the New Yorker for many years. Ironically, White was finally forced to abandon his beloved and aromatic bunny suit soon after retiring to Maine and encountering local hunters.

I’d never heard the word “pindling” before either, which is odd because it’s considered a New England word and I grew up in New England. (It’s also heard in the South Midland dialect region, which includes Kentucky, the southern bits of Indiana and Illinois, and a ways west of there.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “pindling” as “Sickly, delicate; puny. Also occasionally: trifling, insignificant,” and their first print citation is from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” (1861), a novel set, appropriately, in Maine (“I’m a-thinkin’ … whether or no cows’ milk an’t goin’ to be too hearty for it, it’s such a pindling little thing”). The OED also notes that “pindling” has also been used, albeit rarely, as a regional dialect term in England meaning “ill-humored” (“I niver seed sech peevish, pindlin, fractious ways,” 1895).

Theories about the roots of “pindling” abound, but none of them has enough evidence behind it to constitute a solid answer. The simplest traces the word to “pine” as a common English verb meaning “to suffer, especially from grief or separation; to waste away” (“When she is away from him, even on a July vacation, she pines,” 1988). This “pine” has nothing to do with pine trees; it comes ultimately from the Latin “poena,” meaning “punishment, pain.”

The OED also suggests that the source of “pindling” may be the now-rare British dialect word “pingling,” meaning “feeble,” which comes from the Scots verb “pingle,” meaning both “to work hard” and “to struggle or suffer” and is used today in the North of England to mean “to pick at one’s food; to eat with little appetite.”

Probably the simplest explanation offered for “pindling” is that it may be related somehow to “piddling,” an adjective common since the mid-16th century meaning “ineffectual” or “insignificant” (“The man of business has not time for such piddling work,” circa 1774). “Piddling,” in turn, comes from the verb “to piddle,” meaning “to waste time, work ineffectually” or, of course, “to urinate.” The roots of “piddle” are unknown, so the trail goes cold at this point, but we’ll always have “pindling.”

Make do

Good enough. Time for pizza.

Dear Word Detective: Something about the phrase “make do” (to use a workable substitute for lack of the preferred tool, ingredient, etc.) has always bugged me, but my curiosity remained under control until a friend recently spelled it “make due.” I see from your columns on “jerry/jury rig” and “jackleg” that you use the former, but the search didn’t find an explanation of “make do” in your archives. How did we come up with this phrase? Then I started thinking about similar words and phrases: makeshift, get by, in a pinch. None of those seem especially straightforward. Any insight on their origins? — Harold Tessmann III.

Well, it’s definitely “make do.” About fifteen years ago, somebody gave me a coffee cup bearing the adage “Use it up; wear it out; make it do, or do without,” which struck me at the time as either an admirable exhortation against mindless consumerism or the sort of thing you’d see written on the wall of a salt mine. Nonetheless, I still have the cup, and that little poem captures the spirit of “make do,” the idea of “getting by” with something that may not be perfect or really sufficient for the task at hand, but is good enough (“Rasmussen had to make do with four eggs and only half a dozen rounds of toast because I was there,” 1968).

The “make” in “make do” is our common English verb “to make,” which comes from the Old English “macian” and Germanic roots further back, all with the basic sense of “to build, construct, create.” In English, “make” has developed a dizzying number (seriously, I’m dizzy as I type this) of derivative uses, from “making dinner” to “making a fire” to “make time” to do something to “make history” or simply “to make it” and achieve a goal. “To make do” falls within the use of “make” to mean “to cause a person or thing to do something,” as in “make someone cry.” (“Make believe,” using the same sense of “make,” originally meant “to make others believe something,” but now means “to pretend to believe.”)

The “do” in “make do” is the common verb meaning “to perform or execute” used in an intransitive sense meaning “to be fitting or appropriate; to suffice,” the same sense found in the expression “That will do.” In the case of “make do,” the emphasis is on “making” something “do” that otherwise might not “do,” might not be quite right or sufficient. “Make do” first appeared in print in that exact form in the 1920s, but Charlotte Bronte used the form “make it do” in her 1847 “Jane Eyre.”

“Makeshift” as an adjective applied to something used as an improvised substitute (“Bob used his necktie as a makeshift sling.”) comes from a specialized use of the verb “shift” to mean “to be content with or put up with,” which comes in turn from “shift” in the very old (1500) sense of “to work hard; to try all means to accomplish a goal.” (Thus “shiftless” meaning “lazy.”) The adjective “makeshift” dates back to the late 17th century (“There were a lot of children about, and a good many babies, some in makeshift cradles, some tucked up in a rug,” W.S. Maugham, 1915).

To “get by,” meaning “to manage, to get along,” employs “get” in the sense of “accomplish, achieve” (as in “Get a look” or “Get some sleep”), here with the sense of surmounting, surviving or “getting past” obstacles in one’s path, albeit with some difficulty, and dates to the early 20th century (“Our old bus will get by with a new engine,” 1952).

“In a pinch,” meaning “in an emergency or when a more appropriate solution is unavailable” (“A warm basement can also be transformed into a fine growing area, and even a warm spot near a sunny window will do in a pinch,” Martha Stewart, 1991), comes from “pinch” in the sense of “An instance, occasion, or time of special difficulty; a critical juncture; a crisis, an emergency” (Oxford English Dictionary). The “pinch” here is a metaphorical “tight spot,” a painful constriction of action caused by the circumstances of the moment, and “in a pinch” dates back to the late 15th century.