A very special message from Bob Bummer.
Dear Word Detective: I can easily guess the reason why the word “killjoy” was created to describe anyone who was spoiling the fun, but I am curious who actually started and popularized it. It sounds like a word that would have been made up directly by an English speaker, but does it come from another language as well? — Karyn.
Thanks for a fun question. Incidentally, did you know that much of the beef, pork and turkey sold in the US contains traces of an animal feed additive called “ractopamine” (aka “Paylean”) that is banned in 100 countries, including the European Union, Taiwan and China because of its potential effects on humans? Have another chili cheeseburger! Sorry, just thinking about the word “killjoy” brings out my Debbie Downer tendencies. But not to worry. That asteroid’s gonna get us long before the iffy pork chops do. The asteroid. The one on the news. Never mind. I have to go buy more gin now.
I’m sure that every language has a word or two synonymous with our “killjoy,” since the urge to ruin someone else’s fun seems to be a very primal human impulse. But “killjoy” itself is purely English, first appearing in print in the late 18th century. “Killjoy” is simply a combination of “kill,” meaning in this case to extinguish, plus “joy,” meaning pleasure, happiness or delight (from the Latin “gaudere,” to rejoice). We use “killjoy” primarily as a noun, to mean a person or thing that undermines happiness, inhibits enjoyment, or throws a pall of gloom over a situation (“Reserve, if apparent, is the real kill-joy of conversation,” 1896). But “killjoy” can also be an adjective applied to the bummer itself (“Halfway though the wedding reception, the cops showed up with a killjoy warrant for the groom’s arrest”).
“Killjoy” seems like a uniquely inspired creation, but it didn’t just pop into existence from a vacuum. English at the time sported a number of “kill” combinations, including “kill-courtesy,” a boorish or loutish person (“This lack-loue, this kil-curtesie,” Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600) and “kill-pot” (1637) meaning a hard drinker (who “killed” the whole pot). There was also “kill-cow” (1590), a large, terrifyingly powerful bully (who could presumably kill a cow barehanded), his cousin “kill-buck” (1612), and the much more serious “kill-man,” a person who had actually murdered someone. On a brighter note, there was “kill-devil” (1593), defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a recklessly daring fellow,” one who would fight the devil and win. “Kill-devil” was also used, not surprisingly, as a colloquial name for rum, which, in sufficient quantities, might well put you in a “kill-devil” mood. “Kill-devil” is rarely seen these days, but its descendant “dare-devil” or “daredevil” (1794), meaning one who is brave and reckless enough to metaphorically dare the devil, is still popular, especially in the adjectival form (“Daredevil skydiver seeking altitude record,” Google News, 3/16/12).
One word that is not related to this “kill” family is the name of the small bird, a member of the plover species, known as the “killdeer” (or “killdee”). In the summer we see many of these little critters in the open fields near our house, and they’ve always sounded like small seagulls to me, but evidently someone a few centuries ago decided that their calls sound like “Kill deer! Kill deer!”
Because people don’t pay to hear “Beats me.”
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression “off the cuff”? — Molly Woollett.
Ok, maybe you have to be me to find this funny, and few people are. Usually no more than two or three at a time. Anyway, here we have a question about speaking extemporaneously, with no preparation and no notes (supposedly), and I am about to go look it up. I actually could give a reasonably complete explanation of the logic of the phrase “off the cuff” off the cuff, without peeking at a single reference source, but that would be about as much fun as frozen pizza. It would be an answer, but not a real answer.
We think of “cuff” today usually as meaning the part of a garment sleeve that covers the wrist or, depending on fashion, a fold of fabric turned-up at the end of a trouser leg. But when “cuff” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant “a glove or mitten.” The “cuff” at the end of your sleeve wasn’t called that until the early 16th century. The exact origin of “cuff” is a mystery; all we know is that it existed in Middle English as “coffe” and “cuffe.” The verb “to cuff,” meaning “to strike or hit,” is apparently unrelated to this “cuff” and may be related to the Swedish “kuffa,” meaning “to thrust or push.”
There is, of course, another verb “to cuff,” meaning “to put handcuffs on,” “handcuff” being derived (1690) from the “sleeve” sort of “cuff.” What’s interesting about that “Cuff ‘em, Danno” verb is that it actually dates all the way back to the late 17th century (“He was cuff’d and shackled with irons, and committed to Newgate,” 1693). Along with being short for “handcuff,” “cuff” has since come to mean any sort of band or strap that encircles a pole, post, shaft, tube or human arm, as in the “cuff” of the sphygmomanometer (great word) used to measure your blood pressure.
“Off the cuff” is a colloquial phrase, dating back to at least the late 1930s, which first appeared in the US. A speech (or similar locution) or performance in a play given ad lib, without formal preparation, is said to be “off the cuff” because it is as if the speaker had only had time to jot a few notes on their shirt cuff before ascending the podium or taking the stage. According to lexicographer Christine Ammer (in her wonderful book “Have A Nice Day — No Problem!,” a dictionary of cliches), the phrase comes from the “alleged” practice of after-dinner speakers making notes on their shirt cuffs. I don’t know about cuffs, but I have been known to jot tiny notes on the palm of my hand before interviews (mostly “Mention title of book!”), and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin caught a lot of media flak (mostly from people using teleprompters) in 2010 for doing the same thing. The trick, incidentally, is to write only on your left hand so you don’t smear ink on people when you shake hands later.
Although we use usually “off the cuff” to mean “completely extemporaneously, with no preparation,” the origin of phrase itself implies at least a little forethought. And even if a politician is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by a TV news camera and asked to give a statement, you can rest assured that your public servant has been “prepped” with a list of talking points and has no need to ruin a perfectly nice shirt with crib notes.
Dude, my cousin’s sister knows a guy who was there.
Dear Word Detective: What do you call it when a word is given an etymological “explanation” that is false? I once heard a story that a medieval monk met the king’s hunting party and was accidentally knocked over by a restive horse. Since the monk was wearing only his robe (ONLY his robe) and since the robe flipped up, the monk was “em-bare-assed,” thus giving the modern word. I know this isn’t true, but what do you call the process? — Tredzwater.
Hey, I call it comedy gold, assuming you miss Art Linkletter. And besides, how do you know it isn’t “true,” whatever that means these days? Maybe it has a higher kind of truth, the This American Life kind. Incidentally, not to prolong our national angst attack over last year’s Mike Daisey/TAL dust-up, but I have a question. Would folks find the madcap memoiric stylings of TAL-fave David Sedaris (and his imitator Augusten Burroughs) so funny/freaky/fascinating if they knew going in that 90% of that stuff literally never happened? Just sayin’, as they (anachronistically) say on Downton Abbey.
The story you heard about “embarrass” is, of course, not true in any useful sense of the word “true.” Our English “embarrass,” which first appeared in the late 17th century, was adapted from the French “embarrasser,” literally meaning “to block or obstruct” (“en,” on, in, plus “barre,” bar). To “embarrass” in English originally meant to literally impede the movements or actions of someone or something (“The state of the rivers … will embarrass the enemy in a considerable degree,” 1803). But it was also used to mean “to put someone in a difficult or perplexing condition” and “to cause a person to feel awkward or ashamed,” which is the usual meaning today. The phrase “an embarrassment of riches,” by the way, does not mean that the Kardashians feel a bit sheepish about their excesses. Since the 18th century it has meant the state of literally having more money than you can spend (i.e., your spending is “blocked”).
The process that produces silly stories like the one you heard about “embarrass” is often called “folk etymology,” but it’s more accurately called simply “false etymology.” True “folk etymology” is a linguistic process whereby an unfamiliar word or phrase (e.g., “asparagus”) is transformed into a new word or phrase that may not make more sense, but at least sounds more familiar (in this case, the dialectical term “sparrowgrass”). Folk etymology often produces words that persist long after the “original” word is obsolete. “Cattycornered” (or “kittycornered”), for example, was originally “catercornered,” “cater” being an adverb meaning “diagonally” (so a building “catercornered” from another would sit diagonally across an intersection from it). But “cater” (from the French “quatre,” four) was sufficiently mysterious to enough people that they substituted “kitty,” perhaps imagining that cats like to sit at an angle to each other. The transformation stuck, and if today you were to use “catercornered” in directions to a tourist, they’d probably wander off and ask someone else.
The sort of ludicrous fable you encountered explaining “embarrass” is far from uncommon, and exhibits many of the characteristics of a classic “urban legend.” There’s the setting in a distant, ill-defined past (“medieval” is second only to “old sailing ships” in this regard), the role of royalty or aristocracy (“a king,” “the “King,” any old king will do), sex, nakedness, or other “inappropriate” behavior, and sudden exposure (literal in this case). Urban legends of this sort are sometimes likened to extended jokes concocted for the amusement of listeners (in a bar, for instance), but I think they rightly belong to the venerable folk tradition of telling “tall tales” in the spirit of Paul Bunyan and Casey Jones. They’re fun to hear, but should not be passed off as serious history.