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Are you decent?

Knock three times.

Dear Word Detective: Well, we all know what the question “Are you decent?” means, but how and when did it come to be that very specific question referring to one’s state of (un)dress? —  Your Humble Reader, Nick.

Mmm, humble. That’s the spirit. “Are you decent?” is an interesting idiom in part because it doesn’t seem like an idiom, which is a fixed phrase that has more meaning (or a different meaning) than the literal sum of its words (e.g., “piece of cake” meaning “something easily done”). “Are you decent?” seems to be the most basic of simple, factual questions, on a par with “Are you married?” or “Is that your dog driving my car?” But what it really means, as an idiom, is “Are the parts of your body considered not fit for public viewing according to societal norms in this particular historical period sufficiently obscured so as not to cause either of us embarrassment and/or lasting mortification?”

“Decent,” of course, is one of more popular English adjectives (certainly more popular than “crepuscular,” which means “dim, indistinct, resembling twilight” and is one of my favorite words). English adopted “decent” in the 16th century from the French word “decent,” which was based on the Latin “decentem” (“fitting, appropriate, proper”), which was a form of “decere,” meaning “to be proper or seemly.”

The initial meaning of “decent” in English concerned the tenets of social respectability at the time; what was “decent” was what was appropriate to one’s rank or station and socially fitting given the facts of a situation (“The funerall of the Bish[op] of Hereford …was a decent solemnity..,” circa 1684). We still use this “appropriate” or “seemly” sense when we speak of waiting a “decent” time before criticizing someone who has died or spending a “decent” amount of time on social obligations (“After a decent Time spent in the Father’s House, the Bridegroom went to prepare his Seat for her Reception,” 1710).
By the 17th century, “decent” had broadened a bit to also mean “in good taste,” “sufficient” (“decent salary”) and even “handsome or attractive,” especially as applied to dwellings (“He had Five or Six Apartments in his House …Two of them were very large and decent,” Daniel Defoe, 1725).

Bubbling along under the “socially appropriate” usage of “decent” all this time had, however, been a different use of “decent” in a “personal morality” sense, specifically to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “In accordance with or satisfying the general standard of propriety or good taste, in conduct, speech, or action; especially conformable to or satisfying the recognized standard of modesty or delicacy; free from obscenity.” Yes, folks, we’re entering the zone of foul-mouthed nekkid people here. This is the sense of “decent” invoked by centuries of fervid campaigns against obscenity, pornography and other sorts of “indecency,” from which a pass can be earned only by clinical detachment, such as that of an anthropologist encountering people safely far away (“The Wa-Caga cannot be accused of indecency, for they make no effort to be decent, but walk about as Nature made them,”  H. H. Johnston, Kilimanjaro Expedition, 1886). Today cable TV and the internet are, of course, full of people wandering around “as Nature made them” (albeit often with unnatural enhancement), so “decency” in this sense has lost a bit of its oomph in many quarters, though it still gets votes in the boonies.

All of which brings us back to “Are you decent?” as a pause-at-the-door formality. Interestingly, the phrase seems to have originated as a jocular usage among theater performers, as explained in a 1949 book by Ruth Harvey called “Curtain Time”: “Sometimes, if she knew one of the actors or actresses, she would knock at a door and call ‘Are you decent?’  (That old theatrical phrase startled people who didn’t belong to the theatre, but it simply meant ‘Are you dressed?’).” Given that actors would be well aware that government agencies as well as self-appointed Decency Cops were constantly monitoring stage productions for “indecency” during most of the 20th century, it’s likely that the “decent” in the phrase was a joking reference to the standards of propriety applied to performers on stage, and not just a random synonym for “dressed.”

Squared away

Ducks in a row, sinking.

Dear Word Detective: I told my boss something was “squared away” and suddenly wondered where that phrase comes from, and why it’s a good thing for a person, in this case, thing, or situation to be squared away. I fussed around the internet and came away with three options: it means old fashioned as in “square” music; it refers to boxing or wrestling where opponents “square off” against each other, or it’s the dreaded “nautical term” meaning the sails are at right angles to the deck of a ship in relationship to wind direction (or some such) and therefore in good order. Sadly, I want it to be the nautical definition because I just don’t see how getting ready to get pounded to a pulp or twisted into a knot is a good idea.  For that matter I don’t know how one sail position is better than another unless it just satisfies a sense of order, but there you go. That’s those nautical phrases for you. — Victoria Ayers.

Indeed. As a matter of fact, since we’re on the subject, I’ve often thought life would be much simpler if nothing floated. Absolutely nothing at all. If even a feather sank like a stone in water. I imagine ducks would hate it and some fish would be inconvenienced, but I think it would be worth it just for me to never have to type the phrase “of nautical origin” again. Plus which, I imagine the folks on the Titanic would have been much happier staying home: “Ocean voyage? How would that work? Don’t be silly! Smithers, fetch us more nachos.”

Oh well, I’ve just been informed of the appalling amount of paperwork it takes to modify a basic law of physics, so I guess I’ll stick to answering your question. Our English word “square” first appeared around 1300 as a noun meaning “an implement for determining right angles,” more or less what we would now call a “T-square.” We adapted our word “square” from the Old French “esquire,” which was based on the Latin “ex” (out) plus “quadrare,” make square (from “quadrus,” a square). The use of “square” to mean a geometric shape made of four right angles developed by the end of the 14th century, and a wide variety of other meanings (e.g., a number multiplied by itself) had developed by the 16th century. “Square” also came to mean “a standard or rule; a guiding principle,” in reference to those T-squares used to verify a proper right angle. A “square meal” is one that is nutritious and complete.

Incidentally, our modern English “esquire” is unrelated to that Old French “esquire.” Our “esquire” comes from the Old French “escuyer,” meaning “shield bearer,” an “esquire” originally being a knight’s assistant.

“Square” as a verb appeared in the late 14th century meaning simply “to make square,” but quickly acquired a wide range of figurative meanings. “Square” in the sense of “old fashioned” or “clueless” appeared as slang in the late 1940s, originally designating some geezer who didn’t “get” jazz. The term is said to have come from the rigid hand motions of an orchestra conductor keeping an un-cool traditional four-beat tempo. To “square off” comes from boxing and refers to a fighter adopting a wide stance with arms cocked in preparation for the start of a match.

Meanwhile back at the dreaded “nautical origin” possibility, as of the early 17th century “to square” meant to align the sails at right angles to the keel of a “square-rigged” sailing ship, the optimal arrangement (with the wind from aft, presumably). “Squaring” other parts of the ship’s rigging meant to put them in correct order and position. That would tend to suggest a nautical source of “squared away.” But “to square” had also come to be used to mean “to put in proper order, to reconcile, settle,” as we speak of “squaring” accounts by settling debts, balancing the books, etc. This usage clearly referred back to the use of the noun “square” to mean “guiding principle, proper order,” and had nothing to do with sailing ships.

In any case, the phrase “square away,” meaning “to put in proper order, to tidy up,” first appeared in print in 1909, in a notably non-nautical context (“She had a head on her, Barbie had, an’ when she got squared away, she made ’em all get down an’ scratch”), and has been in wide use ever since. My sense is that while some people may think of sailing ships when they hear it, the phrase itself is more tied to the accounting use of “square” to mean “in proper order.”

Tick a lock

Put it in the vault.

Dear Word Detective: While we watching a rerun (obviously) of “The Andy Griffith Show,” one of the characters used the phrase “tick a lock.” While its meaning is fairly clear, with the inclusion of the hand gesture imitating the use of a key to turn a lock, I was wondering where the term came from. — Brenda Chastain.

Well, there you go. This is why I don’t get anything done. I just spent a half-hour reading all the Wikipedia pages associated with that show and learned all sorts of interesting things I’ll forget later this afternoon. I wasn’t a huge fan of the show as a kid (liked Barney Fife, wanted to strangle Gomer Pyle), but I’m not surprised that reruns of it are enduringly popular. The denizens of Mayberry are so deeply rooted in America’s subconscious that when a White House official resigned in 2001 and derided his former colleagues as “Mayberry Machiavellis,” some people may have been unclear on just who Machiavelli was, but Mayberry was instantly understood as the archetypal American small town. (And yes, Niccolo Machiavelli, like Victor Frankenstein, is unfairly tarred, as an eponym, with the sins of his creation.)

There are, it’s safe to say, a lot of “ticks” in English. The oldest is the bloodsucking arachnid known as the “tick,” the modern form of the Old English “ticca,” which has close relatives in many other Germanic languages. Next up (dating from the 15th century) is “tick” meaning “pillow-case” or “mattress cover,” ultimately from the Latin “teka” and better known in the form “ticking,” meaning the sort of durable cloth from which such “ticks” were originally made. There’s also a “tick” that first appeared in the mid-17th century meaning “credit” or “trust,” most often in phrases such as “on tick” meaning “on credit” (“When he had no funds he went on tick,” Thackeray, 1848). That “tick” is probably just a shortening of “ticket” in the sense of “IOU.”

That brings us to the “tick” that appeared in the mid-15th century meaning “a light tap or pat” or, a bit later, in the 17th century, “a quick, light, clicking sound” of the sort made by a watch or clock. This “tick” has relatives in several other languages (e.g., Norwegian “tikke,” to touch lightly), and the whole family of “ticks” was almost certainly formed “echoically,” in imitation of the action or sound of a light, quick pat or touch.

This “tick,” as both a noun and a verb, went on to develop a dizzying range (I’m dizzy just writing this) of meanings both literal and figurative, from “tick” meaning “a single moment” (from the tick of a clock) to “mark next to an item on a list” (“to tick someone off” originally meant “to reject or dismiss,” probably from being crossed off a list).

One meaning of “tick” the verb that developed in the early 20th century was “to operate with a light, quick effort or action,” as one might “tick out” a message with a telegraph key, and this brings us back to Mayberry.  “Tick a lock,” judging by the entry for the phrase in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), was used a number of times by characters in the show, especially Andy’s Aunt Bee. The phrase was also a favorite of Archie Bunker in All in the Family, and it’s apparently still popular throughout the American South and South Midlands. DARE notes that the expression is usually accompanied by a gesture of turning a key in a lock, but the lock is a metaphorical one, a lock on your lips. “Tick a lock” (sometimes “tick-a-lock” or “tickalock”) means “to keep quiet” or “to keep a secret” (the equivalent of “zip it” or “put it in the vault” on Seinfeld). “Tick a lock” can thus be either a command (as Aunt Bee usually used it) or a promise not to tell a secret or say something unpleasant (“I’m Mr. Sunshine for the rest of the year, y’all. If I can’t say something good about a person or topic, I’ll just zip it. Tickalock, OK?” AR Times (Little Rock) 2006). “Tick a lock” is also used in some children’s games to declare a time out, claim immunity, or designate another player as being “in jail” and temporarily out of the game.