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Book that book, Danno.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been reading about the meaning of the word “policeman” in a book, which says that it originated in “polis” meaning “city,” and therefore “policeman” means “man of the city.” Do you have any idea where the word “politician” comes from? I assume it also derives from “polis,” but the ending isn’t the same and I assume this means it has a different meaning. — Michelle.

Wow. That book really says that “policeman” means “man of the city”? That’s pretty seriously not true. It’s also an instance of what I’d call the Lego School of Linguistic Analysis, the belief that each part of a word has a particular meaning, usually firmly fixed, and that by snapping the bits apart the intrepid explorer can figure out what the word “truly means.”

Let’s just say that language doesn’t work that way, to put it mildly. While words often are built from roots with particular meanings to which prefixes, suffixes and other bits are added, the process usually takes centuries, the meaning almost always shifts along the way, and the results often have only a tangential connection to the original “meanings” of the constituent parts (and in the case of prefixes and suffixes, those “meanings” are notoriously vague in the first place). The “take it apart” approach also often leads to what is known as the “etymological fallacy,” the belief that if you can determine the “original meaning” of a word, you have found its “true” meaning. Thus, for example, many otherwise sane people object to the use of “decimate” to mean “severely reduce, damage or destroy” because the original word meant “kill one of every ten soldiers” (the method the Roman army used to punish mutineers). I’m not sure why people resist language change so fiercely, but, fortunately, language isn’t listening, and “decimate” in its modern sense is a very useful word.

Several years ago I received a question that also dealt with the word “politician,” in that case asking about the story that “politics” came from “poli,”supposedly meaning “many” (it doesn’t) plus “tics,” supposedly meaning “ticks,” i.e., “bloodsucking insects” (wrong again). As a joke that’s not bad, but as etymology, fuhgeddaboudit. The actual root of “politics” is indeed the Greek “polis,” meaning “city.” This produced the Greek “polites,” meaning “citizen,” which in turn produced “politikos,” meaning “regarding citizens or matters of state.” In Latin, the Greek “politikos” became “polticus,” which eventually gave us “politics,” “political,” and, with the suffix “ian” indicating action or agency, “politician” for a person whose jobs involves affairs of government or civil administration. So “politics” is simply the system of governing a society, and a “politician” is someone who works in that apparatus.

Our English word “police” was imported from the Middle French branch of the “polis” family tree, where “police” meant essentially the same thing as our modern English word “policy” in the sense of “the conduct of good government.” By the 16th century, our English “police” had come to mean “the organizing or governing body of a community,” but it wasn’t until the 18th century that “police” came to mean a specific department or agency devoted to maintaining public safety and law and order. The use of “police” as a verb meaning “to keep a place, especially a military base, clean and orderly” arose in the 19th century and harks back to the now-obsolete use of “police” to mean simply “maintain good governance.”

Speaking of things that have become obsolete, the terms “policeman” and “policewoman”  have been almost universally abandoned in favor of “police officer,” but all three forms denote a person who is an official agent of a law enforcement (“police”) agency. Interestingly, the word “constable,” formerly applied to police officers in Britain and elsewhere, comes ultimately from the Latin “comes stabuli,” meaning literally “Count of the stable,” i.e., head groom in a stable. The term later was applied to the chief household officer in royal palaces, then to military commanders, and finally, in the 15th century, to law enforcement authorities.


The foam-flecked grill is a nice touch.

Dear Word Detective:  Driving along the freeway the other day I found myself behind a Nissan — not a Nissan Murano, nor a Nissan Versa (both of which I think of as nonsense names), but a Nissan Rogue. Well, I thought, with so many models these car companies are hard-pressed to come up with names. But I always thought “rogue” implied some sort of dangerous viciousness, as in a “rogue elephant.” Are we now to think it’s simply a synonym for rebel, or something even tamer? My dictionary says the origin of “rogue” is unknown. Any idea where it came from, and where it’s going? — Barney Johnson.

Nissan Rogue, eh? Awesome. Did the owner spring for the titanium tusks? Or did the car  just glower, as the current line of Dodge Ram trucks do, with massive menacing grillwork that would bring a song to Mussolini’s heart? Every time I get on the road I’m struck by the fact that choice of cars and driving style have apparently become the primary channels of self-expression for a lot of weirdly angry people. While most people don’t pick a car because of its name, motor vehicle monikers such as “Viper,” “Cutlass,” “Rampage” and “Vanquish” no doubt appeal on a subliminal level to the chronically aggrieved among us. Maybe we should encourage, in the spirit of moderation, car names that invoke that other American obsession, food. In a chapter on automotive names in his book “What’s in a Name?” (Merriam-Webster, 1996), Paul Dickson mentions a car manufactured between 1902 and 1906 called “the American Chocolate” (because it was made in a former candy factory). I know I’d feel a lot safer on the highway if I were surrounded by people driving Dodge Muffins, Toyota Tacos and Chevy Calzones.

The Nissan Rogue is a compact “crossover” SUV that was first marketed in the US in 2008, which, I guess, rules out the intriguing possibility that its name was inspired by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s 2009 memoir “Going Rogue.” I suppose she picked that title to evoke the image of an elephant (i.e., Republican) “going it alone,” but the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to go rogue” as “to behave erratically or dangerously, go out of control.” George Orwell, as I recall, wrote an interesting essay about a rogue elephant. In any case, one’s mileage may vary as to the political wisdom of that image, but it’s a scary name for a car.

“Rogue” first appeared in English in the late 16th century meaning “idle vagrant; vagabond,” as well as “a dishonest person; a scoundrel.” Almost immediately, however, “rogue” also came to mean “A mischievous person, especially a child; a person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likable or attractive” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), and the “lovable rogue,” the “bad boy” charmer of fiction and Hollywood movies, from Tom Jones to Clark Gable to George Clooney, was born. Most other uses of the term “rogue,” however, have been in the sense of either “renegade” in a negative sense (“rogue nation,” “rogue cop,” et al., even “rogue lawyer”) or “without control or discipline; behaving abnormally or dangerously; erratic, unpredictable” (OED) (“A housewife’s game of patience came to an abrupt end when a 20-ton ‘rogue’ mechanical shovel begun crunching its way through the walls of her semi-detached home,” 1979).

It has been suggested that “rogue” is rooted in the Middle French “rogue,” meaning “haughty or arrogant,” but that doesn’t strike most authorities as likely, in part because that meaning is nearly the opposite of “rogue’s” initial meaning in English of “vagabond; vagrant.” More likely is the theory that our “rogue” comes from the obsolete English thieves’ slang “roger” (pronounced with a hard “g”), which, with weird specificity, meant “An itinerant beggar pretending to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge” (OED). This “roger,” in turn, seems to have been ultimately rooted in the Latin “rogare,” meaning “to ask.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, I should note, finds this “rogare” theory unlikely, and suggests “roger” may simply come from the name of a person, and thus have no connection to “rogue.” But if “roger” from a person’s name meant “beggar,” which the OED says it did, it could still have changed form and become “rogue.”

Incidentally, although many people assume that unruly elephants are the source of “rogue,” the term “rogue elephant” didn’t appear until the 19th century. “Rogue elephant” has also been used in a figurative sense since the 1920s to mean “a person or agency whose activities are antisocial and destructive” (OED) (“Only the rogue elephants among the public utility monopolies have occasionally run amuck,” 1981).

Flak / Flack / Harp

Welcome to iHell. Here’s your iHarp.

Dear Word Detective: In my mother’s family there is a phrase that I haven’t encountered elsewhere and I’m wondering about the origin. The phrase it “to give [someone] flack (flak?)” and means, depending on the context, either “to berate” (as in “my boss gave me flack for coming in late yesterday”) or “to complain at” (“stay up late if you want to but you better not give me any flack about being tired in the morning.”). It also has the connotation that the complaint, whatever it is, is trivial and thus the person giving flack is actually harping on the victim for no reason. Oh, and hey! Why do we use the verb “to harp” to mean berate and annoy? A two-fer. Any ideas? — Gwyn.

And they say families don’t communicate these days, that each member spends all day swaddled in the solipsistic glow of their digital doodads, texting “friends” they’ve never met and agonizing over their Facebook updates. “Fie!” say I to the media mob spreading this canard, this spurious trend du jour. Families are alive, well, and driving each other nuts with constant harping and flocks of flack, just as they always have. In fact, the profusion of iPads, iPhones and other iRubbish has, no doubt, exponentially increased the occasions for face-to-face familial conflict. After all, television, the previous locus of much household discord, never hit you with overage charges or introduced your kid to aging sickos pretending to be Justin Bieber’s cousin. So rave on, Ward and June.

I actually answered a query about “flack” back in 2008, but it’s worth revisiting, since we’re coming up on an election year and the political “flacks” will be out in force. “Flack” and “flak” are actually two different words, but things get a bit confusing because they tend to be used interchangeably in some contexts. “Flak” dates back to World War II, when German anti-aircraft guns (“Fliegerabwehrkanone,” literally “pilot defense guns”) were known to Allied pilots by their rough acronym “flak,” which soon became shorthand for antiaircraft fire itself. If you’ve ever seen film of Allied bombers dodging small black clouds over Europe, those clouds are flak bursts. By the late 1960s, “flak” had come to mean “adverse criticism” or “verbal abuse,” and was often spelled “flack.” In his 1970 book “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” author Tom Wolfe coined the term “flak-catcher” for a public-relations aide whose job is to intercept and deflect criticism (“flak”) directed at a prominent person.

That brought the meaning of “flak” confusingly close to that of “flack,” meaning a public relations agent, which had first appeared in print in 1937. This “flack” was apparently coined by Variety, the show business newspaper, in tribute to Gene Flack, a well-known PR agent for movie stars. So “flak” means “criticism or complaining” and is sometimes spelled “flack,” and the other “flack” is a public relations person whose job consists of protecting a big shot from “flak.” And a “flak-catcher” is a flack who catches flak. Simple, yes?

A “harp” is, of course, a rather large stringed musical instrument that produces a sound thought by many to be lovely and ethereal. (Your mileage may vary. Mine certainly does. In several ancient languages, the root of “harp” was also used to mean “an instrument of torture.” Just sayin’.) The verb “to harp” appeared in Old English meaning “to play on a harp,” but by the 16th century the expression “to harp upon the same string” had come to mean “to repetitively and tediously speak about one subject” (“They are sure still harping on their old string,” 1568). This led to “harp” being used today as a verb meaning “to complain repetitively on one subject at tedious length.”