Well, it sure beats curds and whey.
Dear Word Detective: Recently, I have seen certain jobs described as “plum,” most recently in relation to Urban Meyer “resigning from his plum job as Florida’s coach” (Sports Illustrated). I have no doubt that Mr. Meyer’s past and future salaries have been and will be more than sufficient to keep him and his family very well fed, but I was curious as to why prestigious employment would be dubbed “plum.” And how did a little purple fruit become an adjective?– Charlene.
Hey, some of our best adjectives got their start as fruits. Political commentary in the US these days, for instance, would be far less insightful without the ever-useful adjective “bananas.”
OK, back to “plum.” A “plum” is, of course, the edible reddish-purple fruit of the plum tree (genus Prunus), a bit larger than a golf ball and typically very juicy and sweet. Plums are often used as dessert fruits and in puddings and wines, and, when dried for longer-term storage, are called “prunes.” (I mention that because I was in my late teens before I found out that raisins are actually dried grapes. I think I thought raisins grew on bushes.) The root of the English word “plum” is its Latin equivalent, “prunum,” which in turn was adapted from Greek, which apparently borrowed it from an unknown Asian language. “Plum” first appeared in Old English as “plume.” It’s not clear how the “pr” of its roots (retained in “prune”) became “pl,” but weird things happen over the course of centuries.
Plums are a popular fruit because of their sweetness and versatility, so it’s not surprising that long ago, when fresh fruit of any kind was regarded by the average person as a treat, “plum” became a popular figure of speech for something very good. Or very, very good. One odd figurative use of “plum” in the early 18th century was to mean “a sum of one hundred thousand pounds,” a mountain of money at the time (“An honest Gentleman who … was worth half a Plumb,” 1710).
By the mid-19th century “plum” had become slang for “a coveted prize,” “the best of a collection of things” or “the best part of a book or musical piece” (“It is only the stupid parts of books which tire one. All that is necessary is to pick out the plums,” 1825). “Plum” also was used to mean specifically “a choice job or appointment,” and, in particular, such posts awarded as political rewards (“The boys enjoying the plums will support anybody who is good for him or them,” 1887). So the use of “plum job” reflects a long history of likening a choice position to the sweet fruit of the plum tree.
Incidentally, the classic plum-centric nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner” (“Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie; He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, And said ‘What a good boy am I!’”) may be more than it seems. It’s said to have originated as a satiric comment on events surrounding the seizure of church property in England in the mid-16th century, after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. According to this story, “Jack Horner” was actually Thomas Horner, dispatched by the Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whyting, to take deeds for several of the Abbot’s properties to King Henry. The deeds were intended as a bribe to protect the rest of Whyting’s properties from seizure by the King, and, being very valuable, were supposedly baked into a pie to conceal them on the long journey. (An actual pie is probably a bit unlikely, but they were probably concealed in some fashion.) Along the way, however, Horner pulled the deed to one of the best properties from the pie (or whatever) and kept it for himself. In the end, the bribe didn’t work, and Henry took all the Abbot’s land and had the Abbot drawn and quartered to boot. But Horner still had the deed he had taken (the “plum” from the “pie”), and the Horner family lived on that property in Somerset, in a house called Mells Manor, for several centuries. For the record, the Horner family always denied this story, maintaining that Henry gave Thomas Horner the property. Perhaps, but it’s still a great story.
I always just buy clothes when I get there.
Dear Word Detective: I was playing a memory game with the kids called “Pack the Suitcase,” which led me to think about the word “suitcase.” You can have one or more suitcases, and can also shorten it to “case,” as in “I have two cases with me.” Then there’s baggage — we all have a lot of it, don’t we? One bag, or much “baggage.” But what about luggage? “I have quite a bit of luggage.” Works fine. But “I have only one lug with me”? No, I think not. Needless to say, I lost the memory game, but perhaps you can crack this case. — Margherita Wohletz.
So, memory games, eh? Around here we call that “going to the supermarket.” Sure, we make lists. But the cats sneak into the kitchen at night and edit them. Next thing you know, you’re standing in Aisle Nine looking for things like “toona icecream” and “mouseburgers.” Meanwhile, you’ve completely forgotten that you’re out of vital necessities like pizza and doughnuts.
Onward. There are two aspects to your question, so it’s probably best to handle them separately. The more general is the subject of “count” (or “countable”) nouns versus “mass” nouns in English. “Suitcase” is a countable noun; you can say “I have six suitcases” (or, as you say, “two cases”). Most English nouns are countable, and they can take modifiers denoting number (“six cups”) or more general quantifiers, as in “many cats,” “several cars,” “every student,” etc.
“Baggage” and “luggage,” however, are mass nouns, and in English you can’t say “I have six luggages” or “I have only one baggage.” You can’t even say “I have many luggages.” With mass nouns we use more general terms like “little” and “much.” In general, mass nouns tend to refer to a kind of thing in a collective sense rather than individually; although “suitcase” and “luggage” describe the same thing, “luggage” is a more general “mass” term for the class of containers you take on a trip.
The fact that mass nouns refer to a class made up of count nouns does not, however, mean that there is literally a count noun lurking inside every mass noun, ready to be pried out by pruning away prefixes and suffixes. Thus “garbage,” a mass noun, cannot be deconstructed to infer that one trash bag might be called a “gar,” or that the “lug” in “luggage” might be an old word for “suitcase.”
The “lug” in “luggage” is, in fact, not a noun at all but the familiar verb “to lug,” meaning “to drag, pull or carry with great effort,” which first appeared in English in the early 14th century, probably from Scandinavian roots. The magic bit in “luggage” and similar nouns is the suffix “age,” which we borrowed from Old French (which adapted it from Latin), and which generally forms abstract nouns with a collective sense (luggage, plumage, tonnage), based on a condition or position of a person (orphanage, parsonage), or based on an action (damage, breakage, postage). So “luggage” basically means “things to be lugged.” Samuel Johnson, by the way, defined “luggage” in his 1755 dictionary as “any thing of more weight than value.”
“Baggage,” which first appeared in English in the 15th century, is not as clear an application of the “age” suffix as “luggage” is, because it arrived in English more fully-formed. We adapted “baggage” from the Old French “bagage,” meaning “property picked up for transport,” from the Old French verb “baguer,” meaning “to tie up.” The roots of the Old French point to the same source as produced our English “bag,” but although “bag” is suspected to be of Old Norse origin, no one knows for sure. In any case, the “bag” in “baggage” is not simply our modern noun “bag.” The effect of the “age” suffix is the same, though, producing the sense of “things and property to be collected and transported.”
And how to measure time with fire.
Dear Word Detective: If one of us kids would go to my Mom with an idea about something, she would say, “I thought I smelled rope burning.” My feeling is she didn’t even know the full meaning of what she was saying. So, I would like to know what the basis is for that phrase. — Faith.
Hmm. I wouldn’t assume that your mother didn’t know what she was saying. Given that you’re walking around and writing grammatically coherent sentences, my guess is that she did.
Speaking of ropes, I came across an interesting logic problem involving burning ropes awhile back. I’m afraid I don’t know who wrote this rendition of it, but it’s a neat puzzle: “You are given two ropes and a lighter. This is the only equipment you can use. You are told that each of the two ropes has the following property: if you light one end of the rope, it will take exactly one hour to burn all the way to the other end. But it doesn’t have to burn at a uniform rate. In other words, half the rope may burn in the first five minutes, and then the other half would take 55 minutes. The rate at which the two ropes burn is not necessarily the same, so the second rope will also take an hour to burn from one end to the other, but may do it at some varying rate, which is not necessarily the same as the one for the first rope. Now you are asked to measure a period of 45 minutes. How will you do it?”
My answer would be “Sell the rope and buy a cheap watch,” but I’ll give the real solution in a minute. Meanwhile, back at what your mother said, I think there are a number of possible explanations. There is, for instance, an “app” for the iPhone called “Burn the Rope,” a game in which you try to keep a virtual rope on fire. I know, I know, your mom said “I thought I smelled rope burning” when you were kids, but perhaps she was a time traveler from the future.
It’s probably more likely that your mother was facetiously implying that by thinking too hard you kids were overheating your brains and producing an imaginary odor. When I was a kid, it was considered fairly clever, when someone announced “I’ve been thinking,” for the schoolyard wit to respond, “I thought I smelled something burning.” Your mother’s specific reference to “rope burning” may have been a reference to the fact that burning rope produces an acrid, unpleasant odor. “Rope,” in fact, has been slang for cheap tobacco (especially in the form of low-quality cigars) since the 19th century (“The smoke of his cheap tobacco drifted into the faces of the group?. ‘If you’ve got to smoke rope like that, smoke it in a crowd of muckers; don’t come here amongst gentlemen’,” 1899).
It is possible, however, that your mother was jokingly implying that you’d been setting fire to something a bit more illicit than either rope or cheap tobacco. “Rope” has been slang for marijuana since at least the 1940s (“Detectives from the CIB Drug Squad in Brisbane are becoming quite familiar now with words like muggles, griefs, mezz, Mary Jane, jive, tea, rope and loco-weed,” 1972). Drug slang is often hard to explain (“griefs”?), but the logic for “rope” in this sense is obvious. The strong fibers of the hemp plant (cannibis sativa) have been used in the production of rope (as well as fabric, paper and many other things) for centuries, but the “indicia” subspecies of cannibis sativa is best known as the source of marijuana. Your mother, I hasten to point out, would not have had to be a pothead to be familiar with the slang term.
And now, the answer as to how to measure 45 minutes with burning rope: Light rope #1 at one end, and simultaneously light rope #2 at both ends. When rope #2’s ends meet, light rope #1 at the other end. Thirty minutes have been measured so far, leaving 30 minutes left on rope #1. When rope #1’s ends meet, fifteen minutes have been measured, for a total of 45 minutes (which is probably just long enough for the DEA to show up and kick in your door).