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Merry Andrew

Too good a time was had by all.

Dear Word Detective: I’m reading “Five Weeks in a Balloon” by Jules Verne. A character is described as “the jester and merry-andrew of the boatswain’s mess.” I understand what a “merry-andrew” is, but can’t find out where it came from. Please help. — Jan.

I’ve never read “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” though I probably should have during my Jules Verne phase (roughly when I was between 12 and 14). I must admit that the title has always made me a bit uneasy. I’m not claustrophobic at all, but I am acrophobic, and the thought of being aloft in a balloon for five minutes, let alone five weeks, gives me the wimwams. In any case, Verne’s novel describes a trip across Africa (where he had never been) by hot-air balloon (about which, according to the killjoys at Wikipedia, he got all sorts of technical details wrong). But looking for factual accuracy in a Verne novel is, to put it mildly, missing the whole point. After all, Verne’s talent managed to make Captain Nemo, who never existed, immortal.

As you have deduced (and is implied by the quotation you included), a “merry-andrew” is a jester, a cut-up or card who amuses people with a steady stream of jokes and comic banter. In extended use, “merry-andrew” is sometimes used to mean simply “fool or idiot” or, as an adjective, “foolish” or “clownish.” The first appearance in print of “merry-andrew” used in a generic sense was in the late 17th century (“Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace,” Dryden, 1684).

There has been uncertainty (and debate) over the origin of “merry-andrew” for several centuries. The most popular theory identifies the original “merry-andrew” as Dr. Andrew Boorde (circa 1490–1549), personal physician to Henry VIII. Dr. Boorde apparently was known for his humorous bedside manner and love of a good joke (although he did not, as some accounts have it, actually publish a popular joke collection). Dr. Boorde’s prominence and well-known sense of humor would make him, at first glance, a good candidate for being the original “merry-andrew.” Unfortunately, there is no actual evidence for this theory; it was simply declared as a fact in 1735 by the historian and antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735), and subsequent attempts to bolster the Boorde/”merry-andrew” equation have been fruitless.

That leaves us with the explanation suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which traces “merry-andrew,” based on early citations, to the Bartholomew Fair, a large summer fair in London that was held every year from 1133 to 1855. (That’s an annual fair held for 700 years, which is pretty amazing. According to the City of London website, “The Fair featured sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, freaks and wild animals. Also common at the fair was the selling of wives.” Apparently the city authorities pulled the plug on the Fair in 1855 because it had “degenerated” too far into debauchery. One can only imagine what line they finally crossed.)

The OED suggests, quite reasonably, that the original “merry-andrew” was a particular performer at the Bartholomew Fair in the mid- to late 17th century, most likely one, as the OED puts it, “whose persona was that of a fool” and whose stage name was actually “Merry Andrew.” The OED supplies supporting citations from the period, including one dating to 1688 from the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys (“I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey,” a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”) Other quotations make it clear that the performer was, in fact, male (“Arch Merry Andrew will rend out his voice: Though his looks are but simple, & his actions the same, …By playing the fool he does get store of Coyn” (circa 1680) and “Let’s … step to Fair of Bartlemew… Here Merry-Andrew with his Babble, Diverts the crouds of gaping Rabble” (1691)). So “merry-andrew,” today meaning a person who behaves like a clown or fool, almost certainly came from the stage name of a very successful “fool.”


Hey, how come there’s no four-letter word for “four-letter word”?

Dear Word Detective: I recently found “sabe” on the Scrabble word list. I wondered what it meant, but could only find it in the Merriam-Webster Scrabble Players Dictionary as a verb meaning “to savvy.” I know “savvy” is related to the Spanish “sabe,” but have been unable to find any English use of the word. Is it an English word? If not, any idea how it ended up on the word list?

Rats. I was getting all fired up for my anti-Scrabble rant, which I trot out every two or three years, when I had a disturbing realization. I personally dislike playing Scrabble. But the game’s makers really ought to be awarded some sort of prize for enriching the vocabulary of millions of people since Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect, invented it in 1938. Then again, Butts gets the credit, but he didn’t really invent the Scrabble game we know today. His original version was called “Lexico,” and didn’t even have a game board, just the little tiles. It wasn’t until a guy named James Brunot bought the rights to Lexico in 1947, fiddled with it a bit, added the board, and renamed it Scrabble that the game took off. The Chairman of Macy’s played Scrabble on vacation, ordered all his stores to stock it, and turned it into a national sensation. Today, according to Hasbro, the game’s current maker, there’s a Scrabble set in one out of every three US households. We actually own a very nice deluxe set ourselves, received as a gift a decade ago. It makes a lovely bookend.

In any case, yes, “sabe” is a real English word (pronounced “SAH-bay”) although it is a direct borrowing of the Spanish word “sabe.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “to sabe” as a simple synonym of “to savvy,” which in turn means “to know, to understand, to comprehend.” The OED notes that “savvy,” and presumably “sabe” as well, are often used in the interrogative form “Sabe?” or “Savvy?” following an explanation given to someone whose understanding of said explanation is considered, for whatever reason, to be in doubt (“You’ve got to quit; savey?”, 1897; “Ha! Sabe that?” 1850). Both “sabe” and “savvy” are also nouns, meaning “practical intelligence” or “street smarts,” and adjectives meaning “quick-witted” or “in the know” (“A savvy tenant putting a deposit on his house gains a 12-month option to buy at the price ruling when he made the deposit,” 1980). Interestingly, the OED also defines the interjection “Quien sabe?”, originally a Spanish phrase meaning “Who knows?” or “Who can say?” (“Was this the same man for whom Murdock’s Landing was named? Quien sabe?”, 2005).

When those of us who grew up with 1950s television in the US hear “sabe,” many of us immediately think of the word “kemosabe,” which is what Tonto, faithful Indian companion to the Lone Ranger, called the masked dude in the wildly popular TV series. But there doesn’t seem to be any connection between “sabe” and “kemosabe.” According to an exhaustive investigation by The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams ( many years ago, Jim Jewell, who directed the Lone Ranger radio serial back in the late 1930s, took the word from the name of a camp (Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee) run by his father-in-law in Michigan. Jewell maintained that “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” meant “trusted scout” in the local Indian language, and he was at least in the ballpark on that. Cecil Adams managed to track down language exerts who confirmed that the word “giimoozaabi” did mean something like “scout” in the Ojibwe language, the Ottawa tribe in the area of the camp did speak Ojibwe, and “giimoozaabi” probably sounded a good deal like “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” or “Kemosabe.” That’s some serious detective work.

Unfortunately, even the awesome and resourceful Cecil Adams was unable to determine just how the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion ended up with the name “Tonto,” which, in Spanish, is an insult meaning “drunk” or “crazy.”


I prefer not to.

Dear Word Detective: My mother says that there was a comic book character that originated the contraction of “would rather” into “druthers.” Other folks call it a Southernism. Where’d it really come from? — Debbie.

Comic book? Southernism? How strange. I always assumed that it came from Druthers, our family butler when I was growing up. Druthers was a good man, but he never seemed to be there when you needed him, not a winning trait in a butler. I distinctly remember Father saying, nearly every day, “If I had my Druthers, I would drive to the shore and buy some carp. Where is my Druthers?” My brother Timmy, quite the card, finally replied, “Don’t you mean ‘Where ARE my Druthers,’ Father?”, whereupon Father sharply cuffed Timmy, then drove him down to the station and booked him for aggravated effrontery and chronic twerpitude. It was about this time that I realized I had wandered into the wrong house several years earlier, so I went home.

Please forgive me. It’s 89 degrees in this room and I feel, uh, rather odd. Anyway, “druthers” is an interesting word. It is indeed a Southernism, meaning that it arose in and still is found primarily in the southern US. And it is a dialectical variation of “would rather.” “Druther” is used both as a verb (“Any way you druther have it, that is the way I druther have it,” Mark Twain, 1896) and a noun to mean “preference,” sometimes in the form “ruthers” or “ruther” (“‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern,” 1941).

“Rather” itself is a rather interesting word. It first appeared in Old English, from Germanic roots, and was actually the comparative form of the now long-obsolete adverb “rathe,” which meant “quickly, rapidly, without delay.” So this “rath-er” form meant “earlier, sooner or previously,” and eventually took on the more general adverbial senses used today, indicating preference (“I’d rather be in Philadelphia”), degree (“A rather large dog”), or contrast (“Next time, make sure you email just Bob, rather than the whole office”).

The first occurrence of “druther” found so far in print is from 1833 (“I’d druther live in the woods any time, by myself, than on the best plantation in the county,” American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine), discovered by etymologist Barry Popik. It was, of course, almost certainly in oral use long before it showed up in print, and logic dictates that the original form was probably “drather,” which is still occasionally heard in the South. One odd thing about “druthers” is that it began as an adverbial phrase (“I’d rather”), but became a noun. Another really strange thing is that, according to field research done by the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), using “druthers” as a noun is especially common among people with a college education (though usage of the verb “druther” doesn’t similarly skew along educational levels).

As for the comic strip origin of “druthers” your mother suggested, I have good news and bad. The bad news is that since “druthers” has been around since 1833, and its evolution is fairly well documented, a comic strip source is unlikely. The good news, however, is that your mother is not crazy. Cartoonist Al Capp (1909-79), in his wildly popular strip L’il Abner, apparently used “druthers” so often that many people believed that he had invented the word. Set in the fictional town of Dogpatch, Capp’s strip did contribute a number of phrases to the popular lexicon, including “Dogpatch” itself for a small, backward town, “Sadie Hawkins Day,” a fictional holiday when gender roles are reversed and women “chase” men, and “Shmoos,” friendly creatures that give milk, lay eggs, and look forward to being cooked and eaten.