Katzenjammer Kids on Parade.
Dear Word Detective: I found your web page discussing the possible origin of the word “brat.” My wife is German and we were watching some out of control children at a wedding yesterday and she said that in Germany they were called “Satansbraten,” or “Devil’s Roast.” I was just curious if that could also be a possible origin. — Leighton Shell.
That’s an interesting theory. I don’t speak German, so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here. But my impression is that the logic of “Satansbraten,” widely translated as “problem child” or “brat,” is that the noxious little nipper is either more than likely to end up roasting on a spit in Hell or is, in fact, a devil or demon incarnate. Seems a little harsh to me, but then again I’ve also been to a few weddings terrorized by out of control children, so maybe not.
As I said in the column I wrote back in 2004, “brat” is a pejorative colloquial English term for “a child, especially an ill-tempered, spoiled or badly behaved child.” In his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined the word (which first appears in the written record in 1557) as “a child, so called in contempt.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, “brat” was also used without contempt or condemnation to mean any small, usually “insignificant” child (as in the term “beggar’s brat,” a child deployed to evoke sympathy from passers-by).
It seems plausible that “brat” could have arisen in English as a borrowed and clipped form of the German “Satansbraten,” but I see a couple of problems on the English side of the border. First, the earliest written examples of “brat” found so far use the term to simply mean “child” or “offspring” with no pejorative overtones (“What [sin] hath Aeneas, my brat, committed agaynst [thee]?”, 1582). But “Satansbraten” has, I assume, always been used pejoratively, as positive invocations of Satan are somewhat rare.
Second, no one, to my knowledge, has found the sort of intermediate stages of development to be expected when a foreign word is taken into English and modified, such as the original word being used in English text and explained (e.g., “as the Germans say…”). So I tend to doubt that “Satansbraten” is the source of “brat.” It is possible, of course, that the development of “brat” was influenced in some way by “Satansbraten,” but that would be nearly impossible to document.
Unfortunately, a definitive explanation of where, exactly, “brat” did come from is not possible. One intriguing theory traces it to another kind of “brat” in English, this one meaning “a cloak made of coarse cloth, especially as worn by a child” (from the Old Irish “bratt,” cloth, cloak). This “brat,” meaning a sort of smock or apron worn by children, was, according to this theory, eventually adopted as a term for the children themselves.
Interestingly, this “brat/cloth” theory closely parallels a theory suggested to explain the development of our English word “girl,” which I mentioned in a recent column and which originally meant a child of either sex. The Old English word “gyrela,” meaning “garment,” is the suggested source for “girl,” and once again the theory is that the name for an article of clothing gradually became the word for the wearer. The parallels between the theories are striking, but since neither theory has been proven, one cannot be invoked to argue for the other, and so we are left with two mysteries on our hands.
Things fall apart, or not.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading a story about the Round Table the other day. In this novel there was a discussion about the past tense of “cleave.” It ended with a fish being “clooved,” and there was no definite answer. What is the past tense of “cleave”? I thought it might be “cleaved,” “clave,” “claved” “clove” or, I think my best guess, “cloven.” I couldn’t find out. I don’t have a good dictionary, either. My parents can’t help me on this one. Can you? — Cora.
No good dictionary? Horrors. A house without a good dictionary is like a house without … I was going to say “phone book,” but I can’t remember the last time I saw one around here. Well, anyway, you actually do have access to a couple of good, trustworthy dictionaries online. One is at Merriam-Webster.com (or just m-w.com). The other is at Yahoo Reference, and if you manage to navigate through through the unnecessarily byzantine interface at education.yahoo.com, you’ll find the excellent American Heritage Dictionary (which used to be parked at Bartleby.com). You should also check the website of your local public library; many libraries offer their members free access to the Oxford English Dictionary Online.
“Cleave” is, as you’ve already discovered, a tricky little word. It’s often cited as an “auto-antonym,” a word which can mean its own opposite, because “cleave” can be used to mean both “to split apart” and “to stick together.” Some such pairs of words (also called “Janus words,” after the Roman god with two faces) are actually the same word with contradictory senses developed over time (e.g., “fast,” moving quickly, and “fast,” securely attached). The two senses of “cleave,” however, are two entirely separate words, with different origins, that just happen to share the same spelling.
“Cleave” meaning “to split, divide, separate” first appeared in Old English in the form “cleofan,” derived from Germanic roots with the general sense of “to split or cut.” The original meaning of this “cleave” in English was “to part along the grain,” as in splitting wood for a fire, but today we use it to mean simply “to cut in two, divide.”
The other “cleave,” meaning “to adhere to, stick to,” also harks back to a Germanic root, in this case the same one that eventually gave us the word “glue.” Along with its literal sense of “stick to” (“Huge masses of masonry, which seem to cleave to the bare rock,” 1867), this “cleave” has long been used in the warm and fuzzy sense of “to remain attached, devoted, or faithful to” (as in the Biblical injunction “Cleave unto that which is good”).
If this all seems like a recipe for confusion between the two words, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The fact that English has two “cleaves” from different sources and with entirely different meanings would, if language were logical, dictate that they each have their own distinct forms to indicate tense, etc. No such luck. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains, because the words were identical, “…their inflectional forms were naturally also confused, and to some extent blended or used indiscriminately.” Thus the antiquated past tense form “clave” belongs etymologically to “cleave” (adhere), but it has also been used off and on as the past tense of “cleave” (split). The more common form “cleaved” also serves as the past tense of both verbs.
The OED has a fascinating rundown of the dizzying array of past tense and past participle forms of both words over the centuries, but I sense it’s time to cut to the finish line and give you the long story short. So the existing past tense forms of “cleave” in the “split” sense are “clove,” “clave,” “cleaved” and “cleft,” and the past participle forms are “cloven,” “cloved,” “cleaved” and “cleft.” In the “adhere” sense we have “cleaved” and “clave” again for the past tense and “cleaved” for the past participle. Practically speaking, “cleaved” is probably the most popular past tense form for both words, though “cleft” for “split” is more poetic, and the participial “cloven” (“having been split”) is one of my favorite words. “Clooved,” incidentally, is a very creative, but historically non-existent, word.
The whole shebang, with cheese.
Dear Word Detective: Would you happen to where the term “the whole kit and caboodle” originated? I’ve seen several different answers to this question and I don’t know which one to believe. — Terri.
Rats. I wish you had sent along some of the explanations you’ve read. I know I frequently express annoyance at the loopy word-origin stories tour guides and their ilk often propagate. But the truth is that I find the good ones (like medieval peasants losing their kids in the bathtub while cats fall through the roof) weirdly fascinating and occasionally hilarious. So heads up, gang. From now on, please take notes when you encounter the words “It all goes back to….”
“Kit and caboodle” is a slang expression, dating back to the mid-19th century, meaning “everything” or “all of it” (“The whole kit and caboodle of us were then investigated by the FBI to see how many subversives there were among us,” 1969). Interestingly, there were several variants of “kit and caboodle” in use at during the same period, including “kit and boodle,” “kit and cargo” and the slightly mysterious “kit and biling” (“biling” being a regional pronunciation of “boiling,” originally “the whole boiling,” meaning an entire batch of soup or stew). But as weird as “kit and biling” is, English slang had already produced some admirably odd phrases meaning “all and everything,” including “top and tail” (1509), “prow and poop” (1561), and the Anglo-Indian term “the whole sub-cheese” (from the Hindi “sub,” all, plus “chiz,” things, also possibly the root of “big cheese”). The 19th century zeal for phrases meaning “everything” also produced “lock, stock and barrel,” a refreshingly lucid list of the important bits of a flintlock rifle.
The “kit” in “kit and caboodle” is fairly straightforward, “kit” being an 18th century English slang term for “outfit” or “collection,” as in a soldier’s “kit bag,” which contained supplies (and often all his worldly possessions). The root of “kit” was probably the Middle Dutch word “kitte,” meaning a cask or tub made of wooden staves. This “kit” then came to mean a small basket used to carry various articles, and from there took on the meaning of the collection of articles carried by a workman or soldier in a knapsack or valise. “Kit” in this sense of “collection of assorted stuff carried for a job” eventually also gave us a drummer’s “kit” (consisting of various drums, cymbals, etc.) and “kit” in the sense of a collection of parts that are intended to be put together by the buyer.
The “caboodle” is a bit more obscure, but we can assume that the original word here was “boodle” (since “kit and boodle” came earlier) and that the “ca” was added later in the interest of alliteration. “Boodle” first appeared as slang in the US around 1833 meaning “a crowd or pack” of people or things, but later in the 19th century was used to mean “money,” especially money either stolen or acquired through illegal activity (“Boodle … has come to mean a large roll of bills such as political managers are supposed to divide among their retainers,” 1884). It’s not entirely certain that these two “boodles” are the same word. While “boodle” in the “money” sense is considered a likely descendant of the Dutch “boedel,” meaning “money, property,” the use of “boodle” to mean “a collection of things or people” may be connected to “bundle.”
In any case, while “boodle” meaning “money” seems to have faded away in recent years, “kit and caboodle” has proven a very durable slang term, especially in the US, perhaps because of its slightly mysterious sound. I must admit, however, that I’m beginning to feel an irresistible urge to start dropping “the whole sub-cheese” into my daily conversations.