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Money laundering

Neatly pressed lucre.

Dear Word Detective: I heard someone say that the term “money laundering” originated with Mafia ownership of laundromats in the United States. I think the speaker was clearly hitting the suds that day. Do you know when and how the term “money laundering” came to be? — Chris.

Oh boy, a Mafia question. Always fun. Back in the 1990s, I wrote a weekly column for the New York Daily News called “City Slang,” in which I answered readers’ questions about the rich and varied vernacular of the city. Since the Mob is a popular obsession in NYC, a lot of the queries I received were about organized crime slang I’d never heard, so I’d ask crime reporters at the paper and some retired NYPD detectives I knew if they’d ever heard the term. I also discovered that a couple of guys I knew knew guys who were “connected” in the Mob sense, and they’d ask around for me. More often than not, the search turned up bupkis, and I had to assume that the word in question was some screenwriter’s invention. It wasn’t a total wash, however. I did learn who to call if I needed somebody’s legs broken.

The verb “to launder,” meaning “to wash or clean,” is an interesting word. It first appeared in the mid-17th century, but the antiquated noun form “launder,” meaning “someone who cleans clothes,” dates back to the 14th century. The ultimate root of both words is the Latin “lavare,” to wash, which also gave us “lavatory.” But the word “launder” is actually a contraction of the earlier (and now obsolete) word “lavender,” which meant “a washerwoman” in the 13th century. Various theories have been proposed over the years attempting to connect this washing “lavender” to the shrub known as “lavender,” such as the aromatic flowers of the lavender being used to scent freshly-washed clothes. But it now appears that they are two completely separate words, and that the “lavender” shrub takes its name from the same roots that gave us “livid,” i.e., “bluish,” as are lavender blossoms.

The term “money laundering,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the process of concealing the origins of money obtained illegally by passing it through a complex sequence of banking transfers or commercial transactions,” seems to have first appeared in the early 1960s, though it only became widely known during the Watergate investigations of the 1970s, in which suitcases full of cash played a role in forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon. While organized crime has long used legitimate businesses to “launder” dirty money, “money laundering” simply employs an established figurative use of “launder” meaning “sanitize, render acceptable” (“House votes to launder report before publication,” UPI headline, 1/30/76). So laundromats are not the root of “money laundering,” and I guess you’re right about the suds.

Although “money laundering” is nowhere near as intriguing as it should be (I’ve always pictured industrial Maytags full of cash), the practice has spawned at least one amusing term. In the wake of US law enforcement attempts to prevent money laundering by requiring any bank deposit of more than $10,000 to be reported to the government, criminals looking to hide cash began breaking up large sums into a series of small deposits, just under that limit, in different banks. By 1985, this tactic was known as “smurfing,” after the then-popular TV cartoon series The Smurfs, which featured numerous and highly-animated small blue people running around. It’s an inspired bit of slang for an otherwise dry and probably tedious activity (“To be more efficient, smurfs target areas where several banks are close to each other and, like most people, they avoid busy banks. ‘There is very little smurfing in New York City,’ says Charles Saphos, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Florida, ‘because the lines are too long.’” Business Week, 1985). There are now laws against “smurfing,” which is more soberly called “structuring” by bankers. But I really like the sound of “Anti-Smurfing Law.”

Bar ditch

Dig it.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve lived most of my life in the southern US, and for most of that time I’ve heard about “bar ditches” beside the road. It has been explained to me that the name refers to the fact that the dirt that makes the “crown” in the center of the road was “bar-aahd” from the ditches. I have been unimpressed by this explanation for forty-five or fifty years now. Any suggestions? — Stewart Bolerjack.

Hey, we live on a road like that, with no shoulder and deep ditches on both sides. You do not wanna end up in one of those ditches. Our road is supposedly two lanes, but it’s been more like 1.5 lanes since the county “improved” it a few years ago. (Our neighbor said, “Jeez, that’s how they build roads in Texas,” which apparently wasn’t a compliment.) People wonder why folks out in the sticks tend to be more religious than city dwellers, and I think it’s partly these roads. There’s nothing like seeing one of the local honor students futzing with his cell phone while he’s coming at you doing 55 in his daddy’s F-350 to suddenly put questions of eternity at the top of your personal agenda.

That “bar-aahd” (“borrowed”) explanation of “bar ditch” that you find unimpressive is, I see from the internet, very widespread. I’ve also heard that a “bar ditch” is so-called because, if you drive your car into one, you might as well start walking to the nearest bar and have a few beers while you wait for the tow truck. A more serious explanation for the term, found in Texas and reported by the Dictionary of American Regional English, says that the name “bar ditch” comes from the fact that it “bars” cattle and sheep from wandering onto the road. If there’s any truth to that being the intention behind the ditches, somebody needs to tell the cows that wander the roads around here.

The funny thing about the “bar-aahd” theory you’ve heard is that it may very well be true. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the term “borrow-pit” from 1893, which it defines as “In civil engineering, an excavation formed by the removal of material to be used in filling or embanking,” and notes that it “apparently” comes from the verb “to borrow.” It seems entirely possible that “borrow pit” became “barrow pit” or “barrow ditch” (which is almost as common in the US as “bar ditch”) and then “bar ditch.” The fact that the earth removed from such ditches is indeed frequently used to form the foundation of these roads is a powerful argument for this theory.

There is, however, a complicating factor, which is the existence of the very old English word “barrow,” meaning “mound or hill,” which first appeared in Old English and is still found in place names. It is possible that the “bar” in “bar ditch,” as well as the “barrow” in “barrow ditch,” come from this “barrow,” rather than from “borrow.” At this point “barrow” and “borrow” are so entwined in usage of the term that it’s impossible to pin down the exact origin of “bar ditch.”

Incidentally, if that “barrow” sounds familiar, it’s probably because of “wheelbarrow,” but there’s no connection between the terms. The “barrow” of “wheelbarrow” is a different word, dating back to the early 14th century and originally meaning a kind of platform with handles (like a wooden stretcher) used to carry heavy things. A “barrow” required at least two people to carry it until some genius decided to add a wheel to the front and created the “wheelbarrow.” The old, un-wheeled barrow is now known as a “handbarrow.”

Oyster, the world is one’s

Made in the shade.

Dear Word Detective: Please explain the origin of the phrase “The world is your oyster” with regards to having the ability to accomplish anything you put your mind to. And is this a correct paraphrase? — Julie.

You’re close, but in place of “ability,” I’d say “opportunity,” and rather than “accomplish anything you put your mind to,” I’d go with “profit from your position.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains the idiom “the world is one’s oyster” as meaning that “one is in a position to profit from the opportunities that life, or a particular situation, may offer.” It is possible to attain that position of advantage through one’s own efforts, ingenuity or foresight (“Bob got a degree in Computer Science back in 1990, so when he went looking for a job, the world was his oyster”), but it’s also possible to be born wealthy and grow up in a life of privilege where any whim can be fulfilled.

I am personally not a big fan of oysters as food (especially after a bout of neurotoxic shellfish poisoning caused by bad clams a couple of years ago). But even if I were an oyster addict, it would still seem strange to employ a small, slimy critter as a symbol of “having it made.” The OED defines an oyster as “Any of various bivalve mollusks of the family Ostreidae, typically having a rough, irregularly oval shell, including several types which are eaten (often raw) as a delicacy and may be farmed for food or pearls.” Our word “oyster” first appeared in English in the 14th century (“Many a muscle and many an oystre … Hath been oure foode,” Chaucer, circa 1395). We adopted “oyster” from “oistre,” the Old French word for the creature, but the ultimate source was the Latin “ostrea,” from Indo-European roots meaning “bone,” in apparent reference to the critter’s shell.

Although oysters have long been considered a delicacy, “the world is one’s oyster” invokes, as a metaphor, much more than just a tasty snack. Oysters are also, of course, the source of beautiful and very valuable pearls, although the chances of finding a pearl-bearing oyster on your dinner plate are vanishingly remote (especially today, since the oysters that produce pearls are not considered edible). But, as they say in the Lotto ads, you can’t win it if you’re not in it, and only by prying open the oyster can you hope to win a pearl or, at the very least, partake of the delicacy inside. So, in the most expansive sense, “the world is your oyster” means that, because of your position or advantages, the world is laid out before you like a plate of oysters needing only to be pried open to be enjoyed, perhaps with a pearl as a prize (“Invested with full powers to make the world his oyster, and leave nothing but the shell to his unpatented competitors,” 1809). The “prying open” part of the process is mentioned in the very first known use of the phrase. “The world is one’s oyster” first appeared in print in the early 17th century, and seems to be one of the dozens of phrases and figures of speech coined by William Shakespeare, in this case in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Why then the world’s mine Oyster, which I, with sword will open”).

“Oyster” itself crops up in numerous other phrases, from “oyster monger” to “oyster shucker,” which sounds like a yucky job. Special mention, however, should be made of the term “oyster kiss,” which dates back to the 1600s but was probably best explained by a young woman quoted in the Vancouver Sun in 1994: “The raw oyster kiss. ‘They’re those wet, cool, open-mouth slobbering kisses,’ she explained. ‘You feel like a mollusk has attached itself to your face.’” And they say romance is dead.