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Let’s play blotto.

Dear Word Detective: I was watching a documentary to do with the travels of Queen Victoria as young child. At one house they visited, the ceiling of the dining room had a plaster relief of horses and figures upon it. The comment was made that the plaster for this relief was made with alcohol and they wondered if this is where the modern reference for being “plastered” — as in very drunk — came from. Is there any truth in this? — Barb McMeekin.

I seriously doubt it. But I’ve learned that it’s best not to dismiss such theories without investigation, so I actually went looking for anything on the internet that might connect alcohol in plaster to the term “plastered” meaning “very drunk.” I didn’t get very far, because I couldn’t even find anything indicating that alcohol was ever used as an ingredient in plaster. The only references I found were to something called polyvinyl alcohol plaster, which is applied to walls as a form of insulation, but I doubt that it was around in Victoria’s day. But after reading about plaster for an hour or so, I am impressed with the range of things people mix into it, so alcohol in plaster would not be much of a stretch.

“Plaster” itself is an interesting word. It’s derived from the Latin “emplastrum,” which meant both the kind of plaster used in building (water mixed with gypsum or lime and inert filler) and a “medicinal plaster,” a medicinal substance (e.g., ointment) applied to a bandage and stuck to the skin to cover a wound or other injury. The key qualities of “plaster” for our purposes here is that it’s sticky and that it thoroughly covers something.

“Plastered,” in addition to simply meaning “covered with plaster,” is a popular synonym for “very drunk.” According to slang etymologist Paul Dickson, “drunk” bears the distinction of having more synonyms than any other word in English. His collection, called, appropriately, “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary” (Melville House, 2009), lists more than 3,000 of them, from “accidentally horizontal” to “zui,” which is apparently Chinese for “blotto.” This is, by the way, a fascinating and frequently hilarious book, far more than a mere list, from the same pen that produced the magisterial “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary” and several other lexicographic classics.

“Plaster” as a verb appeared in the 14th century, initially meaning both “to medically treat with a plaster” or “to apply plaster to walls, etc.” The “plaster a wall” sense developed, by the 16th century, the colloquial meaning of “cover a surface with objects, to display widely,” still in use today (“Photos of the outfit were plastered across the front pages of New York newspapers yesterday,” 2005). “Plaster” also developed the figurative sense of “mix or pound into a soft mass,” as if mixing plaster, which led to “plaster” meaning “to strike with heavy blows,” “to defeat utterly,” “to shell or bomb a target extensively” and “to mangle a bird with shot from a shotgun” (The plasterer, whose plastering often arises from jealousy, will plaster — i.e., blow the pheasant into a pulp,” 1883).

“Plastered” in the sense of “very drunk” first appeared in print, as far as we know, around 1902, and there are several theories as to its origin. One ties it to the medicinal kind of plaster, the theory being that a drunk has been “medicated” and is “feeling no pain” (both common synonyms for “drunk” in their own right).

A more intriguing possibility, as reported by Paul Dickson, was inadvertently raised by the head of the Arizona Lath and Plaster Institute in 1956 when he objected to the use of “plastered” to mean “drunk.” “You don’t say a person is ‘shingled,’ ‘painted’ or ‘landscaped,’ then why say he is ‘plastered’?”, asked the Institute’s spokesperson. The New York Times replied that the term has nothing to do with plasterers, and referred to “a bird riddled with shot” (as noted above). My sense is that “plastered” meaning “very drunk” came initially from this “blasted bird” sense, and subsequently incorporated the more general senses of “badly beaten” and, of course, “thoroughly bombed.”


No counting that kid in 4th grade who was covered in hair and chased cars.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve always wondered about the word “cowlick” for the swirl of hair. Why “cowlick” instead of some other animal? Does it have a name in other languages? Are they equally evocative? I have a great mental picture of newborn babies being presented to cows for an inaugural hair combing — what do non-English speaking babies get? — Lisa Wright.

That’s an interesting question, but your last sentence puzzled me a bit. Aren’t most newborn babies nearly devoid of hair? And I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a English-speaking baby outside of those horrible “Look Who’s Talking” movies and the even more obnoxious E-Trade commercials. But I’m told I often take things too literally.

Onward. A “cowlick” is a lock or tuft of hair on a person’s head that doesn’t behave like the rest of the hair, refusing to lie flat and sometimes even growing in the opposite direction from the rest of the hair. Y’know, having typed that definition, I’m now wondering how long it’s going to be before Big Pharma decides that a “cowlick” is a symptom of Oppositional Follicle Disorder and starts marketing a drug to cure it. Dagnabbit, when I was a kid, we’d just slap some 10W-30 on it and be good for a month.

The first appearance of “cowlick” in print found so far was way back in 1598 (“The lockes or plaine feakes of haire called cow-lickes, are made turning vpwards”). (A “feak” is a dangling lock of hair). The cowlick is so-called because the disruptive lock is said to look as if it had been produced by a lick from a passing cow. It’s also commonly called a “calf-lick,” but in that case it may be a reference to the effects on a calf’s coat of grooming by Momma Cow. I suppose animals other than cows might lick one’s head and create a, say, “doglick” (yuck) or “tigerlick” (uh-oh). But cows are considered benevolent and safe as large animals go, so cows it was.

According to the hair websites I visited in my rigorous research, most cowlicks are a product of conflict in the “whorl,” a sort of traffic circle on top of one’s head where the hair meets and decides how to grow. In some people the whorl runs clockwise, in others counter-clockwise, and still others have two whorls which run in opposite directions, producing ginormous cowlicks and ruining their lives. Incidentally, it is very important to part your hair on the proper side so as not to create conflict atop your head. I have always parted my hair on the right, for instance, although most men part theirs on the left, and over the years many men have told me I’m doing it wrong. But I’ve never had a cowlick problem and most of those guys don’t have any hair left at all, so I guess I win.

Apparently the French term for “cowlick” is “mèche sur le front,” meaning literally “wick in the front,” though one source I found says “un épi” (“an ear of corn”) is also used. In German, it’s “ein Werbel” (“vortex” or “whirl” ), in Spanish, “chavito,” “mechon” (“tuft”) or “remolino” (“swirl”). In Danish, it’s “hvirvel i håret,” literally “whirl in the hair,” in Afrikaans, “kuif” (“crest”), and in Polish “kosmyk,” meaning “strand.” Full disclosure: several of these came from dictionaries and translation sites for languages in which I am not fluent, so there’s a good chance that I’ve missed some colorful colloquial terms every bit as weird as our “cowlick.” But I didn’t find any farm animals messing up folks’ hair in other languages.

Thick as thieves / Pearls before swine

So … never turn your back on Miss Piggy?

Dear Word Detective: I’m curious as to the origins of the phrases “Thick as thieves” and “Pearls before swine.” I believe that the second has its origins in France during the revolution, but that is more of a possible factoid. — Milton Valenzuela.

That’s two good questions, and you get bonus points for using “factoid” in a sense close to that which Norman Mailer (who invented the word in 1973 in his book “Marilyn”) intended, to wit: “… facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper ….” The pseudo-newspaper USA Today (motto: “Television you can wrap fish in”) went on to use “factoid” to mean “short news item” (“Four out of ten Americans can’t add four and ten!”). But “factoid” really means “something that many people believe to be true but probably isn’t.”

In the case of “pearls before swine,” we can change that “probably isn’t” to a “definitely isn’t.” The phrase preceded the French Revolution by quite a bit. Incidentally, does anyone else remember a group called Pearls Before Swine, a US psychedelic band back in the late 1960s? I used to hear them on the old WNEW-FM, the flagship of free-form FM radio in New York City. Scott Muni, Rosko, and Alison Steele, the Night Bird! Those were the days.

Anyway, “to cast pearls before swine,” the full form of the phrase, means to give or offer something of great value to a person who is incapable of appreciating it (“The peasant hereabouts is past belief low and animal, and a sensitive, intellectual parson among them is really a pearl before swine,” 1898). It always struck me as a dicey name for a band, implying to the literal-minded, as it does, that one’s music is “pearls” and one’s audience are “swine.” But I’m in good company in my skeptical reaction to the phrase; Carl Sandburg, for instance, pointed out that “Those in fear they may cast pearls before swine are often lacking in pearls” (“The people, yes,” 1936).

The first use in print of “pearls before swine” in English was, as far as we know, in William Langland’s epic poem “Piers Plowman” around 1400 (which also gave us the word “ragamuffin,” from Langland’s character “Ragamoffyn,” a demon). But the phrase itself is biblical in origin, from the Gospel of Matthew, recounting the admonition of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

“Thick as thieves” is a bit more recent than “pearls before swine,” first appearing in print in the early 19th century (“She and my wife are as thick as thieves, as the proverb goes,” 1833), although it was certainly in oral use long before that (thus the reference to “proverb” in that citation). The original form of the idiom was “thick as two thieves,” “thick” in this case meaning “close, sharing confidences, intimate and familiar by association,” as two criminals working together would be forced to conspire and operate in isolation from normal social life. This “thick” is found in several other phrases meaning “very close, intimate” that were common during the 19th century (“as thick as glue,” “as peas in a shell,” “as thick as three in a bed,” et al.). All of these phrases involve a figurative use of “thick” in the sense of “closely packed, crowded” also found in such phrases as “thick on the ground,” meaning “very numerous; common” (“I see you’re some kind of general. They’re pretty thick on the ground here,” 1919).