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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Six-ounce gloves

Watch out for Grandma’s left hook.

Dear Word Detective: My grandmother, likely born in the late 1800′s or early 1900′s, used to say, “Well, pardon my six ounce gloves.” She was a cultured Bostonian. I can make some assumptions about what that means (not lady-like dress gloves as a wardrobe faux pas). But do you know exactly what it means, where it derives from, or even anywhere the expression has been used? — Tim Jackson.

Ding ding ding! We have a winner! Congratulations, you’ve won the Weirdest Question of the Month Award. Your prize, an adorable free cat, is being dispatched to your door at this very moment; please listen for a scratching noise.

I’m going to hazard a guess that you have already searched online and discovered, as I have, that there is a rock band (they describe their genre as “Metal/Hard Rock/Power Groove”) named “Six Ounce Gloves” in Fresno, California. I think we can assume that your grandmother was not a fan. But it does indicate that the phrase “six ounce gloves” was not simply her idiosyncratic invention.

I have been unable to find an instance of the phrase “pardon my six ounce gloves” in any reference work or online archive, but if your grandmother used it routinely, it may have been a catch phrase current in the early 20th century, perhaps one only briefly popular (e.g., “No way!” “Way!”). It’s also possible, of course, that your grandmother simply invented it herself on the spur of the moment and then continued to use it.

So far, I realize, all of this is quite vague, but now the story gets very specific in a very weird way. I’m fairly certain that the “six ounce gloves” to which your grandmother referred were not sub-par dress gloves. They were boxing gloves. Boxing gloves, it turns out, come in different weights. Most boxing matches today are fought with gloves weighing between 10 and 14 ounces, although “bantamweight” fights and youth boxing matches often use lighter-weight gloves as light as six ounces. The weight of a glove is proportional to its padding, so boxing with heavier gloves, where the force of a blow is dispersed over a larger area, is usually considered safer than with lighter gloves, which deliver a more focused, sharper blow. (I suspect that the band picked “Six Ounce Gloves” as a name because of its somewhat menacing connotations of “nearly bare knuckle” fighting.)

Assuming that your grandmother was not a boxing fan, the question is, of course, why she would be using a boxing metaphor. The answer may be that during the early years of the 20th century there was apparently a fad of fashionable young women taking up recreational boxing. An article from the New York Times of September 25, 1904 was titled “And now it’s the boxing girl: Six ounce gloves the thing, and she knows all about feints, clinches and side-stepping; Woman’s latest fad and its advantages.” What follows is a “how-to” guide for young women “tired of golf and handball and basketball and tennis” who want to go a few rounds in the ring to lose weight and stay in shape. Early on, the author addresses the question of gloves: “The boxing girl uses a six-ounce glove. It is heavy enough to keep her from hurting anybody, and not so heavy as to tire out her arms before she begins.”

As a young, female and cultured Bostonian of the day, it seems pretty likely that your grandmother was at least aware of this boxing fad, and even just reading such press accounts would probably have acquainted her with the “six-ounce gloves” used in the sport. I think that in using “Pardon my six ounce gloves” as a catchphrase, your grandmother probably meant “Pardon my bluntness” while delivering a possibly impolitic statement or perhaps “Pardon my rudeness” when committing an unintentional social gaffe. If so, it was actually a charmingly self-deprecatory device.

One-horse town

His name is Paul Revere….

Dear Word Detective: Hello Word Detective, fellow Ohioan here. I see you are enjoying August here in the Buckeye state. Normally I can come up with a pretty fair folk etymology answer to almost any idiom, but “one horse town” has me stumped. It’s also the first time I didn’t find an answer already in your archives. I hope it piques your curiosity like it did mine. — Hoodya Love.

[Note: this column was sent to newspapers and subscribers last August.]

Ohioan? Moi? Um, OK, but my heart remains at 82nd and Broadway, in a booth at Cafe 82, the best Greek coffee shop in NYC. As for my tenure in the Buckeye State, I think James McMurtry said it best in his song “I’m Not From Here”: “I’m not from here, but people tell me / it’s not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about ten years / before it got ruined by folks like me.”

I am, however, sitting in the perfect venue in which to tackle your question. We don’t actually live in a town, but the one a few miles away (population 943) is currently embroiled in a fierce debate over whether to do away with the one traffic light in town. This is a town where people routinely drive their lawn tractors and golf carts to the gas station to buy beer, and some folks apparently find that light annoying.

A “one-horse town” is, of course, not simply a small town, but a very, very small town. The term is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens,” a definition many small-town residents would, of course, find objectionable.

Since “one-horse town” dates back to the mid-19th century, when most transport was still horse-drawn, one might suppose that “one-horse town” as a dismissive term for a small village might originally have implied that the town was so small that it had only one horse. (That actually wouldn’t make any sense; in a truly small town the horses would definitely outnumber the human residents, just as every single citizen of the town near us seems to own at least two cars.) But “one-horse” actually has a history quite apart from its application to small towns.

“One-horse” first appeared in print in the 1730s meaning “Of a vehicle or machine: pulled or worked by a single horse. Also, of a person: having or using only one horse” (OED). A “one-horse” carriage was a small rig, and a “one-horse” business was a humble operation (“‘One-horse farmers’ … had to struggle with the inconvenience of borrowing and lending horses,” 1887). By the mid-19th century the adjective “one-horse” had come to mean “small-scale” or “insignificant” in a general colloquial sense, and was applied to things that had no connection to actual horses, as it still often is (“Chest pains and breathlessness in a one-horse Greek airport, with the temperature nudging 105,” 2000). This is the sense of “one-horse” found in “one-horse town.” A “one-horse town” could have dozens of actual horses and still rate the name. “One-horse” even spawned the derivative term “one-horsey,” meaning “small and backward” (We liked the little-towness of Englewood. It was very one-horsey, but I loved it,” 1999).

 

Dump

Dead tree blues.

Dear Word Detective: In the paperback book titled: “Conversations with Anne Rice” by author Michael Riley, author Anne Rice speaks about a “cardboard dump” made to be placed in a retail store to call attention to a product, in this case her book. I went to the omphalos of dictionary searches, www.onelook.com. I did not get any help. So I looked to my list of computer network information source files and picked the computer file titled “The Word Detective.” Any information that you can come up with about the words “cardboard dump” will be greatly appreciated. — Skylar Donovan Malone.

Well, right off the bat you get ten points for using the word “omphalos,” which means literally “navel” in Greek, but also referred to a sacred conical stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi that was supposed to mark the center of the earth. Today we use it to mean “hub” or “center.”

As for cardboard dumps, I know them well from my tenure in a regional chain bookstore many years ago in Columbus, Ohio. A precursor of Barnes & Noble, et al., the local franchise was owned by a husband and wife team of relentlessly unpleasant trolls. Our store, being across the street from Ohio State University, was considered the “literary” store in the chain. So imagine my surprise when the trolls decided one day that the first thing customers coming in to look for Shakespeare or James Joyce would see would be a enormous display, called a “dump,” made of garish pink cardboard, touting Marabel Morgan’s book “The Total Woman” (“It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him”). To say that this retrograde monstrosity did not go over well with our customers would be an understatement, and to fend off the torches and pitchforks we began eagerly passing out Mr. and Mrs. Troll’s phone number. The “dump” was gone within a few days, but the writing was on the wall and I decamped shortly thereafter.

So a “dump” in the bookstore sense is a self-supporting cardboard showcase displaying a particular featured book and usually festooned with smarmy advertising copy extolling the transformative power of said book. Dumps are usually found near the front of the store, and if they usually seem to be blocking your way, that’s on purpose.

There are actually four distinct “dumps” in English, the oldest of which, from the 16th century, meant a fit of absent-mindedness or depression. We still use this “dump” when we speak of being “down in the dumps.” Next, in the 18th century, came “dump” meaning a short, fat person or animal, still used in the adjectival form “dumpy.” About the same time yet another “dump” appeared, meaning a deep hole in the bed of a river or stream. The only thing all these “dumps” have in common is the fact that their origins remain mysteries.

The “dump” that is used to mean those cardboard displays appeared in English as a noun in the 19th century, but is based on the verb “to dump,” which dates back to Middle English and is of Norse origin. That verb means generally “to throw down, drop or discard,” and the noun, quite logically, originally simply meant a pile of stuff that had been “dumped,” including refuse (as in a “garbage dump”). In the early 20th century, around the time of World War I, “dump” took on the meaning of “a place where ammunition, provisions and equipment are stored for convenient access at a later date” (“The gunners may be called upon to fire at certain targets, such as cross-roads or houses used as infantry headquarters or ammunition and stores dumps,” 1919). That “collection of supplies” sense eventually gave us the cardboard merchandise “dump,” a temporary display designed to beguile consumers.

It’s not surprising, incidentally, that you hadn’t encountered this sense of “dump” before. It’s a bit of insider jargon used by publishers and booksellers but never to customers (to whom such contraptions are referred to as “displays”). Although “dump” has been used in this sense at least since the 1960s, the word is still commonly associated with its negative slang sense of “a run-down house, business or place,” and you don’t sell many books by conjuring up images of a hovel.