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It’s not all that “Fancy” anyway. Tastes like Spam.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been wondering how “bent,” as in “He has a philosophical bent” came to be, as opposed to just calling it a “bend.” Can you offer anything? — Dalton.

Hmm. Hey, how about a nice cat? Everybody likes cats. And, after a while, they bring out your philosophical bent, even if you never thought you had one. There you’ll be, sitting in your cold, dark house, impoverished by vet bills, shunned by friends who have just developed convenient allergies, with both your furniture and your future in tatters. At that moment, when all seems lost, you’ll pause, muse philosophically, and realize that you still have a prize more precious than gold — the knowledge that you have made one small, furry creature very happy. Because it just won a coin flip with you for the last can of Fancy Feast.

Oh, you meant something useful about “bent.” Yeah, no problemo. “Bent” in the sense that you use it in your example is simply a noun formed from the common verb “to bend.” In this sense we use “bent” to mean “mental inclination or tendency; disposition; propensity, bias” (Oxford English Dictionary), as in “Henry was of a numismatic bent, and spent every day collecting coins and bills; it was several years before the police discovered he was getting them from his neighbors’ houses.” As an adjective, “bent” in this sense means “determined to follow a certain course of action or to pursue a certain goal” (“Despite the intense lightning, Trevor was bent on finishing the tennis game, and eventually triumphed over his opponent, the late Victor Nubbin of Dover”).

The story of “bend” goes back to its Germanic root, which was “band” or “bandjan.” This root produced a number of other English words, including “band,” “bind,” “bond” and “bundle,” all of which carry the general sense of “tying something up.” And so, at first, did the English verb “to bend.” In Old English (as “bendan”), and initially in English, “to bend” meant to bind or constrain something very tightly (usually with a “bend,” the noun form then meaning “bond, shackles, fetters, etc.”).

The question that I’m sure has occurred to you by now (because all my readers are of a logical bent) is “So how did this word ‘to bend,’ meaning ‘tie up tightly’ ever come to mean ‘to form into a curve’?” Good question. It appears that, early in the word’s evolution in English, the sense of “to bind tightly” was applied to the process of stringing an archer’s bow, which requires considerable strength and results, of course, in the bow assuming a curved shape. Thus, to cause other things to take the curved shape of a strung bow became to “bend” them and they were thenceforth described as “bent” (the past participle of “to bend”). This sense of “bent” was eventually broadened to include things that were of any arched, angular or crooked shape, not just the gentle curve of a bow, and today “to bend” can apply to any deviation of a thing from its usual axis, such as when we “bend” our knees to pick up something from the floor. “Bend” is also a perfectly fine noun, commonly used to mean a turn or fold in something, such as “a bend in the river.”

Interestingly, the origin of “to bend” in stringing a bow gave us another sense of the word as well, “to bend” meaning “to direct one’s thoughts, energies or actions toward something.” This sense reflects an earlier sense of “to bend” meaning “to aim a weapon,” reflecting the “bending” of a bow to fire an arrow. It is this “directing one’s thoughts and energies” sense of the verb “to bend” that produced the noun “bent” in the sense of “mental inclination or bias.”

The noun “bend” was also briefly used, beginning in the 16th century, to mean “a turn of mind or inclination,” just as we use “bent” today, but that sense of “bend” eventually became obsolete and “bent” took over its job. The reasons “bent” won out over “bend” in meaning “inclination” are a bit hazy, but it seems that “bent” in this sense with its terminal “t” was formed on the model of other English nouns drawn from verbs of Latin or French origin, e.g., “to descend” produced the noun “descent,” “extend” gave us “extent,” etc.

So there’s really no compelling logical reason why we use “bent” for “inclination” instead of “bend.” That’s just the way it turned out, and today we speak of a politician’s larcenous “bent” as he “bends” the ethical rules.


Dawn already? How do I get those birds to shut up?

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “demented” come from? A sleep deprivation experiment was conducted by William Dement at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, and I believe the word comes this. Am I right? — Danny Foster.

Ah, yes. “Sleep, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast …,” that sleep? Don’t care for it, myself. No time. Things to do, y’know. Haven’t slept in months. Doctor gives me pills. Well, not really a doctor, but I don’t like to pry. I’ve been thinking of running for president, but I can’t find my feet. Is there someone at the door?

And now for the good news: one of us may be crazy, but it’s not you. My initial suspicion was that William Dement was just a figment of an urban legend concocted to explain the origin of “demented.” But he turns out not only to be a real guy (always a plus), but the honest-to-gosh pioneer of scientific sleep research. He basically invented the field, and he’s still at it. (One does wonder, of course, whether Dr. Dement’s name played a role in his choice of career.)

The corporeal existence of the illustrious Dr. Dement notwithstanding, however, his name is not the source of the common English word “demented.” For that we turn to our old friend Latin, where the phrase “de mente” means literally “out (de) of one’s mind (mente).” This produced the Latin verb “dementare,” meaning “to drive out of one’s mind.” The source of the Latin “mente” was the Indo-European root “men,” which also produced “memory,” “reminisce,” “mathematics” (from the Greek “manthenein,” to learn), “mind” and several other common English words.

The English equivalent of the Latin “dementare” appeared in the 16th century as the transitive verb “to dement,” which meant literally “to drive someone out of their mind.” This verb, apparently having little practical application outside of old Vincent Price movies, is rarely used today. But the adjective formed from “to dement,” our friend “demented,” is alive and well and has meant, since it first appeared in the mid-17th century, “out of one’s mind; crazed; mad.” There existed, at one time, “dement” as both a noun (“A dement was known to the writer who could repeat the whole of the New Testament verbatim,” 1888) and an adjective (“Speak, man, speak! Are you dumb as well as dement?” 1856), but both forms are now largely obsolete.

We frequently use “demented” and other terms such as “nuts,” “crazy,” “bats” and so on to denote, often in a humorous way, someone who is eccentric or whose opinions we find questionable. Actual mental impairment or illness is, of course, a serious condition and those so afflicted need and deserve sympathy, understanding and support. The medical term “dementia,” a Latin noun meaning “the state of being demented,” is used to cover a range of mental symptoms and states, ranging from mild to severe.

The past, not surprisingly, is full of synonyms for “demented” that have fallen by the wayside, but one of the strangest must be the obsolete adjective “wood” meaning “insane; mad,” also found in such terms as “woodness,” woodship” and “woodhead.” This “wood” has nothing to do with trees; it’s from the Old English “wod,” derived from Germanic roots that carried the sense of “angry, inspired or excited.” The Old Norse branch of the same root produced the name of the Norse god Woden (aka Odin), memorialized in Wednesday (Old English “Wodnesdaeg,” Woden’s Day).


It’s a cat’s paw that pries.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “tool,” as in “He is such a tool”? — Chris.

Well, first things first. Are we certain that the person in question is not, in fact, literally a tool, as one might find in a carpenter’s kit? I seem to recall that former US Representative Tom DeLay spent a good deal of his time trying to get people to call him “The Hammer,” supposedly in reference to his ruthless enforcement of party discipline in passing legislation. I always wondered whether that nickname was really more of an attempt to compensate for the fact that his name was, after all, “delay.” When I went to check up on whatever happened to The Hammer, I found that he had been convicted (nailed?) for money laundering by federal prosecutors (who probably just wanted to steal that cool nickname). He’s appealing his conviction, so his three-year prison sentence has been, sigh, delayed. By the way, my new nickname is The Laser WordShark.

In its most basic literal sense, a “tool” is an implement used to perform work, such as a hammer, a machine (such as a lathe), or, more broadly and figuratively, something (or someone) that is used to accomplish a task, whether it’s a piano used to play a concerto or a lobbyist employed to draft legislation. Since the use of tools has long been viewed as one of the most singular characteristics of homo sapiens (although other animals, including crows, have lately been observed subversively making and using tools), it’s not surprising that “tool” is itself a very old word. “Tool” first appeared in Old English as “tol,” based on the Old Germanic “towlo,” “tow” carrying the sense of “to make or prepare” and the suffix “lo” being “agentive,” in this case meaning “that which does something,” giving us “something that is used to make or prepare something.”

Not surprisingly for a word so old, “tool” has acquired an impressive range of figurative uses. One of the oldest slang uses has been use of the term to mean various bodily organs, particularly what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) calls, with awesome tact, “the male generative organ.” Moving right along, “tool” has also been used, at least since the 17th century, to mean “a person used by another for his own ends; one who is, or allows himself to be, made a mere instrument for some purpose” (OED), or what was called, in a more literate age, “a cat’s paw.” (As I explained a few years back, an ancient fable tells the story of a monkey who came upon some chestnuts roasting in a fire. Lacking the means to retrieve the tasty chestnuts from the fire, the clever monkey managed to convince a somewhat dim cat to reach into the flames with his paw and fetch them. The monkey got the chestnuts, the cat was rewarded with a nasty hotfoot, and a metaphor for “useful chump” was born.)

This use of “tool” to mean “dupe” or “errand boy” dates back to the mid-17th century. At about the same time “tool” was also being used as slang to mean “an unskilled worker or shiftless person,” one who was fated to be exploited by employers. This use also implied that the “tool” was, in fact, a fool, an easily misled person (“This gained the poor Tool intirely, and he was ready from that time to receive any Impression,” 1747), good only for causing trouble to others (“Tricked, fooled, like a child! and through means of this treacherous, drunken tool,” Bret Harte, 1876).

The current use of “tool” as slang combines the “cat’s paw” and “stupid” senses of “tool” described above to produce something close to “deluded and self-important idiot” in meaning. It seems to be gradually losing that “cat’s paw” sense, and lately I’ve seen it being used to mean simply “arrogant fool.” But I’m probably drawing distinctions where none are needed. If you’ve ever had your boss helpfully remind you about the proper method of stapling the covers on your TPS reports, you know what a “tool” is.