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On the scout

Or perhaps he meant “scoot.”

Dear Word Detective: In “True Grit” by Charles Portis, a horse trader describes the murderer Tom Clancy as being “on the scout” in the Indian Territory. I’ve never seen “scout” used in such a way. It certainly seems from the context that “scout” here means “hiding out” or “on the lam,” and not “exploring” as is the more common meaning of the word today. Perhaps you can shed some light on this use of the word? — Bill Lundeberg.

That’s an interesting question, and that use of “scout” strikes me as a bit odd, too. I must admit that my knowledge of “scouts” and what they do is drawn almost entirely from the TV “horse operas” of my youth (e.g., Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and similar pacifist fare). There was also the occasional historical painting depicting some famous scout standing on an outcropping of rock pointing to another, apparently identical, outcropping of rock in the distance. Even at the age of ten, doing that for a living seemed boring to me. And that buckskin clothing looked scratchy.

There are actually, and somewhat surprisingly, several distinct “scout” nouns in English, plus two verbs. The oldest noun, dating back to around 1400, is an obsolete “scout” meaning “overhanging rock,” from the Old Norse “skute,” which is related to the verb “to shoot.” I just report this stuff, folks. Next up are “scouts” meaning “a flat-bottomed boat,” “a kind of sea bird,” and “scout” as a term of contempt, which seems to have been imported from Scandinavia as a verb meaning “to mock” and is also related to the verb “to shoot” (and possibly “to shout”). College servants at Harvard, Yale and Oxford have also been known as “scouts” since the 18th century.

None of those, with the possible exception of “scout” meaning “servant,” however, seem to be connected to “scout” in the “explorer” sense. That “scout” comes from the Old French “escouter,” meaning “to listen,” which itself came ultimately from the Latin “auscultare,” also meaning “to listen.” That “listening” meaning of “scout” is the key to the word.

To “scout” when the verb first appeared in English around 1400 was not to map out the best routes for travel and rate restaurants along the way, but to perform what we today would probably call “espionage.” A “scout” was a spy who prowled around in search of information, specifically a soldier sent in advance of the main force of an army in order to locate the enemy and report back to his superiors (“Others from the dawning Hills Lookd round, and Scouts each Coast light-armed scoure, Each quarter, to descrie the distant foe,” Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667).

This military sense of “scout” soon broadened to mean “a person sent out to gather information” in a general sense, largely devoid of those “sneaky spy” overtones, and in many uses (as in the once-popular wagon train dramas), a “scout” was simply a knowledgeable rider who investigated the trail ahead to insure the travelers’ safety. Eventually we developed such wholesome uses of “scout” as in “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts,” which led, in the early 20th century, to the slang use of “good scout” to mean an honest, reliable person. The same period saw the rise of the slightly-less-wholesome “talent scouts” and “sports scouts” prowling obscure bars and small-town football fields looking for the Next Big Thing (“Vaudeville scouts approached us. Our pictures were in the papers,” Paul Whiteman, 1926).

The phrase “on the scout” (or “in the scout”) dates back to the 17th century, and means to be acting as a “scout” in the original sense of a spy or surreptitious observer (“Capt. Baker … without my leave, went upon a scout and … was shot,” 1775). In the sense that you mention, I’d say that the author meant that the criminal was traveling “as a scout would,” i.e., secretly, trying to avoid detection, definitely on the lam in a sneaky fashion, looking for nothing except a way to avoid being caught.

Aegis, Purview

No, your “Pizza Inspector” badge doesn’t count.

Dear Word Detective: Can one use “aegis” and “purview” in the same sentence or would that constitute a redundancy? I want to write a letter to the FDA proposing that certain aspects of the cultivation, licensing, sale, use and taxation of marijuana should fall under their jurisdiction. — Dick Stacy.

Hmm. Are you sure you want to do that? Chances are you’ll just get a boilerplate form letter response, you know. But there’s also the chance that it’ll be delivered by guys wearing body armor and driving a tank. Out where I live they’ve taken to sending SWAT teams out at 4 am to talk to people adjudged to be using implausibly large amounts of electricity. Maybe it has to do with the light bulb law, ya think? Bright lights, big trouble, as Reddy Kilowatt would say.

Using “aegis” and “purview” in the same sentence wouldn’t be truly redundant, because the words are not precise synonyms. They are similar in meaning, however, so the syntactic logistics of usage might be tricky. You don’t want to distress the poor cubicle rats at the FDA.

“Aegis” and “purview” both first appeared in English in the 15th century. “Purview” was originally a legal term meaning the “substance and intent” of a statute, what the FDA would call the “active ingredients” of the law. Our English “purview” comes from the Anglo-French phrase “purveu est ke,” meaning “it is provided that,” which was a standard clause preceding the specific terms of a law. Over the next few centuries, “purview” expanded to mean “scope, authority, supervision” of nearly any office, agency, person, etc., which is the sense most often seen today. Many of the more general modern uses of “purview” seem to have been influenced by the “view” part of the word, which has lent “purview” a connotation of “oversight or range of vision,” both figurative and literal (“In a twinkling she was hidden by the turn [of the road] from the purview of the castle,” 1903). But usually “purview” just means “authority or control.”

“Aegis” (pronounced either “ee-jis” or “ay-jis,” your choice) is actually a Latin word, from the Greek “Aigis,” the name of the shield of Zeus in Greek mythology. “Aigis” is presumed to come from “aix,” meaning “goat” (specifically “aigos,” or “of goat”), because the shield was made of goatskin. (“Shield” in this context includes protective clothing, which makes that “goatskin” a bit more plausible.)

“Aegis” was initially used in English in specific reference to Greek mythology, but by the mid-18th century it came to be used in a figurative sense to mean “impregnable defense or shield” or, more generally, “the backing or support of a person, institution, etc.” (“He cast over them the aegis of his own mighty name,” 1865). “Aegis” is often used in the phrase “under the aegis of,” meaning “under the control, auspices or authority of” a person, agency, government, etc. (“More than half of the pupils studied were enrolled at schools under the aegis of the Chicago International Charter School,” 2006). “Aegis” is also often used in the sense of “strong influence or guidance” or even “control.” All these figurative uses of “aegis” only began to appear in the 1930s, and were roundly denounced by usage traditionalists even in the 1960s, but are considered standard today.

So “aegis” and “purview” share a bailiwick and nearly overlap in sense at times, but there remains a shade of difference. In terms of the FDA, for example, the classification of drugs falls within their “purview,” but a change in the legal status of a drug would be done under their “aegis,” i.e., with their official approval. You could say that “purview” is the scope of their authority and that “aegis” describes the exercise of that authority or control.

Diner / Dinor

I’ll take a jumbo hoagie with a side of BRAINS!

Dear Word Detective: Many small restaurants in the Northwestern Pennsylvania area, especially those built from a trolley or railroad dining car, have the spelling “dinor” on their sign. Is this only for this area or is this found anywhere else? And why this spelling? — Tenderrlee Hughes.

Why? Why ask why? Oh right, because this is a column where I answer questions. OK, well, if you read the fine print I plan to add to my web page as soon as we’re finished here, it says that twice every year, when faced with a weirdly disturbing question, I am allowed to paraphrase the classic line from the 1974 film Chinatown. If you’ve never seen Chinatown, you need to go watch it right now. I’ve seen it about twelve times, so I’ll wait here. Back so soon? No, I’m not talking about “My sister, my daughter…,” much as I love that scene. I mean the final line of the movie, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Well, forget it, it’s Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, you see, is weird. Ask any dialectician. Pennsylvania has enough strange terms, phrases and pronunciations found nowhere else to raise serious questions about lost colonies of Martians and the duplicitous government agencies that cover them up. Furthermore, judging by the way “people” in Pennsylvania talk, we’re dealing with more than just one alien settlement. Pennsylvanians in the Philadelphia area in the eastern part of the state, for instance, tend to pronounce “merry” like the rest of us say “Murray” and “sure” like “shore.” They also tend to transport their small children in a “baby coach” down the “pavement,” which is what Earthlings call a “sidewalk.”

But, as is generally true in the US, the further west you go, the weirder it gets. I have always believed that when driving through central Pennsylvania it’s best to avoid stopping and to keep your arms and hands inside the car because of the zombies, but eventually you hit Pittsburgh and all hope is lost. While Philadelphia can boast of enriching generations of cardiologists by inventing the “cheesesteak,” Pittsburghians will forever be known for persistently referring to bologna lunch meat (aka “baloney”) as, for some inscrutable reason, “jumbo.” Compared to that, the local use of “nebby” to mean “nosy” (“neb” being an old English dialect word for “beak”) and “to redd up” for “to clean” seem almost normal.

Given the notable quirks of language in Pennsylvania, spelling “diner” as “dinor” seems only mildly strange. But the fact that it’s only spelled that way in the immediate vicinity of Erie in the northwestern corner of the state is very strange indeed. Yet when you plug “dinor” into Google, you get tons of hits for restaurants using that spelling in their names, and they’re all (cue the spooky music) around Erie.

A “diner,” of course, is a small, economical eatery, originally housed in a railway dining car (known as “diners” since the 1890s) retired and refitted as a stationary structure. The term “diner” was first applied to a non-mobile restaurant in the 1930s, and even today “diners” are often built to resemble the railroad cars they never were, complete with gleaming metal siding and aerodynamically-rounded corners. The New York City area used to be home to hundreds of such diners, often run by Greek immigrants, but the herd has been tragically thinned in recent years by the predations of the fast food empires. The classic Greek diner menu, twenty pages of colorful photos of improbable dishes, all supposedly available around the clock, really belongs in the Smithsonian.

As to why the folks around Erie spell “diner” as “dinor,” nobody knows, and nobody elsewhere, as far as I can tell, does it. My guess is that it started back in the middle of the last century (the heyday of the diner) with a simple typographical error in a sign, which was then copied and spread when other diners in town were established. Being somewhat isolated and off the beaten track up there in northwestern Pennsylvania probably helped. Or maybe it’s just a zombie thing.