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Dear Word Detective:  I am looking for the origin of the phrase “on the brink of disaster.” Can you help? — Dorothy.

Brink of disaster? Eve of destruction? End of Days? The Big Kablooey? What the noted futurologist Walter Mitty called the Pocketa-pocketa-pocalypse?

Why do you ask? Seriously, why is everybody suddenly fixated on the End of the World as We Know It (everybody except, of course, r.e.m. (r.i.p.) and a few million Mayans)? We went to the movies a while back and saw a film, called Take Shelter, about a guy in small-town Ohio who begins to see weird, scary things in the sky and decides to prepare for The End. Thing is, his Ohio small town was a dead ringer for our Ohio small town, right down to ugly wood paneling in the Lions Club, and nothing he saw in the sky struck me as all that unusual out here, all of which worried me. I guess when the zeitgeist starts rattling the shutters it’s time to stock up on freeze-dried Twinkies and firewood.

Today we use the word “brink” almost entirely in contexts where there is imminent danger of something bad happening (current headlines on Google News include “The week that Europe stumbled to the brink of disaster,” “US and China on brink of trade war over solar industry,” and “Billy Crystal Brings Oscars Back From the Brink”). But ’twas not always so.

When “brink” first appeared in English around 1300 (from Germanic roots meaning “edge of a field, grass-land, side of a hill”), it meant either “bank of a river, edge of the sea, etc.” or “the edge of a steep place, especially one might fall into, such a chasm, pit, canyon, etc.” A “brink,” in other words, could be simply the restful bank of a slowly moving river. “Brink” was also used to mean the edge or border of anything, even the brim of a cup or hat.

But it was that second “look out below” sense that produced, around 1600, the figurative use of “brink” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, “The very verge of some state, time, event, or action: now especially in the phrases ‘on,’ ‘to,’ ‘from the brink of’, a discovery, ruin, destruction, death, eternity, anarchy, revolution, absurdity, etc.”

While “brink” is used today in a few positive senses, such as “brink of a scientific breakthrough” or “brink of stardom,” the word still carries those “standing at the edge of the cliff” overtones. Thus the use of “brink” alone, without a prepositional phrase such as “of success” or the like, is almost invariably in the negative sense; one can only imagine what would happen to the Oscars if Billy Crystal had to cancel, but it doesn’t sound good.

This use of “brink” with an assumed connotation of a bad possible outcome produced, in the 1950s, the term “brinkmanship,” defined by the OED as “the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it.” Since the potential “war” in question at that time was a full-on nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, “brinkmanship” was a very dangerous game to play (“He [Adlai Stevenson] derided the Secretary [of Defense, J. F. Dulles] for ‘boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss’,” NY Times, 2/26/56).

Since phrases involving something or someone “on the brink” of some bad thing or another have been common for more than 400 years at this point, and since “disaster” (from the Latin “dis,” unfavorable, plus “astrum,” star, giving us literally “ill-starred”) is just about that old in English, the chances of pinpointing the first use of “brink of disaster” are nil. On the bright side, after all the various “brinks” humanity has faced, we’re still here to worry about the Oscars and their brink, whatever it may be.

Knaves & Jacks

But I was really good at 52 Pick-up.

Dear Word Detective:  Early in Dickens’ Great Expectations, when Pip first meets Estella, she exclaims in dismay, “He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” This got me to wondering why the King and Queen should have a knave as their constant companion, how he came to be called the Jack, and whence the class distinction between the two terms. This might not even be a word origins question, but I’ll bet you know the answer. — Harold Russell.

That’s an optimistic but not unreasonable bet, although I must tell you that I just called my broker and short-sold myself on this one. But my answer, even if hilariously wrong in the parts that make any sense at all, won’t be a total loss. I plan to bundle all my flops into a book at year’s end and sell it on Amazon. I already have friends lined up to give it four-star reviews, the cover, featuring Anna Chapman in a deerstalker and cape, is awesome, and Angelo Mozilo has promised to write the foreword.

Y’know, come to think of it, book publishing does bear an uncanny resemblance to the whole collateralized debt con. Perhaps that’s why my agent lives in the Hamptons and I, to put it mildly, don’t.

Onward. This is the point when I caution that my only experience with playing cards was an inexplicable winning streak in Go Fish when I was eight. I don’t even know how to play Solitaire. Yes, I am sad. But I do know that the terms “knave” and “jack” in cards both refer to the lowest-ranking court card in each suit, just below the King and Queen.

The “knave” cards in a modern deck of cards usually depict a rather dashing fellow, in full face or profile depending on the suit, nattily attired but absent the crown worn by the King and Queen. The “knave” is actually a young man or boy serving as an attendant in the royal court, which fits nicely with the original meaning of “knave.” Derived from Germanic roots, “cnafa” in Old English meant “a boy, a young male servant,” and in modern English its descendant “knave” settled into meaning “a male servant, usually of humble origin and menial station” (as opposed, for instance, to a knight). “Knave” in this sense was a fairly neutral term, but gradually underwent a process of “pejoration” and took on its modern meaning of “scoundrel, unscrupulous man” probably due to class prejudice against the low origins of most knaves. Interestingly, both the “court servant” and “dishonest creep” senses of “knave” were in use when the character of a knave first appeared on playing cards in the mid-1500s, but the card name definitely reflected the dutiful kind of “knave,” a recognized member of the royal court.

“Jack” is a familiar form of the common proper name “John,” and has long been used as a stand-in name for “the common man,” just about any worker (as in “lumberjack,” “steeplejack,” etc.), and even common tools (as in the “jack” that lifts a car). The use of “jack” as an alternative name for the “knave” on playing cards first appeared around 1674, or just a century after the “knave” itself appeared in the deck. That was, oddly enough, also just about a century after “jack” had undergone a process of “pejoration” parallel to that of “knave” and was commonly used to mean “a low-bred or ill-mannered lout.”

While “knave” and “jack” were used as names for the same playing card, “knave” was long considered the more “proper” name for the card (and still is more commonly used in Britain), most likely because it reflects an awareness of the original royal court origin of the character. “Jack” by that time had already been in use for so long in various forms of slang that even if it didn’t conjure up visions of a ruffian, it probably still reeked of the streets to many people. Thus Estella, adopted daughter of the extremely proper Miss Havisham, would have considered Pip’s use of the term “jack” an amusingly lower-class locution, worthy of her derision.

Dogs of War

What I really need is a liger.*

Dear Word Detective: Any dog owner can well-understand such metaphors as “dogs” for feet (especially dog-tired feet), “dogging” somebody for pestering them, and even “dirty dog” (when I see my best friend rolling in the grass, I know it is bath time). But “dogs of war” for soldiers? I know it comes from Shakespeare, but did he make it up out of whole cloth? Was it a pure metaphor from having seen vicious dogs fighting? Or did they train attack dogs way back then? — Steve Ford.

So when they roll in the grass, that means they need a bath? Live and learn. I always figured they cleaned themselves, like cats do. Just kidding, of course, but I did discover a few years ago that dogs are much easier to bathe if you shave them first. Last summer I gave Pokie a lion cut, with a regal mane and just a tuft of fur left at the tip of her tail. People love lion dogs. There was one that used to live near us in Manhattan, on West 83rd Street, and guys sitting out on their stoops would shout, “Here comes the lion dog!” Then again, I think that dog’s owner was a drug dealer, so maybe they weren’t really excited about the lion dog, per se. But it was a cool dog.

I haven’t done a rigorous count, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t more phrases and idioms in English involving dogs than any other animal, although cats are obviously also very popular, followed by the ever-popular livestock idioms. But from “dog eat dog” to “a dog’s life” (not a happy one) to “dogleg” (a sharp bend in something) to “hair of the dog that bit you” (a hangover remedy containing alcohol) to “putting on the dog” (possibly from aristocrats who carried small dogs as fashion accessories) to “going to the dogs” (falling to ruin, but originally, according to Plutarch, simply meaning “in an uproar”), it’s apparent that man’s best friend is also man’s most convenient metaphor. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) mentions a nifty one I’d never heard, “to keep a dog and bark oneself,” meaning “to do the work for which one employs others” (“Investors can monitor their portfolios … but mainly let the chosen professionals do their job. After all, why keep a dog and bark yourself?” UPI, 2001). Words to live by, if you can afford them. I guess the rest of us will have to go bark ourselves.

The phrase “dogs of war” does indeed come from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Act III, in Mark Antony’s soliloquy after Caesar’s assassination. Consumed by foreboding after the murder, Antony predicts chaos for Rome as Caesar’s legacy: “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice, Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” (Ate, incidentally, was a Greek goddess who personified ruin and destruction.)

By “dogs of war” Shakespeare meant destruction, chaos and death on a mass scale, but he was aware, in concocting the metaphor, that dogs had been used in warfare since ancient times, including in Greece, Rome and even Egypt. As sentinels and guards outside encampments, scouts and trackers, and even as weapons of attack, dogs have been employed by armies just about as long as there have been armies, and many military forces (including those of the US) still use dogs for a variety of tasks.

In using the concrete “dogs of war” as a metaphor for the chaos of warfare, Shakespeare created a powerful and vivid phrase, which, not surprisingly, tends to pop up whenever essayists bemoan humanity’s predilection for self-destruction. But the publication in 1974 of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Dogs of War gave a new currency and a slightly different meaning to the phrase. In Forsyth’s book, set in post-colonial Africa, the “dogs of war” are professional mercenaries, soldiers-for-hire hired by a British industrialist to overthrow the government of a country in order to gain access to its mineral wealth. The popularity of Forsyth’s book and its subsequent Hollywood film adaptation popularized the phrase “dogs of war” as a synonym for “mercenaries” or, a bit more loosely, “enthusiastic and amoral proponents of military action.” Oddly, neither definition has yet made it into the OED.

Incidentally, “to cry havoc” in Shakespeare’s time (and Caesar’s, too) was a specific military command ordering soldiers in battle to loot and seize spoils from the enemy. “Havoc,” from the Old French “havot” (looting), may have been derived from the Latin “habere,” to have.”   Shakespeare’s use of the phrase as part of his metaphor probably contributed to the broadening of “havoc” (often combined with “play” or “wreak”) to its modern meaning  of “confusion, disorder, or destruction” (“The noise and clatter of high-revving engines can play havoc with a driver’s nerves,” 1969).


* Napoleon Dynamite: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed… bred for its skills in magic.