Word for Word

Some articles on the origins of words and phrases by Terry O'Connor from the original Word for Word site. You never know . . . with enough interest the site might do a Lazarus (yet again). There's a list of other articles at the end.

Cruelty to cats? No, to this website
Beth wrote: Wondering about the origin of "let the cat die" when you let your swing stop on its own.
   Thanks a bunch, Beth, for a cruel and unusual query that I can't answer. I had never heard the expression before, and none of the authoritative sources to which I have access even mention it. But the phrase had a decided American twang, going by the references I could find on the internet – all bar one were from the US.
   The references go back a ways: a poem by Samuel Minturn Peck published in 1918 and a children's book, A Little Girl in Old Salem by Amanda Minnie Douglas, published in 1907.
   A more modern take, and possible origin, comes from Michael Bates's blog Batesline:
   I remembered an odd phrase about swinging we used growing up. "Let the cat die" – which means stop pumping your legs and let the swing stop, and then we'll go home. Listening to these swings, the phrase made sense – these swings sounded like a cat, creaking with high-pitched mews, short and separated, rather than the usual long, continuous, low creaks.
   Makes sense to me too.
   Then there's the oldest reference of all, from 1847: 'Mr. Domett said, that were it not near a general change in the constitution, he should have objected to this item in toto. But as it was, perhaps it was better, in schoolboy phrase, to "let the cat die." '
   This, surprisingly, is from the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, as cited by the National Library of New Zealand.
   That's it, Beth. None of my printed sources can help and the internet seems bereft so we're out of luck unless someone can email me an answer.
In the pink with rose-coloured glasses
An inquirer called Serena (from Italy, by the look of the email address) writes: "I would like to know the etymological origin of the term pink as colour adjective and of rose as noun and adjective".
   Would you believe that the colour pink owes its life, partly, to the woodpecker? Do: it's true.
   Ernest Weekley's Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (one of the handiest such concise dictionaries) says pink, the flower, comes from pink, the verb, meaning to perforate, in allusion to the edges of the flower picotee, better known as the carnation.
   So far so good. Then Ernest says of pink, perforate, that one should look at the Late German pincken, a version of the English pick and the French piquer.
   "The relation of these words is obscure," he writes, "but they are probably cognate with beak and with Latin picus, woodpecker, and the senses are all developed from the pecking action of a bird."
   The word rose, however, is of quite different origin. It came via Anglo-Saxon and French from the Latin rosa, from Greek and probably of eastern origin. Ernest has no interesting tales to tell about it, but other sources suggest its ultimate origin is either Persian or Aramaic.
   As a colour, rose began life in the 16th century.
Just a minute . . .
John Carroll asked: "When at a meeting, where did the phrase for taking notes of what people said become taking down the minutes?"
   It became the term du jour a long time ago, John. Ernest Weekley's Etymological Dictionary of Modern English says it sprang from the Late Latin noun minuta, from minutus, small. In that sense – with the pronunciation "mine-yute" – it still exists.
   Now, let's think about those taking notes at one of those interminable meetings that bedevil most of us at some time – and let us also consider those pedants or politicians who insist that such notes should reflect exactly what was said at the meeting: they want notes that are accurate. They want attention to details – the mine-yute details. Hence (eventually) the minutes.
   Other sources say the usage developed about 1700, perhaps from the Latin minuta scriptura, or small writing.
   Pretty straightforward but there a couple of linked areas that aren't so obvious, taking in food and music: a menu is a detailed list of whatever food is on offer and a minuet – which came from menu – was so-called because it was danced with short steps.

Hot stuff, Pilgrim
The expression cut the mustard, meaning "to do what is required" is first recorded, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, in 1902 in an O. Henry book, Works: "So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard."
That's easy enough, but what's the origin? Theories abound. They include:
THAT it comes from an old western expression, the proper mustard, meaning "the real thing" at first and then "the best". Canadian linguist Mark Israel cites O. Henry's Cabbages and Kings of 1894, in which he used mustard to mean the main attraction: "I'm not headlined in the bills, but I'm the mustard in the salad dressing, just the same." Israel also says the use of mustard as a positive superlative dates from 1659 in the phrase "keen as mustard", and the use of cut to denote rank (as in "a cut above") dates from the 18th century.
THAT it comes from separate meanings of both cut and mustard. Donald Graeme in his Dictionary of Modern Phrase says cut in this sense derives from its meaning of "to perform or achieve", and mustard is "hot or sharp", both of which adjectives have come to mean "able and clever".
THAT it comes from the Latin monstrare "to show", as in the military phrase "to pass muster" (this accords with Graeme's point about cut meaning achieve – old soldiers will tell you that making it to the early morning muster parade is sometimes a huge achievement after a night in the mess). Israel adds: "The more-or-less synonymous expression cut it (as in " 'Sorry' doesn't cut it") seems to be more recent and may derive from cut the mustard."
An all-enveloping answer
Christoph Lehmann, a Fellow of the Division of Neonatology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, looks to have aviation in mind for his young charges. He writes: "Maybe you can help me answer a question: I know the term pushing the envelope is used by test pilots. However, the origin of this expresion is unclear to me."
Let's not reinvent the wheel (or the plane); let's take the answer ready-supplied in the alt.usage.english FAQ, compiled by Mark Israel:

Push the envelope is now used figuratively to mean stretch the boundaries. (The image is not of pushing a mailing envelope across a desk: those who push this sort of envelope do it from within. Cf pressing the limits.) On its AOL message board, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department writes:
"A sentence we spotted in a 1991 issue of the Wall Street Journal provides a typical example of the use of the phrase [...]: 'Ads...seem to be pushing the envelope of taste every day.' Push the envelope in this sense is a very recent arrival on the scene, dating only from 1988 according to the evidence in our files.
"The phrase has its origins in the world of aviation, where envelope has, since at least the late 60s, had the meaning 'a set of performance limits that may not be safely exceeded.' Test pilots are often called on to 'push' a new aircraft's performance envelope by going beyond known safety limits, as in determining just how fast an airplane can be flown. In 1979 Tom Wolfe's best-seller The Right Stuff vividly described the life of test pilots during the 50s and 60s, and it appears that this book, and the subsequent movie, did much to popularize the notion of pushing the envelope.
"The idea of an envelope as a kind of enclosing boundary is of course not new. In 1899 Arnold Bennett wrote: 'My desire is to depict the deeper beauty while abiding by the envelope of facts'."


I can't contradict this but I also suspect, because of some now-unverifiable anecdotal evidence from my youth, that envelope in this context owes something to the appearance of diagrams explaining aerodynamic formulae, as commonly expressed on blackboards for the benefit of would-be pilots. If anyone can prove or disprove this, please do so.
Thereby hangs a tale
More aviation. John Rodkey of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, forwarded a query from his colleague Chet Stilabower, which said:
"The other day my five year old grandson ask me, why do they call the place you put your airplane a hangar? I didn't know so I did some research. A friend of mine who researches for Disney came up with this:
"First usage of the word was in 1835 in Oxford England in this statement: 'Mademoiselle may I put your carriage in the hangar?'
"As we know the horseless carriage evolved into the motor carriage which we see stored in an enclosure called a garage. In that case why wasn't the term hangar handed down to be the enclosure for the now known automobile? Where was hangar first associated [with] airplanes. Also, why wasn't it spelled hanger rather than hangar? Bottom line, why is a hangar called a hangar? I have had many people speculate but no one has any facts. I thought maybe somewhere around the college there may be some information lurking some where in the corners that you could help me with."

Last things first. It's called a hangar because it came, via French, from the Latin angarium for shed, or stable, or shoeing forge. The sense of "hanging" had nothing to do with it. Hanger, incidentally, comes from the Germanic hang, probably from the very old German khang-.
Hangar arrived into English in the late 17th century, by way of the 16th century French angar, defined as "an open shed, or hovell, wherein husbandmen set their ploughes, &tc, out of the sun, and weather" (Cotgrave's French-English Dictionary, London 1611) and dropped out of use until the early 19th century, was revived briefly and then lapsed again until, presumably, someone was looking for a suitable word for an aircraft shed.
I can't answer the "Why?" questions, but I can speculate that hangar would have stayed dead without the advent of aircraft.
The word garage was also "reinvented" from French when a word was needed for the new-fangled horseless carriages. Garage comes from garer, a verb meaning to dock ships. It is recorded in the London Daily Mail of 1902 in the sense of a large storage facility. The sense of a private structure for individual cars came later.
Enough with the smellfungus, already
Suzanne King, at the University of Charleston, hit a nerve when she asked about the word smellfungus. "I came across it in an old thesaurus," she wrote. "Its meaning was described to be a critic. I've always thought it was a colorful word and that more than a few artist, actors, etc., would feel satisfaction in using it to describe the person who reviewed their work or performances. What is its derivation and history?"
I should be cranky about this, given that my "day" job used to that of literary editor, and we critics receive enough return criticism without adding to attackers' armoury of invective.
Oh well.
Smellfungus comes from the pen of Irish-born writer Laurence Sterne (1713-68), the author of the delicious Tristram Shandy. Sterne took exception to a work entitled Travels Through France and Italy by Tobias Smollett, published in 1766.
Young Sterne didn't like the whinging tone of the book, and coined smellfungus to describe Smollett. The word, according to the SOED, entered the language in the early 19th century as a term for grumblers and fault-finders.
If anyone else finds obscure, offensive words for incredibly useful people such as literary critcs, can they please keep them to themselves.
High and mighty hoi polloi
Bart asked if Word for Word could explore hoity-toity and hoi-polloi sometime.
Certainly. They look as if they share a similar origin, given that hoity-toity means high and mighty and hoi polloi means the common herd. But they don't. One springs from French, the other from Greek. The hoi means the in Greek, which has led many people to suggest that one should refrain from saying the hoi polloi, but that's just pedantry.
The polloi comes originally from the Greek polus, much or many, which also gave us polyglot, polygon and polyp, and even extends to politics and police. The chain runs through polites, citizen, and polis, a city or collection of citizens. Polis is still with us in its original meaning – at least in Australia, where there have been at least two proposals to build a multi function polis, meaning a purpose-built city with links to high tech industry etc.
So, hoi polloi means the many, or the throng, or the people, or the great unwashed, depending on one's point of view.
The toit- in hoity-toity came from French about the 16th century with the meaning mirth or romp, and was tagged with hoity- as a sort of jingle. It originally meant riotous or high-spirited behaviour, but through one of those mysterious shifts came in the 17th century to mean high and mighty (or, in Australian, "up themselves"). The Oxford English Dictionary says the shift was probably influenced by the variant highty-mighty, and the connotation of height that went with it.

Boondoggled by the boondocks
Alice Z. Hall writes: "I need to inquire about the source and meaning of 'boon docks'."
The boondocks means wild country or (in Australian) the outback. It comes from the Philippines Tagalog term bundoc, meaning mountain or jungle. The earliest citation I can find is 1909, but that was for Tagalog itself; the earliest English citation I've seen is for 1930.
Boondocks, which is often shortened to boonies, was popularised by US servicemen in the 1960s.
The seemingly related boondoggle, meaning a useless thing, and which began its life about the same time, possibly came from pioneering days in the US.
For reasons best known to himself, the Speaker of one United States State House has proclaimed boondocks to be unparliamentary language. Anyone who can explain why it should be considered offensive, please Email me. Anyone who can explain why boondoggle has not been so proclaimed should also Email me.

UPDATE: Bob Cowan writes: "Having some experience in psychology, and a love of the English language, I find it not difficult for a sensitive individual to be offended by the following quotation: 'You're from the boondocks.' In the English language this phrase is used by citified people as a put down of sorts. They think growing up or living in a populated area makes them more sophisticated than someone from the boondocks. As for the congressman, he probably was from a rural area. I speak as someone who grew up in the country and fell in love with the city lights."
And Raymond Cook strengthens that with: "Back in the 50s in the US, boondocks typically applied to those outlying parts of a small town in which the blacks lived. That may very well be why some state senator thought it improper."
Modern medical mystery
Mary Best writes: "My doctor was wondering where the phrase charley horse came from. Can you help me out? Thanks."
You should tell your doctor to stick to doctoring, instead of provoking you into asking awkward questions of so-called experts. That's by way of delaying the following statement: I regret to say that the origin is unknown – at least as far as the experts are concerned. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cites it from 1888 with the note: "Despite investigation, the origin of the term remains obscure."
"Obscure", in this instance, seems to me to be a euphemism ...
None of the other sources I have available to me help either, so if anyone can throw light on the topic, please do. Incidentally, the phrase is virtually unknown here in Australia. We plain-speaking Aussies call a cramp a cramp. (We sometimes call a spade a bleeding shovel, too, but that's another matter.)

UPDATE: Richard Sargent writes: "Hello from Canada. I looked in my Webster's Third New International Dictionary, to see what they had to say for this word. I hope they will forgive this flagrant violation of copyright:
charley horse n., sometimes cap C [fr. Charley (the name) + horse; perhaps from the occurrence of Charley as a typical name > for old lame horses kept for family use]
"Now, I presume this is an American trait. I'm a city boy, so can't claim to know rural Canadian practices, but I haven't heard of this naming practice before."
Shouldn't fat be horizontally challenged?
"It's not all over till the fat lady sings ... It's not about opera, is it?" writes Conrad Gempf. "Fat ladies galore but that's not usually how they end. Are we talking about a particular fat lady here?"
This is incapable of being proved (at least by me) but the origin is supposedly thus:
Dan Cook, a sports writer with a San Antonio newspaper, was at a baseball or football match which was drawing to a close, with the outcome seemingly inevitable.
Another sports writer said (in the way that sports writers do, always seeking the colourful phrase): "The rodeo isn't over 'till the bull riders ride" and Cook riposted with "The opera ain't over 'till the fat lady sings".
As I said, I can't prove it, but the Washington Post believes it. They said so in 1978.
Let us hope that bad-tempered sopranos don't read either the Washington Post or Word for Word. By the way, has anyone seen Dan Cook recently?

UPDATE: Someone signing themselves yoyo9 writes argumentatively:
Terry: When I was young the phrase was: "It's not over till the fat lady dies." This was in reference to operas which had plump divas who sang the main roles and who invariably died at the end of the opera. The story is that a father took his child to the opera and the bored child kept asking when it would be over and the father answered: "It isn't over till the fat lady dies." This actually makes far more sense than the present usage which doesn't make sense at all: "It's not over till the fat lady sings." This is usually the beginning of the opera and not the end at all. How do you think it got changed? Why is the present pointless usage persisting?

There is no rhyme or reason for the success of phrases like these, except perhaps euphony and familiarity. If you look through a book of quotations you will find dozens – nay, scores – nay, hundreds – of phrases that we now take for granted as "true" quotations, but which started out differently. An excellent example is Pope's supposed "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing", which was actually "A little learning is a dang'rous thing". People liked the phrase, but accidentally (?) misquoted it and the misquotation sounded better to them than the original, so it stuck. This is poetry by democracy. Long live the people.
Also, most people never see the inside of an opera house, let alone sit through a performance, and so would find it easy to believe that the fat lady's performance concluded the evening's entertainment.
Drink a drink, a drink, a drink...
"Any thoughts on the origins of the phrase in the pink?" writes Lee Seats, inspired presumably by the name of his Email server, redrose.net.
Ever thought of the term pinking shears? It's linked. The pink is a metaphorical reference to flowers, and pinking shears comes from the points along the blades, which resemble the points on flowers such as daisies.
So, in the pink, which now means in excellent health, originally meant exactly right, or the best, in terms of anything. Mercutio says in Romeo and Juliet: "I am in the very pink of courtesy" and Romeo replies: "Pink for flower?"
Flowers themselves were metaphors for excellence, so in the pink meant in the flower meant in the excellent place, or exactly right. The phrase lived on past the metaphor on which it was based, and took the particular meaning we're now famliar with.

The pit falls of rock concerts
"I've been hearing the term mosh pit lately," writes Allen S. Thorpe. "Do you know what it means and where it came from?"
The only formal reference I can find for mosh is from the Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, which cites Britain's Independent newspaper in 1992: "A variety of slam-dancing practised by heavy metal rock fans (cf pogo)". Unfortunately, in one of those accidents caused by sloppy editing, pogo isn't listed in the dictionary.
Anyway a mosh pit, as I know only too well from my son's attendance at rock concerts, is the area just in front of the stage where the punters dance and clap and mill around and so on. It's also the area onto (or into) which people throw themselves from a great height, hoping to be caught by the gyrating crowd below. Usually, they are ... (Take note of that usually, son. The medical bills are high enough already.)

UPDATE: Lee Daniel Quinn writes: "According to A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English by John S. Farmer & W. E. Henley [London: George Rutlidge & Sons, Ltd] mosh means to leave a restaurant without paying: a corruption of mouch. A moucher is associated with mick, an Irishman. A moucher is a skulker or petty thief."

Thank you, Daniel, for helping to uphold the reputation of us Irishmen.


There's plenty more, folks:


Tinkering with the facts Well pluck a duck!
Zooterkins, forsooth Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
A Polish-Irish connection Hoist me petard, me hearties
Harnessing horse sense Getting familiar with temptation
Tribute to tribune Floozies floss up
Gotcha! Sorry, Gotham Wave a gay goodbye
A gormless question Hanging fire
Hobnails Jerseys and guernseys
Kit and caboodle Love that Louvre
Merkins, anyone? What a turkey
OK rules, all right? Orwell rules, too
Poached eggs and chickens Salary with a pinch of salt
It's a scam Underwater sea change
Putting a spin on it Up the mighty Swale
Toot toot Tooting Y'all come back now
Cyberisms
 

But wait! There's even more, as the TV spruikers say. Hopalong to
the archive and check out some of the thousands of questions,
answers, debates and quarrels from the very early Word for Word days.

Top of page BrisMail Home