Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

A belated Christmas carol

Q: I got stuck on one word when I read A Christmas Carol to my family on Christmas Eve. What is the story behind the boy’s use of the exclamation “Walk-ER!” when Scrooge asks him to buy a big turkey? I’ve looked for the etymology, with no success whatever.

A: The use of the name “Walker” as an exclamation expressing skepticism showed up in the early 19th century, originally as “Hookee Walker.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the origin is uncertain, but the usage apparently comes from “the name of Hookey (or Hooky) Walker, although no person of this name has been positively identified.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the interjection is from a slang dictionary: “Hookee Walker, an expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur” (Lexicon Balatronicum, 1811).

In the OED’s next citation, the name “Walker” appears by itself: “Walker, an ironical expression synonymous with bender and used in the same manner.” From “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” in Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Written by Himself (1819).

(“Flash” is an obsolete term that refers to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld, especially their language. Vaux was an English convict transported to Australia three times. In his “Comprehensive Vocabulary,” he defines “bender” as “an ironical word used in conversation by flash people.”)

As for the skeptical use of the term “Walker” in A Christmas Carol (1843), Scrooge asks a boy on Christmas Day if a prize turkey is still hanging in the window of the neighborhood poultry shop.

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest.”

Dickens used the exclamation a few years earlier in one of his “Mudfog Society” stories: “Sir Hookham Snivey was proceeding to combat this opinion, when Professor Ketch suddenly interrupted the proceedings by exclaiming, with great excitement of manner, ‘Walker!’ ” From “Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything” (Bentley’s Miscellany, September 1838).

We’ve seen several questionable theories about the source of “hookey walker”—that it comes from the name of a popular song or a celebrated horse or a theatrical character or a clerk with a hooked nose. However, the OED notes that the interjection appeared in print before all those other usages were recorded.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Cut, butt, skip, or ditch in line?

Q: When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio (I’m 68 now), if someone cut in line, we called it “dishing.” It later changed to “ditching.” I think it’s still used that way, but I now live in Cincinnati, where I don’t hear it.

A: There are quite a few regional variations in the way Americans refer to the act of unfairly getting in front of people who are standing in line.

The most common of the expressions is “cutting in line,” but Americans also speak of “butting,” “budding,” “budging,” “skipping,” “ditching,” and “dishing” in line, according to the linguist Steve Hartman Keiser. In Britain, this boorish behavior is usually referred to as “jumping (or barging) the queue,” as we note in a 2014 post.

In “Ditching the Immigration Line,” a paper about the use of these various expressions in discussing US immigration policy, Keiser says the “cutting” version “is by far the most widely used and recognized. It is attested in each of the 25 states in which my students and I have conducted interviews, and in most states it is clearly the majority response” (American Speech, fall 2007).

“The upper Midwest is an exception to this rule: budging in line is the most common term in Minnesota and is also widely attested in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Iowa,” he writes. “Butting in line is even more common than budging across much of this area (in spite of folk perceptions in Wisconsin that budging is the dominant term throughout the state), and these two are in competition as the most common terms across western Canada as well.”

Keiser notes that “butting” is sometimes spelled “budding” to reflect the flick-of-the-tongue pronunciation of “t” when it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable—a sound that linguists refer to as a “flap.”

He says “budding” (or “butting”) “appears to have a wider general distribution than budging” and “can be found in eastern Canada, upstate New York (where budging is also attested), Pennsylvania, Maryland, and northern Ohio.”

Skipping in line is the dominant variant in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and the immediately surrounding counties, though it is a minority variant (alongside cutting) as one moves south to Racine, Kenosha, and the Chicago metropolitan area,” Keiser writes, adding that “it competes with budging and butting as one moves west toward Madison and north toward Sheboygan.”

Although Milwaukee “appears to be unique in privileging skipping in line,” he says, “the term is used at least as a minority variant in other parts of the country,” noting sightings in Ohio, Louisiana, and Michigan.

As for “ditching in line,” Keiser says it’s “perhaps the most interesting” of the variants, “first, because its origins are unclear, and second, because it is extremely robust within a very limited geographic region and apparently nonexistent elsewhere.”

“The geographic distribution of ditching in line is sharply delimited to central Ohio,” he says, “specifically the several-county region surrounding Columbus including towns such as Circleville, Lancaster, Newark, Delaware, and Bellefontaine, but not cities such as Springfield, Dayton, Cincinnati, Mansfield, and Cleveland.” Within the Columbus metropolitan area, he adds, “dishing in line” is also a variant.

The “ditching in line” usage apparently showed up in central Ohio in the mid-20th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is one discovered by the linguist Grant Barrett and cited in Keiser’s American Speech paper:

“Along the hall in the new gym the seemingly endless cafeteria line forms. Girls, giggling and laughing, ‘ditch’ in line.” The Coshocton Tribune, Nov. 2, 1956 (from The Red and Black, the student newspaper of Coshocton High School).

Keiser’s paper doesn’t include any citations for “dishing in line,” and we couldn’t find any written examples.

As far as we can tell, the more common “cutting in line” version appeared a decade earlier. The earliest example we’ve found is from the Dec. 8, 1945, issue of The Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois:

“ ‘When they used to come and cut in line, I’d make them go to the end,’ he recalled. ‘I tried to treat everybody fair’ ” (from an interview with an employee who was leaving a job at the Illini Union).

And here are some of Keiser’s examples of the other variant expressions:

“They don’t get to butt in line where somebody wants to go through the process in a legal way” (from comments by President George W. Bush at a Jan. 9, 2004, meeting with women owners of small businesses at the Commerce Department in Washington).

“However, what do you say to the people who are waiting patiently and going through the correct processes to come legally? How do you justify people who butt in line?” (KSL Television & Radio, Salt Lake City, April 11, 2006, from a post to an online discussion about immigration).

“Oh, that’s just great! Come here illegally, budge in line, get rewarded” (Iowa State Daily, March 29, 2006, from an online comment to an article about immigration and residency).

“Have you ever been skipped in line at a movie, the motor vehicle department or at a shopping mall? Well multiply the anger you felt over that by many fold to describe the situation taking place for aspiring immigrants waiting in line to enter our country legally” (Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2006, from an online letter to the editor).

We’ll end with an interesting example Keiser cites from John Kasich, a former Ohio congressman and governor: “What I can tell you is this—if the American people were not concerned about people who ditched the line, and jumped in front of people who waited for years, you would have an immigration bill” (Fox News, April 19, 2006).

Although Kasich was born and raised in a Pittsburgh suburb, he has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in Columbus, center of the “ditching” usage.

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Christmas English language humor Writing

Jeeves and the festive spirit

[Note: In observance of the holidays, we’re publishing an essay by Pat that appears this month in the Christmas issue of the Literary Review, London.]

The Ghost of Christmas Presents Past
P. G. Wodehouse & the Art of Regifting

By Patricia T. O’Conner

Remember that P. G. Wodehouse story where Jeeves shimmers into the presence on Christmas morning in a Santa suit, waking Bertie with a steaming cup and a sonorous “What ho-ho-ho, sir! God bless us, everyone”?

Neither do I. Never happened. As seasons go, Yuletide did not recommend itself to Wodehouse. His favorite carol, he once said, was “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” He tended not to write about Christmas, but around it.

Maybe that’s one reason I find myself binge-reading him as Christmas hoves into view. The whole seasonal ballyhoo, the gift racket in particular, taxes the equilibrium, and Wodehouse has a calming effect, soothes the fevered brow, knits up the ravell’d nerve.

But while the holiday season does not loom large in the Wodehouse oeuvre, one can’t escape it entirely. He couldn’t write ninety-something books and more than two hundred short stories and get off scot-free. In one tale, “Jeeves and the Greasy Bird,” Christmas figures as a plot device, or rather a subplot device (the greasy bird of the title is not a Christmas goose but a crook who’s fond of hair oil).

As the story opens, Bertie sets the festive mood, observing, “we would soon be having Christmas at our throats.” Towards the end, the principal action having been disposed of, the subplot takes centre stage. On a visit to his Aunt Dahlia’s country house, Bertie is blackmailed into playing Santa at her annual party for neighbouring children. The prospect—man goggling in padded suit before gang of young thugs armed with ripe fruit—curdles the Wooster blood and has him quivering like an aspen. Enter the resourceful Jeeves, who not only extracts Bertie from the cast list but lands his arch nemesis, Sir Roderick Glossop, with the role. The Santa gimmick, however, merely affords Wodehouse a satisfactory ending. That story first appeared in a Christmas issue of Playboy, and one suspects that the Yule angle was bunged in as a sop to the editors.

But even in his story “Jeeves and the Yule-tide Spirit,” which at least has some Y-t S in the title, Christmas is merely an excuse for some frostiness between Bertie and Jeeves. Bertie decides to holiday at home in England, the better to woo his latest love interest, though he’d promised Jeeves they’d go to Monte Carlo. Jeeves’s silence speaks volumes. Bertie argues, “Does one get the Yule-tide spirit at a spot like Monte Carlo?” To which Jeeves responds: “Does one desire the Yule-tide spirit, sir?”

Clearly, we don’t look to Wodehouse for Christmas reading that warms the cockles. But as it happens, we find something better: solid practical advice on gift-giving.

In “Christmas Presents,” an essay written in 1915, Wodehouse makes his case succinctly: “Presents must be bought, and the only thing to do is to try to get off as lightly as possible.” So how is this dodge to be managed? “The first rule in buying Christmas presents,” he writes, “is to select something shiny.” This advice seems puzzling but makes more sense in light of rule number two, which follows: “Select something which shall be capable of being passed on to somebody else.” Aha! Here we have the keystone of the Wodehouse system. Ungenerous? Not in the least! As he says, gift-giving is all about “humaneness and consideration for others.” And what could be more humane, more considerate, than enabling a friend or relative to present a future gift without that expenditure which “it is always so pleasant to avoid”?

While Wodehouse doesn’t explain the “shiny” rule, I get it. A shiny gift is easier to pass on. After a year in the cupboard, it can be buffed to look new. It won’t go bad, like fancy edibles. And one size fits all. If it’s successfully regifted often enough, it may even come back to you, like the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” a contraption complete with brass cigar cutter that Wodehouse says he received for Christmas in 1903, gave away in 1904, got back in 1908, regifted in 1909, received for Christmas in 1914 and then forwarded to a pal in Australia, “whither, I feel sure, it has never yet penetrated.”

What a shining (literally) example of the system at work! A loathsome exhibit in itself, the gift moves Wodehouse to “a not unmanly wave of sentiment” each time it reappears on his doorstep, reminding him as it does of the humaneness and consideration of that long chain of givers who’ve neither shelled out for it themselves nor required others to shell out in turn. “Much misery has been caused in an infinite number of homes by the practice of giving presents which cannot be treated in this way,” Wodehouse warns. He does not exaggerate.

A case in point: at the first Christmas following our marriage, my husband and I received a gift that failed to meet the Wodehouse criteria. While it was more loathsome than even the “Smoker’s Ideal Companion,” it was neither shiny nor regiftable. It was sent by distant friends who’d been traveling in Asia and missed the nuptials, so this was both wedding and Christmas gift. It arrived in a big box, surrounded by foam peanuts and layered in tissue paper. As we began peeling away the layers, we were met with an odd smell, musty and a bit smoky. Dust rose from the tissuey depths. Coughing slightly, I opened a window. What eventually emerged was a roundish, globular lump of something that looked like dried mud, about a foot in diameter, flattish on the bottom, with a hole on top.

“What is it?” said Stewart.

“There must be a note,” I said. There was: a small printed card explained that this was a vase of rare black clay, handcrafted by contemporary artisans using 10,000-year-old pottery techniques and fired, unglazed, in an earthen pit. “Bumps and irregularities are part of its natural beauty. Do not wash. Dust with dry cloth.”

I picked it up. Then I put it down. My hands were covered in rare black clay dust. The thing was shedding. A small pool of grit had settled around its base.

“What do we do with it?” said Stewart, fanning the air. “Do we have to keep it? What are the chances they’ll come to visit?”

“Stay calm. We’ll think of something.” Our eyes began to water.

“You know them better than I do,” he said. “Could it be a joke?”

“No, they’re artsy-craftsy types. They probably think it’s gorgeous,” I replied. “Maybe we can just tuck it away somewhere indefinitely. But in the meantime I don’t care what the instructions say, I’m washing it.” I went into the kitchen for apron and gloves.

“How slippery is it?” Stewart asked.

“Not at all, why?”

“Well, when you’re washing it, with your hands soapy and all, you might happen to … um … accidentally drop it.”

We looked at each other for a while.

“That could happen,” I said.

∗ ∗ ∗

[Note. On Dec. 26, 2021, a reader of the blog commented: “I was charmed to listen to Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and the Y-t S’ and read your Jeevish derivative, but I was horrified to read that ‘Christmas hoves into view.’ As a sailor, I am familiar with the maneuver in which a ship heaves to, and the subject of your regifting story certainly deserved the old heave-ho, but grammatical misbehavior is a bit Woosterish, don’t you think?”

Pat’s reply: This expression in various forms (“hove/hoves/hoving into view”) is a frequent P. G. Wodehouse usage, comically ungrammatical, as in “the moment we hove in view” (Carry On, Jeeves), “she gave me rather a jaundiced look as I hove in sight” (Right Ho, Jeeves), and “Ginger suddenly hoves into view” (The Adventures of Sally).

The OED says that in modern English, “heaved is now the general form [of the past tense], though hove remains in certain uses.” And according to Oxford Reference, the present-tense use of “hove(s)” is a “common journalistic variant” of the proper “heave(s).” I can’t say that it’s common, but it certainly is identified with Wodehouse and familiar to his fans. I used it humorously for that reason.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Disparate, or merely different?

Q: Some readers may enjoy your take on the difference between “different” and “disparate.” This sentence from a recent New York Times does not sit well with me: “Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject.”

A: We think the use of “disparate” can be justified in that Oct. 20, 2021, opinion column by Thomas B. Edsall.

He discusses two scholarly papers that concluded for “markedly disparate” reasons that conservatives were on the whole happier than liberals. (As Edsall writer later, that’s questionable.)

“Disparate” is generally a much stronger word than “different.” Traditionally, it means that there are no common grounds for comparison. And that seems to be true of the two papers’ explanations for the so-called happiness gap between conservatives and liberals.

We won’t attempt to summarize the explanations, since this isn’t a blog about politics or sociology; we’ll simply say that they don’t lend themselves to comparison. Their reasons aren’t merely “different” in the simplest sense of that word (like apples and oranges, which are both fruits). And they aren’t opposites, since things that are opposite are correlated—that is, they have a relationship.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that in logic “disparate” applies to “things or concepts having no obvious common ground or genus in which they are correlated.”

The dictionary adds that “disparate” is “distinguished from contrary, since contrary things are at least correlated in pairs, e.g. good and bad.” And it’s “also distinguished from disjunct, since disjunct concepts may all be reduced to a common kind.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, and its entry for “disparate” may be outdated (it has no examples later than 1883). Nevertheless, its principal definition—“essentially different or diverse in kind”— largely agrees with those in most current standard dictionaries. Here’s a representative sampling, from two British and two American sources:

Lexico: “Essentially different in kind; not allowing comparison … Containing elements very different from one another.”

Collins: “Disparate things are clearly different from each other in quality or type … A disparate thing is made up of very different elements.”

American Heritage: “Fundamentally distinct or different in kind; entirely dissimilar … Containing or composed of dissimilar or opposing elements.”

Merriam-Webster: “markedly distinct in quality or character … containing or made up of fundamentally different and often incongruous elements.”

M-W adds in a synonym note that “different may imply little more than separateness but it may also imply contrast or contrariness,” as in “different foods.” But “disparate emphasizes incongruity or incompatibility,” as in “disparate notions of freedom.”

As for the etymology, the OED says that “disparate” came into English in the early 17th century from the Latin disparatus (“separated, divided”), past participle of the verb disparare (“to separate, divide”). The Latin verb was formed from the prefix dis- (in the sense of “in twain, in different directions, apart”) and the verb parare (“to make ready, prepare, provide, contrive, etc.”).

In English use, the dictionary adds, “disparate” is “apparently often associated with Latin dispar unequal, unlike, different.” However, only one of the ten standard dictionaries we consult, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), includes “unequal” among its definitions. That sense of “disparate” seems to be found mostly in legal language, as in “disparate treatment,” a phrase often used in discrimination cases.

The OED’s earliest example of the adjective in written English is from a sermon delivered on Nov. 5, 1608, by John King, Bishop of London: “Two disperate species and sorts of men.”

And this is the latest citation: “The questions are so utterly disparate as not to be reducible to the same argument” (Frederic Harrison, writing in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov. 3, 1883).

A noun form, used chiefly in the plural, was recorded a couple of decades earlier than the adjective. The OED defines “disparates” as “disparate things, words, or concepts; things so unlike that they cannot be compared with each other.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie (1586): “Contrary faculties, or such as we call disparates in logicke.”

Like “disparate,” the much older adjective “different” has its roots in Latin. And as we’ll explain, it’s often used today in ways that overlap “disparate.”

It can be traced ultimately to the classical Latin verb differre (to differ), derived from ferre (to bear or carry) plus dif-, a prefix used instead of dis- before a verb beginning with “f.”

To the Romans, the OED says, differre had many meanings: “to carry away in different directions, to scatter, disperse, to separate, to bewilder, distract, to spread abroad, publish, to postpone, defer, to keep (someone) waiting,” as well as “to be different, to disagree.”

The earliest sense of “different” that’s still used in modern English, according to the dictionary, is “unlike in nature, form, or quality; not of the same kind; dissimilar,” a sense not unlike “disparate.” This use of “different” was first recorded in the late 14th century and is still quite common now.

Two other uses of “different” are also current today: (1) “distinct; separate; other” (mid-16th century), used in reference to “two or more separate people or things of the same type, rather than two or more things which differ in nature, form, or quality”; and (2) “out of the ordinary, unusual; other than is expected; novel” (mid-19th century).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A usage with legs

Q: The other day one of my students asked me why a segment of a journey is called a “leg.” I didn’t have an answer. Could it be because distance was once measured in leagues, and someone misheard “league” as “leg”?

A: Many English words have literal meanings as well as figurative ones fashioned from them. The noun “leg” originally referred to one of the two long limbs that we stand or walk on, but it has taken on many metaphorical senses over the years.

For example, it may refer to something that covers a human leg (like a pants leg, 1558), or functions as a human leg (a furniture leg, 1616), or serves as a part of something else (a leg of a relay race, 1933). And in the plural, it may describe something popular with staying power (a show with legs, 1930). The dates are for the earliest citations of the senses in the Oxford English Dictionary.

When “leg” is used in the journey sense, according to the OED, it refers to “a part or section of something,” specifically “a distinct stage or stretch.” The dictionary’s earliest written example uses the term nautically for “the course and distance sailed on a single tack”:

“The Swash was under what Mrs. Budd might have called her ‘attacking’ canvas, and was close by the wind, looking on a good leg well up the harbor” (Graham’s Magazine, December 1846).

When English borrowed the word “leg” from early Scandinavian languages (lägger in Old Swedish, leggr in Old Icelandic, leg in Old Danish), it meant “the lower limb of the human body, or the part of the lower limb between the hip and the ankle,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200:

“hii ȝogede hire harmes and greiþede ham-seolue breost wiþ breost bones þar crakede hii soten hire legges þe kempes weren stronge” (“They yoked their arms and crushed themselves breast to breast. Their bones cracked. They thrust out their legs. The warriors struggled fiercely”).

In the struggle, the Trojan warrior Corineus defeats the giant Gogmagog. The clash ends a battle between a group of giants and a Trojan force led by Brutus of Troy, a legendary founder of Britain.

So how did English speakers refer to their legs before the word “leg” appeared in the 12th century? The Anglo-Saxons used the word “shank” (sceancascanca, or scance in Old English), a noun that could mean the whole leg or just the lower part, from the knee to the ankle.

The earliest example we’ve seen for “shank” used to mean a leg is from Old English Martyrology, a collection of the lives of saints and other religious figures, written in the second half of the ninth century:

This passage is from the life of St. Victor Maurus, a Christian Moor said to have been tortured and beheaded in 303 on orders of the Roman Emperor Maximian (circa 250-310). Victor is speaking here to the guards taking him to his execution:

“cwæð he to þæm þe hine lædon secgað ge maximiane þæm casere þæt he bið to geare dead ond him beoð þa scancan forbrocen hæfdon ær þon he sy bebyrged” (“Then he said to those who were escorting him, tell Emperor Maximian that he will be dead within a year, and that his legs will be crushed before he will be buried”). Maximian retired to a life of luxury in 305, but he hanged himself five years later after being defeated in a rebellion against Emperor Constantine.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Don’t badger me

Q: I’m wondering about the use of the expression “don’t badger me” to mean don’t bother me, a usage that may have a different connotation in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers.

A: As you may suspect, the verb “badger,” meaning to pester, comes from the noun “badger,” for the mammal that’s fierce when attacked. The pestering sense of the verb is probably derived from the human baiting of badgers as a blood sport.

The European badger (Meles meles) was common in Anglo-Saxon England, but it wasn’t called a “badger” until the early Modern English of the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English and Middle English, the word for the animal was a term of Celtic origin, spelled broc, brokbrock, etc. (In The Tale of Mr. Tod, a children’s book by Beatrix Potter, a badger named Tommy Brock is the arch enemy of Mr. Tod, a fox.)

So how did the animal come to be called a “badger”? The OED says the name probably comes the noun “badge” and is “so called with reference to the white mark borne like a badge on its forehead.” The word “badge” originally referred to a heraldic symbol worn to identify a knight and his retainers.

The earliest OED citation for the noun “badger,” which we’ve expanded, refers to the “propertyes … of a bauson or a badger” and cites “a whyte rase [slash] or a ball in the foreheed.” (From The Book of Husbandry, 1523, by John Fitzherbert.) The word “bauson” is an archaic, French-inspired term for a badger.

The verb appeared more than two and a half centuries later. The dictionary defines it as “to bait, hound; to subject to persistent harassment or persecution; to pester, bother.”

The OED says the meaning is “probably with allusion to baiting or drawing of badgers by humans,” though it notes “the supposed tenacity of a badger in biting until its teeth met.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from a critical description of the Académie Française, the official authority on the French language:

“Paris is the only place where it can support any kind of consequence; though, even there, sorely badgered by the wits of the capital, who, expecting neither favour nor friendship, point all their epigrammatical batteries against their members.” (From Paris in Miniature, 1782, Joseph P. Macmahon’s translation of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris.)

The OED includes a mid-19th-century naturalist’s explanation of the verb: “A ‘brock’ … led such a persecuted life, that to ‘badger’ a man came to be the strongest possible term for irritating, persecuting, and injuring him in every way.” (From Sketches and Anecdotes of Animal Life, 1855, by the Rev. John George Wood.)

We’ll end with a picture of Bucky the Badger, the fierce-faced mascot of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Badgers:

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The life of a lived experience

Q: It seems that the phrase “lived experience” originated in research, but like so many terms that are understood in a particular context it has escaped into the wild, where it has much the same meaning as “experience.” Any thoughts?

A: The term “lived experience” has been used since at least the late 19th century to mean an experience lived through as opposed to one learned about secondhand.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adjective “lived” can be used to describe “life, an experience, etc.: that has been lived or passed through.” The dictionary’s first citation, with “lived” modifying “life,” is from a theological treatise:

“It is the actual lived life, and the actual died death of Jesus which makes the moral and mathetic [learning] life so instinct with converting power” (from The Antiquity of the Gospels Asserted on Philological Grounds, 1845, by Orlando T. Dobbin).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “lived experience” is from a late 19th-century feminist magazine in Australia. A report on a paper read at a feminist meeting cites the various issues facing women and says, “all these subjects are open to discussion, suggestion and action, upon the ground of lived experience” (The Dawn, Sydney, July 1, 1889).

In the 20th century, “lived experience” took on a related sense in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on: one’s perception of events firsthand rather than through representations by other people. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book about the French philosopher Henri Bergson:

“ ‘Tensional’ experience is the term used in this essay to describe the intermingling of lived experience and of the experience which is of increasing practical use the more superficial it becomes” (The Ethical Implications of Bergson’s Philosophy, 1914, by Una Bernard Sait).

This more recent OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a book about interracial friendship and communication among adolescents:

“direct questioning regarding racial attitudes is very difficult where young people are involved, for they are at an age when they are only beginning to establish the relationship between their lived experience and social ‘opinion’ and ‘knowledge’ about it” (White Talk Black Talk, 1986, by Roger Hewitt).

search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “lived experience” has increased sharply in recent decades—in both its original sense and the newer one, which is common in phenomenology (the study of how human beings perceive phenomena).

However, none of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include “lived experience,” perhaps because the noun “experience” by itself can have much the same meaning in general usage.

American Heritage’s “experience” entry, for example, says the noun may mean, among other things, an “event or a series of events participated in or lived through.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is your Mandarin rusty?

Q: When a friend, a fourth-generation Maine islander, likes something, he says, “Well, that’s not too rusty.” I always assumed it was just him, but I recently reread Huckleberry Finn, where a hungover duo is “looking pretty rusty.” Is this an Americanism or does it go farther back? I’ve always thought of rusty as strictly having to do with old iron.

A: English speakers have used “rusty” figuratively since the Middle Ages to describe the appearance, morals, refinement, or fitness of people. And we still often use the adjective in figurative senses derived from its original use for the coating on oxidized iron and its alloys.

For example, if your knowledge or skill is impaired by lack of practice, you might say your tennis or typing or constitutional law or Mandarin is rusty. Something that’s the color of rusting metal—hair, leaves, fur, a sunset—may be described as rusty. And a hoarse or grating voice is sometimes said to be rusty.

The noun “rust,” as you may imagine, is very old. When it showed up in early Old English writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a “red, orange, or yellowish-brown substance which forms progressively as a flaking, permeable coating on the surface of iron and its alloys as a result of oxidation, esp. through exposure to air and moisture.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Erugo, rust” (Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

The OED’s next citation is from a Latin-Old English version of Matthew 6:19 in the Lindisfarne Gospels: “In terra ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur: in eorðo ðer uel huer rust & mohða g[e]freten bið uel gespilled bið” (OE translation: “On earth where rust and moth corrode or devour”). The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.

The adjective “rusty” also showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s written as rustega in the dictionary’s earliest Old English example: “Þa wurdon Ianes dura fæste betyned & his loca rustega, swa hie næfre ær næron” (“Then the gates of Janus were shut fast and their locks became rusty as never before”). In ancient times, the doors at the Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum were closed in times of peace and opened in wartime.

Getting back to your question, “rusty” began taking on figurative senses in the 1300s, when the term could mean physically decrepit or morally corrupt. The OED’s earliest citation for the decrepit sense is from Chaucer’s Middle English translation of an Old French allegorical poem:

“Ful hidous was she forto sene / Ful foule and Rusty was she” (“Full hideous was she to the sight / Full foul and rusty was she”). From Fragment A of The Romaunt of the Rose, a translation, believed done by Chaucer in the 1360s, of the first part of Le Roman de la Rose (circa 1230), by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the morally corrupt sense of “rusty” is from William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1378). In the allegorical poem, Piers says he won’t hire “Robert þe Ribaudour [the tale-teller] for his Rousti wordes.”

Over the years, “rusty” has been used figuratively to describe many other things, including something that’s rust colored (late 1300s), writing that’s rough or unsophisticated (c. 1425), a grating sound or hoarse voice (c. 1430), someone lacking polish or refinement (1456), physical or mental impairment because of age or inactivity (perhaps 1507), something that’s old-fashioned or obsolete (1549), and knowledge or accomplishment impaired by disuse (1575).

Some of those senses are rare or obsolete today, but contemporary standard dictionaries say “rusty” can now refer to something that’s rust-colored, to knowledge or skill impaired by lack of recent practice, to someone who’s stiff with age or inactivity, and to a hoarse or croaking voice.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

A friend of Dorothy

Q: In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth uses the phrase “a friend of Dorothy” to mean a gay person. Do you know when or where the expression was first used this way? The episode was set in the early 1980s.

A: An early version of the expression showed up in writing in the 1970s, but it had undoubtedly been used before that in speech, where “friend of Dorothy” or “Dorothy’s friend” was a coded way of identifying a man as gay.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the name “Dorothy” here comes from “the heroine of the book The Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, by L. Frank Baum. The film version of the story (1939), with Judy Garland as Dorothy, was a particular favourite amongst some homosexuals.”

That’s the most common (and authoritative) explanation for the source of the expression, but others cite the American writer Dorothy Parker or Dorothy Dean, a socialite who was associated with Andy Warhol and gay New York culture.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand, cites a definition of the phrase “Dorothy and Toto” in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), by Bruce Rodgers: “1. gay boy and his dog 2. dominating effeminate homosexual man with his paid-for escort 3. extended to any male couple whose effeminate partner is in command ‘When’s Dorothy and Toto getting here with the chest of drawers?’ ”

The next two examples in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, treat the expressions “Dorothy’s friend” and “friend of Dorothy” as meaning simply a gay man:

“Dorothy’s friends, the male gay community, from the 50s onwards” (Slanguage of Sex: A Dictionary of Modern Sexual Terms, 1985, by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw).

“A Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow Coalition which offers little to the friends of Dorothy because, like the Wizard of Oz, its power is illusory” (Capital Gay, a London magazine, Feb. 12, 1988).

And here’s the entry for “friend of Dorothy” in Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime (2006), by Donald F. Reuter:

“Phrase meaning someone is gay, and rooted in: 1) our fondness for Judy Garland, the iconic entertainer who played Dorothy Gale in the classic film musical The Wizard of Oz with her trio of sexless male buddies; 2) our association to and admiration for sharp-tongued writer Dorothy Parker, whose famed ‘vicious circle’ of pals included gay men; and 3) the need for gay men, during much of the twentieth century, to speak in code (for fear of being found out).”

Getting back to The Crown, in season four, episode seven of the streaming TV series, Princess Margaret’s love interest, Derek (Dazzle) Jennings, says he’s becoming a Roman Catholic priest. When Margaret tells the Queen, this exchange follows:

Elizabeth: That’s the second reason he was never the right man for you.

Margaret: The first being?

Elizabeth: Well, he’s, you know, a friend of Dorothy.

Margaret: Dazzle?

Elizabeth: Famously, yes.

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