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Scrambled yeggs?

Q: Your article about “yegg” traces its use for a bank robber back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a recent reprint of an 1856 article in Scientific American uses “yeggman” similarly. Evidently the word originated long before your citations.

A: The date on that Scientific American reprint is wrong; it should be 1906, not 1856. The brief item mushes together two sections of an extensive article published on Jan. 27, 1906. We emailed the magazine for a comment but it hasn’t responded.

The Jan. 2, 2020, reprint that you saw was among the “Artifacts From the Archive” published to celebrate the magazine’s 175th anniversary. We reproduce it here in its entirety:

Want to Crack Open a Safe? Try Nitroglycerine

Originally published in January 1856

Today the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. For the introduction of nitroglycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated onerous labor, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one. The modern “yeggman,” however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.
Scientific American, January 1856

The original 1906 Scientific American article, headlined “The Ungentle Art of Burglary,” includes the following sections, which were edited and linked in the reprint:

Burglary—specifically safe-breaking—has in the last decade gradually ceased to be an exact science. To-day the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful instruments and tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. The modern “yeggman,” tramping it casually along a country road with a three-ounce phial of nitro-glycerine, a tiny battery, a few yards of wire, and an ignition-cap in his pocket, is able to open and rob almost any kind of a safe, if not with neatness, certainly with dispatch. No longer is the ambitious “strong-arm” man doomed to hours of exhausting and necessarily noiseless drilling, wedging, spreading, or jacking; for the introduction of nitro-glycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated these onerous labors, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one.

**********

The yeggman, however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it, and consequently the selection of the valuables desired from the contents of the strongbox is often so hurried that it is only partially successful. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.

As we say in our June 19, 2015, post about “yegg,” it apparently showed up in the late 19th century as a noun for a beggar and a verb meaning to beg. A reader of our blog found both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It’s uncertain how “yegg” and “yeggman” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker. The most common suggestion is that the criminal use derives from “John Yegg,” the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest examples we’ve found, from 1901, appeared almost five years before the original Scientific American piece.

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Screw the pooch

Q: I’m reading a book that uses the phrase “screw the pooch.” I can tell what it means, but I can’t even imagine where it originated.

A: The expression “screw the pooch,” which is another way of saying “screw up,” appeared in writing in the 1970s and may possibly be a couple of decades older, though the evidence for the earlier origin is quite iffy.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from The All-American Boys, a 1977 memoir by the NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, written with the assistance of the American journalist and biographer Mickey Herskowitz:

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

(Gene Cernan had been involved in a helicopter accident, but it did not affect his scheduled assignment to command Apollo 17. If Cernan had lost the command, Richard F. Gordon Jr. would have replaced him. Dick Gordon had been scheduled to command Apollo 18, but the mission was canceled.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “screw the pooch” as a chiefly US colloquial expression that means “to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something,” and compares the usage to the more common phrase “screw up.”

The dictionary says the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s use of it in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the space program: “Grissom had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.”

(The reference is to an incident on July 21, 1961, at the end of the second Mercury mission. After splashdown, the hatch on Gus Grissom’s capsule blew, and he had to jump into the water. Grissom denied causing the hatch to blow.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

Oxford compares “fuck the dog” to the usual X-rated phrasal verb for failing, “fuck up.” The dictionary’s first citation for the three-word expression is from A World to Win, a 1935 novel by the American writer Jack Conroy:

“ ‘One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f——n’ the dog,’ said Leo, ‘is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entry for “fuck the dog,” points readers to the earlier use of the verb “dog” in the sense of “to shirk or not do one’s best, especially on the job; to waste time, loaf; to malinger.”

The first DARE citation for “dog” used this way is from the New York Evening Journal (March 20, 1910): “He [Stanley Ketchel] says that Papke couldn’t beat him in Pittsburg, and that Papke was dogging it at the end.”

(The passage apparently refers to the boxer Billy Papke’s loss to Frank Klaus the year before. Ketchel and Papke fought four times for the Middleweight championship, but not in Pittsburgh. Ketchel won three times, Papke once.)

Getting back to your question, the linguist Ben Zimmer looked into a suggestion that “screw the pooch” originated during a discussion in the spring of 1950 between two students at Yale, Jack May and John Rawlings.

Zimmer tracked down a 2010 memoir by May, An Alphabet of Letters, that describes an exchange in which May chides Rawlings for being late with a school project:

“JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.

“JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.

“JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.

“JOHN: (shrill laughter).”

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

Well, it’s a good story, but we’ll stick with the earliest written evidence: Walter Cunningham’s 1977 memoir of his days in the space program.

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A biting commentary

Q: My daughter recently texted “bite me” after I texted a suggestion she didn’t care for. While I understand the emotion she intended to convey, I find the phrase not only counterintuitive but just plain weird. Any idea of its source?

A: Your daughter was telling you, more or less, to leave her alone, but you knew that already. What you may not have known is that “bite me” is generally a variation on “bite my ass.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang says that “bite me!” (many dictionaries print it with an exclamation point) means the same as “bite me in the ass.” The dictionary says it originated on American college campuses in the 1980s, and labels it an exclamation of a generally derogatory or dismissive nature.

Another source, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, lists “bite me” among expressions equivalent to “go to hell” or “fuck you” and that are “usu. considered vulgar.”  Included in the list are “bite my butt” (which Random House dates from 1958) and “bite me in the ass” (1963).

Some slang dictionaries interpret “bite me” as an invitation to fellatio. But unless there’s some reason to think otherwise, it’s likely that what’s supposed to be “bitten” is the butt.

The oldest examples in Green’s date from the late 1980s and early ’90s:

“The insult category consisted of … gaywad, bite me, doofy, dork, mutt” (from With the Boys, a 1987 study by the sociologist Gary A. Fine).

“Ah, bite me!” (from the 1991 screenplay of Wayne’s World, written by Mike Myers et al.).

The earliest example in Random House is from a 1992 episode of the sitcom Married With Children. Here’s the exchange: “Drop dead.” “Bite me!”

The linguist Pamela Munro’s Slang U. (1991), a book about campus colloquialisms, likens “bite me!” to “bite my ass.” She illustrates it with this example: “After Joe told Michele that he wanted to see other girls, all she said was, ‘Bite me!’ ”

Munro, a professor at UCLA, gives the expression a broad variety of meanings: “Shut up! You make me sick! Get out of here! Kiss my ass! Fuck you!” And she characterizes it as a usage that “may be offensive” and “should be used only with discretion.”

Publishers of standard American dictionaries don’t include “bite me” (with or without exclamation mark). Some British publishers have entries for it, but they give no literal definition, saying only how the phrase is used. And they label it “offensive” or merely “informal” rather than “vulgar” (as Random House does).

Cambridge Dictionaries online describes “bite me!” (including exclamation mark) as an American idiom that’s “offensive” and is “used to say to someone that they have made you feel angry or embarrassed.”

Another British dictionary, Longman’s, says “bite me!” is a “spoken informal” expression of American origin, “used to show that you are offended by something someone has just said about you.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online also labels “bite me” as “informal.” It’s used, the dictionary says, “to express defiance against or contempt for someone,” and this illustration is given: “it’s just my opinion; if you don’t like it, bite me!”

We agree that “bite me” has lost much of its old vulgarity. It’s rude and therefore offensive, but not dirty. In fact, it’s used quite often as a book title with no offense intended. Google it and you’ll find the phrase emblazoned unabashedly on the covers of books about cooking, dieting, and vampires.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet taken note of “bite me,” but it includes a couple of other “bite” idioms.

Used alone, the OED says, the verb “bite” means the same thing as “suck” in North American slang: “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the September 1975 issue of the National Lampoon: “The activities on campus really bite.”

And in North American slang, Oxford adds, to “bite the big one” has two meanings that date from the 1970s: (1) “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant,” and (2) “to die.” Here are the OED‘s earliest examples (their meanings will be obvious from the context):

“I’m a big fan of society … but this bites the big one” (from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, 1974).

“Larry’s not with us any more, he went on y’know. … He bit the big one” (the drummer Terry Bozzio, speaking during “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World,” a brief cut on Frank Zappa’s 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti).

As for its more distant etymology, “bite” came into early Old English (bítan) from Common Germanic, the OED says. And its original meaning is still the principal sense today: “To cut into, pierce, or nip (anything) with the teeth.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use of the verb is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

In the passage cited, the man-eating monster Grendel emerges from the misty moors by night and attacks a company of warriors quartered in a castle: “He gefeng hraðe … slǽpendne rinc … bát bánlocan” (“He quickly seized … a sleeping warrior … bit into his body”).

Grendel obviously would have interpreted “bite me” literally.

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Wolf tickets for sale

Q: I recently heard a television commentator use the phrase “selling wolf tickets.” After research, I found both a Russian and an African-American Vernacular English source for somewhat related phrases. Did these evolve independently or is there evidence for cross pollination?

A: To “sell wolf tickets,” an expression that’s about 60 years old, is to oversell yourself—to spread boasts or threats that you can’t (or won’t) back up.

The usage was first recorded in writing in 1963, when sociologists noted its use by black gang members in Chicago. The sociologists had reported it two years before in a speech, and it was undoubtedly used on the streets even earlier than that.

Some commentators have suggested that the expression comes from “to cry wolf” (to bluff or raise a false alarm). But a more likely theory is that the “wolf” here was originally “woof” and was intended to mean a bark without a bite.

In African-American Vernacular English, to “woof” has meant to bluff or challenge since at least as far back as 1930. In fact, the phrase has been recorded as “sell woof tickets” since the 1970s.

But as we said, the earliest written example we’ve found for the complete phrase is the “wolf” version; this may reflect the way “woof” was interpreted by white sociologists in the mid-20th century.

Let’s start with “woof” and come later to “sell wolf [or woof] tickets.”

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines the verb “woof,” used “chiefly” among black speakers, as “to engage in behavior, esp speech, intended to impress, intimidate, or provoke; to bluff, kid.” DARE also mentions “woofer,” “woofing,” and other related words.

The dictionary’s earliest example of “woof” used in this way comes from a play written in 1930: “Stop woofing and pick a little tune there so that I can show Daisy somethin’.” (From Mule Bone, written in black vernacular, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.)

In December 1934, the journal American Speech published a paper mentioning both “woof” and “woofer” as terms in black college slang. Here are the examples:

“WOOF. To talk much and loudly and yet say little of consequence,” and “A WOOFER. Applied to one who talks constantly, loudly, and in a convincing manner, but who says very little.” (From “Negro Slang in Lincoln University,” a paper by Hugh Sebastian.)

The earliest published example we’ve found for “sell wolf tickets” is from a 1963 paper on the sociology of gang behavior, though an unpublished version dates from 1961. Here’s the relevant passage (“worker” is a social worker and “Commando” a gang leader):

“In a conflict situation, without a worker present, Commando would find it difficult not to ‘sell wolf tickets’ (i.e., challenge) to rival gang members and instigate conflict.”

The paper, “The Response of Gang Leaders to Status Threats: An Observation on Group Process and Delinquent Behavior,” by James F. Short, Jr. and Fred L. Strodtbeck, was published in the American Journal of Sociology in March 1963. This was a revised version of a paper (now lost) read on Sept. 1, 1961, at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In answer to an email query, Dr. Short told us that the same passage, with the phrase “sell wolf tickets,” probably appeared in the earlier, unpublished version that was delivered in 1961. “I cannot imagine that it was not in the earlier version,” he said.

Over the years, both “wolf tickets” and “woof tickets” have appeared, with variant spellings for “woof” and with “tickets” in singular as well as plural.

DARE, for example, says the phrase “woof ticket,” used “especially” among black speakers, means a “lie, bluff, challenge.” Its earliest written use was recorded in 1971.

The scholar Geneva Smitherman, writing in the English Journal in February 1976, wrote: “ ‘Sellin woof [wolf] tickets’ (sometimes just plain ‘woofin’) refers to the kind of strong language which is purely idle boasting.” The bracketed and parenthetical additions are hers.

Time magazine also used both versions in its Aug. 20, 1979, issue: “ ‘To sell wolf tickets’ (pronounced wuf tickets) means to challenge somebody to a fight” (from “Outcry Over Wuff Tickets,” an article about black English in the classroom).

And in 1982, an early rap group called Wuf Ticket briefly appeared on the singles charts.

A few years later, the linguist Carolyn G. Karhu said that “wolf ticket” (defined as an empty threat) and “selling wolf tickets” (making an empty threat) were terms used by prison inmates in Tennessee (American Speech, summer 1988).

But by the 1990s, these terms had apparently become passé in the language of the streets.

“ ‘Woof ticket’ is a somewhat dated phrase,” Betty Parham and Gerrie Ferris wrote in 1992 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. And “selling wolf tickets” was defined as “archaic black slang” by Jack E. White, writing in Time magazine’s issue of Oct. 24, 1995.

So was this “woof” merely a black pronunciation of “wolf”? The language columnist William Safire thought so. Commenting on the phrase “woof ticket,” he wrote, “Woof is a Black English pronunciation of ‘wolf’ ” (the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5, 2000).

That assertion brought a response from Peter Jeffery, now a professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame. His letter, later published in Safire’s book The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), objected to Safire’s explanation for “woof ticket.”

“The origin had nothing to do with ‘wolf,’ ” Jeffery wrote. “The metaphor was of a barking watchdog (‘woof, woof!’).”

Jeffery, who grew up in Brooklyn and heard the phrase as a youth, added: “By the 1970s, ‘woof ticket’ had disappeared from the speech of young black Americans, though it may still be remembered among those are old enough.” He noted, “I’ve since heard that ‘woofin’ is still sometimes used among jazz musicians to describe the back-and-forth challenges between instrumental soloists.”

Well, old slang terms have a way of reviving, and that appears to be the case here.

Today the phrase is usually seen as “to sell wolf tickets,” and its meaning has become broader. It’s sometimes used to describe a hyped-up promotion or an inflated sales pitch—for a product or event that doesn’t live up to the hype.

By the way, we’ve found no connection with the use of the phrase in Russian slang, where “wolf ticket” (волчий билет or volchiy bilyet) refers to a document or other impediment that negatively affects someone, such as by making it impossible to get a specific job or enroll in a certain university.

[Updated on Dec. 10, 2018]

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Brownie points and brown-nosing

Q: How did “brownie points” come to mean the credit one gets for sucking up to the boss?

A: The most common explanations are that the expression is derived from either the term “brown-nose” or the merit points supposedly earned by the young Girl Scouts known as Brownies. Two of our favorite language references differ on this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “brownie point,” a colloquial usage that originated in the US, is “probably a development” from “brown-nose,” but it’s “popularly associated” with Brownies, “hence frequently spelled with capital initial.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the expression comes “from the point system used for advancement by the Brownies of the Girl Scouts of America; but strongly reinforced by brown-nose.”

All the evidence we’ve seen supports the OED explanation. What’s more, there has never been a point system for getting ahead in the American Brownies.

Lauren Robles, a spokesman for the Girl Scouts of the USA , told us that “there has not been a point system to earn badges or for advancement for Brownies in Girl Scouts.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “brownie point” as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “To curry favor with a professor: brown nose … brownie … get brownie points.”

The word “brownie” in that citation was student slang for the noun “brown-nose.” A 1944 issue of American Speech includes this definition:

Brownie. A person who is always asking and answering questions in class to impress the instructor. Also a person who stays after class to try to insinuate himself into the teacher’s good graces.”

(Some standard dictionaries consider “brown-nose” and “brownnose” equal variants, but we think the hyphenated spelling is easier to read.)

Getting back to “brownie points,” the earliest example we’ve seen is a dozen years older than the OED’s.

A column in the March 15, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times uses the term for imaginary credits to determine whether a husband is in favor at home or in the doghouse.

The phrase is found several times in the column, beginning with this comment overheard in an elevator: “I should have been home two hours ago. … I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.” When questioned about the usage, the speaker replies:

“You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ’em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman—favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

The speaker was probably using “days of the leprechauns” to mean olden times, not suggesting that leprechauns had anything to do with the origin of the expression.

Interestingly, however, the Girl Scout “Brownies” were named after other mythical creatures—the helpful household sprites called “brownies” in Scottish and English folklore.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting, got the name from “The Brownies,” an 1870 short story by Juliana Horatio Ewing about two children who try to be as helpful as the spirits.

You’ll probably run across several questionable theories on the internet about how “brownie points” came to mean imaginary credits earned to curry favor, including these:

  • World War II food rationing, where brown points were used to buy meat and fat;
  • the use of “brownie points” for demerits in World War II army jargon;
  • brown vouchers, or “brownies,” awarded to Saturday Evening Post delivery boys in the 1930s;
  • demerits, or “brownie points,” that G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave to employees in the late 19th century.

However, we agree with the OED that “brownie points” is probably derived from “brown-nose,” a term that showed up in the late 1930s.

The dictionary defines the verb “brown-nose” as “to curry favour (with), to flatter,” and the noun (as well as “brown-noser”) as “a sycophant.” It describes the usage as “chiefly U.S slang.”

Oxford cites Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1961) as saying the term is derived “from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen for both the noun and verb “brown-nose” are from a 1939 issue of American Speech that describes the usage as “military college slang.”

Although the slang term originated “among speakers in the military,” the journal says, it’s “now widespread but chiefly among young and mid-aged speakers.”

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Why a pet peeve is an uggie

Q: I see a question on your blog in which the word “uggie” is used to describe a pet peeve. I consider myself intelligent and well read, but I’ve never heard it. Is “uggie” a modern derivative of “ugly”? Is it pronounced like UGG boots?

A: It’s more than likely that “uggie,” used as both a noun and an adjective, is derived from “ugly.” We haven’t found any published evidence that would prove this definitively, but it seems obvious. And yes, the “ugg” part is pronounced as in the boots, but we’ll get to the footwear later.

When a questioner referred to “irregardless” in 2007 as “No. 1 on my list of ‘uggies,’ ” we assumed that it was being used lightheartedly to mean something ugly. Since then, we’ve used it the same way a couple of times on the blog.

Standard dictionaries, even most slang dictionaries, don’t mention this use of “uggie.” But Urban Dictionary, a collaborative online reference written by users, has these definitions for the adjective:

“Uggie: Unpleasant or repulsive, esp. in appearance,” and “arousing revulsion or strong indignation. Being disgusting, gross and/or vile.”

And a reader of the Collins Dictionary has submitted “uggie” as a “Word Suggestion,” for a noun meaning “an ugly person.”

Despite the lack of information in standard references, we’ve found evidence that “uggie” (sometimes spelled “uggy”) has long been used to represent baby talk for “ugly.”

This passage is from a short story about a person who’s considered unattractive: “Little Mollie often came and lisped, ‘Me sorry you uggy!’ ” (From “Love the Transformer,” by Mrs. E. L. Griffith, published in September 1867 in Arthur’s Home Magazine, Philadelphia.)

This one is from a British novel, John Darker (1895), by Aubrey Lee: “ ‘You must never be rude, my beautiful boy,’ and he passed a caressing hand over the baby face; ‘rudeness is very, very ugly.’ ‘Welly, welly uggy,’ repeated Percy.”

And Clipped Wings (1899), by the Canadian novelist Lottie McAlister, has a scene in which the grown-up heroine complains about the unattractive dog and cat portraits that have been clumsily embroidered on a pair of floor mats.

She imagines childishly destroying the mats “while her baby tongue lisped, ‘Bad pussy, uggie pussy, tooked pussy; uggie, uggie doggie.’ ” (Our guess is that “tooked” here may mean “crooked.”)

A more recent illustration is from History, a 1977 translation of La Storia, a 1974 novel by the Italian writer Elsa Morante.

In one scene, a little boy tears up an illustrated magazine, “repeating his mother’s words: ‘It’s uggy’ (ugly).” Elsewhere, it’s explained that the child says “uggy” because he’s too young to manage the “gl” consonant cluster.

Another modern example is from a feature article about foods that small children hate. One boy says, “Lima beans are so uggie.” (From the April 17, 1985, issue of the Philadelphia Daily News. Most of the kids quoted preferred the word “yucky.”)

Even adults have used “uggie” to mean “ugly” since the 19th century, perhaps in imitation of baby talk.

The English writer John Ruskin used baby talk throughout his extensive correspondence with his favorite cousin, Joan Severn. He writes on Oct. 9, 1887: “I sent also the 4th Folk [part of a work on the Italian peasantry] with a pretty bit added to replace the uggie one taken out.”

A glossary in John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Joan Severn, a collection published in 2009, defines “uggie” as “ugly.”

And here’s the noun, in a reference to a woman in a bar. The writer, a college student, takes up a position “conveniently proximate to an uggie and a wowie, and as is usually the case, the uggie did all the talking.” (From the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, Sept. 8, 1972.)

As we said, standard slang dictionaries don’t include this use of “uggie.” The only ones that mention it at all define it as meaning “ugg boots,” the ungainly, flat-soled footwear with sheepskin on the inside and untanned leather on the outside.

However, the name for the boots apparently does come from the word “ugly.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, for example, says the noun “uggies” means “ugg boots,” and is derived from “ugly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which like Cassells is edited by Jonathon Green) says that “ugg boots” (as well as the variations “ug boots,” “uggies,” and “ugh boots”) is derived from “ugly” and originated as an Australian term for “sheepskin boots or slippers.”

The earliest written reference in Green’s Dictionary (to “ugh boots”) is from 1951, though an Australian legislator has suggested that the term is much older.

“In Australia, we have been calling sheepskin boots ‘ugg boots’ for about 85 years,” Sharryn Jackson, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, said in a speech before the House on Feb. 11, 2004.

The footwear spelled “ugg boots,” “ug boots,” “ugh boots” (and more recently “uggies”) was first used by sheep ranchers Down Under and was adopted in the 1960s by Australian surfers to warm their cold feet.

California surfers borrowed the trend in the 1970s, and the ungainly boots became popular in the US, first as beachwear and then as an urban fashion statement.

After almost two decades of brand-name disputes, UGG is now a registered trademark in most countries of the California-based Deckers Brands. But not in Australia and New Zealand, where “ugg” and “ugg boots” remain generic terms.

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Do you give good meeting?

Q: I’ve been hearing people say things like “He gives good meeting” and “Do you give good meeting?” I find it strange that “give” is used here, and even stranger that it’s used without an article. Thanks for any insight.

A: One might conduct, hold, lead, or run a meeting, but it’s not idiomatic to “give a meeting,” let alone to “give good meeting.”

The usage isn’t in standard dictionaries, though we’ve found quite a few examples of “give good meeting” and similar expressions in books, film, and on the web.

The earliest example of “give good meeting” that we’ve found is a comment by a guest at a Hollywood party in Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall:

“Not only is he a great agent, but he really gives good meeting.”

From the examples we’ve seen, the expression can mean either to be good at running meetings or good at taking part in them. Where does it come from?

In “Language and Sexuality,” an article in Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia (1994), Martha Cornog suggests that the slang expression “give good head” inspired “give good meeting” as well as “give good telephone”:

“An interesting reversal of euphemism has occurred with the phrase ‘give good head’ (be skilled at oral sex), since the same construction has been generalized to produce such phrases as ‘give good meeting’ and ‘give good telephone.’ ”

The result, she writes, “has been to imbue nonsexual activities with sexual implications as well as to get a laugh for inventive wordplay.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “to give head” as a slang usage meaning “to perform fellatio or cunnilingus (on a person). Also with qualifying adjective, as to give good head, etc.”

The dictionary’s first example for the slang usage is from Sideman, a 1956 novel by Osborn Duke: “She’s wild, man! Gives the craziest head!”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by J. E. Lighter, has many expressions “reminiscent of (and patterned after) give head.” Here are a few:

“Now look at Tony! He gives good belt!” (From The Dream Girls, a 1972 book by William Murray. An excerpt was published in Cosmopolitan in November 1971.)

“When she finished, the artist said, ‘You give great studio.’ ” (From a 1982 issue of the journal American Speech.)

“Miami does give good sushi.” (From the March 19, 1988, issue of TV Guide.)

“Rush [Limbaugh] gives great spiel.” (From the Sept. 23, 1991, issue of Time.)

Finally, here’s a recent Hollywood example that we found in a Sept. 8, 2016, movie-industry glossary on Vanity Fair’s website:

Good in a Room–Applies mainly to writers; it means you give good meeting. A huge compliment for scribes who tend to live up to the stereotype that they’re anti-social nerds.”

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A lesson in pornolinguistics

Q: What is the grammar of phrases like “fuck you,” “screw him,” and “damn them”? They seem imperative in force, but who is being damned and who is doing the damning? Could we call these constructions subjectless hortatives?

A: We don’t think those expressions are either imperative (ordering an act) or hortative (encouraging an act). Nobody is really being ordered or encouraged to do anything.

To save ourselves some work, we’ll focus on “fuck you,” which has been exhaustively analyzed by the late James David McCawley, a linguist at the University of Chicago.

In the preface to Studies Out in Left Field, a collection of McCawley’s more unconventional writings, the linguist Arnold Zwicky notes that the book’s author “created the interdisciplinary field of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics virtually on his own.”

(The collection was originally published in 1971 and reprinted in 1992 with Zwicky’s preface.)

Using the pseudonym Quang Phuc Dong, a linguist at the fictitious South Hanoi Institute of Technology, McCawley discusses “fuck you” in a Feb. 5, 1967, paper entitled “English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject.”

In the paper, McCawley compares two sentences: (1) “Close the door” and (2) “Fuck you.” At first glance, he says, “close” in the first sentence and “fuck” in the second appear to be typical transitive verbs followed by their objects.

The first example is indeed imperative, with “you” as the underlying subject, he writes, but the second is definitely not imperative and the identity of the unstated subject is open to question.

If the subject of “Fuck you” were an unstated “you,” McCawley adds, the sentence would normally be reflexive: “Fuck yourself.” Illustrating the point by using a different verb, he notes that instead of “Assert you,” one would say “Assert yourself.”

McCawley  argues that there are actually two versions of the verb: “fuck1” and “fuck2.” The linguist Gretchen McCulloch considers those two terms “rather dull,” and prefers “copulating fuck” and “disapproving fuck,” according to a Dec. 9, 2014, post, “A Linguist Explains the Syntax of Fuck.” We’ll use her terminology here.

The copulating “fuck,” according to McCawley, acts like any other classic transitive verb (one that takes an object). You can “fuck” a wife, a boyfriend, or a gigolo, just as you can “close” a door, a book, or a deal.

However, McCawley questions whether the disapproving “fuck” is even a verb. To make his point, he expands sentence No. 1 (“Close the door”) and then shows the difficulty of doing the same with sentence No. 2 (“Fuck you”). We’ll list only a few of his examples here:

“Don’t close the door” vs. “Don’t fuck you.”

“Please close the door” vs. “Please fuck you.”

“Close the door or I’ll take away your teddy-bear” vs. “Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy-bear.”

McCawley also notes that “while ordinary imperatives can be conjoined with each other, they cannot be conjoined with” sentence No. 2:

“Wash the dishes and sweep the floor” vs. “Wash the dishes and fuck you.”

Further, he says, a sentence with two imperative clauses can normally be simplified if the clauses have the same object.

So, “Clean these pants and press these pants” can be shortened to “Clean and press these pants.” But “Describe Communism and fuck communism” can’t be reduced to “Describe and fuck communism.”

McCawley says consideration of these and many other examples we’ve skipped “makes it fairly clear” that the copulating “fuck” and the disapproving “fuck” are “two distinct homophonous lexical items.” (Homophonous terms have the same pronunciation but different meanings.)

He adds that the two terms “have totally different selectional restrictions” (that is, usages), as is shown by these examples:

“Fuck these irregular verbs” vs. “John fucked these irregular verbs.”

“Fuck communism” vs. “John fucked communism.”

Perhaps most important of all, one can use an adverb or adverbial phrase with the copulating “fuck,” but not with the disapproving “fuck,” according to McCawley.

One can “fuck” someone “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon,” but one can’t use “fuck you” with “carefully” or “on the sofa” or “tomorrow afternoon.”

“This restriction suggests that fuck2 not only is distinct from fuck1 but indeed is not even a verb,” McCawley writes.

He cites the linguist Noam Chomsky for support and notes that “no case has been reported of any English morpheme which is unambiguously a verb and which allows no adverbial elements whatever.” (A morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit.)

“Since the only reason which has ever been proposed for analyzing fuck2 as a verb is its appearance in a construction … which superficially resembles an imperative but in fact is not, one must conclude that there is in fact not a scrap of evidence in favor of assigning fuck2 to the class verb.”

McCawley says the expression “fuck you” has “neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance.” He says it’s similar to utterances like “damn,” “to hell with,” “shit on,” “hooray for,” and so on.

These utterances, he says, “simply express a favorable or unfavorable attitude on the part of the speaker towards the thing or things denoted by the noun-phrase.”

If the disapproving “fuck” is not a verb, then what is it? McCawley considers it an “epithet” or a “quasi-verb.”

“I conjecture that fuck2 arose historically from fuck1, although the paucity of citations of fuck makes the philological validation of this conjecture difficult,” he concludes. “However, it is clearly no accident that many quasi-verbs are homophonous with normal morphemes.”

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Muffs, mufflers, and muffed

Q: My wife is using a small blanket to cover her fractured hand. She can’t get a glove over her brace. The other night, she said, “Hand me my muff.” I thought of Mimi’s cold hands in La Bohème. Also “muffing” a fly ball, the “muffler” on necks and cars, and the more salacious uses. Hmm.

A: The “muff” that warms your hands is related to the “muffler” that warms your neck. And to “muff” a fly ball may also be a relative of the hand warmer, but that etymology is up in the air. As for those hot words, you can thank the hand warmer too.

The first of these words to show up in writing is the “muff” that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “covering, often of fur and usually of cylindrical shape with open ends, into which both hands may be placed for warmth.”

The OED labels the term “historical” (that is, relegated to the dustbin of history), though we remember seeing lots of them in our youth. Well, perhaps we’ve become historical ourselves.

The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from Sym and His Brudir (1568), a Middle Scots satire of church abuse: “His beird it wes als lang & blak / That it hang our his mouf.”

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue suggests that the word “mouf” in that citation may refer to “a muffler of some kind round the neck.” It’s hard to tell from some of the early examples in the OED whether the term is being used for something to warm the hands or the neck.

However, the next Oxford citation clearly refers to a hand warmer, though we had to go to the original text to confirm it. Here’s an expanded version of the passage from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels, a 1601 satirical play by Ben Jonson:

“Mary, I will come to her, (and she alwayes weares a Muffe if you be remembred) and I will tell her: Madame your whole selfe cannot but be perfectly wise: for your hands haue witte enough to keepe themselues warme.”

The OED says English probably borrowed the word from Dutch, where mof is now a muff as well as an ethnic slur for a German, but the ultimate source is the Middle French moufle (mitten). The online version of Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française traces it back to muffala (medieval Latin for “mitten”).

The use of “muffler” for a “wrap or scarf (freq. of wool or silk) worn round the neck or throat for warmth” appeared at the end of the 1500s, according to citations in the OED.

The first example is from Mother Bombie, a 1594 comedy by the dramatist John Lyly: “Silena, I praie you looke homeward, it is a colde aire, and you want your mufler.”

Interestingly, the “muffler” that warms your neck is related to the “muffler” that deadens the sound of your car’s exhaust, a usage that showed up at the end of the 19th century.

Both senses are derived from the verb “muffle,” which comes from moufle, the same Middle French term believed to be the source of “muff.”

When “muffle” showed up in the 15th century, it meant to wrap something around the face to provide concealment or protection from the weather.

The first OED example is from Generides, an anonymous medieval romance, or adventure story, written sometime before 1450: “She mufled hir face hir to desgyse / That noon shuld know hir in noo wise.”

By the 16th century, “muffle” also meant to cover someone’s mouth to prevent speaking—for example, to gag someone.

Here’s an early definition from Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570), an English-Latin dictionary, by Peter Levens: “To Muffle ye mouth, obturare.” (In Latin, obturare is “stop up.”)

And in the 18th century, “muffle” took on the sense of wrapping something—such as a drum, a bell, or an oar—to deaden sound:

“They laid all their oars across, except two in each boat, which they muffled with baize, to prevent their being heard at a distance.” (From a 1761 issue of the British Magazine, or Monthly Repository for Gentlemen and Ladies, edited by Tobias Smollett.)

The OED describes the use of “muffler” for the device on a vehicle as “chiefly N. Amer.” The earliest citation is from A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1895), edited by Isaac Kaufman Funk:

Muffler, a device to render noiseless the escape of steam from a vacuum-brake, exhaust-pipe, or safety-valve.”

(With a former classmate, Adam Willis Wagnalls, Funk founded the Funk & Wagnalls Company, known for its dictionaries and other reference books.)

To answer your question about muffing a fly ball, we’ll have to back up somewhat and begin with a version of the noun “muff” that showed up in the early 19th century.

This “muff,” the OED says, means a “foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person; spec. one who is clumsy or awkward in some sport or manual skill.”

Oxford says this sense of “muff” may come from the word’s original use for a hand warmer, “perhaps conveying the sense of something soft (and, by extension, something weak), or perhaps implying clumsiness commensurate with keeping one’s hands in a muff.”

The dictionary’s first example is from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language (1819), by James Hardy Vaux:

Mouth, a foolish silly person …. Muff, an epithet synonymous with mouth.” (Oxford defines “flash language” as the language of thieves.)

The new noun usage led to the use of the verb “muff” for bungling on the playing fields, though the earliest example in the OED is from cricket, not baseball:

“All the best of our players completely muffed their batting.” (From Cricket Sketches of the Players, an 1846 book by William Denison, a cricketer and sportswriter.)

The earliest known baseball citation is from the Aug. 12, 1882, issue of the Philadelphia Press: “That usually reliable fielder muffed the fly.”

By the 20th century, the verb “muff” was being used in the wider sense of bungling something or making a mess of it.

Here’s an example from The Hairy Ape, a 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill: “Yuh got what I was sayin’ even if yuh muffed de woids.” And here’s one from a 1941 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien: “I muffed my exams.”

We’ll end with what the OED describes as the slang use of the noun “muff” for the “female pubic hair. Hence also: the vulva, the vagina.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, a 1699 slang dictionary written anonymously by “B. E. Gent”:

Muff, c. a Woman’s Secrets. To the well-wearing of your Muff Mort, c. to the happy Consummation of your Marriage Madam, a Health.” (The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford has published the book as The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699.)

Interestingly, the OED labels the pubic sense of “muff” as slang, but it labels “muff-diver,” “muff-dive,” and “muff-diving” as coarse slang. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall as the dictionary’s editors discussed the labeling of these terms.

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The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true?

Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel. Blame Professor Wadding, who is deliberately portrayed as a pompous twit and a fount of academic gobbledygook.

The use of “cold feet” to mean a lack of courage, confidence, or resolve actually appeared in writing for the first time in the late 19th century, more than 800 years after the Pope is said to have kept the Emperor waiting for three wintry days outside Canossa Castle.

The expression showed up in writing for the first time in two American works of fiction published in 1896:

“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.” (From Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town, a novel by George Ade.)

“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” (From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novella by Stephen Crane. The citation is found in the 1896 second edition, but not the 1893 first, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.)

Word sleuths have found earlier examples of “cold feet” in fiction, but the phrase is used either literally or in a different figurative sense.

For example, the phrase shows up several times in an 1878 English translation of Seed-time and Harvest, a novel by the German writer Fritz Reuter.

In one scene, a winning card player decides to leave the table when his lucks changes: “so he rose and said his feet were getting cold, and put his winnings in his pocket.”

Other players then accused him of using “cold feet” as an excuse: “Don’t you always get cold feet at our club, when you have had good luck?” one said.

(The title of the novel is from Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”)

And in Volpone, a 1606 comedy by the English playwright Ben Jonson, the title character says: “Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not to it.”

Kenneth McKenzie, who was an Italian scholar at Yale University, says in a December 1912 letter in Modern Language Notes that “to be cold in the feet” in the Lombard dialect (as well as in modern Italian) means to be “hard up”—that is, “without money.”

As for Canossa, Emperor Henry IV may have had cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as he waited outside the castle in January 1077. But there’s no evidence  that the expression “cold feet” was ever used figuratively at the time to describe his submission to the will of Pope Gregory VII.

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Suck, sucker, and sucking up

Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person?

A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s breast.

All the modern uses of “suck” and its offspring—from the innocuous to the vulgar—are derived in one way or another from that innocent early usage.

When the verb came into Old English writing as súcan, it meant “to draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English verb, like the corresponding term in Latin, sūgĕre, ultimately comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root seuə- (to take liquid), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This root is rendered by the OED as sug-, and by John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins as seug- or seuk-.

Ayto says the word is imitative in origin: “This no doubt originated in imitation of the sound of sucking from the mother’s breast.”

The earliest Old English example in the OED (from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825) refers to drawing sustenance from things other than the breast:

“Sucun hunig of stane & ele of trumum stane” (“Suck honey from the stone and oil from the hard stone”). The passage is in Deuteronomy 32:13.

However, the next Oxford example (from the Paris Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 1050) refers to nursing babies:

“Of ðæra cild muðe, þe meolc sucað, þu byst hered” (“From the mouths of children who suck milk you are praised”). Matthew 21:16.

When the noun “suck” showed up in the Middle Ages, it similarly referred to “the action or an act of sucking milk from the breast,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from one of the two St. Gregory documents in the Vernon Manuscript (1390-1400), written in the West Midland dialect of Middle English:

“Whon heo hedde iȝiue þe child a souke” (“When she had given the child suck”).

Around the same time, the noun “sucker” appeared in the sense of “suckling” (a term that showed up in the 15th century). The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384:

“Forsothe Philip, his euen souker, transferride the body” (“Forsooth Philip, a fellow suckling [a friend from infancy], transported the body”). We’ve expanded the citation, a passage found in 2 Maccabees 9:29.

Most of the negative senses arising from “suck” showed up in the 17th century onwards, though a few appeared earlier, including to “suck” money from someone (circa 1380), “suck” the blood from someone (to exhaust or drain, 1583), and “suck” someone dry (to exhaust, 1592).

The sense of “sucker” you’re asking about (a gullible person who’s easy to deceive) originated in North America in the early 19th century, according to Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

Ayto defines it as “someone as naive as an unweaned child.” And the language writer Hugh Rawson says in Wicked Words that it refers to “one who has all the smarts of an unweaned animal.”

The first example in the OED is from the May 29, 1838, issue of the Patriot, a newspaper in Toronto:

“It’s true that pigs has their troubles like humans … constables catches ’em, dogs bites ’em, and pigs is sometimes as done-over suckers as men.”

The use of “sucker” as a dupe or patsy may also have been influenced by the somewhat earlier use of the word for a sweet, such as a lollipop.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is from Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), by Edward Moor: “Suckers, a longish sort of a sweety.”

In the 1840s, the phrasal verb “suck in” came to mean to cheat or deceive. The dictionary’s first example is from Frontier Life, an 1842 collection of sketches by Caroline M. Kirkland:

“I a’n’t bound to drive nobody in the middle of the night … so don’t you try to suck me in there.”

Later, the expression “suck up to” came to mean curry favor with or toady to. The first Oxford example is from an 1860 slang dictionary written by John Camden Hotten:

Suck up, ‘to suck up to a person’ to insinuate oneself into his good graces.” The OED says the term originated as schoolboy slang.

As for the use of “suck” meaning to perform oral sex, the OED labels this usage “coarse slang” and dates it from the 1920s. Its earliest example is a 1928 citation in A. W. Read’s Lexical Evidence From Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (1935): “I suck cocks for fun.”

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

This sense of “suck” also appeared in the 19th century in the Pearl, a pornographic monthly. The Pearl used the word repeatedly in both senses during the 18 months that it published in 1879 and 1880.

Here’s an example from the October 1879 issue: “How nice it feels to have one’s prick sucked.”

Hugh Rawson, the author of Wicked Words, says “suck” was apparently considered a taboo word by Noah Webster, even in the nursing sense. Rawson cites the “watered-down text” of Matthew 24:19 in Webster’s 1833 revision of the King James Version “for family consumption.”

Webster changed “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” to “And woe to them that are with child, and to them that nurse infants in those days!” Many modern biblical translations use a similar, “suck”-less wording.

A few other negative terms from the “suck” family showed up in the first half of the 20th century, including “to suck eggs” (to be mean or irritable, 1903), “go suck eggs!” (an exclamation of hostility or dismissal, 1906), and “to suck the hind tit or teat” (to be inferior or a loser, 1940).

Those egg-sucking expressions have roots going back to the early 1600s, when a “suck-egg” meant a thieving animal, hence a fool or a greedy person. The OED defines a “suck-egg” as “an animal that is reputed to suck eggs, e.g. a weasel, cuckoo,” and says the term figuratively meant a “silly” or “avaricious person.”

The term “suck-egg” was also used pejoratively before nouns, as in “suck-egge Weasell” (1631), “Suck-egge-fly” (1658), and, especially in American English, “suck-egg dog” (1872 or earlier).

The adjectival use of “suck-egg” survived well into the 20th century, as in this OED citation: “Hayes got up and slunk off like a suck-egg dog caught in the hen-house.” (From the Virginia Quarterly Review, January 1931.)

However, new positive senses for “suck” showed up in the 20th century, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).

The use of “suck” as a slang verb meaning “to be contemptible or disgusting” appeared later in the 20th century, according to citations in the OED.

The first example in Oxford is from the June 2, 1971, issue of International Times, or IT, a counterculture newspaper:

“Polaroid sucks! For some time the Polaroid Corporation has been supplying the South African government with large photo systems … to use for photographing blacks for the passbooks … every black must carry.”

But the linguist Ronald R. Butters, writing in the Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, cites a 1964 use of “suck” in this sense to denigrate an astrologer:

“Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.” (Butters says the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower acquainted him with the citation, from The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.)

Standard dictionaries variously label this usage “informal,” “slang,” “rude,” “impolite,” or “vulgar.” The more disapproving labels apparently reflect the word’s association with oral sex.

Etymologists and other language types have argued for years over whether the sexual “suck” begat the “suck” that means to be bad, disagreeable or disgusting—that is, to stink.

In his 2001 paper, Butters argues against a “vulgar” label for “suck” in its newer sense, saying, “Little if any lexicographical evidence exists that privileges the etymological derivation of the idiom X sucks! from phrases involving fellatio.”

“At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom,” he writes.

(The title of Butters’s paper is “ ‘We Didn’t Realize That Lite Beer Was Supposed to Suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English.”)

As we said at the beginning, all the usages in the “suck” family are ultimately derived from the Anglo-Saxon sense of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. However, the use of “suck” in the sexual sense clearly colors the newer usage for some English speakers.

We’d describe the “stink” sense of “suck” as slang, not vulgar. It’s clearly gaining acceptance, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in most formal writing or speech.

[Note: This post was updated on April 28, 2020.]

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Is “posse” racist?

Q: “Posse”? Racist? I trust you know the current controversy over that word. If a black celebrity says it is, I guess that makes it so, but has it been? Where does this come from?

A: Is “posse” a racist term? Not necessarily. But it has a negative, “gang” connotation in some dictionaries. And an African-American might consider it racist when used in reference to his friends.

“Posse” made news on Nov. 14 when Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks, used the word in comments he made about LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In an interview with ESPN, Jackson was critical of James for demanding “special treatment” when he was playing for the Miami Heat a few years ago. The NBA star, whose hometown is Akron, Ohio, apparently demanded that he get to spend an extra night in his home state after playing a game in Cleveland.

“When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night,” Jackson said. “They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t.”

The Knicks president went on to say: “You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

Here, “posse” was a reference to James’s longtime friends, fellow athletes, and business associates, some of whom grew up together.

James, who is a successful businessman off the court, took offense at “posse,” suggesting it had racial overtones:

“I believe the only reason he used that word is because it’s young African Americans trying to make a difference,” James said. “If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing. Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.”

We were surprised to hear that “posse” was objectionable, but many people were not.

The next day, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks told ABC News that “I think everybody would understand” why James objected to the term. “To some people, the word ‘posse’ might not mean anything. It might just be a word. To some other people it could be a derogatory statement. It all depends on who you mention it to and who you’re talking about in essence.”

As for himself, Anthony said, “I would never want to hear that word about me and my—I don’t want to say crew—but people that I consider family or people that I come up [with], been through thick and thin with. I’d want to be called a tight-knit group or family. That’s what I consider those close people to me.”

Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, was also sympathetic to James, according to the New York Post: “When all that came out, I had to ask myself: Have I ever used that word before with a white player? The answer is no.”

“I understand why it’s offensive,” Van Gundy added. “I’ve never used that word publicly, but I have used it in talking to people I know. It has never been in conjunction with a white player.”

Others were less critical of the term. Magic Johnson, according to New York Newsday, praised James and his business team in several Twitter posts, then wrote: “Phil Jackson made one small mistake by using the word posse.”

“I know Phil Jackson, he’s a good man,” he continued. “I don’t think he meant to disrespect LeBron James and his team.”

So what about the word itself? In all the news coverage, there’s been very little about its etymology or its definitions.

In classical Latin, posse was a verb meaning “be able.” It was derived from the phrase potis esse (esse for “be” and potis for “able” or “powerful”).

In medieval Latin, as John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, posse came to be used as a noun meaning ‘power, force.’ It formed the basis of the expression posse comitatus, literally ‘force of the county,’ denoting a body of men whom the sheriff of a county was empowered to raise for such purposes as suppressing a riot.”

“The abbreviated form posse emerged at the end of the 17th century, but really came into its own in 18th- and 19th-century America,” he writes.

As it turns out, the noun “posse,” which was introduced into English in the mid-1600s, has had negative associations in some of its usages, but other senses of the word are benign or positive.

Like the longer phrase “posse comitatus,” the short form “posse” once meant “the population of local able-bodied men whom a sheriff may summon to repress a riot, pursue felons, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was used this way in 1646, for example.

But at almost the same time, in 1645, it was also being used loosely to mean “an assembled force, band, or company, often with hostile intent.”

This is the OED’s earliest example: “All the Posse of Hell, cannot violently eject me.” (From Thomas Fuller ‘s Good Thoughts in Bad Times, the reflections of a Loyalist in the time of Charles I.)

However, by the 1700s “posse” was being used figuratively, according to the OED, to mean “any throng or assembled group (of persons, animals, or things); a clutch.” In this sense, the word is found “now usually without negative connotation,” the dictionary adds.

Sometimes it’s even used semi-humorously, as shown in many OED citations. In a letter written in 1728, for example, Jonathan Swift mentioned a “whole posse of articles.”

And in a 1787 journal entry William Beckford wrote, “A whole posse of the young lady’s kindred—brothers, cousins and uncles—stood ready at the street door to usher me upstairs.”

In her Letters From Abroad (1841), Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote: “Found her flying from a posse of cock-turkeys.”

In other citations, the word simply means a group, as in these examples from Oxford:

“I met Mr. Ferdinand, M. d’Herigny, and a posse of their friends, who were just entering the Carreau Wood, to hunt.” (From Benjamin Webster’s play The Village Doctor, 1839.)

“He posed a posse of rhetorical questions.” (From Frederic Raphael’s biography Byron, 1982.)

“May I suggest that the Transport Secretary, together with a posse of ministers, visits Heathrow and Gatwick.” (From a July 1990 issue of Flight International.)

The word is also used colloquially, the OED says, to mean a peer group, especially of the young. Oxford cites these examples:

“[In 1982] the d.j.’s developed a specialized presentation. … ‘Posse’ was used to refer to any group.” (From Anita M. Waters’s book Race, Class, and Political Symbols, 1985.)

“He … jammed with both a posse of M-Base acolytes from Belgium and with Surinamese musicians based in Amsterdam.” (From a 1990 issue of Straight No Chaser, a British magazine devoted to black music.)

“There are about 20 seats up there, so there was Leo and his posse and his mom all watching the movie.” (From a January 2001 issue of a London newspaper, the Star.)

This sense of the word—a group of friends—is also found in all the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, both American and British.

In Jamaican English, however, “posse” has a more pejorative meaning—a criminal gang, often involved in drugs. This sense of the word is known in the US, since two of the OED’s citations are from American sources:

“Enforcement agents blame Jamaican posses for some 500 homicides and … gun-running.” (From Boston magazine, July 1987.)

“Blake, a former posse leader, has agreed to help attack the Caribbean drug pipelines.” (From a September 2000 issue of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis.)

Though the OED doesn’t say so, this criminal sense of “posse” is also used in reference to American gangs, according to at least two standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has the old “sheriff’s posse” definition, plus these others: “A search party”; “A gang involved in crimes such as running guns and illegal narcotics trafficking; “(Slang) A group of friends or associates.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) lists those same senses of “posse.” It words the criminal sense this way: “a gang, esp. one engaged in selling drugs.”

We don’t find that meaning in any other standard dictionaries. Merriam Webster Unabridged, for example, includes all of those above, except the gang sense.

Getting back to your question, is “posse” racist?

Standard dictionaries generally define “racism” as the belief that one’s own race is better than others, and as discrimination or prejudice based on that belief. The adjective “racist” describes someone or something that fosters such discrimination or prejudice.

By that definition a white man’s use of the term “posse,” with its Jamaican gang associations, in reference to the friends of a successful black athlete and businessman may perhaps be seen as racist.

In fact, we often hear the adjective “racist” used loosely to describe anyone or anything that demeans a racial, ethnic, or religious group. This sense isn’t in standard dictionaries, but we wouldn’t be surprised to find it there one of these days.

However, dictionaries may not be the best place to settle a dispute about whether a word like “posse” is racist in certain situations.

As the editors of Merriam-Webster Online say in a usage note, dictionaries “are not always well suited for settling disputes” like this:

“The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”

We doubt that Phil Jackson meant to refer to LeBron James and his associates as a gang. He likely meant the word in the sense of a group of friends or associates.

But LeBron James didn’t interpret it that way.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this. Words don’t operate in a vacuum. The same word can be neutral, positive, negative, or perhaps even racist, depending on the context.

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A copper’s nark

Q: I’ve been doing a bit of time travel these days via old radio recordings. On a 1950 broadcast of Whitehall 1212, a program based on Scotland Yard cases, a key character is a “copper’s nark.” In the states he’d be called a “stool pigeon.” How did Brits come up with “copper’s nark”?

A: The term “copper’s nark,” meaning a police informer, showed up in Britain in the late 19th century, but “nark” itself had been used earlier in that same sense and still earlier to mean a nasty person.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nark” is of “unknown origin,” but adds that “perhaps” it comes from nok, the word for “nose” in the dialect of Romany spoken in England.

However, the OED says this “assumed development would require that the Romani word had an extended sense denoting a person, but this is not attested.” (The English word “nose” has been used as a slang term for a police informer since the 1780s.)

When the word “nark” appeared in the mid-19th century, it referred to an “annoying, unpleasant, obstructive, or quarrelsome person,” according to the dictionary.

The first example in the OED is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “They are the rankest narks vot ever God put guts into, or ever farted in a kickses case [pair of trousers].”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “nark” used in the snitch sense is from The Vulgar Tongue, an 1857 slang dictionary that defines it as “a person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.”

(The author, Ducange Anglicus, is a pseudonym formed from the surname of the 17th-century French philologist Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, and the Latin word for “Englishman.”)

The next citation refers specifically to a police informer: “Nark, a person in the pay of the police; a common informer.” (From  A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, 1860, by John Camden Hotten.)

The third Oxford example (from the May 24, 1879, issue of the journal Notes and Queries) uses the full term you heard on the radio program Whitehall 1212 (the old phone number for Scotland Yard): “Copper’s nark, a police spy.”

In the late 19th century, the word “nark” took on the additional sense of a “police officer.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy, an 1891 novel by Francis Wylde Carew (pen name of Arthur E. G. Way): “If you don’t turn up my fair share, I’ll put the narks upon you. S’elp me never, I will.”

Finally, the verb “nark” has been used since the late 1800s in the sense of to act as an informer or to annoy. Here’s an example for the “annoy” sense from John Dalby’s 1888 novel, Mayroyd of Mytholm: “That’s just what he’s ta’en to him for, just to nark Mayroyd.”

All the OED citations for “nark” in its various senses are from British, Australian, or New Zealand sources.

However, the dictionary has an entry for a similar word, “narc,” which it defines as chiefly North American slang for a “police agent or investigator concerned with narcotics.”

Oxford describes the American usage as a “clipping or shortening” of the noun “narcotic,” and notes a similar US slang term, “narco,” for illegal drugs, a South American drug baron, or a police agent concerned with narcotics. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds that “narc” can also mean an informer.

Although the OED describes “narc” as a clipped form of “narcotic,” the dictionary says it may also have been influenced by the British term “nark.” In fact, the earliest Oxford citation for the American usage spells the word “nark”:

“The narcotics bureau of the Treasury Department wanted to keep all drugs illegal, to step up law enforcement, add thousands of T-men, G-men, and narks to the payroll.” (From The Politics of Ecstasy, 1966, by Timothy Leary. We’ve filled in an ellipsis in the OED example.)

The next citation spells it the usual American way: “The police didn’t frighten him. The Narcs didn’t frighten him.” (From Shaft, a 1971 detective novel, by Ernest Tidyman, that inspired four films and a TV a series.)

And here’s an example from American Heritage for “narc” used as a verb meaning to “snitch”: “He was caught dealing drugs because his roommate narced on him.”

As for “stool pigeon,” the term originally referred to a hunting decoy—a live pigeon fastened to a stool to attract game birds. If you’d like to read more, we discussed the usage on the blog in 2008.

Getting back to “copper’s nark,” we’ll end with this example from George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 play Pygmalion: “It’s a—well, it’s a copper’s nark, as you might say. What else would you call it? A sort of informer.”

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Pissy language

Q: Where does “pissed off” (as in “angry”) come from? I know this sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious question!

A: Our serious answer begins around the year 1300, when English adopted the verb “piss” from the Anglo-Norman pisser.

Although the word is “now chiefly coarse slang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant simply “urinate” back then.

The dictionary notes that “piss” is “probably ultimately of imitative origin”—that is, it represents the hissy sound of peeing.

The OED’s first citation for the verb is from the South English Legendary, a collection of lives, or biographies, of saints and other church figures.

In the life of St. James the Great (i.e., the Apostle James), the devil persuades a young pilgrim to cut off his penis and commit suicide. James brings the pilgrim back to life, but doesn’t undo the castration:

“His menbres þat he carf of, euer-eft he dude misse Bote a luytel wise ȝware-þoruȝ he miȝhte, ȝwane he wolde, pisse” (“He did forever miss the member that he cut off, leaving a little stub through which he might urinate”).

Over the years, the verb “piss” came to be used figuratively in various expressions, including “piss money against the wall” (squander, 1540), “piss on someone” (show contempt, before 1625), “piss against the wind” (waste one’s time, 1642), and “piss and moan” (complain, 1948).

The noun “piss” first appeared sometime before 1387 in John Trevisa’s English translation of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden:

“Þey þrewe on his heed wommen pisser out of a chambre” (“They threw on his head women’s urine out of a chamber pot”).

Like the verb, the noun later took on some additional meanings, including its use as an intensifier in such phrases as “piss poor” and “piss elegant,” which we discussed in a post six years ago.

And like the verb, the noun “piss” meant simply “urine” in the 14th century, and wasn’t considered “coarse slang,” according to the OED.

When the adjective “pissed” showed up in the early 17th century, Oxford says, it referred to something “that has been urinated on or in; wet or stained with urine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Alchemist, a 1612 comedy by Ben Jonson: “Wrap’d up in greasie leather, or piss’d clouts.” (“Clouts” were pieces of cloth.)

It’s unclear from the OED citations exactly when “piss” came to be seen as coarse or vulgar.

In the early 19th century the adjective “pissed” came to mean “drunk.” Here’s an example from John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812): “Sit still you pist fool!”

And in the mid-20th century, the adjective took on the sense you’re asking about: angry, irritated, fed up.

In British use, the OED says, it’s frequently seen in the phrase “pissed off.” We’d add that the phrase is probably just as common in the US. In fact, the dictionary’s earliest citation is from an American memoir.

In Artist at War (1943), the American artist George Biddle writes of his experiences in Italy and Africa during World War II: “When I’m pissed off, I always get that starry look.”

The phrasal verb “piss off” showed up in writing just after the war, in a 1946 issue of the journal American Speech: “He pissed (or peed) me off. An expression used of a person who in any way disappointed the speaker.”

Finally, the phrasal verb “piss off” is also used (primarily in the UK) to mean “Go away!” or “Scram!”

The first OED citation is from The Mint, a memoir by T. E. Lawrence published after his death in 1935: “You piss off, Pissquick.” (Lawrence, an army colonel in World War I, describes enlisting anonymously after the war as an aircraftman in the Royal Air Force.)

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When “bourgeois” became bull

Q: I came across your site when looking up “malarkey,” a word my father used when I was growing up. He often used “bourgeois” to mean the same thing, “nonsense.” Can you explain how a word referring to the middle class could take on this sense?

A: We don’t want to shock you, but our best guess is that your father was using “bourgeois” as a euphemism for “bullshit,” a term he didn’t want to inflict on your tender ears. ­­

A ­similar-sounding word, “bushwa,” has been a euphemism for “bullshit” for more than a century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, says “bushwa” was “probably” derived from the French “bourgeois, as popularized by the radical movement, esp. in the early 20th C.”

The dictionary says the word is “now taken as a euphem. for bullshit,” in the sense that one would use “nonsense” or plain “bull.”

Random House’s earliest example of “bushwa” is from a 1906 issue of the National Police Gazette: “ ‘Bushwa,’ … a term of derision used to convey the same comment as ‘hot air,’ drifted East from the plains along with other terse expletives.”

The reference may have been to language popularized by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as the “Wobblies”), formed in Chicago in 1905.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that “bushwa” (also spelled “bushwah”) is “apparently a euphemism for bullshit.” But it doesn’t suggest that it was derived from “bourgeois.”

However, “bourgeois” was apparently the source. This passage from the historian Dorothy Gage’s book The Day Wall Street Exploded (2009) describes members of the “Overalls Brigade” of the IWW in 1908:

“They bellowed out revolutionary songs, scorned the niceties of ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) society, and made a point of dressing in the workingman’s garb that eventually became the Wobblies’ trademark uniform.”

And in this passage another historian, Bruce Watson, discusses popular terms used by the Wobblies in the first decade of the 20th century:

“A ‘scissor-bill’ was an unenlightened worker, some ‘bushwa’ (bourgeois) who still believed in ‘Pie in the Sky,’ i.e., capitalist promises of a better life ahead.” (From Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2006.)

Several histories of the Wobblies were published during the 1960s, and in reviewing one of them for the Journal of Southern History in 1970, George T. Morgan Jr. wrote:

“IWW rhetoric and songs fed the myth of the Wobbly as a wild and woolly warrior, a man who contemptuously scorned the conventional morality of what he characterized as ‘bushwa’ society.”

So it seems that “bushwa” was a pronunciation—perhaps a deliberately dismissive one—of “bourgeois,” a term that was hateful to early 20th-century labor activists.

Over the years, many American authors have used the term in hard-boiled fiction. A couple of citations from the OED:

“Looks to me like it’s all bushwa.” (From a novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers, 1921.)

“If you’re a detective, what was all that bushwa about Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard?” (From Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, 1960.)

As for “bourgeois,” English borrowed it from the French bourgeois in the early 1600s, when the two words had the same meaning: an inhabitant of a town or borough in France.

(In French, bourg was a walled settlement or market town. The term comes from burgus, Latin for castle or fort. But the ultimate source, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, is bhergh, a prehistoric root meaning high.)

Over time, the English noun “bourgeois” broke from its original ties to France and took on three primary senses that could be applied to people or things anywhere in the world:

(1) the middle class or a member of the middle class, (2) someone or something that’s conventional, unimaginative, or materialistic, and (3) in Marxist theory, a capitalist exploiter of the working class. The adjective adopted related senses.

It’s unclear from OED citations when each of these meanings developed, but the dictionary has examples for all three dating from the 1800s.

The pejorative sense of “bourgeois” used by your father apparently evolved from the Marxist meaning of the word, which Oxford defines as “a person who upholds the interests of capitalism, or who is considered to be an exploiter of the proletariat.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the “capitalist” sense of the word is from an 1850 translation of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in German in 1848:

“Bourgeois and Proletarians. Hitherto the history of society has been the history of the battles between the classes composing it.”

(The original German: “Bourgeois und Proletarier. Die Geschichte aller bisherigen Gesellschaft ist die Geschichte von Klassenkämpfen.”)

The OED also cites this passage from a work of Engels: “It is utterly indifferent to the English bourgeois whether his working-men starve or not, if only he makes money.” (From an 1886 translation of Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in German in 1845.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from 2010: “By forcing workers to work for money, the bourgeois transformed workers into commodities.” (From Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, 3rd. ed., edited by  Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy.)

It’s that “exploiter of the proletariat” element of “bourgeois,” built into the word by Marx and Engels, that inspired the “bullshit” sense of the word and the “bushwa” pronunciation.

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Is “wussy” milder than “pussy”?

[Note: A May 29, 2020, post includes earlier examples for the use of “wussy.”]

Q: You might have mentioned in your recent “pussy” post that “wuss” and “wussy” are common substitutions to make the sense of a weak person more acceptable.

A: We didn’t mention “wuss” and “wussy” in our post about “pussy,” but etymologists think these words may be related.

The noun “wuss” is perhaps a blend of “wimp” and “puss,” and the noun and adjective “wussy” could be a combination of “wimp” and “pussy.”

Here “wimp,” first recorded in American slang in 1920, means “a feeble or ineffectual person,” or “one who is spineless or ‘wet,’ ” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

And, as we discussed in our earlier post, the popular slang senses of “puss” and “pussy” convey, among other things, notions of cowardice, weakness, and effeminacy.

Both the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang propose these senses of “pussy” as the possible sources of “wuss” and “wussy.” But while Green’s is more positive, the OED says the exact etymology remains uncertain.

It appears that “wuss” and “wussy” were products of 1970s American college slang. Oxford labels them “colloquial”—that is, found more often in speech than in formal writing.

The two words are defined similarly in the OED, but with a slight (or not so slight) difference.

“Wuss” means simply “a  weak or ineffectual person,” the OED says. But “wussy” has an extra component.

The adjective “wussy” can mean either “weak, ineffectual” or “effeminate,” according to the dictionary, while the noun “wussy” can mean “a weak or ineffectual person” or “an effeminate man.”

It strikes us that “wuss” or “wussy” is milder, and less offensive, than “pussy” because it doesn’t seem to convey the genital association of “pussy.”

The OED’s earliest citations for “wuss” are dated November 1976. They were recorded in a typescript entitled “Campus Slang,” compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.”

Later American citations include these:

“You ought to meet her first, you wuss” (from Cameron Crowe’s 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High).

“Everybody thinks I’m a wuss. And I don’t impress any of the stunt women at all” (from the Washington Post, August 1984).

But the usage is exclusively American no longer. The OED includes this Australian example: “Give us y’lunch, Hooper, you great wuss!” (a caption in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, January 1996).

The OED’s citations for “wussy” begin at around roughly the same time as “wuss,” and in college slang. We’ll begin with the adjective:

“Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” (from the Harvard Crimson, September 1977).

“They [New Zealanders] really don’t have any sense of what American football is. They think it’s a wussy sport because you put on helmets and pads. They say real men play rugby” (Washington Post, January 1985).

And here are some citations for the noun, beginning with the earliest:

“Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 1981).

“Those pampered, effete, ungrateful, deodorant-averse European wussies” (Vanity Fair, March 2003).

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When “bad” means “good”

Q: I understand the difference between “feel bad” and “feel badly,” but “love so bad”? Wouldn’t that be best stated as “love so badly”? Perhaps I hear the wrong phrase so often that my mind is muddled.

A: In slang usage, the adjective “bad” means “good,” as we mentioned in a post we wrote some time ago about the influence of African-American slang on English.

The surprising thing about this use of “bad”—apart from the reversed meaning—is that it’s not recent. It dates back to the 19th century, as we’ll explain later.

But in an expression like “love so bad,” the word is an adverb, not an adjective. It’s being used as an intensifier—that is, to intensify the verb it modifies—with the result that “so bad” means “so greatly” or “so much.”

We know what you’re thinking—“bad” as an adverb? Is that legal?

Well, here’s another surprise. The adverb “bad” isn’t new either. It’s been around since the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest adverbial uses, “bad” wasn’t an intensifier. It was used more literally and meant “badly” or “not well.”

The OED’s earliest example is from George Turberville’s The Booke of Faulconrie or Hauking (1575): “He … frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.”

But by the latter half of the 1600s, “bad” was being used intensively, to emphasize the preceding verb, in the same way that we use “much.”

This 17th-century example is from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus, a book on witches and apparitions that was written sometime before 1680: “Haunted almost as bad as Mr. Mompesson’s house.”

In the 18th century, Joseph Bellamy wrote in True Religion Delineated (1750): “We hate him so bad, that we cannot find it in our Hearts to love him.”

And in the 19th century, John Russell Bartlett included in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859) the expression “I want to see him bad.”

The OED also includes a citation from a British novel, Under the Chilterns (1895), written under the pen name Rosemary: “Las’ week there was a job doin’ up at the squire’s, an’ I wanted to go bad.”

Today, in the OED’s estimation, this sense of “bad” as an intensifier is colloquial and nonstandard, and it appears “chiefly” in North American usage. American language authorities, however, aren’t as critical.

As we’ve written before on the blog, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage maintains that the adverb “bad” is interchangeable with “badly” after the verbs “want” and “need.”

Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for the adverb “bad” defined as “badly,” and includes the example “doesn’t want it bad enough.” This dictionary treats the usage as standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t go quite that far. It says the adverbial use of “bad” as in “his tooth ached so bad” is “common in informal speech but is widely regarded as unacceptable in formal writing.”

Although the OED considers it nonstandard to use “bad” as an intensifier meaning “greatly” or “very much,” it accepts without reservation the use of “badly” in this way.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the slang use of the adjective “bad.” As we mentioned above, the use of “bad” to mean “good” dates back to the 19th century.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that, especially in African-American English, “bad” is used to mean “wonderful; deeply satisfying; stunningly attractive or stylish; sexy.”

The dictionary’s earliest reference is from George Ade’s Pink Marsh (1897): “She sutny fix up a pohk chop ’at’s bad to eat.” (The book is a collection of sketches about a fictional black shoe-shine man named William Pinckney Marsh, a k a Pink.)

Random House also cites this line from a 1927 review in Variety: “In Duke Ellington’s dance band Harlem has reclaimed its own. … Ellington’s jazzique is just too bad.”

The OED also includes this usage, which it labels as slang. Here “bad” is used, the dictionary says, “as a general term of approbation” and means “good, excellent, impressive; esp. stylish or attractive.”

Oxford’s citations begin with George Ade in 1897 and continue into the present day.

Among them are this definition of “bad” in Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1955): “Bad, adj. Good. (This reverse adjectival procedure is commonly used to describe a performance.)”

The OED also includes this 1980 example, from an article in Time magazine: “Bad as the best and as cool as they come, Smokey is remarkably low key for a soul master.”

But “bad” was used further back in a slightly different and possibly unrelated slang sense.

Both Oxford and Random House have entries for “bad” meaning “formidable” and hence “formidably skilled,” with examples dating from the 1840s and ’50s.

We find some of these early citations ambiguous; the speaker’s meaning isn’t always clear-cut. As far as we can tell, the first example in which this “badness” is clearly viewed with admiration appeared in the 1870s.

Random House gives an example from The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878), an autobiography by Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

In this passage, Flipper quotes from a newspaper article that mocked his post-graduation homecoming in 1877:

“A darkey would approach the young man, cautiously, feel of his buttons and clothes, and enthusiastically remark: ‘Bad man wid de gub-ment strops on!’ ” (The newspaper article included this among “expressions of admiration.”)

American Heritage has an interesting note on the positive uses of “bad,” which the dictionary says “illustrate a favorite creative device of informal and slang language—using a word to mean the opposite of what it ‘really’ means.”

“This is by no means uncommon; people use words sarcastically to mean the opposite of their actual meanings on a daily basis,” the dictionary says.

“What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community,” the note continues. “Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ this general acceptance is made easier.”

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Is “pussy” a dirty word?

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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Turkey Day

(Note: This post originally appeared on the Grammarphobia Blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2009.)

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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Brighton Rock fixes

Dear Readers,

There were several errors in today’s post about Brighton Rock slang. We fixed them in the late morning, so if you read an earlier version, check out the latest.

Pat and Stewart

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Brighton Rock slang

Q: In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s characters use “polony” and “buer” for a woman of loose morals, but I can’t find the terms in dictionaries. I know that if I use them in Scrabble I will get challenged!

A: You can find both words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “buer” as a woman, especially “one of loose character,” and “polony” (a variant spelling of “palone”) as “a young woman” or “an effeminate man.”

The OED has a citation from Brighton Rock (1938) that includes both of the words: “ ‘What about that polony he was with?’ ‘She doesn’t matter,’ the Boy said. ‘She’s just a buer.’ ”

The earliest Oxford example for “palone” (also spelled “paloni,” “pollone,” and “polone”) is from Cheapjack, a 1934 memoir by Philip Allingham, the brother of the mystery writer Margery Allingham:

“I’d rather ’andle a man any day than a lot of these silly palones.”

The dictionary describes “palone” as “slang (derogatory),” and most of the citations use the the term along the lines of such slang words as “broad,” “chick,” “doll,” and “dame.”

The OED says “palone” is of uncertain origin, but may be a variant of “blowen,” slang for a wench.

Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, cites theories that the term may have come from Italian words for a chick or a straw mattress.

As for “buer,” the OED describes the term (also spelled “bure,” “buor,” and “bewer”) as “north. dial. and Tramps’ slang” of unknown origin.

Green’s Dictionary suggests that “buer” might have originated as a word for “tramp” in Shelta, a language spoken by Irish Travellers (itinerants in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere).

The OED’s first citation for “buer” is from an 1807 poem by John Stagg: “A bure her neame was Meg, / A winsome weel far’ word body.”

We should mention here that “polony” has another meaning. In the UK, it may refer to a “Bologna sausage,” which Americans usually call “bologna” or “baloney.”

Oxford says “polony” in the sausage sense is “probably an alteration of Bologna.” John Camden Hotten, in The Slang Dictionary (1913), explains that it’s a Cockney version of “Bologna.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “polony” used in this sense is from a 1654 issue of a smutty journal, Mercurius Fumigosus:

“A Lady of Pleasure voiding a Worm in the Coach-box, bigger then a Polony Sassage.” (The term “Worm” here refers to a dildo.)

In researching your question, we came across a Brighton Rock glossary on the collaborative website Book Drum. However, the definitions for “buer” and “polony” differ somewhat from ours, and we can’t vouch for the rest of the entries.

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Was the storm a shoo-shoo?

Q: I woke up in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment the other day, looked out the window expecting to see a storm-wracked New York, and thought, “Well, that was a shoo-shoo.” Growing up in New Orleans, we learned that an unexploded firecracker was a shoo-shoo. I wondered if this went beyond my hometown and I found an article saying the reduplicative usage was brought home to Louisiana by doughboys returning from World War I.

A: Yes, the recent “storm of the century” was indeed a shoo-shoo in New York City as well as in our part of southern New England. And “shoo-shoo” is a fine example of reduplication—a subject we recently discussed on the blog.

However, we doubt that doughboys from Louisiana brought the usage home with them from the battlefields of World War I. Or that the usage was inspired, as the article says, by problems with the Chauchat light machine gun.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an example of the usage in Louisiana dating from 1917, when the doughboys were still heading for Europe, not returning home.

The first members of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in June of 1917, and the force wasn’t involved in significant combat until 1918, the last year of the war.

DARE defines “shoo-shoo” as “a failed firecracker that is later broken open and lit.” The dictionary suggests that the name is probably “echoic”—an imitation of the hissing sound made when the powder from a split firecracker is ignited.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a list of Louisiana terms submitted by James Edward Routh of Tulane University to Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society:

“A fire-cracker that has failed to go off. The ‘shoo-shoo’ is broken and lighted for the flare of the loose powder.”

DARE says the usage is “chiefly” seen in Louisiana. Nearly all of its most recent reports of “shoo-shoo” (1967-68) are from Louisiana, though the dictionary does have a couple from Hawaii for “shoo-shoo baby.”

We suspect that the Hawaiian reports were inspired by “Shoo Shoo Baby,” an Andrews Sisters hit, or by a B-17 Flying Fortress named after the song. The World War II plane is now on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio.

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Bogus origins

Q: I keep seeing “bogus” used in ways that seem too colloquial. Somehow saying Colin Powell made bogus claims about WMDs just doesn’t possess the right connotation. So is my claim of excessive informality correct or bogus?

A: We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries and none of them suggest that “bogus” is anything but standard English when used to mean counterfeit, fake, or spurious.

But one of the sources, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), considers “bogus” slang when used in two less common senses:

(1) “Not conforming with what one would hope to be the case; disappointing or unfair” and (2) when used as an interjection “to indicate disagreement or displeasure with another’s actions or a circumstance.”

American Heritage gives this example of the first slang sense: “It’s bogus that you got to go to the party, and I had to stay home.” It doesn’t have any example for the second.

Although “bogus” is considered standard English today when used in its false sense, the word did originate in the late 1700s as US slang.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the term was originally underworld argot for “counterfeit coins; counterfeit money,” and in the early 1800s it came to mean “a machine for coining counterfeit money.”

The earliest Random House citation for “bogus” is from Band of Brothers (circa 1798): “Coney means Counterfeit paper money … Bogus means spurious coins, &c.”

The slang dictionary’s first example of “bogus” used for a machine to make phony money is from the July 6, 1827, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “He never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces.”

The earliest Random House cite for “bogus” used as an adjective to mean fraudulent or phony is from The Banditti of the Prairies, an 1855 book by Edward Bonney about his work as a private detective to expose criminal gangs in Illinois:

“I have a little bogus gold but have been dealing mostly in horses.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several earlier citations for the adjective, including this one from A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, writing under the pen name Mrs. Mary Clavers:

“And in the course of the Tinkerville investigation the commissioners had ascertained by the aid of hammer and chisel, that the boxes of the ‘real stuff’ which had been so loudly vaunted, contained a heavy charge of broken glass and tenpenny nails, covered above and below with half-dollars, principally ‘bogus.’ ” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

The OED says “many guesses have been made, and ‘bogus’ derivations circumstantially given” about the origin of the word.

The dictionary notes, for example, that Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville, Ohio, newspaper cited above, wrote in his 1878 autobiography that “bogus” might “have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object.”

We suspect, however, that Howe’s suggestion as well as several others we’ve seen (a forger named Borghese, the French word bagasse, etc.) are bogus.

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How sick is this usage?

Q: In striking down California’s teacher-tenure system, a state judge, Rolf Treu, wrote that ineffective teachers had a “negative impact on a sick number of California students.” I’ve always considered this use of “sick” to mean “excessive” (or maybe “amazing”) to be slang, but now it will be in law books. When does a word stop being slang?

A: Judge Treu didn’t use the phrase “a sick number” in his tentative decision on June 10, 2014. He clearly wrote “a significant number,” but some news organizations got it wrong.

A news outlet that got it right was BloombergBusinessWeek, which reported  on June 12, 2014, about the judge’s ruling.

The Bloomberg reporter, Karen Weise, wrote that in the trial an expert testifying for the state said that “as many as 3 percent of California teachers—8,250 in all—are ‘grossly ineffective.’ ”

“Taken together,” she added, “the judge found that ‘the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students now and well into the future.’ ”

A number of dictionaries recognize the use of “sick” as a slang term meaning excellent or impressive. But none of them say “sick” has ever meant numerous or excessive.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides several quotations, from the early 1980s onward, in which “sick” means excellent, impressive, or risky.

The earliest example is from a 1983 typescript on campus slang compiled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Sick, unbelievably good: The Fleetwood Mac concert was sick.”

This later example is from a 2002 issue of U.S. News & World Report: “ ‘That’s siiiick!’ gushes an admiring fan.”

Today, the usage is generally found in reference to skateboarding and surfing, the OED says.

Over the years, there have been many other meanings associated with “sick.” One of the better-known is the colloquial use of “sick” to describe an unpleasant brand of humor.

The earliest OED citation is from Punch in 1959: “The prototype of sick jokes is one that goes ‘But apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ ”

“Sick” has also been used as a slang term to describe a drug addict who craves a fix or who’s suffering from withdrawal, a usage that Green’s Dictionary of Slang has traced back to 1938.

Another use of “sick,” to mean disgusted or mortified, dates from 1850, the OED says.

Yet another, which dates back to Old English and is still very much with us today, is described this way in the OED:

“Deeply affected by some strong feeling, as (a) sorrow, (b) longing, (c) envy, (d) repugnance or loathing, producing effects similar or comparable to those of physical ailments.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from The Fates of the Apostles, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. (The OED dates the poem to 975, but it could have been written as far back as the 800s.)

The opening lines in Old English have been translated as “Sorrowful at the end of my journey and sick at heart, I discovered this song.”

The original and still most common meaning “sick”—that is, ill or ailing—predates that poem by a century.

The earliest known use is from King Aelfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius.

In modern English the passage reads, “As it is the custom of physicians to say, when they see a sick man.”

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Monetizing “dough” and “bread”

Q: I was reading Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 when I ran across this comment by Doc Daneeka, the squadron physician: “I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.” When did “dough” become a slang term for money?

A: When the word “dough” showed up in Old English more than a thousand years ago (originally spelled dag or dah), it referred to the floury concoction you knead to make bread.

The word’s slang sense of money originated in the US in the mid-1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the February 1851 issue of the Yale Tomahawk, the magazine of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi: “He thinks he will pick his way out of the Society’s embarrassments, provided he can get sufficient dough.”

The slang usage was later picked up in British English. Oxford’s most recent example is from the Aug. 3, 1955, issue of the Times in London: “I’m going back to business and make myself a little dough.”

How did “dough” become monetized? Our guess is that the slang sense of “dough” reflects the earlier use of “bread” for livelihood or means of subsistence.

The word “bread” was rare in Old English, and apparently meant a bit or piece of food, according to the OED. (The Old English word for what we think of as bread was hlaf, the ancestor of our word “loaf.”)

But by the mid-900s, the dictionary adds, “bread” came to mean the “well-known article of food prepared by moistening, kneading, and baking meal or flour, generally with the addition of yeast or leaven.”

In the early 1700s, “bread” took on a new sense—livelihood or subsistence. The first Oxford citation is from Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel: “I was under no Necessity of seeking my Bread.”

Although “bread” meant livelihood or subsistence in the 18th century, it didn’t come to mean money per se until the 20th century.

Here’s an example of this slang sense from Jazzmen, a 1939 book edited by Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith: “Inside the low, smoky room, the musicians sweated for their bread.”

Finally, here’s an OED citation from the June 15, 1952, issue of DownBeat magazine: ”If I had bread (Dizzy’s basic synonym for loot) I’d certainly start a big band again.”

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Is Justin Bieber a twerp?

Q: In a recent column in the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr. refers to Justin Bieber as a “twerp,” which prompts this question: Where does the word “twerp” come from?

A: In his March 16, 2014, “In My Opinion” column, Pitts writes: “Bieber comes across as a twerp so snotty and insolent even Mother Teresa would want to smack him.” Ouch!

As for the word itself, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “twerp” as a “despicable or objectionable person; an insignificant person, a nobody; a nincompoop.”

Well, that gives us several distinct definitions, and you can take your pick. Pitts obviously considers the Canadian pop singer despicable and objectionable, but he wouldn’t be writing about him if he considered Bieber a nobody.

Standard dictionaries generally agree with the OED’s assessment of “twerp.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, defines it as “a silly, insignificant, or contemptible person.”

Where, you ask, does “twerp” come from? Oxford says it’s slang “of uncertain origin,” but the dictionary points readers in a tantalizing direction.

The OED cites a 1944 letter by J. R. R. Tolkien and a 1957 book by the poet Roy Campbell that suggest the original twerp was a fellow student at Oxford University named T. W. Earp (in later life, the art critic Thomas Wade Earp).

In an Oct. 6, 1944, letter to his youngest son, Christopher, Tolkien writes of living on Pusey Street while a student at Exeter College, Oxford, and “going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp.”

(John Garth, author of a Tolkien biography, says on his blog that the two Oxford students “had jousted in college debates” and “must have disagreed about almost everything.”)

Campbell, a South African, made his comment about “twerp” in Portugal, a 1957 book about his expatriate home. Campbell, who died in a car crash that same year, wrote:

“T. W. Earp (who gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the ‘decadents’).”

The OED’s earliest citation for “twerp” (or “twirp”) is from Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, a 1925 book by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons: “Twerp, an unpleasant person.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including one in College Humor, a 1921 collection of humor from campuses in the US and Canada.

Here are a few lines from “Hiawatha’s Wedding,” a takeoff on the Longfellow poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” (The parody originally appeared in the Sun Dodger, a magazine at the University of Washington.)

Called Him Onderdonk, the Bonhead,
Wilfred Onderdonk, the Booby,
Onderdonk Pasha Nabisco
Little Twirp, the Chronic Nit Wit.

We’ve seen several earlier dates for the usage in slang dictionaries, but we haven’t been able to confirm them.

American Slang (4th ed.), for example, dates “twerp” to “1874+” but doesn’t offer any citations. The only 19th-century examples we could find in digitized databases were the results of poor scanning (“an twerp” for “Antwerp” was a common error).

So is T. W. Earp the source of “twerp”? Well, the timing is apparently right. Tolkien, Campbell, and Earp were students at Oxford in the second decade of the 20th century, not long before the usage started showing up.

But if T. W. Earp was indeed the source, we’d expect to see one or two early citations for the word spelled “twearp.” We haven’t found any yet. So for the time being, we’ll go along with the OED and say “twerp” is “of uncertain origin.”

As for Justin Bieber, we’ll let our readers decide whether he qualifies.

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I left my heart in … Frisco?

Q: My North Beach uncle used to respond negatively when I used the term “Frisco” to refer to San Francisco. He considered it a huge no-no. He loved the city and thought the usage was disrespectful. What’s wrong with it? I (a Midwesterner) kind of like it.

A: Like your uncle, some San Franciscans object to the use of “Frisco,” saying it’s too touristy or it recalls the city’s gritty past.

Etymologically, it’s simply an abbreviation of “San Francisco,” perhaps introduced by 19th-century sailors who used the shortened name for the port.

We know that the nickname “Frisco” has been around since at least as far back as 1849. The city was officially named San Francisco in 1847, taking its name from the already well-known Bay of San Francisco.

Long before the official naming, though, sailors had referred to the town, the port, and the surrounding region as San Francisco.

For example, Richard Henry Dana uses “San Francisco” for both the port and the region in his sailing memoir Two Years Before the Mast (1840).

The earliest published use of “Frisco,” according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is from an 1849 letter written during the Gold Rush.

The letter, quoted in Octavius Thorndike Howe’s book Argonauts of ’49 (1923), is dated Dec. 30, 1849, and was written by a New Englander who had recently arrived by ship. He uses both the abbreviation and the full name:

“Made good passage to ’Frisco. Captain David Carter of Beverly [Mass.] died on the passage out. Think San Francisco the most contemptible dirty place one could wish to see. Not fit for man or beast.”

Note that the letter writer uses an apostrophe before “Frisco,” so he regarded it as an abbreviation. The apostrophe appears in many early uses.

As we said, this is the earliest known example. But we suspect that earlier ones will turn up, since that letter-writer used the term so casually, as if it were well-known.

Thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, we were able to find other early uses.

This one, for example, is from the March 9, 1850, issue of the Placer Times in Sacramento:

“A correspondent in a ’Frisco paper, writing from this city, says he saw ‘a female pedestrian galloping through our streets.’ Hope she had a good time.”

Nine more examples cropped up later that year in the Placer Times, the Sacramento Transcript, and the Sacramento Daily Union. In succeeding years, the usage was much more widespread. 

And it seems to have been perfectly respectable. We found a reference, for example, in a short story by C. J. Everett, “The Gentleman From Honolulu,” published in the genteel Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine in March 1868.

Early in the story, we’re told that one of the refined characters has picked up some slang on his trip to California and wishes he were “back in Frisco.”

One of his sisters, busy with her embroidery, answers: “Frank, we are tired of hearing you talk of Frisco. Where in the world did you get that name for it?”

He replies: “Oh, that’s the pet name the ‘boys’ give their beautiful harbor-city, the pride of the State. You ought to hear them shout for Frisco, as they throng into the ‘What Cheer House’ of a gala-day; and at the ‘Occidental’ is tossed off many a bumper ‘to Frisco and the ladies.’ ”

The term was common enough to appear in a dictionary published in London, John Stephen Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890).

The book describes “Frisco” as an American noun—“Short for San Francisco”—and gives contemporary citations from Bret Harte’s poems and from Sporting Life.

Before long, the term was part of common usage, even in officialdom.  

We found this line in a telegram sent in May 1900 by the Surgeon General in Washington, D.C.: “You may inspect all vessels as far as possible from Frisco.”

The message, published in the journal Public Health Reports in June 1900, was sent to a California quarantine officer after an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The officer later wired back: “Now that plague officially announced, wire instructions regarding my duties relative shipment of freight from Frisco to points in California and to surrounding States.”

Of course, since these uses of “Frisco” appeared in telegrams, perhaps the intent was to be brief.

It’s hard to say when some residents began frowning on the abbreviation.

One of the earliest objections is recorded in A Scamper Through America, an 1882 travel book. The English author, T. S. Hudson, warns travelers not to use the abbreviation while visiting the city.

“All Spanish names and expressions are proudly retained,” Hudson writes, “and you must never be heard using the irreverent abbreviation ’Frisco, the only curtailment admissible to the dignity of the citizens being that which they frequently use, ‘San Fran.’ ”

Later, even the local judiciary weighed in. A 1918 issue of the San Francisco Examiner reported that Judge Edmund P. Mogan chewed out a witness, a Los Angeles auto dealer, for using the term “Frisco” four times in his testimony.

“No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles,” said the judge. “Don’t do it again.”

Perhaps the most vocal of the locals was the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who wrote in 1953:

“Don’t call it Frisco. It’s San Francisco, because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi. And because ‘Frisco’ is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast and the cribs and sailors who were shanghaied. And because ‘Frisco’ shows disrespect for a city that is now big and proper and respectable. And because only tourists call it ‘Frisco,’ anyway, and you don’t want to be taken for a tourist, do you?”

Later, Caen moderated his grudge against “Frisco,” writing in a 1978 column: “My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (wildest) port of call in the Pacific.”

He could be on to something here. The language researcher Peter Tamony also suggested a maritime origin for “Frisco.”

In “The Sailors Call It ‘Frisco,’ ” published in the journal Western Folklore in 1967, Tamony said he didn’t believe that “Frisco” was necessarily an abbreviation.

He suggested the name arrived with sailors, and may have come ultimately from a Middle English term, frithsoken (asylum, sanctuary, “safe harbor”). But since that word died out in the early 1300s, his suggestion seems farfetched.

However, he could have been right that the abbreviation “Frisco” originated with sailors, since the first usage we have is by someone who arrived from New England by ship.

But we’re into mere speculation here. Lacking any documentary evidence of a connection with sailing, we conclude that “Frisco” is probably a simple abbreviation, much like “Berdoo” (San Bernardino); “Sacto” or, more recently, “Sac” (Sacramento); “Philly”; and “Chi.”

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Booty treatment

Q: My trainer has a group exercise class that she refers to as “booty camp.” I assume the class is intended to reduce the habitus of the gluteus, and thus it’s not another way of referring to a “booty call.”

A: The phrase “booty camp” is relatively new and still a work in progress, according to our searches of literary and news databases.

Since showing up in the late 20th century, it’s been used for a variety of things—an all-male sex party, a video of big-bottomed women, a yoga session (yes, yoga booty camp), toilet training for toddlers, and so on.

The use of “booty camp” for an exercise class, especially one that focuses on the hind quarters, showed up in the early years of the 21st century.

In the Jan. 13, 2003, issue of US News & World Report, for example, an article headlined “Booty Camp” reports that the “fitness biz has bold new ways to trim your butt (and build muscles).”

So how did a word originally used to describe plunder taken from an enemy in war find its way into the battle against flabby abs, hips, calves, and butts?

The noun “booty” (meaning plunder, gain, or profit shared by victors) first showed up in the 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example comes from The Game and Playe of Chesse, William Caxton’s 1474 translation of a Latin treatise on morality: “So shold the dispoyll and botye be comune vnto them.”

(In the work, one of the first books printed in English, the chessboard and pieces are used figuratively to represent the king and his subjects.)

By the 16th century, according to the OED citations, the term “booty” was being used loosely to refer to plunder taken by common robbers and thieves as well as warriors.

The word took an unexpected twist in the early 20th century, when it became an African-American slang term for sexual intercourse, a female sex object, or the female genitals. In early examples, it’s spelled “boody.”

Oxford describes the usage as “probably an altered form of botty,” a 19th-century slang term for a baby’s bottom. But the dictionary adds that it might also have been influenced by the plunder sense of “booty.”

The first citation is from Nigger Heaven, a 1926 novel by Carl Van Vechten: “Now … now … that you’ve gone white, do you really want … pinks for boody?” (The ellipses are in the book.)

And here’s an example from a song in Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1935 collection of folklore: “Go to Ella Wall / Oh, go to Ella Wall / If you want good boody / Oh, go to Ella Wall.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

In the 1950s, the term “booty” took on another meaning, “the buttocks,” according to the OED. Here’s an example from Frank London Brown’s 1959 novel, Trumbull Park: “Getting kicked in the booty would be mighty discouraging too.”

The phrase “booty call,” which showed up in the 1990s, refers to “a visit made to a person for the (sole) purpose of having sexual intercourse; an invitation to have sexual intercourse.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Dazzey Duks, a 1993 album by the rap duo Duice. The title of one cut is “Booty Call.”

The dictionary’s latest example is from the June 2001 issue of Cosmopolitan: “A guy I’d been seeing made a booty call. Afterward, he said, ‘High five!’ and reached out his hand to slap mine.”

Getting back to “booty camp,” the usage was undoubtedly influenced by the use of the phrase “boot camp” for a base where military recruits are trained, a usage that the OED dates to Word War II.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Boot: A Marine in the Making (1944), by Cpl. Gilbert P. Bailey: “Marine inductees are called ‘Boots’ and it is Marine Corps custom to send them all through a grim process called ‘boot camp.’ “

A final point: One would assume that the plunder sense of “booty” is related to the Old English term “boot,” meaning advantage or profit, but no connection has been proved, according to the OED.

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Kicks in the closet

Q: I have a question that occurred to me while reading your article about “kick the can down the road.” This isn’t life-altering or profound, but what is the origin of the slang use of “kicks” to mean shoes?

A: The use of “kicks” for shoes originated in 1890s American slang, and judging from the earliest examples, it had unsavory beginnings among tramps and thieves. 

The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Jack London tale, “The Frisco Kid’s Story” (1895), which is narrated by a “road kid” or tramp: “Dere wuz nothin’ left but his kicks, I mean shoes.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has another early example, from an 1897 article in Popular Science Monthly on the subject of criminal lingo.

In the article, “The Language of Crime,” the writer A.B.F. Crofton discusses “the general tendency of the criminal to reduce the abstract to the concrete, to denote the substantive [the noun] by one of its attributes.”

Crofton goes on to give a few examples: “Thus a purse is a leather; a street car is a short, comparing its length with a railroad car; a handkerchief is a wipe; and a pair of shoes a pair of kicks.” (We’ve expanded the Random House citation to provide more context.)

So there’s the likely explanation: shoes are used to kick, hence the noun “kicks.” It makes a lot of sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the phrase originated in the US, but doesn’t hint at the connection between shoes and kicking.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a prison memoir, Life in Sing Sing (1904), whose author, identified only as “No. 1500,” defines many jailhouse terms including this one: “Kicks, shoes.”

After a few decades, “kicks” gradually lost its underworld associations and became more widely used for “shoes” in the general population.

Random House has several examples of this wider usage, including one from a 1927 story by S. J. Perelman: “Beige lizard kicks are being worn a good deal this season.”

And a 1932 article in the journal American Speech said “kicks” was being used for “shoes” among students at Johns Hopkins University. 

This slang term is still with us, though it now has a more specific meaning. In street language and in youth culture generally, “kicks” means sneakers or athletic shoes.

Random House has several examples of this newer usage, including one from a 1984 issue of USA Today: “Here at the Roxy Roller Rink, sneakers are called ‘kicks.’ ”

The slang dictionary also has two 1993 citations: U.C.L.A. Slang II, edited by Pamela Munro, says students use “kicks” to mean “athletic shoes.” And the rap song “I Got It Goin’ On,” recorded by Us3, has the line “Sport the dope threads and the $100 kicks.”

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Toilet training

Q: I found your post about the use of “head” for toilet very illuminating, although I was surprised by the euphemistic use of “lavatory,” probably derived from a Latin word for “wash,” rather than the more precise “crapper,” which, as I recall, derives from the name of the person who invented the first flush toilet.

A: We wouldn’t describe “lavatory” as a euphemism, like “powder room” or “restroom” or “washroom.” It’s an old word that’s been around since the 14th century, and its modern sense of a room with a toilet can be traced to the 17th century.

You’re right, though, that it’s derived from a Latin word (lavare, to wash). We discussed “lavatory” a couple of years ago in an item about another word from the same Latin source, “lavabo,” a washbasin or lavatory.

The word “lavatory” is more common in the UK than the US, where a room with a toilet is usually referred to as a “bathroom,” a usage that might be described as a euphemism when the room doesn’t have a bath or shower.

As for “crapper,” we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s a notorious myth that the Victorian plumbing magnate Thomas Crapper was responsible for the words “crap” and “crapper,” or for the invention of the flush toilet.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we explain that the word “crap” has been used to mean debris since the 1400s, and “crapping” has meant defecating at least as far back as 1846, when Thomas Crapper was barely out of diapers.

In fact, there’s some evidence, though not conclusive, that “crapping” has meant defecating since the 1600s.

“Another widespread legend about Crapper is that he invented the flush toilet,” we write in Origins. “This myth was helped along by a comic biography, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969), by the British humorist Wallace Reyburn.”

In fact, the flush toilet was around well before Crapper was born. He did, however, help popularize it, and he patented some toilet-related inventions, not all of them improvements.

“One in particular,” we write, “a spring-loaded toilet seat, was nicknamed the ‘bottom-slapper’ for its inclination to paddle Victorian users as they rose.”

A final myth is that Thomas Crapper’s name was the source of the word “crapper,” slang for the device itself.

One story has it that American doughboys in England during World War I brought back the usage after seeing the trade name “Crapper” on British toilet bowls.

“But in fact the word was already in use in 1911, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself,” we say in Origins. “The apparatus wasn’t referred to as a ‘crapper’ until 1932, long after the war.”

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Kick the can down the road

Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché?

A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or put off solving a problem until later, isn’t quite as new as you may think.

It first showed up in the 1980s, according to a search of newspaper and literary databases, though of course it’s not nearly as old as the game kick-the-can, which has been mentioned in print since the late 1800s.

In the game, a variation of hide-and-seek, the kid chosen to be “it” tags, or captures, players and puts them in a holding area near the can.

The game is over when “it” captures all the other children. But if one of the free players sneaks up and kicks the can, the captured children are released.

We’ve found several 19th-century mentions of the game. Here’s one from The Story of Aaron, an 1896 children’s book by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories:

“ ‘Oh, come and help us, Drusilla!’ cried Sweetest Susan, as gleefully as if she were playing hide-the-switch, or kick-the-can.”

(In hide-the-switch, another children’s game, the child who finds the switch is allowed to hit one of the players with it.)

The earliest example we could find for the expression “kick the can down the road” is from an Associated Press article that ran on Feb. 26, 1985, in the Galveston (TX) Daily News, the Gettysburg (PA) Times, and other newspapers:

“Whether or not the reason for the delay is exclusively for technical reasons, this official said the delay ‘kicks the can down the road’ in terms of making it a less pressing problem with the Soviets.”

William Safire, commenting on the usage in a 1988 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, suggests that the children’s game inspired the expression:

“What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead?”

We haven’t found any evidence proving that the game kick-the-can is the source of the expression “kick the can down the road.” But we’ve seen some evidence that suggests a connection.

For example, Twilight Zone: The Movie, which appeared in 1983 shortly before the expression showed up in print, includes a “Kick the Can” segment in which the game helps transform residents at a retirement home into their youthful selves.

We didn’t see the movie, but the 1959 TV segment on which it was based begins with kids kicking a can around in an aimless way (or, to use Safire’s phrase, “in less organized fashion”) before playing the actual game.

Did that aimlessness suggest the procrastinating sense of “kick the can down the road”? Perhaps, but another explanation may lie in the etymology of the verb “kick.”

Since the early 1800s, the verb phrases “kick about” and “kick around” have meant “to walk or wander about; to go from place to place, esp. aimlessly,” according to the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as a colloquialism that originated in the US.

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from A New Home—Who’ll Follow, an 1839 book by the American writer Caroline Matilda Kirkland: “We heard that he was better, and would be able to ‘kick around’ pretty soon.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has 20th-century examples of a similar expression, “kick it around,” which it defines as to carouse.

Here’s the earliest citation, from Ceiling Zero, a 1936 Howard Hawks film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “You gotta learn to kick it around. Look at Dizzy—he’s having a great time.”

We’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about this can-kicking business, but there’s one other way of looking at the relationship between the game kick-the-can and the expression “kick the can down the road.”

In kick-the-can, the kicking frees the captured children and delays a resolution of the game, which could loosely be described as putting off a solution to a problem.

Sorry we can’t be more definite about this, but we’ve given you a few ideas to kick around.

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Why is a dead ringer a double?

Q: After mistaking someone in a store for someone else the other day, I thought to myself, “Wow, that person is a dead ringer.” Where in the world does that term come from?

A: Sometimes a nonliteral usage makes sense only if you use your imagination a bit. This is one of those cases.

Since the 19th century, the nouns “ring” and “ringer” have been used in several extended senses, all loosely related to the making of a resonant sound.

One of these extended senses has to do with the notion of likeness or resemblance, and this is the sense that gave us the expression “dead ringer.”

In slang usage, a “ringer” is someone or something that closely resembles another. The adjective “dead” (in the sense of certain or complete) is usually added for emphasis, as it is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations.

There’s a certain poetic logic at work here. The literal meaning of “ringer”—someone who makes a resonant sound—has been extended to the visual sphere. Just as a sound can resonate and repeat itself, so can a visual image.

In American slang, “dead ringer” has meant “a person or thing that looks very like another,” or “a double,” since the 1870s, the OED says.

Oxford’s first published example is from a Colorado newspaper, the Weekly Register-Call of Central City (1878):

“The knight of La Mancha storming a wind mill, is a ‘dead ringer,’ so to speak, for Windy Bill riding down a phalanx of Mexicans on a long-eared mule.”

A similar noun phrase with the same meaning, “dead ring,” has been used in Australia and New Zealand since the 1890s, the OED says.

Today both “dead ringer” and “ringer” alone are used this way in both American and British English.

Oxford cites a 2005 example from a London newspaper, the Independent: “There is another ticket inspector, a ringer for Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, whose name is Simon de Montfort.”

Two additional extended senses of “ring” and “ringer” are worth mentioning. These have to do with the opposing notions of (1) truth and authenticity, and (2) impostors or fraudulent substitutes.

For example, when we speak of something that’s convincing (like a statement or an account), we say it has the “ring of truth,” an expression the OED dates from the 1840s.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from the Illuminated Magazine (1843): “There was a ring of truth and good-fellowship in the man’s voice, that, as we felt, made us old acquaintances.”

This phrase is probably related to similar usages dating from the early 1600s in which the genuineness or quality of coins, precious metals, glass, pottery, etc., was judged by how they “rang” when struck.

Material that was authentic or high-quality would “ring true,” while shoddy or fake merchandise would “ring false” or “ring hollow.” 

This brings us to the shadier meanings of “ring” and “ringer,” in which resemblance is used for subterfuge.

The OED suggests that these illicit usages can be traced to 18th-century criminal slang, in which to “ring” or “ring changes” meant “to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item.”

In mid-19th-century American slang, a “ringer” (originally a “ringer of changes”) meant “a person who fraudulently substitutes a horse, athlete, etc. for another in a competition or sporting event,” the OED says.

Later, in wider usage, a “ringer” came to mean “a person who fraudulently substitutes one thing for another.”

Oxford’s earliest citation comes from a November 1858 issue of American Freemason: “He knew what dummies meant, as well as the most expert cracksman or ringer of changes in town.”

The shorter version, “ringer,” appeared in an 1877 issue of The Spirit of the Times, a New York sporting newspaper. “Ringers” here refers to the people responsible for the switching:

“While Hicks & Co. were engaged in the laudable cause of exposing the iniquitous ringers in Boston, they should not have overlooked Dolly Davis, Easter Maid, by Almont, and her performances near Boston.” (A trotter named Easter Maid was also raced under the name Dolly Davis.)

This slang use of “ringer” is now rare in American usage, though a similar term related to car theft emerged in British slang in the 1960s. The OED defines this use of “ringer” as meaning “a criminal who fraudulently changes the identity of a motor vehicle.”

One fraudulent sense of “ringer” that’s still with us on both sides of the Atlantic is the one that means the substitute itself. In this sense, the “ringer” is the stronger horse or athlete that’s underhandedly substituted for a weaker one.

This usage dates from American horse racing in the mid-1880s, and it’s still around today.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1980 issue of the Times of London: The Crown claimed that the horse had been switched and that the winner was in fact a ‘ringer,’ a more successful stablemate called Cobblers March.”

This later example refers to an altogether different brand of sport. It comes from Ryan Nerz’s Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit (2006):

“The local eaters were going up against professionals—‘ringers’ brought in from out of town.”

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Here’s Johnny

Q: What do you call it when you add a name before a country of origin to make a sort of derisive term like “Jack Burma,” “Johnny Turk,” “Johnny Reb,” “Billy Yank,” and so on?

A: Terms like these have been referred to variously as “national personifications,” “collective pseudonyms,” or “collective nicknames.”

They were never the names of real people; they’re just symbols that collectively represent a nation or its citizens.

In military use, some names refer fondly to a country’s own forces, but some represent the enemy. 

During the American Civil War, for example, Northerners referred to Confederate soldiers as “Johnny Reb” (short for “rebel”), while Southerners called Union soldiers “Billy Yank” (for Yankee).

After the war, such terms lost their bitterness. The Oxford English Dictionary cites one such usage that appeared in a trade magazine, Realty & Building, in 1948:

“Colonel John was a Johnny Reb who delighted in telling of the exploits of the boys in gray.”

But the tradition of military or national nicknames goes much further back. 

In Britain, according to the OED, sailors have been familiarly called “Jack” since the 1600s and “Jack Tar” since the 1700s.

More recently, British soldiers have been called “Tommy”—short for “Thomas (or Tommy) Atkins”—since the 19th century. 

As the OED explains, “Thomas Atkins” wasn’t a real person’s name, but “a familiar name for the typical private soldier in the British Army; arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward.”

Some of the documents used other names, the OED says, “but ‘Thomas Atkins’ being that used in all the forms for privates in the Cavalry or Infantry, is by far the most frequent, and thus became the most familiar.” The use of “Tommy” for an ordinary soldier first appeared in print in 1881.

We’ve written before on the blog about the use of “Johnny” or “John” as a generic term for a guy or a fellow.

Since the 18th century, the name “John Bull,” according to the OED, has personified “the English nation; Englishmen collectively; the typical Englishman.”

Early in the following century, the name “Johnny (or Jean) Crapaud” was first used to mean a Frenchman, Oxford says. (Crapaud is French for “toad.”)

Similarly, “Johnny Turk” originated in the World War I era as a name for “a Turkish soldier” or “any Turk,” the OED says.  

The Russian equivalent of “John” is “Ivan,” and the use of “Ivan” (or “Ivan Ivanovitch”) to mean a typical Russian soldier, Oxford says, dates from the 1890s.

As for German soldiers, we can trace to World War I the use of “Jerry” or “Fritz” to refer to them, whether individually or collectively. 

We’ll end with “Jack Burma,” a British term for the Burmese. A search of Google Books suggests that it originated in the 19th century during the British occupation of Burma.

In The Burman: His Life and Notions (1882), for example, Sir James George Scott describes how the Burmese travel in bullock carts that “are roomy, and allow ‘Jack Burma’ and his family to loll about as they please.”

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Spill proof

Q: I’m wondering why we “spill” secrets. It seems such an odd verb to use when we mean “tell.”

A: This use of “spill” originated  in World War I-era American slang, though a similar usage showed up briefly across the Atlantic in the 16th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the 20th-century usage is from a master of slanguage, Ring Lardner. Here’s the citation from his novel Gullible’s Travels (1917):

“ ‘Go ahead and spill it,’ I says.” (We found another one in the same book: “I promised her I wouldn’t spill none o’ the real details.”)

In this sense, the OED says, to “spill” means “to utter (words); to confess or divulge (facts).”

The usage soon caught on, and variations appeared. Another American slang phrase, “to spill the beans” (meaning “to reveal a secret”), showed up within a couple of years, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example of this one is from Thomas H. Holmes’s novel The Man From Tall Timber (1919): “ ‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

And another variation, “to spill one’s guts,” meaning “to divulge as much as one can, to confess,” came along in the Roaring Twenties, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Francis Charles Coe’s underworld novel Me—Gangster (1927). “ ‘Throw him out, eh?’ the old man snarled. … ‘Throw him out an’ have him spill his guts about the whole gang?’ ”

So when we use “spill” to mean confess or give away a secret—to pour out something that was held in—we’re using a century-old American slang term.

But in a quirk of linguistic history, it turns out that Americans weren’t the first to use “spill” in this figurative way. The OED records an isolated example from 16th-century England.

This line appeared in Familiar Epistles, Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of letters by the Spanish friar Antonio de Guevara: “Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which … his friends haue said vnto me.”

In this citation, the OED says, “spill” is used figuratively to mean “to divulge, let out.”

The volume of Guevara’s Epistolas Familiares that Hellowes translated was first printed in Spanish in 1539. This raises a question: Were the Spanish already using their verb for “spill” in a figurative way to mean “divulge”?  

We located the passage in the original Spanish, and it begins, “Aunque es vergüenza de lo decir …”—literally, “Although it’s a shame to say it ….”

So Hellowes’s figurative use of “spill” for Guevara’s decir (to say) was original.

Interestingly, the English word “spill,” which comes from old Germanic sources, didn’t always mean to pour out.

When it entered Old English around the year 950, it meant to kill, destroy, put to death, ruin, overthrow, wreck, and so on.

Those hair-raising meanings are now obsolete or archaic, but they survived poetically for many centuries. 

Here’s an example from Thomas Taylor’s A Commentarie vpon the Epistle of S. Paul Written to Titus (1612): “Caring no more in their fury to spill a man, then to kill a dogge.”

How did a word for “destroy” come to mean overflow or pour out?

Sometime in the early 12th century, “spill” took on another meaning, the OED says: “to shed (blood).”

And a couple of centuries later, the OED says, that sense expanded to mean “to allow or cause (a liquid) to fall, pour, or run out (esp. over the edge of the containing vessel), usually in an accidental or wasteful manner; to lose or waste in this way.”

We still use “spill” in this way. We’ve also used the noun “spill” since the mid-19th century to mean a tumble or a fall, as in “He had a spill from his horse” or “She took a spill on the steps.”

Another handy usage, the adjective “spill-proof,” came along in the 1920s. This more recent OED example is from an ad that ran in Glamour magazine in 1963: “New spray mist! Unbreakable. Spill-proof…. Intimate by Revlon.”

In short, “spill” has come a long way.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

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