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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

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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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: It’s summertime and the language is breezy.

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Why is a hick town a jerkwater?

Q: The two citations for “jerkwater” in my dictionary refer to remote, unimportant towns. Are there other uses for the word? And does it refer to pulling down the arm of a water tank or some other kind of jerking?

A: The term “jerkwater” was originally an adjective that described a stagecoach, train, or other conveyance serving a remote provincial area, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The earliest example of the usage in Random House is from the March 1869 issue of the Overland Monthly, a California-based magazine published by Bret Harte.

The citation describes mules and oxen carrying mining supplies as “ ‘jerkwater’ stages, which had been three or four days making the trip of one hundred and ten miles.”

The dictionary’s next example of the adjectival usage—from the May 15, 1909, issue of the Saturday Evening Post—uses the word to describe a railroad train:

“The farther along Flagg got in the list the more disgusted he became with the prospect of living on jerk-water trains.” (We’ve gone to the original to expand the Random House citation.)

The slang dictionary also has examples of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a stagecoach or train serving a rural area. The first citation for the noun is from The Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by Fred H. Hart:

“I wish I may be runned over by a two-horse jerk-water if there was a sage-hen in sight.”

And here’s a 1905 example—from Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society—of the noun used for a train: “Jerkwater (train), n. Train on a branch railway. ‘Has the jerkwater come in yet?’ ”

Why was a train serving a remote area called a “jerkwater”? The Oxford English Dictionary points the reader to this explanation in Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire, a 1945 book by James Marshall:

“The Santa Fe was the Jerkwater Line—because train crews, when the water got low, often had to stop by a creek, form a bucket brigade and jerk water from the stream to fill the tender tank.”

By the late 19th century, the term “jerkwater” was also being used as an adjective to describe something provincial or insignificant, according to Random House.

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage is from the July 25, 1897, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “John J. Ingalls regards the Swiss mission as a jerkwater job, and would not take it if it were offered to him.”

The first Random House example of the adjective used to describe a small town is from “Above the Law,” a 1918 short story by Max Brand: “A jerk-water shanty village like Three Rivers.”

Interestingly, the dictionary’s earliest example of “jerkwater” used as a noun for a small town (from a June 1927 issue of the journal American Speech) suggests the usage was already on the way out:

“The advent of gasoline … has brought the expression filling-station to take the place of tank town or jerkwater.”

You’ve also asked about other uses for the word. Random House has many examples of the term used broadly to mean insignificant: “jerkwater hotels” (1936), “jerkwater cowcollege” (1938-39), “jerk water country” (1953), “jerkwater paper” (1983), and so on.

By the way, the word “hick” in the title of this post is derived from an old nickname for someone called Richard.

In the mid-1500s, according to the OED, the nickname came to mean “an ignorant countryman; a silly fellow, booby.” By the early 20th century, the term was being used adjectivally to mean unsophisticated or provincial.

Although the provincial sense of “hick” originated in Britain, Oxford says, it’s now chiefly an American usage. 

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It’s a gas

Q: Does the expression “It’s a gas” (meaning “It’s a lot of fun”) come from the use of laughing gas?

A: It’s possible that the use of “a gas” to mean a lot of fun may somehow be connected with the common name for nitrous oxide, but we haven’t found any solid evidence to support this.

Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, speculates about such a connection, but he doesn’t come to any conclusion.

In writing about the Irish English use of “gas” to mean fun, Partridge adds this brief notation: “Ex ‘laughing gas’?”

The use of “gas” to mean a vapor was coined in the mid-1600s by the Flemish physician and chemist J. B. van Helmont, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Dutch word used by van Helmont was probably an alteration of chaos, the ancient Greek word for empty space.

Chambers says the letter “g” in Dutch “represents a sound somewhat like the modern Greek sound transliterated as ch.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that van Helmont used a Dutch version of the Greek chaos “to denote an occult principle, supposedly an ultra-refined form of water, which he postulated as existing in all matter.” 

The first use of “gas” in English, according to OED citations, was in a 1662 translation of van Helmont’s 1648 work Ortus Medicinæ: “for want of a name, I have called that vapour, Gas, being not far severed from the Chaos of the Auntients.”

The word’s modern sense of a shapeless substance that “expands freely to fill the whole of a container” dates from the late 17th century, according to Oxford citations.

As for nitrous oxide, the gas was first synthesized by the English chemist Joseph Priestly in 1772, and first used to anesthetize a dental patient in 1844.

The OED’s earliest example of “laughing gas” used for nitrous oxide is from a June 23, 1819, issue of the Times of London that refers to the “chymical experiments on gas at 9, when the laughing gas will be exhibited.”

“Laughing gas is so called from the euphoric intoxication it causes when inhaled at low concentrations,” the OED says. “It has been used as a general anaesthetic in dentistry and surgery, and also illicitly as a recreational drug.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word “gas” took on the sense of “enjoyment, amusement, fun” in Irish English.

The OED’s first citation for the usage is from Dubliners, James Joyce’s 1914 story collection. In “An Encounter,” a story about two boys who skip school, Mahony tells the narrator that he’s brought along a slingshot “to have some gas with the birds.”

However, the usage you’re asking about (the use of “it’s a gas” or variants to mean it’s a lot of fun) didn’t show up in print until the mid-20th century, according to written examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “Sonny’s Blues,” a 1957 short story by James Baldwin in The Partisan Review: “Brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.”

Here’s a more recent example from Paul Auster’s 1990 novel The Music of Chance: “ I’m looking forward to it immensely.’ ‘Me too, Bill,’ Pozzi said. ‘It’s going to be a gas.’ ”

The OED doesn’t speculate about the origins of this sense of “gas,” but it points the reader to a related slang word, “gasser,” which it says originated as a jazz term. 

The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Hepsters Dictionary” (1944), a brief glossary by Cab Calloway: “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang also links this use of “gas” to jazz. It cites several jazz examples, including one from Corner Boy, a 1957 novel by Herbert Simmons, in which a group of teen-agers discuss the jazz singer Nellie Lutcher:

“Man, don’t Nellie kill you?”

“She’s a gas, man, a natural petrol.”

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How cool is coolth?

Q: My late mother’s family lived in suburban Philadelphia long before air conditioning. She and her relatives had a word, “coolth,” to describe the opposite of “warmth.” Did they make this up or has it existed before?

A: No, your mother’s family didn’t make it up. The word “coolth” (meaning coolness) has been around since the 1500s. And the high point of its popularity, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, was in the mid-20th century.

Interestingly, it’s been having a bit of a revival lately, according to Google searches, often in a newer, colloquial sense of the word.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “coolth” was formed “chiefly after warmth,” which first showed up in the 1100s. The OED points out a similar word in Old Dutch, cuolitha.

The earliest Oxford citation for “coolth” is from a 1547 Welsh-English dictionary in which oerfel, Welsh for cold, is defined as “coulthe” in English.

The OED, which describes “coolth” as chiefly literary, archaic, or humorous now, has examples of the usage from the 16th to the 21st century, including citations from Rudyard Kipling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound, and Seamus Heaney.

Here’s a literary example from Heaney’s 2001 poetry collection Electric Light: “The older I get, the quicker and the closer I hear those labouring breaths and feel the coolth.”

In recent decades, “coolth” has taken on a colloquial sense that the OED defines as the “quality of being relaxed, assured, or sophisticated in demeanour or style.”

The earliest example of this newer usage, which the dictionary describes as chiefly humorous, is from the May 26, 1966, issue of the San Antonio (Texas) Express: “In this marathon role she has wit, poise, warmth and a very taking coolth.”

The most recent citation is from Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker (2003), James McManus’s book about the poker championship in Las Vegas:

“My albeit progressive-bifocal shades suggest not feeble nearsightedness but its opposite—penetrating 20/20 vision to go with impenetrable coolth.”

We’ve found “coolth” in only a few standard dictionaries, defined as a pleasantly cool temperature or the quality of being fashionable.

We couldn’t tell from the OED examples of “coolth” in the thermometer sense whether the writers were using the word humorously or seriously.

However, Philip Durkin, writing in The Oxford Guide to Etymology, feels that some of these citations “are self-consciously humorous, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards.”

Although “coolth” has been used since the 16th century, Durkin says, the record of the usage is “rather patchy” and may be the result of repeated inventions of the word.

“There is probably not a continuous history of the usage, but rather a succession of separate formations of the word,” he writes.

R. Harald Baayen, in his 2003 paper “Linguistic Approaches to Morphology,” discusses “coolth” in writing about whether the English word ending “-th” is alive, dead, or something in between as an affix to form new words.

Baayen, whose paper was published in the book Probabilistic Linguistics, writes that the use of the affix “-th” in “coolth” points out the difficulty in judging whether a word element is, in linguistic terminology, productive, nonproductive, or semiproductive.

He says “coolth,” a term that was “once a nonce word made on analogy with warmth,” is now alive and well in both jocular and literal senses, “even though -th is one of the well-worn examples of a supposedly completely unproductive suffix in English.”

And if you’d like to read about a popular cousin of “coolth,” check out our “Birth of the cool” posting from 2010.

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Yeah, no

Q: We North Queenslanders are considered rednecks even by Australian standards. I thought I’d pass on an example of English usage in this part of the world: Yeah, no, as in “Yeah, no, they should’ve won in the last quarter.”

A: We’ve written on the blog about “yeah,” but we haven’t looked into “yeah, no” until now.

Others, however, have studied this conversational response, which is used by both Americans and Australians.

In fact, Australians may use it, more—at least there’s been more written about “yeah, no” by language scholars in Australia.

A 2004 article in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, quoted the Australian linguist Kate Burridge as saying, “It’s not going to disappear. It’s always hard to predict with language change, but it looks like its use is on the increase.”

The author of the Melbourne article, Bridie Smith, pointed out that English speakers aren’t alone in this usage, since “Germans use a similar ‘ja nein’ and the South Africans ‘ya nay.’ ”

“In Australia,” Smith wrote in 2004, “where the phrase has become entrenched in the past six years, ‘yeah no’ can mean anything from ‘yes, I see that, but can we go back to the earlier topic’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes, I can’t reinforce that point enough.’ ”

The meaning of “yeah, no” depends on its context, Smith says. She quotes Dr. Burridge, the linguist, as saying: “It can emphasise agreement, it can downplay disagreement or compliments, and it can soften refusals.”

Burridge and a colleague, Margaret Florey, published a paper in the Australian Journal of Linguistics in 2002 entitled “ ‘Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English.”

An abstract of the paper said that as of 2002, “Yeah, no” was relatively new in Australian English and served many functions. It kept a conversation rolling, helped with “hedging and face-saving,” and indicated agreement or disagreement.

Since then, American linguists and language watchers have taken note of “yeah, no” in the US.

Linguists have discussed it on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. And articles have been written by Stephen Dodson for Language Hat, by Mark Liberman for the Language Log, and by Ben Yagoda for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Even presidents of the United States aren’t immune. When a radio interviewer in 2011 asked Bill Clinton how he felt about being spoofed on TV comedy shows, Yagoda writes, “The former president replied, ‘Oh yeah, no I thought a lot of the Saturday Night Live guys were great.’ ” 

Liberman surveyed the speech databases in the Linguistic Data Consortium, and found that “in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms.”

In one comment on the ADS list, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter quoted a former New York City police detective as saying on CNN: “Yeah, no, you’re right!”

Lighter added: “There it seems to mean, ‘Yes indeed, and no, I wouldn’t think of contradicting you.’ ” 

But it can also mean disagreement, as in this tweet a few months ago about horror movies: “yeah no i hate blood and guns and stuff like that.”

PS: Readers of the blog have reported sightings (or, rather, hearings) of the usage in New Zealand, in South African English as well as Afrikaans, and in Danish.

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On the lam

Q: Some time ago I wrote you to recommend an essential book for someone in your trade: How the Irish Invented Slang, by Daniel Cassidy. There you will find, among many hundred entries, his view of the derivation of “lam” from the Irish word leim. Alas, Danny has since died, and his extraordinary achievement has not been properly recognized. I feel sure that if you look through his book you will be inspired to extend at least his scholarly life.

A: You won’t like what we have to say. This book sounds like a lot of fun, but perhaps there’s more fun in it than truth.

Cassidy’s book, which won an American Book Award for nonfiction in 2007, maintains that American slang is teeming with words of Irish origin—“jazz,” “spiel,” “baloney,” “nincompoop,” “babe,” and “bunkum,” to mention only a few.

But many of his claims have been disputed by linguists and lexicographers because they’re based merely on phonetic similarities.

The critics include Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and dictionary editor who specializes in slang, and Mark Liberman, a linguist who has called Cassidy’s book an “exercise in creative etymology.”

Cassidy himself has acknowledged that he based his etymologies on phonetic similarities. A New York Times interviewer wrote in 2007 about the inspiration that led to the book:

 “Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having ‘unknown origin.’ ”

 The article continues: “He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word ‘gimmick’ seemed to come from ‘camag,’ meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.”

 “Buddy,” as Cassidy told the interviewer, sounded like bodach (Irish for a strong, lusty youth); “geezer” resembled gaosmhar (wise person); “dude” was like duid (foolish-looking fellow), and so on. He thus compiled lists of American slang words that sounded as if they came from Irish, and based his book on them.

But in doing serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another. A superficial resemblance might provide a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

A more authoritative approach would be to apply the academic standards that a lexicographer or a comparative linguist would use, supporting one’s case with documented evidence from written records. 

Let’s focus on the phrase you mention—“on the lam.”

Cassidy suggests an etymology of “lam” in a passage about an Irish-American gambler named Benny Binion: “Benny went on the lam (leim, jump), scramming to Vegas with two million dollars in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac.”

So Cassidy is proposing that “lam” in this sense is derived from the Irish leim. But other than that parenthetical note, he offers no evidence for the suggested etymology.

It’s true that leim (pronounced LAY-im) is Irish Gaelic for “jump” or “leap.” It’s similar to nouns with the same meaning in other Celtic languages (llam in Welsh, lam in Breton and Cornish, lheim in Manx Gaelic, leum in Scottish Gaelic), and it shows up in many Irish place names.

But we haven’t found a single other source that connects the Irish leim with the American slang term “lam,” meaning to run away. Not one.

If there were any truth in Cassidy’s assertion, etymologists and lexicographers would have picked up on it by now. 

Slang scholars still describe the origin of the “lam” in “on the lam” as unknown, and they would be only too happy to discover it.

Several theories have been proposed over the years: (1) that “lam” is short for “slam”; (2) that it’s from “lammas,” a mid-19th century British slang word meaning to run off; and (3) that it’s from the verb “lam” (to beat), used like “beat” in the older phrase “beat it.”

The last theory is the most commonly proposed—that the slang “lam” comes from the verb meaning to beat.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lam” has had this meaning (to “beat soundly” or “thrash”) since Shakespeare’s day. The earliest citations in writing come from the 1590s.

In the late 19th century, the OED says, this verb “lam” acquired a new meaning in American slang—“to run off, to escape, to ‘beat it.’ ”

Oxford’s earliest citation for the slang verb is from Allan Pinkerton’s book Thirty Years a Detective (1886), in a reference to a pickpocket:

“After he has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The following year, the OED says, the word started appearing as a noun to mean “escape” or “flight.” Oxford’s earliest example here is from an 1897 issue of Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly: “To do a lam, meaning to run.”

Over the next few decades, according to slang dictionaries, to run or escape was to “lam,” “do a lam,” “make a lam,” “lam it,” “go on the lam,” “take a lam,” “take it on the lam,” and “be on the lam.”

Similarly, the OED says, a fugitive or somebody on the run was called a “lamster” (1904; also spelled “lamaster” and “lammister”).

It’s not hard to see how the “lam” that means to beat it might have descended from the “lam” that means to beat.

Since Old English, as the OED says, to “beat” has been “said of the action of the feet upon the ground in walking or running.”

This use of “beat,” according to Oxford, has given us phrases like “beat the streets,” “beat a path,” “beat a track,” and so on. In the 17th century, to “beat the hoof,” or “beat it on the hoof,” was to go on foot. 

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “beat it” (to clear out, go in a hurry), was first recorded in 1878, when it appeared in A. F. Mulford’s Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry:

“The Gatling guns sang rapidly for a few seconds, and how those reds, so boastful at their war dance the night before, did ‘beat it!’ ”

So the slang use of “beat it” was around before “lam” (to beat) acquired its extended slang meaning (to run or beat it).

But we haven’t discussed where the earlier “lam” came from. Etymologists believe it’s derived from the Old Norse lemja (to flog or to cripple by beating). However, an even earlier source has been suggested, one that’s older than writing.

The linguist Calvert Watkins, writing in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, identifies the source of “lam” and “lame” (both verb and adjective) as an Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as lem-, meaning “to break in pieces, broken, soft, with derivatives meaning ‘crippled.’ ”

This Indo-European root developed into prehistoric Proto-Germanic words that have been reconstructed as lamon (weak limbed, lame) and lamjan (to flog, beat, cripple), according to Watkins and to the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Other authorities, including the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, say the Indo-European lem– also has descendants outside the Germanic languages, including an adjective in Old Irish and Middle Irish, lem (“foolish, insipid”).

The modern Irish equivalent, leamh, is similarly defined (“foolish, insipid, importunate”) in An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, by Alexander McBain. 

This is a different word entirely from the Irish leim (jump), which McBain says was leimm in Old Irish.

We mentioned above that leim can be found in many Irish place names.

To mention just a few, there are Limavady (the Irish name is Leim an Mhadaidh, or “leap of the dog”); Lemnaroy (Leim an Eich Ruaidh, “leap of the reddish horse”); and Leixlip (Leim an Bhradain, “leap of the salmon”).

This last one is an interesting case. Leixlip is on the river Liffey, which is rich in salmon. The town’s original name came from Old Norse, lax hlaup (“salmon leap”).

In the 1890s, when Leixlip adopted an Irish name, it chose Leim an Bhradain (“leap of the salmon”), a direct translation of the Old Norse. Of course, the Vikings who settled there in the Dark Ages may have used a Norse translation from Irish. Who knows?

Some etymological questions may never be settled for sure. That doesn’t mean scholarly methods can’t be used to make an educated guess. Still, uneducated guesses are made all the time because people are so eager to know.

Woody Allen once satirized this desperate need to know. In a humorous essay called “Slang Origins,” from his book Without Feathers (1972), he wrote:

“How many of you have ever wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like ‘She’s the cat’s pajamas,’ or to ‘take it on the lam.’ Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins. …

“ ‘Take it on the lam’ is English in origin. Years ago, in England, ‘lamming’ was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then skipped around the room until he hemorrhaged. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word ‘quintz’ and proceed to twirl in a frenzy. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a portion of his feathers and was given a good ‘lamming.’ Three ‘lammings’ and a player was ‘kwirled’ or declared a moral bankrupt. Gradually any game with feathers was called ‘lamming’ and feathers became ‘lams.’ To ‘take it on the lam’ meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.

“Incidentally, if two of the players disagreed on the rules, we might say they ‘got into a beef.’ This term goes back to the Renaissance when a man would court a woman by stroking the side of her head with a slab of meat. If she pulled away, it meant she was spoken for. If, however, she assisted by clamping the meat to her face and pushing it all over her head, it meant she would marry him. The meat was kept by the bride’s parents and worn as a hat on special occasions. If, however, the husband took another lover, the wife could end the marriage by running with the meat to the town square and yelling, ‘With thine own beef, I do reject thee. Aroo! Aroo!’ If a couple ‘took to the beef’ or ‘had a beef’ it meant they were quarreling.”

We think there’s a lesson here—and some lessons come with a laugh. The human mind abhors a vacuum. When the most advanced methods of scholarship can’t (or haven’t yet) come up with definitive answers, then answers will be invented. 

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Plumb loco

Q: Am I right in believing that the phrase “plumb loco” is derived from the plumb used to determine the depth of water and a true vertical line? In other words, someone who’s plumb loco would be askew.

A: You’re right that the adverb “plumb” used in this sense is related to the lead plumb bob that’s hung from a line to determine water depth or verticality. But the relationship isn’t quite as straight as a plumb line.

English adopted the noun “plumb” in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the word is ultimately derived from plumbum, the Latin term for lead, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Interestingly, the word “plumber” is a relative. It originally referred to a worker in lead, but came to mean someone who installs water pipes, which were once made of lead.

Getting back to your question, the Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “plumb,” meaning vertically, first showed up in English in the early 15th century.

In the early 16th century, the adverb took on the sense of “exactly in a particular direction, position, or alignment; directly, precisely,” according to the OED.

By the end of the century, the adverb was being used in the sense you’re asking about—as an intensifier meaning completely, absolutely, and quite.

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage (with “plumb” spelled “plum”) is from The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1588 play by Thomas Hughes based on the Arthurian legend:

“The mounting minde that climes the hauty cliftes … Intoxicats the braine with guiddy drifts, Then rowles, and reeles, and falles at length plum ripe.”

Here’s an example, with the modern spelling, from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous: “You’ve turned up, plain, plumb providential for all concerned.”

Although the OED has many British examples of “plumb” used as an intensifier well into the 20th century, the dictionary describes the usage as “Now chiefly N. Amer. colloq.

Oxford doesn’t have an entry for “plumb loco,” but it includes the phrase in an 1887 citation for the adjective “loco,” from Outing, an American monthly magazine: “You won’t be able to do nuthin’ with ’em, sir; they’ll go plumb loco.”

The OED says English borrowed the adjective “loco” in the mid-19th century directly from Spanish. It means mad, insane, or crazy in both languages. The dictionary describes the term as “colloq. orig. U.S. regional (west.).”

Oxford traces the adjective to earlier nouns in Spanish and Portuguese meaning madness, but the editors say the etymology is “uncertain and disputed” beyond that.

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Are you bored to flinders?

Q: Any idea of the origins of the phrase “bored to flinders”? I looked up the word “flinders,” but can’t reason out a connection with boredom!

A: Someone who’s “bored to flinders” is bored to pieces. The word “flinders” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “fragments, pieces, splinters.”

So in the phrase “bored to flinders,” the word is used in a figurative way.

The word was first recorded in English, according to the OED, in Golagros and Gawane, a Scottish poem published in a pamphlet in 1508:

“Thair speris in the feild in flendris gart ga.” (“Their spears went to flinders in the field.”)

This seems to echo a line from the 12th-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, usually translated as “Right to the hilt, his spear in flinders flew.”

The word “flinders” may be Scandinavian in origin, since according to the OED, it’s similar to the modern Norwegian word flindra, meaning a thin chip or splinter.

But it’s often used figuratively, as in this line from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Poganuc People (1878): “Parson Cushing could knock that air all to flinders.”

(When the speaker here says “that air,” he’s referring to a sermon by another minister, one who “don’t weigh much ’longside o’ Parson Cushing.”)

Though it’s not cited in the OED, there’s another reference to “flinders” in Stowe’s novel. In the chapter “Election Day in Poganuc,” a character says, “Well, Doctor, we’re smashed. Democrats beat us all to flinders.”

It’s a colorful word, and it’s still sometimes used to good effect. The OED has some modern citations, including this one from the novel Speed (1970), by William S. Burroughs Jr.:

“About noon, the transmission went all to flinders and the car would only run in first.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation a bit.)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang records another form of the word, “flindereens,” apparently a slang variant that combines “flinders” and “smithereens.”

We found an example in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel Seasoned Timber (1939), which is set in Vermont: “Ezry, d’y remember the time they busted the Ashley town snowplow t’flindereens?”

The specific phrase “bored to flinders” doesn’t appear in the OED. But we’ve read it in many books, including David Mamet in Conversation (2001), an anthology edited by Leslie Kane.

In an interview conducted in 1994, the critic John Lahr asked Mamet whether he was a bad student in school. The playwright replied: “I was a nonstudent. No interest, just bored to flinders.”

As we all know, there are many others ways of expressing ennui: “bored to pieces,” “bored to death,” “bored to tears,” “bored to distraction,” “bored stiff,” “bored rigid,” “bored silly,” and so on.

If you’re not bored yet, you might be interested in a recent post of ours that discusses whether the word “bore” that refers to tedium is related to the much older word “bore” that refers to making a hole.

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Side effects

Q: I was reading a description of Lord Bingham, a British judge who died two years ago, and came across this sentence: “He had no side to him at all, and he would be surprised to hear me saying these things about him.” I’m thinking this means he was not haughty or pompous, but I’d like to hear it from you!

A: In British usage, “to put on side” is to give oneself airs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And someone who has “no side” is modest and unpretentious.

Here, the OED adds, “side” is a slang term meaning “pretentiousness, swagger, conceit.”

Oxford’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from the Nov. 26, 1870, issue of Punch: “Swagger a bit, and put on ‘side’ in the streets of the gay Versailles.”

Another citation, from Joseph Hatton’s novel Cruel London (1878), uses “side” the same way: “Cool, downy cove, who puts side on.” (In British slang, a “downy cove” is a knowing fellow.)

We’ve found this sense of “side” in only one American dictionary, the unabridged Webster’s Third New International, which defines it as “swaggering manner” or “arrogant behavior.”

But British dictionaries know the usage well. They define it as meaning insolence, arrogance, a proud attitude, pretentiousness, and so on.

Where does it come from? “Origin unceetain,”  the OED says. But it does mention a possible connection with the game of billiards, in which “side” means the spin or “direction given to a ball by striking it at a point not directly in the middle.” (An American would say such a stroke puts “English” on the ball.)

The OED’s earliest example of this sense comes from Billiards (1858), a book written by Walter White: “I do not feel satisfied of any writer being able to convey in diagrams the amount of side to put on a ball for canons when the side stroke is required” 

On the other hand, the OED invites readers to look at another use of “side”—an old adjective meaning haughty or proud. This usage dates to the 1600s and perhaps to the early 1500s.

Among the OED’s citations is this one from Sidney Oldall Addy’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (1888): “I met Mrs. —— in the town, and she was very side.”

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Pat in NY Times on Web. 3 furor

Read Pat’s review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on the furor over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. She’s reviewing The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner.

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We say the darndest things

Q: I don’t see why we use “things” in a sentence like this: “Don’t say things like that.” Things are objects, aren’t they? We wouldn’t use “objects” in that sentence: “Don’t say objects like that.” I realize this usage is long-established, but it sounds very slangish to me. By the way is there such a word as “slangish”?

A: The word “thing” doesn’t have to refer to a physical object. So we do indeed say things, do things, wish for things, think of things, promise things, and so on.

This usage is perfectly correct and there’s nothing slangy about it. (“Slangy” is the usual adjective, though “slangish,” meaning somewhat slangy, is in the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.)

We’re glad you raised this question, however. “Thing” is such a common word that most of us take it for granted, and aren’t familiar with its very uncommon history.

The etymological roots of “thing” go far back into pre-history, before written language. Its “ancestral meaning,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, is “time.”

The OED explains that an ancient relative of “thing” can be found in Gothic, a now defunct Germanic language in which the word theihs meant “occasion” or “time.”

The origin of theihs probably lies even further back in prehistory, the OED says.

Ultimately, the Gothic word may be from the same Indo-European base as the classical Latin word tempus (“time”), which is a good illustration of how the Germanic and the Latinate languages are ancestrally related.

In the Germanic languages, as Ayto explains, this ancient term came to mean “appointed time” and consequently evolved into meaning a “judicial or legislative assembly.”

For example, the word for a court or legislative body developed into thing in Icelandic, and ting in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. (Iceland’s parliament is called the Althing.)

In Old English, too, as the OED explains, the word “thing” at one time meant “a meeting, an assembly; esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council.”

But even during the Old English period the word took on a much more general meaning.

From a subject under discussion at a meeting, “thing” came to mean any subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes: “Similar semantic developments are found in the Romance languages, in which Latin causa, legal case, has given rise to French chose, Italian and Spanish cosa, all meaning ‘thing.’ ”

In short, “thing” can mean almost anything (which reminds us that the old phrases “any thing,” “every thing,” “no thing,” and “some thing” are now written as one word).

In modern English, a remnant of the old meaning “assembly” survives in the word “hustings,” a word we hear a lot in the campaign season.

A “husting” or “hustings” (literally “house assembly”) was originally a court, tribunal, or council among members of a household.

In the early 18th century people began using “hustings” to mean the platform from which politicians make campaign speeches.

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Yo! Bum Rush the Show

Q: I was listening to NPR the other day when a football scout said he’d waited outside a prospect’s home and then “bum-rushed” him. When I grew up, giving a “bum’s rush” to someone meant hustling him out the door, figuratively or literally. Lately I’ve been hearing “bum-rush” used as a verb meaning to ambush. What the heck? Where’s the context? How did this happen?

A: This use of “bum-rush” as a verbal phrase is fairly recent, and it’s undoubtedly a variation on the earlier noun phrase “the bum’s rush.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says to “bum-rush” is “to charge at or into (a person or place): groupies who bum-rushed the musician’s dressing room.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it similarly: “to attack or seize with an overpowering rush,” as in “bum-rush the stage.”

M-W dates the expression from 1987, though it doesn’t give the origin. However, 1987 was the year the hip-hop group Public Enemy released its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) attributes the usage to the title song on the Public Enemy album, but dates it to 1986. We assume that’s because Public Enemy was performing the song that year while it was the opening act for the Beastie Boys.

Since the album came out, “bum-rush” has been used pretty freely as a verbal phrase meaning to deliberately run into someone or something at full tilt.

The intent can be to ambush, push past, beat up, tackle, or shove aside. It can also mean to gatecrash, or push into a club or event without paying.

Though the expression is sometimes used in the sense of to have anal sex (likely a play on the British slang word “bum,” meaning buttocks), the usage we find most often has little to do with sex.

For example, a 2010 news story on the website TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber had been “bum-rushed” by an overenthusiastic 12-year-old fan.

And in late April the LA Weekly blog reported that a stand-up comic, Randy Kagan, had been assaulted and pushed off the stage at the Hollywood Improv. “I was blindsided, bum rushed,” Kagan is quoted as saying. (He had made remarks about a woman in the audience and her boyfriend took offense.)

As we said, this verbal usage is probably derived from the older phrase “bum’s rush,” defined in Merriam-Webster’s as “forcible eviction or dismissal.” M-W dates this one from 1904.

The “bum” in the phrase is a vagrant or tramp who’s thrown out of a place or forcibly escorted off the premises.

This sense of “bum” as a tramp is of American origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently so is the phrase “bum’s rush.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. I) says the phrase originated “in the saloons of late 19C New York where vagrants and other hungry people attempted to take advantage of the sometimes sumptuous free lunch counters, which were meant for drinkers only.”

Freeloaders, in other words, got the “bum’s rush.”

Here’s a mid-20th-century usage, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, from Marten Cumberland’s novel Murmurs in the Rue Morgue (1959):

“Chotin was being given what the vulgar term the ‘bum’s rush.’ He was down the steps … through the gate and flat on his back on the pavement.”

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Feebee minded

Q: Regarding your recent post about abbreviations, I think there’s a trend to morph initialisms into acronyms. What comes to mind is “Fibbee” (for an FBI agent). True, it’s often not capitalized, but it may have some creds. Have you checked it out?

A: This morphing of initialisms into acronyms, as you put it, has been going on for quite some time, especially when it comes to government agents.

Jonathon Green, in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, writes that people have been finding creative ways to refer to an FBI agent since at least the early 1940s.

Although he doesn’t include “Fibbee” among the creations, he has citations for “Feeb,” “Feebee,” “Feebie,” and “Phoebe,” sometimes with an initial capital letter and sometimes all lowercase. (A bit of googling suggests that “Feeb” is the most popular of these followed by “Feebee.”)

The earliest published reference in Green’s Dictionary is from a 1942 letter from the literary theorist Kenneth Burke to the novelist Malcolm Cowley:

“A publisher told me that a faithful phoebe had been going the rounds, presumably begging to be told that you were a C.P. because you didn’t support Franco.”

And here’s a citation from a 1968 issue of  the Atlantic Monthly: “On their left stands a man in a very dark suit, with very dark tie, very dark glasses, very white shirt, and very bald head: a cop, Feebie, CIA, something like that.”

Finally, here’s one from Carl Hiaasen’s 1986 novel Tourist Season: “The clever Feebs used opaque envelopes.”

(The use of “feeb” for a feeble person is older, dating back to a 1910 Jack London story, “Told in the Drooling Ward.” Here’s the quote: “I’m an assistant, expert assistant. That’s going some for a feeb. Feeb?”)

Garland Cannon, writing in the summer 1989 issue of American Speech, refers to “Feebie” and similar terms as “variant forms” of initialisms.

Cannon notes that English speakers sometimes add affixes like -y or -ie, -er, -o to create slang or informal words. An affix, as you know, is a word element, like a prefix or suffix.

Of course these creative initialisms come with affixes and without. For example, “Beamer” (for BMW) and “Beeb” (for the BBC).

People seem to be especially creative in their spellings of variant forms for an FBI agent. In addition to the ones in Green’s, we’ve also seen the plural “Feebz.”

These FBI terms often seem to be used pejoratively. Candice Delong, in Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI, writes of a police officer referring to FBI agents as “the fuckin’ feebs.”

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By cracky!

Q: Thanks for all the info on “by George!” and those other “g” words that stand in for “God.” It still doesn’t cover “by cracky,” and you can only push God so far. I ought to know!

A: Guess what? The exclamation “By cracky!” is also a euphemistic oath, a milder version of “By Christ!”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Vol. 1) says there are many versions of this expression, spelled “crackey,” “crackie,” “crikey,” “crikes,” “criminy,” and so on (often without the preposition “by”).

The earliest published reference for the usage in Green’s is from the June 15, 1830, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “Oh! Crackee what luck!”

The first example of “cracky” spelled with a “y” is from a fictional sketch in the Nov. 10, 1849, issue of Spirit of the Times, a now-defunct weekly in New York City: “Cracky! Didn’t he travel!”

And the first citation for the exact phrase you asked about is from Harold Frederic’s 1887 novel Seth’s Brother’s Wife: “By Cracky!” cried Zeke Tallman himself, “don’t it beat natur’!” (We’ve gone to the original to expand on the quotation.

From the examples in Green’s as well as those in the Dictionary of American Regional English, the expression seems to have originated in the US.

DARE, whose most recent citations are from the Northeast in the late 1960s, adds: “Not extremely common. Probably rarely used now.”

Green’s also has an entry for a different sense of “cracky”: eccentric or mentally unstable (that is, cracked). The slang dictionary says this usage originated in Australia.

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Everyone here is frightfully gay

Q: Why does the New York Times use “gays” to refer to male homosexuals and “lesbians” for females? “Gay” has always covered men and women. When did it become a term for male homosexuals?

A: The Times does indeed often refer to gay men as “gays” and gay women as “lesbians,” as in its reporting on a gay rights rally in Washington last month. The phrase “gays and lesbians” crops up over and over again in the paper.

Why not use the single term “gays” for both men and women?

The simple answer is that many gay women want a term of their own—at least in public discourse. This is what we’ve been able to gather after reading extensively in lesbian discussion groups and other forums on the Web.

The preference for the term “lesbian” appears to reflect a desire among many gay women to have a public label all their own and to emphasize the fact that gay men and gay women are not a homogeneous group.

So much for the public terminology. Privately, however, it’s a different story.

We’ve concluded that the terms “gay woman” and “lesbian” are often used interchangeably, and that a woman’s choice of a personal label for herself is highly individual.

We also get the impression that some women who identify with the masculine or “butch” end of the spectrum prefer to call themselves “gay,” while some at the “femme” end think of themselves as “lesbian.”

But some of the women commenting online see no difference at all between the labels, and still others reject both labels in favor of “queer.”

In short, there are not only public and private aspects to the use of “lesbian,” but there are intensely personal and idiosyncratic aspects as well.

Let’s examine the terms. (First let us note that many gay women as well as gay men discourage the use of “homosexual” because they see it as a medical or psychological term.)

The word “Lesbian” (originally capitalized) has been in the language since 1601, when it had no sexual meaning. It was an adjective pertaining to the Greek island of Lesbos.

A “Lesbian rule,” for example, was a pliable mason’s rule made of a kind of lead, found on the island, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge. (We wrote a blog entry on the subject earlier this year.) And “Lesbian wine” was made from grapes grown on Lesbos.

Lesbos, as you probably know, was also the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who addressed some of her love lyrics to girls.

This connection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gave the word “lesbianism” the meaning of “female homosexuality,” a sense that originally appeared in print in 1870. The adjective “lesbian” first showed up in the sexual sense in 1890 and as a noun in 1925.

“Gay” has had many meanings since it was introduced into English around 1300. Its etymology is murky, but it was borrowed from Old French (gai) and may come from Frankish or Old High German (gahi).

In English, according to the OED, it first meant noble, beautiful, or excellent. In the later 1300s it came to mean “bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.”

In the 1400s it was first used in the modern sense of merry or cheerful, though it was also used to mean wanton, lewd, dissolute, or even (in the case of women) living by prostitution. All of these negative meanings are now either rare or obscure.

The adjective “gay” has been used as slang term for homosexual since at least as far back as 1937. As the OED explains, some citations from the 1920s and ’30s could be read that way by innuendo, but such interpretations might just be the result of hindsight.

Here’s one such example, from the writings of Gertrude Stein in 1922: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. … They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there … not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

And here’s another, from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

As the OED says, those examples can’t be regarded as definitive, though they are certainly suggestive in hindsight. But we do know that “gay” was used to mean homosexual when Coward wrote that lyric, because the OED’s first definitive example is from an anonymous typescript believed to be from 1937:

“Al had told me that Kenneth was not gay but jam [i.e. heterosexual], and so I acted very manly.” (The quotation is from research documents contained in the Ernest W. Burgess Papers at the University of Chicago Library. Burgess was a professor of sociology at the university.)

Another definitive OED citation comes from Gershon Legman’s “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” which was published in 1941 as an appendix to a two-volume medical study of homosexuality.

Legman’s glossary includes this entry: “Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity … or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.”

You asked when “gay” became a term for male homosexuals. The answer is that it doesn’t necessarily mean males—or not always.

In their book Language and Sexuality (2003), Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick write: “Many lesbians prefer the gender-specific term ‘lesbian’ to ‘gay,’ which, they argue, obscures the presence of women by subsuming them under a label whose primary reference is to men.”

And indeed the OED says the term is more frequently used to refer to men.

One final note about “gay.” There’s no evidence, according to the OED, that there was an earlier use of gai or gaie in French to mean homosexual. Rather, the French use of the word in this sense is a late-20th-century borrowing from English.

As for “queer,” its origins are uncertain but it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

The OED’s first citation for the use of “queer” in the sexual sense is from a letter written in 1894 by Oscar Wilde’s archenemy, the Marquess of Queensberry, who used the word as a noun: “I write to tell you that it is a judgement on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.”

The adjective “queer,” according to the OED,  was first recorded in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times: “He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the ‘queer’ people. … He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc. … At these ‘drags’ the ‘queer’ people have a good time.”

As the OED points out, “queer” was a derogatory term until it was reclaimed as a positive or neutral word by gays in the 1980s. It’s since become a respectable term in academia.

“In some academic contexts,” the OED says, “it is the preferred adjective in the study of issues relating to homosexuality (cf. queer theory …); it is also sometimes used of sexual lifestyles that do not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviour, such as bisexuality or transgenderism.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2019.]

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In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and Dictionary.com (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged).

Dictionary.com, for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

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Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The English verb came from the French quatre (four). Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”

And this OED citation,  written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years: “catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc. Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “-ed” ending.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls  this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.

Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.

And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.

[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]

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For better or verse

Q: I work with a lot of boys and find it interesting to hear so many of them say things like “I will verse you in a game of Pokémon.” I find it annoying to hear “verse” used to mean compete, but I have come to realize that I am witnessing the evolution of the word “versus.”

A: It’s interesting that you bring up the use of “verse” as a verb. We’ve gotten many emails from parents over the years asking where this came from.

One North Jersey father, for instance, has written that his kids use constructions like “We are versing the Yankees today.” And no, they weren’t reading poetry to the Yankees!

The usage is an apparent adaptation of “versus,” as you suggest, and to “verse” here means to play or challenge or go up against.

As it turns out, this isn’t such a new phenomenon. In fact, the kids who first used “verse” for compete are now grown up. The linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer has traced the usage back to the 1980s.

Here’s a citation from the Feb. 20, 1984, issue of the New York Times: “To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team, as in ‘We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week.’ From the preposition ‘versus.’ ”

You can see how this might have happened. Imagine a sportscaster saying, “Tonight at 8, Boston versus Cincinnati.” To many ears, the preposition “versus” sounds like a verb, “verses,” as in “Boston verses (that is, plays) Cincinnati.”

Now imagine a child passing on the news: “Hey, Dad! Tonight Boston verses Cincinnati.” Thus a new verb is born.

There’s already a recognized verb “verse” that means to study or acquaint oneself with some subject, as in “I’m well versed in such-and-such,” or “He’s versing himself in geometry.”

The verb “versify” means to write verse. And The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, notes a historical use of the noun “verse” as a synonym for “inning.”

The use of the verb “verse” to mean compete has made it into only one of the standard dictionaries we usually check, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in others.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as slang, and says it means “to play against (an opponent) in a competition.”

American Heritage adds that it’s probably a “back-formation from VERSUS taken as verses in such phrases as Boston versus New York.”

[Note: This entry was updated on July 14, 2016.]

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Why we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “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.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. 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).

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. But we assume that the two senses are related.

Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.

[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]

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Phoo, pfui, and phooey

Q: I recently saw “phewey” used on Twitter to imply “oh, darn!” I don’t think it’s a word. When my daughter says “phew,” she’s relieved that something has ended or never happened. Am I right that the Twitter posting person (who is NOT a twit) should have used “fooey” or “phooey”?

A: The word the twitterer should have used is “phooey.” The spelling “phewey” definitely doesn’t fill the bill. “Phew” would rhyme with “few” instead of “foo.”

Believe it or not, “phooey” has a respectable lineage as an English interjection, and its beginnings may go back to the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “phoo” was first recorded in 1672, and defines it as “expressing contemptuous rejection, cursory dismissal (of a proposition, idea, etc.), disagreement, or reproach.”

The first person to use it in writing, as far as we know, was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who along with several collaborators wrote a satirical play called The Rehearsal, staged in 1671 and published in 1672. The quote: “Phoo! that is to raise the character of Drawcansir.”

The word has continued to appear in fictional dialogue ever since. Here’s Oliver Goldsmith, in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true.’ ” And here’s Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park (1814): “Phoo! Phoo! Do not be so shamefaced.”

The expression was also used to mean something like “darn!” as in this quotation from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800): “Phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor.”

In the mid-19th century, some writers began using a similar word, “pfui,” adopted from a German word (pfui) that means the same thing: “an emphatic expression of contempt, disgust, or cursory dismissal,” according to the OED.

Here’s William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864: “Pfui! For a month before my lord’s arrival I had been knocking at all doors to see if I could find my poor wandering lady behind them.”

Both “phoo” and “pfui” continued to be used through 20th century. The most recent citations for both in the OED are from the 1990s.

The spelling “phooey” first showed up in 1919 in a caption appearing in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal: “Phooey! That’s old stuff – she told me pers’n’ly that all of them ‘sweet patootie’ letters was forged.” Was this just a new spelling of the old “pfui”? We can’t tell for sure.

The lyricist Lorenz Hart was apparently fond of the word. He used it in the song “A Melican Man” in 1926: “Give Chinee man this chop suey / He’ll refuse it and say ‘Phooey’!” The following year, in the song “Whoopsie,” he used it to mean “mad” or “crazy”: “When ev’ry thing’s gaflooey / And life is simply phooey…”

All of these words (the English “phoo,” “phooey,” and “pfui,” as well as the German pfui) are “imitative,” the OED says. They imitate the action of dismissively puffing or blowing through the lips.

We can’t vouch for their ultimate derivations or even say for sure that the English versions are essentially the same word. The OED has separate entries for each, merely directing the reader to “compare” them.

There may not be a paper trail here, but our hunch is that they’re the same animal with different spots.

By the way, spellings vary widely with many such imitative words. If you’re interested, we ran a blog entry last year about a few other words that mimic interjections.

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Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Can you cut the mustard?

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

Q: Where did the phrase “can’t cut the mustard” come from? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

A: The phrase “cut the mustard” originated in late 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “slang (originally U.S.),” and says the noun “mustard” here means “something which adds piquancy or zest; that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.”

The OED says the the phrase and its variants mean “to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed.” The variant phrases “to be the mustard” or “to be to the mustard” are also defined as “to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “cut the mustard” is from a Texas newspaper, in an article about legislative debate:

“They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors” (Galveston Daily News, April 9, 1891).

The same newspaper used the phrase again the following year: “Time will reveal that he cannot ‘cut the mustard’ ” (Sept. 12, 1892).

The OED cites these early uses of other “mustard” phrases, also from North America.

“For fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree” (The Log of a Cowboy, 1903, by Andy Adams).

“Petroskinski is a discovery of mine, and he’s all to the mustard” (You Can Search Me, 1905, written by George Vere Hobart under the pseudonym Hugh McHugh).

The OED suggests that “to be mustard,” when used to describe a person, might be compared to the expression “hot stuff.” An example: “That fellow is mustard” (from Edgar Wallace’s 1925 novel A King by Night).

However, somewhat similar “mustard” expressions were used much earlier in British English. According to the OED, “strong as mustard” (1659) and “hot as mustard” (1679) meant “very powerful or passionate,” while “keen as mustard” (1672) meant “very enthusiastic.”

Why the “cut” in “cut the mustard”? Nobody seems to know for sure. But we can offer a suggestion.

In the late 19th century, just before “cut the mustard” was first recorded, the verb “cut” was used to mean “excel” or “outdo,” according to OED citations.

The earliest OED example is from the April 13, 1884, issue of The Referee, a British sporting newspaper: “George’s performance … is hardly likely to be disturbed for a long time to come, unless he cuts it himself.”

So perhaps to “cut the mustard” is to surpass mustard—that is,  to be even more mustardy than mustard itself.

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