Back in my heyday, we’ve heard our fathers so often begin some boast of long-lost glory. The heyday of the train, the heyday of radio, the heyday of the flip-phone – each of these remembers some technological golden age of yore. Perhaps you’ve wondered: What is the hey– in heyday? As it turns out, we’re questioning the wrong part of the word.
“Some more coffee?”
“Just a skosh more, please.”
“These brownies are so delicious!”
“I add a skosh of cayenne pepper to the batter.”
Skosh is a fun and informal term for a small amount or a little, but its origins are mighty surprising.
You’re on a train or at a cafe. A juicy bit of conversation catches your ear. You pretend to mind your book or your phone. Secretly, though, you go on eavesdropping. Does our auditory snooping actually have anything to do with the eaves of our houses? In fact, it has everything to do with them, etymologically speaking.
What do rum and capybaras have in common? Why, the origin of Panama.
A huge thanks to the many people who filled out the Mashed Radish reader survey. I received some incredibly instructive feedback. And as you may have noticed, I’ve already been acting on some of it with my short “Etymologies of the Day” I’m posting during the workweek in addition to my feature posts. Let me know what you think of these at my email, on Twitter, or in the comments section below.
I’ve also randomly selected a survey respondent, who got to choose the etymology for today’s post. Her name’s Maïra – who runs a lovely blog featuring art, Arabic song and poetry, and other cultural reflections. She was curious about the origin of Panama.
One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.
In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.
We can use it when we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a friendly way. Hey, pal, though you’d want to know you left your lights on. We can also use when it we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a not so friendly way. Excuse me, pal, but I was in line before you. Whether chummy or charged, what’s the origin of pal?
I call dibs on the last slice of pizza! I get dibs on top bunk! When Steve moves on to his new job, I call first dibs on his cubicle! When someone calls or gets dibs on something, they are claiming a right to it before anyone else. But where does this playful expression come from?
Dibs may have originated from a children’s game called dibs, played much like jacks but using sheep knucklebones or pebbles, themselves known dibstones, shortened to dibs. (The pronged shape of modern jacks may even imitate the knobs of the bones.) The Oxford English Dictionary attest this dibs in the early 19th-century, though the game itself is ancient.
As for the dib in dibstones? It may come from a verb dib, “to tap lightly,” related to dab. The “first claim” sense of dibs emerges by the 1920-30s. The term may have been pushed along by another use of dibs, 19th-century slang for “money,” a corruption of division or divide.
m ∫ r ∫
In Latin, president literally means “the one who sits before.”
Presidents’ Day, officially called Washington’s Birthday, has been a US federal holiday since 1879, honoring the country’s first president – and subsequent ones – around his date of birth, February 22. But where does the word president come from, and why, exactly, did the US settle on president for its commander-in-chief?
Last year, as you may recall, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was an immensely rewarding project, to be sure, but I can’t lie: When I finished, I was really excited to read something else for a change. I immediately jumped for Bryan Kozlowksi’s What the Dickens?!: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them, published in October 2016 by Running Press, who kindly sent me a galley for review.
That’s right, Shakespeare. You haven’t cornered the word market in the English language. In What the Dickens?!, Kozlowksi presents 200 of Charles Dickens most, well, Dickensian words from across his writing. Like growlery, “a place of refuge where one goes to vent frustrations.” Or comfoozled, “exhausted.” Or Pumblechookian, which is “typical of Mr. Pumblechook, Pip’s pompous, greedy, and hypocritical uncle in Great Expectations.”
To guide our tour through Dickens’ whimsical and wide-ranging vocabulary, Kozlowksi loosely categorizes his selections by theme. One section is Words for Making Merry, including the likes of heeltap (a small amount of liquor remaining at the bottom of glass) and hobbledehoy (an awkward and clumsy youth). Another is Vocabulary for the Smart-Sounding Victorian: bedight (“adorned”), plumbless (immeasurably deep), and Terpsichorean (relating to dancing), for instance.
Kozlowksi indeed curates a colorful menagerie, from words Dickens invented (sassigassity, “audacity with an attitude”) and based on his characters (Pecksniffian, “hypocritical”) to places (Gretna Green, a place at the the Anglo-Scottish border where lovers often eloped ) and practices of Dickens’ day (farm for children, a primitive Victorian day care, or cag- magger, an unscrupulous butcher).
And for each, page-long entry, Kozlowksi not only defines the words, but he also quotes their original context and offers insight into Victorian culture, an anecdote about Dickens, or an interesting fact about the history and origin of the word at hand. Take moor-eeffoc, which particularly delighted me:
Moor-eeffoc [MOO-ee-fok] The uncanniness of common things seen suddenly from a different perspective. Case in point: Moor-eeffoc is simply the backward spelling of “coffee room.”
I recollect that…in the door there was an oval glass-plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but there there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal revere), a shock goes through my blood.
– From Dickens’ Abandoned Autobiography
Moor-eeffoc is the most elusive and enigmatic word in the Dickensian lexicon. Dickens himself didn’t know how to define it, though future writers linked it to the very heart of his creative legacy. The word was of deep significance to fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.K. Chesterton–with the latter’s definition still considered the best:
That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle–the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious’s, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart–these are all moore eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.
I like to open up the book at random, enjoying each word like some magic little portal into Dickens’ world and imagination. Like lummy, which the Artful Dodger used in Oliver Twist for “first rate.” It’s “originally part of the longer interjection Lor’ lummy,” Kozlowksi explains, “a Cockney contraction of ‘Lord love me,’ used to express surprise or great interest.” And it perfectly describes What the Dickens?!
Kozlowksi’s knowledge of Dickens is comprehensive, his love for Dickens’ language is infectious, and his writing is fun, smart, and accessible. It’s a great book – and gift – for Dickens-philes and logophiles alike. Lor’ lummy, it might just make want to go on to read the complete works of Charles Dickens now…
m ∫ r ∫
Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them.
In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?
On the table
English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French mets) and, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.
In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise.
Getting into a “mess”
Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage. (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”
And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s.
The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.
From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.
Not-so-hot, new slang
Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.
Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.