Some recent US political events have thrust two interesting idioms in the headlines: waiting for the other shoe to drop and pass the buck. Thinking of a writing post on the expressions, I started doing some research online. Then, much to my pleasure, I remembered I had an entire book dedicated to them: Andrew Thompson’s Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases (Ulysses Press, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
Thompson traces waiting for the other shoe to drop backto urban, industrial America:
Wait for the other shop to drop began with the American manufacturing boom in the late 19th century. In large cities like New York, apartment housing became more common. These dwellings were all built with similar designs, with bedrooms typically located above one another. It was common to be awoken late at night by a neighbor removing their shoes in the apartment above. The person below would often wake when the first shoe dropped on the floor and made a loud bang. Already disturbed, the other person would then wait for the inevitable noise of the other shoe hitting the floor.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”
It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.
Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.
According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.
In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas. As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.
The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).
As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related.
And as for Turkey? Turkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.
None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkey. Cold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons.
As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”
Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?
Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.
In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakesshowdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtualdead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:
The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.
Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.
Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.
4. Dead heat
When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved.
5. Square off
Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.
6. Raise the bar
In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.
It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Timesreports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.
Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.
Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta,a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).
French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.
And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”
Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”
Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” bythe 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.
The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum.
Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever.
And then there was one. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have ended their presidential campaigns after Donald Trump trounced them in the Indiana primary. Just over 200 delegates shy of securing it outright, Trump has virtually clinched the Republican party’s nomination for president. But why do we say that: to clinch a nomination?
Outside of political contests, we often use clinch in sports. Leicester City, for example, recently clinched the Premier League championship. Stateside, a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. In these contexts, clinch means “to make certain.” But as early as the 16th century, we didn’t clinch wins: we clinched nails.
After hammering a nail through a plank, a worker bends back the point to fasten it securely in the wood. This is called clinching, and lends itself easily to metaphor. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary evidences clinch as a way to express “to settle decisively” – to wrap it up, drive it home, firm and final, like a clinched nail.
After exchanging blows, boxers clinch when they grapple up close, clasping their gloves. This pugilistic clinch is in use by the mid-1800s. We once clinched our hands and fingers, too, but today, we largely say we clench our fists (and teeth, jaws, and butts). Clinch, word historians note, is actually a variant of this clench. The latter probably evolved out of cling, which is found in Old English; you can see how cling’s sense of “adherence” anticipates the “interlocking” clench. Together, this cluster of clinch, clench, and cling ultimately derive from a Germanic base, with cognates widespread in the language family.
Except for builders, we don’t really associate clinch with nails today. But Donald Trump’s all-but-guaranteed clinching of the nomination does evoke nails for many in the Republican party: Will Donald Trump, #NeverTrump-ers fear, clinch the nails into the coffin of the GOP as we know it?
Today, my wife and I are bidding farewell to Southern California to greet our new home: Dublin, Ireland. We’ll actually be staying in Oxford, England first until the Irish government finishes processing our work visas.
(Nope, it’s not the sun, I’m sure you’re wondering: I’m going to miss fish tacos the most. And family, of course.)
So, to mark the occasion, I wanted to take a break from my regular newsy musings to look into the history of a word long associated with my new home – and really only surviving the expression beyond the pale.
In the English of the late 1300s, a pale was a “stake,” the wooden sort driven into the ground – or impaled into Dracula’s heart. Stakes can make a “fence,” a fence can mark a “boundary,” and a boundary can demarcate a “territory,” as pale all came to name.
Historically, England controlled a number of regions known as the English pale. The earliest pale in the record encompassed modern-day Calais, France; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this to the 1450s. About a century later, the English pale also included southern Scotland – and, most notoriously, the greater Dublin, Ireland area. This territory became known simply as the Pale. (Imperial Russia later had a Pale, too, which confined where Jews could live.)
Many claim beyond the pale referred to the ‘wild’ regions outside of English jurisdiction in Ireland, hence the expression’s meaning of “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” The OED, however,does not actually date the phrase – first attested in “beyond the pale of expedience” – until 1720. This is significantly later than the pale’s Irish reference, making this origin story a rather contemptuous bit of folk etymology.
So, beyond the pale is metaphorical – and has been. In the 1480s, Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, used pale in translation for a professional “domain” or “field.” (Caxton was referencing monks and abbots, it so happens.) We might think of beyond the pale as, originally, “out of one’s area of expertise.”
English ultimately drove pale into its ground from the Latin pālus, a “stake.” The ancient Romans also used a pālus as a wooden sword to practice fighting – and, imitating an enemy soldier, as a post in the ground to practice their fighting on. English derives impale, palisade, and pole from the root. Travail and travel – appropriately enough, at least for the latter, so we’re hoping – are also related, but those origins are beyond the pale of this post.
Pale, as in pale skin, is not related, though my own complexion will soon lose much of its Southern California sunburn, thankfully, in its new climes.
“Fastened together”: that, I think, aptly describes my wife and me as we venture into our new pales, so to speak, in a country whose rich linguistic traditions will certainly inspire many a Mashed Radish post ahead.
We’ve sighted a lot of different animals in the etymological safari that is the Mashed Radish. We’ve run with horse, talked turkey, reared up like a lion and wriggled like a shrimp with rampant, raised yearlings in old veteran, and raced with huskies in mush. We’ve sported with hawks and cardinals. We’ve traversed entire hemispheres in the native Quechuan habitat of condor and llama. We’ve even walked alongside a stegosaurus in thug.
Perhaps like a zoo arranges its exhibits, Hadleigh organizes his book into five chapters: dogs, cats, horses, other mammals, and non-mammals. Each chapter takes a very comprehensive look at the various – and truly numerous ways – we talk like the animals.
Let’s take dog as an example. Hadleigh serves up the history of hot dog and explains the meaning of hair of the dog and see a man about a dog. He discusses dog in various expressions like dog days or dog tags as well as in various words like dogwatch and doggerel. He looks into dogs in marketing, such as RCA’s Nipper, and dogs in the garden, such as dogwood. Hadleigh also covers many dog-related items, such as cur, bitch, puppy, and bark. I learned, for example, that harass may be from an Old French verb “to set a dog on” while chow, as in “food,” is related to Chinese expressions for food. According to Hadleigh, hush puppies were so-called due to their use either to quiet hunting dogs or hungry children amid the poverty of the postbellum South.
Passages like the origin of harass or hush puppy represent what I think the text does best. Lousy indeedcomes from louse, the singular form of lice. To go whole hog might be come from the option of buying the whole pig, rather than just choice cuts, from the butcher at a discounted price. Canary the bird is named for the Canary Islands, whose Latin name actually describes an island of dogs (think canine). And jaywalker is a curious specimen:
Jays, member of the crow family, usually with blue feathers, thrived along the east coast of what is now the US when European colonists arrived. As more and more arrived, most jays withdrew to the country. By the mid 1700s jay was a nickname for a country bumpkin. Rural visitors to growing cities were often baffled by the traffic, not knowing where or when to cross the street, and sometimes doing so without looking. By the early 20th century a jaywalker was what he or she is now. Today they should really know better.
As this passage illustrates, Hadleigh’s writing is clear and easy to read. For as wide-ranging it is, his content comes in small chunks, making the text one you can easily pick up and put down, as I did at the airport, at a cafe, even at a bar. Again, Holy Cow! reads like going to the zoo: You can admire linguistic creatures great and small while strolling through the chapters at your own pace, taking away an interesting fact or two as you appreciate all the ways animals have populated our language.
I did have questions about some origins and thus wish Hadleigh provided us more information about his sources than just occasionally quoting Mario Pei or the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. A bibliography would also have been not only useful but also appropriate. The text could have marked words or phrases when they are being referred to as such (e.g., italicizing jaywalker in the passage quoted above), a standard practice which makes meaning clearer and the text easier to follow. I also would have appreciated some final remarks. What did Hadleigh learn about the human animal and its language from gathering up so many animal terms into this ark of a text?
That said, Holy Cow! is a fun read. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable due in part to Hadleigh’s accessible organization and wide-ranging content and in part to the sheer fact that, as he notes in his introduction, “humans have always been drawn to animals.” It’s true. Hadleigh’s admiration for both animals and language comes across clearly in this book, and I think you, too, would enjoy a trip to his linguistic zoo.