Words at Play

The other day I was thinking about words and expressions that we use without any thought about their origins.  I started with the word “cranny,” and my mind wandered from there to many other odd words and expressions – even some from my childhood in the deep south.

We say “I looked for the keys in every nook and cranny.”  While nook’s meaning is probably clear, exactly what is a “cranny”?  It is a small, narrow opening or crack.

“Beck and call” is another phrase we use.  What, exactly, is a “beck”?  Beck is a short form of “beckon” which means to summon someone with a gesture.

We say that someone without constraints is “ruthless,” but does “ruth” mean having constraints?  Not that I can find.

A boorish or unrefined person is “uncouth.”  The word couth exists, but we seldom use it to mean just the opposite of uncouth.

How many times have you read about someone who has had a “hardscrabble” life?  Scrabble is a popular board game, but the verb to scrabble means to scrape or struggle.  So, someone who leads a hardscrabble life must really have it tough.

“Gullible” means to be easily fooled or duped.  Gull can mean an unfledged bird (a bird without feathers).  In Shakespeare’s play Much Ado about Nothing, the two main characters Benedick and Beatrice fuss and fight constantly, though deep down they really love each other.  Their friends plot to get Benedick to think that Beatrice has professed her love for him.  They talk about Beatrice’s love for Benedick making sure that he hears every word.  That is known as “the gulling of Benedick.”

“Beyond the pale” is an interesting phrase.  If you impale yourself on a fence, you fall on the fence and a slat (or stake) pierces your body.  So, a pale is a stake.  The British and Irish have a long history of fighting each other, and it is said that the British erected a barrier made of stakes around Dublin to protect themselves from the uncouth Irish outside.  When the British went beyond the barrier, they were going beyond the pale, and putting themselves in danger.

To “grow like Topsy” means to suddenly grow without reason.  It comes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  When Topsy, a young black girl, is asked if she knows who made her, she answers, “I s’pect I growed. Don’t think nobody never made me.”  In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, the two main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver (who were based on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald), have two children – a girl and a boy.  The girl is named Topsy, which is fitting in the sense that Dick and Nicole, who spend most of their time partying, pay little attention to their children, so the children, so to speak, “grow like Topsy.”

“Crotchety” means cantankerous.  But what is a crotchet?  A crotchet is an odd, whimsical, or stubborn notion.

A “paddy” wagon is a police van used to transport detainees.  A paddy was an Irish policeman, and is derived from the name Patrick.  It is usually used in a derogatory way toward the Irish.

“Gosh” is a euphemism for “God.”

“Gee” is a euphemistic contraction for “Jesus.”  Gee williken and gee whiz have the same meaning.

Have you ever heard someone say “I’m in a mell of a hess”?  That is a deliberate Spoonerism which I think is used so that the speaker won’t have to use the phrase “hell of a mess,” which might be considered vulgar in polite society.

“Copacetic” is a word I’ve heard many times.  A cool person might say that “everything’s copacetic,” meaning that everything is fine.  I heard it used by hippies, but the word actually dates back to the prohibition era.

“Schmo” is a Yiddish word meaning a foolish or naïve person.  A Joe Schmo is a stupid man.

To “put on the dog” means to dress up, possibly from rich people having pampered lapdogs.

To “put on the Ritz” means to dress up as if you were a rich person staying in the fabulous Ritz Hotel.

A “pipe dream” is an impossible idea, from the pipe used when one smokes opium.

A “crackpot” is someone with silly ideas, probably meaning someone with a cracked head (pot).

“Jazz” probably comes from Creole patois word “jass,” meaning strenuous activity especially sexual intercourse.

When I was a kid I played marbles with some other boys.  I used my “taw” to try to knock the other guys’ marbles out of a circle – and thus, to win them.  A taw is a large fancy marble used for shooting in a game of marbles.  The word is chiefly used in the southern U.S. – at least it was when I was a kid.  Who plays marbles these days when there are so many interesting video games?

“He kiped my taw!” was occasionally heard during or after the marble game.  It means to steal something, and probably comes from the old Norse kippa, to snatch.

The actor Errol Flynn starred in a number of “swashbucklers.”  What a strange word!   “Swash,” and “buckler” are words most modern people are not familiar with.  “Swash” means to beat on something.  “Buckler” means shield.  So a “swashbuckler” either beats on his own shield or that of his enemy.

To “beg off” is to turn down or refuse something such as an invitation in a polite way.

“Begging the question” can mean to evade the issue at hand.  It does not mean “causes one to ask the following question” though it probably will in the future due to constant misuse – especially by reporters and program hosts on TV.  That’s how language works whether we like it or not.  Dictionaries and grammar books don’t dictate English or any other language.  Usage does.  And that’s not begging the question.

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