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Issue 14

October 26, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Obscure slang

Recently, while researching the origin of eighty-six (meaning "none" or "omit" as in "One hamburger, eighty-six the onions") I made a remarkable discovery. But first, lets talk about eighty-six.

Many of our readers will be aware of Cockney "rhyming slang".  A few may also know of Australian rhyming slang, but how many have ever heard of American rhyming slang?  Well, it is not a complete lexicon of expressions like the  Cockney version as, so far as I can see, it consists of only two or three examples.  One is found in the phrase put up your dukes.  The word duke has its origin in fork, an old slang word for "hand", as in "fork over the cash".  By the magnificent illogic of rhyming slang, fork was rhymed with Duke of York, then the rhyming portion was dropped, leaving duke.  Another example survives in the expression "to blow a raspberry". The raspberry in question is not the delicious fruit but an offensive, rasping sound made with the tongue extended between the lips (sometimes known as a "Bronx cheer"). The rhyming phrase was "raspberry tart"... oh, you work out what it rhymes with!

My third example of American rhyming slang is (ta-da!) eighty-six.   This time the rhyme is with nix, it being an English borrowing from nichs (pronounced "nix"), which is the word for "nothing" in the Saxon dialect of German (compare the High German nicht).   One might assume that, like eighty-six, nix is purely American but an English writer in 1789 recorded it as part of the criminals' slang known as "cant".

Curiously, eighty-six is one of a set of number codes formerly used by short-order cooks (as in "One hamburger, eighty-six the onions").  There were several others, including five (a glass of milk), five-and-half (half a glass of milk), nineteen (a banana split), and fifty-five (a root beer).  Some of these number codes did not refer to menu items, however.  Ninety-nine meant "Beware, manager approaching!", twenty-two meant "A customer has left without paying" and eighty-seven-and-a-half meant "Drop what you're doing and look at this beautiful woman out front".  All of these codes were developed in a bustling, energetic, crowded environment where all the waiters were trying to serve many customers at the same time.  A code meaning "Scram! Get out of my way!" which was intelligible to other waiters but meaningless to the customers was, in these conditions, indispensable.  This code was twenty-three.

Here is where we come to my discovery.  Etymologists who concern themselves with slang have long puzzled over the phrase twenty-three skidoo.  During the period 1900 - 1907, this catch-phrase spread through the youth of America. (For some reason, modern writers seem to associate this phrase with the 1920s. They're wrong.)  One of the reasons this phrase  has attracted such attention is that it was the first catch-phrase to find currency over the whole of the United States. But back to the "puzzle".  The skidoo part is no problem - it is thought to be a jocular form of skedaddle.  Rather, the question is where  the twenty-three came from.  Or should I say "was"?  I think the question has just been answered. 


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Andrew Jaramillo:

What is the etymology for the word frump?

First, unless you are asking for insect information about this word, you have made a common error. Entomology is the study of insects. Etymology is the study of the origin of words. Don’t feel bad, however; you might be surprised at the number of people who confuse these similar words!

Frump is thought to be a shortening of frumple "to wrinkle or crumple" (it was frumplen around 1440). Frumplen came from Middle Dutch verrompelen (ver- "for-, completely" and rompelen "to rumple"). By the early 19th century frump meant "shabby, unstylish woman". Today it means much the same thing.


From H Hardesty:

 Please tell me the origin of the suffix –smith as in blacksmith or goldsmith

This word has changed little in English over the centuries. In Old English (about 725, in Beowulf) it was already smith and meant "one who makes or shapes things out of metal". It is cognate with Old Frisian and Old Saxon smith "blacksmith", Middle Dutch and modern Dutch smid, Old High German smid and modern German Schmied (along with the German surname Schmidt), Old Icelandic smidhr, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish smed, and Gothic –smitha (as in aizasmitha "coppersmith"). These all derive from the Proto-Germanic root smithaz, which apparently meant "worker, craftsman" (that meaning survived into Old Norse in smithr), and the "metal worker" meaning arose later.


From Mark Sturm:

My question concerns the word kill.  I refer not to the word associated with the termination of life, but with some kind of body of water (I’m not exactly sure what kind).  In New York sate, there are quite a few of these kills, such as the Homowack kill and the Arthur kill.  I’ve wondered about this for a while. 

It’s not surprising that these geographical features are in New York state, which to this day carries quite a bit of Dutch influence. In 1669 kill meant, in American English, "a stream or creek". It came from Dutch kil, from Middle Dutch kille "river bed, channel". (MEL)


From Michael Hartwig:

 I recently read a book (fiction) that claimed that the word fascinate comes from the Latin fascinum, which is the word for an erect penis. My Webster’s Collegiate [Dictionary] disagrees with this etymology. Can you shed any light on the matter?

Yes, I can. The author of the fiction you are reading did not do his/her homework and instead made unfounded assumptions. It is easy to see how the author made the mistake he/she did. Fascinus is indeed the name of a Roman phallic deity, but the deity’s name did not come first; the word fascinus did, and it meant "spell, witchcraft". From it came fascinare "bewitch, enchant", and the past participle of fascinare was fascinatus. English borrowed it, via Middle French fasciner, in the 16th century with the same meaning as the Latin forms. The Roman deity was named Fascinus because, in earlier times, Roman children were given amulets in the shape of penises to wear around their necks as protection from evil spirits. The deity was born of that practice.

Interestingly, some etymologists believe that fascinus was borrowed by Latin from Greek bskanos "bewitcher, sorcerer" and it was altered due to the influence of the Latin word fari "speak", but others say that the resemblance of the Latin to the Greek is purely accidental.

From Denise Brennan Watson:

First, I’ll say that I’m very excited to have found this web site. I found it by a combination of accident and fate.

I’ve been wondering about the origin of scrapbook. Scrap is used in reference to bits and pieces of junk metal found in shipyards and junkyards. I asked a scrapbook artist if there were a connection between scrap used in reference to pieces of discarded metal and the term scrapbook. She told me that she believed so. She inquired of her mentor, who said that as bits and pieces of metal were used to form large sheets, bits of paper left over from a printer’s job were pressed together to form sheets of paper.

The mentor said further that paper leftovers were given to persons who could not afford paper so that they could form stationery and even books. Do you know of any etymological or historical foundation for this explanation?

I reproduced your entire e-mail, even though it is a bit lengthy, because the information you cite is intriguing, but also because there is a glaring absence of accuracy in the information provided to you. First, scrapbooks were not originally created from scraps; instead, they were created for the keeping of scraps, i.e., bits of paper, ribbon, plants, etc. (and later photographs, newspaper or magazine clippings, letters, etc.) Incidentally, the word scrapbook dates from 1825. Second, the word scrap does not only apply to metal, and such was certainly not its original application. In the 14th century scrappe meant "fragment of food" . The word was borrowed from a Scandinavian source (compare Old Icelandic/Old Norse skrap "scraps, trifles") and comes ultimately from the Proto-Germanic base skrap-, which also gave us scrape and a related but now extinct word which meant "scratch". It was only via metaphor that the word came to apply to bits of cloth or paper and then items such as metal.

Perhaps scraps of paper were used to create more paper (as is done today by many papermakers), and perhaps such scraps were also given to poor people, but these actions have nothing to do with the etymology of scrapbook.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Despise and detest

How many times do I have to tell you people? (You know who you are.)  Despise does not mean detest. Oh, yes, I know they both express an intense dislike but despise indicates a particular kind of antipathy. Coming, as it does, from the Latin despicare (de- "down" + spicare "to look upon") it means literally "to look down upon". Thus it not only expresses dislike but also moral disapproval. So, while one might despise arms smugglers one cannot "despise broccoli" (pace President Bush).


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