Issue 113, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kenny Epstein:

I wonder about the cliché easy as pie.  What did it originally mean?  "As easy as eating pie"? - somewhat plausible.  "As easy as making pie?" - I doubt it, since it's not particularly easy to make.  "As easy as calculating the value of pi?" -  I had to include that one.  I suspect that this is one of those phrases we borrowed from another language and morphed the foreign words into their closest English equivalents, even if it made no sense.  What's the definitive word on this phrase?

Actually, one derivation of the term has the "eating" explanation as correct, because the phrase was originally as easy as eating pie, that source claims.  We couldn't find any examples of the phrase as easy as eating pie, so we're not sure that particular etymology is correct.  However, other sources have it simply deriving from pieAs good as pie appears in the written record in the mid-19th century.  It is not until 1925 that we find the precise phrase easy as pie.

There are examples of other, similar phrases using pie: as polite as pie, from Mark Twain, 1884; James Joyce's nice as pie in Ulysses, 1922

From Bob Rodriguez:

I searched your site but could only find crud as the original spelling of curd.  I've heard that crud means "Charles River Underwater Debris", and came from an Army dredging project.  However, from reading your site I am aware that acronym origins are often spurious 

You are correct to disregard a derivation from an acronym in most instances.  Crud is indeed a metathetic form of curdEating her curds and way over-acting (Pia Zadora) However, it doesn't enter the written record until the middle of the 20th century, and in the U.S., at that.  Curd, as you probably know, is a precursor of cheese, solids formed from milk.  You can probably see how that goopy, messy substance might be the source of crud.

Originally, crud originally referred to "a despicable or undesirable person" (1940), then it was a general term for "disease or illness" (1945), and by 1950 it referred to "an undesirable impurity, foreign matter, etc."  Interestingly, one source gives a Canadian derivation for crud, indicating that it originated around 1930.

From Ethan Frolich:

While daydreaming the other day, my mind kicked up the phrase fly off the handle.  The verb to fly can be used in many different ways, as I'm sure you're aware.  I would  presume in this case that fly would be interpreted in a more combative or attacking sense (i.e. "he let the punches fly"), but I'm not sure where the handle fits into it.  Would you care to elucidate, O Wise and Learned Ones?

Why certainly!  This one is actually quite simple.  It's a reference to a hammer or axe head suddenly flying off its handle while striking its target.  The phrase dates back to at least the mid-19th century - at least that's when it is first recorded: "He flies right off the handle for nothing."   Kipling used a slight variation in 1888 in his Plain Tales from the Hills: "Pansay went off the handle, ...all that nonsense about ghosts developed."  A person who suddenly gets very angry or emotional is likened to a hammer or axe head flying of its handle.

From Peter Zoulas:

Could you please tell me where yum or yummy comes from?  The other day we had a Yum Cha breakfast at a Chinese restaurant and are wondering if it originates from there.

We do get a general food word from Chinese - chow.   However, yum may derive from yam, an English word meaning "to eat" which is thought to come from a West African language (compare Senegalese nyami "to eat" and Shona nyama "meat").  Yam dates in English from the early 18th century, and yum  from the mid-19th century.  Yummy arose a little bit later, at the end of the 19th century.

It's also possible that yum is related to mmm (as in mmm good), a sound of general satisfaction made when one's mouth is full.  This formation would be similar to the conversion of brrr, a sound made when one is cold, to the exclamation "burr!".

From Jeff Lee:

In Issue 38, you mentioned the geoduck, which you described as "a grotesque-looking yet edible mollusk whose name is pronounced 'gooey-duck'". My question is: WHY is the pronunciation at such odds with the spelling?

Ah, yes, the lovely geoduck.  When we first encountered this bizarre creature, it was in an Asian fish market here in San Jose, California, and we pronounced it just as it's spelled: "jee-oh-duck".  However, we were eventually corrected regarding the word's pronunciation.  

It is, in fact, pronounced "goo-ee-duck" (though the OED doesn't recognize this, probably because it's an American term).  It is thought You can eat these raw, fried or boiled to derive from Chinook, one of the American Indian languages of the Pacific Northwest, and the Chinook people probably borrowed it from the Coastal Salish, who were Puget Sound (Washington State) natives.  One source has the Salish word as gwídq.  The Indian ancestor words seem to have meant "neck". You see, the geoduck is a large clam (Glycineris generosa) with a very long, thick siphon protruding from its shell.  The Indians may have thought that it looked like a neck. Whatever the word's origins, it is unclear why the pronunciation doesn't match the spelling, however, an alternative spelling is gweduc, suggesting that simple metathesis accounts for the "goo-ee" pronunciation that doesn't match the spelling. 

This mollusk is also known as the horseneck clam, and in Japanese (for you sushi lovers) it is mirugai. This from an article at the Wine Spectator web site: 

The giant geoduck (pronounced "goo-ee-duck") looks like a prop from the X-Files.  It can reach up to 9 pounds, but is more commonly harvested at 2 to 3 pounds.  The trunk-like meat, which overflows the shell, needs to be pounded into submission, similar to abalone, then sliced and quickly sautéed.  The Japanese, who prize the geoduck, slice it paper-thin and serve it sashimi-style. 


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