Issue 118, page 1

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Another one of those e-mails

Reader Anthony Hill sent us the following, which is funny by virtue of the spurious etymologies contained within, and interesting because of some correct (surprise!) information.  Our comments are in green (this color).  Read on:

The reason that something is the way it is can often be more interesting than the thing itself. For instance ...

Did you ever wonder why dimes, quarters and half dollars have notched edges, while pennies and nickels do not?

The US Mint began putting notches on the edges of coins containing gold and silver to discourage holders from shaving off small quantities of the precious metals. Dimes, quarters and half dollars are notched because they used to contain silver. Pennies and nickels aren't notched because the metals they contain are not valuable enough to shave.  

CORRECT.

Why do men's clothes have buttons on the right while women's clothes have buttons on the left?

When buttons were invented, they were very expensive and worn primarily by the rich. Because wealthy women were dressed by maids, dressmakers put the buttons on the maid's right. Since most people are right-handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes on the left.  And that's where women's buttons have remained since.   

CORRECT

Why do X's at the end of a letter signify kisses?

In the Middle Ages, when many people were unable to read or write, documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.   

CORRECT.  The X performed double-duty as it both symbolized the cross of Christ and resembled the Greek letter Chi, first letter of Christos.  See our discussion of this practice.

Why is shifting responsibility to someone else is called passing the buck?

In card games, it was once customary to pass an item, called a buck, from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. If a player did not wish to assume the responsibility, he would "pass the buck" to the next player.

CORRECT.  See our discussion of how that buck came to refer to an American dollar.

Why do people clink their glasses before drinking a toast?

It used to be common for someone to try to kill an enemy by offering him a poisoned drink. To prove to a guest that a drink was safe, it became customary for a guest to pour a small amount of his drink into the glass of the host. Both men would drink it simultaneously. When a guest trusted his host, he would then touch - or clink - the host's glass with his own.  

Hmm...  Actually, the host would be the first to drink wine poured from the container that would be used to fill everyone else's glasses.  This dates back to ancient Greece.  The Romans adopted the practice, as well.  Everyone raised their glasses (drinking vessels) to the host after he'd drunk and they'd been served.  Clinking the drinking vessels probably did emerge from this custom.  As an aside, the Romans put burnt toast in their wine - charcoal can rehabilitate a bad wine fairly well, and burnt toast was the charcoal of choice, according to one source.  Our word toast in the drinking sense comes from this custom.  The Latin word was tostus "roasted".  John Ayto says that gentlemen of the 16th century often drank to the health of a lady, and in doing so would say that the lady's name flavored their wine better than toast did.

Why are people in the public eye said to be in the limelight?

Invented in 1825, limelight was used in lighthouses and as stage lighting by burning a cylinder of lime in an oxyhydrogen flame that produced a brilliant light. In the theater, performers on stage "in the limelight" were seen by the audience to be the center of attention.

CORRECT.  Thomas Drummond, a royal engineer from Scotland, invented the Drummond light for use while performing land surveys, and it was soon adapted for use in lighthouses.  He had died before the light was first used in the theater in 1840, when the Drummond light came to be known as the limelight.

Why do ships and aircraft in trouble use mayday as their call for help?

This comes from the French word m'aidez meaning "help me" - and it is pronounced "mayday." (Note: not exactly.. it's pronounced "med-ay", but close enough.)

CORRECT.  As an aside, SOS, the Morse code for "help", does not stand for "save our ship" or anything else.  It was chosen over CQD because it was easy to remember (three dots and three dashes).  CQD came from CQ, a general Morse code sequence indicating that a message would follow, plus D for "danger".

Why is someone who is feeling great on cloud nine?

Types of clouds are numbered according to the altitudes they attain, with nine being the highest cloud If someone is said to be on cloud nine, that person is floating well above worldly cares.

This sounds awfully suspect to Melanie, our resident meteorologist.  First, how would the general public know that the highest clouds are in "group nine", especiallly back in the 19th century when this phrase originated?  Another source gives a similar explanation, stating that cloud nine was the cumulonimbus.  However, in meteorology, the cumulonimbus is considered a low level cloud as its base is quite low.  Cirrus are the highest clouds.  Further, there's no cloud numbering system that goes to nine; in general, meteorologists recognize low-level, mid-level, and high-level clouds.  Actually, it seems that cloud nine's predecessor was cloud seven, and some suggest that cloud seven derives from seventh heaven.  How it became cloud nine is anyone's guess, and one of those guesses is that nine was simply more, and therefore better, than seven.  The term cloud nine may have been popularized in the U.S. by a 1950s radio show called Johnny Dollar.  The hero was apparently taken to cloud nine every time he was knocked out cold.  On cloud nine he regained consciousness.

Why is a zero score in tennis are called love?

In France, where tennis first became popular, a big, round zero on a scoreboard looked like an egg and was called l'oeuf, which is French for "egg."  When tennis was introduced in the US, Americans pronounced it "love". 

Quite unlikely.  Instead, this is one of those spurious etymologies we love so well!  It certainly makes sense that the French might call a zero score "an egg", just as we might say "a goose egg" for the same thing.  However, love in this sense goes back to at least the 18th century, when it was applied to many games other than tennis.  The OED thinks it is the same love as the romantic one, and another source suggests that it comes from the phrase play for love.  While we find that explanation lacking, we must stress that there is no proof that love "zero score" comes from French l'oeuf.  Also, to add insult to injury, the creator of this lovely little e-mail blames Americans for corrupting l'oeuf into love, but it did not originate in America.

Why are many coin banks shaped like pigs?

Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of a dense, orange clay called pygg. When people saved coins in jars made of this clay, the jars became know as "pygg banks." When an English potter  misunderstood the word, he made a bank that resembled a pig. And it caught on.

There's no real foundation for this explanation, either.  The word pygg, which eventually became pig, referring to an earthenware container, became obsolete in the 19th century.  Piggy bank doesn't make an appearance until almost 100 years later, in the 1940s.  One source notes that banks in the shape of pigs first turned up in about 1909.  If they were already being called pigs (from pygg) before they were made in the shape of a pig, we should have an earlier record of the term.

Why are golfer's assistants called caddies?

When Mary, Queen of Scots went to France as a young girl (for education & survival) Louis, King of France learned that she loved the Scot game golf. So he had the first extra-Scotland golf course built for her enjoyment. To make sure she was properly chaperoned (and guarded) while she played Louis ordered cadets from a military school to accompany her.  Mary liked this a lot & when she returned to Scotland (not a very good idea in the long run) she took the practice with her. In French the word cadet is pronounced "ca-day" and the Scots bastardized it into caddie.

Mary had nothing to do with caddie being the name of a golfer's assistant.  The word was first applied to golf in the early to mid-19th century!  Mary had been long dead.  It is true, however, that it does come from cadet (17th century).  It originally meant just that - "cadet".  Later it came to mean "errand boy" and that is probably how it came to be applied to a golfer's assistant.

Hey, that was fun!

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?

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