Issue 119, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Avraham Roos:

Just curious if you could verify for me if the origin of humdinger is the following:

Humdinger, Arnold, 1897-1932, American aviator, born in Philadelphia and educated at Andover and Yale, where he excelled in track and field events s well as academically, graduating maxima cum laude in 1921.  His tragically early death during an attempt to land his single-seat Curtiss biplane on the summit of Mount Everest was overshadowed by the Lindbergh kidnapping in the same year, but he remained a hero and a legend to young American pilots, who gave his name to exceptionally fast airplanes and automobiles, and to anything that was excellent in its class.  (Source: What's in a Name Part 3,

Somebody went to a lot of trouble to concoct that ridiculous story and that goofy web site, where there are many preposterous stories about word origins (another is that ketchup is named after someone named Noah Ketchup.  We both moaned aloud at that one.  See our past discussion of ketchup.).  Perhaps the site creator intended it all as a joke.  Surely no one in his right mind would believe that a professional aviator tried to land on the summit of Mount Everest.

As for humdinger, it first appears in the written record in 1905.  Old Arnie was only 8 years old at that time.  Additionally, if you do a search for this Arnold Humdinger in encyclopedias or on the Internet, you find nothing (except, on the Internet, we found the above site and a reference to a bulletin board on a server named "aviation" something or other which isn't working). Also, not one etymological source, even those specializing in eponyms, mentions Arnie.  Finally, most respected etymologists claim that the word's origin is unknown, but dinger meant "something amazing" or "something superlative" as far back as 1809.  There is no dispute that humdinger (and dinger, for that matter) are both American in origin.  

From T. Walter:

While at the gym, I began to wonder why the item I was lifting was called a dumbbell, and also how the term came to be used as a personal insult.

Well, think about what the word dumbbell might mean etymologically: a dumb bell is a "silent" bell.  Yes, a dumbbell was a device used to train bell ringers!  There was a rope to pull but no true bell and so no noise.  This device later came to be used for exercise.  Around the same time people were also using another instrument for exercise, and it too was called a dumbbell, though it consisted of a bar with rounded weights at each end.  One was held in each hand and swung.  It has been suggested that they may have resembled hand-bells as they were being swung, and so the name of another exercise device, the dumbbell, was applied to the small instruments that resemble the dumbbells of today.

The term was applied to persons simply because it contains the word dumb (U.S. slang for "stupid").  Dumbbell was already being used in this derogatory sense by 1920.

From Amit Shah:

The word scut as used in the medical world - for boring work that medical students are often required to do (e.g.., hunting for x-rays, medical records, drawing blood, etc.).  What is its origin?? 

Scut is short for scutwork "monotonous work", formed from scut "worthless person" plus work.  It is first recorded in 1960 in an American slang dictionary.  It is thought that it may come from scut "a term of contempt for a person", which dates from the mid to late 19th century.  That word may derive from scout "a term of contempt applied to both men and women", which is recorded as early as about 1380.  Where do we go from here?  That word is thought to be cognate with the verb scout "to mock or deride" or "to reject with scorn".  The verb has its origin in Scandinavia; Old Norse skuta meant "a taunt" and is thought to come from skiota "to shoot", which would, after all of that (whew!), make it cognate with English shoot!  The Germanic root at work here is skeud- "to shoot, chase, throw".

From Jerry L. Patton, Jr.:

Did the term bulletin board originate with the public posting of papal bulls or is its origin more general and recent?

Let's talk about bulletin by itself, first.  English adopted it in the 17th century from Italian bullettino or bollettino, the diminutive form of bulletta "bull", which was the diminutive of yet another word, bolla  (from Latin bulla) "bubble, bull".  The bull here is, of course, a pronouncement issued byA wax seal. Click to follow the link. popes (a papal bull).  In this case bolla is used metaphorically to mean not a bubble but the (round) seal affixed to the pronouncement.  So here we have synecdoche (or metonymy), where an object is called by one of its parts.  Bull "seal" in English dates from the 14th century.  

The first English meaning of bulletin was more in line with the Italian sense: "a short note or memorandum; an official certificate" - this was in 17th century.  By the end of the 18th century English had adopted a different meaning "a short account or report of public news or events, issued by an authority."  The word with this meaning is thought to have entered English separately and not from Italian but from French bulletin.

Bulletin board dates from the early 19th century in the U.S. with the same sort of meaning it has today: "a notice board".  We also have the term turning up in Byte magazine in December of 1979: "Computerized bulletin board systems are multiplying like rabbits!"

From Michael Poretsky:

My question concerns the derivation of the phrase to bend over backwards (to please). A friend gave me an explanation that I find difficult to credit. I am, however, now ravenously curious as to its origin.

Ah, we can only imagine what wild and woolly derivation your friend might have communicated to you. Rest assured that there is no lewd origin for this phrase. It first turns up in an American publication in 1925, indicating that it was probably around for several years prior to that. The 1925 quotation is: "Stambuliski leaned over backwards in his desire to satisfy Serbian demands." The phrase is simply a reference to the great effort and strength that would be required to bend over backwards, or to the fact that it is nigh on impossible for most people to do so. So "to bend over backwards" means "to do something almost beyond one's capabilities". If someone said they would bend over backwards for us, we'd be mightily flattered!


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Last Updated 08/18/01 06:56 PM