Issue 128, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Patricia Jordan:

My friend and I were discussing the origin of words and phrases, and we were both guessing at where the phrase caught red-handed came from.  A general search on the Internet as well as your search engine did not produce results.

For once our search engine was right!  Actually, the search engine is usually right.  Just every so often, after you enter a search term and click "enter", you are greeted with a blank screen.  In this case, however, the search engine should have found nothing as we've not discussed this phrase before. 

The phrase started life as redhand, a legal term from 15th century Scotland.  It meant, basically, "red handed", as in caught red-handed.  By the 16th century we find the Scottish phrase taken red-handed (or as the Scots put it, tane red-handed), and it wasn't until Walter Scott (a Scotsman) wrote Ivanhoe in 1819 that taken red-handed  caught on in English and was caught red-handed by 1857.

Why red-handed, you ask?  We heard one layperson suggest that it might be because of the dye bombs put in ransom money to mark and/or ruin the  bills.  Well, such bombs weren't in use in 15th century Scotland.  This phrase's origin is more obvious than that: to be caught red-handed is to be caught with blood on one's hands, perhaps literally when the phrase was first used, but now it is a figurative sense.  We'll leave you with this quotation from Scotland in 1609: Gif he is takin with reid or hait hand of slauchter ("if he is taken with red or hot hand of slaughter").

From Lori Ann Palisi:

I am a member of an Internet game, which consists mostly of message boards.  Recently the word factotum  was brought up, used to describe a player who is now assisting the ones who run the site.  Several of the European players say that this is a highly offensive word.  I would be interested in the etymology.

All right, but we must first give a wee reminder that a word's etymology does not dictate its true or even current meaning.  A factotum today is "an employee who serves in a wide range of capacities".  The word did have a more disparaging meaning of "one who meddles with everything, a busybody" (17th century), but that meaning is not the primary one today.

The word is medieval Latin factotum, which derives from facere "to do" plus totum "the whole".  It originally appeared in phrases like Johannes Factotum "John Do-everythng" or "Jack of all trades" and Dominus Factotum "Mister Do-Everything," all beginning in the 16th century.  It is not until the late 18th century, in the writings of William Cowper, that we find factotum being used alone: "The garden where I am my own fac-totum" (1782).

We can't imagine why the European players think the word offensive.  Are they native-English speakers, or are they non-native speakers who are perhaps confusing the word with something more vulgar?

From Cosmo Cavicchio:

The word scrod means "the fish catch of the day", at least in Boston (U.S.), but I understand it originated from the expression "Secured Catch Received on Dock".  Can you verify that?

No, but we can refute it.  Words deriving from acronyms are rare, as we are known to repeat here atA cod, or scrod.  Click to learn more about which fish you should or shouldn't eat. Take Our Word For It.  You should always suspect such explanations as apocryphal.  Scrod means "young cod or haddock, especially one split and boned for cooking as catch of the day".  It is the "split" part of that definition that is important, for scrod is thought to come from an obsolete Dutch word schrood, which derived from Middle Dutch schrode  "piece cut off" (compare the German surname Schroeder "tailor" or "one who cuts cloth").  

The Old English cognate is screade, the ancestor of modern shred.  A variant spelling of schrod for scrod is noted in some American dictionaries, further supporting the Dutch origin.  The OED reports a variant escrod, but we suspect that may be the influence of Portuguese fisherman in the Northeast (U.S.), where this term originated.

From Phil Thomsoon:

I was just wondering about the etymology of crayon.

Click to visit the Crayola site. Those colorful, waxy little drawing and coloring tools of our childhood got their name from French crayon, the diminutive of craie "chalk", which came from Latin creta "chalk".  The crayon was originally "a pointed stick or pencil of colored chalk or other material", at least from the 17th through the 19th centuries.  Nowadays we think of the aforementioned little wax, pencil shaped and paper wrapped tools as crayons.   Crayola, the most famous brand of today's crayons, first produced their product in 1903.  According to the Crayola web site:

The name Crayola was coined by Alice Binney, wife of company founder Edwin, and a former schoolteacher. She combined the words craie, which is French for "chalk", and ola, for oleaginous, because crayons are made from petroleum based paraffin.

(We have to wonder if Alice didn't actually combine the word crayon with ola.)  Prior to making paraffin-based crayons, Binney-Smith made dustless chalk (for school teachers) called chalk crayons, introducing that product in 1902.

Incidentally, the carbon-arc lamps which were once used on movie sets used large graphite electrodes known as crayons

From Wendy:

I was curious as to when and how the phrase on tenterhooks came into use as meaning "in suspense", etc., and wondered whether you could shed some light.  Congratulations on an excellent site, by the way.

Well, first we've got to tell you that a tenterhook is "a hooked nail for securing cloth on a tenter".  Of course we all know what a tenter is.  What?  We don't?  Ah, well, a tenter is "a framework on which milled cloth is stretched for drying without shrinkage."  ("Oh yeah, one of those!")  So to be on tenterhooks is to be stretched taut (as with suspense, anxiety, or uneasiness).  That particular construction of the phrase dates from the mid-18th century, when Tobias Smollett wrote in Roderick Random: "I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty."  Tenterhooks alone was used about 200 years earlier than that to mean "that on which something is stretched or strained; something that causes suffering or painful suspense", as in this from Sir Thomas More in 1532: "The churche... is stretched out in the stretcher or tenter hookes of the crosse, as a churche well washed and cleansed."

Tenter was teyntur in Middle English, and it probably derives from Latin tentorium "shelter made of stretched skins", from tendere "to stretch".  English tent derives from the same source.  The Indo-European root is ten- "to stretch", which has given English other words like tense, tender, distend, tetanus (from Greek tetanos "stiff"), and tantra (from Sanskrit tantram "loom").  It also gave us words which etymologically mean "stretched" and so "thin", like English thin.  Finally, words which refer to things that are capable of being stretched, like strings on musical instruments, also derive from ten-: tendon and tone (the latter from Greek tonos "string" and hence "pitch").

By the way, Wendy, we notice that your e-mail name is Hazelrah.  You wouldn't be a fan of Watership Down, now, would you?

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