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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Tony Shapley:

Whilst being my normal curmudgeonly self I was recently accused of being anal retentive. Now I have heard this expression used on innumerable occasions and every time I have asked the speaker to explain exactly what they meant I have been met with a flushed silence. Perhaps you or one of your erudite readers can explain its origin and meaning. If, as I suspect it is the illiterates equivalent to feculent why use two words when one will do very nicely?

Oh dear, we don't think your friends were telling you that you are "full of feces"! That's what feculent means (and a great word it is, too, also surpassing "full of sh*t" in efficiency!). Anal-retentive, on the other hand, is a term borrowed directly from Freudian psychoanalysis.  According to this theory, the development of personality is determined by the primary method of obtaining pleasure.  Very small infants derive pleasure through food, specifically from breast-feeding.  In his "Three Essays on Sexuality" (1915) Freud called this the "oral" phase.  The subsequent stages are the "anal" phase, the "phallic" phase (yes, even for girls), "latency" and "genital" phases.

A child may obtain pleasure by defecating and may deliberately retain feces in order to maximize this pleasure.  Perhaps s/he may even learn to exert power over the poor parents who are trying to toilet-train the little perisher.  If so, this child is deemed "anal-retentive"

Freud believed that most neurotics are stuck in one of the childhood phases, and have not completed their development to the "mature", "healthy" genital phase. One of the supposed traits of an anal-retentive (or simply anal these days) person is that he is excessively neat, organized, and fastidious. Felix Unger of Neil Simon's comedy "The Odd Couple" is the classic anal retentive figure of recent times.

The term gained popularity in the latter half of the 20th century.

From Marco Tassara:

My friends and I were wondering where the term bangs came from in regard to hair.

The verb to bang, meaning "to strike", and its associated noun, meaning "a blow", entered Standard English from the Scottish dialect, some time in the 1500s probably from a A young boy contemplates his tragic haircut.Scandinavian source.  Several related words are found in Teutonic languages; the Old Norse banga meant "to hammer", Danish bank means "a beating" and in German Bengel is a "cudgel".  However, the bang which means "a sudden, loud noise" did not evolve until the early 1800s.

In many contexts, it is this notion of suddenness, rather than loudness, which is implied by bang.  Take, for example, the celebrated Punch cartoon in which a parsimonious Scot bemoans his fate in London:

Mun, a had na' been the-erre abune two hours when - bang - went saxpence!!! 

- Punch, vol. 54, p. 235 (1868 ) 

Similarly, in the same period, a horse whose tail ended in an abrupt horizontal cut was called bang-tailed.  From this equine usage, the term bang was applied to the hair of humans (or, at least, to that of small boys).  The popularity of this abrupt, horizontal cut was based largely on the ease with which it could be perpetrated... anyone with a pair of scissors and an appropriately sized pudding basin  could inflict it upon a child in about five minutes.  Assuming, of course, that he sat still for it.

From Tracy:

I can not find the origin of the word diaper anywhere.

This word has an interesting etymology. It actually refers to the cloth of the diaper (diaper = napkin or nappy in British English) and not the function of it. It came to Middle English from Old French dyapre, which was originally diaspre. There are cognates in Portuguese (diaspre), medieval Latin (diaspra/diasprum), and even Byzantine Greek, diaspros. The Greek word was formed from dia- + aspros "white". Dia- ultimately derives from a root meaning "two", with the etymological sense being "split into two parts", eventually coming to mean "through [the middle of]". The sense in diaper is thought to be either "white interspersed (run "through") with another color", or "white throughout".

Diaper fabric was originally linen (15th century) but retained its name when it came to be made of cotton. In Old French the word was also used to describe a fabric of silk with gold thread running through it (14th century). The word is first recorded with the "baby clout" ("nappy") meaning in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" of 1596. This usage stuck in America, but in Britain a new word took its place: nappy (short for napkin, another word which is used differently on either side of the Atlantic).

One little boy more
A napkin bore,
Of the best white diaper, fringed with pink,
And a Cardinal's Hat mark'd in "permanent ink."

- The Jackdaw of Rheims, "Thomas Ingoldsby" (R. H. Barham) (1837)

From Ruth Oswald:

I would like to know the origin of jackdaw.

When the word jack is attached to the name of an animal it either means "male" (as in jack-hare) or indicates a small size.  The jackdaw (Corvus monedula) is certainly one of the smallest members of the crow family but, in this case, jack is one of many personal names which were given to several birds in the Middle Ages.  Other birds which acquired personal names were the jay (from the Latin name Gaius), the martin, the robin and the jenny-wren.  Also, to British children, any small bird is called a dicky-bird.

Originally, it was just called a daw, a word which is related to German Dohle and Italian taccola.  It is rather a noisy bird and in some dialects it is known as a caddow (from kaa, its call, + daw).

Jackdaws are notorious thieves and will steal shiny objects with which to decorate their nests.  This is the basis of the Ingoldsby legend of The Jackdaw of Rheims in which a cardinal's ring is stolen and he pronounces a solemn curse upon the thief.  When a sickly, bedraggled jackdaw comes limping into the church it becomes clear that it was the thief and the ring is found in its nest.  The curse is lifted, the jackdaw recovers and goes on to become a very pious member of the congregation.  So much so, in fact, that after he dies, he is canonized as "St. Jim Crow".  This name is a play on Jack Daw and also a joking allusion to the popular African-American song with this title.

From Robert Woods:

What's up with the best thing since sliced bread?

Personally, we think hot, fragrant, un-sliced bread, straight from the oven is even better.  [Yum!]

Otto Frederick Rohwedder spent 16 years perfecting a machine that both sliced the bread and wrapped it in waxed paper. [Mike's first job, while on vacation from high school, was operating one of these machines.  He was supposed to let the bread cool first and was fascinated to discover that if you put 200 loaves through this device while they are still fresh and warm it takes only 30 minutes for them to turn greenish-black with mold.  The master baker, not being quite so scientifically-minded, was less impressed.]

The first ready-sliced loaf was produced in 1928 by a bakery in Battle Creek, Michigan.  By 1933, only five years later, American bakeries were turning out more sliced than unsliced bread.  This gave a boost to another new invention: Charles Strife's spring-loaded, automatic, pop-up toaster which had been languishing on the shelves since 1926. With Rohwedder's standardized slices on the market, Strife's invention suddenly made sense.  Battle Creek seems to have been a hot-bed of innovative foods.  Dr. John Kellogg, who ran a health spa there, began his line of "Battle Creek health foods" with Granola (c. 1895) and later (1907) introduced Corn Flakes.

Obviously, the best thing since sliced bread cannot be older than 1928 but we were surprised to find no record of its use before 1969.  Surely it's older than that. [Readers?]

But what was the best thing before sliced bread?  That's the real puzzle.

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Last Updated 05/22/02 06:38 PM