Issue 207, page 1
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On a recent Sunday we were listening to the Public Radio program Says You! It is one of our favorite radio programs as it deals with language. On last week's show, one of the categories was etymology. The show's celebrity panelists were asked to give the derivation of several phrases and terms: fudge (verb), grease the skids, flogging a dead horse, making ends meet, rummage sale, and knock off. Several of the etymologies given by the show were incorrect; in fact, they were quite fantastic ("existing only in imagination or fantasy").
The first term discussed on the program was
the verb fudge. It was rather quickly claimed that the word
in this sense is eponymous, coming from the name of one Captain Fudge
who was supposedly a prolific fudger.
Speaking of fantasy, this is clearly the product of someone's fertile
imagination. No dictionary (not even the venerable OED) offers any evidence of
eponymous seafarer. Instead, we find that the verb fudge
is an "onomatopoeic alteration" of the older verb fadge.
Fadge meant, among other things, "to make things fit". The change of the a in fadge
to the u in fudge was thought more suggestive of
clumsiness, which was the evolution in the sense of fudge: "to
fit together clumsily". Again, there is absolutely no mention of a
Captain Fudge in either the etymological discussion of theses words or
in any of the quotations supplied for them. The earliest quotation
for fudge dates from 1674, and that for fadge is from
Note that the term skid road comes from the logging skids, as well, and, slightly corrupted, gave birth to the term skid row. (Note also that bears eating skid grease and, in the process, tearing up the skid roads, was apparently a common problem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries!)
That being said, we'll give Says You! half credit regarding grease the skids. However, for the next phrase discussed on the program, flogging a dead horse, we cannot be so generous. The meaning is obvious: no amount of flogging will induce a dead horse to work, so flogging a dead horse simply means "pursuing a futile endeavor".
The claim of Says You! was that flogging a dead horse referred to men on ship, who were paid ahead of time for their first month's work, and they usually spent all of that money prior to even boarding the ship on which they were to work. For the first month on board, therefore, they felt as though they were working for nothing, and so they were not terribly motivated. After approximately one month, ships out of the British Isles reached the Horse Latitudes. Admiral William Smythe, host Sher told us, was supposed to have said, "To get a day's work out of a crew during the dead horse month is like flogging a dead horse." The problem here is that there is no mention by Smythe of the Horse Latitudes or any explanation of why he supposedly used the phrase "flogging a dead horse". That's because there is no connection.
It appears that the Says You! folks have confused flogging a dead horse with an entirely different phrase - to work (for) the dead horse. This phrase was slang for "work charged before it is executed". This use of dead horse to refer to pay that was issued before the work was done was simply an allusion to using one's money to buy a useless thing (metaphorically, " a dead horse"). Most men paid in advance apparently either wasted the money on drink or other such vices or used it to pay debts. The earliest (1638) written example of dead horse says as much: "His land 'twas sold to pay his debts; All went that way, for a dead horse, as one would say."
The Smythe quotation is a red herring. He was simply referring to what was already known as the "dead horse month", or the month of no pay, and how difficult it was to get work out of the men during the dead horse month. Flogging a dead horse doesn't turn up in the written record until 1872 and, even then, it is not in a nautical sense.
The next phrase discussed on Says You!
was making ends meet. Again, as a hint, a nautical
connection was suggested, and one of the show's panelists immediately
said that the phrase was related to splicing rope.
Apparently, rope used on big ships was expensive, we were told, so
surplus ends were spliced together. That sounds somewhat sensible,
but there is no evidence that it is the source of the phrase.
Instead, the phrase was originally to make both ends of the year meet
or to make the two ends of the year meet. This meant "to
live within one's income", income being figured per year. There is no nautical sense here as
the phrase appears to have originated with accountants some time prior
Finally, during a break from the show, Richard Sher came on to apologize for errors in past shows. We were sorry we missed some of those shows as some of the errors mentioned were quite amusing! He said that many readers had written in to correct the etymology of posh, claiming that it is not from the heyday of ocean liners and the phrase port out, starboard home. He justified the claim of Says You! regarding posh by saying that several etymologies are actually accepted for the word. In this he is quite wrong. When several etymologies are considered possible, none is accepted. Sez You! really should consult English language authorities, especially the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), usually the ultimate arbiter in etymological discussions. The OED discounts the port out, starboard home derivation and instead suggests that the word derives from thieves' slang posh "money, especially a halfpenny" (compare modern slang dosh), which in turn derives from the Romany (a Gypsy language) word posh "half". The adjective dates from possibly as early as 1903, when Wodehouse used it in the form push.
Don't eschew Says You! just because they get a few things wrong. We make mistakes ourselves, and we wouldn't want you to stop reading TOWFI just because we're human! Oh well, time for a couple of bowls of Cap'n Fudge, er, Crunch.
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