Issue 208, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Brad:

I was checking out's new QnA service and came across someone asking for the origin of cool beans. Someone replied with a Wiktionary link that said the phrase came from Boston where people had to wait for beans to be cool enough to eat. I found a similar story elsewhere on the web where it referred to canning factories where people had to wait for cans of beans to cool sufficiently to be labeled. I don't buy any of it. What's the real story?

There's just no evidence for that derivation.  We think someone is messing with the Wiktionary!  What we do know is that the phrase can be found in print as early as 1988.  All earlier examples that we found are from bean recipes where the cook is instructed to "cool [the] beans", and while today's expression may have been influenced by recipes, we somehow doubt it.  The 1988 citation, from the Wellsboro [Pennsylvania] Gazette is:

On Jan 13, 1913, the beginning of air parcel post was demonstrated covering a route from Boston to New York in which a cargo of baked beans was ferried.

The phrase as we know it today was clearly already known in 1988, and this little snippet in the Gazette was making a pun.  (We also discovered that the U.S. Mail conducted several air parcel post demonstations in the years prior to World War I, though we could not confirm a cargo of baked beans in any of those demonstration flights.)

Several web sources claim that the phrase originated in a commercial for Bush's Best Baked Beans (in the U.S.) where the Bush family dog, who can speak, by the way, says "cool beans".  However, the Bush's Best Baked Beans web site states (and they should know!) that the commercials using the talking dog did not start until 1993.  So there goes that theory out the window.  Clearly the Bush commercials were capitalizing on an existing phrase.

Another web site suggested that cool beans is simply an alteration of cool, but this prompts us to ask, "Why beans?"  Why not cool peas or cool steaks?  The origin of this phrase is currently at the bottom of a pot of hot beans.  We hope that someone will eat enough of the beans to get to the bottom of the pot, and the bottom of this mystery.  Just make sure you have some Bean-o handy.

From Aline:

I originally was searching for the origin of the word Mass, as in the Catholic Mass, and the only theory I've seen is that it comes from the Latin missa, meaning "to depart".  However, that really bothers me due to the completely different vowel sound from the a in Mass. So, I wonder if anyone has considered an alternate theory - that it really comes from an earlier source - the Jewish word matzo for "unleavened bread" (now used also in Spanish as masa for "unleavened bread". Since the early Christians were Jews, and it was not until the 4th century, I think, that the Mass was being offered in Latin as its "official" language, it seems more likely to me that this offering of the bread would have been named for that instead. Any comment or rebuttal of my little pet theory is welcome - thanks for your time.

The trick here is that the English word did not come directly from Latin missa.  Instead, there was a Vulgar Latin form messa, which Old English took as mæsse, though in Kentish and Mercian English it was messe.  French messe, and Provençal and Italian messa come from the same Vulgar Latin source.   Spanish misa and Portuguese missa are, on the other hand, from the written Latin form - missa.  The other Germanic forms come from both the Vulgar Latin and written Latin forms.  Old Frisian and Old Saxon had missa (and modern Dutch is mis), while Middle High German had misse and messe (modern German being messe), and Old Norse had messa (Swedish is messa, and Danish is messe).

Most scholars do agree that the source of the Latin missa/messa is the verb mittere "to send, to send away, dismiss".  The past participle is missusMissa is thought to be a verbal noun which refers to the act of dismissing.  The earliest instances of the word in the written record come from the 4th century.  Some over the centuries have thought that the word was used to refer to the dismissal of catechumens before the eucharistic portion of the service began, so that the original sense of the word was "the Eucharist".  However, more recently, scholars have come to believe that the original sense of the word was "religious service" and that the meaning was narrowed over time to mean "the Eucharist".  Such services were closed with the phrase, "Ite, missa est."  That is thought by many to be the origin of the word's use in this sense.

The earliest appearance of the word in English dates from 831!

From Kevin:

You don't say this in your etymology, but on the radio the other day here in Minnesota, Rick Steves, the travel writer, said the word scoop came about because ships from the mainland would arrive in Dublin (?), and news from Reuters would be lowered over the side of the ship in a bucket, the bucket would be scooped up and taken ashore for the news to be spread. Thus the term scoop.   Is there any truth to this?  Reuters doesn't mention it in the history area on their Web site.

We love Rick Steves, but he should stick to travel and stay away from spurious etymologies.  We had not heard this ridiculous story before.  It is absurd on its face because the word scoop used in the journalistic sense originated in the U.S.!

The sense here is of one newspaper "scooping up" the story and running with it to publish it before anyone else.  The earliest example in the OED is from 1874:

Owing to a slight misunderstanding, the Sentinel found itself without a copy of the decision, and for a time a terrible scoop seemed imminent.

- Macomb [Illinois] Eagle, Nov 23, 1874

Clearly the worry expressed in this quotation was over another paper getting the story before the Sentinel did.  However, we here at TOWFI, using our amazing research skills, have found an earlier example, which makes the meaning clearer:

Report is going the rounds of the State papers that T.C. Davis, of the Osceola Democrat, narrowly escaped assassination a few weeks ago. The Osceola mentioned is in Missouri, and an exchange from that State says that Davis hired a man to attempt his assassination one night, just before his journal went to press, so as to scoop the rival paper on the latest news.  The accomplice aimed with too good effect, and Mr. Davis was thoroughly "vaccinated."  He was too much hurt to write up the affair, so the opposition paper got the item exclusively after all.

- Centerville [Iowa] Citizen, February 10, 1872

This quotation uses the verbal form of scoop in this sense, for which the OED's earliest example is 1884!  We love it when we get to antedate the OED!  Woohoo!

[Click on the link in Kevin's question to read our original discussion of scoop.]

From Daniel:

I wonder if you have any insights into how and when the phrase out of pocket has come to mean "unavailable" or "away from the office".  It's so common now that when I use the phrase in (what I believe to be) its original sense of "requiring one to pay cash that may not be reimbursed", I sometimes cause confusion. Is this a generational issue, or a regional one, or...?  Whence this troublesome usage?

Out of pocket originally referred to being out of funds.  The OED's earliest example of this is from 1693.  That meaning is considered obsolete.  It also meant "to be a loser in a transaction" in the 18th century.  By 1885 it was being used to refer to expenses that were not covered or that would not be reimbursed by another source.  This was the dominant meaning until the 20th century, when, as you mention, the meaning "away" or "unavailable" arose.  Interestingly, the OED's earliest citation for this usage, which they say is American, is from 1974.  Once again, the amazing TOWFI research team has found a citation almost 30 years earlier, from 1946 (another WOOHOO!).  We reproduce it for you in its entirety below:

Law Officers Request Aid in Uncovering Texarkana Murderer

Texarkana, May 11 —Murder-haunted residents in the Texarkana area were asked to play detective today in an effort to track down the slayer of five persons during the past seven weeks. Sheriff W. H. Presley and Chief of Police Jack Runnels asked "every man and woman in these two counties to recall whether or not any person close to them was missing or out of pocket" during the nights when the killer stalked his victims.
Asserting somebody was "out of pocket" the nights of the slayings in Bowie and Miller counties, the officers appealed to the residents for information.

- Salamanca [New York] Republican-Press, May 11, 1946

Our best guess is that the existing out of pocket was adopted to mean "away", "missing", or "not in contact", probably with the influence of the phrase in [someone's] pocket, which had been around since the early 19th century, with the meaning "quite close to, in close attendance upon [someone]".  We also suspect that, if the phrase with the "missing" meaning appeared in a newspaper of 1947, it had been in use for some time prior to that. 

From Jonathan:

Yeehaw?  Is this a corruption of gee and haw?  If so, how did it attain its present meaning?  It is in such common usage that its absence from dictionaries and other literary sources is puzzling.  Thank you for any assistance you are able to provide.

The OED. does not connect this to gee and haw.  Instead, it equates it with yahoo, another "exclamation of enthusiasm or exuberance."  Its earliest example of yeehaw, which it identifies as "chiefly U.S.", is from 1924:

The old ballads had a feeling not found in ‘mammy’ songs... They seemed to have possessed something more than derives from the efforts of the strident lads whose ‘m–a–m–m–ys’ yee-haw upon a stricken and helpless world.

- New York Times, March 24, 1929

However, we have found an example of the word from 1844!  We reprint the entire source story for you here as it is quite amusing.

A Chase for a Bustle

A correspondent relates the following: As a well dressed lady was proceeding down Third Avenue on Wednesday, a huge jackass was observed to throw up his nose etc.  Presently he kicked up his heels, and with a most sonorous yee-haw! yee-haw! set off at the to of his speed down the avenue.  The lady turned around, and seeing Neddy dashing, apparently intending to carry all before him, she ran, affrighted, to the other side of the street to get out of the way.  The donkey tacked in his course and crossed over, too, which the lady no sooner perceived than she gathered up her garments, and scampered away with all her might, amid shouts of laughter, from passers.  The relentless jackass still gave chase, calling to the fair figure with an occasional yee-haw! to halt and surrender.  At length he seized her by that prominent deformity which ladies call 'a bustle,' tearing the skirts of her gown and undergarments away from her body.  The embarrassment and confusion, indeed the absolute state of fright into which the lady was thrown under such circumstances, may be more easily imagined than described.  She however escaped, half benumbed, into one of the shops, leaving a stream of brownish powder to mark her route, besides a considerable quantity that had  been emancipated by the first assault of the donkey.  The solution of this extraordinary scene was now obvious.  The ladies  bustle was stuffed with bran and the poor jackass, who had a long series of fasting days, and had lately had no better fare than hard knocks and cut straw, could not resist the temptation to treat himself to a mouthful of farinaceous food, even though to be obtained by storming a lady's bustle!  Our fair readers would grieve exceedingly if nature had made them with one of these dromedary appendages on their back; but if they whom nature has given sylph-like forms, will thus disfigure themselves, they will, at least, do well to avoid stuffing their bustles with bran or oatmeal!

-Milwuakie [Wisconsin] Sentinel, September 7, 1844 (and yes, it was Milwaukie back then)

We also found yee haw in a very interesting advertisement from the Washington Post of July 6, 1906:

This instance of yee haw refers to Maud, "the mule that can't be ridden" (sure to be a barrel of laughs!).  Another instance of yee haw that we found, from 1902, refers to a donkey.  So it appears that the development of yeehaw as an interjection was influenced by the braying of a donkey or mule, and then it was perhaps further influenced by interjections like yoho and yahoo, even yoohoo.

All right, it is time to remove our Supreme Antedating Crowns and return to the real world for a nice, freshly cooked dinner -- no, we don't try to antedate everything.  Just words.

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Last Updated 11/01/06 06:55 PM