Issue 186, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Elihu Shannon:Penny-in-the-slot chocolate vending machine

The penny dropped: did it come from the public loos or from gambling machines? When was it "coined"? (if you see the pun) and why isn't it in the dictionaries?

Well, for one thing, many typical dictionaries do not include phrases like that.  However, this phrase is in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  It apparently comes from the operation of various kinds of penny-in-the-slot machines, the most numerous of which sold penny candy and the like, though there were also the ones that showed crude animation (often lewd!).  The notion is that once the penny dropped through the machine, you got your candy or animation show.  In the figurative sense, the penny dropped means that someone has been told something which takes him a moment to understand.  When he does understand, the penny is said to have dropped.  

The first recorded instance is given by the OED as 1951, though there is a reference to a penny getting caught in the machine from 1942: "The penny seems to have stuck in the machine that time."

From Sam Watts:

Years ago in my part of the South, some fishermen used to practice the dangerous art of grabbling. This consisted of reaching blindly, with the bare hands, into underwater recesses in a river's bank to catch fish, the incentive being that the fish thus caught were often large ones. I realize that the word could be derived from the common word grabbing, but I suspect there's more to it than that. What is your opinion?

Yikes!  In rivers of the South (in the U.S.), one was as likely to grab a waterAn alligator snapping turtle - don't grabble for him!  Click to follow the link. moccasin (snake), snapping turtle or even an alligator as a fish.  Grabble is indeed a word in its own right (or write?  Nods to John Lennon).  It is said to correspond to Dutch grabbelen, a frequentative form of grabben, cognate with English grab, meaning that grabble and grab derive from the same ultimate source.  Grabble also occurs in the phrase to grope and grabble, for which there is a Dutch version: grapen en grabbelen.  The meaning of English grabble is "to feel or search with the hands, to grope about".  That's exactly what those possibly foolhardy "fishermen" you speak of were doing.

Grabble dates in English from the mid 16th century.  We even find this quotation from a gloss of 1869: "'To grabble for trout;' i.e. to grope in holes for them."

From Kelly McClendon:

As an active birder I have subscribed to an e-mail list for birders and ornithologists. The latest discussion has been whether skinny as a rail refers to the rail used to build fences or rail as in "the bird" (e.g. the Virginia rail, Rallus limicola). Although I think we birders would all like to hear that the phrase refers to this shy and somewhat skinny bird, I thought I would pose the question to you, the experts. Many thanks for helping us set the record straight!

The phrase refers to the fence kind of rail, not the bird.  The wooden rail came to English via Old French reille, which derived ultimately from Latin regula "straight stick, bar, rod, etc.".  It dates from the early 14th century in English.  Some cognate words are right ("just, correct, straight"), rectify ("straighten"), and erect ("straight upright").  The Indo-European root from which these words derive is *reg- "to move in a straight line".  Thin as a rail (the original form; skinny was substituted later) appears in 1872 in a work of Mark Twain.

Rail the bird comes from French rāle, which was Old French raale, and beyond that no one knows quite where the word came from.  The German and Latin forms apparently both came from the French.  The English form first turns up in the middle of the 15th century in a cookbook!  Oops, sorry Kelly!

From Judith Baron:

The phrase take a gander, meaning "take a look", sounds like Cockney rhyming slang to me, but I haven't been able to find a derivation, and I can't figure out what gander might stand for. Or does it refer to the up-and-down head movements of a goose or gander?

That is exactly what the gander in take a gander refers to: the stretching or bending of the neck as that of a gander (a male goose).  Actually, there is a verb to gander which originally meant "to wander aimlessly or with a foolish air like that of a gander".  It was only later that it took on the "look" meaning, and the noun gander that was formed from the verb means "a look or glance"; that's why now we take a gander.  The verb dates from the mid 17th century, while the noun dates only from the early part of the 20th century.

Interestingly, the noun gander "male goose" is not thought to be etymologically related to goose at all, but instead to Lithuanian gandros "stork".  This does not suggest that English borrowed a Lithuanian word, but instead that there is some common ancestor of the English and Lithuanian words.

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From J. Alan Munro:

A beautiful quarter horse.What about quarter horse? As a man from cowboy country I got to thinking...I know about horses and I know about quarters. Normally, I'd be thinking of something related to a quarter section but I can't find a link. A quarter horse may be small compared to a draught horse such as a Percheron but not by a quarter! Any insights you can offer?

As Melanie's family raised quarter horses, she can answer this one without any assistance from the dictionary.  The quarter horse is so named because it was bred to run (race) the quarter mile.  Quarter horses are of a size somewhere between a pony and a thoroughbred, and they have small, Arabian-like heads and well-defined muscles, making them relatively easy to spot by someone familiar with their conformation.

The term quarter horse dates from 1839, though the breed wasn't recognized until 1941.  Quarter horses usually have good dispositions and are not high-strung like thoroughbreds or Arabians.  They were certainly the most popular breed of horse in Texas when Melanie was growing up. 


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Last Updated 01/08/06 01:53 PM