Issue 193, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jamie Fellrath:

I can't find anything on the word shebang anywhere!

First, Jamie, we have to comment on your scary last name!  We love it.  Now on to shebang.  You may be surprised to learn that it first turns up in the written record in 1862!  The word had several different meanings in its early years: a hut or building in which one lived (earliest instance: 1862); a vehicle (1872); a drinking establishment (1878); and "any matter of present concern; thing; business" (1869).  Interestingly, Mark Twain seemed fond of the word and the earliest examples of the "vehicle" use and the "any matter of present concern" use come from Twain's pen.  As you can see, all of these dates are somewhat close to one another, so it is difficult to ascertain which meaning was the earliest, but most etymologists believe it was the "dwelling" meaning, as the dates show.  Dave Wilton, who runs an etymological web site, suggests that the change in meaning from "dwelling" to "a building and everything in it" is easy to see (for the phrase most often encountered today is the whole shebang, which he believes is analogous to "the whole house").  However, the shift in meaning is not what interests us most.  It is the etymology.  The OED cops out with "of obscure origin", but other sources suggest a derivation from French char-a-banc, the name of a bus-like wagon with many seats.  That appears to be only a good guess, however, for no connection has been demonstrated.

From R.J. Kuzma:

Other than a dictionary reference to "colloquial, 1920's", [there is] no satisfying answer to the source of the phrase in spades, although many seem to think this is now not politically correct due to the derogatory associations with spade.

The ace of spades.Yes, surprisingly, spade is indeed a contemptuous term for a black person.  However, did you know that it was first used by African Americans (in the U.S.) to refer to exceptionally dark-skinned people among them?  Well, while that usage arose because the card suit called spades is black, the term in spades is not related to that usage.  Instead, it arose from the game of bridge, in which the suit of spades is the highest ranking suit in the game.  In spades dates in the written record from 1929 in the U.S.

Spade used to refer to the card suit dates in writing from 1598.  It derives from Italian spade "sword".  It is simply a coincidence that the spade symbol in British and U.S. playing cards (which came ultimately from France) resembles a spade or shovel.

From Rachel Weiss:

I was not aware that raccoons have unusually long lives.  Why does the phrase coon's age mean "once in a blue moon"?  I understand that a blue moon is an actual occurrence, and there is a long period between blue moons.  

A coon's age does indeed mean "a long time".  Some etymologists claim that people mistakenly thought that raccoons lived for a very long time, and that is how the phrase arose.  One source claims, instead, that the phrase is an alteration of aA raccoon. crow's age, which is supposedly a British phrase, but we have been able to find no evidence of that.  We have to suppose that raccoons were thought to live long lives, for whatever reason (historians and animal behaviorists could probably come up with several reasons for this misconception).  They do live up to 14 years, which, when compared with other forest animals, might seem a long time. 

The phrase first turns up in the written record in 1843.  The term coon as an aphetic form of raccoon dates from 1741.  By 1832 it was being used as a term for a "frontier rustic person", by 1839 it was used to refer to members of the Whig party (the raccoon was their symbol), and by 1862 we find it used to refer to African Americans.  In that sense it is now always considered offensive.  However, if you are inclined not to use a coon's age because you think it refers to African Americans and not raccoons, look at the dates and think again.

From Jeb Hagan:

Here's a word that's hard to find any information on: toolies.  My father has always used that word, usually in the phrase in the toolies, synonymous with "in the sticks" or "boonies".  There's a possibly related phrase, too: tooling around, meaning "traveling or wandering".  A Google search has turned up use of this word around the U.S., but I can't find a dictionary that has an entry for toolies.  Where does it come from?

Is your father perhaps from California?  We guess that you are in Texas from your e-mail address (  Melanie, a fellow-Texan, had never heard the term toolies before.  Mike, a Welshman, had certainly never heard it.  However, a little sleuthing turned the word up. 

When Melanie first got to California, she encountered the word tule (pronouncedA tule elk.  Click to follow the link. tooly), mostly in compounds like tule elk  and tule fog.  She came to find out that the word refers to two species of bulrush that grow in California river bottoms.  The term derives from Aztec tullin "reeds" by way of Spanish tule.  So tule elk are elk that live in or near the tule reeds, and tule fog is the dense fog that settles in the river bottoms of the great Central Valley of California (causing terrible automobile pile-up crashes).  Tule typically grew outside the cities, and so the term living in the tules or toolies came to be synonymous with living in the boondocks or boonies.

Tule as an English word dates from about 1837, while the phonetic toolies dates only from 1961 in writing, according to the OED, but the OED also claims that the term is Canadian!  

Tool the verb meaning "to travel about in a vehicle" is not related to tule.  It instead comes from the verb meaning "to work or shape with a tool".  The "travel" meaning dates from 1812 when it meant "to drive a team of horses, or to draw a person in a vehicle".  By extension it came to mean simply "to travel in a vehicle".

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2003 TIERE
Last Updated 01/08/06 02:15 PM