Issue 173, page 4

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From Robert Dodd:

I'll have to ask for some documentation for your etymology of in the loop. Where in 1970 and 1976 was this phrase used? If it was used as you say, how would the phrase be understood by anyone other than engineers? Only those in the loop would understand.

While the phrase certainly implies that a person is inside the circle of people who "know", I don't think we need computer terminology to substitute "loop" for "circle" as in "the inner circle". It seems to me to be a simple turn of phrase that happens to be coincident with, or possibly influenced by, wider use of computer terminology.

Does influence determine derivation?

The first uses recorded from 1970 and 1976 are from the Sunday Telegraph and Aviation Week, respectively.   The computer and scientific uses we referred to are from 1945 and 1947 (and there are actually earlier scientific and technological uses).  That's plenty of time for scientific or engineering jargon to spill into the general population.  We've seen other examples of that.  See Issue 68 where we talk about glitch.

If it were simply a substitution for circle, why don't we have the phrase in the circle or in the inner circle meaning "in the loop"?

Updated in January 2006

From John Arlidge:

In your pluck explanation you mentioned melt, describing it as "collected blood". In my part of Australia (Queensland, in the north-east) the word melts is used regionally to describe the sperm sack and the sperm within of a male mullet: four inches long, bright yellow and to some, when fried, a delicacy, to others a fried sperm sack, if you get my drift. 

Colonised relatively recently, Australia largely escaped regional dialects, yet for some reason the nomenclature of seafood varies widely by region. For example, in Victoria and New South Wales in the south-east, shark fillets are popular and are called flake. We in the north call a shark a shark and have more sense than to eat it. Having said that no self-respecting Aussie ever calls a prawn a shrimp.

M Stewart Lee Allen sounds a bit sus to me (also to you, I think). There is logic in 17th century French princes eating fresh offal grilled, for methinks anyone who ate slightly old organ meats in those days, grilled or otherwise, would be brave indeed. "Tres bon, that was nice. Leave the rest a few days and feed them to Count Upimself. That should get 'im out of my 'air for a few days." 

He'd chunder for sure (now there's a good Aussie word). Yep, he'd be calling Ruth and Bruce on the big white telephone for a week after eating that.

The term melts is known beyond Queensland and is a variant of milt. We are well aware of this word but the melt we mentioned definitely has nothing to do with fish.

Prawn is used in the U.S. to describe large "shrimp".  As for chunder, that's a great Aussie word, indeed.  The OED has no idea about its etymology, but Eric Partridge suggests derivation from the English dialectical chounter "mutter, murmur, grumble", supposedly echoic in derivation.  However, he mentions another etymologist's* proposed derivations: an abbreviation of watch under ("look out below"), a call that seasick sailors could have made to their mates below; or rhyming slang, from Chunder Loo meaning "spew", Chunder Loo of Akim Foo being a cartoon character in ads for Cobra boot polish, carried in the Sydney Bulletin starting in 1909. Michael Quinion notes that Barry Humphries (known today as Dame Edna) popularized the term chunder in his comic strip about Australians in London in Private Eye magazine.  The strip was called Barry McKenzie.

*That etymologist is G.A. Wilkes, in his A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms of 1978,

From Hilary Henkin:

In response to Barb Dwyer's comments in Curmudgeon's Corner, I think the French in French bread refers more to the shape than to the dough.

When I was a child growing up in the 1960's, "French" bread was the other stuff besides "Wonder Bread' It was a round or oval lump - most assuredly not baked in a loaf pan. This was a time when white too-soft bread in a square shape was ubiquitous for middle America.

Somehow, French bread was what we had every time we had spaghetti and meatballs (back when "pasta" was either spaghetti, macaroni, or lasagna). "Italian" bread? Nope.

I'd guess that it was called "French" bread to remind us of savory baguettes, and make it sound more exotic and special. "Lump" bread just doesn't have the same panache'.

Love your website!

Melanie says that similar usage occurred in her household when she was a child.  You might be on to something! Perhaps it means any bread not made in a loaf-tin.

From Louis Nettles:

In your discussion of grits, you mentioned a corn fungus so desirable to Mexican farmers that "some even inoculate their corn with the fungus." I was confused by this phrasing, because I always understood inoculation as a prevention of disease, not an action to encourage it.

I thought so too, but I am now reading Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn about the North American smallpox epidemic of 1775-1782. To be inoculated was to be deliberately infected with smallpox through the skin. George Washington ordered the Continentals inoculated. The risk was great but the wild form of the disease was much more terrible. When you hear of a 18th Century inoculation you should realize just how dangerous inoculations were. George Washington had already survived smallpox which he contracted when he went to Barbados, his only trip outside the Colonies. Vaccination and inoculation have very different original meanings.

Vaccination is to be infected with cowpox, which is generally mild but imparts immunity to smallpox. 

It is true that inoculation was used to describe the purposeful introduction of small pox through the skin (though this was well after the word had been adopted in horticulture).  Interestingly, vaccine first referred to cowpox, but vaccine inoculation referred to small pox, and it was eventually contracted or shortened to vaccination.

From Erica Hruby:

My grandfather, who turns 89 this week, has sung to me since my childhood an oldie favorite of his: "I Had But 50 Cents." Here follows the first verse:

I took my girl to a fancy ball
It was a social hop;
We waited till the folks went out
And the music it did stop.
Then to a restaurant we went
The best one on the street;
She said she wasn't hungry
But oh how she could eat.
A dozen raw, a plate of slaw,
A chicken and a roast,
Some sparrowgrass and apple sass
And soft-shelled crabs on toast,
An Irish stew and crackers, too
Her appetite was immense,
When she called for pie
I thought I'd die,
For I had but fifty Cents.

Note how applesauce was rhymed with the corrupted form of asparagus!


From William Dale:

My dictionary claims to not know the origin of the word "ofay", a term used by a black person about a white person. Logic dictates that it is pigeon english for "foe", as in Enemy.

I assume Mr. Dole is referring to pidgin English, not a form of the language spoken by "flying rats."

Indeed.  Mr. Dole had several problems in his message.

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From Steve Folkers:

Regarding your recent discussion of in the loop and out of the loop, capitalization of the "l" in loop could alter the meaning of this phrase for Chicagoans. The heart of the downtown area of Chicago, IL is encircled by elevated rapid transit commuter train tracks (locally known as "the El"). I believe this commuter train line dates from the 1890s. Thus, in the Loop implies "downtown," for those in the Windy City, and has for quite a long time. I am not suggesting this as a possible etymology for the phrase, but simply wanted to share the fun of an unintentional double entendre!

Thanks again for providing such a witty and informative site.

Inside the loop in Houston, Texas, has a slightly different meaning.  If someone lives inside the loop (the 610 loop, to be more precise), he or she is probably in a desirable part of town. 

From Robert Fisher:

Love the site. In issue 172 you write that Caesar derives from caedere, whereas I have read in many histories that Caesar was a nickname meaning something near "having a full head of hair." I have even seen references to jokes made about Julius Caesar the dictator, who was somewhat bald. Could my esteemed historians be mistaken?

Apparently so.  The caedere derivation seems to be the one accepted by etymologists.  The full phrase used to describe what we today call a caesarian section (and also the phrase whence Caesar came) was a caeso matrix utere, which translates as "from the mother's cut womb".  Perhaps there is a pun in Latin, with a word that means "full head of hair" that sounds like Caesar.  Readers?

From Kem Luther:

I know you dealt with spic and span back in Issue 45. Your response curiously avoided the standard dictionary explanation that something spic and span was as neat and clean as a new ("span") nail ("spike"). You hinted instead that the derivation might hearken back to the tradition that a spoon was often carved from a new ("span") chip of wood. Spick, you speculate, was added for associative reasons.

You might be interested in what Henry Petroski (The Evolution of Useful Things, 1992) has to say on the topic. In his discussion of the adoption of the fork, knife, and spoon, he notes that the American colonists evolved a utensil practice that differed from the one in their parent countries. Forks being rare in the American colonies in the seventeenth century, the rough colonists used a spoon with their knives. "[U]sing an older, pointed knife and a spoon, a 'spike and spon,' to keep the fingers from touching food may have given us the phrase 'spic and span' to connote a high standard of cleanliness." 

The difference in colonial practice may also account for the current disagreement in etiquette over the proper "fork hand," James Deetz speculates in In Small Things Forgotten, since a left-hand spoon cannot readily accept mashed food from a right-hand knife. The American hand switch of the spoon was transferred to the fork when it replaced the spoon in the left hand.

Actually, if you go back and read our discussion you'll see that we mentioned the "nail" (spike) notion, but it is purely conjecture.  The spon derivation seems to be accepted by most etymologists.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence for Petroski's explanation.  Spic and span was in use in England before it made an appearance in North America, so that connection has no support.  Additionally, there are no recorded instances of spick and spon to suggest a connection with an actual spoon, nor is there record of spike or spick being used to refer to a knife.  Further, the original phrase was span new, more evidence against Mr. Petroski's etymology (if it had been as he suggests, the early examples would have been spick and span).  Additionally, he must have evidence to assert the connection he claims.  There are no recorded uses of spike and spon, certainly not in this context.

Finally, there are Dutch and Flemish examples of the phrase that use forms of spick: spikspeldernieuw and spiksplinternieuw (also spikspankelnieuw).  If any of our Dutch or Flemish-speaking readers can tell us what the spik element in these words means, we might make some headway.  However, the OED simply mentions them as having the same element as the English version, so presumably the meaning of the element, even in Dutch or Flemish, is not known.

The speculation about the origin of the American practice of switching the fork between hands is quite interesting!


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 01/09/06 07:36 PM