Issue 191, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Amy Lowenstein:

How did your goose is cooked come to mean "you are in deep trouble"?  The goose may be in trouble when it's cooked, but why should the owner or eater o the goose be in trouble?

Ah, this is one of those phrases whose true etymology is hidden from us -- no one hasClick to learn more! found a good explanation for its origin.  However, that doesn't stop people from conjecturing about its derivation.  Christine Ammer, in Have a Nice Day - No Problem!  A Dictionary of Clichés supplies a few of the guesses she's encountered: 

Inhabitants of a besieged town in the sixteenth century hung out a goose to show their attackers they were not starving and so enraged them that they set fire to the town and thus cooked the goose.


...[I]t comes from the fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs, which, when the farmer killed it to obtain the gold inside, left him with nothing but a goose to cook.

Those both sound like poor guesses to us, though some sources do give the identity of the bellicose man who led the siege on the 16th century town: Eric the Mad of Sweden.  One hole in the siege story is that the phrase cook their goose dates in writing only from 1851, in a song published in England in that year.  The song refers to the Pope's appointment of Cardinal Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster, and this excerpt will give you an idea of how the composer felt about that appointment:

If they come here we'll cook their goose,
The Pope and Cardinal Wiseman.

From Martha L. Hagan:

I came across the phrase, "This does not auger well".  Dictionaries I have searched via the Web have given up nothing but the literal meaning of the word (a tool).  Your search engine came up with nothing more than the other dictionaries.  I have heard auger used for "bode" or "predict" for years, but I cannot confirm its usage or etymology.  I hope this is as much of a challenge for you as it is for me.

Well, "this" is what we do, so it was not quite a challenge, but it was interesting, nonetheless.  The word you have in mind is augur.  It dates from the late 16th to early 17th century in English, and it means exactly what you understand it to: "to foretell, especially from omens, to presage".  English borrowed it from French augurer, which came from Latin augur.  The Latin word is thought to come from avis "bird" and -gar, which is related to garrire "to talk" and garrulus "talkative", and perhaps even Sanskrit gar "to shout, call".  That origin would make augur similar to auspices.  Another possible derivation is from augere "to increase, promote", but the OED seems to favor the former.

So we see that if something augurs well then the omens are in its favor. In other words, it "bodes well" (from Old English boda, "a messenger"). For some reason ominous, the adjective formed from omen, is never used with about good omens, only bad ones.  

Auger "boring tool" is an Old English word that has relatives in Old High German and Middle High German, Dutch, and Old Norse.  It was originally nauger, and confusion led to misdivision of a nauger into an auger, much like apron, adder, and uncle.  Interestingly, a similar change occurred with the Dutch form!

From Dianne Corrigal:

In Alberta, Canada, the oil and gas industry is a major resource and, consequently, most of us work in a related industry or have family that does.  A kelly is a part of the drilling rig and I have looked up the word everywhere and asked everyone I could why it is called a kelly and where the word came from.  I am hoping you could help me.  It's one of those things that has been driving me crazy for years.

Sure we can help!  Well, sort of.  Here's what 1963's Glossary of Mining Terms says of the kelly: "the rod attached to the top of the drill column in rotary drilling. It passes through the rotary table and is turned by it, but is free to slide down through it as the borehole deepens."  It is first recorded in 1934 in Thesaurus of Slang, but it is not defined there.  Instead, it is used in the definition of another word, suggesting, perhaps, that it had been around for a while by that time.  The OED seems to think that it is simply named for some Mr. Kelly, perhaps the man who first used a kelly on an oil rig.

From Tonja Dillard:

I teach an English Conversation group of international students, and one of them asked about the origin of the phrase beat around the bush.

This one, in a slightly altered form, dates from 1520: "a longe betynge aboute the busshe and losse of time to a yonge begynner".  Most etymologists agree that the beating in question refers to beating the bushes for birds in order to flush them for hunters.  In fact, there is even another phrase, to beat the bushes for, which means "to seek something out with much effort".  To beat around/about the bushes is to beat such that no birds are flushed, so that none are caught: a lot of beating and no eating.  This evolved to figuratively mean "to refrain from getting to the point".

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