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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Helena in Sweden:

What's the meaning of damn your/his/her eyes? Is it exclusively American? English? What's the origin?  Thank you for an excellent service!

This is an interesting one.  The OED's earliest reference is from Tristram Shandy, 1761:

From the great and tremendous oath of William the Conqueror, (By the splendour of God) down to the lowest oath of a scavenger, (Damn your eyes).

As for meaning/derivation, the OED says only that this phrase is "used an abusive expression".  Hmm.  This one is not as easy to suss out as something like Damn the torpedoes (which we discuss below).  However, the most common (perhaps only) use of the phrase today is, as the OED suggests, as an abusive expression.  We have heard it likened to "damn your soul" as the eyes are considered the "window to the soul".  However, we also came across a meaning that post-dates the Tristram Shandy quotation: "flashy, ostentatious".  This meaning seems to come from a nautical use of the phrase.

Admiral FarragutNow, as for damn the torpedoes, this is attributed to U.S.  Navy Admiral David Farragut.  On August 5, 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, he led a Union fleet into Mobile Bay, where the Confederate Army had left many tethered mines, known as torpedoes at that time.   One member of his fleet struck such a mine, and the other ships began to pull back, but he ordered them forward with the shout, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"  The fleet made it into the bay, their keels scraping torpedoes but not setting any off.  Farragut captured Fort Morgan, cutting off supplies to the Confederates and helping the Union to win the war.  Farragut's quotation, like Farragut, made history.  Some sources say that his words were actually, "Damn the torpedoes!  Go ahead!", but you get the gist.

From David in Connecticut:

Help. Is this phrase: he's between his sixes and nines while his wife is away-kind of unsettled from somewhere? What does it exactly mean?

Well, the standard phrase is at sixes and sevens.  We know what it means and we have a pretty good idea of where it came from.  We'll get to that in a bit.  Now what about this sixes and nines business?  There are plenty of references to sixes and nines on the Web, but none of them pertains to a phrase with a metaphoric meaning.  Instead, they refer to enneagram personality types, quotation marks (the curly variety) and a movie from 1913!  There is also the song by Jimi Hendrix, If Six Was Nine.  But our best guess about sixes and nines, without knowing what the 1913 film is about (we could not easily find any information about it on the Web!), is that it is a corruption of at sixes and sevens with the possible influence of the enneagram (we saw several references to personality type six not working well with personality type nine, and so references to sixes and nines).  Since most people don't know why the phrase at sixes and sevens means "in a state of confusion" or "at loggerheads with", they may have tried to "folk etymologize" it to something more sensible.  Perhaps the fact that a six turned upside down is a nine, representing confusion, is the notion behind this phrase.

Back to at sixes and sevens: this phrase is more common in the U.K. than in the U.S.  As mentioned, it refers to being in a state of confusion.  There is a very detailed story floating about that the phrase arose in 1484 due to squabbling between two trade guilds in the City of London.  These guilds were called livery companies, and that term arose as each guild's members had a specific uniform that they could wear, also known as livery.  These guilds or companies had an order of precedence, which was based on political or economic power.  The Merchant Taylors Company and the Skinners Company each disputed their precedence, and so the Lord Mayor of London, in 1484, decided that these two guilds should alternate each year between sixth and seventh place.   So these were the first entities who were at sixes and sevens with each other.  A very tidy explanation, no?  Well, not likely.

The fist instance of the phrase comes from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde of circa 1375.  However, he did not explain the phrase in his text, suggesting that it was already known.  This was over one hundred years before the Livery Company shenanigans.  Because of the early form of the phrase, it is thought to actually derive from the expression to set on cinque and sice (French for "five" and "six" -- remember that this was the time of Middle English, which was an amalgam of Old English and Norman French).  The phrase comes from a game of dice known as hazard, in which, apparently, the most difficult numbers to roll ("to set on") were five and six, so anyone who tried for that roll was considered careless or in a state of confusion.  It is suggested that the phrase was mistranslated from the French cinque and sice to six and seven once people lost the connection to the game of hazard.  It was not until the 18th century that the phrase began turning up with the numbers in plural - sixes and sevens.

Interestingly, the name of the dice game hazard is what gave us the word hazard meaning "risk of harm".  The French word for the game was hasard, which came, via Spanish azar, from Arabic az-zahr "luck, chance", and the Arabic source ultimately meant "dice".  The "risk of harm" meaning arose because the dice game was very risky to bet on.

From Glynne of Lancashire:

In chapter 18, of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, the maid Kitty is referred to as an abigail. Could you please enlighten me as to the origins of this term?

Abigail is the name of the "waiting gentlewoman" in the play The Scornful Lady, written by JohnPlaywright John Fletcher Fletcher and Francis Beaumont in 1616.  The play was very popular; Samuel Pepys even references it several times in his diary, including a reference even to Abigail.  The OED thinks that Fletcher and Beaumont may have named the lady-in-waiting Abigail after Abigail the Carmelitess in the Old Testament because she frequently referred to herself as "thine handmaid".  With the popularity of The Scornful Lady, the name Abigail came to be used to refer to any lady's-maid.

The first figurative use of abigail provided by the OED is from 1693 in William Congreve's The Old Bachelor.

John Fletcher actually succeeded Shakespeare as house playwright for the King's Men playing (acting) company.  It is also thought that he may have collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and his The Woman's Prize is a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew.

From Rachel:

Can you fill me in on why upshot means 'the final issue, the conclusion, or the result,' and 'the gist, as of an argument or thesis' (dictionary.com) and not 'the positive aspect of this whole debacle' or something similarly sensible?

Have you heard of "scope creep"?  Well, what we have here is "definition creep".  Originally upshot, first recorded in 1531, referred to the final shot in an archery match.  Then it came to figuratively refer to any "parting shot".  By 1591 Edmund Spenser used it to mean "a mark or end aimed for" -- still that archery connection.  At the same time the general meaning of "an end, conclusion, or termination" also arose.  Just a few years later, Shakespeare, in his Hamlet, used the word to mean "result, issue, or conclusion of some course of action".  And in 1639, in a translation of Balzac's Letters, the word is used to mean "the conclusion resulting from the premises of an argument".  So, while the overall "conclusory" sense remains throughout, the meaning shifted from one of archery to one of arguments.

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