Issue 207, page 1

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store

BackIssues

New Ask Us Theory About
 

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes)

Spotlight on...

Sensational Etymologies

On a recent Sunday we were listening to the Public Radio program Says You!  It is one of ourClick to see who's who at Says You! favorite radio programs as it deals with language.  On last week's show, one of the categories was etymology.  The show's celebrity panelists were asked to give the derivation of several phrases and terms:  fudge (verb), grease the skids, flogging a dead horse, making ends meet, rummage sale, and knock off.  Several of the etymologies given by the show were incorrect; in fact, they were quite fantastic ("existing only in imagination or fantasy").

The first term discussed on the program was the verb fudge.  It was rather quickly claimed that the word in this sense is eponymous, coming from the name of one Captain Fudge who was supposedly a prolific fudger.  Speaking of fantasy, this is clearly the product of someone's fertile imagination.  No dictionary (not even the venerable OED) offers any evidence of this eponymous seafarer.  Instead, we find that the verb fudge is an "onomatopoeic alteration" of the older verb fadge Fadge meant, among other things, "to make things fit".  The  change of the a in fadge to the u in fudge was thought more suggestive of clumsiness, which was the evolution in the sense of fudge: "to fit together clumsily".  Again, there is absolutely no mention of a Captain Fudge in either the etymological discussion of theses words or in any of the quotations supplied for them.  The earliest quotation for fudge dates from 1674, and that for fadge is from 1611.

To grease the skids is a phrase which means "to facilitate".  Says You! claims that it arose inThe man in front is "greasing the skids" for the horses following behind. shipbuilding, where skids were used to facilitate getting the huge ships of the day into the water from the shipyards.  In fact, Richard Sher, the host of Says You!, read a quotation from May 31, 1911 referring to the amount of tallow used to grease the skids that took the Titanic into the water for the first time.  The phrase is not in the OED, but we found a web site of Titanic trivia which notes that 23 tons of tallow and soft soap were used during the launch process.  So it appears that the phrase may have been used in the shipbuilding industry.  However, we also found quotations from the logging industry, the earliest in the Dubuque Daily Telegraph of October 2, 1901, suggesting that the skids used to move logs are more likely the source of the phrase:

The bears had been causing trouble by eating the tallow used to grease the "skids" forming the roads over which the logs are hauled to the river.

Note that the term skid road comes from the logging skids, as well, and, slightly corrupted, gave birth to the term skid row.  (Note also that bears eating skid grease and, in the process, tearing up the skid roads, was apparently a common problem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries!)

That being said, we'll give Says You!  half credit regarding grease the skids.  However, for the next phrase discussed on the program, flogging a dead horse, we cannot be so generous.  The meaning is obvious: no amount of flogging will induce a dead horse to work, so flogging a dead horse simply means "pursuing a futile endeavor".

The claim of Says You! was that flogging a dead horse referred to men on ship, who were paid ahead of time for their first month's work, and they usually spent all of that money prior to even boarding the ship on which they were to work.  For the first month on board, therefore, they felt as though they were working for nothing, and so they were not terribly motivated.  After approximately one month, ships out of the British Isles reached the Horse Latitudes.  Admiral William Smythe, host Sher told us, was supposed to have said, "To get a day's work out of a crew during the dead horse month is like flogging a dead horse."  The problem here is that there is no mention by Smythe of the Horse Latitudes or any explanation of why he supposedly used the phrase "flogging a dead horse".  That's because there is no connection. 

It appears that the Says You! folks have confused flogging a dead horse with an entirely different phrase - to work (for) the dead horse.  This phrase was slang for "work charged before it is executed".  This use of dead horse to refer to pay that was issued before the work was done was simply an allusion to using one's money to buy a useless thing (metaphorically, " a dead horse").  Most men paid in advance apparently either wasted the money on drink or other such vices or used it to pay debts.  The earliest (1638) written example of dead horse says as much: "His land 'twas sold to pay his debts; All went that way, for a dead horse, as one would say."

The Smythe quotation is a red herring.  He was simply referring to what was already known as the "dead horse month", or the month of no pay, and how difficult it was to get work out of the men during the dead horse month.  Flogging a dead horse doesn't turn up in the written record until 1872 and, even then, it is not in a nautical sense.

The next phrase discussed on Says You! was making ends meet.  Again, as a hint, a nautical connection was suggested, and one of the show's panelists immediately said that the phrase was related to splicing rope.  Apparently, rope used on big ships was expensive, we were told, so surplus ends were spliced together.  That sounds somewhat sensible, but there is no evidence that it is the source of the phrase.  Instead, the phrase was originally to make both ends of the year meet or to make the two ends of the year meet.  This meant "to live within one's income", income being figured per year.  There is no nautical sense here as the phrase appears to have originated with accountants some time prior to 1748.

The next term dealt with on the program was rummage sale.  We give them full credit for getting this one right: rummage sale did come from shipping and referred to damaged or unclaimed cargo that was offered for sale at the dockside.  The original word was French arrumage, and English chopped off the first syllable.  The earliest appearance of the word in the English written record, according to the OED, is from 1526.  The French word referred to the arrangement of cargo in the hold of a vessel.  The notion of rummaging arose from going through the jumble of items offered in these early rummage sales.

Richard Sher next asked about knock off, referring to leaving or stopping work.  As a hint he mentioned Charlton Heston, and the players eventually got to Ben Hur and the scene where the slaves rowing ships to the beat of a hammer would get a break when the hammer stopped its rhythm.  Balderdash.  Instead, the phrase referred originally to being distracted from or interrupted in one's work, one's attention being abruptly "knocked off" of what one was doing.  The OED's earliest quotation, from 1651, is: "He returned to his study, where he sat, unless suitors or some other affairs knocked him off."  It is terribly unlikely that a Latin idiom from the time of Ben Hur would survive into colloquial English.

Finally, during a break from the show, Richard Sher came on to apologize for errors in past shows.  We were sorry we missed some of those shows as some of the errors mentioned were quite amusing!  He said that many readers had written in to correct the etymology of posh, claiming that it is not from the heyday of ocean liners and the phrase port out, starboard home.  He justified the claim of Says You! regarding posh by saying that several etymologies are actually accepted for the word.  In this he is quite wrong.  When several etymologies are considered possible, none is accepted.  Sez You! really should consult English language authorities, especially the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), usually the ultimate arbiter in etymological discussions.  The OED discounts the port out, starboard home derivation and instead suggests that the word derives from thieves' slang posh "money, especially a halfpenny" (compare modern slang dosh), which in turn derives from the Romany (a Gypsy language) word posh "half".  The adjective dates from possibly as early as 1903, when Wodehouse used it in the form push.

Don't eschew Says You! just because they get a few things wrong.  We make mistakes ourselves, and we wouldn't want you to stop reading TOWFI just because we're human!  Oh well, time for a couple of bowls of Cap'n Fudge, er, Crunch.

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  If so, take a moment to let us know by making a donation.  Just click the  button!  

Looking for more information on words?  Why not browse our book store?

HOME | NEXT PAGE

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike: melmike@takeourword.com
DO NOT SEND QUERIES TO THAT ADDRESS.  Instead, ASK US.
Copyright 1995-
2006 TIERE
Last Updated 10/14/06 03:58 PM