Learning the Language, From a to M

“The average working vocabulary consists of 15,000 words,” says John Ciardi, and most of them have a story to tell. Mr. Ciardi’s A Browser’s Dictionary will be published this month.


In simplest form C2H5OH, the transcendental liquid classically produced by fermentation, and raised to the power of eternal life by distillation, and rarely, as in upper New England’s field applejack, by freezing barrels of the ferment, causing the essence to draw to the center of the ice cake. [Arabic alkohl al,the;kohl, a cosmetic for darkening the eyelids. It is made from a powder of antimony. To achieve a fine even stain, this powder was vaporized and cooled. When, c. 1000 A.D., Arabian alchemists invented the distillation of alcohol by a similar process, they borrowed the name for their product from the cosmetic process, and alcohol has ever since been doing things to the eyes.]

allemande right/allemande left

Square dance calls. And in corrupted forms alleman, alley man, allez man. [The step called for, to the right or to the left, is from a popular late XVII French dance called l’Allemande, the German Woman. The corrupted forms have led to some curious etymologizing, but the origin is firmly traceable to that German woman.]

amen corner/Amen Corner

1. A section of pews, usu. near the pulpit, reserved for church elders who lead the responses, esp. the amens. Variantly, such a section of pews regularly taken over by the vocally fervent. 2. NYC machine politics. In late XIX and early XX, a suite in a New York Cityhotel, permanently reserved as a meeting-place for politicians. [For putting their heads together as if in prayer? For allowing the ward heelers to say “Amen” to whatever the bosses said?] 3. Brit. A former street intersection in London, destroyed in a WW II air raid. [On Corpus Christi Day, monks marched in a procession over a fixed route to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the streets they traveled acquiring the names of the prayers they chanted in regular order: Paternoster Row, Amen Corner, Ave Maria Lane, and Creed Lane, because on this last approach to the cathedral they chanted the Credo.]

April Food/April Fool’s day

In Brit. AllFoods’ Day. April and a time for fools errands, mock gifts, comic greetings, and practical jokes. In Scotland one is sent to hunt the gowk (the cuckoo). In France the person on whom a trick is played is called le poisson d’Avril, the April fish (fool). In Am. prison slang fish for gullible new prisoner has the same sense. [Variously attributed. Some refer it to the abduction of Proserpine in early spring, leaving her mother, Ceres, to walk the forests calling her name uselessly; others, to the Julian calendar, whose cumulative error over the centuries moved New Year’s Day to almost the end of March (when Gregorian calendar reforms moved New Year’s Day back to Jan. 1, a time for traditional gift giving, people continued to give mock presents on the false New Year, April 1). But all such efforts to fix a particular origin are wasted. As surely as a man is sometimes prankish, festivals of mockery occur in many primitive societies, and their survival today in cultures scattered around the globe points to an origin lost in time. (Cf. Halloween, a survival of some lost early Teutonic festival, now Christianized as All Hallow’s Eve.)]


Messed up. Askew. Not in proper alignment. [Nor for that matter is the idiom, backwards being the only logical alignment for an ass. What could be really out of alignment is assfrontwards. But in vulgar exuberance, sweet style is always more than reason.]


From medieval folk tales; a monster said to live only on the flesh of virtuous women and, therefore, to be forever hungry. [One of the hoariest of dull jokes; to this day every campus that sports a stone lion continues the so-called legend that it will roar whenever a virgin passes by. It seems to have been Chaucer who brought Chichevache to England from his prowling through European folk tales. In the envoi to his “Clerke’s Tale” he warns women away from virtue “Lest Chichevache you swelwe (swallow) in hire (her) entraille (entrails).” OF Chichefache, prob. “pinched face” or “ugly face.” Chaucer rendered OF fache as vache, cow.]


A prostitute. [Am. only. In Brit. slang, chip, chippy refers to a carpenter (wood chips). Am. Thesaurus of Slang gives (undated) chippy house, brothel. Mitford Mathews gives first known attested usage from a Colo. newspaper, 1890: “The leading dudes and chippies of Europe.” Yet, despite these contexts, a chippy is specifically a streetwalker. Prob. sparrow, chipping sparrow. Because lined along the street in a row? Because streetwalkers at times make chip-chip sounds? (I have heard them do so in London and I have supposed that were I a plainclothesman, they might then explain they were just chip-chipping innocently in the joy of heaven.) Perhaps into Am. via a chipped-at American abroad; though chippy house and the 1890 citation refer not to streetwalkers but to house whores or deluxe call girls. Whence???]


A roll of tobacco wrapped in a leaf. (Sp. cigarro Mayan sikar, to smoke.) close, but no cigar 1. Almost, but not quite. 2. In effect. You lose. [A catch phrase of XIX Am. carny men who operated games (esp. the feat-of-strength game of driving a weight up a pole by a blow of a heavy mallet) in which cigars were given as prizes.]

dibs: go dibs (in)

To share (in). / went dibs in his canoe (shared the use of it) all summer. [When I was a boy in Medford, Mass., the invariable formula for claiming a share of any goody, whether an apple core or the next use of a baseball bat, was I howny dibs or I howny next dibs. I have never seen howny in writing, and can only speculate that it is based on “I (claim to) own.” Surely, however, others will remember this boys’ term. (In this sense dibs is prob. from dibstones, an old child’s game involving the distribution and capture of small bones or stones used as counters. In capturing an opponent’s counters one cried “Dibs!" with the sense “I claim.”An ancient African version of this game is called kabuki.)]

ducks and drakes

The idle sport of skipping a stone across calm water. [The game must be immemorially old, but this name for it first attested XVI. The circular ripple made by the first skip was said to be a duck, the second a drake, the third another duck, and so forth. The object, of course, is to see how many ducks and drakes one can put on the pond.] play ducks and drakes with one’s money To throw it away, as if skipping it across a pond. [Unlike bread cast on the waters, money so treated does not return a hundredfold.]


Double-talk. All I got from him was a lot of framis. [Double-talk, a form of rapid, smoothly articulated, and well-modulated baffle gab with a normal syntax but with meaningless key words, has long been a popular specialty of comedians, and widely popularized in comic movies of the 1930s. The word (or rather the non-word) framis surfaced frequently in these comic routines; then, as Pinocchio turned into a real boy, framis turned into a real word by biting off its own comic nose and becoming a label for what it once was. “The endomylogical concurrence of framis-analysis integration is parietal to the sui generis transcendence of the implicit.” — Fabrique du Jour, Tergiversations, trans. by John F. Nims.]


1. An inexperienced person. Implies gullibility. A once standard term for a newly arrived immigrant who lacked knowledge of native ways and had to accept instruction on trust. [Green is, of course, a general term for “immature, inexperienced, gullible.” But greenhorn is more specific. The newly formed horns of deer are covered with a skin that later splits and peels. While it still clings to the horns, fungus spores often develop on the tatters, giving the horns a greenish cast. Thus green both as a metaphor and as an accurate observation from nature. (On the western frontier greenhorn was scoffingly synonymous with tenderfoot and pilgrim.)]


Am. slang. 1. A keg of beer equal to about one eighth of a barrel. 2. A usu. tin receptacle, usu. with a lid, usu. of about two quarts, for carrying draft beer away from a saloon. (Sense 2 attested 1888. Sense 1 prob. somewhat earlier.) rush the growler To run to the saloon for a growler of beer and to hurry it back to workingmen, or to good old Dad once he got home from work, an errand usu. assigned to children. [The saloon keeper commonly tried to fill the growler as much as possible with suds. It was common, therefore, to grease the growler in the belief that it kept a large head of suds from forming; perhaps a film of oil did cause some of the suds to slide back into the liquid, but aside from oiling the beer, the practice could not have made much difference. Growler rushing also connoted in late XIX “a drinking spree,”i.e., growler after growler as in modern chug-a-lug. Growler also labels a relatively small iceberg, usu. encountered as one of a group broken from a larger one, and prob. called growlers because they tend to rub against one another with a sound akin to growling. One of the functions of the iceberg patrol is to break large bergs into relatively harmless growlers.]


1. An old jiggery formula used by conjurors, medicine men, and other performing street cheats. (Earlier forms: hocas pocas, 1624; hokos pokos, 1625.) 2. Ext. Any deceit. The hocus-pocus of politics. 3. Ext. Nonsense. Double-talk. You’ll get nothing but a lot of hocus-pocus from him. [Redupl. based on hoc est from liturgical Latin hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body,” from the communion service. The ODEE offers a derivation from XVI wandering student beggars and street performers, hax pax max Deus Adimax, and certainly all such frummery is relevant, but all Catholics, which is to say everyone in early Europe, were familiar with the service of the mass, and certainly the liturgical Latin must be taken as the obvious source.]


(The ss may be pronounced as a pure sibilant or as a z.) 1. An impertinent girl. 2. A shameless wench. 3. A prostitute. [Up to XVI merely a contraction of housewife (of which earlier forms were: hussif, huswif, huswife. Scandinavian hus, house [see hustings]; wif, woman, wife.) For alteration of terminal -if to -y, cf. goody goodif goodwife. (Goody for Mrs. remained in use in Am. until early XIX.) For the male chauvinist slander whereby the good English housewife evolved into a hussy, see Women’s Lib.]

Jack Ketch

Generic for a hangman. [From c. 1663 to his death in 1686, the hangman of London was called Jack Ketch, but prob. in lieu of his legal name. The London gallows was on Tyburn Hill on ground that once belonged to the mayor of Tyburn, whose squire was formerly Richard Jaquett; Jack Ketch is in all likelihood an alteration of his surname, with the added word play that “once Jack Ketches you, you stay caught.”]

kangaroo court

1. Now. A mock court in which dominant prisoners tyrannize the defenseless, trying them on trivial or merely fanciful charges, as loitering with intent to breathe someone else’s air, and sentencing them to beatings, extortion, servitude, rape, and even death. 2. In first Am. use among the miners of the 1849 gold rush. A vigilante committee for hanging claim jumpers after a speedy “fair” trial. [Since claim jumping was the act of killing a man in order to take over and work his claim, any man who was found working a murdered man’s claim, and who could not produce witnessed documents of a transfer of ownership, was held to be self-evidently guilty and therefore hanged, his trial being a mere formality. (The practice of prisoners’ mock courts is immemorial and they would certainly have been held in the Australian penal colonies. Kangaroos have little fear of man and commonly stand [squat? sit?] staring at groups of people. A band of them might fancifully be taken to be a watchful jury. By that or by some other association, kangaroo court emerged as a new name for an old thing. The term was then transferred to the gold fields with the special association with vigilantes that it has since lost. There were many Australians in the '49 gold rush: the sea voyage from Australia to California was much easier than the voyage from the east coast of the U.S. and around the Horn.)]

kibosh: put the kibosh on

To put an end to. To squelch. To put a stop to. [ 1836. Dickens, Seven Dials, has kye-bosk: “put the kye-bosk on her”= finish her off, knock her out (with reference to a fistfight between two slatterns). The origin has long been in doubt, but is now fixed by a letter from Padraic Colum to Charles Earle Funk (Hog on Ice, p. 22):

“Kibosh,” I believe means “the cap of death" and it is always used in that sense—“He put the kibosh on it.” In Irish it could be written “cie bais”—the last word pronounced “bosh,” the genitive of “bas,” death.

Colum does not explain the nature of the black cap. Is it the one put on by the judge about to pronounce a death sentence, or the hood sometimes slipped over the head of a person about to be hanged? In any case, though not otherwise attested, Colum’s explanation seems authoritative and is partially corroborated by the earlier form used by Dickens.]

long in the tooth

Getting on in years. Roger Fredland used to be a bit of a heller, but he’s getting to be short of breath and long in the tooth. [There being no truth in horse traders, the potential buyer checks the horse’s age by examining its teeth. Constant grinding of fodder causes the horse’s gums to recede, whereby the teeth of old horses seem to grow long. Tooth for teeth is an idiomatic fix. Dating unknown. Prob. of remote folk origin.]

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