Histories

by Craig M. Carver

dastardly

American labor unions late last year threatened to oppose at primary-election time those Democrats guilty of “turncoat action" in supporting NAFTA. The labor leader Walter Johnson, in a letter to Representative Nancy Pelosi, of California, said. “We intend to take this action against ail Democrats who support this dastardly treaty.”Dastardly (treacherously cowardly) originates in the Old Norse dasa, meaning “to become exhausted, especially from the cold.” English adopted dasa and changed it to dasen, meaning “to be numb with cold.”which survived in Scottish and Northern English dialect ("The callour air . . . . Dasing the blude [blood] in every creature"—Bishop Gavin Douglas, The Xlll Bakes of Eneados, 1513). To be exhausted and numb is to be stupefied: thus dasen led to dose or daze, meaning “to stupefy, stun" (“I stod as stylle as dased quayle"—Early English Alliterative Poems, c. 1325), which in turn became dased or dast. “dull, inert, stupid.”Dost was combined with the suffix -ard (one who is characterized by the preceding quality or action) to form dastard, meaning “a dazed person, a dullard" (“These dronken dastardes. . . drinke till they he blinde"—Alexander Barclay, The Shyp of Folys, 1509). For reasons that remain murky, the pejorative meaning “a dullard" metamorphosed into “a base coward.”

sack

During the National Football League playoffs last December, in a pregame interview, one of the Dallas Cowboys said about a defensive end on the opposing team, “He’s pretty sound. He plays the run well, and he has all those sacks.” Some football fans claim that the Washington Redskins coach George Allen coined this most recent meaning of sack, “a tackle of a quarterback behind the scrimmage line before he can pass the ball" in the early 1970s. when he said, referring to the Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton. “We’re going to take that Morton salt and pour him into a sack.” Although sack (bag) is ultimately from the Hebrew saq (sack), the immediate source of Allen’s quip may be the use of sack meaning “to put a person in a sack to be drowned" ("A foolish or imprudent act / Would . . . have. . .ended in his being . . . sack’d / And thrown into the sea"—George Gordon Byron, Don Juan, 1823). Alternatively, it may have descended from the sixteenth-century English borrowing of the French sac, meaning “to plunder a captured city.”which probably derived from the custom according to which the soldiers of a victorious army would fill their sacks with booty ("The toune was sacked to the greate gayne of the Englishemen”—Edward Hall, Chronicle. 1548). The idea of winning the riches of a defeated city or country would then have led to the more specialized meaning “to beat in a contest” ("He and a party of Englishmen fought a cricket match with the crew’ ot the Bellerophon . . . and sacked the sailors by 90 runs"—Edward FitzGerald, Letters, 1841).

faucet

During preparations last November for the historic mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA scientists and astronauts worried about the many things that could go wrong. “We’ve got a good shot at success.”said Dr. Edward J. Weiler, the Hubble program scientist, “but we’ve got to be realistic: this is not like going to Grandma’s to fix a leaky faucet.” One authority suggests that faucet originates in a diminutive of the Latin fauces, meaning “throat.”Most authorities, however, agree that the Latin fallere, “to deceive,”is the origin of faucet—and of fail, false, fallacy, fallacious, fallible, fault, faulty. and faux pas. Falsus. the perfect participle of fallere, led to the Medieval Latin falsãre. “to corrupt, falsify.” which became the Old French faulser or fausser. “to falsify, damage, break into" (as in faulser an escu. “to pierce through a shield, to make a breach in it”). Because a stopper pierces the wall of a tapped cask, fausser became fausset, meaning “a plug or stopper for a cask,”and was adopted into English (“Lo! my wombe is as must [wine] with out faucet ether a ventyng that brekith newe vessels”—John Wyelif, trans., The Holy Bible. Job 32:19, c. 1430). The tap by which liquor was drawn from a cask was called the spigot and faucet, the faucet being the tapered end of a straight wooden tube that was driven into a hole in the barrel, and the spigot being the end that controlled the flow by means of a peg or screw. Eventually both words came to refer to the whole apparatus. But faucet essentially died out in England, although it has survived in common use in the United States.