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May 2006 Archives

Terms from Horse Racing: across the board; dark horse; hands down; get one's goat; shoo-in; also-ran – a loser in a race or contest; front runner

Akeelah and the Bee: plexure; trouvaille; miscible; ratiocinate; terete; graveolent; semelfactive Roscian – eponym: eminent as an actor (or actress)

Eponyms: Roscian; thespian; Mutt and Jeff; Oscar; oersted; tontine; tomcat (crib)

Toponyms: tabby (taffeta); tarantula, tarantism, tarantella; artesian; Stepford; solferino; magenta; Boston fern; tuxedo (pugilist, round-heels)



Terms from Horse Racing

Long-time readers will recall our previous themes of horse words. To mark last weekend's running of the U.S.'s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby, we devote this week to terms from horse racing. Credit to Nathan Bierma, whose newspaper column suggested the idea and words.


Your wordcrafter isn't knowledgeable about horse racing. I apologize for any errors, and appreciate any corrections.


across the board – covering all categories


[Australian] Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello have finalized a last-minute package of across-the-board tax cuts … which will be announced in the federal budget on Tuesday.

– Forbes, May 7, 2006


Origin: One can bet on a horse to come in first, or second, or third (win, place, or show) . Hence the three top finishers will be posted on the winner board. If you place all three bets, you are betting 'across the board'.


Was Oxford English Dictionary, which says this is a U.S. English, a bit provincial in its research? It gives no usage examples before 1950 (citing Websters) even though the term goes back to the very beginning of the century. For example, a bit of 1910 doggerel from the Washington Post and other papers includes the couplet, "I really wish I could afford / To play my horse across the board." The earliest use I've found seems to suggest insider information: "Elnus, … a 100 to 1 shot, heavily played across the board, ran second."


dark horse – a competitor, among many, who makes (or is tabbed as having the potential to make) an unexpectedly good showing

Most dictionaries apply the term only to a success achieved in horse-races and political races. This errs: the term includes potential success in other fields. From today's press:


Everybody loves Phil … We also like Tiger, Retief and Vijay. Want a dark horse? How about Mark Hensby.
– The Journal News, May 9, 2006, "handicapping" a golf tournament.


While the race could go to either the tortoise or the hare, there is another animal in the contest: a dark horse. Nintendo Co. is rolling out its console, dubbed Wii, about the same time as PlayStation 3.

– Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2006


Etymology: OED dates 'dark horse' to a 1831 Benjamin Disraeli novel. (I think it's unclear if Disraeli's word 'dark' refers to the horse's success or simply his color.) Bierma notes, "The darkness may be figurative -- fans were 'in the dark' about the horse's abilities -- or it may be somehow literal [in that] 'horses that regularly won races were darkened to conceal their identity and increase the betting odds.'"


Let's resolve this. This cite precedes 1831 and shows that the "darkness" is figurative, not literal, to the benefit of those bettors "in the know".


What is termed an outside or dark horse always tells well for heavy bettors.
– Edinburgh Advertiser, Sept. 24, 1822


Near the end of a race, a jockey with a big lead might relax his tug on the reins and let the horse "coast" past the finish line. That is, he would finish an easy victory riding "hands down".


hands down – easy; easily

So say the dictionaries, but would you agree that the term is only used in the sense of "surpassing others"? For example, one couldn't say, "This was an hands down parking space to get into; I could park hands down."


Buffy and Cordelia appeared, walking along as if they were the best of friends, and Wilow knew that that took the weirdness prize, hands down.
– Christopher Golden, Nancy Holder, Child of the Hunt (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)


get one's goat – to anger; to annoy; to irritate


OED's earliest cite is 1910, but one can find quite a few more back to 1908. The most prevalent theory traces the phrase to horse racing, saying that a goat would be stabled with a horse, to calm it. Thus stealing the goat, before a horse-race, would tend to disrupt the horse's performance.


This race-track theory has some appeal. We do know that goats were believed to calm other animals (see 'Judas goat', esp. entry of 12/29). A contemporary account notes that goats were indeed stabled with horses in some areas, but adds that this was because the goat was considered lucky; hence to 'get one's goat' was to take away one's luck. (Washington Post, Sept. 25, 1910)


Nonetheless, I doubt any race-track theory. Why? Because I've found no early use of the phrase, and no reference to goat-stealing, in any connection with horses or horse-racing. Indeed, substantial numbers of the early references are in the context of baseball.


shoo-in – a certain winner; one sure to succeed


In their 1948 National Convention, the Democrats under President Harry Truman were in particular disarray. [details] As a result, Republican Thomas E. Dewey was considered a shoo-in.

– William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History


The term began as a reference to a race that was fixed: the jockeys held back and would "shoo" or urge ahead the pre-arranged winner. Now, however, the term has no connotation that the victory is illicit.


also-ran – a loser in a race or contest. (Wordcrafter note: tends to imply a unimportant and forgettable one, not close enough to be notable.)

A newspaper reporting horse races would name those who won money for their bettors. It would then, under the heading "also ran:", then list the others.


In 1961 R.J. Reynolds had the largest market share (almost 35 percent), greatest size, and highest profitability in the tobacco industry. Philip Morris, on the other hand, was a sixth-place also-ran with less than 10 percent market share.

– Jim Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies


front runner – the contestant in the lead in a race or other competition


Let's say you are the kind of person who might contribute $1,000 to a [political] candidate. … The one candidate you won't contribute to is a sure loser. … So front-runners and incumbents raise a lot more money than long shots.

– Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything


The term comes from horse racing – but it did not mean the horse in the lead while a race is in progress. When you think about it, there would be little occasion to use a word with that meaning, since the race would be finished, and determined, within a few dozen seconds.


Rather, the term is from trotting horses. When a top horse attempted to set a record, he would be given perfect conditions: a horse on each side to pace him, and a horse in front to break the wind resistance. That front horse was the 'front runner'. The following quote, antedating OED's, that makes this clear.


She closed a brilliant season [in 1903] by trotting in 1:58½, aided, however, not only by side runners to make the pace, but by a front runner with a wind or dirt shield on the cart. Naturally this lessened the task for the trotter, as it removed much of the resistance of the air.

– Evening Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), August 26, 1910



Akeelah and the Bee

Have you seen the current movie Akeelah and the Bee, which I highly recommend? It follows the contestants in an extremely stressful, demanding competition, but not the sort of sport you would think of: the U.S. national spelling bee.


This week we'll look at words from this year's bee. Each day I'll give you the phonetic pronunciation, so that you can try your hand at spelling the word; the link given will reveal the actual spelling to you.


'plεksjŏŏę(r) – a plaiting or interweaving

[ε–dress; ŏŏ–foot; ę–another (schwa)]


An intruding rose has stolen a nest among the ~s of the vine.

– J. P. Kennedy (credit OED for quote)


truvαy – a lucky find; a windfall; something interesting, amusing, or beneficial discovered by chance

[u–goose; α–palm; start]


My dear, you are a perfect ~.

– Thackery, Vanity Fair


Spelling of yesterday's word: plexure – a plaiting or interweaving


missib'l – (of liquids) capable of being mixed together, in any proportion (In other words, like alcohol and water; not like oil and water.) The opposite is im~.


Germany today is an uneasy vessel containing two im~ substances. When East met West four years ago, the two were at totally different stages of development. As a result, unification has proved to be a "collision under one roof."
– Thomas Kielinger, National Review, Oct. 24, 1994


(Yesterday's word: trouvaille – a lucky find; a windfall)


răsh' ē ŏs' * nāt' (rash ee OS uh nayt) – to reason methodically and logically

[*=schwa] [More often used in its –tion form.]


Yet though I could never have been a scientist, I had scientific as well as imaginative impulses, and I loved ~ation.

– C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life


For such a superhuman being, ~ation was too tawdry and ordinary a matter. A Duce did not reason; he inspired

– R. J. B. Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945


Yesterday's word: miscible – (of liquids) capable of being mixed together. Yesterday's word and today's are from the movie, not from the actual bee.


tĕ-REET – cylindrical (but typically with slight taper at the ends) and smooth

[from Latin for 'rounded'. Used of fleshy leaves, as in orchids, or other plant parts; a picture is worth a thousand words.]


Some leaves are ~, that is, pencil-like and round in cross-section …

– Alec Pridgeon, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Orchids


Yesterday's word: ratiocinate – to reason methodically and logically


gr* VEE *l*nt – having a rank smell



Butter, as in all hot climates, is utterly vile: I should prefer the gr*-VEE-*l*nt palm-oil.

– Richard Francis Burton, Wanderings in West Africa


Yesterday's word: terete – cylindrical (with tapering ends) and smooth


A reader notes: Graveolent from Latin gravis 'heavy' and olens 'smelling'. Cf. saying: pecunia non olet. (Money doesn't stink.) From Suetonius Twelve Caesars. Supposed to have been said by Vespasian to his son Titus. The emperor had levied a urine tax on public latrines in Rome, and was criticized for this by his son. He held up a coin and pointed out that it didn't smell.


Today's hard-to-spell word pertains to words, specifically to verbs. Click link for spelling.


seemεl-fζk-tiv – of a verb: expressing the sudden and single occurrence of an action, e.g. cough; sneeze; glimpse; flash; tap

[ε=dress; ζ=trap, bath (U.S.)]


seemεl-fζk-tivs are punctual events which have no result state.

– Robert D. Van Valin, Jr., Exploring the Syntax-Semantics Interface


Yesterday's word: graveolent – having a rank smell




This week we'll look at some eponyms – words derived from people's names - and we begin with an obscure one.


It also fits last week's theme. In last year's national spelling bee two spellers fell in the 18th round, leaving one champion. They missed on our recent word trouvaille, and on today's word.


Roscian – eminent as an actor (or actress)

After Quintus Roscius Gallus, eminent comic actor, noted in the works of his friend Cicero. Shakespeare mentions Roscius twice, in King Henry VI iii (What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?) and in Hamlet.


So, the making of a great actor is not so much a matter of "talent" … but the presence of a psychological need so powerful that the would-be Roscian surmounts all obstacles …

– Marvin Kaye, ed. and contributor, in The Game Is Afoot: Parodies, Pastiches and Ponderings of Sherlock Holmes


(Yesterday's hard-to-spell word is spelled semelfactive.)


We follow with a second word pertaining to acting. It is much more familiar, but you might not have known it is an eponym.


thespian – an actor or actress; also, related to drama and the theater

[After Thespis, the traditional father of Greek drama]


Lydia replied self-rightiously, "I have no say in the nature of men. ... If you do not choose to believe what is a verifiable truth, 'tis your folly, not mine," and, with the timing of a true thespian, she then rose and quitted the room.

– Linda Berdoll, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues


As those familiar with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice may infer, Lydia is discussing marital matters much more explicitly than Miss Austen would permit.


Mutt and Jeff – a pair of comically mismatched people, esp. one tall and one short; also, a pair of lovable losers

[from the title characters in the early-20th century comic strip by Bud Fisher]


Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert … Long after … highbrow critics made reviewing movies an art form, this Mutt and Jeff duo, through their nationally syndicated television program, made it a spectator sport.

– Robert E. Schnakenberg, St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture


Oh, sure. Jon and I are a regular dynamic duo – the Mutt and Jeff of the espionage business.

– Patrick Larkin, Robert Ludlum, The Moscow Vector


And now I open my eyes, look down at my breasts. Well, there they are, old Mutt and Jeff. Flat as pancakes.
– Elizabeth Berg, Open House: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)


Over 63 million votes were cast to determine the winner, announced yesterday, of the American Idol television show. So it seems fitting to announce a show-business award today.


Oscar – (tradename) each of the annual movie awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


After a gentleman named Oscar Pierce, who had nothing to do with the matter. The name is from a 1931 remark by Margaret Herrick, librarian at the Academy, who commented that the statute reminded her of her Uncle Oscar.


oersted – the unit in which magnetic-field intensity is measured

[after Hans Christian Oersted, Danish physicist (1777–1851)]


The word 'oersted' was a spelling challenge featured in the movie Akeelah and the Bee, last week's theme.


It is also is an example of a class of eponyms: units of measurement. Apart form the familiar units for length, weight, time and temperature, almost all units of measure are eponyms. Familiar examples are the ampere, volt, and watt (French physicist Andrι Marie Ampθre; Italian physicist Count Alessandro Volta; and Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.) A list of over three dozen can be found at the bottom of Wordcraft's Eponyms page.


tontine – an investment fund in which the income is divided amoung those contributors still alive, with the principal going to the last survivor

[After Lorenzo Tonti, a Neapolitan banker, who initiated the scheme in France c 1653. Tontines were formed for building houses, hotels, baths, etc.]


The problem these days is living too long. Pensioners have to live off the fixed income … . Even with only modest inflation, this income falls in value every year. The lot of the aged is therefore one of creeping poverty. The Prudential … is about to launch an annuity based on the tontine principle - which will pay survivors more as other members of the scheme die off. The tontine, in effect, provides insurance for old age.

– Edward Chancellor, The Spectator, March 24, 2001


A reader notes: Tontine was used in a Simpsons episode. Mr. Burns, with a group of soldiers, including Grandpa and a brutish looking fellow named Ox, found some Nazi treasure. Mr. Burns suggested a tontine, and the only one who knew what what that meant was Ox, which turned out to be short for "Oxford". Funny stuff.


In 1760 there appeared an anonymous work titled ‘The Life and Adventures of a Cat’. The protaganist was a cat of course, specifically a male cat named Tom and frequently called 'Tom the Cat'. The work became quite popular, and from it 'Tom' became a name commonly used for a male cat. Previously a male cat had been called a gib or gib-cat (which itself may be an eponym, from 'Gilbert') or a ram cat.)


tomcat – a male cat (to tomcat: [of a man] to pursue women promiscuously)


I think the only reason [New Orleans] got that [wicked] reputation was because of those old girls who lived in tiny houses called cribs . … Those girls must have known that they'd never do business with anybody except seamen and trash and country boys on a toot. When big spenders went tomcatting in the thirties they wanted privacy and soft pink lampshades ...

– Joe David Brown and Peter Bogdanovich, Paper Moon


Bonus word:

crib – a small abode; a tiny room; also, a saloon, 'dive', or brothel






We've just now completed a theme of eponyms (words from person- or character-names), so it's natural to continue with a theme of toponyms (words from place-names). We ended with a cat-word eponym, tomcat, so let's now begin with a cat-word toponym.


tabby – 1. silk taffeta (originally striped), esp. with a moirι finish 2. a striped or brindled cat; or a she-cat (further, obscure meanings are omitted)

[After the Attabiya district of Baghdad where the taffeta was made; the district is in turn named after a character named Attab. The striped cat is thought to be named for the fabric and she-cat perhaps from combining the stripped cat with the female name Tabby, short for Tabitha.]


Bonus word: taffeta – a fine crisp lustrous fabric [from Persian for 'to shine'; but see quote]


The name [taffeta], derived from Persian, means “twisted woven.” Taffeta is in the same class and demand as satin made of silk. The cloth is made of a plain or tabby weave, and the textures vary considerably. … Piece-dyed taffeta is often used in linings and is quite soft. Yarn-dyed taffeta is much stiffer and is often used in evening dresses. Taffeta is also used in ribbons, umbrellas, and some electrical insulation.

– Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition


Leah said we had to name it Ricky Ticky Tabby but no sir, it's mine and I'm a-calling it Stuart Little.

– Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible


tarantula – a large black wolf spider of southern Europe (or similar hairy spiders of the Americas)

[after the Italian seaport of Taranto; the spiders are prevalent in that region]

tarantism – a disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to dance [at one time prevalent in the Taranto region, and thought to be caused by the tarantula's bite]

tarantella – rapid whirling South Italian dance, once thought to be the sovereign remedy for tarantism

[Note: in this context, sovereign means "of the utmost potency".]


And all of these bodies and plates were compelled to move by the convection currents in the earth below, currents that are churning ceaselessly and that are making the plates execute these unending mazurkas and tarantellas up above on the mantle top.

–Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906


A reader notes: Remarkable epidemics of dancing mania were called chorea.


A special type of water well is named after the French province of Artois, in which it was first bored. We give examples of literal and figurative uses.


artesian – of a well or spring: with water rising spontaneously to the surface, due to underground pressure [as a result of the water-pocket lying at an angle]

… the enemy were resisting firmly, in bomb-proof trenches with a new artesian well.

– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph


My physical, mental, and spiritual life is like an artesian well – always full and overflowing.

– L. B. Cowman, James Reimann, Streams in the Desert


Stepford – robotically conformist and compliant; attractive but without individuality, emotion, or thought


[From the fictional suburb in The Stepford Wives, a 1972 book and later movie. In this superficially idyllic suburb the wives are eerily content zombies in "traditional" roles. But the secret is that the men have replaced their wives with obedient robots.]


Who won?
Who knows?
… Messrs. Bush and Gore proved beyond doubt that no matter who's elected, thanks to an innovative political alchemy that turns a living human being into an exact facsimile completely devoid of spontaneity, the U.S. will have its first Stepford President.
– Alan Abelson, Barron's, Oct. 9, 2000, on a debate between presidential candidates


It is June 1859. Two decisive battles at the Italian towns of Magenta and Solferino bring an end to the war between the French and Austrians. With those town-names in the news, merchants soon seize upon them for advertising. (Similarly, a century later, the bikini swimsuit was named for Bikini Atoll, site of a then-recent A-bomb test.) Many 1859 ads (antedating OED) use those town-names for shawls and cloth, but it's unclear if they mean a style, a color, etc. Here's the earliest I've found:


A dry goods house in New York advertises "Magenta Long Shawls," and a Richmond eating shop announces that it serves up "Solferino Soup."

– Wisconsin Daily Patriot, Aug. 5, 1859


In any event, the names eventually settled into use to name and advertise new colors of fashion, from colorful dyes that chemists had just then begun to produce from coal tar.


solferino – a bright crimson dye; its color

magenta – a deep purplish-red dye (chemical name: fuchsine); its color


There is some confusion of precisely what color is magenta. Some dictionaries have it shading more to purple than to red; some call it light rather than deep; and on the web you can find magenta used to describe quite different colors (contrast this with this). My reading is that the term now means a strong color, more red than purple, that may be dark or pale.


The web leaves me unclear as to who named the color. Clearly fuchsine was named by Frenchman Emmanuel Verguin, who developed a production process for it. But it may be that Englishman Edward Nicholson discovered another production process and gave fuchsine the marketing name magenta.


The Boston fern is a familiar plant. It's obviously named for the city of Boston – but it might just as well have been the Philadelphia fern, for it was first found in a Philadelphia grower's shipment to Boston.


Ferns were a major part of home dιcor throughout Victorian times, which meant there was an industry to produce and distribute them.


Nurserymen discovered the sword fern, sometimes called the Florida wild fern, during the late 1800s. Put this plant in a pot inside a building, and soon fronds enlarge to 3 feet or more of draping loveliness. … Easily propagated …, this fern quickly became the most popular houseplant of the Northeast.


In 1894, a Philadelphia grower sent 50,000 plants to a Boston distributor. They were so different that for two years they were considered a different species. By 1896 it was decided that [it] was merely a sport of the wild Florida native,… so that greenhouse variety became Nephrolepis exaltata cv. 'Bostoniensis,' or simply speaking, Boston fern.

–, The Ocala (Florida) Star-Banner, July 30, 2005


The Algonquin Indians named one of their tribes with their word meaning 'round foot'. Shipley explains, "The Wolf tribe in New York was called in scorn by other Algonquians "round foot", implying that they easily fell down in surrender." (This would be similar to our adjective 'round heels' for a woman or a pugilist [that is, a boxer] who is [ahem] "easily put on his or her back".) Others, however, say that 'round foot' simply meant the wolf, the totemic animal of the tribe.


One way or another, the 'round foot' became the Indian name for the tribe and, naturally, for the region and lake where the tribe dwelt. The English-speaking settlers took the same Indian name, in anglicized form, for the region and in two towns founded there.


Much later a posh and exclusive club for the ultra-rich was located there, and in the 1880s a new style of dinner jacket, without tails, was introduced in that club and became popular there. The club was named for the region, and the jacket for the club. Thus all trace back to the original Indian name of the region and tribe.


That Indian word for 'round foot' was tuksit or p'tuksit. When anglicized, tuksit became the names of the towns of Tuxedo and Tuxedo Park, of the Tuxedo Club there, and of the tuxedo jacket popularized in that club. Thus, a man wearing a tuxedo is a wolf etymologically, as he may well be in conduct!


Bonus words:

pugilist – a boxer

round-heels – 1. of a woman: of easy virtue 2. of a pugilist: having a glass jaw