Mon 4 Aug 2014
The next time you hear some haughty person refer to the uneducated masses as “the hoi polloi,” you can take secret pleasure in knowing the person is revealing his own lack of education. Hoi polloi, which comes from Greek, means “the many,” so “the hoi polloi” is literally “the the many.” Thought you’d want to know.
When former Point Reyes Station computer techie Keith Mathews (right) in 2007 moved to Augusta, Georgia, where his son lives, he gave away some of his possessions. I was lucky enough to receive his venerable copy of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.
I’m fascinated with etymology (the study of how specific words evolved), and because I don’t know many people who have copies of William and Mary Morris’ reference book, I’m devoting this posting to some fascinating tidbits from it. For example:
When you hear someone exclaim, “Holy Toledo,” he’s not referring to Ohio but to Toledo, Spain, which became a center of Christian culture after the Moors were driven out in 1085.
I had always assumed that when a person referred to “the honcho” or “head honcho” (meaning big shot or boss), he was using a word derived from some European language. But I was wrong. According to the Morris Dictionary, “honcho” actually comes from the Japanese word hancho meaning “squad commander.” American servicemen picked it up during the occupation of Japan following World War II.
More puzzling yet is the Japanese word banzai. “The war cry ‘Banzai‘ meant, ‘May you live 10,000 years,'” the Morris Dictionary notes, adding, “The Japanese, with a logic incomprehensible to Western minds, used to shout it when launching a suicide attack.”
My parents (at right in 1945) occasionally referred to stylishly dressed women as “fashion plates,” but even though my father was in the printing business, I doubt he knew where the phrase comes from.
I just learned myself. To quote the Morris Dictionary, “The original ‘fashion plates’ were the printing plates from which illustrations were printed in early magazines of fashions.
“Then came the expression, to describe someone who dressed in the latest mode, ‘She’s an animated fashion plate.’ The final step, to the point where the person herself was described as a ‘fashion plate,’ is obvious.”
Apropos the albino robin photo that neighbor Jay Haas contributed to last week’s posting, here are some connections I never would have imagined without the dictionary. “The robin, the traditional harbinger of spring, bears little resemblance to a German soldier — but the word has much to do with soldiers.
“It is derived from the Old High German heriberga, which meant ‘shelter for soldiers.’ Originally, a harbinger was one who went ahead of any army or a royal party to arrange for lodgings and other accommodations.
“Since then it has come to mean anyone who goes ahead to announce the coming of others — or a person or thing which hints of coming events. That’s how the robin got into the act.”
To “smell a rat” is to suspect something devious is going on. But what does the phrase literally mean? It turns out to be an allusion “to a cat’s ability to smell a rat it cannot see,” according to Morris. Makes sense.
We’ll end with the expression “knock off work,” which I’m about to do. According to the Morris Dictionary, the phrase originated back when galleys were rowed by slaves. “To keep oarsmen rowing in unison, a man beat time rhythmically on a block of wood,” the dictionary explains. “When it was time to rest or change shifts, he would give a special knock on the block, signifying that they could ‘knock off work.'”
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins is still available online and probably in some bookstores. Any writer with the ambition of rising above the level of Wikipedia ought to have his own copy.