happy as a clam

Several people have emailed me asking where the phrase happy as a clam comes from. They are confused about why anyone would assume that clams were happy. Frankly, I don’t understand their confusion. Wouldn’t you be happy if you got to spend your life at the beach, just lying in the surf with no responsibilities?

Well, they wouldn’t be confused if they knew the whole phrase. Originally, the phrase went happy as a clam in high water. The phrase is an Americanism, dating to at least the 1834 when it appeared in Harvardiana:

That peculiar degree of satisfaction, usually denoted by the phrase “as happy as a clam.”

The full phrase is recorded in Jonathan Slick’s 1844 High Life in New York:

They seemed as happy as clams in high water.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Handicap comes from an old method of setting odds in a horse race or other contest. Two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest. The bettors would put their hands holding forfeit money into a hat or cap. The umpire would announce the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands—hands full meaning that they accepted the odds and the bet was on, or hands empty meaning they did not accept the bet and were willing to forfeit the money. If one forfeited, then the money went to the other bettor. If both agreed on either forfeiting or going ahead with the wager, then the umpire kept the money as payment. The word is a shortening of hand in the cap.

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hack / hackney

How did a word for a taxi also become a term meaning overused and worn out?

Hackney comes from the Old French haquenée, meaning a gentle, riding horse, an ambling horse. It was adopted into English in the 14th century meaning a horse of middle size or fair quality. From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, a 14th century poem:

Ac nim a ligter hakenai & lef her the swerd Morgelai.
(But take a lighter hackney & leave here the sword Morgelai.)

Very early on, by 1393 at the latest, the word had also acquired the meaning of a horse for hire. From William Langland’s Piers Plowman (C Text) of that year:

Ac hakeneyes hadde thei none. bote hakeneyes to hyre.
(But hackneys had they none, hackneys for hire to boot.)

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The metaphor behind this modern slang term for a computer enthusiast, particularly one who breaks into other computer systems, is not certain, but it is probably one of continually hacking or chopping away at something until it finally gives way.

The noun hack, meaning an attempt or a try at something, is nearly 200 years old. It dates to as early as 1836 when it appears in “Davy Crockett’s” Exploits and Adventures in Texas (this book was alleged to be based on Crockett’s diary, but is a fraud; who wrote it, however, doesn’t matter when it comes to lexical evidence):

Better take a hack by way of trying your luck at guessing.1

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Plural None

Several of you have written about the following sentence that appeared in last week’s A Way With Words contending that it is grammatically incorrect:

None of these are accurate, although all of them have elements of truth.

The contention is that none derives from no one and therefore should take the singular, as in:

None of these is accurate

This contention is not correct. None can take either the singular or the plural verb form. The reasons for this are as follows.

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gung ho

This unofficial motto of the US Marine Corps is an abbreviation for the Mandarin Gongye Hezhoushe, or industrial cooperative. The term was used in China, starting in 1938, to refer to small, industrial operations that were being established in rural China to replace the industrial centers that had been captured by the Japanese. The phrase was clipped to the initial characters of the two words, gung ho (or gung he, as it would be transliterated in Pinyin). This clipping became a slogan for the industrial cooperative movement. 

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This word for a firearm most likely comes from a Scandinavian woman’s name. It was and is common practice to name siege engines and cannon after women. Two famous examples are Mons Meg, the 15th century mortar that can be seen at Edinburgh castle, and Big Bertha of WWI fame. In this case, a weapon or weapons seem to have been named after a woman or women named Gunnhildr, and the name generalized to mean all such weapons.

Both gunnr and hildr mean war in Old Norse, making it an apt name for a weapon, even though there is no historical personage of significance named Gunhildr. There is at least one known example of a particular siege engine named Gunnhildr. A 1330 munitions list from Windsor Castle reads:

Una magna balista de cornu quae vocatur Domina Gunilda.
(A large ballista from Cornwall called Lady Gunilda.)

There is also this from a somewhat earlier poem The Song Against the Retinues of the Great People, written in the opening years of the 14th century:

The gedelynges were gedered Of gonnylde gnoste; Palefreiours ant pages, Ant boyes with boste, Alle weren y-haht Of an horse thoste.
(The lackeys were gathered out of Gunnild’s spark; the grooms and pages, and boys with their boasting, all were hatched of a horse’s dung.)

Gonnylde here may be a transitional form between Gunnhildr and the Middle English gonne, and gonnylde gnoste appears to be a reference to some type of explosive (gnást being Old English for spark).

Variations on gonne, in the modern sense of a firearm, appear in English records written in Latin and French starting in 1339. The first recorded use of of gonne in an English language text is by Chaucer in The Hous of Fame (c.1384):

Went this foule trumpes soun As swifte as pelet out of gonne Whan fire is in the poudre ronne.
(Went this foul trumpet sound As swift as a pellet out of a gun when fire is running in the powder.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This European name for part of the west coast of Africa has given rise to a number of terms and senses, but its origin is unknown. The name first appears in Portugeuse as Guiné, but beyond that we have no clue where it comes from.1

It seems strange that a derogatory term for an Italian or Hispanic would come from the name for a region in Africa, but Guinea did not always carry this meaning. Dating back to the mid-18th century, the word was used to refer to blacks in the Americas. The following notice appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on 12 May 1748:

Run-away, a likely well-made Guiney Negro Man, named Toney.2

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One might assume that this term is a 20th century one. After all, warfare in that century was often characterized by guerrilla combat. Guerrilla warfare is the choice of the oppressed seeking to throw out foreign oppressors, and the 20th century has seen lots of colonial wars. The term, however, is much older.

It dates to the Napoleonic campaign in Spain (1808-1811). The earliest English usage cite is by the Duke of Wellington in 1809 in his Dispatches 1799-1818:

I have recommended to the Junta to set...the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

In Spanish the word is a diminutive of guerra or war; so guerrilla is literally little war.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

ground zero

The original sense of ground zero is the point on the earth’s surface at or directly below a nuclear detonation. The term dates to 1946. From the Chicago Daily Tribune of 30 June of that year:

Within a radius of one kilometer (.62 of a mile) from ground zero (the point beneath the blast center), men and animals died almost instantaneously from the tremendous blast pressue and heat; houses and other structures were smashed, crushed, and scattered; and fires broke out.

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