rhubarb

How did a vegetable become baseball slang for an argument or fight? A rhubarb is baseball slang for a fight or argument among players and/or umpires. We do know that the term was popularized by famed baseball broadcaster Red Barber, but how rhubarbs became associated with altercations is not known with any certainty, but there are several explanations that merit mention:

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rain check

A rain check was originally a voucher issued at baseball games that were rained out, allowing the spectators to return to watch another game. From the National Police Gazette of 10 May 1884:

The Toledo [baseball] Club will give rain-checks this season.

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Book Review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21730 Pages; Ammon Shea; New York: Penguin Group (USA); $21.95.

Ammon Shea, a former furniture mover in New York City, spent a year reading the 20 volumes of the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. This book is a combination of memoir of the experience and a recounting of the interesting words Shea encounters on his travels from A to zyxt.

Now, I take as much delight in encountering a strange or euphonious word as the next logophile, but lists of “interesting” and “neat” words leave me cold. Maybe it’s because no two people have the same reaction to a word and I just disagree with the compiler about what’s interesting, maybe the thrill is in the encounter and seeing a word etherized and dissected on a table is cold and clinical, or maybe I just don’t appreciate words that are never actually used—as most words in such lists are, but I just don’t “get” the appeal of such books. Reading the OED, however, is different. This one is a gem.

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brownie points

This term is American, but of unknown origin, referring to a vague system of merit points used to curry favor with some authority. Evidence indicates that it was part of military slang during the WWII-Korean War era,1 but the earliest known use in print is from the Los Angeles Times of 15 March 1951:

You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ‘em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman—favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.2

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blind pig / blind tiger

These are American slang terms for an illegal drinking establishment. Blind tiger is most commonly found in the South. Its synonym, blind pig, is more common in California, the Northwest, and the Northern Tier states.

The terms apparently arose from a practice designed to circumvent laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol by the drink or licensing fees associated with such sales. Proprietors of drinking establishments would advertise animal curiosities and give customers who paid to see the animals a “complimentary” drink. Often, there were no actual animals to be displayed and the name was a thin facade that law enforcement officials winked at.

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booze

The word booze has been around since the fourteenth century. It comes from the Middle Dutch verb busen, meaning to drink heavily, and first appears in English as a verb spelled bouse. This is in a satirical poem titled Heil Seint Michel, found in the manuscript London, British Library, MS Harley 913 and dating to sometime before 1325:

Hail ȝe holi monkes … Late and raþe ifillid of ale and wine! Depe cun ȝe bouse.
(Hail the holy monks … Slowly and before long filled with ale and wine! Deeply can they booze.)1

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woggle

See boondoggle.

boondoggle / woggle

This term meaning a useless task or wasteful endeavor is of uncertain origin, although it is probably related to the word woggle, a term for a Boy Scout’s neckerchief fastener. Boondoggle shares this meaning of a neckerchief fastener or slide in Boy Scout circles and this is likely the original sense of the word.

Woggle makes its appearance in 1923 among scouts in Britain. From The Scout, 9 June 1923:

Wear a scarf woggle.

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Words of the Year: 2008

Here at Wordorigins.org we don’t select a single term as “word of the year,” but rather we provide a list of terms that were representative of the past year. Here is the selection for 2008:

age-doping, n., the falsification of an athlete’s birth records to meet a sporting event’s age requirements, as alleged of Chinese gymnasts in the 2008 Olympics.

bailout, n. & v., rescue of a failing business by the government, esp. the government payments to the banking and financial industry in late 2008.

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belfry / bats in the belfry

The word belfry, believe it or not, originally had nothing to do with bells. Belfry is from the Old French berfroi, meaning a wooden siege tower. The word first appears in English c.1300 in the romance Kyng Alisaunder found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 622:

Alisaunder and his folk…Fast assaileden her walle Wiþ berefrei.
(Alexander and his army…fast assailed her wall with a belfry.)

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