Knickerbocker / knickers

This nickname for a New Yorker is perhaps best known today as the source of the name of the New York Knicks basketball team. But it was once in more general use.

It got its start in Washington Irving’s 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York, allegedly written by the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker. By 1848 edition of that work, Irving noted that the name was being used by New Yorkers as a nickname:

When I find New Yorkers of Dutch descent priding themselves upon being “genuine Knickerbockers.”

The name transferred to the style of men’s loose-fitting trousers, gathered at the knee because of illustrations of similar knee-breeches in Irving’s book. From the Times of London, 23 May 1859:

The that volunteers should not wear trowsers, but I would recommend as a substitute what are commonly known as nickerbockers [sic], i.e. long loose breeches generally worn without braces, and buckled or buttoned round the waist and knee.

This was also shortened to knickers, a term that is still in use in the United States. In Britain, however, knickers also transferred to mean women’s underpants, a term that dominates British usage today. From the 1882 publication Queen:

I recommend...flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Kitty-corner, or catty-corner, is a classic example of the phenomenon known as folk-etymology. When a word or phrase makes little apparent sense, it will often mutate into a form that seems more familiar.

The term was originally catercorner. Cater is an old dialectical term for diagonal. It derives from the French quatre or four. Cater dates to the16th century, appearing in Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry:

The trees are set checkerwise and so catred [partim in quincuncem directis], as looke which way ye will, they lye level.

By the early 19th century, the folk etymology had set in. From Joseph C. Neal’s 1838 Charcoal Sketches:

One of that class...who, when compelled to share their bed with another, lie in that engrossing posture called “catty-cornered.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

kit and caboodle

Kit and caboodle is everything, the entire of collection of things under consideration. But it’s an odd-sounding phrase to the modern ear. Kit doesn’t seem to make much sense here and what the heck is a caboodle?

The word kit is from the Middle Dutch kitte, a wooden vessel made of hooped staves. This original sense of kit remained current in English at least through the 19th century. It appears in English as early as 1375 in Barbour’s The Bruce:

Thai strak his hed of, and syne it Thai haf gert salt in-till a kyt And send it in-till Ingland.

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Kilroy was here

Kilroy was a mysterious World War II soldier who traveled all over the world scrawling the immortal phrase Kilroy was here wherever a flat surface presented itself. Often, the phrase was accompanied by a simple drawing of a big-nosed man peering over a wall. Clearly, the graffiti were scrawled by thousands of different soldiers, not a single one named Kilroy. But did Kilroy actually exist? And if so, did he start the fad?

Unfortunately, no one knows. There have been numerous people claiming to have been the original Kilroy, but none of the claims can be verified.

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kick the bucket

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a trébuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare describes this imagery of a slaughtered animal’s death throes in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.283):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Words On The Web:\worldcat

The folks that bring the Dewey Decimal System, the Online Computer Library Center, or OCLC, have a great catalog search service. By visiting their web site at http:\\\worldcat, you can enter in search terms and search a multitude of library catalogs for that book. You then enter in your city or postal code and the Worldcat service will give the libraries that that book in order of the distance from you.

For example, I enter in Word Myths and Emeryville, CA and I’m told that there are 408 libraries in the Worldcat system that have my book. The closest is the University of California Berkeley, some three miles away, followed by the San Francisco Public Library, across the bay some nine miles away. The farthest is the Singapore Polytechnic Library, half a world away.

This is an invaluable resource when you’re looking for a particularly hard-to-find book.

Classifying Human Knowledge, Part I

I’ve spent the last week organizing my library, a task that, surprisingly, has turned out to be quite interesting. In an effort to find a classification scheme that works for me, I’ve been looking at an learning about the various systems in use in libraries around the world.

The most famous is perhaps the Dewey Decimal System. Invented by Melvil Dewey in 1876, it is the most widely used library classification in the United States, used primarily by public and primary school libraries. The DDS divides all human knowledge into ten major divisions, each of these have ten possible subdivisions, these each have ten more, and so on. Hence the decimal.

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Words On The Web:

A persistent vexation of mine is not being able to find the book I want. I know it’s on the shelf somewhere, but I just can’t find it. I’ve often spent ten minutes or more tracking down a book. My personal library is large (over 500 books), but it is by no means huge. Another issue is that I occasionally find myself buying multiple copies of a book–I forget what books I already own. I’ve often thought that I can’t be the only one with this problem and that there must be an easy way of organizing my books that someone else has pioneered.

Well, this week I discovered It is a sublime website. Cataloguing a library of some size is never easy, but makes it nearly so. So what is LibraryThing?

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Revisiting the Planets, Redux

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted Thursday on a definition of the word planet. The proposed definition we reported on last week was rejected and the IAU defined a planet as a celestial body that

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
  • has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

According to the IAU, this leaves our solar system with eight planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. By this definition, Pluto is not a planet because it has not cleared its neighborhood.

The IAU also rejected use of the proposed term pluton, for the class of objects similar to Pluto. That term is also commonly used by geologists for an igneous mass that forms when molten rock cools underground and it was thought that there could be confusion between the geological and astronomical senses–although that doesn’t seem very likely. Context would rule out any chance of confusion in most cases. After all, there isn’t any confusion of the geological and anatomical uses of vein.

More problematic for pluton is that in French and Italian this is the name for the former-planet Pluto. This could cause much confusion between the class and the specific body in those languages.

Instead of pluton, the IAU decided on another linguistically problematic term, dwarf planet, which is defined as a celestial body that:

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  • has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and
  • is not a satellite.

Benjamin Zimmer over at Language Log has a good discussion as to why this is a questionable form in English. In English compound nouns, the more general term is usually the second noun. Catfish are fish, not felines and mountain lions are cats, not masses of rock. Although there are exceptions, like sea lion. Although a dwarf star, arguably the most similar term to dwarf planet, is most definitely a star.

But perhaps the most cogent commentary on the subject is by Ruben Bolling who penned this cartoon. The third example is the best.


Usually spelled keister (there are many alternate spellings), the original meaning of this American slang word is a satchel or suitcase. A later, and now more common sense, is that of a person’s rump or buttocks.

Dating in English to 1882, the term is from the German Kiste meaning box or case—the slang sense of rump also exists in the German. From George Wilbur Peck’s Peck’s Sunshine of that year:

The boy took the knight’s keister and went to the elevator.

A year earlier than this quote, Alfred Trumble’s The Man Traps of New York uses the word as a nickname, probably a reference to a man known for carrying a case:

Prominent among the small army of confidence operators in this city are “Grand Central Pete,"..."Boston Charlie,"..."Keister Bob,” “The Kid,” “Hungry Joe.”

Presumably, the sense of the buttocks developed because a traveling case was something you could sit upon. The earliest known citation is from an American Speech article on convict’s slang from 1931:

keister, n. A satchel; also what one sits on.

(Sources: Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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