Antedating: General For Attorney General

Back in the issue of 31 March, I stated that the practice of addressing the US attorney general as general dated to the Clinton administration. Hugh Rawson has written me with an antedating of the term to the Nixon administration and Attorney General John Mitchell. In his book Blind Ambition, John Dean quotes G. Gordon Liddy as saying to Mitchell on 27 January 1972, "Now, General, this operation will be equipped with its own operational arm."

Good Words For Good Friday

This Good Friday we take a look at some of the words associated with Easter and Lent. There are a lot of good, old words in the names of various holidays of this season that survive as relics from the language of yore.

The period preceding Easter on the church calendar is Lent. It’s a period of fasting and penitence that encompasses the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Lent, or as it was known earlier, Lenten, is from the Old English lencten, which was the name of the season we now call spring. Lencten dates to around 1000 with the religious sense appearing around 1290. Today, only the religious sense survives.

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call a spade a spade

The spade in question here is a shovel, not a black person. The phrase means to speak bluntly, without euphemism or delicacy.

The phrase comes to us from Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.), the Greek biographer and essayist, although not in its current form. Plutarch used the phrase to call a bowl a bowl in his Apophthegmata. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) translated Plutarch and made an error when he came to this phrase. He confused the Greek word for bowl with that for a shovel; in Greek they are very similar, coming from the same root. This was carried into English by Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’ work:

Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

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Cabal is most often used to denote a conspiracy, particularly one which controls an organization or government. The word entered the English language from the French cabale and ultimately comes from the Hebrew qabbalah, the medieval body of arcane and mystical Jewish teachings. The earliest use of cabal cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1616, cited in John Bullokar’s An English Expositor:

Cabal, the tradition of the Jewes doctrine of religion.

Within a few years, the word had generalized to mean any secret tradition or teaching, not just the particular Jewish tradition. David Person, in his Varieties of 1635, writes:

An insight in the Cabals and secrets of Nature.

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Bloody is a British swear word that until recent decades was considered highly offensive. This is a bit strange to most Americans, who do not see it as particularly offensive, and to Australians who use it is a staple of their dialect, sort of an all-purpose adjective. The word was so scandalous that the 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion will be forever remembered because of the uproar over Eliza Doolittle line “not bloody likely” in the third act. (The 1938 film version of the play was the first British film to use the word.) Like many swear words, the origin is a bit mysterious. No one is certain exactly to what the blood refers.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it derives from a reference to the aristocratic rowdies of the Restoration (i.e., those of noble or aristocratic blood). This is supported by early uses as an intensifier, which are in the form bloody drunk. From G. Etherege’s 1676 Man of Mode:

Not without he will promise to be bloody drunk.

And the poet John Dryden wrote in 1684:

The doughty Bullies enter bloody drunk.

Popular derivations include the belief that it comes from the oath God’s Blood or is a corruption of the phrase By our Lady. Alternately, some suggest it is a reference to menstruation. None of these have any real evidence to support them.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge disagreed with all the above, stating, Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “there is no need for ingenious etymologies: the idea of blood suffices.”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition.)


This term has at least three distinct senses. The first use of blockbuster was during World War II, meaning a large aerial bomb. It was formed from the words for a city block and bust, a verb meaning to break. A blockbuster was a bomb large enough to destroy a city block. Time magazine printed this in its 29 September 1942 issue:

Inside a sturdy observation tower a mile from the exploding block busters which the Army is now testing.1

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This term for a non-rigid airship is of uncertain origin. We do know that it was coined during the First World War, but who coined it and why the rather enigmatic term blimp was chosen may never be known. Making matters worse, the various origin stories are often conflated in various sources, making sorting out the truth difficult.

First, the earliest known use of the term dates to February 1916, from Rosher’s In R.N.A.S.:

Visited the Blimps...this afternoon at Capel.

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The exact etymology of this term for a villain is uncertain. What is known is that it is literally from black guard; it is English in origin; and it dates to at least 1532. The earliest known use of the term is from that year and appears in an account book from St. Margaret’s church in Westminster:

Item Receyvid for the lycens of iiij. torchis of the blake garde vjd.

It is not know what or who the black guard referenced in this quote was. They could have been black-uniformed guards or perhaps funerary torch bearers.

By 1535, blackguard was being used to refer to the lowest servants in a household and by 1560, it was being used to refer to attendents, dressed in black and often attending some villainous character.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t dismiss the possibility that there may literally have been a company of soldiers at Westminster called the Black Guard, but no direct evidence of this exists.

The sense of the vagabond or criminal class doesn’t appear until the 1680s. And the modern sense of a scoundrel dates to the 1730s.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

black box

When an airplane crashes, what follows is inevitably a search for the black box, or more accurately the two black boxes, one that records the voice conversations in the cockpit and the other that records data about the flight, such as location, speed, and altitude. The odd thing is that whenever the boxes are recovered and shown on the news, they are not black at all. Rather, they are painted bright orange for visibility at a crash site.

So why are they called black? Black box is a generic term for a piece of electronic equipment on an aircraft. The term originated in air force slang during World War II. The first black boxes were radar bomb “sights.” Eric Partridge includes this sense in his 1945 Dictionary of R.A.F. Slang. And his more comprehensive 1948 Dictionary of Force‚Äôs Slang contains the following entry:

Black box, or gen box, or simply the box. An instrument that enables a bomb-aimer to see through clouds or in the dark. (Air Force.) To many Air Force personnel, however, black box denotes a navigational instrument.1

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Bizarre was borrowed into English from French in the middle of the 17th century. The current sense of odd or fantastic has been with us since the word was introduced into English. It had that meaning in French as well, although previously in French it had the meaning of brave or like a soldier.

Where the French picked up the word is somewhat unclear. In Spanish and Portugeuse, bizarro means handsome or brave and is clearly related to the French in some way, although the French word appears before the Spanish one, so it is unlikely that the French picked up the word from Spanish. Instead, it probably comes from Italian, where bizzarro means angry, and has a root, bizza, meaning fit of anger.

There is a commonly touted etymology for bizarre that claims the word is originally from the Basque bizzarra, meaning beard. This explanation is not well supported by evidence.

Bizarre is unrelated to bazaar, which is from the Persian bazar, meaning marketplace.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories)

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