Saturday, October 20, 2001

The pickings of war

WAR or peace, the language show must go on! For the etymologist, war brings raw material. In a war, people belonging to different cultures come into contact even as they clash; armies travel a lot — which means that language users come across different terms that may ultimately result in new expressions. With the passage of time, these expressions lose their context and are absorbed by the language corpus. For instance, if someone has bought the farm, it means that the person is dead. Bought the farm took birth during World War I. When a U.S. soldier died in combat, his family was given death benefits, which included enough money to buy a patch of farmland; hence the phrase that the soldier had bought the farm. This gave rise to the humorous expression ‘rent a farm’; a soldier would prefer a serious injury to death, thus getting enough compensation to rent a farm, if not buy one.

Hunky dory was also coined during World War I. When things are hunky dory, they are perfect. During this war, soldiers on leave would often visit Huncho-dori, a street in Yokohama, Japan. They had a good time there with all leisure-time activities at their disposal. So, hunky dory became synonymous with a good time, almost idyllic.

American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001

Often people go over the top at weddings, throwing money around and displaying wealth. The sense of excess has remained with the phrase, over the top; the origin was far more tragic. During World War I, a protective battery of guns was placed alongside every trench and if a company wanted to charge a trench, the result was mostly tragic. Attacking such a trench was referred to as going over the top, displaying excessive bravery.

At times, the expression becomes more popular after its military usage. The whole nine yards is an instance here. The phrase is used for a complete job, which is done without cutting any corners. World War II fighter planes, the corsair, to be precise, carried a belt of ammunition, which was fifty calibers and measured exactly nine yards. If a target was shot at with the entire band, it was called the whole nine yards. There were many other contexts in which ‘the whole nine yards’ was used as an expression for doing things properly. In tailoring, a proper gentleman’s suit required nine yards of cloth because in a good suit, all the fabric was cut in the same direction as the warp, the vertical weave, parallel with the vertical line of the suit. Then, many old sailing ships had three masts, each mast carrying three square sails each. The horizontal wooden stays, which supported the sails, were called yards; hence a sturdy sailing ship had ‘the whole nine yards’.


A Roman proverb says, ‘Everything has two handles’. This is true of words. The effects of war, party warfare often gives rise to different senses of words. Tami, a white soldier of low rank; habshi, a black barbarian; Muslim ligi, a member of the Muslim league; phirangi, a white foreigner; japaani maal, goods from Japan — these are words which are often used in a derogatory context, but they were originally far from derogatory.

This feature was published on October 13, 2001