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The Word

Thanks for asking

Questions that led surprising places

By Jan Freeman
November 21, 2010

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“Where do you get your ideas?” people often ask. And for years, I’ve answered, truthfully, “Mostly from readers.” It’s great to have that constant feedback. But here’s the best part: The most routine-looking questions, on the most familiar usage issues, can lead us down the rabbit hole to a land of language surprises.

Take (speaking of rabbit holes) a recent question from Gil. “Am I the only one who associates the Tea Party with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and not the Sons of Liberty disguised as Indians?” he asked. He’s not, a quick search revealed: A handful of columnists and bloggers have included the Mad Hatter’s soiree in their discussions of Tea Party politics.

That wasn’t hard to check, but along the way I encountered a new and murkier language question: When did the original Boston Tea Party get its name? Not till decades after the 1773 raid, sources agree. Several of them — including Jill Lepore’s brand-new book about both political Tea Parties, “The Whites of Their Eyes” — credit an 1834 retrospective by George R.T. Hewes with the earliest Boston “Tea Party” citation.

Google Books goes them one better, though: It offers an 1805 issue of the Boston Weekly that reprints toasts reportedly given at an Independence Day celebration a year earlier. One is offered to “The Tea Party: — Thirty-one years since, our fathers’ patriotism deprived our mothers of the use of tea — may our mothers’ tea never deprive us of our fathers’ patriotism.” Such casual use suggests the Tea Party label was already in circulation, and if there are earlier citations, surely Bostonians should be the ones to unearth them. Sons and daughters of Liberty — to the archives!

Another word steeped in American history is buncombe, “nonsense,” named for Buncombe County, N.C. The story goes (more or less) that Felix Walker, the district’s representative, orating irrelevantly on the House floor in 1820, resisted his fellows’ pleas to stop. He wasn’t speaking to them, he said, but “for Buncombe” — that is, for the newspaper accounts that his constituents would see.

In a recent column, I spelled the word bunkum, quoting an 1848 slang dictionary and shocking reader Jay Gold: “I always thought the proper spelling was buncombe,” he said, citing H.L. Mencken for support. So I went back for another look. Yes, Mencken used buncombe, but he gave both spellings as equal variants, like ketchup and catsup. He really had no choice: Bunkum had made its move early — the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1828 — and was well established when Mencken published “The American Language” in 1921.

It was in Britain, curiously, that the bunkum version took off. In 1926, H.W. Fowler advised using that spelling, “decidedly the prevalent one,” and his countrymen listened: In today’s British papers, bunkum beats buncombe by about 400 to 1. Americans, naturally, were more attached to the spelling with the colorful local history; usage writer Bryan Garner still prefers buncombe “because it recalls the interesting origin of the word.” So though bunkum also predominates here, its lead is far smaller: 3 to 1 in The New York Times, for example, and 3 to 2 in the Globe. So take your pick, or skip the debate and go for the short form: bunk.

Perhaps most often, the surprise in store for me and my questioning reader is that we’ve both succumbed (once again!) to the Recency Illusion — the mistaken impression that a usage new to us is new to the world. When Maria Sachs wrote to ask about the increasing use of culminate as a transitive verb — as in “The win culminated a World Series between two unlikely participants” — I agreed that it was odd. In my dialect, things “culminate in” a climax. But it turns out that transitive culminate, though its popularity waxes and wanes, has been here since the verb arrived in English in the mid-17th century. If sportswriters want to use it, history is on their side.

. . .

SHELLACKED: The moment President Obama conceded that the midterm elections were a “shellacking” for Democrats, the word sleuths were on the case. Why would shellacked — literally, coated with varnish made from the resinous secretion of the lac insect — mean “trounced”?

Well, Americans were using shellacked for both “drunk” and “beaten” by 1920, and it’s hard to say which came first (though Mark Liberman at Language Log notes that the transfer of senses usually goes from violence to drunkenness, as in bombed, wrecked, and clobbered). But shellacked may have a more concrete origin: During Prohibition, it’s said, some drinkers were desperate enough to try extracting the alcohol from shellac varnish.

Ben Zimmer, in a post at the American Dialect Society’s listserv, quotes a 1922 newspaper on the process: “This consists of dipping the blotter in the shellac, withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter into another receptacle. The blotter will absorb the alcohol.” This evidence “establishes the connection as well as we can ever expect for a slang term nearly a century old,” says Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, reminding us that even the most tantalizing theory is not the same as proof.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).