Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

"King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!'' | Dear Editor:

In a recent newspaper article, an ambitious and arrogant public figure was compared to King Canute. Who is King Canute?

— H. D., Albany, New York

Dear H. D.:

King Canute, or Canute the Great, was ruler of England (from 1016), Denmark (from 1018), and Norway (from 1028) until his death in 1035. He is believed to have ruled wisely, and he was able to maintain peace in the regions he ruled during a time when that was not so easy.

The famous legend about King Canute is that he arrogantly commanded the tide not to turn - a foolish command even for a good king - and so became the namesake of any person who makes preposterous statements, especially ones about his or her own power or importance.

According to the original 12th century story, however, Canute's act was not so foolish. His command to the tide was intended to demonstrate the limits of a king's power to his subjects. By commanding something he knew to be impossible, he showed that he could not do everything the people wanted.

Dear Editor:

I am told that the Russian word "vodka'' came from Russians mispronouncing the western European word "aqua vitae.'' I find it hard to believe that Russians couldn't pronounce "aqua vitae'' and am inclined to utterly discountenance that theory. Where exactly did the word "vodka'' come from?

— C. S., Alameda, California

Dear C. S.:

Donate to JWR

When the alchemists of the Middle Ages discovered how to distill alcohol from wine, they named this new liquid "aqua vitae,'' Latin for "water of life.'' French "eau-de-vie'' (for a clear brandy distilled from fermented fruit juice) is a direct translation of the Latin term, as is "aquavit'' (or "akvavit''), the name of a Scandinavian liquor often flavored with caraway seeds, and Irish "uisce beatha,'' now better known as "whiskey.''

The Russians concocted their version of aqua vitae sometime in the 14th century, and they opted to call their drink not "water of life'' but simply something on the order of "dear little water'' - "vodka'' being a diminutive form of "voda'' (pronounced vah-DAH), the Russian word for "water.'' Though vodka wasn't really popularized in the West until after World War II, 19th-century reports of Russian drinking habits first saw the word introduced into English.

Incidentally, the Dutch also named their distilled liquor something besides "water of life''; it was more prosaically termed "burnt (distilled) wine'' (since distilling entails the application of heat) or, in Dutch, "brandewijn'' - thus in English "brandywine,'' shortened to "brandy'' in the mid-17th century.

Dear Editor:

Can you please tell me the origin of the expression "Cheese it. The cops!''?

— S. O., Cleveland, Ohio

Dear S. O.:

The actual fixed idiom here is simply "cheese it'' (because that part of the phrase can be used alone and still keep the same meaning), so we'll leave "the cops'' out of this explanation. "Cheese it'' has been part of English slang since at least the mid-1800s. The word "cheese'' has been used with the meaning "to put an end to'' or "to stop'' since at least 1812, and this is the sense which led to the idiomatic expression. Whoever began using "cheese'' in that way apparently decided to "cheese it'' when people asked why, though, because no one has ever determined where that sense came from or why putting an end to an action should be related to cheese. The exact origin of the phrase must be labeled unknown.

Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster column, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102. Comment by clicking here.


03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

©2003 Merriam-Webster Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services