Jewish World Review March 1, 2004 / 8 Adar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
Can you tell me about the words "roundheel'' and "well-heeled''?
M. D., Fair Lawn, N.J.
Dear M. D.:
Broadly, "roundheel'' is equivalent to "pushover,'' referring to someone who is easy to defeat or overcome or who is incapable of effective resistance. Imagine someone wobbling on rounded heels, trying to stay upright. Obviously, such a person could easily lose his or her balance and fall - or be pushed - backwards. That's exactly the image behind both "roundheel'' and "pushover.'' "Roundheel'' has been in use, chiefly in the United States, since at least 1944.
There is some dispute over the origin of "well-heeled,'' which means "wealthy.'' We know it originated in the United States in the late 1800s, but its derivation is unclear. One popular explanation is that wealthy people have plenty of money to see that their shoes are always stylish and in good repair, not worn down at the heels; hence they are literally "well-heeled.''
The other explanation for "well-heeled'' is somewhat more complicated. In the late 1800s, "well-heeled'' was also used to mean "adequately armed with weapons.'' As the story goes, this use of the term derived from the practice of equipping fighting gamecocks with steel spurs. Eventually, according to this theory, the sense of "well-heeled'' meaning "wealthy'' evolved out of this "well-armed'' sense.
The theory seems plausible, since wealth can indeed be a powerful weapon, and it's true that the "armed'' sense of "well-heeled'' is attested some ten years earlier than the "wealthy'' sense. But it's also possible that the two meanings developed fairly simultaneously, independent of each other. Without more clear-cut evidence, we can't say for sure whether the first person to use "well-heeled'' to mean "wealthy'' was drawing the imagery from shoes, or from guns!
I came across "milquetoast'' recently, and it struck me as an odd word. What can you tell me about it?
M. R., Belgrade, Minn.
Dear M. R.:
A milquetoast is a timid, meek, or unassertive person. The term comes from the name Caspar Milquetoast, the main character in H. T. Webster's newspaper cartoon "The Timid Soul,'' created in 1924. The character's name is most likely descended from much older insults like "milktoast'' and "milksop,'' both of which referred originally to a dish of bread soaked in milk, but later came to be used to describe a spiritless, weak person.
Bread soaked in milk is not a dish that has much in the way of crunch to it, and some synonyms of "milquetoast'' have a similar consistency.
"Invertebrate'' and "jellyfish'' both describe boneless things as well as people who lack strength or a figurative backbone. Another synonym is "sop,'' one sense of which refers to a foolish, spineless person. Like "milktoast'' and "milksop,'' the term originally referred to a piece of food, especially bread, that is dipped or seeped in a liquid before being eaten. This sense still persists in some dialects.
I am trying to find out where the phrase "sick as a dog'' comes from. Why do we use the word "dog''? Why isn't it "cat''? I look forward to hearing from you.
E. G., Belford, N.J.
Dear E. G.:
The earliest known usage of "sick as a dog'' dates back to 1705. It has been suggested that the phrase originated from the fact that dogs, being domesticated, are the most common animal we've seen vomiting besides ourselves. Our intimate relationships with dogs have also allowed for many other "dog'' phrases like "every dog has his day'' and the straightforward "you can't teach an old dog new tricks.'' British English has sometimes employed similar phrases involving other animals - "sick as a horse'' and, yes, "sick as a cat'' - but "sick as a dog'' is the only choice in American English.
A surprising variant that has become popular in Britain in the past several decades is "sick as a parrot,'' which typically describes someone who is very disappointed or disgusted rather than
physically sick. Parrots aren't especially known for being either sick or disappointed, and no one knows exactly how this phrase originated. (One theory traces it to a famous Monty Python sketch involving a dead parrot.) It was first recorded in 1979, and it has been popular in the years since, especially among British athletes describing their extreme disappointment over losing a match.
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02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
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