Jewish World Review March 9, 2004 / 16 Adar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
I'm a little confused about the word/name ``Mahatma.'' I always thought ``Mahatma'' was Gandhi's first name, but someone told me recently that I've got it all wrong. My friend says ``Mahatma'' is just a word that means ``great man'' or something like that. Which one of us is right?
_V. C., Amarillo, Texas
Dear V. C.:
Your friend wins this debate, but don't feel bad. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the great figure who led India to independence in 1947 with his widely renowned policy of nonviolent protest, is so often referred to ``Mahatma Gandhi,'' or simply ``the Mahatma,'' that it's easy to see how you could mistake ``Mahatma'' for a given name. In truth, however, ``Mahatma'' is not so much a name as it is a respectful title. It derives from an old Sanskrit word, ``mahatman,'' meaning literally ``great-souled.'' The title was reportedly first conferred on Gandhi by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1915.
It was readily embraced by Gandhi's many admirers, but interestingly enough, not by Ghandi himself.
According to spiritual leader and author Paramhansa Yogananda, Ghandi never referred to himself as ``Mahatma,'' and in fact, ``made some humble, and witty, protests about the title.''
In contemporary English, ``mahatma'' is also sometimes employed as a general, uncapitalized noun referring to any great or prestigious man or woman, especially someone who has distinguished himself or herself in a particular field of endeavor. An example of this extended use in our files describes a leading businessman as ``mahatma of finance.''
I didn't grow up on a farm, but it seems that wire used to bale hay would be strong and durable.
Why then do we use ``haywire'' to refer to something that has broken?
_D.A., Duluth, Minn.
Dear D. A.:
You're right, the wire used for baling hay is strong, and it's also versatile. It comes in a variety of gauges and types, and it is often used in makeshift repairs. This hurried and temporary use of baling, or hay, wire is what gave rise to the adjective ``haywire.'' When the adjective was first used, it was primarily in the phrase ``haywire outfit,'' which denoted originally a poorly equiped group of loggers and then anything that was flimsy or patched together.
This led to a ``hastily patched-up'' sense, which in turn gave us the more commonly used meaning, ``broken-down, out of order'' (as in ``The radio went haywire''). The leap from machine to human beings was a short one, and we now use ``haywire'' to refer to things that don't work properly or people who have lost control.
Could you please explain the origin of the expression, ``close, but no cigar''?
_R.C., Saxton's River, Vt.
``Close, but no cigar,'' meaning ``almost, but not quite,'' gained popularity in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. It originated at fairs and carnivals, where it was the cry of the carnies beating another poor sucker out of his money.
Just as they do today, fairs in the early 1900s often included contests of strength, marksmanship, or dexterity, usually aimed particularly to entice young men. A winner would take home not a stuffed animal, the common prize today, but a cigar. The operators naturally wanted to tip the odds in their favor, so the games were often rigged to put success just out of the contestant's reach, prompting repeated attempts.
More often than not, however, the contestant would be rewarded with no more than the carny's call, ``Close, but no cigar.'' It has now settled into the language as a sort of catchphrase used in varying contexts far removed from the world of the midway.
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03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
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