Welcome to another newsletter from A Way with Words!
This past weekend we aired the episode in which we talked about "grouch bag," the pronunciation of "patronize," the origin of "dead heat," and the use of the German word "uber" in American English. Listen here:
We've also posted our latest minicast, in which a caller wonders whether "indice" is really okay as a singular form of "indices." Or should it always be "index"? Find out:
Gary wrote us last week to ask how "pokey" came to be used as a slang term for "prison."
"Pokey" meaning "prison" or "jail" dates to at least as early as 1919. It's not 100% certain, but it is believed that this mean of "pokey" comes from two other words.
One is the adjective "poky," of which one meaning is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "of a room, building, etc.: small in size or accommodation; cramped, confined; (also occasionally) mean, shabby."
That word in turn, probably came after "pogey," which means "a hostel for the needy or disabled; a poorhouse; a local relief center or welfare office" and dates back to 1891. In Canada, this same word usually refers to unemployment insurance benefits.
So, a jail might jokingly be thought of as a place where you would go to receive government largesse, since you are usually getting your room and board paid while you are a guest of the state in your confining, shabby cell.
Chari wrote to ask about the word "natant," which means "swimming or floating." She came across it for the first time and wanted to know more.
Use in English dates to the 18th century and comes from Latin "natant" which means "swimming," in turn from the verb "natare" 'to swim.' It's pretty rare, though, and used mostly in science. One might write: "Only certain substances seem to be capable of indefinite suspension in water, of assuming what is called the natant condition."
Theresa wrote to say that a certain television host never fails to follow up an announcement about a celebrity's birthday with, "What's in your wallet?" Theresa wants to know where that comes from.
From here, it looks like it's from a Capital One advertising campaign that's been running for at least a couple of years. We suppose it could have become a kind of catchphrase by now, like "Can you hear me now?" but it's also possible that Capital One is a sponsor of the television show Theresa is watching (Entertainment Tonight?) and the host is paid to say it.
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Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett