Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dead on

When I was playing around with vocabulary websites for the previous post, I stumbled onto The Word Detective by Evan Morris, who also produces My Favorite Word.

On his About page, Morris explains that his father was Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap and also wrote a syndicated newspaper column called Words, Wit and Wisdom, answering readers’ questions about word origins and language usage. The Word Detective, based on Morris' own syndicated column, continues that tradition with scholarly yet comical results.

Excerpts from one entry will give you a sense of what I mean:
Dead to rights

Dear Word Detective: All the media and late-night jokesters are having a field day with the latest OJ escapade, of course. Several times I’ve heard or seen the phrase “this time they’ve got him dead to rights,” and I think we all understand what it means.... [Just] when and where did it come from? — Ken in Houston.

“Dead to rights” is indeed an odd expression, dating at least to the mid-19th century, when it was first collected in a glossary of underworld slang (“Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon,” by George Matsell, 1859).

The first part of the phrase, “dead,” is a slang use of the word to mean “absolutely, without doubt.” This use is more commonly heard in the UK, where it dates back to the 16th century, than in the US. “Dead” meaning “certainly” is based on the earlier use of “dead” to mean, quite logically, “with stillness suggestive of death, absolutely motionless,” a sense we still use when we say someone is “dead asleep.” The “absolutely, without doubt” sense is also found in “dead broke” and “dead certain.”

The “to rights” part of the phrase is a bit more complicated. “To rights” has been used since the 14th century to mean “in a proper manner,” or, later, “in proper condition or order,” a sense we also use in phrases such as “to set to rights,” meaning “to make a situation correct and orderly” (“Employed all the afternoon in my chamber, setting things and papers to rights,” Samuel Pepys, 1662).

In the phrase “caught dead to rights,” the connotation is that every formality required by the law has been satisfied, and that the apprehension is what crooks in the UK used to call a “fair cop,” a clean and justifiable arrest. (“Cop,” from the Latin “capere,” to seize, has long been used as slang for “to grab” as well as slang for a police officer.)

Of course, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cop and the lips of the jury, so we shall see. Wake me when it’s over.
See what I mean?

Full of real info, but it's a stitch to read.

Trivia bonus: Who can explain the meaning and origin of "it's a stitch"? Post a Comment.

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