SIR: I would like to know the origin of "hornswoggle." My dictionary doesn't help at all. - Tom S.
ANSWER: Dictionaries, generally, say the origin is unknown, but some other authorities disagree. John Ciardi, in "A Browser's Dictionary," suggests the origin is obvious if, instead of dividing the word into "horn" and "swaggle," you divide it into "horns" (a symbol of cuckoldry) and "waggle." He explains:"To place the hands on either side of one's head, knuckles to the temples and index fingers extended, and then to wave the head from side to side, is an ancient gesture of mocking a man as a cuckold." At root, he says, "Well, I'll be hornswoggled!" can only mean, "Well, I'll be cuckolded!"
SIR: When is it correct to use "gotten?" - Mary O'B.
ANSWER: As a past participle? Any time you want to. They don't do it in England, but why should we care about that?
For us, either "got" or "gotten" is perfectly all right for the past participle form of "get." And in America, "have gotten" is probably more popular than "have got."
Incidentally, you must use "gotten" if you wish to speak of ill-gotten gains.
SIR: Where did the word "boo" come from? - Ann S.
ANSWER: Probably from the first caveman who tried to scare somebody else in the cave. That's what is called an echoic or imitative word.
HELPFUL HINT of the week, from Diane N.:
"I read that a young lady was pointing `a water pistol wearing a gangster costume' at someone. I thought you'd like to know what well-dressed water pistols are wearing this year."
Send questions, comments, and good and bad examples to Lydel Sims, Watch Your Language, P.O. Box 161280, Memphis, TN 38186. If you quote a book, please give author, title and page number. Sorry, but questions can be answered only through this column.
- Lydel Sims of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis writes this column weekly.