Question: My dictionary says that the tabby cat gets its name from a district in Baghdad. Can you elaborate?
Answer: The word "tabby" does come from the name of a quarter in the city of Baghdad, now the capital of the modern Iraq. A silk cloth with a moire or wavy pattern was once made there. The name for the cloth in Arabic was an altered form of the name for the district. The name for the cloth passed into Medieval Latin as "attabi" and then into French as "tabis." The word entered English as "tabby" in the 17th century and referred only to the wavy-patterned cloth. Soon, however, people began to notice a resemblance between the cloth's pattern and the striped or mottled markings on the coats of their domestic cats. "Tabby" has been the standard name for this type of cat ever since.
Question: I recently used the phrase "in like Flynn" and my wife had never heard it before. While trying to explain what it means, I began to wonder where the phrase came from and how it was first used. Can you help?
Answer: The phrase "in like Flynn" is something of a mystery to word enthusiasts. No record remains of exactly how the expression was originally used. Although some have attributed the phrase to a development of rhyming slang, most commentators agree that it is rooted in the films of adventure star Errol Flynn.
The first report of the phrase came in 1945, when it was recorded as pilots' slang meaning something like "Everything is OK. . . . I am having no more trouble than Errol Flynn has in his cinematic feats." Later, the phrase was reported to be a poker term that described a player who calls his bets ahead of turn; in other words, a player so confident that he throws caution to the wind, as Errol Flynn did both on and off the screen.
More recently, the phrase "to be in like Flynn" has been used to mean "to seduce a woman quickly," presumably in tribute to the star's notorious sexual escapades. One interesting rumor has it that Errol Flynn originally wanted to title his autobiography "In Like Me," but was persuaded to use the more decorous title "My Wicked Wicked Ways." Overall, "in like Flynn" conveys the notion that someone has pulled off a daring, difficult, perhaps risky maneuver with little effort or inconvenience.
Question: I came across the clue "lemmings' fate" in a crossword puzzle recently. The answer turned out to be "noyade." It isn't in any of the dictionaries I looked at, and I'm curious to know what it means exactly (something to do with drowning, I assume).
Answer: You're right. "Noyade" is originally a French noun meaning "drowning," from the verb "noyer," "to drown." In English, "noyade" is not synonymous with simply "drowning," but has narrower connotations. Both "mass drowning" and "execution by drowning" are acceptable definitions.
The origins of "noyade" are not for the squeamish. During the French Revolution, one of the Republican leaders, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, became infamous from his employment of mass drowning as a means of execution. He found it the most efficient means of exterminating hundreds of prisoners who were being held at Nantes in 1793 after the counterrevolutionary uprising of the Vendeens was quashed. The doomed prisoners were loaded onto boats, which were then scuttled in the Loire. It was said that Carrier ordered pairs of men and women tied together for these noyades - a method the French referred to as "Republican marriages."
Perhaps as a result, speakers of English felt that execution by drowning, like execution by guillotine, was characteristically French; "noyade" entered our vocabulary in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
With its origins in this conscious, aggressive form of mass drowning, English "noyade" has never taken on any broader meaning, as, for example, to refer to the drowning of large populations by natural causes; nor do we know of its use encompassing the kind of accidental drowning fate which befalls some lemmings during migration. In 1819 John Adams referred to "the noyade of the tea in Boston harbor," but today the word is rarely used in any context other than in specific references to the noyades of Nantes.