Q. My question involves the word "deceased." I've heard it used as a verb, as in "He deceased last year" and "She deceased before he did." Is this an attempt to avoid the word "died?" Is it correct?
A. The answer to both your questions is yes, but not without some qualifications. The verb "to decease" meaning "to die" or, perhaps more aptly, "to pass away," seems to have enjoyed some currency several hundred years ago. It was used in the manner you indicate by such noted authors as 16th-century English statesman (Saint) Thomas More in his "History of King Richard the Third."
But use of "decease" as a verb today appears to be restricted primarily to legal documents, and even among lawyers its popularity is not widespread. Most people are likely to find it as peculiar as you do. Much more familiar is the use of "deceased" as an adjective, as in "her recently deceased uncle," and as a noun preceded by "the," referring - again, most often in legal contexts - to a person who has died, as in "He claims to be the rightful heir of the deceased."
Q. Every once in a while - though not so much now as years ago - I hear the slang expression "take a powder," meaning leave. What does powder have to do with going away?
A. There has been a variety of speculation surrounding the origin of this expression. Some associate this use of the word "powder" with gunpowder, an explosive, propelling substance. More likely is the theory that this use of "powder" originated with the verb "powder," current since the 17th century, which means "to rush out impetuously," though this merely moves the mystery back in time, as the origin of the verb is itself uncertain. It is interesting to note, in any case, that the actual expression "take a powder" didn't appear on the scene until around 1934. What's more, because the expression appears in novels and films that depict the activities of underworld figures, it tends to convey an air of illegality or underhandedness.
Although no evidence exists to support the story, it has been suggested that the expression originated as part of the speech of a group of criminals who liked to play practical jokes on saloon patrons.
Supposedly, these seedy characters would spike an unsuspecting person's drink with a laxative known as Seidlitz powder and lock the bathroom door. The customer would beat a hasty retreat out of the saloon, much to the amusement of the pranksters, who referred to this desperate escape as "taking a powder." This theory is probably nothing more than a bit of imaginative folklore.
Q. My father frequently used the word "bully" as a compliment and when he was pleased. How long has this sense of the word been around?
A. "Bully" as an adjective meaning "excellent" or "first-rate" dates back to the late 17th century. At that time, it was applied exclusively to people, as in, "The bully fellows are my friends." This use derives from the oldest senses of the noun "bully," which, oddly enough, originally meant "sweetheart" or "a fine chap" (the word is thought to come ultimately from Dutch "boel," meaning "lover").
The popularity of "bully" as an adjective boomed in the late 19th century. Its meaning didn't change, but it was no longer applied only to people - things and situations could be "bully" also, as in a "bully party" or a "bully hunting dog." At the same time, "bully" became popular as an interjection: "Bully for you!"
The one person most closely associated with "bully" was Teddy Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 until 1909. Roosevelt called the presidency a "bully pulpit," meaning an excellent public forum for expressing his views. Other expressions popularized (but not necessarily originated) by Roosevelt include "muckraker" (a journalist who tried to expose the misconduct of people in prominent positions), "pussyfoot" (to move stealthily, or to refrain from committing oneself), and the maxim "speak softly and carry a big stick."