The topic of the very first Wood on Words back in 2002 was the phrase “just deserts,” which many people mistakenly believe should be “just desserts.” It’s natural to think of sugary treats as a reward, but the phrase is about receiving something that’s deserved, which is where “deserts” comes from.
The topic of the very first Wood on Words back in 2002 was the phrase “just deserts,” which many people mistakenly believe should be “just desserts.”
It’s natural to think of sugary treats as a reward, but the phrase is about receiving something that’s deserved, which is where “deserts” comes from.
Additionally, just deserts can just as easily refer to punishment, which we usually don’t associate with sweetness.
Similar-sounding words cause plenty of confusion in English. Take, for example, “happy medium,” a pleasant place smack-dab in the middle. The goal of striving for a happy medium is to avoid extremes.
However, there is no happy “median.”
Another synonym for “medium” is “mean,” but the phrase “happy mean” would sound like a contradiction in terms.
“Golden mean,” however, a phrase translated from the Latin in a poem written by Horace some 2,000 years ago, is essentially the same concept as happy medium.
For a confounding trio, it’s hard to beat “jury-rigged,” “jerry-built” and “gerrymandered.”
The first two sometimes get merged into “jerry-rigged,” but there is no such animal.
The correct word to describe something created “for temporary or emergency use” is “jury-rigged.” It has nothing to do with a miscarriage of justice.
It’s a combination of old nautical terms, “jury” meaning “makeshift” and “rig” for “to fit (a ship, mast, etc.) with sails, shrouds, etc.”
While something that’s “jury-rigged” isn’t built to be long-lasting, it can still be of good quality. In contrast, “jerry-built” is applied to something poorly made with cheap materials.
Webster’s says “Jerry,” in this case, stems from “an old generalized epithet, especially of belittlement.”
As the change in spelling indicates, it’s an entirely different “Gerry” in “gerrymandering.” It’s a word for the practice of setting the boundaries of voting districts in a way that gives a distinct advantage to the political party drawing the lines.
It was coined in the early 19th century, when an especially strange-looking map was produced while Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, It was suggested that the result looked like a salamander, and “gerrymander” was born.
Gerry was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and served as vice president for two years under President James Madison, but gerrymandering is his claim to fame.
I’m sure I’ve covered some of the preceding before, but recently I encountered a phrase I’d never seen. In a criticism of the governor’s budget proposal, someone said, “Sooner or later, you have to pay the fiddler.”
The correct payee, of course, is the “piper.”
I always assumed the origin of the phrase was the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who rid a village of rats with his magical music. When the villagers reneged on paying him, he returned and piped all the children away.
In “The Dictionary of Cliches,” James Rogers writes that it comes from the custom of paying pipers for providing entertainment in taverns and at various ceremonies. He adds that in the 19th century, this practice also gave rise to “he who pays the piper
calls the tune.”
The story of Hamelin is about four centuries older than a passage cited by Rogers, but his explanation is more directly applicable. In some versions of the tale, the people of Hamelin never did pay the piper, but they paid dearly for not paying.
Barry Wood is a copy editor at the Register Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.