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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Finding Answers to Reference Questions

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 20, 2005

The phone call to the library can be to settle an argument, to satisfy curiosity, or to relieve the mind of someone who "just wondered." The question involves a specific word, or a phrase of words, and the person wonders what the origin is for the word or phrase. These questions are common to all libraries, and are as interesting to the librarian as the answer is to the questioner.

Making these reference questions even more interesting is the fact that a clear, concise answer can often not be found. Such is true for the term, "O.K." There are several ideas for where the term O.K. developed. Some sources say that President Andrew Jackson used O.K. as an abbreviation for "Oll Korrect. Others say it was a misreading of the initials O.R. for "Order Recorded." Others think it is an erroneous rendering of the Choctaw word, "okeh" meaning "it is so." The definitive research for O.K. appeared in the July 19, 1941 issue of "Saturday Review" magazine in an eight-page article by Allen Walker Read.

His research traced the origin back to 1840 when it appeared in a New York newspaper, referring to a political organization supporting President Martin Van Buren called themselves the "Democratic O.K. Club." The O.K. in their name related to Van Buren's hometown of Kinderhook, New York in the Hudson River Valley, with the candidate being called "Old Kinderhook. At a political rally, the crowd began shouting "O.K." and this the term was coined.

The same type of story accompanies the "monkey wrench," a common tool whose name implies that something has been disrupted. One line of research finds the term monkey wrench referring to a British blacksmith named Charles Moncke who devised the wrench that can open and close for size. It was called "Moncke's wrench."

Another line of research credits the firm of Bemis & Call of Springfield, Mass. For inventing the movable jaw for a wrench based on an employee of the firm named Monk. In 1856, the name around the shop for the new tool was "Monk's wrench." Neither can be confirmed as the real source of the Monkey wrench.

How about that wild weed that appears in the spring called the "dandelion?" Before the 16th Century, the British called it "lion's tooth," but began using the French word for the weed, "Dent de Lion." An Englishman wasn't likely to use a French word and pronounce it like the folks of France would say it, so it evolved into "dandelion."

In this tax season, we hear the word "loophole" used often. That term came from the Middle Ages when a "loop" was a narrow window on a castle or fortification through which an archer could shoot at the enemy, but its narrowness and sloped sides made it hard for the enemy to fire back.

The loop also allowed light and air to penetrate fortifications, and served as a means of escape if needed, so the term "loophole" rather than "loop window" became common.

A "bigwig" is today a person of importance, with a somewhat negative tone that the importance may be self-applied by the person in question. The term dates back to about 1650 when the royalty of Europe was wearing wigs for style and to designate important people. By 1700, wigs were growing larger covering the shoulders and back, and the status of a man was judged by how imposing his wig was, that he wore.

Imagine the new words that are being coined for the English Language today with the Internet and e-mail. Will they appear in the new Oxford English Dictionary of 2050?