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No, seriously -- don't tell me!

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April July 29, 2008 03:23 PM

This week's Word column on language lies was all wrapped up on Friday, but the very next day, along came some more bad examples -- this time on NPR’s weekly quiz show, "Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me."

Guest host Adam Felber asked contestant Peter Bogdanovich three multiple-choice questions about word derivations, taken from a book by Karlen Evins called "I Didn’t Know That." Where does nag come from? Answer: It began as a Scandinavian word to describe the sound of rats gnawing annoyingly in the thatched roofs of dwellings.

Bzzzzzzzz! Well, "Scandinavian" is probably right. But the original word, nagga -- which meant "grumble" or "rub" in Old Icelandic -- has no special connection with the sounds of vermin in the thatch, so far as I could find out. (And doesn’t it seem unlikely that the sound of little teeth gnawing would keep a hard-working Viking family awake at night?)

Here’s what Take Our Word For It says about nag:

It is thought to come from a Scandinavian source, for Norwegian and Swedish have nagga "to gnaw, bite, nibble; to irritate." The English and Scandinavian words go back to the Indo-European root *ghen- "to gnaw." . . . Thus, a "nagging pain" is one which seems to gnaw at one and it is from this sense that the modern verb to nag derives.

Maybe the thatched-roof detail was borrowed from "Life in the 1500’s," the online word-origins hoax (which claims that "raining cats and dogs" derives from the animals’ thatched-roof refuge).

The next question was on "Charley horse," and the "answer" was that the term comes from a real horse who once worked (gallantly limping) at the Chicago White Sox ballpark. This Charley allegedly lent his name first to limping players, then to the condition causing the limp.

But the book that supplied this legend gives the date of Charley's service as the 1890s. Word sleuths have found several citations for charley horse from the preceding decade, and none of them mention ol’ Charley. The earliest citation, posted in 2005 at LinguistList, came from Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, who also wrote the “On Language” column in Sunday’s New York Times.

And though it mentions Chicago, it comes from the Boston Globe, in July 1886.

Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of "Charlie horse" to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which base ball players are especially liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls, as well as the frequent slides in base running. Pfetlor, Anson and Kelly are so badly troubled with "Charley horse" there are times they can scarcely walk.

How can you ace a quiz when two of the three official answers aren't right? Peter Bogdanovich, you deserve a do-over.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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