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Enterprising Thoughts

  • Words Also Have a History

    Published on October 11, 2010.

    Here’s a puzzle to start your day:

    What do barbed wire, billiard parlor, cussword, dust storm, ex-convict, Wild West, forty-niner, hayride, press notice, and race prejudice all have in common?

    All these terms, among many others, were first created and first put in print by Mark Twain.

    My entire working career has been based on my ability to put words together in an interestingly enough fashion that would cause people to read and thus be informed or motivated to take action. So, it is natural that periodically I get interested in the history of words in common usage. Okay, I know that most people don’t care about where words come from, but some people are interested in stamps; I’m not. And, while I don’t want to hear about your stamp collection, (spoiler alert) I am going to impose my occasional hobby on you a bit right now.

    My editor yesterday scratched, “stet” next to a word on some copy I had written. All of us in the communications business know what that means, but few know that it is a Latin word for “let it stand.” Even fewer care, but I’m not stopping here.

    You probably read something about Pakistan every day, but what you don’t know is that it is probably the only country name that is really an acronym: P for Punjab. A for Afghani (a border tribe). K for Kashmir. S for Sind. Tan for Baluchistan.

    Oh, I’m just getting started. Journalists and public relations specialists, of course, know what a “lead” is: the first sentence of an article or news release. What they don’t know is how to spell the word! It is actually lede, but is pronounced like “…lead a horse to water…”

    Speaking of public relations, it wasn’t Mark Twain who coined the phrase, but Edward Bernays, a publicity writer, who adapted it in his wedding announcement to make his craft sound more professional. Bernays, of course, is credited with launching the specialty we have called PR since 1942.

    Robert Benchley once famously said in a movie, “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes and into a dry Martini.” Some say, Martini was named after a bartender of the same name. I prefer a Gibson, which is the same drink except with pearl onions instead of olives, because it has a more colorful history. Two versions in fact.

    Version 1: A sea captain who loved martinis but detested olives instructed his galley steward to use onions instead. That’s why a Gibson is traditionally served with three onions to represent the Captain’s stripes.

    When the drink is served with two onions (usually the larger white ones), Version 2 comes into play: The Gibson was created in New York in honor of the then famous Gibson Girls, and the two onions represent their abundant boobs.

    Now as you ponder which history you prefer, I’ll be telling my favorite bartender to make my Gibson “a little dirty,” so you know which version is my favorite!