Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 5, 2008

Emily Post, Edmund Hoyle, Albert Hollander and others roll snake eyes

The other day I was thinking how often we use words or expressions to convey thoughts while not knowing their origins.

When the high school choir had its concert in October, one of the numbers was called "A Cappella Overtures." I knew that "a cappella" meant singing without instrumental accompaniment, but what was the story behind the word? I looked it up and discovered it comes from Italy and means "in chapel style." Centuries ago, religious music composed for use in chapels was usually for voices only since chapels were so small they had no organs.

Another example arose while listening to a reporter on National Public Radio who remarked how Missouri had lost its bellwether status. Voters in that state had very consistently in the past voted for the person who would become president. But in this year's race, the state went for John McCain - the man who lost the national election.

So what in the world is a bellwether?

The reporter later explained that a wether is a male sheep, more specifically a castrated one, that leads the herd wearing a bell.

The recent high school performances of "Guys and Dolls" not only included many words with unusual origins, but some whose meanings have been lost to most people since the play was first performed in 1950. One we still recognize is "craps," a gambling game with two dice. Husband Art, despite knowing how to play it, was no help on the origin of the word. Several Internet sites said the beginning was a matter of conjecture among historians. It is generally believed the game evolved from another claimed to be invented by Englishman Sir William of Tyre and his knights during the Crusades around 1125 A.D. It was then called Hazard, but even the source for that name is in doubt. Some say it was derived from a castle named Hazarth to which Sir William and his crusaders had laid siege, but other scholars believe it originated from an Arabic dice game "Al Zar" that had migrated to Europe before the 12th century.

The game is believed to have been brought to America by early British settlers. The lowest number that can be rolled is a single spot on each die. It is a losing roll and American players call it "snake eyes." The French learned the game from the British and French sailors played it on the wharves of New Orleans in the early 19th century. The French apparently chose a different animal's eyes to associate with the losing roll and called out "crabs" when it appeared. To Americans, it sounded like "craps" and the name stuck.

The term "Hollanderize" was used in "Guys and Dolls" and is an example of a word whose meaning is now lost. The dancers sing, "Take back your mink to from whence it came. And tell them to Hollanderize it for some other dame!" Art checked that one out and discovered that Seymour Kass, in a 1992 letter to the editor of the New York Times, explained that when he worked as a furrier for his father in the 1940s and 1950s, Hollanderize meant to dye the cheaper and widely-worn muskrat coats to give them the look of mink. The word came from the Albert Hollander & Son company on West 29th Street.

At another juncture in the play, when one character objects to something as not good etiquette, Harry the Horse says, "Show me where it says that in Emily Post." That line refers to the woman of the same name who hosted radio shows and wrote a newspaper column beginning in the 1930s about which social actions were in good taste and which ones weren't.

Sky also says anyone who "does not conduct himself according to Hoyle" will need to report to him. Art knew part of the story behind this phrase. Edmund Hoyle lived in the 17th Century and was noted for recording the rules of games, particularly card games. Art said he learned how to play gin rummy by reading the "Book of Hoyle" when he was young.

Nathan's girlfriend Adelaide, in a song where she rejects unwanted advances, sang, "I'm not flat as all that." Boy, Art must be old because he knew this one too. Someone who is low on money or had no money was once referred to as being flat broke or just flat.

So now I wonder what words we use regularly today that our grandchildren will have no idea where they came from or may not even use. Times change and so does our vocabulary.

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