Sir: I'm just itchin' to know the origin of "starting from scratch." Anything to do with a young dermatologist?
Answer: That's discouraging. Nothing I can say would live up to the question, and every itchy skin-doctor will applaud you. And you probably know already that "starting from scratch" really began with a line scratched on the race track for a horse or other competitor to stand at the beginning of the race, while others with handicaps start farther along the track to get a "head start." Knew that, didn't you? So no doubt you also know that starting from scratch means starting anything without any particular advantage. No wonder you wouldn't sign your name.
Sir: What do dis word "dissing" mean and where do it come from?
Answer: Oh, it's going to be that kind of day, is it? All right, "dis" means to find fault with, to criticize, to treat with contempt or disrespect - in short, to insult one way or another. The word appeared only about 10 years ago, and got to be popular right away. "Dis" is believed to be short for disrespect, but if you have a better idea, try dat.
Sir: I cannot help but wince at the ubiquitous use of the phrase "exactly the same." How can something be more same than the same?
- Gregg D.
Answer: Exactly. On the other hand, ours remains a faltering language and many of us still speak of something "almost the same" or "exactly the same," and no real harm done. On the other hand, anyone who can use "ubiquitous" correctly doesn't need it. I congratulate you, sir.
Sir: As a child, I spent many summers with my grandparents in Maine. Whenever a piece of equipment was broken beyond repair, Grandpa would refer to it as being "all stove up." I have never heard this expression used anywhere else, have you?
Answer: Oh, sure, and Maine doesn't have a monopoly on it. That particular "stove" is the past or past participle of "stave," and to be stove in or up means to be staved in, or smashed. Your Grandpa knew just what he was talking about. A stave is . . . but you probably know that already, don't you?
BORER OF THE WEEK, reported by B.K.:
"My newspaper told me that `Bores attack the trunk and limbs of flowering dogwoods.' I knew bores are irritating, but I didn't know they are dangerous."