Q. Recently, I have been seeing the word "phat" just about everywhere! I know it's slang, but what does it mean, and where does it come from?
A. "Phat" generally means some-thing along the lines of either "cool" or "sexy." It does seem ubiquitous these days - we've spotted it in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. As with many other words whose origin is not immediately obvious, supposed acronymic etymologies for "phat" abound. One, for example, suggests that it derives from the phrase "pretty hips and thighs"; another suggestion, mentioned in a recent movie, traces it to "pretty, hot and tempting."
We think it far more likely, though, that "phat" is actually a new spelling of an older slang use of the word "fat." "Fat" has a long history of being used with the meaning "rich," and there is some evidence that this sense had broadened in recent decades to mean something along the lines of "good." The change from "f" to "ph" was probably a purposeful (and playful) misspelling.
Q. What is the origin of the word "jackpot"? I know it originally was a term used in card games, but how did it extend to slots and any large, unexpected reward?
A. "Jackpot," like many other words in the English language, began with one specific definition, but the use of the word has broadened over time. The "jack" of "jackpot" derives from the jacks found in a deck of cards. The term comes from a form of draw poker in which the stakes are allowed to accumulate in the "pot" until a player possesses a pair of jacks or better, at which point that player can open.
There is evidence of "jackpot" having been used in its original sense as early as the 1880s. The popularity of poker led eventually to the broader use of the word to mean "an impressive, often unexpected success or reward." The phrase "hit the jackpot" was first recorded in the 1940s.
Q. Can you explain how the word "measly" came to mean "meager" or "small"?
A. In its oldest sense, "measly" means "affected with measles." It's difficult to fathom how that medical meaning could have led to its more prevalent modern sense of "contemptibly small" or "meager." Since this latter sense developed well over a hundred years ago and no testimony about it survives, we can only speculate about the logic behind it.
One theorist has suggested that the newer sense developed because "there is something singularly unheroic and even miserable about a child with the measles." This explanation is appealingly simple, but it's not readily apparent why measles would be regarded as any more "unheroic" or "miserable" than other childhood illnesses such as chicken pox or scarlet fever.
A more likely theory holds that the sense of "measly" meaning "meager" has nothing to do with human measles, but instead relates to the use of "measly" to describe pigs infested with tapeworm. These animals tend to be malnourished and essentially worthless to the farmers who own them. Hence, the theory goes, people would make a natural connection between "measly" animals and something of little value.
For whatever reason, "measly" has been used metaphorically since at least 1864, when a writer of the time decried "the audacity to offer a measly hundred pounds or so for the discovery of a great crime."