Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2004 / 5 Adar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
Everyone knows that a charley horse is a painful muscular ailment. But how did the muscular problem get its name?
L.A., North Arlington, N.J.
For years, the origin of this term has been awash in a sea of controversy. Many investigators have delved into the past to try to uncover the identity of "Charley'' in "charley horse,'' only to come up empty. Nevertheless, several explanations have been proposed, most of which involve the sport of baseball.
One popular theory is that the name for a strained leg muscle was inspired by old-time baseball pitcher Charley Esper, who limped like a lame horse. Unfortunately this explanation is shot down by the fact that Esper came into the game several years after the 1888 publication of the work containing the earliest known use of the term.
A similar theory holds that "Charley'' was not a person at all but a horse who in the 1880s pulled a roller to smooth the dirt on the baseball infield. Charley Horse, as he was named by the players, walked with a severe limp. Players with stiff leg muscles limped the same way and were dubbed "Charley Horse'' after their equine friend.
Perhaps closest to the truth is the more general explanation that identifies "Charley Horse'' as a name once typically given to workhorses who were old and lame. Baseball players with knotted muscles were nicknamed "Charley Horse'' because they limped like a lame horse. Eventually, the term came to denote the ailment itself.
In recipes and cooking articles I've noticed the use of the word "foolproof'' on several occasions. Will you define the word, please? If possible, also give the origins and explain how long it has been in use.
O.T., McAllen, Texas
"Foolproof'' is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, as "so simple, plain, or reliable as to leave no opportunity for error, misuse, or failure.'' Thus a "foolproof'' recipe is not merely simple to follow; there's usually some "proof'' against one of the pitfalls that can typically cause it to fail. Make "Foolproof Fudge'' and you get the proper fudge-like consistency without a candy thermometer or the ability to otherwise determine when the gooey confection has reached that elusive "soft-ball stage.'' In other words, it's "no-fail fudge.''
The definition says "error, misuse or failure,'' which indicates how "foolproof'' can have different connotations. When it first appeared in the very early 1900s the focus was on "fool.''
Here's the definition in a 1909 dictionary, when the word was still just a babe: "proof even against the ignorant or meddlesome handling of fools; secure against accidents even in the hands of a stupid person; said of machinery.'' It may have been first used of those new-fangled machines, automobiles. In any case, we see comments like this, from a British newspaper writer in 1904: "The car is so 'simple' that my daughters drive it - 'fool-proof' the Americans call it.''
That emphasis on the person's degree of control shifted subtly sometime in the first half of the 20th century, with more focus on the infallibility of a method that "works every time,'' as in this example from our files, "The only foolproof way to buy skis is to test them first.''
I have occasionally seen the term "cracker-barrel'' applied as an adjective meaning "folksy.'' Why is this? Does it have something to do with an actual barrel of crackers?
S.S., Union City, N.J.
In the days before pre-packaged food and huge supermarkets, a trip to the nearest store was more than just an errand; it was also a chance to socialize and keep up with goings-on. The country store of yesteryear was the focal point of many rural communities, and the heart of the country store was the cracker barrel. Literally a barrel containing crackers, the cracker barrel was the spot where folks would gather to chat about weather and politics, or to swap stories, jokes, and gossip.
Today, cracker barrels are largely a thing of the past, but the flavor of those friendly exchanges lives on in the adjective "cracker-barrel,'' which means "suggestive of the friendly homespun character of a country store.''
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