Despite being a physicist and mathematician (or, perhaps as a result of it), I have always been fascinated by the origins of certain words and phrases. One of my favorites is the origin of that most ubiquitous of affirmations, ‘OK’ (or okay). Technically the correct version is the former, but the latter has become accepted in practice. The reason the former is correct is due to its possible origin in a campaign slogan for former US President Martin Van Buren (1836-1840). Van Buren was an old New Yorker (witness his Dutch name) being from Kinderhook, a small town on the Hudson a bit north of New York City. While there is some evidence that a similar sounding term pre-dated Van Buren’s reelection attempt in 1840, there is no doubt that when his supporters began referring to him as ‘Old Kinderhook’ or ‘OK,’ the term gained a foothold in the English lexicon.
More recently (as in just today) I learned the origin of the phrase ‘devil to pay’ as in ‘There will be the devil to pay if you do that!’ After a few years hiatus, I have finally moved on to the fourth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, The Mauritius Command, certainly as good as the previous three. In any case, as Captain Aubrey explains to Dr. Maturin at one point, the devil ‘is the seam between the deck-planking and the timbers, and we call it the devil, because it is the devil for the caulkers to come at: in full we say, the devil to pay and no pitch be hot; and what we mean is, that there is something hell-fire difficult to be done – must be done – and nothing to do it with. It is a figure.’
But, perhaps my absolute favorite, is the origin of the word ‘nerd.’ The first written instance of the word occurred in one of my children’s favorite (and my wife’s least favorite) books, Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo, written in 1950. In describing some of the fanciful creatures he wanted to bring to the zoo, the narrator Gerald McGrew, adds ‘And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo/A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!’ The creature depicted by the good doctor looked more like a crotchety old Mainer than today’s prototypical nerd and it is likely that the present meaning was taken from another word. Nonetheless, there is no question that Dr. Seuss is responsible for its first appearance in print. Since I am both a sometimes crotchety fellow residing in Maine (can’t say I’m a Mainer since, like Van Buren, I’m really an old New Yorkers and true Mainers would object) as well as a physicist and mathematician, I’m a nerd, whether you take Dr. Seuss’ implied meaning or the presently accepted one – and, either way, I’m proud of it!