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Babies, bathwater and archaic expressions

Many phrases owe their meaning to now-archaic words or concepts, such as pig in a poke, no-talent hack, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and, with the increasing use of digital movie cameras, left on the cutting-room floor.

Reader Tess LaPensée adds throwing the baby out with the bathwater, an expression that since 1853 in English (and much earlier in German) has meant to be so fixated on a course of action that one doesn't realize something valuable is being lost. "I truly hope that was never an accurate description," she says of the baby's fate, "but surely today most people don't understand the origin."

Indeed, the use of drains to remove water from tubs makes it less likely that the baby will vanish, although even that prospect appears in the traditional song Mother's Lament, revived in the 1960s by the rock group Cream. "Your baby has gone down the plughole./ Your baby has gone down the plug./ The poor little thing was so skinny and thin/ He should have been washed in a jug."

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LaPensée further wonders about the origin of the expression "dressed to the nines," which means dressed in grand style. "I never could figure out where that one came from."

Nobody knows, but many have speculated. Walter Wilson Skeat suggested that the phrase was originally "dressed to the eyes," which in Old English would have been spelled "to then eyne." It is easy to imagine that, based on the pronunciation, people would have assumed they were saying "to the nine" (singular), which is an early version of the phrase.

However, my predecessor in this Word Play space, Robertson Cochrane, pointed out a couple of flaws in that theory. First, the earliest known appearance of the phrase in English dates from the 1700s, centuries after the flowering of Old English. Second, folk etymology usually changes a phrase from something obscure to something familiar. A switch to nine(s) "makes no semantic sense."

Cochrane preferred Cobham Brewer's speculation that "to the nines" derived from numerology – the belief that nine is a mystical number, the Trinity times three, "often representing the 'nth' degree, or perfection."

In her book The Insect That Stole Butter?, Julia Cresswell notes the theory that "dressed (up) to the nines" derives from the name of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment, known as the Nines, which was famous for its smart dress. The catch is that the regiment didn't acquire this reputation until the mid-1800s, long after the birth of "to the nines."

In the 1945 book Crowther's Encyclopaedia of Phrases and Origins, Edwin Radford records the expression "dressed up to the knocker," which means dressed in the latest fashion. The phrase, he says, derives from the old habit of placing doorknockers high on doors so that "sporting hooligans" wouldn't wrench them off. It is unclear how raising a doorknocker would have deterred a determined hooligan, but perhaps Radford was referring to small, mischievous children in need of a box to stand on.

Elsewhere in Wordland, issue 489 of the electronic newsletter Word for a Day ( carries an amusing letter from Massachusetts reader Penny Randolph. The site had investigated the adjective catawampus (also catawampous), meaning askew. Randolph wrote that she had owned "a series of furry felines called Waully, Strophe, and Wampus – as in caterwaul, catastrophe, and catawampus. A hyper cat would have been Pult...." She won a T-shirt for her letter, which invites the question of whether Cat T would be spiteful and prone to malicious insinuations.

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Finally, teacher Donnie Friedman observes that, in quoting a malapropism by one of his students in last week's column, I muffed a crucial word. The student had written that "spanking young children may damage their self of steam" (not "sense of steam"). I trust the error has now been redressed to the nines.

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