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Despite what the expression suggests, you don't need to drink liquor to be ginned up.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said earlier this year that if U.S. Senator Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, al-Qaeda would be overjoyed because of the Democrat's weak position on Iraq. Obama responded that if Howard were truly "ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq," he should commit another 20,000 Australians to the war.

This American use of "ginned up" supposes a state of being riled up and aroused, of being spurred to action. U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton used it the same way when she called up a right-wing talk show in Iowa. "I do have somebody [Bill Clinton]who also would like to say a word to you," she said, "because we think it'll drive the usual audience a bit wild. That'll get people really ginned up."

There is apparently a related meaning of conjuring up or fabricating. The New York Post wrote on July 10 that top aides to Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer " 'ginned up,' or aggressively solicited, two investigations" to embarrass a political opponent. A July 8 piece in the Lancaster New Era, in Pennsylvania, said that former ambassador Joe Wilson had "dared question the rationale for war in Iraq - a rationale we now know was wrong and perhaps ginned up."

It is true that "ginned up" has been used for a long time to mean drunk, as in overly refreshed with gin. The drink acquired its name from geneva, a liquor that was flavoured with juniper berries and in turn got its name from the Dutch genever and the Latin juniperus. To be ginned up in the 1920s also meant to be dressed up, fit to be seen in gin palaces. But the modern sense of ginned up has nothing to do with that.

It is also tempting to tie the expression to machinery. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the phrase "gin her up" as far back as 1887 in U.S. slang. The meaning was "to work things up, to make things 'hum,' to work hard." This gin was based not on the drink but on the ginning of cotton - the removal of seeds from the fluffy white stuff. Like the cotton gin, ginning up was a variation on "engine," a verb that by the mid-1800s meant to fit something up with steam engines. Engine, which entered English by way of the Old French engin, derives from the Latin ingenium, meaning cleverness or natural talent, which has led to such words as ingenious.

But ginned up in the sense of riled up or enlivened appears to have its origin in the phrase "ginger up." The spice ginger, whose name can be traced back to the Sanskrit word srngaveram - a combination of srngam (horn) and vera (body), since the ginger root is shaped like the branched horns of a stag - has been used to spice up, or ginger up, food and drink. Less genteelly, it has also been used by crooked trainers to make horses run faster. At the right moment, they would apply a dab of ginger to the animal's rear end, and the burning sensation would drive the creature to gallop wildly. One of those paths led to the British term "ginger group," the activist members of a party or movement who prod others to adopt new ways.

In a sense, then, the appropriate drink for those who are ginned up is not gin but ginger ale. Whether it will prompt them to invade Iraq or place calls to right-wing Iowa talk shows is unknowable.


Elsewhere in word play, reader Alastair Fairweather was intrigued, on reading an article about briefcases on wheels, to find that (as printed) "their train-like stature actually grants them a wider birth in crowded spaces." He comments: "If these people were toting roller briefcases at birth, what size was their expectant mother and how painful was the delivery?"

And Martin Heavisides takes aim at a phrase popping up in reviews: "overly simplistic." If you "can overdo something, you can underdo it as well - and I've never heard any critic complain (in so many words at least) that a movie was not simplistic enough."