Skip to main content
warren clements: word play

When the language finds an expression it likes, it holds on regardless of how the world changes. Many of the phrases we use today contain words that are no longer common or derive from concepts that are now unfamiliar.

Reader John Pickles wonders whether a term exists for "words that we still use but that no longer literally apply to what they are describing." He mentions references to "wood" in golf when all clubs are now made of metal. Hockey "sticks" are probably soon to be on the list, as most are no longer made of wood, he says. "Perhaps they'll change the name to 'club,' as that's what a lot of them are used as."

I encountered a similar archaism (there must be a better word) while reading about the travails of media czar Rupert Murdoch. Trying to stem public outrage over the hacking by hacks of a murdered girl's phone, Murdoch shut down one of his British newspapers, News of the World. Australia's Canberra Times was skeptical. "If this kind of behaviour is rampant in one part of the Murdoch empire," the newspaper wrote, "dollars to doughnuts it is rampant in other, if not all, parts."

U.S. bond fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach used the expression in March. "I would bet dollars to doughnuts," he said, "that the high gets taken out with the fear and uncertainty surrounding the solution to this budget problem."

"Dollars to doughnuts" has a lovely alliterative appeal, but it is based on an outdated financial calculation. When it originated around 1900, the idea of betting one of your dollars against another person's doughnut was ludicrous. The dollar was worth a lot of money then; the doughnut was worth as little as a nickel. "Dollars to doughnuts" meant you were so sure of your position that you'd make a bet that would pay you little if you won and cost you a great deal if you lost.

That was before the inflation of the past century, which gutted the dollar like a trout and gradually increased the price of a doughnut. The Tim Hortons across the street is selling doughnuts for 90 cents each, which means that "dollars to doughnuts" is close to an even bet, and the expression no longer makes sense.

Earlier I used the expression "hacking by hacks." One of those words has the whiff of an archaism to it.

It's not the hacking. To hack is to cut or chop. Computer and phone hackers figuratively slice their way through codes protecting somebody else's data. They may also be "hacking it," which means dealing with it, a variation on cutting it, which was short for cutting the mustard, which meant being proficient or impressive at something. Computer hackers, by this light, are very good at what they do.

No, the archaism has to do with the "hacks" - a dismissive term for journalists, in this case the ones who engaged in or arranged for the hacking of the phones. A hack is a person of no particular talent who takes whatever jobs are on offer.

The term derives from the 14th-century word "hackney" for a riding horse that was available to anyone for hire and may be most familiar from its job pulling passengers around town in hackney carriages. The name appears to have come from Hackney, an area once on the outskirts of London and now firmly within East London, where horses-for-hire had their pastures.

Granted, hackneys aren't entirely archaic - some still pull carriages for tourists - but a hackney carriage in London these days is more likely to describe a cab driven by a human.

By the 1700s, hackney had been shortened to hack for the horse and for humans in tedious jobs. By the 1800s, hack was a common term for a reporter. Whether hacks will be less common after the Murdoch debacle is anyone's guess.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct