Q How did “lazy Susan” come to be used for the rotating tray? – M. M., Coral Springs, Fla.

A: “Lazy Susan” made its first written appearance in a Vanity Fair advertisement for a “Revolving Server or Lazy Susan” in 1917. The device itself predates the name “lazy Susan,” as many antique shoppers can tell you: These revolving serving trays have been around since the 1700s, where they were often tiered and called “dumbwaiters.” Dumbwaiters were so called because they quietly (hence “dumb”) took the place of waiters in the dining room. (The term “dumbwaiter,” of course, now usually refers to a small elevator used to carry food and dishes from one level in a building to another.)

What caused the name change from “dumbwaiter” to “lazy Susan”? A popular theory suggests that servants were often named Susan, so that “Susan” came to be almost a synonym for “servant,” and the “lazy Susan” was essentially functioning as a servant who never had to go anywhere (hence “lazy”). Another theory suggests that the name derives from a specific inept servant named Susan. Interesting as those stories are, there is no hard evidence to support either of them. The era of servants in most homes had ended long before the term “lazy Susan” came into use, and, as you might expect, there is no evidence that most female servants were named Susan.

It is more than likely that “lazy Susan” was styled on previous combinations in English that use “Susan” (“black-eyed Susan” being the most common). There are many such words in English that use names in a generic way: “peeping Tom,” “jim-dandy,” and “Jolly Roger” are just a few. It is also possible that the combination of the “z” sound in “lazy” and the initial “s” sound of “Susan” appealed to the manufacturer of the lazy Susan, and in a brilliant marketing move, “lazy Susan” was born.

Q Whence originated the following: “in harm’s way”? – B.R., Portsmouth, N.H.

A: “In harm’s way,” meaning “in a dangerous place or situation,” is particularly applied to members of the armed services in war or in threat of war.

The phrase comes from America’s Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones. In a letter dated Nov. 16, 1778, he wrote, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.” He was in France at the time, seeking a ship, and the French offered him several vessels that had been captured from the British. He finally took the ship which he named “Bonhomme Richard.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.
Q My grandmother always used the word “woolgathering” as synonym for “idle daydreaming.” This has always struck me as a curious expression. Do you know its origin? – T.J., Beverly, Mass.

A: “Woolgathering” once literally referred to the act of gathering bits of wool that had been shed from sheep in tufts and found caught on bushes and fences. As you might imagine, woolgathering was not the most profitable of enterprises; its practitioners must have seemed to wander aimlessly, gaining little for their efforts. In the mid-16th century, “woolgathering” began to appear in figurative phrases such as “my wits ( or my mind) went a-woolgathering” – in other words, “my mind went wandering aimlessly.” From there, it wasn’t long before the word “woolgathering” itself had come to mean “foolish or purposeless mind-wandering” or “the act of indulging in idle daydreams.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.


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