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April 13, 2018  |  Friday words #116, 2018-04-13  |  1013 hit(s)

Earlier this month I made a long-delayed upgrade to Office 365. My life hasn’t yet been transformed, but I guess I could give it a few more days.

For this week, I have another one of those terms that you didn’t realize you needed, but you can immediately appreciate: the cobra effect. This refers to an attempted solution for a problem where the solution not only doesn’t work, it makes the problem worse. And it comes from an actual effect with actual cobras. Or so goes the story.

Per the article where I learned this term, during British colonial times, the city of Delhi had a problem with too many cobras. (How many is too many? As far as I’m concerned, anything more than zero cobras is too many.) So they offered a bounty for cobra skins. This worked, in that they got a lot of skins and paid a lot of bounties. But it didn’t solve the problem; the locals, responding to principles generally taught in Economics 101, started breeding cobras, because hey, money. The cobra population did not diminish.

But wait, there’s more. When the British realized that their bounty program wasn’t working, they (reasonably) decided to stop paying a bounty. The locals were now stuck with a bunch of cobras that weren’t worth anything. They let them all go. In the end, Delhi had even more cobras than when the whole program began.

The incident gave us a name for the phenomenon, via German: Der Kobra-Effekt was the name of a book written in 2001 by a German economist about this phenomenon of unforeseen consequences, or blowback. There’s some debate about whether the cobra incident actually occurred. Whatever, that’s the name now. There are of course numerous additional examples; there was a similar incident with a rat bounty in Hanoi. And at a larger scale, Prohibition in the US not only didn’t prevent people from drinking alcohol, it led to a vast expansion of organized crime. One might also consider the historical effects of protective tariffs, like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Does one ever suspect that one has unleashed an instance of the cobra effect? Discuss.

My etymological investigations today involve three types of butts, and was once again inspired by conversation at work with Colleague Jay. We started with scuttlebutt, in the sense of gossip. Where could such a strange word have come from? And Colleague Jay wondered whether it had any relationship to Boston butt, a cut of pork. (If you’re counting, that’s two types of butts; bear with me.)

To answer Jay’s question, no: the butt in scuttlebutt is not the butt in Boston butt. The meat butt is the same as the “butts-in-seats” butt, which is to say, buttocks. In meatpacking, that applies to cuts made from those regions. Fun citation out of the OED from a 15th-century cookbook: “Tak Buttes of pork and smyt them to peces.” This sense of butt goes back to an old Germanic word that basically means the thick end of a thing. The word manifests in other languages, for example, as the word for a stump.

Anyway, this is not the butt of scuttlebutt. That particular butt refers to a container—a large barrel (120 gallons, or 2 hogsheads). In the days of sail, ships had scuttlebutts of water, where scuttle or scuttled meant that the butt had a hole cut in it. (When you want to scuttle a ship, you put a hole below its waterline.) The “barrel” sense of butt came into English from (where else?) French, and goes back to a Latin word buttis. Hey, guess what, that makes it a cousin of the word bottle.

The word scuttlebutt came to mean gossip because sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and talk. As Douglas Harper observes, this makes scuttlebutt an old version of water-cooler talk.

So there you have three versions of butt: meat from the thick end; a large barrel; and, as a bonus, scuttlebutt as gossip. And those are just the ones we’re interested in today; the OED lists 14 definitions for butt as a noun, and 3 as a verb. You gotta love these rich words.

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