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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 26, 1993|DICK RORABACK

EVEN-STEVEN AND FAIR AND SQUARE: More Stories Behind the Words by Morton S. Freeman (Plume: $11 ; 304 pp.) Why do you get a charley horse and not a bobby horse? Or a charley cow? Why isn't it "the nude truth?" By the same token, why didn't Rubens paint nakeds? Who named the kangaroo? (Actually, it was Capt. James Cook, who, on seeing one for the first time, asked what it was. "Kangaroo," said the natives, which is Aboriginal for "I don't know.") Finally, why is Morton Freeman so damned honest? About half of the entries in this happy if haphazard stroll down Etymology Lane are stamped, in effect, nobody knows . Why include them, then? Better, why not lie? A little humbug goes a long way.

Still, there are enough truffles here to keep a word wonk digging. The connections are the most fun: the link between lasagna and chamber pot , between haberdasher and the Icelandic word for "a sack of oats," between orchid and testicles (blame that one on Pliny the Elder). Digging even deeper, Freeman finds that a bride once promised not to love and obey but to be buxom . That the word for wife was hussy . That the archaic word for doctor was leech (maybe not that archaic).

Good stuff, this, stuff you won't find on the TV. As for a picture being worth a thousand words, Leo Rosten, who wrote the introduction, says, "Really? Then draw me a picture of the Gettysburg Address."

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