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Words, Dec. 20

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Introducing an old movie on the old movie channel the other night, the host told an old story. The story is untrue, although I suppose the host, semi-old, believed it.

The movie was about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg in 1865, and may or may not have been aware that Booth had just killed Abraham Lincoln. Regardless of what he knew and when he knew it, Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. The old story is that Mudd's surname is the source of the expression “his name is mud,” said of someone who's been discredited, and/or is in deep trouble.

But the authorities don't buy it. Mud was in use as a slang term for “a fool” by at least 1708, according to the Word Detective, and was commonly applied in the 19th century British Parliament to any member who lost an election or otherwise disgraced himself. John Ciardi backs up the tec, saying that name is mud was in use in 1820 for someone who'd been defeated or was in disgrace.

Dr. Mudd was pardoned after a few years in prison, allegedly having given heroic service during a yellow-fever epidemic. He retained a bad reputation.

n With the authorities closing in on him, an associate writes, “I have no skin on my teeth. Does this mean I can't escape? Where does this expression come from anyway?”

As we've noted before, everything comes from Shakespeare or the Bible. This one is biblical — Job 19:20, to be exact: “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” But Job probably didn't have toothskin either, so what did he mean? He'd been knocked around so much by this time that he may not have known what he was raving about himself. Some people think he was referring to the thin enamel covering of the teeth. We may need help from a theologian here. Or a dentist.

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