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Words Dec. 22

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 Scrambled yeggs:
“But blaming the Great Crime Wave of 1933-34 on the Depression ignores the fact that the years between 1925 and 1932 amounted to a golden age for American bank robbers, known in the press as ‘yeggmen,’ or ‘yeggs.’ … The spread of bank robberies was the result of technology outstripping the legal system. … A Frenchman may have been the first to use a car to escape a bank robbery, in 1915; one of the first Americans to try it was an aging Oklahoma yegg, Henry Starr, who used a Nash to rob a bank in Harrison, Arkansas, in 1921.”
I’m reluctant to take issue with Bryan Burrough, author of the highly entertaining “Public Enemies,” but I thought that a yegg was a safecracker, regardless of whether the safe was in a bank or not. Random House agrees in part. It says that yegg and yeggman are American slang for “1. a safecracker 2. an itinerant burglar 3. a thug.” Yeggman first showed up around 1900, RH says; yegg as an independent word became popular about 25 years later. The origin of yegg is obscure. RH says “the proposals that the word is derived from the German Jäger ‘hunter’ or that it is the surname of a well-known safecracker are both very dubious.”
Yegg was common in newspapers in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s or ’60s it had pretty well vanished. So had the Nash.

Highly, as in “highly entertaining,” is what grammarians call an intensifier. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage defines an intensifier as “an adjective or adverb (word or phrase) which amplifies the force of others, pushing them further up or down a notional scale. The most familiar example is very, as in a very good product — which is clearly better than a good product.” Some intensifiers are more intense than others. CGEU says that very is the kind of intensifier called a booster — it takes you part of the way. That is different from a maximizer such as absolutely, completely and utterly, which push the reference to the top of the scale. Utterly repulsive is as repulsive as one can get. Pat Robertson country.

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