Warren Clements: Word Play

Feeding love by the spoonful

Special to The Globe and Mail

Love, crush, mash, spoon (Thinkstock)

A radio report last week said Prince Harry would fly to Arizona to receive advanced training on Apache helicopters. His visit, the report continued, would be welcome news for Arizona women who were “crushing on” the prince.

To crush on somebody, a variation on the older phrase “to have a crush on,” has been around since at least 1995, when the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina defined the verb crush as “to be totally gaga over a girl or guy. Usage: ‘Have you seen the way Wanda looks at that new guy in algebra class? She is totally crushing on him.’”

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Why a crush? The most logical explanation is that someone smitten with another longs to embrace that person and squeeze as hard as passion permits. There is, however, a different and more satisfying explanation.

Crush entered English by 1398, possibly from the Old French verb croissir, which meant to break or crack and make a lot of noise doing so. The element of noise was soon lost to another verb, crash.

The romantic sense of crush was first recorded in the 1884 journal of Isabella Maud Rittenhouse. It referred to the object of the infatuation: “Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone.” Within a decade, crush described the infatuation itself. “Miss Palfrey ... consented to wear his bunch of blue violets. It was a ‘crush,’ you see, on both sides,” John Seymour Wood wrote in Yale yarns in 1895.

Slang expert Eric Partridge suggested that crush might have been a variation on mash, since by 1870 mashed was a popular way of saying flirtatious or head over heels in love, and to crush something was to mash it. To be on the mash, or to make a mash on someone, was to flirt with that person. A masher was a guy who could seduce a young woman with a sly glance and a smooth line of talk.

The question then becomes: How did mash acquire that meaning? The Oxford English Dictionary shoots down one line of speculation found in an 1890 slang dictionary: the suggestion of a Romani word mash or masherava, meaning to allure or entice.

The authors of that 1890 dictionary asserted (in the OED’s paraphrase) “that the verb was current in U.S. theatrical parlance from circa 1860,” that “an impresario had confirmed their suggested etymology” and that the expression “had arisen among a particular theatrical family ‘of Romany stock, who spoke gypsy familiarly among themselves’; however, no further support seems to be available for any of these statements.”

More intriguing is the path proposed by Ernest Weekley’s 1921 Etymological dictionary of modern English. Weekley observed that mash was “regarded as spoon-diet,” the sort of mashed pap one would feed to a person who couldn’t chew or tolerate regular food. He drew a link to the word spoony.

To be spoony on someone had, since the 1820s, meant to be foolishly or sentimentally amorous, drawing on the earlier meaning of spoony as simple or goofy. The image was of a person who, like a spoon, was hollowed out (no brains), open and shallow. To spoon with a lady was to make goo-goo eyes and whisper baby talk to her in the hope of future considerations.

This origin tale requires a couple of leaps of faith – crush to mash, mash to spoony – but as a story it hangs together.

The most famous crush is the one in the 1928 song I’ve Got a Crush on You, by Ira and George Gershwin. “I’ve got a crush on you, Sweetie Pie,” Ira wrote. “All the day and nighttime, hear me sigh.”

Cole Porter wrote a less famous 1929 song, also called I’ve Got a Crush on You. “I’ve got such a crush on you,” he wrote. “My heart’s in a state of stew.” A stew to be eaten with a spoon, perhaps.

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