Tag Archives: Rob Ford

Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?


Oh boy, tonight on Twitter was a doozy.

Does that word, doozy, get used much anymore? Well, if it’s not so familiar, let me start by talking about what went down online. Twitter is where I get my breaking news first. So I was sitting at my computer listening to a Led Zeppelin live concert CD set and trying to do some research for a presentation when I started seeing tweets about Toronto’s dudebro-in-chief, Rob Ford, taking a leave of absence.

Why? He said it was to go to rehab. But as “Dazed and Confused” blazed and buzzed on my speakers I learned that someone had an audio tape of Ford – all drunk and woozy – saying some perfectly awful things this past Monday, including crude racist and sexist comments. Oh, and someone else has a video of him – dazed and dozy – smoking crack (not just a  doobie) in his sister’s basement this past weekend. Then there was Justin Bieber asking him at Muzik where he could get crack. And some other stuff about nose candy at some event. Oh, and there may be a sex tape? Excuse me, I’m feeling queasy.

Oh, and plus also as well in addition too, the Raptors won their playoff series. Many of the usual suspects in Toronto politics were trying to enjoy the game when all this broke (ah, the dues they must pay!). The Raps blew a 20-point lead in the last quarter (there was speculation Rob Ford had put on a Raptors jersey) and won a knuckle-biter in overtime. Utterly dizzying.

So yeah, a doozy. But doozy doesn’t have any direct connection with dazed, dizzy, dozy, woozy, queasy, nose, or dude. It may gain some effect of their sound on the sense, of course, along with the effects of the big hollow [u] vowel, the start that’s like doom, the end that’s like crazy and so many other things, and maybe a bit of the buzz of the [z]. But it doesn’t come from them. Not that we’re entirely sure where it does come from.

What we do know (thanks to Oxford) is that the word first showed up in the early 1900s. And it meant, as it does now, ‘an impressive, remarkable, amazing, or unbelievable thing’. Also, it was used as an adjective first, and showed up as a noun soon after.

Beyond that, there are various ideas. It may have morphed from a sense of daisy meaning ‘first-rate person or thing’. It was very likely affected by the actress Eleonora Duse, who was at the height of her fame at the time the word became popular. But there was also another thing that gave it some drive – and a clear 1920s and ’30s taste.

That something was a car. Not just any car: this car was a doozy. I should say a Duesy. It was the Duesenberg, a high-performance luxury car that gained association with some rather famous owners, including tycoons, actors, and criminals. Its nickname naturally mutually reinforced with the already existing word doozy.

Duesenberg cars are long gone, alas. We have nice cars and all that now, but an era of glamorous style and design is gone, and with it are the tycoons, actors, and criminals of that age. Now we have to make do with a Ford. But that can still produce the occasional doozy.


The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, recently made the news pretty much everywhere by admitting that he had smoked crack, but excusing it as having been “in one of my drunken stupors.”

The question that’s on everyone’s mind now is, of course, “Is stupor related to stupid or is that just a sweet coincidence?” An additional question that is apparently on the minds of many Canadians is “Shouldn’t that be stupour in Canada?”

Yes and no. I mean yes, it’s related, and no, it shouldn’t be stupour. The etymology answers both questions. The words stupor and stupid originate in the Latin verb stupere, ‘be stunned or benumbed’. (Incidentally, in some parts of Canada, and perhaps elsewhere, stunned is also a common colloqual word for ‘stupid’.) That became, still in Latin, the past tense form stupidus ‘stunned, numb’ and the noun stupor. So stupid is to stupor as torpid is to torpor (and, originally, horrid was to horror). And I suppose you could say stupid is as stupor does…

You will see that the noun has not changed spelling from its Latin original. Some other words that have come from Latin -or words (such as color) have passed through a French influence long ago and come out with an added u (subsequently lost in American English). But stupor never did. Well, not never – up to the 1600s (it was borrowed in the 1300s) it was sometimes also spelled stupour. But that was finally dropped. Perhaps it seemed stupid.

Good word, stupid. It’s well formed for describing and decrying a disdained mental insufficiency. It starts with a combination that pretty much spits, [st], and has an additional puff of disdain in the middle with [p], then ends with the [ɪd] that also starts idiot. The stressed vowel adds something extra special: your choice between the pinched, almost hissing [ju] diphthong (which, in [stju], practically forces the face into a moue of disdain as though sniffing a turd) and the stripped-down (Canadian-style) plain [u], which, aside from sounding duller, is itself disdained as stupid by snobs with palatalized pronunciations.

Stupor has most of the same characteristics (plus – in a British accent – the sound of a Buddhist monument (stupa) around which one may circumambulate), but it is not usually used for insults. Not that it is used with approbation; a stupor is not a thing one generally wants to be in. And yet somehow it is a thing people get themselves into. And usually the same way: you drink yourself into a stupor; you are then in a drunken stupor. Most modern uses of stupor refer to being stupid drunk. You know, like someone you see stopped and stooped over on a stoop, unable to take another step, stumbling and mumbling, perhaps trying to circumambulate their residence in search of a door (or their forsaken sobriety). The language has many, many terms for various states of inebriation, and this expresses one of the most severe.

How severe? Severe enough that you might get your letters mixed up, perhaps, and go looking for a p for support (or vice versa), or drop an r and get upsot, or, more likely, become like Proust and find yourself À la recherche du temps perdu – not, as the English title of the book would suggest, remembering things past (as if!), but actually in search of lost time. Ha, good luck with that. If you’re anything like Rob Ford, you’ll discover what you did when someone releases a video of it.