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Englishmen in cahoots

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AN American friend writes to me on a matter of some finesse and delicacy and comes up in passing with the word ``cahoots.'' ``Do you know that American slang word meaning conspiracy?'' he inquires. Well, yes, even though I am an Englishman, I do. It is a word that has been not infrequently on my tongue, and my wife, a schoolteacher, says she uses it all the time. What I didn't realize was that it was claimed as an American word.

We Europeans tend to be proprietorial when it comes to verbal matters. To me it sounded like a Scot-tishism; after all, ``hoots'' is, so why not ``cahoots''? I admit my assumptions may have been colored by my minority circumstances - by my being married to a Scot, and living in Scotland. There is a fairly strong ... no, total ... feeling around these parts that anything worth its salt originated in Scotland or at least passed through, and that goes for language no less than porridge.

I found - such is the wonder of compromise - that we were both right, maybe. The experts agree that ``ca-hoots'' is (or are) unquestionably American. No less an authority than John R. Bartlett, author of the ``Dictionary of Americanisms,'' states that the word is ``used in the South and West to denote a company, or partnership.''

My dictionary suggests it may have been adopted from the French word cahute meaning ``a cabin, or poor hut.'' The connection is somewhat foggy, but I suppose a stretch of the imagination might suggest that conspiracies are often hatched in huts. So if we do accept that cahute is the original of ``cahoots,'' then the Scottish connection becomes unavoidable: The word cahute is firmly established in numerous books of reference as ``obsolete Scottish'' meaning ``a ship's cabin'' - and there's no telling what might not be cooked up, conspiratorially speaking, in one of those little sea-tossed dens of discovery.

All of which sets me off on the not entirely irrelevant question of languages. Every time I travel abroad I discover that people can't understand me and vice versa. The reason is that my education hasn't sufficiently extended beyond a mere try at their languages - and many of the people I meet speak English superbly. Naturally they like you to demonstrate how appallingly you speak their language first. It puts them at ease. Then they happily reveal their prowess in Shakespeare's mother tongue.


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