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Hey Matt!

My friend, who always complains about my yard sales, had his car swiped. It was an older model. Probably a Tercel. Ugly poop-purple colored. I told him, from my ESP powers, that "Jimmy" took it. Sure enough it was a "Jimmy." My question is, who do Jimmy be the ones stealing cars? Any weigh, I think mommas should stop calling their kids Jimmy. But, hey!

-- Pat N. Paul, Clairemont

This required an emergency meeting of the Matt Alice Codebreakers Squad. In the end, we think-- we're not sure-- but we think the question being asked is why, when you pry something open, like the brain of the person who asked the question, you're jimmying something. And why is the tool called a jimmy. Anyone with a different take on this, feel free to contribute your thoughts too. Can't be any more random than what's going on here.

The answer to why a jimmy is only vaguely interesting. It's a variant of a perfectly legitimate British word, jemmy, which is a type of small crowbar (crowbar: ca. 1400; a tool named for the crow's foot appearance of the flattened end). Jemmys seem to have been created as tools for a specific purpose in the late 1700s. The way words change in common speech, jemmy was bound to become jimmy, a more commonly heard name. Slightly more interesting is the international tendency for people to name their machines, tools, cars, large objects or phenomena after people. Show of hands. How many of you have a pet name for your car? I'll go first. I have a friend with a classic, curvy Italian car that he's named Sophia. Another friend calls his BMW Klaus because it's German and because a mechanic named Klaus takes all his money. Do we figure if we name things, make them family members, as it were, they'll be sweeter and more cooperative?

Jemmy and jimmy might be variants of the nickname for James, say our word-origin geeks. Not any particular James, though. They also point out that you lift your car with a jack, you hit somebody with a billy club, and another name for a construction crane is a derrick. All words derived from common names. A derrick is named after Goodman Derrick, an 18th-century hangman who was in charge of the very efficient three-man gallows in West London. Any structure designed to suspend heavy weights became known as a derrick.

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