THE CAT'S PAJAMAS: A FABULOUS FICTIONARY OF FAMILIAR PHRASES by Tad Tuleja (Fawcett Columbine / Ballantine: $8.95; 201 pp.).
You ought to be warned by the introduction, which refers to the "tension . . . between fact and what fancy would make of it"; you ought to be warned by the subtitle, "A Fabulous Fictionary of Familiar Phrases," and if you haven't figured it out by the end of the book, the bibliography should convince you. For instance:
Dwayne Culdesack & Deedee Culdesack, "Why We Talk So Good."
Get it? These explanations of about 300 figures of speech are mostly frauds, given an occasional ring of truth by an accurate citation from the Oxford English Dictionary or the use of a partly accepted explanation of a phrase, like tinker's dam.
You find the auto in automobile traced to a man named Otto, balancing the books to "balancing the bugs" and deadbeat to "debt beater." You are told that "the inside dope was not the information that was gathered but the person doing the gathering," that gee whiz derives from the Congolese jija oo ids, that "the original Skid Row was a short, winding street in Los Angeles.
You read of "the sixteenth-century monk Subaru Toyota" and "mountain man Jose Cuervo's 'Journal of Thirteen Dry Seasons,' published . . . in Arroyo University's 'Dusty Papers' series."
So it's a spoof, and there's no doubt that Tad Tuleja had fun dreaming up these wildly false etymologies. And they are funny enough for those "quadrilingual" readers he addresses in his introduction.
But there is still something unethical about the book; in spite of fun-loving intentions and the charm of some of his derivations, they could easily mislead. It would indeed be possible to overlook "fictionary," skip the introduction and take the whole thing seriously.
Too bad, because many of the entries are clever and witty.