If The New York Times is “failing,” as one prominent Twitter tweeter likes to say, it may be because its usage of the English language is becoming lax. I have blogged before—in July of 2013, to be precise—about the misuse of “well-healed” to mean “wealthy or well-off.” The correct term is “well-heeled.”
Apparently The Times was not paying attention back then, because in today’s edition there is a reference to a “well-healed” hedge fund manager. Now unless he was badly injured--savagely beaten, perhaps, by one of his clients--and is now on the mend, the meaning was probably that the hedge fund manager, like most hedge fund managers, had socked away a good bit of dough.
I suppose I’ll have to go over once more what I so painstakingly explained three-and-a-half years ago. Now listen up, New York Times!
Well-heeled, meaning “wealthy,” first appeared in print in an 1897 novel called Bound In Shallows, by Eva Wilder Brodhead, in which a character says, “I ain’t so well-heeled right now.” In context, this clearly means “impecunious.” The etymology of the phrase is thought to derive from the fact that good quality shoes are a prime indication of one’s prosperity, and the heel of a shoe is the first place that shows wear. The opposite of “well-heeled” is “down at heels.”
Well-heeled has at least two other meanings which precede this one. One is “provided with a weapon,” and it was first seen in 1873 in Undeveloped West, in which J. H. Beadle wrote, “To travel long out West a man must be, in the local phrase, ‘well-heeled’.” The context makes it clear that this means having a gun.
This meaning probably stems from the broader definition of well-heeled as “properly equipped,” which was first used in its literal meaning applied to the claws of fighting cocks. An 1866 account in the Dubuqe (Iowa) Daily Herald, reports that some birds "...resembled dung hill chickens thrown into the pit with their natural spurs, to meet and contend with game cocks well heeled. One stoke puts them to flight, squawking as they go; they cannot stand steel." Here, the “heel” is clearly an artificial spur with which cocks were equipped in order to fight.
Well-heeled should never be confused with round-heeled, a term that dates to the 1920s and describes either an easily defeated prizefighter or a woman who readily bestows sexual favors.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou bestows no favors on anyone, especially those who are foolhardy enough to read his misbegotten screeds.
With rue my heart is laden
For good-time friends I had,
For many a round-heeled maiden
And many a lusty lad.
Now prim with coy compunction,
The maids are filled with malice,
And the lads can only function
With Viagra or Cialis.