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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

The Odd Origin of the Word ‘Twerp’

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Brett Davis has written in with the following question:

Someone just called me a twerp and, while I know what it means, I’d like
to know more about just what makes it tick.

We only know what J. R. R. Tolkien tells us in a letter written to a friend in 1944 (published in 1981): “He lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton, the composer, and going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp).” He was referring to the poet T. W. Earp then at Exeter College, Oxford.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

The Mega Mickle Mess

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Eileen Opiolka wrote today:

“The reason I wanted to contact you today is the entry mega which refers to the word mickle and gives it as a Scottish word for “much”. Here in Scotland we say “many a mickle makes a muckle”, i.e. mickle means a small amount and muckle, a large amount. I’d be interested to find out what Dr. Goodword thinks.”

“Many thanks for your website, which is always interesting.”

Eileen, many thanks for your appreciation of the website and your interesting question. Here is what I think.

In Scotland today mickle is known mostly from the idiom you quote: “many a mickle makes a muckle”. The idiom was originally: “many a little (also pickle) makes a mickle”. The form “many a mickle makes a muckle” arises from a misapprehension that, rather than being variants of the same word, mickle and muckle have opposite meanings, the former representing a small amount and the latter a large amount. This is a false assumption.

It doesn’t matter mickle since both mickle and muckle are being shamelessly gobbled up by the hounds of history.

On the Origins of ‘Snob’

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Several readers have called me to task for my etymology of the word snob. It is purely speculative and I no doubt should have added a bit more to that point.

Barbara Kelly wrote in the Alpha Agora:

I had always understood that “snob” came from “sine nobilitate”, that is “without nobility”. The story I recall is that births were recorded with these abbreviations: “nob” for nobility and “s.nob” for non-nobles. A “snob” then was someone who had pretensions of nobility. I did not see this mentioned as a possibility.

Loek Hopstaken wrote to me directly:

Somehow I always thought that ‘snob’ was an abbreviation of ‘sine nobilitate’, or ‘without a noble title’. An ancient European habit: entered in a guest book when the person in question was no Lord, Duke, King or Count. Snob then would indicate a person who isn’t a registered nobleman but desperately wants to be one. [Someone who] belongs to this social class, has studied their behaviour yet doesn’t really know how to make it natural and comes across as a fake.

In fact, what we do know about this word is that it did arise in the 18th century and originally referred to shoemakers. No one has any idea why. Later, in Cambridge, it came to refer to shopkeepers in general and was a was used as a put-down used by students there in referring to the townspeople.

What happened after that is anybody’s guess; however, I find it hard to believe that it was not influenced by some word referring to the nose, given all the semantics relating noses and snootery in English: to stick one’s nose in the air, snotty, and the like. For that reason I played with these ostensible parallels.

Both readers are correct, of course, in implying that I should have made my speculation clearer and I will clear that up later today. Also, I am collecting false etymologies like the one Loek and Barbara came across. So far I have only the examples for posh (Port Out Starboard Homeward), golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden), gaudy is an eponym of Antoni Gaudi, and this one. If you can think of any others, please let me know. I would like to have at least ten before posting them.

Campaigns and Scampaigns

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A word that has been floating around for a few years caught my attention when it was applied to election campaigns. I don’t like to promote blends like scam + campaign as a means of expanding the vocabulary because they are not a part of the grammar of English. But this one works so well I can’t resist the temptation.

The word apparently originated in the advertising business and referred to fake advertising campaigns for nonexistent products that were submitted for ad-of-the-year awards.

Now the word seems to apply equally well to political campaigns like that of Donald Trump, campaigns with ostensibly ulterior motives, such as to promote a TV series, or to increase book sales, commercial visibility or income in general.

In politics the scampaign is very, very new, so it is difficult to separate the scampaigns from the campaigns. I suspect the distinction will become clearer as time passes.

Empretzeling Oneself

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

I just received a comment on self-empretzelment from Dr. Margie Sved:

“I would have thought self-empretzeltment meant something a contortionist would do!!”

In fact, her interpretation works for me. The current meaning should have come from the one she mentions as a metaphorical (figurative) usage and semantically it does.

It is not uncommon for a derived word to appear historically before its semantic predecessor, so it would be possible for a word like uninsightfulness, say, to be used before anyone uses uninsightful. The longer word would come directly from its stem, insightful, prior to uninsightful arising from the same stem.

Happens all the time.

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)

Cool Way to Say “Insensitive”

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Pronunciation: pæ-kê-dêr-mê-tês • Hear it! • Adjective

Meaning: 1. Of, like or related to thick-skinned animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses. 2. Thick skinned, insensitive.

Notes: Well, we all have known that a pachyderm is an elephant since childhood; it should come as no surprise that this word has an adjective. That suffix -at before the -ous is redundant, so you may omit it if you wish: pachydermous is just as good as today’s word—and shorter, if you’re in a hurry. The state of having (abnormally) thick skin?Pachydermia.

In Play: Sometimes thick skin is a good defense mechanism: “I don’t think your referring to him as a burnt-out has-been will offend that pachydermatous old goat!” However, it can also be an indicator of insensitivity: “Donny Brooke is too pachydermatous to enjoy the subtleties of poetry; he wouldn’t enjoy the reading.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word comes to us, via Latin and French, from Greek pakhydermos “thick-skinned”, a compound made up of pakhys “thick” + derma “skin”. Pachys does not show up in many Greek borrowings in English; pachysandra was named for its thick stamens while pachycephalosaurs were named for their thick skulls.Derma, however, appears in many borrowings, including dermal “pertaining to skin”, epidermis “outer layer of skin”, and the study of skin, dermatology. (Today we are grateful to Andrew Shaffer, who magically sends out our Good Words to you daily and whose voice you hear pronouncing this word, for giving us the skinny on this funny word.)

Hems and Mayhem

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Pronunciation: may-hem • Hear it! • Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. (Law) Intentionally maiming a person in order to disable and render them defenseless. 2. Wanton destruction. 3. Havoc, riotous chaos, total disorder.

Notes: Today’s Good Word is a rarity, indeed: an English word pronounced exactly as it is spelled! (Don’t listen to the US dictionaries; always pronounce the [h] in the middle. That’s what it is there for.) Mayhem is a lexical orphan without any related words, though our British cousins have used it as a verb in the past.

In Play: In peacetime, mayhem is, unfortunately, often associated with sporting events: “When the Dinglethwarp Turtledoves defeated the Swollingham Drubbers in the final seconds of the game, mayhem broke out among the fans.” We do hear this word often used hyperbolically, though: “Were I to suggest the company reduce its lunch break from an hour to a half hour, I’m afraid that mayhem might break out on the plant floor.”

Word History: Old French mahaigne “injury, mutilation” becamemahain then mahaim in Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). The Normans (so called because they originated in Normandy, France) picked up the word from a nearby Celtic language, Breton, where the word for “maim, mutilate” was mac’hagnañ. English borrowed the Anglo-Norman variantmahaim and developed it in two directions. In one instance the inconvenient H in the middle was dropped, leaving only maim. The other direction retained the H but only after folk etymology converted it into two recognizable English words, may and hem. The new “compound” survived despite its sounding more like the decision of a seamstress than an act of destruction. (In order to avoid any mayhem among our dear subscribers, let us now thank Dr. L. B. Tague for suggesting today’s riot of a Good Word.)

Origins of Silly Words

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Roger Bullard recently commented on my entry Silly Words in English, writing, “I sometimes use the word sticktoitiveness because for some weird reason, I just can’t think of the word perseverance. It doesn’t come to me when I need it.

I’ve decided to respond in a separate entry because it speaks to an issue that has intrigued me for decades. I had always thought that there was enough for some useful research, but never could gather enough data. Still, I think there is something here worth pursuing.

What do we do when we can’t think of a word? Speech is fast, which is why speaking is the most difficult of the four language proficiencies (reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking). We inevitably come upon words we know we know but can’t retrieve them fast enough to plug into the sentence we are uttering. We have to create a word on the spur of the moment, but how?

I noticed several words that seemed to be “near misses” and thought them the result of such moments. Two words originally caught my attention: hassle and (to) harry, as in harried. Their meanings are almost identical and identical with a far less often heard word, harass. I suspect that the two more common words are words someone uttered when they either could not remember harass, or could not decide which syllable of this word to emphasize, a problem associated with it.

I have a few other words in my files: embroil for embroglio, huffy for haughty, get in someone’s good graces for ingratiate, and kulacks for culottes.

As I say, I have never been able to gather a sufficient corpus of examples or find a way to prove my hypothesis. If it is true, however, it offers an explanation of folk etymology, since most of these examples seem to associate the meaning of the original word with words that are more common, more ‘Englishy’, the definition of folk etymology. Someone (or many) cannot remember how to write French m’aider “help me”, so they write what they remember: may day.

We do make errors when we speak, usually corrected quickly. But what if we simply can’t find the word but must continue speaking? Wouldn’t we try to utter a word with a similar sound that suggests the meaning we are getting at? Failing that, we would resort to something more desperate, like creating a word from a phrase like sticktoitiveness, as Roger claims to have done. No final conclusion here, but the issue is intriguing.