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Archive for July, 2011

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.

God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Bud Sherman raised an interesting question today, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that deserves thought and research.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, there was a conditional phrase, ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ I always assumed it was about flood waters. An on-line friend in the South said that it had to do with the Creek Indians.”

This phrase is the first part of the caveat, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, the title of Spike Lee’s documentary on the results of Hurricane Katrina. Down South in North Carolina, where I grew up, I always heard, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” or “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise.”

What is suggestive is that the phrase is wide-spread throughout the South, where the Creeks (actually Muskogees) lived and often came in conflict with Southerners. The Spanish tried to enslave them but the English set up trading posts to trade with them. Since the Creeks often had nothing to trade, periodically they would raid trading posts, resulting in conflicts. There was also the occasional out-and-out war.

Another bit of evidence is that I am very uncomfortable saying “if the creek doesn’t rise”. Everyone says, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I am just as uncomfortable with your version, “the creeks don’t rise.” The interesting thing about this fact is that, while substituting don’t for doesn’t is not uncommon in many English dialects, Indian names were generally treated like the null-plural animals: deer : deer, fish : fish, Creek : Creek. Settlers all over the US at the time spoke of one Creek and many Creek.

Finally, a flooding creek doesn’t present any danger. What don’t we say, “God willing and the river don’t rise”?

Now Susanne Williams has brought Benjamin Hawkins to my attention. Apparently, he had good reason to refer to the Creeks and may have even written the phrase with Creek capitalized. If this is so, we need only track down the letter in which Hawkins used this phrase for the first time, and we will have settled the issue.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.

Splunking with the Sono-thing

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

My wife and I recently took a pair of our grandchildren to visit one of the many large caves in Pennsylvania and was guided by a young girl who hoped to graduate from high school next year and go on to college.

Hopefully, she will take the opportunity to work on her vocabulary in her senior year. In explaining how bats can live in the cave when all the lights are out, she asserted that they possess “that sono-thing”. Close but no cigar.

She then told us that there were other rooms in the cave that are not open to the paying public. One was recently discovered by Penn State students as they were “splunking”. She then added, “Splunking is crawling around in a cave. Not everyone knows that word.” Indeed, I didn’t, though I use spelunking from time to time.

A year from now she will be voting.

Who is an American?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Gordon Precious, one of our Canadian subscribers, today wrote on a subject that constantly arises in writing the alphaDictionary website and the Good Words. Here is what he wrote:

On the subject of “Yankee” (July 3, 2011, Dr. Goodword), and with Canada’s national day, “Canada Day”, having just past on July 1st, (celebrating our 144th birthday. The United States of America is about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, (its 235th, I believe), it seems an appropriate time for me to raise an old question and slight grievance:

“Why do not the citizens of the United States of America have a singular, just appellation for themselves?”

Ever since I attended public school, here in Canada, over 80 years ago, I have considered myself to be an Old Glory“American”, inasmuch as I live in America – North America to be exact. I find that the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America also consider themselves “American”. It is quite common to see a sign on a storefront in Guatemala, Columbia, Chile, etc., “Compañía de Plomería Americano”, which is, of course, “American Plumbing Company”, but has no connection with the U.S.A.

It is my contention that the citizens of the United States of America have unwittingly usurped the name “American” from the rest of us Americans.

I would like the citizens of the United States of America to find, and develop the use of, a specific name for their nationality, as have the citizens of every other country of which I can think.

I generally agree and try to use awkward phrases like “people of the US” or “those of us in the US” instead of “American” whenever I can think of it. They are all awkward, though.

The problem is obvious to all: we have a queer name for a country. It is easy to call those from Canada Canadians, those from Mexico Mexicans, and those from Guatemala Guatemalans. But there is no word derivable from “The United States of America” in the same vein unless, of course, we take the last word in this phrase, “America”, and use Americans.

We might try building a word from an acronym, USans or USAsians. I’m sure these sound as bad to everyone else as they do to me. United Statesians not only sounds atrocious but is grossly ungrammatical. The best solution is the one we seem to have chosen, the one mentioned above, using the last word in the phrase, Americans.

I wouldn’t call such a selection “usurpation” of the term from other American nations, however. Using the same word to refer to the US and the Americas is simply another instance of polysemy, a word with more than one meaning. I personally think that, outside scientific terminology, there are no words with only one meaning, take for example cooler (noun and adjective), dresser (furniture and person), air (for breathing, for singing).

Nations generally do have distinct names that distinguish any one from the others. However, we even get polysemy among the names of nations: Turkey, China, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, and Jamaica are a few. We also find it among the personal nouns: Danish (pastry), Dutch (uncle), and Indian are a few of those. The fact that American falls into this category should not offend our neighbors in the other Americas.

So, I see no offense in the word America having referring to two geographical entities. All of the alternatives are worse.