Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Phrases' Category

Fit as a Fiddle in Fine Fettle

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Joey Malsky raised an interesting question in regard to the phrase be in fine fettle.

Fettle: It occurs to me that the otherwise nonsensical phrase fit as a fiddle could have been derived from in fine fettle, preserving the sense while using a more familiar word. (What’s that called again?) Is there any evidence of this transition?”

Replacing an unfamiliar borrowed word with a more familiar one is called folk etymology (French crevisse becomes crayfish in English). But we have no evidence of folk etymology being involved in the rise of fit as a fiddle.

I am in fine fettle!I have three books that discuss this idiom and all say the same thing: no one knows why fitness and fiddles are associated but the association goes back to the 17th century. The Oxford Dictionary’s earliest citation is 1603 (fit as a farthing fiddle) but no explanation of why fiddle rather than mud duck or saxaphone. In the dozen or more examples OED gives, none confuse fiddle with fettle. If one or two had confused them—if there were examples of in fine fiddle for in fine fettle, we would have a basis to suspect that they are related.

This expression fit as a fiddle is one of an large lexicon of crystalized (which is to say, idiomatized) manner adverb phrases:

  • crazy as loon
  • sly as a fox
  • hungry as a wolf
  • quick as a wink
  • greedy as a hog
  • strong as a horse
  • skinny as a rake
  • sick as a dog
  • crooked as a snake
  • straight as an arrow
  • clean as a whistle
  • quiet as a mouse
  • wise as an owl

—just to mention a few off the top of my head. As you can see, there isn’t much of a pattern here, just folk prejudices, so there is no reason why we would expect one for fit as a fiddle.

Of course, we love alliteration and first syllable of fiddle being almost identical to fit gives fiddle a slight edge on being chosen as the simile for fit. However, etymology has nothing beyond that to say for the relationship.

Last Ditch Effort to Save ‘Last Ditch’

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Another confusion that has been brought to my attention recently is the phrase “last-ditch effort”. Some speakers are now bringing it out of the dirt, cleaning it up, and taking it for “last-stitch effort”.

The metaphor here comes from the military and refers to a stand in the last trench. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “a government . . . driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”  It is interesting to note that the phrase seems to be dying out but the adjective, last-ditch, clings on to life. Well, we need to cling on to both of them.

La-di-da: Putting on the Dog

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Hanne Quillevere, a Good Word subscriber living in Canada, was reminded by today’s Good Word, la-di-da,of a funny phrase now slipping out use. She wrote:

“If you are up to dealing with a phrase, rather than a single word, how would you trace the meaning of the phrase, “putting on the dog”? I have now looked through four reference works on idioms, slang and quotations, and while “dog” appears many times, “putting on the dog” does not. I have always thought it meant something along the lines of today’s la-di-da.”

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase “put on dog”, e.g. in A. Gilbert’s No Dust in Attic (1962) xiv. 190: “Matron put on a lot of dog about the hospital’s responsibility”. Here the phrase uses “dog” as a mass (uncountable) noun. The phrase generally means “to splurge, to make a flashy display” or, as one of the OED citations puts it: “cut the swell”. I have always heard it as “putting on THE dog”, too, but I heard it only when living in the South.

This phrase means to do something up in a showy fashion, a synonym of that lovely British phrase, “(dress up like) the dog’s dinner”. (These phrases must have arisen during a stretch when all British dogs were show dogs.) It isn’t the same as “la-di-da” but both these phrases refer to situations that might well elicit a “la-di-da” or two.

The Kitten Caboodle

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Kitten caboodleSeveral readers have written in response to our discussion of caboodle reminding us of the reanalysis of the phrase “kit and caboodle” as “kitten caboodle”.  ‘Reanalysis’ means that the words in a phrase are incorrectly separated (misanalyzed) and reanalyzed as a different phrase.  This results from mishearing or unfamiliarity with the spelling of the phrase.

Children are very likely to reanalyze phrases they have never heard before.  It was a child who reported learning a song about some cross-eyed bear named “Gladly” in Sunday School when the teacher thought she was teaching the hymn, “Gladly, the Cross I’d Bear”.  We have immortialized some of the best in our “In Church” section of the Out of the Mouths of Babes pages (click here).

Lew Jury reported “kitten caboodle” and Alan Janesh reminded me of “for all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes”.  Superman, of course, despised being “taken for granite”.  Better learn how to spell these phrases properly: it isn’t just a “doggy-dog world” out there (dog-eat-dog world) and spelling is mission critical if you wish to be taken seriously.

My favorite reanalysis of all time, however, turned up in a freshman composition collected by a colleague in the English Department at Bucknell, Mardy Mumford, when I was teaching there.  The author of this piece accused someone of having a “devil-make-hair” (devil-may-care) attitude.

Anger Inducement Therapy

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

A friend of mine has convinced her husband that he needs anger management therapy. Anger management has become a major catchphrase, probably one of the many terms introduced by the medical and pharmaceutical industry to convince us that we need their products and services. This one has become so popular that Jack Nicholson has made a movie about it.

I have some linguistic qualms about this popular term. The first is its redundancy. Anger in the legal system is now called “snapping” or, more technically, “temporary insanity”. We have lawyers and the occasional jury who think that perfectly normal people can, in the midst of a perfectly normal day, “snap”, become temporarily insane, kill someone, then snap back to normality, never to be susceptible to “snapping” again.

There may be some truth to this but until several years ago, snapping was losing control of your temper and was considered normal if uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. So my first suggestion would be to change anger management to snap management just to avoid the proliferation of synonyms.

But returning to my friend’s case, I have to wonder why we don’t offer anger inducement therapy, since the reason my friend snaps is an overly demanding wife who would drive the Pope crazy. It is funny how phrases like anger management focus our attention on one interpretation of a problem while allowing other aspects of the same problem to slip into the shadows. Maybe not so funny.

Generally, when someone loses their temper it is because someone else irritates them. Whether the fit of anger is disproportionate to the inducement of it or vice versa is a matter of degree but the focus of the therapy should be equally on both the anger or the inducement thereof. If both is offered, we need a term for anger inducement alongside anger managment. I suggest “anger inducement”.

Anger inducement therapists would make a fortune in Washington, DC.

What’s the Good Word about ‘Good Word’?

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Sorry for the long absence. The Lexiteria has moved its offices to new quarters in the ‘burbs (downtown Smoketown, we like to call it) and, like all my previous moves, it occupied me almost full time. But I’m back again for better or worse. Here goes the first blog from Smoketown Road.

‘Boaz’ recently raised the question of the pedigree of the phrase this website was built on, “the good word”.

In fact, we have thus far been unable to unearth any information on the history of the phrase, “So, what’s the good word?” It was popular back in the 40s and 50s but, like so many other things, it was obliterated by the 60s.

It probably does go back to ‘The Word’ in the biblical sense. But it is now used in the sense of “word of wisdom”, the phrase is a greeting that invites the listener to enlighten the greeter, tell him something he doesn’t know, rather like, “What do you know that I don’t know that would be of use to me?” And, of course, keep it short, as close to one word as you can make it.

This isn’t pure speculation but no more than speculation based on the past and current meanings of the phrase and what we know about human speaking habits. If anyone reading this has any further insights, please share them with “Dr. Goodword”.