Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for January, 2008

Electile Dysfunction

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

A neologistic sniglet of the 2004 US presidential elections has returned to us.  We wouldn’t suggest adding it to our dictionaries but it is worth remembering:

Electile Dysfunction: The inability to become aroused by any of the choices for president put forth by either party in the 2008 election year.

Thank you Paul Ogden and Chris Stewart.

Maori Exhumations in New Zealand

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Glennis of New Zealand wrote yesterday about a new twist on exhumation which I thought those of you (like me) not from New Zealand would like to hear about. One day I will write what a know about cultural conflicts like this one, but in the meantime, here is an example of how serious cultural conflicts can be.

“Your Good Word exhume made me smile. We have a funny situation in New Zealand: there has only been settlement of migrants from England etc. from 1840, the indigenous inhabitants being Maori. Their culture demands that tribal members must be buried in tribal urupa (burial ground).”

“We have had a few situations recently when a Maori spouse, who was married to a Pakeha (European), dies. The unpleasant situation then arises where the tribe comes down and takes the body away without the consent of the grieving European family. The family has no say, though the law is reasonably clear but slow to be enforced. In one case, believe it or not, the family buried the deceased and put a log over the grave to hinder its being dug up! It is a very sensitive area, as basically it is a clash of cultures. But very unpleasant.”

The law Glennis refers to is one which gives the right of burial to the immediate family. It leads to the problem described above in case of mixed marriages, when the family of one spouse is European, and wishes to bury their family in a family cemetary, while the family of the Maori spouse feel they have no alternative to burying their family members in the urupa.

Instances like these are quite relevant to the discussion of diversity. Diversity of race is fairly easy to accomplish so long as assumptions about religion and morality are similar. However, as the situation in New Zealand indicates, these assumptions are often about physical activities that are very deeply felt and lead to passionate clashes like this one.

The Humus-Human Connection

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Mark Nazimova’s comments on our recent Good Word exhume, I thought, are worth preserving, so here they are for your edification and pleasure:

“For exhume, you noted that ‘The root here, hum-, seems to have originally referred to earth or dirt but also turns up in humanus ‘human, kind’. This suggests that our earliest forefathers perceived humans as originating in the soil.'”

“You might be interested in knowing that in Hebrew adam, which means ‘person or man’ and is the source of the name Adam, is closely related to adamah, which means ‘soil, earth’. It is the same concept as the creation story which Genesis Chapter 2 makes clear: ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’. Admittedly, the creation story in Chapter 1 is different, omitting the earthy connection.”

“There are other creation stories in the ancient near east, and possibly elsewhere for that matter, that associate the origin of humankind with the soil or ground. There’s the Greek myth of Deucallion throwing rocks over his shoulder, which became men, and Pyrrha throwing rocks over her shoulder, which became women…would that count? I think there’s also a Sumerian version of this story, in which gods throw rocks over their shoulders, which become people.”

“Then there’s the Sumerian or Akkadian myth that Marduk created people by killing Qingu and mixing Qingu’s blood with clay.”

The root in exhume turns up in other words, too. Mike Szczepanik pointed out that this is the same root that we find in humble and humility—not to mention humus. Once Latin had changed it to homo, hominis “man”, it went on to become homage, homicide, not to mention French homme and Spanish hombre.

This certainly is a remarkable word that has covered a lot of territory in the past 5 millennia.  My next blog will relate a story about exhumation from New Zealand that may surprise you if you live somewhere else.

The Polish-Irish family of O’Gorek

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

This one I have to share with you. It comes from Dr. Marge Sved with whom I have been fortunate enough to exchange e-mail since starting up alphaDictionary. She is responding to our Good Word gherkin.

“I know someone whose last name is O’Gorek. She says the origin was the Polish word for “cucumber” as you say, but that an aunt didn’t want others to think she was Polish, so made it O’Gorek. Always fun what we do with words.”

The language is as adapable as are those who speak it.

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.

Florida Oranges in Hot Wooder?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Cynthia Green enjoyed both our Rebel-Yankee Tests and sent us this report:

“I took both of the tests and loved them. Fabulous job; it’s so interesting to see dialects presented in such a fun way.”

“My mother was raised in Florida and chronically “mispronounced” two words in particular to the neverending amusement of my sister and I. To her, an orange is an ‘AH-runj’, and the stuff that flows from the tap is ‘wood-er’.”

“I have never in my life heard anyone else use that pronunciation of H2O, and I’ve always been curious to know if this is a south Floridian thing or if my mom has been messing with my head for the past 35 years. :)”

I replied:

AH-runj is the careful pronunciation of “orange” pretty much throughout the South. Where I come from in central NC, however, we whittled this word down to one syllable: ahrnge (AHRNJ), i.e. iron (AHRN) plus a simple J. I pronounced it that way myself until cured in graduate school.

Pronouncing “water” (WAH-duh or WAR-der) as WOOD-er is a new one on me. It must be limited to a small area of Florida and I have no idea where it comes from—there must be something in your “wooder” down there.

In rural NC, this word was and is pronounced WAR-der. In the cities, however, where the accent of the upperclass British immigration prevailed, the preferred pronunciation is WAW-duh—no Rs. Today I pronounce it WATT-er, the result of living 50 years among the Yankee. But wooder? I can’t imagine. Must be something that drifted down there with the new immigration from New (as opposed to old) Jersey.

Aksing about Asteriks

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Michael Kaskel wrote me last week with some suggestions for our Most Often Mispronounced Words list.

“Enjoyed your: The Most Often Mispronounced Words in English. You might like to add asterisk, I have heard many educated people say asterick.”

“Also, celestial and controversial . People seem determined to say: celes-TEA-al and controver-SEA-al when it should be celes-chul and controver-shul.”

Twinkle, twinkle little star.Asterisk is a good one we should have caught but the other two are simply careful pronunciations of the words in question. The problem with asterisk is that a final SK cluster often metathesizes to KS, i.e. astericks (like ask > aks). The word then sounds like a plural form: two asteriks but one asterik. Still, this is no excuse.

With respect to words like celestial, there is a rule in English that the sound combination [ty] becomes [ch] in unaccented syllables (e.g. picture and denture). [t] usually does the same thing before [r], accent or no: tree, try, etc. However, these rules must apply to something, i.e. the original pronuciations with the [ty]s and [tr]s intact. They are still there, so we can’t correct them. The Brits would certainly be upset since the upper class, at least, tend to avoid this rule (appreciation for them is a-prissy-ashun). Words are generally reduced in normal conversation but you can’t get to the “normal” pronunciation without the original one, which indicates that it is still there and must be recognized and accepted.

Self-Catharsis and the Family Jewels

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

The Onion article in our “Language in the News Feature” about Mel Brooks trying to save the word schmuck reminded me of my first visit to Germany decades ago. I was stunned to see Schmuck on several stores in every town we visited. I could tell by the wares offered in these stores that the word meant “jewelry” in German. I immediately figured out that the meaning of this word in Yiddish came from the concept of “the family jewels”.

When we first entered Athens with a 7-year-old and 9-year-old in the back seat after 400-500 miles on the road, I was delighted to see autokatharsis (αυτοκάθαρσις) over the doors of many establishments. That was exactly what I needed after all those hours of frustration at thinking up funny answers to the questions, “Are we there yet” and “How much longer?” Actually, I wasn’t sure that it was self-catharsis that I needed; I actually felt that I needed help.

However, thanks to my knowledge of etymology (see, I told you it comes in handy), I soon figured that these establishments were car washes, not self-induced soul washes. Aristotle had passed and Greece was left with the original meaning of the word katharsis. (Αυτοκάθαρσις may have been a brand name since “carwash” seems to be πλυντήριο αυτοκινήτων in Greek today.) 

These are the sorts of incidents that convinced me that much if not most of the history of our thought lies within the very words we use. At least words tell us much about ourselves and how we think about things and have thought about them over the centuries.

Gription and Grippiness

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Paula Gray wrote about a year ago that, “[S]everal years ago, my young son coined the word gription, which is now popular in our family. He was complaining that the soles of his athletic shoes were wearing out. The vinyl/plastic soles had become hard and slick. He described them as “not having enough gription anymore.” I suppose it is a combination of grip and traction.”

Indeed, I wrote back to tell her about portmanteau words which we discussed only recently. I also mentioned ideolects, which is the dialect of a single family or even person—yes, dialects can be that small.

However, while visiting my sons and their children over the holidays, my eldest son, Jeff, mentioned that the new tires on his jeep we very grippy, which I took to mean that they had good “gription”. Of course, to the extent grippy works, it implies a whole family of relatives: grippier, grippiest, grippily, and grippiness.

Both these words strike me as legimate and grammatical and I like them because they demonstrate that English is alive, flexible, full of creative opportunities—and fun.