Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for September, 2009

Do-Gooders and Good-Doers

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I could never understand how a word like do-gooder could be pejorative. I would like to think of myself as someone who does good and find that attitude laudable rather than damnable. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on this word. Here is what the best dictionaries have to say about this word:

  • American Heritage: “A naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.”
  • Encarta: “[S]omebody who sincerely tries to help others, but whose actions may be unwelcome.”
  • Merriam-Webster: “[A]n earnest often naive humanitarian or reformer.”
  • Oxford English: “A well-meaning, active, but unrealistic philanthropist or reformer; one who tries to do good.”
  • WordNet: “[S]omeone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.”

I must be missing something here. My attitude has always been that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others, are neither naïve nor unrealistic, but are undertakings that recommend decent men and women. (I think I read this somewhere in the Holy Scriptures.)

Well, do-gooder is a contrived compound. The head of a compound (do) should be on the right, not the left. Maybe this arrangement negates the word’s meaning and a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of the obiquitous evildoer, bears the positive meaning.

But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is found in none of them excepting only the Oxford English Dictionary. Its entry shows that this word thrived outside the United States at least up to 1887.

Maybe the US media has had a hand in the promotion of do-gooder over good-doer, given their preference for bad news events over good ones. In fact, the earliest recorded instance of the word do-gooder was in a 1927 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 18 14/5): “The dogooder…is all the hokum, all the blather and all the babble of the modern so-called ‘social movement’.”

So the word originated as a specific slur against progressives used by conservatives. This is interesting, knowing as we do even today, that doing the right thing is considered at best naïve among our corporate leaders, who so adamantly oppose the altruism implicit in such social programs as gun control, social security, and universal education and health care.

We do know that language reflects cultural attitudes; racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages. This connotations of do-gooder and the absence of good-doer at least suggest that the lexical and conceptual deck may be stacked against the Forces of Good in the United States.

Polysemy: Adding More Meanings

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa has been thinking long and deep about words this week and the result has been short e-mail essays that raise interesting issues that should be shared. Here is another comment from Chris:

Over the weekend I was in an idle moment pondering two unrelated yet somehow connected things. The first was how different words are adopted in different countries to denote the same thing (e.g. you would say hood and trunk to describe parts of your car, whereas I would call them the bonnet and boot). The second is how sometimes the shortest words have the widest variety of usages.”

The word tap sprang to mind as being a rich example, though I guess you would call it a faucet [up North but spigot down South–RB]. It is marvellous how English has adopted myriad words in order to be able on the one hand to precisely describe exquisite nuances, obfuscate, aggrandise or wax poetic, and on the other to be terse, concise and to the point. Plus, it is impressively economical in being able to reuse words to such an extent.”

The linguistic phenomenon is that the most commonly used words tend to change more slowly than infrequently used words. The most frequently used words tend to be short, like come, have, go, and all have several meanings as well as several irregular forms, e.g. go: go, goes, went, gone. Tap has a pretty straightforward set of forms but a wide range of meanings as a noun and a verb.

English once had a rich set of prefixes and suffixes which helped create new words out of old. Most of those have, for reasons we have yet to fathom, been lost. English is becoming more and more like Chinese, which has not prefixes or suffixes. This means that we simply add new senses to old words, senses that are only discernable in context.

The part of the computer that stores data is simply called memory since we no longer use the location suffix -ery (otherwise it would be a datary or informationery). The electronic connection between two web pages is called a link, even though it bears no resemblance to a chain. Highly complex systems of transistors are called chips because the originally were small.

You would think that we would reach a point of overload when we could barely understand each other because each word has so many meanings. But we seem to do OK because, when a problem emerges, we simply to go another language and copy a word from its lexicon. As I have said many times before in the histories of the Good Words, English is a swashbuckling pirate on the high seas of world languages, hauling in any word it needs, often “borrowing” the same word several times over the course of its development, giving each variant a distinct meaning. 

So maybe the accumulation of meanings on words without prefixes and suffixes to distinguish those meanings, forces us onto the bounding lexical main.

Tera-, Peta-, and Femtoflops

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

My old friend Chris Stewart of South Africa chided me today for sending out anything so outdated as teraflop for a Good Word. Indeed, over the weekends I’m recycling some words from four years back for the benefit of those who have subscribed since then and for myself, who has discovered the joys of weekends off. Over the course of those four years, electronics has grown immensely smaller and faster, so Chris is right in trying to lead me to the future. Here is what Chris said in part (I left out the chiding section):

“Just a few weeks ago I had an e-mail exchange with a friend of mine in the software industry on the subject of Intel’s new generation of processors. These consumer items contain about half a trillion transistors on a single chip. I said soon individuals will be able to purchase portable computers containing teratranny chips (a word I coined to indicate a trillion transistors). I mention it purely as an example of unsurprising synchronicity since terra- as a prefix is clearly becoming more common.”

“Having said all that,” Chris continues, “tera- is already passe whereas peta- is on the rise. Peta- seems to have a peculiar contrived etymology; at least its antonym femto-, which is also on the rise) seems to have more solid origins (being Danish for “fifteen”). Doubtless exa- will soon become commonplace, while atto- / femto- / pico- are already with us, e.g. inkjet printers are described in marketing materials as dispensing picolitre droplets. SI units are a bit weird, therefore interesting.”

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, “IBM’s supercomputer dubbed Blue Gene/P is designed to eventually operate at three petaFLOPS.” The Free Dictionary offers five entries for pemto-, and its definition for pemtovolt is “one quadrillionth of a volt (or one thousandth of a nanosecond)”. I must admit to being surprised that someone deferred to Danish rather than the much heavier authorities of Latin and Greek for this prefix.

I also like Chris’s word teratranny and the implication of petatranny processors in the future. It is gratifying to know that the English language can still keep up with the rapid changes in computer and electronic technology.  The number of transistors possible in a single chip seems to be paced by the number of dollars in the US national debt. Is there a connection?

Last Word on the Origin of ‘Dixie’

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Land of CottonSeveral people who read my recent Good Word Dixie, wrote in to remind me of an alternative explanation which most etymologists think little of. Tom Arfsten even backed his claim up with a quotation:
“In Stuart Berg Flexner’s book, I Hear America Talking (1976 Touchstone Books), this explanation is listed:

‘However, scholars know that Dixie comes from the ten-dollar notes issued by the Citizens’ Bank in bilingual Louisiana before the Civil War and bearing the French word dix “ten”, on the reverse side. Soon New Orleans, then Louisiana and the entire South were called The Land of Dixie, and later Dixieland and Dixie.'”

Citizens Bank $10 noteThis story on its surface simply doesn’t seem to make sense, which has led many (including me in the past) to reject it. Why would Scottish and Irish settlers on the East coast use a French word for ten from a small Lousiana bank (Banque Des Citoyens de la Louisiana) to name their region? Only a small minority of Louisianians spoke French and they probably pronounced the word correctly (dees). Why would English-speakers choose the word for ten, rather than the word for one (Unitie), or five (Sangsie), or 100 (Centsie)?

Well, let’s begin with the last question. English-speaking Lousianians, in fact, chose dix because it looks more like an English word than the others (see Folk Etymology). Second, it is true that all currency issued by Banque de Citoyens was referred to as dixies and, moreover, steamboat owners preferred that currency because the bank was one of the most stable and dependable in the South and its currency was accepted in both the French and English sections of New Orleans.

Remember, this was the 1850s, before the Federal Government printed money. Money was printed by private banks, most of which went under during the Civil War. The most dependable printed money in Lousiana at the time was that printed by the Citizen’s Bank. This made it highly desirable up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

We also need to keep in mind that the Mississippi was the main thoroughfare between the North and South at the time, the cotton-tobacco highway in the heyday of cotton and tobacco. For this reason, when departing from the North, and asked where they were going, stemboat captains and members of their crews often responded, “To Dixie Land,” meaning to the place where they planned to make lots of dixies.

Dan EmmettThe reason Dixie came to apply to the entire South is because the word wasDan Emmett in Blackface popularized in a song written by a minstrel musician and performer named Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904; portrait left, in blackface right). Emmett was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, served in the Army briefly in his teens, then joined the Cincinatti Circus and traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Kentucky. No doubt from time to time he traveled by steamboat, where he would have certainly heard the word. While in the circus he began performing “Negro” songs on his banjo. 
In 1842 he moved to New York City, where his career began to grow rapidly. He performed in blackface under the name of “The Renowned Ethiopian Minstrel” in bars, restaurants, and billiard parlors with several other performers, just as minstrel shows were becoming popular. The songs he composed during his carreer included several other popular minstrel tunes still alive today, including as “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Old Dan Tucker”.

His most famous composition was published in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War (1861-1866), “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land“. The song was already very popular in New York and surrounding area but when the War started, it became the veritable theme-song of the South. The color of the presumed singer was lost in the mayhem of that war and European Americans sang it even more heartily than African Americans.

Emmett’s song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln who said after the war ended: “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard our adversaries had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it.” So its appeal was general, throughout the nation. The meaning of the term “Dixie” had expanded to include the entire South, the Confederacy, as opposed to the North.


Riehl, Janet Grace, “Dixie: How a Ten-Dollar Bill Became a Song”, Riehl Life, Village of Wisdom for the 21st Century, September 18, 2009.

The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, Vol. XX, 1915, pp. 1-4 (

Plus the links in the text.

09-09-09 and Days Like That

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Cindy Louise Allen, a Facebook friend, posted this question on my ‘wall’: “Is there a word for days like today? 09/09/09?”

999Someone else asked the same question a couple of days ago and I haven’t been able to find an answer. At least we know it is not the symbol for the end of the world. Apparently, some have thought that 9/9/9 is, ignoring the slashes, 6/6/6 upside down, 666 being the symbol of Satan and those folks have connected the dots to the end of the world. I can’t see the dots, can find no hard evidence of the existence of Satan, and don’t think he would ignore the 20 that actually stands before the last 09 were I wrong. (I really miss the subjunctive.)

We have one of these days every year, so there should be a word out there somewhere. I haven’t looked all that hard; it is very problematic finding a word from its meaning and this is one I’ve never heard before or at least can’t remember now.

Has anyone else bumped into it?

Huxion Stew, Anyone?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Here is one from the weird and wonderful world of the world’s worst spellers. It was sent to me by Martha Hulshof.

“How about this one, huxion, found in an old 1956 cookbook from Downeast Yarmouth, Maine? My mother-in-law is from Holland and her mother used to cook like this, but she’s not sure what the word means. I looked on line and, remarkably enough, found refrence to the VERY SAME recipie but that author did not know the meaning of the word either! I wonder could you ascertain its origin and meaning.”

Hockshin stewI can’t prove this but I am so sure this is what happened. The stew is made from a hock (hough in Scotland, pronounced [hox]). The hock is that part of an animal’s hind leg just below the knee, thus located near the shin, so some people have used the word hockshin for a long time. It is still alive in parts of Northern England and Scotland, I believe; we have written documentation from as late as 1886. In some areas it has been reduced to ‘huxon’, only a letter away from huxion.

Now, what if we spelled hockshin by the Latin rules of spelling? Hoxion would certainly be a candidate and from hoxion to huxion is but a tiny skid. These types of spelling errors are common for words that are mostly heard and seldom seen in writing.

Further evidence is provided by preserved written examples of hox and huxen in the sense of “hamstring”. The examples are old and these words are clearly archaic but may well have been involved in the shift of CKS to X and the shift from O to U.

Bottom line, the spelling of the word hockshin has rambled all over the place in the past three centuries. That the spelling huxion was one of those places, doesn’t surprise me at all.