Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for February, 2012

Kissin’ Kin

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Nicholas King wrote a few days ago:

“I associate the word kin with the phrase ‘kith and kin’. Which leads me to ask two follow up questions:

  1. Whence the word kith?
  2. Might the German word for child, Kind, be a linguistic relative?”

Actually, the two are only accidentally similar. Kith is related to German kennen “be acquainted with”, and originally meant “knowledge, things known”. It survives disguised in two forms in English today, can and uncouth. I think there may be isolated Scottish dialects where they still say “I ken you” for “I know you”. It is also related to know and the -gnos- of Latin cognosco, etc. So kith originally referred to acquaintances, someone you know.

Kin, on the other hand, comes from the same source as gen- “give birth, create” found in words like generation, generate and, by the way, gynecology from Greek gyne “woman”. (Get the connection?) In German it popped up as Kind “child”.

When kith vanished from the English language, the phrase “kith and kin” remained. Since English speakers no longer knew the meaning of kith, they substituted a word they did know and which made some sense: kissin’ kin. Only a lithp separates the two words. This process is known as folk etymology about which I have written elsewhere.

What Makes Clams Happy?

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Happy as a clam means “extremely happy”. Have you ever thought about this phrase. What makes a bivalve mollusk happy, anyway?

The reason this phrase seems nonsensical is that part of it has fallen away. The original phrase was “happy as a clam at high tide”, that is, when the high tide makes the critters safe from beachcombers.

Knowing this makes me happy as a clam at high tide.

How did Turf Come to be ‘to Turf’?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A old verb is currently being tossed about the networks, to turf. It seems to mean “throw or kick someone forcibly out of some organization or office”. In these days of artificial turf, how did this noun turn up as a verb meaning this?

The verb derived from the noun was first recorded in 1598. It meant “to place or lay under the turf; to cover with turf”. By the 18th century it had metaphorized to “bury”, which is a kind of cover-up with turf.

It was only in the late 19th century that to turf turned up with the meaning it has today. What happened between the 18th and 20th centuries?

In the late 19th century the phrase on the turf came to mean “on the street(s)” in the sense prostitutes are “on the street”. So this sense of turf influenced the meaning of the verb, which became “to put out on the street”.

Now, since we use the verbal particles out when we say kick out, it was natural to use turf out as a slang replacement.

Dots or No Dots?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

D.D.D. Schulek-Miller raised a question today of which, I would think, many readers of this blog are unaware. Doug wrote:

“I grew up thinking, gosh only knows from where, probably a good grammar teacher in elementary school, that the abbreviation for Saint does not take a period after it. I suppose this helps us differentiate between street and Saint, but there is probably more to it.”

“Has that changed or am I utterly at sea on this without a grammatical St Christopher medal for help?”

They don’t place periods after abbreviations that contain the last letter of the word in the UK (and elsewhere): St Christopher, Dr Dolittle, Mr Smythe-Jones, Mrs O’Grady. In the States, we do: St. Christopher, Dr. Dolittle, Mr. Smythe-Jones, Mrs. O’Grady.

Speakers of English all over the world do place periods after abbreviations that do not end on the last letter of the word, e.g., abbr., n., v., adj., adv.

Doug, of course, is from the UK.

In a Pickle over Pickles

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

My old friend Richard Brockhaus long ago asked this question. Thank heaven he didn’t ask me his favorite question, the one he submitted to Saturday Night Live where it was read on a show: “What was Captain Hook’s name before he lost his hand?” That would have placed me in a pickle.

“We’re in a real pickle now” Sam says to Frodo. In my youth, being in a (baseball) rundown was called “being caught in a pickle”. Where does this come from?

In Fayetteville, NC, in the 1950’s to be or get into a pickle simple meant to be or get into a problematic situation. The girls used it more than boys, as I recall. The reason I seldom used it is that I was an interloper from red-neck country, where “step in s–t” was the preferred expression for the same meaning.

All of this, of course, is beside the point. According to most etymologists, the origin of the phrase “to be in a (pretty) pickle” is the Dutch language, where “in de pekel zitten,” “iemand in de pekel laten zitten” has been around for at least 400 years. The word pekel in Dutch can refer to the pickle or the brine that makes pickles. So the lost image is someone sitting in the brine waiting to become a pickle, probably a frightening thing when pickles were first being produced. This usage goes back to 1573, maybe 1562.

An interesting sidelight not unrelated to the meaning of the phrase: In the same century our British forebears used the phrase “in pickle” inside another phrase: “a rod in pickle”. This harkens back to the time when beating children with a rod no thicker than the thumb just didn’t do the job, so the rod used was left standing in salt brine to move the pain up a notch or two.


Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Printable Version

Pronunciation: -lên-tayn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. A loved one to whom a special card of love is sent on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14. 2 The card itself or some other gift given on St. Valentine’s Day to someone beloved.

Notes: The day celebrating love remains a proper noun, St. Valentine’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day. The noun valentine, as defined above, has long since become a common noun. The verb valentine, once used to describe birds serenading a prospective mate, has fallen by the wayside. The same is true, alas, of the blend Valentide, made from valentine and tide in the spirit of Christmastide. So we are left to send valentines to our valentines on St. Valentine’s Day.

In Play: May today be a lovely day.A Valentine’s Day present is shortened to just valentine these days: “That thoughtful guy, Amos, gave his wife a red lawnmower for a valentine.” Since this word is so closely associated with St. Valentine’s Day, the range of its possible uses is limited. Its association with the courtship of birds (See History), though, suggests we might revive the verb in figurative expressions like this one: “Fenwick seems to have valentined Maudy into marrying him.”

Word History: February 14 was originally a Roman feast day celebrating the beginning of the mating season of birds (hence the association with love). Chaucer was still aware of this for, in Parliament of Foules (1381), he wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” (For this was on Saint Valentine’s day when every bird comes there to choose his mate). The celebratory day somehow became associated with a saint named Valentine in the 3rd century, a priest and physician killed during the persecution of Christians by Claudius II. The connection between the two remains murky. (May everyone reading this be loved by someone special today.)

Dr. Goodword,

Short Shrift for ‘Short Shrift’

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Brad Stafford from Down Under raised this question ages ago:

Any chance of finding out where the phrase short shrift derives from?

Indeed, that is no great secret. Shrift means “confession, penitence”. Shrifts usually require long penances, sometimes up to a year or even a life-time. Short shrift was a brief penance given to a person condemned to death so that absolution could be granted before execution. Presumably, any shrift would be too, too short in that situation.

The verb that this noun is derived from is shrive, shrove, shriven “to listen to confession and render absolution”. It comes from Latin scribere “to write” and shrift from Latin scriptus “writing”.

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.

All I Hear is ‘Alls’

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I heard someone say this morning, “Alls I want is a standing order.” This misspeak is spreading like grass fire. I began hearing it in the 80s, too, but the instances were few and far between. It was mostly the locals on staff but I heard a few students say it, too. I quickly corrected them in a threatening voice.

We can’t be sure if it is alls (plural) or all’s (contraction). I can’t think of a grammatical function word that ends on an S that is so frequently used with all that it would form a contraction with it. All that and all are are frequently heard together, but a contraction with these words would produce all’t and all’re, respectively.

So we are forced back to my first hypothese—unless there is a third one. All are is a plural construction but most words occurring before are end on an S. So, for consistency, an S is added to all.

Do you have a better idea?

Baby Sign Language

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

It has become quite popular to teach babies to speak in American sign before they can speak orally. I’ve looked at several website promoting this activity, and none of them explain one thing. The process of teaching sign language to children is to repeat the word while showing the baby how to shape the sign with their hands.

The question naturally arises, if babies do not know a word, how can they recognize it and associate it with a sign?

Early in his distinguished career, Noam Chomsky wrote that comprehension is just the reverse of speaking. He never went into detail, probably because he soon discovered it isn’t true.

Comprehension far outpaces speech production. Even in adults, we recognize far more words than we can use in speech. Babies learn to comprehend far sooner than they can train the musculature of their speech tracts. The problem with tot speak is that they are unable to pronounce the large store of vocabulary that they can recognize.

I’m reminded of a funny story told by a famous semanticist. Her husband was sitting in the living room reading the paper when their 2-year-old daughter came in and said, “I want tootie”. Her father replied, “When I finish reading the paper, I will get you a ‘tootie'”. The child angrily retorted, “No! No want ‘tootie’. Want tootie!” She got her father’s attention, for he asked, “Do you want a cookie or not?” To which the child replied, “Yes. Tootie. I want tootie.”

The point of this story is that the little girl could perfectly well understand the word cookie and thought she was pronouncing it correctly. She could even tell her father was mispronouncing . But her vocal organs lagged behind her ears in development and she didn’t realize that she was mispronouncing it.