Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Loo-Loo’s Back in Town

December 19th, 2014

I just received a third guess about the origin of loo from Chris Stewart, an old e-friend in South Africa. Here is what he proposes:

I am surprised to find that this word first came to print in 1932. I do not know where I came across the following conjecture (or, if you prefer, urban legend), but it was probably my (British) dad.

The Brits & the French have an inextricably entwined history, and the language shows it. The Brits also like to make fun of things, especially the distasteful—and particularly love to parody the airs & graces of the high & mighty.

They thus have a habit of adopting French phrases and (mis)applying them, deliberately or not. In an earlier time (though for all I know, it still happens), when the joys of waterborne sewage were virtually nonexistent, one of the first tasks of the day was to get rid of the “night soil” from the chamberpot under the bed.

One expedient was to simply throw it out of the window. Where land is scarce and thus expensive, it is normal to build up, instead of out. In Europe & England, the result is multi-story dwellings; bedrooms tend not to be on the ground floor. And often in the city there is no front yard; the building is right on the street front.

To spare innocent passers-by the noisome prospects of being showered by night soil disposal, one would call out a warning. One such would be ironic use of the French, Garde de l’eau! “Look out for the water!” The phrase drifted in time from the original high court pronunciation to the common vernacular “gardyloo“.

Once flush toilets became the norm, the loo part persisted by association without the need to retain the warning part.

This all makes sense to me—even if it is a crock of, um, night soil.

Yankee Wounds Still Survive

December 6th, 2014

Mark B. Duwel sent me this bit of Southern culture which I thought you might enjoy. When a southern mother asks her child, “Show me where the Yankees shot you,” the well-educated Southern child will pull up his or her shirt/skirt and show you their…belly button. That is a signal for the parents to begin tickling the child.

A Collop of Land

November 15th, 2014

In response to the Good Word collop, Nicholas Leonard sent me this followup. I thought some of you might enjoy it, too:

Collop in the Irish Language, Gaeilge, is colpa. It was and is still spoken in some regions as a unit of grazing for various farm animals, the grazing habits of a cow being the yardstick for the rest. Of course, the quantity and quality between grazing on poor land and on rich land varied greatly, so a collop could be, in effect, a variable unit according to the quality of the land.

The following extract illustrates the vital importance of the collop in old Ireland as explained by the Tailor Buckley to Eric Cross (from The Tailor and Ansty, by Eric Cross, Mercier Press reprint 1972: Chapter 5, page 31):

“Well, collops was the old style of reckoning for land, before the people got too bloodyfull smart and educated, and let the Government or anyone else do their thinking for them. A collop was the old count for the carrying power of land. The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop. The grazing of a horse was three collops.”

“I tell you, that was a better style of reckoning than your acres and your yards. It told you the value of a farm. Not the size of it. An acre might be an acre of rock, but you know where you are with a collop. There is a man over there on the other side of the valley has four thousand acres of land and barely enough real land to graze four cows in the whole lot. But you would think he had a grand farm when you talk of acres. The devil be from me! But the people in the old day had sense.”

Colpa was also a term for the calf of the leg as well as for the handle of a flail or cudgel—two essential implements in olden times.

Games and Sports

November 11th, 2014

Today I received an e-mail from an old e-friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart. The Good Word restive brought returned a memory from his childhood…but wait, let him explain it.”

“I trust all is well with you? Here we have been having blazingly hot clear summer days, interspersed with days of lightning storms and sporadic torrential rainfall.”

“Today’s good word touched a nerve. As a child, I spent a term at home in quarantine due to having contracted hepatitis. It was frustrating and boring, so I read everything I could find in the house, including an entire set of encyclopedia cover to cover.”

“Then, there was a singular book called (if I remember correctly) The Encyclopedia of Games, Sports and Pastimes. This very comprehensive and wide ranging volume, which has sadly been lost to the family, took some effort to define terms.”

“A distinction which has stuck in my mind ever since, is that sports (which can indeed be engaged in purely for fun and entertainment) have a component tied to survival whereas, by contrast, games are merely for fun, even if they do teach you something.”

“I don’t recall the exact distinction between games and pastimes; perhaps it has to do with rules or the absence thereof. So, hunting, fishing, archery, swimming, wrestling and so forth are clearly Sports, whereas Rugby, tennis, soccer and the like are games. While I would consider the purpose of the card game solitaire to be a pastime, it must surely be a game.”

“So what is it that galls me? Seeing games (such as football, usually involving a ball) being referred to as sports.”

My response:

An interesting distinction you make between games and sports. I have never heard the distinction before, so it must belong to your idiolect alone.

However, having said that, there is a distinction that I have always thought the Olympic Committed should make between those sports that have inherent scores and those that must be judged, like ice-skating. I have often noticed that scores in figure-skating always reveal the native lands of the judges: they always score skaters from their country higher than other judges. If a skater is so unfortunate as to have no judge from his or her country, they do not have that prejudice built into their score.

I think sports that have no inherent scoring, should be excluded from the Olympics in order to exclude this sort of prejudice in scoring. Maybe we could fit this characteristic in your distinction. Sports would then include activities with no inherent scoring, while games would include those that do. Hunting, fishing, solitaire, wrestling would therefore quality as sports, while basketball, football, and baseball would qualify as games. Not far from the distinction you make.

We would have to have a third word for those activities that have winners without scoring. These would include racing, such as swimming, track, biking, all revolving around timing, times. We might include them with games that could be included in the Olympics without ruffling my feathers.

Attending to the Business of ‘Attendee’

October 6th, 2014

Aubrey Waddy recently wrote:

“Your use of the word attendee in today’s discussion of pied prompts me to ask whether you’ll do a piece on this somewhat ugly word, and discuss its tail.”

“Surely the way the suffix is employed in attendee is wrong, and strictly speaking: the form should be attender. The sad thing about this is that people [speakers of English] no longer know their -ers from their -ees, and these days -ee is appended incorrectly to all sorts of words.”

In fact, the rule that is ignored it this: –er is added to transitive verbs to mark the subject of the action; -ee is added to transitive verbs to indicate the object of the verb’s action (employer – employee). -Ee is added to intransitive verbs to indicate the subject of the intransitive verb. Whether this was a historical rule, which no longer holds, or a confusion of the syntactic and semantic levels, I don’t know. But there are traces of this rule in the derivation of “personal” nouns.

Escapee, standee, enlistee are some of the verbs that follow this rule: you can’t escape anything (though things can escape you); someone escapes from prison. The sense of enlistee is “someone who enlists in the army”, not enlists the army.

Attendee can be explained as one of these historically. Originally, it could be used intransitively with the preposition to: attend to, which was reduced to tend to. We still use this intransitive sense when we say, “attend to business”.

There was always confusion as to whether attend was a transitive or intransitive verb. Intransitivity won out in the grab for a personal noun ending; transitivity seems to be winning in the struggle to control the verb itself.

Revanchism or Irredentism?

September 10th, 2014

Mr. Simple recently dropped this line after reading revanche: “The Good Word for 9 September 2014 was revanche.  Considering its definition, would irredentism (a word of Italian etymology) be an apposite synonym or not?  If not, why?”

These two words are near synonyms. Revanchism refers to the desire to regain territory lost to a neighbor or that has gained independence regardless of ethnic or cultural consideration. Ukraine is culturally distinct from Russia today, and only historically ethnically related.

Irredentism (or irridentism) is the uniting of territories culturally or ethnically related to its/their “mother” culture or ethinc nation.  An irredentist attack could aggrandize one territory or several areas culturally or ethnically connected to the attacking nation.  It was originally an Italian political term (1879), referring to a party which advocated the recovery and union with Italy of all Italian-speaking districts subject to other countries.

So while the meanings of the two words overlap, but I wouldn’t say they were synonymous.

Refulgent: a Shiny Old Word

September 9th, 2014

ree-fUl-jênt • Hear it! •  Adjective

Meaning: Shining brightly, resplendent, illustrious.

Notes: This Good Word is a shining example of a word with a happy and supportive lexical family. The noun may be refulgence orrefulgency; however, if these do not please you, refulgentness is also available. The only choice for an adverb is refulgently.

In Play: In July of 1838 a young radical by the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the seniors of Harvard Divinity School, saying, “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.” Literal or figurative shining may be conveyed by today’s word: “Fred’s face was refulgent at hearing about his promotion as he emerged from the boss’s office.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word is the stem of Latin refulgen(t)s, the present participle of refulgere “to flash, reflect”, made up of re- “back” + fulgere “to flash”. Fulgere contains the same root we find in Russian belyi “white”, which underlies the name of the white whale, thebeluga, also the name of the sturgeon that produces probably the best caviar in the world. When the vowel and the L switched places (liquid metathesis), the same root went on to become English blue and German Blitz “flash”, as in the quick war known as a Blitzkrieg “flash war.” (Today we owe a word of gratitude to the refulgent mind of Brian Gockley, the voice of our podcasts, for suggesting this shining lexical item.)

Snicklefritzes and Spizzerincta

August 12th, 2014

I received this query from a long-time subscriber to the Good Word, David Lloyd-Jones:

“Seeing snickersnee made me wonder whether schnicklefritz had crossed over from German into English yet.”

“I searched on it, and was referred to shnicklefritz and shnickelfritz, and was appalled to find it in the Urban Dictionary (which I assume means black English), [defined as] a snob or a pretentious person.”

“In my experience it’s what my ver-ree conservative father-in-law called his grand-daughters, and snobbishness was far from his mind. It migtht have overtones of mischief to it, but cuteness is surely the dominant theme.”

My response to him is as follows.

Yet another reason why not to trust the completely unedited Urban Dictionary. You should see the entry for Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch as in Deutsch = German) written by someone who is not only ignorant of their culture, but who bears a major grudge against them. They are predominantly Amish or Mennonite and in my Pennsylvania county (Union) with a large population of these people, no crime committed by a Mennonite or Amish has ever been recorded.

Now, let’s get down to business. Schnickel is a real German surname and Fritz is just short for Friedrich. Put them together backwards and you get a pretty amusing appellation.

Schnicklefritz started out in English around here; it comes from Pennsylvania Dutch. The Pennsylvania Dutch brought it over from the Neckar Valley in Germany in the 18th century. Schnicklefritz is an affectionate name for a mischievous, overly talkative, or otherwise bothersome child.

In North Carolina in my day my father called his children spizzerinctum for similar reasons, to amuse by befuddling the child and in a gentle way to dissuade them from mischief.

Arguably this Word is Misused

July 9th, 2014

A long-time subscriber to our Good Word series and e-friend, Jackie Strauss of Philadelphia, recently wrote the following:

“I’m curious about the word arguably. People seem to use it to mean that what they’re saying is unarguable, that the fact they’re espousing is iron-clad and exactly correct in their opinion, e.g. “She is arguably the best tennis player the world has ever known.” Are they daring you to argue with that statement or saying it cannot be argued with?”

I think you heard people simply misusing the word. Arguably is what is known as a “sentence adverb”, an adverb that modifies the whole sentence. Sentence adverbs usually may be paraphrased as “It is arguable that (sentence)”. Further examples: Apparently (it is apparent that), he missed the boat. Surprisingly (it is surprising that), he arrived early.

Hopefully is little off key because it doesn’t paraphrase this way; the paraphrase of this word is something like “It is (to be) hoped”. But all languages are strewn with exceptions to every rule of grammar. The same problem faces thankfully. However, this rule applies nicely to all the other sentence adverbs, like basically, certainly, clearly, conceivably, curiously, etc.

Hopefully, this has helped.

Redundancy in the Way we Speak

July 4th, 2014

Rhonda Taylor sent a couple of redundant phrases some time back. I publish them here without comment:

  • hot water heater: In fact, it heats cold water. Call the plumber our hot water heater has a leak.
  • hose pipe: In fact, a hose is nothing but a flexible pipe. You kids quit squirting each other with the hose pipe.
  • ATM machine: In fact, ATM stands for “automatic teller machine”; you don’t need to add an extra “machine”. I have to stop at the ATM machine on the way.

What’s your favorite peeve of this type?