Thursday, August 31, 2006


An easel has become the unmistakable symbol of an artist.

It is the upright frame, usually tripodal, upon which the blank canvas is placed, and which can even be used to display the finished painting. It is functional, inert, and unmoving.

So it is startling to learn that the word originally meant an ass—not the insulting kind or the fat-laden kind, but the beast of burden. The Dutch word ezel referred to a donkey, and a donkey was a working animal that carried things.

Ultimately, the word tracks back to the Latin asinus, which referred to the animal best suited to carry a burden. Eventually, it extended metaphorically to a braying fool in that language.
So loading a braying animal with goods to be transported morphed into a device used to hold beautiful paintings.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Swell Foop

Pete: What does "fell swoop" mean?

In Old English, fell meant fierce, savage, and deadly. Fell comes from the Old French word "fel," meaning grim, merciless, or terrible.

Just about the only place you're likely to see it is in the phrase "one fell swoop." But the root word "fel" (a base meaning wicked) is found in the words "felon" and related forms such as "felony" and "felonious."

A swoop is a plummeting, sweeping motion, the kind that a hawk, falcon, or eagle would make in scooping up prey.

Shakespeare used the image in exactly that sense in Macbeth. Macduff, hearing that his entire family has been slain, says, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam [mother] at one fell swoop?”

In fact, fell was one of Shakespeare’s favorite adjectives, as a small sampling will show.

Othello: “More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!”
Hamlet: But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword Th' unnerved father falls.
Hamlet: “this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest”
Henry V: never may ill office, or fell jealousy, Which troubles oft the bed of blessed marriage, Thrust in between the paction of these kingdoms,
Henry VI, Part I: Fell banning hag, enchantress, hold thy tongue!
Henry VI, Part III: “While we devise fell tortures for thy faults.”
Julius Caesar: “All pity choked with custom of fell deeds”
King Lear: “in fell motion With his prepared sword he charges home
My unprovided body”
Macbeth: “Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose”
Richard II: “Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
Than when he bites, but lanceth not the sore.”
Timon of Athens: “This fell whore of thine
Hath in her more destruction than thy sword”
Troilus & Cressida: “ To-morrow do I meet thee, fell as death;
To-night all friends.”

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walkin' the Walk

Tim: What do you call it when someone repeats the same word, but with a shift in the part of speech? I’m thinking of she knows how to walk the walk.

This is a figure of speech called ploce. The general consensus is that the phrase arose in the African-American community; particularly, it was a feature of a preaching style.

That preachers would have been attracted to this device is no surprise. We find it in Timothy 6.12: “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.”

In the 1950s, I used to listen to a Chicago R & B station that featured a DJ named Al Benson. One of his steady advertisers was Pekin Cleaners, and Al's tag line was, "You gotta walk that walk and talk that talk and give it to me straight, 'cause if you ain't Pekinized, you ain't rekanized."

I think it may simply be an accident of juxtaposition, but Mark Twain used “talk the talk” sequence:

"I know several other trades and the argot that goes with them; and whenever a person tries to talk the talk peculiar to any of them without having learned it at its source I can trap him always before he gets far on his road."
What Is Man? And Other Essays (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917) 338

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Molly Cat

Q. Marly asks, "I can’t determine if “molly cat” refers to a promiscuous cat or to a promiscuous woman. Any ideas?"

A. The words moll or molly derive from the name Mary. In Britain, if the original name contained an “r”, it was common for the nickname to contain an “l”. Prince Harold became Prince Hal; Sarah became Sally.

Consider an early 20th century use: gun moll. The second word designated a disreputable woman. In fact, going back to 1604, it was a synonym for a prostitute. A moll house was a house of prostitution.

Similarly, by analogy to the freewheeling feline, cat is a slang word for a prostitute. Clients in a cat house are catting around.

So using the information above, you’ll be able to observe the term molly cat in context to see if it refers to a promiscuous cat or to a loose-living woman who is catting around.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Monday, August 21, 2006


Since the current meaning of wink is a quick closing and opening of an eyelid, we may fail to appreciate the full dimensions of this word.
Many people will associate a wink with a covert signal to a confederate as a scam is being perpetrated--a deliberate blink behind the victim’s back to signal villainy.

Originally, to wink was to close one’s eyes completely. It came from Old Dutch and Old Germanic words that referred to turning, lurching, unstable motion, wavering, and vacillation. This evokes an image of a blindfolded (or hooded) person stumbling and lurching because he cannot see his way.

Why would someone do that? Think of executions, where the prisoner has a canvas or cloth bag over his head. Or think of a mugging, where one criminal sneaks up behind the victim and throws a coat or other barrier over his head while his companion grabs any valuables. Finally, think of a hawk or falcon on a perch, its head covered by a leather hood to calm it.

So, from a literal hoodwinking of that sort, we have moved on to the figurative hoodwinking in which a person is deceived and the truth is hidden from sight.

All this brings to mind the last stanza of a poem by Eugene Field: Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one's trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Friday, August 18, 2006

East is East

Q. Is there a legitimate choice between disoriented and disorientated?

A. Don't lose your bearings on this one. Here's the problem: we already had a word to express getting a sense of direction (orient yourself before moving on) when some asleep-at-the-switch genius decided to make a verb from orientation, thus creating orientate.

It's simply not needed, and there's a general feeling that short words are preferable. So when you negate the word and use it as an adjective, make it disoriented. Disorientated is not only longer, there's a certain ugliness in the superfluous syllable.

OK, then⎯which way is east?

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Q. Which is correct: unrelated or nonrelated? I have encountered both.

A. Sometimes the meanings of non- and un- are quite distinct. For instance, a nonprofit organization is not supposed to turn a profit; if it does, it has a problem. On the other hand, a business that is unprofitable is supposed to reap profits, so it’s in trouble if it doesn’t.

Likewise, a nonscheduled airline operates without a regular schedule of flights; it runs charters on demand. But an unscheduled landing implies that there is a normal schedule that has been altered because of an emergency.

But this does not seem to apply to unrelated and nonrelated, which are treated as synonyms in sample documents, such as the Minnesota Code of Law:

“A guardian may be related or unrelated to the child. A child living with a nonrelated legal guardian shall be eligible for foster care…”

and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Unrelated individuals. These are persons who are not living with any relatives. Such individuals may live alone, reside in a nonrelated family household, or live in group quarters with other unrelated individuals."

In practice, the words seem to be interchangeable.

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ollie, Ollie

Q. Where did "ollie ollie oxen free" come from? For that matter, exactly what does it mean?

A. As you went on to mention, you heard it used when children played Hide and Go Seek.

It probably started out as "All-ee, all-ee, outs in free," a call from the person who was "it" letting those hidden (the outs) know it was safe to come in. The -ee was added for emphasis and for its piercing quality; I remember sitting on my bike outside a friend's house and hollering, "Oh, Ralphieeee!" at the top of my lungs when I was young.

There are many regional variations, most of them the product of dialectical interference or regional preference. It reminds me of the old parlor game, Telephone.

Variations include
• Ollie Ollie in come free,
• Oly Oly oxen free,
• Ollie Ollie oxenfreed,
• Alley Alley oats in free,
• Oly Oly ocean free,
• All-ye All-ye outs in free,
• Oly Oly Olsen's free.

That last one comes from Minnesota. Check with Lena.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Every day, 10,000 people celebrate their 50th birthday.
Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Cartons of Cartoons

We consider cartoons to be a form of entertainment, something humorous but ephemeral. In times gone by, cartoons served a far more serious purpose.

We find the seminal word carta in Latin, where it meant paper. As it was assimilated into Italian and French, it came to mean strong, heavy paper, a type of pasteboard. Rather than being covered with frivolous, inconsequential drawings, such pasteboard was used by serious artists to plot preliminary drawings of what were to become international masterpieces. Think of Da Vinci’s notebooks.

If you’ve ever moved from one place to another without hiring a moving company, you’ve scurried around looking for a cartoon’s close relative: cardboard cartons to be filled with your earthly possessions.

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Monday, August 14, 2006


Guidewords are the two words that appear at the top of every dictionary page to indicate the first and the last entry to be found on that page.

The neophyte plods all the way through columns A and B on many successive pages before finding the word needed. The veteran skims through guidewords exclusively, ignoring the rest of the page until he or she pounces upon the only alphabetically viable pair.

In an attempt to get more dictionary users to use guidewords, I am encouraging people to look for odd pairings, accidents of juxtaposition. Precisely which guidewords will appear at the top of a page depends solely on where headwords end up, and that is the result of typesetting considerations: type size and style, line spacing, line length, number of lines per page, column width, justification, and so on. Thus, no two dictionaries will have the same guidewords.

To get you started, here are some couples that will tickle your funny bone.

• morale morgue
• Assyriology astronaut
• bellyband bend
• reality principle rebel
• T-bone teal
• unworldly Upper Canada
• sexton shaft
• paddock paint
• news agency nibble
• rocking horse roguery
• glacier glass
• dreamer drill
• skylight slather
• pinch Pinkerton
• frosting fry
• shipmaster shock
• pornography portico
• bracket fungus brain
• minister mint
• Beard beautiful
• sack saddle soap
• fiction field corn
• truckload truss
• precipitation predicament
• fourfold fox trot
• sediment seep
• funny bone fuse
• Anáhuac anarchism

Check out Mike's latest book here:

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Friday, August 11, 2006


We debauch people when we corrupt their morals or principles. We lead them astray from their duties or proper allegiances. Often, impurity or unchaste actions are involved. Ethical erosion is at the heart of the matter.

That’s why it’s interesting to learn that the word arose from carpenters and masons chipping away at building materials.

The carpenter would rough-hew a timber, as opposed to building fine furniture with perfectly smooth surfaces. In other words, he would hack away at the timber just enough to produce a relatively flat surface; you could still see the adze marks when he was finished. Such timbers often acted as roof supports, and to this day, that rough-hewn aspect is a prized feature. In Germanic, bauch at one time meant a beam.

In the case of the stonemason, he would hack away at a row or course of stones in order to make them serviceably flat. At one point in history, a bauche was a hut built of stones. So, just as a builder would change materials from their original, pristine state, so would the debaucher hack away at the soul of the innocent.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Enough Hatred to Go Around

Q. This exchange appeared in a nationally syndicated column. The question was, "Someone who dislikes all people is a 'misanthrope.' Someone who dislikes all women is a 'misogynist.' What's someone who dislikes all men?" The answer was, "If you don't count manhater, there's no word for that."

A. The correct answer is that there is a word for that. Misandry means a hatred of men; the practitioner would be a misandrist. So, from general to specific, we would chart the words this way:

Misanthrope (everybody)
misogynist (women) misandrist (men)

The miso- form comes from the Greek word misos, hatred. It is used to form some interesting words, among them misology (hatred of reason), misoneism (hatred of innovation), and misozooic (hostile to animals).

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Young & the Restive

Q. I caught this in my newspaper:

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Heavily armed insurgents battled U.S. and Iraqi troops in the restive northern city of Mosul on Friday where at least four policemen, including a top officer, and four militants were reported killed.

Shouldn’t it be restless instead of restive?

A. It’s impossible to call that one without more context, but the words are frequently--and incorrectly--treated as synonyms.

Restless means marked by a lack of quiet or repose. If the reporter was dwelling on the incessant action, the agitated activity, he/she should have used the word restless.

Restive means resisting control, obstinate, stubborn. If the reporter was emphasizing an insurgency that refuses to give in, then he/she correctly used the word restive. The word may also be used to describe a balky horse.

In summary, restlessness is internal and doesn’t need external causes. Restiveness is always the product of external coercion or restriction.

Since Mosul has a reputation for being a hotbed of resistance, my guess is that the reporter was right on target.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

On the Cob

Q. I stumbled upon a web site specializing in corny jokes for kids, and I suddenly thought, “Why do they use the word corny?”

A. One explanation refers to music. Jazz musicians began to use the word in the 1920s to refer dismissively to music they considered old-fashioned. It was like saying, “that music belongs at a barn dance.” That would put it in rural areas like Iowa or Nebraska or other corn capitals.

Another explanation is that seed catalogs used to scatter unsophisticated jokes among the ads. Farmers began to refer to them as corn jokes, shortened eventually to corny.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Monday, August 07, 2006


Claques were the laugh tracks of earlier centuries.

A claque was an organized body of hired applauders in a theater. The word comes from the French claquer, to clap.

There is evidence that the playwright Philemon, among others, used them in 4th century B.C. Athens. The Roman Emperor Nero fancied himself an actor, but to be on the safe side, he had thousands of his soldiers on hand to give a standing ovation.

The world of opera has always had a place for claques. In fact, when a singer gave his or her debut at La Scala, the first order of business was to pay off professional claques to guard against booing.

But the whole business reached a zenith in 19th century France. While Jean Daurat bought up tickets to his plays to give away to enthusiasts a few hundred years earlier, it was one Monsieur Sauton who, in 1820, opened a Parisian office to supply claqueurs to performers who needed them.

Claquers developed specialties: there was the raucous clapper, the guffawer, the sobber, the encore manipulator, the man who ran around during intermission ranting about how great the performance was, and so on.

In time, the meaning transferred to any body of subservient followers always ready to be enthusiastic yes-men.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Now I Know My A B C's . . .

Q. Did it ever occur to anyone that if you don't know how a word begins, you can't look it up in a dictionary?

A. Yes, but alphabetical order is firmly entrenched in dictionary construction. The problem, as you point out, is that the first letter of a word does not always look like it sounds. The following chart, which matches initial sound and spelling possibilities, appeared in my Handbook for Basic Writers (Prentice Hall, 1991), co-authored with Nancy Sheehan.

Initial Sound / Possible Spelling

• A as in ace: a (able), ae (aerate), ai (AIDS), ei (eight).

• CH as in chips: ce (cello), ch (church).

• E as in even: ae (Aesop), e (eviction), ea (eagle) ee (eel), ei (either).

• F as in fog: f (feeling), ph (photography).

• H as in happy: h (horror), wh (who).

• I as in ice: ai (aisle), ay (ayatollah), ei (Eiffel Tower), i (isolation), is (island).

• J as in job: g (giant), j (justice).

• K as in kitten: c (cowboy), ch (chorus), k (kilogram), qu (queue).

• KW as in quick: cui (cuisine), kw (Kwangtung), qu (question).

• N as in nine: gn (gnat), kn (knee), n (notice), pn (pneumonia).

• O as in over: au (au gratin), o (opening), oa (oak), ow (owner).

• R as in rest: r (reading), rh (rhetoric), wr (writing).

• S as in sister: c (cigar), ps (psalm), s (suspect), sc (science), sz (Szechwan).

• SH as in shut: ch (chef), sch (Schultz), sh (shovel), su (sugar).

• T as in turn: pt (ptomaine), t (tension).

• U as in use: eu (eulogy), ew (ewe), u (usually), yu (Yugoslavia).

• UH as in up: a (about), o (opponent), u (ugly).

• Z as in zero: cz (czar), ts (tsar), x (xenon), z (zebra).

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Kaffee Mocha

Mocha (from the Arabic al-mukha) is a Red Sea port city in Yemen. Coffee as a popular beverage came from trees cultivated in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa.

Arabs held a tight monopoly on coffee exports beginning in the 15th century, and most of the coffee beans shipped went through the port of Mocha. Europeans began to enjoy coffee in the 17th century. By 1700, there were 3,000 coffee houses in London alone. They became the in place to meet and to learn the news of the day.

Café mocha as we know it consists of one ounce of espresso mixed with steamed milk and chocolate. In Europe, chocolate at first was a drink, not something to eat, so the similarities between coffee from Mocha and an unsweetened bitter chocolate drink are apparent.

Mocha is also the name of an interactive software environment for system specification and verification.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Q. Which is correct: "His symphony is composed of five movements" or "His symphony is comprised of five movements"?

A. Short answer: never write or say is comprised of.

Long answer: Comprise means to include; compose means to make by putting parts together. So saying "…is comprised of" is like saying "…is included of." Here are two guidelines to follow:

(1) The whole comprises (includes) the parts.

• The United States comprises 50 individual states.
• The movie A.I. comprises three sections.
• The federal government comprises three separate branches.
Substitute “includes” to ensure that the correct word really is “comprises.”

(2) The parts compose (add together to create) the whole.

• The United States is composed of 50 individual states.
• The movie A.I. is composed of three sections.
• The federal government is composed of three separate branches.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Get the Lead Out

Lead is defined as a soft, malleable, ductile, bluish-white metallic element, extracted chiefly from Galena and used in containers and pipes for corrosives, solder and type metal, bullets, radiation shielding, paints, and antiknock compounds. Its symbol is Pb, and that’s because the Latin word for lead was plumbum.

Originally, plumbers were people who worked with lead, and pipes and fixtures used in a house’s plumbing were part of their output. Today, if we have clogged pipes or wayward plumbing, we call a plumber.

Some commentators believe that one component leading to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was chronic lead poisoning, which is called plumbism, not surprisingly. Others disagree, pointing to other substances as the culprit.

Other terms evolved from the Latin word for lead. A plumb or plumb bob is a weight on the end of a line used by builders to establish a true vertical. Informally, plumb came to mean truly, utterly, and completely, which is why Gabby Hayes could refer to someone as "plumb loco." And a plumb line--a weight on the end of a line--was used to establish water depth.

Check out Mike's latest book here:
or at

Visit the Senior Corner at
(substitute @ for AT above)
Dona Sheehan's prints