Friday, September 29, 2006

On the Case

Q. Are capital letters and uppercase letters the same thing?

A. Yes, they are synonyms. Once upon a time, they were referred to as majuscules, from a Latin word meaning larger, while lowercase letters were called minuscules, from a Latin word meaning smaller. Capital meant principal in Middle English.

I find the origin of the terms uppercase and lowercase fascinating. In the early days of printing, the compositor sat at a bench in front of two cases filled with individually crafted letters. He would pull them out letter by letter, selecting the small letters from the lower (and closer) case, and the less frequently used capital letters from the upper case.
Sidebar: capitalization rules

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Climb Up, Stay Up

Q. I'm annoyed by a mistake that I hear all the time. Years ago, an English teacher made it very clear that you can climb only one way: up. But I hear people saying things like, "Climb down from there." That's wrong, isn't it?

A. You had me worried for a minute, since I've been saying climb down since I was a youngster. I'm at a loss as to why your teacher was so adamant about this. The first few definitions do speak of rising, but in The American Heritage Dictionary, one of the examples is, "climbed down the ladder." Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary balances one sense (to ascend) with the other (to descend by the same means).

It would appear that your teacher stopped reading after the first meaning, but when there are multiple meanings to a word, all of them must be factored in.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Only the Lonely

Q. I often have trouble placing the word only in a sentence. Any hints?

A. You and millions of others. Only can be used as an adjective (an only child) or as a conjunction (I would have stayed, only they told me to go), but it's the adverb only which can lead to unintended consequences. The rule is that it must be placed as close as possible to the term it modifies. Check these examples to see how position affects meaning:

• Only my brother buys pork rinds. [No one else in the family]
• My only brother buys pork rinds. [I don't have another brother--adjective]
• My brother only buys pork rinds. [He doesn't eat them]
• My brother buys only pork rinds. [Nothing else in the shopping bag]
• My brother buys pork rinds only. [Nothing else in the shopping bag]

The most likely meaning is the first, so only is placed right in front of my brother to make that clear. Of course, depending on the brother/sister count in your family, the second sentence could be a contender, too; context would be the deciding factor.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My Nana

Q. I was watching a Dracula film the other night (guilty pleasures!) and for the first time it struck me that when Count Dracula introduced himself as Alucard, he was disguising his name by saying it backwards. Does this practice have a name?

A. The first time I heard of this, it involved two aging college roommates greeting each other sorority fashion⎯Enaid and Nasus. Innocent bystander though I was, my designation became Ekim. I found out a few years later that ananym is the term for this strange practice.

In addition to being a form of disguise, a pseudonym, it is sometimes used by authors who love wordplay. Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1871) was Nowhere under cover.

Oprah’s production company is named Harpo.

And a very curious ananym came into the language through jailbirds. They would refer to a neves stretch, meaning a seven-year sentence. (A Dictionary of the Underworld, by Eric Partridge)

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Explosive Applause

The base -plod-/-plos- helps to form some interesting words. Both forms are derived from the Latin verb plaudere, to clap the hands.

displode [obs] To drive out or discharge with explosive violence: literally, pushing or clapping something away.

explode [obs] to clap or hoot a player off the stage: literally, to clap out

implode To burst inwards: literally, to clap or smash in

supplode [obs. rare] To stamp with the feet: literally, to applaud beneath.

We still use implode and explode, but the clapping sense has long been lost.

That meaning remains more explicitly in the related base -plaud-. Thus, we have applaud (to clap the hands in expression of approbation) and plaudits (praise given when an action is enthusiastically received; directed applause.)

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Pygmy comes to us from the Greek where it was a measure of length from the elbow to the knuckles. It was also used to designate a fist. Ancient history and tradition (Homer and Herodotus among other writers) posited pygmies in Ethiopia and India. European explorers first encountered races of very short people in the 19th century in Africa.

While it started as a reference to physical height, it soon transferred to anything small of its kind, then to the insulting lack of intellectual or moral depth, as in pygmy-minded and pygmy-spirited. Pygmoid and pygmean mean having the characteristics of a pygmy.

Getting back to the influence of fist (the Greek stem pug-), we find pygmachy, an obsolete word meaning a boxing match, pugilist, a boxer, pug-glove, a boxing glove, pugil stick, a military training device, pugnacious, tending to use one’s fists, and the obsolete pugillary, a small writing tablet held in the hand.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fool Me Once . . .

A fool is a simpleton, someone who acts in a stupid manner, a person deficient in intelligence or judgment. The explosive -f- at the start of the word helps to make it sound like a contemptuous insult.

It started out as the Latin word follis, a bellows. Bellows are used to increase the heat of a fire by force-feeding it oxygen. In a portable bellows, two projections are grasped, one in each hand, and with a pumping motion, air enters one end of the bellows, is compressed in a (usually) leather bag, and is expelled forcefully through a nozzle. To a blacksmith, it is an essential tool.

In the Late Latin era, the word was extended to mean a windbag or an airhead -- therefore, a fool. As William Caxton put it in 1481, “There ben more fooles than wysemen.”

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Plowing Straight Ahead

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines delirium:

1. A disordered state of the mental faculties resulting from disturbance of the functions of the brain, and characterized by incoherent speech, hallucinations, restlessness, and frenzied or maniacal excitement.
2. fig. Uncontrollable excitement or emotion, as of a delirious person; frenzied rapture; wildly absurd thought or speech.

Curiously, the word comes to us from the field of agriculture--literally. In Latin, a lira was the ridge between two furrows. A furrow is the narrow trench made in the earth with a plow, especially for the reception of seed. Setting plants in parallel lines is an efficient way to maximize available space.

To go de lira (away from the direction of the furrow) was to begin plowing in a crooked line, to deviate from the straight path.

So the word denoting a confused mental state started out as the act of a careless or inattentive farmer.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Accent-uate the Positive

One definition of accent is a prominence given to one syllable in a word, or in a phrase, over the adjacent syllables. In classical languages, this prominence was signified by pitch. Emphasis on words ranged over a musical fifth. In time, the musicality ceased to be a feature, and degree of force replaced it: a light flick vs. a heavy punch. Many oriental languages depend on an almost musical shift in tone to convey meaning.

Accent is also used to signify the quality of utterance peculiar to an individual, locality, or nation. Broadly speaking, most people can tell whether an individual has a New England accent, a southern accent, or a Midwestern accent. Those experienced enough can also tell whether they are listening to a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a German, a Pakistani, etc.

Poetry depends on accent -- alternating strong and weak syllables in set patterns -- to constitute the rhythm or measure of the verse.

Finally, accent is the word used to denote something that emphasizes or highlights a decorative style -- even a color or light that offers contrast.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Utter, Don't Mutter

To utter is to declare something in an audible voice, to express one’s thoughts vocally, but there are many more shades of meaning, some of historical interest, some still current. The -ut- portion of the word is related to the word out.

Particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, to utter was to offer something for sale or for trade.

It then evolved into putting something into circulation, such as currency.

Then it took on the cast of illegality, as people circulated (uttered) counterfeit currency or forged bank notes. In legal terms, to utter and publish a commercial instrument is to declare, either directly or indirectly, through words or action, that it is genuine. It is a crime to utter a forged check, and you will find the phrase in court records published in local newspapers.

As an adverb, utter means completely, totally, absolute, extreme. We may be utterly confused when we encounter utter darkness; utter chaos may ensue. Here, the adverb is related to the word outer.

Whatever you do, don’t misspell it as udder.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Of Rivals & Rivalry

A bucolic scene:

It’s eight in the morning on a warm July day. The sun has risen high enough in the sky to produce a dappled effect on the forest floor. Insects buzz and crickets chirp, providing an almost orchestral background, and somewhere near by, honeybees in a hollow stump add a distinctive layer to the sound.

A stream runs through the woods, not headlong like a stampeding herd, but steadily and purposefully, fingers of water testing the staying power of stones and caressing the banks on both sides in a proprietary way.

On the west bank of the stream, a young boy sits patiently, bamboo pole in hand, his hooked worm struggling downstream with the current, almost out of sight. Unexpectedly, across the way, a young girl emerges from the woods, plops down on a grassy part of her bank, and sets up her fishing line. She raises her eyes and sees the boy. They stare at each other for a moment across the water, then shyly wave at each other in acknowledgement.

Now let’s shatter the peace. This is where the words rival and rivalry come from: two people living or situated on opposite banks of a stream, competing for the same resources. The Latin word rivus is encapsulated here: a stream.

And so we have business rivalries, where the long knives are out and industrial espionage is a possibility. We have military rivalries where bullets rip through flesh and bombs obliterate entire villages. We have political rivalries where reputations are besmirched and dirty tricks prevail.

I’m telling you, it’s a can of worms.

[Sidebar: Richard Sheridan, The Rivals]

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Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11

Friday, September 08, 2006

Going to the Dogs

In most Teutonic languages, the generic word for dog was hound (hund). For some reason, Old English began to favor the word dog (docga).

Since primitive times, dogs have been treated as workers and companions, and this has resulted in many proverbs, comparisons, and colorful phrases.

• a dog's life
• barking up the wrong tree
• (her) bark is worse than her bite
• clean as a hound's tooth
• crooked as a dog's hind leg
• die like a dog
• dog-and-pony show
• dog collar
• dog days
• dog-eared book
• dog eat dog
• dogface
• dogfight
• dogging it
• doggy bag
• dog-logic
• dogpaddle
• dog someone's footsteps
• dog tags
• dog tired
• dogtoothed
• dogs of war
• dog-watch
• every dog will have its day
• fogdog
• friendly as a wet dog
• going to the dogs
• hair of the dog
• hangdog look
• hotdog
• hound someone
• hound's tooth
• in a dog's age
• in dog years
• in the doghouse
• keep something at bay
• lapdog
• let sleeping dogs lie
• like a dog with two tails
• muzzle that dog
• not a dog's chance
• not fit for a dog
• old dog, new tricks
• pup tent
• puppy love
• put on the dog
• raining cats and dogs
• raise one's hackles
• run with the hounds
• see a man about a dog
• shaggy dog story
• sick as a dog
• sore dogs (feet)
• sundog
• throw to the dogs
• top dog
• underdog
• you’re dog food!

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

One Up

Ace is a word with a wide range of meanings.

An ace in dice or in playing cards is simply a one. It comes, ultimately, from the Greek word for one: eis. In games using racquets, such as tennis or badminton, an ace is an unreturnable serve, and it is worth one point. In golf, an ace is a hole in one.

In American slang, an ace was a dollar bill. There is a paradox here: while one is the lowest of numbers, it often represents great value, something held in esteem, such as aces in the game of poker.

This is why high praise is conveyed by “he’s an ace of a guy,” why an expert is an ace in her field, and why a crack aviator was called an ace in World War I. It’s also why, when you ace a test, you have received a very high grade.

May you all have an ace in the hole.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Pasta Loves Mama

Allergies aside, most people love pasta. It makes a hearty and filling meal. The word came from a word meaning dough or paste.

Words that are related are paste, paté, (hamburger) patty, and pasty -- seasoned meat or fish turnovers, notoriously prominent throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Latin, Italian, and German have contributed to the pasta vocabulary. Italian tends to favor shape names; Latin and German favor source or container.

capellini = fine hairs
conchiglie = shells
ditalini = little thimbles
farfalle = butterflies
fettucine = small ribbons
fusilli = twisted
lasagne = pot
linguini = little tongues
macaroni = dumpling
manicotti = small muffs
mostaccioli = small mustaches
noodle = paste with egg
penne = quills
radiatore = radiators
rigatoni = grooves
rotini = spirals
ruote = wagon wheels
spaghetti = little cord
vermicelli = little worms
ziti = bridegrooms (perh. because shaped like a penis)

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Coin of the Realm

We use the word bogus to mean spurious, fake, sham, insincere. It became a fad word thanks to Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, among others.

There is some confusion about the word’s origin. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a clear citation from 1827, but it seems to have been in American use a few decades earlier. In any case, it referred to counterfeiting coins.

The 1827 citation comes from the Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph. As a strange-looking apparatus used by counterfeiters was confiscated, a man in the crowd that had gathered called out, “It’s a bogus!” So the counterfeiting device was a bogus, and it produced bogus coins.

The computer crowd ran with the word in the 1960s, producing a number of satirical words. Quantum bogodynamics was the name given to the humorous theory. The idea was that trouble-making particles called bogons could cause computers to break down and humans to behave like idiots. Used car salesmen, TV evangelists, and suits were prime sources of bogons, and high levels of bogosity (measured by bogometers) were to be avoided at all costs. Autobogophobia reigned at the time: hackers feared becoming bogotified.

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Monday, September 04, 2006


I know that I have felt like an idiot countless times in my life, but we’re sometimes too harsh on ourselves—or on others.

Once upon a time, this word was used as a technical classification of mental abilities, but that type of classification is now understood to be inaccurate and offensive. We use idiot as an epithet for someone we consider stupid or reckless.

In ancient Greek, the word had a range of meanings. At its core, it meant a private person, but that had more negative connotations than we would expect today. A private person selfishly catered to his own affairs; he did not engage in public service. A private person had no professional knowledge; she was a layperson in the limited sense of that word. And a form of the word idiot was also applied to foot soldiers—the cannon fodder (in later centuries) of the military world.

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Friday, September 01, 2006


Speech can be garbled—distorted, scrambled, difficult to understand—if you use a cheap cell phone. And facts can be garbled if data are twisted or used in a misleading way.
Comprehensive research and a grasp of reality are our best friends.

But the word started out in a much more mundane way. Following connections through Anglo-Norman (garbeler), Arabic (girbal), and Latin (cribrum), we discover that the connecting idea is a sieve—that meshed or perforated device used for sifting, straining, and purifying. In the old days, when you garbled something—especially precious spices—you were removing debris and impurities, making the spices enticing to use and to sell.
By the 17th century, it had come to mean confused or distorted speech or ideas.

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