Monday, October 30, 2006

Feline Frisky


Q. I’ve been reading Tom Sawyer with my children, and we’ve come across a word that has us stymied: maow. Was that a slang term in Mark Twain’s day?
Amy/Suttons Bay, MI


A. Actually, it’s a case of imitative spelling. Let’s take a fast look at the word in context:


The night promised to be a fair one; so Tom went home with the understanding that if a considerable degree of darkness came on, Huck was to come and "maow," whereupon he would slip out and try the keys. [Ch. XXVIII]

All you got to do is to trot up Hooper Street a block and maow -- and if I'm asleep, you throw some gravel at the window and that'll fetch me." [Ch. XXVIII]

"Well, if I don't want you in the daytime, I'll let you sleep. I won't come bothering around. Any time you see something's up, in the night, just skip right around and maow." [Ch. XXVIII]

Tom's excitement enabled him to keep awake until a pretty late hour, and he had good hopes of hearing Huck's "maow," and of having his treasure to astonish Becky and the picnickers with, next day; but he was disappointed. No signal came that night. [Ch. XXIX]


So "maow" is a vocal signal worked out by the boys. It’s an imitation of the sound that a cat would make, the kind of sound that wouldn't alarm a casual listener or betray the boys’ presence. In our day, we're more likely to spell it meow.

Sidebar: All about the sounds cats make



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Friday, October 27, 2006

Luna Sea


While lunatic is used to designate a crazy or very foolish person, these days we use a much softened sense of this word. “He’s a lunatic” can be said with fondness and admiration; think Bill Murray.

A few centuries back, lunatic and insane were a technical pair. Insanity was a permanent condition, chronic in nature. Lunacy was intermittent; there were periods of lucidity.

But what triggered the bouts of lunacy? The ancient Romans thought they knew: it was the phases of the moon. A waxing moon brought lucidity; a full moon brought out the wolf man in us.

And the Latin word for moon? It was luna, of course.


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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Superscript

script
super


Q. Why do some words in the dictionary have raised numbers? Two examples are forte-1 and truck-2.

A. Those raised numbers are called superscripts, and they are used with words that have identical spellings but come from totally different sources.

For instance, you'll find pedo-1 and pedo-2 listed as prefixes. The first comes from a Greek word meaning soil; the latter comes from a Greek word meaning child. And even though children are notorious for getting dirty, the identical spellings are a sheer accident of history.


I'm going to pair that answer with another one:


Q. I was wondering about the word "stat" that doctors use for hospital emergencies. The dictionary definition is "a clipped form of statistic." Is that the origin of the word?

A. The "stat" in medical circles comes from the Latin word statim, an adverb which meant "at once" or "instantly." As it turns out, the medical "stat" has no connection with the word statistics.

That word ultimately came from a Latin word that meant position or form of government. State and statute share the root with statistics.

If you look at your dictionary again, you'll find stat-1 and stat-2. The spellings are identical, but the etymologies are not.

[NOTE: this program does not support superscripts]


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Monday, October 23, 2006

! ?


Q. Mike/NYC: "I love the use of 'slam' vocally to indicate an exclamation point. Is there a similar term for a question mark? A friend told me to use the word quirk, but that doesn’t sound right.”

A. Aside from its normal meaning (an idiosyncrasy) the Oxford English Dictionary has a couple of quirky meanings for quirk:

• A diamond-shaped piece of leather inserted at the junction of the fingers with the palm in some makes of gloves
• An irregular pane of glass

But it doesn’t refer to the question mark.

I think you’re looking for the word query: “A notation, usually a question mark, calling attention to an item in order to question its validity or accuracy.” [AHD-4]


You called the exclamation point a slam. Typesetters and printers also refer to it as a bang, a screamer, or a smash. Obviously, it’s a punctuation outburst that should be used sparingly; it’s a mark that borders on hysteria!!!!



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Friday, October 20, 2006

Bend Sinister


Q. I'm reading a mystery novel and have come across the phrase "bend sinister." Sinister makes sense because evil is being threatened. Does the phrase imply that disaster is just around the bend or corner?

A. Not a bad reconstruction, but bend sinister is a term from heraldry. It's something that would appear on a coat of arms. Odds are that you're reading a British mystery novel.

The bend sinister is a band that runs from the bottom left side to the upper right side of a shield. (Sinister means "left" in Latin.) It often signifies that there was bastardy in the family lineage, but there are exceptions, depending on nationality.

There is also confusion as to whether the band should run from top left or top right. A definitive source (James Parker, A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry, 1894) says this: "As shields are always supposed to be upon the arms of the bearer, it is his left-hand side which is meant; consequently the sinister is on the spectator's right hand."

One more reason why the rich are different than you and me.


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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Knapsack


Knapsack

This word figures prominently in the song Happy Wanderer, a German import
sung by generations of American Scouts:

“I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track.
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.”

The –sack half of the word is obvious. Americans tend to use the word backpack, but it’s the same convenient carrier.

The history of the knack- portion is a bit less obvious, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it seems to come from
German and/or Dutch words meaning to eat or to bite. Those words, in turn, came from an earlier word meaning to crack something or to chip a stone. The implication, therefore, is that it’s the kind of eating where you bite off small pieces of something, rather than sitting down to a sumptuous dinner.

So the knapsack was a snack sack—food on the run.



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Friday, October 13, 2006

Danger, Will Robinson!


JEOPARDY

Aside from being the thinking person’s favorite game show, today jeopardy is a relentlessly one-sided word. It screams danger and peril, the possibility of losing life, property, reputation, freedom, or anything else that we prize.

But when the word started, it was less one-sided; it was more balanced and equitable. In Old French, it was geu parti, and it meant a divided game, divided in the sense of a 50/50 chance for either side to win.

It involved a game that depended upon strategy, such as chess, a game that could go either way. The geu segment derived from the Latin jocus, a jest or a joke. No one's life was in danger.

By the 14th century, jeopardy had picked up the univocal sense of risk and danger, a radical departure from its original meaning.


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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fearful/Fearsome



Q. What do you make of this sentence, from a Sunday feature article? "Given their massive size, dinosaurs must have been fearful creatures."

A. Fearful was the wrong word to use. Break fearful apart, and you'll see that it means full of fear, which would not be characteristic of the biggest kid on the block.

The writer should have used fearsome, which means able to cause fear. That –some word part, in the sense of characterized by, shows up in awesome, bothersome, cumbersome, gruesome, and dozens of other words, and in most cases, the direction is usually outward; the effect is on others, not on the subject itself.

Be careful, though. There are at least three –some suffixes, all with different meanings and different sources.

• characterized by: adventuresome, handsome, lonesome
• of a certain number: twosome, threesome, foursome
• pertaining to the body: centrosome, chromosome, monosome


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Monday, October 09, 2006

Fulcrum



A fulcrum is defined as the point or support on which a lever pivots. I always associate it with classical physics, probably because of Archimedes’ famous boast: "Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." That place to stand would have been his fulcrum.

However, according to the origin of the word, Archimedes could have saved his energy and stayed in bed. The Latin verb fulcire meant to support or prop up, which fits in nicely with the fulcrum/lever image.

But when the noun fulcrum developed from that verb, it had a quite specific meaning. It meant a bed post or foot. There were usually four of them, and their function was to raise the bed from the drafty floor.


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Friday, October 06, 2006

Archaic/Obsolete


Q. What's the difference between an archaic word and an obsolete word?

A. Both dictionary labels warn you that the word in question may be hopelessly out of date and should be replaced with something more contemporary.

Archaic or obsolete words survive because people still read the literature of earlier centuries and need to know certain terms. Try getting through the King James Version of the Bible without a glossary, for instance.

An archaic term is no longer in use except in special cases such as poetry or liturgy; it comes from an earlier time.
It will sometimes show up in print as a misguided attempt at humor: Forsooth, that rapper really gets down, dawg.

An obsolete word is stone cold dead. It simply hasn't been used for the last 250 years, even in poetry or liturgy, and it survives merely as a historical curiosity. (Recall Hamlet's "Who would fardels bear . . .)

Then there's the term obsolescent, which refers to a word in the process of becoming obsolete. Alexander Pope had it right: "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."


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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Try TO vs. Try AND


TRY TO vs. TRY AND


Q. Could you comment on these two sentences:

• Please try and avoid excessive noise in the
lunchroom.
• Please try to avoid excessive noise in the
lunchroom.

I was taught that the second version is correct.
Nanette/Cheboygan, MI


A. Most grammarians will endorse your position, at least in formal writing or speechmaking. The tradition is that when the first verb is a command or a strong request
(the imperative mood), the verb that follows should be in the infinitive form (to + verb):

Try to avoid excessive noise.
Come to see us when you get a chance.
Be sure to get an application form on the way out.

However, in informal use, the word and often replaces the word to:

Try and avoid excessive noise.
Come and see us when you get a chance.
Be sure and get an application form on the way out.

Remember that grammar rules are arbitrary; they are not based on something inherent in the language, something that can never change. They are based on custom or style, realities that can and will change over long periods of time.

Think of grammar rules as temporary conventions that may work for a few generations, sometimes longer. The only reason they are useful is to ensure that we are all on the same page. When the page turns and new rules evolve, there is no problem, no violation of something sacred, as long as we still understand each other. Understanding is the point; grammatical conventions are merely a tool.

In practice, this means that the formal rule articulated above is not engraved in stone. Here’s an example from 1813 that breaks the rule. The writer is Jane Austen, one of the finest English stylists in the last two hundred years.

“Now I will try and write of something else.” [Letter, January 29, 1813]

Not even the Grammar Police will dare to arrest her for that.


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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Little Pitchers


Q. My grandfather used to say "Little pitchers should be seen and not heard." Do you know what that means?

A. I can reconstruct a meaning, though I never heard it expressed exactly that way before.

Children used to be called “little pitchers” because their head and prominent ears looked like a container for liquids with projecting handles. [Remember Alfred E. Neuman?]

The standard saying was, "Little pitchers have big ears," meaning, "Watch out⎯the kid's listening! Be careful what you say!"

There was another saying, "Children should be seen and not heard." So it looks as if your grandfather combined the two.

"Little pitchers have big/wide ears" showed up in early collections of proverbs, such as John Heywood’s Proverbs (1546) and Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of Proverbs (1721).


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Monday, October 02, 2006

Brrrrrrr!


Q. I need to extract some industrial-strength words for freezing or frozen from an unabridged dictionary, but I don't even know where to begin.

A. That very same problem is what inspired me to produce my Word Parts Dictionary. Section II of that work is a reverse dictionary. You can look up concepts such as freezing and see if there are any word parts that bear that meaning.

You'll find the combining forms cheima-, crymo-, cryo-, frigo-, gelo-, kryo-, pago-, psychro-, and rhigo-, along with the base forms alg- and glac-.

Armed with those word parts, you can now look in the appropriate places in an unabridged dictionary and extract words such as cheimaphilic, crymophilic, cryogenic, frigorific, gelation, kryometer, pagophagia, psychrometer, rhigosis, algid, and glaciation.

And if you have an unabridged dictionary on disk or on line, you can run a wildcard search and find those word parts even if they don't begin a word.


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