Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hiding an Ox

“Nice play, ox!” is the friendly gibe that we used to direct at a buddy during a sporting event when he missed an easy layup or dropped a hot line drive. The memory of that phrase set me to thinking about words that conceal an ox. [Don’t ask; it’s what I do.]

First of all, there’s Bucephalus, the famed horse of Alexander the Great. Legend has it that King Philip, Alexander’s father, was about to turn down the offer of a horse because no one could tame it. The pre-teen Alexander asked for a shot at it and succeeded where grown men had failed. The horse was his. The steed must have been as big as a Clydesdale, because the name Bucephalus comes from the Greek bous, ox, and kephale, head. Hi, Ho, Ox Head!

The mind is capable of many strange aberrations, but one of the weirdest that I've encountered is called boanthropy. This is a mental illness in which a man believes himself to be an ox. The word is an amalgam of bous, ox, and anthropos, man. Grab your bible and turn to Daniel iv. 33. There you’ll find this: “The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers, and his nails like birds' claws.”

An ancient style of writing was called boustrophodon. It involved writing from right to left, then dropping to the next line and writing from left to right. The writer would keep alternating directions for each line. The action was just like plowing a field with oxen: when you reached the end of the furrow, you reversed direction. Boustrophedon came from bous, ox, and strophes, turning.

Bulimia is an emotional eating disorder. It features bouts of extreme overeating alternating with self-induced vomiting, purging, or fasting. Active athletes may have the appetite of an ox, but it’s totally inappropriate and harmful when it’s the product of fixation with body image. The word bulimia comes from bous, ox, and limos, hunger.

Buphthalmos is the name given to a form of infantile glaucoma. The most noticeable symptom is gross enlargement of the eyeball owing to increased intra-ocular pressure. The word comes from bous, ox, and ophthalmos, eye.

So, you see, hiding an ox is easier than catering to an 800 pound gorilla.

SIDEBAR: Public demonstrations of oxen at work

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Uncoding Colors

I purchased a new printer recently, and it differs from my previous printer in that there are now four cartridges to work with instead of the earlier, simpler two (one color and one black). Now I deal with black, magenta, cyan, and yellow. Interesting words.

Black comes from the Old English blaec. In turn, that descended from the extended Indo-European bhleg-, a root connected to shining, flashing, and burning. The color of something burned certainly is appropriate to black, and that same root form led to flame, conflagration, and flammable. Oddly enough, variations of that root led to bleached, blonde, and other bright concepts. Strange bedfellows.

Yellow comes from the Old English geolu, and it derived from the Indo-European ghel-, a root that referred to bright colors and materials, including gold. Gleam, glint, glimmer, glitter, and glisten are related; we’re talking serious bling here.

Cyan is a greenish-blue, and it comes from the Greek word kuanos, dark blue. It was used by classical writers to describe the iridescent hues of a serpent, the shiny plumage of a swallow, the deep color of the sea, and shimmering masses of oiled hair.

Magenta is a purplish-red, and unlike the previous three, it owes its name to a battle and a place, the town of Magenta in northwest Italy. Prior to the 1859 battle, the color was known as fuchsine (François-Emmanuel Verguin) or roseine (Edward Chambers Nicholson). Someone decided that the word magenta would tickle the public fancy more. It also saved the world from tittering typos resulting from misspelling fuchsine.

Sidebar: listen to the U.K.’s Magenta

Sidebar: a short history of Italy

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Heavenly Daze

Q. My husband and I listen to a local PBS station (WIAA, Interlochen), and every day it offers a feature with an odd title. We’d like to look up the word, but we can’t figure out how to spell it. It sounds something like uffemirus. Joy/Leland, MI

A. One of the problems with our phonetic system is that the very same sound can be represented by more than one letter combination. Here you have a word that starts with the schwa sound (uh), which can be represented by any of the vowels, depending on the circumstances. It’s followed in this case by the steady sound of air passing over the lower lip, held gently in place by the upper teeth. That could turn out to be f, ff, or ph.

The word you’re looking for is spelled ephemeris, and it refers to an almanac or calendar that contains astronomical or meteorological predictions for any given day: when the sun will rise and set, what stage the moon is in, which stars will be prominent, etc.

It comes from a Greek word that breaks into two parts: epi-, on or upon, and hemera, a day. So it’s a list of what shall transpire in the sky upon a given day. For a while, astronomers used a time construct called ephemeral time to predict precisely when stellar events would take place. This English major isn’t even going to pretend that he understands the math, so let me simply refer you to a web site:

Sidebar: U.S. Naval Observatory

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

A.M. / P.M.

Q. Can you sort out 12:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.? In other words, which one means noon and which one means midnight? Mike/Gaylord

A. On air, I gave an answer that I thought was eminently logical. If it’s 11:59 p.m., then the next minute to tick by will take us into the wee hours of the morning, making midnight 12:00 a.m. One minute later, it’s 12:01 a.m.

Correlatively, if it’s 11:59 a.m., 12:00 p.m. (noon) comes next, and a minute later, it will be 12:01 p.m. Piece of cake. Then I went home and did some research.

It turns out that the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual puts it precisely the other way around. It says that 12:00 a.m. is noon, and that 12:00 p.m. is midnight.

Thoroughly confused, I sat down and did some thinking. It suddenly hit me that if you consider the nighttime 12:00 as the first minute of the morning, then it makes sense to think of it as a.m. However, if you think of it as the last minute of the evening, logically it’s p.m. The same happens at midday: if 12:00 is the start of the afternoon, then it’s p.m., but if it’s the last minute of the morning, it’s a.m.

So which viewpoint is correct? I have decided to heed the advice of the Greenwich Mean Time site. This summarizes their position: both a.m. and p.m. start at 12:00:01 if you are using a twelve-hour clock, not at 12:00:00. And both a.m. and p.m. end at 11:59:59, not at 12:00:00. Consider this: if you were to write midnight and noon as 6-digit numbers, they would come out as 00:00:00. In other words, they have no meaning; they are ciphers.

I compare it to the yellow stripe down the middle of the highway. That line is not part of the left lane, nor is it part of the right lane. It is the point of demarcation that divides right from left. Likewise, midnight and noon don’t take sides; they are moments of demarcation.

So from now on, there’s no 12:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m. in my life; it will be noon or midnight. Better yet, perhaps I should switch to the 24-hour clock.

Sidebar: During a discussion, my wife observed that this seems to have become my version of “how many angels can fit on the point of a needle?

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Thursday, February 15, 2007


The -esque suffix is of French origin, and it usually betrays a word borrowed from the Italian, a word that ended in -esco in that language. In turn, that was a descendent of the Latin ending -iscus. Some well-known -esque words include arabesque, picturesque, statuesque, and grotesque. In each case, the suffix means "resembling or in the manner of."

Grotesque is particularly interesting. Literally, it referred to “a painting in the manner of a grotto.” The reference was to the chambers of ancient Roman buildings uncovered by archeological digs. They often contained murals of a fanciful nature, where combined human and animal forms were portrayed. The element of fantasy was very strong in these pictures, and distortion and exaggeration were the norm.

Ultimately, the word was applied to anything bizarre or absurd--people, events, landscapes, statues, etc. For a while, the British slang term grotty--a derivative of grotesque--referred to something unpleasant or miserable.

The word grotto was a descendent of the Greek verb kruptein, to conceal. Thus, crypt, cryptic, encryption, and Kryptonite are kissing cousins.

Sidebar: grotesquerie

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Throw Some Rheum on the Barbie

 In Medieval Latin, the term for rhubarb was rheubarbarum, and there’s a story behind that. The rheu- segment goes back to the Greek word Rha, an ancient name for the Volga River. Evidently, rhubarb grew on the Volga’s banks, but Russia and Turkey were also famous as conduits for exporting the Asian plant to the rest of the European market.

The -barbarum portion meant foreign; it shares the root of our word barbarian. Unreliable folklore says that that word comes from the Latin barba, beard, because clean-shaven sophisticates considered bearded foreigners to be insensitive and uncultured. The truth seems to be that barbarus was simply an approximation of the unintelligible sounds of foreigners speaking, much as we might use the dismissive blah-blah-blah.

Oddly, the word worked its way into theatrical performances. When the hubbub of a crowd scene was needed--noisy voices but nothing intelligible--the actors would be instructed to repeat the word rhubarb, but not in synch with each other. The result was an unsettling clamor of voices. Try this with your friends at your next barbecue.

Rhubarb also signifies an argument or altercation. Radio announcer Red Barber used it all the time, and he often referred to Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, as “the rhubarb patch” because of the frequent altercations among umpires, players, and managers.

SIDEBAR: The Rhubarb Compendium

SIDEBAR: Old Fashioned Rhubarb Recipes

SIDEBAR: Rhubarb: the movie

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Going to the Hounds

Q.    Why do they use the word hound to describe someone who collects rocks -- a rockhound?          Tom/Cincinnati, Ohio

A.    The word hound comes from an old Teutonic word meaning a dog. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that ultimately it may come from a verb meaning to seize, thus making the noun mean “the creature that seizes.”

As time went on, different strains were promoted to hunt specific animals. Thus, we have the buckhound, deerhound, foxhound, and staghound. The origin of greyhound is uncertain, although the OED insists that it has no connection to the color. The bloodhound doesn’t just track blood, of course; scent hound might be more accurate.

As applied to humans, hound signifies someone enthusiastic about a pursuit, usually an avid amateur or hobbyist. It is an analogy based on the eagerness and relentless pursuit exhibited by all those working dogs.

You learn what the enthusiast’s interest is by focusing on the first element in the word, the one that precedes -hound. Common compounds are rock hound, news hound, food hound, and publicity hound. In 1926, American Speech magazine applied the term comma hound to composition teachers. And all of my readers are word hounds.

SIDEBAR: Listen to selections from The Hound, WFMU

SIDEBAR: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Ants Have Uncles, Too

My wife and I were listening to a recording of Oliver Twist while we were traveling last weekend, and my ears perked up when a word that I had not heard in ages impinged upon my consciousness. Here’s the passage, from Chapter XLIV:

"Fagin walked towards his home, intent upon the thoughts that were working within his brain. He had conceived the idea--not from what had just passed though that had tended to confirm him, but slowly and by degrees--that Nancy, wearied of the housebreaker's brutality, had conceived an attachment for some new friend. Her altered manner, her repeated absences from home alone, her comparative indifference to the interests of the gang for which she had once been so zealous, and, added to these, her desperate impatience to leave home that night at a particular hour, all favoured the supposition, and rendered it, to him at least, almost matter of certainty. The object of this new liking was not among his myrmidons."

Myrmidons has gone through almost two dozen spelling changes in its long life, but they are all due to translations of the Iliad [2, 684]. The Myrmidons were fierce, war-loving inhabitants of the Isle of Aegina, and Achilles was their leader in the Iliad’s time frame.

At one point in their early history, goes the story, the entire population of the island was destroyed by a plague. King Aecus, king of Aegia and son of Zeus, prayed to his father for help. During his prayers, his eyes lit on a nearby ant hill, and he fervently prayed for citizens as numerous as the long line of ants. Zeus transformed those ants into humans, and the island was repopulated. Not by coincidence, the word for ants was myrmekes. An expert in ant behavior is known as a myrmecologist.

By Shakespeare’s time, the word meant a member of a bodyguard or retinue; a faithful follower; one of a group or team of attendants, servants, or assistants. By mid-17th century, it had taken on a negative cast: a member of a gang or army adhering to a particular leader; a hired ruffian or mercenary. By the 1800s, myrmidon referred to an opportunistic or sycophantic supporter; a hanger-on.

It has been popular in literary use, as a sampling will show:

• 1609 William Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida, V. vii. 1: “Come here about me you my Myrmidons, Marke what I say, attend me where I wheele.”

• 1666 Samuel Pepys, Diary,VII. 204: “He spoke contemptibly of Holmes and his Mermidons that came to take down the ships from hence.”

• 1748 Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, III. xiii. 88: “Who knows what consequences might have follow'd projected visit, followed by my Myrmidons?”

• 1749 Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, V. XV. v. 224: “The Door flew open, and in came Squire Western, with his Parson, and a Set of Myrmidons at his Heels.”

• 1816 Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall, ii: “His myrmidon on this occasion was a little red-nosed butler.”

• 1821 Walter Scott, Kenilworth, I. i. 5: “Which produced the following dialogue betwixt the myrmidons of the bonny Black Bear [sc. hostler and tapster].”

• 1896 Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis, x. 87: “He felt that it was more appropriate to receive her at home than to go in the rôle of a myrmidon to the palace.”

• 1927 Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry, iii. 45: “No timid Jesus did he preach, but the adventurer who had..dared to face the soldiers in the garden, who had dared the myrmidons of Rome and death itself!”

SIDEBAR: How to get rid of ants

SIDEBAR:   Hear Adam Ant

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Wrap That Hoe

We are loath to let go of meanings that we learned as youngsters. As with our children, it’s sometimes painful to let words grow up and expand in different directions.

For instance, I have a listener who calls in every few months to bemoan the “loss” of the word gay. I really don’t think that he’d be using it in the older sense today except when discussing the Gay Nineties, but I accept that his distress is real.

There’s another word that has been transmogrified in recent decades, but I don’t hear any rumblings or protests. That word is rapper, and I found it delightfully instructive to discover what it really means by going back to some turn-of-the-century (20th, that is) dictionaries.

• One who raps or knocks; specifically, a spirit-rapper.

• One who, or that which, raps or knocks; specifically, the knocker of a door.

• An extravagant oath or lie. [Slang]

• In coal mining, a lever with a hammer attached at one end, placed at the mouth of a shaft or incline for giving signals to the banksman, by rapping on an iron plate.

• A complainant, plaintiff; a prosecutor. [Slang]

• An itinerant purchaser of antiques; esp. one who buys valuable objects cheaply from credulous householders.

• A rattle or clapper.

• Something remarkably good or large.

• One who counterfeits coins.

• One who raps at house doors to ask for food; a tramp. [Slang]

*Sigh* Let us now long for the good old days, when hoes were agricultural implements.

SIDEBAR: rap music

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Myth Takes

Repetition is often mistaken for veracity, and nowhere is that more true than with folk etymology. When a phony phrase origin takes root--especially on the internet--it ends up in millions of homes via incessantly forwarded e-mail. As Jonathon Swift once said, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

It’s surprising where some of these folk explanations take root. I’m reading Dr. Frank Luntz’s book, Words That Work, and so far I’ve come across two askew and/or erroneous stories.

On page 57, as part of his illustration that English is a “living, dynamic, shifting challenge,” he turns to the initialism OK. He hedges some bets (as we would expect from a pollster) with these words: “. . . some scholars believe that it owes its origins to the 1840 presidential campaign, representing the initials of President Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook. . . . It is also an abbreviation for the German orl korrect (all correct) that entered into the lexicon at the same time.”

Some tweaking is needed. OK developed in 1839; New York Democrats founded the OK Club to support Van Buren a full year later. And far from being of German origin, it was invented by a group of Boston twits, the urban dandies of their day. As a snotty parody of lower class speech and spelling, they concocted OK and said that it stood for the dialectical English orl korrect.

To read about the dozens of other fanciful stories “proving” where OK came from, you would do well to consult Michael Quinion’s entry in World Wide Words.   Also, see two other trustworthy sources:
• The Word Detective at
• Word Origins at

The second myth that Doctor Luntz includes is found on page 73: “. . . (and by the way, the term rule of thumb is based on an archaic rule where a husband was not allowed to beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb) . . .” The fact is, people have been using body parts as an ad hoc measuring device since time immemorial. Rule in this saying is an abbreviation for ruler, not a euphemism for despotism.

• The length of the first joint of the thumb is about an inch long in an adult carpenter.
• A single pace covers about a foot.
• A long, extended step represents about a yard; ask any golfer looking for the appropriate club.
• The distance from the tip of the nose to the outstretched fingers of an adult is also approximately a yard.
• The width of the palm topped by a closed thumb is about four inches, and horses were measured by hands.
• The distance from fingertips to fingertips when your arms are stretched as wide as they can reach is roughly six feet. (Fishermen, remember?)

Reliable online references for this include
• World Wide Words at
• Word Detective at
• Word Origins at

I’m certainly not picking on Dr. Luntz exclusively; his work just happened to be at hand. Words That Work is interesting and informative, and if truth be told, I’ve been suckered in my day by language myths (Amazons and sincere are two that come to mind).

The next time that you hear a story perhaps too slick and too good to be true, check out the home pages of the three references listed above.

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