Thursday, June 28, 2007


Hans from Traverse City, Michigan, called the show last Tuesday to propose a new piece of folk etymology. If enough people pick up on it, it will soon show up in your home as a forwarded e-mail.

Hans was doing some yard work, in the course of which he used a wheelbarrow. His whimsical speculation was that the barrow in wheelbarrow is actually a corruption of burro, the pack animal. After all, both are used to transport materials. Over the course of centuries, he speculates, the word burro was misheard, misspelled, and otherwise mangled until the transformation was complete.

As Fritz told his mother after his brother fell over a precipice, “Look, Ma, no Hans!”

The Oxford English Dictionary will have none of this. Instead, it soberly reminds us that barrow comes from an Old English word meaning” to bear or to carry,” and it showed up in print as barewe in the year 1300. The earliest model was a framework with handles projecting fore and aft so that two men could carry things. To distinguish it from a wheelbarrow, it was called a hand-barrow.

The spelling barrow was also used for several wildly unrelated items:

• a mountain or a hill
• a gravemound formed from dirt or stones
• a castrated boar
• a conical basket into which wet salt is placed to drain
• A long sleeveless flannel garment for infants

Of course, those in the know realize that the original spelling was wheelborrow, and that it targeted the practice of neighbors who use your yard equipment, then forget to return it.

SIDEBAR: burrito recipes

SIDEBAR: Listen to In The Valley Of The Shadow Of The Handbarrow and other St. Paul bands. (Go to August 7, 2005.)

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Monday, June 25, 2007


Melissa from Interlochen, Michigan, asks whether there is a connection between the word naught (nothing) and the word naughty. There is.

The word naughty is a rather insipid word these days. We use it to describe the mischievous infractions of children, the accidents of our pets, or as a synonym for saucy.

But in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a word used to describe industrial-strength wickedness. It ranged from morally evil to turpitudinous to licentious.

One element of the word naught started as the word no and its variants in Scandinavian, Old High German, Frisian and Saxon. It had the force of not, in no way, by no means. So the earlier version of naughty described a person who had no ethical standards or qualms, who in no way was a good person.

An alternate spelling (still used in Britain) is nought, but American English seems to prefer naught.

SIDEBAR: read an earlier blog comparing naughty and nice [March 2, 2007]

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Out of the Fold

David from Central Lake, Michigan, asks about the phrase, out of the fold.

A fold is a pen for domestic animals, especially sheep. It comes from the Old English falaed, an enclosed space.

It is used as a metaphor for people united in belief or in common purpose. Thus, to be out of the fold is to abandon belief (if a voluntary act) or (involuntarily) to be ostracized as a form of punishment or censure. Elvis has left the enclosure.

Given the bucolic setting of the ancient world, it was a familiar biblical image.
Numbers 32:24 (KJV) ”Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep; and do that which hath proceeded out of your mouth.”
Jeremiah 23:3 “And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.”

In the New Testament spiritual sense, it reflects the concept of the Good Shepherd. “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” [John 10:16]

It also showed up in secular settings.
The Farmer’s Law, 8th c. Byzantium: “If a slave, while trying to steal by night, drives the sheep away from the flock in chasing them out of the fold, and they are lost or eaten by wild beasts, let him be hanged as a murderer.”
• “It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered."—Thomas Jefferson, notes on the State of Virginia, c..

SIDEBAR: the sheep game

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


The Latin verb crepitare has given us several interesting words, most of them used in a medical context. In that language, crepitare meant to crackle.

So, a crepitant sound is a rattling or crackling, something that will be heard in the lungs of a pneumonia patient, or the sound produced by joints or broken ends of bones rubbing together.

Crepitation is the noun form signifying a crackling noise, and to crepitate is the verb form.

Decrepit means worn out from old age, illness, or hard use, and decrepitude is the noun signifying that state or condition. Figuratively, things have cracked open.

To decrepitate is to subject crystals or salts to high heat so that they crackle and disintegrate.

Finally, a crepitaculum is the name herpetologists use for the rattler of the rattlesnake.

SIDEBAR: listen to crackles

SIDEBAR: rattlesnake sounds:

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Friday, June 15, 2007


< . . .2-year-old Border collie with a rakish expression. . .>

Kimber/Traverse City: “The word rakish was used in the Record-Eagle to describe a border collie. I thought rakish meant sexy looks, rather than distinctive looks. Why use the word to describe a dog?”

Rake is an old-fashioned term for a man of loose habits and immoral character; he was an idle dissipated man of fashion. “Dissolute rake” is the usual pairing that we find. William Hogarth did a series of paintings with the title, A Rake’s Progress. The adjective rakish attached to this word certainly has a negative connotation: disreputable.

But another rake refers to the slope of a ship’s mast, a deviation from the vertical that gives it a sleek and fast look. Dashing and jaunty would be synonyms. This seems to be the sense that the reporter was applying to the pooch.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, other uses of rake have included the familiar implement used after mowing, the throat and jaws, a rough path, a vein of ore, and a herd of colts. An adaptable word, indeed.

SIDEBAR: Rake, the magazine

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pomp and Circumstance

The pairing of the two terms in Pomp and Circumstance came up on Tuesday’s show, principally because this is graduation season and Elgar’s composition is played countless times this month.

Pomp comes from a Greek word meaning procession, parade, or display. In Latin, circumstantia signified a surrounding condition, and one of the meanings acquired in English was a ceremony or a formal presentation. So, Procession and Ceremony would be a synonym.

The pairing was forever established by William Shakespeare in his Othello, Act III, Scene iii:

Oh now, for euer
Farewell the Tranquill minde; farewell Content;
Farewell the plumed Troopes, and the bigge Warres,
That makes Ambition, Vertue! Oh farewell,
Farewell the neighing Steed, and the shrill Trumpe,
The Spirit-stirring Drum, th' Eare-piercing Fife,
The Royall Banner, and all Qualitie,
Pride, Pompe, and Circumstance of glorious Warre:
And O you mortall Engines, whose rude throates
Th' immortall Ioues dread Clamours, counterfet,
Farewell: Othello's Occupation's gone.

That might have passed from memory had not Sir Edward Elgar used it as the title of his suite of marches written for the coronation of King Edward VII.

Arthur Christopher Benson later added words to Elgar’s music:

Land of Hope and Glory,
Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee,
Who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set,
God who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.

SIDEBAR: Elgar--NPR program with music

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Saturday, June 09, 2007


Not only is this a useful word, it’s fun to say. Try it aloud: propinquity. There’s something light and leaping about the experience, like a chickadee hopping from branch to branch. (Ok, so I may be in this mood because I just replenished the seed in the bird feeder.)

It comes from the Latin propinquus, near or neighboring, and it means a closeness or proximity. It has also been used to signify a nearness in time, not just distance. In addition, it can refer to kinship or to similar dispositions or belief.

Variations include propinquant (adjacent), propinquate (proximate), propinquous (close at hand), and the obsolete propinque (immediate, proximate). In sociology, researchers study the Propinquity Effect.

I was surprised and delighted to discover a rare antonym: longinquity, remoteness in space or in time. I think that’s a word that deserves to be revived. It is related to the also rare longinque (distant).

SIDEBAR: The Edge of Propinquity

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Brand New

The Bay Area Senior Advocates held their Senior Expo 2007 in Traverse City today, so I had the opportunity to see and speak to a number of listeners (Words to the Wise, AM-580, WTCM). One gentleman asked me about the phrase “brand-new,” which a vendor was using in her promotional literature. Dinner is over, so here goes some on-the-fly research.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the “brand” part originally comes from the name of a piece of wood burning on the hearth. There were also literary references to the fire brands of Jove, God, Phoebus, and the Archangel that stood guard at the gates of Eden after the Fall. Flame is a dominant feature.

Later, brand referred to the mark made on livestock (or criminals!) by an iron heated in the fire, red hot like a brand of wood.

So, the underlying idea is something fresh and glowing from the fire or furnace or kiln. After a while, the burning, glowing object cools down and gets an ashy coating, but the moment it was pulled fresh from the fire, it was brand-new.

It appears in print in 1570 in John Foxe’s gloss on 2 Corinthians, v. 63: “New bodies, new minds..and all thinges new, brande-newe.”

In 1594, Shakespeare used a parallel phrase in Richard III, I. iii. 256:
Peace, master marquess, you are malapert:
Your fire-new stamp of honour is scarce current.
O, that your young nobility could judge
What 'twere to lose it, and be miserable!
They that stand high have many blasts to shake them;
And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces.

SIDEBAR: brandnew, the band

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Yeah, but . . .

I don’t like to think of myself as a curmudgeon, but sometimes my nostrils quiver in indignation when someone defends a dubious usage by proclaiming, “But it’s in the dictionary!” Even though it may be, I want to retort, “Yeah, but . . .” to such simplistic reasoning.

For many years, a battle has raged between the prescriptionists, who believe that a dictionary exists to tell us what is right and must not be changed, and the descriptionists, who believe that a dictionary exists merely to tell us how words are currently being used.

I have lived long enough and studied enough to know that meanings and grammar conventions and punctuation styles are seasonal. They are not, like the Ten Commandments, set in stone. So I have no trouble lining up with the descriptionists. Dictionaries shouldn’t lay down laws that can’t possibly be enforced.

On the other hand, total perspective comes only from knowing a fuller context, from knowing what came before our own brief time. That’s why God invented the Oxford English Dictionary and founded it upon historical principles.

In brief, here’s what I’m saying: you may find a meaning or usage in a dictionary because it developed from ignorance and misunderstanding, and now it has infected large numbers of users, forcing editors to acknowledge its bastardized existence. The fact that it’s listed in a dictionary does not excuse it from its embarrassing origin, nor does it mean that a writer’s job is over after he or she has zipped through one dictionary.

Here’s a case in point. The May edition of a local magazine in northern Michigan includes this headline: “Honing in on the Great Lakes’ most mysterious shipwreck.” I know that dictionaries say it’s a variant of homing in, but it’s a variant based on earlier mishearing or ignorance, so don’t be surprised if you hear titters and snickers in the background when you use it.

Let’s check the Oxford English Dictionary for historical perspective. Back in the 10th century, a hone was a stone or a rock. By 1325, the meaning had evolved into a whetstone, a hard, fine-grained stone used for giving a sharp edge to cutting tools, including knives and razors. Finally, by the 19th century, honing was metaphorically applied to refining a skill--sharpening your wits, as it were.

Since the 10th century, home was where you lived. It referred to people for centuries, but by the 19th century, to home began to refer to pigeons that were trained to return home to the loft after being released in sport. To home in became entrenched when 20th century warfare developed weapons that could be guided to a target, either by landmarks or by a radio beacon. These weapons would home in on a target; that is, they would go home where they belonged.

The mistake to hone in doesn’t even show up in print until 1965: “Then he'd fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of flight.” George Plimpton, Paper Lion.

The fact that to hone in shows up in dictionaries doesn't cancel the history and logic of to home in. Both are used, but only one betrays perspective.

SIDEBAR: International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Inc.

SIDEBAR: How to use a whetstone

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