Monday, July 30, 2007


Q. Where did the word eavesdrop come from? [Lannie, Old Mission Peninsula]

A. It’s an Old English word going back to at least the 9th century. The eaves of a house is the projecting overhang at the lower edge of a roof. Water drips from it when it rains.

An Old English law mandated that the owner of a building must leave at least two feet from the boundary of his property open to the sky. This was so water dripping from the roof line did not erode the neighbor’s land or damage his buildings. The Romans had similar laws on their books, called iura stillicidiorum, or laws of the falling drops. [Chambers-Murray, Latin-English Dictionary] I’m not making this up.

By extension, the eavesdrip was the space between the dripping water line and the wall of the house. An eavesdropper would be someone who crept close to a door or window to listen in on a conversation. “Evesdroppers are such as stand under wals or heare news.” [Termes de la Ley, 1641] The very eaves have ears.

SIDEBAR: Eavesdrop Radio

SIDEBAR: Eavesdrop, New York based performance and arts in education collective

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Thursday, July 26, 2007


Craig from Pellston: I saw a headline the other day that read, Sox Pummel Tigers. I know that sportswriters love alliteration and hate to use plain words like defeat, but isn’t this way out there?

A. You’re correct that it means to beat, and I love your comment about sportswriters, but it’s a legitimate word. As just one example, Charles Dickens used it in his novel Great Expectations:

“Then, he and my sister would pair off in such nonsensical speculations about Miss Havisham, and about what she would do with me and for me, that I used to want - quite painfully - to burst into spiteful tears, fly at Pumblechook, and pummel him all over.” So, as a verb it means to beat someone, especially with the fists.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable gives it a French origin--pommeler, to dapple-- because it’s a matter of beating someone black and blue. The OED sees a connection to a word meaning apple.

The noun pummel (also spelled pommel) covers a wide range of objects, but they all have something in common: a bulbous appearance. Here are some of its meanings.

• the ornamental knob on a candlestick
• a finial
• the ornamental top of a flagpole
• the knob at the back end of a cannon
• a cross with knobs at the end of the arms
• the knob at the end of a sword or dagger that keeps it from slipping out of your grasp
• the knob on a saddle used for mounting and dismounting
• a woman’s breast
• the lower side of a closed fist
• in gymnastics, the curved handgrip on a vaulting horse

SIDEBAR: Pummel Peak

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Monday, July 23, 2007


A recent headline in the Traverse City Record-Eagle proclaimed, “Local man plans to get back on his soap box.” This prompted some questions on the origin of the term soap box.

First of all, there’s the word soap. In a reversal of the usual historical direction, it seems to have worked its way into Latin as sapo. Originally, it came from Teutonic or Tartar languages.

Literally, a soap box was a wooden crate used to deliver soap. Empty, it made a convenient platform to raise a speaker slightly above his audience so that he might be seen and heard. Since many of these public speakers embraced eccentric or quirky ideas, and since they usually employed a passionate style of oratory, to get on your soapbox took on a pejorative cast.

The soapbox derby was so named because a wooden crate originally formed the riding compartment of the vehicle. (Derby takes its name from the 12th Earl of Derby who first held the race that takes place near the town of Epsom in Surrey.)

To soft soap someone is to employ flattery in an unctuous way. The OED gives an instance from 1830: “I will not use the vulgar phrase, and say he has been pouring soft soap down the backs of the New York delegation.” [Register of Congressional Debates]

The sponsors of daytime dramas on the radio tended to be soap and detergent companies such as Procter & Gamble or Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. This lead to the term soap opera.

Finally, soap was an American slang term in the 19th century that meant money. When we deny a request by saying no soap, it translates as “nothing doing,” but originally it probably meant something like “I don’t have any change to spare.”

SIDEBAR: saponification

NOTE: Thank you to the anonymous reader who corrected me on the source of Derby by sending me here:

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Take A Powder

“Take a powder!” used to be a more popular saying. It was a gruff demand that the targeted person leave. No one seems to know with certainty how the phrase started, but that never squelches speculation.

In 17th century Britain, the colloquial verb to powder meant to rush, to hurry impetuously. “Zacheus climb'd the Tree: But O how fast. . . (when Our Saviour called) he powder'd down agen!” [1632, Francis Quarles, Divine Fancies, I. lxvii]

Around the same time, to dust was a colloquial American phrase meaning to ride or go quickly, to hasten, to hurry. “Stick thou To thy sure trot..Let folly dust it on, or lag behind.” [1655, Henry Vaughan, Silex Scintillans, I. Rules & Lessons]

But it wasn’t until 1916 that we see Americans using to take a powder: “Look at the two birds trying to take a run-out powder on the eats.” [1916, Washington Post, May 20] Four years later, we find this: “The ‘Wilmington’ challenged us to a boat race, but when we slapped up a sack of good Chinese taels [money] to back our team, the ‘Wily Willie’ took a run-out powder and called off the race.” [1920, Our Navy, Aug. 33/1]

Notice that in both cases, the form is to take a run-out powder. Powdered medicines were common in that era for anything that ailed you, so it is possible that the origin of the phrase was a reference to a drug that would dull your sense of ethics or responsibility. There was definitely a pejorative edge to the phrase, a hint of chicanery or dereliction of duty.

Over the years, many explanations have been proffered:

• it started as a reference to gunpowder, which explosively propels bullets and shells
• it’s a reference to a laxative powder, which would cause you to run to the nearest toilet
• it’s a reference to the dust that our feet raise when we are scampering off
• it’s a reference to the “magical” powder used by magicians to make things disappear

SIDEBAR: to take a scampering powder

SIDEBAR: Powder--the band

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Monday, July 16, 2007



These days, fraught is usually followed by ominous phrases such as “with danger,” “with peril,” or “with risk,” but its close relative is the word freight.

Originally, fraught stood for the money paid for a transport vessel or the act of transport itself. Later, the noun designated the cargo in the hold. It ended as any burden or load. In Sir James Barrie’s Little Minister, we find the line “. . . to carry a fraught of water to the manse.” According to the OED, this would have amounted to two pailfuls.

At various times, the verb form meant to load a ship, to hire a vessel, and to equip. The past participle (fraught) means attended with, carrying with it as an attribute or accompaniment, or filled with promise or menace.

Archaic forms include fraughtage (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, IV. i. 87: “Our fraughtage sir, I haue conuei'd aboord.”) and fraughtsman.

SIDEBAR: fraught quotes

SIDEBAR: listen to the central Iowa band Fraught

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Saturday, July 14, 2007


In the colloquial sense, patter is defined as mere talk or incessant chatter. In sales or entertainment, it is the smooth, persuasive, and sometimes rapid speech used to attract an audience and then keep its attention.

It came from the rapid and mechanical way in which the Pater noster (the Our Father) was often repeated, e.g. in the rosary [1425]. The words would tumble out automatically with no thought given to meaning. Of course, the automatic nature of the prayers used in the rosary was supposed to give the reciter an opportunity to meditate on theological mysteries, so it wasn’t just an act of sloppiness.

Pater noster, qui es in caelis: __________________[Our Father, who art in heaven:]
sanctificetur nomen tuum; ____________________[hallowed be thy name.]
adveniat regnum tuum; ______________________ [Thy kingdom come;]
fiat voluntas tua, ___________________________[thy will be done]
sicut in caelo, et in terra. _____________________ [on earth as it is in heaven.]
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie; ________[Give us this day our daily bread]
et dimitte nobis debita nostra, _________________ [and forgive us our debts]
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris; ________[as we forgive our debtors;]
et ne nos inducas in tentationem; _______________ [and lead us not into temptation,]
sed libera nos a malo. _______________________ [but deliver us from evil.]

• Paternoster came to be used as a term for a set of rosary beads. After ten Hail Mary’s, a larger bead, set apart, signalled the time to say an Our Father.

• Paternoster was also a measure of flax, perhaps, says the OED, with reference to the separating bead after each decade (10 Hail Mary’s).

• Something consisting of a long series of identical objects was also called a paternoster. For instance, a paternoster line is a fishing line with a weight at the end, and hooks are attached at intervals to this line.

• As an architectural term, a paternoster was a row of beadlike ornaments.

• Finally, a paternoster was an elevator consisting of a set of linked doorless compartments moving continuously on an endless belt so as to allow entry at any time and exit on any floor.

SIDEBAR: learn to chant the Pater Noster

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Mike from Glen Arbor, Michigan, waxed nostalgic about a song that he learned as a child: Old Paint. He also had a question: what’s a hoolihan?

Let’s back up and give the first four lines of the song.

I ride an old paint [variation: Old Paint as a proper name]
I lead an old dam [variation: Old Dan as a proper name]
I’m going to Montana
To throw a hoolihan. [variation: hoolian]

The Wordsworth Dictionary of the American West provides us with two vital definitions.
• paint: “A spotted horse, white with large areas of either black, brown, or red.”
• dam: In four-legged animals, the female parent. [AHD] Easily the most recognizable dam in literature is Grendel’s dam in Beowulf.
• hoolihan: “A quiet, no-fuss rope throw for catching horses in a crowded corral--one quick whirl, a flat noose, and a head catch.”

So our cowboy is riding a spotted horse, leading a trailing female horse (probably as a pack animal), and he’s bound for Montana where he’ll work with corralled horses.

As noted above, depending on who’s singing the song, paint and dam are sometimes transmuted into proper names.

And if I remember the melody well enough, I believe that Aaron Copeland used it in his ballet Rodeo, calling it “Saturday Night Waltz.”

SIDEBAR: the lyrics

SIDEBAR: Copeland’s “Saturday Night Waltz.”

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Fanatic Fans

Fanatic comes to us from the Latin word fanum, a temple. Avid devotees of a particular god would invite possession, whereby the favored god would induce a frenzy. The person would be figuratively carried away, exhibiting behavior akin to madness.

Enthusiasm, a quality displayed in fans (abbreviated from fanatic), originally meant possessed by a god. The theos (god) was ev, within.

Frantic and frenzy are two words that would suit such an occasion, and they are related. Frantic comes from a Greek form meaning affected with delirium (phrenetikos). Frenzy comes from the same basic Greek root.

Phren was a Greek word meaning mind, and it has given us phrenesis (madness), phrenetic (mentally deranged), phreniatric (relating to mental disorder), phrenitic (delirious), and others. Nowadays, frenzy is no longer seen as a gift of the gods.

SIDEBAR: NCAA report on fan behavior

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Contest Entry is running a contest, and this is my entry.

For all intents and purposes,
The yo-yo is a toy--
A ubiquitous thing on a string
To delight both girl and boy.
But over in Belize,
It serves another cause:
It kills the brown recluse spider,
And it’s required by several laws.
This may sound quite quixotic,
Something you’d like to abrogate,
But you’ve got to stop those critters
Before they start to mate.
If you’re in need of money,
It’s a matter of quid pro quo:
For every one you squash,
You get a lot of dough.
But you can’t just be perfunctory;
Dedication is the key.
And if you have melissophobia,
You can also kill a bee.

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," he said.

Thanks to a thoughtful friend, I now own a copy of “Shut Up!” He Explained, by William Noble (Paul S. Erickson, Publisher, 1987).

Chapter 8 reminded me of the old editorial policy at The New Yorker under the watchful eyes of Harold Ross and Wolcott Gibbs:

“One of the rules, according to Thurber, was that a passage of dialogue is best followed by said. Anything else--shouts or exclaims or retorts, for example--is just wasted motion. No verb, in other words, should substitute for said.” [p.91]

That’s a bit extreme, perhaps, but it errs on the side of the angels. It’s a rule that more writers should observe, especially in stories posted on the internet. I did a quick and dirty search and found groaners such as these:

• “If only [she] had been at home, she could have found him for us," asserted Peter.
• "You're not in earnest, that woman?" gasped Felicity at last.
• "I wonder if the wishbone she gave me would have done any good," cried Cecily suddenly.
• “I’ll probably continue to smoke,” he averred.
• "I'll never forgive myself for not thinking about it before," mourned Cecily.
• "Oh, let's go to bed," growled Dan.
• "You might tell me all about it, Sara," I insinuated.
• You've got to give the spell time to work," he expostulated.
• "Oh, how he must have suffered!" moaned Cecily.
• "I'm sure I shall die when I find myself up on that platform, facing people,"she sighed.
• “I once worked in a circus,” I volunteered.
• “Sorry,” she demurred. “I scratched necrophilia off my list a long time ago.”
• "And I hope it will be a lesson to him to stay home after this," commented Felicity.
• “And that’s their right,” he opined.
• "I wonder what it is," speculated Cecily.

The New Yorker policy now allows substitutions for said, but Noble points out that leaving out any modifier at all--even he/she said--allows the dialogue to speak for itself. Omission is a good way to change the rhythm and pace and avoid needless repetition. But never undervalue the word said. Straining for synonyms is counterproductive, he pontificated.

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Monday, July 02, 2007


Sturdy is a plain, blue-collar type of word. It evokes images of vigor, robustness, hardiness, strength, and solidity.

That’s why it’s surprising to learn that in its long history, it has also meant giddy, dazed, reckless, ruthless, cruel, rebellious, obstinate, and surly. It was also the name of a brain disease in sheep and cattle.

Even stranger is the putative origin of the word, though no one seems to be absolutely certain. Some authorities say that it comes from the Latin word meaning thrush: turdus. This is because in the early days of its existence, it meant thoughtless or feather-brained. It reflected a French proverb, “drunk as a thrush.” The idea was that if a bird eats fermented fruit, it will act drunk; giddiness and recklessness will follow.

“The only birds I see are a few sad survivors of a covey of partridges and thrushes, which conduct themselves so strangely that the foresters assert that they are tipsy. ‘As drunk as a thrush’ is a proverb here.” [Charles Dickens, Household Words: A Weekly Journal, p. 308]

Other words coming from the Latin turdus include turdiform (having the form or appearance of a thrush), turdine (belonging to the sub-family Turdinae of true thrushes), and turdoid (akin to a thrush).

Note that these words have nothing to do with the vulgar word turd, which derives from the Old English tord, excrement.

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