Wednesday, August 29, 2007


A caller asked about the word whatnot. I said that it was a convenient filler or replacement when we can’t think of a specific term, something like thingamabob or thingamajig. That prompted an e-mail from another listener, Teresa K. Fowler of Naubinway:

"What-not" is not just another placeholder name like "whatchamacallit." Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary says a "what-not" is also a light, open set of shelves used to display bric-a-brac (i.e. collectible thingamajigs) which often included cups and saucers, knickknacks and figurines, according to Don Butkovich, Traverse City antiques appraiser. What the English call a "what-not" is similar to the French "etagere." It comes in several forms, and often is a backless sets of shelves, joined by spindles, and tiered or stacked backward like a layered cake. These were popular from approximately 1850 to 1950 among English, French, German, Belgian and other families, Butkovich said. A what-not might stand alone on the floor, or might be made to hang in a corner or stand on top of a dresser. Butkovich said current usage among antiques writers calls for hyphenating "what-not." He deals in 18th- and 19th-century American and European antiques and art, and says this barely scratches the surface of what is known about what-nots.

I appreciate the time and trouble that Teresa took to provide such solid details. As with many words, whatnot carries several meanings and shades of meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it first appeared with a meaning that it still retains today:

Anything whatever; everything; ‘anything and everything’; ‘all sorts of things’: mostly, now only, as final item of an enumeration: = anything else, various things besides; ‘whatever you like to call it’. 1540 PALSGR. Acolastus V. ii. Yiijb, "Excesse of fleshely pleasures.. hath taken awaye all goodes or substance, my good name and fame, my frendes, my glory, my renoume or estimation, what not? What thyng is it that she hath not taken from me?"

Almost 300 years later, it took on the meaning that Teresa detailed: An article of furniture consisting of an open stand with shelves one above another, for keeping or displaying various objects, as ornaments, curiosities, books, papers, etc. 1808 LADY S. LYTTELTON Correspondence. (1902) 54 "The old chairs, tables, what-nots, and sofas."

The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that the furniture took its name from the objects that it is meant to hold.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Handsome is as Handsome Does

Is there really a hand in handsome? If so, how?

Let’s examine the -some part first. It was an Old English suffix (-sum) used primarily to form adjectives from nouns, and occasionally from other adjectives and verbs.

So the suffix -some added to hand meant pertaining to a hand. Let’s follow the evolution of the word, starting in 1435 A.D., through the eyes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

• Easy to handle or manipulate, or to wield, deal with, or use in any way.
• Of action, speech, etc.: Appropriate, apt, dexterous, clever, happy: in reference to language, sometimes implying gracefulness of style.
• Proper, fitting, seemly, becoming, decent, courteous, gracious.
• Of a sum of money, a fortune, a gift, etc.: Considerable. Now in stronger sense: Ample, generous, liberal, munificent.
• Having a fine form or figure (usually in conjunction with full size or stateliness); ‘beautiful with dignity’; ‘fine’. (The prevailing current sense.)

So, “attractive because easy to handle” eventually lost the hand but retained the attractiveness.

Most people will recognize some of the other surviving -some forms:

adventuresome: seeking risky activities
awesome: inspiring awe; prodigious
bothersome: causing bother
cumbersome: unwieldy and clumsy
fearsome: causing fear; timid
fulsome: offending through excess; insincere
gruesome: horrible; grisly
loathsome: abhorrent; offensive
lonesome: suffering from lack of company
meddlesome: given to interfering
noisome: foul; disgusting; harmful
quarrelsome: contentious; belligerent
wholesome: salutary; sound; healthful
winsome: of an attractive nature or disposition

SIDEBAR: Handsome Devil

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Limbo refers to the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children who, even though they committed no personal mortal sin, are excluded from the presence of God after death because of original sin. They were not damned and they lived in a state of happiness, but they were not in the direct presence of God, which is the essence of heaven.

For centuries, Catholic theologians based the existence of infant Limbo on two scriptural passages:

(1) John 3:5 -- "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
(2) Romans 5:12 -- “. . . by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

But in the spring of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI virtually repealed Limbo, saying that there is hope that these infants do enjoy the Beatific Vision after all. Last one out turn off the lights.

My interest is in the word itself. In Latin, limbus meant a hem or a fringe. Limbo was the ablative singular form, translated as "on the fringe." So Limbo was a suburb between hell and heaven, so near yet so far.

By extension, in secular use, it came to mean a place of confinement, sort of a junkyard for the outworn or useless. To be in limbo is to be out of the mainstream, on permanent hold, up in the air.

Selected headlines make it clear that it is a very popular metaphor:

• Court leaves status of Miss. executions in limbo [MSNBC, August 8, 2007]
• Case in limbo against bounty hunter [USA Today, July 27, 2007]
• Culpepper signs with Raiders; Russell still in limbo [ESPN, August 1, 2007]
• Law library still in limbo [Florida Today, August 6, 2007]
• Transplant patients in limbo as doctors quit [ABC News, August 6, 2007]
• Budget standoff: Budget vote left senator in limbo [Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2007]
• Child Health Money in Limbo [WKSU, August 8, 2007]
• OMB nomination in limbo [Tick Marks blog, August 2, 2007]
• Rove's Time in Limbo Near End in CIA Leak Case [Washington Post, May 8, 2006]
• Philly Park Casino Plans Remain in Limbo [, August 14, 2007]

SIDEBAR: Radiohead, In Limbo

SIDEBAR: limbo music (the dance)

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Don't Meddle With Mettle

Chrysler's boss shows his metal at car rally August 17, 2007

At first, I thought that the headline writer had made a mistake. “Surely,” I thought, “he meant mettle.” Then it dawned on me that he was perpetrating a pun. In the story, Bob Nardelli is showing off his car--a hunk of metal.

But readers who don’t know the difference between metal and mettle won’t get the wordplay.

Metal, in the poetic description provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “hard, shiny, malleable material of the kind originally represented by gold, silver, copper, etc., esp. as used in the manufacture of objects, artefacts, and utensils.” It comes from a Greek word meaning a mine or quarry, and by extension, the stuff that comes from a mine.

Mettle is a person’s strength of character, disposition, courage, and temperament. The cliché is to show one’s mettle, and it means to reveal your inner self during adversity.

But it turns out that the two words are related in history. In Anglo-Norman, metal took on the meaning of material or substance. It was then applied metaphorically to a person’s substance or nature. In fact, the spelling metal was used both for the malleable stuff and for the Right Stuff.

The OED points out the interchangeability in two versions of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, II.v.
• 1598 Quarto Edition: “A Corinthian, a lad of metall.”
• 1623 Folio Edition: “A Corinthian, a lad of mettle.”

Don’t meddle with a lad with mettle; he deserves a metal medal.

SIDEBAR: A cat with mettle

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Thursday, August 16, 2007


Jabber is a pejorative term, a put-down. It is often said in contempt, referring to a dialect or a language that the hearer finds unintelligible, or to a message that he or she finds unacceptable. It showed up in print in 1499: “Iangelyn or iaberyn” [jangling or jabbering]. It is probably onomatopoeic, the word rising from an imitation of the perceived sound.

There are similar words, all of them basically defined as,” to speak rapidly and inarticulately; to chatter, talk nonsense.” [OED]

• gibber: [1604, Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. i. 116 (Qo. 2) “The graves stood tenantlesse and the sheeted dead Did squeake and gibber in the Roman streets.”
• jibber: [1824, Scott, Redgauntlet, Lettter. xi “The jackanape . . . jibbered and cried as if it was mocking its master.”]
• gabble: [1577, Stanyhurst, Description of Irelland, i. 4 in Holinshed Chron. I. “He that dooth not perceyue, what is fitting or decent for euerye season, or gabbleth more then he hath commission to doe.”]
• gobbledygook: [1944, American Notes & Queries, Apr. 9/1. “Gobbledygook talk: Maury Maverick's name for the long high-sounding words of Washington's red-tape language.”]

The term jibber-jabber manages to combine two versions to produce industrial-strength onomatopoeia. [1922, A. Haddon, Green Room Gossip ix. 240. “The jibber-jabber was entertaining, not because the utterances were those of ordinary human beings, but because they were the voice of Shaw.”]

The famous version, of course, was jibba-jabba, a hallmark of the A-Team’s Mr. T.

SIDEBAR: sound bite of Mr. T

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Monday, August 13, 2007


Bonds Blasts 756 into Bleachers

This alliterative headline in Wednesday’s sports section attracted the eye of Ted from Old Mission (Michigan). “Where did we get the word bleachers?” he asked.

It’s connected with the word bleach--to whiten by means of the sun’s intense rays or through chemical means. Old English, Old Norse, Old Teutonic and a host of other snowbleached areas had words for the process, so it goes back quite a way.

Bleachers--the seats--showed up in 1889 in the Chicago Tribune [18 May 6/1]: “The grand stand and bleachers were well filled with something over 2,000 spectators.” Originally, bleachers had no cover, while grandstands did have a roof. Hence, the lower price. Now there probably isn’t a school gymnasium around the world that doesn’t have indoor bleachers.

Since bleachers endured the direct onslaught of the afternoon sun, someone thought that the bleaching process would provide a colorful (as it were) name. The problem comes in determining what was bleached.

Some source [I misplaced my reference] says that the clothes of people habitually sitting in the bleachers began to lose their color. I have a few faded golf shirts, but I suspect that frequent washings are the cause. With my game, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the woods, out of the sun.

The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, implies that the fans are the objects getting bleached. As a person who respects the need for sun blockers, that one doesn’t compute.

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Chambers Dictionary of Etymology point to the bleachers themselves. Even for away games, the seats in the home stadium are always washed in sun.

I need to have my house re-stained very soon, so I’ll buy that explanation.

SIDEBAR: Guidelines to Retrofitting Bleachers

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Thursday, August 09, 2007


Donald from Bay Harbor writes: “I’m curious about the word bayonet. I can see the word ‘bay’ buried in there, along with ‘net,’ but I can’t see how those words would relate to a stabbing weapon attached to the barrel of a rifle.”

The Oxford English Dictionary casts some doubt, but the usual explanation is that the instrument was either invented or first used in the city of Bayonne, France, in the 16th century.

Words often do arise from a place name with which an object is associated.

• The artesian well was developed in Artois, a province in France.
• A cantering horse moves at a moderate gallop, and it derives from Canterbury, England, where pilgrims on horseback visited the shrine of Thomas à Becket.
• Bubbly champagne, proprietarily speaking, comes only from Champagne, a region in northeast France.
• The ermine, whose fur is prized for decoration, probably took its name from the country of Armenia.
• A laconic person--a person of few words--owes his name to the tight-lipped inhabitants of Laconia in southern Greece.
• To meander means to wander, and its name comes from the Meander River in Phrygia, noted for its twists and turns.
• Sodomy comes from the biblical city of Sodom, destroyed by God along with Gomorrah because of industrial-strength vice and depravity. [See Genesis 19]
• In computer terminology, a trojan horse is a program that pretends to be harmless or helpul, but actually installs malicious code that enables the perpetrator to access your computer files remotely. The name comes from the city of Troy in northwest Asia Minor. [See The Trojan War]

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Monday, August 06, 2007


Fred from Traverse City asked about the word proactive, wondering if it meant “in favor of activity.” Let’s cover the meaning first, then get back to the prefix pro-, which has more than one meaning.

The word proactive was used by logotherapy’s founder, Victor Frankl,
in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He meant it as an antonym to reactive. In his view, mentally healthy people do not simply react to external circumstances. Rather, they act according to what they see as meaningful in their lives no matter what is happening externally.

In non-clinical use, the word means taking initiative, anticipating events, and controlling a situation rather than indulging in a series of knee-jerk reactions.

Let’s get back to the prefix pro-. It can mean in favor of, as in the words pro-American, pro-business, or pro-war. But it can also mean towards the front (proclaim, propose), in anticipation of (proactive, provide), onward or forward (proceed, progress), or, especially in science, a precursor (pro-agonic, prohormone).

The lesson is this: don’t wed yourself to just one meaning for this prefix. Let context help you sort out which meaning is involved, or reach for that handy dictionary and look for the etymology.

SIDEBAR: How to be proactive

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Thursday, August 02, 2007


The Latin word curtus has led to some interesting words in English, but it was interesting in itself.

Curtus meant short, but there were intimations of mutilation and breakage lurking beneath the surface. It was a word that might be applied to a castrated bull, a gelded horse, a dog with a docked tail, or a circumcised man. [Gentlemen in the audience may now participate in a group wince.]

By the time this root worked its way into English, it had acquired the meaning of physically short or abbreviated, though the cutting aspect had not entirely disappeared. So we had the following:

curtal (an animal with a short tail)
curtate (shortened or abbreviated)
curtail (to shorten)
curtilage (a small enclosure)
curtipendulous (hanging by a short stem)
decurtate (shortened)

By extension, the English word curt left the realm of the merely physical and came to mean terse to an extreme degree--bordering, in fact, on rudeness.

The word curtain comes from an entirely different source, so a long curtain is not an oxymoron.

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