Thursday, September 27, 2007



Great Expectations, Charles Dickens:
“. . .her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers. . . .”

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray:
“All his suspicions, which he had been trying to banish, returned upon him. She could not even go out and sell her trinkets to free him.”

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen:
“She was answered by having a small trinket-box placed before her, and being requested to choose from among several gold chains and necklaces.”

There are at least six meanings for the word trinket, many of them totally unrelated to each other. The first noun meaning listed below is the one we frequently use, and it is operative in the opening quotations.

trinket n.
• A small ornament or fancy article, usually an article of jewelry for personal adornment.
• an item of little value.
• A small drinking vessel; a cup, mug.
• A kind of sail; esp. the triangular sail before the mast, in a lateen-rigged vessel.
• A small or narrow channel or watercourse.

trinket v.
• To have clandestine communications or underhand dealings with; to intrigue with; to act in an underhand way, prevaricate.
• To deck out with trinkets.

The origin of our current sense is uncertain. OED suggests there is a slender chance that it may be related to the phrase “to trick out,” meaning to decorate with baubles or trifling ornaments.

Two related words are trinketry (articles of personal decoration or of ornament viewed as trinkets or toys), and trinkety (of little importance; trivial, paltry).

Trinket and trinketing in the sense “items of little value” are enjoying a revival thanks to computer games.

SIDEBAR: World of Warcraft Terminology Guide

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Monday, September 24, 2007


Sharon/Old Mission Peninsula:
I have been wondering about the origin of the word nightmare. My mother used to compare it to a frightened rider clinging for dear life to a runaway horse, unable to make the animal turn or slow down. Is that where the word came from?

This is another case of history eventually producing two words with identical spellings, but coming from totally different sources. When you look up the -mare segment, you find mare-1 and mare-2.

Mare-1 comes from an Old English word meaning horse. Mare-2 comes from
various Germanic cognates meaning a malevolent female spirit. Nightmare is built on the latter root. The nightmare would pounce upon the sleeping person’s chest, thus producing a feeling of suffocation. This would lead to distress and fright, the hallmarks of a nightmare.

Medieval stories are filled with night-visiting demons who had sexual intercourse with their victims in order to perpetuate the demon race. The incubus was male, while the succubus was female.

SIDEBAR: Succubus, the Swiss Goth-metal band

SIDEBAR: Incubus, an American alternative rock band

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Thursday, September 20, 2007


An acquaintance with a very high handicap shot an unexpectedly good round of golf the other day. The rest of us in the foursome hastened to assure him, as friends are wont to do, that the whole thing was a fluke that wouldn’t happen again.

Fluke in that sense is a stroke of good luck, a happy accident. It seems to have no connection to other senses of the word fluke, but we do know that it arose from the game of billiards or pool somewhere in the late 1850s.

Underlying other senses of the word fluke seems to be the concept of flatness, the primal image being a calm, flat sea surface. Words related through the Indo-European root plak- include ice floe, flake, flagstone, plank, and placenta.

In one of its meanings, a fluke is a flat fish or a parasitic worm, so the flatness theme certainly runs through that.

Another fluke has several meanings:

• the triangular blade of an anchor, designed to grab the ground
• the barbed head of a lance or arrow
• the large triangular tail of a whale

Triangularity or barbedness seems to be the unifying force there, but notice that all of these items are relatively flat.

SIDEBAR: Fluke, the movie

SIDEBAR: Fluke, the band

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Monday, September 17, 2007


Exclamation points are like simulated orgasms; they display intense feelings where none may actually exist. They attempt to spur us into a frenzy while watching dispassionately from the corner of their beady little eyes. If you were never again to use an exclamation point, your writing would not suffer.

They show up with great frequency in forwarded emails, especially the ones that purport to save us from some imminent danger. I received one today that warned me about the telephone scam involving 9-0-# on the keypad.

The introduction alone raised my hackles:

IMPORTANT AND TRUE! I checked this out at . . . this is true and also applies to cell phones!

Gratuitous capital letters, exclamation points, red ink -- could it get more hysterical? And, of course, these orgasmic tricks betray the presence of half-truths, if not downright lies. This is how the scam was described in the forwarded email:

“I received a telephone call last evening from an individual identifying himself as an AT&T Service Technician (could also be Telus) who was conducting a test on the telephone lines. He stated that to complete the test I should touch nine(9), zero(0), the pound sign (#), and then hang up. Upon contacting the telephone company, I was informed that by pushing 9-0-#, you give the requesting individual full access to your telephone line, which enables them to place long distance calls billed to your home phone number. DO NOT press 9-0-# for ANYONE!!!”

Here’s what actually said:

Status: Partly True. Is a scam like the one described in the above examples possible? Technically, yes, but the e-mailed warnings are overblown in that very few phone systems are vulnerable to it any more. This scam does not affect residential or cell phone customers — it only applies to businesses, hospitals, government agencies, and other organizations that still use telephone private branch exchanges (PBXs) rather than Centrex lines to handle their calls. On certain PBX systems (i.e., ones for which pressing '9' is the signal to obtain an outside line, and there are no restrictions placed on outgoing calls), a scammer could gain access to place expensive, long-distance phone calls by tricking an employee into initiating the #-9-0 sequence. Outside of a few other settings where one might have to press '9' to obtain an outside line (such as hotels), the likely result of pressing #-9-0 will simply be a fast busy signal.

So, here’s a radical proposal, folks: don’t ever forward anything in your email again. Not jokes, not dire warnings about scams, not secret messages intercepted from the Vatican -- nothing.
When you receive an email sagging from the weight of color highlighting, screaming uppercase letters, impudent boldface, and scary exclamation points, head straight for the delete key.

WE’VE GOT TO STOP THIS INSANITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

SIDEBAR: Email Etiquette

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

All in a Day's Work

Our word day had its immediate ancestor in the Old English daeg. I must admit that I was surprised when the Oxford English Dictionary told me that it is “in no way related to the Latin dies”; I would have thought it was. Instead, its predecessors (Aryan, Sanskrit, Lithuanian) carried the meaning "the hot or burning time."

We still retain the word now-a-days, also rendered as here-a-days centuries ago, and it is fitting that it was once balanced by then-a-days.

Evidently, in the day, there were many days dedicated to certain customs, events, or duties, and many phrases containing -days as a combining form were thus formed. With no particular rhyme or reason, here are some of them, all culled from the OED.

• bind days: days on which tenants were bound to render stated unpaid service to their feudal lord; boon-days.
• chair-days: old age, when rest in a chair is the most natural condition.
• daft days: the days of merriment at Christmas.
• darg-days: days of work done in lieu of rent or due to the feudal lord. [syncopated form of daywork]
• dog-days: the days about the time of the heliacal rising of the Dog-star; noted from ancient times as the hottest and most unwholesome period of the year.
Egyptian days: the two days in each month which were believed to be unlucky.
• fern-days, days of old. [ON forn, ancient]
• fuir-days: Late in the day. [far days, forth days]
• gang-days: the three days preceding Ascension-day or Holy Thursday; also called Rogation-days. [so called from the processions held on these days; gang = way or passage.]
• Indicant Days: among Physicians, those Days which signify that a crisis or change in a disease will happen on such a day.
• Nestor's days: old age, long life. [wise old king mentioned in the Iliad]
• riding days: the days of Border raiding. [Scotland]
• roaring days (Austral.): the time of the Australian gold-rush.
• Robin Hood's days: festival time, when a mummer’s play would present the story of Robin Hood.
salad days: days of youthful inexperience.
• ship's days: the days allowed for loading and unloading a ship.
• the last days: the period including and immediately preceding the Last Judgement.

SIDEBAR: this day in history

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

An Old Wrinkle

Monday, September 10, 2007

We named our Neapolitan mastiff Rosa Rugosa for a couple of reasons. A look at her photo above will show why we chose the Latin word rugosa, which means wrinkled. By word association, my wife immediately thought of the shrub rose known as rosa rugosa. On the spot, that became Rosie's formal name.

Anyway, I have been musing over the word wrinkled. It comes from an Old English verb meaning to crease, and it is a descendant of an assumed Indo-European form meaning to twist or turn. It is cousin to wrestle, writhe, vertebra, weird, wrong, and rhapsody.

We still use the words corrugate, rugate, and rugose, which all mean wrinkled, but it’s amusing to discover some of the synonyms that did not pass the test of time:

• cockling
• crimpled
• hirpled
• plighty
• rimpled
• rivelled
• runkled
• ruscled
• snurped
• wrimpled
• writhled
• yfrounct

I don’t know whether it was because of the condition of clothing before the invention of irons or because of weather-beaten faces, but our ancestors certainly had a fixation on wrinkles.

SIDEBAR: wrinkle creams

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I love words with multiple meanings, especially wildly disparate ones, and pole is one of them. It started life as a word describing the straight stem of a slender tree stripped of its branches [OED].

Along the way, the noun developed other meanings, among them:

• a shaft used in a horse-drawn vehicle
• a ship’s mast
• a post used to signal a business, as in barber’s pole
• a fishing rod
• an erect penis
• The long, flexible rod used by a competitor in the pole vault
• a directional support used in skiing
• a measure used in surveying
• the rails in horse racing
• the tail of a pheasant
• a young tree

Of particular interest is the rare combining form -pole, which had a completely different origin. It’s from the Greek pollein, to sell, and it signifies a merchant. Thus we have

• pharmacopole, a seller of drugs or remedies
• bibliopole, a dealer in books
• monopole, exclusive privilege to make or sell something

SIDEBAR: the Festivus Pole

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Mind Your P's and Q's

Mikki Paul from Medina, Ohio, asks about the origin of “mind your p’s and q’s.”

Let me say from the start that no qualified source seems to know with certainty, but that doesn’t stop people (especially those with spasmodic “forward” e-fingers) from disseminating dogmatic opinions.

The core meaning is, pay attention to the fine details, and later it turned into behave yourself. Here are some explanations that have been proffered for its origin:

• It stands for mind your pennies and quarters.
Do you know anyone who can’t tell the difference even in the dark? That’s why they’re ridged, people!

• It stands for mind your pints and quarts. Two versions of this story:
(1) It was an admonition given by the pub owner to bartenders and waitresses who marked orders on a slate or a piece of paper.
(2) It was an admonition to patrons who ran a tab to make sure that they weren’t being overcharged when the day of reckoning arrived.

• It was an admonition not to transpose the letters p and q given either to
(1) printers in the days of cold type who looked at letters that were upside down and backwards or
(2) school children just learning the alphabet.
One problem is that d and b suffer the same confusion, so why not mind your b’s and d’s? Perhaps there once was such a version, and the p & q version won out because of its more explosive nature, but that’s all unfounded speculation.

• It was an admonition to sailors not to stain their pea jackets with the grease or powder from their pigtails (queues).

• It was an admonition to French dancing masters not to mess up two intricate dance steps (pieds and queues).

• It stands for mind your periods and question marks, and it was an admonition given to student writers to choose correct end-of-sentence punctuation.

• It stands for mind your pleases and thank-you’s.
This is derided by the online Phrase Finder, but it has some merit. If you have raised children or closely observed them, pease is standard babytalk for please, and The Oxford English Dictionary defines kew as “short for thank you.” In addition, Mark English says this: “The most plausible explanation is the one given in the latest edition of Collins English Dictionary: an alteration of "Mind your 'please's and 'thank you's."

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