Saturday, March 31, 2007

Roo, Roo, Roo Your Boat



A caller asked about the plausibility of the following story: An early European explorer in Australia asked a native for the name of a strange-looking animal leaping nearby. The aborigine scratched his head and replied, “kangaroo.” The explorer took that to be the name of the mammal, not realizing that the native had said in bewilderment, “I don’t know.”

The odds are that the story is bogus. First of all, the likelihood of a native not having a name for a local, familiar animal is quite low. Secondly, early written testimony tells us that it was a known name. Captain Cook’s Journal speaks of “the animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru.” The term found by anthropologists in the Endeavor River area was gaNurru.

However, other early accounts claim that the name kangaroo was unknown to natives they encountered; instead, they used words like patagorong or patagaran. The discrepancy is probably due to different languages or dialects found scattered across the vast bounds of Australia.

At any rate, the Oxford English Dictionary pooh-poohs the story in its usual elegant way by saying that it “seems to be of recent origin and lacks confirmation.” Kangaroos are macropods, a word that breaks into macro-, large, and -pod, foot. That makes the kangaroo the original Bigfoot of our era.

SIDEBAR: Read about the Roo


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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Whose and Who’s



Q. Today’s edition of [a local newspaper] contained this sentence in an article in the Sports Section: “Quite a story for a guy who’s first swimming lesson was 10 years ago.”
Shouldn’t that be whose? Jean/Petoskey, MI

A. It most definitely should. Good call on your part. The easiest solution is to remember that who’s is a contraction. It stands for who is; the apostrophe replaces the -i-. Saying “a guy who is first swimming lesson . . .” out loud should tip you off to the error. Correct examples would include

• Who’s your daddy?
• I asked him who’s in charge.
• Who’s responsible for this mess?

If you’ve never heard the “Who’s on First” routine of Abbott and Costello, read it here: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/humor4.shtml

Whose is a possessive pronoun, and it may be rendered as belonging to whom. It always involves ownership or intimate connection. Here are some correct uses:

• This is a word whose origins are lost in the mists of history.
• When I find out whose wallet this is, I’ll return it.
• Quite a story for a guy whose first swimming lesson was 10 years ago

A famous use of the word may be found in the opening lines of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Read the poem here: http://www.favoritepoem.org/poems/frost/stopping.html


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Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Lousy Day



I’m working on the 2nd edition of my Word Parts Dictionary for McFarland & Company, so I notice that my postings are a bit more sporadic than usual.

I’m going to share something that only the most hardcore of word freaks will care about, but it’s fascinating to me.

The open nature of the internet is one of its delights--anyone can post anything--but it’s also one of its glaring weaknesses, especially when it comes to discussions of words. Phobia lists are fun to peruse, and a Google search for “fear list” brings up about 68 million hits. One of the words that makes some of these lists--and several books listing fears--is pothiriophobia, the fear or dislike of parasites. I now believe that it resulted from a misreading.

One of the references that I use is an edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, and there is nothing meaning parasite that begins with the Greek letters pi/omicron/theta or pi/omega/theta, the equivalents of p/o/th.

However, there is a phthir- that means louse or worm, but it is spelled phi/theta/epsilon/ iota/rho. To the untrained eye, a theta can look like an O with a transverse bar [ θ ], thus rendering it poth- instead of the correct phth-.

So in my 2nd edition, pothiriophobia is toast, replaced by phthiriophobia. You read it here first.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Flibbertigibbet




Q. I used to hear the word flippertigibbet more in the past than I do now. Where did it come from? We used it to mean a flighty person. Joan/Torch Lake, MI

A. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is onomatopoeia (where the sound of the word suggests its meaning).

In its early form, it was spelled flybbergybe, and it meant a chattering or gossiping person. (An obsolete meaning of gibbet was to whoop or cry out to signal to your dog that the hunt was on.)

By Shakespeare’s time, it was one of the names that signified a minor devil or demon. He seems to have read a book by Samuel Harsnet with the delightful title, Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. A few of the names mentioned in Harsnet show up in King Lear, including our focus today:

Edgar: This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth. Lear III. iv.

In the works of Scott, Coleridge, and Stevenson, it had lost some of the diabolocal baggage and referred to someone mischievous or flighty.

If you have seen Sound of Music, you know that it was used in the song, How can you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

That has probably extended its life.


Sidebar: read Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures


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Monday, March 12, 2007

Tow That Toe



On my program last week, a caller told of an unintentional error in a recent book about Governor Granholm of Michigan. The author wrote, “I followed the governor with cameraman in toe.” That would require either a gigantic foot or a shrunken cameraman.

The image required is of being “in tow,” pulled by a line by another vessel. In Old English, it could refer to anything being hauled or dragged, but by the 14th century, it was applied almost exclusively to ships.

“In tow” is matched by another error involving a homonym. I have come across “tow the line,” meaning to abide by the rules and regulations. I can see where pulling a barge attached to a hawser might spring to mind, but in this case it should be “toe the line.”

Many of the early uses of this image come from the British Navy, so many commentators think that it started with sailors in formation. The space between deck planks was filled with loose hemp or jute fiber, then sealed with pitch. As a result, dark lines ran the length of the deck. When the crew was required to fall into formation for inspection or instruction, they would place the toes of their boots on a designated line to achieve a neat formation. American sailors favored the phrase, “toe the crack.”

SIDEBAR: all about oakum


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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Getting My Goat



When I think about goats (which I seldom do), I think of two characteristics: they leap nimbly, and they stink.

There is a third element, of course, as I recalled when a friend asked me about the origin of the word tragedy. There is no question that it came from ancient Greek rites that eventually developed into theater, and it is usually said to mean “goat song.”

Speculation abounds as to why goats were involved. One theory says that in song contests, the prize was a goat, or that goats were sacrificed as offerings. Another theory points to performances during religious ceremonies honoring Dionysus. Legend has it that they involved satyrs, creatures who were half goat and half human. Then there are those who say that the -trag- root came not from the word goat, but from the verb to gnaw. Eat your heart out.

Getting back to the prancing abilities of goats, here are a few words that commemorate that feature:
capriccio: in music, a name applied to a lively composition. It meant “just like the skipping of a goat.”
caprice: a descendent of the word above, it signifies a whimsical choice or change of mind. It means a “goat leap.”
capriole: an upward leap made by a trained horse, or a playful jump by a human. It means “jumping like a goat.”

The smelly nature of goats shows up in the following words, among others:
caproic acid: a liquid, fatty acid, so named because of the substance’s goatlike smell.
hircine: one of its meanings is “having a goatish smell.”
hircose: “smelling like a goat.”

The next word never made it into English as far as I know, but the ancient Greeks had a word that would be rendered as tragomaskhalos in English. It meant “with armpits smelling like a he-goat.” Better head for the industrial-strength deodorant section.

Finally, the goatee (the sparse beard form) was named after the goat, the tragus (a bump inside the ear that usually sprouts a tuft of hair) was likewise named after the hairy chin of a goat, and the word butcher originally meant “a dealer in goat’s flesh.”

SIDEBAR: goat breeds


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Friday, March 02, 2007

Gonna Find Out Who's Naughty & Nice



Determining who’s been naughty and who’s been nice is the province of Santa Claus, and his job is much easier than it once was. Naughty and nice are mitigated terms in the sense that they once bore markedly stronger meanings. (The Latin word mitis meant mild, mellow, or soft.) These days, naughty is a rather tepid form of childish disobedience, and nice is an insipid compliment.

Oddly enough, naughty and nice once had identical meanings. Around 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, nice meant “characterized by or encouraging wantonness or lasciviousness.” Correlatively, in the late 16th and early 17th century, naughty meant “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.” Naughty or nice, you were a lecher.

Naughty started out meaning having nothing, based on the concept of naught. It progressed to uncontrollable, vicious wickedness--quite a leap. Ultimately, that was watered down to the level of mischief. Along the way, it took a detour for a while, referring to food or drink of inferior--even dangerous--quality:

KJV, Jeremiah 24:2 “One basket had very good figs, even like the figs that are first ripe:
and the other basket had very naughty figs, which could not be eaten, they were so bad.”

Nice originally meant that a person was foolishly ignorant, not a compliment at all. Applied to an action, it meant absurd and silly. As I mentioned above, it wandered into licentiousness at one point. Then it signified precision and punctiliousness, with culture and refinement as a sidebar. That degenerated into cowardly and effeminate, but was rescued when the meaning shifted to skillful, discriminating, and attentive to details. Unlike naughty figs, nice food or drink was tasty and restorative. Before degenerating into its current blandness, it meant kind and friendly.

Quite a journey for both words.


SIDEBAR: two songs by naughty


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