Monday, October 29, 2007

My Mere Fell Into the Mere While Holding a Mere

For some reason, I enjoy finding words that come from entirely unrelated origins, but end up with identical spelling through accidents of history or linguistic quirkiness. Pedology is a prime example:

• Pedology [Greek pedon, soil] is the scientific study of soil composition.
• Pedology [Greek paid-, child] is the study of physical and mental development in children.

Several unrelated words, in their journey over the centuries, ended up with the spelling m-e-r-e. I’m not reaching for a point here; this doesn’t really go anywhere. If you love words, the thrill of jarring juxtaposition will be enough.

mere [In various Germanic and Scandinavian languages, the sea]

• a drainage channel filled with water
• a lake, pond, or pool
• an arm of the sea; an inlet
• a marsh or fen
• a mermaid

mere [Latin murus, wall]

• a boundary or border
• a strip of uncultivated land
• a linear measurement along a vein of ore
• to delineate boundaries (v)

mere [French mere, mother]

• a mother
• the elder of two women of the same name, especially a mother as distinct from her daughter or daughters

mere [Greek moros, mighty]

• renowned, famous, illustrious; beautiful, splendid, noble, excellent
• notorious, infamous

mere [Latin merus, undiluted, pure, unmixed]

• pure, unmixed, unalloyed; undiluted, unadulterated
• of wine: not mixed with water
• of a people or their language: pure, unmixed
• to purify or refine (v)
• insignificant, ordinary; inadequate, feeble.

mere [Maori mere, a club]

• a short flat Maori war club of hard wood, whalebone, or greenstone

SIDEBAR: mere, NYC band

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

All I Have To Do Is Glean, Glean, Glean

The Gleaners
François Millet (1857)

Ron Jolly showed me a book with the word gleanings in its title and asked where the word came from.

Used as a metaphorical term, gleaning refers to gathering odds and ends of information bit by bit and placing them in one written piece. The word gleanings shows up in the title of many books and pamphlets, a surprising number of them about local history or about religious thoughts. The word tracks back to a verb found both in Old French (glener) and Late Latin (glenare).

To glean was to wander through fields that had already been harvested in order to gather the scraps left behind by the reapers. The most famous gleaner was Ruth, who benefited from the generosity of Boaz.

Not only was leaving material for the poor to glean an act of kindness, it was seen as a religious obligation:

Leviticus 19:9–10. And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 23:22. And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest; thou shalt leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

SIDEBAR: Food Recovery and Gleaning Initiative:
A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery

SIDEBAR: movie -- The Gleaners and I

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Monday, October 22, 2007

An Armistice in the Interstices

A word buff reminded me recently of something that I had long forgotten: that the -stice segment of words such as armistice or solstice share the base meaning “to stop.”

It forced me to run for my dictionary, because my immediate assumption was that the -stice ending was simply a reflection of the Latin ending -itia, as in amicitia (friendship) or justitia (justice).

But it turns out that the form derives from the Latin verb sistere, which gave rise to stitium, a stopping. So the range of meaning involved here includes stop, stand, and cease. Related forms come from the Latin verb stare, to stand, which gave us station, stationary, and status.

Getting back to the stop suffix, we find a few examples:

• armistice: a cessation from arms for a time; a short truce. [arma = weapons]
• interstice: a space standing between things or parts. [inter = between]
• justitium: a legal vacation. The legal system stops for a while. [jus = law]
• solstice: two times a year (June 21 and December 22), when it is farthest from the equator, the sun seems to stop in its tracks. [sol = sun]
• lunistice: the point at which the moon is farthest north or farthest south and seems to stop for a while. [luna = moon]

No sign of januastice, a doorstop.

SIDEBAR: belly dance by Solstice

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Aye, Aye, Sir

David from Gaylord asked about the origin of the naval term “aye, aye, Sir.”

“Aye, aye, Sir” is the proper response for a sailor to give to a superior. As Charles from Atwood confirmed in his call-in, the double aye is meant to convey that the order has been both received and understood.

There is some confusion over the origin of the term, however, probably because there are two ayes. One of them meant forever or always. The other meant yes. There is some speculation that the latter came from the former, the transition being something like always/by all means/with certainty/yes. [Oxford English Dictionary]

But militating against this is the fact that the first written instances spell that version of yes as I:

• “If you say I, syr, we will not say no.” [1576, Tyde Taryeth no Man]
• “Nothing but No and I, and I and No.” [1594, Drayton, Idea, 57]

At various times it was also spelled ey, ai, ay, and hye. So the suggestion found on some web sites that aye is an initialism for “at your [service] ever” lacks any foundation.

Aside from its nautical use, it is the formal word used to signal a yes vote in the British House of Commons. And, to get completely off the track, aye-aye (as listener Susan of Copemish shared with me) is the name of a nocturnal tree-dwelling primate found only in Madagascar. The best guess for the animal’s name is that it came from some now defunct language native to Madagascar and may have been onomatopoeic in origin.

At any rate, it had no connection to sailors or to assent.

SIDEBAR: the aye-aye

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Monday, October 15, 2007


Doug from Traverse City asked about the origin of the word caterwaul.

This word has two components. The first part, cater-, obviously contains the word cat. While there seems to be some uncertainty, the German word kater, a tomcat, probably had some influence. The word shows up in a colorful idiom: einen kater haben, to have a hangover.

The second component is more traceable. It comes from the verb wrawen, to wail or howl. The word was used in reference to cats in heat, and it may simply have been onomatopoeia, an imitation of the sound itself. Other language groupings such as Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Swiss had similar words referring to cats in heat, and the word also applied to stallions in heat and to a rowdy, poorly behaved man. No mention of heat there.

So the earliest use of the word was to describe the noise made by cats at rutting time. Later, it came to mean any hideous noise or a quarrel in feline fashion. It also meant lascivious or lecherous.

No connection, but there are a few more curious words, some of them obsolete, that convey the meaning to wail or howl.

• ejulation: wailing, lamentation.
• ululation: a howl or wail; a cry of lamentation.
• vagitus: a cry or wail, especially that of a new-born child.
• Then there’s a word that sounds like it comes from Saturday Night Live: wailster, a female wailer. It’s the Wailster!

SIDEBAR: Caterwaul, the band

SIDEBAR: Trail of Dead--Caterwaul

SIDEBAR: Cat sound

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Nip It in the Butt

I alluded to eggcorns in the last entry, and wouldn't you know it, I came across another one within hours:

“The Michigan House and Senate must nip the budget crisis in the butt, not pass a temporary measure that only defers the problem.”

I used to have a feisty Westie named McDuff. My brother used to tease the dog when McDuff was a puppy, so there was no love lost between them. In fact, we used to encourage McDuff’s frequent nipping attacks, everyone hollering, “Bite him on the butt!”

I bring this up only because it gives some insight into why someone might hear nip it in the bud and think that it alluded to a terrier snapping at someone’s glutes. The essential problem is that it then refers to action: an attack on the part of the animal and a retreat on the part of the victim.

In contrast, nip it in the bud actually means to stop something before it becomes serious or significant. It was originally a gardening term, and it refers to removing or severing a bud by pinching or snipping it off. Too many buds on the same stalk lead to inferior flowers or plants, so this is a form of botanical birth control.

Oh, oh . . . I hear a scary noise outside my window coming from the garden. I’m starting to shutter.

SIDEBAR: flower and plant care

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Handsome Cab, Ugly Driver

My son shared this headline with me last week:

Handsome cab horse killed in Central Park accident

This was a headline that appeared recently on several New York web sites and in a neighborhood newspaper. It falls into the category known as eggcorns--incorrect substitutions that result from words not clearly heard or mistaken for others. [See The Eggcorn Database at ]

It actually should have read Hansom cab, of course. Hansom was the family name of architect Joseph Hansom of Leicestershire, England, who in 1834 patented a vehicle with some of the earlier features of this type of cab. (He also designed the square at Ratcliffe College, a boarding and day school in that town, and what is now the New Walk Museum, originally built as a school.) A Hansom cab was a low-hung two-wheeled cabriolet holding two persons inside, the driver on an elevated seat behind, and the reins running over the roof. It had a low center of gravity for safety in cornering.

The newspaper story went on to give some details of the accident.

A Central Park carriage horse was killed Friday afternoon in what is being described as a “freak accident” along Central Park South. Police say it started when a 12-year-old mare named "Smoothie" was spooked by someone playing a snare drum after four o' clock Friday afternoon. The horse then ran into the street with the carriage still attached and struck a tree.

But it gets even better:

"Nobody should be allowed to set up a snare drum set or any kind of drum set without a parade permit right near to the horse's ears,” said a witness.

So if you wish to beat your drum in Central Park, you had better hold a document near the horse’s head.

This brings us into dangling modifier territory, of course, joining the ranks of the following dubious constructions:

• Pressing the button, the elevator went down to the basement.
• Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed.
• Left alone in the house, the lightning scared the child.
• With his tail held high, my father led his prize bull around the arena.
• We saw firefighters fighting fires that suffered heat exhaustion.
• I saw the dead dog driving down the interstate.
• By the age of ten, both of Dana's parents had died.
• She handed out brownies to the children stored in tupperware.

By the way, handsome cab is not an entirely isolated mistake. When you key “images” on Google, you get at least 15 pictures of a handsome cab; search the web, and you receive 120 hits.

And some Carriage Park Condominiums in Melbourne, Florida, have addresses on Handsome Lane.

My, that’s a good looking vehicle.

SIDEBAR: horse & cab sounds

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Under the Old Oak Tree

To corroborate is to confirm what someone else has asserted. You strengthen his or her statement, argument, or stance by shoring it up with your own. In the 16th century, corroborate simply meant to strengthen something material. Its source was the Latin word roborare, to make strong.

An early cousin was roborant, an invigorating or strengthening medicine. So was roboration, a strengthening, support, or invigoration. The old forms roborean and roboreous open another window into the roots of the word: both mean pertaining to oak.
In Latin, robus was the name for an oak tree.

The variant root -robur- shows up in a few words, mostly obsolete. Roburite is a flameless explosive of very high power. Roburnean means of or belonging to oak. Robur-oak is a very hard-wooded variety of oak.

All of this explains our word robust, which is used for everything from a healthy body to a strong cup of coffee.

SIDEBAR: facts about oak trees

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Monday, October 01, 2007


The word dapper has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it. It means neatly dressed, trim, lively and alert, very stylish in dress or appearance.

In recent times, it has not been as complimentary as it once was. It has taken on undertones of fussiness, dandyism, or petty attention to fashion. Still, it often is used appreciatively and positively.

For a word that denotes elegance, it had strange beginnings. It started in the Low Germanic language group, perhaps in Flemish or Dutch regions. It meant powerful, strong, and stout. These developed into persevering, brave, and undaunted.

Ultimately, the neatly accoutered undaunted knight morphed into the dauntless well-dressed road warrior.

SIDEBAR: Dapper: the quest to unlock web data legally

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