Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tip A Canoe

Where did “don’t rock the boat” get started? Gus/Grayling, MI

It’s much easier to say what it means. Most of us have ridden in canoes or rowboats with a rambunctious youngster or twitchy passenger, so we recognize it as a salutary warning not to mess with the equilibrium. It’s pretty easy to upset the balance of a small craft, thus exposing oneself to the danger of tipping over.

This is such a universal and ancient experience that I’d be surprised if someone were able to cite the very first literal use of the term. Metaphorically, it means to let things be, to avoid upsetting routine ways, to honor the status quo. It is akin to another nautical warning, don’t make waves.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “to rock the boat” is attested from 1931, but it doesn’t give an example. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this from the same year: Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: an informal history of the nineteen-twenties vi. 156. “Unfortunate publicity had a tendency to rock the boat.”

The idiom seems to reflect a cautious streak in human behavior, so I suppose we could pair it with don’t change horses at midstream, along with let sleeping dogs lie. Tie them all together and we have don’t rock the dog to sleep at midstream. Sound advice, dawg.

SIDEBAR: Rock the Boat (The Hues Corporation)

SIDEBAR: Don’t Rock the Boat (Bob Marley)

SIDEBAR: Guys and Dolls: Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Day by Day

The Old English word for day (daegh) probably tracks back to a Sanskrit word meaning “the burning time,” a reference to the hot sun. [See ALL IN A DAY’S WORK, September 13, 2007]

In this entry, I’d like to focus on a few of the words that contain the word day while expressing it in covert fashion. The point? Love of words, plain and simple.

adjourn: to put off until another day [L. ad, to + diurnus, day]
biduous: lasting for two days [L. bi-, two + dies, day.]
circadian: designating physiological activity which occurs approximately every twenty-four hours, or the rhythm of such activity. [L. circa, about + dies, day]
daisy: the familiar flower [OE dæges éage day's eye, eye of day]
Decameron: Boccaccio’s tales, allegedly told in ten days [Gr. deka, ten + hemera, day]
dial (sundial): an instrument serving to tell the hour of the day by means of the sun's shadow upon a graduated surface [L. dialis, daily]
diary: daily record of events [L. dies, day]
diurnal: occupying one day [L. diurnalis, daily]
du jour: that which is chosen or allocated for a particular day [Fr. du jour, of the day] NOTE: therefore, never ask for the soup du jour of the day.
ephemeral: fleeting; temporary [Gr. epi, for + hemera, day]
hemeralopia: a visual defect in which the eyes see indistinctly, or not at all, by daylight, but tolerably well by night or artificial light [Gr. hemera, day + alaos, blind + ops, eye]
hemerine: belonging to a day, esp. a fever [Gr. hemera, day]
hodiernal: pertaining to the present day [L. hodie, today]
journal: a daily record [Fr. jour, day]
journey: the distance travelled in a day or a specified number of days [Fr. journée, a day’s travel] NOTE: in the Middle Ages, approximately 20 miles constituted a day’s journey.
meridian: relating to noon [L. medius, middle + dies, day]
pridian: relating to the previous day [L. pri, before + dies, day]
procrastinate: put off until the day after [L. pro, for + cras, tomorrow]
quotidian: pertaining to every day [L. quotidie, every day]
sojourn: a temporary stay in a place [Fr. jour, day]
ultradian: designating cycles of physiological activity which recur with a period shorter than one day but longer than one hour [L. ultra, beyond + dies, day]

SIDEBAR: Day by Day (me faz bem) by Luca Mundaca

SIDEBAR: Chastity Bono: Day by Day (Ceremony)

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Saturday, November 24, 2007


I was watching an old crime movie last night, and one of the characters said, “I gotta fence some goods.” I know it means to sell some loot, but why fence? Lois/Traverse City, MI

The verb fence is usually connected with protection and disguise, thus reinforcing the idea of ill-gotten goods being concealed. Martin Mark-all, beadle of Bridewell, his defence and answere to the (Dekker's) belman of London by S. R. (also attributed to S. Rid) 1610: “To fence property, to sell anything that is stolne.”

The noun fence, meaning a receiver of stolen goods, is recorded in Memoirs of John Hall, 4th edition, 1708: “Fence, one that buys stoln goods.” It seems to be connected to a literal fence, a barrier to hide and protect things. Ulimately, it is connected to the word defence.

SIDEBAR: Fence music--Australian fences played by Jon Rose

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Oh, Fell Felon!

A felon is someone who has committed a felony, a serious crime with serious consequences. The class includes acts such as murder, rape, burglary, or treason. In early English law, it was cause for losing one’s fee--the land granted to a vassal by his lord. Punishment might additionally include an amputated limb or even execution.

While there is some uncertainty, the OED seems to lean towards an Old French/Latin word meaning “someone full of bitterness, venom, or gall.” It would then have a connection to the adjective fell--fierce, savage, cruel, ruthless:

"Wide wounds emongst them many a one he [Sidney] made,
Now with his sharp borespeare, now with his blade...
So as he rag'd emongst that beastly rout,
A cruell beast of most accursed brood:
Vpon him turnd (despeyre makes cowards stout)
And with fell tooth accustomed to blood,
Launched his thigh with so mischieuous might,
That it both bone and muscles ryued quight".
Spenser’s Astrophel (1595)

The word fell survives in the popular saying “one fell swoop,” originally a grim reference to a hawk or other bird of prey swooping down on its victim. Less menacing in our day, it now means “all at once.”

Felon as an adjective has generally referred to negative qualities:
• terrible, wicked, and base (1300)
• murderous (1320)
• angry or sullen (1374)
• stolen (1631)

On the other hand, it mysteriously acquired a positive connotation at times, possibly because some cruel qualities were an asset for warriors:
• brave, courageous, and sturdy (1375)
• tremendous, huge, or terribly great (1450)

Felon , n. 2, is connected through the Latin word for gall, but it refers to an abscess, an inflamed sore, a boil, or a suppuration.

SIDEBAR: Felony, a Swiss Melodic Metal Band


NOTE: on vacation until November 26, 2007

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Love Me Tender, Tenterhook

Barry/Suttons Bay, MI: I overheard someone say that she was on tender hooks while waiting to see if her bid on a house was going to be accepted, but I’m not really sure what she meant. Any help?

First of all, if you looked for that phrase, you probably found nothing. What she said (or should have said) was that she was on tenterhooks. It’s easy to mishear D’s and T’s because they are formed in the same area of the mouth, with the tongue touching the teeth.

This takes us back to 15th century cloth makers. When cloth was milled and dyed, it was stretched on a wooden framework so that it would not shrink or lose shape as it dried. The wooden frame was called a tenter, perhaps deriving from the Latin tendere, to stretch.

The tenterhooks were the close-set hooks or nails set into the wooden framework to hold the cloth; they suspended the cloth in a uniform fashion. Eventually, tenterhooks acquired the figurative meaning of something causing excruciating suspense.

The cliché to be on tenterhooks was set in place by British novelist Tobias Smollett in his hilarious Roderick Random [1748]: “I left him upon the tenter-hooks of impatient uncertainty.”

I suppose that tender hook can be seen as a eggcorn*, since it would imply that even though you were metaphorically suspended, it wasn’t something that would cause you great harm; the hooks are tender. But tenterhooks is the correct word choice.

*[Geoffrey Pullum, The Language Log ]

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Smack Dab in the Middle

David/Beulah, MI: What does smack dab in the middle actually mean, and where did it come from?

In essence, the phrase means “slapped precisely in the center.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, smack-dab showed up in print in 1892: “He hit him smack dab in the mouth” [Dialect Notes I, 232].

The first element, smack, is used as an adverb. It is defined as “with, or as with, a smack; suddenly and violently; slap.” It appears in 1782 in Cowper’s John Gilpin: “Smack went the whip, round went the wheels.”

The second element, dab, means “with a dab or sudden contact.” Robert Armin’s Nest of Ninnies uses it in this sense in 1608: “He dropt heauy as if a leaden plummet... had fallen on the earth dab.”

A variation is slap-dab: “He was goin' that fas' he run slap-dab agin me afo' he seed me” [1886, Turf, Field & Farm XLII. 174/3].

Slap-bang is close, but it meant immediately rather than centered: “Slap-bang shop: a petty cook's shop where there is no credit given, but what is had must be paid down with the ready slap-bang, i.e. immediately” [1785, Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue].

SIDEBAR: jazz version performance

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Beyond the Pale

Vlad the Impaler

Thad: Harry Reid's letter about Rush Limbaugh described Rush's statements as "beyond the pale." What's that supposed to mean and where did it come from?

Beyond the pale means outside the limits of acceptable behaviour, something that is seriously inappropriate or improper.

Pales were stakes or posts used to construct a fence or enclosing barrier of any material [Latin palum]. By extension, a pale was a district or territory within determined bounds, or subject to a particular jurisdiction; it was a safe, civilized haven--perhaps the boundaries of church property or of a shire’s footprint. Outside that pale lurked danger and potential lawlessness beyond anyone’s jurisdiction.

There were a few historically famous Pales, but they don’t seem to have been necessary for this phrase to arise.

In heraldry, a pale was a vertical band in the middle of a shield. Other meanings for the noun pale included

• pallor
• a small plug in a barrel
• a cheese-scoop
• a baker’s shovel
• a decorative stripe on clothing
• light-colored ale
• chaff

The adjective pale came from the Latin word pallidum, pale.

SIDEBAR: Beyond the Pale, an Irish music band

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