Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bruschetta



Bruschetta is a traditional Italian dish. It is nothing more than toasted peasant-style bread slathered with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic. There are many variations; most Americans have encountered the tomato/basil version.

The etymology is quite interesting. The name comes from an Italian word that meant "to roast over coals." In turn, that came from a 13th century verb that meant “to pass a flame over the keel of a boat in order to melt the pitch and improve waterproofing.” Ancient methods of waterproofing included bitumen, wax mixed with moss, and resin, so bringing a flame near the keel would melt the caulking material, thus spreading it more deeply into the cracks and joints. If I brought a firebrand that close to a wooden boat, I’d have a scapho-conflagration.

If you go to this web site, you’ll find some recipes from Mario Batali that give variations on bruschetta: white bean bruschettta, ceci bean bruschetta, tomato basil bruschetta, and mackerel bruschetta, among others.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Imprecation



Dan from Cincinnati asked about the word imprecation. It’s generally used as a synonym for a curse; you’re calling down evil upon an enemy. It seems to have been formed from the verb to imprecate, which is not quite as clear-cut: imprecate means both to pray for something positive and to call down evil upon a person.

The source is the Latin precari, to pray, plus the prefix im-, which is a form of in-, in or upon. So to imprecate is to call in the aid of a deity. The one making the request is the imprecator, and he’s behaving in an imprecatory manner.

Precation seems to be more positive and benign: it means prayer, supplication, or entreaty. In grammar, precative refers to a verb that expresses entreaty or a request. In law, the words in a will that express the wish that a particular action be taken are precatory.

To deprecate is to pray for deliverance from evil. Outside the arena of prayer, it means to express strong disapproval of a plan of action. Deprecation is both a prayer for averting evil and an expression of feeling against a practice.

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that the phrase self-deprecating (putting oneself down) is widely considered incorrect; it should be self-depreciating, says the OED. But it’s not quite that simple; experts line up on both sides. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) concludes, “However grudgingly, we must accord to [self-deprecating] the status of Standard English.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage points out that self-deprecation is now the more common term, having supplanted the earlier self-depreciation.

SIDEBAR: Imprecation, the death metal band

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

That'll Be Three Bucks, Please



This question came up on my show recently: why do we call a dollar a buck, or multiple dollars, bucks?

The Oxford English Dictionary plumps for origin uncertain. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it comes from buckskin, once an article important in trade. Having perused a historical document recently, I tend to side with AHD.

The document is the Journal of Conrad Weiser, Esq., an early Pennsylvania settler of Germanic descent who learned various Indian languages and acted as a translator and treaty maker for many years. The journal entry for September 17, 1748, has him speaking to a tribe settled in for the hunting season on the Ohio River:

“Brethren: You have of late made frequent Complaints against the Traders bringing so much Rum to your Towns, & desir'd it might be stop't; & your Brethren the President & Council made an Act accordingly & put a stop to it, & no Trader was to bring any Rum or strong Liquor to your Towns. I have the Act here with me & shall explain it to You before I leave you; But it seems it is out of your Brethren's Power to stop it entirely. You send down your own Skins by the Traders to buy Rum for you. You go yourselves & fetch Horse loads of strong Liquor. But the other Day an Indian came to this Town out of Maryland with 3 Horse loads of Liquor, so that it appears you love it so well that you cannot be without it. You know very well that the Country near the endless Mountain affords strong Liquor, & the moment the Traders buy it they are gone out of the Inhabitants & are travelling to this Place without being discover'd; besides this, you never agree about it- one will have it, the other won't (tho' very few), a third says we will have it cheaper; this last we believe is spoken from your Hearts (here they Laughed). Your Brethren, therefore, have order'd that every ________ of Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.”

Gave a Belt.

“Brethren: Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.”

Gave a String of Wampum.

Given the context, there is no doubt that the deer skins used to buy rum are later called bucks, an abbreviation for buckskins. And in an earlier, unconnected treaty [Treaty of Savannah, 1733], we find these equivalents for trade: “One Blue Duffel Blanket, three Buckskins or Six Doeskins.” So bucks were worth twice the value of does.

Another caller also brought up “to pass the buck,” (to avoid responsibility) a saying decisively nipped in the bud by Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here.” Again, the AHD shows more certainty than the OED. It declares that this buck referred to a buckhorn knife, which was passed from player to player in a certain type of poker. The person holding the knife dealt that hand, rather than having a house dealer who would deal every hand.

SIDEBAR: Pearl S. Buck

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Snitch



Ed from Alden, Michigan, called during Tuesday’s show to ask where the word snitch--meaning an informant--came from. In my misbegotten youth, we used it the same way, but we also used it in the sense to steal something. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a confirming citation from the N.Y. Times, 6 June 1904, 9: “They reached Coney Island by snitching rides.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to the informant who turns state’s evidence against a confrere, the OED slaps on the obscure origin label. But I think we can pick out some tight connections even if we can’t sniff out the origin.

Snitch started life meaning a fillip on the nose. An early citation is Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary, 1676: “Snitch . . . a fillip.” It might be a good idea to define fillip at this point: “A movement made by bending the last joint of a finger against the thumb and suddenly releasing it (so as to propel some small object, or merely as a gesture); a smart stroke or tap given by this means.” [OED]

By 1700, snitch meant the nose itself. B.E., Gentleman, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew: “Snite his Snitch, Wipe his Nose, or give him a good Flap on the Face.”

By 1785, we have arrived at snitch, an informer who turns King’s or Queen’s evidence. It is thus defined in Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

So we see a straight line of development from a fillip on the nose to an informant. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the word nose itself had a related slang meaning: “a spy or informer, especially for the police” [OED]. Francis Grose defines it that way in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue [1785].

So this much is clear: snitch and nose were synonyms, and both shared the slang meaning of an informant. I notice that the phrase “to thrust one’s nose into someone else’s business” has a citation dating back to 1611. I have no direct proof, but making a connection between that and the word snitch does not seem to stretch things beyond credulity.

SIDEBAR: The Snitch: Harry Potter site

SIDEBAR: PBS Frontline: Snitch

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Silent But Deadly



Warning: this entry contains a word that the staid Oxford English Dictionary labels as “not in decent use.”

I know that some people consider etymology the second most dismal science, but every once in a while, a revelation bursts forth. This happened to me yesterday as I looked up a word. The word was the seemingly innocent partridge.

Partridges are members of the pheasant family. They eat insects, berries, and seeds, and they nest on the ground. Weighing less than a pound, they can run very quickly, which saves them from many a predator.

Then came the shocker: the name derived from a Greek verb, perdesthai, which, from antiquity, has meant “to fart.” It’s not so much that this particular bird is prone to flatulence. Rather, it refers to the noise made by the bird as it flies away. That has to be some takeoff.

Intrigued, I decided to do a wild card search on etymologies containing break wind, fart, and flatulence. That’s when a second surprise erupted.

The German district of Westphalia was known for its pumpernickel, a coarse black bread not always fully appreciated. In fact, in early modern German, pumper meant fart. As the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, “this type of bread was probably so called either on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence, or in a more general allusion to its hardness and poor quality.”

Hidden farts also lurk in lycoperdon (wolf’s fart), a fungus puffball, Onopordon (donkey fart), a genus of thistles, pedicule (small fart), a louse, and poop, from a German verb meaning to fart.

Now I can’t wait to have a partridge sandwich on pumpernickel. Pass the Beano®, please.


SIDEBAR: Partridge recipe

SIDEBAR: Brontofart: dinosaurs and methane

SIDEBAR: The Partridge Family


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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lost in Translation



I’ve always found it amusing that the family name Perdue in Perdue Farms, a huge purveyor of chicken, probably comes from the French word meaning lost. You come through our coops, chickie, and you’re dead meat. This in spite of the disclaimer found on their web site:

“Perdue Farms and our farm-family partners share a belief that it is our responsibility to treat the animals in our care with respect.” [Poultry Welfare]

But I digress. As a root, -perd- came from a Latin word meaning to destroy or lose; in turn, that came from the Greek of the same meaning. It later morphed into the spiritual sense of moral corruption and ruin, even becoming a substitute word for hell.

Aside from the familiar perdition, the root showed up in a number of words.

deperdition: loss, waste, destruction by wasting away.
disperdition: an undoing.
imperdible: unable to be lost or destroyed.
ligniperdous: wood-destroying.
officiperd: the throwing away of one's labor.
perdido: a person who is considered lost; a desperate or depraved person; a dead person.
perdifoil: a plant that loses its leaves annually; a deciduous plant.
perdite: debauched, abandoned, wicked.
perditious: damnable, pernicious. Also in weakened sense: harmful, undesirable.

SIDEBAR: Pain Perdu: French toast the Cajun way

SIDEBAR: Sons of Perdition

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Speak the Speech, I Pray You . . . .




-LOQUY [L. loqui, to speak]

In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was an outbreak of words ending in -loquy, from the Latin loqui, to speak. At the time, they were deemed necessary to name various forms of discourse, but most of them dropped away over the centuries--colloquy and soliloquy being glaring exceptions. I’m not a charter member of the Antiquarian Society, but some of those terms might be worth reviving.

We’ve all heard speakers drift away from the point, politicians among them. This was known as alieniloquy. Its kissing-cousin was ambiloquy, “discourse of doubtful meaning,” as Bailey politely expressed it. And we’ve watched Presidential candidates as they gleefully point out contradictions in their opponent’s stand, a clear case of antiloquy and obloquy. Of course, when they twist the truth, we’re in the presence of tortiloquy.

Less grandiloquy and magniloquy (protracted and inflated speech) should be the norm. Let’s have more plain and blunt language; let’s have some planiloquy. Or, for that matter, what about some pleasant talk for a change: let’s hear it for dulciloquy and suaviloquy. Above all, avoid foolish babbling (stultiloquy) and boasting (vaniloquy).

A few other words in this category are worth mentioning. Actors depended on cues spoken by other actors to know when to begin their lines; this was called anteloquy. The beginning of a speech was the archiloquy. Tardiloquy was very slow speech, and dentiloquy was the grating habit of speaking through your teeth.

Time for me to take a nap. Remember, I’m not responsible for anything that I mutter in my sleep (somniloquy).


SIDEBAR: Bailey’s Dictionary


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