Thursday, August 28, 2008

Potable


Darryl from Acme asked, “Where did the term potable water come from?”

It comes from the Latin verb potare, and in this case, it means drinkable water, as opposed to brackish or unsafe water. The root also lies behind a few other words, some of them obsolete.

• compotation (1593) a drinking bout
• impote (1721) to drink heavily
• perpotation (1623) inebriation
• poculum (1846) a drinking vessel
• potable (1425) suitable for drinking
• potate (1612) liquefied
• potation (1428) the consumption of alcoholic beverages
• potative (1590) suitable for drinking
• potator (1620) a tippler
• potatory (1828) drinkable
• poter (1657) a drunkard
• potion (1400) A liquid, usually taken orally, with healing, magical, or poisonous qualities;

SIDEBAR: Making Potable Water


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Hoity-Toity


Fred from Boyne Falls asked about the origin of hoity-toity. It’s easier to say what it means. Currently, it means pompous or full of pretentious airs. Earlier (17th c.), it meant frivolous, riotous, and flighty. It was applied to someone who played the fool.

The Oxford English Dictionary points to a connection with hoyden, a rude, ill-bred, and noisy girl. In turn, that is connected with the dialectical hoit, riotous and noisy mirth.

At one point, it was also spelled highty-tighty, with a reference to someone being high and mighty. Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit) and Thackery (Vanity Fair) both used that spelling, as well as the other. In both cases, reduplication is at work.

Snopes.com dismisses the rumor that it comes from the French haut toit, high roof, because the supercilious look down on others.


SIDEBAR: Hoity-Toity, the board game


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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Waling on the Wailing Whale


Marisa from Tampa writes: “This is something I’ve only heard; I’ve never seen it in print. When you beat somebody hard enough to cause bruises, you whale on them. Or is it wail?”

There’s a third possibility. To wale on someone is to whip them enough to raise welts on the skin (17th c.). Wale is also the word used to name the parallel ridges that appear on corduroy fabric, and it signified the piece of timber extending horizontally round the top of the sides of a boat -- the gunwale. Wale comes from the Old English walu, the mark of a lash.

But there is a verb to whale, meaning to strike repeatedly, to thrash (18th c.). That would work, too. In fact, it seems to be much more popular than to wale. Ironically, it may be a variant spelling of wale. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might originally have been “to thrash with a whalebone whip.”

Wail, a lament or expression of grief, comes from a presumed Old Norse word, veila, to bleat or wail.

SIDEBAR: ritualistic wailing


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Monday, August 18, 2008

Horsing Around


Charles from Williamsburg had an interesting theory on the origin of the word horseradish. He speculated that the German word for horseradish --meerrettich-- influenced English because the -meer- segment would sound like mare, a female horse.

I don’t know German, so I have to rely on other sources. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that while the horse in horseradish doesn’t come directly from the animal, it does refer to a characteristic of a draft horse: it is large, strong, and coarse.

Horseradish has broad, rough leaves, and its root, used to make the condiment, has a very strong, pungent flavor. Other plants also have the -horse- element, and in every case, it’s a descriptor of something coarse, rough, large, or strong-flavored. Thus, we have horse-bane, horse-brier, horse-cress, horse-ginseng, horse-mushroom, horse-nettle, horse-parsley, and horse-vetch.

Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages says that the German meerrettich means “greater radish,” and the French word for radish --raifort-- probably came from the Latin radis fortis, strong root.

And I have to end with something that I found in Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. A verb in ancient Greek (hraphanidooe) is translated as “to thrust a radish up the fundament,” and it is described as a punishment of adulterers in Athens.


In her book Women, Crime, and Punishment in Ancient Law and Society, Elisabeth Meier Tetlow says that the offending radish was shaped like a zucchini, but was much larger, and as it was manipulated, the man’s pubic hair was burned off with hot ashes.

Time to watch Fatal Attraction again.


SIDEBAR: horseradish recipes


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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Heap


“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” Edgar Guest

While I was channel surfing the other night, I came across a western movie. What caught my attention was a bit of dialogue. A burly cowhand was berating a youngster, and his threat was, “You in a heapa trouble, boy!”

The word heap jumped out at me for some reason. It comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that meant a pile. It seems to be connected to a Sanskrit word, kaofa, which meant “a great heap” -- in other words, a mountain.

There are some interesting verbs that express the concept of piling things up.

• accumulate: to heap up
• acervate: to heap up
• aggerate: to heap up obs.
• coacervate: to heap up
• congrumate: to gather into heaps obs.
• cumulate: to gather in a heap

For various reasons, it was customary to pile stones (or other materials) in a heap. They were sometimes given colorful names.

• bing
• cairn
• carnell
• entassment
• mammock
• nuraghe
• ruckle
• slump
• tass
• tor

Idiomatically, you can be at the top or the bottom of the heap, and you may run the risk of being thrown on the scrap heap or the rubbish heap. If you are extremely disconcerted, you are struck all of a heap, but you can retaliate by heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head. [Proverbs xxv, 21-22]


SIDEBAR: The Heap


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Monday, August 11, 2008

Out of Sorts



Don of Lake Charlevoix asked about the phrase out of sorts.

Out of sorts means not in the usual or normal condition of good health or spirits. A person out of sorts is in an irritable or grumpy state, especially because of physical discomfort. This phrase is linked to the noun sort, which means character, disposition, or rank (“He is a decent sort of guy”). It can also indicate a specific class (“I don’t hang around with that sort of person”). So when you are out of sorts, you have slipped from your usual balanced and happy state or disposition.

A parallel phrase that developed was “out of humor.” In ancient medicine, the four humors were essential bodily fluids. When they were in balance, everything was healthy. When they became unbalanced--out of humor--physical or mental health was jeopardized.

“Out of sorts” seems always to involve a loss, not a gain. In other words, if you are negative and pessimistic by nature, being out of sorts will not make you positive and optimistic. It’s not used in that direction.

I should mention that there is some disagreement connected with the origin of out of sorts. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable mentions three competing theories:

• Sorts was a name for any particular letter used by typographers. So if a printer was “out of sorts,” he couldn’t finish his printing job unless he substituted another letter.
• “The French être dérangé explains the metaphor. If playing cards are out of sorts they are deranged, and if a person is out of sorts, the health or spirits are out of order.”
• “The French ne pas être dans son assiette explains the metaphor.” (He’s not on his plate.) Assiette, aside from meaning sorts or temperament in a metaphorical sense, was an assorted plate. Picture a plate of vegetables or hors d’ouevres. If a piece of carrot falls to the floor, it is out of its proper place. It is out of sorts.

These don’t strike me as definitive, but I’m open to documentation.


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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cracker

Cracker is a derogatory term that was applied to poor Southern whites, especially those who lived in Georgia and Florida. The word has at its root the verb to crack, which had many disparate meanings according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

• To make a dry sharp sound in breaking.
• To make a sharp or explosive noise (said of thunder or a cannon (chiefly dial.), a rifle, a whip, etc.).
• To slap, smack, box.
• To utter, pronounce, or tell aloud, briskly, or with éclat.
• To talk big, boast, brag; sometimes, to talk scornfully (of others).
• To converse briskly and sociably, chat, talk of the news.
• To break anything hard with a sudden sharp report; now chiefly of things hollow, a skull, a nut, etc.
• To break or crush (corn, etc.) into small pieces.
• To snap or split asunder.
• To break without complete separation or displacement of parts, as when a fracture or fissure does not extend quite across.
• To damage (something immaterial) so that it can never again be sound; to ruin virtually.
• To move with a stroke or jerk.
• To decompose (heavy oils such as petroleum) by the application of heat and high pressure alone or by means of a catalyst so as to produce lighter hydrocarbons (e.g. petrol) of better quality and with a better yield than can be obtained by distillation.
• Of a door: to be slightly ajar; to leave slightly ajar.

Consequently, there are competing theories as to the origin of cracker as an epithet.
from a boaster, braggart, and liar. [1766: G. COCHRANE Letter, 27 June (D.A.), “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”]
from corn-cracker, since they were said to subsist on corn or maize. [1878: N. H. BISHOP Voyage of a Paper Canoe, 228 “That class of..people called in the south because they subsist largely upon corn. Corn Crackers, or Crackers. These Crackers are the ‘poor white folks’ of the planter.”]
from the sound made by their whip. [1887: Boston Beacon, 11 June, “The word Cracker … is supposed to have been suggested by their cracking whips over oxen or mules in taking their cotton to the market.”]

In modern use, a cracker is someone who breaches the security of a computer system.

SIDEBAR: cracker recipes

SIDEBAR: Wordspy – cracker
 

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Monday, August 04, 2008

Numeracy

Phil Morgan writes, “In the financial section of yesterday’s newspaper, an economics professor wrote that people lack numeracy. From the context, I gather that it means they stink at math, but when did it beome a word?”

The first instance that I can find is from 1959. It was used in a report by an Advisory Council for Education commissioned by the British Ministry of Education: “When we say that a historian or a linguist is ‘innumerate’ we mean that he cannot even begin to understand what scientists and mathematicians are talking about... It is perhaps possible to distinguish two different aspects of numeracy that should concern the Sixth Former.” (In America, that would be the equivalent of the junior and senior years in high school.)

It was built on the model of literacy, which evolved from literate. Numeracy evolved from numerate, an adjective meaning skilled at math. That, in turn, came from number with the -ate suffix thrown in. Rather than focusing on esoteric math, numeracy seems now to be concerned with the math needed in everyday life. Think compound interest or the stock market, for instance. In fact, many commentators are careful to separate the terms numeracy and mathematics.

At the root of literacy is a Latin word meaning letter; the Latin root behind number means a sum or numeral. In no time at all, we’ll be dealing with historacy and chemistracy.

SIDEBAR: Numeracy


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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