Sunday, September 28, 2008

Blizzard


Len from Chillicothe asked about the origin of the word blizzard.

The Weather Channel website tells us that the following requirements are necessary to speak of a blizzard:

• temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit
• winds of 35 miles per hour or greater
• falling or blowing snow in the air that reduces visibility to ¼ mile or less
• a duration of at least 3 hours

Originally, blizzard meant a violent blow; then it came to mean an overwhelming argument. The first print instance cited by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1829: “Blizzard: a violent blow.” [Virginia Lit. Museum, Dec. 16, 1829, p. 418]

By 1859, the transfer from a punch to a snow squall had been completed: “A blizzard had come upon us about midnight... Shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up.” [L. B. Wolf, Diary, Dec. 1, 1859, in Kansas Historical Quarterly (1932), I. 205]

Metaphorically, it has come to mean a flurry of activity or a superabundance: a blizzard of phone calls, a blizzard of spam.


SIDEBAR: All about winter storms


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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dire Straits


Larry asked, “Where do we get the expression dire straights?”

It’s a frequent misconception that the second word is spelled straight. I’ve also seen this in the phrase a straight jacket. There’s nothing straight about it in these cases. It should be spelled strait.

Strait came from estreit, an Old French word that meant tight, close, or narrow. In turn, that evolved from the Latin word strictus, which meant drawn together, close-knit, tight, or narrow.

In 1387, strait was used to describe a tight-fitting garment. By 1561, it referred to a constraining knot. As time went on, limited or constricted was the predominant meaning, leading to the idea of difficult. We find it in Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” [KJV]

It became applied to a narrow waterway, often with a plural spelling treated as a singular: The Straits of Hormuz.

Dire came from the Latin dirus -- fearful, awful, portentous, or ill-boding. In time, it took on shades of unpleasant or frightful. By now, dire straits is considered a cliché.


SIDEBAR: Dire Straits, the band



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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dormie/Dormy

Allen writes, “While I was watching the Ryder Cup this weekend, I heard the word dormy. I’m not a golfer, so I’m not quite sure what it means.

In golf match play, dormy (also spelled dormie) means being ahead by as many holes as remain to be played. The point is that if you halve the upcoming hole, you will win the match. And even if you lose all the remaining holes, the worst that will happen will be a tie.

The American Heritage Dictionary lists the origin as unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary offers nothing, either. However, a Rollyo search referencing the AHD also sends the reader to dormouse, and it’s recorded that a Scottish dialect turned that into dormie. That rodent (family Gliridae) was found on golf courses in Scotland, and its name comes from a word that meant to sleep in several related languages. The dormouse is a hibernating animal. Could it mean that a dormy team had the match so locked up that they could practically go to sleep?

Here’s one where I could use some help, readers. Please send documentation, and it shouldn’t be krap from Wikipedia.


SIDEBAR: dormie from About.com: [thanks to Brent Kelley]
USGA on dormie

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Chaperon/Chaperone


Elizabeth asks if the word should be spelled chaperon or chaperone.

Both are found in dictionaries, but some commentators point out that the chaperone spelling is an incorrect Anglicization of a French word. Someone mistakenly thought that an -e- was needed at the end of the word to make it feminine. So it’s probably better to give preference to chaperon.

More interesting is its origin. It comes from an Old French word that meant a hood used to cover a person’s head protectively. The American Heritage Dictionary also points out that it was applied to the hood placed on a hawk’s head to keep it calm. [See the entry Hoodwink, August 21, 2006]

In a strange turn of events, it also meant a small escutcheon placed on the forehead of a horse pulling a hearse during a funeral procession. [1680]

By 1720, the transfer from a protective head covering to a protective person was complete. By then, it meant “a married or elderly woman, who, for the sake of propriety, accompanies a young unmarried lady in public as guide and protector.” [OED]

SIDEBAR: The Chaperon, by Henry James


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Monday, September 15, 2008

Landfall


Paul writes from Dover: “TV commentators discussing Hurricane Ike kept using the word landfall. I’m familiar with snowfall and rainfall, where the elements literally fall from the sky, but doesn’t a hurricane approach horizontally?”

Paul, if you ever have a chance to look up the word fall in an unabridged dictionary, be prepared to spend some time wading through details. The idea of gravity at work is primary, of course, but one of the subsequent meanings is, “to come upon or arrive.”

The original use of landfall referred to a ship arriving at a plotted course. We find this in 1627 in Captain Smith’s Seaman’s Grammar, ix. 43: “A good Land fall is when we fall iust with our reckoning, if otherwise a bad Land fall.”

When the Aviation Age arrived, the word was also applied to a plane arriving at land after a flight over the sea. (1908, H. G. Wells, War in Air, vi. 194: “New York had risen out of the blue indistinctness of the landfall.”) By 1974, landfall was also being applied to the place where an undersea pipeline reaches land.

SIDEBAR: Hurricane Ike


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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Slippery When Wet


Just before halftime during the Notre Dame vs. University of Michigan game today (Saturday), the female color commentator chimed in with a priceless line:

"In anticipation of the rain, both teams played with wet balls this week during practice."

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Venturing out for Adventure


I’m sorry to have misplaced the name, but someone asked if there was a connection between venture and adventure. Both words have a noun and a verb usage.

The connection between the two is the Latin verb venire, to come. Its past participle is ventus, which is why the -t- shows up in venture and adventure.

We use venture in a somewhat mitigated sense today. We venture forth, we venture a guess, or we seek venture capital. But deep within, the word always contained elements of difficulty, risk, and danger. There was always the possibility of loss or injury. That’s what happened when you wandered out of your own neighborhood.

With adventure, there is always a sense of excitement, challenge, or experiencing the exotic. Lurking beneath, of course, is the same risk or danger conveyed by venire.

Complicating things is the fact that the -vent- sequence also shows up in an unrelated way from words formed from the Latin ventus, wind. Vent, ventilation, ventilator, and ventifact (a stone shaped by wind-driven sand) are examples.

Finally, the Latin venter, belly, helped form words such as ventral (abdominal), ventricose (inflated or distended, as a belly), and ventriloquism (speaking from the belly).


SIDEBAR: the anatomy of the stomach



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Monday, September 08, 2008

Feeding frenzy



Mitch from Florida writes, "Do you have an entry on feeding frenzy? I am seeing that in the newspapers recently."

It’s probably because of Sarah Palin, Republic Vice-Presidential candidate.

The original feeding frenzy was the frantic and aggressive attack on prey by groups of sharks, leading to thrashing and writhing bodies in bloody waters. It was a group smorgasbord. The first instance given by the Oxford English Dictionary is 1960 [T. Lineweaver in Sports Illustrated, 22 Feb. 61/2] : "When sharks are in a feeding frenzy, the man who hangs too close to the surface to grimace, may lose his head -- face, grimace and all." (If anyone has an earlier citation, I'd appreciate hearing about it.)

Sharks gather when they smell the blood or the stress hormones of potential prey. Research shows that sharks are able to respond to one part blood for every one million parts of water; this is like being able to smell one teaspoon of chocolate syrup in a swimming pool.

Eventually, it became a figure of speech for aggressive competition or rivalry, or for exploitation by journalists when they sense a story about to emerge -- they smell blood in the water. The first instance of this figurative use found in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1972 [Science 7 Apr. 33/3] : "It would be rash to take them [sc. proposed alterations to pollution legislation] as evidence of a coherent movement to cripple the law. But what worries environmentalists...is that a feeding frenzy may develop among federal agencies once a few loopholes have been opened in the law."

The phrase is now considered a cliche.

SIDEBAR: videotape of feeding frenzy


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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Got sand?


I just returned from a family reunion in northern Wisconsin. It required a trip through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Highway 2. Those who have taken that route know that it provides views of lush forest and frequent glimpses of Lake Michigan. It’s a two-lane highway, so passing opportunities are limited.

That means that I spent about 70 miles following a particular car. Among the bumper stickers that it sported was, “Got Sand?” It could have been an ad for a construction company, or -- based upon some of the other stickers -- it could have been an Evangelical prompt of some kind. At any rate, it provided wool for gathering.

Sand has been slang for courage since the mid-1800s. Here are three instances:

• 1867 George Washington Harris, Sut Lovingood Yarns: “I tell yu, he has lots ove san’ in his gizzard; he has the bes’ pluck I ever seed.”
• 1878 Fred Hart, Sazerac Lying Club: “. . . he was always so good-natured and smilin’ like, that a stranger would a thought thar warn’t no sand in him, and he wouldn’t fight nothin’. But he always carried a big bowie in his boot-leg and a dragoon six-shooter in his shirt, and would fight a rattlesnake and give it the fust bite.”
• 1881 New York Times 18 Dec. 4/3 “Sand --To have sand in one’s craw. To be determined and plucky. Equivalent to grit.”

As the last quote indicates, it is allied to the word grit, also slang for courage, fortitude, and stamina, and Chapman’s American Slang assigns a date of 1825. The mention of craw in that New York Times article reveals the origin. A craw is a pouch-like protuberance found in the gullet of many birds. In it, food undergoes partial digestion by rubbing against tiny stones that the bird has ingested.

By the way, if the bird swallows stones that are too large, they stick in its craw, which figuratively describes anything that we can't accept.


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