Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shrewd


Some words undergo severe changes in their lifetime. The word nice, for instance, started its life meaning flighty and foolish, and the word silly once meant happy and blessed.

The word shrewd has bounced all over the place, too. Originally, it meant depraved, wicked, and malignant. Now it’s considered a compliment, as in she’s a shrewd business owner.

From extremely evil, it softened to naughty when applied to children in the 16th century, although applied to animals, it still signified bad-tempered in a vicious way. Then, for some reason, it slowly began to take a more positive spin in 1520: “Seeming to be sheep, and serpently shrewd.” [Calisto & Melib. in Hazl. Dodsley I. 60] The comparison to a serpent still showed some negativity, but the swing to clever and astute was underway.

The word seems to have begun with the shrew-mouse, which medieval lore said would have a malignant effect on both man and beast if it came in contact. Its bite, it was believed, contained venom.


SIDEBAR: Animal Diversity Web -- the shrew


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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cavalcade


Recent news reports mentioned that Detroit automakers are going to form a cavalcade of fuel-efficient vehicles and drive them to Washington, D.C., to convince lawmakers to bail them out. It’s their attempt to atone for Jetgate, but it’s still a lot of horsepower.

Buried in the word cavalcade is the Latin word for horse, caballus. Originally, a cavalcade was a procession on horseback, especially on a festive or solemn occasion. The word was also loosely used for a procession of carriages, so the Big Three will be honoring an ancient tradition.

Cavalier (and its many permutations) referred to a horseman, especially a knight or horse-soldier. The Spanish equivalent was the caballero.

In Louisiana and Texas, cavallard was a term used by the caravans which cross the prairies to denote a band of horses or mules. In the southwest, caballada was a herd or train of horses or mules.

Cavallarice was once in vogue to designate horsemanship, and a cavallerize was a riding-master or professor of horsemanship. While it’s not used too often these days, caballine is an adjective equivalent to equine.

Cavalry, of course, is the collective name for horse-soldiers, that part of a military force which consists of mounted troops. In contrast, infantry consisted of foot soldiers.

SIDEBAR: U.S. Cavalry Association



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Monday, November 24, 2008

Martinet


A listener asked about the word martinet. Currently, it means a rigid military disciplinarian, and, by extension, anyone who is overly meticulous and demanding. It arose from a man’s name, Jean Martinet, who acted as Inspector-General under Louis XIV. He developed military drills and paid special attention to strict discipline.

What interests me is that the word has four versions, each with its own superscript, signifying that even though they are currently identical in spelling, they come from different sources. Martinet4 covers the information above.

Martinet1 is defined as a martin or swift, and, in the 1800s, a student at the University of Paris not living in a college.

Martinet2 was a watermill for an iron forge, a type of small cart, a siege engine used in warfare for bombarding with large stones, and a type of cat-o'-nine-tails formerly used in French schools. As a whip, it seems to figure prominently in BDSM circles.
Link
Martinet3 was a demon supposed to summon witches to their assemblies.


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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Numinous


Larry from Traverse City, Michigan, came across the word numinous. Usually, it means characterized by a sense of supernatural presence. Some people will feel that aura or spiritual force in a church, some in a natural setting of beauty, and some in the presence of fine art. Many theologians and psychologists use the word numinous to express that which is transcendent, wholly other, and just out of reach, though its presence is felt.

It is a derivative of numen, the presiding divinity of a place or, in a secular sense, creative energy or genius. It came to us through Latin and Greek verbs meaning to nod. The idea seems to be that when in the presence of a god expressing its will, the duty of a human is simply to nod assent.

Related words are kramat, a Muslim holy place or place of pilgrimage [from the Malay word meaning numinous] and reiki, the spiritual life force, or vital spiritual energy, said to reside in all living things [from a Chinese word meaning numinous atmosphere].

SIDEBAR: Numinous: Spiritual Poetry


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Monday, November 17, 2008

Glom That Conglomerate



Fred from Boyne Falls, Michigan, asked about the word glom, as in “glom on to that handrail before you fall.”

Glom has a few meanings: to steal; to grab; to look at or stare. It probably came from a Scots word -- glaum, to snatch at (1715).

* * * * *

On air, I speculated that it might be connected to the Latin glomus/glomer-, which means ball. I was wrong; to glom onto something is not connected. That root is responsible for words such as the following:

• agglomeration: The action of collecting in a mass, or of heaping together
• conglomerate: adj. clustered; n. 1. composite rock 2. corporation formed by merging
• eglomerate: to unwind
• fanglomerate: A rock consisting of comparatively erosion-resistant fragments of various sizes deposited in an alluvial fan and consolidated into a solid mass.
• glome: a ball of yarn
• glomerate: clustered
• glomeration: the process of forming into a ball
• glomerous: gathered into a ball
• glomerule: a compact cluster
• glomerus: A small cluster or mass of blood vessels or nerve fibers
• inglomerated: formed into a rounded mass or heap
• juxtaglomerular: situated next to a glomerulus of the kidney
• pseudoconglomerate n. Geol. a rock resembling a conglomerate but formed by a process other than sedimentary deposition

SIDEBAR: Sedimentary rock


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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fox (part 2)


Last time, we took a look at the phrase sly as a fox. Today, let’s look at how slyly the word fox has insinuated itself into certain words.

alopecia: A medical term for baldness. <1398> [L. alopecia, from Gr. alopekia, fox-mange, from alopeks, a fox.]

salep: A nutritive meal, starch, or jelly made from the dried tubers of various orchidaceous plants, chiefly those of the genus Orchis; formerly also used as a drug. <1736> [Arabic thaleb (pronounced in some parts saleb), taken to be a shortening of khasyu 'tha-thalab orchis, literally “fox's testicles.”]

vixen: the female of the fox. <1410> [OE. fyxen, fem. of fox]

Vulpecula: A small northern constellation lying between Hercules and Pegasus; more fully called Vulpecula et anser (fox and goose) or cum ansere. <1866> [L. vulpecula, diminutive of vulpes, fox.]

vulpicide: One who kills a fox other than by hunting it with hounds. <1826> [L. vulpi-, vulpes, fox + -cide.]

vulpine: Characteristic of a fox; similar to that of a fox. <1628> [L. vulpinus, f. vulpes, fox]

Winnebago: Siouan people of eastern Wisconsin. <1766> [Fox wi·nepye·ko·ha, literally “person of dirty water,” an allusion to the muddy waters of the Fox River below Lake Winnebago, which became clogged with dead fish in the heat of the summer.]

Zorro: fictional black-clad masked outlaw who defends the people of the land against tyrannical officials and other villains. Zorro was created by Johnston McCulley. <1919> [Sp. for fox.]


SIDEBAR: the red fox

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Sly as a Fox (pt. 1)


Tanya from Albany, New York, asks what sly as a fox means and where the phrase comes from. For some reason, in earlier centuries, people considered the fox to be a crafty, cunning, and tricky creature. It does tend to slink a bit while hunting, but that quality isn’t limited to foxes; sly as a snake would work for me just as well. But a literary tradition pinned the simile on the pup.

Aesop wrote the fable of The Fox and the Crow, in which a wily fox tricks a crow out of a morsel of meat. Much later, in medieval stories, Reynard the Fox became the symbol of a trickster, a character who was always in trouble but always able to talk his way out of it.

The slyness or subtlety of a fox is an image found frequently in Shakespeare.

Cymbeline, III, 3: “We are beastly, subtle as the fox for prey . . . .”

Henry IV, Part 1, V, 2: “For treason is but trusted like the fox,
Who, ne'er so tame, so cherish'd and lock'd up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors.”

Henry VIII, I, 1: “This holy fox, Or wolf, or both,—for he is equal ravenous
As he is subtle . . . .”

King Lear, III, 4: “False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth . . . .”

Measure for Measure, III. 2: “. . .and furred with fox and lamb-skins too, to signify, that craft, being richer than innocency, stands for the facing.”

Venus and Adonis, l. 694: “Uncouple at the timorous flying hare,
Or at the fox which lives by subtlety . . . .”


SIDEBAR: The History of Reynard the Fox


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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Idiom


Rick from Petoskey, Michigan, asked about the meaning of idiom. It is applied in a variety of ways.

The most common use is to describe a set of words that makes little sense logically or grammatically, and which usually defies direct translation into another language. Yet, the combination forms a vivid or poetical expression, though it may soon degenerate into a cliché. Examples include to sit on the fence, to cut your own throat, or a woman on fire. They are not to be taken literally, but they have meaning to those in the know: to be undecided, to contribute to your own downfall, and to be highly enthusiastic and focused.

In a broad sense, idiom is a synonym for language, the form of speech peculiar or proper to a people or country.

In a narrow sense, it is a synonym for dialect, a variety of speech peculiar to a specific geographical region or district. There are also professional idioms characteristic of lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, etc. This is also called jargon.

In addition, idiom is used to define a distinct artistic style: the idiom of the French impressionists, the jazz idiom, the idiom of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In all cases, the word tracks back to the Greek idios, one’s own.


SIDEBAR: The Idiom Connection
http://www.idiomconnection.com/


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


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Monday, November 03, 2008

Gridiron


Football season is upon us, and Tom from Boyne City, Michigan, asked why the football field is called a gridiron.

In the football sense, it dates back to 1897. The word seems first to have appeared in print in a Boston Herald account of the annual Yale vs. Harvard game. The most likely reason for the analogy is that the lines painted on the field to mark the yardage look like the parallel bars of a griddle, a gridiron.

Long before that use, it was “a cooking utensil formed of parallel bars of iron or other metal in a frame, usually supported on short legs, and used for broiling flesh or fish over a fire.” [OED]

In a gruesome variation, a similar structure was also used as an instrument of torture. The victim would be roasted over a fire. This is why the stylized symbol representing St. Lawrence, the martyr, is a gridiron. [See The Catholic Encyclopedia]

The word gridiron eventually applied to any grate-like structure, such as those found on a dam or a weir, a network of pipes, a scaffolding, a set of planks located above a theatrical stage from which scenery was lowered, and crisscrossing railroad tracks.

For some $5 words representing the idea of a gridiron or network, see craticle, graticule, and reticulated. From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary:

• “Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”
• “Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.”


SIDEBAR: NFL Gridiron Gab



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