Monday, December 29, 2008

Barge Right In


Felicia from Oak Park, IL, writes: “My uncle used a phrase when any of us kids would interrupt a conversation. With annoyance in his voice, he would say, Why don’t you just barge right in? I’m wondering about the origin of the phrase.


In a not-too-convoluted way, it goes back to barge, the boat. The original barge was a light boat furnished with sails. Ultimately, this evolved into the flat-bottomed boat used to convey goods on a river, canal, or ocean port. This freight barge usually couldn’t move on its own power; it had to be pushed or towed by a powered vessel. The word scow (as in garbage scow) is also used.

When the barge broke away, it would free-float until it banged up against something -- a bridge support or the bank of the river, for instance.

The metaphorical sense meant to bump heavily or clumsily into an object or, in your uncle’s use, to burst inconsiderately and rudely into a situation.


SIDEBAR 1: Freight barges being loaded on the Thames

SIDEBAR 2: Runaway barge



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


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

icon art by Dona Sheehan



Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
[Hamlet, Act I, Scene i]

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Tight


The phrase “sleep tight” came up again on the show. Contaminating the phrase is the internet nonsense claiming that it’s a reference to tightening the ropes supporting a mattress in order to get a good night’s sleep. In reality, tight--as an adverb--means soundly, securely, and to maximum effect, no strings attached.

Be that as it may, the word tight is quite flexible. Here are some of the meanings through the centuries:

• dense, like woods
• in texture or consistency, close or compact
• impervious to the elements
• not leaky
• uncommunicative and secretive
• competent and skillful
• neatly and carefully dressed
• snugly constructed
• fixed firmly in place
• intimate
• not loose or slack
• strict, stringent, and severe
• disciplined and well co-ordinated
• inebriated
• close-fitting
• allowing a vehicle little room to maneuver
• a tough or unyielding person
• difficult to manage
• an evenly matched contest
• unwilling to part with money
• designating a newspaper that has little room for news because there is a great deal of advertising
• closely packed
• terse and condensed writing
• lacking artistic freedom
• a schedule packed with engagements
• a position which is difficult or precarious
• soundly or roundly [1790]
• not allowing movement
• with constriction or pressure

SIDEBAR: Tight building syndrome.


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


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
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More Words to the Wise is now available:
Check out Mike's program-based books here:
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Just in time for Christmas!



My latest book, More Words to the Wise, is now available. Below, you'll find an explanatory preface and some links to make it easy to find.



PREFACE


Since the year 2001, WTCM-AM 580, a talk radio station in Traverse City, Michigan, has been carrying my radio program. Along with co-host Ron Jolly, I field questions each Tuesday morning about the English language. The topics include word and phrase origins, points of grammar and punctuation, pet peeves, pronunciation, funny gaffes in advertising and broadcasting, writing tips, and anything else remotely connected to our living, lissome language.

The questions contained in this volume were called in during the show or later emailed to me (wordmall@aol.com) during the past four years. They are real questions asked by real people, some of them confused by our mother tongue, some of them bemused by its jabs and dekes. As in the companion volumes written for Arbutus Press, the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity, but the essence of the original interchanges has been preserved.

This is not a stuffy grammar book. Entertainment is on a par with instruction when you are in public media, but be assured that the answers are based on twenty-nine years of teaching experience, most of them at the community college level. If you love language, you will find questions in this book that you very well might have asked.

You’ll find a thorough index to guide you where you might want to go, but the questions and answers are deliberately random -- just like the telephone calls that we field each week. As so many people have remarked when speaking of the first Words to the Wise, this is the perfect bathroom book: no chapters to confine you, and short questions and answers that can be read in any order whatsoever.

Finally, the program may now be heard in real time (Tuesday, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST) in streaming audio. No matter where you are in the world, go to wtcmradio.com and click on Listen Now.


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Shaggy


Shaggy is probably related to an Old Norse word that meant the untended straggly growth that would spring up at the edge of cultivated land. It didn’t take long before its resemblance to an unkempt beard was noted and used.

Hideous, horrible, and horrid conceal references to shagginess, perhaps because the hair on the back of the neck stands up when we are confronted with something dreadful and frightful. That’s known as horripilation.

Velvet, the fabric, comes from a Latin word that meant shaggy hair. Hirsute also falls into that category, as does villus, a slender hairlike process.




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


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
wordmallATaol.com
(substitute @ for AT above)


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
http://arbutuspress.com/store_ling.html
or at Amazon.com


Visit the Senior Corner at http://seniors.tcnet.org

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Canvass


We use the word canvass in a decidedly political sense these days. Political operatives canvass a district to gauge the number of potential votes. They probe and scrutinize and solicit individual voters. It's also the process used in vote recounts when technically invalid votes are rejected. Ask Al Franken.

The word conjures up the material known as canvas, a strong or coarse unbleached cloth made of hemp or flax, used for sails of ships, for tents, by painters for oil-paintings, and even for clothing.

It should bring up this image because canvass started life meaning "to toss someone in a sheet of canvas," either as punishment or as sport. From there, it transmuted into buffeting or battering, assaulting, editing and criticizing a piece of writing, investigating, debating, rejecting bad votes, bargaining, soliciting votes, and interviewing for political purposes.

All this happened over the course of 300 years.


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


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
wordmallATaol.com
(substitute @ for AT above)


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
http://arbutuspress.com/store_ling.html
or at Amazon.com


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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bully


The word bully has careened through history like a drunken sailor. For one thing, there were seven separate bullies.

Bully-1 has had these meanings:

• a term of endearment equivalent to sweetheart, later applied only to men
• a companion or mate
• a tyrannical coward who preys on the weak
• a ruffian hired to intimidate
• the protector of a prostitute

• Bully-2 applied to sports: in Eton football it meant a scrimmage, and in field hockey, it was a procedure for putting the ball in play.
• Bully-3 was a cottage or hut.
• Bully-4 was a species of tree found in the West Indies and Guyana.
• Bully-5 was pickled or tinned beef.
• Bully-6 was a pattern of miner’s hammer.
• Bully-7 was a dialectical name for a fish.

SIDEBAR: Helping kids deal with bullies


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

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
wordmallATaol.com
(substitute @ for AT above)


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
http://arbutuspress.com/store_ling.html
or at Amazon.com

Visit the Senior Corner at http://seniors.tcnet.org

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Drivel


Drivel is defined as stupid or senseless talk, idiotic statements, or rank twaddle.

It seems to have come from a Scandinavian word meaning the sediment left over after brewing. This is appropriate, since the earliest use of the word meant spittle flowing from the mouth, or dribble.

Disgusting examples through the centuries appear in the Oxford English Dictionary: “drivel at the nose, or pus” [1570], “he cleared the drivel from his beard” [1586], “the drivel that comes from the mouth of a mad dog” [1697], “the child . . . wet with drivel from the mouth” [1789], and “The . . . nurse leaves you to drivel, and never wipes your nose” [1875].

A separate noun drivel, from a Middle Dutch word meaning a tool for driving, led to drivel meaning a servant doing menial work, an imbecile, a dirty person, and a driving tool.

SIDEBAR: Animated Drivel


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


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
wordmallATaol.com
(substitute @ for AT above)


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
http://arbutuspress.com/store_ling.html
or at Amazon.com


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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mummy


We’re all familiar with Egyptian mummies from visiting museums and viewing gory films. I recently stumbled upon another meaning of the word, one that had earlier eluded me, thank heavens.

Mummy was a bituminous substance prepared for medicinal use from mummified (usually human) flesh. Purveyors of the medicine assured customers that the source was ancient Egyptian mummies, but chicanery abounded.

In 1634, Thomas Johnson wrote, “Embalming them [sc. the bodies of hanged men] with salt and Drugges they dryed them in an Oven, so to sell them thus adulterated in stead of true Mummie." [Gerard's Herball, Enlarged by T. J., from The workes of that famous chirurgion A. Parey XII. 448].

Right — true mummies would have been more palatable. The shoddy practice was again mentioned in the July 1999 edition of the Fortean Times: “Much of what was sold as mummy was in fact made of the decomposing bodies of humans or animals who may have died of all sorts of communicable diseases.”

In many cases, the patient had no desire to cannibalize the past. Thirty-five years before Thomas Johnson, Richard Hakluyt had written, “And these dead bodies are the Mummie which the Phisitians and Apothecaries doe against our willes make vs to swallow.” [The principall navigations, voiages and discoueries of the English nation, II. I. 201]

Mummy was a pulpy substance, often dried to powder form, and it led to a popular threat: “I’ll thrash you into a mummy.” That’s a wrap, folks.

SIDEBAR: Mummy MedicineLink


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

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. There is no archive.


Write to Mike with comments or questions:
wordmallATaol.com
(substitute @ for AT above)


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
http://arbutuspress.com/store_ling.html
or at Amazon.com


Visit the Senior Corner at http://seniors.tcnet.org

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