Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Check is in the Mail

A Czech listener named Daniel began calling the show a couple of weeks ago. On the day closest to April 1, it’s our tradition to devote the entire program to puns. Daniel’s call, of course, prompted the following.

A lawyer had a summer house in the country, to which he retreated for several weeks of the year. Each summer, the lawyer would invite a different friend of his to spend a week or two up at this place, which happened to be in a backwoods section of Maine.
On one particular occasion, he invited a Czechoslovakian friend to stay with him. Early one morning, the lawyer and his Czechoslovakian companion went out to pick berries for their morning breakfast. As they went around the berry patch, gathering blueberries and raspberries in tremendous quantities, along came two huge bears - a male and a female.
The lawyer, seeing the two bears, immediately dashed for cover. His friend, though, wasn't so lucky, and the male bear reached him and swallowed him whole.
The lawyer ran back to his Mercedes, tore into town as fast has he could, and got the local sheriff. The sheriff grabbed his shotgun and dashed back to the berry patch with the lawyer. Sure enough, the two bears were still there.
"He's in THAT one!" cried the lawyer, pointing to the male, while visions of lawsuits from his friend's family danced in his head. He just had to save his friend.
The sheriff looked at the bears, and without batting an eye, leveled his gun, took careful aim, and SHOT THE FEMALE.
"What did you do that for!" exclaimed the lawyer. "I said he was in the other!"
"Exactly," replied the sheriff, "and would YOU believe a lawyer who told you that the Czech was in the Male?"

Daniel’s second call was to find out whether we knew that some English words had entered our language from Czech. I knew about robot, but not the rest. One of the major problems in trying to assign Czech words assimilated into English is the complicated history of that region of the world. A look at old maps reveals shifting borders involving Bohemia, Moravia, Mazovia, Austria-Hungary, Saxony, Prussia, etc.

So, some of the following words may have disputed histories, but all seem to have at least passed through the Czech language and to have been shaped by it, even though some may not have ultimately originated there.

Budweiser - after Budweis, the German name of Budějovice, a city in southern Bohemia.

dollar: Joachimstaler, lit. ‘(gulden) of Joachimsthal’ (in Bohemia), where they were coined in 1519, from a silver mine opened there in 1516.

háček: A name for the diacritic { č }, which is used in Baltic and Slavonic languages. Czech háček, literally, little hook (inverted circumflex).

howitzer - from houfnice, a 15th century Hussite catapult that released many stones simultaneously; houf meant crowd or band.

Pilsner: A pale-colored lager beer with a strong hop flavor, of a style originating in Plzen, province and city in western Bohemia, Czech Republic. [Plz = damp or moist place]

pistol: < style="font-style: italic;">píst'ala, píscala, spec. use of píst'ala whistle, pipe, flute (apparently first applied during the Hussite wars to a weapon with a barrel and a clear-sounding shot)

robot: Czech robota, forced labour; used by Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).

sable: animal prized for its fur. < style="font-style: italic;">sobol (Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Hungarian)

Semtex: A malleable explosive, manufactured in several grades and known largely through its use by terrorists. [Commercial name given by the manufacturer, probably from the name of Semtín, a village in E. Bohemia, Czech Republic, where it is made, plus the initial syllable of explosive or export.]

vampire: a word of Slavonic origin occurring in the same form in Russ., Pol., Czech, Serb., and Bulg., with many variants.

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

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