Thursday, January 29, 2009

Piker


The word piker has undergone a fitful series of starts and stops. Today in America, we take it to mean a parsimonious person, someone who will squeeze a penny until it bleeds.

In 1590, a piker was a pikeman, a soldier equipped with a pike. A pike was a weapon that sported a pointed steel head supported on a long wooden shaft. Until the 18th century, no respectable foot soldier would have gone to battle without one.

Piker in the sense of a stingy person (or a not-very-reputable person) had two separate starts. In England, piker was a regional derogatory term used abusively of a tramp or vagrant. It seems to have come from a term in southeastern England designating a traveller or a gypsy -- hence, someone considered disreputable or lowerclass, an early instance of trailerpark trash.

In America, Piker was a derogatory regional term that started in California and other Pacific states. It referred to a poor white migrant from the southern states, many of whom seem to have come from Pike County, Missouri. A letter written by one F. Buck in 1852 contained this line: “Unfortunately [Downieville, California] is cursed with the most degraded set of Irish squatters, Pike County Missourians, and mean Yankees.” OED

From there, it shifted to a timid gambler who wagered only small sums of money. He was a person who took no chances, someone who was considered cowardly and stingy.

SIDEBAR: A Piker Clerk


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


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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Watershed



Cris Telgard in Mesilla NM wrote:

Yesterday, in a post to Keith Burnham's great Leland Report, I used the phrase "watershed event" to refer to the Inauguration of President Obama. I've always used this phrase (more often "watershed moment") to mean an important or crucial time, event, or factor that marks a very significant change. I was asked by another TLR subscriber just what this meant. While I think my meaning is correct in this usage, I can't find anything that explains the origin of this phrase. Can you enlighten me? I look forward to catching your amusing and enlightening radio gig when I return to Leland in May.



There are two uses here, one literal and one figurative. The literal sense was used in English in the early 19th century: “The line separating the waters flowing into different rivers or river basins; a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas.” [OED] It’s also used to describe an area of land that drains into a common body of water. Watersheds in this sense come in all shapes and sizes. Small watersheds exist within larger watersheds, so it’s watersheds all the way down.

Cris Telgard explained the figurative sense succinctly and accurately. It’s a critical turning point, a moment that potentially will have historic ramifications.

As for the origin of the word watershed, it probably represents a translation of a German word in use since the 14th century: wasserscheide, water parting. Water is clear enough; the word shed goes back to an Old English term translated as distinction, discrimination, and separation. In the 14th century, shed was also the term used to describe a part made in the hair on the crown of the head by a comb.


SIDEBAR: Watershed Center, Grand Traverse Bay

SIDEBAR: The Watershed Game


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

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inauguration


Last Tuesday was Inauguration Day, so naturally, the word inauguration came up on my program.

Buried right in there is the word augury, a Roman religious practice of divination, prophesy, and portent. While observation of the movements of birds was the original exercise, later methods were legion: examining the entrails of slaughtered animals, watching the shapes of passing clouds, looking for patterns in coagulating cheese, etc.

A formal ceremony of this nature accompanied the installation of officials, and when important policy decisions had to be made, a priest known as an augur would try to determine the best course of action among the possibilities. Rather than simple prediction of the future, it was an attempt to discern the will of the gods, who had already set a course of action.

I have several pages devoted to divination in my Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition; here is a sample, each divination name followed by the activity or object observed.

• chaomancy: cloud formations
• cheiromancy: palm reading
• foliomancy: reading tea leaves
• gastromancy: stomach rumblings
• ichnomancy: footprints
• mazomancy: the breast chosen by a nursing infant
• myomancy: the movement of mice
• oneiromancy: dreams
• pegomancy: bubbles rising in a fountain
• tyromancy: patterns in coagulating cheese


SIDEBAR: Augury


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


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Monday, January 19, 2009

Waters


Dave Gill of Traverse City wrote the following:

While reading a book about submarines, certain phrases caught my attention: “in these waters” or “while in treacherous waters” or “falling overboard in these waters,” etc. I guess I can understand that if a person was writing or speaking about all five of the Great Lakes inclusively, “these waters” would apply. However, if the subject is a specific lake or a specific location and point of time, I would think the plural use of “these waters” would not make grammatical sense.

I don't have a satisfactory answer. Chambers-Murray Latin Dictionary cites Cicero as using aquae (waters) to designate watering-places and mineral springs. The Oxford English Dictionary says that around the year 1,000, the plural began to be used in English instead of the singular, especially with reference to flowing water or to water moving in waves. The American Heritage Dictionary defines waters as “a particular stretch of sea or ocean, especially that of a state or country: escorted out of British waters.”

However, none of these reveal why the plural form is used. My suspicion is that it was influenced by Biblical use. The Bible hadn't been fully translated into English by the year 1,000, but those who were literate would have read the Latin Vulgate version.

Right off the bat, in Genesis 1:2, we read " et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas." [God moved upon the face of the waters.] Aquas is the Latin word for water, and it is rendered in its objective plural form. Strong's Concordance of the Bible goes on to give about 3 full columns of the plural use in both Old and New Testaments, so it was deeply ingrained in western culture. Most people will recognize, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters” or “Cast thy bread upon the waters . . . .

But I don't have definitive proof that this influenced English word choice.


SIDEBAR: Simon & Garfunkel


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

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dogged


My last blog quoted the term “dogged perseverance” from the Oxford English Dictionary, and I think it’s worthy of comment.

First, dogged is pronounced as two syllables: dogg’-ed. While there may be mild implications of wooden-headedness in this adjective, we tend to use it as a compliment, a reflection of the admirable tenacity and persistency that certain breeds of dog exhibit.

I was surprised to discover that early uses of the word were uniformly and relentlessly — nay, even doggedly — negative. “Man’s best friend” was not the norm. Synonyms for dogged included currish, malicious, spiteful, perverse, cruel, obstinate, Ill-tempered, surly, sullen, morose, snarly, and snappish. For 300 years, until Samuel Johnson’s time, the word was in the doghouse. Canophilia was not in vogue.

This is reflected in a couple of words based upon the Greek word for dog. Cynopic meant shameless, and it could be translated as dog-eyed. A cynical person was currish and doglike, in the snappish negative sense.

In English, inferior language use was tagged, variously, as dog-Latin, dog-Greek, and dog-English. If you were terminally stupid, you used dog-logic, and inferior poets wrote dog-rime. And, of course, if I accused you of being someone’s lap-dog, I would have grievously insulted you, and you would accuse me of barking up the wrong tree.

Other bad press canine terms include die like a dog, dogging it, going to the dogs, in the doghouse, hangdog look, not fit for a dog, sick as a dog, “you’re dogfood!” and to throw someone to the dogs.

SIDEBAR: History & evolution of dogs


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


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Monday, January 12, 2009

Stick-to-it-iveness


Professor Kyle Wilkison (Collin College, Plano, TX) wrote: “I have a talented but obstinate student who denies the validity, indeed the existence, of the wonderful word "sticktoitiveness." I am delighted to encounter a student who cares about words but equally committed to disproving her argument. Please advise.”


Let's hear it for inquiring students. They make teaching a joy.

Here we have another case of "that depends on what word means." The word stick-to-it-iveness does appear in dictionaries, but it usually bears the label colloquialism. As we both know, colloquialisms are words, but you wouldn't want to use them in formal dissertations.

Your 2 x 4 weapon of choice in this instance is the Oxford English Dictionary, the intellectual cudgel that few wish to challenge. Here is the relevant part of the entry and some examples:

Stick-to-it-iveness: colloq. (orig. U.S.), dogged perseverance.

1867 in E. B. Custer Tenting on Plains (1889) xvi. 520 With the stick-to-it-iveness of a fox-hound when once on a trail. 1908 Daily Express 15 May 1/4 Success..is mostly hard work. It's work and it's stick-to-it-iveness. You've got to keep at it all the time. 1934 J. A. LEE Children of Poor I. 19 With the irresponsibility of my..father and my mother's stick-to-itiveness, I can..fashion an edifice and then..set the whole show toppling. 1979 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 8 Feb. 10/3 This man who made his million apparently more by stick-to-itiveness than brilliance.


SIDEBAR: Perseverence Quotient


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


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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Colon or Semicolon?


A couple of listeners (and co-host Ron Jolly ) have asked me to review the difference between a colon and a semicolon. Let’s start with some simplifications, both based on the modern premise that sentences should be short and words should be scrupulously precise.

The only punctuation mark that can replace a colon is a dash. The colon acts as a pointer in its sentence. It points to a list or an explanation that expands on what has just been said. He has two hobbies: stamp collecting and sword-making. That could also be rendered as, He has two hobbies —stamp collecting and sword-making.

The only punctuation mark that can replace a semicolon is a period. The semicolon joins two independent clauses that are closely connected in meaning. My brother is an accountant; my sister is a nurse. Alternatively, you could write, My brother is an accountant. My sister is a nurse. (A third option is to use a coordinating conjunction: My brother is an accountant and my sister is a nurse.)

≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠


Now for some complications. First, let’s expand on the colon.

• The first letter following a colon should be in lower case unless it begins a proper name.

• Don’t use a colon after the verb to be (in all its forms).
Wrong Her favorite teams are: the Tigers, the Pistons, and the Red Wings.
Correct Her favorite teams are the Tigers, the Pistons, and the Red Wings.

• Don’t use a colon between a verb and its direct object.
Wrong He dislikes: spinach, tapioca pudding, and buttermilk.
Correct He dislikes spinach, tapioca pudding, and buttermilk.

• Don’t use a colon to separate a preposition from its object.
Wrong They traveled to: Hartford, Hampton, and Hebron.
Correct They traveled to Hartford, Hampton, and Hebron.

• Finally, the colon is used as a simple divider in certain formations.
--Bible references (chapter : verse) Proverbs 26:11
--Time references (hour : minute) 10:30 p.m.
--Book titles (title : subtitle) Wine: A Guide for Beginners
--Business letters (Greeting :) Dear Mr. Smith:
--Ratios In this case, 4:1 is the proper mix.
--Analogies hot : cold :: day : night


Now let’s take a longer look at the semicolon.

• The first letter following a semicolon should be in lower case unless it begins a proper name.

• If you use a semicolon in front of a phrase or a dependent clause (instead of the proper independent clause), you will create a sentence fragment.
Wrong You should always have fire extinguishers handy; in your kitchen and in your garage.
Wrong I missed the turn and hit a tree; because the road was covered with ice.

• If you begin the second independent clause with a transitional word or phrase (however, for instance, meanwhile, etc.), place the semicolon in front of the transitional and place a comma after it. Microwave ovens are convenient; however, recent studies suggest that they may not be safe.

• Contemporary practice condones only one semicolon per sentence. In earlier eras (e.g., the 19th century), very long sentences were in vogue, and such sentences might contain several semicolons, each one pointing to a unit of thought. Check out this example:
“[The true gentleman] has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unreasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.” [John Henry Newman, Idea of a University]


SIDEBAR: Victor Borge on phonetic punctuation


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


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Monday, January 05, 2009

January


January is a pivotal month; for us, it is the swinging door between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Many western cartoons will show a New Year’s baby taking a handoff from a decrepit elderly man, who represents the old year.

The month is named after the Roman god Janus, guardian of doors and gates and supervisor of beginnings. (Ianua in Latin means a door or an entrance.) Appropriately, he is depicted with a face in front and a face in back, thus seeing what was and what is to be simultaneously -- a pivotal position.

Janitor also comes from the Latin word meaning a door. Originally, a janitor was a porter or door-keeper. In our time, he or she is a building caretaker.

Milton used janua to mean a gate or introduction to some branch of learning.


SIDEBAR: Way more than you need to know about ancient doors



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


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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Skiff & Pank Show


Two snow-related words came up on the program, which shouldn’t come as a surprise in northern Michigan.

Jake from Traverse City (MI) asked about a skiff of snow. It turns out that it’s not related to the skiff that means a flatbottomed boat with a shallow draft.

Our skiff is a light flurry or covering of snow. It can also refer to a gust of wind or a rain shower. It seems to have come from a Scandinavian word that means to shift or to move. Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary hints that a Scottish word meaning “to brush against” may have had an influence. So when you see a dusting of snow being moved over ice by the wind, you’re looking at a skiff of snow.

Then Kevin from Cedar (MI) asked about panking the snow, which means to tamp it down. It might be a blend of pack and spank, but the OED also points to a Scandinavian word that meant to tap or to beat.

The word is especially prevalent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, though it shows up in other snowy states, too. (Montana and upper New York State come to mind.) When you put on snoeshoes and stamp out a path from the house to the garage, you are panking the snow. You could, alternatively, use the back of a shovel. You might also pank the sides of a sand castle, pank the dirt over the potatoes, or pank your pillow to make it more comfortable. Whether this should be done while munching on a pasty is unknown.

No connection, but the acronym PANK stands for Professional Aunt, No Kids.


SIDEBAR 1: Lady Pank

SIDEBAR 2: The lexicon of snow


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


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