Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In the Offing


While I was checking the weather on The Weather Channel the other day, I heard a forecaster say, “There are many storms in the offing.” I knew that in the offing means imminent, but I realized that I didn’t know where it came from.

It has a nautical origin. The OED defines offing as “the part of the visible sea at a distance from the shore beyond anchorages or inshore navigational dangers.” It is just beyond rocks, shoals, and other hazards, but not so far as to be lost on the horizon. The first example shows up in 1600.

The base was the adverb off, used nautically to mean away from land or from the vessel. The -ing is a suffix used to form a noun.

In extended and figurative use it means nearby, at hand, imminent, likely to happen in the near future. The word in this sense appeared in 1779, all because a ship in the offing was at a visible distance and would soon land.



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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trophy


Somewhere in your house, probably on a mantel or in a cabinet, you have an engraved cup, plaque, or statuette won by your child in a sporting contest, a spelling bee, or some other endeavor. Or you may have a trophy wife or husband. At any rate, the word is familiar and in constant popular use.

The word trophy comes, ultimately, from a Greek word meaning a turning, but it’s not a benign and graceful turning, as in a pirouette. It’s a turning as in a battlefield rout, a pivot on your heels with a scream stuck in your throat and a heart about to burst as you desperately run for your life.

When the enemy had fled the field, victors would strip weapons and gear from the dead and pile them in a central location. If a tree or pillar were handy, that would be the collection point. Otherwise a framework would be constructed, and knives, swords, greaves, shields and all manner of enemy spoils would be attached for triumphant display. This was the trophy.

Normally, the trophy was dedicated to a divinity in gratitude for victory. Thanks to superstition, it was considered a sin against the gods to deface a trophy or tear it down. It stood as a bitter tribute to defeat until the elements had their way.

Now we’ve downsized the whole affair to little statues that even a child can lift in triumph.


SIDEBAR: trophies


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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Straight Arrow


Mark from Orlando: “While I was at a sporting goods store the other day, I learned that there’s a fancy word for archery. Do you know what it is?”


Yes, and it’s a great word: toxophily. It’s based on two Greek words — toxon, a bow, and philein, to love. A form of the word worked its way into English as the title of a work by Roger Ascham in 1545.

In the book, a history and apologia for use of the longbow, Ascham presented a Platonic dialogue between Toxophilus and Philologus. One of Ascham’s contentions that always amuses me is that, “shooting is fitter for students than any music or instruments.” Tell that to your piano instructor.

The -phily compound is interesting. In some cases, it signifies pollination methods.

• acarophily: fertilization of plants by mites.
• anemophily: pollination with the assistance of the wind.
• hydrophily: pollination by the agency of water.
• ornithophily: pollination by birds.
• zoophily: dissemination of seeds by animals.


That ending also points to plant preferences.

• nemophily: a preference for wooded areas.
• nitrophily: a preference for soils rich in nitrogen.
• ombrophily: a prefernce for prolonged rain.
• photophily: a preference for intense light.
• scotophily: a preference for darkness.
• xerophily: a preference for dry conditions.


In other cases, the -phily ending is used to designate a hobby.

• bibliophily: collecting books.
• cartophily: collecting cigarrette cards.
• notaphily: the study or collection of banknotes.
• scripophily: the collection of old bond and share certificates.
• timbrophily: stamp collecting.

Finally, it is sometimes used to name an unhealthy attraction or preoccupation: coprophily (defecation), gerontophily (sexual attraction to older people), and necrophily (I see dead people!). Personally, I don’t see what’s so wrong about gerontophily.


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


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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Deep and Crisp and Even


Veronica wrote, “One of my coworkers commented the other morning that it was a crisp winter day. I got to wondering: why crisp?

It’s probably a figurative application of crisp meaning stiff and brittle. It has the force of brisk and bracing. Things are frozen and crunchy, and we speak of crisp air, too. This subset of meaning appeared in 1869.

The word has gone through many applications. In the original Latin, crispus referred to curly hair; the ringlets were stiff and tight. This was the original meaning in English in the 10th century. By the 14th century, the meaning had shifted to any surface that had waves, wrinkles, or ripples. Particularly, the word was applied to fabrics with a crêpe-like texture.

By the 16th century, the word was used of brittle substances that are easily crushed by the teeth. In the 19th century, the meaning shifted to sharp, brisk, and decided in manner. A person could have a crisp touch on the piano, could deliver a crisp and decided speech, or could design crisp, detailed, and cleanly defined architecture.

In Britain, potato chips are potato crisps.

As an acronym, CRISP can refer to the Cambridge Racial Incident Support Project, the Centre for Remote Imaging Sensing & Processing, Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects, or Cross Registry Information Service Protocol.


SIDEBAR: Quentin Crisp Quotes


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Thursday, February 12, 2009

No Fricative Way!


David Wiseley from Waters, Michigan, wrote:

I was in one of the big box home improvement stores and saw a new tool made by Stanley. It is a newfangled type of wrecking bar. Someone in their public relations or marketing department must have been asleep at the switch when they named it. They call it the Fubar. As you probably know, FUBAR comes from the military and is an acronym for "Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition" But of course no self respecting military guy would have used the word "fouled." I think you get the idea. The same is true with the word SNAFU, another militarism short for "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up."


Later last week, Mark Maynard contributed another military term that used the F-word. It’s DILLIGAF, an acronym for “Does It Look Like I Give A Fig?” Once again, “fig” is a polite substitution.

Mr. Wisely suggested that I might want to expand on such military acronyms in a future program, but the producer will allow no such thing. Since we’re all adults here, I’ll devote this column to some of them. My source is Jesse Sheidlower’s groundbreaking book, The F Word, 2nd Edition.

• ASAFP: As Soon As F***ing possible
• BFD: Big F***ing Deal
• FIGMO: F*** It, Got My Orders
• FNG: F***ing New Guy
• FTA: F*** The Army
• FUBB: F***ed Up Beyond Belief
• FYFI: For Your F***ing Information
• GFO: General F***-Off; also GFU, General F***-Up
• JANFU: Joint Army/Navy F***-Up
• NFG: No F***ing Good
• NFW: No F***ing Way
• TARFU: Things Are Really F***ed Up

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my mouth out with soap.


SIDEBAR: Does swearing corrode society?

SIDEBAR: The psychology of swearing


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


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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Somersault


Helen from Montpelier wrote, “Where did the word summersalt come from?”

You would have found it more easily had you spelled the word somersault; it’s not tied to a particular season or seasoning. The word came into English from the French in 1530, and it was associated with acrobats or tumblers. It’s a leap in which a person turns heels over head in the air and lands on the feet. Eventually, it took on the figurative meaning of flipflopping on an issue; as such, it was used in the recent American presidential campaign.

The French derived it from two Latin words: supra, above or overhead, and saltus, a leap. Saltus shows up in the etymology of two other common words.

An assault is literally a leaping toward. We take it to mean a rush upon someone with hostile intent, a physical or verbal attack.

The other word is insult, literally a leaping in. In medical parlance, an insult is a bodily injury or trauma. Otherwise, it’s contemptuous and offensive rudeness.

SIDEBAR: classic insults


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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Agony



We’re talking about industrial-strength suffering here, both mental and physical. Thanks to what has been memorialized in Gospel accounts, most people associate this word with Christ’s Agony in the Garden. Agony doesn’t get more intense than that.

The word started out in Greek as agonia, a contest or struggle, and in some contexts it eventually meant to torture. As a noun, it referred to contests in ancient Greece, involving either athletic or musical competitions, in which prizes were awarded to the winners. To agonize in those days was to go all out in competition. Just do it.

As time went on, it was used to describe a conflict between characters in drama and in literature. The word entered English with the sense of mental suffering, then was extended to physical suffering. It is even used to describe the final battle -- the death agony.

Paradoxically, it has also been used in a positive and ecstatic sense, as when Alexander Pope spoke of “cries and agonies of wild delight” [Odyssey x. 492].


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


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Monday, February 02, 2009

Yen


Let’s consider not the monetary unit, but the strong desire or yearning or craving or inclination: She has a yen for the strong, silent type.

We all have yens, but the word actually started as a word meaning an addiction to narcotics — specifically, opium. Nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants brought with them the word yan, meaning a craving for opium. There were variant spellings depending on the dialect (ying, yin, etc.).

We find this in H. A. Giles’ 1876 Chinese Sketches: “Chinamen ask if an opium-smoker has the yin or not; meaning thereby, has he gradually increased his doses of opium until he has established a craving for the drug.”Link
So while we toss the word around to signify a craving for chocolate or for a Big Mac, it once had a heavy-duty and terrible denotation.


SIDEBAR: Why we crave


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


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