Sunday, March 29, 2009

What’s A Nice Bone Like You Doing In A Joint Like This?


I sprained my ankle a couple of days ago, so I guess I’m simply joint conscious at the moment. Any way, I started thinking about the words that we use to name various major joints.

The word joint itself is quite transparent. It’s a junction, the place where two bones join. The Latin jungere meant to join, and that’s the source.

Ankle evolved from the Latin after being sieved through Frisian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and other cousins. A bent crook, claw, or hook is the image evoked. Dangle your ankle in the ocean, and you just may catch a shark.

Knee came from the Greek word for knee after filtering though a number of Teutonic influences. A flexible word, it was applied metaphorically through the centuries to an angular piece of timber or metal, a piece connecting the bench and runner of a sleigh, the lower end of a handrail, or a degree of descent in a genealogy.

The hip joint had Old Teutonic and Old Gothic precedents meaning, quite directly, the hip. In architecture, it’s a projecting inclined edge on a roof, extending from the ridge or apex to the eaves, and having a slope on each side.

The word elbow breaks into two components. The el- segment comes from the Latin ulna, the large inner bone of the forearm. The -bow segment comes from Frisian/Teutonic/Norse words meaning something bent.
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Shoulder tumbled through the usual northern language suspects meaning the two arm joints near the neck. Of all the joints, it probably had more figurative uses than any of the others. Recall straight from the shoulder, shoulder of the road, a shoulder to cry on, shoulder to the wheel, and shoulder surfing.

SIDEBAR: Skeletal Joints


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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thumble


Last week, a listener asked about the word thumble, a word new to me. It appeared in the early 1600s, and it meant to touch with the thumb, to handle clumsily, or to fumble. Thumb, in turn, came from pre-Teutonic and Sanskrit sources and referred to the thick finger, the fat finger, or the strong finger.

This was followed by a call from David of East Bay, Traverse City. He wondered if thumble and fumble had a common source, not just because of the spelling, but because both involved negative experiences. As it turns out, fumble comes from a Scandinavian word meaning to grope, so they are not directly related, though the meanings intersect.

Then I started thinking about other words ending in -umble, and I decided to do a wildcard search in the Oxford English Dictionary. While the words are separated by time and by origin, it turns out that most of them signify something negative, and onomatopoeia is cited frequently as a possible cause of development. Here are some of them arranged chronologically;

• mumble: to chew the cud or move the lips as if doing so, or murmur, 1275 [Germanic, to chew with toothless gums]
• stumble: to miss one’s footing, 1325 [Norwegian, to stumble in the dark]
• crumble: to reduce to small fragments, 1420 [Dutch, to crumble]
• bumble: to blunder or flounder, 1532 [Swedish, to strike]
• fumble: make an awkward attempt to grasp something, 1534 [Scandinavian, to grope]
• grumble: to mutter in complaint, 1596 [Dutch, to growl]
• thumble: to handle clumsily, 1623 [Sanskrit, thick finger]
• jumble: a confused mixture, 1661 [Origin unknown]

Two other words don’t reflect negativity in the same way. Humble, insignificant or unpretentious, came from the Latin word for ground. Rumble, to make a low sound, came from a Norwegian word meaning the same thing.

SIDEBAR: Thumb


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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Take That, You Cur!


The Latin verb currere, to run, shows up in many English words. It tears around in current, incursion, cursive, and all kinds of other words. But my fancy has been tickled by words that end in -cur.

There’s concur, which originally meant “to run together violently.” Now it means to coincide or to agree.

Incur literally means to run into. It signifies bringing something upon yourself, as in, “to incur the wrath of your spouse.”

Occur literally means to run up against. We use it to mean to happen.

Recur breaks into to run back. It means to return, especially in the sense of coming back, as a memory or a nightmare.

Obsolete forms include discur (to run about), excur (to go beyond the ordinary), percur (to pass along or through), and transcur (to run across or over). Cur (the dog) is not connected. That goes back to a Dutch word meaning a snarling beast.


SIDEBAR: Incur


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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Suds


The amateurs among us bought green beer yesterday and held on to their leprechaun hats as they tipped back to swallow the suds. If you’re an American of a certain age, you’ll remember that suds was a slang term for beer, no doubt because of the foam on top. If you drank too much, 18th century writers would have said that you are in the suds.

The Oxford English Dictionary places the label “of uncertain etymology” on suds, but then surmises that it might have come from a German or Dutch word meaning a marsh or bog. An early meaning was floodwater, especially if mixed with sand or mud.

Another early meaning was dregs, filth, or muck. That developed into a figurative use. We still use the phrase the dregs of society, which once could have been the suds of society. Nicholas Udall’s translation of the sayings of Erasmus had this: “He had so infected the clere fountaine of Goddes woorde with the suddes of humain tradicions.”

We’re familiar with the suds that form when washing dishes or clothes or the family pet. Generally, we call them soapsuds. Suds was also used by barbers to name the lather spread on whiskers before shaving.

To be in the suds or to be left in the suds was an old slang term pointing to difficulty, embarrassment, or confusion; it could also refer to disgrace. Mariners used to refer to the foam churned up by a wounded whale as suds.

SIDEBAR: Suds in the Bucket


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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hard of Hearing


From Joe Popa: I’m wondering about the combination “hard of hearing.” It would sound more natural as “it’s hard for him to hear,” wouldn’t it? The use of the preposition of is confusing.

The “hard of” combination goes back some 700 years, although hard of hearing is one of the last phrases to retain it in our day. Originally, hard meant having difficulty doing something. Before hard of hearing came onto the scene in the 16th century, earlier phrases included hard of understand and hard of belief. By the 17th century, the preposition to had replaced of in such phrases (hard to understand, hard to believe).

Of is often used as a connector in a phrase. We have no problem with strength of character, conflict of interest, or a chunk of time, for instance.


I covered a related question in my book Words to the Wise, p. 75:

Q. We frequently use the phrase hard of hearing, so why isn't there a hard of seeing?

A. You're not going to believe this, but there is a hard of seeing. Here's a quote from New York State Services for the Blind: "Sometimes people refer to low vision as being 'hard of seeing' or a little bit blind.”

Stranger yet, here's some dialogue from the Smelly Car episode of Seinfeld:
Jerry: "Do you smell something?"
Elaine: "Do I smell something? What am I, hard of smelling?"Link
And to top things off, a quote from the Times Picayunne: "Sometimes, there's just too much of a good thing, especially when flavors are boosted to levels that seem pitched to the hard-of-tasting."

Examples of hard of touching elude me. Any evidence out there?


SIDEBAR: How hearing works


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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Have a seat


The past participle of a Latin verb meaning to sit has influenced several English words. I refer to the letter sequence -sess-.

Assess contains word parts that literally mean “to sit by.” The general meaning is to settle, determine, or fix the amount to be paid by a person or community or by each member of a community.

Obsess has Latin parts that mean “to sit beside or in front of.” It means to be excessively preoccupied; to worry obsessively. Originally, it was said of an evil spirit that tormented one from without.

Possess shakes out as “to sit in domination.” It means to own, to have, or gain ownership of. Centuries ago, it was said of a demon dominating one from within.

Sessile parses as “sitting down, stunted.” With plants, it means having no footstalk or connecting neck.

Session comes straight from the Latin meaning “to sit.” It designates a number of people coming together for a conference, assembly, transaction, legal proceeding, etc. Originally, the meeting began when everyone was seated.

Supersession means “to sit above.” It refers to the setting aside, abrogation, or annulment of a rule, law, authority, condition, etc., or the removal of a person from office.


SIDEBAR: Sitting Bull


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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay


Dock is an interesting word. One of its meanings is a coarse, weedy herb that was once a popular antidote for nettle stings. As dock was rubbed over the sting, one was supposed to chant, “Nettle in, dock out, Dock in, nettle out, Nettle in, dock out, Dock rub nettle out.” Ah, tradition.

Dock was also the solid fleshy part of an animal’s tail. (By extension, it also once designated human buttocks.) To this day, horses and dogs are often docked; a portion of the tail is amputated, often simply for breed standard. Your paycheck can be docked, too.

The dock that first occurs to most of us is the maritime dock, a structure with floodgates used to hold a ship under repair. Originally, this was simply a hollow made in the sand by a boat at low tide. Dock can also refer to a wharf or a pier. Unfortunately, as part of a marketing campaign, a Florida company gave the name dockominium to privately owned mooring spaces.

By extension of meaning of the last item, docks are also recharging stations for electronic devices. What with cell phones, iPods, digital cameras and so on, there’s a whole lotta dockin’ goin’ on.

Dock also means the enclosure in a criminal court where the person on trial must sit during proceedings. At one point in history, all the people to be tried on a given day were herded to a large dock to await their turn. Appropriate, since that dock came from a Flemish word meaning a hutch for rabbits or a cage for fowl.


SIDEBAR: Otis Redding


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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Queue


Randy from Pamona wrote: What Americans call standing in line seems to be called forming a queue in England. Why queue?


Here’s a word with several seemingly diverse meanings:

• a band of parchment attached to a document with seals hanging from the free ends;

• the tail of a beast on a coat of arms;

• an orderly line of people or vehicles;

• a sequence of stored computer data awaiting processing;

• a pigtail hanging down one’s back.


The word entered English from the French, which in turn had borrowed it from Latin. The original source was cauda, the tail of an animal.

So those various meanings have a thread running through them. Picture a tail hanging or drooping down and you’re not far from the line of people, the waiting data, and the plait of hair. And in music, the concluding or closing part of a movement or composition is called a coda. Same animal.
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SIDEBAR: Queue Etiquette


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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Parthians Take a Parting Shot


I was perusing a book the other day over a cup of mocha in a bookstore while waiting for my dog to be groomed at a nearby pet store. The book purported to give accurate explanations on the origin of phrases, but within minutes, I found several errors.

I mention this not because I wish to slam that particular book (after all, it joins several others on bookstore shelves today that are peppered with folklorish origin errors -- buyer, beware), but because of the explanation that it gives for “parting shot,” an explanation found elsewhere, too.

A parting shot is a cutting or derogatory remark made at the last second as one leaves the room. It permits no time for a response. The book to which I refer stated categorically that parting shot is a corruption of Parthian Shot. The Parthians were renowned warriors who specialized in a specific battleground tactic: riding on swift horses, they would pretend to retreat, then turn in the saddle to shoot a deadly volley of arrows at their pursuers. This allegedly, was the Parthian Shot.

The first instance of Parthian Shot cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes in 1842. Before that, there are quotes using Parthian Fight, Parthian Conquest, Parthian Woman, and Parthian Apprentices. To my ear, Parthian Shot simply seems too bookish, too contrived, and too ostentatious to be the original form of parting shot. (That the phrase exists is indisputable; I'm talking cause and effect here.)

Parting shot has all the earmarks of a naval engagement. As a ship left a naval battle, even if fleeing, it would make sense to fire one last shot. If it hit the target, so much the better. At the very least, it was a dramatic gesture of defiance. And indeed, I found a confirming quote from 1818: “The consort, firing a parting shot, bore up round the north end of the island, and escaped.” [John McLeod] Another example comes from 1835: “A parting shot from the muskets of the seamen was made with a fatal effect.” [W.G. Simms] An even more dramatic example comes from 1862: “Water poured into the [Cumberland’s] hold; the ship canted to port, the masts swaying wildly. She delivered a parting shot and sank with the American flag at the peak.” [James Ford Rhodes]

I have no definitive evidence that parting shot originally came from the days of sail-driven warships, but I don’t see compelling evidence to corral the Parthians, either.


SIDEBAR: A Parting Shot: the game
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