Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where's the Lake?


Listener Chris observed that in lake names, the word lake often shows up in different positions. For instance, it’s Lake Michigan, but Little Traverse Lake. He wonders if there’s a rule determining the location of the word.


I decided to go to those who know: the U.S. Geological Survey. They forwarded my inquiry to the Geographic Names Office, and they were kind enough to reply.

“Actually, there is no rule in the geographic naming process that determines whether the generic term appears in position one or position two (before or after the specific part of the name). This is true for Lake as well; it can appear first as in Lake Superior or last as in Great Salt Lake. We can comment that it seems more often than not that the generic Lake seems to appear in position one for very large bodies of water, but as in the example above, this cannot be presumed, and we reiterate, there is no rule.”


I also asked whether the naming process might simply depend on the whim of the cartographer. This elicited an emphatic denial:

“Regarding whether it is ‘simply the whim of the map maker who names it,’ we can say with authority and certainty that it is definitely not. Firstly, map makers (and more specifically map editors) do not ever name anything—at least those making maps or charts for the Federal government and also those who do so for State and local jurisdictions—although occasionally local authorities might not be aware fully of the existing procedures. It is, in fact, the interdepartmental United States Board on Geographic Names (the first - 1890 - of now almost 50 such organizations worldwide) that is the sole authority for the Federal Government of the United States regarding approval of geographic names and their application on products of the Federal Government, both conventional and digital.

Further, the States and local jurisdictions generally follow the lead and policies of the U.S. Board (as do most commercial map makers). All 50 States plus the two Commonwealths and the three Territories have what are generically referenced as State Names Authorities, each of which works closely with the U.S. Board to standardize (not regulate) geographic names.
An example of non-regulation is that there is no rule to determine whether the generic Lake appears in position one or position two. In the United States, the policy of paramount importance is that of local use and acceptance, so it is usually determined by perception and recommendation from local governments and quasi-official organizations as well as the various State Names Authorities. Other countries have other problems, and therefore may have requirements regarding standardizing geographic name usage.”

For Lou Yost
Manager of the Geonames Database


SIDEBAR: Large Lakes in the World



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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Copy / Käppi


Sometimes when a question comes up on my program, I get a gut feeling that I’ll never be able to find the answer. Often, it’s a word or a phrase that the caller used to hear years ago among family members, so there’s a strong possibility that a grandparent simply made the word up, thus cutting off any sensible possibility of finding its meaning or source.

Tuesday’s question concerned the name used to designate the end pieces of a loaf of bread. Many people across the country call it the heel. Others refer to it as the crust, although strictly speaking, crust is not confined to the two ends. Some call them the end pieces, the end caps, or the butt. This particular listener said that her mother-in-law called it the copy. Absolute dead end, thought I.

But I decided to play around with the sound encapsulated in the word copy. Kepi, the cap worn by the French Foreign Legion, popped into mind. It has a flat circular top, much like the first cut of a loaf of bread fresh from the oven.

Kepi, I discovered, although French, is indebted to the German dialectical word käppi, a cap. In turn, that tracks back to a Late Latin word that meant a head covering (cappa). It struck me that käppi sounds precisely like copy. Coincidence?

So all this is pure speculation on my part, but perhaps her mother-in-law’s family was passing along an untranslated Germanic or Teutonic term that compared the end pieces of bread to a cap. This is where I welcome input from my readers. Whether you offer confirmation or blow me out of the water, my curiosity is aroused. I’ll take whatever I get.

SIDEBAR: Bread Baking 101


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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Shadow Knows


Let’s cast some light on shadows. The Latin word for shadow was umbra, and the Greek counterpart was skia. Both roots contributed shady words to English.

Adumbrate now means to overshadow, shade, or obscure. The same concept was contained in the obsolete words obumber and inumbrate. It started life in English as an artist’s term: to shade a sketch to show light and dark surfaces.

At one point in history -- the 17th and 18th centuries -- there was a preoccupation with the way humans cast a shadow. The exotic was emphasized, and strange names abounded. Amphiscians was the name given to inhabitants of the torrid zone, whose shadows at one time of the year fall northward, at another southward. The Antiscii were those who lived on the same meridian, but on the opposite side of the equator, so that their shadows at noon fell in opposite directions; they were also called Heteroscians. The Ascians were inhabitants of the torrid zone, who twice a year had the sun directly overhead at noon, and then cast no shadows. The Periscii were inhabitants of the polar regions; their shadows revolved around them as the sun moved. These polar people were also called Macroscians because they cast a long shadow. Finally, the Sciapodes were a fabled people of Libya who were alleged to have feet so large that they could be used as sunshades. That’s analagous to the name given to the squirrel family: sciurinae, shadow-tails.

Sciamachy might be viewed as an exercise in futility: it means fighting with a shadow. To a boxer, however, it is a solo fight for exercise or practice. Shadow boxing is not as crazy as it looks.

Sciatherics was the art of constructing and maintaining a sundial, and the umber was the shadow of the pointer on a sundial. Sciomancy was divination by means of communication with the shades -- dead people. Taken to extremes, it could lead to sciotheism, a form of religion where ghosts took the place of gods.

I hope that no one takes umbrage at all of this.


SIDEBAR: The Shadow on radio



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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Go, Red Wings!


As my fingers tippy-tap this column, the Red Wings are on in the background playing the second game in their series with the Blue Jackets. I’ve been out of town the last few days, so I had no idea what to cover in this Sunday’s blog. My thanks to the Stanley Cup Stalwarts for giving me a clue.

Even if you’re not a Wings fan, you encounter wings all the time.

aileron: One of the hinged flaps on the trailing edge of a wing of an aeroplane for maintaining or restoring its balance when flying. [F. aileron, diminutive of aile wing.]
alar: Of or pertaining to a wing or wings. [L. ala, wing]
aliferous: having wings. [L. alifer, wing-bearing]
apteryx: the kiwi, a New Zealand bird with rudimentary wings. [Gr. a-, without + pteryx, wing]
bipennate: two-winged. [L. bi-, two + penna, feather or wing]
fern: the plant [Old Norse ferne, wing or leaf]
isopterous: having equal wings. [Gr. iso-, same + pteros, winged]
Lepidoptera: class of insects that includes butterflies and moths. [Gr. lepis, scale + pteron, wing]
pennon: a swallow-tailed flag, usually attached to the head of a lance or a helmet. [Fr. penne, feather, wing, plume]
pinnigerous: having wings or fins. [L. pinniger, feathered or winged]
rhipipterous: fan-winged. [Gk. hripis, fan + pteron, wing]
thysanopter: insect characterized by long fringes on the wings. [Gr. thusanos, tassel + pteron, wing]

SIDEBAR: The Wonder of Bird Feathers


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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stave Off


A financial news item this week spoke of a company staving off a hostile takeover. Stave caught my eye; it just seems quaint, for some reason.

As a verb, to stave started out meaning to break up a cask, thus destroying its liquid contents. Staves were the narrow pieces of wood placed side by side and secured with metal hoops to form a tub or cask. The noun is related to staff, the stick held in hand as an aid in walking or climbing.

Ben Jonson seems to have been one of the first writers to put the figurative sense of the verb in print. It meant to keep someone back, to repel as if by brandishing a stave.

In related terms, a staver was the rung of a ladder, and a second staver was an energetic person. A staving man was a quarrelsome man, someone addicted to fighting with staves.
In the mid 1800s, staving was a colloquial term meaning very strong, even excessive. Stavy butter had taken on the taste of the cask in which it was stored. (Hence, The Cask of Mantequilla.)

SIDEBAR: Urnes Stave Church


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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Neck and neck


The Latin word collum, neck, has supplied several words to our language. Collar will be immediately apparent. In the literal sense, it is something worn around the neck; in the figurative sense, it means to arrest or detain.

Accolade started out as an embrace about the neck. It was part of the ceremony used to bestow knighthood. Now it refers to praise or to a special award of recognition for an accomplishment.

Decollate is a word that has gone out of fashion. It meant to sever at the neck, to behead.
Conchologists used the word to describe breaking off the apex of a shell.

Décolleté describes a garment cut low at the neckline. Decolletage is a low neckline on a woman’s dress.

Machicolation was a projecting gallery at the top of a castle wall. Notched openings with a necklike appearance allowed archers to shoot, and openings in the floor allowed defenders to drop rocks and boiling liquids on attackers.

To succolate was to bear a burden on your shoulders, such as a sack of potatoes. The load would press against the back of your neck.

Torticollis is a painful disorder in which contracted neck muscles cause the head to twist to one side.
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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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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Tinkering with the Dam


Recently, I have run across the same spurious etymology in three different places: a web site, a magazine, and a newspaper column. This tells me that it’s widespread.

The story is that “not worth a tinker’s damn” should be spelled tinker’s dam because it doesn’t refer to profanity. Here’s the tale as it appeared in a recent newspaper column:

“This came from the craft of tinkers who once traveled the countryside mending tin cookware. Small holes in pots and pans were repaired with solder, and the tinker would mold a small strip of clay around the hole to prevent the solder from spreading across the surface. This worthless bit of clay would be washed off, leaving a neat repair.” [Journal-Advocate, Sterling, Colorado]

Tinkers there certainly were, and they were generally an unsavory lot. Their modern counterparts are known as The Travelers. They‘re the folks who show up at your door offering to repair your chimney (having knocked out a few bricks unbeknownst to you) or who offer to seal your driveway, spreading what is actually used motor oil. They’re gone before you notice the scam.

One of my Irish mother’s disciplinary weapons when I was a wee lad was to tell me that if I didn’t behave, she’d let the tinkers spirit me away the next time they came through. At times, that was a very appealing idea.

The tinkers of Scotland and Ireland were itinerant gypsies. They had no roots, and rightly or wrongly, they were considered scam artists, the dregs of society. Their everyday speech was laced with profanities -- and those were just the women! So tinker’s damn is correct.

Rather than merely repeat opinion, I should document this. My source is the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Chronology tips the balance in this case.

Tinker’s Curse and Tinker’s Damn showed up in print starting in the 1820s and 1830s. Tinkers were notorious for their vulgar language. So many vulgarities emerged from their potty mouths that they lost all shock value.

Tinker’s Dam, referring to the alleged gutter of dough or clay used to contain solder on a mended metal plate, doesn’t even appear until the year 1877. It was a Victorian attempt to clean things up. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, it is “an ingenious but baseless conjecture.”

SIDEBAR: Wicked Tinkers


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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Articles Away


During a recent program, Ed from Elk Rapids, Michigan, asked, “Why do the British drop definite articles? Two recent examples I’ve encountered are to hospital and at university.”

I think I know what you mean, but don’t forget that something like this happens in American English, too:

• The sailors assembled on deck.
• The Marines were embedded in country.
• Doris is at school; it’s not a holiday.
• Will Tommy be away at camp this summer?
• I saw Mrs. Blackwell in church last Sunday.

Here’s what I can make out, though there are enough inconsistencies and gaps to make this murky in my mind, at the very least. It seems that nouns connected to an institution can be viewed at least two ways. (1) They may simply be places a person temporarily visits, or (2) they may be places in which the person serves a more permanent function. If there is a strong connection, a role to be played, a permant function, the definite article will probably be left out.

• If George is in the prison, he is there as a tourist, a visitor, a repairman, or some other temporary role. If George is in prison, he is an inmate; he plays a connected role in that setting.

• If British Sylvia went to hospital, she is a patient. If British Sylvia went to the hospital, she is a candy-striper, or a visitor, or some other non-essential role. If American Sandi is in the hospital, however, she is probably a patient. Go figure.

• If Melvin is away at college, he is a student. If Melvin is at the college, he’s simply passing through the campus, perhaps admiring the architecture.

• If British Nigel is at university, he is a student. If British Nigel is at the university, he’s a visitor. However, if Nigel’s American cousin is in college, she’s a student, as opposed to being caught in the college stealing from vending machines.

• If Aunt Matilda is at home, she may need help removing the recent snow from her driveway. If she is at the home, the caretakers will handle everything.

And here’s another situation in which definite-article-present and definite-article-absent change the meaning. To watch television is to be a viewer; to watch the television might mean to guard it so that no one steals it.

“Listen to Jeff Haas on CD” means that he is the recorded performer, as opposed to “Jeff Haas accidentally stepped on the CD.”


SIDEBAR: Articles explained by the Purdue University OWL


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