Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nonsense


There are many synonyms for the word nonsense, which indicates how prevalent it has been through the ages. It refers to statements that are unintelligible, obscure, foolish, or laughably trivial.

Some of the words were produced through onomatopoeia; they echo animal sounds or represent meaningless expulsions of air. Others refer to unpalatable drinks, dregs, or disgusting bodily fluids. Some of these words have obscure or contested origins, so this does not pretend to be definitive. The dates given indicate when an earlier meaning became a synonym for nonsense.

balderdash [1852] One of the earliest senses was a jumbled mixture of liquors--milk and beer, beer and wine. Considered a stretch, but perhaps influenced by Norwegian baldra, to roar, thunder, clatter.

baloney [1922] Alleged to have come from a sausage made in Bologna, but perhaps influenced by blarney.

bilge [1908] From the foul liquid that pools in the bottom of a ship’s hull (the bulge).

bunkum or bunk [1828] Congressman Felix Walker, representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, refused to stop his irrelevant speech when the question was called during a debate on the Missouri Compromise.

claptrap [1727] A trick or device to catch (trap) applause; an expression designed to elicit applause.

drivel [1325] Spittle flowing from the mouth or dribbling from the nose.

gibberish [1554] Imitative of rapid and inarticulate speech. Often paired with jabber.

gobbledygook [1944] Echoing a turkey-cock's gobble.

hogwash [1773] The swill or slop of a brewery or kitchen given to hogs.

piffle [1847] Imitative of air escaping from the lips, a meaningless puff.

poppycock [1852] Apparently from the Dutch poppekak, soft dung.

prattle [1555] Probably imitative of the clucking made by a laying hen.

tommyrot [1884] -- From the name Thomas, probably through tommy-noddy, a foolish or stupid person. What comes out of his mouth is putrified garbage.

twaddle [1782] Origin obscure, but possibly an imitation of the sound made by a goose.


SIDEBAR: The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science


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Saturday, June 27, 2009

On a Shoestring


Doug from Traverse City asked about the origin of “on a shoestring.” It started, obviously, as something literal. A shoestring is long, stringlike material threaded through the eyelets of a boot or shoe in order to secure it to the foot. Through the ages, the material has ranged from bark strips to grass to hemp to leather to cotton to nylon and other synthetic materials. Often, a piece of metal or plastic is affixed to the tip to ease its passage through the eyelet without fraying. This tip is called an aglet.

Shoestrings as we know them are a relatively modern product. One of the first recorded instances in English occurs in 1616. It is found in Diary in Japan 1615–22 (Hakluyt Society 1883), by Richard Cocks: “A peare silk garters, with gould fring, and shewstring same.”

Royal footgear aside, shoestrings are generally not expensive. That means that they tend to break or to fray after prolonged use. The boot or shoe is still usable for years to come, but the shoestring needs to be replaced at that point, but with no great outlay of cash.

The literal meaning transferred to a figurative meaning. When something requires a very small amount of money, or when a project is sustained using very little capital, it is said to be done on a shoestring:
• “When I worked my way through college, I lived on a shoestring.”
• “She started her lawn maintenance business on a shoestring.”
• “I’m running this hot dog stand on a shoestring, so I can’t afford to hire a helper.”

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as the first colloquial use: “[He] could draw to a shoe-string, as the saying went, and obtain a tan-yard!” [Century Magazine, April 1882, 884/2]



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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

TCB


Esther from Platte Lake, Michigan, asked about Pidgin English. I covered this a little over two years ago, so a rerun may be useful.

A common misspelling today is Pigeon English, which would imply that its speakers, instead of relying on hand gestures, bob their heads vigorously. (To be fair, in the early days of its use, pidgin and pigeon were interchangeable.)

The word pidgin seems to have had its origin in the inability of 19th century Chinese to articulate the word business. It came out as bigeon or bidgin, and since it is a short step from B to P, it finally flattened out as pidgin.

A pidgin language develops when two groups who speak different languages try to communicate by adapting elements of each other’s language. Generally, the result is simple, almost childlike, with an emphasis on readily understandable vocabulary instead of sophisticated grammatical elements. A pidgin is a second language for all parties involved. Ironically, it developed most naturally when two groups engaged in trade. In other words, they were taking care of bidgness.

We come across Pidgin English in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. For example, at one point Crusoe asks Friday why, if his tribe was justifiably famous for its warriors, Friday had been captured. Friday explains, “They more many than my nation, in the place where me was; they take one, two, three, and me: my nation over-beat them in the yonder place, where me no was; there my nation take one, two, great thousand.”

And in 1782, in Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, our own Benjamin Franklin recorded this snippet of a more advanced Pidgin English: “Boccarorra [a form of buckra, ‘white man’] make de Black Man workee, make de horse workee, make de Ox workee, make ebery thing workee; only de Hog. He, de Hog, no workee; he eat, he drink, he walk about, he go to sleep when he please, he libb like a gentleman.” J. L. Dillard, Black English, (Vintage Books 1973), p.89.

Finally, if a Pidgin language perdures and becomes a permanent fixture, it can evolve into Creole. At that point, after several generations of use, it becomes the primary language of a community.

SIDEBAR: Robinson Crusoe
http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DefCru1.html

SIDEBAR: Pidgin & Creole
http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Linguistics/explainpidgin.html

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Knock Me Over With a Feather


While playing golf the other day, my foursome came across an explosion of feathers scattered on the ground near a tee box. Two turkeys had not made it through the night, thanks to a hungry fox or other vigilant predator. What impressed me most was that only feathers were left – not a scrap of flesh or sinew remained.

On a whim, let’s reverse the find and pursue feathers that are hidden, not out in plain sight. This will represent a sample only. Many words are based on the Latin pinna and pluma or the Greek πτερον (pteron).

apterium: Each of the featherless spaces on the skin of a bird intervening between the feathered tracts or pterylæ

bi-pinnate: two-winged

filoplume: thread-feathers that have an extremely slender, almost invisible, stem and usually no vane

impennous: wingless

pennaceous: relating to, of the nature of, or resembling a feather or feathers

penniferous: bearing or producing feathers or feather-like structures; feathered

pennigerous: bearing feathers; feathered

pinnate: resembling a feather; having lateral parts or branches on each side of a common axis, like the vanes of a feather

plumeous: resembling down or fine feathers, feathery

pterotic: winged

ptilosis: The appearance or characteristics of the feathers (esp. the down feathers) of a bird


SIDEBAR: The Feathers Site

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ditto


Ditto marks in our day look like double commas. They are placed on the line below something already written when you wish to repeat it unchanged. In earlier centuries, it was sometimes indicated by using dots, dashes, or the abbreviation do.

When first used in English in 1625, its use was confined to repeated dates. In time, it expanded to various commercial and bookkeeping uses, and finally worked its way into colloquial expressions. It came to mean an exact copy of anything, and in the early 20th century, it was the proprietary name of an electrically operated duplicating machine manufactured in Chicago.

The word came directly from an Italian participle that meant aforementioned; in turn, that came from a Latin participle meaning [already] said.


SIDEBAR: Beth Ditto/GOSSIP


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cry Me A River


Allergy season blew in with a vengeance this year in northern Michigan, so watery eyes are the norm in these spore- and mold-laden parts. That gives me an opportunity to focus on words that contain the concept tear, as in the clear liquid secreted by the lachrymal gland of the eye.

Lacrima was the Latin word for tear, but let’s focus on the Greek word today, δακρυον (dacryon), a tear.

Apodacrytic: (A) adj. Exciting tears. (B) n. Anything having this tendency, such as onions.

Dacryd: a tree like the yew, in allusion to resinous drops exuded by these trees.

Dacrya-/dacryo- is a combining form, often found in obsolescent medical terms. Here’s a sample.

• dacryadenalgia: pain in a lachrymal gland
• dacryadenitis: inflammation of a lachrymal gland
• dacryagogue: agent provoking a flow of tears
• dacryocystitis: inflammation of a tear-sac
• dacryohemorrhea: the discharge of bloody tears
• dacryolin: the form of albumin found in the tears
• dacryolith: a calculus or concretion occurring in the lacrymal passages
• dacryoma: a state preventing the tears from passing into the lachrymal sac
• dacryops: (A) an affection of the eyelid: a clear cyst due to distension of one of the lachrymal ducts. (B) a watery eye.
• dacryorrhea: morbid flow of tears.

Referencing the last word, an ancient Greek verb used to describe a drunkard was “to swim with tears.” Today, we’d lean on adjectives such as lugubrious and maudlin.

SIDEBAR: Cry Me A River


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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shades of Gray


Anticipating painting some outdoor wooden furniture, I was idly searching online color charts the other day. I was amused by the names that are given to paint colors: Honey Blush, Tupelo Tree, and Expressive Plum are some names used by Sherwin-Williams.

It must be challenging for their staff to create a palette of names. When it comes to the color red, for instance, we find Show Stopper, Heartthrob, Lusty Red, Red Obsession, Wild Current [sic], Feverish Pink, and Stolen Kiss.

At least, I thought, there won’t be much variety with monochromatic gray; I was wrong, though the names are appropriately muted. I found Link Gray, Quest Gray, Flexible Gray, Cloak Gray, Functional Gray, Useful Gray, Sedate Gray, Austere Gray, and Aloof Gray. My heart skipped a beat at Sensuous Gray, but then settled down.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I was editing the Word Parts Dictionary, I came across eight roots expressing that color. Since then, I have found more. Here is a lineup.

caes- blue-gray
Examples: caesious, caesium

can- white-gray
Examples: canescence, canescent

ferr- iron-gray
Examples: ferrane, ferrandine

glauc- silver-gray
Examples: glaucescent, glaucoma

grid- flax-gray or violet-gray
Example: gridelin

gris- pearl-gray
Examples: griseous, éminence grise

peli- dark blue-gray
Examples: peliosis, peliom

pheo-/phaeo- dusky-gray
Examples: pheochrome, haemophaein

polio- pale-gray
Examples: poliomyelitis, polioencephalitis

tephr- ash-gray
Examples: tephroite, tephritic


SIDEBAR: Henry Gray, Anatomy of the Human Body


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Saturday, June 06, 2009

That's a Yoke, Son


In Greek, the word that described oxen yoked together was also used to describe wedded union. (We’re in this for the long haul, Elsie!) The core was συζυγ-- (syzyg-), and it has given us some strange words.

Syzygiology is the study of the relationship, the intertwining, of parts and functions, as contrasted to the study of isolated parts and functions.

Syzygy refers to various pairings: heavenly bodies, cranial nerves, sutured joints, two organisms that retain separate identities, rational integral functions, Gnostic oppositions, and a microorganism supposedly formed by the fusion of several larval parasites.

Syzegetic is the adjective form for the syzygy meaning a group of rational integral functions so related that, on their being severally multiplied by other rational integral functions, the sum of the products vanishes identically.

Syzygial is an adjective form used for the astronomical and zoological meanings of syzygy.

Syzygium is the conjunction of two organisms without loss of identity, as in the genus Diplozoon (parasitic worms).

Antisyzygy is a union of opposites. Here’s an example from F. Hale, Reader, 24 January, 1863: “Zoroastrianism . . . fuses together—in what Clement of Rome would have denominated an antisyzygy—the Deity and Satan.”


SIDEBAR: Syzygy — the progressive rock band


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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Difficulty with Mogi-


The combining form –mogi- was used to construct some interesting words — not an abundance of them, but a few rare ones worth knowing. It comes from the Greek μογισ (mogis), meaning with toil and pain, with difficulty.

Mogigraphia (alternatively, mogigraphy) is writer’s cramp; it is also used to designate cramped writing. The adjective form is mogigraphic. A synonym for mogigraphia is graphospasm.

Mogilalia is difficulty or marked hesitancy in speaking, or defective articulation. The second half of the word comes from the Greek λαλειν (lalein), to speak. Mogilalism was a rare alternate form of the word.

Mogiphonia was defined as difficulty in producing loud vocal sounds, as in public speaking or singing, attributed to overuse of the voice. Forcefulness was lost as fatigue set in. One medical dictionary calls it a “laryngeal spasm.”

Mogitocia, according to Doland’s Medical Dictionary (1923) is difficult parturition. In Greek, τοκοσ (tokos) means birth.


SIDEBAR: writer’s cramp


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