Saturday, August 29, 2009

Slug


A friend recently recounted the time that she discovered that not all snails live in water. Pointing out creatures on the ground around her, she asked a friend what they were. She was incredulous when told that they were snails, and it took some time to convince her that this was escargot on the hoof.

Land snails without shells or with very small shells are usually called slugs. The word comes from a Scandinavian verb meaning to move slowly, so it is quite fitting. Nouns related to that verb have meant a slothful person, a slow-moving vessel or animal, a weak or unstrung bow, and, of course, a slimy gasteropod.

Another slug, perhaps not connected to the preceding, has held these meanings over the centuries:
• a roughly formed bullet
• a strong drink
• a compact mass of liquid that retains its identity as it travels (e.g., petroleum in a pipeline, magma in a volcano)
• a cannon
• a nugget of crude metal
• rolls of clay used to make pottery
• a rod or bar of nuclear fuel
• a counterfeit coin or a token
• in newspaper editing, a brief title placed above a story to guide the editor and printer
• a component of an electromagnetic relay

A third slug, of obscure origin, has meant a hard blow, or, as in the word slugfest, a hard-hitting contest.

SIDEBAR: Louisville Slugger Museum


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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Alba et Albion


A listener asked about two towns in Michigan: Alba and Albion. Both came from a Latin adjective (albus, alba, album) that meant a subdued shade of white. [Candidus, which lead to words such as candid and candidate, meant dazzling white].

Starting in English with Bede’s History (900 AD), Britain was nicknamed Albion. Before that, ancient Greek writers used Ἀλβιον (Albion) as its name (6th c. BC), possibly because of the distinctive white cliffs of Dover.

The –alb- sequence shows up in a number of words.

• An alb is a white cloth vestment reaching to the feet.

• Alba is an old white garden rose now thought to be a hybrid.

• Albation was a term used by the alchemists for the alleged process of whitening metals, especially of transmuting copper into silver.

• Albedo, in astronomy, is the ratio of light (whiteness) reflected from various surfaces, and in nuclear physics, it’s the fraction of radiation reflected from an object.

• Albescent means growing or becoming white.

• Albication is the process of growing white -- the development of white or light patches, spots, streaks, bands, etc., in the foliage of plants.

• Albiflorous means bearing white flowers.

• An albino is a human being with an absence of coloring pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes, so that the skin and hair are abnormally white, and the eyes are pink and unable to bear ordinary levels of light. Two centuries ago, the word albiness designated a female. Both male and female were albinotic.

• Albocracy is government by white men or Europeans.

• Albugo was a disease of the eye, in which a white opaque spot formed upon the transparent cornea.

• Album is a blank book in which to insert autographs, memorial verses, original drawings, photographs, or other souvenirs. The female keeper of an album was called an albumess in the early 1800s.

• Albumen is the white of an egg.


SIDEBAR: ALB


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Saturday, August 22, 2009

When Buck Was A Calf


A caller asked where the saying, “since Buck was a calf” came from. It is sometimes rendered as “when Buck was a calf.” A driver guides a team of harnessed horses principally by the reins in his hands. Oxen, however, are not in harness; they are placed directly in a yoke and they lunge forward to move the attached load.

Commands are verbal -- gee to move left and haw to move right. Gee probably evolved from ree, which was a corruption of right, and haw may have come from the yell for attention: hey!

In any event, the driver would walk alongside the left ox, thus called the near ox, but he could see the ox on the right side, called the off ox. To adjust direction, he would sometimes give a command to one ox only, depending on whether the drift was to the left or the right.

In the 19th century, in an amazing burst of practical uniformity, most oxen were given the same two names. Buck was the name given to the near ox, the one on the left. Bright was the name given to the off ox, the one on the right. A driver could walk up to a different team in confidence, knowing that all teams would respond to the same name and the same commands.

So, “since Buck was a calf” means a significant period of time. Oxen weren’t fully trained and working until they were about four years old. And “as old as Adam’s off ox” means from antiquity.


Credit: Frontier Living by Edwin Tunis


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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lamp


Another sign of old age: I can remember a question that someone asked me recently, but not the name of the questioner. If you asked me about the word lamp, you know who you are.

Lamp came into English at the start of the 13th century, when it referred to an oil vessel with a wick used for illumination. It was indebted to the Latin lampas, which, in turn, came from the Greek λαμπειν (lampein), to shine. It wasn’t long before it was connected with scholarship. If a literary composition was the product of obviously laborious study, it was said to “smell of the lamp.” The wonderful word lucubration covers the same territory.

Some wonderfully strange words were based on lamp. Lampadedromy was a race in which a torch was passed from hand to hand. A competitor in such a race was a lampadephore. Lampadomancy was divination which observed the crud left over after a lamp was used. Lampistry was the artistic decoration of lamps. A lampadary was a church warden who lit the lamps and carried a ceremonial taper in processions.

Hidden lamps abound. The adjective elychnious refers to a wick. Lucernal meant pertaining to a lamp; lucernal microscopes came into vogue in the 18th century. In the Greek Church, lychnic is the introductory part of vespers that accompanies the lighting of lamps. Lychnidiate refers to a lampstand and means “giving out light.” A lychnobite is a high-life who turns night into day; he burns the candle at both ends, as it were. An obeliscolychny was a lamp-bearer, and it sometimes referred to a lighthouse. And talk about specialty meanings: a lychnoscope was a low side window that allowed lepers to view the altar lights without exposing others to the risk of infection.

SIDEBAR: How to build a lamp


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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rogue


Greg McMaster’s weather report yesterday morning indicated that a rogue storm was heading our way from Wisconsin. That conjured up an image of a rogue elephant, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an elephant driven away, or living apart, from the herd, and of a savage or destructive disposition.”

The usual adjectival sense for rogue these days is something out of control, surprisingly aberrant, inexplicably defective, or irresponsible and undisciplined. Thus, there are rogue cars, rogue companies, rogue asteroids, rogue cops, rogue arms dealers, and rogue nations, not to mention rogue storms.

Originally, rogue was 16th century underworld slang for a beggar or vagabond. It may have come from the Latin rogare, to ask a favor, make a request, or beg. In Christian liturgy, the Rogation Days involved ceremonies that blessed the crops and asked the Lord for a bountiful harvest. The Gospel reading for the major Rogation Day was based on John 16:24, which instructed the faithful, “Ask and ye shall receive.”

Over time, the word rogue characterized a rascal, an uncooperative servant, a swindler, or an inferior plant. A rogue’s gallery contained pictures of criminals, and the rogue’s march was a military ceremony that drummed a disgraced soldier out of the service.

SIDEBAR: the Rogue River


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Garnish


The word garnish came up on this week’s program, principally because of an ad that speaks of ways of protecting yourself when someone tries to garnish your wages. A couple of listeners thought that the proper way to phrase it is to garnishee wages. Since the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the meanings of garnish is “to serve notice on (a person), for the purpose of attaching money belonging to a debtor.” In the 1890s, the verb to garnishee entered the fray. According to a law dictionary, a garnishee is the person ordered not to release funds until permitted by a court order.

At any rate, the word comes from an old form that meant to ward off, to prevent, to protect, to prepare. In the 14th century, it was used as a military term meaning to supply with men, arms, and provisions. In a civilian sense, it also meant to decorate or embellish. In that sense, the King James Version later employed it in Matthew XII, 44. In the 17th century, the word was also applied to decorating a dish for the table.
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From listener Jim Dalyrimple:

Both garnishee and garnish are listed in dictionaries as verbs. The most common assets subject to garnishment are bank deposits and wages. After a plaintiff gets a money judgment in a law suit, the next step is try to collect. One way is to send out inquiries to every bank in town ordering the banks to report back to the court as to whether or not the judgment debtor has any money on deposit. The bank is required by law to file a Garnishee Disclosure to the court. If funds are disclosed, the plaintiff asks the court to issue a Writ of Garnishment ordering the bank to turn over the funds to the court. The bank is called the garnishee. Works the same way with wages. Federal law limits garnishment of wages to 25%. In simple terms, a garnishment is a warning to a bank or employer; "Don't you dare give anybody a darn thing until the court tells you to!"
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SIDEBAR: wage garnishment


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Saturday, August 08, 2009

My Wild Irish Brogue


Someone recently asked me about the term Irish brogue. I’m not sure when brogue became the exclusive hallmark of the Irish, leaving out other inhabitants of the Isles, but it refers to a distinctive accent or pronunciation, a generally lilting sound with soft rises and falls in inflection.

As so often happens (to the consternation of those seeking certitude and absolute truth), the origin is lost, leaving speculation only. An earlier meaning of brogue was a type of rudely constructed shoe, often made of untanned leather. In time, it became sturdy yet stylish footwear designed for rugged performance -- hiking and brisk walking, for instance. In appearance, bands of decorative perforations came to be a feature of this shoe. A formal version suitable for royal receptions appears in the picture.

Accordingly, the Oxford English Dictionary points toward this as a possible origin: “the speech of those who wear brogues.” Merriam-Webster opts for an Irish word, barróg, which meant an accent or a speech impediment.

An obsolete version of brogue meaning a cheat, fraud, or trick seems to be a modified form of broker, in the sense of a corrupt jobber (middleman) of offices.

SIDEBAR: How to speak with an Irish accent


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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Pip


Ted from Port of Old Mission asked about the word pip. He didn’t give me a context, but I’m fairly sure that he would have run across it used as the name of the dots or symbols found on playing cards, dice, or dominoes. The origin is not certain. Suggestions include derivation from a word meaning “small seed,” from a word meaning “an eye,” or from the pippin -- an apple characterized by small spots.

Complicating things is the fact that the word has at least five meanings as a noun and five as a verb, most of them coming from disparate sources.

• a respiratory disease of birds
• the seeds of various fleshy fruits
• the dots or symbols found on playing cards, dice, or dominoes
• an arbitrary syllable used for the letter p in telephone communications and in the oral transliteration of code messages.
• a short, high-pitched electronic tone used as a signal

• to remove the scale from the tongue of a fowl affected with the pip
• to chirp
• to defeat narrowly or to disqualify
• to crack the shell of an egg when hatching
• to emit a radio or telephone signal

SIDEBAR: Gladys Knight and the Pips


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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Knee-High to a Grasshopper


The English word knee had cousins in many languages: Teutonic, Frisian, Dutch, Norse, Gothic, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. As so often happens, Latin and Greek in particular left their root imprints behind — γονατ (gonat-) for Greek and genu- for Latin.

I’m always interested in hidden forms, so let’s look at knee as it bends and twists its way through a number of words.

• adjeniculation: a kneeling to or towards.

• agonyclite: “Hereticks, in the seventh century, whose distinguishing tenet was, never to kneel, but to deliver their prayers standing.” [Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary]

• bight: a bending or curved geographical feature, from an Old Icelandic word meaning the hollow of the knee

• genicle: a joint in the stalk of a plant.

• geniculation: a bending of the knee.

• genual: pertaining to the knee.

• genuant: kneeling; in a kneeling posture.

• genuclast: a medical instrument used for breaking down adhesions in the knee joint.

• genuflect: to bend the knee, especially in worship.

• genuform: having the shape of a knee.

• gonagra: gout in the knee.

• ingeniculation: a bending of the knee.

• polygonate: having many joints.


SIDEBAR: Common Knee Injuries



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