Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dingbat

Shirley from Spider Lake asked about the word dingbat. She came across it in an article on printing.

A dingbat is a typographical ornament used to decorate a text or to fill in excess white space on a page. We’re all familiar with the pointing finger or the arrow used to highlight certain areas of a text. A dingbat can be an individual symbol, or it might be a scroll or a band. Dingbats may imitate flowers, animals, and other stylized objects, or they may be strictly geometrical and non-representational. Embellishment is the point.

Dingbat is also the name of a computer font originally designed for Apple computers, but now available for PCs. Dingbat fonts can be very imaginative, crafted for a particular theme or purpose.

The ding- segment probably came from a Norse verb meaning to thump with a hammer, and -bat may have come from a Gaelic word meaning a cudgel. The combination on one's noggin would certainly result in impaired thinking.

What I find fascinating, however, is all the other wildly unconnected meanings that dingbat has had over the years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
  • Dingbat was the name for clumps of dung clinging to the butt of sheep or cattle.
  • Dingbat was a slap on the buttocks.
  • Dingbat was a flying missile.
  • Dingbat was an argument involving harsh words and shoving.
  • Dingbat was a biscuit or a muffin.
  • Dingbat was the affection shown by a mother as she hugged and kissed her little ones.
  • Dingbat was the term substituted for a forgotten word, almost like doohickey or dingus.
  • Dingbat can be an insult, a reference to a foolish or ditsy person. Archie Bunker called his wife Edith a dingbat on numerous occasions. On the other hand, it was once an affectionate and admiring term, especially when used by a young man referring to a cute girl.
  • Dingbat was some kind of alcoholic drink.
  • Dingbat was the name for a tramp.
  • Dingbat was the name for money, especially for the fractional currency once in vogue.

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

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gravy Train

Al from Bay City asked about the phrase gravy train. It usually shows up as “to board the gravy train” or “to ride the gravy train.” It now refers to money easily acquired, to an unearned or unexpected bonus. Obviously, it’s an analogy to the foodstuff, a savory addition.

From 1390 to 1508, gravy described a dressing for meat, fish, or vegetables that consisted of broth, milk of almonds, spices, and wine or ale.

From 1598 on, it acquired the sense with which we are familiar: take the fat and juices from the bottom of the baking pan, add condiments and perhaps broth, and thicken with a flour or cornstarch.

Somewhere around World War I, gravy train started appearing as a metaphor for easy financial success. That puts it roughly in the same kitchen as icing on the cake.

SIDEBAR: Good Gravy


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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Autumn

Autumn is here. In America, autumn (or fall) is usually regarded as occurring in September, October, and November. In Great Britain, figure August, September, and October, while in France, “from the end of August to the first fortnight of November” (Littré).

The word autumn came into English from Old French, which borrowed it from the Latin. Ernest Weekley (An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English) suggests that since it’s harvest time, the Latin name for the season may have come from augere, to increase, but that’s not universally accepted.

One of the earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary comes to us from Chaucer (Boethius De consolatione philosophiæ). He wrote, “Autumn comes again, heavy of apples.”

In time, autumn came to represent maturity, even incipient decay (the autumn of my years).



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


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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Oreo

A listener in Cadillac, Michigan, asked about the origin of Oreo, the cookie produced by the Nabisco Company since 1912. Unfortunately, this is another case of “origin unknown.” Even the Nabisco web site fails to reveal the answer. That hasn't stopped speculation, of course.

One theory says that it was based on the French word or, meaning gold, because the original package was gold in color. Then, since the original cookie was mound-shaped, another theory points to the Greek word for mountain, oros. It appears in English as the root oro-, but that would be like calling a pimple Mount Everest.

Another theory says that the O represented the shape of the cookie, so it shows up twice in the word, with -re- stuffed between as a shortened form of cream. But that's unrecognizable; surely, they would have retained -cre-.

I have two bogus contributions to add to folk etymology. First, the word re in Latin means again or repeatedly, so Oreo could be translated as O-repeat-O. Second, yet another Greek form that has worked its way into English has the form oro-. It means mouth; what could be more appropriate?

If anyone has a documented origin, fire away.


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


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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Almost Paene-ful


Mike Chambers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) wrote that he heard a golf commentator on XM Radio use the word penultimate during the tournament at Cog Hill last weekend. “What surprised me most,” wrote Mike, “is that he used it correctly.”

I know what Mike means. In recent years, many writers and commentators have fallen into the error that penultimate is some kind of intensifier. If ultimate is high praise, penultimate kicks it up to a new level. Incorrecto, amigo.

Penultimate means second best or next to the last; ultimate means best or last. The –pen- element comes from the Latin word paene, which meant almost. The literal translation, then, is “almost last or best.”

The paene prefix also shows up in the word peninsula, which means “almost an island.” A peninsula, of course, is a piece of land that is almost completely surrounded by water.

Penumbra is a partially shaded area, a word applied to the shadow cast by the moon on the earth in a solar eclipse, or by the earth on the moon in a lunar eclipse, resulting in an area that experiences only a partial eclipse. Hence, almost a full shadow.

Two other words that may involve the prefix paene are penitent and penury, the condition of being destitute.

Some fanciful words sprang up over the years, but didn’t perdure.
  • pene-perfection: “The perfection, or even pene-perfection of the Methodists.” [Coleridge]
  • penefelonious: “‘Lots,’ said the pene-felonious traveler -- ‘good place to camp’.” [Boldrewood]
  • pene-infinite: “These pene-infinite insolencies, which are the most finite Infinites of misery to men.” [Ward]
  • peneomnipotent: “That peneomnipotent thing, public opinion.” [Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine]
  • pene-lake: an expanse of water almost surrounded by land.
  • peneseismic: (of a region) in which earthquakes occur infrequently and with little or no destructive force.


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


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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Getting a -LEG- Up


Sometimes identical letter combinations in different English words are sheer accidents of history. Sometimes they come from earlier sources in other languages that also shared letter combinations, but not meaning. A good example is the sequence -leg-.


The Latin verb legare meant to commission or send on a public mission, to appoint as a deputy, or to bequeath as a legacy. Common words based on this root include delegate, legate, legation, and relegate.


The Latin verb legere meant to collect, gather, choose, traverse, or read. Common words based on that root include colleague, legend, legible and illegible, legion, and sacrilege.


The Latin legis (the singular genitive form of lex) meant “of the law.” Common words based on this root include legal and illegal, legislation, legislator, legitimate, and privilege.


The Latin noun collegium meant a partnership or fraternity. From it sprang words such as college, collegial, collegiality, and collegiate.


The Latin verb ligare meant to bind, to tie together, but it sometimes shows up in English as -leg- or a close variation. Instances include allegiance, league, and legato.



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


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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

-igo, you go


Sally from Ludington, Michigan, asked why bouts of dizziness are called vertigo. It comes straight from a Latin word that meant “a turning or whirling around,” which is the sensation experienced even if standing stock still.

I haven't been able to verify this with the resources at hand, but a number of words ending in -igo refer to medical conditions or afflictions, indicating that it may be a suffix used to name a physical problem. Here are some of them, including obsolete terms.

• aurigo = jaundice [attached to a Latin word meaning golden yellow]

• caligo = dimness of vision [a Latin word meaning darkness, mist, or fog]

• impetigo = a pustular disease of the skin [from a Latin verb meaning “to assail or attack”]

• intertrigo = inflammation caused by the rubbing of one part of the surface of the skin against another [from a Latin verb meaning “to rub against each other”]

• lentigo = a freckle or pimple [because of resemblance, from a Latin word meaning a lentil]

• mentigo = a disease causing sores and scabs around the lips and mouth of sheep [a Latin word meaning an eruption or scab]

• porrigo = any of various diseases or conditions characterized by scales or crusts on the scalp, esp. ringworm and dandruff [a Latin word meaning dandruff or mange]

• prurigo = itching [a Latin word for itching or lasciviousness

• serpigo = a general term for creeping or spreading skin diseases, especially ringworm or herpes [from a Latin verb meaning to crawl or creep]

• tentigo = priapism [a Latin word meaning lust]

• vitiligo = a skin disease whose only manifestation is the post-natal development of sharply defined white patches that tend to grow in size [a Latin word meaning a skin eruption]

SIDEBAR: Skin Conditions


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


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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Downright Nugacious


Sara from Port of Old Mission recently shared the word nugacity with me. She came across it as the name of a free downloadable font for her computer. In the 16th century, it meant a frivolity -- a trifling thing or idea.

It came from a Latin word that meant worthlessness. It also appeared as nugation, nugament, and nugality. Something nugatious is of no importance. In philosophy, nugae were difficult but trivial matters over which a disproportionate amount of time was taken. Nugaemania was an overwhelming attraction to trifling things. A nugator was an empty-headed person; he was nugatorious.

A few other words, not connected to the -nuga- root, also mean frivolous nonsense. Blather came from an Old Norse word that meant devoid of sense. Paralerema was once used as a medical name for delirium; it came from a Greek word meaning to speak or act foolishly. A nonce-word for someone who speaks trivial nonsense was phylarologist, from a Greek word meaning to babble. He or she was guilty of tattering.

I was delighted to learn, as I researched this post, that the word nonsense was once balanced by its opposite, bonsense (good sense).


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


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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

. . . and the few


Mark from Traverse City reports that he was listening to CNBC earlier this week when Erin O’Brien used the word oligopoly. “Either I wasn’t paying attention,” says Mark, “or she never got around to defining it.”

An oligopoly is the domination of a market by just a few individuals or corporations. The combining form oligo- comes from an ancient Greek word that meant having few or having little. It appears in some interesting words.

• Oligoblennia is insufficient mucous production, leading to dry membranes.

• An oligochronometer was an instrument used to measure very small periods of time.

• Oligodontous refers to a species of snake that has relatively few teeth.

• Oligogalactia is a deficiency of milk secretion.

• Oligoglottism is a limited knowledge of languages.

• Oligomania is a mental illness characterized by the dominance of a small number of irrational ideas.

• Oligometochia was the avoidance of participles or participial constructions.

• Oligophagous describes an insect that feeds on a limited range of plants.

• Oligoprothesy was the sparing use of prepositions.

• Oligosyllabic means having few syllables.

• Oligotrophic is used to describe a lake or wetland relatively poor in plant nutrients.


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


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