Saturday, October 31, 2009

Coward

A coward is someone who displays craven fear or lack of courage in the face of crisis or danger. The adjective pusillanimous is often applied. That comes from two Latin words, and may be translated as “puny of spirit.”

But back to the word coward. Along the way, it was also applied to animals: a skittish rabbit, a cock that would not fight, or a horse without spirit. The animal application is appropriate, since the core of coward is cauda, a Latin word meaning tail. The OED says that this may refer to “turning tail,” a metaphor for cowardice, or to the instinctive habit of frightened animals who tuck their tails between their hind legs.

The Cowardly Lion did not originally show up in The Wizard of Oz; it goes back to 1500, and referred to the Lion Coward, a heraldic figure that appeared in coats-of-arms. As expected, it depicted a lion with its eyes downcast and its tail tucked in. I find this confusing, since a lion usually represents courage or royalty. I’m not sure why a figure seeking safety in flight would be desirable on a coat-of-arms. Perhaps someone skilled in heraldry will add a note.


The Dryden Code: A Language Conspiracy Unmasked
Grand Rapids Library’s 2009 Celebration of the Book


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


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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween

A listener asked where the word Halloween came from. Originally, the word was All-hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints Day, November 1. A hallow was a holy person, a saint; the word first appears in 885.

As with so many other celebrations, the Catholic Church turned a pagan observance into a Christian one. Gregory III (731-741) established November 1 as All Saints Day as an overlay on an ancient Celtic feast, Samhain. Gregory IV (827-844) extended the observance to the entire Church.

November 1 marked the Celts’ new year, the dividing line between harvest time and the cold, dark winter. At that time of seasonal division (Samhain, or summer’s end), the Celts believed that the dividing line between the world of the living and the world of the dead was stretched very thin, and that eerie visitations from spirits were quite probable.

A couple of centuries later, the Catholic Church established All Souls Day on November 2. Ultimately, all three celebrations – the night of October 31, November 1, and November 2 – were rolled into a celebration known as Hallowmas. As with words like Christmas, the –mas element stood for Mass, the formal Eucharistic liturgy celebrated on feast and feria days.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stammer & Stutter

In earlier centuries, there seems to have been a fixation on stuttering. I deduce this from the number of words that contain that concept. A number of these words have primary or secondary meanings involving stumbling or unsteady walking. Halting speech is thus tied to halting gait, in the sense of limping. We find it in Luke 14:21. “So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.” Let's look at some of the stumbling speech words.

• balbutiate, 1731: to stammer [L. balbutire, to stammer]
• bambino, 1761: the image of the Christ child in swaddling clothes [Gr. bambainein, to stammer]
• barbette, 1480: to make inarticulate sounds [L. balbutire, to stammer]
• hobble, 1522: to proceed haltingly in speech [Du. hobbelin, to rock from side to side, to stammer]
• mamble, 1275: to mumble [OHG lefsmammolan, to stammer]
• mant, 1506: to stammer [Scottish Gaelic mannt, stammer]
• psellism, 1688: stammering [Gr. psellismos, stammering]
• stagger, 1530: to sway involuntarily from side to side [Ger. staggeln, to stammer]
• stem, 1300: to stop or delay [OTeut. stamjan, to stammer]
• tatter, 1380: to talk idly [Du tatteren, to stumble]


Grand Rapids Library’s 2009 Celebration of the Book


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


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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thrust Me

The root -trud- came from the Latin trudere, to thrust, and it showed up in many words, usually verb forms.

• abstrude: to thrust away
• contrude: to thrust or crowd together
• detrude: to thrust away, expel, or repel forcibly
• extrude: to shape materials by forcing them through dies
• intrude: to force yourself upon a person or situation
• obtrude: to impose oneself
• protrude: to project from or stick out
• retrude: to thrust something backward
• subtrude: to thrust under

Use sparingly: many of those verbs are obsolete. The companion root -trus- often appears in adjective forms.

• abstruse: thrust away to conceal or hide
• extrusile: capable of being thrust forth
• inobtrusive: not obtrusive; modest and retiring
• intruse: having a form as if pushed inward
• intrusive: encroaching
• protrusible: capable of being thrust out
• retruse: concealed
• trusatile: that which is worked by pushing
• unobtrusive: modest and retiring

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not One Iota

Doug from Traverse City asked about the phrase, not one iota. Αn iota is a Greek letter -- to the point, a very small Greek letter [ ι ]. It’s the equivalent of our lowercase i. Not one iota is used to signify “not even one little bit.”

Jot was the Anglicized version of iota, and it shows up in the pairing jot and tittle. It means “one whit added to one whit,” a reduplicative way to express the smallest detail. Its most prominent occurrence is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5:

17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” KJV

The quotation uses them as an example of extremely minor details. The phrase "jot and tittle" indicates that every minute detail has received attention.


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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Halve the Calf Salve

The President’s Cup is in play this weekend, so the word halve is showing up far more frequently than usual. (“Tiger sinks the putt to halve the hole.”)

Most words containing an -lv- sequence insist on having the -l- pronounced, such as solve or valve. There are a few exceptions that retain the letter -l- but do not pronounce it. Consider calve, halve, and salve.

Calve, meaning to give birth, is indebted to various Germanic and Scandinavian terms meaning a bovine calf; it appeared in print in the year 1,000. Later, the word was used to describe a chunk of ice breaking off from a glacier or an iceberg.

The verb halve developed from the noun half, indebted to a combination of Germanic and
Scandinavian words meaning side. The original idea was that objects had a left side and a right side. Focusing just on one was halving the object (one-siding it). The noun half showed up in print in 700, and the verb halve in 1300.

Salve descended from various Teutonic words that were cognates to a Sanskrit word meaning oily butter. The first written instance goes back to 700.


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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Do Flounders Founder? Part 2

Here’s a follow up to my last blog. Margaret Magnus, PhD, is an expert in phonosemantics. In answer to my inquiry, here was her response.

“The nose in sn- comes from the -n- alone. /n/ appears in nose words far more frequently than it does in the vocabulary generally. I think that's because it appears in words referring to small bumps far more frequently than you would expect (knob, knoll, nib, dune, mound,...). In initial position, the /n/ appears in words referring to the nose itself (neb, nose, nib). In second position, it is usually verbs pertaining to the nose, as you point out. And in prefinal position, you have scent and stench... I don't believe that's by chance.

As for /fl/, the /f/ is like a fountain, a source from which things come out, but whose ultimate destination is unpredictable. The /l/ is like water. When the /l/ precedes the vowel, it causes flowing: float, flush, flood. It's also flat. When the /l/ follows the vowel, the /f/ forms a mold or pattern that the /l/ tries to fill, follow or live up to (fail). With initial fl- the resulting motion is determined by the consonants after the vowel. So let me sort your words:
  • flip, flap, flop -- a flat thing which lands or reaches a critical point/position (/p/)
  • flag -- note the power of the /g/ to slow things down (flag, bag, drag, gag, lag, sag, rag, tag, bog, dog (v),...)
  • flounce -- the -oun- makes a mound (round, bound (v)), and the -ounce makes it bouncy.
  • flub - adds a 'clubbing, drubbing, stubbing' effect to the failure.
  • flinch - gesture is similar to pinch, cinch, bunch, hunch, winch
  • flurry -- gestures like that of scurry
  • etc.

I have really come to believe that the effects are just that precise. If you consider the motion in 'flurry' for example, you can say, "Well, 'scurry' is only one word which is similar." But ask yourself if you can find any other word in the whole language whose 'gesture' is more similar to 'flurry' than 'scurry'. Add to that the fact that the /r/ after the vowel in the stressed syllable causes a 'turn' (curve, curl, darn, warp, bore, churn,...) skittish.

Here's one article on fl- that I know of:

Liberman, Anatoly (1990), "Etymological Studies III: Some Germanic Words Beginning with FL-. Language at Play", General Linguistics, 30(2).”

SIDEBAR: Margo’s Magical Letter Page


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

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Do Flounders Founder?

The differences between founder and flounder were raised on the show last week. To founder is to plunge to the bottom, to submerge. It is connected to the Latin word fundus, which means bottom.

To flounder, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is of obscure etymology. In early use, it meant to struggle and stumble and flail about as if mired in muck. That entry also contained this notation: “. . . the many verbs with initial fl- expressing impetuous and clumsy movements.”

I had never thought of that before, and I don’t know the reason why that should be, but a quick perusal came up with

• flabbergast
• flack (v.1)
• flag (someone down)
• flail
• flap
• flinch
• flip
• flounce
• flounder
• flop
• flub
• fluctuate
• flurry
• fluster
• flutter

At a guess, perhaps it’s because fluttering lips often accompany exasperation and agitation. The same thing happens with the sn- sequence and its connection to the nose, but that’s probably because of an Indo-European root [snu-] that imitated nose sounds. Some nose words using the initial sn- include

• snarf
• snarl
• sneer
• sneeze
• snicker/snigger
• snide
• sniff/sniffle
• snifter
• snitch
• snivel
• snoot
• snore
• snort
• snot
• snub
• snuff
• snuffle

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

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