Sunday, November 29, 2009

Winter Words

November is almost gone, so in my backyard, winter is about to make an appearance. Let’s look at some words that involve that season.

Brumal means of or pertaining to winter. It’s a great little word, but it’s not frequently used. It is a contraction of the Latin word brevima, the shortest day. That’s the winter equinox. Occasionally, it appears as brumous, but that can also mean foggy.

Chimoanthus is a shrub native to China. The word is a combination of the Greek cheimon, winter, and anthos, flower. An isocheim was a line (on a map, etc.) connecting places at which the mean winter temperature is the same.

The Latin hibernus meant wintry, and that brought us several words. Hibernaculum meant winter quarters, and while it was usually applied to a military encampment, it was also used in reference to animals and plants. We’re quite familiar with the words hibernate and hibernation, which refer to a retreat to an inactive state in the winter.

Hiemal is now rare, but it once meant of or belonging to winter. The verb form, hiemate, was a synonym for hibernate. Both words came from the Latin hiems, winter.


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


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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pigging Out

I know that the focal point of traditional Thanksgiving dinners is the turkey, but I’m going to go off on a pig tangent in this posting.

Many words that have nothing directly to do with pigs ended up using roots related to the pig. Sometimes this was because of a close or vague physical resemblance, sometimes because of a porcine color, sometimes because of a sound. Let’s examine some words that harbor hogs.

  • Albacore: an ocean fish. The Portugese bacoro meant a young pig.
  • Bandicoot: a large Indian rat the size of a cat. It is a corruption of a native word that meant pig-rat. It’s also the name of an Australian marsupial.
  • Hyena: a carnivorous quadruped. For whatever reason, the word developed from a Greek word meaning pig.
  • Molebat: obsolete word for an ocean sunfish, the Mola Mola. The name may have come from Pliny’s observation that this fish grunted like a pig.
  • Porcelain: translucent ceramic material used to make fine china. It was named after a word for a univalve mollusk (<young sow), probably because of the similarity in color.
  • Porcupine: a rodent equipped with defensive quills. The porc- came from the Latin word for pig, and the -pine from the Latin word for a thorn or spike.
  • Porpoise: a small delphinoid whale with a blunt snout. The word came into Anglo-Norman from a Latin word meaning pig-fish.

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

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Expert Ease


The adjective expert means experienced or skilled. It is heavily grounded in trying something for yourself, in hands-on learning, in personally putting something to the test. It comes from the Latin verb experiri, to try, to undergo thorough evaluation. This implies that the greatest experts have been trained in a heuristic way rather than merely being passive receptacles.

From time to time, I like to review exotic terminology for fields of expertise. Here are today’s offerings, with the field of expertise first, followed by the title of the expert*.

  • almonds: amygdalogist
  • breeding domesticated animals/plants: thremmatologist
  • cork: phellologist
  • dolls: planganologist
  • elections: psephologist
  • finger rings: dactyliologist
  • gestures: pasimologist
  • hotels: xenodocheionologist
  • keys: cagologist
  • lighthouses: pharologist
  • minerals: oryctologist
  • nonsense: morologist
  • peace: irenologist
  • quicksand: syrtologist
  • relics: lipsanologist
  • senility: nostologist
  • thunder: brontologist
  • ulcers: helcologist
  • values: axiologist
  • walnuts: juglandologist

    *Taken from my Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd Edition, pp. 249 – 260.
    Published by McFarland & Company, 2008.


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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Filthy Lucre

We covered slang terms for money on a recent program (wtcmradio.com). Among the offerings called in was “filthy lucre.” Lucre came from a Latin word, lucrum, which meant profit. But already in Roman times, a negative connotation began to creep in. Lucrum also came to mean avarice.

The pairing of filthy and lucre was meant, of course, to highlight the sinfulness of immoderate or greedy desire for wealth, and this was soon applied to the money itself. The phrase shows up in Titus 1:15. In the Greek version of the New Testament, the pairing came from the adjective αισχροσ (aischros, shameful or disgraceful) and the noun κερδοσ (kerdos, gain, profit, or advantage).

The phrasing “filthy lucre” was first used by William Tyndale in his translation of the Bible, and the same pairing was copied in many versions, among them the King James Bible, the American Standard Version, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the English Revised Version, and Young’s Literal Translation.

The Greek adjective meaning shameful worked its way into a couple of other rare words in English. Aischrolatreia means the cult of obscenity and the pursuit of the nasty, and aischrologia (aischrology) is filthy language or obscene speech.


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

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Carry On

I was a bit surprised to see that the Oxford English Dictionary has doubts about the usual etymology for the word belligerent. My fading memory told me that it came from the Latin word for war (bellum) and from the Latin verb gerere, to wage or carry on. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and Partridge’s A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English concur, but the OED says that it was formed on the model of magnificent.

Starting in the 16th century, a gerent was one who held an office, a manager or a ruler. The core definitely was the verb gerere, to manage.

Frenigerent, a word long obsolete, meant bridle-bearing. It referred to a rider, who was expected to control his or her steed.

Hederigerent was a relative latecomer, first showing up in the 19th century. It meant bearing or wearing ivy. Mortimer Collins uses it amusingly in his Thoughts in my Garden: “Nymphs, hederigerant, wine that's refrigerant, These are the joy of the poets and gods.”

The obsolete word malegerent showed up in Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary. It meant given to bad or imprudent behavior or management; improvident.

Omnigerent is another word that had a short shelf life. It meant doing all kinds of work, sort of a jack-of-all-trades.

A vicegerent was a person appointed by a king or other ruler to act in his place or to exercise certain of his administrative functions. We tend to use vice-regent, but that may have been an early misspelling of vicegerent.


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


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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Maurice from Rochester asked about terms that can express the constant flow of days represented by the words yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I’ll warn up front that some of them are obsolete, but I suppose that they could be revived.

YESTERDAY
In Latin, hesternus meant yesterday. Our word hesternal, of yesterday’s standing or date, is based on that word. Hestern was an earlier spelling. Latin also gave us pridie, basically “before this day.” That led to pridian, pertaining to the previous day.

TODAY
From the Greek, we have ‘ημερα (hemera), meaning day. This has generated hemeralopia (day-blindness), hemerine (belonging to a day), Hemerobaptist (an obscure sect that practiced daily baptism), hemerobian (a family of insects known as day-flies), hemerocallis ( a day-lilly), and hemerology (a day book). And something ephemeral lasts barely a day.

From the Latin, we have hodie, today. This has given us hodiernal, of or belonging to the present day. Latin also contributed diurnalis, daily. Something diurnal can be done in one day, happens on a daily basis, or lasts only one day. And quotidian (from Latin for “every day”) means the same thing.

TOMORROW
Latin contributed crastinum, the morrow. There was an obsolete English word crastin (the day after), but we know the root best from the word procrastinate, to defer or put off to the next day. The crastinal tense covers an event that will happen tomorrow.


So if you’re looking for adjective forms, you could do worse than hesternal, hodiernal, and crastinal.




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


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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Sharp Shark

CNBC ran a story Friday afternoon about a lumberjack who has made it to the finals of the World Series of Poker. Whoever the on-scene reporter was, he chided one of the studio talking heads for using the term card sharp instead of what the reporter insisted was the correct form: card shark.

It’s not that simple. Both forms have appeared for centuries.

The image of a card shark conjures up a predatory player who will rip you to shreds like something out of Jaws. Unfortunately, the original shark was not a fish at all. It is probable that it was a variant on a German word, schurke, a scoundrel or villain. It shows up in Ben Jonson’s work of 1599, The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor. In that work, he describes a shark, a swindling beggar, who pretends to be a former soldier down on his luck who must resort to abject begging. Jonson describes him as “One that neuer was Soldior, yet liues vpon lendings.” By the 18th century, the image of a scoundrel had merged with the image of a preying shark, the fish.

Then there’s a sharper, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A cheat, swindler, rogue; one who lives by his wits and by taking advantage of the simplicity of others; esp. a fraudulent gamester.” The first instance given is from 1681: “Many of them sharpers about town.” [Narcissus Luttrel, A brief historical relation of state affairs 1678–1714.] When it was shortened to a sharp, in 1797, it was probably because a swindler had to be sharp-witted, clever, and edgy.

Card sharp as a construction shows up in Bret Harte’s On Frontier [1840], while card shark (in conjunction) doesn’t get recorded until the 1940s.




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


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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Bracket

In American composition classes, brackets [ ] are reserved for editorial intervention; if you interrupt yourself with an interpolation, parentheses ( ) are preferred. Dashes and commas may also signal authorial asides, of course, but they are practically equivalent except for the drama factor.

The earliest appearance in English of the word bracket was in architectural use. It was a projection that acted as a ledge. Brackets usually had a practical supporting use, but sometimes they were merely decorative.

The word seems to have come from a Latin term that meant codpiece or trousers. The suggestion is that a supporting apparatus shaped like limbs set at an angle provokes an image of legs at their juncture.

The word bracket had many uses over the centuries:

• a small shelf or set of shelves
• in shipbuilding, a support consisting of two pieces of wood or metal joined at an angle
• one of two sidepieces of a gun carriage
• a metal pipe projecting from a wall to support and supply gas lamps
• in math, enclosure marks that signal the order of operations
• the distance between a pair of shots fired – one long and one short of a target – to find the range for artillery
• a class of persons grouped according to income
• in skating, a series of turns resembling a bracket


Grand Rapids Library’s 2009 Celebration of the Book


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


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