Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Gobsmacked

George from Harrisburg asked about a word that he heard on BBC America. The word was gobsmacked.

It’s no coincidence that he was tuned in to a British network. The word is a slang term found in the UK, but not much in America. It means flabbergasted, astounded, left speechless. It also shows up as gobstruck.

Since the 16th century, gob has been a dialectical term for the mouth. It may have come from a Gaelic word meaning a beak or snout. (I remember my Irish mother urging me to go wash my dirty gub.) To smack is to slap or to strike. So figuratively, it’s as if you had been punched in the mouth.

Gob has had some interesting variations. As a noun, gob has meant

  • a mass or a lump
  • a clot of some slimy substance
  • a lump of molten glass about to be shaped
  • a large sum of money
  • a large mouthful of food
  • conversation
  • the empty space left when coal has been extracted
  • an American sailor [from gobby, a word meaning a spitter]

As a verb, gob has meant

  • to cause an obstruction in a furnace
  • to brag
  • to spit

Time to pop in a gobstopper.


SIDEBAR: Gob (Canadian Band)


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


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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Copycat

The difference between a ditto machine and a mimeograph machine was raised on Tuesday’s program. I can see why there’s confusion. When you go online, there’s absolutely contradictory material.

Here’s what I remember, having used both in my early teaching career.

The ditto machine used a master sheet that transferred a carbon substance to the back of a white sheet. It was then attached to the drum of a ditto machine and was good for a limited number of copies, perhaps a little over 100 if you were lucky.

The mimeograph used a stencil cut on a typewriter minus the ribbon. Copies came out purple and had a very distinctive smell because of the aniline dye. Since they came out damp, you had to be careful about smudging, but they were good for perhaps 500 copies. You could save and reuse the master.

Of course, the focus in this blog is etymology. Ditto comes from an Italian word (detto) that meant already said or spoken. Originally, it was used with dates, so you wouldn't have to keep repeating the name of the month. In mimeograph, mimeo- comes from a Greek verb meaning to imitate, and –graph came from a Greek verb meaning to write.

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


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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yule


In Old English, Yule referred to Christmastide. Christian missionaries adapted the term from a pagan feast that lasted 12 days. Early on, it meant both December and January, possibly because the pagan feast spanned the end of one month and the beginning of the next. However, Chambers’ Dictionary of Etymology names November and December as the two months involved.

Earlier precedents are in dispute. The Oxford English Dictionary labels the ultimate origin obscure. John Ayto (Dictionary of Word Origins) suggests that it came from an Indo-European word meaning “to go round,” reflecting the fact that this season was at the turn of the year. Eric Partridge (A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English) speculates that yule is related to the Latin gelu, meaning cold, because in the northern hemisphere, this is the coldest time of the year.

It was once used as a shout of joy and celebration at the end of church services. People would then stream out into the lanes shouting Yule! This led to a folk saying recorded in John Heywood’s Proverbs: “It is easy to cry Yule at other men’s cost.”

Merry Yuletide.

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


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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pitching Woo

Fred from Petoskey, Michigan, asked about the phrase pitching woo. I haven’t heard that for years. I associate it with earlier, more innocent times. It means courting, advancing your case to a young lady to convince her that she should fall for you, thus insinuating your way into her heart.

Pitch has gone through many meanings in its long career. In this phrase, it means to talk, to recount, to imbed your message. It goes back to the early 18th century. Later, it evolved into selling merchandise by persuasion or promoting a proposal. We see it used this way in sales pitch and pitchman.

Woo has remained fairly static in meaning. Since 1050, it has meant to court a woman, to solicit her love, especially with a view to marriage.

I had suspected that pitching woo was a phrase well on its way out of vogue. Then, while flipping idly through some old copies of Wired Magazine, I came across this:

“For most computer geeks, writing code is easy. But trying to compose an amorous email may cause night sweats. At Germany’s University of Potsdam, Philip von Senftleben teaches IT students the subtle art of pitching woo. [Wired, June 2009, p.44]

Whodathunk?


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


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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

In honor of the weather that we're experiencing in these northern climes, let's look at a small sampling of COLD words today.

  • aggelation: the act of freezing to or congealing about [L. gelare, to freeze]
  • algefacient: having the power to make cold [L. algere, to be cold]
  • algid: cold, esp. the cold stage of an ague [L. algidus, cold]
  • algific: causing cold [L. algificus, causing cold]
  • cheimaphobia: abnormal fear of winter [Gr. cheimos, winter, cold]
  • cryobiology: the study of the effect of low temperatures on living organisms [Gr. kruos, frost, icy cold]
  • cryogen: a freezing mixture [Gr. kruos, frost, icy cold]
  • frigiferous: bringing cold [L. frigus, cold]
  • gelid: extremely cold [L. gelidus, icy cold]
  • pagophagia: compulsive desire to eat ice cubes [Gr. pagos, freezing]
  • psychrophilic: capable of growing at temperatures close to freezing [Gr. psuchros, cold]
  • psychrophobia: fear or hatred of cold, esp. cold water [Gr. psuchros, cold]
  • rhigosis: the ability to feel cold [Gr. rhigos, cold]

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


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Saturday, December 12, 2009

That Gnawing Feeling

Biting and gnawing are normal activities for creatures with teeth. Both words come from Old Teutonic forms, and both show up in print in the year 1,000. One of my favorite early titles is Ayenbite of Inwit (usually translated as The Remorse of Conscience) – literally, the Again-Bite of Inner Awareness.

The Old English words owe their existence to prior Latin words. The Latin mordere meant to bite, and it produced words such as
  • mordant (biting, caustic, incisive)
  • mordacious (biting, sharp, acerbic)
  • morsel (a bite or mouthful of food)
  • remorse (deep gnawing feeling of guilt)
  • commorse (compassion or pity, an inner gnawing)

The Latin rodere, to gnaw, led to these representative words:
  • erode (to eat away by slow consumption)
  • corrode (to eat into or gnaw away)
  • rodent (a gnawing mammal)
The Latin manducare meant to chew or eat:
  • manducate (to consume a consecrated host)
  • manducation (the process of eating, esp. the above)
  • manducatory (relating to eating)
  • mandible (a jawbone)
The Latin masticare means to chew, and it tracks back to a Greek word.
  • masticate (to grind up by chewing)
  • mastication (the act of chewing)
  • masticator (a person or animal that chews)
Interestingly, the word tongs came from an Indo-European word that meant bite. In effect, when the lower ends of tongs are brought together to grasp or pinch an object, they bite it.


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


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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I caught a rerun of Arsenic and Old Lace the other night, and was delighted to discover that the years have not diminished its charms. The “old lace” referred to the decorative trim adorning the dresses of the Brewster sisters, but lace had many meanings over the centuries.

Originally, the word meant a snare or a noose used to catch an animal, although the first use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is metaphorical: [translated] “You have caught a woman; you have a woman in your snare.”

As time went on, it meant a cord, line, or string. Eventually, that was refined to a cord threaded through eyelets to draw together opposite edges of a garment or boot. This shows up in shoelace.

In the construction trade, a lace was a tie beam or a brace. By the 16th century, it referred to the ornamental braid used for trimming coats. In that same century, it settled into what we would call lace today: the open-work fabric used to decorate sleeves, collars, and so on.


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

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thirst

Thirst is a universal elementary condition, so it’s no surprise that the first written instance in English goes back to at least 1,000 AD. It evolved from a similar form (thurst) that existed in many Germanic languages.

The Greek word dipsa meant thirst, and several English words were patterned on that.

  • The dipsas was a serpent whose bite was supposed to produce an unimaginable thirst.
  • A dipsetic is a medicinal preparation that induces thirst.
  • Dipsomania is an insatiable thirst for alcohol.
  • Dipsopathy was a medical treatment based on abstinence from liquids.
  • Dipsosis meant a morbid degree of thirst.
  • Polydipsia was a morbid thirst that resulted in excessive water consumption.

The corresponding word in Latin was sitia, and that was absorbed into several English words.

  • To sitiate was to thirst.
  • Siticulous means very dry.
  • Sitient meant thirsting in the physical sense, but it was also extended to the metaphorical sense of coveting.

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


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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Paraphernalia

A listener brought up the word paraphernalia as an instance of a word easier to say than to spell. The second “r” is often the victim of elision, so misspelling becomes a distinct possibility.

The word is interesting in its own right. In Roman law, paraphernalia meant the articles of property held by a wife over and above the dowry that she brought with her. The articles might include clothing, furniture, and jewelry. The wife retained control over these. The word derived from the Greek para-, over and above, and pherne-, a dowry – literally, things brought with.

As time went by, the word picked up multiple meanings. Among other things, it came to mean articles of dress or adornment outside of marriage, the items associated with a particular activity, then the items associated with taking drugs.


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


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