Saturday, January 30, 2010

Plug Ugly

Leonard asked where the adjective plug-ugly came from. It has come to mean unspeakably ugly in the physical sense.

The original Plug Uglies were street thugs in Baltimore, Maryland, in the mid-nineteenth century. They acted as enforcers for politicians who wanted to control elections, and as musclemen for private enterprises such as competing fire companies, which were freelance, profit-driven, and fiercely cutthroat in those days.

The plug portion is explained by a couple of theories. One of them, noting that the gang worked for the Mount Vernon Hook & Ladder Company, ties it to fireplugs, a word that showed up in 1707. The other notes that the distinctive gang headgear—protective stovepipe hats—were called plugs beginning in 1848.

Ugly, I think it is safe to say, did not originally refer to the physical appearance of gang members. Ugly has been used to refer to offensive, repulsive, and immoral behavior since 1300. The Plug-Uglies may have taken pride in being thugs and hooligans, but their behavior was ugly to decent Americans.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Eager & Anxious to Convince & Persuade

Lloyd from Boyne City called in about words that once were quite distinct, but are now beginning to blend. In particular, he mentioned eager/anxious and persuade/convince.

Eager has positive connotations. It conjures up excited anticipation and keen desire. In contrast, anxious has negative undertones. It reeks of uneasiness and concern. It involves distress and worry. It is, after all, cousin to anxiety. The principal misuse involves substituting anxious for eager.

To convince, it seems to me, is an intellectual act. It involves evidence and logical argument. To persuade, on the other hand, involves emotion. A person is enticed in a particular direction, towards a specific action. It may involve pleading, coaxing, or an appeal to moral sensibilities. The overall goal might be the same, but the avenues taken are different.

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


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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Apple-Davy

A listener asked about a term that his grandmother used decades ago: apple davy. It sounded vaguely familiar, perhaps a dessert mentioned in some 19th century British novel, but it has turned out to be devilishly difficult to track down. In fact, I still don’t have the recipe.

I found it mentioned online three times, but what I found needed interpretation. So I turned to the list maintained by the American Dialect Society. Various members helped pick out the meaning, and I’m happy to give them credit.

(1) First, it shows up in a Victorian Song titled From Dive to Drawing Room, 1893:

I first saw the ole black 'oss,

He was standing on 'is 'ead, was that noble quadruped,

And a playing at a game o’ pitch and toss.

He'd a fine Roman nose, and he walk'd on his toes,

I'll take my apple-davy it is true,

His neck was awry and he'd only got one eye,

And his tail was all a-swivel and a-skew.

Robin Hamilton suggested that the context above probably points to a type of cockney rhyming slang, making “apple-davy” a variant of affidavit. That makes sense to me. So that one has nothing to do with food.

(2) Second, it shows up in a child’s counting-rhyme recorded in Transactions of the Buchan Field Club, Volumes 1-2 (1887), p. 198:

Apple Davie

Currant Tam

Sugar Rollie

Black Man

This is directly relevant to the original question. The book was published in Scotland, a fact that helped in the deciphering process. The ADS members used context and other sources to determine that the four items in the counting-rhyme were sweets. Robin Hamilton defined Sugar Rollie as a sugar stick. Joel Berson nailed Currant Tam as a tam-shaped (round) currant scone. Douglas Wilson suggested that Black Man was probably licorice. And there was general agreement that Apple Davie must have been a slice of apple cake or apple pie.

(3) Finally, Apple Davey is the name of a variety of apple, Malus x Domestica. It is described as being resistant to apple scab, attractive to bees, butterflies, and birds, and bearing fragrant flowers. But that places it outside the realm of a dessert or sweet treat.

Any recipes out there?

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

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pleonasm

Gary from Burt Lake called in to comment on a word that he had encountered while reading a dictionary. The word was pleonasm, and it is used to indicate that a sentence has more words than it needs.

Wordiness is correctly seen as a writing fault, but to be fair, in rhetorical use it is an intentional (even if too elaborate) figure of speech designed to emphasize a point. The web site Silva Rhetoricae gives this as an example: “With these very eyes I saw him do it.” Other terms that cover wordiness are tautology, superfluity, and perissology.

The Bible uses pleonasm as a figure of speech. "Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him" [Gen. 40:23]. “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear” [Job 42.5]. “All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth. . . . [Isaiah 18:3]. “The wise men rejoiced with great joy” [Matthew 2:10]. "And it came to pass in those days. . . ." [Mark 1:9].

The pleo- portion comes from a Greek comparative adjective (pleion) that meant more. It shows up in some interesting words.

  • pleochroic: showing different colors when viewed in different crystallographic directions.
  • pleocytosis: the presence of an abnormally high number of white blood cells (usually lymphocytes) in the cerebrospinal fluid.
  • pleodont: A reptile having teeth that are solid rather than hollow.
  • pleomastia: the condition of having more than one nipple per breast.
  • pleonexia: excessive covetousness, avarice, or greed.

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


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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gig

David from Leelanau County, Michigan, asked about the word gig, an engagement or job that a musician acquires. Talk about a word with many meanings: there are six nouns spelled that way and seven verbs. Here are the noun meanings.

§ Something that whirls.

§ A whipping-top.

§ A set of feathers arranged so as to revolve rapidly in the wind, for the purpose of attracting birds to a net.

§ A flighty, giddy girl.

§ A queer-looking figure, an oddity.

§ A fancy, joke, whim.

§ Fun, merriment, glee.

§ A light two-wheeled one-horse carriage.

§ A light, narrow, clinker-built ship's boat, adapted either for rowing or sailing.

§ A modified form of the ship's gig, used, esp. on the Thames, as a rowing boat, chiefly for racing purposes.

§ A wooden box or chamber, with two compartments, one above the other, used by miners in ascending and descending a pit-shaft.

§ A squeaking noise.

§ An arrangement of four barbless hooks, fastened back to back, and attached to a hand-line, used for catching fish by dragging it through a school.

§ A hole in the ground where fire is made to dry the flax.

§ A demerit given in the military.

§ An engagement for a musician or musicians playing jazz, dance-music, etc.; spec. a ‘one-night stand’; also, the place of such a performance. [1926]

An obsolete meaning of the verb giggle from the 16th century was, “to turn rapidly; make giddy.” The most probable origin for gig is that musicians played at dances, and in many dances, rotation and spinning are standard features. Related is the French word gigue, a lively piece of music, and the Irish jig, a lively dance. But the origin of gig as a musician's engagement is speculation. The dictionaries that I consulted are unanimous: origin unknown.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Going Bridal

Generally, if you receive an email titled Life in the Middle Ages or Medieval Times, you know in advance that it will be full of inventive errors, deliberate or indeliberate. I swear that these things are composed by rogue English teachers with too much time on their hands. The unfortunate aspect is that recipients don't know that their leg is being pulled and forward it to hundreds of friends with a title such as, "Bet You Didn't Know This!!!!!!"

Jeff Torbenson of Bloomington, Indiana, passed along one that was unusual. It actually had a grain of truth in it. Here's the email, which some unknown person evidently lifted from the Foster's Group web site :

* * * * * * * * * *

Medieval times

The Emperor Charlemagne (AD 742-814), the great Christian ruler, considered beer as essential for moderate living, and personally trained the realm's brewmasters. King Arthur served his Knights of the Round Table with beer called bragget.

Even in medieval times, beer was generally brewed by women. Being the cooks, they had responsibility for beer which was regarded as ‘food-drink'. After the monasteries had established the best methods of brewing, the ‘ale-wives' took the responsibility for further brewing.

In England at this time a chequered flag indicated a place where ale and beer could be purchased. Of course few people other than the clergy could read or write, and a written sign would have been of little use.

Many events of this era incorporate the word ‘ale', reflecting its importance in society. Brides traditionally sold ale on their wedding day to defray the expenses - hence ‘bride-ale' which became 'bridal'. The Christmas expression ‘yule-tide' actually means ‘ale-tide'.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that bridal started life as bride ale. But the phrase didn't refer directly to the beverage. It meant the wedding feast or, by extension, hospitality. So I doubt that the bride sold the ale to the wedding guests; that would not have been hospitable or the sign of a gracious hostess.

If the German Beer Institute can be believed, Charlemagne did oversee all aspects of his many estates. According to them, he would sample the brew right after the brewmaster had crafted it in his presence. That's not exactly "personally trained the realm's brewmasters," but it does indicate supervision.

I'm not aware of any respected historian who endorses the King Arthur and the Round Table stories; they belong to literature, not serious history. Besides, the speculative date for Arthur is usually given as the 6th century, but the first time that the beer known as bragget shows up in print is in 1386 in one of Chaucer's tales.

The chequered [sic] flag story is repeated endlessly on many web sites, always with the British spelling. I have no idea whether it was true or not. I thought that animal images were often used, such as The Boar's Head or The Black Lion, or that famous people, events, and places were pictured to lure customers in.

Finally, yule-tide does not actually mean ale-tide. Yule came from an Old English word that meant Christmas day or Christmastide (December 25 to January 6). Earlier than the Christian era, it was an Old Norse and Gothic name for a winter date.

SIDEBAR: How to Brew


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Saturday, January 09, 2010

-unnel


A listener from Traverse City asked if tunnel and funnel were related in origin. Furthermore, he wondered if the –unnel formation and sound held any significance.

First, their meanings. Funnel has many definitions –some of them widely variant – but the relevant one here is a cone-shaped device that is used to conduct liquids or powders through a small opening in order to transfer them into another container. A tunnel is a pipe-like passage or conductor. So at certain points, they do intersect.

The origins differ. Funnel comes from a Latin term that meant to pour in. Tunnel came from a French word that meant a cask. Early on, it designated a funnel-shaped net used to snare partridges and other game birds.

So both words have a dirigent nature. There is a sense of channeling, of guiding, of setting up passageways that must be followed. Whether there is something innate in the sound that captures and broadcasts this meaning is debatable. I do note, however, that the verb runnel means to channel or to furrow, and the noun refers to a gutter, a reinforcement of the notion. Then there’s the made-up word Chunnel, which is a blend of channel and tunnel; it runs under the English Channel.

SIDEBAR: Do sounds convey meaning?

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Whole Lotta Worship Goin’ On

This is a season when worship is highlighted. In ancient Christianity, latreia, the highest form of worship, was reserved for God alone. Generally, we use the word adoration in English to cover the concept. But many words ending in the combining form –latria have been useful over the centuries. Latria is the Latin form of the Greek latreia, service to God or divine worship.

Some of these words were obviously designed to attack Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. Ungodly bigotry inevitably rears its head its head when sectarianism is involved.

  • angelolatry: angel-worship. [Gr. angelos, angel]
  • anthropolatry: the giving of divine honors to a human being. [Gr. anthropos, man]
  • artolatry: the adoration of the host or the bread consecrated in the Eucharist. [Gr. artos, bread]
  • astrolatry: the worship of the heavenly bodies. [Gr. astron, star]
  • autolatry: self-worship. [Gr. autos, self]
  • basileiolatry: king-worship. [Gr. basileos, king]
  • bibliolatry: a. extravagant admiration of a book. b. excessive reverence for the mere letter of the Bible. [Gr. biblion, book]
  • demonolatry: demon-worship. [Gr. daimonos, demon]
  • ecclesiolatry: worship of the church; excessive reverence for church forms and traditions. [Gr. ekklesia, church]
  • episcopolatry: worship of bishops. [Gr. episkopos, bishop]
  • grammatolatry: the worship of letters; adherence to the letter of Scripture. [Gr. gramma, letter]
  • gynaecolatry: worship of women. [Gr. gyne, woman]
  • hagiolatry: the worship of saints. [Gr. hagios, holy]
  • hygeiolatry: worship of health; excessive devotion to hygiene. [Gr. hygeia, health]
  • iconolatry: the worship of images. [Gr. eikon, likeness or image]
  • idolatry: the worship of idols or images ‘made with hands’. [Gr. eidos, form or shape]
  • infantolatry: infant worship; babyolatry. [L. infans, child]
  • Mariolatry: excessive reverence for the Virgin Mary. [L. Maria, Mary]
  • necrolatry: worship of or excessive reverence for the dead. [Gr. nekros, dead body]
  • ophiolatry: the worship of serpents. [Gr, ophis, serpent]
  • pseudolatry: false worship; the worship of false gods. [Gr. pseudos, falsehood]
  • staurolatry: the worship of the Cross. [Gr. stauros, cross]
  • symbololatry: worship of or excessive veneration for symbols. [Gr. symbolon, symbol]
  • theolatry: the worship of a deity or deities. [Gr. theos, god]
  • zoolatry: the worship of animals. [Gr. zoon, animal]

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


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Saturday, January 02, 2010

One Foot in the Grave


Cynthia from Traverse City asked about the connection between a grave person and a burial grave. While both are serious subjects, they come from different sources.

Grave meaning weighty, serious, and important, comes from the Latin gravis, heavy, weighty, or significant. [Cliché: as grave as a judge]

Grave meaning the place of burial comes from a Scandinavian verb that meant to dig. Shakespeare, who couldn’t pass up a pun, has Hamlet combine the two senses as he stands over the body of freshly murdered Polonius: “Indeed this counsellor / Is now most still, most secret and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave.”

In the 16th century, grave was a variant spelling of grieve. With no connection to the others, grave was also the title of a foreign count, and shows up now in compounds such as landgrave or margrave.

As a verb, grave meant to excavate or to inter, and later was a poetic rendering of engrave. It also meant to clean a ship’s bottom by burning off accretions while it was beached.

SIDEBAR: Find a Grave

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