Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mufti


Pat from Elk Rapids asked about the phrase dressed in mufti. It refers to plain or civilian clothes worn by a person who normally wears a uniform, and it seems to have developed in two stages.

The original mufti was a Muslim cleric or scholar who was extremely well-versed in Islamic law. Having achieved that status, he was empowered to issue opinions on religious matters and could declare fatwas, rulings about beliefs. Mufti, in fact, could be translated as “to decide by legal opinion.”

In the 18th century, oriental themes and the Near East were all the rage with French writers, and the preoccupation influenced British writers, too. We would now consider a novel such as William Beckford’s The History of the Caliph Vathek to be bizarre beyond belief, but the reading public of that day loved it. Translations of The Thousand and One Nights probably precipitated the trend.

Such themes also appeared in plays, and a stereotype of muftis developed: turban, flowing garments, pointed shoes. The Oxford English Dictionary thinks that such an outfit bore at least a passing resemblance to an officer’s off-duty clothing: dressing gown, tasseled smoking cap, and slippers. Thus, dressed in mufti became a humorous reference to the stage character.

York Theatre Company (Lexington & 54th Street) has a Musicals in Mufti series, offering lesser-known or underexposed musicals in intimate concert reading. The shows are done in street clothes without costumes and with script in hand.

SIDEBAR: Musicals in Mufti


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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Drunkenness

You’ve probably heard the public service ad that says, “buzzed driving is drunk driving,” a worthy message. It reminded me that there are probably hundreds of slang terms for drunk. They include blotto, pickled, trashed, sloshed, hammered, and on and on.

But there are a few sophisticated terms, too. Most people are aware of the word inebriated, for instance. It is based on the Latin ebrius, drunk. So is the lesser known ebriety, the state of being intoxicated.

Then there’s methomania, from the Greek verb methein, to be drunk, and –mania, a compulsion. There is a tenuous connection to mead, a beverage made from fermented honey and water.

Another –mania word related to drunkenness is dipsomania. It is formed from the same –mania as above, combined with dipso-, from the Greek dypsia, thirst.

Finally, there’s crapulence, which has no connection to dung. It means intemperance in drinking. It tracks back ultimately to the Greek kraipale, a drunken headache or hangover.

Drink responsibly, people.

SIDEBAR: Hangover remedies


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


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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Retronym

Kevin asked about a term he encountered in a list of -nym words -- think synonym and antonym. A retronym is a renaming necessitated by radical changes to the original technology or to significant technological advances. It comes from retro-, going back, and –nym, a form for name. In this case, examples will be useful.

  • Acoustic guitar became necessary after the invention of the electric guitar.
  • In earlier times, all clocks had moving hands to signify hours and minutes. When the digital clock was invented, the original was renamed an analog clock.
  • When buttons appeared on telephones, earlier phones were designated as dial phones or rotary dial phones to distinguish them.
  • And when traditional mail began to be supplanted by email, it was cruelly dubbed snail mail.
  • At one point, computer disks were square and could be bent. When hard CD ROMs were ushered in, the originals were renamed floppies or floppy disks.
  • Manual typewriter was unnecessary until the introduction of the electric typewriter. Now that’s been supplanted by the word processor and Lord knows what else.
  • With the introduction of high definition TV, the older version was referred to as standard definition.
  • Gas and electric grills made it necessary to distinguish wood-burning grills or charcoal grills.
  • When sales became normal on the internet, the term brick-and-mortar stores appeared.
  • Sharing the same sort of relationship are cyberspace and meatspace.
  • When inventions to record music came along, we needed the term live music.
  • When scanners were invented, copies printed on paper became hard copies.

Sometimes using a retronym reveals something about the user. If your grandmother or great-grandmother refers to a refrigerator as an icebox, she’s dating herself. That's why sometimes I feel like a walking retronym.

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


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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Litter

Greg commented about the flexibility of the word litter. It has more than its share of meanings. It came from the Latin word lectus, which meant a bed. Next, it was used to indicate a substratum of materials (as in layers of rock).

Then it was a framework supporting a couch or bed to transport the sick or wounded. From there, it transferred to the materials used to make a bed—straw, rushes, etc. Eventually, it signified the straw scattered beneath animals to catch their dung.

Because of the connection to animals and their droppings, it was applied to the number of young brought forth at a single birth.

By the 18th century, it meant fragments and leavings sitting about—in other words, rubbish. It was then applied to the decomposing matter found on a forest floor above the soil. Finally, it was used to name the material found in a box to catch the waste matter of cats (kitty litter).

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


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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nostrum

Melanie found this while reading Charlotte Brontë: “Old ladies were always offering her their advice, recommending this or that nostrum.” She wrote to ask about nostrum.

Nostrum, in the sense above, refers to a medicine that is of dubious effectiveness. Its inventor usually makes extravagant claims and refuses to reveal the secret ingredients. In other words, it is quack medicine. (Quack is an abbreviation for quacksalver, an ointment made from kitchen scraps.)

Nostrum comes from a Latin adjective meaning our; it is a proprietary word. The sequence for the singular masculine/feminine/neuter forms is noster/nostra/nostrum. The full phrase would probably have been remedium nostrum (our remedy). A case of the Royal We.

In extended use, a nostrum is any questionable scheme promoted to bring about social or political reform.

Research for this article brought up one surprise. In spite of centuries’ old negative connotations, a pharmaceutical company located in New Brunswick, New Jersey, calls itself Nostrum Pharmaceuticals.


SIDEBAR: Nostrum – electronic music

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tomfoolery

Dawn from Traverse City wrote: “I told my son the other day that I didn't have time for his "tom foolery." He wanted to know what it was and where it came from. I told him I would have to ask the professor!”

Starting in the 16th century and then accelerating, Tom Fool was a stereotype for a half-witted person. He became a stock character in plays, much like the drunkard or the scolding wife. There is a tradition that the name and the role originated with Muncaster Castle’s court jester, Thomas Skelton. There is also a tradition that Skelton was the model for the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

King Lear, Act 3, scene iv, begins with this stage direction: “Enter KING LEAR, KENT, and Fool.” The Fool later runs in panic from the hut when he encounters Edgar disguised as a madman. Asked what he has seen, he replies, “A spirit, a spirit: he says his name's poor Tom.” The irony of the name transfer would not have been lost on an Elizabethan audience.

Tom Fool was also a standard figure in morris dancing. Morris dancing (possibly from the word Moorish) was performed in formation by a group of dancers in distinctive costume. They often carried staves or swords or long scarves which they waved about to emphasize the rhythm and movement. An integral part of the dance was a costumed character who represented a symbolic or legendary figure, such as the Fool, the Hobby Horse, a beast, Beelzebub, etc. The tradition continues to this day, particularly in Christmas plays.

Tomfoolery is also Cockney rhyming slang for jewellery (jewelry in American English).


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


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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Doozy

Chris asked about the word doozy. Doozy means something remarkable, excellent, and almost beyond belief.

In a car show that Chris was watching on TV, a commentator tied it to the Duesenberg automobile, a car manufactured from 1913 into the 1930s. Built entirely by hand, it was considered one of the finest cars ever crafted. But the time frame is a problem. There is evidence that the word was in play in the 1890s, so it could not originally have come from the Duesenberg family name.

Another theory connects doozy with Eleanora Duse, a famous 19th century actress who first appeared in New York in 1893. She and Sarah Barnhardt were the supreme actresses of their day, models of first-class performance. Her personal life can be called a doozy; she hooked up with a succession of many men and women.

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary associates it with the slang term daisy, which meant something appealing or excellent. It showed up in 1485 as a term of admiration, and by the mid-18th century, it meant a first-rate thing or person. There is a suggestion that it may have come from a Dutch word meaning to beat with force. In the metaphorical sense, it would thus be something striking.

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


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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Seasoning

Jim from Traverse City thinks that he heard a reference to a rifle being seasoned before being used, and he wants to know if that is proper usage.

The word seasoning (the culinary arts being left out for the moment) is used in a variety of fields to indicate a preparation or breaking-in process.

I went to Cabela’s web site to confirm the gun terminology: “The seasoning or breaking-in process is important because it will smooth any imperfections left in the bore from the manufacturing process, according to Cabela's gunsmith David Orten. If not dealt with properly, the imperfections can adversely affect your rifle's performance.”

“THE BREAKING-IN PROCESS. Clean the barrel after every shot for the first 10 shots and then after every second shot up to the 20th shot. Some hard-cores recommend cleaning the barrel after each of the first five shots and after every five shots for the next 50 shots.”

In another field, experienced carpenters know that it is good practice to use seasoned lumber, wood that has been dried to maturity. Otherwise, cracks and distortions will eventually show up in a structure built with green wood.

The tempering and hardening of metal is also called seasoning. And when it comes to metal cookware, your pots, woks, griddles and other items should be seasoned so that food doesn’t stick to them. Generally, heated animal fat or vegetable oil is used.

After leather has been tanned, a protective finish is often added. This is also called seasoning. I was delighted to find an eight-ounce bottle of bagpipe seasoning being sold on eBay. No, I don’t play the bagpipes; I just find the idea offbeat enough to be amusing.

One step in the process of curing tobacco leaves is time spent in the seasoning room. It is an important part of the aging process. Since tobacco absorbs the oils and aromas of material around it, all of the leaves kept in the seasoning room at the same time will end up with a uniform smell and taste.

Finally, the word is also applied to human beings who must go through the process of adjusting to an unfamiliar climate. Macaulay’s History of England contains this use: “This was merely the seasoning which people who passed from one country to another must expect.”

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


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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Drink Like a Fish

Paul from Boyne City asked about the idiom to drink like a fish. It means to consume large amounts of alcoholic beverages.

The image evoked is of a fish immersed in water constantly opening and closing its mouth, as if drinking. Fish need oxygen to live, too. When a fish opens and closes its mouth, it is actually pumping oxygenated water back through the gills. The gills contain thousands of tiny blood vessels, so as water passes over the gills, oxygen is absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Congreve’s Way of the World [1700] as an example: “Thou art both as drunk and as mute as a fish.”

WordReference.com contains variation of this saying in other languages.

  • Hungarian: to drink like a pelican or like a brush maker.
  • Portuguese: to drink like an opossum.
  • Dutch: to drink like a Knight Templar or like a leech.
  • Italian: to drink like a sponge.
  • Esperanto: to drink like a funnel.
  • Spanish: to drink like a Cossack.
  • Finnish: to drink like a sponge.
  • Austrian German: to drink like a cow.
  • Russian: to drink like a shoemaker.
  • Catalan: to drink like a chair maker or like a musician.
  • Greek: to drink like a sponge or like a horse.
  • Serbian: to drink like a snake

We also have drunk as a skunk, drunk as a lord, drunk as a badger, drunk as a monkey, drunk as a pig, drunk as a shrew, drunk as a fiddler, drunk as a tick, drunk as a bicycle [Urban Dictionary], drunk as a plum [Czech], and drunk as a sailor.

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


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