Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lams


Holly mentioned that she had seen the word “lams” somewhere, and asked about its legitimacy. Today, the singular form shows up most often in the phrase “on the lam,” although it showed up once in the Record-Eagle as, “work release prisoner caught on the lamb.” I’ll bet that he felt sheepish.

On the lam means on the run, in flight, and the phrase showed up in print in the April 1897 issue of Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly: “To do a lam, meaning to run.” Earlier, the word lamming appeared in 1611 as a verbal meaning to beat or to thrash. It’s connected to the verb lambaste. I’m not sure how the meaning shifted from beat to run – maybe the beating feet of a fleeing person? More than likely, there’s no provable connection between the two.

Back to the plural form. There is more than one word with the spelling lam. First of all, it meant a type of fishing net, so there could be more than one. Lams were also pieces of wood in a loom. In both those cases, there could be a plural spelling.


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


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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pavilion


Originally, a pavilion was a Roman military tent. It was given a name that meant a butterfly in Latin because it was thought to resemble the shape of a butterfly, especially when the flaps were pinned open.

An early account confirms this: “[The tents known as] pavilions (papilio, lit. butterfly or moth) are so called from their resemblance to the little flying animals that teem especially when the mallows are flowering. These are the little winged creatures that gather to a kindled light and, flitting around it, are forced to die from being too close to the fire.” [St. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies, translated by Stephen A. Barney]

Shape was a factor in naming the butterfly clamp used to secure sheets of paper. It also explains the butterfly knife and the butterfly stroke in swimming.


SIDEBAR: Butterfly yo-yo trick


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


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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stroke


I’m at the age where a number of friends, relatives, and acquaintances have had strokes. I was talking to a cousin the other day whose wife had suffered a stroke, and he surprised me by asking where the word came from. I'd have thought that he had other things to worry about.

It came from Old Teutonic, and it is tightly related to strike, to stun with a blow. By 1599, it was being used metaphorically to describe an attack that renders one at least partially paralytic. The current term is cerebrovascular accident (CVA).

What I find striking is the number of situations that have adapted it as a useful word:

  • the stroke of midnight
  • a stroke of luck
  • a stroke of genius
  • doesn’t do a stroke of work
  • to come to strokes
  • the strokes of a pickaxe
  • heat stroke
  • a golf or tennis stroke
  • died without landing a stroke
  • with a stroke of a pen
  • a stroke of lightning
  • a few strokes of the oar
  • the breast stroke in swimming
  • piston stroke
  • stroke someone the wrong way
  • didn’t miss a stroke
  • the finishing stroke
  • p/q = p stroke q
  • a gentle stroke of the hand
  • different strokes for different folks
  • put me off my stroke
  • with a single stroke

SIDEBAR: Stroke symptoms


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


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There is a collection of podcasts. Go to wtcmradio.com and click on Podcasts. Scroll down The Ron Jolly Show to find the Words to the Wise audio button.


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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Paternoster


Pat Haber asked about a device called a paternoster. It is an elevator, but one that operates in a continuous motion rather than in the familiar start-and-stop motion. You’ll find an illustration in the SIDEBAR below this post.

The first two words of the Our Father in Latin are Pater Noster. The prayer/meditation called the Rosary uses beads to count off the prescribed number of prayers. There are five decades in each recitation of the Rosary. Each decade begins with an Our Father (Pater Noster) and is followed by ten Hail Mary’s (Ave Maria).

If you watch the fingers of a person using a rosary, you’ll notice the beads slipping smoothly and regularly through his or her fingers. Traditionally, the Pater Noster bead is larger than the other beads to signify a new decade coming up, or it is distinguished in some other way so as to be a tactile signal.

Since the paternoster elevator consists of a chain of small compartments that move slowly in a loop, someone evidently thought that the progression resembles rosary beads slipping through the fingers, each Our Father (Pater Noster) signaling a new compartment.

It seems to me that it would take a good degree of agility and coordination to step on and off at will rather than push a destination button. Perhaps that’s why paternosters are not as popular as conventional elevators.

Historically, paternoster also once referred to a measure of flax, a weighted fishing line with hooks placed at regular intervals, and a row of bead-like architectural ornaments.

[For a related article, enter “paternoster” in the search box at the top of this page.]

SIDEBAR: A paternoster in motion at the University of Leicester


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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Infinitely Infinitesimal


Colleen from WTCM asked why infinity and infinitesimal are polar opposites. Infinity means without end, something immeasurably huge, while infinitesimal means an incredibly small amount.

The –esimal ending of the word came to signify a fraction. Thus, something infinitesimal is divided by infinity, which is why it is almost unquantifiable. In a looser, more colloquial sense, it means something very small or insignificant.

On a lesser scale, millesimal refers to a thousandth part, centesimal signifies a hundredth part, nonagesimal means a ninetieth part, sexagesimal a sixtieth part, quinquagesimal a fiftieth part, trigesimal a thirtieth part, and vicesimal a twentieth part.

Historically, quadragesimal and quaresimal came to signify the forty days of Lent, while quinquagesimal gravitated to the fifty day interval between Easter and Pentecost.

SIDEBAR: Journey to the edge of the universe


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


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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flee the Flea!


Fleas are insects of the genus Psylla or the family Psyllidae. Those words come from the Greek πσυλλα, meaning flea.

The color puce, described as dark purple brown or brownish purple [French couleur puce], was so named because that is the standard color of a flea. This was joined by puceron, a plant louse or aphid.

Many of the words in English that refer to fleas came from the Latin pulex/pulic-.

  • pulicarious: of the nature of or resembling a flea.
  • pulicary: resembling a flea.
  • pulicine: of or relating to a flea or fleas.
  • pulicious: ιnfested with fleas; (of a disease) caused or transmitted by the bites of fleas.
  • pulicose: ιnfested with fleas; caused by or resembling the bite of a flea; of the nature of a flea.

One of the strangest hidden fleas is found in ukulele, the musical instrument. It comes from the Hawaiian uku, flea + lele, jumping. Testimony is found in a 1957 edition of American Speech, XXXII. 309:

“The machete* was heard one day by the vice-chamberlain of King Kalakaua's court, who asked to be taught to play it. This vice-chamberlain was a British army officer named Edward Purvis; but the Hawaiians called him ukulele because his lively playing and antics and his small build suggested a leaping flea. The new instrument became a great success, and someone started calling them ukeleles.”

[*machete: A small chiefly four-stringed form of guitar played in Portugal, Madeira, etc., which is the forerunner of the ukulele.]

SIDEBAR: Ukulele Remix of Smells Like Teen Spirit


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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Biddy


Mike from Glen Arbor recalls that he and his peers used to refer to little old ladies as biddies, and now he wonders where that came from.

Biddy seems to have had two sources. First of all, it was used to refer to a chicken. The Oxford English Dictionary has reservations, but perhaps it came from the Gaelic bîdeach, meaning “very small.” Eventually, it was used as a slang term for an old woman, especially one seen as intrusively inquisitive or gossipy.

Francis Grose, in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, implies that biddy came from chick-a-biddy, the cry of a young child to attract a chicken. Figuratively, says Grose, it was then applied to “a young wench.”

The second and more recent source was the name Bridget, a stereotypical Irish name, like Pat or Mike for males. In the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, young Irish women streamed into this country as domestic servants, their ocean voyage paid by their employers, then worked off over a period of years.

Bridget was shortened to Biddy, as this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes shows: “Poor Bridget, or Biddy, our red-armed maid of all work!” [The Autocrat of the Breakfast-table, 1858]

An interesting offshoot was psycho-biddy, a term used by movie critics in the 1960s and 1970s to describe a horror or thriller movie in which an older woman was the villain or the victim. Two examples are What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

SIDEBAR: Grindhouseland


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


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There is a collection of podcasts. Go to wtcmradio.com and click on Podcasts. Scroll down The Ron Jolly Show to find the Words to the Wise audio button.


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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter Basket Challenge


A friend challenged me to name 10 items that I would least like to find in my Easter basket. It’s a strange exercise, but the juxtaposition of mismatching elements has a quirky fascination to it if you squint hard enough.

Here is my list.

  • solar forks
  • aluminum napkins
  • propane-powered hairbrush
  • liver-flavored lollipops
  • chewless gum
  • glass toothpicks
  • balsa wood razor blades
  • Petoskey stone Frisbees
  • triangular bicycle tires
  • barbed wire socks


If you try this with your friends, feel free to share the results.

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


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
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or at Amazon.com


Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now.

There is a collection of podcasts. Go to wtcmradio.com and click on Podcasts. Scroll down The Ron Jolly Show to find the Words to the Wise audio button.

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