Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ankle Deep in Rankle


We use the word rankle as a synonym for irritating, but it was once a more powerful word. It referred to a festering sore, a putrefying, rotting, wounded or diseased part of the body that exuded pus and other disgusting fluids. It evolved into the milder figurative sense of embittered, riled, or persistently annoyed. Its progenitor was an Old French word meaning an abscess.

Shakespeare used it in the industrial-strength original sense.

  • Richard II: “Fell sorrow's tooth doth never rankle more
    Than when he bites, but lanceth not the sore.”
  • Richard III: “O Buckingham, take heed of yonder dog! 
Look, when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites, 
His venom tooth will rankle to the death: 
Have not to do with him, beware of him.”

There are no direct connections to rankle, but it’s an interesting exercise to trace other words ending in –ankle.

  • Ankle came from a Latin word meaning a bend or a crook.
  • Crankle—to bend or to twist—came from an Old English word meaning to draw oneself together in a bent form.
  • Fankle—to tangle with a rope—came from a nautical word for a rope. Unfankle meant to set free.
  • Hankle—to fasten lightly or to twist—came from a Norse word meaning to coil.
  • Prankle—to caper—is indebted to a Germanic word meaning to prance or to show off.
  • Sprankle—a spark—came from a Frisian word meaning to sparkle.
  • Wankle—precarious or unsettled—came from an Old Germanic word meaning to totter or to waver.

SIDEBAR: Rankle, the band


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


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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stalactites and Stalagmites


I was asked about the discrepancy in spelling between stalagmite and stalactite – specifically, why there is a g in one and a c in the other. It’s a matter of form. Stalactite comes from an adjective form (σταλακτοσ / stalaktos) that means oozing out in drops, or trickling. Stalagmite comes from a noun (σταλαγμα / stalagma) that means a drop or something which drops.

A stalactite hangs from the ceiling of a cave; a stalagmite builds up from the floor. In both cases, limestone-saturated water is at work, often dripping for centuries.

The spelling discrepancies have led to a mnemonic: the C in stalactite stands for ceiling; the G in stalagmite stands for ground.

Another term that uses the same word part is stalagmometer, an apparatus for measuring drops. It measures surface tension by determining the exact number of drops in a given quantity of a liquid.

A now rare word is stalagma, a distilled liquor. Distill comes from a Latin verb that means to drip or trickle down. The moonshiner’s still is in the same family.

Stalag, the name given to prison camps in Nazi Germany, is not connected. Instead, it is an abbreviation of stammlager, main camp.

SIDEBAR: Stalag 17


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


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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

2-4-6-8, Let's All Matriculate!


Alvina asked a seasonal question: what does matriculate mean? Originally, to matriculate meant to have your name inscribed in the register of a college or university; thereby, you were enrolled. An interesting example came from the Constantia Munda of 1617: “[They] quickly matriculated you in the schoole of vice.”

In some countries, it came to mean to pass a comprehensive exam at the end of a certain grade, allowing the student to move to the next level. At the core of the term is the Latin word for mother, though the original was probably a Greek word that meant a register or list. That word was close to a word that meant mother, so the two were blended by accident.

Metaphorically, a school was often compared to a mother who would train and form her children. The phrase Alma Mater (nourishing or bounteous mother) has become a cliché in referring to a school. The term tracks back to an honorific applied to several Roman goddesses.

A very strange use of the term matriculate occurred during Super Bowl VI. Hank Stram, coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, told his team, “Yeah, let's just keep matriculatin' the ball down the field, boys!" He seems to have meant consistently and steadily moving the ball toward the goalpost.

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


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Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Stenographer is a Covert Steganographer


In my last blog, I mentioned the term stenographer, referring in context to a legal stenographer, someone who records court proceedings in shorthand. Jim wrote to me with one of his favorite words, steganographer, which is not the same thing, but which is a cousin.

Stenographer has two components. First, there is steno-, from the Greek στενοσ, meaning narrow. Besides narrow, it also has the force of contracted or limited in range, and often refers to a medical condition that involves deficiency. The second component is –grapher, from the Greek γραφειν, to write.

A steganographer is a cryptographer. The stegano- element (Greek στεγανοσ) means covered or secret. So while both professions involve writing, the stenographer’s duty is to record a precise and decipherable record of the testimony given, while the steganographer must labor to hide meaning from outside eyes at all costs.

I remember reading ads on Chicago streetcars directing readers to a mail-order stenography school. Memory tells me that their principal device was to remove vowels: “If U kn rd ths, U r rdy to nrll.” When people insist that IM shortcuts are ruining English, this memory prevents me from agreeing. Sixty years later, elegance and expediency still co-exist in our language.

SIDEBAR: Hiding Data Within Data


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


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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Before the Bar


Bar is a noun with many meanings, but many of them have something to do with barriers and dividers.

In courts of law, the bar is literally a railing or a low wall with an access gate. It serves as a divider. On one side, we find all of the immediate participants: the judge, the bailiff, the stenographer, the jury, the lawyers for defense and prosecution, the defendants, and often, the testifying witnesses. On the other side sit the spectators, reporters, etc.

So if you practice before the bar, you are on the active side of the railing. The Bar is also the name given to a lawyers’ professional association and to the profession itself.

The bar that you walk into to buy a brew has a connection. The bar there is the counter that divides the patrons from the bartender and his resources.

SIDEBAR: American Bar Association – public resources


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


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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Happy Easter, Judas


The term judas gate came up on a recent program. The caller said that she has encountered it in many British novels. A judas gate is a small door inset into a larger door. British author Jack Higgins wrote a novel with the title The Judas Gate. His unofficial web site contains the following comment:

"Judas gates constantly surface in my book and people have often commented. There is a painting, I think Victorian, which shows a very large double gate. Inset in this gate, is a small door or gate which you can open and step through without the inconvenience of opening the larger double gates. In the painting, Judas is seen stepping through on his way to betray Christ. So, in English factories, you find such a small door set in most big factory gates and they were traditionally known in Yorkshire, a very industrial area where I grew up, as judas gates.”

There is also a device called a judas hole or a judas trap. It is a small lattice or aperture in a door (found in some old houses, mental institutions, or prison cells), through which a person can look without being noticed from the other side. It is also known as a peep-hole.

Then there’s the judas goat. A Judas goat is a trained goat used at a slaughterhouse and in animal herding. The Judas goat is trained to mingle with sheep or cattle, leading them to a specific destination. In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead sheep to slaughter; its own life is spared. Judas goats are also used to lead other animals to specific pens and on to trucks and cattle cars.

Judas-colored refers to red hair or a red beard. This is because medieval legends contended that Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ, had red hair. And a judas-kiss takes its name from Gospel accounts that say that Judas identified Jesus to the lurking soldiers by means of a kiss.


SIDEBAR: Family Secrets Trial by Steve Warmbir, Chicago Sun-Times, August 21, 2007
It was Christmas Eve 1996, and reputed Outfit hit man Frank Calabrese Sr. was seeing his brother Nicholas out the door after breaking out the Napoleon brandy, when his brother made an unusual request.
"He walks to the door and says, 'Can I kiss you on the lips?' " Calabrese Sr. recounted to jurors in the Family Secrets trial Monday.
"He kissed me on the lips," Calabrese Sr. said.
Only later, Calabrese Sr. testified, would he realize "the kiss he gave for Christmas was a Judas kiss."

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


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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Bearcat


Ann from Mancelona asked about the creature called a bearcat. It turns out that the proper name is the binturong, a civet found in South Asia. It’s neither a bear nor a cat nor a combination of the two, so the name bearcat is a bit of a mystery. It looks like a shaggy mongoose. Some commentators point out that the creature has a face like a cat and a body like a bear. Binturong was originally a Malay name.

Binturongs are nocturnal, and they are primarily fruit eaters (fructivorous), although their diet may include carrion, bird eggs, and plants, making them omnivores, especially in captivity. One of their oddest features, according to the San Diego Zoo, is that they smell like buttered popcorn. Better check under your seat the next time you’re in a movie theater.

Bearcat has been used in many situations.

  • It was the name of a TV program in the early 1970s.
  • It was the name of a Grumman-built fighter plane used by the U.S. Navy in WWII.
  • It was the battalian name and mascot of a unit in the Minnesota National Guard.
  • The Stutz Bearcat was a car manufactured by the Stutz Motor Company
  • BearCat is a trade name used by the Uniden Corporation in their line of scanners.
  • ECHO Bearcat products include wood chippers, stump grinders, and log splitters.
  • The Bearcat Corporation in Goshen, Indiana, fabricates aluminum marine products.
  • Arctic Cat has a snowmobile called the Bearcat.
  • An armored car used by some S.W.A.T. teams is called the Bearcat.
  • Ruger manufactures a single-action revolver called the New Bearcat.
  • Bearcats is the team name for about a dozen colleges, including the University of Cincinnati and Northwest Missouri State University. It is also the team name for countless high schools.

SIDEBAR: Animal Planet’s Mascot Madness


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


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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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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Cache/Cachet


In my last blog, I mentioned that an Australian entertainer who goes by the name of Yahoo Serious is seriously charging the internet company Yahoo! with plagiarism.

Something caught my attention in the following paragraph:

“By the time the internet company started calling itself Yahoo, the real Yahoo was associated with wild ideas which were done in a popular, unconventional and life-affirming way. The image Yahoo had given the word carried a cache with prospective young customers. Yahoo's name was clearly not a negative asset to use.”

The bump in the road was the word cache. It can mean a hiding place for goods or treasure, a hole or mound used by explorers to conceal provisions or ammunition, the hidden store itself, or computer buffer storage.

Mr. Serious seems to have meant prestige or influence based on admiration and respect. The correct word to express that is cachet. In the 17th century, cachet meant a letter bearing the private seal of the French king and containing an order, often of exile or imprisonment.

Cache is pronounced kash, while cachet is pronounced ka-shay´. It reminds me of the often-ignored difference between forte and forté.

SIDEBAR: geocaching

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


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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Yahoo


Ted asked about the origin of yahoo, today meaning a lout or a rube, an unsophisticated person contemptuous of the arts and the nuances of culture.

The name Yahoo first appeared in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Swift used it as the name of an imaginary race of brutes having the form of despicable human beings. They are portrayed as sadistic, cowardly, and treacherous: "..the YAHOOS appear to be the most unteachable of all Animals, their Capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry Burthens. Yet [!] I am of Opinion, this Defect ariseth chiefly from a perverse, restive Disposition. For they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but [!] of a cowardly Spirit, and by Consequence insolent, abject and cruel."

When Gulliver returns home from his travels, he sees all humans – including his friends and family – as Yahoos. This is part of his satirical intent in writing the work.

Given the negative connotations, it’s surprising that the search engine Yahoo! chose that name. There are a few theories.

Yahoo! Media Relations says that the company name was an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle." But the two founders of Yahoo!, David Filo and Jerry Yang, claim that they liked the general definition of a yahoo: "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth." It’s difficult to separate company flak from authenticity.

From another angle, yahoo! is an enthusiastic interjection, in a class with yippee, hee-haw, and whoopee. Finding precisely what you are looking for can be exhilarating.

Finally, an Australian entertainer (re)named Yahoo Serious implies that the company stole his name.


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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