Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mass


Greg Burk wrote, “Had a friend up the other week, and we were discussing words with many varying meanings . . . and one that intrigued me was MASS:

1.) the scientific use of mass - physics, weight, bulk, etc.

2.) referring to a large number of people or things.

3.) celebration of a religious ceremony.

Seems to have a lot of diverse uses. Do you have any thoughts or wisdom related to this word’s origin and uses ?”

Here’s the core of the problem: there are 4 nouns spelled m-a-s-s. Two of them can be eliminated immediately: mass, from a Gaelic word for regard or respect, and mass, an extremely rare word (from the Dutch) meaning mask.

The remaining two are germane to your question.

(1) Mass as the name of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist probably came from the prayer of dismissal at the end of the Eucharist.

Celebrant: Ite, missa est. [Go, it is ended.]

Congregation: Deo gatias. [Thanks be to God.]

(2) Mass as a dense aggregation, something signifying bulk or a large quantity, came from the Latin massa, lump, bulk, parcel of land, or dough. The scientific and population meanings, along with many others, derive from this source.


SIDEBAR: an interesting site — 50 Best Blogs for Linguistics Students


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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ragamuffin


Greg brought up the word ragamuffin. Today, we take it as the name for a little boy who is shabby in appearance, usually in need of a shower, and spirited almost beyond endurance.

The raga- segment meant shaggy, and it was originally applied to a devil, traditionally shaggy or ragged in appearance. The –muffin element is disputed, although there is universal agreement that it does not refer to the pastry of the same spelling. Some commentators think that it came from fynn, meaning a fiend.

On page 73 of his Word Origins and How We Know Them, Anatoly Liberman cites E. W. Provost, the author of a dialectical dictionary. He notes that in the Cumberland dialect, Auld Muffy was a reference to the Devil. It is related to the French maufé (hideous and deformed), also used in the Middle Ages as a name for the Devil. That seems to be a definitive explanation.

The word ragamuffin achieved wide currency after appearing in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. In that work, Ragamoffyn was the name of a specific devil. So, starting as a deformed demon and ending as a snot-nosed little kid, the word has had quite a journey.

SIDEBAR: RagaMuffin


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ivory Tower


Margaret asked about the term ivory tower. It is often used of academics who seem to be out of touch with practical reality. The pursuit of hypotheticals isolates them from the pursuit of gritty survival in the real world. They are seen as aloof, even uncaring. The same term is sometimes applied to politicians. Instead of seeing what’s in front of their noses, they live in a dream world.

It’s easy to see why a tower can be used as a symbol of isolation. A tower thrusts up and leaves the earth behind, as it were. When attached to a castle-like structure, a tower is cut off from the rest of the building. In fact, it was sometimes the place where cells were constructed to hold prisoners: think of the Tower of London. There’s nothing more isolated than a dimly-lit cell hidden away in a remote tower.

Ivory poses a bit of a problem: why ivory instead of granite or limestone tower, for instance? Compared to those materials, ivory may be seen as delicate. It has been used for centuries in carvings and decorations, not as a study primary building material. Perhaps that aura of frangibility and delicacy is the point.

We can pinpoint the first known use of ivory tower as a symbol of aloofness and removal. It occurs in the poem Thoughts of August by Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve. In it, he contrasts Victor Hugo, seen as down-to-earth and in the middle of the fray, with Alfred de Vigny, characterized as sheltered and removed from reality. The relevant line is, “. . . and Vigny, more discreet, As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon."

The image appeared in English in C. Brereton’s and F. Rothwell’s 1911 translation of Henri Bergson’s essay, Laughter: An essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Then, in 1916, Henry James began to write a novel that he never finished, Ivory Tower, examining the aloof and uncaring millionaires of the Gilded Age.

What I find puzzling is that the metaphorical use of ivory tower started life as a compliment. I don’t know why it reverted to an insult. We find a reference to ivory in the erotic poem, Song of Solomon, Chapter 7:

  • 1: How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. 

  • 2: Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
  • 
3: Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins. 

  • 4: Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

It is also used as a compliment in reference to Mary, the Blessed Mother, in a Marian litany, a portion of which reads:

  • Mystical Rose
  • Tower of David
  • Tower of Ivory
  • House of Gold
  • Ark of the Covenant
  • Gate of Heaven


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, September 18, 2010

The Role of Thunder Rolls


Roger asked why we speak of a thunder roll. He associates roll with breakfast pastry or with something wound around a spool, such as a roll of tape.

There are two nouns spelled r-o-l-l, and they have different meanings. Roll1 came from a French term meaning a scroll of parchment. It was a descendant of the Latin rota, a wheel. Under its aegis comes roll call, a roll of toilet paper, a roll of film, a jelly roll, a roll of body fat, a French roll, an honor role, and so forth.

Roll2 came from a French word meaning to rotate repeatedly. It, too, is connected to the Latin rota, wheel, but it developed different meanings. This roll is used in thunder roll, drum roll, a roll of the eye, a roll in the sack, a roll of the dice, on a roll, a roll bar, etc.

But I digress: back to a thunder roll. Thunder evokes the sound of a rolling wheel, which has a reverberating and rumbling quality.


SIDEBAR: The Varying Sounds of Thunder


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pneuma


During the last show, the subject of silent initial letters came up. Examples included mnemonic and psychiatry. Then Richard from Traverse City called and asked about the word pneumatic.

Pneumatic comes from a Greek word, πνεuμα (pneuma), that means wind or breath. In ancient Greek, it signified one’s spirit, the life force, breathed into us by the gods.

It evolved into “relating to or operated by means of wind or air; especially containing or operated by air or gas under pressure.” The move to machinery operated by compressed air, such as a pneumatic drill, was a small step.

Other words containing the same root include

  • pneumathemia, the presence of air in the blood; air embolism.
  • pneumatico-hedonistics, the branch of study that deals with spiritual or mental pleasures (as distinguished from those of the body).
  • pneumatics, the branch of physics that deals with the mechanical properties (such as density, elasticity, and pressure) of air and other gases.
  • pneumatism, a belief in the soul, spirit, or life force.
  • pneumatize, to provide with air-filled cavities.
  • pneunatogram, a record of respiratory movements or air flow.
  • pneumatomachy, opposition to the Holy Spirit.
  • pneumatophobia, dread or abhorrence of the spiritual.
  • pneumaturia, the passage of air or gas in the urine.

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


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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Stationery/Stationary


Byron from Charlevoix asked about stationary and stationery—specifically, whether there was any connection between them.

Stationery has become the preferred spelling when speaking of writing materials. That includes paper, envelopes, leather business card cases, appointment books, scissors, and desk accessories of all kinds. The OED connects it with stationer, originally the name of a bookseller.

Stationary means fixed in place, not moving. It comes from a Latin word that meant standing, especially in a military posture.

There does seem to be a connection between the two words. The OED says that the original form may have been stationary ware, where stationary functioned as an adjective. Eventually, it became a stand-alone noun, and the -a- may have become an -e- because of the word stationer.


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


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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Toast


In discussing a vaguely related concept, the idea of proposing a toast during a celebration came up on yesterday’s program. Why toast, of all things? As it turns out, since the 15th century at the very latest, it was customary to place a piece of toast in wine, ale, or even water to enhance the taste. I can’t imagine dropping a crouton in my Manhattan, but tastes change over the centuries.

A cookbook from 1430 recommended sprinkling saffron, ground pepper, sugar, and salt on oiled bread before toasting it over the fire. Nutmeg was also often an ingredient.

By 1700, literal toast had been transformed into a rather belabored metaphor. The belle of the ball or banquet, a young lady, was considered a savory who improved the taste of the celebratory beverage at hand. She was the toast. In Way of the World, Congreve has this line: “More censorious than a decayed Beauty, or a discarded Toast.”

This is not to be confused with toast meaning someone dead, finished, or in serious trouble. This use appeared in the film Ghostbusters when Bill Murray exclaimed, “This chick is toast!”

SIDEBAR: Toasts for All Occasions


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


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Saturday, September 04, 2010

The End


I was asked about the word eschatological this morning. It’s the adjective form of eschatology, the branch of theology that deals with the four last things, as they’re called: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

The word is based on two Greek terms – εσκατοσ (last) and λογια (study of). In popular terms, it refers to the end time or the end of days.

Based on the common use of the same root, there are some related words.

  • eschatocol: the concluding section of a charter
  • eschatologist: one who studies or treats of eschatology
  • eschaton: the divinely ordained climax of history

SIDEBAR: The timeline


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


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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Casino


Many senior centers sponsor bus rides to casinos. I’m not sure that it’s the best way for Granny to spend her pension check, but the word itself caught my eye.

Ultimately it tracks back to the Latin word for a house or cottage, casa, with the -ino acting as a diminutive. The original casino was an Italian summer cottage. The word also designated a public room used for social purposes, such as dancing. Today, it refers to a building dedicated to aleatory pursuits — gambling.

The root casa also led to the names of two liturgical garments. The cassock originally referred to a long coat worn by horsemen. The chasuble started out as a large round sleeveless cloak with a hood. In both cases, the garments covered the wearer like a little house.

SIDEBAR: liturgical vestments


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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