Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bobblehead


Yesterday, I glanced at the car idling next to me while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. My eye was caught by a bobblehead doll of Sarah Palin installed on the dashboard. What struck me upon reflection was not the political statement, but the origin of the word.

A bobblehead doll is designed to nod its oversized head on a spring when it is agitated by motion. The verb to bobble has two current meanings: (1) to move with continual bobbing, and (2) to mishandle or fumble the ball in sports. The former applies here.

The core is the verb to bob, in use since the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary says that it is apparently onomatopoeic, expressing short jerking or rebounding motion. The OED goes on to define to bob as, “to move up and down like a buoyant body in water, or an elastic body on land; hence, to dance; to move to and fro with a similar motion, esp. said of hanging things rebounding from objects lightly struck by them.”

The fishing bobber is a cousin; bobsled is not. The bobsled came from the bob meaning to cut short, as in a bobtail horse. The original bobsled was used to haul logs, and it consisted of two short sleds linked together to move in unison. A long sled fully loaded would have snapped in the middle when bouncing over bumpy terrain; two short sleds would bob merrily along.


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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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nincompoop


On last Tuesday’s show, Sue from Elk Rapids asked about the word nincompoop. It’s always irritating when research runs up against a brick wall, but it no longer surprises me or frustrates me as much as it once did. Aging and mellowing, I suppose. The meaning is secure: an idiot or a fool. The etymology is not.

“Origin unknown” is the standard label, but there have been some guesses. For instance, the last element (-poop) referred to the buttocks or rump in the very early 17th century. That, in turn, eventually was applied to excrement. The English word seems to have come from a Dutch word (poep) that meant ordure. The Dutch used it as a slang term to refer to migrant workers from northern Germany. “Foreign crap” eventually softened to “foreign fool.”

The first element (nincom-) is harder to pin down. Samuel Johnson ascribed it to the Latin phrase, non compos mentis, unsound of mind, but the Oxford English Dictionary rejects that on the basis of earlier spellings such as nicompoop. The OED suggests that there may be a link to the word ninny or to a specific French word, nicodème, slang for a simpleton or naïve person.

The word comes from the proper name Nicodemus, mentioned in the Gospel of John as a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Curious but cautious, he visited Jesus under cover of darkness to ask a few questions about his teaching. During the exchange, he comes across as a man who takes words far too literally – therefore, a bit of a fool. [ See the passage here.]


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, October 23, 2010

Mosey Along, Wench, But Look Out For That Masher


These three words (mosey, wench, and masher) came up on Tuesday’s program. Mosey is one of those words that has reversed meaning over the years. Originally, it meant to leave quickly, to make haste. Now it means to amble, to wander around in a leisurely manner. No one is quite sure where it came from, but one suggestion is that it originated in the second syllable of the Spanish vamos, let’s go.

Wench shares the reversal feature of mosey. Originally, it had an innocent meaning: a girl, maid, or young woman. Then it transferred to a woman of the working class, a servant girl. Finally, it took on negative connotations: a woman of loose morals, a mistress, found most often in a bar or brothel.

Masher also did a turnaround. It started out meaning a dandy, a fashionable young man of the late Victorian or Edwardian era. When the word crossed the Atlantic and came to America, it signified a womanizer, a man who makes unwelcome sexual advances to women. Take that, you cad!


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


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
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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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Left in the Lurch


Stan asked about the phrase, left in the lurch. In particular, he wondered how it was connected to a ship lurching in a storm.

A drunk can lurch down the street and a ship can lurch in rolling waves, but there is no connection to left in the lurch. That comes from an entirely different lurch. That lurch means left in a difficult or vulnerable position.

It probably came from a game akin to cribbage, a game called lorche. To have your marker stranded less than halfway home when your opponent’s marker had crossed the finish line was to suffer a humiliating defeat.

In turn, that probably came from a Germanic word (lurz) that meant left-handed, a term used to convey deception, clumsiness, and uselessness. I discussed the longstanding prejudice against left-handedness at length in my article, My Right Hand Man Has Two Left Feet.

The phrase appears in Thomas Nashe’s Have With You to Saffron Walden in an incredibly long sentence: “But being restored to the open air, the case with him was little altered, for no roof had he to hide his noddle in or whither he might go to set up his rest, but in the streets under a bulk he should have been constrained to have kenneled & chalked out his cabin if the same minister had not the second time stood his friend, and preferred him to a chamber at one Rolfe’s, a sergeant’s in Wood Street, whom (as I take it) he also procured to be equally bound with him for his new cousin’s appearance to the law, which he never did, but left both of them in the lurch for him, and running in debt with Rolfe beside for house-room and diet, one day when he was from home, he closely conveyed away his trunk forth of doors, and showed him a fair pair of heels.”

In his book about collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton incorporated the staggering and bucking meaning of lurch to produce the pun “a lurch of buses.”

SIDEBAR: Ships Slammed by Storms & Waves


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, October 16, 2010

Clastic


During the recent rescue of the miners in Chile, Denise heard a TV commentator discussing various types of rock and the drilling procedures required to punch through them. The word clastic caught Denise’s attention, and she asked for some information.

Clastic rocks are fragments of pre-existing rocks. They may range in size from a grain to a boulder. The parent rock may be broken apart over time by erosion or weathering or crushing. The word comes from the Greek κλαστοσ (klastos), meaning broken. To serve as a specific example, pyroclastic rock is rock fragmented by volcanic action.

The word clastic also applies to anything that may be taken apart, like an anatomical model. For example, the model of an eye might be found in an optometrist’s examination room or a model of the brain may be found in a physician’s office. If it breaks into parts for instructional purposes, it is clastic.

The word part –clast is often used in the sense of destruction. A biblioclast destroys books, especially the Bible. Dendroclastic refers to the breaking or destruction of trees. An iconoclast destroys sacred images; the word idoloclast is also used. A mythoclast debunks myths.

When she broke my heart, she became a cardioclast.


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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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fluke


Ron Jolly of WTCM wondered why we didn’t hear of any Lake Michigan whale sightings in July. As he put it, “Question is, why the delay? Global warming? Tea partiers? Nestle's Ice Mountain bottling plant?”

I responded, “Perhaps it was just a fluke. [Pause for groans.]

Fluke comes from an Old Norse word meaning flat. It was used to name a flat fish, probably the flounder. It was also a parasitic worm, so called because it resembled a flounder. In addition, it was also the name of a variety of kidney potato.

A second fluke was defined by Admiral Smyth as one of “the broad triangular plates of iron on each arm of the anchor, inside the bills or extreme points, which, having entered the ground, hold the ship.” It was also the barbed head of a lance or arrow. From there, by analogy, it came to mean the two parts that constitute the large triangular tail of the whale.

A third fluke was a billiard term, a successful stroke made by accident or chance. Hence, fluke meaning a lucky stroke, an unexpected success, or a piece of good luck.


SIDEBAR: Lake Michigan whales


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.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Pep Rally


A local high school held a pep rally before a football game this weekend, inspiring a neighbor (and a student at that school) to ask, “where did that come from?”

Rally started as a British military term, a rapid reassembling of troops for a renewed attack. By the time the Americans borrowed the term in the 19th century, they had given it a more pacific meaning: a mass meeting to inspire enthusiasm, especially a political event. In our day, it is usually in reference to a sporting event.

Pep as a freestanding word is now considered a bit quaint, a synonym for vim, vigor, animation, enthusiasm, vivacity, ebullience, zeal, energy, and other words in that neighborhood.

It is probably a shortened version of pepper, the hot pungent spice. The analogy is that a stimulating spicy addition to food serves the same purpose as stimulating fans to hunger for a victory.

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


Check out Mike's program-based books here:
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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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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Minutes


Mike from Cadillac asked about the origin of minutes, the notes taken during a meeting. I had no instant answer, but I did say that there were two possibilities: the minute referring to time (min-it), and the minute meaning tiny (my-newt). That turns out to be a distinction without a difference.

The minute referring to time had its origins in Babylonian mathematics and astronomy, which used sexagesimal fractions – based on the number 60. Later, the Greeks and Romans adapted the system. So we call 1/60th of an hour a minute.

The minute meaning small is actually the same word with a different pronunciation. Originally, it was said of food chopped into fine particles or of something insignificant or trivial.

By the 15th century, the word in plural form was being used to describe a brief summary of a meeting.

SIDEBAR: How to take minutes


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, October 02, 2010

Young Turks


The phrase “young turks” came up on the last program.

The Young Turks referred to a reform movement in the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. As such, they butted heads with monarch Ottoman Sultan, whose power they sought to limit by establishing constitutional rule.

They issued a formal proclamation in 1908. Among other things, it called for universal suffrage, the right to form political parties, a disregard for religious affiliation and nationality when considering advancement, free education, and increased attention to the infrastructure of the country.

Eventually, the term was expanded to any individuals within a society or political party eager for progressive change.

SIDEBAR: Rod Stewart, Young Turks


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


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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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