Saturday, November 27, 2010

Laughing Stock


Ralph asked about the origin of “laughing stock,” an object of laughter, particularly when offered in ridicule or contempt.

The original meaning of stock [862] was a tree stump or a block of wood. By the early 14th century, it had come to mean a senseless or stupid person, probably by analogy to a chunk of wood that was lifeless, motionless, and devoid of sensation. Laughing stock shows up as a set phrase in 1533. Ludicrous blockhead would be equivalent.


What I found most interesting when I was checking the online Oxford English Dictionary was the sheer number of meanings filed under the headword stock. There must be over 70 of them, and they cover an incredible range of meanings over the centuries. I’ll share just a few.

  • an idol or sacred image
  • the source of a family line or descent
  • an obsolete instrument of punishment
  • a gun carriage
  • a fireplace ledge
  • a frame supporting a spinning-wheel
  • a perch for a bird
  • an alms box
  • a basin used for holy water
  • the block of wood from which a bell is hung
  • the handle of a pistol
  • a mouse trap
  • a swarm of bees
  • an article of clerical attire
  • the udder of a cow
  • a rabbit burrow
  • an endowment
  • reputation
  • farm animals
  • provisions for future use
  • goods on hand
  • liquid foundation for a soup
  • a company of actors who work at a particular theater
  • a standardized or conventional type

Incredible. It causes me to stand stock still.


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


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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Truant


Chuck was reminiscing about schools in the good old days, and one of the terms that came up was “truancy officer.” This was the person you had to deal with when you ditched school.

Originally, truant was an abusive term that signified a beggar, a vagabond, a wretch, and an idle knave. By the 15th century, it was applied to a school child who was AWOL. It lead to words such as truantry, truantism, and truandal, all of which have disappeared.

These terms all owe their existence to a Gaelic word that meant a wretch or a vagabond.


SIDEBAR: Truant Officer Donald


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, November 20, 2010

Skittish


While she was watching an animal rescue show on a cable channel, Noreen heard the word skittish and wondered about its origin.

Originally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a human disposition characterized by levity, frivolity, or excessive liveliness. A century later [1510], it was applied to horses that were unruly, shy, and likely to run away when startled.

It may have come from an Old Norse word that meant to shoot or throw. Such a sudden motion would spook a nervous horse.

From that same base came the word skit, used to designate a parody or satirical comedy. In those presentations, the writer would metaphorically take shots at the subject of ridicule.

Another skit had a totally unrelated origin and meaning. It meant diarrhea in sheep, and it led to the English word shit.


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, November 17, 2010

Crapulent


Dick from Kingsley phoned in the word crapulent. It started as a Greek word meaning a hangover. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, when the Romans adapted the word, they placed the focus on the cause of the hangover, excessive drinking. So sometimes crapulent is used to mean the suffering caused by overindulgence, and sometimes the imbibing itself.

Vinolent was once a companion word. Specifically, it referred to excessive intake of wine, and the resulting headache and nausea. And, at one time, methomania was a classy word for alcoholism. It came from a Greek word meaning a sweet wine, and it led to the English word mead. Dipsomnia was a synonym; at its core was a Greek word meaning thirst. Inebriation fits the same category. In Latin, ebrius meant drunk. Intoxicated literally means having imbibed poison, though now it is used as a synonym for drunk. Finally, bibulous means addicted to drinking.

Dick also asked if the word crap (as in, I feel like crap after last night’s binge) is related to crapulent. It turns out that it’s not. Crap comes from the Dutch krappe, originally the grain trodden under foot in the barn and mingled with the straw and dust. Eventually, it evolved into excrement.

Time to give nephalism* a chance?

*[Greek νnφειν, to be sober]


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, November 13, 2010

Salvable or Salvageable?


Don Ranville from Cedar asked if the word salvable is on equal footing with, or perhaps even preferable to, salvageable. Both involve rescuing and recycling, and each can be used to define the other. It turns out that while there is equivalency, salvageable is more popular today. A Google search yields 85,800 hits for salvable, and 1,600,000 hits for salvageable.

Salvable started out as a 17th century theological term. It meant “admitting of salvation.” By the late 18th century, it had become secularized. It referred to a ship or a ship’s cargo that could be salvaged. The last time that it was in predominant use was at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Salvageable is a late arrival. The first written citation in The Oxford English Dictionary is from 1976. Ultimately, it tracks back to the Latin salvare, to save. In fact, so does salvable, so they are simply different forms of the same word.

Another related word coming from the same Latin verb is savable/saveable. A word that shows up in 1450, it at first shared the theological sense of “conducive to salvation.” Other words derive from salvare. They include

  • insalvabilty: incapability of being saved
  • salvage: the saving of property
  • salvatella: obsolete name for a vein on the back of the hand
  • salvation: the act of saving
  • salvative: healing
  • salvator: one who saves
  • salvatory: a place of preservation
  • salvatrice: a female savior
  • savior: one who rescues from peril.


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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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Margarita


Our local newspaper, the Traverse City Record Eagle, runs a nostalgia feature called 100 Years Ago Today. Lowell from Interlochen called in an item that he found: “After the business meeting held in Northport, the ladies of Delta Phi Delta served refreshments, including punch, wafers, and margaritas.”

We all had a chuckle imagining the ladies sitting in wicker chairs on the front porch, drinks in hand, listening to Jimmy Buffet on the tinny gramophone as a caged parrot chattered in the background. There are dozens of variations based on flavoring, but the basic margarita uses fresh lime juice, tequila, and triple sec.


Ann from Traverse City and Lorraine from Torch Lake called in to set us straight. Ann recalled that in the 1930s, her mother and grandmother would top a cracker with frosting and sprinkled nuts and call it a margarita. Lorraine said that she knew of a cookie called a margarita. This struck everyone as more likely than the drink scenario.

A current recipe for margarita cookies calls for

  • 2 1/1 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup butter
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
  • 1 grated rind of 1 lime
  • 2 tsp. orange liqueur or 1 tsp. of orange extract.
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 ¼ cups confectioners' sugar for decoration
  • 2 tbsp white tequila

My guess is that a recipe from 1910 would not have included liqueur or tequila.

Towards the end of the program, Al from Acme reported on the margarita that he found in an old, unabridged dictionary; it meant a vessel for consecrated hosts. While Al made a great find, I think we’d have to discount any connection to the ladies of Northport with that one. It’s a term used in the Greek Church for the vessel containing the consecrated hosts that were not consumed during the liturgical service.

All of these items, including the female name Margarita or Margaret, owe their existence to a Latin word that means pearl. In turn, that came from a Greek word meaning the same thing.

SIDEBAR: Margaritaville


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


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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Prosthesis


As he was driving near Munson Medical Center, Carl noticed a sign advertising prosthetics, and he wondered about the word. It comes from a Greek verb meaning “to place before.”

Prosthetics refers to the replacement of missing or defective parts of the body by artificial substitutes. The artificial replacement itself is called a prosthetic device or a prosthesis.

But I find it fascinating that the word was given that medical application only in 1706. Before that time [1550], it was a grammar term signifying the addition of a letter or a symbol to a word. George William Kitchin’s A Historical Grammar of the French Tongue gives this explanation:

§ “The letters added to the primitive word may be either (1) prosthetic, that is to say, put at the beginning of a word; (2) epenthetic, or put in the body of a word; or (3) epithetic, or put at the end of a word.”

He goes on to give examples derived from Latin.

§ “Before the initial sounds sc, sm, sp, st (which are hard to pronounce), the French have placed an e, which renders the sound more easy by doubling the s: espace, spatium; espèce, species; espèrer, sperare; estomach, stomachum; esclandre, scandalum, [etc.]”


Its opposite is apheresis, a mirror image, since it started life as a grammatical term, then was later absorbed into medicine.

  • The taking away or suppression of a letter or syllable at the beginning of a word [1611].
  • Med. Obs. Aphæresis in medicine denotes a necessary taking away or removal of something that is noxious. In surgery, an operation whereby something superfluous is taken away [1880]. OED


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, November 03, 2010

Straw Poll


The term straw poll was bandied about recently by political pundits and several listeners wondered about its origin.

A straw poll is an unofficial poll or vote taken to see which way people are leaning or to discover hot-button issues. The results are not binding, but they may be useful to a pollster.

The term is related to “throwing straws into the wind,” a method used to this day by golfers to learn which way the wind is blowing so that they can compensate for it. In A Ruler of Men, O’Henry wrote, “A straw vote only shows which way the hot air blows.”

Several other popular terms and proverbs use the word straw.

  • draw the short straw: become the one selected for a task, especially an odious one. The leader holds straws in his hand in such a way that they all stick up to the same height, but one of them (concealed by his fist) is shorter than the others.
  • grasp at straws: make a desperate attempt to save oneself. However ineffective, a drowning man will clutch at flimsy reeds in order to survive.
  • make bricks without straw: perform a duty without the materials or information necessary to do it right. In early brickmaking, straw was the binding material for sun-dried bricks. This tracks back to Exodus 5:7.
  • straw boss: a foreman who gives orders but has no authority to enforce them. Late 19th century: “The (real) boss attended to the grain going into the thresher. The secondman (or straw boss) watched the straw coming out and hence had little to do.” [The Facts on file Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson]
  • straw dog: the ancient Chinese used straw dogs in their sacrifices to the gods. In The Book of 5,000 Characters, Lao Tzu wrote, “Heaven and Earth are not humane. They regard all things as straw dogs . . .” In a modern business application, a straw dog is a deliberately expendable idea floated past a client to make the real proposition look even better.
  • strawfoot: Union Army slang for a raw recruit who still had straw from the farm stuck to his boots.
  • straw man: an imaginary enemy or an invented argument brought up in order to be triumphantly vanquished.
  • straw that broke the camel’s back: the final minor irritation or burden that sends things over the brink. By itself, it would be insignificant, but added to all that came before it, it has serious consequences. A variant is, “that’s the last straw.”


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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