Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Out of Whack


Jane from Traverse City asked about the phrase, out of whack. Today, it refers to a situation or machine not operating as it should. It showed up in America in the late 1800s.

Originally, a whack was a smack or a blow. The word probably arose in imitation of the sound that such a hit would make. To take a whack at something was to attempt it.

Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the English Tongue defined whack as 18th century underworld slang meaning “a share of a booty obtained by fraud.” Hotten’s Slang Dictionary [1874] included “to go whacks,” meaning to divide equally or to enter into partnership.

Britain contributed “the full whack,” meaning the maximum price or rate. The Mafia chimed in with “to whack someone,” meaning to murder execution-style.


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

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Who Dat Which?


Larry asked about rules for using who, that, and which. There are still grammarians who insist on brutally rigid distinctions, but the fact is that relative pronouns have waxed and waned in favor over the centuries and will continue to do so.

Currently, there is one point of general agreement. Most commentators say that who should be used when speaking of humans, and which should be saved for comments about nonhumans:

The person who did this damage is in deep trouble.

The motive which prompted him is irrelevant.


Many people would write that last sentence as, “The motive that prompted him is irrelevant.” That’s where much of the contention arises. That and which are practically interchangeable in many cases; personal preference and one’s sense of euphony come into play. Just take a look at this quote from the King James Version of the Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” One sentence, two choices.

One other element comes into play, and that is the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause contains necessary information: The dog that bit me is being held for tests. A nonrestrictive clause contains extra information: The dog, which is a gray Schnauzer, is being examined at Wilson Veterinary Care.

Contemporary usage seems to prefer the word that in a restrictive clause, and the word which in a nonrestrictive clause. Notice also that punctuation acts as a signal. A nonrestrictive clause is encased in commas, dashes, or parentheses. A restrictive clause does not use them.

Daily exercise that increases the heart rate is good for you.

Exercise, which should be part of your daily routine, is good for you.


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

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shhhhhhhh!


Helen was rereading Longfellow’s Evangeline after decades of being out of school when she came across an unfamiliar word: “A brief uproar too feeble to ascend by so much as an infantine susurrus to the ears of the British Neptune.”

Susurrus comes from the Latin susurrare, to whisper, to mutter, or to rustle. In the context above, it would mean an almost inaudible sound from a baby.

The root gave rise to susurrate, to whisper, susurration, a murmur or whisper (early on, malicious in nature), insusurration, an insinuation whispered into one’s ear, and susurrous, of the nature of a whisper.


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



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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Right in a Fortnight


Esther from Honor asked about the phrase, “right in a fortnight.” The meaning is rather transparent: be patient for a couple of weeks and things will turn out OK.

First, let’s deal with the word fortnight. It is a contracted form of the Old English féowertýne niht, fourteen nights. The first instance cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the year 1,000. There is an allied word, sennight, that came from two Old English words: seofon, seven, and nihta, the plural of niht, night.

The phrase “right in a fortnight” is listed in a dictionary of Australian slang. It supposedly started among Aussie soldiers during WWII.

Lowell from Interlochen speculated that “right in a fortnight” came from the 16th century Gregorian Calendar change. The change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar was necessary because after centuries of use, the Julian calendar had fallen ten days behind real time. By decree, October 4, 1582, was followed by October 15, 1582. Since fortnight first appeared in 1,000, and since the complete phrase first showed up in the 1940s, any direct connection to the calendar change is dubious.

SIDEBAR: Gregorian Calendar History


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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Betta or Beta?


Bob from Glen Arbor asked about the name for a Siamese fighting fish called a beta. Bob wondered why a fish that was really an alpha, or dominant male, would be called a beta.

We got into a discussion of beta. It’s the second letter of the Greek alphabet, and it has come to represent the second in a series, a backup, or a second-generation version. It has been widely used in various sciences, and it is often applied to software that is in a test phase right before universal release.

After the show, I discovered that the preferred spelling is betta, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Greek alphabet. Instead, it came from a Malay name, ikan bettah.

Never mind.


SIDEBAR: Betta Fish


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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tooth Skin


Ron from Duck Lake asked about the phrase, “by the skin of your teeth.” Today, it signifies a narrow escape. The idea is also encapsulated in phrases such as in the nick of time, by a hair’s breadth, by a whisker, just squeaked by, and close shave.

This is a case in which a lowly preposition makes a huge difference. Conveying the meaning a narrow escape, we find the preposition by. The original wording, however, was “with the skin of my teeth,” and it signified deprivation and reduction, paring things down to the bone, and severe loss.

It shows up in Job xix.20. If you recall, Job was a test case used by God to show Satan that a perfect and upright man would not abandon God even if beset by terrible loss. Job started out as a prosperous man with an immense household, huge herds of livestock, and a large, happy family. Everything was taken from him to test his devotion.

Some of the English versions of Job were direct translations from the Hebrew, which means that the choices made by the translator were critical. The first translation to use the preposition with was the Geneva Bible of 1560: “I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.” This was repeated in the King James Version: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth."

Two other translations took a different approach using a Latin base (Jerome’s Vulgate Bible), and I think that they clarify the meaning. Wycliffe’s Bible had this: “Oneli þe lippis ben laft aboute my teeþ.” [Only the lips have been left around my teeth.] The Douay Bible of 1582 reads: "My bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth."

In other words, a severely emaciated Job had a narrow escape.


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


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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catch-22


Nephew Brian Sheehan asked about the term Catch-22. Catch-22 came from the 1961 novel of that name, and it appears that author Joseph Heller was the first person to use it. It refers to a no-win situation, a life-threatening obligation that one can’t escape, but I can’t find why Heller chose the number 22 instead of another. A catch is a snare or trap.

In the novel, a couple of WWII-era bombardiers are searching for a way to get out of their dangerous missions. Two airmen named Yossarian and Orr figure that a plea of insanity might do the job. They are disabused of that notion by flight surgeon Doctor Daneeka, who would have to pass on any such claim.

Heller wrote, “There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and he would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.


SIDEBAR: Google Books


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Saturday, August 06, 2011

BLT


Jim from Elk Rapids asked a strange question: “Could you discuss the origin of the elements in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich?” I take it that it’s not an agricultural question.

Bacon comes from a Germanic word that meant the back. Meat from the back and sides of a pig were cured by salting or by drying, thus producing bacon.

Lettuce came from a Latin word that meant milk. That may seem unlikely at first glance, but it referred to the milky juice that some varieties of lettuce will exude upon cutting.

Tomato came from a Mexican word that meant the vegetable that we know and love. In American slang, a tomato once referred to an attractive young lady. Come to think of it, lettuce and bacon (bringing home the bacon) once were slang terms for money.


SIDEBAR: Procul Harum, Bringing Home the Bacon


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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

One Hand Clapping


When we say that something is plausible, we mean that it is reasonable, probable, and believable. In other words, it is in the realm of the rational. The origin of the word, however, involved the realm of the emotional. It signified something that met general approval and acceptance. It was so pleasing, in fact, that it might be met with applause. The word came from the Latin plaudere, to strike or to clap the hands.

Another word that came from the same Latin verb is plaudits, an expression of approval. Again, that could well involve applause. The spelling was originally plaudite, a command that meant “give these folks a hand.” It was the customary request from actors at the end of a play in old Rome.

Two surprising words that come from the Latin word meaning clapping are explode and implode. Originally, a disapproving audience would drive an actor off the stage by hooting, shouting, and clapping so loudly that he couldn’t be heard and had to beat a hasty retreat. While explode was an outburst, implode was an inburst.

There’s an obsolete and rare word also based on plaudere that might be useful even today, especially in the stands at sporting events. The word is supplode, and it meant to stamp with the feet – to applaud underneath.


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


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