Saturday, June 30, 2012

Catawampus



Dr. Russ LeBlanc from Lake Leelanau asked about the word catawampus. It’s a term that some of his patients use when they come to him for an adjustment.

We know that it’s a 19th century nonsense word, but not only is the origin mysterious, the meaning is, too. On the one hand, it was supposed to be a fierce imaginary beast or animal capable of ripping you to shreds. On the other hand, it meant askew or out of alignment, the meaning currently in vogue.

The first half of the word is related to cattycorner or kittycorner, which has nothing to do with felines. It means diagonal, and it’s based on the French word quatre, four, which came into English as cater.  Picture a rectangle, which has four straight sides. If you are scrunched in one of the angles, the one across from you is kittycorner, cattycorner, or catercorner to you.

If the rectangle loses its perfect foursquare shape and begins to lean or sag, it is catawampus (cattywampus). As you can see, the spelling is all over the landscape.

The second half, wampus, has never been pinned down. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was American slang for an objectionable, bad-tempered, or loutish person. Many linguists think that it’s simply a nonsense word. But some point to the Scottish wampish, meaning to wriggle or twist. That strikes me as a stretch, but you never know.


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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Who/That/Which



Betty from Williamsburg called to decry the blurring between who and that when used as relative pronouns.

The traditional rule says that who should be reserved for humans and that for objects. So we’d write, “The man who did this ran away after the murder,” but “The weapon that killed his victim was a Glock.”  This distinction is still useful and should be maintained.

Two other paired relative pronouns – that and which – also cause some confusion. The preferred usage is to write that when it starts a restrictive clause – a group of words containing necessary information: The dog that bit me was a Bouvier. The clause “that bit me” cannot be left out and still convey the full meaning. I’m not speaking of just any Bouvier; I’m pinpointing the one that bit me.

If the clause is nonrestrictive – a group of words containing extra information – use the word which: The Bouvier, which was brindle in color, bit me. Note also that the nonrestrictive clause is encased in commas, while the restrictive clause is not.

  • She carefully studied the chapter that explains osmosis.
  • She carefully studied Chapter 5, which explains osmosis.
  • The history play that Shakespeare wrote in 1599 was Julius Caesar.
  • Julius Caesar, which Shakespeare wrote in 1599, was a history play.

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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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wedding Bells



Dona and I were in St. Joseph, Michigan, today to attend the wedding of niece Gabrielle Casini and her new husband, Nathaniel Bishop. It was a beach wedding, and the weather was perfect.

In tribute to the new couple, I thought I’d run through a few terms related to matrimony.

  • wedding: from an Old Frisian/Old Norse word meaning to pledge.
  • matrimony:  from an Old French word meaning property inherited from one’s mother.
  • marriage: from a cluster of words (including Greek and Sanskrit) meaning young man and young woman.
  • bride: in many languages, the reference was to a daughter-in-law, and the Oxford English Dictionary speculates that the root might have meant to cook.
  • groom:  an obsolete meaning was boy; then it became a male attendant.

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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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Kitten Britches


Roy from Indian River asked about a phrase that he heard: “cat’s fur to make kitten britches.” I didn’t have the slightest idea about its origin or meaning, so I turned to the online bulletin board of the American Dialect Society. Garson O’Toole graciously put me on the right track.

The Random House Mavens’ Word of the Day blog ran an explanation in August of 1996. Basically, the phrase is a mild reproof to someone who asks a question that ends in the preposition for, as in “what’s that for?” I suppose that the response was irresistible to devotees of the never-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition crowd. It probably originated in 19th century America.

In various parts of the country, the preposition for sounds just like fur. So a question ending in for/fur invited the nonsensical “cat’s fur to make kitten britches.” Britches were pants coming just below the knee, which, in this image, a mother cat was making for her offspring from her own fur. Britches (alternatively spelled breeches) also showed up in the saying,” too big for his own britches.”

The Mavens’ Word of the Day entry mentioned another nonsense response, one that I used as a youth. If someone responded with the question “so?”, the witty response was, “sew buttons.” Obviously, it was a more innocent era.


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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.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Quonset Hut



Steve Arens asked where the name for the Quonset hut came from. The Quonset hut was a priority item in World War II because it was a lightweight prefabricated all-purpose structure that could be easily shipped and assembled on site. It was usually constructed of corrugated galvanized steel, but the ones destined for tropical regions often used spruce to prevent rusting in humid climates.

The George A. Fuller Construction Company won the contract. Their factory was located in Quonset Point, a small peninsula thrusting into Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Quonset Point was the site of a large naval base at that time.

As the March 1, 1942, Chicago Tribune explained, “The navy calls the prefabricated steel houses ‘Quonset huts’ because they are made in Quonset, Rhode Island.”


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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.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

A Miser by Any Other Name . . . .



David from Portland asked about the words cheapskate, tightwad, and skinflint.  Someone else added money-grubber. All are slang terms for a miser.

The OED says that the origin of cheapskate is unknown. One form of skate originally referred to a poor, worn-out, decrepit horse. Shortly thereafter, it referred to a mean or contemptible person. The addition of cheap highlights penuriousness. World Wide Words suggests that skate or skite was a contemptuous Scots word for a person who talks nonstop but makes little sense.

Tightwad had two components. Tight meant snug or securely bound. A wad was something bound up tightly, such as a roll of banknotes.

Skinflint was a variation on “to skin a flint,” meaning to use a piece of flint to start a fire until it was worn down to an impossible thinness. A flintstone was such a necessary item that it was ludicrous that one would take a chance on wearing one down to uselessness.

As for money-grubber, a grubber was someone who dug in the ground or among ruins to find things. The earlier word grub meant a short, dwarfish fellow or a dull industrious drudge.


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition 
Check out Mike's program-based books here:
 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.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Which Niche?



Judy from Beaver Island asked about the word niche. First, let’s tackle the pronunciation.

Since it came through the French language, Europeans tend to pronounce it as neesh. Americans favor nitch (rhymes with witch). A third pronunciation—possibly seen as a compromise by some—is nish (rhymes with wish). So where you live or to whom you are speaking can make a difference.

Originally, a niche was a recess in a wall designed to hold a statue, an urn, or some other decorative object. Later, it came to mean a natural hollow in a rock or a hill, and it was applied to an animal lair and, by extension, to a place of refuge for a human being.

These days, it is most often used figuratively to denote a position suitable for one’s talents, disposition, or status: she has finally found her niche in life. In ecology, it is applied to the natural position of an organism in its ecosystem. In business, it is applied to a specialized market.




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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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