Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bucket List



David from East Bay asked about the phrase bucket list. Evidently, from what he said, political pundits have adopted it as their word du jour.

“Bucket List” seems to have evolved from the phrase “to kick the bucket.” One of the earliest definitions of kick the bucket appeared in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Quite succinctly, Grose defined it as “to die.”

There are a few theories about the bucket involved in kick the bucket. One says that prisoners about to be hanged had to stand on a bucket. The executioner would kick it out from under the condemned man, thus leaving him hanging by the neck. Inefficient, and not very likely.

Another says that it refers to the container (bucket) and aspergillum involved in sprinkling holy water on the casket during the Catholic Mass of the Dead. As far as I recall, no corpse is on record as having kicked that bucket during a funeral ceremony.

The one that makes the most sense is based on bucket-2 as found in the Oxford English Dictionary. It cites an 1888 entry in the New English Dictionary: “The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify to die.”

I would make an amendment based on personal experience. The N.E.D. postulates, “after he has been slaughtered.” My father worked for Miller & Hart Meat Packers in the Chicago Stock Yards in the 1940s, and they slaughtered and processed pigs. In the slaughter room, which was absolutely horrific to experience, the back feet of live pigs were attached to a chain on an apparatus that carried them to the ceiling, where they went round and round on a track. The slaughterers cut their necks with a sharp knife on a long pole, and as the pigs bled to death, they writhed and kicked against the chains that suspended them. My amendment would be, “as they were slaughtered.”

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Salubrious & Lugubrious



Phillip from Alden wrote:  The words salubrious and lugubrious are similar in their spellings, but seem to have nearly opposite meanings. Why is that, and are there any other words that would fit in with them?

The suffix involved is –ious. It came through the French suffix –ieux, which came from the Latin –iousus, full of or characterized by. The roots to which this suffix is attached are totally different. Salubrious comes from L. salus, health. Lugubrious comes from L. lugubris, mournfulness. The –br– sequence is simply the genitive spelling for that declension.

Using the wildcard search, I found a total of 16 words in the Oxford English Dictionary that accidentally end in –brious.

  • celebrious [1556] Of a place or assembly: thronged, frequented; hence, of a ceremony, festival, etc.: attended or observed by throngs; festive.
  • ebrious [1629] Addicted to drink; tipsy.
  •  equilibrious [1643] That which is in a state of equilibrium; evenly balanced.
  • fimbrious [1657]  Fringed.
  • funebrious [1653] Pertaining to funerals.
  • inebrious [1450]  Inebriating, intoxicating.
  • insalubrious [1638] Not salubrious; detrimental to health. (Now chiefly of climate or surroundings.)
  • isobrious [1835] Growing with equal vigour on both sides; applied to a dicotyledonous embryo.
  • ludibrious [1570]  Apt to be a subject of jest or mockery.
  • lugubrious [1601]  Characterized by, expressing or causing mourning; doleful, mournful, sorrowful.
  • muliebrious [1652]  Effeminate.
  • opprobrious [1387]  Of words, language, etc.: conveying opprobrium; expressing scorn; vituperative; reproachful; shameful.
  • reprobrious [1539]  Reproachful, abusive.
  • salubrious [1547]  Favorable or conducive to health.
  •  tenebrious [1594]  Of or pertaining to darkness; of dark nature.
  • unsalubrious [1781]  Unhealthy.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Conjure


Doug asked about the word conjure. It is usually joined with the word up, and it bears the meaning, “to bring to mind” (that song conjures up memories of 1964). When joined with the word with, it means “something considered important” (Bush is a name to be conjured with in the political arena). It was once associated with magicians and their sleight of hand, but that is now considered a bit old-fashioned.

Over the centuries, the word has gone through many meanings. It came from the Latin words con (together) and iurare (to swear), and it meant “to make a pact by oath.” That took on undertones of conspiracy at one point, and that could get you arrested.

If you constrained a person to action by appealing to something considered sacred, you were conjuring. Conversely, if you called upon an evil spirit to do your bidding, you were conjuring. An equal opportunity enterprise.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pig in a Python




I was discussing the future of aging services in Michigan with some colleagues from the Commission on Services to the Aging when the phrase “the pig in the python” came up. It is now applied to all sorts of statistical surges, but when it was first used in the early 1970s, it referred exclusively to baby boomers.

Pythons can swallow large animals—pigs, sheep, and so on. As the digestive process proceeds, the meal can be seen as a bulge slowly traveling from the front end of the python to the back end.

A baby boomer is someone born right after World War II (roughly 1946 to 1964) when a surge of births took place. Looking towards the future, social changes could be predicted as this large cohort moved through school, through the work force, through parenthood, and into retirement. To some imaginative soul, the idea of a pig moving through the digestive process in a python seemed to be an apt image. Personally, I find that it makes me queasy.

One early appearance was written by Russell Baker for the April 21, 1974, issue of New York Times Magazine: “All very well for the bulge group, you may say. It will continue to dominate society as it passes through the decades like a pig through a python.”

SIDEBAR: Making No Bones About It: Digestion In Burmese Pythons [Society for Experimental Biology, April 4, 2007]


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reveille



Nancy Harrigan from Sugar Loaf wrote, “My dad used to say ‘Nice play, Reveille’.
He was born in 1909 so I wonder if this could have come out of the war..........or maybe a line from a movie. It meant I made a mistake, so I heard it often!”

Reveille is played on a bugle at the beginning of the day when the flag is raised. It serves as a wakeup call to the troops. In effect, your Dad was giving you a wakeup call—a warning that you needed to wake up and notice your mistake. I wasn’t able to find out if it had ever been used in a movie—or even outside of your household, for that matter. In my youth, "nice play, ox" was the appropriate way to greet a clumsy ball player.

Nancy also sent along a joke about the origin of the political terms left wing and right wing. "The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left." [Ecclesiastes 10:2 NIV]  The author of this verse was simply displaying a very ancient prejudice against left-handedness. I wrote about this in my blog of January 3, 2007, titled My Right Hand Man Has Two Left Feet.

The terms actually arose in France in the 18th century. In the French Parliament, those who sat to the right of the parliament’s president supported the old-fashioned monarchy, with its emphasis on traditionalism, hierarchy, and clericalism. Those who sat to the left of the president supported revolution.

SIDEBAR: Reveille


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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Claptrap



Ann from Traverse City asked about the word claptrap. It now means rubbish, nonsense, foolishness. It has definitely taken on negative undertones and overtones.

Its origin was not entirely negative, though it was steeped in cynicism. Nathan Bailey [Universal Etymological English Dictionary II, 1727–31], defined it as “a name given to the rant and rhimes that dramatick poets, to please the actors, let them get off with: as much as to say, a trap to catch a clap, by way of applause from the spectators at a play.” It depended upon sentimentality and showiness, using proven devices to solicit the approval of a less-than-discriminating audience.

In our day, the annoying laugh track that bolsters many TV comedies has turned into the ultimate claptrap.


SIDEBAR:  Claptrap dancing


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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Slush Fund


David asked about the term slush fund. In current use, a slush fund is money that was intended to be used for a legitimate, sanctioned purpose, but that has been diverted for surreptitious and illegitimate use. It constitutes fraud because public oversight is subverted in situations where it is required.

Such money might be used as an undisguised bribe or to secretly promote the campaign of a politician. It might be money used by a CEO to buy luxury items or expensive vacations. Sometimes an officer of a charity might divert donations to personal use.

Two notorious examples are the Richard Nixon 1962 slush fund, which led to the famous “Checkers Speech,” and the Southern Methodist University football scandal, which totally wiped out their 1987 schedule.

The origin of the term involves an interesting bit of naval history. Slush was the fat and grease skimmed off when cooking meat. It was saved and used in later cooking as a type of lard. Excess amounts were sold to civilians when the ship reached port, and the money was used to buy things for the crew.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives this 1839 example by William McNally [Evils & Abuses in Naval & Merchant Service
, xvii. 162]:  “The sailors in the navy are allowed salt beef . . . From this provision, when cooked . . . nearly all the fat boils off; this is carefully skimmed . . . and put into empty beef or pork barrels, and sold, and the money so received is called the slush fund.”

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Anthology



Mark from Charlevoix asked about the word anthology. Originally, it was a collection of short but exquisite poems. The conceit was that they were a collection of flowers [ἄνθος/anthos, flower, + -λογια/logia, collection]. Later, the word was extended to include other genres.

The same Greek combining form was used to create a number of words.

  • anthocephalus:  having a flower-like head. [flower + head]
  • anthography:  the scientific description of flowers. [flower + writing]
  • anthoid:  resembling a flower. [flower + like]
  • antholeucine:  the white coloring matter in plants. [flower + white]
  • antholite:  fossil plants having a resemblance to flowers. [flower + stone]
  • anthophore: the stalk that in some flowers raises the receptacle above the calyx. [flower + bearing]
  • anthosiderite:  a hydrous silicate of iron occurring in fibrous tufts or feathery flowers.  [flower + iron-stone]
  • anthosperm:  a little colored concretion scattered in the tissue of certain Fucoids. [flower + seed]
  • anthoxanthine:  the coloring principle of yellow flowers.  [flower + yellow]
  • Anthozoa: another name for the Zoophytes called Actinozoa, including sea-anemones, coralline polypes, etc.  [flower + animals]
  • anthozooid: an individual animalcule of a compound Zoophyte.  [flower + animal-like]

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Who Gnu?



Jack asked if there’s any rhyme or reason connecting words that begin with KN-. A quick perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reveals some patterns.

The Greek word γνύξ (gnux) binds together knee, kneecap, kneel, kneeler, and the like.

Knave and knight originally referred to a young lad.

A number of words refer to cognition or perception. They include know, knew, known, knowledge, knowledgeable, and similar forms. They are indebted to the Greek root γνω- (gno-), which meant to perceive and to recognize.

The Indo-European root [g(e)n- inspired many Germanic words beginning in kn- that found their way into Old English. The basic meanings involve compressed materials, bumps, projections, and sharp blows. That ties the following words together:
  • knap: a small knoll
  • knead: to work moistened flour into a lump of dough
  • knell: the sound made by a bell when struck
  • knife: a cutting instrument
  • knit: to tie or fasten with a knot
  • knob: a small rounded lump or mass
  • knock: a stroke or thump
  • knoll: rounded top of a hill
  • knot: a secure, tight tie in a rope, string, etc.
  • knout: a whip or scourge
  • knuckle: the rounded protuberance in a bent bone joint
And you might want to put knackwurst in your knapsack. Both have at their core the meaning to strike, snap, or bite off a piece. It turns out that a knapsack is a snack pack.

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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