Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nip It In The Bud



During the Bay Area Senior Advocates annual breakfast/meeting yesterday, someone asked where the expression “nip it in the bud” came from.

To nip something in the bud means to stop it during an early stage of its development, before it can mature. Growers frequently pinch or snip off new buds on plants and trees to stop them from sucking up nutrients, thus allowing the remaining buds to grow larger. The phrase first appeared in print in the late 16th century.

As a noun, there are six separate words spelled n-i-p; as a verb, there are two.
  • a hill or a crag
  • a shortened form of catnip
  • a sharp remark; a sharp bite; pungent flavor; the crushing effect of ice on the sides of a vessel; a pickpocket; a miser; pincers; a small portion
  • a small quantity of liquor
  • an offensive term for a Japanese
  • a shortened form of nipple
  • to pinch, bite, or squeeze; to seal a glass tube by pressing together the heated end of the neck; to compress sharply; to rebuke; to secure a rope by twisting it around something; to crush a hull with ice floes; to cut close; to extinguish a cigarette by pinching off the lit end; to arrest someone; to steal; to move rapidly; to defeat by a narrow margin; to cause pain in freezing temperatures; to check the growth of a plant
And remember: there is no nip it in the butt unless you're talking about your dog.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Key



Mike from Cadillac, Les from Petoskey, and Scott from Traverse City all touched on a similar element in last Tuesday’s show. That element is the word key, and the variations that can be worked on it.

There are two words spelled k-e-y, and they come from different sources. The first one is indebted to an old Frisian word that meant the kind of key used to manipulate a lock. A key is a source of control; it implies the power to guide and to influence. That extension led to later meanings of the word key, such as the key to a solution, a key player, a key to a map, a key move in a business takeover, a keyboard on a musical instrument, the keystone of an arch,  a typewriter or computer key, and a keynote speaker. (Pennsylvania was dubbed the Keystone State as an analogy to the keystone in an arch.)

The other one comes from the Spanish cayo, a reef or a shoal. It’s the name given to a low island, sandbank, or reef. It accounts for Key West and for key lime pie, made with limes native to the Florida Keys.

Someone also asked about the Keystone Cops, a highlight of the silent film era. That had an independent origin. These bumbling policemen appeared in films produced by Mack Sennet. His studio was called the Keystone Film Company.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Alma Mater, cafeteria



Brian from Petoskey called to ask about the phrase alma mater. Originally applied to certain Roman Goddesses, it meant “nurturing or bounteous mother.” Eventually, it was applied to schools, which are supposed to nurture the minds of their students.

Brian asked if alumnus was connected to alma mater. I replied that they came from different words: alma, the feminine form of an adjective meaning nurturing, and alumnus, the masculine form of a noun meaning child, ward, or pupil. What I missed on air was that they both came in turn from the verb alere, to nourish.

A wildcard search of the online Oxford English Dictionary revealed that other words have the same mother.
  • abolish: literally, to keep someone away from nourishment.
  • adolescent: to provide nourishment to encourage growth.
  • alible: nourishing or nutritious. [rare]
  • aliment: physical nourishment or sustenance.
  • alimony: literally, food money.
  • alition: the act of providing nourishment.  [obs.]
  • aliture: nourishment.  [obs. rare]
  • alterage: raising a foster child
  • althea: an edible plant, the marsh mallow.
  • altion: the act of nourishing. [obs. rare]
  • altricial: referring to a bird or animal too young to live on its own.
  • old: originally, able to feed oneself.

Alimentary, my dear Watson.

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Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny



Nancy from Traverse City asked why so many rhyming phrases, such as hurly-burly, end with the long vowel sound –eee–. She conceded that not all such formations end in an –eee– sound, citing chitter-chatter, fiddle-faddle, helter-skelter, and more.

But she included this list as an illustration:

dilly-dally, eeny-meeny, funny-money, holy-moley, hokey-pokey, hotsey-totsey,
itsy-bitsy, namby-pamby, nitty-gritty, okey-dokey, piggy-wiggy, rinky-dinky,
roly-poly, shilly-shally, silly-Billy, skinny-Minnie, teeny-weeny, willy-nilly, and
wishy-washy.

The technical term for this pairing is reduplication; they’re also called echo words. I’m not sure why that terminal sound predominates, but two things struck me as I went through her list.

(1) The –eee– sound is sometimes used derogatively. It expresses derision; you can almost hear the sneer. So we have rinky-dinky, artsy-craftsy, artsy-fartsy, dilly-dally, wishy-washy, roly-poly, namby-pamby.

(2)  In other cases, it’s imitative of childish formations and speech, as in piggy-wiggy, itsy-bitsy, eeny-meeny, teeny-weeny.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cataract



A cataract is defined as a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision, a common occurrence in the elderly. The word has a fascinating origin.

The original Greek version (καταρ(ρ)άκτης) meant a downrushing, a waterfall, a floodgate, or a portcullis. The last meaning seems out of place until you recall that a portcullis was a latticed grate or gate that could be lowered to protect the entrance to a castle. In other words, the direction is down for all those meanings.

The first English use translated it as floodgate, and it was biblical in origin.

            (1) Genesis 7. xi:  . . . on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.
            (2)  Genesis 8. ii:  Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky.

The word cataract was then applied to a downspout, a waterfall, and a violent downpour of rain. The portcullis meaning showed up in 1360, and the medical term in 1547. For a person with advanced cataracts, the world is cloudy and indistinct, as if standing behind a waterfall or looking through a screen.


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, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Post



Mike from Cadillac asked how a phrase such as post-911 is related to a fence post, an army post, and so on. The post- in hyphenated words or in words such as postmortem or postscript comes from a Latin preposition that means after or later in time. That’s the easy part. There are 12 nouns spelled p-o-s-t and 6 verbs, many with their own subdivisions. We might as well run through the noun meanings one by one.

post1  [L. postis, stake or pole]
  • a support or column of timber
  • a boundary marker or support for a fence
  • a stake representing stupidity or unresponsiveness
  • a record of an account or score
  • a vertical mass of stratified rock between two joints or fissures
  • fine-grained sandstone or limestone
  • Basketball: an offensive position near the free-throw lane occupied by the player (or players) coordinating the team's attacks; the area of the court broadly corresponding to this position, extending from the baseline to the free-throw line
post2  [special use of L. post-]
  • a writ of entry
post3  [L. posta, a stopping station]
  • any of a series of men who rode from stage to stage with letters or dispatches
  • a postman or postwoman
  • a vehicle or vessel used to carry letters
  • any of a series of stations
  • the official postal service
  • a single collection or delivery of mail
  • postage charge
  • a message displayed on an online forum
post4  [It. posta, a stake in a game]
  • a card game
post5  [It. posto, specific place assigned to a person]
  • a position of paid appointment
  • the place where a soldier is assigned when on duty; the beat patrolled by a sentry
  • a place of duty
  • a place where a body of soldiers is stationed
  • a fort or garrison
  • commission as a naval officer
post6  [Urdu post, poppy head]
  • an intoxicating beverage made by steeping poppy heads in warm water
post7  [It. posta, account entry]
  • an act of posting or an entry in a ledger
post8  [Ger. post, specified quantity of goods]
  • a pile of handmade paper with sheets of felt interspersed, ready for pressing
  • a batch of ore for smelting
post9  [short for post entry]

post10  [special use of post5]
  • a bugle call signaling bedtime
post11  [a shortened version of postgraduate]

post12  [a shortened version of postmortem, an autopsy]

Once again, the lesson is clear: just because words with different meanings share an identical letter sequence, their spelling does not necessarily mean that they come from the same source.


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, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Sarcopenia



Margaret writes that a recent issue of a health bulletin that she regularly receives had an interesting piece on sarcopenia. That’s defined as the loss of muscle mass and coordination associated with aging. Tell me about it.

It’s the word components that Margaret asked about. Sarco- comes from the Greek σαρκ- (sark), meaning flesh. Penia comes from the Greek πενία (penia), and it means poverty or deficiency.

Both word parts occur most frequently in medical or scientific terms. Most people, I would think, know what a sarcoma is. They may not realize, however, that the word sarcasm, a cutting remark, literally means a tearing or ripping of flesh.

A slight complication arises because two other Latin words used the –sarc– letter sequence. The word sarcio meant to patch or to mend; that brought us the English consarcinate, to patch together. The word sarcina was a load or a pack. In the old days, you could sarcinate – that is, load a beast of burden.

I would have thought that the –penia combining form would be a most useful tool in defining various deficiencies, but a wildcard search in the Oxford English Dictionary turned up only 15 words. They range from cytopenia (a reduction of the normal number of blood cells) to thrombopenia (a decrease in the number of platelets in circulating blood).

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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. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

LGBTQQIA et al



Michael from New York City wrote that a friend of his used an acronym new to him: LGBTQQIA community.  Most people know that LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender, but this represents a significant expansion.

It turns out that LGBTQQIA stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, and Allies. [For a thoughtful definition of Intersex, go to The Intersex Society of North America.]  I fully understand that this is an attempt to be sensitive and all-inclusive in a community that is often marginalized by others, but it is in danger of being called a macronym instead of an acronym.

A minor distinction: while both are abbreviations, there is a useful distinction between acronyms and initialisms. Acronyms can be pronounced as if they were words: UNICEF, RADAR, BATA, NASA, etc. Initialisms cannot be pronounced as if they were words; each letter must be spelled out: FBI, TGIF, TNT, AC/DC, etc. So I would rather call LGBTQQIA an initialism.

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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