Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ripely Rife



Stephanie wrote, “I’m having trouble distinguishing between two similar words. Should I write, the economy is ripe with problems, or the economy is rife with problems”?

While the two words are very close in appearance, they have different meanings. Ripe means fully grown and developed; think of succulent fruit. Since the economy is not at the end of its development, that word doesn’t fit.

Rife means abundant or common; substitute filled with, and it will be clear. Thus, the economy is rife with problems would be the correct choice. The word comes from a nexus of Frisian/Dutch/Germanic/Scandinavian terms that meant copious or abundant.

Keeping our examples in the realm of economics, these would both be proper:
  • Wall Street seems to be rife with initial public offerings this season.
  • According to my sources, the Tekco initial public offering is ripe for plucking.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Remonstrate



Donald has been reading a book on Confucianism. He came across a word in the following passage that he wants more information on:

“When applying the principles of filiality in the text to the relationship between leader and subject, there is no praise for blind obedience. Quite to the contrary, one section is devoted to remonstration.”

‘Of old, an Emperor had seven ministers who would remonstrate with him,
so even if he had no vision of the proper way [Dao
], he still did not lose the empire.’
[Confucianism by Ronnie L. Littlejohn]

Donald’s question was about remonstration and remonstrate. Both variants come from the Latin monstrare, to show. Originally, remonstrate was a synonym of demonstrate, to manifest or reveal. Eventually, it came to mean “to point out a fault to another by way of reproof, disapprobation, or complaint; to protest against a wrong.”

Other words based on monstrare—all of them rare or obsolete—include commonstrate (to make clear), monstrable (capable of being shown), monstration (a sign),and  premonstrate (to portend).

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Silent but Deadly



Crystal asked about poppycock, which is defined as nonsense, rubbish, and humbug. The Oxford English Dictionary hedges a bit, but it passes along the opinion that it may have come from a Dutch word meaning excrement from a doll. That, indeed, would be nonsense. Alternatively, the Dutch word is also translated as soft dung. A related word is poppet, a small or dainty person, which became a term of endearment. Puppet is also related.

Hidden meanings also show up on a couple of other words. Partridge, the bird, comes from a Greek word that meant to fart, probably because of the whirring noise that the bird makes as it takes off.

Pumpernickel, a dark, dense bread made in Westphalia, comes from a German word that meant a fart. As the Oxford English Dictionary delicately puts it, “This type of bread was probably so called either on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence or in a more general allusion to its hardness and poor quality.”

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Somnambulist



Roger from Sault Ste Marie asked about the word somnambulistic. It’s the adjective form of the noun somnambulist, which breaks down into the Latin somn-, sleep, and ambul-, to walk. Somn- also shows up in words such as insomnia and somniferous, and ambul- appears in ambulation and ambulance, which was originally a field hospital that followed a moving army.

Four words designate types of walking, though one of them is a nonce word.

  • funambulist: a tightrope performer  [L. fun-, rope]
  • noctambulist: a sleep walker who moves about at night  [L. noct-, night]
  • somnambulist:  a sleep walker  [L. somn-, sleep]
  • vicambulist: one who walks about hoping to be seen and recognized [a nonce word, a word used on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer's works. L. vicus, street]

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exterminate! Eradicate! Extirpate!



These three words form an interesting cluster of destruction.

To extirpate is to pull something out by the roots, literally or figuratively. The Latin stirp represented the stem or stock of a tree. So originally, extirpate meant to clear an area of tree stumps. Ralph Waldo Emerson used it figuratively: “Neither years nor books have yet availed to extirpate a prejudice then rooted in me, that a scholar is the favorite of Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men.”

To eradicate is to pull or tear up by the roots, to remove something. The Latin radix meant a root. Charlotte Bronte wrote: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow firm there, firm as weeds among stones.”

Unlike the first two, exterminate does not involve roots. It came from a Latin word that meant to drive someone out of the boundaries; then it evolved into utter destruction. Joseph Conrad’s character Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness sounded like a Dalek when he wrote, “Exterminate all the brutes!”

I should probably throw in annihilate, too, which literally means to reduce to nothingness:


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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Behemoth



Beth saw a headline on AOL this morning: Behemoth Storm Pummels Northeast. She asked what a behemoth is. It’s a large, powerful animal, but there is disagreement over precisely which one. A water buffalo would qualify, but so would a hippopotamus.

The word is used in the Book of Job, chapter 40, verses 15 to 24.

15]  Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
16]  Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
17]  He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
18]  His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
19]  He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him.
20]  Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.
21]  He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens
22]  The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.
23]  Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.
24]  He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.

Experts seem to think that it started as the Egyptian word p-ehe-mau, a water ox, which was then assimilated into Hebrew as b'hēmōth, a monstrous beast. By extension, it came to mean anything of great size or power. In 1593, Gabriel Harvey used it this way: “Will soone finde the huge Behemoth of Conceit, to be the sprat of a pickle herring.” [Pierces supererogation, or; A new prayse of the old asse]

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Adamant



Charlene wrote to say that she had encountered the word adamant in a historical novel that she is currently reading. “I thought that it referred to a person secure in her belief,” she wrote, “but in the book it seems to mean a precious stone of some kind. Can you shed some light on this?”

Charlene is correct. In our day, adamant means unwavering and unshakeable in belief. The adamant person cannot be persuaded to change his or her mind. In fact, there is a whiff of inflexibility and downright stubbornness involved.

The Latin word from which it is derived originally meant a very hard substance. Sometimes it referred to steel, and sometimes to a diamond. Its Greek predecessor meant unbreakable. In time, the word was used metaphorically to signify something not easily destroyed or overcome.

Interestingly, a number of animals turn up in informal synonyms for adamant, including bull-headed, dogged, mulish, and pig-headed.

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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Groundhog Day



Today is Groundhog Day.   Also known as a woodchuck, the animal is basically a squirrel on steroids. It is a rodent, which means that it gnaws incessantly.

The word rodent comes from the Latin verb rodere, to gnaw, eat away, or erode. It started off meaning corrosive, then erosive, then became a classification for gnawing mammals. Common words  based on the Latin verb include corrode, erode, the aforementioned rodent, and rostrum. Rostrum?!

I was startled to see rostrum in the list when I did a wildcard search on the online Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a platform or stage, a structure used by public speakers or by music conductors. But how does that fit in with gnawing? It turns out that the original rostrum stood in the Forum of ancient Rome. It was decorated with the beakheads of captured warships. Beaks . . . gnawing—there’s the connection.

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