Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter



Sybil asked about the word Easter, wondering if the liturgical feast received that name because the events narrated in the New Testament took place in the Mideast rather than in the West. In answer, I’m going to reprint something that appeared here in 2007.

  • Ancient Babylonians and Syrians worshipped the goddess Ishtar.
  • Among Semitic worshippers, the same goddess was called Astarte.
  • When her cult spread to Europe, her name evolved into Ostara.
  • The name came into Anglo-Saxon as Eastre.
Her feast occurred during the vernal equinox, and since she was a fertility goddess, prolific symbols such as rabbits and eggs were part of the trappings.

Canny Christian missionaries incorporated some of the features into their celebration of the Resurrection. Their formula for the date of Easter has been passed along for centuries: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Boring the Boorish Boar


The relationship—or supposed relationship—among bore, boor, and boar came up on the


program. Boar and bore are homophones, and while boor is pronounced differently, there could be a very slight overlap between bore and boor. A boor can bore you to death.

A boar is a male swine. It tracks back to an Old Saxon word, bêr, which meant swine.

A bore is a tiresome person who causes ennui. It may be connected to the French word bourrer, to stuff or satiate.

A boor is a rude, ill-bred person who lacks refinement. It was based on the Old English búr, short for the Old English gebúr, a farmer or peasant. In turn, that was based on búr, a dwelling, house, or cottage. Boor is cousin to neighbor, which may be translated as near-dweller.

This brings us to Boer, which was a Dutch-speaking colonist in South Africa, especially one engaged in agriculture or cattle-farming. It was based upon the Dutch word boer, a countryman, peasant, or farmer. This is, of course, the word boor in shallow disguise.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sock It To Me!



Kelly from Alanson wrote, “I've been thinking about the word sock. Someone can ‘sock someone in the nose’, tell you to ‘put a sock in it,’ or ‘cover you feet with socks.’ Where did that word come from?”

Sock in the usual sense (a stocking) comes from a Latin word, soccus, which meant a light slipper. Aside from the idioms that Kelly provided, you can sock your money away, stand 5 feet tall in your socks, knock someone’s socks off, pull your socks up, be someone’s sock puppet, or observe a windsock at the airport. Those are all connected to sock, n.1, in the Oxford English Dictionary.

A number of words share the same spelling. My favorite is sock, v.1.
  • sock, n.2:  a ploughshare
  • sock, n.3:  suck given to a child
  • sock, n.4:  a sound thrashing
  • sock, n.5:  edibles of various kinds
  • sock, n.6:  a pet child or young animal
  • sock, n.7:  a small coin
  • sock, n.8:  abbreviation of socket
  • sock, v.1:  to sew a corpse into a shroud
  • sock, v.2:  to strike hard
  • sock, v.3:  to give a gift
  • sock, v.4:  to sigh
  • sock, v.5:  to provide with socks; to put money aside; to enshroud, as a fog

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Nana Returns as Ananym



An ananym is a pseudonym formed by writing a real name backwards. It was formed from the Greek words ἀνά, back,  + ὄνομα, name. Here are a few examples, all of them occurirng in popular culture.

Count Alucard  [Bram Stoker]
Many movies and games based on Stoker’s novel introduce a mysterious Count Alucard, later revealed as the dreaded Dracula.  (Son of Dracula, the movie.) 

Erewhon  [Samuel Butler]
Erewhon is the name of a fictional country, a satirical utopia. Notice that Butler retained the –wh- sequence instead of going all the way and making it Erehwon. It’s easier to pronounce that way.  (Erewhon

Harpo Productions  [Oprah Winfrey]
Ms. Winfrey incorporated the company as a Chicago-based multimedia production company.  (Harpo Productions

Nomad Band [Damon Rochefort]
This British band was formed by Damon Rochefort, who named it after himself in a disguised way. The band was active from 1989 to 2003.  (Something Special

Redrum  [Stephen King]
In the movie The Shining, the telepathic child writes RedRum on a door using his sleeping mother’s lipstick. When he wakes her up by chanting RedRum, she reads it in a mirror and is horrified.  (The Shining

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Thin Shell is no Yolk


Ralph asked about the saying, “to egg someone on.” He speculated that it might have come from early theater, where bad performances were greeted with thrown objects, including eggs, tomoatoes, and anything else at hand.

Although this practice appears with some frequency in comedic movies and TV shows, I’m not sure that it was ever widespread. And wouldn’t they be trying to egg the bad actor off the stage? At any rate, it has nothing to do with this idiom, which means to urge someone on.

It goes back to an Old English word, ecg, a sharp point on a weapon, such as a sword. When captives were being moved, especially in large numbers, they would be prodded by their captor soldiers in order to move them along. A sword or a lance would act as a convincing incentive. To ecg on became to egg on, a change based on sound after the original Old English word had morphed into edge. 

Curiosity led me to collect some other Old English words based on the same root.

  • ecgan:  to sharpen, give an edge; harrow
  • ecgbana:  slayer with the sword, sword-killer, murderer
  • Ecgbryht:  ecg, edge, sword + bryht, bright, excellent
  • ecgclif:  steep shore, a sea cliff or shore
  • ecgheard:  hard of edge
  • ecghete:  sword-hatred
  • ecghwæs:  keen-edged
  • ecglást:  sword’s edge
  • ecglinga:  on the edge, edgeling
  • ecgplega:  a play of swords, sword-fight
  • ecgþracu:  hot contest, sword strength, war or savage courage
  • ecgung:  harrowing
  • ecgwæl:  sword-slaughter, sword’s wail

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Fists First



In Latin, pugnare meant to fight—specifically, with the fists. It lead to a few words still in use today, and a handful of obsolete terms, such as appugn (to oppose), expugn (to capture by fighting), propugn (to fight for something), and repugn (to fight or object).

A cousin is impugn, to fight something by calling its validity into doubt. It may also involve assailing the actions of a person. Pugilist is a fancy name for a boxer, a man or woman who engages in amateur or professional fistfights. A pugnacious person is quick to quarrel or fight.

That leaves one more word related to a fist: pygmy. In ancient Greece, πυγμή (pygme) meant fist. It also was a unit of length—the measurement from the elbow to the knuckles, a relatively short distance.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Plastic



A listener left a message expressing his surprise that the word plastic shows up in the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. ”Just how old is the word?” he asked.

I did a quick search of Cooper’s works and found the word used in the following passages. Evidently, it was one of his favorite words.
·     “The eyes of the father followed the plastic and ingenious movements of the son with open delight, and he never failed to smile in reply to the other’s contagious but low laughter.” [The Last of the Mohicans]  
·     “. . . for his plastic character had readily taken the impression of those things that from their propinquity alone pressed hardest on it.” [Home As Found]
·     “Then came the efforts to give her some ideas of religion, and the deep and lamentable mistakes which, imperfectly explained, and worse understood subtleties, left on her plastic mind.” [Mercedes of Castile]
·     “At my age, all the feelings were fresh and plastic, and grief took strong hold of my heart.”[Afloat and Ashore]

The word comes from the ancient Greek πλαστικός (plastikos). Originally, it meant capable of shaping clay, wax, and other art materials. Applied to non-material realities, it came to mean creative, impressionable, pliable, fluid, or flexible.

In our day, it has taken on a negative meaning: artificial, unnatural, superficial, or insincere.

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Emigrate & Immigrate



Judy from Cedar wrote, “Could you explain the difference between the words  immigrate, emigrate, and migrate – and when it is proper to use each one?
The difference between emigrate and immigrate is a matter of direction. To emigrate is to move OUT OF a country; let the initial letter –e- stand for exit. To immigrate is to move INTO a country; let the initial letter –i- stand for into. Observe that both actions take place in one motion: I emigrate from Ireland as I immigrate to America.

Both words are based on migrate. That comes from a Latin word that meant to change residence. To migrate doesn't necessitate going from one country to an entirely different one. And in a metaphorical application, migrate can mean to spread or transfer, and it is not confined to humans.

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