Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cockamamie



David from Traverse City asked about the origin of the word cockamamie. Today, it means ridiculous and laughably implausible (what a cockamamie idea!), but it started out in a much different context.

In the 1860s, a particular art and hobby form came into prominence. It was called decalcomania, a combination of the French décalquer, to transfer a tracing, and manie, a craze. It involved the process of transferring pictures from specially prepared paper to surfaces of glass, porcelain, and the like.

In the 1920s and 1930s, American children were accustomed to finding cheap decals as a bonus in packs of gum. They were cheap temporary tattoos. I remember buying and using them in the 1940s. They usually represented cartoon characters. You would wet the back of your hand or your arm, then press and hold the decal until transfer was complete.

Somewhere along the line, decalcomania was shortened to the more childish cockamamie. What’s not clear is how a word for a temporary tattoo came to mean ridiculous and foolish. Perhaps it was the cheap and fragile nature of the ink and paper, or the often blurred image that resulted from an improperly or hastily applied image.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Bootleg



Bob from Glen Arbor asked about the word bootleg. Originally, from the 17th century onwards, it was quite literal: the tall leg or upper part of a leather boot. It was a handy place to conceal a knife, a derringer, or a flask of whiskey. As time went on, it came to mean surreptitious, undocumented, illegal, and contraband.

During Prohibition, the term was narrowed to mean illicit alcoholic beverages. As time went on and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment, bootleg was used to describe any illicit transaction. There was bootleg music, bootleg DVDs, bootleg cigarettes, bootleg software, and any other contraband product on the black market.

In football, bootleg refers to a play in which the ball carrier pretends to hand the ball off to another player, but actually keeps and conceals it and continues on with the play.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Exfiltration




Evelyn wrote that she heard this on CNN the other day: “Two NCIS agents assisted in the exfiltration of the wounded officer.”

Exfiltration is the opposite of infiltration. It was built from ex-, out of, and -filtr-, which basically meant a filter. Originally, filter referred to felt, a cloth made of wool or wool plus hair. It was compacted by rolling and pressure.

Liquids were poured through a filter in order to remove impurities. It eventually picked up a military application: to withdraw troops or spies from a dangerous position, often surreptitiously.  The U.S. Department of Defense’s 1968  Dictionary of  U.S. Military Terms defined exfiltration as “the removal of personnel or units from areas under enemy control.”

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

MAL-



Jeff from Traverse City asked where the prefix mal- came from, as in malcontent, malnutrition, and malware.

It came to us from the Latin, where the adjective malus meant bad, wrong, or improper. No newcomer, it’s been used in English for centuries but is still quite useful, as the word malware shows. Malware is a computer program written with the intent to disrupt or harm the machine into which it is inserted. It’s an umbrella term for spyware, virus, worm, and so forth. The word is probably a blend of malicious and software.

The idea of impropriety, poor functioning, evil, or corruption is deep-seated in human experience if repeated word parts are a legitimate measure. A few common and uncommon ways of expressing it are encased in the following forms:
  • dys-  dyslexia, dysentery
  • caco-  cacophony, cacology
  • kaki-  kakistocracy, kakistocratical
  • kako-  kakodaimon, kakodoxy
  • perv-  perversion, pervert
  • ponero-  ponerology, ponerologist
  • prav-  depraved, depravity
  • turp-  turpitude, turpitudinous
  • vitia-  vitiate, vitiated

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Protest



Roland wrote, “I’ve been puzzling over the word protest. If you protest, you are actively and vocally against something. But I thought that the pro- prefix means for or in favor of. Any help with this?”

You are correct in noting that pro- normally signifies being in favor of something (pro-Arab), but it can also mean towards the front, in public view, forward in time, extended in space, standing in place of, and is even used in a few archaic terms of relationship (pronephew).

What seems to have happened is that when French assimilated some Latin terms using the prefix pro-, the emphasis changed. The second element in the word protest is related to testfy or declare, and it also shows up in words such as attest and contest. A protestor would push his or her own viewpoint forward, but it was usually the result of negating or acting against a policy in place. Thus, the latent anti- element began to receive more emphasis.

When the word came into English, it was first used as a legal term. It was a stipulation meant to protect the legal rights of the protesting party. It was a reservation or condition meant to safeguard legal redress, and it brought the idea of challenge even more to the fore.

So while a protest has an undeniably positive element, there is also the element of challenge, dispute, or negation.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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Check out Mike's other books here:
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