Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Smithereens


An unnamed caller to Words to the Wise asked about the word smithereens, as in, “the children smashed the piñata into smithereens.” Invariably, it seems to go with verbs of violence, such as blow, punch, shatter, knock, split, and pound.

Smithereens is a variant of smithers, which was defined in Halliwell’s 1847 Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words as “fragments & atoms”. The –een suffix represents the Gaelic diminutive ín.

It shows up in other Irish words, such as colleen (young woman), kippeen (small stick), boreen (small lane), birdeen (young bird or girl), buckeen (a younger son of the poorer aristocracy), caubeen (small hat), and  spalpeen (young workman or scamp).

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

Nook edition

Check out Mike's other 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, November 20, 2013

Fastness

Ron Jolly asked about a word that he encountered in a book about the northern Michigan of days gone by: “Let us take you into the fastnesses of the primeval forest.” The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that one of the meanings of the word was the state of being dense, compact, and solid. So we’re talking about close-set trees and underbrush that made access difficult.

That brought up the word fast and the many meanings that it has. As a noun, there are four words spelled that way, though their origins are completely separate:

·      Abstinence from food.
·      A rope by which a ship is connected to a wharf.
·      An understratum or bedrock that is fixed in place.
·      Arrogance or pompousness.

But it is as an adjective that the meanings of fast explode into action:

·      of an object: firmly fixed in place
·      of a person: firm, steadfast person
·      of sleep: deep and ungroken
·      of a vessel: fixed on the ground or shore
·      of a color: permanent
·      of an organism: resistant to the toxic action of an agent
·      of material: closely knit together
·      of style: compact, terse
·      of water: frozen
·      of a fortress: secure against attack
·      firmly attached to something else
·      of a knot: firmly tied
·      of a door, window, etc.: shut, bolted, or locked
·      gripping, tenacious
·      close-fisted, niggardly
·      of motion: quick, swift
·      of a clock: indicating a time more advanced than the true time
·      of film: needing only brief exposure
·      of transport: adapted to quick movement
·      of persons: extravagant in habits or morality

Totally off subject, but vital nonetheless, is the fact that F.A.S.T. is an acronym that helps remind us of the symptoms of a stroke.



Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
Check out Mike's other 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.





Thursday, November 14, 2013

Snowbird



Nancy--a seasonal resident of Traverse City--wrote, "Since I am a snow bird (or is it one word: snowbird?), I began to wonder what the origin of that term is."

The original snowbird (1680) was any species of bird that showed up in the winter when there was snow on the ground. Then it did a complete reversal.

It began to be used as military slang around 1905. It was used to describe men who enlisted to get food and clothing in the winter months, then deserted when warm weather came around.

Then it shifted to an industrial sense in the early 1920s--namely, when the building industry slowed to a crawl in the North during the winter months, carpenters and other workers who went south to find work were described as snowbirds.

Finally, it was used to describe retired folks who seasonally moved south to avoid the rigors of cold weather. These days, that’s the standard use, though sometimes it refers to coke or heroin addicts.

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

Nook edition

Check out Mike's other 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.






Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nine



Don asked why cats are said to have nine lives. When you consider that some cultures think that cats have only seven lives, it does seem rather arbitrary.

It’s a superstition based on the observation that cats seem to have a knack for escaping death because of their speed and agility. One of the earliest quotes linking cats and nine lives appeared in 1584, though it contains an unexpected reversal:

“For witches haue gone often in that like­nes, And therof hath come the prouerb as trew as common, that a Cat hath nine liues, that is to fay, a witch may take on her a Cats body nine times.”  [Gulielmus Baldwin, Beware the Cat, 1584, London]

The number nine has been regarded as special across the centuries and across cultures. In Egyptian theology, in order for a soul to enter the afterlife, it had to pass the scrutiny of nine gods. The Greeks venerated the Nine Muses, nine goddesses who ruled over the arts and sciences. Christian epistles speak of the nine gifts of the Spirit (1Corinthians 12:8-10) and the nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Numerically, nine is the last single-digit number. Many people thus associate it with completion, perfection, and power. In itself, the number three represents perfect symmetry, so the fact that nine is three times three gives it extra significance. In the illustration above, notice that the nine-pointed star is formed by superimposing three different triangles.

One really weird observation that many mathematicians have made is that if you multiply ANY number by nine, then add the resulting numbers together, they always add up to nine.
·      9 x 2 = 18;  1 + 8 = 9.
·      9 x 3 = 27;  2 + 7 = 9.
·      9 x 4 = 36;  3 + 6 = 9.
·      9 x 15 = 135;  1 + 3 + 5 = 9.
·      [Try some more on your own.]

As an English major, I have no idea what is operating behind the scenes here. And, come to think of it, none of this explains why some people think that cats have nine lives.

So, never mind.

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

Nook edition

Check out Mike's other books here:
 Amazon.com
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.






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