Friday, January 31, 2014

Scot-Free



Judy from Gaylord asked about the phrase scot free. There are a few folk etymologies connected with this phrase; in other words, popular (but incorrect) guesses.

First of all, stop picturing kilts, haggis, and bagpipes. The phrase has nothing to do with Scotland and its inhabitants.

And don’t be tempted to think of Dredd Scott (1846 – 1847), a slave who sued for his freedom. In the very year that he died, the United States Supreme Court ruled that all people of African ancestry, slave as well as free, were ineligible for citizenship, and therefore couldn’t sue in federal court. The elements are there—a man named Scott and the idea of being free—but the phrase scot-free goes back to medieval times.

Scot probably goes back to the Old Icelandic word skattr, a tribute or tax. It came into Old English as shot, then scot. It designated a municipal tax spread over a general population. Sometimes the tax was paid to the local lord or ruler. At other times, it went to the sheriff or bailiff. If a citizen could evade the tax, he or she went scot-free.

There were other recipients of taxes, too. The church scot—usually a measure of grain due on St. Martin’s Day (November 11)—went to local ecclesiastical authorities. The Rome scot went to the Holy See, at least before the Reformation. The soul scot was money paid in memory of the deceased to his or her parish.

My favorite is the scot-ale, a fest sponsored by the lord of the manor that required compulsory participation and an involuntary contribution. No doubt the primitive predecessor to B.Y.O.B.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Caper


David from Traverse City asked about the word caper. Specifically, he wondered about the connection between the caper that you eat and the caper that involves jumping or skipping about. The short answer is that there is no connection between them.

The capers that we eat—the pea-shaped green food items—are actually flower buds plucked from a particular kind of bush. They are dried and brined, then packed in the glass jars that we find on supermarket shelves. The word came from a Latin word that meant a bush.

The motion caper refers to a frolicsome leap, and it is sometimes used to describe a dance step. (“To cut a caper” is connected.) It is an abbreviation of the word capriole. In turn, that came from a Latin word that meant a goat, which is wont to frisk, especially when young.

Another caper, now obsolete, meant a pirate. It evolved from a Frisian verb that meant to take away, steal, rob, and plunder.

A fourth caper came from the Gaelic language. It meant a piece of oatcake and butter topped by a slice of cheese.

For a brief time in the 19th century, caper was a slang term that referred to chorister boys and ballet girls. And in the early 20th century, caper was used as a shortened form of capercailye, a wood grouse.

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

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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.






Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chintzy & Tawdry



On today’s program, William from Charlevoix asked about two synonyms: chintzy and tawdry. Both mean cheap, substandard, and unfashionable.

Chintzy is the adjective form of chintz, a Hindi word. Chintz was a painted or stained calico imported from India. The name was extended to include cheap cotton cloth stained with patterns, often containing many garish colors.

Tawdry is a shortened form of tawdry lace. It was neckware, a sort of tie or lace necklace favored by women in the 16th and early 17th century. In turn, tawdry is a shorted form of St. Audrey. Venerable Bede explained the origin in his Ecclesiastical History. St. Audrey (aka Ethelreda) died of a neck tumor. She considered it fitting because as a young woman, she was sinfully vain, frequently adorning herself with splendid necklaces. So what started as something expensive and fashionable eventually degenerated into cheap and gaudy versions favored by country wenches.

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

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Rose by Any Other Name . . .


I’m not necessarily proposing that we revive a word that went out of vogue a few centuries ago, but sometimes it’s fun to dip into our heritage. The Latin verb nuncupare spawned some interesting words in English. It meant to name, designate, express, or declare.

Here are some of its descendants.

·      nuncupate: (1) To dedicate a work to someone. (2) To make a solemn promise.
(3) To name or designate. (4) To declare a will orally.

·      nuncupation:  (1) The act of naming, designating, or calling. (2) The oral expression of a vow. (3) The oral declation of a will.

·      nuncupative: (1) Of a will declared orally. (2) Nominal or so-called.  (3) Designative.

·      nuncupatory: (1) Of a will: oral. (2) Of an epistle: dedicatory.

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Junket


 In a move that caught me by surprise, the word junket came up several times during last Tuesday’s program. I mentioned that it had been one of my least favorite childhood desserts because of its slimy texture. Jim from Petoskey mentioned that, in contrast, he had loved it, especially the maple-flavored variety. Marge from Suttons Bay called in to praise the type used in pie fillings—above all, for raspberry pie, her favorite.

The discussion started with mention of the political junket, a trip taken by a politician at taxpayer expense, something universally abhorred by civilians. It evolved from junket used to describe a picnic—or, indoors—a banquet.

Originally, junket was the word for a basket made of woven rushes. It was used to carry fresh fish. Later, it referred to a rush mat upon which a cream cheese mixture was placed.

Its predecessor was the Italian giuncata, a cream cheese that was sold in rush baskets. That, in turn, evolved from the Latin juncata, cream cheese, which was indebted to junca, rushes.

So, the container and the thing contained became inextricably intertwined. How can we know the dancer from the dance?


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

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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.






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