Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A caller asked about the phrase, “caught red-handed.” Currently, it means to be caught in the very act of committing a crime. Given the circumstances, there is no possibility of pleading innocent.
It seems to have arisen in Scotland somewhere around the 15th century. Originally, it meant to be caught with blood on one’s hands. This could happen while poaching — a very serious offense, especially on royal property—or while committing a murder. To be caught with the victim’s blood still on your murderous hands would be a slam dunk for the prosecutor.
Here’s a quote from Sir George Mackenzie's A discourse upon the laws and customs of Scotland in matters criminal, 1674: "If he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him."
It also shows up in Spenser’s Faerie Queene II. iii. 47: “He might, for memory of that daye's ruth, Be called Ruddymaine [i.e. red-handed].
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Purse Your Lips
On the basis of the similarity of letter sequences, Stan asked about a potential connection between the words reimburse and disburse. There is a connection, and that is the Latin word bursa, a pouch or purse. In turn, that came from the Greek word βύρσα, a hide or wine-skin.
To reimburse is to repay a sum of money. Literally, it is to put money back into the purse. To disburse is to distribute money. Literally, it is to take money out of the purse.
The word purse comes from the same Latin word. So does bursa, a fluid-filled sac that prevents friction between body parts; at all costs, avoid bursitis. Then there’s the word bursar, a college treasurer.
The stock exchange in Britain is called The Burse. The stock exchange in France is called The Bourse. In Germany, it’s called The Börse.
Finally, to purse your lips is to pucker them, as if tightening the strings of a purse.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Florence asked about the word amenable. First of all, she wondered about the correct pronunciation of the word. Then she was curious about shades of meaning.
As far as pronunciation goes, there are two versions. A quick search of a few dictionaries shows that the preferred pronunciation is ah-MEEN-able. In other words, the vowel is long. However, the secondary pronunciation ah-MEN-able (short vowel quality) is also permissible. A safe principle to follow is that if a dictionary entry shows more than one pronunciation, the first one given is more widely acceptable and should be used.
“Willing to accept” summarizes the common meaning: I am amenable to a change in the meeting date. “Capable of being tested” is another variation in meaning: The data should be amenable to professional analysis.
The word came from an Anglo-Norman term that meant to lead. The earliest uses were legal in nature, and amounted to “answerable to legal authority.” By the 19th century, the meaning had shifted to responsive and disposed to submit in a non-judicial forum.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Rodney from Charlevoix shared a word that has a specialized meaning among software writers. It’s obfuscation, and it means the deliberate attempt to make coding unreadable. That sounds counterproductive, but Rodney said it’s useful if you are trying to conceal the purpose of a code, or if you are trying to safeguard your product against reverse engineering.
The word obfuscation has a more generalized meaning, but it still revolves around obscuring, concealing, or confusing an audience. It often involves using words deliberately chosen for their esoteric nature or using jargon not readily available to the general public. A popular bumper sticker years ago was Eschew Obfuscation, which compactly and humorously serves as an illustration.
Originally, in Latin, the –fusc- sequence meant some dark color, at different times described as black, dark brown, or muddy gray. (This reminds me of the murky definition for ecru: greyish-pale yellow or a light greyish-yellowish brown.)
Over time, the word left the realm of color and extended to mean ideas or expressions that are vague, obscure, unclear, perplexing, befuddling, or bewildering.