My affinity for old dictionaries should be no surprise to Wordmonger followers. This appreciation has been fueled by experience with watered-down newer dictionaries, or – sadder still – “student dictionaries” that may as well have had the marrow sucked out of their bones.
I can find no Old Dictionary Appreciation Day, Week, or Month, so I’ve decided to celebrate old dictionaries whenever the spirit moves me. This week is one such week.
It doesn’t take dusty, leather-bound dictionaries to stoke my fires. Dictionaries published as recently as the 1960s simply make me smile. I find what I need in them. They include the features I expect.
One such element is the “synonym” feature which closes the occasional entry. This feature takes similar words or terms & parses out the shades of meaning. Here are two synonym entries from my 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary:
“Intelligent implies the ability to learn or understand from experience or to respond successfully to a new experience; clever implies quickness in learning or understanding, but sometimes connotes a lack of thoroughness or depth; alert emphasizes quickness in sizing up a situation; bright and smart are somewhat informal, less precise equivalents for any of the preceding; brilliant implies an unusually high degree of intelligence; intellectual suggests keen intelligence coupled with interest and ability in the more advanced fields of knowledge.
Beautiful is applied to that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses or to the mind and suggests that the object of delight approximates one’s conception of an ideal; lovely applies to that which delights by inspiring affection or warm admiration; handsome implies attractiveness by reason of pleasing proportions, symmetry, elegance, etc., and carries connotations of masculinity, dignity, or impressiveness; pretty implies a dainty, delicate or graceful quality in that which pleases and carries connotations of femininity or diminutiveness; comely applies to persons only and suggests a wholesome attractiveness of form and features rather than a high degree of beauty; fair suggests beauty that is fresh, bright or flawless; good-looking is closely equivalent to handsome or pretty, suggesting a pleasing appearance, but not expressing the fine distinctions of either word; beauteous in poetry and lofty prose is now often used in humorously disparaging references to beauty.
Is that poetry, or what?
Good followers, what bits of old dictionaries do you fancy?
My thanks go out to this week’s source, Webster’s 1959 New World Dictionary of the American Language
Some etymologies are milquetoast while others are just plain weird.
Boss entered English in the 1640s in America. Though its Dutch source word baas, meant master, it’s believed that boss may have come into use in an attempt to make a distinction between master of a slave & master of a hired worker. The Dutch term appears to have come from the Old High German terms, baes, uncle, & basa, aunt. The slang term of the 1950s & ‘60s, meaning excellent, was actually the rebirth of a slang use of boss in the 1880s.
Etymologists argue over the origins of the term kibosh. Dickens (at the tender age of 24) introduced the term to English readers in 1836 as kye-bosk. Though most etymologists agree that it sounds as though it should have Yiddish roots, the most likely origin appears to be the Gaelic term, cie bash, pronounced ky-bosh. This term refers to the black skullcap worn by judges &/or executioners when pronouncing or performing the death penalty, thus the term, to put the kibosh on.
Unlike boss & kibosh, smart alec (or aleck) has a wonderfully clear origin. Alec Hoag was a con man, misogynist, &/or pimp who – when his wife, Melinda, was “distracting” a client -- would sneak through a specially designed secret panel in the room to pilfer her client’s wallet, watch, & other valuables. Apparently he used some of these valuables to buy off local law enforcement for some time, making a good deal of money & earning the nickname Smart Alec. I find a certain poetic justice in the fact that smart alecs tend to perceive themselves as smart, while the rest of us find them downright offensive. Sadly, Melinda Hoag has disappeared in the annals of history.
Good followers, please leave a comment with your thoughts regarding smart alecs, bosses & kibosh.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Cracked.com & the OED.
I have neighbor who seems to think his shredded, tattered American flag is a sign of his patriotism. Heavy sigh. At least he's inspired this post. Flag is one of those delicious words etymologists aren’t 100% sure of. The noun form showed up in English in the late 1400s.
Some argue that flag may have come from Old Norse, flaga, a word related to flake, and referring to split stone. We see this meaning in the English word flagstone. The theory is that flagstones are flat & rectangular, a flag is flat & rectangular, voila! Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.
Another possibility is that flag comes from the Danish flaeg or Dutch flag. Both these words refer to a yellow iris &/or freshwater reed, things that flap about in the breeze, not unlike flags. Hmm.
The most likely connection (in my humble opinion) is to the verb flag, which predates the noun by a full century, & comes from Old Norse, flakka, to flicker, flap, or flutter. In the Old Norse term we can hear the onomatopoeia of fabric in a stiff wind. Etymologists in the flag-comes-from-flakka school of thought argue that the verb for flap or flutter naturally morphed into the noun for the item that flapped or fluttered.
Some other flag tidbits:
The verb to flag changed meaning in the early 1600s, from meaning flap, flicker flutter to meaning to go limp or droop.Perhaps a lack of winds inspired this change?
In the 1800s the verb, to flag collected another meaning, to stop or slow something. This grew out of the use of flags to slow or stop trains. Much later, in the 1980s, this term was applied to drinkers who’d had a bit too much & would no longer be served more booze.
In the 1870s, the term flagship was born, referring to a ship flying the flag of an admiral. Its figurative meaning arrived in the early 1900s.
The Arizona city, Flagstaff, was so named on July 4, 1876, when a very large flag was flown from a very tall tree.
So, does the verb-to-noun argument resonate best for you, or do you side with the flagstoners or iris-reeders? Or do you have something else to say about all this?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Wordnik & the OED.
If you're an author & haven't yet discovered the book, How to be a Writer in the E-Age and Keep Your E-Sanity, by Anne R. Allen & Catherine Ryan Hyde, it's time to do so. There's no question the authors are brilliant, informative, & patient.
Given their experience in the publishing world, it's no surprise that Anne & Catherine are informative. Similarly, the etymology of informative holds little surprise. Inform first showed up in English in the early 1300s, coming through French from the Latin informare, which literally meant to shape or form, & figuratively meant to train, instruct or educate.
Both Anne & Catherine have been labeled brilliant by greater folk than me, & I must agree. Their suggestions and observations definitely cast a brilliant light on the breakneck changes going on in the publishing world. Brilliant made its way into the language in the late 1600s, and meant sparkling or shining. It came from Latin, through Italian, through French. Most etymologists agree its roots are in the precious stone beryllium. This word came through Dravidian from Sanskrit. Apparently the first eyeglasses may have been made from beryllium, hinting at the origin of the German, Old French and modern French words for spectacle, brille, bericles, & besicles.
Throughout the book, the authors show patience explaining the techno & personal-care ins & outs necessary to thrive in today’s publishing world. I appreciate this patience, right along with the etymology of the word. Patience, to suffer or endure, came to English from Old French in the early 1200s. Its roots are in the word passion. Many writers would claim writing is all about suffering & enduring, but I’d argue that none of us would suffer writing’s slings & arrows if it weren’t for our passion. Over the years, passion has referred to: suffering, misery, woe, scorn, enduring, enthusiasm or predilection, strong liking, strong emotional desire, & even sexual love.
I hope before you leave my page to take a look at How to be a Writer in the E-Age and Keep Your E-Sanity, you’ll leave a comment about informative, brilliance, or patience (or passion).
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Ewonago & the OED.
Here's a quote that tickles the fancy of a word nerd. It comes from a 1912 article in The Nation.
“[T]here is an alarmingly wide chasm, I might almost say a vacuum, between the high-brow, who considers reading either as a trade or as a form of intellectual wrestling, and the low-brow, who is merely seeking for gross thrills. It is to be hoped that culture will soon be democratized through some less conventional system of education, giving rise to a new type that might be called the middle-brow, who will consider books as a source of intellectual enjoyment.”
The quote sparked not only a good laugh, but an interest in the origins of the word brow. It seems the Old English braew initially meant blinker or twinkle, and was used to refer to the eyelid or eyelashes. Its early relatives can be found in brus (proto-Germanic), bhrus (Sanskrit), ophris (Greek), bruvis(Lithuanian), & the Old Irish word bru.
To refer to what today is called the eyebrow, the Anglo-Saxons combined bru with a prefix meaning over, to create the term ofer-bru, but somewhere in the 1200s the prefix evaporated and the prefixless bru or brouw came to mean eyebrow. It wasn’t until the 1500s that the word brow came to be used to refer to the forehead (&/or the superciliary arch).
The term browbeat showed up in the late 1500s, though it appears that 16th century browbeating had more to do with frowning, or lowering one’s brows than with any sort of attack.
The terms low-brow & high-brow didn’t come about until 1902, a mere decade before the coinage of that beautiful term labeling those of us who consider books “a source of intellectual enjoyment,” middle-brow.
So, fellow book-lovers, will any of you join me in proudly wearing the label, middle-brow? Please let me know. We‘ll start a movement!
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, The Nation, & the OED.
I wanted to call this post, “What’s good for the goose is good for the barnacle.” The title was simply too long for the blog’s title format. Such is life.
Any birders out there will know that there is a bird species that goes by the name barnacle goose. What I find linguistically fascinating about the barnacle goose is that its name is redundant. The word barnacle first appeared in English in the early 1200s, meaning a species of wild goose. It wasn’t until the 1580s that barnacle applied to a type of shellfish. Though nobody’s certain, many etymologists believe this has to do with a combination of two things: 1) the barnacle goose was never seen raising its young by Europeans, as it indulged in this process in the European-free Arctic, thus causing those curious Europeans to come up with unlikely folktales, & 2) the barnacle of the shellfish variety catches its food with feathery, downy tendrils. So obviously, those funny-looking shellfish HAD to be the eggs of the barnacle goose!
While we’re considering our friend, the goose, here are some other goosely language thoughts:
1540s – goose begins to mean a simpleton or foolish person
1845 – the idiom, to cook one’s goose is born
1866 – goose egg comes to mean the number zero
1880s – goose picks up another idiomatic meaning, a jab in the derriere
The term gander appears to have originated with the Lithuanian word, gandras, or stork, which morphed to mean single men (much like “he’s going stag”). It was probably the similar initial sound (& possibly a dearth of storks) that led gander to mean male goose. By 1886 the idiom to take a gander was born, based off the gooselike (or possibly single guy) craning of one’s neck while taking a gander.
So followers, please consider yourself goosed. What have you to say about all these gooseworthy thoughts?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com & the OED.
We have countless authors to thank for coining some of the more colorful words in our language. This week, let’s celebrate a few.
Jonathon Swift brought us the word yahoo with the publication of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. Yahoo referred to a race of backward, brutish people with hair on the backs of their hands. Yahoo’s subsequent metamorphosis appears to be a bit of a mystery.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan coined the term malaprop in his play, The Rivals (1775). One of his characters was inclined to abuse her metaphors, coming up with such gems as, “He’s the very pineapple of success!” Her name was, of course, Mrs. Malaprop.
Oddly enough, James Joyce brought us the word quark in Finnegan’s Wake back in 1939. Joyce gave it no particular meaning, beyond the possible meaning of cheer, in the line “…three quarks for Muster Mark,” but the sound of the word appealed to physicist & linguist Murray Gell-Mann, who applied quark to fractionally charged subatomic particles in 1964.
Dr. Seuss’s 1950 picture book If I Ran the Zoo brought us the word nerd, an odd creature one might want to put under lock and key. Here’s another word that has grown & changed since its birth. The changes don’t appear to have been tracked carefully. I guess some of us word nerds must have been snoozing.
Good followers, any thoughts about quarks, yahoo, malaprops& nerds?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, Mental Floss, Flavorwire & the OED.
The last post covered idioms featuring the word fish. Now we're on to skin. The English language employs a good number of idioms that include the word skin. Being a bit of a word nerd, I can hardly keep from laughing when simply reading a page in an idioms dictionary. I hope this “page” I’ve compiled spreads a bit of mirth:
-be comfortable in one’s own skin
-by the skin of the teeth
-get under one’s skin
-give one some skin
-jump out of one’s skin
-makes one’s skin crawl
-more than one way to skin a cat
-no skin off one’s nose
-play out of one’s skin
-save one’s skin
-skin & bones
-skin someone alive
-soaked to the skin
-won’t pull the skin off a rice pudding
Okay valiant followers who recognized every last skin idiom in the list, let me know. On the other hand, let me know if one or two caused you to think, “What the heck does that mean?”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Barron’s Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms, Idiom Connection, Using English & the OED.
This week it’s time for idioms based around the word fish, a word that takes up nearly three full pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Big fish in a small pond is an idiom started in America in the early 1880s. Many people prefer being the big fish in a small pond, although escaping into the larger sea can have its advantages.
Though Chaucer included the term “a fish that is waterless” in Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, the first time the term a fish out of water appeared in print seems to be three centuries later. You might say it’s the rare bird who enjoys feeling like a fish out of water, though I have appreciated that situation many times – a year in American Samoa as one of the few palagi on the island, a couple of years as the only Anglo in the Cal State Northridge Pan African Studies Gospel Choir, the list goes on…
There is, of course, the possibility that the fish in the water think of the fish out of water as queer fish, a British idiom that appeared in 1919, applied to anyone who might appear odd or eccentric.
Etymologists argue about the origins of fine kettle of fish (& its sibling, pretty kettle of fish). Some etymologists are moderately certain the idiom was born of a Scottish term kettle of fish, which referred to a picnic of sorts, in which the local landholder invited his minions to enjoy a day off work. This event called for the minions to light a fire on the riverbank, suspend a giant kettle over it, catch fresh fish, cook them in the kettle, and serve them to the visiting nobles. No one is certain how the theoretically positive experience could have collected a negative connotation, but I do wonder about those “lucky” minions who were invited to do all the work. Other etymologists suggest a pretty kettle of fish may have originated as a pretty kiddle of fish. Kiddle was a word used to refer to nets thrown across a river to catch the fish. Perhaps when the catch was particularly successful (or pretty), hauling in a bunch of flapping, unhappy fish made a bit of a mess? The jury is out & sparring etymologists continue to duke it out.
In 1660, John Evelyn first penned the idiom bigger fish to fry, which may be the sort of thing that leads a big fish in a small pond to venture into the larger sea, where he may feel like a queer fish, or a fish out of water, or might discover that life out of his little pond is a pretty kettle of fish.
What other fish idioms can you add to the list? Please leave a comment suggesting an idiom or two.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. Barron’s Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms, Literary Exchange, Phrases.org, Wordvia.com, The Hindu.com, Wise Geek, Phrases.org, & Wordnik
As summer leaves us, why not indulge in a bit of etymology & a few celebratory quotes about summer?
Summer comes to English from Sanskrit. It appeared in English in 825, meaning exactly what it does today & spelled sumur. Interestingly, summer is etymologically related to the word gossamer, which came to English in the early 1300s, from a marriage of the words goose & summer, & meant spider threads spun in fields of stubble in late fall. Etymologists theorize that the spider silk looked a bit like goose feathers. Hmm. Within a century, gossamer found its present meaning, of light, flimsy, or delicate.
Here are some authors’ thoughts about summer.
“Summer's lease hath all too short a date.”
”There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart."
“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Come with me,' Mom says.
To the library.
Books and summertime
“One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.”
-Henry David Thoreau
"Summertime and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high,
Your mama’s rich and your daddy’s good-looking
So hush little baby, don’t you cry"
-DuBose Heyward, music by George Gershwin
So, good followers, what say you about summer?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline.com, Goodreads & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.