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Archive for the ‘adjective’ Category

One of the most fascinating and entertaining features of the English language is that it is in a constant state of change. As new things are created or discovered, someone, somewhere, comes up with a word to refer to it. For example, a side effect of male obesity is the growth of large, fleshy breasts that have been referred to as man boobs, or moobs. It’s perhaps something of a sign-of-the-times that we need such a word. Nevertheless, now we have ’em, we also have a name for ’em.

Yet there are also many old words that clearly were necessary for some peculiar reason but that we don’t use much now. For word lovers, it’s always fun to bring some of these out of retirement, if only – like mayflies – they can have their moment in the sun before disappearing back into obscurity for decades.

So welcome back to the spotlight the word nudiustertian, which on first inspection seems like it should have something to do with strippers and nakedness. Alas its meaning is much more prosaic – though fascinating in its own right.

nudiustertian

Nudiustertian

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means;

Of or relating to the day before yesterday

The word literally means “today the third day” and derives from the Latin word nudestarianus, which is turn originates from the phrase nudius tertius – the day before yesterday. Breaking this down even further, the word nudius comes from nu meaning “now,” and dius for “day,” and tertius means “third.”

THE OED goes on to gives its only example of the use of the word in a sentence from 1647, taken from the ever-popular The simple cobler of Aggawam in America, written by Nathaniel Ward.

When I heare a‥Gentledame inquire‥what [is] the nudiustertian fashion of the Court; I mean the very newest.

Sadly, there are no other examples, and this is truly sad because in all honesty, it’s hard to think of a way of slipping this word into a casual sentence! Indeed, a quick Google search for “nudiustertian examples” offers lots of examples of Nathaniel’s sentence, but little else. Even the folks at the usually prolific Wordnik site can only offer one extra sentence, and that’s a comment on the use of nudiustertian by Ward.

What we may have here is a word for which there is a meaning but no functional use! Or put another way, just because there is a word for “related to the day before yesterday” doesn’t mean it’s going to be used. Remember, it’s not a noun but an adjective, so it has to be used in an adjectival way.

In truth, even Ward appears to suggest that the word should not be used in its literally sense but as meaning “the newest” or “most recent.” No wonder it never caught on.

We also have a similar, although temporally opposite, word for “related to the day after tomorrow,” which is overmorrow. Yet as with nudiustertian, having a word for something doesn’t mean we’ll use it. Given the choice between “I’ll see you tomorrow” and “I see you overmorrow,” which do you think you’re likely to use?

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Many years ago in my early teens, I was an avid reader of science fiction and devoured the epics of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), E.E. “Doc” Smith (The Skylark and Lensman series), Frank Herbert (Dune), and many others. The book publishers, Panther (a then-division of Granada Publishing Ltd.) were partly to blame because of their choice of two particularly memorable cover artists;  Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington. It’s fair to say that in those days, I did judge a book by its cover – or at least I was more likely to pick up one with an illustration by one of these two gentlemen. I still have a number of these books sitting on my bookshelf, although I try not to open them up too much for fear of them falling apart!

One of the books that Pennington illustrated was called Out of Space and Time: Vol 1 by the Californian-born writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and although the tales were more fantasy than sci-fi, I bought it. And Smith, in turn, lead me to H.P. Lovecraft.

Clark Ashton Smith Out of Space and Time

Bruce Pennington artwork

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20th August, 1890 and in his brief 46 years he produced an enormous amount of text. As well as a wealth of short stories and books, he wrote over 100,000 letters, some over 30 pages long, poems, travelogues, art critiques, journalistic pieces, and others. His primary genre is usually referred to as “weird fiction” although I prefer “gothic horror/fantasy.”

One of his most popular and enduring stories is called The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1926 and published in 1928 in the magazine, Weird Tales. Cthulhu is a creature from another world, which ends up trapped in a sunken tomb in the mythical city of R’lyeh. Apparently inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Kraken, Cthlulhu is a large, subterranean beast described as a “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

Cthulhu

Cthulhu

After reading the story in my early teens, Cthulhu remained submerged in my unconscious until  I entered university in the late 70’s. One of the popular bands at the that time was Caravan, a particularly English band from Canterbury who were a blend of psychedelic and progressive rock. Although never a mainstream act, they were certainly a college favorite, and produced such wonderful album titles as Blind Dog at St. Dunstan’sIn the Land of Grey and Pink, Cunning Stunts (a nod to the Reverend Spooner), and Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night.

And it’s the latter album that resurrected Cthulhu in the song C’thlu Thlu, a six-minute piece that never actually uses the name Cthulhu but nevertheless tries to capture that element of the “weird” that runs through all of Lovecraft’s work. This was one of those songs we’d listen to late at night as we would down both the beer and the lights.

My interest in psychology meant reading Freud (extensively) and Jung (heretically), and in his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung uses the word chthonic to refer to both the mythical realm of the underworld and the gods and goddesses therein, and the psychological realm of the darker side of the Unconscious.

So where does chthonic originate? And more important, how do you pronounce it?

The Greek word kthos (χθών) or kthonos (χθονός) means “earth,” with kthonios (χθόνιος) meaning “of the earth” or “beneath the earth.” It first makes a written appearance in 1882 in a book by Charles Francis Keary called Outlines of Primitive Beliefs Among the Indo -European Races, where he says;

The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.

Joseph Shipley, in the classic The Origins of English Words, traces the word back to the the Indo-European*ghdhem meaning “of the earth, and a cognate of the Persian zamindar, which means “ground.” He also tells the tale of Erysichthon, a King of Thessaly who chopped down trees in a sacred forest dedicated to the goddess Demeter in order to build a huge feasting hall. As punishment for such impiety (chopping down sacred trees is always a no-no in mythology) Demeter inflicted him with an insatiable hunger that only ended when he ate himself! The name Erysichthon means “tearer-up of earth,” the “chthon” element being the “earth” reference.

Erysichthon

Erysichthon's table

So what about the pronunciation? Well, Greek, both ancient and modern, is one of those languages that allows a plosive and fricative sound to live together happily at the beginning of a word, whereas English doesn’t like this at all. Thus, Greek words starting with “ps” (psomi=bread or psari=fish), “ts” (tsai=tea) and “ks” (ksenos=foreigner) are all perfectly normal, but in English, such clusters can only appear in the middle of words or at the end. The tendency for English speakers is therefore to simplify such words by dropping one of the sounds.  Hence the reason we pronounce the words psychology and mnemonic as /saɪ’kɒlədʒi/ and /nə’mɒnɪk/ with the initial “p” and “m” dropped.

But with the Brits being a scholarly bunch, steeped in the history of Empire and the university tradition of learning the Classics, chthonic kept its original form and the OED enshrines its pronunciation as /’kθɒnɪk/, with the tongue-twisting cluster up front. The more relaxed and much younger Americans opted for the dropping of the spurious /k/ sound and recommends the simpler /’θɒnɪk/.

Either way, it’s certainly one of those words that deserves an outing now and again, so try slipping it into your next email to the boss.

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After a brief sojourn to visit the Homeland, and to attend a conference on corpus linguistics, I found myself one evening wanting to do nothing more than watch some mindless movie. Luckily, one of the channels through which I was randomly flicking was showing Terminator III: The Rise of the Machines. Ah, mindless entertainment indeed!

I’m sure there were some deep philosophical issues addressed in this film, but a naked Kristanna Loken, shit exploding, and a tongue-in-cheek performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger were, quite frankly, all that I was bothered about. Sharp, biting, cerebral witty banter ran along the lines of;

Terminator: Katherine Brewster? Have you sustained injury?
Kate Brewster: Drop dead, you asshole!
Terminator: I am unable to comply.

Shakespeare it ain’t but there are many reasons for watching movies and one of those is simply to be entertained. And it is an entertaining movie, not the least due to the fact that Arnie is always worth watching.

At this point, I’m prepared to duck to avoid the large, heavy objects that thespians and film critics will now be hurling in my general direction because they are likely to take some offense at my considering the ex-governor of California to be interesting. But he has a certain raw appeal as an iconic “tough guy,” which is actually enhanced by his realization that he’s not the world’s greatest actor and just does what he does without pretending to be otherwise.

True to his catchphrase, “I’ll be back,” Arnie will indeed by back in the near future as a lawman fighting the drug cartels in a new movie called Last Stand – which ironically I suspect will not be his! He’s also to appear as a cartoon character called The Governator, in which he plays – surprise surprise – a superhero named after the nickname given to him during his years as California’s governor.

The nickname derives from his earlier role as a robotic killing machine from the future – the Terminator. It’s simply a portmanteau of governor and Terminator, which is a common way of coining new words. But there is another influence on the derivation.

Prior to being the Governator, he was referred to as the Gubernator, which is defined by the OED quite simply as;

A ruler, governor.

This comes from the Latin gubernator, an agentive noun from the verb gubernare, meaning “to govern.” We can track this even further back to the Greek κυβερνᾶν meaning “to steer.”

Yet it isn’t the noun gubernator that is used most but the adjectival form, gubernatorial, which appeared first in a 1734 reference of the New Jersey Archives (1894) in the phrase “The Governor in his gubernatorial Capacity.” In fact, it seems to be an American word, rarely used in the UK or any of the other English-speaking countries.

It’s use over time seems to have reached a peak during the 1960’s and 1970’s, according to the Corpus of Historical American English.

Historical "gubernatorial"

It’s tempting to infer that the “goober” part of gubernatorial is in some way related to the word goober, which can be used as a synonym for peanut, or in slang for either someone from the state of Georgia or a stupid person. In fact, the word goober appears to be derived from the African language, Kimbundu, and the word nguba, meaning “peanut.”

Still, the notion that gubernators are all nuts has a compelling ring to it!

The Gubernator of Georgia?

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Ever one for checking the etymological pulse of the world of pop culture, the word planking has caught my eye by exploding onto the media scene as the latest dangerous craze/fad/gene-pool-thinner. The act itself involves laying face down, like a plank or wood, in weird and/or unusual places, and then taking a picture to be shared across the internet. That’s it!

Planking

Get you plank on!

Now, like all stupid and pointless activities, the reason for it being catapulted into the collective consciousness is that someone has died, and nothing excites the media like Death, except Sex, and if you can link the two, you’re pretty much guaranteed a slot on Fox News. Curiously, many of the news reports refer to the dead man, Australian Acton Beale, as a “victim” of planking, which is an interesting metaphor to use considering that his death was caused by his own recklessness and not some wicked, third-party agent. Of course, one of the first steps to demonizing something is to turn it into a living thing by the metaphorical process of objectification. It also confers onto planking the status of an illness or disease, and therefore reinforcing that it’s a “bad thing.” Ah, how quickly our use of language can shape our perceptions of the world!

Still, if you must do it – and the 100,000 members of the newly swollen Facebook page, Official Planking apparently are at least considering it – there are some rules on how to plank safely:

1. You must always lay face down, ensuring your face remains expressionless for the duration of the Plank.
2. Your legs must remain straight, and together with toes pointed.
3. Your arms must be placed by your side, held straight and fingers pointed.
4. You must make it known that you are Planking. Saying “I am Planking” usually get this across. Sternly announcing it will ensure a good result.
5. Your safety should always be considered. Properly thought through Planking procedures should always go to plan. Never put your self at undue risk.
6. Every Plank that is captured must be named.

Notice that planking is crossing word-class boundaries. In the phrase “I am planking” it is taking on verb characteristics, whereas in “…Planking procedures” is is more adjectival, describing the type of “procedures.” But in the shock headlines where planking is used to refer directly to the activity, it is used as a verbal noun, or what we oldies prefer to call a gerund, if only because the word gerund sounds much more fun, cute, and cuddly than the more clinical, academic verbal noun. On the other hand, the rules above also refer to “the duration of the Plank,” so we now have the word “plank” without the -ing being used as a noun too!

What we need to watch for are references to someone who “planked himself to death” or perhaps “he planks regularly,” where the use of the -ed and -s suffixes establish the verbiness of plank meaning “to lie like a plank in an odd place.” Oh wait, the T-shirt is already here…!

planking T-shirt

"I planked" T-shirt

Planking previously had to significant meanings. The first is to refer simply to a collection of planks;

Planks collectively; the planks of a structure; plank-work. Also: a layer or surface made of planks, spec. one forming the outer shell or inner lining of a ship’s hull. (OED)

So you might say something like “I fell through the rotten, loose planking through to the deck below. Or you might just decide to fix the deck.

Another use is in the gerundial form as the “action of providing or covering something with planks,” such as in the sentence “When the planking was completed, he had the laborious job of caulking to do.”

In the US, planking is also the name given to a form of cooking that involves nailing fish or meat to a slab of wood:

Planking‥involves nailing the fish to thick oak boards coated with shortening, propping those boards on racks around a bonfire of logs‥, continually basting with the secret sauce‥and waiting for five hours in the middle of the night until the smoke has thoroughly roasted hundreds of pounds of shad. (Washington Post, 10th June, 2004).

Planking meat

Planking on the grill

Going back to the day when people wore hats other than backward-facing baseball caps, planking described the process of shaping and hardening a hat on a plan;

Planking,‥the felting of hat bodies by rolling them on a plank, and frequently immersing them in acidulated water. (OED)

Finally, an even more obscure meaning is “the action of levelling land by drawing a plank across it,” which sounds rather similar to the process by which folks who create crop circles work but in a much more artistic fashion.

Using planks to create crop circles

Planking crop circles

The word plank appears in Middle English as plakys, planak, planc, and a host of others. It came to the language via Anglo-Norman and Old French roots, and can be traced to be a variant of the Old French planche meaning “little wooden bridge.” Going back a little further , classical Latin has the word planca for “board, plank, or slab.” It’s the notion of stiff, wooden, and slab-like that has lead to the word planking taking on its new connotation.

At the time of writing (19th May, 2011) this definition of the words is so new that even the usually current Urban Dictionary has an older meaning;

When one individual proceeds to lie naked, face to face, on top of another person, in a rigid horizontal state.

Of course, I have taken the opportunity to submit my own entry and I’ll post the results of this in the future. Meanwhile, stay sensible and always practice safe planking.

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…and we’re back!

After a three-week hiatus caused by the vicissitudes of modern life, a feeling of guilt has washed over me and the only way to towel it off it to write something. A combination of traveling and writing reports for which I get paid (and although I prefer the fun of The Etyman Language Blog, that won’t but me food or fix my motorcycle) has kept me too busy to update my posts. Mea culpa.

I’m not criminally guilty. As far as I am aware, there’s no law that forces me to update my blog, so the arrival of a fully armed SWAT team is not something I need to be worrying about. The sense of guilt I have arises from an internally developed sense of duty to both myself and my seven readers. Well, maybe it’s eight. Whatever the number, I only have myself to blame for the guilt because if I’d been smart enough never to have started this blogging adventure following my 50th birthday, I’d be free to do other things that are less stressful.

According to the OED, guilt is;

A failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin.

In my case, missed posts could be considered delinquent, but hardly criminal, and certainly not sinful – unless there was an 11th commandment written on the third tablet of stone that Moses dropped on his way down. Freud was hot on the notion of guilt as being related to sin, to the point that in his Civilization and its Discontents (1931), he argued that the guilt/sin relationship was a tool that religions use to keep the faithful in check:

The different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization. What is more, they come forward with a claim…to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.

According to Herant Katchadourian in his fascinating book, guilt is the bite of conscience. The good news here is that if I am feeling guilty, then I must have a conscience! Thank God for that – I was beginning to wonder…

Bite of Conscience book

Guilt: The Bite of Conscience

The word as a noun pops up as an Old English word, gylt, in the Blickling Homilies of 1150 in reference to a passage dating even further back to around 971:

Þonne onfoþ hie forgifnesse ealra heora gylta æt urum Drihtne.

However, the verb form, meaning “to commit an offense, trespass, or sin” turns up in The Vespasian Psalter in the sentence “Swoete & reht dryten fore ðissum aee gesette gyltendum in wege.” The base verb is gyltan and seems to have no equivalents in other Germanic languages. It sounds a little like the German geld meaning gold, which is turn is hypothesized to have its origins in the Old Germanic *geld– meaning “to pay,” but it seems a bit of a stretch to tie “paying” with “failing in duty.”

So where might it have come from? Or in case the Grammar Police are checking up on me, from where might it have come?

Looking at instances where Old English has been changed to Latin, we find that gylt is rendered as debitum in The Lord’s Prayer, and gultiȝ turns up as debet in the Gospel of Matthew. So here’s where there’s a case to be made for guilt having the sense of debt – something you owe. And certainly feeling guilty because you have failed to deliver what was owed doesn’t appear too way out.

If we accept this – and you’re always free to disagree – then we can find some similar Germanic family words related to debt. Old English has the word scyld meaning crime, sin, or just plain guilt, which in turn is cognate with Old Norse skuld, Old Saxon sculd, and Old High German scult, all of which also have the sense of debt or bondage.

It turns out to be a fairly promiscuous word in that it seems happy to spread itself about a bit amongst the different parts of speech.  As well as being the noun and verb guilt, and the common adjective guilty, it can easily become the adverb guiltily. You can also talk about someone having guiltiness (noun) and being guiltful (adjective). If you then factor in its opposite forms, by sticking on the suffix –less you can add guiltless, guiltlessly, and guiltlessness to your vocabulary.

And it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to mention how the word is used in the phrase, “guilty pleasure.” Although the OED doesn’t include it, The Corpus of Historical American English has a citation from 1817 in Francis August Cox’s Female Scriptures Biographies: Volume 1:

In our alarm we forget God, think it “strange,” brood with a melancholy, but guilty pleasure, over our sufferings, and act as if we thought that “God had forgotten to be gracious.”

A “guilty pleasure” is an activity or object that someone finds pleasurable but that also induces a sense of guilt because it is in some way “wrong.” There’s also the sense that the guilty pleasure is something shared by others who feel similar guilt. Thus, admitting you like to watch trashy TV reality shows is seen as a guilty pleasure whereas admitting you like abducting children is a criminal activity. The sense of “wrongness” is typically a social phenomenon and not a statutory felonious action. Again, stealing a car may be pleasurable to some, but it doesn’t qualify as a guilty pleasure.

Guilty Pleasure Snooki Jersey Shores

Snooki: Guilty Pleasure... or just plain "Guilty"

Guilty pleasures are relative and can change over time. I used to consider watching Ren and Stimpy cartoons as a guilty pleasure, but now I count is merely as a pleasure – there’s now no guilt involved. And originally, smoking was a pleasure, then a criminal activity, and now a guilty pleasure. Twenty years ago, looking at the 16-year-old glamor models on page 3 of the UK’s Sun newspaper is a guilty pleasure for a Brit, but opening your copy of the Sun when you got off the plane in Newark Liberty airport was a felony offense for being in possession of child pornography!

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Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” I’m with Woody on this one. Well, the second part in particular. Which is why I am currently back on the WeightWatchers® diet in an attempt to reverse the results of a recent “Wellness Check.” I purposely have that phrase in quotes because the reality is that a “wellness check” is really an “unwellness” check – it is designed to tell you how sick you are. The check was also linked to a new “Health and Wellness” scheme we’ve recently implemented at my company, the major motivation for joining being that it reduces your health care contributions. Being healthy saves you money. In truth, without that financial incentive, I’d be hurtling towards an untimely end a significant number of years earlier than the traditionally allotted three-score-years-and-ten. Who would have thought that exclusive consumption of dead animals, fermented fruits and grains, and exercise no more strenuous than lifting a six-pack of beer could lead to premature death?

The blood test revealed that I was on the border to becoming a diabetic, on the border to becoming a high cholesterol heart attack victim, and so far over the border as regards my weight that I can legally be classified as an illegal alien in Fatland. But what really sealed the dieting deal for me was my very cool and very expensive Joseph Abboud, single-breasted, pin-striped gray suit. It doesn’t fit.

Just before Christmas, which is always a bad time to think about weight loss in general, I am ashamed to say that my choice of attire for the company party was dictated to by my waistline. In the words of Steely Dan in the classic Deacon Blues;

This is the age of the expanding man
That shape is my shame, there where I used to stand.

There was no way on earth, short of paying for liposuction, that I was going to be able to fasten those pants. None. The shame was further enhanced by the fact that I couldn’t even pull the zip all the way up, let alone fasten the buttons. The effect of my blubber slobbering over the waistband was less of a muffin top than a tsunami of fat that threatened to bury my feet.

The word muffin top has now achieved some legitimacy in that it has recently been added to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since March 2011, the official definition of a muffin top now includes;

A roll of flesh which hangs visibly over a person’s (esp. a woman’s) tight-fitting waistband.

Prior to this, the original definition has been in existence for almost 100 years;

The top of a muffin; spec. the part which rises above the rim of the tin or cup during baking; (now also) a type of intended to resemble this, baked in a specially designed tin with shallow depressions.

The metaphorical use of this to refer to the all-to-familiar state of sartorial inelegance is obvious. The OED has a written reference dated 2000 but it will have been around longer than this in spoken language.

The word muffin itself can be traced back to 17th century England where it also appears in the forms muffings, moofin, moufin, and mowfinn. The origin is uncertain but Low German had the word muffe meaning “little cake,” and in the 14th century, the Old French word moflet referred to a kind of bread – which, in turn, was used as an adjective meaning “soft” in reference to bread.

By the time the word was common currency in British English in the 17th century, it referred to any type of bread or cake, but it seems that primarily, a muffin was a flat bread that was often cut in half and toasted.

Then it gets more complicated.

There is also a popular British flat bread called a crumpet, which differs from a muffin only marginally. The crumpet mix contains milk and baking soda, and is made to be thinner than a muffin mix, which uses yeast or sourdough. When cooked, the crumpet develops distinctive dimples, the true value of which is that you can cram butter into the holes and therefore increase your cholesterol intake probably by a factor of ten.

English crumpet with butter and dimples

English Crumpet - with dimples

In the US, the word became more specifically used to refer to sweet cakes rather than breads, with the originally bread-type muffin being referred to as the English muffin, which is the way it is today. The American muffin is closer to the English bun or cake, baked in a small cup like the American cupcake.

A small, usually sweet sponge cake, baked in a cup-shaped container. Freq. with modifying word indicating the flavour or additional ingredients (1835 definition).

Still with me?

OK, let’s make it a little clearer with pictures. Here’s an English cake or bun, which is an American cupcake:

Cupcake

English Bun, or Cake, or US Cupcake!

And now here is an English muffin, as sold in America.

English muffin in America

Finally an American muffin, which can be bought in the UK as an American muffin! Note the distinctive overhanging muffin top.

American muffin

American Muffin with muffin top

In the busy world of slang, where words are tossed, twisted, tweaked, and thoroughly abused in order to make them work much harder, the word muffin has taken up residency with some vigor. Back in 1830, we find it being used to refer to a fool, but this has since evolved to include the notion of a muffin as a dogsbody or anyone who is overly compliant;

It was already attracting a group of young, eager volunteers like Cornelius—‘muffins’, in the parlance of ‘Primary Colors’—whose job was to perform whatever tasks‥needed doing. (New Yorker, 15 April. 56/2).

In baseball, the word was used to describe someone who would miss catching a ball, although what is worth noting here is that the derivation is not from the bread or cake but from the verb “to muff,” defined by the OED as;

To miss (a catch, a ball), esp. in cricket; to play (a shot, a game, etc.) badly. Also with it: to miss a catch, to play or perform badly.

This meaning appeared first in 1827 in  William Clarke’s Every Night Book, or Life After Dark, where he wrote;

When one of the fancy dies, the survivors say, that he has‥‘mizzled’—‘morrised’—or ‘muffed it’!

Canada provides us with another interpretation of the muffin; a temporary female partner.

At the beginning of the winter season each young man chose ‘a muffin’—a ‘steady date’ for the season—an arrangement terminated by mutual consent in the following spring. (Stephens, G. 1965).

This has become extended to refer to any attractive woman, and more recently – from the early 1980’s at least – it has been further tweaked to become specific to a sexually attractive male in the compound stud muffin.

Its use as slang for the female vagina is, etymologically speaking, also fascinating. In John Farmer’s 1897 book, Merry Songs & Ballads, he quotes a song from 1707 with the splendidly raunchy phrase, “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d‥a Mag-Pye’s Nest.” However, the word muff in comes from the Middle Dutch muffel, meaning “related to fur” and ultimately perhaps from Latin muffula.

The shift to using muffin rather than muff seems, in retrospect, to not be too much of a stretch. It also appears to have been an American creation. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang traces its use to the 1950’s in the US, but in the UK, there was a popular children’s pupper show called “Muffin the Mule” that ran from 1946 to 1957. It’s unlikely the chappies at the Beeb would have allowed a puppet to be named after a slang term for a vagina![1] So, the chances are that the genitally orientated interpretation is an American 40’s/50’s word.

By now you are probably either confused or hungry. But remember that a Blueberry Streusel Muffin from Starbucks is 10 WeightWatcher Plus Points, which is a sizable hole in my 29-point daily limit, or 360 calories for those of you who are following calorie-control diets. Either way,  you may want to consider something else if you want to avoid turning the blueberry muffin top into your own personal muffin top.

Footnote
[1] The BBC also ran the animated series, Captain Pugwash, which aired initially from 1957 to 1966. Allegedly, the characters included Master Bates, Seaman Stains, and Roger the Cabin Boy (in UK slang, “to roger” means “to have sex with.”) Sadly this is an urban legend – and I say “sadly” because I do so wish it had been true!

Postscript: 5-15-2011.
My good friend and fellow word lover, Steve Badman, sent me the following correction to my Steely Dan quote:

This is the day of the expanding man
That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand.

He took that straight from the lyrics printed on his physical copy of a 1997 re-issue of Aja on ABC Records. I’m adding this as a postscript rather than simply changing the original quote because I have a thing about creeping Revisionism on the net. I want folks who read this to KNOW that I made a mistake, and they can then speculate as to WHY I did it. Was I negligent in my sources? Have I always had the wrong lyric in my head? Is the erroneous version a result of some unconscious feelings of guilt or anxiety? Whatever it is, simply deleting the error and pretending it didn’t happen strikes me as ethical dubious.

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Instead of tripping the light fantastic and celebrating the new year with lots of hootin’ and a hollerin’ I was baby sitting my grandson, which is actually quite entertaining as he’s 16-months-old and learning to talk. Once he was in bed, my wife decided to watch “Troy,” possibly because she hasn’t read The Iliad and wanted to learn more about classical history, or perhaps because of the combination of Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, and Eric Bana.

In the movie, the Greeks build the famous “Trojan Horse” that was used to hide a bunch of Greeks who, once the horse had been taken inside the walls of Troy, snuck out and opened the gates to allow the rest of the Greek army to conquer the city.

The notion of the Trojan Horse has been used for many year by computer programmers to describe a piece of malicious software that appears safe but contains viral, destructive code. The modern-day Troy – your computer – opens its gates -firewall – and let’s in the Greeks. Or geeks.

The original text for Homer called this the Δούρειος Ἵππος, or “Wooden Horse,” and not a “Trojan Horse.” The first mention in English for the Trojan adjective appears to be in 1574 in a treatise by a Roman Catholic priest called Richard Bristow.

What niggles me is whether it really should be called a “Trojan Horse” because it was quite clearly a “Greek Horse.” It was built by Greeks, manned by Greeks, and offered by Greeks to the Trojans ostensibly as a peace offering. The fact that the Trojans took it into Troy is hardly justification to switch the adjective.

Yorkshire pudding

Proper adjectives that indicate where a noun comes from usually refer to the origin not the destination. After all, when you ship a Yorkshire pudding to your friend in the bordering county of Lancashire, it doesn’t magically become a Lancashire pudding – in the same way your Lancashire hotpot doesn’t become a Yorkshire one post transit.

Lancashire hotpot

Technically, therefore, talking about a “Greek Horse” to describe “…a person or thing intended secretly to undermine or bring about the downfall of an enemy or opponent” is accurate, but seeing as the phrase has been around for almost 500 years, I’m not confident it’s going to change.

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