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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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One of the rituals of international air travel is that of being asked a number of standard questions by a security official before you can check your luggage. One of the more interesting questions is “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?” My response is always “No” but my mental response is always “Yes, if I use a little imagination and cunning.”

I say that because with only a minimal amount of thinking I reckon I could turn many of the items in my carry-on bag into weapons of death. The simplest would be to remove the shoulder strap on my bag and use it to strangle someone. That’s almost a no-brainer option and something that anyone could do.

Like most folks, I carry a few pens and pencils that have been collected from the hundreds of hotels I’ve stayed in over the years. With a small amount of force, a pen can be jammed into someone’s jugular, resulting in a crimson cascade of blood and the eventual death of your victim.

Furthermore, if I were to break the glass on a smart phone screen, I suspect I could find a piece of glass long and sharp enough to slit someone’s throat. And don’t get me started on what I could do with a paper clip that’s been unfolded to become a thin, sharp, pointed spear of metal. Doubtless a professional assassin would be trained to use his or her entire body as a weapon.

So given the assumption that I believe I have cunning, the Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of the word as;

Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skillful, ingenious.

I say “this sense” because its meaning has shuffled around a little since its first appearance in the grippingly titled English Metrical Homilies from Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century of 1325;

For he wil that they stither rise
And be cunnand in his seruise.

Note the Middle English variation of cunnand, which is one of many spellings that include connand, conand, kunnyng, konnyng, connyng, cuning, cunnyng, conning, and conninge. I mention all these because its worth remembering that prior to the mass production of books after the printing press, spellings were more flexible that a politician’s promise.

The original meaning was simply that of possessing knowledge and learning, or being versed in a subject. And in this sense, it can be traced back to the verb can, which originally meant “to know” long before it took on its current day function as a modal verb meaning “to be able” or “permission.”

The Old English cunnan was the same as the Old Saxon cunnan, Old High German kunnen, Old Norse kunna, and the Gothic kunnan. So describing it as Germanic in origin is hardly likely to raise any eyebrows or disagreement.

By the end of the 14th century, the word has also taken on a specific meaning as referring to people with magical powers;

Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning man, cunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, “wise man,” “wise woman,” wizard or witch. (OED)

In Britain, fifteenth century practitioners of folks magic were known as “the cunning folk,” who were apparently sometimes used in the same way that modern “psychics” are allegedly used by law enforcement – to locate criminals, stolen property, and missing persons. A distinction was, in fact, drawn between the cunning folk and witches, where the latter were deemed malevolent but the former as valuable members of society. It was not unusual for someone to employ one of the cunning folks to remove a witches curse, or at least provide protection from witches’ spells. It seems that we had “Psychic Hotlines” long before telephones were even thought about!

The word took on a more negative connotation by the 17th century when it was used to describe the process of being, “(s)kilful in compassing one’s ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly.” Shakespeare used it in Henry V when Henry himself said;

And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence.

This is typically the common meaning today.

In the USA, the word is used colloquially to refer to something that is, “quaintly interesting, pretty, or attractive.” For example, in a copy of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine dated November 1887, you can find the following quotation;

As a child, she had been called ‘cunning’ in the popular American use of the word when applied to children; that is to say, piquantly interesting.

It’s also interesting that although this meaning is an American colloquialism, it was used by Charles Dickens in his 1943 novel Martin Chuzzlewit;

Tea and coffee arrived (with sweet preserves, and cunning teacakes in its train).

Thanks to the comic genius of British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, and the team of the classic Blackadder series, the word cunning became part of a catch phrase used frequently by Baldrick, the character played by Tony Robinson. For example;

Private Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.
Captain Blackadder: Really Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Captain Blackadder: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.

For those who have either missed the slightly surreal but linguistically delicious humor of Blackadder, here’s a link to a clip of Baldrick and a “cunning plan.”

And for those who demand more, sit back and watch a short documentary about the series, replete with examples of some of television’s finest verbal humor.

Wordle: cunning etymology

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If I were given the chance to choose another era into which to have been born, I’m pretty sure that culturally, the mid- to late-19th century would have suited me fine. Well, provided I were given the resources to avoid having to live in grinding poverty, succumb to fatal diseases, and be an Englishman. In truth, it took me a long time to realize that I was perhaps born a century too early, and a simple list of my cultural interests outside of the 20th and 21st centuries make it so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how stupid I was to miss it!

Top Five Musicians: Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.

Top Five Poets: Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson.

Top Five Painters: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Arnold Bocklin, Thomas Cole, John Collier, Casper David Friedrich, and John William Waterhouse.

Top Five Writers: Han Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Mark Twain.

Now not all of the above are 19th century – and consider that your “Quiz of the Week” to find out which are more early 2oth – but the majority certainly are. Add to this the fact that my collection of Freudiana takes up three shelves and you can see that on balance, I appear to be a hopeless Romantic, in the full 19th century meaning of the word.

You could say that I am enchanted by the era. It’s no surprise that I’ve already talked about the romanticism of vampires and that both Lara Croft and Xena Warrior Princess are guilty pleasures. But why should that be? What have these fictional characters got to do with the word enchant?

Well, the obvious link is that it also the root of the word enchantress, defined by the OED as a “female who employs magic; a witch, sorceress.” And perhaps the most iconic and well-known enchantress is Circe, who appears as a major character in Homer’s Odyssey, and gets a minor mention in Hesiod’s Theogeny. In the myth, Circe tried to use her magic to enchant Odysseus, but by using a drug given to him by Hermes, he was able to resist her charms. However, the same could not be said for Circe who fell in love with him and eventually let him and his men leave.

J.W. Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (Latin for envious) came close to having me banned from the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide when I committed the heinous crime of trying to take a photograph. My error was to use a camera since that what caught the attention of one of the fine art Gestapo, who were conveniently ignoring all the spotty-faced yakking kids on a school outing happily clicking their cell phones at all and everything. Unless he thought I was an international art thief planning my heist, I have yet to work out what possible harm I could have caused.

Circe Invidiosa painting

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa phto

Circe Criminalis

The word enchant derives from the Latin incantare, which in turn comes from the prefix in- meaning upon or against, followed by cantare, to sing. The word incantation, meaning a magic spell or charm comes from the same root. In his 1377 The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, William Langland wrote;

The frere with his phisik this folke hath enchaunted

By the 16th century, the word had extended its verbiness and become an adjective. In Spenser’s Faire Queene, he said;

When Britomart with sharp avizefull eye
Beheld the lovely face of Artegall
Tempred with sternesse and stout maiestie,
She gan eftsoones 6 it to her mind to call
To be the same which, in her fathers hall
Long since in that enchaunted glasse she saw.

Coleridge was also enchanted by “enchanted” and used the word in Kubla Khan (an etymologized version of which can be found on this very blog).

But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Kiss of the Enchantress

Kiss of the Enchantress 1890 Isabel Gloag

Tennyson used the masculine form of the noun in the story of Merlin and Vivian in Idylls of the King:

And Vivien ever sought to work the charm
Upon the great Enchanter of the Time,
As fancying that her glory would be great
According to his greatness whom she quenched.

In the poem, Merlin is eventually spellbound by Vivian as she casts a charm on him and imprisons him in an oak tree.

Beguiling of Merlin painting

The Beguiling of Merlin 1874 Burne Jones

Enchant has certainly worked hard at crossing the parts-of-speech boarders by moving from verb to adjective to noun and even to adverb! For a very brief period in the 13th century, magic was referred to using the noun, enchantery, and we also see the first appearance of enchantment at around the same time, although this form of the word has continued to also mean “alluring or overpowering charm; enraptured condition; (delusive) appearance of beauty” up until today.

Shakespeare (who else?) appears to have been the first to coin the use of the word as an adverb in the passage;

Yet hee’s gentle, neuer school’d, and yet learned, full of noble deuise, of all sorts enchantingly beloued

And only last month in Vogue magazine, in a review of Oscar de la Renta’s latest collection, writer Indigo Clarke said that there was;

An enchantingly ladylike extravaganza like no other during New York Fashion Week…, Oscar de la Renta’s preternatural ability to make antiquated styles relevant in a modern context is continually inspiring.

Oscar de la Renta gown

Enchantingly elegant de la Renta?

As a final example of the dangers of enchantment, consider once more Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca and his brush with the sirens. These seductresses of the sea were said to lure sailors to their doom by singing the most beautiful and hypnotic songs and causing their prey to crash against rocks and drown. Artist John William Waterhouse, a slave to feminine enchantment, painted Ulysses and the Sirens in 1891, and The Siren around 1900.

Ulysees and the Sirens painting

Ulysses and the Sirens 1891 Waterhouse

If you click on the paintings and look at the faces of all the sirens, you’ll see that Waterhouse was indeed enchanted by a vision of one woman, whose image appears over and over in his paintings.

The Siren painting

The Siren c.1900 Waterhouse

Male artists seem to be prone to enchantment. It could be said of Quentin Tarantino, the director, that he was enchanted by Uma Thurman, who has appeared in a number of his movies and with whom he maintains a professional relationship.

But men and their Muses… that’s another story.

Wordle: enchant - etymology

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Like most people, my life is governed by Chance. Those folks who think their lives are dictated by some some of Order are sadly mistaken. God not only plays dice with the universe but the Universe itself is nothing more than a giant dice shaker with an infinite number of ivories.

So earlier this week, word lover June Templeton happened to join The Etyman’s merry band on Twitter. Ever intrigued by why folks might want to receive daily doses of random etymologies in 140 characters or less, I clicked through the twitter tracks to find June’s blog, June’s Temple. In her brief introduction, she writes:

I love reading, writing and dreaming. I have a thing for horses (not in a kinky way) and a thing for dashing fairy-tale princes (sometimes in a kinky way).

Kinky. Now there’s a word with a personal history. Without much thinking at all, the word conjures up images of Diana Rigg in a skin-tight leather catsuit and kinky boots. This was back in the late sixties when I was still in single digits but becoming old enough to find Emma Peel somewhat visually distracting. By the 70’s I was able to appreciate the full Freudian implications of the effect she had had on my tender young pre-pubescent psyche.

One interesting etymology of her name (there is another) comes from the desire of the original writers to have a character who had “man appeal,” which became shortened to “M appeal” and thus by pure phonetic association “Emma Peel.” Of course, purist phoneticians will leap up at this point and set me straight by mentioning that the stress patterns for “M appeal” and “Emma Peel” are different – /’ɛməˌpiəl/ versus /ˌɛmə’piəl/ – with the tonic stress shifting from front to middle. But tish and pshaw, I retort! Diana Rigg in a catsuit will trump the International Phonetic Alphabet any day.

The reason that kinky comes to mind in this context is that the use of the word to describe fetishistic activity can be traced to the beginning of the 60’s when it refered to perverted sexual activity. The English novelist, Colin MacInnes wrote in his 1959 novel, Absolute Beginners;

Suze… meets lots of kinky characters… and acts as agent for me getting orders from them for my pornographic photos.

As an adjective, it became used frequently to describe the thigh-high leather boots used by dominatrixes in sado-masochistic games. Thus the phrase “kinky boots” entered the lexicon – and the world of the Avengers. In the original episodes, Honor Blackman played the role of Cathy Gale, who, like Emma Peel, was a “femme fatale” figure and dressed in boots.

In 1964, Blackman and her co-star, Patrick Macnee (who played John Steed), recorded a song called “Kinky Boots,” a kitschy piece of sixties trivia that was mercifully less than 2 minutes in length. Surprisingly it became a hit in 1990, by which time it had been out of circulation long enough to acquire cult status.

As an adjective, kinky was used in the mid-19th century with the meaning “Having, or full of, kinks; closely curled or twisted: said esp. of the hair of some races.” (OED). The American humorist, William T. Thompson wrote;

I happened to call one of the nigger waiters ‘boy’. The kinky-headed cuss looked at me sideways, and rolled the whites of his eyes at me.

This was in 1848 in his collection of stories, Major Jones’ Sketches of Travel, and at a time when the word nigger was shifting from being a neutral generic for black-skinned individuals to a pejorative. In fact, the work kinky was used often in reference to describe the characteristic hair of the anthropological negroid type. Later, this extended to any hair: The American musician, writer, and politician Kinky Friedman was not born with this name but acquired it at college on account of his curly top!

Kinky Friedman: A rare hair shot

By the latter part of the century, it was used colloquially in some parts of the US to describe someone who was a little eccentric or crotchety. In Longest Journey (1907) E. M. Forster wrote; “This jaundiced young philosopher, with his kinky view of life, was too much for him.” There is also evidence that at around the same time, it was used in some dialects to mean lively, spry, or energetic.

In the 1920’s, kinky took on a special use among the criminal fraternity to refer to something that was stolen or dishonestly acquired. This continued in the 1950’s, as demonstrated in William and Florence Simpson’s Hockshop, where they say;

Canfield… was never accused… of having ‘kinky’ gambling paraphernalia. By that I mean dice and cards and roulette wheels that gave the house an unfair advantage.

Also during the 20th century, the word was used as a noun to refer to;

a. A person with ‘kinky’ hair.
b.
An object dishonestly obtained.
c.
A sexually abnormal or perverted person.

This switch from an adjective to a noun during the 1900’s is deliciously kinky because the adjective kinky originally came from the noun, kink back in the 17th century as a nautical term. The OED defines it as follows:

A short twist or curl in a rope, thread, hair, wire, or the like, at which it is bent upon itself; esp. when stiff so as to catch or cause obstruction.

Lexicographer Edward Phillips had an entry in his The new world of English words: or, a general dictionary first published in 1658:

Keenk (in Navigation), is when a Rope which should run smooth in the Block, hath got a little turn, and runs as it were double.

In the 19th century, the word took on the meaning of a twist in the neck, or a crick, and an example can be found in Melville’s classic Moby Dick;

I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.

Ultimately, the word is likely to derive from the Dutch (like the English, another nautical nation) word, kink, meaning twist or curl. In turn, this has cognates in German of kink and kinke, as well is Danish and Swedish kink. Icelandic has the word kikna for “to bend at the knees” and keikr meaning “bending back.”

From these we can infer a common root of something akin to *kink– or *kik-” meaning “to bend or twist.”

There is one more kink to this post, and that’s also related to my childhood in the north of England. If I tried to go out to play when it was cold, I was told to wear something warm so I wouldn’t “catch your death of chincough.” I never knew what the chincough was and why it would lead to my ultimate demise but while researching kinky, I found the answer.

The word kink is also Scottish and northern English dialect for a fit of coughing or spasm of laughter. This was the basis for the word kinkcough, a spasmodic and potentially fatal type of coughing, which we now recognize as whooping cough. The softening of the initial hard /k/ to the affricate /tʃ/ lead to the “chincough” of my childhood.

This version of kink comes from a slightly different root: The Old English cincian meaning “to gasp or pant with difficulty.” Clearly there is the sense of a kink in the air tract but the chinchough represents a different tributary of the kinky river.

And as a final thought, just remember:

Kinky is using a feather. Perverted is using the whole chicken.

Wordle: kinky - etymology

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