Archive for the ‘morphology’ Category

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!


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:


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.

[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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A couple of nights ago I was watching the classic movie The Silence of the Lambs, during which there is an appearance by a moth. Specifically, it’s the Death’s-head Hawkmoth or Acherontia lachesis. For the entomologist, the fascinating feature of this moth is that on its thorax is a marking that looks like a skull.

Death's-head moth

Acherontia lachesis

Skull on moth thorax

The skull

For the etymologist, the fascination is with the origin of the name. Or names. The first part, acherontia, comes from Greek mythology and the river Acheron, which is found in Hades and is a branch of the Styx. The second element, lachesis, also derives from mythology and the three Fates; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho would spin the thread of Life, Lachesis would measure it, and Atropos would choose the mode of a person’s death and then cut the thread. This deathly connection is also found in the two other species of moth – Acherontia styx and Acherontia atropos.

But what caught my attention were two jobs mentioned in the end credits. The first was “Moth Wrangler” and the second was “Assistant Moth Wrangler.” Wranglers for moths? How much wrangling does a moth take? As far as I was concerned, a wrangler in the US was someone who rounded up cattle or horses, occasionally swirling a lasso to subjugate an unruly animal. So the inevitable image I had was of cowboys chasing down moths and trying to snag them with ropes.

Ah, but times have moved on since the days of the Wild West. According to the New Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition) the original US definition was “a person in charge of horses or other livestock on a ranch” but that has since extended to include “a person who trains and takes care of the animals used in a movie.”

In the 1982 movie Creepshow, there is a “Roach Wrangler” credited, and in 1984’s Hollywood Hot Tubs there’s a “Rat Wrangler.” Patti Rocks (1989) has a “Skunk Wrangler,” Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)  includes a “Sperm Wrangler,” and James and the Giant Peach (1996) has a “Spider Wrangler.” OK, so maybe the sperm wrangler is a little tongue in cheek, but you get the drift of how the word has shifted to encompass much more than just horse management.

So where did the wrangler come from in the first place?

As a verb, the OED has it popping up in 1377 in Piers Plowman;

There as wratthe and wranglyng is þere wynne þei siluer

At this point, it is defined as meaning;

To dispute angrily; to argue noisily or vehemently; to altercate, contend; to bicker.

The word appears to comes from Low German wrangen meaning to struggle, to wrestle, or just to make an uproar.

It appears as a noun in 1520in the sentence;

Many one… ageynst Lawe and Reason somtyme wyll stryue and… be full of questyons, wherfore they be takyn for wrangelers and euyll people.

By this time, the noun was being used to refer to a person who engages in angry dispute or quarreling.  Then, in the mid-1800’s, it took on another very specific meaning to refer to a student at England’s Cambridge University who was place in the first-class of the mathematical tripos – a set of exams for a degree.

The sense of someone who is in charge of horses on a stock farm – or even a herder in general – is first seen in the US in 1888 in an article for the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine; “There are two herders, always known as ‘horse-wranglers’—one for the day and one for the night.” But in what sense does this notion of “wrangling” have anything to do with the original wrangler? The notion of a wrangler taking on a problem working through it has some resonance but it seems a little stretched.



Some sources, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary suggest that the word is a corruption of the Mexican Spanish word caballerango, a groomsman or ranch hand. The first part of the word, caballer, clearly comes from caballo, the Spanish for “horse.” The second part, rango, means either “range” or “rank,” the latter being the operative one here, with the cabellerango being “the ranking horseman” or “master of the horses.” The cowboys then shortened the word to wrangler based on the sound similarity between “rango” and “wrangler.”

Poster for Rango the movie


Which brings us to Johnny Depp and his new animated movie, “Rango.” Depp is the voice for a chameleon who becomes the sheriff of a western town. Although I have so far not been able to find any comments on the choice of the name, I have to think that it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as a contraction of caballerango, especially since Rango is (a) a cowboy and (b) the boss or ranking official. Tragically, I don’t have the clout to directly ask either Depp or the film’s director, Gore Verbinski, whether my interpretation has any truth. Still, even if it doesn’t you have to admit it would make a pretty decent urban legend!

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At 1:00 pm on Friday, January 28th at the Assistive Technology Industry Association conference and exhibition,  Hank Torres set an official Guinness world record for typing hands-free. Following an accident over 20 years ago, Hank has been paralyzed from the shoulders down and therefore has to use alternative methods for using computers.

For the world record, Hank used a computer fitted with a piece of software called Swype® and a special input device called the Tracker® Pro. This is a ball that sits on top of a display that uses reflected light from a small dot placed on a person’s forehead or attached to glasses.

TrackerPro Headpointer

The test phrase is;

The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human

Hank managed to do this in an official time of 83.09 seconds, which is faster than you might think when you consider that it has to be done without using you hands. In practice, Hank got it down to about 77 seconds but when you have an audience of a few hundred people watching, along with an official adjudicator from Guinness holding a stopwatch, it’s a little stressful!

If you want to get a feel for the challenge, try typing the test phrase yourself using your regular keyboard and see how long it takes. You also have to get it exactly the same, with “Serralsamus” and “Pygocentrus” capitalized and “razor-toothed” hyphenated. If you make a mistake, you can go back and correct it but to achieve a record, nothing less that perfect is acceptable.

Now try doing it again with a single finger. And now hold a pencil in your mouth and try tapping it against the keys. Not so easy, eh?

The test phrase was initially used in test of the ability to use cell phones to generate messages. Based on the notion that an SMS message is limited to 160 characters, the phrase contains exactly 160 when you include spaces and punctuation.

A second design feature was that the phrase had to be cognitively challenging but not impossible. Something like “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” is now so familiar to people that it is not a cognitive challenge – you don’t have to think about it.

The use of words like genera, Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus add challenge because they are low-frequency words, and low-frequency words always make us ponder just a little bit more. And for those who are pondering, genera is the plural form of genus, which is Latin for “birth, race, or stock.” This in turn derives from the Greek γένος meaning “to beget” or “to be born.” Going even further back into the mists of language, Sanskrit has a similar-meaning word, jánas, making this a very old word indeed.

Pygocentrus has a much more interesting history. The Greek word pygo (πυγο) means “rump” or “bottom” or more simply, “rear end.” The suffix centrus comes from the Greek kendros, which means “a sting.” So it’s literally “a sting in the tail.”

Serrasalmus sanchez - pirahna

Pirahna - Serrasalmus sanchez

Serrasalmus has the first element, serra, from the Latin meaning “saw,” as in a saw with jagged edges and teeth. The salmus is also Latin and means “salmon” – the same thing you can enjoy with lemon butter and capers or simply lightly grilled and served with tasty brown rice. So the family of Serrasalmus is made up of saw-toothed salmon. Try slipping this into your next dinner engagement! You could toss in that salmon itself is probably related to the Latin verb salire, which means “to leap,” but then you would start to come across as a know-it-all so best to hold that back for another day.

Meanwhile Hank’s challenge to all comers is to beat his record before he beats it himself. Having established a new benchmark, the game is, as they say, afoot. Or is that “ahand” – without hands?

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The recent kerfuffle regarding the non-burning of the Koran is an object lesson in the more depressing aspects of human nature. Ironically, one of the very things that makes us human and distinct from animals that simultaneously makes us intolerant and aggressive. That’s the ability to use symbols.

The Koran

A Koran

In modern usage, the OED defines a symbol as:

Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.

Language is an example, par excellence, of symbolic behavior. When we use the word “dog” to stand for a four-legged animal that barks and wags its tail when happy, the word itself is just an arbitrary collection of sounds. There’s no inherent relationship between the word and the object it represents, which is why different languages can have different words for the same thing. Thus, the French have a “chien, ” the Spanish have a “perro,” the Turks have a “kopek,” and the Chinese have a “gau.”



In a different example, very young children play with boxes and use them as cars, boats, houses, hats, and any other number of objects, simply because they can. Little Frank can use a stick as a sword, an airplane, a wand, or a guitar; a chimp uses a stick as… well, a stick. Some folks might want to debate this on the basis that some studies seem to suggest that chimps demonstrate evidence of symbolic understanding, but it’s hardly overwhelming and of limited magnitude when compared to the almost limitless symbolism that rattles through the brain of homo sapiens.

As an extension of the ability to use objects symbolically is the tendency to create taboos – and more specifically, taboo objects. This is no more obvious than in religious mythology. For Christians, a small piece of bread – called a “host” – can be magically transformed into the body of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, abuse of a consecrated host is viewed as being a mortal sin, which ranks as an 8 or 9 on the “Sin Scale” and can lead to the desecrator ending up spending the whole of eternity burning in the flames of Hell: All for messing with a piece of bread. In less enlightened times, offenders could be tortured and beheaded for host desecration – which is relatively mild when compared with eternal damnation.

John Martin, 1841, "Pandemonium"

And pity the poor pig, an animal that for no particular reason whatsoever is shunned by Jews and Muslims as being unclean. Not for them the guilty pleasure of a freshly made hot bacon sandwich with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Meanwhile, for Hindus, anything that comes from the humble cow is to be avoided. Other taboo foods include bats (non-kosher), cats (too cute), fungi (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness say they “excite passions”), rabbits (OK for Sunni Muslims, not for Shias), lettuce (according to one branch of Islam, the lettuce is evil), and humans.

The thing about taboos is that they carry with them an awful lot of emotional baggage. Not only do humans have the capacity to create symbols but they also imbue them with powerful feelings. Symbols are also, for the most part, culturally specific, and difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Although it’s easy to pass them off as “primitive” or “stupid,” even the “sophisticated” cultures have their quirks. Your average American would almost choke if you suggested putting cat or horse on the menu at the local bar, yet other countries have no taboo against it. After all, what’s the difference? Why should we be OK to eat pigs and sheep and cows but balk at horses?

And how about flag burning? Take a large piece of cotton, paint some stripes in red and white across it, and them dab some stars in the corner. Now set fire to it. It’s just painted cloth, right? But it was only four years ago that there was a vote on whether or not to criminalize the burning of the US flag. So how “civilized” or “sophisticated” is a country that wants to lock people up for setting fire to something akin to a bed-sheet? And next time you’re on a trip that involves flying to a hotel, try asking to sit in seat 13 or book a room on the 13th floor. There’s a good chance you’ll be unable to do either of them because even in the 21st century, the number 13 is taboo in many countries.

It’s really, really, really hard for people to see past symbols. Once a symbol takes on a taboo status, all reason goes out of the window and the emotions take over. Be it a piece of colored cloth, a collection of pieces of paper bound together, or a ham sandwich, someone, somewhere, is going to hold it in reverence and even be prepared to kill others to maintain that sacred state.

In fact, the word symbol was originally used strictly in a religious sense to refer to;

A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles’ Creed.

This use can be traced back to Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, who was born around 208 CE. He used the Latin word symbolum to refer to the baptismal creed. This was because accepting baptism was a mark that differentiated a Christian from a heathen, and the word symbolum means “mark.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage

In fact, it can traced further back to the Greek σύμβολος meaning “mark,” “ticket,” or “token.” This in turn comes from the prefix, sym-, which means “together” followed by bolos meaning “a throw.” So the underlying notion is of things thrown or put together, which can then be compared using a token. This evolved over the centuries to refer to a token (or symbol) that can be compared with another object (or sign).

In 1590, Spenser used the word in The Faery Queen in its current sense of a representation:

That, as a sacred Symbole, it [sc. a blood-stain] may dwell
In her sonnes flesh.

Shakespeare also used it in Othello in the sentence, “To renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin.”

Yet paralleling this was its continued use to refer to any object regarded as sacred, especially the bread and wine of the Christian eucharist as representing the body and blood of Christ:

After the prayer..the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, spiritual, and real manner. (John Evelyn, 1671, Letter to Father Patrick).

And from 1620, the word was already being used to refer to any “…written character or mark used to represent something; a letter, figure, or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, etc.” (OED). Certainly in the worlds of physics and mathematics, the prime meaning of symbol is as an element in an equation.

Bu the psychological reality of symbolism is so ingrained into ourselves that we forget it’s there. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to identify something as symbolic is that symbols can become transparent and, in a sense, disappear. And when a symbol is also taboo, it is extremely hard to see past it, which in turn makes it almost impossible to diffuse the emotional component. Knowing and understanding that the “Old Glory” is in reality a bundle of colored threads doesn’t stop some people from feeling angry when it’s burning. And knowing that a Koran is just a bundle of printed pages doesn’t stop some people from going on a riot and killing people.

But cheer up! It is possible – with a little willpower and perception – to see through symbolism, and even ignore it altogether. Once, when asked about what his The Old Man and the Sea “meant,” Hemingway said;

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.

And Freud came out with the classic;

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Sigmund Freud

Sometimes, a cigar...

Wordle: symbol - etymology

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Just yesterday, I received a tweet with a link to an article about the culture of whales. No, that wasn’t a misspelling of “Wales” but a reference to those huge, blubbery mammals that produce exotic whoops and whistles in order to communicate with one another. I say “communicate” because I’m not one of those linguists who believe that “talking” is the right way to describe what whales do.

"Do you think my hump looks fat?"

Bees are able to do quirky little dances in order to communicate – without the New Jersey fist-pumping element – but you’d have to be very flexible with your definitions to describe is as a conversation. The bees can transmit data about distance and direction but there’s no “Hey dude, did you hear about Ralph getting a guest spot on ‘Springer’ and stinging some trailer park chick in the ass?”

"So, back to your hive or mine?"

Of course, this doesn’t stop some people from wanting to claim that such communication activities are evidence of an underlying intelligence and consciousness that is close to being human. At the top of the wacko food chain are the self-proclaimed “Pet Psychics” who are not as dumb as the people who believe them, and who are smart enough to get paid by gullible pet owners for spouting total crap (“Fido tells me he is unhappy, and that switching to a premium doggy chow would enhance his self-esteem.”)

In the case of the whales, the story originally comes from a 2001 scholarly article (and for “scholarly” read “we got paid to do this from a grant”) that’s entitled Culture in whales and dolphins by Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead[1]. The more recent revival of the story makes an appearance in the online publication, The Daily Galaxy, where the following gem of hyperbole appears when the author talks about how whale songs have changed:

Why did the song change? It’s not clear, but what is clear is that whales have a sophisticated culture. And who knows, it may be a culture that provides them with the tools to outlive that of homo sapiens. The fact that they took the opposite revolutionary route of human’s by going from land to sea 50 million years ago was a stroke of genius. After all, this the water planet.

“Sophisticated culture?” “Outlive homo sapiens?” “Stroke of genius?” As far as I can remember, it was Melville who wrote Moby Dick, and not Moby Dick who wrote “Melville.” And in the great list of the cultural contributions of whales, I suppose sucking krill is their most significant achievement. Apart from the egregiously erroneous notion that somehow the whales sat down and thought, “Gee guys, let’s not evolve legs and stick around in the water instead,” the paragraph practically defines the word hyperbole for us.

Here’s how the OED defines it:

A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

Alas for some speakers – and writers – hyperbole IS intended to be understood literally.

The word comes from the Greek, ύπερβολή, meaning excess or exaggeration, and is made up from ύπέρ = over and βάλλειν = to throw. Sometimes an example of hyperbole seems more like it should mean “throw up” rather than “throw over.”

One of the earliest uses in English is by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), a famous English figure who is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church. In his enthrallingly titled A dyaloge wherin he treatyd dyvers maters as of the veneration and worshyp of ymagys from 1529, he writes, “By a maner of speking which is among lerned men called yperbole, for the more vehement expressyng of a mater.” The spelling variation here probably a French influence.

Thomas More (1478-1535)

In 1653, another More decided to enhance the word by sticking an “-ism” suffix one. Henry More (1614-1687) was an English philosopher and born in Grantham, the same town as Britain’s first Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He spent most of his life teaching at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and during that time wrote An antidote against atheisme, which included the comment, “Nor is there anything here of Hyperbolism or high-flown Language.”

Henry More (1614-1687)

As a verb, the word is rare. Philosopher John Locke uses it as such in the comment “Your poor solitary verger who suffers here under the deep winter of frost and snow: I do not hyperbole in the case” (Letter to E. Masham, April 29th, 1698). But other than that, there appear to be no other instances readily available. It is more frequent (but maybe only just) when it appears as the form hyperbolize. It appears in a letter of 1599 in the sentence “Will you hyperbolize aboue S. Gregorie, who is contented to marshall the foure generall Councels?” and in the “-ing” form in 1619 in Martin Fotherby’s gripping Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels; “Atheomastix; clearing foure truthes against atheists and infidels.”

The Corpus of Contemporary American cites only three examples in recent history; one from Men’s Health magazine in 1996, one from a National Public Radio interview of 2004, and one from an academic article in 2005. So not exactly a form that trips of the tongue at cocktail parties.

Interestingly, as an adjective, you might expect it to be hyperbolic, but in this form, it means “Of, belonging to, or of the form or nature of a hyperbola.” The OED recognizes hyperbolical as meaning “Of the nature of, involving, or using hyperbole; exaggerated, extravagant.” The sense of the word is clearly important in determining the form of the adjective.

Meanwhile, the Welsh can take comfort in the observation that when I typed “the language and culture of whales” into the Google search engine, the top returned reference was to the Wikipedia page for Wales. Seems that the culture of the land and people is still infinitely more important than that of corpulent cetaceans. Or is that just hyperbole?


[1] , L. and Whitehead, H. 2001. Culture in whales and dolphins. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(2): 309-382 Abstract PDF.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an aging man in possession of a good intellect, must know that he gets more stupid by the year. The older one gets, the less one knows. There is so much I realize I don’t know that I seriously doubt any knowledge I think I do! This is regularly reinforced when I find that a word I thought I knew turns out to be totally wrong.

The Oxford University Press has a new blogger; Lauren Appelwick. In her inaugural blog, I asked her what her favorite three words are, to which she answered palimpsest, legit, and curdle. Now palimpsest is a word I know of, but not about. By that, I mean I sort of know that it’s a word, recall having heard it during my life, but not know what it means.

But what made seeing the word particularly irritating was that I could have sworn blind that the word was actually *palimpset. Honestly. Ironically, I had to check the OED itself to confirm my error – an error that has clearly been in my head for decades.

Another example of how little I know and how inaccurate what I think I know may be.

Palimpsest derives from the Latin palimpsestus, which refers to a piece of paper or parchment that has been written on again. In a sense, palimpsests represent an ancient form of recycling, where old writing would be removed from a parchment and new script added. Either that or a precursor to the Magic Slate or Etch A Sketch®.

Codex Armenicus palimpsest

Incidentally (and what’s a Word Guy article without an “incidentally”) the Etch a Sketch was invented in the late 1950’s by a Frenchman called Andre Cassagnes, an electrician by trade but a toy designer at heart. He developed a toy that he modeled on the shape of a TV screen, which used two knobs to move a pointer across a glass screen covered in aluminum dust. He called it the Telecran, itself derived from télévision and écran, the French for screen. Cassagnes took the toy to the International Toy Fair in Germany in 1959 under the name of L’Ecran Magique, where the Ohio Art Company took a look at it and promptly said “non!” Fortunately for the Cassagnes, the “non” became a “oui” on a deuxième viewing, and in 1960, the Etch A Sketch burst forth onto American TV screens and became a huge hit.


So thousands of years earlier, Hellenistic Greek had the word παλὶπφηστος meaning “scraped again,” which derived from Ancient Greek πὰλιν = again along with φηστός = to rub smooth. φηστός has the same Indo-European base as the Sanskrit bhas, which means “to crush, chew, or devour.”

In 1661, Robert Lovell mentions the palimpsest in his A compleat history of animals and minerals when he says, “The chalked skinne for a palimpsestus, serving in stead of a table book.” A full definition appeared in 1701 in Phillips’s New World of Words, Vol 6. as;

… a sort of Paper or Parchment, that was generally us’d for making the first draught of things, which might be wip’d out, and new wrote in the same Place.

It is also used to refer to brass plates that have been reused on the back

By the 19th century, the word had taken on extended meaning as “a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multi-layered record.”

Palimpsest was used to described the brain (“What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?” – De Quincey, 1845); the soul (“Let who says ‘The soul’s a clean white paper’ rather say a palimpsest… defiled” – Browning, 1856); history (“All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary” – Orwell, 1949); and even entire countries (“The absurdity and high emotion that characterises the palimpsest that is India” – The Times, 9 Mar., 1995).

At the beginning of the 20th century, the word was assimilated by the fields of physical geography and geology to specifically refer to structures that are characterized by superimposed features, produced at two or more distinct time periods. In 1914, an article by Taylor in the Geographic Journal contained the line “I explain the topography as follows (in accord with the ‘palimpsest’ theory)…”

The word can be used as an adjective to described things of a palimpsest nature, as evidenced by The Times in 2001:

They [sc. television reruns] are another manifestation of today’s palimpsest pop culture, in which everything is ripe for sampling and nothing stays dead.

By adding the “-ic” suffix, it’s possible to turn the adjective palimpsest to – the adjective palimpsestic! This is referred to as a pleonasm, the addition of a redundant morpheme or word. If I were pretentious, I might want to suggest that a pleonasm is a type of linguistic palimpsest: but I am not pretentious 😉

Hmm, it’s surprising that no-one at Rolling Stone has yet used the phrase “palimpsestic rap” or “palimpsestic dance remixes” – or maybe they have.

The word also exists as a verb, to palimpsest, but it sounds weird when you see it inflected in a sentence. For example, in Scribes and Scholars (1991), Reynolds and Wilson wrote “The toll of classical authors was very heavy: amongst those palimpsested we find Plautus and Terence, Cicero and Livy.” And in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) Pynchon wrote, “Down both the man’s cheeks runs a terrible rash, palimpsested over older pockmarks.”

It’s hardly a popular verb. The Corpus of Contemporary American doesn’t have an example of palimpsested, palimpsests, or palimpsesting. Nor does the British National Corpus. Here’s an opportunity for wordies to start promoting

So now I know enough about the word palimpsest to feel temporarily content that in the infinite universe of things I don’t know, there’s at least one more word that I can be reasonably confident about. Until someone makes a comment…

Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest"

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My daughter decided to use her “text a friend” option yesterday while being involved in a heated online linguistic discussion in the XBox world of Halo. She is a freshman at college so naturally this message arrived in the afternoon, when no sane student is actually working.

Halo 3 game

Those of you who have spent any time with an online Halo team will know that the level of verbal interaction tends not to be at a particularly high level. I would hazard a guess that the average Halo language sample is made up mostly of profanities, some of which I’m not sure even I would recognize as such. However, the big, big topic for the day was all about the gradeability of adjectives, specifically as applied to the word stupid.

The question was; which is correct – stupidest or most stupid? A natural sub-question was whether is was better to say stupider or more stupid. It was after a round of arguing that my daughter decided to call in The Word Guy.

Typically, I always love to be right on questions like this, but in practice, some English language “truths” turn out to be more opinion than science, and the rules that are used to determine what is and isn’t “correct” are more complex than hyperdimensional probabilistic quantum equations where you aren’t allowed to use vowels or the number zero.

In general, adjectives (or words that can behave like adjectives) with a single syllable can be graded by adding an -er or an -est to form the comparative and superlative forms. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest are OK, as are thick, thicker, and thickest. Words with three or more syllables stay the same but need more and most to be added to the front. So, we see simple-minded, more simple-minded, and most simple-minded, as well as ludicrous, more ludicrous, and most ludicrous.

However, when you use two-syllable words like stupid and inane, things can get a little wooly, which I accept is not a formal linguistics term but certainly seems to fit the general feeling one gets when faced with choices between adding an ending or using a preceding more/most.

So in true prevaricating style, I texted my daughter back that both stupidest and most stupid are fine.

But that, of course, wasn’t satisfying enough for me, so I decided to try to find a few numbers using the Google search engine. Here are the results expressed in ghits (Google hits):

Stupidest: 1,575,000
Most stupid: 593,000

We can see that stupidest is the winner by far, being used almost three times more often than its most stupid counterpart. If you were to describe this article as “the stupidest analysis of stupid on the planet,” you might be factually wrong but grammatically with the majority.

Moving on to the comparative forms, I found the following ghits:

Stupider: 489,000
More stupid: 662,000

Here, the figures as less conclusive. I’d be OKish to say that more stupid is the more popular, but it would be better to chase down more data to support this. What IS worth noting is that if these figures are reasonably correct, the “correct” gradeable triplet is as follows:

stupid more stupid stupidest

As I said earlier, the “rules” in this case seem to be slipperier (more slippy?) than a bucket of eels that’s been filled with baby oil.See how the comparative and superlative forms are inconsistent with each other? Welcome to the English language, eh?

The word stupid is defined by the OED as;

Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc.

As an adjective, it pops up in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale back in 1611;

Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres?
Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes?
Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man? (Act IV, Scene iv)

The word appears to come from the Latin stupere, which means “to be stunned or benumbed,” and is the same root for the word stupor that can be seen as a noun in 1358 to describe;

A state of insensibility or lethargy; spec. in Path., a disorder characterized by great diminution or entire suspension of sensibility.

John de Trevisa, in his Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum (1398), uses the wonderful phrase;

Stupor is a lettynge and stonyenge of lymmes and crokynge of the vtter partyes of the body for colde so that it semyth that the lymmes shrynke and slepe.

Having one’s “vtter partyes crokynged” sounds more painful than stuporific, but it is at least a good definition of the word.

There is some evidence that stupid was also used to describe a paralyzed part of the body, but this is confined to a usage in 1638 and this connotation clearly never caught on.

Now, at about the same time as Shakespeare was using stupid to describe a state of stupor, its use to describe someone “wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull” (OED, Vol XVI, p.1000) was also growing. It’s this more pejorative use of the word that is typical of today’s use.

During the 19th century, it took on the flavor of meaning of something “Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull,” which could be applied to objects and situations, not just people. When Mary Braddon wrote “We were quartered at a stupid sea-port town” in her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, she wasn’t referring to the mental state of the town but its tedious nature.

It was also used during this period as a noun to refer to someone as being a stupid, as in “You do not know what a thoughtless, heartless stupid I have been. (Mrs. Alexander, Valerie’s Fate, 1885.) This is similar to how someone might refer to a person as a stupid today, or in the now-cliched T-shirt phrase, “I’m with stupid.”

It seems that in the mid-to-late 20th century that the word took on a more insulting slant and became a term of abuse or disparagement. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), we find the sentence, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” Unlike Braddon’s stupid sea-port, the stupid used to refer to the hill is derogatory.

Since the 20th century, the word seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative and calling someone who appears a little sleepy or unfocused as stupid would be unwise.

The word can also function as the noun stupidity, and as the adverb, stupidly, to describe something being done foolishly.

And don’t forget, as Einstein once quipped;

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.

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Being a misanthropic, skeptical, cynical curmudgeon may seem like a miserable way to go through life but it’s actually quire good fun. If you think that “Life sucks, and then you die” then every day you aren’t dead is a bonus!

Chronic cynicism means that I love quotes such as Einstein’s “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity – and I’m not sure about the former.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell was no less critical when he said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

H. L. Mencken was never one to sugar-coat his opinions, and his general opinion of mankind was often unfavorable. “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.” More acidly, he also said that, “No more than one man in ten, at least in the United States, is really a master of the trade he practices. The rest take money for doing what they are quite incompetent to do, and thus live by false pretenses.”

Henry Louis Mencken

The idea that people feign competence so as to appear smarter than what they actual are is not new. The word sciolist appears in 1615 to describe someone who is “A superficial pretender to knowledge; a conceited smatterer.” It derives from late Latin sciol-us, which translates as “smatterer.” More specifically, it is the diminutive of scius, which means “knowing,” and that in turn comes from the verb scire, meaning “to know.”

In 1639, George Digby, the Second Earl of Bristol said “Only sciolous wits float onely in uncertainty.”[1] Just a year later, James Howell wrote, “I could wish, that these sciolous Zelotists had more Judgement joynd with their Zeale.”[2] Incidentally, Howell – the son of a Welsh clergyman and author of a book on English grammar – coined the well-known phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” [3]

Sciolism as a noun appears in Coleridge’s The statesman’s manual; or the Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight; a lay sermon, published in 1816, where he talks about, “That epidemic of a proud ignorance occasioned by a diffused sciolism.”

Although it looks similar, the word scion comes from very different roots. A word that does have the same root is science, which derives from the Latin scient-em, the present participle of scire, the same starting point for sciolist.

Some flavors of sciolists are dilettante, from the Italian dilettante and originally delectare meaning “to delight in; dabbler, from the Dutch dabbelen, which refers to trampling ones feet in mud; and the profoundly scatological bullshitter, from Middle English bole (bull) along with Old English scite or scitte, “dung” and “diarrhea” respectively.

Bull shitter mug

BS Mug

But we’ll leave talking about shit to another posting.

[1] Letters between the lord G. Digby and Sir K. Digby concerning religion.1639
[2] Dendrologia, Dodona’s Grove, or the Vocall Forest. 1640
[3] Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish. 1659

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