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Archive for the ‘noun’ Category

In one of those splendid examples of being divided by a common language, my recent post on petroleum (or petrol, as those wacky Brits like to call it) cries out for a similar investigation into the word gasoline. As far as out motor cars go, they are both the same but etymologically speaking, the are clearly continents apart.

Gas pump

Unlike petroleum, which can be traced back to Greek, gasoline is a relatively new word, dating back to the 19th century, where it starts out life as gasolene or gasoleine – or even gazoline. The OED defines it as follows:

Originally: a light fuel oil made by the fractional distillation of petroleum, used for heating and lighting. Subsequently: a similar petroleum distillate used as motor fuel.

The first recorded mention of the word can be seen in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle from 1863;

Best and cheapest burning oils for winter… Refined colza, gasolene, petrolene. (12th September)

One interesting possibility for the origin of the word is that it may be an eponym – a word derived from someone’s name. The suggestion is that back in the 1860’s, a London merchant called John Cassell sold lighting fluid for lamps under the trade name Cazelene. Meanwhile, a competitor on Dublin had a similar product called Gazelene, possibly to avoid any legal challenges from Cassell, who had a patent out on Cazelene. And how do we know there was a patent? And ad in the London Times said so;

The Patent Cazeline Oil possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light (Times, 27th November, 1862)

Considering that a patent application needs to be around before you start talking about it – let alone printing it – it’s likely that it was around a few years before the 1863 citation of gasolene, and may therefore be an early example of the phenomenon of “genericization” – where a trade name becomes a common word, usually to the dismay of the mark holder!

As we know, the use of gas took off in the US in contrast to the UK’s use of petrol. A quick look at the Corpus of Historical American shows the growth of its use in the phrase “gas station” from 1920 onwards. And both words demonstrate the process of back-clipping – the shortening of a longer word by dropping the end part. So now people talk about gas and petrol, not gasoline and petroleum.

Frequency of use of gas station from 1900 to 2000

Gas station 1920-2000

Still, the word gasoline itself is a great example of how you can build a word from pieces and parts – or for those who are more academically inclined, how to derive a word morphologically. Clearly there are three parts; gas, –ol, and –ine. So let’s go through each one.

Gas was coined in 1648 (or thereabouts) by the Flemish chemist, J.B. Van Helmont (1577–1644) to describe something that was “a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses.” He modeled it on the Greek word chaos (χάος) and he explicitly said that

A few years later, the more global definition was;

A substance in a state in which it expands freely to fill the whole of a container, having no fixed shape (unlike a solid) and no fixed volume (unlike a liquid); spec. (distinguished from a vapour) such a substance above a critical temperature such that it cannot be liquefied by the application of pressure alone; any substance which normally exists in such a state.

This is pretty much what we currently understand as the meaning of gas.

The next part, –ol, is a suffix used in chemistry to form the names of hydrocarbons – such as that which we refine as fuel for cars. It comes from the Latin oleum meaning “oil,” which in turn appears to be a variation on the Greek elaion (ἔλαιον) or “olive oil.”

The final piece is the suffix –line that was used in the 19th century to create the names of chemical derivatives i.e. chemicals that were created as a result of extracting them using some sort of process – as in the distillation of fuel.

Still, whether you call it petrol or gasoline, it still burns a hole in your pocket!

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One of the reasons for the dearth of posts lately is that I took a trip back to the UK to visit friends and family. In short, I went on vacation. My wife and I stayed with my parents who happen to live “off the grid” – which means they have no Internet access, and as a result of this, I was also disconnected from the wired world. Now although this may seem a little unusual these days, it is precisely how a vacation was supposed to work just a mere 25 years ago, before we all voluntarily allowed ourselves to be electronically manacled by our bosses and friends using a mobile phone. When George Orwell wrote 1984 and predicted the hell of a world where Big Brother would be constantly watching us, he failed to realize that this wouldn’t come about by the cruel jack-boot of a dictatorship but a voluntary submission to private corporations whose technology not only lets us be tracked but for which we pay a handsome premium! It’s as if we not only invited Big Brother to live in our houses but paid him for doing it.

There is now technology available that can be worn and which records your everyday life. The Autographer, slated for a November 2012 release, is a wearable camera that automatically takes up to 2,000 pictures a day, and with a 136 degree lens, it’s able to take in a fair amount of the wearer’s immediate environment – including you if you happen to be around.

Autographer wearable camera

Autographer

And the Memoto, expected to ship in February 2013,  is another wearable camera that snaps an image every 30 seconds and uses GPS to tag where the photos are taken.

Memoto wearable camera

Memoto

So imagine a world where we all have one of these to record our lives, and by extension, the lives of everyone we meet. Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy or a neo-Luddite, but I find that vision somewhat scary. We pretty much end up living in an electronic goldfish bowl where everything we ever do and say becomes embedded in some unaccountable cloud-based “world memory” that never gets erased. And even if you opt-out and say, “I refuse to wear one,” how do you stop your interactions with all the folks who are using them?

If you do 35 mph at 3:00 am on an empty street where the limit is 25 mph, is a crime committed if no-one sees you? Well, in the goldfish world, yes! If your camera is on, you are the seeds of your own destruction, especially if your “crime” is backed up by your GPS data, and supported by the street cameras that seem to be popping up all over the world.

So we are slowly giving up our privacy, slice by salami slice, of our own free will because we want “cool technology” and “instant, constant communication,” until one day we realize that our lives are little more than live action reality TV shows streaming over the Internet to anyone who cares to watch – and judge.

All of this thinking was precipitated during my UK trip following my attempt to fill up my rental car with petrol – as those funny Brits like to refer to gas. I say “attempt” because when I tried to pay using my US debit card, the petrol station’s technology turned it down. I had to whip out a credit card to assuage the demands of BP’s point-of-sale system. I was also aware of the fact that not only was my location now “known” to the bank, but the cameras inside and outside of the petrol station were recording my every move. I guess it’s only paranoia when they’re not out to get you!

Petrol is a shortened form of the word petroleum, defined in the sense of fuel for cars as;

A light fuel oil made by distilling petroleum and used in internal-combustion engines, esp. in motor vehicles.

It’s first recorded use as such tool place in 1895 in a book by D. Salmons entitled Horseless Carriage where he says, “Benzine of a certain density, known in France under the name of essence de pétrol, …is the material employed to run the engines.”

Prior to this, petroleum was the word used to refer more generally to;

A viscous liquid, consisting chiefly of a mixture of hydrocarbons and varying in colour from black or dark brown to light yellow, that is formed by the decomposition of organic matter buried in sediments, is present in some rock formations (sometimes seeping out on to the ground), and is extracted and refined to produce fuels (esp. petrol, paraffin, and diesel) and other substances; mineral oil.

It appears in Old English as petraoleum and derives from the post-classical Latin, petroleum, which means “mineral oil,” i.e. oil from rocks. The Old English actually does a good job of revealing the more detailed etymology, with the first element, petra, being the classical Latin for “rock,” and the second part, oleum, being the word for “oil.” Hence the notion of oil from rocks. We can trace petra even further back to the Ancient Greek πέτρa that also means “rock.”

Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks differentiated between πέτρa as the generic material and πέτρος, which refers to “a stone for throwing.” The Greeks even had the word πετροβόλος  for “the act of throwing stones.” Now, back in 1973, linguist J. Peter Maher wrote a paper with the fabulous title of “Neglected Reflexes of Proto-Indo-European *pet– “fly”: Greek petros “stone” / petra “cliff”; with notes on the role of syntax (IC structure) in polysemy and semantic change, and the situational motivation of syntax.” [1] What he suggests is that the same Indo-European root word, *pet-,  that gave rise to the throwable stone was also the source of the word feather, from where the sense of a stone flying through the air comes from.

Feather on a stone

Feather and stone

Who would have thought! And if anyone comes across a pub called The Stone and Feather, please let me know. Alternatively, if you want to open a new pub called The Stone and Feather, I’d be happy to come along and provide a linguistic opening.

Notes
[1] The Oxford English Dictionary cites this as 1977 in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 3, where the article does indeed appear, but  it was actually written in 1973 and appeared in the journal Lingua e Stile, 8, 3, 403-417. A minor point but I just wanted to point it out in the interest of accuracy and provenance.

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Who’s that trip trapping…?

Once upon a time there were three billy goats, who were to go up to the hillside to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”

On the way up was a bridge over a cascading stream they had to cross; and under the bridge lived a great ugly troll , with eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker.

So begins The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a classic Norwegian tale of gluttony and violence [1], which is, after all, par for the course as far as fairy tales go. And the best fairy tales pull no punches when it comes to being profane, scary, politically incorrect, and generally unwholesome for little girls and boys.

Or so one might think.

The tendency for well-meaning modern writers to “reinterpret” such stories so that they don’t harm the fragile psyche of the child misses the point; that the fragile psyche actually needs to be damaged. Or at least shaken around a little.

In his classic book, The Use of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim does an amazing job of explaining why such tales are important to the psychological development of children, and how their often dark and upsetting subject matter is actually a way for kids to learn to deal with the harsh realities of life.

And this desire to “protect our children” is why many of the current version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff end up with the troll who lives under the bridge being pushed into a river – a significant difference from the original fate of the hapless bridge-dweller. Here’s how the third of the goats disposes of the troll;

And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade, and after that he went up to the hillside.

There’s little chance of “swimming to safety” or “just getting a wee bit wet” here. The goat clearly has an agenda, and the almost ritualistic killing would look a little distressing in a kid’s picture book.  It’s also unclear what the troll had actually done to deserve such a brutal slaying. Sure, he’d threatened to eat the goats but they were, after all, trespassing on his bridge.

In Scandinavian mythology, a troll is an ugly and malevolent creature, larger than humans but with a taste for their flesh. They live in caves (and apparently also under bridges) and only come out at night, otherwise they turn to stone in sunlight.

The word comes from the Old Norse troll meaning a giant or a demon, but there is also the Old Norse word trolldomr meaning witchcraft. The Swedish trolla means “to charm or bewitch,” so the link between troll and some supernatural element is clear. [2]

And it’s this sense of the word troll that forms the basis of the modern term,  patent troll. In the legal world, a patent troll is a person or company that buys patents for the sole purpose of using them strategically in order to sue others who infringe – or appear to infringe – the patent. The trick for a patent troll is to look for cheap patents (usually from a company going bankrupt) and keep them until there’s an opportunity to use them. If an innocent third-party invents something new that appears to be covered by the patent, the troll will “jump up” and surprise them with a huge claim, usually in the millions.

There is a twist to this use of the word that depends on another meaning of the word troll that comes from the fishing world. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this originates from the Old French troller, which means;

To move or walk about or to and fro; to ramble, saunter, stroll, ‘roll’; spec. (slang) of a homosexual: to walk the streets, or ‘cruise’, in search of a sexual encounter.

Now no-one is suggesting that the slang notion applies to patent trolls – although I’m sure folks who have been sued by them may well be inclined to favor it – but the “moving about” and “rambling” lent itself to describing the activity of pulling a single line behind a boat to try to catch fish. This choice of word may also have been influenced by the similar-sounding word trawl, which means to fish using a net with the intent of pulling it through the water to trap sea creatures.

The word trawl derives from the Middle Dutch traghelen, meaning “to drag,” which may, in turn, come from the Latin tragula, a dragnet. Thus, although troll and trawl may both be fishing words and have similar functions, the words come from different roots.

The idea of “trolling for fish” was extended to include “trolling for ideas or information.” And this, in turn, lead to the modern notion of an internet troll, which the OED defines as;

A person who posts deliberately erroneous or antagonistic messages to a newsgroup or similar forum with the intention of eliciting a hostile or corrective response.

The person is either seen as (a) behaving like a troll, waiting to “jump up” and pick a fight, or (b) trolling for responses. However, just to make things even more confusing, if you are surfing the net to accumulate lots of pieces of data, you are “trawling the net,” not “trolling”; the two things are different. Here’s how the OED defines this newer meaning of trawling;

To engage in an exhaustive or extensive (sometimes indiscriminate) search for something.

So let me summarize the various definition we’ve encountered:

1. troll (mythology): a Scandinavian ogre who eats people.

2. troll (law): an attorney who uses patents to sue people.

3. troll (slang): a homosexual who cruises the streets to have sex with people.

4. troll (internet): a person who posts outrageous comments to bait people.

5. troll (fishing): to drag a single line behind a boat to catch fish.

6. trawl (fishing): to drag a net through water to catch anything.

7. trawl (informatics): to hunt for information.

Who would have thought such confusion could come from simply cross a rickety, rackety bridge.

Notes
[1] English translation at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0122e.html#gruff: Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, De tre bukkene Bruse som skulle gå til seters og gjøre seg fete, Norske Folkeeventyr, translated by George Webbe Dasent in Popular Tales from the Norse, 2nd edition (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), no. 37, pp. 275-276. Translation revised by D. L. Ashliman

[2] During the 60’s, the “Troll Doll” became a popular toy in the US and the UK. Short, naked, and with huge spiky hair, the trolls were a cure version of their androphagous ancestors.

Troll Dolls

Troll Dolls

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It’s not often that local news goes national but the bizarre case of an Amish gang performing an illegal shaving of a bishop certainly had the element needed to catch the eyes of the national media. If one of the Amish had been a woman and naked, the impact could have been global! [1]

Apparently, a group of Amish dissidents, led by one Samuel Mullet, [2] took it upon themselves to dish out some rough justice against a local bishop in retaliation for his shunning member of another Amish family. Shunning is a serious business among the Amish – as is growing beards. Now, in New York or LA, your typical gang would probably just bust a cap on someone’s ass and dump the body on a freeway. However, all that’s needed from your Amish attackers is a pair of scissors and a few extra hands to hold the victim down. Snip, snip, snip, and the beard is off.

The Bergholz Gang

The Bergholz Gang

The incident was the hot topic of the water cooler, especially among my bearded colleagues, but one question was more difficult to answer immediately: Did this type of crime actually have a name? Burn down a barn, it’s arson; steal from someone’s house, it’s burglary; steal money from a pension fund, it’s embezzlement; but cut off someone’s beard, and it’s… well, what?

The act of removing a beard does have a name; pogonotomy. This comes from the Greek pogon (πώγων), meaning “beard,” and the suffix –tomy, (Greek τομία), which is used to create abstract nouns related to the notion of “cutting.” Tέμνειν means “to cut” and is seen in other words, usually medical, like lobotomy, the cutting of the pre-frontal lobes of the brain; tracheotomy, cutting a hole in the trachea; and zootomy, the dissection of animals.

Pogonotomy - shaving

Pogonotomy makes its first recorded appearance in the Los Angeles Times of 1896, on December 27th, where we find;

Pogonotomy is what the Greeks used to call the gentle art of self-shaving.

So although this is the removal of a beard, it’s not the criminal removing of a beard.

Almost 100 years earlier, in 1788, the English essayist Vicesimus Knox published a book entitled Winter Evenings: Or Lucubrations[1] on Life and Lessons. In it, he humorously notes that, “It would not be surprising to see a barber style himself… Pogonologist.”

The idea that someone might actually devote time to studying beards was mentioned just a couple of years earlier that Knox’s book, the OED cite a source that reads, “Pogonologia, or a philosophical essay on beards, translated from the French.”

Incidentally, the pogo stick, a child’s toy that is essential a pole with a spring that you can stand on and jump, comes from a different source – or indeed sources. One suggestion is that it comes from 1920 and the names of two German patent holders for a “spring end hopping stilt” who were called Max Pohlig and Ernst Gottschall. Another is that it is the name of a Burmese girl called Pogo, who had no transportation to let he visit her father, so she created a stick with springs that she could ride to meet him.

This latter one just sounds too good to be true and to my mind, the former has more credence.

It is, however, worth speculating that the device is a pole that goes somewhere, and using those first two syllables to create a new word seems plausible. I’ll offer it as a possibility and remain open to new suggestions.

None of this, though, gets us to an actual word for the crime itself, namely the forced removal of someone’s beard.

Fortunately, the FBI offers us a possibility based on its definition of the more general crime of a “felonious assault.” This is;

…the unlawful attack or attempt to attack through force or violence to cause physical injury to another.

When four guys pin a bishop to the floor and shear off his whiskers, that sounds pretty much like a good example of a felonious assault. I therefore suggest that to be very specific, we should use the term “felonious pogonotomy” to describe the criminal act of removing a beard by force. I did do a search using Google and found precisely zero examples of the phrase. This makes “felonious pogonotomy” not only a new coinage but a hapax legomenon, a one-off use of a word in a text.

So next time you come across a case of felonious pogonotomy, please let me know; I’d love to think that I’d made a significant contribution to the legal field.

Notes
[1] Update Nov. 28th. Since writing this, the incident has gone global, with newspapers as far away as Australia reporting on the antics of the Bergholz Gang.

[2] A hair crime by someone called mullet is just so deliciously appropriate and obvious that I resisted the temptation to go off at a tangent and make fun of the name. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel… all too easy!

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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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If you’re British and “of a certain age,” your childhood fears are very likely to include Daleks. Although I wasn’t one to hide behind the chair or wrap myself up in a blanket whilst peering through a tiny gap in my fingers, I seem to recall that the arrival of these knobby salt cellars with their robotic voices shrieking “Exterminate, exterminate” would at least have me tingling.

Daleks

Daleks

Yet only yesterday, the UK press was abuzz with the news that these once-fearsome monsters of my youth were to be consigned to the robot scrap heap after 48 years. 48 years! I’ll admit that these days the Daleks come across more as  campy shadows of their original selves but like all iconic mythologicals, they provide us with psychological stability and security. “Stability” comes from their being timeless, in the sense that they have been around in the consciousness of millions of people for as long as they can remember, and “security” because evil and dangerous as they are, they never win against the wit and wile of the Doctor – who is, of course, us.

My attention was drawn to topic of Daleks by the good people at the OED and the following tweet:

Daleks: they’ve invaded our dictionaries. http://oxford.ly/kmQ58Z #exterminate
I checked – of course – and found the earliest citation at the online Oxford English Dictionary to be from 1963 and an entry in the Radio Times that simply said, “Dalek voices: Peter Hawkins, David Graham.” This was on the 26th December and the Dalek voices became a feature of British television from that point onwards.
Dalek saying "exterminate"

Click me to hear me!

Eight years later, the Radio Times offered the following definition of the Daleks:

Who are the Daleks? Dr. Who’s most dangerous enemies, written into his second adventure in 1963 by Terry Nation, who named them after an encyclopaedia volume covering dal-lek.
That is, indeed, the origin that I’d always thought to be correct. My trust in the accuracy of this is because it allegedly came from Terry Nation directly. Imagine then my surprise when I found that this is in dispute. According to the popular, but not always correct, Wikipedia, Nation stated the encyclopedia origin as being true in 1963. However, John Peel, the English author of the book The Official Doctor Who and the Daleks Book, published in 1988, that Nation had told him the name was simply made up on the spur of the moment and “rolled off the typewriter.”

Dr. Who and the Daleks, 1988

In an interesting twist, the Serbo-Croatian word dalek means “far or distant,” which would certainly fit the notion of the Daleks as being an alien race from the planet Skaro. Sadly, this derivation is an etymythology and even Tery Nation admitted that he only heard this long after he’d already coined the word Dalek.

Pedants and truth seekers may want to take issue with the definition offered by the OED, which is;

A type of robot appearing in ‘Dr. Who’, a B.B.C. Television science-fiction programme; hence used allusively.

Daleks are, in fact, not robots but actual beings who live inside the metallic shell. A robot is a machine that may look like a human and has artificial intelligence, whereas the Dalek frame is a prosthesis, and wearing a prosthesis doesn’t make someone a robot. If that were true, all of us wearing glasses could be reclassified! The aliens living inside the Dalek are called Kaleds and the reason they use a Dalek shell is because they were hideously mutated after many years of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare.

Sadly, Terry Nation died in Los Angeles in 1997 so the truth about the origin of the Dalek name may remain open for debate for a long, long time. Well, at least for as long as the Daleks are around.

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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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Some weeks back as one of my tweets as @etyman I called BS on the word game changer and officially declared it a candidate for Cliché of the Year, 2011. I know, I don’t have much clout when it comes to “declaring” things, but then again, I also have nothing to lose if it turns out to be “favorite word of the year.”

Can I be first to officially declare “game changer” as “Cliché of the Year?” Apparently now anything new is a “game changer.” Bah, humbug! (April 5th, 11:40 am EST)

The word seems to have reached that critical mass needed to catapult it from “descriptive” to “mildly annoying” and then “for the love of God, Montresor!” I’m not suggesting capital punishment for users of the phrase – well, not yet anyway – but forcing users to eat a bar of soap might be one option.

Windows 7 image

Windows 7: It's a game changer!

A quick ghit count shows 3,240,000 results for the exact phrase “game changer,” which is depressingly about 900 times more than “Etyman” but less than “Charlie Sheen,” who comes in with a staggering 58,900,000 mentions, eclipsing such do-nothings as Mother Teresa (4,980,000) and Martin Luther King (23,500,000). Celebrity, it seems, has nothing to do with actions.

Charlie Sheen and Mother Teresa

Charlie Sheen Outgoogles Mother Teresa

The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.

In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.

In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

Ultra light bed

Ultra-light bed: It's a game changer!

What is clear is that although it’s use may not be further back than the 1930’s, it’s certainly hit its stride over the past two years. The excellent  Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the following number of examples:

2003 – 3 examples
2004 – 0 examples
2005 – 0 examples
2006 – 1 examples
2007 – 7 example
2008 – 26 examples
2009 – 16 examples
2010 – 13 examples
2011 – 7 examples

From 2008 onwards we can see a significant increase in the use of game changer in comments about politics, electric cars, lasers, Iran, vaccines, and even stuffing on corn bread! OK, I know you’re curious so here’s the corn bread piece taken from the CBS Early Show on November 26th, 2009:

HARRY-SMITH: I’ve nibbling on this stuffing all morning and I have to say I never had it with the corn bread before and that is a game changer.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Really, really —
RUSS-MITCHELL: Really. I got to try that.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Yeah. And — and I tell you, once you — once you put a little bit of the broth on it, you get this really great consistency. Okay?

When stuffing on corn bread is a game changer, I think you need look no further for evidence that a cliché is at hand!

Tractor transmission ad

Tractor transmission: It's a game changer!

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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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