Archive for the ‘noun’ Category

For me, one of the saving graces of the Digital Age is that I don’t have to produce written documents that demand any skilled use of a pen. The mechanics of smearing ink onto a piece of paper have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. As a child, I remember distinctly having to practice handwriting as a skill. This was, of course, before personal computers and before even typewriters were available as a mode of writing in schools. I’d sit for hours trying to join letters together in the vain hope of ending up with legible words and sentences. Sadly, despite years of practice, I was never able to rise much higher than “legible if you squint.” The popular myth at the time was that I was clearly going to join the medical profession because all doctors were lousy at writing.

Such was the myth.

By the time I went to Grammar School, I was close to being a remedial writer – although I seemed to be OK with the actual content of my scribblings. And when I finally went to university, I invested in the popular ersatz laptop of the day – the portable typewriter. This at least helped get me past the legibility barrier and I could hand in papers that had been laboriously typed and edited using white correction fluid. There was no DELETE button on one of those babies.

All of which makes it curious that my latest technology acquisition is a fountain pen. And for younger readers, a “fountain pen” is a little like the stylus you might use on a touchscreen device, or even your finger on a smartphone. A “pen” contains a substance called “ink,” which leaves marks on paper called “writing.” Crazy, huh? Why on earth would someone do that when they can use a laptop, desktop, or pop-up on-screen keyboard?

Well, although I can’t write legibly enough for other folks to read, I can write well enough for ME to read – and for notes, jottings, scribblings, annotations etc., it is, is it not, all about me? It’s also the case that even though I am motorically challenged with script, I actually find physical writing preferable to keyboarding.

So for some years, I’ve had a dual system for recording information; high-tech aids such as laptops, Windows-based PDA’s, a Palm Pilot, and now my Droid smartphone, paired with my low-tech Moleskine notebooks and a pencil. I simply chose whichever is the easier at the time.

The new fountain pen is made by A.T. Cross and called the “Sauvage.” It’s in Azurite blue and has a crocodile skin pattern, along with a 14-carat white gold nib. Pretty cool.

Cross Sauvage fountain pen

Azurite Blue Sauvage pen

The use of the word fountain to describe this type of pen is based on the notion that ink is stored in a reservoir. Now this is also true of a ball-point pen, but the “fountain pen” definition also requires there to be a nib. Ink is drawn through a slit in the nib by the dual action of capillary motion and gravity. There’s a short history of pens at Richard Conner’s Penspotters site.

The OED provides the following definition of a fountain as it was used in the 15th century:

A spring or source of water issuing from the earth and collecting in a basin, natural or artificial; also, the head-spring or source of a stream or river.

The Late Middle English fontayne came from Old French fontaine, which in turn derives from Late Latin fontana, the feminine of fontanus, meaning “pertaining to a fount.” The Latin proved to be a veritable fount for other languages; fontana is found in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and the Welsh equivalent is ffynnawn (I’ll buy a vowel, Bob).

The Latin root font or fontis meaning “spring” is NOT the same as the word “font” that is used in modern typography. Although many of us may not be familiar with using a pen, we are all now skilled at manipulating fonts when producing documents. The fact that fountain pens and fonts are both used for writing doesn’t mean they have the same origins!

The word font was originally written as fount in the 15th century to refer to a “complete set or assortment of type of a particular face and size.”The origin, however, is from the French fonte, which comes from fondre, meaning “to cast or melt.” This relates to the fact that originally, fonts were cast from lead blocks and then place in a printing press. The word foundry comes from the same root. The original British English spelling “fount” has given way to the more common spelling of “font” since digital typefaces appeared on computers.

Lead fonts

Lead fonts

During their earlier progressive years, the rock band Genesis brought out their third album, Nursery Cryme, in 1971, and it included the almost 8-minute-long track, The Fountain of Salmacis. This title is taken from Greek mythological story of the nymph, Salmacis, who, attempts to seduce Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, by a pool. The seduction fails, so she leaps on him and cries out to the gods that they never be parted, whereupon the gods respond by fusing the two into one. Hermaphroditus then asks that anyone who baths in the fountain of Salmacis should suffer the same fate – to become a hermaphrodite. And so was born the Fountain of Salmacis.

Sculpture of the nymph Salmacis

Salmacis by Francois-Joseph Bosio

The drummer for Genesis at that time was Phil Collins, who only really became a lead singer once Peter Gabriel had left in 1977. Collins then went on to enjoy a tremendously successful solo musical career. As part of that career, he played the lead role in the 1988 movie, Buster, and sang on the soundtrack a remake of the 1960’s hit, Groovy Kind of Love. This was originally done by The Mindbenders, whose lead singer was – wait for it – Wayne Fontana!

Stretching just a little, the bass player with The Mindbenders was Eric Stewart, who went on to form the successful 70’s band, 10cc. However, just before 10cc became 10cc, they were known as Hotlegs, and one of their first songs was called Waterfall – another fountain link!

I suppose I could also mention that the first two lines of Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne are;

Stacy can I come over after school
We can hang around by the pool…

But now I really am taking it too far… perhaps.

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

The recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, has sparked off debate on the nature of political rhetoric and to what extent it may or may not have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner. More specifically, discussions have centered on the current perceived trend for popular politicians to use metaphors such as “targeting the opposition,” “taking back the country,” “locking and loading,” and even “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Although the latter was originally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the issue under fire is whether this type of language can actually encourage people to take violent action.

It’s worth taking a look at the words rhetoric and metaphor just to clear up any confusion between them. The OED defines rhetoric as;

The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Rhetoric can be traced back to classical Latin rhētoricē and refers to the art of oratory and public speaking. Further back, the Greek word is ῥητορική, which in turn can be traced to a “rhetor,” one who teaches rhetoric, with the ultimate derivation coming from Attic Greek ἐρῶ) meaning “I shall say.”

On the other hand, metaphor is one of those “figures of speech” that the definition mentions, and turning back to the OED we find the definition as follows:

A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

Like rhetoric, the word can be traced back via the Latin metaphora to the Greek μεταϕορά that comes from the prefix “meta-” meaning “change or transformation” followed by ϕορά, a form of the verb ϕέρειν, which means “to bear or carry.” So the word literally means something along the lines of “carrying a change.”

So when a politicians and pundits talk about “having their opponents in their crosshairs” or “taking out the opposition,” they are not literally pointing a sniper rifle or shooting someone – they are using a metaphor. And it is the current prevalence – actual or perceived – of this type of hunting metaphor that is being debated.

In the realm of sexual conquests, metaphors involving sports are more prominent. “Getting to first base,” “I’d hit that,” or “I scored last night” are clearly embedded in the sporting arena, and the underlying notion here is that sex is a game on some level or another.

In business, metaphors abound as each management guru seeks to find his or her own unique spin, typically with the aim of selling books, training programs, and raking in obscene amounts of money for personal presentations to the gullible business community.

Recent articles have questioned whether or not the Internet has killed the art of rhetoric. One such article in The Economist’s Johnson blog suggested that sloganeering has trumped rhetoric as the regular mode of discourse in the political arena. My own response was to doubt that the general level of intellectual discourse has ever been as high as it has been imagined to be.

“The Internet hasn’t so much killed rhetoric as amplify the lack of rhetoric that has always been a part of common discourse. And by “common discourse” I mean the level of argument that goes on in an average pub along with a couple of drinks.

“Rhetoric as an art or a skill has, I suggest, never been something the masses have either used or learned, but been restricted to the chattering classes. Simply sit at a bar for 10 minutes and listen to the discussions going on around you and it becomes apparent that the “strength” of an argument seems to depend on factors such as volume (he who shouts loudest is right); personal experience (“My dad smoked until he was 105 so how can it be dangerous?”); TV truthiness (“It was on the Jon Stewart show so it has to be real”); and Internet validity (“All the proof to show that Bush and the Jews caused 911 is open for all to see on the net. Just google it!”)

“Any assumed decline in the standard of rhetoric is predicated on the notion that there was previously a high standard from which to fall. I’m suggesting that the bar was pretty low in the first place. The problem of the Internet is that it (a) acts as a repository for so-called “facts” that are not facts, which in turn form the basis for arguments, and (b) provides a level playing field for all commentators regardless of how valid, accurate, well-researched, or even logical their comments are. A post by an expert such as John McWhorter is as easy to find on the net as one by Joe the Plumber, whose knowledge on a particular subject may be based on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, fueled by a passion to be heard.

“And there are far more Joe the Plumbers posting to blogs than John McWhorters.”

The Internet itself cannot be “good” or “bad.” What can be “good” and “bad” is content, and there is no magically algorithm that trawls the web checking whether facts are right or wrong. And pre-Internet, being the local one-man conspiracy theorist resulted in a lonely life and possible ridicule, but post-Internet, there is now “safety in numbers” and the one lunatic can now become a feted sage amongst the thousands of no-longer isolated crackpots and weirdos that use the web as a magnifying glass to make their own “truths” seem that much larger.

To paraphrase; when one loony thinks the world will end, he’s mentally ill; when thousands create a website, it’s a tenable hypothesis!

Read Full Post »

One of my favorite pieces of technology is the Delphi MyFi portable satellite radio. My wife bought it for me some six years ago and I consider the $12 per month I pay for the service to be money extremely well spent. I have it mounted in my car so I listen to it on a daily basis, which is why it turns out to have been such great value.


MyFi satellite radio


When I think about it, I’ve been a regular radio listener for many years. I can remember as a kid hiding under the bed covers late at night with a small transistor radio and an even smaller earplug listening to such subversive stations as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline, the latter broadcasting illegally from a ship moored of the south-east of England. Even earlier, I recall – albeit vaguely – listening to my grandma’s old valve radio that had short wave, spending hours twiddling with the huge dial to tune in to hissing, distant crackly voices and martial music. At college, I had a portable radio that also included short wave reception, and when I got my first job that involved travelling, I bought a Grundig World Traveler and which became a constant companion.


Bush valve radio


So it’s not surprising that although the technology has changed from short waves to satellite signals, I still tune in to the BBC World Service to keep abreast of things that are happening globally. Sure, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox dominate the TV but radio reporting is a qualitatively different thing altogether. This is why two days ago I found myself tuning in to XM 131 for an eclectic selection of programming, and stumbling across the first in a series of documentary programs entitled Blind Man Roams the Globe.

The premise is that Peter White, a blind broadcaster, takes listeners on his trips across the world in such as way as to experience how he “sees” it – by listening. In the first episode, he goes to San Francisco accompanied, not unlike myself, by a pocket radio. What caught my ears was his description of this process:

“All I need when I’m traveling is my little tranny.”

Now, considering he’s in San Francisco, my unashamedly wicked sense of humor couldn’t avoid wondering what would happen if Peter were to go shopping to replace his radio and ask someone where he could find himself “a cheap little tranny.”

The word tranny appeared in the late 60’s as an abbreviation for the then-new transistor radios. The process of cutting off the end of a word is called apocope (pronounced a-PO-cuh-pih) and is a common phenomenon. Transistor itself is a blend of transfer and resistor, which describes the basic physics of the device. Once the transistor radio had become a popular consumer item, it was somewhat inevitable that it would take on some sort of colloquial diminutive, just as the television set became the telly in the UK and TV in the US. From the 70’s on, tranny became the popular name for the radio.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the same word became slang for a transvestite, but it is the same process of lopping off the end that underlies its origin. Compare this with the late 70’s meaning of tranny as being a photographic transparency.

We therefore have the following list that summarizes the relatively sudden development of three meanings for one slang term:

  • 1969: tranny – shortened form of transistor radio
  • 1979: tranny – shortened form of photographic transparency
  • 1983: tranny – shortened version of transvestite

The tran- element is a Latin prefix meaning “across,” with all of the abbreviated words deriving from this root but adding different endings. Transfer ends with Latin ferre = to bear or carry; transparency ends with Latin parere = to appear or become visible; and transvestite ends with Latin vestire = to clothe.

The written form trannie will also be found for the different meanings of the word but seems to be more often used for transvestites and not radios.

Oh, and in a politically incorrect coincidence, the show was still running as I reached my office and turned off the engine, only to reach over and pick up a box of tissues with the brand name of Puffs®. There’s a whole Coen brothers comedy waiting to be written around a blind man in San Francisco asking “Where can I find a cheap little tranny and some Puffs®?”

Hey, I don’t invent the connotations, I just analyze them!

Read Full Post »

So the big news in the blogosphere over the past few days has been the mysterious deaths of thousands of birds in Arkansas. The headline Dead Birds Fall From The Sky makes you want to say, “Well, what else would they do?” Estimates of precisely how many have shuffled off their mortal coils seem to run from about 1000 to 5000 and all points in-between. Until some hapless bugger has to go round collecting and tagging the fallen fledglings it seems we have to rely on eye-witness estimates from people who are typically not used to estimating what constitutes a “dead flock.”

But just like a London omnibus, you wait for years to see a road strewn with avian carcasses and then along comes two at once! With the Arkansas avians not yet counted, another 500 birds have been found dead in Louisiana, close to the False River Regional Airport. Really? Close to airplanes? You mean those large, 3000 ton pieces of metal that fly hundreds of miles per hour, causing huge wakes that can suck up, say, birds? Well no shit, Sherlock!

The Arkansas victims appear to have suffered severe trauma, according to specialists, which resulted in internal bleeding and ultimately death. Non-specialists – that is, conspiracy theorists, religious nutcases, paranoid schizophrenics armed with a blog site, and Fox News viewers – prefer to accept the evidence of their own minds and opt for the culprits being any one of the following; God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, or the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

The one word that crops up in almost all the versions of this story is mystery. And the cause of the birds’ deaths is currently as mysterious as the time at which the next bus will arrive. Both are, as the OED explains, “something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension.”

Curiously, some people take that notion of being “inexplicable” as carte-blanche for making up an explanation that is even more inexplicable than the original event! For them, the notion that, for example, the birds were caught in high velocity storm winds seems so improbable that they prefer to accept that they ran into an invisible UFO. Actually, those folks tend to make it sound more scientific by using the word “cloaked” to describe the UFO, and then go on to use a glut of pseudo-scientific babble to “explain” how cloaking works. And hey, if it works for the Klingon Birds of Prey spaceships, it must be true.

In Ancient Greece, the word μυστήριον is used to describe secret religious ceremonies, the most famous of which is probably those held at Eleusis, some 15 miles northwest of Athens, in honor of the goddess Demeter. Demeter was associated with fertility and harvest, so the Eleusinian Mysteries seem to have been aimed at ensuring that farmers would have a good growing season.

Many years after the mysteries of Ancient Greece  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. In the Sign of Four, Holmes says, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For solving mysteries, this would seem to be a very useful rule of thumb. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have reworked this along the lines of, “when you have eliminates the improbable, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be the truth.” So in the current bird-death mystery, one theory put forward was that the birds had been damaged during a New Year’s firework display, which is at least a testable hypothesis. However, because it seems very improbable that 5000 birds could be affected by a few fireworks, lots of commentators have eliminated the improbable and taken this as proof for God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, and the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

It is, of course, probable that no answer will be found. Mysteries happen every day and it’s only because of the way in which the global media can act as a focusing lens for a single incident that we hear about them. Out of the billions of slices of toast made in a month, what are the chances that ONE of them might have a burn pattern that looks a little like the virgin Mary? And if just ONE person gets a picture of this, how easy is it to post this to the world?

Doubtless in a week or so, there will be an official response that provides a reasonable theory as to why, like the ball in Times Square, the birds dropped over the New Year. But equally, those who have already made their minds up will find ways to ignore it and shore up their present erroneous theory. After all, if everybody loves a mystery, then no-one will like a spoil-sport who ruins it.

Read Full Post »

Those nice people at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) have just released their list of “Banished Words for 2011,” and among them is a personal irritant – “man up.” Like many topical cliches, the perception of their frequency is more important than any actual measurements. They just feel overused. And once you’ve had such a cliche brought to you attention, it seems to appear everywhere, just like being told that the number “23” is spooky and, lo and behold, you begin seeing it so frequently that you can’t accept that it’s just coincidence.

To get an idea of how the phrase “man up” has developed, I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and did a simple search for the string. Not surprisingly, the majority of instances in the last three years (2007-2010) of the combination are in relation to its being used as a phrasal verb to mean “be a man” or “take responsibility.”

But prior to 2007, the phrase appears as simply a noun and a preposition in sentences such as “…lugged the unconscious man up the steps…” or “…help the old man up the ladder…” The shift from two separate words to a phrasal verb thus appears to have taken place in 2007.

As ever, there are always outliers. In 2003, a CNN interview by Anderson Cooper had the following exchange noted:

But I was trying to get them to man up. I was trying to get them to realize rugged individuals, some self-sufficiency, true independence was something to celebrate in this great experiment in self-government.

There’s another example in the same year in a Washington Post article by Jennifer Frey who, in writing about missing POW’s, cites an e-mail hat contained the following;

The last time I saw Spike, he was manning up for the flight in which he was lost.

There are fewer examples of the -ing form of the verb in the COCA but again, the majority are 2007 and up. And as a point of interest, all four examples of “manned up” are from 2008/2009.

From the comments at the LSSU site, the main criticism of “manning up” is that it has sexist overtones and would sound wrong if applied to women. After all, you don’t hear “woman up” being said to someone who needs to become a little more feminine.

However, this sort of “verbing the noun” is hardly unusual. Perhaps “phrasal verbing the noun” is rarer. It’s not uncommon to hear pundits saying that the US needs to “beef up airport security” or “beef up the borders,” with ne’er a hint of “cowism” suggested.  And the coinage of “beefing up” to mean make something beefier (stronger) is similar to “manning up” as meaning making something more mannish (masculine). Others like this would include “to firm up” (make something more firm), “to jazz up” (make something more jazzy), and “to green up,” (make something more green).

Well, I’m happy to ‘fess up that this is the last time I’m going to use “man up” in 2011. Unless I slip up…

Read Full Post »

It’s the festive season and dear old Santa has dropped off a Christmas libation. In fact, a whole bottle of libation in the form of a Remy Martin 1738 cognac. Clearly all my childhood years of leaving a glass of brandy and a snack for Father Christmas have now paid off. Either that or my wife knows me all too well.

Bottle of Remy Martin 1738 cognac

Remy Martin 1738

Although it would be a good way of bolstering my ego to pretend that I am some type of cognac aficionado, that would be a lie. Equally, claiming to be a connoisseur would be nothing more than a fabrication. The best I can offer is that in truth, I do sometimes enjoy sitting in my study with a good book and an equally good snifter of cognac just to relax. And no, I wouldn’t be dressed in a smoking jacket and seated in a high-backed deep-red leather chair – it’s more likely to be a T-shirt and my chair is a beat-up un-named item that I rescued from a rummage sale (or jumble sale to my non-US readers.)

Brandy is a drink made from the distillation of wine, which means boiling the wine until the alcohol turns to steam, then collecting this steam and cooling it to become liquid alcohol again. I’m sure there’ much more to it but as a US resident, I am not legally allowed to do this in my backyard shed, so I can’t speak from experience. And considering that some brandies can sell for hundreds of dollars per glass, there are some nuances needed to make a quality drink.

The word brandy is defined by the OED as;

…an ardent spirit distilled from wine or grapes; but the name is also applied to spirits of similar flavour and appearance, obtained from other materials.

which is actually a shortened form of the drink’s original name, brandy-wine. It first appears in English as brandwine, brandewine, and brandy-wine in the 17th century. In 1640, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher wrote in there Comedies and tragedies, “Buy any brand wine, buy any brand wine?” Ten years later in The Roxburghe Ballads, we see, “It is more fine than Brandewine, The Butterboxes’ Poison.”

Ultimately, it comes from the Dutch brandewijn, which in turn comes from branden meaning “to burn” (and in this case, the burning is the distillation process) and wijn, which means, unsurprisingly, wine. So brandy is literally burned wine. It’s also why it is referred to in the OED definition as ardent because this derives from the Latin ardere meaning “to burn.”

Cognac is the name of a specific type of brandy; namely brandy made from grapes found in the Cognac region of France. There are very strict rules that have to be followed before a brandy can be called a “Cognac,” which not only specifies the types of grapes that must be used but which types of oak wood barrel are needed for the aging process (Limousin or Tronçais-type oak), itself a minimum period of two years.

As you can see in the first picture, I use a “balloon” or “snifter” glass, which is designed to help funnel the scent up from the wide base to the narrower opening. The other option, is to use the “tulip,” a glass named after the flower because of its shape, which is also designed to funnel the scent but because it is much narrower, it is felt by many enthusiasts to be a better way to enjoy ones drink.

brandy glasses

Tulip and Balloon

What’s somewhat comforting is that I turn out to be in good company as far as my love of cognac is concerned. The noted lexicographer Samuel Johnson – also referred to as Dr. Johnson – appears to have been a fan. In James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) he is quoted as saying;

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy

And in his play Man and Superman, the heroic George Bernard Shaw writes;

Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned

George Bernard Shaw

I guess when I die and go to Hell, I’ll at least be able to sit around drinking cognac with Johnson and Shaw. Sure beats sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.

Read Full Post »

“But that’s not a real word because it’s not in the dictionary!”

As we hurtle headlong towards Christmas, and I personally crawl toward my two weeks of vacation time, there are opportunities to play games with friends. My personal preference is to mix games with alcohol – and not because I’m an alcoholic-in-training or a lush[1] but some activities just happen to seem more fun when your sense are mildly impaired.

So after two beers, the first game to play is called “What’s your favorite new word this year?” which is not just the sort of game a bunch of tweed-jacketed, corduroy-trousered, pipe-smoking university types play. No sirree, it’s for anyone who spends any amount of time watching TV and reading The Urban Dictionary.

The folks at the Global Language Monitor group based in Texas publish their top words of the year based on a sampling methodology that includes trawling through millions of words over a 12-month period. This year’s top ten is as follows:

1. spillcam
2. vuvuzela
3. the narrative
4. refudiate
5. guido and guidette
6. deficit
7. snowmagedden (and ‘snowpocalypse’)
8. 3-D
9. shellacking
10. simplexity

You can check out the meanings at the Global Monitor website.


Meanwhile, the New Oxford American Dictionary published its own list of top words for 2010:

nom nom
tea party
top kill

The definitions can be seen at the OUP blog.

When Oxford announced refudiate as word of the year, a common response was one of shock and horror that a word coined in error by the celebrity politician Sarah Palin (celebritition or politebrity anyone?) should be added to the dictionary. And besides, the egregious nature of the error was being rammed home by spell checkers across the world as Microsoft Word and WordPress underlined the word every time it was typed!


The truth is that although refudiate became the OUP’s word-of-the-year, it may not make it into the actual Oxford dictionary. That’s because getting into the Oxford is not as simple as inventing a word and e-mailing it to the editors. No, there is a process to becoming a “real word” that you can look up in a book or, as things are now going, online. The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) that came out in September (and yes, I was one of those who had it on order) included a slew of “new” words, such as bromance, Interweb, staycation, and truthiness – all of which still show up as errors in WordPress.

The notion that a word isn’t a “real” word until it appears in “the dictionary” is common enough. Of course, which dictionary is THE dictionary is always up for grabs. For me, a word is solid if it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is either the 20-volume version I have stacked up in my library or the latest online version, released just a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also use the NOAD because that can offer some words of American origin that don’t appear in the OED, and The Merriam-Webster dictionary, again both hard copy and online.

But what happens if a word is not in any of these dictionaries but appears to be in circulation across the Interweb? Well, I always recommend The Urban Dictionary for two reasons: The first is that it is a consumer-driven project that can respond very quickly to new coinages – even if 95% of them disappear in a few years; and the second is that it a damn good laugh!

You can also fall back on good old-fashioned language detection work – a sort of “linguistic CSI” for language geeks. As an example, how about the word apodyopsis, defined by the Urban Dictionary as;

The act of mentally undressing someone

Over at another online dictionary, the fascinating Sex-Lexis sexual dictionary, we can find a similar definition, although a little more is added;

The erotic fantasizing of women undressing; imagining women naked; undressing women mentally

When you’re faced with a word with which you’re unfamiliar, it’s worth trying to think of a similar word – one that either looks the same, sound the same, or both. In this case, I first thought of the words apocalyse and apocryphal, both of which have the apo- part.

The former means “an uncovering” or “revealing” and comes from the Greek ἀπο, which means “from,” followed by καλύπτειν meaning “to cover.” In the case of apocryphal, it refers to “being of questionable authority,” and the sense of ἀπο here is “away” along with κρυπτός meaning “hidden.”

Going back to the OED and the Merriam-Webster, scanning through the apo- words turns up apodyterium, which is defined as;

The apartment in which clothes were deposited by those who were preparing for the bath or palæstra; hence gen. a dressing-room, a robing-room.

Ah, so now we’re closing in. The first part of the word, ἀποδύειν, apparently means “to put off or undress,” and note that our ἀπο is still there – the “off” piece. And if the apody- bit means “take off,” what’s the -opsis part all about?

An Apodyterium - Alam-Tadema, 1886

Well, thinking again of similar looking and/or sounding words, surely the words optic and optician spring to mind, and we know that optical means “in reference to the eyes and seeing.” With this piece of the puzzle now in place, we can now understand that the word derives from the Greek and means, in a literal sense, to take of or undress using the eyes or vision.

This little bit of detective work helps us to understand the derivation and ultimate roots of the word, but still doesn’t tell us when it first appeared. To do this, surfing the Internet can be extremely useful. With apodyopsis, there are references to it in terms of the definition, but none specifically to its origin. Even the wonderful corpora of Mark Davies at the Brigham Young University failed to turn up any occurrences of the word.

The furthest back I could trace it was to something called The Grandiloquent Dictionary, which is the creation of physicist Christopher Bird, who says he wrote it as an online collection of rare and obscure words in 1998. Sadly, Bird simply defines the word but gives no origin date or source.


So what we are left with is a word constructed from Greek but with no date of origin and no extensive use. If people were to begin using the word with some frequency, and also over a long period of time, it might find its way into a dictionary. However, for now it’s one of those limbo words that has enough usage to make it visible but not enough to warrant an entry in a dictionary.

And as long as someone, somewhere thinks it’s a word, then it is!

Wordle: apodyopsis - etymology

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is typically the common meaning today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wordle: cunning etymology

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »