Archive for the ‘verb’ Category

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.

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


Get you plank on!

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

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

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

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

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

planking T-shirt

"I planked" T-shirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planking meat

Planking on the grill

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

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

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

Using planks to create crop circles

Planking crop circles

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

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

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

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

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

Death's-head moth

Acherontia lachesis

Skull on moth thorax

The skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

There as wratthe and wranglyng is þere wynne þei siluer

At this point, it is defined as meaning;

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

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

It appears as a noun in 1520in the sentence;

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

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

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



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

Poster for Rango the movie


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

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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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circe Invidiosa painting

Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa phto

Circe Criminalis

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

The frere with his phisik this folke hath enchaunted

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

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

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

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

Kiss of the Enchantress

Kiss of the Enchantress 1890 Isabel Gloag

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

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

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

Beguiling of Merlin painting

The Beguiling of Merlin 1874 Burne Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar de la Renta gown

Enchantingly elegant de la Renta?

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

Ulysees and the Sirens painting

Ulysses and the Sirens 1891 Waterhouse

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

The Siren painting

The Siren c.1900 Waterhouse

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

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

Wordle: enchant - etymology

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

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

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

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

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

Codex Armenicus palimpsest

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest"

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Like many people, I have an account on the Facebook social network site. I’m not sure whether I’m making the best use of the word “social” here because I tend to restrict my updates to tweets from The Word Guy, links on The Word Guy group page, and comments with my friends of the If You Can’t Differentiate Between “Your” And “You’re” You Deserve To Die group. The hyperbole of the title is often misunderstood by those people who don’t understand sarcasm, but in general, it’s fun to waste a little time now and again ripping on folks who make mistakes. Including me.

A recent discussion was on the derivation of the phrase piss poor. The suggested origin went as follows:

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot, then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were, “Piss Poor”, but worse than that, were the really poor folk, who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot, they “Didn’t have a pot to Piss in and were the lowest of the low.

A wonderful story but it turns out to have no evidence whatsoever to back it up. There may be a hint of plausibility about it but then again, all good tales should make you want to believe.


The word can be traced back to Anglo-Norman as pisser, or to Old French as pissier. It’s meaning has always been “to urinate” but there is no certainty about where it ultimately derives from.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may be of imitative origin, based on the notion that the sound of someone urinating is sort of “sssssssssss…” There are also similarities between Anglo-Norman and c12th Occitan pissar, c13th Catalan pixar, and c14th Spanish pixar. I wonder if Michael Eisner knew this before he bought Pixar, the company, back in 2006.


Actually, Pixar was apparently derived from pixel and the the initials of the first two names of one of the founders, Alvy Ray Smith. And according to author Alan Deutschman, the -el became -ar not because of Alvy but because in Spanish, the –ar ending is common in verbs and so it has the connotation of being derived from a current Spanish infinitive, *pixar=to pix. Whatever the truth of the matter, the link between the company name and the old Catalan meaning “to piss” is too good to pass up.

What we do know is that the word appears around 1300 in the following quote:

His membres pat he of carf : euere he dude misse
Bote a lute wharpurf he mijte : whan he wolde pisse
(A Miracle of St. James inTransactions of the Philological Society, 1858)

By 1359, Chaucer was using the word as a noun in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue from The Canterbury Tales:

No thyng forgat he the penaunce and wo
That Socrates hadde with hise wyves two,
How Xantippa caste pisse upon his heed.

By the 20th century, the noun form had also come to be used to refer to alcoholic drinks, particularly those that were weak or unpalatable. In 1925, Edward Fraser and John Gibbons, in their Soldier and Sailor words and phrases, defined piss (or pish, as they wrote it) to refer to whiskey or any spirits.

The verb form also took on the meaning of raining heavily in the phrase “pissing down” or “pissing with rain.” In 1948, Philip Larkin wrote “Outside its (sic) pissing with rain.” (In Selected Letters, 1992).

The true power of piss comes from the way in which is has been used to create a large number of noun and verb compounds. Here is a selection of imaginative uses:

  • piss-proud: (late 1700’s): having an erection because of a full bladder.
  • on the piss: (Chiefly Britain, Australia, and New Zealand; 1920’s): on a drinking spree.
  • piss and vinegar (US; 1940’s): energy, vigor, and youthful aggression.
  • take the piss out of (Chiefly Britain, Australia, and New Zealand; 1940’s): to make fun of or to mock.
  • piss artist (mainly British, 1960’s): a drunkard (see on the piss) or generally someone who fools around irresponsibly.
  • piss-take (Brit., Aus., and NZ; 1979’s): a parody or a send-up.

In the US, it seemed to be around the 1940’s when the word started being used as an intensifier meaning excessive, bad, or undesirable, as in piss-poor, piss-bad, piss-easy or piss-elegant.

Its place as an element in phrasal verbs is well documented in the OED, with entries like;

  • to piss through the same quill (Chiefly US, 1600’s): to be in agreement with, or to have a close relationship with.
  • to piss in/against the wind (1600’s): to waste time or be ineffectual at something.
  • to piss away (1600’s): to squander or waste something, usually money.
  • to piss up a rope (US, 1930’s): to do something pointless.

Incidentally, the word pissant or piss-ant began life as a reference to an actual ant, with its earliest form being pissmire, which in turn came from piss and maur, derived from early Scandinavian maurr or maur meaning ant. The piss element relates to the urine smell purported to come from an ant hill; hence a piss-ant is an ant that smells like piss.

Piss Ant

In the early 20th century, it took on the meaning of an insignificant, contemptible or irritating person, and then becoming more generic to refer to anything that was thought to be worthless and petty;

When your pissant town is called up to the huge-event big time, you can send me a thank-you note. (Houston Press, 2005, 10th Feb.)

In Australia, pissant can be found as a verb to mean mess around or loiter aimlessly – pissanting about.

And no more pissanting about for me. Enough is enough and it’s time for me to piss off to bed and call it a day.


[1] For all the folks who follow me on Twitter as a way of reinforcing their learning of English as a second language, notice that this sentence ends in a preposition – from. Some people will argue that ending with a preposition is a bad thing and should be avoided. If so, I would have written “…there is no certainty about from where it ultimately derives.” However, this sounds more complex and more formal than “…ultimately derives from” so I decided that in this case, having the preposition at the end sounds better.

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The ability of human beings to find patterns in life when none exists is called apophenia. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive process whereby people try to impose order on the world, even if such order does not exist. In the absence of an objective pattern, people will impose one.

As a phenomenon, it can take the blame for conspiracy theories, supernatural beliefs, rumors, myths, and all the posts during the past six years related to ABC’s phenomenally successful “Lost” series. Apophenia is what fuels the psychoanalytical Rorschach test and continues to have some people believe that the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11 was planned by George W. Bush, the Jews, and aliens from Area 51.

Lost in Apophenia

So powerful is apophenia that people will cling to their erroneous beliefs even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. Cultists who predict the End of the World on a particular date hardly seem fazed when the day comes and goes and they are still around. They simply reconstruct their patterns and create a new “truth.”

A more modest example of linguistic apophenia is with what are called “folk etymologies.” The OED defines it as;

the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant

Over at dictionary.com, the definition on offer is;

1. a modification of a linguistic form according either to a falsely assumed etymology, as Welsh rarebit from Welsh rabbit, or to a historically irrelevant analogy, as bridegroom from bridegome, or

2. a popular but false notion of the origin of a word.

The origin of company names and product names positively bristles with folk etymologies. A recent article for the New York Times by Ben Zimmer takes a peek at some dodgy etymologies in the corporate world.

And acronyms and bacronyms are a fruitful source of yarn spinning. Adidas is often quoted as being an acronym meaning “All day I dream about sport,” but the truth is that it is named after one of the founders, Adolf Dassler, whose nickname was Adi.

In his article entitled, Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, Laurence Horn of Yale University offered the following comment:

The human animal loves a good story and in particular cherishes a narrative embedding privileged knowledge. Etymythology is the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable—or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom—not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer). (p.39)

Such examples of bogus etymologies are not random but seem to be based applying previously known or used patterns that seem to be related to the word in question. The belief that the word crap comes from Thomas Crapper, who allegedly invented the flush toilet (he didn’t), may well be totally bogus, but it sure sounds plausible – with sound being the appropriate word. The false etymology is based on the word crap sounding like Crapper.

Which brings us to lavender, a word used to describe ;

The plant Lavandula vera (family Labiatæ), a small shrub with small pale lilac-coloured flowers, and narrow oblong or lanceolate leaves; it is a native of the south of Europe and Northern Africa, but cultivated extensively in other countries for its perfume.

The word sounds and looks very similar to the Italian lavanda, which means “to wash,” and in a recent tweet from the word-loving languagebandit, he notes that one suggested etymology for lavanda is actually lavender, based on the belief that people would wash their clothes in water containing the plant in order to add fragrance to the fibers.

Lavender's blue dilly dilly...

But is this either true or even likely? Certainly we do know that in the 14th century, a lavender was the name given to a washer-women who did the laundry. In his Legend of Good Women (1358), Chaucer wrote;

Enuye I prere to god yeue hire myschaunce
Is lauender in the grete court alway

In this sense, the word is fairly interpreted as coming from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash.” It therefore seems unlikely that the name of the plant was the origin of things to do with washing when the Latin root was already around. You might make a more cogent case that the name of the plant came from the word used for a washer-women, who may well have used it for cleaning clothes.

A more plausible etymology is that the name of the plant comes from a different route altogether than the “washing” strand. Other Latin spellings included livendula and livendola, which bear similarities to Latin livere meaning “to be livid or bluish.” Hypothesizing that lavender is based on the notion of being blue in color seems much better than supposing it was used as a washing agent.

What we may be seeing here are TWO words that look and sound the same but come from different origins: lavender the washer-woman from lavere, and lavender the plant from livere.

Of course, one might argue that even the livere origin of lavender could be a false etymology, but if I were going to place a bet on the table at the yet-to-be-built Las Vegas “Casino Etymologica,” I’d stack my chips higher for the livere camp.


Horn, L. R. (2004). Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, American Speech, 79, 1, 33-58.

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pet /’pɛt/

One of the problems with Social Networks is that they can take up so much time that you can end up being antisocial in the real world. By the time you’ve caught up on your blogs, Facebook, MySpace, twitters, plurks, and IMs, it’s time for a cup of hot cocoa and a trip to the land of Nod.

So the real trick is to limit your sociability and learn how to restrict your virtual life to something that’s manageable. Hence, I have the Word Guy blog (thanks for reading), the Word Guy tweets (thanks for following), and the Word Guy Facebook page (click on the link to sign up.)

But when it’s not all about me, I like to chat with the folks of “If You Can’t Differentiate Between “Your” and “You’re” You Deserve To Die,” a Facebook group for the linguistically pedantic – and that’s not a bad thing. During one of the recent discussions about the irritating phrase “a high rate of speed,” the phrases “pet peeve” and “pet hate” popped up, which got me to thinking about the origins of the word pet.

Bizarrely enough, the first recorded instance of pet comes from 1521 (or thereabouts) where it is used to mean the act of breaking wind – or farting, for the less euphemistically inclined. Scottish writer and poet, Andrew Barclay (1476-1152) wrote The boke of Codrus and Mynalcas in 1521, and in it included the phrase, “…Though all their connynge scantly be worthe a pet.” This use is rare and its flatulent sense comes from Old French pet, which in turn is derived from Latin pedere, which means “to break wind.”

This is the same root for Le Petomane, the stage name for one Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), who made a living as a professional farter (or flatulist). His skill was to be able to produce and control farts at will, and then to be able to get people to pay to heat this! Petomane itself came from the Modern French peter, to break wind, and mane, meaning manic. Thus, he was a manic farter – or, as others have described it, a fartoholic.

Le Petomane

But this is a diversion: The meaning of pet that we are interested in does not, sadly, come to us via this route. Instead, it is from the Scottish Gaelic peata, which meant “tame animal.” In Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient criminal trials in Scotland (1488–1624) we find the 1539 comment “…deliverit to Thomas Melvillis wiffe, in Falkland for keeping of certane pettis and nurising of the samyn.”

By the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, the word had come to be used more specifically to refer to a young lamb. In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s entry for pet in his Dictionary of the English Language was, “A lamb taken into the house, and brought up by hand. A cade lamb.”

The meaning then extended to refer to any animal kept in a house for pleasure or companionship. Mark Twain uses the word in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); “A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it.”

In Scotland, the word pet was also to describe a spoiled child or a favorite. Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1894; “Dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie, and her mother’s pet.”

The word took on a more affectionate spin as a term of endearment for someone sweet, obliging, or obedient. By the 20th century, this was a common meaning. For example, P.G. Wodehouse wrote “Do be a pet and go and talk to Jane Hubbard. I’m sure she must be feeling lonely.” (Girl on Boat, 1922) and it has spread from it’s Scottish origins to be in widespread current use across the UK.

By the end of the 16th century, pet had shifted from being just a noun to working hard as an adjective. Here’s where the “pet peeve” and “pet hate” constructions began. At this point in time, it was used to refer specifically to animals, as in a “pet dog” or “pet parrot,” but by the 19th century, it was being used more generically as an adjective to mean something that is “Specially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness (OED, Vol. XI, p. 626).


The humorous or ironic use of the word in phrases like “pet peeve” can be seen in Mark Twain’s 1880 Tramp’s Abroad: “For years my pet aversion had been the cuckoo clock.” And the phrase “pet peeve” is actually defined by C.H. Darling (1919) in Jargon Book as “the thing that provokes you the most.”

It’s worth mentioning – if only as a gratuitously feeble excuse for trying to bump up hits on the site by the porn-trawling web spiders that look for such things – that in 1969, Penthouse magazine instituted the annual award of “Penthouse Pet of the Year.” Here we see the word acquiring a very specific connotation of the word as a noun marked by the attributive Penthouse, which is used correctly as a noun modifier so as to preserve the validity of the trademark.

Penthouse Pet

So if “pet peeve” is one of your pet peeves, rest assured that it has a long and glorious history and has merely undergone an emotional transformation to its current status of being a little passé or cliched. Well, that’s my current pet theory.

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The Beatles


By way of a change from my regular posting of word etymologies, I’m going to present an analysis of the vocabulary of Beatles’ song titles. I was prompted by a posting on the OUP Blog by Gordon Thompson entitled The Beatles and ‘Let It Be,’ and because I’ve always been struck by the simplicity of the lyrics used by Lennon and McCartney – whether they planned it or not. For example, consider lyrics of the song, Love Me Do. For educational purposes (and I say that so I can claim Fair Use under Section 107 of Title 17 of the US Copyright Law) I’ve reproduced them below in their entirety:

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Someone to love,
Somebody new.
Someone to love,
Someone like you.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.
Yeah, love me do.
Whoa, oh, love me do.

Using one of my favorite pieces of text analysis software, Concordance, I found that the song contains only 20 different words (types, for you linguist types) out of 108 words used (tokens). Of those 108 tokens, love scores 24 times, which is 20% of the song. For the curious, here’s the actual frequency list:

DO 14
ME 14
BE 4
I 4
I’LL 4
SO 4
TO 2
OH 1

What’s also interesting is the prevalence of pronouns – which I suggest (pending more analysis) is a common feature of Beatles’ songs. You have I, you, and me way up there, and the indefinite pronouns someone and somebody making a significant contribution to the sample. I suspect that the frequency of use of indefinite pronouns in the Beatles’ lyrics is statistically higher than that of the normal lexicon – but that’s another investigation.

So I found a list of all the Beatles’ song titles – or enough to be what seems a reasonable representation – and subjected them to the Concordance software followed by some number work using Excel. And it became clear that love was an important topic for the Fab Four.

Out of the 565 different words used, the word love was used 22 times, coming in a number seven on the “Top Ten” word list. And for the curious, the “Top Ten” words, which accounted for 20% of all the words used, are, in reverse order;

  • 10. IN
  • 9. OF
  • 8. MY
  • 7. LOVE
  • 6. ME
  • 5. TO
  • 4. I
  • 3. A
  • 2. THE

and the number one;


In truth, the word I should really be counted as being higher because if you add in the contractions I’m and I’d, then you see I nudge ahead of you.

But going back to the obsession with love, if you look at other published word lists, the Beatles clearly did use it with a much greater frequency than is normal. The British National Corpus (BNC) [1] has love at number 644 and the Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen (LOB) [2] corpus ranks it at 250th place.

So maybe is it true that all you need is love.

All You Need Is Love


[1] Leech, G., Rayson, P. and Wilson, A. (2001). Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English: based on the British National Corpus. Longman: London.

[2] Hofland, S. and Johannson, K. (1984). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computer Centre for the Humanities: Longman.

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