Archive for the ‘word’ Category

Many years ago in my early teens, I was an avid reader of science fiction and devoured the epics of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), E.E. “Doc” Smith (The Skylark and Lensman series), Frank Herbert (Dune), and many others. The book publishers, Panther (a then-division of Granada Publishing Ltd.) were partly to blame because of their choice of two particularly memorable cover artists;  Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington. It’s fair to say that in those days, I did judge a book by its cover – or at least I was more likely to pick up one with an illustration by one of these two gentlemen. I still have a number of these books sitting on my bookshelf, although I try not to open them up too much for fear of them falling apart!

One of the books that Pennington illustrated was called Out of Space and Time: Vol 1 by the Californian-born writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and although the tales were more fantasy than sci-fi, I bought it. And Smith, in turn, lead me to H.P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20th August, 1890 and in his brief 46 years he produced an enormous amount of text. As well as a wealth of short stories and books, he wrote over 100,000 letters, some over 30 pages long, poems, travelogues, art critiques, journalistic pieces, and others. His primary genre is usually referred to as “weird fiction” although I prefer “gothic horror/fantasy.”

One of his most popular and enduring stories is called The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1926 and published in 1928 in the magazine, Weird Tales. Cthulhu is a creature from another world, which ends up trapped in a sunken tomb in the mythical city of R’lyeh. Apparently inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Kraken, Cthlulhu is a large, subterranean beast described as a “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”

After reading the story in my early teens, Cthulhu remained submerged in my unconscious until  I entered university in the late 70’s. One of the popular bands at the that time was Caravan, a particularly English band from Canterbury who were a blend of psychedelic and progressive rock. Although never a mainstream act, they were certainly a college favorite, and produced such wonderful album titles as Blind Dog at St. Dunstan’sIn the Land of Grey and Pink, Cunning Stunts (a nod to the Reverend Spooner), and Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night.

And it’s the latter album that resurrected Cthulhu in the song C’thlu Thlu, a six-minute piece that never actually uses the name Cthulhu but nevertheless tries to capture that element of the “weird” that runs through all of Lovecraft’s work. This was one of those songs we’d listen to late at night as we would down both the beer and the lights.

My interest in psychology meant reading Freud (extensively) and Jung (heretically), and in his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung uses the word chthonic to refer to both the mythical realm of the underworld and the gods and goddesses therein, and the psychological realm of the darker side of the Unconscious.

So where does chthonic originate? And more important, how do you pronounce it?

The Greek word kthos (χθών) or kthonos (χθονός) means “earth,” with kthonios (χθόνιος) meaning “of the earth” or “beneath the earth.” It first makes a written appearance in 1882 in a book by Charles Francis Keary called Outlines of Primitive Beliefs Among the Indo -European Races, where he says;

The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.

Joseph Shipley, in the classic The Origins of English Words, traces the word back to the the Indo-European*ghdhem meaning “of the earth, and a cognate of the Persian zamindar, which means “ground.” He also tells the tale of Erysichthon, a King of Thessaly who chopped down trees in a sacred forest dedicated to the goddess Demeter in order to build a huge feasting hall. As punishment for such impiety (chopping down sacred trees is always a no-no in mythology) Demeter inflicted him with an insatiable hunger that only ended when he ate himself! The name Erysichthon means “tearer-up of earth,” the “chthon” element being the “earth” reference.

So what about the pronunciation? Well, Greek, both ancient and modern, is one of those languages that allows a plosive and fricative sound to live together happily at the beginning of a word, whereas English doesn’t like this at all. Thus, Greek words starting with “ps” (psomi=bread or psari=fish), “ts” (tsai=tea) and “ks” (ksenos=foreigner) are all perfectly normal, but in English, such clusters can only appear in the middle of words or at the end. The tendency for English speakers is therefore to simplify such words by dropping one of the sounds.  Hence the reason we pronounce the words psychology and mnemonic as /saɪ’kɒlədʒi/ and /nə’mɒnɪk/ with the initial “p” and “m” dropped.

But with the Brits being a scholarly bunch, steeped in the history of Empire and the university tradition of learning the Classics, chthonic kept its original form and the OED enshrines its pronunciation as /’kθɒnɪk/, with the tongue-twisting cluster up front. The more relaxed and much younger Americans opted for the dropping of the spurious /k/ sound and recommends the simpler /’θɒnɪk/.

Either way, it’s certainly one of those words that deserves an outing now and again, so try slipping it into your next email to the boss.

Read Full Post »

After a brief sojourn to visit the Homeland, and to attend a conference on corpus linguistics, I found myself one evening wanting to do nothing more than watch some mindless movie. Luckily, one of the channels through which I was randomly flicking was showing Terminator III: The Rise of the Machines. Ah, mindless entertainment indeed!

I’m sure there were some deep philosophical issues addressed in this film, but a naked Kristanna Loken, shit exploding, and a tongue-in-cheek performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger were, quite frankly, all that I was bothered about. Sharp, biting, cerebral witty banter ran along the lines of;

Terminator: Katherine Brewster? Have you sustained injury?
Kate Brewster: Drop dead, you asshole!
Terminator: I am unable to comply.

Shakespeare it ain’t but there are many reasons for watching movies and one of those is simply to be entertained. And it is an entertaining movie, not the least due to the fact that Arnie is always worth watching.

At this point, I’m prepared to duck to avoid the large, heavy objects that thespians and film critics will now be hurling in my general direction because they are likely to take some offense at my considering the ex-governor of California to be interesting. But he has a certain raw appeal as an iconic “tough guy,” which is actually enhanced by his realization that he’s not the world’s greatest actor and just does what he does without pretending to be otherwise.

True to his catchphrase, “I’ll be back,” Arnie will indeed by back in the near future as a lawman fighting the drug cartels in a new movie called Last Stand – which ironically I suspect will not be his! He’s also to appear as a cartoon character called The Governator, in which he plays – surprise surprise – a superhero named after the nickname given to him during his years as California’s governor.

The nickname derives from his earlier role as a robotic killing machine from the future – the Terminator. It’s simply a portmanteau of governor and Terminator, which is a common way of coining new words. But there is another influence on the derivation.

Prior to being the Governator, he was referred to as the Gubernator, which is defined by the OED quite simply as;

A ruler, governor.

This comes from the Latin gubernator, an agentive noun from the verb gubernare, meaning “to govern.” We can track this even further back to the Greek κυβερνᾶν meaning “to steer.”

Yet it isn’t the noun gubernator that is used most but the adjectival form, gubernatorial, which appeared first in a 1734 reference of the New Jersey Archives (1894) in the phrase “The Governor in his gubernatorial Capacity.” In fact, it seems to be an American word, rarely used in the UK or any of the other English-speaking countries.

It’s use over time seems to have reached a peak during the 1960’s and 1970’s, according to the Corpus of Historical American English.

Historical “gubernatorial”

It’s tempting to infer that the “goober” part of gubernatorial is in some way related to the word goober, which can be used as a synonym for peanut, or in slang for either someone from the state of Georgia or a stupid person. In fact, the word goober appears to be derived from the African language, Kimbundu, and the word nguba, meaning “peanut.”

Still, the notion that gubernators are all nuts has a compelling ring to it!

Read Full Post »

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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!

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 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).

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.

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.

Read Full Post »

…and we’re back!

After a three-week hiatus caused by the vicissitudes of modern life, a feeling of guilt has washed over me and the only way to towel it off it to write something. A combination of traveling and writing reports for which I get paid (and although I prefer the fun of The Etyman Language Blog, that won’t but me food or fix my motorcycle) has kept me too busy to update my posts. Mea culpa.

I’m not criminally guilty. As far as I am aware, there’s no law that forces me to update my blog, so the arrival of a fully armed SWAT team is not something I need to be worrying about. The sense of guilt I have arises from an internally developed sense of duty to both myself and my seven readers. Well, maybe it’s eight. Whatever the number, I only have myself to blame for the guilt because if I’d been smart enough never to have started this blogging adventure following my 50th birthday, I’d be free to do other things that are less stressful.

According to the OED, guilt is;

A failure of duty, delinquency; offence, crime, sin.

In my case, missed posts could be considered delinquent, but hardly criminal, and certainly not sinful – unless there was an 11th commandment written on the third tablet of stone that Moses dropped on his way down. Freud was hot on the notion of guilt as being related to sin, to the point that in his Civilization and its Discontents (1931), he argued that the guilt/sin relationship was a tool that religions use to keep the faithful in check:

The different religions have never overlooked the part played by the sense of guilt in civilization. What is more, they come forward with a claim…to save mankind from this sense of guilt, which they call sin.

According to Herant Katchadourian in his fascinating book, guilt is the bite of conscience. The good news here is that if I am feeling guilty, then I must have a conscience! Thank God for that – I was beginning to wonder…

The word as a noun pops up as an Old English word, gylt, in the Blickling Homilies of 1150 in reference to a passage dating even further back to around 971:

Þonne onfoþ hie forgifnesse ealra heora gylta æt urum Drihtne.

However, the verb form, meaning “to commit an offense, trespass, or sin” turns up in The Vespasian Psalter in the sentence “Swoete & reht dryten fore ðissum aee gesette gyltendum in wege.” The base verb is gyltan and seems to have no equivalents in other Germanic languages. It sounds a little like the German geld meaning gold, which is turn is hypothesized to have its origins in the Old Germanic *geld– meaning “to pay,” but it seems a bit of a stretch to tie “paying” with “failing in duty.”

So where might it have come from? Or in case the Grammar Police are checking up on me, from where might it have come?

Looking at instances where Old English has been changed to Latin, we find that gylt is rendered as debitum in The Lord’s Prayer, and gultiȝ turns up as debet in the Gospel of Matthew. So here’s where there’s a case to be made for guilt having the sense of debt – something you owe. And certainly feeling guilty because you have failed to deliver what was owed doesn’t appear too way out.

If we accept this – and you’re always free to disagree – then we can find some similar Germanic family words related to debt. Old English has the word scyld meaning crime, sin, or just plain guilt, which in turn is cognate with Old Norse skuld, Old Saxon sculd, and Old High German scult, all of which also have the sense of debt or bondage.

It turns out to be a fairly promiscuous word in that it seems happy to spread itself about a bit amongst the different parts of speech.  As well as being the noun and verb guilt, and the common adjective guilty, it can easily become the adverb guiltily. You can also talk about someone having guiltiness (noun) and being guiltful (adjective). If you then factor in its opposite forms, by sticking on the suffix –less you can add guiltless, guiltlessly, and guiltlessness to your vocabulary.

And it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity to mention how the word is used in the phrase, “guilty pleasure.” Although the OED doesn’t include it, The Corpus of Historical American English has a citation from 1817 in Francis August Cox’s Female Scriptures Biographies: Volume 1:

In our alarm we forget God, think it “strange,” brood with a melancholy, but guilty pleasure, over our sufferings, and act as if we thought that “God had forgotten to be gracious.”

A “guilty pleasure” is an activity or object that someone finds pleasurable but that also induces a sense of guilt because it is in some way “wrong.” There’s also the sense that the guilty pleasure is something shared by others who feel similar guilt. Thus, admitting you like to watch trashy TV reality shows is seen as a guilty pleasure whereas admitting you like abducting children is a criminal activity. The sense of “wrongness” is typically a social phenomenon and not a statutory felonious action. Again, stealing a car may be pleasurable to some, but it doesn’t qualify as a guilty pleasure.

Guilty pleasures are relative and can change over time. I used to consider watching Ren and Stimpy cartoons as a guilty pleasure, but now I count is merely as a pleasure – there’s now no guilt involved. And originally, smoking was a pleasure, then a criminal activity, and now a guilty pleasure. Twenty years ago, looking at the 16-year-old glamor models on page 3 of the UK’s Sun newspaper is a guilty pleasure for a Brit, but opening your copy of the Sun when you got off the plane in Newark Liberty airport was a felony offense for being in possession of child pornography!

Read Full Post »

Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” I’m with Woody on this one. Well, the second part in particular. Which is why I am currently back on the WeightWatchers® diet in an attempt to reverse the results of a recent “Wellness Check.” I purposely have that phrase in quotes because the reality is that a “wellness check” is really an “unwellness” check – it is designed to tell you how sick you are. The check was also linked to a new “Health and Wellness” scheme we’ve recently implemented at my company, the major motivation for joining being that it reduces your health care contributions. Being healthy saves you money. In truth, without that financial incentive, I’d be hurtling towards an untimely end a significant number of years earlier than the traditionally allotted three-score-years-and-ten. Who would have thought that exclusive consumption of dead animals, fermented fruits and grains, and exercise no more strenuous than lifting a six-pack of beer could lead to premature death?

The blood test revealed that I was on the border to becoming a diabetic, on the border to becoming a high cholesterol heart attack victim, and so far over the border as regards my weight that I can legally be classified as an illegal alien in Fatland. But what really sealed the dieting deal for me was my very cool and very expensive Joseph Abboud, single-breasted, pin-striped gray suit. It doesn’t fit.

Just before Christmas, which is always a bad time to think about weight loss in general, I am ashamed to say that my choice of attire for the company party was dictated to by my waistline. In the words of Steely Dan in the classic Deacon Blues;

This is the age of the expanding man
That shape is my shame, there where I used to stand.

There was no way on earth, short of paying for liposuction, that I was going to be able to fasten those pants. None. The shame was further enhanced by the fact that I couldn’t even pull the zip all the way up, let alone fasten the buttons. The effect of my blubber slobbering over the waistband was less of a muffin top than a tsunami of fat that threatened to bury my feet.

The word muffin top has now achieved some legitimacy in that it has recently been added to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since March 2011, the official definition of a muffin top now includes;

A roll of flesh which hangs visibly over a person’s (esp. a woman’s) tight-fitting waistband.

Prior to this, the original definition has been in existence for almost 100 years;

The top of a muffin; spec. the part which rises above the rim of the tin or cup during baking; (now also) a type of intended to resemble this, baked in a specially designed tin with shallow depressions.

The metaphorical use of this to refer to the all-to-familiar state of sartorial inelegance is obvious. The OED has a written reference dated 2000 but it will have been around longer than this in spoken language.

The word muffin itself can be traced back to 17th century England where it also appears in the forms muffings, moofin, moufin, and mowfinn. The origin is uncertain but Low German had the word muffe meaning “little cake,” and in the 14th century, the Old French word moflet referred to a kind of bread – which, in turn, was used as an adjective meaning “soft” in reference to bread.

By the time the word was common currency in British English in the 17th century, it referred to any type of bread or cake, but it seems that primarily, a muffin was a flat bread that was often cut in half and toasted.

Then it gets more complicated.

There is also a popular British flat bread called a crumpet, which differs from a muffin only marginally. The crumpet mix contains milk and baking soda, and is made to be thinner than a muffin mix, which uses yeast or sourdough. When cooked, the crumpet develops distinctive dimples, the true value of which is that you can cram butter into the holes and therefore increase your cholesterol intake probably by a factor of ten.

In the US, the word became more specifically used to refer to sweet cakes rather than breads, with the originally bread-type muffin being referred to as the English muffin, which is the way it is today. The American muffin is closer to the English bun or cake, baked in a small cup like the American cupcake.

A small, usually sweet sponge cake, baked in a cup-shaped container. Freq. with modifying word indicating the flavour or additional ingredients (1835 definition).

Still with me?

OK, let’s make it a little clearer with pictures. Here’s an English cake or bun, which is an American cupcake:


English Bun, or Cake, or US Cupcake!

And now here is an English muffin, as sold in America.

English muffin in America

Finally an American muffin, which can be bought in the UK as an American muffin! Note the distinctive overhanging muffin top.

American muffin

American Muffin with muffin top

In the busy world of slang, where words are tossed, twisted, tweaked, and thoroughly abused in order to make them work much harder, the word muffin has taken up residency with some vigor. Back in 1830, we find it being used to refer to a fool, but this has since evolved to include the notion of a muffin as a dogsbody or anyone who is overly compliant;

It was already attracting a group of young, eager volunteers like Cornelius—‘muffins’, in the parlance of ‘Primary Colors’—whose job was to perform whatever tasks‥needed doing. (New Yorker, 15 April. 56/2).

In baseball, the word was used to describe someone who would miss catching a ball, although what is worth noting here is that the derivation is not from the bread or cake but from the verb “to muff,” defined by the OED as;

To miss (a catch, a ball), esp. in cricket; to play (a shot, a game, etc.) badly. Also with it: to miss a catch, to play or perform badly.

This meaning appeared first in 1827 in  William Clarke’s Every Night Book, or Life After Dark, where he wrote;

When one of the fancy dies, the survivors say, that he has‥‘mizzled’—‘morrised’—or ‘muffed it’!

Canada provides us with another interpretation of the muffin; a temporary female partner.

At the beginning of the winter season each young man chose ‘a muffin’—a ‘steady date’ for the season—an arrangement terminated by mutual consent in the following spring. (Stephens, G. 1965).

This has become extended to refer to any attractive woman, and more recently – from the early 1980’s at least – it has been further tweaked to become specific to a sexually attractive male in the compound stud muffin.

Its use as slang for the female vagina is, etymologically speaking, also fascinating. In John Farmer’s 1897 book, Merry Songs & Ballads, he quotes a song from 1707 with the splendidly raunchy phrase, “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d‥a Mag-Pye’s Nest.” However, the word muff in comes from the Middle Dutch muffel, meaning “related to fur” and ultimately perhaps from Latin muffula.

The shift to using muffin rather than muff seems, in retrospect, to not be too much of a stretch. It also appears to have been an American creation. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang traces its use to the 1950’s in the US, but in the UK, there was a popular children’s pupper show called “Muffin the Mule” that ran from 1946 to 1957. It’s unlikely the chappies at the Beeb would have allowed a puppet to be named after a slang term for a vagina![1] So, the chances are that the genitally orientated interpretation is an American 40’s/50’s word.

By now you are probably either confused or hungry. But remember that a Blueberry Streusel Muffin from Starbucks is 10 WeightWatcher Plus Points, which is a sizable hole in my 29-point daily limit, or 360 calories for those of you who are following calorie-control diets. Either way,  you may want to consider something else if you want to avoid turning the blueberry muffin top into your own personal muffin top.

[1] The BBC also ran the animated series, Captain Pugwash, which aired initially from 1957 to 1966. Allegedly, the characters included Master Bates, Seaman Stains, and Roger the Cabin Boy (in UK slang, “to roger” means “to have sex with.”) Sadly this is an urban legend – and I say “sadly” because I do so wish it had been true!

Postscript: 5-15-2011.
My good friend and fellow word lover, Steve Badman, sent me the following correction to my Steely Dan quote:

This is the day of the expanding man
That shape is my shade, there where I used to stand.

He took that straight from the lyrics printed on his physical copy of a 1997 re-issue of Aja on ABC Records. I’m adding this as a postscript rather than simply changing the original quote because I have a thing about creeping Revisionism on the net. I want folks who read this to KNOW that I made a mistake, and they can then speculate as to WHY I did it. Was I negligent in my sources? Have I always had the wrong lyric in my head? Is the erroneous version a result of some unconscious feelings of guilt or anxiety? Whatever it is, simply deleting the error and pretending it didn’t happen strikes me as ethical dubious.

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.”

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 »

Sometimes you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to marketing by leveraging people’s fascination with the celebrity and prurience. Enter the London-based company Crown Jewels, which has released a boxed set of condoms to celebrate the up-coming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Tastefully presented in a royal blue color, the “Condoms of Distinction” are currently marketed on the company’s website with the tag line, “Like a Royal Wedding, intercourse with a loved one is an unforgettable occasion.”  The tongue-in-cheek marketing is so wonderfully flowery that it’s well worth quoting at length the company’s take on “The Gentleman’s Condom”:

Founded in London, England’s historic capital, Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction is the proud purveyor of an exclusive range of heritage love sheaths.

England boasts some of the finest lovemaking in the world, with a tradition of coitus going back generations.

Honouring this history, Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction is dedicated to furnishing the best English prophylactics to discerning clientele across the world.

Using only the finest lubricatory preparation and with each condom individually wrapped for your pleasure and convenience, Crown Jewels is the first choice of gentlemen and ladies who demand excellence without compromise.

The word condom appears in the 18th century in a poem by John Hamilton, a Scottish . Entitled A Scottish Answer to British Vision, (1706) Hamilton includes the sentence;

Then Sirenge and Condum Come both in Request.

The actual device has been around for much longer that. It has been suggested that the Ancient Egyptians used some sort of sheath but it rather uncertain. There is evidence that upper-class Egyptian women used crocodile dung pessaries and irrigated the
vagina with honey and sodium bicarbonate but no evidence for condoms.[1]

The first recorded evidence for the modern condom comes from Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio in 1564.  He claimed to have invented a linen sheath that was made to fit the glans and which was worn for protection against syphilis. He wrote that he tried it on 1100 men and not one of them became infected.

The word’s origin is still uncertain. One theory is that it was named after an 18th century doctor called Dr. Condom, but up until now, neither etymologist nor historians have found the elusive clinician.

Zacharias Thundy[2] (1985) favors the word being derived from the Latin morphemes con meaning “with” and doma meaning “roof” or “dome.” Thundy suggests that “the harmless word served as a euphemism – an indirect, inoffensive, and tasteful word – for
the contraceptive device.” He also argues that the use of the concept of a “dome” or “building” that provides protection is semantically appropriate.

Logical as it sounds, it doesn’t quite float my boat because the semantic link seems too tenuous. In her 2007 book, The Humble Little Condom, Aine Collier proposes that the word is a corruption of cumdum, which means “scabbard” or “sheath.” This seems much more semantically close to the function of a condom – certainly more than the “house” metaphor. And the mental effort to imagine a condom as a sheath is not that much.

Another contender is the Italian words guantone, derived from guanto = glove. This also has a certain credibility with the glove metaphor seeming quite logical. There’s also some phonetic similarity, which at least adds to guantone as being a serious contender.

So although the real origin of condom is shrouded in mystery, one thing we do know is that there are many euphemisms for the humble French letter (a UK label). Let’s list a few:

Rubber, raincoat, love glove, jock jacket, willy wrap, flesh fedora, jimmy hat, Trojan®, Durex®, wand wallet, and the burrito pancho!

Oh, and one last tip for English learners: In the UK, an eraser is often called a “rubber.” In the US, a condom is often called a “rubber.” Intriguingly, you have to be very careful on trips between the US and the UK, because walking into a US store and asking for a rubber is likely to end up in an embarrassing situation!

[1] Youssef, H. (1998). The history of the condom. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 86, 226-228.
[2] Thundy, Z.P. (1985). The Etymology of Condom. American Speech, 60, 177-179.

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.

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.

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 »

Older Posts »