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Posts Tagged ‘COHA’

zany /ˈzeɪnɪ/

Sometime last week, I was doing a crossword where one of the answers was zany. The clue was along the lines of “Back from Arizona to the Big Apple the crazy way.” For those who don’t typically do cryptic crosswords – a staple for any cruciverbalist from the UK – the “back from Arizona” gives you the ZA elements (the abbreviation for Arizona backwards), the “Big Apple” gives you NY, and the “crazy” is the clue itself – the meaning of the word zany.

On reflection, it seemed to me a little old-fashioned, and not a word I recall using or seeing for many years. If anything, my recollection would be in relation to ads for “zany” American TV shows or movies. And I say “American” because classic Brit comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Benny Hill show, even The Young Ones, were never, to my recollection, labeled “zany” – more likely “crazy,” “loony” or perhaps “surreal.”

According to the Corpus of Historical American  (COHA), my go-to source for questions about word use over time, the word seems to have made its appearance in the 1930’s, peaked in the 70’s, and is now on a slow decline.

Zany over time

Zany over time

As to its origins, it’s a relatively recent word from the 16th century where it was used to refer to;

…a comic performer attending on a clown, acrobat, or mountebank, who imitates his master’s acts in a ludicrously awkward way; a clown’s or mountebank’s assistant, a merry-andrew, jack-pudding; sometimes used vaguely for a professional jester or buffoon in general.

Resisting the temptation to go off and explore the delightfully intriguing – and clearly underused – Jack-Pudding, the reason the word applies to a comic performer is that it refers to the name of characters in a form of Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte. In its day, which is the 16th century, it was the Improv comedy of the age. Actors wearing masks would give improvised performances, and the clown characters would be called zanis or zannis, which in turn comes from the Italian Gianni meaning “John.” From this, it was just a small step to switch the word from a noun to an adjective that could be used to describe someone behaving like a “zani.”

Picture of a clown

Zany

This use of the word – as an adjective – is now the dominant one. In fact, it’s so dominant that most people don’t even know that it was originally a noun and are surprised to discover its origin. The single reference to zany in the COHA chart above in 1840 is as a noun from Herman Melville’s Mardi and a Voyage Thither, where he writes, “Azzageddi, you are a zany!”

Between 1870 and 1890, the COHA examples similarly have it as a noun, but by 1940, we see a mix of examples of the word as both noun and adjective, and by 1960 it is almost exclusively used as the adjective.

The flip has happened.

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One of my favorite classic guitar solos from the 70’s has to be Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption from the 1978 eponymous first album Van Halen. It’s classic status was confirmed in 2009 when it was included as one of the tracks on the Guitar Hero: Van Halen video game, allowing a whole new generation of air guitarists to pretend to be Eddie. And just a year earlier, Guitar Magazine named it the 2nd greatest guitar solo of all time, bested only by Jimmy Page’s Stairway to Heaven.

In the same year that the song Eruption was released, the UK R&B band called Eruption has their biggest hit with the song, I Can’t Stand the Rain, which reached #5 in the UK charts and #18 on the US Billboard charts.

An eruption is characterized by some type of “breaking forth,” and is most often used in reference to a volcanic eruption, which is “the ejection of solid or liquid matter by a volcano, of hot water from a geyser, etc.” (OED).

(C) gnuckx under Creative Commons

In contrast, the word irruption is the opposite and defined by the OED as;

The action of bursting or breaking in; a violent entry, inroad, incursion, or invasion, esp. of a hostile force or tribe.

The inward motion as opposed to the outward is what makes the difference between the words, although they are both pronounced the same.

The first appearance in print of the word is in Heinrich Bullinger’s 1577 page turner, Fiftie godlie and learned sermons, in the quote;

In that hurlie burlie and irruption made by the barbarous people.

It can be traced back to the Latin irruptionem, a noun of action derived from the verb irrumpere, which means “to break into,” and it can be furthered analyzed as the prefix ir– meaning “into” and rumpere, “to break.” Contrast this with eruption, which has the same base verb, rumpere, but the prefix e– means “out.”

The Latin rumpere is the base of a number of other English words, including abrupt (ab– prefix meaning “off,”‘ so “to break off”), route (a way or a course, from the Latin phrase via rupta or “broken way”), and rupture (a break or a tear).

By the 20th century, the word had taken on a special meaning in relation to zoology, namely to refer to;

An abrupt local increase in the numbers of a species of animals.

Thus, in A.L. Thompson’s 1936 book entitled Bird Migration, we see;

Apart from all the categories of annual movements, there are movements which occur at irregular intervals in the form of invasions or irruptions… In the spring of certain years the birds have ‘irrupted’ in large numbers.

It’s in the birding world that irruption seems to be used most frequently. However, the decline in its general usage seems to have been started in the mid 1800’s and even the Corpus of Contemporary American English only offers 27 instances between 1990 and 2012.

History of the word irruption

“Irruption” 1810-2009

As a final comment, it’s worth mentioning that even Mark Twain got the words eruption and irruption mixed up. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) he used the phrase, “A firmament-obliterating irruption of profanity,” and in the context, it would seem that he meant an “eruption of profanity.”

Happens to the best of ’em, I guess.

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…and we’re back!

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

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

According to the OED, guilt is;

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

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

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

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

Bite of Conscience book

Guilt: The Bite of Conscience

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

Þonne onfoþ hie forgifnesse ealra heora gylta æt urum Drihtne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilty Pleasure Snooki Jersey Shores

Snooki: Guilty Pleasure... or just plain "Guilty"

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

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