Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Headlines That Paint a Different Picture

* Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

* British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands

* Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms

* Eye Drops off Shelf

* Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead

* Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

* Shot Off Woman’s Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66

* Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax

* Stolen Painting Found by Tree

* Checkout Counter Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

* Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One

* Drunken Drivers Paid $1000

* If Strike isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last a While

* Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

* Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

* Deer Kill 17,000

* Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

* Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge

* New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

* Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft

* Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

* Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy

* British Union Finds Dwarfs in Short Supply

* Ban On Soliciting Dead in Trotwood

* Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

* New Vaccine May Contain Rabies

* Air Head Fired

* Steals Clock, Faces Time

* Prosecutor Releases Probe into Under-sheriff

* Old School Pillars are Replaced by Alumni

* Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board

* Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

* Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction

* Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training

* Include your Children when Baking Cookies

* Marv Albert Gets Pink Slip

* Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire

* Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees

* Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing

* Deaf College Opens Doors to Hearing

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Origins of Familiar Phrases

Meaning: Get very angry, very quickly.
Origin: Refers to axe heads, which, in the days before mass merchandising, were sometimes fastened poorly to their handles. If one flew off while being used, it was a dangerous situation ... with unpredictable results.

Meaning: Luxurious, prosperous.
Origin: The tastiest parts of a hog are its upper parts. If you're living high on the hog, you've got the best it has to offer.

Meaning: Fool someone.
Origin: "Goes back to the days when all gentlemen wore powdered wigs like the ones still worn by the judges in British courts. The word wool was then a popular, joking term for hair ... The expression 'pull the wool over his eyes' came from the practice of tilting a man's wig over his eyes, so he couldn't see what was going on."

Meaning: Prostitute.
Origin: Although occasionally used before the Civil War, its widespread popularity can probably be traced to General Joseph Hooker, a Union soldier who was well-known for the liquor and whores in his camp. He was ultimately demoted, and Washington prostitutes were jokingly referred to as "Hooker's Division."

Meaning: Reveal the truth.
Origin: Refers to a con game practiced at country fairs in old England. A trickster tried to sell a cat in burlap bag to an unwary bumpkin, saying it was a pig. If the victim figured out the trick and insisted on seeing the animal, the cat had to be let out of the bag.

Meaning: To preempt; to draw attention away from someone else's achievement in favor of your own.
Origin: English dramatist John Dennis invented a gadget for imitating the sound of thunder and introduced it in a play in the early 1700s. The play flopped. Soon after, Dennis noted that another play in the same theater was using his sound-effects device. He angrily exclaimed, "That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play." The story got around London, and the phrase grew out of it.

Meaning: To pay a high price; to pay dearly.
Origin: Comes from the ninth-century Ireland. When the Danes conquered the Irish, they imposed an exorbitant Nose Tax on the island's inhabitants. They took a census (by counting noses) and levied oppressive sums on their victims, forcing them to pay by threatening to have their noses actually slit. Paying the tax was "paying trough the nose."

Meaning: A muscle cramp.
Origin: In 1640, Charles I of England expanded the London police force. The new recruits were nicknamed "Charleys." There wasn't enough money to provide the new police with horses so they patrolled on foot. They joked that their sore feet and legs came from riding "Charley's horse."

Meaning: Inadequate, subpar.
Origin: In the early days of boxing, there was no bell to signal the beginning of a round. Instead, the referee would scratch a line on the ground between fighters, and the round began when both men stepped over it. When a boxer couldn't cross the line to keep a match going, people said that he was not "up to the scratch."

Meaning: Caught in the act.
Origin: For hundreds of years, stealing and butchering another person's livestock was a common crime. But it was hard to prove unless the thief was caught with a dead animal ... and blood on his hands.

Meaning: Make a nasty gesture at someone (usually with the middle finger uplifted).
Origin: There are many versions. The "cleanest": Originally "the bird" referred to the hissing sound that audiences made when they didn't like a performance. Hissing is the sound that a goose makes when it's threatened or angry.

Meaning: Fail.
Origin: From the British sport of cricket. When you fail to score, you get a zero - which looks like an egg. The term is also taken from baseball, where a zero is a "goose egg."

Meaning: Make peace with an enemy.
Origin: Some Native American tribes declare peace by literally burying a tomahawk in the ground.

Meaning: Chat; engage in idle conversation.
Origin: Originally a sailor's term. Before refrigeration, ships carried food that wouldn't spoil. One of them was salted pork skin, a practically inedible morsel that consisted largely of fat. Sailors would only eat it if all other food was gone... and they often complained as they did. This (and other) idle chatter eventually became known as "chewing the fat."

Meaning: To the very end - often an unpleasant one.
Origin: Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with bitterness. It's a sailing term that refers to the end of a mooring line or anchor line that is attached to the bitts, sturdy wooden or metal posts that are mounted on the ship's deck.

Meaning: Something is wrong with the person or mechanism.
Origin: The phrase comes from the cotton industry and dates back as far as the 1780s, when the industrial revolution made mass production of textiles possible for the first time. Huge mills sprang up to take advantage of the new technology (and the cheap labor), but it was difficult to keep all the machines running properly; any machine that broke down or produced defective cloth was said to have "a screw loose" somewhere.

Meaning: Someone appears after you mention them.
Origin: People once believed that you could actually summon the Devil by saying his name.

Meaning: Pampered; lucky; born into wealth or prosperous circumstances.
Origin: At one time, it was customary for godparents to give their godchild a silver spoon at the christening. These people were usually well-off so the spoon came to represent the child's good fortune.

Meaning: To present a united front.
Origin: "In the old-time European armies, the soldiers were aligned side by side, in neat rows, or ranks, on the battlefield. When the enemy attacked, officers would order the troops to close ranks; that is, to move the rows close together, so that the enemy faced a seemingly impregnable mass of men." (From Fighting Words, by Christine Ammer)

Meaning: Worthless.
Origin: According to Robert claiborne in Loose Cannons and Red Herrings, it refers to city streets as they were before cars. "When I was a youngster on the streets of New York, one could both see and smell the emissions of horse-drawn wagons. Since there was no way of controlling these emissions, they, or the undigested oats in them, served to nourish a large population of English sparrows. If you say something's for the birds, you're politely saying it's horseshit."

Meaning: Socially unacceptable.
Origin: "The pale in this expression has nothing to do with the whitish color, but comes originally from the Latin palus, meaning a pole, or stake. Since stakes are often used to mark boundaries, a pale was a particular area within certain limits." The pale that inspired this expression was the area around Dublin in Ireland. Until the 1500s, that area was subject to British law. "Those who lived beyond the pale were outside English jurisdiction and were thought to be uncivilized." (From Getting to the Roots, by Martin Manser)

Meaning: I'm hoarse from a cold.
Origin: Surprisingly, this wasn't inspired by the croaking sound of a cold-sufferer's voice, but by a weird medical practice. "In the Middle Ages," says Christine Ammer in It's Raining Cats and Dogs, "infections such as thrush were sometimes treated by putting a live frog head first into the patient's mouth; by inhaling, the frog was believed to draw the patient's infection into its own body. The treatment is happily obsolete, but its memory survives in the 19th century term frog in one's throat."

Meaning: It fits perfectly.
Origin: Commonly thought of as a reference to the T-square, which is used to draw parallel lines and angles. But this phrase was used in the 1600s, before anyone called it a T-square. "A more likely explanation is that the expression was originally 'to a tittle.' A tittle was the dot over the 'i,' so the phrase meant 'to a dot' or 'fine point.'" (From Why Do We Say It, by Nigel Rees)

Meaning: A kiss, at the end of a letter.
Origin: In medieval times, when most people were illiterate, "contracts were not considered legal until each signer included St. Andrew's cross after their name." (Or instead of a signature, if the signer couldn't write.) To prove their sincerity, signers were then required to kiss the X. "Throughout the centuries this custom faded out, but the letter X [became associated] with a kiss." This is also probably where the phrase "sealed with a kiss" comes from. (From I've Got Goose Pimples, by Martin Vanoni)

Meaning: To perceive or understand a hidden meaning.
Origin: In the 16th century it became common for politicians, soldiers, and businesspeople to write in code. To ordinary folks, this writing was unintelligible. They concluded that the meaning was not in the lines of gibberish, but in the space between them.

Meaning: You're not young anymore; you're past your prime.
Origin: Until recent generations, there were no incubators and few warm hen houses. That meant chicks couldn't be raised during winter. New England growers found that those born in the spring brought premium prices in the summer market places. When these Yankee traders tried to pass off old birds as part of the spring crop, smart buyers would protest that the bird was "no spring chicken."

Meaning: An epithet.
Origin: In the 1800s, British sailors took women along on extended voyages. When babies were born at sea, the mothers delivered them in a partitioned section of the gundeck. Because no one could be sure who the true fathers were, each of these "gunnery" babies was jokingly called a "son of a gun."

Meaning: Raise your fists and get ready to fight.
Origin: In the early 1800s, the Duke of York, Frederick Augustus, shocked English society by taking up boxing. He gained such admiration from boxers that many started referring to their fists as the "Dukes of York," and later "dukes."

Meaning: Having a hidden agenda.
Origin: The expression comes from a story told by Benjamin Franklin. A man once praised Franklin's father's grindstone and asked young Benjamin to demonstrate how the grindstone worked. As Franklin complied, the stranger placed his own axe upon the grindstone, praising the young boy for his cleverness and vigor. When the axe was sharpened, the man laughed at Franklin and walked away, giving the boy a valuable lesson about people with "an axe to grind."

Meaning: Elite.
Origin: In the Middle Ages, the highest-level nobility and royal were served the choice part of a loaf of bread, the "upper crust," before it was offered to other diners.

Meaning: Finish a project by an appointed time.
Origin: The phrase was born in prisoner-of-war camps during the Civil War. Because resources were scarce, the prison camps were sometimes nothing more than a plot of land surrounded by a marked line. If a prisoner tried to cross the line, he would be shot. So it became known as the "deadline."

Meaning: Behave or act in accordance with the rules.
Origin: In the early days of the British Parliament, members wore swords in the House of Commons. To keep the members from fighting during heated debates, the Speaker of the House of Commons forced the Government and Opposition parties to sit on opposite sides of the chamber. Lines, two sword-lengths plus one foot apart, were drawn in the carpet. Members were required to stand behind the lines when the House was in session. To this day, when a member steps over the line during a debate, the speaker yells: "Toe the line!"

Meaning: Replacement or backup.
Origin: You might have caught William Tell without an apple, but not without a second string. In medieval times, an archer always carried a second string in case the one on his bow broke.

Meaning: At the center of attention.
Origin: In 1826, Thomas Drummond invented the limelight, an amazingly bright white light, by running an intense oxygen-hydrogen flame through a lime cylinder. At first, the bright light was used in lighthouses to direct ships. Later, theater began using the limelight like a spotlight - to direct the audience's attention to a certain actor. If an actor was to be the focal point of a particular scene, he was thrust "into the limelight."

Meaning: Short-lived success.
Origin: In the 1700s, the pan of a flintlock musket was a part that held the gunpowder. If all went well, sparks from the flint would ignite the charge, which would then propel the bullet out of the barrel. However, sometimes the gun powder would burn without igniting a main charge. The flash would burn brightly but only briefly, with no lasting effect.

Meaning: Someone who enjoys putting on a show, or who plays rather obviously to an audience (though not necessarily on stage).
Origin: An American phrase originating in the 1880s. Minstrel shows, the mass entertainment of the time, often featured less-than-talented performers who overacted. They frequently appeared in blackface, and used ham fat to remove their makeup. Thus, they were referred to as "ham-fat men," later shortened to "hams."

Meaning: A scapegoat, or something who is habitually picked on.
Origin: Hundreds of years ago, it was normal practice for a European prince to be raised with a commoner of the same age. Since princes couldn't be disciplined like ordinary kids, the commoner would be beaten whenever the prince did something wrong. The commoner was called the prince's "whipping boy."

Meaning: Go crazy or to act with reckless abandon.
Origin: Viking warriors were incredibly wild and ferocious in battle, probably because they ate hallucinogenic mushrooms in prebattle ceremonies. They charged their enemies recklessly, wearing nothing more than bearskin, which in Old Norse was pronounced "berserkr" or "bear-sark."

Meaning: Fool someone.
Origin: Years ago back-alley thieves worked in pairs. One thief, known as a "tripper up," would use a cane, rope, or piece of wire to trip a pedestrian, knocking them to the ground. While the victim was down, the second thief would rob them. Pulling your leg originally referred to the way the "tripper up" tried to make someone stumble. Today it only refers to tripping someone figuratively.

Meaning: Torrential rain.
Origin: In the days before garbage collection, people tossed their trash in the gutter - including deceased housepets - and it just lay there. When it rained really hard, the garbage, including the bodies of dead cats and dogs, went floating down the street.

Meaning: An illusion, a dream, a fantasy, an unrealistic goal.
Origin: Joe Hill, a famous labor organizer of the early 20th century, wrote a tune called "The Preacher and the Slave," in which he accused the clergy of promising a better life in Heaven while people starved on Earth. A few of the lines: "Work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die (That's a lie!)."

Meaning: Writer who churns out words for money.
Origin: In Victorian England, a hackney, or "hack," was a carriage for hire. (The term is still used in reference to taxi drivers, who need their "hack's licenses" to work.) Hack became a description of anyone who plies their trade strictly for cash.

Meaning: Old.
Origin: Originally used to describe old horses. As horses age, their gums recede, giving the impression that their teeth are growing. The longer the teeth look, the older the horse.

Meaning: Informer, traitor.
Origin: To catch passenger pigeons (now extinct), hunters would nail a pigeon to a stool. Its alarmed cries would attract other birds, and the hunters would shoot them by the thousands. The poor creature that played the traitor was called a "stool pigeon."

Meaning: Go about things in a circuitous manner, go around an issue rather than deal with it directly.
Origin: In the Middle Ages, people caught birds by dropping a net over a bush and clubbing the ground around it to scare the birds into flying into the net. Once a bird was caught, you could stop beating around the bush and start eating.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Actual Headlines

Caribbean Islands Drift to Left

- March Planned For Next August

- Blind Bishop Appointed To See

- Lingerie Shipment Hijacked -- Thief Gives Police The Slip

- L.A. Voters Approve Urban Renewal By Landslide

- Patient At Death's Door--Doctors Pull Him Through

- Latin Course To Be Canceled--No Interest Among Students, Et Al.

- Diaper Market Bottoms Out

- Croupiers On Strike; Management Says: "No Big Deal"

- Stadium Air Conditioning Fails -- Fans Protest

- Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped

- Henshaw Offers Rare Opportunity to Goose Hunters

- Teacher Strikes Idle Kids

- Lawyers Give Poor Free Legal Advice

- Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

- Fund Set Up for Beating Victim's Kin

- Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

- Cancer Society Honors Marlboro Man

- Nicaragua Sets Goal to Wipe Out Literacy

- 20-Year Friendship Ends at Altar

- War Dims Hope For Peace

- If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last A While

- Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

- Half of U.S. High Schools Require Some Study for Graduation

- Blind Woman Gets New Kidney from Dad She Hasn't Seen in Years

- Man is Fatally Slain

- Death Causes Loneliness, Feelings of Isolation

- Defendants Speech Ends in Long Sentence

- Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

- Police Discover Crack in Australia

- Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan

- Collegians are Turning to Vegetables

- Scientists to Have Ford's Ear

- Hershey Bars Protest

- County Officials to Talk Rubbish

- Carter Plans Swell Deficit

Sunday, June 29, 2008

“Biophony,” “Performant,” etc. — The Open Dictionary

by Peter Sokolowski
“Biophony,” “performant,” and “donor fatigue”— just a sampling of the creative new words and expressions recently submitted by the public to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. Read on for their definitions…

biophony (noun): the cumulative non-human sound produced by living organisms in a given biome

Example of use: The biophony of every location in nature is unique.

certificant (noun): an individual who has achieved one or more certifications

Example of use: The registration card confirms that the certificant “is a certified Nuclear Medicine Technologist in good standing.”

donor fatigue (noun) : a reduction in the will or ability to donate money to charity due to relentless demand or one’s own financial responsibilities.

Example of use: Many Americans are suffering from donor fatigue with the recent cyclone in Myanmar and the recent earthquake in China.

performant (adjective): performing according to specifications

Example of use: After the code upgrade, the software is now performant.

soapbox (verb): to deliver or proclaim unyielding opinions

Example of use: He has an opinion on everything and is now soapboxing again on topics he knows nothing about.

* * *

When you notice a new word — on the radio, in a book or magazine, or online — and discover that it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s a good candidate for Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. Some words catch on, some don’t. It usually takes a few years for a word to enter the language and be used by many people in many different places. Lexicographers collect the evidence of new words used in print to determine when they are to be entered in the dictionary.

Survey Says: Ignore the Survey

by Robert McHenry
I don’t respond to poll questions. Occasionally someone will call on the telephone, introduce him- or herself as associated with some organization I never heard of – and often saying the name of it so quickly that I can’t quite make it out – and then announce that I’m about to be asked questions about something. I invariably say “No, thanks,” and hang up. I don’t give it away, folks.

While pursuing a business degree – do you ever wonder why we are said to “pursue” a degree, as though it were fleeing in terror, or at least at high speed, like the rabbit at a greyhound race? – I took some marketing course in which we learned about polls and surveys. The readings gave us an inside look at how subjects are chosen, how questions are composed, how the process is conducted. What was clear although never spoken aloud was that these techniques are about equally efficacious in finding what people actually think and finding that they think what pollers want or expect them to. It’s all in the wrist.

Today’s newspaper brings a story that underscores just how useless polls can be. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans on their religious beliefs. There’s a wealth of information on religious affiliations, strength of certain beliefs, the relationship between religious belief and political posture, and so on. And there are some puzzling results like this: Of those who identified themselves as atheists, 21 percent said that they believe in God or in some universal spirit, and 6 percent believe in a personal God. Of agnostics, 55 percent believe in God, 14 percent in a personal God. How can that be, you may be wondering?

I’m reminded of the man-in-the-street surveys that Steve Allen used to conduct when he was the host of the “Tonight Show” on television. One election year he asked people if they would vote for a presidential candidate if it could be convincingly demonstrated that he had “scruples.” The pollees were unanimous: They most certainly would not.

Poll results can be influenced by the wording of questions, by the tone of voice or facial expression of the interviewer, by myriad factors that do not bear on the actual issues at hand. Notoriously, too, people choose their answers to survey questions under the influence of a welter of sometimes conflicting motives. They tend to answer as they think they are expected to and tend to avoid controversial or unpopular positions. Hence the wide differences between pre-election polls and election results, for example.

There are those who just like to mess with the survey. This might account for some of the believing atheists, jolly folks that they are.

And then there would seem to be those who – it must be said – simply don’t know what the heck they are talking about. “Scruples” sounds as though it might be a rather nasty and contagious disease, after all, one that probably causes pustulant irruptions on the skin. Not what we want to see at the inaugural ball, so why take chances?

Too many surveys seem to take no pains to exclude the “eager to speak out but unfortunately clueless” portion of the population or at least to identify it separately in the results. Consequently, those of us who haven’t yet decided to ignore surveys entirely are left with an unknown and unadmitted degree of uncertainty. Word to the wise.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gravy train

Gravy train
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Gravy train (disambiguation).
Look up Gravy train in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

"Gravy train" is an idiomatic expression that is used to refer to any lucrative endeavour.[1]

The word "gravy" by itself was used prior to the invention of the phrase "gravy train" as an interjection of pleasure at something that's easy to do with a great reward, or as an adjective to describe such a situation, à la 'cushy'. An easy task.

In politics, "gravy train" refers to a depraved gorging on luxuries, since someone else foots the bill.
External links and references

Michael Quinion "in the Courier of Connellsville (also in Pennsylvania) in November 1895, almost two decades before the previously oldest known example: Johnston claims that Reuben Nelson and another tall negro were in New Haven the night of the escape and that they broke into the lockup. Johnson further states that the next day Kelson laughingly told him that the New Haven lockup was "a gravy train." "

George Michael's song "Round Here" from the album Patience starts with the line "My daddy got here on the gravy train"[2]

Pink Floyd uses the expression "Gravy Train" in their song "Have A Cigar"[3].
Ian Brown's song 'The Gravy Train' features on his 'Music of the Spheres' album. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on the Simple Life, a guy remarkes, "now girls the gravy train is over with"

1381, from O.Fr. grané (with -n- misread for -u- -- the character used for -v- in medial positions in words in medieval manuscripts) "sauce, stew," probably originally "properly grained, seasoned," from L. granum "grain, seed." Meaning "money easily acquired" first attested 1910; gravy train (1927) was originally railroad slang for a short haul that paid well.

Have a Cigar (Waters) 5:24
Pink Floyd

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar.
You're gonna go far, fly high,
You're never gonna die,
You're gonna make it if you try;
They're gonna love you.
Well I've always had a deep respect,
And I mean that most sincerely.
The band is just fantastic,
that is really what I think.
Oh by the way, which one's Pink?
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.
We're just knocked out.
We heard about the sell out.
You gotta get an album out.
You owe it to the people.
We're so happy we can hardly count.
Everybody else is just green,
Have you seen the chart?
It's a helluva start,
It could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.

Vowel-less words accepted in scrabble

Brrr: The sound of shivering
Crwth: An ancient stringed musical instrument
Cwm: A cirque (a steep-walled mountain basin shaped like half a bowl)
Grr: The sound of a dog
Hm: An interjection expressing assent
Hsh: An interjection used to urge silence
Nth: adjective pertaining to an indefinitely large number
Phpht (pht): An interjection used to express annoyance
Psst (pst): An interjection used to attract someone’s attention
Shh (sh): An interjection used to urge silence
Tch: An interjection expressing vexation or disgust
Tsk: An exclamation of annoyance
Tsktsk: To utter tsk
Tst: An interjection used to urge silence”

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Robust and leafy

Q: Excuse me for inflicting my current bugbears – “robust” and “leafy.” Everything is “robust”: speeches, economies, food, campaign itineraries, etc. Very tired! As for "leafy," every time someone is murdered in the suburbs, the news media mention the "leafy streets." In the city, the victim is just murdered. I see this as a putdown – a suggestion that suburbanites are rubes for thinking they’re safe.

A: Where did this infatuation with "robust" come from? I wish I knew. But you're right – it's everywhere. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it comes from (or has a nose of) the world of wine reviewing.

It’s sad to see a sturdy old word like “robust” become wimpy from overuse. When it entered English in the 16th century, it meant (as it does today) strong and hardy.

The adjective began taking on figurative meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with published references for a “robust title of occupancy,” a “robust language,” and so on.

The first OED citation for the word used in a culinary sense is from a 1961 magazine article that refers to (you guessed it) wine: “There are also Spanish and Portuguese wines that go well with strongly flavoured food. The robust Spanish Chablis, the Rioja Burgundy, and the Portuguese Vila Real are examples.”

We got the word “robust” from the Latin robustus, meaning strong, hardy, or made of oak, which brings us to your second bugbear.

I'm sad to hear that you feel "leafy" is now being used as a slap at the suburbs. The word “leaf” itself is very, very old, dating from around the year 850, according to the OED. In fact the Old English of the first citation is so old that it would look like gibberish to most readers of this blog.

The adjective “leafy” first appeared in the mid-1500s. Here’s a 1697 citation from Dryden: “Soft Whispers run along the leafy Woods.” Nothing pejorative about that! What's not to like about leaves (aside from having to rake them in the autumn)?

Much or many noodles

Q: My mother and I have a running bet ($50 is at stake). Which is correct: "much" noodles or "many" noodles? I say "many" and she says "much." I hope you can settle this.

A: An interesting question! And a lot depends on whether “noodles” is singular or plural.

If you think of it as a pasta dish, the word is singular. So you can say, “Noodles is my favorite dish,” though I’d prefer “My favorite dish is noodles.”

If you think of “noodles” as ribbon-shaped pieces of pasta, the word is plural. So you can say, “The noodles are going to be ready in six minutes.”

Now on to the specifics of your question. The adjective “much” refers to a lot of something (singular) while the adjective “many” refers to a lot of things (plural).

If you think of “noodles” as a bunch of those ribbon-shaped things, you can say, “My diet won’t let me eat many noodles.” On the other hand, if you think of “noodles” as a pasta dish, you can say, “I left over much of the noodles.”

If you use “much” with a plural word (like “noodles”) that’s acting in a singular way, you have to put “of the” between them. But you don’t need “of the” if you use “much” with a singular collective noun that acts in a plural way: “I left over much pasta.”

So, you win, but your mom comes in a close second. Maybe you should split the $50 and take each other out to dinner!

Catcher in the wry

Q: I’m curious about an expression that’s recently caught my eye: “a rye wit." I can't find anything in my dictionary on the word “rye” beyond its use as a noun for a grain, a whiskey, or a male gypsy. Am I misspelling it?

A: The adjective you want is spelled "wry." The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning "dryly or obliquely humorous; sardonic, ironic."

Oddly, though, the word wasn't used in precisely this way until the 20th century. The OED's first citation for this meaning is from Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1928): "He smiles with a wry amusement for a second."

Previously, a "wry" smile was one made with a facial expression of distaste or dislike. But the adjective was used in different senses when it first entered English in the 16th century. It originally meant bent or twisted or distorted from the straight and narrow.

The adjective can be traced to a very old and mostly obsolete verb from old Germanic sources: "wry," first used in the 800s. It originally meant to turn or wend, and later to swerve or turn aside or twist. This is where we get the adjective and adverb "awry," as in "Everything went awry."

Some other words believed to be related are "writhe," "wrist," "wrench," and "wriggle."

The word "rye" (the food grain) has been traced all the way back to the year 725! We get it from Old Norse.

Grotty or grotesque?

Q: Perhaps this is a shot in the dark, but I wonder if you have any information on the use of the word “grotesque” in the mid-19th century in reference to a costume or a “fancy dress.” I'm doing research on a series of masquerades in Brooklyn during the Civil War, and newspapers of the day often use the term “grotesque.” Does it just mean elaborate, strange, and operatic? Or might there be a more specific connotation? Any thoughts would be very welcome.

A: The word "grotesque" (as both a noun and an adjective) got its start in the 16th century. It literally meant "grotto style" (as in "grotto-esque"), and comes from the style of painting on the walls of grottoes (once a popular term for the ruins of ancient Roman buildings that had been excavated).

That sense of the word is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: "A kind of decorative painting or sculpture, consisting of representations of portions of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers."

Works of art done in this style were called "grotesques," and were sometimes referred to in the Italian form, grottesco (singular) or grotteschi (plural).

The Restoration poet Sir William Davenant wrote many court masques. In his Works (about 1668) is a piece called simply "Masque" that has the line: "And in the midst was placed a large compartiment composed of Groteske work."

A little later, the meaning was widened to include representations that were so elaborate as to be distorted or unnatural. And eventually the word came to be used not just for artworks, but also for anything fantastical or wildly ornamental.

One of the later meanings common in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the OED, was "ludicrous from incongruity; fantastically absurd."

I can't find any 19th-century citations in the OED for “grotesque” that specifically mention costume or fancy-dress balls.

But I did find this reference from an 1860 book or publication (don't know which) called Heads & Hats: "The women wore absurdly high coiffures; and the men vied with them in their height, if not in their grotesqueness."

And here's one from Fanny Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (published in 1863): "You can conceive nothing more grotesque than the Sunday trim of the poor people." She probably meant something like "absurdly overdone."

And the OED has a couple of 19th-century references to the use of "grotesque" as a noun meaning a clown or buffoon.

Oxford didn't pick up many of its early citations from popular sources like newspapers and broadsides, unfortunately. So it may have missed this sense of "grotesque" as applied to exaggeratedly fanciful or elaborate costumes.

The big Webster's New International Dictionary (unabridged 2d ed.), from the 1950s, has some interesting comments on the meaning of "grotesque." An excerpt:

"The grotesque is distinguished from the ugly in that it affords a positive aesthetic satisfaction. The ugly is the opposite of the beautiful; the grotesque is the complement of physical beauty representing in the material world a distortion of aesthetic relations."

Things changed a lot in the following 10 years. During the Beatlemania era, "grotty" (formed from "grotesque") became a slang word meaning disgusting, ugly, or just plain bad.

Talking the talk

Q: If you give a talk with no audience participation, are you giving a monologue or a discourse?

A: I wouldn't use either word.

"Monologue," according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), would imply a dramatic soliloquy, a series of comic stories or jokes delivered by a comedian, a performance by a single actor, or a long speech given by a windbag who's monopolizing a conversation.

And "discourse" doesn't have to mean a talk by one person. It can be a conversation, a long discussion, or simply verbal expression in speech or writing.

How about a "lecture" or perhaps even a "talk"?

The noun “talk,” by the way, comes from talu, the Old English word for “tale.” That, in turn, comes from an even older Old English word, tellan, which gave us the verb “tell.”

Ambi and amphi

Q: I was on a hike in Manhattan with the Urban Rangers and had a dispute about the word “amphibian.” I said “amphi” means both, so an amphibian is comfortable on land and water. Another hiker insisted “ambi” (as in “ambidextrous”) means both, so “amphi” couldn’t. I dropped the subject, since I wanted to hear the guide discuss the geology of Inwood Hill Park. An interesting note: Fordham in the Bronx has a lot of gneiss and Inwood Hill a lot of schist. Or, as the guide put it, “Fordham is gneiss, but Manhattan is full of schist.”

A: Thanks for the interesting geology lesson.

As for "ambi" and "amphi," the two of them are Latin prefixes meaning both, around (that is, both sides), or about. They're derived from the Greek prefix amphi, which has the same meanings.

So, for example, "amphibian" means having two kinds existence, and "ambidextrous" means able to use both hands with equal ease.

Interestingly, the first citation for “amphibian” in the OED, from 1637, uses the term in a figurative way to refer to some doubtful characters in ancient Rome: “A certaine Amphibian brood, sprung out of the stem of the Neronian tyranny.” The term wasn’t used for reptiles until the mid-19th century.

The first published reference for “ambidextrous,” from 1646, is a comment about “ambi-dextrous and left handed men.”

Dude the obscure

Q: A few of my friends and I wondered if you could address this question: Where did the word "dude" come from? When did people start using it in everyday language to refer to either a woman or a man? Thanks!

A: "Dude," meaning a swell or a fop or a dandy (in other words, an overdressed, showy person), originated in the US in the latter part of the 19th century.

Its first appearance in writing, as far as we know, was in an 1877 letter by the artist Frederick Remington: "Don't send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes." This is according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

"The etymology is a mystery," according to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. But Partridge suggests it may be from the word "dud" (a weakling or a useless person), with some influence by the word "attitude."

It's also been suggested that "dude" may have come from "Yankee Doodle." Or perhaps the use of "duds" to mean clothes could play a part. After all, to "dude up" was to dress up. A "dude wrangler" was a cowboy on a "dude ranch" who entertained the "dude" tourists.

At any rate, "dude" has changed a lot over the years, and in more modern times has shed its pejorative beginnings.

A 1993 addition to the Oxford English Dictionary has nine citations since 1918 for “dude” in the sense of “any man who catches the attention in some way; a fellow or chap, a guy. Hence also approvingly, esp. (through Black English) applied to a member of one’s own circle or group.”

These days the word is generally used to refer to a male person, though the plural "dudes" has been used on college campuses to refer to people of both sexes, much the way "guys" is sometimes used today.

I hope this sheds a little light, dude!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Electric Company: Silent E

Lexicographical Longing

When I was 19, my father gave me an Oxford English Dictionary, the 1971 compact edition with the 1987 supplement. Citations for every English word since the eighth century were crammed into three bulky volumes of minuscule print. I hallucinated before the speckled onion-skin pages until I discovered that the dictionary came with a magnifying glass.
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That Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, I realize now, represented real magnanimity on the part of Oxford University Press. Until then, the O.E.D. could run to 13 volumes, suitable only for an antiquarian with plentiful shelf space and a feather duster. The compact dictionary, which people like my dad received free from the Book-of-the-Month Club, made showoff etymology accessible, affordable and even stashable for the first time in modest American rec rooms and dens. (“Rec room,” the online O.E.D. tells us, first appeared in 1962, in the Dictionary of Sailors’ Slang.)

Before the cooling in the ’90s of America’s passion for colossal encyclopedia sets (bought from door-to-door salesmen), and well before the advent of massless Wikipedia.org and Dictionary.com, the navy blue compact O.E.D. was part of the standard décor of a bookish middle-class life. I was overjoyed to have one of my own. Furthermore, my other totemic college books — “Speculum of the Other Woman,” “Reading Black, Reading Feminist” and “Sexuality in the Field of Vision” — could go out of style, maybe; the O.E.D. was forever. Wasn’t it?


The future is here, and the immortal O.E.D., the one that lives in bound pages last published micrographically in 1991, is obsolete — at least according to the folks who publish it. As of now, Oxford University Press has no official plans to publish a new print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Let’s go back. As lexicography geeks know well, Oxford’s magnum opus appeared in 10 volumes in 1928, after some 70 years of work by generations of editors and about 2,000 volunteers. (The volunteers displayed much the same gratis fanaticism of today’s Wikipedians.) A supplement with new words appeared in 1933, with additional supplements showing up at regular intervals between 1972 and 1986; in 1989 the whole dictionary was published anew in 20 volumes that collated the ’33 edition and its supplements. Since virtually the day that that last biggie was published, Oxford University Press has been overhauling and revising entries in the dictionary and adding many more. (Oh, “mullet,” “carbo-load,” “six-pack,” “hazmat,” “pole dancing,” “doh!” — what would we do without you?)

But these revisions are now suspended in cyberspace. The lexicographers are uploading their work to the O.E.D. online. Their revisions sit cheek-by-jowl with old entries, some of which haven’t been touched in 150 years. A chicken in the online O.E.D. is therefore “the young of the domestic fowl; its flesh,” which seems poetic and factually not bad but also ambiguous and barely idiomatic in the 21st century. (Whose home, for one, is intended by that “domestic”?)

For some reason, the prospect of a Web-only O.E.D. made me nervous. Talking on the phone with Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, I fished for reassurance. “Um, are you even just going to print out the new dictionary, like on your laser printer or at Kinko’s or something? Just to have a hard copy?” I asked.

“I’m not sure we have printed it out,” he replied coolly. “In any case, we’ve only finished from volume ‘M’ to ‘quit shilling.’ We have about 20 years’ more work to do revising and adding entries. Who knows what will happen with technology in 20 years? We certainly don’t.”

Jeez. I don’t either. I don’t even know what a “quit shilling” is. But while The New York Times and other newspapers have refrained from rash decisions about their print editions, the Oxford English Dictionary — staid, right? — has already shaken off the shackles of print and said cheerio (“a parting exclamation of encouragement”) to books! The stab I felt was sharper than nostalgia. It was fear. I subscribed in a hurry to OED.com. After all, as book-positive as I pretend to be, I haven’t consulted the 1971 compact or the 1987 supplement in years. When I need a definition, I use the dumb dictionary that came with my Mac operating system. (“Just this once,” I tell myself as I do with guilty Wikipedia look-ups.) When I need a spelling, I’m alerted by spell-check to both the error and the solution. People I know tell me they use online dictionaries chiefly to find synonyms. (Another word for that kind of dictionary might be “thesaurus.”)
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But there’s another virtue to a dictionary, online or otherwise: guidance in the finer points of usage. Subtly alerting readers to which words might suit them, and which they shouldn’t try at home, is not only in the original charter for the O.E.D.; it is also a service with new relevance for people who use e-mail, blogs and message boards. On the Internet, idioms, dialects, jargons and languages from around the world collide. Corresponding with people of varying degrees of literacy in competing dialects of disparate languages means that we must commit most of our linguistic resources to getting up to speed in the rapidly evolving lingua franca. That’s only reasonable; we’re like new immigrants to polyglot neighborhoods. But so much chatting in the Babel-like public sphere means we can let our commitment to maintaining our particular vocabulary go slack.

I learned this the hard way. While blogging about an online video for The Times in November, I wanted to use the expression “rotflmao” — an abbreviation that I thought meant “extremely funny.” To be sure I had the letters right, I consulted the Urban Dictionary, an online wordbook to which users post definitions of slang. There I found this definition for “rotflmao”: “A chat-room abbreviation used mainly by imbeciles, usually in response to something mildly, often very mildly, amusing. People who use this type of shorthand should be avoided like the Spanish flu.”

Aha. Not what I expected, but a good turn anyway: an account of how the word now comes across. A good dictionary must convey something crucial about the words you’re driven to look up: whether, that is, you’ll seem cool or jerky or pretentious or out of step or ignorant or bananas when you take certain locutions into your own hands. In the heavily text-based media that require people constantly to type words to one another, it’s your diction by which you’re judged, rather than your accent, your appearance, your bearing or your handwriting, as in other eras.

I asked Sheidlower if the O.E.D. ever hinted to readers that a word is cool or jerky. “We certainly indicate if a word is ‘racially offensive’ or ‘coarsely vulgar,’ ” he said. Otherwise, the O.E.D. has a whole system for gently protecting users from imbecility. “That’s what the usage quotations are for,” Sheidlower explained. Those quotations, which give examples of how a word has been used over time, are a hallmark of the O.E.D. (the online edition contains nearly three million of them). If the people who have used your chosen word are Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Mobb Deep, you should at least know you’re in their company when you start typing.

Dictionary.com, the popular online dictionary that draws from a range of American dictionaries, offers a much more limited selection of usage quotations. When I looked up “lenity” on Dictionary.com, I found four citations with the word. One was from Shakespeare, undated, and the other three appeared between 1998 and 2000. Of those, fully two instances of “lenity” had come from the pen of Richard Posner, the judge and legal theorist. My takeaway? “Lenity,” whatever it means, is, above all, “a word used by Richard Posner at the very end of the 20th century.” If you still feel like using it, by all means, it’s yours.


This Week's Recommendations

MY WORD: For iGoogle — an extrasharp way to curate and arrange your home page — consider taking on the handy widget called Web Definitions. In a flash, it combs through a dizzying range of lexicographical material and returns thorough definitions so efficiently that you’re tempted to try to stump it. Get it through ‘‘add stuff’’ on iGoogle.

DICTIONARY DRAMA: Known best for the rollicking ‘‘Professor and the Madman,’’ the best seller about an odd alliance at the O.E.D., Simon Winchester is our era’s great admirer of the English book to define all English books. In ‘‘The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,’’ Winchester chronicles the whole megalomaniacal effort to contain what he calls ‘‘the English language’s capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility.’’

NO MORE LUGGING: Oxford gave us the modern dictionary; now it gives us the modern lexicographical Web site — if a subscriber-only site can still be described as ‘‘modern.’’ Fortunately, there are some free features and options to test it out. If you’re smitten, $300 a year, or $30 a month, will get you unrivaled elegant and stylish entries. Geek out at OED.com.

Monday, May 26, 2008

English is a crazy language.

English is a crazy language. There's no egg in eggplant, no ham in
hamburger, neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins
weren't invented in England, nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats
are candies while sweetbreads aren't sweet and they sure aren't made
of bread.

Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is
neither from Guinea nor a pig. You can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of
them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn't preachers
praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian

In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Or
ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Park in a driveway, and drive on
a parkway? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim
chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy
are opposites?

How can your house burn up as it burns down, how can you fill in a
form by filling it out, how can an alarm go off by going on?

It drives people crazy trying to learn to speak English. Here are
some reasons why:

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The farm was used to produce produce.

The garbage dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

He could lead if he would get the lead out.

The soldier decided to desert from the army in the desert.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

I did not object to being the object of her affection.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

They were too close to the door to close it.

The buck does funny things when the does are present.

The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

After a number of injections my jaw got number.

Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the
creativity of the human race, which (of course) is not a race at all.
That's why when the stars are out they're visible, but when the lights
are out they're invisible.

P.S. Why doesn't "Buick" rhyme with "quick"?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Food for thought

Q: I’ve been wondering lately about what I call, for lack of a better term, “food words.” Why is someone’s behavior "cheesy?' Or jokes "corny?" Or language "salty"?

A: The adjective "cheesy" has been used in a pejorative way (for something that’s shoddy, tasteless, cheap, and so forth) since the mid-19th century, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

The dictionary's first citation, from 1863, describes a shoddy orchestra "consisting of the fiddle – a very cheezy flageolet, played by a gentleman with one eye – a big drum, and a triangle."

Oddly, the word has been used in the opposite sense as well (though not much lately). The Oxford English Dictionary has an 1858 citation for "cheesy" meaning showy or stylish. This comes from a sense of the noun “cheese” meaning first rate, as in our modern expression “big cheese.”

We have several other “cheese” words, and their meanings are all over the place. For instance, “cheesed" and "cheesed off" have been used as adjectives for angry since the 1940s.

But today "cheesy" is a negative. This is unfair to cheese, if you ask me. It's one of my favorite foods!

On to "salty." Since the 1840s, we've called experienced sailors "salts" or "old salts," according to the OED. This, as you may have guessed, is a probable reference to the salt water of the sea.

Earthy or racy language has been called "salty" since the 1860s. But I haven't been able to find out whether "salty" language was called that simply because it was spicy and tart or because it was like sailor talk. The references I've been able to check don't say.

The adjective "corny" has a shorter history. It's been a term of derision only since the 1930s, when something that was "corny" or "cornfed" or "on the cob" was rustic, countrified, old-fashioned, or behind the times – and hence trite or hackneyed.

It first was used by jazz musicians, who called a style of playing "corny" if it was outmoded or worn out. Here's the OED's first citation, from 1932: "The ‘bounce’ of the brass section ... has degenerated into a definitely ‘corny’ and staccato style of playing." (Imagine a rube fresh from the cornfields trying to make a splash in the big city and you'll get the idea.)

There's a larger question behind all this: Why do we use so many food words metaphorically? Well, why not? After all, we say that a person who's elegant and discerning has "good taste."