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Issue 18

November 30, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Bellwether

We had the radio news on this morning, at breakfast. During the financial report we were not really listening when the expression "a bellwether corporation" jumped out and demanded our attention.  The context showed that the intended meaning was "a corporation which is usually an indicator of trends" but being literal-minded we started discussing sheep.

The word comes from the 13th century and first meant a wether (that is, a castrated male sheep) which wore a bell. Wether is Old English and dates from the 9th century. Bellwethers were noted for their docile nature and were used to lead flocks, especially to the slaughter. A curious feature of old sheep slaughter-houses was that the final run before the slaughter-pen had a side gate in the fence, known as a bellwether gate. Along comes the dopey bellwether down the sheep run, followed by trusting flock, then, at the last moment, wallop!, the shepherd slips the bellwether through the bellwether gate and the other sheep trot on, oblivious to their imminent doom. The bellwether was then introduced to a new flock and the sinister cycle was repeated.

We certainly hope that this meaning is not implied in the expression "a bellwether corporation". If it is, then we expect the ensuing scandal to be dubbed bellwether corporation-gate.

 

 
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Melissa:

My question is how did the term barbershop quartet begin and why?    

Before tea and coffee were introduced to Europe there were obviously no cafes or tea houses for people to meet in. So where did people hang out,Hey, what are Richard Thomas ("The Waltons") and Michael Palin ("Monty Python", among others) doing in a Normal Rockwell painting?  (See the two guys on the right of the painting.) discuss sport and swap gossip? The barbershop, of course.

The word barbershop itself dates from about 1570-80 and even then had musical associations.  It was the custom among barbers of Elizabethan England to provide a kind of flat-backed lute called a cittern  (also called a "gittern" or an "English guitar") for their patrons to play while they waited.

By 1660 the term barber's music came to mean a discordant cacophony.  From this we must conclude that the average Renaissance man was no more adept at the cittern than his modern counterpart is at the guitar. Some centuries later, around 1900, a particular kind of unaccompanied harmony became popular and was soon taken up by the ever-musical patrons of barbershops. Nowadays this genre of close four-part harmony is sung by accountants, bus drivers and computer programmers but its name still resonates with ancient overtones.

Incidentally, the words "cittern", "gittern", "guitar" (and, for that matter, "zither") all derive from the Greek kithera, a kind of lyre.

 

From Jim Martin:

I've just found your site and think it's a treasure. Perhaps you could tell me where the words hoe-down and shindig come from...

Certainly, Jim. These two American words are really quite graphic. A hoe-down, for instance, is what happens after one "downs tools" (puts ones hoe down). There is  an analogous concept in the English custom of "harvest home" which was a grand dinner and barn dance which the farmer held for the benefit of his workers after the year's work was done.

Shindig is another splendidly descriptive word. This time it is an allusion to the typical wounds sustained at the hands (or should I say feet?) of dancing partners whose enthusiasm exceeds their skill. (For some reason, the gruesome image of an up-tempo eightsome reel danced in steel-reinforced farm boots springs to mind.)

 

From Robert:

I've been looking for the etymology of the word auspicious and have searched all over the internet and have found nothing. I wonder if you could help me out.

Of course. I am sorry to hear that your earlier enquiries drew a blank but at least they led you to Take Our Word For It, the font of all etymological knowledge.

The ancient Romans were a superstitious bunch. No treaty was signed, no military campaign set forth and no legislation was enacted unless the omens were right. And what was an omen? Well, flights of birds was a traditional one. The species of bird, the direction from which they came and the direction in which they went all provided prophetic revelations to the priests who specialized in this racket. These priests were called avispex (literally "bird-watcher" - from avis, "bird" + spicere, "to watch") and their pronouncements came to be known as auspices. Note that the Romans spelled this word avspices which shows its relationship to avispex even more clearly.

 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

A collection of complaints

You have probably realized that we are not alone in our curmudgeonliness.  Many of you have agreed with us regarding the various abuses of the English language which we detail as pet peeves in this column.  Sure, a few of you disagree (we were amazed at the number of readers who would not admit that unique is an absolute), but for the most part, we all appear to be of like minds.  To wit, one John Archdeacon writes of some of his complaints: the misuse of the term acronym when abbreviation is the correct term; alternate instead of alternative is another.   He adds that "cream is often used in place of 'gooey, white, sugary crap', much to [his] dismay when dentally and lingually assaulting a chocolate eclair or similar.  This substance is not cream as in 'dairy product'."  We whole-eclairily agree!  We would also add that "non-dairy creamer" often contains at least one component of milk, lactose, or some lactose relative, which is the very substance that "lactose intolerant" folks are trying to avoid when they seek out non-dairy products!

Leslie Harman identifies her complaint as it's a matter of life and death.  "Each state of being is mutually exclusive and so cannot co-exist.  It is only logical to use the term life or death." Again, we agree, unless, of course, you're talking about existence, for that is a matter of life and death!  However, it IS a matter of life or death when we're talking about plural versus possessive -- in fact, it's often an apostrophe catastrophe!   One should not employ an apostrophe every time one adds an s to the end of a word.  "The doll's are pretty" is incorrect, but "The doll's clothes are pretty" and "The dolls' clothes are pretty" are correct.  Possession is nine tenths of the law when it comes to using an apostrophe!

 

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