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Issue 55

October 4, 1999
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Gripes and grumbles from whining pedants Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent.
Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

holding your breath (and your nose)

We recently received an e-mail from a reader who expressed the urgency of his enquiry by stating "I await your answer with baited breath".  We could only assume that he had been chewing night-crawlers.  He meant, of course, bated breath.  The word bated as used here is a contraction of abated, "reduced, lowered", and implies a reduction in breathing due to tension (or fear).

However, bate is also used in the leather-tanning trade where it means "to steep [a hide] in lye inMen tanning hides in Morocco. order to soften it" and is related to the Swedish beta, "to tan" and to German beiszen, "to steep in lye".  We expect that an erudite reader such as yourself will be familiar with the lye which is made from wood ashes but this tanners' lye was somewhat different.  It was a concoction of urine and other substances.  At one time, one of these other substances was (incredibly) dog feces.  This raises the question: where did the tanning yards come by this material?  Well, whenever there is commercial use for a commodity, someone somewhere will trade in it.  Thus, some people (need we say that they were "dirt poor"?) in Victorian London would collect this substance from the streets and sell it to the tanning yards.  Interestingly, they didn't call it feces (and they didn't call it what you're thinking, either), they called it pure.  It is thought that this comes from the verb to pure meaning "to tan" but there is an outside chance that both terms are connected to other smelly pu- (pee-yew) words such as putrid and pus [see Issue 44, Words to the Wise].

Just to come full circle, the word breath originally (Old English, c. 900) meant "odor" or "smell".  It was especially used to describe the steam or smoke arising from cooking, thus breath is related to bread, the first meaning of which was simply "food".  Conversely, the word meat originally meant any kind of food.  This explains why mincemeat and sweetmeats may be eaten by vegetarians but sweetbreads may not.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Frank Kagan :

This being the appropriate season, I came to wonder about the origin of the word golf. I can't find anything further than a reference to Scottish dialect.

St. Andrews, ScotlandGolf first appears in English in 1457. It comes from Scottish golf or gouf, which was first played in Scotland in the 15th century. One popular explanation of its origin is that it is an alteration of Middle Dutch colf or colve, `stick, club, bat' (in modern Dutch it is kolf). The Dutch word is a cognate with Middle Low German kolve `club, bat,' Old High German kolbo `club' (modern German Kolben `club, mallet'), and Old Icelandic kolfr `bolt, rod,' from the Germanic root *kulb- .  However, there are some problems with this derivation.  First, the Dutch did not appear to have a game similar to golf which coincides with the word's timeline.  Second, there are no early Scottish forms of the word with the initial k sound.  Finally, there is a modern dialectical Scottish word gowf  "a blow with the open hand".

St. Andrews, in Scotland, is considered the oldest home of golf.

From Thea Landsberg:

I'm not sure if this is the appropriate place to ask, but what does X mean or stand for in the expression Generation X? Also, where did this expression come from?

The term, which describes a group of people born between 1961 and 1972 typified by a college eduction, dissatisfaction with career opportunities, and pessimism, arose after the title of a book by Douglas Coupland, Generation X.  Coupland explains that the term comes not from Billy Idol's band, but from the final chapter of an amusing sociological book on class structure in America entitled Class by Paul Fussell.  Coupland writes, "In his final chapter, Fussell named an "X" category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climibing that so often frames modern existence. The citizens of X had much in common with my own socially disengaged characters; hence the title."

From John A. McQuiggan:

Could you give me the origin of the word gaudy? Thank you.

There are two schools of thought on this word, in addition to one erroneous explanation. First,Gaudi's Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), unfinished, Barcelona, Spain it is thought that gaudy comes from a color term from Middle English, gaudy-green, which itself originated because the plant which produced the dye was once known as weld, and weld, when borrowed into Old French, became gaude - hence English gaudy-green. It is said that gaudy soon lost its specific color connotations and came to refer to anything 'bright.'

The second explanation is that the term comes from English gaud 'joke, plaything.' That word was adapted from Old French gaudir 'rejoice,' a descendant of Latin gaudere 'delight in' (from which English gets joy).  The word gaudy still serves as a noun in English which means "rejoicing, joy, merrymaking; a festival", though it has probably gained obsolete status these days.

The erroneous explanation is that the term comes from the name of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926), whose architecture some believe today is gaudy. This suggestion can be discounted by virtue of the fact that gaudy dates back to the 16th century.

From Lloyd W. Brown:

What is the origin of the phrase to run the gauntlet? It has been suggested that it refers to Arthurian legend, but I haven't yet found reference on my own.

Actually, this phrase does not appear to be connected with Arthurian legend; it is actually not a very old phrase. It originated in the 17th century, at which time the Germans adopted a sort of military punishment from the Swedes in which a man was stripped to the waist and made to run between two rows of soldiers, who struck him with sticks or knotted ropes. The passage through which he ran was a gatloppe in Swedish, translated to gantlope in German. It became gantelope in English.  This procedure was used as civilian punishment in Colonial America where it was spelled gantlet or gauntlet.  The word came to be pronounced and spelled thus by contamination from gauntlet "a glove worn as part of medieval armor".  

The phrase throw down the gauntlet, which means "to challenge", comes from the medieval practice of throwing one's glove down in front of one's opponent to challenge him.  That phrase dates from the mid 16th century.  This word is Germanic in origin, coming from French gantelet, the diminutive form of gant.  One source suggests that the word may be related to Old English windan "to wind", the final d having changed to a t in the period of a single Indo-European language.

From Rocket:

Where does flair come from?

When someone has a flair for something, they're very good at it. However, etymologically flair is related to fragrant!

Flair, which first entered English in the late 14th century as flayre and meant "fragrance or odor" was borrowed from Old French flair "odor or scent" which developed from flairer "to smell". The Old French came from Late Latin flagrare, an alteration of Latin fragrare "to emit a sweet odor".

The meaning of "keen perception" or, literally, "power or sense of smell" was first recorded in the late 19th century. The extended meaning "special ability, natural aptitude" first entered English in America in the 1920s.

Interestingly, conflagration comes from a Latin word flagrare, but this flagrare is not related to fragrare.  Flagrare means "to burn".  One might think that English flare comes from the Latin version of flagrare which means burn, but it instead comes from an unknown source.  There is, interestingly, the modern Norwegian word flara "to blaze, to flaunt in gaudy attire,", but there is no known connection with the late development of meaning for flare: "to burn with an unsteady, spreading flame" (circa 1700).

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

Resident curmudgeon Malcolm Tent grits his teeth over...

a mere mirror

It drives me nigh to madness when I hear someone say mere and mean mirror.  He doesn't say deer for dearer, so I find this mere usage perplexing.  He seems to think that a venerable word like mirror deserves only one of its syllables being uttered.  He says "I looked in a mere," and I wait expectantly, thinking he's going to tell me he looked in a mere SOMETHING.  A mere hole?  A mere refrigerator?  Perhaps what he means is that he looked in Mir, the Russian space station?  That would be awfully cool.  Alas, no, he means that he looked in a mirror but he simply doesn't have the words to express it properly!

Sez You...
From Pamela Gordon:

I just found this page, thought you'd be interested as it investigates the possible etiology of the hoax:

This site takes the position that the query regarding "the third word ending in -gry" is actually a trick question.  We've heard that explanation, but few people are aware of it and ask the question in all seriousness; hence our answer in Spotlight, Issue 51.  Everyone should educate themselves regarding this "hoax's" history; have a look at the above site.  Thanks, Pamela!

From LaVona:

Since this is something I read on the screen I am delighted to have type large enough to see comfortably. 

We both detest reading small print on a computer screen, no matter how large the screen, and that influenced our decision to use this particular font and size.   We're glad you approve!

From Sheila Reese:

I just finished reading Issue 54 and was entertained as usual by your SpotlightCurmudgeons' Corner, and Sez You sections. In direct comment to one of your other reader's suggestion that you change your new colors, I must say that the colors on the new site are quite pleasing to me. The site is much more cheery than the somber brown that you were using before. Just my $.02. 

Thanks, Shiela!  

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