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Issue 75   

February 28, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Regular readers of Take Our Word For It may have noticed that many of our Spotlights are inspired by something we've heard on the radio. Perhaps this is because, unlike television, one is forced to listen to what is being said on the radio. Then again, we don't watch much television.

This time it was the word froward which caught our attention. The speaker was from the (U.S.) south and was using froward as a dialect variant of forward. We are not about to condemn him for this;  after all, one dialect is just as valid as any other. Also, the swapping of adjacent letters in a word is a well-known linguistic phenomenon. It is something which happens in all languages and is known as metathesis.

Some other words which exhibit metathesis are

curd  Middle English crud is found first in the 14th century but from the 15th century the word was curd. Somehow, we do not find "eating cruds and whey" particularly appealing.
dirt  From Middle English drit which meant (how can we put this?) "ordure, excrement". 
girdle  Scottish dialect for griddle, as in girdle scones (which are cooked on a griddle).
grasp From Old English graepsen.
garnet From medieval Latin granatum "pomegranate", via Old French grenat. According to some, the name derives from the gem's resemblance in color to the pulp of the pomegranate. Others consider it a derivative of medieval Latin granum, "grain", because of its granular appearance. Either way, the a and r have swapped places.
third  The metathesis of third for thrid appears already in Old Northumbrian c 950, but thrid was the prevalent form as late as the 16th century.
thrash, thresh Are from the Old English verb therscan.
through Is from Old English thurh and is related to Modern German durch.
tusk  Is from Old English tux.

Little Miss Muffett...eating crud?There is, however, another meaning of froward which is quite distinct from forward.  It means "disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please." Hence, also the obsolete word from-shapen, meaning "deformed". Froward is equivalent to from-ward and, as such, is the opposite of toward. It is not now heard in everyday speech, having been replaced by awkward

When awkward was coined, in Scotland and northern England, it meant "turned in the wrong direction." Middle English had an adjective awk, which meant "the wrong way round, backhanded," and hence "perverse," and with the addition of the suffix -ward this became awkward. Awk itself was adopted from Old Norse afugr, which is related to German ab "away" and English off. The suffix -ward, which underlies toward(s), forward, and a host of other English adverbs and adjectives, comes from a prehistoric Germanic *-warth. This in turn goes back to the Indo-European base *wert- "turn" (source also of English convert, version, etc.) -- so etymologically, awkward denotes "turned the wrong way round." 

And that takes us back to metathesis...

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lynne Yorston:

I was told the origin of the word sincere was "without (sin) wax (cere)", yet I have never found anything to back this up.  The story goes that the Greek column makers back in the day would often sell marble columns that were hollowed out and filled with wax, so if you wanted something true all the way through, you needed to ask for it to be sincere.

A wax candle.Contrary to very popular belief, sincere does not come from sin "without" + cere "wax".  Most stories have it that Roman potters would seal cracks in their wares with wax and then conceal the shoddy repair with paint. Then there's the story you heard regarding Greek columns. This Greek connection is new to us but just as spurious.  If Greek had a word for "without wax" it would be akeros but no such word exists.

Sincere simply comes from Latin sincerus "clean, pure". English took it first in the  early 16th century to mean "honest", and thereafter it acquired other similar meanings.  Some scholars suggest that sin- may represent sim-, as in simple and simplex. Sim- comes from the root *sem- meaning "one".  Another source suggests that -cere comes from the Indo-European root *ker- "to grow", with the combined meaning of sincere being "of one growth", again repeating the "not duplicitous" notion.  Sincere might then be said to mean, etymologically, "free from duplicity" or "singular". It's not difficult to imagine a jump from that to "pure", and then from "pure" to "pure of intention", "honest".   The earliest quotation containing the word comes from 1533: "Master Wickliffe was noted... to be a man... of a very sincere life." 

Some other English words derived from *ker- are cereal, create, and increase.

From Matthew Ward:

I know the definition of redneck, but I would like to know where and when in the U.S. the phrase was first used.  Was the term used because farm workers got red necks from overexposure to the sun?  Or possibly because many wore red scarves around their necks?

The OED indicates that the earliest example of this word in writing dates from 1830 in America: "This may be ascribed to the Red Necks, a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians in Fayetteville." Between that date and 1893 there do not appear to be any known uses of the term. By 1893, however, the word does appear to have been used for quite some time, by virtue of this quotation: "Red-neck, ...a name applied by the better class of people to the  poorer inhabitants of the rural districts." This is from Some Peculiarities of Speech in  Mississippi, by H.A. Shands.  By 1904 the word had even more negative connotations: "Redneck, n., An uncouth countryman. ‘The hill-billies  came from the hills, and the rednecks from the swamps,’" from Dialect Notes II.  William Faulkner used the term in his Absalom, Absalom! of 1936: "Rich and poor, aristocrat and redneck." So, now that we've got all of these examples of usage, where does the word come from?  Most sources agree that it was originally a reference to the reddened necks of men who labor in the sun all day long, tending to crops or livestock.

From Chris Smith:

Where did the slang term polecat come from:  It has been bugging me!

It appears that the pole in pole cat comes from Old French pole or poule "chicken"! That would make a pole cat a "cat which hunts (or eats) chicken", much as a chicken hawk hunts and eats chicken. The catThe European pole cat (click to follow the link). part of the term refers simply to the catlike appearance of the animal.  The name dates back to 1320 in England, where it refers to the European Putorius foetidus (now known as Mustela putorius), a member of the weasel family (the Mustelidae). That must be one smelly guy with a taxonomical name like that! [See Issue 55 for other smelly pu- words.]  Even Chaucer referred to the animal in The Pardoner's Tale : "And  eek ther was a pol~cat in his hawe. That as he seyde hise capons hadde yslawe" (1386).  

It must be noted that this polecat is the ancestor of the domesticated ferret and is not the same as a skunk. There is also an American polecat Putorius eversmanii, but that is still not the same animal as a skunk.  However, the skunk has been erroneously called a polecat as far back as 1781, when it was noted that "The Skunk is...very different from the Pole-Cat, which he is sometimes called." Presumably this is because the polecat and the skunk (like other members of the Mustelidae) have the ability to produce a strongly offensive smell.

From A. Huguley:

Is the -ica in Africa, Utica, and Attica from a common suffix?

The -ica ending in those words comes from Latin -icus/-ica, and the Romans got that suffix from Greek -ikos, as in such words as komikos, grammatikos, and poetikos. The suffix -ikos was apparently one of the most frequently used in Greek, and  it formed adjectives, making poetikos mean "in the manner of a poet".  In general, -ikos meant "in the manner of", "pertaining to", or "of". Therefore, Africa, which came from Latin Africus, meant "of the Afro", the Afro being an ancient people of North Africa.  Adrian Room, in Placenames of the World, suggests that Afro applied to the people of what is now Tunisia, and that the term derives from Arabic afar meaning "dust, earth", so that the Afro were etymologically "people of the desert".

Attica is thought to be simply an adjectival form of Athens, which is located in AtticaAttica would therefore mean "of Athens".  However, there is some evidence to suggest that Attica may derive (by metathesis) from Greek akte "shore", "raised place", referring to the hilly topography around Athens, and its proximity to the Aegean Sea.

Utica is thought to be of Phoenician origin, coming from a term that meant "old".  It would then mean "of the old place" in Greek.  The city of Utica, located in Tunisia (ah, we're back there again!), dates from around 1100 BC!

From Robert Woods:

As a hotel and restaurant administration educator, I have noticed that many programs in my field are changing their name to "hospitality management", but I cannot find the origin of the word hospitality.  Can you help?

Well, we try to be as hospitable as possible here at Take Our Word For It.  English took hospitality from French hospitalité, which derives from Latin hospitalitas. That word was formed ultimately from Latin hospes "host", referring to the notion of hosting guests or travelers. A hospital was originally a house where pilgrims or travelers could stay or be entertained (synonym: hospice), so the host offering shelter to such people was said to be showing them hospitality. That word dates from the middle of the 14th century, a time when many pilgrimages were being made to holy sites (cf. The Canterbury Tales). There is a host (pun intended) of words coming from the Latin source. See Spotlight in Issue 6 for a discussion of those words. 

Meantime, hospitality's meaning has changed very, very little since Middle English. It is used a bit more freely now, of course, to refer to the hotel and restaurant industries, as you suggest, each of those industries supplying a place to stay or food to eat for travelers and pilgrims, be they on their way to a holy site or an important business meeting. There is a  jocular use of hospitality which we find amusing: "To partake of (or enjoy) His/Her Majesty's hospitality" means to be in jail (in the U.K.)! 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Barb Dwyer complains about


A few months ago I had occasion to attend a class in a particular software product.  All morning, the instructor kept saying "One of the niceties of this product is... x" when what he meant was:  "One of the nice features of this product is... x".  At lunch I engaged him in conversation and told him, as gently as I could, that nicety does not mean "an agreeable quality".  Rather, it means "a finely drawn distinction" as in, "the difference between Scots and Scottish is a nicety upon which only Scotsmen insist."  For all my diplomacy, the instructor huffed and puffed and insisted that he had known this all along, then, during the afternoon session he continued to say "One of the niceties of this product is..."

The word nice has had an incredible number of meanings in its long history.  Curiously, it derives from the Latin nescire "to be ignorant" thus the earliest meaning (from the 1200s) of nice was "foolish, stupid".  Then, in the 1300s it came to mean "wanton, lascivious".  Later meanings were "extravagant" [of dress] (early 1400s), "strange, rare" (mid 1400s), "lazy" (mid 1400s), "elegant, smart" [of dress] (late 1400s), "fastidious, dainty" (mid 1500s), "effeminate" (late 1500s), "refined, cultured" (early 1600s).

One of the more persistent meanings of nice was "requiring (or involving) great precision or accuracy" and it is from this meaning that we get the word nicety.  Thus, Herschel in his Studies in Natural Philosophy (1830) could state that "The pendulum affords a means of subdividing time to an almost unlimited nicety."  By this he meant "to an almost unlimited degree of precision", NOT "to an almost unlimited agreeableness".

Sez You...

From John Broussard:

OK. I give up. "The Indo-European root of pathos is *kwent- 'to suffer'."  What tortuous path did *kwent follow to end up as pathos [Issue 74]?

The root *kwent- is also represented by *kwent(h)-.  If you look at our table of phoneme shifts in Indo-European languages, you will see that, in Greek, the Indo-European phoneme kw shifts to p, t, or k (in this case it is p).  The vowel shift from e to a is not difficult to explain, and -os represents the nominative inflection of nouns in Greek.  There we have pathos.

From Denis Thievin:

I may not like it, and others may not like it, but the more people pronounce a word in a certain way, the more "correct" it becomes. Certainly most people who utter "nuc-u-lar" [Issue 74] are unaware of their faux pas.  Possibly every pronunciation in our language became "correct" by this evolutionary linguistic process.  What's far more worthy of criticism is the snobbish use of certain written language that we'd never use in speaking. For example, why do some people write "whilst" but say "while", or write "which" but say "that", or write "the letter which you provided myself" but say "the letter you sent me"? Now, THAT's uncomfortable language that disrupts the process of direct communication. Or as Mark Twain cleverly wrote: "Eschew surplusage."

We must disagree with you regarding "the snobbish use of certain written language that we'd never use in speaking".  Written English and spoken English are two very different entities.  What you are describing as snobbish is actually style, or even poetic license.  Without style, written English (or any language, for that matter) would be terribly boring.  All styles may not be aesthetically pleasing, but they are still styles.  All written languages is not "direct communication".  Some writing is direct communication, but even that should be allowed some style.

As for the mispronunciation of nuclear, it is possible that those who mispronounce it "nu-cue-ler" are simply hearing it that way and, as you suggest, they don't realize that they are saying it incorrectly.  A word like mischievous being pronounced "miss-CHEE-vee-us", however, is clearly a case of misreading and poor instruction, and it should be corrected.  It may be evolution of language, but in this age such evolution should not be dictated by the misinformed when it is so easy to get informed.

From Birger Drake:

American Heritage Dictionary says about gluten [from Issue 74]: a "mixture of plant proteins ..." which to me is more sensible than "nitrogenous part". I'm a chemist.

Thank you for that clarification.

From Scott Catledge:

I am a linguist by training and interest and have listened carefully to ethnic jokes for over 50 years. I have lived in California, Texas,  Florida, and NYC for 40 of those years and I have never heard Dago [Issue 74] except in reference to Italians. I remember being told  during WWII that Dago came from Dagoman but I do not recall my being told what Dagoman meant. Wop was the other ethnic slur that I heard about Italians.  In Junior High, I heard that the  reason that Italians hate flat tires is that "Dey go wop, wop, wop."  For Hispanics the slurs were more numerous: greaser, pebble-bellyspic.  I am aware that the OED agrees with you, but I think that the  usage now agrees more with me than the OED.  I wonder what others have noticed?

The American Heritage Dictionary also disagrees with you - it applies the word to Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese.  Melanie's first encounter with dago was in Texas, where it meant "Spaniard" (and not Mexican), and it means only "Spaniard" to Mike, who is from Wales.  What is more likely than the broad change of meaning you suggest is simply the development of specific usages in various parts of the country (and perhaps the English-speaking world) and among different groups of people.  In your neck of the woods or in the circles you frequent, the term applies to Italians.  In Melanie's home territory and Mike's homeland it applies to Spaniards, and in some place like Boston, where there is a large Portuguese population, the word may apply more to Portuguese.  As for Dagoman, this is likely simply Dago + man.

From Donald Phillpott:

I read the recent comments regarding dago [Issue 74]. Although I had previously understood that the term dago was derived from the English sailors' mispronunciation of the Spanish Diego, my understanding is that Diego was used as a minor title similar to Don, and was not in itself a "common name."  I have not ever had any understanding of the meaning of either title. I am truly pleased in discovering your site. Whatever the source or origin of such a wonderful "gold mine," I greatly appreciate the effort and value of making this information available.

We are pleased that you enjoy the site!  As for Diego, it is simply the Hispanic form of the Latin name Didacus and not known as a Spanish title.

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