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Issue 87   

May 22, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

minced oaths

We are sure that most of our readers will be familiar with the expression to mince words.  It is most often encountered in the negative sense, as in "He is not one to mince words".  But how, exactly, does one mince something as intangible as a word?  Does one buy a special verbal attachment for the Cuisinart?

In fact, to mince one's words means to moderate one's language.  This is frequently heard when a less offensive phrase is substituted for an oath or imprecation.  Thus, when someone says jeepers creepers instead of saying Jesus Christ, that is a minced oath.  These are so common that, in most cases, the speaker does not know that a substitution is being made.  How many people who say for crying out loud realize that this is simply a minced form of for Christ's sake?  Other mangled forms of Christ used as mild oaths are cripes, crimes, criminy and crikey.  Also, the Irish bejabers, is a minced form of by Jesus.

The exclamation drat or drat it is now considered so inoffensive that it could be used by a Sunday-school teacher in front of her bishop without risk of blushes.  Its original form was God rot [it], however.  Along the way to its present form it was 'od rot it and 'od rat it with a peculiar variation in some dialects as 'od rabbit it.  (Perhaps they had some objection to saying rat.)

At one time it was common to say great God but during the 19th century a prudishness fell upon the English-speaking world and people began to replace it with expressions like great sun, great Scott and great Caesar's ghost.  The Scott in question is not the author of "Rob Roy" but a popular U.S. general, Gen. Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War.

Streuth, blimey and gorblimey are exclamations which can be heard in Britain and Australia.  Blimey is a shortened form of gorblimey which is a garbled way of saying "God blind me".  In full, streuth is "by God's truth" and it is a survivor of a large genre of God's [something].  Thus, gadzooks (or od's wucks) is literally "God's hooks", the hooks likely being a reference to the nails used to fasten Christ to the cross.  Many of these God's... expressions were reduced to od's... or odds... as in odds bodikins.  This exclamation, popular in Shakespeare's day, has nothing to do with needles - it means "[by] God's little body" or, more loosely, "[by] the precious body of Christ".  Another exclamation from the same period that is even more fun to say than odds bodikins is zounds.  This, in full, is "[by] God's wounds" and as before, it was "God the son" not "God the father" who was implied.  Many other exclamations were formed along the same lines: 'sblood ("God's blood"), 'sbody or ods-bobs ("God's body") and ods-pittikins ("God's pity").  The use of these oaths was so extensive that, in time, they became quite divorced from their original significance and quite ludicrous expressions such as ods haricots, ods fish and ods kilderkins came into use.

Odd socks!  Look at the time!  We must go.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Len Pacer:

Could you shed some light on the origin of the phrase get my goat?

This is another one of those "no one is sure" etymologies.  The earliest example of the phrase comes from a letter written by Jack London in 1910.  It has been suggested that to get one's goat, meaning "to annoy or irritate", derives from the supposed practice of putting a goat in a racehorse's stall to calm the horse.  A gambler might pay a stable boy to remove the goat, upsetting the horse and, possibly, the results of the horse's race.  That explanation seems tenuous to us.  Others, however, have suggested that the phrase might be related to the word scapegoat, which has a known, and very interesting, etymology.

Scape is an aphetic form of escape, with the same meaning, so that a scapegoat is etymologically anHunt's "The Scapegoat".  Click to learn more. escape goat.  William Tyndale, translator of the Bible in the 16th century, is credited with coining the English term, having translated it from Hebrew azazel.  So what is azazel?  It is a word which only appears in Leviticus 16:10, with reference to a Hebrew practice for Yom Kippur.  Two goats were brought forth, and one was sacrificed to God, while the other was "given" the people's sins and then set free in the wilderness, carrying the sins away.  The latter goat was interpreted by Tyndale to be the azazel, meaning "scapegoat", though this is now understood to be incorrect.  The Good News Bible, along with most other current translations, renders the passage "There he shall draw lots, using two stones, one marked 'for the Lord' and the other 'for Azazel.'  Aaron shall sacrifice the goat chosen by lot for the Lord and offer it as a sin offering.  The goat chosen for Azazel shall be presented alive to the Lord and sent off into the desert to Azazel, in order to take away the sins of the people."

The meaning of the Hebrew word is not known, though The Good News Bible suggests that it may be the name of a desert demon.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Norman Duane Turner:

Does anybody know the origin of the word moonshine?

A moonshine still.We know that it first appears in the written record about 1785 in England, in the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Grose: "The white brandy smuggled in the coasts of Kent and Essex is called moonshine."  That brandy was smuggled from outside the country, presumably under the cover of night, when the only light came from the moon.  The term was adopted in the U.S. to apply to spirits distilled illegally, again presumably at night, especially during the Prohibition era.  The term moonlight was also used with this same meaning in the 19th century.

From Steve:

What is the origin of naked as a jaybird?

This phrase, and its British counterpart naked as a robin, do not have clear origins.  Naked as a robin appears in writing in the mid-19th century, while naked as a jaybird is first recorded in wartime America.  The only plausible, yet undocumented, reason that a simile about nakedness might refer to these birds is the fact that bluejays and robins, when they first hatch, look quite naked, even though they do have a small amount of down on them.  Like bluejays, this "robin" is an American thrush and is unrelated to the European robin.

For some reason, it was fashionable in the 14th century to give personal names to birds.  Thus we have the robin, the martin, the jay and the magpie (i.e. Margaret-pie).  It is interesting to note that the name jay here is probably also the same as in jaywalking.  These words come from the proper name Jay, which was considered a common enough name in Britain that it came to be used to refer to provincial folk in general.  In the U.S. it referred to unsophisticated rural people, and jaywalking was something those country folk did when they got to the city because they weren't accustomed to dealing with traffic back home.  Jaywalk is peculiarly American and dates from the early part of the 20th century.  Oh, and by the way, Jay as a name comes ultimately from Latin Gaius.

Find the origin of these and other words in our bookstore.

From Bruce Kendall:

I've encountered numerous citations that claim that nihilism and nihilist were both coined by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons.  As a student of Russian history I don't recall this to be the case.  Can you please clear this up for me?

Actually, most of the Romance languages, along with German and Russian, had words for nihilism and nihilist before Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons in 1862.  While Turgenev named, defined, and analyzed the philosophy of nihilism in the book, and while the political sense developed initially in Russia, English first used the word to refer to "a total rejection of current religious beliefs or moral principles" in the early part of the 19th century (it was first recorded in English in 1817).  Nihilism comes from Latin nihil "nothing", a form of nil.  The word annihilate comes from the same source.  

From Greg Umberson:

I recently got an e-mail that began "I want to go back to the time when..." and listed many of the wonderful things one misses about childhood. One of these things was "I want to go back to the time when... 'Olly-olly-oxenfree' made perfect sense.". Now where in the world does olly-olly-oxenfree come from? 

"All the, all the oxen [are] free".

From Jim Savage:

My wife recently commented on foolscap (denoting a size of paper) being a strange word.  This started us off guessing its meaning and origins. Could you please help settle the discussion?

You know how teachers used to make the class fool stand in the corner wearing a conical paper hat marked with a D for dunce?  The size of paper required for this "fool's cap" was foolscap (1795).

From Kristen Orterer:

I ran into this Hare Krishna guy the other day and he told me that Christ or Christos and Krishna are related and that Krishna means "most attractive".  I know this question is only half English but I'm so curious to know if this is true or not and I haven't found any other place to ask yet so I was thinking maybe you'd have mercy on me...

Christ means "anointed" and is a Greek translation of the Hebrew mesiach (messiah).  Krishna means "dark".  We realize that Krishna looks a little like Christ but there is actually no letter I in Krishna.  It's just put there to make it easier for Westerners to pronounce.  When written in the standard Sanskrit transliteration, Krishna looks like Krsna but with little dots below the R, the S and the N

There is no connection either in their meaning or their etymology.

From Sal Esposito:

I recently did a workshop in diversity.  One of the participants said the phrase in the black, meaning to be operating at a profit, originally came from the slavery era.  If a person was well to do and had many slaves they were considered in the black.  Her source was a college professor years back.  Any input?  Any ideas about in the red?

We never cease to be amazed by the nonsense people dream up.  Both in the black (1928) and in the red (1926) come from banking.  On monthly bank statements, a positive balance was written in black ink whereas a negative (overdrawn) balance was written in red ink.  

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Christina will be with us momentarily

How about momentarily?  It's time to worry when the pilot says, "We will be in the air momentarily." And where will the plane be after that moment?  Hopefully still in the air!

How did these two words (hopefully and momentarily) come to be so misused? Or have they been so abused that they are now correct?

While in principle we do agree with your complaints about these words, hopefully has been abused since the 17th century, and momentarily, mostly in the U.S., since the early part of the 20th century.  If usage is made proper by its longevity, then hopefully and momentarily should no longer be considered incorrect, though they do chafe our hides!

Sez You...

From Reginald Thomas Aubrey:

Two comments:

1. I hope Ms. McCann [Issue 86] is listening to the embroidery department, because they are correct. When referring to a household containing multiple people, one only needs to use the plural of the family name. No possessive is required (or even correct). If you wanted to *really* make a case for using an apostrophe, you could make a sign that is meant to be attached to a house, the implication being that this is a house belonging to the Smiths (The Smiths' (house, implied)). But traditionally that is not how it's done.

2. I also hope the order for Ms. Charles was done correctly...meaning that it should have read as The Charleses (in the same way that a blanket for the Jones family would have read The Joneses). Any good grammar book will show you that when referring to a family, you simply need to make the name plural. That's all.

But, yes, I will agree: apostrophes are running rampart through our cultural landscape.

We believe you misread Chandra McCann's comments.  She (sorry, Chandra, if you're a he, which is conceivable as "Chandra" means "moon" in Sanskrit, and the "a" on the end does not necessarily denote feminine gender, at least not in Sanskrit) is perfectly correct in suggesting The Smiths' to people having a towel monogrammed, if they wish to convey the notion of their possession of the towel.  We believe she was explaining that the monogramming department prefers Smith's over Smiths', the former being disturbingly incorrect.  Ms. McCann didn't touch on the notion of plural forms of surnames, alone.  You are, however, correct that "Joneses" is preferable over "Jones" as the plural form.  The revered Fowler agrees with us all on that one.

From Piet:

I am a Dutch immigrant and understand that language.  The word for "yesterday" in Dutch is gisteren and for the day before yesterday its eergisteren.  You can see the connection with the Old English gystran.  Now the word for deag or in modern English "day" is dag in the Dutch language.  As you pointed out gystran already has the day in it and so it is with the Dutch, they don’t say gisteren dag but just plainly gisteren.  "Yesterday evening" becomes gisteren avond, or gister avond.  Now then, contrary to the Old English that gystran can also mean "tomorrow", in Dutch gisteren does not mean that. There is another word for that, i.e. morgen.  (This word can also mean morning.)  So when I say: "morgen gaan we vissen," my Dutch friends will know that "tomorrow we go fishing".

Fascinating.  Even more fascinating is the similarity between "morgen gaan we vissen" and "tomorrow we go fishing"! 
From Fran Morris:

Sorry to bother you. I missed reading issue #85, and it's not on the back issues page. I hope it will appear there soon.

Indeed, it is there now, as is Issue 86.  For future reference, if you ever want to get to a back issue quickly, or if we, due to technical difficulties (as happened last week), don't get a link to a back issue published immediately, simply use the formula, where YY is the number of the issue you seek.  When we get to Issue 100, the formula will be IssueYYY.html (we chose not to use three Xs in that formula as that would get us a bad rating from the automated web kid protection software out there).

From Annice J. Paul:

I am one of your regular readers. This week's issue (May 15th) has been a really good one.  As a editor of an in-house magazine to Indians outside the country, giving them more information about the origin of Aryan is truly a happy moment.  I just thought I would thank you that through the Take Our Word For It webzine, you are reaching out not only to me - one person  - but also to some 300 people .  It's a great job that you are doing.  Looking forward to your continued & excellent services.

Thank you, Annice!

From Jerry Schatz:

I read something about serendipity being one of the joys of netsurfing, and my stumbling on your site adds fuel to the argument - how's that for a whacked-out metaphor?  TOWFI is a delight for [very] amateur etymologists such as myself, and others as well I'm sure. 

By the way, you need a link back to your home page from your other pages - for book-marking purposes, and probably for other purposes as well which escape me at the moment.

What else does one [very] amateur etymologist do?: Well, among several other things, I'm the webmaster - I've always felt webmaster is an overblown word - of Reverse a Word word game and fun site. . The etymological stuff is mostly in the What's Hot/What's New section.  

Thanks for an interesting, entertaining, and educational site.

Thanks, Jerry!  Thanks for the home page link suggestion.  We suspect that many people didn't realize that the   image at the top of every page of the current issue is hot-linked back to the home page.  As for Reverse a Word, we recommend it to all of our readers.  Thanks for making us aware of it!

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