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Issue 89   

June 12, 2000
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wise acres

Last week we looked at a group of words to do with knowing, most of which had the letters c-n, k-n or g-n.  This occasioned a letter from reader Joshua Daniels:

Ken is very close to modern German kennen, "to know".  Ich ken means "I know", but has a strong connotation of to be familiar with personally, as in a personal acquaintance rather than facts or books.  For what we would call "knowing", as in facts stored in the cranial notepad, they would use the verb wissen.  Wissen is closely related to the English wise, and forming mostly the same variants such as weisheit "wisdom", wissenschaft, "area of knowledge", etc.  I don’t know if they have a term that directly translates wiseass, though I'm sure they wouldn’t shy away from it.

Many languages distinguish between knowing with the mind and knowing with the senses.  For instance, French has savoir and connaître, respectively.  Thus, to know that our neighbor Mr. Brown lives at number 43 is different from knowing Mr. Brown.  In fact, Old English used to maintain this distinction, having the verb witan, "to know (mentally)" and cnawan "to know (with the senses)".  Note that the ss of (German) wissen is represented by the t of (Old English) witan.  This s/t mutation is something which occurs frequently in Indo-European languages.  Compare, for instance, the verb admit and its noun, admission.  Witan could also be a noun meaning "wise man" and the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a parliament was the witenagemot, literally "the assembly of wise men".

Needless to say, German is not the only language which has relatives of witan.  Old Irish has fiss "knowledge", Latin has videre "to see", Greek has eidenai "to know" and Welsh has gwyddom "we know". Sanskrit has both vidya "seeing, knowledge" and veda "knowledge".  The collection of books called the Vedas are sacred to Hinduism and are the oldest holy books still in use, dating from about 1,500 BCE.  All these words are thought to derive from a hypothetical Indo-European root *wid-.

Eventually, in English, both kinds of knowledge became absorbed into know.  That is not to say that we have lost all trace of the words related to witan.  We still have wise, of course, and wisdomWit, though now associated with humor, once meant "consciousness" and all faculties of knowledge.

A variant of wit is wot, which is almost unknown outside of its negative: wotless, "unknowing, ignorant"Godwottery in action?  Actually, this one looks reasonably tasteful. (pretty much synonymous with witless) and the phrase God wot, meaning "God knows".  This phrase may seem a little obscure to us now but it was used in a famous (some say infamous) poem by T. E. Brown where he wrote "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!"  Now, had he penned this line in, say, 1393 his turn of phrase might be deemed excusable but his poem was written in 1893 when the phrase was known only to students of archaic expressions.  This gave rise to another term: godwottery which could mean either "an affected use of archaic language" or, appropriately, "an over-elaborate style of gardening".  The English newspaper The Guardian (18 Aug. 1969) carried this delicious curmudgeonly description: 

Godwottery, the sentimental preconception of what a garden should be, results in a very strange collection of elements... Cotswold stone retaining walls; vaguely Spanish wrought iron gates; "crazy" paving, nowadays often coloured yellow, green, and pink; plainly irregular ponds, now usually of pale blue fibre-glass, fed by streams of impossible source; gnomes, fairies, and animals, usually plastic.

While out of place in our modern language, God wot was so common in Middle English that it was often written as one word: Goddot.  No, that is not where Samuel Becket got the title of his play "Waiting for Godot".  That Godot is assumed to be a French diminutive of God formed along the same lines as Charlot, "Charlie".  By the way, Charlot is how Charlie Chaplin is known in French.  We tend to use only its feminine form, Charlotte.

As for Joshua's suggestion about wise-ass, we don't know if there is a literal German equivalent but we doubt it as it seems to be a modern American version of the Middle English word wise-acre.  Though this latter word now means someone who makes "wise-cracks" or someone who wishes to be thought wise, it comes from the Dutch wijsseggher which means a "soothsayer".  Old English had the word witie which likewise meant "soothsayer" or "prophet".

Oh, likewise ?  The -wise suffix found in such words clockwise, likewise and otherwise does not belong to this group of "knowing" words.  It comes from Old English wise meaning "manner" or "style", not from witan.

That great American critic and acerbic wit, Dorothy Parker, called her country home "Wit's End".  When we finally acquire our own bucolic retreat we intend to call it "Wise Acres".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Liz Jay:

What is the etymology of nadir?  The scientific term meaning "the low point on a graph". I am not looking for the proper name. Thanks!

A nadir view of the moon's surface.  Click to visit the link.This word comes ultimately from Arabic nador, and there are cognates in Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian nadir "opposite to". Its earliest meaning in English was "a point in the heavens diametrically opposite to some other point, especially to the sun." Chaucer used it in 1391: "The nadir of the sonne is thilke degree Þat is opposit to the degree of the sonne, in the 7 signe, as thus, euery degree of aries bi ordre is nadir to euery degree of libra by ordre." By the 15th century the word had taken on the meaning "The point of the heavens diametrically opposite to the zenith; the point directly under the observer." It is not until the late 18th century that we find the word used in its figurative sense of "the lowest point (of anything); the place or time of greatest depression or degradation," as in this quote from Henry Hallam's History of Literature: "The seventh century is the nadir of the human mind in Europe."

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Philip Salansky:

Most meanings of tact seem to have to do with social grace. From where does the meaning of intact "completeness" come?

This word, which mean "whole", comes to us from Latin intactus, in- "un-" + tactus the past participle of tangere "to touch".  It is literally, therefore, "untouched".  The first example of the word in English comes from about 1450: "Thi maydenhode intacte inmaculat eurelastinge."  By the 19th century we see it looking more familiar in form: "No mischief...had been done, except to one old china jar...The gallery was perfectly intact."

Tact "ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will" comes also from tangere, and the sense is one of "a keen faculty of perception or discrimination likened to the sense of touch".  Voltaire made this usage famous in the middle of the 18th century, and English borrowed it from the French.

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

From Bob Scnheider:

I am a professor at the Medical College of Virginia and a student asked me the etymology of the word panic.  He stumped me.

At least he didn't cause a panic!  The word came to English in the late 16th/early 17th century from French panique, an adjective.  French and Italian (panico) both borrowed the word from Greek panikos "of Pan".  It came to mean "groundless (fear)" in Greek, apparently because unsettling but harmless nighttime sounds were often attributed by the ancient Greeks to the sylvan god Pan.  English took the word as part of the phrase panic terror or panic fear: "Sudden foolish frights, without any certeine cause, which they call Panique Terrores" (from Philemon Holland's translation of Plutarch's Moralia, 1603).  You can see that the word remained an adjective on first entering English.  It was in the early 18th century that the fear or terror was dropped so that panic became a noun: "The Uncertainty of what they fear’d made their Fear get greater... And this was what in after-times men call’d a Pannick" from Anthony Shaftesbury's Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times.  Note that the English form has retained a sense, even if it is a small one, of illogic.

From Eugene C. Cook:

The phrase a piece of cake is used in one of the Paine Webber commercials [in the U.S.], and often heard in conversations on TV programs. Do you know where it originated?

Well, we know that it first appeared in the written record in 1936, in Ogden Nash's Primrose Path: "Her picture’s in the papers now, And life’s a piece of cake."  Thereafter it was quickly adopted in Britain and used especially by the RAF.

It's thought to derive from cakewalk, which originally referred to a promenade contest of the late 19th century in America, especially among blacks.  The couple displaying the best walk won a cake as a prize.  The word came to refer soon thereafter to a kind of dance, and then it was used more figuratively to refer to anything that was stylish yet easy to do.  By Ogden Nash's time it had been transformed to a piece of cake, though cakewalk survived with the same meaning.  Both terms, in fact, were used by the RAF during World War II.

From Beverly Ferguson:

As my husband and I were vacationing I saw an advertisement on a billboard for a flea market, as I have numerous times, but this time I began to wonder just exactly what the word flea meant used with the word market.  Could you please research this for me. I have done other searches on the web concerning this and have not found anything.

The term is a direct translation from French marché aux puces, which is what such markets were calledA flea market.  Click to visit a site about flea markets all over the U.S. in Paris.  The following quote from G. S. Dougherty (1922) explains why informal markets where people gather selling used items came to be known by that name: "It is called the 'Flea' Market because there are so many second hand articles sold of all kinds that they are believed to gather fleas."  The name caught on and has been with us since, although it's probably rare that fleas are seen in flea markets these days

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Barb Dwyer's goal is "We all speak proper, here"...  

All heard on the radio:

A teacher: "Our goal in this school is 'All our children can speak good English'".

A local politician: "What we want is 'We don't have a drug problem here'".

A union leader: "What we should be trying to avoid is 'We don't have the support of the members'".

I have begun to hear this kind of ugly solecism in the last year or so but I'm not exactly sure how to characterize it nor what to call it. 

My best shot at describing it is "the use of indirect speech where a more careful speaker might use a subordinate clause".   That's fairly unwieldy, I know, and I invite readers who have also noticed this tendency to offer their own definitions.

To repair the first example one could say "Our goal in this school is to be able to say that all our children can speak good English".  Would that this were true!

Sez You...
From John Burgess:

Just to add to the broth... In my childhood, the phrase [Ollie ollie oxen free] was heard and said as "All ye, all ye, in come, free!" This was in a mid-sized, New England city with a large population of Irish origin, which is surely why the "ye" made sense. "In come, free" was, of course, the acknowledgment of defeat on the part of "It."

Iona and Peter Opie, in their The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, acknowledge that phrases similar to ollie ollie oxen free were used by British schoolchildren with the meaning "time out" or to end a game, but they don't discuss how the terms arose. Some of the apparent variations on the phrase are ollyoxalls, olly-olly-ee, and possibly even creamy-olivers. Interestingly, Mike reports that he said cree for "time out" when he was a child in Wales (somehow related to the creamy in creamy-olivers or an aphetic form of crossed-keys?). Melanie just said times or kings x in Texas. In London and the "home counties" the word is fainites, short for "fain I would,,,".

There are many, many more variations in the U.S. and the U.K.

From Rabbi Matis Weinberg: 

Thanks for a beautiful site!

From Derek Hennecke: 

Egypt is also from Greek. Memphis was the capital of Egypt and had a temple to the local god Ptah. The Babylonians called the place A Ka ptah or "house of Ptah". The Greeks heard this as Aegypta and then to Egyptos to (Latin) Egyptus.  Source Max Rodenbek in his book "Cairo, City Victorious." 

Ah, yes. Thanks!

From J. Fisher: 

I fell into your website looking for "beyond the pale" (to which a co-worker of mine has certainly gone and I wish to be correct in my criticism). Would you consider putting one of those "click here to send this page to a friend" links on your site? I have several intensely erudite friends who would wallow here in bliss. It might be easier just to type in their addresses - and there they go!

We have actually been planning to implement such a device and you have written us just in time to see it make its first appearance!  It's on the home page.  It's not perfect but we'll put something more elegant together very soon.  Speaking of which, if any of you JavaScripters out there are interested in donating time and script to Take Our Word For It, let us know.  We know our JavaScript, but the clocks in the Take Our Word For It studio all seem to move twice as fast as everyone else's, so we never seem to get any scripting done.  

Another addition this week is the next column, formally known as Laughing Stock, our new humor section. Have a look! 

Laughing Stock

Here are some actual label instructions on consumer products (or so we have been told). Judging by the names of some of the stores, this originated in the United Kingdom. 

~oOo~ 

On a blanket from Taiwan - 
NOT TO BE USED AS PROTECTION FROM A TORNADO. 

On a helmet mounted mirror used by US cyclists - 
REMEMBER, OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE ACTUALLY BEHIND YOU. 

On a Taiwanese shampoo - 
USE REPEATEDLY FOR SEVERE DAMAGE. 

On the bottle-top of a (UK) flavored milk drink - 
AFTER OPENING, KEEP UPRIGHT. 

On a New Zealand insect spray - 
THIS PRODUCT NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS. 

In a US guide to setting up a new computer - 
TO AVOID CONDENSATION FORMING, ALLOW THE BOXES TO WARM UP TO ROOM TEMPERATURE BEFORE OPENING. 

(Sensible, but the instruction was INSIDE the box.) 

On a Japanese product used to relieve painful hemorrhoids - 
WHILE INSERTING LIE DOWN ON BED AND INSERT POSCOOL SLOWLY UP TO THE PROJECTED PORTION LIKE A SWORD-GUARD INTO ANAL DUCT. 

In some countries, on the bottom of Coke bottles - 
OPEN OTHER END. 

On a packet of Sunmaid raisins - 
WHY NOT TRY TOSSING OVER YOUR FAVORITE BREAKFAST CEREAL? 

On a Sears hairdryer - 
DO NOT USE WHILE SLEEPING. 

On a bag of Fritos - 
YOU COULD BE A WINNER! NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. DETAILS INSIDE. 

(The shoplifter special!) 

On a bar of Dial soap - 
DIRECTIONS - USE LIKE REGULAR SOAP. 

(And that would be how?) 

On Tesco's Tiramisu dessert (printed on bottom of the box) - 
DO NOT TURN UPSIDE DOWN. 

(Too late! You lose!) 

On Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding - 
PRODUCT WILL BE HOT AFTER HEATING. 

(Are you sure? Let's experiment.) 

On a Korean kitchen knife - 
WARNING: KEEP OUT OF CHILDREN. 

(Who are they to tell me what to do with my kids?) 

On a string of Chinese-made Christmas lights - 
FOR INDOOR OR OUTDOOR USE ONLY. 

(As opposed to use in outer space?) 

On a Japanese food processor - 
NOT TO BE USED FOR THE OTHER USE. 

(Now we're curious.) 

On Sainsbury's peanuts - 
WARNING - CONTAINS NUTS. 

(We can't complain too much about this as peanuts are actually legumes.) 

On an American Airlines packet of nuts - 
INSTRUCTIONS - OPEN PACKET, EAT NUTS. 

(I'm glad they cleared that up.) 

On a Swedish chainsaw - 
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO STOP CHAIN WITH YOUR HANDS OR GENITALS. 

(What kind of consumer phone-call led to this warning?) 

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