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Issue 94   

July 24, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

The crippled creep

Regular readers will be aware that last week Mike carelessly dropped a car on his foot.  He has been  hobbling about on crutches all week so we decided to look up the word cripple.  Curiously, it dates back to before 950 A.D., the earliest form being the Old English crypel which is an ablaut form of creep.  A cripple, therefore, is one who can only creep.

"But what's this ablaut business?" we hear you ask.  Well, one peculiarity of Indo-European languages is the ablaut inflection.  This refers to the creation of new words by changing a vowel in an existing word.  This may sound odd but we do it all the time.  The past tense of sit is sat and when we sit we often sit on a seat.  The past tense of drive is drove and, in the U.S., the past tense of dive is dove.  This latter word is interesting as it has never existed in British English.  The habit of forming ablaut inflections was obviously so ingrained that we keep inventing them.

Many ablaut forms are no longer as obvious as sit and sat.   Hood and hat, for instance, are ablaut forms.  Mike's crutches enter this picture once again as crutch is an ablaut form of crotch which was originally a form of crook

The -le on the end of cripple may well indicate that it is a "frequentative" form.   Excuse us for introducing another technical term but like ablaut it is really easy to understand.   A frequentativeClick to visit some of our favorite guys. form of a word indicates a repetition or continuation of an action (in this case, creeping).  For instance, a dribble is a continuous dripJiggle and joggle are repetitive jigs and jogsChatter is continual chat.  When milk forms curds it is said to curdle, when we are fond of something we may well fondle it and when we need to shove something we use a shovel.  Well, perhaps that last doesn't quite make sense but etymologically that is what a shovel is - something to shove with.

Mike's car was a little crumpled in the accident, too.  Crumple is a frequentative form of crump, an obsolete verb which meant "to curl up" and is the origin of crumpetCrump is also an ablaut form of crimp and cramp.  Which reminds us... time for Mike to take his muscle relaxant pill.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bernadette:

I have been trying to find the origin of surgery/chirurgery for months.  I haven't gotten very far except to find that it may have come from China.  Can you help me?

Sure, we can give you a hand with this one.  As a matter of fact, that's the etymological meaning behind surgery: to perform work with one's hands.  It entered English from Old French in the 14th century.  Even Chaucer used it in his Prologue in about 1386: "In al this world ne was ther noon hym lik To speke of phisik and of Surgerye."

Surgery is a contracted form of chirurgery, the contraction having taken place in Old French (surgerie and cirurgerie).  French took cirurgerie from Latin chirurgia "work of a surgeon", and the Latin derives from Greek kheirurgía "working by hand", from kher "hand" (as in words like chiropractor and chiroptera - the zoological name for the bat family, meaning "hand wing") and érgon "work" (source of erg and ergonomic).

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Chris Arnold:

I am curious about the differences in usage for the words supper and dinner.  Are they regional, and if so, which regions use which?  I am from east Tennessee [USA], and we use supper for the last meal of the day, and dinner for lunch.

It's dinner time!Dinner originally referred to the largest meal of the day, which was eaten at midday, to give farm agricultural laborers a rest break and something to sustain them to the end of the day.  However, this meal has always been something of a "movable feast".  During the reign of Henry VIII it was eaten as early as 10 a.m. and then got progressively later until, during the reign of Queen Victoria, it became fashionable to sit down to dinner at 10 p.m.   The extreme lateness of this meal meant that many people became hungry in the afternoon and that's why teatime was invented.

As the time of the large meal of the day varied so much it led to a great deal of confusion over names. Some people called this "large meal" term, dinner, while others used the word that had been applied originally to the evening meal, supper.  In our experience, country folk tend to call "lunch" dinner, probably because they, until very recently, worked in the fields during the day and ate a large meal at lunch.  They had to have a separate name for the evening meal, so they stuck with supper. City folk tend to call the evening meal dinner as it is usually their largest meal of the day, and they have lunch at midday.  This is not universally true, though, and there are many regions of Britain where the large meal, eaten early in the evening is called tea.

From Ott Gaither:

Do you know the origin of the term dog days?

Indeed we do, and your query is apt as we are in the midst of those particular days at the moment in the northern hemisphere - hot, brutally sunny days, when anything that isn't watered withers.  Why are these known as the dog days of summer?  It is at this season that the dog-star, Sirius, becomes visible just before sunrise (this is known as its heliacal rising).  This has been recorded by man for millennia.  The Romans knew this time of year as dies caniculus, and English translated the phrase directly from Latin.  The Greeks knew this season by the same name.  The term has been around for so long that people began associating it not with Sirius, but with a time of year when dogs seem to go mad (rabies is more prevalent in the summer when animals are active).  The term first appears in the English written record in Sir Thomas Elyot's Dictionary of 1538.

Why is Sirius known as the dog-star?  It has been known as such for longer than the dies caniculus have been recognized.  The Egyptian hieroglyph for Sirius is a dog, dating at least from 3285 B.C.  Even the Phoenicians connected dogs with the star: they called it Hannabeah "the Barker".  The Egyptians celebrated their new year when Sirius rose on the summer solstice (today it rises on August 10).  It has been suggested that the star is connected with the dog because it was thought of by the ancients as the "guardian of the horizon and also the solstices" (this from Richard Hinckley Allen's Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning).  The name Sirius is thought to derive from Greek seirios "sparkling".

Today, most almanacs designate the dies caniculus as July 3 through August 11.

From James:

It sounds too simple to need research, but I have not yet found the origin of the word washer meaning "the disc with a hole punched in it and placed under nuts for various reasons like friction spread".  I have repeatedly told my family that I want a copy of the OED but the cheap s*ds just buy me books and pullovers instead.

The nerve of 'em!  Well, we'll take care of you, James.  We'll try, anyhow.  We're afraid you might be a bit disappointed with the etymology of washer "metal disc".  WhileYes, one of THOSE washers. etymologists aren't certain, they lean toward deriving the word from washer "a person or thing that washes".  You see, that word attained several different meanings, from "a person who washes" to "an apparatus for washing" to "the cock or outlet valve of a water-supplying pipe".  It is the latter meaning which may be related to the "disc" meaning.  However, there is no recorded path of meaning change to support this.  Interestingly, the "disc" usage dates from the mid-14th century!  Even more interesting is the fact that washer "one who washes" isn't recorded before the 15th century, though a hypothetical Old English form wæscere has been suggested.

From Laura Scundakis:

Can you possibly provide the etymology of the word mischievous?  Why do so many people mispronounce this word?

It really chafes our collective hide when we hear folk say miss-CHEEV-ee-us.  It should be MISS-chiv-us.  It is surprising to learn that the second (instead of the first) syllable was stressed until about 1700, and that might account for today's widespread mispronunciation, but it's hard to say for sure.  The word itself means, etymologically, "coming to a head badly".  That's an awful image, isn't it?  It derives from Old French meschever, formed from mes- "wrongly" (cognate with English mis-) and chef "head".  Yes, that's right, head chef is redundant!  Mischievous dates from the 14th century, when it meant "unfortunate, disastrous".  It then meant "harmful, damaging", and it wasn't until the 18th century that its meaning softened to "playfully malicious".

Mischief is related to kerchief, which is, etymologically, a "head cover" (a contraction of cover chef), and to chief itself, which means, of course, "head person".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer rants about prepositions.

Just today my local newspaper carried a letter to the editor which began "I am a resident in the Santa Cruz Mountains..."  My immediate reaction was "You may be in the Santa Cruz Mountains but where do you reside?"  The point being that resident requires the preposition of.  He should, of course, have said he is "a resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains".

This is not a particularly common error but one that I see quite often is comprising of.  The verb to comprise seems to have been confused with the similar verb to compose.  However, while compose takes the preposition of, comprise takes no preposition at all.   Thus we may say "the class is composed of nine boys and eleven girls" or "the class comprises nine boys and eleven girls".

Sez You...

From Kristy:

Thank you for writing exactly what I was thinking: 

We would not say that the notion of a virgin birth is the cornerstone of Catholicism but it certainly does play a large role in the Church. [Issue 93]

I was raised Catholic (12 years of Catholic education, even) and although I no longer practice, I'm often annoyed by such inaccurate statements/images of the Catholic Church and its culture.  One other example would be films that portray present-day catholic masses said in Latin, when that hasn't happened since Vatican II (decades ago).

Yes, we run into these inaccuracies now and again.  The only present-day Masses said in Latin that we're aware of (other than certain special occasions) are Tridentine Masses, and those aren't sanctioned by the Church.

By the way, the reader who wrote last week about virgin mentioned the Immaculate Conception.  This has nothing to do with Mary giving birth as a virgin.  Instead it refers to her having been conceived without original sin. 

From Fiona:

Yes, English is cock-eyed (now there's an expression that conjures up some mental images!).  How about: when a building is destroyed it is razed [homophonic with raised] to the ground, I've never seen a frog [or toad] on a toadstool, or a dragonfly with flames shooting from its mouth, or for that matter why do we sit in the stands at a sports game?  Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

And why should dragons breathe fire?  If we examine medieval iconography we see that dragons do not always breathe fire and smoke, sometimes they breathe toads and snakes.  This is because medieval artists were not content just to show a picture; they usually tried to tell a story, too.  In this case, they were attempting to describe the poisonous fumes which emanated from dragons in legend.  So, it wasn't really fire, it just looked like it in the paintings.

Thanks for the further examples of how strange English can seem at times.

From Noah:

Thank you for your issues.  All are wonderful.  OK, I feel I have to defend your grandmother.  The quote she gave is not a form of vulgarity (I believe).  There was a song from the 60s by The Alley Cats called "Puddin' n' Tain (Ask Me Again, I'll Tell You the Same)".  She may have gotten it from there.  If that is too late, the original quote is from (I believe) a short story called "The King of Boyville" from the book The Real Issue by William Allen White in 1896.  The quote is:

When a new boy, who didn't belong to the school, came up at recess to play, Piggy shuffled over to him and asked him gruffly: "What's your name?"

"Puddin' 'n' tame, ast me agin an' I'll tell you the same," said the new boy, and then there was a fight.

That is the earliest example I found of that expression.  It may have been a well-known expression before then.  There is an online copy of the story at

Thanks for those quotations, Noah.  Those jibe with what we've found.  However, think about the phrases puddin' 'n' tame and puddin' 'n' tain: they mean nothing.  Where did they come from?  Probably from people hearing poont*ng (and perhaps not knowing what it meant) and converting that into something a little more recognizable.  That would also explain why the phrase is only used as a proper name in those quotes.  No one knew quite what to do with it other than that. (That's our semi-educated guess, anyhow.)

You're probably right on the money in suggesting that Grandma (and the mother of reader John Burgess, who wrote in last week) got the rhyme "What's my name..." from the book or the song.

From Georg Trimborn:

I seem to recall reading somewhere (never trust a recollection without a supporting reference) that the original (Hebrew?) version of the Bible doesn't make any claims about Mary's chastity or virtuousness, but that the phrase used to describe her was simply "a young woman".  This was then (mis-)translated at some point into the word virgin, which eventually led religious leaders to the concept of "virgin-birth", which wasn't in the original at all, but rather the result of logical deduction from a shaky premise (no religious slurs intended!).

The New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and the Greek word was parthenos.  As you suggest, this word meant simply "young girl".   The shift in meaning to "chaste" exactly parallels the evolution of the English word maidenMaidenhead originally meant "young-girl-ness".

From John Burgess:

Regarding methamphetamine(s), during the '60s, amphetamines of various sorts (including methamphetamine) were usually available in the form of tablets.  Since it is most likely that the term "amphetamine" entered the common (i.e., not medical) vocabulary during that period, it seems that the plural is indeed aphetic.

But what gives with the depluralization of fishes?  Almost always, now, I hear only the singular, whether the sense is singular or plural.

Yes, but we don't say "he overdosed on aspirins".  We say "he overdosed on aspirin", even though some might say "Take two aspirins and call me in the morning".  However, we hear "he overdosed on methamphetamines".

As for fish and fishes, fish has been a collective singular since at least 1300.  Apparently, in this case, folk have been (and still are) influenced by other collective animal words like fowl.

From Teacia Babb:

Your website is awesome!  Thanks so much for creating a website that educates. I look forward to it every week.  Keep up the great work!

From Jeff O'Rourke:

I enjoy Take Our word For It and I found the issue on English ancestry informative and very funny!

Thank you, both, for taking the time to write and tell us what you think about the site.

From Susan Clarke:

Loved your column on history of English.  In the meantime, I thought I'd add a couple more entries to your list of appropriate doctors' names: Dr. Gorrie was my dentist for more than 25 years.  Dr. In Hur is an OB/GYN in Orange County, California.

Thanks, Susan!

Laughing Stock
Children's Books

You Are Different and That's Bad

The Boy Who Died from Eating All His Vegetables

Dad's New Wife Robert

Fun Four-Letter Words to Know and Share

Hammers, Screwdrivers and Scissors: An I-Can-Do-It Book

The Kids' Guide to Hitchhiking

Kathy Was So Bad Her Mom Stopped Loving Her

Curious George and the High-Voltage Fence

All Cats Go to Hell

The Little Sissy Who Snitched

Some Kittens Can Fly

That's It, I'm Putting You Up for Adoption

Grandpa Gets a Casket

The Magic World Inside Abandoned Refrigerators

The Pop-Up Book of Human Anatomy

Strangers Have the Best Candy

Whining, Kicking and Crying to Get Your Way

You Were an Accident

Things Rich Kids Have But You Never Will

Pop! Goes the Hamster and Other Great Microwave Games

Your Nightmares Are Real

Where Would You Like to Be Buried?

Eggs, Toilet Paper, and Your School

Why Can't Mr. Fork and Ms. Electrical Outlet Be Friends?

Places Where Mommy and Daddy Hide Neat Things

Daddy Drinks Because You Cry

Thanks to Kurt Geske for forwarding these to us

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