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Issue 97   

August 14, 2000
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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.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the word-of-all-trades

A reader has asked us if we could address the various meanings of the word jack.  This word is so widely used in so many different meanings that we thought the only way we could do it justice would be to devote a Spotlight to it.

First of all, it is a man's name.  It is used as a diminutive of John and is assumed to be the EnglishJackets. form of the French Jacques.  This is rather odd as Jacques is the French form of Jacobus which entered English as James.  Anyhow, as Jack was a common name among the... well... common folk, it has long been used to imply a peasant or member of the lower orders.  Thus we say every man Jack to mean "everybody".  The name must have been especially common in Cornwall as a cousin Jack once meant a Cornishman.  The crude upper garment worn by such common folk was called a jack by association.  This word is still with us in its  diminutive form: jacket.

When Mike says "If we had ten million dollars we could buy a house in San Francisco", Melanie reminds him that "If pigs had wings they might fly".  The 16th century equivalent of this was "Jack would be a gentleman if he could speak French".

Due to the poor opinion had of the lower classes, jack came to acquire pejorative overtones and was used to mean "criminal" or "knave".  (See jack-pot, below.)  In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare refers to "a mad-cap ruffian and a swearing jack".

Sailors are called Jack-tars because (a) they were assumed to be low-bred scoundrels and (b) they daubed their long hair with tar to keep it out of the way when working in the rigging.

Before the invention of rotisseries, a young kitchen boy (a jack) would be employed to turn roasting meat on a spit over a fire.  When this poor, greasy, soot-begrimed servant was replaced with a mechanical contrivance, it too was called a jack.  We still call certain mechanical devices jacks, especially if they operate by turning or screwing.  Thus, a car-jack helps us raise a car, a jack-screw alters the alignment of an airplane's rudder and a boot-jack is a contraption which helps us remove our boots.  Also, a harpsichord employs a system of jacks to pluck each string with a quill, and in a knitting-machine, a jack is an oscillating lever.  In the late 19th century, the newly introduced telephone exchanges were equipped with jack-plugs - a means of quickly altering the circuitry.

For some unknown (to us, that is) reason, jack also implies smallness.  In the old British game of lawn bowls, the jack is the small white ball which is the target for the larger, heavy "woods".  Jack-stones (also called jacks, dibs, dib-stones and gob-stones) is played with five small stones.  Children are very conservative about games and this game has changed little since Roman children played it with pigs'  knuckle-bones.

The jack of spades.  Click to follow the link.The smallest English coin, the farthing, was colloquially called a jack and chips used in gambling were called jacks because of their worthlessness.  A jack-pot was originally a pot of money which accumulated until a player could open with a pair of jacks or better.  The Cockney slang jack meaning a five-pound note is unrelated to any of these money terms.  It is an abbreviation of jack's alive which, by the peculiar logic of "rhyming slang", makes it equivalent to "five".  In this way it resembles on one's Jack which means "on one's own".  Jack in this case stands for Jack Jones.

Undoubtedly you have thought of jack words and phrases which we have not covered here.  We hope that we will address them next week when the jack theme continues.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Patrick Burke:

What's the story with humongous/humungous?  Is it my imagination, or was it invented out of thin air about ten years ago?  Is there a linguistic derivation for it, or is it a sort of portmanteau of huge + tremendous (+ fungus??...)?  It bugs me because I'm hearing political speakers and other supposedly educated folk using the Big H with the same sense of conviction and authority that they use real high-sounding Latinate words, but to me "humongous waves" are about the same as "narley waves".

Well, for one thing, we always assumed it was gnarly, but we're certainly not the Spelling Police,Lord Humongous of The Road Warrior film.  Click to follow the link. especially when it comes to slang.  As for humongous deriving from a gigantic mushroom, well, that's not quite it, either.  You're close, except for the fungus part (but it did make us laugh).  Humongous (humungous is also accepted) appeared on the American slang scene back in the 60s and has been with us since.  It is thought to have been formed from huge + monstrous and patterned after tremendous.  One of the best uses of the word that we can recall is as the name of an enigmatic character in the original Road Warrior starring Mel Gibson.

Gnarly, by the way, comes from surfing and originally referred to something dangerous or treacherous (probably something like a grizzly bear or a gun; just kidding - of course it referred to waves as you suggested, Patrick).  It was soon picked up by non-surfers with that meaning but then, as is sometimes wont to happen in English, it did a 180 degree turn and came to mean something at the opposite end of the spectrum: cool.

[Incidentally, speaking of bears and guns, Mike says that he will vote for the first party which defends the right to arm bears.]

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Christine Mesa: 

My friend believes that the word soda comes from sodium, but I believe that's the description, not the origin.

Not the kind of soda we're talking about, exactly, but click to follow the link (it's making us thirsty).Huh?  Well, neither of you is actually correct.  Soda the word first made an appearance in English in the mid-16th century, coming from Latin soda, a word of unclear origins, but etymologists do have a theory about it.  They suggest that soda derives from sodanum, the name the Romans gave to several plants of the genus Salicornia, which in English are known as glasswort (literally "glass plant") or samphire.  This plant was burned for the soda that would remain in its ashes, and the soda was used to make glass.  It is also thought that the plant was used to treat headaches ("Honey, where's the glasswort?") and that its Latin name derives from the Arabic word for "headache": suda.  No, Sudafed isn't related (that comes from psuedoephedrine), but if you've ever had a splitting headache, you'll know what kind of headaches the Arabs must have gotten, because suda derives from a word meaning "split"!

From Scott F. Gandert: 

My roommate and I are always arguing about who saw what cute girl first.  I tried to explain to him that I had dibbs on one particular girl, but he wasn't buying it.  Dibbs. as I understand the term, means I have the first chance at something, eg., dibbs on the front seat (riding shotgun), dibbs on a cake, etc.  Is this a regional term?  What's its origin? 

We wonder how those "cute girls" would feel, knowing that you are "claiming" them, for that is basically the meaning behind dibs (or dibbs).  It is suggested that this expression derives from a very old children's game called dibstones.  This game, played with sheep knuckle-bones or pebbles, dates back at least to the 17th century (well, that's when the name first pops up in the written).  The object was to capture one's opponent's stones, and when a stone was captured, the victorious player would call "Dibbs!" with the meaning "I claim [the stone]".  It soon came to be used outside the game but with a similar meaning, and there you have it.  Interestingly, that usage outside of the game isn't recorded until 1932 in the US.  

The UK equivalent is bags I, which means "I bag (capture)" whatever it is the speaker wants.  We bet cute American girls would really be offended if they heard you saying that about them, especially as it might be interpreted just a little differently than intended!

Dibs is also a slang term for money, deriving from the notion that the kind of pebbles used in dibstones were also used as chips when playing cards, and the word went from referring to something that represented money to a figurative term for the money itself.

Oh, and why dibstones?  It is thought to come from dib, a derivative of dab "to strike", presumably from the notion of "striking" and capturing one's opponents.  Another name for dibstones is jackstones, by the way, which we mention in this week's Spotlight.

From Weldon Goree:

The origin of fugue was violently disputed by my theory professors, and from what I've seen of the old theorists, they couldn't decide either.  Is the musical meaning of fugue related to the medical meaning?  If the musical meaning is derived from the Latin for "chase", is there any particular reason it was distinguished from ciaccione?

Well, yes, because fugue means, etymologically, "flee", and there's quite a bit of difference between "chase" and "flee".  The Italian form was fuga, coming from the identical Latin form, which derived from fugere "to flee", making fugue related to refuge, refugee, and fugitive.  Musically the term refers to a composition composed of short interwoven themes that "flee" in diverging from the main theme.  It entered English at the end of the 16th century with the spelling fuge.  The French spelling influenced English in the 17th century so that the spelling changed to what we have today.

Fugue is also a psychiatric term, first used in 1901, with a figurative meaning of "a fleeing [from one's self]" and a more precise meaning of "a dissociative reaction to shock or emotional stress".

From Ed MacDaniel:

What the heck does bees knees mean, and what is its origin?  I've seen people suggest that the correct for is b's and e's.  Which is right?

Oh, dear, isn't this interesting!  Folk etymology right before our very eyes.  No, it never was and never should be b's and e's.  First of all, what are these b's and e's, anyhow?  It is bees knees.  If you've ever seen a bee, then you know how tiny its knees must be(e).  That's what the term first referred to - anything small or insignificant.  It first appears in writing at the end of the 18th century in a letter: "It cannot be as big as a bee’s knee" (1797).  And, as we mentioned earlier in this column, it is not all that uncommon for slang expressions like that to have a complete reverse of meaning, such that by the early 20th century, bee's knees meant "excellent".

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

A fine distinction occurs to Gordon Brown, this week's guest curmudgeon

For your Curmudgeon's Corner, how about a gem like "the meeting will occur between 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m."?  This contains both an outright fault and a questionable usage.  The construction between A to B is analogous to a mixed metaphor in that it combines parts of unrelated constructions.  It should be either between A and B or from A to B.  And the use of occur for a planned event has been creeping into English all too frequently.  Occur has a clear connotation of being "without intent, volition, or plan" [Webster].  Eclipses occur; meetings take place.

I hope I'm not being too finicky here. After all, isn't it our charge, as Defenders of the Language, to rail and rage against these abuses?  Especially when we're ranting?

Can a curmudgeon be too finicky?  Surely not.  To be a reasonable curmudgeon is to miss the point, don't you think?

Readers, if you have an axe to grind regarding the abuse of English please write and tell us all about it.

Sez You...
From Giorgio Baroni:

Last week you wrote "This is why Italian for potato is tartuffo (from Latin terrae tuber, "tuber of the earth")."  However, Italian for potato is patataTartuffo  does not exist in the Italian language.  Tartufo with one f is Italian for "truffle" instead ...

Well, maybe not in standard Italian.  We didn't want to burden the general reader with the intricacies of Romance dialects but tartuffo appears in several dialects of Italian.  Similar words also occur -  Milanese has tartuffel and Venetian has both tartuf and tartufola.  In related languages, Piedmontese has tartifla, Rhaeto-Rumansch has tartufe and Languedoc has tartifle.  All these words mean "potato", not "truffle", and have been explained as being equivalent to Latin terræ tuber.

German also has a dialect word tartoffel ("potato") whence comes the standard German kartoffel as well as Icelandic dialect tartuflur ("potatoes").

From Steve Parkes:

Surely, Juliet is asking "wherefore art thou a Capulet and I a Montague [or is the other way about?]. Of all the rotten luck!".

Quite.  We think that was Barb's point.  [Teehee]  Perhaps she should have expressed it more clearly.

From Linda Sims:

When I was a little girl, I spent some time in England. There I learned this version of the Fuzzy Wuzzy rhyme:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
If Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,
he wasn't very fuzzy, was he?

Just goes to show that what you learn can depend a great deal on where and when you learn it.

It also shows just how persistent children's rhymes can be if they can retain a recognizable similarity over thousands of miles.

From Dick Timberlake:

I received a spam recently which proclaimed, "Hastle Free Car Buying.."  Well, I get a pastle of spam, but this won cot my I.

Ha ha!  But why would anyone want to buy a free car?

From Jack Chastain:

In reading the replies on "English..." and the new poems, I was reminded of a test of the ability to recognise (English) speech given to several "speech recognition" programs: "It's not easy to recognise speech."  At least one system returned: "It's not easy to wreck a nice beach."

Then, of course, there is the horribly disgusting partial-dairy (?) product I see all the time at the grocer. It's name is right there and I just can't help but exclaim what is written: "I can't BELIEVE it! Snot butter!"  Oh, I wish I hadn't said that!

And just what does a partial-dairy produce?  Perhaps it is that substance which Melanie calls "mucus".   (Mike says it's not).

One final thing before I close with praises.  Was reading with interest the analysis of sorcerer and struck with the origin word sortiere to "sortie" - I can almost make a relationship without, of course, resorting to pesky reference material.  I was curious if there was a relationship? 

Sorry, no. As President Reagan once said, "Facts are stupid things."

From David Teager:

What a delightful word: oronym [from last week's Sez You]. Thanks once again for enlightening me.

I'm not sure, though, if this is the correct term for the delightful version of a familiar (?) story that I learned in Linguistics 101 at university. It starts:

Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock florist. Disk ladle gull off and worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat rotting hut. Wan moaning, ladle rat rotting huts murder colder inset: ladle rat rotting hut, heresy ladle basking wetter ladle kegs end shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tudor cordage offer groin murder, hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist. 

As the story winds on and the wicket woof meets his demise, we eventually get to the morel: Dun stopper torque wet strainers!

Rather an interesting application of twisted phonemics, don't you think? It still tickles me all these years later (groin murder in particular). Later there is also the line: "Wail, wail, wail," setter wicket woof, "Evanescent ladle rat rotting hut." 

I remember a similar sort of exercise from my youth. Supposedly, telegrams were charged by the work and not the letter, so you could save money by sending "canoe mimi at airport" and the like.

(If I searched, I might be able to come up with the whole story as it was given me; the above is from memory.)

You mean you keep stuff like that festering in your brain?  Good grief, David, get help before it's too late!

From Mary Elizabeth Chang:

From last week's letters:

Even in the New World, the Continental College nearly voted in Hebrew as the official language of Americans, who saw themselves as the new Israelites in a Promised Land...  

Continental College? Does he mean Continental Congress...or is that the Hebrew translation?

Undoubtedly.  The passage was lifted wholesale from a website and we didn't change it.  Perhaps we should have inserted a (sic) after each error but that would have been tedious for all of us.  In the words of the late Jessica Mitford, "Feel free to insert your own sics".

From Guy DeRome:

First of all, love your web site, please keep it up.  After reading your comments on the curious assertions about Hebrew being the mother of all tongues, I was reminded of a similar page I stumbled on some months ago.  The author asserted the same thing for the Basque language and the Ogham script.  When I checked the page again today, I couldn't find all the references to Basque that I had found before.  Maybe they are in a different place or the author got so much flak about them that he pulled them. But this is still an interesting read and one that makes you exclaim, "Some people have way too much time on their hands!" Check it out.

We did and... wow... you're right.  Way too much.

From Kevin Robinson:

Brian Degnan wrote [in last week's Sez You...]: 

Mairzey doats and dozey doats
And little lamsey divey,
A kiddly-divey doo,
Wouldn't you?

The penultimate one is "Mares eat oats, and goats eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid'll eat ivy, too. Wouldn't you?" 

Where does he get "goats" out of "dozey doats?" To me that phrase sounds far more like "does (female deer) eat oats".  I agree with his comments about your wonderful site.

You are, of course, correct.

From Ian Rowlands:

Am I to assume that the lady in that great old song "The Lady is a Vamp" (sorry 'bout that) is so described because of a propensity to flash her ankles?

We think an even more appropriate song would  be "Hard-hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah". 

If I told you that visiting your site is the highlight of my week you would probably say "get a life". I do however look forward to each edition, it just keeps improving.

Thank you for the kind words.  We, of course, do not want you to get a life if it means you will continue reading TOWFI!

From Melanie Shearman:

[Regarding last week's Laughing Stock]  OUCH! That hurt my eyes and my brain! LOL  Thanks for the laugh!

You are quite welcome. Glad you liked it!

Laughing Stock

More translations, and retranslations, and...

There is an Italian proverb which states (with a clever pun) that "to translate is to betray".  What follows is a now infamous example of what happens when the same text is translated back and forth several times.  

Apparently, Madonna was interviewed in Hungary for Budapest's Blikk newspaper.  The interviewer asked her a question in Hungarian, it was translated into English, she replied in English, and her response was translated back into Hungarian.  Then the Hungarian printed version of the interview was translated back into English, and that is what is reprinted here.

Blikk: Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled.  Did you have a visit here that was agreeable?  Are you in good odor?  You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.
Madonna:  Thank you for saying these compliments (holds up hands).  Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see.  This is a joke I have made.
Blikk: Madonna, let's cut toward the hunt: are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?
Madonna:  Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings.  In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present.  And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

Is this how you met Carlos, your love-servant who is reputed?  Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick?  Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

Madonna:  No, he was the only one I was dating in my bed then, so it is a scientific fact that the baby was made in my womb using him.  But as regard those questions, enough!  I am a woman and not a test-mouse!  Carlos is an everyday person who is in the orbit of a star who is being muscled-trained by him, not a sex machine.
Blikk: May we talk about your other "baby", your movie then?  Please do not be denying that the similarities between you and the real Evita are grounded in basis.  Power, money, tasty food, Grammys [sic] - all these elements are afoot.
Madonna:  What is up in the air with you?  Evita never was winning a Grammy!
Blikk: Perhaps not.  But as to your film, in trying to bring your reputation along a rocky road, can you make people forget the bad explosions of "Who's That Girl?" and "Shanghai Surprise"?
Madonna:  I am a tip-top starlet.  That is my job that I am paid to do.
Blikk: OK, here's a question from left space.  What was your book "Slut" about?
Madonna:  It was called "Sex", my book.
Blikk: Not in Hungary.  Here it was called "Slut".  How did it come to publish.  Were you a love-making with a man-about-town printer?  Do you prefer making suggestive literature to fast-selling CDs?
Madonna:  There are different facets to my career highway.  I am preferring only to become respected all over the map as a 100% artist.

There is much interest in you from this geographic region, so I must ask this final questions: How many Hungarian men have you dated in bed?  Are they No. 1?  How are they comparing to Argentine men, who are famous being tip-top as well?

Madonna:  Well, to avoid aggravating global tension, I would say it's a tie (laugh).  No, no. I am serious now.  See here, I am working like a canine all the way around the clock?  I have been too busy to try the goulash that makes your country one for the record books.
Blikk: Thank you for the candid chitchat.
Madonna:  No problem, friend who is a girl.

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