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Issue 100   

September 11, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Wee ways of weight

In those dear, distant days when we were in school (and yes, we can remember that far back), we were taught that homonyms like way and weigh sound the same but have nothing else in common.  This week we will reveal a few unexpected connections which show that way, weigh and a few others really are related, after all.

A few months ago, we discussed the evolution of English from a (hypothetical) language called Indo-European.  Scholars have reconstructed many words of this prehistoric language from existing words in modern Indian and European languages.  One of these reconstructed words is the verb *wegh- "to transport in a vehicle".  The most obvious word from this source is wagon.  Wagon has an old variant form wain which is hardly encountered at all these days except in Charles' Wain, an English variant name for the heavenly constellation known variously as "Big Dipper" or the "Plough".  Another obvious*wegh- word is way ("route" or "road") and all the words which have sprung from it, like always, away, wayside and wayfarerVague is another*wegh-derived travel word - its original meaning was "wandering".

Allied to transportation is the notion of movement, and this is how *wegh- gave us the words wag, waggle and wiggle.  Incidentally, wiggle is related to earwig via the Old English word wicgla "insect" (i.e. "thing which moves quickly").  The movement of water is indicated in some *wegh- words such as the French vague "wave" and the Italian verb vogare ("to row") which, remarkably, gave us vogue.

Latin is an especially rich source of *wegh- words.  Take the Latin verb vehere "to carry", for example.  This word gave us vehicle and inveigh while its past tense form (vectus "carried") gave us vector and convection.  A suffixed form (*wegh-ya) is believed to be the origin of Latin via "road", "way" and from this small word a host of English words have arisen - convey, deviate, devious, envoy, impervious, obvious, previous, trivia, viaduct and voyage to name but a few.

The Latin vexare "to agitate" comes from a different suffixed form (*wegh-s-).  This is the origin of the English vex and (for those readers who like especially obscure words) vexillology "the study of flags" (from Latin vexilla "banner"). 

The relation of weigh  to all these "motion" words is not immediately obvious.  The connection to travel comes from an Indo-European metaphor.  The primary meaning of *wegh- may have been "transport in a vehicle", but it also implied "to carry in a scale pan".  Thus, in Germanic languages, *wego- meant "weight" and even came to mean a (small) unit of weight.  Hence, wee "small". 


In case anyone was wondering why Indo-European words start with an asterisk and end with a hyphen, the initial "*" indicates that this is a reconstructed word and the final "-" means that it would have had an inflected ending.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Michael:

The phrases hanky panky and hokey pokey came up in an otherwise bland discussion one day.  Is there any relationship between them, other than the rhyming sound?  One is a dance; the other might happen after the dance.  What is the etymology of each phrase? 

The two are indeed thought to be related, it being suggested that they both derive from hocus pocus (see Issue 61 for a discussion of the latter).  You, and many others, may be surprised to find that hokey pokey, spelled hoky poky also, did not originally apply to a dance.  Instead, it meant "trickery, double dealing" when it first appeared in writing in the middle of the 19th century.  Hanky panky meant the same thing when it made its appearance at about the same time.  However, in the U.S. it was taken a step further, to mean "fooling around (sexually), especially in infidelity", an extension of the "trickery" notion.

While most etymologists seem to agree that hokey pokey and hanky panky derive from hocus pocus, slang expert Eric Partridge seemed to like the explanation that hanky panky derives from handkerchief, which magicians often used in their acts of prestidigitation.

The Hokey Pokey dance originated in England where it was (and still is) called the Hokey Cokey.  It was appropriated by an American G. I. who turned it into a musical hit when he returned to the U. S.  It is still heard, especially in roller skating rinks, today.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From James Herbert:

A trot line is known in our parts as a long line with spaced hooks for catching multiple fish.  I want you to know that I'm assuming you knew that, but I want to be certain that you're clear on what I'm asking about.  sorry if this is a tremendously easy one and you're laughing because I'm so stupid.

Well, Melanie, at least, is laughing not at you but at herself, because this one brings up some memories.  She heard the term frequently as a child in Texas, but in her infinite childhood wisdom, she hyper-corrected the first word, assuming it was supposed to be a trout line and that it was simply being mangled by thick Texan accents.  Why wouldn't she assume it was supposed to be trout line?  To a kid who both fished and rode horses, a trot line just didn't make sense.  However, since the early 19th century, any "long-line, lightly anchored or buoyed, with baited hooks hung by short lines or snoods a few feet apart" has been called a trot line (or sometimes a trawl line).  It is thought that this trot is different from the horse (or turkey!) trot, as there are some early instances where the fishing device is called a trat line.  No one knows exactly where this word comes from.

From a Wendy:

I recently saw a reference in an old movie to post chaise and wondered if the phrase post haste derived from it.  I've always been curious about the origin of phrases like this.  Do they have a special name or category that I could investigate?

From Doug Haden:

I couldn't find the word posthaste in your site.  What is it's etymology?

Since two people wrote us about this word on the same day, we figured we'd better answer posthaste!  So, do you figure that the word (also written post-haste) is a macaronic one, formed from Latin post "after" and English haste, the post prefix serving as an intensifier?  Or perhaps it is a corruption of another term from French or an even more exotic language.  Well, as odd as it may seem, today's word posthaste is simply a truncated form of a command written on letters way back when.  We have record of such commands on letters from the early half of the 16th century onward.  The command was "Haste, post, haste" (or something similar). What does that mean?  Well, post here refers to a "courier" (like the postman), so the meaning was something like "hurry, courier, hurry".  (We have to wonder if it was like writing "Fragile" on a box today, which seems to ensure that the parcel is treated as brutally as possible.)  Shortly after it first came into use, people began to think of it as a metaphor - post haste = "the speed of a courier".  Cromwell used the command in 1538: "In hast, hast, post hast", and Queen Mary employed it in 1558: "Hast, hast post, hast, for lief, for lief, for lief, for lief."  Sounded a bit desperate, didn't she?  Presumably in lief she was referring to a loved one.*

Shakespeare was one of the first to use the term in today's sense of "with all possible haste or expedition" in his Richard II (1593): "Old John of Gaunt... hath sent post haste To entreat your Majesty to visit him."

Why was a courier referred to as a post?  Well, the first public mail delivery service, begun in Paris in the 13th century, was something like the Pony Express that most of us have heard about: men and horses were kept at stations, and when a letter arrived at one station from another, a fresh horse and rider took it on, toward its destination.  Those stations where known as posts,  coming ultimately from Latin positus "a place".  The men stationed at posts also came to be known as posts by the 16th century.  This is where post office and related terms come from.  Interestingly, in the U.S. you mail a letter through the Post Office, but in the U.K. you post a letter through the Royal Mail!

*Mary I of England died in 1558, the year the letter was written.  Her approaching demise might account for her apparent desperation.

From Allison:

I am curious about the origins of pompous.  Would you know where it originates?  I had a discussion with my Dutch colleague about a Dutch saying, something like ligt voor pompeus (meaning possibly "standing like a fool; I could be wrong here), referring bck to ships that had to wait in front of a small island in Amsterdam Harbour called Pompeus (in the 16th century) until the tide was high enough to sail.  Is this the same as pompoous, or am I wrong in making this connection?  Let me take your word for it!

It is entirely possible that the Dutch phrase came to mean "standing like a fool" in a metaphorical sense, just like three sheets to/in the wind means "drunk" in a metaphorical sense in English.  We cannot say with certainty, however, whether Pompeus literally means "fool", but we tend to think it probably does not.  We have several readers who are native Dutch speakers, and we hereby solicit their input regarding Pompeus and the Dutch phrase which goes something like you quoted.

Pompous we can tell you about.  It comes, through French, from the same source as pomp, which is Latin pompa.  The Romans acquired the word from Greek pompe "a sending," coming ultimately from the root pempein "to send".  Greek pompe came to be used figuratively for something that was "sent forth", namely a procession or parade.  As such processions were often either very solemn or quite splendid, the notions of "a display" and then "an ostentatious display" came to be attached to the Greek word.  Those meanings passed into Latin and eventually into English, though the "procession" meaning died out in English by the early 19th century, such that now the word carries only the "showy" meaning, which had taken on a negative air as early as Chaucer's time (the late 14th century).

There is also the phrase pompae diaboli "diabolic processions," referring originally to the public events associated with pagan worship.  The term was (and still is) used in the baptismal prayers of some Christian rites.

From Elridge Tann:

Where did the phrase three sheets to the wind originate and how did it become associated with drunkenness?

If we tell you that a sheet is a rope or chain attached to the corner of a sail and used to alter its setting, would that help?  There are numerous words and phrases used today that have their origin in sailing.  If a sail has three sheets unattached it is hanging on by one corner only.  No longer capable of steering, the sail is in danger of being lost overboard.  This image bears a certain poetic resonance with a very drunk man who can hardly stay on his feet.

The phrase is first recorded in 1821 with this meaning.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Steve Parkes fumes about :

I have a complaint - I'm perfectly happy that American English and English English are markedly different; after all, they began to go their separate ways nearly four hundred years ago. I'm happy, too, about the simpler forms of spelling common in the US (why make things harder than they need be?).  But there is one thing I've noticed that I can't understand, and thus can't forgive: Occasionally I read US published editions of works that originated in the UK, and the spelling has been Americanized! What on earth for? I'm sure Americans are perfectly able to comprehend plough or through.  Admittedly, some surnames are a little out of the way, such as Featherstonehaugh (pronounced "Fanshaw") or Farquaharson (pr. "Farson"), but these are not "normal" words!  Over here we cope perfectly well with "plow" and "thru", and the like. The latest outrage (for I cannot describe it as less) came with the purchase of a second-hand US edition of Coleridge's Rime (sic) of the Ancient Mariner, in which the archaic English survives with not only the title, but also Coleridge's countree (country) and mariniers (mariners), in which poetic license gets the better of convention for the sake of scansion, intact; but colour becomes color!  Aargh!

Thanks, Steve.  Actually, the normal U.S. spelling is through.  In the 1930s the Chicago Times decided to rationalize the spelling of English by changing one word per year.  (We estimate that they would have needed several centuries to complete this task.)  Thru was one of the new spellings offered by this newspaper and tonite was another.  Eventually, the project was abandoned but we still occasionally see these spellings here and there. 

Sez You...
From Kate:

I hope you'll expand your Etymology of Slang Sexual Terms page and Etymology of Some Obscenities page.  As a court interpreter, translator and university Spanish instructor, I find sites like yours very useful.

Thanks, Kate.  We will continue to add to the slang pages as we receive and answer related queries.

From Allan Price:

On the subject of childhood selection processes, in my part of the world (A previous correspondent mentioned the Black Country in the Midlands of England - well, I'm there too) it pretty much varied from street to street.  I was certainly familiar with the seemingly ubiquitous "one potato, two potato", but our chosen method was "Dip dip dip, my blue ship, sails on the water like a cup and saucer, dip dip dip..."

Interesting - Iona and Peter Opie report that one in their The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren as "Ip, dip, dip, my little ship, sailing on the water, like a cup and saucer, but you are not on it."  This from a girl in Pontypool in South Wales.

From Joshua Daniels:

Your site is, as always, truly awesome.  It even evoked the tiniest spark of caring about things botanical (a topic of legendary apathy for me).

I spent my childhood in the Chicago area, and remember one-potato,  two-potato well. We also used several other chants, with the child doing the chanting pointing to a different person on each accented beat of the rhyme, and the last kid pointed at was "it" for that round of play. Set your flag on fire was one such chant, and Tinker, tailor was another.  If you haven't heard these, I'll pop over and sing them to you.  I moved to East Tennessee, up in the Smokies, when I was seven (I generously took my family with me), and the kids there also knew one potato, but not any of the others. They talked funny, too.

Many thanks.  Tinker, tailor is also mentioned by the Opies, though we're not familiar with Set your flag on fire.   No doubt it bears some relation to the verse of the New Orleans song Iko Iko which (in some versions) says:

My spy-boy an' yo' spy-boy, sittin' by the fyo.
My spy-boy tell yo' spy-boy, "Gonna set yo' flag on fyo."

Talkin' 'bout, "Hey now, hey now, iko, iko ande..." etc.

We wonder if you encountered any rhymes that were indigenous to East Tennessee but that you hadn't heard in Chicago.

From Donna Richardson:

Regarding Bob Brand's comments about "the word hosey, pronounced HOE-zee:"

My sisters and I also grew up hoseying window seats in the car, the biggest brownie, etc. in Billerica (northwest of Boston) in the sixties and seventies.  I remember high-hosey trumping hosey, but not the cherry-on-top, etc.  The Wicked Good Guide to Boston English spells it hosie.  I don't remember writing it or seeing it written as a kid, and have no spelling preference.  We used hosie, dibs, and call  pretty much interchangeably. 

The Wicked Good Guide also has a reference to ghouls which is defined as a game of tag.  The way I remember it, it was pronounced gooze and referred to the safe base in hide-and-seek, tag, or any other game.  Have you heard of either? 

Neither of us has heard of ghouls or gooze.  How interesting!

From Dick Timberlake:

I read with amusement the Bush boners.  I have waited patiently for the Gore goofs, but these seem not to be forthcoming.  Surely you will enlighten us on the other major party candidate, who claimed to have invented the Internet and all that stuff. 

Don't think I am a Bush partisan - I am merely suggesting that we need to be able to laugh at both of these presidential wannabes. Some words of foolishness from Gore would make my day.

We certainly believe in equal time, but we haven't come across any similar Gore Gaffes.  If you, or any other readers, have seen such, please send them our way and we'll review them for possible publication in Laughing Stock.  This week we are poking fun at "Dubya" again, but along with several other political figures.

From Jerry Foster:

Don't mean to be pedantic about it (yes I do) but I think it was Barbara Feldon or Felton. Quite sure it wasn't Feldman.

[We mentioned Barbara in our companion newsletter to Issue 99 as she played "99" in the U.S. television series "Get Smart".]  You are perfectly correct, Jerry.  It was Barbara Feldon.

From Opal Drake:

I used to play role-playing games a lot, primarily of the Fantasy-oriented genre. As you might expect, braziers were common in a fantasy/medieval world. However, I never knew how the word was pronounced. So, the first time I described one during a session, I said "..and there are tendrils of smoke from a burning 'brassiere' in the corner". Needless to say, the group was confused.

We should think so!  

From Gordon Brown:

Forgive me for being technical about the Spotlight of Issue 99. In the last paragraph of Swamp Things, you say 

We may not be the first to have spotted this but it seems to us that the name of sphagnum moss (from Greek sphagnos) seems awfully close to spoggos (pronounced spongos) "sponge". All that is required is a minor mutation of the p to ph and a metathesis of the ng sound to gn.

The ng is actually a single phoneme, not an n sound followed by a g sound, and I think the Greek digamma represented ngg, that is, ng followed by g, the way Long Islanders often pronounce their island's name. So you need more than metathesis to go from ng (or ngg) to gn, which really is g followed by n.  I trust some linguist out there will correct me if I've said anything wrong.  Keep up your great e-zine! 

Thanks, Gordon.

From Jenifer Davis:

I can't reach the site for some reason - do you, perhaps, know what's up?

From Sylvia Lee:

Why can't I access your site?

We received several such e-mails over the Labor Day weekend (September 1-4 in the U.S.).  We were away on holiday and returned to find TOWFI conspicuously inaccessible on the Web.  A few phone calls later, we determined that our web host had, for no reason, canceled our account!  They were able to get the site back up within seconds of our call, but we must admit that this was a rude awakening.  We will be looking to host the site ourselves in the relatively near future.  Meantime, we hope that our web host will not unceremoniously dump us again! 

From Eric Phillips:

This isn't an etymological or grammatical correction, but you seem to be into trivia of all sorts, so I thought I would let you know that it wasn't St. Augustine who was considered remarkable for his ability to read silently (Aug. 7, Words to the Wise). It was St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, the older contemporary of Augustine who played an important role in the latter's conversion to Christianity. The confusion must arise from the fact that it is Augustine who reports this fact to us. In his _Confessions_, he includes a reminiscence of Ambrose in his study, and mentions the surprising detail that the man read silently.

Thanks, Eric.

From Steve Parkes:

I almost saluted you as M&M, but I don't want you to think I'm some kind of Smartie!

First of all, I'd better correct my spelling: molet or mullet. This is an heraldic expression meaning the pointy part of a spur (rowel is the more up-to-date word, I believe) and it is often depicted with a hole in the centre.  The full description (or blazon to use the technical word) of the United State's flag is something like this: "barry gules and argent of seven and six, on a canton azure fifty molets of the second". Just try to describe the flag as concisely and accurately in as many words: "seven red stripes with six white stripes between ... ". 

A real star is called an estoile, and has six wavy points with six little straight points between them.  I'm no expert on the subject, but it's a wonderful self-contained world of colour and technical language that appeals to the tidy side of my nature - which needs all the help it can get! If it appeals to anyone else, here's a good place to start:

While we're on the subject of heraldry, I came across a "new" word recently: caboshed, meaning "cut off" in the sense that, say, a stag's head facing the viewer in the same way as if mounted as a trophy is cut off, but the cut edge is out of sight; this distinguishes it from couped, meaning cut off, but with the head sideways on and the cut edge in sight. (Ugh!)  I wonder if this has any connection with kibosh, meaning to bring to an end or cause to fail some enterprise. (Sorry about the stilted sentence!) 

Well, about that Royal/British armed forces business ... The army, long ago, used to be raised in times of trouble, and each regiment would be created, organised, led, and sometimes paid, by its colonel (= "officer in command of a column"); it would be known as "Jones' Regiment of Foot", or "fforbes' (small Fs!) Regiment of Horse", and so forth.  Later, when the regiments became more permanent, they took on their own names, as well as a number, such as "the 42nd (Black Watch)", for example. (I'm even less of an expert on this subject, by the way!) By contrast, the navy was created and run by the monarch, and consisted originally of a small number of purpose-built naval vessels and a large number of commandeered merchantmen with guns added. Being under the direct command of the king, it was thus the Royal Navy, and so it remains to this day. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were particularly influential in its development. Oh, and the RAF? Well, there is only one air force over here, and it was created on the same ad hoc basis as the Navy.

At this rate, maybe I should start my own website ... still, I'd much rather look at yours instead!

Thanks very much for the trivia update and we would be very pleased if you would, indeed, consider us to be Smarties!

In case anyone is puzzled about those "two small Fs", some English families begin their surnames with ff because ff resembles the way an upper-case initial F used to be written.  Once.  A long time ago.  In a very peculiar script.

Note that we have left Steve's letter unedited, in its original, British, spelling.  For Steve's gripes on this subject, see this week's Curmudgeons' Corner.

Laughing Stock

No Man is an Ireland


By Bob Herbert

Political Tongue Twisters

Reporters covering George W. Bush's presidential campaign are having a field day with his so-called Bushisms. It's understandable.  They're irresistible. "We must all hear the universal call to like your neighbor just like you like to be liked yourself," he said. And then there was his message to struggling workers: "I know how hard it is to put food on your family." Yogi Berra, move over. Let the governor of Texas hit some malaprop-ups. Back in February, Mr. Bush said of John McCain, "He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road." You want economic insight? "We ought to make the pie higher," Mr. Bush said. These comments should not be dismissed as mere gaffes. We owe it to the governor to take him somewhat seriously. Consider the following question, which he posed in New Hampshire: "Will the highways on the Internet become more few?" 


The danger if Mr. Bush keeps this up is that we will start to think of him as some kind of champ in the fine art of malaprophesizing.  That would be a mistake. Consider, for starters, that the term Bushism initially referred to that great malapropartist George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States and father of the current contender.  President Bush once said, "We're enjoying sluggish times, and not enjoying them very much." He said, "It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or another."  He said, in a reference to Dan Quayle: "My running mate took the lead, was the author of the Job Training Partnership Act. Now, because of a lot of smoke and frenzying of bluefish out there, going after a drop of blood in the water, nobody knows that."  

So, as you see, this ability of the younger Mr. Bush to get entangled in the obscurer thickets of the language is not that unusual. The plain truth is that politicians have always been brilliant at finding new ways to insert their feet into mouths that inevitably are running too much.  Which is why you have books with titles like "Political Babble: The 1,000 Dumbest Things Ever Said by Politicians." And, "The 267 Stupidest Things Democrats Ever Said." (There's one for Republicans, too.)  

Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, commenting on an earthquake when he was governor of California, said: "This is the worst disaster in California since I was elected."  Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut nicely bungled an appearance on behalf of a Democratic Senate candidate in South Carolina by saying: "We've got a strong candidate. I'm trying to think of his name."  Did I mention Dan Quayle? He may be the champ. "Republicans," he said, "understand the importance of bondage between parent and child."  The former vice president was a master at mangling the language. He once said: "I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy. But that could change."  His most famous foul-up, now enshrined in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, was a reference to the motto of the United Negro College Fund, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."  Said Mr. Quayle: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was terrific at this sort of thing. These were some of his best: "I resent your insinuendoes." "The police are not here to create disorder. They're here to preserve disorder."  "We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement."  And then, of course, there was Ronald Reagan.  Entire books have been written about his flubs.  I loved the time when, annoyed by something Ed Asner had said, Mr. Reagan snapped, "What does an actor know about politics?"

So Mr. Bush should take heart.  He's not the only one out there hacking away at the language.  He might say on Meet the Press, "Laura and I really don't realize how bright our children is sometimes until we get an objective analysis."  Or, on the Today show: "I don't have to accept their tenants.  I was trying to convince those college students to accept my tenants."  But he is not alone.  As Mayor Daley happily pointed out, "No man is an Ireland."

From NEW YORK TIMES August 28, 2000 

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