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Issue 103   

October 2, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the in- words

Some people read dictionaries for fun.  Kipling called it "dictionary dredging".  In these parts it's called "no  social life".

It started as a casual quest to find antonyms which had no... er.. "-nyms."  You know, like nonchalant.  Someone who is cool, indifferent and aloof is nonchalant (from French, ultimately from Latin non- "not" + calere "to be warm") but do we call a hot-headed, passionately involved person chalant?  No, we don't, there being no such word.  Likewise, there is inept, so why no ept?  We recognize inadvertent but how often do we hear advertentInane means "foolish" but ane just means "one" in Scotland.

As the first step in the search for more of these orphan antonyms, we turned to the great dictionary of dictionaries, the OED, and began to scour the in- words.  Words like intact.  From Latin intactus, intact means "untouched" (in- "not" + tactus "touched").  If English were logical, tact should mean "touched" but, though it has several meanings, "touched" is not one.  The integers are the counting numbers, 1, 2, 3 and so on.  They are called integers because they are whole and untouched (Latin in- "not" + tangere "to touch") but do we call fractions tegers?  No.

How about inate, could the be the antonym of ate?  No, it is just an obsolete variant of innate, from the Latin root natus "to be born" with in- meaning "into", thus "inborn".  Obviously, the in- prefix is used for a lot more than negation.  With this realization, the search gets harder as there are fewer in- antonyms than I had guessed and because there are more opportunities for goofing off.

By goofing off I mean investigating words which have little or nothing to do with one's original reason for opening the dictionary.  Now, here's a good one - insucken.  Could this word describe the condition of one's cheeks when attempting to consume an entire extra-thick, chocolate-fudge milkshake while waiting at a stop-light?  Well,  not exactly.  In Scottish law, it means 

Situated in a jurisdiction which has its own mill or astricted to a certain mill by the servitude of thirlage.

What?  I mean WHAT?  

Then there is the splendidly misleading inchpin.  What could this be?  An item of machinery?  Of millinery?  A surveyor's instrument?  It is none of these but is, as the dictionary informs us, 

The sweetbread of a deer.

And sweetbread is...?

Pancreas or thymus

The dictionary provides the etymological information that the word is formed 

...apparently from sweet plus bread, but the reason for the name is not obvious.

What a delightful way of saying "we haven't a clue."

Of course, it only requires a little curiosity as to the precise meaning of thymus ("a glandular body of obscure function situated at the base of the neck") or the etymology of pancreas (Greek pan- "all" + creas "meat") and one would be goofing off in earnest.  But back to the in-s.

Is inflammable the opposite of flammable?  If I wear an inflammable garment is it likely to protect me from or engulf me in flame?  The answers become clear only when we discover that inflammmable comes from Latin inflammare "to catch fire, to enflame".  Some bright spark thought that this was too difficult to remember so the obscure word flammable was taken down from the shelf and dusted off.  The dictionary chronicles its rebirth thus:

In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms flammable and non-flammable rather than inflammable and non-inflammable.

Glossary of Packaging Terms, British Standards Institution, 1959.

It's hard to imagine how this would "avoid any possible ambiguity".

Speaking of burning up, here's another in - incense.  Both meanings.  Ever wondered about the connection between incense (stress on the first syllable) and being incensed (stress on the second syllable)?  The dictionary has the answer: both are related to incendiary (from Latin incendiarius "causing fire").  We burn incense and burn up when we're incensed.

Close in sound to incensed, but not meaning, is incest.  This is almost one of those orphan antonyms we have been looking for.  It comes from Latin incestus "unchaste" (in- "not" + castus "chaste").   The word unchaste also comes from castus, making it a doublet with incest.  The dictionary also reveals that Ecclesiastical law has the concept of spiritual incest which is explained a

The holding by the same person of two benefices, one of which depends on the collation of the other.  

So now I have to look up collation.  But I've just looked up thirlage and found that it is a synonym for multure.  Perhaps I should look that up first.  And what do you think astricted could mean?

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Richard Lightner:

Archie Bunker, for me. immortalized the word dingbat.  But what is its origin?  Is it related to bats in the belfry?  Since hearing is a bat's primary sense, and since a belfry is the type of place that a bat might inhabit, it follows that the ding of a church bell would cause a bat to fly erratically, thus giving the appearance of abject foolishness.

What a remarkably creative mind you have, Richard, but while inventiveness has its place, that place is not within etymology.Archie and "Dingbat"

For those of our readers who failed to watch American TV in the 1970s, we should explain Archie Bunker was a character in "All in the Family" a watered-down, anodyne version of the BBC TV series "Till Death Do Us Part".  In the original series, Alf Garnet was a loud, foul-mouthed, prejudiced boor but in the transformation from Alf to Archie, his language was cleaned up and the inoffensive word dingbat was the worst he would say.

Since it was first recorded in 1838, dingbat  has had many meanings but was never used as an insult until "All in the Family".  It has meant "a drink", "money" or an unspecified whats-it and in this latter usage it resembles dingus to which it may be related.  In the printing industry it has come to mean an ornamental piece of type such as this...


Despite the aptness of Richard's suggestion, the word is not currently believed to have any connection with either church bells or flying mammals.  Although no one really knows for sure, the current guess is ding of dingbat means "to hammer" and is related to the sort of ding which is a dent acquired by cars when left unattended in the parking lot.  It is also suggested that the bat of dingbat is a "stout piece of wood".  That is, the same kind of bat which is used in baseball but, as with ding, convincing evidence is lacking.

From Mark Gramling:

I am a big baseball fan and trivia buff. A friend asked me what the origin of the word inning was and I was unable to find it anywhere.  Can you help?

Can we help?  Of course we can help.  Inning is simply a form of the word in.  Not the familiar preposition in, mind you, inning is the past participle of the very obscure verb to in, meaning "to put in, take in, enclose or include".  An inning is when a team, or player, is "in", that is "in play".

Cricket - a batsman scores a run causing a disconsolate fielder to hurl himself to the ground in despair. Note that in cricket and British baseball, the word is innings (yes, that's the singular form).  We have yet to see an explanation of the final s.

Never heard of British baseball?  Unwelcome as this news may be to American baseball fans, baseball originated in Great Britain - and we don't mean the children's game called "rounders".

Evidence that the game existed in Britain long before Col. Abner Doubleday may be found in "Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen (first published 1818, written prior to 1803).  In Chapter 1, Catherine Morland, the heroine, is said to enjoy unladylike pursuits such as "base ball" (two words).  The British game is pretty obscure these days, though, and while it is still played around Liverpool and Cardiff, it is almost unknown outside of these areas.

From Jon Dear:

I understand that the word wine comes from the Republic of Georgia.  Is this true?

At first we were inclined to scoff at this claim but the more we looked into it, the more credible it seemed.

Wine was a regular part of the Anglo-Saxon diet and it's mentioned in the Old English epic Beowulf (c. 725 A.D.).  Back then, they called it win, from the Latin vinum.  This is in turn related to the Greek oinos, but where did the Greeks get their word?  We would be misleading you if we told you that scholars have worked it all out.  In fact, contending schools of thought have suggested its ultimate origin to be everything from the Hebrew yayin to the Ethiopian wain and the Assyrian inu.  Others suggest that all these derive from a common Mediterranean root.  Then again, some say that they come from the Primitive Armenian word *woiniyo.  

We know that Georgia is not Armenia in any way, shape or form but they are neighbors.

From Sarah Lower:

I'm doing a speech on the phrase on the wagon and what I came up with was that it originated in 1890, when prohibition was in effect.  My teacher and I both disagree that prohibition started in the 1920s.

What is said is that men would vow to stop drinking and would say they would rather drink from the water cart than break their vows.  Water carts were used to wet down dusty roads.  My teacher says it was during the temperance movement when men would parade around town on a wagon to show they've conquered their demons.

We are so glad that both you and your teacher agree but wouldn't it be better if you could agree upon a fact?

It may come as a surprise to both of you, but prohibition did not begin in the 1890s.  The National Prohibition Enforcement Act (better known as the Volstead Act), which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States, was passed on October 28, 1919. 

What was happening in the 1890s, though, was the Temperance Movement.  This was in full swing during the latter half of the 19th century but alcohol had not yet been prohibited.  And that's kinda what prohibition means.

We don't know of any example of someone saying "I'd rather drink from the water wagon than drink alcohol again."  It could have happened, of course but that's not the origin of the phrase.

As you say, water wagons or water carts were commonly used to lay the dust on roads but when temperance lecturers encouraged their listeners to "go on the water wagon" it was merely a colorful way of saying "drink only water".  Of course, before the advent of hygienic water supplies, anyone who drank only water would have risked contracting hideous diseases like typhoid fever.  Thus we see the first examples of go on the [water] wagon appearing around 1904, just as clean water became available in the major cities of the U.S.

From Steve Jackson:

Could you tell me the origin of the phrase rock and roll? No etymology book I own makes any reference to it. Too slangy for them?

We hesitate to guess why other etymologists have not seen fit to tackle this term.  It may seem "slangy" but it is made up of standard English words and, as a name for a style of dance, it is no more bizarre than, say, the turkey trot or the gay Gordons.

Rock and roll has a history that is quite a bit older than the 1950s when the musical form evolved.  The phrase may be found in various ballads and folk songs of the 19th century and, possibly, earlier.  While the earliest examples refer to the rocking and rolling motion of a ship, it became associated with motion of a more carnal variety.  Several sea shanties include the phrase as in this example from "Haul Away Joe":

Way, haul away, rock and roll me over.
Way, haul away, well roll me in the clover.

Various sources claim that the phrase meant "sexual intercourse".   While this can be demonstrated within certain populations (e.g. Dublin; the black community of Great Britain), our research has failed to find any record of this meaning in American English.  It is quite probable that this meaning of rock and roll was well understood in the United States but we have yet to find evidence of this in print.

The current meaning of rock and roll has been attributed to disc jockey Alan Freed who hosted a radio show called "Moondog's Rock'n'Roll Party" in 1951.  Curiously, the 1934 film "Transatlantic Merry Go Round" included a song called "Rock and Roll" but we at "Take Our Word For It" have been unable to track down a copy.

From Jimmy Greene:

I've got a battle going on with my 17 year old daughter.  She insists that hip hop has been around "forever," or at least as long as she's been alive.  Of course, I disagree and believe that it is a phenomenon from the last 3-4 years (The actual phrase, that is, not the type of music it describes).

Oh, James... James!  When will you learn that "because I said so" is not always correct?  Why do you say "Of course, I disagree."  Is this because disagreeing has become second-nature or that you assume that your daughter is automatically wrong?  Either way, James, shame on you!

Rap emerged in the South Bronx some time around 1978 when DJ Cool Herk, Grand Master Flash, and Afrika Bambaata hit the scene.  We are not entirely sure when the term hip hop was first used but in 1979 the Sugar Hill Gang released the first rap recording to gain national attention.  It was called "Rappers Delight" and the lyrics begin...

Hip-hop don't stop.
Work it out people.
Welcome to the boogie to bang bang...

Well, Jimmy, what can we say?  Whether you consider hip hop to include graffiti art and styles of dress or whether you see it as a purely musical form, the name has definitely been in use since at least 1979.  And your daughter was born in 1983.  Hip hop, as your daughter correctly maintains, has been around "forever".  Or, at least, since before she was born.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

More whining pedantry from Barb Dwyer, resident curmudgeon

For the sake of our readers who are not well-versed in American history, I should explain that in 1804, Aaron Burr, the vice-president, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel.  Hamilton kicked the bucket and Burr lived to tell the tale.  Got it?  Good, because recently, on a National Public Radio broadcast, an announcer spoke of Alexander Hamilton as "Aaron Burr's arch-nemesis".  The Aaron Burr, killer of Hamilton errors are so dense here that it is difficult to pick them apart.

First, Nemesis was the ancient Greek goddess of retribution and any use of the word nemesis is, in essence, an allusion to her myth.  Thus, there can be no such thing as an arch-nemesis.  After all, we don't hear of an arch-Zeus or an arch-Aphrodite.  Once we lose sight of the fact that Nemesis was a goddess, we may lose sight of other things, too.  The word's actual meaning, for instance.

Nemesis comes form the Greek verb nemein "to give what is due".  Thus, we might say that Napoleon met his nemesis at Waterloo if we believe that he "got what he had coming to him".  By extension of this meaning, the Duke of Wellington could be called Napoleon's nemesis because he meted out the punishment which was due to Napoleon.

In the case of Hamilton and Burr, however, it was Hamilton who died at the hands of Burr.  If anything, then, Burr was Hamilton's nemesis - but only if Hamilton "had it coming".  So, did Hamilton deserve it?  It's impossible to say as we don't really know what the duel was about.  

How could anyone get the meaning of nemesis this wrong?  Well, for one thing, it shares several of its letters with the word enemy.  Hamilton and Burr had a long-standing hatred of each other so they were enemies.  Hamilton probably hated Burr more than any of his contemporaries so you could even call him Burr's arch-enemy.  But being Burr's enemy and being his nemesis are quite different things.

Sez You...
From Dick Timberlake:

I did a little research and came up with some "equal time" for our friend Al. 
Here are a couple of quotes in the same vein as that have been beating around 
the Bush. (Of course, we don't hear as much about these do to the extreme 
collectivist bias of the media.) Anyhow, here goes:

In 1992, in a jab at then-President Bush, Big Al is quoted as saying, "A zebra 
does not change its spots". Then, in 1998, Gore referred to Michael Jordan as 
Michael Jackson. 

For more Gore-isms, check out

That takes care of the major parties - got any good dish on Harry Browne, 
the Libertarian? (If you haven't heard of Mr. Browne, or the Libertarian 
Party, check out

Thanks for the the gore-y details, Dick.  And no, we don't have any "dish" on Mr. Browne or Mr, Nader.  Yet.


From Scott Weller:

In Issue 100, Sez You, you said "Norwest is perfectly acceptable in certain circumstances. Compass readings, for instance. Hitchcock may have called his movie "North By Northwest" but any mariner would say nor' by norwest."

I respectfully submit that no mariner would say either, as there is no such direction.  However, although your example was wrong, your general point was exactly correct.  The by point that is generally written "Northwest by West" would most definitely have been said "nor'west by west".

I won't go into it here, but if you'd like I can give you a surprisingly brief set of rules for what constitutes a valid compass direction.

Please don't be modest. Let's have it.

From Grainthorn:

I recall somewhere in Dickens, possibly "David Copperfield", when one character says to another, "Dead?" and gets the response, "Drown-ded", which would seem to suggest that the word was known in England in the Nineteenth Century.

Well spotted.

Can any reader confirm Grainthorn's memory?

From Matt Goers:

I know that the last thing you want (well, maybe not THE last thing) is
to have an ongoing discussion about letter frequency after breaking your
own rule about non-etymological queries. Despite this, I must ponder
what you hold against the letter c. The letter frequency list you gave
in Issue 102 was:


This corresponds with every other letter frequency list I've seen as
far as the 7th letter, which is s. After that, some lists switch h and
r, some then switch d and l, and other minor changes. But you list the
letter c 18th. The old Linotype machines laid out their letters
according to frequency; their frequency puts c 13th, between u and m. 



In Cryptography by Denning, letter frequency is given as percentages
to the nearest tenth of a percent. C comes in a 3-way tie for 12th
place, along with u and m. 

Denning in Cryptography: (those with a dash between are tied)


An analysis of several Gigabytes of Usenet traffic was done in circa
1994 for the rec.puzzles newsgroup. This probably best represents
modern American English as it is sloppily written and often misspelled. 
That aside, that letter frequency list, which may be found at a number
of rec.puzzles archive sites under language/english, is:


So, admit your bias against the letter c (and, to a lesser extent, p). 
Sure, it kould be replased by k or s if not for the strong influense of
Latin.  But that's no reason for sutsh unabashed diskrimination.

Oh the shame!  But yes, it is true.  Due to our secret hatred of the letter C we demoted it in the letter-frequency sequence.  (Well, it's such a whiny little runt, always needing K to back it up.)

As Matt points out, our sequence is incorrect.  We made a transcription error but, yet again, we maintain our standards of accuracy through the erudition (and pedantic insistence) of a reader. 

Thanks, Matt.

From Consuelo Lopez-Morillas:

A couple of points for Sez You:

1) Regional American English has various ways of trying to create a 2nd-person plural of you: "youse" in New York, "you all" in the South, and here in Southern Indiana "you-uns." It's recently occurred to me that "you guys" applied to members of both sexes is a creation along those same lines.

We'd missed you-uns, that's a good one.  

2) The final -s of "backwards", "forwards", "besides" etc. I've heard described as the "adverbial -s". Observe that it often does crop up in prepositions or adverbs of place or direction, and it seems to be fairly productive in English.

Hmm... "adverbial -s" you say.  We need to think about that.

Laughing Stock
This essay was forwarded to us by a Filipino friend.

A Rhose by Any Other Name

By Matthew Sutherland

When I arrived in the Philippines from the UK six years ago, one of the first cultural differences to strike me was names. The subject has provided a continuing source of amazement and amusement ever since. The first unusual thing, from an English perspective, is that everyone here has a nickname. In the staid and boring United Kingdom, we have nicknames in kindergarten, but when we move into adulthood we tend, I am glad to say, to lose them. 

The second thing that struck me is that Philippine names for both girls and boys tend to be what we in the UK would regard as overbearingly cutesy for anyone over about five. "Fifty-five-year-olds with names that sound like five-year-olds", as one colleague put it. Where I come from, a boy with a nickname like Boy Blue or Honey Boy would be beaten to death at school by pre-adolescent bullies, and never make it to adulthood. So, probably, would girls with names like Babes, Lovely, Precious, Peachy or Apples. Yuk, ech ech. Here, however, no one bats an eyelid. 

Then I noticed how many people have what I have come to call "door-bell names". These are nicknames that sound like, well, door-bells. There are millions of them. Bing, Bong, Ding, and Dong are some of the more common. They can be, and frequently are, used in even more door-bell-like combinations such as Bing-Bong, Ding-Dong, Ting-Ting, and so on. Even our newly-appointed chief of police has a doorbell name - Ping. 

None of these door-bell names exist where I come from, and hence sound unusually amusing to my untutored foreign ear. Someone once told me that one of the Bings, when asked why he was called Bing, replied "because my brother is called Bong". Faultless logic. Dong, of course, is a particularly funny one for me, as where I come from "dong" is a slang word for... well, perhaps "talong" is the best Tagalog equivalent. 

Repeating names was another novelty to me, having never before encountered people with names like Len-Len, Let-Let, Mai-Mai, or Ning-Ning. The secretary I inherited on my arrival had an unusual one: Leck-Leck. Such names are then frequently further refined by using the "squared" symbol, as in Len2 or Mai2. This had me very confused for a while. 

Then there is the trend for parents to stick to a theme when naming their children. This can be as simple as making them all begin with the same letter, as in Jun, Jimmy, Janice, and Joy. More imaginative parents shoot for more sophisticated forms of assonance or rhyme, as in Biboy, Boboy, Buboy, Baboy (notice the names get worse the more kids there are - best to be born early or you could end up being a Baboy). Even better, parents can create whole families of, say, desserts (Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Honey Pie) or flowers (Rose, Daffodil, Tulip). The main advantage of such combinations is that they look great painted across your trunk if you're a cab driver. That's another thing I'd never seen before coming to Manila - taxis with the driver's kids' names on the trunk. 

Another whole eye-opening field for the foreign visitor is the phenomenon of the "composite" name. This includes names like Jejomar (for Jesus, Joseph and Mary), and the remarkable Luzviminda (for Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, believe it or not). That's a bit like me being called something like "Engscowani" (for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Between you and me, I'm glad I'm not. 

And how could I forget to mention the fabulous concept of the randomly-inserted letter 'h'. Quite what this device is supposed to achieve, I have not yet figured out, but I think it is designed to give a touch of class to an otherwise only averagely weird name. It results in creations like Jhun, Lhenn, Ghemma, and Jhimmy. Or how about Jhun-Jhun (Jhun2)? 

There is also a whole separate field of name games - those where the parents have exhibited a creative sense of humor on purpose. I once had my house in London painted by a Czechoslovakian decorator by the name of Peter Peter. I could never figure out if his parents had a fantastic sense of humor or no imagination at all - it had to be one or the other. But here in the Philippines, wonderful imagination and humor is often applied to the naming process, particularly, it seems, in the Chinese community. My favourites include Bach Johann Sebastian; Edgar Allan Pe; Jonathan Livingston Sy; Magic Chiongson, Chica Go, and my girlfriend's very own sister, Van Go. I am assured these are real people, although I've only met two of them. I hope they don't mind being mentioned here. 

How boring to come from a country like the UK full of people with names like John Smith. How wonderful to come from a country where imagination and exoticism rule the world of names. Even the towns here have weird names; my favorite is the unbelievably-named town of Sexmoan (ironically close to Olongapo and Angeles). Where else in the world could that really be true? Where else in the world could the head of the Church really be called Cardinal Sin? Where else in the world could Angel, Gigi and Mandy be grown-up men? Where else could you go through adult life unembarrassed and unassailed with a name like Mosquito, or Pepper, or Honey Boy? Where else but the Philippines!

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