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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 107   

November 21, 2000
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New Ask Us Theory About
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...

elections (or, from chads to chaos in one letter)

Readers outside of the U.S.A. might not have noticed, but there is a great amount of fuss currently concerning the presidential election.   The voters were so evenly divided between the two major candidates that the result is, in effect, a tie.  This unprecedented result is so close that, statistically, it is equivalent to tossing a coin and having it come to rest on its edge.  Our contribution to this mess is merely to provide the histories of some of the words which have been bandied about.

Before an election is held, the candidates canvass for votes.  That word canvass looks awfully similar to canvas but how could there be any connection between this fabric and the act of soliciting votes?  Well, canvass was the old name for the fabric, a name which comes from the Latin cannabis "hemp".  (Going even further back in time we find that both cannabis and hemp have a common ancestor in the Phoenician word chenep.)  In its original (c. 1500) usage, to canvass meant "to toss [someone] in a canvas sheet".  The meaning then drifted through "to agitate, to buffet" (1573), "to criticize" (1577), "to assault" (1599), "to examine physically" (1622), "to scrutinize" (1622) and by 1715 it meant "to scrutinize fully so as to exclude bad votes".  Curiously, the meaning "to solicit votes" has been in existence since about 1550.

In Roman times, men standing for public office would wear white togas to signify their purity.  One of the Latin words for white was candidus, thus the word candidate implies "white toga wearer".  We find it difficult to believe that anyone's opinion could be swayed by the mere color of a garment but then we look at what gets people elected these days...

Literally, a ballot is a small ball.  The -ot is a diminutive which is familiar enough in French (e.g. Charlie Chaplin is known as "Charlot") but is rarely found in English, the only common examples being ballot, chariot and parrot.  A chariot is a "small car" and parrot is supposedly a corruption of pierrot "little Peter" (Pierre "Peter" + -ot), a name given to sparrows in France.

But what have balls to do with voting, you ask?  (Stop that snickering in the back row!)  Early forms of voting involved dropping a small ball into an urn.  Usually this was to decide a simple yes/no decision and white and black balls would be used to signify the two alternatives.  This practice also gave us the verb to blackball, meaning to ostracize or exclude a person by means of a vote.  Ostracize itself comes from ostrakos, ancient Greek for "potsherd", pieces of broken pottery which were the ancient equivalent of scraps of paper.  Occasionally, the citizens of Athens were called upon vote on whether to banish someone from the city.  This was done by writing the person's name on a potsherd and dropping it into an urn.

The simplest form of ballot is a head-count and that is just what poll means.  A poll is a "head".   When humans are polled they are asked questions but when cattle are polled they have their horns cut off.  Both kinds of polling are to do with heads.  Related words are found in Danish puld "top of the head", Low German polle "head" and the obsolete Dutch pulde "crown of the head".Chad - notice the incorrect plural form

Ultimately, election comes from electus, the past participle of the Latin verb eligere "to chose".  It was first used in the early 16th century but the adjective elect meaning "chosen" entered English before 1400.  Until 1600 the word vote was known only in Scotland and originally meant a "vow".  It comes from the Latin votus (past participle of vovare "to vow") meaning "vowed" or "desired" and this original meaning is preserved in the word devoted.

Much has been made recently of the holes punched in ballot cards, a process which produces tiny pieces of waste card.  Collectively, this waste is called chad and, like its metallic equivalent swarf, remains unchanged in the plural.  Chad (also known as selvage, perf, perfory or snaf) takes its name from a Mr. Chadless who invented the Chadless keypunch.  This device cut little U-shapes in punched cards, rather than punching out a circle or rectangle. These U-shapes made a hole when folded back.  It was assumed that if the Chadless keypunch didn't make them, then the stuff that other keypunches made had to be chad.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Bob Kendrick:

What is the etymology of spree?  It has to be the hardest word to find an origin for.

We wish we could tell you to click this in order to get a shopping spree!This is a good one, because its etymology is obscure, but a good possible explanation has been documented.  Spree is first recorded in 1804 with the meaning "lively or boisterous frolic".  A variant form was spray.  In Scotland, there were the terms spreagh and spreath, both meaning "foray" or "cattle raid".  Those derive from Gaelic spreidh "cattle".  So a spree may originally have been a cattle raid!  

Of course, we can't remember the last time we went on a shopping spree and came back feeling as though we'd made a steal of a deal anywhere. 

From Brad Daniels:

In addition to reading your excellent weekly page, I read the "word of the day" page from a certain dictionary company that shall remain nameless.  Usually, this page gives the etymology of a common word, but sometimes, for no good and little apparent reason, they instead decide to expound upon synonyms and bits of usage that are far less interesting.  Today's word was craven, and not only did they refrain from giving the etymology of the word, but they compounded it by listing the synonyms dastardly and pusillanimous, both of which have the sound of words fairly dripping with etymological promise.  I searched your site to find more on them, but to no avail.

"Dripping with etymological promise".  We like that, Brad.  Regarding craven, we see immediately why the word-of-the-day folks did not provide its etymology.  This is one of those words, like spree, that is of obscure origins, and there's not even a tidy bit of conjecture to offer about its derivation.  Craven originally (around 1225) meant "crushed, defeated" (and has since changed a bit in meaning in the direction of "cowardly").  There is an Old French word, cravanté "crushed, overcome", which might make a good candidate for ancestor of craven.  However, etymologists suggest that the Middle English form would have retained the final e, a common occurrence in borrowed words at that time, but craven's early forms do not have a final e (though they do have a t!).  Another possibility is that the word derives from another English word, creant (the Old French predecessor was also creant), but where did that v come from, in that case?  One suggestion is that the v was inserted due to contamination by the verb crave.

Dastardly is an adjective/adverb formed from dastard.  So what's a dastard?  No, it's not the product of someone who didn't know his letter b from d .  Instead, it is thought to derive from dazed "dull witted", with the attachment of -ard (as in drunkard, sluggard, etc.).  It first appears in written English in the 15th century.

Pusillanimous is a great word, isn't it?  It was formed from ecclesiastical Latin pusillanimus, which derives from the roots pusillus "very small" and animus "soul, mind".  We find it first in English in the late 16th century.  Pusillus is also related to Latin puer "boy", which gave English puerileAnimus has produced a number of words in English, such as animate and animal.

From Kathy Eber:

We hear that the etymology of o'clock is a good story.

Well, o'clock is simply a contraction of "of [the] clock".  The word clock, however, is, in fact, quite interesting.  Etymologically, it does not have anything to do with time.   Instead, it derives from a wordClick to visit the cesium clock and correct your PC's time to the second. meaning "bell".  This is because time was told with the ringing of church bells before there were such things as clocks.  Medieval Latin for bell was clocca, and it arose in about the 7th century.  It is thought that it may have derived ultimately from an Irish word, cloc !  Other Celtic languages have equivalent words, such as Cornish and Welsh cloch and Breton kloc'h.  Interestingly, English already had bell at the time that clock arose, so clock probably applied only to bells that were rung to announce the time. French, of course, has cloche "bell", and French is where English got the related words cloak (13th century) and cloche "a type of [bell-shaped] hat" (20th century).

From Pedro Bretas:

What is the origin of the word county?  Why is it used in the U.S. as a territorial division for local government within a state?

County was the Anglo-Norman equivalent of shireCounty derives from the noble title count, which English obtained from Old French conte, a descendant of Latin comes "companion, attendant".  The Latin word was formed from com- "with" and ire "to go", the etymological meaning of count therefore being "one who goes with" signifying one who "goes with" the ruler.  The Romans used it to name provincial governors, and the French in England used it to translate the Old English earl.  The Latin title comes gave rise to comitatus, "the land controlled by a governor," and the Anglo-Norman county paralleled the Latin and also referred to the land controlled by a nobleman.  In the U.K. county is used as a general term (as in "the Home Counties") and shire is used to refer to specific counties (such as "Yorkshire").  In the U.S., the term county was adopted to refer to administrative divisions of a state.  Interestingly, some American counties have the word shire as part of their names, and so they are etymologically redundant.

From Jerry:

While most people know what lickety-split means, the origin, even if risqué, completely escapes me.

Well, Jerry, there's nothing risqué about lickety-split that we can see.  Lickety has meant "at full speed, headlong" since the early 19th century, and lickety-split has been around since the middle of that century.  Lickety is thought simply to come from lick.  A lick was "a small amount of food" and then "a small amount", and then the idea of smallness was expanded to mean "a spell (bit) of work" and then "a spurt [of speed] at racing".  The notion of speed was broadened and the "little" sense was lost, such that lickety simply meant "fast".  

In the early 19th century split had also come to mean "fast" in such phrases as at full split and like split.  It was added to lickety for emphasis.  It may have derived from the notion of "separation", as in being split from something or someone, and the notion of the speed at which the separation occurred displaced the simple notion of the separation itself.  This is evidenced in the slang verb to split "to leave". 

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Malcolm Tent barks and jabbers about species...

I was recently reminded of the common error in using could of for the correct could have.  "I could of been a contender" is incorrect (just read it - it makes absolutely no sense) while "I could have been a contender" is correct (grammar-wise, of course.  I have no comment on whether I actually could have been a contender.  Maybe Barb will comment on that next week.).

Another common error is to assume that the singular form of species is specie.  No, no no!  In English the singular is species AND the plural is speciesSpecie is a word, yes, but it doesn't have anything to do with taxonomy.  Instead, it occurs in the phrase in specie "in kind" or "in money".  So don't tell me that "there is only one remaining specie of wild cat in the Arctic" or I'll have to pay you back for your grammatical error in specie.  (Note: the plural of species is also accepted as specieses, but this is fairly rarely used.)

Sez You...
From Andy Lutsch:

Just a quick observation and question regarding the FIRST person plural seen a couple of years ago on a billboard in San Antonio. The sign used "W'all" as in "W'all eat at..."

I've since spoken to many (former) Texans and none of them had ever heard/read the word before. Is this an invented colloquialism or perhaps a case of self-parody? 

#106 is my first issue of your newsletter; considering my Love of the language (and obsessive-compulsive nature!), I doubt it will be my last! Thank you from Colorado!

You're quite welcome, Andy.  Speaking as an expert Texan (yes, that's what she means), Melanie says that the San Antonio billboard was pure marketing and zero dialect.  Funny, though!  Thanks for the kind words. 

From Ian Summers:

I have been feeling empty over the past few months and finally figured out why. For some reason, I have been dropped from your weekly mailing list. The last posting I received from you was #100. I see you are up to #106. I tried to enroll again, but Listbot insists that I am already on the list. Please, help. I miss you guys.

Listbot is known to unsubscribe a person if it encounters trouble getting a newsletter through to the subscriber's mailbox.  There are various reasons that a newsletter might be undeliverable, but Listbot assumes that the mailbox no longer exists, so it dumps the subscriber.  Unfortunately, there are other reasons that the newsletter might be undeliverable: the mail server is down, the subscriber's mailbox is full because he's on vacation, etc.  If you find that you are no longer receiving the newsletter, try to resubscribe.  If you get a response like Ian did, stating that you are already subscribed, unsubscribe yourself and then resubscribe.  If all else fails, let us know and we'll see what we can do to help.  In your case, Ian, we'll manually unsubscribe you and then send you an invitation to resubscribe (Listbot does not allow list owners to subscribe people - I'm sure you can see why, as there is a great potential for abuse in giving list owners that power).  We miss you, too, Ian, and hope to see you back on the list soon.

From Kristy:

Suzanne Carpenter wrote: "I understand "you all" and "you guys," but I am still mystified by "youse."  Well, I didn't grow up with the term, but I live outside of and work in Philadelphia now, so I think I can answer that one. Basically, it's used the same way that y'all is used (or is supposed to be used).  It's a plural of "you," they just added an s to the end like a lot of other plurals.  Personally, I don't like the word.  The same applies to "yuns" (a Pittsburghism).  I assume it's supposed to be "you ones," but it doesn't make as much sense to me as y'all or youse.

Thanks, Kristy.

From Daniel Sherman:

To Susan Carpenter and friends,

I would like to take an opportunity to apologize for my recent incendiary email about the "yankee" thing. I do thoroughly enjoy your website, a new issue is something that I look forward to reading and it just wouldn't be the same without being peppered with your lively comments and anecdotal references. Thanks.

That was awfully nice, Daniel.  We really didn't think your last message merited the adjective "incendiary", but it was good of you to write again.  Thanks also for your kind words!

From Danielle:

A few words to let you know that I thoroughly enjoy your site, your humor, your info.  It's all very well presented, easy to read & understand!   Keep up the terrific work!   I was looking for a French site similar to this one when I stumbled onto yours... and I'm still looking!  A good site such as this one is difficult to find.

Merci mille fois, Danielle, vous êtes très gentile.  We have recently added to our links page a site that offers French etymology.  We hope you find it useful.

From a Reader:

You might want to do a grammar check of your description of your new "Laughing Stock" section.  I don't believe sentences are supposed to end with prepositions.

We beg to differ.  The "rule" regarding final prepositions was invented in the 15th century when the first English grammars were written.   The grammarians of those days took classical Latin grammars and, basically, translated them into English.  In Latin it is impossible to end a sentence in a preposition because the last word in a Latin sentence is always the verb.

A similarly spurious rule is that one may not "split" an infinitive.  In other words, we are told that "to boldly go" is ungrammatical and should be replaced with either "to go boldly" or "boldly to go".  The real reason for this is that Latin infinitives were only one word (e.g. ire "to go") so there was no way to "split" them.  

As Winston Churchill once said, "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put".

(By the way, we put the period outside the quotation marks in the previous sentence.  We have strong opinions on that, too.)

Laughing Stock

This appears to be a recent press release from Buckingham Palace:


To the citizens of the United States of America,

In the light of your failure to elect a President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today. 

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories.  (Except Utah, which she does not fancy.)  Your new prime minister (The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America without the need for further elections.  Congress and the Senate will be disbanded.  A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed. 

To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

  1. You should look up "revocation" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up "aluminium".  Check the pronunciation guide.  You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it.  Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels.  Look up "vocabulary".  Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as "like" and "you know" is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication.  Look up "interspersed". 
  2.  There is no such thing as "US English".  We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. 
  3. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents.  It really isn't that hard. 
  4. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys.
  5. You should relearn your original national anthem, "God Save The Queen," but only after fully carrying out task 1.   We would not want you to get confused and give up half way through.
  6. You should stop playing American "football".  There is only one kind of football.  What you refer to as American "football" is not a very good game.  The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your borders may have noticed that no one else plays "American" football.  You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football.  Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls.  It is a difficult game.  Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American "football", but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US rugby sevens side by 2005.
  7. You should declare war on Quebec and France, using nuclear weapons if they give you any merde.  The 98.85% of you who were not aware that there is a world outside your borders should count yourselves lucky.  The Russians have never been the bad guys. 
  8. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 8th will be a new national holiday, but only in England.  It will be called "Indecisive Day".
  9. All American cars are hereby banned.  They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. 
  10. Please tell us who killed JFK.  It's been driving us crazy.

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