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Issue 109   

January 16, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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Well, here we are at the beginning of a new millennium and we hope you all had a jolly hogmanay.  Not sure what hogmanay means?  It's the Scottish word for New Year's Eve.  One might expect that such  an odd and peculiarly Scottish word might have its origin in Scots Gaelic, that odd and peculiarly Scottish language but, in fact, the word comes from Old French.  And the custom is not even particularly Scottish, either.  The Old French word was aguillanneuf  which meant both "the last day of the year" and the gift which was customarily given on this day.  On New Year's Eve, medieval French children would go about their towns demanding a new year’s gift with the shout of aguillanneuf.  A very similar practice is also recorded in Scotland:

It is ordinary among some Plebeians in the South of Scotland, to go about from Door to Door upon New-Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.

- Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence [1693]

Many French words entered Scots English in the Middle Ages when Scotland and France were allied  against England ("the auld alliance").  Several of these words are still current in Scotland such as cibol "spring onion", from the French ci-boule which means "bulb-less".   It would be natural to assume, therefore, that hogmanay came via the same route but, if so, how does one explain the existence of hogmanay celebrations in Yorkshire, England?

The Hagman Heigh is an old custom observed in Yorkshire on new year’s eve.

- The Table-Book, Hone [1827]

The word survives in modern French dialects as aiguilan, guilané, and guilanneau.  In Normandy it is hoguignettes or hoguinané and in Guernsey it is hoginono.  The literal meaning of aguillanneuf is a matter for some debate.  One 17th century writer stated explained it as

Au-guy-l’an-neuf ["to the mistletoe the new year"] the voyce of country people begging small presents, or new-yeares-gifts, in Christmas: an ancient tearme of reioycing, derived from the Druides, who were woont, the first of Januarie, to goe vnto the woods, where having sacrificed... they gathered Misletow.

- Cotgrave [1611]

While picturesque, the Druidic origin is now thought to be a romantic fantasy with no basis in fact.  What is certain is that people in France, Scotland, parts of England and even Spain solicited alms on New Year's Eve with a cry resembling hogmanay.

The modern English equivalent to this, though without the cry, is probably the Christmas box - an annual tip given to tradesmen, the garbage collectors and the mailman some time around the end of the year.  The "box" of Christmas box takes us back to the days when an apprentice would receive room and board from his master but would be expected to find his own clothes and such.  Thus, on the day after Christmas, when their masters' customers were likely to be at home and in a good mood, apprentices would take up large boxes and call on them, asking for handouts.   This is also why, in Britain, the day after Christmas is known as Boxing-day.

The rest of the world knows this day as St. Stephen's Day if they have a name for it at all.  This is the day when King Wenceslaus "looked out" and was famously charitable.  It is also when young boys in Ireland, the Isle of Man and parts of Wales catch a wren (who is "king of all birds"... it's a long story) and parade it with great pomp and ceremony, asking for money (anyone sensing a theme here?).  CommonlyThe wren, the wren, the king of all birds... believed to be the smallest of  British birds, the wren is described in The Cutty Wren (a traditional song; cutty = "tiny") as if it were of monstrous size.  These days the wren is caught alive, put in a cage and released at the end of the day but some folklorists report that on the Isle of Man the bird was killed and crucified.

Traditionally, Christmas was celebrated for twelve days beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on Twelfth Day.  "Twelfth Day!" we hear you cry, "What about Twelfth Night?"  Well, before we had clocks to tell us when midnight was, it was the custom to count days from sunset to sunset, beginning with the eve.  So, Twelfth Night, a time of great merry-making and pranks, was celebrated on the day before Twelfth Day.

In a part of Wales called Nantgarw (yes, that is the correct spelling) people dance

the Danws Flodau Nantgarw ("Nantgarw Flower Dance").  The tune is in three parts, the first being Nos Galan ("New Year's Eve").  This part was adopted as the tune to the American carol "Deck the Halls" which eventually found its way back to Britain where it is usually assumed to be all-American.

We have a nagging feeling that some of you want to know the names of the other parts to Danws Flodau Nantgarw.  They are Glanbargoed and Llwyrtgoed.  There, satisfied?

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Ann Fitzgerald:

I recently received this communication:

I found it interesting, when there, that many Jews in Greece speak Ladino which is 15th. century Spanish. They took the language with them when escaping from Spain.  The ghetto in Venice is interesting.  It is located near a foundry which is how it got its name. Gato in Italian means "foundry".  I believe it was liberated by Napoleon at which time Jews were finally permitted to have last names.

Can you elucidate?

Certainly.  The Jewish enclave in Venice was indeed founded on the site of a medieval foundry in 1516, but it is by no means certain that ghetto comes from the Italian word for foundry, which is getto (gatoBrutal oppresion of jews in the Warsaw ghetto is Spanish for "cat").  There are at least two other possibilities for ghetto's origins: that it is a short form of Italian burghetto, a diminutive form of burgo "settlement outside the city walls" (cognate with English borough), or that it is a corruption of Latin Aegyptus "Egypt", a reference to the Hebrew captivity in Egypt.  The OED likes the "foundry" explanation.  We feel that the Aegyptus connection is tenuous, and we prefer the burghetto derivation simply because ghetto has been spelled with an h in English since its first appearance in 1611.  The word was used solely to refer to Jewish quarters until the end of the 19th century, when it came to be applied to crowded slums inhabited by any minority group or groups.

It might be surprising that the term ghetto blaster first appeared in print in  1982 as the name of a backing band: The Ghetto Blasters.

From Karen:

I am looking for the etymology of winter.

This word comes to us from Old English and has had the same form since that time, with some variations in spelling here and there (the earliest recorded example of the word has it as wintra).  There are cognates in the Germanic languages: Old Frisian and Dutch winter, Old High German wintar, Old Norse vetr, and Gothic wintrus.  It is thought that these all derive from a nasalized form of the Indo-European root *wed- "to be wet", a reference to the winter rain and snow so common to northwestern Europe.  This would make winter related to wet, water, and even otter.

From Cecilia:

I came across the word wuss (which I found offensive) but found it in the Webster's dictionary. Would the word wimp be an accurate substitute. And what is the origin of this word?

Wuss is indeed synonymous with wimp.  It is a shortened form of wussy, which is thought to come from pussy-wussy, making it, basically, a synonym for pussy, a slang word meaning "a feeble man" or even "a homosexual".  Webster's Unabridged Dictionary dates wuss to 1980-85, but wussy is, of course, older.  The OED, however, doesn't even contain wuss, wussy, or even pussy-wussy.  If you are curious about where pussy in this sense comes from, see our page on sexual slang, a page that is not for the weak of heart!

From L. Howe:

We all know from where the culinary subgroup "sandwich" originated (4th Earl of Sandwich), but where in the world would a word like Sandwich originate? Sounds like wich might be the description of where to find sand.

Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich), a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, 1963.Yes, the origin of the noun sandwich is said to be John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who supposedly spent twenty-four hours playing cards, all the while eating nothing but slices of meat between pieces of toast because he didn't want to get up from the table or be bothered with a more formal meal.  Of course, Sandwich was his earldom, and what an excellent question you pose about that name's origins.  Sandwich is an Old English name deriving from sand "sand" and wic (pronounced "witch") meaning "landing place" or "port".  Wic appears in other place names such as Greenwich ("the green (grassy) port") and Norwich ("north port").  It is said that the "sand" of Sandwich, however, was not on the beach but was instead in the soil of the area, making it agriculturally rich.  Anyhow, though Sandwich was once on the coast, it is now two miles inland.

From Russell Wright:

Since my 10-year old daughter is a gymnast, I have a couple of questions about the origin of the word.  My sources suggest the word implies "to exercise naked." Hmmm... should my 10-year old be participating in this sport? ;-)  Also, our gymnastics newsletter editor continues to use the word "gymnast" for either the singular or plural form of the word. The GrammarLady ( has sided with me and responded with "gymnasts" as the plural form (makes perfect, simple sense to me).  What do y'all say?

The ultimate source of English gymnast is Greek gumnos "naked".  Athletes of ancient Greece were usually naked when they trained.  That is how gumnazein came to mean "train, practice".  From that verb, the nouns gumnasion and gumnast were formed.  Latin adopted the former as gymnasium and it meant "school".  English, however, adopted it with its "train" meaning.  Gumnast became gymnast in English, via French gymnaste, taking a more specific meaning: "train, practice by doing exercises".  It entered English in the late 16th century, as did gymnasiumGymnasts is clearly the plural form, as the Grammar Lady suggests.

The eccentric French composer Eric Satie wrote a very beautiful piece for piano called Trois Gymopedie which, taken literally, means "Three Naked-feet".  Odd sense of humor, that fellow.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Guest curmudgeon Todd Foster eschews obfuscation:

Apart from a single comment regarding "genuine faux diamonds", I have seen no reference in Curmudgeons' Corner to language constructs which are intentionally obfuscatory.  For example, what are standard options as referenced by car manufacturers?  Are these items standard and included in the base price, or are they options which cost extra?  It is this kind of abuse of English that offends me the most as it is opposed to the basic concept of communication for which language exists.

Sez You...
From Isaac Mozeson:

I write because someone has written the untruth below about me. I never heard of the word.

He provides no history, either. Take his etymology of codswallop, a British term for "nonsense". Professor Mozeson expounds on its Hebrew origins but, as with all the words, there was no explanation as to how it reached England, nor when. In fact, codswallop is a nonsense word which was invented in the 1950s by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, writers of the BBC Radio series Hancock's Half Hour.

We were unable to find the source of the incorrect etymology of codswollop that we mistakenly attributed to Professor Mozeson.  As is always our practice when errors are discovered, we will correct the issue in which the above extract appears.  We regret and apologize for this error.  

From Jasjit Grewal:

Some time ago Carol Klingel asked about the beetling shop. I have an explanation for it though it may not be the only one which is right.  In Asia, especially Southeast Asia, people use beetle leaves, like tobacco and tea, in their daily lives.  The beetle (Sanskrit: pawn) plant is a tall shrub with broad leaves. Its leaves have medicinal value and are used as condiment. Its leaf-juice can cure many stomach problems and it is a mild mood-modifier too. So people in these countries usually chew beetle leaves. Now there are special vendors where you can get these beetle leaves. These shops or vendors have specialties in preparing beetle leaves with other natural products, like gulkand [rose petal jam - eds.], rose water, cinnamon and other condiments also good for your digestive system. In Sanskrit, beetle is also know as pawn.  In other words these pawn (beetling) shops are vendors where beetle leaves are supplied and prepared for chewing.

Thanks for mentioning that, Jasjit.  Though it sounds almost plausible as you have explained it, there are some problems with this explanation.

  • This delicacy is called betel which is pronounced bay-tul, not beetle.
  • The English word pawn (as in pawn shop) dates all the way back to the 12th century, long before the English knew about paan and betel.   One of us [Mike] has spent quite some time in India and never once heard a paan-vendor referred to as a beetling-shop.  Incidentally, paan (occasionally spelled pawn) is Hindi, not Sanskrit.
  • Most importantly, you missed the two essential ingredients.  Firstly, it is the nut of the Areca palm (Areca catechu) which is betel, not the leaf in which it is wrapped.  The leaf is from a species of pepper.  The betel nut is chopped, grated or sliced and, in addition to the various sweeteners and flavorings, one always adds a dab of lime (hydrated calcium oxide, not the fruit). This is because the betel nut contains arecoline, a mildly stimulating alkaloid which will only dissolve in high pH conditions.

It may come as a surprise to you but we are quite fond of paan - there are four in our fridge, right now.

From Todd Foster:

While some people take the term "weekend" as a simple construct meaning "the two days following the end of the workweek", the confusion between "this weekend" and "next weekend" isn't nearly so clear-cut as Dr. Moffatt would make it seem. 

Similar to "breakfast" in construction (which is the time when people break their fast), the weekend is simply the time when the week ends. Consequently, when referring to "this weekend" a person is talking about "this week's end", or the weekend of the current week. It need not be used within the weekend to have meaning. Likewise, "next weekend" simply means the ending of next week, or the weekend of the week following the current.

Taken in this context, the two phrases have distinct and valid values.  Given Dr. Moffatt's explanation, it seems likely that the confusion between the two phrases is caused by frequently using the phrase "next weekend" to mean the ending of the current week. Under the circumstances, I'm not surprised that people ask for clarification.

Yes, but you can also look at it this way: we have "this month" and "next month".  We only talk about "this month" while we are within that month.  "Next month" is the month that is approaching.

From Andrew Conomy:

In Issue 108, your visiting curmudgeon, Dr Moffatt mentioned confusion between the concepts of "this weekend" and "next weekend". I saw a survey in an Australian language paper (something connected with the Macquarie Dictionary, I think) that showed the question of what "next weekend" meant was clearly divided by age groups. Older people generally thought one thing, young people another. (The problem is that I can't remember which thought which! I have a suspicion that older people thought next weekend was two weekends away.)

Anyway, for what it's worth:  I don't believe the "next weekend" issue is as cut-and-dried as Dr Moffatt tries to make it seem. If "this weekend" were abolished (the phrase, not the fete, for goodness sake) there would be no problem. But we have "this Friday" and no-one is confused about that, so why not "this weekend"?  No-one would use "this Friday" on Friday, so Dr Moffatt's suggestion of reserving "this weekend" for the current weekend may be logical, but will never catch on... the current weekend is covered by "yesterday", "today" and "tomorrow".  Moreover, it is actually "next weekend" that causes the problem, so why pick on "this weekend".  Personally, I try not to use "this weekend", even though no-one could argue when it was. And I always ask for clarification when someone says "next weekend", so I guess I'd exasperate Dr Moffatt. 

From Gnatalia:

Just wanted to comment on this week's Curmudgeons' Corner. Seems to me that "this weekend" could be used at any time to mean "this week's end" or "the end of this week." I find the same phenomenon when driving--"turn right at the next light" means turn right at THIS light or NOT THIS LIGHT, BUT THE NEXT?

From Dr. Moffatt:

As the guest curmudgeon, I'd like to recurmudgeon it.  Clearly if you say "this weekend " on the weekend itself even I can understand it. However, if it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday-ish and I want to refer to the upcoming weekend, is it "this" or "next"?  Seems to me to be an ambiguity in the language which we need a Brit to straighten out.

We suggest that the quickest and easiest solution is to say "this weekend" when you mean the approaching OR current weekend, and "next weekend" when you mean the weekend after the current or approaching weekend.  However, it will be difficult to enforce consistency, so you're probably going to have to clarify by saying things like "this coming weekend" or "the weekend of the 27th".  There's no easy answer to this one!  Would that the venerable Fowler had addressed this question.

From Betsy:

Now that the whole thing is over, Deo Gratias, I thought I'd drop in my 2-cents worth - when I first heard this peculiar usage [chad] I simply assumed that some New Englander had remarked on the shards [or sherds]--with the typical dropped "r".  And then it got taken from there. But I don't suppose that we will ever really know, and heaven knows it isn't all that important.

And it's already considered old news.  Talk about a fast-paced age!

From Drakestone:

May I take a crack at the American pot-luck dinner? Since the typical American pot-luck dinner involves signing on or being assigned portion of the meal, but usually the particular entree is not specified, the resulting meal is pot-luck to those who participate.  For me, these are usually office, holiday luncheons and I usually offer to bring a salad. The salad I usual bring is my homemade tabouli, a bulgur wheat & parsley. Since this is a dish unfamiliar to most of my office-mates, my offering is truly pot-luck.

Yes, we didn't spell that out very clearly in our discussion of pot-luck.  Thanks for elucidating!

From Todd Foster:

I would like to grumble about your Curmudgeon's Corner.  Language is but a tool by which communication is constructed.  It is the accurate transfer of concept which is of utmost importance, not the semantics of the language itself.  While I agree that a degradation of the language eventually lends itself to obscurity, and therefore endangers the transfer of concepts,  I feel that some of your comments (and readers' comments) ignore the much more insidious abuses of language. 

  1. I have yet to see you explain the phrase "vent my spleen"

  2. In searching for an explanation of this phrase on your site, I see that you have used the phrase "where we vent our spleen" forty-one times. I am curious if Mike and Mel are Siamese twins connected at the spleen, or have a "collective spleen", or meant "vent our spleens".

Contrary to my acerbic comments, I really do love your site. Keep up the good work!

Thanks for the kind words, Todd.  Regarding Curmudgeons' Corner, the contents of that particular column are supposed to be pedantically picky (hence the title) and not terribly profound.  Every so often the column gets a bit too serious for its own good and we have to knock it down a few notches.

Regarding an explanation of the phrase vent my spleen, it's a simple explanation and would be too short for "Words to the Wise".  In  medieval times, the spleen was thought to be the source of a hot temper, and so by venting the spleen one would be letting loose one's anger.  As far as both of us venting one spleen, the word has been used metaphorically since the 19th century and is a synonym for "anger".   It has been accepted usage since then for more than one person to share "a spleen".  Also, it just sounded snappier than saying "where we each vent our respective spleens". 

From Cecile Buhl:

First let me tell you that I thoroughly enjoy reading your site. It has to be one of the best I have come across, being the novice linguist that I am. I tend to be in the sponging stage of my new found obsession. On the word pot-luck it occurred to me it might be related to the Native American and Polynesian ceremonies that were used to bring together separate tribes. All parties would bring gifts and the gifts would be given to the host, who would then distribute gifts to the rest of the guests. I am wondering if this is the relation between our modern version of bringing food to share amongst fellow diners. What are your ever interesting words of wisdom.

You're thinking of potlatch.  Good suggestion!  However, potlatch entered English in the mid-19th century (from the Nootka Indian potlatsh "a gift"), while pot-luck first appeared in the 16th century.

Besides, no one brought gifts to the potlatch ceremony - guests were given gifts by the host.  It was a way of acquiring status by showing how much wealth one could afford to lose.

Laughing Stock

The Millennium Bug

Well, here we are in the new millennium and not an apocalypse in sight.  We must admit we are very disappointed.

Here's a little reminder of those days when some people feared that to many zeroes in the date would stop computers in their tracks.

Allegedly taken from a memo received at a Fortune 500 company


Subject: Easy method of solving Y2K issue
To: VP, Corporate Administration

I hope I haven't misunderstood your instructions, because this Y to K problem makes no sense to me. Be that as it may, I have completed the conversion of the corporate calendar for the year 2000 per my understanding of the instructions. 

The months now read as follows:


Please let me know if there is anything else that needs to be done in preparation for the year 2000.

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Last Updated 06/23/02 04:05 PM