Issue 136, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Rob:

In my writers workshop group, we recently discussed the popular Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowlings, who uses the term muggles to refer to non-magical humans. She is apparently being sued by the author of "Rah and the Muggles" for plagiarism, listing as one of the examples of the word muggles. In any event, someone cited that the word muggles predated both books as a euphemism for marijuana. Just what is the story here? 

As far as we have been able to ascertain, muggles was the accepted term for "cannabis" (a.k.a. "Indian Hemp") in New Orleans in the 1920s. The word appears in local newspapers at least from 1921. After the city fathers leveled the Storyville "red light" district, many musicians migrated north. Thus, in the 1920s we see the word muggles jump from N'Awlins all the way to Chicago. In his autobiography, "Really the Blues" (1928), the Chicago jazz clarinetist "Mezz" Mezzrow refers to cannabis solely as muggles. It seems that this was the accepted term before the word marihuana (later marijuana) was introduced.   By the way, Mezz is not a truncated form of Mezzrow but of mezziroll, an earlier Chicago word for "cannabis".

We must admit that we've not read a "Harry Potter" book but, in the absence of other evidence, we would hazard a guess that Ms. Rowlings formed muggles as a frequentative of mug - the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. cant term mark (i.e. "rube"). This is only a guess, however. The history of muggles as a word for "cannabis" is mysterious. Could there possibly be a connection with the Welsh myglys (pronounced "mug-liss") which means "smoking material" (from mwgw, "smoke")?

[Rob wrote back after we provided the above answer: "One of the members of the writers' group found a quote from Rowlings which pretty much proves what a genius you are:

J.K. Rowling on the invention of the term Muggles: "It is a twist on the English word mug, which means "easily fooled". I made it into Muggles because it sounds gentler."]

What about the origin of the word marijuana?  It was deliberately foisted upon the American public by a single FBI agent - Harry J. Anslinger. The FBI was created in order to fight the U.S.A.'s previous war on drugs - the prohibition of alcohol - and when "prohibition" ended many assumed that the FBI would be disbanded.  Faced with the possibilty of having to find another job, agent Anslinger decided to whip up a drug scare, and he chose cannabis. The horror stories he told about this herb were completely fictitious and almost entirely racist. As part of his propaganda campaign he deliberately eschewed the English word hemp, the botanical term cannabis (from which we get canvas) and the users' word: muggles.  The word he chose was an obscure Mexican slang term (derived from Maria Juana "Mary Jane", originally a brand of cheap cigarettes) in order to exploit the xenophobia of the public.  Anslinger succeeded in making marijuana illegal by convincing the public that the plant would render decent white women susceptible to seduction by black men!  This poisonous claptrap was widely accepted and even made it across the pond to Britain where it formed the main theme of a book called "Indian Hemp, a Social Menace" (1956).

From Joseph Cherepon:

Any thoughts about the archaic term notarikon?

Well, it is a Late Greek word which originally meant "scribe" or "shorthand-writer". It acquired a special use within Christian interpretations of the Cabbala, however, where it was used to describe a word which was constructed from a sentence by taking the middle letter of each word. Sometimes the last letter of each word was used, making "notarikon" the opposite of "acronym" (in this limited and specialized context).

From Thereza:

Hi, Im a translator (from English and French to Portuguese - Brazilian Portuguese which is quite other than the Portugal national language). I've translated (from English into Portuguese) a folder about software courses and came across the word rooster. From what I've gathered from the text, it meant a list of things to do, more or less an agenda.

The word you mean is roster, not rooster (pronounced "ross-ter" not "roaster").  It is a noun which means 

1 a : a roll or list of personnel 
1 b : such a list giving the order in which a duty is to be performed <duty roster> 
1 c : the persons listed on a roster 
2 : an itemized list

It derives from Dutch rooster (pronounced "roaster" not "rooster") meaning "gridiron" - from the parallel lines used to draw up a roster.  It is first found in the English written record in 1727.

From A Reader:

I would like to know the meaning of this phrase tilting at windmills.  I understand it came out of Don Quixote, but just what does it mean, as I am seeing this phrase a lot recently.

Well, we don't normally explain the meaning of words or phrases, we just provide their history.  However, this is such an easy one that we'll tell you.  In Cervantes' tale, Don Quixote is obsessed with stories of knights, wizards, ogres and fair damsels, so much so, in fact, that when he sees a windmill he believes it to be a giant waving his arms. He tilts at it (i.e. "charges at it with his lance") but he is knocked off his horse by a vane. So to tilt at windmills means "to fight imaginary opponents".

From A Reader:

Is all fur no knickers rhyming slang meaning "whore, slut" or does it refer to someone who is not real - false?

No, it's not Rhyming Slang and we can't imagine what it would rhyme with other than vicars.  The phrase all fur and no knickers is used about someone who makes a show of wealth (wearing fur) by skimping on everyday items (knickers).   There are many variations on this phrase: "red hat; no drawers" is common in parts of England.  Mike has also heard "all baked beans and  Bentleys" (Bentley is a very exclusive brand of automobile) applied to yuppie wannabes.

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