Issue 163, page 1
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There are certain words that are used in one phrase only and seldom, if ever, elsewhere. Take, for example, "old-fashioned" and "new-fangled"... why do we never hear the combinations "new-fashioned" or "old-fangled"? The fell in one fell swoop means "evil" and is closely related to felon and felony but we never hear of "fell terrorists" on the news.
The heroine of a Victorian melodrama might exclaim "woe is me!" but never "I am woe!" though the meaning would appear to be identical. This word is an old interjection expressing lament. Cognates are found throughout the Germanic languages from Old Norse vei to German weh ("woe") and Yiddish oi vai iz mir ("oh, woe is me") as well as in Latin vae, Old Irish fo, and Welsh gwae.
Children who learn their multiplication tables by chanting them aloud are said to be learning by rote. What does this really mean... what, precisely, is a rote? The surprising answer is that it is an early violin or fiddle. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed the word as hrotta from the Celts whose original (pre-6th century) word was something like chrotta. It became both rote and crowd in Middle English - a crowder was a fiddler. Teachers would have their classes chant their lessons to tunes and used the rote as a guide.
To be at someone's beck and call is to attend to their slightest command. We all know what a call is but what is a beck? It is "a mute signal or significant gesture, especially one indicating assent or notifying a command; e.g. a nod, a motion of the hand or fore-finger". It is related to beckon ("make a mute gesture with the head, hand, finger, etc.; especially in order to bid a person approach") and to beacon ("a signal"). If we go all the way back to the Indo-European root *bha-, "to shine", we find all kinds of unexpected relations, including berry, banner, and fantasy.
We usually think of a figment as a fantasy but that is guilt by association. A figment is "some thing made or fashioned". Hence we call a fantasy a figment of the imagination because it is "some thing made or fashioned by the imagination". So why don't we ever call milk a figment of the cow or an automobile a figment of Detroit?
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