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From Baruch Menahem:

I'll lavish praise on you when I'm trying to get you to do something for me [;-)] .  Seriously, thanks for a really fascinating and informative Website. I have probably put my job in jeopardy by starting to systematically read *all* your archives, from the very first on forward. Surely Mr. Whiplash is going to notice sooner or later.

I wanted to mention a striking coincidence. I read your erudite discussion about the word teetotaler yesterday, I think. I just now came across the word, teetotally in a book I'm reading. The book is "The Varieties of Religious Experiences", by William James. The sentence is, "I teetotally disbelieve in God", with the tee part italicized. Apparently that part was used for emphasis.

I love reading older works (this one was published in 1901 or so). I often encounter words or expressions that are fascinating, or which throw some light on current expressions. So now I have added mump and cozenage to my vocabulary.

I like your various features - even the Curmudgeon's Corner. Like you, I encounter misuse of English that upsets me more than I care to admit (one might suggest that I get a life, but I can't help it). It's a problem that appears to be worsening over time.

Anyway, thanks for your Website. It was worth my job.

Do please read the back-issues but we wouldn't want you to lose your job in doing so. We suggest that you hide your tracks by spreading the addiction to your co-workers.

From Dennis Foley:

I continue to be in awe, not just of your scholarship, but of the sheer amount of work and devotion you two pour into this marvelous resource for the rest of us - all the while earning a living and having a non-TOWFI life. I have no idea how you do it, but I think I speak for all your readers when I say I'm profoundly grateful that you do.

Re gumshoe: among the many curiosities of the dialect in and around my native Pittsburgh is the near-universal use of "gum bands" for "rubber bands." The old ways die hard in "Da Burgh," and I could offer a great many additional examples.

BTW, one of the original Marx Brothers was Gummo - so nicknamed thanks to his preference for gum shoes, the predecessors of today's sneakers.

Thanks, Dennis. 

From Hugo:

I saw a documentary about a recent archaeological find in Hull, in north-east England. The remains of some monks displayed signs of syphilis (I think it was this disease), and the bones were dated before the Americas were discovered by Europeans... But nothing was proved conclusively. 

Diolch, and keep up the top-notch work!

We are aware of the Hull priory dig and the signs found on the skeletons there do indeed point to  syphilis.  Radio carbon dating of a male skeleton from the priory showing "obvious signs" of the disease indicates that he died in the 1340s. 

[Oh, and for our readers who don't know, diolch is Welsh for "thanks".]  You're welcome, Hugo!

From John Arlidge:

Regarding those four letters and how the authors came to discuss the same word. The planets may well have lined up - they clearly weren't disorientated. 

Stephen Pitts' note about poorly written automobile (ugly American word - what's wrong with car or vehicle?) manuals reminds me that in Robert M Pirsig's wonderful "ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE" he refers to a translated instruction sheet that begins along the lines of "To assemble Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind..." This was, Pirsig suggested, excellent advice and a key to reconciling technology and art (although now I come to think of it, it took him 100,000 or so words to make the point).

Apparently the "peace of mind" didn't last. He's got a new book in the stores. :-)

From James McCrudden:

Regarding swansong: Shakespeare used the customary notion that swans sing before their death no less than 5 times in his plays, for example:

He makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.

He might have got this notion from his classical reading: Seneca and Aristotle mention it. Or it may have been a popular misconception, it could not be from real life, because only the Whistling Swan makes any kind of music at all. 

Chaucer mentions it, "But as the swan, I have long heard tell, sings in his pains before his death."  Also Aesop's Fables, - The Swan. "The swan is said to sing but once in its life - when it knows that it is about to die". 

Thank you. You have simultaneously increased our knowledge and our perplexity.

From Jenny:

Your comments on using words for heat to describe emotional state ("hot-blooded", "x leaves us cold") reminded me of one of those interesting cross-cultural situations I came across while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. When I first met my village family, they told me that I made their hearts cold. I was a bit taken aback; I knew that they meant something positive, but of course I was used to the term "cold hearted". They explained that it meant they were happy, and upon reflection, it made sense; having cold insides might be a nice thing on a hot monsoon day, or a relief from the fever of malaria... Funny that our languages both use temperature metaphors for emotional states, but 'hot' and 'cold' seem to have quite different values.

Dashed rum do, what?  says Mike.  That's "Very peculiar situation, isn't it?" in current English says Melanie.

From Sheri Martin:

Regarding "goat song" as an origin for "tragedy", in my theater history classes I heard a somewhat similar story to that related by Greg Umberson last week. The ancient Greek three-play cycles grew out of an even older religious ceremony, which included a sacrifice to the gods, usually a goat.  The main priest would recite the prayers, and be answered by the spectators.  Soon the priests started relating stories of heroes and gods, then later took on the persona of the hero, thus becoming an actor relating a character. The group responding and commenting on the action became the chorus. To this day, true Greek theaters (with round stages, unlike the semi-circular Roman stages) have an "altar stone" in the center.  

From Greg Umberson:

In response to my letter about the "Tragic Goat Connection" you said you would like to see if the authors of these theories had some evidence to back them up. Sorry for not including my references before: (1) A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages by Carl Darling Buck (2) The Origins of English Words - A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph T. Shipley (I didn't notice this one in your bookstore, but it shows up as a "You may also be interested in these..." item when you click on the previous book by Buck at Amazon. The Shipley book is a very fun read).

From Dick Timberlake:

In issue 162, you state that zit  appeared in print for the first time in 1966. I was 20 years old in 1966 and relatively zit-free by then, but I'm sure I heard and used the word earlier than that, perhaps as early as 1960.  As to its origin, I don't know. I lived in Florida and Georgia from 1958 to 1967. Perhaps zit is southern American English - maybe that's why I heard it prior to its appearance in print.

That's a great place to start with the investigation into zit.  Thanks!

From Gil Ross:

"Almost infinite" sounds like it is a mathematical term, but probably isn't.  Others that do have definitions are "almost surely" and "almost everywhere", but I expect they all have the same sort of utility. In mathematics, language terms dealing with infinities, poles and limits have to be defined very precisely, and the formal language has to be formed as a jargon to normal English. (Now the derivation of the antithetic meanings of jargon might be a good TOWFI subject!) Almost surely is a limiting process where the probability approaches 1.0. Almost everywhere is everywhere except perhaps for a countable number of places, for example at a "point" where there is a discontinuity. And that shows that there are other types of infinity which are very important - if only to aid the formal mathematical description of a proof or theorem - for example, "countable" and "uncountable" infinities (countable numbers are rational numbers like integers and fractions, and uncountable like irrational numbers such as pi). 

From Dave Paul:

This sentence appeared in a recent (7/19) CNN news report about a serial killer suspected of killing more than 215 people in the UK: "But families, who described the father-of-four as 'one of the most evil men in history,' were still left bemused by his motive for the orgy of killing over 23 years."

It seemed to me as I read this sentence that bemused was incorrectly used in this context. While I understood its literal meaning as "puzzled" or "perplexed," it nevertheless suggests in my mind a lighthearted tone, as in "he was bemused by the little girl's antics," not the horror and incomprehension that I believe the author of the sentence intended to describe. Am I mistaken? Is there an etymological justification for my impression (other than the term's similarity to amuse)?

Yes there is. The -muse of both amuse and bemuse comes from the dumb look on a hunting dog's face when sniffing the air for a scent. [see Spotlight, Issue 162Bemuse means "befuddle", which sounds like an awfully mild reaction to serial killings!
From Nick Lehner:

When I read Bill O'Meara's letter in the latest issue of TOWFI, regarding the mnemonic device he uses to distinguish etymology from entymology, I had to chime in. 

Apologies to the insect fans out there who might take umbrage at my dismissal of an entire classification of critters, but... "We want to put an ENd to bugs, hence entymology." 

Thanks for the informative and entertaining site, which has been bookmarked on my computer(s) for years!

Clever, Nick!  We weren't so clever last week when we missed the misspelling of entomology.  Sorry we led you astray, readers!

From Angus McPherr:

Erica Hruby's message regarding the "now" meaning "later" discussions reminded me of a scene from the Steve Martin movie "The Man with Two Brains", where his wife (played by Kathleen Turner) agrees to an encounter in the bedroom. A disbelieving Martin says "Now now? Or Later now?" She replies, "Now now." Martin exclaims, "Wow wow!"

"Ha ha!"

From Sheri Martin:

Regarding orientate vs. orient, I had a discussion about this with a co-worker several months ago. After consulting a dictionary, we came to the following conclusion: if you have been oriented, you've been introduced to a new situation; if you've been orientated, you've been turned to face east. 

From Linda Echols:

It seems to me that we can't stop talking about orient/disorient until somebody explains the use of the word oriented when it means "facing east". I've been told that a "part" of Catholic churches must face the east. Islamics face east for prayers. I'm on thin ice but still skating. My question, aside from how many syllables the word disoriented should have, is this; does the use of the word have some meaning or use derived from religious thinking? 

And YES. Adding syllables to perfectly good words and making verbs out of nouns makes me curmudgeonly.

Both mean the same, yet orientate is preferred in Britain, orient in the U.S.  American usage notes suggest eschewing orientate, and we told you what the British (Fowler's) view is in last week's issue.

As for there being a religious connection with the word orient, one of its earliest meanings was "to build a church with the longer axis due east and west, and the chancel or chief altar at the eastern end".  The word means, etymologically, "east".


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 07/26/02 09:50 PM