From Roger Whitehead:
The verb worry did mean "to strangle" in its earliest incarnations. It was
wyrgeth in Old English (from about 725), which had cognates in many of the
Germanic languages, all of the cognates having similar meanings of "harm" or
And persists today in expressions such as "The dog was worrying the sheep."
This gives more than furrowed brows. 8-)
I see that John Arlidge objects to automobile - "ugly American word". It is
in fact of French origin and has been in use in England for over a century.
He continues: "what's wrong with car or vehicle?". The answer is nothing in
themselves but they are not exact synonyms for automobile. A lorry (truck)
and a motorcycle are also automobiles, for example. A vehicle need not be self-propelled or even have wheels. A Hansom cab is not an automobile, for
instance, nor is a sled but both are vehicles.
Quite so, Roger. You take this
week's award for laudable pedantry.
From Joseph Byrd:
Your discussion of swan song reminded me of what I consider the most beautiful of 17th Century English madrigals, written not, unfortunately, by my namesake William Byrd, but by his rival Orlando Gibbons.
1 The silver swan, who living had no note,
2 When death approach'd, unlock'd her silent throat;
3 Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
4 Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
5 Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
6 More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise. (1612)
The music is the same for the first 3 and second 3 lines. The polyphony is notable for the shivery dissonances that occur on the words "against" and "Death." I think it the lyrical apogee of the English Renaissance. Our modern sense of tonality, major and minor modes, and such derive from this era. Gibbon's contemporary, John Bull, wrote God Save The Queen, which is the very essence of tonality.
We're sure it's quite pretty in its way but
it will never replace "Gimme a Ham-hock and a Bottle of Beer" by
Bessie Smith. [Just kidding, Joseph! We do love Byrd and Gibbons -
Your comment that we don't hear the word
agonist often enough sent me running for the medical dictionary. Doland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary defines it as, "A prime mover; a muscle opposed in action by another muscle, called the antagonist." Sorry it isn't more exotic, but it is a word used daily in certain settings, such as physical therapy.
biochemistry/pharmacology. Certain drugs are agonists.
Pilocarpine, for example, is a choline agonist (meaning that it excites
the body's cholinergic system, causing, among other things, salivation and
sweating. An anti-cholinergic agent, like a decongestant, has the
opposite effect and inhibits the salivary and sweat glands).
From Steve Parkes:
[Regarding last week's e-mail newsletter...]
The first camerae obscurae (Latin
plurals - swanky, eh?) were just that: dark
rooms. The window black-out had a pin-hole, which projected an upside-down (and laterally inverted) image of the scene outside onto the opposite wall.
When then lens was invented, this made it possible to use a bigger opening and obtain a brighter image without losing quality.
The camera obscura is still very popular today; the modern version usually
has the optics mounted on top in a rotating turret, with a mirror to project the image onto a horizontal surface such as a table top (which also turns it
the right way round). The turret can be turned to show the whole outside panorama a bit at a time. (What would we call this fractional panorama? I'm
not as good with Greek as I am with Latin!)
By rote reminded me of by
heart. I read years ago (in the notes to an
edition of The Canterbury Tales, I think-The Prioress's Tale) that
by heart was a mistranslation of the French expression par
choeur -"by chorus", or "by rote", to put it another way. Misreading
choeur as coeur, "heart", gave us the familiar phrase.
certainly is a
translation of the Old French par coeur but that's as far as we can
trace it. The par choeur story is attractive but we'll need a little
evidence before we take it on board.
From Brad Daniels:
In issue 163, Dave Paul wrote:
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
Followed by a discussion of whether
bemused was an appropriate word.
Forget bemused, though; my mind boggles at the concept of a 23-year orgy of any kind! Such stamina!
What is the origin of the word orgy, anyway?
Originally plural, the 'orgia
rites") were the nocturnal rituals of Dionysos. More than that we
are not at liberty to divulge.
From Larry Trask:
Ah, this is the first time I've ever spotted a slip in your usually
impeccable pages. In issue 163, on page 1, I'm afraid that "Woe is me" does not in fact mean the same as "I am woe". As the German and Yiddish
versions show clearly, the English form is historically "Woe is to me", with a dative pronoun
- in other words, "Woe is upon me."
The columnist William Safire hates our English construction "It's me."
Several years ago, he decided to vent his spleen on the archaic expression "Woe is me", and he launched a campaign to "correct" this
"barbarism" to the "proper" form "Woe is I" - only to beat a shamefaced retreat a week or two later, after a horde of his better-informed
readers had explained his error to him.
Ah, well, we didn't exactly say that "Woe is
me" is wrong. We were simply being silly in mentioning "I is
woe". However, we are happy to admit that we did not know "Woe
is me" derives from "Woe is to me" (just hadn't researched that
one yet), especially as the revered William Safire apparently didn't know,
either. We're in pretty good company in that!
From Jeannette G. Beauregard:
Re: the fell in one fell
swoop - interesting that the same Spotlight mentions fantasy, because one
does encounter additional phrases using fell (= "evil") in fantasy literature, e.g., certain fell beasts in J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Lord of the Rings, one of which (if memory serves) was fed "fell meats" in order to grow particularly hideous.
I must admit, however, that I've never consciously equated the
fell in one fell swoop with evil, probably because I've heard the phrase rendered as
one swell foop more often than not (thanks, Dad!), and thus its ominousness was defused. [:-)]
Thanks for the fun!
Tolkien was a bit of a special
case. Being fluent in both Old and Middle English, he was well acquainted with fell
and used it precisely because it was archaic and old-fashioned.
From Kenny DiLorenzo:
LOVE your website, I'm hooked!
However, I must chime in-in issue 163, page 4 (discussing the origin of the word "orient,"), you write:
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,
Now my two cents: Although the word may *mean*
east, you can hardly discuss its etymology without a reference to its Latin
heritage-present participle of the verb orior, which means "to rise." Obviously the sun rises in the East, but you could have shed a bit more light on its origin of this word, ha ha ha!
From Sándor Magyar:
It is a very nice website, a collection of wonderful lexicology-related
I miss only the "Tell a friend, or your friends" link application!
Could you possibly make up for this tiny shortcoming?
Thank you in advance for your kindness and I am glad to apply it in my
works as a Teacher of English!
Thanks for your
note. A quick remedy to this problem is to use your web browser's
"File" menu and select "Send Page...". Then you
can e-mail the page directly to your friends or others. We're
delighted that you wish to share the site!
[This was in response
to our note to subscribers in our companion e-mail newsletter in which we
said we'd publish this week's issue a day late - on Friday.]
You worry too much! Your issues are worth waiting for. I am a new reader and devoted fan now. I agree with so many of your other
subscribers - the breadth and depth of your research is amazing! Thank
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