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From Sheila:

Just wanted to drop a note and let you know how much I enjoy your issues of wit and knowledge.  If I were not a college student (considering a major in English), living on disability, I would certainly send a donation. But for now, I hope a note of appreciation can suffice.

Never know, I might someday (soon?) be the next JR Rowlings - (with better text content!)

We understand that not everyone can (or even wants to!) "thank" us with monetary donations.  We appreciate your note and wish you luck with college and any future career you choose!

From Roger Whitehead:

In Curmudgeons' Corner Guestmudgeon John Archdeacon experiences disconcertion.

Not that being there makes it correct, but disconcertion is in the OED. I expect you have a copy/set, so I shan't weary you by quoting the entry.

While trawling the Web the other day, I landed on the Web site of an American training association for machine tool users that offered "credentialing" of their training.

Re Gene Fellner's question on Wisteria/Wistaria. It was originally Wistaria, after its discoverer Casper Wistar (1761-1818), professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, where there is an institute named after him (see International conventions in the naming of plants dictated the change to "-eria", says Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners.

Re Dan Schechner's scattered shower, it's not unusual to hear British sports commentators describe an injured player as "regrouping". I keep looking for severed limbs crawling towards each other, as in all the best (worst) horror movies.

Indeed, disconcertion is in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, for any new readers), but the word hasn't appeared in print since 1881.  Additionally, disconfident is in the OED but it hasn't been used for a very long time, either.  As you say, being in the OED does not make a word correct (or the best choice, anyhow).

From Dan Schechner:

Thanks for using my first submission concerning a scattered shower. I had no idea that you were a meteorologist!

Years ago in a business meeting, I heard a marketing director solicit suggestions for a program that would incent the employees of his bank. My dictionary presents incentive as an adjective and a noun, but the use of this awkward pseudo-verb appears to have no justification. As a lover of language, I was incensed.

For years I've been saying that if the plural of index is indices, then the plural of Kleenex should be Kleenices. As a matter of fact, one of my math teachers knew that vertices was the correct plural form of vertex (though vertexes is acceptable), yet he thought the singular form was vertice! Go figure.

Yep, Melanie was the outstanding meteorology graduate in her class!  (And no, she wasn't the ONLY meteorology graduate in her class, but she was the first female to get a BS in that field from her university!  Previously only a BA had been offered.)

We love Kleenices and will have to use that when we can!

From Greg Umberson:

I read your response to Gene Fellner in Issue 167 regarding the origin of ferengi. Having been a farang many times in Thailand made me curious to further explore the origin of this word. I found a great discussion of the path this word has taken in many languages at the following link, . Originally an Arabic word for "Franks", "land of the Franks", "Europe" etc., it came to mean "foreigner" and the word travelled with Arabic traders to many other cultures throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

And while my thoughts were transported to the beaches of Thailand (while sitting by the water on the island of Montreal), I thought some of your readers who've been to Thailand might be interested in some connections between English and Thai. Although not an Indo-European language, the Thai language has borrowed many words from Sanskrit and Pali, predominantly through the spread of Buddhism. It's similar to the borrowings many European languages have made from Latin, although a closer analogy is probably Greek with its heavy scientific and ecclesiastical influence.

From the Indo-European root *bher(e)gh meaning "fort or town on a height, hence strong" we have many cities with names ending in berg, burgh, or bury, e.g. Pittsburgh (or Pittsburg in Texas and California), Canterbury and Hamburg (hence hamburger). In India we have Jaipur, Udaipur, etc., and in Thailand we have Thon Buri, Saraburi etc.

The Thai word for "queen" is rachinee (in a roughly romanized spelling). This comes from the Sanskrit word for queen, rajni, the feminine form of raj, connected to rajah and maharajah (ultimately connected with the IE root *reg). It's then a fairly transparent connection with rex, feminine regina (as in E.R. for "Elizabeth Regina" on British stamps). The raj shows up in various place names in Thailand, e.g. Rajdamri Road and Ratchaburi.

The word for the Thai currency, Baht, also means "foot". Baht comes from the Sanskrit/Pali pada which is related to the Latin pedis as in pedal and biped.

Although there are many more Thai-English connections, I'll finish with a few poetic examples. These Sanskrit/Pali loanwords are used more frequently in poetic language, while the daily spoken language would use native Thai words in their place. The connections should be easy. Nasik, "a nose"; waja or waji, "a voice"; swaht, "sweetness"; and madhu, "honey" (English mead).

That's all for now. Keep up the wonderfully stimulating work.

Excellent! There's also Singapore (Sanskrit singha-pur-, "city of the lion" ).

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From Gil Ross:

As for probability of precipitation, it could mean the fraction of the area covered by rain, but in normal meteorological usage Melanie is wrong. It doesn't - or it shouldn't. If it refers to your current location, it really should mean the probability during the defined period or rain falling on you - presuming, of course, you are outside. If it is expressed for an area rather than location it means that the probability is reasonably constant for any location within the area. Any following words should help define the forecast better, like later in the period, prolonged period, and - scattered showers.

However the phrases complained of are indeed not well used. Scattered shower probably(!) means an isolated shower. Unfortunately it is only too true that when a forecaster is performing under pressure words take on a life of their own. My favourite is mixing "changeable" and "unchanging" to become "unchangeable" which is an entirely correct but useless forecast!

Melanie replies:  Actually, in normal meteorological usage (by university-educated meteorologists) in the U.S., a 20% chance of rain does mean that 20% of the forecast area is supposed to get rain.  Whether it does or not reflects only on the forecasters' accuracy.  I am guessing that you are not from the U.S. based on some U.K. spellings and terms you used (favourite, changeable with regard to weather), and U.S. meteorologists do have some different definitions from those used by other countries' meteorologists.  There is a distinct difference in meaning between scattered showers  and isolated showers.  Anyone east of the Rockies in the U.S. will probably be familiar with that difference.  Isolated showers are produced when conditions favorable for rain clouds  occur in very few locations (usually isolated storms are caused by diurnal heating), while scattered showers may be produced by diurnal heating that has some other process helping it along (a weak frontal boundary or dry line, etc.).  More widespread rain occurs when large systems (cold front or warm front, occluded front, hurricane, etc.) are involved.

In the U.S. these days, many broadcast "weather people" have degrees in meteorology or have at least taken several courses in that field.  They probably still parrot the  National Weather Service forecasts for the most part, however, and they do, still, say some peculiar things every now and again!

From Greg Umberson:

I've seen a lot of spurious etymologies circulating on the 'net. I didn't know if you had seen this one, sent to me by a friend. I suspect he actually believed it and, knowing I like word histories, thought he would pass it along.

For your entertainment...

Ever wonder where the word SH*T comes from? Well, here it is:

Certain types of manure used to be transported (as everything was years ago) by ship.

In dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet, but once water (at sea) hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a byproduct is methane gas.

As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen. Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern, BOOOOM!

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was discovered what was happening. After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the term "S.H.I.T" on them which meant to the sailors to "Ship High In Transit."

In other words, high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane. 

Bet you didn't know the history of that word.

Neither did I. I always thought it was a golf term.

We know NETYMOLOGY (spurious etymology propagated by e-mail) when we see it, and here's a prime example.  The etymology of sh*t is known and we discuss it here, as mentioned last week.  We wanted to print the entire, original netymology for future reference. Check our FAQ where we debunk other netymologies.  (We received the "entire" (we assume) s.h.i.t. netymology from other readers, as well).

Also, a reminder: very few words in English come from acronyms, especially words as old as sh*t.  (We are self-censoring in order to prevent being branded "evil" by all of the internet rating software out there...)

From Janice Pizzolorusso:

How did the Indo-European root *bhad which means "good" morph into English bad which means "not good" then get transformed into street slang bad meaning "good"? 

Isn't the English language a mess? (I mean a good mess.) 

Well, first, *bhad did not give English bad.  Instead, bad first turns up in the written record as Middle English badde at the end of the 13th century but appears infrequently until the end of the 14th century.  One scholar has suggested that it derives from Old English będdel "hermaphrodite", with będling meaning "effeminate fellow, womanish man". The loss of the final l was a common occurrence in Old English, so that we ended up with badde.  The OED's etymologists feel that such a history would account for bad's absence from the written record until the 13th century, by which time its meaning had changed quite a bit. Another scholar, with whom the OED etymologists do not agree so heartily, suggests that bad derives from Old English gebęded "forced, oppressed" and changed in meaning to "taken by force, enslaved, captive" and then "miserable, wretched, despicable, worthless".

Modern bad's slang meaning of "good" or "cool" is also representative of a relatively common occurrence in English, where a word's meaning changes so much over time that it eventually becomes opposite of what it was originally.


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

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Last Updated 09/02/02 02:33 PM