Issue 184, page 1

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Spotlight on...

opera and manure, the facts at last

Delving into the histories of words has a lot in common with genealogical research, both involve the discovery of unexpected relatives and are bedeviled by ancestors who change the spelling of their name every time they cross a border. Sometimes (as in last issue's Spotlight) we discover that two guys who really look alike turn out to be related after all. And then there are those delicious cases where we find that a ragged swine-herd is second cousin to an arch-duke... as in the case of opera and manure.

What WAS Mozart smoking?Now, if we said the word opera to you, it is unlikely that your next thought would be "manure". Well, OK, perhaps it's not that unlikely, but let's pretend for a moment that you're neither a scatologically inclined philistine nor an etymologist. [There's a difference? - M&M]

Manure was originally a verb and in Middle English, to manure meant "to cultivate" - nothing more. There was no suggestion whatever of any of... erm... that smelly stuff. Any activity which promoted growth, whether weeding, plowing or fertilizing, was considered manure. It could even refer to mental development, as in the statement that "Those Scotts which inhabit the southe... are well manured". The word manure has its origin in Old French manuvrer which is also the origin of maneuver (that's manoeuvre if you're British).

The words manure, maneuver and, more obscurely, mainour are ultimately derived from Latin manu operari, literally"I guess you're right, Bubba, we did all step in it" "hand work". (Thank goodness for gardening forks!) Wait, did we say operari? Yes, there's that missing link. Opus, the Latin word for "work" has given us opera, operation, cooperate and, well... opus. Another term which we still use in its original Latin is modus operandi, the "mode of operating", a term reserved almost exclusively for criminals. Which brings us to that word we just mentioned: mainour. It means "a stolen object found in the hand of a thief when apprehended".

There will be a small prize for the first reader to correctly employ mainour in casual conversation.

Just in passing...

"Those Scotts which inhabit the southe... are well manured". 

We would like to stress that, at the time (c. 1570), being "well manured" was thought to be a good thing. In the presence of a modern Scot, however, we would caution restraint before repeating this compliment, regardless of how well-manured the Lowlander in question may seem.

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