Thursday, August 31, 2006
The Daily Hump: Jew's Harp
The Jew's harp consists of a lyre-shaped metal frame that is held between the teeth. A soft twanging sound is created by plucking a steel tongue that projects from the frame. The instrument is found in cultures throughout the world yet only in English has it managed to become associated with Jews. Some theories suggest that the Jew's harp got its name because it was made popular by my favorite extinct group of converts, the Khazars. Others suggest Jew is simply a corruption of jaw. And yet another theory posits that Jew is a corruption of the French jeu (toy).
Funnily enough, the dictionary of dictionaries, the OED, calls the jeu theory "baseless and inept." Oh snap! The OED theorizes that because the Jew association only exists in English perhaps Jews were involved in the manufacturing and selling of the instruments in England. Another OED theory is that because the Bible continually mentions harps and trumpets, the word Jew was added to the name as a marketing ploy (Jews are Biblical and they endorse this harp--Christian Joe like the Bible, thus Christian Joe wants this Jew's harp). This idea seems a bit of a stretch because although it correctly assumes that a Biblical association would be viewed positively, it's ignoring the blatantly obvious fact that a Jewish association would most likely be viewed negatively. Afterall, the English are the same people that in 1290 expelled Jews from their country for 350 years (thanks, Edward I--ass).
Nope, I actually think the jeu theory is most likely the correct one. Webster's cites the etymological root at the Dutch Jeugdtromp (youth's trumpet). If we apply Occam's razor, these linguistic corruptions seem much more likely than the OED suggestions. I have to admit, I'm a bit disappointed with the OED on this one.
Jews' Tromp [OED]
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The Daily Hump: Macaca
Regardless of Allen's motivation and the word's actual definition, macaca is rather amusing for two key reasons:
1) Any word that contains the repetition of syllables (reduplication) fosters humor. Think poopoo.
2) Caca is funny, thus macaca is also funny. I call this "the syllogistic effect of funny words"--if you have an indisputably funny word (Word A) and then you have a longer word (Word B) which contains Word A, then Word B is also funny, regardless of definition or whether it's even linguistically related to Word A. Examples: caca/macaca, poo/Winnie the Pooh, pee/Peter, shit/shitake, cock/macaque, anus/Uranus, anus/Mianus, etc...
But, back to the definition. According to the OED, the word Macaca is actually the genus of the group of monkeys known as macaques. Macaques include rhesus monkeys and Barbary apes (which although has no record of being an insult, would make a great one). Macaque is rooted in the Portuguese macaco where it means monkey or ape. Interestingly, the history of the word stretches even further back to an onomatopoeiac root. Per the OED:
The form kaku is the name for the mangabey (a Central African forest-dwelling monkey) in a number of Bantu languages of southern Gabon and the Congo, and is generally regarded as imitative of the animal's cry. The plural is kaku, bakaku, or makaku, according to the language.So macaca can best be described as a plural form of the Bantu kaku, which is a type of monkey so named for its cry. Kaku!
Beyond Macaca [The Nation]
Monday, August 28, 2006
homernym |ˈhōmərˌnim | noun
1. Homerphone (def. 1).
2. a word the same as another in sound and spelling but different in meaning, as chase “to pursue” and chase “to ornament metal.”
3. (loosely) Homergraph.
4. a namesake.
5. Biology. a name given to a species or genus that has been assigned to a different species or genus and that is therefore rejected.
Labels: Guest Hump
The Daily Hump: Picayune and a Lack of Confidence, Man
It's a bit of a convoluted story how picayune became today's word. On Friday my friend John over at the ever-excellent DealBreaker.com suggested I research the etymology of confidence man which ended up revealing a spate of errors across the Internet. Many sources trace the etymology of confidence man back to Herman Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence-Man. Wrong. According to Wikipedia the inspriation for Melville's use of the term was the 1849 trial of William Thompson. Thompson would convince his mark to lend him his timepiece (or sometimes money) promising it'd be returned the following day; of course in all these cases Thompson would never be seen again. Up until this past Friday Wikipedia claimed that the first publication to coin the term was The New York Herald on July 8, 1849. Many websites do the same. In fact, the small New Orleans Picayune seems to have beaten the New York Herald by about 2 weeks, publishing this quote on June 21, 1849, "Well, then, continues the `confidence man', just lend me your watch till to-morrow." I edited the Wiki entry accordingly.
Ok, so, the search for the etymology of confidence man led me to The New Orleans Picayune which made me curious about the etymology of picayune. Make sense? The picayune is an obsolete term that was once common in southern United States, especially Louisiana where it was a Spanish half-real (by real, I mean a silver coin formerly used in Spain and Latin America: see photo). In later use the picayune was a 5-cent piece or other coin of little value. This definition was soon adapted to mean anything trivial, unimportant or in the case of people, worthless and contemptible. Thus one could describe William Thompson as rather picayune (it can be used alternately as a noun or adjective).
According to the OED, the term goes as far back as to 1643 where a Lyonnais source used it to describe foreign coinage. Around the 1740s a plural form (picaillons) began to circulate in France as a slang term for money or cash.
William Thompson [Wikipedia]
Friday, August 25, 2006
The Daily Hump: Mandrake
"Shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth." - Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, iv. m3.Machiavelli used it for the title and theme of a play (Mandragola). Shakespeare mentions it in not just Romeo and Juliet, but Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and King Henry VI. DH Lawrence called it the "weed of ill-omen"; Ezra Pound and JK Rowling write of its magical properties (Portrait d'Une Femme and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, guess who wrote which).
The mandrake is the common name for members of the plant genus Mandragora, which is part of the nightshades family. Found mainly around the Mediterranean, the Mandragora officinarum has a short stem with a solitary purple or whitish flower. It's rather obvious to see that the word mandragora comes from the roots man + dragon. Mandrake is simply a Middle English alteration of mandragora which heralds from Old English, back to Latin, mandragorā, and then earlier to Greek. (Drake and dragon share a common Latin root dracō).
Per the OED, the mandrake
...was formerly credited with magical and medicinal properties esp. because of the supposedly human shape of its forked fleshy root, being used to promote conception, and was reputed to shriek when pulled from the ground and to cause the death of whoever uprooted it....This connection with fertility can be seen in the Hebrew word for mandrake, דודאים, which literally translates as "love plant." The Arabs refer to the plant as beid el-jinn--"genie's eggs". This ability to create life yet also cause death is also reflected in the common legend that mandrakes are seeded by the semen of hanged men. Samuel Beckett references this myth in Waiting for Godot.
Estragon: Wait.Alas, man's best friend was left with the dangerous duty of harvesting the plant. As Jewish historian Josephus chronicled,
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited) An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let's hang ourselves immediately!
a furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.Mandrake (plant) [Wikipedia]
Mandrake [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Oh me so Þorny...
So, where has Þ gone in our modern English alphabet? Alas, we've replaced this ancient letter with the rather boring digraph th. Just þink about it; we could save ourselves the effort of typing one extra letter every time we spell a word that uses either a voiceless interdental fricative (like th as in the English word thick) or a voiced dental fricative (like th as in the English word the). Þe possibilities are endless.
Sometime during þe 14þ century th started to become more common in English. As its popularity waned, poor þ began to lose its shape (more specifically, it lost its ascender), first appearing similar to the Old English letter wynn (Ƿ, ƿ), þen later morphing into a Y. You can still see ghosts of our þorny linguistic past in pseudo-archaic usages such as "Ye olde...". I þink it's important to point out þat no one during this "Ye" period would ever pronounce the word Ye as yee; in this case, the Y still retained its þ'isitiy (th).
The Hardworking Do-rag
(also spelled doo-rag or durag)
Apparently, a do-rag is more than just a pantyhose-like covering for the hair. It's a man-of-all-work.
The history of the do-rag is most notably attributed to Civil War era slaves. They would leave them out over night to soak up dew so when they wore them in the morning they would keep their heads cool. And the dew changed into Du, but its first appearance seems to predate that time. It is, however, most closely associated with Afro-American culture because the slaves brought that style with them from their native lands.Bikers? Black-ops soldiers? Wordhumper gives the do-rag Two Humps Up!
From the 1930s to the 1960s, do-rags were used by African-American men to hold chemically processed hair-dos in place while they slept. Originally they were made from pieces of handkerchief or women's stockings, now they are made from polyester. Do-rags resurged as a fashion trend among urban youth in the 1970s and 1990s. Typically, do-rags are black, but can be worn in other colors. Do-rags are also regularly used to maintain cornrowed hairstyles.
The do-rag was also used by black-ops soldiers in covert missions to often conceal blond hair in night time situations. The do-rag would be used as an addition to black face paint and black BDU's.
Do-rags have been used by bikers since the 60's as a convenient way of managing their hair while wearing helmets, as well as avoiding the need for a hat afterwards to hide their 'helmet-head'.
Labels: Guest Hump
The Daily Hump: Tripping on Salad
But I'm getting off topic; what about mescaline? Mescaline has been used for centuries in Native American religious ceremonies, most notably by the Huichols of Mexico and The Doors of LA. The actual chemical that causes the notorious hallucinations was first extracted in 1897 by a German, Arthur Heffter. Thus, not surprisingly, the word mescaline has both American Spanish (mescal) and German (-in) roots. The root, mescal, made it into English on its own as an accepted name for the peyote button that contains the chemical mescaline. It is also a synonym for maguey, which is any of various American plants of the genus Agave, especially the century plant. Finally, mescal can also be the liquor or food created by preparing certain agaves. And, we find, mescal's etymology is rooted in this liquor and food sense: American Spanish, from Nahuatl mexcalli, mescal liquor : metl, maguey plant + perhaps ixca, xca, to bake.
So, there you have it: mesclun and mescaline do not share a common etymology, and although you're unlikely to find mescaline at your salad bar there's nothing that says mescal may not be a tasty addition to your mesclun.
Mesclun [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Microsoft slays a very small, peaceful dragon
Bhutan, home of the yeti, is a small isolated kingdom nestled in the mountains south of Tibet and is often described as the last surviving refuge of traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture.
The Bhutanese national language, Dzongkha (literally, "language of the dzongs"), has a total of 130,000 speakers and shares a linguistic relationship with modern Tibetan. Though known as Bhutan to the outside world, in Dzongkha the country is called Druk Yul, "land of the thunder dragon." Alas, Bhutan's thunder has been stolen by a much larger dragon, China, and China's toady, Microsoft.
As Wikipedia notes:
In October 2005, an internal Microsoft memorandum barred the term "Dzongkha" from all company software and promotional material, substituting the term "Tibetan - Bhutan" instead. This was done at the request of the mainland Chinese government, who insisted the name "Dzongkha" implied an affiliation with the Dalai Lama, and hence, with Tibetan independentism. The Bhutanese, who have never been under the rule of the Dalai Lama, nor revered him especially, were dismayed by the decision. Linguists have pointed out that the word "Dzongkha" has no particular association with the Dalai Lama. The Bhutanese, leaving their dread unspoken, are no doubt more concerned by what it portends, as the PRC government periodically states that the entire Tibetan cultural region, and thus Bhutan, is Chinese territory.According to the International Campaign for Tibet (granted, not the most objective of sources),
The use of the word Dzongkha was graded by Microsoft as a 'ship-stopper', which means that a product may not be produced in any form until the problem is resolved. Microsoft has four levels of error severity, ship-stopper being the most severe.This may be a good time to bring up an old Bhutanese proverb:
Sampa zang na sa dang lam yang zang; sampa nyen na sa dang lam yang nyen
If the thought is good, your place and path are good; if the thought is bad, your place and path are bad.Maybe Microsoft should heed these Dzongkha words.
Dzongkha language [Wikipedia]
Microsoft Sensitive to Chinese Pressure on Bhutan Tibet Link [International Campaign for Tibet]
The Daily Hump: Serendipity
n.Usage note: Serendip should not be confused with sarin dip. In fact, if you find yourself around a sarin dip it's most likely not serendipity. Sarin's etymology is rather interesting in itself:
1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.
We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."
[From the characters in the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who made such discoveries, from Persian Sarandīp, Sri Lanka, from Arabic sarandīb.]
[The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
Sarin was discovered in 1938 in Wuppertal-Elberfeld in the Ruhr valley of Germany by two German scientists while attempting to create stronger pesticides; it is the most toxic of the four G-agents made by Germany. The compound, which followed the discovery of the nerve agent tabun, was named in honor of its discoverers: Gerhard Schrader, Ambros, Rüdiger and Van der LINde.Suggested reading:
The Three Princes of Serendip [The Living Heritage Trust]
The Three Princes of Serendip [Wikipedia]
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Crack is addicting--wait, no, addictive...kaboom!
The addicting/addictive debate is as old as the cosmos*. John called the reader's contention "absurd" and he's right; addicting is the participal adjective of addict, while addictive is simply the adjective. This is according to the OmotherfuckingED. Game, set and match.
Wayne, over on Dionidium, does a nice job of summing up the usage differences between the two words.
Addicting vs Addictive [Dionidium]
Crackberry: You Really Might Be Addicted [DealBreaker]
*That is, if the cosmos were created in 1939, OED's earliest reference to the words.
Hump This: Heckle
Inflected forms: heck·led, heck·ling, heck·les
1. To try to embarrass and annoy (someone speaking or performing in public) by questions, gibes, or objections; badger.
2. To comb (flax or hemp) with a hatchel.
[Source:The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.]
To comb flax or hemp with a hatchel? Who knew! I though heckling was just amusing one's self at another's expense. Now I like it even more.
The Daily Hump: Adieu
interj.Why adieu? Well, according to Bernard Lewis, Iranian President Ahmadinejad may be up to something today--that something being the bringing about of the end of the world:
Used to express farewell.
[Middle English, from Old French a dieu, (I commend you) to God : a, to (from Latin ad; see ad–) + Dieu, God (from Latin deus).]
[The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
What is the significance of Aug. 22? This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to "the farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back (c.f., Koran XVII.1). This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.Robert Spencer, Director of Jihadwatch.org(!) and an adjunct fellow at the conservative think tank Free Congress Foundation, says it's no coincidence that Ahmadinejad has chosen August 22 to tell the world whether Iran will comply with the UN's demands to curb its nuclear ambitions:
"The only thing we can know is that the date was not chosen by accident...It does seem very likely, very probable, that he has something major in mind, whether only a major announcement or a major attack, we will soon see."While I agree with the contention that Messrs Lewis and Spencer are paranoid loons, in case we don't make it through the rest of today, I just want to say thanks to all 25 of you who read WordHumper yesterday. Adieu!
August 22 [Opinion Journal]
Monday, August 21, 2006
This would make a great movie...
Linguistically, a strange thing happens when you geographically isolate nine parts 18th century English with seventeen parts 18th century Tahitian--namely, Pitkern, a Creole language that today has fewer than 100 speakers worldwide. As Wikipedia notes:
Many expressions no longer current in English carry on in Pitkern. It includes words from British maritime culture in the age of sailing ships, for example. The influence of Seventh-day Adventist Church missionaries and the King James Version of the Bible are also notable.*Unfortunately, the desire for sexual excess did not diminish over the course of generations as witnessed by the 2004 case brought against many of the mutineers' descendants by the British government.
Pitkern Phrase Book [Lareau Web Parlor]
Not to go down a particular track, 'specially in consideration of the last post, but since we've covered ourselves with Shit, we may as well move onto, into everyone's favorite: Cunt. Obviously - and boringly - offensive to us, the word is thrown around by the Brits and the Micks with less meaning than a 3 penny tip to your local barista. But for us its eh..eh..a big deal, no? Call a girl a cunt and she'll without a doubt want to feed you your balls. Call some guy a cunt - particularly effective when you append with something like "dickless" - only if you're ready to throw down; or feel - because he really is both those things - you won't have to.
Still, why draw a line in the sand on a word that is complimentary at best and of questionable origin at worst. Who knows.
Mathew Hunt, a guy who clearly has smoked the good shit, knows. Matt tracked the word - in his weird and highly subjective (you're clearly into some freaky shit, Matt, but thats fine by me) devotes a good bit of effort tracking the word from Indo-European to Celtic to Dutch. His findings, while questionable scientifically (I just like saying that), offer us a rarified peek into the cu...word.:
The prefix 'cu' is an expression of "quintessential femineity" (Eric Partridge, 1961), confirming 'cunt' as a truly feminine term. The synonymy between 'cu' and femininity was in place even before the development of written language: "in the unwritten prehistoric Indo-European [...] languages 'cu' or 'koo' was a word base expressing 'feminine', 'fecund' and associated notions" (Tony Thorne, 1990). The proto-Indo-European 'cu' is also cognate with other feminine/vaginal terms, such as the Hebrew 'cus'; the Arabic 'cush', 'kush', and 'khunt'; the Nostratic 'kuni' ('woman'); and the Irish 'cuint' ('cunt').There you have it. The cunt unraveled.
Thus, 'cu' and 'koo', both pronounced 'coo', were ancient monosyllabic sounds implying femininity. 'Coo' and 'cou' are modern slang terms for vagina, based on these ancient sounds. Other vaginal slang words, such as 'cooch', 'coot', 'cooter', 'cooz', 'cooze', 'coozie', 'coozy', 'cookie', 'choochy', 'chocha', 'cootch', and 'coochie snorcher' are extensions of them. 'Coochie snorcher', as in The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could from The Vagina Monologues, is a childish euphemism for 'cunt' that has generated the following elaborate variants:
Cunt: A Cultural History [MatthewHunt.com]
And speaking of bullshit, shit has a rather interesting etymology:
Scholars trace the word back to Old Norse origin (skīta), and it is virtually certain that it was used in some form by preliterate Germanic tribes at the time of the Roman Empire. It was originally adopted into Old English as scitte, eventually morphing into Middle English schītte. The word may be further traced to Proto-Germanic *skit-, and ultimately to Proto-Indo-European *skheid-, "split, divide, separate" (cf. Lithuanian šūdas ["shit"]). Conceptually, it refers to that part of the body (the excrement), which is "divided" from the rest of the body. It is related to the verb "to shed" (as in, "to shed one's skin"), "to shoot", and other words in common English usage.Perhaps coincidentally, bull also traces from Old Norse. Thus begs the question, did the Vikings invent bullshit? Think about that next time you're taking a divide.
The Tedium of Office-Speak: Good Words Gone Bad
I propose the following words be banned from offices everywhere:
Utilize – Because no word has ever been more over-utilized. It’s also a bit pretentious.
Offline – As in, “Let’s take this offline.” Usually this is said in a meeting, meaning, let’s have a private conversation later. But you’re not online. So you can’t go offline. See?
Verbiage – This, like utilize, is used by pretentious people to mean “copy.” Just say copy. “I need some copy for the paragraph about doo-dangers.”
*This will be an ongoing column, because there is a glut of worthy words being abused in today’s offices. And someone has to stand up for them. Someone has to Hump them!
Labels: Guest Hump
Have you met my friend, Deez?
Tintinnabulation |ˌtintəˌnabyəˈlā sh ən| noun
A ringing or tinkling sound. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from Latin tintinnabulum ‘tinkling bell’ (from tintinnare, reduplication of tinnire ‘to ring, tinkle’ ) + -ation .
The Daily Hump: Moloch
1. In the Bible, the god of the Canaanites and Phoenicians to whom children were sacrificed.
2. Something possessing the power to exact severe sacrifice.
[Late Latin Moloch, from Greek Molokh, from Hebrew Mōlek, of Canaanite origin.]
[The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
Howl (Part II) [The Beat Page]
Sunday, August 20, 2006
The Daily Hump: Word Humper
word hum·per (wûrd hŭm·pər)
n. One who contemplates, deconstructs and analyzes all attributes of language for nothing more than sheer enjoyment. See also mental masturbation.
[word : Middle English, from Old English + humper : Probably of Low German origin.]
Saturday, August 19, 2006
At the end of the day are clichés really that bad?
As Jane M. Von Bergen rightly points out, if the phrase "at the end of the day" was used sparingly and effectively then we would welcome its use today as a preface to deeply significant observations; instead, because the phrase has become so hackneyed, it is rendered meaningless.
What makes at the end of the day so particularly revolting is the phrase's truth-in-advertising problem.
I get excited when people sound as if they are about to emit wisdom. That end of the day phrase tunes me up in anticipation of a Tuesdays With Morrie-level insight, something meaningful, something important.
Enough is Enough [Philadelphia Inquirer via Obscure Store]
Menura is fowl
The Lyrebird’s Song [Kircher Society]
The Daily Hump: Doppelgänger
n. A ghostly double of a living person, especially one that haunts its fleshly counterpart.
[German, a double : doppel, double (from French double; see double) + Gänger, goer (from Gang, a going, from Middle High German ganc, from Old High German).]
[The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition]
Footnote: I remember first coming upon the word doppelgänger in Konami's 1990 NES release Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Great game!