Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nifty, swell & spiffy

Nifty, swell & spiffy
Last week’s words were all created or transmogrified by jazz musicians. This week’s words all have questionable parentage. Still, jazz musicians have been known to get around. Might they hold some responsibility for nifty, swell & spiffy?

Swell in its noun form came into English in the 1200s. Though it appears to have Germanic roots, no direct line can be found. Swell’s origin is a mystery. Initially, swell meant a morbid swelling, & showed up just in time to get lots of use during the Black Death. By the 1600s, swell also referred to a rise in the sea, and by the 1780s it picked up the meaning, an elegant, wealthy person, due to perceived “puffed up, pompous behavior” of the elegant & wealthy. A brief fifty years later the noun slid sideways into the world of adjectives & began to simply mean fashionably dressed. In the late 1700s, that “puffed up” flavor of swell began applying itself to words, and came to mean an inflated style of language. By the time the century turned, swell shifted again to mean good or excellent. In 1930s America it took another sideways slide into the world of interjections, becoming understandable all by itself in a sentence as a “stand alone expression of satisfaction.”

Nifty made its way into English in 1868, with two posited, yet questionable origins. Some etymologists believe nifty came from the theater crowd, but have little evidence to support this. Most etymologists also doubt the origin story offered by Bret Harte when asked about nifty’s appearance in his writing. He claimed nifty was an abbreviation of magnificat. Still, nobody knows.

In 1853 spiffy appeared in English, also with no known origin, though it appeared about the same time as another word with no apparent source, spiff, a well-dressed gentleman. By the 1870s, the term spiffing became popular, meaning excellent. To confuse matters, there’s no apparent relationship to the noun spiff, a term used in the draper’s trade, meaning the percentage owed a salesman who sells outdated or undesirable stock. The same is said of the verb to spiflicate, which means to confound, & may just be a word we need to bring back to popular usage.

Followers, please leave a comment. In this modern age are we suffering from the confusion that anything swelled up is a good thing? On another note, might spiffy, swell & nifty have been born in the world of jazz? More importantly, are spiffy, swell & nifty still alive & thriving, or do they only spiflicate modern English listeners?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Funky, cool & groovy

Funky, cool & groovy
So when did things get funky, cool & groovy?

Cool entered English as col, some time before 1100, referring to temperatures that were neither cold nor warm as well as people who were unperturbed or undemonstrative. By 1728 English speakers began to apply cool to large sums of money, & by 1825 cool also meant calmly audacious. That meaning took another century to ooze into meaning fashionable. By the 1940s, jazz musicians got hold of cool. After a bit of time referring to a particular sort of jazz, cool simply became a general term of approval.

Similarly, groovy started out with a literal meaning. It was used in the mid-1800s to mean pertaining to a groove. Like cool, groovy got into the hands of those 1930s jazz musicians, morphing from in the groove, which referred to a musician playing expertly without grandstanding, to groovy. By the 1940s it began to mean wonderful. Our friends at the OED tell us that some time during the 1980s the word groovy went “out of currency.”

Funky has a more complicated history than either cool or groovy. It may have started in several different manners. Evidence suggests that one usage stems from the French word for smoke, funkiere, which may have entered English as early as the 1620s. It also seems funky may have originated at Oxford University in the 1600s, meaning agitation, perturbation or distress, from the Flemish word fonck. Another possible origin is the Old French word funicle, meaning wild or mad. Whether all three strands somehow braided themselves together, or whether only one is the true origin, funky gained general use in English during the 1700s, meaning depressed. This meaning still exists in the phrase he’s in a funk. And, just to confuse things, more etymological evidence shows a fourth strand of funky showing up in 1784 in reference to stinky cheese, & a fifth strand from Kikongo, a language of Zaire & its environs. This word, lu-fuki referred to bad body odor. By the early 1900s, all this funkiness managed to get itself a more positive flavor, thanks to – you guessed it – jazz musicians, who applied it to music that seemed earthy, strong & deeply felt.

Think of all we owe to jazz musicians.

Has groovy truly died & gone to word heaven, or is it still alive? Which of those two possibilities would be best for the world? Will cool & funky live long lives, or are they soon to go “out of currency”?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


We’ve arrived at Dr. King’s birthday, the spark for this post. Check out one of his lesser-known statements, below.

“Power at its best is love implementing
 the demands of justice,
and justice at its best is power correcting

that stands against love.”
In my humble opinion, a measure of the eloquence and elegance of that thought is the focus on assessing the best of both attributes, but I digress.
The word justice appeared in English in the 1100s. It came through Old French, from the Latin word iustitia, meaning, righteousness or equity.
Most early English uses of the word applied to a person playing the role of judge, much as we might use the term today to refer to members of the Supreme Court. It wasn’t until the late 1300s that the meaning equity became popular. 

The word justice has relations in Old French, Latin & English in the words juste, iustus & just. Some of their shades of meaning include:

righteous in the eyes of God,
law, &
In honor of Dr. King, please leave a thought in the comments section. Comment on the quote, or mention some injustice that needs addressing in this world of ours, or better yet, explain some actions you are involved in which promote justice.

My thanks go out to Sharif Ezzat for the image of Dr. King & to this week’s sources The OED, Write Spirit & Etymonline.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Giver & Son

The Giver & Son

Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a fantastic teen/middle grade read, & has been since it showed up in 1994. Just this year, the final book in The Giver Quartet appeared, titled Son. This fourth book offers an intriguing look into the wonders & challenges of love.

For this week’s post, we’ll take a look at the etymologies of the words Lowry used for her titles in The Giver Quartet books: The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, & Son.

The word give came to Old English as giefan, to give, bestow, allot, grant, commit, devote or entrust. It has close relatives in Old Frisian, Dutch, German & Gothic, & all those find their roots in the Proto-Indo-European word ghabh-, to take hold, have, or give. That same root spawned the word habit.

The word gathering entered English in the 1100s, as gaderung & meant meeting. It came from the Old English verb, gaedrian, to unite, agree, gather, collect, or store up. It’s related to German, Dutch, Old Frisian & Gothic words with these meanings: unite, husband, spouse, fellow & join.

Messenger came to English as messager from Old French about 1200, meaning envoy, ambassador or messenger. Linguists call the n that showed up two centuries later parasitic, as it showed up “for no apparent reason except that people liked to say it that way.” Interestingly, the noun message was derived from the verb messager, appearing in the 1300s, meaning communication transferred via a messenger. Messenger is related through its French grandmother & Latin great grandmother to transmit, mission, emissary, & submit.

Had Lowry’s fourth book, Son, been published in Old English, it would have been titled Sunu, meaning – what a surprise – son. Other Germanic language brothers of son include sonr, zoon, sone, sunuz, sohn & sunus. All of these words herald from the Sanskrit verb su, to give birth.

Fellow writers, what can you pull out of these etymologies that you would hope for your own work? Fellow readers, what do you find in these etymologies that you look for in your Next Great Read? Please let us know in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, & Etymonline.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Blue -- & my dad

Blue – & my dad

January 4th is a little-known holiday – my dad’s birthday. In honor of his propensity for turning the air blue, we’ll take a look at the word blue.

Scott C. Perry Jr. (known in the family as Puz) happened to have blue eyes, though I don’t know of anyone who would’ve called him a blue-eyed boy. He headed to work at MGM Studios straight out of high school as a blue-collar worker. He would not have been fond of blue laws, & did not frequent restaurants featuring cordon bleu chefs.

Etymologists are somewhat uncertain regarding the association of the word blue with profanity. The first instances of phrases like turn the air blue or cuss a blue streak occurred in the 1840s. This may be associated with the Scottish phrase thread o’ blue, which referred to music or literature that included a “smutty touch,” however some linguists see this as a shaky connection.

Blue collar is a reference to the traditionally blue work clothes of those engaged in manual labor. Cordon bleu translates to blue ribbon & refers to the highest level of chefs, those who might win a blue first place ribbon. The term blue-eyed-boy refers to the employee preferred by the boss; synonymous with the term fair-haired-boy, it appears to reflect a long-lived European prejudice. Once in a blue moon is a term first documented in 1821 that reflects that rare occasion when we see two full moons in one month.

Into the wild blue yonder is a term referring to the excitement or isolation of traveling to the unknown. It’s not quite synonymous with Jackie Gleason’s classic line, “To the moon, Alice, to the moon,” but I’m forced to mention this line due to Puz’s affinity for Jackie Gleason & Puz’s own unplanned travel to the unknown some five years ago.

Blogophiles, please leave a comment suggesting a person in your life & what one word you might propose as a tribute to him/her.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, The Free Dictionary & Etymonline.