Thursday, July 25, 2013



Last week, upon joking with my wife that I was “plying her with wine,” I found myself wondering about that usage of the word ply. What I discovered was far more rich and robust than the inexpensive swill we were sharing for dinner. One might even argue that the word ply has an “intriguing bouquet, a delightful aftertaste & a remarkable length.”

The Oxford English Dictionary devotes about a half page to the word ply, which initially meant to apply, employ, or work busily at, and entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French. Before that, it spent some time in Latin, & before that it resided in a hazily defined tongue etymologists call “Proto-Indo-European.”

The meaning I was using at the dinner table, to press one to take, appeared first in 1676, but ply also has all these meanings:

-to bend, bow, fold, or double
-to bend in will or disposition
-to adapt or accommodate
-to yield or be pliable
-to bend in reverence
-to bend, twist or writhe forcibly
-to comply or consent
-to cover with something bent or folded
-to draw out by bending or twisting
-to occupy oneself busily
-to use, handle or wield vigorously
-to practice or work at
-to solicit with importunity
-to beat against the wind
-to steer
-to traverse by rowing or sailing

This modest three-letter word (or word part) plays a role in these words & more:
plywood, pliant, comply, compliance, compliant, apply, appliance, application, multiply, multiplication, reply, complex, plectrum, pliers, & (believe it or not) flax.

This week, please ply me with a question. What word have you heard or used recently that caused you to think, “Hmmm. Where’d that one come from?”

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

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Carrion Carry-on?

Carrion Carry-on?

I have the good fortune of participating in two wonderful critique groups. Recently, in one of those groups, while critiquing one of Sue McGinty’s manuscripts, we got distracted by the homonyms carrion, carry on & carry-on. Sue’s Bella Kowalski mysteries usually include some humor, but since the carrion/carry-on/carry on humor wasn’t a tree up which protagonist Bella would likely bark, the conversation got off-routed to a Wordmonger column.

Today, the term carry-on (referring to luggage) is probably used thousands of times more per day than the terms carry on or carrion, yet only a couple of decades ago, the opposite would have been true.

To my complete surprise, the earliest printed use I can find of the luggage variety carry-on is 2006. Even more surprisingly, I can find no reliable information regarding when the term entered the language.

Carry on, on the other hand (ooh, sorry about that) showed up as early as 1606 & has a variety of meanings:
                        -to continue or advance
                        -to prevent from stopping
                        -to practice habitually
                        -to behave in a conspicuous way
                        -to conduct, manage or prosecute

All this can be found buried in the nearly three full pages the Oxford English Dictionary dedicates to the word carry, which came to English through Old French from Late Latin, where it meant to convey in a vehicle. This sheds light on carrys relationships with car, cart, cargo, chariot, & carpenter.

On the other hand, carrion came to English through French from the Vulgar Latin word caronia, meaning carcass. If we follow caronia back far enough we find the Latin word caro, or meat. Carrion’s relatives include carnivore, carnal, carnival, carnage, incarnation, & reincarnation. Even the meaning of the word crone refers back to the idea of being carcass-like. Also, though etymologists haven’t finished arm-wrestling over it just yet, some argue that the word crow also comes from caro, presumably because crows include carrion in their diets. Similarly, some etymologists argue that carbine started with caro, though this takes more explanation. It seems that during the years of the plague, people speaking Old French referred to those who bore the corpses as escarrabin, meaning carrion beetle, which morphed into a nasty epithet used to refer to attacking archers, who in time swapped in their archery equipment for small rifles, yet still got called names because they were after all, attacking. In time the epithet for the attackers became associated with their weapon of choice, the carbine.

Dear readers, this week, please join me in some word play. Leave a goofy sentence in the comments box that primarily employs words addressed in this post.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline,

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Unlikely Etymologies

Unlikely Etymologies

Before today’s post, I have some news. In my life as an audiobook narrator I’ve been recognized for my audiobook production of Culloden!, a swashbuckling Scottish zombie book by William Meikle. The nomination comes from the UK’s The Guardian’s Indie Book awards (it's the 7th block of print in the post). Wow. And big thanks to Anne R. Allen who discovered the nomination.

Now onto two unlikely sentences & the unlikely etymologies of the words therein.

The vicar’s Ouija board turned out to be a red herring.

A vicar’s job is to interpret scripture for the masses, substituting for Jesus, which is why vicar is based on the Latin word vicarious, or substitute (1300s).

A Ouija board functions due to the “agreement” of the two people whose fingers rest on the planchette, thus, its name was derived from a marriage of the French & German words for yes: oui + ja = Ouija (1910).

A red herring in a mystery throws the reader/viewer off the trail. This term comes from fox hunting as early as the 1680s, as nefarious characters (or members of the Save the Beleaguered Fox Brigade, I presume) might drag a red herring across the fox’s trail, causing the hounds to veer off in the wrong direction (apparently the reek of the red herring is infamous).

A moron moseyed through the bedlam in the nick of time.

The term moron reflects Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s impression of the mental capacity of pre-teens. In 1910 he defined his term as meaning dull, stupid, silly or foolish, and introduced the word moron to apply to adults whose mental aptitude coincided with the abilities of 8-12 year olds.

The word mosey is the flipside of the word vamoose – one meaning to leave speedily & the other meaning to leave in a languid fashion (1829).

Bedlam was born as the nickname for a London-based priory, St. Mary of Bethlehem, which became a home for the mentally unstable, famous during part of its tenure for the screams of its inmates (1418).

Though nick of time wasn’t recorded until the 1640s, the story is that some Medieval churches and colleges recorded attendance by notching a stick. When a parishioner or student arrived, a nick was cut into the stick. The last one to arrive would receive the nick of time.

This week’s unlikely etymologies were inspired by Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins (Carol Publishing Group, 1999).

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Dictionary of Word Origins & Etymonline,

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Stone Lions

The Stone Lions

Gwen Dandridge’s middle grade novel, The Stone Lions just showed up on the digital bookshelf – true cause for celebration.

In this tale of intrigue and mathemagic, the reader joins Ara and Layla, to rush through the stunning and glorious Alhambra, in all its early-Renaissance glory. Our two heroines search for various types of symmetry in the Alhambra’s miraculous tilework, as they strive to keep the Alhambra – and the thriving Islamic life & culture it represents – alive.

Following are etymologies for some of the words that play important roles in the tale:

The story takes place in the Alhambra, a stunning Moorish castle. Alhambra means red palace, and comes from Arabic, al hamra, which refers to the glowing red bricks of its exterior.
The stone lions of the title are the centerpiece of the Alhambra’s Court of the Lions - a fountain surrounded by twelve stone lions. Lion entered English in the 1200s from Old French, where the word meant not only lion, but hero. The French borrowed the word from Latin (leonem), which borrowed it from Greek (leon), which appears to have borrowed it from a Semitic language (most likely the Hebrew word labhi). Some of the meanings lion has held during its long life as an English word include:

 -one who is fiercely brave,
 -tyrannical leader, &
 -greedy devourer

The idiom the lion’s share entered English in 1701. The word lionize initially meant person of note who is much sought after, a macabre reference to the lions kept in the Tower of London, though over a dozen decades it came to mean to treat someone as a celebrity. It takes little to imagine that what with paparazzi and all, our modern celebrities may feel the teeth of the earlier meaning.
The Alhambra is located in southern Spain in the city of Granada, which most likely came from the Latin, granatum, which translates to seeded apple, or pomegranate.
Symmetry made its way to English in the 1560s through Latin, from the Greek word symmetros, meaning having a common measure, even or proportionate. By the 1590s, symmetry also meant a harmonic arrangement of parts (a phrase which could also refer to Dandridge’s novel). By 1809 the word symmetrophobia was born (though this word doesn’t occur in the book, the book’s villain appears to fit into the category of symmetrophobe).

The word sultan entered English in the 1550s from Middle French, which borrowed the word from Arabic. Meaning ruler, king, queen, power or dominion. The Arabic word sultan was derived from the Aramaic word shultana, a word which spoke of both power & protection.

I have hopes, good readers, that you have something to say about sultans, symmetry, lions, pomegranates, the Alhambra, or Gwen Dandridge’s fine book.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Gwen Dandridge’s blog, & Etymonline,