Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lackluster #1

Lackluster #1

In the next two posts we will celebrate that experience of drained energy those involved in education (in the northern hemisphere) are experiencing this time of year. To the students & teachers who are somehow managing to hang in there, I’m with you.

About 1600, Shakespeare wrote the word lackluster into his play As You Like It. Though the word may have been in general usage, he is credited with coining it. It’s a simple compound word meaning lacking luster. It has outlived many of its contemporaries that also employed the prefix lack-, like a word used for non-landholders, lackland, & a word used for a not-so-literate member of the clergy, lack-Latin.

In 1590 the word feck made its way into the English language from a Scottish word related to the word effect. Feck meant value or vigor. From feck came feckless, meaning without value or vigor. As those of us involved in education plod toward the end of the school year, we completely understand why the term feckful dropped out of the language, but feckless is still alive & very, very present.

Nobody’s sure whether our next words came from Slovonic, Lithuanian, or somewhere else altogether, but the words tedious & tedium might apply to one’s experience this time of year (or any time, I suppose). These words entered English from Latin in the 1600s, but their previous origins are uncertain. They refer to irksomeness, weariness, or disgust.

Though its original form, soporiforous, was much more fun to say, soporific is the modern form. It means tending to produce sleep, or characterized by excessive sleep. Soporiforous entered English in the 1680s from French, soporofique, which came from the Latin word sopor.

In 1789 another word of unknown origin entered English – the word snooze. Some etymologists believe it’s onomatopoeic in origin, though I don’t’ know if I’ve ever heard a snore that sounds quite like the word snooze. By 1793 snooze referred to a short nap, which I submit is a reasonable, though lackluster & feckless response to soporific tedium.

So, good readers, what have you to say about tedium & its soporific effects?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik, & Sloth – A Dictionary for the Lazy,

Thursday, May 22, 2014



Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth but not its twin.”
-Barbara Kingsolver

Memorial Day is nearly upon us. Though it’s not quite the intent of the holiday, here are some thoughts of wise women on the topic of memory:

“In memory each of us is an artist: each of us creates.”
-Patricia Hampl
“The hills of one’s youth are all mountains.”
-Mari Sandoz

“I have a terrible memory; I never forget a thing.”
-Edith Konecky

“Oh may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence.”
-George Eliot

 Memories are like corks left out of bottles. They swell. They no longer fit.”
-Harriett Doer

“The charm, one might say the genius, of memory is that it is choosy, chancy and temperamental; it rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside, chewing a hunk of melon in the dust.”
-Elizabeth Bowen

Good readers, what wise woman’s words ring truest or cause you to think in new or pleasurable ways?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Rosalie Maggio’s The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Nearly Happiness

Nearly Happiness

This week we’ll ponder some happiness synonyms gleaned mostly through surfing of the synonym sections in my 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

Most modern English speakers embrace the second meaning of happiness:
the state of pleasurable content of mind which results in success or the attainment of what is considered good.

Its synonyms reflect these shades of meaning:

gladness, implies a very exultant feeling of joy
cheerfulness, suggests a steady display of bright spirits or optimism
joy, implies great elation expressed in demonstrative happiness, with
joyousness suggesting a matter of usual temperament
& joyfulness having been caused by a temporal event.
pleasure is an agreeable feeling of satisfaction
delight suggests a high degree of obvious pleasure, openly & enthusiastically expressed
enjoyment implies a quieter feeling of satisfaction

Though it wars with the sensibilities of the modern speakers, the first meaning of happiness in most dictionaries is good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity.

Lucky implies a favorable or advantageous occurrence, unexpectedly & by chance. Lucky’s synonyms include:

fortunate, used for more serious matters of unexpected fortuity.
propitious means full of promise, good or favorable
auspicious suggests something good and encouraging
felicitous suggests an appropriate or suitable fit
providential suggests the intervention of God or some higher entity in bringing about favorable circumstances

Good readers, which synonym applies best to an experience you had this week?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik,& the 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language

Thursday, May 8, 2014



Just imagine how differently a happy evening might look if designed by an extreme introvert vs. an over-the-top extrovert. Most of us recognize the relativity of a term like happiness. Oddly, very few of us ever apply the primary meaning of the word happiness.

Most modern dictionaries list the first meaning of happiness something like this:  good fortune, luck or prosperity,. This leaves gladness, delight or pleasure in the not-so-coveted place of the second meaning.

So what definition of happiness was in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they included in a citizen’s “certain unalienable Rights” the pursuit of happiness? The Oxford English Dictionary would suggest that in the mid-1700s three definitions were in effect, in this order:

1. Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity

2. The state of pleasurable content of mind which results in success or the attainment of what is considered good

3. Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability or appropriateness; felicity

Given the framers’ collective focus on business brought on by their struggles with King George, it seems a reasonable argument that they may have been applying that first meaning – a meaning very few contemporary English speakers apply to the word happiness.

We modern English speakers haven’t lost that meaning altogether, as we do use hap- words that relate back to the idea of prosperity, luck, or good fortune:


And might happy-go-lucky actually translate to something more like luck-come-luck-go?

Even the first two meanings of the simpler word happy in the 1700s were:
1.    Coming or happening by chance; fortuitous
2.    Having good “hap” or fortune, coming by fortune; favored by lot, position or other external circumstance

All this connection to luck and fortune has to do with the roots of happiness.  The word comes from the Old Norse word happ, meaning good luck, which came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to suit, fit or succeed.

So does your modern understanding of happiness lean toward good fortune & prosperity, or is your happiness a pleasurable & felicitous content of mind? Please let me know in the comments section.

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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Return of Coverdale

The Return of Coverdale

Last week we took a look at compound words first written down by Myles Coverdale, who gave the world its first complete English Bible. This week we’ll take a look at a few other words for which Coverdale is given credit.

Though the word anoint was used in English as early as the 1300s, it simply meant smeared on. Coverdale was the first to use anoint in writing in its spiritual sense of choose or consecrate. Before this, it seems anoint was a word used exclusively to refer to medical treatments involving smearing a substance over a compromised area, like – oh, let’s say – a skin condition.

That brings us to the word leprosy, which appears to have been born in the Coverdale Bible. The Hebrew & Latin words in earlier versions were less specific, & might be translated as broadly as skin diseases, but Coverdale chose to represent those general skin diseases by Anglicizing the Greek word lepra, which meant scaly, but was also used to refer to the very specific skin disease now known as Hansen’s disease (named after the researcher who discovered the bacillus that causes the condition).

Though the original Hebrew of the Old Testament employed a word meaning resin, when it came to the ____ of Gilead, Coverdale chose the word balm, giving a common term of the time two new meanings. In the 1500s, the word balm was used to define an aromatic mixture of resins & oils. Coverdale’s use of it gave birth to both the physically soothing effect of things that smelled good, & the idea that a degree of spiritual enlightenment could bring about a similarly pleasing effect.  

Swaddling was born of the Old English word swathian, to bind or bandage. One of the customs of the centuries pre-dating Coverdale involved binding infants’ limbs, as it was believed that not doing so could lead to deformity (we humans come up with some pretty wonky ideas, don’t we?). It’s unclear whether Coverdale imagined the baby Jesus’ limbs tightly bound or whether the term swaddling clothes had been generalized by then to refer to a baby’s blanket.

Though many might guess that the more violent meaning of the word lick was coined by the likes of Mark Twain, linguists attribute it to Coverdale. To lick, meaning to annihilate, defeat or beat, first appeared in Coverdale’s translation of the Bible.

Good readers, had any of you wondered about swaddling, lick, leprosy, balm or anoint, or had these words escaped your curiosity?  Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, English Bible History & Wordnik