Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stymie, bamboozle & stump

Stymie, bamboozle & stump

I know. This week’s post title sounds like a law firm consisting of difficult partners.

I started out thinking it would be fun to look into the etymologies of words meaning to get in the way, & I was surprised to learn that about half the words meaning to bamboozle were, by definition, bamboozling. It’s wonderfully ironic that so many of these words’ histories have stymied etymologists.

Stymie first appeared in English in 1857. Today it means to thwart, hinder, or get in the way, though its original meaning (as a noun) was specific to the game of golf – the condition in which the opponent’s ball blocks the hole. Most sources list its origins as unknown, though some etymologists posit Scottish roots from the Scottish word stymie, meaning a person who sees poorly. Though logic would suggest it might be related to the sort of sty one might get in one’s eye, no such connection seems to exist.

Who would have thought that stump was originally a verb? In the 1200s, stump meant to stumble over an obstacle. Not until the 1400s did stump refer to the part of a tree left in the ground after felling. In the 1800s stump added two verb meanings, to go about making political speeches, & to baffle or bring to a halt.

To hinder is to obstruct, harm, interfere with or get in the way of. Hinder first showed up in English in the 1300s as a noun meaning situated in the rear of. It appears to have come through Old English from Germanic sources. Its verb form followed within the century, meaning to delay or put back. One of its notable yet now-gone siblings was the word hinderling, a person fallen from social respectability, a wretch.

Though the English word veto clearly comes from the Latin, meaning I forbid, the Latin word’s origin is unknown. Our modern word veto means to forbid, prohibit, oppose, or hinder.

The word thwart started out in English as an adverb in the 1200s, meaning across. It came through Old Norse from terkw-, Proto-Indo-European for to twist. After a century or so, thwart picked up the meaning to oppose or hinder, & it has held onto that meaning ever since.

Bamboozle’s roots are – what a surprise – bamboozling. It first showed up in English in 1703, meaning to con, hoodwink or make a fool of. Bamboozle may have come from the Scottish word bombaze, to perplex. It may have its roots in French through the word embabouiner, which means to make a baboon of. Nobody knows for sure. Rest assured, though, hard-working etymologists are working night and day to verify the origin of bamboozle.

And from the Shameless Self-promotion Department:
Sunday, November 2 at 9 PM (PST) I’ll be presenting
several short pieces from the SLO Nightwriters’ Anthology
on KEBF 97.3 & streamed on the web.

So good followers, any thoughts about all this thwarting, vetoing & hindering?

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloweenish words

Halloweenish words

English includes heaps upon heaps of lovely words referring to unlovely things. This week we’ll take a look at a few of them.

The Dutch verb gluren meant to leer. In the 1300s it (or one of its Scandinavian siblings) made its way into Old English as gloom, initially a verb meaning to look sullen or displeased. The adjective gloomy showed up in the 1580s & the noun version of gloom, meaning darkness or obscurity, first appeared in writing in 1629.

Though we don’t know its roots, the Latin word luridis meant pale yellow & ghastly. By the 1650s it showed up in English as lurid, meaning ghastly or horrible, adding the meaning glowing in the dark by 1727 & the meaning sensational by the 1850s. Though I would love it if lurid were somehow related to the term yellow journalism, no such link seems to exist.

The Scandinavian tongues all had some version of the word grim (grimm, grimmaz, grimmr, grym), meaning furious, dire, painful, savage or cruel. Because of some similar-sounding words meaning thunder in Old Church Slavonic & Russian, etymologists have posited that grim’s grandmother words started out as an imitation of the sound of thunder. Grim made its way to Old English in the 1100s along with its sister-word grima, a noun referring to a ghoul, goblin or specter. Sadly, grima didn’t live very long, possibly taken out by some sort of linguistic grim reaper. Sources suggest that the term grim reaper didn’t show up until 1847, though one could argue that the grim reaper had been doing his job for centuries with no recognition.

The Greek word for black was melanin & the Greek word for bile was khole. Because depression was seen as a problem with the body’s humors, specifically pinned on the black bile, the word for overpowering sadness was melancholia, or black bile. This word made its way through Old French to English by the year 1300, to become melancholy.

Back in the 2nd century BCE, some folks we now call the Maccabees got fed up with intolerance & against all expectations, rose up to fight their mighty Greek oppressors. Though their story has its triumphant elements, the outcome wasn’t good for the Maccabees, known thereafter as martyrs. At some point in Medieval Latin the story was told as the dance of the Maccabees, or Machabaeorum. This term made its way through Old French to land in English in the early 1400s as macabre, meaning involving death or violence in a strange, frightening or unpleasant manner. 

On a grim-related side-note, any of you interested in hearing some Halloweenish tales might tune into Tales on the Rock, my half hour fiction show at 9:00 PM PST Sunday 10/26. I’ll be narrating a nightmarish tale of my own, then a Bradbury story, & last, Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”.

May any grim, gloomy, macabre, melancholy or luridness you encounter this season be in good fun.

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Two kinds of people

Two kinds of people

Last week we took a look at words descended from the Proto-Indo European word duwo or dwo, meaning two. It seems a posting regarding two calls for a partner post, so this week we’ll take a look at a few things intelligent women have said about two kinds of people. In an attempt to decrease redundancy, I’ve started each quote midstream after the author wrote something along the lines of,

“There are two kinds of people…”

“…those who live for their outsides & those who live for their insides.”
-Francesca Bendeke

“…the settled & the nomad -- & there is a natural antipathy between them, whatever the land to which they belong.”
-Freya Stark

“…those who have known inescapable sorrow & those who have not.”
-Pearl S. Buck

“…those of us who are trying to escape from something & those of us who are trying to find something.”
-Ileana, Princess of Rumania

“…the people who lift & the people who lean.”
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox

“…those who live poor on a lot & those who live rich on a little.”
-Marcelene Cox

“…those who think there are two kinds of people & those who have more sense.”
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon)

So good readers, does the world divide into dualities, or does that last quote from Ms. Sheldon (or Mr. Tiptree if you prefer) hit the nail on the head?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women &

Thursday, October 9, 2014



Talk about a frustrating spelling problem. How many English learners have wanted to thump that annoying & useless W right out of the word two? Or at least thump the imagined bozo who “invented” the spelling?

Though the imagined bozo must remain nameless, there is a story behind that bothersome W.

The word two came to English almost before English was English. It’s Proto-Indo-European grandmother is duwo &/or dwo, and left its linguistic progeny all over Europe:

Old Norse: tvau or tveir
Old Frisian & Old Saxon: twene or twa
Dutch: twee
Old High German: zwein or zwo
German: zvei
Gothic: twai
Latin & Greek: duo

If we take into account that the letters U, V & W often swap places in the languages of Europe, we start to see that the one common spelling element of all these twos is the U/V/W. Intriguing.

In Modern English, the W seems to have prevailed. We see it in other grandchildren of the Proto-Indo-European duwo or dwo:

twain a descendant of two’s under-appreciated Old English cousin twegen, twain may have survived in part due to inclusion in the King James Bible. Some have suggested that this variation of two is still around because it was helpful in rhyming poetry or because when used in verbal orders (for instance, aboard a ship) it could not be confused with too or to.

twine – those of you who are curious & fidgety already have tactile knowledge of why twine is related to two – because twine is made up of two fibers twisted together, then possibly two of those twisted again, & so on. As a curious & fidgety child I spent a lot of satisfying time untwisting things & figuring this out sans dictionary.

twist – a comparative latecomer to the language, twist didn’t show up in English until the mid-1300s. Twist first referred to the flat parts of a hinge, but in time came to mean combining two into one, which morphed into our multiple modern understandings of the word.

twin -- like twain & two, this form come to English almost before English was English. It hasn’t changed meaning at all over the centuries; it has only lost its second n (it was originally twinn).

twizzle – this word, meaning to twist, appears to have come from the word twist sometime in the 1780s, giving birth to the amusing term, twizzle stick.

In those two-ish words we’ve borrowed from Latin & Greek, the letter U prevailed:

duo – came to our language from Italian in the 1580s meaning a tune for two voices. After about two centuries duo generalized to refer to any two people (whether singing or not).

dual – entered English in the 1600s straight from Latin, meaning of two or having two parts.

Interestingly, duel can’t claim the same linguistic heritage. Though it seems it ought to have come from the idea of two people fighting, duel actually comes from duellum, an old-fashioned form of the Latin word bellum, or war. It was only through its similarity with all the words above that this particular type of war became associated with two people facing off against one another.

I’m hoping you’ll have something to say in the comments section – either a thought about all this two-ness, or a request to look into some other annoyingly spelled word.

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

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lost words of the crass variety

Lost words of the crass variety

Last week’s post involved some lost words I thought we should consider reviving from Susan Kelz Sperling’s fascinating book, Poplollies and Bellibones. In the comments section, Rachel6 suggested that maybe at least one of the words I chose was better off dead. Her comment inspired this post, which features some words nobody would want to be called. Though the behaviors that inspired the words continue, it’s unlikely anyone will drag these words out from their graves & sling them in the direction of anyone alive today.

breedbate – one who starts quarrels for the joy of it

fopdoodle – a fool, a simpleminded & insignificant fellow

lickspittle – a toady or fawning subordinate (much like last week’s lickspigot)

wallydraigle – a trifling, weak and ineffective person, or a slovenly woman

rutterkin – a crafty, misleading swindler

a nose of wax – this refers to a person so weakly fickle s/he will accommodate others at any cost, even to the point of denying those things or people most important to him/her

hufty-tufty – a man so full of himself he’s compelled to brag non-stop

smellsmock – a womanizer, a lecher, a man with roving eyes & more

Though I’m certain anyone reading this post is 100% sweetness & light, please imagine briefly that you were the sort who might use such crass words as these. Which one(s) would you most want at your disposal?