Gone To The Dogs

He may be man’s best friend, but no one is quite sure where his name comes from.

The word dog appears once in Old English, in a gloss from ca.1050, rather late in the Old English period. The gloss reads "canum docgena." Initially, dog was used to refer to particularly large canines. The origin of the word is obscure with no known root in other languages. Several European languages have cognates of dog, but these are all descended from the English word and provide no clue as to its original provenance.

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Esquivalience and Other Mountweazels

The August 29th issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Henry Alford in the Talk of the Town section about esquivalience and other mountweazels. Esquivalience? Mountweazel? Surely those aren’t words to be found in a dictionary?

Well, it seems the first is in a dictionary and the second appears in an encyclopedia. The 2nd edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the first as:

"esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities ... late 19th cent.; perhaps from the French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’"

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Barbarians

This week we take a look at barbarians, or more specifically what words we have used for them. A barbarian is, of course, an uncivilized person, or perhaps more accurately someone from a civilization or culture other than our own. In English usage, the words barbarian and barbarous date to the 16th century. The obsolete barbar was in use earlier, dating to the 14th century. The English word is borrowed from the French and ultimately comes from Latin and Greek. The origin in Greek is probably echoic, the bar-bar as mimicry of what a foreign and unintelligible language sounded like. In ancient Greece, the word was used to refer to anyone from a non-Hellenic culture. In Roman usage, the word was used to mean someone who was neither Roman nor Greek, and in later usage to anyone from outside the empire.

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Atomic

This past week saw the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events that brought an end to World War II. These two grim events introduced a large number of terms in the vocabularies of millions.

First among these are the names for the device itself. The term atomic bomb predates the device, being used as early as 1914 in H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free. Its shorter cousin A-bomb dates from 1945 as does the term the bomb. The thermonuclear hydrogen bomb comes a few years later in 1947 and H-bomb in 1950. The use of more technically accurate nuclear to denote fission and fusion processes and weapons also comes in 1945.

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What Is This Phishing Of Which You Speak?

Reuters reported this week that a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project asked online users about various internet buzzwords and jargon terms. It found that despite all the buzz, the words were not that familiar to most internet users.

Most users knew what spam was, but there the familiarity ended. Words like phishing (soliciting financial information about a person by pretending to be a bank or other trustworthy source), podcasting (audio downloads available over the internet), and RSS feed (a service that pushes blog entries to a user as soon as they are published).

Younger internet users fared better than older ones in recognizing the terms.

A Scandal of Errors

The latest Washington scandal, that of presidential consigliere Karl Rove and vice presidential assistant Lewis "Scooter" Libby revealing the name of a C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame to the press in an attempt to discredit her husband, suffers from not having a catchy name. Some have suggested Plamegate, using the –gate suffix that has been affixed to many a scandal since the original Watergate. Others have suggested the more unwieldy Rove v. Plame, a play on the court case Roe v. Wade.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the essence of the scandal is that Rove, architect of President Bush’s electoral campaigns for governor of Texas and president of the United States, and Libby, told reporters that Plame worked for the C.I.A. either for revenge because her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was critical of the administration or to discredit Wilson by implying that he was given a C.I.A. assignment by his wife. There are questions about what laws, if any, were actually broken, and one reporter has been sent to jail for refusing to reveal her sources even though she never wrote a story about the case.

The scandal centers on that venerable Washington institution, the leak. A leak is the revelation of a secret. Leak has been used in this sense since 1859. Of course leaks are usually made to reporters, who seek to protect their sources from exposure. 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws (1998) that do not require journalists to reveal their sources to police or official investigators, but the federal government does not have one. This is why the reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, was sent to jail.

Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper has given us double secret background, the terms under which Rove spoke to him. Cooper used the term in an email to his editor that was made public during the investigation. Background is a journalism term used to describe a source who is not to be quoted. There is also deep background, meaning that the source is not even to be referred to anonymously, the information is only provided to the reporter as a guide for finding more leads or other sources. Cooper jocularly dubbed this double secret background, a play on the term double secret probation, which was used in the 1978 movie Animal House to refer to a punishment inflicted on a fraternity by the university.

Another word that has gotten a lot of use in this particular scandal is the verb to out, meaning to reveal a hidden identity, as in "Rove outed C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame." Most recognize the word in the sense of publicly revealing that someone is gay, but some question its use in this, more general, sense. Both these senses are cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1990. The specific sense relating to gays is a variant of the reflexive verb phrase to come out or to come out of the closet. This older term dates to 1968, but it’s not the oldest related sense. Out has been used to mean to reveal a secret since the late 14th century.

In response to the scandal, Republicans have released their legions of spin doctors (1984) who loyally repeat the daily talking points (1920), or message, on television, the radio, and to print reporters. The Democrats have their spin doctors and talking points too, but the Republicans are better at message discipline (1993).

Finally, there is the word scandal itself. It’s from the Latin scandalum, meaning a cause of offense and ultimately from the Greek meaning trap or snare. English usage dates to the 13th century and originally applied to something that brought discredit upon a clergyman or a church. The OED’s first citation in a secular and general sense is from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. This current scandal is chock full of errors, on all sides, but is hardly a comedy.

Failure Is Not An Option

On 20 July, the Reuters news service reported that some members of the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) in Britain have called for the banning of the word fail in classrooms. Instead, the term deferred success should be used.

The organization as a whole will consider the proposal next week.

In Passing: Charles Chibitty, 83

The last of the Commanche code talkers, who used the Commanche language to communicate sensitive information over the radio during World War II, died on 20 July.

The Navajo code talkers were more numerous and more famous. Navajo code talkers served in the Pacific Theater. Their lesser known Commanche comrades served in Europe. Choctaw Indians also served as code talkers. Both groups used their native languages, supplemented with coded terms for military jargon that did not exist in those languages, to send indecipherable messages faster than by using conventional codes.

The "code" spoken by the code talkers was not very complex and could have been broken had someone with knowledge of the language been listening, but the fact that almost no non-native speakers of those languages existed and the information they transmitted was tactical in nature and only useful for hours at best, the code talkers proved a very secure way to communicate.

"It’s strange, but growing up as a child I was forbidden to speak my native language at school," Chibitty said in 2002. "Later my country asked me to. My language helped win the war, and that makes me very proud."

Moonshot Terms

This past Wednesday was the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, what is likely to be considered, in centuries to come, the most historic event of the latter half of the 20th century. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin landed their lunar module, Eagle, in the Sea of Tranquility, while the third member of the team, Michael Collins, orbited the moon in the command module Columbia. The next day, Greenwich Mean Time, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on our planet’s closest neighbor.

Historic events are usually accompanied by historic words, if not at the moment in question, then sometime afterwards. In the case of the first lunar landing, many of the most famous words were scripted in advance. The most famous of these the famous sentence of Neil Armstrong’s spoken when he first stepped onto the lunar surface:

That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

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Tour de France Terms

The Tour de France, or Le Tour, is without a doubt the most famous, and the most grueling, bicycle race in the world. Held each July since 1902 (with breaks during the world wars), this is the 92nd riding of the Tour. This year’s tour is 2,237 miles (3,600 km), broken up into 21 stages or daily rides. The tour’s route changes from year-to-year, running through different regions of France and with some stages in neighboring countries (this year it’s Germany). Of course, this year’s Tour is eagerly watched by many because it is Lance Armstrong’s last year riding the race. Armstrong has won the last six Tours, the only man to have won that many.

Traditionally, the race starts with short time trial of less than five miles called the prologue. A time trial is a stage where the cyclists ride individually, against the clock alone, without the assistance of teammates. Some time trials are team time trials, where each team rides as a group, but not alongside the other teams. This year, the prologue has been replaced with a longer, 12 mi (19 km) time trial. The final stage of the race is always along the Champs Elysees (literally the Elysian Fields), the famed Parisian avenue. Riders do three circuits of the street, each one about 15 kilometers long at very fast speeds. Winning this final stage is considered quite an honor.

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