Contronyms.

I remember reading, as a kid, a children’s storybook called ‘Amelia Bedelia’, in which Amelia got a job as a housekeeper without having any knowledge of how to keep house. It was memorable because of the humour involved in her being told to dust the living room, but having no idea how. She proceeded to cover every surface in the living room with the dusting powder she found  in the bathroom. Obviously, the result was the exact opposite of what her employer had intended.

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I still remember the experience of understanding for the first time that there are words that have opposite or contradictory meanings despite being exactly the same words. What a revelation! Words had just become automatically more interesting and exciting.

Dust is one of a small and interesting collection of words called contronyms.
A contronym is more than just a homophone or homograph: it must have two meanings that are contrary to one another.

To dust can mean to remove the dust from a surface: Amelia Bedelia learned that to dust the furniture meant to polish or sweep the furniture in order to keep it clean. It can also mean to sprinkle the surface of something with a powdery substance:: a baker might dust a cake with sugar, a weightlifter dusts their hands with chalk to create extra grip, and snow can dust the landscape.

To cleave is to chop or cut through something. One can cleave a piece of wood in two with an axe, or cleave a piece of meat on two with a special knife called a cleaver.It is even possible to cleave through something figuratively: a swimmer might be said to cleave through the water, or a plane through the air. However, cleave can also mean exactly the opposite: to hold together.One can also cleave to one’s partner or spouse by holding them close, or by remaining faithful to them. In the same way, one can cleave to one’s faith or ideology by living faithfully according to its tenets and teachings.

Fast can mean with great speed: one can run fast, or a lab test might have a fast result if it happens quickly. It can also mean to not move at all: a tile might be held fast to the wall by strong glue, or a vine might cling fast to a tree.

Buckle can mean to bend or fold. A wall can buckle under the force of water or wind. Legs can buckle underneath a person who is carrying something too heavy for them, or as the result of a shock or impact. Buckle can also mean to fasten or hold something in place, just as a buckle on a belt or shoe does.

You could even say that someone who cleaves to something holds fast to it, while a buckle can hold a shoe fast to the foot wearing it!

Note that not all words that are contronyms have only those two meanings.

To bear can mean to carry, as in a burden or a grudge.
To bear can also mean to give birth – meaning that the child is no longer being carried.
These meanings make bear a contronym, regardless of its multiple other meanings and nuances.

A koala – which is not actually a bear – bearing her baby, which she previously bore.
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Contronyms: Words that have two opposite meanings.
#grammar #words #English

A Butt-load Of Butts.

A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively—  one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.

A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot  which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.

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The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of  methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.

This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.

That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from  animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans  came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.

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Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.

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Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast,  Love,charity, obedience and true duty”  with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of  her insult.

By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but  which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.

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It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”

Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”

The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.

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In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’  V.ii, he admonishes  her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.

Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus:  “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”

To butt against, meaning to adjoin or sit right next to, dates back to the 1660s,p and comes from an abbreviation of abut.

A butt butting on a receptacle for butts. Image: WordyNerdBird.

To butt into a conversation by intruding without invitation came into American English at the turn of the 20th century.

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Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary

A Butt-load of Butts.
#words #language #Englishvocabulary

Passion.

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Most of the time when we use the word passion, we are referring to either powerful emotion or a strong desire to do something. 

However, when people talk about ‘the Passion’ of Jesus at Easter, the word has a different meaning altogether. 

It doesn’t mean that He had a strong desire to die the way he did— even though he was absolutely committed to doing so— nor does it refer to His emotional state, even though he definitely would have experienced a plethora of powerful emotions. 

Passion came into English from French around 1200 AD,  meaning physical suffering. This came from the Latin word passionem meaning suffering or enduring

Interestingly, passionem came from the past-participle Lati stem word pati- which meant “to endure, undergo or experience.” This means that passion is a cousin of patient and patience.

By the mid-13th century, passion had also come to mean an ailment, disease or affliction; rather than just the condition of suffering one. At about the same time, any emotion, feeling or powerful temptation to sin that might be considered as an affliction” might also be called a passion. 

Therefore, when medieval theologians and teachers used the phrase ‘the passion of Christ’ they had no concept of how those words might cause confusion or be entirely misconstrued in the future. 

It was another century or so before passion was used to refer to the intensity of an emotion or desire.  Later again was the use of the word to refer specifically  to sexual love or desire, which had developed by the late 16th century. By the 1630s, it had evolved again to include the sense of a strong liking, enthusiasm, or preference”, and by the 1730s, the object of that pursuit or desire was also referred to as one’s passion.

Because language continually evolves, old words often come to have several very different meanings.  The beauty of etymology is that it explains the relationships and solves the puzzles that we might otherwise find very confusing. 

And fhat, friends, why everyone needs wordy-nerdy people like me in their lives, ready to answer the tough questions and enrich your word power and vocabulary. 
You’re welcome. 

Happy Easter. x

Why is Jesus’ suffering called ‘passion’?
#Easter #GoodFriday #words Vocabulary

Sleuth

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A sleuth is a detective: most often, the word is used to describe an amateur or privately employed detective rather than a police officer. As a word, it was very popular in early detective fiction such as that written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, and is perhaps less popular now than in previous generations. Even so, it it is a word with a fascinating history.

As a keen reader of mystery fiction for many years now I am familiar with many sleuths. I started with Tricia Belsen, the Hardy Boys and the like. Scooby Doo and the gang were my favourite TV sleuths, but my parents loved Jessica Fletcher. As an adult, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Phryne Fisher rank among my favourites. As much as I love Agatha Christie’s work, I always found Hercule Poirot to be insufferably smug and somewhat condescending, but that is a different discussion.

Sleuth had come into English at some point before 1200 AD, meaning ‘a definite track or trail left by someone or something’. This came from the  Old Norse word sloð  which means trail. This word was used to describe dogs skilled at tracking and following a scent or trail, known as sleuth-hounds. Thus, the first sleuths were not people, but dogs!

Eventually, the  word came to be used for a person who tracked prey, or fugitives, or anything else in need of finding. It was used as a noun for a keen investigator by the mid 1800s, and for someone looking for clues to solve a crime in 1872.  “detective” is 1872, shortening of sleuth-hound “keen investigator” (1849), a figurative use of a word that dates back to late 14c. meaning a kind of bloodhound.

Sleuth was not used as a verb until the early 20th century, when it was used to mean the act of investigating. The first written record of sleuth as a verb was in 1905.  To sleuth out meant to investigate or discover, and the act of doing so was sleuthing.

Sources:

Etymonline
Sesquiotica
The Word Detective

Sleuth.
#vocabulary #etymology

Ploce: It Is What It Is.

One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.

The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .

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Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave.
That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.

Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.

  • It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
  • It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: 
    Examples:
    “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
    “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”

    Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
  • It can involve a change in the form of the word.
    Example:
    “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”

    This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.

Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:

Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3
Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3

Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.

Sources:
Silva Rhetorica
ThoughtCo.
Britannica.com

Ploce: It Is What It Is
#words #vocabulary #Shakespeare

Raspberry.

A raspberry can be one of two things.

First and foremost, a raspberry is a small red, black or yellow fruit which grows on a bramble or vine-like style of bush, and which generally tastes delicious.

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In English, the word raspberry goes back to the early 1600s, but its actual origins are a matter of contention: it could have come from Old French, Medieval Latin, or one of the Germanic languages.

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The second sense of the word raspberry dates to the late 19th century, and relates to the rude sound made with one’s tongue and lips. This meaning is derived from ‘raspberry tart’, which is rhyming slang for ‘fart’, which is precisely what a raspberry sounds like.

Blowing a raspberry is also called a Bronx cheer, a term which came from the sound being used to express derision or displeasure during sporting matches in the area of New York City called the Bronx.

In linguistic terms, blowing a raspberry is an unvoiced labial fricative. This may seem like somewhat useless information for anyone other than linguists and language enthusiasts, but rude children can be quite effectively stunned into submission with reprimands such as “Don’t you dare address me with your unvoiced labial fricatives!” I know this, because I have achieved it more than once with other people’s teenagers.

This term has also been immortalised in the Golden Raspeberry Awards or Razzies, a parody of the Oscars in which the awards are given for terrible performances in film.

Finally, raspberry is also used as an adjective to describe any shade of purplish red colour, as referenced by Prince in Raspberry Beret. You don’t need to thank me for the earworm – you’re welcome!

Raspberry beret
Photo by Roel Wijnants on Flickr. Reproduced without alteration under Creative Commons licence.

Sources:
Etymonline
The Razzies
Wiktionary

Raspberry.
#words #language #blog

Zarf.

Zarf is a word you might never have heard or used, but it relates to something with which most of us are quite familiar.

These days, the word zarf refers to that cardboard or silicone band on a portable coffee cup that insulates it and stops your fingers getting too hot while holding your drink. Some call it a cup sleeve or a cup holder: zarf is a far more evocative and interesting word.

The word zarf comes from Arabic via Turkish, and simply means ‘envelope’. Thus, its adoption for a cardboard sleeve to go around a disposable coffee cup is logical, and it soon came to be applied to anything that went around or held a cup to make it more comfortable to hold.

Many people assume that the zarf was a late 20th century invention that came about with the advent of the disposable, followed by the the reusable, takeaway coffee cup. Those people are wrong.

The zarf began as a holder for a hot coffee cup in Turkey and across the Middle East as early as the 1600s.

Image credit: nokta_cizgi on Pixabay.

When the Ottoman Empire banned alcohol in the 16th century, coffee became the premier drink of the people. Within one hundred years, coffee houses became such important centres of gathering, culture and political discussion that the Empire banned coffee, too.

As any coffee lover could predict, that didn’t work. The people responded so profoundly that the Empire decided not to stand between the people and their caffeine ever again, but added a significant tax on coffee instead, in keeping with the age-old governmental proverb: if you can’t beat them, tax them. 

image credit: Activedia on Pixabay

As the traditional coffee cups had no handles, the zarf evolved as a functional holder, but soon became elaborately decorative. These are still used today.

Traditionally, the  more ornate and beautiful the zarf, the higher the esteem in which the drinker is held. An ornate zarf can indicate status or affection and respect, which means that a lover, a close friend or a family member might serve coffee in a zarf as beautiful as that served to a sultan or emir.

The zarf and the coffee served in it are just two of the many wonderful things we have inherited from Eastern history and culture. Coffee houses are still cultural and social hubs in the Middle East, a legacy reflected in the popularity of coffee shops and cafes worldwide.

Anyone inclined toward prejudice against Eastern and Muslim cultures should remember that when sipping their morning cup of joe: it would be impossible to live as we do without their contributions and influence.

Sources:
Macquarie Dictionary
The Story of the Zarf
What is a zarf? The bizarre story behind this everyday object.

Zarf.
#words #coffee #coffeelovers

Kvetch.

As Victoria enters a five day lockdown designed to halt the spread of that dratted virus after its recent escape from a quarantine hotel, there’s a lot of kvetching going on.

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Yes, it’s our third lockdown. Yes, we all saw this coming when the Australian Open was allowed to go ahead. Naturally, we’d all rather not. We’d all like to be able to do whatever we want to do. I know it’s inconvenient. I had to cancel my plans, too. 

Still, there is nothing to be achieved by blaming anyone. Contrary to what some people like to say, our state government is not a dictatorship. They’re doing their best to manage a pandemic, balancing the health of the community with what millions of individuals perceive as their rights and needs.

The fact is, this virus is highly contagious, airborne and invisible. The pandemic is not yet over, and these things are going to happen from time to time. It may actually be a fact of life for the foreseeable future, even when we are careful about wearing masks, social distancing and sanitising everything. One of the fundamental truths of a pandemic disease is that it is not easily controlled: that’s how it became a pandemic in the first place. At best, it can be well managed.

At least it’s only five days this time, not months like the last one.

Even so, I have lost count of how many times I have felt the need to tell people to stop kvetching about it in the last 24 hours.

Kvetch is a wonderful word, donated to English from Yiddish in the mid-20th century. It is as satisfying to say as ‘bitch’ with far less possibility of offending anyone, and it is so much more expressive than other synonyms such as ‘whine’, ‘complain’ or ‘moan’.

Perhaps the only synonym that is as expressive is the one that my grandfather used when we were kids: “Stop your bellyaching,” I haven’t thought about that expression in decades, and it has just come back to me riding on a wave of memory and emotion. I think I’ll have to start saying that now, too.

Kvetch.
#wordsofwisdom #pandemic

Word Nerdy Book Recommendations

If there’s something word nerds love, it’s word-nerdy books.

Personally, I love a great dictionary or thesaurus. I also enjoy books that explore different aspects of the English language and how we use it.

These three books are books I have particularly enjoyed over recent months.

Word Perfect by Susie Dent

This is a wonderful compilation that will please any word lover or etymology enthusiast.

Dent writes with clarity and good humour. The word for each day, and Dent’s definition and etymology of each, are interesting and quirky.

The challenge is to only read each day’s offering instead of running ahead an consuming it more quickly.

Grab a copy, keep it by your favourite chair, and enjoy a wordy treat each day. You won’t be sorry.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

This is a most interesting and entertaining book that traces the histories of words and phrases used in English.

It is a collection of most diverting rabbit holes in print: a world of fascinating information that draws you deeper in each time. Not once have I managed to look up the word or phrase I wanted to reference without discovering another entry nearby that was just as captivating as the first… or second… or third entry I had read.

It really is a treasure trove of words, etymology and history that will delight any lover of the English language.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Usage and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book is a delight. With the aim of helping writers achieve greater clarity and better style, Dreyer examines the “rules” of English as we know them, and provides a clear and understandable guide to using the English language most effectively.

The book is written with humour and a relaxed tone, and delivers content that is far more accessible for the everyday reader and writer than my beloved and very worn copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is now far less modern than it was when I first obtained the book.

Dreyer’s English is an ideal reference for today’s writers, regardless of their preferred form or the purpose for which they write. It’s also entertaining enough to pick up and read on a Saturday afternoon, without feeling at all like it’s time you’ll never get back.

Highly recommended.

Word Nerdy #BookRecommendations
#words #language

Pretty.

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‘Pretty’ is quite a versatile word because we use it in a variety of ways:

One can drive a pretty nice car.
A child, a pet, a garden, and a picture can all be pretty.
Pleasant or attractive music , noises or words sound pretty.
An ornament or decoration can be called a pretty.
Something expensive is said to cost a pretty penny.
Someone in a safe or comfortable position is sitting pretty.
A person can pretty themselves up for a special occasion.
A request or plea is made more emphatic and emotive when someone adds pretty please.

On a more negative note, someone who is in trouble or said to be in a pretty mess.
If someone or something is only moderately attractive, they might be described as prettyish.
An event or a relationship can be pretty much over.

It is also interesting in that none of those meanings relate to the original meaning of pretty.

Pretty comes from the Middle English word ‘pratie’ which meant cunning, crafty, or clever”
This is related to a number of Old English words:

  • prættig – West Saxon
  • pretti – Kentish
  • prettig  – Mercian

These are all adjectives that mean cunning, skilful, artful, wily, or astute.

Before that, the words prætt or prett meant a type of trick, wile or craft. These words have a Proto-Germanic origin in *pratt- , which has closely related words in Old Norse , Frisian, Old Dutch, and Flemish.
Bt the beginning of the 15th century, pretty had evolved to also mean something manly or masculine, gallant, and something cleverly made.  By the mid 1400s, it had developed further to include the senses of attractiveness to the senses or holding aesthetic appeal, and of being slightly beautiful.

The use for pretty to express degree or amount developed by the mid 1500s, and pretty much had evolved by the mid 1600s.

A collection of pretty tho gs was called a prettiness in the late 1600s, while the use of pretty as a noun, such as “my pretty” developed in the 1700s, first in reference to things and then people.

The earlier meaning related to masculinity,  bravery and cleverness did an about-turn by the late 1800s, when the term pretty-boy came to be used as a derogatory term for any man deemed to be effeminate or suspected of being a homosexual.

In the early 1900s, pretty became a verb, meaning to make something or oneself more attractive.

It turns out that pretty is more than just a rather versatile word: it’s also fairly old and quite interesting.

Sources:
Macquarie Dictionary
Etymonline

Pretty.
#words #language #blog