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Issue 51

August 23, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Another internet hoax

Hardly a week goes by without us receiving a letter like this:

Someone recently e-mailed me this question:

"There are three common English words which end with -gry .  Two of them are hungry and angry.   What is the third?" 

I have been racking my brains since getting this email and I can't think of the third word.  For the sake of my sanity, please tell me what it is.

Our first reaction to this is "Why ask us? Ask the smart-aleck who e-mailed you the question."  Our second thought was to run a database query on the Oxford English Dictionary.  This is what we found:

aggry A word of unknown origin and meaning, applied to colored and variegated glass beads of ancient manufacture, found buried in the ground in Africa; they closely resemble the glain neidyr or adder stone of the Welsh.
a-hungry Hungry, in a hungry state.
an-hungry A variant of a-hungry.
begry An obsolete form of beggary.
conyngry Like conyngarye and conyrie, this is a variant form of conyger, an old word for a rabbit warren
gry (noun) An obsolete word based on the Greek gru and explained by the lexicographers as meaning (1) the grunt of a pig, (2) the dirt under the nail; hence a trifling amount. 

The second meaning gave rise to its use as the smallest unit in decimal system of linear measurement which was proposed in the 18th century.  It was the tenth of a line, the hundredth of an inch, and the thousandth of a ("philosophical") foot.

gry (verb) To rage, roar.  Possibly from cry
higry pigry A corruption (or in the quaint language of the OED, a "vulgar perversion") of hiera picra, Hiera picra means (roughly) "priestly bitters" and was a name given to many medicines in the Greek pharmacopœia but was especially used to mean a purgative drug composed of aloes and canella bark, sometimes mixed with honey and other ingredients.
iggry "Hurry up!".  It is also used as a noun in the phrase "to get an iggri on".

This is only marginally an English word, and represents the Egyptian colloquial Arabic pronunciation of ijri, the imperative form of jara to run.

meagry "Having a meagre appearance." A very rare and obsolete word.
menagry An obscure form of menagerie.
nangry An obsolete and rare form of angry.
podagry An obsolete and rare word for the parasitic plant "dodder". From the French podagrie, "gout".
pugry An obscure version of puggary, the Hindi word for "turban".
skugry An obsolete Scottish form of scuggery.   For those who are not familiar with this splendid (if rare) word, scuggery   means "concealment", "secrecy".  A relative of skullduggery, perhaps.
unangry, "Not angry".

The good news is that there are more than three words which end in -gry.   There are, in all, seventeen (or sixteen, if you don't count the two grys as separate words).  But, hey kids, did you notice how many times the words obscure, obsolete and rare were used?  Not one of them could be construed as "a common English word" by any stretch of the imagination. 

UPDATE (January 2006):  We neglected to provide you the entire -gry riddle and the answer in our original discussion.  Here they are:

There are two words that end with -gry.
Angry is one and hungry is another.
What is the third word.
Everyone uses it every day and
Everyone knows what it means.
If you have been listening,
I have already told you what the word is.

The answer is what, for it is identified in the riddle (see the third line).  Melanie remembers this riddle from the 1970s, and research indicates that is when it first turned up.  It regained popularity in the 1990s on the Internet, often in a corrupted form. So it was originally a silly riddle which caused a commotion back in the '70s and again in the '90s.

For another internet hoax, see Issue 39.  Incidentally, the -gry quiz has been floating around since well before internet became a household word.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From William Knowlton :

The other day I was describing the meaning of geek to a fellow grad student from China. Afterward, I checked my Webster's to discover a completely different meaning! What is the origin of this word and what is the chronology of its transformation to its contemporary vernacular sense?

The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition, defines geek as "slang: 1. An odd or ridiculous person".  The OED, on the other hand (which is sometimes less in touch with American slang) defines it simply as "a fool, a simpleton".  The source of the word is thought to be the dialectic word geck "fool", which comes from Low German geck.  The Low German word has a cognate in Middle Dutch geck, and it crossed over into the High German dialects From Jim Carroll's book Surviving the Information Age.  Click for link.and the Scandinavian languages, all versions having similar meanings.  The term's evolution to mean something akin to "someone who is socially inept" is easy to see when one learns the word's origin. Geek was first recorded in 1515, believe it or not (in the form geke), and Shakespeare used it in 1601 in Twelfth Night (he used gecke).

In America, geek came to be applied to carnival freaks in the 1950s.  That usage continued through the 60s, and in the late 70s the word came to be applied to people who were considered unusally interested in technical matters to the detriment of their social life, especially people who worked with computers.  There is also a verb geek "to look for".  It entered slang usage in the U.S. in the 1980s with respect to looking for cocaine.  It comes from a different source, according to most etymologists: German gucken, "to peer at something".



From Phillip Riles:

I am curious about the etymology of the word etymology. Is etymos a word and what is its meaning?

It's about time we revisted this word.  What's all the hype about, after all?  Well, the word etymology comes from Greek etumon "true or literal sense of a word according to its origin", via Latin etymon.   This gave English etymon, possessing the same meaning.  An etymon came to refer to the "root from which a particular word was derived", and so modern etymology deals with the study of such roots. The suffix -logy means "study of" and comes from Greek logia which itself comes from -logos "one who deals with". The latter comes ultimately from Greek legein "speak of".  The word is first recorded in the late 14th century.



From Roger :

How about abecedarium? It sounds Latin, but I haven't found a Latin dictionary on the Internet yet. Do you have any clue?Origami alphabet!  Click the image to go to an origami tutorial site.

Abecedarium means "a book which illustrates the alphabet" in Medieval Latin and comes from Late Latin abecedarius, which itself comes from the names of the letters A B C and D plus the affix -arius whose English equivalent is -ary "of or relating to".  The Middle English derivative abecedarian refers to "one who teaches the alphabet", and it also has come to mean "elementary or rudimentary", for obvious reasons.    Abecedarian dates from the the early 17th century.



From Stephen Jonke:

It seems to me that your heart can't memorize anything, therefore the phrase memorize by heart makes little sense. How did this odd phrase come about?

Human heart.  Click image for link.The connection of the heart to memorization comes from the age old belief that the heart was the center of vital functions as well as the seat of affection. To memorize something by heart is literally to "know it with the center of oneself", and the center of oneself at one time was the heart. To this day the heart remains such in a metaphoric sense.

Heart comes ultimately from Old English heorte "heart", which has relatives in Old Frisian herte "heart" and Old Saxon herta "heart". The Indo-European root to which heorte is related is *kerd, from which comes Greek kardia, source of the group of medical terms related to "heart". By heart goes all the way back to at least the 14th century, when Chaucer used it in Troilus and Criseyde: "She told ek al e prophesies by herte."  By the way, is the Old English/Icelandic letter thorn which represents the voiced "th" sound, and e is "the".

In Chinese, the word hsin means both "heart" and "mind".  But don't think that the equation of heart and mind is universal.  In earlier periods it was thought that the innermost feelings resided in the bowels.  Hence Cromwell's famous words to King Charles the First: "In the bowels of Christ, I beseech thee: bethink thou may be wrong."



From Jeff Mallory:

Are plague and ague (as in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, meaning "sickness") related?

Interestingly, these words are not related, even though their spellings are similar. Ague, "a febrile condition in which there are alternating periods of chills, fever, and sweating", actually comes from Latin febris acuta "sharp fever" which found its way into Middle English as fever agu.  In the Middle Ages the Latin adjective acuta came to be used on its own as a noun meaning "fever", and this became ague in medieval French and was borrowed into English as ague.  From the end of the 14th century ague was used to mean "malaria", as the word malaria   (literally, "bad air") did not enter the language until the mid 18th century.

Etymologically, plague actually means a "blow" or "stroke".  It goes back to the same Indo-European root*plag- "hit", which produced Latin plangere "beat".  Greek plaga "blow" derived from the Indo-European root, and Latin took it as plaga "blow", "wound".  In the Vulgate (the Bible translated into Latin) it was used to mean an "infectious disease", and it was borrowed with that meaning, as well as the now obsolete "blow", via Old French into English. *Plak-, an alternative form of *plag-, gave English apoplexy and plectrum. Plague "torment or disease" dates from the 15th century.

Plangere is also the source of English complain, plaintiff, plaintive, plangent and plankton.  Plangent, a term which is most often used to describe a musical sound, originally alluded to the sound of waves "beating" against the shore.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

This is so different!

There are many self-appointed arbiters of English style who will tell you which word to use after different.  Is it different from, different than, or different to?  Well, to tell the truth we don't care.  What does irk us, though, is saying simply "such-and-such is so different".  The word different is used to make comparisons.   It denotes contrasting qualities.  Therefore, "I love that restaurant because it's different" doesn't really make sense.  Different from what, pray tell?  Every other restaurant?  We should hope so!

If you think we're being too curmudgeonly about this, just say, "I love that restaurant because it's so identical" and then think again.


Sez You...

We received several letters regarding our analysis of some obscenities in last week's issue, all positive, and several echoing Sam Bankester's message below.

From Sam Bankester:

Referring to Issue 50 (congratulations, by the way!), I would like to thank you for clearing up the origins of the profane word f*ck.  I had always believed it was an acronym for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," and the label f*cker was affixed to those who were convicted of such a crime.

That is, in fact, another popular, yet spurious, explanation for the origin of the word f*ck.  We're glad to be able to stamp out spurious etymologies whenever possible! 


From Dafydd Corbett-Kelsall:

As a side note to your etymology for the Irish brogue (Spotlight, Issue 50), it does indeed mean "shoe," but it has an older, more sinister meaning. About two winters ago, in Dublin, I was listening to RTE1 (the main radio station), and they brought up this word. A panelist on whatever program (programme?) was on (I think it was the Joe Duffy Show, filling in for the Gay Byrne Show... but I digress) brought up the point that an old and now unused word for "stutterer" was pronounced the same way as brogue, and came to be applied to someone who could not speak well, period. Perhaps this was taken up by those who took the genealogical Mhic (or Mc) to create the slur mick (not meaning, of course, the diminutive for Michael). Thought you might be interested.

You bring up quite an interesting possibility regarding brogue.  However, the jocular mick does come, in fact, from Michael, a very popular Irish name.



From Robert Weger:

You need to know that the etymology of Western alphabetic letters are derived from the Egyptian Hieroglyphs... even the Ancient Greek philosophers were aware that the letters are from the Hieroglyphs (Holy Words) of the Egyptians.  Furthermore, there is Justified (written) evidence that the Egyptian Hieroglyphs were derived from Plane Geometry  (aka Sacred Geometry).

You need to seriously review what you are broadcasting to the Public.  The subject matter is not nearly so esoteric as some people would like (other) people to believe.

We presume that when you say "Western alphabetic letters" you are referring to the alphabets of Europe.  There are several of these, including

Boustrophedonic Greek
Attic Greek
Ionian Greek
Boustrophedonic Roman
Classical Roman
Medieval Roman
Norse Runes
Northumbrian Runes
Westphalian Runes
Coelvain  and

If we examine these in historical sequence we see that, with the exception of Ogham all are derived from the Punic (Phoenician) class of alphabets.  In all these alphabets (again with the exception of Ogham), letters with similar shapes represent similar sounds, thus suggesting a common origin.  The very fact that we call it an alphabet (almost all the European letters are arranged A, B, C... or A, B, G... ) gives us a huge clue to their origin.  These alphabets share the same sequence as the Punic sequence of Aleph, Beth, Gimel...  Of course there are some exceptions: the Runes were arranged in a sequence which began F, U, Th, A, R, K but the form of the runic letters shows a clear relationship to Greek, Roman and, especially, Etruscan alphabets.

It was the Phoenicians who first came up with the idea of having one symbol for one sound.   The Egyptian hieroglyphs were much more cumbersome and were based on the "rebus" system where, for instance, a symbol shaped like a hand would represent the sound "hand".

even the Ancient Greek philosophers were aware that the letters are from the Hieroglyphs (Holy Words) of the Egyptians. 

Just because an "Ancient Greek philosopher" states that the letters come from Egypt doesn't make it so. After all, for centuries, European Gypsies made the claim that they came from Egypt.  They don't, of course; they originate from India. By the way, which "Greek   philosophers" made this claim? Can you cite the original texts in which these claims are made?  Also, "Hieroglyphs" does not mean "Holy Words", it means "the writing of the priests".  The word was invented by the Ptolemeic dynasty - Macedonian Greeks who ruled Egypt after it was conquered by Alexander the Great.  They used this word to distinguish the Egyptian hieroglyphs from Egyptian Demotic - the "writing of the people" (from Greek demos, "people").

Furthermore, there is Justified (written) evidence that the Egyptian Hieroglyphs were derived from Plane Geometry  (aka Sacred Geometry). 

Again, we must ask you to cite your sources.

You need to seriously review what you are broadcasting to the Public. 

We are baffled. As our site does not deal with the alphabet, per se, please let us know what you think we are "broadcasting to the Public".

The subject matter is not nearly so esoteric as some people would like (other) people to believe.

We thoroughly agree.  It is not esoteric at all.  There is an abundance of scholarship on this subject.



From Julie:

I enjoy your website tremendously.  I have learned a great deal as well as gathered a great supply of  "did you know..." information.  Please continue the good work.

From Annice:

KUDOS!!!! That is a lot of hard work. This site has helped me to be really alert on words! I much appreciate your efforts and services from Take Our Word For It.   Looking forward for the next issue.

Thanks, Julie and Annice.  Gee, you both said such nice things and you weren't even trying to get us to answer an etymological query.


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