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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 99   

August 28, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Gripes and grumbles from whining pedants Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent.
Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Swamp Things

To the modern reader, influenced by the science of botany, a fungus, a sponge and a moss are quite different types of organism.  We have long recognized that sponges are not plants but a kind of primitive animal and a similar adjustment is now happening regarding fungi.  With the help of DNA analysis, modern science is beginning to assign fungi to its own category and, surprisingly, one that is closer to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom.  The ancients lumped all of these together and  thought of them all as belonging to the same class: plants of wet and boggy places.

Fungus is a Latin word and is a form of the the Greek spoggos, "a sponge".  (The double g in Greek is called "digamma" and often represents an ng sound.)  By the way, the sponge which is a familiar bath-time adjunct is not a dead animal, it is merely the skeleton which is laid down by a loosely associated colony of animals.  The biologist Lewis Thomas noted that these creatures are so loosely associated that you may liquidize a living sponge in a blender, place the resulting goop in a bucket of sea water and in a few hours it will have reorganized itself into a brand-new colony.  In fact,  you could even liquidize two different species of sponge in the same blender and, left to their own devices, they will miraculously reassemble themselves as two separate colonies.  (Please excuse this non-etymological diversion but we think it's pretty amazing.)

English (and only English) maintains a distinction between two classes of fungus -  mushrooms andBoletus edulis (the edible bolete).  Click to follow the link. toadstools.  No one seems entirely clear where to draw the line between these two but the general idea is that mushrooms are the edible kind and all else are toadstools. Toadstool is said by many dictionaries to be a fanciful construction from toad + stool but at least one edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica carried a series of photographs which showed a male toad mounting a specimen of Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) as if he thought it a female of his own species.  The author of  the  Encyclopedia Britannica article believed that this quite neatly explained the name toadstool.  We might agree, too, if it were not for the fact that toad-hat is an alternative name in some dialects and we have yet to see photos of a toad trying on fungal millinery.

The word mushroom is derived from the Old French moisseron which is in turn derived from mousse, "moss".  (This is also the origin of the desert called a mousse.)  English did not get moss from Old Fench, though, as it already existed in Old English as mos meaning a swamp or bog.  This meaning of moss still persists in some English place-names.  It is related to a family of Moss.  Click to follow the link.words which all suggest wetness, smelliness or something one would regret having stepped in - Middle High German mos "a bog", "moss" or "lichen", Flemish moze "mud", Latin muscus "moss", Old Norse myr "mire" and Lithuanian musai "the scum on sour milk".

When would you imagine that the word swamp first appeared in the English lexicon?  Old English?  Middle English, maybe?  In fact, it first appeared in written form as late as 1691 and for many years was unknown outside of the North American colony of Virginia.  It is possible that it existed prior to this in an English dialect but may simply be a Virginian variant of sump.

We may not be the first to have spotted this but it seems to us that the name of sphagnum moss (from Greek sphagnos) seems awfully close to sphaggos (pronounced sphangos) "sponge".   While we are speculating, how about punk?  No, not the mohawk-wearing, ear-splitting kind (that derives from a 16th century word for "prostitute"), the punk we mean here is a kind of tinder.  Various species of fungus, especially the polypores or "bracket fungi", have been used as tinder.  The ultimate origins of punk are unknown but it has a dialect variant of funk (sorry, not that sort).  This suggests to us that there may be an ancient connection between sphaggos, fungus and punk

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Doreen:

I can't find the origin of the word crony or cronyism.  

Samuel Pepys.  Click to learn more about him.Crony is interesting because there is no record of it before 1660.  Samuel Pepys used it in his diary (1665): "Jack Cole, my old school-fellow...who was a great chrony of mine."  As early as 1671 the word was identified as university slang.  Because of the initial spelling with ch-, some etymologists suggest that the word may derive from a learned use of Greek chronios "for a long time", the suggestion being one of a long-time friend.

Cronyism as a political word arose in the U.S. in the 1940s with the meaning "the appointment of friends to government posts without proper regard for their qualifications."  Prior to that cronyism meant only "having to do with friends".

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From G. Wilce::

 I know a bumpershoot is an umbrella, but do you know how, why, or any history of it? 

Click to learn about Seattle's Bumbershoot, happening this weekend.This word, which is more correctly spelled bumbershoot, first appeared in the U.S. around 1915-1920.  It is thought to be a playful alteration of the umber- part of umbrella plus a respelling of -chute (as in parachute).  

The word really isn't known in the U.K.  The British nickname for an umbrella is brolly or gampBrolly is simply a contraction of umbrella, but gamp comes from Dickens' character Sarah Gamp, who always carried a large umbrella in Martin Chuzzlewit.

It's about time for Seattle's Bumbershoot, a folk festival that's held every year over Labor Day weekend.  "In 1973, the Bumbershoot site says, "the name Bumbershoot was chosen as a reflection of the city’s reputation for rain but more as a metaphor for [the] Bumbershoot festival as an umbrella for the arts."

From a Reader:

What is the origin of the word spank?

The best explanation, as unsatisfying as it may be, that etymologists have come up with for this word is that it is imitative of the sound made when one spanks.  It is first recorded in 1727 in England, in Nathan Bailey's dictionary: "To Spank, to slap with the open Hand."

It also turns up in thieves' cant, where to spank a glaze is to break a pane of glass in a shop window and make a sudden snatch at some article of value within one's reach.  In modern terms this is called smash and grab.

From Richard Lightner:

I'm interested to know whether this word initially derived from the Betty Boop cartoons. Bimbo was the name of a dog who had extreme amorous interests in a vampish female canine named Betty Boop.  Betty's popularity overshadowed Bimbo's and as a result she lost her canine features, becoming the flapper that we all recognize today.  I don't know if Betty was empty-headed but she sure was a tease for poor Bimbo.  About 1935 there was some type of morality law enacted concerning animated characters.  Betty lost her strapless dresses and garter belt.  I can very well picture the righteously offended activists causing a ruckus over "that Bimbo cartoon". They may even have been people who had never even viewed it but had been whipped into a frenzy by some pompous bluenose clergyman.  I wonder if their rails against Betty's character were done in the name of the star's name Bimbo?  I don't know how to go abut finding this out on my own. I'm hoping someone will find this interesting enough to check it out.

Great story!  It's wrong, but it's great!  We do love some of the ludicrous stories that we encounter regarding word or phrase derivations.  This one's especially good because it's harmless.

The real derivation of bimbo is much simpler; it comes from Italian bambino "baby".  It was applied to men, originally - those who were stupid, contemptible, or even disreputable.  This was around 1915-20.  By the 1920s bimbo referred to "a prostitute"; that plus the earlier meaning seem to have combined to give us today's meaning: "a dim, easy woman".  The word himbo has been used to refer similarly to men.

P.G. Wodehouse used bimbo in its original male sense as late as 1947.  The first recorded use referring to a woman is from 1929.

From Allan Price:

Are there any words in English derived from Basque?

First, let us diverge a little and discuss the word Basque itself.  Of course, it is not the Basques' name for themselves; they are the Euskadi.  In fact, the term Euskarian is used by some ethnologists to refer to the pre-Aryan population of Europe, supposing that element was represented by the Basques.  Basque, however, comes from Vasconia, the Roman name of the region that encompasses the western slopes of the Pyrenees.  This area is also known as Gascony, a word which derives from the same source and so is cognate with Basque.  Interestingly, there is a medieval Latin term Basculi which means "brigands or raiders from Vasconia".  We guess those Basques were always quite fierce!  It is thought that the sk sound in Euskadi, Basque, Gascony and Vasconia represents an ancient pre-Indo-European word for "sea-farer" and is also found in Etruscan

Now for some English words that come from Basque: anchovy (maybe), garbanzo, jai alai (a fast ball game), [by] Jingo, and possibly sasparilla.  There are a few more, but they are not common English words.  There are some etymologists who believe that bizarre comes from a Basque word for "bearded", but most (including us) reject that explanation (see Issue 57).  Anchovy is thought by some to come from the Basque anchoa, a form of antzua "dry", as anchovies are dried.  Garbanzo is thought to have entered Spanish from Basque garbantzu, formed from garau "seed" and antzu "dry".  Incidentally, this word exists only in American English; Brits call it the "chick pea".  Jai alai is simply Basque for "festival" and "merry", respectively.  We discussed by Jingo in Issue 85.  As for sasparilla, it is said to come from Spanish zarzaparrilla, thought to be composed of zarza, "bramble", from Basque sartzia, and Spanish parilla, a diminutive of parra, "vine".

The Basques are fond of z's, it seems, at least in the words we got from them!

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Jean Jacobi joins Malcolm Tent and Barb Dwyer in this week's curmudgeoning:

It's wonderful to know that there are other people who are as peevish as I am about matters of meaning and syntax.  Here is one of my unfavorites:  Nutritious vs. nutritional - as in: "A nutritional snack will be provided."  At least I haven't heard or seen them used the other way around - "See side panel for nutritious information."

Oooh, and that side panel information is so tasty, too!

Your excellent example of misuse reminds us of another, similar one:  healthy vs. healthful.  "Have a healthy snack!"  That means, of course, that you should have a snack that is not ill!

Sez You...
From Mike James:

Way back, after Issue 92 I sent a brief note about the origins of poont*ng with regards to a 1940s(?) song by The Treniers by the name "Poon T*ng". In Issue 93, you published the letter and mentioned that you would indeed like a copy of the song. I apologize for the delay, but here it finally is.  [It is a zipped MP3 file, so you'll need WinZip or something similar to unzip it, and WinAmp or a similar player to hear it ( ).]

Also, with the "Curmudgeons' Corner" from this week fresh in mind, here is a site after the language-usage curmudgeon's own heart:

Paul Brians "Common Errors in English" website

Excellent!  Thanks, Mike, for the song and for the link to Paul Brians' site.

From Mel Moyer:

I finally got around to reading Issue 96 of TOWFI. That article on the source of sorcerer was intriguing. The picture was something else. Are you sure the word doesn't mean "he of the bad haircut?" :)

Thank you for weekly entertainment and education from a 71 year old fun guy -----oooh---I should be punished for that one!

Haha - you know that puns like that deserve fun-guy-cide!!  Thanks for your note!

From Steve Parkes:

Please don't think I'm one of those people who believes he's been put on this Earth to correct other people's mistakes: I only do it for the furtherance of knowledge and understanding, which I know are dear to your hearts. I don't know everything - that's why I subscribe to TOWFI, and I'll happily submit to your corrections, should there be any.

Spritsail topmasts went out early in the eighteenth century, replaced by the bowsprit, a sort of long steeply sloping mast projecting from the bow. The jackstaff stood more or less where the bowsprit met the bow ('the pointed end'), and would be taken down out of the crew's way in battle or other troublesome occasions. A longer staff, the ensign staff, was similarly positioned over the taffrail at the stern ('the blunt end'), where an enormous national flag, the ensign, was flown. This staff too was stowed away to make sailing easier, and the ensign would be flown from a halyard (= haul-yard) on the spanker gaff... this is getting complicated, isn't it... I mean from the big sail at the back end, which it would get in the way of when manoeuvring the ship.

By the way, the idea of putting the Union in the corner of the ensign is quite different from the "stars" part of the Stars and Stripes; that's called a canton in heraldic terms ("on a canton azure, fifty mollets argent", I believe), and is quite a different shape from the flag as a whole. (I expect there's a connection between the heraldic canton and the divisions of Switzerland, where of course they speak Cantonese!)

Incidentally, it's sometimes a source of confusion in other countries, but we have the ROYAL Navy, the ROYAL Air Force, but the BRITISH Army. There's a good reason for that, but it'll keep for some other time!

Many thanks.  Do, please, tell us the "Royal" vs. "British" story, that's just the kind of inconsequential trivia we live for.  Oh, and while you're at it... what's a mollet?  It sounds like some kind of fish.

From Sam Small:

A great site - thanks.  Thought you might like a couple more Shakespeare quotes using jack. The first from the erotic Sonnet 128. "Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap/To kiss the tender inward of your hand." Jack here sounds like the white and black keys that one presses to sound notes and not as you noted - "a harpsichord employs a system of jacks to pluck each string with a quill", but I do remember a technique whereby the strings are directly plucked. A musicologist might know.

The second is from Richard III: Act 1, Scene 3. "Since every jack became a gentleman, There's many a gentle person made a jack!" And another in the same play Act 4, Scene 2: "Because that, like a jack, thou keep'st the stroke betwixt . . ." This last one seems to refer to some part of a clock, perhaps a short pendulum.

Great quotations, Sam.  Scholars believe that Shakespeare did mean "key" in that sonnet.  He was simply  mistaken about the meaning of jack.  (One of the very few chinks in his encyclopedic knowledge.)   Richard III is one of our favorite works of Shakespeare, by the way.

From Bob Band:

First, let me tell you how much I enjoy your publication. I've been a regular reader for about six months now and I'm impressed with your ability to maintain such high standards for content. 

I'm writing with comments about a couple of topics. First, your discussion of dibs reminds me of a term from my childhood in Boston in the 1950s and '60s: the word hosey, pronounced HOE-zee. If you wanted to reserve something for yourself, the phrase was "I hosey that last cupcake," or whatever was in contention. This could be trumped by a sibling declaring, "I high hosey it," and sometimes escalated to such variants as "I high hosey it with whipped cream and a cherry on top!" Have you run across this usage elsewhere? 

While on the subject of childhood slang, let me add that in Boston we also used "one potato, two potato" to choose sides in exactly the same manner as did your British correspondent and Texan staffer. 

My other comment is about the issue of placing punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks. While studying technical writing several years ago, I was taken to task by the instructor for my (then) habit of putting punctuation marks outside of quotes. However, one of the other students, who worked in the printing industry, told us that the correct positioning depended on which side of the Atlantic you were on. She maintained that the British place the punctuation marks outside of quotes, while Americans demand that they be placed inside. This made sense to me (or at least soothed my pride in my grammatical skills), as I am an inveterate Anglophile and assumed that I had learned my punctuation style subconsciously from all those old English novels I'd read in my youth! Can you verify this?

Thanks again for the good work on behalf of clear speech.

No, we hadn't run across hosey before.  We didn't have a whole lot of time to look into it, however, and we would love to hear from other readers familiar with this term.

As for punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks, Mike (a Brit) says that he was always taught to place the comma inside.  It was (for you new readers out there) printers who began placing the comma inside the quotation marks to save their commas from being damaged or lost.

Laughing Stock

Dining in Style

Our favorite restaurant style - brassiere!  Does that mean that all of the wait staff, male or female, must wear brassieres?  And is there such a thing as a sans-brassiere-style restaurant? The ad meant, of course, brasserie "brewery".

This was taken from the Asian Wall Street Journal.  


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