Monthly Archives: January 2012

Fun with(out) prefixes

Do you ever hear a word like “suburbs” and wonder if there are “urbs?” Or “uncanny,” and wonder if something can be “canny?” Can you “iterate,” and not just reiterate?

In most cases, the answer is yes. While the form without the prefix may not be as popular as the one with it, it is often still a valid word. In fact, it is a bit strange – uncanny, if you will – that the prefixed form is sometimes more popular.

“Urbs” is indeed a valid word to refer to the urban areas of a region. You won’t find it in a standard dictionary, and it’s rather obscure, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s legit. Same goes for canny, which is a little more common. However, in this case, its current meaning is not the opposite of “uncanny.” “Canny” means shrewd, whereas “uncanny” means strange and unfamiliar. As is the case with so many words, meanings change over the years, and “canny” used to mean safe or fortunate, among other things.

And “iterate” is one of those strange words that means the exact same* thing as its prefixed cousin, “reiterate:” to reassert something. It’s not unlike “regardless” and “irregardless.” No difference.  It’s all a matter of preference and desired degree of emphasis.

So, to reiterate (sorry, “iterate” just doesn’t sound right), the next time you encounter a prefixed word, drop the prefix and see if you end up with a word you’re familiar with. If you don’t, look it up to see if it’s valid – and be sure to share your findings here!

*Oops . . . I made a boo-boo. This is an ungradable word, meaning it shouldn’t be modified. Things are either the same, or they’re not –  they can’t be the “exact same.”  We’ll talk about this next time! 


Filed under Uncategorized

A Dead Deed, Indeed

Having recently applied for a mortgage, I decided to look into this curious-sounding word.  Since I took French in high school, I know that “mort” means dead, as used in the English words “mortician” and “mortify.”  I also suspected that “gage” meant deed, but I assumed it meant so only in French.  The fact is, “gage” is also an English word meaning something deposited as security (I can’t recall ever seeing this word in use before).  So a “mortgage” is a dead deed or security, so called because if you don’t pay it, the pledged property is “dead” to you.  If you do pay it, it is “dead” to the holder of the pledge.


Filed under Uncategorized

A Monk/ey’s Favorite Beverage?

In the interest of being somewhat topical, I thought I’d discuss the name of a warm winter beverage that clearly is of Italian origin (and as such may present a spelling challenge as well).

Cappuccino – with double p’s and double c’s – is a frothy coffee beverage made with steamed milk. The milk gives it a light brown color (unlike regular coffee), which, like a “Black and Tan,” is actually where its name comes from.

Let me explain.

In Italian, a cappuccio (no ‘n’) is a hood or hooded robe. These robes are worn by many friars, particularly those of the Franciscan order and by an offshoot of the Franciscans, the aptly-named Capuchin monks. Because the light brown color of these robes resembles the color of the frothy coffee beverage, it came to be called cappuccino or “little hood.”

Capuchin monkeys get their name from the same word, but for a reason other than color. They have a patch of dark fur on top of their heads that resembles a hood or cap. Which got me wondering: does our English word “cap” derive from the same Italian word? In a roundabout way, yes. It actually goes back farther, to Latin (cappa), which of course is also where the Italian language got “cappuccio.”

Now if only I could find a picture of a Capuchin monkey drinking a cappuccino . . .


Filed under Uncategorized

What do you do when your nose goes on strike?

We’ve all heard of picket lines, where protesting workers carrying placards attempt to blockade entry to a workplace. It is tempting to think that this term must derive from the wooden stakes that these signs are attached to, but this does not appear to be the case.

The word picket indeed derives from the French word for a pointed stake, piquet, which is how the word was spelled in early usage. It carried the same meaning in English, and rows of pickets used to build fortifications or fences were also called pickets (although today we call them “picket fences”). This led to usage of the term to describe a small detachment of troops, probably due to their similar function of providing a barrier of protection. It is this sense of the term that carried over to the present day association with lines of workers barricading a workplace, resembling a human fence. The fact that they may also be carrying signs attached to a picket would seem to be a convenient coincidence.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a picket was also a form of military punishment wherein the perpetrator was forced to stand on one foot on top of a pointed stake driven into the ground. That’s gotta hurt!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What’s in a name? M-O-N-E-Y!

Have you noticed the sexy, catchy names on those drugs in your medicine cabinet, on store shelves and now in television ads? This is no accident. Pharmaceutical companies put lots of research – and money – into a drug name in the hope of giving it a shot in the arm, so to speak, in the competitive world of drug marketing. You’ll notice lots of hard consonants in those names – especially v’s and z’s and x’s – in an attempt to make them appealing: Nexium®, Viagara®, Vioxx®. If it’s fun to say, maybe you’ll ask your doctor for some! Maybe you’ll brag about taking it just to pronounce the trendy name. You’ll be a walking billboard for that “little purple pill!” (which is actually esomeprazole, which is almost as fun to say).

Some drug names even try to subliminally conjure up images of what they’re used for, so the oblivious customer chooses it from the shelf. A few are portmanteaus (a combination of parts of words), such as Prevacid®, which prevents acid, and Bufferin®, which is buffered aspirin. Abilify® (that’s a fun one to say!) has a very positive-sounding name that makes you think “ability”: it treats depression. Lopressor® lowers blood pressure. Harmonyl® (doesn’t that sound nice?) treats hypertension.

And drug names don’t need to be new to be sexy. Robitussin®, which has been around for years, has a catchy name that, like most drug brands, is much more marketable than its chemical name of guaifenesin. Try asking for that at the drug store, especially with a stuffed-up nose!

For those too young to catch the reference in this entry’s title, a commercial for Rolaids® used to ask “How do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S!” Rolaids® are, of course, rolled aids for indigestion.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Did you ever wonder why we say “hello” when greeting someone? Well if you did, you’ve come to the right blog! I’ll be exploring the origins of words, phrases and names that are in everyday usage, many of which have curious and interesting backstories.

As for “hello,” variations of the word go back quite a way, with some of the earliest recorded uses being in the works of Shakespeare, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Shakespeare’s day, “holla” was an exclamation that meant “stop,” which gradually evolved into a quick way to get someone’s attention (the English word “holler” derives from this usage). The word had many different spellings. The form we know today, “hello,” wasn’t in common use until the mid-nineteenth century, a scant one hundred and fifty years ago.

When the telephone was invented toward the end of the century, Alexander Graham Bell wanted to use the word “ahoy” as the standard phone greeting (“ahoy,” incidentally, is a nautical hail used to call attention to a “hoy,” which is a small vessel). Thomas Edison is credited with supplanting Bell’s “ahoy” with his preferred greeting, “hello.” Ammon Shea, author of The Phone Book, reports that this was also the greeting recommended in the first phone book. This book, published in New Haven, CT, in 1878, also recommended that people end a phone conversation with “that is all.” This would come across as rather formal and possibly rude today (if you don’t believe me, try ending your next phone call with your significant other that way). The word we use instead, “goodbye,” is actually a contraction of “God be with ye.”

That is all.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized