Tag Archives: origin

About forty

forty
At work, we put products in quarantine when they are removed from sale for safety reasons. The word “quarantine” means “about forty,” quarante being the French word for forty. Forty days was the amount of time Christ removed himself from society to fast in the desert. It was also the legal period of time a widow had in which to receive her dower and remain in her husband’s house, and the amount of time a ship that carried diseased passengers had to wait before it would be allowed to disembark. So now any period of isolation or forced removal is called a quarantine, whether close to forty days or not.

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Barbie in the backyard

bbq
Here’s a shocker: the word barbecue originally had nothing to do with food.

Spelled many different ways since 1700, it is of both Spanish and French origin. It refers to a framework of sticks that people slept on to be up off the ground, not something that you slap steak onto. That connotation came along in the late nineteenth century, when fish and other food “slept” on a barbecue as they were being cooked. The modern spelling and pronunciation may derive from the French phrase barbe a queue, which means “beard to tail” and has nothing at all to do with the word barbecue.

In the mid 1970s, the Australians shortened the word to barbie, and the movie Crocodile Dundee helped bring the shortened form to America.

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The works

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Besides being the name of a cartoon penguin, “opus” is a word used to refer to a creative work, usually musical and of considerable scope (as in a “magnum opus”). The term comes from the Latin word for work. Musical compositions are given an “opus number,” such as Beethoven’s Opus 125, also known as his Ninth Symphony. In this usage, the word is usually abbreviated as “op,” a common sight on classical music recordings.

Of particular interest is the plural of this word: opera, meaning works. This is why compositions that include music, dance, scenery and costumes are called operas, as they combine works form various disciplines in the arts. Other common words from this root are operate (as in surgery, or medical work), and the operating system of your computer, which makes it work.

While we’re talking about music and operas, why do we yell “bravo!” at the end of a particularly fine performance? This word comes from the Italian for “good.” If you really like a performance, you can yell “bravissimo!,” which expresses approval in the extreme (“most excellent!”). Or you could just yell “excellent!” or “awesome!,” but you’d likely get some unwelcome stares for your faux pas (French: false step).

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The resolution

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This New Year’s Eve, while you’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” (Old English for “old long-since”) and drinking champagne (named after the province in France where it is made), perhaps you’ll make a resolution (first practiced in the mid-1800s). When we normally speak of resolution, we usually mean the degree of detail in a photograph or a television set (actually, the word refers to the separation of something into component parts). Modern flat screen TVs that are “1080p” have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels – the more pixels, the more detail and greater resolution. We can also find resolutions to problems.

At this time of year, however, the word takes on a different meaning. We make resolutions, meaning things that we are determined to do (or not do, as the case may be). While this practice of reflection and intention at the start of a new year has been around for over a century, the popular use of the word in this context dates back to Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece:

“Then Love and Fortune be my gods, my guide!
My will is backt with resolution:
Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried;
The blackest sin is clear’d with absolution”

So test your resolve and make some resolutions, for the sake of auld lang syne.

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What’s the point?

poinsettia

Poinsettias – the beautiful, leafy red plant, is a Christmas icon. It is unique in that it’s the leaves (technically, bracts) that are red – the “flowers” are the tiny yellow clusters rising off the bracts. But what about that difficult-to-pronounce name? Actually, it’s pronounced just like it is spelled: poyn-settee- uh. However, if you pronounce it this way your friends will probably give you a strange look, as if you just returned from lessons with Henry Higgins (for those of you who aren’t Broadway savvy, he trained Eliza Doolittle in the King’s English in My Fair Lady).  They will wonder why you suddenly think you’re better than they (notice I didn’t say than them). Next, you’ll be saying “coo-pon” instead of “q-pon.” So, better to avoid the accusations of snobbery and pronounce it the common way, which is to add a t and remove an i: point-setta. It’s quicker (you save a whole syllable!) and you won’t lose any friends. Well, not the fun ones, anyway.

So who is to blame for this verbal brouhaha? The botanical name of the plant, actually a shrub, is euphorbia pulcherrima, which means “very beautiful” in Latin. No one would argue with that, but this doesn’t roll off the tongue any easier than “poinsettia.” The common name by which we know it today comes from the very first United States ambassador to Mexico, where the shrub is native. He found it in the Mexican countryside in 1828 and brought it back to South Carolina. His name? Joel Poinsett. I wonder how many people mispronounced his name? And did anyone notice that his first name means “Christmas” in French?

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Handy caps

Handicap – it refers to both an equalization of competitors in a race or contest and, more recently, to a physically-challenged person. But where did this odd word come from, and how did it come to be used for so-called physical disabilities?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 18th century a game of chance was popular wherein two competitors each offered an article of some value that they thought the other might want.  An umpire decided the value of each, and the person offering the less valuable item would also have to offer some money to bring it up to a value equal to that of the other item. The two, along with an umpire, then deposited forfeit money into a hat.  The competitors each reached in and either drew out money or came up empty-handed to indicate their acceptance or rejection of the swap.  If both agreed to the terms, all of the money was taken by the umpire and the swap was made; if neither agreed, the umpire again kept the forfeit money but no swap was made. If only one agreed, he alone was entitled to the forfeit money but no swap was made.

So what does all this have to do with the word “handicap?” The game was called “hand in cap,” eventually shortened to “hand i’ cap.” Since it involved an equalization of two different items, it came to be associated with horse-racing wherein a slower horse was made to be more competitive with a faster one by “handicapping” or burdening the faster one.  Out of this usage, we can see where the term came to be generally applied to a physical disability.

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Whoop-de-doo for Duparooh!

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It was invented in 1935 by scientists at DuPont, and introduced to the masses at the 1938 World Fair in New York, where nobody much cared. Today, it is hard to imagine life without it. It was meant to be a substitute for use in products no longer available from Japan due to hostilities prior to and during WWII. DuPont considered over 400 commercial names for their revolutionary “polyamide 66,” including “Duparooh,” which stood for “DuPont Pulls a Rabbit Out Of Hat.” Whatever they called it, it would be applauded by women and fishermen everywhere, not to mention the military. Today, you can find it in many household items and articles of clothing. It is stronger than steel. You can wear it, brush your teeth with it, sleep under it and cook with it. It’s the next best thing to plastic (no, it’s not plastic). It’s nylon.

So how did it come to be called “nylon?” It started out as “norun,” since DuPont recognized one of its main uses as material for stockings that, unlike Japanese silk, would be resistant to snagging or running. However, since “no run” was slightly misleading and they did not want to restrict its intended use to this one area, a change to “nuron” was proposed. Fearing this would be pronounced “neuron,” it was changed again to “nulon.” Due to further mispronunciation concerns it became “nilon,” and, finally, the less phonetically ambiguous “nylon.”

Word spread at the time that “nylon” was actually an acronym for “Now You Lose (or Lousy) Old Nippon,” but this was invented after the fact, compliments of anti-Japanese sentiment. The material did prove useful, however, during the war in the construction of parachutes, tents, rope and ponchos. Today it is omnipresent in carpeting and outerwear, in kitchens and operating rooms, music halls and tennis courts. It was the first synthetic fiber made by man. Remember that the next time you don a pair of duparoohs.

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