For students of English literature, the usage that probably most attracts attention is the combination of is with a preceding reduced form of it, to produce ’tis. There are over 1,400 instances in Shakespeare, for example. The spelling varies, especially in the use of the apostrophe (t’is, ti’s), and often showing no apostrophe at all. In Middle English, the pronoun is sometimes used twice: as it tis.
On the heels of his delightful Accidental Dictionary, Paul Anthony Jones—the word-grubbing mastermind behind the wildly popular @HaggardHawks online–is out with another collection of weird and wonderful words. This one’s called A Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
This compendium truly lives up to its name. Cracking open its beautifully crafted aged-teal and gilded cover is like peeking into an old, mysterious cabinet—a Wunderkammer (June 7, “a collection of oddities”) tucked away at the back of an antique shop, eccentric museum, or attic. On each day of his yearbook, Jones treats you to an unusual word, like some curio of yore, and in each entry, he dusts it off and holds it up to the light, telling a story about the word.
Some recent US political events have thrust two interesting idioms in the headlines: waiting for the other shoe to drop and pass the buck. Thinking of a writing post on the expressions, I started doing some research online. Then, much to my pleasure, I remembered I had an entire book dedicated to them: Andrew Thompson’s Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases (Ulysses Press, 2017). The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
Thompson traces waiting for the other shoe to drop backto urban, industrial America:
Wait for the other shop to drop began with the American manufacturing boom in the late 19th century. In large cities like New York, apartment housing became more common. These dwellings were all built with similar designs, with bedrooms typically located above one another. It was common to be awoken late at night by a neighbor removing their shoes in the apartment above. The person below would often wake when the first shoe dropped on the floor and made a loud bang. Already disturbed, the other person would then wait for the inevitable noise of the other shoe hitting the floor.
You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.
Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):
The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.
Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”
In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.
When her father was dying, Lisa Smartt noticed he was using poetic and at times nonsensical language, speaking of green dimensions, an upcoming art show, and angels who told him he only had three days left. Stirred by his speech and drawing on her linguistics background, Smartt dedicated four years to analyzing over 1,500 utterances made by people at the threshold of death. “Do consistent patterns emerge in the language of the end of life? And if so, what exactly are those patterns and how might they track the path of consciousness?” she asks in Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death (New World Library, 2017), the intriguing results of her inquiry. The publisher kindly sent me a copy for review.
As my regular readers know well, I tend to focus on the origins of everyday words that are timely, seasonal, or buzzing in the news. My selections, more often than not, come from politics—and, these days, it seems they’re almost exclusively from or about Trump. Not that I’m alone.
Take Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century (Lexik House, 2016), lexicographer David K. Barnhart’s second collection of such political terms and which he kindly sent me a copy for review. Barnhart may be a familiar name to my readers: His brother, Robert Barnhart, created The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, one of my go-to resources. (You wouldn’t want to play Scrabble at their house. Their father, Clarence, was an accomplished lexicographer, too, best known for editing the Thorndike-Barnhart graded dictionaries.)
In his Election-day Edition of his Never-finished Political Dictionary, Barnhart enters over 50 terms based on Trump alone: Trumpanzee (“a supporter of Donald J. Trump”), the Trump effect (“the influence of Donald J. Trump on a political race”), Trumpertantrum (think temper tantrum), Trumpian, Trumpism, Trumpista (“a person who enthusiastically supports the policies of Donald J. Trump”), Trump-tastic (“wonderful in a way that reflects Trumpian splendor”), and the list goes on. Clinton only reaches half that number, and Bernie-related terms don’t even crack a dozen. Politically—and linguistically—we are in the Trump era.
I’ve often been asked, “You’re the kind of person who likes to read the dictionary, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not just someone who enjoys reading the dictionary. I’m also someone who takes great pleasure in reading books about the dictionary. In this case, it’s John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, 2016).
Last year, as you may recall, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was an immensely rewarding project, to be sure, but I can’t lie: When I finished, I was really excited to read something else for a change. I immediately jumped forBryan Kozlowksi’s What the Dickens?!: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them, published in October 2016 by Running Press, who kindly sent me a galley for review.
That’s right, Shakespeare. You haven’t cornered the word market in the English language. In What the Dickens?!, Kozlowksi presents 200 of Charles Dickens most, well, Dickensian words from across his writing. Like growlery, “a place of refuge where one goes to vent frustrations.” Or comfoozled, “exhausted.” Or Pumblechookian, which is “typical of Mr. Pumblechook, Pip’s pompous, greedy, and hypocritical uncle in Great Expectations.”
To guide our tour through Dickens’ whimsical and wide-ranging vocabulary, Kozlowksi loosely categorizes his selections by theme. One section is Words for Making Merry, including the likes of heeltap (a small amount of liquor remaining at the bottom ofglass) and hobbledehoy (an awkward and clumsy youth). Another is Vocabulary for the Smart-Sounding Victorian: bedight (“adorned”), plumbless (immeasurably deep), and Terpsichorean (relating to dancing), for instance.
Kozlowksi indeed curates a colorful menagerie, from words Dickens invented (sassigassity, “audacity with an attitude”) and based on his characters (Pecksniffian, “hypocritical”) to places (Gretna Green, a place at the the Anglo-Scottish border where lovers often eloped ) and practices of Dickens’ day (farm for children, a primitive Victorian day care, or cag- magger, an unscrupulous butcher).
And for each, page-long entry, Kozlowksi not only defines the words, but he also quotes their original context and offers insight into Victorianculture, an anecdote about Dickens, or an interesting fact about the history and origin of the word at hand. Take moor-eeffoc, which particularly delighted me:
Moor-eeffoc [MOO-ee-fok] The uncanniness of common things seen suddenly from a different perspective. Case in point: Moor-eeffoc is simply the backward spelling of “coffee room.”
I recollect that…in the door there was an oval glass-plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but there there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal revere), a shock goes through my blood.
– From Dickens’ Abandoned Autobiography
Moor-eeffoc is the most elusive and enigmatic word in the Dickensian lexicon. Dickens himself didn’t know how to define it, though future writers linked it to the very heart of his creative legacy. The word was of deep significance to fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.K. Chesterton–with the latter’s definition still considered the best:
That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle–the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious’s, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart–these are all moore eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.
I like to open up the book at random, enjoying each word like some magic little portal into Dickens’ world and imagination. Like lummy, which the Artful Dodger used in Oliver Twist for “first rate.” It’s “originally part of the longer interjection Lor’ lummy,” Kozlowksi explains, “a Cockney contraction of ‘Lord love me,’ used to express surprise or great interest.” And it perfectly describes What the Dickens?!
Kozlowksi’s knowledge of Dickens is comprehensive, his love for Dickens’ language is infectious, and his writing is fun, smart, and accessible. It’s a great book – and gift – for Dickens-philes and logophiles alike. Lor’ lummy, it might just make want to go on to read the complete works of Charles Dickens now…
With intelligence and wit, Jones offers the surprising origins and developments of 100 everyday words, from affiliate to zombie. Each selection is pithy and engaging, making The Accidental Dictionary an ideal book to pick up whenever you need a funny yet informative break or burst of inspired word-nerdom. But I think you’ll find, like me, that the word histories Jones’ has curated – and his infectious enthusiasm for them – are hard to put down.
There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.
When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.
Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.
Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.
But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.
The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.
We’ve sighted a lot of different animals in the etymological safari that is the Mashed Radish. We’ve run with horse, talked turkey, reared up like a lion and wriggled like a shrimp with rampant, raised yearlings in old veteran, and raced with huskies in mush. We’ve sported with hawks and cardinals. We’ve traversed entire hemispheres in the native Quechuan habitat of condor and llama. We’ve even walked alongside a stegosaurus in thug.
Perhaps like a zoo arranges its exhibits, Hadleigh organizes his book into five chapters: dogs, cats, horses, other mammals, and non-mammals. Each chapter takes a very comprehensive look at the various – and truly numerous ways – we talk like the animals.
Let’s take dog as an example. Hadleigh serves up the history of hot dog and explains the meaning of hair of the dog and see a man about a dog. He discusses dog in various expressions like dog days or dog tags as well as in various words like dogwatch and doggerel. He looks into dogs in marketing, such as RCA’s Nipper, and dogs in the garden, such as dogwood. Hadleigh also covers many dog-related items, such as cur, bitch, puppy, and bark. I learned, for example, that harass may be from an Old French verb “to set a dog on” while chow, as in “food,” is related to Chinese expressions for food. According to Hadleigh, hush puppies were so-called due to their use either to quiet hunting dogs or hungry children amid the poverty of the postbellum South.
Passages like the origin of harass or hush puppy represent what I think the text does best. Lousy indeedcomes from louse, the singular form of lice. To go whole hog might be come from the option of buying the whole pig, rather than just choice cuts, from the butcher at a discounted price. Canary the bird is named for the Canary Islands, whose Latin name actually describes an island of dogs (think canine). And jaywalker is a curious specimen:
Jays, member of the crow family, usually with blue feathers, thrived along the east coast of what is now the US when European colonists arrived. As more and more arrived, most jays withdrew to the country. By the mid 1700s jay was a nickname for a country bumpkin. Rural visitors to growing cities were often baffled by the traffic, not knowing where or when to cross the street, and sometimes doing so without looking. By the early 20th century a jaywalker was what he or she is now. Today they should really know better.
As this passage illustrates, Hadleigh’s writing is clear and easy to read. For as wide-ranging it is, his content comes in small chunks, making the text one you can easily pick up and put down, as I did at the airport, at a cafe, even at a bar. Again, Holy Cow! reads like going to the zoo: You can admire linguistic creatures great and small while strolling through the chapters at your own pace, taking away an interesting fact or two as you appreciate all the ways animals have populated our language.
I did have questions about some origins and thus wish Hadleigh provided us more information about his sources than just occasionally quoting Mario Pei or the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. A bibliography would also have been not only useful but also appropriate. The text could have marked words or phrases when they are being referred to as such (e.g., italicizing jaywalker in the passage quoted above), a standard practice which makes meaning clearer and the text easier to follow. I also would have appreciated some final remarks. What did Hadleigh learn about the human animal and its language from gathering up so many animal terms into this ark of a text?
That said, Holy Cow! is a fun read. I found it very entertaining and enjoyable due in part to Hadleigh’s accessible organization and wide-ranging content and in part to the sheer fact that, as he notes in his introduction, “humans have always been drawn to animals.” It’s true. Hadleigh’s admiration for both animals and language comes across clearly in this book, and I think you, too, would enjoy a trip to his linguistic zoo.