Category Archives: Etymological Illuminations

I’m going to overwhelm you. And you’re going to like it.

map of Great Britain and Ireland, also known c...

As I was recently being underwhelmed by a recommended book, my eyes wandered up and out the window where they fell upon the rain-fueled weeds that are overwhelming my garden. Probably I should be out there pulling weeds instead of sticking with this, I thought, but my mind wandered again: hmm…you’ve got your over, and your under…is there such a thing as plain ungarnished whelmed? A little digging in the etymological shrubbery discovered there once was.

Whelm traveled solo for quite a long time, but it’s been a few hundred years since it reported for duty alone. Back around 750 AD, your Old High German self used helmian when you wanted “to cover over” something, and your later Saxon/Mercian and Old English cousins said the same thing as whelmen, hwielfan, and helman. By the 1300’s, its “covering over” had shape-shifted to “turn upside down, overthrow. Helman/whelmen seemed to like this dramatic trend because somewhere in the 1400’s it escalated to “to submerge completely”, and by around 1520 had achieved the drama of “to bring to ruin”. Just so you can see its old self in action, here’s a quote from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667): “Who…with solitary hand…at one blow Unaided could have finish’d thee, and whelm’d Thy legions under darkness”. Sometime as early as the 1400’s, folks began adding over– to whelmed. Over is a common prefix in Old English and other Germanic languages: considering how many waves of invaders trampled across the British Isles, it stands to reason they would start mashing their dialects together. Adding over– to overturned is a lot like saying “shrimp scampi” – “shrimp shrimp” as said by those innocently unaware that scampi is the Italian word for shrimp. This 2X treatment seemed to suit whelmed’s grandiose aspirations, because half a millennia later over has become whelmed’s permanent booster.

Underwhelmed is a very recent spin-off, not showing up until some time in the late 1940’s when the vogue for ironic witticisms invented this facetious version. Actually, very, very recently (early 1990’s) you began to find the occasional use of plain whelmed again, but without its garnishing prefixes it has, could we say, a kind post-ironic self-erasing meaning – failure to be whelmed, neither over nor under. A sort of flat-line. Which is what I felt about getting up and tackling the weeding. Also about continuing with the dull book. Rooting around in etymology was a lot more fun.

This etymological illumination brought to you by Jane

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Dude, this one’s gonna blow your mind!

Recently, an unyielding jar lid was complicating an already hassled situation.  I cried out to it “Help me out, dude!”  Didn’t think much about it until the other day while cleaning my back patio I accidentally whacked one of the chairs with the broom. “Oh, sorry dude!”.  Hmm.  No claim to fame for talking to inanimate objects, but what is it about dude?

You may never have bothered, but if you did actually look into dude you would find an avalanche, a tsunami, a veritable Mt. Everest of information and commentary. More than enough to possibly suck all the oxygen out of your interest. We can’t have that, so here’s my best distillation.  14th century dudde = “cloak, mantle”, of uncertain origin, probably a northern English dialect.  By 1560 plural duddes meant “ragged clothing”. By the 1800s, it had shrunk to duds (rags, ragged clothing) and a dudsman was a scarecrow. By 1897 its rag-tag scruffiness got it also associated with “counterfeit thing”, which by 1908 went as far as “useless, inefficient person or thing”, then to WWI’s dud “shell which fails to explode,” and thence to “expensive failure.”  We still use duds to mean “clothing” and dud to mean a failure.  And now for the even older Irish connection: Dúd in Old Irish (6th – 10th centuries)  means “dolt, numbskull, rubbernecker; a mopish, shy, foolish-looking fellow”, and by the 1600’s its diminutive form was “doddle, doodle”.

America, 1755. At the start of our War of Independence, British Army surgeon Dr. Richard Schuckburgh writes “Yankee Doodle Dandy”  mocking colonial soldiers with “doodle“, which in addition to dolts in rags might also be hinting at an 18th century slang term for “penis”.  Sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni used another British slang term for a fop or dandy trying to affect European style. In short – limp, ragtag, foolish pretenders.  Once the colonists started to kick ass, they took over the tune as a patriotic prize and doodle/dood/dude began to spill over into casual use to

lampoon dandies and wannabes – limp, pretentiously-dressed losers.  Later waves of immigrants joined this developing party: German duden-pop (blockhead) made fun of fools, and Irish-Americans fired their venerable Dúd at slumming, wealthy, young swells. It took about 100 years for these ingredients to coagulate enough to “go viral” as we say now, which back in the day meant the newspapers got a hold of it. On February 25, 1883, the Brooklyn Eagle reported: “A new word has been coined. It is d-u-d-e or d-o-o-d. The spelling does not seem to be distinctly settled yet…Just where the word came from nobody knows, but it has sprung into popularity in the last two weeks, so that now everybody is using it…The dude is from 19 to 28 years of age, wears trousers of extreme tightness, is hollow chested, effeminate in his ways, apes the English and distinguishes himself among his fellowmen as a lover of actresses.”  So there you have it.  Dude was officially born.

Over the next few decades dude enjoyed casual employment continuing to poke fun at the excessively fashionable (males) and greenhorn wannabes (of either sex). The 1920’s enthusiasm for Way Out West added more juice: you could get all duded up with fancy hat and boots at a dude ranch for greenhorn tourists. And then!!…black ghetto slang took up dude in the 60’s and flipped it into a whole new universe – from beyond-the-pale dweeb to local Cool Guy!  Street corner homey dude quickly made his way into the hipster fringe of musicians, writers, and filmmakers.  “Of uncertain origin” has been the refrain at every dude-ly shape-shift, and the next flew the same freak-flag.  Some uncertain year (late 60’s, early 70’s), some uncertain someones in some uncertain part of the then outlier Southern California surf subculture started using “dude” instead of “man”.  Homeboys, hipsters, artists, and now the romance of fringe athletes!  This cool new incarnation simmered another decade until 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High added the final heat of “slacker”, and the brew exploded into the collective popular brainpan.  So there you have it.  Dude as we love it today!

Here are the footnotes.  Don’t let your eyes glaze over yet…I’m only giving you the best fun stuff.  What makes dude so irresistibly useful?  The University of Pittsburgh’s linguist Scott F. Kiesling has written the definitive paper on the subject (spoiler alert: “cool solidarity”). Scholarly, so can’t avoid a touch of dryness…but quite neato!  Why has dude triumphed over every other similar word (“man”, for instance), and freely abandoned gender bias?…check out Muffy Siegel’s paper (another linguist) “Dude, Katie! Your Dress is so Cute!” Skip down below item #10 to get directly to where the flavor really starts…do the whole thing if you like this taste. At the other end of the spectrum: if you must seek ordination as a dude minister then go directly to The Church of the Latter Day Dude.

Now for my own personal two cents. I love stem-cell-ish words like “dude”, words that manage to blow out their customary jambs and start to refer to almost anything – see my previous etymological trysts with “so“, “guy“, and “stuff“.  I take these free-love inventions of the human mind as an optimistic reminder that the bullying mean side of our natures is indeed naturally countered by a playful, sweet All-is-One side. Not so fond of the often saccharine New Age lingo, though.  Much prefer to give it up to the in-dwelling spirit of my patio furniture in the form of “thanks, dude!”.  Might remain mostly an American free-love expression, though…likely never attaining the world-wide employment that “guy” is achieving.  Most parts of the world prefer hierarchy to quite such indiscriminate camaraderie.  In my India ashram days, I remember the house staff being rather insulted by our democratic discomfort at being addressed with what we saw as the colonial “sahib” and “mem-sahib” and our resulting attempts to get them to use first names.  They did not want to be tossed into some vague mosh-pit of cool solidarity. They worked hard at their jobs and wanted the respect of formality.  Dude may be for everyone (and everything), but everyone may not be ripe for Dude.
P.S.  Alright, people!  Everyone in Southern California is a mere 2 degrees of separation from a surfer.  You know someone who knows someone who was a little surf-grom in the 70’s (’70’s, remember…waaay before Spicoli!).  Find them.  Ask them when they first heard or used “dude”. My sources are the Mickey Dora-era Malibu crew and they say they didn’t use dude, they called each other “man”.  They think “dude” came from Valley surfers.  Maybe.  But we have yet to hear from San Diego, San Clemente, Huntington/Manhattan, Rincon, or Valley surfers themselves.  The front row seats at dude’s most recent quantum leap could be at your very fingertips. Lurk no more…comment here with the fruits of your sleuthing on the surf-roots of Dude.

 

Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane, our very own sweet Dude

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Neat in a Rolls Royce or on a Donkey

Some people think the word neat is fading from the stage, an aging hipster a bit too dull to hold its own against  “cool”…though perhaps still occasionally employable in some tongue-in-cheek, “post-ironic” sort of way.  Others of us still use it plenty.  “Oh, that’s neat.”  Or just “Neat!”.  Our version of post-ironic is “neato“.  Somebody is getting pushed closer to the sidelines, however, and it seems to be formal dictionary-proper neat, neat as in tidy, precise, orderly. Can’t remember the last time I used neat for its original intended purpose.  People seem to prefer its synonyms, like tidy, though we still find it entertaining to call a very tidy person a “neatnik”.  Could it be that neatness in general is in a sort of bystander phase, giving cultural way to relaxed “shabby chic” (never mind “grunge”), so less call to use the word?


Well, if you’re going to think about original meaning, then even tidy-neat is a newbie that dates only from about 1570.  Really original neat goes back nearly beyond imagining – 6,000 years to Bronze age Proto Indo European (PIE) – and her meaning then was more elemental: to shine.  The PIE root is ni/nei, which a few thousand years later became Latin’s nitere (to shine).  Shiny things have always been enticing, and it was Latin that first borrowed shine to describe something well put-together, trim, attractive.  Welsh, Old Irish, Old French kept closer to the original with their meanings of gleam, splendor, but added strength, holy, pure to the innuendo. (Didn’t your grandmother ever prompt you “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”?  Shiny clean holiness is a very old idea.) Following the pure angle, by 1540, English’s neat was “clean, free from dirt”, and from there it was easy to fold in ancient Latin’s “well put-together, trim” to arrive at 1570’s tidy, precise, orderly.  Barkeeps reverted to neat-as-pure in the 1800’s: “neat” liquor is unadulterated, unmixed, then and now.  We Americans were the first to re-state the obvious: anything shiny, pure, well put-together is certainly “very good“, and pretty quickly anything very good was neat, whether strictly speaking pure or not.  Once a word becomes this general, almost anything goes… and before you know it you could even fall into the clutches of “post-ironic”.

Neat seems to me to be rather unperturbed by the fluctuations.  The ni/nei sound of her primeval lineage remains undimmed; she has the unassuming poise of ancient blood, a natural princess unaffected by whether her current vehicle is a Rolls or a donkey.  After all, either (or both) can be neat.

Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane

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Whatta Guy!

I happen to be very fond of the word “guy“.  It’s so accommodating, so inclusive, so pleasantly informal.  It is blithely unconcerned with any kind of division – race, class, fame, wealth. Although a single “guy” is always male (so far, anyway), plural “you guys” can just as well be all female. It’s also perfectly happy with other species…who hasn’t hollered at their pets “Knock it off, you guys!”, or muttered menacingly towards a persistent mosquito, “That guy is really starting to piss me off!”.  In very recent years it has gained currency in other English-speaking places, but in my girlhood only Americans used this word. I did a lot of traveling in those days and if I ever heard the word “guy” in a crowd, I knew there was an American nearby. Everybody else said “bloke” or “fellow” or “folks” or just used a proper-grammar pronoun like “let’s”, “we”, “you (all)”.  I always wondered how we Americans got “guy”, and it turns out to be an explosive story.


1605.  Die-hard Catholics plot to blow up English parliament (36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in basement) and restore Catholic king. Plot discovered, plotters executed, heads on pikes outside House of Lords. Grateful King James I declares national holiday (Thanksgiving Act) popularly known as Guy Fawkes Day (after the plot ringleader). Bonfires, fireworks, burning Guy in effigy. Over the next 300 years, grotesque Guy effigies begin to lend their name first to any weird or grotesque person, then eventually to anybody gaudily or obnoxiously dressed. The Gunpowder Plot gradually recedes from cultural prominence.  Thanksgiving Act repealed in 1859, but nobody is going to give up a holiday so thrillingly featuring bonfires and explosive entertainment, so England still enthusiastically celebrates Guy Fawkes Day.


Here in melting pot America, Guy and his fun English fireworks fest were unknown.  The only thing that immigrated was his name, abandoning Guy-the-man and making its New World living solely following Guy-the-idea’s gaudy/obnoxiousness. The first American  use of “guy” in print is in a slightly creepy phrase in the 1847 Swell’s Night Guide, on page 41: “I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy.”  Guy is capitalized, which shows it’s still associated with a definite type of tasteless person, but between this particular meaning and today’s perfectly ordinary, generic Everyman/woman there is not a peep to be heard. The scholars have nothing to say.  It’s a pretty big jump from tasteless/shabby/obnoxious person to happily garden variety you and me, but that’s how our “guy” story went.   And such a useful guy that the rest of the world is taking him on…even, so very recently, back in England where it all started.  Populist democracy prevailing!

 

Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane

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Am I Nonplussed or Plussed? Does My Question Pluss You or Nonpluss Your Plussedness?

The other day, one of our regulars wondered that if nonplussed means to be perplexed, what might it mean to be “plussed”?  Make that your next word, she said.  Well, OK…and it turns out, once you start snooping around, that lots of other people have asked questions about this odd little word.  Everyone gets the “non” part, and those acquainted with French notice the “plus” part and are led to the not-unreasonable idea that nonplussed is some kind of channel-hopper from France.  Not exactly so, as it turns out.  The French do have non (no) and plus (more), but they have never combined them to mean being perplexed.  For those who simply must know, the French will indeed use “non plus”, but in an entirely different way – as in “moi non plus” (me neither, neither do I); “ça non plus” (not his either).  And for the obsessively insistent…if you were going to really dig, there is another speculative 16th century French connection mentioned by the Oxford English Dictionary – “mettre à nonplus” (bring to a state where nothing more can be done/said).  The objection to this is that, back in its day, the English might use this (the Francophile showoffs among them, perhaps) but the French did not. Once again, the French had a different phrase for that meaning – réduire à quia – which in any case no modern Frenchman has ever heard.  So the French connection is close, but no cigar!  The consensus is that the English nonplus came directly from Latin non plus, meaning “no more”, and signifying in English “no more, no further, nothing more to be done, perplexed”.  How did this come about?….um…education in 16th century England was largely in Latin…probably that’s as close as sleuthing will get you.  It’s original use was as a noun – as in I am brought to a nonplus (a state of no further, of perplexity).  We Americans prefer it shorter and sweeter as an adjective – so we say I am nonplussed.  So there you have it.

Oh, but there’s more.  There’s an annoying part, for those of us who resist word misuse weaseling its way into common currency. Folks who have heard nonplussed in context but never actually checked the dictionary have taken a not entirely illogical but nonetheless wrong direction (wrong, I say!)…that one is at a standstill because of being unaffected and cool as a cucumber, instead of cut off at every turn, shocked into immobility.  In short, arriving at the exact opposite of the meaning of the word. Yes, yes, I know, language changes; see my earlier post about fun, which shape-shifted over centuries from meaning a hoax to meaning light pleasure.  Well, that damage was long done by the time I came along; I never knew fun as hoax and so never mourned it.  But benign ignorance might flip nonplussed from heads to tails right under my nose, and I don’t like it!  Now that you know, be on guard!

And now the funnest part.  Here’s a truly obsolete candidate for the same meaning, and funnily enough it does come from the French.  Old French (13th century) gravele, meaning a sandy beach, hopping over to Middle English gravel, where to be graveled or brought to a gravel came to also mean “run aground, beached, stranded, brought to a standstill, perplexed”. Alas, gravel lost place to upscale fancypants Latin nonplus, and is found no more (except deeeeep on the edges of internet search engines).  Another old synonym that apparently is just too entertaining to be given up is flummox. It’s British for sure, but no one knows exactly from what tongue…they say “some forgotten British dialect.” from probably around Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Sheffield. I can’t help thinking beyond the Mists of Avalon to some Druid farmer being “flummoxed” by a mishap in the field.  Who does not love flummoxed?  Having a bit of a peasant sensibility, I tend to use it more than nonplus anyway.  I suppose if nonplussed ever does get flipped onto its backside, I will still be happily consoled with flummoxed.

 

Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane

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The Adventures of Hazard — Starring Risk, Chance, and Fortune

Some words have trod a fairly singular path through the centuries (millennia, even). Others, however, have enjoyed the jostle of a crew, a loose partnership, a theatre troupe acting out an idea…which is where we find Hazard, along with Chance, Risk, Adventure, Fortune and confreres.  Hazard comes to English from Arabic, via the Moors to Spanish azar, then over into French as hasard, then hopping the channel.  Even its Arabic root is a line dance.  One partner is az-zahr, which refers to dice in informal spoken Arabic.  Another partner is classical Arabic’s yasara, which can mean a roll of the dice but is itself also a fraternity of players: ease, abundance, accessibility, agreeable company (from which the name Yasser comes).  In classical Arabic, one of zahr‘s meanings is “flower”, and some speculate it got associated with dice in a slang sort of way because of an old custom that put a flower instead of the number one on some dice.

Coming from the fun of gaming, the early idea of hazard involved chance but often had a positive slant…like to hazard a business, to risk an adventure.  It seems this potentially provident sense is more associated with hazard as a verb.  As a noun, its meaning has trended darker.  In Spanish the “azares de la vida” are the tribulations of life, and for we Americans a hazard is exclusively an actual danger. The British and French will still hazard a guess, an opinion, an undertaking of some kind.  Americans seem to prefer other words to express an attempt, like to “try” something or “take” a chance.

Risk also might come from Arabic – rizq (providence, good fortune).  Or…from Latin’s resecum (to cut) or rixare (to quarrel), or even Greek’s risikon which they used as “root” but the Byzantines sometimes used as “chance”.  Chance comes from French’s cheance  (accident, fortune, falling dice), which comes from Latin’s cadere (to fall, opportunity, ramdomness).  Adventure starts with Latin’s venire (to come, to arrive) and spreads out as it moves through Old French into Middle English:  a thing about to happen, perilous undertaking, novel or exciting incident.  Stripped of its “ad”, venture even manages to enter the solid respectability of business – a venture, venture capital.

Fortune is the primeval diva of the group, from the archaic Proto Indo European base “bhrtis-“, then up through Latin’s fortis/fortuna (chance, Providence, luck). Something about to happen, a chance on the move, opportunity in play….yeeeee haaaa. Seriously, make her a Goddess (the Greeks and Romans did) and try to get her to roll her famous Wheel in your favor; not so seriously, go with the game and throw the dice (everybody everywhere has invented some kind of dice!).  One way or another, the crew pulls us into the dance…Do-si-do your chance, swing adventure ’round, then allemande left and circle your risk and step hazard on down the line!

Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane.

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Great Stuff!

Stuff” is a delicious layer cake of ironies. We use both its ancient (to completely fill a cavity) and modern (the substance of something/anything) meanings so commonly that you can hardly utter two sentences in a row without using one of them. Wonderful twins they are, and they have a separated-at-birth sibling as well…dramatic “stop“.

Their ancient Greek mother was a modest country girl – “styppe” – meaning coarse flax/tow/oakum, the stuff (!) everyone used to caulk (stop up) the planks of their boats to make them watertight (can you hear “stop”, as one of SNL’s “wild and crazy guys” might say it?). Latin took her on as “stuppe“, and then the common folk (the Latin Vulgate) raised her up from kitchen maid to cook by giving her the additional skills of a verb. Now you could say “stuppare” and mean something was “getting stopped up, stuffed“.  Seems a modest and obvious evolution, but this sort of caste-breaking upward mobility is really (as they say in Physics) an “event horizon”.  No going back.  Door irretrievably cracked to potential explosion of opportunity. As is often with caste-busting, the explosion goes in slo-mo at first.

Old High German needed to caulk its boats too, and took on Stuppe as “stopfon” – to stop up or plug. Say it fast and you’ll hear stuffin’, and stop is still its first syllable. Simmering up the centuries into French and Middle English as both the noun “caulk/stuffing”, and the verb “to plug, stuff”, her first venture into new flavor came when the Frankish military (revealing the violent nature of those Dark Ages) recruited Stopfon to mean “stuffing/padding” under chain mail” (estoffe). As times calmed down, stuffing/padding shifted to makers of furniture and soon other trades involving any kind of plug or stuffing adopted her. Middle English continued her upward mobility. It carved out Stop from the “plug, stop flow” idea and sent it on its modern way as “to bring to a halt“. Then it shortened her name from stopfon and estoffe to stuff, but kept expanding her kitchen so that by the 1570’s her menu had exploded to the extreme that “stuffing” meant “matter of an unspecified kind“. Anything whatsoever! Unlimited stuff-ness!

The workaday servant has vaulted all the way to domestic Goddess.

The yummy irony of it all is that, of course, we all need to stuff up the planks of our little personalities so they float serenely watertight in the rapids of social intercourse, and again of course, on the other extreme we get completely impacted and immobilized with Stuff…things and ideas alike. And even more exquisite that this stem cell of a word that can signify anything, anytime, anywhere has as its root meaning impenetrable stoppage.

Great Stuff!

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