Tag Archives: word origins

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.

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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!


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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.


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