Monthly Archives: May 2012

duds, dud

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Margaret Gibbs.

We were sitting in late afternoon rush-hour traffic and I was trying to stay awake. It may have been six p.m. on the Pacific coast, but I had just spent ten days at a friend’s borrowed cottage in Scotland, and my body was convinced it was two a.m. My daughter and her family had met my plane and were driving me home in their van, me in the front with my son-in-law, the three teenage granddaughters chattering like birds on a wire at the back. In the middle row, my daughter was prodding my two small suitcases beside her.

“Honestly, Mum, you knew it would probably snow again, even in April. Why didn’t you take more clothes? You could have caught your death of cold!”

“Carrie,” I said, “in the first place, do you realize you’re turning into me as you get older? And in the second place, Isobel keeps winter clothes at the cottage and they were my size. I just used her coats and boots when I went outdoors.”

“So the duds were to hand,” Christopher summed up.

A protest from his oldest daughter at the back. “Da-a-a-d! You’ve been watching ancient movies again. Duds! That slang is so lame!”

“It’s still used!” Lizzie, the middle kid. “I saw it in the newspaper yesterday, in a fashion column. ‘Designer duds’.”

“The writer was just using American slang for effect.”

I interrupted. “It’s a perfectly good Scottish dialect word that got transplanted to other countries like America. Your father wasn’t using slang. Well, not for him anyway.” (Christopher grew up in Inverness. It was his family’s holiday cottage in Strathnairn that I’d been using.)

“So when did it get over here?” asked Elin, the word-person youngest. “Did American soldiers bring it back after the war?”

“It’s in books and movies from before that.” Bethany, the engineering student, a stickler for precision. “Maybe after World War One?”

“No, no,” I protested. “It was in common usage centuries before that.” Christopher began to whistle. After a bar or two, we all recognized the tune of “The Sherramuir Fight” and joined in until we found ourselves singing the lines “to hear the thuds, And see the cluds O’ clans frae woods in tartan duds…” The impromptu singsong broke up in laughter.

“So in the late eighteenth century, Burns put the word into the mouth of a Lowland farmer in 1715,” I summed up, “but the word was recorded in use as early as the fifteenth century.”

Elin, intrigued: “But where did the word come from?”

My sleep-starved brain struggled. “Middle English dudde, which meant a cloak but one usually consisting of a piece of rough cloth, not a rich person’s velvet or fur. The Scots also say ‘duddies’ to mean a whole outfit, but it shortened down to ‘duds’ and moved south into England in that form. Some linguists say it’s originally from Old Norse duthi, swaddling cloth.”

“So if it meant clothes made from poor rough cloth, is duds the plural of dud?”

Bethany got fussy again. “Duds is always a noun. Dud is a noun or an adjective, but you wouldn’t say ‘dud’ to mean just one piece of clothing, would you?”

“You would if it was shoddily made,” Lizzie giggled. Bethany shot back, “Then you’d be using dud as an adjective, not the singular of duds as clothing.”

I interrupted again. “Both words have the same origin, Elin. They just took different paths over the centuries. Dud came to mean anything shoddy or useless, while duds eventually meant any outfit of more than one piece of clothing, from any cloth, not just rough peasant stuff. And before you object to imprecise slang, Beth, I meant stuff as in fabric, not the vague generalization it’s become.” (My brain cells were starting to pull together as a team again.)

“It sounds clumsy, doesn’t it?” Carrie, a musician, joined in. “Dud especially. Nothing bright or attractive about it. It’s short and heavy, like a blunt instrument.” She tried the word over a few times. “It even feels heavy and dull in the mouth, like saying ‘Duh?’ when you’ve got a cold and can’t think.”

Lizzie, the visual one like her photographer father, said, “If you print it, it looks like what it means. Print or type dub or bud and they’re symmetrical, but dud – you see a sloppy error. One of the end letters is facing the wrong way, like a chair shoved carelessly out of place at a table.”

She grinned at her older sister. “I promise your wedding duds won’t be duds.” The newly-engaged Bethany refused to wear any wedding dress that didn’t have long sleeves and a high neck, didn’t trust fashion to swing her way in the two years until her wedding, and had appointed her fashionista sister to design a gown according to her strict specifications.

“As long as you do the same with the bridesmaids’ dress for the two of you. Nothing bizarre,” Beth sniffed.

Elin giggled. “Oh, no. She’s going to make us a pip of a dress.”

Everybody cracked up. I let my eyes drift shut. I’d loved the peace of the snow-blanketed Highlands, but I was glad to be back with my family again. Not a dud among them.

munted, munter

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Janet Hughes.

Antipodean debates about etymology (and other kinds of cultural property) often head swiftly into a cul-de-sac, where Australia and New Zealand both lay claim to the disputed item, and evidence either way is scarce or non-existent. The evidence for munted is typically equivocal for recent slang – late 20th Century, say the dictionaries. They attribute it variously to New Zealand and Australia, and it apparently has a life in Britain too. I wouldn’t be rash enough to arbitrate. Let’s just say I heard it first in 1992 on the lips of an Australian who had “jumped the ditch”.

A taste, then.  The short u sound generates two sorts of echoes: sunny, clumsy, funny ones, and grumpy, grudging ones that warn us to watch where we blunder. Munted sets off both kinds. You get grumpy when something is bust, buggered, ruined, beyond use or repair. You might well have cause to grumble; things get munted more often by an accidental or malicious thump or bunt than by use or old age. A thing that is munted has typically had something done to it. (Not invariably: there’s an Australian diabetes support website called muntedpancreas.)

People get munted specifically by alcohol; many sources give this as its primary meaning. It figures in all those lists of synonyms for drunk, redolent of blundering post-fun muddlement, communication reduced to grunts. This sense has elicited some obscene and dubious etymological punts. Let’s avoid the mucky corners of the cul de sac.

People can also be munters, and not just because they bust things, put dunts in bumpers or heads. It generally mean a useless, unattractive person,a runt maybe; munted, you might think, rather than given to munting. But Munter, a petty criminal character in a popular NZ soap opera,was dumb, accident-prone, a bit of a grunter, but loyal and endearing. “Ya munter!” has joined the many Antipodean insult-endearments, and somehow lost a little of its ugly edge.

Munted too has gone up in the world. When huge earthquakes struck the city of Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011, the destruction was unthinkable, unprecedented, with black sludge bubbling up through the torn streets and wreckage. Sober, standard words just wouldn’t cut it. The commentators reached for munted, with its connotations of complete destruction, beyond restoration to fitness for purpose, by something external. This defective little verb (an orphan participle) began to sprout new derivatives. The distinction between muntage and muntance, for example, is a fine one: the latter perhaps more abstract and conceptual, the former conrete and even quantifiable by insurance assessors. The ugly overtones were precisely what gave this blunt instrument an edge, elevating it from its sullen slang origins to pretty much a term of art.

obloquy

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tom Priestly.

If you are told that one of the synonyms of obloquy is billingsgate, you may still be in the dark (although maybe, if a British Londoner, starting to get interested in buying fish). Let us first examine the word obloquy. The web-site I use for this sort of thing, itools.subhashbose.com/wordfind/, tells me that there are twelve words ending in –quy, eight of them indeed ending in –loquy. The other four I shall quickly dismiss: cliquy “like a clique” (which I would prefer to see spelled to show the noun it comes from, cliquey); cheque (a variant spelling of an old heraldic term for “chequered”); exequy and obsequy, both meaning “funeral ceremony”.

The eight loquy words vary from quite common to extremely rare. All have something to do with talking – Latin loqui meant “speak”: think of loquacious. Most people will know soliloquy — “talking to oneself” – and probably colloquy “conversation, dialogue”. As for the six others, the meanings of most can be guessed from their first components. Somniloquy (“the habit of talking in one’s sleep”) is handy, but ventriloquy or “stomach-speaking” is a rather unnecessary variant of ventriloquism. Its thoracic counterpart, pectoriloquy or “lung-speaking”, requires an annoyingly long definition: “transmission of the voice sound through the pulmonary structures so that it is unusually audible on auscultation of the chest…” and so on. If someone ever dares to auscultate my chest, I will certainly not refrain from pectoriloquizing! However, I suggest that two in this word-group should be used more often, at least when we refer to our politicians. Most of this group of (un)worthies need to be forcibly trained in dulciloquy (“a soft manner of speaking”) and even more forcibly restrained, maybe fined even, if they indulge in multiloquy (“an excess of words”). In all of these words, we can see the transparent connections: solo, collate, somnolent, ventriloquist, pecs, dulcet, and multitude, for instance.

But what about obloquy? It looks stranger than its seven –loquy fellows, and may even invite a mispronunciation (oh-BLOKE-ee or even oh-BLOKE-wee). Worse, the ob– prefix is obscure, OBjectionable, OBlique, OBnoxious even; it is far from OBliging and OBtainable. Indeed, with its bilabial it OBstructs the mouth immediately with its first syllable, before allowing the lateral and the velar to hurry along behind it. Whereas most of the other –loquy words have a pleasing rhythm — dee-DUM-dee-dum, and the like — this one tails off into its final –ee. And its meaning is not OBvious!

Its strange appearance and sound are in fact suited to its meaning, which is unpleasant. The ob– is the Latin prefix for “against”, so its basic meaning is “speech directed against [someone]”. It occurs just once in Shakespeare: “He did upbraid me with my Father’s death; which obloquy set bars before my tongue” (Henry VI Part 1). More recently Evelyn Waugh: “Of course in order to earn a living…” (as a writer, he meant) “…it is unavoidable that one exposes oneself to ridicule and obloquy now and then.” But let us get back to politicians. In the province which is my home, we have (April 2012) just had an election. One of the candidates was detected, in a blog he wrote last year, writing that homosexuals would “burn for ever in a lake of fire . . . and that is a fact.” But as Daniel Moynihan once wrote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts.” Not only was this person soundly defeated in the election, but his party leader is now said to have lost several parliamentary seats because she refused to denounce him. And he is relevant to this piece of word-tasting because, boy, did he attract an enormous amount of obloquy! Or, as defined: “verbal abuse, detraction, reproach, disgrace, notoriety, opprobrium, invective”, …and “billingsgate” too (since that is the name of the London East End Fish market, and this is what the fish-sellers were renowned for: hatchet jobs on their competitors). This would-be political persons utterances certainly made many people obloquious (a real word), and many showed that they were fine obloquists (a word I have just devised)…

aubergine

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tachybaptus.

What a luscious word, with three long vowels and soft consonants including a gentle -zh-. As luscious as the generously curved, glossy deep purple giant berry it describes, made into a meltingly delicious dish rich with olive oil, smilingly served to you in a wayside auberge by an aubergiste as generously proportioned as the aubergine itself. How sad that Americans call it by the arid name “eggplant”; they are missing a lot.

But wait a moment, why should a vegetable be called after an inn where, no doubt, carrots and broad beans are equally on the menu? The answer is that it isn’t. The name is very old, and has come a long way across Asia along with the aubergine itself.

It has been cultivated in India since before records began, and its first known name is the Middle Indo-Aryan *vātiñjaṇa or vātiṅgaṇa (the asterisk denotes a hypothetical reconstruction of a word not actually found). In Sanskrit it became vātiga-gama, and the modern word in Hindi is baiṅgana, while in Urdu it is baingan.

But long before that, the plant had started on its way westward. In Persia it acquired the name bādingān, and when it reached the Arab lands it became (al-)bāḏinjān. Well, with the addition of the Arabic definite article al-, you can see where this word is going, but there are more detours on the way.

When the Arabs took Spain, the aubergine marched with them, and its name went into Spanish as berenjena. From here it jumped sideways into Portugal as beringela a name that was later to travel east again through the Portuguese colonies and return to India as brinjal, familiar from the Indian English language of restaurant menus.

From Spain the plant and its name did not penetrate the rest of Europe until some decades after the Reconquista, in the early 16th century. It is found in Catalan as albergínia.

Farther east, there had been another deviation: a metathesis, or shifting of consonants, caused the name to get into medieval Greek as μελιτζάνα (melitzana) and then into botanical Latin as melongena, first seen in 1561. It is thought that the name was influenced by the Greek word μέλας (melas), “black”, because of the dark colour of its skin.

Not all aubergines are dark: they range from white, sometimes streaked with pale mauve, to the deepest purple, and in size from the tiny, bitter Thai “pea” aubergines to the great truncheons seen in the west. The English name “eggplant” was given to an egg-sized and -shaped white variety in 1767.

The modern botanical name of the plant is Solanum melongena, and that points to another obstacle in its path. It is related, and visibly similar, to the black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, whose little black fruits look like miniature aubergines, and are poisonous. It was feared that the aubergine was poisonous too. In Italy, where its name is melanzana, it is popularly said that this comes from the Latin mala insana, “mad apple”, because it drives those who eat it insane.

(The closely related potato, Solanum tuberosum, whose berries actually are poisonous, met equal resistance in Europe and in some regions was still shunned in the 18th century. When the American scientist Benjamin Thompson was employed by the Prince-Elector of Bavaria in 1785 to devise a cheap but nourishing soup for the inhabitants of workhouses, he found that it was necessary to boil the potatoes behind a screen until they fell apart, or the starving inmates would refuse to touch the soup. For this work he was awarded a title of the Holy Roman Empire, and became Count Rumford.)

Finally, after its long and circuitous journey, the noble fruit acquired its French name aubergine in 1750, from Catalan. In 1794 the word arrived in England, where the name “eggplant” was already current and had crossed the Atlantic.

In Turkey, where through a different metathesis its name has become patlıcan (c is pronounced like English j), the aubergine is made into the famous dish İmam bayıldı, which means “the imam fainted”. Some say that this dish of aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes and braised in oil is so delicious that it caused the cleric to collapse with pleasure; others that he keeled over in horror when he found out how much expensive olive oil had gone into its preparation. The aubergine’s sponge-like ability to absorb oil is sometimes mitigated by salting before cooking to wilt it, though it is hard to wipe enough salt off the slices before cooking.

According to the Free OnLine Dictionary of Computing, “aubergine” is “A secret term used to refer to computers in the presence of computerphobic third parties.” In French slang it means a traffic warden, from their purple uniforms.

Back in its native land, the aubergine has entered folklore. At tinyurl.com/bl7lrzh you will find the enchanting story of Princess Aubergine, who grew inside the fruit and was liberated from it to attract the eye of a king and the jealousy of a wicked queen. This story was collected by the indefatigable writer and folklorist Flora Annie Steel and published in her book Tales of the Punjab in 1894. It was, she said, told to her by “an old woman at Kasūr in the Lahore district.”

moksha

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Anand Shukla.

Moksha is the ultimate destination for all as far as Hindu philosophy goes. It’s the Hindu equivalent of Nirvana in Buddhism. You would find it most often with Karma, reincarnation, and Maya, because Maya is the tool by which the impersonal Self creates the illusion of separation, suffering (Karma) and ego (personal-self). Maya is inert but still holds key for the divine play called Lila, of which Moksha is just a part. Lila is the play in which illusion of suffering (Karma) and separation is created by Maya for the entertainment of impersonal self.

Moksha is also known as Jeevan-Mukti, Mukti, Arhata, Satori (glimpse of Samadhi), Samadhi, Emancipation, Uddhara, The Way, and Aum. Moksha is also name of a language. It’s a Russian language spoken in the Finnic branch of the Uralic language family, by about half a million people in the western and southern parts of Mordovia, a dependent republic within Russia, and in some of adjacent regions.

How do you pronounce Moksha? You stretch your lips out together in almost a circular shape, similar to the way you do when you want to kiss, and let the sound of “Mo” be created, and then your tongue touches your palate and creates the sound of “ksh” by cutting air out. It’s similar to the “k-Shhhhh” sound created with the one finger on your lips to hush someone, with the only difference that it’s slightly less stretched and you cut air out sharply.

As with most of the Hindi words, the Moksh became Moksha in English. Mumukshu is someone who has had enough of cycles of birth and death. Mumukshu is like Bodhisattva in Buddhism but the only difference is that Mumukshu is hell-bent on getting Moksha, which is perhaps still an achievement for him, whereas Bodhisattva postpones his own enlightenment and keeps helping everyone out of their suffering because of his immense compassion. Mumukshu is the one who works day and night for attaining liberation. Mumukshu is not the Mummu, the spirit of pure Chaos; it’s also not the Momos (A Nepali-Tibetan dish) or Momus, the Greek god of satire, criticism, and writers; rather, it’s a soul devoted to sole goal of ending suffering forever.

A Moksha in time saves two incarnations too many. I hope this is true, because Moksha takes its own time. Moksha is not Mocha, the dark coffee from selected beans from Arabia; neither is it moksa: various cycles of rebirth in various forms. Moksha might be something worth Monkish people, but it’s certainly not achievable if you remain too mawkish too long, because sensitivity helps in initial stages but then you need to transcend thoughts and emotions in order to get Moksha. It’s not related to Mosaic Laws given to the Israelites by Moses; neither is it related to Hindi Moja for socks.

The first recorded use of this word is in Upanishadas, which were written by Aryans in India. This was used in Adaivaita Vedanta Philosophy of Shankaracharya. Jeevan-Mukti, a compound of Jeevan (life) with Mukti, is also frequently used for Moksha.

The Sanskrit root muc, meaning “to let free”, is used in both Moksha and Mukti. Atma-jnana, which literally means “Self-Knowledge,” is a synonym of Moksha. The Moksha is the end of illusion of separation and suffering, it’s ultimate unity at which Yoga aims, it’s Henosis, it’s the true reality of all realities. Moksha, unlike Salvation, is final emancipation, the Uddhara of a soul.

It’s Fana in Sufism; Murquaba – the true death, the annihilation, the dissolution in the ultimate truth, after which there are no deaths. It’s also known as Kaivalya or Kaival-Jnana in Jainism. Abrahamic religions don’t have a concept of Moksha, because after-life is somewhat similar to the life here, only with the paradise or hell forever. Moksha is enlightenment, Atman, Self, Illumination, Buddhatva, Buddhahood, Bodha, Kensho, Prajna, Atmabodha, Bodhi, Jnana, Sambodhi, Jagriti, Tathata, Bramhan and Ananda.

Moksha is not an achievement, therefore there is no competition. More realized souls are more realized because they were less realized in earlier incarnations and hence suffered, and less realized souls of today will be more realized souls of tomorrow because they are burning their Karma off today and so and so on. There are no timestamps in the dimension where Moksha happens, so contrary to what that Guru-next-door tells you, there is no urgency. Enjoy that cup of your coffee, or glass of wine and wait for the kick by Maya and you will get it!

pollex

This word makes me think of online polling, formal or informal – all those thumbs-ups (which, in a place like Facebook, can lead to useful cross-pollination). In fact, I could take it for the name of a polling company (like Pollara) or the charge card they put their expenses on (or the drug they take to deal with hay fever – sorry, that’s Pollinex). But you know it’s possible to push and pull with polling by expert pollution of the lexis; in a popularity poll of pollices, who polices the policies that, when you peel away the pixels, appal or appeal to hoi polloi?

Ah, push pollsters. I’d love to place those lickspittle pillocks on poles and express them out of the polis. But why pay the expense of the deportation? Let them thumb their way out of town, pollex by pollex on the turnpike.

So what is a pollex? Here’s another hint:

Jack Horner minor,
A corner-bound diner,
In pudding of Noel delighted;
Pollex introduced,
A gage he produced,
And thereby his goodness indited.

Indeed, that humble digital member, the toe of the hand (indeed its hallux), has this alternate name taken straight from the Latin unaltered. How important it sounds! Mark Mandel has marked it: “I’ve always wanted to write a story – preferably to be read aloud – specifically to include the line ‘He swore by Hallux and Pollex he would hang them’ – very painful indeed and quite possibly crippling, but neither a fatal punishment nor a godsbound oath.”

I find this a very stylish-looking word, that nice primped p in front, the clean o following, then the modernist or pin-stripe ll, and for a bit of variation the e; at last, that most eye-catching letter, x. And it starts with a clean pop of a /p/, runs through a tongue-tip liquid, then hits voiceless stop at the back and returns to fricative at tongue-tip. We will ignore just how similar it is to bollocks. Anyway, the plural of bollocks is not bollices (though the thought amuses me), but – in keeping with the Latin -ex pattern – the plural of pollex is pollices, because in English we just lurrrrve taking plural inflection undigested from soure languages.

Pollex is not a very frequently used word, to be sure, though Romance languages have cognates of it as standard. It happens, though, that as a I thumbed through the web looking for instances, I found that POLLEX is also the name of the Polynesian Lexicon Project, a website I shall surely return to to find out more about Gilbertese, Hawai‘ian, and most immediately Maori. Thumbs up for descriptive linguistics!

hallux

I won’t bother teasing you on this word, as everyone who read yesterday’s tasting of vamp knows already that it’s the big toe – or, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “The innermost of the digits (normally five in number) of the hind foot of an air-breathing vertebrate; the great toe.”

Great toe? What’s so great about it, really? But, lowly though its object may be, this word does sound somehow darkly magical, perhaps a constellation on some mage’s tall hat – or a word from an incantation. It resounds with hollow echoes of hallows, horcrux, hex, Pollux, haruspex, helix, hallucinate, and fiat lux, but also a bit of halloumi and an Electrolux – and afflux, efflux, influx, reflux, flux, and Benelux.

The sound of the echoes collects and comes to collision much as the sound of the word itself does: first a breath, a simple sifflet of ruach, and then from it comes the voice of the vowel [æ]; it allows next the channel of a liquid, represented on the page with ll; but that pulls back to a central vowel and then it all collapses, front and back, a stop and a tight fricative: [ks].

That x also makes me think of a joint, just as the ll make me think of digits. And we must not forget that this is a word for that toad of the body, a toe: something you might stub on a lump of kjerulfine. Our word du jour is simply mystical because it’s classical; the mundane has been transmogrified.

Well, the Latin word for “big toe” was undoubtedly mundane to the ancient Romans too. Picture a Roman child wailing plaintively “Allex meus dolet!” (“My big toe hurts!”)

Oh, yeah: the Latin for “big toe” was actually allex. A variant was hallex, with an unpronounced h. But the English form is what Oxford calls “corrupted” – and I might call mutated. Transmogrified. A mystical change caused retroactively by the future incantation of its ex-chrysalid magical form. Or perhaps of that rhyme that I, like many, learned in my youngest years: in response to “So?” you recite “So, so, suck your toe all the way to Mexico.”

Hmmm… a luxury Mexican halluxigustation… a lexical hallucination of lickable halluces (that’s the plural of hallux), but perhaps an excellent elixir of relaxation… sounds great toe me.