Monthly Archives: October 2009

Intermission: Down down down down town

It’s Road Trip time once again and your sun-loving Word Guy has gone north to Chicago. Although I try to ensure all my trips are to areas warmer than Cleveland, inevitably I have to “take one for the team” and go from cold to colder. So in lieu of my regular ramble around a specific word, I’m breaking into an older article that looks at how many times you can put the same word consecutively in a sentence.

So how often have you found yourself in a situation where you’re writing a letter or article and as you review it, you see you’ve written the same word twice? If you use a word processor, a good one will pick this up and highlight it for you. But how often is it actually correct to use multiple instances of a word?

Over one particular weekend, my daughter and I were deciding on when to go to the movies. She said she wanted to go to the late show, to which I responded, “Do you want to go to the early late show or the late late show?” For a few moments, we looked at each other wondering if there was anything wrong with either the notion of an “early late” show or even the double-barreled “late late” show. “It’s OK,” I said, “to have ‘early late’ and ‘late late’ so long as we understand that ‘late show’ is actually a single noun meaning ‘a showing that is held in the evening at some indeterminate time, but such that it would not be considered early.’”

Before you stop reading, I should explain that yes, we do talk like that, especially when we’re having breakfast and just “chillin’” or “shooting the breeze” – though how you can shoot a gentle waft of air is probably best left for a future column. The more ridiculous the topic, the more we talk.

“Of course,” I continued, “If the late show in question were no longer in existence, we could have the sentence ‘We used to go to the late late late show,’ because this new use of ‘late’ refers to something now passed on.” This triple play of “lates” got us to thinking about how many such words you could get into a sentence legitimately. Examples such as “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!” as said by an excited child who’s just been asked if he wants a trip to Disney or a free bucket of ice cream would be excluded. The sentence has to be coherent and valid.

So we moved on to the notion of a city having a “down town” area. If that area had a region that was depressed and unappealing, you could use the word “down” (as in “I’m feeling a little down today”) as a descriptor. You can thus have a “down down town.” Then, if that city were built on a slope – Seattle, for example – you could conceivably have a physically higher area described as the “up down down town” and a correspondingly lower region called the “down down down town.” Finally, you could use the word “down” again to describe the action of going somewhere, forming the sentence “Let’s go down down down down town.”

At that point, we were finding it hard to keep up with ourselves, and as I was writing this article, my word processor was having a real hard time with so many multiples of the same word, drawing many red lines under them screaming “Stop it, that’s not allowed!”

This is not the longest word run of which I am aware. Stephen Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, gives the following example: “The Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Frankly, if you can work this one out, you’re way too smart to be reading this column! But if you can’t, let me know and I’ll send you the reference.


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prostitot /’prɒstɪtɒt/

Always on the lookout for new words, I came across one recently that caught my ear. It was close to Halloween and someone told me how a friend was going to let her pre-teen daughter go out Trick-or-Treating dressed “like a prostitot.”

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to work out that this is a portmanteau of prostitute and tot but what is significant is that someone somewhere seems to have picked up on a cultural phenomenon that needs a name. The phenomenon is that of pre-teen (or at least early teen) girls dressing in a slutty or lascivious manner.

There’s much debate on the internet about Toddlers and Tiaras, a TV show from TLC that chronicles the child beauty pageant industry. Although billed as “family entertainment,” the show features girls as young as four years of age dressed in tight-fitting gowns and sometimes swimsuits, “enhanced” by fake tans, heavy make-up, and glamorous hairstyles. Supporters argue it’s a legitimate way to help girls develop self-confidence, while detractors suggest it’s close to child pornography. I, for one, am NOT going to include any screen shots because although I don’t know what exactly would count as pornographic, I don’t want to take the risk of someone somewhere construing such images as inappropriate.

What I can comment on is the derivation of the word itself. Clearly the first element is from prostitute, the English printed debut being in 1572 in Buchanan’s Detection Mary Queen of Scots; “One of hir awne traine, one past all shame and of prostitute vnchastitie.” Here it appears as an adjective meaning “offered or exposed to lust,” and usually applied to women (with men, the word is typically prefaced by the word “male,” as in “male prostitute.”)

By 1613, it was used as a noun to describe a woman who offers her body for sexual activity, most frequently for money. In his Pilgrimages, Samuel Purchas wrote, “I haue scene houses as full of such prostitutes, as the schooles in France are full of children.” By extension, the word was also found to refer to anyone in general who sells himself or herself for gain.

This non-sexual selling of self for personal gain is the root of the modern use of prostitute as a verb. In 1674, when talking of the English Civil War, Clarendon wrote, “This Argumentation… made a great impression upon all Men who had not prostituted themselves to Cromwell and his Party.”

The word tot used to refer to a small child dates from 1725 and is of uncertain origin. Interestingly, the word Tottr in Iceland is the nickname for a dwarfish person, and in Danish the original Tom Thumb (a fairy tale character) was called tommel-tot. However, neither can be traced definitively to being the origin of tot on its own.

Tom Thumb


I was unable to find any reference to a date of first use for prostitot but the earliest dated web comment I could find was in August 2003. Another similar word is kinderwhore, which is referenced by Wikipedia as being used in 1998.

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halcyon /’hælsɪən/

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I will now: If you are only going to read one piece of classical literature in your life, then make sure it’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Sure, Homer’s Odyssey is a blast, but I’d put him second on the list. And the reason for recommending Ovid is that the stories he tells cover as much Greek and Roman mythology as you can squeeze into one book. Well, apart from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which certainly contains all information but is hardly a “good read.”

One of the tales from the Metamophoses is that of Ceyx (/’si:ɪks) and Alcyone (/ælˈsaɪˌni/). It’s a tragic love story between a king and the daughter of a god. Ceyx was the king of Trachis on central Greece and Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. The couple so loved each other that they would play around by calling each other Zeus and Hera. Alas, although most of the gods adored the couple, Zeus took the huff and decided – as he was wont to do often – make life a little difficult for the harmless pair.

Following the death of Ceyx’s brother, he decided to consult the oracle of Apollo in Ionia because he was worried that the death was a bad sign. To get the the oracle, he had to sail across the Mediterranean, which his wife, Alcyone, felt was a bad idea.

And as wives usual are, she was. After leaving the shores, Zeus tossed a few thunderbolts towards his ship and everyone was drowned. Like most gods, having hissy fits is par for the course.

Richard Wilson's Ceyx and Alcyone

Richard Wilson's Ceyx and Alcyone

Hera, as wives usual are, was much more sensitive to lovers and felt that Zeus had been somewhat over-zealous in his treatment of Ceyx. So she arranged for Morpheus, the god of sleep, to break the news to Alcyone of Ceyx’s demise, which he did by creating a ghost of the husband who visited her in a dream to tell her of his death.

Alcyone, in her pain and anguish, ran to the shore and threw herself in sea to drown. With both of them dead, the rest of the gods felt that this tragedy should never have occurred, so they persuaded Zeus to give them a second chance. Rather than restore them to their original forms, he turned them into kingfishers.

As a final twist, every year, in January, Aeolus would calm the winter seas for two weeks so that Alcyone could safely lay eggs by the shores. These calm days became know as Halcyon Days – periods of calm on the sea.

Kingfisher (Halycon)

Kingfisher (Halycon)

The Greek word for “kingfisher” was ὰλκυών with a hard /k/sound. However, as it was Latinized, the /k/ gave way to the softer /s/ and appears in the 4th century CE as alceon and alicion. In 1398, John de Trevisa wrote in his Bartholomeus De proprietatibus;

In the cliffe of a ponde of Occean,
Alicion, a see foule, in wynter maketh her neste
And layeth egges in vii dayes and sitteth on brood…seuen dayes

Here the notion of the two weeks of calm is made explicit with one week of laying and aweek of brooding.

In the 16th century, we see the phrase Halcyon days making an appearance. For example, George Joye wrote “I remembered the halcyons dayes” in his 1545 pot-boiler, The exposicion of Daniel the prophete.”

Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692), an English poet and playwright, penned the verse;

Halcyon days, now wars are ending.
You shall find where-e’er you sail
Tritons all the while attending
With a kind and gentle gale.

Much later, the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote the poem entitled Halcyon Days, which includes the wonderful lines;

As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish’d and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

After reading this, I hope you’re now curious enough to spend a few of your own halcyon days reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. If you only ever read one piece of classical literature…

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crematory /’kɹɛmətəɹɪ/

As the saying goes, there’s nothing certain except death and taxes. The truth is that you might escape the latter but never the former. So when you finally shuffle off the mortal coil, buy the farm, sleep with the fishes, or kick the bucket, the only thing left is for someone to work out what to do with your remains.

One option is to consign yourself to the flames and be cremated. The word cremation comes from the Latin cremare, which means to consume by fire, and more specifically to reduce a corpse to ashes. It’s not recommended to do this yourself at home because folks in general seem to frown on discovering their neighbor having a large bonfire simply to get rid of their dearly departed.

So, that’s why people use a crematory or crematorium. The first part of the word clearly comes from the aforementioned cremare, but the second is the Latin suffix, –orium, which means “a place for.” Literally, it’s a place for burning.



As a noun, the OED defines a crematory as “A place or establishment for cremation; spec. an erection for the incineration of corpses.” In an 1876 edition of the Fortnightly Review, Lionel Tollemache wrote, “The aspect of death might be a little softened, if cemeteries gave place to crematories.” And the Times newspaper of 1885 printed that “Yesterday morning, the crematory erected at St. John’s, Woking, Surrey, as made use of for the first time.”

The –ory suffix for crematory means “place for,” as in dormitory (place for sleeping), lavatory (place for washing), and armory (place for keeping arms). It can also appear as –orium, hence the alternative word crematorium. The difference is that –orium is older than –ory: The –ory suffix came by way of the Anglo-Norman French suffix –ori, which went on to be written as “-ori” and “-ory.”

Phew! Complicated, eh? This also happened with lavatory and lavatorium, the latter being used in a very restricted sense to refer to the wash places of old monasteries and castles. Gloucester Cathedral in the UK has a noted lavatorium that is in excellent condition.

Gloucester Lavatorium

Gloucester Lavatorium

Oh, and in the spirit of pouring cold water on an otherwise exciting example of the use of –orium as a suffix; the Roman vomitorium was not a place to go and throw up during a meal but a passageway in a theater through which people moved. It derives from the Latin vomere, which means “to discharge” with the –orium suffix creating the meaning of  “place of discharge.” Sadly, the only thing discharging were people, not puke.

Sometimes, an etymologist can be a real spoilsport.


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