Monthly Archives: March 2010

nostalgia /nɒs’tældʒə/

Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson:  you find the present tense, but the past perfect.

There’s an old Latin phrase that goes, “memoria praeteritorum bonorum,” which translates as “the past is always well remembered.” Psychologists talk about the phenomenon of “rosy retrospection,” a memory bias whereby people tend to see the past in a much more favorable light than it actually was. Doubtless the simple, pastoral existence of the Middle Ages farmer was marked by the gentle passing of time, the merry laughter of the harvest festivals, and the close camaraderie of happy peasants. Well, except for the typhus, bubonic plague, starvation, high infant mortality rate, and a life expectancy of 30.

Pastoral scene of sheep shearers

The Sheep Shearers

The GOD factor – Good Old Days – permeates every culture and it’s taken for granted that “things ain’t what they used to be.” Why, what’s the London Times (or Daily Telegraph) letters page without the occasional “this-country’s-going-to-the-dogs” missive from “Disgruntled of Surrey?
This yearning for the glory days of the Empire or the Rousseauian “Noble Savage” is usually referred to as nostalgia, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as;

Sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.

The word first makes an appearance in English in J.G. Keyssler’s 1756 Travels where he says, “At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i. e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.”

At that time, nostalgia meant homesickness – a desire for familiar surroundings. This meaning derives from the ancient Greek νοστος , which mean “to return home,” along with the suffix αλγία, which means “pain.” So nostalgia is literally the pain caused by the desire to go home.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1900’s that nostalgia had taken on that notion of sentimental yearning for the past – prior to that it was used for general homesickness.

By the 1970’s it had also taken on the extended meaning of something which causes nostalgia, becoming a collective noun for nostalgia-inducing things. The Penguin Travel Guide to the United States in 1979 said of a store in the US that it “sell amusing nostalgia and contemporary adaptations.”

Nostalgic scene of family life in the US

The Good Old Days

Now, way back in 760 BC, a Greek poet called Agias decided to write a poem about the return of the Achaean Greeks from the siege of Troy, and he entitled it Nostoi – the return. Homer’s Iliad, written perhaps at about the same time but likely to have existed orally for many years prior – is also a story of home-coming.

So the modern meaning of nostalgia has a long history that stems from the notion of homesickness. And if there is one thing that we do seem to know; nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be.


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Followers – Giving this a whirl

As most people are aware, Twitter is a social networking or micro-blogging service that encourages folks to send messages or 140 characters of less. And a glance to the right of this very post demonstrates that The Word Guy uses Twitter to provide daily etymologies on whatever takes my fancy.

Twitter is also free. People like free. I like free. But of course, Twitter isn’t really “free” insofar as there are servers to maintain, software to support, phone bills to pay etc. So it’s no surprise that the people would like use it to make money. This in itself is not a bad thing. I’m as capitalistic as the next entrepreneur and making money is fine by me – especially if I am the one making it.

Follow me imageSo to help this process of making money, some bright business folks have come up with clever software that lets you automatically follow someone who sends out tweets with specific keywords in them. As a follower, you can then send them tweets to promote yourself or whatever it is that you tweet for. [1]

This sort of works if you are in a business where keywords highlight what you do. For example, if I were the creator and marketer of “Snuggies,” then having software that trawls the Twitterverse for all mentions of the word “Snuggies” would give me lots of information about who is talking about my product, what they are saying, and even the chance to contact them back or re-tweet a particularly favorable message.

Alas, this begins to suck big time for someone whose use of words is not related to a specific product. Which includes me.

Because the actual “product” of The Word Guy tweets are words as items, there are no real keywords at all. In fact, each and every tweet from me can contain totally different words repeatedly. One day I might use “waltz,” the next “jalapeno,” and day after that, “cougar.” And guess what can happen…

The keyword search engines spot the word “waltz” and alerts “Johnny’s Dancing School” that I used a dance-related word. Next thing you know is that I get a message saying “Johnny’s Dancing School is now following you on Twitter.” My guess is that “Johnny” is not really interested in the etymology of “waltz” (Old High German “walzan”=to turn or roll) but simply rolling the lexical dance in the hope that I may be a prospect.

On the next day, I get the message “Tours in Mexico” is now following you on Twitter,” based on he automatic assumption that having used the word “jalapeno” (Aztec “Xalapan”=sand by water) means I am looking for a trip to Mexico. I am, but that’s besides the point. And the sort of folks who follow me based on “cougar” (Portuguese “cucuarana” < Tupi “suasuarana” < “suasu”=deer + “rana”+like (color)) are slightly less unlikely than those who respond to my use of “transvestite” (Latin “trans”=across + “vestire”=to dress) and “transsexual” (Latin “trans”=across + “sexus”=gender). I have nothing against Brazilian Ladyboys but it’s a little disconcerting to find “Ladyboy Lover is following you on Twitter” in your mailbox.


… when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, which is what I am going to do for a while with my automated followers. When I find a new auto-generated acolyte, I’ll share him/her/it with you so we can find out what the key word trigger was. Given that the potential for drumming up any number of weird and wonderful folks is huge, I might as well use the opportunity to demonstrate how spectacularly useless this automatic following can be when it comes to The Word Guy tweets.

Sit back and enjoy the upcoming ride.


[1] For those of you who are shocked that I am ending a sentence in a preposition, I have to say that it just sounds better this way. The alternative would be something along the lines of “…or whatever it is for which you tweet,” and that sounds ugly. I’m happy to take suggestions as to how I could have clung on to the “no-final-prep” rule but in this instance, I think it does sound OK.

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jacksy /’dʒæksɪ/

Poster for Midnight CowboyOne of my favorite movies is John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy with John Voight and Dustin Hoffman, which won – deservedly – three Oscars for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. It also resulted in Oscar nominations for Voight and Hoffman, who lost out to John Wayne for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

Six years earlier, Schlesinger directed Billy Liar, a semi-comedy based on the novel by the prolific Yorkshire-born writer, Keith Waterhouse. At one point in the novel, we hear the phrase “Why don’t you tell the boring little man to stick the job up his jacksy?”

The word is relatively young, appearing first in 1896 in Farmer and Henley’s Slang IV where they offer the definition; “Jacksy-pardy, the posteriors.” The next reference according to the OED appears in 1943 as service slang (army, navy, air) where we see “Jacksie, service slang for ‘rear,’ ‘tail,’ or ‘bottom.’ (Hunt and Pringle, Service Slang).

Poster for AlfieIn 1966, Michael Caine played the eponymous anti-hero of the movie Alfie, based on the play by Bill Naughton, who, like Waterhouse, wrote working-class dramas. And at one point, Alfie says “She’s sitting there on her jacksie, reading one of those colour” things out of a newspaper.”

The etymology of jacksy is unclear. The OED simply offers “[f. JACK n.1 + -SY.], the latter of which being reasonably understandable as a diminutive, but the former remains obscure.  The noun “jack” has over 35 entries, none one of which refers directly to the anal regions. The closest seems to be the definition of a “jack” used in telegraphy as a input port:

A socket or receptacle having one or more pairs of terminals and designed so that insertion of a suitable plug enables a device to be quickly introduced into a circuit.

This is similar to its use today in the field of media equipment. But the original definition appeared in 1891 in Poole’s Practical Telegraphy Handbook where he writes “The effect of inserting a plug in one of the jacks is that the end of the plug lifts the line spring R from pin Y.”

I'm a jack - see?

The metaphorical distance between an input jack and an anus is not that far – from jack to jacksy wouldn’t take much imagination. Against this is the fact that the Handbook was printed in the US and the slang appears to be restricted to the US. But Farmer and Henley’s book on slang was an Anglo-American production, with John Stephen Farmer being an American and William Ernest Henley an English poet and writer. So it is possible that jacksy could have made its way across the pond.

Alas, the OED suggests a gap of almost 50 years between the jacksy-pardy of Farmer and Henley, and the jacksy of Hunt and Pringle’s Service Slang of 1943. If jacksy had been around in England, it seems to have been at least under the written radar. Or it could be that the 1940’s jacksy represents a separate emergence of the word, with the original being a “hopeful monster” that failed to evolve and the new one appearing during the war years. The “jack as insert location” could still be a plausible explanation, particularly with the rapid development of telecommunications between the 1880’s and the 1940’s.

If I were an academic with a library and a grant, I could probably do a much better investigation into the origin of jacksy but my trips to the local University library – excellent as it is – has to take place outside my real job, which doesn’t pay me to be an etymologist. C’est la vie, as those French chappies say.

Should anyone be in a position to provide me with examples of jacksy or jacksie between 1890 and 1940 I’d be extraordinarily grateful. In the meantime, feel free to disagree with this analysis and offer a jacksy-free “up yours!”

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The Beatles Loved Love

The Beatles


By way of a change from my regular posting of word etymologies, I’m going to present an analysis of the vocabulary of Beatles’ song titles. I was prompted by a posting on the OUP Blog by Gordon Thompson entitled The Beatles and ‘Let It Be,’ and because I’ve always been struck by the simplicity of the lyrics used by Lennon and McCartney – whether they planned it or not. For example, consider lyrics of the song, Love Me Do. For educational purposes (and I say that so I can claim Fair Use under Section 107 of Title 17 of the US Copyright Law) I’ve reproduced them below in their entirety:

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Someone to love,
Somebody new.
Someone to love,
Someone like you.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.

Love, love me do.
You know I love you,
I’ll always be true,
So please, love me do.
Whoa, love me do.
Yeah, love me do.
Whoa, oh, love me do.

Using one of my favorite pieces of text analysis software, Concordance, I found that the song contains only 20 different words (types, for you linguist types) out of 108 words used (tokens). Of those 108 tokens, love scores 24 times, which is 20% of the song. For the curious, here’s the actual frequency list:

LOVE          24
DO                14
ME               14
YOU               9
WHOA          5
ALWAYS     4
BE                   4
I                       4
I’LL                4
KNOW          4
PLEASE        4
SO                   4
TRUE            4
TO                    2
LIKE                1
NEW                1
OH                     1
YEAH              1

What’s also interesting is the prevalence of pronouns – which I suggest (pending more analysis) is a common feature of Beatles’ songs. You have I, you, and me way up there, and the indefinite pronouns someone and somebody making a significant contribution to the sample. I suspect that the frequency of use of indefinite pronouns in the Beatles’ lyrics is statistically higher than that of the normal lexicon – but that’s another investigation.

So I found a list of all the Beatles’ song titles – or enough to be what seems a reasonable representation – and subjected them to the Concordance software followed by some number work using Excel. And it became clear that love was an important topic for the Fab Four.

Out of the 565 different words used, the word love was used 22 times, coming in a number seven on the “Top Ten” word list. And for the curious, the “Top Ten” words, which accounted for 20% of all the words used, are, in reverse order;

  • 10. IN
  • 9. OF
  • 8. MY
  • 7. LOVE
  • 6. ME
  • 5. TO
  • 4. I
  • 3. A
  • 2. THE

and the number one;


In truth, the word I should really be counted as being higher because if you add in the contractions I’m and I’d, then you see I nudge ahead of you.

But going back to the obsession with love, if you look at other published word lists, the Beatles clearly did use it with a much greater frequency than is normal. The British National Corpus (BNC) [1] has love at number 644 and the Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen (LOB) [2] corpus ranks it at 250th place.

So maybe is it true that all you need is love.

All You Need Is Love


[1] Leech, G., Rayson, P. and Wilson, A. (2001). Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English: based on the British National Corpus. Longman: London.

[2] Hofland, S. and Johannson, K. (1984). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computer Centre for the Humanities: Longman.


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