Category Archives: Humor

cunning /’kʌnɪŋ/

One of the rituals of international air travel is that of being asked a number of standard questions by a security official before you can check your luggage. One of the more interesting questions is “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?” My response is always “No” but my mental response is always “Yes, if I use a little imagination and cunning.”

I say that because with only a minimal amount of thinking I reckon I could turn many of the items in my carry-on bag into weapons of death. The simplest would be to remove the shoulder strap on my bag and use it to strangle someone. That’s almost a no-brainer option and something that anyone could do.

Like most folks, I carry a few pens and pencils that have been collected from the hundreds of hotels I’ve stayed in over the years. With a small amount of force, a pen can be jammed into someone’s jugular, resulting in a crimson cascade of blood and the eventual death of your victim.

Furthermore, if I were to break the glass on a smart phone screen, I suspect I could find a piece of glass long and sharp enough to slit someone’s throat. And don’t get me started on what I could do with a paper clip that’s been unfolded to become a thin,  sharp, pointed spear of metal. Doubtless a professional assassin would be trained to use his or her entire body as a weapon.

So given the assumption that I believe I have cunning, the Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of the word as;

Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skillful, ingenious.

I say “this sense” because its meaning has shuffled around a little since its first appearance in the grippingly titled English Metrical Homilies from Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century of 1325;

For he wil that they stither rise
And be cunnand in his seruise.

Note the Middle English variation of cunnand, which is one of many spellings that include connand, conand, kunnyng, konnyng, connyng, cuning, cunnyng, conning, and conninge. I mention all these because its worth remembering that prior to the mass production of books after the printing press, spellings were more flexible that a politician’s promise.

The original meaning was simply that of possessing knowledge and learning, or being versed in a subject. And in this sense, it can be traced back to the verb can, which originally meant “to know” long before it took on its current day function as a modal verb meaning “to be able” or “permission.”

The Old English cunnan was the same as the Old Saxon cunnan, Old High German kunnen, Old Norse kunna, and the Gothic kunnan. So describing it as Germanic in origin is hardly likely to raise any eyebrows or disagreement.

By the end of the 14th century, the word has also taken on a specific meaning as referring to people with magical powers;

Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning man, cunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, “wise man,” “wise woman,” wizard or witch. (OED)

In Britain, fifteenth century practitioners of folks magic were known as “the cunning folk,” who were apparently sometimes used in the same way that modern “psychics” are allegedly used by law enforcement – to locate criminals, stolen property, and missing persons. A distinction was, in fact, drawn between the cunning folk and witches, where the latter were deemed malevolent but the former as valuable members of society. It was not unusual for someone to employ one of the cunning folks to remove a witches curse, or at least provide protection from witches’ spells. It seems that we had “Psychic Hotlines” long before telephones were even thought about!

The word took on a more negative connotation by the 17th century when it was used to describe the process of being, “(s)kilful in compassing one’s ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly.” Shakespeare used it in Henry V when Henry himself said;

And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence.

This is typically the common meaning today.

In the USA, the word is used colloquially to refer to something that is, “quaintly interesting, pretty, or attractive.” For example, in a copy of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine dated November 1887, you can find the following quotation;

As a child, she had been called ‘cunning’ in the popular American use of the word when applied to children; that is to say, piquantly interesting.

It’s also interesting that although this meaning is an American colloquialism, it was used by Charles Dickens in his 1943 novel Martin Chuzzlewit;

Tea and coffee arrived (with sweet preserves, and cunning teacakes in its train).

Thanks to the comic genius of British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, and the team of the classic Blackadder series, the word cunning became part of a catch phrase used frequently by Baldrick, the character played by Tony Robinson. For example;

Private Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.
Captain Blackadder: Really Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Captain Blackadder: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.

For those who have either missed the slightly surreal but linguistically delicious humor of Blackadder, here’s a link to a clip of Baldrick and a “cunning plan.”

And for those who demand more, sit back and watch a short documentary about the series, replete with examples of some of television’s finest verbal humor.

Wordle: cunning etymology


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pulchritude /’pʊlkɹɪˌt(j)u:d/

Here’s a quick test for you: Try saying the following words aloud and see if you can guess what they mean – assuming you don’t know already.

(a) windfucker

(b) gayholer

(c) niggard

If you say them loud enough in a crowded place, the odds are that someone is going to be mightily offended. However, feel free to point out to the newly insulted that they can easily help themselves become less stressed by going to a library and looking at a dictionary. For the more challenged, you might need to explain that a “library” is a large building where things called “books” are housed, and that a “book” is sort of like a Kindle but with paper and no need for re-charging. For the younger person, you might like to tell them that libraries are a bit like the Internet but with much less gossip and porn.

Windfucker is synonym for a kestrel, which was used as early as 1599, and giving rise to a variation, windhover, in the late 1600’s.

Falco tinnunculus or Windfucker

A gayholer is jailer or prison guard, first attested in the 13th century as one of a number of possible spellings for the name of, “one who has charge of a jail or of the prisoners in it. (OED, Vol. XIII, p.181).

A niggard is someone who is mean, stingy, or miserly, and probably comes from early Scandinavian forms such as Old Icelandic hnoggr or Swedish njugg, which also mean stingy, along with the suffix –ard, a noun-forming element.

All of these have something in common: They all sound worse than what they are. This comes about because they actually sound like other words that are deemed “bad,” but do not come from the same roots.

Now, unless someone can let me know, there doesn’t seem to be a word that means “a word that sounds bad” as opposed to a word that IS bad i.e. a pejorative or a swear word. If I were one of the architects of Babel, I’d use the word cacophonym to label such lexical items.

Cacophonym comes from the Greek κακο meaning bad, along with φωνοσ meaning sound or voice, topped with the suffix ὂνομα or name. The more etymologically minded among you will note that this neologism is like cacophony with an “m” added. Full marks for that one.

However, this post is not about an invented word but an example of an invented word – and that word is pulchritude. On first hearing, it doesn’t sound like something you’d either want to have or want to wish on someone else. It is packed with hard sounds and reminiscent of some form of disease or skin condition. Ugh.

The truth is that this is simply another example of a cacophonym (/kʌˈkɒfʌnɪm/) because it’s actually a wonderful thing to have or wish on someone else. Pulchritude is simply another word for beauty way back in 1926, it was used to describe a new contest in Galveston, Texas, called The International Pageant of Pulchritude, which eventually became the Miss Universe competition.

Int. Pageant of Pulchritude, 1928

As you might expect, the word is a lot older than Galveston. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first citation dated 1460 in a collection of poems entitled Knyghthode & Bataile:

Themanuel, this Lord of Sabaoth,
Hath ostis angelik that multitude,
That noon of hem, nor persone erthly, woote
Their numbir or vertue or pulcritude;
Our chiualers of hem similitude
Take as thei may, but truely ? fer is,
As gemmys are ymagyned to sterrys.

Clearly the writer had limited access to a spell checker, but woot for the angelic hosts, eh?

The Middle French pulcritude or pulchritude is derived from the classical Latin pulcritudo meaning beauty and attractiveness. This in turn comes from the base form pulcher (and pulcer) meaning beautiful, along with the suffix –ious, which magically turns a word into another one meaning “full of” – in this case, pulchrious (or pulchrous)for “full of beauty.” In his 1547 book, The pryncyples of astronomye in manner a prognosticayon to the worldes end,” Andrew Border wrote that “Venus is a pulcrus planet.”

The adjective form pulchritudinous seems to have been an American invention, appearing in print in an 1877 edition of Puck magazine:

Fanny Davenport, the pulchritudinous and unpoetic, will play Shaksperian [sic] comedy… at Booth’s Theatre next week.

The word, although uncommon, is certainly not dead. In an article dated March 31st, 2010, published as article on the Parisian Art Deco hotel, Hotel Lutetia, entitled Hundred Years of Pulchritude at the Lutetia, where they talk about the beauty of the old hostelry. Furthermore, a quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) illustrates 33 instances of the word being used from 1990 to 2009, such as:

Postnap, the kids are on the couch, watching Disney’s Pocahontas-a fine example of feminine pulchritude by any standard, cartoon or otherwise, especially to a guy whose last night out with his wife, sans children, was roughly twenty-one months previous, a Saturday. (Mike Sagar, Esquire, 2006, Vol. 146, Iss.1, p.125)


And as well as being a current, all be it at a relatively low-frequency occurrence, the internet (or the Mother of All Lies, as some of us like to call it) has it as the collective name for a group of peacocks; a pulchritude of peacocks. However, it’s difficult to know how recent this is as there appear to be no actual references to where this originated, and neither the COCA nor the OED have any examples. It’s therefore tempting to conclude that it is a relatively new usage of pulchritude, used in something of either a humorous or ironic manner.

White Peacocks

Whatever its age, it still remains such a good example of a cacophonym that if you’re ever tempted to feel the need to impress you date with your vast vocabulary, I’d recommend that you avoid using this word to “whisper sweet nothings.” Save it for dinner parties, pub quizzes, and drunken nights out.

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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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Intermission: How To Organize Your Books

The Word Guy is on the road. The upshot of this is that I don’t have access to my OED and that makes it difficult to provide interesting and accurate word etymologies. This, of course, is a marvelous example of why buying the OED on CD is worth doing. If I were to spring for the disk (another $200 – $300 or so depending on where I buy it) I could have mobile access.

So in the absence of my source books – which also includes Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots and Donald Ayers’ English Words from Latin and Greek Elements – I’ve decided to offer an intermission piece that was originally published in a local periodical. I’ll be back home by the weekend and working on the word sarcasm.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Great Library of Alexandria; the Bodleian Library of Oxford; the Library of Congress; and even Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel – all world famous examples of cathedrals to bibliophilia – the love of books. Since the first caveman scrawled the prehistoric version of “Kilroy was here” on the walls of his rocky condo, mankind has sought to record his story, laying the foundations for a cultural existence. And as the number of literary efforts increases, so does the need for cataloging and organizing them. Whether on tablets of stone, in jars of clay, or engraved onto the surfaces of grains of rice, accessing what has been written is as important as the actual content of the text.

When Melvil Dewey devised his system of classification back in the 1870s, who could have thought that this would become the standard method of choice for the world? And who would argue that this relatively simple and efficient system didn’t make life easier for the common reader.

Melvil Dewey

Melvil Dewey

Well, the editor of In Style magazine for one. The February 2006 edition of this veritable vade mecum of fashion answers the age-old question of how best to organize a collection of books. And here is it, in black and white, from page 325:

“Books look best when organized by size or grouped in color blocks.”

So there you have it. Problem solved. And thank goodness, I say, that the Oxford English Dictionary is made up of individual volumes that are (a) all the same color and (b) all the same size. However, bad luck if you’re looking for a copy of the Bible. Considering that there are bibles in as many colors and sizes as rainbows and rocks, finding one might turn out to be a bit of a problem.

Imagine the scenario:

Student: “Excuse me, my fine fellow. Pray, tell me, where might I find the latest offering by that goodly scribe, John Grisham?”

Librarian: “Ah, my honest scholar, wouldst that be the big brown one, the big blue one, or the more portable small black one?”

Student: “Goodness, my educated friend, in truth, I know neither of the size nor the color.”

Librarian: “Ah, my hapless seeker-after-wisdom, then art thou up a raging river without aid of a rowing implement. Without such critical information regarding appearance and girth, I am, alas, unable to help thee in thy quest.”

Student: “Oh, sweet mother of mercy, is there not a way of finding it by, for example, using the first letter of the honorable scribe’s surname of ‘Grisham?’”

Librarian (chuckling softly): “What a unique suggestion, my witty colleague! But if we were to adopt such a method, wouldst it not then make it almost impossible to find, for example, yonder large, green tome? Why, how would I decide where to locate a new middling orange epistle?”

Student (crestfallen and dejected): “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Librarian (surprised): “’Struth, art thou familiar with the contents of the large, thick work – in green, red, and brown – found on the third shelf on the twentieth case in the fourth room?”

Student (equally surprised): “Yes, although in my own humble abode, it is found on the first shelf, next to a fetching gold small tome about a young girl named Alice who finds herself in a bizarre world of fantasy.”

Librarian: “Ah yes, fantasy indeed. A little like your joke about ordering books by letter.

Exeunt Librarian and Scholar, slapping each other’s backs, laughing together at the absurdity.

Color-coded Bookcase

Color-coded Bookcase

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Bad Grammar

Whilst trawling the web, I came across a neat parody of a Justin Timberlake song. Two things make it particularly worth watching; the first is that it makes fun of the the bad grammar found in songs -including those of the said Mr. Timberlake; and it features the linguists’ pin-up grrl, Marina Orlova or, as she is commonly known, Hot For Words. Marina’s site is the best excuse ever for stuffy old language pedants to ogle a very attractive blonde. Shamelessly sexist I know, but then I make no apologies for being a regular who find women attractive. And Ms. Orlova is no exception.

So sit back and click this video., and then the guys can stop over at Marina’s site, Hot For Words, and add it as a bookmark. Or as a podcast 😉

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