Read this at the new “Etyman™ Language Blog.”
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Check this at the new “Etyman™Language Blog.”
Two years ago at the time of my 50th birthday, I created a blog with the full title of The Word Guy: Adventures in Etymology. At the time, I was unsure how long I could keep it going and what it would lead to – if anything.
Two years on, the blog is still running and I have added the Tweetionary, which is based on my daily tweets of word etymologies.
So it’s time for a regroup and, more significantly, a re-branding. Those of you in the business world will recognize that such a move is usually a result of one of two event; either because your product sucked and needs a make-over or (b) someone has slapped a trademark suit on you for infringing on their mark.
Surprisingly, in this case, it’s neither.
I have known for some time that I am not the only “Word Guy” on the block, and that there is another one in West Hartford, Connecticut, who is a teacher and writer, and has a column in words and language. His name is Rob Kyff and we have never corresponded, although I’m pretty sure he knows about this Word Guy if only because when you do a Google search for “The Word Guy,” I come out on top.
Now, Rob has been “The Word Guy” for longer than I but my using the name has never bothered him and he doesn’t appear to have registered “The Word Guy” as a trademark. Nevertheless, I do feel a twinge of guilt about using “The Word Guy” as a mark when he had it first.
So as I am planning the next few years of activity, one of the things on my list is to register a trademark to allow for some expansion of what I do and to protect against potential issues in the future. Much as I would like to hold “The Word Guy,” it wouldn’t stand up because Rob clearly has the common law mark simply through having used the phrase earlier than I did. Although I started using “The Word Guy” without knowing about Rob, now that I am looking toward branding, I don’t want to cause any trouble by using it. On that basis, I am happy to cede the “Word Guy” to Rob and move forward with some other trademark.
Enter the Etyman™.
The word is a coinage and so better as a brand name because it isn’t a common word. Clearly it plays on the word etymon, and if I’d been Scottish, I would have been tempted to go with “The Ety Mon” as mon is Scottish dialect for man. However, “The Ety Man” seems fine to me, and the simpler Etyman works. It also makes for a much shorter Twitter(TM) name of @etyman – and in the world of tweeting, characters matter!
The Grand Design
1. Seeing as there is no pending lawsuit, there’s no need for a “cease and desist” at the current Word Guy site so the transition will take a few months. All new post will appear here at The Etyman™ Language Blog and the old ones will stay at thewordguy.wordpress.com indefinitely.
2. My Twitter feed will change from twitter.com/thewordguy to twitter.com/etyman, a process that will take some time as it means people will have to actively switch. For about three months I will run them in parallel but the aim will be to phase out @thewordguy as soon as possible.
3. The logo will probably change. My current little owl is cute and royalty free but I’d like to create a more personalized identity with an new graphic. Again, there is no time scale other than “soon.”
4. The content of The Etyman Language Blog will start to include posts of a more generic linguistic, some of which may be much shorter than the current weekly post and more “observation” and “opinion” than the simple definitions and examples I currently provide.
So that’s about it for 2010. Bear with me through the changes and add this new site to your favorites. Join me over at;
It’s the festive season and dear old Santa has dropped off a Christmas libation. In fact, a whole bottle of libation in the form of a Remy Martin 1738 cognac. Clearly all my childhood years of leaving a glass of brandy and a snack for Father Christmas have now paid off. Either that or my wife knows me all too well.
Although it would be a good way of bolstering my ego to pretend that I am some type of cognac aficionado, that would be a lie. Equally, claiming to be a connoisseur would be nothing more than a fabrication. The best I can offer is that in truth, I do sometimes enjoy sitting in my study with a good book and an equally good snifter of cognac just to relax. And no, I wouldn’t be dressed in a smoking jacket and seated in a high-backed deep-red leather chair – it’s more likely to be a T-shirt and my chair is a beat-up un-named item that I rescued from a rummage sale (or jumble sale to my non-US readers.)
Brandy is a drink made from the distillation of wine, which means boiling the wine until the alcohol turns to steam, then collecting this steam and cooling it to become liquid alcohol again. I’m sure there’ much more to it but as a US resident, I am not legally allowed to do this in my backyard shed, so I can’t speak from experience. And considering that some brandies can sell for hundreds of dollars per glass, there are some nuances needed to make a quality drink.
The word brandy is defined by the OED as;
…an ardent spirit distilled from wine or grapes; but the name is also applied to spirits of similar flavour and appearance, obtained from other materials.
which is actually a shortened form of the drink’s original name, brandy-wine. It first appears in English as brandwine, brandewine, and brandy-wine in the 17th century. In 1640, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher wrote in there Comedies and tragedies, “Buy any brand wine, buy any brand wine?” Ten years later in The Roxburghe Ballads, we see, “It is more fine than Brandewine, The Butterboxes’ Poison.”
Ultimately, it comes from the Dutch brandewijn, which in turn comes from branden meaning “to burn” (and in this case, the burning is the distillation process) and wijn, which means, unsurprisingly, wine. So brandy is literally burned wine. It’s also why it is referred to in the OED definition as ardent because this derives from the Latin ardere meaning “to burn.”
Cognac is the name of a specific type of brandy; namely brandy made from grapes found in the Cognac region of France. There are very strict rules that have to be followed before a brandy can be called a “Cognac,” which not only specifies the types of grapes that must be used but which types of oak wood barrel are needed for the aging process (Limousin or Tronçais-type oak), itself a minimum period of two years.
As you can see in the first picture, I use a “balloon” or “snifter” glass, which is designed to help funnel the scent up from the wide base to the narrower opening. The other option, is to use the “tulip,” a glass named after the flower because of its shape, which is also designed to funnel the scent but because it is much narrower, it is felt by many enthusiasts to be a better way to enjoy ones drink.
What’s somewhat comforting is that I turn out to be in good company as far as my love of cognac is concerned. The noted lexicographer Samuel Johnson – also referred to as Dr. Johnson – appears to have been a fan. In James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) he is quoted as saying;
Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy
And in his play Man and Superman, the heroic George Bernard Shaw writes;
Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned
I guess when I die and go to Hell, I’ll at least be able to sit around drinking cognac with Johnson and Shaw. Sure beats sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.
My daughter decided to use her “text a friend” option yesterday while being involved in a heated online linguistic discussion in the XBox world of Halo. She is a freshman at college so naturally this message arrived in the afternoon, when no sane student is actually working.
Those of you who have spent any time with an online Halo team will know that the level of verbal interaction tends not to be at a particularly high level. I would hazard a guess that the average Halo language sample is made up mostly of profanities, some of which I’m not sure even I would recognize as such. However, the big, big topic for the day was all about the gradeability of adjectives, specifically as applied to the word stupid.
The question was; which is correct – stupidest or most stupid? A natural sub-question was whether is was better to say stupider or more stupid. It was after a round of arguing that my daughter decided to call in The Word Guy.
Typically, I always love to be right on questions like this, but in practice, some English language “truths” turn out to be more opinion than science, and the rules that are used to determine what is and isn’t “correct” are more complex than hyperdimensional probabilistic quantum equations where you aren’t allowed to use vowels or the number zero.
In general, adjectives (or words that can behave like adjectives) with a single syllable can be graded by adding an -er or an -est to form the comparative and superlative forms. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest are OK, as are thick, thicker, and thickest. Words with three or more syllables stay the same but need more and most to be added to the front. So, we see simple-minded, more simple-minded, and most simple-minded, as well as ludicrous, more ludicrous, and most ludicrous.
However, when you use two-syllable words like stupid and inane, things can get a little wooly, which I accept is not a formal linguistics term but certainly seems to fit the general feeling one gets when faced with choices between adding an ending or using a preceding more/most.
So in true prevaricating style, I texted my daughter back that both stupidest and most stupid are fine.
But that, of course, wasn’t satisfying enough for me, so I decided to try to find a few numbers using the Google search engine. Here are the results expressed in ghits (Google hits):
Most stupid: 593,000
We can see that stupidest is the winner by far, being used almost three times more often than its most stupid counterpart. If you were to describe this article as “the stupidest analysis of stupid on the planet,” you might be factually wrong but grammatically with the majority.
Moving on to the comparative forms, I found the following ghits:
More stupid: 662,000
Here, the figures as less conclusive. I’d be OKish to say that more stupid is the more popular, but it would be better to chase down more data to support this. What IS worth noting is that if these figures are reasonably correct, the “correct” gradeable triplet is as follows:
stupid – more stupid – stupidest
As I said earlier, the “rules” in this case seem to be slipperier (more slippy?) than a bucket of eels that’s been filled with baby oil.See how the comparative and superlative forms are inconsistent with each other? Welcome to the English language, eh?
The word stupid is defined by the OED as;
Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc.
As an adjective, it pops up in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale back in 1611;
Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres?
Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes?
Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man? (Act IV, Scene iv)
The word appears to come from the Latin stupere, which means “to be stunned or benumbed,” and is the same root for the word stupor that can be seen as a noun in 1358 to describe;
A state of insensibility or lethargy; spec. in Path., a disorder characterized by great diminution or entire suspension of sensibility.
John de Trevisa, in his Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum (1398), uses the wonderful phrase;
Stupor is a lettynge and stonyenge of lymmes and crokynge of the vtter partyes of the body for colde so that it semyth that the lymmes shrynke and slepe.
Having one’s “vtter partyes crokynged” sounds more painful than stuporific, but it is at least a good definition of the word.
There is some evidence that stupid was also used to describe a paralyzed part of the body, but this is confined to a usage in 1638 and this connotation clearly never caught on.
Now, at about the same time as Shakespeare was using stupid to describe a state of stupor, its use to describe someone “wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull” (OED, Vol XVI, p.1000) was also growing. It’s this more pejorative use of the word that is typical of today’s use.
During the 19th century, it took on the flavor of meaning of something “Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull,” which could be applied to objects and situations, not just people. When Mary Braddon wrote “We were quartered at a stupid sea-port town” in her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, she wasn’t referring to the mental state of the town but its tedious nature.
It was also used during this period as a noun to refer to someone as being a stupid, as in “You do not know what a thoughtless, heartless stupid I have been. (Mrs. Alexander, Valerie’s Fate, 1885.) This is similar to how someone might refer to a person as a stupid today, or in the now-cliched T-shirt phrase, “I’m with stupid.”
It seems that in the mid-to-late 20th century that the word took on a more insulting slant and became a term of abuse or disparagement. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), we find the sentence, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” Unlike Braddon’s stupid sea-port, the stupid used to refer to the hill is derogatory.
Since the 20th century, the word seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative and calling someone who appears a little sleepy or unfocused as stupid would be unwise.
The word can also function as the noun stupidity, and as the adverb, stupidly, to describe something being done foolishly.
And don’t forget, as Einstein once quipped;
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.
It’s a bit of a giveaway when someone talks about one of their favorite albums being The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis. First of all, it dates you. 1974 to be precise. And to the math impaired, that’s 36 years ago. And as Pink Floyd sang on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” Thirty six years, eh?
But putting aside the abject terror that washed over me as I realize how close I am to meeting the “Supernatural Anaesthetist” (side 3, track 4), I recall that this album was the first – and perhaps still the only – hearing of the word slubberdegullion. Now here’s a word that even if you didn’t know what it meant you could work out that it wasn’t very flattering. Why, even WordPress’s spell checker underlines the word in red, it’s poor little database unable to recognize it as a real word.
But real it is, defined as a “slobbering or dirty fellow; a worthless sloven.” Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher use the word in their 1616 Custom of Country where they say, “Yes they are knit; but must this slubberdegullion (h)ave her maiden~head now?” They even define it in there glossary as “a word formed from slubber and gull.”
The OED certainly seems happy with the base being slubber, a verb meaning to stain, smear, daub or soil, which dates from 1539 and appears to derive from Dutch or Low German. In Middle Dutch, overslubberen means to wade through mud, and in Low German, slubbern means to gobble.
There’s also the word slabberdegullion, which appears in 1653 in the phrase “Slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly lowts (Sir Thomas Urqhart, The first (second) book of the works of Mr. Francis Rabelais. Again, there’s no need to know what druggels or lubbardly louts are to know it ain’t good. But here, the word slabber is defined as “To wet or befoul with saliva; to beslaver or beslobber.” Whether the root is slabbering or slobbering, the notion of viscous slime oozes through.
The degullion part is thought, by the OED, to be a fanciful addition, but in 1811, an entry in Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines a slubberdegullion as “a dirty, nasty fellow,” but writes the word as slubber de gullion, suggesting that the derivation of from a place – a slubber who comes from Gullion.
And remember Beaumont and Fletcher’s notion that the word comes from slubber and gull? The word gull as a verb appears in the 16th century with the meaning of guzzling, swallowing, or devouring voraciously. Guzzling and slobbering certainly seem to be made for each other, and tagging the noun-making suffix -ion to slubbergull gets us pretty close to slubberdegullion.
You pays your money and you takes your choice. Meanwhile, as I finish writing this, iPodded and listening to The Lamb, the track Anyway (side 3, track 3) is playing and mocking my sense of mortality;
All the pumping’s nearly over for my sweet heart,
This is the one for me,
Time to meet the chef,
O boy! running man is out of death.
Feel cold and old, it’s getting hard to catch my breath.
‘s back to ash, now, you’ve had your flash boy
The rocks, in time, compress
your blood to oil,
your flesh to coal,
enrich the soil,
not everybody’s goal.
Peter Gabriel: damned slubberdegullion if you ask me.
As a land of immigrants, the USA has no shortage of opportunities for celebrating other people’s patriotism. On St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans dress in green, drink green beer, and sing Danny Boy while tucking in to cabbage and corned beef. The fact that 99% of Irish-Americans have never set foot in Ireland and are blissfully unaware that a real Irishman would never ruin a good beer by putting green coloring in it, has nothing to do with it. The mythological status of an Ireland populated by leprechauns, hard-working farmers, buxom redheads, fiddling gypsies, and thatched cottages will trump over any reality.
Similarly,there are more Americans – or North Americans, as a Mexican friend of mine constantly reminds me – who spend time celebrating Cinqo de Mayo than there are illegal Mexicans in the US.
But there is one gaping hole in the calendar that is a missing opportunity: St. George’s Day. The number of Americans who can claim English heritage is substantial. The original war of independence was not “Americans” versus “English,” but “colonists” versus “imperialists.” Every Fourth of July I get the “this is to celebrate when we Americans whooped your British asses” when the truth is that many of the people doing the whooping were, in fact, English! Until the war ended, it can be argued – and I certainly do – that there were no “Americans,” but a collection of disaffected settlers who decided, rightly, that it was time to go it alone.
Of course, the English are not very good when it comes to celebrating St. George’s Day. Fewer Brits know the actual date of the event (April 23rd) than Americans know St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason, the Brits have never been good at the overt patriotism thing, mistaking patriotism for nationalism, I suspect, and eschewing the former for fear of being thought to be too imperialistic. The legacy of the First and Second World wars made the English wear the face of anti-nationalism, a reaction to the brutal National Socialism of Nazi Germany.
Patriotism is not a bad thing. And for the English, there is no finer statement of patriotism that the words of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II where he delivers the following classic panegyric:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
The OED defines a panegyric as, “A public speech or published text in praise of a person or thing; a laudatory discourse; a eulogy, an encomium.” This particular definition is supported in its first use in 1603 by Samuel Daniels in his A Panegyrike Congratulatorie delivered to the Kings most excellent Maiestie. Interestingly the first recorded performance of Richard II was in 1602, making me wonder if any reports at the time described Gaunt’s speech as a panegyric.
The word comes from the Greek, πανηγυρικός, which refers to a public assembly or festival, often in praise of a particular god. This was a πανήγυρις. Breaking it down further, pan (παν) means all, and agyris (ἂγυρις) is a modified form of the Attic-Ionian agora (ὰγορά) meaning assembly or marketplace. So in essence, a panegyric is a speech fit for all assembled.
Jane Austen was not unfamiliar with the word. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett is talking of Mr. Bingley in positive terms when Austen writes, “This introduced a panegyric from Jane on his diffidence, and the little value he put on his own good qualities.”
And it isn’t a word reserved for stuffy writers and obsessed lexicographers. In Rainbow Six (1998) Tom Clancy wrote, “Popov knocked back four stiff vodkas while watching the local television news, followed by an editorial panegyric to the efficiency of the local police.”
Someone who delivers a panegyric can be called a panegyrist, where the ever-popular and ever-useful Greek suffix, –ist (-ιστῄς) works its magic of turning a word into a noun – in this case to describe someone who delivers a panegyric.
Other uses of the word exist but are pretty rare. The alternative noun, panegyry, popped up in 1602 but then infrequently over the years to the point that it would be hard to find it in modern literature. With a ghit of only 5,300, even the mighty Google asks “Did you mean panegyric?”
So for those of you looking for a weekend panegyric to the Golden Age of movies, why not treat yourself to a viewing of Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, an homage to the art of movie making and a delightful way to spend an evening with your big screen TV.