Tag Archives: language

These Words Deserve a Comeback

As I said, I’m loving America In So Many Words. It’s great for getting acquainted with American history and some awesome random trivia. But it also has led me to discover a bunch of words that really ought to make a comeback.

  • kinnikinnick– a mixture of leaves for smoking (1729)
  • netop– a friend (1643)
  • punk– overcooked corn; slow-burning sticks; and, of course, a small-time hoodlum (originally 1618)
  • squaw winter– an early cold spell (contrasting with an indian summer) (1777)
    • Note: Though the settlers imbued the term “squaw” with a derogatory connotation, it originally meant a leader who was a woman. Maybe we should get squaw back to its roots!
  • pumpkin head– a New England colonist hairstyle, created by placing a pumpkin shell on someone’s head and cutting around it! (1654)
    • I imagine this is much like the ’90s fad of the “bowl cut”
  • backlog– the large log placed in the back of a fire, along with “top-stick,” “fore-stick,” and “and-irons”(1684)
    • nowadays, it’s an accumulation
  • prairie schooner- a covered wagon (1841)
  • loggerhead– a slow-witted person (ok, this one is Shakespeare)
  • johnny cake or jonakin– cornbread (1739)
  • breechclout– a clout of piece of cloth to cover one’s breech (buttocks) (1757)
  • bust my buttons– to strain or laugh (1921)
  • busticated- broken (1916)
  • bustified – pot-bellied (1939)
  • bee– a social, busy gathering (1768); also frolic
    • we’ve kept “spelling bee,” but they also had wood chopping bees, painting bees, and even kissing bees!
  • drugstore cowboy- someone who puts on airs of being tough or sophisticated (1779)
  • bug- an enthusiast, now a fan (1785); ex. baseball bug
  • keno-essentially, the modern lottery; a game where players mark of numbers printed on a ticket- the keno caller draws numbers on keno balls from a keno goose to determine the winner (1814)
  • bunkum- nonsense OR (a competing definition from the same time) excellent and outstanding (1819)
  • blizzard- a knock-down blow or punch (1825)
  • sockdolager- a decisive blow; something or someone big (1827)
    • interestingly, one of the last words President Abraham Lincoln ever heard!
  • callithumpian- a noisy parade (early 19th century)
  • slumgullion- something disgusting (early 19th century)
  • slangwhanger- a partisan speechmaker (early 19th century)
  • rawheel/tenderfoot- a beginner or newcomer (1849)
  • high muckamuck- plenty of food or someone who assumes an air of importance (1856); we’re left now with “muckety mucks”
  • hulloo- a predecessor to “hello” (1885)
  • jellybean– a derogatory term for someone weak or timid (1905)

I don’t know about you, but these are basically the cool kinds of words that I’ve always wanted out of a word-a-day calendar.

Whattya say? Can we give these all-American words a new life? Do you have any favorite obscure words?

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Review: America in So Many Words

America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped AmericaAmerica in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by Allan Metcalf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book for word nerds if there ever was one! America in So Many Words is a marvelous diversion for those who love both history and language. It examines particularly American words and phrases from the colonies’ founding up through 1998, explaining a bit of etymology, usage, and sometimes an example of it in original writing. It is extensively researched and just downright delightful. It even features two appendices, one organized by year and one by word.(Ex. 1998’s word is “millennium bug,” even though it probably should have been the much-catchier “Y2K bug.” But it had enough foresight to explain the term two years early!)
I’m marking this book as “read” even though it’s actually a work-in-progress. It’s just not a book you’re going to sit down and read straight through in one sitting. It reads like a cross between an encyclopedia and a dictionary, except you’ve probably never chuckled or said “ah ha!” from either one as much as you will with this book. I’m keeping it in my bathroom, to be honest, because one to two entries provide more diversion than any magazine could, with the added bonus of making that time educational and productive.
Though you may prefer to put it on your desk, I do recommend American language-lovers at least page through it. It’s been my go-to source for watercooler conversation and “did you know” questions. If you even think you may be intrigued by the true origins of “hot dog” or the critical place the phrase “log cabin” has in the American presidency, you’ll need this book in your collection.

View all my reviews

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The Sound of the Season: Christmas Word Choices

The holiday season is rife with a particular vocabulary we don’t hear very often. Some of the words are “classic” (read: archaic) and evoke a reminiscence of a time that…well, maybe didn’t exist. The words we choose paint a particular picture of what Christmas means:
  • most wonderful
  • merry and bright
  • glistening
  • winter wonderland
  • babe in a manger
  • holy night
  • yon virgin
  • boughs of holly, gay apparel, Yuletide
  • newborn King
  • droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
“Jingle Bells” even features the delightful term “upsot.”
We use these terms mostly because it’s traditional and because we’re singing some of the same carols, reading the same stories, we’ve enjoyed for hundreds of years–or at least since Charles Dickens made Christmas fashionable again.
But the way we talk about something has a profound effect on how we feel, too. Winter is often a rather bleak time; to recast it as “glistening” and “wonderful” can help us actually make it wonderful…or at least make you feel less crappy that it’s been four days since you’ve seen the son.
I got to thinking about the words we use at Christmastime for two wildly different reasons.
The first: The Turtle Creek Chorale’s performance of their song “PC Christmas.”
The Turtle Creek Chorale is a really great men’s choir here in Dallas; my husband surprised me with tickets. They’re a group of about 150 men who put on a performance of great humor and good cheer–no, really. (Interesting: all the men in the choir are gay. They made some jokes in that direction in the show, too.)
But the song that most struck me was “PC Christmas”: a song/show about Mabel (a man in fantastic drag), the harried and well-meaning HR director of the imaginary “Pegasus Corporation.” Mabel just wants to put on a Christmas party, but at every turn she is met with complainers who want their celebration to be represented at the official party. Hapless Mabel assures, via monologued emails, employees that the party will feature “traditional”…and secular Christmas songs….and Hanukkah songs….and a song for Kwanzaa… and at least one song celebrating the Moon Goddess…. until the whole shebang collapses in on itself and Mabel gives up.
It’s funny because it’s true: while Christmas is far and away the main event in Dallas (Fun fact: the sad and revealing book “Tinsel” was written from Frisco, Texas, just outside of Dallas), the intense and loud celebration thereof can be exclusionary, annoying, snobby, and basically rude to those who don’t celebrate.
That’s how we get all this nastiness over the well-intended phrase “Happy Holidays.”
Number two reason I’ve been thinking about words:
My church decided to “mix things up” this Christmas: in lieu of a weekly sermon, has decided to do monologues from different Biblical “characters.”
Now, before this rant goes any further, let me be clear: I think this is a great way to breathe new life into an old and familiar story, to get some more people involved.
Except it’s been awful. I missed Joseph and the shepherd while traveling, but I managed to catch Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin, mother of John the Baptist) and “Martha” (the utterly fictional, not-in-the-Bible wife of the innkeeper).
Both of these women’s “stories” had an intense focus on pregnancy. Elizabeth on the great difficulty of being infertile and how happy she was to finally be pregnant; Martha on meeting Mary while she was super-pregnant and assisting all night with the birth.
In general, we use a lot of euphemistic and positive terms for pregnancy: “bun in the oven”; “bundle of joy”; “special delivery”, etc. We take this even farther for the miraculous pregnancies in this part of the Bible–maybe because the details are practically nonexistent, maybe because being the mother of God probably oughta come with some perks like an easy delivery.
For whatever reason, the scriptwriter for this series, however, decided to through out all those comfortable euphemisms, opting instead of explicit medical terms.
I’ll spare you, but let it be known that I never again want to hear about how the midwife “felt between her legs to feel the baby’s head” or Mary’s “screams so loud she woke up all the inn’s guests” or have the sweet baby Jesus described as being “green and gray from mucus as he left the birth canal.” (Seriously, I’ve started watching “Call the Midwife”–a show about being a midwife–and it wasn’t so gruesome.)
Anyway, whatever you are doing today, I hope you are enjoying yourself, whether you’re under celebrating the Christ child, singing to O Tenenbaum, dancing with Frosty the Snowman, or seeing Mommy kissing Santa Claus.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Feliz Cumpleanos, Seasons Greetings, Yuletide Joy, and to all a good night!

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Homophobes Against Homophones: Why Words Matter

This is just ridiculous, but it shows, painfully clearly, why language and being educated about language, matters.

The social media specialist for a language school was fired for writing a blog post about homophones (words that sound the same but aren’t), because the owner presumed–or thought others would presume?–the post was about gay sex.

Seriously, I can’t believe this happened (here’s the original story). Take a second to let that soak in:

  • School that focuses on language for non-native speakers
  • Has blog post about a basic issue that non-native speakers encounter when learning language
  • But the name for that issue is vaguely, distantly related to a different word
  • Causing the owner–who had to look up the definition–to fire the blog writer.

The fire-er actually said, “People at this level of English may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Mind = blown

Barney expresses my feelings quite well.

I mean, of course they would! It’s not like they have a language school they can attend where they can learn these things!


Awkward gif


Just for our brilliant language school owner’s edification, some common homophones include:

  • their, there, they’re
  • threw, through, thru
  • mourning, morning
  • air, err, heir, are* (in some dialects)
  • flee, flea
  • flew, flu
  • rain, reign, rein

Also, some other words that begin with “homo-” but have nothing at all to do with gay sex (plus definitions!):

  • homogeneous: having the same structure, being composed of similar parts
  • homologous: matching in structure
  • homocysteine: an amino acid found in the blood of mammals and appears to be associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
  • homoiothermic: warm-blooded
  • homocercal: relating to a fish fin, having upper and lower lobes that are approximately symmetrical
  • Homo sapiens: mankind, human beings (that’s right sir, you are indeed Homo!)

This is just one of the many reasons learning the ins-and-outs of your language is so vital—so that you don’t make a fool of yourself on a national stage like this school-owner just did. I hope the blogger finds a new job swiftly; it will undoubtedly be an environment more open to actual learning!

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