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A Cop Bought the Farm during the Dog Days

Many of my friends and associates know what I do with words, and so they often send me photos or passages demonstrating words being used correctly or, more often, incorrectly.

But one friend sent me a book. It’s a 2005 book by Charles Harrington Elster called “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language.” According to Wikipedia, Elster has written many books about language.

In the first part of the book, people ask questions about where phrases’ origins. Here are some.

Bought the farm — When a pilot crashed in a rural area, the owner often sued the government and got enough money to pay off the mortgage and own the farm outright.

Cop — Police are called this because in northern England, to cop meant “to capture, catch, lay hold of,” and that’s part of the job description.

Decked out — “Deck” is a verb meaning “to clothe” and “to adorn.” This is why we “deck the halls with boughs of holly.”

Dog days — In Roman times, the hottest days of summer were called caniculares dies because they believed the dog star (Sirius), when it rose with the sun, added heat.

German chocolate cake — “German” actually is Samuel German, who developed the recipe.

Green room — Elster says this term goes at least back to a 1701 play. It probably has to do with the rooms had walls painted green to give the eyes some welcome contrast to the bright lights they experienced on stage. “Probably” because no one is completely sure, Elster says.

Pinkie/Pinky finger — From the Dutch pinkje, the diminutive form of “pink.” But Elster can’t explain why the Dutch used that word to describe the little finger.

Pushing the envelope — “Envelope” refers to an aircraft’s performance limits, so when a pilot tries to do that (see: Tom Cruise’s character in “Top Gun”), he’s pushing the envelope.

Santa Ana wind — This hot wind is named for the large flow of gasses that comes out of the Santa Ana Mountains.

What the dickens/deuce — A euphemism for “what the devil.”

Thanks to Warren S. for the book.

Until next time! Use the right words!


July 19, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And Now, A Really Long Word

My wife handed me a piece of paper yesterday, from some sort of page-a-day® calendar dated Jan. 7, 2015. It’s a calendar from Workman Publishing that offers a word a day. On this particular day, the word was sesquipedalian, meaning “having many syllables: long” and “using long words.”

This calendar also has a explanation behind the word. To paraphrase, the word traces back to Roman times, when the Roman poet Horace warned his students against using sesquipedalian verba — that is, “words and foot and a half long.”

The explanation then jumped to 17th century England and literary critics using the word to scold people who used unnecessarily long words.

Finally, it explains that the Latin prefix sesqui- is used today to mean “one and a half time,” which is why a 150th anniversary is called a sesquicentennial.

There you have it. I hope my wife didn’t show me this word because or my tendency to use sesquipedalian words.

Until next time! Use the right words!

January 27, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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