Thursday, March 31, 2011

Words, words, words. Hooray!

Welcome to word and phrase origins Thursday. Up today, a few facts from John Ciardi's "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions and Intriguing Facts." Here are today's words.

Sweep (slip) under the carpet. Though it now suggests a lazy housemaid hiding her sweepings under and edge of the carpet, it originally meant "to remove from official consideration" by slipping papers under the cloth covering of the desk; in French, mettre sous le tapis.

Ham, ham actor. A strutting, bellowing emoter. Heavily blackfaced clowns of the minstrel show are said to have removed their make-up with lard, which they slanged as hamfat. Or hamfat may have been their slang for the face cream they used. In any case, the term emerged c. 1900 in a popular minstrel show song, "The Hamfat Man" . . . Minstrels were, of course, clowns, and the shift to ham, ham actor is an easy adaptation.

Limerick. A popular five-line form of light verse rhymed AABA, the A lines trimeters, the B lines dimeters. [Note the following are all Ciardi's words, and he is a master of the limerick.] I have been a passionate limericker in my time and there is no way to stop me from quoting myself by way of example, if only to prove that the limerick can be innocent:

There once was a lady named Wright
Who simply could not sleep at night
Because of the ping-
Ping-ping of her spring,
And the glare of her little red light.

Though the limerick is a recent form, its name and origin remain a bit obscure . . . yet the name is from Limerick, Ireland.

Werewolf. Count Dracula's dog. In spook legend, a man who changes at night into a ravenous wolf that eats men, usually under compulsion of the full moon, resuming human form by day. Probably a semi-mythological figure personifying rabies. Based on vir (man) and the German vulf (wolf).

Halo. In religious art, an aura or nimbus around the head of a saint. Based on the Greek halos, threshing floor, because the dust of the threshing diffused the sun's rays. 

Now, wasn't that refreshing? I know I'm going to think of threshing floors every time I see a halo. Word derivations expand your feel for language. Here's hoping you enjoyed today's entries.