Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's word day. Woot!

Today's entries come from "A Browser's Dictionary: A Compendium of Curious Expressions & Intriguing Facts" by John Ciardi.

Feisty. Root sense: "Farty," but see below. Born in New England, I first heard this word when my Missouri-born wife described someone as "fat and feisty." I have since heard it in Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and the South . . . OED lists it only in the Supplement and then as a variant of fist, to fart; which is Intermediate English peiz-, to blow, to pass wind. Suffixed -d from Latin, pedere, to fart . . . Old English, fistan, Middle English, fisten, to fart, which became obsolete in standard British circa 1650. But in some Germanic variant form . . . feist, curiously defined by Jamieson, Dictionary of the Scottish Language, as, "The act of breaking wind in a suppressed manner from behind . . . also akin to Scottish fissle, a sustained low sound."

Hair of the dog (that bit one). Now, a morning-after drink as a cure for a hangover. But earlier based on a received medical principle that like cures like; in Latin, similia similibus curantur; and traceable to the earliest practice of witch doctors. So in the Middle Ages a common cure for dogbite was to place a hair of the dog in the wound (which would then infallibly heal), or to burn the hair of the dog, put the ash in water, and drink it. (Even today nothing is more effective than a witch doctor or two in treating a hangover.)

Meticulous. Exactingly careful in the handling of details. (Most dictionaries give as a second sense "excessively precise, overcareful," but though this derogatory sense is justified by the root, I must say that I have never felt it to function in modern American, meticulousness labeling an honored quality of accountants, lawyers, surgeons, etc., the pejorative occurring only when qualified, as in "overmeticulous, excessively meticulous.") [Root sense: "in dread; as if one's life depended on it." Latin, metis, fear; (per)iculosus, fearful, perilous, going to meticulosus, fearful, in dread.]

Vaudeville. Theatrical variety performances. (Vaudeville is supposed to have died in the Great Depression of the thirties, but it has in fact only moved to TV, though there one misses the acrobats and the animal acts.) [French chansons du Vau de Vire, songs of the Valley of the Vire, after the many ditties written in the fifteenth century by Olivier Basselin and named by him after his birthplace in the Vire Valley. Immensely popular as theatrical music, the songs gave their name to the variety entertainments performed to their strains.]

Stay tuned. More next Thursday.