Friday, October 5, 2012

Qi

Do you play Scrabble? Or Words With Friends? If so, you know this word, but do you know what it means?

Qi \chee\ , noun;
1. Eastern medicine, martial arts, etc.: Vital energy believed to circulate around the body in currents.

Qi has also been spelled chi or ch'i, depending on which method of Chinese-to-English transcription is in use (qi is pinyin, the others are Wade-Giles). Either way it comes from Chinese 气 (氣), which means "air, breath," and dates to around 1850 in English.

Friday, September 7, 2012

One fell swoop

"Suddenly, in a single action"

I started thinking about this phrase today because I realized I didn't know how to spell the second word. I quickly discovered that the main reason I didn't know how to spell it was because I was mispronouncing it. I always thought it was one foul/fowl swoop. Egg on my face.

So now that we know the correct way to say it (good for you if you've known it all along, smarty pants), the question is: where does it come from?

It is first attested by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605):
     All my pretty ones?
     Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
     What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
     At one fell swoop?

The fact that Shakespeare was the first to write it down (that we know of) means one of two things: he coined it or it was an existing slang/idiomatic phrase. Shakespeare is the first attestation of many English words because he wrote very idiomatically, which was a revolutionary idea in his day. He also coined his share of words, but it can be hard to tease out what he invented and what he took from slang of various language groups around him.

Shakespeare's usage of one fell swoop gives up clues as to the origin of the meaning. A kite is a hunting bird, which swoops down to catch its prey. Fell in this context means something different than what Modern English speakers might expect: "fierce, savage, cruel." Over the centuries the sense of "savageness" was lost and we are left with a meaning of "all at once."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are you a language buff in the NYC area?

Starting later this month, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is hosting a 5-part series entitled "Is Your Brain Wired for Language?"
The 2-hour Monday evening lectures will cover topics related to how our brains create language, how language shapes our brain, why learning language is so easy for children and so difficult for adults, and how the biology of language in the brain changes throughout our lifespans. Participants will also learn about the hardwired circuity that makes us good at language and what happens when the circuits go awry.

For tickets and exact dates, click here.

**For the record, I am not affiliated with the museum, The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, or this lecture series in any way. I just saw this opportunity and thought you might like to go!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fabulist

Fabulist \FAB-yuh-list\ , noun;
1. A liar
2. A person who invents or relates fables
Surprisingly, not someone like this (source)
Fabulist dates to the 1590's from French fabuliste, which derives from Latin fabula ("story, play, fable, tale"). Fabula literally translates as "that which is told" and is related to fari ("speak, tell"), which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *bha- ("speak"). *Bha- is also the forebear of fame via Latin fama and Old French fame.

Fabula is also responsible for fabulous. Latin fabulosus means "celebrated in fable; rich in myths" which became "mythical, legendary" in early 15th century English. Fabulous meaning "incredible" is first attested in 1600.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sparse

Sparse \spahrs\ , adjective;
1. Thinly scattered or distributed
2. Not thick or dense; thin
3. Scanty; meager

So, you may have noticed that this blog has been a bit sparse lately. That's because we moved, spent the summer in the midwest, I spent a week in California, and now we're unpacking our house. Basically, I haven't had a lot of spare time. Hopefully things will get back to normal soon and I'll be able to blog again more regularly. In the meantime, let me know if there are any words/phrases/etc. that you are curious about!

Sparse dates to 1727 from Latin sparus ("scattered"), which is the past participle of spargere ("to scatter, spread"), which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *(s)pregh- ("to jerk, scatter"). That PIE root also spawned such words as Sanskrit parjanya ("rain, rain god"), Old Norse freknur ("freckles"), and English spry ("nimble; agile; energetic; brisk").

Saturday, August 4, 2012

-er v. -or

A friend pointed out an interesting English quirk to me the other day: Why is a prisoner in prison but a jailer runs the jail?

The answer lies in the suffix, -er, which derives from a Proto-Germanic suffix -ărjo-z, which was added to nouns and meant "a person who has do to with [noun]." Originally the main purpose of this construction was to denote a persons job - a jailer work for a jail. In Modern English the meaning expanded to also denote something a person does that is not necessarily their profession - a runner runs, but it's probably not their day job. The definition further evolved into something like "a native or inhabitant of," which is where we get New Yorker or southerner - and prisoner.

As a side note, there is an obsolete definition of prisoner that meant "person who runs the prison."