Astronomy terms, and metaphor: black hole; apogee (orthography); meteoric; nutation; light year (billion); nebula; constellation
False Starts and New Beginnings: apron; alligator; jade; munition (ammunition); metanalysis; rass; eke (nickname); umpire (noumpere); precocious (apricot)
Our new theme is terms from astronomy, many
of them with metaphorical uses, and we begin with one that would also fit last
week's theme. John Archibald Wheeler coined the term, and I've provided a definition.
OED does not yet have this sense of the term.
black hole astronomy: an object whose gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, no matter how fast it moves (not even light). Such an object is caused by the collapse, or implosion, of an extremely massive object under the pull of its own gravity.
For metaphoric purposes, the salient feature of a black hole is that anything that gets close enough will inevitably and inescapably be sucked in by the gravity, never to exit.
black hole metaphoric: something that continually consumes and never releases resources or other thing.
became known as the "black hole" of the regulatory
process for its reputation of sucking in rules proposed by agencies and never
letting them see light again.
Chris Mooney, Paralysis by analysis [etc.], Washington Monthly, May, 2004
Rolls-Royce's pensions black hole has topped £1.15bn
Guardian Unlimited, Feb. 10, 2006
apogee metaphoric: the culmination or highest point reached
(astronomy: the farthest point from earth in the orbit of the moon or other earth satellite)
parents went orbital Saturday morning when the seventh-grader [won] the
[area's] Times Spelling Bee. Fortney held his trophy after reaching the apogee
of orthographic excellence.
orthography the conventional spelling system of a language
Saint Patrick was
a proper man before he was a saint
He was shaky in his Latin, his orthography was quaint
Note: for apogee, the opposite (that is, the closest point of earth orbit) is perigee. For objects orbiting the sun, the equivalent terms are aphelion and perihelion.
As previous words of the day we've presented
and distinguished meteor, meteoroid and meteorite, all as astronomical terms.
There's a figurative use as well.
meteoric of very sudden brilliance, swiftly rising and seemingly coming from nowhere.
Usually refers to transient brilliance, but not always, as in our quotation.
Cyrus H. K.
Curtis, the poor boy from
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People
Many of our astronomical words are
reasonably familiar. Today's word is inserted just to show you that I know some
obscure ones too.
nutation [from Latin for 'to nod']
astronomy: periodic increases and decreases in the "tilt" of an orbit
medical: uncontrolled nodding
Forgive me if I cannot find any non-technical usage examples. But doesn't this word have wonderful potential for metaphoric use? "I nutated off throughout the professor's boring lecture."
Today's term can be confusing. It measures
distance, but some authors see the word 'year' and think of it as measuring
time. Arguably our second and fourth quotes exemplify that error.
1) astronomical (first two quotes): a certain huge measure of distance, used in measuring interstellar space. It is the distance light travels in a year.
2) metaphoric (last two quotes): a very large distance or figurative distance
The astronomical light year is sometimes called about 6 trillion miles (9½ trillion km.), but sometimes 6 billion. Neither is error, because 'billion' is ambiguous. See bonus word.)
Q: How long is a
light year? A: It's a measure of distance -not time. A light year is the number
of miles light can travel in a year which works out at quite a long way - 5.866
billion miles to be exact.
Glasgow Sunday Mail, Feb 12, 2006
A massive cosmic explosion could be the biggest since the Big Bang - and is the oldest ever seen. It happened an amazing 12.8 billion years ago - when the universe was just [sic] 9OO million years old. The blast would have been the collapse of a big star that can form black holes capable of swallowing up entire galaxies. Its light has just reached us after 12.8 billion light years.
Life Style Extra, (
Quoting a speaker regarding campaign donations: "There's a light-year's difference between the
Providence (RI) Journal, March 7, 2006
At the finish, he was .72 of a second ahead of Walchhofer a light-year in downhill racing.
bonus word: billion to USns, a thousand million; to UKers a million millions,
which USns call a 'trillion'. That is, a
astronomy: a gas-mass or dust-mass within a galaxy
figurative: something ill-defined or insubstantial; a hazy mass or cloud.
For the astronomical definition, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I direct you magnificent pictures here and here. The figurative use of our term is infrequent but can be just as beautiful, as in this quote which I crib from OED:
of a man, so long inert, was starting slowly to evolve.
Olivia Manning, Great Fortune
astronomy: a formation of stars seen, in the sky, as forming a figure
metaphoric: a collection or gathering, usually of prominent persons or things
[from L. com- + stella star]
The 2,100 entries
in this eminently researched collection form the constellation of
collected wisdom in American political debate.
home page of AHD's site, describing its collection of quotations
This week we'll look at some familiar words
that were formed by misunderstanding of the start of the word-as-spoken. The
misunderstanding "stuck" and became the accepted form of the word.
Our first word arose from not one but two such misunderstandings.
Latin mappa meant a table-napkin. By misunderstanding of the m sound as an n, this came into Old French as nappe tablecloth. The diminutive form napron then was carried from French into English.. (We still see it in today's word napkin.) This napron was clothing worn in front of the body to protect other clothes from dirt or mess. OED gives, at about 1400,
With hir napron
feir..She wypid sofft hir eyen
[With her napron fair she wiped soft her eyes.]
This was a napron. But then, in the second
error, a-napron shifted to become an-apron, giving us the today's
apron a protective garment covering the front of ones clothes and tied at the back
'Apron' comes from a slippage of the n
in a napron. A similar slippage can occur from other languages.
For example, in Spanish legarto means 'lizard' (or, as Johnson said, "an animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.") Spaniards in the New World found an animal somewhat like a large lizard or legged-snake, and named it 'the lizard of the Indies,' or el lagarto de
In pronouncing el lagarto the two adjacent l sounds, at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, would run together. Thus el-legarto was heard as ellargarto and was taken to be the name of the animal. This ellagarto went through various forms and spellings (allagarto, alagarto, alegarto, alligarta) and then added an r at the end, much as 'fellow' would become 'fella' and then 'feller'. So with the r we had alligarter, allegater, and finally the original el lagarto settled down to became the alligator.
alligator a large New-World reptile, akin to the crocodile
alligatoring the cracking of paint, varnish etc. into a crazed pattern
like alligator hide
To remember that the alligator is a New World animal, think of these Ogden Nash lines about a language purist.
I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist.
Trustees exclaimed, "He never bungles!"
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
"You mean," he said, "a crocodile."
Spanish 'el lagarto' shifted its l as
it passed into English. 'Napron' changed to apron within English.
A like change occurred within French. A certain stone was believed to cure colic, severe pain in the abdomen, and apparently that pain was identified with the side or kidney area, Latin ilia (plural). So the Spanish called this the 'colic stone' or 'piedra de ijada'. French took the ijada which, with their word for 'the', became l'ejade.
But very soon the French split this word differently, mistaking their l'ejade (feminine) for le jade (masculine), which would be pronounced the same. In other words, French for 'th' ejade' became 'the jade', which was then taken into English as the name of that stone.
jade a semiprecious gemstone (either nephrite or jadeite) or its light green color
Note: This is entirely separate from jade an inferior or worn-out horse, or a crabby or disreputable woman
munition; munitions war material of any kind (weapons, equipment, stores, etc.),
but especially weapons. (verb: to supply with munitions) Especially weapons,
but not necessarily firearms. OED quotes show the term used for items from
spears and pikes to atomic bombs.
This word, ultimately from Latin 'fortification', comes to us from French. In French, "the munition" is la munition, and the 'a' easily migrated, so that la munition was misheard as l'amunition. The two forms apparently coexisted, with a class division, the French officers saying munition but the soldiers saying amonition.
Both forms passed into English. In French the erroneous form amoniton has now fallen out of usage. In English the erroneous form ammunition now has a more limited use relating to firearms, etc. (for which usage the former term was munition, singular).
ammunition 1. the material to charge firearms, cannon, etc.: shot, shell, powder 2. points used as to support in argument
Let's look at the pattern of this week's words.
anapron became anapron
l'ejade became lejade
lamunition became l'ammunition
ellagarto became ellagarto, changing to alligator
In each case the division between two
word-units shifted, to create a new word. This sort of change is common enough
to have a name.
metanalysis more generally: creation of a new word by reinterpreting the form of an old one
especially: such word-creation by reinterpreting the division between words (or between other units: roots, prefixes, etc.)
I have ventured to
coin the word 'metanalysis' for the phenomenon frequent in
all languages that words or word-groups are by a new generation analyzed
differently from the analysis of a former age.
Otto Jespersen (1914)
Jespersen in the above quote is more careful than I was. He makes no judgment of right or wrong: the change is not a mistake, but simply a new analysis by a new generation. In that spirit, perhaps this theme should not have been called 'False Starts'. A better name would have been 'New Beginnings'.
This week we've seen, in various tongues,
migrating sounds involving a noun preceded by the definite or indefinite
article (the, or a or an). Thus 'an apron' from 'a
napron', and ammunition from French 'la (the) munition'. Here is a
migration involving a different preceding word, part of a familiar phrase. I
crib from OED.
rass Jamaican slang (coarse): the buttocks; also, a term of contempt
[from 'shove it up your arse'.]
man! Ah doan talk wid buckra.' The expression 'rass' is Jamaican
for 'shove it'.
Ian Fleming, The Man with the Golden Gun
'Napron' lost an n by metanalysis, to
become 'apron'. Here is a word that gained an n.
eke verb: to add to, with the sense of making something go further by supplying what is missing, as to eke out extra income. Gestures can eke out the meaning of your words.
It took hundreds
of thousands of dollars in last-minute ads from a panicked National Republican
Senatorial Committee for Burns to eke out a 14,000-vote win
David Sirota, Washington Monthly, Dec. 2004
Thus an eke-name is an additional name given to a person. That's 'an eke-name', but the n migrated to make it 'a neke-name', which became a nickname.
English noumpere (among other spellings) meant 'one who decides a dispute'. [From French adj. nonper '[having] no-par or no-peer; surpassing all others', and noun nomper; one who so surpasses', for the essence of decider's role is to be above and apart from the parties.] The initial n then migrated, and 'a noumpere' became 'an oumpere' or umpire; later, the word 'umpire' was extended to mean 'one who decides' in sports.
We'll take an extra day on our "New
Beginnings" theme, to look at a word that circled the Mediteranean and had
two changes at it's beginning. But we'll start with a different word.
precocious showing unusually early mental development (not necessarily complimentary)
Etymology starts with Latin coquere to cook or, figuratively, to ripen. So an 'early-ripening' fruit or flower would be prζ- before + coquere, or prζcox. In English prcox became 'precocious'. It first applied to fruits and flowers, but soon was used figuratively for 'early maturing' persons, and the latter use is now far more common.
Prζcox also leads us to today's word, an early-ripening fruit which in Latin was described as, and later named, prζcocquum. Traveling east, in Greek it became prekokkia and then berikokkia, and thence the Arabic birquq. The Arabs carried al-birquq ('the birquq') back westward through northern Africa and into the
Do you recognize this fruit? It is the apricot. One new-beginning is that the Arabic al ('the') had become attached. ('Alcohol' was similarly formed from al-kohl.) A second change is that in English the abr- beginning changed to apr-, as in Shakespeare.
Go, bind thou up
yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
King Richard II, Act 3, Scene 4
No one is sure why the abr- changed to apr-. Perhaps it is because the word was mistakenly thought to derive from aprico coctus, ripened in a sunny place.
How did a saint's name become associated
with a lady of easy virtue?
The Athanasian Creed, traditionally though mistakenly attributed to St. Athanasius of
QUICUMQUE vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam
WHOEVER wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the catholic faith.
Notice the words Quicumque vult, Whoever
Wishes. Some anonymous wit punned on them, and a lady available to 'whoever
wishes' was known by the name of this creed.
Athanasian wench, or quicunque vult a forward girl, ready to oblige every man that shall ask her
Francis Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), an enjoyable read
In 1867 the
Fortunately, the local Hoochino Indians (Tlingit for "people of the strait of the grizzly bear"), having learned distilling from the Americans, developed both a taste and a talent for brew. By throwing into the mash whatever happened to be available they produced a "perilous rotgut" and, enterprisingly, soon "took to distributing through most of southern
hooch alcoholic liquor, especially inferior or bootleg liquor
The original hooch was a commercial success but doubly a public nuisance: there was riotous drunkenness, and some perished from drinking the impure foodstuff. I excerpt from what the New York Times, Sept. 4, 1883 took from another paper:
The hoochinoo, so called from its first being made by the Indians of that tribe, is the great enemy of peace and order. Government orders prevent the importation of whisky, but the ever vigilant officers cannot keep watch of all the illicit stills that the Indians set up in their houses or in lonely spots in the woods. A deserter from a whaling ship once taught the Indians how to distill hoochinoo. molasses, sugar and most anything else supply ingredients for the fiery stuff that can be distilled in a short time.
isabelline; isabella; isabel a dingy grayish-yellow color, as of unwashed underwear
In 1601 the Austrians laid siege to
Isabella vowed not
to change her linen till Ostend was taken; this siege
lasted three years; and
the supposed colour of the archduchess's linen gave rise to a fashionable colour
Isaac D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature, in web quotation from Sept. 1987 Kipling Journal
I will not bore you with certain evidence contrary to this story, or with responses to that evidence. The story, true or false, is too good to leave untold.
Linnaeus, when he named the botanical and
zoological species, typically named them after scientists or other personages
of his time. Thus a genus of greenhouse shrubs, called Hermannia,
is named after botanist Paul Hermann (1646-95).
Linneaus must have been in quite the mood when he named a closely related genus Mahernia, a near-anagram of Hermannia. Are there any other anagramatic eponyms?
He named another genus Quisqualis (Latin: 'what for') because he was unsure how to classify it. He apparently could not decide who to name it for, making it an 'anti-eponym'.
A personal favorite here.
phryne - a spectacular legal stunt.
No dictionary lists this word, and while one print-source says it means "a courtesan", I find no usage examples. However, a well-known work uses it with the useful sense above.
wrote in his column: "Mr. Roark pulled a Phryne in court and
didn't get away with it."
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, ch. XIII
The story: Phryne was one of the most
prominent courtesans of ancient
Another publicity stunt, the one that concerns us here, is much like one of Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction'. "It was the day of the Eleusinian festivals; twenty thousand people had come from all the countries of
Well, this was serious! Profaning the Eleusinian mysteries was a capital offense considered more serious than murder. Phryne was brought up on charges; and "it became apparent that the judges meant to condemn her." Her desperate advocate then saved his case with a spectacular coup. "Tearing off her undervests he laid bare her bosom and broke into such piteous lamentation that he caused the judges to feel superstitious fear of this handmaid and ministrant of Aphrodite, and indulging their feeling of compassion, they refrained from putting her to death." [Sources: web-translations of classical authors. Accounts differ in details, but all agree that bared breasts saved the lady.]
By the way, "after she had been acquitted a decree was passed that no person speaking in a defendant's behalf should indulge in lamentation, nor should the accused man or woman on trial be bared for all to see."
The general language has taken relatively few words from basketball, as compared to (say) football or baseball. In many cases the non-basketball usage examples we present are simply metaphors, not truly a non-basketball meaning of the term. It will be interesting to see whether these metaphoric usages grow over the years into full-fledged new, figurative meanings.
We start with the method used to start a basketball game.
basketball: a way to determine possession, in which an official tosses the ball up between two opponents who jump and try to tap the ball to a teammate
metaphoric: an uncertain situation that could equally go either way; a "toss-up"
At the end of
counting Wednesday, results were roughly tied with 62 percent of the vote in
and counting to resume Thursday. "It's still a jump ball,"
said Mayor Frank Pasquale.
Chicago Tribune, Mar. 23, 2006
Equity-indexed annuity sales are a jurisdictional jump-ball, because it isn't clear whether they're securities, insurance products or something in between.
PRNewswire, Mar. 23, 2006
A 'jump ball' is an uncertain situation. The
opposite, a certainty, also has a basketball name.
slam dunk fig. a sure thing, a certainty; also adj. (verb: to defeat decisively)
basketball: a shot in which a player jumps, reaches up and forcibly slams the ball down through the basket from above
With an 8 to 0
vote, it was as close to a slam dunk ruling that you're going to get
from this U.S. Supreme Court.
Colorado Springs Gazette, Mar. 8, 2006
It's a phenomenon widely known as the CSI effect, named for three hit TV shows in which crime-scene investigators solve the most heinous crimes with dazzling and dazzlingly quick forensic evidence. Some believe the show is raising the expectations jurors and defense attorneys have for prosecutors to turn up slam-dunk physical evidence in the same manner .
A basketball goal is 10 feet in the air, so a shot typically is taken from below. It rises above, and then falls, its downward motion impelled by nothing more than gravity. (Aside: When Naismith invented the game, he elevated the goal for precisely this reason, to remove the incentive [as in ice hockey or football/soccer] to propel the ball at a forcible, potentially-injurious speed.) But if one can leap and stretch high enough to hold the ball above the basket with hand on top, it can be slammed down with force.
full-court press an aggressive, no-holds-barred, all-out effort
John Landay, Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 22, 1995
tip-off the jump
ball by which a basketball game commences
figurative: the commencement of any other extended activity
However, I can find the figurative use (as below) only in the basketball context. Can anyone show a more extended application?
The NBA on ESPN
Radio will tip off its 11th season Tuesday, Nov. 1
National Basketball Association press release, Aug. 8, 2005
A reader notes another usage of 'tip off': giving useful advice. That sense is by far the more common in terms of ghits.
a shot that misses the backboard, rim, and net
figurative a highly-visible total miss
Apple threw up an air
ball with its horribly unexciting product announcement on Tuesday.
SQL Server Magazine, Mar. 3, 2006
The Bush administration issued new rules ratcheting up gas mileage requirements Environmentalists had pressed for higher fuel savings. "After the Bush administration acknowledged our oil addiction, one might have expected a slam dunk, but this is an air ball," said David Friedman ... "The administration squandered an important opportunity to treat our oil addiction."
Business Week, Mar. 29, 2006
fast-break progress so rapid as to be bordering on lack of control (Wordcrafter definition)
For all that to
Los Angeles Times, Nov. 26, quoted in Asian Economic News, Nov 29, 2004
Today's term is the opposite of air ball,
and it isn't in the dictionaries. Merely in usage.
nothing but net
basketball: (said of a shot on goal) so perfectly made that it goes through the goal without touching either the backboard or the rim of the goal
figurative: perfectly done; without even the permissible degree of error
Holding a hand
microphone, Mr. Bush walked around a stage giving a largely extemporaneous talk
Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 24, 2006