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March 2006 Archives

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)

Eponyms - outrageous and/or obscure: Athanasian wench (quicunque vult); hooch; isabelline; Mahernia (Quisqualis); phryne

Basketball terms used figuratively: jump ball; slam dunk; full-court press; tip-off; airball; fast-break; nothing but net



Astronomy terms, and metaphor

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.


Tozzi's domain 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)


Dan Fortney's 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.
– Bill Dolan, Munster (Indiana) Times, March 5, 2006


Bonus word:
– 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
– Ogden Nash


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 Maine, was starting on his meteoric career, which was destined to make him millions as owner of The Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies' Home Journal …
– 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.

light year –
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, (UK), March 9, 2006

Quoting a speaker regarding campaign donations: "There's a light-year's difference between the Hawaii Democratic party getting involved in the [Rhode Island] Senate race and Rhode Islanders giving to Rhode Islanders."
– Providence (RI) Journal, March 7, 2006

At the finish, he was .72 of a second ahead of Walchhofer — a light-year in downhill racing.
– Deseret News, UT - Feb 13, 2006


bonus word: billion – to USns, a thousand million; to UKers a million millions, which USns call a 'trillion'. That is, a UK 'billion' means what USns call a 'trillion': ten to the twelfth power.


nebula –
– 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:


This nebula of a man, so long inert, was starting slowly to evolve.
– Olivia Manning, Great Fortune


constellation –
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



False Starts and New Beginnings

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 familiar word.

apron – a protective garment covering the front of one’s 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 Indias.

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.


The 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 you
r arse'.]


'Rass, 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 prœcox 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 Iberian peninsula, and by metanalysis the al became attached as part of the word: albarcoque, al-borcoq, albricoque, albaricoque and abercoc (O.Sp; Sp.Arab; Port.; Span.; Catalan). Also abricot Fr. and albercoccia Ital.

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.



Eponyms - outrageous and/or obscure

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 Alexandria, died 373, is one of the four authoritative Creeds of Catholicism. (The others are the Apostles', Chalcedonian and Nicean Creeds.) It is included in The English Book of Common Prayer (1662), and at one time was oft recited. It is sometimes called the Quicumque Vult, after its first words in Latin.


QUICUMQUE vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem:
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 United States purchased part of Russia's vast territory in the northwest corner of the North American continent, and sent American soldiers to take possession of this vast wilderness, called 'Alaska'. Army regulations forbade any alcoholic beverages, and the soldiers they could not produce their own whiskey in illicit stills, which would be "too fragrant to conceal". (Ciardi; where accounts differ slightly I rely on Ciardi's, which seems the most apt.)

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 Alaska." This Hoochino product was called hoochino or hoochinoo, and later, during the 1890s Alaska gold rush, the name was shortened to hooch.

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

Spain's Phillip II, he of Amada fame, had a daughter Isabella. On her 1598 marriage to Austrian Archduke Albert he provided as dowry his possessions in the Netherlands, which were in revolt.

In 1601 the Austrians laid siege to Ostend. It is said that Isabella vowed not to remove her undergarments (euphemistically called 'linens') until the besiegers prevailed. If so, it was an unwise vow, for the defenders of Ostend held out for three years. You can imagine what her undergarments looked like.


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 … whitish-yellow dingy.
– 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.

Ellsworth Toohey 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 Greece. She grew rich in her trade and seems to have had a genius for publicity: she "used to promise that she would build a wall about Thebes if the Thebans would write an inscription upon it, that 'Whereas Alexander demolished it, Phryne the courtesan restored it.'" (The offer was not accepted.)

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 Greece and were assembled on the beach when Phryne advanced towards the waves: she took off her robe, she undid her girdle, she even removed her undergarment, "she unrolled all her hair and she stepped into the sea."

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."



Basketball terms used figuratively

In the US, college-basketball's annual season culminates in a nation-wide tournament that occupies the national attention for three successive weekends. This year's tournament ends next weekend, presenting the semifinal and final games. In recognition, we devote this week to figurative uses of words from basketball.

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.

jump ball –
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 … .
– Paul Ferguson, Portage (Wisconsin) Daily Register, Mar. 25, 2006


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


Negotiators for Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs, and Croats reached the agreement after US mediators mouthed a last-ditch full-court press to break a deadlock that had appeared to doom the three-week-long talks.
– 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.


airball – basketball: 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 happen, China must carefully slow an economy that continues to run at a fast-break pace. The higher interest rates should help.
– 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 on Iraq and his presidency. It was mesmerizing. One kept expecting Mr. Bush, whose deepest supporters despair at his inarticulateness, to stumble into the underbrush of confused facts or argument to nowhere. Never happened. Not once. For over an hour, it was nothing but net.
– Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 24, 2006