Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving

By Hugh Rawson

“Do you want white meat or dark meat?”

“Dark, please.”

“Would you like a drumstick?”

The key words in this snatch of dinner-table conversation – white meat, dark meat, and drumstick – are used so often when carving up a turkey at Thanksgiving that people tend to forget they are euphemisms: agreeable, round-about words employed in place of ones that are regarded as coarse or offensive. In this case, the “offensive” words are breast, thigh, and leg, words that people in polite society once avoided using, especially when women were present.

The avoidance of plain terms for bodily parts commonly is associated with the prudery of our Victorian ancestors though many of the evasions predate Her ascension to the throne in 1837.  To cite just a few examples from this euphemistically fertile period:  people started saying darn instead of damn, to employ dashes (d – – –) when writing the harsher word, to perspire instead of sweat, to wear unmentionables  instead of  trousers and breeches, to have stomachaches instead of bellyaches, to use nude rather than naked when referring to human figures in painting and sculpture, and to be laid to rest, not buried, in a cemetery (from the Greek word for “dormitory” or “sleeping place”) rather than in a graveyard. Continue reading “Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving”

The Triumph of the Long Jump

By Hugh Rawson

One of the classic track and field events in the Olympic Games is the long jump, but this is a relatively new name for what used to be known as the broad jump.  The name change was made in the 1960s, and had nothing to do with the nature of the athletic feat itself. This was strictly a case of political correctness. To begin at the beginning:

The first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included a standing broad jump and a running broad jump. (They also featured a standing high jump as opposed to a running high jump. The standing versions of both events were dropped from the Games after the fourth Olympiad in 1912.) Back then almost everyone in the English-speaking world would have described a running jump of this sort as being broad, not long. For example, reporting on an international, intercollegiate track meet in 1895 between Oxford and Yale universities, a British publication, Outing, An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation, summed up Oxford’s victory, saying, “Oxford won all the runs, the high hurdle, and tied in the high jump with Yale, losing only the weights and the broad jump.” Continue reading “The Triumph of the Long Jump”

Mind your p’s and q’s

By Trevor Bryden

What does the phrase mind your p’s and q’s mean and where does it come from? Trevor Bryden’s latest cartoon illustrates the origin of this phrase.

Continue reading “Mind your p’s and q’s”

What makes a litter?

by Trevor Bryden

The word litter has a surprisingly wide range of meanings in English. Trevor Bryden illustrates how some of them came about:

Continue reading “What makes a litter?”

Merry Xmas

by Hugh Rawson

Many people – including leading authorities on language on both sides of the Atlantic – frown on the use of Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas. For example, Eric Partridge, the British lexicographer who did so much to popularize the study of slang, declared in his book on style, Usage & Abusage, that Xmas is “barely allowable in its common use in writing and printing” and is “intolerable in the pronunciation, Exmas.”  The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language came to the same conclusion, noting that “In spite of a long and respectable history, today Xmas is offensive to many, perhaps because of its associations with advertising. It is not used in formal writing.” Continue reading “Merry Xmas”

Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes

by Hugh Rawson

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made headlines recently when rejecting criticisms of a Muslim-American whom he had nominated as a state judge. “It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background,” said the Governor. “I’m happy that he’s willing to serve after all this baloney.”

Christie’s use of baloney in the sense of “nonsense,” “rubbish,” or “foolishness,” as opposed to the kind of baloney, or  bologna sausage, that one buys in a supermarket or delicatessen, has many precedents in American politics. New York Governor Al Smith helped popularize baloney in this sense  in the 1920s and ’30s. When declining to pose with trowel in hand for a cameraman at a cornerstone-laying ceremony in 1926, Smith said “That’s just baloney. Everybody knows I can’t lay bricks.” More famously, he objected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar in 1933, saying he was “for gold dollars as against baloney dollars.” And Smith’s speeches in support of Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, included the memorable refrain, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.” Continue reading “Baloney and Other Disparaging Dishes”

Damn Yankees

by Hugh Rawson

As the baseball season opens, I am reminded that the last time I visited Paris, I left my Boston Red Sox cap at home, not wanting to look too much like a tourist. Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing more baseball caps than berets along the Seine, most of them New York Yankee caps, and many of them on French heads.  The damned Yankees seemed to be winning everywhere!

As it happens,  the word Yankee is connected intimately with American history. Popularized initially as a term of disparagement for New Englanders, it was applied by Southerners to all Northerners during the Civil War, and finally became attached to Americans generally, as in “The Yanks are coming” and, less happily, “Yankee go home.”

The origin of Yankee has been much debated. Some have claimed that  it comes from the Cherokee eankke, meaning “slave” or “coward”; others that it derives from Yengees or Yenkees, supposed mispronunciations by Native Americans of  English or Anglais. And these are just a few of the guesses that have been made. Continue reading “Damn Yankees”

Hot (Diggity) Dog

by Hugh Rawson

Hot dog may well be American’s most distinctive contribution to international cuisine, linguistically as well as actually.  The hot dog’s elevated position dates to at least June 11, 1939, when Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at their home in Hyde Park, N.Y. The menu for what was billed as a picnic luncheon that day featured ham, turkey, and “Hot Dogs (if weather permits).”

The weather did permit, and The New York Times reported on its front page the next day:

KING TRIES HOT DOG
AND ASKS FOR MORE

The King ate two hot dogs – “with gusto,” according to historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (The Queen was more wary. She attacked her hot dog and bun with knife and fork.) Still, FDR could hardly have done better. Continue reading “Hot (Diggity) Dog”

It’s All OK

by Hugh Rawson

It seems fitting to start a new blog on language with a look at the greatest contribution of American English to international discourse: the word O.K., also rendered as  OK, o.k., ok, okay, and sometimes even as okeh. In whatever form, this expression of assent,  approval, or correctness is understood nearly everywhere around the globe, from Afghanistan to Japan to Zimbabwe.

O.K. is remarkably versatile.  It can be employed as a noun (“Will you give this memo your O.K.?”), as an adjective (“It’s an O.K. memo.”), as an adverb (“It reads O.K.”), as a verb (“So I will O.K. it for you.”), or as an interjection (“O.K.! Forget about the memo.”). Depending on context, O.K. can denote positive endorsement (“Congress O.K.’d the treaty.”) or mere acceptance of the status quo (“I’m O.K. with that.”). The expression also is remarkably mutable, having evolved into such forms as oke, okey-dokey, okle-dokle, and A-OK (the last popularized in 1961 when American astronaut Alan Shepard reported the safe splashdown of his Mercury capsule in the Atlantic: “Everything’s A-OK – dye marker out.”) Continue reading “It’s All OK”