When my dad’s listening to the radio, he likes to say, “They’re serving up another plate of balderdash and baloney.” When I was little I figured that was sort of like corn beef and cabbage. In my mind, balderdash was actually a mixture of cabbage and corn and mashed potatoes.
I was wrong, of course. Balderdash means ridiculous, illogical, exaggerated talk. I guess it’s more polite than some things you could say. But here’s something really interesting: back in 1590 in England, it meant a mish-mash of different drinks, including alcohol. For example, a mixture of beer and milk could be balderdash. It sounds pretty bad - and ridiculous and illogical.
And how about baloney? It means “foolish nonsense.” Of cours, everyone knows baloney is also a kind of luncheon meat. It’s a brand of sausage that originally came from the Italian city of Bologna. I don’t know how sausage came to mean “foolish nonsense.” Maybe it’s because it’s foolish to grind up perfectly good meat and make it into a kind of pinkish, bland, cold, slimy… well, you get the idea.
So don’t you think that’s interesting, that two different words for “foolish talk” both come from unappetizing, mixed up food?
But if you actually like baloney sandwiches, I apologize. I wasn’t trying to criticize your taste in food.
Launch sounds like what it means. Say it: it starts with a slow descent, like a boat sliding down a track at the shore. LAU…N… Then all at once you’re there: CH. The boat hits the water and rocks for a moment. Small waves slap the sides. The boat is in another place now. It’s on its way.
You can launch a boat, launch a career, launch a friendship. With all of them, there’s this sense of a push toward the moment and then, suddenly, it goes.
You can also launch a rocket. The meaning is the same, but to me, the sound doesn’t work as well. Launching a rocket is too noisy. The word should be something more like “lashrogashrogaroar-nch” for all those roaring engines. (I admit that doesn’t sound very practical.) Sadly, you can also launch a weapon.
Launching a weapon is probably closest to the original meaning. Launch comes from the Old French lancier, meaning to fling or to hurl. Further back, it comes from the
Latin lancea, which means a light spear. Think of a lance, or think of Lancelot hurling lances at evil knights. By the 1400’s, according to the Etymology Dictionary, the word was being used to describe setting a boat afloat.
Here’s a weird thing. The word launch can also be used as a noun to describe a heavy open or partially decked boat with either oars or an engine… but that meaning has a different origin. They think it comes from Portuguese (lancha), where it meant a “large boat carried on a warship.” The Portuguese word came from the Malay lanchar, which meant quick and agile. I can just see the Portuguese sailors in the seas around Malaysia, and Malaysian pirates launching their quick and agile boats to attack.
Hmm, launch really does seem to have warlike origins on both land and sea. But let’s forget about that and think of launching in the sense of plunging in and setting out.
Today is the launch of the second edition of Lost in Lexicon, the story of my adventures with my cousin Ivan in a magical land. I invite you all to plunge in and set out with us on the journey.
I am nonplussed. Nonplussed means all the things in my title, plus bewildered, confounded, disconcerted and at a loss. What am I nonplussed about? Why, the word nonplussed, that’s what.
Take a look at that word. If you had to choose its root, you would take off the non and the -ed ending, and you’d be left with plus, which means adding. So obviously nonplussed should refer to something that’s not added, or maybe even to two things that can’t be added together (though perhaps the word for that would be “nonplussable.” For example, here’s a sentence: “I know she has a great kick and is also a super sweet person, but really those attributed are nonplussed in the middle of a soccer game.” (Because, see, being a super sweet person doesn’t do anything to help you win once the game has begun.)
Instead nonplussed has to mean put out, put off stride, or as my griend would say, “confuzzled.”
Are there other tricky words pretending to be math words when they’re not? How about minuscule? (Everybody thinks it’s miniscule, as in “mini,” but it’s not.) Minuscule means very small.
Can you think of others?
Today in my hot, hot school seat - I’m sorry to say this, but little drops of sweat dripped off my temples onto the desktop - I thought about jumping off a high rock and plunging into a cool pond. Plunge! What a great word. To me it sounds like what it means.
Think of it. You leap. you fly up a little way, then you plummet toward the water. Your toes break the surface. That’s the “pl” sound in plunge: the sound of your toes, your feet, piercing the surface of the water.
Then comes the “unge.” Feel how long it takes to say that. That’s the part where you’re descending deep into the water. Bubbles are whooshing around your ears. You surge to your deepest point, and then, as the word plunge ends you reverse direction, and begin to bob toward the surface again. You’re cool, you’ve been washed clean, your sweaty sticky skin is all washed clean and alive again. You climb out, and before long, you’re ready for another plunge.
Anonymous asked: flibbertigibbet
Ooh. A lovely word. The first thing to figure out is that the g in flibbertigibbet sounds like j, so you pronounce it “flibberty-jibbet.” To me it sounds like the way a butterfly looks, flying in a jerky, fluttery way. Maybe a flibbertigibbet could be a magical flying creature you see only at dusk, and if you catch it it will give you one small wish.
But according to the dictionary, a flibbertigibbet is a chatty, gossipy, silly, flighty sort of person. Nobody is quite sure where the word came from, but in the 16th century it was sometimes used as the name of a demon. A demon! I guess being foolish and gossipy was a bigger deal in the 16th century than it is now.
I did look up a word that shows up inside flibbertigibbet to see if it would give any clues. The word is “gibbet,” and it turns out to be a nasty word. A gibbet was a kind of scaffolding like in the old word game hangman, with a horizontal pole sticking out from a vertical one. They used to hang executed criminals in chains from the gibbet until their bodies rotted, as a warning to others.
Well, in the New England colonies, gossips used to be dunked in the dunking chair, plunged into the cold water. That sounds unpleasant, but I’d still rather be dunked for being a flibbertigibbet than end up hanging from a gibbet.
I’m suspicious about the word “suspicious.” It just doesn’t seem to be playing by the same rules as other words. Think about it. The root it comes from is “suspect,” right? If you suspect everyone, you’re a suspicous person. If everyone suspects you, you’re probably a suspicious character doing suspicious things.
Well, at the root of “suspicious” is spect, which means “to look at,” and is also found in words like spectrum, inspect, and respect. But none of them play the same tricks. You never heard of someone who respects everyone being called “respicious” or or somebody who’s always getting inspected being called “inspicious.” Instead you get “respectful” and… I don’t know.
So why suspicous? What do you think? Do you hear all the hissing in that word? It practically makes you twist your face in distaste to say it. I think the word sounds as if it belongs sneaking around in the shadows.
What is unusual about the following short sentences or phrases? Can you write one of your own that fits the pattern?
Yes, that’s the answer to what’s unusual about the paragraph below. It contains no e’s. At least I don’t think it does, and I checked it about a million times. It takes some work to write a paragraph without e’s, because e is the most common letter in English. For example, this paragraph right here has 23. Try writing your own.
Can you distinguish what is unusual about this paragraph? It’s short, but that’s not it. A particular quality of this chunk of writing marks it as a statistical anomaly – that is, as atypical. Not many paragraphs that you run into will contain this particular trait. In fact, I think you would find it difficult to construct such a paragraph on your own. If you know what I’m talking about, post your matching paragraph. If not, I’ll inform you all in a post two days from now.