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shameless pleading






It digs me.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a child in the 50’s in New York City (Harlem and the South Bronx), we used the word “chew” to express our bad reaction to having heard certain sounds. The most famous (infamous?) sound that produces a bad reaction in people is the one made when fingernails are scraped along a chalkboard. What used to “chew” me the most was the sound produced when two vinyl records were rubbed together. It didn’t chew others I was with, just me. It would still chew me today, if not for the near extinction of vinyl records. Certain silky vinyl jackets and coats make a similar sound when one part rubs against another. It irritates me and I can’t stand to hear it. Thus, it “chews” me. When we would hear such a sound we would say, “That chews me” and then try to stop the sound or get away from it. One time I heard that “vinyl” sound coming from outside my window. When I looked outside, it was only the high pitched barking of a very small dog. When I saw that it was a dog and not vinyl records rubbing or someone’s silky vinyl clothing, the sound no longer “chewed” me. Same sound but knowing it was from a different source negated any reaction. I have no idea why we used that particular word in that context. I looked in my copy of the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (published in 1971) and found no reference to that use of the word “chew.” Have you ever heard of this meaning of the word? — Langston Hough.


Please stop.

No, but I really like it. It’s perfect for describing the feeling that you’ll go mad if the sound doesn’t stop. I also share your aversion to that “rubbing vinyl” sound. I haven’t heard two records rub against each other in decades, but just thinking about the sound puts my teeth on edge. If I had a dog that made that sound, I wouldn’t have a dog.

“Chew” is, as you would expect, a very old word. We inherited our modern word “chew” from the Old English “ceowan,” meaning “to bite or chew,” but the ultimate roots of the word lie way back in the Indo-European origins of English itself. Along with the literal uses of “chew” to mean “bite,” “gnaw” or “masticate food,” English has developed a range of figurative uses for “chew.” Most of these invoke a sense of considering or discussing an idea, development or just the state of the world, as in “chewing the fat” with your friends. (Even when we use the fancier word “ruminate” for the same thoughtful process, we’re referring to the animals we call “ruminants,” such as cows, chewing their cud.)

But we also use “chew” in a less contemplative, more painful sense to mean “severely criticize or scold,” as in the phrase “chew out,” originally military slang but now common in the civilian workplace. Similarly, we say that troubles or worries “chew” (or “gnaw”) on us. And, since the 1920s, we have said that something we simply find extremely annoying “chews” us (“What’s chewing you, kid? … This ain’t none of your business,” 1926). This may, of course, simply be an extension of the “scold” and “worry” meanings of “chew,” but I’d be surprised if it had not been influenced by the sense of something, perhaps a flea or louse, literally “chewing” on the sufferer.

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