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shameless pleading

Eke

A little dab will do ya.

Dear Word Detective:  I think that the word “eke” is one of the strangest words in the English language. The meaning even seems a little nebulous. What is the history on this word? — Doris Render.

“Eke” is indeed a somewhat nebulous word. One might even say “eke” is oblique by design, because you can’t be sure what is meant by someone using it. If an old friend, encountered on the street after many years, says that he “manages to eke out a living,” he could be saying he squeaks by with odd jobs, perhaps tutoring the dim spawn of investment bankers. (I know people who have done this, and it isn’t pretty.) But he also might be an investment banker himself with a nine-figure income and a warped sense of humor.

In modern usage, “eke” is almost always found in the verb phrase “to eke out,” meaning “to get by” in a task or to narrowly achieve a goal by means of extra effort, thrift, or initiative. A good 80% of uses of “eke” I found on Google News today, for instance, are in sports stories about teams who managed to “eke out” a victory in the last quarter, inning or whatever.

Although “eke” is found only in its verb form today, it started as a noun. This “eke” meant “an addition, an increase” or “something added on.” The noun “eke” originally appeared in Old English, where it was used to mean reinforcements for troops in the field. The roots of “eke” lie in the Proto-Germanic “aukan,” which also eventually gave us the English “augment.”

“Eke” as a verb originally meant literally “to increase, to lengthen,” a sense which lives on in the use of “eke” or “eke out” to mean “to pad a speech or piece of writing in order to fill up time or meet a quota of words,” a device familiar to any student assigned a term paper (“To eke out any thing, signifies to lengthen it beyond its just dimensions by some low artifice.” Samuel Johnson, 1747).

Outside of the Sports pages or election returns, most of us probably rarely encounter “eke,” but nearly anyone who speaks English is familiar with a descendant of “eke,” albeit one disguised a bit by its own history.

A “nickname” is an “additional” name given to (or adopted by) a person. It may be a familiar form of their proper name (e.g., Chuck for Charles, Bill for William, etc.) or may be drawn from an avocation, hobby or distinguishing act or characteristic of the person. Nicknames exist in most human cultures, and in English they came to be known, in the 13th century, as “eke-names” or “ekenames,” names which were “added” to one’s existing name. Thus one would refer to one’s friend by an “ekename” such as “Moose” or “Binky.” Over the centuries, however, the “n” from “an” drifted over to the front of “ekename,” giving us “a nekename,” and eventually “a nickname.” This common linguistic process, called “metanalysis,” also transformed “a napron” (from the Old French “naperon,” tablecloth) into “an apron” during the same period.

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