Flu, Radio, Stumped, Thon, Frank & Ernest, Momentarily, Curate's Egg, Salver, Tout and Sleeping Tight

Posted 12/15/96

That Goatnosed Feeling

Dear Evan: I recently came across the enclosed advertisement for a book called "How Not to Catch a Cold" in The New York Times Book Review. As you can see, the author feels quite strongly that the accepted derivation of the word "influenza" is wrong: "Influenza ... is a corruption of the Arabic word 'anfalanza.' 'Anf' in Arabic means nose and 'Al-anza' means the goat. A coughing, drooling, nose-dripping goat is said to have 'anfalanza.' ... The American Heritage Dictionary specifies the Latin 'influentia' meaning 'influence' as the origin of the word ... that doesn't make sense.... The goatnosed condition applies more firmly and believably." What do you think? -- K. Wollard, New York, NY.

 Well, I think I'm not likely to buy this fellow's book anytime soon -- if his theories about colds are on a par with his theories about the word "influenza," I'd probably be sneezing and sniffling until the turn of the century. I should note, by the way, that I've got a good head start already -- as I type this I'm suffering from a doozie of a cold, so you might not want to get too close to the newspaper.

Our opinionated goat-fancier might find the "influence" derivation of "influenza" a bit more "believable" if he spent some time investigating why every major etymological authority finds it so convincing. "Influencia" in Medieval Latin meant more than "influence" -- based on "fluere" ("to flow"), "influencia" was thought to be a fluid or emanation given off by certain stars that governed human affairs. Our modern word "disaster" comes from the same sort of ancient belief in the calamitous influence of evil ("dis") stars ("astra").

By the time the Latin "influencia" became the Italian word "influenza," an "influenza" could be almost any kind of epidemic or plague blamed on the stars. Epidemics of a variety of diseases (scarlet fever, for instance) were referred to as "influenzas." One particularly severe outbreak of the cold-like disease we now call "the flu" struck Italy in 1743 and spread throughout Europe. Known originally as "influenza di catarro" ("catarrh epidemic"), the illness came to be called simply "influenza," as it has been ever since. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to pop out to the barn for a moment. I think I just heard a goat sneeze.

No Soap

Dear Mr. Morris: My "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" devotes almost a page in definitions and derivatives of the word "radio." However, I cannot locate the origins of the word. Point me in the right direction if you are so inclined. -- C. W. Wilson, via the Internet.

Inclined? Certainly. In fact, if I were any more inclined, I'd be entirely horizontal. I've often wondered, to pursue this tilt for a moment, when computer designers are going to get wise to the fact that what the average user really wants in a computer is not more glitzy software or "blazingly fast" chips.  What we really want is a computer built into one of those full-tilt living-room recliners, with a little tray for snacks and a remote control. And maybe a mouse you can click with your toes. That would be real progress.

Oh, well, time to sit up straight and answer the question. Following your lead, I looked up "radio" in the Shorter Oxford, and you're right -- it's no help at all. It says that "radio" comes from the Latin "radius," but doesn't even explain what "radius" means, which is "stick" or "staff." If that bit of information doesn't seem like much help, let me hasten to add that "radius" has a secondary meaning of "spoke of a wheel." Now we're getting somewhere. The metaphor of wheel-spokes was very useful when it came time in the 14th century to name the phenomenon of streams of energy emanating from a central source. Thus we dubbed them "rays," giving us the basis for naming "light rays," "x-rays" and several other kinds of "radiation." Modern physics doesn't talk too much about "rays" these days, having decided that wrangling over "waves" and "particles" is more fun, but you'll still find "ray" in the names of certain kinds of radiation.

"Radio," coined in the early 20th century, is actually a shortened form of the original moniker -- "radiotelegraphy." The first practical use of radio (also known even today in Britain as "wireless") transmission was to emulate the unmodulated dots and dashes of conventional "wire" telegraphy. It was only after the technology had progressed to the stage of allowing the sending of voice, music and, of course, commercials, that the name was shortened to just "radio."

Ninety-nine Thump

Dear Evan: I was wondering if you happen to know the origin of the phrase "I'm stumped." It's been a question without an answer for many months among my friends. -- Chris & Steve Dahlquist-Abrams, via the Internet.

Say, just a minute here. Exactly how many of you are asking this question, anyway? That's a pretty funny "I" you've got going there. So far I count two names, but as far as I know, you've got a bunch of your friends hidden in the trunk, trying to sneak into this column without buying their own tickets. Oh, well, the more the merrier, I suppose. Come on in, but mind the furniture and please don't track those dubious pronouns all over the carpet.

 So, stumped by "stumped," are we? It's really a fairly simple story. "Stump" as a verb meaning "to frustrate, baffle, puzzle or render at a loss" comes from "stump," the noun, which itself comes from the old German word "stumpf." There are several kinds of "stumps" in the English language, but all of them stem from the primary sense of the word, which is, as the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "The part remaining when a limb or other part of the body is amputated or severed." By metaphorical extension, "stump" has come to mean the part left behind when nearly anything from a pencil to a sailboat mast has been worn down or broken off. But the answer to your question lies in "stump" used for "The projecting portion of the trunk of a felled or fallen tree that remains fixed in the ground." That's right -- the run-of-the-mill, inconvenient and unmovable tree stump.

Now what does the average person do when in the vicinity of a tree stump? One might be tempted to say, "Climb up on it and make a political speech," which is, in fact, the origin of phrases such as "stump speech" and "on the stump." But the average person doesn't make a speech on a stump -- he or she stumbles over it. Middle English even had a verb for it -- "stumpen," meaning "to stumble, as if over a tree stump" -- which became our verb "to stump" which has so perplexed all of you.


Dear Evan: In one of your columns recently, you were discussing the origin of the word "landscape" and made a reference to how "scape" has been appended to words to mean looking at, etc., as in seascape, or Netscape (ha!).  This reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend of mine about how "thon" is appended to a lot of words, to mean something long or a race of sorts, as in "phone-a-thon" or "telethon." My friend asserted that these words derived from the erroneous assumption that the "thon" in the word "marathon" meant something. He then pointed out that the same thing has happened with "holic," from alcoholic, and now we have chocoholics, workaholics, and the like. First I would like to know if my friend is correct about these two examples, and then I would like to ask if there is a term that explains this phenomena. I see it happening now with "palooza" -- because of the successful series of rock music festivals called "Lollapalooza," everything is now "something-a-palooza." Can you help? -- Kris Markman, via the Internet.

Run for your lives -- it's the Invasion of the Cookie-Cutter Suffixes! Your friend is absolutely right about the "thon" phenomenon. Here we are, up to our necks in walkathons and bikeathons and dog-frisbee-catch-a-thons, but "thon" by itself really doesn't mean a darn thing. All these formations have been based on the word "marathon," meaning a 26-mile foot race. But the original Marathon wasn't a thing -- it was a place in Ancient Greece where the Greeks defeated the Persians in an important battle in 490 B.C. It was the heroic effort of Pheidippedes, the Greek messenger who ran the 26 miles between Marathon and Athens carrying the news of the victory that gave the name "marathon" to a long race or ordeal.

Offhand, I can't think of a general term for this linguistic phenomenon, but it seems to have started with "telethon," which dates all the way back to the dawn of television itself in the late 1940's. Personally, I'd put up with a hundred more "thons" if we could just lose "gate," as in "Troopergate" and "Filegate," to name just two recent examples. There have, of course, been dozens of such "gates" inflicted on us over the years since the Watergate scandal by the "gate-aholic" media, with no end in sight. Perhaps we should just give up and call the whole phenomenon "gate-a-thon."

The Importance of Frank and Ernest

It recently occurred to me that it might be interesting to conduct a scientific survey of the readers of this column -- you know, find out your likes and dislikes, color preferences, bank balances, that sort of thing. Since all the big polling firms were busy taking surveys to determine why no one pays any attention to their surveys anymore, I was forced to fall back on tea leaves and a dusty ouija board for my study, but, in any case, the results were striking. My average reader has, according to my data, 1.5 cars, 6.3 television sets (for shame!), and 3.25 children.

 I don't know what kind of mileage you folks get in that 1/2 car, but the revelation that there were all those kiddies in close proximity to my column set me to thinking. Why not get the little ones interested in something intellectual at an early age, before all those televisions you're harboring rot their tiny minds beyond repair? Why not, in fact, get the little munchkins interested in learning about words and language as soon as they can read?

No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than a friend drew my attention to two remarkably nifty books for very young children. Written and illustrated by Alexandra Day, "Frank and Ernest" and "Frank and Ernest Play Ball" (Scholastic) recount the adventures of two friends -- Frank (a bear) and Ernest (an elephant) -- as they run other people's businesses while the owners go on vacation. In the first book, the duo takes over the operation of a diner, while in the second, they run a baseball team for a week.

Both books are beautifully written and illustrated, but better yet, in a stroke of brilliance, Ms. Day has made the focus of each story the process of Frank and Ernest learning the specialized jargon of each of their temporary occupations. They learn to say "mats" for pancakes, "popeye" for spinach, and "houseboat" for banana split, for instance, in their diner adventure, and baseball teaches them the lingo of the dugout, including "phenom," "payoff pitch" and "scroogie." These are wonderful books, and I hope Alexandra Day continues the series.

Quality Time

Dear Evan: I suppose changes to the meanings of words are inevitable, if sometimes irritating. Am I correct that the word "momentarily" used to just mean "lasting for a moment?" And that the medium of television has corrupted it through interminable misuse of it as "in a moment" as in "we'll be returning to Baywatch momentarily"? Of course, with the number of commercials during a typical broadcast, perhaps they DO mean it in the sense that I always understood it. -- Ed Stevens, via the Internet.

 My, what an interesting question. And we'll be back to answer it momentarily, right after these messages.

Scared you, didn't I? Ordinarily, I'd be the last one to defend television's frequently, uh, creative use of the English language, but in this case I'll have to turn the tube loose, because the use of "momentarily" to mean "in a moment" is neither wrong nor new. "Momentarily" can mean either "in a moment" or, as you remember it, "for a moment." Both forms are correct, and have been for a long, long time. It is true that the earliest example of "momentarily," dating to 1654, uses the word in the "for a moment" sense, but both senses have been used for centuries, although both were fairly rare until the early 20th century. Instead, people more often used the now-extinct form "momently," which could mean "in a moment," "for a moment," and, just to confuse things a bit more, "from moment to moment" or "constantly," as in "We waited at the bus stop, expecting the bus momently."

When "momentarily" took over from "momently" in popular usage in the early 20th century, the "for a moment" sense of "momentarily" was the first to appear, but the "in a moment" sense was hot on its heels. The "constantly" sense of "momently" didn't really make the jump to "momentarily," for which we should all be grateful.

So both senses of "momentarily" are correct, and, fortunately, it's usually fairly easy to judge which meaning is meant by the context. Of course, in the case of television, I agree with your suspicion that they mean "momentarily" in both senses -- they will be back in a moment, but for just a moment before the next commercial appears.

Wry Back Pages

Every so often, someone will ask me, "So, Evan, what do you do in your spare time?" This is an easy question to answer since I have no spare time, but if I did, I would say "Why, I hang out at newsstands." Newsstands are a passion of mine, and I realized recently that the abundance of newsstands in New York City is, in fact, the only truly plausible reason to live here.

 The reason I mention all this is that I noticed on a recent visit to my local newsstand that the classic British humor magazine Punch, having died a few years back from anemic circulation, has evidently been resuscitated. The new Punch, I discovered, is a pleasant enough read, but lacks the quirky edge of the original magazine. The new editors have, however, almost made up for the magazine's blandness by instituting a feature called the Punch Archive, wherein they reprint cartoons from the golden age of Punch in the late 19th and early 20th century.

One of the cartoons reprinted in the first issue of the new Punch I picked up was a genuine classic by George du Maurier, not only a funny cartoon in its own right, but the source of a remarkably durable and pungent English metaphor. First published in 1895 and titled "True Humility," it shows a young curate dining with his wealthy Bishop. The host observes that his guest has been accidentally served a bad egg, to which the curate replies, "Oh no, My Lord. I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"

The joke is, of course, that such a thing is impossible -- a rotten egg is 100 percent rotten and utterly inedible -- but the curate is so afraid of offending his host and possibly damaging his career that he is willing to eat the egg anyway.

DuMaurier's tag line, "Parts of it are excellent!", caught the popular ear at the turn of the century, and "a curate's egg" soon became a metaphor for a bad situation that someone persists in trying to salvage with misplaced or phony optimism. "A curate's egg" is still heard occasionally today, often incorrectly explained as meaning something that simply has both good and bad qualities. But that definition blunts the refreshing insight -- that Pollyannas are often ludicrous opportunists -- of George DuMaurier's classic cartoon.

C'mon, kitty, cats love eggplant

Dear Evan: I recently received a mail-order catalog offering, among other things I don't need, "vintage salvers" gleaned from the "famous clubs of West End London." The "salvers" are small silver plates, each bearing the club's insignia. At $150 per plate, I don't plan on buying too many of these, but I'm curious: where does the term "salver" come from? -- K.W., Columbus, OH.

When you really stop to think about just what's involved in obtaining those "salvers," the price doesn't seem so unreasonable. After all, there's the special jacket with extra-deep pockets to be commissioned, the bribe to the club steward, and, don't forget, the rental for the getaway car. At least that's how I got mine. They're perfect for feeding the cats, incidentally -- they make the little fellows feel really special.

 Of course, the whole point of "salvers" is to make someone feel special, whether a household pet or a doddering London club member being served his brandy on one. Most of us only encounter the broad flat plates called "salvers" at parties, where they are often used to serve canap s or appetizers.

The word "salver" itself comes from the French "salve," in turn based on the Latin "salvare," meaning "to save." You sometimes hear that "salvers" are so named because they "save" one's clothes or carpet from spills, but the actual derivation is slightly more dramatic than that. "Salvers" were originally the platters used to serve food or drink to a monarch after it had been sampled by the official court taster and certified as free of poison.

Official tasters have become pass in the last century or so, but perhaps they'll make a comeback now that scientists have decided that almost everything we eat is bad for us even if it isn't deliberately poisoned. I just hope my cats don't get the idea that I'm going to start testing their food for them. It's their job to test mine.

It's the bats that keep me awake

Dear Evan: A fellow member of the Copyediting Digest steered me to your web site when I queried my cohorts about the origin of "sleep tight." I've looked in several sources and the best I found was a children's nursery rhyme or song that included the line "Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite." I'd appreciate any insight you might have on this phrase. -- Julia DeGraf, Evanston, IL.

 Bed bugs? Not in my house. When I was growing up, my parents used to tuck us away with "Sleep tight and don't let the IRS bite." Granted, it doesn't fit as well as "bedbugs," but it made more sense in our house and turned out to be sound advice for later life.

According to etymologist Eric Partridge, the catch phrase "sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite" is the American version of a British "children's goodnight" which differs only in that it specifies "fleas" as the critters to be avoided. Partridge traced the phrase back to the late 19th or early 20th century, although he speculates that it may actually be much older, since, he notes, "This is the type of phrase that ... escapes the attention of lexicographers, even light-hearted ones."

As to where "sleep tight" itself came from, the Oxford English Dictionary lists "tight" in this sense as a form of the adverb "tightly," meaning "soundly." Although this "tight" could once be applied to anything done thoroughly, the OED notes that the only modern usage is in the phrase "sleep tight."

As a former child myself, I cannot fail to note the double-edged quality of "sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite" as a bedtime farewell. No one I've ever met sleeps soundly after having been reminded of bedbugs. I submit that the phrase is, in fact, probably the diabolical invention of a child, and (judging by my personal experience), most likely an older sister.

Highly-touted tooters

Dear Evan: My question has to do with the word "tout." I've heard it pronounced both "toot" and rhyming with "out" -- which is correct? While we're at it, where did it come from? -- Sandra Goldman, Queens, NY.

 The "rhymes with out" pronunciation is correct. The only reason I can think of for the "toot" pronunciation would be confusion on the speaker's part between "tout" (as in a "highly-touted" product) and "tooting one's own horn." Since the most common modern meaning of "tout" is "to promote or praise energetically," we might say that to "tout" oneself is also to "toot one's own horn," but there is no relation between the two words. Among other things, "toot" is what linguists call an "imitative" word, which is just a fancy way of saying that the word arose as an imitation of a sound, just as did "meow" and "woof."

"Tout," on the other hand, has a far more roundabout origin. The prehistoric Germanic root of "tout" meant "something that pokes out," especially "a funnel or spout." From this rather vague beginning, the word gradually shifted its meaning by the 18th century from "something that pokes out" to mean "someone who pokes into things" -- in other words, a spy. A "racing tout" was a spy who surreptitiously observed the training of racehorses in the hope of gleaning valuable information which could then be sold to bookmakers. In many cases, the "tout" and the bookmaker were one and the same, and racetracks were usually rife with platoons of "touts," each claiming to have inside information on the condition of the horses. Over time, the verb "to tout" came to mean "loudly promoting one's business or product," especially in an annoying fashion.

Today's verb "to tout," almost always found in the phrase "highly touted," is an inherently skeptical word -- the implication is that the product cannot possibly measure up to its advertisements.

Take me back to the main Word Detective page.

Take me to the Index of back columns.

Internet Link Exchange
Member of the Internet Link Exchange

All contents Copyright © 1996 by Evan Morris.