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An odd little word, or two.

Dear WD: With all this cloning business going on, I have a question. Where does the word “clone” come from? — Zoodc.

Before we start, I’d like to take a moment to encourage readers who write me via the Internet to sign their complete names to their questions, rather than their “screen names” or e-mail addresses. I like to conjure up a mental image of my readers as I write my answer, and it’s a bit difficult to picture a “zoodc.” Right now, I’m imagining someone writing to me from within the Washington, D.C., zoo, which is a bit disturbing, given the subject matter.

Well, with all this cloning business going on, I, too, have a lot of questions, some of which I probably shouldn’t ask. I understand that scientists, having cloned a sheep, have now moved on to cloning monkeys. I could ask why they skipped lawyers, but I won’t. I do, however, believe that I have discerned a pattern in these dubious endeavors, a method to the madness, which I will now share with you. Think for a moment. What do you get when you cross a sheep with a monkey? That’s right — a TV news anchorperson! They are breeding Rathers and Brokaws and Jenningses in those labs, and they must be stopped.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “clone” is an odd little word, but its origin is actually very straightforward and logical. It comes from the Greek word “klon,” meaning “twig,” and the first use of the word was in the field of botany in the early 20th century, to describe the process of growing one plant from a cutting or graft from another. Although “clone” soon came to be applied to microorganisms as well as plants, the first use of “clone” to mean an entire person or animal produced from a single parent was fairly recent, dating to 1970. One of the first figurative, non-scientific uses of “clone” was in 1979 to describe Elvis impersonators. Soon, I suppose, we’ll be reckoning with the real thing.

Between a rock and a hard place


Dear WD: I’m hoping you can answer this one for me. A friend and I were discussing the meaning of the term “Between a rock and a hard place,” and he said that he had heard that the phrase was originally “Between a rock and a hard plate.” He said that the “plate” was a steel plate attached to the bow of sailing ships to prevent damage in case the ship hit a rock. Thus the worst place to find oneself would be between the rock and this plate. Is my friend correct? — M. M., New York, NY.

Your friend certainly has come up with an interesting theory, although I don’t think I’d choose him for a sailing companion. “In case the ship hit a rock” is a bit too cavalier an approach to nautical safety for my taste.

I’m not an expert on the history of sailing, but I have never heard of such plates, though I could be wrong. It seems to me that the idea presumes that the ship would hit the rocks bow-first, which is hardly inevitable. In any case, the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place,” meaning to be in a difficult position or to be faced with a choice between two evils, does not come from any such contraption.

The phrase is nautical in origin, however, so your friend was on the right track. “Between a rock and a hard place” is a modern, non-literary variation on the much older “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Homer, in “The Odyssey” (written about 850 B.C.), describes a perilously narrow sea passage his hero must navigate between Scylla, a terrifying monster, and Charybdis, a massive whirlpool. From Homer’s time up until fairly recently, “Between Scylla and Charybdis” was a common metaphor for a perilous or difficult situation. With classical studies somewhat in eclipse these days (putting it mildly), the less demanding “Between a rock and a hard place” is far more commonly heard.

Malaprops and mondegreens


Dear WD: I enjoyed reading your article on the phrase “for all intensive purposes.” Since this is a mondegreen, is it also a malaprop? If not, what are the differences? — Warren Donowho.

Chances are good that anyone who hasn’t been reading this column religiously (shame on you!) is a bit confused by your question, so allow me to recap the story thus far as briefly as possible. A reader wrote in to ask whether a common phrase was, in fact, “for all intensive purposes.” It wasn’t, of course — the proper phrase is “for all intents and purposes.” This brought up the subject of “mondegreens,” or amusing mishearings of popular phrases and especially song lyrics. The word “mondegreen” is itself a mondegreen, coined by writer Sylvia Wright upon her mishearing of the poem stanza “They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen.”

“Malapropisms” are quite a different kettle of fish. Malapropisms take their name from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s classic 1775 play “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop’s name is derived from the French for “inappropriate” (mal a propos), and nearly every utterance she makes in the course of the play bears out that legacy. In her affected attempts to sound refined and cultured by using “sophisticated words” she doesn’t understand, Mrs. Malaprop invariably mangles them — a reference to “allegories” on the banks of the Nile River being a tame example.

Malapropisms are far from extinct, as anyone who watches television knows, and if I had a dime for every blow-dried twit who I’ve heard solemnly explain that the study of word origins is called “entomology,” I’d be writing this column from the Riviera. I would say, however, that “for all intensive purposes” is not a malapropism, since the reader who sent it in was not trying to be pretentious in using the phrase. Ultimately, it’s all a question of attitude.