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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Redolent

Smells like a trend.

Dear Word Detective: In the past three weeks, having read three different novels by three different authors (That’s a lot of threes, isn’t it?), I have come across the usage of the word “redolent” in all of them. Although 70 years old and fairly well educated, I must admit that neither I nor any of my friends have ever used this word before. I am sure I must be making “a mountain out of a mole hill,” but considering its frequent use lately, I am wondering if the word is the new darling of the literati (I can just visualize the author sitting there with his/her thesaurus open). I firmly believe in increasing one’s vocabulary and consequently have added this word to mine, but the seeming over-use of the word tends to render it somewhat trite and artificial to me. Or is it just my provincial Midwestern roots coming to the fore? — John E. Bowles.

Well, mountains have to come from somewhere, don’t they? Think of all the brave little moles it took to make the Himalayas.

I understand your skepticism about the apparent sudden affection for “redolent” among writers. A search of Google News produces 214 hits for the word at the moment (versus 902,000 on plain old Google), and I would bet that the count for “redolent” in news stories a few years ago would have been near zero. I too am annoyed by vogue words and phrases that whoosh in from nowhere and are suddenly popping up in one’s face every few minutes. I was ready to mount a campaign to outlaw “at the end of the day” when it swamped the airwaves and magazine racks a few years ago, but pundits are fickle critters and the phrase faded away before I had a chance.

On the other hand, I’m sort of fond of “redolent.” I’ve used it several times in this column over the years (“They were lovely big dill pickles, crisp and pungent, redolent of garlic and onion and the teeming germs from countless grubby little hands”), and I love the rolling sound of the word: RED-oh-lent.

“Redolent,” from the Latin “redolere” meaning “to emit a smell,” literally means “to smell of something.” While that odor was presumed to be pleasant in the 15th century when “redolent” first appeared in English, today a person or place can be “redolent” of unpleasant things as well. More importantly, “redolent” has also developed a figurative sense meaning “strongly suggestive or reminiscent of” a quality or feeling, whether good or bad (“On every side Oxford is redolent of age and authority,” 1856). While some uses in this sense have become trite (“redolent of wealth,” for instance, is a deadly cliche), I think it’s still a useful word.

Brainiac

And lots and lots of pens.

Dear Word Detective: My office is having a raging argument over the creation of the word “Brainiac.” One side says that the 1958 Superman comic coined the term, with the other side claims it was derived from the first computer, ENIAC. Any thoughts? — Mike McIntyre.

Raging argument over Brainiac, eh? Well, whatever floats your boat. People in an office where I worked many years ago conducted a running feud in which everyone accused everyone else of stealing their chairs, keyboards and desk accessories, day after day. The office eventually resembled a holding pen for lunatics after people began scrawling “Evelyn’s chair” and the like in Wite-Out on everything in an attempt to discourage theft. It didn’t work, of course. In fact, I still, evidently, have Dave’s tape dispenser.

The short answer to your question is that both sides are right, more or less. “Brainiac” was indeed a character introduced in Action Comics as a “supervillain” opponent of Superman in 1958. Evidently in the years since then there have been several modifications made to the “Brainiac” character and his “backstory,” and the page dedicated to “Brainac” at Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) details the evolution of Brainiac in what strikes me as mind-numbing detail (“Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe”?). Then again I’m probably the only kid in America who threw out his own comic books when he hit sixteen.

Evidently, however, when the folks at DC Comics introduced their new character, there was already a “Brainiac” on the market, a small kit for building rudimentary computers, aimed at home experimenters. A 1964 note from DC editors explains: “Shortly after the first ‘Brainiac’ story appeared in Action Comics in 1956, we learned that a real ‘Brainiac’ existed..in the form of an ingenious ‘Brainiac Computer Kit’ invented in 1955 by Edmund C. Berkeley. In deference to his ‘Brainiac’ which pre-dates ours,..we are changing the characterization of our ‘Brainiac’ so that the master-villain will henceforth possess a computer personality.’” I’m not sure why they cited 1956 as Brainiac’s first appearance; all my other sources say 1958. Perhaps the folks who wrote “Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe” would care to sort that out.

In any case, the DC folks apparently derived “Brainiac” by blending “brain” with “maniac,” and only later, as noted above, was Brainiac depicted as being computer-like. The name of the Brainiac kit, however, was clearly modeled on ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first truly practical large-scale computer put into operation in 1946 and employed in the design of the hydrogen bomb.

“Brainiac” has also, since the mid-1970s, come into use, often in a derogatory sense, as slang for someone perceived as very intelligent, roughly synonymous with “nerd.”

Fine-feathered friend

Just don’t ever moult.

Dear Word Detective: I saw this on Ken Jenning’s website (www.ken-jennings.com) — he was looking for the origin of a phrase in his blog:

Etymology help! In an Eric Rohmer short story I was reading last night, some French expression had been translated as “my fine-feathered friend.” That’s right, with the hyphen. So my whole life, I’ve been assuming that a “fine feathered friend” is one who is both fine and feathered. Could it be that the hyphen is actually correct, and the expression is limited to a friend with fine feathers (i.e., not coarse ones)? The Web has been little help here: Google Book Search shows more hits for no-hyphen, but many of the hyphenated examples are older, more literary, or otherwise seem more likely to be correct. The expression goes back at least to “My Fine Feathered Friend” (no hyphen), an ornithologically themed 1937 standard later made a hit by Glenn Miller, but did the phrase pre-date the song? And did it originate as a way to refer to birds, or humans? In other words, what’s it for? –Anonymous.

Yikes. I went to look for the lyrics to “My Fine Feathered Friend,” but nearly every site I found prompted a warning from Google about the site being a menace to my computer. Evidently lyrics sites are a major source of spyware and the like. Anyway, the lyrics are purportedly birdy but obviously applicable to humans as well: “I’ll make just one request, my sweet chickadee, Don’t find some cuckoo’s nest and fly out on me, We do belong together, what do you intend? You’ve got me up a tree, my fine feathered friend.”

“Fine-feathered,” with a hyphen, was definitely the original form, and its first known appearance predates Glenn Miller’s recording by nearly 200 years, occurring in Robert Patlock’s decidedly odd 1751 novel “The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins.” Patlock’s story is the tale of a traveler, reminiscent of Swift’s Gulliver, who wanders into an underground world inhabited by flying people, one of whom he marries. While I don’t have a copy of the book, it seems probable that “fine-feathered friend” is used in reference to this bird-woman, Youwarkee, and, given that this hyphenated form seems to be the original, the “fine” would refer to the “feathers” and not the “friend.”

It also seems likely that he meant “fine” in the sense of “beautiful” rather than simply “not coarse.” There was also, at the time, a popular proverb, “Fine feathers make fine birds” (meaning that good clothes “make” the person), which undoubtedly influenced Patlock and makes his use of the phrase (if indeed in praise of his flying fiancée) a nicely done pun.

So, to sum up, “fine-feathered friend” seems to have been, all along, a compliment to humans by allusion to a bird with beautiful plumage. The loss of the hyphen over time has simply clouded a very nice metaphor.