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Just a taste.

Dear Word Detective:  What is a “skiff” of snow?  What is derivation of the word “skiff”? — James S. Bow.

That’s a good question.  Since we’re on the subject, what ever became of snow?  I know it snows in places like Michigan and upstate New York, but we live in Central Ohio, and it almost never really snows here.  Of course, I define “really” in terms of my childhood in Connecticut, where it would snow three or four feet at a time and you could build totally awesome snow forts that would last for weeks.  Here anything more than four inches is considered a big deal, and I haven’t been able to build a decent fort in years.

As a matter of fact, we seem to be enjoying, if that’s the word, a “skiff” of snow even as I write this.*  It’s snowing, but so lightly that you have to look twice to be sure.  The end result will be about an eighth of an inch of snow, just enough to make the snow and ice already on the ground fresh, fuzzy and lethally slippery.  So a “skiff” of snow is a light flurry or cover of snow, but you can also have “skiffs,” light showers, of rain, or even a “skiff” of light wind.

The first thing to occur to most people on hearing this use of “skiff” is whether the snow-shower sort of “skiff” might somehow be related to “skiff” meaning a small, light boat of the sort often carried by larger ships for various purposes (ferrying passengers to shore, etc.).  After all, the nautical “skiff” has the same relation in size to the larger ship as a light “skiff” of snow would bear to a real snowstorm.  Alas, metaphor fans, such is not the case.  The nautical “skiff” is not related to the snow “skiff.”  The boat “skiff,” which first appeared in English in the late 16th century, comes from the French “esquif,” which in turn was derived from the Old High German “scif,” meaning “ship,” which came from the same ancient Germanic root that gave us the word “ship” itself.  A slight detour through Dutch at one point also gave us the word “skipper” for the captain of a ship.

The “snow” kind of “skiff” comes from an entirely different source.  The noun “skiff” is drawn from the Scots verb “to skiff,” meaning “to move lightly and quickly, barely touching the surface” (“Neat she was … As she came skiffing o’er the dewy green,” 1725) or “to glide or skim” (“Rude storms assail the mountain’s brow That lightly skiff the vale below,” 1807).  Just where this verb “to skiff” came from is a mystery, but it seems to be related to the verb “to scuff” in the sense of “to brush against something lightly.” “Scuff” is at least partly onomatopoeic or “echoic” in origin, formed in imitation of the sound of the action.


* This column was originally published in January 2009, when you would have been able to read it if you were a subscriber.


Birdbrain 2.0

Dear Word Detective:  Where did “twitterpated” come from?  I understand it to mean “being quite silly in love, as a teenager.” —  Carol Campbell.

That’s a good question, but something just occurred to me.  I have a lot of questions too, and you folks might be able to help me out.  First up is one that has bothered me since childhood (no kidding): English muffins described on the package as “fork-split.”  Does that mean that they’re already “fork-split” (and should thus pull apart easily, which they never do), or that you’re supposed to split them with a fork?  I’ve always used a fork to pry them apart, but I can’t stand the feeling that I might have been wasting my time all these years.

I suspect that if “twitterpated” has lately popped up in the popular vernacular, it has at least something to do with the popularity of the social networking internet service called Twitter. Users of the service can send short text messages (called “Tweets”) to a group of friends (or to the entire world) describing exactly what they’re doing at every moment during the day.  (At the risk of being labeled anti-social in our Age of Exhibitionism, I cannot imagine a better illustration of the difference between “can” and “should.”)

“Twitterpated,” however, has nothing to do with Twitter, and, in fact, predates the service, which debuted in 2006, by exactly 64 years.  We can be certain of the date because “twitterpated” is a word invented by the scriptwriters responsible for the classic Walt Disney full-length cartoon “Bambi,” which appeared in 1942.  Early on in the film, Bambi, a young male deer, is conversing with his friends Thumper (a rabbit) and Flower (a skunk) about the odd springtime behavior of the animals around them, who are all pairing off with mates.  A passing owl explains that the animals are “twitterpated,” and adds, “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime. For example: You’re walking along, minding your own business. You’re looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a sudden you run smack into a pretty face. Woo-woo! You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head’s in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather, and before you know it, you’re walking on air.”  Thus to be “twitterpated” means to be addled, boggled, dazed and confused by infatuation.

Although the Disney writers did invent “twitterpated,” it was not as big a novelty as it might seem.  The verb “to twitter” has meant to chirp like a bird since the 14th century, “twitter” itself being an imitation of such a sound.  Since the 17th century, “twitter” has also meant “to tremble in anticipation or excitement” or “to long after or desire something or someone.”  “Pate” is a very old word for the top of the human head (from the Latin “patina,” dish) or the brain, and such combinations as “addle-pated” (insane) and “empty-pated” (stupid) have been insults for several centuries.  So combining “twitter” and “pated” to mean “consumed to the point of distraction and delusion by romantic longing and infatuation” is actually a fairly straightforward addition to a long line of “pated” adjectives.


Anybody got a recipe for “green shoots”?

Dear Word Detective:  My wife says we are now to live on a “shoestring” budget.  In fact I had to save up to send this email.  What is the origin of “shoestring” budget? — Chris.

I feel your pain.  More importantly, however, I feel my pain, the result of tripping over a large dog in a small room darkened in order to save a few cents on electricity.  Recently it was decided that we would be replacing all the 60 watt light bulbs in the house with 40 watters.  Apparently there was a vote and the cats were swayed by some cheap tuna.  Whatever.  But when I went to fetch the bulbs at the store, I discovered that the bulb cartel had decided that I should be ashamed of myself for wanting 40 watt bulbs.  Henceforth (whenceforth?), Mister Energy Pig (me) would do just fine with 34 watt bulbs, a bizarre denomination that now occupied the old 40 watt shelf.  Recognizing an insurmountable conspiracy when I see one, I cocked a snook at the security camera and bought a dozen.  According to my calculations, we should see some savings around the time the Sun burns out.

And so it goes.  But I’m not sure that a country accustomed to associating the word “shoestring” with French fried potatoes is ready for real austerity, and certainly not with the thriftiness implied by the use of “shoestring” you’ve encountered.

“Shoestring” in the sense of “a very small amount of money” or “very little capital” or “a slender margin” dates back to the late 19th century, although “shoestring” in the literal sense, meaning the cord used to tie a shoe, first appeared in the early 17th century.  A business begun and operated in its early days “on a shoestring” has long been, of course, a staple of the lore of capitalism (“Every business man who has made a big success of himself started on a shoestring,” 1932), although it’s worth noting that no one is fond of a business that fails to progress past that marginal stage.  And with more and more individuals finding themselves struggling to live from day to day “on a shoestring” (a Google web search for “living on a shoestring” finds more than 17,000 hits), whatever romance once attached to the phrase (“Australians in England, youth-hosteling on a shoestring,” The Thornbirds, 1977) is fading fast.

Just why a shoestring should be the symbol of a precarious existence has been the subject of debate among etymologists for years.   But shoestrings are notable in a number of respects that  make them good symbols of an “iffy” lifestyle.  They are humble but nearly universally-known items to begin with, they are thin and won’t hold a lot of weight, and they tend to break at the most inconvenient times.  There was also a time when the truly thrifty would save broken shoestrings for use around the house, making “shoestring” shorthand for an existence where even items that others would consider trash become valuable.