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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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News

And “old” stands for “Over Last Decade,” right?

Dear Word Detective: Today our local newspaper Helsingin Sanomat had a brief note on the word “news.” It said that Fred Sedgwick, in his book “Where Words Come From,” explains that it comes from from a saying: “Tidings from North, East, South and West.” Now, my suspicion was roused immediately as acronyms, as you say, were almost nonexistent before WWII. Could you please put Mister Sedgwick to his right place? — Topi, Finland.

news09I’d like to, but he’s in the UK and I’m in the US, and that’s too far for me to throw a cream pie. According to his publisher’s website, “Fred Sedgwick is a poet, former headteacher and the author of many books in the areas of literature, expressive arts, education and creativity.” “Expressive arts”? There’s a passport to lifetime unemployment. On the other hand, among his “many books” (eight with this publisher alone) is something called “How to Teach with a Hangover,” which is a wonderful title and makes me like him.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t alter the fact that you are right and Mr. Sedgwick is wrong about “news.” The rest of his book may be flawless and fascinating, of course, but one howler like that tends to ding the credibility of his entire enterprise. There’s really no excuse these days for this sort of mistake, with Oxford English Dictionary (OED) available either on a CD-ROM or on the internet by subscription (or free, if your local library system offers it).

Just for fun, let’s see what the OED would have told Mr. Sedgwick about the origin of “news,” had he asked: “News (noun) — Special use of plural of NEW n., after Middle French nouvelles …”. You’ll notice the absence of any reference to “north, south,” etc., in that etymology.

In fairness to Mr. Sedgwick, he didn’t invent that story about “news” being an acronym (and acronyms were indeed very rare before World War II, while “news” has been with us in its current form since the early 16th century). That “north, east, etc.” story has been floating around for years, and it actually makes a certain amount of superficial sense. Unlike some of the awkward and overly-elaborate fables you hear about the origin of some words, this one “fits” nicely. “News” does indeed come from all directions.

Another reason that the story seems plausible is that “news” sounds like the plural of a noun, “new,” but “new” is not a noun in English. It’s an adjective, and our adjectives don’t have plurals. We don’t speak of “three news cars.” You can have a hundred and they are, together, still simply “new cars.”

The answer to this muddle, and I’m glad there is one, lies not in English but in French. Back in the 14th century, someone noticed that the French used the word “nouvelles” (“new”) to mean “new things” in Bible translations from the Latin “nova” (also meaning “new things”). If the French could use a plural of “new” to mean “new things,” went the reasoning, so can we, and the English noun “news” was born.

There was apparently some resistance among the general public to the use of “news” as a singular noun, however, and many people tried to make the form make a bit more sense by treating it as a plural (“There are never any news,” W. M. Thackeray, 1846). But the singular “news” is now almost universally accepted, and only in the form of English spoken in India are you likely to find “the news are good.”

Bigfoot

Look out below.

Dear Word Detective: Although I live near Mount St. Helens and am familiar with Bigfoot, I’ve never heard him mentioned as he was in recent CNN coverage of the crisis in Iran: “Many in the establishment view him as someone who does not cower to big-footing by the West.” Is this an idiom I’m unfamiliar with or just a poor translation? — Edward Jones.

Familiar with Bigfoot, eh? Could you tell him Nessie needs his email address? She asked me to ask. Just kidding, of course, but I had not realized that the Mount St. Helens area in Washington State is known for its Bigfoot sightings. Sounds like fun.

bigfoot09

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“Bigfoot” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “(A name for) a large, hairy, manlike creature supposedly inhabiting the north-western United States and western Canada,” although in Canada the same critter is more commonly known by its Salishan Indian name, “sasquatch.” The use of “Bigfoot” as a name for the creature dates back to the 1950s, but “Bigfoot” as a popular nickname for a human being with very large feet dates back to at least the early 19th century.

More relevant to your question, however, is the fact that, since about 1980, “bigfoot” has been used as slang among journalists to mean “a prominent or well-known columnist or political reporter,” i.e., a “celebrity” journalist. According to an explanation offered by William Safire (himself just such a “bigfoot”) back in 1985, the term was coined as a joke during the 1980 US presidential campaign, when Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Hedrick Smith of the New York Times appeared on the press plane with his injured foot encased in a large cast.

“Bigfoot” in this sense has apparently also become a transitive verb among journalists, and I ran across it just the other day while reading writer Dan Baum’s explanation of how he came to leave the staff of the New Yorker magazine. Assigned to cover Hurricane Katrina, Baum learned that the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, would also be going to New Orleans, and confronted him, saying “You’re going to bigfoot me?” Baum defines “to bigfoot” here as “to snatch a story away from a lower-ranking reporter,” and, not surprisingly, his belligerent use of the term to Remnick turned out to be a very bad idea.

It’s possible that the use of the verb “to bigfoot” you spotted, meaning roughly “to throw one’s weight around” or “to bully,” is a further development of this journalistic slang. But it’s also possible that this geopolitical use is an entirely separate invention alluding to Bigfoot as a large, overwhelming presence that is difficult to resist.

Easy as pie

Mince and cheddar + coffee = Nirvana.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve always wondered what is so darned “easy” about pie. Can you enlighten us all on this? — Mark Anderson.

I could have sworn I already did, but it seems that I was wrong. All I did was parenthetically refer to “easy as pie” in a column I wrote last year on “pie-eyed,” which is usually used to mean “extremely drunk” and comes from the wide-eyed (like big, round pies) blank stare often seen in persons who have partaken of tee many martoonies.

pie09Writing teachers always exhort their young students to “write what you know,” i.e., make use of their own experiences in life to generate ideas. This has always struck me as dubious advice, since it seems to produce little but novels about how unfair the world is to young writers. On the other hand, “speak what you know” has worked quite well for the English language. Given a popular food like pie, we’ve managed to cook up a whole range of metaphors and similes involving the humble pie. There is, of course, the very phrase “humble pie,” which, before it was the name of a 70s rock group, was most often found in the phrase “to eat humble pie,” meaning to own up to having made a serious error. “Humble” in this phrase is a bit of a pun. The original form was “to eat umble pie,” “umbles” being the innards of game such as deer, and “umble pie” being a lowly dish usually served to servants and the like.

But “pie” has more often served as a symbol of something highly desirable, even if illusory, as in the phrase “pie in the sky” meaning “the promise of a good life in the future used to excuse hardship in the present.” The phrase was coined in 1911 by Joe Hill, troubadour and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World in his song “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die”). Politicians, of course, are always promising voters a “bigger piece of the pie,” meaning a greater share of wealth, but such promises usually fail to materialize on budget “pie charts,” a term dating to the 1920s. One might wonder, given that such pledges by leaders have been broken for millennia, why it took until 1977 for “pie” to become a verb meaning “to strike someone, usually a public figure, in the face with a custard pie.”

The key to “easy as pie,” which first appeared in the early 20th century meaning “extremely easy or simple,” is that it refers to eating pie, rather than making a pie (which can be quite complicated). Pie has been used as a symbol of something very pleasurable or agreeable (“nice as pie,” “sweet as pie”) since the mid-19th century, as well as meaning anything eagerly sought or regarded as a prize (“I wanted to reach Fort Larned before daylight, in order to avoid if possible the Indians, to whom it would have been ‘pie’ to have caught me there on foot,” W.F. Cody, Story of the Wild West, 1888). So “easy as pie” simply employs “pie” as a general-purpose metaphorical superlative, much as “piece of cake” is used to mean “effortless,” as easy and pleasurable as eating a piece of cake. It is, of course, also “easy” to eat actual pie, as anyone who has left me alone in a room with a pumpkin pie can attest.