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Ombra mai foosball?

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering what the history of the word “adumbrate” is. It’s such an interesting word that I was hoping that it would have a good history too. — Talia.

Well, that’s certainly understandable. It’s like looking forward to the first Thanksgiving get-together after your marriage and hoping your new in-laws don’t eat with their feet. A cool word should have cool ancestors, or at least a nifty story about how its parents met (“I was raised Middle English, but one day a charming Romany verb came into our tavern…”). But sometimes knowing a word’s history can dim one’s enjoyment. “Nice,” for instance, is a “nice” word meaning “pleasant or agreeable.” Too bad it originally meant “stupid” (from the Latin “nescius,” not knowing), eh? And if I say that I’m “sanguine” about my favorite team’s prospects for the next season, I mean I’m cheerful and optimistic, which is quite a departure from the one of the word’s meanings in the 18th century, “causing or delighting in bloodshed.”

In the case of “adumbrate,” we have a lexical history that progresses from the literal to figurative uses, as many words do, and fortunately lacks any evidence of either idiocy or homicidal fury in its past. Today we use “adumbrate” most often to mean “to sketch out, to outline (or perceive) the general contours of a thing,” as a presidential candidate might “adumbrate” his or her proposed health care programs in a debate, or a social critic might warn of possible threats in the future (“It is not impossible to adumbrate the general nature of the catastrophe which threatens mankind if war-making goes on,” H.G. Wells, 1919). “Adumbrate” can also be used to mean “to foreshadow, to foretell, to predict in a vague way,” as competition between nations over scarce resources often “adumbrates” an eventual war. Somewhat paradoxically, “adumbrate” can also mean “to overshadow, to obscure or hide,” as one sibling’s financial success might “adumbrate” the accomplishments of another.

The key to the history of “adumbrate” is the Latin “umbra,” which means “shadow” (and also underlies “umbrella,” literally meaning “little shadow”). Coupling “umbra” with the preposition “ad” (meaning “to”) gave us “adumbrare,” which meant “to give shade to,” specifically in the sense of adding shading to a artist’s sketch in order to give some indication of the ultimate product. When “adumbrate” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it carried this meaning of “fill out,” but soon came to mean simply “faintly sketch.” This meaning gave us the figurative “sketch out or predict in general terms” sense we use today. The “foretell” sense of “adumbrate,” like the word “foreshadow” itself, invokes the image of future events casting shadows back into the current day. The “obscure or hide” usage rests on the metaphor of something casting a dark shadow over another thing.


And why is gas so cheap now that all the stores have closed?

Dear Word Detective: What is the true origin of the word “towrag” or “toerag,” meaning a rascally type of person? Has it any connection to the nomadic Berber Touareg tribe? Could there be a connection to the towing rag, suspended from a long load in a car or truck? I have even heard it might be related to a strip of cloth used for wrapping around the feet, in place of socks. I would appreciate a definitive explanation. — Irene Brackenridge.

Ah yes, wouldn’t we all? So many questions in life, so few answers. Why do cats invariably climb to the highest point in the room when they feel nauseated? Why does the bank charge so much for bounced checks when, by definition, you have no money? Why does the TiVo always decide not to record the season finale of your favorite show? And if life is such an awesome mystery, how come I’ve never been in a car chase?

You seem to have come up with a variety of interesting possibilities for the source of “toerag” (as it’s usually spelled), but the one tying the word to the Touareg (or Tuareg) people of North Africa has, perhaps surprisingly, more than a glimmer of plausibility. The Touareg, an ancient Saharan tribe, operated the great trade routes across the Sahara desert for more than two millennia until the French colonized the area in the 19th century (an incursion the Touareg fiercely resisted). The European colonization of the region had already given us the British slang term “street Arab” for a homeless, wandering child (“The hero and heroine began life as street Arabs of Glasgow,” 1883), so it wouldn’t be too surprising if colonial encounters with the Touareg had spawned another derogatory term in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, the actual origin of “toerag,” which dates back to the 19th century, is considerably less interesting and more depressing. As a slang term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person,” the epithet “toerag” simply refers to a poor person who wraps rags around his or her feet in lieu of socks. The term initially appeared in the literal sense of a rag wrapped around the foot inside a shoe in about 1864, but by 1875 it had become the synonym for “tramp” it remains today (“All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs,” Harold Pinter, 1960).

The equation of poverty and low moral character is, of course, sadly common in the English language, but the state of one’s feet seems especially prominent in the vocabulary of derision. “Down at the heels” has been a metaphor for “destitute” or “failure” since the early 18th century, referring to worn shoes the owner lacks the funds to fix. Similarly, “to be on one’s uppers” is a 19th century phrase meaning “to be broke,” invoking the image of one so poor that the heels of his shoes have worn away entirely, leaving only the upper part of the shoe remaining. To call someone a “heel,” however, simply means that the person (usually an untrustworthy, unscrupulous man) has demonstrated that, as the heel is the lowest, rearmost portion of the foot, he is the lowest form of human being. One can be a “heel” and wear very nice shoes.


Now that’s a segue.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the etymology of the word “beguile”? — Matt.

I sure do. Next question. Wait, don’t go. You get ten points for spelling “etymology” correctly. It drives me slightly nuts to be referred to as an “entomologist,” which is a scientist who studies insects (from the Greek “entomon,” insect). The study of word origins is “etymology,” from the Greek “etymon” (true sense) plus “logos” (word). The word “etymology” actually reflects the assumption, fairly widespread at one time, that the “original” or earliest meaning of a word is its “true” meaning. That theory is itself quite old but, ironically, not even close to being true. Words change their meanings over time, sometimes radically, and that “oldest equals truest” theory is now known as “the etymological fallacy.”

“Beguile” is a good example of how a word can change over time, dropping older meanings from common use and adding new senses so different from the original meaning that we are often surprised when we delve into the word’s origins. Today we most often use “beguile” as a loose synonym of “charm,” either describing personal attributes (as in “She had a beguiling smile”) or other things we find, for one reason or another, very appealing (“Many first-time home buyers were beguiled by what seemed like impossibly low mortgage rates”). If there’s a semantic difference between “charm” and “beguile,” it’s the faint premonition that what we find “beguiling” may not turn out as well as we’d hoped.

That premonition turns out to be justified by the roots and original meaning of “beguile.” When it first appeared in the 13th century, “beguile” meant “to delude, deceive or trick” with “guile,” which meant (and still does) “deceitful cunning, clever dishonesty.” The roots of “guile,” interestingly, lie in the Old French word “guile,” which also seems to have given us “wile,” most often used in the plural form “wiles,” originally meaning “trickery or deceitful schemes.” In modern usage, however, “wiles” are usually simply innocent artifice, often in the service of romance (“Lady Tippins’s winning wiles are contagious,” Charles Dickens, 1865).

A similar softening of tone has been evident in “beguile” over the centuries, as the raw “cheat and deceive” sense of the word took a back seat to “beguile” being used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To win the attention or interest of (any one) by wiling means; to charm, divert, amuse.” By the late 16th century, in fact, “beguile” was being used to mean “to pleasantly divert or amuse so as to make something disagreeable less unpleasant” (“Took a book to beguile the tedious hours,” Washington Irving, 1820). So a word which originally meant “to trick or cheat” came to mean “charm and amuse.”

Interestingly, “amuse” itself followed a similar course, first meaning “to bewilder or puzzle,” then “to deceive or delude,” then “to divert or entertain,” and finally “to entertain with humor and good cheer.”