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Trivia

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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Hear, hear!

Shut up your face.

Dear Word Detective: Logically an energetic response to a well received comment or speech should be “Hear, Hear,” as in “I hear you.” In books and on the net all I see is “Here, Here.” Does this phrase mean “Now that you’re here we have to listen to you” or something of a similar nature? — Mike Henderson.

No, but that’s an interesting idea. So if you manage to fight your way past the guards and the alligators and the Pendulum of Death and make it into the Fortress of Power, the Grand Poobah has to give you ten minutes? Speaking as one whose participation in public meetings usually concludes with people shouting “Cut his mic!”, I totally support this idea. First come, first talk and talk and talk.

Speaking of “the net,” I vividly remember people arguing about this question on Usenet back in the early 1990s. (Usenet being what preceded the web, Twitter, Facebook, and the Great Decline of Everything.) People spent days, weeks, years arguing over stuff like this because, I kid you not, the net was all text in a terminal, no pictures. It was awesome.

Anyway, the phrase is “Hear, Hear!”, and it is best known for its use, dating back to the late 17th century, in Britain’s Parliament. The original form was “Hear him!”, and it was used to draw attention to, and by implication to endorse, a speaker’s words. The form “Hear hear!” arose in the late 18th century and is now the usual cheer (“One Noble Lord or Honorable Member asking a question, and another Noble Lord or Honorable Member endeavoring to dodge it, amid cries of Hear! Hear!” 1865). The fact that “hear” and “here” are homophones (words pronounced the same) accounts for the common confusion over the phrase, especially since it’s rarely seen in print.

Although usually used to express agreement with a speaker, “Hear hear!” in Parliament also lends itself, via emphasis, timing and intonation, to expressing contempt, opposition, derision and a range of more obscure emotions. C-Span in the US broadcasts the Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons on Sunday nights, where the “Hear hear!” phenomenon can be seen in the wild, so to speak. If you’d prefer something with a bit more plot, much of the action in the British version of the TV serial House of Cards (vastly superior to the US version and available on Netflix) takes place at Question Time.

Outside of Parliament (which, of course, most of us are) “Hear, hear!” is used to indicate endorsement of, and enthusiasm for, something someone just said, especially if those present agree that it “needed saying.”

Elsewhere in the world of strange things shouted in large rooms, we have the curious word “oyez,” traditionally called out three times (“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”) by the Marshal of the US Supreme Court at the opening of each court session. (It’s also used a some lower US courts and many courts in the UK.) “Oyez” is an Anglo-Norman word, the imperative plural form of “oir” (to hear), meaning essentially “Listen up, y’all.” It was also the traditional call of the Town Crier in Olde England (and dramatic recreations thereof), commanding attention to important news or edicts. “Oyez” is usually pronounced as spelled (oy-yez), with stress on the second syllable, but it’s sometime said as “Oyes,” which can be misinterpreted as “Oh yes!”

Jaunty

Trippin’

Dear Word Detective: My officemate welcomed me back from a recent business trip with facetious comments about my “jaunt,” and asked if I had brought back anything “jaunty” as a souvenir. This immediately made both of us wonder what the connection is between “jaunt” meaning “trip” and “jaunty” meaning “lively,” as in “jaunty hat” or “jaunty demeanor.” Is the logic of “jaunty” that people who leave town a lot are likely to be in a good mood? Not in my case. — Jetlagged, NYC.

You and me both, bucko. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway.” When I worked in a office they would often try to send me places, sometimes just across town, but I would always respond with my Bartleby the Scrivener routine (“I would prefer not to”), and eventually they gave up. You should try it.

Your suggestion of a “good mood” connection between “jaunt” and “jaunty” is both inspired and plausible. Unfortunately, it’s not even a little bit true. There is absolutely no connection between “jaunt” and “jaunty,” which strikes even me as weird, but there it is.

“Jaunt” first appeared in English in 1597, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (“Lord how my bones ache … Fie, what a jaunt have I had.”). As you might infer from the tone of that line, “jaunt” originally meant, not a happy holiday trip, but a long and tiresome journey. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that “jaunt” came into use meaning a trip taken for pleasure (“Your idle jants, taken for amusement only.” 1768) and the old oh-what-a-drag sense of “jaunt” persisted until the late 19th century (“This rough jaunt—alone through night and snow.” Robert Browning, 1879).

Unfortunately, the origin of “jaunt” is a bit of a mystery. It first appeared as a verb, in the late 16th century, meaning “to tire out a horse by making it prance back and forth,” which was expanded to mean “to make a person run to and fro.” That fits with the “tiresome trip” sense of “jaunt,” but the word “jaunt” itself remains obscure. It may have been borrowed from Old French.

The initial meaning of “jaunty” when it appeared in English in the late 17th century was “well-bred, genteel” when applied to persons, “stylish or elegant” in regard to things (“With a jantee pair of Canvass Trowzers.” 1708). The current “lively” sense, which first appeared in 1672, is well-defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “Easy and sprightly in manner; having or affecting well-bred or easy sprightliness; affecting airy self-satisfaction or unconcern” (“He wore a jaunty cap and jacket.” Dickens, 1841), or “lively, brisk” (“The ladies have a jaunty walk.” 1866).

In contrast to the mystery surrounding the origin of “jaunt,” the source of “jaunty” is satisfyingly certain. “Jaunty” was born as an Anglicized pronunciation and phonetic spelling of the French “gentil,” meaning “noble, proper, pleasing, genteel” (“genteel” itself, as well as “gentle,” were earlier borrowings of “gentil” into English). Since we already had “genteel” to cover the “refined and proper” bases, it’s not surprising that “jaunty” eventually downplayed those senses and primarily came to reflect the “having a good time” and “taking it easy” side of life. After all, being “jaunty” is probably much more fun than being “genteel.”

Banal

Ho-Hum, yadda yadda.

Dear Word Detective: Reading a Slate article photographically documenting life in NY housing projects (photos taken by the residents themselves), I saw the sentence “In the images selected from among thousands for Project Lives, one sees depictions of daily life that are everyday almost to the point of being banal, which, Carrano says, is the point: Life in the projects, it should be known, can be as ordinary and sometimes dull as life anywhere.” “Banal” seems a common enough word, but has not been part of my vocabulary. (I’ve noticed short words often have rich histories.) A quick search indicates it’s from French/German “ban” — a call to arms. Surely there’s more to the story than it just becoming known as “common.” — Ray.

There is a bit more to the story of “banal,” but before we begin, a note on pronunciation is in order. When I was very young, I often found myself using words which I had read in books, but never heard spoken. This could be, on occasion, embarrassing. I remember spending quite a while trying to figure out how to pronounce “Sioux” (See-awks? Sy-oh?). I not only never thought to ask my parents (who were lexicographers, for Pete’s sake), but I never caught onto the fact that the word was used in nearly every Western horse-opera ever made. (It’s “Soo,” by the way.) Similarly, my initial attempts at “banal” made it sound like “bay-nall,” which I quickly learned was generally considered mockably wrong. It’s usually pronounced “bah-nal,” emphasis on the second syllable, which rhymes with “Al.”

The source of “banal,” which first appeared in English in the mid-19th century, is the French word “banal,” which, as it does in English, means “commonplace, ordinary.” But it also originally meant “communal” or “open to all,” and was formed on the noun “ban.” Today we use “ban” to mean an order forbidding something, but a “ban” was originally any sort of official edict, ranging from an order of conscription into military service to a decree granting permission to use shared facilities in feudal society such as mills, ovens, etc. The verb “to ban” itself comes from the Germanic root “bannan,” which also gave us such English words as “bandit” (from Italian “bandito,” from “bandire,” to banish), “banish” and “contraband” (literally something “against orders”).

Between the use of “ban” to mean “military conscription” and its use to define common resources “open to all,” the adjective “banal” took on the meaning of “commonplace,” and from there “banal” developed its modern pejorative sense of “ordinary, boring, trivial, uninteresting.”

Incidentally, if you’ve ever read any of the P.G. Wodehouse “Jeeves” stories, you’ve encountered one of the older members of the “ban” family, the form “banns,” meaning “proclamation of an intended marriage; a wedding announcement,” usually in the form of “publish” or “put up the banns,” giving an opportunity for aggrieved parties to object to the marriage. Nearly every Bertie and Jeeves story seems to involve someone (usually Bertie Wooster) attempting to evade the dreaded “banns.” This form is notable in that it preserves the original sense of “ban” as simply “a public proclamation,” not necessarily a negative one.