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A little dab will do ya.

Dear Word Detective:¬† I think that the word “eke” is one of the strangest words in the English language. The meaning even seems a little nebulous. What is the history on this word? — Doris Render.

“Eke” is indeed a somewhat nebulous word. One might even say “eke” is oblique by design, because you can’t be sure what is meant by someone using it. If an old friend, encountered on the street after many years, says that he “manages to eke out a living,” he could be saying he squeaks by with odd jobs, perhaps tutoring the dim spawn of investment bankers. (I know people who have done this, and it isn’t pretty.) But he also might be an investment banker himself with a nine-figure income and a warped sense of humor.

In modern usage, “eke” is almost always found in the verb phrase “to eke out,” meaning “to get by” in a task or to narrowly achieve a goal by means of extra effort, thrift, or initiative. A good 80% of uses of “eke” I found on Google News today, for instance, are in sports stories about teams who managed to “eke out” a victory in the last quarter, inning or whatever.

Although “eke” is found only in its verb form today, it started as a noun. This “eke” meant “an addition, an increase” or “something added on.” The noun “eke” originally appeared in Old English, where it was used to mean reinforcements for troops in the field. The roots of “eke” lie in the Proto-Germanic “aukan,” which also eventually gave us the English “augment.”

“Eke” as a verb originally meant literally “to increase, to lengthen,” a sense which lives on in the use of “eke” or “eke out” to mean “to pad a speech or piece of writing in order to fill up time or meet a quota of words,” a device familiar to any student assigned a term paper (“To eke out any thing, signifies to lengthen it beyond its just dimensions by some low artifice.” Samuel Johnson, 1747).

Outside of the Sports pages or election returns, most of us probably rarely encounter “eke,” but nearly anyone who speaks English is familiar with a descendant of “eke,” albeit one disguised a bit by its own history.

A “nickname” is an “additional” name given to (or adopted by) a person. It may be a familiar form of their proper name (e.g., Chuck for Charles, Bill for William, etc.) or may be drawn from an avocation, hobby or distinguishing act or characteristic of the person. Nicknames exist in most human cultures, and in English they came to be known, in the 13th century, as “eke-names” or “ekenames,” names which were “added” to one’s existing name. Thus one would refer to one’s friend by an “ekename” such as “Moose” or “Binky.” Over the centuries, however, the “n” from “an” drifted over to the front of “ekename,” giving us “a nekename,” and eventually “a nickname.” This common linguistic process, called “metanalysis,” also transformed “a napron” (from the Old French “naperon,” tablecloth) into “an apron” during the same period.

Count / Counter

¬†Formica’s fine, thanks. I’m only visiting.

Dear Word Detective:¬† The other day, while listening to the radio on the way home from work, I heard an advertisement for a company called “Counter Intelligence.” They install countertops but have that nifty double entendre which is perfect for the DC area. It got me thinking about the word “counter,” which can mean: “something (or someone) that counts,” “a flat surface on which you can place a glass of beer,” or “opposite to” as in “counter-clockwise.” And also about the word “count,” which can mean “to say numbers in order or measure things in this way,” “a member of the nobility,” or however you would describe “count” in the phrase “make things count.” Are all or some of these senses of “count/counter” related somehow? — Fernando.

“Counter Intelligence” is cute. Do they “terminate” your ugly old kitchen “with extreme prejudice”? But cute business names make me queasy. We hired a roofing company with a cute name several years ago to do some repair work. They sent us three guys who spent their time drinking beer, screaming obscenities and threatening to kill each other on our front lawn. After they finally left, we discovered that the new part of our roof was done, for no apparent reason, with bright green shingles. It looked like the house had been struck by a giant avocado from space.

I actually answered a query about “counter” a few years ago, though it came from a slightly different, and weirder, direction. Two guys were having an argument over whether “countertop” was a legitimate word because every counter has a top, or it wouldn’t be a counter. Yeah, really. Far as I know, they’re still duking it out in the aisle at Lowes.

There are actually two distinct kinds of “counter” mentioned in your question, plus “count” in the Sesame Street “Count von Count” sense.

The “countertop” sort of “count” comes from the verb “to count,” which, in its most basic sense, means ” to assign to objects, actions, etc., the numerals one, two, three, etc. so as to ascertain their number; to determine the total of a group.” The root of “count” is the Latin verb “computare,” to calculate (“com,” together, plus “putare,” to think). “Count” doesn’t bear much resemblance to its Latin root (or to its relative “computer”) because it was filtered through Old French. To “make something count” and similar uses mean to include it in a metaphorical “total” or summation. “Counter” as a piece of furniture comes from the desk in banks, shops, etc., where money is taken in and counted. The noun and verb “account” and its relatives (e.g., “recount”) mean both “to arithmetically total” and “to tell a story” (e.g., “The victim’s account of the crime”).

The “counter” meaning “opposite” (as in “counter-clockwise”) and “in response to” (as in “counter-intelligence”) comes from the Latin “contra,” meaning “against.” It’s also a verb meaning “to oppose or respond in kind” as in “The boss countered the union’s demands with an offer of permanent vacations.”

Lastly, “count” as a title of nobility comes from the Anglo-Norman “counte,” in turn derived from the Latin “comitem,” literally “companion,” used as the term for a provincial governor or other official close to the Emperor in the Roman Empire. In European use since the 11th century, a “count” was roughly equivalent to an British “earl.”

Awe / Awful

History makes no sense.

Dear Word Detective: I am a subscriber to the site “Futility Closet” ( I begin each morning with the trivia cocktail, and this morning, besides learning a little about the philological pursuits of Herbert Hoover and his Chinese-speaking wife, I was given this item below the “Misc” heading: “Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms.” Now I do understand a little about “awe” and its connection to “fear” as used in Hebrew texts, but I hoped you might take the time to expound on this little problem in your inimitable way. — John Long, Saint Louis.

Thanks for reminding me about Futility Closet (“A collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible”). It’s a great site. I used to go there every day, but somehow lost the habit. I will endeavor to catch up forthwith.

“Awe and wonder are synonyms, but awful and wonderful are antonyms” is a pretty good illustration of what sometimes seems like the willful perversity of the English language. Of course, as soon as you object to this sort of nonsense, English smoothly comes up with all sorts of good reasons for the aberration, but still, there’s something shifty about this tongue. Not a language I’d turn my back on.

The word “awe” first appeared in English in the 13th century, based on Scandinavian roots carrying the sense of “fear and terror.” The original meaning of “awe” in English was also “fear, terror, or dread,” but use of the word in reference to religious belief eventually led to a modified sense of “awe” in which “fear” was mixed with veneration, and the result was “awe” meaning “reverential fear and wonder in the presence of supreme authority.” This religious “awe” was, by the 18th century, expanded to include a deep emotional response to extraordinary natural phenomena such as great storms, majestic waterfalls, and electronic gizmos prefixed with the letter “i.”

“Awful” appeared around the same time as “awe,” and originally meant “inspiring great awe,” i.e., causing profound dread or great fear. As “awe” evolved, so did “awful,” gradually coming to mean “deserving great respect” and “inspiring, majestic.”

In the early 19th century, however, “awful” took a sharp detour, and began to be used to mean not “inspiring great dread and humility,” but simply “very bad, scary or loathsome.” This new use, a dilution and weakening from the previous sense, actually drew notice from observers at the time: “In New England many people would call a disagreeable medicine, awful; an ugly woman, an awful looking woman…. This word, however, is never used except in conversation, and is far from being so common in the sea-ports now, as it was some years ago.” (1816).

Both “awful” and “awfully” also came into use around this time, in yet a further weakening, as simple intensifiers that could amplify both positives (“A prairie town called Follansbee that looks awful good to me.” 1923) and negatives (“An awful bad sermon from Hudleston.” 1832).

Interestingly, “awesome,” which appeared in the 16th century meaning “full of awe” or “inspiring awe” (i.e., roughly synonymous with the original “awful”), never took that negative turn, although it lately has been diluted into a tepid synonym of “groovy.”

“Wonder” first appeared in Old English (as “wundor”), derived from Germanic roots, with the meaning of “something that causes astonishment.” In Middle English “wonder” came to also mean the feeling inspired by such “wonders.” The verb “to wonder” at first meant simply “to be affected with wonder; to be astonished” or “to express wonder at something impressive or astonishing.” By the 13th century, “to wonder” had expanded to include “to ask oneself in wonderment,” to express curiosity or doubt, whether mentally or aloud (“I still remained before the fire, wondering and wondering about Bleak House.” Dickens, 1853). But “wonderful,” which appeared in the 12th century, didn’t develop this questioning sense, and has meant basically “inspiring wonder” (or simply “really good”) since that time.

So in the “wonder/wonderful/awe/awful” mix, the expected symmetry is ruined by that strange turn “awful” took back in the 19th century. But such cases of a profound change in meaning are far from rare. A story (probably at least partly apocryphal) is told about Sir Christopher Wren, the brilliant architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the time, is said to have proclaimed the design “awful, artificial and amusing.” Rather than being offended, Wren was (goes the story) thrilled with the royal review, because at that time “awful,” of course, meant “awe-inspiring,” “artificial” meant “clever” or “artistic,” and “amusing” meant “fascinating” or “astonishing.”