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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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“Ord” words

One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus….

Dear Word Detective:  A few months ago you answered a question about why “first” and “second” bore no resemblance to “one” and “two” (unlike “third,” “fourth” and so on, which resemble the actual numbers). You mentioned that all of these are called “ordinal” terms as opposed to “cardinal” numbers such as “one,” two,” etc. That made me wonder about other “ord” words, such as “ordinary,” “ordain,” “ordinance,” “ordeal” and probably others. Is there any connection between these words and “ordinal”? — Barry Weiss.

Um, yeah, that was actually last summer (August, to be precise), which puts it beyond my personal event horizon, so I’m gonna have to hunt down that column and see what I said. The older I get the more sympathy I have for those crooks who get hauled in front of committees and claim to have no memory of their own byzantine scams. Most of those guys can probably barely remember where they stashed the loot.

Onward. I re-reading that column, which focused on “ordinal” numbers, I noticed that I never explained the term “cardinal” in “cardinal number.” It’s from the Latin adjective “cardinalis,” which means “chief, principal, essential” or “hinge” (and comes, in turn, from Latin “cardo,” meaning “door hinge”). The logic is that something is “cardinal” if important things “hinge” (depend or rely) on it, as the cardinal number terms “one, two, three, etc.” are the primary names for numbers. The use of “Cardinal” as the title of a high church cleric is a specialized application of the adjective.

As I noted last August, the root of “ordinal” is the Latin “ordo,” meaning “row or series” (thus the ordinals “first, second, etc.” reflect the places of numbers in an ascending series). Probably the most popular English derivative of “ordo” is “order,” which, as both a noun and a verb, dates to the early 13th century. In general, the noun “order” carries the sense of things arranged in a hierarchy, series or progression by rank, though in certain contexts it can also mean a group or organization united by purpose, doctrine (as in a religious order), social status, etc. As a verb, “order” originally meant “to arrange in proper order,” but in the 16th century expanded to mean “issue commands in keeping with established order or procedure.”

“Ordinary,” first appearing in the 15th century, originally meant “normal, usual or customary,” i.e., in keeping with the usual order of things. That which is “extraordinary” is, etymologically, “outside” the usual.

“Ordain,” meaning to appoint to the ministry of a church, comes from the Latin “ordinare” (another relative of “ordo”) meaning “to put in order, arrange, appoint.” “Ordinance,” meaning a law or civil regulation, comes from the same source.

As painful as all these rules and laws may be, they can’t compare to the original sense of “ordeal” (which has, by the way, no connection to our friend “ordo”). When it appeared in Old English (as “ordel” or “ordal,” related to the Old High German “urteil” meaning “judgment”), an “ordeal” was a trial by physical pain or danger in which the accused proved innocence by surviving. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, until its abolition in 1215, the ordeal could take any of four forms: fire, hot water, cold water, and trial by combat.” Today an “ordeal” can be any protracted and extremely unpleasant experience.

July 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Ahem. This is actually the June issue. It was ready to go up about ten days ago, but then I woke up one morning and discovered that my desktop computer, the one attached to the ginormous monitor I use when my eyes aren’t working very well (which is frequently the case), was dead as a mackerel. Monitor OK, power supply functioning, fans fine, various drives OK, but it’s d-e-a-d, Jim.

It’s not like I ever really liked the thing; it was a cheapo sub-$400 Dell I picked up on clearance about three years ago. But it was quiet (I have tinnitus already, thanks), and did have an i5 quad-core processor, so it was pleasingly zippy. Plus which it came with Windows 7, which can be handy, so I set it up to dual-boot with Linux. I’m pretty sure the motherboard just croaked. The ethernet network subsystem had died for no good reason about a year after I bought it, which suggests sub-standard soldering. A little Googling indicated that this particular crapoid Dell model — Vostro 260 — has an astronomical failure rate, usually manifested (often shortly after warranty expiration, of course) as a refusal to boot when every test shows it should.

I back stuff up, so I didn’t lose much aside from several days of trying to get the damn thing to work. You’d think I’d have learned not to trust Dell (I now own four dead Dells, dating back to the early 90s), but it was cheap. Now I’m relying on a ten-year old reconditioned laptop that’s gonna have to last another ten years the way things are going. This is all immensely depressing.

Gus and Phoebe, in that order.

On a cheerier note, as promised, here’s Gus the Cat, boxed and ready to ship along with his sister Phoebe. Gus and Phoebe arrived as tiny kittens one day in our yard, along with their brother Harry, ate some leftover pizza, and decided to stay. Their wayward mother, Kiki, wandered in a few months later, bearing such a remarkable resemblance to the crew that the familial relationship was never in doubt. Sadly, Harry died of a respiratory problem a few years ago, but Gus and Phoebe carry on, each with their own unique and sometimes disturbing personality.

The first hint we had that Gus wasn’t your normal couch-cat came when we caught him trying to open the sun porch door with the car keys clenched in his teeth. That’s only a slight exaggeration; early on Gus demonstrated such awesome door-opening skills that we replaced the European lever-style doorknob on that door with a conventional round one. Gus still opens doors occasionally (we keep the outdoor ones locked now), but for the most part confines himself to opening cupboards and closets.

Gus is famous among the other cats for inventing Cat Chow Hockey when he was just a kitten. This sport involves carefully lifting a single bit of chow out of the bowl (optimally located on a high table), placing it on a flat surface, and slapping it with one’s paw so it flies across the room. This gives Gus something to chase and a nice reward at the end. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gus has been known to amuse himself this way for hours at a time. While our dog Pokey was still with us (she died of lymphoma last year), Gus had to race to beat her to the prize. Pokey loved cat chow almost as much as she loved grazing for raccoon scat in the yard.

Gus is also the only cat we have ever had that took pride in teaching tricks to other cats. When we bought a touch-sensitive robot mouse for the gang, they sat around staring at it in torpid puzzlement until Gus stepped forward, tapped the thing to activate its routine (running in circles and cackling maniacally), and then stepped back and looked at the other cats with a “your turn” expression until they got it. Gus is also a master of the “I am everywhere” routine. You’ll see him sound asleep on the bed as you leave the room to go downstairs, but when you get to the living room, there he’ll be, sound asleep (or pretending to be) on the couch. Gus also does this “silent cry” thing where he’ll look at you beseechingly, open his mouth as if to cry, but make no sound. It’s as if he’s too weakened by hunger even to meow. Mama Kiki does exactly the same thing. No shame, any of them. Gus is, incidentally, the reason we unplug the toaster every night.

To return to the computer thing for a moment, I have come to realize lately that any kind of debilitating long-term illness is pretty much a passport to the poorhouse. About nine years ago I signed a deal with a major publisher to write what would be my fifth book, for an advance of, let’s say, enough to buy an economy car new. It was a very good advance at that time; today it would be unheard of for a book on language. Yay! Most money anyone ever offered to pay me for anything! (It’s worth noting, however, that the amount is less impressive when you consider that actually writing the book would probably take 18 months.)

In any case, my euphoria (and the $$$) evaporated a few months later when I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis and I couldn’t finish the book. (I suddenly couldn’t lift my left leg or focus my eyes, among other disturbing symptoms.) Since then it’s been an increasing struggle to a) keep up with my columns and this site, which produces just enough revenue to pay hosting fees and feed a few of the cats, and b) deal with financial emergencies I can’t begin to cover. Our sole car, a trusty Toyota we bought used, is 17 years old (!) and clearly needs some serious repair. After decades of bad dentistry and worse advice, I need full upper and lower dentures, to the tune of ~$5,000. The chances of me ever having $5,000 at one time are pretty clearly zero. I think I’ve figured out why so many folks at the lower end of the economy play Lotto. I’ve considered starting a Kickstarter campaign or something, but it’s not like I need a new kidney. Your contributions and subscriptions, however, will be deeply appreciated.

And now, on with the show….

Floozy

First stone cast, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the word “floozy” to describe what used to be known, in more quaint times, as a “loose woman.” — Lynda.

Ah yes, the more quaint times. As Grampa Simpson put it, “Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m’shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ‘em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you’d say.” If that ain’t quaint, I’ll be a badger’s dentist, as we used to say. Back then.

“Quaint” is actually a strange word. (Offstage: Would you like to talk about it?) OK, well, “quaint” comes from the Anglo-Norman “cointe” (clever, crafty, proud, elegant) and ultimately, way back, from the Latin “cognitus” (clever, wise). In English, “quaint” originally meant “cunning, crafty, elegant or finely made,” but by the 14th century we were using it to mean “strange or unusual,” which became our modern “quaint” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “attractively or agreeably unusual in character or appearance … pleasingly old-fashioned.”

“Floozy” is a word with a history, as one might expect. For one thing, it has had a number of spellings and forms (including floozie, floosie, floosy, and floogy, among others) since it first appeared in the early 20th century. For another, the meaning of “floozy” has changed a bit over the years.

The source of “floozy” is, surprisingly, almost certainly the adjective “flossy,” which is based on “floss.” “Floss” is the fine filaments that surround the cocoon of the silk worm, as well as, by extension, anything made (or appearing to be made) of fine, glossy filaments or fibers. (What we in the US call “cotton candy,” for instance, is known as “candy floss” in the UK.) In the mid-19th century, “flossy,” originally meaning simply “floss-like,” acquired two figurative meanings: “fancy or showy” (i.e., tricked out in glossy and fashionable finery) and “saucy or impertinent” (carrying that “fashionable” into “brash” and “gaudy” territory).

In the early 20th century US, “floozie,” a colloquial form of “flossy,” was most often used in the first sense of “elegant, attractive,” especially with reference to young women, but by mid-century the “saucy” element had come to the fore and a “floozy” in popular parlance was a wild and disreputable “party girl,” if not actually a prostitute (“He bought a red racy car and went skidding around … with every floozy in town; the only nice girls you ever saw in that car were his sisters.” Truman Capote, 1951).

Such derogatory devolution of terms applied to women is sadly common in English. The epithet “hussy,” for instance, is derived from the honorable “housewife.” On the bright side (I guess), “floozie” is such an antiquated term that it is almost always used in a joking sense today.