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Trivia

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Hoon

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Hay mow

Hey Now

Dear Word Detective: I grew up on a farm in central Illinois. We always referred to the upper part of the barn as the “hay mow.” A great place to play! My friend who grew up on a Missouri farm didn’t know what I was talking about. She said they simply called it the “hay loft.” So what does “mow” mean? It’s not pronounced like “moe,” but like “cow.” — Susan.

Interesting question. It took me a while after moving from New York City to rural Ohio to learn the difference between hay (various kinds of grass, etc., used primarily as food for livestock) and straw (dried stalks of threshed grain, used primarily for livestock bedding). A few years ago, our neighbor, who has about three acres of front lawn (as do we), got sick of having to mow it every week (as do I). Now he just mows around the edges and grows hay in the middle, which he sells to a local farmer. I’d love to do the same, but we have too many trees. Perhaps we should sell both hay and firewood.

The key to the mystery of “hay-mow” (and the reason that the “mow” in “hay-mow” rhymes with “cow”) is that there are actually two separate “mows” in English. (Truth be told, there are eleven “mows,” six nouns and five verbs, but we’re only going to examine the two most common forms.)

When we “mow” (rhymes with “moe”) the lawn, we’re using the verb “to mow,” meaning “to cut down grass or grain with a scythe or machine.” This “mow” is very old word, going back to Indo-European roots with the sense of “to cut.” The transferred sense of “mow” meaning “to cut down in battle; to destroy or kill indiscriminately or in great numbers” appeared in the 16th century. The use of “mow down” to mean “strike with an automobile” is first attested in print in  the 1960s, but it’s probably much older.

The “mow” in “hay-mow” (rhymes with “cow”) is a completely unrelated noun meaning “a heap or stack of hay, grain, corn, etc.” or “a place, especially a part of a barn, where hay or corn is heaped up and stored.” This “mow” is also a very old word (“muga” in Old English) that comes from Germanic roots meaning “heap.” While we’re at it, “hay” meaning “grass cut for fodder” is a similarly ancient word, in this case going back to roots meaning “that which can be mowed,” presumably with a scythe or similar tool.

So a “hay-mow” is simply a heap (“mow,” the “rhymes with cow” one) of hay, which may or may not be stored in a barn. Strictly speaking, a pile of hay (aka “haystack”) in a field is also a “hay-mow,” though the term is so associated with a pile of hay stored in a barn that “mow” has also come to mean that part of the barn itself. As you’ve noticed, such a part of the barn, if elevated, is also known as a “hay loft” (“loft” being an Old Norse word meaning “air or sky” as well as “upper room”).

So there’s that, but here’s this: there’s also the curious term “mowhay” to consider, although you’re very unlikely to encounter it in the American Midwest. A “mowhay” is an enclosure (often a little shed or enclosed yard) used to store a “mow” or “mows,” heaps of hay, corn, etc. Interestingly, the “hay” in “mowhay” is not the fodder sort of “hay,” though that is often its contents. This “hay” is a very old English dialect word meaning “fence” or “hedge,” and comes, in fact, from the same roots that gave us “hedge” (which used to mean any sort of boundary or fence, not necessarily one composed of shrubbery). So a “mowhay” could as well be called a “hay-hay,” assuming you’re not afraid of being mistaken for Krusty the Clown.

Buffoon

Dear Word Detective: Watching Donald Trump dip his toe into the waters of politics has started me thinking about the various words that describe him. Can you tell me the origin of the word “buffoon”? — John Clogg.

Yeah, sure, no problemo. But I have to note at the outset that I neither endorse nor refudiate use of that term in regard to Mr. Trump. Speaking as a former long-time resident of the Big Apple, however, I must say that I find the national prominence that The Donald has attained a bit surprising. For most of the time I lived in New York City, he was regarded as just a local curiosity on a par with Curtis Sliwa or John Gotti. Gotti’s dead now, of course, and Sliwa rates a big “Who?” on most people’s fame-o-meters. (Guardian Angels patrols on the subways, remember?) But somehow Trump parlayed multiple bankruptcies, scary orange hair and a total absence of taste into a national TV career. Things like this make me start to believe all that stuff about 2012.

“Buffoon” is not, of course, a term you would apply to someone you admire. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “buffoon” as “A clown; a jester,” “A person given to clowning and joking,” and “A ludicrous or bumbling person; a fool.” In common usage today, the synonyms that “buffoon” calls to mind are “blowhard,” “pretentious fool” and “loud-mouthed idiot.” The modern connotations of “buffoon” are harshly contemptuous, and it’s very doubtful that even a professional circus clown would feel comfortable being labeled a “buffoon” these days.

But the first “buffoons,” when the term first appeared in the 16th century, were just that — professional comic actors or jesters (Samuel Johnson defined the word as “A man whose profession is to make sport by low jests and antick postures”). English borrowed “buffoon” from the French “buffon,” which came from the Italian “buffone,” which was based on the Italian “buffa,” meaning “a jest.” That “buffa,” in turn, was connected to the verb “buffare,” meaning “to puff,” and here things get interesting. It’s possible that the use of “puffing” to refer to jokes was a reference to the light and gentle nature of the jokes and jests of a “buffoon,” or the “puffing” may refer to the jester actually puffing out his cheeks and making other funny faces.

While a “buffoon” was originally a professional jester, by the early 17th century the term had broadened to include amateur humorists, specifically the sort who consider themselves comic geniuses but strike everyone else as jerks and creeps. It was at this point that “buffoon” acquired its modern highly negative connotations. It was also this period that saw the first appearance of the noun “buffoonery,” meaning “low humor, jesting, farce.”

We still use “buffoon” and “buffoonery” in those senses, but modern usage of both terms has taken an interesting twist. While a “buffoon” was once known for making stupid or tasteless jokes, the modern “buffoon” is often a person whose transparently absurd posturing makes him (or, less frequently, her) the object of public ridicule and derisive jokes. Similarly, “buffoonery,” once a synonym for broad, vulgar humor, has come to mean self-important nonsense spouted, often in front of microphones, by a buffoon. Interestingly, given the roots of “buffoon,” this modern sense of “buffoon” fits quite nicely with the adjective “puffed-up,” meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inflated or swollen with vanity, pride, etc.; having an inflated sense of one’s importance or worth; pompous, overweening.”