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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


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Dear Word Detective: I was strolling through our local tire shop recently when one of those “Why hasn’t this occurred to me before?” questions popped into my head: is there any connection between the “tires” a car runs on and the word “tired,” meaning fatigued? If so, is it because they eventually wear out, or what? — Dan.

Your “local tire shop,” eh? You have just one? Around here we have at least one every hundred yards or so; tire shops are almost as numerous as nail salons. One wonders why no one has yet combined the businesses into a shop called “Tires & Nails.” On second thought, I think I know.

There is, alas, no relation between the rubber doughnut that cars and truck roll on called a “tire” and the verb “to tire,” meaning to make or become fatigued (of which “tired” is a participial form). But both these “tires” are interesting words in their own right, so we’ll take that fact as a consolation prize.

The verb “to tire” is the older of the two, first appearing in Old English as “tiorian,” meaning “to diminish, come to an end, fail.” The origins of this “tire” are uncertain, but it may come from an Indo-European root with the sense “to lack.” By the 15th century “tire” was in common use in both intransitive and transitive forms, meaning, respectively, “to become exhausted” and “to make weary, to exhaust.” The early senses of both forms referred to literal physical exhaustion from hard labor or exertion, but by the 16th century our modern figurative uses of “tire” appeared, meaning “to be exhausted by repetition or excess; to become sick of” (intransitive) and “to make someone sick of something; to bore” (transitive).

The vehicular sort of “tire” dates back to the 15th century, and at that time meant the curved pieces of iron plate (called “strakes”) fastened around the edges of wooden carriage wheels to minimize wear (essentially horseshoes for wagon wheels). “Tires” eventually became continuous strips of metal, then inflated rubber tubes, and the modern tire shop was born.

The noun “tire,” however, had actually appeared in English more than 200 years earlier than its first “wheel” use, initially meaning simply “dress, apparel, covering,” which makes perfect sense because “tire” is simply an aphetic, or clipped form, of the familiar noun “attire,” meaning “clothing, costume, equipment or ornamentation.” The noun “attire” comes from the verb, meaning originally “to put in order, prepare” (from the Old French “atirier,” put in order).

Today we use “attire” to mean “clothing” or “personal outfit,” and the shortened form “tire” is used almost exclusively to mean those air-filled rubber things on your wheels, so there’s very little overlap. I do worry a bit, however, about those students who may, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, come across a line using “tire” in the old “clothing” sense, e.g., “You in Grecian tires are painted new.” Today that probably sounds like someone is restoring a classic car.

July – August Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, that was fun. It rained here for 23 out of the 31 days in July. And this wasn’t a gentle drizzle; it was usually torrential downpours that flooded roads and knocked out power in our area, which may have had something to do with the fact that our landline telephone stopped working on July 2nd, stayed out for eight days, and hasn’t really worked right ever since then. Oddly enough, the DSL internet on our phone line kinda worked some of that time, albeit at sub-modem speeds (23 kb/s, way too slow to be useful). But after much sturm und drang with Frontier (who bought up Verizon’s rural accounts several years ago), we finally got it fixed. Sortof. Yay.

The very next day our refrigerator died. No kidding. Unfortunately, that happened right after our weekly grocery-shopping trip. We only shop once a week because the nearest real supermarket is a 30-mile round trip, and we tend to accumulate staples (butter, milk, frozen vegetables, frozen chicken, etc.) whenever we can. So this ruined at least $200 of food. It took another ten days and $200+ to get it fixed.

And then … the phone died again. This time you could get a dial tone, but it was hard to hear it over the crashing static. DSL speeds dropped to 1.6 kb/s, too slow even to send a short email. This is where we are now; the phone is utterly unusable and the internet is a bad, useless joke. I’m gonna have to wait and hope for a fast period to post this update — oddly enough, every so often, usually for ten minutes or so late at night, we’d get 290 kb/s, an actual usable speed. It’s almost as if they (Frontier) were doing it on purpose. Oh wait, there’s a lawsuit in West Virginia alleging exactly that. The comments on that article are a window on Frontier’s business practices.

The real problem with Frontier is that they have no competition out here (there is no cable TV or internet, satellite internet is way too expensive, and even local dialup  is famously unreliable). It’s not the infrastructure; we never had these problems with Verizon. And the fact that it sometimes runs at usable speeds means that the “problem” is way upstream of us. They’ve apparently oversold their antiquated network and would rather spend money on lobbyists than improving service.

Onward. I would have updated this site earlier (during the brief periods when we had internet), but on top of all this I’m having some truly bizarre visual problems, mostly in my right eye. I’m used to the flashes of light, eye pain and periods of extreme fuzziness common to multiple sclerosis, but this is like having an LED billboard at the right edge of my vision, one that moves and ripples and tilts in a disturbingly psychedelic fashion.

So this issue is way late, for which I am sorry.

As always, we depend to an alarming degree on your continued support and donations, which can be directed here.

And now, on with the show….

Extend, Pretend, etc.

My back paystubs.

Dear Word Detective: I was driving into work this morning thinking that perhaps I should extend my vacation. That made me wonder: what is the relationship between “extend” and “pretend”? — Inesa.

I know the feeling. I used to get it all the time on my morning subway ride. Eventually I took a leave of absence from my job and just never went back. After a few years (!) they sent me a letter saying I no longer worked there, which is nice to know. But I still have anxious dreams of being yelled at for not filling out my time sheets. Oh well.

One thing’s clear when you start looking at the history of “extend” and “pretend”: you’re definitely going to get your money’s worth. Both words are members of a large family, call it “the Tends,” with lots of descendants.

In the beginning was the Proto-Indo-European root “ten,” meaning “to stretch” (source of the adjective and verb “tense”). From that came the Latin verb “tendere” (meaning “to stretch, point, direct, touch, offer”), and we were off and running. With the help of some common Latin prefixes, we ended up with scads of “tend” words, including “attend,” “contend,” “distend,” “intend,” “extend,” “portend,” “pretend,” “subtend” and, of course, “bartend.”

English actually has two verbs we might call “just plain tend,” which are considered separate words although they both come from “tendere.” “Tend” in the sense of “to care for, watch over” is actually an aphetic, or cropped, form of “attend,” which we borrowed from Old French in the 15th century and rests on the sense of “stretching” one’s mind, ears, eyes, etc., “towards” an object, person, etc. Our other “tend,” meaning “to have an inclination to do something” (“Bob tends to ignore instructions”), appeared in English around the same time.

“Intend” comes from the Latin “intendere,” meaning “to turn one’s attention to” (literally “to stretch toward”) which also included the sense of “to plan.” “Extend,” which appeared in the 14th century, was derived from the Latin “extendere,” meaning “to stretch out, expand.” The original, now obsolete, sense of “extend” implied strong stretching or straining, but the weaker sense of “straighten or extend” (as one “extends” one’s arm) had appeared by the late 14th century. The sense of “prolong in duration” first appeared in the late 16th century. Today we also use “extend” in senses including the geographic sense of “cover” (as in “His sales territory extends as far as California”) and “hold out, put forward” in (as in “He extended an offer of settlement to the victim”).

“Pretend,” which also appeared in English in the 14th century, comes ultimately from the Latin verb “praetendere” (“prae” meaning “before,” plus our old pal “tendere,” to stretch). One of the senses of the Latin verb, carried into Anglo-Norman and from there to English, was “to put forward as a pretext or reason; to deceptively allege.” So “pretend” has a long history of deception.

However, one interesting use of “pretend,” now largely obsolete, meant simply “to put forward a claim,” not necessarily with an implication of dishonest intent. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time of considerable governmental instability in Europe, there were a number of folks who asserted claims to various thrones, most notably in Britain. Some of these “pretenders to the throne” were deluded, some were the cat’s-paws of schemers and rogues, but some probably had a good case for being, say, Charles III (who failed in his efforts, and is known today as Bonnie Prince Charlie).