And don’t even think about pulling out your coupons.
Dear Word Detective: This is one of those expressions we use so often it only just occurred to me to wonder how it developed. We can bind something, and something can be bound to something (like with twine). But how is something “bound” to happen, or “bound” to be? Tied to the fate of that eventuality? Sorry if this seems so obvious, but it’s been niggling at at me in the background since it came up. Ooh, how about “niggle”? Oh by the way, reading Terry Pratchett’s latest book, I came upon “dree (one’s) weird,” which I was able to look up, and think we should reintroduce into everyday discourse. Oh the possibilities! — Margaret Lethbridge-Cejku.
Uh, that’s three different words you’ve got there. No problemo, of course, but it reminded me of one of the strange things I noticed when we moved from New York City to Ohio. Out here, folks seem weirdly tolerant of people who join the “ten items or fewer” lane at the supermarket with 47 items in their cart. People behind them might mutter a bit, but it’s all very restrained. If they tried that kind of nonsense in a New York City supermarket, they’d be limping home with yogurt in their hair.
Your question about “bound” is a good one. There are actually four separate “bounds” in English, only one of which is directly related to the common verb “to bind,” meaning “to make secure, restrict, etc.” This “bound,” the past participle of “bind,” carries the figurative sense of “compelled or obliged” (“bound by his promise”) as well as “determined” (“bound to succeed”) and “fated, destined” (“bound to lose all his money in a silly scheme”). This is the “bound to happen or to be” sense in your question. In Old English, this word was “bunden,” which lives on in the somewhat antiquated phrase “bounden duty.”
The slightly older “bound” meaning “prepared to go” or “going,” as in “bound for college,” etc., comes from the Old Norse word “buinn,” which meant “to get ready.” Although this “bound” and the “destined” “bound” above are etymologically separate, there is some overlap, and it’s not easy to tell which “bound” is at work in phrases such as “We are bound to win.”
As for the two other “bounds,” things get a bit simpler. “Bound” meaning “limit” (as in “out of bounds”) comes from the Latin “bodina,” as does “boundary.” “Bound” as a verb meaning “to leap” comes ultimately from the Old French “bondir,” meaning “echo or rebound.”
The origin of to “niggle,” meaning “to be fussy, stingy” or, in the sense you used it, “to annoy, gnaw at,” first appeared in the 16th century, but its origin is unknown. A “niggling” thought, worry or doubt is not a major one, but one just annoying enough to drive you a bit crazy.
“To dree one’s weird” is indeed a great phrase. “Dree” is a very old word found mostly in Northern England and Scotland today meaning “to perform” or “to endure, to submit to.” Although we use “weird” today primarily as an adjective meaning “strange or uncanny,” it was originally a noun meaning “fate or destiny,” or, in a personified sense, the three Fates themselves (who appear as the “weird sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Thus “to dree one’s weird” means to endure one’s fate or submit to one’s destiny, and the phrase dates back to at least the 14th century.
Hint: It’s easier if you name them with numbers.
Dear Word Detective: As the proud father of several (if not more) teenage kids, ownership is a subject which often crops up. This may relate to either the desirability of ownership (“That’s MY iPod charger”) or to the opposite (“It’s YOUR room, you clean it up”). This brought up a debate about the word “belong.” On the face of it, it seems so simple. Can it really mean simply that one individual has “had” something for a sufficient time to claim ownership over its previous owner, i.e., that skateboard belongs to (has “been long” with) me? If that is indeed the case, then it’s just possible that my neighbor can claim ownership of my electric drill, as he’s had it for well over three years and doesn’t show any sign of wanting to return it. Help! – Simon Silverwood.
Hey, I can swing by your house next week and count your kids for you if it’ll help. I know the feeling. People, especially supermarket cashiers for some reason, keep asking how many cats we have, and we’ve decided that from now on we’re just gonna say “five.” There may be a few more hiding under the couch, but we’re certain we have five. Of course, the only proper answer to “How many cats do you have?” is “How many do you want?”
Your hunch about the logic behind “belong” is, if not really in the ballpark, at least in the parking lot of the ballpark. In the beginning was the adjective “long,” which first appeared in Old English from Germanic roots, generally meaning (as it does today) “of a great extent in spatial measurement or duration” (e.g., “a long rope” or “a long time”) or as part of a phrase specifying length or duration (“three feet long”).
“Long” as an adjective went on to develop a dizzying range of uses both literal and figurative, but, most importantly for our purposes, it also spawned the verb “to long.” More precisely, it gave us two verbs “to long,” which are sometimes considered separate words but which are pretty clearly closely related. The older form of “to long” originally meant simply “to grow longer or lengthen,” but it also meant, as it does today, “to yearn for, to desire deeply,” a sense probably based on the sense of “thinking or feeling for a long time.”
The other “to long,” now considered archaic, meant “to be appropriate to” or “to be a part of.” This second sense of “to long” as a verb has faded from general use because it was replaced by “to belong” in the 14th century. “Belong” has, naturally, acquired its own wide range of meanings since then, from “to appropriately or habitually accompany” (“Grief has a natural Eloquence belonging to it,” 1712) to “to be a member of” (“Those who belong to the rank and file of life need this warning most,”1884) to the “to be legally or rightfully the property of” (“Thy buxom wench … Belongs a better man than thee,” 1764).
The question is, of course, how “belong” relates to the “length or duration” sense underlying “long” as an adjective. In the first place, the “be” of “belong” is not the common “to be” verb meaning “to exist or persist.” It’s not a verb at all. This “be” is an intensifying prefix, dating back to Old English, meaning roughly “very much” or “thoroughly” (and also found in verbs such as “to bedazzle”). So if something “belongs” to you, that “be” doesn’t mean that it has “been long” in your possession. It means that it really is your property. So your neighbor should give back your drill.
So what’s “long” about “belong”? The “long” of “belong” apparently originally carried the sense of “being of equal length,” which was broadened to mean “running alongside of, parallel to, accompanying, or being a property of.” Thus if I “belong” to a family or club, I “travel alongside” them (in a metaphorical sense at least), and my possessions “belong” to me in that they are closely bound to me, even if I lend them to my neighbor for a few years.
Dear Word Detective: When I read the dictionary, I almost always check out the etymology of words. But I look askance at the phrase “origin unknown.” That is a very disappointing phrase, but I know that lexicographers use it to mean that the origin is not known absolutely, positively, beyond all fear of jeopardization. It does not mean there are no clues at all. So when I was wondering about the origin of “askance,” and was told it was unknown, I speculated that perhaps the Word Detective might know more about it than nothing at all. Any clues? — William Blum.
I know the feeling. Boy, do I know the feeling. Looking up the origin of an interesting word and seeing the blunt and merciless notation “origin unknown” is like getting a box of socks for your birthday. No fun at all. And there’s something in the human spirit (thank heavens) that refuses to accept that verdict. After all, every word comes from somewhere, right? There are times when that brick wall of “unknown” drives me a little bit nuts. Case in point: the word “pediddle,” US slang meaning a car with only one working headlight, has been making me crazy for about fifteen years. Forget certainty; no reputable source has even a hint of a guess as to where it came from when it first appeared in the late 1940s. Not a clue. Here’s a word that almost every teenager in America seemed to know (in the 1960s, at least), and it might as well have been imported from Mars.
You’re correct about why lexicographers are reluctant to make guesses about word origins in most dictionaries. (By the way, “jeopardization” is a fine word, though my spell checker doesn’t like it). Sometimes you’ll see a brave little “perhaps” preceding an especially plausible theory, but dictionaries quite rightly would rather frustrate readers than mislead them. A historical dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is, thankfully, more in the business of proposing possible sources of words (which makes their curt “origin unknown” in the case of “pediddle” even more distressing).
“Askance” first appeared in English in the 16th century with the meaning “obliquely, askew, with a side glance,” but quickly acquired its more common modern sense of “with suspicion, distrust or disapproval” (“India’s government also looks askance on Mr Obama’s wider Asian strategy,” The Economist, 10/28/10).
The OED begins its etymology note for “askance” with the usual “origin unknown,” but then, bless its daring little heart, goes on to offer a bit of speculation. Probably the most likely source of the word (or at least most often ventured in sources I’ve checked) is the Italian phrase “a schiancio,” meaning “slanting, on a slope, across,” which would certainly fit with the literal “askance” meaning “obliquely or sideways.” Another good possibility mentioned by the OED is the Old Norse “a ska,” meaning “sideways or slanted,” which in turn seems likely to be related to our English “askew,” which is very close to “askance” in meaning. There’s also the theory, which is unmentioned by the OED and strikes me as far-fetched, that “askance” somehow goes all the way back to the Latin “quasi,” meaning “as if.” As if, indeed.
The problem tracing “askance,” as the OED explains in tiny type, is that the 15th and 16th centuries produced a slew of terms in English beginning with “ask” including, in addition to “askew” and “askance,” such now-obsolete creations as “askoyne,” “askile” and “asquint.” All these terms were closely related in meaning, and, as the OED says, “seem to have influenced one another in form.” That means that the spelling of any one of these words may be a red herring and not a valid clue as to its source. It’s as if “askance,” having noticed that it was being followed, donned a fake beard and stovepipe hat and blended into a crowd of Lincoln impersonators.
Personally, I tend to favor the Old Norse “a ska” theory, if for no other reason than that it provides a solid link to “askew.” But at this point we are unlikely to ever free “askance” from that “origin unknown” label.