Well, work does make me sick.
Dear Word Detective: I was waiting for a call at work yesterday, so I sent an email asking if someone could take a message if I was indisposed. Immediately, I got an email from my older boss asking if I was alright. Puzzled, I looked up “indisposed” in the dictionary and learned that it meant either “ill” or “unwilling.” I’ve always used it as a synonym for “busy.” When I asked my similarly-aged friends, they also thought it meant “busy.” Has the meaning of “indisposed” changed over the span of a generation? — Kate Robinson.
This has turned out to be a very interesting question. My initial reaction was “not that I know of,” but a quick hop, skip and jump through the internet indicates that I might have been a bit hasty, and that “indisposed” does indeed seem to be mutating in an unexpected direction. For the moment, however, it would probably be wise to cease using it to mean “busy” or “tied up,” since to most people it makes you sound either chronically dyspeptic or a bit like Bartleby the Scrivener (whose response to any request, in Herman Melville’s 1856 novella of that name, was “I would prefer not to”).
The root of the adjective “indisposed” is the verb “to dispose,” constructed from the Latin prefix “dis” (apart, away) plus “ponere,” meaning “to place.” The initial sense of “dispose” in English was “to arrange properly,” and this expanded into a variety of senses including “to get rid of” and, more importantly for our purposes here, “to put someone into a favorable mood to do something.” This sense gave us “disposed” meaning “thinking positively about something” or “inclined or willing to do something” (“Larry wouldn’t lend me money, but he was disposed to drive me to the bank”). “Disposed” also has been used since the 14th century in the sense of “in good health.”
“Indisposed” simply tacked the prefix “in” (here meaning “not”) to the front of “disposed” and first appeared in print in English in the early 15th century with the meaning of “not properly put in order; disorganized or unprepared,” in particular with reference to being unprepared for death (a sense now, thankfully, obsolete). Several other senses, also now obsolete, developed in the 15th century, including “of an evil disposition.” By the early 17th century, however, we had developed the two modern senses of “indisposed,” that of “mildly unwell” (“To take the indispos’d and sickly fit, for the sound man,” King Lear, Shakespeare, 1608) and “unwilling or averse to” (“Hardhearted, and indisposed unto Acts of bounty,” 1665).
The emerging use of “indisposed” to mean “busy” or “unavailable” seems to be an extension of the long-standing use of “indisposed” as a euphemism employed in cases where the truth would be either embarrassing (the person is in the bathroom, for instance) or socially offensive (the person simply doesn’t wish to see or talk to you). The fact that “indisposed” is a fairly snooty-sounding word has also lent to its use as a sarcastic or humorous euphemism for being drunk, being absent from work for another reason (such as having been fired) and even for being in jail. Such humorous use of “indisposed” is fairly common in films and the more literate TV sitcoms, where the humor usually relies on “indisposed” being a substantial understatement of the seriousness of the actual situation (e.g., the “indisposed” party is dead and stuffed in the closet).
It seems that if a term is used frequently enough in popular culture as sarcasm, folks will sometimes begin to regard it as a simple synonym, which is apparently what is happening with “indisposed.” Rather than being used as a vague excuse, implying temporary illness, for not doing something or talking to someone, it’s now being used to mean simply “busy or unavailable.” Given a few more decades, this may become an accepted use of the word, but for the moment, as the reaction of your boss illustrated, it’s probably better to stick to a simple “tied up.”
So don’t turn up your nose.
Dear Word Detective: As if by unconscious reflex, I used the phrase “nothing to sneeze at” during dinner conversation. I was then plagued by doubt as to what the expression actually meant, where it came from, and whether I had used it correctly. The doubt was such a strong sensation that I promptly forgot what I had said, so you won’t be able to arbitrate on the propriety of my usage, but I would like to know the meaning and origin of this simile or idiom. — Adam Adamson.
Dontcha hate it when that happens? I mean, you’re sitting there, holding your own in conversation while keeping one eye on the last roll in the basket and hoping for a distraction at the other end of the table so you can snag it without looking like a pig who eats five rolls, and suddenly you realize that your mouth has just said something very strange without consulting your brain first and everyone freezes, waiting for you to finish your sentence, but you can’t talk and the room begins to spin and the next thing you know you’re walking home in the cold, bitter rain and realizing that you never did get that last roll. I hate that.
Speaking of sneezing, as were apparently about to do, I vividly remember talking to a colleague many years ago about a job he once held in a warehouse in the fur district of Manhattan. Yes, New York City has a fur district, on West 29th Street. Anyway, he said that the worst part of the job, which involved wrangling huge piles of mink, sable and the like, was the suffocating clouds of airborne fur. Years later he said that he couldn’t even talk about it without wanting to sneeze.
Of course, the signature characteristic of a sneeze is that it’s not usually something you can decide to do. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the verb “to sneeze” as “To drive or emit air or breath suddenly through the nose and mouth by an involuntary and convulsive or spasmodic action, accompanied by a characteristic sound.” The sound, of course, varies a bit and I have known people whose sneeze sounds a lot like a dog whistle, which I’ve always thought would be a bother for dog owners. All sorts of things can cause a sneeze; many people (including me) exhibit “photic sneezing” whenever they’re exposed to bright light such as the sun or the searchlight of a police helicopter. Don’t ask.
The root of “sneeze” was the Old English verb “fneosan,” which meant “to sneeze or snort,” and came from Germanic root with many relatives in other European languages. The transition from the “fn” beginning of the word to our modern “sn” is a bit hard to explain. In the 14th century we were using the form “fnese,” but by the 15th century “fnese” has been replaced by simply “nese” or “neese,” which eventually became “sneeze.” It is possible that someone had simply misread the “f” of “fnese” as an “s” (making “snese” and eventually “sneeze”). But it’s also possible that during the period when we were using “neese” someone decided to make a more emphatic form of the word by tacking an “s” to the front of the word. In any case, the origin of all these forms, from the Germanic root onward, was “imitative,” i.e., concocted as an imitation of the sound of a sneeze.
“To sneeze at” something or someone is a colloquial usage, first appearing in the early 19th century, meaning “to regard as of little worth; to disparage, disregard or despise” (“It’s a sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at,” 1806). This sense may seem odd, since demonstrating contempt is a deliberate act and sneezing usually isn’t, but it’s helpful to note that the original sense of the verb included “snorting” as well as sneezing, so “to sneeze at” something or someone is rhetorically equivalent to snorting in derision or distaste. The use of “sneeze at” today is almost always in the negative “nothing to sneeze at” or similar forms, meaning that the thing under consideration may appear modest or trivial but is actually at least somewhat important or impressive (“As I am situated, £300 or £400 a-year is not to be sneezed at,” 1813).
Shine on brightly?
Dear Word Detective: I don’t wish to annoy, but “Away With Words” were dismissive about my pondering over the possible origin of “shenanigans,” otherwise logged as “Origin unknown.” While researching “shining,” I was intrigued by its relation to “monkeyshines,” and my brain formed the word-picture of Aunty, settin’ out on the front porch in her rocking chair, overseeing her charges and observing “There they go shinin’ agin.” Some words evolve in mysterious ways, but this seems a plausible scenario. — Jeroboam Bramblejam.
Hmm. By “Away With Words,” I’m assuming you mean “A Way with Words,” the US public radio show (www.waywordradio.org) on which Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette answer listeners’ questions about words and language. I’ve never, I must admit, actually heard the show because, as far as I know, no station around here carries it. Our local public radio station, for instance, seems to be on a mission to make people hate classical music by playing nonstop Aaron Copeland cowboy music and Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Freaking Rome. I suppose I could listen to the podcast of “A Way with Words,” but the word “podcast” makes me queasy. Anyway, Grant Barrett is a crackerjack lexicographer and Martha Barnette has written several books on word origins, so if they gave your theory short shrift on the air I’m sure it was for lack of time. Me, I have oodles of time, so you’ve come to the right place.
“Shenanigan” is a classic American colloquial invention, first appearing in print (as far as we know at the moment) in a San Francisco newspaper in 1855 (“Are you quite sure? No shenanigan?”). The initial meaning of “shenanigan” seemed to be something akin to “funny business,” trickery, intrigue, deception or fraud in business or civic dealings (“Consider them all .? guilty (of ‘shenanigan’) until they are proved innocent,” Mark Twain, 1862). By the early 20th century, however, “shenanigan” (especially in the plural form “shenanigans”) was being used in a more lighthearted sense to mean “tricks, pranks, silliness” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “an exhibition of high spirits” (“The entire household looks on, laughing at the girls’ shenanigans,” 1969).
The origin of “shenanigan” is considered “unknown,” but several possibilities have been suggested, the most plausible, in my view, being the Irish word “sionnachulghim,” meaning “to play tricks, to be foxy” (from “sionnach,” fox). Another possible source is the Spanish “chanada,” a clipped form of “charranada,” meaning “trick.”
The lighthearted “silliness” sense of “shenanigan” is, as you noticed, quite close to the US colloquial term “monkeyshines,” which first appeared in print around 1832 meaning “prank, trick or antic behavior.” Monkeys figure prominently in words and phrases describing disruptive, but usually harmless, behavior, such as “monkey business,” “monkey around,” and others. The “shine” in “monkeyshines” originally, in the early 19th century, meant a party, but was also used to mean “a ruckus,” “a trick or caper,” and even “a fondness or liking” (“I wonst had an old flame I took sumthin of a shine to,” 1839). It’s possible that this “shine” is the same as the common noun meaning “radiance,” but a more likely source is the English dialectical terms “shindy” and “shinty,” both used to mean “commotion,” and both related to “shinny,” a game similar to field hockey played in the 17th century, named for the cry “Shin ye!” used in the game.
And now the envelope, please. Given the fact that “shenanigan” has plausible sources in both Irish and Spanish, and that early forms of the word were substantially different (“shenanegan,” “shenannikin,” et al.), it seems very unlikely that the word arose as a blending of the phrase “shining again.”
In fact, I can think of only one instance where a phrase of two or more words became a single word. “Ampersand” was originally the phrase “and per se and,” which was tacked onto the end of 18th century recitations of the English alphabet because “&” was then considered a letter capable of standing alone as a word (“per se,” by itself). The symbol we call an “ampersand” today is actually a symbolic rendition of the Latin “et” (meaning “and”) was pronounced as “and.” So “and per se and” meant “and, standing alone, and.” It’s an unlikely, but true, story. But the development of “ampersand” is solidly documented, which, unfortunately, that old lady on the porch is not.