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Sit Proud

Much classier than “stick out,” I guess. But it’s still a freakin’ tree.

Dear Word Detective: I had lunch with a friend today and we got to talking about Christmas trees (we talk about all sorts of stuff).  He described his pre-lighted tree as having lights that “sat proud of the branches.” I don’t believe I ever heard anyone use that term in actual conversation. Where does it come from? He thought woodworking. I said, “Or maybe it’s nautical.” He just sneered. — Bob McGill.

Well, there you go. That’s why I don’t have friends. Always sneering at you, undermining your confidence by mocking your socks, whispering things to your dog when they think you’re not looking, posting pictures of livestock on Facebook tagged with your name, and nominating you to A&E for some horrible reality show about untidy collectors. They claim they care about you, but I’ll take a house full of loyal ducks any day.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually say “sat proud” either, and I’m sort of envious. I once used the word “fungible” in a chat about furnace filters with the guy at the hardware store downtown and I’m pretty sure he thought I was talking about mold. I just like the word. It comes in handy, at least in some alternate universe in which I don’t happen to live.

“Proud,” of course, is a venerable English adjective meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “Feeling greatly honored, pleased, or satisfied by something which or someone who does one credit; acutely aware of some honor done to oneself, taking pride in something” or “Having a high or exalted opinion of one’s own worth or importance.” The root of “proud,” which first appeared in Old English, was the Old French “prod,” which meant “good, noble, prudent, wise, profitable” and similar things, which in turn came ultimately from the Latin “prodesse,” meaning “to be of value; to be good.” The noun “pride” is actually derived from the adjective “proud,” and, oddly enough, “proud” is also a noun in its own right, meaning “a proud, noble or stately person or thing” or a group of people who are proud (“The blazings of the proud will goe out in a stench and smoke,” 1628). It can even be an adverb, specifically in the phrase “to do [a person] proud,” meaning “to be a source of pride” or “to treat someone well” (“Lunch at Pauline’s. She did me proud — a half-bottle of champagne and a delicious meal,” 1986).

Meanwhile, back at “proud” the adjective, a variety of extended senses gradually developed over the centuries. “Proud” was used to mean “noble” or “stately,” “vigorous” or “valiant” (“proud warrior”), or, applied to a turbulent sea or river, “strong, tumultuous.” Of a plant or crop, “proud” meant “full of sap” or “luxuriant in growth,” especially when said plant was growing out of season (“If the winter has been open and mild, the autumn-wheat plant will have grown luxuriantly, .. so … that it may have become ‘proud,’ that is, in a precocious state of forwardness for the season,” 1844). “Proud” in this sense is also used to describe the first buds of a tree or other plant in spring.

Your friend’s use of “sat proud” to describe Christmas lights projecting notably from the branches of his “pre-lighted” tree is derived from this sense. It’s a use that first appeared in print in Scotland and Northern England in the early 19th century meaning “projecting from a surface; slightly raised,” and it can be applied to just about anything that projects or stands out from its environment (even, apparently, in automobile design: “The horn push, sited right across the central spoke of the steering wheel, is well proud of the spoke and this gives rise to occasional, accidental blasts,” 1974). “Sit proud” is a form of the established idiom “stand proud,” meaning simply “stick out” or “project.” This sense does seem to be used often in carpentry to describe a part of something that, whether by design or by accident (e.g., an errant floor board), sticks out, so your friend was onto something in his “woodworking” guess. But there’s no call for sneering.

Disingenuous, frank, and earnest

No, really. Honest.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you be frank and earnest with me and tell me about the origin of the word “disingenuous”? It makes sense to me that it might have come from someone not being “in genuine,” but since that seems logical, it’s probably not true. And if you have any time to spare, how about Frank and Ernest? Are the names related to being frank and earnest? — KT Kamp.

That’s a heck of a question. Are you sure you don’t want to throw in Sam and Janet Evening? How about Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg, the unfortunately-named sisters? There actually was an Ima Hogg (1882-1975), daughter of Big Jim Hogg, Governor of Texas. Ima became a noted philanthropist and patron of the arts. Ura Hogg, however, didn’t actually exist. Texas legend has it that when Big Jim Hogg was campaigning for re-election as Governor in 1892, he took along Ima and a friend of hers, whom he jokingly introduced as Ima’s sister Ura. Ima spent the rest of her life being asked whatever happened to her non-existent sister.

Ima apparently decided rather late in life to try going by the name “Imogene,” an effort which might have been slightly disingenuous, though understandable. But “disingenuous” is a bit too harsh anyway, because to be “disingenuous” is to be consciously dishonest and insincere while (and this is the important part) striving to appear innocently sincere (“Bob’s sending flowers to Ted in the hospital was disingenuous, since he was the one who put the rat poison in Ted’s taco”). We’ve been accusing folks of being “disingenuous” since the mid-17th century.

At its etymological level, “disingenuous” simply employs the prefix “dis” in its “not” sense, leaving us with the meaning “not ingenuous,” which is nice because “ingenuous” is a much more interesting word. The original meaning of “ingenuous” when it first appeared in English in the 17th century was “noble in character; kind, generous, high-minded.” It was derived from the Latin “ingenuus,” meaning “free-born, native, having the qualities of a free man” (“in” plus “gen,” root of “gignere,” to beget). Given that noble lineage was equated at the time with personal virtue, it’s not surprising that “ingenuous” was expanded to mean “honest, open, candid” and similar nice things. By the late 17th century, however, “ingenuous” had narrowed into its usual modern meaning of “innocent; innocently open and frank, guileless” (“These were fine notions to have got into the head of an ingenuous country maiden,” 1877). This modern sense can also be found in the French equivalent “ingenu” which, in the feminine form “ingenue,” is used in English to mean an innocent young woman, especially in a novel or drama. “Ingenuous” is also sometimes used to mean “clumsy; lacking craft or subtlety” (“His ingenuous attempts to frighten voters backfired badly”), and back in the 17th century, several authors, including Shakespeare, mistakenly used “ingenuous” to mean “ingenious.”

“Ernest” as a man’s name is indeed drawn from “earnest” the adjective, specifically from the French form of the Germanic “Ernst,” which signified “earnestness.” The adjective “earnest,” which we use today to mean “serious, honest and intense,” first appeared in Old English, derived from the noun “earnest” meaning “seriousness” and ultimately based on the Germanic root “ern,” meaning “vigor.”

“Frank” is a near-synonym of “earnest,” meaning “candid and direct,” and comes from the Franks, the Germanic nations that conquered Gaul in the 6th century (and from whom the nation of France takes its name). In English, where it appeared in the 14th century, “frank” as an adjective originally meant “free; not in serfdom or bondage” because, in Gaul under the Franks, only the Franks were truly free. Through a few twists and turns over the centuries, this “free” sense came to mean “unrestricted, open, honest, undisguised” (“The manners of the Afghans are frank and open,” 1815). The name “Frank” for the Germanic nations is uncertain, but the personal name “Frank” is clearly related to the Frank heritage, whether with regard to the Frankish nations themselves or to the later “honest” connotation of the word.

“Frank and earnest,” is a duplicative fixed phrase often employed in government press statements (“After frank and earnest discussions, all parties have agreed to give themselves raises”). More constructively, it was the inspiration in 1972 for the creation of “Frank and Ernest,” a very popular single-panel newspaper comic strip originally drawn by Bob Thaves (and now by his son Tom).

Pursuit of happiness

Bad news, dude. We’ve settled for Happy Hour.

[Note: this column was written in January, 2012 (when subscribers read it).]

Dear Word Detective:  Rick Santorum is telling us that, in the days of the Founding Fathers, “happiness” meant living in accordance with moral principles, rather than the current meaning of a state of emotional well-being. I am skeptical; how about you? — Harold Russell.

Land O’ Goshen, are you people having another election? Laws, talk about slow learners. I warned you last time that no good would come of such foolishness. The whole ruckus is just a magnet for mountebanks and charlatans, a giant national dinner bell for every grifter and con artist north, south, east and west of the Pecos, wherever the heck the Pecos are. And then y’all always come crying, “He broke his promises!” Well of course he did. He has you in his pocket, and now he wants to hang out with all those other people you thought he didn’t like. Did everybody around here sleep through junior high school? Wasn’t this the plot of ten zillion ABC Afterschool Specials?

Anyway, thanks for an interesting question. I also like this question because it proves to me that my resolution of a few months ago to stop listening to any of these clowns is working, because I had no idea Mister … Santorum (which one is he again?) said any such thing. But the Google says he did, and the Google never lies. Maybe I should vote for the Google. It’s a corporation, and thus a person, so why not?

Onward. Apparently Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania and current presidential candidate, was addressing some college students in New Hampshire the other day, in the course of which, according to, “Santorum explained that when the Declaration of Independence promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it did not mean happiness as we know it today. ‘Happiness is not enjoyment or pleasure,’ Santorum said. ‘Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do.'” He reportedly also noted that “America is not a melting pot. It’s a salad bowl.” Oh goody. Wake me when it’s over.

The relevant text of the Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The noun “happiness” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “The quality or condition of being happy.” The adjective “happy” first appeared in the 14th century with the meaning “lucky; fortunate,” which made sense because “happy” was based on the noun “hap” (from the Old Norse “happ”), meaning “luck” or “good fortune.” Other descendants of “hap” include “happen” (originally meaning “to occur by chance” rather than, as now, simply “to occur”) and “hapless,” meaning “unlucky.” In modern use, “happy” is most often used to mean “having a great feeling of pleasure or contentedness.”

So the question posed by Senator Santorum’s “clarification” is whether the noun “happiness,” back around 1776, meant something other than the state of being happy, content, satisfied with one’s lot, etc. Thanks to the tireless folks at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we have a pretty complete record of how “happiness” has been used since it first appeared in the early 16th century.

There have, indeed, been various shades of meaning attached to “happiness” over the years. From the earliest “Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success, prosperity” (OED) came, in the 1590s, “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” (OED). The only other major sense to develop was around 1600, when Shakespeare introduced the use of “happiness” meaning “Successful or felicitous aptitude, fitness, suitability, or appropriateness” (OED) (“Claudio: He is a very proper man. Prince: He hath indeed a good outward happiness …,” Much Ado about Nothing).

I suppose that one could attempt to stretch “The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good” to fit the former Senator’s definition (“Happiness means to do the right thing — to do not what we want to do, but what we ought to do”), but it really won’t work. It’s pretty clear that the Founders intended “the pursuit of happiness” to mean “a fair shot at success, enjoyment of life and contentment” not “the chance to do what is right.” People should do the right thing, of course, but Mr. Santorum should argue that point on its own merits, not by mangling history.