Of course it’s a recovery. You people just need to clap harder.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading an interesting article yesterday that was questioning whether a college education was still worth it, due to skyrocketing education costs, horrendous associated student debt, and a dismal jobs market. The conclusion of the article was that it’s increasingly a judgment call. Cheerful stuff. I also started to ponder the word “degree.” It’s got a diverse catalog of uses: “degree” as in the old sheepskin, the college certification, “degree” as unit of temperature measurement, and “degree” as unit of geographical measurement. Can you shine a light on the derivations? And, while we’re on this topic, does “pedigree” have some distant cousin status to “degree”? I asked my cats, and they just rolled their eyes at me. — Chris Schultz, Kansas City.
Yeah, you’ll get that with cats. They march around all superior and snooty, like they graduated from some Cat Sorbonne somewhere with an advanced degree in string theory or something and haven’t got time to listen to your silly twaddle. But every so often they slip up, like a few weeks ago when I left the TV on in my office while I was working. I glanced up after a few minutes and noticed that Mister Boots was completely engrossed in a rerun of My Name Is Earl. Seriously. Oh well. Chacun son goût, I suppose. But I’m gonna draw the line at Two and a Half Men.
Wanna really depressing job? Claims taker at the Unemployment Office. Been there, done that. I lasted two months.
As it happens, there actually is an indirect connection between “degree” and “pedigree,” and it’s rather a neat one, but I’m going to let you folks speculate on what it might be while I wrestle with “degree.” I really ought to be taking bets, because you’re not likely to guess the explanation of “pedigree.”
“Degree” first appeared in English in the 13th century, from the Old French “degre,” which in turn came from the Vulgar Latin “degradus,” which was a combination of “de” (“down”) and “gradus,” meaning “step.” The same “gradus” also gave us “grade,” “gradual” and “degrade,” among other words.
The initial sense of “grade” in English was literally “one of a series of steps in a flight of stairs, or a rung of a ladder,” but it also carried over the figurative sense of “step or stage in a process” that it had acquired in Old French. One of the earliest uses of “degree” in this figurative sense was to mean the number of genealogical “steps” by which one person was separated from another, an important bit of information when deciding who was allowed to marry whom.
All our common uses of “degree” that have developed since the 13th century have centered on this metaphorical sense of “steps” to measure or indicate, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “A … stage in intensity or amount; the relative intensity, extent, measure, or amount of a quality, attribute, or action” of a thing or process. Thus when your nephew finally gets his Master’s Degree in Skateboard Studies, he has climbed another important step towards his apparent goal of permanent unemployment. This sense of “step” also underlies our use of “degree” to mean an increment of measurement of temperature, longitude or latitude, or the relation of one line to another in geometry. (Incidentally, the division of a circle into 360 degrees, which underlies both the geographic and geometric use of the term, dates back to ancient times, when some calendars measured a year as 360 days.) While all these uses depend on a “degree” being a specified value, we also use “degree” in a somewhat vaguer sense to mean simply “extent” or “amount” (“The blame for the boat’s sinking lay to a large degree with the Captain, who had been drinking for three days”).
The connection of “pedigree” to “degree” is not direct, but “pedigree” is interesting in its own right. On Medieval genealogical charts the lines indicating descent (by “degree,” of course) were, unlike on our modern charts, not horizontal and vertical but usually slanting or curved. Such charts (and later the degrees of relation they depicted) were known as “pied de grue” in Old French, meaning literally “crane’s foot,” because the branching, slanting lines resembled the footprint of a large bird. Once “pedigree” had entered English in the 15th century as “pedagrew” or “pedigrue,” its close association with “degree” in the genealogical sense (as well as the similarity in sound of “digrue” to “degree”) led to “pedigrue” slowly changing its spelling to “pedigree.”
I’d watch shotgun golf if someone would show it.
Dear Word Detective: In writing to a friend today I included the phrase “cleared the boards,” meaning that I had finished all my appointments, so I was able to see her sooner than expected. Where did this phrase come from? I tried the prime source, the vast Word Detective Archive, and then the secondary source, Google. Most of what I found was basketball reports. I hate basketball. Where did this phrase come from really? — LM.
Wow. You really hate basketball? I didn’t know that was possible, and I’ll bet I hate sports you’ve never heard of. But basketball for some reason doesn’t annoy me at all, and if I’m trapped somewhere with people watching a basketball game, I’ll watch it simply because it requires real skill and grace (unlike football) and doesn’t reek of moronic violence (again unlike, well, never mind). Baseball is also nice. It’s my favorite of all the sports that I never watch.
Unfortunately, having a vaguely positive opinion of basketball doesn’t translate into understanding the game, and I must admit that the use of “clear the boards” in the vernacular of basketball strikes me as seriously odd. I had initially assumed that the “boards” referred to were the floorboards of the basketball court, and that “clearing” them would mean something like mounting a well-organized drive towards the opponents’ basket. Wrong-o-rama. It seems that the “board” in the phrase refers to the backboard (originally wood, but now often Plexiglas) mounted behind the basket, and “boards” plural is basketball slang for rebounds off this “board” of missed shots at the basket. Having players positioned to snag these rebounds and gain or retain control of the ball is key to the game, and players are said to “clear,” “bang,” or “crash the boards” if they have a high success rate in this task.
I may, of course, be slightly off in that explanation, but it seems unlikely that “clear the boards” as you used it to mean “get all your work done and free yourself up” comes from basketball. That leaves only the other nine zillion uses of “board” in English as possible sources. For a word that first appeared around in Old English meaning simply “a thin plank of wood,” our friend “board” has developed a lot of meanings and figurative uses.
One of the developments of “board” that has produced the most figures of speech is its use to mean “table,” particularly “dining table,” and, by extension, “meal” or “food.” Thus we speak of “bed and board” and “boarding house” meaning a lodging house where at least some meals are included in the price paid by “boarders.” In the days of sailing ships, the “board” was the side of the ship near the top of the hull, giving us “on board,” “going overboard” for the act off falling into the sea, and “by the board,” which originally was said of a mast falling into the sea alongside the ship but now means “abandoned” (“A class of grammatical distinctions which have gone by the board,” 1875).
“Board” in the sense of “table” also gave us expressions drawn from the world of gambling, the second most popular use of tables after eating. So we speak of an honest person or deal being “above board,” which originally meant that all the players kept their hands above the table, indicating a basic level of honesty. A player who won a game of cards decisively was said to “sweep the board,” referring to the action of gathering up the cards or pot of money with a sweeping motion, and the phrase is still used (often with the plural “boards”) to mean to take all the prizes or honors in a contest (“Rossendale butchers sweep the board at meat ‘Oscars’,” Lancashire (UK) Telegraph).
I have found “clear the boards” used a few times online in the sense that you describe, but I haven’t found it documented in any reference work. My guess is that this use is a blend of “clear the decks” (originally meaning to remove obstacles from the deck of a ship in preparation for battle) with, perhaps, “sweep the boards.” There’s also an established phrase “to clear one’s desk,” used in a sense very close to your “clear the boards.” There might be a bit of “clear the table” (as after a meal) or perhaps a notion of some kind of scoreboard that might be zeroed out in there too. The important thing is that when I read your question the phrase “clear the boards” seemed entirely logical and clear to me.
Back away slowly, no sudden movements.
Dear Word Detective: My mom (age 91) froths at the mouth any time she hears someone use the word “further” where she thinks they should be using “farther.” Is this really a cardinal sin of grammar? I know that Dickens (my favorite go-to author when I’ve nothing else to read) uses “further” to mean “more distance/distant,” which seems a good enough authority for me, but it isn’t for her. Please further our knowledge by looking farther into this. — Lynne Foringer.
Oh heck, why not? We all have our little fits of self-destructive risk-taking. Some of us sky-dive, some of us patronize all-you-can-eat buffets, and some of us join Facebook and leave all the security settings at “Recommended.” And, about once a year, I tackle a usage question, although I ordinarily regard such expeditions with the same enthusiasm I feel about trimming my fingernails in a wood-chipper. Yet it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to heal family discord (a task for which I get to bill by the hour), so here goes.
I wish I could say that this question is just a random quirk or prejudice on your mother’s part, but the debate over “further” versus “farther” has been raging (or at least simmering) since the beginning of the 20th century. The first thing to note is that “further” and “farther” are actually the same word, two forms separated by spelling, a bit of time, and not much else. “Further” appeared in Old English as a comparative form of the word that became our modern English “forth.” “Farther” developed as a spelling variant of “further” in Middle English because people assumed that it was connected somehow to “far,” which it wasn’t. Neither “further” nor “farther” actually has any etymological connection to “far.”
For most of their history, “further” and “farther” were used interchangeably, as they still are by many people. Usage mavens abhor a vacuum, however, and in the early 20th century pronouncements began to appear, identifying a hitherto unknown distinction between the words and decreeing their proper usage. “Father” should be used, went the line, in cases where literal physical distance is involved (“The gas station is farther away than the school”), while “further” should be employed to denote extent or degree (“Further argument was useless”). The logic of this distinction is obscure, but it appears to have been based on viewing “farther” as a literal comparative form of “far” (to which, as we’ve seen, it has no actual connection) and “further” as a sort of dreamy, loosey-goosey figurative derivative of “farther.”
The “rule” about when to use “farther” versus “further” thus never made much sense, but it did make a notable difference in real-world usage of the words when pounded into millions of tiny noggins in elementary schools. Many folks are walking around today firmly convinced that a violation of this edict is one of the lesser signs of the apocalypse. But adherence to the edict is fading in actual usage.
Back in 1926, H.W. Fowler, in his landmark Modern English Usage, ventured that “further” would eventually completely squeeze out “farther” in popular usage. This seems to be happening, with “further” now being commonly employed even in contexts where literal physical distance is clearly meant (“About 5 miles further, on the port side is Captiva Pass,” News-Press (Fla.) 11/7/10), although “farther” is still preferred by purists. As a sentence adverb, “further” rules the roost (“Further, I find your impertinence offensive”) and “farther” in this role would strike many people as simply wrong. “Further” is also the standard in adjectival uses to mean “additional” (“The spokesman declined further comment but said more information would be forthcoming,” Baltimore Sun).
The bottom line on “further” versus “farther” is that there is no real, logical distinction between the words in usage. There are, however, a lot of perfectly sane, intelligent people out there who believe there is a distinction to be made, and that it matters. The only practical solution for the rest of us is to speak carefully in the presence of such people, to endure their rants and frothing when they detect a violation, and simply not to worry about it the rest of the time. To invoke my favorite philosopher, Pogo, “Don’t take life so serious; it ain’t nohow permanent.”