April 30, 2007

Red-Letter Day

Red-Letter Day - a memorably happy or noteworthy day

It's a red letter day for Semantica. Memorable enough for our Chief to greet the readers with the monthly update :D

The expression, by the way, comes from Medieval church calendars in 1325 when saint's days, feasts, and other holy days, which came to be printed on church calendars in red. The term came into wider usage with the appearance in 1549 of the first Book of Common Prayer in which calendar showed special holy days in red ink.

Pic : Google Images

April 28, 2007


:pop·in·jay - (pŏp'ĭn-jā')

-A vain, talkative person.

This time decided to dwell on the word which actually traces its origin to the arabic set of words. This word was originally used to denote a parrot. It travelled along with the bird from africa and after suitable modifications from the arabic 'babbaga', through Spanish 'papagayo' and Old French ' 'papeiaye', it was recorded as 'papengay' in the earlier english versions. It finally ended as popinjay after people thought it was used to describe a certain jay.

The word derives its meaning from its earlier associations with the parrot, which is identified as gaudy, sqwaking and a tendency to repeat what it hears without understanding.

According to the British language commentator Michael Quinion "This deeply insulting word is now rather dated or literary."

A good example can be found in Joseph Conrad’s short story The End of the Tether of 1902: “When he looked around in the club he saw only a lot of conceited popinjays too selfish to think of making a good woman happy”.

April 27, 2007

Red light district

Red light district: A neighbourhood containing many brothels.

Radha's excellant post on 'Kids with cameras' brought to light the phrase red-light district. I spent some hours in this district last night. Time spent into the term's origin, that is.

Version 1: Brothels once advertised their presence by burning electric lights covered with red shades or glass in their windows. This led to the Americanism 'red-light district' for an area know for its houses of prostitution, the term first recorded in the late 19th century

Version 2: The term "red light district" is said to have originated with early railroaders. The men carried lit red lanterns when they left the train so in case of an emergency the crew caller would be able to find them. These lanterns were left outside bordellos when crew members stopped to pay the ladies a visit and sometimes were brought inside to be placed in a window.

A railwayman's lit red lantern left sitting in front of an establishment could just as easily have come to signify a saloon or a barber shop as it did a brothel. On the other hand, the lit red lantern quietly residing outside a nondescript building of unclear purpose could well have come to be seen as a discreet advertisement of what was for sale within.

Version 1 gets a confirmatory endorsement in Holland, where window prostitution is legal. The question "How many windows are there in Amsterdam?" prompted a ground survey in July 2006 which put the count at 506. The picture above is worth a thousand words really.

April 26, 2007


Assassin - One who murders by surprise attack, especially one who carries out a plot to kill a prominent person.

From "Go Postal" to "assassin", I seem to be getting away with murder. Stop me, someone, before I go shooting from the hip. Awlright, enough of pretentious play of words, it's time for some history lessons, now :)

During the time of the Crusades, the members of a certain secret Muslim sect terrorized their enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. Active in Persia and Syria from the 8th to 14th centuries, the original Assassins were members of the Nizaris, a Muslim group who opposed the Abbasid caliphate with threats of sudden assassination by their secret agents. Other populations of the area regarded the Nizaris as unorthodox outcasts. Because these acts were supposedly carried out under the influence of hashish, the killers came to be known as hashshashin - eaters or smokers of hashish. It appeared in its anglicized form in the 17th century.

Trivia: Marco Polo tells a tale of how young Assassins were given a potion and made to yearn for paradise—their reward for dying in action—by being given a life of pleasure.

* End of History class*

Sources: The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories, http://www.answers.com/

April 24, 2007

ankle biter

-A small child. Also applied to small dogs.
I first came across this phrase in an episode of full house uttered by the extremely delectable john stamos in reference to his on screen neice. Decided to do a little research on this phrase and came up with this :
Though this phrase has a contemporary feel, it was first recorded in the mid-19th century.
Harper's Magazine, September 1850, had the sentence:
"And how are you, John? and how's Molly, and all the little ankle-biters?"
The phrase then seemed to have disappeared from sight for over 100 years. It isn't clear whether the Harper's citation was a one-off usage and the phrase originated later independently. It's possible that it stayed alive as un-recorded slang but, even if it did stay in the language from 1850 onward, printed citations appear to be in limbo until Iona and Peter Opie's The lore and language of schoolchildren, 1959:
"A chap who has got duck's disease is most often labelled 'Tich’ in a friendly manner, or '‘squirt’ or 'little squirt’ in a less friendly manner. Alternatively: ankle biter, dolly mixture [etc.]."
Its said to be of Australian origin in many phrase lists, due to the way it sounds despite not having any citations in print.
The term ankle biter also seems to have some relevance in the stock market. It means stock issues that have market capitalization less than 500 million also known as "small cap" stocks.
To quote verbatim from the website:
"These issues can appear to be more speculative than stocks with high market capitalization. However, smaller issues often have great growth potential and tend to outperform larger market capitalization stocks. Small cap stocks are often biting at the ankles of the larger cap stocks and will one day - through capitalization growth - move up into the larger market capitalizations, as a child grows into adulthood."
Picture: Google Images

Go Postal

Go postal - Fly into a violent rage, especially when provoked by workplace stress.

The gun-culture in United States might have not contributed to the well-being of the society in any way but it surely has given us a phrase not many would feel comfortable about. The recent hostage and killing drama at NASA reminded moi of the expression we came across in one of our Work Design and Productivity classes: "Go postal".

This originated in the USA in 1990s following a several incidents from 1986 onward, in which individuals working for the United States Postal Service (USPS) shot and killed fellow workers and members of the public. The first event of this kind was in August 1986, when fourteen postal workers were shot dead and six wounded in an Oklahoma post office, by Patrick Sherrill, himself a postal worker, who later shot himself in the forehead. Between that date and 1997 more than 40 people were killed in at least 20 incidents of workplace rage.

The term was first recorded in the Florida newspaper The St. Petersburg Times, December 17, 1993:"The symposium was sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, which has seen so many outbursts that in some circles excessive stress is known as 'going postal'."

By 1994, going postal was being applied to crazy or violent outbursts at any workplace.
Pic: Memorial of the August 20, 1986 post office killing spree that left 15 dead.
Sourced from wikipedia.org

April 19, 2007


The inspiration for this post is drawn from 666's blog which had a small snippet on Lucrezia Borgia whose family was famed for their Machiavellian politics during the Renaissance papacy. She was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI which has me a little confused since I always thought celibacy was an important criteria for occuping the highest post of the Vatican. Her marriages were arranged to men of importance and duly terminated in a vicious manner once they ceased to be of any use to the Pope.

Coming back to the term which means someone characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty. Machiavellianism is primarily the term some social and personality psychologists use to describe a person's tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain.

The concept is named after Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote Il Principe (The Prince), in which political expediency is placed above morality and the use of craft and deceit to maintain the authority and carry out the policies of a ruler is described.

Sources : http://en.wikipedia.org, http://sixsixsixx.blogspot.com/

April 18, 2007


Portmanteau - (Pronounced as Port-man-tow) noun

What do u think is common between words like: motel, chortle, muppet, brunch, smog, spork, moped, cyborg, blog or the silliest of them all Brangelina? It's a cinch really, and am sure u all know what I'm arriving at! :)

They are all portmonteau words or simply put portmanteaux/portmanteaus (plural of portmonteau) : words that are formed by combining both sounds and meanings from two or more words.

Portmonteau according to Chambers entered in English from Middle French around 1584 and was originally used to mean a travelling bag, typically with two compartments (porte- from porter- to carry, manteau- from Old French mantel- cloak).

The term portmanteau as a description of word combinations was devised by English writer and mathematician Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-98). Carroll introduced the portmanteau word-combination term in the book 'Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There' (the sequel to 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland'), which first appeared in 1871. In the book, the character Humpty Dumpty uses the word portmanteau (as a descriptive noun) to describe to Alice how the new word 'slithy' is formed from two separate words and meanings, lithe and slimy: "...You see it's like a portmanteau - there are two meanings packed up into one word..."

"Portmanteau" is rarely used to refer to a suitcase in English any more, since that type of a suitcase has fallen into disuse.

This post takes me back to my post on Denial ain't just a river in Egypt where I talked about how some of the seminal authors whose works we have read and loved before, have enriched our vocabularies. This seems to be an interesting trip I have embarked on and I'm looking forward to every pit-stop. :)

Sources: http://dictionary.reference.com/ , www.wikipedia.org

Update (22/04/07): by 666

Check out this extensive list on portmanteaus

April 17, 2007


Mondegreen – Misheard lyrics

Moi’s post on ‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt’ is a classic example of a genus of words called as mondegreens. The term mondegreen - meaning misheard lyric - comes from Sylvia Wright's mishearing of the "Oh, they have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green" as “Oh, they have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen”

Some other famous examples of mondegreens are listed below:-

1. ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy/Scuse me while I kiss the sky
2. Olive the other reindeer/All the other reindeer
3. The girl with colitis goes by/The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
4. The ants are my friend, they are blowing in the wind/The answer my friend is blowing in the wind
5. There’s a bathroom on the right/There’s a bad moon on the rise
6. Gladly the cross-eyed bear/Gladly the cross I’ll bear
7. Sixty five roses/Cystic fibrosis

I have come across many mondegreens while listening to Bollywood songs but cant recall any right now. Keep visiting this space for updations on more mondegreens.

Source: www.wikipedia.com, www.phrases.org.uk

April 14, 2007

white elephant

-Something that is more trouble than it is worth.
Was driving around town today when I came across a sign saying "White Elephant Sale", it reminded me of storybook England where the women of genteel birth used to organise these sales to raise funds for various church activities or other worthy causes and also of William, Richmal Crompton's adorably mischievous twelve year old who used to organise such sales in his own indomitable style. This term though mostly in use in western countries has a decidedly oriental descent.

White or albino elephants were regarded as holy in ancient times in Thailand and other Asian countries.To possess a white elephant was regarded as a sign that the monarch was ruling with justice and the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The tradition derives from tales in the scriptures which associate a white elephant with the birth of Buddha. To keep a white elephant was a very expensive task, since you had to provide the elephant with special food, and provide access for people who wanted to come and worship it. If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The gift would, in most cases, ruin the recipient.

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

Does this post belong here? Isn't the blog about etymology? It sure is. So what's a quote from the ever-wicked and eminently-quotable Mark Twain doing here?

The quote has gone beyond being just a quote. It's a popular expression now and I love the play of words involved. Many great authors have coined some beautiful expressions and Shakespeare for one, takes credit for the most: salad days, one fell swoop, in one's heart of heart..........am sure there must be others by GB Shaw, Kipling, Dickens, Saki, Lewis Carroll and a detailed research will not go in vain. I shall embark on that journey once I have more time on hands :)

The expression, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." uses the similarity between the way the name of the river, "The Nile" and the therapeutic term "denial" sound when spoken. It is a humorous way of saying that some one refuses to see what is obvious to every one else, usually as a way of protecting himself from the pain the truth would cause.

An example of the use of expression as I found it on http://www.phrases.org.uk/

"Junior weighs as much as a grown man even though he is only ten. He has second and third helpings at meals. In between meals he snacks on chocolate bars and cake. His mother insists he isn't fat; he just has big bones."

"Ha! She is living proof that denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/

April 11, 2007


As a welcome digression from heavy words, heres a place which I know pretty well.

Alwar: District in North Rajasthan, better known for its milk cake and extreme cold. The song 'Yeh Bandhan' from the re incarnation movie Karan Arjun was shot here.

I used to sell Tata pick ups some years ago, and in this capacity was managing the dealership in Alwar. It was on some trip to some nondescript village that I was recited the story of the origin of the name 'Alwar'. Truly fascinating. Hark..

It was earlier called Ulwar after the Ulwa river on whose banks the town resided. As far as I remember there is no trace of Ulwa anymore but it has manifested into the lingua franca. Now during the British Raj, Ulwar and neighbouring regions were provinces paying largesse to the Empress. The royals from each protege used to sit around a round table with the white skin seated at the table's head. The princes were seated in alphabetical order. Under such scheme of things, our Ulwar prince always ended up far away from the epicentre. Hence, he changed the name to Alwar!

I think this is one word origin which is google proof :-)

April 05, 2007

Halcyon days

halcyon days-calm, peaceful days


Halcyon is a name for a bird of Greek legend which is commonly associated with the kingfisher. The phrase comes from the ancient belief that fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected around the winter solstice - usually 21st or 22nd of December in the Northern Hemisphere. as that was when the halcyon calmed the surface of the sea in order to brood her eggs on a floating nest. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.

Halcyon means calm and tranquil, or 'happy or carefree'. It is rarely used now apart from in the expression halcyon days. The name of the legendary bird was actually alcyon, the 'h' was added in regard to the supposed association with the sea ('hals' in Greek).
The source of the belief in the bird's power to calm the sea originated in a myth recorded by Ovid. The story goes that Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, had a daughter named Alcyone, who was married to Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. Ceyx was drowned at sea and Alcyone threw herself into the sea in grief. Instead of drowning, she was carried to her husband by the wind. The rest of the story is, in a translation of Ovid:

The Gods their shapes to winter-birds translate,

But both obnoxious to their former fate.

Their conjugal affection still is ty'd,

And still the mournful race is multiply'd:

They bill, they tread; Alcyone compress'd,

Sev'n days sits brooding on her floating nest:

A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,

Calms ev'ry storm, and hushes ev'ry wind;

Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,

And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.

The legendary bird is usually identified with the kingfisher. That was also said to nest on the sea and was believed to be able to calm the sea for the seven days before and seven days after the winter solstice.

April 04, 2007


silhouette - \sil'-you-et\ noun

1: A drawing consisting of the outline of something, especially a human profile, filled in with a solid color.
2: An outline that appears dark against a light background, outline

If you have seen the recently released movie "The Namesake" by Mira Nair, you'll remember the character, Ashoke Ganguli played by Irfan Khan repeating one of his grandfather's favorite quote, ".....that's what books are for, you can see the world without moving an inch". English as a language is a well-toured one. As, Allan Metcalf, in his book, "The world in so many words", writes "If you speak English, you know at least a bit of a hundred languages. Or more. It's true. You are a savant in French, a genius in Latin, a philosopher in Greek. If you made it through kindergarten, you have mastered a bit of German. If you have a yen to be a tycoon......you are speaking Chinese and Japanese. If you trek to paradise, you are going through Afrikaans and Persian."

That brings me to the word Silhouette...For someone who pursues photography in her spare time, this word holds a special meaning for moi. And you don't need a MOI to tell you that it migrated into English from French. You know it has French origins by the mere sound of it :)

What I found fascinating though was that it was coined after the name of a French gentleman (err....Monsieur) Étienne de Silhouette (1709–1767) who was a controller general of finances in France in the mid-eighteenth century. He was extremely niggardly with the state money as well as his own that for a time "a la Silhouette" came to mean "on the cheap". His parsimony was greeted with ridicule. Outline drawings were given his name (trust Frenchmen with an imagination like that!!!!!). He was forced out of office in less than a year, but an outline is still, in French and in English, a silhouette. :)

Sources: The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories

Pic: Moi

Update (05/04/07): by 666

I am not entirely certain but these are the caricatures which Moi is referring to. Further research proved fascinating and I hope to do a follow-up post on 'Silhouette' .. every dark cloud has a silver lining !