a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “words”

Why We Say: A Twist on Past Words

Language is fluid. It can start out with one meaning and morph into another definition over time. Here’s a batch of words that have come into their own meaning through the advent of social media:

Tagging, traffic, fan, wall, hacking, search, viral, link, ping, feed, alert, tweet, are just a few. Here are a few others that have changed:


Past: a large nasty creature who hung out under bridges. Sometimes a word used with fishing.

Now: Someone who pokes around online and stirs up responses.


Past: pinkish spongy mystery meat squished into a can.

Now: Unwanted, annoying messages that arrive through email or even as texts.


Past: a chosen companion who shared common interests.

Now: a button-click indicating a degree of superficial commitment.


Past: a preference signifying a degree of indication of favor.

Now: a click response of rating that operates as a indicator of popularity.


Past: to send a written communication through the postal service

Now: a written communication sent through social media most likely as a blog (a neoplasm and a separate post).

What words have you seen come into existence or change due to the influence of social media?


Why We Say: #33–“V”

This month we explore vaccinations, vagabonds, and villains.

Pintrest: “You want me to volunteer for what?”

Cows are the hero in this exploration of vaccinations. Way back when, smallpox was a dreaded disease that disfigured and could be fatal. Interestingly enough, doctors, particularly Dr. Jenner, noticed cows suffered only a mild case of the pox. Someone decided, “You know, by taking a bit of blood from a cow infected with the virus and injecting it into a person, that would probably give that person just a mild case of cowpox.” And because there must have been another astute doctor on this way back when research time, the additional reply might have been:

“Yeah–so if a person gets cowpox, he wouldn’t get smallpox, right? All we need is a volunteer.”

Did they found a willing volunteer or did they do a best Two out of three round of rock-paper-scissors?

By the way the “vacca” in vaccination means cow in Spanish. Consider mooing your thanks to a cow for their contribution to medical science.


well-dressed vagabonds


Before permanent theaters were established in Shakespeare’s time, actors traveled the countryside performing wherever they could. Taking the cue from the Latin “vagaries” meaning “to wander,” these wanderers became known as vagabonds. Eventually the term attached itself to anyone without a fixed home.



image: “Don’t have a cow, Loki. You are a villain.”

Oh those evil people that cause our heroes so many problems: Snidely Whiplash, the Joker, Loki, just to drop a couple of names. Yet, originally there was no evil in the word; in fact, the Latin “villanus” means one who lives on a villa, which was often a farm. A villain was applied to one who worked on a villa or farm. And because these workers were usually poor or of low birth, the wealthy thought these villains to be evil (naturally, right?).


Maybe one villain test could be if the bad guy knows how to milk a cow–wait, Loki wears cow horns. Maybe there is something to this after all.

Why We Say: #31 Tumblers, Turkeys, and Turns


There are many ways to categorize people. Dogs or cats? Soccer or football? Gelato or frozen yogurt? And the big one: glass up or glass down in the cabinet?

Housecleaning isn't what it used to be. Four hundred years ago it was even more of a problem. In fact, it was such a problem, especially dust issues, that glasses were designed with a pointed bottom so that when stored they would "tumble" over unless stored rim side down. Having a German mother, however, I do know about house cleaning, so this entry about tumblers took me to wondering just why we store our glassware in the manner of upside down. And yet, I'm wondering about how people actually used the glasses since they couldn't be set on the table. Were there catchers for these tumblers?


The Ben Franklin story about wanting the turkey as our national bird is not this story. This story sounds like a bit of a fairytale though. Apparently tradesmen having discovered some birds, guinea hens, and sent them back to England by way of Turkey. Do you see what's going to happen here? When the birds arrived they were naturally named Turkey after the country they were thought to have originated from, which is why when settlers from England arrived to America and saw the natives with birds that looked like turkeys they were called turkeys.

I'm having a difficult time with this one too. Sometimes my little Why We Say… book has some really interesting explanations. Checking it out I found this information: maybe my little book isn't so wrong after all.


Taking a few turns…

Turning thumbs up or down

This one is so well known that you probably already know that a gladiator's fate was not always determined by whether he won the fight, but rather how well he fought. Thumbs up–he lived. A turn of the thumb, well, job security as a gladiator was a bit tenuous back then.


Originally, to prevent people from traveling down the road without paying for that privilege, a pike or bar was swung into place. And you thought those little gates were annoying.

Turn the Tables

Just like it sounds, during a certain card game a player could turn the table to replace his perceived poor hand with perhaps a better hand held by his opponent. Wait! That reminds me of a Bugs Bunny cartoon gag (around 3:35–the old carrot juice switcharoo).

Words of Wonder: first set

As a confessed word nerd my thoughts on subscribing to a word-a-day service shouldn’t be too surprising. I know you all have been waiting patiently for my list of words of wonder, words I’ve just learned.

A little background first. As a teacher of Advanced Placement English I know how important finding just the right word can be, and how the essay readers do delight in the right diction. 

With this in mind I polished up a vocabulary system for my students, both Language and Literature, and have enjoyed their weekly sentences. This means my word-a-day segment has slipped to the wayside in our routine. Yet, these words are so delightful I cannot allow them to languish. I have harvested an abundance of verbiage, and like those extra apples on the tree, I feel compelled to share my bounty with my neighbors. 


1. quotidian: usual or customary; everyday: quotidian needs.

Sarah languished in her quotidian routine living on her family’s Kansas farm, and longed for the glamour of New York that she read about in her subscription magazines.

2. obdurate: stubbornly resistant to moral influence; persistently impenitent; unmoved by persuasion, pity, or tender feelings; stubborn; unyielding.

Franklin and Giselle valiantly attempted to persuade Uncle Max from wearing the garish lavender tie inset with tropical fishes to the awards banquet, and the more they pleaded with him, the more obdurate he remained in his refusal to wear the selected navy tie.

3. galimatias: confused or unintelligible talk.

Mrs Lignise sighed as she unfailingly attempted to tune out the loud, annoying galimatias surrounding her, chiding herself for her decision to chaperone the seventh graders on their bus trip to the museum.

Fave Pick of the Week: galimatias

It’s almost onomatopoeic: gal-uh-MEY-shee-uh s

It sounds all garbly and confused. A delicious word.

I’m hoping to interject a shortened version, thus creating a new word adoption.

I introduce “gali” as in: 

She just went on and on about the importance of prepositions. Honestly, it was just gali after the first two minutes.

Hoping your day has been brightened through these wonderful words.

Remember: Avoid lapsing into becoming obdurate about including new words in your quotidian outings.

Why We Say #25: re(a)d

With school starting up again, red is an appropriate color for this month.

image: Twitter

Before delving into our feature, here is another word related to school:


Have you ever wanted to be the originator of a word, to be the one Wikipedia can proclaim as the inventor, to be the one who is lauded as the first to start it all? It can be done, at least according to Why We Say…

Apparently, about a hundred or so years ago, a Dublin theatre manager proclaimed he could create a new word and make it popular enough that it would become part of everyday use, and he could accomplish this in 24 hours. He printed Q-U-I-Z on walls all over the city. The meaning of the word: practical joke. Its use then moved towards meaning a question or a series of questions. I think that explains why my students always say, “Is this a joke?” when they find out there is a pop quiz.

Read the Riot Act

More than one student has been read the riot act for bringing home bad grades–usually a result of not doing well on all those pop quizzes. While getting read the riot act today can involve an angry parent scolding a child, King George I of England in 1716 meant it to be something else. It seems King George did not want any disturbances to break out and one way to stop them was to let the people know of the consequences before they acted up. If the riot did occur the penalty would be servitude for life. Whether that was for the law enforcers or the law breakers is a bit hazy.

Red Cross

What would school be without the school nurse? Due to budget cuts, the school nurse is most likely a box attached to wall with medical supplies. That red cross on the box signifies the Red Cross organization. It’s the reverse of the Swiss flag design of a white cross on a red field. The original intent of the Red Cross was to relieve the suffering caused by wartime injuries, the idea being the inspiration of a Swiss man named Jean Henry Dunant in 1862.

Red Sea

Should this question pop up on a quiz you’ll now know the answer: The Red Sea is so named because the water is so clear that a person can see the beds of red coral, which gives the sea the appearance of being red.

Red Letter Day

Getting an “A” on a quiz (especially a tough one that hadn’t been studied for) might cause celebration as a Red Letter Day. Originally a red letter day signified a feast day for Christians marked on the 15th century calendar. A red letter day came to mean a special day or a special event.

Red Tape

When you think of a process that gets slowed down because it’s tied up in red tape, you aren’t too far from the true meaning. Way back in England, government documents were stored in envelopes secured with red tape because string might damage the contents. Why red? Unknown at this press release. If someone could not get access to a document they needed it was due to it being tied up in red tape. A case of the literal moving to the metaphorical.

Seeing Red

If you are seeing red, perhaps due to a bad quiz grade or getting paperwork work mired in red tape, that you are no doubt as mad as a bull being taunted by a matador waving a red cape. Actually, bulls are color blind, it’s the waving of the flag that annoys them. So next time you are really mad, get away from whatever is waving at your face. You’ll feel much better.

Hoping your back to school season is a red letter day that avoids red tape and pop quizzes so you can sea clearly and not see red enough to require Red Cross.


Rocking Out on Being Stoned

Nope. This is no expose on Mick Jagger. We’re looking into semantics today.
Did you know when you are picking up souvenir rocks at the beach you are actually picking up stones? Truly.

Rocks from morguefile
We may only think that “rock” and “stone” are interchangeable. They technically aren’t, yet like most of our language, we throw actuality out the window and go for ease of saying.

Stones by morguefile
Here are the distinguishing facts:

Rock: Usually large, immovable natural material made up of one or more minerals that is hard or soft in composition.

Stone: Most often a harder, smaller, moveable mineral matter. 
More clarifications:

A rock is comparatively larger.

A stone is comparatively small.

A rock is not usually moved, being it is part of the earth as in The Rock of Gibraltar. 

A stone can be picked up as in gemstones.

A rock can be hard or soft in material composition.

A stone is hard.

Now–how does that transfer into everyday expressions?

We say, “He’s solid. He’s a rock of strength. He’s immovable, and can’t be swayed.” And right about here is where the Rock of Gibraltar is bandied about.

Looking over the checklist of facts, it looks pretty good, metaphorically speaking.

Let’s move on…

“She’s got a heart of stone.” This is not a compliment. To be solid as a rock is considered a positive attribute; however, your heart should not be hard and it should be movable. Wait, stones are movable. Wouldn’t that mean that person could change her outlook?

Or doesn’t it follow that a rock solid person would have a heart of stone because the heart is a part of the body and is smaller and can be moved more easily?

Bookmark that thought. 

Think about:

A. We collect rocks along the shoreline to perhaps add them to our rock garden.

B. A diamond is a precious gemstone and set in a ring it’s touted as “quite a rock.” [right for gemstone, wrong for rock]

C. Loud electronic music  is considered “rock” and some will enhance the listening experience by being “stoned.” [not sure]

Now that you know the difference, be sure you don’t get caught between a rock and a hard place in your terms.

Word Nerd and Proud of It

I am a professed Word Nerd. I collect words (lexophile) study them (etymologist), mispronounce them (cacoepy), and read about them (Book Booster). Maybe my mom propped up my crib with an old dictionary, because no one else in my family shows this proclivity.

My love for words overflows into all facets of my life. As a kid, other kids would roll their eyes at my vocabulary, and teachers would be either amused or irritated at me knowing what the vocabulary word meant without any prompting. “Show off” was sometimes bantered about when I was around. Not really. Misunderstood for my zeal of learning vocabulary, yes, that would be better.

Zoom up to my young mothering years (an empty nester now–still mothering, but from a defined distance). I guess I nearly ruined my children’s lives by trying to instill the love of words into their little bodies. “No one talks like us, Mom!” And that was a bad thing? The payoff came much later, when recently the youngest progeny phoned to say the boss folk liked how well he could express himself in company meetings. Ah–delayed gratification.

As a teacher, I legitimately get to introduce vocabulary to students and interject my enthusiasm for increasing word strength and even test them on what the words they need to know for life and  for state required assessments and get paid for it (I just committed a polysyndeton with all those conjunctions–great word).

Lately, as a blogger, I get more attuned to posts about words dropping my way. For instance, I found this gem in my box not too long ago, even though it’s a 2012 post, it’s still relevant to me.  It’s all about Word Hacking, that delicious art of creating new words. There is all sorts of action and exercise in Word Hacking. There’s combining, mash ups, and verbalizing, and nouning. One could seriously lose calories by inventing new words. Shakespeare must have been in stellar shape with all his inventiveness. Doesn’t this look ever so fun? Check out the full blog post

Why We Say #20–highbrows to hobos and hoodlums

As promised from last month we are delving into the somewhat unsavory sayings dealing with lowlife, or at least perceived lowlife. However, before traipsing across those tracks (and there are so many railroad tracks where I live, that nobody knows which side is which), let’s look at those high brows.

High Brows:

“No worries, I got your Bach, Delores.” image:

“I don’t know, Delores, I would rather attend the Bieber concert. Bach is rather high brow for my taste.”

If only Delores could convince her nephew that high brow is so yesterday. Yes, scientists have determined that the idea of having a high forehead–I believe Sherlock has one, is not an indication of superior or even uppity tastes. No matter your forehead shape, you can have your Bach and beat it too.

Higher than a Kite:
“Did you hear about Frank? Oh, man–he was higher than a kite. It was hilarious watching him trying to navigate down the hall after he ate two pieces of Aunt Stephanie’s rum cake.”

“Rum, anyone?” image:

Wellindeed. Maybe Auntie Steph is a bit heavy handed on her rum, then again Frank would not want to be higher than a kite. No, that’s not the Mary Poppins stick and paper toy, nor is it the bird. It’s a shortening of the original phrase, “higher than Gilderoy’s kite.” Gilderoy, actually Patrick MacGregor, an infamous highwayman, known for deeds such as hanging a judge, picking Cardinal Richelieu’s pocket, and robbing Cromwell, met his end at the gallows. The height of the gallows indicated the height of crimes. Gilderoy swung fairly high, and the Gaelic word “kite” means “body” so, the expression “higher than Gilderoy’s body has nothing to do with Aunt Stephanie’s cake.

I remember dressing up as a hobo for Halloween one year. It’s a cute photo. I’d share it with you if I could get my album off the shelf without braining myself in the head. Cleaning the hall closet is not on my BIG list (that’s right, Allegra–visting my messy closet does not even rate a mention on my list). So, talking about hobos has all kinds of connotations. I remember a William Powell movie My Man Godfrey that did a very nice spin on the hobo theme. Then again Mr. Powell probably didn’t know that “hoc boys” were the originals and they were actually hard workers who traveled from plantation to plantation working the cotton fields. They traveled around trying to find work and eventually their name was shortened to “hobos.”  Those hoc boys would be no doubt bummed to be considered lazy-good-for nothings.


We’ve seen them in those noir films, those types who hang around the docks and buildings, just exuding trouble in the making. “Hoodlums” they may be, but actually they are “Muldoons” because that is where hoodlums gets its name. Apparently a West Coast reporter, whether to protect himself, it’s not known, wrote about a “Hoodlum” which turned out to be a backward spelling of sorts of a character named Muldoon, a gangster at that time. Perhaps a bad guy is a bad guy no matter how his name is spelled.

“Wait, a cotton-picking minute–we aren’t looking for work. We’re waiting for the bus. And there is no Muldoons amongst us.” image:

Vacuous Vocabulary?

The wonders of iPhonology have allowed me to copy and collect words throughout. I have a tidy little word zoo in my notes files and some words remain oddities to be gaped at, while others become part my lexicon. This year I have collected a list of vocabulary words that range from antiquated to techno lingual. Are these etymological critters known to you?

These came from hither and thither through my lexiconic ramblings ranging from children’s books to devotional studies to contemporary and classic reads. Is it mindless (my title reference) to collect words? My hopes are to incorporate, refresh, and enfuse my personal dictionary with items from the collection. In actuality, I periodically scroll through the list and gloryosky at them. I like their looks, their sound, and some I like their meaning.

Any of you collect words? Any sharsies?

Word Collecting

I collect words.  If possible I would display them in petite glass bell jars all about my house.  That would be cruel, though, since words are not meant to be imprisoned–they are meant to be freely used and must flap their serifs (I imagine them in Times Roman font) to be useful.

As I’ve collected words I’ve made use of them as a writer (you never know when defenestration will come in handy, eh, Eagle Eyed Editor?), as a reader (a wide vocabulary comes in handy when reading off the AP suggestion list), and as a teacher (“if I learned it, so can you”).  Words also help spice up conversations–yet, I must use them judiciously so as not to appear as a smarty-pants.

Fun stuff I’ve done with words:

Trivia Quiz: Words and Symbols


Poems, Stories, Puzzles, Interviews–Writing, Writing, Writing

Vocabulary Games–Question 3:

►What are the four words in the English language that end in “-dous”?

And I search off the Internet:

25 Everyday Words You Never Knew Had A Name


Don’t leave home without them.

Try ’em, you’ll like ’em.

Take your favorite word to lunch.

Have you hugged a word today?

Words have a power all their own

Words have a power all their own (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)

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