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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weird Word Origins

A Few Choice Selections from Paul McFedries’ The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weird Word Origins
By Bernie Whitmore


Paul McFedries’ The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Weird Word Origins provides insight on the often metaphorical, often quirky terms and expressions that we use every day and have adopted without question into our everyday conversation. But where do these new words come from? The author, a language expert and the president of Logophilia (the Latin word for “the love of words”), lets us (in this case, yes, the “idiots”) in on the derivations of, stories surrounding, and evolution of words that are now part of our common language.

Most of us are aware that basic English descends from other European languages ~ Latin, Greek, French and German. But as I thumbed through Weird Word Origins, it became obvious that there are human endeavors that do more than their share to pump new words and phrases into our language.

War is one of the basics. Soldiers return from battle with phrases that enter mainstream language; consider SNAFU, “last ditch effort” and “shock and awe.” Close to home, our furry companions are an inspiration. Cat got your tongue? Next time your morning-after feels like a dog’s breakfast, try a hair of the dog. Better yet, find yourself a “black cat bone;” it just might land you back in the catbird seat!

How we get places ~ from horses to autos to jet flight ~ has always expanded English language lexicon. At the cutting edge, high gas prices have encouraged eco-driving, where one reduces carbon emissions by driving in ways that reduce fuel consumption. The basics are to use one’s brakes as little as possible. Hypermilers take this to extremes by drafting other vehicles as close as they dare, driving barefoot and coasting whenever possible.

These practices can lead to accidents that attract digi-neckers; drivers that slow down to take pictures or videos with their digital cameras and cellphones. The traffic jams that pile up behind these guys increase your windshield time, the portion of the workday spent commuting.

That’s an excellent opportunity for carcooning: time to have a snack, fix your hair or read the paper. In fact there’s cup-holder cuisine for just that purpose, snacks marketed to fit in the car and satisfy the entire fampool.

Perhaps more than anything else, the way we communicate is truly revolutionizing language culture. The old-fashioned telephone had its impact ~ consider the party-line, area code and Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny.” But the cell phone has left it in the dust.

Business men have Swiss Army phones to organize their lives. Younger people, especially screenagers, have their own thumb culture, whose rite of entry is the skillful use of tiny keypads. Doctors are starting to specialize in text message injuries, painful inflammation of the thumb caused by excessive texting.

Less than a decade ago, what would we have thought of beeper boy, Bluetooth earset in place, at full cell yell rant while waiting in line at Logan? Put away that yell-phone and let me listen to my ipod in peace!

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