A word to the wise – January 2009

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

by Gerald Waite

Ah, January, the perfect month to sit by the fire on a dark cold evening, catching up on those National Geographics we didn’t get to last summer. Or maybe moving on with the reading of an unabridged dictionary. These snowy nights, I’m a couple of thousand pages along now in my old Oxford English Dictionary, and recently got into the letter “M.”
And what wonderful surprise do I discover under the common noun macaroni? It’s the answer to the following puzzle.
Why is it that Yankee Doodle, that dandy of our Revolutionary lore, “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni?” Haven’t you ever wondered? Macaroni, a thin pasta from Italy?
The resolution of the puzzle has to do with a special sense of the word, bringing us again this month to a look at words with peculiar derivations, in particular, words descended from proper nouns.
Macaroni, of course, normally is a common noun. It’s not capitalized. It so happens, however, that back in our Revolutionary era, a special sense of macaroni also was a proper noun, and it is this meaning that concerns us.
In 1760 in London, a group of stylish gentlemen formed a social club. Affecting foreign manners and tastes, these young fellows took the name of their organization from an exotic food then new to England. They called it the Macaroni Club. The members themselves were branded as Macaronis, and the word became a synonym for a fop or a dandy. And thence springs our own “Yankee Doodle dandy.”
Ask most people today the meaning of chauvinism and they’ll tell you it’s an attitude of male superiority. Not so even two or three short decades ago, when chauvinism denoted an exaggerated patriotism. Around that time, the feminist movement adapted the term, at first prefixing it with “male,” as in “male chauvinism.” However, the original sense comes from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a Napoleonic soldier known for his devotion to his leader and country—a superpatriot, a jingoist.
A number of these common nouns derived from proper nouns have a classical origin. Caesarean is an obvious example and is traced to the tradition that Julius Caesar himself was delivered into the world via this surgical method.
The noun philippic (feh-LIH-pic), meaning a bitter denunciation or tirade, devolved from the name of Philip of Macedon, who in 351 was castigated by Demosthenes for his imperialism. The word stuck when, a few centuries later, Cicero delivered a famous series of philippics against Marc Antony.
Still another modern word derived from the name of a classical figure is procrustean, thankfully an unusual adjective describing an arbitrary and cruel or ruthless decision. It refers to Procrustes, a robber who murdered and tortured his victims, strapping them to the corners of a bed and forcing their bodies to fit the bed.
A pyrrhic victory describes a goal achieved at a terrible cost. It comes from the Greek King Pyrrhus, who won several victories against the Romans in the third century B.C., campaigns in which his own army suffered tremendous losses.
In the early 1600s, the term charlatan surfaced in English, meaning an imposter, a mountebank, especially a phony physician selling some sort of “snake oil.” It is a blend of two Italian words, ciarlare, meaning to chatter, and the proper noun Cerrato, a village known as the home of many such quacksalvers.
And finally, as many endure the lethargy of cabin fever these dark days, consider the word’s dark origin. It derives from the River Lethe in the classical underworld, the river of forgetfulness.
Passing over this river on our journey from (or to) life, we forget our past. In migrating from Greek to Latin to Middle English, lethargy has taken on comfortably the sense of drowsiness or apathy we can understand this month in the U.P.

Word for the month
Chivy (CHIV-ee), also spelled chevy, is a verb today generally meaning to tease or to annoy. Originally, it was either a verb or a noun and meant chase or hunt or simply a hunting call. It may have come from the proper noun Chevy Chase, with chevy denoting the hunt and a chase suggesting a sort of game park—thus, a hunting preserve.
Chevy Chase was a famous ballad and the site of a fourteenth century battle on the Scottish-English border. The modern sense to tease or annoy seems a natural descendant. Here is an illustration: “Children pass into a new stage of delight when old enough to chivy.”

— Gerald Waite
Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.